Berman on Newton, Positivism & Occultism
The following selections are from Morris Berman‘s 1981 book The Reenchantment of the World, a critique of the modern West by an historian of science who is animated by the notion that “something is wrong with our entire world view.” (The book concludes with an affirmation of the world view developed by anthropologist and cybernetics guru Gregory Bateson.) [Excerpts from pages 29-32, 34-5, & 109-17 in the Bantam paper edition.]
More than any other individual, Sir Isaac Newton is associated with the scientific world view of modern Europe. Like Galileo, Newton combined rationalism and empiricism into a new method; but unlike Galileo, he was hailed by Europe as a hero rather than having to recant his views and spend his mature years under house arrest. Most important, the methodological combination of reason and empiricism became, in Newton’s hands, a whole philosophy of nature which he (unlike Galileo) was successful in stamping upon Western consciousness at large.What made the eighteenth century the Newtonian century was the solution to the problem of planetary motion, a problem that, it was commonly believed, not even the Greeks had been able to solve (the Greeks, it should be noted, took a more positive view of their own achievement). Bacon had derided the ancient learning, but he did not speak for the majority of Europeans. The strong revival of classical learning in the sixteenth century, for example, reflected the belief that despite the enormous problems with the Greek cosmological model, their epoch was and would remain the true Golden Age of mankind. Newton’s precise mathematical description of a heliocentric solar system changed all that; he not only summed up the universe in four simple algebraic formulas, but he also accounted for hitherto unexplained phenomena, made accurate predictions, clarified the relation between theory and experiment, and even sorted out the role of God in the whole system. Above all, Newton’s system was atomistic: the earth and sun, being composed of atoms themselves, behaved in the same way that any two atoms did, and vice versa. Thus both the smallest and the largest objects in the universe were seen to obey identical laws. The Moon’s relationship to the earth was the same as that of a falling apple. The mystery of nearly two millennia was over: one could be reassured that the heavens that confront us on a starry night held no more secrets than a few grains of sand running through our fingers.
Newton deliberately titled his major work, popularly called the Principia, the Principles of Mathematical Natural Philosophy (1686), the two adjectives serving to emphasize his rejection of Descartes, whose Principles of Philosophy he regarded as a collection of unproven hypotheses. Step by step he analyzed Descartes’ propositions about the natural world and demonstrated their falsity. For example, Descartes envisaged the matter of the universe circulating in whirlpools, or vortices. Newton was able to show that this theory contradicted the work of Kepler, which seemed quite reliable; and that if one experimented with models of vortices by spinning buckets of fluid (water, oil, pitch), the contents would eventually slow down and stop, indicating that on Descartes’ hypothesis the universe would have come to a standstill long ago. Despite his attacks on Descartes’ views, it is clear from recent research that Newton was a Cartesian right up to the publication of the Principia; and when one reads the work, one is struck by an awesome fact: Newton made the Cartesian world view tenable by falsifying all of its details.
In other words, although Descartes’ facts were wrong and his theories insupportable, the central Cartesian outlook — that the world is a vast machine of matter and motion obeying mathematical laws — was thoroughly validated by Newton’s work. For all of Newton’s brilliance, the real hero (some would say ghost) of the Scientific Revolution was Rene Descartes.
But Newton did not have his triumph so easily. His entire view of the cosmos hinged on the law of universal gravitation, or gravity, and even after it had been given an exact mathematical formulation, no one knew just what this attraction was. Cartesian thinkers pointed out that their mentor had wisely restricted himself to motion by direct impact, and ruled out what scientists would later call action-at-a-distance. Newton, they argued, has not explained gravity, but merely stated its effects, and thus it really is, in his system, an occult property. Where is this “gravity” that he makes so much of? It can be neither seen, nor heard, nor felt, nor smelled. It is, in short, as much a fiction as the vortices of Descartes.
Privately, Newton agonized over this judgment. He felt that his critics were correct. Early in 1692 or 1693 he wrote his friend the Reverend Richard Bentley the following admission:
That gravity should be innate, inherent, and essential to matter, so that one body may act upon
another at a distance through a vacuum, without the mediation of anything else, by and through
which their action and force may be conveyed from one to another, is to me so great an
absurdity that I believe no man who has in philosophical matters a competent faculty of
thinking can ever fall into it. Gravity must be caused by an agent acting constantly according
to certain laws, but whether this agent be material or immaterial I have left to the consideration
of my readers.
Publicly, however, Newton adopted a stance that established, once and for all, the philosophical relationship between appearance and reality, hypothesis and experiment. In a section of the Principia entitled “God and Natural Philosophy”, he wrote:
Hitherto we have explained the phenomena of the heavens and of our sea by the power of
gravity, but have not yet assigned the cause of this power. This is certain, that it must proceed
from a cause that penetrates to the very centers of the sun and planets…But hitherto I have not
been able to discover the cause of those properites of gravity from phenomena, and I frame no
hypotheses; for whatever is not deduced from the phenomena is to be called a hypothesis, and
hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have
no place in experimental philosophy.
