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The myth of the clockwork universe: Newton, newtonianism, and the enlightenment

  • University of King's College, Halifax


The myth of Newton's clockwork universe is one of the most persistent and pervasive myths in the history of science, perhaps almost as widespread as the mistaken and essentialistic belief that the Galileo Affair involved some sort of clash between "science" and religion (even though one of the main dynamics was a clash between two forms of science). Like the popular conception of Galileo's troubles with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, the myth of Newton's clockwork universe is recognized as a myth by most informed historians of science but not by the wider public. The myth of the clockwork universe as applied to Newton has several components, not all of which are always present in any given articulation of it. These include the idea that the universe is like a machine or clockwork mechanism; that God created the cosmos and set it in motion but now no longer intervenes in it or governs it; that the cosmos follows deterministic laws; that Newton was a deist or protodeist; and that Newton through his physics either unwillingly or even willingly excluded God from the universe.
Chapter 6
The Myth of the Clockwork Universe
Newton, Newtonianism, and the Enlightenment
 . 
[The Lord God] is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient,
that is, he endures from eternity to eternity, and he is present from
infinity to infinity; he rules all things, and he knows all things that
happen or can happen.
Isaac Newton, General Scholium
to the Principia (1726)
The myth of Newton’s clockwork universe is one of the most persis -
tent and pervasive myths in the history of science, perhaps almost as
widespread as the mistaken and essentialistic belief that the Galileo
Aair involved some sort of clash between “science” and religion
(even though one of the main dynamics was a clash between two forms
of science). Like the popular conception of Galileo’s troubles with
the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, the myth of Newtons clockwork
universe is recognized as a myth by most informed historians of sci-
ence but not by the wider public. The myth of the clockwork universe
as applied to Newton has several components, not all of which are al-
ways present in any given articulation of it. These include the idea
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150 Stephen D. Snobelen
that the universe is like a machine or clockwork mechanism; that God
created the cosmos and set it in motion but now no longer intervenes
in it or governs it; that the cosmos follows deterministic laws; that
Newton was a deist or protodeist; and that Newton through his physics
either unwillingly or even willingly excluded God from the universe.
Examples of the myth abound. In an agenda-driven article com-
memorating the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s theory, Johnjoe McFad-
den blithely states that two hundred years before Darwin “Newton had
banished God from the clockwork heavens.”1On this sort of read-
ing, Newton is part of a metanarrative about the secularizing influence
of science through the ages.2In an extra feature of “Beyond the Big
Bang,” the final episode for the 2007 season of the History Channel se-
ries The Universe, respected physicist Michio Kaku says: “Newton be-
lieved that the universe was a clock. A gigantic clock— a machine
that God wound up at the beginning of time, and it’s been ticking ever
since due to his laws of motion.”3Science writer Edward Dolnick’s
2011 book The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society and the
Birth of the Modern World will help keep the myth alive.4This is no straw
man. The myth of the clockwork universe is both common and for
many seemingly assumed. Regrettably, while the scholarly community
has begun to outgrow this myth, it had a hand in perpetuating it, espe-
cially during the first half of the twentieth century.5
The situation changed dramatically in the second half of the twen-
tieth century, although not all at once. The single most important de-
velopment was the sale of Newton’s nonscientific papers at Sotheby’s
in London in 1936. A large number of the theological and alchemical
papers were purchased by the economist John Maynard Keynes, who
left them to King’s College, Cambridge, at his death in 1946; selec-
tions from the theological portion were published in 1950 by Herbert
McLachlan. A second large collection of Newton’s theological and al-
chemical papers, assembled by the Jewish Orientalist A. S. Yahuda,
arrived at the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem in
the late 1960s and subsequently became accessible to researchers. Even
wider access began in 1991 with the release of the majority of New-
ton’s manuscripts. The next stage came with the founding of the New-
ton Project in 1998, which soon after began to mount professional
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transcriptions of the papers on the Internet. Partway through this
decades-long process of manuscript revelations came a new historio-
graphical mood among Newton scholars, who now had increasing
access to Newton’s massive manuscript corpus. One outcome was a
greater tendency among scholars, secular or otherwise, to argue for the
importance of Newton’s religion to his science.6
The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate the conceptual dis-
tance between Newton’s actual worldview and the metaphor of the
secularizing clockwork universe by drawing on the wealth of resources
in Newtons published works and his massive manuscript corpus. The
essay consists of two parts. In the first part I show that a deistic clock-
work view of the world contrasts with an authentic and accurate pres-
entation of Newton’s theology and providentialist physics. The second
part looks at the interpretations of Newton’s theology and physics
oered by Newton’s early disciples. I show that Newton’s closest fol-
lowers reassert the central features of his theological conception of the
world, including the role of supramechanical forces, the reality of pro -
cesses of degeneration in the cosmos, the true rather than nominal
omnipresence of God, and the rejection of mere mechanism and the
God-banishing clockwork universe. I conclude with a brief postscript
on Newton and his secularization in the European Enlightenment.
Providential Themes in Newton’s Cosmology
The first step in undoing the clockwork myth is to correct the notion
that a clockwork view of the cosmos is necessarily secular or ulti-
mately born out of deism. It was not during the Renaissance or Scien-
tific Revolution that the clockwork metaphor was born,7but cen-
turies before among pious medieval monks. The clockwork analogy
of the universe popular conceptions of its association with deism
and materialism notwithstandingis tied to the medieval concep-
tion of the cosmos as an assembly of nested and regularly moving
crystalline spheres. The expression machina mundi (“world machine”
or “machine of the universe”) was employed in works on astronomy
in the late medieval period by Robert Grosseteste (ca. 1175 1253),
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Johannes de Sacrobosco (fl. 1230), and Nicholas of Cusa (1401– 64).8It
appears in Nicholas Copernicus’s De revolutionibus (1543) as well.9Ni -
c ole Oresme (ca. 1325 82) took the step from the term machina mundi
to a universe-clockwork comparison.10 Comparisons of God with a
clockmaker are used by the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Brad-
wardine (ca. 12901349), as well as Henry of Langestein (d. 1397).11
The clockwork analogy is also used in medieval literary contexts by
the French poets Jean Froissart (1333?-1400/1) and Christine de
Pisan (1364 ca. 1430) and the great Florentine poet Dante Alighieri
(ca. 12651321).12 In these early theological contexts, the clockwork
analogy has two essential features: God as creator of the clockwork
and God as sustainer of the clockwork. Thus it diers from eighteenth-
century, nonprovidentialist deism that is committed only to the first
While the accompanying philosophy and theology change in the
seventeenth century, the theologically positive use of the clockwork
analogy does not. This can be seen among three leading advocates
of the mechanical philosophy, all French Catholics: the friar Marin
Mersenne, the priest Pierre Gassendi, and the Jesuit-educated René
Descartes. Mersenne contends for a clockwork analogy of the uni-
verse, convinced that the mechanical philosophy can serve as a de-
fense of theistic belief.14 Gassendi, famous for reviving and Christian-
izing Epicurean atomism, compares the wisdom evident in creation
with the intentionally designed clock.15 As for Descartes, while not
advocating a cogged machine per se, he does describe the world as a
machine and is fond of describing animals as clocks and humans as
clocks with souls.16 The Protestant advocates of the mechanical phi-
losophy Johannes Kepler and Robert Boyle also employ the clock-
work analogy.17 Kepler speaks of his eorts to understand the physi-
cal causes of the planetary system in clockwork terms;18 Robert Boyle
uses the clockwork metaphor to argue for both divine transcendence
and the radical contingency of creation.19 Whatever the uses of the
clockwork metaphor in later Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment
thought, the clockwork view of the universe was seen by these Chris-
tian thinkers as a friend of Christianity and a powerful defense against
152 Stephen D. Snobelen
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In this light, advocacy of the clockwork metaphor prior to the
publication of Newton’s Principia need not imply some kind of pro-
todeistic conception of the world. The early advocates of the clock-
work universe were pious, believing Christians. Had Newton advo-
cated the clockwork metaphor, he would have joined the ranks of those
Christian natural philosophers who went before him. Did Newton
adopt this metaphor? Although examples abound of people declar-
ing, after Newtons time, that Newton espoused a clockwork universe,
quotations from his writings that specifically support this assertion
are never proered. There is a good reason for this. To date, not a
single example of Newton unambiguously referring to the universe
as a clockwork system has surfaced. Given that others in his own day
and before did use this analogy (including Boyle, with whom Newton
was personally acquainted), and given the voluminous nature of his
published and unpublished writings, his omission of it is all the more
In this section, I will show that, contrary to common concep-
tions that he held to a semideistic, clockwork model of the universe,
Newton had a providentialist view of the cosmos that was informed
by a belief in an omnipresent and omniscient God continuously in
control of his creation. The evidence brought forward to demon-
strate these elements of Newton’s thought will also show that this pi-
oneer of modern physics cannot be classified with strict accuracy as a
mechanist. Newton’s status as an active lay theologian is now well es-
tablished in Newton scholarship, so there is no need to go over this
now well-trodden ground here. The question that concerns us here is
the degree to which Newtons theological beliefs informed or infused
his cosmology.21
A useful place to start is Newton’s most well-known book, the
Principia mathematica. Although there is a misconception that the first
edition of 1687— unlike the second and third editions of 1713 and
1726 was published bereft of theological language, this is in fact not
the case.22 It is true, however, that the first edition is almost bereft of
theological language. When the Principia was first published, it con-
tained only one reference to the Bible and one to God. The reference to
the Scriptures occurs near the beginning of the book in the Scholium
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on the Definitions. Here Newton says that it is just as important to
distinguish between absolute and relative language in the Bible as it is
to distinguish between absolute and relative senses of time, space,
place, and motion in physics.23 The reference to God occurs in book 3,
proposition 8, corollary 5, where Newton discusses the felicitous ar -
rangement of the planets around the sun— including the earth’s loca-
tion in a position that allows the existence of liquid water. He con-
cludes this discussion by stating: “Therefore God placed the planets
at dierent distances from the sun so that each one might, according
to the degree of its density, enjoy a greater or smaller amount of heat
from the sun.”24 In 1713, Newton removed the word God from this
passage and replaced it with a passive verbal construction in a re-
worked section of what would become corollary 4. Nevertheless, the
revised material is a palimpsest that not only continues to articulate
an argument from design based on the arrangement of the solar sys-
tem but in its reworked form arguably presents a more powerful case
for design by virtue of being more intuitive and less weighed down
with mathematical detail.25
But even in the first edition, there is more material of theological
significance than meets the eye. Thus Newton’s discussion of the ab-
solute and the relative in the Scriptures as part of an argument about
the absolute and the relative in physics suggests a structural relation-
ship between Newton’s biblical hermeneutics and his study of the cos-
mos. The drafts of this material show that Newton had more theo-
logical ideas when writing this portion of the Principia than he allowed
to appear in print.26 Also, we now know that Newton’s discussion of
absolute time and space in the Scholium on the Definitions emanates
