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The 19th Century

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(Previous Page) Part 1: Plurality From Ancient Times to the 18th Century


The 19th Century


   During the 18th century, the Enlightenment changed western society by emphasizing the importance of science, reason, and natural law while rejecting religious authority and superstition. Scientists began to stop looking for teleological explanations, for the reasons behind certain occurrences, and instead began to look for answers in nature. There was an explosion of scientific discoveries and new ideas that continued into the 19th century. Some of these new methods of studying science contributed to the debate on plurality. One example is the development of astrophysics, the study of the stars and their compositions using spectroscopy and photography.


     In the 19th century, the newfound interest in reason forced philosophers, theologians, and scientists to find a reconciliation between religion and the extraterrestrial life debate. The role of religious thought had to be significantly adjusted to accommodate the developing scientific discoveries involving astronomy, biology and geology.  Specifically, Christianity did not reconcile well with the idea of plurality, which was due in part to Thomas Paine. Thomas Paine's position on the difficulty of uniting plurality and religion created much interest in this debate. William Whewell was one of the prominent writers on the extraterrestrial debate in the 19th century and was the first to create an extensive argument for anti-plurality from a religious standpoint that questioned traditional beliefs on the topic.  New philosophers, such as William Whewell, changed the religous argument by introducing a new level of depth through scientific support that provided more arguments than previously held through Church doctrine. 


      The new shift to science, reason and natural law also brought about the Nebular hypothesis through astrophysics. The Nebular hypothesis is a part of cosmogony (the study and theories around the creation or beginning of the universe). It was first proposed by Emanuel Swedenborg and later developed more by Immanuel Kant. The Nebular hypothesis states that the universe was merely a collection of free-roaming particles. Eventually, though, these particles came together due to unstable gravity bases and over time coalesced into stars. These ideas formed the popular beliefs for the creation of the solar system during the 19th century. 


     William Whewell scientifically supported plurality early in his career, but in later life changed his mind and used his scientific arguments to support his religious motives against plurality. Whewell often used analogies to support his ideas on the state of the universe and applied the developing science of the time, geology, to argue against plurality. Whewell proposed the thought that if the Earth had only been inhabited by intelligent beings for a short speck of time when compared to the Earth's age, then it is perfectly logical that only a tiny speck of the universe should be inhabited by intelligent beings: "The scale of man's insignificance is, as we have said, of the same order in reference to time as to space." He also stated that Earth is seemingly empty in many regions. Life does not exist everywhere on Earth, so why should it exist everywhere in the universe? Whewell used the principles of geology in many ways to disprove plurality. Geology told us that Earth was gradually changing for billlions of year before intelligent life ever emerged.  He thinks that humans are the sight and center of God's attention and to find extraterrestrials would be like saying that we are not that special to God. While Whewell's argument for anti-pluralism was based on solid scientific evidence, it did not sway many into changing their views of the universe. His arguments pushed the boundaries on the debate at the time and encouraged new ways of thinking on the topic. The most important contribution of Whewell's ideas were his deconstruction of the analogy. He was adamant that all the "truths" found through analogy were especially suspect, particularly if they were not based on sound scientific knowledge. This new scientific viewpoint, not his anti-pluralist viewpoint, had the strongest effect on the plurality debate.


    Alfred Russell Wallace, another new scientist in the 19th century, had ideas similar to those of Whewell. Wallace was one of the forerunners in a new concept in the 19th century, the theory of evolutionary biology. Wallace's argument was more scientific than Whewell's in that he added mathematical arguments to support his theories, while still supporting the idea of a designer. He believed that the universe was finite and consisted solely of the Milky Way because an infinite universe would make the night sky much brighter, also know as Olber's paradox. He says that since the stars are finite and not fixed in the sky, they are in motion. Due to the distribution of the stars, Wallace concluded that the galaxy was in fact an, "annular agglomeration of stars forming a great circle...that we must be situated not in any of it as once supposed, but at or near the very central point...nearly equally distant from every part of it."(1)  Through spectrum-analysis, Wallace was able to conclude that all the planets and stars were composed of essentially the same matter, but that the probability that all the right elements and conditions necessary to create life would occur again somewhere else was highly unlikely.  The conditions for life were said to be that a planet had to remain a certain temperature for a certain period of time, sufficient atmosphere, deep oceans, large moon, and be able to create dust,  which shows that Earth is seemingly the only place so far that can support life.


     Like Whewell, and despite strong scientfic evidence and reasonings, Wallace failed to convince many of his contemporaries to adopt the anti-pluralist viewpoint. While, Charles Darwin and Wallace developed similar theories of evolutionary processes, Darwin was the first to coin the term "natural selection" and publish his ideas in Origin of Species, therefore being considered the father of evolutionary theory.  While Wallace may not have been widely influential during the 19th century, he did help lay the groundwork for the evolutionary process and was a forefather to the Anthropic Principle, an argument still existent in the modern debate on plurality.


 (Next Page) Part 3: Mars 

1. Alfred Russel Wallace, Man's Place in the Universe, pp. 395-411 in Fortnightly



Comments (3)

Peter Ramberg said

at 10:19 am on Dec 6, 2008

This section is about the right length, but needs to be streamlined. I would condense the part about religion to its importance to Whewell (that can be done in a single sentence), and focus on the change brought about by Whewell's argument (this could also be lumped together with Wallace, since they use the same themes) and the emergence of evolutionary ideas (perhaps use Proctor's universe as an example). Use your own papers and the class notes sections for ideas.

Peter Ramberg said

at 10:19 am on Dec 6, 2008

Also, links to the next and previous sections at the end and beginning of the text would be helpful.

brooke said

at 2:41 pm on Dec 7, 2008

I think the section that outlines Wallace's conditions for life is good, however I think it could be removed to streamline the argument and condense the information.
Any suggestions?

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