Was Belief in God a Science-Stopper? Not for Newton

I’d like to call attention to a couple of excellent blogs by Luke Barnes correcting some historical blunders that Neil deGrasse Tyson made. Tyson argued that Newton failed to discover the stability of the solar system due to blinders that resulted from his belief in God. Here are links to Part 1 and Part 2 of the blogs by Barnes, a cosmologist from Australia.

I had recognized historical misrepresentations by Tyson in the Cosmos series such as that Giordano Bruno was a martyr for science and that Galileo went to jail for his scientific beliefs[1] but I wasn’t aware of the broader story behind this famous interaction between Laplace and Napolean. You really need to read Barnes’s blogs for the details but, in a nutshell, the story is that Napolean upon reading physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace’s writings about the physics of the solar system asked why they never mentioned a Creator. Laplace replied that “Sir, I had no need of that hypothesis.” Also, as Barnes summarizes: “Tyson claims that Newton (1642-1727) should have discovered what Laplace (1749-1827) did – that the combined pull of the planets on each other do not destabilize their orbits – but was hamstrung by his theism.” Tyson wonders why Newton didn’t discover the stability of the solar system but inserted God as a means of intervening to keep things stable:

What concerns me is, even if you’re as brilliant as Newton, you reach a point where you start basking in the majesty of God, and then your discovery stops. It just stops. You’re no good anymore for advancing that frontier. You’re waiting for someone to come behind you who doesn’t have God on the brain and who says “that’s a really cool problem, I want to solve it.” And they come in and solve it.”

Barnes points out several problems with Tyson’s claims:

  • This story may have never actually happened – the case for its historicity is somewhat weak as Laplace himself denied it and the earliest reports about the meeting are relatively late.
  • It is simply false that Newton ceased from scientific exploration into this problem – he did develop a theory of perturbations. He failed to develop the proper theory primarily because he had the wrong tools – as one historian summarizes “success came for Newton’s successors only with a new approach, different from any he had envisaged: algorithmic and global.”
  • Laplace had lots of help – as Barnes explains: “note the mathematicians who worked on the problem of perturbations to planetary orbits before Laplace: Clairaut, Euler, d’Alembert, and Lagrange. These are the greatest mathematicians of their age; Leonard Euler is arguably the greatest mathematician of all time: “Read Euler, read Euler, he is the master of us all.” That quote, incidentally, is from Laplace. Euler was a devout Christian and a Lutheran Saint. Apparently, having “God on the brain” didn’t prevent him – as it didn’t prevent Newton – from working on this scientific problem.” “Newton, of course, was a mathematical genius. But we can hardly blame him for not being smarter than Clairaut, Euler, d’Alembert, Lagrange and Laplace combined.”
  • Laplace’s theory is not quite accurate either – “orbits of the Solar System are chaotic over timescales of a few billion years.”

I personally think it’s important to correct this type of misleading historical account because it is often used to argue against interpreting something like fine-tuning as evidence for a Creator – anyone that sees evidence for God is said to be a science-stopper.

Why does Tyson feel the need to inject historical misrepresentations at all into his otherwise excellent public lectures on the beauty majesty of nature and the scientific endeavor? I assume that Tyson didn’t know the broader story but we should expect more thorough research from a scientist and public spokesperson.

Here are some resources you might find helpful that discuss the relationship between science and religion historically:

The Mythical Conflict Between Science and Religion” James Hannam, Medieval Science and Philosophy (website for the book The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution)

[1] Both of these myths are debunked in Galileo Goes to Jail: and Other Myths About Science and Religion, ed. Ronald L. Numbers (Harvard UP, 2009)


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15 replies
  1. Tim Farage says:

    Very nice post, Allen.

    Along the same lines, I think that the origin of life on Earth was designed by God or His helpers.

    And yet, I absolutely want scientists to continue trying to determine how life originated through purely naturalistic means. If I’m wrong, so be it.

    But if I’m right, more and more scientists will come to think that life could not have formed through purely naturalistic means. And some of them will then consider that God might have been involved.

    In every aspect of science where I believe God or His helpers was involved, I want scientists to continue to look for physical explanation.

    We want the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth.

  2. Andre Kish says:

    Hello – great article, thanks.

    I can’t help wondering if science and religion are incidental to discovery. Somehow, we’d have learned through whichever glasses we wore, atheistic or religious. Unfortunately, modern research is commercially driven and is therefore more targeted to what pays monetary dividends.

    It does puzzle me why so many scientists refuse to even consider the theroies of intelligent design, ie, information stored on a storage and processing device, DNA, has to come from somewhere – information doesn’t evolve because it’s independant of the storage media, DNA.

    Ruling out ideas that should a least be considered, if only to disprove the theories of intelligent design, seems rather sad. It certainly is in no way scientific but based on human nature and the desire not to have wasted an entire career just to end up being proven wrong by the next generation.

    Future generations will be much better placed to get to the bottom of what’s going on in reality if all options are considered, just in case we throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater.

    All the best – and thanks for this.


    • toby says:

      It does puzzle me why so many scientists refuse to even consider the theroies of intelligent design

      The problem with intelligent design is that it has no explanatory power. If you come across a guitar you can say it came from a luthier. But there is a HUGE implication that there is a method by which the luthier made the guitar. Science is searching for the method. Jumping ahead and claiming knowledge of a designer is the vanity of ID proponents and a quick look through history where anyone claimed god did anything and it turned out to be a natural explanation should cause them to slam the brakes a bit. But they don’t and often demand their hypothesis be taught on equal footing with theories that actually have evidence. The ID explanation is basically this:

      1. God
      2. ????
      3. Designed things

      Once a method is discovered then how that method came about or where from would be the next question. If the method is supernatural, and therefore unknowable, then you’re basically stuck at a faith position and argument from ignorance. “We don’t know, therefore God.” If ID proponents can’t demonstrate how the supernatural can effect the natural or at least offer observations of it, then their hypothesis is basically junk.

    • Andy Ryan says:

      “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”

      It can be in a situation when evidence would be expected to be found. For example, absence of evidence of a million people living in a desert is evidence that they weren’t ever there, because one would expect them to leave evidence behind.

  3. Jason McCool says:

    Good article, Allen. One might also wonder at the astounding arrogance of Tyson to look at someone like Newton, typically recogized as one of the greatest scientists of all time (usually the greatest), and say “I think he should’ve done more.” Seriously?


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