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

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X. Absolute Space and Absolute Time:


Berkeley & Newton

It is certainly Raphson's interpretation, or, it would be better to say, Raphson's disclosure of the metaphysical background of Newtonianism, that Bishop Berkeley had in mind, when, in 1710, in his Principles of Human Knowledge, he not only made a vigorous attack upon its fundamental concepts, absolute space and absolute time, but also pointed out the great danger that they implied from the theological point of view. One of the chief advantages of the radical immaterialistic and sensualistic empiricism advocated by Berkeley is, according to him, the possibility it gives us of getting rid of these entities, asserted in1

[paragraph continues] . . . a certain celebrated treatise of mechanics: in the entrance of which justly admired treatise, time, space and motion, are distinguished into absolute and relative, true and apparent, mathematical and vulgar; which distinction, as it is at large explained by the author, doth suppose those quantities to have an existence without the mind; and

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that they are ordinarily conceived with relation to sensible things, to which nevertheless, in their own nature, they bear no relation at all.

"This celebrated author," continues Berkeley, who offers us a very precise account (largely in Newton's words) of the theory he is about to criticize, holds that

[paragraph continues] . . . there is an absolute space, which being unperceivable to sense, remains in itself similar and immovable, and relative space to be the measure thereof, which being movable, and defined by its situation in respect of sensible bodies, is vulgarly taken for immovable space.

Berkeley, of course, does not accept this theory; an unperceivable reality is unthinkable and "philosophic considerations of motion doth not imply the being of absolute space distinct from what is perceived by sense and related to bodies," Newton's assertions to the contrary notwithstanding. Moreover, and though last, not least,3

What is here laid down seems to put an end to all those disputes and difficulties which have sprung up amongst the learned concerning the nature of pure space. But the chief advantage arising from it is, that we are freed from that dangerous dilemma, to which several who have employed their thoughts on this subject imagine themselves reduced, to wit, of thinking either that real space is God, or else that there is something beside God which is eternal, un-created, infinite, indivisible, immutable. Both of which may justly be thought pernicious and absurd notions. It is certain that not a few divines, as well as philosophers of great note, have, from the difficulty they found in conceiving either limit or annihilation of space, concluded it must be

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divine. And some of late have set themselves particularly to show, that the incommunicable attributes of God agree to it. Which doctrines, how unworthy soever it may seem of the divine nature, yet I do not see how we can get clear of it, so long as we adhere to the received opinions.

Berkeley's attack, though it certainly did not affect Newton as strongly as was thought by some of his historians, seems nevertheless to have been the reason, or at least one of the reasons—the second being Leibniz's accusation of introducing, by his theory of universal gravitation, the use of a senseless occult quality into natural philosophy4—that induced Newton to add to the second edition of his Principia the famous General Scholium which expresses so forcefully the religious conceptions that crown and support its empirico-mathematical construction and thus reveal the real meaning of his "philosophical" method. It seems to me rather probable that he wanted to dissociate himself from the somewhat compromising allies hinted at by Berkeley4a and, by exposing his views in his own manner, to demonstrate—as Bentley had already attempted to do—that natural philosophy, that is, his natural philosophy, leads necessarily not to the denial but to the affirmation of God's existence and of his action in the world. At the same time he obviously does not want to disavow or reject them, and in spite of Berkeley's warning, he asserts not only the existence of absolute time and space but also their necessary connection with God.

Compared to the statements made by Newton in his letters to Bentley—and much more so if compared to Bentley's elaboration of these statements and Newton's own developments in the Queries of the Opticks—Newton's

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pronouncements in the General Scholium, at least those concerning God's action in the world, are not very explicit. Thus, Newton does not tell us anything about the necessity of God's continuous concourse for the preservation of its structure; he seems even to admit that, once started, the motion of the heavenly bodies could continue forever; it is only at their beginning that God's direct intervention appears indispensable. On the other hand, the actual structure of the world (that is, of the solar system) is, of course, asserted to be the result of a conscious and intelligent choice:5

. . . in the celestial spaces where there is no air to resist their motions, all bodies will move with the greatest freedom; and the planets and comets will constantly pursue their revolutions in orbits given in kind and position, according to the laws above explained; but though these bodies may, indeed, continue in their orbits by the mere laws of gravity, yet they could by no means have at first derived the regular position of the orbits themselves from those laws.

