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Schaffer on Temporal Evolution, Pt. 1 October 12, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Finishing up our look back at some of the earliest works of Simon Schaffer, I’d like to look at the two pre-1980 works I’ve found:

1) Halley’s Atheism and the End of the World, Notes and Records of the Royal Society 32 (1977): 17-40

2) The Phoenix of Nature: Fire and Evolutionary Cosmology in Wright and Kant, Journal for the History of Astronomy 9 (1978): 180-200.  (According to this web site, this is one of Schaffer’s personal favorites).

Edmond Halley (1656-1742)

Both articles are revealing that Schaffer’s early work was specifically geared around understanding the emergence of the concept of temporal change in natural philosophical cosmologies.  The development of a temporal economy of nature was a key to the development of William Herschel’s cosmology, which Schaffer discussed in a 1980 paper that I looked at back in August.  But the idea of a transitory universe was longstanding.  Before getting into the details, though, let’s back up and look at why this is an interesting issue in the first place.

The emergence of deep time in the 18th century was an important development in geology and the development of evolutionary concepts in the history of life (exemplified in the work of Darwin, but discussed in European thought for a century prior to Origin of Species).  While, in some sense, a deep time evolutionary approach was demanded by the evidence to be found in geological strata, the idea didn’t materialize out of thin air in response to lots of data coming in.  Rather, it emerged out of extant natural philosophical discussions about the beginning and the end of the world, and the natural mechanisms by which each could occur.  This is, for instance, where you first get discussions of an earth cooling from an initial fiery state, or of an initially inundated earth with steadily falling sea levels.

These kinds of problems were highly conjectural, and, as we have seen from his general discussion of the character of natural philosophy, Schaffer was eager to separate them from any notion that these discussions had much relationship to scientific research as we understand it.  These discussions were not connected to or constrained by theology—they were natural theological discussions.  There were not political or moral considerations in 18th-century science—consideration of the natural world was a part of a naturalistic moral and political philosophy.  It is true that some specific discussions bracketed off theological and moral matters (the Royal Society famously claimed that they did not discuss them), but very often these issues weren’t bracketed off, and, even when they were, they were never forgotten because they seemed so important to any satisfyingly complete natural philosophical cosmology.

One central problem for any complete cosmology was to explain the stability of the universe.  In cosmology, there appear to have been two major, largely theological issues concerning stability.  First, if it were so that God’s order were perfect, then the universe would be a stable place.  However, if one accepted Biblical accounts of Genesis and Apocalypse, the universe also could not be eternal.  To an extent, these were practical problems: the universe appears to be stable, and Newtonian gravity would seem to suggest that it could collapse.  But they were also innately religious problems.  Newton felt God’s constant intervention was necessary to keep the solar system stable.  Leibniz, however, felt Newton’s philosophy was unacceptable, because (among other reasons) the failure to self-regulate implied the imperfection of  God’s creation.  Temporal arguments muddied these waters.

In his 1977 paper, Schaffer grappled with Edmond Halley’s approaches to the problem of stability, specifically the religious concern that the idea of an eternally stable universe was heretical.  Halley’s private religious views were cavalier, and his astronomical work appeared to suggest that the solar system was eternal.  Nevertheless, publicly, Halley worked to show that his work fell within the orthodox Anglican views, which he would need to do in order to obtain the open chair in astronomy at Oxford in 1691.  One way he did so was by showing that planets moving through an ethereal medium (as was presumed to be the case) would eventually spiral into the sun.  After he did not receive the chair, however, he openly posited arguments in favor of the stability and eternity of the solar system.

Schaffer, however, warns against interpreting Halley’s earlier “sheepish” toeing of the orthodox line as an obvious sign of capitulation to religious authority.  Halley was sincerely interested in the question of stability and did not have a predetermined answer; rather, only one answer was permissible so long as he was vying for an Oxford chair; after, the eternity answer became allowable.  Further, Schaffer argues, it was not Halley’s private views about the eternity of the solar system, but the very fact that he would deploy physical arguments in theological discussions that made him religiously suspect.  In other words, what made him open to accusations of atheism was not that he was a committed atheist with accordant beliefs in the eternity of the universe—it was that he wasn’t willing to accept religious arguments prima facie.

In this paper, Schaffer is clearly looking at Halley as one step in the construction of a temporal natural philosophy—Halley’s interest in making use of ancient astronomical data to determine whether or not the earth was speeding up or slowing down was a clear sign of his belief that past observers could actually see significant differences between the cosmological states of the present and the past.  To put a little meat on the point, Schaffer pulls out a 1954 paper from Isis: “The use of these ancient data illustrates Halley’s powerful use of what Cecil Schneer has called ‘painstaking historical scholarship coupled with natural history’.  Schneer points out the way in which the revival of antiquarianism by such figures as Hooke and Lhwyd produced a corresponding revival in the science of geology in the seventeenth century.”  Astronomy and cosmology were also starting down a similar path.

Schaffer continued to track the emergence of temporally-informed worldviews in the natural philosophy of Thomas Wright and Immanuel Kant in his 1978 paper, which we’ll look at in the next entry in this series.

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