Field of Science

The mystical Sir Isaac

One of the favourite tactics of religious people who want to use science as firepower for their arguments, is to proclaim that both Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton were religious. They think that marshalling the tacit support of two dead scientists who are among the greatest in history would help them fight for their cause.

However, there are a number of points that help to refute such disingenuous arguments. In the first place, such an argument is an appeal to authority, which by itself does not provide any 'proof' whatsoever for its justification. Now, as far as Einstein is concerned, it's quite clear that he used 'God' as a metaphor for the ultimate mysteries of the universe, for those awe-inspiring truths in the cosmos which we can't yet comprehend. Uses of the word God or something similar galore in Einstein's famous and oft-quoted phrases and writings, yet to my knowledge, there is not an iota of evidence that he believed in the personal deity which most people associate with the word 'God'. In his later years, Einstein was a strong supporter of Zionism and the creation of Israel, yet, it's clear that even these concerns of his were more humanitarian than religious, and did not attest to any deep deistic Jewish faith inside himself. So, for religious people to claim Einstein as their own is dishonest, and shows a simple ignorance of historical facts. At most, Einstein can be called a spiritual philosopher, but not a religious person by the common definition of the term.

But among all the scientists in history, the genius who appears the most mystical to future generations is Newton. This is partly because of the sheer and astonishing breadth of his imagination, which still defies comprehension. He single-handedly laid the foundations for all future physical science, and also invented the mathematical tools necessary to describe nature. Inspite of the two great achievements of twentieth century physics, quantum mechanics and relativity, we still live in largely a Newtonian world. Purely as a scientist, Newton's abilities do appear mystical and almost magical to all of us. This image of Newton is cemented by the way he lived his life, as a solitary and obsessed man who toiled for months in his laboratory and rooms without once appearing in front of the outside world, as a recluse who was so paranoid about his creations- pinnacles of human thought- that he sought to keep them secret for years, deciding to publish them years later in a burst of revelation. As Alexander Pope said, 'God said, let Newton be, and all was light'.
Religious people's fascination for Newton and their tendency to claim him as their own cannot be entirely disparaged, however. Newton in fact saw himself less as a scientist whose job was to document facts about nature and weave them into elegant theories, and more as a solver of puzzles, puzzles whose clues were laid by God for man to unravel. He saw God as the ultimate riddler, and man as the being whose duty was to lay bare His conundrums. He was a Unitarian, who believed in the oneness of divine existence. All these beliefs of Newton explains his later intense forays into theology and alchemy.

Yet, Newton's life cannot belie the facts. The first fact is, the laws of nature which Newton discovered don't need a divine explanation to justify their elegance, power, and use. The world is governed by the laws that he discovered, and it makes as much sense to ask for the 'laws behind the laws' as it does to ask what was before time happened. Even if we do discover some ultimate laws behind these laws, there is no reason to suppose that those laws would not be mathematical.

The second fact may be harder to digest, but it is also true. Newton's later obsession about alchemy and theology was largely crackpot and nonsense. His reams of writings on religion and theology seem more like figments of a magic kingdom constructed by the mind of a deluded person, although just like in the writings of a deluded person, there are some interesting conlusions that he draws. It is difficult to imagine what made Newton give up his spectacular study of natural law, and start searching for cryptic clues in the Bible. But one thing is for sure, whatever the driving force, it is the products of his scientific studies that have survived the test of time, and guide the behaviour of science in the modern world. Just because Newton was a great scientist does not automatically give him authority over deciphering ancient texts, as some religious people would have themselves believe. One can be exalted in one field, totally misguided in the other, and history has many examples which demonstrate this. Newton the natural philosopher was invaluable to mankind, but Newton the alchemist and theologian was at worst a deluded mortal, and at best an amusement of interest to historians, not to mention psychologists.

The third and most important fact that needs to be kept in mind when we talk about Newton, is to accurately guage the times in which he lived. This is perhaps the greatest fallacy which religious people commit, that of analyzing Newton outside the context of his times. We cannot forget that this was the seventeenth century. It was a time when religion did provide the best 'explanation' of many perplexities in the world. Apart from astronomy and mathematics, no other science was well-developed, and both astronomy and mathematics needed the spark of differential and integral calculus that Newton breathed into them to come to life. Newton may have been an extraordinary thinker, but he was probably awed as much as anyone else by the astonishing diversity and workings of life. Biology was not even a formal science then, and absolutely nothing was known about cells and organelles, although Newton's contemporary Robert Hooke would soon coin the term 'cell'. We knew nothing about microbes and their role in disease, about genes, about the transmission of hereditary characteristics. Most importantly, the world had no inkling of the great revolution that would lead us to redefine our origins and existence- the theory of evolution by natural selection, another gigantic intellectual revolution fomented by Newton's fellow Englishman two hundred years later. It is easy, even today, to look at life around us and think that a supernatural being created it. In the seventeenth century, Isaac Newton was as ignorant and smitten by all these mysteries as anyone else, and it was much easier for him and everyone else to believe in a divine provenance for all things in the world.

This was also a time when the grip of religion was very strong, and one also needed courage to make contrary views known. In fact, Newton's views on the oneness of God would have been heretical if he had made them public. The liberal King Charles II made a special concession and allowed Newton to become a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge in spite of these views. Newton kept his side of the bargain and never published his religious views. That of course did not stop him from poring over ancient texts in private. He believed that theology, alchemy, and the laws of physics, all were manifestations of the divine power of God. But because he said so, that doesn't make them so. Within the context of his times and his genius, one can be sympathetic towards Newton's beliefs, but that says nothing about the facts, which prove that the laws of physics do not need to be combined with theological views in order to attain consistency.

Lastly, the most important and simplest truth about both Newton and Einstein cannot be forgotten; they might have even had beliefs akin to religious ones, but they chose to marshall their intellect and energies to unraveling the mysteries of the universe through science and not religion. Newton may have turned to religion in his later life, but as noted above, for him, his religious excursions were a natural extension of his scientific excursions. As for Einstein, he never gave up his scientific pursuits, although God continued to be a common metaphor in his writings.

Einstein and Newton; the stature of both these men was such and their creations were so lofty, that one cannot help apply religious or spiritual connotations to them. But it should never be forgotten that they looked towards science, not religion, as a means to understand the universe and our place in it.

As for being in awe of the universe, the one fact that the atoms that you and I are made up of were manufactured billions of years ago in furnaces in the innards of blazing and dying stars is much more profound and spiritual for me than contemplating a deity whose existence is questionable by any standards.


  1. It is difficult to imagine what made Newton give up his spectacular study of natural law, and start searching for cryptic clues in the Bible.
    Celibacy, perhaps? I imagine that might drive one to insanity.

  2. Surely! I prefer non-celibacy to genius ;)

  3. Several biographers state that Newton did put his (homo)sexual energy in his work. Einstein clearly was not a celibatarian.

    Indeed, 17th century was a different time. Religion was everywhere back then. The old astronomers like Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo made horoscopes for a living.

    (Nice clerihew on R.B. Woodward at Chembark)

  4. your ruminations on chemical history by the way, especially the part on different chemist moustache styles.
    I have heard the analysis about Newton's homosexual energies. Want to read more about it.

  5. I really liked Michael White's biography 'Isaac Newton; The Last sorcerer'.


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