Seiler on Science

Thoughts on the history of science, with a special focus on the relationship between religion and science through history, all coming from an Objectivist perspective. ("Seiler" is pronounced "Sy-ler")

Location: Virginia, United States

Saturday, September 22, 2012

My article in The Objective Standard

The Fall 2012 issue of The Objective Standard contains my article "The Role of Religion in the Scientific Revolution." This article contains the results of my research into the interactions between science and religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I plan to incorporate this material into chapter six of my book on the conflict between science and religion.

Here is a link to the issue: The Objective Standard.

Monday, January 30, 2012

How religious was Isaac Newton?

Isaac Newton was the greatest scientist in history, and his discoveries of the laws of motion and universal gravitation provided a vivid example of the power of reason to grasp the nature of reality.  This example served as inspiration for the thinkers of the 18th-century Enlightenment. The Enlightenment philosophes subjected religion to an unprecedented rational scrutiny, many of them rejecting Christianity for deism and a few even turning to atheism.

Given this chain of events, it was natural for many to assume that Newton could not have been very religious; after all, he was the Enlightenment's exemplar of reason. But it turns out that Newton thought about religion a great deal, and his private manuscripts on theology are voluminous, totaling four million words. It has been only in the past century that Newton's religious writings have been examined in depth, and this has yielded a significantly better understanding of Newton's beliefs.

Newton accepted many of the conventional religious beliefs of the English Puritan culture in which he was raised: "Newton trusted the Bible [except for certain "corruptions"] and often took it literally, especially prophetic texts from Daniel and Revelation. He believed in predestination, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the future resurrection of the faithful, and the millennial kingdom ruled by Christ." (Davis, p. 118) He even calculated a possible starting date for the events of the Apocalypse: the year 2060 AD.

After discovering the universal law of gravitation, Newton did not believe that the gravitational attraction of bodies is a power inherent in matter. He saw the bodies as controlled by God's will or God's agent.

There are also elements in Newton's manuscripts which suggest something more rational in his approach to religion, which led to his rejection of several church doctrines.  Newton had contempt for what he called superstition and the worship of the mysterious:  "It is the temper of the hot and superstitious part of mankind in matters of religion ever to be fond of mysteries, and for that reason to like best what they understand least."  (quoted in Westfall, p. 193)

The Christian doctrine that was most disturbing to Newton was the Trinity — the idea that God is three persons (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost) who are all fully God, while at the same time there is only one God. This struck Newton as superstitious and irrational. He believed that there is simply one God, along with various subordinates. Jesus was God's son, and had a special divine status, but Jesus was not God. Newton came to the conclusion that Christianity — and the Bible itself — had been corrupted by the supporters of the Trinity in the early Christian church.  He worked exhaustively to identify the specific Biblical passages that he considered fraudulent.

For Newton to make public his rejection of the Trinity would have been illegal in 17th-century England (and would have, at the very least, destroyed his university career), so he shared his religious writings and opinions with only a few close friends.

One fact that clearly emerges from Newton's religious writings is his active-minded approach. Newton was not content to simply accept official Church teachings as the truth. He had to examine them; he had to read and master the Bible for himself; he had to study Church history for himself. He had to decide which church doctrines he agreed with and which he did not. As one biographer has pointed out, the manuscripts "reveal a Newton who spent his entire adult life probing, questioning ... the received notion of Christianity." (Westfall p. 229)

What is the significance of Newton's belief in religion?

Does it prove that science and religion are fundamentally compatible?  No.

It does prove that great scientific work can be done by men who also have strong religious beliefs. But they have to keep their religion out of their science. Newton's published books on physics contain no religious arguments for his scientific conclusions, and mentions of God in these books are few and far between.

