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Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was an English physicist, mathematician and alchemist, educated at Cambridge.
In 1665 he developed a form of calculus, an achievement shared with Gottfried Leibniz.
Around 1666 he observed an apple falling in his garden. This prompted musings that lead to his Law of Universal Gravitation.
Newton’s Three Laws of Motion are still taught in just about every high school around the world.
In his studies of light he found that white light contains the entire spectrum. Newton also invented the first reflecting telescope.
Newton also had a slightly unorthodox religious side that many New Age writers are concerned to bring to light. He once said:
Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.¹
And concerning his achievements, he was unusually modest, echoing sentiments found in a popular medieval metaphor:
If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.²
Today, pop science and New Age theorists often contrast Newton with Einstein. Newton is sometimes and almost disparagingly said to represent mechanistic ‘old thought’ while Einstein is lauded as the herald of ‘new thought.’ However, Newton was a rare genius whose influence has been profound. And it’s likely that someday another innovative thinker (or group) will come along to replace Einstein’s iconic role as the great genius who revolutionized our way of seeing the world.
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Search Think Free » Alchemy, Deism, Energy, Enlightenment, General Theory of Relativity, Max Plank, Power, Alfred North Whitehead
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William Blake (1757-1827) was an English engraver, painter, poet and mystic born in London.
Like visionaries from most world religions, Blake believed that a spiritual light exists behind the world of appearances. His writings and art mostly refer to philosophical, mythological and biblical themes.
Unlike artists who use abstraction to hint at a perceived yet normally unseen reality, Blake’s imagery is quite direct as he attempts to portray his perception of inner light, according to his own vision.
He differs from mainstream Christianity by emphasizing the importance of spontaneous, unguided and unchecked spiritual experience. At times his work is reminiscent of Gnosticism, especially when saying the self and the Godhead may be one. Blake’s beliefs differ from both Catholicism and Gnosticism, however, in that he seems to imply that good and evil are relative ideas constructed by the regimented mind.
This relativistic view is especially apparent in his so-called ‘minor prophecy’, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1791), an arguably grandiose work of undisciplined introspection that leans towards a nebulous, incomplete kind of Buddhism. While not without its literary merit, and also containing a few worthwhile critiques of religious hypocrisy, Heaven and Hell seems to reflect Blake’s personal quest and, perhaps, limited degree of spiritual understanding. Whether it contains any universal, salvific value is a matter of debate. Some might say it’s a useful signpost along the road of spiritual formation while nonetheless incomplete. Others might say it’s misleading.
William Blake (1757-1827) was an English engraver, painter, poet and mystic born in London.
Blake’s best-known paintings are The Canterbury Pilgrims and Jacob’s Dream. He also illustrated Young’s Night Thoughts (1797), Linnell’s The Book of Job (1826), Dante’s Divine Comedy and did imaginative engravings for his own writing.
Other works include Poetical Sketches (1783), Songs of Innocence (1789), Songs of Experience (1794) which include ‘The Tyger’, and the prophetic poem ‘Jerusalem’ (1804-20).
Most of the notables around him thought he was a flake, and his work and ideas were largely unrecognized. Near the end of his life he lived in poverty, spurred on by a band of youthful admirers.
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In that work the character Dr. Pangloss is a mouthpiece for the Leibnizian view. Pangloss clings to his rosy philosophical outlook despite undergoing horrendous personal sufferings.
Votaire, himself, had his fair share of suffering. He was imprisoned in the Bastille for speaking out against a French nobleman who’d insulted him. And his imprisonment came after he was beaten up by the nobleman’s servants and denied compensation.
In 1726, Voltaire responded to an insult from the young French nobleman Chevalier de Rohan, whose servants beat him a few days later. Since Voltaire was seeking compensation, and was even willing to fight in a duel, the aristocratic Rohan family obtained a royal lettre de cachet, an often arbitrary penal decree signed by the French King (Louis XV, in the time of Voltaire) that was often bought by members of the wealthy nobility to dispose of undesirables. This warrant caused Voltaire to be imprisoned in the Bastille without a trial and without an opportunity to defend himself. Fearing an indefinite prison sentence, Voltaire suggested that he be exiled to England as an alternative punishment, which the French authorities accepted. This incident marked the beginning of Voltaire’s attempts to reform the French judicial system.¹
This no doubt set the scene for Voltaire’s Candide, and many other works which advocated fair play and the betterment of society, to include freedom of speech and religion.
Candide was banned by the authorities for being blasphemous. But Voltaire’s sharp wit and clever insights couldn’t be resisted by Enlightenment thinkers. The book was secretly circulated and extremely popular. Voltaire’s fresh approach influenced many other authors, and Candide is now recognized as a classic of Western literature.
As often happens, if a petty, jealous or fearful authority tries to hold back a great personality, this usually spurs the creative soul on to even greater heights of achievement—which, ironically, supports Leibniz’s position.
