Benevolent Design and the Anthropic Principle

 

Now, as there is an infinity of possible universes in the Ideas of God, and as only one of them can exist, there must be a sufficient reason for God's choice, which determines him toward one rather than another. And this reason can be found only in the fitness, or the degrees of perfection, that these worlds contain, since each possible thing has the right to claim existence in proportion to the perfection it entails.

                                                                                                           Leibniz

 

Should we be surprised that the universe is physically compatible with the existence of human beings? In one sense it seems obvious that we shouldn’t, because any beings that exist must necessarily find themselves in a universe that is compatible with their existence. On the other hand, if we regard our own existence as surprising, we can legitimately be surprised that a universe compatible with such surprising beings exists. These two seemingly contradictory lines of reasoning illustrate the difficulty of trying to apply Bayesian notions of probability to the unique circumstances of our own existence.

 

The term “anthropic principle” in physics refers to the idea that the attributes of the universe must be consistent with the requirements of our own existence. This notion is often thought to have originated in the latter part of the 20th century, and has lately been invoked as a possible way of constraining the “landscape” of possible universes that seem to be implicit in “string theory”. However, although the term “anthropic principle” is of relatively recent origin, the idea that the universe is tuned to be compatible with humans – or vice versa – is actually quite old. In fact, one could argue that the negation of this belief is the more recent development. In all cultures, the earliest beliefs seem to have been similar to that expressed in the biblical book of Genesis:

 

And God said, Let us make man in our own image, after our own likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth… And God said Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed…

 

Closely associated with the notion of benevolent design (tuning the universe for humans) is the idea that the universe is optimized in some more general and abstract sense, although historically the imagined optimization usually involved what we would regard as anthropomorphic criteria. For example, Plato quotes Socrates saying

 

If one wishes to know the cause of each thing, why it comes to be or perishes or exists, one has to find out what is the best way for it to be, or to be acted upon, or to act.

 

The belief that the universe somehow seeks out and follows the “best” path was reflected in Leibniz’s contention that we live in “the best of all possible worlds”, which some have seen as a precursor of the principle of least action in physics, according to which every object seeks out and follows the “best” way to act. Admittedly the definition of “best” under this principle is very abstract and distant from humane benevolence. In human affairs Leibniz maintained that if there were no evil or suffering in the world then there could be no goodness or joy, and so the optimum world contains just enough badness to maximize the goodness. (It is often said that Leibniz’s optimistic philosophy was discredited by the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755, which killed nearly 100,000 people, and which seems to have had a profound effect on many European philosophers of the time.)

 

More recently, in 1878 Maxwell wrote an essay on ‘Atom’ for the Encyclopedia Britannica, in which he commented on the remarkable consistency in the spectral signatures of matter here on Earth and out in distant stars, a fact which suggests that the physical substances emitting this light are essentially identical throughout the universe. After allowing that the most fundamental properties of matter, such as its continuous existence in space and time, might be in some sense “necessary”, meaning that we cannot reason about their a priori likelihood, he continued

 

But the equality of the constants of the molecules is a fact of a very different order. It arises from a particular distribution of matter, which we have no difficulty in imagining to have been arranged otherwise. But many of the ordinary instances are adjustments of constants, which are not only arbitrary in their own nature, but in which variations actually occur; and when it is pointed out that these adjustments are beneficial to living beings, and are therefore instances of benevolent design, it is replied that those variations which are not conducive to the growth and multiplication of living beings tend to their destruction, and to the removal thereby of the evidence of any adjustment not beneficial.

