Immanuel Kant

Universal Natural History and Theory of Heaven


I have selected a subject which, in view both of its inherent difficulty and also of religion, can right from the start elicit from many readers an unfavorable judgment. To discover the systematic arrangement linking large parts of creation in its entire infinite extent and to bring out by means of mechanical principles the development of the cosmic bodies themselves and the cause of their movements from the first state of nature, such insights seem to overstep by a long way the powers of human reason. From another perspective, religion threatens with a fiery accusation about the presumption that one is allowed to be so venturesome as to attribute to nature in and of itself such consequences in which we rightly become aware of the immediate hand of the Highest Being and worries about meeting in the inquiry into such views a defense of the atheist. I really perceive all these difficulties, and yet I am not fainthearted. I feel all the power of the obstacles ranged against me, and I am not despondent. On the basis of a slight assumption I have undertaken a dangerous journey, and I already see the promontories of new lands. Those people who have the resolution to set forth on this undertaking will enter these lands and have the pleasure of designating them with their very own names.

I made no commitment to this endeavor until I considered myself secure from the point of view of religious duty. My enthusiasm has doubled as I witnessed at every step the dispersal of the clouds which behind their obscurity seemed to hide monsters and which, after they scattered, revealed the majesty of the Highest Being with the most vital radiance. Now that I know that these efforts are free of all contention, I will faithfully introduce what well-meaning or weak-minded people can find shocking in my proposal and am cheerfully ready to submit it to the strict inspection of a council of true believers, which is the mark of an honest mind. Let the spiritual counselor first, therefore, hear the basis for what I have to present.

If the planetary structure, with all its order and beauty, is only an effect of the laws of motion in matter left to itself, if the blind mechanism of natural forces knows how to develop itself out of chaos in such a masterful way and to reach such perfection on its own, then the proof of the primordial Divine Author, which we derive from a glance at the beauty of the cosmic structure, is wholly discredited. Nature is self-sufficient, the divine rule is unnecessary, Epicurus lives once again in the midst of Christendom, and an unholy philosophy steps on the faith which emits a bright light to illuminate it.

If I found this criticism valid, then the conviction which I have of the infallibility of divine truths is for me so empowering, that I would consider everything which contradicts it sufficiently refuted by that fact and would reject it. But the very agreement which I encounter between my system and religion raises my confidence in the face of all difficulties to an unshakable composure.

I recognize all the value of those proofs which people derive from the beauty and perfect organization of the cosmic structure to confirm the primordial and most eminently wise Creator. If we do not obstinately deny all conviction, then we must agree with such incontrovertible reasons. But I maintain that the people who defend religion in this way, by presenting an unnecessarily weak case, make use of such principles badly, so as to perpetuate the conflict with the natural scientists.

People are accustomed to take note of and to extol the harmony, beauty, the purposes, and a perfect interplay of means and ends in nature. But while they, on the one hand, extol nature, on the other hand, they seek to diminish it again. This fine consistency, they say, is foreign to nature. Left alone to its universal laws it would bring forth nothing but disorder. The harmonies demonstrate a foreign hand, which knew how to force material left without any regularity into a wise design. But I answer that if the universal material laws were established equally as a result of the highest design, then they could presumably have no purposes except to act on their own to fulfill the plan which the Highest Wisdom has set out for itself. But if this is not the case, should we not be drawn to experiment with the belief that at least matter and its general laws may be independent and that most eminently wise power, which knew how to make use of them so splendidly, may indeed be great, but not infinite, certainly powerful, but not totally self-sufficient?

The defender of religion fears that this same harmony which can be explained by the natural tendency of matter must demonstrate the independence of nature from divine providence. He clearly confesses that if people can discover natural reasons for all the order in the cosmic structure, something which can bring it into existence from the most universal and essential characteristics of matter, then it may be unnecessary to invoke the highest ruling power. According to the natural scientist's calculations, he finds nothing to quarrel with in this claim. He hunts after examples which establish the fertility of general natural laws for perfectly beautiful consequences, and brings true believers into danger through such proofs, which in their hands could become invincible weapons. I will cite an example. People have already often proposed as one of the clearest proofs of a kind of providence solicitous of human welfare that in the hottest parts of the earth the sea winds, right at the very time when the heated land most requires cooling, spread over the land and refresh it, as if they were summoned. For example, in the island of Jamaica, as soon as the sun has climbed sufficiently high to heat the land most strongly, just after 9 in the morning, a wind begins to come in from the sea and blows from all sides over the land. Its strength increases proportionally with the elevation of the sun. Around 1 in the afternoon, when it naturally is the hottest, the wind is at its strongest. It gradually decreases with the declination of the sun, so that in the evening the very same stillness reigns as at the start. Without this welcome arrangement, the island would be uninhabitable. All coastal lands lying in the hot places on the Earth enjoy this same benefit. Moreover, it is most essential for them, because they are the lowest places on dry land and also suffer the greatest heat. For the higher regions in the country, which this sea wind does not reach, are in less need of it, because their higher location places them in a region of cooler air. Is not all this beautiful? Are there not clear purposes which have been realized by judiciously applied means? However, by way of a counterargument the natural scientist must find the natural causes of this in the general characteristics of air, without needing to assume any special arrangements in the matter. He observes correctly that these sea winds have to go through such periodic movements, even if no human beings lived on the island, for no reason other than the property of the air (which is indispensably necessary only for the growth of plant life), without any goal directed intention of helping inhabitants, namely, because of its elasticity and weight. The sun's heat upsets the air's equilibrium by thinning out the air over the land thus allowing the cooler sea air to rise from its position and take the place of the air over the land.

