Descartes-newton-einstein a genealogy of natural philosophy

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biohistoriography - the genealogy of embodied epistemology



Jed Gallagher

he was as apt to be remiss in his social duties as

negligent of his own comforts. That he some-

times sat in bed forgetting to dress himself

through absorption in some problem merely

proves him as human as the rest of us; not as

human, indeed, as Descartes who, at one period

of his life, spent most of his time in bed.>
Brodetsky (1927)

generalization connecting space and time

occurred to him while he was sick in bed.

Descartes is said to have made his discoveries

while laying in bed in the morning.>
Koestler (1975)

Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and Albert Einstein (1879-1955) need no introduction here; historically, they are quite simply the most important natural philosophers ever to have lived. I have decided to use the older term “natural philosophers” to describe them, rather than our contemporary term “scientists”, for two important reasons. Firstly, Descartes and Newton were actually practising natural philosophers before the invention of the 19th century term “scientist”. And Einsteins preferred term for his practice was philosopher-scientist. Secondly, although they each explicated their physics, astronomy and cosmology using mathematics, their science is fundementally an explication of their individual philosophy of nature. Each of them thought up a universe (Cartesian, Newtonian, Einsteinian), with a system of philosophical boundaries, within which each of their followers went on to practice science as scientists (as we understand this role today) but not natural philosophers; the natural philosophy was a “given” from their seminal teachers.
Why use the term “genealogy” to describe their historical relationship? Again, for two important reasons. Firstly, their natural philosophy has an historical lineage on many levels. Most obviously, and of necessity, they follow each other in chronological order. They are the three “giants” of physics; they punctuate the development of Modern physics over their lifetimes. The natural philosophy of each is both a descendant and ancestor of the others. The Cartesian and Newtonian universes are older systems of the Einsteinian universe. Each philosophy is a different generation of the same family where each generation forms a chronological “break”. The baton of natural philosophy is passed on down the generations of the same family. Newton studied and absorbed the “genes” of his ancestor, Descartes; Einstein studied and absorbed the “genes” of his ancestor, Newton.
Secondly (and the thesis of this paper), they form a genealogy because they each shared the same disease, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), and it is this historical fact that actually made the genealogical relationship, and the development of Modern physics itself, possible (see biohistoriography index: What is Myalgic Encephalomyelitis?). The extent and quality of the evidence from primary sources is easily sufficient to give a definitive diagnosis of ME in all three cases. This thesis is not an “interesting speculation” which can never be proved either way. Nor is the diagnosis of ME just one of a number of “possible” diseases; the evidence excludes all other diagnoses (see Appendix 1: Diagnostic criteria for ME attributable to Descartes, Newton and Einstein). In a previous paper, I presented overwhelming evidence that Descartes was a near life-long ME sufferer and that the existence of the foundation of Modern philosophy, the Cartesian soul, is only explainable from the existence of ME (see biohistoriography essay index). In this paper, I want to present overwhelming evidence that Newton and Einstein belong to the same “family” as Descartes: the rare family of male ME sufferers. That, like Descartes, ME is the only possible explanation for their behaviour and way of living. And that, like Descartes, ME was the creative basis for their natural philosophy. I will then go on to discuss some of the many fascinating aspects of the genealogy and its relationship to the development of Modern physics.
