Astronomers Argue for the Existence of God

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Astronomers Argue for the Existence of God


At the dawn of the eighteenth century, scientific and Western theology was based on the concept of an unchanging, immutable God ruling a static universe. For theologians, Newtonian physics and the rise of mechanistic explanations of the natural world held forth the promise of a deeper understanding of the inner workings of the Cosmos and, accordingly, of the nature of God. During the course of the eighteenth century, however, there was a major conceptual rift between science and theology that was reflected in a growing scientific disregard for understanding based upon divine revelation and growing acceptance of an understanding of nature based upon natural theology. By the end of the century, experimentation had replaced scripture as the determinant authority in science. Enlightenment thinking, spurred by advances in the physical sciences, sent sweeping changes across the political and social landscape.


Throughout the eighteenth century, English physicist Sir Isaac Newton's (1642-1727) Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica ("Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy"), first published in 1687, dominated the intellectual landscape. Moreover, Newton actively wrote and modified his observations during the first quarter of the eighteenth century. In addition to the elaboration of physics and calculus, however, Newton also concerned himself with the relationship between science and theology. Without question, Newton was the culminating figure in the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the leading articulator of the mechanistic vision of the physical world initially put forth by French mathematician René Descartes (1596-1650). Within his own lifetime Newton saw the rise and triumph of Newtonian physics and the widespread acceptance of a mechanistic concept regarding the workings of the universe among philosophers and scientists.

Newtonian laws—and a well-functioning clockwork universe—depended upon the deterministic effects of gravity, electricity, and magnetism. In such a universe matter was passive, moved about and controlled by "active principles." For Newton, who rejected the mainstream Trinitarian concepts of Christianity, the order and beauty found in the universe was God. Newton argued that God set the Cosmos in motion, and to account for small differences between predicted and observed results, God actively intervened from time to time to reset or "restore" the mechanism.

Theologians and scientists were deeply concerned about the moral implications of a scientific theory that explained everything as the inevitable consequence of mechanical principles. Accordingly, much effort was expended to reconcile Newtonian physics—and a clockwork universe—with conventional theology to provide an on-going and active role for God. Objective evidence regarding the universe was often sifted through theological filters that evaluated whether a set of facts or theories tended to prove or disprove the existence of God. Ironically, it was this interplay between religion and science that led many to insist subsequently on a strong scientific objectivity that largely discounted religious subjectivity.

Although the eighteenth century is often cited as the Golden Age for classical science, the full impact of Newtonian physics and reductionist philosophy was assured with Newton's seventeenth-century correspondence with and influence upon English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). Locke, particularly through his work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, broadened Newtonian concepts into a range of a mechanistic explanations regarding human knowledge and action that profoundly influenced the social and political thoughts of such Enlightenment thinkers as Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith (1723-1790) and American political philosophers and revolutionaries Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Thomas Paine (1737-1809), and Benjamin Franklin (1737-1809).

The Age of Enlightenment proved turbulent for theology, as the rise of natural theology clashed with traditional Christian concepts. The conceptual shifts that occurred during the eighteenth century diverged substantially from the subtle reasonings of Locke to the more radical arguments put forth by French scientists, astronomers, and philosophers. These arguments essentially eliminated God and all divine revelation from scientific cosmology—in other words, all theories regarding the nature and origin of the universe. There were, however, notable attempts to heal the growing schism and to reestablish religious truths in accord with and based upon scientific fact and reasoning.

Within the theological community, as an alternative to fundamentalist rejection of science as holding truth counter to divine relation, theologians and astronomers argued that scientific evidence proved the existence of God. It is interesting to note that English Anglican bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753) asserted a more radical defense against mechanistic reductionism. Berkeley asserted that there was no proof that matter truly exists and that God acted by shaping our perceptions of matter. Within the scientific communities the rise of Deism was supported with increasingly detailed evidence regarding the scope and scale of the universe. In both camps, excepting Berkeley's assertions, the detailed workings of the celestial machinery were put forth as arguments for the existence of God.

Although arguments for the existence of God based on the grandeur and expanse of the natural world reached back into antiquity, the premise that the design of the universe also revealed the mindset and intent of the Creator achieved a new formality in the writings and arguments of English astronomer and scientist William Derham (1657-1735) and reached powerful cohesion in the work of the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), especially in his 1779 treatise, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. As early as 1701 microscopist Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712) set forth arguments for the existence of God from a set of natural proofs in his work Cosmologia sacra ("Sacred Cosmology"). John Ray's (1627-1705) publication of The Wisdom of God stirred a revival of interest in natural history. George Cheyne (1671-1743) took up the argument with his 1705 publication of Philosophical Principles of Natural Religion—a work designed by Cheyne to reveal the wonders of God's creation through natural science. In 1713 Derham published Physico-theology, designed to demonstrate and ascertain the attributes of God by careful study and observation of the natural world. Derham also published lists of nebulous objects in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (many were later found to be nonexistent) designed to advance the scale and grandeur of the universe as supporting argument for a God of infinite scope and majesty.

