This is the third in a series of posts that describe my observations of a recent symposium held by City Bible Forum and CrossCulture Church of Christ. The event was titled In the Beginning: A symposium of science and the scriptures, and was held from 30-31 August 2013 in Melbourne. The speakers represented worldviews ranging from atheist naturalism to young-earth creationism (YEC) and old-earth creationism (OEC). I attended the symposium as an interested audience member, but I was not directly involved with it.
This is the second in a series of posts that describe my observations of a recent symposium held by City Bible Forum and CrossCulture Church of Christ. The event was titled In the Beginning: A symposium of science and the scriptures, and was held from 30-31 August 2013 in Melbourne. The speakers represented worldviews ranging from atheist naturalism to young-earth creationism (YEC) and old-earth creationism (OEC). I attended the symposium as an interested audience member, but I was not directly involved with it.
This is the first in a series of posts that describe my observations of a recent symposium held by City Bible Forum and CrossCulture Church of Christ. The event was titled In the Beginning: A symposium of science and the scriptures, and was held from 30-31 August 2013 in Melbourne. The speakers represented worldviews ranging from atheist naturalism to young-earth creationism (YEC) and old-earth creationism (OEC). I attended the symposium as an interested audience member, but I was not directly involved with it.
So, in a previous post I talked about how Nature doesn’t have a voice, and that this makes it difficult to ask it questions. Today I want to talk about an alternative way of interpreting nature.
Francis Bacon talked about reading “both books” in order to gain insight about God. By this he meant that God is revealed in scripture, because the Bible is God’s Word to us, and God is also revealed in nature, because he is the Creator of the universe. It seems to me that asking questions of nature can be very similar to asking questions of Scripture, which in turn is very similar to asking questions of a novel. Let me explain:
Scientific research can be thought of as a process of asking questions of Nature. Perhaps it’s worth exploring that concept in a little more detail.
It is true that many scientific advances have started with a question. And the process of research can be considered a way of asking Nature questions. But the kind of questions that we can ask Nature are very specific.
First, the obvious: Nature doesn’t have a voice. Interviews are out. So we need to look for evidence instead.
The language that I’m using resembles a criminal investigation, and that’s deliberate. Scientific research is in fact very much like forensic work. We look for evidence, we analyse things that we observe, we try to find patterns and unravel processes. Forensics is all about mechanisms: how the crime was perpetrated. However, there’s usually an accompanying part of a criminal investigation, and that is the literal question-and-answer stuff. By interviewing a suspect, the investigator can try to unravel the question of motive. Forensics, for all its strengths, is powerless to address “why” questions. This, again, is like science.
A couple of good discussion pieces by Chris Mulherin that were published recently:
Christianity, science and rumours of divorce talks about the misunderstandings that lead to the perceived “conflict” between science and the Christian faith. In particular, he emphasises the distinction that Christianity is a worldview, whereas science is a methodology.
The second article, Science as ideology betrays its purpose, discusses the hazards which arise from conflating the methodology of science with the worldview of Naturalism.
Both articles can be downloaded from the ISCAST website.
One of the biggest contributors to the idea that science and Christianity are somehow at odds, is the idea that Young-Earth Creationism is the same thing as Christianity. We really need to clarify this point.
Young-Earth Creationism (YEC) describes a belief structure that has made a literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1 the core article of faith. This position seems difficult to reconcile with science. (Of course, a hermeneutically sound – and thus more truly literal – interpretation of Genesis 1 is wholly reconcilable with modern science).
But this YEC doctrine is not representative of Christianity, it’s a strange late-19th-century offshoot with little theological or biblical support. The implications of this unfortunate conflation of YEC with Christianity are covered well in a recent blog at the British Centre for Science Education. The following graphics may help to illustrate the relationship between YEC and Christianity, and are inspired by that blog post:
*note: I’m using the term “creationist” in this post to refer mostly to the YEC position. This term would not apply to someone who, for example, believes that God created the universe ex nihilo, but that Big Bang cosmology and evolution describe some of the processes of Creation.
First, some clarification. We’ll start with what Intelligent Design is not:
Christian doctrine teaches that the universe, life, and human beings are created by God. That is, Creation was a deliberate act. Also, God is omniscient and omnipotent, and chose to exercise creation in a particular way. This is not the definition of Intelligent Design.
The teleological argument refers to a philosophical argument for the existence of God based on apparent design and purpose in the world around us. The universe and our place in it appear to be purposeful, and a purposeful creation suggests a purposeful Creator. Variations on this line of thinking can be traced back to before Plato, and it also features in the work of St Thomas Aquinas as one of his rational arguments for God’s existence. This is also not the definition of Intelligent Design.
So what is it?
Science requires faith.
I realise that statement will upset people, but those are the facts. The comic above, from the excellent xkcd, presents the issue particularly well. To do science at all, we must at the very least have faith in our rationality and the ability of our brains to discover truth. Faith in the regularity of the universe helps, too.
There’s an excellent article by W. Grainge Clarke on the philosophy of science and how it relates to the Christian worldview.
On the topic of the underlying assumptions of the scientific method, he writes:
“These presuppositions are, by their nature unprovable, and some philosophers would consider them unacceptable. Behind the acceptance of these presuppositions lies the fact that modern science developed when the dominant worldview in Europe was Christian. If the Christian worldview is accepted they all make reasonable sense. However, on the atheistic worldview, that all is the product of matter-energy, time and chance, then none of these presuppositions are justifiable. To consider just one case: ‘The human mind is capable of rational thought’. If the human mind has been developed solely by non rational forces then there is no reason to believe that it can be rational and certainly it is not to be relied upon. Consider two computers one of which was designed and assembled by the IT staff at the local university and the other by the local kindergarten. Which is most likely to function well? Yet the kindergarten children have much more intelligence than blind chance.”
You can find the whole article here:
Just a quick update – I recently published an article on the journal Christian Perspectives on Science and Technology, entitled “Children of God: The awkward teenage years“. The abstract below will give you something of the flavour:
In this essay I explore some of the manifestations of ‘teenage rebellion’ in matters of faith and society: how disillusionment with God can manifest and impact our lives. As we grow from infancy to adulthood, an early childish optimism towards our idealised vision of life often gives way to dissatisfaction, cynicism and disillusionment in our teenage years. This is a natural by-product of a youthful idealism based on unrealistic notions, and hopefully as we continue to mature to adulthood we understand life more deeply and regain our satisfaction, enthusiasm and sense of wonder with all that this life and universe have to offer. In general, I believe that this disillusionment is rooted in our early failure of understanding. The core of the Christian faith is a personal relationship with God through the person of Jesus. A person who believes in God but does not have a relationship with him may find that this level of faith is insufficient to withstand the additional pressures, responsibilities and difficulties that adulthood requires. On a broader perspective, I also look briefly at disillusionment with science from the Enlightenment to the present day.
Get the whole article here:
Today marks the 374th birthday of Nicolas Steno, a pioneer in geology and anatomy in the 17th century. Steno (Neils Stensen in the original Danish) was born in 1638 in Copenhagen, and after completing his university education in Denmark he spent the rest of his life travelling throughout Europe and collaborating with prominent physicians and scientists.
While the common approach of scientists at the time was to appeal to the ideas of Aristotle and Pliny, Steno was determined to examine evidence for himself and draw his own conclusions. He was guided in this by his religious convictions about God as Creator of the natural order.
The Telegraph has an interesting short piece from Alistair McGrath today. He looks at the parallels between the faith in the Higgs boson and faith in God, both based on explanatory power rather than direct experiemental observation. He concludes:
“Some tell us that science is about what can be proved. The wise tell us it is really about offering the best explanations of what we see, realising that these explanations often cannot be proved, and may sometimes lie beyond proof. Science often proposes the existence of invisible (and often undetectable) entities – such as dark matter – to explain what can be seen. The reason why the Higgs boson is taken so seriously in science is not because its existence has been proved, but because it makes so much sense of observations that its existence seems assured. In other words, its power to explain is seen as an indicator of its truth.
