Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), A Perspective

Who was he? He was a British mathematician and physicist. His works were somewhat philosophical, which served basically as a driving force for a number of the thinkers of his and generations after him like Locke and Kant. These two philosophers were in debt to him for formation of their works. His monumental work was called ‘the Philosophical Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which includes his theory of gravity and laws of motion. His later work, ‘the Opticks’ deals basically with optical physics but also includes speculations on mechanics, religion and morals. He was engaged in many disagreements with Leibniz of one which was who invented calculus and later over the status of space and time. They were contemporaries.

The Muslim mathematicians hardly tried to bother with calculus. They could have invented it but, I believe, they preferred not to. They rather tried to develop algebra where ‘x’ was to be found and searched for. For them algebra helped them symbolically to seek God. It assisted them religiously. As much as they chose circle over oval in geometry, they never would have regarded calculus to have a religious meaning.

Oval for them would indicate perspective but circle was a sign of eternity.

Newton’s idea behind physics was that the universe works based on law-governed mechanical principles. His insight influenced John Locke. Locke’s philosophy can perhaps be looked at as the philosophical developing of Newton’s physical principles. Locke was adamant to find a meaning in human understanding, which would be consistent with Newtonian mechanics. Consequently, Locke argued for a causal theory of perception and along with a distinction between primary and secondary qualities of things. Of course, Locke was also influenced by the father modern rationalism Descartes when it came to the question of mind and body or whether there’s a reality beyond the physical world, which was not original Cartesian philosophy.

Immanuel Kant also understood that everything in the phenomenal universe must conform to Newtonian principles. However, this order was largely imposed by the psychological system of the mind. In the debate between Newton and Leibniz over time and space, Kant took the side of the former rather than his Prussian thinker or the latter. The argument was over time and space as to whether they were to be conceived as absolute or simply as relations between things. According to Newton time and space were absolute and perhaps Hegel followed Kant by giving significant importance to time in his philosophy of history. Even though  Newtonian ideas won the day for centuries, with the rise of great figure like Einstein’s relativistic physics things changed drastically in the 20th century. Locke, Kant and Hegel trusted the physics of Newton, but little did they know that even science’s glory days would someday come to an end. All those Christian theologians who based their theology on time and space being absolute didn’t know that one day the picture of the universe would be very different from what they knew then.

He said his method was empirical and inductive not rationalistic and deductive. However, he was also interested in criticizing Descartes. Thanks to Newton empiricism overcame rationalism for a period of time. But nevertheless, he was in debt to Descartes’ philosophy. It is possible his own speculations wouldn’t have started except work already by the rationalists before him. Descartes was catholic and he also knew what Thomas Aquinas stood for. The latter claimed that there’s nothing in the intellect that is not already in the senses. May be this alone made Newton to think twice before he went all the way against rationalism of Descartes?

Newton’s greatest accomplishment was his theory of gravity based on which he could explain the motions of all the planets, even the moon. He proved that each planet in the solar system accelerates at all time towards the sun. The acceleration of a body towards the sun is inverted proportionally to the square of its distance from it. This ended up in Newton’s law of gravity, namely ‘everybody attracts every other with a force directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This law let him predict the entire the planetary motions, the tides, the movements of the moon and of the comets. This was a remarkable accomplishment which wouldn’t have been replaced until Albert Einstein came to the theater of the world of physics. Einstein’s theory of relativity though very powerful and ground breaking couldn’t stop Newton’s mechanics from being still popular.  It is still applicable for  the movements of ‘medium-sized’ objects, that is anything which is neither larger than the solar system nor smaller than the eye can observe. There is no doubt that Newton’s achievement is a deep and wonderful ground breaking the history of human thought.

However, he began working on alchemy towards the end of his life. According to a professor of history of science he shed tears for what he had done for the world of Religion and spirituality. By turning the universe into a mechanistic project, every time God interfered with his works, He was pushed aside while Newton tried not to lose his faith in Christianity. After all Newton thought the universe ran based on law-governed mechanical principles.

(Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers, by Philip Stokes)