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John Herschel

1792 - 1871

William Herschel married at age 50 and had one son, John Frederick William Herschel, who in many respects surpassed his father. Though he did not make as many fundamental discoveries, he extended his famous father’s astronomical work enormously, and achieved excellence in other fields as well. Also, his Christian faith appeared to be deeper and more sincere. John Herschel became the most eminent scientist in Britain during the first half of the 19th century, and a highly respected philosopher of science. In his senior years, he witnessed the rise of Darwinism. Though he opposed evolutionary theory, some of his scientific philosophy may have lent unwitting support to it, as we shall see.

Youth and Education

It was a hard act to follow, growing up at Observatory House in the shadow of his father William. An only child with few playmates, John found himself more often in the company of his father’s scientific friends. Aunt Caroline loved him and provided a balance to the boy’s intellectual upbringing; the two remained close into her old age. It is a credit to his father that he was able to inspire his son to continue the work rather than rebel against it. This apparently was never forced upon him; William desired his son to enter a ministry in the Anglican Church, and John felt the freedom to consider law and other career paths. Nevertheless, growing up around telescopes, young John learned early how to grind and polish mirrors, and to observe like a good scientist. The lure of the stars caught a big fish; like his father, John also was destined to spend a good part of his life peering through the eyepiece of homemade telescopes, trying to understand the workings of the cosmos. (Romantic as this sounds, it is hard work. At age 30, he spoke of the sacrifice in time, health and strength involved, including “difficulties such as at one period had almost compelled me to abandon it in despair.”)

John’s genius showed up early; at Cambridge, he was “Senior Wrangler” (top of the class) in the math tripo exams, the most rigorous in the world. Soon after, at age 21, he was elected member of the Royal Society, the youngest to that date to achieve the honor. With the resulting association with the most eminent scientists of the day, John Herschel formed close friendships with many of them, including Charles Babbage, who became a lifelong friend. The two founded the Analytical Society of London and toured Europe together, where John met many more leading scientists. He could have taken a government salary, but decided to extend the cataloguing of of astronomical objects begun by his father. This would require a vantage point from the southern skies. In 1834, with his wife Margaret Stewart, he sailed to Cape Town, South Africa.

Astronomical Contributions

For five years, John Herschel scanned the southern skies, cataloguing 1200 double stars, and observing nebulae, the Magellanic Clouds (sister galaxies of the Milky Way, visible only from the southern hemisphere), Halley’s Comet during its 1837 apparition, star clusters, moons of Saturn, sunspots and much more. In all, his lifetime observations yielded an astonishing catalogue of 70,000 celestial objects, all presented neatly to the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society. A personal friend, N.S. Dodge, in an 1871 eulogy, stated that “His motives for his long expatriation had not been money, nor pleasure, nor health, nor fame, but increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

John was a good theorist of astronomy as well as observer. Important principles came out of these observations. He debunked a popular response to Olber’s Paradox (the question of why the night sky is mostly dark, if space is infinitely filled with stars). Some had suggested that the background starlight was simply being absorbed by dust or gas; Herschel correctly noted that the dust would heat up and re-radiate the light, maintaining the paradox. (A more lasting answer had to wait till the 20th century, when relativity and the expansion of the universe led astronomers to acknowledge that the universe is not infinitely old.) In addition, Herschel noted that most nebulae were composed of faint stars.

He wrote of the physical insignificance of man, inhabiting a tiny dot of a planet among an innumerable host of stars. He said that “we have here attained a point in science where the human intellect is compelled to acknowledge its weakness, and to feel that no conception the wildest imagination can form will bear the least comparison with the intrinsic greatness of the subject.” The Copernican Principle was well along by Herschel’s time.

Perhaps his most far-reaching conclusion from his observations was the universality of physical laws. From studying the orbits of binary stars, he deduced that the laws of physics operated the same throughout the universe as they did for our own solar system. This “memorable conclusion,” the Duke of Sussex wrote, citing the Bible’s Epistle to the Hebrews, was “justly entitled, by the generality of its character, to be considered as forming an epoch in the history of astronomy, and presenting one of the most magnificent examples of the simplicity and universality of those fundamental laws of nature by which their great Author has shown that he is the same today and forever, here and everywhere.”