Newton was echoing the major theme of the Scientific Revolution: our goal is how, not why. That I cannot explain gravity is irrelevant. I can measure it, observe it, make predictions based on it, and this is all the scientist has to do. If a phenomenon is not measurable, it can “have no place in experimental philosophy.” This philosophical position, in its various forms called “positivism”, has been the public face of modern science down to the present day….
To summarize our discussion of the Scientific Revolution, it is necessary to note that in the course of the seventeenth century Western Europe hammered out a new way of perceiving reality. The most important change was the shift from quality to quantity, from “why” to “how”. The universe, once seen as alive, possessing its own goals and purposes, is now a collection of inert matter, hurrying around endlessly and meaninglessly, as Alfred North Whitehead put it. What constitutes an acceptable explanation has thus been radically altered. The acid test of existence is quantifiability, and there are no more basic realities in any object than the parts into which it can be broken down. Finally, atomism, quantifiability, and the deliberate act of viewing nature as an abstraction from which one can distance oneself — all open the possibility that Bacon proclaimed as the true goal of science: control. The Cartesian or technological paradigm is, as stated above, the equation of truth with utility, with the purposive manipulation of the environment. The holistic view of man as a part of nature, as being at home in the cosmos, is so much romantic claptrap. Not holism, but domination of nature; not the ageless rhythm of ecology, but the conscious management of the world; not (to take the process to its logical end point) “the magic of personality, (but) the fetishism of commodities” [this is a reference to Marx]. In the mind of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, medieval man (or woman) had been a passive spectator of the physical world. The new mental tools of the seventeenth century made it possible to change all that. It was now within our power to have heaven on earth; and the fact that it was a material heaven hardly made it less valuable.
Nevertheless, it was the Industrial Revolution that put the Scientific Revolution on the map. Bacon’s dream of a technological society was not realized in the seventeenth century or even in the eighteenth, although things were beginning to change by 1760. Ideas, as we have said, do not exist in a vacuum. People could regard the mechanical world view as the true philosophy without feeling compelled to transform the world according to its dictates. The relationship between science and technology is very complicated, and it is in fact in the twentieth century that the full impact of the Cartesian paradigm has been most keenly felt. To grasp the meaning of the Scientific Revolution in Western history we must consider the social and economic milieu that served to sustain this new way of thinking. The sociologist Peter Berger was correct when he said that ideas “do not succeed in history by virtue of their truth but by virtue of their relationships to specific social processes.” Scientific ideas are no exception….
It should also be noted that Newton’s belief that he was part of the aurea catena, the “golden chain” of magi, or unique figures designated by God in each age to receive the ancient Hermetic [ie, magical] wisdom, was reinforced by the circumstances of his birth. He was born prematurely, on Christmas Day 1642, and was not expected to live. Indeed, that particular parish had a high rate of infant mortality, and Newton later believed that his survival (as well as his escaping the ravages of the plague while still a young man) signified divine intervention…. Newton went into extreme rages in his arguments over priority with men such as Hooke and Leibnitz, and regarded the system of the world described in the Principia as his personal property. He was certain that “God revealed himself to only one prophet in each generation,” and this made parallel discoveries improbable. At the bottom of one alchemical notebook Newton inscribed as an anagram of his Latin name, Isaacus Neuutonus, the phrase: Jeova sanctus unus — Jehovah the holy one….
…we are talking about the creator of the modern scientific outlook, and that outlook, the insistence that everything be totally predictable and rationally calculable (“kill anything that moves,” as Philip Slater puts it) cannot be separated from its pathological basis….
The schizophrenic, wrote the anthropologist Geza Roheim, is the magician who has failed. Despite his eventual nervous breakdown, Newton was no psychotic; but that he bordered on a type of madness, and allayed it with a totally death-oriented view of nature, is beyond doubt. What is significant, however, is not his view of nature itself, but the broad agreement that it found, the excitement that it generated. Newton was the magician who succeeded. Instead of remaining some sort of isolated crank, he was able to get all of Europe “to join in the grand obsessive design,” becoming president of the Royal Society and being buried, in 1727, amidst pomp and glory in Westminster Abbey in what was literally an international event. With the acceptance of the Newtonian world view, it might be argued, Europe went collectively out of its mind.
