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The Astronomical Discoveries and the Copernican Hypothesis Manifest the Wisdom of God


The Christian Virtuoso, 1690

The discoveries of the modern Virtuosi do not only represent the aethereal part of the world considered in itself, as a body incomparably more vast than it was wont to be thought, but they likewise manifest, that the coelestial lights, that adorn it, are very much more numerous, than former philosophers and astronomers took them to be. For, according to the vulgar computation, there are seven planets, reckoning the Sun (who yet seems to be rather a fixed star) for one, and a thousand twenty odd firmamentary stars. But Galileo detected four new planets, that move in distinct orbs about Jupiter ; and since him divers others (for the precise number is not fully agreed on) have been added, belonging to Saturn . And as for the fixed stars, our glasses have discovered multitudes of them unobserved by the ancients; the Pleiades , for instance, that formerly were supposed to contain seven stars, (though now many observers affirm they can see but six) have been discovered to be a constellation, whereto a surprising number of formerly inconspicuous stars may be referred. The galaxy or milky way, which vulgar philosophers would have to be but a meteor, is by our better tubes discovered to be a diffused aggregate of singly undiscernable stars, whose number is scarce credible. And I little doubt, but that, if our glasses should be further improved, there will be still more and more numerous stars detected, to increase the number of those, that are so already; which I am the rather induced to think, because, having for a time been furnished with a telescope, which perhaps not two in Europe exceeded, and taking great pleasure, in a serene and dark night, to look upon the belt or girdle of Orion, and some of those whitish plashes of the sky, that are called Nubilosae , I could scarce turn my tube to any part, where I did not make a surprising discovery of I know not how many little stars I had not seen before; and those too had such an appearance, as invited me to think, that I might have seen a great many more, if the telescope (which was soon after stolen from me) had been as perect a one, as I had then hopes to procure.

The ideas, that the modern virtuosi are partly by their telescopes, and partly by their hypotheses, assisted to frame of the magnitude of the coelestial part of the world, represent it very much more vast, than vulgar philosophers and astronomers have thought it to be. For though later artists, that have employed better instruments, and made more accurate observations, teach, both that the terrestrial globe is more in compass by some thousand of miles, than it has hitherto been computed to be; and yet that the sun is many more times than one hundred sixty six times (which is the received estimate of his bigness) greater than the earth; insomuch that that justly famous and accurate observer Signior Cassini extends its magnitude so far, as to make it exceed some thousands of times that of the terrestrial globe, from which, though the sun be esteemed at a moderate distance, to be removed 1165 semi-diameters of the earth, each of which the learned astronomer Gassendus computes to be 4177 miles , so that the whole distance amounts to 4866205: yet , according to the Copernican hypothesis, embraced by the greatest part by far of the modern virtuosi, as other astronomers are content to teach, that the globe of the earth is but as it were a physical point in respect of the firmament, so the Copernicans assert, that the great orb itself (as they call that, wherein the earth annually moves about the sun) to be no more but a physical point in regard of the firmament; since the fixed stars appear of the same magnitude, even to mathematical observers, whether they be looked upon, when the earth is betwixt the sun and them, or when the earth is in an opposite situation, and has the sun between them and it. But without laying the whole stress of our argument upon hypothesis , it is plain, that by good telescopes, we may discover in the eighth heaven many hundreds of fixed stars, that the ancients never saw there, nor are to be found on the vulgar coelestial globes. And for ought we know, the smallness, that many of these stars appear to have, may proceed but from their being at a greater distance from us, than those commonly taken notice of. For to say with vulgar philosophers, that all the fixed stars are in the same sphere, and equally removed from the earth, being like nails fastened in a piece of wood, is precarious, and to them that are convinced, by the motions of coelestial comets and other proofs, of the fluidity of the upper part of the universe, improbable. And indeed if we consider, that, as I among others, have more than once had occasion to observe, as our telescopes come to be more and more improved, so we discover more and more stars in what we call the firmament; it will be difficult for us men to know, to what extent the vastness of the universe may not reach: which consideration may naturally enough both give a Virtuoso far more large ideas or conceptions than men commonly have of his greatness, who is able to make a fabrick, that is so stupendously vast; and oblige him to give full assent to that of the Psalmist, Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable [Psalm 114:3] .

The wisdom of God in the system of the heavens, and their various and yet regular motions, is so conspicuous, that in almost all ages and nations, the consideration of the coelestial bodies has led the contemplators of them to ascribe them to a divine author or moderator. And indeed, as the miraculous star led the eastern sages to the son of God, so the natural stars of heaven were the chief lights and guides, that led the heathen philosophers to the acknowledgement and worship of God. About which there is an excellent testimony of Aristotle preserved us, if I mistake not, by Cicero . Wherefore since divers even of the heathen philosophers made it unnecessary for me to enlarge upon this subject, I shall content myself to offer you a couple of short remarks or advertisements about it.

