Saturday, January 10, 2009

Jesus-Newton Smackdown Update 2

As promised (or threatened), physicist Bob Park offers the first installment (9 January) of the comparison of the influence of Jesus and isaac Newton.

No big surprises, which means some nice wit, but also some shallow views, for example in what passes for discussion of history and religion--but no one turns to that source for historical or theological analysis, and the self-deprecating aspect of the wit helps to make up for some of the duds in the argument. His main point (neither surprising nor subtle): Religion has brought us stupidity and war; science has brought us knowledge and peace:
WN promised to contrast Jesus of Nazareth with Isaac Newton, who came
along 16 centuries later. What was I thinking? A third of the all the
people on Earth count themselves as followers of Jesus. Do I need 2.2
billion people mad at me? They believe Jesus, an itinerant Galilean
preacher and healer, to be the divine Son of God. All that’s known about
him comes from the four gospels. The earliest copies are in Greek and,
according to biblical scholar Bart Ehrman in “Misquoting Jesus” (Harper,
2005) they contain a multitude of mistakes and intentional alterations by
earlier translators. In 585BC, long before Jesus, the Greek philosopher
Thales of Mellitus concluded that every observable effect must have a
physical cause. The discovery of causality is now taken to mark the birth
of science, and Thales is immortalized as its father. But causality also
means the death of superstition. What went on in the 1600 years between
Jesus and Newton? It was the Middle Ages; religious superstition was the
dominant belief.

Himself a devout Christian, Newton was a Unitarian; he did not accept the
doctrine of the Holy Trinity and spent more time on his religious writings
than on the laws of motion. He discovered the laws of gravity and motion,
and invented calculus to derive the orbits of the planets. Also an
alchemist and brilliant experimentalist, he used a prism to decomposed
sunlight into its constituent colors, and invented the reflecting
telescope to avoid chromatic aberration. His greatest contribution was to
show that natural law can be described by differential equations, leading
to hope that science may someday explain everything. There is, in any
case, no other way of knowing. See: Robert L. Park, "Superstition: Belief
in the Age of Science" (Princeton, 2008). Newton became a bit strange in
later life (who doesn’t?) and worked on a literal interpretation of the

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