• If you are citizen of an European Union member nation, you may not use this service unless you are at least 16 years old.

  • You already know Dokkio is an AI-powered assistant to organize & manage your digital files & messages. Very soon, Dokkio will support Outlook as well as One Drive. Check it out today!


William Whewell and the denial of plurality

Page history last edited by Tim Weaks 15 years, 7 months ago

Summary of Today's Topic


     William Whewell started out with a pro-pluralistic view of the universe, and in 1833 he wrote Astronomy and General Physics  which endorsed the doctrine of plurality (Crowe, 333).  But near the end of his life, he changed his opinions. In the span of two decades he radically changed his mind and shocked his contemporaries when he anonymously released Of the Plurality of Worlds: An Essay which did not support plurality. Crowe writes, "...in the period around 1850 he [Whewell] had come to the conclusion that belief in extraterrestrial life can only with difficulty be reconciled with the central doctrines of Christianity" (pg 333), and that essay was inspired and fueled by Whewell's religious beliefs. When it became known that Whewell was the author, it was quite a shock to the scientific world.  Plurality was definitely the popular opinion, and had been for some time, and the fact that someone so well-respected would deny it was quite astounding.  Whewell was well-known for his knowledge of the sciences, and also because he was an important clergyman. Whewell was one of the first major figures in the scientific community to bring a well developed argument against plurality into the mainstream. 


     He later refuted Thomas Chalmers's ideas and reasons for believing life existed on other planets. A main argument of his was that analogy is a poor argument for plurality. Whewell uses analogy only when he can base them upon experiences instead of assumptions.  Whewell proposes we must have hard facts before we claim any of our ideas to be true. He used science to counter the opinions of the pluralists. One of his arguments was that Earth was in a temperate zone of our solar system. Anything closer to the sun would be too hot to support life and anything further away would be too cold.


     He also disputed the weak analogous argument about nebulae being stars and suns. He noted that there are some nebulae just as close as some of the stars that we've already resolved are not stars or suns. They may just be cloudy patches.  We therefore have no proof that they are similar to either and have planets orbiting them.  He stated that merely because the other stars could be other suns, they were not necessarily so, and that there was no way for us to know.


     In regards to the planets, he noted that Jupiter is much less dense and much larger than the Earth.  It is watery, gaseous, and has a huge amount of gravity.  He uses what is certain, what science has already determined is true about other planets and the solar system.  His discoveries regarding Jupiter inspired authors and scientists in the future to use what can be seen to speculate whether or not life can exist on the planet. 


     He also stated that the universe, if void of life outside of earth, was not a waste of God's power. The earth itself, through knowledge of "modern" geology, was void of intelligent life for most of its existence, and since that was not a waste of power, neither would it be to have the universe empty of intelligent life also. He further backed this up by saying that there is a lot of supposed "waste" on Earth already if we use the standards set by pluralists of the time.  Many animal embryos and plant seeds are never developed or cultivated; for example, "a single female fish contains in its body 200 millions of ova, and thus, might, of itself alone, replenish the seas, if all of these were fostered into life".  Because there is so much "waste" in nature on only the Earth, which does support intelligent life, there may be even more examples of this in space, where we have seen no other evidence of intelligence.


     An interesting note about Whewell is that he coined the term science and scientist. Before this there was no determining title for those who studied natural philosphy as opposed to other types of philosophies. Whewell's argument for design stated that all creation, made by God, is designed to work together both in the organic and the inorganic worlds. He also argued against previous analogies of the universe and created his own by the restraints of his argument that claims about the universe and plurality must be made by using what science tells us about the Earth. He argued against several analogies that had no scientific evidence. For instance, those of inhabitants of other planets, the idea that planets revolve around the stars, and that the stars are like our sun.

Primary Sources


"An astronomer, armed with a powerful telescope, resolves a nebula, discerns that a luminous cloud is composed of shining dots:-but what are these dots? Into what does he resolve the nebula? Into Stars, it is commonly said. Let us not wranlge about words. By all means let these dots be Stars, if we know about what we are speaking: if a Star merely mean a luminous dot in the sky. But that these stars shall resemble, in their nature, stars of the first magnitude, and that such stars shall resemble our Sun, are surely very bold structures of assumption to build on such a basis."

(Whewell, Ch. 7 The Nebulae, ΒΆ 12)


"The difficulty of the opinion that man, occupying this speck of Earth, which is but as an atom in the Universe, surrounded by millions of other globes, larger and to appearance nobler than that which he inhabits, should be the object of the peculiar care and guardianship...for we find that mind has occupied but an atom of time, as he has occupied but an atom of space: that he is surrounded by myriads of globes..."

(Whewell, Ch. 6, paragraph 33)



Key Terms, Definitions, and People




Relevant Links


William Whewell- cepa.newschool.edu/het/profiles/whewell.htm


information about different kinds of nebulae and their formation- www.seds.org/messier/nebula


Comments (0)

You don't have permission to comment on this page.