Jump to content
Objectivism Online Forum
dream_weaver

Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer, by Michael White

Rate this topic

Recommended Posts

Having read this recently, when Bill Harris asked this question, "But Newton also believed in alchemy, so what's that called?" reminded me of how this biography could address something here, that has also been touch on in the referenced thread.

 

More on this later.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Having read this recently, when Bill Harris asked this question, "But Newton also believed in alchemy, so what's that called?" reminded me of how this biography could address something here, that has also been touch on in the referenced thread.

 

More on this later.

Thanks, Greg.

 

I suppose that my relevant point, going in, is that having various philosophical beliefs do not necessarily pre-determine success and failure in any endeavor. 

 

Thx, Bill

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Ha. Quicksilver, another word for mercury – a common element with which alchemist played.

 

Newton greatest achievement is the Principia. I’ve been through some of the beginning where the going was easier. I’ve geometrically modeled some of his examples. One of the approaches is similar to a method used in developing complex curvature for 3 dimensional surfaces on a drafting board.

 

Opticks is by far easier to read through and grasp. If you’ve played with prisms as a child, it even makes it easier to follow.

 

What struck me from Mr. Harris’ post, would be from Dr. Harriman’s Logical Leap describing how Newton handled his detractors.

 

I’m not going to look up the quote here for precision at the moment, the essence was:

I (Newton) presented my case in the Opticks.
If you disagree with the conclusion, perform the steps outlined and see for yourself.
If you have solid, demonstrable evidence to indicate where I (Newton) went wrong, present it.

In this way, he simply dismissed any Tom, Dick and Harry interested in muddying the waters with unfounded objections.

 

Now moving on to the last sorcerer.
 
I found it in a used book section. The title was scandalous, so I leafed through a few sections and decided to buy it. In general, the work has little to do with Newton the scientist. Mr. White painted a picture of his childhood as a scamp, touching on his parents and schooling. It focused on character flaws, and many questionable activities that transpired in his life. Of course the allusion to alchemy being one of them.

 

Most of the negative portrayal did not impress me. If you look past the authors veneer, Newton would probably have been a difficult person to get to know, but probably more interesting because of it.

If he did dabble in alchemy, and he may well have, - he certainly did not expect mere incantations to transmute one element into another. If he did bring back recipes from the alchemist circle to test, I would imagine he followed them to the letter to see the results for himself, as he advised those skeptical of his claims in the Opticks to do.

 

Given that alchemy is a nearly abandoned practice for the most part and since Newton never published any known findings from this side interest suggests that even though fruitless, aspects must have been interesting enough for him to dabble with it as long as he was reported to do so.

 

Now, does this mean that Newton believed in alchemy? We know he experimented with light, made observations in astronomy, and many other areas as well. He did attend church, as most did in the time, and professed a belief in an almighty as well.

 

Do these facts undermine the veracity of either the Opticks or the Principia? With examination, the answer should become self-evident to the examiner.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks, Greg.

 

I suppose that my relevant point, going in, is that having various philosophical beliefs do not necessarily pre-determine success and failure in any endeavor. 

 

Thx, Bill

From pg. 26-27 in the chapter entitled "Desertion": 

 

Each Saturday, Isaac set off dutifully with the servant to Grantham to sell the farm produce and to purchase supplies for the following week. Arriving at the Saracen's Head, the inn in Westgate, he would instruct the servant to continue with the business of the day while he went off to visit Mr. Clark at his shop in the High Street.

 

What drew Newton there was a collection of books that Clark had acquired from his recently deceased brother, Dr. Joseph Clark, the usher (assistant teacher) of King's School. The apothecary himself was interested in the collection, but had little time to read. Perhaps Newton had offered to catalogue the books in exchange for the chance to read them; be that as it may, somehow he managed to persuade Clark to allow him to spend almost all of each Saturday in the back room behind the shop in solitary bliss studying texts on physics, anatomy, botany, philosophy and mathematics - his first real exposure to these things. From Bate's The Mysteries of Nature and Art, Newton had discovered the elements of experimentation and practical skills - lessons he would never forget but would employ both as an orthodox scholar and in his role as alchemist. But here were texts by greater writers and natural philosophers. We do not know for sure the contents of the library, but it is safe to assume a scholar such as Dr. Clark would have collected the works of the great names of the past and perhaps the more controversial figures of the day, and it is likely that Newton now first discovered Francis Bacon and René Descartes, Aristotle and Plato, acquiring a fuller and more useful education than he could possibly have gained within the  narrow confines of the school curriculum.

 

I would put forth that if he was reading these things for himself, he had to assess these things for himself. Reading them alone in a back room; no teacher in a class room white washing, glossing over, or misconstruing it for him. It would appear that Newton had to arrive at, or integrate, his own conclusions, relying the judgment of his own mind. The fact that he was doing this clandestinely would suggest he wasn't returning home and discussing what he had read with his mother the following day. Now, if the servant could talk, on the other hand . . . (and he did . . .) 

Edited by dream_weaver

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Newton was a character in a novel by Neal Stephenson : Quicksilver, I wonder how much liberty he played with his real life events.

