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

by Allen Hainline

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…

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