“There’s an obvious and important parallel with the way religious believers think about God. While some demand proof that God exists, most see this as unrealistic. Believers argue that the existence of God gives the best framework for making sense of the world…
“There’s more to God than making sense of things. But for religious believers, it’s a great start.“
Read the rest of the article here:
One of the many areas of overlap between science and Christianity is that they are both seeking the Truth.
The attainment of truth is often likened to climbing a mountain, and any hiker or climber can immediately understand why. Not only is it hard to do, but once you’re at the top you can suddenly see everything. What was previously obscured is now laid out clearly; what you saw in part from the plains you see in full from the heights. It’s a powerful metaphor, so let’s extend it a bit.
Sex and science: we need to talk about both. And not just on this blog – we need to talk about them in church and at home, too.
Both sex and science are hugely powerful and important. Both have the potential to be wonderful, or to be terribly destructive. Responsibility and maturity are needed before we can safely handle either.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t teach our kids about sex, or science for that matter. Interest and curiosity (in both areas) are aroused from a young age, so let’s rather start the discussions early. Parents and pastors need to be willing to engage openly with both subjects.
But we need to be honest about both. Eventually, kids are going to grow up and engage with the wider world, and the wider world is drenched in both science and sex.
In my last post, I wrote about what “faith” means in a Christian context. It’s a complex and multi-faceted term, but it is important to appreciate that faith is not just an aspect of Christianity. It is a part of life.
Theologian Tyron Inbody wrote the following:
“…faith is a dimension of the human existence as such. There can be no human life without the presence of faith. The opposite of faith is not doubt but nihilism – the loss of order, meaning and purpose in life… The scientist cannot operate apart from faith – faith in the dependability of nature, the orderliness and intelligibility of the universe, the unity of nature and the harmony of its laws. Social life is impossible apart from faith. We cannot exist without elemental trust in each other. If you doubt this, consider what one terrorist attack can do to undermine our confidence in the social order. And we act as if this social order is to some degree moral. We assume and affirm that there are things we ought to do and things we ought not to do. Although we may not agree on which things are which, we act with moral demands that are binding. These beliefs point to the fact that we cannot exist as humans apart from faith. They are justified not because they are demonstrable but because we cannot live without them. They constitute a primordial faith.” (The faith of the Christian church: an introduction to theology)
More specifically, science depends on faith.
The title of this post contains a pair of words that can be difficult to nail down. Let’s take them one at a time:
In common parlance the word “theory” is used to denote something purely conceptual, usually in contrast to something which has been implemented in the real world. This causes difficulty when referring to scientific theories, because in science, the word carries somewhat different implications. Scientific explanations for observed phenomena start as hypotheses, which are basically conjecture. After more testing and data collection, if the hypothesis appears to be useful in explaining the data and predicting results, confidence in the explanation increases. Once there is a strong weight of supporting evidence, we start to refer to the explanation as a “theory”.
The American National Academy of Sciences describes the distinction in usage thus:
“In everyday language a theory means a hunch or speculation. Not so in science. In science, the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature supported by [data] gathered over time. Theories also allow scientists to make predictions about as yet unobserved phenomena…”
So it is understandable that scientists become frustrated with the dismissal of a scientific theory with phrases like, “oh, it’s just a theory”. This sort of language shows a grave misunderstanding of the subject.
Likewise, in common parlance, “faith” is often understood to mean “a belief without evidence”. But in the Christian context, faith carries very different connotations. Theologian Tyron Inbody (in The faith of the Christian church: an introduction to theology) notes three uses of “faith” within Christianity:
- Assent: we believe that God has revealed Himself to us and can be known personally. This aspect of faith is largely intellectual: we are presented with God’s assertions about Himself (in the Bible, for instance), we decide that they are trustworthy and assert that they are true.
- Trust: we believe that God will honour His promises, and that He is reliable.
- Loyalty: we strive to ‘live out our faith’. In this context: “To have faith is… to obey Jesus; it is to be loyal in life and death to the God whom we meet in Jesus Christ.”
Although these three aspects of Christian faith are distinguishable, they are also inseparable. Christian faith is inextricably entwined with understanding: we have knowledge and understanding of God from personal experience, Scripture and the community of believers, and this forms the basis of our trust in God. Inbody writes:
“Faith in the New Testament means belief, specifically belief in God’s Word in Scripture. To have faith is to assent or to give credence; it is to believe. Faith refers to our acceptance of the message of the gospel… Faith means ‘belief in and acceptance of His revelation as true… an act of intellect assenting to revealed truth.”
The Christian faith is not divorced from reason: it is inseparable from reason. But as Thomas Aquinas explained, it is not just an intellectual exercise: it is also an act of will. I decide that certain things are true, and I choose to act on that belief.
A theoretical faith
Now, why have I put these two difficult words together?
Well, my personal exploration and acceptance of the Christian faith was similar in many ways to the development of a scientific theory. From the tentative hypothesis that Christianity is true, I sought more data with which to test this conjecture. The central elements of Christianity are the claims about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I found the evidence of his death and resurrection convincing enough to explore further.
A scientific theory is a framework which helps to explain observed phenomena. What about Jesus’ life and teachings? Do they make sense of the world I experience? The framework of Christianity explains the world that I see around me more coherently than any other.
Of course, we should seek to challenge any theory to test its robustness, so I do this with my faith. The “problem of evil” is often considered the biggest counter to Christianity: Given that we observe evil in the world, how can we believe in the existence of a God who is both loving and all-powerful? I explore this question, and I come to a remarkable conclusion: Firstly, I find in Christianity a compelling and convincing framework to explain the coexistence of evil in this world and the Christian understanding of God. Secondly, if I try to remove God from the picture, I don’t even know what the word “evil” means. It turns out that the “challenge” becomes still further support for my beliefs. And so my faith grows. The more that I test it, the more compelling it becomes.
Christianity also claims that we can experience God personally. Here we must move to the “belief in”. I move from a position of intellectual assent and step out: I seek to meet with God through prayer and personal experience. He meets me. The God I encounter personally resonates completely with the God of my intellectual assent. My faith grows.
From my experience, my belief in God, comes my loyalty to God. I have found that if I seek to live my life in accordance with His will and listening to Him, my life is a much better place. He has shown Himself to be faithful and good.
I do not think that my personal experiences are unusual: in fact, I would say that the process I have described is analogous to the faith of most any Christian. The details will be a bit different, of course. St Paul had a rather more dramatic starting point for his faith, but he still based it on beliefs about God: specifically, beliefs that Jesus was God and that he was resurrected from the dead. Paul’s belief in and loyalty to God were a response to this.
Christian faith intrinsically contains a rational and evidentiary basis. N. T. Wright, the bishop of Durham, writes:
“I cannot… imagine a Christianity in which the would-be Christian has no sense, and never has had any sense, of the presence and love of God, or the reality of prayer, of their everyday, this-worldly life being somehow addressed, interpenetrated, confronted, embraced by a personal being understood as the God we know through Jesus.”
For a final description of faith in a Christian context, I close – as is often the case – with C. S. Lewis. In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes:
“Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.”
Readers of this blog will have noticed that I strongly oppose the inappropriate use of science to further an atheist agenda (see here and here, for example). But this is not the only place that I perceive science being press-ganged to support a pre-conceived and unscientific notion: the so-called “Creation Science” movement uses snatches of whacky ideas dressed up in pseudo-scientific garb to promote a Young-Earth Creationism framework of biblical interpretation. This is totally opposed to honest scientific inquiry and also seems to me to betray a startling lack of confidence in their own doctrine.
First, some background.
Young-Earth Creationism (YEC) can be broadly described as the view that God created the heavens and Earth in six literal days of 24 hours each, and this all happened about 6000 years ago. The YEC position is ultimately based on a ultra-literalist adherence to the creation account in the opening chapter of Genesis (the same ultra-literalism is generally not extended to the rest of the Bible, but more about that another time).
This ultra-literalist approach is not without difficulties. The Hebrew word used for “day” in Genesis 1 is yom, as in yom ehad (day one). In the King James Version, this was translated into English as “the first day”, but the definite article is not strictly accurate: in Hebrew, such a specific statement would be expressed by hayyom harison rather than yom ehad (the “ha-” indicating the definite article). The Hebrew syntax in Genesis 1 is unique within the Old Testament, so it’s not clear that the KJV translation should be read with this level of literalistic adherence.
