Maybe it was Isaac Newton Who Needed Enlightened
How the Enlightenment combined the certainty of mathematics with a certain religion to insufficiently explain a naturally uncertain world
Today is part one of a two-part exploration. I was curious as to why conventional economics continues to rely so heavily on deterministic mathematical models that assume perfect conditions even though they know such inert situations don’t exist in nature. It may tie back to the Enlightenment and the popular beliefs of Newton and Descartes who merged Christian beliefs with mathematic certainty – despite viable alternative theories they helped squelch.
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Isaac Newton and René Descartes were spermists. They believed they entered this world through preformation. This theory states every future organism is wrapped up in a seed or sperm as a preformed miniature version of itself. This was the dominant belief among Europe’s most respected Enlightenment thinkers. They believed not only did a Christian god create all the plants and animals, including humans, but all the future ones too. Intercourse, they surmised, is a magical act that initiates the growth of microscopic animacules which then grow until they are fully formed. It’s easy to brush this off as a point in time lack of knowledge and excuse these brilliant minds. We might say, “They just didn’t know any better.” But it turns out there were other brilliant minds at the time who thought they were crazy.
But powerful people are not easily persuaded. They, along with the church, continued to push the idea that preformation is as elementary to evolution as mathematical axioms are to theorems. A mathematical certainty that one day seduced many scientists, and later economists, into similar deterministic expressions.
One of the early preformation influencers was the Dutch philosopher, mathematician, and theologian, Bernard Nieuwentyt (1654-1718). Three years before his death, he published a soon to be popular book, The Religious Philosopher: Or, The Right Use of Contemplating the Works of the Creator. In it he writes,
“This however is sure enough…that all living Creatures whatever proceed from a Stamin or Principle, in which the Limbs and Members of the Body are folded and wound as it were in a Ball of Thread; which by the Operation of adventitious Matter and Humours are filled up and unfolded, till the Structure of all the Parts have the Magnitude of a full grown Body.”
His book was translated into English in 1724 and its influence spread. In 1802, the English clergyman and philosopher, William Paley (1743-1805), expanded on the ‘Ball of Thread’ analogy with his infamous watchmaker analogy. Using examples of mechanistic functions of the human body like joints and muscles, he expanded the popular notion that this is the work of a supreme designer – their Christian god. He writes,
“Contemplating an animal body in its collective capacity, we cannot forget to notice, what a number of instruments are brought together, and often within how small a compass. It is a cluster of contrivances.”
But Paley wasn’t alone, nor was he the first. Both Descartes and Newton had already remarked as much. Newton once wrote, “like a watchmaker, God was forced to intervene in the universe and tinker with the mechanism from time to time to ensure that it continued operating in good working order."
The confidence of spermists was buoyed when spermatozoa was discovered by the Dutch microscopist Antoine van Leeuwenhoek in 1677. But the seed of the idea dates all the way back to Pythagoras. He believed male semen is fluid that collects and stores different elements from the body like the bone and brain. He said, “semen is a drop of the brain.”The woman provided a host and nourishment so the male semen could unfold inside her body.
Another Greek philosopher, Empedocles, refuted the Pythagorean claim 100 years later noting offspring often inherit characteristics of the mother. He proposed there was a blending of male and female root reproductive elements in plants and animals that has the potential to produce blended varieties as their offspring. Empedocles was on to something, but his theory was overshadowed by a more popular theory and powerful name, Aristotle.
Aristotle believed both men and women provided different forms of reproductive purified blood in the form of semen and menstrual fluids. Because semen appeared more pure than menstrual fluids, he surmised it must have the advantage. Therefore, the male provided the instructions, design, or blueprint for formation and the woman provided the material. The ‘blood’ metaphor is alive today despite our knowledge of genetics. J.K Rowling did her part in her Harry Potter series to perpetuate and popularize the blood metaphor with ‘pure-bloods’ and ‘half-bloods’ or the derogatory ‘mud-bloods’.
Aristotle’s ideas were brought to life in the 17th and 18th century by the spermists nemesis, the ovists. Ovists were rallying behind the discoveries of William Harvey (1578-1657) and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) of female eggs in female bodies, the union of the sperm and egg, and the formation of an embryo which in turn unleashed the production of various parts of the body. Harvey called this cellular formation of individual parts in plants and animals epigenesis. An idea Aristotle also suggested.
But one Dutch spermist, Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680), used this to further the preformation theory, but with a twist. Evidence of the union of egg and sperm, he suggested, must mean the future organism is embedded inside the head of the sperm in miniature form waiting to become whole with the help of the egg. A century later, this prompted a Swiss scientist, Charles Bonnet (1720-1793), to offer a counter ovist preformation theory. He suggested a Christian god planted future generations not inside the sperm, but inside the egg – like nested eggs within eggs.
