Thursday, January 7, 2010

Isaac Newton follow-up (and religion and science)

As chance would have it, the History channel program on Newton in the "Nostradamus" series aired again last night. As noted, it's much more respectable than most other installments, and it features interviews with some very respected scholars in the field, though it does veer off onto the requisite loopy side roads. Given that Newton was interested in prophecy and predicting the end of the world, we not only learn the fateful date—I'll spare you the suspense: it's 2060—but also are treated to the inevitable attempts to match Newton's predictions to subsequent historical occurrences. First, of course, there's the obligatory and disingenuous protestation of innocence ("We're not prostituting ourselves; really!"):
What did he predict correctly that may be a sign his prophecies are coming true? And are those events unfolding now? [cut to close-up of skull]. We will neither refute nor endorse these theories, merely present the evidence.
The key examples are the rebirth of a Jewish commonwealth in 1948 and its conquest of east Jerusalem in the 1967 war. There's some inadvertent humor—or at least evidence of abysmal lack of historical understanding—in one place. According to Newton, "The commandment to return and to build Jerusalem . . . may perhaps come forth not from the Jews themselves, but from some other kingdom friendly to them, and precede their return from captivity, and give occasion to it." Fair enough. (After all, that's what happened the last time, in the case of the Persian empire, as recorded in the Bible.) One scholar says that Newton did not specify which country, but it's possible he was thinking of the British. Fair enough, again. England was a world power. The Jews in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century were not an organized nation and had no political power. In fact, it was only under Cromwell's Commonwealth that they were officially allowed back into England for the first time since their expulsion in 1290. Still, the narrator goes on to say: “After World War II, the British aided in the creation of modern Israel.” Well, uh, . . . no. The British were instrumental in the return of the Jews to Zion when they issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917 supporting the creation of a national home in Palestine, and when they assumed responsibility for the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine. But by the 1930s, faced with Arab resistance, they restricted immigration, and the Zionists engaged in a guerrilla war with what they had come to see as an occupying colonial power. The State of Israel was created when the British abandoned the Mandate rather than sought to fulfill its terms. (The UK abstained from the Partition vote and declined to assist in its implementation.) To recap: looking ahead more than 200 years, Newton got history right. Looking back a mere six decades, and with the advantage of hindsight and reams of books, History channel commits a real howler. I guess we can tell who's smarter here. Can there be something to this prophecy hokum after all?

But back to the big questions.

Will the world end in 2060? I neither believe it nor care; I won't be around for it in any case. Still, the date raises many questions, aside from the obvious (all prophecy of this sort is preposterous because it counteracts all known principles of science). For example, given the virtual popular obsession—all scientific refutations notwithstanding—with the supposed "Mayan Apocalypse" date of 2012, who's right? The towering figure of western physics or the protoastronomers, who, though excelling in observation and calculation, did so for ends suited to the mythopoeic world in which they worked and lived? What's a nervous, irrational person to do? Buy or sell? Build that sunroom or put the money in the bank?

Actually, the history of Newton's so-called non-scientific manuscripts ("Portsmouth Papers") is a story in itself. His heirs did not consider them worth publication, and the two chief modern collections, acquired by economist John Maynard Keynes and the businessman-scholar Abraham Yahuda (notably and accurately described in the program as "a Palestinian Jew") beginning in the 1930s, passed into the ownership of the University of Cambridge and Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, respectively. Specialists have been well acquainted, in general parameters, with Newton's alchemical and heterodox theological interests for some two generations now, but the first public exhibition of the papers in Jerusalem in 2007 brought these ideas to the attention of a wider audience and created a far greater stir than the organizers of the accompanying conference could have hoped for.

Teaching students historical information is difficult enough, but what is hardest yet most important is teaching them historical perspective, which entails the ability to put themselves in the minds of someone else, whose experiences and thoughts may be very different from their own (in that sense, historical understanding should be crucial to true multicultural education, as well). Historical thinking also entails the ability to appreciate complexity and ambiguity rather than to see things in polar oppositions and seek monocausal explanations.

Religion and science is a classic example. Students often assume a fundamental and simplistic conflict between scientific knowledge and presumably benighted theological beliefs. To be sure, we today understand religion and science to be incompatible to the extent that science can allow for no extra-scientific phenomena or explanations. Historically, however, theologians believed that God normally worked through the secondary causation of natural laws, but they also believed in exceptions. After all, how else could miracles stand out as different? (The great Christmas motet, "Praeter rerum seriem," begins, "Outside the natural order of things the Virgin Mother gives birth to God and man.") Most early modern scientists were believers who saw no contradiction between their faith and their research. As a curator of the Israel Newton exhibition of Newton aptly puts it: "These documents show a scientist guided by religious fervour, by a desire to see God's actions in the world."

Oh, by the way, before you do anything rash in the face of the looming apocalypse: The Mayan astronomers never predicted any such disaster anyway; it's a complete fabrication. As for Newton, his number was a boundary rather than an exact date, and he attempted to calculate the end of the world not least in order to deter loons from doing so, and doing so badly:
"It may end later, but I see no reason for its ending sooner."

Continuing in a decidedly sniffy tone, he wrote: "This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail." (read the rest)

Both the Mayans and Newton were pretty smart: far smarter than those who, whether out of gullibility or cynicism, are attempting to appropriate their achievements centuries later.

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