in part from his theological notions of God’s eternal duration and om-
nipresence. Newton’s comment about God’s placement of the stars is
additionally connected with his providentialist understanding of the
creation of the cosmos. All of this takes on added significance in light
of Newton’s manuscript “De gravitatione”— likely composed shortly
before he began work on the Principia which not only attacks the
deficiencies of the Cartesian cosmology but also speaks about God’s
omnipresence and action in the world and argues that the notion of
matter existing independently of God oers a path to atheism.27
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The first edition of the Principia also needs to be seen in the light
of two sets of documents he produced shortly after its publication: his
correspondence with Richard Bentley in 1692 93 and his Classical
Scholia, drafted around the same time. Bentley sought Newton’s aid in
late 1692 when writing up his Boyle Lectures for publication.28 He in-
tended to enlist the new physics of the Principia in support of the de-
sign argument and hence the existence of God. The words with which
Newton began the first of his four letters to Bentley are now famous:
“When I wrote my treatise about our system, I had an eye upon such
principles as might work with considering men, for the belief of a
deity, and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that
purpose.29 The arguments for design that Newton presents in his let-
ters to Bentley focus on the providential arrangement of the structure
of the solar system and God’s continuous upholding of this system in
some way through gravitation. With respect to the first dynamic, New-
ton stresses in his first letter that the complex arrangement of the
planetary system points to a cause that is “not blind and fortuitous,
but very well skilled in mechanics and geometry.”30 In his second let-
ter, he contends that the force of gravity on its own would not have
been sucient to create the motions of the planets: “So then gravity
may put the planets into motion, but without the divine power it could
never put them into such a circulating motion as they have about the
sun; and therefore, for this, as well as other reasons, I am compelled to
ascribe the frame of this system to an intelligent agent.31 In his fourth
letter Newton strongly rejects as an “absurdity” the idea that gravity is
innate in matter and that it can operate across distances without the
mediation of something else. He writes: “Gravity must be caused by
an agent acting constantly according to certain laws; but whether this
agent be material or immaterial, I have left to the consideration of my
readers.”32 Bentley proved to be a quick study, and in the published
version of his Boyle Lectures he expands on Newton’s hints, declaring
gravitation to be a supramechanical force that “proceeds from a higher
principle, a Divine energy and impression.33
Newton himself crafted even bolder statements in his Classical
Scholia, a set of scholia written in the early 1690s for a second edition
of the Principia that he was planning. These additions were meant to
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show the continuity between the wisdom of the ancients and Newton’s
physics, including his understanding of gravitation and the inverse-
square law. But the Classical Scholia also include discussions of God’s
omnipresence and activity in the world. The following passage from
this collection is an example:
That God is an entity in the highest degree perfect, all agree. But
the highest idea of the perfection of an entity is that it should be
one substance, simple, indivisible, living and life-giving, always
everywhere of necessity existing, in the highest degree understand-
ing all things, freely willing good things; by his will eecting things
possible; communicating as far as is possible his own similitude
to the more noble eects; containing all things in himself as their
principle and location; decreeing and ruling all things by means
of his substantial presence . . . ; and constantly co-operating with
all things according to accurate laws, as being the foundation
and cause of the whole of nature, except where it is good to act
Along similar lines, a new corollary to proposition 9 in book 3 of
the Principia reads: “ There exists an infinite and omnipresent spirit
in which matter is moved according to mathematical laws.”35 And in
another place, Newton records, in similar terms, what he believes the
ancients thought about gravity: “Quite apparently [they thought] the
heavens are nearly free of bodies, but nevertheless filled everywhere
with a certain infinite spiritus, which they called God.36 It seems likely
that some of Newton’s thinking about the universal spirit in the cos-
mos (which is ultimately linked to God’s omnipresence) was shaped
by his study of and practice of alchemy, which also posits a nonme-
chanical, active spirit in the world.37
Newtons own mature views were published in the two versions of
the General Scholium to the Principia.38 The General Scholium, a sort
of general-purpose appendix, first appeared with the second edition
of the Principia in 1713. An amended and elaborated version appeared
in the third edition of 1726. The beginning of the General Scholium
is devoted to comments on the complex motions of the planets and
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comets in the solar system. This discussion leads naturally for New-
ton to a consideration of the designer of this system— a system whose
operations it was Newtons honor to explain through a detailed mathe -
matical description for the first time in his Principia. Newton expostu-
lates: This most elegant system of the sun, planets, and comets could
not have arisen without the design and dominion of an intelligent and
powerful being.”39 Here, in a memorable line, are identified Newton’s
two essential theological roles of God in the cosmos: God as creator
and sustainer of the heavens and earth. Newton’s God has complete
dominion not merely in word but in actuality: “He rules all things, not
as the world soul but as the lord of all. And because of his dominion
he is called Lord God Pantokrator.40 God’s sovereignty is truly univer-
sal, and his rule is that of a personal God, not the vague, impersonal
anima mundi of Greek philosophical schools, such as the Stoics. In-
stead, Newton’s view of God’s sovereignty can be compared with that
of John Calvin, who declared: “We mean by providence not an idle
observation by God in heaven of what goes on in earth, but His rule
of the world which He made; for He is not the creator of a moment,
but the perpetual governor.”41 Newton also distances his thought
from pantheism, by explicitly denying that God’s dominion involves
dominion over the world as over his body, such as is the case with the
world soul.42 By speaking of classic Jewish and Christian notions of
God’s sovereignty and deploying biblical names and titles of the deity,
Newton was making his theological aliations clear.
Newton oers further detail on God’s omnipresence and univer-
sal dominion later in the General Scholium. In elaborating on God’s
omnipresence, he writes: “He is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and
omniscient, that is, he endures from eternity to eternity, and he is pres -
ent from infinity to infinity; he rules all things, and he knows all things
that happen or can happen. He is not eternity and infinity, but eternal
and infinite; he is not duration and space, but he endures always and
is present everywhere, and by existing always and everywhere he con-
stitutes duration and space.43
For Newton, the nature of God’s omnipresence involves his lit-
eral presence everywhere at all times: “He is omnipresent not only vir-
tually but also substantially; for action requires substance. . . . In him all
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things are contained and move, but he does not act on them nor they
on him. God experiences nothing from the motions of bodies; the
bodies feel no resistance from God’s omnipresence.44To the quota-
tion from Acts 17:28 (“In him all things are contained and move”),
Newton adds his footnote on space. This note contains a series of
references to classical authors who oer analogies to the notion of a
ubiquitous spirit, along with Philo Judaeus and a florilegium of quota-
tions about God’s omnipresence from the Bible.45After further dis-
cussions of God and his attributes, Newton moves on to consider
gravity, for which he refuses to assign a cause: “I do not feign hypothe-
ses” (Hypotheses non fingo), he says.46 The placement of a consideration
of universal gravitation immediately after a discussion of God that in-
cludes statements about his omnipresence, however, may have been
intended to suggest that it was God who was behind this power. After
all, for Newton, only two things are truly universal in the spatial sense:
gravity and God’s omnipresence.
The General Scholium oers another important insight into New -
ton’s understanding of God’s activity in the world. In a comment on
the distribution of the fixed stars, which was added to the third edi-
tion shortly after his bold declaration of the “most elegant system of
sun, planets, and comets,” Newton states:And so that the systems of
the fixed stars will not fall upon one another as a result of their gravity,
he has placed them at immense distances from one another.”47 Here
Newton speaks of an element of his system that is rarely discussed:
gravity can be a destabilizing force just as it can be a stabilizing force.
When we recognize that gravity can be both for Newton, we see the
significance of his careful comments about God placing the stars at
appropriate distances from each other. But Newton contemplated an
even stronger statement for this place in the third edition. In an anno-
tation to his copy of the second edition, Newton wrote: “et fixarum
systemata per gravitatem suam in se mutuo paulatim caderent nisi
omni consilio Entis summi regerentur,” that is, “and the fixed stars
would, through their gravity, gradually fall on each other, were they
not carried back by the counsel of the supreme Being.”48 Once more,
God is essential to the ongoing stability of the system.
Newton’s Opticks (first published in English in 1704) provides
further examples of Newton’s dynamic cosmos.49 When Newton had
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the Opticks translated into Latin in 1706 by his supporter Samuel
Clarke, he used the opportunity to add seven new and elaborative
queries to the original sixteen concise queries. These appeared with
some amendments in the second English edition of 1717. The two
queries that interest us are those eventually numbered 28 and 31. In a
place in query 28, where he rejects an ether-filled plenum and notes the
ancient belief in a vacuum, Newton writes that “the main Business
of Natural Philosophy is to argue from Phænomena without feigning
Hypotheses, and to deduce Causes from Eects, till we come to the
very first Cause, which certainly is not mechanical.”50 This cause, for
Newton, is Godnot the closed, self-contained, and thoroughly
mechanical system of some later French thinkers.
Further on, in query 31, Newton considers both the power of
gravity in the heavens and the active powers that operate between the
smallest particles. He writes:
And thus Nature will be very conformable to her self and very
simple, performing all the great Motions of the heavenly Bodies
by the Attraction of Gravity which intercedes those Bodies, and
almost all the small ones of their Particles by some other attrac-
tive and repelling Powers which intercede the Particles. The Vis
inertiæ is a passive Principle by which Bodies persist in their Mo-
tion or Rest, receive Motion in proportion to the Force impress-
ing it, and resist as much as they are resisted. By this Principle
alone there never could have been any Motion in the World.
Some other Principles was necessary for putting Bodies into Mo-
tion; and now they are in Motion, some other Principle is neces-
sary for conserving the Motion.51
Once again we see (indirectly, in this case) Newton’s two roles for God
in the universe at work: creating and sustaining. Newton adds to this
a remark about the tendency for motion to decrease over time: “By
reason of the Tenacity of Fluids, and Attrition of their Parts, and the
Weakness and Elasticity in Solids, Motion is much more apt to be lost
than got, and is always upon the Decay.
Query 31 also provides an elaborate and colorful description of
active principles at work in the world:
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Seeing therefore the variety of Motion which we find in the World
is always decreasing, there is a necessity of conserving and recruit-
ing it by active Principles, such as are the cause of Gravity, by
which Planets and Comets keep their Motions in their Orbs, and
Bodies acquire great Motion in falling; and the cause of Fermen-
tation, by which the Heart and Blood of Animals are kept in per-
petual Motion and Heat; the inward Parts of the Earth are con-
stantly warm’d, and in some places grow very hot; Bodies burn and
shine, Mountains take Fire, the Caverns of the Earth are blown
up, and the Sun continues violently hot and lucid, and warms all
things by his Light. For we meet with very little Motion in the
World, besides what is owing to these active Principles. And if
it were not for these Principles the Bodies of the Earth, Planets,
Comets, Sun, and all things in them would grow cold and freeze,
and become inactive Masses; and all Putrefaction, Generation,
Vegetation and Life would cease, and the Planets and Comets
would not remain in their Orbs.52
This is not a world whose motion is merely dependant on an initial di-
vine push. It is a dynamic world in which decline is mixed with renewal.
