Newton's God

The following three claims from the General Scholium of Newton's Principia have never made sense to me:
God "is not duration or space, but he endures and is present. He endures forever, and is everywhere present; and by existing always and everywhere, he constitutes duration and space. ... He is utterly void of all body and bodily figure."
What I cannot understand is how anything could exist always and everywhere, yet be neither body nor space nor time. Is there some further option for Newton? (Additionally, what does it mean that God 'constitutes' space and time?)

One of my students cleverly noted that Newton introduced the notion of a mutually attactive force between every two bodies in the universe; perhaps this can serve as an analogy for a Newton's God, giving me the 'further option' I'm hoping for -- since such a force is neither body nor space nor time? Unfortunately, in that same Scholium, we find an important disanalogy between the universal attractive force and God:
"In him are all things contained and moved, yet neither affects the other: God suffers nothing from the motion of bodies; bodies find no resistance from the omnipresence of God."
Presumably, any supposed force that affects nothing at all is not a force at all.

Are there any other possibilities for helping Newton out?

p.s. I found the following attempt to save Newton, from my old teacher Ted McGuire, in his "Existence, Actuality and Necessity: Newton on Space and Time," Annals of Science 1978 (how did people do research before the internets?):
"We can plausibly reconstruct the following argument. To say that God is everywhere with respect to space, is to say that one and the same individual exists at each place in extended space. To make such a claim is a contradiction only with respect to the manner in which extended things exist spatially. For they cannot as complete beings exist at once in each "part" of the place they occupy. But there is no contradiction in holding that an essentially non-extended being is capable of so existing. ... God is therefore omnipresent just in the sense that he remains numerically and unalterably the same individual at all places whatsoever. The conception appears paradoxical. However, Newton would claim that it only seems so, if we persist in imagining God's presence in space as we think of bodies individually occupying their determinate places." (p. 506)

But we can't allow ourselves the premise that Newton's God is "an essentially non-extended being," since in the General Scholium, Newton (apparently) says exactly the opposite. (Ted is right that Newton's God is incorporeal, but that isn't the same as non-extended -- think of Newton's absolute space.)


Anonymous said...

What about reading some Kant back into Newton and treat God as the reification (or deification) of space as the pure form of outer sense? (I think Kant can be read as moving in exactly the opposite direction: replacing God with the transcendental ego. Recall that for Kant absolute space, closely tied to space as pure form of outer intuition, has real dynamically effects on all bodies, just as absolute space for Newton, which he calls God's sensorium.)

(Karen was just here this evening. Dinner and talk. Very nice. Wished you were here, too.)


Anonymous said...

I think your puzzle about the nature of God is best answered by focusing on God's causal relation to space. Newton's clearest statement regarding this relation is in De Gravitatione (a good text for undergraduates, btw, in a handy new Janiak translation).

The picture in De Grav is that space in an `emanative effect' of God. The notion of `emanation' derives from neo-platonism and is something like necessary, non-efficient causation. Thus, if x is an emanative effect of y, then y necessarily causes x, but y's causing x does not involve an action on the part of y. y's nature is such that merely by virtue of its existence as y, it causes x. On this formulation, God's very existence causes space to exist, but there is no point at which God creates space, that is, no point at which he acts to bring space about.

To my own mind, although this is by no means a standard (or perspicuous) way of explicating 'emanation', emanation is best understood as a reification of the idea of logical consequence. In De Grav, Newton clearly believes that space is a logical consequence of the existence of God. He notes that space is an "affection of any being" and by this he means that any existent must necessarily bear some relation to space. (I do not have De Grav with me, so apologies for the butchered quote).

What does this mean for God? It means that because God is an existing thing, it must bear some relation to space. But because the existence of God logically precedes the existence of space, it must be the case that God's very existence brings about the existence of space (as an "emanative effect", as it were). Being God, of course, his existence brings about an infinite space.

So, God, unlike other beings, has a relation to space, but is not in space in the way other beings are in space. This is the other option that you are looking for. It explains what Newton's mean by the idea that God "constitutes" space: the fact that God, as a being, must have some relation to space and time quite literally brings about the existence of space and time: by existing always and forever, he constitutes duration and space. However, God is not duration or space, he is their cause. He is everywhere and always, but has no temporal or spatial parts (as McGuire notes), because he is not `in' space, he is their cause.

Of course, I don't claim that this is a coherent view. But this is what Newton's thinks (more of less) of God's relation to space. For more info on this, see an exchange between John Carriero and J.E. McGuire in a volume by Bricker and Hughes. Also see a recent yet unpublished essay by Michael Friedman, available as part of the last NYU conference on Early-Modern Philosophy (google it). This last essay has much to say about cogitantg's suggestion that we ought to understand Newton's space on the model of Kant's.

Greg Frost-Arnold said...

res cogitang --

yes, I wish I were in the 'Burgh now too. It's a shame you returned just as we were leaving.

