Kingdom of Priests

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Isaac Newton, Reform Jew?

In a little write-up on a panel in New York of ex-Evangelical Christians turned secular literary intellectuals, Tablet magazine quotes critic James Wood of The New Yorker on Isaac Newton:

Isaac Newton could quite happily exist today if he was Jewish. He’d be living on the Upper West Side and going to one of those big Reform temples up there.

Newton was in fact a very Jewish sort of Christian. But as an aficionado of Reform Judaism?
Today, Newton may be claimed as a saint of the mechanistic-materialist view of the universe. But he was entirely comfortable making arguments for intelligent design. In the Opticks, he examined that of the human eye. In the Principia, that of the planetary system, which he said “could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.” Studying him at Newton’s own university, Cambridge, my colleague Stephen Meyer recalls in his book Signature in the Cell that Steve’s atheist tutor warned him, “If you miss Newton’s theism, you’ve missed everything.”
On the other hand, he was not an orthodox Christian, not a Trinitarian.
So what was he? A scholar in Israel, José Faur, offers evidence of Newton’s heavy indebtedness to Maimonides. Newton was an incredibly accomplished Hebraist and probably learned Hebrew at Cambridge from Rabbi Isaac Abendana. His personal library was croweded with volumes of Hebraica. In private journals that have only recently been revealed and published, Newton wrote extensively about the Jerusalem Temple — its dimensions, geometry, furniture, and rituals — and the coded occult messages he believed were revealed in them. What could be more Jewish? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch would later present the most systematic “decoding” ever attempted of the worship and architecture in the Tabernacle, the desert forerunner of the Temple described in the Torah. Newton would approve.

John Maynard Keynes purchased most of Newton’s religious papers that had been squirreled away unpublished since Newton’s death. Keynes observed:

Very early in life Newton abandoned orthodox belief in the Trinity….He was rather a Judaic monotheist of the school of Maimonides….Newton’s proverbial fear of controversy, his suspicious attitude and neurotic behavior, his obsession with secrecy, and his eventual departure from Cambridge to an administrative position in London — all this, becomes perfectly clear in light of the dreadful secret he had to hide all his life….In the main the secret died with him. But it was revealed in many writings in his big box.

Keynes again, basing himself on the religious and other writings Newton left behind: 

Newton…looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had hid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher’s treasure hunt …. He believed that these clues were to be found partly in the evidence of the heavens and in the constitution of elements…, but also partly in certain papers and traditions handed down … in an unbroken chain back to the original cryptic revelation in Babylonia. He regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty.

James Wood is wrong on one point. Today, Isaac Newton would be ridiculed as a “creationist in a cheap tuxedo,” and at any self-respecting Reform temple, quickly shown to the door marked Exit.
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posted December 10, 2009 at 6:54 pm

Nice article! Can you think of any other relatively famous non-Jews in history about whom it is also claimed that they were greatly influenced by rabbis? Thanks!

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Ray Ingles

posted December 11, 2009 at 10:29 am

In the Principia, that of the planetary system, which he said “could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.”
Of course, then Laplace came along and developed perturbation theory… which showed that divine intervention wasn’t needed to keep the solar system stable. And when asked about God by Napoleon, he supposedly said, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”.
Just, y’know, to put things in perspective.

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Paul Burnett

posted December 11, 2009 at 11:45 am

The “intelligent design” that Isaac Newton believed in is not at all the same as the intelligent design creationism foisted on the gullible and scientifically illiterate by the Dishonesty Institute. Newton was a creationist, because that’s about all there was several centuries ago.
In his total corpus of writings, Newton wrote more about religion than he wrote about science. And he never married (unless you count his relationship with Nicolas Fatio de Duillier) and produced no children.

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David N. Friedman

posted December 11, 2009 at 3:00 pm

David, you have the correct point to counter the line that Newton was like a Reform Jew (is Madonna the actress really like a virgin?)and the correct conclusion that his science and his philosophy places him very neatly in with ‘creationists’ of today who so strongly claim him as one of their own.
Paul B laments that Newton was a creationist because that is all that there was in his day and this is a false reading. Newton very clearly had an understanding of the materialist philosophy and truly, Drawein brought NOTHING new to the equation. The belief that if Newton had only know about Darwinism–he would have obviously changed his mind is nonsense. And more to the point, if Newton were alive today and he could read about the Bib Bang, the nature of DNA, the Cambrian explosion, quantum mechanics, etc–he would be ever MORE the creationist and it takes no imagination to come up with such a conclusion. The better question would be whether or not the Greeks or even Darwin himself–armed with what we know today would be moved by the science to change their opinions?

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Philip Koplin

posted December 11, 2009 at 5:42 pm

An even better question would be why people think it’s worth the effort to construct pointless arguments along the line of, “If X were alive today, he would believe Y, which happens to be exactly what I believe.”

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posted December 13, 2009 at 5:55 am

Ray writes: “In the Principia, that of the planetary system, which he said “could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.”
Of course, then Laplace came along and developed perturbation theory… which showed that divine intervention wasn’t needed to keep the solar system stable.”
— I trust you know the difference between keeping a system ‘stable’ on the one hand, and having it ‘proceed’ to its current system on the other.

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Ray Ingles

posted December 14, 2009 at 9:24 am

Mark2 – It was the fact that the solar system didn’t appear to be stable (under the mathematics Newton developed) that led to him concluding that it had to “‘proceed’ to its current system”, as you put it.
We’ve made a bit more progress since even Laplace on the origins of the solar system, too. So far, we’ve had no need of the God hypothesis there, either.

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posted December 14, 2009 at 1:50 pm

Is there anyone out there who can point to the correct spot in the Principia where I can check out Ray’s contention for myself?

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Ray Ingles

posted December 15, 2009 at 9:40 am

It’s in the “General Scholium”, sort of the afterward of the Principia. A more extended quote:
…the planets and comets will constantly pursue their revolutions in orbits given in kind and position according to the laws above explained; but though these bodies may, indeed, persevere in their orbits by the mere laws of gravity, yet they could by no means have at first derived the regular position of the orbits themselves from those laws.
The six primary planets are revolved about the sun in circles concentric with the sun, and with motions directed towards the same parts, and almost in the same plane. Ten moons are revolved about the earth, Jupiter and Saturn, in circles concentric with them, with the same direction of motion, and nearly in the planes of the orbits of those planets; but it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions, since the comets range over all parts of the heavens in very eccentric orbits; for by that kind of motion they pass easily through the orbs of the planets, and with great rapidity; and in their aphelions, where they move the slowest, and are detained the longest, they recede to the greatest distances from each other, and thence suffer the least disturbance from their mutual attractions. 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 if the fixed stars are the centres of other like systems, these, being formed by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially since the light of the fixed stars is of the same nature with the light of the sun, and from every system light passes into all the other systems: and lest the systems of the fixed stars should, by their gravity, fall on each other mutually, he hath placed those systems at immense distances one from another.
So it’s a bit more complicated than I said. He also couldn’t imagine a way that all the planets could revolve in the same direction around the Sun and so forth, in mostly the same plane. Of course, he didn’t know about Venus rotating backwards and Uranus on its side and so forth. Nowadays we can account for it by accretion from a rotating disc of gas and dust. (He was also echoing Aquinas’ “Argument from Motion”.)
In the end, though, he was still committing what I call “Haldane’s Error” ( ); “I can’t imagine how this could happen, therefore God did it.”

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