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I read this sentence in Newton's Principia, in General Scholium:

This concludes the discussion of God, and to treat of God from phenomena is certainly a part of natural philosophy. (Cohen translation, p.943)

I didn't know what "treat of" meant. I learned that it means:

To deal with some subject or topic in writing or speech.

What is the meaning of this sentence? Is Newton saying that while studying natural phenomena we must deal with the notion of God? Or is he saying that natural phenomena is independent of God.

And this is the Andrew Mott translation of the same sentence.

Andrew Motte translation

And thus much concerning God; to discourse of whom from the appearances of things, does certainly belong to Natural Philosophy.

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  • Natural phenomena and God are independent, yet the two are worth discussing and questioning. Dec 25, 2022 at 18:45
  • @YosefBaskin Not sure I understand. Where does Newton say "natural phenomena and God are independent"?
    – zeynel
    Dec 25, 2022 at 19:18
  • You offered that "natural phenomena is independent of God" and I agree with that interpretation. Dec 25, 2022 at 21:49
  • Note that it was composed and published in Latin. English translations have their own problems, especially very old ones. Dec 25, 2022 at 22:03
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    I think the best I can do is to suggest that you read what Newton himself has to say on the matter. But you need to remember that this is a translation from Newton's Latin.
    – Tuffy
    Dec 25, 2022 at 23:50

4 Answers 4

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As you noted, treat of means “to deal with some subject or topic in writing or speech.”

To simplify:

. . . to [talk about] God [as understood from] phenomena is certainly a part of natural philosophy.

I don’t know much about the subject matter at hand, but based on the grammar, it seems that (tl;dr!) God is all up in Newtonian physics.

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It seems to me that this emphasizes the fact that the consideration of the existence of God (and the religious reality that this entails) along the principle that observable facts are the key to understanding, allows to categorize that consideration as being of the same sort with which Newton generally occupied his time, that is, the sort treated in Natural Philosophy. It gives the reader to understand that the same rigour was applied to the consideration of God as that of physics and mathematics.

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This is an old and now obsolete use of the intransitive "treat".

The OED gives

2.a. intransitive. To deal with some matter in speech or writing; to discourse. Constructed with of, formerly also on, upon.

1732 G. Berkeley Alciphron I. i. iii. 14 Certain writings of our Divines that treat of grace.

1766 O. Goldsmith Vicar of Wakefield II. i. 6 What subject did you treat upon?

a1873 E. O. M. Deutsch Lit. Remains (1874) 173 This book..treating of a most abstruse subject.

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  • But isn't the use of "from" confusing? «[To discourse about God] from phenomena is certainly a part of natural philosophy.» Is Newton trying to say that he finds God in phenomena he observes in nature?
    – zeynel
    Dec 26, 2022 at 8:47
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    @zeynel "But isn't the use of "from" confusing?" No. The preposition "from" often implies an origin of something. Today we might say "To deal with the nature/subject/ attributes of God in speech or writing from the point of view of natural phenomena..."
    – Greybeard
    Dec 26, 2022 at 13:19
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I found I.B. Cohen’s explanation of this sentence in his Guide, p.274:

The next topic is the argument from design, the proof of the existence of the creator from the perfection of his creation.

Having established the presence “of an intelligent and powerful being,” the architect of the universe, Newton proceeds to analyze the names and attributes of this creator.

In the second edition, Newton concluded this paragraph by asserting that to discourse of “God” from phenomena is legitimate in “experimental philosophy.” In the third edition, this was altered to “natural philosophy.

But still it is not clear to me, if Newton wants to use God as cause of natural phenonema or if he is using natural philosophy to prove the existence of God (as stated in this sentence).

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  • How does this answer the question asked?
    – tchrist
    Dec 26, 2022 at 16:20
  • You may be right. The bolded sentence appeared to clarify but maybe not.
    – zeynel
    Dec 26, 2022 at 17:53

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