Sacred Texts  Sky Lore  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, by Alexander Koyré, [1957], at

p. 206

IX. God and the World:


Isaac Newton

It is difficult to tell what the reasons were that determined Newton to enlarge, in the Latin edition (translation) of his Opticks, the number of Queries appended by him to the third book of his work, and to include among the additional ones two rather long and extremely important and interesting papers which, in contradistinction to the purely technical Queries of the first English edition, deal, not with optical, but with methodological, epistemological and metaphysical problems.1

The publication of Raphson's book could not have been the motive: the De spatio reali was published in 1702, the Latin translation of the Opticks in 1706; but the English edition appeared in 1704 and if Newton wanted to make his position clear in relation to Raphson's, he could, and should have done it in 1704. It is possible, in my opinion—though it is only a conjecture—that it was the publication of Dr. George Cheyne's Philosophical 

p. 207

[paragraph continues] Principles of Natural Religion that gave Newton the incentive, usually lacking, to come into the open.2

Now, be this as it may, it is these Queries (which, curiously enough, seem to have been ignored by Berkeley) which build the subject of the famous polemics between Leibniz and Clarke. It is, indeed, in these Queries (21 and 22) that, in a much more precise and clear manner than anywhere else—the General Scholium of the second edition of the Principia not excluded—Newton states his conceptions about the purpose and aim of philosophy and develops, at the same time, his general world-view: an extremely interesting and fairly consistent system of "corpuscular philosophy"—already sketched in his letters to Bentley—asserting the fundamental unity of matter and light, and presenting the material components of the universe, that is, hard, indivisible particles, as constantly acted upon by quite a system of various non-material attractive and repulsive forces. Thus Query 20 (28 in the second edition) explains at length the physical (astronomical) inadmissibility of the plenum (a completely full space would oppose such a strong resistance to motion that it would be practically impossible and would have ceased long ago), as well as the physical (astronomical) admissibility of the celestial spaces’ being filled with an extremely thin, rare and tenuous ether, of which the density can be made as small as we wish (is not our air "at the height of 70, 140, 210 miles 100,000, 100,000,000,000 or 100,000,000,000,000 times rarer, and so on" than on the earth?), which implies the granular structure of this ether, the existence of a vacuum and the rejection of a continuous medium, and concludes:3

p. 208

And for rejecting such a Medium, we have the Authority of those oldest and most celebrated Philosophers of Greece and Phoenicia, who made a Vacuum, and Atoms, and the Gravity of Atoms, the first Principles of their Philosophy; tacitly attributing Gravity to some other Cause than dense Matter. Later Philosophers banish the Consideration of such a Cause out of natural Philosophy, feigning Hypotheses for explaining all things mechanically, and referring other Causes to Metaphysicks: Whereas the main Business of natural Philosophy is to argue from Phaenomena without feigning Hypotheses, and to deduce Causes from Effects, till we come to the very first Cause, which certainly is not mechanical; and not only to unfold the Mechanism of the World, but chiefly to resolve these and such like Questions. What is there in places almost empty of Matter, and whence is it that the Sun and Planets gravitate towards one another, without dense Matter between them? Whence is it that Nature doth nothing in vain; and whence arises all that Order and Beauty which we see in the World? To what end are Comets, and whence is it that Planets move all one and the same way in Orbs concentrick, while Comets move all manner of ways in Orbs very excentrick; and what hinders the fix’d Stars from falling upon one another? How came the Bodies of Animals to be contrived with so much Art, and for what ends were their several Parts? Was the Eye contrived without Skill in Opticks, and the Ear without Knowledge of Sounds? How do the Motions of the Body follow from the Will, and whence is the instinct in Animals? Is not the Sensory of Animals that place to which the sensitive Substance is present, and into which the sensible Species of Things are carried through the Nerves and Brain, that there they may be perceived by their immediate presence to that Substance? And these things being rightly dispatch’d, does it not appear from Phaenomena that there

p. 209

is a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent, who in infinite Space, as it were in his Sensory, sees the things themselves intimately, and thoroughly perceives them, and comprehends them wholly by their immediate presence to himself: Of which things the Images only carried through the Organs of Sense into our little Sensoriums, are there seen and beheld by that which in us perceives and thinks. And though every true Step made in this Philosophy brings us not immediately to the Knowledge of the first Cause, yet it brings us nearer to it, and on that account is to be highly valued.

