Category Archives: Newton

Newton’s thought in all areas, but especially as developed in the


It has been suggested that two major themes of this website are now converging in such a way that each throws light on the other – namely, the Fourth Dimension, and the Principle of Least Action. The following essay aims to explain this connection. This may in turn throw special light on the discussion of Karl Marx, the final stop on our Dialectical World Tour – coming next!


Least Action – whatever our understanding of this challenging term – is certainly a way of characterizing natural motion. Natural systems, the principle asserts, move in such a way that their action shall be least. Before we concern ourselves with the mystic term action, we might do well to focus on the no less mysterious term, motion. Not only will this help us to understand the intent of the principle, I think it will lead us to see a deep link between the Principle of Least Action, and the Fourth Dimension.

What, then, is motion? We moderns tend to think of it in instrumental terms – as the means of getting from intention to accomplishment: in between planning to be something, and actually being that intended thing. In this view, motion is a sort of intermediate, between intent and accomplishment: something to be gotten over, usually as quickly as possible. “Time is money,” we say – meaning, a cost. This colorless idea time accords with the mathematical view of time as a line: our lives pass along this continuum from goal to goal, the moments between, mere means, to be passed through as expeditiously as possible. Time is money, we say, meaning cost. This uniform, colorless continuum Newton mastered by finding a way to measure motion at a point, as if the now were its dwelling-place. Taking this to the limit, he gave us the mathematics of conventional physical science: the differential calculus. Absolute, mathematical time, Newton was sure, flowed calmly through absolute space, in God’s divine sensorium.

As so often happens, the ancients had a different, more interesting point of view, suited to a richer and wiser concept of Nature itself. Calling Aristotle as our witness, we’re told that being does not lie merely at the two ends of a span of intervening motion. Rather, being inheres in the notion itself. There, in that very motion, we find ourselves in the fullness of our being. As we might expect, Aristotle has a word for this. energeia: being-at-work. And since the work is at every stage shaped to its end – its TELOS – we can call this richer, organic concept of living, EN-TELECHY.

Rest assured, this old view is by no means a threat to modern science. Leibniz, already in Newton’s time, was developing a more complex form of the calculus suitable to this richer view of motion. Instead of zeroing-in on the passing moment, it looks to the whole span of the motion, from inception to closure. It’s called the integral calculus. In its variational form, it weights every moment with respect to the goal, and hence meets Aristotle’s test of entelechy. Whether it’s a radiating atom or a busy mouse, every stage of its motion is inherently – by Nature – shaped to its goal. The motion, then, is truly whole.

Aristotle goes on to say a funny thing about time. Time, he seems to say, is the number of motion(s). To clarify, he illustrates by saying we count the number of times the horse goes around the track. More generally, in the order of being, first there is the race, and then, secondarily, we count the laps, and time arises. The whole, which is the motion, is primary; motion doesn’t happen in time. Being comes first; time is merely the count of the generations of being.

Come to think of it, that’s the way we encounter time in daily life. Our encounter with time is mediated by some motion: we count the clock which tells the time. That’s why the classic clock says, tick-tock. The swings of its balance are counted by ah escapement, going first tick, and then tock, to mark the completion of one cycle: one motion The time it tells is the count of its motions. More modern clocks, it is rue, speak in other voices, but they’re all counting motions of some sophisticated sort.



If we’re satisfied that a motion is essentially whole, we’re ready to turn to Least Action. All the natural world runs on the Principle of Least Action, so this is important to know about. Here is the Principle: Every natural motion, atom or mouse, unfolds in such a way that over the whole motion, total “action” will be least. Think of “action”, then, as activity-summed-over-the whole motion. Action thus refers to something Newton missed. Contra Newton, you can’t have action at a moment! More positively put, nature accomplishes the overall goal with the least possible fuss. There’s a “good reason” for that; fuss (haste) makes waste. Every activity entails heat-loss (that’s why our bodies run so hot). The horse will ultimately run at top speed, but getting-up-to-speed will be accomplished by nature as gradually as possible. In turn, once up to speed, the myriad processes throughout he body will themselves run, collectively (organically), in such a way hat the speeding horse will be expending as little energy over each cycle of the gait, as possible.

If we image a running horse by means of a three-dimensional snapshot, we’ll evidently miss Nature’s point. We need to see that motion whole: each whole cycle of the gait as one single image. Our three dimensions are not enough: we must add a fourth axis to our image. In addition to our three spatial axes, we need a time axis as well. The resulting image will then encompass in a single geometrical figure the motion as that whole which, by its very nature, it is.

Though such four-dimensional imaging can indeed present this wholeness effectively to our physical eye, a larger aim must remain: through this visual experience, to extend this same insight to the eye of the mind. We might then perceive all natural motion in this four-dimensional way – and thus, in turn, achieve a larger grasp of the wholeness of that motion of ultimate interest, life itself.

Mathematical physics has widely accepted the Principle of Least Action as its basis. Taking the term physics in its old, true meaning, as the science of all nature – the fall of a leaf, or the beat of a heart – it’s nice to know that the more modern the science, the more it attests to wholeness, and to the richness of every moment: not as transient as it may seem.

What is “Action”, that Nature Should be Mindful of It?

Newton/Maxwell/Marx: Spirit, Freedom and Scientific Vision

We have been tracing the course of the book, NEWTON/MAXWELL/MARX by way of a dialectical tour of three worlds of thought. We have seen Maxwell replace Newton’s “Laws of Motion” with the Principle of Least Action as the foundation of the natural world. Here, we seek the meaning of this curious phrase, Least Action.