 

In Maxwell’s characteristically sardonic style this is expressed in terms of certain life forms that have existed and then been destroyed by subsequent non-beneficial adjustments, thereby (as he dryly remarks) “removing the evidence” of the occurrence of non-beneficial adjustments. Of course, we could just as well imagine the adjustments occurring first, and then only life forms that are compatible with those adjustments would subsequently come into being. For example, it obviously is not mere coincidence that the temperature of human beings (about 98.6 degrees F) is very close to the maximum ambient temperature in most inhabitable locations on Earth, but no one imagines that the Sun’s radiant energy, the Earth’s orbit, and the climate variables all adjusted themselves to make the outside temperature on the hottest summer day on Earth equal to the body temperature of human beings. Instead, we presume the body temperature of mammals adjusted itself to the optimum level within the given conditions. (As heat engines, we must reject heat to our environment, so we must always be hotter than our surroundings – absent evaporative cooling. On the other hand, the higher our temperature, the greater our rate of heat loss, so the optimum temperature is as low as possible while still never being below ambient on any day of the year.)

 

Today there is common agreement that these adjustments are driven by essentially random variations in the genetic code, coupled with a process of natural selection by which those variations best suited to the environment are preferentially propagated. However, this consensus of scientific opinion is relatively recent in historical terms, and other ideas about the process of evolution have been entertained, even within the last century. One of the most famous of the competing ideas was Lamarckism, named after the French naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck, who held that physiological changes such as the development of new organs in individuals were brought about by need and usage, in much the same way that muscles develop from use. Furthermore, he wrote

 

All that has been acquired, laid down, or changed in the organization of individuals in the course of their life is conserved by generation and transmitted to the new individuals that proceed from those which have undergone these changes.

 

In other words, he believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics – the basic idea that was developed into the doctrine called Lamarckism. Some proponents of this idea went so far as to claim that learned knowledge and skill could be passed on to offspring. A few early researchers even reported that, after training mice to navigate through a particular maze, the offspring of those mice were noticeably better than average at learning how to find their way in that particular maze. These results were never very reproducible, and were gradually discredited. Moreover, belief in Lamarckism was undermined by the study of genetics. Admittedly, in a limited sense, the occurrence and transmission of genetic mutations could be seen as a form of Lamarckism, but only “changes in the organization of individuals” involving the actual genetic material are transmitted, and these typically do not correspond to changes (in the parent) of the attribute associated with the genetic corruption.

 

Despite these contrary indications, Lamarckism was regarded as a scientifically viable alternative to Darwinism well into the 20th century. (Darwin himself actually espoused varying degrees of Lamarckism at different times throughout his career.) There was a significant political aspect to this, since both Marx and Engels were strong believers in Lamarckism, and in fact they based much of their hope for the improvement of the human race on this theory. After more than a decade of sometimes bitter debate, the communist party in the Soviet Union formally adopted Lamarckism as the officially “correct” theory in 1948, when T. D. Lysenko became the de facto dictator of Soviet biological science. At the same time there was a resurgence of interest in Lamarckism in western Europe and America by scientists who were communist sympathizers, attempting to revive the theory. Interestingly, perhaps the most prominent scientist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, who was also well known for his socialist beliefs, included a comment on this subject in the popular account of relativity theory he wrote in 1916. This appears in the Appendix 3, on the subject of the experimental verification of general relativity.

 

Corresponding to the same complex of empirical data, there may be several theories which differ from one another to a considerable extent. But as regards the deductions from the theories which are capable of being tested, the agreement between the theories may be so complete that it becomes difficult to find any deductions in which the two theories differ from each other. As an example, a case of general interest is available in the province of biology, in the Darwinian theory of the development of species by selection in the struggle for existence, and in the theory of development which is based on the hypothesis of the hereditary transmission of acquired characteristics.

