Isaac Newton and the Philosophy of Science | Jed Buchwald on Lex Fridman Podcast

Key Takeaways

  • The progress of science happens via the collaborative effort of all scientists, not only geniuses
  • The “Theory of Everything” is a dream that strives to link and explain all physical aspects of the universe
    • We do not know if this is possible but it is a dream that is deeply human and fuels scientific curiosity
  • Our perception of the world is not necessarily objective reality
    • Isaac Newton became aware of this towards the end of the 16th century
  • Jed Buchwald is an adherent of philosophical materialism
    • He believes consciousness is a result of some particular organizational structure of material elements
  • We do not know how to bridge the gap between brain activity and conscious experience
  • Newton is responsible for some of the most beautiful moments in the history of science
    • He established classical mechanics, invented calculus, contributed to optics, and more
  • The story of the famous Newtonian apple is vastly exaggerated according to Buchwald
  • Newton was a deeply religious person and he believed that the universe was created via divine action

Books Mentioned


  • Jed Z. Buchwald is a historian and philosopher of science at The California Institute of Technology.
    • Buchwald’s research interests include the history of physics; philosophy of physical sciences; and history of the understanding of pre-classical antiquity.
    • Check out Jed’s Caltech page
  • This episode features a discussion between Lex Fridman and Jed Buchwald on the development of science together with the philosophical dilemmas that take shape when we “dig deep” and try to understand how the universe works. Most of the discussion focuses on the extraordinary life and influence of Isaac Newton.
  • Host – Lex Fridman (@lexfridman)

How Does Science Progress?

  • Thomas Kuhn, an American philosopher of science introduced the term paradigm shift in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)
    • Kuhn believed that science does not progress in a linear way – instead what happens are deep changes in the basic ideas and experimental practices of scientific knowledge, ie. paradigm shifts
    • Paradigm shifts happen when the dominant scientific paradigm becomes incompatible, or fails to explain new natural phenomena
  • Jed Buchwald, who was once Thomas Kuhn’s research assistant, believes that the progression of science is more complex than Kuhn’s explanation.
    • Scientific revolutions do not only happen when science cannot explain new phenomena
    • They also happen when prevailing scientific views cannot offer any new opportunities or generate new theoretical and experimental practices.
    • Paradigm shifts do happen, but Buchwald disagrees with Kuhn on their intensity, how they come to be and how they change.

The Myth of the Lone Genius

  • Does science evolve via collaborative effort and competition of all scientists or the work of a few extraordinary individuals?
    • Buchwald believes there are almost always two or three central individuals that stand out as the geniuses and innovators of the field
    • These individuals, regardless of their contribution, are not solely responsible for the advancements in their respective field
    • We cannot say for sure that scientific developments would have been the same if people like Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton did not exist, but we can say for sure that science would evolve nonetheless.

On the Theory of Everything

  • The Theory of Everything is a hypothetical theoretical framework that aims to explain how everything in the Universe functions.
    • “The dream of discovering keys of how everything works…”Lex Fridman
    • It is a dream that is deeply human and fuels scientific curiosity.
  • Discussions about the nature of the world date all the way back to antiquity
    • However, the essence of experimental science (the belief that by examining/influencing nature in artificially constructed ways we can learn more about it), was not something that was prevalent until the 1500s
    • Alchemists were the first to adopt that way of thinking about nature

How Deep is Our Understanding of the Universe?

  • String theory attempts to address many challenging physics questions but the problem is the lack of experimental evidence
  • “Why there is something rather than nothing” is one of the fundamental questions of metaphysics.
    • Buchwald paraphrases the question: “Why do we have the laws that prevail in our universe?”
    • “Those laws prevail because if they didn’t, we wouldn’t be here.” – Jed Buchwald
      • This answer makes Fridman chuckle
  • Can humans ever comprehend reality? Or in Kantian terms- can we ever know the thing-in-itself?
  • It is very difficult for us to go beyond our perceptual experience of the world.
    • Our perception of the world does not equal objective reality.
    • Does that mean that our knowledge of the world is limited?

Is Consciousness Outside the Reach of Science?

  • Jed Buchwald is a materialist and he does not believe that there is something other than material structure and their various interactions in the universe.
  • “Consciousness must be something, whatever it is that occurs as a result of some particular organizational structure of material elements.”Jed Buchwald
    • neuroscientific advancements might explain the correlation between certain brain activities and particular human experiences.
    • However, we cannot bridge the gap between brain activity and subjective, conscious experience.

Early Life of Isaac Newton

  • Newton went to Cambridge and started as a subsizar – that means he was a servant of wealthy kids (he cleaned their bedpans)
    • He was awarded a scholarship and continued his studies
    • He was influenced by the new ways of scientific thinking (especially Rene Descartes)
  • His two student notebooks “Philosophical Questions” (examining the nature of reality), and the “Waste Book” (primarily concerned with motion) unveil the progression of his scientific curiosity
    • He learned about and worked on very advanced mathematical structures at a young age
    • This work laid the foundation of calculus
    • He was also interested in philosophical questions about the nature of the universe and this led him to question the validity of our perception

Should We Trust Our Senses?

  • Traditional knowledge held that the qualities of things were located in the world outside and not in our perception
    • Newton did not believe this was true and thus became critical towards the evidence provided by our senses
  • Towards the end of the 16th century, there was a shift in understanding reality in terms of the quality of objects
    • The qualities of objects (apart from various shapes and hard particles) were not thought to exist in objects themselves, but in us, in our perception.
    • This suggests that reality should be investigated with tools that are beyond our senses, or those that improve on them.

Moments of Epiphany

  • The story about an apple falling on Newton’s head is probably one of the most popular stories associated with Newton and his formulation of gravitational theory.
    • However, the story is not true.
    • “The role of fruit in the history of science has been vastly exaggerated.” – Jed Buchwald
  • Until early 1679, Newton was not interested in motion and was mainly working on alchemical compounds (early modern chemical structures)
    • Robert Hook introduced him (albeit unintentionally) to the idea of thinking about the motion in a different way
    • The idea that you can have forces without contact was novel at the time, but the notion that two things might interact at a distance with each other without contact goes back to antiquity

Newton’s Personality and Detective Career

  • Newton was a solitary person and had no know relationships with either women or men, besides in a formal way
  • He was very close to his niece Catherine Barton who ran his household
    • Her husband, John Conduitt later became one of the people in charge of Newton’s legacy
  • In the 1690s, Newton moved to London and became the first warden of the mint (coin production)
    • Coinage was a complicated thing in those times due to the presence of counterfeiting
    • Newton even managed to catch William Chaloner, one of the most gifted counterfeiters
      • Chaloner was sentenced to death by hanging
    • Thomas Levenson wrote a book about Newton’s detective career

Newton’s Relationship With God And Religion

  • Newton was a deeply religious person and believed in creationism
    • God’s design is not arbitrary
    • This gave Newton hope that he can understand how the world works via science
  • He was critical about the Old Testament and the possibility of miracles
  • He believed that the act of creation happened 6000 years ago
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Notes By Dario

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