Let’s grant that Maxwell – along with perhaps most of the mathematical physicists of our own time – is right in supposing that the Principle of Least Action governs all the motions of he physical world. How can we make sense of this truth? What is Action, and why is essential that it be Least?

First, we must begin by recognizing nature is not inert, but in some sense purposeful: every motion in the natural world (and that includes practically everything we can point to, once we take our hands off the controls!) will begin with a goal (Greek TELOS). Think, for example, of that complex process by which an acorn develops into a flourishing oak. This Motion will unfold in such a way that its goal will be achieved in the most efficient way possible. Sound like good economics? We’re asked to see every natural motion as directed to some goal, and as unfolding in such a way that waste or loss en route be the least possible under the given circumstances.

This principle can be expressed elegantly in mathematical terms, rather esoteric and belonging to the hushed domain of mathematical physics. But since it is actually in play everywhere around us, in actions going on at all times, it’s time we reclaimed it and demanded to know what it means. Let’s make a serious effort here to understand the implications that the physicists – Maxwell chief among them – have been saying.

For Maxwell, the true paradigm of physics is the laboratory of Michael Faraday, working immediately with phenomena and tuned always to hear, without complication of intervening symbols, the authentic voice of nature. The Principle of Least Action is about the world we live in.

However we may distort and engineer it, it is always nature, ever-active, with which we begin, and our projects end. We may think we begin with a tabula rasa and design with total mastery to purposes of our own, but every blade of grass, infinitely quantum-mechanical-wise, will laugh at us. It is in the fields and the mountains, the atmosphere and the oceans, and the endlessly-complex workings of our own bodies, that Nature’s economics is inexorably unfolding. High time, that we take notice of it!

We begin always with some process – the fall of a stone, from cliff’s edge to the beach below or the slow unfolding of an acorn into a flourishing oak. The principle applies in every case. Further, nature thinks always in terms of the whole process as primary: the economic outcome cannot be conceived as the summation of disparate parts, however successful each might seem in its own terms.

The unifying principle throughout any motion is always its TELOS, and it is this which in turn entails an organic view of the motion as one undivided whole process. Each phase of the motion is what it is, and does what it does, precisely as it contributes to the success of the whole. If this seems a sort of dreamland, far from practical reality, we must remind ourselves that we are merely rephrasing a strict account of what Nature always does! Things go massively awry (the seeding gets stepped on by the mailman) but these events are external constraints upon the motion: under these constraints, the Principle holds, strictly. Ask any oak tree, blade of grass, or aspen grove. Each has endured much in the course of its motion, yet each has contributed, to the extent possible, to the success of the ecology of which it is a part.

Economic achievement of the goal, we might say, is Nature’s overall fame of mind. Within this frame, exactly what is the economic principle at work? Everything moves in Nature in such a way that Action over the Motion will be least.

So, what is action? Action is the difference, over the whole motion, between two forms of energy: kinetic and potential Nature wants that difference to be minimal: that is, over the whole motion, the least potential energy possible to be expended, en route, as kinetic – i.e., as energy of motion. (One old saying is that Nature takes the easy way.) Or we might suggest: nature enters into motion gracefully.

Think of the falling stone: the stone at the edge of a high cliff has a certain potential energy with respect to the beach below. That potential is ready to be released – converted into kinetic energy, energy of motion. Thus the TELOS is given: to arrive at the beach below, with that high velocity equivalent to the total potential with which the fall began.

Our principle addresses the otherwise open question, how exactly to move en route? There is just one exact answer: the rule of uniform acceleration – steady acquisition of speed. Galileo discovered the rule; Newton thought he knew the reason for the rule. But Maxwell recognized that Newton was wrong, and we need now to get beyond this old way of thinking.

The real reason for the slow, steady acceleration is that the final motion, which is the TELOS, be acquired as late in the motion as possible, and thus that total-kinetic-energy-over-time be least.

Our principle may turn out to be of more intense interest to biologists than to physicists, as the ”kinetic energy” in this case becomes life itself. The seed bespeaks life in potentia. The ensuing show, steady conversion of potential—its gradual conversion to living form as the seedling matures – is the growth of the seeding, the biological counterpart of the metered, graceful fall of the stone.

Our principle governs the whole process of conversion: the measured investment of potential into kinetic form defines the course of maturation. Nature is frugal in that investment: the net transfer of energy-over-time is minimal; transfer in early stages of growth is avoided. Growth, like the fall of the stone, is measured, and graceful. Growth is organic in the sense that every part of the plant, at every stage of the way, is gauged by its contribution to the economic growth of the whole plant.

As it stands, our analogy to the falling stone may be misleading. It is not, of course, the case that the seed holds in itself (like loaded gun!) the potential energy of the oak; the case is far more interesting. The acorn holds in its genome the program for drawing energy from the environment in a way which will assure Least Action over the whole growth process. Once again, frugality reigns, since that energy not drawn-upon by the seedling will be available to other components of the ecology. Since the solar energy is finite, whatever is not used by one is available to the others.

We are ready now to ask in larger terms, “What sense does it make, that Nature be thus frugal in expending potential energy – minimizing its “draw” upon potential in early stages of growth, though total conversion by the end of motion be its very TELOS?

