Review of The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

The Clockwork UniverseAn entertaining and fast-moving historical narrative of the scientific revolution, including fascinating insights into the lives of Isaac Newton, Leibniz, Galileo, Johannes Kepler, and more.

There are many ways to make a science book tedious and dull. You could include too many equations, too much biographical detail, or otherwise get caught up in dry, lifeless writing. This is definitely not the case with The Clockwork Universe.

Edward Dolnick gets the proportion of biography, science, and history exactly right, giving the reader the full picture of the people and culture of the times and also the revolutionary nature of the science itself. The writing is vibrant, succinct, and conveys just the right amount of scientific detail.

What was particularly interesting to me was how much of a struggle it was for humanity to escape the grips of superstition. The most prominent figure of the scientific revolution, Isaac Newton, was a deeply superstitious and spiritual man. We know him best for proposing the laws of motion and universal gravitation in his masterpiece, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, but it came as a surprise to learn that Newton spent more time on alchemy and analyzing scripture for secret messages, than he spent on physics.

It makes one wonder what he could have accomplished had he dedicated all his time to physics or another area of science. But he was, unfortunately, in addition to being a genius, a product of his times. As John Maynard Keynes wrote:

“Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.”

As a man of his times, his times were extremely superstitious. To begin with, belief in God was essentially mandatory, and being an atheist in the 17th century would have been seen as irrational. We should remember that the 17th century was still 200 years before Darwin.

Without the theory of evolution, you had to believe one of two things, that either 1) humans were created or 2) humans have else always existed. Since option two was absurd, option one was taken for granted, and everyone knew that what is created requires a creator.

The idea that humans evolved from other species, to the degree that it even crossed anyone’s mind, wouldn’t have been convincing in the absence of evidence. No one knew the Earth was more than a few thousand years old, so there would not have been enough time for evolution to work even if the theory was accepted. (This is why Christopher Hitchens noted that, while Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day, Darwin would go on to become the greater liberator.)

And so, creation, and the belief in God, was the default position. That type of thinking led quite naturally to a host of other beliefs I would label “trickle-down superstition”, including the belief in the existence of angels, witches, demonic possessions, and divine retribution for sin in the form of natural disasters and plagues.

So the real genius of the 17th century scientists was to see beyond all of this chaos and randomness to find order in the universe according to general laws. The irony is that Newton thought he was investigating the mind of God through these natural laws, but in reality he was forming the laws that would ultimately render God unnecessary.

This caused much disagreement. Newton, for example, claimed that God actively intervened in the universe because a universe without the need of intervention would diminish God’s will, while Leibniz argued that divine intervention in the universe would diminish God’s omniscience, implying that the universe was not created in perfect order in the first place. But neither man would dare come to the conclusion that perhaps there was no God at all, or else a God that, as Spinoza would claim, was synonymous with the universe or else didn’t concern itself with human affairs.

The dispute between Newton and Leibniz would introduce a troubling paradox of God’s omnipotence. It can be phrased as a question: is God powerful enough to create a universe in which any intervention would render it less perfect? If He could, then that would preclude any intervention, and if He could not intervene, then He is not all-powerful. And if He can’t create such a universe, then He is not all-powerful to begin with. You’ll note that this is a variation of the “Can God create a stone so heavy even He can’t lift it?” paradox.

And so the concept of omnipotence itself is seen as absurd and contradictory, and the idea of an all-powerful God, to which the medieval concept of God depended, is thus refuted.

Note that, today, you can still posit the existence of a creator if you’d like, but that it is not required to explain the workings of the universe or of life. You can claim that a creator had to at minimum craft the laws of physics, but this introduces more questions, the main one being who created the creator. Either way, God is now a possible but not necessary hypothesis.

And therein lies the ultimate irony of the scientific revolution: the mission to comprehend the mind of God found no God to comprehend. We’ve been dealing with the repercussions, both positive and negative (I’d say mostly positive), ever since.

Further reading in the history of science

Here are three of the best books on the history of science that I’ve come across:

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science by Steven Weinberg

The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself by Daniel J. Boorstin

 

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