Three pages later Newton explicitly mentions the gradual buildup
of irregularities in the solar system that bring about the need for a cor-
rection: “For while Comets move in very excentrick Orbs in all man-
ner of Positions, blind Fate could never make all the Planets move one
and the same way in Orbs concentrick, some inconsiderable Irregu-
larities excepted which may have risen from the mutual Actions of
Comets and Planets upon one another, and which will be apt to in-
crease, till this System wants a Reformation. Such a wonderful Unifor-
mity in the Planetary System must be allowed the Eect of Choice.”53
This, evidently, is the statement that provoked Leibniz to claim that
Newton’s God was a clockmaker without sucient foresight to make
the world a perpetual-motion machine. Thus Newton’s providentialist
cosmology was not merely a part of his private faith: it appears in both
the Principia (including the first edition) and the Opticks.
Newton’s use of such a religiously charged term as reformation and
the implication that this “reformation” would be eected by God leads
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us to Newton’s unpublished theological manuscripts. Anyone who
is familiar with the hundreds of thousands of words Newton wrote
on Daniel and the Apocalypse, along with other biblical prophecies,
will know that he spent a good part of his life living in the world of
prophecy, both fulfilled and unfulfilled. Newton also held to a pre -
millennial eschatology, believing that Christ would one day return to
set up the Kingdom of God on earth. One of the central themes of
Newton’s prophetic writings is the cycle of apostasy and reformation
in salvation history. Newton believed that the Jews had corrupted their
religion by the time of Christ and that the Christians had corrupted
theirs in the centuries following the first advent of Christ. The chief
problem was lapsing into idolatry. It happened to ancient Israel and
it happened to Christianity (especially the Roman Church), although
God always preserved a faithful remnant. But, in biblical times at least,
God had sent reformers to lead his people back to the true faith.
Newton outlines this pattern in hisIrenicum,” a theological
manuscript that dates to the early eighteenth century. In speaking about
the Two Greatest Commandments (loving God and loving neighbor),
he asserts:
These two commandments always have and always will be the
duty of all nations and The coming of Jesus Christ has made no
alteration in them. For as often as mankind has swerved from
them God has made a reformation. When the sons of Adam erred
and the thoughts of their heart became evil continually God se-
lected Noah to people a new world and when the posterity of
Noah transgressed and began to invoke dead men God selected
Abraham and his posterity and when they transgressed in Egypt
God reformed them by Moses and when they relapsed to idola-
try and immorality God sent Prophets to reform them and pun-
ished them by the Babylonian captivity.54
But it did not end with the Babylonian Captivity. When the exiles re-
turned, the Jews once again became corrupted by mixing “human in-
ventions with the law of Moses under the name of traditions” and
thus “God sent Christ to reform them.” When they rejected Christ,
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“God called the Gentiles.” But the Christians were no better than the
Jews: “Now the Gentiles have corrupted themselves we may expect
that God in due time will make a new reformation.”55
Thus, like the system of the world, the human sphere has destabi-
lizing tendencies, and for Newton religion in particular tended to de-
generate over time. In both his views of prophecy and his physics, time
is a great corrupter: physical beings and physical entities tend to wind
down, thus showing their dependence on the timeless and immutable
deity. And in both his views of prophecy and his physics, the Lord God
of Israel is the Great Restorer. It is perhaps noteworthy that on the same
page that Newton outlined the patterns of apostasy and reformation
in salvation history he also spoke about God’s omnipresence in the
universe: “We are to conceive him void of external shape or bounds,
a being intangible and invisible whom no eye hath seen or can see, and
therefore also incorporeal. A being immoveable and the first cause of
motion in all other things. For he is necessarily in all places alike so that
no place can subsist without him or be emptier or fuller of him then
it is by the necessity of nature.”56
Newton’s biblical view of providence does not make a neat sepa-
ration between providence in the natural world and intervention in
human aairs. This may explain why the themes of degeneration and
renewal, along with God’s role in these cycles, occur in Newton’s
understanding of both prophetic history and cosmic history. But an
awareness of Newton’s powerfully prophetic worldview also puts to
rest another common myth about Newton, namely, that he was a deist
or protodeist. Despite increasing evidence to the contrary, Richard
Westfall maintained that Newton was a protodeist or religious ratio-
nalist who was racked by anxieties about the supposed erosion of the
Christian faith in the face of the new authority of science.57 Even with-
out knowledge of his vast prophetic manuscripts it is should be appar-
ent that Newton’s conception of the universe is not that of a deist
not even a providentialist deist. But his prophetic manuscripts make
this absolutely clear. No deist would accept biblical prophecy (of all
genres in the Scriptures) as a revelation from God that has been ful -
filled and will be fulfilled in history. No deist would hold to the mil-
lenarian views Newton embraced.58 Newtons views of providence in
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the natural and human worlds accord with the classical theism of the
Judeo-Christian tradition, not deism.
Perhaps the closest Newton came to applying the clockwork
analogy to the universe is in the draft of a letter written around May
1712 and intended to respond to Leibniz in the pages of Memoirs of
Literature. The letter remained unpublished, but near the end Newton
argues that understanding that gravity can keep the planets in their
courses without a miracle: “To understand the motions of the planets
under the influence of gravity, without knowing the cause of gravity,
is as good a progress in philosophy as to understand the frame of a
clock, and the dependence of the wheels upon one another, without
knowing the cause of the gravity of the weight which moves the ma-
chine, is in the philosophy of clockwork.”59 Close though it may be,
this argument has specific ends and falls short of an explicit descrip-
tion of the world as a clockwork mechanism. Newton did not have a
view of the cosmos as a mechanical clock in the rational sense. He may
not have even held a view of the cosmos as a clockwork in the pious
sense of Kepler or Boyle.
Having worked hard to try to dispel one myth about Newton, I
want to be exceptionally careful that I do not provide the seeds for an
opposite myth, namely, that Newton’s system of the world was primarily
dependent on ideas of God’s providence derived from Scripture. A
reckless statement made recently by Christopher Hitchens helps dem -
onstrate the propensity for such a reverse myth to develop. In a two-
page advertisement sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation and
containing statements on the relationship of science and religion from
a range of notable figures, Hitchens oers the following declaration
about Newton: “For Sir Isaac Newton— an enthusiastic alchemist, a
despiser of the doctrine of the Trinity and a fanatical anti-Papist—
the main clues to the cosmos were to be found in Scripture.”60 Every-
thing between the two em-dashes is true, although one may want to
quibble about the use of the qualifier fanatical. What comes at the end
of Hitchens’ declaration, however, is a gross distortion. No one who
knows anything about the massive amounts of observational data and
theoretical work Newton put into the development of his laws of mo-
tion and his theory of gravitation could make such a statement at
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least not in good faith. Yes, the evidence suggests that the structure of
Newton’s cosmology was in certain respects informed by his proph -
etic conception of God’s providence. But let there be no mistake:
while his commitments to a providentialist view of the universe can-
not now be doubted, Newton’s theology was not the primary source
for his physics. Newton was an empiricist in his understanding of the
cosmos. Although he believed that his physics was compatible with
the Scriptures and that the Principia provided evidence for God’s cre-
ative and sustaining hand at work, he nevertheless found the main clues
to the cosmos in the cosmos.
Newton’s Early Followers
How, then, did those who knew Newton best interpret his view of
the universe? An authoritative witness can be found in the writings of
the early Newtonians William Whiston, Samuel Clarke, Roger Cotes,
and Colin Maclaurin. Whiston, who succeed Newton as Lucasian Pro-
fessor of Mathematics at Cambridge, enjoyed intimate contact with
Newton until the latter broke with him around 1714. Clarke was a
close confidant of Newton who was also a near neighbor in Lon-
don for most of the last two decades of Newton’s life (as well as being
Newton’s parish priest). As already mentioned, he was the translator
of the Latin edition of Newtons Opticks. Roger Cotes, a young Fellow
of Trinity College who was also the Plumian Professor of Astronomy
and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge, was the editor of the sec-
ond (1713) edition of Newton’s Principia. As for Maclaurin, a Scottish
mathematician who became an ardent supporter of Newton, although
he did not enjoy the sustained contact with Newton that Whiston and
Clarke did, he nevertheless knew Newton personally and had a de-
tailed understanding of his physics, as evinced by the introduction to
Newtonian physics he published in 1748.
Rather than turning immediately to these friends and acquain-
tances of Newton, we will start with the famous Leibniz-Clarke corre-
spondence of 1715– 16. Among other criticisms of Newtons thought,
Gottfried Leibniz claimed the following in the fourth paragraph of
his first paper:
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Sir Isaac Newton, and his Followers, have also a very odd Opinion
concerning the Work of God. According to their Doctrine, God
Almighty wants to wind up his Watch from Time to Time: Other-
wise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sucient Fore-
sight to make it a perpetual Motion. Nay, the Machine of God’s
making, is so imperfect, according to these Gentlemen; that he is
obliged to clean it now and then by an extraordinary Concourse,
and even to mend it, as a Clockmaker mends his Work; Who must
consequently be so much the more unskilful a Workman, as he is
oftner obliged to mend his Work and to set it right.61
Leibniz’s notion of a perpetual motion machine implies an idealized,
clock of Platonic perfection; what he attributes to Newton is an unre-
liable clock that requires frequent rewinding the kind of clock that
would have been familiar to the original readers of this debate. In his
note to the first published edition of the correspondence, Clarke
surmises that Leibniz is here responding to the statement in the final
query of the Opticks, where Newton contends that the irregularities of
the comets and planets “will be apt to increase, till this System wants
a Reformation.”62 And it does seem likely that Leibniz had this text in
mind. Leibniz next contrasts Newton’s putative view of things with
his own understanding of the cosmos, the preestablished divine order,
and the nature of miracles: According to My Opinion, the same Force
and Vigour remains always in the World, and only passes from one part
of Matter to another, agreeably to the Laws of Nature, and the beau-
tiful pre-established Order. And I hold, that when God works Miracles,
he does not do it in order to supply the Wants of Nature, but those of
Grace. Whoever thinks otherwise, must needs have a very mean No-
tion of the Wisdom and Power of God.”63 Thus Leibniz lays down
the gauntlet.
In the section of his first reply that corresponds to Leibniz’s fourth
paragraph, Clarke is careful to answer Leibniz’s attribution to New-
ton of a divine Clockmaker without perfect foresight. First, Clarke ar-
gues against the analogy between God and the human clockmaker,
noting that the latter is responsible for making the clock and its com-
ponent parts but not the forces that drive it. These are “only adjusted, by
the Workman.64 “But with regard to God, the Case is quite dierent;
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because He not only composes or puts Things together, but is him-
self the Author and continual Preserver of their Original Forces or mov-
ing Powers: And consequently tis not a diminution, but the true Glory of
his Workmanship, that nothing is done without his continual Government
and Inspection.65
Thus, in contradistinction to Leibniz’s proposal, the Newto -
nian conception emphasizes God’s role as both creator and sustainer
through continuous Providence. Far from cowering before Leibniz’s
accusation of theological infelicity, Clarke takes the high road and
declares God’s continuous care of the cosmos a thing worthy of
great glory.
