17th Century Apologetics and Modern Cosmological Problems

One of the most astonishing features of studying pre-modern science is the fact that quite often ancient, medieval or early modern natural philosophers and scientists came up with ideas strikingly similar to modern scientific concepts. The mathematician and Christian apologist, Richard Bentley in his 1693 book A Confutation of Atheism from the Origin and Frame of the World attempted to disprove the assertion that an unformed chaos of atoms in the early universe could have led to the formation of the modern cosmos. He wrote

‘That, though we should allow the Atheists, that matter and motion may have been from everlasting, yet if (as they now suppose) there were once no sun nor stars nor Eearth nor planets, but the particles, that now constitute them, were diffused in the mundane space in manner of a chaos without any concretion and coalition, those disperse particle could never of themselves by any kind of natural motion, whether call’d fortuitous or mechanical, have conven’d into this present or any other like frame of heaven and Earth’.

Part of Bentley’s argument was that in the early universe, composed of nothing except a chaos of atoms, matter was too rarified for gravitation to work to pull it all together into the present universe of stars and planets. Bentley estimated that

‘every particle (supposing them globular or not very oblong) would be above nine million times their own length from any other particle’.

He also concluded that this early chaos would have a uniform texture:

‘For if some particles should approach nearer each other than in the former proportion, with respect to some other particles they would be as much remoter. So that notwithstanding a small diversity of their positions and distances, the whole aggregate of matter, as long as it retain’d the name and nature of chaos. would retain well-nigh an uniform tenuit of texture, and may be consider’d as an homomgenous fluid’.

The problem was therefore that in order for the universe to be formed

”tis necessary that these squander’d atoms should convene and unite into great and compact masses, like the bodies of the Earth and planets. Without such a coalition the diffused chaos must have continued and reign’d to all eternity’.

Bentley then went on to attempt to demonstrate that this could not have occurred naturally.

Now modern cosmology has answered many of Bentley’s objections through the Big Bang theory, and observations of the proto-planetary coulds around forming stars. The problem of the even distribution of matter in the early universe after the Big Bang, however, still remains a problem. Modern theoretical physics after Einstein has stated that the universe can indeed be regarded as a kind of fluid. Astronomers and cosmologists are also still working to establish how the evenly distributed matter produced by the Big Bang came to form clumps, which then became stars and galaxies. One solution is Inflationary Universe of Alan Guth. This suggests that the universe experienced a phase of massive inflation after the Big Bang.

Now I am not suggesting that the problem of the coalescene of matter from the mass of high energy particles in the early universe will not be solved by science, or that it was not the result of physical law. What I am saying is simply that the great scientists of the 17th and early centuries wre able of forming opinions and identifying problems in physics similar to those of contemporary science. Their achievements can easily be overlooked by comparison with the great strides science took from the 19th century onwards. Historians of science like the great Roman Cathoic French physicist Pierre Duhem and more recently James Hallam have attempted to restore the great achievements of medieval science and give them the respect they deserve. The great achievements of the 16th and 17th century ‘Scientific Revolution’ and its leading figures, scientists like Newton, Boyle, Francis Bacon, Leeuvenhoek, Galileo, Descarte, Huyghens and Gassendi are much better known and appreciated. But there are other people also in this period, much less known, whose minds nevertheless attempted to grapple with the same problems while arguing against atheism.

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