Why did Newton keep his religion out of his physics? He accepted an idea popular in the 17th century: the idea of God's two books — the book of Scripture and the book of Nature — and the necessity of keeping them separate. Newton advised that "Religion and Philosophy are to be preserved distinct. We are not to introduce divine revelations into Philosophy, nor philosophical opinions into religion." (Manuel, p. 28)

This division comes ultimately from Thomas Aquinas, with his distinction between the truths of reason and truths of faith. But that is a subject for another blog post.

The Religion of Isaac Newton: The Freemantle Lectures 1973, Frank E. Manuel, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1974.

"Isaac Newton", entry in Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, by Stephen Snobelen, 2003 [link]

"A Time and Times and the Dividing of Time: Isaac Newton, the Apocalypse and 2060 AD", Stephen D. Snobelen, Canadian Journal of History, Dec. 2003

"Myth 13: That Isaac Newton's Mechanistic Cosmology Eliminated the Need for God", Edward B. Davis, pp. 115-122 of Galileo Goes to Jail: and Other Myths about Science and Religion, edited by Ronald L. Numbers, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2009

"The Rise of Science and the Decline of Orthodox Christianity: A Study of Kepler, Descartes, and Newton", Richard S. Westfall, pp. 218-237, God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science, ed. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1986

Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England, Richard S. Westfall, Univ of Michigan Press, 1973

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

My Slashdot Review of The Logical Leap

On January 10, the technical blog Slashdot published my review of David Harriman's book The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics. Harriman's book is a landmark in the philosophy of science, and it deserves a wide audience. You can read my review at my website here.

I haven't had the time or energy to carefully follow the various controversies over the criticisms of the book (such as in the reader reviews at; hopefully at some point in the future, I will have the time to do so.

Due to the essentialized nature of the book, the presentations of the history of science were highly condensed, and I can see how historians of science might object to the degree of simplification. Hopefully the ideas in Harriman's book will be further developed and applied in more detailed studies, providing the material for many future books.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Seeking the Truth: a book by Richard Schlagel

The full title of this book is Seeking the Truth: How Science Has Prevailed over the Supernatural Worldview (published in 2010 by Humanity Books, 518 pages). Written by philosophy professor Richard Schlagel, this book purports to present the history of science from a secular, pro-reason, anti-mysticism world-view. According to Schlagel:

Western civilization was formed by two contrasting traditions, the empirical-rationalistic perspective of the ancient Greek philosophers and the mystical-revelatory approach of the Hebraic-Christian prophets. (p. 490)
This is an excellent observation which identifies the fundamental philosophic conflict continuing throughout the history of western civilization. On the one hand, there is a philosophy of reason (based on observation and logic), and on the other hand, there is a philosophy of mysticism, revelation, and faith.

The book makes several excellent points like this, but unfortunately they are spread rather thin in an otherwise straightforward history of science that covers ancient Greece up to the twentieth century.

I found several points particularly interesting. One involves Plato's view of astronomy. Scientists and historians have often held up Platonism as pro-science because of Plato's very positive view of mathematics—which is a key tool of the modern scientific method. But Schlagel identifies Plato (correctly, I think) as more of a villain than a hero in the history of science. Plato liked mathematics because it could help to lift us out of the sensible world, not because it was the key to the sensible world. In fact, according to Schlagel, “Plato has no conception of mathematics as an applied science.” Plato is explicit about this in the Republic, where he says that in astronomy there is no point to looking very carefully at the stars:

If we mean, then, to turn the soul's native intelligence to its proper use by a genuine study of astronomy, we shall proceed, as we do in geometry, by means of problems, and leave the starry heavens alone. (530c; also see all of 529-530)
Turning to the Dark Ages, Schlagel points out the dominance of the attitude that studying the natural world is worthless, since what counts is God's word (the Bible) and the next world. Here is this idea expressed by Saint Ambrose, one of the patristic fathers of Christianity:

