Myth of Newton’s Clockwork Universe

photo from Wikipedia: “The Clockwork Universe” by Tim Wetherell

In his book The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins turned the watchmaker analogy, used by William Paley to argue for the existence of God, on its head. Paley said if we were to find a watch in a field, even if we didn’t know how it came into existence, the “intricacy of design” in the watch would force us to conclude that it had a maker. Since the natural world shows even more evidence of design than a watch, its existence implies an even greater intelligent Designer or God. However, Dawkins asserted that we now know that natural selection, “the blind, unconscious, automatic process … is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life.” Since it has no mind, vision or foresight, “If it can be said to play the role of the watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.”

Dawkins placed his finger on the necessary assumption in Paley’s argument: there must be a cause for the observed order in nature. Deny this, as Norman Geisler pointed out in the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, and the teleological argument failed, “for the alleged design (if uncaused) would be merely gratuitous.” Despite his affirmation of natural selection and rejection of a causal agent for the evidence of design in nature, Dawkins still recognized the persuasiveness of an argument from design.

Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view. Yet the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with the appearance of design as if by a master watchmaker, impress us with the illusion of design and planning.

Rather like the ball in a tennis match, the notion of a clockwork universe has been batted back-and-forth to both support and undermine the belief in a Creator and/or Sustainer of the universe. Outside of Christian apologetics circles, where Paley’s watchmaker is a favored form of the teleological argument for the existence of God, the clockwork universe analogy is used to deny the belief in a sustaining Creator God. It has even been woven into a myth referred to by Edward (Ted) Davis as the “Newtonian Worldview.” Examples of this Newtonian myth of a clockwork universe are plentiful.

In an article celebrating the 150-year anniversary of Darwin’s theory of evolution, Johnjoe MaFaddon said while Darwin had destroyed the strongest evidence for the existence of a deity, “Two centuries earlier, Newton had banished God from the clockwork heavens.” In his essay on the myth of Newton’s mechanistic cosmology for Galileo Goes to Jail, Davis quoted from Sylvan Schweber’s 1989 essay, “John Herschel and Charles Darwin.” “The metaphor of the mechanical clock in Newton’s construction of the heavens and its legacy illustrate the power of metaphors in the development of scientific thought.” In an earlier essay, Davis quoted the following from the fourth edition of Thomas Greer’s A Brief History of the Western World:

With Aristotle’s laws of motion overthrown, no role remained for a Prime mover, or for Moving Spirits. The hand of God, which once kept the heavenly bodies in their orbits, had been replaced by universal gravitation. Miracles had no place in a system whose workings were automatic and unvarying. Governed by precise mathematical and mechanical laws, Newton’s universe seemed capable of running itself.

But as Stephen Snobelen pointed out in “The Myth of the Clockwork Universe,” the metaphor of a mechanistic, clockwork universe originated with medieval monks. “The myth of Newton’s clockwork universe is one of the most persistent and pervasive myths in the history of science.”  The idea of a “world machine” can be found in the astronomical works of Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253), Johannes de Sacrobosco (1230), and Nicolas of Cusa (1401-64). Copernicus used it in his seminal work, On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres. But it was Nicole Oresema (1325-82) who compared the idea of a world machine to the clockwork universe.

In these early theological contexts, the clockwork analogy has two essential features: God as creator of the clockwork and God as sustainer of the clockwork. Thus it differs from eighteenth- century, nonprovidentialist deism that is committed only to the first element.

Both Davis and Snobelen convincingly demonstrated how Newton himself did not hold to what has been portrayed as a mechanistic, Newtonian worldview. The early advocates of the clockwork universe were “pious, believing Christians;” and if Newton had used the clockwork metaphor, he would have likely used it like the “Christian natural philosophers who went before him.” Snobelen said not a single unambiguous example of Newton referring to the universe as a clockwork system has been identified. Davis noted where Newton’s belief and understanding of God’s dominion “shaped the metaphysical perspective in which he placed his science.”

