The forum at Richard Dawkins.net is proving a great resource for turning up new myths in the history of science and religion. For one user at this ‘oasis of clear thinking’ Isaac Newton was tragically restrained in his scientific endeavours by the ‘parasitic God meme’ which prevented his from realising the true extent of his genius. He writes:
Sometimes religion can inhibit a scientist from advancing beyond a certain point. An example of this is with Isaac Newton where he could have easily made certain advances in calculus but he reached an unnecessary endpoint because of his religious beliefs
Certainly Newton appears to have written more on religion than he did on natural science, including his calculations of the date of the end of the world (using the Book of Daniel) and the dimensions of the temple at Jerusalem. Newton’s date for the apocalypse (in case you were wondering whether or not to finish that extension to your property) will occur no earlier than 2060. He wrote:
"It may end later, but I see no reason for its ending sooner…This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail."
Could Newton have made more contributions to Calculus if he had not been ‘wasting his time’ in this fashion? This seems a bit unfair. Newton was the first to apply calculus to general physics. It would be asking a lot for him to have done even more. Additionally, after some research I discovered an article by Dr. Stephen Snobelen, professor of the history of science and technology at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It states that:
Other possible examples of the strong influence of Newton’s theology include Newton’s view of salvation history as an undulatory cycling between reformation and apostasy and the development of his calculus. Newton’s calculus depended on a conception of absolute time and, as explained above, absolute time for Newton rested on a belief in God’s eternal duration. It is also plausible that Newton’s antitrinitarian view of a unipersonal God supported his understanding of the unity of nature. That even the heretical elements of Newton’s theology permeated his natural philosophy is made plain by his General Scholium, which, although an appendix to an ostensively purely natural philosophical work, is embedded with antitrinitarian biblical hermeneutics. For Newton, the feigned natural philosophical hypotheses of Descartes are no different than the doctrinal hypotheses of Trinitarianism. Corrupt interpretative practices in natural philosophy and theology are linked, just as the correct methods arriving at Truth are unified.
Similarly Snobelen writes in ‘Science and dissent in England, 1688-1945’ that:
‘Dobbs (professor of history at Northwestern University) has written at length on Newton’s conceptions of divine activity in matter – a nexus in his thought where theology and natural philosophy converged. It is likely that Newton’s God or dominion even impinged on his mathematics, because his method of fluxions (calculus) depended on the continuous flow of absolute time, which Newton associated with God, whose eternity and omnipresence is said in the General Scholium to be coextensive with time (duration) and space. In this case Newton’s theology helped shape the cognitive content of his mathematics’.
Another great scientific figure who came up was the great Johannes Kepler. If you were going to compile a list of great religious scientists then he would surely be on the list, after all in Kepler's mind his science and his Christianity were harmoniously interwoven and he formulated his laws in the belief that God had ordered his works according to mathematical principles which were co-eternal with him. Yet for one user, Kepler had only made his discoveries because he had ditched his ‘faith based methodology’ in favour of the ‘critical thinking paradigm’
Yes Kepler was influenced by religion to begin his search into the paths of the planets. And it was that religious teaching that led him down the path of trying to fit the paths into the ‘perfect solids’ for so long (long after he should have given up on that), due to his religious notions of a perfect harmony of the spheres. It was only when his work led him to finally drop that, seek out real data of the planets’ motions and take the more scientific route of trying all avenues to see what actually fit the data (as opposed to desperately trying to fit the data to the model) that he finally hit on the correct conclusions. Conclusions quite different than his religious ideas ever foresaw. It was a triumph IN SPITE of his religious ideas, not as a result of them, it was his honesty and passion to be willing to break free of the indoctrinated paradigm to seek the truth no matter where it lay that did it.
Well not quite. His motivation was the development of a Christian Empiricism against a Platonic Rationalism. At the time there was considerable scepticism abroad that it was impossible to accurately map the planets, yet Kepler rejected this because of his conviction that the heavens must reflect their maker.
His original model was heliocentric with the planets arranged in orbits determined by the five basic solids. The appeal was that this was a neat arrangement, however it was not precisely correct, and for Kepler even small errors were unworthy of the creator. Instead he collated the data and prepared the Rudolphine Planetary Tables with Tycho Brahe. His best model fit for the data was out by only a small degree (eight minutes of arc); but Kepler again felt that there was no imprecision about God and that he does not make eight minute mistakes (James Hannam tell us in God’s Philosophers that he later called this small difference ‘a good deed of God’s' and thought it critical for his later success). What Kepler did was then ditch the idea that the planet had to move in circles because it was a Greek addition to the basic principle that if the paths were ordained by God then they should be simple and elegant (a basic assumption of Greek astronomy was that the stars moved with a single regular circular motion, while the sun, moon and planets moved with combinations of regular circular motion). He then discovered the planet’s orbits are ellipses, that the axis of the orbit sweeps through a uniform area and that there is a mathematical relationship between the length of time it takes for the planets to orbit the sun and their distance from it, the famous three laws of planetary motion.
As for breaking free of the ‘indoctrinated paradigm’ this was the chap who wrote ‘for a long time I wanted to be a theologian’, ‘now behold how through my effort God is being celebrated through astronomy’, ‘the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork’. His notebooks are mostly covered in mystical speculation and prayers. If Kepler were alive and on the Richard Dawkins forum today he would be no doubt be derided as a 'faith headed' purveyor of 'woo', 'hand-waving' and 'sky fairy worship'.
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