The rhythmic repetitions of the creation poem are wonderful in underlining the structure and deliberate intent of God’s creation, and guide the reader in understanding the text. Here, as in other parts of the Bible, I believe that the readability of the passage is greatly improved by phrasing events from the perspective of human experience. Read Ecclesiastes 1:5, and then consider whether “the rotation of the Earth makes the sun appear to rise and set” would be more accessible and powerful than “The sun rises and the sun sets”.
Anyway, enough of the hermeneutical difficulties: suffice it to say that the YEC position is that the Bible should be read with complete literalism, as it is the highest authority and impervious to dispute from science or philosophy.
That’s fine. I don’t entirely endorse the YEC position, but I can respect it. What bothers me is when science gets perverted to support a YEC agenda.
See, the fundamental basis of honest scientific inquiry is that you follow the evidence where it leads. As soon as you decide beforehand where you will end up, you have strayed from the light. For the prominent YEC oraganisation Answers in Genesis, radiometric dating must be flawed because it says that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, so AiG suggest that radiactive decay must have been massively accelerated in the first week of creation. Likewise, the universe emerged out of a “white hole”, which is why we can see stars millions of light years away (even though the universe is under 10 000 years old).
But none of these theories result from following the evidence.
Physics tells us that the Sun is a second-generation star. (Basically, there’s no way to account for any element heavier than iron without going through a supernova, so the heavy elements in our solar system had to come from an earlier star which blew). It also tells us that this process takes billions of years. But these theories don’t exist in isolation: the fundamental models of particle physics and chemistry are all intertwined, and are independently relied upon for a host of other scientific theories. All our theories about atoms, elements, fundamental particles and their interactions is bound up with our understanding of the strong and weak atomic forces and electromagnetic attraction, and these are the same forces that dictate element formation in supernovae. You can’t just pick and choose with this stuff.
If you want to deny science entirely and adhere to a blind literalism, that’s fine. I think it’s imprudent and intellectually limiting, but that’s your choice. But be consistent. Don’t start off denying the validity of science and then try and use science to support your worldview.
Richard Dawkins and Ken Ham have something in common: they both start their scientific inquiry at the wrong end. Both take a faith-based stance and then cherry-pick whatever science they think will support their pre-determined conclusion. And they both end up doing a disservice to science, as well as to their respective creeds.
It’s a common atheist article of faith – at least amongst members of the more vocal denominations – that science is the only reliable path to knowledge. There are a few problems with this belief, mostly to do with the fundamental limitations of the framework in which scientific inquiry operates, which usually leads to flawed claims about what science can demonstrate.
The problem becomes even bigger when we move away from the proper domain of science but still try and sound all “sciencey” – generally to try and give a weak argument a veneer of authority. Thus we see such unfortunate mixed metaphors as “mind virus”, “meme” and “cultural evolution”, all of which take concepts from their proper scientific domain of biology and arbitrarily apply them to psychology and sociology, in which fields they are hopelessly inappropriate.
What exactly is the memetic equivalent for DNA? Has it been identified?
How exactly is a “mind virus” distinct from “a popular idea that I personally don’t like”?
“Memes” and other non-scientific ravings
This unfortunate tendency is displayed by professional scientists as well as dilettantes. Let’s look, for example, at an early instance of Richard Dawkins stepping off the edge of the scientific map but clinging desperately to the jargon. The passage below is from The Selfish Gene, in which Dawkins first introduced his odious “meme”:
The laws of physics are supposed to be true all over the accessible universe. Are there any principles of biology that are likely to have similar universal validity? … I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet… Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.
…And this isn’t just a way of talking — the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.
…Consider the idea of God. We do not know how it arose in the meme pool. Probably it originated many times by independent `mutation’.
Here’s the recipe that Dawkins seems to be following to create his theory:
1. Take a tiny pinch of physics.
2. Misappropriate a dab of biology.
3. Mix in a whole lot of crazy guesswork and random analogies.
4. Top it off with a broad covering of atheism.
Let me unpack that in a bit more detail:
His opening statement about physics is misleading. He refers to the universal applicability of the laws of physics, but this is in itself an assumption. The laws of physics that we know about operate only within limits: we hope that there are even more fundamental (as yet unknown) laws that are universal, but it’s still a work in progress. The Dark Matter questions illustrate these problems.
From a wobbly starting assumption about physics, Dawkins leaps straight to a wholly unfounded assumption about biology – that it must operate the same way that physics (maybe) operates. From there he moves confidently to claiming to have identified a universal principle of biology (the existence of mutating replicators), and identifying (how, exactly?) a new example of the type (memes).
Then he dives headfirst into the jargon soup: meme-pools, memetic propogation, etc, freely borrowing from biological terminology with no explanation of how such analogues are justifiable.
This would be misleading enough if he were merely employing a bad metaphor, but he freely claims that “this isn’t just a way of talking” – his meme is an identifiable feature of the universe!
Wow, those are some big claims.
What’s his evidence for memes, by the way? Oh, that’s right: there isn’t any.
Well, as Dawkins famously said:
“…next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.”
How, in all this, is his use of “meme” more useful to the conversation than just saying “idea”? What it his justification for the new term?
Simple: it sounds more sciencey.
“God hypothesis” is not a scientific term
There is another misleading expression much beloved of Dawkins and his ilk, and that is “the God hypothesis”. Like “meme”, this terminology is pseudo-scientific claptrap masquerading as rationality.
The word “hypothesis” has a specific meaning in science: it’s a tentative explanation for something which can be further tested. But the expression “God hypothesis” is ridiculous, particularly when the discussion concerns Christianity (in which context it is most often employed). God supercedes the natural world, and is impervious to experimentation.
More importantly, the impression conveyed by the phrase “God hypothesis” is that “well, we don’t know how this thing works, so let’s invoke some supernatural creator of the universe and claim that he did it”. But this is also ridiculous and misleading.
Let’s take the origin of the universe as an example, since that’s where the phrase is most often used.
Scientific consensus is that time and space were created about 15 billion years ago, and also that observation is impossible of events “before” t=0. Thus scientific consensus also declares that scientific inquiry is limited to the period after the Big Bang, and cannot investigate a causal agent.
So the short version is, science can’t help us with the question of whether God created the universe.
At this point, big and fancy words like “parsimony” tend to get thrown into the conversation. The argument is that “God” is a complex idea, and introducing “God” just to explain the Big Bang is philosophical overkill. (Philosophical, note, not scientific – remember that we are off the scientific map).
However, the Christian view does not suggest God as an arbitrary causal agent: knowledge of God exists independently of Origin questions, and views of God creating everything (including time) from outside of creation predate the Big Bang model by nearly three millenia. Augustine, writing 1500 years before the genesis of the Big Bang theory, described God outside of Time and God as a Prime Cause – this in an age when an eternal universe was the norm for non-Christian thought. Similarly, when Thomas Aquinas developed his argument of a “necessary God” in Summa Theologica, this line of reasoning was independent of the Prime Cause issue.
The point is, God already exists in the Christian worldview. We already have knowledge of God from personal and historical revelation, from rational inquiry into the Universe, and so on. If anything, it actually simplifies the picture for God to also be the prime cause – He is not invoked to fill a gap, He is already in the worldview.
I attended a forum last week entitled “Is there certainty beyond science?”. As one of the speakers pointed out, perhaps a useful starting question would be, “Is there certainty within science?”, but the title did raise some interesting questions about what we mean by the words “certainty” and “science”.
Certainly (see what I did there?) there seems to be a common assumption that science at least aims to find certainty in the midst of confusion. The general perception is that science rigorously follows a trail of evidence to reach conclusions which can be claimed with a high degree of confidence. And there are even mechanisms to try and assess the degree of uncertainty in a given scientific theorem (although the willingness of adherents to acknowledge that uncertainty may be somewhat hit-and-miss).
What is often missing from the conversation is the impact of methodological assumptions on the usefulness of the conclusions which result from a particular methodology. Let’s look at mathematics as an extreme example.
