Sir Isaac Newton, English natural philosopher, mathematician, and physical scientist, revolutionized the theoretical concepts regarding the physical laws that govern the universe. The impact of his contributions to the understanding of the mathematical perspective of motion, space, and time provided the means to further challenge both the Aristotelian foundations of science and ecclesiastical authority over science. Additionally, Newton’s metaphysical distinctions based on his theoretical principles drew criticism from many theologians and philosophers of the Enlightenment traditions, including rationalist and empiricist.
Praised as a scientist and ridiculed as a philosopher, Newton attempted to construct a metaphysical bridge in order to reconcile the mechanics of the universe with God, but his attempt was vastly underscored or dismissed. For Newton, there had been a conflict between traditional or orthodox religion and science that he now attempted to overcome in presenting his own unorthodox metaphysical approach to God and God’s significance for the universe and humankind. Newton’s major works include Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), Opticks (1704), and Arithmetica Universalis (1707).
Newton’s scientific, albeit philosophical, explorations in the laws that govern the physical universe are steeped in cursory observations, rational speculations, and mathematical computations. Regarding the temporal nature of the universe and its relation to physical matter, the abstract notions of motion and space are irrevocably united within the conceptual framework of a theoretical and sometimes theological framework. Beyond the eternal, infinite, and geocentric concepts set forth by Aristotle (384-322 BCE), Ptolemy (c. 90-168 CE), and, theologically, Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 CE), the scientific advancements of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) changed and influenced previous perceptions of space, motion, and more important, time. Newton influenced and integrated advancements in both science and philosophy within his perspective; he furthered scientific advancements by creating a mathematically systematic approach to explain the natural phenomena of the universe. These secular contributions to science and mathematics, along with a theistic cosmological perspective, had secured the separation of physics from theology. Interesting and yet obscure, the theistic tendencies within Newton’s cosmology possess a confounding blend of ontology and teleology.
Newton provided a scientific explanation for the symbiotic relationship of gravitation and motion. In the explanation of the physical phenomena observed on this planet and in the universe, he calculated that gravitation had an effect on physical bodies, from earthly objects to celestial bodies. In resolving the terms of motion, Newton had stated three laws:
- Motion is constant until an external force is applied.
- Force can be calculated by the relationship between mass (m) and acceleration (a); thus F = ma.
- Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
These explanations in terms of motion have unique implications for the concept of time. Time and space, interrelated and reflected in Newton’s established laws, are not in constant and fluid motion. Objects exist in absolute time, and absolute space is perceived in relation to motion. This would question the exact nature of space—space being a void or some reactionary force—and the conceptualization of time in terms of the interactions between the mass and velocity of bodies. Furthermore, a lack of knowledge regarding physical composition, especially of celestial bodies, and its relationship to space and motion, would have greater implications. Although Newton provided mathematical computations to support his rational speculations, his metaphysical implications drew criticisms from both philosophers and scientists with differing theological and philosophical perspectives. However, as a precursor to the work of Albert Einstein (1879-1955), these speculations would lead to monumental contributions to theoretical physics.
The concept of time and its relationship to our own species’ developmental ontology and teleology are easily tracked within the historical accounting of philosophical ideals. Reflected in these ideals, self-awareness and temporal perception are uniform; some are supported in part by mathematics. Time becomes an integral part of human existence far beyond the physical mechanics of the universe. For Newton, this reality in the concept of time is often underscored. Within his theistic cosmology, Newton acknowledged that a divine power existed that was both infinite and eternal. Space, similar to this divine power, was infinite yet containing finite objects. These celestial bodies, placed within the confines of space, are not only maintained by a divine force but also explained in terms of mechanical operations of gravity within space. The necessity for a stable system, both theologically and cosmologically, became paramount. The infinity of the universe, as opposed to sidereal boundaries of space, precludes any philosophical distinction and definition of what exists beyond the boundaries of time and space. The distribution of stars and planets, albeit complete solar systems, are finite within the infinite. For Newton, the temporal nature of the material universe, involving creations, recreations, and dynamic (yet stable) changes, was beyond the depiction of time necessitated by religious scripture. The age of the solar system was steeped within the immensity of time. Regardless of the duration of time, the material universe and the mechanical operations of gravity and motion remained to be the sole factor in Newton’s argu- mentt for the existence of God.
The cosmological ideas of Newton concerning the sensorium of God, though heretical, depicted an infinite universe governed by the mechanical operations of an intelligent and divine power. Contrary to the views of his day, the previous Aristotelian order and operation of the universe was replaced by a mathematically ordered universe that reflected this divine power. Motion was considered not as a result of the actions of an unmoved mover but of natural laws of gravity, acceleration (velocity), and space. Although Newton never attributed this design to the Greek notion of logos, the natural order and laws that govern the solar system and stars was reduced to a theistic “proof” of God’s existence, although Newton’s perspective on the basic structures of Christianity remains elusive.
Regardless of Newton’s theistic beliefs, the universe, stars, solar systems (perhaps multiple systems), and planets were much older than depicted in the Bible. With the errors within scripture being pervasive, it would be interesting to speculate on Newton’s own temporal view of our species. The concept of time, regardless of scientific advancements, becomes a personal and universal reality by means of which human beings are aware. Motion and its related mechanical principles illuminate this concept of time and our relation to the external world. Newton’s contributions to understanding of gravity, motion, and abstract notions of time and space (finite and infinite) were critical for the foundations for modern physics.
David Alexander Lukaszek
See also Einstein, Albert; Einstein and Newton; Galilei, Galileo; God, Sensorium of; Newton and Leibniz; Space, Absolute; Time, Absolute;
Cohen, B. (Ed.). (1958). Isaac Newton’s papers and letters on natural philosophy and related documents. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Janiak, A. (Ed.). (2004). Philosophical writings/Isaac Newton. New York: Cambridge University Press.
McGuire, J. E. (1983). Certain philosophical questions: Newton’s Trinity notebook. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Newton, I. (1999). The principia: Mathematical principles of natural philosophy. Berkeley: University of California Press. (Original work published 1686)