The question is a difficult one, touching on the very concept of life itself. Here, however, is my tentative suggestion. Let us consider Earth’s biosphere as a newborn project, awaiting Nature’s design. Our Earth (like, no doubt, countless other “earths” in Nature’s cosmic domain) is favored with a certain flux of energy, in the form of light from our Sun: just enough, on balance, to sustain water in liquid form, one criterion, at least, for the possibility of life. With regard to Earth, then, Nature’s overall TELOS may reasonably be characterized as the fullest possible transformation of sunlight into life. Earth also offers a rich inventory of mineral resources, which Nature will utilize to the fullest, over time, in the achievement of this goal.

Might we not think of this immense process, still of course very much ongoing, in the terms we’ve used earlier – as one great motion, transforming as fully as possible the potential energy of sunlight, into the living, kinetic energy of life? (It might be objected that the flux of solar energy is kinetic, not potential. It is so in space, en route, but is made accessible as potential by that immense solar panel, the green leaf system of the world – which by its quantum magic captures photons, uses them to split water, and thus generate the electrochemical potential on which the motion of life runs.)

That said, we may apply the logic of Least Action to life on every scale: life’s TELOS is to encapsulate our allotted solar potential energy in living form, always by way of the most frugal path possible. What is saved by the Least Action of one life-motion, is grist for the mills of others – so that overall, the solar flux is utilized as fully as possible. “As fully as possible” at this stage: but the long, slow motion of evolution continues – always, no less governed by Least Action, towards a TELOS we cannot envision, yet of which we must be organically a part, today.

For an expansion of this concept, you can read an earlier lecture:
The Dialectal Laboratory: Towards a Re-thinking of the Natural Sciences

NEXT: Karl Marx and his place in Newton/Maxwell/Marx.


Maxwell and the Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism:


Maxwell Between Two World-Views

Many of us may know what it means to feel “at sea”: without beacons to steer by, without terra firma on which to set our feet. A dialectical passage between two world-views is like that, and James Clerk Maxwell’s life-story might be read as the log-book of just such an expedition: a lifelong search for a clear and coherent view of the physical world. Maxwell’s voyage would almost precisely fill his lifetime, but it would in the end be rewarded by his recognition of one single principle, the principle of least action, which would be key to a virtually complete inversion of the Newtonian world order from which he was escaping.



In a sense, Maxwell was born into a dialectically-divided family. His father was Scottish, and Maxwell spent his early, formative years at the family home of Glenlair in rural southwestern Scotland. His mother on the other hand was English, and though she died while Maxwell was very young, her family was to have a strong influence on his career. While the English spirit would lead him eventually to Cambridge and the epicenter of an aristocratic, Newtonian concept of both science and society, the Scottish channel would lead him to a democratic view of society, and with it an appreciation of experiment and the evidence of the senses, together with a profound mistrust of the mathematical abstractions Newtonian theory.

These two themes met in abrupt confrontation when he was dispatched to Edinburgh to enter a new academy, designed to prepare students for entrance to English universities. In an encounter which must been a rude awakening, he was beaten up by his new fellow-students for his rural attire and his country ways. He stood his ground and soon became a leading student, but the encounter must have thrown light on an issue which would abide throughout his life.


Edinburgh University

Maxwell was clearly ready for entrance to Cambridge, for which his interest in science and his skill in mathematics surely qualified him; but he delayed for a year at Edinburgh University, and then, against the advice of family and friends, persisted in continuing there for a second year. At Edinburgh, he was encountered with excitement a truly liberal education; he loved, as he affirmed later, his professor of natural philosophy, and he became confirmed in his skepticism by the metaphysics of Kant as taught by Sir William Hamilton. Maxwell was not so much following Kant as agreeing with him: he left Edinburgh with a lifelong disbelief in the inert particles and forces upon them, on which Newtonian science rested.

After these two years he went on to Cambridge, where his skill in mathematics earned him entrance to Trinity College–the college of Newton–and high standing in the rigors of the tripos examinations. But he had brought his Edinburgh education with him, utterly abandoning Newton’s world, as we shall see when we turn to the first of his scientific papers.


Three Papers on Electricity and Magnetism

At this point, we find Maxwell, having obtained a fellowship at Cambridge, fully embarked on his voyage on the open seas. He is fascinated especially by the phenomena of electricity and magnetism, but he has no interest in joining the scientific community of his time elaborating Newtonian “laws of force” acting on electric “charges” or magnetic “poles”. He has met Michael Faraday, the self-proclaimed unmathematical philosopher, who has been dong brilliant experiments at the Royal Institution in London. Maxwell has, I think we can say, begun a lifelong devotion to this unassuming character, who represents the very opposite of the Cambridge/Newtonian concept of science–and almost defiantly takes up Faraday’s cause as his own. These are open seas: how to proceed?


Paper 1: An Analogy

Maxwell turns, not to theory, but to analogy. He shares common ground with Faraday regarding an interest in visual thinking–Faraday has presented his insights into the magnetic field by way of patterns formed by iron filings. Maxwell perceives these as the very lines of flow of a fluid. Here, then, is a gift from Faraday, a visual scientific language Maxwell can use! So is conceived the first of three papers on electromagnetism: On Faraday’s Lines of Force. This instrument of analogy, and with it, the goal of writing for the common man (for the democratic intellect, as one student of Scottish thought has put it) is to become one of the sure signs of the new world-view, towards which Maxwell has already begun steering.


