I recently commented on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s chiding of Isaac Newton for failing to anticipate Laplace’s discovery of the stability of the Solar System. He has commented further on this episode and others in this article for Natural History Magazine.
Tyson’s thesis is as follows:
… a careful reading of older texts, particularly those concerned with the universe itself, shows that the authors invoke divinity only when they reach the boundaries of their understanding.
To support this hypothesis, Tyson quotes Newton, 2nd century Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy and 17th century Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens. The remarkable thing about Tyson’s article is that none of the quotes come close to proving his thesis; in fact, they prove the opposite.
Newton and God
But in the absence of data, at the border between what he could explain and what he could only honor—the causes he could identify and those he could not—Newton rapturously invokes God:
“Eternal and Infinite, Omnipotent and Omniscient; … he governs all things, and knows all things that are or can be done. … 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.”
To be blunt, what part of “he governs all things” doesn’t Tyson understand? God’s “dominion” – the extent of his rule – is “always and everywhere”. Clearly, Newton is not invoking God only at the edge of scientific knowledge, but everywhere and in everything. The Scholium is not long, so I invite you to read it; you will nowhere find Newton saying that God is only found where science has run out of answers. You will find him saying (echoing Paul) that “In him are all things contained and moved.”
When Newton states that “We know him only by his most wise and excellent contrivances of things”, he is not saying that we know God where we have failed to understand nature. For Newton, the list of “his contrivances” is the list of everything that that exists outside of God. Newton’s comment is explained by the immediately preceding sentences:
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.
This is a restatement of a principle shared with Aristotle and the Scholastics: “Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses”. Once again, Newton is directly contradicting Tyson: we infer about God through what we know and observe about the world around us, “from the appearances of things”, not in scientific ignorance.
As we noted in Part 1, Newton does discuss areas of scientific ignorance in the Scholium: we know about gravity, but we not know “the cause of its power”. Newton, contra Tyson, does not leap at the opportunity to invoke God, but simply says “I frame no hypotheses [hypotheses non fingo]”.
Later in the article, Tyson says,
Newton feared that all this pulling would render the orbits in the solar system unstable. So Newton, in his greatest work, the Principia, concludes that God must occasionally step in and make things right:
“The six primary Planets are revolv’d about the Sun, in circles concentric with the Sun, and with motions directed towards the same parts, and almost in the same plane.… But it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions.… This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”
Tyson has Newton wrong. This passage is about God’s establishment (“proceed from”) of the created order, not miraculous intervention. As we saw last time, the point about the stability of the Solar System is actually found in Opticks, not the Principia, and plausibly isn’t about miraculous intervention either.
Ptolemy and God
Tyson says of Ptolemy,
Armed with a description, but no real understanding, of what the planets were doing up there, he could not contain his religious fervor:
“I know that I am mortal by nature, and ephemeral; but when I trace, at my pleasure, the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch Earth with my feet: I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.”
Once again, we must ask: how does this prove that “They appeal to a higher power only when staring into the ocean of their own ignorance”? Read the quote again; Ptolemy is saying the exact opposite. He says that he can “trace, at my pleasure, the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies”. In other words, it is what he knows and understands about the heavens, as well as his own mortality, that fills him with awe.
Further, he is not appealing to God to explain the motion of the heavens. He feels awe, not ignorance. What astronomer, what human being, has not felt wonderment at the sight of the stars? Here’s Bill Watterson:
And Ralph Waldo Emerson,
If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.
I am amazed that Tyson doesn’t recognise Ptolemy’s “shuddering before the beautiful“. Have the stars never filled him with ambrosia?
Huygens and God
God is absent from this discussion [of astronomy]. Celestial Worlds also brims with speculations about life in the solar system, and that’s where Huygens raises questions to which he has no answer. That’s where he mentions the biological conundrums Of the day, such as the origin of life’s complexity. And sure enough, because seventeenth-century physics was more advanced than seventeenth-century biology, Huygens invokes the hand of God only when he talks about biology:
“I suppose no body will deny but that there’s somewhat more of Contrivance, somewhat more of Miracle in the production and growth of Plants and Animals than in lifeless heaps of inanimate Bodies. … For the finger of God, and the Wisdom of Divine Providence, is in them much more clearly manifested than in the other.”
The opening claim is false; before Huygens discusses life, he refers to “the greatest part of God’s Creation, that innumerable multitude of Stars”. (All Huygens quotes from here.) He further objects to those who would,
… pretend to appoint how far and no farther Men shall go in their Searches, and to set bounds to other Mens Industry; just as if they had been of the Privy Council of Heaven: as if they knew the Marks that God has plac’d to Knowlege.
Huygens is obviously not content with ignorance, and rebukes those who try to limit human knowledge of the universe. Rather, he praises,
That vigorous Industry, and that piercing Wit were given Men to make advances in the search of Nature, and there’s no reason to put any stop to such Enquiries [emphasis added].
Further, before discussing life, Huygens notes that through astronomy, by viewing Earth – “this small speck of Dirt” – from on high,
We shall be less apt to admire what this World calls great, shall nobly despise those Trifles the generality of Men set their Affections on, when we know that there are a multitude of such Earths inhabited and adorned as well as our own. And we shall worship and reverence that God the Maker of all these things; we shall admire and adore his Providence and wonderful Wisdom which is displayed and manifested all over the Universe.
As with Newton, Huygens sees God everywhere, not in scientific ignorance. Tyson’s claim that “Where they feel certain about their explanations, however, God gets hardly a mention” is simply false. There are 5 mentions of God by Huygens (out of 18 in Book I), and 2 of the “Almighty” or “Supreme Creator”, before Tyson’s quoted section.
Within this context, Huygens notes that in living things God is “more clearly manifested”. This is not about where God acts, but where God’s action is most obvious. He has already stated that God’s wisdom is “displayed and manifested all over the Universe”; for Huygens, life is an exceptional example of this.
Tyson thesis fails. Huygens states exactly the opposite opinion: it is in greater and deeper study of the natural world that he contemplates its Creator. He finds God in knowledge, not ignorance, praising
… the contemplation of the Works of God, and the study of Nature, and the improving those Sciences which may bring us to some knowlege in their Beauty and Variety. For without Knowlege what would be Contemplation? And what difference is there between a Man, who with a careless supine negligence views the Beauty and Use of the Sun, and the fine golden Furniture of the Heaven, and one who with a learned Niceness searches into their Courses; who understands wherein the Fixt Stars, as they are call’d, differ from the Planets, and what is the reason of the regular Vicissitude of the Seasons; who by sound reasoning can measure the magnitude and distance of the Sun and Planets? Or between such a one as admires perhaps the nimble Activity and strange Motions of some Animals, and one that knows their whole Structure, understands the whole Fabrick and Architecture of their Composition? [emphasis added].