Second, Clarke oers a direct, forceful, and unambiguous repudi-
ation of the clockwork analogy: “The Notion of the World’s being a
great Machine, going on without the Inter position of God, as a Clock con-
tinues to go without the Assistance of a Clockmaker; is the Notion of
Materialism and Fate, and tends, (under pretense of making God a Supra-
Mundane Intelligence,) to exclude Providence and God’s Government in re-
ality out of the World.66 Thus Clarke does not merely reject the clock-
work analogy but, without hesitation, associates it with materialism
and fate and, what is more, is at pains to emphasize the deleterious
theological consequences of such a view of the cosmos for the sover-
eignty of God.
The remainder of Clarke’s reply to Leibniz’s use of the clockwork
model involves the explication of two theological problems that could
arise from viewing the cosmos as a clock. First, he presents a slippery-
slope argument about Leibniz’s “pre-established order”: “And by the
same Reason that a Philosopher can represent all Things going on from
the beginning of the Creation, without any Government or Interposi-
tion of Providence; a Sceptick will easily argue still farther backwards,
and suppose that Things have from Eternity gone on (as they now do)
without any true Creation or Original Author at all, but only what such
Arguers call All-Wise and Eternal Nature.67 Clarke here is prophetic.
This is essentially what some thinkers in the eighteenth century began
to argue.68 His second concern is met with a royal analogy. Just as a
king whose kingdom continued “without his Government or Interpo-
sition, or without his Attending to and Ordering what is done therein”
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would in eect be merely a king of “a Nominal Kingdom” and not
merit the titles “King or Governor,” so it would be with God if He
did not exercise continuous dominion over the worldan argument
that echoes the treatment of the God of continuous dominion in New-
ton’s General Scholium. Clarke also extends this analogy in an inter-
esting way by arguing that just as treasonous men who in Earthly
Government” believe things can go on without the oversight of the
king “may reasonably be suspected that they would like very well to set
the King aside,” “whosoever contends, that the Course of the World
can go on without the Continual direction of God, the Supreme Gov-
ernor; his Doctrine does in Eect tend to Exclude God out of the
World.”69 Is Clarke suggesting that his opponent is guilty of some
kind of theological sedition?
Although he does not explicitly say so, Clarke may also have been
implying that Leibniz’s view of God’s action (or nonaction) in the
world was tantamount to deism.70 Clarke’s familiarity with Newton’s
natural philosophy and theology endows his rejection of the clock-
work analogy with a great deal of authority. The evidence of Newton’s
behind-the-scenes involvement in Clarke’s responses to Leibniz also
strongly suggests that Clarke’s statement either met with Newton’s
approval or originated with Newton.71
Clarke added detail to his conception of Newton’s theologically
informed cosmology in subsequent replies to Leibniz. In his second
reply, Clarke further elaborates on his conception of God’s continuous
providence. Agreeing with Leibniz that God’s workmanship should
show both his power and his wisdom, Clarke argues: “This Wisdom of
God appears, not in making Nature (as an Artificer makes a Clock) ca-
pable of going on without him: (For that’s impossible; there being no Pow-
ers of Nature independent upon God, as the Powers of Weights and Springs
are independent upon Men:) But the Wisdom of God consists, in framing
originally the perfect and compleat Idea of a Work, which begun and contin-
ues, according to that Original perfect Idea, by the continual uninterrupted
Exercise of his Power and Government.72 Leibniz’s clockwork analogy,
based as it is on the notion of the independent power of weights and
springs, is theologically problematic precisely because it does not do
justice to the continuous sovereignty of the Almighty.
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Another notable statement comes in the tenth paragraph of his
second reply, in which he declares that God is both transcendent over
the world and immanent in the world: “God is neither a Mundane In-
telligence, nor a Supra-Mundane Intelligence; but an Omnipresent Intelli-
gence, both In and Without the World. He is In all, and Through all, as
well as Above all.”73 Clarke also denies that the only kind of “natural
forces” are mechanical, contending that this would make animals and
men “as mere Machines as a Clock.” “Natural forces” for Clarke are not
to be exclusively equated with mechanical forces. If they are not (as
Clarke argues), “then Gravitation may be eected by regular and natural
Powers, though they be not Mechanical.74 Clarke rejects both the clock-
work analogy and a universe that can be reduced to mere mechanism.
Although Clarke provides a robust repudiation of Leibniz’s implied
clockwork analogy, it seems likely that Leibniz’s criticism of New-
ton on this point ultimately fed into the common myth that Newton
problematically introduced a clockwork universe.
Although Whiston does feel able to use the clockwork analogy for
the purposes of the design argument, he too accepts only a strongly
providentialist view of the universe.75 Whiston does, however, employ
the clockwork analogy in a way very similar to the way Leibniz does
in this First Paper of 1715 albeit to very dierent ends. In his 1696
New theory of the earth, Whiston argues that God would have created
the cosmos in such a way that “external Nature was even, uniform,
and regular” but that the various eccentricities and anomalies now ob-
served were the result of secondary causes.76 “’Tis most Philosophi-
cal, as well as most Pious, to ascribe only what appears wise, regular,
uniform, and harmonious, to the First Cause; (as the main Phænomena
of the Heavenly Bodies, their Places, and Motions, do, to the degree
of wonder and surprize) but as to such things as may seem of another
nature, to attribute them intirely to subsequent changes, which the mu-
tual actions of Bodies one upon another, fore-ordain’d and adjusted
by the Divine Providence, in various Periods, agreeably to the various
exigencies of Creatures, might bring to pass.”77
This much is more or less consistent with the views of Newton
and Clarke. But shortly after this, Whiston introduces the analogy of
the clock to explain his distinction between the original perfection
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and uniformity of the creation and its subsequent decline: “If any one
of us should observe that a curious Clock, made and kept in order by
an excellent Artist, was very notably dierent from the true time of
the day, and took notice withal of a certain rub or stoppage, which
was very capable of causing that Error in its Motion; he would easily
and undoubtedly conclude that such an Error was truly occasion’d by
that visible Impediment; and never design’d at first, or procur’d by
the Artist.”78Two decades later, in his Astronomical principles of religion
(1717), when speaking of those predisposed to accept the doctrine of
the eternity of the world, Whiston compares the universe to a clock
losing its motion over time. Whiston argues that such a person can-
not suppose there to be an “Equality of Motion . . . in every Part of
the Universe” and “that a certain Clock or Watch will of itself go for
ever” while also observing “such wearing of the Wheels and Pivots,
such decay of the Spring, and such Rust and Foulness over the whole,
(besides the Necessity of its being wound up every Revolution) as
must, by Calculation, put a Stop to its Motion in 20 Years time.”79
Whiston completed his Astronomical principles on September 1, 1716,
and the book appeared for sale in early April 1717,80 so he likely com-
posed this argument before becoming aware of Leibniz’s challenge to
Newton using the example of the clockwork universe that requires
constant rewinding.
But this language is consistent with Whiston’s advocacy of New-
ton’s argument against the eternity of the world based on the degen-
eration of the cosmos elsewhere in the same book, where he asserts
that the stars and their systems “are not of Permanent and Eternal
Constitutions; but that, unless a miraculous Power interposes, they
must all, in length of Time, decay and perish, and be rendred utterly
incapable of those noble Uses for which at present they are so won-
derfully adapted.81 Further clarification of Whiston’s views comes in
his corollaries at the beginning of the New theory. In the first two corol-
laries Whiston contends that the power of gravity “is not a result from
the Nature of Matter,but rather that this universal force of Gravitation
being so plainly above, besides, and contrary to the Nature of Matter . . . must be
the Eect of a Divine Power and Ecacy which governs the whole World, and
which is absolutely necessary to its Preservation.82 Additional detail comes
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in the fifth corollary: The Providence of God in the Natural World is not
merely a Conservation of its being, or a Non-annihilation thereof; but a constant,
uniform, active Influence or Energy in all the Operations done in it.83If God
were to withdraw this sustaining power, even if he preserved the being
of the bodies of the world, “the whole would immediately be dissolv’d, and
each of the Heavenly Bodies be crumbled into Dust.84 This is not deism or
merely preordained design; this is the continuous providence of a truly
omnipresent and everlasting God.
When Roger Cotes crafted his preface to the second edition of
the Principia, he devoted some space to theological apologetics, includ-
ing articulations of natural theology and the claim that Newton’s mag -
num opus acted as an incentive to piety as well as a buttress against
atheism. His articulations of natural theology include echoes of the
General Scholium’s design argument and God of dominion. Cotes
writes: “Surely, this world— so beautifully diversified in its forms and
motions— could not have arisen except from the perfectly free will
of God, who provides and governs all things.”85 Newton through his
great work the Principia has “unlocked the gates” and “opened our way
to the most beautiful mysteries of nature.” The Principia has now made
it “possible to have a closer view of the majesty of nature, to enjoy the
sweetest contemplation, and to worship and venerate more zealously
the maker and lord of all.”86 Once again, the emphasis is on the con-
tinuous sovereignty of God.
Finally, these themes reverberate in Colin Maclaurin’s 1748 Ac-
count of Sir Isaac Newton’s philosophical discoveries. Early in this book, Mac -
laurin rejects Epicureanism and all systems that view the universe in
purely mechanical ways.87 Toward the end of the book Maclaurin takes
up themes relevant to the relationship between Newtonian physics and
theology. Like Newton, he uses the example of the decay of the sun to
argue against the eternity of the world. The argument against the eter-
nity of the world is further bolstered by the new theory of comets,
“since the supply which they aord must have been long ago ex-
hausted, if the world had existed from eternity.”88 Maclaurin also sum-
marizes the arguments made in the General Scholium about God’s do-
minion, namely that “the structure of the visible world” dem on strates
that it “is governed by One Almighty, and All-Wise Being, who rules the
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world, not as its Soul but as its Lord, exercising an absolute sovereignty
over the universe.89 Alluding to Leibniz’s views, Maclaurin states “that
as the Deity is the first and supreme cause of all things, so it is most
unaccountable to exclude him out of nature, and represent him as an
intelligentia extramundana.90 He elaborates on this as follows:
On the contrary, it is most natural to suppose him to be the chief
mover throughout the whole universe, and that all other causes
are dependent upon him; and conformable to this is the result of
all our enquiries into nature; where we are always meeting with
powers that surpass mere mechanism, or the eects of matter
and motion. The laws of nature are constant and regular, and, for
ought we know, all of them may be resolved into one general and
extensive power; but this power itself derives its properties and
ecacy, not from mechanism, but, in a great measure, from the
immediate influences of the first mover. It appears, however, not
to have been his intention, that the present state of things should
continue for ever without alteration; not only from what passes
in the moral world, but from phænomena of the material world
likewise; as it is evident that it could not have continued in its
present state from eternity.91
Two elements of this passage are worthy of comment. First, we
see Maclaurin explicitly deny mere mechanism and emphasize the nec-
essary role of supramechanical powers. Second, Maclaurin strikingly as-
serts not only that the current state will not “continue for ever without
alteration” but also that we know this in part from the analogy of the
moral world. Here Maclaurin speaks with the same voice as Newton.