The first of these shall be this; that you need not be kept from acknowledging the wisdom of God, in the frame and conduct of the coelestial bodies, by the differing Hypotheses of astronomers about their order and motions. For it is not upon the truth of this or that particular explication of the coelestial Phaenomena , but upon the consideration of the Phaenomena themselves, that the persuasion we have of the divine wisdom is grounded, or at least lu suppose, with the Pythagoreans and divers ancients (mentioned by Aristotle and others) whose opinion has in later times been revived by Copernicus , that the sun is in the middle of our world, and the earth as well as other planets move about it; or that, with Ptolemy and the generality of astronomers, who would have the earth to remain unmoved, and all the planets and fixed stars to perform their courses about it, as the physical centre of their motions; or whether you will with Tycho and his followers, prefer an Hypothesis differing from each of the others, and yet partaking of both: which soever, I say of these and the like theories is the best, yet all agree in this, that the motions of the heavenly lights are divers of them scarce conceivably swift, and, notwithstanding their variety, have an admirable regularity, which has lasted, for ought appears, as long as the world, and is like to persevere to the end of it; which made Aristotle , who was seldom too forward to have recourse to divine beings, think it necessary to ascribe so great a regularity and harmoniousness in the incredibly swift motions of such vast bodies, to the agency and conduct of distinct intelligences, presiding over the distinct coelestial spheres; wherein he did not much deviate from divers other heathen philosophers, who were therein followed by whole sects, and some of them by nations, that, as I have elsewhere shown, thought each planet to harbour, and be guided by, not only a rational, but a divine being. So that, as I was formerly saying, it is not upon a disputable Hypothesis , but on an attentive inspection, that our Virtuoso may ground his veneration of the divine wisdom expressed in the disposition and conduct of the coelestial bodies: which assertion may be in some measure illustrated by this comparison. Suppose a man of parts heedfully looks upon a curious clock, and views how regularly and constantly the Index moves upon the dial-plate, how orderly and how distinctly the hours are struck, how the alarum-bell rouses mens attention at determinate times, and the chimes do at other times delight his ear by their harmonious strokes; though this man, I say, cannot certainly decide a controversy, that may arise from clock-makers; whereof one may affirm, that the machine is moved barely by weights ; another may derives its motions from those of a pendulum ; and a third may dissent from both those, and substitute to weights a spring : but which of these hypotheses soever be pitched upon, it will still be true, that the clock was not made by chance, but b y an skilful and designing artificer; this being not founded upon the truth of this or that Hypothesis , about the latent structure of the engine, but upon the inspection of the curious and regular Phaenomena themselves, that it manifestly exhibits. And so, notwithstanding that Galen and other ancients did in many things differ from the moderns, about the structure and uses of the parts of the human body; yet neither this difference, nor the disputes, that still continue about the circulation of the blood, (at least as to divers circumstances and consequences of it,) the motions and use of the Lympha , the cause and the manner of digestion in the stomach, and the nutrition of some parts by the nerves, and the like controverted points, are of moment enough to keep skilful considerers, either from acknowledging, or so much as from admiring, the wisdom of the divine opificer, that shines in the manifest and undisputed contrivance and oeconomy of a human body, alive and dead.

To the foregoing remark I shall add this that follows. Though , as has been newly said, there is not any of the mentioned Hypotheses , that ought to hinder its embracers from discerning the marks of an excellent wisdom, in the system and motions of the heavenly bodies; yet one of these theories may make it out much better than another does: and on the account, our Virtuoso may have a clearer and more affecting view of the divine wisdom, that is expressed in the coelestial part of the universe, and especially in the situations and motions of the lights that adorn it, than the erroneous, or very imperfect theories of the vulgar philosophy, or the Ptolemaic astronomy, are capable of affording him. I could alledge, as a strong presumption in favour of this opinion, that the indefatigable industry of the modern Virtuosi , and the noble discoveries they have made by the happy invention of the telescope, having given them a much fuller information of the number and Phaenomena of the fixed stars and planets; the theories thereby suggested are more true than the ancient and vulgar ones, and on that account very like to discover to us more of the wisdom of the divine author of this great and wonderful fabrick. But to descend to somewhat more particular, I shall add, that whereas the greater part by far of the modern Virtuosi , that are any thing versed in astronomy, favour the doctrine of Copernicus , as it is improved by the discoveries made by the help of the telescope, you will not wonder at it, if you duly weigh the advantages this Hypothesis has of that, which is vulgarly received. And though it will not be proper for me to enumerate and insist on them, yet it may not be amiss to touch upon two or three of the chief.

