Saturday, August 24, 2013

Newton, the Heretic

In their vain attempts to prove that religious belief isn't limited to those with limited intellects, religious people often point to Isaac Newton to prove their point.  As I pointed out previously in my post on this subject, Newton had to be religious because he lived in a time and place that was wildly intolerant of those who were not.

For this reason, it was inevitable that any early scientist in European history would be religious.  It was virtually impossible to survive at all if one were not--much less get an education and be able to publish one's works.

In fact, Newton lived in an age where even disagreements that seem minor to most people living today could result in the ruin of a career or a life--and could even result in the death penalty.

Newton himself provides an example of this.  He came to believe that the doctrine of the Trinity was untrue, a later imposition upon Christianity by the early Catholic Church.  This made him guilty of heresy (which is just Greek for choosing to think for yourself).  He had to keep this opinion to himself until he was on his death bed because revealing it would have ruined him or even resulted in his death.

Newton was also a dedicated alchemist.  One might even say that he was obsessive in his pursuit of alchemy.  These aspects of Newton's life are explored in the BBC documentary "Newton:  The Dark Heretic".

The documentary explains that Newton's hagiographers convinced the world that he was the first of the age of reason.  This was only possible, however, because most of his writings were in his own secret code and kept from the public.

In 1936, many of his previously unpublished (and perhaps never even previously read by others) were sold at auction.  The economist John Maynard Keynes bought a large number of them.  After breaking Newton's code, he was shocked to discover that Newton was not the man of reason that Keynes and many others thought him to be.  Keynes said of him:

"Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians."

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