God has conferred upon and added to man a distinctive power — the faculty of intellectual investigation into the secrets of creation, the acquisition of higher knowledge — the greatest virtue of which is scientific enlightenment.
Jan 28, 2013. The Newtonian synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy – developed from 1690 to 1720 – was hugely successful in England and highly influential in Europe and North America. It was inclusive, unifying, and compatible with different theologies. It allowed religion to embrace scientific studies. And although it helped ease the way for scientific results that contradicted scripture, it also helped fight back atheism and materialism, some of the powerful philosophical products of the Enlightenment.
Outside of England and Scotland, the Newtonian synthesis was popularized and disseminated by a number of thinkers and scientists, but most notably by Voltaire (1694 – 1778, also Voltaire in Wikipedia). Voltaire, the most famous of the writers, thinkers, intellectuals, and philosophes associated with the Enlightenment, was the one most responsible for introducing Newton’s thought and the Newtonian synthesis into France. Newton – Voltaire claimed – was the antidote to French backwardness in intellectual affairs. By this, he meant adherence to the physics of Descartes, adherence to Catholicism, and adherence to dogmatic philosophical systems.
But Voltaire was a deist – someone who rejected revealed religion, specifically the institutions of Christianity – and he used Newton to buttress his criticisms of Christianity and the French church, undermining the Newtonian synthesis for his own ends.
The Greatest of the Philosophes
François-Marie d’Arouet – Voltaire – was born into a prosperous French family in 1694 and received an excellent education at the famous Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. His father pushed him towards a legal or a bureaucratic career, but Voltaire aspired to be playwright and escaped to the libertine social life of Paris in the 1720s. There, his genius, wit, and sociability granted him access to the highest literary and aristocratic circles. He succeeded in grand style with his first play, but fell into trouble for criticising the government and for quarrelling, leading several times to imprisonment in the Bastille. One quarrel – with the young nobleman Chevalier de Rohan – led him to volunteer for exile in England.
Voltaire was captivated by England and English constitutional monarchy, English satirical writing, English political criticism, English journalism, English liberalism, and above all, English science, theology, and philosophy as expounded by Newton, Locke, and Francis Bacon. He immersed himself in Newton’s writing, met with Newton’s circle of supporters, and returned to France determined to create change.
With skillful and judicious investments – and an inheritance from his father – he acquired considerable wealth and the independence that such wealth allowed, and he acquired highly placed friends (he even resided at Versailles, the seat of the French monarchy). He also formed a liaison with the remarkable Emilie Le Tonnier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet, whose translation of Newton’s Principia into French is still the standard text.
In 1733, he wrote the first of his influential books on philosophical and social issues – the Letters Concerning the English Nation – and praised English religion, philosophy, government, and especially English science. It led to scandal, as it was critical of French ways (and published without leave of the government), so he left Paris to stay at the Du Châtelet family estate at Cirey. There, with Du Châtelet’s able assistance, he launched a campaign to dislodge the French embrace of the famous Descartes and to establish Newton’s ascendency. In 1738 (and with revisions in 1745) he published Éléments de la Philosophie de Newton which helped to win the resulting cultural war. By 1750, France belonged to Newton.
Voltaire – extraordinarily prolific – at the same time penned plays, poems, stories, and histories (of Louis XIV, of the Swedish King Charles II, and the pioneering universal history called Essais sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations). He was named the Royal Historiographer of France and then was summoned by his friend Frederick the Great to join the Prussian court in Berlin.
Voltaire Fights For Freedom – and Against the Church
Another scandal – he had described his friend and colleague Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (then President of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Berlin) as a despot and a philosophical buffoon – sent Voltaire back to France. He settled conveniently close to the border in the town of Ferney – now Ferney-Voltaire – where he built a château. In his remaining years (1755 – 1778), he waged cultural war against despotism and ecclesiasticism and invented the role of the public intellectual. Here is how the Stanford Internet Encyclopedia puts it:
During this period, Voltaire also adopted what would become his most famous and influential intellectual stance, announcing himself as a member of the “party of humanity” and devoting himself toward waging war against the twin hydras of fanaticism and superstition. While the singular defense of Newtonian science had focused Voltaire’s polemical energies in the 1730s and 1740s, after 1750 the program became the defense of philosophie tout court and the defeat of its perceived enemies within the ecclesiastical and aristo-monarchical establishment.
In this way, Enlightenment philosophie became associated through Voltaire with the cultural and political program encapsulated in his famous motto, “Écrasez l’infâme!” (“Crush the infamy!”). This entanglement of philosophy with social criticism and reformist political action, a contingent historical outcome of Voltaire’s particular intellectual career, would become his most lasting contribution to the history of philosophy.