 

Oddly enough, Einstein didn’t mention Lamarck by name, even though he was clearly referring to Lamarckism, asserting that (at least in 1916) between Darwinisn and Lamarckism “it becomes difficult to find any deductions in which the two theories differ from each other”. This is a somewhat surprising assertion in itself, considering the progress in genetic theory by that time. It’s also interesting that Einstein immediately followed the comparison of Darwin and Lamarck with the comparison of Newtonian and Einsteinian gravitational theory, placing the terms in this order, as if to suggest that Darwin corresponds to Newton, and Lamarck to Einstein. Granted, this may be reading too much into such a brief comment, but at the very least it shows that Einstein did not regard Lamarckism as an utterly discredited idea. It’s also interesting that, in 1920, Einstein inquired of Dr. Paul Kammerer (via the Count, Dr. Arco) about allegations of “inheritability of dialects”. Apparently it had been reported that Kammerer had “repeatedly established the heridity of dialects”, and his name had been used to endorse a book by a Viennese painter named Ida Gutmann, in which it was alleged that

 

…from a very tender age, the young son of Mrs. Ida Gutmann used some of his father’s most frequently used expressions without ever knowing him, like Jessas (“Jesus”), Na net (“aint it so” to mean, just right), in exactly the same intonation and dialect as his father’s, accompanied even by the same gestures.

 

However, Kammerer cautioned Einstein that such reports “must be taken with utmost caution”, and that the information “does not come from unquestionable sources”. In any case, he recommended to Einstein a 1912 book by Richard Semon as “the best book on the heredity of acquired traits”. So it seems that, at least during the years from 1916 to 1920, Einstein had an active interest in Lamarckism.

 

I can’t help recalling that early in 1917, just a couple of months after writing the above words about the struggle for existence and the hereditary transmission of acquired traits, Einstein wrote a letter (to his friend Besso) lamenting the condition of his younger son Eduard Einstein, who suffered from schizophrenia and in 1932 was committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he received shock treatment and insulin therapy (which his brother blamed for making his condition irreparable). He remained there until his death in 1965. Early in 1917 Einstein had written to Besso

 

My little boy’s condition depresses me very much. It’s impossible that he will become a fully developed person. Who knows whether it wouldn’t be better for him if he could depart from us before he really came to know life! I am to blame for his being, and reproach myself for the first time in my life… I just was not familiar with the nature of scrofula; I did not know that this is tuberculosis with hereditary risks for children. Indeed, I knew nothing about scrofula, and did not attach any particular importance to the glandular swelling that my wife had at that time. Now the misfortune is upon us, as it had to be.

 

I wonder if one of the reasons Einstein and Ehrenfest formed such a strong friendship was the fact that both of them had sons with disabilities. Ehrenfest had son with Down Syndrome, who had to be institutionalized. It’s well known that Ehrenfest committed suicide in 1933, but the full circumstances were not widely known until just recently. Einstein was obviously not aware, when he wrote a moving obituary of his friend, that Ehrenfest had first gone to the sanitarium where his son was kept and shot him to death, before taking his own life.

 

By the way, one of the interesting features of extreme Lamarckism is that the acquired knowledge and skills passed on to succeeding generations would be based only on experiences prior to childbearing. This typically occurs between the ages of about 18 to 36 so, according to Lamarckism, we would each be born with a detailed roadmap for life, knowing how to navigate all the mazes of human experience, but only up to childbearing age. At that point the inherited roadmap would rather abruptly end, since the experiences of our ancestors in their later years (after having children) would never have been passed down. (Analogous to the famous question in modern physics about what becomes of the information that passes into a black hole, we might ask what becomes of the information in the minds of people when they pass away.) Thus, one question that could be asked of Lamarckists is whether, when they reached the age that their parents had attained when they gave birth to them, they sensed any abrupt loss of direction, or perhaps the absence of some internal guidance.

