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Buffon

“A true son of the Enlightenment,” the great naturalist Buff on (1707-88). in 1749 ooened his monumental Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, the most comprehensive effort since Aristotle to gather in one body all scientific knowledge, with a condemnation of Whiston.1 This ferocious onslaught put the tombstone on Whiston’s repulation, whereas up to inat point it had been Newton’s view of the history of the solar system that had been on the defensive among scholars.2

Since he believed that the mechanism of olanetarv motions is so well contrived that its origin could not be ascribed to a series of accidental events, Buffon suggested that it came into existence as the result of the impact of a comet on the Sun; for this reason he could not object to Whiston on mechanical grounds, but resorted to theological arguments. After having presented a mocking summary of his hypotheses, Buffon declared:

I shall make only one remark upon this system, of which I have given a faithful abridgement. Whenever men are so presumptuous as to attempt a physical explanation of theological truths, whenever they allow themselves to interpret the sacred text by views that are purely human; ...they must necessarily involve themselves in obscurity, and tumble into a chaos of confusion like the author of this whimsical system, which notwithstanding all its absurdities has been received with great applause.3
Whiston was ridiculed for quoting the Old Testament in matters of astronomy and at the same time, condemned for not having taken literally the story of creation in Genesis: “He says that the common notion of the work of six days is absolutely false, and that Moses’ description is not an exact and philosophical account of the origin of the universe.” On the first point Buffon declared that the true naturalist must leave the interpretation of the Scriptures to the theologians, and on the second point he agreed with Newton that the Solar System is is so exquisitely designed to operate “in the most perfect manner” that it cannot have changed since creation. Modern interpreters of the thought of Buffon are perplexed because he appeared to be a rank mechanical materialist, whereas he put at the at the head of the fourth volume a letter to the Faculty of Theology of Paris that begins with this profession: “I declare that I do not have any intention of contradicting the text of the Scriptures, that I firmly belive all that they report about creation, both in relation to time sequence and to factual circumstances.”4 In his writings he delved at great length into problems of scientific method in order to maintain that hypotheses must be built solely on the aainstaking gathering of facts, monuments and experiences: but apparently, the narratives of mankind’s history do not fit into any of these categories, whereas Newton’s adaptation of the creation story of Genesis does.


References

  1. Oeuvres complètes (Paris, 1858), 1, 96-100.
  2. The last time that Whiston’s view was given serious consideration was in 1754 when the Berlin Academy of Science offered a prize for an essay on the question: “Whether the Earth since its Origin has undergone a change in its period of rotation and whence this fact could be established.” Kant submitted an essay for this competition (Werke, Ed. by Ernst Cassirer, Berlin, 1912, 1, 189-96); but, since he was an ardent Newtonian, he refused to answer the question as it was stated: “One could investigate the question historically by considering the documents of the most ancient period of the ancient world that concern the length of the year and the intercalations... but in my proposal I shall not try to gain light with the help of history. I find these documents so obscure and so little trustworthy in the information that they could provide on the question before us that the theory that would have to be built on them in order to make them agree with the foundations of nature, would sound too much like an artificial construction.” He then proceeded to outline the nebular hypothesis which implies the stability of the solar system.
  3. Transl. by William Smellie (London, 1791), 1, 108.
  4. Oeuvres philosophiques de Buffon, Ed. by Jean Piveteau (Paris, 1954), p. XVI.

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