Astronomy And Religion.
( Originally Published 1913 )
IT need scarcely be remarked that many interesting details must necessarily be omitted in this analysis, in order not to extend it to a length incompatible with its introductory character. To complete what is indispensable to be said on the subject of Astronomy, it will be enough to indicate 1st, the division of the science, 2nd, its hierarchical position, and, 3rd, its illustration of the doctrine of final causes.
In Mathematics, Comte establishes, as we have seen, the two capital divisions of Geometry and Mechanics : the one treating of space and the forms of things occupying space , i. e. treating of lines, surfaces, and solids, straight or curved ; the other treating of motion and its laws. Astronomy is, par excellence, a mathematical science ; indeed, it may be called applied mathematics; and it forms the link between general Mechanics and terrestrial Physics, for it is simply a science of spaces, figures, and motion, brought down from the region of pure abstraction into that of reality by the introduction of a real agent gravitation.
Astronomy, conformably with its mathematical structure, has also two capital divisions- 1st. Geometrical Astronomy, or celestial geometry, which, from its having possessed a scientific character so long before the other, still preserves the name of astronomy, properly so called; 2nd. Mechanical Astronomy, or celestial mechanics, of which Newton was the immortal founder, and which has received so vast and so admirable a development within the last century.
In astronomy, properly so called, we have only to determine the form and magnitude of the heavenly bodies, and to study the geometrical laws according to which their positions vary, without considering: these changes of position in relation to the forces which produce them ; or, in more positive terms, to the elementary movements on which they depend. Thus was it able to make, and actually did make, the most important progress before celestial mechanics began to exist; and even since that time, its most remarkable discoveries have been due to its own spontaneous development, as may be seen in the beautiful work of the great Bradley on Aberration and Nutation. Celestial mechanics, on the contrary, are, from their nature, essentially dependent on celestial geometry, without which they could not possess any solid foundation. Their object, in fact, is to analyze the actual movements of the stars, so as to connect them, according to the rules of rational mechanics, with the elementary movements governed by an universal and invariable mathematical law ; and proceeding from this law, to bring our knowledge of the real movements to a high degree of perfection, by determining them, à priori, from the calculations of general mechanics, taking the least possible number of terms from direct observation, but yet always verifying them by it. It is thus that is established, in the most natural way, the fundamental bond between astronomy and physics, properly so called; a connexion now become definite, that several great phenomena form an almost insensible transition from the one to the other, as we see particularly in the theory of tides. But it is evident that what gives to celestial mechanics all their reality, is, their having started from the actual knowledge of real movements, furnished by celestial geometry. It is precisely from their not having been conceived in accordance with this fundamental relation, that all the attempts made before Newton to form systems of celestial mechanics, and,among others, that of Descartes, were necessarily illusory in a scientific point of view, however useful they may have been at the time under the philosophical aspect.
The position of Astronomy in the hierarchical scale is so evidently the position given to it by Comte, that all readers will with him regard the title chosen by Newton for his great work as a trait of philosophic insight : Philosophic naturalis principia mathematica. Newton thus concisely pointed out that the general laws of celestial phenomena are the prime basis of the entire system of human knowledge.
Moreover, Astronomy stands first in virtue of its absolute independence of all other phenomena. It stands aloof. It is in no way subordinated to any physical, chemical, or physiological phenomena. But, on the contrary, it is certain that physical, chemical, physiological, and even social phenomena, are essentially subordinate to astronomical phenomena, in a more or less direct manner, independently of their mutual coordination. The study of the other fundamental sciences can therefore only possess a truly rational character, when it is preceded by an accurate knowledge of the astronomical laws referring to the most general phenomena. How can the mind apprehend any terrestrial phenomenon, in a really scientific manner, without in the first place considering what that earth is in the system of which we form part, seeing that its position and its movements necessarily exercise a preponderating influence on all which happens in it ? What must our physical conceptions be, and, as a consequence, our chemical and our physiological, without the fundamental notion of gravitation, which overrules them all ? To choose the most unfavourable example, where the subordination is the least apparent, we must admit, although at first it may appear strange, that even those phenomena which relate to the development of human society could not be conceived in a rational way without a previous consideration of the principal laws of astronomy. We may easily become sensible of this, by observing that if the different astronomical elements of our planet, and as its distance from the sun, and the consequent duration of the year, the obliquity of the ecliptic, & c., were to undergo any important changes, (a result which in astronomy would have scarcely any other effect than that of modifying ' certain coefficients,) our social development would doubtless be notably affected, and even become impossible, if ever these alterations were to pass beyond a certain point. Comte is not afraid of meriting the reproach of exaggeration by saying that social physics did not become possible as a science, until geometricians had demonstrated that the derangement of our solar system could never extend beyond gradual and very limited oscillations about a mean state necessarily invariable.