Meanwhile, a group of naturalist scientists opposed these Cartesian and Pythagorean, mechanistic preformation theories. The French naturalist, mathematician, and philosopher, Pierre Louise Maupertuis (1698-1759), further rejected theological explanations and believed both the male and female possess particles that come together to form unique characteristics in their offspring. He is credited with being the first to observe evolutionary hereditarian changes in organisms over time suggesting some characteristics are dominant while others are recessive.
The German physiologist Caspar Friedrich Wolff (1733-1794) expanded on this work and revived Harvey’s theory of epigenesis. By observing chick embryos, he discovered a supernatural action occurs once the sperm is implanted in the egg. This sparks what he called a vital action “vis essentialis” that culminates over the period of gestation creating a fully formed body. This is the origins of what we now call embryology.
Those in the mechanistic and theological Cartesian camp weren’t having it. They, like the church, rejected talk of indescribable, supernatural, and immaterial ‘vital actions.’ It was not only heretical, but suggested science was going backwards to embrace medieval miracles of the occult. Either way, if there were forces at work on matter, the preformation mechanists believed it too would have been preordained by a Christian god. The co-inventor of differential calculus, German polymath and theologian, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), reasoned like this,
“But if in truth an intelligible explanation is to be sought in the nature of the thing it will come from what is clearly apprehended in the thing…for the success of the whole system is due to divine preformation.”
Toward the middle of the 18th century the French naturalist and mathematician, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), began publishing his work on natural history, Histoire Naturelle – an opus that amassed 36 volumes that continued to be amended even after his death. By looking at the history and evolution of the natural world, Buffon was the first to articulate patterns of ecological succession – the successive structural change of species over time. He rejected Christian Creationism and theories of the preordained mechanistic unfolding of nature and provided vivid and expertly rendered illustrations to the contrary.
He took elements of Aristotle’s blood theories, qualitative approaches to inquiry, and aspects of both spermists and ovists to merge them with empirical evidence and compelling writing to make convincing arguments for unexplainable actions vital to the creation and evolution of the natural world.
As the late professor of history and Director of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Studies at UCLA, Peter Hanns Reill, wrote, Buffon “emphasized the primacy of living over inanimate matter, asserted the existence of inner, active forces as central agents in nature, envisioned a world of new creation and leaps in nature, and proclaimed the ineffable quality of individuality and the manifold variety of nature.”
Through “comparison”, “resemblance”, “affinity”, and “analogical reasoning” he “revitalized and historicized nature without denying the existence of a comprehensible order.” This provided a path for science to embrace qualitative reasoning without foregoing the rigor, language, and quantitative aspects of mathematics embraced by mechanists like Newton and Descartes.
It wasn’t only ecological communities that could be explained this way. Society and politics could too. This admission further worried mechanists and theologians. They feared any acknowledgement that mysterious random events, be it at a particle or societal level, that could lead to a ‘vital action’ creating unforeseen mutations accuses the Christian god of not understanding his own creations. It would reject both ‘divine preformation’ and ‘God’s will’.
This came at a time of social revolutions, debates, and contestations over human rights, freedoms of religion, and ‘we the people.’ Mechanists married the certainty of mathematics with the certainty of their Christian god to explain the world. If nature and society lacked the linear precession of clocks, compasses, and mathematical calculations, they feared such uncertainty would unravel societal order and unleash chaos.
Naturalists continued to point to ‘internal’ vital forces that created perceptible ‘external’ microscopic and macroscopic evolutions that countered the dominant inert, deterministic, and mechanical philosophies and beliefs. But the seduction of certainty remains with us to this day, even when we know it not to be true.
The Scottish philosopher and historian, Adam Ferguson (1723-1816), suggested as much writing,
“Our notion of order in civil society is frequently false: it is taken from the analogy of subjects inanimate and dead; we consider commotion and action as contrary to its nature; we think it consistent only with obedience, secrecy, and the silent passing of affairs through the hands of a few.”
Ferguson goes on to use a brick wall as an analogy. He continues,
“The good order of stones in a wall, is their being properly fixed in places for which they are hewn; were they to stir the building must fall: but the order of men in society, is their being placed where they are properly qualified to act. The first is a fabric made of dead and inanimate parts, the second is made of living and active members. When we seek in society for the order of mere inaction and tranquility, we forget the nature of our subject, and find the order of slaves, not of free men.”
Buffon’s new modes of inquiry transformed fields formally beholden to mechanistic dogma like medicine, physiology, and chemistry. But it seems economics remain seduced by the determinism of linear, mechanistic, mathematical approaches despite it being a branch of the social sciences. While it may have dropped religion, it has yet to fully embrace the “notion of order in civil society is frequently false.” It’s time conventional economics acknowledge there are mysterious ‘vital forces’ internal to nature and society resulting in external perturbations that propagate indeterminant permutations.
Tune in next week as I explore what that might look like.
Vitalizing Nature in the Enlightenment. Peter Hanns Reill. 2005.
Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. William Paley. 1802.
Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ. Cynthia Long Westfall. 2016