Friday, February 24, 2012

Newtonian Theology

Natura valde simplex est et sibi consona, wrote Newton: “Nature is very simple and conforms to Herself.”

So deeply do we moderns take this for granted, that we are likely to be puzzled to know, at first, just what Newton is driving at. Nature conforms to Herself? To our ears, that verges on tautology. In this instance what he meant was that the laws of motion that obtain in Galileo's tower should obtain in his own Cambridge chambers: that they should apply equally and impartially to the sun in heaven and to a particle of dust floating in a shuttered room. It is overwhelmingly due to Newton that we speak of natural “laws.” Many philosophers of science disapprove of that word, and would like to replace it with something more neutral. I have no objection to that, except to observe that Newton – a passionate, if eccentric, theologian – would probably never have achieved what he did had he not believed that he was discovering and revealing God's design principles. He was not working out descriptions: he was finding out laws.

“Nature conforms to herself.” Newton made no argument for this, and in fact it's a difficult point to argue. Most people, for most of the time human beings have existed, have not believed it. They have seen no reason why one should assume that nature plays by the same rules in the neighboring village as it does in their own. They lived in a world of multiple deities and local powers, which made up own rules as they went along, and often enough found themselves at war with each other. When that happened, a prudent man kept his head down, made offerings to as many of the powers as he could afford to, and hoped to stay out of their way till things settled down.

Science never got very far until monotheism prepared the ground, until whole cultures believed that everything everywhere obeyed the same rules, and was subject to the same Judge. Individuals might speculate, and did: flukes might produce a Pythagoras or an Aristotle. But for science to get very far, it needed a scientific community: it needed continuity and debate, financial resources and social prestige. We only find such communities arising in places where monotheism has been firmly established for generations. The typical “history” that most science people believe, in which courageous fact-based scientists arose ex nihilo to dispel the immemorial fogs of religious dogma, is almost exactly backwards. A scientist, historically speaking, is simply a Jewish, Christian, or Muslim theologian who has followed his speculative discipline so far that it has begun to destroy its own foundations.

Whether scientific communities can survive, having eaten their own roots, is an interesting question. So long as they offer power, commercial and political princes will support them, in their fashion. But science needs more than money to survive. It needs a powerful sense, throughout the community, that the service of truth is sacred, and that truth is One and universal. Otherwise, scientists will begin to be seen more and more as alchemists and magicians: as mere grubby contractors with arcane, possibly diabolical, powers. There are many people who already see them this way, and it's a cultural current that I don't see slackening. If science is to regain (find?) its place in the hearts of the public, it's going to have to learn to speak of its sense of holiness – its radical devotion to truth, and its conviction of the unity of that truth – in terms that the religious communities that begot them can understand. It will not really be that hard: there is not much that really separates science from the religions that produced it, except bogus history, mutual ignorance, and arrogance.


Kathleen said...

Wow! Powerful stuff. It is mixing right in with essays I am reading in Absence of Mind, by Marilynne Robinson, so I am reading her book and your post at the right time, I think! Thank you.

Zhoen said...

Have you ever read Bury Me Standing?

Dale said...

Thanks Kathleen!

Zhoen, no, should I?

Jasper said...

And yet, the remnants of those ruined foundations may prove to be illusory, as further penetrations into particle physics could end up revealing some scientist/deity cooking up big bangs in his/her laboratory, thus instigating an opportunity for our own scientists to literally start playing God. A scary thought that lends an ironic air to the scientist-as-theologian metaphor.

Thank you for the insights... I always appreciate it when my favorite writers branch out so meaningfully into other genres of thought.