Fundamentalist Newton?

The Boston Globe has an article purporting to show that Newton believed in Intelligent design so he couldn’t possibly get a decent post in a modern university.

They reach this conclusion via a mode of rhetoric that makes you want to chew your own arm off. It’s like one of those long drawn out jokes in which the punchline is supposed to come as shock.

That is, they characterise the beliefs of an unknown professor in a succession of paragraphs that are supposed to make you think he’s a real extremist fundamentalist.

Not many modern universities are prepared to employ a science professor who espouses not merely “intelligent design” but out-and-out divine creation.

Of course, Dawkins’s name gets drawn in, Dawkins somehow having the ultimate say over all academic appointments in the fundy worldview.

Then, the punchline. Like a wet sock in the face. Blimey, it was Newton all along.

And he’s so religious, Dawkins and Sam Harris would never let him get tenure today…..

But such considerations didn’t keep Cambridge from hiring the theology- and Bible-drenched individual described above. Indeed, it named him to the prestigious Lucasian Chair of Mathematics — in 1668. A good thing too, since Isaac Newton — notwithstanding his religious fervor and intense interest in Biblical interpretation — went on to become the most renowned scientist of his age, and arguably the most influential in history.

Yes, you don’t need this spelling out, but, all the same, 1688 was so long before Darwin and palaeontology and carbon dating that – unless Newton had really amazing powers of prescience – there was nothing else to believe in except for religious explanations of the origin of life and the Biblical dates for the creation of Earth.

It was also so long ago that Intelligent Design wasn’t even a twinkle in its daddies’ eyes, either. So, is this accidentally dropping the pseudoscientific subterfuge and revealing that ID is just plain old religion?

And Newton wasn’t just a religious man. He was also an astrologer and an alchemist The religion and astrology and alchemy were par for the course for scientists at the time. They were interested in investigating everything.

Newton had an infinitely enquiring mind and was a true genius. But he lived over 300 years ago. He didn’t invent every idea that’s credited to him by himself. He was involved in the scientific “community” of his time. He was, like all of us, immersed in his culture. His culture had certain values – including beliefs in religion and astrology and alchemy. How could he not express himself through that language?

The implications of this article seem to be:

  • Newton was an omnidirectional genius. Newton believed in divine creation. Ergo – it must be true. But Newton believed in a lot of other things that the likes of the people at Uncommon Descent (who have a link to this article) would regard as nonsense. Do we have to see people as always right just because they are right about some things?
  • Newton believed in God. Ergo, he would not believe in evolution (even if he had heard of it.) this one is just odd. For some reason. Evolution is the one scientific theory that gets ultra-conservative religionists’ backs up. (I don’t know why quantum mechanics or Boyle’s Law or string theory or whatever don’t do this but they somehow just don’t.)
  • Dawkins has some weird – even godlike – power to impose an orthodoxy of unbelief on academia. A nod from him and even the most brilliant Mathematics professor would be exiled to some obscure MidWest Baptist College. (The Boston Globe expressed the epitome of academic obscurity like that, don’t blame me.) Now this one really takes the proverbial chocolate digestive. In 1688, a failure to overtly believe in God would have got you disbarred from an academic post a lot more certainly than believing in God would affect your career opportunities today. The odd person was still getting put to death for witchcraft at that time. Anyone with the merest shred of a sense of self-preservation would bend the knee and mouth the creed whatever they privately felt about gods.

[tags]alchemy, boston globe, dawkins, evolution, genius, intelligent design, newton, religion, uncommon descent,creationism, nonsense, bad science, science, philosophy, culture, society, History, Bad History, Woo, Idiocy, God[/tags]

One thought on “Fundamentalist Newton?

  1. Do we have to see people as always right just because they are right about some things?

    The authority fallacy is endemic amongst rightwingers and religious zealots. I suspect that they have spent so many years being brainwashed that everything Jesus said was right, they cant accept the idea that some one might be a subject matter expert about one topic, but ignorant on others.

    Sadly, we get this thrown at us in every day life as well – what on Earth does a **** like Bono know about global politics or economics?