Maths operates within the ultimate abstraction. It is a realm of pure ideas. This has advantages: because the system is entirely conceptual, the laws can be rigorously defined. This allows us to “prove” mathematical theorems by conclusively demonstrating a logical consistency. But to apply a mathematical concept to anything real, we must project from the abstraction back to the real world, where we cannot rigorously define the laws. Some of the projections are useful: arithmetic operations are easily projected onto everyday objects (so “3 bananas + 4 bananas” can easily be understood as seven actual bananas). Some projections are less straightforward: the relationship between a second-order differential equation and the acceleration of a car under constant force is not quite as intuitive.
Science also operates within an abstraction. The realm of science is limited by its methodological assumptions, such as philosophical naturalism and the regularity of nature. These assumptions are useful in that they allow us to limit the potential interactions that we investigate to those which are amenable to the tools of science. In other words, we limit what we will accept as an explanation of phenomena, and this allows us to define our area of investigation. But in making these assumptions, we have created an abstraction of the real world, and it is this abstraction that we investigate rather than the real world itself. As in the case of mathematics, the conclusions may or may not be readily suited to being projected back into our understanding of the real world.
It is worth noting that any of our abstractions are only definable from outside the system. We say that mathematics operates within a logically consistent and rigorously defined framework, but its logical consistency cannot be proven mathematically. (This isn’t a case of “It hasn’t been done yet”, this is a case of “It’s impossible even in principle”). We make a working assumption of methodological naturalism when we engage in scientific research, but we cannot scientifically demonstrate the validity of such an assumption.
Perhaps more interestingly, this also implies that we cannot fully define the operational parameters of the real world from within the system.
So, I recently wrote an essay (“On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth“) about modelling and its relationship to reality, and also how modelling helps to illustrate how scientific theories work. My main point was that models (and other theories) are limited by their assumptions, and it is generally disastrous to apply a model out of its original context and objectives, because we almost invariably end up inheriting inappropriate assumptions.
At the same time, I’m reading Fee & Stuart’s How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, and thus I’m thinking a lot about appropriate exegesis and hermeneutics in a Biblical context. I see many parallels between the ideas presented in the modelling essay and the approach described by Fee and Stuart. Thinking about this more, I’m wondering if there isn’t something to be said for a similar approach to scriptural interpretation as we use for scientific theories.
Let me try and explain what I mean.
With science, we believe that there is an underlying truth that is the natural order, and we build and test theories (and models) to try and understand that natural order better. Our theories are not the fullness of nature, but they represent (sometimes well, sometimes poorly) certain aspects of nature.
Similarly, we believe that the Bible contains God’s truth, and remains relevant to all of us at all times. But to understand a given passage, we must first understand the context and literary style of the writing (the exegesis part), and then interpret the text within that framework (the hermeneutical part). But our interpretation of the scripture remains a representation of the Truth, rather than being the fullness of the Truth.
In the same way that we cannot take a scientific theory which describes the interaction of sub-atomic particles at a quantum scale and apply it to larger scales, we cannot take a hermeneutic which is appropriate for one book and apply it to the whole Bible. Our hermeneutic for a particular passage incorporates assumptions that are specific to that book, and we risk inheriting inappropriate assumptions in using the same hermeneutic for another passage.
It is equally inappropriate to use a literal historical hermeneutic from (for instance) 1 Samuel and apply it to the Psalms as it is to use a theory from the field of genetics and apply it to psychology.
This is still very much at the idea stage, so I’d appreciate your thoughts!
Another excerpt from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, this time on the subject of miracles:
But my belief that miracles have happened in human history is not a mystical belief at all; I believe in them upon human evidences as I do in the discovery of America. Upon this point there is a simple logical fact that only requires to be stated and cleared up. Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder … If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things … you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism — the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist. It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence — it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed. But I am not constrained by any creed in the matter, and looking impartially into certain miracles of mediaeval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that they occurred. All argument against these plain facts is always argument in a circle. If I say, “Mediaeval documents attest certain miracles as much as they attest certain battles,” they answer, “But mediaevals were superstitious”; if I want to know in what they were superstitious, the only ultimate answer is that they believed in the miracles … Iceland is impossible because only stupid sailors have seen it; and the sailors are only stupid because they say they have seen Iceland.
The sceptic always takes one of the two positions; either an ordinary man need not be believed, or an extraordinary event must not be believed.
Another excerpt from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. (I promise I’m not being lazy with these extended quotations, it’s just that he was such a great writer I don’t want to detract from them with my own scribblings).
“The kinship and competition of all living creatures can be used as a reason for being insanely cruel or insanely sentimental; but not for a healthy love of animals. On the evolutionary basis you may be inhumane, or you may be absurdly humane; but you cannot be human. That you and a tiger are one may be a reason for being tender to a tiger. Or it may be a reason for being as cruel as the tiger. It is one way to train the tiger to imitate you, it is a shorter way to imitate the tiger. But in neither case does evolution tell you how to treat a tiger reasonably, that is, to admire his stripes while avoiding his claws.
“If you want to treat a tiger reasonably, you must go back to the garden of Eden. For the obstinate reminder continued to recur: only the supernatural has taken a sane view of Nature. The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really in this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshippers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.”
This essay is part of a series which explores historical encounters which are often presented as “conflicts” between science and Christianity.
This article has been expanded – the full version can be found here.
“We have no sympathy with those who object to any facts or alleged facts in nature, or to any inference logically deduced from them, because they believe them to contradict what it appears to them is taught by Revelation.” (Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, The Quarterly Review, July 1860)
Second only to the Galileo affair in the “conflict” mythos is the encounter between Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Henry Huxley on June 30, 1860. Frequently referred to as “the Wilberforce/Huxley debate”, this story seems to have all the elements of the postulated “conflict”:
- The main characters:
Wilberforce was at the time Lord Bishop of Oxford.
Huxley is best known for his aggressive defence of science (as reflected in his nickname “Darwin’s bulldog”) and his agnosticism (he in fact coined the term to describe his beliefs).
- The topic:
Darwinian evolution (and its perceived conflict with the Bible) is probably the most prominent battleground in the supposed “war” between science and religion. This incident took place the year after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species.
- The drama of the legend itself:
Here’s a typical account of the events (taken from Ruth Moore’s Charles Darwin, 1957):
“For half an hour the Bishop spoke, savagely ridiculing Darwin and Huxley, and then he turned to Huxley, who sat with him on the platform. In tones icy with sarcasm he put his famous question: was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from an ape?
The cheers rolled up and the ladies fluttered their white handkerchiefs. Henslow pounded for order. The Bishop had scored.
At the Bishop’s question, Huxley had clapped the knee of the surprised scientist beside him and whispered, “The Lord hath delivered him unto mine hands.” The “wildcat” in Huxley was thoroughly aroused by what he considered the Bishop’s insolence and ignorance, and he tore into the arguments that Wilberforce had used… Working up to his climax, he shouted that he would feel no shame in having an ape as an ancestor, but that he would be ashamed of a brilliant man who plunged into scientific questions of which he knew nothing. In effect Huxley said that he would prefer an ape to the Bishop as an ancestor, and the crowd had no doubt of his meaning.
The room dissolved into an uproar. Men jumped to their feet, shouting at this direct insult to the clergy. Lady Brewster fainted. Admiral Fitzroy, the former Captain of the Beagle, waved a Bible aloft, shouting over the tumult that it, rather than the viper he had harbored in his ship, was the true and unimpeachable authority. Arguments broke out all over the room, and Hooker said that his blood boiled…
The issue had been joined. From that hour on, the quarrel over the elemental issue that the world believed was involved, science versus religion, was to rage unabated.”
What a story! The witty gibes, an ignorant clergyman talking out of his field of expertise, the iconic image of the Admiral dramatically waving his Bible, the ironic semi-ecclesiastical quip from Huxley as he rises nobly to meet this challenge to truth, the swooning ladies…
Pity it’s not true.