In 1705 Edmond Halley (1656-1742) noticed that three previous comets were seemingly the same body. Accordingly, Halley, noting the periodicity of the observations, predicted the return of what became known as Halley's comet in 1758. Halley also measured the motion of stars and put forth an argument against an infinite universe similar to the modern version of Olber's paradox (i.e., if the universe were infinite, every line of sight would end on a star and hence the night sky would be brightly illuminated). Most importantly, Halley's prediction weakened the interpretation of comets as a "sign" or "miracle" and placed the movements of comets within the predictable mechanistic universe.

Throughout the eighteenth century empiricism (the testing of theory by experiment or observation) and rationalism grew in practice and influence. Astronomers of the time devoted considerable effort toward solving the major problems of the era. Astronomical observations and data were of paramount importance for safe navigation on the seas and the concurrent growth of trade needed for economic development. There was a high public regard for astronomy both for its practical value, as evidenced by the intense interest in observations of the transit of Venus in 1769. All of this lent credibility both to astronomical observation and to the interpretations of the nature of the Cosmos put forth by astronomers.

If Newton was the dominant intellectual force of the century, following Newton's death English astronomer Sir William Herschel (1738-1822) assumed the mantle of the era's preeminent astronomer. The German-born Herschel, an accomplished musician, was arguably the greatest astronomer and telescope builder of the eighteenth century. His telescopes were the largest and most powerful, and they enabled Herschel to discover previously unseen stars and nebulae. Accordingly, estimates of the size of the universe grew—and became, for some, an important argument for the existence of an infinite, all-powerful God.

In 1781 Herschel's discovery of Uranus profoundly affected philosophical perceptions of an immutable and known Cosmos. Herschel's advancement of concepts originating with German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) resulted in measurements of the Milky Way galaxy and of the nature of "island universes" consisting of other galaxies.

In the last quarter of the century, the idea of a divine intervention to correct the anomalies associated with the predicted orbits of the planets was unacceptable. French mathematician and scientist Pierre Simon de Laplace (1749-1827) asserted that celestial motions could be fully explained without any reliance on the divine. By performing exact mathematical calculations regarding the eccentricities of planetary orbits (e.g., taking into account their mutual gravitational attraction as well as accounting for the gravitational influence of the Sun), Laplace's work left little for God to do in a mechanistic universe. In his Exposition du système du monde ("The System of the World") published in 1796, Laplace hypothesized that the Cosmos had begun as nebular gas, concentrated and contracted by gravity.


If Galileo, Descartes, and Newton sowed, even if inadvertently, the seeds of dispute between modern science and theology, eighteenth-century advancements provided the soil in which those arguments bloomed. Not only were the facts of science challenging to conventional theology, especially Western Christianity, the very nature of what was accepted as reason, evidence, and truth (epistemology) was anathema to classical theology. Deterministic interpretations of Newtonian physics stripped God of personality and sovereign action. God was regulated to the force associated with first movement—the original creator of a mechanistic universe. Accordingly, whether God intervened in the mechanism of the universe through miracles or signs (such as comets) became a topic of lively philosophical and theological debate. Moreover, without dayto-day responsibilities for the mechanistic universe, God became increasingly identified with the eternity or infinity of the universe.

The immutability of a static universe—recently radically revised by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Galileo, and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)—once again was advanced as proof of the existence of God. Accordingly, astronomers arguing for a static universe simply applied the formulations found in Newton's philosophy to the established interpretations of divine revelation. For the first three quarters of the century, the mechanistic clockwork of the heavens, regulated in accord with knowable physical laws, was reconciled with conventional theology and offered as confirmation of the existence of a law-giver or God of infinite power. According to popular interpretations of Newtonian physics, astronomers argued that God was the "prime mover" of the Cosmos.

As the eighteenth century proceeded, scientists and philosophers increasingly sought to explain "miracles" in terms of natural events. In accord with the development of natural theology, scientists and philosophers argued that only as a part of a greater clockwork universe could such celestial phenomena as comets be interpreted as acts of—or signs from—God. Corresponding to this reliance on material and rational explanations of the Cosmos, the very nature of God could only be understood within the laws of science. For other scientists, however, the revelations of a mechanistic universe left no place for God, and they discarded their religious views.


Further Reading

Bronowski, J. The Ascent of Man. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.

Cragg, G. R. Reason and Authority in the Eighteenth Century. London: Cambridge University Press, 1964.

Deason, G. B. "Reformation Theology and the Mechanistic Conception of Nature." In God and Nature, ed. by D. C. Lindberg. and R. L. Numbers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.

Hoyle, Fred. Astronomy. New York: Crescent Books, 1962.

Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. New York: Random House, 1980.

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Astronomers Argue for the Existence of God

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Astronomers Argue for the Existence of God