The Baroque Cycle novels of Stephenson cannot be recommended enough.  It focuses on the birth of science, the enlightenment, private property, banking, etc.  It's about 2,800 pages of goodness.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

New Buddha - would you consider these novels to be biographical about the various characters involved, or more leaned into toward the ideology woven in the tapestry of history? From your summary, it appears to align with the latter.

 

Edited: former, latter.

Edited by dream_weaver

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Of the Baroque Cycle novels I've only read Quicksilver a few years ago and mean to read the rest soon. Anathem is very interesting. Stephenson is the man. Actually I think I learned in Cryptonomicon why generating a true random is so difficult.

Edited by tadmjones

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

New Buddha - would you consider these novels to be biographical about the various characters involved, or more leaned into toward the ideology woven in the tapestry of history? From your summary, it appears to align with the latter.

 

Edited: former, latter.

Stephenson's Baroque Cycle is so epic in scope that it defies an easy explanation.  He weaves together: banking, cryptography, Liebinz, Newton, the Royal Society, alchemy, the birth of chemistry, the Puritans, the Enlightenment, the death of Divine Right of Kings, the birth of individual liberty, mechanical computers, Soloman's Gold, the settlement of the New World, Japanese culture in the 1600's, how Damascus steel was produced,etc. 

 

I typically avoid historical fiction like the plague, but this sucked me in.  It's nerd nirvana.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Stephenson's Baroque Cycle is so epic in scope that it defies an easy explanation.  He weaves together: banking, cryptography, Liebinz, Newton, the Royal Society, alchemy, the birth of chemistry, the Puritans, the Enlightenment, the death of Divine Right of Kings, the birth of individual liberty, mechanical computers, Soloman's Gold, the settlement of the New World, Japanese culture in the 1600's, how Damascus steel was produced,etc. 

 

I typically avoid historical fiction like the plague, but this sucked me in.  It's nerd nirvana.

Historic fiction, akin to Edward Rutherfurd's approach, only more grandiose. Rutherfurd liked to hone in on a talisman or two and reintroduce them as he travailed the timeline. 

This series sounds much more ambitious. Thanks.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Do these facts undermine the veracity of either the Opticks or the Principia?

I suppose that my relevant point, going in, is that having various philosophical beliefs do not necessarily pre-determine success and failure in any endeavor.

It's also worth noting that, whatever irrational beliefs Newton may or may not have held, the fact that he was able to arrive at the conclusions which he did indicates the importance he attached to them.

Newton and Descartes both explicitly professed religious beliefs- but look at how their minds worked, when paying attention to any other subject.

 

Descartes was deeply and fundamentally devout.  When he wanted to know about something, he "meditated" because his epistemological standard of truth was prayer- just as he claimed it was.

 

Whatever he claimed (or perhaps thought) he believed, when Newton's attention was directed away from those beliefs they evaporated.

He didn't pray, meditate or read the Bible to find truth.  He experimented.  And the fact that he did so, in the culture which he lived in, tells us quite a bit about what was actually going on in his head.

 

So I think it's worth noting that he was probably much more rational than he ever admitted in life.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Oh I'm sure Newton meditated too. He meditated on all those observations, fitting and refitting them together in various ways, seeking out the common denominator(s) that would ultimately tie them together. His attention to those other beliefs were probably during the periods where the conversation of others was directed toward it. The phrase in the church I grew up under the influence of was "Sunday Christians", referring to those who put on their Sunday best, came to church, walked the walk and talked the talk, but come Monday morning, the 'walk and talk' remained in the closet with the Sunday best.

 

Edited:

 

A little ironic, considering this couching of it, that the life Mr. White chose to focus on as "remaining in the closet" was one of alchemy.

Edited by dream_weaver

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The phrase in the church I grew up under the influence of was "Sunday Christians", referring to those who put on their Sunday best, came to church, walked the walk and talked the talk, but come Monday morning, the 'walk and talk' remained in the closet with the Sunday best.

That's exactly what I mean, though; he was probably far more rational (and far less faithful) than he ever let on.

 

In 1642, the year Newton was born, the English Civil War began over- among other things- which religion should be assigned to every single individual in Britain.  It did not end until 1651, which means that during the first nine years of Newton's life he probably knew that this war was going on, with some fuzzy idea of the reasons for it.

We know that he explicitly stated, many times, what his own beliefs were; we also know that his investigative methods directly contradict his stated beliefs.

 

Now doesn't it seem probable that experiencing that war (even secondhand) might have something to do with that contradiction?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Galileo passed away Jan 8, 1642, Isaac was born Dec. 25 that same year. Galileo was imprisoned by the church only 9 years earlier. War or not, that shadow loomed over all. Newton stated he framed no hypothesis. Both pieces may have tipped their hat in that direction of that shadow, if so, it was to shield the eyes from the intense brightness starting to emerge from the breaking up of the dark clouds that loomed over the land. The meat and potatoes of these presentations consisted of angles, verbal descriptions of observations, geometric illustrations and formulas to interrelate it all, an intellectual smorgasbord for any mind seeking to satiate its hunger on something more substantive than the chewed over carcass beginning to decay after centuries of wallowing stagnation.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

... if so, it was to shield the eyes from the intense brightness starting to emerge from the breaking up of the dark clouds that loomed over the land...

