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Connolly lecture examines philosophy, religion, and science in early modern Britain

photo of Patrick ConnollyIn his talk, “The Crisis of Newtonianism: Philosophy, Religion, and Science in Early Modern Britain,” Lehigh professor of philosophy Patrick J. Connolly argued that the scientific views of even so great a genius as Isaac Newton were not quickly accepted.

Connolly gave his lecture, part of the Friends of the Lehigh University Libraries Speaker Series, on Oct. 30 to an audience of nearly 70 students, faculty, and staff.

Theological challenges arose from persons concerned that his mechanistic views pushed him toward deism, Connolly explained. Deism held that after its creation, the universe would run like clockwork without any divine intervention. Newton also held views about longstanding Christian dogmas that provoked controversy.

Connolly discussed the work of two persons who defended him. English theologian, historian, and mathematician William Whiston proposed that Newtonian physics explained the Biblical account of the flood in scientific terms as a result of a comet passing by the earth.

In the first of a lecture series endowed by the noted scientist Robert Boyle, British scholar Richard Bentley held that Newton’s theory of gravitation reflected the “immediate Fiat and Finger of God.” Both writers, then, attempted to show that Newton’s views were consistent with religious beliefs.

Newton and German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz famously disputed about who first invented the calculus, but less known is the latter's criticism that Newton's views on divine activity in the universe involved a continuous miracle. Connolly, appealing to a manuscript held by Lehigh University Libraries’ Special Collections, noted that Newton replied by invoking an Augustinian view of miracles, in which the concept of a miracle is not so much about violations of nature’s laws, but refers to the entirety of ongoing divine creative powers.

Talk attendees had an opportunity to view a manuscript written by Newton that addresses the dispute with Leibniz, as well as an early edition of Newton’s Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica and the first English translation.

Connolly emphasized in conclusion that historians of science must take into account the large cultural contexts in which scientific ideas emerge. As his talk showed, Newton provides an excellent case study of this.

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