God-the-mathematician and Great Chain of Being

Quotes from Edward Dolnick, The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World, Chapter Nineteen From Earthworms to Angels

But the renewed emphasis on God-the-mathematician came mostly by way of a different, stranger path. One of the seventeenth century’s most deeply held beliefs had to do with the so-called great chain of being. The central idea was that all the objects that had ever been created—grains of sand, chunks of gold, earthworms, lions, human beings, devils, angels— occupied a particular rank in a great chain that extended from the lowest of the low to the hem of God’s garment.’

Purely by reasoning, the intellectuals of the seventeenth century believed, they could draw irrefutable conclusions about the makeup of the world. Angels, for example, were as real as oak trees. Since God himself had fashioned the great chain, it was necessarily perfect and could not be missing any links.’

In a hierarchical world, the doctrine had enormous intuitive appeal. Those well placed in the pecking order embraced it, unsurprisingly, but even those stuck far from the top made a virtue of “knowing one’s place.” Almost without exception, scholars and intellectuals endorsed the doctrine of the all-embracing, immutable great chain.’

Galileo, Newton, Leibniz, and their peers leaped to the conclusion that God was a mathematician largely because they were mathematicians—the aspects of the world that intrigued them were those that could be captured in mathematics.’

So the universe was perfectly ordered, impeccably rational, and governed by a tiny number of simple laws. It was not enough to assert that God was a mathematician. The seventeenth century’s great thinkers felt they had done more. They had proved it.’


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