Paper 2: A Physical Theory Maxwell has a great propensity for wit, though his friends remark on the difficulty of catching his intent. It may be a shield for a person who is living between worlds: not fully a member of the world friends suppose him to share with them. Maxwell is now in the position of having arrived at a whole view of the interrelations among the electric and magnetic phenomena: yet having no structure of theory in which to compose such a vision. I have proposed that his recourse is that of Aristophanes, in Peace, or the Birds–to stage his vision in the mode of comedy. Maxwell has been playing with the subject of mechanism (he and Karl Marx happen to have taken a course from the same teacher in London, though perhaps not at the same time!). He cannot mean that he proposes that such a mechanism actually exists, but he invents a great machine, for which he writes all the appropriate equations, which would do all the things the electromagnetic field actually does. Maxwell calls it A Physical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field, but he is not proposing that these vortices and idler-wheels actually exist. Like Aristophanes’ world of peace, it is an object for the mind, a project of pure thought. Again, this is a major step toward the goal Maxwell is seeking: in the new world, we will not take mechanisms seriously.

Maxwell’s jeu d’esprit is so successful that he can calculate from it the speed at which vibrations would be transmitted: it is very close to the speed of light! He is the point now of announcing the electromagnetic theory of light. But his discovery hangs in the air (or floats on the waves) it is no more than a beautiful play of thought.


Paper 3:Dynamical Theory

At last, the gods smile on Maxwell’s endeavor. He meets dynamical theory–and a new world begins to take shape. The mode of this encounter is deeply ironic, and correspondingly confusing. One of the most obdurate and imperious of Newtonian advocates is Lord Kelvin, once more modestly Maxwell’s colleague, William Thomson. He, with Maxwell’s close scientific friend P. G. Tait, have undertaken to write an ambitious, one might say proud, Treatise on Natural Philosophy. It’s intended to lay, once for all, the secure foundations of Newtonian science. An edifice of all physical science is to be built on this solid foundation, of which they’ve published only Volume 1.

At sea in uncharted waters, very strange things can happen! Kelvin and Tait, building their arguments on solid Newtonian foundations, expound a new approach to physical problems in terms of energy, rather than force: it is termed dynamical theory (they are importing it to England from the Continent, where it has been developed.) Though Kelvin resolutely insists that it is really still Newtonian, and nothing new, Maxwell sees light at the end of his tunnel (or a beacon on a new continent!) If equations can be written in terms of energy rather than force, nothing further needs to be said about forces acting upon those underlying particles, which he has always been convinced, do not exist!


The Treatise

The new dynamical equations are named after Pierre Lagrange, who wrote them, and Maxwell now uses them to characterize the electric and magnetic fields as regions on energy and momentum. Lagrange makes no explicit reference to ponderable mass, but that no longer matters–the equations carry all the energy that reaches Earth from the Sun. Maxwell publishes his Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field, and confidently announces his electromagnetic theory of light, based on the new equations.

Maxwell’s problem is not yet solved. Either the equations stand, as Kelvin maintains, on Newtonian theory – in which case we have only avoided the issue by not referring to some underlying particles, hardly more than a subterfuge, certainly not worthy of Maxwell, or they flow from some higher principle which Maxwell has not yet named. This is perhaps the darkest night of his voyage: he has glimpsed the new shore, but it has slipped away in the obscurity of this night.


The Principle of Least Action

Blessedly, Lagrange’s dynamical equations of motion can be derived from another source: indeed, this new source is their natural home, for this new origin is itself expressed in dynamical terms, i.e., in terms of the potential and kinetic energies of the system as a whole. Causality of the whole natural world is at stake here, so this “derivation” of Lagrange’s equations is no mere mathematical question! For Newton, causality flows from below to the whole: the “reason” things happen is mechanical, the whole moves as a consequence of the motions of its parts. So it was with Maxwell’s joking physical theory; he knows very well there are no such underlying parts. The new derivation of Lagrange’s equations flows from above–and with it, causality likewise flows downward, from some inclusive whole.

That inclusive whole–from which all the motions of he natural world flow–is the Principle of Least Action. The motions of the natural world arise ultimately from potential energies, such as the calories in a loaf of bread, or the BTUs in a gallon of gasoline. The conventional symbol for potential energy is V. Motions arise as potential energy is converted to kinetic energy, whose symbol is T. The difference (T–V) is called the Lagrangian, and the action (A) associated with any motion is nothing more complicated than the product of the Lagrangian and the time (t) the motion takes:

 A = (T – V) x t

 With that modest introduction, we can now state the principle on which it seems, nature runs. For any system:

The motion will be such that the action is least.

It can get complicated when systems are complex, or when relativity or quantum principles are involved, but it works, too, for systems as simple as a falling stone. Since each system is characterized first of all as a whole, it is inherently organic, and applies especially well to ecologies, which nature appears to see primarily as wholes, and organic.

Maxwell learned of this from the writings of William Rowan Hamilton of Dublin; he jokes of his “two Hamilton’s, saying their metaphisics are valuable in proportion to their physics. He means, I think, that the Kantian metaphysic espoused by Sir William Hamilton of Edinburgh was geared to the Newtonian world-view. The “new” Hamilton of Dublin is geared to a new, very different world-view in which the whole is primary as such, and not an assemblage of parts, and causality flows organically from whole to part. Wholes of course do not have to be big, the quantized hydrogen atom, a protein molecule, or the living cell, are instances.

