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Commonweal Misrepresents Isaac Newton, Intelligent Design

Isaac Newton

The title of an article by John Farrell in Commonweal is a dead giveaway. When writing about the interaction between faith and science, as Farrell does in the piece, the title “The Conflict Continues” is like a flashing red light that the mythological Warfare Thesis pitting science versus religion is coming at you.

Sure enough, Farrell does not disappoint. He informs readers that the fear that science could “make God seem unnecessary” is “widespread today among religious believers,” particularly in the U.S. where “opposition to belief in evolution remains very high.”

Indeed, this fear has “haunted the debate over the tension between religion and science for centuries.” Farrell notes that Edward Larson and Michael Ruse point out, in their new book On Faith and Science, that the “conflict model doesn’t work so well.” But that seems to be a minor speed bump for Farrell. He finds that:

The idea that the world operates according to its own laws and regularities remains controversial in the evolution debate today, as Intelligent Design proponents attack the consensus of science on Darwinian evolution and insist that God’s direct intervention in the history of life can be scientifically demonstrated.

Farrell also writes that Isaac Newton, driven by concerns about secondary causes, “insisted God was still necessary to occasionally tweak the motions of the planets if any threatened to wander off course.”

Riddled with Myths

Farrell’s piece is riddled with myths. Secondary causes are not nearly as controversial as he would have us believe. He utterly mischaracterizes ID, and Newton said no such thing. It is true that Newton suggested that the Creator could intervene in the cosmos (not “insisted”).

And was this the result of some radical voluntarism? Of course not. Newton suggested God may intervene in the cosmos because the physics of the day (which by the way he invented) indicated that our solar system could occasionally have instabilities. The fact that it was running along just fine, and hadn’t yet blown up, suggested that something had intervened along the way.

Newton was arguing from science, not religion. But that doesn’t fit the Epicurean mythos that religion opposes naturalism while science confirms it. The reality is, of course, the exact opposite.

Photo credit: Isaac Newton (bust), in the British Museum, by Aaron Bradley, via Flickr.

Cross-posted at Darwin’s God.