Isaac Newton

In England, Isaac Newton is regarded as the father of physics. He did some very important work on measuring mechanics and gravity, both of which had very important practical applications. But to start to consider science, there were others that who worked out the philosophy of how science should be approached. Francis Bacon was an Englishman who preceded Newton by about 100 years, he considered how to regard nature and learn from it. By seeing nature as unchanging there are truths that can be regarded as constant and from this point science can begin. Descartes considered that “I think therefore I am” and expanded the nature of science and the practical means by which it can be investigated by experiment. Newton was described as a natural philosopher. His work on mechanics and gravity were supplemented with work on optics. The combination allowed him to create and use telescopes that helped his theories. Finally confirming that the earth was a slightly squashed sphere.

But like many enlightenment philosophers, he was a polymath. He sought to understand the universe for the progress of science, with the possibility of some practical advantages for the progress of humanity. But also he would be involved in politics, and importantly he was concerned, like many of his contempories, about the existence of God. His main evidence for God came from observing the solar system and reaching the conclusion after much reasoning, that the Universe had to have been made in an ordered fashion and therefore there must be a creator. It was a good answer and somewhat daring considering the religious times, but Newton was an independent, logical and free thinker. He was an unorthodox Christian who did not accept the Trinity. Unfortunately for his legacy, his opinions on Deism have not resonated down the years. Whether you agree with him or not, the fact that he was prepared to reason logically about an extremely emotive subject is something that we could learn from today. Thinking objectively to seek truth and understanding leading to freedom from superstition was a key part of the Enlightenment philosophy. But today science has become less about truth and more about profit. We live a hyper-reality post-truth society apparently. The norm is to lie and manipulate to justify whatever standpoint suits you at the current time.

The truth Newton sort was to set people free to think for themselves. There can be no victory of one belief structure over another. That is a return to the religious war insanity of the 16th and 17th Century Europe. The truth is for discussion, it is for reason, it is individual and it permits people to realise that there is no absolute truth only the position you take. The single most important point I get from the Enlightenment teaching is that you can discuss your beliefs if you want, but don’t try and destroy others personal beliefs. It is how you believe not what you believe that matters. Ideas that are in the moment not rigid laws. We need to be individual and co-exist or we won’t exist.

Conway-Laird (2017)  

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