Newton’s Atomic Theory and the Divine Will

Newton advocated the view that atoms, conceived as small indivisible particles of matter (substance) and the void together accounted for the physical world as we, its observers, experienced it. A similar suggestion had been made two thousand year earlier by the Greek natural philosophers, e.g. Democritus (c. 400 BC), and was reaffirmed repeatedly by other Western philosophers without adding any observations or experimental investigations to support this view.

It had received support from both Plato and Aristotle although it was clear to them — and to others — that the supposition that the world was constituted in such a manner would have to remain entirely speculative. Methods to test whether indeed such “entitites” as atoms could be discovered — were not available. However there were some who believed that sooner or later suitable instruments would be invented to do so, a hope which helped sustain the wide-spread cosmological view that nature in its physical manifestations could be “revealed”, that the appropriate information would ultimately become available to us.

This optimistic notion received support from discoveries during the mid-17th century that microscopic single-cell organisms had been observed and studied by Leewenhoek in Delft, Holland, by adapting the earlier discovered telescope which had been successfully used to studied far-distant celestial bodies. It therefore seemed plausible to some to also assume that whatever governs the motions of stellar bodies also govern those on earth, that the quest for a unified, general theory of why and how bodies suspended in any media could be satisfied. Newton certainly cast his support for this position, as shown in his comments in his widely studied thesis on “Opticks” (1704-1706), a work which was to dominate natural philosophy for the next few hundred years.

Newton wrote:

It seems probable to me that God in the beginning formed matter in solid moveable particle of such sizes and figure and with such other properties and in such other propertied, and in such proportions to space, as most conduced to the end for which He formed them; and that these primitive particles being solid are incomparably harder than any porous bodies compounded of them, even so very hard as never to wear or break in pieces; no ordinary power being able to divide what God had made in one in the first creation. While the particles continue entire, they may compose bodies of one and the same nature and texture in all ages; but should they wear away or break in pieces the nature of things depending on them would be changed….And therefore that nature may be lasting, the changes of corporeal things are to be placed only in the various separations and new associations and motions of these permanent particles; compounded bodies being apt to break not in the midst of solid particles, but where those particles are laid together and only touch in a few points.

Readers will see to what extent this passage from Newton confirms his life-long commitment to a theological position which he had taken over from official dogma and doctrine. He not only refers to the pivotal position of the Hebrew God as a Creator of the universe but also his conviction — also found in Aristotle’s metaphysical writings — that whatever is observed as a genuine item of this world is part of a teleological narrative. It is the message articulate earlier — and better — that “There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will” although its truth is equally debatable ( “Hamlet”, Act V) .

This narrative is not only pre-emptive, but strikes in advance of any pertinent evidence which could call it into question. It is formulated in a manner which cannot be contested either logically — or whose contradiction could be formulated in a way that makes these into issues which could be tested (checked) by physicalistic means, i.e. experimentally and in accordance with the strictures of experimental science, which Newton and many of his contemporaries believed were foundational to studying the “Book of Nature”.

Form and Constructivism (Part 1)

A definition of *entities* given in 1596 states that the word derives from the Latin entitas and was proposed by Julius Caesar as Present Perfect of esse, *to be*.

I interpret this to mean that anything claimed “to be” also exists. Note that terms like *entity*, *substance*, and *object* were already used by Greek writers (before 450 BC) and continued to be used as a vital part of the vocabulary by philosophers from then until the present day. Of course the meaning has changed over time. However our uninterrupted use of the term indicates that we are able to make good use of the it even when its meaning (as in interpretation) changes. As with so many words meaning and interpretations change often, even imperceptibly, throughout the past hundreds of years.

Words are like like sewage pipes: they have to be cleaned out periodically, preferably by certified plumbers. Thus Greek thinkers enjoyed speculating about the nature of “Nature” and raised questions about how and by whom the Nature they knew had been composed and organized. Often they avoided questions about its origin because they lacked acceptable standards of getting clear and authoritative answers to their questions. Indeed, some writers have claimed that the continuing task of philosophers is to propose standards and methods by which we can come to know what is justified and true.

