Reasons to Believe

The Correspondence of Isaac Newton: Volume II, 1676 - 1687

 

H. W. Turnbull, Ed., Cambridge University Press, 1960

247 Newton To Burnet
[January 1680/1]

From the original in King's College Library, Cambridge.
In reply to Letter 246


Sr

Your argument p 118 I acknowledg good against those who suppose only hills & mountains taken out of ye Sea, & it may be good against those who suppose all ye earth higher then ye sea taken out thence; but one who would have mountains & ye sea made by removing earth from one place to another might suppose (if it were necessary) all the earth a quarter of a mile or half a mile lower then the top of the seas or then the lowest valleys, or even lower then that, was thrown out of the deep. But the opinion being to me absurd, I say no more of it. I could wish I was as well satisfied with your argument about ye oval figure of ye earth. For it seems hard to me that a constant force applied to stretch a membrane (as you figuratively term ye atmosphere) should make it shrink, unless you suppose it at first overstretcht by a tumultuary force and so to return by way of undulation, & that ye limus(1) of ye earth hardened while it was in ye ebb. But what ever may be ye reason of ye earths figure you desire my opinion what that figure is. I am most inclined to beleive it spherical or not much oval. And my chief reason for that opinion is ye analogy of ye Planets. They all appear round so far as we can discern by Telescopes, & I take ye earth to be like ye rest. If it's diurnal motion would make it oval that of Jupiter would much more make Jupiter oval; the vis centrifuga at his equator caused by his diurnal motion being 20 or 30 times greater then the vis centrifuga at our equator caused by the diurnal motion of our earth, as may be collected from the largeness of his body & swiftness of his revolutions. The sun also has a motion about his axis & yet is round. What may be argued from ye dimensions of ye earth's shaddow collected by Lunar Eclipses I cannot tell, nor what from ye measures on ye earth answering to a degree in several latitudes, not knowing how exactly those measures were made or the Latitudes of places taken.

You seem to apprehend that I would have the present face of ye earth formed in ye first creation. A sea I beleive was then formed as Moses expresses, but not like our sea, but with an eaven bottom, wthout any precipices or steep descents as I think I exprest in my letter. Of our present sea, rocks, mountains &c I think you have given the most plausible account. And yet if one would go about to explain it otherwise Philosophically, he might say that(2) as saltpetre dissolved in water, though ye solution be uniform crystallises not all over ye vessel alike but here & there in long barrs of salt: so the limus of the Chaos or some substances in it might coagulate at first, not all over the earth alike, but here and there in veins or beds of divers sorts of stones & minerals. That in other places wch remained yet soft, the air wch in some measure subsided out of ye superior regions of ye chaos together with ye earth or limus, by degrees extricating it self, gave liberty to the limus to shrink & subside & leave the first coagulated places standing up like hills: which subsiding would be encreased by the draining & drying of that limus. That the veins & tracts of limus in the bowels of those mountains also drying & consequently shrinking, crack't & left many cavities some dry others filled with water. That after the upper crust of the earth by the heat of the sun together with that caused by action of minerals, was hardened & set; the earth in the lower regions still going closer together left large caverns between it & upper crust filled with the water wch upon subsiding by its weight it spewed out by degrees till it had done shrinking, wch caverns or subterraneal seas might be the great deep of Moses. And if you will, it may be supposed one great orb of water between ye upper crust or gyrus & the lower earth, though perhaps not a very regular one. That in process of time many exhalations were gathered in those caverns which would have expanded themselves into 40 or 50 times the room they lay in, or more, had they been at liberty. For if air in a glass may be crouded into 18 or 20 times less room then it takes at liberty & yet not burst the glass, much more may subterranean exhalations by the vast weight of ye incumbent earth be kept crouded into a less room before they can in any place lift up & burst that crust of earth. That at length somewhere forcing a breach, they by expanding themselves forced out vast quantities of water before they could all get out themselves, wch commotion caused tempests in the air & thereby by great falls of rain in spouts & all together made ye flood & after the vapors were out ye waters retired into their former place. That the air wch in ye beginning subsided with ye earth, by degrees extricating it self might be pent up in one or more great caverns in the lower earth under ye abyss & at ye time of ye flood breaking out into ye abyss & consequently expanding it self might also force out ye waters of ye abyss before it. That the upper crust or gyrus of earth might be upon the stretch before ye breaking out of ye abyss, & then by its weight shrinking to its natural posture might help much to force out the waters. That ye subterraneal vapors which then first brake out & have ever since continued frequently to do so, being found by experience noxious to mans health infect the air & cause that shortness of life wch has been ever since the flood. And that several pieces of earth either at the flood or since falling, some perhaps into ye great deep, others into less & shallower cavities, have caused many of those Phænomena we see on ye earth besides the original hills and cavities.

