Most people are aware that Sir Isaac Newton believed in God. But it may come as a surprise to many readers to learn that he was also an Intelligent Design advocate.
What prompted me to write this post was a recent comment by Genomicus that while Newton’s remarks on the Bible were interesting, they were “irrelevant to the hypothesis that life was engineered by some intelligence(s).” Genomicus will be interested to know that Newton explicitly argued that all of the various kinds of living things in Nature were personally designed by God.
For those wanting to know more about Newton’s views on God and science, I would heartily recommend an essay by Stephen Snobelen, a professor of the history of science and technology at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, entitled, “The Light of Nature”: God and natural philosophy in Isaac Newton’s Opticks. It is a splendid refutation of calumnious statements which are found in some biographies of Newton, claiming that he only included a mention of God to later editions of his Opticks as an after-thought, and that he only turned religious in his old age, when he was going senile. Professor Snobelen also provides some impressive documentation to substantiate his thesis, which is neatly summarized in the final paragraph of his essay, that God played a vital role in Newton’s conception of science:
Concerned about the ungodly and materialist corollaries of the excessive mechanism of Descartes and others, Newton was attempting to create a natural philosophy in which God and Spirit played a central role. Unlike Descartes, whose philosophy begins with God as an axiom, Newton’s natural philosophy was meant to lead to God through the inductive method. Natural theology provided a link between Newton’s conceptions of true natural philosophy and true religion. For Newton nature was not the result of blind chance, but the product of a God who is everywhere and whose sight is limited neither in a physical or cognitive sense. In both natural philosophy and religion, there are two ways: the way of right method and the way of corrupt method. Corrupt method in natural philosophy obfuscates as certainly as corrupt religion blinds its adherents. Just as fictitious hypotheses distracted natural philosophers from true causes, false gods led the heathen away from their true Creator.
Interestingly, Snobelen also points out in his essay that Newton privately rejected the doctrine of the Trinity; for him, the one true God Whom science leads us to is God the Father. Snobelen suggests that Newton’s religious heterodoxy at a time when heresy was viewed as an offense against the State may partly account for his reticence in expressing his religious views.
In this post, however, I’d like to examine Newton’s reasons for maintaining that science could lead us to God, and for espousing Intelligent Design.
Even as a young man, Newton was an ardent Intelligent Design proponent
I’d like to begin with a passage in Newton’s unpublished Draft of the ‘Hypothesis Concerning Light and Colors’ (MS Add. 3970.3, ff. 475r-482v), which he wrote in 1675, at the young age of 32. In this treatise, Newton explains his philosophy of Nature, which is firmly grounded in experimental observation, but at the same time thoroughly God-centered. Newton also puts forward an Intelligent Design argument, based on “the contrivance of the bodies of living creatures,” and he even goes on to describe this argument from biological design as “the most convincing” argument for God. Allow me to quote a brief excerpt from the section titled, Ad Obs. 7 (the spelling is Newton’s):
To explain all nature is too difficult a task for any one man or even for any one age. Tis much better to do a little with certainty & leave the rest for others that come after, then to explain all things by conjecture without making sure of any thing. And there is no other way of doing any thing with certainty then by drawing conclusions from experiments & phaenomena untill you come at general Principles & then from those Principles giving an account of Nature. Whatever is certain in Philosophy is owing to this method & nothing can be done without it. I will instance in some particulars.
One principle in Philosophy is the being of a God or spirit infinite eternal omniscient, omnipotent, & the best argument for such a being is the frame of nature & chiefly the contrivance of the bodies of living creatures. All the great land animals have two eyes, in the forehead a nose between them a mouth under the nose, two ears on the sides of the head, two arms or two fore leggs or two wings on the sholders & two leggs behind & this symmetry in the several species could not proceed from chance, there being an equal chance for one eye or for three or four eyes as for two, & so of the other members. Nothing is more curious & difficult then the frame of the eyes for seeing & of the ears for hearing & yet no sort of creatures has these members to no purpose. What more difficult then to fly? & yet was it by chance that all creatures can fly which have wings? Certainly he that framed the eyes of all creatures understood the nature of light & vision, he that framed their ears understood the nature of sounds & hearing, he that framed their noses understood the nature of odours & smelling, he that framed the wings of flying creatures & the fins of fishes understood the force of air & water & what members were requisite to enable creatures to fly & swim: & therefore the first formation of every species of creatures must be ascribed to an intelligent being. These & such like considerations are the most convincing arguments for such a being & have convinced mankind in all ages that the world & all the species of things therein were originally framed by his power & wisdom. And to lay aside this argument is unphilosophical.