As for Query 23 (31), it starts with the question:

Have not the small Particles of Bodies certain Powers, Virtues, or Forces, by which they act at a distance, not only upon the Rays of Light for reflecting, refracting, and inflecting them, but also upon one another for producing a great Part of the Phaenomena of Nature? For it's well known, that Bodies act one upon another by the Attractions of Gravity, Magnetism, and Electricity; and these Instances shew the Tenor and the Course of Nature, and make it not improbable but that there may be more attractive Powers than these. For Nature is very consonant and conformable to her self.

Newton does not tell us outright—any more than he does in the Principia—what these various "Powers" are. Just as in the Principia, he leaves that question open, though, as we know, he holds them to be non-mechanical, immaterial and even "spiritual" energy extraneous to matter.'

How these Attractions may be perform’d, I do not here consider. What I call attraction may be perform’d by impulse, or by some other means unknown to me. I use

p. 210

that Word here to signify only in general any Force by which Bodies tend towards one another, whatsoever be the Cause. For we must learn from the Phaenomena of Nature what Bodies attract one another, and what are the Laws and Properties of the Attraction, before we enquire the Cause by which the Attraction is perform’d. The Attractions of Gravity, Magnetism, and Electricity, reach to very sensible distances, and so have been observed by vulgar Eyes, and there may be others which reach to so small distances as hitherto escape Observation; and perhaps electrical Attraction may reach to such small distances, even without being excited by Friction.

Whatever these "Powers" may be, they are, in any case, real forces and perfectly indispensable for the explanation—even a hypothetical one—of the existence of bodies, that is, of the sticking together of the material particles that compose them; a purely materialistic pattern of nature is utterly impossible (and a purely materialistic or mechanistic physics, such as that of Lucretius or of Descartes, is impossible, too):6

The Parts of all homogeneal hard Bodies which fully touch one another, stick together very strongly. And for explaining how this may be, some have invented hooked Atoms, which is begging the Question; and others tell us that Bodies are glued together by rest, that is, by an occult Quality, or rather by nothing; and others, that they stick together by conspiring Motions, that is, by relative rest amongst themselves. I had rather infer from their Cohesion, that their Particles attract one another by some Force, which in immediate Contact is exceeding strong, at small distances performs the chymical Operations above-mention’d, and reaches not far from the Particles with any sensible Effect.

p. 211

It could be argued, of course (and was to be argued by Leibniz) that Newton is wrong to stick to the classical atomic conception of hard, impenetrable, indivisible last components of matter, a conception which implies great difficulties for dynamics. It is indeed, impossible to say what would happen if two absolutely hard bodies should collide. Let us take, for instance, two perfectly similar and perfectly hard, that is, absolutely unyielding and indeformable, bodies, and let them approach each other—the classical case of dynamics—with the same speed. What will they do after the impact? Rebound, as elastic bodies would do? Or stop each other as would be the case with inelastic ones? As a matter of fact, they should not do either—yet, tertium non datur. As we know, Descartes, in order to preserve the principle of conservation of energy, asserted the rebounding. But he was obviously wrong. If we admit, however, that they would stop each other, that is, that motion is lost in every impact, would not the world-machine run down very quickly and very quickly come to a stop? Should we not, in order to avoid these difficulties, discard completely the atomic conception and admit, for instance, that matter is infinitely divisible or that its "last" components are not hard atoms but soft, or elastic, particles, or even "physical monads"? Newton, therefore, continues7

