If you mention Isaac Newton to an acquaintance, most of them will see an instant mental cartoon of a long-haired man in knee breeches who shouts “Aha, gravity!” when the famous apple hits his forehead. Few people give him due credit for his other revolutionary ideas in chemistry, optics (the study of light), and for his invention of calculus. Even fewer will be aware of his deep faith or of his consuming interest in theology.
Like Galileo, his forerunner in the scientific revolution, Newton had an almost unbounded optimism in man’s ability to uncover God’s truths about the world. Because he believed that God was rational and orderly in His creation of the universe, Newton believed that he could construct a unifying theory about the world. His confidence, coupled with his intellect, led him to pursue all branches of natural philosophy (what we today would call the sciences).
Mitch Stokes has created a compelling biography of Newton’s fascinating life for the Christian Encounters series. His book begins with Newton’s grammar school years, describing his classical, Christian education in the local school at Grantham: “The school at Grantham, the highly reputable School of King Edward VI (or, The King’s School), was more than three hundred years old and provided the standard classical education based on Latin and the Bible. The curriculum at Grantham also included Greek and Hebrew, but only a smattering of mathematics” (Chapter 1). It is interesting to learn that the educational foundation of the world’s greatest scientist and mathematician included neither of these subjects. Instead, he focused on languages and reading. Even as a young student, Newton read voraciously and took copious notes on every book he read.
Newton also spent much time tinkering. Early on, it was clear that he had a talent for working with his hands to fashion gadgets (such as clocks, sundials, kites, and windmills) that he encountered in his readings. As Stokes describes it: “All of this—his craftsmanship, artistic abilities, attention to detail, patience, and skills of observation—contributed to his later scientific success” (Chapter 1). Despite these remarkable abilities, Newton’s mother discounted the importance of education and wanted him to be a gentleman farmer like his father. Thankfully, mentors intervened, and Newton was allowed to continue his education at Trinity College, Cambridge.
Like the Italian scientist Galileo, Newton faced an academic world which had been ruled by the Scholastics for hundreds of years. The Scholastics constructed a worldview that combined Aristotle’s philosophies and scientific theories with Christian theology. Stokes describes Newton’s attraction to Aristotle and his departure from this worldview: “Newton undoubtedly felt a special kinship with Aristotle’s all-encompassing systematizing, and with Aristotle’s attempt to build a single, coherent worldview. Newton would soon become the coup’s leader. But before commanding the revolutionaries, he must sit at their feet and learn.” (Chapter 2) This is a fundamental fact overlooked by modern educational theories which attempt to discard ancient philosophy and classical literature in favor of modern authors. All geniuses of the past studied a canon of works that was agreed to be the work of the best and brightest. They might sharply disagree with the theories of those who went before them, but the new thinkers must begin by understanding the wisdom of those who went before them.
Like Galileo, Newton set aside his regular university studies to pursue mathematics, a subject which was not popular in the universities of the day. He studied the analytic geometry which had been recently written by Rene Descartes (a French philosopher and mathematician). Like Galileo, he also read Euclid’s treatise on geometry, The Elements, but he was not initially as impressed as Galileo had been. Finally, just like Galileo, Newton came to an important conclusion about mathematics and the scientific method.
In developing his scientific theories, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had focused on finding the primary causes behind the phenomena he observed in nature. For example, when he considered an object falling to the earth, the important question for him was to explain that the object fell because that was its natural desire. Newton departed from this search for causes. Instead, he believed that his theories should use mathematics to accurately describe the forces he observed in the universe, such as gravity.
In this way, Newton placed limits on the knowledge that could be arrived at through the scientific method. Newton’s pre-eminent work—Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica published in 1687—bears out his understanding of the scientific method. He could mathematically demonstrate how gravity operates in the universe and even prove that it exists using mathematics, but he could not explain why gravity exists. However, unlike modern scientists, Newton did not believe that ALL knowledge stops where scientific knowledge stops. Instead, he believed that other fields, such as theology, must be used to explain the knowledge outside of what could be learned in the sciences. As Stokes points out, this view is radically different from modern scientists who have severely narrowed the scope of reality:
The narrowed scope of science narrowed the scope of reality as well. It made the world smaller and knowledge of the smaller universe became all the knowledge there is. With less to know, we know a much greater part, making it look as though we’ve taken a significant step toward omniscience, toward being like God. And this, of course, is what man has always wanted, beginning with the Fall. (Chapter 12 “Don’t Ask Why”)
Our narrow definition of knowledge is an unintended consequence of the Scientific Revolution. Christian thinkers should focus on expanding our definition of knowledge by demonstrating that the scientific method is not the only way of arriving at truth about the universe.
In secular scientific circles today, scholars emphasize the rift between science and religion. They have separated the two and placed a chasm between them. According to their version of the story, the scientific revolution allowed men to move past religion and create an objective truth of the world which is the polar opposite of faith.
Stokes challenges this conventional wisdom by demonstrating how this idea would have been foreign and repellent to men like Newton: “For Newton, ‘to be constantly engaged in studying and probing into God’s actions was true worship.’ This idea defined the seventeenth-century scientist, and in many cases, the scientists doubled as theologians” (Chapter 5 “The Annus Mirabilis”). Christians today must work to recover this understanding of the world and to tell the stories of the scientists who worked out their faith in mathematical equations and in laboratory experiments.
Parents will gain three important things by reading Stokes’ book. First, they will be inspired about the study of science. A teacher’s excitement is contagious; soon, the children will be interested in Newton’s discoveries and the scientific revolution. Families will be amazed by his genius and delighted by his many discoveries. Secondly, parents will gain a clearer understanding of the goals of a classical education which mirror Newton’s goals in pursuing knowledge. Finally, parents and students will understand that science and religion are not mutually exclusive but are complementary.
In the Classical Conversations Challenge programs, we desire to help students form an integrated worldview in all of their studies. This was Newton’s goal as well: “Throughout his life, Newton devoted tremendous energy to constructing a coherent story of reality—fitting together history, physics, mathematics, chemistry, and theology” (Chapter 2, A Narrow Escape). To this end, we have designed our programs so that students remain with one tutor for all of their subjects so that, instead of believing these courses to be unrelated subjects, they can spend the seminar day discovering the relationships between them.
Newton strongly believed in the connection between faith and science. His theories required “an intelligent supernatural being who purposefully created and continually sustains creation” (Chapter 13 “In Full View”). Christian students should be encouraged to explore, understand, and articulate this worldview through their studies of science and mathematics. This is moving “Toward the Quadrivium.”