In sum, Newton’s closest followers reassert the central features of
his theological conception of the world, including the role of supra -
mechanical forces, the reality of processes of degeneration in the cos-
mos, the true rather than nominal omnipresence of God, and the re-
jection of mere mechanism and a God-banishing clockwork universe.
When the clockwork analogy is raised (as it is by Whiston), it is used
to describe a universe in perpetual decline rather than a static cosmos
that has no need of the deity beyond the initial creative act. Newton’s
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followers also echo the two most basic elements of Newton’s theo-
logical conception of the world, that God is creator and sustainer;
while Newton and the Newtonians embrace both elements, the deis-
tic conception of the world accepts only the first element. Finally, it is
noteworthy that these close followers of Newton were without ex-
ception antideistic in theological orientation.
Postscript on Newton and the Enlightenment
Newton was committed to a powerful biblical faith and saw his phys -
ics in providentialist terms. We have seen this in both Newton’s own
writings and his reception among his closest followers, who reassert
the central features of his theological conception of the world. Yet in
the decades after his death these important elements of his thought,
already little known and not very well understood while he was alive,
were distanced even further from Newton in the writings of both sup-
porters and opponents. As Newton biographer Gale E. Christianson
concludes: “Few things would have angered or dismayed him more
than the Enlightenment belief that the Principia contained the frame-
work of a universe in which God was no longer a vital, or even nec-
essary, part.”92 But this is precisely what occurred. Both popular and
schol arly (mis)conceptions of Newton today are due in no small part
to readings and misreadings of his thought during the European En-
lightenment of the eighteenth century— readings and misreadings that
led to a diversity of portrayals of Newton, some of them mutually con-
tradictory. While space does not allow detailed elaboration, I think it is
worth outlining six likely factors that can be identified as contributory
to the distortion of Newton’s thought during this time.93
First, Newton engaged in self-censorship no doubt motivated
in part by his desire to conceal his antitrinitarian theological heresy.
Second, Newton’s own followers in Britain, some of them chosen by
him, tended to emphasize the success of Newton’s physics, champion
his philosophical method, celebrate his genius, and explicate the natu-
ral theological relations of his work, while avoiding the wider theo-
logical dynamics of his thought.94 Third, a number of less friendly
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voices in Britain began to provide readings of Newton dierent from
those being disseminated by the British Newtonians. On the one
hand, a small number of deists and freethinkers began to radicalize
his thought;95 on the other hand, some vocal religious opponents of
Newton’s system in Britain began to contend that Newtonianism was
bad for religion.96 Fourth, the leading thinkers of the French Enlight-
enment, headed by Voltaire, produced deistic, secularizing, and even
occasionally materialistic interpretations of Newton’s physics. Vol taire
himself was happy to point to elements of Newton’s religion— such
as his natural theology and antitrinitarianism that he found com-
patible with his rationalism, but in his three major works popularizing
Newton’s physics he maintained a studied silence on Newton’s proph -
etic beliefs— although elsewhere he derogates Newtons prophetic be-
liefs.97 And nothing signals Newton’s distance from the philosophes like
his deep commitment to biblical prophecy and millenarianism. Fifth,
the British Romantics partly responding to distortions of New ton’s
thought already current— constructed an image of Newton as a cold,
malevolent rationalist who helped bring about the God-banishing,
soul-destroying, imagination-sapping, and materialistic forms of sci-
ence that they decried in their poetry and prose.98 William Blake epito-
mizes the Romantic reaction. It was he who wrote, “May God us keep /
From Single vision & Newtons sleep.”99 If only Blake had known New-
ton the alchemist and providentialist! Sixth, andnally, Newton’s
cosmology is read through the lens of Pierre-Simon de la Place, the
“New ton of France” who transformed Newtonianism into the deter-
ministic, clockwork universe that so many now anachronistically as-
sociate with Newton himself.
Such factors as these go a long way to explaining how Newton
came to be known as the father of the deistic clockwork universe. Yet,
thanks in large part to our access to the material hidden away by New -
ton’s self-censorship, we are able to see how far removed such a por-
trait of Newton is from his actual visage. A careful reading of New-
ton’s massive corpus, both published and unpublished, reveals that he
was, without question, committed to biblical Christianity even if
not always orthodox— and understood his own work, particularly his
physics, in providentialist terms, reflective of his theistic and prophetic
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understanding of the cosmos. In a certain sense, Blake was right. New -
ton had a single vision rather than a double vision. But it was a single
vision of the cosmos as a whole that contained both matter and spirit
and that involved both nature and the superintendence of the God
of Israel.
For helpful discussions about the themes of this essay, I would like to thank
Edward Davis, Mordechai Feingold, Andrew Janiak, and Jerey Wigelsworth.
I am also grateful to the two editors of this volume for their help and advice.
1. Johnjoe McFadden, “ ‘Survival of the Wisest’: It Is 150 Years since
Darwin Expounded the Theory That Illuminates Our World to This Day,
Guardian, June 30, 2008. For similar caricatures, see also Christopher Hitchens,
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Toronto: McClelland and Stew-
art, 2007), 80; Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the
Search for God, ed. Ann Druyan (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 63 64; Rob -
ert M. Hazen and James Trefil, Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy (1991;
repr., New York: Anchor Books, 1992), 5, 14; Roger S. Jones, Physics for the Rest of
Us: Ten Basic Ideas of Twentieth-Century Physics That Everyone Should Know . . . and How
They Have Shaped Our Culture and Consciousness (Chicago: Contemporary Books,
1992), 101– 2; Paul Davies and John Gribbin, The Matter Myth: Dramatic Discover-
ies That Challenge Our Understanding of Physical Reality (New York: Touchstone,
1992), 12, 13, 15, 17, 42, 62, 221, 260; Peter Aughton, The Story of Astronomy: From
Babylonian Stargazers to the Search for the Big Bang (London: Quercus, 2008), 80– 91;
Ivars Peterson, Newton’s Clock: Chaos in the Solar System ( New York: W. H. Freeman,
1993); Richard Baum and William Sheehan, In Search of Planet Vulcan: The Ghost in
Newton’s Clockwork Universe (New York: Plenum, 1997); John David Ebert, Twi-
light of the Clockwork God: Conversations on Science and Spirituality at the End of an
Age (San Francisco: Council Oak Books, 1999); Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life: A
New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (New York: Anchor Books, 1996), 5,
19, 20, 107, 120, 188, and The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture
(1982; repr., Toronto: Bantam Books, 1983), 5374, 99 (heading of Part III )
and 164– 87 (chapter entitled “Newtonian Psychology”); Franz J. Broswimmer,
Ecocide: A Short History of the Mass Extinction of Species ( London: Pluto Press, 2002),
57; Jane Jakeman, Newton: A Beginner’s Guide (Abingdon: Hodder and Stoughton,
2001), 63. An increasingly popular source of knowledge is the online encyclope-
dia Wikipedia. For several years up to early 2011, its entry “Clockwork Universe
Theory” asserted that the clockwork universe was “established by Isaac New-
174 Stephen D. Snobelen
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ton.” Happily, Ted Davis’s enterprising students have now corrected the entry,
which now stresses that Newton opposed the clockwork universe theory ( Ted
Davis, pers. comm., August 8, 2011).
2. Often presented in tandem with the clockwork myth is the claim that
Newton himself did not realize that his physics spelled the end of faith. See,
e.g., Steven Weinberg, letter to the editor, Times Literary Supplement, February 16,
the_tls/article2341817.ece. However, there have also been attempts to correct
mythologies about Newton in the public sphere. See, e.g., Jean F. Drew, “New-
ton vs. the Clockwork Universe,” July 19, 2004,
3 “Beyond the Big Bang,” The Universe, History Channel, 2007, video
clip of extra feature available at
-of-gravity (current as of August 12, 2011). One assumes that if Professor Kaku
had committed a scientific solecism in his interview, it would have been caught
and thus not included in the documentary. However, in science documentaries
errors about the history of science or theology do not seem to receive this kind
of scrutiny.
4. Edward Dolnick, The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society
and the Birth of the Modern World (New York: Harper, 2011).
5. To be sure, the Newtonian clockwork myth has not completely disap-
peared among scholars today. See, e.g., William A. Stahl et al., Webs of Reality: So-
cial Perspectives on Science and Religion ( New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press,
2002), 81. On the role of the scholarly community in perpetuating the myth, see,
e.g., George S. Brett, “Newton’s Place in the History of Religious Thought,” in
Sir Isaac Newton, 1727– 1927: A Bicentenary Evaluation of His Work, ed. F. E. Brasch
(Baltimore: Williams and Williams, 1928), 263; and Samuel Leslie Bethell, The
Cultural Revolution of the Seventeenth Century (London: D. Dobson, 1951), 63. To be
fair to scholars of this earlier era, assessments of Newton’s thought was of ne-
cessity limited mostly to his published works.
6. See, e.g., J. E. McGuire and P. M. Ratansi, “Newton and the ‘Pipes of
Pan,’” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 21 (1966): 10842; David
Kubrin, “Newton and the Cyclical Cosmos: Providence and the Mechanical
Philosophy,” Journal of the History of Ideas 28 (1967): 325 45, and “Providence
and the Mechanical Philosophy: The Creation and the Dissolution of the World
in Newtonian Thought” (PhD diss., Cornell University, 1968); J. E. McGuire,
“Force, Active Principles, and Newton’s Invisible Realm,” Ambix 15 (1968):
154 208, and Tradition and Innovation: Newton’s Metaphysics of Nature ( Dordrecht:
Kluwer, 1995); Frank E. Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1974); Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy: The
Hunting of the Greene Lyon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975) and
The Myth of the Clockwork Universe 175
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The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s Thought (Cambridge: Cam-
bridge University Press, 1991); Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest : A Biography
of Isaac Newton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980); Gale E. Chris-
tianson, In the Presence of the Creator: Isaac Newton and His Times (New York: Free
Press, 1984); James E. Force and Richard H. Popkin, Essays on the Context, Na-
ture, and Influence of Isaac Newton’s Theology (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1990); James E.
Force and Richard H. Popkin, eds., Newton and Religion: Context, Nature and In-
fluence (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1999); James E. Force, “Newton and Deism,” in Sci-
ence and Religion / Wissenschaft und Religion, ed. Änne Bäumer and Manfred Büttner
(Büchum: Brockmeyer, 1989), 120 32, and “Newton’s God of Dominion: The
Unity of Newton’s Theological, Scientific and Political Thought,” in Force and
Popkin, Essays on the Context, 75– 102; Edward B. Davis, “Newton’s Rejection of
the ‘Newtonian World View’: The Role of Divine Will in Newton’s Natural Phi-
losophy,” Fides et Historia 22 (1990): 6– 20, republished in Science and Christian Be-
lief 3 (1991): 10317 and, with additions, in Facets of Faith and Science, vol. 3, The
Role of Beliefs in the Natural Sciences, ed. Jitse M. van der Meer (Lanham: University
Press of America, 1996), 75 96, and “Myth 13: That Isaac Newton’s Mechanis-
tic Cosmology Eliminated the Need for God,” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other
Myths about Science and Religion, ed. Ronald L. Numbers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 2009), 115 22; Edward B. Davis and Robin Collins, “Scientific
Naturalism,” in The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Ency-
clopedia, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (New York: Garland, 2000), 203; Edward B. Davis
and Michael P. Winship, “Early-Modern Protestantism,” in Ferngren, History of
Science, 283– 84; Otto Mayr, “Clockwork Universe,” in Encyclopedia of the Scientific
Revolution: From Copernicus to Newton, ed. Wilbur Applebaum ( New York: Gar-
land, 2000), 145; William E. Burns, The Scientific Revolution: An Encyclopedia (Santa
Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2001), 240; Dan Falk, In Search of Time: Journeys along a
Curious Dimension (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2008), 134; Keith Ward,
Pascal’s Fire: Scientific Faith and Religious Understanding (Oxford: Oneworld Publica-
tions, 2006), 24 – 33, 40 48, 108; Alvin Plantinga, What Is Intervention’?”
