Friday, August 1, 2008


During the month of August--and maybe beyond--I will be writing about various controversies. Most controversies originate in political discourse, but I begin with one that we do not normally think of as being political at all; although, of course, like most others it had a political component. I choose it because I believe that it gets to the very heart of the real basis of most controversies. In the discussions of the various controversies that follow, I may not be able to track the nature of the controversy back to the roots that we see so clearly in this one, but those roots are there and that makes this an excellent starting point.

The controversy I deal with today was between Rene Des Carte and Isaac Newton, and like I said, it goes to the very heart, in my opinion, of most controversies.

DesCarte was a famous French philosopher, mathematician and scientist. Like many French intellectuals of his day (and since), he was a sceptic in matters of religion. I believe that one reason for the widespread scepticism in France was the fact that only one strain of belief was allowed. A few years before Des Carte all the dissenters from the State Church (known in France as Huguenots) were slaughtered largely in a single night--St. Barthlemew's Eve. This is one of history's most famous clamping down on unpopular opinions and has looked on with tremendous envy by governments everywhere ever since. After that everyone in France who wanted to think differently had to remain nominally Catholic, but it was quite OK, especially if you were smart to be a sceptic. When the sceptics finally managed to make their belief the State Church (during the first French Revolution), they proceeded to prove that as much as they envied the speed and dispatch with which dissenters were dealt with by the Catholics, they were unable to imitate it so it took them a few years. Part of the problem was that the dissenters were not as easy to identify. At first they were called "nobles" but since over 80% of the people being disposed of were not of the traditional nobility, it became necessary to identify them by some other title. They finally settled on the title that has stuck through several regimes of sceptics ever since (e.g. communists, fascists, nazis,etc) i.e. "people the government does not like". But, I digress. Anyway, Des Carte was a sceptic and like all sceptics, and, for that matter, almost everyone else, he wanted to find scientific validation for his religious view. So he postulated a theory of the universe in which God set the universe in motion and then simply left. This self-perpetuating motion of the universe consisted of a huge whirlpool or a system of vortices.

Isaac Newton did not like Des Carte's theory at all. Of course, he did not much care for controversy, so he never mentions Des Carte by name. He simply tells us that the theory of vortices has problems. One problem, which, according to my science history professor, no one really knows the answer to is "why didn't Des Carte put mathematics to his theory?" He was an excellent mathematician, certainly capable of using math to test the model. My guess is that he did try to put math to his model but when it didn't work, he decided that he would rather have a model that supported his scepticsm than one that was mathematically correct. Newton tells us that it was precisely his scepticsm that tripped Des Carte up. God is a govenor, he says, and like all good govenors, He is interested in what goes on in the realm over which He has governance.

Of course, it is Newton's theory of the universe that we typically use today. He applied mathematics to his and it worked. But the key, as we all know, is the theory of universal gravitation. The French immediately accused Newton of keeping the universe together by a "perpetual miracle". It was Newton's willingness to accept the governance of God and hence, the workings of a force that he could not fully understand, that enabled him to make what many consider the greatest leap forward in the history of science.

Einstein, of course, was also a sceptic. He did not like Newton's force any more than the French. For that matter all "action at a distant" forces were suspect with him. He spent his life trying to eliminate them--with some success, most scientists feel, with the Newtonian gravitaional force and with none whatsoever with the electrical force. But even with the Newtonian force, it must be acknowledged that if we were required to start with Einstein's equations, only PhD physicists could mathematicall describe something so simple as a ball falling in a vacuum. Of course, since Einstein's formulation includes a negative term it has been tremendously productive for science fiction writers, if for little else.

As we launch into a discussion of a series of controversies, it is well to remember that at bottom they turn, like the controversy between Des Carte and Newton, to a certain extent, at least, on whether God is a govenor interested in the day to day activities of His subjects.

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