We spoke earlier of Maxwell’s devotion to Faraday. Now we must ask, has he brought Faraday with him to this new land of Least Action? The answer, I can say confidently, is Yes.

How do we characterize a “system”? In the old, Newtonian way in which the parts were causal, it was important to describe a system in terms of those parts which constituted it and caused it to move. But now, parts are no longer causal. Our concern will be, instead, to characterize the state of a whole connected system. Interestingly, there is no one right way to do that! Any set of measurements sufficient to characterize the state of the system will serve. They don’t have to be readings of meters; Faraday’s diagrams of lines of force will serve very well to characterize a magnetic field. His intuitive interpretations of the behavior of his galvanometers serve him better than columns of numbers. Further, Maxwell’s analogy to fluid flow may serve very well to comprehend the structure of the magnetic field. Indeed, the Principle of Least Action in effect restores life to nature, which tends to move, as Faraday observed of his magnets. We have indeed arrived at a whole new world, yet one which Faraday, and Maxwell in his devotion to Faraday, already had in view.

Why has the modern world so resisted recognition of this principle, leaving it to rather esoteric studies within mathematical physics rather than teaching and embracing it generally as a far better way of understanding and caring for the natural world? Any thoughts on this will be very much appreciated.



This is the continuation of a discussion of “Newton/Maxwell/Marx”, a new work of mine, from Green Lion Press. This overview has been envisioned as a “dialectical cruise”, visiting in succession the world-views of Newton, Maxwell and Marx. Here we visit the first of these “worlds”, that of Isaac Newton. Read part 1 here.




The work known familiarly as Newton’s Principia is the foundation stone upon which our concept of science has been erected. Despite all the transformations by way of quantum physics and relativity, this bedrock image of objective, scientific truth remains firm. Arriving now, however, as if from outside our own world, we may feel a new sense of wonder, and presume to ask a few impertinent questions about core beliefs normally taken for granted:


Why, in our system of modern western science, do we suppose that the natural world is composed throughout of inert masses, with no inner impulse to move? Why are we convinced that nature is thus ruled by external forces, and that truth lies in finding mathematical laws of force?


In short, why do we suppose that nature is purely quantitative and, despite all appearances, deep down, essentially mechanical? Is the life we see everywhere infusing the natural world merely an illusion? Who killed nature?


These are dialectical questions, meaning that they go straight to the first principles of our systems of belief. Such principles normally go unquestioned, but challenging them is exactly our business here, on this dialectical world cruise! They all lead back to a fresh reading of Newton’s Principia. And as we shall be seeing in the course of this cruise, they do have interesting answers.



What Newton actually wrote, and what the world has on the whole supposed him to have written, are two very different things, as we shall see. Let us begin, however, by taking Newton at his own word, with a thumbnail sketch of his Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”). In relation to this title itself, we might point out that Newton’s topic is by no means limited to the discipline we now call physics. Newton is prescribing for the entire natural world – the universe of objects, living or non-living, that meet our senses in the directions of the large or the small, by means of any instruments, however advanced, in any domain which assumes the role of science. The Principia is discussed in detail in the essay on Newton in Newton/Maxwell/Marx; here we give only a thumbnail sketch.

Newton builds his Principia in a geometrical mode with a clarity reminiscent of Euclid’s Elements. Like Euclid, he lays a secure foundation, now of definitions and laws of motion, from which propositions flow with the same intuitive conviction we feel as we follow Euclid’s Elements. A world is unfolding before our eyes; if the foundations are secure. The edifice must stand.

Newton thus builds an edifice of science as firm as Euclid’s, though crucially now this consists of nothing but inert masses, deflected from rest or straight lines only under the action of external forces. Bodies move according to strict, mathematical laws of motion, and the forces are defined by equally precise mathematical relations. All this unfolds in a structure of true and mathematical time and equally absolute, mathematical space. Within the Principia, Newton develops the range of all possible motions under central forces, and applies these results to describe with precision, as merely one possible case, the system of planetary motions about our sun. This beautiful result emerges as just one example of his universal method at work; he will go on, for example, in his Optics to provide an equally mathematical system of color and the visual spectrum. Where Euclid gave us the precise forms of the things of our world, Newton gives us the things themselves, though they enter strictly as quantities. Apart from inert matter whose measure is mass, there is nothing behind these mathematical forms.

This reduction to stark mathematics might well strike a modern reader as the very spirit of mathematical physics today, an account we might call mechanical. At this point, however, an important distinction arises. In fact, Newton writes in fierce opposition to mechanism.

Newton is responding to Rene Descartes, who had indeed described the world as mechanical – a plenum, each part acting on its neighbors by simple rules of contact. Once set going, the cosmos runs on its own, like a fine watch. God’s role at the Creation was as watchmaker, but since that moment, the cosmos has run, and will forever continue to run, on its own.

This exclusion of God from His cosmos is anathema to Newton, and motivates the Principia. Where Descartes had filled the heavens with ethereal mechanism, Newton sweeps the cosmos clean. And where Descartes had seen nature moving entirely on its own, Newton very deliberately cancels any such powers, leaving nature utterly inert, everywhere dependent entirely on the ongoing operations of God’s active law. Hence the introduction of law at the foundation of the Principia. The orderly motions of the planetary system, which Newton calls The System of the World, is for him a vivid testament to the wisdom and active power of God. To bring this vision to mankind is, he says in the Principia, the reason he wrote. Might we not add, it’s the reason the concept of law structures our scientific discourse today?