The American conductor Leonard Bernstein wrote the music for an operetta based on Voltaire’s work. Also called Candide, it opened on Broadway in 1956 to lacklustre reviews.
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Deism is the belief, as exemplified by John Locke, in the reasonableness of Christianity. This belief arose in defense of the idea of God in the face of Newtonian physics.
Deism believes in a creator God while also accepting the importance of natural laws and dismissing the need for organized religion. Also, Deism downplays the element of the miraculous and the idea of divine intervention through grace and spiritual powers within God’s orderly creation.
The theological term “Deist” (a believer in God but not in institutionalized religion) emerged in 17th and 18th century England and France, and is also known as ‘natural religion.’ Most consider the writer Voltaire to be a Deist. And he encyclopedist Diderot characteristically said a Deist is someone who has not lived long enough to become an atheist.
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In the Buddhist sense enlightenment means achieving absolute spiritual realization through loss of the ego and, ultimately, one’s individuality. Once enlightened the Buddhist believes they’re no longer reborn and, and through the annihilation of any kind of individuality, even spiritual individuality, they apparently free themselves from suffering.
A spiritual meaning for the word enlightenment is not restricted to Buddhism, however. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that, as far back as 1621, enlightenment has been used in Christianity to refer to the idea that God illuminates individual souls and that such souls are powerless to illuminate themselves with divine grace and understanding.
1621 R. Aylett Song of Songs i. iv. iv. 83 The Word, without the Spirits enlightenment, Is as good Seede sowne on vntilled ground.¹
In the historical sense the period of “The Enlightenment” refers to an 18th-century philosophical movement emerging out of the 17th-century Scientific Revolution, to include the works of Adam Smith, Locke, Hume and Newton. It advocated reason and education over what was regarded as superstition, blind faith and historically laden dogmas. So in this context, the word enlightenment has a totally different meaning than the quotation above.
1836 N. Amer. Rev. July 176 When he [sc. Tieck] made his first appearance, it was, under the banner of Nicolai, as one of the Berlin advocates of enlightenment and reason, and enemies of superstition and mysticism.²
The Enlightenment championed the idea of “progress” as a challenge to entrenched forms of Christianity; however the idea of progress, and all the unspoken connotations that go with it, is now questioned by many. In France the Enlightenment produced the first great encyclopedias of Diderot and d’Alembert, with contributions from leading figures like Voltaire, Montesquieu, Condorcet and Rousseau.
In the Western contemporary sense enlightenment means a novel thought, a new way of looking at things, insight or the dispelling of ignorance.
¹ OED third edition, November 2010; online version March 2012. <http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.torontopubliclibrary.ca/view/Entry/62448>; accessed 01 May 2012. An entry for this word was first included in New English Dictionary, 1891.
In physics, the standard international unit of energy [Greek en (in) + ergon (work) = energeia] is the joule (J), this being the work done when a force of one newton travels through a distance of one meter. The rate of energy conversion is called ‘power‘.
One of the scientific definitions of energy is “the capacity to do work.” So any transformation of energy is, in a very real sense, work.
This scientific understanding of energy has profound implications for current definitions and popular opinions about the so-called and often stigmatized “unemployed” and “underemployed.” In fact, every living creature on Earth works by virtue of its existence. The ancient Greek pre-Socratic thinker, Heraclitus, put it this way:
Even sleepers and dreamers are workers and collaborators in what goes on in the universe.
In addition, in different world religions meditation and contemplation are understood as the most demanding forms of bodily and spiritual work that a human being can do. So in Catholicism, individuals engaged in a life of contemplative prayer are said to cooperate with the “work of salvation.”
However, Christian fundamentalists, most Protestants and many Catholics just don’t get this. They seem to operate on a more active, materialistic level than the deep contemplative. So while a contemplative can have a pretty good idea of the more socially oriented work that the visibly active Christian does, the latter doesn’t understanding nor appreciate the work that a contemplative does. To make matters worse, contemplatives are usually subject to scorn, ridicule and other forms of psycho-spiritual abuse. As difficult as this is for the contemplative, they also know that overcoming these abuses in a loving way is part of the work that they’re called to do.¹
¹ One of the best examples of this dynamic is found throughout St. Faustina Kowalska’s Divine Mercy Diary. Here the saint outlines how even her Catholic superiors, who should have known better, treated her very poorly and harshly, causing her much pain. And the best example of this kind of unselfish love is arguably found in Jesus’ words while hanging on the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was a German, Swiss and US physicist, born in Ulm, Bavaria. Einstein became a Swiss national in 1901 and held the position of examiner at the National Patent Office (1902-5). During this time he published papers on theoretical physics. He received the 1921 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on the photoelectric effect (i.e. the observation that electrons are released from specific metals when exposed to ultraviolet light), which spearheaded quantum theory.