For Newton, the existence of God was an inference we could make from observing Nature. The exquisite contrivance of living things pointed to their having been designed by “an intelligent being,” a “spirit infinite eternal omniscient, omnipotent.” That is certainly an Intelligent Design argument. The main difference between Newton’s thinking and that of the modern Intelligent Design movement is that ID advocates today would regard Newton’s conclusion that the Designer of living things must be God as going beyond what science can tell us. But even if science cannot take us all the way to God, it can certainly take us to an Intelligent Designer of Nature.
Finally, Newton condemns those who reject his Intelligent Design argument as “unphilosophical” – harsh language indeed. We must remember that for Newton, the terms “science” and “natural philosophy”: in his day, the term “scientist” had not yet been coined, and scientists were still referred to as natural philosophers. What Newton was really saying was that to reject God was bad science.
Confirmation of the claim that Newton viewed the existence of God as a scientific conclusion can be found by comparing his first principle (“the being of a God or spirit infinite eternal omniscient, omnipotent”) with his other three principles of science, which he lists in the same passage: “that matter is impenetrable by other matter”; “that all the great bodies in the Universe have a tendency towards one another proportional to the quantity of matter contained in them”; and “that all bodies are aggregated of particles laid together with many interstices or pores between them.” Nobody would deny that these principles are scientific; it is reasonable to conclude, then, that Newton viewed the existence of God as a legitimate scientific inference.
Newton’s contempt for atheism
Newton was even more explicit about his contempt for atheism in a private manuscript (Newton, Keynes, MS. 7, p. 1), written some time after 1710, where he put forward an Intelligent Design argument against atheism:
Atheism is so senseless & odious to mankind that it never had many professors. Can it be by accident that all birds beasts & men have their right side & left side alike shaped (except in their bowells) & just two eyes & no more on either side the face & just two ears on either side [of] the head & a nose with two holes & no more between the eyes & one mouth under the nose & either two fore leggs or two wings or two arms on the sholders & two leggs on the hipps one on either side & no more? Whence arises this uniformity in all their outward shapes but from the counsel & contrivance of an Author? Whence is it that the eyes of all sorts of living creatures are transparent to the very bottom & the only transparent members in the body, having on the outside an hard transparent skin, & within transparent juyces with a crystalline Lens in the middle & a pupil before the Lens all of them so truly shaped & fitted for vision, that no Artist can mend them? Did blind chance know that there was light & what was its refraction & fit the eys of all creatures after the most curious manner to make use of it? These & such like considerations always have & ever will prevail with man kind to believe that there is a being who made all things & has all things in his power & who is therfore to be feared.
(‘A short Schem of the true Religion’, Keynes Ms. 7, composed post-1710.)
Both Newton’s appeal to the example of the eye and his grounds for rejecting chance as an ultimate explanation of reality are highly typical of arguments that have appeared in the Intelligent Design literature of his day.
Newton’s arguments for Intelligent Design in his Opticks
The next piece of evidence I’d like to consider is the 1717/1718 edition of Newton’s Opticks. Although the original 1704 edition contained no mention of God, the Latin edition published just two years later in 1706 was quite explicit about Newton’s belief in the centrality of God to science. The relevant references can be found in the Liber Tertius (Third Book), in queries 20 and 23. Newton added some extra queries to his 1717/1718 edition, which is why Newton’s references to the role of God in science in queries 20 and 23 of the 1706 Latin edition can be found in queries 28 and 31 of the 1717/1718 edition. In his discussion of God, Newton basically repeats what he said in the 1706 edition of his Opticks.