The image conjured above of rousing rhetoric from Huxley followed by descent into chaos and disorder is grossly misleading, as is the impression that Huxley was considered to have “won” the debate. This perception is based on thoroughly revisionist reconstructions, first by Huxley himself (over 30 years later) and then by 20th-century writers, largely due to shifting attitudes towards evolution and anachronistic re-interpretation of the actual events.
As Sheridan Gilley writes:
“The standard account is a wholly one-sided effusion from the winning side, put together long after the event, uncritically copied from book to book, and shaped by the hagiographic conventions of Victorian life and letters.” (The Huxley-Wilberforce debate: A reconsideration, 1981)
Let’s see if we can sift some of the fact from the fiction.
Settling the account
There is no verbatim transcript of the meeting, but it was reported in three issues of The Athenaeum (30 June, 7 and 14 July 1860), and there also exist numerous letters from those present which allow us to reconstruct the events with considerable confidence.
Firstly, it was not a debate – it was a series of discussions following the presentation of a paper by John Draper on some of the social implications of Darwinism. Although the presentation itself was by all accounts long and boring, the subject was a significant one, and Darwinism had been very much in the public mind that week. (Two days earlier, Huxley had vigorously debated the subject with Richard Owen after the presentation of a paper by the botanist Charles Daubeny). Darwin’s theories were on everyone’s mind, and only illness prevented the man himself from attending. The meeting was chaired by John Stevens Henslow, Darwin’s former mentor from Cambridge, and after Draper’s presentation Henslow invited various people to speak in turn.
The image of Huxley rising valiantly to defend Darwinism is not, it must be said, entirely accurate. After Draper’s presentation, Henslow invited Huxley to comment (in his capacity as a leading proponent of Darwinism), but was rebuffed with a sarcastic retort. Only then did Henslow turn to Wilberforce to put across some of the main points at issue.
We’ll deal with Wilberforce’s actual arguments a little later. Let’s first finish our construction of the events.
Huxley’s ironic quip “The Lord hath delivered him unto mine hands” first appears more than thirty years later, and is almost certainly a later insertion to the story. Huxley’s own contemporary account, in a letter to Henry Dyster on September 9, 1860, makes no mention of this remark. But he did personally insert the detail into two much later accountsof the incident: in Francis Darwin’s 1892 biography of his father Charles, and in Leonard Huxley’s 1900 biography of his own father. Huxley had also, by this stage, adopted a vehemently anti-clerical stance which can hardly have failed to colour his later recollections.
More reliable accounts indicate that although Huxley did respond with the “monkey” retort, the remainder of his speech was unremarkable. Balfour Stewart, a prominent scientist and director of the Kew Observatory, wrote afterward that (in a letter to David Forbes on July 4 1860), “I think the Bishop had the best of it.” Joseph Dalton Hooker, Darwin’s friend and botanical mentor, noted in a letter to Darwin (dated July 2) that Huxley had been largely inaudible in the hall:
“Well, Sam Oxon got up and spouted for half an hour with inimitable spirit, ugliness and emptiness and unfairness … Huxley answered admirably and turned the tables, but he could not throw his voice over so large an assembly nor command the audience … he did not allude to Sam’s weak points nor put the matter in a form or way that carried the audience.”
It is likely that Hooker’s main point is accurate, that Huxley was not effective in speaking to the large audience. He was not yet an accomplished speaker and wrote afterward that he had been inspired as to the value of oration by what he witnessed in that meeting.
Next, Henslow called upon Admiral Robert FitzRoy, who had been Darwin’s captain and companion on the voyage of the Beagle twenty-five years earlier. FitzRoy denounced Darwin’s book and, “lifting an immense Bible first with both hands and afterwards with one hand over his head, solemnly implored the audience to believe God rather than man”. Although there is some resemblance to the legend, note that this actually happened with the Admiral speaking from the podium in a well-ordered room.
The last speaker of the day was Hooker. According to his own account, it was he and not Huxley who delivered the most effective reply to Wilberforce’s arguments: “Sam was shut up – had not one word to say in reply, and the meeting was dissolved forthwith”. Canon Farrar, a liberal clergyman who was present, wrote later:
“The speech which really left its mark scientifically on the meeting was the short one of Hooker… I should say that to fair minds, the intellectual impression left by the discussion was that the Bishop had stated some facts about the perpetuity of the species, but that no one had really contributed any valuable point to the opposite side except Hooker.”
Notably, there was no consensus amongst those present as to which side had “carried the day”. In fact, all three major participants felt they had had the best of the debate:
Wilberforce: “On Saturday Professor Henslow … called on me by name to address the Section on Darwin’s theory. So I could not escape and had quite a long fight with Huxley. I think I thoroughly beat him.”
Huxley: “[I was] the most popular man in Oxford for a full four & twenty hours afterwards.”
Hooker: “I have been congratulated and thanked by the blackest coats and whitest stocks in Oxford.”
Wilberforce in context
Sam Wilberforce was not just the Bishop of Oxford, he was also a Fellow of the Royal Society, a prominent ornithologist and Vice President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. His part in the incident was not that of an ignorant cleric, but of a keen and accomplished amateur offering an important and considered critique of Darwin’s theory from a scientific perspective.
This is a vital point, because if we are to understand this incident at all we must rid ourselves of the idea that it was an exchange between religion and science. Indeed, it was for his knowledge of science (as well as his familiarity with speaking to large groups) that Henslow called on Wilberforce to comment.
Although we do not have a verbatim transcript of Wilberforce’s speech, the reports indicate that it was very similar in substance to a review of Darwin’s Origin of Species that he had penned just five weeks earlier (and published in The Quarterly Review of July 1860). Philosopher and mathematician John Lucas notes (in his essay Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter) that: “Wilberforce, contrary to the central tenet of the legend, did not prejudge the issue. The main bulk of the review is given over to an entirely scientific assessment of Darwin’s Theory.”
Let’s look at two key passages of Wilberforce’s review. In the first, we see a strong adherence to rational scientific principles and a dedication to following the evidence where it leads:
“But we are too loyal pupils of inductive philosophy to start back from any conclusion by reason of its strangeness. Newton’s patient philosophy taught him to find in the falling apple the law which governs the silent movements of the stars in their courses; and if Mr Darwin can with the same correctness of reasoning demonstrate to us our fungular descent, we shall dismiss our pride, and avow, with the characteristic humility of philosophy, our unsuspected cousinship with the mushrooms … only we shall ask leave to scrutinise carefully every step of the argument which has such an ending, and demur if at any point of it we are invited to substitute unlimited hypothesis for patient observation, or the spasmodic fluttering flight of fancy for the severe conclusions to which logical accuracy of reasoning has led the way.”
His point about consistent scrutiny of evolutionary theory has, sadly, been much overlooked in the last century, but more on that later. In another passage he unequivocally states his belief that scientific theories must be judged purely on their scientific merits:
“Our readers will not have failed to notice that we have objected to the views with which we are dealing solely on scientific grounds. We have done so from our fixed conviction that it is thus that the truth or falsehood of such arguments should be tried. We have no sympathy with those who object to any facts or alleged facts in nature, or to any inference logically deduced from them, because they believe them to contradict what it appears to them is taught by Revelation. We think that all such objections savour of a timidity which is really inconsistent with a firm and well-intrusted faith.”
We see very clearly here an intent to argue a scientific hypothesis from a scientific perspective, trying as much as possible to avoid pre-judging the results. Lucas comments further that: “On the strength of the review it would be quite impossible to make out Wilberforce as the prelatical apostle of ecclesiastical authority trying to down the honest observations of simple science.”
The report in The Athenaeum clearly indicates that Wilberforce presented his criticism of Darwinism from a scientific base:
“The Bishop of Oxford stated that the Darwinian theory, when tried by the principles of inductive science, broke down. The facts brought forward, did not warrant the theory…
Mr Darwin’s conclusions were an hypothesis, raised most unphilosophically to the dignity of a causal theory. He was glad to know that the greatest names in science were opposed to this theory, which he believed to be opposed to the interests of science and humanity.”