All bodies seem to be composed of hard Particles: for otherwise Fluids would not congeal; as Water, Oils, Vinegar, and Spirit or Oil of Vitriol do by freezing; Mercury by fumes of Lead; Spirit of Nitre and Mercury, by dissolving the Mercury and evaporating the Flegm; Spirit of Wine and Spirit of Urine, by deflegming and mixing them; and Spirit of Urine and Spirit of Salt, by subliming them

p. 212

together to make Sal-amoniac. Even the Rays of Light seem to be hard Bodies; for otherwise they would not retain different Properties in their different Sides. And therefore Hardness may be reckon’d the Property of all uncompounded Matter. At least, this seems to be as evident as the universal Impenetrability of Matter. For all Bodies, so far as Experience reaches, are either hard, or may be harden’d; and we have no other Evidence of universal Impenetrability, besides a large Experience without an experimental Exception. Now if compound Bodies are so very hard as we find some of them to be, and yet are very porous, and consist of Parts which are only laid together; the simple Particles which are void of Pores, and were never yet divided, must be much harder. For such hard Particles being heaped together, can scarce touch one another in more than a few Points, and therefore must be separable by much less Force than is requisite to break a solid Particle, whose Parts touch in all the Space between them, without any Pores or Interstices to weaken their Cohesion. And how such very hard Particles which are only laid together, hold and that so firmly as they do, without the assistance of something which causes them to be attracted or press’d towards one another, is very difficult to conceive.

This "something," as we know, and as it is clear from the very texts I am quoting, cannot be other, smaller, "ethereal" particles, at least not in the last analysis, because the same question, that is, the question about their interaction, can obviously be raised concerning the "ethereal" particles themselves, and cannot be answered by postulating an ultra-ether, which moreover, would imply the existence of an ultra-ultra-ether, and so on.

p. 213

[paragraph continues] Forces of attraction, and also of repulsion are therefore fundamental, though non-material, elements of nature:8

There are therefore Agents in Nature able to make the Particles of Bodies stick together by very strong Attractions. And it is the Business of experimental Philosophy to find them out.

Thus we see it once more: good, empirical and experimental natural philosophy does not exclude from the fabric of the world and the furniture of heaven immaterial or transmaterial forces. It only renounces the discussion of their nature, and, dealing with them simply as causes of the observable effects, treats them—being a mathematical natural philosophy—as mathematical causes or forces, that is, as mathematical concepts or relations. It is, on the contrary, the a priori philosophy of the classical Greek atomists, who at least recognized the existence of void space and probably even the non-mechanical character of gravity, and of course that of Descartes, that is guilty of this exclusion and of the impossible attempts to explain everything by matter and motion. As for Newton himself, he is so deeply convinced of the reality of these immaterial, and, in this sense, transphysical forces, that this conviction enables him to devise a most extraordinary and truly prophetic picture of the general structure of material beings:9

Now the smallest Particles of Matter may cohere by the strongest Attractions, and compose bigger Particles of weaker Virtue; and many of these may cohere and compose bigger Particles whose Virtue is still weaker, and so on for divers Successions, until the Progression end in the biggest Particles on which the Operations in Chymistry,

p. 214

and the Colours of natural Bodies depend, and which by cohering compose Bodies of a sensible Magnitude. If the Body is compact, and bends or yields inward to Pression without any sliding of its Parts, it is hard and elastick, returning to its Figure with a Force rising from the mutual Attraction of its Parts. If the Parts slide upon one another, the Body is malleable or soft. If they slip easily, and are of a fit Size to be agitated by Heat, and the Heat is big enough to keep them in Agitation, the Body is fluid; and if it be apt to stick to things, it is humid; and the Drops of every fluid affect a round Figure by the mutual Attraction of their Parts, as the Globe of the Earth and Sea affects a round Figure by the mutual Attraction of its Parts by Gravity.

