Isaac Newton was a brilliant scientist. Newton is upheld by the Intelligent Design community as a great example of how Christians should engage science because he mentioned God in his book, the Principia Mathematica. But he is also an example of the very problems that become apparent when we use God as a pseudoscientific tool to close a gap caused by our own ignorance. It’s a good lesson for us today. For all his brilliance, Newton made a critical error in reasoning, and that was to apply an “Intelligent Design” answer to a problem he had with gravity. Newton’s laws of motion predicted the orbits of the planets around the Sun. Because he used approximations when calculating the forces of the planets upon each other, he came to the conclusion that the orbits are unstable and would decay after thousands of years. Newton suggested that God occasionally intervened with a miracle, by sending a comet or other object with just the right direction, size, and velocity, to gravitationally nudge the planets back into their correct orbits.
Years after Newton, Pierre Laplace found better methods to solve Newton’s equations, showing that the planetary orbits are indeed stable. When asked by Napoleon, “Monsieur Laplace, why wasn’t the Creator mentioned in your book on celestial mechanics?”, Laplace replied, “Sir, I have no need for that hypothesis.” Laplace was likely an atheist, but we now know that his findings about planetary motion were true. If he were a believer, he could have just as well said, “We don’t need to explicitly invoke God’s miraculous intervention when describing planetary motion.”
In the one area where Newton inserted God’s supernatural action as part of a scientific explanation, he was later shown to be wrong, and to add insult to injury, he was shown up by an atheist. Intelligent Design proponents leave out this detail when they talk about Newton.