Jackson’s Oxford Journal, the other publication to report on the meeting at the time, carried a similar description of Wilberforce’s arguments. Wilberforce, according to the Journal, condemned the Darwinian theory as:
“…unphilosophical; as founded, not on philosophical principles, but upon fancy, and he denied that one instance had been produced by Mr Darwin on the alleged change from one species to another had ever taken place [sic]. He alluded to the weight of authority that had been brought to bear against it – men of eminence, like Sir B. Brodie and Professor Owen, being opposed to it, and concluded, amid much cheering, by denouncing it as degrading to man, and as a theory founded upon fancy, instead of upon facts.”
The scientific case
So now that we have established that Wilberforce was arguing from science, what exactly were his arguments? Basically, he presented three points:
- In the timescale of human history, no evidence of the emergence of new species could be observed. This despite very long-term exercises in artificial selective breeding such as dogs and horses.
- While selective pressures did indeed seem to have an effect of causing changes in morphology (body type), they do not cause changes between species.
- The sterility of hybrids (such as mules, which are the offspring of horses and asses) argues strongly for the fixity of species and against successful changes in species.
Considering the actual arguments presented in Origins, and the state of knowledge at the time, these were all valid and highly problematic points against Darwin’s theory. Lucas clarifies:
“As regards the first point we now know that Wilberforce is wrong; but on the other two points he was right. Dogs, horses and pigeons have been selectively bred for thousands of generations, yet different breeds not only remain mutually fertile, but are liable to revert to type. Obvious changes in the phenotype are less significant than Darwin claimed, and species are genetically much more stable than he had supposed… Unless and until Darwinians could produce an explanation of how organisms of one species could eventually evolve into those of another, which also accounted for hybrid infertility and reversion to type, it was a fair criticism to say that Darwin had not offered a causal theory but only, at best, a hypothesis.”
Darwin himself regarded Wilberforce’s arguments as reasonable and fair. Writing to Hooker in July 1860, he said: “I have just read the Quarterly. It is uncommonly clever; it picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, and brings forward well all the difficulties. It quizzes me quite splendidly.” On returning to work after his illness, Darwin immediately applied himself to the problematic areas raised by Wilberforce.
Lucas further elaborates on the scientific strengths of Wilberforce’s arguments:
“In assessing Wilberforce’s argument, two crucial distinctions have to be borne in mind: first between the Darwinism that Darwin was propounding and what is understood as Darwinism today; and secondly between simple inductive generalization and an overall schema of explanation and interpretation. Evolution is not itself an immutable creed, but has itself evolved. The Neo- Darwinism that men of science now accept took its present form only in the 1940s and is at least three stages removed from the theory Darwin propounded. Darwin had no theory of genes and gave no account of how it was that species came into being: the very title of his book was itself a misnomer. What he was really arguing for was a hypothesis that each species had gradually developed from some simpler one, and the Survival of the Fittest as a partial explanation of how this had happened. Wilberforce claimed that the hypothesis was false and that the explanation failed to account for some crucial facts. In the review he devoted six pages to the absence in the geological record of any case of one species developing into another. Darwin had felt this to be a difficulty, and had explained it away by reason of the extreme imperfection of the geological record. Subsequent discoveries were soon to … fill in the stages whereby many different species had evolved from common ancestors: but in 1860 it was fair to point out the gaps in the evidence, and to argue that Darwin had put forward only a conjectural hypothesis, not a well-established theory.”
Returning to our “conflict” thesis, it should by now be clear that the 1860 meeting between Huxley and Wilberforce was not at all a clash between science and religion. It was certainly a heated discussion, but there are massive problems with the traditional tale.
- Not only was the meeting not a debate, Huxley by all accounts played a relatively minor role.
- The main substance of the debate was between Wilberforce and Hooker, with Huxley’s involvement limited to an emotional (but totally unscientific) series of verbal ripostes about apes and grandfathers.
- Everyone was at the meeting to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Darwinism, not to debate any theological matters.
- Most importantly, Wilberforce debated his side from science.
As Lucas writes:
“…it is clear that [Wilberforce] did not argue that Darwin’s theory must be false because its implications for the nature of man were unacceptable. As he saw it, and as most of his audience saw it, he was showing that it was, as a matter of scientific fact false, and only having established this did he go on to say in effect ‘and a good thing too’.”
Additional Notes: Theory vs Paradigm
This issue of hypothesis vs theory vs paradigm is worth expanding on a bit, since we’re already buried deep in Darwinism. Wilberforce attacked Darwinism as a theory, and correctly pointed out that it was full of holes and the evidence didn’t really support it. But as Lucas explains, it won widespread support not as a theory but as a paradigm – that is, a schema of explanation and interpretation:
“Its immense appeal lay in its power of organizing the phenomena of natural history in a coherent and intelligible way. This was what had led Hooker to adopt it, and subsequently commended it, in spite of admitted difficulties and deficiencies, to almost all working biologists.
… Darwinism became at once a creed, to be espoused or eschewed with religious vehemence and enthusiasm. It was not just a Baconian hypothesis that could be accepted or rejected by a simple enumeration of instances independently of what was thought about other matters. Darwinism affected the whole of a biologist’s thinking, his way of classifying, his way of explaining, what he thought he could take for granted, what he would regard as problems needing further attention. We may take Huxley’s point that Darwin’s theory was not merely an hypothesis but an explanation.”
This status as a paradigm has two important implications. Firstly, Darwinism is held to be immune to conventional falsification. Secondly, as a broad philosophical framework in which biology operates, its must have near-universal acceptance for it to be useful. This explains much of the religious zeal with which the Darwinian creed is promoted. Furthermore, by describing a framework within which to think, there is a high risk that a Darwinian outlook will affect an individual’s entire worldview.
Ironically, despite the fact that he explicitly attacked Darwinism as a scientific theory, it may have been its status as a paradigm which concerned Wilberforce more: he anticipated the disastrous effects which Darwinist thinking could wreak if misapplied to social situations. In his review he refers to a section of Origins dealing with ants, and writes:
“…we detect one of those hints by which Mr. Darwin indicates the application of his system from the lower animals to man himself, when he dwells so pointedly upon the fact that it is always the black ant which is enslaved by his other coloured and more fortunate brethren. ‘The slaves are black!’ We believe [it is Darwin's opinion] that the tendency of the lighter-coloured races of mankind to prosecute the negro slave-trade was really a remains, in their more favoured condition, of the ‘extraordinary and odious instinct’ which had possessed them before they had been ‘improved by natural selection’…”
Lucas suggests these options:
“To put the argument briefly in the form of a dilemma: either Darwin’s theory was a simple hypothesis, in which case difficulties about hybrids and reversion to type were fair and at the time well-nigh conclusive arguments against it: or it was a grand interpretative schema, in which case counterintuitive consequences about the nature and dignity of man were relevant and cogent.”
Yesterday I wrote about 3000 words on the limitations of the scientific approach as a tool for discerning truth. Today I’d like to focus on just 3 words:
Credo ut Intelligam
“I believe so that I may understand”
As I discussed in the last two posts, scientific inquiry is limited by definition to the material universe. Supernatural influence on the material, or events limited entirely to the supernatural sphere, are in principle inaccessible to science (thanks to its assumption of materialism). But because of what I observe, what I experience, and what my reason tells me, I cannot endorse materialism as a worldview. I accept its usefulness as a scientific premise, but I do not accept its truthfulness.
The Latin motto above was written by Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109), who is regarded as the first scholastic philosopher of Christian theology. He held that belief in God is the only way to make sense of what we observe. Reason can expand on faith, but faith must precede reason.
Francis Bacon, the founder of the scientific method, described the correct perspective of inquiry thus:
“Let us begin from God, and show that our pursuit from its exceeding goodness clearly proceeds from him, the Author of good and Father of light.” (Novum Organum)
As a contrast, let’s see how far materialism can take us. Peter Atkins, Oxford chemist and caustic-tongued atheist, believes that, “There is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence.” Bertrand Russell described a common materialist position when he said:
“Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attainable by scientific methods, and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.”
It is worth noting, however, that this extreme scientism is logically incoherent. It is itself not a statement of science but an article of blind faith. Thus by its own assertion we cannot know if it is true. (Note: I use the term “blind faith” because I believe that this statement describes a belief held in spite of evidence).
