Astronomy

My opinion of astronomy has always been, that it is not the best medium through which to prove the agency of an intelligent Creator; but that, this being proved, it shows, beyond all other sciences, the magnificence of his operations. The mind, which is once convinced, it raises to sublimer views of the Deity than any other subject affords; but it is not so well adapted as some other subjects are to the purpose of argument. We are destitute of the means of examining the constitution of the heavenly bodies. The very simplicity of their appearance is against them. We see nothing but bright points, luminous circles, or the phases of spheres reflecting the light which falls upon them. Now we deduce design from relation, aptitude, and correspondence of parts. Some degree therefore of complexity is necessary to render a subject fit for this species of argument. But the heavenly bodies do not, except perhaps in the instance of Saturn’s ring, present themselves to our observation as compounded of parts at all. This, which may be a perfection in them, is a disadvantage to us, as inquirers after their nature. They do not come within our mechanics.

And what we say of their forms, is true of their motions. Their motions are carried on without any sensible intermediate apparatus; whereby we are cut off from one principal ground of argumentation—analogy. We have nothing wherewith to compare them; no invention, no discovery, no operation or resource of art, which, in this respect resembles them. Even those things which are made to imitate and represent them, such as orreries, planetaria, celestial globes, &c. bear no affinity to them, in the cause and principle by which their motions are actuated. I can assign for this difference a reason of utility, viz. a reason why though the action of terrestrial bodies upon each other be, in almost all cases, through the intervention of solid or fluid substances, yet central attraction does not operate in this manner. It was necessary that the intervals between the planetary orbs should be devoid of any inert matter either fluid or solid, because such an intervening substance would, by its resistance, destroy those very motions which attraction is employed to preserve. This may be a final cause of the difference; but still the difference destroys the analogy106.

Our ignorance, moreover, of the sensitive natures by which other planets are inhabited, necessarily keeps from us the knowledge of numberless utilities, relations, and subserviencies, which we perceive upon our own globe.

After all; the real subject of admiration is, that we understand so much of astronomy as we do. That an animal confined to the surface of one of the planets; bearing a less proportion to it than the smallest microscopic insect107 does to the plant it lives upon; that this little, busy, inquisitive creature, by the use of senses which were given to it for its domestic necessities, and by means of the assistance of those senses which it has had the art to procure, should have been enabled to observe the whole system of worlds to which its own belongs; the changes of place of the immense globes which compose it; and with such accuracy, as to mark out, beforehand, the situation in the heavens in which they will be found at any future point of time, and that these bodies, after sailing through regions of void and trackless space, should arrive at the place where they were expected, not within a minute, but within a few seconds of a minute, of the time prefixed and predicted: all this is wonderful, whether we refer our admiration to the constancy of the heavenly motions themselves, or to the perspicacity and precision with which they have been noticed by mankind. Nor is this the whole, nor indeed the chief part of what astronomy teaches. By bringing reason to bear upon observation, (the acutest reasoning upon the exactest observation) the astronomer has been able, out of the confusion (for such it is) under which the motions of the heavenly bodies present themselves to the eye of a mere gazer upon the skies, to elicit their order and their real paths.

Our knowledge, therefore of astronomy is admirable, though imperfect; and, amidst the confessed desiderata and desideranda which impede our investigation of the wisdom of the Deity, in these the grandest of his works, there are to be found, in the phenomena, ascertained circumstances and laws, sufficient to indicate an intellectual agency in three of its principal operations, viz. in choosing, in determining, in regulating: in choosing, out of a boundless variety of suppositions which were equally possible, that which is beneficial; in determining, what, left to itself, had a thousand chances against conveniency, for one in its favor; in regulating subjects, as to quantity and degree, which, by their nature, were unlimited with respect to either. It will be our business to offer, under each of these heads, a few instances, such as best admit of a popular explication.

I. Amongst proofs of choice, one is, fixing the source of light and heat in the centre of the system. The sun is ignited and luminous; the planets which move round him, cold and dark. There seems to be no antecedent necessity for this order. The sun might have been an opaque mass; some one, or two, or more, or any, or all the planets, globes of fire. There is nothing in the nature of the heavenly bodies, which requires that those which are stationary should be on fire, that those which move should be cold; for, in fact, comets are bodies on fire108, or at least capable of the most intense heat, yet revolve round a centre; nor does this order obtain between the primary planets and their secondaries, which are all opaque. When we consider, therefore, that the sun is one; that the planets going round it are at least seven109; that it is indifferent to their nature, which are luminous and which are opaque, and also, in what order, with respect to each other, these two kinds of bodies are disposed; we may judge of the improbability of the present arrangement taking place by chance.


For the articles in this chapter marked with an asterisk, I am indebted to some obliging communications received (through the hands of the Lord Bishop of Elphin) from the Rev. J. Brinkley, D. D. Andrew’s Professor of Astronomy in the University of Dublin.
106The moon has no perceptible atmosphere: and as no effects have been observed like those which would be produced by vapors or exhalations from its surface, it is possible that there are no fluids upon it. There is no reason, however, from these circumstances, for denying the existence of sensitive beings upon it, although they must be very differently constituted from ourselves to whom air and water are essentially necessary.—Paxton.
107Hooke describes a minute animalcule, which he discovered with a microscope, upon a vine. From his data an estimate may be made of its bulk; but it is not so easy to fix upon any determinate quantity for the size of the plant. However, to put the case strongly, let the bulk of it be taken as equal to that of a cylinder one inch in diameter and a mile in length. Such a cylinder would contain above 345 cubic feet, and yet it would be many million times less when compared with the animalcule, than the earth is when compared with the bulk of a man.—Paxton.
108It may be reasonably doubted whether comets are ever absolutely “on fire,” and yet some of them, from their near approach to the sun, must certainly be “capable of intense heat.” If we conceive the earth’s distance from the sun to be divided into 1000 parts, the comet of 1680 was, at one time, not more distant than six of those parts from the sun. From hence Sir I. Newton calculated that it was exposed to a heat which was 2000 times greater than that of a red-hot iron.—Paxton.
109The seven planets here alluded to are Mercury, Venus, the Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the Georgium Sidus: we now know that there are four more, Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and Vesta; the first of these was discovered in 1801, the second was observed in March, 1802, the third was not discovered till 1804, nor the last till 1807. Now Dr. Paley’s dedication is dated July, 1802; it is very possible, therefore that this 22d chapter was written before he had heard of Pallas, and even while it was yet doubtful whether Ceres was a comet or a planet. This will explain the reason for his having qualified the expression, and having said “at least seven.”

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