God said, Let Newton be! — and all was light.
-- Alexander Pope, in lines written for Newton's monument in Westminster Abbey
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
— From the memoirs of Isaac Newton
Speaking of having knowledge available and correcting mistakes when they are made… One of the most prominent scientists of the present day, Neil deGrasse Tyson, recently disparaged the field of philosophy in a podcast interview. After he and his interviewers took easy shots at some of the inane questioning that goes on in the field (as if every field isn't similarly littered with inanities), Massimo Pigliucci, a friend of Tyson's as well as a holder of PhDs in Evolutionary Biology AND Philosopy, stepped in and offered a spirited defence of the value of philosophy. Both men mentioned Isaac Newton in their remarks, so I thought it would be worth noting those segments as relevant to this essay, and to the struggle that always goes on between the empirical worlds of science and philosophy, and the speculative worlds of philosophy and religion. Let's hear the remarks. First, the partially justified criticism from Tyson:
"But philosophy has basically parted ways from the frontier of the physical sciences, when there was a day when they were one and the same. Isaac Newton was a natural philosopher, the word physicist didn’t even exist in any important way back then. So, I’m disappointed because there is a lot of brainpower there, that might have otherwise contributed mightily, but today simply does not."
But now, the clear correction from Pigliucci:
"Finally, Neil, please have some respect for your mother. I don’t mean your biological one (though that too, of course!), I am referring to the intellectual mother of all science, i.e., philosophy. As you yourself seem to have a dim perception of (see your example of Newton), one of the roles of philosophy over the past two and half millennia has been to prepare the ground for the birth and eventual intellectual independence of a number of scientific disciplines. But contra what you seem to think, this hasn’t stopped with the Scientific Revolution, or with the advent of quantum mechanics. Physics became independent with Galileo and Newton (so much so that the latter actually inspired David Hume and Immanuel Kant to do something akin to natural philosophizing in ethics and metaphysics), biology awaited Darwin (whose mentor, William Whewell, was a prominent philosopher, and the guy who coined the term “scientist,” in analogy to artist, of all things); psychology spun out of its philosophical cocoon thanks to William James, as recently (by the standards of the history of philosophy) as the late 19th century. Linguistics followed through a few decades later (ask Chomsky); and cognitive science is still deeply entwined with philosophy of mind (see any book by Daniel Dennett). Do you see a pattern of, ahem, progress there?"
Pigliucci makes a beautiful point here. Sometimes the nebulous questions of philosophy coalesce to give birth to a science, just as the stellar clouds of nebulas act as nurseries to the birth of stars. You'd think that would be a point that would stick with Tyson the astrophysicist…
But back to Newton, the scientist star that brought us here to begin with. Here are two of his best quotes before I note his brief mention in my fittest philosophers series.
Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my greatest friend is truth.
If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
Isaac Newton (1642-1727 CE) was an English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, alchemist, and theologian, who has been considered by many to be the greatest and most influential scientist who ever lived.
Newton described universal gravitation and the three laws of motion, which dominated the scientific view of the physical universe for the next three centuries. Newton showed that the motions of objects on Earth and of celestial bodies are governed by the same set of natural laws, by demonstrating the consistency between Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and his theory of gravitation, thus removing the last doubts about heliocentrism and advancing the Scientific Revolution. Just a brief note to acknowledge the debt our view of the universe owes to the breakthroughs that Newton published.
Needs to Adapt
Newton was also highly religious. He was an unorthodox Christian, and wrote more on Biblical hermeneutics and occult studies than on science and mathematics, the subjects he is mainly associated with. What a shame a mind like his wasted this much time on religious ideas that had no impact.
Talk about the harm of religion. Even if it never led to irrational conflict and terrorism and war, the opportunity cost of lives spent idly speculating on unknowable realms and unproven actors in the sky is an immense loss to the progress of humanity. Look through the wikiquote page from Isaac Newton and despair at the quantity of nonsense he wrote about his God and religion.
In default of any other proof, the thumb would convince me of the existence of a God.
Can it be by accident that all birds beasts & men have their right side & left side alike shaped (except in their bowels) & just two eyes & no more on either side the face & just two ears on either side the head & a nose with two holes & no more between the eyes & one mouth under the nose & either two fore leggs or two wings or two arms on the sholders & two leggs on the hipps one on either side & no more? Whence arises this uniformity in all their outward shapes but from the counsel & contrivance of an Author?
But as John Maynard Keynes said about him in an address to the Royal Society:
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 that 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.
He wasn't exactly the last believer in magic (as we shall see), but we should not yet condemn history's thinkers who were held under the sway of a religious outlook. The door to our cosmological understanding of our universe was just now being unlocked by Newton's keys, though he himself never entered that previously darkened room. I understand the draw of a mystery box though, and there is no doubt we have created an endless one with our religions, so it's probably no coincidence that Newton, drawn to explore the mysteries of the natural world, was also drawn to explore the mystery of the spiritual realm. In one of the latest episodes of Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson tells the story of Michael Faraday, the scientist who uncovered secrets of electromagnetism and invented the first electric motor, and how he was utterly entranced by the mysteries that science spread before him. For me, philosophy held the same sense of an unknown just waiting to be found—particularly the mystery of morality and what, if anything, lies at the base of all our ethical systems. Since the first edicts of religion were questioned by Socrates in the Dilemma of Euthyphro, philosophers have gathered facts about these mysterious moral passions we feel in the hopes of explaining them and making sense of them. What will be the next science to be spun off from philosophy? My bet is the moral sciences, once an explanation of the objective basis for morality is discovered and accepted. I say that basis is the long-term survival of life (which I have used in my response to the Sam Harris Moral Landscape Challenge and am using in an article I'm writing on the Is-Ought divide at the moment that I hope will be accepted by Massimo Pigliucci for his Scientia Salon), but really, we don't know yet. And isn't that exciting? To think that an ethical revolution or some other new science may lie just around the corner for humanity and that we will get to live through it? That sure makes me want to keep spending my brainpower here.