And first, by the Copernican system divers inconveniences are avoided, that do very much incumber the Ptolemaic. As for instance, the Primum Mobile, that must be a greater diameter than the firmament, and move with so much force and swiftness, as to hurry all the stars of heaven, as well fixed as wandering, in twenty-four hours about the earth, is rendered needless. And so is that stupendous and incredible swiftness, wherewith a star or designable point in the equinoctial of the Firmament is computed to move fifty thousand times faster, than a correspondent point upon the equinoctial of the terrestrial Globe . And yet this last named point is estimated to be moved no less swiftly, than a bullet shot out of a canon. The Copernican Hypothesis does also take off that extreme violence, that is perpetually offered by the Primum Mobile to the inferior heavens, which it rapidly whirls about from east to west contrary to the natural inclination of the planetary orbs, which continually makes them tend from west to east. The same doctrine likewise frees the heavens from the cumbersome Epicycles , which the vulgar theory places in divers of the orbs, and particularly an incredibly vast one in that of Venus. It takes away likewise the solidity of the spheres, which makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to conceive, how they can exercise the contrary motions attributed them, one within another; not to mention, that these presumedly solid orbs are inconsistent with that fluidity of the interstellar part of the heavens, that may be inferred form the free trajection of the coelestial comets, and divers other Phaenomena .

Secondly, the Hypothesis we speak of does both render as good an account as the other, of what is more obviously observed in the stars, such as the vicissitudes and various lengths of the day and night in several parts of the earth, the successive seasons of the year, the Phases of the moon, her eclipses, and those of the sun, etc. and gives a far more better account of the difficult Phaenomena in the theory of the planets, as the directions, stations, and retrogradations of some of them; why Venus is never distant from the sun above 48 degrees, and Mercury far less; and why the earth is never interposed between the sun and either of them.

And lastly, this Hypothesis seems to have much more concinnity than the Ptolemaic , and to be much more congruous, as to the course, that nature holds on other occasions, so to the wisdom of the divine opificer of the heavens. For great bodies, such as the starry Heaven or Firmament, seem rather made for rest, and little ones for motion; which therefore may be best ascribed to the earth, which is but a physical point in comparison of the other. Besides, whereas nature is wont to perform her work by the most compendious ways, it seems unreasonable to suppose, that she will keep the vast coelestial bodies in a perpetual and most rapid motion, when all that invites them to assert these amazing motions, may be as well performed by a simple turning of this physical point, the earth, about its own Axis in twenty-four hours. And this some pleasant disciples of the new philosophy think so extravagant, that they scruple not to represent it no less unreasonable, than it were to make the shore move about a ship at anchor, instead of making the ship sail along the shore, that the mariners might take a view of it; or to make the auditory walk round about the pulpit, instead of making the preacher turn his face successively to the auditory. And this incongruity they judged to be the greater, because the sun has no need of the earth, that may invite it to motion for its sake; but the earth has great need of the sun, and receives all the benefit of the motion, that one of the two is supposed to make about the other. The violent and contrary motions ascribed to the planets are much less agreeable to the simplicity of nature's ways of acting, than the single and regular motion, that Copernicus ascribes to each planet, constantly moving according to its own natural inclination from west to east. And Galileo , Gassendus, and other elder Copernicans of this age, would have wonderfully rejoiced, and looked on it as a great confirmation of the Pythagorean doctrine, that the earth is a planet , if they had known what the happy industry of later years has discovered; namely, that as the earth turns about its own centre, so there are other stars unquestionably planets, as Jupiter, and Saturn , that do the like, though not all of them in the same number of hours. And perhaps such a conversion about their own Axis may be found even among the fixed stars, since the sun, who shining but its own light seems to be one of those, does probably make a revolution about his Axis in about twenty-six or twenty-seven days, as is plausibly conjectured by the motion of some spots, that now and then last long enough (as with a good telescope I also had opportunity to observe) to finish an entire revolution in the fore-mentioned space of time.

Other advantages may be mentioned, that warrant the preference our Virtuosi give to the Copernican Hypothesis before the vulgar. But I forbear to mention them, partly because I could not do it without many words; partly because you may find most of them judiciously laid down by the learned Gassendus in his Astronomical Institutions, to which I therefore refer you; and partly because I presume what has been already said, may suffice to justify this interference, that since a popular consideration, or theories in divers points defective or erroneous, have been able to convince even heathen philosophers, as well as multitudes of other men, that the disposition and motions of the coelestial parts of the world argued a wisdom , worthy to be ascribed to God or Gods ; a more true and full information of the state of that noblest part of the world is able to furnish a Christian Virtuoso with solid grounds, for a high veneration of the divine wisdom and goodness, and suitable sentiments of piety.

The Christian Virtuoso, in R. Boyle, The Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle, vol. VI, (Bristol - Sterling: Thoemmes Press, 1989), pp. 719-724.