Religion as the single foundation of Science



International Multidisciplinary Scientific Conference on the Dialogue between Sciences & Arts, Religion & Education

Religion as the single foundation of Science

Author: Ph.D. Spyridon I. Kakos

Abstract: For centuries, science was considered as something radically different from religion. Yet, the foundations of true science are deeply religious in nature. This paper seeks to show how religion is the only foundation needed for the formulation of scientific theories, since it provides the core principles on which the building of exact sciences is based upon. Our need to understand the cosmos and our faith in us being able to do so, are the main prerequisites for conducting science; prerequisites that are derived from our belief in us being the sons of God and, thus, being able to read His mind. From its birth on 7 March 1277 up to today, science seems to be the only logical attitude of religious people towards the unknown cosmos.

Keywords: science; science philosophy; foundations of science; religion; axioms; scientific principles

Published at: Academia (here), PhilPapers (here)

> Related YouTube video can be found here


People see science as something different and many times at war with religion. Thus, many would be surprised to know that the foundations of science lie in religion per se. If someone wants to do science then he must first believe in some of the basic principles of religion. This is not a figure of speech, a metaphor or a symbolical aphorism, but a very practical truth. Only religion can offer the justification to do science. The religiousness of so many great scientists is not a random phenomenon that can be attributed to the norm of society back at the time, but a logical consequence of what religion teaches for humans and their relation to God and the cosmos. Once one understands the needs of the scientific method, it is evident that the very first steps of the scientific inquiry could never be taken inside a sterile atheistic (or even agnostic) environment, but only inside the womb of deep religious belief in God.


The purpose of this study is to investigate the core foundations of science and its relationships with the relevant foundations of religion. The goal is to show that religion is not only compatible with science, but it is actually a fundamental prerequisite for science. Without religion, man would not be able to even start his exploration of the cosmos in a systematic way as per the scientific method. Science is not just another way of exploring the cosmos, but a logical consequence of religion when it comes to analyzing and understanding the universe.


The problem under analysis was examined with the help of two tools: Philosophy and History of science. The latter was the tool that provided evidence for the way science has been evolving throughout centuries of human endeavour. This provided helpful insights of how scientific theories are formulated and how scientists think in order to create new scientific models for explaining the cosmos. The former was used to show why the philosophy of religion is the basic principle on which scientific research is based upon. By using specific logical arguments, it was shown that the basic principles of science are the basic beliefs of Christianity regarding the relationship between humans and God.


The findings of the research clearly show that the principles used by exact science today are based on two basic Christian principles. The belief in the existence of God and the belief that we are part of Him (or that we can be part of Him). An analysis of how scientific theories are formed makes it obvious that these beliefs are the basic pre-requisites for conducting science and precede all other axiomatic assumptions needed for the formulation of any scientific theory.

4.1 How science builds scientific theories

Science builds theories to formulate models, which in turn explain (and predict) how the cosmos works. What we call “scientific method” uses various tools to build and verify or falsify hypotheses (e.g. statistical analysis) so as to create those models that explain the cosmos (Hanne Andersen, Brian Hepburn, 2015). These models do not exist in the void but are always part of general theories, which offer an overall understanding of how the cosmos operates. Scientists build these theories based on axioms or principles via the application of specific methods (e.g. logical induction). These principles are essentially the starting points on which the theory is based upon; there can be no theory without such principles, for even the simplest of theories must start from somewhere.

A note regarding nomenclature is of importance here. The term ‘axiom’ is mainly used in mathematics and geometry. The axioms of geometry are a good example (H. G. Forder, 1929). The infamous fifth axiom of Euclid is being taught around the world as the leading example of how axioms are used to build theories. Based on that and four more axioms, Euclid built his geometry, which dominated the world of mathematics for almost two thousand years up until very recently. When the time came to choose another axiom, different types of geometries emerged. All other sectors of science also have their own foundations, which are usually not called ‘axioms’ but ‘principles’. The principle of the conservation of energy is a good such example. This principle is usually referred to as a ‘law’, which can be confusing. What is significant here is to know that in both physics and geometry, theories are based on specific foundation building blocks.

These building blocks are not proven propositions (in the absolute philosophical meaning of the term), but propositions which are accepted as correct based on intuition and strong indications. An axiom or an accepted principle is by definition something not proved. This does not mean however that there are not arguments in favor of accepting them. As it is logical to infer that you can only draw one parallel line from another line, it is also logical to say that energy is conserved in a system – even though we have not examined all the physical systems in the universe. This conclusion is based on evidence currently available, but these evidence are in any case circumstantial when compared to the vastness of space and all the possible systems that can exist in the cosmos. At the end, the conservation of energy is accepted on terms of faith that all the other systems we have not yet examined will continue to work like the systems we have. For the time being, the belief in that principle (or ‘law’) is an axiom that we have to adhere to, if we want to move to the next step of building the theory, while keeping in mind that in the next day some new evidence or logical arguments could prove that principle wrong.

Taking the above for grated, a serious implication becomes evident: It is easy to change theories. In case we change axioms/ principles, then the theories change as well. Examining some indicative – but highly representative – examples of theories will make that point more clear.

4.1.1 From gravitational field to curved spacetime

The planetary movements had for a long time been the subject of discussion among philosophers and scientists alike. Gravitation is one of the most significant phenomena that attracted the attention of humankind for ages. The two most influential theories for gravitation currently are, namely, Isaac Newton’s Theory of Gravitation and Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which includes an alternative explanation of the gravitation phenomena (Tomas Kala, 2019). These theories offer the context to explain and understand why things appear to attract things and why planets move the way they do in the vast space. Both theories are essentially consisting of a set of assumptions that formulate the foundations of a self-consistent explanation for the celestial phenomena we observe.

What is self-evident here is that no matter how we change the explanation, the observed phenomena[1] stay the same. No matter what the theory is, apples keep on falling down on the ground. What changes is the explanation of the why (or how) this happens.

Newtonian mechanics explain the planetary movements on the basis of the existence of a gravitational field, which exerts power over all bodies placed inside it. To formulate that theory, one has to begin with properly defining the notions used, e.g. with the definition of the mass (Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther, 2015), of time and of space. Then we need to accept that this field would exert a force instantly to every body of mass placed inside that field. The existence of that instant force was a point that finally led to the replacement of the gravitational field with the idea of curved spacetime. The Theory of Relativity stated that there was no way a signal or a force could be transferred ‘instantly’, given that the speed of light posed a limit to that interaction (Pierre Fleury, 2018). Therefore, curved spacetime came into play. This curved spacetime in the eyes of Einstein was what caused planets to move. As already mentioned, the phenomena stayed the same. Yet, the theory explaining them was utterly different from the previous one: In the new theory of relativity there is no field whatsoever, no instantaneous force, no absolute space and time. Just curved spacetime within the context of relativity.

In other words, the explanation (theory) is not only dictated by the evidence on which it is based upon; we already saw how the same evidence could provide support to different (and even conflicting) explanations. This is not limited to one area but it is an inherent part of the nature of science per se. In future it might well be that the Theory of Relativity will be replaced by another theory (and indeed, since this is the way science works, we can safely predict that this will happen) that will have an entirely different notion as the basis of gravity. In all cases, what all those contradicting theories have in common is that they explain the same phenomena. And the latter gives to outside observers the illusion that the theories are similar – if not in their calculations[2] at least in their essence, something that is fundamentally wrong as portrayed above.

4.1.2 Quantum mechanics and possible interpretations

Staying in the realm of physics, we can find numerous other examples of how contradicting theories can be built based on the same observations but on different assumptions. Modern particle physics is a good example. The Standard Model shows how basic assumptions are turned into the main founding blocks for theories and how these theories can change in an instant if these assumptions are assumed wrong.

The currently accepted Standard Model of the cosmos is based on the idea of point particles. A point particle is a geometric concept with discrete feature, and its typical representatives are point mass and point charge. Quantum theory – yet another pillar of modern physics – builds on that concept further on and uses the idea of wave particles as its core assumption. Wave particles are figment with both wave and particle features (Z. C. Liang, 2019) and within quantum theory they behave in many unintuitive ways.

To deal with the weird implications of observed quantum phenomena, scientists came up with many interpretations of quantum mechanics (Peter J. Lewis, 2020) (Graham P. Collins, 2007), but not one of them has gained the level of confidence that humanity once had placed on the axioms of Euclid. It is noteworthy to mention that these interpretations are incompatible with one another or even contradicting one another (Graham P. Collins, 2007). From the classical Copenhagen interpretation to the Many-Worlds interpretation, there are multiple ways to explain the observed quantum phenomena. Besides the abovementioned different interpretations of quantum physics, it is also important to know that there are other theories that propose a completely new way of looking into things altogether. So for example in the case of particles, there is a theory which claims that particles are in fact not at all what the Standard Model says they are, but instead one-dimensional objects called ‘strings’ (“String theory”, 2020).

