The Time When Reason Triumphed Over Unreason

Having just finished Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, Confusion, and The System Of the World), I finally picked up James Gleick’s biography of Isaac Newton.

This was the time when reason became reasonable, when Robert Hooke could write that it was time to return the study of Nature to “the plainness and soundness of Observations on material and obvious things.” Newton opened the third volume of the Principia (the System of the World of Stephenson’s title) with what he called “Rules of Reasoning in Philosophy”:

  • We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances. …Nature does nothing in vain, and more is in vain when less will serve; for Nature is pleased with simplicity, and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes.
  • Therefore to the same natural effects we must, as far as possible, assign the same causes.
  • The qualities of bodies … which are found to belong to all bodies within the reach of our experiments, are to be esteemed the universal qualities of all bodies whatsoever.
  • We are to look upon propositions inferred by general induction from phenomena as accurately or very nearly true, notwithstanding any contrary hypotheses that may be imagined, till such time as other phenomena occur, by which they may either be made more accurate, or liable to exceptions.

I cannot imagine a clearer or more beautiful statement of the scientific method, or a more resounding rejection of the various forms of chicanery that were then popular. Newton was himself an alchemist, and never wavered in his belief that God was the animating spirit that created all the rules and set the world in motion, but by sitting alone in his room in Trinity College during the plague, and carefully working out (and inventing) the mathematics of what he intuited about motion and velocity and acceleration — all concepts that hardly existed at the time — he was able to define rules that have lasted ever since (and no, Einstein didn’t invalidate Newton). By establishing first principles, by reasoning forward rigorously, and testing to make sure that what his reasoning predicted was actually true, he found a more wondrous world than anything you’ll find in the Bible.

Newton was one of the first members of the “reality-based community.” And increasing numbers of people are turning their backs on those principles. During his lifetime, the English rejected a return to Catholic rule, rejected a return to rule by Divine Right, and invited monarchs from Holland and then from Germany to rule the country by law, not by fiat. Now, we reject the rule of law and instead invite the religious bigots in. Rather than the Philosophic Mercury, we have diet pills and herbal remedies, but the number of people who not only reject science but reject their own ability to reason is truly frightening. Newton showed us that the world was solvable and understandable; now we seem to believe it’s not solvable, not understandable, and in fact, we don’t want to solve or understand it. We want someone else to give us simple stories and pictures that don’t require any work from us.

I’m not a big fan of Robert Heinlein’s philosophy, but he once said, “Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house.” That’s less unfair than it sounds, given that math is taught so unbearably badly in this country (and please keep in mind I was a C student in every math class I took except for geometry, linear algebra and discrete math, which is to say the more visual areas of math), but I do believe that if everyone in this country came out of school with at least an elementary understanding of what the calculus is and why it matters, we’d all be better off.

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