Kepler’s Snowflake by Melissa Cain Travis

Sociologist Christian Smith has identified an interesting and important dynamic in Western culture concerning beliefs about how a superhuman power could (or perhaps would) exert causation in the material world.  This belief has played a significant role in the interaction between scientific thought, which has become a highly influential aspect of Western culture, and religion. Specifically, it has promoted secularization by contributing to the idea that the natural sciences have no need for the God hypothesis, to paraphrase Pierre-Simon Laplace.[2] However, the insistence that God’s causal influence in the world is necessarily miraculous by the above definition or else he is uninvolved (or even nonexistent) rests upon a false dichotomy. Moreover, great scientific thinkers of the Western Tradition, such as Johannes Kepler, recognized that there can be more than one kind of cause at work in producing a natural phenomenon.

The Newtonian paradigm that emerged during the Scientific Revolution presented the natural world as mechanical in the sense of operating in a predictable fashion according to rational laws rather than requiring constant miraculous manipulation by its Creator. In response, some thinkers drew deistic conclusions about God’s immanence. The fact that nature had been shown, by prominent natural philosophers such as Kepler and Newton, to function in a manner analogous to a clockwork mechanism was, for some, justification for this intellectual and religious shift. Smith explains that this gave rise to a stripped-down natural theology in which God was unnecessary for “making sense of the natural world,” and “God’s activity was restricted to events that did not seem to conform to natural laws, that is, to miracles.”[3]

Eventually, the perception of nature as operating with law-governed autonomy came to include investigation into matters of origins. Perhaps the best-known of these kinds of scientific projects is Darwinian evolutionary theory. Darwin’s goal was to formulate an explanation for the apparent design in nature without invoking the work of a Designer. Essentially, he believed that elucidating a natural mechanism by which species arise and diversify (evolution by natural selection operating on natural variations) removed any need for divine creative agency. Without a doubt, the acceptance and expansion of Darwin’s work has influenced some to adopt unfriendly or even hostile perspectives on the place of religion in contemporary culture, seeing religious ideas about superhuman powers as being in opposition to scientific explanations or even with rationality in general. (As a side note, Peter Berger has pointed out in The Sacred Canopy that “the rise of science as an autonomous, thoroughly secular perspective on the world” is the most important evidence for the reality of cultural secularization.

Reflecting upon the rise of Deism after the Scientific Revolution as well as naturalistic philosophical responses to theories of origins (both biological and cosmic), one may ask whether or not a material world that develops and operates according to natural mechanism rather than miracle inevitably demonstrates that a Creator is an unnecessary part of the explanation of nature’s order. As stated earlier, I contend that this idea rests upon a logical fallacy, a false dichotomy. In his discussion of divine action in the world, Smith argues that this type of error stems from the failure to recognize what he calls causal compatibilism. He explains:

Rather than conflicting with each other, many causes work in parallel, mutually reinforcing, and synergistic ways. In other cases, several causes may represent distinct elements of the same process, only operating at different levels of the same complex, stratified reality…This means that superhuman powers, if they exist, could very well exert causal influences in any number of ways that are compatible with and potentially indistinguishable from the operation of natural and human causes.[5]

This means that there is a third alternative among the possibilities for how God is or is not involved with the natural world, namely, in ways that are compatible with, and perhaps indistinguishable from, the observed regularities described by scientific theory and the laws of nature. In short, we are not dealing with an either-or situation.

Johannes Kepler, an astronomer and mathematician of the Great Tradition, understood that superhuman and natural reasons for material phenomena could exist in harmony. A giant of the Scientific Revolution, Kepler formulated the three planetary laws, mathematical descriptions of the motions of the planets in relation to the sun. He was also a devout Christian who saw his work in natural philosophy as an act of worship during which he was privileged to think the thoughts of God after him.[6] For Kepler, a universe that operated according to rational laws was highly indicative of a masterful Creator—one who made man in his own image, thereby endowing our race with the intellectual capacities necessary for natural philosophy.

In The Six-Cornered Snowflake, a small book written as a New Year’s gift for a friend, Kepler’s view on the harmony of natural processes and divine agency is whimsically illustrated. In crossing a bridge during a snowstorm, he reports, he noticed the charming six-cornered geometry of the snowflakes falling on his coat sleeve, and pondered the reason for their form:

[O]ur question is why snowflakes, when they first fall, and before they are entangled into larger clumps, always come down with six corners and with six radii tufted like feathers…Since it always happens, when it begins to snow, that the first particles of snow adopt the shape of small, six cornered stars, there must be a particular cause…[7]

He concludes that there is some natural “formative faculty” (closely akin or identical to material necessity) at work in the snowflake that produces its geometric beauty, some sort of law-like dynamic between water vapor and cold air:

I suspect that heat, which until now was protecting the material, is overcome by the surrounding cold, and just as before it fought and exerted itself in good order (being imbued with the formative principle) now likewise it readies itself for escape in an orderly manner, and begins to retreat. It clings to these splayed branches, which are arranged in order as though along a line of battle…taking care (as the histories recount of Olympias) not to give way dishonorably or shamefully.[8]

Yet, although he sees the formation of the snowflake as the result of characteristics inherent to water droplets (despite, nota bene, being ignorant of the molecular structure of water!), he also sees a higher explanation:

Having examined all the notions that occurred to me, I believe that the cause behind the six-cornered shape of the snowflake is no other than the one responsible for the regular shapes and the constant numbers that appear in plants. And since nothing in these matters takes place without supreme reason…I cannot believe that this ordered shape is present by chance even in the snowflake.[9]

By “chance” Kepler seems to mean “without reason,” and later suggests that the reason for the snowflake’s design is artistic adornment. He goes on to speak of his conviction that geometric figures in nature are material manifestations of mathematical truths residing “in the mind of God the Creator…coeternal with Him.”[10]

Thus, in Kepler’s exposition on the snowflake, we see that a great natural philosopher considered two different kinds of causes—the natural tendencies of matter and the rational design of a Creator—to be fully compatible in terms of explaining their symmetrical beauty. His view is an excellent example of Smith’s concept of causal compatibility, in which both explanations can coexist, without contradiction, at different levels in a “stratified reality.” Perhaps a wider understanding of this concept would improve attitudes concerning  the proper relationship between modern science (which has become a cornerstone of Western culture) and religion.

As a final note: It is remarkable that Kepler saw evidence of the mind of God in both the macroscopic and the microscopic, and that he took delight in exploring and describing nature’s mechanisms, which he saw as instituted by the mindful Creator—the one who holds all things old together. [11]



[1] Christian Smith, Religion: What it is, How it Works, and Why it Matters (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 145.

[2] Ibid., 147.

[3] Ibid., 146.

[4] Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy (New York: Random House, Inc., 1990), 107.

[5] Smith, 148.

[6] Carola Baumgardt, Johannes Kepler: Life and Letters (New York: Philosophical Library, 1951), 50.

[7] Johannes Kepler, The Six-Cornered Snowflake (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, Inc., 2010), 35.

[8] Ibid., 91.

[9] Ibid., 89.

[10] Ibid., 95.

[11] Colossians 1:17.

Header Image by Tom Darin Liskey



Melissa Cain Travis is Science Editor of Literary Life