Wikipedia: Encyclopedia of Ignorance-2. Newton

In some of the preceding posts I pointed out that in matters related to history and biography, the Wikipedia often serves as an instrument for propagating ill-informed prejudices of all sorts because of its systematic reliance on secondary sources, and because its contributors are often ill-informed or prejudiced.

This series of posts counters those prejudices, especially as they concern me.

 Contrary to what the Wikipedia says, the actual points I have made about Newton (in The Eleven Pictures of Time, and in Cultural Foundations of Mathematics, and elsewhere) are as follows.

First: Newton was an honest theologian. For fifty years he diligently researched all the manipulations which entirely transformed the Bible. Brought up virtually as an orphan, and living unmarried, he had no confidante to turn to. Afraid of the backlash, he understandably hid his work: an 8-volume history of the church.

What is inexcusable is the way Newton’s 50-year effort remained hidden even after his death. Suppressed for over 250 years! It is Western historians I accuse of utter dishonesty, not Newton. If they could knowingly hide Newton’s lifework for so long, and continue trying to keep it hidden as Whiteside more recently did, nothing that Western historians say should be trusted or accepted on faith. For several centuries, European historians were mainly priests, writing in times of intense religious fanaticism, so their mindset was that of missionaries, out to glorify themselves and belittle others by any means possible, and without any regard for the facts.  

Of course, Newton did not invent the calculus, but neither does he claim credit for it. (It is Western historians who credit him for it.) Newton acknowledges a whole series of earlier mathematicians, including Cavalieri. Newton claims credit mainly for having made the calculus rigorous .

Newton’s claim to rigour was wrong, even by Western standards of proof, and his more discerning contemporaries like Berkeley were well aware of it. However, Newton’s attempt at “rigour” socialised the imported calculus, and made it socially acceptable in the West. (Descartes and Galileo had earlier rejected it.)

It is interesting to see the effect this had on his physics. Hoping to make calculus rigorous, Newton made time metaphysical. (“Absolute, true, and mathematical time” which flows on “without regard to anything external” is obviously a metaphysical notion, in fact, a religious one.) As pointed out in my expository paper ("Time:What is it that it can be Measured?" in Science and Education , 2005) this was a step backward from Newton’s predecessor, Barrow, who had called Augustine a “quack” for evading a clear physical definition of time. Barrow himself tried to supply such a definition, later corrected by Poincaré.

The failure to define time properly led to the failure of Newtonian physics, and its replacement by Poincaré’s special theory of relativity. (The speed of light is postulated a constant, just to be able to measure time.)

Newton, in the course of his priority dispute with Leibniz, over calculus, did claim credit for the sine series, and we know that this was factually false, for the sine series was known in India from a couple of centuries earlier.

However, this claim too has to be put in the context of the prevailing Doctrine of Christian Discovery: according to which only Christians could be regarded as discoverers. The church decreed that ownership of a piece of land must go to the first Christian to spot it. (Hence, the claim that Columbus “discovered” America, or that Vasco da Gama “discovered” India.) The people already living on the land did not matter, and the church encouraged their killing on a mass scale, where possible, as actually happened on three continents. This doctrine was made into a law by the US supreme court, and that is where the current US law on land-ownership vis-a-vis the “Red Indians” stands. 

So, the point is this. Despite the horrendous historical injustice involved, it would be completely incorrect to say that anyone who owns a piece of land in the US today is a thief. It is not a matter of personal dishonesty, at all, but a matter of systematic appropriation.

The same thing applies to what I have said about Newton. His claim to the sine series was part of a systematic process of intellectual appropriation during the centuries of extreme religious fanaticism in Europe: it was not a matter of personal dishonesty. Copernicus did nothing different, nor did Clavius, Tycho Brahe; in fact, these three directly knew the sources from which they were appropriating.

But, of course, all this explanation is beyond the average journalistic understanding or concern, which is for a short and uncomplicated story, preferably pitched at the lowest imaginable intellectual level. (Newspapers have no space, and their readers have no time.) And Wikipedia, as we have seen, can manage to be one notch below that because it further filters those stories through the understanding of the Wikipedist, without cross-checking them against what I might have actually published, which could well be beyond the reach of the Wikipedist.


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