Theology and Science 6 (2008): 369 401.
7. Cf. Christopher B. Kaiser, Creational Theology and the Histor y of Physical
Science: The Creationist Tradition from Basil to Bohr (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 108.
8. See John North, God’s Clockwork: Richard of Wallingford and the Invention of
Time (London: Continuum, 2005), 201. Otto Mayr sees the notion of the machina
mundi as a stepping stone to the clockwork metaphor. See Mayr, “Clockwork
Universe,” 146.
9. Copernicus, On the Revolutions, vol. 2, ed. Jerzy Dobrzycki, trans. Ed-
ward Rosen (London: Macmillan, 1978), 4.
10. Nicole Oresme, Le livre du ciel et du monde 2.2, cited in Edward Grant, A
History of Natural Philosophy: From the Ancient World to the Nineteenth Century (Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 284. See also Kaiser, Creational The-
176 Stephen D. Snobelen
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ology, 106– 7. Mayr dates Oresme’s first conception of the world as a clockwork
to ca. 1350. See Mayr, “Clockwork Universe,” 146.
11. See North, God’s Clockwork, 202; and Kaiser, Creational Theology, 107– 8.
12. Mayr, “Clockwork Universe,” 145 46.
13. Stanley L. Jaki, “God, Nature, and Science,” in Ferngren, History of Sci-
ence, 48.
14. William B. Ashworth Jr., “Catholicism and Early Modern Science,” in
God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science, ed.
David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1986), 138.
15. William B. Ashworth Jr., “Christianity and the Mechanistic Universe,”
in When Science and Christianity Meet, ed. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Num-
bers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 7274; Pierre Gassendi, Syn-
tagma philosophicum, cited in Margaret J. Osler, “Whose Ends? Teleology in Early
Modern Natural Philosophy,” Osiris 16 (2001): 159.
16. René Descartes, Philosophical Essays and Correspondence, ed. Roger Ariew
(Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000), 42 43, 69, 73, 138, 27071, 276. See also Ash-
worth, “Christianity,” 70, 74. For an argument that God plays a continuing role
in Descartes’s universe, see Gary Hatfield, “Force (God) in Descartes’
Physics,Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 10 (1979): 113 40.
17. On Boyle’s version of the mechanical philosophy, see Margaret G.
Cook, Divine Artifice and Natural Mechanism: Robert Boyle’s Mechanical
Philosophy of Nature,Osiris 16 (2001): 133– 50; and Eugene Klaaren, Religious
Origins of Modern Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), 149– 59.
18. See Kepler to Herwart von Hohenburg, February 10, 1605, quoted in
the original Latin in Alexandre Koyré, The Astronomical Revolution: Copernicus
Kepler — Borelli, trans. R. E. W. Maddison (1973; repr., New York: Dover Publi-
cations, 1992), 378: “My aim is this, to show that the celestial machine is not
like a divine creature, but like a clock (he who believes the clock to be animate
assigns the glory of the artificer to the work), insofar as nearly all the diversity
of motions are caused by a simple, magnetic and corporeal force, just as all the
motions of a clock are caused by a most simple weight. I will also show how
this physical account is to be brought under mathematics and geometry” (my
19. Klaaren, Religious Origins, 149.
20. See Ashworth, “Christianity.”
21. For recent studies on the relationship between Newton’s science and
his religion, see Stephen D. Snobelen, “To Discourse of God: Isaac Newton’s
Heterodox Theology and His Natural Philosophy,” in Science and Dissent in En -
gland, 16881945, ed. Paul B. Wood (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 39 65, and
James E. Force,The Nature of Newton’s ‘Holy Alliance’ between Science
and Religion: From the Scientific Revolution to Newton (and Back Again),” in
The Myth of the Clockwork Universe 177
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Rethinking the Scientific Revolution, ed. Margaret J. Osler (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2000), 247– 70.
22. Some use this misconception— and others the relative lack of theologi -
cal language in the first edition to argue that the addition of the General
Scholium in 1713 represents a turn to theology and a turn away from theologi-
cal neutrality in the Principia. The accessibility of Newton’s theological manu-
scripts, many of which predate the Principia, along with a better understanding
of the theological contexts of the work, has rendered this position untenable.
On the continuing presence of theology in all three editions of the Principia,
see I. Bernard Cohen, “Isaac Newton’s Principia, the Scriptures, and the Divine
Providence,” in Philosophy, Science, and Method: Essays in Honor of Ernest Nagel, ed.
Sidney Morgenbesser, Patrick Suppes, and Morton White (New York: St. Mar-
tin’s Press, 1969), 523 – 48. See also Stephen D. Snobelen, “The Theology of
Isaac Newton’s Principia mathematica: A Preliminary Survey,” Neue Zeitschrift für
Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 52 (2010): 377– 412.
23. Isaac Newton, The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy,
trans. I. Bernard Cohen and Anne Whitman with Julia Budnez (Berkeley: Uni-
versity of California Press, 1999), 413– 14. The Cohen-Whitman translation of
the Principia is based on the third (1726) edition.
24. Newton, Principia, 814 n. cc.
25. Newton, Principia, 81415.
26. See Cohen, “Isaac Newton’s Principia.,” and Snobelen, “Theology of
Newton’s Principia.
27. For a recent edition of “De gravitatione,” see Isaac Newton, Philosoph-
ical Writings, ed. Andrew Janiak (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2004), 12 39.
28. For background, see Henry Guerlac and Margaret Candee Jacob,
“Bent ley, Newton and Providence (the Boyle Lectures Once More),” Journal of
the History of Ideas 30 (1969): 307– 18.
29. Newton to Bentley, December 10, 1692, in Newton, Philosophical Writ-
ings, 94.
30. Newton to Bentley, December 10, 1692, in Newton, Philosophical Writ-
ings, 96.
31. Newton to Bentley, January 17, 1693, in Newton, Philosophical Writings, 98.
32. Newton to Bentley, February 25, 1693, in Newton, Philosophical Writings,
103. A 1698 memorandum by the Scottish mathematician David Gregory is also
suggestive: “Mr C. Wren says that he is in possession of a method of explaining
gravity mechanically. He smiles at Mr Newton’s belief that it does not occur by
mechanical means, but was introduced originally by the Creator.The Correspon-
dence of Sir Isaac Newton, ed. J. F. Scott (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1967), 4:267.
178 Stephen D. Snobelen
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33. Richard Bentley, A confutation of atheism from the origin and frame of the
world. The third and last part (London, 1693), 32.
34. Isaac Newton, Classical Scholia, in David Gregory MS. 245, fol. 14a,
Library of the Royal Society, quoted in English in McGuire, Force, Active
Principles,” 216.
35. Newton, Cambridge University Library, Add MS 3965.6, fol. 266v.
36. Newton, Classical Scholia, in Volkmar Schüller, “Newton’s Scholia from
David Gregorys Estate on the Propositions IV through IX Book III of His Prin-
cipia,” in Between Leibniz , Newton, and Kant: Philosophy and Science in the Eighteenth
Century, ed. Wolfgang Lefèvre (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2001), 241. See also Newton,
Cambridge University Library Add. MS. 3965.12, fol. 269, cited in McGuire and
Rattansi, “Newton,” 120. See also Newton, Cambridge University Library Add.
MS. 3965.12, fol. 269, cited in McGuire and Rattansi, “Newton,” 120.
37. Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, “Newton’s Alchemy and His Theory of Mat-
ter,” Isis 73 (1982): 511– 28.
38. On the theology of the General Scholium, see Stephen D. Snobelen,
‘God of Gods, and Lord of Lords’: The Theology of Isaac Newton’s General
Scholium to the Principia,Osiris 16 (2001): 169 208; Larry Stewart, “Seeing
through the Scholium: Religion and Reading Newton in the Eighteenth Cen-
tury,History of Science 34 (1996): 123 64.
39. Newton, Principia, 940.
40. Newton, Principia, 940.
41. John Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, trans. J.K. S.
Reid (London: James Clarke, 1961), 162.
42. Newton, Principia, 940. Newton later makes it clear that God is “not at
all corporeal” (942).
43. Newton, Principia, 941.
44. Newton, Principia, 941– 42.
45. Newton, Principia, 941– 42 n. j. The note on space was enlarged for the
1726 edition.
46. Newton, Principia, 943.
47. Newton, Principia, 940.
48. Isaac Newton, Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica:
The Third Edition (1726) with Variant Readings, ed. I. Bernard Cohen and Alexan-
dre Koyré (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), 2:760. Michael A.
Hoskin points to the significance of this variant reading when discussing the di-
erence between the cosmologies of Leibniz and Newton in “Newton and the
Beginnings of Stellar Astronomy,” in Newton and the New Direction in Science, ed.
G.V. Coyne, M. Heller, and J. Z
´ycin´ski (Vatican City: Specola Vaticana, 1988),
60. I have adapted Hoskins’s translation to bring out with greater clarity New-
ton’s description of God and his will (Hoskins has simply “the divine plan”).
The Myth of the Clockwork Universe 179
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49. A survey of theological themes in the various editions of the Opticks
can be found in Stephen D. Snobelen, “ ‘La lumière de la nature’: Dieu et la
philosophie naturelle dans l’Optique de Newton,” Lumières 4 (2004): 65104.
50. Isaac Newton, Opticks: or, a treatise of the reflexions, refractions, inflexions
and colours of light (London, 1717), 344.
51. Newton, Opticks [1717], 372 73.
52. Newton, Opticks [1717], 375.
53. Newton, Opticks [1717], 378.
54. Isaac Newton, “Irenicum,” Keynes MS 3, 35 (normalized text).
55. Newton, “Irenicum,” 35.
56. Newton, “Irenicum,” 35.
57. Various iterations of Westfall’s protodeist and incipient rationalist the-
ses can be found in Richard S. Westfall, “Newton and Christianity,” in Religion,
Science and Public Policy, ed. Frank T. Birtel (New York: Crossroad, 1987), “The
Rise of Science and the Decline of Orthodox Christianity: A Study of Kepler,
Descartes, and Newton,” in Lindberg and Numbers, God and Nature, 218 37,
and “Isaac Newton’s Theologiae gentilis origines philosophicae,” in The Secular Mind:
Transformations of Faith in Modern Europe, ed. W. Warren Wagar ( New York:
Holmes and Meier, 1982), 15 34, Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century En -
gland (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958), 193– 220, and “Isaac Newton:
Religious Rationalist or Mystic?,Review of Religion 22 (1957– 8): 155 70. West-
fall was still insisting on this view of Newton’s secularizing role in culture and
the history of ideas in one of his last papers, published after his death. See
Richard S. Westfall, The Scientific Revolution Reasserted,” in Osler, Rethinking
the Scientific Revolution, 54. It is possible that Westfall’s position was shaped by the
mistaken belief that Newton’s biblicist antitrinitarian theology was either incipi -
ent deism or tantamount to deism.
