Astronomy and Cosmology: A Mechanistic Universe

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Astronomy and Cosmology: A Mechanistic Universe


At the dawn of the eighteenth century the theologies of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam argued the existence of an unchanging, immutable God who ruled a static universe. For most theologians, Newtonian physics and the general shift toward a mechanistic explanation of the natural world initially offered not a threat, but the promise of a deeper understanding of the inner workings of a cosmos linked directly to the very mind and nature of God.

During the course of the eighteenth century, however, a major conceptual rift developed between science and theology as growing scientific disregard for knowledge based upon divine revelation—and increasing reliance upon natural theology (the belief that God can be known solely through human reason and experience, without divine revelation or scripture)—made experimentation the determinant authority in science. This marked a critical period in the development of scientific thought. Over the course of the century, advances in astronomy led to greater understanding of the workings of the solar system, sending sweeping changes across the theological, political, and social landscapes.

Using equations based on Newton's laws, mathematicians of this era were able to develop the symbolism and formulae needed to advance the study of dynamics (the study of motion). An important consequence of these advancements allowed astronomers and mathematicians to calculate and describe the real and apparent motions of astronomical bodies (celestial mechanics) as well as to propose the dynamics related to the formation of the solar system. The refined analysis of celestial mechanics carried profound theological and philosophical ramifications in the Age of Enlightenment. Mathematicians and scientists, particularly those associated with French schools of mathematics, argued that if the small perturbations and anomalies in celestial motions could be completely explained by an improved understanding of celestial mechanics, i.e., that the solar system was really stable within defined limits, such a finding mooted the concept of a God required to adjust and maintain the celestial mechanism.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

First published in 1687, English physicist Sir Isaac Newton's (1642–1727) Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) dominated the intellectual landscape of physical science throughout the eighteenth century. Newton was, without question, the culminating figure in the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—and the leading advocate of the mechanistic vision of the physical world initially posited by French mathematician René Descartes (1596–1650). Within his lifetime Newton saw the rise and triumph of Newtonian physics and widespread acceptance of a mechanistic universe (one that operates with mathematical precision and predictable phenomena) among philosophers and scientists. Newton's laws—and his theory of a clockwork universe in which God established creation and the cosmos as a perfect machine governed by the laws of physics—viewed matter as passive, moved and controlled by “active principles.”

In addition to delineating the laws of physics and developing calculus, Newton was also concerned with the relationship between science and theology. He rejected mainstream concepts of Christianity, but found God manifest in the order and beauty of the universe. He argued that God set the cosmos in motion, and to account for small differences between predicted andobserved results, actively intervened from time to time to reset or “restore” the mechanism—a concept Pierre Simon, marquis de Laplace (1749–1827) and Joseph-Louis Lagrange, comte de l'Empire (1736–1813), among others, later proved unnecessary.

Theologians grew increasingly uneasy with the moral implications of scientific theories that explained physics and the universe as the inevitable consequence of mechanical principles. Accordingly, they expended much effort to reconcile Newtonian physics and a clockwork universe with conventional theology, sifting objective evidence through theological filters to evaluate whether it supported or rejected God's existence. Ironically, it was this theological effort that led many scientists to insist on an uncompromising objectivity that largely discounted subjective religious beliefs.

The larger implications of Newtonian physics and reductionistic philosophy (the view that complex phenomena can be explained in terms of simpler ones) took shape in Newton's correspondence with English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704). Locke's 1689 publication An Essay Concerning Human Understanding broadened Newtonian concepts into a range of 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), as well as American political philosophers and revolutionaries Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), Thomas Paine (1737–1809), and Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790).

This natural theology clashed with traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs. As the century progressed, such concepts shifted even more substantially from Locke's subtle reasoning toward the more radical arguments put forth by French scientists, astronomers, and philosophers, which essentially eliminated God and all divine revelation from scientific cosmology (study of the structure, origin, and history of the universe).

