Newton's Philosophy of Nature Selections from His Writings Hardcover – 10 Sep 2010
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About the Author
I. Bernard Cohen (1914-2003) was Victor S. Thomas Professor (Emeritus) of the History of Science at Harvard University. Among his recent books are "Benjamin Franklin's Science" (1996), "Interactions" (1994), and "Science and the Founding Fathers" (1992). Anne Whitman was coeditor (with I. Bernard Cohen and Alexander Koyre) of the Latin edition, with variant readings, of the "Principia" (1972). Julia Budenz, author of "From the Gardens of Flora Baum" (1984), is a multilingual classicist and poet.
Top customer reviews
The first two chapters of this book discuss the principles of Newtonian dynamics and methods in philosophy. The third chapter is most interesting as it deals with physical reality. The influence of Newton's faith is clearly evident in his discussions, when he describes the solar system consisting of sun, planets and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of one Intelligent and Powerful Being. He also implied that God kept stars at immense distance preventing them to fall on each other by their strong gravity. Gravity is also implied to play a role in keeping the sea and heavens. The subtle spirit is known pervade and lies hid in all gross bodies by the force and action of which spirit the particles of bodies attract one another at near distances and cohere, if contiguous; and electric bodies operate to greater distances as well as repelling as attracting the neighboring corpuscles. The vibrations of the spirit in the living bodies are suggested to propagate along the solid nerve filaments from muscles to the brain that make the animals move. In his letter to Richard Bentley, the Bishop of Worcester, Newton writes that "the power that is placed in sun in the center of six primary planets. Why there is one body in our system qualified to give light and heat to all the rest, I know no reason but because the Author of the system thought that it is convenient." In another part of the same letter, he states the geometrical arrangements and orbits of the planets around sun, "argues that cause to be not blind and fortuitous, but very well skilled in mechanics and geometry." In another letter, Newton ascribes the sun and planetary motions; "for this as well as other reasons, I am compelled to ascribe the frame of this system to an Intelligent Agent." In his letter to Thomas Burnett, Newton discusses the science of genesis and creationism, and when light may have been created in the six days of creation; Newton's arguments surrounds the physics of motion and gravity, which are thought to have been created by God.
In the fourth chapter, theory of light and colors, the most interesting part of this discussion is on "ether and gravity," which starts from page 112. Newton also had lengthy correspondence with another famous chemist of his time, Robert Boyle, which is also discussed in this book
This book does not get into the personal nature of Newton where many have commented on his mean and erratic behavior. He was a Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, and later appointed as a warden of the Royal Mint. Newton successfully prosecuted 28 counterfeiters, and sent one to gallows. He made himself a justice of the peace in all the counties, and then conducted more than 100 cross-examinations of witnesses, informers, and suspects as a prosecutor. Disguised as a habitué of bars and taverns, he gathered evidence himself. Newton's quarrel with Leibniz (another famous mathematician of his time), about atheism to the discovery of calculus, is very briefly discussed.
Newton's Principia is one of the most difficult books to read, even with the notation s modernized by author Florian Cajori in his 1928 book. Newton described physics so elliptically that most readers could not fill in the missing steps. Philosopher John Locke, who was not mathematically inclined, asked his mathematical friends if Newton's work is reliable before he took pains to read and understand the book. In light of this, it is a nice feeling to read this book, which is clearly described.
1. The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy
2. Newton's Principia for the Common Reader
3. Isaac Newton
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
(This from introduction) 'Science corrupts theology' What!
'''Modernistic or liberal theology, ever anxious to accommodate itself to the latest fashion in ideas, is at the present moment in some disrepute, since it is not intellectual acceptance but moral rejection of our world that seems of pressing religious concern to our most sensitive theologians and prophets.''
Religion appears 'immoral' to most. Why wickedness? Why suffering? Why injustice?
''But our Western religions, which from the beginning have had to live with Greek thought, have never long been able to maintain a faith in serious conflict with the best available knowledge. Even shorter have been the intervals when the temporary expedient of assigning knowledge and faith to separate and mutually exclusive realms has remained successful. What Philo Judaeus, the Alexandrian doctors, and St. Augustine did with consummate skill, what Maimonides and St. Thomas did for a different science with no less skill, if less enduring success, Newton and his theological followers attempted once more in the eighteenth century.''
