Sunday, July 23, 2006


An Apple one Day may Keep the Whys Away?

As you are aware, that in the course of this blog, I have been speaking about this division in our methods of understanding. That is where science considers only the “how” questions and leaves the “why” to the purview of philosophy. You might wonder, have all scientists of the modern era thought as such? In attempting to address this, I suggest you might first agree, that the person who gave science its most explosive initial boost, that lead us to the methods and formalisms of the our new perspective, would have been Isaac Newton (1643 - 1727)
Now the first question to ask is, if Newton thought as many scientists do today, that there truly is no “why” to nature? To answer this, I will refer to Newton’s and arguably science's greatest work, which he entitled, “Principia Mathematica[1687]. This sometimes is just improperly referred to as simply, the “Law of Gravity”. However, it takes in much more than what we understand as the attraction of gravity, for it envelopes what was thought to be at the time, the nature of all movement and impetus of all bodies. Hence, it is more appropriately reverenced as, “Newton’s Mechanics”. We will look again more over the course of this blog, to Newton and his mechanics. However, for now, we will focus on this issue of what he might have thought of science’s role in terms of the expansion of human understanding.

So as I said for our first query , did Newton totally omit the “why”, as something able to offer understanding of the world? Below I quote from the conclusion section of his ‘Principia’ entitled, “General Scholium”:

“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 mutually, he hath placed those systems at immense distances one from another.”

What you have read above, is in reference to what Newton realized, should be a troubling result of gravity being universal in both its scope and influence. He understood, that if this was truly the case, that such a force, should then inevitably lead to all matter in the cosmos to collapse in upon itself. A considered consequence, today referred to as, the “Big Crunch”. Since this was not obviously the perceived case, Newton therefore surmised, that the universe and its contents, must be so both distantly and sparsely spaced, that the force of gravity has little effect in this regard. What however is also interesting to note here, is “why” he considers this to be so. For Newton, there was this aspect of “why”, that must be coupled with the “how”. Now I’m not proposing that Newton’s thoughts on this are correct, for as you know, the beginnings and the fate of the universe, still remain an open question. What I do find interesting, is that in some sense,Newton considered the “why” as part of the explanation of the world..

One might now think that in Newton’s day, science still viewed “why”, as a valid question . But now the plot thickens, for we are about to observe signs, that the riff forming between the disciplines of philosophy and science, has by this time already begun. For at nearly the summation of his great treaties he states:

“But hitherto I have not been able to discover the cause of those properties of gravity from phænomena, and I frame no hypotheses; for whatever is not deduced from the phænomena 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 phænomena, 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.”
Now with this we find Newton saying something like what was paraphrased by Hugh Grant, in the movie Mickey Blue Eyes, and that is, “forgetta about it”! For although Newton had previously admitted, that there was and is most surely a “why” to nature, that in terms of discovery of its laws, this would prove to be of no utility. Newton tells us, that he is convinced that the holding of such questions in our minds, will not help in such discoveries. In fact, he contends they will hamper them. However, as I have already demonstrated, science both requires and utilizes things, that go outside of the limits that Newton suggests should be considered the bounds of scientific method, in its practice. Here we discover, that in Newton’s time, there already appears to be forming, what I would recognize as almost a schizophrenic and hypocritical nature to modern science. However, this is only intended to indicate the state of how things were, in the time of Newton. I in no way want you to understand, that Newton was the instigator or its beginning. The thing I would care to emphasize, was that Newton, due his place and stature in modern science, had then and still today, great influence.

We have here discovered, that in the time of Newton, this idea of the “why” questions having no place in science, was already firmly set. The eventual consequence of this position, was to lead science first to propose and then later to insist, that there is no “why” at all. We have also previously discovered, that with the Greeks, this was not so. Therefore, we have now further narrowed where we must search to find its cause and beginnings.

I believe it was Galileo, not Newton, who is considered "The Father of Modern Science." It may have started with him.

Yes, Newton sort of throws his hands up on the "Why?", even as he asks it! On the other hand, he is in a position of special importance in late 1600's England, and learned from Galileo's mistake (taking on the church, and quite vociferously).

Another point: wasn't Newton quite religious? Wasn't the Why? of it's day answered: "Because God made it so. It's a mystery. Don't waste your time thinking any more on it."

Today, we have many people, at Perimeter and at the other institutes of Advanced Study, investigating the "Why?" In fact they make bold assumptions from the ground up. Good. The "practical scientist" e.g. the experiment scientist, doesn't do this.

Such a person (usually found at Universities, government weapons labs, etc.) says, we know "this", let's seek to push the limits on "this" by digging deeper. Such is called a "top-down" approach. Lee Smolin and others speculate from a "bottoms-up" approach.

We need both, IMO.
Hi Steve,

Yes Newton was religious yet what he believed if made public would have had him branded a heretic and so he keep such opinion to himself. Actually it’s not so much a belief in religion I connect with the why, yet rather the validity of the question itself. To do this first requires separating purpose from intent, as to consider perhaps there could be the former while not the latter. What I’m saying is the two things are always taken as to have the first requiring the other when it simply could be that all purpose is being a characteristic required to have a reality, such that it being a requirement of quality just as truth and beauty are.


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