But you will ask how could an uniform chaos coagulate at first irregularly in heterogenous veins or masses to cause hills. Tell me then how an uniform solution of saltpeter coagulates irreguly into long barrs; or to give you another instance, if Tinn, (such as the Pewterers buy from the mines in Cornwel to make Pewter of) be melted & then let stand to cool till it begin to congeal & when it begins to congeale at ye edges, if it be inclined on one side for ye more fluid part of ye Tin to run from those parts wch congeale first, you will see a good part of ye Tin congealed in lumps which after the fluider part of ye Tin wch congeales not so soon is run from between them appear like so many hills with as much irregularity as any hills on ye earth do. Tell me ye cause of this & ye answer will perhaps serve for ye Chaos.

All this I write not to oppose you, for I think the main part of your Hypothesis as probable as what I have here written, if not in some respects more probable. And though the pressure of ye Moon or Vortex &c may promote ye irregularity of ye causes of hills, yet I did not in my former letter design to explain the generation of hills thereby, but only to insinuate how a Sea might be made above ground in your own hypothesis before the flood besides the subterranean great deep, & thereby all difficulty of explaining rivers & the main point in wch some may think you & Moses disagree might be avoyded. But this sea I not(3) suppose round the Equator but rather to be two seas in two opposite parts of it where the cause of ye flux & reflux of our present Sea deprest the soft mass of ye earth at that time when ye upper crust of it hardened.

As to Moses I do not think his description of ye creation either Philosophical or feigned, but that he described realities in a language artificially adapted to ye sense of ye vulgar. Thus where he speaks of two great lights I suppose he means their apparent, not real greatness. So when he tells us God placed those lights in ye firmament, he speaks I suppose of their apparent not of their real place, his business being not to correct the vulgar notions in matters philosophical but to adapt a description of ye creation as handsomly as he could to ye sense & capacity of ye vulgar. So when he tells us of two great lights & the starrs made ye 4th day, I do not think their creation from beginning to end was done ye fourth day nor in any one day of ye creation nor that Moses mentions their creation as they were physicall bodies in themselves some of them greater then this earth & perhaps habitable worlds, but only as they were lights to this earth, & therefore though their creation could not physically [be](4) assigned to any one day, yet being a part of ye sensible creation wch it was Moses's design to describe & it being his design to describe things in order according to ye succession of days allotting no more then one day to one thing, they were to be referred to some day or other & rather to ye 4th day then any other if the air(5) then first became clear enough for them to shine through it & so put on ye appearance of lights in ye firmament to enlighten the earth. For till then they could not properly be described under ye notion of such lights, nor was their description under that notion to be deferred after they had that appearance though it may be the creation of some of them was not yet completed. Thus far perhaps one might be allowed to go in ye explaining ye creation of ye 4th day, but in ye third day for Moses to describe ye creation of seas when there was no such thing done neither in reality nor in appearance me thinks is something hard. & that ye rather becaus if before ye flood there was no water but that of rivers, that is none but fresh water above ground, there could be no fish but such as live in fresh water & so one half of ye fift days work will be a non entity & God must be put upon a new creation after ye flood to replenish one half of this terraqueous globe wth Whales & all those other kinds of Sea fish we now have.