(a) Newton’s argument for a Designer in his Query 28
So what did Newton say about God in his Opticks? At the end of the Third Book of Opticks in the 1717/1718 edition, there is a list of 31 queries regarding scientific matters. In the final paragraph of Query 28, Newton begins by praising “the oldest and most celebrated Philosophers of Greece and Phoenicia, who made a Vacuum and Atoms, and the Gravity of Atoms, the first Principles of their Philosophy; tacitly attributing Gravity to some other Cause than dense Matter.” (Newton, Opticks, 1717/1718, The Third Book, Query 28, pp. 343-44.) At this point, the reader may be wondering: what did Newton mean by “some other Cause”? Professor Snobelen helpfully explains in his essay that “it is clear from his private writings (including the ‘Classical Scholia’) and less guarded comments he made to friends, that he saw God’s omnipresence as the leading candidate to explain the cause and ubiquity of gravity.”
Newton continued his response with an attack on the mechanical philosophy of Descartes, who sought to banish God from the domain of science and consign Him to that of metaphysics. Newton’s view was that science should concern itself with the causes of natural phenomena – including the First Cause, which cannot be explained in mechanical terms. For Newton, the question of where the order and beauty in the world comes from was also a perfectly legitimate scientific question:
Later Philosophers banish the Consideration of such a Cause out of Natural Philosophy, feigning Hypotheses for explaining all things mechanically, and referring other causes to Metaphysicks: Whereas the main Business of Natural Philosophy is to argue from Phaenomena without feigning Hypotheses, and to deduce Causes from Effects, till we come to the very first Cause, which certainly is not mechanical; and not only to unfold the Mechanism of the World, but chiefly to resolve these and such like Questions. What is there in places almost empty of Matter between them? Whence is it that Nature doth nothing in vain; and whence arises all that Order and Beauty which we see in the World? To what end are Comets, and whence is it that Planets move all one and the same way in Orbs concentrick, while Comets move all manner of ways in Orbs very excentrick, and what hinders the fix’d Stars from falling upon one another?
(Newton, Opticks, 1717/1718, The Third Book, Query 28, pp. 344.)
Next, Newton posed a rhetorical question about the skill (or art) with which animals were fashioned, indicating that he believed them to have been fashioned with all their parts by an Intelligent Agent:
How came the Bodies of Animals to be contrived with so much Art, and for what ends were their several Parts? Was the Eye contrived without Skill in Opticks, and the Ear without Knowledge of Sounds? How do the Motions of the Body follow from the Will, and whence is the Instinct in Animals? Is not the Sensory of Animals that place to which the sensitive Substance is present, and into which the sensible Species of Things are carried through the Nerves and Brain, that there they may be perceived by their immediate presence to that Substance?
(Newton, Opticks, 1717/1718, The Third Book, Query 28, pp. 344-45.)
Newton answers his own rhetorical question by appealing to an incorporeal intelligent Being whose omnipresence grounds the unity of natural phenomena, and who is immediately aware of events occurring in the world and thus able to respond to them:
And these things being rightly dispatch’d, does it not appear from Phaenomena that there is a being incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent, who in infinite Space, as it were in his Sensory, sees the things themselves intimately, and as it were thoroughly perceives them, and comprehends them wholly by their immediate presence to himself: Of which things the Images only carried through the Organs of Sense into our little Sensoriums, are there seen and beheld by that which in us perceives and thinks.
(Newton, Opticks, 1717/1718, The Third Book, Query 28, p. 345.)
Newton triumphantly concludes his argument that science, when done properly, leads us closer to God:
And tho’ every true Step made in this Philosophy brings us not immediately to the Knowledge of the first Cause, yet it brings us nearer to it, and on that account is to be highly valued.
(Newton, Opticks, 1717/1718, The Third Book, Query 28, p. 345.)