In England, France, and America, particularly, natural theology took the form of deism, a belief in a divine Creator, a “clockmaker,” who created and wound the timepiece that is the universe, but had no further role in operating it; deism rejected revelation, prophecy, scripture, and the supernatural, embracing nature and reason instead. The movement gained support within scientific communities as increasingly detailed evidence regarding the scope and scale of the universe showed no direct evidence of an active Creator.

There were, however, notable attempts to heal the growing schism and reestablish religious truths in accord with and based upon scientific fact and reasoning.

Rather than reject science as counter to divine relation, some theologians argued that scientific astronomical evidence actually proved the existence of God, even if advocates of natural philosophy (the reasoned and objective study of nature that preceded the development of the scientific method) did not.

Scientific and Cultural Preconceptions

Not all theological reactions against the rise of natural philosophy and deism were, however, so accommodating. The English Anglican bishop George Berkeley (1685–1753) asserted a more radical defense against mechanistic reductionism, claiming that there was no proof that matter truly exists, and that human perceptions of matter were shaped by God.

Although arguments for God's existence based on the grandeur and expanse of the natural world date from antiquity, during the eighteenth century the premise that the design of the cosmos also revealed the mind and intent of a supernatural Creator reached a new formality in the writings and arguments of English astronomer and scientist William Derham (1657–1735) and achieved powerful cohesion in the work of the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776), especially in his posthumously published 1779 treatise Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

John Ray's (1627–1705) publication of The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation in 1691 first stirred interest in natural history. Ten years later, in 1701, English microscopist Nehemiah Grew (1641–1712) set forth arguments for the existence of God from a set of natural proofs in his 1701 work Cosmologia sacra (Sacred cosmology). George Cheyne (1671–1743) took up the argument with his 1705 publication of Philosophical Principles of Natural Religion—a work designed to “reveal the wonders of God's creation” through natural science.

In 1713 Derham published Physico-Theology: Or a Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God from His Works of Creation, a book in which he argued that careful study and observation of the natural world could prove the attributes and existence of God. Two years later he wrote Astro-Theology: Or a Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God, from a Survey of the Heavens, in which he made similar arguments based on celestial observations. Unfortunately, Derham also published lists of nebulous astronomical objects in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, many of which were later discovered to be false claims designed to advance the scale and grandeur of the universe in support of the concept of God as infinite in scope and majesty.

Among astronomers in particular, however, evidence that challenged conventional religious teachings began to accumulate. In 1705 Edmond Halley (1656–1742), argued that what were thought to be three separate comets were actually the same body. More importantly, he then reconciled the periodicity of prior observations and predicted the return of what became known as Halley's Comet in 1758. His accurate prediction weakened the interpretation of comets as “signs” or “miracles” and placed their movements within the predictable mechanistic universe. Halley also measured the motions 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).


In eighteenth-century England, Anglican Bishop George Berkeley (1685–1753) was, for a time, an important and influential critic of English physicist Sir Isaac Newton. Berkeley damned Newton's calculus, his concept of a rational clockwork universe, and society's growing reliance on science and mathematics as threats to scripture as the ultimate authority on the nature of the universe.

Berkeley attacked the lack of “logical” support for Newton's calculus, but explained its usefulness in a wide variety of applications by contending that it benefited from the mutual cancellation of logical errors. In 1710 he published Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, in which he argued for the “unreality” of matter. According to Berkeley, the perceived physical world was actually a manifestation of a human mind under the direct control of God; in other words, people live in a God-controlled hallucination.

Berkeley asserted that there was no “real” matter—only “perceived” matter. Moreover, the world was simply a set of illusions impressed upon the human mind by divine will. This premise, however, was neatly refuted by author and critic Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), a fellow of the Royal Society and contemporary of Newton. Johnson attended one of Berkeley's sermons and later, while standing with friends outside the church, participated in a debate concerning the merits of the speaker's assertions regarding the nonexistence of matter. When it was Johnson's turn to speak he struck a blow for the reality of the physical world by sharply stubbing his toe on a large rock while proclaiming, “I refute it thus!”