And he promoted liberty – he thought that “liberty of speech, no matter what the topic, is sacred and cannot be violated.” He also promoted hedonism – he thought that personal sexual liberty was sacrosanct and condemned what he saw as “moral codes of sexual restraint and bodily self-abnegation” of the Christian church.
He promoted skepticism, arguing that “no authority, no matter how sacred, should be immune from challenge by critical reason.” He was “unwavering in his hostility to church authority and the power of the clergy”. Critical reason, he believed, should not be used to create philosophical systems of authority, but rather used as a “solvent” to undermine authority and “the false and deceptive dialectic that anchored traditional philosophy.”
And here his embrace of Newtonian thought and British empiricism played a central role in his fight against dogmatism and arbitrary authority, in philosophy as well as religion. Again, the Stanford Internet Encyclopedia:
Against the acceptance of ignorance [and] the false escape from it found in sophistical knowledge … Voltaire offered … the power and value of careful empirical science.
While Newtonian epistemology admitted of many variations, at its core rested a new skepticism about the validity of apriori rationalist accounts of nature and a new assertion of brute empirical fact as a valid philosophical understanding in its own right. European Natural philosophers in the second half of the seventeenth century had thrown out the metaphysics and physics of Aristotle with its four part causality and teleological understanding of bodies, motion and the cosmic order. In its place, however, a new mechanical causality was introduced that attempted to explain the world in equally comprehensive terms through the mechanisms of an inert matter acting by direct contact and action alone. …
Newton pointed natural philosophy in a new direction. He offered mathematical analysis anchored in inescapable empirical fact as the new foundation for a rigorous account of the cosmos. … Natural philosophy needs to resist the allure of such rational imaginings and to instead deal only with the empirically provable. Moreover, the Newtonians argued, if a set of irrefutable facts cannot be explained other then by accepting the brute facticity of their truth, this is not a failure of philosophical explanation so much as a devotion to appropriate rigor. …
For Voltaire (and many other eighteenth-century Newtonians) the most important project was defending empirical science as an alternative to traditional natural philosophy. … All of Voltaire’s public campaigns, in fact, deployed empirical fact as the ultimate solvent for irrational prejudice and blind adherence to preexisting understandings. In this respect, his philosophy as manifest in each was deeply indebted to the epistemological convictions he gleaned from Newtonianism.
It was in these ways that Voltaire employed Newton’s thought, even turning it against Newton’s embrace of revealed religion.
Voltaire was a remarkable and extraordinarily gifted man, and his promotion of Newton was a centrally important contribution the Enlightenment. But Voltaire was also an extraordinarily gifted polemicist at war with Christianity, determined to undermine and overthrow its institutions. The youthful`Abdu’l-Bahá, writing in 1875 in The Secret of Divine Civilization at the behest of Bahá’u'llah, says:
Among those who have repudiated religious faith was the Frenchman, Voltaire, who wrote a great number of books attacking the religions, works which are no better than children’s playthings. This individual, taking as his criterion the omissions and commissions of the Pope, the head of the Roman Catholic religion, and the intrigues and quarrels of the spiritual leaders of Christendom, opened his mouth and caviled at the Spirit of God (Jesus).
In the unsoundness of his reasoning, he failed to grasp the true significance of the sacred Scriptures, took exception to certain portions of the revealed Texts and dwelt on the difficulties involved.
This is strong criticism, all the more so because `Abdu’l-Bahá rarely criticizes. `Abdu’l-Bahá – most likely in the context of the discussion of the role of religion in the affairs of Iran in the later part of the 19th century – emphasizes that the failings of religious people and the institutions of religion are different from the failings of religion:
It is true that there are foolish individuals who have never properly examined the fundamentals of the Divine religions, who have taken as their criterion the behavior of a few religious hypocrites and measured all religious persons by that yardstick, and have on this account concluded that religions are an obstacle to progress, a divisive factor and a cause of malevolence and enmity among peoples.
They have not even observed this much, that the principles of the Divine religions can hardly be evaluated by the acts of those who only claim to follow them. For every excellent thing, peerless though it may be, can still be diverted to the wrong ends. A lighted lamp in the hands of an ignorant child or of the blind will not dispel the surrounding darkness nor light up the house — it will set both the bearer and the house on fire. Can we, in such an instance, blame the lamp? No, by the Lord God! To the seeing, a lamp is a guide and will show him his path; but it is a disaster to the blind.
Next time, we examine Deism, the Enlightenment era rejection of revealed religion in favor of a deity who, as one wit put it, got things going in the universe and then took an extended vacation.
This is the 12th in a series of blogs on the Enlightenment Vision of Science. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.