The six primary planets are revolved about the sun in circles concentric with the sun, and with motions directed towards the same parts, and almost in the same plane. Ten moons are revolved about the earth, Jupiter, and Saturn, in circles concentric with them, with the same direction of motion, and nearly in the planes of the orbits of those planets; but it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions, since the comets range over all parts of the heavens in very eccentric orbits; for by that kind of motion they pass easily through the orbs of the planets, and with great rapidity; and in their aphelions, where they move the slowest, and are detained the longest, they recede to the greatest

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distances from each other, and hence suffer the least disturbance from their mutual attractions. This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being. And if the fixed stars are the centres of other like systems, these, being formed by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially since the light of the fixed stars is of the same nature with the light of the sun, and from every system light passes into all the other systems; and lest the systems of the fixed stars should, by their gravity, fall on each other, he hath placed those systems at immense distances from one another.

Newton's God is not merely a "philosophical" God, the impersonal and uninterested First Cause of the Aristotelians, or the—for Newton—utterly indifferent and world-absent God of Descartes. He is—or, in any case, Newton wants him to be—the Biblical God, the effective Master and Ruler of the world created by him:6

This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God παντοκράτωρ or Universal Ruler; for God is a relative word, and has a respect to servants; and Deity is the dominion of God not over his own body, as those imagine who fancy God to be the soul of the world, but over servants. The Supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect; but a being, however perfect, without dominion, cannot be said to be Lord God; for we say, my God, your God, the God of Israel, the God of Gods, the Lord of Lords; but we do not say, my Eternal, your Eternal, the Eternal of Israel, the Eternal of Gods; we do not say, my Infinite, or my Perfect: these arc titles which have no respect to servants. The word God usually signifies Lord; but every Lord is not a God. It is

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the dominion of a spiritual being which constitutes a God: a true, supreme, or imaginary God. And from this true dominion it follows that the true God is a living, intelligent, and powerful Being; and from his other perfections, that he is supreme, or most perfect. He is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient; that is, his duration reaches from eternity to eternity; his presence from infinity to infinity; he governs all things, and knows all things that are or can be done.

His duration reaches from eternity to eternity; his presence from infinity to infinity . . . the Newtonian God is, patently, not above time and space: His eternity is sempiternal duration, His omnipresence is infinite extension. This being so, it is clear why Newton insists:7

He is not eternity and infinity, but eternal and infinite; he is not duration or space, but he endures and is present.

[paragraph continues] And yet, like the God of Henry More and of Joseph Raphson, he not only "endures forever and is everywhere present"; but it is "by existing always and everywhere" that "he constitutes duration and space." It is not surprising therefore that8

since every particle of space is always, and every indivisible moment of duration is everywhere, certainly the Maker and Lord of all things cannot be never and nowhere. Every soul that has perception is, though in different times and in different organs of sense and motion, still the same indivisible person. There are given successive parts in duration, coexistent parts in space, but neither the one nor the other in the person of a man, or his thinking principle; and much less can they be found in the thinking substance of God. Every man, so far as he is a thing that has perception, is

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one and the same man during his whole life, in all and each of his organs of sense.

And that,9

He is omnipresent not virtually only, but also substantially; for virtue cannot subsist without substance. In him are all things contained and moved; yet neither affects the other: God suffers nothing from the motion of bodies; bodies find no resistance from the omnipresence of God. It is allowed by all that the Supreme God exists necessarily; and by the same necessity he exists always and everywhere.

Thus "in Him we live, we move and we are," not metaphorically or metaphysically as St. Paul meant it, but in the most proper and literal meaning of these words.

We—that is, the world—are in God; in God's space, and in God's time. And it is because of this ubiquitous and sempiternal co-presence with things that God is able to exercise His dominion upon them; and it is this dominion or, more exactly, the effect of this dominion that reveals to us His otherwise unknowable and incomprehensible essence:10

We know him only by his most wise and excellent contrivances of things, and final causes; we admire him for his perfections; but we reverence and adore him on account of his dominion: for we adore him as his servants; and a god without dominion, providence, and final causes, is nothing else but Fate and Nature. Blind metaphysical necessity, which is certainly the same always and everywhere, could produce no variety of things. All that diversity of natural things which we find suited to different times and places could arise from nothing but the ideas and will of a Being necessarily existing. But, by way of allegory, God is said

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to see, to speak, to laugh, to love, to hate, to desire, to give, to receive, to rejoice, to be angry, to fight, to frame, to work, to build; for all our notions of God are taken from the ways of mankind by a certain similitude, which, though not perfect, has some likeness, however. And thus much concerning God; to discourse of whom from the appearances of things, does certainly belong to Natural Philosophy.