Advances in astronomy carried the potential for broad and immediate social impact because there was a high public regard for its practical value, and astronomers devoted considerable effort to solving the era's major problems. Their observations and data were of paramount importance for safe navigation and the all-important growth of trade. They also lent credibility to broader interpretations of the nature of the cosmos—and allowed natural philosophy and rationalism to grow in the public mind. This practical emphasis, in turn, fueled the rise of empiricism (the testing of theory by experiment or observation).

Following Newton's death, German-born English astronomer Sir William Herschel (1738–1822) became the era's preeminent astronomer. In addition to being an accomplished musician, Herschel also built the largest and most powerful telescopes of his day, enabling him to view previously unseen stars and nebulae. His discoveries were used on both sides of the argument over the existence and nature of God. As estimates of the size of the universe grew, they became, for some, an important argument for the existence of an infinite, all-powerful, God.

In 1781 Herschel's discovery of the planet Uranus further challenged philosophical perceptions of a known and immutable cosmos. His findings also advanced philosophical arguments originally put forth by German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) regarding the existence of “island universes” (galaxies). Herschel and his sister Caroline used Kant's theory to measure and model the Milky Way for the first time.

During the last quarter of the eighteenth century the assertion of divine intervention to correct the anomalies associated with the predicted orbits of the plants became philosophically unacceptable. French mathematician and scientist Laplace, asserted that celestial motions could be fully explained without any reliance on the supernatural. By performing exacting mathematical calculations on the eccentricities of planetary orbits, taking into account their mutual gravitational attraction as well as the gravitational influence of the sun, Laplace left little for God to do in a mechanistic universe. In his Exposition du système du monde (Explanation of a world system) published in 1796, Laplace hypothesized that the cosmos had begun as nebular gas, concentrated and contracted by gravity—an account of creation at direct odds with theological tradition.

EDMOND HALLEY (1656–1742)

The son of a wealthy merchant, Englishman Edmond Halley (1656–1742) was attracted to astronomy after seeing two comets as a child. By the age of eighteen, he had found errors in authoritative tables on the positions of Jupiter and Saturn; by nineteen he had published a paper on the laws of Johannes Kepler (1571–1630). In 1676 Halley left England for St. Helena, an island 1,200 miles (1,931 km) west of Africa, to map southern-hemisphere constellations, a task never before undertaken. Although the climate of St. Helena proved less than ideal for his purposes, he was able to catalogue 341 stars before returning to England. Halley's pioneering work on the island assured his place in England's scientific community; he was awarded a master's degree from Oxford University by royal fiat and elected to the Royal Society at twenty-two.

In 1684 Halley began a debate with biologist Robert Hooke (1635–1703) and architect Christopher Wren (1632–1723) concerning the forces that drove the movement of the planets. When the three were unable to agree on an explanation, Halley turned to his friend Isaac Newton, only to discover that Newton had already answered the question using his law of gravity. Halley then convinced his reticent friend to publish his findings, using funds bequeathed to him by his father to finance the publication of Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, now a classic text of modern scientific thought.

At the age of thirty-nine Halley turned his attention to comets, which, as they streaked unexpectedly through the sky, appeared ungoverned by Newton's laws. Halley, however, believed that gravity did indeed dictate their paths and that the rarity of their appearances was due to the vast scope of their elliptical orbits. With Newton's help, Halley compared the paths of comets that had appeared in 1531, 1607, and 1682. From this data he determined that these seemingly disparate comets were one and the same, and accurately predicted its reappearance in 1758. In 1705 Halley published his findings in A Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets. Eventually, the comet whose appearance he predicted was named for him.

In addition, Halley undertook a lengthy study of solar eclipses and discovered that so-called “fixed stars” (those that do not appear to move within the heavens) actually do move with respect to each other. He also wrote in favor of the theory that the universe has no center. His scientific interests, however, extended beyond astronomy. He played a major role in transforming the Royal Society from a social club into a well-respected clearinghouse for scientific ideas.

