AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, E. Scott Barr Collection.
We often think about the history of science as a story of successive generations of progress and advancement. This is an enduring legacy of Whig history, which emphasizes the increasing refinement of science since the beginning of the Scientific Revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. According to this view, science has become more accurate since the Scientific Revolution as it discarded the superstitious or religious elements that informed earlier theories about nature. The Scientific Revolution, in the Whiggish understanding, marked a clear departure from knowledge that relied on biblical texts, the wisdom of ancient philosophers, and deductive reasoning. This perspective on the history of science is reinforced by some of the sources written by advocates for new approaches to natural philosophy during the Early Modern period. As Francis Bacon (1561-1626) put it in his Novum Organum (“New Method”):
Now my method, though hard to practice, is easy to explain; and it is this. I propose to establish progressive stages of certainty. The evidence of the sense, helped and guarded by a certain process of correction, I retain. But the mental operation which follows the act of sense I for the most part reject; and instead of it I open and lay out a new and certain path for the mind to proceed in, starting from the simple sensuous perception.
In the Novum Organum, first published in 1620, Bacon advocates for a new scientific method based on putting nature to the test, proceeding first and foremost from what the scientist can see, feel, taste, touch, and hear—the “simple sensuous perception.” Bacon believed that overreliance on ancient philosophers like Aristotle undermined the production of accurate and reliable scientific knowledge.
The Novum Organum was published just four years after an Inquisition of the Catholic Church determined that Galileo’s heliocentric model of the universe was heretical. Although Mario Biagioli has done excellent research on how the Galileo Affair can be understood as a conflict between different patronage networks, the Affair is often taught as a clear-cut example of the conflicts between religion and science during the Scientific Revolution. When considered in relation to Bacon’s pronouncement, the way that the Inquisition against Galileo unfolded, the improvements in astronomy spurred by better glassblowing and metalsmithing techniques, and the European “discovery” of half of the globe, the Whiggish perspective seems intuitively correct. There were many advancements in science during the seventeenth century, as the methods that scientists used to explore the natural world changed. Isaac Newton’s (1643-1727) life and work, however, complicate the neat narrative that the Whiggish perspective suggests.
Newton was born in 1643, over twenty years after Bacon’s Novum Organum was published and thirty years after the beginning of the Galileo Affair. According to the Whiggish perspective, we might expect his science to be more, well, scientific than that of his predecessors. Newton’s story, however, reveals the many connections between science and religion that lingered decades—even a century—after the beginning of the Scientific Revolution. Before describing Newton’s religious beliefs and scientific method, it would be helpful to describe the way he is typically presented in the history of science.
Isaac Newton was an English scientist, philosopher, politician, and civil servant, finishing his career as Master of the Royal Mint. The two works for which he is best remembered today are Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) and Opticks (1704). In Opticks, Newton describes the results of his repeated experiments and observations about how light moves through different media, revealing the influence of the Baconian method. That is, Newton put light to the test. The Principia gave us Newton’s laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation, which were demonstrated through rigorous mathematical proofs. Newton’s theories of gravity and motion remained the dominant ways by which scientists understood the cosmos until the late-nineteenth century, as anomalies in the classical mechanical view of the universe accumulated. (Most of those anomalies were better explained through Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.) Rather than reasoning through deduction, or relying on the texts written by Aristotle and commented on by philosophers for two millennia, Newton simply put nature to the test.
This is only part of the story of Newton’s scholarship. Newton had a nimble mind and invested significant time and energy into research that might be considered unscientific or superstitious from a modern perspective. He was deeply interested in history, biblical exegesis (critical analysis of scripture), philology (the study of language in historical sources, which usually focused on the ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic used in scripture) and theology. He was a dedicated researcher who spent almost all of his available time studying a variety of subjects.
Historians dispute the extent to which these facets of Newton’s scholarship were central to his worldview, but Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs makes a convincing case for why Newton’s less traditionally scientific research matters. Her research on Newton makes two important claims. First, historians would do best to treat Newton’s scientific and religious research as related studies, rather than separate and somewhat oppositional pursuits. Newton approached history, critical study of scripture, and linguistics with the same rational and careful attention that he devoted to his more traditional scientific research. This was even true of his alchemy, which involved careful textual analysis to decipher the metaphors of mystical publications and a type of proto-laboratory work at the furnace as he mixed, burned, and boiled different substances. Newton was not prone to flights of fancy; he stuck to the sources that were available to him. In both religion and science Newton was a Baconian, drawing his own conclusions based on observation rather than relying predominantly on the texts produced by ancient philosophers.
