Re: Newton and MN

Brian D Harper (
Fri, 03 Apr 1998 12:20:43 -0500

At 09:59 AM 4/2/98 -0500, Ted wrote:

>Brian Harper is interested in using Newton to illustrate MN. To some
>extent, of course, Newton and every other scientist in every period uses MN:
>the goal of science, after all, is to understand nature and use it to our
>advantage, which cannot occur if we constantly invoke God's absolute power
>as the sole explanation of a phenomenon.
>However, I doubt Newton is a good choice. He believed in an ever-active God
>whose activity was not confined to the category of the "natural". We could
>still understand this exceptional activity, but in theological terms, not
>necessarily in scientific terms.
>I have discussed issues related to these in an article listed in on my
>webpage, which contains a long abstract. Readers are invited to see the
>details there:

Thanks very much for your comment. I got a copy of your
paper ["Newton's Rejection of the 'Newtonian World View':
The Role of Divine Will in Newton's Natural Philosophy"]
yesterday and have found it very interesting and useful.

I suspect, though, that I may have given the wrong impression.
I'm well aware of how Newton has been misrepresented and
abused, hopefully I will not be guilty of same :). In my
study of Newton I have relied almost exclusively on primary
literature. I have known for some time that Newton was
not a Newtonian, nor was he a materialist or a mechanist
(in the sense of ascribing to a mechanistic world view).
Even what we now call "Newtonian Mechanics" is better
attributed to Euler/Lagrange than to Newton.

I was particularly struck by the following quote from
Newton [bracketed statement indicating what Newton had
crossed out has been removed for ease of reading]

For miracles are so called not because they are the works of
God but because they happen seldom & for that reason create
wonder. If they should happen constantly according to certain
laws imprest upon the nature of things, they would no longer
be wonders or miracles, but might be considered in Philosophy
as part of the Phenomena of Nature notwithstanding that the
cause of their causes might be unknown to us.
-- Newton

I really liked this because I have pondered the same question
several times over the past few years. What if God intervened
regularly and according to some organized plan. How would we
know? We could observe the resulting regularities and write
down a law describing them. Apparently according to Phil we
would then have to conclude that naturalism is true. This is
why I responded to Phil that a much better answer would be
that we do not know the mind of God.

Okay, back to Newton and MN. I really cannot see how it is
that we differ, except perhaps in the definition of MN.
I anticipated this might be a problem and thus included
my preferred definition:

"the principle that science can study only the things that
are accessible to its instruments and techniques" -- Phil

Perhaps I haven't looked deeply enough as yet, but everything
I've read about Newton suggests that he would endorse such a
view. Perhaps I should elaborate a little more on my views
of MN. I consider it to be first and foremost a recognition
of the constraints imposed on science, not arbitrary
constraints as some might say, but necessary constraints
imposed by "instruments and techniques". One most often
hears of MN being used against ID, but the sword is double
edged and cuts both ways. Dawkins is expressing a personal
opinion when he says there is no purpose. According to MN
we should ask to see his purpose-meter and, should he
produce one, how he managed to calibrate it if there is
no purpose.

I think my views are summarized fairly well by a quote
attributed, if I remember correctly, to Yogi Berra:
"If you don't know what you're talking about, shut up!".
I also consider Newton to be saying much the same
thing with "hypotheses non fingo".

Finally, I would like to comment on your paragraph above
beginning with "However, I doubt Newton is a good choice."
What follows are some considerations which I believe
make Newton a very good choice. In choosing a "role model"
I would like to select someone so as to avoid the argument
_ad hominem_, i.e. the inevitable "Well, its no surprise
he thought that way. He was, after all, a materialistic,
mechanistic, deistic swine." ;-)

Brian Harper
Associate Professor
Applied Mechanics
The Ohio State University

"It is not certain that all is uncertain,
to the glory of skepticism." -- Pascal