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Update on Newton's Beliefs

More accurate knowledge concerning Isaac Newton's belief about God's continued participation in the Creation has recently been brought to my attention. In two of my articles, long-held beliefs about Newton's espousing a "clockwork universe" were repeated.

A quote from Klotz, written in 1985, said:

"He [Newton] believed in absolute time and absolute space, which he associated with God. Newton believed that the age of miracles was over...Newton believed that God had withdrawn from the universe which He created, and that He operated solely through the laws which He had established at the time of creation...Logically it led to deism and made agnosticism a reasonable approach."

Another article on this website states:

"The pious Isaac Newton (1642-1727) unintentionally paved the way for many future errors in science by his view of God's interaction with the Creation. Newton...believed that the age of miracles was over. Newton's ideas of cause and effect led him to develop the concept of a watchmaker God. He believed God had created the universe, but had withdrawn and now operates solely through the laws established at the time of Creation."

A reader of this website, a person I had known long ago, graciously told me more up-to-date information on Newton's beliefs. An excellent summary of this later information is contained in an article by Stephen D. Snobelen. Snobelen reveals why Newton has been erroneously labeled as a believer in a "clockwork" Creation.

A number of reasons contributed to this misconception. A brief review of astronomy is helpful.

Claudius Ptolemy (150 AD) carried Aristotle's cosmology into Western Europe in his work "The Great Treatise." Aristotle presented the spherical Earth as motionless at the center of the cosmos. The celestial realm was viewed as a sphere moving around the Earth. This concept prevailed until the time of Copernicus fourteen hundred years later.

John of Holywood (Johannes de Sacrobosco) (c. 1230) based his astronomy book on Ptolemy's earlier work with Islamic additions. It was used in universities for hundreds of years. It spoke of the universe as the machine mundi (machine of the world).

Early theological clockwork analogies of the universe were used by the archbishop of Canterbury in the 1300s and by various French poets and theologians of the same period. God was pictured as the Creator and Sustainer of the clockwork. In later 18th century Deism, the belief in God as Sustainer of the universe was dropped. Only God as Creator was retained in the analogy. The clockwork concept of God's Creation was already there at the time of Newton. And, at the time, the belief was seen as advantageous.

"The early advocates of the clockwork universe were pious, believing Christians...The clockwork view of the universe was seen by these Christians thinkers as a friend of Christianity and a powerful defense against atheism." (The Persistence of the Sacred in Modern Thought, 2012, pp. 152-153)

The correction to this myth did not begin until the later part of the twentieth century with the release of Newton's nonscientific papers. The myth that Newton espoused a clockwork universe has not proven easy to expel.

Newton's nonscientific papers were sold in 1936. Later they were published and made accessible to researchers. Access to Newton's nonscientific papers on the internet near the very end of the last century saw a rapid rise in this new understanding of Newton's religious beliefs. The fable that Newton believed in a deistic type of God who created but did not sustain His creation soon became evident. Snobelen's article demonstrates how "...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" (p. 153).

It is now clear that Newton did not espouse a clockwork universe. History now shows 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" (Ibid., p 153).

Newton had "...God...essential to the ongoing stability of the [cosmic] system" (ibid. p. 158). Newton did not picture God as merely winding the "clock" and walking away for it to tick by itself.

Once again my thanks to the one who pointed me to the newly published information on Newton's beliefs. Readers are encouraged to notify me of anything on the website that may need updating.


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