What uses generally advantageous to our planet Earth do the winds not possess? What uses does the keen intelligence of human beings not make of them? However, no other arrangements were necessary to create them except the general conditions of air and heat, which also must occur on the Earth without reference to these purposes.

At this point the freethinker says if you concede the point that when people infer useful and purposeful arrangements from the most general and simplest natural laws, then we have no need of the special rule of a Highest Wisdom, then consider proofs which will entrap you by your own admission. All nature, especially in the wild, is full of such proofs, which permit us to recognize that matter, which organizes itself through the mechanical operation of its own forces, has a certain regularity in its effects and without compulsion satisfactorily acts by appropriate rules. When, in order to come to the rescue of the worthy cause of religion, a well-meaning person wishes to contest this capacity of general natural laws, then he will embarrass himself and by a poor defense give atheism a chance to triumph.

However, let us see how these reasons, which we fear in the hands of our opponents as injurious, are by contrast strong weapons to use in the fight against them. Matter, which organizes itself according to its general laws, produces through its natural processes or, if we prefer, through a blind mechanical process, good consequences, which appear to be the design of a supremely High Wisdom. When left to themselves, air, water, and heat produce wind and clouds, rain, and streams, which irrigate lands, and all the useful consequences without which Nature would have to remain sad, empty, and barren. However, they produce these results not through mere chance or accident (which could have just as readily resulted in disaster). But we see that these consequences are limited by natural laws so as to work only in this way. What should we then think of this harmony? How would it really be possible that things with different natures should strive to work in cooperation with one another for such perfect coordination and beauty, even with purposes in such matters which are to a certain extent beyond the range of lifeless material stuff, namely, the benefit of human beings and animals, unless they recognized a common origin, namely, an Infinite Understanding, in which the essential interrelated construction of everything was planned? If their natures were necessarily isolated and independent, what an astonishing contingency that would be, or rather, how impossible it would be that with their natural efforts they should mesh so exactly together, as if an overriding wise selection had united them.

Now, I confidently apply this concept to my present enterprise. I summon up all the material stuff of all worlds in a universal confusion and create out of this a perfect chaos. According to the established laws of attraction, I see matter developing, and it modifies its motion through repulsion. Without the assistance of arbitrary fictions, I enjoy the pleasure of seeing a well-ordered totality emerge under the influence of the established laws of motion, something which looks so similar to the same planetary system which we see in front of us, that I cannot prevent myself from believing that it is the same. This unanticipated revelation of the order of nature on a grand scale I find at first suspicious, because it establishes a well-coordinated and correct system on such a meagre and simple foundation. Finally, on the basis of the previously outlined observation, I advise myself that such a natural development is not something unheard of but that nature's essential striving necessary brings such things with it and that this is the most marvelous evidence of her dependence on that Primordial Essence which has within Itself the origins of being, together with the first laws by which nature operates. This insight doubles my trust in the proposal I have made. The confidence increases with each step I take as I continue on, and my timidity disappears completely.

But the defense of your system, it will be said, is at the same time a defense of the opinions of Epicurus, to which it has the closest similarity. I will not altogether deny the truth of this remark. Many people have become atheists through the apparent truth of such reasons which, with a more scrupulous consideration, could have convinced them as forcibly as possible of the certain existence of the Highest Being. The consequences which a perverse understanding infers from innocent basic principles are often very blameworthy. Although his theory was what one would expect from the keen intelligence of great spirit, Epicurus's conclusions were of this kind.

