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Newtonian Cosmology and Religion




The house where Newton grew up. Medieval clerics studied light and the rainbow as manifestations of divine illumination. Newton too felt there was something supernatural in light. But when he tried to explain the colors in terms of mechanical particles, he pointed toward a different view of the universe.

Isaac Newton was convinced that his discoveries demonstrated God's wonders. The neat design of the solar system showed God's intelligence and power, and the way the planets kept on track in their orbits, despite perturbation by the gravitation of other planets, displayed His continual intervention. Yet the revolution in thought that followed from Newton's cosmology, particularly the concept of a mechanical, clock-like universe, threatened the historic link between cosmology and religion in Western thought.

The German philosopher Leibniz and other critics charged that Newtonian views were contributing to a decline of natural religion in England. The idea that God occasionally intervened in the universe, much as a less-than-perfect watchmaker must occasionally wind up and mend his work, questioned God's perfection. Newton's supporters acknowledged that God had to intervene in the universe, but only because intervention was part of the Divine plan.

Eighteenth-century belief in the orderliness of the universe made determination of that order an important theological, philosophical, and scientific endeavor. William Whiston, Newton's successor at Cambridge University in 1703, argued that the cosmos, with its beautiful proportion, regular motions, and knowable laws, was surely the work of the Creator even if humans did not fathom all principles governing the universe.


In the absence of large telescopes and revealing observations of distant stars, philosophical and theological speculations dominated eighteenth-century cosmology. This situation began to change after the English astronomer William Herschel proposed a cosmological model rooted in observations. From the 1780s onward, the heavens, penetrated by Herschel's large telescopes, increasingly were understood as an expansive three-dimensional structure.

The supposed need for divine intervention also diminished as astronomers during the 18th century solved problems of celestial mechanics. In 1786, for example, the French mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace demonstrated that the gravitational interactions of Jupiter and Saturn were self-correcting. Efforts such as these were an attempt to replace the hypothesis of God's rule with a purely physical theory to explain the observed order of the universe.

Laplace's attempt to replace the hypothesis of God's rule with a purely physical theory to explain the observed order of the universe reflected the French Enlightenment's atheistic approach to nature. Laplace was successful, at least in his own mind. According to legend, when Napoleon asked him whether he had left any place for the Creator, Laplace replied that he had no need of such a hypothesis.

Separation of God from the physical universe may have been inevitable with the rise of modern cosmology, no matter how much Newton and others were convinced that their discoveries illustrated God's presence and power. Instead, science came to be seen by many people as a rival to religion, as the authority to which people turned for inspiration, direction, and criteria of truth.

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