To discuss the nature and position of the earth does not help us in our hope of the life to come. It is enough to know what Scripture states, 'that He hung up the earth upon nothing' (Job, xxvi, 7). Why then argue whether He hung it up in air or upon the water [the views of Anaximines and Thales] … Not because the earth is in the middle, as if suspended on even balance [the position of Anaximander], but because the majesty of God constrains it by the law of His will, does it endure stable upon the unstable and the void. (p. 198)
Given Schlagel's generally good understanding of the relation between science and religion (as opposed to that of most historians of science today), I really wanted to like this book. Unfortunately the book has a very serious flaw: a consistently poor quality of writing. Painfully awkward sentences are found on almost every page, and I even found a number of sentence fragments masquerading as complete sentences! In addition, many non-essential details interrupt the flow of the text, and some paragraphs leave the reader guessing what the main point is.

On top of this, the book has another serious flaw. There is not a single illustration in the entire book. For a book on the history of science, this is unforgivable. To take just one example: Ptolemy's system of the cosmos, with its deferents, epicycles, and equants, really needs some diagrams in order to be understood by the general reader. The same goes for the Copernican system, Kepler's three laws, and many other theories that Schlagel discusses.

For completeness, I'll note a couple of further flaws, which are minor compared to the others. Schlagel occasionally (and needlessly) interjects his ethical view (altruism) and political views into the text. He also concludes the book on an overly optimistic note, saying that today science is “clearly in the ascendency” over religion.

So in conclusion: I cannot recommend this book. If you feel compelled to read it for the occasional insights on science and religion, be prepared to wade through some particularly bad writing.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


I recently saw the movie Agora, which was inspired by the life of the female mathematician-astronomer-philosopher Hypatia (pronounced hy-pay-shuh). This is one of the best movies I've seen in a long time. It is filled with dramatic conflicts and insightful dialog, and the cinematography is beautifully done, with an amazing reproduction of ancient Alexandria.


Very little is known for certain about the actual historical details of Hypatia's life. According to the Dictionary of Scientific Biography:

“Hypatia, the first woman in history to have lectured and written critical works on the most advanced mathematics of her day, was the daughter and pupil of the mathematician Theon of Alexandria. It is believed that she assisted him in writing his eleven-part treatise on Ptolemy's Almagest... According to Suidas she composed commentaries not only on the Almagest but also on Diophantus' Arithmetica and Apollonius' Conic Sections. None of them survives...

It is known that she lectured in her native city on mathematics and on the Neoplatonic doctrines of Plotinus and Iamblichus and that about A.D. 400 she became head of the Neoplatonic school in Alexandria. Her classes attracted many distinguished men, among them Synesius of Cyrene, later bishop of Ptolemais...

In spite of her association with Synesius and other Christians, Hypatia's Neoplatonic philosophy and the freedom of her ways seemed a pagan influence to the Christian community of Alexandria. Prejudice was strengthened by her friendship with Orestes, Roman prefect of the city and political enemy of Cyril, bishop of Alexandria. The mounting hostility culminated in her murder by a fanatic mob. None of her writings was preserved; but the general loss of Hellenic sources must be blamed on repeated book-burning episodes rather than on lynching. The great Alexandrian library had been burned by Roman soldiers long before Hypatia's day, and during her lifetime the valuable library in the temple of Serapis was sacked by an Alexandrian mob.”

The Movie

In the movie, the Christians are generally presented as vicious and violent. (But the violence is not limited to the Christians.) So it is not surprising that Christian reviewers have hated the movie and obsessed over the movie's historical inaccuracies, real and imagined. But the capacity for repression and violence among Christians in history has been well documented. (As just one example, consider the systematic extermination of the Cathars from southern Europe.) It is only after the relatively recent European Enlightenment that religious tolerance became an accepted goal in the west.

Scott Holleran has written a terrific review of the movie here, which I can't possibly improve upon. He has also published a short interview with the director here.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Beginnings of Western Science, a book by David Lindberg

The summer 2010 issue of The Objective Standard contains a book review written by me. The book is The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450, by David Lindberg:

I first read this book when I was studying the history of science at Indiana University about ten years ago, and I was happy to have the opportunity to finally write a review of it for publication.