Thus, asking relevant questions without having an effective technology to move these beyond what was already known at the common sense level seemed futile. Yet it was (and still is!) a game compulsively played despite its significant and recognized hazards. Some answers were deemed to be better than none! Incorrect solutions or unpopular solutions were actually dangerous — for such might offend the Gods and their worldly representatives, or so it was opined. (Socrates was neither the first nor the last person to face expulsion from his home, even death, for raising such “origin” questions!) By casting doubt on an existing — perhaps even a powerful religious — order and its doctrines, one also cast doubts on the existing socio-political order, an order, it was thought, that was dictated by the Gods and therefore part of a “Divine Order”.

Questions about how the world is composed are, generally speaking, raised by peole who are prone and inspired to give different answers to those already accepted within a community — by so-called dissidents. Surely such men and women are inherently dangerous, and therefore deserve to be neutralized! These questions could easily unravel the tightly woven explanatory tapestry which was completed with great care and over many centuries by wise (but of course not disinterested) thinkers!

An early example of such a challenge occurred in approximately 550 BC when several Ionian thinkers suggested that the physical world — the world of physical objects and their interactions — had been constructed by unknown forces from one or more basic fundamental materials, i.e. atoms, the indivisibles. Two factors were speculated: one, material objects in their most fundamental, most primitive forms; and two, the manner by which these were structurally related. The former (*atoms*) were not considered by Greek thinkers to be pliable, whereas *forms* or *structures*, it was assumed, were. It was not clear by what rules these “atoms” has been assembled to become new entities, new phenomena, but it was assumed that knowledge about how this happened could ultimately be gained — although not how this knowledge could be gathered.

Conceptually Ionian ideas represent an advance over earlier ideas about the origin of the Cosmos, including proposals made within traditional mythologies, such as the widely held suggestion that one or more super-humans had “engineered” and assembled the cosmos! (The origin of science fiction?) Thus with very little evidence to support their ideas, Ionian philosophers put forward a constructivist theory of the origin and composition of nature, about the world of its entities as these exist throughout space and time! The issue about which principles were involved to produce this staggering result was unclear, but the issue was discussed more and more amongst learned and enlightened men, some of who had been officially entrusted by their contemporaries with “speculating about deep matters”, by priests and the lovers of wisdom, those who make good judgements.

Others also participated in these discussions. They offered varying solutions which caused a massive problem, namely, how to adjudicate between different solutions proffered to problems, both problems about the material structure of the world and about how to make good judgements about human actions. How can this be done without first enumerating principles according to which decisions between alternatives can be taken? How does one evaluate alternate solutions offered to such problems? To do so was clearly the task of a meta-discipline, whose task would be to lay down what was possible in all possible worlds. What had to be recognized was that their own thinking was inescapably multidimensional, and therefore not only move forward and backward in time, but could also moved up and down within a multi-dimensional hypothesized conceptual space.

Humans accepted on many occasions that there is an immediate and even a far distant past, and that this does not depend entirely on experience. On the contrary, our experience mainly appears to reflect something that takes place independently of us. But there are also steps which do not involve the passage of time, but which reflect that different events entail one another, in the sense that a strong fierce wind for example is viewed as part of a more extended event, i.e., a storm. The event itself (the storm) has many discernible attributes, but with a certain amount of effort these can be ordered so that some events stand at a different level to others.

When this is done we have the bare bones of a structure of an event. A common example of this is when someone describes the skeleton of a deceased person, perhaps a skeleton found in a burial site in a cave in a district where is is known from other evidence, that humans deposited their dead thousands of years ago. Here is a case where an image of the past is reconstructed from the scattered fragments (remains) found during the dig. The reconstructed image is then the product of someone’s imagination which has been guided by much background knowledge. Of course, it is also subject to commonly accepted corrective standards, such as those incorporated in any currently-espoused methodology of the sciences.