What should be apparent even now, however, is the enormous importance of the implications of this thesis for the history of physics. And, for the enormous academic and popular interest that surrounds the lives of all three as individuals. No biography has yet been published which correctly interprets each of their lives. Their undiagnosed ME meant that all of their behaviour, lifestyle and decisions were unconsciuosly determined by their ME pathophysiology. It is not possible to write a book length treatment of each of their lives within the context of their ME here (I will leave this to others more qualified than me) but I have outlined the key points of their behaviour, major events and turning points (as I did with Descartes). However, every aspect of their lives, can be shown to be overshadowed by their ME.
I do not intend to go over the same evidence again here for Descartes ME but there are two extremely important points to understand about how ME explains the behaviour, life-style and thought of all three natural philosophers. Firstly, the evidence demonstrates that all three acquired their ME as young boys, probably around five or six years old but certainly before the age of ten. So, they were all near life-long, undiagnosed, sufferers of ME. This means that none of them were aware that they were suffering, specifically, from the symptoms of ME; although the evidence shows that they were all vaguely aware that their general health was poor, that they exhibited many symptoms of ill-health, but they did not think they were experiencing a specific disease. They all vaguely understood that they were the victims of what could best be described as a weak constitution; and, that they must have been born this way. This is the classic clinical picture for childhood ME patients. They were all three too young to have the cognitive ability to understand the enormous change in their health when they contracted ME. Although their ME behaviours were noticed by those around them as children (and for the rest of their lives), they were too young for the actual point of change to be noticed. If all three had contracted ME at a later age then they would have been all too well aware of an enormous change in their health; that something abnormal had occurred. So, they just got on with their lives as best they could with ME, and this is recorded in the historical documents.
Secondly, it is extremely important to understand that, although Descartes was a moderate case of ME, Newton and Einstein were both mild cases in the first half of their lives (then became moderate cases like Descartes). This does not mean that they were not struggling with the effects of a very debilitating disorder any less than Descartes, but they were able to compensate and cope to a much greater extent. Newton and Einstein were initially able to present a more normal health picture on the surface and produce a greater quantity of “work” than Descartes. Descartes was also in the different situation of never having the domestic and financial support of academic institutions around him. But, as we will see, the similarities between the behaviour and life-styles of all three is marked. Descartes ME is consequently more visible; where as Newton and Einstein require a little deeper excavation for facts and a more sensitive approach to interpretation. This does not mean that there is any counter-evidence against Newtons or Einsteins ME; just the need for a more careful approach in the exposure of the evidence in the strata of their lives.
Suprisingly, the behavioural and life-style similarities between Newton and Einstein have attracted very little investigation. Ironically, it was Einstein himself who wrote numerous papers on Newtons work and was fascinated by his life; but completely unaware of the irony of their shared disease. He even wrote the forward to Villamils Newton: the man in 1936. However, there is a startling book, entitled Einstein and Newton (published only in the USA and Canada in 1973) which recognised that the unique similarity of their lives was problematic (Lerner 1973). The book is in two parts, “Development and Work” and “Life Patterns” (with a key chapter on “Health”), and, although a superficial treatment with incorrect interpretations, serves as a general introduction to the intentions of this paper. Indeed, Lerner fully appreciates the “problem” in his preface: “In spite of the obvious differences between Newton and Einstein, I have always wondered if their great achievements were not, of necessity, based on important similarities in their personal traits and in their lives”. In this paper, Lerners “of necessity” is ME.