As in the case of gravity, we see the same pattern emerging: One set of universally observed phenomena, but multiple different theories attempting to explain them. A disturbing truth is coming into light as one examines more and more such examples. A truth that destroys the ideal picture we have in mind regarding the relationship between science and reality, by showing how assumptions dictate the theories regardless of the facts and evidence[3] at hand. The facts anyway have to be respected, since they are the starting point of everything. But the theories change when the assumptions change. Based on the same facts and evidence there can be more than one theories that fit the data. Theories that are built upon different assumptions, which are then in turn questioned by other (newer) theories. The multiplicity of theories and interpretations mentioned in this chapter is not a temporary flaw in our understanding of the cosmos that we will someday resolve, but an inherent limitation of the way science works. As long as you have to start your analysis from assumptions, your theories will always be subject to debate by someone else who uses different assumptions than you.

As I will show below however, there are some assumptions that are more fundamental than others. These are the assumptions which form the basis of science itself and the realm from which they emerge is anything but scientific.

4.2 Principles of science’s principles

Having established that there are many principles (axioms) that are used to build scientific theories, the next step is to try to explore whether there are any assumptions that transcend all scientific theories, in the sense that they are more global and universal than others. What is of interest here are the basic principles that make the other principles (and thus science) even possible. If one could envisage a hierarchy of principles, then the principles presented in this section are the ‘principles of principles’ of modern science. Without those, there would be no way to even formulate other principles or axioms, in order to start building new theories. Knowing these assumptions is of high importance, since they are connected to the very essence of science per se. Exploring them will lead to a greater and deeper understanding of science.

4.2.1 The comprehensibility of the cosmos

When people speak about science, they usually omit the most obvious of principles on which science is based upon: The (seemingly unfounded) belief that the cosmos is comprehensible. People use to quote Einstein on saying that the most incomprehensible thing about our cosmos is its comprehensibility (James B. Hartle, 2016). However the actual expression used by Einstein was much more ‘religious’ in nature. Einstein actually wrote in a U.S. science journal in 1936 that “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility… The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle”. (Andrew Robinson, 2016) This comprehensibility or – to be exact – our faith in it, lies in the foundations of science in all its aspects, common to both the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment (Steve Fuller, 2008, p. 5). The assumption that the world is (rationally) intelligible transcends all scientific enterprise (Alan Thomas, 2018) and without that assumption (call it an ‘axiom’ or a ‘principle’ and the essence will not change) there is no point in even starting to analyse the cosmos with scientific tools. If one could state which is the most fundamental assumption used by all science sectors and all scientists regardless of their field of expertise, this would be it.

It is so fundamental that one does not even think of it. But it is there. Buried under every scientific endeavour. Almost tautological in nature[4], it transcends all efforts of the human intellect to make sense of the cosmos and to comprehend its workings. And this is logical in every sense. One does not start walking unless he believes he will reach his destination. One does not start analysing gravity or the physics of particles unless he firmly believes that his efforts will result in something. Such a fundamental principle does not require more analysis or elaboration for it is self-explanatory. Yet, it is still not sufficient to explain science. For the scientist to get out of bed and start experimenting, something more is needed.

4.2.2 Our ability to comprehend the cosmos

The acceptance (by faith) of the comprehensibility of the cosmos may provide a potential goal, but this is not sufficient by itself to make someone start building science. For even if something is possible, this does not mean that it will happen as well. One also needs to believe that he is capable of reaching that something as well. It is not enough that the cosmos is comprehensible. In order to embark on a journey to understand it and explain it, we need to believe that we are able to attain the comprehension the cosmos offers. In other words, if we are to start building theories to explain the universe, we need to believe that we are capable of building those theories – they will not be built by themselves.

Again, this assumption is so self-evident and tautological in nature that it sounds almost paradoxical to speak about it. But if we are to break down the required assumptions for doing science, this belief into our ability to make science is necessary. The possibility of science happening is not enough. We must have – or at least believe that we have – the capability of developing that science. This faith is instilled in everything science tries to achieve today; evident in the efforts of scientists to understand the universe, present in the efforts of researchers to understand the human brain, obvious in our efforts to explain the very existence of the cosmos. We are making science because we believe we can make science.

This second assumptions completes the list of fundamental assumptions needed to start conducting science. After taking these two assumptions for granted, the road is open for analysing specific phenomena, formulating scientific models to explain them and trying to reach a theoretical understanding of their nature. This paper will focus on those two basic assumptions – although it is needless to say that the epistemology of all other principles used by science in its various fields is a topic of immense importance.

The next element to examine is how we came to believe into the above assumptions. What drove us into accepting them and, thus, allowing us to start being scientists in the first place? The results of this analysis will show that the cause of our belief into these assumptions is unscientific and at the same time hugely religious in nature, at least as per the modern way of defining science.

4.3 Reading the mind of God

The quest to find out how humans started believing (or accepting) the two principles described above as the pillars of science, leads to religion. Because it is religion that offers us faith in the importance of man. Without believing in our importance, it would be laughable to even consider the possibility that we have the ability to create theories, let alone comprehend the cosmos. The belief that we can comprehend the universe is based on two major Christian assertions: The belief that we are made in the image of God (Matt Stefon, Geoffrey Wainwright, Carter H. Lindberg, William Richey Hogg, Henry Chadwick, …, Linwood Fredericksen, 2020) and essentially part of Him (Mark Shuttleworth, 2020) (Lossky, Vladimir, 2002) (Athanasius of Alexandria, 2011) [5] and the belief that, consequently, we can comprehend how His mind works.

This was the main idea behind every scientist’s mind up until very recently in human history. As Newton said, “This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all: And on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God παντοκράτωρ or Universal Ruler” (Newton, 1729).

It is not just that if we exclude God from the definition of science then, in one swoop, we exclude the greatest natural philosophers of the so-called scientific revolution – Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Boyle, and Newton to name just a few (Helen De Cruz, 2017). Faith in God was important not only due to social or personal reasons. It was of paramount importance for the actual scientific work of these men as well. So deeply rooted is that belief that even so-called agnostic or atheistic scientists cannot escape referring to the same faith when making science. For example, one of the most famous pages of the well-known book “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking is that in which the writer speaks of an imminent ‘theory of everything’ and claims that such a theory would allow us to know “the mind of God” (Stephen W. Hawking, 1988). For Hawking, an agnostic, the phrase is supposedly little more than a metaphor (at least for his atheist readers), but yet again it is also true that γλώσσα λανθάνουσα τα αληθή λέγει[6]. And surely no one else can interpret what he meant but himself, who for a long time disliked the label “atheist” (Karl Giberson, Mariano Artigas, 2007)[7], even though at the end he started to identify as such.

Hawking aside, one can trace the importance of believing that we can read the mind of God in the thought of all prominent scientists especially in the early era of modern scientific endeavour. To the eighteenth-century mind, the whole world seemed to be evidence of God’s special provisions. God had provided the Earth with an atmosphere with the intention of allowing men and animals to breathe. He had created humans with complicated organs whose purposes were evident, but whose workings were obscure. Kant quite understandably wanted to save God the trouble of making special provisions for each plant and animal, and argued for the possibility of an overriding system of physical law that could result in the world of living organisms that we know, without the need of innumerable particular divine interventions (Roger Caldwell, 1995).

The overall point is that, despite the details, in all cases of scientific thought the idea of a God penetrates everything – either consciously or unconsciously, but always essentially. Overall, humans believe that they can understand the cosmos only because they believe in the idea of them being created as creatures in imago dei. Thus, nature is intelligible for them (Steve Fuller, 2008, p. 5). The cosmos is not considered as something foreign but as a place on which we can exert our mind to make sense of. And even though we were temporarily cast out of heaven, we are still His sons. And as the sons of God, we can understand Him, so that we can eventually reach Him again.

Going back into the first years of modern science is important can help us understand and appreciate the nature of the issues we are dealing with here. The birth of science in the womb of religion was a very important milestone in human intellectual history that we often and easily (perhaps also knowingly) tend to ignore.

4.3.1 The birth of a new child

If we are to understand the true nature of science, we must go far beyond Newton and Leibnitz (who also had God as a cornerstone of his science, refer to Brandon C. Look, 2013), to the beginning of science as we know it today. From ancient Greece up to the time before Thomas Aquinas, science and religion were not separated. At some point though, something happened which separated the two realms of knowledge and gave birth to what we know today as modern science. Understanding how this happened is important to gain an understanding of the character of this new child of human intellect.