 

Returning to Maxwell’s encyclopedia article, it’s clear that he was describing what is today called the anthropic principle, i.e., the idea that felicitous coincidences (Maxwell called them collocations, a word he attributed to a Dr Chalmers) between the physical conditions of the universe and the life forms residing within the universe are logically and/or causally linked, leading to the possibility of inferring things about one from knowledge of the other. Incidentally, the two example of “necessary” properties cited by Maxwell were (1) continuous existence of matter in space and time, and (2) all action should be between two portions of matter. Neither of these two conditions is regarded as “necessary” today. In fact, they are both regarded as false. Regarding the second, modern physics considers that interactions occur between fields, not via direct contact between material substances. Oddly enough, Maxwell himself was one of the main originators of the field concept in physics, and he was well aware that what is commonly assumed to be direct physical contact is actually, on a microscopic scale, an interaction between fields, so it’s strange that he listed direct material contact as (potentially) a metaphysical necessity. The first condition (continuous existence…) is also false according to modern science, because an electron confined within a potential well has a wave function but the precise position cannot be defined as a continuous function of time – barring some kind of Bohmian contraption. According to the conventional Copenhagen interpretation, the wave function spreads out over space, and when a position measurement is made, the wave function collapses and the particle “jumps” to one particular location. Thus, neither of the two features of physics that Maxwell thought might be metaphysical necessities has survived in modern physics. This is reminiscent of how Kant declared Euclidean space to be a necessary aspect of rational thought – just a few years before the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry.

 

When Maxwell refers to “benevolent design” he anticipates the modern notion of “intelligent design”, which in recent years has been deployed as a counter-argument to the Darwinian idea of purely random variation coupled with natural selection. In the same article discussing the apparent indistinguishability of all the elementary particles (of a given kind), Maxwell notes that

 

Atoms have been compared by Sir J. Herschel to manufactured articles, on account of their uniformity. The uniformity of manufactured articles may be traced to very different motives on the part of the manufacturer, [such as] cheapness, serviceableness, and quantitative accuracy… it seems more probable that he meant to assert that a number of exactly similar things cannot be each of them eternal and self-existent, and must therefore have been made, and that he used the phrase "manufactured article" to suggest the idea of their being made in great numbers.

 

This shows that the importance of “manufacture” (as opposed to “design”) was already appreciated in the 19th century. A design, as such, has no explicit existence, except perhaps as an ideal form in the Platonic sense. Indeed the Platonic solids are good examples of “designs” whose existence is implicit in the attributes of three-dimensional Euclidean space. The dodecahedron can be said to “exist” in the Platonic sense, even if there is no configuration of matter in the universe that possess this shape exactly. Hence, when we ask if this shape is the product of “intelligent design”, we may as well ask if three-dimensional Euclidean space is the product of intelligent (and/or benevolent) design.

 

 The same question could be asked about more complicated configurations of matter, such as a giraffe. The space, time, and physical laws of our universe are consistent with the existence of this configuration, even if no such configuration ever actually existed – just as the five Platonic solids “exist” as possibilities within the context of three-dimensional Euclidean space. Likewise we could consider the set of all possible species of living creatures, regardless of whether they have ever actually existed materially. All of these viable “designs” exist implicitly within the context of the fundamental attributes of the physical universe. So, if we are really interested in design, we must proceed straight to those fundamental attributes of physical existence, and ask whether those were established by some intelligence, benevolent or otherwise. But these are precisely the attributes to which, as Maxwell said, reason cannot be applied. In fact, reason itself, i.e., the laws of inference and implication and causality, must be counted among these fundamental “truths” of our existence.

 

We may use our knowledge of such truths for purposes of deduction, but we have no data for speculating on their origin.

 

This is simply a recognition of the fact that reason cannot be applied to the question of the origin of reason, because that question can have meaning only in an extra-rational context. Of course, we can choose to retain the usual laws of reason (whatever we consider those to be), and then speculate about other fundamental attributes, such as the three-dimensionality of space, and we can inquire as to whether these are, as Maxwell said,

 

…truths which may, for aught we know, be of a kind which metaphysicians call necessary.

 

This kind of inquiry into the necessity of the various aspects of existence is what Einstein had in mind when he said

 

What really interests me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the universe.