Halley served as chief science advisor to Peter the Great (1672–1725) when the Russian tsar came to England in 1698, attempting to integrate Western advances into his country's society. In that same year, Halley commanded the Royal Navy ship Paramour on a two-year scientific expedition to study the effects of Earth's magnetic field on magnetic needle compasses. He became Astronomer Royal in 1720, and continued to make astronomical observations and attend scientific meetings until shortly before his death in Greenwich at the age of 76.

Advances in Dynamics and Celestial Mechanics

Theories surrounding celestial mechanics (the study and application of Newton's laws of motion and gravity to heavenly bodies) grew and matured with the Scientific Revolution and Age of Enlightenment. As scientists sought to explain the driving and controlling forces of celestial motion, various explanations found favor, including those that viewed the planets as gigantic magnets attracting and repelling each other in a cyclic dance. The Principia, however, which formulated Newton's laws of gravitation, provided the first comprehensive and mathematically consistent explanation for the behavior of astronomical objects.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, French mathematician Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (1717–1783) wrote extensively for Denis Diderot's (1713–1784) Encyclopédie on various scientific subjects. In addition to Newton, d'Alembert was heavily influenced by French mathematician René Descartes's (1596–1650) vision of a mechanistic physical world. Although he later rejected much of Descartes's work, the idea of a universe that could be described mathematically was an early and formative concept.

D'Alembert's writings helped clarify problems in mathematical physics, especially those related to the Newtonian concept of kinetic energy. In 1743 he published Traité de dynamique (Treatise on dynamics), an influential work that set forth his principles of mechanics derived primarily from mathematical analysis instead of observation. One of these in particular, an insightful interpretation of Newton's second law of motion, eventually became known as d'Alembert's principle.

D'Alembert's elaboration of Newtonian concepts of force became widely known and contributed greatly to the study of dynamics (the study of motion), including work in both equilibrium and fluid dynamics. His astronomical studies eventually offered solutions that described the precession of the equinoxes (a slow gyration of Earth's rotation axis) in accord with Newtonian principles. His calculations on gravity extended the validity and acceptance of Newton's formulation of the inverse square law of the force of gravity.


The influence of Newton's law of gravity was initially more theoretical than substantive. Expressed mathematically as F = (G)(m 1 m 2) /r2, Newton's law of gravitation stated that the gravitational attraction between two bodies with masses m1 and m2 was directly proportional to the masses of the bodies and inversely proportional to the square of the distance (r) between the centers of the masses. Accordingly, doubling one mass doubled the gravitational attraction; doubling the distance between masses reduced the gravitational force to a fourth of its former value. Nearly a century passed, however, before English physicist Henry Cavendish (1731–1810) determined the missing gravitational constant (G) that allowed a reasonably accurate determination of the actual gravitational force. Despite this lack of precision, the simplicity of Newton's law made its quantitative application easy to translate to problems in astronomy and mechanics.

The French mathematician Lagrange, born in Italy as Giuseppe Lodovico Lagrangia, also published important works on dynamics that were based on his principle of least action. Some of the most influential of his work appeared between 1759 and 1766 in the journal Mélangesde Turin (Compendium of Turin). His Mécanique analytique, (Analytical mechanics) published in 1788, was the first book to address mechanics through purely mathematical analysis (notable for its clarity of notation) without resorting to the aid of diagrams.

His studies on fluid mechanics led to what became known as the Lagrangian function, as well as other methodologies to attack problems associated with the orbital dynamics of Jupiter and Saturn. In 1763 Lagrange turned his attention to apparent oscillations in the observed positions of lunar features caused by periodic movement of the moon's axis. He also proposed solutions for problems associated with the orbits of Jupiter's moons and researched planet-related perturbations of comets' orbits.

In 1772 Lagrange predicted the existence and location (not confirmed until early in the twentieth century) of two groups of asteroids at points of equilateral triangular stability (now termed Lagrangian points) formed by the sun, Jupiter, and the asteroids. He helped develop the use of differential equations for mechanical analyses, many of which found applications in a wide range of celestial dynamics problems.