There is a lot of discussion on how modern science was born. For many, the birth date is 7 March 1277, when Bishop Tempier condemned a great number of “errors” from teachers. The condemnation sought to stop the Master of Arts teachers from interpreting the works of Aristotle in ways that were contrary to the beliefs of the Church (Condemnations of 1277, 2020). Among the theses condemned were sixteen of Aquina’s theses (J.J. Chambliss, 2013). There is much debate on the significance of this event (Hans Thijssen, 2018). For many, this denoted the separation of theology from natural sciences, where the latter where deemed incompatible with the wisdom of the scriptures. Others claim that this event freed up Christianity from the dogmatic Aristotelian view of the cosmos. Other believe that Thomism allowed the two schools or realism and idealism to agree to disagree to the extent that in the graduate curriculum of the university, natural philosophy could be taught apart from theology. This separation of secular or natural philosophy from theology opened the way for the development of the empirical sciences. The disparities between these two separate ways of knowing were resolved, not by compartmentalizing them into separate domains, but by proving the domains to be philosophically complementary, creating a holistic framework in which we could reconcile apparent conflicts between theology (religion) and natural philosophy (science) (Kondrick LC, 2008). Others believe that Tempier’s condemnation was a symptom of the existence of rationalist currents at the University of Paris, in the sense of the emergence of philosophy as an autonomous discipline vis-à-vis divine revelation, has been further developed by scholars such as Alain de Libera, Kurt Flasch, and Luca Bianchi (Hans Thijssen, 2018).

The details of what really happened are mute. What is certain is that science was born; science that we use today as a separate domain of thought, different than that of religion. Before a point in time, religion and science were not separated, but from that point onwards science as we know it today started following its own separate path. Going forward some centuries, the next important milestone in the life of modern science is the time when it reached adulthood. And even if the exact date of birth of science is a matter of debate, most would agree that the date when science reached adulthood can be placed with the era of the Galileo trial and its implications on how science stood up against its own parent. Again, the details are insignificant in the face of the actual facts[8]. What is important is that from a point onwards the child became a parent, after killing its own father. And from Galileo’s time onwards, science dictated terms in its relationship with religion.

This philosophical separation resulted in the scientists forgetting what was the real reason they do science. They still kept looking for answers, but without religion they had forgotten why they even do it. And in order to compensate for this lost knowledge, they needed to add the foundations to their structure as assumptions. The child was orphan now. And to explain its existence, it needed to invent its parents. The only problem is that when you decide the destination on your own, it is easy to change destination at your own free will. When there is no compass, the final destination is never certain.

4.3.2 Killing our Father (From Understanding to just Knowing)

As a spoiled child, modern science tries hard to get free of the “bondage” of its true father. In its effort to do so, it has created a fantasy of a cosmos that is intelligible (if it was not, there would be no science) but with no reason at all. In its effort to do so, it has created a cosmos where humans are able to understand the cosmos (if they could not, there would be no reason to strive for science), but again for no apparent explanation for that wonder.

The phrase of Einstein about a “miracle” starts now to reveal its true meaning. With religion around, trying to find answers for how the cosmos works did not require any special explanation. It was simply part of the knowledge we were destined to acquire as children of God and as parts of the cosmos itself. But in an era without religion, in an era were God is dead (only because we killed Him as Nietzsche said), the mere action of doing science is absurd. Why search for answers in a cosmos ruled by randomness? Why do science if there is no reason to believe that you can understand the cosmos? In an era without religion, we desperately need the assumptions described in the sections above, while in the years when science was not separated from religion, there was no need for such assumptions since they were embedded in the way humans thought in the first place. Not as assumptions or principles but as facts of life; facts based on the faith on something bigger than life itself as Rilke used to say. And as weird as it may sound, today, in an era when we do not believe in miracles, we do science only because of them.

The ripples of the religion and science separation do not stop at why we do science. The removal of God’s Logos from scientific effort made also science void of any true meaning. That is the reason why science gradually turned from philosophy to a simple data gathering exercise. As Levy Bruhl correctly pointed out, science turned from understanding to just knowing (Wilbur M. Urban, 1924). And the story of science turned from a tragedy into a farce. Because knowing is nothing more than an illusion; with different assumptions we can easily ‘know’ completely different things than the ones we currently do. In a science based on nothing more than miracles, there is nothing to stop us from believing in some other kind of miracles and, thus, changing course to another direction altogether. In the post-modern era when people constantly doubt about everything, there is nothing to stop science from doubting its own existence. Funnily enough, this was not even possible when religion was the dominant way of thinking in Europe.

千里之行,始於足下 (A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step)

~ Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

4.4 Why do we do science?

We have almost reached the end of the road. Having established why the cosmos is intelligible and why we can grasp that intelligibility, we are yet one small step away from fully explaining the existence of science. Because even after taking all of the above for granted, the question still remains. Why do we do science anyway? Even if the world is intelligible and even if we can understand it, why do we choose to do so? A question so simple and yet – as every simple question – hard to answer. Knowing why this happens provides an additional insight on the relation between religion and science, at an even more essential level than the one mentioned already.

We can only reach that level if we see beyond the details of epistemology, details that do nothing but obscure the real question we should try to answer. Behind the surface of trying to comprehend a cosmos and of believing that we can achieve that comprehension, there lies something more fundamental: A basic need for knowledge per se. Science is accepted and used on the very practical basis of fulfilling that basic need to understand and know. Our belief that the cosmos can be understood and our belief that we can achieve that knowledge, only come as a consequence of our most basic initial need for knowledge as such. A need that existed long before we had the tools to attain it

In other words, if our belief that we can answer our questions for the cosmos is the basis of us using science, us having those questions is the reason we begun the journey of science in the first place. Our fundamental need to know, is translated in religion as our need to reach theosis. This was a need that existed for Christians aeons before science came into the scene as an independent realm of human intellect and translated this need for theosis in the need to acquire knowledge. This more fundamental element missing to answer why we do science has been lying in the foundations of religion for millennia now: It is our need to reach God.

And the only reason humans dare to start this journey is because they believe they occupy a privileged position in the cosmos, something evident in the creation accounts of religion. In Christianity, Judaism, and some strands of Islam, humans are created in the image of God. There are at least three different ways in which this image-bearing is understood. According to the functionalist account, humans are in the image of God by virtue of things they do, such as having dominion over nature. The structuralist account emphasizes characteristics that humans uniquely possess, such as reason. The relational interpretation sees the image as a special relationship between God and humanity (Helen De Cruz, 2017). In any of those cases, the result is essentially the same: this special relationship between man and God is what drives the former to start a journey towards the latter. And the first step is the most important part of any journey.

It is weird that so many articles on the matter fail to see and examine the obvious question lingering in science from the beginning: even if we are able to understand the universe, even if the universe is comprehensible and able to be understood, why would someone start the journey towards that understanding? Mere curiosity is one way to explain this; however, this would reduce thousands of years of philosophy to a mere caprice. And would make the non-development of science as logical as the current path we have chosen. But could we ever imagine a world without science? In a world full of God, there is only one destination we could choose. And that is towards achieving a union with Him. That is the only meaning one can ever find in science and the only goal science can ever strive for; for if we are to accept that the cosmos is void of anything meaningful then there is no reason to disembark on any journey even though we know we can.

“If we do discover a theory of everything… it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason, for then we would truly know the mind of God”

~ Stephen Hawking, Brief history of Time


When Jesus Christ came back to Earth after His resurrection, He visited his students for the last time. What did He offer as this last appearance? Did He offer any great philosophical quote for us to remember Him by? Did He provide any deep spiritual piece of wisdom for us to ponder upon? Perhaps He gave us a hint on how to understand and decipher the secrets of the cosmos? No. He just asked them “Are you catching any fish?”. And the students answered “No”. And He helped them. And then He prepared food for them. “Come and have breakfast” He told them (John: 21). And they came.

This very simple story reveals the common ground not only between religion and science but between all types of human endeavour in general. We have specific needs and these basic needs are those which govern our lives from the moment we started walking on this Earth. Our need is to eat. And grow. Our need is to know. And become part of God. It is just that we are progressing too fast to realize that we might be wandering off course, our arrogance making it impossible to know that we are astray. We will eat the apple. Not yet though.

Heisenberg was famous to note that “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you”. Newton had certainly reached that point when he wrote about gravity that “Gravity must be caused by an agent acting constantly according to certain laws; but whether this agent be material or immaterial, I have left open to the consideration of my readers” (Andrew Janiak, 2006). In his theory, as in every other scientific theory, something is ever-present beyond the words written on paper. Something beyond the plain numbers and scientific models. Something that could explain the existence of science per se – and why we would even start drinking from the glass of science to begin with.

Science is not a way towards God nor a path away from Him. It is God himself speaking to us. Look at the most basic assumptions of every theory, any scientific paper. And beyond the words of children who have been lost for a long time, you will recognize their agony that one day they will return home. For unlike religion that has God as its ultimate goal, science has God as its sole starting point. And when we reach the bottom of the glass, He will lovingly remind us the obvious. “You wouldn’t be searching for Me if you hadn’t already found Me”…


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[1] It is important to keep on using the proper nomenclature: Phenomena instead of ‘facts’. The former is what we observe. The latter refer to an ideal form of objective reality many philosopher – and even scientists – deny its existence.