I will also not deny that the theory of Lucretius or of his predecessors (Epicurus, Leucippus, and Democritus) has much similarity to mine. Like those philosophers, I set out the first condition of Nature as that state of the world consisting of a universal scattering of the primordial material of all planetary bodies, or atoms, as they were called by these writers. Epicurus proposes a principle of heaviness which drives these small elementary particles downwards, and this appears not very different from Newton's power of attraction, which I assume. He also assigned to these particles a certain deviation from the straight linear movement of their descent, although at the same time he had an absurd picture of the cause and consequences of this deviation. This deviation comes about to some extent from the alteration in the linear descent, a change which we derive from the force of repulsion of the particles. Finally, came the eddies, which arise from the confused movement of the atoms, a major part of the theories of Leucippus and Democritus. We will meet them also in our theory. But such a close affinity with a theory which was truly the theory of atheism in ancient times does not lead mine to be grouped with their errors. With the most foolish opinions which can win popular applause, sometimes there is some truth to remark upon. A false basic assumption or a pair of unexamined coordinating principles lead people from the footpath of truth through unnoticed misdirections right to the abyss. Nonetheless, there remains, in spite of the above mentioned similarity, an essential difference between the ancient cosmogony and the present one, so that one can derive from the latter totally opposite consequences.

The previously mentioned teachers of the mechanistic development of the cosmic structure derived all order which they could perceive in it from chance accident which allowed the atoms to come together in such a fortunate way that they created a well-ordered totality. Epicurus was even so unconscionable that he demanded that the atoms swerved from their direct linear movement without any cause, so that they could run into each other. Collectively these writers pushed this absurdity so far, that they even attributed the origin of all living creatures to this blind collision and, in effect, derived reason from irrationality. In my theory, by contrast, I find matter bound by certain necessary laws. I see a beautiful and orderly totality developing quite naturally out of its total dissolution and scattering. This does not happen by accident or chance. We see that natural characteristics necessarily bring this condition with them. Hence, will we not be moved to inquire why matter must have just such laws which forcefully bring order and prosperity? Was it really possible that many things, each of which has a nature independent of the others, should on their own constitute themselves in such a way that a well ordered totality arises? And if they do this, is there not an undeniable proof of the commonality of their primordial origin, which must be a self-sufficient Highest Reason, in which the natures of things were designed for common purposes?

The material which is the primordial stuff for all things is thus bound by certain laws. Freely left subject to these laws, it must necessarily bring forth beautiful combinations. It has no freedom to deviate from this planned perfection. Since it also finds itself subject to the loftiest wise purpose, it must of necessity be set in such a harmonious relations through a First Cause which rules it. There is a God for just this reason, that Nature, even in a chaotic state can develop only in an orderly and rule-governed manner.

I have such a high opinion of the honest minds of those people who confer upon this proposal the honour of testing it, that I remain confident that, where the basic principles mentioned above will still not be able to get rid of all worries about the deleterious consequences of my system, nevertheless at least they place the sincerity of my intentions beyond doubt. If, in spite of this, there are malicious zealots who consider it a duty worthy of their holy calling to attach shameful explanations to innocent opinions, then I am confident that their judgment will have precisely the opposite effect among reasonable people. Besides, people will not deprive me of the right which Descartes enjoyed in his time among disinterested critics when he ventured to explain the development of world bodies from merely mechanical laws. I will therefore quote from the author of Universal World History (1): "Thus we can do nothing other than believe that the attempt of that philosopher who endeavored to explain the development of the world in a certain time from confused matter simply through the continuation of a movement once impressed on it using a few easy and universal laws of motion, or of others who since then have, with more approval, attempted the same thing through the primordial inherent properties of matter, is far from being worthy of punishment or degrading God, as many have imagined, since in this way a higher idea of His infinite wisdom is far more likely to be brought about."

