New research is providing a fascinating new perspective on fine-tuning and a three hundred year old debate. First for the context. When Isaac Newton figured out how the solar system worked he also detected a stability problem. Could the smooth-running machine go unstable, with planets smashing into each other? This is what the math indicated. But on the other hand, we’re still here. How could that be?
According to the Whig historians, Newton, a theist, solved the problem by invoking a divine finger. God must occasionally tweak the controls to keep things from getting out of control. It explained why the solar system hasn’t come to ruin, and it provided a role for divine providence which, otherwise, might not be needed for the cosmic machine that ran on its own.
About a century later, Whig history tells us, the French mathematician and scientist Pierre Laplace solved the stability problem when he figured out that Newton’s bothersome instabilities would iron themselves out over the long run. The solar system was inherently stable after all, with no need of divine adjustment, thank you.
Newton’s sin was to use god to plug a gap in our knowledge. What a terrible idea. First, using god to plug gaps is a science-stopper. Why investigate further if god fixes the tough problems? And second, it damages our faith when science eventually solves the problem and the divine role is further diminished. The key to avoiding this problem is to sequester religious thinking to its proper role. Science and religion must be separated lest both be damaged.
That’s the Whig history. Now for what actually happened. Instead of Newton being wrong and Laplace being right it was, as usual, the exact opposite. Newton was right and Laplace was wrong, though the problem is far more complex than either man understood.
And Newton was not the doctrinaire and Laplace was not the savior as the Whigs describe. Again, the truth would be closer to the exact opposite. Newton was more circumspect than is told, and Laplace didn’t actually solve the problem. True, he thought he had solved the problem, but his claim may indicate more about evolutionary thinking than anything to do with science.
And Newton’s allowing for divine creation and providence never shut down scientific inquiry. If that were the case he never would have written the greatest scientific treatise in history.
After Newton, the brightest minds were all over the problem of solar system stability (though it is a difficult problem and would take many years to even get the wrong answer). And no one’s faith was shattered when Laplace produced his incredibly complicated calculus solution because they were banking on some Newtonian interventionism.
But what did raise tempers was the very thought of God not only creating a system in need of repair, but then stooping so low as to adjust the controls of the errant machine. The early evolutionary thinker and Newton rival, Gottfried Leibniz found the idea more than disgraceful. The Lutheran intellectual accused Newton of disrespect for God in proposing the idea the God was not sufficiently skilled to create a self-sufficient clockwork universe.
The problem with Newton’s notion of divine providence was not that it is a science stopper (if anything such thinking spurs on scientific curiosity) or a faith killer when solutions are found. The problem is that it violates our deeply held gnosticism, which is at the foundation of evolutionary thought.
Darwin and later evolutionists have echoed Leibniz’ religious sentiment time and again. Everyone knew what the “right answer” was, and this was the cultural-religious context in which Laplace worked.
Indeed, Laplace’s “proof” for his Nebular Hypothesis of how the solar system evolved came right out of this context and was, not surprisingly, metaphysical to the core. You can read more about that here.
Today the question of the solar system’s stability remains a difficult problem. It does appear, however, that its stability is a consequence of some rather fine-tuning. Fascinating new research seems to add to this story. The new results indicate that the solar system could become unstable if diminutive Mercury, the inner most planet, enters into a dance with Jupiter, the fifth planet from the Sun and the largest of all. The resulting upheaval could leave several planets in rubble, including our own.
Using Newton’s model of gravity, the chances of such a catastrophe were estimated to be greater than 50/50 over the next 5 billion years. But interestingly, accounting for Albert Einstein’s minor adjustments (according to his theory of relativity), reduces the chances to just 1%.
Like so much of evolutionary theory, this is an intriguing story because not only is the science interesting, but it is part of a larger confluence involving history, philosophy and theology.