Whilst the European community mathematicians and physicist, i.e. those who could comprehend and understand it, were more than prepared to acknowledge Newton’s Principia as a mathematical masterpiece, many of them could not accept some of the very basic premises on which it was built. Following its publication the Baconians, the Cartesians and Leibniz were not slow in expressing their fundamental rejection of various philosophical aspects of Newton’s magnum opus.
Francis Bacon had proposed a new scientific methodology earlier in the seventeenth century to replace the Aristotelian methodology.
You will come across claims that Newton’s work was applied Baconianism but nothing could be further from the truth. Bacon rejected the concept of generating theories to explain a group of phenomena. In his opinion the natural philosopher should collect facts or empirical data and when they had acquired a large enough collections then the explanatory theories would crystallise out of the data. Bacon was also not a fan of the use of mathematics in natural philosophy. Because of this he actually rejected both the theories of Copernicus and Gilbert.
Newton, of course did the opposite he set up a hypothesis to explain a given set of seemingly related phenomena, deduced logical consequences of the hypothesis, tested the deduced conclusions against empirical facts and if the conclusions survive the testing the hypothesis becomes a theory. This difference in methodologies was bound to lead to a clash and it did. The initial clash took place between Newton and Flamsteed, who was a convinced Baconian. Flamsteed regarded Newton’s demands for his lunar data to test his lunar theory as a misuse of his data collecting.
The conflict took place on a wider level within the Royal Society, which was set up as a Baconian institution and rejected Newton’s type of mathematical theorising. When Newton became President of the Royal Society in 1704 there was a conflict between himself and his supporters on the one side and the Baconians on the other, under the leadership of Hans Sloane the Society’s secretary. At that time the real power in Royal Society lay with the secretary and not the president. It was first in 1712 when Sloane resigned as secretary that the Royal Society became truly Newtonian. This situation did not last long, when Newton died, Sloane became president and the Royal Society became fundamentally Baconian till well into the nineteenth century.
This situation certainly contributed to the circumstances that whereas on the continent the mathematicians and physicists developed the theories of Newton, Leibnitz and Huygens in the eighteenth century creating out of them the physics that we now know as Newtonian, in England these developments were neglected and very little advance was made on the work that Newton had created. By the nineteenth century the UK lagged well behind the continent in both mathematics and physics.
The problem between Newton and the Cartesians was of a completely different nature. Most people don’t notice that Newton never actually defines what force is. If you ask somebody, what is force, they will probably answer mass time acceleration but this just tells you how to determine the strength of a given force not what it is. Newton tells the readers how force works and how to determine the strength of a force but not what a force actually is; this is OK because nobody else does either. The problems start with the force of gravity.
The Cartesians like Aristotle assume that for a force to act or work there must be actual physical contact. They of course solve Aristotle’s problem of projectile motion, if I remove the throwing hand or bowstring, why does the rock or arrow keep moving the physical contact having ceased? The solution is the principle of inertia, Newton’s first law of motion. This basically says that it is the motion that is natural and it requires a force to stop it air resistance, friction or crashing into a stationary object. In order to explain planetary motion Descartes rejected the existence of a vacuum and hypothesised a dense, fine particle medium, which fills space and his planets are carried around their orbits on vortices in this medium, so physical contact. Newton demolished this theory in Book II of his Principia and replaces it with his force of gravity, which unfortunately operates on the principle of action at a distance; this was anathema for both the Cartesians and for Leibniz.
What is this thing called gravity that can exercise force on objects without physical contact? Newton, in fact, disliked the concept of action at a distance just as much as his opponents, so he dodged the question. His tactic is already enshrined in the title of his masterpiece, the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. In the draft preface to the Principia Newton stated that natural philosophy must “begin from phenomena and admit no principles of things, no causes, no explanations, except those which are established through phenomena.” The aim of the Principia is “to deal only with those things which relate to natural philosophy”, which should not “be founded…on metaphysical opinions.” What Newton is telling his readers here is that he will present a mathematical description of the phenomena but he won’t make any metaphysical speculations as to their causes. His work is an operative or instrumentalist account of the phenomena and not a philosophical one like Descartes’.
The Cartesians simply couldn’t accept Newton’s action at a distance gravity. Christiaan Huygens, the most significant living Cartesian natural philosopher, who was an enthusiastic fan of the Principia said quite openly that he simply could not accept a force that operated without physical contact and he was by no means alone in his rejection of this aspect of Newton’s theory. The general accusation was that he had introduced occult forces into natural philosophy, where occult means hidden.
Answering his critics in the General Scholium added to the second edition of the Principia in 1713 and modified in the third edition of 1726, Newton wrote:
Thus far I have explained the phenomena of the heavens and of our sea by the force of gravity, but I have not assigned a cause to gravity.
I have not been able to deduce from phenomena the reasons for these properties of gravity, and I do not feign hypotheses; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this experimental philosophy, propositions are deduced from the phenomena and are made general by induction. The impenetrability, mobility, and impetus of bodies, and the laws of motion and the law of gravity have been found by this method. And it is enough that gravity really exists and acts according to the laws that we have set forth and is sufficient to explain all the motions of the heavenly bodies and of our sea.
Newton never did explain the cause of gravity but having introduced the concept of a pervasive aethereal medium in the Queries in Book III of his Opticks he asks if the attraction of the aether particles could be the cause of gravity. The Queries are presented as speculation for future research.
Both the Baconian objections to Newton’s methodology and the Cartesian objections to action at a distance were never disposed of by Newton but with time and the successes of Newton’s theory, for example the return of Comet Halley, the objections faded into the background and the Principia became the accepted dominant theory of the cosmos.
Leibniz shared the Cartesian objection to action at a distance but also had objections of his own.
In 1715 Leibniz wrote a letter to Caroline of Ansbach the wife of George Prince of Wales, the future George III, in which he criticised Newtonian physics as detrimental to natural theology. The letter was answered on Newton’s behalf by Samuel Clarke (1675–1729) a leading Anglican cleric and a Newtonian, who had translated the Opticks into Latin. There developed a correspondence between the two men about Newton’s work, which ended with Leibniz’s death in 1716. The content of the correspondence was predominantly theological but Leibniz raised and challenged one very serious point in the Principia, Newton’s concept of absolute time and space.
In the Scholium to the definitions at the beginning of Book I of Principia Newton wrote:
1. Absolute, true, and mathematical time, in and of itself and of its own nature, without reference to anything external, flows uniformly and by another name is called duration.
Relative, apparent, and common time […] is commonly used instead of true time.
2. Absolute space, of its own nature without reference to anything external, always remains homogeneous and immovable. Relative space is any moveable or dimension of the absolute space…
Newton is saying that space and time have a separate existence and all objects exists within them.
In his correspondence with Clarke, Leibniz rejected Newton’s use of absolute time and space, proposing instead a relational time and space; that is space and time are a system of relations that exists between objects.
In his third letter to Clarke he wrote:
As for my own opinion, I have said more than once, that I hold space to be something merely relative, as time is, that I hold it to be an order of coexistences, as time is an order of successions.
Leibniz died before any real conclusion was reached in this debate and it was generally thought at the time that Newton had the better arguments in his side but as we now know it was actually Leibniz who was closer to how we view time and space than Newton.
Newton effectively saw off his philosophical critics and the Principia became the accepted, at least mathematical, model of the then known cosmos. However, there was still the not insubstantial empirical problem that no proof of any form of terrestrial motion had been found up to the beginning of the seventeenth century.