Isaac Newton (1642-1727)
Anyone reading the preface to Westfalls voluminous biography of Newton can not fail to be shocked by his ultimate tone of defeat in the face of the brick wall that is Newton:
“The more I have studied him, the more Newton has receded from me….The end result of my study of Newton has served to convince me that with him there is no measure. He has become for me wholly other, one of the tiny handful of supreme geniuses who have shaped the categories of the human intellect, a man not finally reducible to the criteria by which we comprehend our fellow human beings.” (Westfall 1980)
Then there is Manuels similar admission in the introduction to his famous Freudian interpretation of Newtons life:
“The innermost secrets of Isaac Newton have not been uncovered. Though the curtain may be raised briefly, one goes away burdened with doubt about what has actually been seen in that fleeting moment.” (Manuel 1980)
Even John Conduitt, one of Newtons friends in later life, found himself completely puzzled by Newton:
“When we consider his talents, his virtues, even we that knew him can hardly think of him without a sort of superstition, which demands all our reason to check - nor forbear saying, with the Marquis de L’hospital, was Newton a man? (Jones 1991: K.Ms.130.17)
This is no slight on Westfall, Manuel or Conduitt: it is admirable honesty. It is absolutely impossible to interpret Newtons life and thought outside the context of his ME. In my study of Newtons life, I will be quoting from the primary sources of his own notebooks and recorded words. Historically, the two key biographical primary sources are William Stukeleys (1687-1765) memoirs and John Conduitts (1688-1737) unpublished biographical notes in the Keynes collection of Kings College library at Cambridge University (Hastings-White 1936; Jones 1991). The two key secondary biographies are Westfall (1980) and Manuel (1980). I will not be revising any details of the well established accounts or facts of his life - my intention is a new interpretation of universally accepted and reliable evidence within the context of ME symptomology.
Newton was born in the early hours of December 25 1642 in the family home of Woolsthorpe Manor at the Lincolnshire village of Woolsthorpe, around 5 miles south of Grantham, England. (Not to be confused with a second village of Woolsthorpe, around 5 miles west of Grantham!). In late 1647, aged 4, he began to attend day schools, around one mile north of Woolsthorpe, at the villages of Skillington and Stoke Rochford. It was shortly after this time that, I propose, he contracted a mild case of ME and began to exhibit ME symptoms in his behaviour. At this time we get a first report of recognisably restricted male ME behaviour:
“She [Mrs Vincent] says Sir Isaac was always a sober, silent, thinking lad, never was known scarce to play with the boys abroad, but would rather choose to be at home, even among the girls.” (Hastings-White 1936)
This is good evidence of the childhood effect of Newtons ME on his physical and mental capacities. He was grey haired by the age of 30. He was short and thin; carrying the stunted growth and development of a childhood with ME into adulthood. He had the hypersensitivity of the senses of ME. He had a liking for roast meat; and ME patients are highly dependent on protein (Manuel 1980). He was highly intelligent but he was intolerant of any intensive physical exertion, including the physical and mental effort of talking, both of which he avoided all of his life. The disengagement of these definitive ME symptoms, not just his gifted intelligence, already singled him out as a very different boy to the others. As Manuel states, “Stukeleys account is the source for the traditional image of the frail, dreamy, solitary lad, afraid of fights and more comfortable with the girls, disliked, who could only excel at sport through strategems” (Manuel 1980).
Newton attended these first schools between the ages of 4 and 11, and was marked out as being “backward”; a common situation in young child with the cognitive difficulties of ME (Manuel 1980). Although clearly intelligent, he performed way below expectations at these schools. So much so, that when he moved to the Kings School in Grantham, aged 11, he found himself ranked next to bottom of class (Lerner 1973). It is also relevant that he had previously had to walk the mile or so and back to his first school. This would have had an additional effect on his cognitively-impaired state due to the effect of the physical effort on his brain. The difference now was that he was boarding in Grantham and did not have to walk so far to school. As he finally begins to develop cognitively he becomes top student in his class. The usual, non-explanation, for this remarkable change has been that Newton decided to study himself above a boy who had been bullying him; after he, ordinarily passive and fearful, had physically fought and bettered him (Manuel 1980).
Even at this early age, it had already become apparent that Newton was relatively vulnerable to mental disturbance. He was easily irritated, with a terrible temper and bouts of violent rage, especially against his family and servants; which only increased his unpopularity. Later, he began to believe that he was completely unlike other people (he actually was, he had undiagnosed ME); and was put on Earth for some divine reason. His suspicion and paranoia continued for the rest of his life; friends and enemies alike felt the lash of his tongue and exile. He could take pleasure from the suffering of others. However, as we have seen, Newton was also quiet, studious, withdrawn and anxious. This has led to differing interpretations for the extremes of Newtons behaviour and poor health, such as manic-depression, Freudian psychopathology or hyper-thyroidism (Jablow-Herschman 1988; Manuel 1980; Lerner 1972).
The most important evidence for understanding Newtons poor mental health, however, is that he experienced a number of “nervous breakdowns” related directly to his over-work; not confrontations with other people. When he took time to rest and sleep he recovered his mental health; this is good evidence for his ME. The most likely explanation for Newtons mental health pattern is that he was a mild sociopath who was kept in check by a solitary life with ME. However, the restrictions of ME and its frustrations were liable to exacerabate his sociopathic tendencies in his interactions with other people; leading to inappropriate and disproportionate reactions. It was this tension that formed his character. This became more apparent when he left academia for executive power at the Mint; like many mild sociopaths in such circumstances he found himself well suited and his natural abilities for cold manipulation and exploitation led to rapid promotion.