That man would have a very imperfect idea of the high intellectual importance of the theories of astronomy, who limited his view to their necessary and special influence on the different parts of Natural Philosophy. He must also consider the general effect which they directly have on the fundamental tendencies of our intelligence, to the renovation of which the progress of astronomy has contributed more powerfully than that of any other science.
Consider only the religious aspect of Astronomy, and the truth of the foregoing remark will stand out ; and here, while concurring with all Comte says on the connexion between our astronomical knowledge and the whole series of conceptions on other subjects, I feel called upon to express the most decided and unequivocal dissent from his views on the connexion between Astronomy and Religion. What he says about final causes, every genuine Baconian will accept; but what he says about astronomy destroying religion, can only be accepted by those who identify Religion with the theologies which from time to time obscure the true formula.
To those who are strangers to the study of the heavenly bodies, although frequently masters of the other parts of natural philosophy, astronomy has still the reputation of being an eminently religious science, as if the famous verse : The heavens declare the glory of God, still preserved all its value. To minds early familiarized with true philosophical astronomy, the heavens declare no other glory than that of Hipparchus, of Kepler, of Newton, and of all those who have aided in establishing their laws. It is, however, certain, as I have shown that all real science is in radical and necessary opposition to all theology, and this characteristic is more decided in astronomy than anywhere else, just because astronomy is, so to speak, more a science than any other, according to the comparison made above. No other has given more terrible shocks to the doctrine of final causes, generally regarded by the moderns as the indispensable basis of every religious system, although, in reality, it has only been a consequence of them. The simple knowledge of the movement of the earth must have destroyed the prime and real foundation of this doctrine, the idea of the universe subordinated to the earth, and consequently to man, as I shall specially explain when treating of this movement. Besides, the accurate exploration of our solar system could not but dispel that blind and unlimited wonder which the general order of nature inspired, by showing, in the most sensible manner, and in various respects, that the elements of this system are certainly not disposed in the most advantageous manner, and that science permits us easily to conceive a happier arrangement. Finally, under a last and still more important point of view, by the development of true celestial mechanics since Newton, all theological philosophy, even the most perfect, lost for ever its principal intellectual function, the most regular order being thenceforth conceived as necessarily established and maintained in our world, and in the entire universe itself, by the simple mutual gravity of its different parts."
In reference to this doctrine of final causes, Comte remarks, that much eloquent declamation might be spent on the great idea of the essential stability of our solar system, and yet it is a simple and necessary consequence of certain characteristics of that system, the extreme smallness of the planetary masses in comparison with the central mass, the slight degree of eccentricity of their orbits, and the moderate mutual inclination of their planes. Besides, from the very fact that we do exist, we ought, à priori, to expect to find a disposition of matter, such as would permit of that existence, which would be incompatible with the total want of stability. The alleged final cause amounts to this childish remark : that there are no inhabited planets in our solar system, except those that are habitable. In a word, we land at the principle of the conditions of existence, which is the true positive transformation of the doctrine of final causes, and which is much the superior to it in range and fecundity.