Another French mathematician, Laplace, worked to explain the small discrepancies between Newton's predicted and the observed orbits of the planets. Laplace understood that Newton's calculations had ignored the small—yet significant—gravitational influences of the other planets in the solar system, which Newton had largely discounted. In fact, he and other natural theorists claimed such aberrations showed that the hand of God was required to “wind the celestial watch, lest it run down” or to otherwise reset the apparatus of celestial mechanics. Laplace rejected this need for divine intervention, and strove to explain nature along mechanistic and deterministic lines.

In 1771 Laplace's work Recherches sur le calculintégral aux différences infiniment petites, et aux différences finies (Report on intregral calculus [with differences infinitely small and differences finite]) contained formulations important to astronomers. Two years later, he published Traité de mécanique céleste (Treatise on celestial mechanics) that set out exceedingly detailed mathematical calculations involving the eccentricities of planetary orbits. Significantly, Laplace's work accounted for the gravitational influences caused by multiple celestial bodies (planets) and involved an accounting of their mutual gravitational attraction.

In his 1796 book, Exposition du système du monde (The system of the world) Laplace set forth elegant calculations involving the orbital and rotational dynamics of bodies in a gravitational field. He argued for an early accretion (addition or gathering) hypothesis that allowed for the creation of the solar system from nebular gas that was constrained and contracted by gravityinto the bodies observable today. Laplace specifically asserted that the planets in the solar system formed from the disruption and debris of a rotating, contracting, and cooling solar nebula. In addition, he was able to make very accurate predictions on the future positions of astronomical bodies.

Other physicists and mathematicians made notable contributions to the understanding of celestial dynamics. Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler (1707–1783), in particular, studied lunar options and made detailed calculations regarding the interactive dynamics of the sun, Earth, and moon. Euler also worked on problems associated with perturbations (small changes) in planetary orbits. Most importantly, Euler studied the dynamics of a three-body system in a gravitational field.

Impacts and Issues

D'Alembert's writings for the Encyclopédie, relied heavily on pure mathematical analysis and took little note of experimental data—an approach clearly counter to Enlightenment empiricism. In addition, he often selected mathematical equations to describe phenomena that were the most elegant or pleasing to him, regardless of their conformity to the real world. Colleagues attacked d'Alembert for arguments based on eloquence rather than sound logic and analysis of phenomena that often proved faulty or fraught with exception.

During an age of growing empiricism, however, D'Alembert's work did establish that important physical laws, especially those associated with dynamics and mechanics, could in some circumstances still be deduced from pure mathematical analysis. He helped extend both the range and power of Newtonian physics in eighteenth-century European science.

Laplace's main contribution to physics, and ultimately celestial mechanics, was to translate Newton's geometrical analysis to a more widely understandable calculus-based analysis of mechanical dynamics. In the later portion of the eighteenth century he began to develop and incorporate probability theory into his work on celestial mechanics, demonstrating in 1786 that observed eccentricities and irregularities in planetary orbits were predictable, invariable, and self-correcting over time. This essentially removed the need for a God to tinker with—or reset—Newton's clockwork universe.

In general, despite important mathematical advances, observation outpaced prediction during the eighteenth century (e.g., William Herschel's 1781 discovery of Uranus) and mathematicians were left scrambling for explanations consistent with the emerging dominance of Newtonian physics. With very minor exceptions these explanations were always found. Accordingly, both observation and calculation accelerated the influence and rise of Newtonian physics as the basis for further advances in dynamics and celestial mechanics. The scientific world would have to await the development of relativity theory in the twentieth century to fully explain away the minor discrepancies in Newtonian descriptions of the universe.


Throughout the eighteenth century mathematical applications for science problems continued to advance.

Scottish mathematician John Napier's (1550–1617) development of logarithms in 1614 greatly simplified the mathematical descriptions of many phenomena. During the eighteenth century his work provided a mathematical basis for generations of important pre-electronic calculating tools for astronomers, including early versions of the slide rule. French mathematician Gaspard Monge (1746–1818) invented differential geometry; Swiss mathematicians Jakob (1655–1705) and Johann Bernoulli (1667–1748) both made substantial applications of calculus to physical problems. Monge's and the Bernoulli brothers' work eventually allowed Swiss mathematician Leonard Euler (1707–1783) to develop variational calculus, the search for a function in which an integral's value is either the largest or smallest possible.