Where does Newton’s Hermeticism fit into all of this? We have already seen that he regarded himself as the inheritor of an archaic tradition… a collection of church-related texts believed, during the Renaissance, to have been inspired by knowledge that dated back to the time of Moses and which embodied the secrets of matter and the universe. Newton’s alchemical library was indeed large, and his alchemical experiments were a major feature of his life down to 1696 when he moved to London to become master of the Mint. Newton was connected to alchemy by something that was integrally related to his megalomania about inheriting the sacred tradition: his conviction that matter was not inert but required an active, or hylarchic [= ruling over matter], principle for its motion. In alchemy Newton hoped to find the microcosmic correlate to gravitational attraction, which he had already established on the macrocosmic level. As Gregory Bateson has rightly remarked, Newton did not discover gravity; he invented it. This invention, however, was part of a much larger quest: Newton’s search for the system of the world, the secret of the universe — an ancient riddle stretching back, as Keynes said, to the Babylonians. The Hermetic tradition was thus the framework of early Newtonian thought, and gravity merely a name for the hylarchic principle that he was certain had to exist…. Over the years, however, as the result of a self-repression that had an important political motivation behind it, he gradually evolved into a mechanical philosopher.
English interest in alchemy, and mysticism in general, became intense during the period of Newton’s childhood, the Civil War and after. More alchemical and astrological texts were translated into English during 1650-60 than in the entire preceding century. The reasons for this increased interest were largely political. Even today, one’s view of matter and force is inevitably a religious question; and in the context of the seventeenth century, religious questions were typically political issues as well. At one level, the Civil War signified the breakdown of a feudal economy; the opposition of the new bourgeoisie, with its laissez-faire outlook, to the monopolistic practices of the crown. This economic struggle was reflected politically in the conflict between Royalists and Parliamentarians, and religiously in the triumph of Puritanism. But the war had another dimension… the attempt, on the part of a vast number of sects, to fight the crown, and later the Parliamentarians, with the ideology of communism, or what Engels called utopian socialism, and to argue for direct knowledge of God as opposed to salvation either through works or blind faith. The religion of these numerous groups –Levellers, Diggers, Muggletonians, Familists, Behmenists, Fifth Monarchy Men, Ranters, Seekers– was in many cases some combination of Hermeticism, Paracelsism, or soteriological alchemy, and hence they were often linked in the public mind with what was called “enthusiasm”, that is, immoderation in religious beliefs, including possession by God or prophetic frenzy. All mystical experiences, naturally enough, came under this heading, and many of the radicals had clearly had such ecstatic insights. It “was among the mystical sects,” writes Keith Thomas, “that alchemy struck some of its deepest roots.” …At the center of these beliefs was a view of nature directly opposed to the new science: the notion that God was present in everything, that matter was alive (pantheism); that change occurred via internal conflict (dialectical reason) rather than rearrangement of parts; and that–in contrast to the hierarchical views of the Church of England– any individual could attain enlightenment and have direct experience of the Godhead (soteriological alchemy). The attempt of the lower classes to hang onto Hermetic notions reflected a class split… During this period, then, Hermeticism had an unmistakably socialist edge.
The political threat inherent in the occult world view, however, went far beyond the attack on property and privilege espoused by most of these radical sects. It included: outright atheism; rejection of monogamy and an affirmation of the pleasures of the body; demands for religious toleration, as well as for the abolition of the tithe and the state church; contempt for the regular clergy; and rejection of any notions of hierarchy, as well as the concept of original sin…. This intense political/ occult ferment, and the fear of it, received full expression in the 1640’s. In the 1650’s, however, the tide began to turn; and after the Restoration, the mechanical philosophy was seen by the ruling elites as the sober antidote to the enthusiams of the last two decades. From 1655 onward there was a series of conversions to the mechanical philosophy by men who had previously been sympathetic to alchemy.
…Thomas Sprat, in the earliest history of the (Royal) Society (1667), viewed the mechanical philosophy as helping to instill respect for law and order, and claimed it was the job of science and the Royal Society to oppose enthusiasm….
…What Newton did, then, was to delve deeply into the Hermetic wisdom for his answers, while
clothing them in the idiom of the mechanical philosophy.
The centerpiece of the Newtonian system, gravitational attraction, was in fact the Hermetic principle of sympathetic forces, which Newton saw as a creative principle, a source of divine energy in the universe. Although he presented this idea in mechanical terms, his unpublished writings reveal his commitment to the cornerstone of all occult systems: the notion that mind exists inmatter and can control it (original participation)…. As R.S. Westfall puts it, alchemy was Newton’s most enduring passion, and the Principia something of an interruption of this larger quest….
In the modern empirical sense, there was nothing “scientific” about the shift from Hermeticism to mechanism. The change was not the result of a series of careful experiments on the nature of matter, and indeed, it is no more difficult to visualize the earth as a living organism than it is to see it as a dead, mechanical obiect. The forces that triumphed in the second half of the seventeenth century were those of bourgeois ideology and laissez-faire capitalism. Not only was the idea of living matter heresy to such groups; it was also economically inconvenient. A dead earth ruptures the delicate ecological balance that was maintained in the alchemical tradition, but if nature is dead, there are no restraints on exploiting it for profit. Loving cultivation becomes rape; and that, to me, is most clearly what industrial society in general (not just capitalism) represents.