Christiaan Huygens, 1629 - 1695

Christiaan Huygens


by David F. Coppedge

One of the most prominent scientific geniuses of the 17th century, Christiaan Huygens would be known as an “intelligent design” scientist if he lived today.  He made this clear in his book Cosmotheoros in 1698:

I suppose no body will deny but that there’s somewhat more of Contrivance, somewhat more of Miracle in the production and growth of Plants and Animals, than in lifeless heaps of inanimate Bodies, be they never so much larger; as Mountains, Rocks, or Seas are.  For the finger of God, and the Wisdom of Divine Providence, is in them much more clearly manifested than in the other.  One of Democritus’s or [de]Cartes’s Scholars may venture perhaps to give some tolerable Explication of the appearances in Heaven and Earth, allow him but his Atoms and Motion; but when he comes to Plants and Animals, he’ll find himself non-plus’d, and give you no likely account of their Production.  For every thing in them is so exactly adapted to some design, every part of them so fitted to its proper life, that they manifest an Infinite Wisdom, and exquisite Knowlege in the Laws of Nature and Geometry, as, to omit those Wonders in Generation, we shall by and by show; and make it an absurdity even to think of their being thus haply jumbled together by a chance Motion of I don’t know what little Particles.

If this quote were stated in modern English today, it would anger many origin-of-life researchers and evolutionary biologists.  They would undoubtedly attribute it to one of the leaders of the intelligent design movement.  This would be a good trick to play on them.  Read an updated version of this quote, then tell the Darwinists it was stated by the man who invented the pendulum clock, wrote the first book on probability, described the wave theory of light mathematically, belonged to the Royal Society and the French Academy of Sciences, accurately described Saturn’s rings as not touching the planet, and discovered Saturn’s large moon Titan.  They would recognize the name of this great natural philosopher instantly.  He was honored by the Cassini program when the first spacecraft to land on Titan was named the Huygens Probe.  He is recognized as one of the most eminent mathematicians and scientists of the 17th century.  And he believed in intelligent design.

A. E. Bell opened his biography Christian Huygens and the Development of Science in the Seventeenth Century (1947) with a list of his achievements:

There can be no doubt that Christian Huygens was one of the greatest scientific geniuses of all time.  A man who transformed the telescope from being a toy into a powerful instrument of investigation, and this as a consequence of profound optical researches; who discovered Saturn’s ring and the satellite Titan; who drew attention to the Nebula in Orion; who studied the problem of gravity in a quantitative manner, arriving at correct ideas about the effects of centrifugal force and the shape of the earth; who, in the great work Horologium Oscillatorium, founded the dynamics of systems and cleared up the whole subject of the compound pendulum and the tautochrone; who solved the outstanding problems concerned with collision of elastic bodies and out of much intractable work developed the general notion of energy and work; who is rightly regarded as the founder of the wave theory in light, and thus of physical optics such a man deserves memory with the names of Galileo and Newton….”

Cosmotheoros was written near the end of Huygens’ life and was published by his brother after his death.  The point of the book was to speculate about the likelihood of life on the planets, and on planets around other stars throughout the universe, and how this does not contradict the Holy Scriptures.  Huygens recognized that this was all conjecture but argued it was not a waste of time to ask such questions.  Seen from our vantage point, his arguments that inhabitants of Jupiter walked upright and were like us, having houses and astronomy, sound absurd – but he was doing the best he could with the scientific knowledge available to him.  (It’s no more absurd than the current thinking of some evolutionary astrobiologists.  As recently as 2011, scientists from Harvard and Princeton received favorable press for their ludicrous idea that we might be able to see city lights from minor planets at the fringe of the solar system; see PhysOrg.)

Never, though, did he believe that extraterrestrial life emerged out of matter by itself.  It was clear to Christiaan Huygens that the design in life was proof of an all-wise, omnipotent, intelligent Creator – indeed, the God of the Scriptures.  Huygens was born of Protestant Christian parents and considered himself a Protestant.  Bell said that Cosmotheoros presented Huygens’ religious beliefs more fully than his other works.  Some historians have tried to position Huygens in the Parisian agnostic rationalist tradition because of his associations with the Paris Academy, but Bell said “the evidence rather shows, on the contrary, that he continued to support Protestantism up to the end of his life.”  This indicates that Huygens did not just follow the beliefs of his age.  There were plenty of competing ideas about God and religion in the 17th century.  He knew about the atheists and agnostics of his day as well as those of ancient Greece.  It is important also that his view on design represented his mature thinking at the end of his life, not something he grew out of when he discovered science.  Huygens’ position on design was his personal, rational choice, and he supported it with informed arguments using logic, science and Scripture.

Huygens was usually private about his religious and philosophical beliefs, but this one quote is sufficient to place him in a long line of great thinkers and experimenters who not only believed in Design, but stated it emphatically.  He also stood in the tradition seen so often in the scientists in this series that viewed scientific investigation as an honorable work undertaken “for the glory of God and the service of man.”  To Huygens and the rest, Creation was the only logical position a natural philosopher could hold.  Fast forward to today; what’s the problem?  Has Charles Darwin or Stanley Miller overcome the logic Huygens presented?  It is “an absurdity even to think of their being thus haply jumbled together by a chance Motion of I don’t know what little Particles.”  Name those particles hydrogen atoms or amino acids; the absurdity remains.

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