Einstein is best known for his special theory of relativity (1905) and general theory of relativity (1916). He also produced the equation, e=mc² where ‘e’ is energy, ‘m’ is matter, and ‘c’ is the speed of light, which is a constant.
Professor at Zürich and Prague, and Director of Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Physical Institute, Einstein escaped persecution from the Nazis by emigrating to the USA, where he lectured at Princeton in 1934. He gained US citizenship and a professorship at Princeton in 1940. After World War II, Einstein advocated international regulation of the atomic bomb. In 1952 he was courted by Israel to become its second President but declined the offer.
Einstein has been accused of plagiarizing from several sources. He himself says that he didn’t have time to fully reference some of the ideas that contributed to this theories.
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The general theory includes the earlier special theory of relativity but goes on to explain accelerated frames of reference. Also, it extends the special theory by proposing a general theory of gravitation.
Einstein understands gravity as arising from a curvature of space and time. The general theory presents the universe as a four-dimensional space-time continuum. So the presence of mass ‘curves’ space so as to create the effect of gravity.
Perhaps even more radical, the special theory predicts that as objects move, time slows down. And the general theory predicts that gravity effects the passage of time. Both of these hypotheses have been supported by atomic clocks and GPS measurements.¹
So, quite unlike idle speculation and imaginary fantasies, Eisntein’s seemingly “weird” ideas are supported by empirical evidence. While other theories of gravitation exist, they tend to have much in common with Einstein’s.
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In the supposedly hard science of physics, interference can be observed when two or more waves of energy interact to create a disturbance in the same medium (e.g. electromagnetic, light, sound, water).
Constructive interference can be observed when two or more wave ‘crests’ meet, the sum being a positive amplitude.
Destructive interference can be observed when two or more ‘troughs’ meet, resulting in a negative amplitude.
In the practical sense, interference patterns can be seen by anyone throwing two or more stones into a lake and observing the interacting ripples.
Thomas Young (1773 – 1829) demonstrated with the double slit experiment that light exhibits interference patterns, which lead to his wave theory of light. However, under different experimental conditions, light can also behave as a particle (i.e. a small unit of matter). This conundrum lead to the idea of particle-wave duality that pertains not just to light but, as it was later theorized, to all objects.
The idea of duality originated in a debate over the nature of light and matter that dates back to the 17th century, when competing theories of light were proposed by Christiaan Huygens and Isaac Newton: light was thought either to consist of waves (Huygens) or of particles (Newton). Through the work of Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Louis de Broglie, Arthur Compton, Niels Bohr, and many others, current scientific theory holds that all particles also have a wave nature (and vice versa). This phenomenon has been verified not only for elementary particles, but also for compound particles like atoms and even molecules. In fact, according to traditional formulations of non-relativistic quantum mechanics, wave–particle duality applies to all objects, even macroscopic ones; but because of their small wavelengths, the wave properties of macroscopic objects cannot be detected.¹
It should be noted that physics, for all its practical success in helping to create technological marvels like the microprocessor or the LED monitor, is still just a set of theories about our world. As Jacob Bronowski puts it in BBC video series, The Ascent of Man, science depends on and, in turn, recreates a human representation of reality, not unlike a work of art.² We can never know the actual thing studied. We can only know how it appears to us (or how it leaves hints or traces of its appearance) as we observe through some apparatus—be it the naked eye, the Hubble space telescope, or an electron microscope.
Since Bronowski alluded to this in the early 1970s, many other scientists and popularizers of science have uttered similar sentiments. For instance, the holistic thinker Peter Russell suggests that we should not confuse the map (scientific concepts and theories) with the thing mapped (fundamental aspects of the universe).
² The entire series also appears in book form, with text matching the TV script. The Ascent of Man: Boston/Toronto, Little, Brown and Company, 1973, pp. 321-367.
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Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) was a German philosopher, mathematician and alchemist. He’s sometimes associated with panpsychism but best known for his theory of ‘monadology,’ which stipulates that human souls are individual, self-sufficient units (‘monads’) existing in a harmonic sympathy (‘pre-established harmony’) with all other souls/monads.
Leibniz is also known for his novel formulation in Théodicée (1710) of ‘many possible worlds.’ According to this view, before creating our universe, God imagined an infinite number of possible worlds that could have been created. Being an all-good being, God chose to create the “best of all possible worlds.”
Voltaire deplored this aspect of Leibnizian thought, believing it was a product of clerical apathy and corruption. In Candide he satirized Leibniz’ position through the character of Dr. Pangloss. Voltaire also tried to discredit the fact that Leibniz developed a form of calculus, independent of Sir Isaac Newton (who also developed calculus).
When introduced by a Jesuit priest to the Chinese oracle, the I Ching, Leibniz substituted the solid and broken lines of the hexagrams with ‘0′ and ‘1,’ finding them to be arranged in a binary system that counted up from 0 to 63.
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