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Isaac Newton's Nature

While the advances made by Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes were considerable, history's judgment is that Newton revolutionized Western thinking, dominating his age much as Aristotle did that of the Greeks. Many of his notions, such as the absolute nature of space and time, were repudiated in the twentieth century. And yet Newtonian ways of thinking rule today's culture, lying at the heart of our notion of human dignity as control over nature. We have institutionalized notions that nature is little more than atoms in mechanical and therefore predictable motion. So construed, nature becomes nothing but raw material awaiting technological conversion into goods of economic value.

Newton himself was not concerned with such derivations from his ideas, but with nature as matter in motion, especially the movements of the heavenly and terrestrial bodies. His invention of the reflecting telescope, the calculus (which he called his "fluxional method"), and the laws of motion coalesced in an ability to describe physical systems mathematically and thus to make accurate predictions. For Newton material atoms were the fundamental characteristic of nature, bound together by the force of gravity. Newton theorized the law of planetary attraction, which he argued varied inversely to the square of the distance from the sun. However, Edmond Halley (1656–1742) did more to popularize the Newtonian idea of nature than Newton himself. Using a Newtonian reflector and Newtonian physics, Halley calculated the orbit of what is now called Halley's Comet, accurately predicting its appearance in the night sky in the year 1758.

Classical science, as Newton's science is now called, and the scientific picture of the world and humankind's relation to it, became the way that Western civilization understood nature. But several problems with the classical view soon appeared. For one, nowhere in the cognizable world picture did human beings appear—as if nature was devoid of human presence. Further, the Newtonian notion of nature facilitated naive realism, the notion that nature was known without interpretation, as if Newton had given us a "God's eye" view of nature as the way it was and forever would be. These conundrums continued throughout the twentieth century and remain with us today.

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