07 May 2014

Review: Of the Plurality of Worlds by William Whewell

Hardcover, 510 pages
Published 2001 (contents: 1853-54)

Borrowed from the library
Read November 2012
Of the Plurality of Worlds: A Facsimile of the First Edition of 1853; Plus Previously Unpublished Material Excised by the Author Just Before the Book Went to Press; and Whewell's Dialogue Rebutting His Critics, Reprinted from the Second Edition
by William Whewell

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.

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