The European Enlightenment: Glossary

Classical Mechanics


Ancient Greece
Pre-Socratic Philosophy: Pythagoras
   Although Isaac Newton (1642-1727) stands as the principle origin of modern science, not only for his invention of the concept of gravity, which explained the uniform motion of the planets around the sun, and for his application of mathematics as the primary way of explaining physical phenomenon, but primarily for his innovate application of a mechanistic view of the universe to all physical phenomenon. Most of Newton's work repeats previous ideas—for instance, the foundational argument in Newton's most famous work, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy , is that the universe is founded on number and mathematics; this idea, however, was commonplace among the hermeticists (hermeticism is a Western tradition of magic which believes that the universe reflects the mind of god) and dates back to Pythagoras.


Ancient Greece
AristotlePre-Socratic Philosophy: Atomists
   Newton's mechanistic view of the universe, again, an idea that derives from Greek atomism, however, was to have far-reaching consequences not just for science but for modern Western culture in its totality. According to Newton, the universe was like a massive clock built by a creating god and set into motion. Actually, even though Newton was a devout Christian, this argument has a philosophical basis. For Newton based his entire view of the universe on the concept of inertia: every object in motion stays in motion until redirected or stopped by another object; every object remains at rest until moved by another object. No object has the ability to move or stop itself. The universe, then, becomes a vast billiard ball table, in which everything moves because something else has just knocked into it. But that leads to a problem: who moved the first object? How did it get going if no object can move itself? The Greek atomists, who believed that the universe consisted of atoms (in Greek the word atoma means "indivisibles") which created all phenomenon by colliding into and combining with each other, explained this with the concept of "swerve": somewhere at the beginning of time, one atom swerved all by itself and knocked into another and hence the universe came into being. Aristotle, on the other hand, who also based his thought more or less on a mechanistic view of the universe, solved the problem by positing an "Unmoved Mover": somewhere at the beginning of time, an "Unmoved Mover" (which he calls God), was able to set things in motion without having to be moved itself. This idea was appropriated in the Middle Ages by the Scholastics, who, like Aristotle, believed the universe functioned in a rational and mechanistic way and was set in motion and ruled over by a rational and unmoving mover, God. Newton adopts this idea whole-cloth: although the universe is a vast machine of objects moving and colliding into each other, still it requires some original thing that set it all in motion in the first place. That thing, for Newton, was God.


   But God did not run the day to day workings of the universe (although Newton never denied that God couldn't, just that God didn't interfere with the workings of the universe). If the universe were a vast machine of interacting objects, that meant that it could be understood as a machine. Human reason and the bare observation of phenomena were sufficient to explain the universe; one need not drag religion or God into the explanation. If physical phenomena were mechanistic, that means that physical phenomena can be manipulated , that is, engineered. This mechanistic view of the universe, called classical mechanics, focusses entirely on the concept of motion, that is, at the base of Newton's thought is an attempt to explain why the universe moves. This is what physics is all about: why things change.


Enlightenment Glossary
Deism
   Newton's mechanistic view of the universe would soon be applied to other phenomenon as well. If the universe were a machine and could be understood rationally, then so could economics, history, politics, and ethics (human character). It also followed that if economics, history, politics, and ethics were mechanical, they could be explained without recourse to religion or God and they could be manipulated as if they were machines, that is, they could be improved and made to run better. As the Enlightenment developed, classical mechanics would give rise to a larger phenomenon, Deism which is founded on the idea that all phenomenon is fundamentally rational and mechanistic. All of modern Western knowledge and the majority of your experience is ultimately derived from this principle.

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-8-97