Deistic, “nonprovidentialist” thinkers like Gottfried Leibniz and Rene Descartes refused to allow God to exercise dominion over creation. According to Davis, Newton saw the Cartesian concept of matter as a path to atheism. Descartes believed matter and extension (space) were necessarily indistinguishable. He thought all motion took place in closed loops; all changes in motion were caused by direct contact, and not by forces acting at a distance (i.e., God’s sustained actions in nature). “Newton claimed that matter ‘does not exist necessarily, but by divine will.’” Snobelen quoted Leibniz, who like Dawkins, turned the clockwork analogy on its head to refute the sustaining acts of God:

Sir Isaac Newton, and his Followers, have also a very odd Opinion concerning the Work of God. According to their Doctrine, God Almighty wants to wind up his Watch from Time to Time: Otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient Foresight to make it a perpetual Motion. Nay, the Machine of God’s making, is so imperfect, according to these Gentlemen; that he is obliged to clean it now and then by an extraordinary Concourse, and even to mend it, as a Clockmaker mends his Work; Who must consequently be so much the more unskilful a Workman, as he is oftner obliged to mend his Work and to set it right.

Snobelen said Leibinz’z idea of a perpetual motion machine implied an idealized Platonic clock, which he contrasted with an unreliable clock that needed frequent rewinding, “the kind of clock that would have been familiar to the original readers of this debate.” Because of the reliability of modern timepieces, we miss the slur Leibniz made here in his use of the clockwork analogy. Before the introduction of the balance spring or pendulum in the late 1600s, watches were very unreliable—sometimes losing minutes or hours of time in a day. It was only after the invention of the balance spring that minute and second hands became standard issue with all watches. So God’s sustaining work in creation was like a clockmaker winding, cleaning and mending his clock.

Newton has been co-opted by some as a “proto-deist” or the person who set the stage for a new rationalism that “set the stage for Enlightenment philosophies to remove God” from the ordering of things. But Snobelen said no deist would accept biblical prophecy as a revelation from God that has been and will be fulfilled in history. But Newton did. Davis said if we ignored the vast theological gulf between Newton and the philosophers who reinterpreted his physics, “we encourage the very opinion the Enlightenment deists wanted us to share: that theology and modern science are fundamentally at odds.”

A biographer of Newton said few things would have angered him more than the belief that “the Principia contained the framework of a universe in which God was no longer vital, or even necessary.” Correspondence between Leibniz and a friend and disciple of Newton’s named Samuel Clarke, which occurred during the last year of Leibniz’a life (1715-1716), explicitly rejected his caricature of God having to wind up His watch from time to time:

The notion of the world being a great Machine, going on without the Interposition of God, as a Clock continues to go without the Assistance of a Clockmaker; in the Notion of Materialism and Fate, and tends (under pretence of making God a Supra-mundane Intelligence) to exclude Providence and God’s government in reality out of the world.

Nevertheless, modern biblical Christians cannot follow Newton into all his theological beliefs. He rejected the doctrine of the Trinity; Davis thought he was an Arian. He also rejected the doctrine of the immortal soul, a personal devil and literal demons. But confusingly, when concluding his above linked essay, Snobelen said:

A careful reading of Newton’s massive corpus, both published and unpublished, reveals that he was, without question, committed to biblical Christianity—even if not always orthodox—and understood his own work, particularly his physics, in providentialist terms, reflective of his theistic and prophetic understanding of the cosmos.

Newton’s anti-trinitarianism is not disputed, and that alone would have him seen as heretical by most of Christianity. So it is unclear why Snobelen would say Newton was “committed to biblical Christianity.” In another essay, he clearly said: “Isaac Newton was a heretic.” He observed that Newton never made a public declaration of his beliefs, knowing that if he did, he had a lot to lose. Newton was aware he had enemies who would pounce upon any revelation of “doctrinal waywardness” to discredit him; he realized how the charge of heresy could damage his reformation of natural philosophy. “Fear of this sort of public relations disaster must have been one of Newton’s greatest deterrents to open preaching.”