Euler and French mathematician Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (1717–1783) applied theoretical, deductive thought to a variety of physical problems in a process they termed “mixed mathematics.” This method separated pure mathematical analysis as embodied by such disciplines as algebra and geometry from the “mixed” mathematics applied to disciplines such as astronomy, physics, and mechanics. In a very fundamental way, mathematics was linked to physical reality and, as such, separated from its philosophical (later called “logical”) foundations.

Although the Bernoulli brothers, Euler, and other mathematicians used calculus to attack a variety of mathematical and physical problems ranging from thermodynamics to celestial mechanics, even Euler's texts devoted to the methods of calculus failed to offer formal mathematical proofs of these new techniques. This “looseness” allowed mathematics to move into broader areas, especially those studied by the French philosopher Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794) and French economist Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, baron de l'Aulne (1727–1781), who utilized the new math techniques in sociological analysis and economics.

Impact on Society

Within a century of Newton's Principia the concept of a mechanistic universe led to the quantification of celestial dynamics, which, in turn, spurred a dramatic increase in the observation, cataloging, and quantification of celestial phenomena. As natural theology developed, scientists and philosophers debated conflicting cosmologies that argued the existence and need for a supernatural God who acted as “prime mover” and guiding force behind a clockwork universe.

D'Alembert's metaphysical (outside the physical realm; knowledge that cannot be obtained with human senses) analysis culminated with his five-volume work Mélanges de literature et de philosophie (Compendium of literature and philosophy) published beginning in 1753. Although d'Alembert rejected divine revelation, he did not deny God's existence, arguing that man's intelligence could not be attributed solely to the natural interaction of matter. As he aged, however, d'Alembert became a materialist (a person who believes in physical matter as the only reality and through which the universe and its phenomena can be explained), rejecting even a deistic or natural philosophical belief in a God who ruled a mechanistic universe. This shift was to have profound influence on generations of French mathematicians, who took an increasingly skeptical or even hostile attitude toward arguments in favor of God.

Laplace's interpretation of celestial mechanics, however, ran counter to philosophical and theological Enlightenment views, which held the universe as both proof of and the continued need for God's existence as a “prime mover.” Laplace argued for a completely deterministic universe, with no need for divine intervention, even asserting that catastrophic events (e.g., flooding, comet impacts, extinctions, etc.) were the inevitable results of time and statistical probability.

The social and industrial need for greater accuracy and precision in astronomical measurements prompted the development of better telescopes and pendulum-driven clocks. Consequently, the accuracy of mathematical predictions improved with each generation of instruments. More importantly, new data brought more general confirmation of Newtonian physics and a deeper understanding of celestial mechanics.

If Galileo (1564–1642), Descartes, and Newton sowed, even inadvertently, the seeds of dispute between modern science and theology, eighteenth-century society provided the soil in which they bloomed. Not only did the facts of science challenge conventional theology, especially Western Christianity, but the very nature of scientific reason, evidence, and truth (epistemology) was anathema. Deterministic interpretations of Newtonian physics stripped God of personality and sovereign action, defining Him at best as only the force associated with first movement—the original creator of a mechanistic universe. Accordingly, whether God intervened in the workings of the universe through miracles or signs (such as comets) became a topic of lively philosophical and theological debate.

Without day-to-day responsibilities for the mechanistic universe, as God became increasingly identified with the eternal or infinite nature of the universe, theologians countered that the very immutability of a static universe offered proof of His existence and confirmation of His infinite power.

Spurred by a mechanistic view of the cosmos and the development of natural theology, scientists and philosophers increasingly sought to explain “miracles” in terms of natural events, arguing that only as a part of a greater clockwork universe could celestial phenomena be interpreted as acts of or signs from God. Corresponding to this reliance on material and rational explanations, some argued that the very nature of God could only be understood within the laws of science. For others, however, a mechanistic universe left no place for the divine, and they removed religious views and influence from their scientific work.