John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics and Philosophy of Science at Oxford, observes that scientism even denies the validity of any non-scientific fields such as philosophy, ethics, literature, poetry, art and music. He continues:
“Science can tell you that if you add strychnine to someone’s drink, it will kill her, but it cannot tell you whether it is morally right or wrong to put strychnine in your grandmother’s tea in order to get your hands on her property.” (“Challenges from Science” in Beyond Opinion, edited by Ravi Zacharias)
I would suggest that it is possible to have such knowledge of right and wrong, even though it is beyond the scope of science.
We must also note the difference in confidence which can be attributed to the findings of various scientific disciplines, because the scientific methodology relies on repeatability. Experimental sciences can often confidently deduce what is likely to happen under certain controlled conditions. Sciences which deal with unrepeatable phenomena (such as palaeontology and cosmology) are more deductive, and their conclusions must necessarily be less authoritative.
Even amongst these “historical” sciences, we can only proceed scientifically by simulating repeatability: we compare several independent fossil progressions; we draw analogues to living animals. We study hundreds of galaxies, trying to find common trends. We look at the operation of physics on an experimentable scale and extrapolate the findings to a cosmological scale. The philosophy is the same, although there are greater practical limitations to the experimental possibilities.
Natural law (and order)
C. S. Lewis, in his essay The Grand Miracle, gives a striking illustration of the conditional status of “laws of Nature”. As Nature is the field studied by science, this also illustrates the impossibility of using scientific inquiry to address the supernatural. In the passage, Lewis is in conversation with a materialist:
“Science studies Nature. And the question is whether anything besides Nature exists – anything ‘outside.’ How could you find that out by studying simply Nature?”
“But don’t we find out that Nature must work in an absolutely fixed way? I mean, the Laws of Nature tell us not merely how things do happen, but how they must happen. No power could possibly alter them … I think the Laws of Nature are really like two and two making four. The idea of their being altered is as absurd as the idea of altering the laws of arithmetic.”
“Half a moment,” said I. “Suppose you put sixpence into a drawer today, and sixpence into the same drawer tomorrow. Do the laws of arithmetic make it certain you’ll find a shilling’s worth there the day after?”
“Of course,” said he, “provided no one’s been tampering with your drawer.”
“Ah, but that’s the whole point,” said I. “The laws of arithmetic can tell you what you’ll find, with absolute certainty, provided that there’s no interference. If a thief has been at the drawer of course you’ll get a different result. But the thief won’t have broken the laws of arithmetic – only the laws of England. Now, aren’t the Laws of Nature much in the same boat? Don’t they all tell you what will happen provided there’s no interference?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, the laws will tell you how a billiard ball will travel on a smooth surface if you hit it in a particular way – but only provided no one interferes. If, after it’s already in motion, someone snatches up a cue and gives it a biff on one side – why, then, you won’t get what the scientist predicted.”
“No, of course not. He can’t allow for monkey tricks like that.”
“Quite, and in the same way, if there was anything outside Nature, and if it interfered – then the events which the scientist expected wouldn’t follow. That would be what we call a miracle. In one sense it wouldn’t break the laws of Nature. The laws tell you what will happen if nothing interferes. They can’t tell you whether something is going to interfere. I mean, it’s not the expert at arithmetic who can tell you how likely someone is to interfere with the pennies in my drawer; a detective would be more use. It isn’t the physicist who can tell you how likely I am to catch up a cue and spoil his experiment with the billiard ball; you’d better ask a psychologist. And it isn’t the scientist who can tell you how likely Nature is to be interfered with from outside. You must go to the metaphysician.”
Note that I do not wish to undermine the value of scientific inquiry into Nature: I believe that it has great power to give insight into the natural order. But I think it should be obvious that science has important limitations in what questions it can reasonably address.
Once we head into the realm of the truly unrepeatable, we are studying history. And now we are truly off the scientific map.
Is it possible to have knowledge of historical events? Of course.
There are even ways to assess the relative confidence of historical knowledge, such as the extent and concordance of contemporaneous records, literary criticism of written accounts, archaeological confirmation of records and forensic examination of evidence.
Miraculous events are unique. That’s what marks them as miracles – they defy the natural order. But they do not contradict science, because as we have seen, science deals explicitly with the normal workings of Nature in the absence of super-Natural interference.
“This point of scientific method merely shows (what no one to my knowledge ever denied) that if miracles did occur, science, as science, could not prove, or disprove, their occurrence. What cannot be trusted to recur is not material for science: that is why history is not one of the sciences. You cannot find out what Napoleon did at the battle of Austerlitz by asking him to come and fight it again in a laboratory with the same combatants, the same terrain, the same weather, and in the same age. You have to go to the records. We have not, in fact, proved that science excludes miracles: we have only proved that the question of miracles, like innumerable other questions, excludes laboratory treatment.” (The Grand Miracle)
This post and Part I have been edited and combined into a single essay. The full version can be found here.
Part I of this essay was an overview of how models (and scientific inquiry in general) actually work.
Let’s have a quick recap of the key points:
- Explanations should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.
- We make sense of complex systems by building models.
- Models are built for specific objectives and incorporate assumptions.
- The usefulness of a model depends on the validity of those assumptions.
- We cannot modify our objectives without re-examining our assumptions.
- Models can never be verified (shown to be true), only confirmed (shown to be useful).
- Scientific theories are models.
In this section, I want to explore the role of science in the search for ultimate truth.
We need to recognise the limitations of science as a method of pursuing truth, and with our newly-acquired understanding of models I hope that it will be clearer what those limitations are.
Methodological naturalism and the limitations of scientific models
Science, as a collection of models (termed theories or hypotheses according to their level of confirmation), is built on a set of assumptions. These are broadly grouped under the philosophy of methodological naturalism, and could be summarised as:
- The world we observe actually exists and is consistent.
- We can use our reason and senses to explore it.
- The material world is all that there is.
So we must ask ourselves: how useful is naturalism as an assumption?
The general opinion amongst philosophers of science is that it is a useful simplification. That is not to say that it is true, only that it is useful. Steven Schafersman, a geologist and prominent advocate against Creationism, writes that:
“… science is not metaphysical and does not depend on the ultimate truth of any metaphysics for its success … but methodological naturalism must be adopted as a strategy or working hypothesis for science to succeed. We may therefore be agnostic about the ultimate truth of naturalism, but must nevertheless adopt it and investigate nature as if nature is all that there is.”
Philosopher of science Robert Pennock, also a prominent voice against Creationism (and Intelligent Design), is more explicit. In his 1997 paper for a conference on “Naturalism, Theism and the Scientific Enterprise”, he states that science “makes use of naturalism only in a heuristic, methodological manner.” He also argues against even the theoretical possibility of using scientific methodology to explore supernatural issues:
“Methodological naturalism itself … follows from reasonable evidential requirements in science, most importantly, that hypotheses be intersubjectively testable by reference to law-governed processes.”
Why does this preclude the supernatural? In the same essay, Pennock writes:
“Experimentation requires observation and control of the variables. We confirm causal laws by performing controlled experiments in which the purported independent variable is made to vary while all other factors are held constant and we observe the effect on the dependent variable. But by definition we have no control over supernatural entities or forces.”
The pursuit of data
Assumption are fundamental to understanding the usefulness of the outputs of a model. But the assumptions underlying the scientific method will also influence the data that we subsequently look for. This limitation has been noted by philosopher Karl Popper and historian of science Thomas Kuhn, who notes that the “route from theory to measurement can almost never be traveled backward”. Theories also tend to build on each other, usually without revisiting the underlying assumptions.
Popper examines this problem of nested assumptions in his critique of naturalism:
“I reject the naturalistic view: It is uncritical. Its upholders fail to notice that whenever they believe to have discovered a fact, they have only proposed a convention. Hence the convention is liable to turn into a dogma. This criticism of the naturalistic view applies not only to its criterion of meaning, but also to its idea of science, and consequently to its idea of empirical method.” (The Logic of Scientific Discovery)
Note again the emphasis (in the second sentence) on the problem of confusing model confirmation with verification. This self-reinforcement of theory dominates most of science. Kuhn writes:
“Once it has been adopted by a profession … no theory is recognized to be testable by any quantitative tests that it has not already passed.” (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions)
The usefulness of models
In their correct place, of course, models are very useful. The great French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace used Newton’s model of gravity to calculate the motion of the heavens (as well as for predicting ballistics) in his masterpiece Mécanique céleste. Napoleon asked to see the manuscript, being greatly interested in ballistics. According to the story, after perusing the equations Napoleon turned to Laplace and asked, “Where is God in your book?” To which Laplace famously replied, “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.” (“I had no need of that hypothesis.”).