We see now, indeed, the answer to our question, “Who killed nature?” It was Newton! And we see, too, why he did it Newton made sure that nature would be strictly powerless, and thus fit subject for God’s continuing rule. Nature must be mathematical to admit the precision of divine rule. Force is the modality of divine command, and law enters physics as the voice of God, who speaks in the medium of mathematics. Scientists today who, in their opposition to “creationism”, may cite Newton as the founder of modern science, freed from religion, are assuredly calling the wrong witness!



Newton, then, intended his Principia as a testimonial to God’s active presence in His Creation. He thus writes as a theologian, but by the strangest of fates, has been read as a mechanician! How this happened is indeed a fascinating story, recounted in my Newton essay, but need not detain us long at this point.

Briefly, it turns out that Newton was dedicated experimenter and theorist in the realms of alchemy, and devoted much effort to detailed interpretation of scripture. It seems clear that for him the Principia itself was but one component of a far larger project. It appears that all this was regarded as an embarrassment by his executors, who took pains to sequester it from public view. In turn his denuded Principia was welcomed by a society more interested in science than in theology. A strictly mathematical world picture. Only in recent years have manuscripts been recovered, revealing the role of the Principia in a much larger, and very different, project.

Believing however that it was loyal to its mentor, the west has accepted embraced the structure of the Principia, with its assumption of nature as in itself inert, moved by forces defined by law, as if Newton had intended such a vision as the very truth of the natural world. We have conjured a Principia divested of God, a feat comparable perhaps to reading the Old Testament without mention of the Lord. We have an empty shell, a narrative with no plot, law with no lawgiver. The appearance of life, but assuredly, no role for life itself.

No one could doubt that modern science works; its success in its own terms speaks for itself, though the direction of its interests and the delimitation of its scope leaves room for important questions. Now that our dialectical inquiry has probed the foundations of our notion of modern science, which turn out to be curiously accidental, we are in a good position to ask, reasonably, whether some alternative, a different foundation for modern science, might be possible. As we shall see at our next port of call, visiting James Clerk Maxwell, the answer will be a resounding “Yes!” And nature will indeed spring to life once again, before our very eyes.



Newton had fused natural philosophy and theology into one, truly apocalyptic vision. With that union dissolved, religion has been left to go its own way, with natural philosophy as the stark bedrock of our daily lives, our social and political associations, even our concept of freedom. We see ourselves as by nature separate and individual, while liberty becomes no more than the absence of restraint. At all levels, our associations are deliberate, held together by law in the form of agreements, to which we willingly bind ourselves for rational expectations of ultimate gain.

Our practical relationships thus rest ultimately on this understanding of the nature of nature – like Newton’s planets, we are separate bodies constrained by law, following trajectories in time and space. We group by aggregation; we are not social by nature.

In this world in which community is essentially an option, reasonable people can be heard to speculate that the brutality of war is part of our human nature. Despite all evidence, we find no place for life in the natural world: what appears as life we must accept, in scientific reality, as an artifact of complex mathematics – nothing real.

Religious convictions of course are another matter, not founded in nature but independently, in direct relation to the divine. The result, perhaps understandably, is that religious differences divide us even more fiercely than our perpetual struggle for the resources of the earth.

Surely there must be a better way – a more promising understanding of nature and natural philosophy. And indeed there is, as we shall see in our next port of call. Stay tuned!


This has been the first in a series of three ports of call in a Dialectical World Cruise. The second, to James Clerk Maxwell and his “Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism”, will appear in this space soon. Stay tuned – and meanwhile, your comments will be most welcome.


A Dialectical World Cruise – Part 1Cover Image of Thomas K. Simpson's new book: Newton, Maxwell, Marx

Good news! The Green Lion Press has now released in a single volume three of my earlier essays, collectively titled Newton/Maxwell/Marx. Many of their themes are familiar to readers of this website, but these essays are extensive, and gathered in this way, with new introductions and an overall conclusion, they reveal surprising relevance to one another. These essays speak to our troubled world today.

Does Marx, for example, have anything to do with Maxwell? Not on the surface—but at some deeper levels, which the book calls dialectical, each lifts us out of the Newtonian world in which we have lived since Newton wrote. Let us call this tour of three contrasting world-views, a dialectical world-cruise!

Edward Abbott once wrote of a realm called Flatland, whose citizens—confined to life in a table-top—had no idea how flat their world-view might be. They had never viewed themselves and their confinement from outside. Now, no less than they, we too need fresh perspectives and new insights, if we are to take the measure of own confinement and our net of unquestioned habits of thought. Newton/Maxwell/Marx navigates these unexplored waters, becoming a dialectical journey between worlds of thought, each based on its own fundamental premises concerning, as we shall see, even the nature of science itself. In turn, our concept of the nature of nature has ramifying consequences for our beliefs concerning society and human freedom.

In these essays, each port of call is represented by one of the great works of our western tradition—so these thoughts are in one sense, rather timeless, than new. But this is to be a spirited, not a scholarly investigation. We are no mere tourists, but earnest inquirers. Our purpose is not that of the objective scholar, to know about the works, but of the free mind, reading as if their authors addressed their words to us to us—as indeed, in some sense they surely did.