Let me call attention to the one fundamental and extremely vicious assumption which lies at the basis of this unphilosophical outbreak against the grand old Hebrew phrase, so potent with rhythmic meaning, " The heavens declare the glory of God." The assumption is one which may be found lurking in every theology and metaphysic which ventures into the arena of debate ; and because it is begotten of intellectual pride, it will long be cherished by the intellect. The assumption is, That what we can conceive as the Perfect, must necessarily be the Perfect. In other words, it is the old sophistic canon of " Man the measure of all things." I repudiate this with all my soul and with all my strength ; and label it as the last refinement of the Anthropomorphic tendency in the human mind—a tendency which, in the earlier epochs of Humanity invested gods with the Passions and Caprices, no less than with the Reason of man. At all times man has made God in his own image ; he has idealized and intensified his own nature, and worshipped that. This he has ever done; this, perhaps, he ever will do. But we, who in serene philosophy smile condescendingly on the ill taught barbarian whom we find attributing his motives, his passions, his infirmities to the Creator of all, we who " shudder" at the idea of such anthropomorphism, how comes it that we also have fallen into the trap, and having withdrawn from God the investiture of Passion, persist in substituting for it an abstraction named Reason? The assumption is that God is pure Reason omnipotent Intelligence; and as intelligence is Lord and Master of this Universe, so, whatever our Intelligence recognises as perfect or imperfect, must be perfect or imperfect !
This anthropomorphism is active in almost all specullators. What they seek in the universe is not Life, but " evidences of design !" If they can but make out the presence of a "skilful Designer," they believe they have done everything. With a mechanical theory of the universe, they demand proof of the existence of a great Mechanician who " contrives" so adroitly (it being necessary for Omnipotence to " contrive !") and having proved that, all is said ! I do not hesitate to declare my preference of the primitive spontaneous conceptions of the Deity, (which gave him at least the grand idealization of the totality of our nature), to this weak abstraction of a part of our nature this deification of Intellect. I would rather worship Jupiter than the metaphysician's " Reason."
But if I object to that metaphysical aberration named "Natural Theology," founding its pretensions not on the true and devout interpretation of Nature, but on its interpretation of "contrivance" and "design," which it is clever enough to detect, and to applausively appreciate; still more do I object to Comte's unwarrantable and (strange accusation !) equally metaphysical assumption couched in that phrase, " science permits us easily to conceive a happier arrangement." Science permits it ! Wherefore is Science to be final arbiter in questions wholly beyond its competence ? We can conceive simpler arrangements ; does it therefore follow that our simpler conceptions would be better? What is simplicity, but a human convenience, and how is it better in esse than complexity ? It would seem to us simpler to have no serpents, no lions, no crocodiles, no fleas; but what would those serpents, lions, crocodiles, and fleas say to such simplicity ? It would be simpler for man to be born at once and immortal ; but what has philosophy to do with such simplicity ?
I agree with Comte that the pretended beauty of " design" manifested in astronomy is not a legitimate argument, but protest against his asserting that the elements of our universe are not arranged in the most advantageous manner, and that science could better have arranged them. With Lafontaine let us say :" C'est dommage Garo que tu n'es point entré, Aux conseils de Celui que prêche ton curé: Tout aurait été mieux."
Science has no knowledge of these things;* to assume such a competence is to assume that " man is the measure of all," and that Intellect is the final arbiter of Life.
Astronomy has destroyed theologies; and it must. Metaphysics is the science of things which cannot be known ; or, as some one wittily said, l'art de s'égarer avec méthode; and the assumption referred to above assuredly belongs to this futile ingenuity.
It must destroy it, if only by its emphatic condemnation of the capital point in all our theological systems, viz., the subordination of the Universe to man. When the sun was regarded as a light to rule over the day, and the stars as only lesser lights, it was. natural enough for man to suppose them created solely for his use. But that conception is no longer tenable. Now that man knows what a mere speck is his World in the awful Universe of Worlds, he feels himself to be more insignificant ; and, accompanying this feeling, the grander conception of the Universe and of God emerges eminent in his soul.
I say, therefore, that if astronomy must destroy theology, it will not destroy, it will deepen Religion. There is no man in whom the starry heavens have not excited religious emotion ; no man sweeps the heavens with his telescope without religious emotion; whatever may be the litanies most suitable to his mind, under some form or other man cannot help worshipping when under this canopy of the " Cathedral of Immensity." However various the dialects and formulas into which the emotion may be translated, according to the various intellects of men, the emotion itself is constant; and the Last Man, gazing upwards at the stars, will, in the depths of his reverent soul, echo the Psalmist's burst---
THE HEAVENS DECLARE THE GLORY OF GOD!