 

It’s slightly ironic that he expressed this in terms of God and (what can only be called) creationism, since the concept of creationism has acquired anti-scientific connotations in recent years. Of course, Einstein himself disavowed any belief in a personal God, even though he frequently invoked the name of God (or “the dear Lord”) in his remarks. Presumably what he meant by the above comment was that he was interested in the extent to which logical necessity constrains the attributes of the world. This pre-supposes that God could not (or would not) be so malicious as to violate basic logic. In fact, many scientists, including Einstein, have gone even further and asserted that God would not be so malicious as to make merely ugly choices. It could be argued that the belief in the criterion of beauty is more deserving of the name anthropic than the doctrine that is actually known by that name, because our concept of beauty is surely an aspect of our subjective being.

 

It is of course possible to question the most fundamental aspects of nature, such as the three-dimensionality of space, the directionality of time, the existence of free will and/or random chance, why all electrons are identical, and so on. These may be called aspects of the design of the universe. But most disputes about the role of purposeful, intelligent, and/or benevolent creation seem confused, focused on the wrong thing, because surely the disputants are interested not in the designs of things, but in their production. If we find a quantity of material arranged in the shape of a dodecahedron, the question of whether the design of this Platonic shape was the result of intelligence is really quite abstract, since the shape is implicit in the basic facts of geometry and three-dimensional space. Surely what interests the proponents of creationism is not the design, but the production of this object, i.e., how this material was brought into this particular configuration. The same is true for the solar system and for giraffes. Each possible configuration of matter can be considered a “design”, and we can question the origin of all those possibilities, but then we are questioning the most basic aspects of existence, which doesn’t seem to be what interests either the proponents or the opponents of “intelligent design”. Their concern is not for the infinite range of possible things (e.g., viable hypothetical species), but rather with actual things, how certain things have been produced, not how those things were “designed”.

 

Indeed the production of life is a puzzle, because living organisms do not, as far as we know, arise spontaneously in the absence of pre-existing living organisms, a fact which naturally causes us to wonder how life originally came into existence. The usual materialist assumption is that it’s possible for a living entity to come into existence by some combination of natural circumstances, but those circumstances are exceedingly rare, explaining why they have never been observed. The rarity seems hard to dispute, because even concentrated efforts to duplicate those circumstances have invariably failed. We can also try to infer the rarity from natural observations, but quantifying the rarity from these observations is complicated in several respects. We know that the structure of DNA in all living things is very similar, but from this we can only conclude that one of three things must be true: (1) there is essentially only one viable design for life, so each time it emerges, the resulting life forms have the same kind of DNA, or (2) life forms of one type tend to totally obliterate any other fundamentally different varieties of life that may spontaneously emerge from time to time, or (3) in the entire history of the Earth, life has emerged from non-living material only once. If the third alternative applies, then clearly the circumstances leading to the spontaneous appearance of life are extremely rare, even on the planet Earth, which is presumably the environment most conducive to the appearance of Earth-like life. On the other hand, if either the first or second alternatives apply, then we can’t infer that life has emerged only once. Nevertheless, even in those cases, the fact remains that we do not presently observer the spontaneous appearance of life from non-living material, so at the very least we can say it doesn’t happen often.

 

Suppose someone claimed that, by the basic laws of physics, it’s impossible for life to emerge spontaneously in the absence of pre-existing life. Can this claim be refuted? We might be tempted to argue that since the existence of life is clearly compatible with the laws of physics, it must be possible for life to emerge by some physical process. However, this argument isn’t valid, because (for example) vorticity is compatible with the laws governing the behavior of a perfect fluid, and yet those laws do not permit the emergence of vorticity in the absence of pre-existing vorticity. In general, the total amount of vorticity in a perfect fluid is strictly constant, so if it is initially zero, it must remain zero. The physics of a perfect fluid supports the existence of vorticity, but not the emergence of vorticity if it does not already exist. (This is somehow reminiscent of the fact that, as Gödel proved, every sufficiently complex formal system entails true propositions whose truth cannot be proven within the system.) Analogously, we might be tempted to speculate that the existence of life is consistent with the laws of the universe, but that the process of life emerging in the absence of pre-existing life is not.