[2] In any case, the calculations of any theory can be improved to fit better with the data, regardless of the theoretical background explaining the phenomena. It is just that when a new theory comes along, the old theories are rarely (if ever) updated accordingly and, thus, appear outdated. This could be misleading and has nothing to do with their actual fitness for purpose. The equations of Newton do not have any inherent inability to provide proper results due to insufficient theoretical reasoning; they can just as easily be fitted to the new observations and be adjusted to fit with the new data we have (regarding the speed of light etc). However scientists are reluctant to perform such work and rightfully so, for practical reasons. If everyone in the scientific community is doing research on the latest theory available, why spend time to update the ‘old’ one? The hasty world of research today does not allow space for such work.

[3] By ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’ we refer to anything we perceive with our senses. This may well be completely invalid or insufficient to describe reality, but that is a philosophical question that is currently unanswered and beyond the scope of this paper.

[4] Tautology could be the only valid form of knowledge, which needs no assumptions to be considered true. However, the analysis of this very important topic is beyond the scope of this paper.

[5] “I said, You are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High” (Psalm 82:6) In the Orthodox Church, the concept of humans being god is neither new nor startling. It even has a name: theosis. Theosis is the understanding that human beings can have real union with God, and so become like God to such a degree that we participate in the divine nature. Also referred to as deification, divinization, or illumination, it is a concept derived from the New Testament regarding the goal of our relationship with the Triune God. [AA16] As Athanasius of Alexandria wrote, “He was incarnate that we might be made god” (Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν). (“Athanasius of Alexandria”, 2011)

[6] Logos which refers to something by mistake, speaks the truth.

[7] To provide the full picture, it must be noted that this changed during the latest stages of his life though, where he declared that there is little or no possibility of God into our universe (Brandon Specktor, 2018).

[8] For Galileo one can find a detailed account on how he was scientifically and philosophically wrong in defending his views the way he did, in the article “From Galileo to Hubble: Copernican principle as a philosophical dogma defining modern astronomy”, International Journal of Theology, Philosophy and Science 2 (3), 13-37 (S. Kakos, 2018).

How do we know the stars are suns? (On the limits of astronomy)


Abstract: The Sun being another star is common knowledge. However, as it happens with all things that are considered obvious, few can actually name exactly who and how the Sun was considered as just another star. It seems that besides evidence from stellar spectroscopy and the measurement of astronomical distances, philosophical principles also played a major role in the building of this knowledge. From the De l’infinito universon e mondi (On the Infinite Universe and Worlds) of Bruno in 1584 up to the Principia Philosophiae of Rene Descartes in 1644, people had started adhering to the idea of the Sun being nothing more than a common star. This idea – also enhanced by the ideas of Copernicus – was later on verified by spectral data and since the era of the Jesuit priest and astronomer Angelo Secchi it is considered an established fact nowadays. However the current huge gaps of our understanding on the nature of the universe call for being much more careful when calling any such knowledge a ‘fact’. More humility is highly advised, especially in a sector of knowledge where we have recently realized we can only account for only the ~5% of it. At the end, acknowledging our limitations is far more important than projecting our beliefs…

[Greek abstract can be found at the end of the article]

1. A question posed…

Once upon a time I had a discussion with friends on cosmology. There, among other things, the question of what are the stars came up. And it was very interesting for me to acknowledge that the answer to this seemingly simple question is not so simple after all…

So what are the stars?

How do we know our Sun is a star?

Who discovered that the stars are “Suns”?

To answer this we must first travel many centuries back and delve into philosophy and the history of science. There, we will find long forgotten assumptions that still dictate how we think about the cosmos.

At the end, you need not worry about the stars not being stars.

They could be, or they could be not – at the end it matters not.

What matters is the human tendency of clinging to dogmas for thousands of years without a single hint of remorse. And this is something we should certainly look into and fix if we are – ever – to unlock the mysteries of the cosmos around us…

2. Searching for an answer…

The first thing to do when you have a question is to search for an answer. But the answer to the question “How do we know the Sun is like the stars?” is not easy to find.

The questions seems to most people so obvious (and perhaps stupid) that they do not even care of explaining why we consider the Sun a star (or vice versa). When this is asked they most usually answer with a simple “Yes they are the same, end of story” attitude that leaves little room of questions, unless of course you want to be ridiculed online that you are unaware of basic astronomy that even kids in the kindergarden know.

Let us look together some of the answers found online for the matter…

2.1 Answers that are not clear answers…

Below I document what various resource in the Internet have to say on the nature of the Sun and the stars. They show clearly the main problem: When something is considered obvious, little effort is put into explaining it. And it is in these ‘obvious’ things that the problems usually arise…

Let us see some excerpts from these resources below…

Who determined that the sun was a star, like the stars in the nighttime sky? Answer: No single astronomer had this realization. Prominent thinkers considered the possibility since classical antiquity; they had creative rhetorical argument on their side, but no proof. By the late 19th century, we knew what stars were, and we knew the distances from the earth to a few stars and to the sun; with that data, astronomers determined that these bodies released energy in roughly comparable amounts. Then spectroscopic examination revealed that the chemical elements in the solar atmosphere were just like those found in common yellow-colored stars spread across the sky. (David H. DeVorkin, senior curator, National Air and Space Museum) [3]

In other words: That the Sun is a star and vice-versa we know because we… know.

Q: im having a hard time believing that the stars are really suns. So from a stars distance, does our sun look like a tiny little star? – Christine (age 16)
A: Yes. [4]

In other words: Don’t ask. The stars are suns. And it is a sin to question that.

Given that the only observational information we have on stars is the light we receive, you might think there isn’t much we can learn about them. But by comparing positions, brightness, and spectra over time, and comparing these with observations of our own star, the Sun, we can actually create accurate models that explain and predict stellar characteristics and behavior. [1]

In other words: We use the comparison between the Sun and the stars to draw conclusions. But what about the Sun being a star? Is that something we consider valid because of some specific reason? Again, this “knowledge” is implied but not specifically mentioned (let alone proved).

As astronomers gaze into the depths of space, they do so with unease: They don’t know precisely what the universe is made of. It’s not just the true nature of dark matter that eludes them; so does the essence of the stars that speckle the sky and populate the many galaxies throughout the cosmos. Surprisingly, no one knows the stars’ exact chemical composition: how many carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms they have relative to hydrogen, the most common element. These numbers are crucial, because they affect how stars live and die, what types of planets form and even how readily life might arise on other worlds. [5]

In other words: We do not know many things about stars or the universe. (keep that in the back of your head, we will use it again)

William Herschel was the first astronomer to attempt to determine the distribution of stars in the sky. During the 1780s, he established a series of gauges in 600 directions and counted the stars observed along each line of sight. From this he deduced that the number of stars steadily increased toward one side of the sky, in the direction of the Milky Way core. His son John Herschel repeated this study in the southern hemisphere and found a corresponding increase in the same direction.[30] In addition to his other accomplishments, William Herschel is also noted for his discovery that some stars do not merely lie along the same line of sight, but are also physical companions that form binary star systems. [6]

In other words: Here is the first specific mention of something concrete. Someone did measure something regarding the stars and drew a specific conclusion. Of course the only thing he was based upon was what he saw: the light of the stars. (keep that also in mind)

The science of stellar spectroscopy was pioneered by Joseph von Fraunhofer and Angelo Secchi. By comparing the spectra of stars such as Sirius to the Sun, they found differences in the strength and number of their absorption lines—the dark lines in stellar spectra caused by the atmosphere’s absorption of specific frequencies. In 1865, Secchi began classifying stars into spectral types.[31] However, the modern version of the stellar classification scheme was developed by Annie J. Cannon during the 1900s. [6]

In other words: Here we have another specific example of concrete science. We measure something and compare the data we have for the Sun and other stars (given that the other stars are suns of course). Spectroscopy is a big leap towards understanding the stars and their nature, since it can provide many data for the properties of these celestial objects. It is only a pitty that this is all we have, along with distance measurements. What else could we have anyway? We have never gone to the stars, we have only approached somehow our own star.

Various Quora questions (Q) and answers (A) can also be found below:

Q: Are the stars we see in the sky actually Suns from other solar systems? – A: Yes – our Sun is just another “star” and those stars are really “suns”. Same exact thing. [7]

Q: Are the night sky stars all suns? A: Yes, almost all of what we see with our eyes in the night sky as ‘stars’, are actual stars (or suns, as it was stated in the question, presumably to avoid using the word ‘stars’ twice, with different meanings). [8]

In other words: Yes, the stars are like the sun. And it is obvious.

