The Heliocentric model presented by Copernicus did much to explain where the planets moved, but not why. Kepler had presented theories on the locations of the planets, but still no real evidence of why or how. Among Newton’s greatest achievements were his studies of celestial mechanics. He sought to explain what those before him had not (McGrath, 1999, p. 16).
Newton’s contributed greatly to this body of knowledge, but his greatest contributions perhaps were simply a new way of looking at the issue. He saw connections between information that people before him had seen as unconnected, and he gave more detail to ideas that had only been discussed as vague concepts before that (McGrath, 1999, p. 16).
Newton used basic measurable concepts such as mass, space, and time to investigate the motion of objects, and their interactions with one another. First he focused on the laws of motion. His three laws lay the foundation for the study of motion and the interaction of objects with one another (McGrath, 1999, p. 17).
He looked seriously at Kepler’s laws and how the planets interacted in light of his own theories. He was able to see that while Kepler’s laws seemed by themselves somewhat arbitrary, when applied along side the laws of motion they were plain to see. At the core of these studies was his belief that the same laws that applied to objects in relation to each other on the earth would apply equally to the celestial bodies. Applying these assumptions, he was able to calculate the duration of the moons orbit around the earth with an error of only ten percent. It was later discovered that the error was simply caused by a misunderstanding of the moon’s distance from the earth. When later studies were able to accurately measure the distance of the moon, the calculations and observed time matched (McGrath, 1999, p. 17).
Newton’s studies led quickly to a mechanistic view of the world. That is the view that the world operates according to a set of fixed laws, much like the gears and springs that cause a clock to operate. This mechanistic worldview was embraced by many who saw that it encouraged the idea of design. It was seen to indicate that there was a guiding hand in the process of creation; How else could everything be so structured and work so fluidly together. Newton himself supported this view (McGrath, 1999, p. 18).
“The success of Newton’s mechanistic world view led to a significant religious development. . . . It can be shown without difficulty that Newton’s emphasis on the regularity of nature encouraged the rise of Deism.” (McGrath, 1999, p. 18)
In this way Newton’s theories supported a non-confrontational model of science and religion in that in his view and the view of many of those who followed his studies, science and religion converged. The two complemented each other. God was the great creator. It was he who built the great device that was the universe. From him all science flowed, and all of nature pointed to his existence just by it’s very eloquence. To Newton, and the Deists who clung to his theories, no words needed to be written for a man to see God in the very fabric of creation.
Alister E. McGrath, 1999, Science & Religion, Maryland: Blackwell Publishing