You ask what was that light created ye first day? Of what extent was ye Mosaical chaos? Was ye firmament if taken for ye atmosphere so considerable a thing as to take up one day's work? & would not ye description of ye creation have been complete wthout mentioning it? To answer these things fully would require comment upon Moses whom I dare not pretend to understand: yet to say something by way of conjecture, one may suppose that all ye Planets about our Sun were created together, there being in no history any mention of new ones appearing or old ones ceasing. That they all & ye sun too had at first one common Chaos. That this Chaos by ye spirit of God moving upon it became separated into several parcels each parcel for a planet. That at ye same time ye matter of ye sun also separated from ye rest & upon ye separation began to shine before it was formed into that compact & well defined body we now see it. And the preceding darkness & light now cast upon ye Chaos of every Planet from ye Solar Chaos was the evening & morning wch Moses calls ye first day even before ye earth had any diurnall motion or was formed into a globular body. That it being Moses design to describe the origination of this earth only & to touch upon other things only so far as they related to it, he passes over the division of ye general chaos into particular ones & does not so much as describe ye fountain of that light God made that is ye Chaos of ye Sun, but only wth respect to the Chaos of our Earth tells us that God made light upon ye face of ye deep where darkness was before. Further one might suppose that after our Chaos was separated from ye rest, by the same principle wch promoted its separation (wch might be gravitation towards a center) it shrunk closer together & at length a great part of it condensing subsided in ye form of a muddy water or limus to compose this terraqueous globe. The rest wch condensed not separated into two parts the vapors above & the air which being of a middle degree of gravity, ascended from ye one descended from the other & gathered into a body stagnating between both. Thus was the Chaos at once separated into three regions the globe of muddy waters below ye firmament the vapors or waters above the firmament & ye air or firmament it self. Moses had before called the Chaos the deep & the waters on ye face of wch ye spirit of God moved, & here he teaches the division of all those waters into two parts with a firmament between them: wch being the main step in ye generation of this earth was in no wise to be omitted by Moses. After this general division of ye chaos Moses teaches a subdivision of one of its(6) parts, that is, of the miry waters under ye firmament into clear water & dry land on the surface of the whole globous mass, For wch separation nothing more was requisite then that ye water should be drained from ye higher parts of ye limus to leave them dry land & gather together into ye lower to compose seas. And some parts might be made higher then others not only by ye cause of ye flux & reflux but also by ye figure of ye Chaos of it was made by division from ye Chaos's of other Planets. For then it could not be spherical. And now while the new planted vegetables grew to be food for Animals, the heavens becoming clear for ye Sun in ye day & Moon and starrs in ye night to shine distinctly through them on the earth & so put on ye form of lights in ye firmament so that had men been now living on ye earth to view ye lights in ye firmament so that had men been now living on ye earth to view ye process of ye creation they would have judged those lights created at this time. Moses here sets down their creation as if he had then lived & were now describing what he saw. Omit them he could wthout rendering his description of ye creation imperfect in ye judgment of ye vulgar. To describe them distinctly as they were in them selves would have made ye narration tedious & confused, amused ye vulgar & become a Philosopher more then a Prophet. He mentions them therefore only so far as ye vulgar had a notion of them, that is as they were phænomena in our firmament, & describes their making only so far & at such a time as they were made such phænomena. Consider therefore whether any one who understood the process of ye creation & designed to accommodate to ye vulgar not an Ideal or poetical but a true description of it as succinctly & theologically as Moses has done, without omitting any thing material wch ye vulgar have a notion of or describing any being further then the vulgar have a notion of it, could mend that description wch Moses has given us. If it be said that ye expression of making & setting two great lights in ye firmament is more poetical then natural: so also are some other expressions of Moses, as where he tells us the windows or floodgates of heaven were opened Gen 7 & afterwards stopped again Gen 8 & yet the things signified by such figurative expressions are not Ideall or moral but true. For Moses accommodating his words to ye gross conceptions of ye vulgar, describes things much after ye manner as one of ye vulgar would have been inclined to do had he lived & seen ye whole series of wt Moses describes.

Now for ye number & length of ye six days: by what is said above you may make ye first day as long as you please, & ye second day too if there was no diurnal motion till there was a terraqueous globe, that is till towards ye end of that days work. And then if you will suppose ye earth put in motion by an eaven force applied to it, & that ye first revolution was done in one of our years, in the time of another year there would be three revolutions,(7) of a third five, of a fourth seaven, etc & of the 183d year 365 revolutions, that is as many as there are days in our year and in all this time Adams life would be increased but about 90 of our years, which is no such great business. But yet I must profess I know no sufficient naturall cause of the earth diurnal motion. Where natural causes are at hand God uses them as instruments in his works, but I doe not think them alone sufficient for ye creation & therefore may be allowed to suppose that amongst other things God gave the earth it's motion by such degrees & at such times as was most suitable to ye creatures. If you would have a year for each days work you may be supposing day & night was made by the annual motion of ye earth only, & that the earth had no diurnal motion till towards the end of ye six days, But you'l complain of long & dolefull nights. And why might not birds & fishes endure one long night as well as those & other animals endure many in Greenland, or rather why not better then the tender substances wch were growing into animals might endure successions of short days & nights & consequently of heat and cold? For what think you would become of an egge or Embryo wch should frequently grow hot & cold? Yet if you think ye night too long, it's but supposing the divine operations quicker. But be it as it will, me thinks one of the tenn commandments given by God in mount Sina, prest by divers of ye prophets observed by our Saviour, his Apostles & first Christians for 300 years & wth a day's alteration by all Christians to this day, should not be grounded on a fiction. At least Divines will hardly be perswaded to leive so.

As I am writing, another illustration of ye generation of hills proposed above comes into my mind. Milk is as uniform a liquor as ye chaos was. If beer be poured into it & ye mixture let stand till it be dry, the surface of ye curdled substance will appear as rugged and mountanous as the Earth in any place. I forbear to describe other causes of mountains, as ye breaking out of vapours from below from the earth was well hardned, the settling & shrinking of ye whole globe after ye upper regions or surface began to be hard. Nor will I urge their antiquity out of Prov. 8. 25. Job: 15. 7 Psal. 90.2 but rather beg your excuse for this tedious letter, wch I have ye more reason to do because I have not set down any thing I have well considered, or will undertake to defend.

Notes

(1) 'Muddy water', see below.

(2) The word is repeated from one line to the next.

(3) He wrote 'not not'.

(4) A short word is crossed out, with 'be' superimposed upon it.

(5) He wrote 'they air' in error here.

(6) He wrote 'its its'.

(7) He omitted the comma.

 

Subjects: Biblical Evidence for an Old Earth , Historical Theology, Scientific Evidence for an Old Earth, Two Books

Guest Writer

RTB guest writers employ their backgrounds, education, and experiences to provide faith-building, testable evidence, each from the perspective of their unique disciplines.

For a listing of all of our Guest Writers, click here