 

One aspect of the anthropic principle, or Bayesian reasoning in general, that seems to receive relatively little attention is the question of whether it is likely that our species is capable of understanding the ultimate laws of physics (even assuming such ultimate laws exist). For example, we would not think it reasonable to require that the laws of physics be understandable to a chimpanzee or any other living creature, so is it likely that those laws can be understood by our own species? To argue in the affirmative is to claim that there is a threshold of consciousness necessary for understanding the universe, and we just happen to be the only species above that threshold. Presumably this would imply that there are no significantly higher levels of consciousness than our own, because if we are already smart enough to fully grasp the ultimate nature of reality, what further intelligence could there be? Granted there might be higher degrees of adeptness, quickness, etc., but we would be claiming that we can think anything capable of being thought.

 

This isn’t necessarily as outlandish as it might seem, at least if we equate thinking with some kind of formal computation, because it could be argued that the human mind is analogous to a universal Turing machine, capable (in principle, and given enough time) of performing any computational task. In other words, we might claim that, in the human species, the mind finally crossed the threshold separating simple finite-state machines to universal Turing machines, capable of simulating any conceivable computer. This at least is the kind of argument we would need to make, in order to claim with any plausibility that our particular species is the first and (so far) the only species capable of understanding the ultimate laws of physics. Of course, two obvious objections to this argument would be (1) there is more to consciousness than computation, and (2) even if consciousness were strictly computation, and even if human consciousness is analogous to a universal Turning machine, such machines are capable of all possible computations only in the theoretical limit of unlimited time and resources, neither of which we possess in practice. Thus the idea that we are equipped to actually understand the ultimate laws of physics seems dubious at best, since it conflicts with the related principle of mediocrity, which is a vaguely Bayesian assertion to the effect that we should not assume any special ranking or status in the overall order of thing.

 

This idea leads to the famous “conundrum of doom”, the claim that doomsday for mankind must be neigh, because if the human race actually is destined to exist for (say) a million years, we would be living at almost the first instant of history. In less alarming terms, we are asked to consider stepping out of a hotel in an unknown city or town where the taxi cabs are numbered sequentially beginning with 1, 2, 3, and so on, up to the total number of cabs. The first cab we see is Number 7. On the basis of this information, could we estimate how many cabs there are in this community? If there are 10000 cabs, it might seem quite surprising that the very first cab we saw had such a low number. The situation is more definite if we know we are in one of two cities A or B (equally likely), one of which has 10 cabs, and the other has 10000 cabs. In this situation, a random sample of one cab giving Cab 7 would certainly incline us to suspect we were in the smaller town. In this scenario, prior to the random choice between A and B, we have a well-defined sample space, and we have the conditional probabilities Pr{7|A} = 0.1 and Pr{7|B} = 0.0001. We also know Pr{A} = Pr{B} = 0.5, and we can write the prior probability of a single random sample being Cab 7 as

 

 

In all there are 10010 possible outcomes; we can get any of the numbers 1 through 10 in town A, or any of the numbers 1 through 10000 in town B. The former each have probability (1/2)(0.1) = 0.05, and the latter each have probability (1/2)(.0001) = 0.00005. Thus on the condition that the outcome is Cab 7, the probabilities that we are in towns A and B are proportional to 0.05 and 0.00005 respectively, so the probabilities are 1000/1001 for town A and 1/1001 for town B. This follows from the two different ways of expressing the probability of the intersection of two events, e.g.,

 

 

Hence we have

 

 

However, without knowing the prior distribution of the number of cabs in the set of possible towns, any attempt to apply this kind of Bayesian reasoning is questionable.

 

Isaac Newton, regarded by many as the greatest scientist in history, left many statements attesting to his belief in some kind of intelligent design. Newton was particularly concerned to make his belief in the efficacy of God known, because he was often accused of having undermined the basis of religious belief with his “clockwork” universe. In the General Scholium at the conclusion of the Principia he wrote


All bodies will indeed persevere in their orbits by the laws of gravity, but they certainly could not have acquired the regular position of the orbits by these laws… This most elegant system of the sun, planets, and comets, could not have arisen without the design and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.

