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Of the Plurality of Worlds: An Essay (1853)

by William Whewell

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William Whewell was a mid-Victorian scientist-- arguably the Victorian scientist, as he's the one who coined the word in 1833, though it didn't catch on for several decades. Of the Plurality of Worlds is Whewell's attempt to determine if there is life on other planets. He says "no," but it seems to me a somewhat reserved "no," as he admits that it is possible by any number of arguments... it's just that none of these arguments prove anything. You can only trust analogy so far, after all, and that's largely all we have going for us in our "examination" of distant stars.

Whewell wrote works on the philosophy of science, and hints of his perspective from those texts bleed through here: he warns that astronomers must "be upon their guard against the tricks which fancy plays upon their senses" (168). I particularly enjoyed reading some of his utopian thoughts from the excised chapters: Whewell claims that "[i]f the nations of the earth were to employ, for the promotion of human knowledge, a small fraction only of the means, the wealth, the ingenuity, the energy, the combination, which they have employed in every age, for the destruction of human life and of human means of enjoyment; we might soon find that what we hitherto knew, is little compared with what man has the power of knowing" (344). Even better, though, would be to form a Divine Society based on sympathy towards others-- what a George Eliotian thought, so perfectly of its time.
  Stevil2001 | May 7, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
William Whewellprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ruse, MichaelEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0226894363, Paperback)

Is there intelligent life on other worlds? William Whewell, one of the most influential British intellectuals of the nineteenth century, weighed in on this question with Of the Plurality of Worlds. Writing anonymously, Whewell argued that there was no life anywhere else in the universe. Admitting such a possibility, he feared, would threaten humanity's special relationship with God, and open the door to supporters of evolution.

The publication of Plurality in 1853 ignited a bitter Victorian debate on science and religion. This book reprints the first edition in facsimile, together with a vigorous response to his critics that Whewell added later and new introductory and bibliographic material by noted Darwin scholar Michael Ruse. This edition also includes 84 typeset pages—never before published—that Whewell cut from the original book at the last moment. Showing clearly the theological underpinnings of Whewell's thinking, these chapters also reveal the difficulties facing any Victorian who tried to reconcile traditional Christian thought with the findings of modern science.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:22:11 -0400)

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