Reading in this mode is itself an art, and calls for skills which collectively have been known as the liberal arts, because these are the arts meant to set our minds fee. Not surprisingly, then, these three essays concern three books read at St. John’s College, in Annapolis and Santa Fe, whose curriculum is designed to capture the liberal arts in the modern world. Our essays ion emerged from this cauldron, and first appeared in the pages of the Great Ideas Today, once an annual al publication devoted to critical studies of the great books and their corollaries in our time. I express my indebtedness to John Van Doren, then executive editor, who guided these essays to their first appearance.

Our three ports of call will be, to give them their full and proper titles: Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy – the philosophy of all the natural world—by no means that part we now call “physics”; James Clerk (inexplicably pronounced Clark) Maxwell’s Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, and Karl Marx’s Capital. These works are in dialogue with one another—not literally, for the first two were far apart in time, and while Maxwell and Marx overlapped London for a time, and indeed shared an interest in lectures on mechanism, it would be hard to imagine they ever met! No: their dialogue is the more real for being conceptual—belonging to a world of ideas—and there, Newton/Maxwell/Marx will show, their ties are deep, and very real.

This set of essays, then, becomes a book for adventurous spirits, and in that sense may be a book whose time has come. People today are restless, questioning institutions which no longer make sense. Long-held assumptions are subjected to doubts reaching to the foundations of our societies and their economic systems. Even our sciences come into question, as in thrall to a limiting, encompassing world-view.

All this is of a piece with the dialectical sprit of our authors themselves: imperial in Newton’s case, gentle in Maxwell’s, boldly ironic in Marx’s – but in one style or another, each is a revolutionary, questioning the foundations of the world which surrounds them.

 A posting to follow soon will offer a brief synopsis of this Dialectical World Cruise.

Visit Newton /Maxwell / Marx 2

The Aristotelian Pathway to the Modern World and Beyond

I’m just back from a week of seminars in Maine: an overview of Aristotle’s world-view, based on a sequence of selected readings.  Although I’ve long been curious about Aristotle’s thinking, and written about this to some extent on this website, I’ve never before caught the full coherence and impact of his world-view. I’ll leave details to future posts to this blog, but here’s an overview of a few highlights.

Tradition has misleadingly titled many of Aristotle’s works. His “Physics” is not limited to what we today call “physics”, but actually addresses the foundations of the entire natural world, of all things that move, from stones to living creatures, including ultimately ourselves. Aristotle’s “Physics”, then, lays the foundation for his other works, and in the “Metaphysics”, of the cosmos itself. We ourselves he will say, are rational by nature.

What is “nature”?  An inner principle of motion, Aristotle says; things move not because they are pushed or pulled, but through inner tendencies. This is by no means nonsense. Within what we call “physics”, think for example of the second law of thermodynamics, which asserts, in more formal terms, that heat “tends” to flow downhill. Within our own lives, think of fear or love, and our innate desire to know. Thus in Aristotle’s inclusive world-view, there’s no occasion for the infamous split which today appears to divide our sciences from the humanities.

Such unification need not threaten the integrity of the sciences. Remarkably, within this encompassing perspective Aristotle lays a secure foundation for a fully valid alternative approach to modern science. Key is his concept of “energy” (the word, energeia, is his!); motion consists in the unfolding of energy from potential to kinetic form. Importantly, energy belongs primarily to whole systems, so wholeness and living, organic unity are foundational in Aristotelian science.

In the 17th century Leibniz, who knew his Aristotle, put this into mathematical form. He introduced, in open opposition to Newton, a version of the calculus which served to open alternative path into not just modern physics, but modern thought more generally.

As a result, we can discern two very different, parallel pathways through the history of western thought – one leading to Newton, Descartes, and a world of force, competition and mechanism; the other, prefigured by Aristotle, leading to wholeness, cooperation, friendship and life.

The path through Newton, Locke and Hobbes is very familiar to us; it has led t the world we know today, a world of strife, competition, and ever-escalating warfare. That other thread, which runs from Leibniz, Euler, Lagrange, Hamilton, Faraday, Maxwell and Einstein, bespeaks unity and intelligent cooperation. Within physics, this appears especially in the concept of the field; but more generally, it looks to a society of intelligent cooperation in the solution of our common human problems. It is easy to see, I believe, which is better suited to address the problems of warfare and environmental catastrophe which beset human society today.

Nobody, of course, is offering us this choice of roads into the future.  But we have independent minds, and it would be good to know that there is a difference in principle even if we see no way at present to pursue it in practice. I propose to write more about this in upcoming postings – and it will be good to know what others think of this Aristotelian way I’m convinced I’m seeing.

“The Dialectical Laboratory”: A lecture on behalf of holism in the sciences


My lecture, the “Dialectical Laboratory ” (see the “lectures” section of this website) , was given as a sort of parting statement to the St. John’s College community in Santa Fe.  But though directed to the college, and expressed by way of references to certain of the “great books” of that tradition, its message is of far broader import.  The “dialectical” issue – meaning, a watershed of western thought – is between a science based on mechanical actions between disparate parts, and a holistic science in which wholeness is respected, and whole systems are regarded as fundamental, not as mere aggregations of parts.  

Each of these two very different scientific approaches has its rigorous theory, and either can be used to solve engineering problems.  But conceptually they are worlds apart, and I am convinced it’s crucial that we follow the way of holism, and learn, before it’s too late, to appreciate and work with systems – from the least living organism to the global environment – which are more than the sum of mechanical parts.  Science is moving in this direction, but there is now no time to lose! 

