George Varghese, in his talk, ‘Science and God in 17th Century Europe’, explored the nature of God in the theoretical framework of Issac Newton. Studying Newton also allowed Varghese’s examination to take into account the revolutionary nature of the 17th century. Varghese used Michel Foucault’s concept of the episteme to understand the 17th century as a rupture or a break from the past. It is within the temporal space of such an epistemic break that Varghese aimed to understand at once the two central notions of God and science.
This break from the past can be seen in Newton’s move away from Aristotelian physics, which was quasi-ideological and semi-metaphysical in its functioning. Newton’s taking of distance from Aristotle can be seen as beginning from Bishop Etienne Tempier, who questioned 219 philosophical and theological propositions that had been drawn from Aristotle. This tradition of critiquing the Aristotelian legacy would continue with other important figures like Copernicus (who questioned Ptolemy’s cosmology, inspired by Aristotle) and Galileo (who brought back the mathematical physics of Archimedes, which had been sidelined for about one and a half millennia). For Newton, God was not an absentee landlord, but one who was an eminently active and present being who ran the universe positively, according to his own inscrutable laws.
Hence, when one looks at Newton’s idea of God from our historical standpoint, we find a major proponent of science who had a position on religion differing from what science generally thinks of religion today. Within the larger context of ‘The Science and Religion Conference’, Varghese’s talk brought Newton’s notion of God, which can be located at the intersection of the personal, the theoretic and the epistemic (that is, the larger context of the 17th century), to the larger dialogue of science and religion today. This was further reflected in the questions that the paper provoked. Sundar Sarrukai added to Varghese’s discussion by bringing in the concept of ‘absolute space’ that would embody, in Newton, both God and science. Other questions attempted to comprehend the cultural space within which Newton presented his ideas, so as to understand the troubled relationship between the English cultural space on the one hand, and the Catholic Church and its worldviews, on the other.
The 21st century has seen the dialogues between science and religion turn contentious. Varghese’s paper, by looking at the 17th century and Newton, examined existing continuities and larger implications that pertain to this very important debate.