Richard Bentley and the view from space

December 1, 2009

It has often been noted how the first images of Earth from space drastically changed our perspective of the planet. But a similar perspective was imagined by Richard Bentley in the eighth sermon he delivered against atheism in December 1692.

In the tenth section of the sermon Bentley responded to a quotation from Lucretius, who had — amidst an apparent description of the inhospitability of the planet — advanced the contention that ‘in no way for us the power of gods / Fashioned the world and brought it into being; / So great the fault with which it stands endowed’ (On the Nature of the Universe, trans. Sir Ronald Melville, book V, 197-9).

Bentley responded to this by beginning:

some men are out of Love with the features and mean of our Earth; they do not like this rugged and irregular Surface, these Precipices and Valleys and the gaping Channel of the Ocean. This with them is Deformity, and rather carries the face of a Ruin or a rude and indigested Lump of Atoms that casually convened so, than a Work of Divine Artifice. They would have the vast Body of a Planet to be as elegant and round as a factitious Globe represents it; to be every where smooth and equable, and as plain as the Elysian Fields.

He continues to ask upon what grounds men structure these objections and complaints about the earth, and it is here that he asks the reader to imagine, via mathematics, how the earth would look if one viewed it from space. He first imagines the horror of viewing the dry ocean from space, and how marked it would be from normal land. Secondly, he images the ocean bed to appear as normal land if it was covered with vegetation. He imagines how a man would not be able to distinguish the middle of the ocean from normal earth if this were so:

Why, if we suppose the Ocean to be dry, and that we look down upon the empty Channel from some higher Region of the Air, how horrid and ghastly and unnatural would it look? Now admitting this Supposition; Let us suppose too that the Soil of this dry Channel were covered with Grass and Trees in manner of the Continent, and then see what would follow. If a man could be carried asleep and placed in the very middle of this dry Ocean; it must be allowed, that he could not distinguish it from the inhabited Earth. For if the bottom should be unequal with Shelves and Rocks and Precipices and Gulfs; these being now apparel’d with a vesture of Plants, would only resemble the Mountains and Valleys that he was accustomed to before.

Because the contours of the ocean would be so subtle (i.e. like a large valley raher than a steep chasm), the man would not be able to note the difference. He would need to be carried up into the air:

So that to make this Man sensible what a deep Cavity he was placed in; he must be carried so high in the Air, till he could see at one view the whole Breadth of the Channel, and so compare the depression of the Middle with the elevation of the Banks. But then a very small skill in Mathematicks is enough to instruct us, that before he could arrive to that distance from the Earth, all the inequality of Surface would be lost to his View: the wide Ocean would appear to him like an even and uniform Plane (uniform as to its Level, though not as to Light and Shade) though every Rock of the Sea was as high as the Pico of Teneriff.

Bentley does allow for the possibility of such a perspective that would allow a view of the contours of an empty ocean, but, with that perspective not available, dismisses as futile the act of imagining it, and of following those imaginings to atheism:

But though we should grant, that the dry Gulf of the Ocean would appear vastly hollow and horrible from the top of a high Cloud: yet what a way of reasoning is this from the freaks of Imagination, and impossible Suppositions? Is the Sea ever likely to be evaporated by the Sun, or to be emptied with Buckets? Why then must we fancy this impossible dryness; and then upon that fictitious account calumniate Nature, as deformed and ruinous and unworthy of a Divine Author?

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