 

Sounding even more like a modern proponent of “intelligent design”, in the queries at the end of his Opticks he wrote

 

…whence arises all that Order and Beauty which we see in the World? … How came the Bodies of Animals to be contrived with so much Art, and for what ends were their several Parts? Was the Eye contrived without Skill in Opticks, and the Ear without Knowledge of Sounds?

 

Newton was clearly very impressed by the orderliness of the solar system, and although he had grasped the physical principles of nature on which it operated, couldn’t imagine such a system coming into being by any natural processes. He concluded by re-iterating his argument for intelligent design

 

Now by the help of these Principles, all material Things seem to have been composed of the hard and solid Particles above-mention'd, variously associated in the first Creation by the Counsel of an intelligent Agent. For it became him who created them to set them in order. And if he did so, it's unphilosophical to seek for any other Origin of the World, or to pretend that it might arise out of a Chaos by the mere Laws of Nature; though being once form'd, it may continue by those Laws for many Ages. For while Comets move in very excentrick Orbs in all manner of Positions, blind Fate could never make all the Planets move one and the same way in Orbs concentrick… Such a wonderful Uniformity in the Planetary System must be allowed the Effect of Choice. And so must the Uniformity in the Bodies of Animals…

 

Newton might have reflected on the fact that he himself had shown how the seemingly wondrous motions of the heavens had been reduced by him to the operations of “mere natural laws”. His immediate successors, notably Laplace, pushed the scientific method still further, and proposed natural explanations for the origin of the solar system. Later, biologists like Darwin sought and found natural explanations for the variety of life forms, despite Newton’s admonition that “it’s unphilosophical to seek for any other origin of the world, or to pretend that it might arise out of a chaos by the mere laws of nature”. From these quotes it might seem as if Newton didn’t anticipate how the scientific endeavor, once set in motion, would continue transforming wonders into merely the workings of nature. On the other hand, Newton often wrote about the importance of continuing and extending scientific investigations, so we certainly can’t claim that he thought the scientific revolution was completed by his work. In fact, he ended Query 28 with the words

 

And though every true step made in this philosophy brings us not immediately to the knowledge of the first cause, yet it brings us nearer to it, and on that account it is to be highly valued.

 

This is reminiscent of Einstein’s comment that although we could never grasp the ultimate reality, there would be no end to the process of seeking and finding progressively better scientific representations of that reality. It’s possible to see in some of Newton’s remarks an anticipation of the current “landscape” of string theory.

 

And since Space is divisible in infinitum, and Matter is not necessarily in all places, it may be also allow'd that God is able to create Particles of Matter of several Sizes and Figures, and in several Proportions to Space, and perhaps of different Densities and Forces, and thereby to vary the Laws of Nature, and make Worlds of several sorts in several Parts of the Universe. At least, I see nothing of Contradiction in all this.

 

Newton was a complicated transitional figure, so we can find in his writings many things that sound remarkably modern, mixed together with his yearning for the hermetic knowledge of the ancients. His last published words were

 

And if natural Philosophy, in all its Parts, by pursuing this Method, shall at length be perfected, the Bounds of Moral Philosophy will be also enlarged. For so far as we can know by natural Philosophy what is the first Cause, what Power he has over us, and what Benefits we receive from him, so far our Duty towards him, as well as that towards one another, will appear to us by the Light of Nature. And no doubt, if the Worship of false Gods had not blinded the Heathen, their moral Philosophy would have gone farther than to the four Cardinal Virtues; and instead of teaching the Transmigration of Souls, and to worship the Sun and Moon, and dead Heroes, they would have taught us to worship our true Author and Benefactor, as their Ancestors did under the Government of Noah and his Sons before they corrupted themselves.

 

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