Dawkins thinks colours are ‘arbitrary tags’ but for Newton ye colors are in ye light
One of the first iconic experiments in science was Newton’s shining light through a prism. He sported his oak at Cambridge (for it is not concordant with the honour of an ancient university to use so banal a phrase as shutting the door) and bored a small hole through it so that only a a narrow pencil of light could pass through the prism. Though what the Bursar of Trinity College thought of this is not recorded (‘Sir, I am conducting one of the most important experiments in science.’ ‘Sir, we bursars care not a fig yea not a flying fart for your experiments, the purpose of a university is to preserve its property. Please find cost of ye door on thy next buttery bill’ for so prosaic a term as account does not fit the honour of an ancient university neither). Newton expected that the prism would break the light into colours for Descartes had already shone light through a water drop. But whereas Descartes had shone the light through the water drop onto a surface only a few inches away, Newton shone it through the prism onto a surface over the length of a cricket pitch away. He expected to see a circle of coloured light because the hole admitting the light was round. But that isn’t what he saw. What he saw was a vertical tower in which the colours of the rainbow were arrayed one on top of the other. He realised that this was because it was the different angles of the surfaces of the prism that had broken the light up into colours.
The experiment is hailed by Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow as one of the first great experiments releasing science from the magic and mysticism of the Middle Ages. Even light could be subjected to rational analysis. And so it was seen by Newton’s contemporaries. They saw light as a stream of tiny particles of matter they called corpuscles. There was no colour in the light. Colour was an interpretation by brains of the different angles of the surfaces onto which the light fell. All that was out there were corpuscles and angles. And this is a view repeated by Dawkins. Colour, he says, is an ‘arbitrary tag’ that the brain attaches to different light waves (as we would now say). But I don’t think this is how Newton saw it. Many scientists are embarrassed by Newton’s alchemy which they see as an unfortunate anomaly to his experiments in science. I think this is a serious mistake. The alchemy was central to Newton’s thinking and it was the alchemy indeed that enabled him to escape the paradigms, as Thomas Kuhn would call them, within which his contemporaries were constricted, and think differently. They all thought of gravity, for example, as weight. A bag of cannon balls falls to the ground more quickly than a bag of feathers because it has more corpuscles in it. It was the alchemical framework of his outlook that set Newton to thinking of gravity as an immaterial force acting at a distance. Central to the alchemical view was the Vegetative Spirit. Newton was an Aryan. He thought God was so holy and other the idea of God entering into what he called ‘gross matter’ as in the orthodox Christian idea of the Incarnation was intolerable. Christ was not God but the first of God’s creations. He was in fact the Vegetative Spirit. This Spirit left the hand of God in the most sublime ethereal form and passed down lower and lower through the phenomena of the universe until it reached the grossest form of sticks and stones. The first element it entered was light, the most ethereal and nearly divine of all earthly phenomena. Light was the vehicle par excellence of what Newton called Illumination, the divine truth revealed in the order of the creation. In its grossest form it expressed itself in the colours seen by the human eye. Colour as seen by the eye was not for Newton, therefore, a physical reaction to angles as it was for Huygen and Hooke, but a revealing of the colours of the divine glory that were already colourlessly and more spiritually in the light, pouring down out of heaven through grosser and grosser forms until they became the colours recognized by the eye:
“This spirit perhaps is the body of light because both have a prodigious active principle, both are perpetual workers.’
“The stream descending will grow thicker as it comes nearer the earth, but it will not lose its swiftness until it meets such opposition…”
I’ve come to think Newton was right. Light isn’t just a collection of photons and light waves, it is a revelation, the first of all revelations, of the divine glory, and I think the great artists are telling us that. Indeed the crucial fulfilment of science by art is another subject I want to write about. Dawkins’ account of the mechanisms whereby the eye registers the colours of the rainbow is a wonderful piece of writing. But it is merely mechanical, it does not, for me, explain all my experiences of light. Newton was right. Colour is not just in the eye but already colourlessly and more spiritually and as yet invisibly in the light before the eye reveals its full glory. Of the many paradoxes of light, after all, one is that as it travels through space it is actually dark. It only becomes light when it falls onto surfaces and we see it. But we don’t say ‘there’s nothing there in space, somehow the eye invents it on earth and attaches arbitrary tags to what was after all nothing before we tagged it’. Light is unilluminatedly unlit as it were yet nevertheless present in the dark, until the eye reveals it to be what it is. And so it is with colour. And so it is, I believe, with everything. I don’t think there is a God somewhere beyond the sky reigning over the earth. I think the human eye and mind bring matter to the divinity that it already potentially is. God is everything in its ultimate unity.
“God will be everything to everybody’ writes St Paul in the Epistle to the Romans.
“…and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether in earth or in heaven” he quotes from a very early Christian hymn in the Epistle to the Colossions.
God not only creates us but we create God. But this is for another day. My goodness me, this will bring not only Dawkins but the Vatican hammering on my oak. Or rather my plastic laminated Ye Olde Oake composite door that the brochure refers to as “The Cambridge”.
To be continued.