Moreover, as I have already hinted before, the admission of various immaterial forces acting upon or distributed around the bodies or particles according to strict mathematical laws—or to express it in a more modern way: the admission of the existence of different fields of forces connected with bodies and particles—enables us, and that is an invaluable advantage, to superimpose them one upon the other, and even to transform them into their contraries. Indeed,10

Since Metals dissolved in Acids attract but a small quantity of the Acid, their attractive Force can reach but to a small distance from them. And as in Algebra, where affirmative Quantities vanish and cease, there negative ones begin; so in Mechanicks, where Attraction ceases, there a repulsive Virtue ought to succeed. And that there is such a Virtue, seems to follow from the Reflexions and Inflexions of the Rays of Light. For the Rays are repelled by Bodies in both these Cases, without the immediate Contact of the

p. 215

reflecting or inflecting Body. It seems also to follow from the Emission of Light; the Ray so soon as it is shaken off from a shining Body by the vibrating Motion of the Parts of the Body, and gets beyond the reach of Attraction, being driven away with exceeding great Velocity. For that Force which is sufficient to turn it back in Reflexion, may be sufficient to emit it. It seems also to follow from the Production of Air and Vapour. The Particles when they are shaken off from Bodies by Heat or Fermentation, so soon as they are beyond the reach of the Attraction of the Body, receding from it, and also from one another with great Strength, and keeping at a distance, so as sometimes to take up above a Million of Times more space than they did before in the form of a dense Body. Which vast Contraction and Expansion seems unintelligible, by feigning the Particles of Air to be springy and ramous, or rolled up like Hoops, or by any other means than a repulsive Power.

Thus, the admission of immaterial "virtues" offers us an immediate and elegant solution of the most important and crucial problem of elasticity, or "springiness" of bodies; and vice versa, this very solution demonstrates the impossibility of explaining this property of bodies by purely mechanical means (as Descartes and Boyle tried to do) and therefore confirms the insufficiency of pure materialism not only for philosophy in general, but also for natural philosophy. As a matter of fact, without the immaterial Powers and Virtues, there would not be any Nature to philosophize about, because there would be no cohesion, no unity and no motion; or if there were, at the beginning, it would have ceased long ago. On the contrary, if we admit the double, material as well as immaterial, structure of Nature,11

p. 216

[paragraph continues] . . . Nature will be very conformable to her self and very simple, performing all the great Motions of the heavenly Bodies by the Attraction of Gravity which intercedes those Bodies, and almost all the small ones of their Particles by some other attractive and repelling Powers which intercede the Particles. The vis inertiae is a passive Principle by which Bodies persist in their Motion or Rest, receive Motion in proportion to the Force impressing it, and resist as much as they are resisted. By this Principle alone there never could have been any Motion in the World. Some other Principle was necessary for putting Bodies into Motion; and now they are in Motion, some other Principle is necessary for conserving the Motion. For from the various Composition of two Motions, ’tis very certain that there is not always the same quantity of Motion in the World. For if two Globes joined by a slender Rod, revolve about their common Center of Gravity with an uniform Motion, while that Center moves on uniformly in a right Line drawn in the Plane of their circular Motion; the Sum of the Motions of the two Globes, as often as the Globes are in the right Line described by their common Center of Gravity, will be bigger than the Sum of their Motions, when they are in a Line perpendicular to that right Line. By this Instance it appears that Motion may be got or lost.11a But by reason of the Tenacity of Fluids, and Attrition of their Parts, and the Weakness of Elasticity in Solids, Motion is much more apt to be lost than got, and is always upon the Decay. For Bodies which are either absolutely hard, or so soft as to be void of Elasticity, will not rebound from one another. Impenetrability makes them only stop. If two equal Bodies meet directly in vacuo, they will by the Laws of Motion stop where they meet, and lose all their Motion, and remain in rest, unless they be elastick, and receive new Motion from their Spring.

p. 217

Yet, even if they be elastic, they cannot be absolutely elastic, and thus, by each and every impact, some motion (that is, momentum) will be lost. And if the world were full, as the Cartesians want it to be, then the "vortical" motion assumed by Descartes would cease very quickly, because12

[paragraph continues] . . . unless the Matter were void of all Tenacity and Attrition of Parts, and Communication of Motion (which is not to be supposed,) the Motion would constantly decay. Seeing therefore the variety of Motion that we find in the World is always decreasing, there is a necessity of conserving it and recruiting it by active Principles,

that is, in the last analysis by the constant action in the world of the Omnipresent and All-powerful God. Newton therefore continues:13

