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September 25: Pluralism defended: the late nineteenth century

Page history last edited by Jackie Kinealy 14 years, 10 months ago

Summary of Today's Topic 

   In the 1900's, new approaches were used to answer the age old question on plurality. At this time two philosophies dominated the argument on the topic, one popularized by William Whewell and the other by Sir David Brewster. Whewell was an emanate and religious man who rejected the idea of plurality. The majority of his argument is discussed here: William Whewell and the denial of plurality. Sir David Brewster was a close associate of Thomas Chalmers and staunchly opposed Whewell. He defended plurality from a Christian standpoint and wrote many books on the topic. Because these two men had such extensive arguments for each side of the topic, upon moving into 1900s further writings on the topic generally agreed with one of the two arguments.


     The 1900's was the time of the "New Astronomy" and Astrochemistry and Astrophysics. During these times,  reoccuring themes were evolution and extraterrestrials. *It is important to note that evolutionary ideas were present long before these times (remember geologists have been coming to see the Earth as evolving for quite some time). Spectrum analysis created a means to which astronomers could determine the chemical composition of other celestial bodies. Crowe states, "Important as spectroscopy was as an astronomical technique, it was also deeply significant in providing the clearest evidence ever obtained of the chemical homogeneity of the universe..." (Crowe, 369).  This quote refers to the growing evidence regarding the theory that all matter in the universe was made up of the same type of particles and materials.


     Richard Anthony Proctor (1837-1888) worked as a "popularizer of science," sparking interest of the general public. He discovered the public's appreciation of publications about plurality and was, "also the most widely read author in the pluralist debate in Britain and America during the period from 1870 to 1890" (Crowe, 385). His second book, Other Worlds than Ours (1870), made the scientific issues on extraterrestrial life and the possibility of life on other planets accessible to the general public. In the text, Proctor sought to distance himself from the anti-pluralist arguments of Whewell and sided more with Brewster, even though it is noted that he had a favorable impression of Whewell and the discoveries and arguments he made. One main difference Proctor maintained from the traditional pluralist claim was in relation to his stance on Jupiter. He believed that the planet was actually unfit for life at the present time, but served as a heat source for it's moons that undoubtedly hosted life. Proctor was persistant in his belief that everything was evolving and the existence of life on any planet at a certain point in time is unlikely, but believes all planets will have their time for inhabitants, even the sun. This modern theory argued that due to their age, the planets were near their final stages and that they go through waves of time with ripples of life, presenting a very non-cheerful picture of the universe.


      Procter says that in nature, only a minute portion of space is dedicated to provide for the existence and support of life (Crowe, 398). This stance was important for the study on plurality because it showed that he acknowledged the evolutionary process of the universe and showed the widening of the gap Proctor had created between himself and traditional views. By the end of the century it was generally accepted that life in this solar system was limited to Earth and Mars, the only other planet fit to host life. However, according to Proctor, this life on Mars was not to be compared to life as it is known on Earth, but completely different beings (Crowe, 387). 


     Flammarion strongly in favor of pluralisme, basing his arguement on astronomy and biology.  He says evidence from astronomy tells us that Earth is not the best suited planet for life, it is just an average planet.  It is not favored in either size, in its distance from the sun, nor in the number of moons it has.  Life on Earth is not the most favorable in the universe, other planets are more suitable for life (Crowe pg. 426).  He says that the solar system is therefore filled with life.  His argument from biology says that the variety of life should be able to adapt to other habitats on other planets because the power of nature is infinate (Crowe pg. 421).  Thus other planets must have other creatures adapted for that environment. He cites the many different species of animals on earth and how some have adapted to extreme temperatures and atmospheric pressures. He even mentions certain diatoms that are found in the arctic as well as in hot springs. This, in his opinion, shows that creatures on other planets could adapt to the seemingly harsh cold or heat and atmosperic pressures of other planets.  Flammarion's arguments were of the scientific nature (similar to Whewell, who took the opposite view on plurality).  Flammarion argued that all truths could only be discovered through science, and that religion should take no part.  His arguments were relatively solid, though not incredibly new.

Primary Sources


"...the mere fact that our Earth is an inhabited world is not in itself sufficient even to render probable the theory that there is life in other worlds than ours."

(Richard Proctor, Our Place among Infinities.)


"It may appear, at first view, that already we are dealing with periods which, to our conceptions, are practically infinite. How long, compared with the brief span of human life, are the eras with which history deals! how enormours, even by comparison with these eras, appears the range of time (tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years), since man first appeared upon this earth! and, according to the teachings of geology, we have to deal with a yet higher order of time in passing to the beginning of life upon our globe. From one million of years to ten millions! It is between such limits, say the most experinced geologists, that the choice lies. Surely we may be content with periods such as these, periods as utterly beyond out powers of conception as the duration of the pyramids would be to creatures like the ephemeron, did such creatures posses the power of reason!"

(Richard Proctor, Our Place among Infinities.)


"The differences in age, position, mass, density, size, environment, biological conditions, etc., place a large number of other worlds in the immense amphitheater of the heavens in a condition of inhabitability superiour to that of Earth."

(Camille Flammarion, The Plurality of Inhabited Worlds.)


Key Terms, Definitions, and People

Astrophysics- The method of studying astronomy in the 1900's that moved away from naked eye speculations to the spectroscopy and photography. It deals primarily with physical properties of stars and other celestial bodies as well as the evolutions of such phenomena.

Spectroscopy- Light spectrum that could pass star and sunlight through it to create a spectrum of light based on the heat and different chemical elements for each tested object. Through this method scientists were able to identify a new element that was specific to the sun and that stars were made up of the same fundamental elements which gave physical evidence to prove Whewell wrong.

Evolutionary Theory- The rise of evolutionary ideas began with the biological evolution in 1859, though many of the main elements had been in fields like geology for many years. Charles Darwin is the most famous in this field and he pointed out the idea that a variation in species plus a struggle for existence (amongst themselves and other species) equals natural selection.

Nebular Hypothesis- Mentioned by Kant in the 1800's, in the 1900's this became the predominant origin of the solar system, and is the idea that gravity pulls particles together. This was another variant of the evolutionary process.



Relevant Links


Sir David Brewster biography:  www.brewstersociety.com/brewster_bio

Richard Proctor biography:  http://www.daviddarling.info/encyclopedia/P/Proctor.html

Nebular Hypothesis/Origin of the Solar System:  http://csep10.phys.utk.edu/astr161/lect/solarsys/nebular.html

Spectroscopy:  http://loke.as.arizona.edu/~ckulesa/camp/spectroscopy_intro.html

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