Comments on these remarks, as well as on the lecture itself, will be welcome in reponse to this posting. 




Newton on the Field

I’ve just returned from a gathering in New Mexico, the first, pilot workshop of the Cosmic Serpent project, in which Native Americans and others-such as myself-gathered to compare Native American views of the natural world with those of “western science”. With the essential help of Jim Judson from the Sister Creek Center in San Antonio, I brought along an “open lab” on magnetism. It seemed to me that the concept of the “field”-specifically, here the (electro-) magnetic field-might prove helpful in relating these two domains of thought about nature.

For the moment, here, I just want to comment on a document that was circulating during the conference concerning the mystery of magnetism. Asking very simply “What is Magnetism?”, it was written by Bruno Maddox and published in a recent edition of Discover magazine. He reports that after exploring all options, he finds no scientific explanation of the cause  of magnetism.  If it remains a mystery, as he seems to conclude, then it may well be open to interpretation in terms compatible with Native American points of view.

That’s a point of view I’ll want to return to in future postings.  For the moment, I want to call attention to one of Maddox’s findings. He hit on a text in which Isaac Newton-looking in this case at the mystery of gravitation-opines that “the notion that one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum without the mediation of anything else…is to me so great an absurdity that I believe no man who has in philosophic matters a competent faculty of thinking could ever fall into it.”What did Newton have in mind?

I’m confident that he is not thinking in terms of any sort of mechanical explanation. Newton was not a mechanist: in fact, he wrote the Principia essentially as a polemic against mechanism, and in particular, against Descartes. No. His aim is to reveal the role of what he called Spirit in the world: the fact that the laws of these actions are mathematical in no way implies for Newton that they are mechanical, but is fully compatible with his concept of Spirit and its operation throughout the realm of nature.

I’m not arguing that Newton “had” the idea of the field-though his “intensive” quantity of a force seems to ascribe it to space itself, and is remarkably compatible with later ideas of the “field”. My point is only that as he describes the mathematical System of the World, Newton feels himself to be in the immediate presence of mystery-in his view, divine mystery in the form of the Holy Spirit as God’s agent in the natural world.

Newton’s thoughts along these lines, together with those on alchemy and theology, were systematically buried by his followers, and have been uncovered only in recent years. But now that we have a better sense of what he actually meant, we may be the more ready to contemplate this bridge between “spirit” as Newton intended it, and “spirit” in Indigenous accounts of the operations of the natural world. Either way, we are contemplating something which has all the feel of wonder and mystery.

While in Santa Fe, I learned that students at St. John’s College there would be gathering to witness this very mystery, in an experiment which Newton himself had thought would be impossible to carry out. Just as the Sun and Earth are joined by the gravitational force, so any two bodies on Earth must attract another by a very slight, yet calculable force. The experiment can in fact be done, with lead weights suspended by a delicate metal thread. To watch them, by way of a light beam and mirror, move toward one another slowly but surely, is to be present at a solemn ceremony at the foundation of the cosmos-as much a mystery, still today, as it ever was. I wonder if others agree with this reading of Newton’s text?

Indigenous Views of Nature and the Deep Roots of Western Science

When I wrote yesterday about the “deep roots” of Western science, I intended to point to a possible relation this opens up between the domain of “science” and Indigenous views of the natural world.  If we follow that line of development which leads from Aristotle through Leibniz to the holistic mathematical physics based on the Principle of Least Action, we find ourselves in a position much closer to that of Native American thinkers than we might have expected.Modern science in its mechanical mode cuts off “science” from any sense of wholeness or, especially, of purpose. It wants to reduce all quality to quantity, all motion to the operation of laws which bind matter apart from any sense of goal or meaning, and sees “nature” exclusively as an object from which we stand apart as mere observers. None of these limitations apply to the physics in the holistic mode.  Least Action applies to whole systems, and sees systems moving directionally toward the optimization of a quantity which applies to the system as a whole.  Although this goal may be no more than the optimization of a mathematical quantity, it opens the way to thinking of systems such as organisms or ecologies as moving as wholes toward ends — a line of thought of which the modern world is in desperate need.One more link in this line of thought: the modern computer is bridging the gap ;between “quantitative” and “qualitative” thinking.  What goes in as number typically comes out on the computer screen as a graphical image readily grasped by the intuitive mind and conducive to interpretation in terms of purposes and goals. We can see how systems are moving, and where they “are going”.   Nothing stands in the way of reading these in terms of purposes, and that is what we do on a daily basis — think for example of evidences of the consequences of global warming emerging from complex computer modeling.  Thinking in this way in terms of whole systems,  understanding their motions in terms of a mathematics of optimization, and bridging the gap between quality and quantity — all this is yielding an approach to science at once new and old — in a continuous thread leading from Aristotle into the age of the modern computer.  If we follow that path and think of modern science in terms like these, then it seems to me the gap between a holistic science and Indigenous relations to the natural world is not as deep as it had seemed.  Set aside mechanistic thinking, embrace the sense of nature as a whole of which we ourselves are part, admit goal as a category amenable to science — and then the old gap between Indigenous, or simply hunan views of the world, and those of “western science”, begins to dissolve.   Thus the Cosmic Serpent project, designed to consider this relationship, begins to look much more promising than it otherwise might have.