Thus much for God; or for Berkeley. As for gravity, or for Leibniz, Newton explains that he does not introduce into philosophy " occult qualities " and magical causes, but, on the contrary, restricts his investigation to the study and analysis of observable, patent phenomena, renouncing, at least for the time being, the causal explanation of the experientially and experimentally established laws:11

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 centres of the sun and planets, without suffering the least diminution of its force; that operates not according to the quantity of the surfaces of the particles upon which it acts (as mechanical causes used to do), but according to the quantity of the solid matter which they contain, and propagates its virtue on all sides to immense distances, decreasing always as the inverse square of the distances. . . . But hitherto I have not been able to discover the cause of those properties of gravity from phenomena, and I feign no hypotheses; for whatever is not deduced from the phenomena is to be called an hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this philosophy particular propositions are inferred from the

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phenomena, and afterwards rendered general by induction. Thus it was that the impenetrability, the mobility, and the impulsive force of bodies, and the laws of motion and of gravitation, were discovered. And to us it is enough that gravity does really exist, and act according to the laws which we have explained, and abundantly serves to account for all the motions of the celestial bodies, and of our sea.

"I feign no hypotheses . . . "12 Hypotheses non fingo . . . a phrase that became extremely famous and also like all, or nearly all, celebrated utterances torn out of their context, completely perverted in its meaning. "I feign no hypotheses." Of course not; why should Newton "feign hypotheses," that is, fictitious and fanciful conceptions not deduced from phenomena and having therefore no basis in reality? Hypotheses, "whether of occult qualities or mechanical have no place in experimental philosophy"—of course not, as this kind of hypothesis is, by definition, either false or at least unable to conduce to experiments and be checked and confirmed (or disproved) by them. Gravity is not a hypothesis, or an "occult" quality. The existence of gravity, insofar as it is a statement about the behaviour of bodies, or about the existence of centripetal forces in consequence of which bodies, instead of moving in straight lines (as they should, according to the principle or law of inertia), are deflected and move in curves, is a patent fact; the identification of the cosmical "force" which determines the motion of planets with that in consequence to which bodies fall, that is, move towards the center of the earth, is certainly an important discovery. But the assumption of the existence in bodies of a certain force which enables them to act upon other bodies and to attract them is not a

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hypothesis either. Not even one that makes use of occult qualities. It is mere and pure nonsense.

As for "mechanical" hypotheses, that is, those of Descartes, Huygens and Leibniz, they have no place in experimental philosophy simply because they attempt to do something that cannot be done, as Newton hints rather broadly, indeed at the very beginning of the General Scholium where he shows that "the hypothesis of vortices is pressed with many difficulties." Mechanical—feigned—hypotheses, as his pupil and editor Roger Cotes explains in his famous preface to the second edition of the Principia, are the special and favorite dish of the Cartesians, who, moreover, are conduced by them into the assumptions of truly and really "occult" properties and realities. Thus having explained the sterility of Aristotelian and scholastic philosophy of nature, Cotes continues:13

Others have endeavored to apply their labors to greater advantage by rejecting that useless medley of words [of the scholastic natural philosophy]. They assume that all matter is homogeneous, and that the variety of forms which is seen in bodies arises from some very plain and simple relations of the component particles. And by going from simple things to those which are more compounded they certainly proceed right, if they attribute to those primary relations no other relations than those which Nature has given. But when they take a liberty of imagining at pleasure unknown figures and magnitudes, and uncertain situations and motions of the parts, and moreover of supposing occult fluids, freely pervading the pores of bodies, endued with an all-performing subtility, and agitated with occult motions, they run out into dreams and chimeras, and neglect the true constitution of things, which certainly is not to be

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derived from fallacious conjectures, when we can scarce reach it by the most certain observations. Those who assume hypotheses as first principles of their speculations, although they afterwards proceed with the greatest accuracy from those principles, may indeed form an ingenious romance, but a romance it will still be.

As for Leibniz, whom Cotes does not mention by name, yet clearly, though somewhat parodistically, hints at, he is no better than the Cartesians; or perhaps even worse, as he assumes the existence around "the comets and planets . . . of atmospheres . . . which by their own nature move around the sun and describe conic sections" (an unmistakable allusion to the "harmonic circulation" of the great German mathematician and arch-foe of Newton), a theory which Cotes declares to be a "fable" as fantastic as that of the Cartesian vortices, and of which he presents a rather witty and biting parody:14