The second point that Dobbs makes is that Newton understood he was part of a community of scientific practitioners. One question that arises in response to claims that Newton’s more mystical research was a significant part of his research is “why, then, did he not publish his alchemical or religious texts?” For one thing, alchemy was always meant to be done secretly; one does not want the secrets of transmutation to fall into the wrong hands. For another, Newton might have understood that his alchemical research could be seen as controversial, and so while he did strike up correspondence with fellow practitioners, he might have wanted to leave his observations to himself. We can only know so much about Newton’s mindset. The fact that he wrote extensively about alchemy and kept detailed notes on his own experiments does, however, matter.
Newton’s approach to religion led him to some fascinating—and, at the time, potentially heterodox or heretical—conclusions. Context matters here; the English Civil War between factions loyal to the King and those loyal to Parliament had started just a few months before Newton was born. It concluded in a victory for the Parliamentarians in 1651, two years after the deposition and execution of King Charles I (though the monarchy would be restored in 1661). There were many reasons for the English Civil War, including political conflicts among partisans aligned with Parliament or the monarchy. England had also experienced a great deal of religious turmoil during the preceding decades. Over a century before Newton was born, King Henry VIII initiated the English Reformation, separating the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church. After Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I died without an heir in 1603, James I of Scotland, a Roman Catholic, was crowned King of England. Britain and Ireland were riven with religious strife at this time. James’s son, Charles I, was viewed unfavorably by Protestants in England, as he was thought to be aloof and uncaring about the rights that Parliament had accumulated over the centuries, and therefore unfit to rule. Charles would lose his head in the ensuing Civil War. In 1653, Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan leader of Parliament’s armies, became Lord Protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland, a position he held until his death in 1658.
The English Civil War was about politics as well as religion, as were most European conflicts during the Early Modern period. Given such a diversity of Christian practices in England at the time that Newton was alive, he might have found it easier to pursue heterodox thinking. Alternatively, given the violence inherent to religious conflicts at the time, Newton might have also had incentive to keep his religious beliefs secret.
In any case, Newton’s study of scripture led him to some conclusions that might have been frowned upon by Puritans, Anglicans, and Catholics alike. He believed, for example, that Jesus was not co-equal or co-eternal with the Father, as the trinity would have it, but was created later. To explain this, Dobbs uses a helpful metaphor; she writes that Jesus, to Newton, was more like a vice-governor. He aided in creation, serving as an intermediary between the unknowable Father and the world he created.
Newton believed that by studying matter and its transformation through alchemical methods, he could better understand the creative force—what he and other alchemists called the vegetative principle—that flowed through nature. In doing so, he hoped to better understand the divine presence in the world. In this way, Dobbs argues, Newton’s science and mysticism were in fact two sides of the same coin, rather than legitimate research and aberrant research. Newton employed the same rational and analytical approach to the subjects that we recognize as scientific and those that we might see as more superstitious.
Whiggish thinking has us believe that the Scientific Revolution marked a departure from the religion, dogma, and superstition that had previously informed natural philosophy. The actual story is not so simple, nor was the Scientific Revolution a sudden departure from older forms of natural philosophy. Newton was indeed a paragon of the disciplined, detached scientist who puts nature to the test. He was so committed to a rational understanding that he even applied his scientific methods to religious and mystical studies; he was bent on understanding the divine presence in the everyday world. According to the Whiggish perspective, we might expect Newton to be less superstitious or religious than the philosophers and events that initiated the Scientific Revolution decades before his birth. How he chose to spend his time belies this assumption. John Maynard Keynes, the leading economist of the mid-twentieth century and an avid collector of Newton’s personal manuscripts, summarized Newton’s work well when he wrote “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.” I might quibble with Keynes’s neat chronology—history is rarely linear—but I agree that Newton was a more complex figure than we typically think. He was indeed a magician, but one that helped to set science on a more rational footing.
You can listen to Initial Conditions: A Physics History Podcast wherever you get your podcasts. A new episode will be released every Thursday so be sure to subscribe! On our website, you will find transcripts, show notes, and our suggested resources to learn more about each topic we discuss.
Dobbs, Betty Jo Teeter and Margaret C. Jacob. Newton and the Culture of Newtonianism. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1995.
Dobbs, Betty Jo Teeter. The Foundations of Newton's Alchemy; or, "The Hunting of the Greene Lyon." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
Dobbs, Betty Jo Teeter. The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton's Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Iliffe, Robert. Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.