I actually don't quite follow your suggestion -- are you saying the pure form of outer sense is God? If so, that seems like it wouldn't count as solving the problem for Newton, because I'd guess that the pure form of outer sense is not the kind of thing that has duration and extension. But I'll have to check out the Friedman paper ZB mentions.

ZB --

Thanks for the informative and detailed reply. You should've been the one writing this post in the first place. (Speaking of which -- is the Hedgehog Review officially deceased? Or might it still be resurrected? ...an army of undead hedgehogs...)

Though a combination of being thick-headed and stubborn, I'm actually still not satisfied that we've got a coherent position for Newton: I still don't see why (or even really how) He endures and is extended in the account you gave. Just because God causes space and time to exist, that doesn't mean that He must have spatial and temporal existence, does it? Though now that I think about it, all the obvious counter-examples to that general principle involve efficient causation, which you've expressly ruled out. (E.g., I'm the cause of the number of words in this post, but I do not have a word count.) hmm...

Anonymous said...

The Hedgehog has turned into a Pheonix, actually. Its been silent because I've been organizing a group of early-modernists for an early-modern group blog. Many of us are on the job market, so I expect the official launch in the spring.

Your last question is a great one. Once again, I'm not sure the answer will be convincing, but here's my attempt. Newton does not hold that God's existence causes space, and then (logically speaking), by virtue of space's existence, some spatial relations must be true of God. Rather, the fact that God must bear some (spatial) relation to space is logically prior (since space is an affection of any kind of being), and because of this, God's existence brings about the existence of space. According to Newton, there is no further explanation of the fact that God is somewhere. Every kind of being must be somewhere. God, however, is a special kind of being since his very existence brings about the existence of space, and so God is, in fact, everywhere. Put inelegantly: If God were not in some region of space, there would be no space `there' at all. The answer to your question, then, is that you a right: because God causes space and time does not mean that he must have spatial and temporal extension. But, rather, he must have spacial and temporal extension and His having these causes spaces and time to exist.

Newton's God is not transcendental: he does not exist outside space and time and cause they existence (as an emanation or not). The image is that space and time are infused in God, that in Him "we live, move, and have our being."

Anonymous said...

Sorry my previous post was much too short. I'll try to make my suggestion a little clearer.

My suggestion was in a way more about reading Kant than Newton, or about reading a strand in the historical development. The basic idea is that God, in many ways, became the transcendental ego (i.e. Man). In the case of space, it went from the sensorium of God to the (outer) sensorium of Man. Both play a fundamental framing role: for Newton as the very stage of all things and for Kant as the very form in which things must appear to us. These are as it were the 'objective' and 'subjective' sides of the same coin (call it 'world').

The transition has other manifestations. E.g. the synthetic activities of the transcendental ego (in particular the application of the pure concepts of the understanding, mediated by the schematisms, to the deliverances of sense) can be given an 'emanation' reading, too. To put it crudely, the light that apperceptive consciousness brings to the world is the subjective side of the objective, divine light that directly creates the things.

The transcendental (not the transcendent) is at once enabling and limiting, a feature shared by Newtonian and Kantian space. (Zvi's last paragraph seems to me right, except I would replace his "transcendental" with "transcendent".) Think in this connection of the philosophical self in the Tractatus (in which however logic has a monopoly of the transcendental: space and time are out as transcendentals). It is at once the limit of the world (but not in it) and that without which the world would collapse (for it would have no unity).

I'm afraid this last paragraph does little in the way of making things clearer. But being me ...

I find theology (the tiny little bits I've come across) hard going. So I try to humanize it (what else can one do, with the principle of charity forced upon one and with only limited charity?) and regard it as expressions, in reifying forms of language, of certain special human experiences (certain aesthetic ones, e.g.). Sometimes it is as if we (many Indians and Chinese not included) have to pour ourselves into something else, something outside of ourselves, in order to come to terms with ourselves. (Call it self-understanding through the detour of God. A very Western phenomenon.)

With that digressive disclaimer I respond to your question more directly. No, I'm not saying pure form of outer sense is God, but that they (more precisely, pure form of outer sense and God's sensorium) play very similar roles. (That's perhaps as good a criterion of identity for concepts as any.) Both are non-spatial in themselves yet constiutive of spatial relations, are the very condition of possibility of the latter.

Of course my suggestion leaves open whether Newton and Kant, when read into each other, have a convincing view of space. There's clearly a great deal to be said for the view. But of course there are powerful alternatives (even within the range of views geared toward physics, as Newton's and Kant's were).

Unknown said...


Actually, what Newton was implying is that Absolute Space is the God or mind of God. This is what is meant by "God's boundless uniform sensorium". For more on this concept of God refer to my video entitled "The Intelligence is Rationally Conceivable" at:



Prakash RP said...

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