Religious Faith

John’s diary of the South Africa years reveals that he and his wife attended church services regularly. One entry, however, seems to indicate he disdained scientists who tried to build their scientific understanding from the pages of Scripture. John Herschel believed that the Baconian ideal demanded a purely inductive science from observation and experience, regardless of his religious feelings. Notwithstanding, his Christian commitment was strong. As with most believers, there was a process of spiritual growth, particularly due to the example of his wife. Dan Graves writes,

Like his father before him, John Herschel had been a nominal Christian at best. But following his marriage, he underwent a genuine conversion experience. Margaret was the daughter of a Scottish Presbyterian. Her piety and quiet life elevated John from a Christianity verging on pantheistic-deism to a total and clear acknowledgement of Christ as Lord and Savior.
(Scientists of Faith, p. 115.)

Graves says that his conversion fired him with a deeper moral sensitivity to his fellow man; he worked for educational reform in South Africa, stating his belief that schools should “fit them for a higher state of existence, by teaching them those which connect them with their Maker and Redeemer.” This reveals that Herschel believed in Christ as Savior, and accepted the doctrine of Divine creation. In a memoir of a visit with the Herschels in 1857, Maria Mitchell described them as representatives of three generations of “sound Protestants, in days when and in places where Protestantism was a reproach.” She took note of their faithful attendance at a simple church.

John published at least 90 papers in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, many of them of great significance. In addition, he was president of the Royal Astronomical Society for six years, and presided over the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Herschel had many other interests besides astronomy, including chemistry, geology, philosophy, poetry and mathematics, any of which could have gained him fame had he been the type to seek it. His knowledge of chemistry was so advanced, for instance, that he duplicated Daguerre’s discovery in photography one week after hearing about it, with only the “scantiest details of Daguerre’s process” (Graves, p. 115). He even improved on it, finding additional chemical agents, such that “his photographs are among the earliest we possess” (Ibid.), and was the first to try applying it to astronomy, thus beginning a timeline on a fruitful field that led eventually to Edwin Hubble’s historic photographic plates of nebulae and, in our day, to the Hubble Space Telescope and digital imaging. One could only imagine William and John Herschel’s astonishment at today’s images of objects that, to them, were faint points of light that required the utmost in patience and concentration to discern. To see the surface of Saturn’s moons from a spaceship, or to resolve stars in the faintest nebulae, must have been unimaginable, to say nothing of detecting bizarre objects like quasars, black holes, gravitational lenses, radio galaxies, gamma-ray bursts, pulsars, and so much more that is commonplace today.

Personal Character

John Herschel was a humble, truth-loving man of integrity. N. S. Dodge’s lengthy eulogy of Sir John William Herschel is almost embarrassingly gushy in its praise of Herschel, not only for his achievements, but for his personal character. He waxes eloquent about John’s unselfishness and dignity, his willingness to alter any cherished belief if required by the evidence, his moral sensibility, his thoroughness, his “conscientious dealing, with indefatigable industry that characterized his life.”  He calls him “the Homer of science because he was its highest poet.” Of Herschel’s integrity, Dodge writes:

He was in the utmost degree a well-bred man, not from gentle birth and careful training, not from scholarly pursuits and polite society, not from association with persons of rank and intimacy with men of taste and thought, not even from his loving nature and noble aspirations—not from all these together, so much as from the lofty ideal he cherished from boyhood to old age of perfect manhood.… the air and manner, and bearing of well-bred man never left him. He received criticisms upon his own speculations with the same equanimity that he pointed out the errors of his opponents. His action in discussion was never violent, nor his voice loud. He readily acknowledged a fault, and still more readily apologized for a wrong.…

Sir John Herschel’s life-long contemplation of the infinite in number and magnitude, exalting and hallowing his mind, was exhibited in its effects upon his character. The truths he had learned from the stars were converted into principles of action. Lofty thoughts promoted noble deeds. “Surely,” he himself had said … “if the worst of men were transported to Paradise for only half an hour amongst the company of the great and good, he would come back converted.”

Philosophy of Science

Charles Darwin was strongly attracted to John Herschel’s philosophy of science. Herschel had written an influential book, A Preliminary Discourse On the Study of Natural Philosophy, in which he advocated an inductive, religiously-neutral, bias-free Baconian ideal type of scientific investigation. He taught that one should attempt to rid his mind of all presuppositions, and follow the evidence wherever it led. So Darwin was quite mortified when the eminent scientist he so respected reacted negatively to his book, On the Origin of Species, calling Darwin’s idea of natural selection “The law of higgledy-piggledy,” a statement very disturbing to the father of evolutionary theory:

I have heard, by a roundabout channel, that Herschel says my book “is the law of higgledy-piggledy.” What this exactly means I do not know, but it is evidently very contemptuous. If true this is a great blow and discouragement. (Darwin to Charles Lyell, 1859)

Yet Darwin’s so called “law” triumphed. It could be argued that John Herschel had handed his enemies the rope to hang his Christian faith, because he, like Bacon, had assumed the unbiblical postulate of Thomas Aquinas, that only the spirit of man was fallen, not the intellect. Accordingly, Aquinas thought that natural revelation could be a means to finding God (or ultimate truth), apart from Scripture and the convicting and converting work of the Holy Spirit. This incomplete view of the Fall gave secularists a free rein to discover their own truth apart from divine revelation – not only reproducible facts about the operation of nature, but its origin and destiny.