Keen insight. Augustine combined Plato and Christ. Catholicism then more platonic than Christian; Trinity, immortal soul, hellfire, are Greek, not scriptural. Aquinas mixed Aristotle and Catholicism. When Pascal/Galileo/Newton overthrew Aristotle, Catholicism never recovered.
''If their efforts in rational, or natural, religion were unfortunate rather than blessed with success, any theologian—whether he rejects the whole enterprise of natural theology or resolves to take his place in the long line of his predecessors who have likewise sought to adjust religious insight to modern knowledge—can learn much from a careful study of this particular episode in the history of religious thought.'' (101).
Well said. Newtonian science was used to create 'natural law', which superseded (improved) scriptural commandments. Religious faith weakened, due to wrong foundation. Why?
''After two centuries of battles fought in the name of warring theologies and church polities, most men were only too glad to welcome this new natural philosophy as a secular alternative to religious quarrels of which they had grown tired. Many wanted to forget theology and get down to business, especially that middle class which in Western Europe had been growing so rapidly in economic strength and was now making ready to take over political power as well, in the great revolutions of the end of the century.''
'Get down to business'!
'''What the middle class needed was a new set of ideas to provide the intellectual leverage for dislodging the lingering feudal landlords and breaking the hold of the older social controls of industry, now grown restrictive. For them, “Newtonian science” furnished a “Nature” fully as effective as the earlier “will of God.” It had, in fact, at last demonstrated what the will of God really was; and what it demonstrated was that the Divine Will had decreed a mechanism that worked automatically without further interference.''
Think Comte, Hegel, Marx.
''No wonder that the social philosophies that endeavored to extend scientific methods to human affairs pointed to a similar autonomous order as the highest wisdom for conducting the life of man. Thus the Newtonian philosophy of nature was made into what a later jargon calls “the ideology of the bourgeois revolution.”
Introduction: What Isaac Newton started.
I. The Method of Natural Philosophy
II. Fundamental Principles of Natural Philosophy
III. God and Natural Philosophy
IV. Questions on Natural Philosophy
V. Questions from the Optics
Newton's letter to a friend . . .
''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 lest the systems of the fixed stars should, by their gravity, fall on each other, he hath placed those systems at immense distances from one another.'' (42)
Fascinating insight! This before the staggering light-years were known! Then commenting on God . . .
''We have ideas of his attributes, but what the real substance of anything is we know not.''
Human knowledge of the person of god is non-existent. By comparison, what about the knowledge of human bodies?
''In bodies we see only their figures and colors, we hear only the sounds, we touch only their outward surfaces, we smell only the smells and taste the savors, 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.'' (44)
We don't even know what our own body is made of! Nevertheless, the Creator must be a person, not . . .
''Blind metaphysical necessity, which is certainly the same always and everywhere, 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.'' (44)
Another deep insight . . .
''But how the matter should divide itself into two sorts, and that part of it which is fit to compose a shining body should fall down into one mass and make a sun and the rest which is fit to compose an opaque body should coalesce, not into one great body, like the shining matter, but into many little ones; or if the sun at first were an opaque body like the planets or the planets lucid bodies like the sun, how he alone should be changed into a shining body whilst all they continue opaque, or all they be changed into opaque ones whilst he remains unchanged, I do not think explicable by mere natural causes, but am forced to ascribe it to the counsel and contrivance of a voluntary Agent.'' (47)
Of course, we now understand the nuclear reaction causing 'lucid' (shining) stars. This has not reduced Newton's amazing insight. The incredible fine tuning of - gravity, electromagnetic and nuclear forces - that allows for stars, is more miraculous than even Newton could have imagined!
Newton now reasons that the wild orbits of comets confirm that - 'blind fate could never make all the planets move one and the same way in orbs concentric.'
''Now by the help of these principles all material things seem to have been composed of the hard and solid particles above mentioned, 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 is 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 formed it may continue by those laws for many ages. For while comets move in very eccentric orbs in all manner of positions, blind fate could never make all the planets move one and the same way in orbs concentric,'' (175)