Modern Cultural Connections

The debates of eighteenth century philosophers echo today in the evolution vs. creationism controversies that linger in areas of the world where religious fundamentalism strongly influences culture (especially fundamentalist Christian and Islamic cultures).

During the eighteenth century, in response to changes in scientific thought regarding a mechanistic universe, religious defenders (apologists) advanced the argument that the universe is too complicated and intricate in its workings to have come into existence without a deity (God) directing its development. Eighteenth-century English theologian William Paley (1743–1805) argued in his 1802 book Natural Theology that just as finding a watch would lead one to conclude that a watchmaker must exist, the complexity of the universe proved that a Creator exists. In popular culture this ultimately became known as the “watchmaker hypothesis.”

In the modern era, scientists such as Oxford professor of zoology Richard Dawkins (1941–) counter that the processes driving creation and evolution (e.g., natural selection, etc.) are the unconscious and automatic result of natural laws—that if there was a “watchmaker” it was a “blind watchmaker.”

Recent political and cultural battles over teaching what its proponents call “Intelligent Design” theory (ID theory), advance the language and arguments of the watchmaker hypothesis. Attempts by proponents to insert what they alleged was Intelligent Design theory into science curriculum as an alternative to evolutionary theory raised alarm across the scientific community and caused scientists such as Dawkins to reject Intelligent Design as a Trojan horse for reintroducing supernatural explanations back into scientific explanations of the universe.

Primary Source Connection

Despite scientific criticism of Intelligent Design, language and changes in the use of language are strongly tied to cultural shifts and attitudes. The following primary source, a newspaper column written by William Safire in 2005, demonstrates the ongoing nature of the debate initially spurred by eighteenth-century scientific thought regarding a mechanistic universe. Safire joined The New York Times in 1973 as a political columnist and was the winner of the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary. In 1979 Safire began what became a culturally popular and sometimes controversial Sunday newspaper column, “On Language,” that focused on the cultural connection of English grammar, usage, and etymology.


The word creationism, coined in 1868 in opposition to what was then called Darwinism or evolutionism, had fallen on hard times. The proponents of a theory faithfully attributing the origin of matter to God, “the creator,” were seemingly overwhelmed by the theory put forward by Charles Darwin and bolstered with much evidence by 20th century scientists. As a result, the noun creationism (like its predecessor, teleology, the study of purposeful design in nature) gained a musty connotation while evolutionism modishly lost its -ism.

Then along came the phrase intelligent design, and evolution had fresh linguistic competition. Though the phrase can be found in an 1847 issue of Scientific American and in an 1868 book, it was probably coined in its present sense in “Humanism,” a 1903 book by Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller: “It will not be possible to rule out the supposition that the process of evolution may be guided by an intelligent design.”

The phrase lay relatively dormant for nearly a century. “The term intelligent design came up in 1988 at a conference in Tacoma, Wash., called Sources of Information Content in DNA,” recalls Stephen Meyer, director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, who was present at the phrase's recreation. “Charles Thaxton referred to a theory that the presence of DNA in a living cell is evidence of a designing intelligence. We weren't political; we were thinking about molecular biology and information theory. This wasn't stealth creationism. The phrase became the banner that we rallied around throughout the early 90's. We wanted to separate ourselves from the strict Darwinists and the creationists.”

At about that time, the traditional creationists took up the phrase. “We are a Christian organization and use the term to refer to the Christian God,” says John Morris, president of the Institute for Creation Research in Santee, Calif. “The modern intelligent design movement looks at Dr. Phillip E. Johnson as its founder…. His book, ‘Darwin on Trial,’ kind of started it all in the early 90's. We were using intelligent design as an intuitive term: a watch implies a watchmaker.” (That mechanical analogy was first used by the philosopher William Paley in his 1802 book, “Natural Theology,” a pre-Darwinian work holding that the complexity of nature implies an intelligent creator—namely, God.)

