Eighteenth Century Astronomers Argue the Existence of God


Lerner KL. Eighteenth Century Astronomers Argue the Existence of God. DRAFT COPY subsequently published in Science and Its Times: Understanding the Social Significance of Scientific Discovery. Thomson Gale. 2000.
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At the dawn of the 18th 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 18th 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 18th 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 18th 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 18th 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 16th and 17th centuries and the leading articulator of the mechanistic vision of the physical world initially put forth by French mathematician Rene 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 theories 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 of theories tended to prove or disprove the existence of God. Ironically, it was this interplay between religion and science that led many to subsequently insist on a strong scientific objectivity that largely discounted religious subjectivity. more

Last updated on 07/08/2019