iSoul In the beginning is reality.

Physics and theology

The 19th century physicist Ernst Mach is known for his view that all motion is relative, which influenced Albert Einstein. Mach is also known for his book The Science of Mechanics (1883 in German, 1893 in translation), from which the following excerpts about physics and theology are taken (Open Court edition, 1960):

Consolation, [Pascal] used to say, he could find nowhere but in the teachings of Christianity; and all the wisdom of the world availed him not a whit. p.543

Every unbiased mind must admit that the age in which the chief development of the science of mechanics took place, was an age of predominantly theological cast. Theological questions were excited by everything, and modified everything. No wonder, then, that mechanics is colored thereby. p.546

In Leibniz’s correspondence with John Bernoulli, theological questions are repeatedly discussed in the very midst of mathematical disquisitions. Their language is not unfrequently couched in biblical pictures. p.549

Maupertuis, the famous president of the Berlin Academy, and a friend of Frederick the Great, gave a new impulse to the theologizing bent of physics by the enunciation of his principle of least action. In the treatise which formulated this obscure principle … the author declared his principle to be the one which best accorded with the wisdom of the Creator. p.549

Euler magnanimously left the principle [of least action] its name, Maupertuis the glory of the invention, and converted it into something new and really serviceable. … The theological point of view, Euler retained. He claims it is possible to explain phenomena, not only from their physical causes, but also from their purposes. “As the construction of the universe is the most perfect possible, being the handiwork of an all-wise Maker, nothing can be met with in the world in which some maximal or minimal property is not displayed. There is, consequently, no doubt that that all the effects of the world can be derived by the method of maxima and minima from their final causes as well as from their efficient ones.” p.550

Similarly, the notions of the constancy of the quantity of matter, of the constancy of the quantity of motion, of the indestructibility of work or energy, conceptions which completely dominate modern physics, all arose under the influence of theological ideas. The notions in question had their origin in an utterance of Descartes, before mentioned, in the Principles of Philosophy, agreeably to which the quantity of matter and motion originally created in the world–such being the only course compatible with the constancy of the Creator–is always preserved unchanged. The conception of the manner in which this quantity of motion should be calculated was very considerably modified in the progress of the idea from Descartes to Leibniz, and to their successors, and as the outcome of these modifications the doctrine gradually and slowly arose which is now called the “law of the conservation of energy.” But the theological background of these ideas only slowly vanished. p.551

During the entire sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, down to the close of the eighteenth, the prevailing inclination of inquirers was, to find in all physical laws some particular disposition of the Creator. But a gradual transformation of these views must strike the attentive observer. Whereas with Descartes and Leibniz physics and theology were still greatly intermingled, in the subsequent period a distinct endeavor is noticeable, not indeed wholly to discard theology, yet to separate it from purely physical questions. Theological disquisitions were put at the beginning or relegated to the end of physical treatises. Theological speculations were restricted, as much as possible, to the question of creation, that, from this point onward, the way might be cleared for physics. p.551-552

Towards the close of the eighteenth century a remarkable change took place,–a change which was apparently an abrupt departure from the current trend of thought, but in reality was the logical outcome of the development indicated. After an attempt in a youthful work to found mechanics on Euler’s principle of least action, Lagrange, in a subsequent treatment of the subject, declared his intention of utterly disregarding theological and metaphysical speculations, as in their nature precarious and foreign to science. He erected a new mechanical system on entirely different foundations, and no one conversant with the subject will dispute its excellencies. All subsequent scientists of eminence accepted Lagrange’s view, and the present attitude of physics to theology was thus substantially determined. p.552 [Lagrange’s Mécanique analytique was published in 1788.]

Newton never, despite his profound religiosity, mingled theology with the questions of science. … The same may be said of Galileo and Huygens. p.552

It stands to reason that in a stage of civilization in which religion is almost the sole education, and the only theory of the world, people would naturally look at things from a theological point of view, and that they would believe that this view was possessed of competency in all fields of research. p.553 #

… the theological conception of nature itself owes its origin to an endeavor to obtain a more comprehensive view of the world;–the very same endeavor that is at the bottom of physical science.  p.556

In fact, science can accomplish nothing by the consideration of individual facts; from time to time it must cast its glance at the world as a whole. p.556

But now, after a century has elapsed, after our judgment has grown more sober, the world-conception of the encyclopaedists appears to us as a mechanical mythology in contrast to the animistic of the old religions. p.559

Physical science does not pretend to be a complete view of the world; it simply claims that it is working toward such a complete view in the future. The highest philosophy of the scientific investigator is precisely this toleration of an incomplete conception of the world and the preference for it rather than an apparently perfect, but inadequate conception. p.559

# One might update this sentence as follows: It stands to reason that in a stage of civilization in which science is almost the sole education, and the only theory of the world, people would naturally look at things from a scientific point of view, and that they would believe that this view was possessed of competency in all fields of research.

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