The marketing genius within the phrase—and the reason it now drives many scientists and educators up the walls of academe—is in its use of the adjective intelligent, which intrinsically refutes the longstanding accusation of anti-intellectualism. Although the intelligent agent referred to is Divine with a capital D, the word's meaning also rubs off on the proponent or believer. That's why intelligent design appeals to not only the DNA-driven Discovery Institute complexity theorists but also the traditional God's-handiwork faithful.

This banner floating over two disparate armies challenging evolutionary theory has the Darwinist scientific establishment going ape. Prof. Leonard Krishtalka of the University of Kansas lumped the armies together last month in a widely quoted definition of the I.D. movement as “nothing more than creationism in a cheap tuxedo.” Reached by my researcher, Aaron Britt, Professor Krishtalka added: “It's a sophisticated camouflage of Genesis-driven creationism. Intelligent design sounds scientific, and they couch it as science instead of religion. It's frighteningly Orwellian.” Alan Leshner, C.E.O. of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says: “Whether or not there is or was an intelligent designer is not a scientific question. It's not an alternative to evolution. What they are trying to do is get religion in the science classroom.”

Media scorn piles on: the liberal pundit Jonathan Alter of Newsweek finds “the threat to science and reason comes less from fundamentalists who believe the earth was created in six days than from sophisticated branding experts and polemical Ph.D.'s,” while the conservative columnist-psychiatrist Charles Krauthammer in Time denounces “this tarted-up version of creationism.” The cartoonist Signe Wilkenson of The Philadelphia Daily News has President Bush pointing to a convoluted map labeled “Iraq Strategy” with a general in a pupil's chair asking, “So when can we study intelligent design?”

To counter the “sophisticated branding experts” who flummoxed establishmentarian evolutionaries with intelligent design, opponents of classroom debate over Darwin's theory have come up with a catchily derisive neologism that lumps the modern I.D. advocates with religious fundamentalists: neo-creo. The rhyming label was coined on Aug. 17, 1999, by Philip Kitcher, professor of the philosophy of science at Columbia University, in a lively and lengthy online debate in Slate magazine with the abovementioned Phillip Johnson, professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley: “Enter the neo-creos,” Kitcher wrote. “Scavenging the scientific literature, they take claims out of context and pretend that everything about evolution is controversial…. But it's all a big con.” Johnson replied: “I want to replace the culture war over evolution with a healthy, vigorous intellectual debate. The biggest obstacle is that the evolutionary scientists are genuinely baffled as to why everyone does not believe as they do. That is why they appear so dogmatic, and why they tend to slip into sarcasm and browbeating.”

I.D. advocates like to point to Albert Einstein, an apostle of order in the universe, who repeatedly rejected a statistical conception of physics with his famous aphorism, “I cannot believe that God plays dice with the world.” However, his recent biographer, Dennis Overbye, a science reporter for The Times, says: “Einstein believed there was order in the universe but that it had not been designed for us.” Overbye also notes that Einstein wrote the evenhanded “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”

I will leave the last word on this old controversy with its new phraseology to the neuroscientist Leon Cooper, a Nobel laureate at Brown University. He tells all of today's red-faced disputants: “If we could all lighten up a bit perhaps, we could have some fun in the classroom discussing the evidence and the proposed explanations—just as we do at scientific conferences.”

William Safire

safire, william. “the way we live now 8-21-05: on language; neo-creo” the new york times (august 21, 2005).

See Also Astronomy and Cosmology: A Mechanistic Universe; Astronomy and Cosmology: Big Bang Theory and Modern Cosmology; Astronomy and Cosmology: Cosmology; Astronomy and Cosmology: Western and Non-Western Cultural Practices in Ancient Astronomy; Astronomy and Space Science: Astronomy Emerges from Astrology; Astronomy and Cosmology: Setting the Cosmic Calendar: Arguing the Age of the Cosmos and Earth.



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Safire, William. “The Way We Live Now 8-21-05: On Language; Neo-Creo,” The New York Times (August 21, 2005).

K. Lee Lerner

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Astronomy and Cosmology: A Mechanistic Universe

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Astronomy and Cosmology: A Mechanistic Universe