(b) Newton’s argument for a Designer in Query 31
In Query 31 of the 1717/1718 edition of his Opticks, Newton explains how his Principles of Motion (i.e. his three laws of motion) point to the existence of a wise and intelligent Creator Who chose to make an orderly, lawful world:
Now by the help of these Principles, all material Things seem to have been composed of the hard and solid Particles above mention’d, variously associated in the first Creation by the Counsel of an intelligent Agent. For it became him who created them to set them in order. And if he did so, it’s unphilosophical to seek for any other Origin of the World, or to pretend that it might arise out of a Chaos by the mere Laws of Nature; though being once form’d, it may continue by those Laws for many Ages. For while Comets move in very excentrick Orbs in all manner of Positions, blind Fate could never make all the Planets move one and the same way in Orbs concentrick, some inconsiderable Irregularities excepted which may have risen from the mutual Actions of Comets and Planets upon one another, and which will be apt to increase, till this System wants a Reformation. Such a wonderful Uniformity in the Planetary System must be allowed the Effect of Choice.
(Newton, Opticks, 1717/1718, The Third Book, Query 31, pp. 377-378.)
Newton then goes on to argue that the contrivance in the body parts of animals indicates “the Wisdom and Skill of a powerful ever-living Agent,” Who is able to move bodies throughout the cosmos, simply by exercising His Will. Newton reasoned that since every part of the cosmos exhibits law and order, the power of the Intelligent Agent responsible for this law and order must extend throughout the cosmos. In other words, the Agent must be omnipresent:
And so must the Uniformity in the Bodies of Animals, they having generally a right and a left side shaped alike, and on either side of their Bodies two Legs behind, and either two Arms, or two Legs, or two Wings before upon their Shoulders, and between their Shoulders a Neck running down into a Back-bone, and a Head upon it; and in the Head two Ears, two Eyes, a Nose, a Mouth and a Tongue, alike situated. Also the the first Contrivance of those very artificial Parts of Animals, the Eyes, Ears, Brain, Muscles, Heart, Lungs, Midriff, Glands, Larynx, Hands, Wings, Swimming Bladders, natural Spectacles, and other Organs of Sense and Motion, and the Instinct of Brutes and Insects, can be the effect of nothing else than the Wisdom and Skill of a powerful ever-living Agent, who being in all Places, is more able by his Will to move the Bodies within his boundless uniform Sensorium, and thereby to form and reform the Parts of the Universe, than we are by our Will to move the Parts of our own Bodies.
(Newton, Opticks, 1717/1718, The Third Book, Query 31, pp. 378-79.)
The term “artificial” in the passage above means: “made with skill,” or art. Newton is explicitly putting forward an Intelligent Design argument: the elaborately contrived parts of animals points to their having been made by an intelligent living Agent, who can somehow sense what’s going on anywhere and move any body (including the parts of animals) by a simple act of His Will.
In the following passage, Newton warns his readers against entertaining crude pantheistic conceptions of God, and goes on to suppose that there might be other worlds where the laws of Nature are different from what they are in our world (multiverse, anyone?):
And yet we are not to consider the World as the Body of God, or the several Parts thereof, as the Parts of God. He is an uniform Being, void of Organs, Members or Parts, and they are his Creatures subordinate to him, and subservient to his Will; and he is no more the Soul of them, than the Soul of a Man is the Soul of the Species of Things carried through the Organs of Sense into the place of its Sensation, where it perceives them by means of its immediate Presence, without the Intervention of any third thing. The Organs of Sense are not for enabling the Soul to perceive the Species of Things in its Sensorium, but only for conveying them thither; and God has no need of such Organs, he being every where present to the Things themselves. And since Space is divisible in infinitum, and Matter is not necessarily in all places, it may be also allow’d that God is able to create Particles of Matter of several Sizes and Figures, and in several Proportions to Space, and perhaps of different Densities and Forces, and thereby to vary the Laws of Nature, and make Worlds of several sorts in several Parts of the Universe. At least, I see nothing of Contradiction in all this.
(Newton, Opticks, 1717/1718, The Third Book, Query 31, pp. 379-80.)
In the very last paragraph of the 1717/1718 edition of his Opticks, Newton goes further, and argues that science, properly pursued, can even tell us about right and wrong and morality:
And if natural Philosophy in all its Parts, by pursuing this Method, shall at length be perfected, the Bounds of moral Philosophy will be also enlarged. For so far as we can know by natural Philosophy what is the first Cause, what Power he has over us, and what Benefits we receive from him, so far our Duty towards him, as well as that towards one another, will appear to us by the Light of Nature. And no doubt, if the Worship of false Gods had not blinded the Heathen, their moral Philosophy would have gone farther than to the four Cardinal Virtues; and instead of teaching the Transmigration of Souls, and to worship the Sun and Moon, and dead Heroes, they would have taught us to worship our true Author and Benefactor.
