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I think of Newton, Hooke, Leibniz, Wren, Locke -- assuming they knew hard to believe they would not have thought it crazy but I have read nothing about Newton, et al saying anything.

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    Have to add my voice to others - Why consider the opinion of a mathematician in a foreign country to an obscure legal question on a different content? Do we ask Hawking to interpret Sharia law? If you had asked about top minds in a relevant field (Law, Religion, criminal procedure, contracts), then I might have a different opinion. But why would the opinion of a the head of the mint, a mathematician, or an architect have any relevance? (A philosopher potentially, but arguably not). – Mark C. Wallace Oct 5 '17 at 11:53
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    @MarkC.Wallace witch trials are much more than legal proceedings. Afaik feminist theory puts the peak in the 17th century in the context of a male take-over of authority over nature; witches represented a holistic, empathical approach while then modern science, as exemplified by Francis Bacon, repesented an analytical, unemotional approach. Witch hunts are regarded as a violent means to suppress women, in cooperation with the patriarchal church. In short, witch hunts thrived on an explosive mix of superstition and misogyny. How enlightened minds thought about it is of great interest to me. – Peter A. Schneider Oct 5 '17 at 12:20
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    Feminist theory (or any retrospective analytical perspective) can analyze the situation, but at the time, it was an issue of the admissibility of evidence in criminal proceedings; the issue was resolved when spectral evidence was forbidden in court trials. I don't think it is reasonable to ask the opinion of an architect or a mathematician about evidentiary procedures. I fear that I may have crossed the line of discussion in chat, so I invite you to have the last word. – Mark C. Wallace Oct 5 '17 at 12:26
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    @MarkC.Wallace I was writing this while you answered: (To illustrate: It is interesting in the same way as the anti-semitism of some otherwise admirable famous people around 1900, or earlier, like with Martin Luther. That somebody was or was not immune against contemporary pervasive anti-semitism -- or any other stupid preconception -- tells something about them.) – Peter A. Schneider Oct 5 '17 at 12:27
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    The reason I mention Newton is that he was an objectively intelligent person. If we stick to say theologians, we end up with Cotton Mather for example. The more important thing is witchcraft in general, not Salem. – Jeff Oct 5 '17 at 15:02
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As Stephen Burnap has already explained, it is unlikely that Newton would even have heard of the Salem Witch Trials.

As for Newton's personal beliefs on the subject of witchcraft, I think most people are now aware that Newton studied alchemy. As a result, there has been more interest in his belief, or otherwise, in "related", non-scientific subjects. Fortunately for modern historians, Newton wrote fairly extensively on subjects like the devil, demons, witchcraft, ghosts, etc., and it is therefore possible to trace his evolving views over time.

Stephen Snobelen, of University of King's College, Halifax, has explored this topic in some detail in his 2004 paper: Lust, Pride, and Ambition: Isaac Newton and the Devil (available to download as a pdf file from ResearchGate).

For now, it should be sufficient to repeat just one quote from Newton (that is included in Snobelen's paper):

"... to beleive that men or weomen can really divine, charm, inchant, bewitch or converse with spirits is a superstition of the same nature wth beleiving [sic] that the idols of the gentils were not vanities but had spirits really seated in them"

Thus, it is quite clear that Sir Isaac Newton did not believe in witchcraft. Had he heard of the events occurring in Salem in 1692/93, he would presumably have judged them on that basis.

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    "Newton studied alchemy" Sure but he did so at a time when alchemy and chemistry weren't unambiguously different things. – David Richerby Oct 5 '17 at 15:30
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    @DavidRicherby That's pretty much the point. Until fairly recently, most people just thought of Newton in rather modern terms as a mathematician & physicist. The fact that people are now aware that he was also an alchemist is what has stimulated much of the recent research into & publication of his other views. – sempaiscuba Oct 5 '17 at 16:09
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    Just for fun -- matching the period to what Newton was up to during 1692/3: Newton was not in a good state of mind, he had either poisoned himself accidentally or had a (2nd) breakdown, or both. Since it is The Royal Society, they are quite likely correct - both causes, i.e. poisoning and depression. – J Asia Oct 5 '17 at 20:48
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    @JAsia One further reason he wouldn't have heard about events in Salem then. And I suppose we can be reasonably sure that he wouldn't have blamed the poisoning or depression on "them pesky witches"! ;-) – sempaiscuba Oct 5 '17 at 21:06
34

It's a big assumption that they knew. At the time, Salem was the middle of nowhere, with a colony founded specifically to keep to itself. The trials themselves would likely not have attracted much attention, especially since witch trials were happening all through Europe during that period. In the 250 years before 1750, around 40,000 witches were executed

The Salem Witch Trials only became famous because they happened in a small place that ended up as a cultural core of a powerful country. Asking what Newton thought of the Salem Witch Trials is a bit like asking what Neil DeGrasse Tyson thinks about the a particular couple killed for homosexuality in Dubai.

  • well, how about witches in general? not necessarily salem. – Jeff Oct 4 '17 at 4:01
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    @Jeff - If you want that question answered, consider editing your question to ask it as well. – T.E.D. Oct 4 '17 at 14:05
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    @Jeff Or even framing it as a new question? – sempaiscuba Oct 5 '17 at 2:56
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    A blog post is not an authentic source, the number of witches executed is debated, the one you linked is one of the highest numbers, most other estimates are significantly lower. But you are right that even it was just just 2000 instead of 200000, the Salem trials would still be a small and relatively insignificant case compared to the more well-known (at that time) cases. – vsz Oct 5 '17 at 6:20
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    I changed it to a wiki link and adjusted the number downward accordingly. The 40k number seems better sourced. – Steven Burnap Oct 6 '17 at 16:00
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As mentioned by Steven Burnap Salem was isolated, but we can have a look at other examples. During the witch processes in Stockholm 1678 Urban Hjärne (chemist, geologist, physician and writer) initially was for torture, but later changed his mind and realised it was a case of mass hysteria and not witchcraft. He still considered witchcraft a reality and that the devil existed and had such powers.

  • Interesting. My first reaction was to say, this man is no Newton or Leibniz but that is simplistic on my part; what is interesting is that this shows just how alien the minds of 17th century people probably were to our own. You would expect bright people to reject out of hand silliness like this but how can minds formed at a time when instantaneous communications did not exist and no one had flown let alone seen the Earth from space? – Jeff Oct 4 '17 at 18:18
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    @Jeff : why would have seeing Earth from space change anything? They knew well that it's round. And dismissing something at first thought as "out of hand silliness" based solely on whether it conforms to your beliefs is not the exact way of a rationalist. For example, heliocentrism didn't instantly replace geocentrism because of stubbornness, but because the evidence they could gather back then was not conclusive. Actually, most opponents of geocentrism didn't reject it out of hand, they accepted its merits, they just though that evidence for it is not strong enough. They were no buffoons. – vsz Oct 5 '17 at 6:14
  • @vsz: I am saying that people almost certainly viewed the world very differently than modern people and seeing the Earth from space is but one literal example. I suspect but do not know for sure that many assumptions that modern people might make about how people in those days thought would be wrong especially if one assumes they thought pretty much like modern people do. Not that they were buffoons but that they were fundamentally different. – Jeff Oct 5 '17 at 6:28
  • @Jeff Exactly. as they believed in God they had to believe in the devil and then they believed in miracles, witchcraft et.c. Atheism was practically non-existent. – liftarn Jan 8 '18 at 13:29

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