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Space Before God? A Problem in Newton's Metaphysics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 August 2014


My goal in this paper is to elucidate a problematic feature of Newton's metaphysics of absolute space. Specifically, I argue that Newton's theory has the untenable consequence that God depends on space for His existence and is therefore not an independent entity. I argue for this conclusion in stages. First, I show that Newton believed that space was an entity and that God and space were ontologically distinct entities. Part of this involves arguing that Newton denies that space is a divine attribute. I then show that Newton endorsed a principle according to which the existence of space is a necessary condition for the existence of any other entity. Following this, I discuss the ways in which this makes God depend on space for His existence and the reasons why this is unacceptable for traditional conceptions of God. Specifically, I show that it is incompatible with the orthodox position that God be entirely independent and self-determining. Finally, I offer two considerations which, I hope, make the problem seem less serious than it first appears. The first consideration has to do with Newton's polemical context and the second has to do with the nature of his theological thought.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2014 

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1 I have chosen to focus on Newton's theory of absolute space for this paper. But I think that a similar problem could, mutatis mutandi, be created for Newton's theory of absolute time.

2 ‘Being’ is, of course, a difficult term. A primary goal of this section is to make more precise the sense in which Newton understood space to be a being. In the relevant texts Newton offers us four ontological categories: substance, being, accident, and affection. Newton is very clear that space is neither substance nor attribute. He also is clear that it is an affection. But, membership in these categories is not mutually exclusive. God, for example, is a substance as well as a being. I will argue that space is a being as well as an affection.

3 See Barrow, Isaac, The Usefulness of Mathematical Learning… (London: Printed for Stephen Austen, 1734), 175ffGoogle Scholar.

4 See Charleton, Walter, Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltoniana (London: Printed by Thomas Newcomb, 1654), book 1, chapters 3 and 6Google Scholar.

5 Newton, Isaac, Philosophical Writings (hereafter NWP), (ed.) Janiak, Andrew (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 21Google Scholar.

6 Newton, NPW, 21.

7 Consider, for example, Descartes’ claim in the Principles (Part 1, Section 51) that created minds and bodies are not, strictly speaking, substances because they depend on God for their existence. Descartes, René, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, (eds) Cottingham, John, Stoothoff, Robert, Murdoch, Dugald (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 210Google Scholar.

8 See the related discussion in Janiak. Janiak, Andrew, Newton as Philosopher (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 145CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Newton, NPW, 21.

10 It follows from this that I agree with others in the literature who have rejected a substantivalist-relationist dichotomy as inappropriate for classifying Newton's views. See, for example, Janiak, Newton as Philosopher, 155; Slowik, Edward, ‘Newton's Neo-Platonic Ontology of Space’, Foundations of Science 18 (2013), 419448CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Slowik, Edward, ‘Newton's Metaphysics of Space: A “Tertium Quid” betwixt Substantivalism and Relationism, or merely A “God of the (Rational Mechanical) Gaps”?’, Perspectives on Science 17 (2009), 429456CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Newton, NPW, 26–27.

12 Newton, NPW, 29.

13 Newton, NPW, 64.

14 On this point see McGuire, J.E., ‘A Dialogue with Descartes: Newton's Ontology of True and Immutable Natures’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 45 (2007), 103125CrossRefGoogle Scholar. He argues that Newton adopted some relevant components of Descartes’ theory of natures. Specifically, Newton adopted the view that natures, in and of themselves, determine the structure or content of some being. So, in claiming that space either is or has a nature Newton is claiming that space is a conceptually independent and positive being.

15 Tempus et Locus, §3. The text of Tempus et Locus has been transcribed and translated in McGuire, J.E., ‘Newton on Place, Time, and God: An Unpublished Source’, The British Journal for the History of Science 11 (1978): 114129CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For this passage see page 117. The Latin reads: ‘Est enim ens unicum, simp[licissimum & in suo] genere perfectissimum’.

16 Janiak, Newton as Philosoher, 147.

17 Put differently, Janiak's use of ‘being’ is more restricted than mine.

18 It is important to note that the goal of this section is extremely limited. I am only concerned with making a negative argument to the effect that Newton thought God and space were ontologically distinct. I do not intend to offer a positive interpretation of how Newton did understand the relationship between God and space. There are well-known and much discussed questions about, for example, Newton's doctrine of emanation, whether it is divine or general, whether it is causal, and if so what sort of causality it employs, etc. But discussion of these issues is beyond the scope of this paper. Beyond denying that space and God are ontologically linked and showing that God requires space, I wish to remain neutral on the character of the relationship between them.

19 See Reid, Jasper, ‘The Evolution of Henry More's Theory of Divine Absolute Space’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 45 (2007), 79102CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 For example, More, Henry, Manual of Metaphysics, (ed.) Jacob, Alexander (New York, Olms 1995), volume 1, 5658Google Scholar.

21 And Clarke was joined by other early 18th century Newtonians. See Cheyne, George, Philosophical Principles of Natural Religion (London: Printed for George Strahan, 1705), 1920Google Scholar and Colliber, Samuel, An Impartial Inquiry into the Existence and Nature of God… (London: Printed and sold by the booksellers, 1718), 218219Google Scholar.