(Newton, Opticks, 1717/1718, The Third Book, Query 31, pp. 381-82.)
Here, Newton makes the astonishing assertion that in his view, the heathen civilizations of the past could have discovered a sound moral philosophy simply by pursuing science, but for the fact that the worship of false gods corrupted their science and prevented them from doing it properly.
Newton’s General Scholium
I now turn to Newton’s General Scholium, an Appendix to the 2nd (1713) edition of Newton’s Principia, which reappeared in the 3rd (1726) edition with some amendments and additions. The General Scholium was written not only to counteract the arguments of the Cartesians and Leibnizians, but also to put forward a positive argument for including God within the scope of science. The English translation here is that of Andrew Motte (1729). The italics and orthography are as in the original:
This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. And if the fixed Stars are the centers of other like systems, these, being form’d by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially since the light of the fixed Stars is of the same nature with the light of the Sun, and from every system light passes into all the other systems. And lest the systems of the fixed Stars should, by their gravity, fall on each other mutually, he hath placed those Systems at immense distances from one another.
This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all: And on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God Pantokrator, or Universal Ruler. For God is a relative word, and has a respect to servants; and Deity is the dominion of God, not over his own body, as those imagine who fancy God to be the soul of the world, but over servants. The supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect; but a being, however perfect, without dominion, cannot be said to be Lord God; for we say, my God, your God, the God of Israel, the God of Gods, and Lord of Lords; but we do not say, my Eternal, your Eternal, the Eternal of Israel, the Eternal of Gods; we do not say, my Infinite, or my Perfect: These are titles which have no respect to servants. The word God usually a signifies Lord; but every lord is not a God. It is the dominion of a spiritual being which constitutes a God; a true, supreme, or imaginary dominion makes a true, supreme, or imaginary God. And from his true dominion it follows that the true God is a Living, Intelligent, and Powerful Being; and, from his other perfections, that he is Supreme or most Perfect. He is Eternal and Infinite, Omnipotent and Omniscient; that is, his duration reaches from Eternity to Eternity; his presence from Infinity to Infinity; he governs all things, and knows all things that are or can be done. He is not Eternity and Infinity, but Eternal and Infinite; he is not Duration and Space, but he endures and is present. He endures forever, and is every where present; and, by existing always and every where, he constitutes Duration and Space. Since every particle of Space is always, and every indivisible moment of Duration is every where, certainly the Maker and Lord of all things cannot be never and no where. Every soul that has perception is, though in different times and in different organs of sense and motion, still the same indivisible person. There are given successive parts in duration, co-existent parts in space, but neither the one nor the other in the person of a man, or his thinking principle; and much less can they be found in the thinking substance of God. Every man, so far as he is a thing that has perception, is one and the same man during his whole life, in all and each of his organs of sense. God is the same God, always and everywhere. He is omnipresent, not virtually only, but also substantially; for virtue cannot subsist without substance. In him are all things contained and moved; yet neither affects the other: God suffers nothing from the motion of bodies; bodies find no resistance from the omnipresence of God. ‘Tis allowed by all that the supreme God exists necessarily; and by the same necessity he exists always and every where. Whence also he is all similar, all eye, all ear, all brain, all arm, all power to perceive, to understand, and to act; but in a manner not at all human, in a manner not at all corporeal, in a manner utterly unknown to us. As a blind man has no idea of colours, so have we no idea of the manner by which the all-wise God perceives and understands all things. He is utterly void of all body and bodily figure, and can therefore neither be seen, nor heard, not touched; nor ought he to be worshipped under the representation of any corporeal thing. We have ideas of his attributes, but what the real substance of anything is we know not. In bodies, we see only their figures and colours, we hear only the sounds, we touch only their outward surfaces, we smell only the smells, and taste the savours; but their inward substances are not to be known, either by our senses, or by any reflex act of our minds; much less then have we any idea of the substance of God. We know him only by his most wise and excellent contrivances of things, and final causes; we admire him for his perfections; but we reverence and adore him on account of his dominion. For we adore him as his servants; and a God without dominion, providence, and final causes, is nothing else but Fate and Nature. Blind metaphysical necessity, which is certainly the same always and every where, could produce no variety of things. All that diversity of natural things which we find, suited to different times and places, could arise from nothing but the ideas and will of a Being necessarily existing. But, by way of allegory, God is said to see, to speak, to laugh, to love, to hate, to desire, to give, to receive, to rejoice, to be angry, to fight, to frame, to work, to build. For all our notions of God are taken from the ways of mankind, by a certain similitude which, though not perfect, has some likeness, however. And thus much concerning God; to discourse of whom from the appearances of things, does certainly belong to Natural Philosophy.
