Tuesday, September 15, 2015

[HUM 2551] Is Newton the man?

According to Perry et al (11th ed.):
The civilizations of the ancient Near East were based on a way of thinking fundamentally different from the modern scientific outlook. The difference between scientific and mythical thinking is profound. The scientific mind views physical nature as an it—inanimate, impersonal, and governed by universal law. The mythmaking mind of the Near East saw every object in nature as a thou—personified, alive, with an individual will. It saw gods or demons manipulating things. The world was enchanted, imbued with mysterious spirits. […] Live agents were the forces behind natural events.
Now, Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks that Isaac Newton is the greatest physicist in history.

But Newton was engaged in what Perry et al would characterize as "mythical thinking." For example:
So, is the difference between mythical thinking and scientific thinking not as clear-cut as Perry et al claim? Or perhaps we should conclude instead that Newton was not a scientist after all?


  1. If Newton was not a scientist, so why scientists came after him and proved validity of his theories? Why his theories taught in universities and schools all over the world to this day? I totally agree with what Neil deGrasse Tyson said, Newton such a great man who discovered things no one else did. However, there are some points I disagree with Perry et al said. It seems to me like Newton started with the mythical thinking and he saw life as it is and started to think very deeply which lead him to scientific thinking.

    1. In that case, what is the difference between mythical thinking and scientific thinking? According to Perry et al (2016), the difference is between thinking about nature as animate (myth) and thinking about nature as inanimate (science). But Newton did think about nature as being animate. He thought that nature is infused with active principles. Moreover, he thought that God is present in space and time.

  2. Newton was a scientist, (a damn brilliant one), and a man of his times. In his time, religion explained almost everything, it's therefore logical that Newton would: A.) not only have strong religious convictions of his own, (relativity), and B.) see God as the answer to those things that were truly beyond his own understanding.

    In my humble opinion, science and religion occupy much of the same space. The less we knew as a people, the more we attributed to god, or gods. Today we know more, and science gets the credit.

    It's also true that the more we understand, the more questions arise. We cross one horizon, only to discover a new horizon beyond the first. It's an ebb and flow of understanding. Was Newton a scientific thinker? Absolutely. Was Newton also a mythical thinker? Yes. But aren't we all?

    As for alchemy hidden within mythology? All people, even geniuses, make mistakes, but Newton had a far more brilliant mind than my own. So, it just may be...

    1. As I understand it, your claim is that there is no difference between mythical and scientific thinking, for you say that "science and religion (myth) occupy the same space." If so, what are the grounds for saying that Newton was a scientist (let along the greatest scientists, as deGrasse Tyson claims)?

    2. Science itself is just a system we use to discover knowledge. We back up our findings with concrete and measurable data, and use experiments and observations to either prove or disprove those findings. Newton did this. Things he discovered like the reason our planets orbit the sun in an ellipse, are things that he was able to mathematically prove to be correct. Things he thought he discovered like "active principles" between metals, he couldn't prove, but took on faith.
      I stand behind my original statement that science and religion occupy the same space. We use both to help describe the world around around us. There are the things we can prove, and the things we believe. Newton was one of the greatest scientists of all time because of his ability to work in both. He had beliefs that things worked a certain way for a reason, and then he had the mental capacity to prove many of his hypotheses. And isn't that the very definition of a scientist?

    3. Thanks for the follow-up, Dev. I am not sure I can answer your question without knowing more about what you mean by “proof” (or “prove”). If by “proof” you mean conclusive evidence, i.e., evidence that guarantees the truth of a hypothesis, then I am not sure that such evidence can be had in science. For example, what is the conclusive evidence for the law of universal gravitation? Note that the law is supposed to hold throughout the universe. But how do we know that?

      Even if it is granted that mathematical proofs (in the sense of conclusive evidence) can be had in physics, I am not sure that there are “mathematical proofs” for other hypotheses that are considered scientific. For example, is there a “mathematical proof” for the theory of evolution, continental drift, plate tectonics, germ theory of disease, etc.?


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