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On the God of the gaps

April 21, 2015

Ted Davis of BioLogos argues theology was crucial to Isaac Newton’s science:

To see why Gleiser and others shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the relevance of God to science, I turn to a leading expert on Newton’s theology, Stephen Snobelen of the University of King’s College, Halifax. Perhaps no one in the world knows as much about the writing of the General Scholium than Snobelen. In a highly detailed, very careful article written a number of years ago, Snobelen delineated some of the ways (there are others of equal importance) in which Newton’s beliefs about God undergirded crucial elements of his science. For example, “his expectations of discovering simplicity and order in creation were based on a belief in a God of order Who made things that way.” Likewise, his belief “in the unity of God ensured for him unity within creation,” leading to his statement in the General Scholium that the stars (and implicitly the rest of the universe) “must all be subject to the dominion of One” (a passage Gleiser quotes). The unity and dominion of God, Snobelen argued, “ensured the unity of His Word and Works, and thus guaranteed that one can infer general principles from specifics—whether scriptural teaching or natural phenomena. In these cases the theological beliefs come first and as presuppositions help to inform and shape the natural philosophy.”

Other Newton experts, including the late Richard Westfall (author of the definitive biography), are convinced that Newton understood the mysterious notion of action at a distance, which was inextricable from his concept of universal gravitation, in terms of direct divine action on matter. As Lawrence Principe of Johns Hopkins University has recently said, “Newton seems to have thought … that gravitational attraction resulted from the direct and continuous action of God in the world.” Gottfried Leibniz derisively called Newton’s idea of gravitational attraction “a miracle” in an effort to make it go away simply by sneering at it, but without it astrophysics would have been greatly impoverished.

In none of these cases was Newton inserting God into a “gap” into our knowledge that science would someday fill. Rather, his prior belief in God helped him arrive at attitudes and ideas that have unquestionably advanced our understanding of nature. It’s a subtle difference, perhaps, but a vitally important one to grasp in the midst of an ongoing culture war about science, religion, and God.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Victor permalink
    April 26, 2015 9:07 am

    Fascinating. An example in the other direction in which a particular kind of belief or religious faith has a positive benefit on science.

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