Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

Religious Intuition Can Lead to Scientific Discovery: The Cases of Copernicus and Ferguson

Image: Nicholas Copernicus, via Toruń Regional Museum / Public domain.

A common criticism of intelligent design holds that ID is more religion than science. This criticism is problematic as ID possesses a strong and growing empirical foundation. The purpose of this criticism, however, is to undermine any claims to truth associated with ID. As the argument goes, religion is subjective and faith-based while science is objective and empirically based. Religion therefore almost by definition can never provide reliable insights about the nature and structure of the physical universe. Thus, if ID is religion, it cannot be true. This would all be well and good except for the fact that there are at least two noteworthy examples of religious reasoning leading directly to scientific hypotheses later empirically confirmed to be true.

When I first began teaching at Luther College over twenty years ago, I had a senior colleague who held a PhD in the history of science from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Bruce Wrightsman (who has since passed away) shared with me an article he had published back in 1980 in an obscure anthology titled “The Legitimation of Scientific Belief: Theory Justification by Copernicus.” My colleague argued persuasively that Nicholas Copernicus possessed no empirical evidence to place the sun at the center of the solar system but that he rather had relied on a religious justification. It is a shame this article has not garnered more attention. 

Epicycles and Equants

By the 16th century, the old Ptolemaic system had become rather messy with its bevy of ad hoc features like epicycles and equants designed to keep the geocentric system consistent with observations. Messy as it was, the Ptolemaic system did remain consistent with observations and retained its practical use as a calendrical tool. There was no compelling empirical evidence suggesting a heliocentric solar system (a point supported by Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich in God’s Planet). 

Copernicus, however, viewed the Ptolemaic system as a monstrosity. The God he believed in was the great artisan of the universe, and such a God would never create something as messy and clumsy as the Ptolemaic system. Placing the sun at the center of the solar system led to a simpler and more elegant model, one more pleasing to Copernicus’ religiously inspired aesthetic sensibilities. And it was on this basis that his theory rested. In Bruce Wrightsman’s words:

One may not like Copernicus’s reasons for coming to believe in and justifying his system but that is not a rational ground for refusing to accept them as reasons. We must therefore remind ourselves that scientific investigation had much broader implications for Copernicus than it has for many today and included those purposes which we classify as religious and extra-scientific.1

To be sure, Copernicus’ theory flew in the face of church doctrine, forcing Copernicus to delay publication out of fear of ecclesiastical reprisal. Yet despite the fact that Copernicus’ religiously inspired ideas about the structure of the cosmos may have been deemed heretical according to the orthodoxies of his day, they were religious nonetheless. And when Galileo later began peering at the night sky through his telescope, Copernicus’ religiously inspired aesthetics were found to have led him to truth about the structure of the solar system! Empirical evidence came after Copernicus had already proposed his theory on religious grounds, not before. 

“A Mean Opinion of the Divine Wisdom”

A second example comes from the work of a lesser-known figure, 18th-century Scottish astronomer James Ferguson. Ferguson, like Copernicus, contradicted the religious orthodoxies of his day by suggesting that the stars that light up the night sky represented bodies like our sun accompanied by their own planetary systems and perhaps even extraterrestrial life. Orthodox beliefs of the time viewed the heavens as existing entirely for the aesthetic pleasure of humans on Earth. But according to Ferguson:

It is no ways probable that the Almighty, who always acts with infinite wisdom and does nothing in vain, should create so many glorious Suns, fit for so many important purposes, and place them at such distances from one another, without proper objects near enough to be benefitted by their influences. Whoever imagines they were created only to give a faint glimmering light to the inhabitants of this Globe, must have a very superficial knowledge of Astronomy, and a mean opinion of the Divine Wisdom.2

Clearly Ferguson possessed no empirical evidence suggesting the existence of planetary systems revolving around extra-solar suns. But his religious reasoning led him to propose that such things should exist. And here we are today with 21st-century technology continuing to empirically confirm the existence of extra-solar planets on a nearly daily basis!

Science and Aesthetics

These examples challenge any notion that religious thinking can never lead to true understandings about the nature and structure of the physical universe. Interestingly, aesthetic sensibilities continue to drive science in the case of theoretical physicists’ fascination with elegance, simplicity, and grand unification as a criterion of fundamental truth (even if this aesthetic sensibility has been divorced from its religious roots). 

ID is not religion. But even if we were to concede falsely that it is, such a characterization is irrelevant to the question of whether it is true. Religion may not always lead to truth about the physical world, but it is patently false to say that it never has or never can.


  1. Bruce Wrightsman, “The Legitimation of Scientific Belief: Theory Justification by Copernicus” in T. Nickles, ed., Scientific Discovery: Case Studies (D. Reidel, 1980), 62.
  2. Quoted in Michael J. Crowe, “Astronomy and Religion (1780-1915): Four Case Studies Involving Ideas of Extraterrestrial Life” in John Hedley Brooke, et al., eds., Science in Theistic ContextsOsiris 16 (2001): 212.