22 Leibniz, G.W. and Clarke, Samuel, Correspondence, (ed.) Ariew, Roger (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000), 71Google Scholar.

23 Part of Clarke's motivation may have been that he thought it was impossible for there to be two necessary beings. Clarke had argued for this position in Proposition VII of his A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God. See Clarke, Samuel, A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God, (ed.) Vailati, Ezio (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 3538CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 For this evidence see Koyré, Alexandre and Cohen, I. Bernard, ‘Newton and the Leibniz-Clarke CorrespondenceArchives Internationales d'Histoire des Sciences 15 (1962), 63126Google Scholar.

25 ‘External space and duration therefore I take to be those properties or attributes in God… This I take to be Sir Isaac Newton's meaning…’ Berkeley, George, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, ed. Dancy, Jonathan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 178Google Scholar.

26 Baker, John Tull, An Historical and Critical Examination of English Space and Time Theories from Henry More to Bishop Berkeley (Bronxville, NY: Sarah Lawrence College, 1930)Google Scholar. At page 3: ‘Both the Principia and Optics consider absolute space and time God's attributes like More and Barrow’. See also pages 29–30. It is worth noting that Baker only had access to the Principia and the Optics and not to the wealth of Newton manuscripts available to scholars writing today.

27 Grant, Edward, Much Ado About Nothing: Theories of Space and Vacuum from the Middle Ages to the Scientific Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 243244CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 Khamara, Edward J., Space, Time, and Theology in the Liebniz-Newton Controversy (Frankfurt: Ontos, 2006), 25Google Scholar.

29 Gorham, Geoffrey, ‘Newton on God's Relation to Space and Time: The Cartesian Framework’, Archiv für Geschichte der Philosohpie 93 (2011): 281320Google Scholar.

30 Newton, NPW, page 91.

31 Transcribed in McGuire, ‘Newton on Place, Time, and God’, 119. Compare with Newton, NPW, 25: ‘But I see what Descartes feared, namely that if he should consider space infinite, it would perhaps become God because of the perfection of infinity. But by no means, for infinity is not perfection except when it is attributed to perfect things’.

32 I follow Koyré and Cohen in classifying the drafts as Drafts A-E. For details about and transcriptions of the drafts see Koyré and Cohen, ‘Newton and the Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence’, 96ff.

33 Koyré and Cohen, ‘Newton and the Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence’, 96.

34 This understanding of attributes is the one employed by Gorham. For a clear exposition of this understanding of attributes in a Cartesian context see Nolan, Lawrence, ‘Reductionism and Nominalism in Descartes's Theory of Attributes’, Topoi 16 (1997), 129140CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 For example, ‘I have always been prone to think this subtile Extension….to be a more obscure shadow or adumbration, or to be a more general and confused apprehension of the Divine Amplitude’. More, Henry, Divine Dialogues (London: Printed by James Flesher, 1668), 106Google Scholar. It is worth noting that Newton never, to my knowledge, uses this sort of language to characterize space.

36 Thanks to Jasper Reid for helping me understand More's language of images and representations.

37 Newton, NPW, 31.

38 That said, conceiving of space may require conceiving of some object, the important point is that object does not need to be God.

39 See Gorham, ‘Newton on God's Relation to Space and Time’, 287–288.

40 Newton, NPW, 22. Compare with Newton, NPW, 33 where Newton says that because we can think of space without any bodies in it ‘some substantial reality fits this’.

41 That said, Newton does not think that space cannot exist on its own in the way that material bodies cannot exist on their own. He thinks that material bodies are dependent on God for their existence in a way that space is not dependent on God for its existence. See Newton, NPW, 32–33.

42 Newton, NPW, 21.

43 I think that this argument against the second (inherence) way of understanding space as a divine attribute is also successful as an argument against the first (conceiving) way of understanding space as a divine attribute.

44 Tempus et Locus §1. McGuire, ‘Newton on Place, Time, and God’, 117. Emphasis added.

45 Newton, NPW, 25. Newton even deploys this view in controversy: ‘Nor is the distinction between mind and body in [Descartes’] philosophy intelligible, unless at the same time we say that mind has no extension at all, and so is not substantially present in any extension, that is, exists nowhere; which seems the same as if we were to say that it does not exist…’ Newton, NPW, 31. Emphasis added.

46 Other commentators have noticed Newton's commitment to the SCE. Consider, for example, McGuire, J.E., ‘Existence, Actuality and Necessity: Newton on Space and Time’, Annals of Science 35 (1978), 481CrossRefGoogle Scholar: ‘…space is…conceived as the general condition required for the existence of any individual substance including its characteristics’; McGuire, ‘A Dialogue with Descartes’, 123: ‘…the uncreated extension of space is, as such, an eternal precondition for the existence of all entities, God included’; Khamara, Space, Time, and Theology, 24: ‘Absolute space and absolute time are necessary beings which exist in all possible worlds. They are held to be preconditions of all being, whether actual or possible’; and Henry, John, ‘Gravity and De Gravitatione: The Development of Newton's Ideas on Action at a Distance’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 42 (2011), 17CrossRefGoogle Scholar: ‘…Newton wants to insist that God must exist in space, in order to exist at all (a metaphysical point about the nature of existence)…’