This issue also contains Daniel Wahl's review of the book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby. I have read Jacoby's book, and I completely agree with Mr. Wahl's mostly negative review.

The issue also includes a brief interview with philosopher of science David Harriman, and many other articles worth reading.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Birth of a New Physics, a book by I. Bernard Cohen

Recently the local DC Objectivist Salon (DCOS) had a meeting to discuss the book The Birth of a New Physics, by I. Bernard Cohen (originally published in 1960, then revised and updated by the author in 1985). Here is a brief report on the book.

The late professor I. Bernard Cohen was one of the first Americans to get a PhD in the History of Science, and he had an illustrious career in that field, focusing on the Scientific Revolution, but also writing about subjects as diverse as the American founding fathers and the history of computing. Having read chapters from a range of his books, I can attest that he is generally a good writer with a great respect for human achievement.

The Birth of a New Physics is a short book (184 pages) which attempts to present the essential scientific developments leading to the birth of classical physics, that is, the mechanical physics taught in basic high-school and college classes today. It does not present the wider historical context of these developments; but instead it focuses the reader's attention on the chain of basic discoveries.

The story begins with "Aristotle's Physics of Common Sense," which was, with minor changes, the dominant view of physics for almost two millennia. Beneath the celestial spheres, the motions of objects can be divided, in this view, into "natural" and "violent" motion. The center of the earth is the center of the cosmos and the natural place sought by all heavy objects. If I drop a stone, it falls to the ground. This is its natural motion. It is seeking its natural place, which is as close to the center of the earth as it can get. Motion in any other direction can only take place when an external force is applied; this is “violent” motion. If I push something like a cart, it rolls, and when I stop pushing, it soon comes to a stop. In this view, force causes motion; when force is withdrawn, the motion soon stops.

This geocentric view of Aristotle and Ptolemy was not doubted until after the work of the Polish canon Nicholas Copernicus, whose book Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres was published in 1543. Most people are not aware that the Copernican system was basically as complicated (and as accurate) as that of Ptolemy. The Copernican system was not at all convincing because Copernicus did not have a good answer to the major objection: When you throw an object straight up, why does it come straight down, if the ground is in motion?

This question was not fully answered until the work of Galileo, and two chapters present Galileo’s discoveries with the telescope and his brilliant experiments with the inclined plane. This led him to the basic law of inertia.

The following chapter presents the ideas of the “tortured mystic” Johannes Kepler, who discovered the elliptical shape of planets’ orbits. Kepler is somewhat unique in this story. He “stumbled onto his great discoveries in a weird groping that has led one of his biographers to call him a ‘sleepwalker.’ Trying to prove one thing, he discovered another, and in his calculations he made some major errors that cancelled each other out.” Although Kepler is most famous now for his three laws of planetary motion, he was most proud of his "discovery" that the nested Platonic solids explain the number of the planets and their distances from the sun.

The final and climactic chapter of the book presents Isaac Newton's grand synthesis, which was based on a masterful integration of the discoveries of Galileo and Kepler. Newton’s synthesis is summed up by his three laws of motion and his law of universal gravitation.

The Birth of a new Physics is flawed with respect to organization, and to a lesser extent, clarity. Tacked onto the end of the book are sixteen “supplements” which read like a random list of extra comments. Although some of these are quite interesting, most of them should have been folded into the main text or left out entirely. In several places Cohen seems to count on the reader knowing a definition which he doesn’t present until several pages later. In other places Cohen adds needless digressions which interrupt the main flow of ideas.

However the book largely succeeds in its mission: to concisely present the essential chain of discoveries leading from the physics of Aristotle to that of Newton. This is actually the only book I know of which attempts to do this. Moreover, unlike many of today’s academic historians of science, Cohen does not have a cynical view of science. Cohen has a genuine and deep respect for scientific achievement, and that makes this book a pleasure to read.