The Sun is the dominant object in the solar system by mass and total energy content. The irradiance of the Sun drives climate on the planets and is the primary source of energy for the biosphere of the earth. The Sun is a Rosetta Stone for the study of astrophysical processes at resolutions that cannot be easily attained for other stars. The results of these solar studies can be applied toward an understanding of other stars, including the properties of their atmospheres and interior structures. In the realm of physics the Sun plays a unique role. The element helium—the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen—was discovered in the solar spectrum. The Sun serves as among the test beds for Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. The nature of subatomic particles called neutrinos—the byproducts of nuclear reactions in the hot and dense core of the Sun and sun-like stars—was elucidated as a result of solar investigations. The Sun serves as a laboratory for the study of plasma physics, i.e., the study of the interactions between ionized gas and magnetic fields. [9]

In other words: The Sun is used as a reference to induce assumptions regarding the other stars. So the assumption that the Sun is like the other stars is even more important that we might have thought: The stars are used to draw conclusions for our Sun and the Sun is used to study better the other stars.

ELI5:How do we know that stars are suns? Answer 1: Through spectroscopy, we can determine the composition of stars through their emissions. The experiment you’re looking for is performing this spectroscopy on the sun, and on stars, and discovering that they have similar characteristics. Answer 2: I think to short answer is parallax and spectral analysis. Parallax is a small shift in relative position when the point of view changes. This can tell us the distance. Spectral analysis is a way of determining elemental make up because different sets of wavelengths of light are caused by different elements. [10]

In other words: Again the importance of spectroscopy is emphasized in determining the nature of the Sun and the stars. Indeed this is an excellent tool in analysing the temperature, the composition even the rotation of the celestial objects. Is it a perfect tool? Of course not. What tool is perfect? But it is a very scientific and credible tool in giving us insight in these fascinating objects that linger in the night sky…

So is this the answer we were looking for?

Is spectroscopy the answer to why we consider the Sun another star?

It seems so, yes.

Even though most resources do not mention it clearly, it is evident that similarities of the spectra of the Sun and the stars have made scientists figure out that they must be similar objects. However this answer should not satisfy the researcher here.

Is such a similarity enough?

Looking more into the subject we will discover that there are additional elements needed in order to accept that the sun and the stars are one and the same thing…

3. Regarding spectral analysis

A small parenthesis regarding the spectral analysis based on which we deduce the similarity between the Sun and the stars is needed here.

Electromagnetic radiation with the shortest wavelengths, no longer than 0.01 nanometer, is categorized as gamma rays. Electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths between 0.01 nanometer and 20 nanometers is referred to as X-rays. Radiation intermediate between X-rays and visible light is ultraviolet (meaning higher energy than violet). Electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths between roughly 400 and 700 nm is called visible light because these are the waves that human vision can perceive. Between visible light and radio waves are the wavelengths of infrared or heat radiation. After infrared comes the familiar microwave, used in short-wave communication and microwave ovens. All electromagnetic waves longer than microwaves are called radio waves, but this is so broad a category that we generally divide it into several subsections. [43]

Looking into the light coming to us from the sky, we can deduce many information. Essentially by using the emission or absorption spectra we can conclude things regarding the composition of the stars or the atmosphere of planets, their temperature, density, mass, radius, distance, luminosity, and relative motion [35] [40].

In 1860 Gustav Kirchhoff proposed the idea of a black body, a material that emits electromagnetic radiation at all wavelengths. In 1894 Wilhelm Wien derived an expression relating the temperature (T) of a black body to its peak emission wavelength (λmax). [35]

This equation is called Wien’s Law. By measuring the peak wavelength of a star, the surface temperature can be determined. For example, if the peak wavelength of a star is 502 nm the corresponding temperature will be 5778 kelvins. [35] An object at a higher temperature emits more power at all wavelengths than does a cooler one. In a hot gas, for example, the atoms have more collisions and give off more energy. In the real world of stars, this means that hotter stars give off more energy at every wavelength than do cooler stars [43].

Figure: Radiation Laws Illustrated. This graph shows in arbitrary units how many photons are given off at each wavelength for objects at four different temperatures. The wavelengths corresponding to visible light are shown by the colored bands. Note that at hotter temperatures, more energy (in the form of photons) is emitted at all wavelengths. The higher the temperature, the shorter the wavelength at which the peak amount of energy is radiated (this is known as Wien’s law). [43]

Also the higher the temperature, the shorter the wavelength at which the maximum power is emitted [43] (see figure above).

So that could be a way to distinguish between planets and stars.

The study of many thousands of stellar spectra in the late Nineteenth Century led to the development of our modern classification system for stars [37].

However note that there are also hot planets at the size of Jupiter that have a temperature between an Earth-sized planet and a star. These planets reside in an intermediate section and called for corrections in the models used to analyze spectra [36].

Also note that there are other objects rthat are not exactly stars and which give out similar (but different) spectra, like the quasars or some types of exotic stars [37].

Credit: 2dF Quasar Survey Characteristic QSO spectrum showing distinct, strong, redshifted emission lines of a quasar. [37]

Credit: The Sloan Digital Sky Survey Exotic star spectra example [37]

These are examples that simply make the problem of accepting the similarity of the Sun with the other stars also more of a definition (and, thus, philosophical) one. What is the cut-off point beyond which we decide that a celestial object is ‘different’ than another?

It seems that searching into the philosophy behind modern cosmology we can find out more factors that weighted in the acceptance of the ‘stars-sun analogy’.

4. Assumptions in modern astronomy

Two basic assumptions of today’s cosmology are the homogeneity and isotropy [25] of the universe, something also known as the Cosmological Principle [24] [26] [27].

Also related to that principle is the Copernican principle, a principle on which many articles have been written in Harmonia Philosophica. You can see the “Earth at the center of the universe?” article for more on that.

Essentially the Copernican principle postulates that humans are not in any way in a priviledged position in the cosmos. As already said this is connected with the notion of isotropy in the cosmos (the Cosmological principle) in various ways: If we are in a non-priviledged position then we are not seeing anything ‘different’ in any direction and, vice-versa, if we do not look anything ‘different in any direction we are not in a priviledged position.

I will not argue here for or against these principles (you can read the above-mentioned article or the paper “Philosophical dogmatism inhibiting the anti-Copernican interpretation of the Michelson Morley experiment” if you want such an analysis). The main thing to remember is that they are… principles! In other words axioms accepted as true based on some evidence and… faith.

So to summarize…

  • The universe is the same everywhere
  • We are insignificant

Let us now start a journey in the history behind the acceptance of the Sun as being an ordinary star to see how philosophy had also a thing or two to say regarding what we believe about our star…

5. The role of philosophy in accepting that the Sun is a star

In everything, our philosophy plays a very important and crucial role in what we say, decide and believe. Astronomy and cosmology is not an exception.

The above-mentioned assumptions guided astronomers throughout the recent centuries in deriving conclusions for the stars, as much as observational data did.

To acknowledge this is important not only because it allows us a better understanding of the way science works, but also because it may help us avoid prejudiced thinking in the future.

5.1 A world of ‘worlds’: The philosophers speak of the Sun as a ‘star’

What is a world according to modern throught?

As a result of shifting views of the universe the very idea of “world” (in Latin, Mundi) was changing. In the Aristotelian cosmos, the world was effectively synonymous with the Earth. The sphere of the world and the terrestrial realm were one in the same [29].

In part, what we think to-day when we think of a ‘word’ is based on the ideas of the Dominican Friar Giordano Bruno (an Italian philosopher who lived from 1548 to 1600) who published De l’infinito universon e mondi (On the Infinite Universe and Worlds), in 1584. As part of a suite of mystical, magical and heretical ideas and in part, spurred on by Copernicus’s ideas, he suggested that Earth was one of many inhabited worlds in an infinite universe and that the stars were suns, which had their own worlds [29].

Giordano Bruno decided that if the Earth is a planet just like the others, then it does not make sense to divide the Universe into a sphere of fixed stars and a solar system. He said that the Sun is a star (i.e. not anything special), that the Universe is infinitely large, and that there are many worlds. He was condemned by both the Roman Catholic and Reformed Churches for this as well as other things and was burnt alive in Rome in 1600 for heresy [2]. As he wrote at the time: “The composition of our own star and world is the same as that of as many other stars and worlds as we can see” [13].

In other words, it seemed reasonable to him that the Sun was merely another star, and he subsequently made a distinction between “suns” which generate their own light and heat; and the “earths” and moons which revolve and are nourished and powered by them. One esteemed modern astrophysicist, Steven Soter, has even suggested that Bruno was the first person in history to truly grasp the concept that “stars are other suns with their own planets” [13].