It is noteworthy that in the above passage, Newton says that we know God “only by his most wise and excellent contrivances of things, and final causes.” Newton also contends that the metaphysical necessity of the laws of Nature could not possibly account for the variety of things we see in the world. Finally, Newton insists that discourse about God “does certainly belong to Natural Philosophy.”
What follows from all this? First, Newton was no friend of methodological naturalism. Second, were he alive today, he would warmly applaud the efforts of the Intelligent Design movement to discover patterns within Nature which were arranged by an intelligent cause for a purpose. For his part, Newton was quite certain that the Designer was God. Modern-day Intelligent Design proponents are wary of drawing that inference on scientific grounds alone, given the evidence that is currently available. However, one could certainly argue that the fine-tuning of not only our universe, but of the multiverse itself, points to the existence of a Supernatural Agent Who is not bound by physical laws. Identifying this Agent with the God of classical theism is another matter, however. Scientific reasoning might show that this Supernatural Agent is devoid of physical parts; but it is another thing entirely to show that this Agent is utterly simple and in no way composite. To reach that conclusion, we need metaphysics.
Newton vs. methodological naturalism: Newton drew a different dividing line between science and religion
Now, I imagine that some readers of a skeptical turn of mind will point out that Newton died 132 years before Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published in 1859, and that had Newton known what we know now, he would have argued differently. Maybe; maybe not. But here’s my point: when Newton put forward his Intelligent Design arguments, he thought he was doing science. Newton wasn’t aware of any “bright-line rule” that prohibited scientists from reasoning about the supernatural. For Newton, the dividing line between science and religion lay not in the distinction between the natural and the supernatural, but in the sources of truth appealed to by science and religion: unlike religion, science could not appeal to any statements based on Divine revelation (e.g. verses from the Bible); instead, it had to obtain its data from the world of natural phenomena. As Newton put it in an abandoned draft of a preface to a later edition of the Principia:
What is taught in metaphysics, if it is derived from divine revelation, is religion; if it is derived from phenomena through the five external senses, it pertains to physics; if it is derived from knowledge of the internal actions of our mind through the sense of reflection, it is only philosophy about the human mind and its ideas as internal phenomena likewise pertain to physics. To dispute about the objects of ideas except insofar as they are phenomena is dreaming. In all philosophy we must begin from phenomena and admit no principles of things, no causes, no explanations, except those which are established through phenomena.
(I. Bernard Cohen, “A Guide to Newton’s Principia” in Newton, The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, trans. by I. Bernard Cohen and Ann Whitman, University of California Press, 1999, p. 54.)
Quite right. However, a Cause that is established through the study of natural phenomena need not be itself natural. That was the whole point of Newton’s arguments for an Intelligent Designer of Nature in the 1717 edition of Opticks. In other words, Newton believed that natural phenomena – and especially the contrivances we find in the parts of living organisms – could be used to scientifically infer the existence of a supernatural Being, as the statements cited above from the 1717 edition of Newton’s Opticks clearly demonstrate.
So I would like to ask: if Isaac Newton, the greatest scientist who ever lived, didn’t know of any “rule” prohibiting scientists from reasoning about the supernatural, then why should we consider ourselves bound by such a rule?