I have sought to clear away the difficulties which seem, from a religious point of view, to threaten my propositions. There are some equally significant difficulties with respect to the subject matter itself. If it is immediately true, people will say, that God has given the natural forces a hidden ability to develop on their own out of chaos a perfect world order, will human understanding, which is so stupid in the commonest circumstances, be able to investigate hidden properties in such a massive enterprise? Such an undertaking amounts to much the same thing as when people say: Give me only the material, and I will create a world out of it for you. Can you learn nothing from the weakness of your insights, which are shamed by the most insignificant things which come into our mind daily and close by, that it is vain to discover the infinite and what was happening in nature even before there was a world? I demolish this difficulty, for I clearly show that of all the attempts which could be devised to learn about nature, this very endeavor may be the one in which we can most easily and surely go right to the origin. For this very reason among all problems of research into nature, none will be resolved more correctly and certainly than the true constitution of the planetary structure on a large scale, the laws of motions, and the inner workings which drive all planetary orbits, in which Newtonian philosophy can provide such insights that we find nothing like them in any other part of philosophy. For just this reason, I maintain that among all the natural phenomena whose first cause we investigate, the origin of the planetary system and the production of the heavenly bodies, together with the cause of their movement, is the one which we may hope to consider reliably from first principles. The reason for this is easy to perceive. The heavenly bodies are round masses with the simplest development which a body whose origin we are exploring can ever have. Their movements similarly are clear. They are nothing other than a free continuation of an impetus impressed upon them once, a motion which, combined with the force of attraction of the body at the mid-point, becomes circular. Above them the space in which they move is empty; the in-between distances, which separate them from each other, are uncommonly large, and everything is laid out for undisturbed motion as well as for clear observation of them in as manifest a way as possible. In my view, we could say here with certain understanding and without presumption: Give me the material, and I will build a world out of it! That is, give me the material and I will show you how a world must come into being out of it. For if the material present is endowed with an inherent power of attraction, then it is not difficult to establish the cause which could have led to the arrangement of the planetary system, considered on a large scale. We know what is involved for a body to acquire a spherical shape. We grasp what is required for freely suspended spheres to take on a circular orbital movement around the middle point towards which they are attracted. The position of the orbits relative to each other, the harmony in the arrangement, the eccentricity, everything can arise from the simplest mechanical causes, and we may hope with confidence to discover them, because they can be established on the easiest and clearest principles. However, can we boast of such advantages for the smallest plant or insect? Are we in a position to say, give me the material, and I will show you how a caterpillar could have developed? Do we not remain here on the bottom rung because of our ignorance of the true inner constitution of things and of the development inherent in the multiple elements in it? Thus, people must not let themselves be surprised when I venture to say that we will be able to understand the development of all the cosmic bodies, the causes of their movements, in short, the origin of the entire present arrangement of the planetary system, before we completely and clearly understand the development of a single plant or a single caterpillar on mechanical principles.

These are the reasons on which my confidence rests that the physical part of natural philosophy gives us the hope that in future it will have the same perfection to which Newton raised the mathematical part of the subject. Next to the laws according to which the arrangement of the cosmic structure stands in its present state perhaps there are no others in the entire study of nature so capable of such mathematical accuracy as these laws by which it has developed, and without doubt the hand of an experienced mathematician would find working these fields not unproductive.

Now that I have allowed myself to promote a favorable reception for the subject I am examining, I will be permitted briefly to explain the way I have dealt with it. The first part is concerned with a new system for the structure of the cosmos on a large scale. Mr. Wright from Durham, whose essay I learned about in the Hamburg Freie Urteile for the year 1751, first gave me the occasion to consider the fixed stars, not as a scattered confusion without perceptible rules, but as one system with the closest similarity to a planetary system. Thus, just as in the latter the planets are located very near to a common plane, the fixed stars are related as closely as possible to a certain plane which must be imagined drawn through the entire heavens. And in their densest accumulation on this same plane they project that band of light called the Milky Way. I have become convinced that, because this zone illuminated by countless suns is very precisely structured in the shape of a very large circle, our sun must similarly be located very near this large interconnecting plane. While I was exploring the cause of this structure, I have found it very probable that the so-called fixed or firm stars could really be slowly moving, wandering stars of a higher order. To endorse what will be found about this concept later in its own section, I will here only quote a passage from a text by Bradley concerning the movement of the fixed stars: "If we wish to judge the result of a comparison between our best contemporary observations and earlier ones with tolerable accuracy, then some fixed stars really have changed their position with respect to each other and, indeed, in such a way, that we see that this is not the result of some movement in our planetary system, but that it can only be ascribed to a movement of the stars themselves. Arcturus readily provides strong proof of this point. For when we compare the present declination of Arcturus with the same declination as determined by Tycho as well as by Flamsteed, we will find that the difference is greater than we can assume to have arisen from the inaccuracy of their observations. We have reason to suppose that other examples of a similar phenomenon must occur among the large number of visible stars, because their positions relative to each other could have altered for various reasons. If we imagine that our own solar system changes its position relative to absolute space, then after a certain time has gone by, this will give rise to a perceptible change in the angular distance of the fixed stars. And because in such a case this will have a greater effect on the positions of the nearest stars than on the positions of the distant ones, then their positions will appear to change, although the stars themselves remain immovable. If, by contrast, our own planetary system stands still and some stars really do move, these will similarly change their apparent position, and the apparent movement will be greater the closer the stars are to us or the more the direction of their motion is arranged so that we can perceive it. Now, since the positions of the stars could thus be altered by so many different causes, when we consider the astonishing distances at which some of them are indubitably located, it will take the observations of several generations to determine the laws for the perceptible alterations of even a single star. It must be even more difficult to establish firm laws for all the most remarkable stars."