58. James Force has provided the most robust criticisms of Westfall’s pro-
todeism thesis. See James E. Force, “Samuel Clarke’s Four Categories of Deism,
Isaac Newton, and the Bible,” in Scepticism in the History of Philosophy, ed. Richard
H. Popkin (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1996), 5374, “Newton and Deism,” 120– 32,
and “The Newtonians and Deism,” in Force and Popkin, Essays on the Context,
59. Newton to the editor of Memoirs of Literature, ca. May 1712, in Philo-
sophical Writings, 117.
60. “Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?,” advertisement, At-
lantic, May 2008, 44 45.
61. Gottfried Leibniz, “First Paper,” in A collection of papers, which passed be-
tween the late learned Mr. Leibnitz , and Dr. Clarke, in the years 1715 and 1716 (Lon-
don, 1717), 3, 5. The correspondence between Leibniz and Clarke was con-
ducted in French but was published in 1717 with an English translation by Clarke
180 Stephen D. Snobelen
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facing the original French. The English text of the 1717 edition is available at
62. Samuel Clarke, Collection of papers, 5 n *. Leibniz would have been refer-
ring to Clarke’s 1706 Latin translation of the Opticks (Newton, Optice, 345– 46).
In this edition the final query was numbered 23.
63. Leibniz, “First Paper,” 5.
64. Samuel Clarke, “First Reply,” in Collection of papers, 13 and 15 (quota-
tion on 15).
65. Clarke, “First Reply,” 15.
66. Clarke, “First Reply,” 15.
67. Clarke, “First Reply,” 15 and 17.
68. It also roughly corresponds to the position of modern pantheists and
materialists. One is reminded of Carl Sagan’s opening statement in his 1980
documentary Cosmos: “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be,” a
secular inversion of Rev. 1:8.
69. Clarke, “First Reply,” 17.
70. See Clarke’s arguments against deism and his quadripartite taxonomy
of deism in his 1705 Boyle Lectures: Samuel Clarke, A discourse concerning the un-
changeable obligations of natural religion, and the truth and certainty of the Christian reve-
lation (London, 1706), 19 45.
71. I. Bernard Cohen and Alexandre Koyré, “Newton and the Leibniz-
Clarke Correspondence,” Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Sciences 15 (1962):
63126; A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall, “Clarke and Newton,” Isis 52
(1961): 583– 85. This is not to say that Clarke was merely Newton’s mouthpiece
or that he showed no originality in the debate.
72. Clarke, “Second Reply,” in Collection of papers, 45.
73. Clarke, “Second Reply,” 47.
74. Clarke, “Fourth Reply,” in Collection of papers, 151.
75. For Whiston’s use of the clockwork analogy, see William Whiston, As-
tronomical principles of religion, natural and reveal’d (London, 1717), 106, 255.
76. William Whiston, New theory of the earth (1696), 114 – 15 (quotation
on 115).
77. Whiston, New theory, 116.
78. Whiston, New theory, 11617.
79. Whiston, Astronomical principles, 109– 10.
80. Whiston, Astronomical principles, 301; Daily Courant, advertisement,
April 4, 1717.
81. Whiston, Astronomical principles, 89 90.
82. Whiston, New theory, 5 6.
83. Whiston, New theory, 6.
84. Whiston, New theory, 67.
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85. Roger Cotes, preface to Newton, Principia, 397.
86. Cotes, preface to Newton, Principia, 398.
87. Colin Maclaurin, An account of Sir Isaac Newton’s philosophical discoveries, in
four books (London, 1748), 4 5.
88. Maclaurin, Account, 37576.
89. Maclaurin, Account, 377.
90. Maclaurin, Account, 387.
91. Maclaurin, Account, 387.
92. Christianson, In the Presence, 60.
93. On Newton in the Enlightenment, see Stephen D. Snobelen, ed.,
“Isaac Newton in the Eighteenth Century,” special issue, Enlightenment and Dis-
sent 25 (2009); J. B. Shank, The Newton Wars and the Beginning of the French Enlight-
enment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008); Jonathan I. Israel, Enlight-
enment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670 1752
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 201– 22, 751– 80; Brian Young, “New-
tonianism and the Enthusiasm of Enlightenment,Studies in the History and Phi-
losophy of Science 35 (2004): 645 63; Stephen D. Snobelen, “Isaac Newton,” in
Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, ed. Alan Charles Kors (Oxford: Oxford Univer-
sity Press, 2003), 3:172 77; Jonathan I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy
and the Making of Modernity, 1650– 1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001),
515 27; Paolo Casini, “Newton’s Principia and the Philosophers of the Enlight-
enment,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 42 (1988): 35 52; P. M.
Rattansi, “Voltaire and the Enlightenment Image of Newton,” in History and
Imagination: Essays in Honour of H. R. Trevor-Roper, ed. Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Valerie
Pearl, and Blair Worden (London: Duckworth, 1981), 218 31; Robert E. Scho -
field, “An Evolutionary Taxonomy of Eighteenth-Century Newtonianisms,”
Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 7 (1978): 175– 92; Margaret C. Jacob, “New-
tonianism and the Origins of the Enlightenment: A Reassessment,” Eighteenth-
Century Studies 11 (1977– 78): 1– 25; Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: The Science of
Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton, 1969), 2:128– 50 (the sections “The Enlight-
enment’s Newton” and Newton’s Physics without Newton’s God”); Henry
Guerlac, “Newton’s Changing Reputation in the Eighteenth Century[1965],
“Where the Statue Stood: Divergent Loyalties to Newton in the Eighteenth Cen-
tury” [1965], and “Three Eighteenth-Century Social Philosophers: Scientific In-
fluences on Their Thought” [1958], all in Essays and Papers in the History of Modern
Science (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1977), 69 81, 131– 45, and
451– 64, respectively.
94. See Patricia Fara, Newton: The Making of Genius (London: Macmillan,
2002); Maureen McNeil, “Newton as National Hero,” in Let Newton Be! A New
Perspective on His Life and Works, ed. John Fauvel et al. (Oxford: Oxford Univer-
sity Press, 1988), 223 39. The notable exception is William Whiston, who pub-
lished extensively on prophecy (although Newton is only one of the sources of
182 Stephen D. Snobelen
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his prophetic and strongly millennial ideas). On Whiston’s prophetic views, see
Stephen D. Snobelen, “William Whiston: Natural Philosopher, Prophet, Primi -
tive Christian” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2000), ch. 4; James E. Force,
William Whiston: Honest Newtonian (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1985); and Maureen Farrell, William Whiston (New York: Arno Press, 1981).
95. See, e.g., John Toland, Letters to Serena (London, 1706), 183. Two valuable
studies of Toland’s appropriation of Newton are Jerey R. Wigelsworth, “Lock-
ean Essences, Political Posturing, and John Toland’s Reading of Isaac Newton’s
Principia,Canadian Journal of History 38 (2003): 521– 35; and Margaret C. Jacob,
“John Toland and the Newtonian Ideology,Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld
Institutes 32 (1969): 307– 31. See also Wigelsworth’s more recent studyA Sheep
in the Midst of Wolves: Reassessing Newton and English Deists,Enlightenment
and Dissent 25 (2009): 260– 86. Wigelsworth sees Toland as a kind of deist, while
Jacob portrays him as a kind of pantheist, and thus more radical. On Toland
and Newton, see also Shank, Newton Wars, 126 29, and Jacob, The Newtonians
and the English Revolution, 1689– 1720 (Hassocks, Sussex: Harvester Press, 1976),
201– 50.
96. Orthodox concerns over Newton’s heterodoxy are explored in Scott
Mandelbrote, “Eighteenth-Century Reactions to Newton’s Anti-Trinitarianism,”
in Newton and Newtonianism: New Studies, ed. James E. Force and Sarah Hutton
(Dor drecht: Kluwer, 2004), 93111; Stephen D. Snobelen, “Isaac Newton, Here -
tic: The Strategies of a Nicodemite,” British Journal for the History of Science 32 (De-
cember 1999): 381– 419. See also George Hickes to Roger North, May 23, 1713,
British Library Add. MS, 32551, fol. 34; Joseph Spence, Observations, Anecdotes,
and Characters of Books and Men Collected from Conversation, ed. James M. Osborn
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 1:387; George Berkeley, A treatise concerning the
principles of human knowledge ( London, 1710), 15668 (secs. 11017). For more
on Berkeley’s anti-Newtonianism, see Fara, Making of Genius, 103 5; M. Hughes,
“Newton, Hermes and Berkeley,British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 43
(1992): 1– 19; Georey N. Cantor, “Anti-Newton,” in Fauvel et al., Let Newton
Be!, 212– 15; D. J. Greene, “Smart, Berkeley, the Scientists and the Poets: A Note
on Eighteenth-Century Anti-Newtonianism,” Journal of the History of Ideas 14
(1953): 327– 52.
97. Voltaire, Letters concerning the English nation ( London, 1733), The Ele-
ments of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy, trans. John Hanna (London, 1738), and The
Metaphysics of Sir Isaac Newton, trans. David Erskine Baker (London, 1747). For
Voltaire’s discomfort with Newton’s prophetic studies, see, for example, the ref-
erence to Newton in the entry “Esprit faux” (“False minds”) in his Dictionnaire
philosophique, II, vol. 36 of The Complete Works of Voltaire (Oxford: Voltaire Founda-
tion, 1994), 63. On the reception of Newton in France, see Shank, Newton Wars;
Derek Gjertsen, “Newton in France,” in The Newton Handbook (London: Rout-
ledge and Kegan Paul, 1986), 382– 84; A. Rupert Hall, “Newton in France: A
The Myth of the Clockwork Universe 183
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New View,” History of Science 13 (1975): 233– 50; I. Bernard Cohen, “Isaac New-
ton, Hans Sloane, and the Académie Royale des Sciences,” in Mélanges Alexandre
Koyré, ed. I. Bernard Cohen and René Taton (Paris: Hermann, 1964), 1:61– 116;
Charles Coulston Gillispie, “Fontenelle and Newton,” in Isaac Newton’s Papers and
Letters on Natural Philosophy, ed. I. Bernard Cohen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Uni-
versity Press, 1958), 427– 43. The classic study is Pierre Brunet, L’introduction des
theories de Newton en France au XV III siècle, I: Avant 1738 (Paris: Libraire Scien-
tifique Albert Blanchard, 1931). No further volumes were published.
98. For an overview, see Cantor, “Anti Newton,” 203 21.
99. William Blake to Thomas Butts, November 22, 1802, in The Complete Po-
etry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman (New York: Anchor Books,
1982), 722.