All these things being consider’d, it seems probable to me, that God in the Beginning form’d Matter in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable Particles, of such Sizes and Figures, and with such other Properties, and in such Proportion to Space, as most conducted to the End for which he form’d them; and that these primitive Particles being Solids, are incomparably harder than any porous Bodies compounded of them; even so very hard, as never to wear or break in pieces; no ordinary Power being able to divide what God himself made one in the first Creation. While the Particles continue entire, they may compose Bodies of one and the same Nature and Texture in all Ages: But should they wear away, or break in pieces, the Nature of Things depending on them, would be changed. Water and Earth, composed of old worn Particles and Fragments of Particles, would not be of the same Nature and Texture now, with Water and Earth composed of entire

p. 218

[paragraph continues] Particles in the Beginning. And therefore, that Nature may be lasting, the Changes of corporeal Things are to be placed only in the various Separations and new Associations and Motions of these permanent Particles; compound Bodies being apt to break, not in the midst of solid Particles, but where those Particles are laid together, and only touch in a few Points.

It seems to me farther, that these Particles have not only a Vis inertiae, accompanied with such passive Laws of Motion as naturally result from that Force, but also that they are moved by certain active Principles. . . .

and it is the action of these principles, or, more exactly, the action of God by means of these principles that gives to the world its structure and order, and it is this structure and order that enables us to recognize that the world is an effect of choice, and not chance or necessity. Natural philosophy—at least the good one, that is, the Newtonian and not the Cartesian—thus transcends itself and leads us to God:14

. . . by the help of these Principles, all material Things seem to have been composed of the hard and solid Particles above-mention’d, variously associated in the first Creation by the Counsel of an intelligent Agent. For it became him who created them to set them in order. And if he did so, it's unphilosophical to seek for any other Origin of the World, or to pretend that it might arise out of Chaos by the mere Laws of Nature; though being once form’d, it may continue by those Laws for many Ages. For while Comets move in very excentrick Orbs in all manner of Positions, blind Fate could never make all the Planets move one and the same way in Orbs concentrick, some inconsiderable Irregularities excepted, which may have risen

p. 219

from the mutual Actions of Comets and Planets upon one another, and which will be apt to increase, till this System wants a Reformation. Such a wonderful Uniformity in the Planetary System must be allowed the Effect of Choice. And so must the Uniformity in the Bodies of Animals. . . .

All that, and much more besides,15

[paragraph continues] . . . can be the effect of nothing else than the Wisdom and Skill of a powerful ever-living Agent, who being in all Places, is more able by his Will to move the Bodies within his boundless uniform Sensorium, and thereby to form and reform the Parts of the Universe, than we are by our Will to move the parts of our own Bodies. And yet we are not to consider the World as the Body of God, or the several Parts thereof, as the Parts of God. He is an uniform Being, void of Organs, Members or Parts, and they are his Creatures subordinate to him, and subservient to his Will; and he is no more the Soul of them, than the Soul of Man is the Soul of the Species of Things carried through the Organs of Sense into the place of its Sensation, where it perceives them by means of its immediate Presence, without the Intervention of any third thing. The Organs of Sense are not for enabling the Soul to perceive the Species of Things in its Sensorium, but only for conveying them thither; and God has no need of such Organs, he being everywhere present in the Things themselves. And since Space is divisible in infinitum, and Matter is not necessarily in all places, it may be also allow’d that God is able to create Particles of Matter of several Sizes and Figures, and in several Proportions to Space, and perhaps of different Densities and Forces, and thereby to vary the Laws of Nature, and make Worlds of several sorts in several Parts of the Universe. At least, I see nothing of Contradiction in all this,

p. 220

concludes Newton, who could have added that in the Principia he had already shown—without insisting upon it—that the inverse square law of attraction, the actual law of this world, was by no means the only possible—although the most convenient one—and that God, had He wanted to, could have adopted another. As he could have quoted his friend Robert Boyle who believed that God had actually tried out, in different worlds, different laws of motion; or Joseph Raphson who had just expressed the same opinion. Yet he did not. As he did not quote Henry More when he made infinite space the sensorium of the nevertheless transcendent God.

Next: X. Absolute Space and Absolute Time: God's Frame of Action