chapter  38
Scientific “revolution” II: Newton to Laplace
Pages 13

The history of early modern science has sometimes been represented by a straightforward narrative of displacement: “occult” knowledges were replaced by the mechanical, mathematical, and empirically grounded models of Nature, culminating in the science of Isaac Newton (Vickers 1986: 3-44). But theology played a more significant role for Bacon, Boyle, Newton, and others than such a progressivist description allows (Markley 1993; Bono 1999). Newton’s writings on alchemy, religion, polytheistic theologies, and other so-called “unscientific” topics surfaced in an auction in 1936 and were sold to various libraries, thereby creating a schism in Newton studies between those who dismissed these writings as a product of senility or mercury poisoning and those who saw them as integral to Newton’s scientific theories (Westfall 1980; Castillejo 1989; Force and Popkin 1999). It is essential to recognize that neither Boyle nor Newton, nor any of their followers, claims that science is an independent means to truth, but only what Boyle calls a “handmaid to divinity” (Hellegers 2000). In his letter to Richard Bentley, Newton says of his Principia, “When I wrote my Treatise about our System, I had an Eye upon such Principles as might work with considering Men, for the Belief of a Deity” (Turnball et al. 1959-77: 3, 233). While the Royal Society banned debates about politics and religion, both discourses helped structure the work of British natural philosophers who, rather than rejecting a hermetic tradition and the religiosity underwriting it, often debated in their letters and papers the ways in which their empirical experiments and mathematical advances could be assimilated to – and reinforce – the theological metanarratives of Protestant voluntarism: the belief in God’s unlimited power and unpredictable, mysterious intervention in nature, in a world that, through His will, can be redeemed or destroyed. Late seventeenth-century British natural philosophers like Boyle and Newton

lived in and studied what they regarded as a post-lapsarian world in which nature, humans, language, and even knowledge itself had been corrupted by

original sin. For these men, human sin was both cause and effect of a fallen but temporary state of Nature. “The present course of nature,” Boyle writes, “shall not last always, but that one Day this World … shall be either Abolished by Annihilation, or (which seems far more probable) be Innovated, and, as it were, Transfigur’d” by “Fire” which “shall dissolve and destroy the present frame of Nature” (Boyle 1674: 22). The idea of the clockwork universe where, in Bruno Latour’s words, a “crossed-out God was ‘relegated to the sidelines’” (Latour 1993: 13) was really the byproduct of a different historical period. Some hundred years later, in Revolutionary France after the Catholic Church had been banned and its houses of worship desecrated, Pierre Simon de Laplace, not Newton, proposed an entirely orderly and mechanistic universe based upon a rigorous mathematical determinism (Numbers 1977). To associate the “rise” of early modern science with a vision of mathematical determinism, then, depends on suppressing any number of political and religious discourses promoted by writers in both the English and Continental traditions, and on the occlusion of a complex historical context and its obsessions with order and origin (Hall 1980).

One of the dominant structuring metaphors in early modern science is the idea of the “two books”: the belief that one must read nature, as one reads the word of God, because both are paths to ultimate salvation for the soul and redemption for a fallen world. “The Book of Grace,” writes Robert Boyle, “doth resemble the Book of Nature; wherein the Stars … are not more Nicely nor Methodically plac’d than the Passages of Scripture” (Boyle 1674: a1r). But often early modern scientists had very different ideas from their predecessors about how “Nature” could be defined. Boyle addresses this problem in his Free Inquiry Into the Vulgar Notion of Nature, which is primarily directed against two interrelated notions that he believes have had “an ill effect upon religion”: treating merely “corporeal” things as though they had “life, sense, and understanding,” which is the basis of pantheism, and ascribing to Nature “things that belong to God alone,” which is the basis of idolatry (Boyle 1686: 113). Boyle inveighs here and elsewhere against the neo-Pythagorean tradition of anima mundi, or world soul. Implicit in Virgil, revised in certain neo-Stoic sects, and popularized through successive translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the idea of anima mundi – literally, the breath of life – played an important part in physiognomy and Galenic approaches to the world, such as Giambattista della Porta’s immensely popular Natural Magick (1558). Sometimes called plastic nature, the Pythagorean idea of the world soul implied an idea of kinship among all animate creatures or, in some Stoic versions, the idea of an immanent, living, natural force which was often at odds with both voluntarist and, later, agnostic notions of the universe (Jacob 1977).