Science and Faith: Newton

Moray Henderson | International

“Isaac Newton was not a pleasant man.”

- Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time (1988)

A couple of years ago the presenter of a science documentary on TV made the following argument: “In the 15th century Bishop Ussher mathematically calculated that the earth was created in 4004 BC… science has therefore proved that the Bible is wrong.” I was shocked! While mainstream science seems to be getting over the idea that it is in conflict with faith, popular science is still pushing the idea, lingering in loving detail over instances of conflict while skimming over the fact that that many of science’s greatest heroes, including Newton, were men of deep faith.

Since A Brief History of Time by Stephen W. Hawking burst into bookshops in 1988, it has gained the reputation of being one of the least-read bestsellers of all time[i]. It succeeded, however, in popularising two areas: 1) the exotic world of quantum mechanics, and 2) the esoteric naming of Cambridge University professorships.

Suddenly Hawking's title “Lucasian Professor of Mathematics” became the thing to drop into conversation to impress an audience. Or merely to appear pompous[ii]. In 2009 Hawking retired from the professorship and it passed to Michael Green – the award-winning physicist, that is, not the Christian theologian and apologist.

In matters of faith, Hawking appears to hedge his bets in A Brief History of Time. On the one hand, he puts forward his theory that there is no need for a creator. On the other, he ends the book by saying that if we discover a complete theory of the universe, “we would know the mind of God.” However, more recently he explained what he meant by that: “We would know everything that God would know, if there were a God. Which there isn't. I'm an atheist.”[iii] Is that, then, the only view that science and scientists can ever offer?

The Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics simply gains its name from the person who originally funded the post: the Reverend Henry Lucas (1610-1663). As well as being a clergyman and Member of Parliament, Lucas obviously had a keen interest in science. In his will, he donated his extensive library (including Galileo's controversial Dialogue of 1632) to Cambridge University, and enough land to generate income to fund a professorship of mathematics. He also funded a charity to provide housing for the poor in the local area.

The first holder of this newly-created professorship was 33-year-old Isaac Barrow (1630-1677). As a schoolboy, Barrow had been “turbulent and pugnacious” but grew to love study under Puritan headmaster Martin Holbeach. He didn't entirely lose the more physical side of his character though: on one occasion “having saved the ship to which he were upon by the merits of his own prowess, from capture by pirates”[iv].

Among his mathematical achievements were the development of the fundamental theory of calculus and extensive work on optics and geometry. He held the Lucasian Professorship for six years before resigning it in favour of one of his former pupils who, at 27 years old, was “considered his only superior among English mathematicians.”[v] Barrow's other love was divinity. His theological works included Expositions of the Creed, The Lord's Prayer, Decalogue and Sacraments, while his published sermons earned him a place in literature as “masterpieces of argumentative eloquence”.[vi]

Barrow's pupil, the second Lucasian Professor, was, of course, Sir Isaac Newton PRS MP (1642-1727). The short biography of Newton at the end of A Brief History of Time differs markedly from that given in A Short Biographical Dictionary Of English Literature by John W. Cousin (1910). Cousin describes Newton as “remarkable for simplicity, humility, and gentleness, with a great distaste for controversy”[vii], while Hawking lists the main controversies that Newton was involved in, describing him as “notorious” and vindictive, with “talents for deviousness and vitriol”.

Newton was born prematurely and tiny. His father had died 3 months before he was born, and when he was three years old his mother left him in the care of his grandmother when she remarried, creating lasting resentment and insecurity. He was solitary and bullied at school. He got good marks in his schoolwork when he chose to give it his attention and bad marks when he didn't[viii]. Later in life, he suffered significant mercury poisoning from his experiments in alchemy, adding to his eccentricities and probably contributing to a breakdown in 1693.[ix]

Newton is one of the most famous and influential scientists of all time. Following from Barrow's work, he developed calculus and was the first to apply it to physics. This was the source of one controversy: German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz had also independently developed calculus at the same time, sparking a bitter feud over plagiarism. In the field of optics, he demonstrated that light could be split into colours and invented the reflecting telescope (or Newtonian Telescope). He developed the laws of motion and gravitational theory that saw physics through more than 200 years. Stephen Hawking describes his book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica as “surely the most influential book ever written in physics.”

Newton had a devout belief in God. On gaining his MA and Fellowship at Cambridge, he expressed the desire to study theology and take holy orders and, publicly, he assented to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. Privately, however, he had difficulty in seeing Christ as God – ironic, considering that he was a Fellow of Trinity College.

He was passionate about the Bible. He wrote extensively on biblical history, interpretation and textual criticism. In A short Schem of the true Religion[x], Newton wrote, “Atheism is so senseless & odious to mankind that it never had many professors.” He was so concerned that “rash [and] fanciful men” would “bring the sacred prophesies into discredit” by using Daniel and Revelation to predict the end of the world in their own lifetimes that he conducted his own study, concluding that Jesus would not return before 2060. He was careful to state that he was not predicting that the world would end then, only his belief that it would not end before then!

A modern objection to belief in God is that it implies miracles, and that the occurrence of miracles would somehow “invalidate” science. The scientist Newton disagreed with that thinking in the strongest possible terms. He believed, obviously, that the universe was governed by consistent mathematical laws, but that the whole system “could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent Being.”[xi]

Newton considered God's intervention in the world as necessary. It doesn't invalidate science any more than winding up a watch invalidates the principles of clockwork – or catching a falling apple invalidates the law of gravity.[xii]

Einstein had pictures of three great scientists in his study: Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell. All three were men of Christian faith.

“And from his true dominion it follows that the true God is a living, intelligent, and powerful Being; and, from his other perfections, that he is supreme, or most perfect. He is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient”
—Isaac Newton, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica Vol III (1713)

 

Moray Henderson has a degree in Marine Biology and Zoology and an MSc in computing. He joined the OM IT department in 1997 and now also works with OMNIvision. His favourite book is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

 

[i]       I can think of another Book like that.

[ii]      A bit like a sentence full of acronyms, really.

[iv]    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Barrow (accessed 9 Oct 2014)

[vi]    Ibid.

[xi]    In Principia—“the most influential book ever written in physics”!

[xii]   See God's Undertaker, by John C. Lennox, Lion Books (2009)

Published: Saturday, 17 January 2015
Credit: Moray Henderson
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