Once Earth became one planet among many orbiting the sun, those planets became Earth like worlds. This new understanding of worlds is reflected in the title of The Discovery of a World in the Moon from the 1630’s [29]. But as it took a long time for the Copernican model of the cosmos to win out over competing models, it took a considerable bit of time for ideas similar to Bruno’s to come to fruition. [29]

The overlapping circles in Tycho Brahe’s geocentric model of the cosmos created a significant problem for the Aristotelian notions of the heavenly spheres. If Brahe was right and the orbits of the planets crossed each other each other then they couldn’t be a set of solid. Rene Descartes offered a solution to this problem in his 1644 Principia Philosophiae. In Descartes system, like Aristotle’s, the universe was full of matter, there was no such thing as empty space. To explain motion Descartes introduced the concept of vortices. The system consisted of different kinds of mater or elements rubbing up against each other. His model included three different kinds of elements: luminous, transparent, and opaque. Luminous was the smallest and was what the stars were made of. Earth and the planets were made up of the denser opaque. The space between the planets and the stars was made up of transparent He stated that Lumnious would settle at the center of these vortices and the transparent and opaque elements would keep shifting around each other. This shifting created the movement of objects in the heavens. [30]

The increasing acceptance of Descartes theory of vortices in the later half of the 17th century brought with it the idea that the stars were like our sun and had their own planets orbiting around them. Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle’s popular 1686 book Entretriens sur la pluralite des mondes (Conversations on the plurality of worlds) broadly disseminated this notion, in a range of editions and translations. (You can read a full-digitized copy External of an 1803 English translation of Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds online from the Library of Congress collections) [29].

The book Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds presents fictional discussions between a philosopher and his hostess, a marquise. As the two characters walk the grounds of her garden at night they discuss the stars above them. Their conversations touch on the features of the Copernican system, potential encounters with extraterrestrial life and the idea of the universe as a boundless expanse. As the book was translated into a variety of languages and republished in new editions for hundreds of years, it presented both this cosmology and the idea of life on other worlds to a range of audiences [29].

Changing ideas about the structure of the universe are also well illustrated in diagrams from William Derham’s 1715 book Astro-TheologyDerham, an English natural philosopher, astronomer and clergymen wrote a series of works exploring connections between natural history and theology. From his perspective, the shift to thinking about the plurality of worlds was significant enough that it should be set alongside the Copernican Revolution as one of the three major shifts in thinking about the nature of the universe [29].

The above history provides a good description on how philosophy and most importantly our idea of us being insignificant (part of a larger universe where everything is the same everywhere – a.k.a. Cosmological principle) like postulated by the Copernical principle dictated our journey towards understanding the cosmos.

The next steps came from ‘science’, in the modern sense of the word…

5.2 The advent of spectroscopy: The scientists speak of the Sun as a ‘star’

In 1666, Isaac Newton showed that a prism separated white light into a spectrum of its constituent parts, rather than creating the rainbow colors that are seen. In 1802, William Wollaston then constructed a spectrometer which showed the Sun’s spectrum on a screen, but noted that there were dark bands of missing colors [13].

In 1814, Joseph von Fraunhofer invented the spectroscope and mapped 574 of these lines, after which a number of scientists helped advance the study of spectroscopy, including Gustav Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen who in 1857 were able to establish a connection between chemical elements and their own individual spectral patterns. [13]

Further study revealed that each element absorbs light of a particular color, thus leaving a specific “signature” line. And after spectroscopes were coupled to telescopes, scientist were able to identify additional chemical elements, and work our the chemical composition of the stars, as well as distinguish between nebulae and galaxies in the night sky. [13]

During this period, an Italian Jesuit priest and astronomer, Angelo Secchi (1818-1878), became a pioneer in the study of stellar spectroscopy, and through analysis of some 4,000 stellar spectrograms discovered that the stars came in a limited variety of types distinguishable by their unique spectral patterns. He subsequently devised the first stellar classification system, and is recognized as being one of the first scientists to definitively state that the Sun is a star [13].

So there you go.

What philosophers postulated centuries ago, was now verified by scientists. Strange how we always verify things we already know, is it not?

But again, could we even know what we do not?

Note: Search Harmonia Philosophica for more on the limits of knowledge, the limits of science and the limits of sensing the cosmos.

Instead of Conclusion: Things we do not know…

But what do we know exactly?

In astronomy the things we do not know are much more than the things we do. Cosmology is full of mysteries that are bravely admitted by astronomers are big gaps in our understanding of the cosmos.

Examples of things that we do not know include:

  • How does universe’s inflation work [32].
  • How singularities form and what they actually are [32].
  • How galaxies or stars formed [32].
  • Ultra-energetic cosmic rays [33].
  • Dark matter/ Dark energy [33] [34].
  • The Pioneer anomaly [33].
  • The Wow signal [33].
  • Details about massive stars: How far away they are, how they form, what is their maximum mass etc. [31]
  • Missing baryons [34].
  • How do stars explode [34].
  • Why is the sun’s corona so hot? [34]

All in all, even the example of dark matter and dark energy that account for more than ~95% of the cosmos [45] is enough for someone to understand that our knowledge is too much limited for us to draw safe conclusions about the cosmos around us.

So what is the Sun?

What are the stars?

Sure, stellar spectroscopy gives us many indications of the answer. But this is the only thing it provides: indications. We cannot know know unless we see. There are many other objects in the sky with similar yet different spectra, like quasars for example.

What is more one of the basic elements used for the classification and study of stars – distance – is measured by methods that have limitations (look at the Appendix I – Stellar parallax for more on that).

Put these notes together along with our knowledge gaps mentioned above, and you will see that our understanding of the Sun as a star (or the stars as Suns) is so safe as the understanding of a Neanderthal gazing the Sun millions of years ago.

Surely the stars may be sun and they most probably are. But our current knowledge of that is based as much in philosophy as it is based on scientific evidence from spectroscopy.

It is important to not only understand but also acknowledge that. Because through that acknowledgement we will understand not the stars but our own self here on Earth better.

At the end it is not about what is or what is not.

It is not about the Sun is a star or not.

All that matters is that we can think in the dark.

Without anything. Within everything.

Admiring the cosmos without need to categorize.

Because, as Shestov once said, when we try to categorize and understand things we just break them down into pieces that fit into the little boxes we have in our mind. (Shestov also wrote many interesting notes regarding astronomy and astrology, search Harmonia Philosophica for them)

Petty human.

Do you think you understand the stars?

Look again.

There is nothing new to see.

(Are you afraid?)

Except what you already have…


[1] How we Know what we know about Stars?, web lecture by Dr. Christe Ann McMenomy

[2] Who discovered that the Sun was a star?, Stanford Solar Center

[3] Who Determined That the Sun Was a Star, Smisthonian Magazine

[4] Q & A: What Are Stars?, University of Illinois, Department of Physics

[5] Astronomers still don’t know exactly what the sun is made of, PBS News

[6] Star, Wikipedia article

[7] Are the stars we see in the sky actually Suns from other solar systems?, Quora question

[8] Are the night sky stars all suns?, Quora question

[9] Sun as a star, Dr. Mark Giampapa, National Solar Observatory

[10] ELI5:How do we know that stars are suns?, reddit

[11] Parallax and Distance measurement, Las Cumbres Observatory

[12] Parallax and distance measurement limitations, NRAO

[13] Who Discovered the Sun is a Star?, Astronomy Trek

[14] Estimating distances from parallaxes, Coryn A.L. Bailer-Jones, Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg

[15] The problem with stellar distances, Astronomy Trek

[16] Negative parallax, Physics Stack Exchange

[17] What is the proper interpretation of a negative parallax, Astronomy stack exchange

[18] Gaia Data Release 2: Using Gaia parallaxes, Luri et al, 2018, Astronomy & Astrophysics manuscript no. 32964_Arxiv

[19] What’s with negative parallaxes?, Anthony G.A. Brown

[20] About negative parallax, Celestia forums

[21] On a reason for the appearance of negative parallaxes in the determination of the distances of stars, Lee, O. J., Annals of the Dearborn Observatory, vol. 4, pp.1-4

[22] Stellar parallax, Wikipedia article

[23] What is parallax? article

[24] Astronomy without a telescope – Assumptions, Universe today

[25] K. Migkas, G. Schellenberger, T. H. Reiprich, F. Pacaud, M. E. Ramos-Ceja, L. Lovisari. Probing cosmic isotropy with a new X-ray galaxy cluster sample through the LX–T scaling relation. Astronomy & Astrophysics, 2020; 636: A15 DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361/201936602

[26] Doubts about basic assumption for the universe, ScienceDaily

[27] Cosmological assumptions

[28] Negative parallax, article

[29] Stars as Suns & The Plurality of Worlds, Library of Congress

[30] Physical Astronomy for the Mechanistic Universe, Library of Congress

[31] 10 things we don’t know about massive stars,

[32] What astronomers don’t know, IRC article

[33] 13 things that do not make sense, New Scientist article

[34] 8 Modern Astronomy Mysteries Scientists Still Can’t Explain, article

[35] Astronomical spectroscopy, Wikipedia article

[36] Modelling the spectra of planets, brown dwarfs and stars using VSTAR, Jeremy Bailey, Lucyna Kedziora-Chudczer, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 419, Issue 3, January 2012, Pages 1913–1929,

[37] Types of Astronomical Spectra, Australia Telescope National Facility

[38] Using Light to Study Planets, JPL, NASA

[39] Spectroscopy of planetary atmospheres in our Galaxy, Tinetti, G., Encrenaz, T. & Coustenis, A., Astron Astrophys Rev 21, 63 (2013).