I cannot precisely determine the boundaries between Mr. Wright's system and my own, nor in what parts I have merely copied his design or developed it further. However, I had very good reasons to develop one aspect of the design considerably. I took into account the species of nebulous stars, which Maupertuis considered in his treatment of the shape of the stars and which display more or less open elliptical shapes (2), and I easily convinced myself that they could only be an accumulation of many fixed stars. The fact that these shapes, when measured, were always round tells me that here there must be arranged an unimaginably numerous host of stars and, further, that they are around a common mid-point. Otherwise their free positioning in relation to each other would display a wholly irregular shape, not something measurable. I also perceived that they must be located in a unified system and especially that they must be restricted to a single plane, because they are not circular but elliptical in shape, and that because of their pale light they are located incredibly far away from us. What I have concluded from these analogies the discussion will itself present to the unprejudiced reader's understanding.

In the second part, which contains the subject most germane to this dissertation, I endeavor to develop the arrangement of the cosmic structure from the simplest condition of nature merely by mechanical laws. If, for those who are shocked at the daring of this undertaking, I may venture to propose a certain order in the manner with which they honour my ideas by testing them, I would request that they first read through the eighth section, which, I hope, will prepare their judgment for a correct insight. Meanwhile, when I invite the well-disposed reader to examine my opinions, I am justly concerned that, since hypotheses of this sort commonly are considered no better than philosophical dreams, it is a sour pleasure for a reader to resolve to undertake a careful investigation on his own into the histories of nature and patiently to follow the author through all the turns by which he moves around the difficulties which he runs into, so that at the end the reader laughs at his own credulity, like those who look at the London Market Crier (3). Now, I dare to promise that, if the reader will, as I hope, be convinced by the preparatory chapter placed at the start to undertake such a physical adventure based on such plausible assumptions, he will not meet, as he continues on his way, as many crooked diversions and impassable obstacles as he is perhaps worried about at the beginning.

In fact, I have rejected with the greatest care all arbitrary fictions. After I place the world in the simplest chaos, I have applied to it no forces other than the powers of attraction and repulsion, so as to develop the great order of nature. These two forces are both equally certain, equally simple, and at the same time equally primal and universal. Both are taken from Newtonian philosophy. The first is now an incontestably established law of nature. The second, which Newtonian philosophy perhaps cannot establish with as much clarity as the first, I here assume only in the sense which no one disputes, that is, in connection with the smallest distributed particles of matter, as, for example, in vapours. From such simple grounds as these, I have produced the system which follows in an unaffected style and without imagining any consequences other than those which the reader's attentiveness must observe entirely on its own.

Finally, I may be permitted to provide a short explanation concerning the value of the propositions which will appear in the following theory and according to which I hope to be assessed by reasonable judges. We evaluate an author fairly by the same stamp which he impresses on his own work. Thus, I hope people will demand from the different parts of this dissertation no stronger validity for my opinions that what I myself establish for them in the scale of values. Generally the greatest geometrical precision and mathematical certainty can never be demanded from a treatise of this sort. If the system is based upon analogies and harmonies in accordance with the rules of credibility and a correct way of thinking, then it has done enough to attain its goal. I believe I have reached this level of quality in some parts of this dissertation, as in the theory of the system of fixed stars, the hypothesis about the composition of the nebulous stars, the general design for the mechanical development of the cosmic structure, in the theory of Saturn's ring, and in some others. Elsewhere the treatment is less persuasive, as, for example, the determination of the relationships of the eccentricity, the comparison of the masses of the planets, the various deviations of comets, and some others.

Therefore, when in the seventh section I pursue the consequences of this theory as far as possible, attracted by the fecundity of the system and the pleasing nature of the greatest and most awesome subject imaginable, always on the theme of analogy and a reasonable credibility, although with a certain boldness, and when I propose to the power of imagination the infinite nature of the entire creation, the development of new worlds and the destruction of old ones, the unlimited space of chaos, I hope that people will be sufficiently indulgent to the attractive charm of the subject and the pleasure which we have in witnessing the harmony in a theory on a large scale not to judge according to the strictest geometrical precision, which, in any case, does not occur in a theory of this sort. I await just the same fairness with respect to the third part. There people will come across something more than merely arbitrary, although always something less than certain.