GOD WITHIN PHYSICS
A critical discussion of the benefits of Newton’s account of space, time and the role of God
In his Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), Isaac Newton developed a revolutionary account of space, time, place and motion which consists of fundamentally different ideas in contrast to the previously held views of how the universe could look like. By including God in his theory, he links metaphysical questions to physics and thus explains in which sense God can be seen as a part of natural philosophy. (Janiak 2008: 163) In this paper, I will argue for the claim that Newton’s account of the role of God is convincing. In section II, I will provide an overview of Newton’s ideas about space and time and especially the role of God within this system1. In the course of this overview, I will justify my claim by discussing the benefits Newton’s concept of God is able to deliver. In the conclusion, I will briefly summarize the results.
II. NEWTON ON SPACE, TIME AND GOD
While scientists before Newton claimed that space and time exist relative to the extension of physical substances in the universe (Janiak 2008: 163), Newton countered that space and time are real entities, which are distinct from and independent of physical substances. Since for Newton space and time are unrelated to anything external, he understands them as absolute quantities. In this sense, absolute space is uniform and immovable and absolute time runs uniformly without any reference to the man-made measuring units we are familiar with. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2011) Only on this basis of absolute space and time, substances like material objects or the human mind are able to exist by occupying a particular space at a particular time. Thus, they are spatiotemporal physical entities with a limited action potential within the particular scope of absolute space and time they occupy. However, space and time themselves are no substances, because they are no (spatiotemporal) actors and thus not necessarily physical entities either. (Janiak 2008: 164) Furthermore, we cannot directly perceive absolute space through our senses. What we in fact are able to perceive are merely relative spaces which are measures of absolute space, defined with reference to a particular system of bodies.2 Philosophy 2011)
According to Newton, there is one substance, which is distinct from other substances regarding its role and function in the universe: God. Absolute space and absolute time are necessitated by God’s existence and thus he3 is the cause for all other physical substances within absolute space and time. God’s properties of being necessary, infinite and omnipotent differentiate him from all other finite and contingent substances. However, despite those differences, Newton still comprehends God as a substance, because he is extended and a spatiotemporal actor - as other substances are - who acts everywhere at every time (within the boundaries of the universe). And since all substances are physical, also God is. Considering God as being physical implies that metaphysical or even divine questions become a part of natural philosophy. However, Newton’s conception does not allow for empirical investigation of God and his causation, inter alia because God does not follow the laws of nature. (Janiak 2008: 164 - 175)
Newton succeeds in combining metaphysics with physics in the sense that he attributes God a physical character and simultaneously avoids questioning his existence. In Newton’s time, regarding God as physical was a dared move. The reason why his account sill was accepted probably was that he did not deprive God of his properties of being omnipotent and infinite (Janiak 2008: 165 f.). Due to the undoubted faith in God’s existence in the 17th century, Newton was presumably forced to include him as a necessary element in a physical theory. However, considering him as a physical substance which would be open to empirical investigation would allow for questioning his role as the necessary first cause and therefore his existence in general (Janiak 2008: 175 f). So, characterizing God as physical, but not empirically accessible allows for the maintenance of religious conviction and at the same time even strengthens the belief of his existence based on his revolutionary role of being part of natural philosophy.
1 The purpose of this paper consists in discussing Newton’s role of God, taking his views of space and time as given. Thus, neither Newton’s reasoning for absolute space and absolute time, nor a critical discussion about the implications of those entities are included.
2 Moreover, Newton defines a body’s (absolute or relative) place as the (absolute or relative) space it occupies and distinguishes absolute from relative motion: While absolute motion represents the “true“ change of a body’s place through absolute space, relative motion is the translation of a body from one relative place to another. Hence, absolute motion cannot be defined through the motion which is relative to other bodies, but only in terms of which true change it makes in the absolute space, completely independent of other bodies’ places. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy >2011) However, those quantities are less relevant for the focus of this paper.
3 The male form should be understood as gender neutral throughout the paper.
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