[40] Using Spectra to Measure Stellar Radius, Composition, and Motion, lumen astronomy article

[41] Spectroscopy of exoplanets, Michael Richmond

[42] Solar system analogs for extrasolar planet observations, Washington university

[43] The Electromagnetic Spectrum, lumen astronomy article

[44] Spectra of Stars, Sloan Digital Sky Survey

[45] Dark matter, CERN

Ελληνική Σύνοψις (Greek abstract): Το ότι ο Ήλιος είναι ένα απλό αστέρι είναι κοινή γνώση. Ωστόσο, όπως συμβαίνει με όλα τα πράγματα που θεωρούνται προφανή, λίγοι μπορούν στην πραγματικότητα να ονομάσουν ακριβώς ποιος το διατύπωσε πρώτος και πως και γιατί ο Ήλιος θεωρήθηκε αστέρι. Φαίνεται ότι εκτός από στοιχεία από την αστρική φασματοσκοπία και τη μέτρηση αστρονομικών αποστάσεων, ορισμένες φιλοσοφικές αρχές έπαιξαν επίσης σημαντικό ρόλο στην οικοδόμηση αυτής της γνώσης. Από το De l’infinito universon e mondi (On the Infinite Universe and Worlds) του Μπρούνο το 1584 έως το Principia Philosophiae of Rene Descartes το 1644, οι άνθρωποι είχαν αρχίσει να συνηθίζουν στην ιδέα ότι ο Ήλιος δεν είναι τίποτα περισσότερο από ένα κοινό αστέρι. Αυτή η ιδέα – ενισχυμένη και από τις ιδέες του Κοπέρνικου – επαληθεύτηκε αργότερα με τα φασματικά δεδομένα και από την εποχή του Ιησουίτη ιερέα και αστρονόμου Angelo Secchi θεωρείται ως καθιερωμένο γεγονός στις μέρες μας. Ωστόσο, τα σημερινά τεράστια κενά στην κατανόησή μας σχετικά με τη φύση του σύμπαντος απαιτούν να είμαστε πολύ πιο προσεκτικοί όταν αποκαλούμε τέτοια γνώση ως «γεγονός». Συνιστάται περισσότερη ταπεινοφροσύνη, ειδικά σε έναν τομέα της γνώσης όπου έχουμε πρόσφατα συνειδητοποιήσει ότι μπορούμε να μιλήσουμε μόνο το ~ 5% αυτής. Εν τέλει, το να αναγνωρίζουμε τα όρια μας είναι πολύ σημαντικότερο από το να προβάλλουμε τα πιστεύω μας…

APPENDIX I – Stellar parallax

Stellar parallax is the apparent shift of position of any nearby star (or other object) against the background of distant objects. Created by the different orbital positions of Earth, the extremely small observed shift is largest at time intervals of about six months, when Earth arrives at opposite sides of the Sun in its orbit, giving a baseline distance of about two astronomical units between observations. The parallax itself is considered to be half of this maximum, about equivalent to the observational shift that would occur due to the different positions of Earth and the Sun, a baseline of one astronomical unit (AU) [22].

The first known astronomical measurement using parallax is thought to have occurred in 189 B.C., when a Greek astronomer, Hipparchus, used observations of a solar eclipse from two different locations to measure the distance to the moon [23].

Limitations of Distance Measurement Using Stellar Parallax

Parallax angles of less than 0.01 arcsec are very difficult to measure from Earth because of the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere. This limits Earth based telescopes to measuring the distances to stars about 1/0.01 or 100 parsecs away. Space based telescopes can get accuracy to 0.001, which has increased the number of stars whose distance could be measured with this method. However, most stars even in our own galaxy are much further away than 1000 parsecs, since the Milky Way is about 30,000 parsecs across. The next section describes how astronomers measure distances to more distant objects. [11]

Although it is correct to take account of the relative motion of the solar system and the star being measured, in fact the trigonometric parallax method is limited to measurements of relatively nearby stars, so this relative motion is rather small. [12]

Astrometric surveys such as Gaia and LSST will measure parallaxes for hundreds of millions of stars. Yet they will not measure a single distance. Rather, a distance must be estimated from a parallax. In this didactic article, I show that doing this is not trivial once the fractional parallax error is larger than about 20%, which will be the case for about 80% of stars in the Gaia catalogue. Estimating distances is an inference problem in which the use of prior assumptions is unavoidable. I investigate the properties and
performance of various priors and examine their implications. A supposed uninformative uniform prior in distance is shown to give very poor distance estimates (large bias and variance). Any prior with a sharp cut-off at some distance has similar problems. The choice of prior depends on the information one has available – and is willing to use – concerning, for example, the survey and the Galaxy. I demonstrate that a simple prior which decreases asymptotically to zero at infinite distance has good performance, accommodates non-positive parallaxes, and does not require a bias correction. [14]

Calculating the distance to the object is easy since the parallax calculations are based on simple trigonometry, although the triangles found in parallax measurements have no relation to those found in “normal” trigonometry. In the picture at the top of the page, the distance that the star appears to have moved when viewed from different perspectives represents its distance. However, even at a relatively close distance, such as that of Proxima Centauri, which is only 4.2 light years away, this angle is extremely small. In fact, Proxima Centauri has a parallax angle of only 0.7687 ± 0.0003 seconds of arc, which roughly equates to an angle that subtends an object 2 cm across, but seen from a distance of 5.3 km away. As distances to objects increase, parallax angles get progressively smaller, until they become so small that they are impossible to measure, even with the most sophisticated equipment available today, and it is at this point that discrepancies in the distance/luminosity stats for objects arise.

The problem of negative parallax

The parallaxes of distant stars should be zero (or at least indistinguishable from zero). If the parallaxes have an uncertainty (which they do), then half of the parallaxes of distant stars will be negative. I think this is all that you are finding in the case of absolute Hipparcos parallaxes. The quote you give from the 1943 paper is talking about relative parallaxes. When you determine relative parallax you find the apparent movement in the sky with respect to a bunch of comparision stars in the same region. You make the assumption that most of these stars are very far away and have zero parallax. If a large fraction of the stars in fact have a positive and large parallax (because you are looking towards a nearby cluster), then the relative parallaxes of the genuinely distant stars in the cluster can end up negative on average. [16]

How should we handle negative parallax?

For closely aligned sources (separated by 0.2–0.3 arcsec), which are only occasionally resolved in the Gaia observations, confusion in the observation-to-source matching can lead to spurious parallax values which are either very large or have a negative value very far away from zero in terms of the formal parallax uncertainty quoted in the catalogue. These sources tend to be faint and located in crowded regions and are also associated with unreliable (large) proper motions (Gaia Collaboration et al. 2018b). Guidance on how to clean samples from spurious parallax values is provided in Lindegren et al. (2018). [17]

The systematic errors in the parallaxes are estimated to be below the 0.1 mas level (Lindegren et al. 2018) but the following systematics remain. There is an overall parallax zeropoint which, from an examination of QSO parallaxes, is estimated to be around −0.03 mas (in the sense of the Gaia DR2 parallaxes being too small). The estimated parallax zeropoint depends on the sample of sources examined (Arenou et al. 2018) and the value above should not be used to ’correct’ the catalogue parallax values. [17]

It depends how negative the parallax is and what your “prior” knowledge is of the distance to the star is. As another answer suggests, there are some spurious large negative (and positive) parallaxes for faint, crowded sources. If possible, these should be removed. If this is not the case, and the parallax is negative, but close to zero within its uncertainty, then it is telling you that you have a lower limit to the distance of the object (i.e. measurement uncertainties have led to a small negative parallax). Crudely speaking, you could add a couple of error bars to the parallax and treat that as a 95% upper limit (remember the 0.1 mas possible systematic error too). Under no circumstances should you “use them as is”, since there is no physical basis for a negative parallax or negative distance. [17]

Although should not use the negative parallaxes, you should not ignore them either. If you are looking at populations of objects, removing those with negative parallaxes will lead to significant bias in your results, as Luri et al. 2018 [18] has shown. [17]

Negative parallaxes can be interpreted as the observer (in this case Gaia satellite) going the “wrong way around the sun” as mentioned in this Jupyter Notebook by Anthony Brown. [17]

Any astrometric catalogue that lists parallaxes will contain negative parallaxes, which at first sight appear physically implausible, yet they are an entirely valid measurement of the true positive parallax in the presence of (large) noise. This notebook discusses how negative parallaxes may arise even for “perfect” measurements (suffering only from random Gaussian noise, without any systematic errors). [19]

The reason a parallax can turn up negative is simple. Errors can cause a star position to off by any direction. During the six months we measure the parallax, we expect the star’s position to shift from A to B. In this case, the true parallax was about the same size as a typical error, but the first error pushed the position reading to roughly where B is, and the second error pushed the star to roughly where A is. So the star appears to move from B to A instead of A to B: the parallax is the wrong way round. We can’t know what the error was, so we can’t subtract those. [20]

Other papers also emphasize that negative parallaxes are simply errors [21].