184 Stephen D. Snobelen
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Science today is often seen as providing the definitive frame of reference for understanding what goes on in nature. Furthermore, the history of science has frequently been portrayed as the story of steady progress in overturning religious explanation in favour of scientific truth. This narrative has been challenged by those who – like the author of this book – recognise that a naturalistic way of looking at the world, which lies at the heart of modern science, has a far richer relationship to religion than many have allowed. Peter Jordan now takes this recognition in fresh and exciting directions. Focusing on key thinkers in early modern England, who located causality within a divine and providential view of the cosmos, he shows how they were able to integrate ideas which today might be dichotomised as 'scientific' and 'religious'. His book makes a compelling contribution to current science and religion debates and their history.
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Bu makalede, doğa yasası kavramının tarihselliği, nesnelliği ve evrenselliği problemlerini bilim tarihi ve felsefesi perspektifinden ele alıyorum. Özellikle de nedensel zorunlulukların yasa metaforuyla ifade edilmesinin ardında yatan felsefî düşüncelerin açığa çıkarılmasını amaçlıyor, bu yolla doğa yasalarının olumsallıkla olan ilişkisini farklı yönlerden analiz ediyorum. Makalenin ilk bölümünde orta çağ ile modern dönem arasındaki süreklilikleri inceleyen bilim tarihi araştırmaları tartışılmasına, ikinci bölümünde ise günümüz perspektifinden doğanın yasalılığının felsef î temelinin sorgulanmasına yer veriyorum. Bu anlamda, doğa yasası kavramının evrensel geçerliliğinin önünde, kavramın kendisinden kaynaklanan sınırlılıklar kadar, epistemolojik ve ontolojik engellerin de var olduğu öne sürüyorum. Epistemolojik engel, yasaları ortaya koyan bilimsel kuramların sürekli bir bilgisel genişlemeyle yasa olma durumunu yeni baştan tanımlamaları, ontolojik engel ise yasaların tekabül ettiği sistematik yapıların nihaî anlamda bir evrenselliğe işaret etmekten ziyade farklı derecede genelliklerle karakterize olmalarıdır.
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In this thesis, I discuss the organism's self-organization from the perspective of relational ontology. I critically examine scientific and philosophical sources that appeal to the concept of self-organization. By doing this, I aim to carry out a thorough investigation into the underlying reasons of emergent order within the ontogeny of the organism. Moreover, I focus on the relation between universal dynamics of organization and the organization of living systems. I provide a historical review of the development of modern ideas related to self-organization. These ideas have been developed in relation to various research areas including thermodynamics, molecular biology, developmental biology, systems theory, and so on. In order to develop a systematic understanding of the concept, I propose a conceptual distinction between transitional self-organization and regulative self-organization. The former refers to the spontaneous emergence of order, whereas the latter refers to the self-maintaining characteristic of the living systems. I show the relation between these two types of organization within biological processes. I offer a critical analysis of various theories within the organizational approach. Several ideas and notions in these theories originate from the early studies in cybernetics. More recently, autopoiesis and the theory of biological autonomy asserted certain claims that were critical toward the ideas related to self-organization. I advocate a general theory of self-organization against these criticisms. I also examine the hierarchical nature of the organism's organization, as this is essential to understand regulative self-organization. I consider the reciprocal relation between bottom-up and top-down dynamics of organization as the basis of the organism's individuation. To prove this idea, I appeal to biological research on molecular self-assembly, pattern formation (including reaction-diffusion systems), and the self-organized characteristic of the immune system. Finally, I promote the idea of diachronic emergence by drawing support from biological self-organization. I discuss the ideas related to constraints, potentiality, and dynamic form in an attempt to reveal the emergent nature of the organism. To demonstrate the dynamicity of form, I examine research into biological oscillators. I draw the following conclusions: synchronic condition of the organism is irreducibly processual and relational, and this is the basis of the organism's potentiality for various organizational states.
In his biography of Isaac Newton, which forms the most recent production in this flourishing genre, Niccolò Guicciardini states as his first point of departure that Newton's work arose not from ‘attempts to answer questions that came to him spontaneously, but [from addressing] those posed by his contemporaries’ (p. 20). Right he is to communicate to the larger audience for which he is writing this principal fruit of by now almost a century of professional history-of-science writing – a deep-seated awareness that every scientific view or finding, even if looking timeless in retrospect, has emerged from some given historical context that shows us where the scientist in question started, and that helps explain how, and in what direction, they managed to venture beyond the original context. Indeed, the same truth (or rather truism) applies to every genuine – that is, in some way innovative and also worthwhile – contribution to scholarship. And so it is, therefore, with the three books here under review, which I intend to examine with the following leading question in mind: what in each of them is new and what, in what turns out to be new indeed, has been worth learning?
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Newtoncu paradigma, neden-sonuç ilişkilerinin mekanik açıklamasına dair başarısı nedeniyle on sekizinci yüzyıl Aydınlanma düşüncesinde ilham kaynağı olmuştur. Öte yandan, bilimsel problemlerin fiziğe indirgenmesine karşı getirilen eleştiri, günümüzde buna benzer bir durumu devre dışı bırakıyor. Hume tarafından ortaya konan doğadaki yasalılığın şüpheci bir temelde eleştirisi, bugün tesadüfün ontolojik gerçekliğinin öne sürülmesi anlamında farklı bir boyut kazanmıştır. Cartwright (1999) ise doğa yasalarının evrenselliğine karşı çıkmakta ve nedensellik konusunda plüralist bir yaklaşımı önermektedir. Bu yazıda, plüralizmin bilimin birliği konusunda bazı sorunları çözümsüz bıraktığı, felsefe ve bilim arasındaki karşılıklı bir yabancılaşmanın kuramsal göreceliğe paralel olarak geliştiği öne sürülmekte ve günümüzde Aydınlanmanın bir koşulu olarak sistematik ve bütüncül bilim sorununa geri dönüş önerilmektedir. Determinizm ve indirgemeciliğe alternatif olarak, evrim kuramında ortaya konan bilimsel birikimin olasılıkçı yorumu yeni bir sistematik perspektifin oluşturulmasına katkı sunabilir.
Abstract Systems biology has been framed as a newly emerging paradigm in biology conceived to overcome the theoretical and methodological shortcomings of previous approaches such as molecular biology. Framed as an approach, its history has to date rarely been addressed which means the historical analysis of its theoretical roots and ancestors still remain in the dark. This chapter aims at partly fi lling this gap by analyzing the imagined presents, pasts, and futures of systems biology as seen through the systems biologist’s eyes. For this to be done, a narrative analysis is applied to written sources and expert interviews conducted with system biologists in Germany. The analysis reveals considerably different pictures of imagined present, pasts and futures between the written and interview data. It becomes apparent that despite current attempts to establish a common defi nition of systems biology considerable differences of what it represents exist. More important, however, is the fact that an ahistoric perspective prevails among many system biologists interviewed. Albeit historical references to so-called predecessors appear now and then, we discuss the danger of a prevailing ahistoric narrative in systems biology. A solution to this problem is a still missing conceptual historiography of systems biology that holds the potential to provide clarifi cation of defi nitional fuzziness and the relevance of a historically grounded understanding of its conceptual importance in current biology. Only the knowledge about imagined presents, pasts and futures can help us better understand the present condition of systems biology and contribute to substantiating its conceptual deficits.
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The first edition of Isaac Newton's famous Principia mathematica (1687) contains only one reference to the Scriptures and one mention of God and natural theology. Thus, there is superficial evidence to suggest that this pivotal work of physics is a mostly secular book that is not fundamentally associated with theology and natural theology. The fact that the General Scholium – with its overt theological and natural theological themes – was only added to the Principia a quarter-century later with the second edition of 1713 may also suggest that this theology came as an afterthought and is therefore not integral to the conceptual structure of the Principia. Moreover, the relative paucity of theology in the first edition, combined with the evidence of the appended General Scholium of 1713, could be used as evidence of a ‘theological turn’ in Newton's thought after 1687. This article uses evidence from Newton's private manuscripts to argue that there is more theology in all three editions of the Principia than a simple reading of the published text would imply. This article also demonstrates that the seeds of Newton's theological conception of Nature and the cosmos – conceptions that can be found in manuscripts beginning in the early 1690s, and that are acknowledged in the General Scholium of 1713 – are already present in Newton's private papers prior to 1687. Newton engaged in a great deal of theological writing after 1687, but the period of the composition of the Principia only marks the end of the first third of Newton's six-decade intellectual career and thus it should not be surprising to find more theology after the Principia than before. Nevertheless, there are important theological writings going back to the 1660s that show that Newton's strongly biblical and providentialist theology pre-dates the Principia and, crucially, that his theological conception of the cosmos does as well. The first edition of the Principia, therefore, was composed after Newton had begun to formulate his theology and theological understanding of the cosmos.
The author presents the first major reassessment of the Western Enlightenment for a generation. Continuing the story he began in Radical Enlightenment, and now focusing his attention on the first half of the 18th century, he returns to the original sources to offer a new perspective on the nature and development of the most important currents in modern thought. The author traces many of the core principles of Western modernity to their roots in the social, political, and philosophical ferment of this period: the primacy of reason, democracy, racial equality, feminism, religious toleration, sexual emancipation, and freedom of expression. He emphasizes the dual character of the Enlightenment and the bitter struggle between, on the one hand, a generally dominant, anti-democratic mainstream, supporting the monarchy, aristocracy, and ecclesiastical authority, and on the other a largely repressed democratic, republican, and 'materialist' radical fringe. He also contends that the supposedly separate French, British, German, Dutch, and Italian enlightenments interacted to such a degree that their study in isolation gives a hopelessly distorted picture.
This article exposes the theological, political and epistemological foundations for the early natural philosophy of the deist John Toland (1670-1722). Toland is best known for Christianity not Mysterious (1696), which borrowed much from John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Specifically, Toland employed the distinction between nominal and real essences to claim that God provided humanity the capacity to know only the nominal essences of the created world. This belief informed Toland's philosophy of nature, which he first advanced in Letters to Serena (1704). There, he argued that all parts of the universe were in motion. Additionally, motion was part of the definition of matter and was, therefore, an aspect of its nominal essence. No further knowledge of the Creation was possible because the cause of motion was an unknowable real essence. Lockean and theological commitments explain Toland's peculiar reading of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica, which has long attracted interest from historians of science. A theological motivation for Toland's worldview sheds new light on the underlying assumptions of his natural philosophy and on English deism more generally. It suggests that deists did have theological convictions and that these must figure prominently in any study.
Today, when we consider Newton and his work, there is a tendency among both popularizers and scholars to see Newton through a prism, so to speak, and to study Newton in refraction just as Newton studies light by passing it through a prism and breaking it down into its primary colors. Newton is seen, at different times, as a heretical theologian, a scientific genius, or a politically connected man of affairs. There often seem to be as many Newtons as there are primary colors and we study Newton by studying the many manifestations of his multi-hued genius independently. Failing to appreciate the synthetic unity in Newton’s thought is the inevitable result of overemphasizing one or another of its integrated components.