Further thoughts on Newton’s God

Though I didn’t mention it in my last post (to save confusion), one of the links I used (here – tip: I could only open it by saving it and changing the suffix to “pdf”) was actually intended as a rather whimsical mathematical exercise. This was to show whether, given a God who might wish to avert cosmic disaster, he could, in fact prevent major instability by minor corrections to orbital trajectories.

The author’s conclusion, based on his simplified model, is that to do so would require particular circumstances:

The conclusion is that the system has to be rather special.The system must be what in mathematics is called hyperbolic.

That is, of course, well beyond my mathematical pay-grade, and unfortunately he doesn’t go on to say whether the actual solar system is that kind of system. It isn’t actually that important to Newton. As I wrote in the previous post, Newton did not ever claim that God was tinkering to keep the solar system in order, but only that the science suggested he would have to in due course – assuming that was his will. One could equally envisage that God might plan the system to self-destruct at a predetermined time in order to excute his final judgement, before re-creating it completely.

What was theologically important to Newton, as to me, was that God should be the kind of deity who would be actively involved with his creation, rather than watching it unfold mechanistically from without, regardless of whether specific events were governed by lawlike activity. Still, it is interesting to consider the fact that the solar system does appear to be special, even though I’m not qualified to say if that means it’s “hyperbolic”. As a passage I quoted in the last post says:

These recent advances are the beginning of a quest to tease out the critical properties of our solar system (and its subsystems) that give it the curious character of being only marginally chaotic or marginally stable on time spans comparable with its current age.

If I understand aright, that suggests it’s a system teetering, as it were, on the brink of instability. Much like the business of life itself, in fact. Leibniz, as I also recounted, criticised Newton’s God for not “getting it right first time”:

He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion.

That put me in mind of an analogy from the world of engineering. Britain’s first warplanes were designed to provide a stable and safe flying platform for whatever task might be required. The problem was that they got shot down easily: their very stability made them predictable and vulnerable. The aircraft that began to perform as effective fighting machines were those that were designed and trimmed to be on the edge of instabilty. They were much harder to fly, and so easier to crash, but in skilled hands were far more manoeuvrable. That was a universal principle – it was the instability of the Spitfire or the Messerschmidt 109 that saved their pilots’ lives (and took their enemes’) in a later war.

Comparably, it’s the low driver tolerances of a performance car that make it an object of passion rather than the everyday utility of a basic hatchback. As Chris Rea sang of a Ferrari Daytona:

Now she ain’t easy so you take good care
Or she will scream down on your lust
She can please you like no other
Or she can leave you eating dust

So one could tentatively suggest a principle: if God were Newton’s kind of God – one who desired to be intimately involved with his creation and his people in an interesting creation – as opposed to Leibniz’s kind of deity – one who wished to make the best of all possible worlds and watch it function like clockwork from afar – then one might expect to see it open to his guidance and interaction by having many of its systems operating close to chaos and instability. If so, it might appear to us to be poor planning, aka natural evil. But that would because we were thinking in terms of the automated, rather than the manual, model.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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