At the end, everything could be just a problem with the assumptions on which stars are “background stars”: Stellar parallax is the apparent motion of stars relative to other stars, which also have parallaxes. We do not know beforehand which stars are closer than the others, and these have to be inferred using statistical analysis from the entire data. The parallaxes of distant stars should be practically zero. And because they have a statistical uncertainty, then half of these near-zero parallaxes will be negative. [28]

Of course again this places the negative parallax in the category of an ‘error’, thus dismissing it altogether. It is like saying ‘If you have a negative parallax, then your measurement is wrong’.

All in all, the phenomenon deserves more attention and perhaps the advances in astronomy will soon provide a more definite answer on the problem of astronomical distance measurements.

APPENDIX II – Astronomical spectroscopy

Astronomical spectroscopy is the study of astronomy using the techniques of spectroscopy to measure the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, including visible light and radio, which radiates from stars and other celestial objects. A stellar spectrum can reveal many properties of stars, such as their chemical composition, temperature, density, mass, distance, luminosity, radius and relative motion using Doppler shift measurements. Spectroscopy is also used to study the physical properties of many other types of celestial objects such as planetsnebulaegalaxies, and active galactic nuclei. [35] [40]

Electromagnetic radiation with the shortest wavelengths, no longer than 0.01 nanometer, is categorized as gamma rays. Electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths between 0.01 nanometer and 20 nanometers is referred to as X-rays. Radiation intermediate between X-rays and visible light is ultraviolet (meaning higher energy than violet). Electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths between roughly 400 and 700 nm is called visible light because these are the waves that human vision can perceive. Between visible light and radio waves are the wavelengths of infrared or heat radiation. After infrared comes the familiar microwave, used in short-wave communication and microwave ovens. All electromagnetic waves longer than microwaves are called radio waves, but this is so broad a category that we generally divide it into several subsections. [43]

Different celestial objects produce different types of spectra. The spectrum of an object is one means of identifying what type of object it is. How different spectra arise is shown in the schematic diagram below. [37]

Credit: Adapted from a diagram by James B. Kaler, in “Stars and their Spectra,” Cambridge University Press, 1989.: How continuous, emission and absorption spectra can be produced from same source. [37]

Continuum spectrum: In this diagram, a dense hot object such as the core of a star acts like a black body radiator. If we were able to view the light from this source directly without any intervening matter then the resultant spectrum would appear to be a continuum as shown bottom left in the figure above. [37] [38]

Absorption spectrum: Most stars are surrounded by outer layers of gas that are less dense than the core. The photons emitted from the core cover all frequencies (and energies). Photons of specific frequency can be absorbed by electrons in the diffuse outer layer of gas, causing the electron to change energy levels. Eventually the electron will de-excite and jump down to a lower energy level, emitting a new photon of specific frequency. The direction of this re-emission however is random so the chances of it travelling in the same path as the original incident photon is very small. The net effect of this is that the intensity of light at the wavelength of that photon will be less in the direction of an observer. This means that the resultant spectrum will show dark absorption lines or a decrease in intensity as shown in the dips in the absorption spectrum top right in the diagram above. Stellar spectra typically look like this. [37]

Emission spectrum: A third possibility occurs if an observer is not looking directly at a hot black body source but instead at a diffuse cloud of gas that is not a black body. If this cloud can be excited by a nearby source of energy such as hot, young stars or an active galactic nucleus then the electrons in atoms of the gas cloud can get excited. When they de-excite they emit photons of specific frequency and wavelength. As these photons can re emitted in any direction an external observer will detect light at these wavelengths. The spectrum formed is an emission or bright line spectrum, as shown by the middle spectrum in the figure above. [37]

Newton used a prism to split white light into a spectrum of color, and Fraunhofer’s high-quality prisms allowed scientists to see dark lines of an unknown origin. In the 1850s, Gustav Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen described the phenomena behind these dark lines. Hot solid objects produce light with a continuous spectrum, hot gases emit light at specific wavelengths, and hot solid objects surrounded by cooler gases show a near-continuous spectrum with dark lines corresponding to the emission lines of the gases. By comparing the absorption lines of the Sun with emission spectra of known gases, the chemical composition of stars can be determined. [35]

An ideal thermal spectrum is shown on the left below. A spectrum of an actual star is shown on the right.

Stellar specturm example [44]

In addition to the continuous spectrum, a star’s spectrum includes a number of dark lines (absorption lines). Absorption lines are produced by atoms whose electrons absorb light at a specific wavelength, causing the electrons to move from a lower energy level to a higher one. This process removes some of the continuum being produced by the star and results in dark features in the spectrum [44].

In 1860 Gustav Kirchhoff proposed the idea of a black body, a material that emits electromagnetic radiation at all wavelengths. In 1894 Wilhelm Wien derived an expression relating the temperature (T) of a black body to its peak emission wavelength (λmax). [35]

This equation is called Wien’s Law. By measuring the peak wavelength of a star, the surface temperature can be determined. For example, if the peak wavelength of a star is 502 nm the corresponding temperature will be 5778 kelvins. [35] An object at a higher temperature emits more power at all wavelengths than does a cooler one. In a hot gas, for example, the atoms have more collisions and give off more energy. In the real world of stars, this means that hotter stars give off more energy at every wavelength than do cooler stars [43].

Figure: Radiation Laws Illustrated. This graph shows in arbitrary units how many photons are given off at each wavelength for objects at four different temperatures. The wavelengths corresponding to visible light are shown by the colored bands. Note that at hotter temperatures, more energy (in the form of photons) is emitted at all wavelengths. The higher the temperature, the shorter the wavelength at which the peak amount of energy is radiated (this is known as Wien’s law). [43]

By measuring the peak wavelength of a star, the surface temperature can be determined. For example, if the peak wavelength of a star is 502 nm the corresponding temperature will be 5778 kelvins. [35]

The spectra of galaxies look similar to stellar spectra, as they consist of the combined light of billions of stars. [35]

The reflected light of a planet contains absorption bands due to minerals in the rocks present for rocky bodies, or due to the elements and molecules present in the atmosphere. To date over 3,500 exoplanets have been discovered. These include so-called Hot Jupiters, as well as Earth-like planets. Using spectroscopy, compounds such as alkali metals, water vapor, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and methane have all been discovered. [35]

Until recently, the modelling of the atmospheres of stars (e.g. Gray 2005) and that of the atmospheres of the Earth and other Solar system planets (e.g. Liou 2002) have developed largely independently. Models of stars applied to high-temperature objects with effective temperatures Teff > 3000K, with opacity dominated by the line and continuum absorption of atoms and atomic ions, whereas planetary atmosphere models applied to cool objects Teff∼ 100–300K, where the important processes were molecular absorption and scattering from molecules and cloud particles. [36]

This situation changed with the discovery in the mid-1990s of the first unambiguous brown dwarf, Gl 229B. (Nakajima et al. 1995Oppenheimer et al. 1995) and the first hot Jupiter planets beginning with 51 Peg b (Mayor & Queloz 1995Marcy et al. 1997). Many more such objects have now been discovered and reveal that planets and brown dwarfs populate an intermediate range of temperatures not explored previously. This has led to the requirement to develop new methods to model these atmospheres that cover the effective temperature range from below 1000K to more than 2000K. [36]

Spectroscopy is also used nowadays to detect exoplanets around distant stars [41] [42]. For example Transit spectroscopy is the ideal technique to probe temperate planets around M-dwarfs [38].

Related Google searches

Absolute temperatures, efficiency > 100%, definitions, “limits”…


What is normal to most people in winter has so far been impossible in physics: a minus temperature. On the Celsius scale minus temperatures are only surprising in summer. On the absolute temperature scale, which is used by physicists and is also called the Kelvin scale, it is not possible to go below zero. Physicists at the Ludwig-Maximilians University Munich and the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching have now created an atomic gas in the laboratory that nonetheless has negative Kelvin values (“Negative Absolute Temperature for Motional Degrees of Freedom”).

These negative absolute temperatures have several apparently absurd consequences: although the atoms in the gas attract each other and give rise to a negative pressure, the gas does not collapse – a behaviour that is also postulated for dark energy in cosmology. What is more, atoms in this “negative temperature” are more hot than any set of atoms in infinite positive temperatures! Ans this does end here: supposedly impossible heat engines such as a combustion engine with a thermodynamic efficiency of over 100% can also be realised with the help of negative absolute temperatures. (source: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Many times Science sets limits which for many years to come we think as insurmountable. But we must not forget that as we arbitrarily set axioms and principles, we also set these limits that cannot supposedly be overcome. How many people have been ridiculed because they thought thermal machines with efficiency larger than 100% can actually be built? As in the case of imaginary numbers (we once upon a time thought as “true” that the square of a number cannot be negative – then we changed the… definition!) the case of negative temperature shows clearly that everything is in our mind…