Some Laws of Natural Philosophy and Sir Isaac Newton (1687) Part 3 ‘Do not Allow what is Good and True to be Spoken of ill’ – St Paul – Romans
December 16, 2015
If you are still with me and are still up for more discussion let me put in here a word about the ancient Hebrews and their apparent cursory dismissal of secondary causes in their scripture writings.
Secondary causes are those like ‘The sun rises on the horizon every day because the earth revolves on its own axis fully every 24 hours, thus shielding and exposing a hemisphere of earth while is in constant rotation orbiting the sun’
The Hebrews might have had some inking of something that at the least substituted for this sort of detail of explanation of diurnal life. But in their scriptures they tend often to go for what are termed primary causes as (ultimate) explanations. This is why you get grandeurs and sweeps like ‘In the beginning God made heaven and earth’ etc because here was an ultimate explanation of being which satisfied their need for understanding.
(As we have seen, to posit that something exists beyond the sense data we receive is acceptable, but not finally knowable; although even likely; and God in this context is a valid thing to posit as a possible something)
An ancient Hebrew would read and approve in scripture that, say: ‘God makes the sun rise every morning’ (‘This is the day that the Lord hath made’).
Now given the discussion on the differing magnitudes known to humans concerning the environment they find themselves in being in, and alive in, taking that discussion and applying it to the ancient Hebrew scriptural preference for primary causes, I hope you can see that ancient Hebrews having such a predilection is not necessarily an expression of an archaic and defunct form of understanding and explanation of the world. Instead it is an expression of the understanding they had that existence and its conundrums went beyond secondary causes and applied method
The ancients, not just the Hebrews, but the ancient world in general were peoples who were not primitives, not ill-informed, not less aware or less well endowed with brains than are we. They were astute, inquisitive, perceptive, smart, intellectual, curious and adventurous, every bit as much as we are today. They knew well how to predict the weather from the skies and from the environmental changes around them; to a degree of depth and accuracy that would astonish most of us. They were farmers and they needed to have these skills and to have them in spades – and they did.
They were aware too, as I have just claimed, that ‘everything is not as it seems’ and that reality as a concept is elusive and in some respects a wild goose chase to pursue after. Thus they were fully aware that they were resorting to ultimate answers by their use of primary causes for positing absolute explanations of existential phenomena, of their consciousness of being, and of finding themselves humans.
This is one very sound and accurate reason why you should not dismiss the Bible, the Ancients, History, or anything that is not in the present, as irrelevant, redundant, archaic, of no use, and so cast it aside out of hand.
The futility of seeking to build up from the ground edifices of human reasoning in order to explain things right up to first causes of phenomena was well understood in the ancient world
‘Can any of you make yourself an inch taller however much you worry about it?’
In a certain respect our faith in science as a tool able to deliver such prizes to us, from items like hadron colliders and nanotech – and this is not sheer intellectual Luddite-ism – is an instance of a sanguine prejudice which every generation lacking a deep awareness of the past assumes and aspires to. The outlook goes back at least as far as the times in which the Book of Job was made. Job taunts those who think they know best: ‘I see you are the people and that wisdom will die with you.’
Without knowledge or experience we all at one time in our lives believe we are the bees’ knees. The arch-prophet of the post-modern Absurdist Theatre Samuel Beckett insightfully remarked that: ‘We are all born mad.’
So that is where I am coming from. This I have written is the perspective I want you to imaginatively sympathise with, even if you are not able to accept it wholesale. Now we go to look at Isaac Newton.
Isaac Newton was a far more prolific writer and thinker on alchemical and other arcane knowledge than he was in pursuit of natural philosophy (physics). The arcane, and what to us today for the most part is seen as bunkum superstition, was his chief love and joy to study.
I have tried to show that we should not laugh scorn at the ancients, and I want to say again here that I believe we should not by default take the higher enlightened intellectual ground and peer downwards with a superior smirk on Newton for his strange studies.
(I once read an argument which claimed that before Freud wrote there was no adequate terminology with which people were able to express the machinations and convolutions which Freud describes as the psychology of human consciousness. I reiterated this statement to a friend, and he replied by pointing me to Robert Burton’s voluminous work ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’. This is an epic work of Jacobean prose which meanders taking detours through the ‘humours’ of the human mind and it uses its own terms and concepts to an astounding depth of observation. I say this so as to offer that a) there are indeed old ways to skin a fancied new cat and b) to show how it is possible that where the spirit and predilection is present, and the leisure to delve in detail and in depth is available, there is language to be had for the task)
Modern works of anthropology and studies of mythology like Sir James Frazer’s lifework, the massive and extensive ‘The Golden Bough’, or Thomas Bulfinch’s encyclopaedic ‘The Age of Fable’ are living proofs that older peoples from older times collected, retained and passed on their accumulated knowledge and wisdom gleaned from life, down the generations so that it did not become lost or forgotten. They did this by way of enveloping it in myth and fable, custom and heritage, just like a seriously valuable packet of software is security-wrapped in order to be shared safely with recipients of one’s choice. To an uninitiated person the item is not comprehensible – a mush of bizarre stories and tales. The key to its ‘decryption’ is in the hands of the community to whose culture it belongs.
Indeed there were no other formats in which to preserve it and to lay it out in an explanatory fashion, but this is not to say that a great depth and breath of thought and experience from an ancient culture was not able to be captured and made transferable down the generations. I’ll say it again – our ancestors were not fools because of the facts that they had no computers, no cars, no spaceflight.
And Newton supremely was no fool. He was known to be combative and cantankerous, to hold onto and cherish, and even to nurture grievances, rivalries, and hatreds; he was volatile and reclusive, greatly unsocial, and obnoxiously proud: but he was not a person who would spend the best part of his life investigating and expositing nonsense and old wives’ tales. So please do not dismiss his alchemical and numerological studies as being unfortunate and slightly embarrassing aberrations.
To be to the point; Newton saw the astounding felicitousness inherent in the natural laws he discovered at work around him. Do take note he discovered them; and did not in any way invent them. He was an observer of how things happen and drew those laws out and formulated them from observations and experiments, teased them from a hitherto obscurity in which they had been veiled to human beings. This is important. The evidence shows that human reasoning began in a dark place into which over the course of time light has been let in by our human probing for understanding of the place into which we find ourselves born.
To be CONTINUED