Newton on the Field

I've just returned from a gathering in New Mexico, the first, pilot workshop of the Cosmic Serpent project, in which Native Americans and others-such as myself-gathered to compare Native American views of the natural world with those of "western science". With the essential help of Jim Judson from the Sister Creek Center in San Antonio, I brought along an "open lab" on magnetism. It seemed to me that the concept of the "field"-specifically, here the (electro-) magnetic field-might prove helpful in relating these two domains of thought about nature.

For the moment, here, I just want to comment on a document that was circulating during the conference concerning the mystery of magnetism. Asking very simply "What is Magnetism?", it was written by Bruno Maddox and published in a recent edition of Discover magazine. He reports that after exploring all options, he finds no scientific explanation of the cause  of magnetism.  If it remains a mystery, as he seems to conclude, then it may well be open to interpretation in terms compatible with Native American points of view.

That's a point of view I'll want to return to in future postings.  For the moment, I want to call attention to one of Maddox's findings. He hit on a text in which Isaac Newton-looking in this case at the mystery of gravitation-opines that "the notion that one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum without the mediation of anything to me so great an absurdity that I believe no man who has in philosophic matters a competent faculty of thinking could ever fall into it."What did Newton have in mind?

I'm confident that he is not thinking in terms of any sort of mechanical explanation. Newton was not a mechanist: in fact, he wrote the Principia essentially as a polemic against mechanism, and in particular, against Descartes. No. His aim is to reveal the role of what he called Spirit in the world: the fact that the laws of these actions are mathematical in no way implies for Newton that they are mechanical, but is fully compatible with his concept of Spirit and its operation throughout the realm of nature.

I'm not arguing that Newton "had" the idea of the field-though his "intensive" quantity of a force seems to ascribe it to space itself, and is remarkably compatible with later ideas of the "field". My point is only that as he describes the mathematical System of the World, Newton feels himself to be in the immediate presence of mystery-in his view, divine mystery in the form of the Holy Spirit as God's agent in the natural world.

Newton's thoughts along these lines, together with those on alchemy and theology, were systematically buried by his followers, and have been uncovered only in recent years. But now that we have a better sense of what he actually meant, we may be the more ready to contemplate this bridge between "spirit" as Newton intended it, and "spirit" in Indigenous accounts of the operations of the natural world. Either way, we are contemplating something which has all the feel of wonder and mystery.

While in Santa Fe, I learned that students at St. John's College there would be gathering to witness this very mystery, in an experiment which Newton himself had thought would be impossible to carry out. Just as the Sun and Earth are joined by the gravitational force, so any two bodies on Earth must attract another by a very slight, yet calculable force. The experiment can in fact be done, with lead weights suspended by a delicate metal thread. To watch them, by way of a light beam and mirror, move toward one another slowly but surely, is to be present at a solemn ceremony at the foundation of the cosmos-as much a mystery, still today, as it ever was. I wonder if others agree with this reading of Newton's text?