Newton’s Principia and Existence of God

From Nancy Pearcey, Charles Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy

Roger Cotes, in his preface to the second edition of Newton’s Principia, wrote that the book ‘will be the safest protection against the attacks of atheists, and nowhere more surely than from this quiver can one draw forth missiles against the band of godless men.'”

The reason Newton felt free to avoid ultimate causes was, of course, that for him the ultimate cause was God. He viewed gravity as an active principle through which God Himself imposes order onto passive matter—as one of the avenues through which God exercises His immediate activity in creation. As Kaiser puts it, for Newton things like gravity ‘depended on God’s immediate presence and activity as much as the breathing of an organism depends on the life-principle within.’ Like breathing, these active powers were regular and natural, and yet they could not be explained in purely mechanical terms.”

A second way Newton found to ‘fit God in’ was in his concept of absolute time and space. From the mathematician Isaac Barrow, Newton adopted the idea that time and space are expressions of God’s own eternity and omnipresence. Newton took God’s eternity to mean He is actually extended throughout all time — in his words, God’s ‘duration reaches from eternity to eternity.’ He took God’s omnipresence to mean that He is extended throughout all space — His presence reaches ‘from infinity to infinity.’ Therefore time must be eternal and space infinite. Physics textbooks often describe Newton’s concepts of absolute space and time as purely metaphysical without explaining that his motivation was primarily religious.”

A third way Newton found a role for God in the world was as the source of its orderly structure. In the cosmic order, Newton saw evidence of intelligent design. ‘The main business’ of science, he said, is to argue backward along the chain of mechanical causes and effects ’till we come to the very first cause, which certainly is not mechanical.’ Newton also regarded several specific characteristics of the world as inexplicable except as the work of a Creator. ‘Was the eye contrived without skill in optics,’ he asked, ‘or the ear without knowledge of sounds?‘”

A fourth way Newton found a role for God was by assuming that the universe needs God’s intervention from time to time to stabilize it. For example, the orbits of the planets exhibit irregularities when they pass close to other planets or to comets. Newton feared that over time these fluctuations would accumulate and cause chaos, and the solar system would collapse. Therefore, he argued, God must step in periodically and set things right again. If the universe is a clock, then it is a clock that on occasion needs to be repaired and rebuilt.”

Made for the discussion on the everything list:

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