Galileo has shown that when a stone projected moves in a parabola, its deflection into that curve from its rectilinear path is occasioned by the gravity of the stone towards the earth, that is, by an occult quality. But now somebody, more cunning than he, may come to explain the cause after this manner. He will suppose a certain subtile matter, not discernible by our sight, our touch, or any other of our senses, which fills the spaces which are near and contiguous to the surface of the earth, and that this matter is carried with different directions, and various, and often contrary, motions, describing parabolic curves. Then see how easily he may account for the deflection of the stone above spoken of. The stone, says he, floats in this subtile fluid, and following its motion, can't choose but describe the same figure. But the fluid moves in parabolic curves, and therefore the

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stone must move in a parabola, of course. Would not the acuteness of this philosopher be thought very extraordinary, who could deduce the appearances of Nature from mechanical causes, matter and motion, so clearly that the meanest man may understand it? Or indeed should not we smile to see this new Galileo taking so much mathematical pains to introduce occult qualities into philosophy, from whence they have been so happily excluded? But I am ashamed to dwell so long upon trifles.

Trifles? As a matter of fact, we are not dealing with trifles. The use of "hypotheses" constitutes, indeed, a deep and dangerous perversion of the very meaning and aim of natural philosophy:15

[paragraph continues] The business of true philosophy is to derive the natures of things from causes truly existent, and to inquire after those laws on which the Great Creator actually chose to found this most beautiful Frame of the World, not those by which he might have done the same, had he so pleased.

Yet the partisans of mechanical hypotheses, that is, once more, the Cartesians—and Leibniz—not only forget this fundamental rule, they go much farther and, by the denial of void space as impossible, they impose upon God a certain determinate manner of action, restrict his power and freedom, and subject him, thus, to necessity; finally, they deny altogether that the world was freely created by God. A teaching not only infamous, but also false (as Newton has shown):16

Therefore they will at last sink into the mire of that infamous herd who dream that all things are governed by fate and not by providence, and that matter exists by the necessity of its nature always and everywhere, being infinite

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and eternal. But supposing these things, it must be also everywhere uniform; for variety of forms is entirely inconsistent with necessity. It must be also unmoved; for if it be necessarily moved in any determinate direction, with any determinate velocity, it will by a like necessity be moved in a different direction with a different velocity; but it can never move in different directions with different velocities; therefore it must be unmoved. Without all doubt this world, so diversified with that variety of forms and motions we find in it, could arise from nothing but the perfectly free will of God directing and presiding over all.

From this fountain it is that those laws, which we call the laws of Nature, have flowed, in which there appear many traces indeed of the most wise contrivance, but not the least shadow of necessity. These therefore we must not seek from uncertain conjectures, but learn them from observations and experiments. He who is presumptuous enough to think that he can find the true principles of physics and the laws of natural things by the force alone of his own mind, and the internal light of his reason, must either suppose that the world exists by necessity, and by the same necessity follows the laws proposed; or if the order of Nature was established by the will of God, that himself, a miserable reptile, can tell what was fittest to be done. All sound and true philosophy is founded on the appearance of things; and if these phenomena inevitably draw us, against our wills, to such principles as most clearly manifest to us the most excellent counsel and supreme dominion of the All-wise and Almighty Being, they are not therefore to be laid aside because some men may perhaps dislike them. These men may call them miracles or occult qualities, but names maliciously given ought not to be a disadvantage to the things themselves, unless these men will say at last that all philosophy ought to be founded in atheism. Philosophy

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must not be corrupted in compliance with these men, for the order of things will not be changed.

We see now clearly why we must not feign hypotheses. Hypotheses, especially mechanical ones, implying the rejection of void space and the assertion of infinity and therefore of the necessity of matter, are not only false; they lead straight away towards atheism.

Mechanical hypotheses concerning gravity, as a matter of fact, deny God's action in the world and push him out of it. It is indeed, practically certain—and this knowledge makes the "feigning of hypotheses" completely nonsensical—that the true and ultimate cause of gravity is the action of the "spirit" of God. Newton therefore concludes his General Scholium:11

And now we might add something concerning a certain most subtle spirit which pervades and lies hid in all gross bodies; by the force and action of which spirit the particles of bodies attract one another at near distances, and cohere, if contiguous; and electric bodies operate to greater distances, as well repelling as attracting the neighbouring corpuscles; and light is emitted, reflected, refracted, inflected, and heats bodies; and all sensation is excited, and the members of animal bodies move at the command of the will, namely, by the vibrations of this spirit, mutually propagated along the solid filaments of the nerves, from the outward organs of sense to the brain, and from the brain into the muscles. But these are things that cannot be explained in few words, nor are we furnished with that sufficiency of experiments which is required to an accurate determination and demonstration of the laws by which this electric and elastic spirit operates.

Next: XI. The Work-Day God and the God of the Sabbath