 

"... Galileo demonstrated, by dropping bodies of different weights from the top of the famous Leaning Tower, that the speed of fall of a heavy object is not proportional to its weight, as Aristotle had claimed. The manuscript tract De motu (On Motion), finished during this period, shows that Galileo was abandoning Aristotelian notions about motion and was instead taking an Archimedean approach to the problem. But his attacks on Aristotle made him unpopular with his colleagues, and in 1592 his contract was not renewed..." http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/224058/Galileo

 

The role of a heretic is to provide the light, even when others prefer the darkness... especially then.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The documents I was referring to were just the Opticks and the Principia.

 

Galileo was sentenced to house arrest for his views on the Copernican theory, as indicated on page 3 of the reference you cited.

 

Yes.  I was just pointing out that not all "the dark clouds that loomed over the land" were formed by religious belief; it's what I do :devil:

 

To respond more directly to the subject of your thread, the pursuit of knowledge requires knowing what you don't believe in as well, else how to distinguish it from the truth?  Issac Newton was an intelligent man of his day, with all the societal baggage that came with that day.  Perhaps today he'd be a scientologist, but the varacity of his work wouldn't be tainted by that association... well maybe if he started jumping on Oprah's couch...

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Yes.  I was just pointing out that not all "the dark clouds that loomed over the land" were formed by religious belief; it's what I do :devil:

 

 

True enough, if one examined religion to discover its philosophic roots, one would find the cave in which it was they were ensconced. (Platonic reference.)

 

Edited: before/after

Edited by dream_weaver

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

That's exactly what I mean, though; he was probably far more rational (and far less faithful) than he ever let on.

 

 

NPR's transcript of Newton's Dark Secrets adds a few things that rather complement Mr. White's book.

 

excerpt:

 

For most of his life, Newton held a dangerous secret. As a fellow at Trinity College, he was required to become a minister in the Church of England, but this was something he violently opposed.

 

Newton became convinced that the central doctrine of Christianity, the Trinity, or the idea that Father, Son and Holy Spirit were all equally divine, was not true. The more ancient Christian texts he read, the more he believed Christ was the son of God but not God's equal.

 

SIMON SCHAFFER: Now, because Newton was so convinced that God is extremely powerful and unique, Newton, as the saying goes, "reads himself into heresy." In other words, Newton begins to minimize, to play down, eventually to deny the divinity of Christ.

 

GALE CHRISTIANSON: And Newton comes to the conclusion, very early on, that the Trinity is a blasphemy on the First Commandment, because the First Commandment says that "thou shall have no other God before me." And the worship of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, from Newton's point of view, is a heresy.

 

NARRATOR: But denying the Trinity was illegal, and Newton was risking everything by holding these beliefs.

 

It would appear that the force Newton envisioned as the invisible hand guiding the universe did not follow along the same trajectory that the entrenched view of the era gravitated toward.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I was just pointing out that not all "the dark clouds that loomed over the land" were formed by religious belief. . .

In other words, Newton begins to minimize, to play down, eventually to deny the divinity of Christ.

So, in other words, he approached his inherited religion by the same methods he approached science.

If he'd had an unlimited span of time in which to pursue this, DA, what sort of conclusion do you suppose he would have reached?

Any Christian who applies that sort of intellectual integrity to their own convictions, sooner or later, can only arrive at one conclusion.

 

Religion, as such, is not the reason for all of mankind's past evils.  On that point you're correct.

 

The ideas which make religion conceivable, are.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Stephen Speicher posted this [*] on Newton:

 

Newton was a fanatic fundamentalist deeply steeped within religion. He consumed vast amounts of theological writings and devoutly held to an Arian view of Christ; the New Testament was corrupted and the Holy Trinity was blasphemy. Newton filled notebook after notebook with Biblical quotes and writings, obsessing over God as Supreme. There was no pantheism in Newton's religiosity, but rather a Puritan spirit; understanding nature was a duty to God, revealing God's master plan. It was a religious decoding, as was his lifelong search decoding the scriptures for revealing divine prophecy, decoding the symbolism and calculating when would be the Second Coming. Newton devised rules for the proper interpretation of scripture, rules if followed would lead to accurate interpretations from prophecy. In endless notebooks Newton wrote, analyzing these divine prophecies and revelations, expressing a deep rage against blasphemers. Newton's theological writings far exceed his scientific writings, perhaps as much as 2.5 million words on religion. In short, Newton was passionate for theology throughout his life, and at times his religiosity spilled over into his science as well.

 

Mr. White seemed more intent on outlining the secret role alchemy played.  

One of the requirements of the university Newton taught at was to become a minister, to which he was opposed.

Understanding nature was a duty to God, strikes me as a precursor or forerunner to Deistic tendencies.

 

I am struck by an analogy trying to form in the back of my mind using Thomas Aquinas' search to reconcile his theistic beliefs with Aristotle's works and wonder if there might be a parallel lurking here.

 

[*] brought to light by this post in this 'Announcing Study-group' thread.

Edited by dream_weaver

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now


  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×