Newton left Kings School as the top student in 1661 and entered Trinity College, Cambridge University, on June 5, aged 18. His mothers servants were happy to see him leave, declaring that he was “fit” for nothing but university. Newton appears to have made some attempt to lead a similar life as the other students but their time and energy consuming activities would be impossibly incompatible for a hardworking student with ME. He rapidly became an isolated and solitary figure. He was a highly anxious person all his life and found it difficult to do nothing; he coped with this by keeping his brain occupied at all times with study or mindless copying. He kept himself busy (and exhausted by ME) continuously at this time and began to stay up all night regularly. By 1662, this life-style causes his first ME-related “nervous breakdown” - this is usually described as his religeous crisis because of his notebook writings of the time - but it is essentially a health breakdown. After recovering, he appears to have continued the same sleep patterns during 1663, and suffered his second “nervous breakdown” in 1664:
“He went through a period of nervous fatigue from excessive work and late hours while observing a comet. From this experience, he learned to get some sleep every night.” (Lerner 1973)
“He sat up so long in the year 1664 to observe a comet that appeared then that he found himself much disordered and learned from thence to go to bed betimes.” (Jones 1991: K.Ms.130.10)
This second “nervous breakdown” appears to have finally given Newton some insight into his poor health - many other nebulous ME symptoms would certainly be accompanying the overwhelming fatigue - and these would generate his life-long adult obsession with his health. It also set the pattern for his life-long sleep/wake cycle. Like many with ME, he found it difficult to sleep before midnight, no matter how fatigued. (In fact, paradoxically, the more fatigued an ME patient becomes the more difficult they find it to fall asleep. This is because the sleep/wake cycle in ME is displaced so that the sleep period comes later at night and extends through the morning). Up to this time, Newton took advantage of this fact to continue working through the night. What is certain is that he was not taking enough sleep during the day - there is no way that an ME patient can sustain such a regime - and eventually precipitates his second breakdown.
He now learns to go to bed between midnight and around two or three in the morning - and even then must sleep well into the following day. Humphrey Newton (no relation), his sizar from 1685 to 1690, recorded the sleeping habits he observed: “He very rarely went to bed till two or three of the clock, sometimes not until five or six, lying [in bed] about four or five hours” (quoted in Manuel 1980).
But even this regime proves to be difficult, we get a complimentary account from Newton himself, to Stukeley: “I have heard him say that, during the course of his most intense studies, he learnt to go to bed at 12 [midnight], finding by experience that if he exceeded that hour but a little, it did him more harm in his health than a whole days study” (Jones 1991: K.Ms.136)
If he stayed up all night then all of the following day, and more, would be lost in bed. This is definitive ME symptomology - fatigue which is totally disproportionate the next day and can last for many days. Only by pacing exertion with good sleep and rest can Newton repeat his level of daily activity. He is physiologically incapable of extending his “normal” day. Even if he went to bed by midnight, he needed to sleep through much of the following morning and spend the rest of the morning in bed resting (like Descartes).
In a letter to Conduitt, Humphrey Newton makes this statement:
“He never slept in the day time that I ever percieved. I believe he grudged yet short time he spent eating and sleeping…In a morning he seemed to be as much refreshed with his few hours sleep, as though he had taken a whole nights rest.” (Jones 1991: K.Ms.135)
The key phrase here is, “that I ever perceived”. In an interview with Stukeley, Humphrey admits that Newton probably spent every morning, except Sunday, in bed until midday:
“Mr (Humphrey) Newton of this town, was five years under Sir Isaacs tuition there…He adds that he (Newton) constantly went to church on Sundays, though not often to the College chapel. He supposes the reason to be, because he could not rise soon enough in the mornings, seldom going to bed at that time till 2 or 3 in the morning.” (Jones 1991: K.Ms.136)
It is clear that Humphrey witnessed very little of the hours of sleep and rest Newton was actually keeping behind the closed doors of his study. Selective reporting of Humphreys account has largely been responsible for creating the myth of the super-human Newton with limitless stamina; the myth that Newton worked all day and all night. What we actually see are the physical and mental collapses (nervous breakdowns) of ME which resulted if he did so.
During his undergraduate years Newton kept a detailed notebook, known as the Trinity notebook, which is the primary source for the genesis of his natural philosophy (Macguire 1983). The notebook contains a numbered text entitled “Questiones quaedam Philosophcae” [sic], translated into English as “Certain Philosophical Questions”. (It is a minor, but telling point, that Newton missed the ‘I’ in “Philosophicae” and then failed to notice it; something that is very familiar to those with ME). In CPQ, we find definitive evidence of Newtons disabling mental fatigue and its associated symptoms. CPQ contains a large number of philosophical headings where Newton has recorded his thoughts. On page 43 of CPQ (page 109 of the notebook) Newton records his thoughts under the heading “Imagination. And fantasy and invention”:
“Fantasy is helped by good air, fasting, and moderate wine. But spoiled by drunkenness, gluttony, too much study (whence, and from extreme passion, comes madness), dizziness and commotions of the spirits. Meditation heats the brain, in some, to distraction; in others, to an aching and dizziness.” (Macguire 1983)
This is an amazing passage by any standard. We get a direct insight into how Newton went about his study, and the effects that this had on him. This is not a description of a normal healthy person; it is a symptom diagnosis of ME. Newton thinks he is talking about universal human experience, completely unaware that he has ME, which causes him to experience his body very differently to everyone else. We know from other sources that Newton skipped meals and drank alcohol only moderately. We also know he avoided caffeine (tea), and drank hot water with orange peel. Regular small meals, no alcohol and no caffeine are essential for keeping the symptoms of ME in check. Newton is telling us that he is helped in his “fantasy” by fasting and moderate wine; he uses this method every day. He regularly skipped his meals which were delivered to his room with wine each day. What Newton actually means by “fantasy” is his deepest abstract thinking: his natural philosophy. By manipulating his ME symptoms he is helped to leave everyday reality behind and think up new realities by cognitive disorientation.
We also see in this passage the balancing act Newton had to perform in order not to be overwhelmed by his ME symptoms, particularly as his mental health is vulnerable to these symptoms. Too much study causes emotional lability - a classic ME symptom. He tells us the problems he has with studying too much - in complete contrast to the myth that he had the stamina for long study. Importantly, he distinguishes abstract thought (fantasy) from study. He also mentions the classic ME symptoms of dizziness (twice) and “aching” brain brought on by too much study and meditation. His ME was life-long; he complained of “fatigue and dizziness” throughout his adult life.
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