Unintended Consequences

Baconian science slowly evolved into scientism, logical positivism, and naturalism. Secularists extrapolated methodological naturalism, in which the scientist attempts to discover laws through experiment, into a full-fledged philosophical naturalism, in which God had no place in nature. The two naturalisms became indistinguishable. God, spirit, faith and purpose were relegated to inner experience, until they became purely mystical and personal, unverifiable by history or science or logic or any objective means. Secularists took great glee in capturing the flag of “science” and taking religious belief hostage, relegating any appeal to faith or divine revelation to the wastebasket of superstition and fantasy.

This, of course, is a wholly unwarranted position, and an extrapolation far beyond what both Bacon and Herschel believed. Both sincerely believed in God as the Creator, and Jesus Christ as His incarnate, resurrected Son. Their reaction to the authority of Aristotle or any other teacher should not have been used as a rationalization for rejecting the authority of God and His Word. Not every field of knowledge is open to the scientific method: consider, for instance, history, philosophy, and the arts. Yet secularists arrogated to themselves a presumed unbiased inquiry into all fields of knowledge, till it became a substitute religion, unaware that their own position was as metaphysical as any faith.

Though there are signs of change, we are still living today with the legacy of that unwarranted extrapolation of Herschel’s principles. Phillip Johnson has characterized our secular society as having its own creation myth, and like any creation myth, it has a priesthood – the secular scientific establishment – that has sole custody of that myth. Evolutionary theory today goes far beyond anything that can be observed or tested. Cornelius Hunter describes the situation today: “Evolution is now found to be capable of creating just about anything. We might say that evolution is a closed metaphysical system. It not only supplies its own creation story but also supplies its own source of morality. … Furthermore, having rejected divine creation and its Creator, evolution even becomes its own authority. This story is true for those who believe it, but it cannot be demonstrated by strictly scientific argument, for it requires metaphysical premises” (Darwin’s God, p. 155.

Methodological naturalism is reasonable to a point, as a tentative or default position when examining observable, repeatable phenomena subject to testing. It is like William Dembski’s Explanatory Filter, in which the flowchart first attempts to rule out natural law and chance as causes before inferring design. But methodological naturalism today has become an iron-clad rule that eliminates design from the field of causes at the outset. It is an arbitrary rule that can prevent a scientist from ever discovering the truth, when in fact design was the cause. It has led to a modern science that is stuck with hand-waving and just-so stories to explain the origin of the universe, planets, life, and eternal destiny – phenomena that are not testable nor repeatable. Having ruled out the validity of revelation or purpose, evolutionists are hostage to a closed metaphysical system that excludes intelligent design by fiat, not by reason, logic, or evidence. The hypocrisy of this position is revealed by the fact that scientists routinely invoke intelligent causes in certain fields, such as forensic science, archaeology, and SETI; yet when design is clearly apparent in natural phenomena, the rules of naturalism prevent a design inference.

Unfeigned Faith

How would John Herschel have reacted to today’s reign of naturalism? He probably would be appalled. He never saw his scientific work as justifying atheism. On the contrary, he wrote, with years of experience as one of the most eminent practitioners of the scientific method, “All human discoveries seem to be made only for the purpose of confirming more and more strongly the truths come from on high and contained in the sacred writings.”

N. S. Dodge concluded his 16-page eulogy of Sir John:

Herschel’s whole life, like the lives of Newton and Faraday, confutes the assertion, and ought to remove the suspicion, that a profound study of nature is unfavorable to a sincere acceptance of the Christian faith. Surrounded by an affectionate family, of which he was long spared to be the pride, the guide, and the life, John Herschel died, as he had lived, in the unostentatious exercise of a devout, yet simple, faith.

Herschel was buried in Westminster Abbey not far from Sir Isaac Newton. In an ironic twist of fate, he was soon to have a strange bedfellow: interred next to him a few years later was an admirer who used some of his philosophical ideas against Christianity: Charles Darwin.

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