47 And one can trace the roots of this view back even further. Francesco Patrizi (1529–1597) held a similar view: ‘For all things, whether corporeal or incorporeal, if they are not somewhere, are nowhere; and if they are nowhere they do not even exist’. Patrizi, Francesco, ‘On Physical Space, Translated by Benjamin Brickman’, Journal of the History of Ideas 4 (1943), 225Google Scholar. Or slightly later, at page 226: ‘All things (entia), therefore, and whatever stands above things, are in Space and cannot but be in Space’. And the view shows up in Charleton. See Charleton, Physiologia, 66: ‘…no substance can be conceived existent without Place and Time’. Going forward, it seems Clarke also formulated a version of the SCE: ‘the supposal of the existence of anything whatever includes necessarily a presupposition of the existence of space and time’. Clarke, Demonstration, 99.

48 More, Henry, The Immortality of the Soul, (ed.) Jacob, Alexander (Boston: Kluwer Academic, 1987), 7Google Scholar.

49 See McGuire, J.E. and Tamny, Martin, Certain Philosophical Questions: Newton's Trinity Notebook (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983)Google Scholar.

50 One could easily provide examples of arguments from Descartes, Malebranche, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume which have conceivability playing a central role.

51 Thus, I think there is a sense in which it is safe to say that Newton anticipates the Kantian insight of the Aesthetic.

52 And even an interpretation of Cartesian spirits which has them as outside of space is not without significant difficulties. See Reid, Jasper, ‘The Spatial Presence of Spirits Among the Cartesians’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 46 (2008), 91117CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

53 Newton, NPW, 97: ‘Since each and every particle of space is always, and each and every indivisible moment of duration is everywhere…

54 Newton, NPW, 27.

55 And this view is suggested elsewhere in Newton's writings. In the Principia's Scholium on space and time Newton writes as follows: ‘Let the parts of space move from their places, and they will move (so to speak) from themselves. For times and spaces are, as it were, the places of themselves and of all things … It is of the essence of spaces to be places, and for primary places to move is absurd’. Newton, NPW, 66. A similar, though more detailed, argument occurs in De Gravitatione at Newton, NPW, 25.

56 Newton, NPW, 26.

57 Janiak, Newton as Philosopher, 148–149.

58 Thanks to Matt Priselac for helping me to better understand this alternative possibility.

59 Newton, in general, has no qualms about using such modifiers. Here is a sampling, all from Newton, NPW: 22 ‘parts whose common boundaries we usually call surfaces’; 31–32 ‘some unintelligible reality that they call substance’; 32 ‘it is only verbally that we call bodies created and dependent’; 8 ‘and make that substance we call vapour’; 5 ‘exhalations, which we call the atmosphere’; 59 ‘Furthermore, I mean this quantity whenever I use the term “body” or “mass” in the following pages’.

60 The problem was also briefly noted by John Carriero. See Carriero, John, ‘Newton on Space and Time: Comments on J.E. McGuire’ in Philosophical Perspectives on Newtonian Science, (eds) Bricker, Phillip and Hughes, R.I.G. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), 127128Google Scholar.

61 5th Letter, §79. Leibniz and Clarke, Correspondence, 55. Emphasis added. See also 5th Letter, §50: Leibniz and Clarke, Correspondence, 48.

62 Berkeley, for example, seemed to think that this problem was well worth avoiding. He wrote in §117 of the Principles that his own view allows us to avoid: ‘that dangerous dilemma, to which several who have employed their thoughts on this subject, imagine themselves reduced, to wit, of thinking either that real space is God, or else that there is something beside God which is eternal, uncreated, infinite, indivisible, immutable’. Berkeley, Principles, 146.

63 Again, see Reid, ‘The Spatial Presence of Spirits’ for a discussion of the difficulties for this Cartesian position.

64 I am especially grateful to Matt Priselac for forcing me to clearly think through this objection.

65 See Newton, NPW, 90 and 125.

66 See Snobelen, Stephen D., ‘“God of gods, and Lord of lords”: The Theology of Isaac Newton's General Scholium to the Principia’, Osiris 16 (2001), 169208CrossRefGoogle Scholar for a clear exposition of this point. See also the discussion in Tamny, Martin, ‘Newton, Creation, and Perception’, Isis 70 (1979), 5354CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

67 Yahuda MS 15.5, Fol. 97r. Cited in Snobelen, ‘God of gods’, 183.

68 I am very grateful to Andrew Janiak and Alan Nelson who both offered extensive feedback on this paper at several stages of its development. I also profited greatly from conversations with Dan Ferguson, Tyron Goldschmidt, Geoff Gorham, Matt Priselac, Jasper Reid, and Elanor Taylor. Previous versions of this paper were presented at the UNC Work-in-Progress Series, the 2013 Central States Philosophical Association hosted by OSU-Tulsa (where I received very helpful comments from Pete LeGrant), and at the 2014 South Central Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy hosted by Texas A&M. On each occasion the audience supplied me with useful questions and feedback.

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