Laplace was perfectly correct. He was using calculus to predict the motions of celestial bodies and bodies moving through air, and it is not useful to incorporate theological complications into that prediction. Remember: as simple as possible, but no simpler. Of course, Laplace also didn’t include gravitational attraction from other stars in calculating the orbits of the planets. In the real world, we believe that other stars do exert gravitational attraction, but it is a useful simplification in our model that we ignore them at the scale of our solar system.
Laplace’s model does not correspond perfectly to reality, but it does allow us to make sense of data and make predictions, provided that we stay within the limits of its assumptions. Popper comments on the usefulness of the Darwinian evolutionary synthesis, despite the great limitations of that theory:
“Darwinism is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research program … And yet, the theory is invaluable. I do not see how, without it, our knowledge could have grown as it has done since Darwin … Although it is metaphysical, it sheds much light upon very concrete and very practical researches … it suggests the existence of a mechanism of adaptation, and it allows us even to study in detail the mechanism at work.”
But let us never confuse useful with true.
Science and truth
So what can science really tell us, if not truth? Well, within the limitations of its assumptions, it can give us great insight into process and the nature of the material universe. But it cannot, by definition, tell us anything about the immaterial: including the supernatural, philosophical reasoning and morality.
The great Stephen Jay Gould, in his essay Nonmoral Nature, commented thus on the limitations of science:
“Our failure to discern a universal good does not record any lack of insight or ingenuity, but merely demonstrates that nature contains no moral messages framed in human terms. Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians … indeed for all thinking people. The answers will not be read passively from nature; they do not, and cannot, arise from the data of science. The factual state of the world does not teach us how we, with our powers for good and evil, should alter or preserve it in the most ethical manner.”
Indeed, science cannot even comment on the validity of its own assumptions: they must simply be accepted at face value for any science to be done at all. As per Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, they are postulates which cannot be proven by the system itself.
In our search for insight into the supernatural, we’re out of the territory of science. And recall the fundamental principle of modelling: we cannot change our objectives without re-evaluating our assumptions. So we can’t even adapt any current science to deal with these questions: science is simply not equipped for the task.
I do not propose allowing supernatural explanations into science. But I do suggest that it is very misleading to imply that science in any way supports a materialist worldview. This is mere question-begging: scientific theory, by its very assumptions, operates within a materialist worldview.
But we do not live in “science”. We live in reality.
Are we searching for truth, or are we searching for a theory nested in unprovable assumptions?
If the supernatural exists, it is beyond the tools of science. But if we have a supernatural aspect to our existence, it is not beyond our experience. To limit ourselves wholly to a materialist view may deprive us of fully experiencing a part of ourselves.
Philosopher Alvin Plantinga argues strongly for this line of thinking. He wrote:
“If you exclude the supernatural from science, then if the world or some phenomena within it are supernaturally caused – as most of the world’s people believe – you won’t be able to reach that truth scientifically.”
Are you missing out on something important by clinging to rigid materialism, perhaps because of a mistaken belief that such a worldview has scientific justification? Is there anything more to life?
Not to science. To life.
C. S. Lewis, certainly, had no doubt about the importance of our supernatural aspect. In Mere Christianity he described the human condition thus:
“You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
What are you missing out on?
This post and Part II have been edited and combined into a single essay. The full version can be found here.
Science is great.
It lets me play with cool toys, it pays my bills, it helps me understand the world.
But I have to phrase that last part carefully. It doesn’t completely explain the world, it helps me understand the world.
That’s because science deals with models.
And models have assumptions.
And assumptions lead to limitations.
This may not be a bad thing. Depending what we are trying to understand, and the level of detail at which we are trying to understand it, the assumptions may greatly simplify our work without interfering with our objectives. But a clear statement of the assumptions is vital for anyone trying to assess the usefulness of a model in addressing a particular question.
Let me illustrate all this with cows.
Modelling a cow
Suppose we need a quick estimate of the mass of a cow. (Imagine we’re in a rural setting far from a WiFi signal and can’t use Google). With just a pencil and piece of paper, how would we get a quick first-order approximation?
Well, we can’t lift it up, so we have to come up with an indirect route to get the mass. We know that:
Mass = Volume x Density
…and we know that most animals are approximately the density of water (hence the fact that they float at the surface of water but are mostly submerged). And we know from school that water is 1000kg per cubic metre. (For the USA readers, sorry, but I’m going to use SI units for this. One of the beauties of a rational measurement system is that it makes this mental arithmetic a lot easier).
So all we have to do is estimate the volume of a cow and we’re home free.
Now, since a cow is an awkward shape for which we can’t calculate a volume, we’ll approximate it to something simpler. Such as a sphere:
Or, if that seems a little too abstract, try a cylinder:
You’ll note that the legs, tail, ears and head and neck are all drawn in lines: that’s because we’re going to ignore them in our calculation. If we make the cylinder a little bigger than the cow’s body, we’ll be able to safely assume that the “small skinny bits” could fit in the left-over spaces, and the overall volume will be about right. Remember this is just a first-order approximation.
So now we walk over to the cow, and try and gauge the dimensions of our cylinder.
We’ll assume an average-sized cow, and let’s approximate it at maybe 1m in diameter, and about 1.5m long. For a cylinder, volume is given by:
V = π × r² × l
Crunching the numbers, (and assuming π=3.2 to make the maths easier), this comes out at 1.2m³. Recalling the density of water, our final estimate is 1.2tonnes for the mass of a cow. Which is actually pretty decent: steers are about 750kg, the heaviest bulls are about 1750kg, so 1200kg is the right ballpark.
The modelling process
Note what we did in the exercise: we built a model to organise our thinking, and we did it in following way:
1. Define your objectives. (Give a rough estimate the mass of the cow).
2. Make assumptions in light of the objectives. (The skinny/pointy bits can be ignored. The body can be represented by a cylinder. The density can be approximated by water).
3. Build a model incorporating those assumptions. (A simple cylinder of density 1000kg/m³)
4. Extrapolate from the model results back to the real world. (Our cylindrical model weighs 1.2 tonnes → we estimate that an actual cow weighs approximately 1.2 tonnes).
Thus our model of reality helps us to understand reality by simplifying it and then extrapolating the results back to reality.
Einstein famously said that an explanation should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.
How do we decide how simple to make it? By understanding our objectives and making assumptions in light of those objectives. The assumptions are all valid based on the starting objective that we only need a rough estimate. If we need an accurate mass (ie., our objectives change), those assumptions don’t hold anymore.
Now let’s watch it all go wrong.
Tripping on the next step
Suppose we now ask ourselves: “What is the surface area of a cow?” (Don’t ask why we’re pondering mathematical questions in a cow paddock, just run with it).
Well, we think to ourselves, we have a model of a cow. We know how to calculate the surface area of a cylinder:
A = 2 × π × r × (r + l)
…so we’ll take our cylinder and crunch the numbers again. This is easy!
Unfortunately, it’s also incorrect.
In using the cylinder, we are mistaking our model cow for an actual cow.
In modelling terms, we have modified our objectives without revisiting our assumptions.
The assumption that “all the pointy bits don’t make much difference” is true for volume, but it is not true for surface area: they make a very significant contribution to that value. Thus our cylindrical cow is a very poor model for estimating surface area.
Modifying the objectives of a model will generally require a new model. At the very least, all the assumptions must be revisited and evaluated if our model results will retain any relevance in the real world.
This is also true, of course, of any unconscious assumptions we may have made.
The verification problem
Science is basically a giant collection of models. The process that I’ve just described is analogous to the entire scientific method.
What we do in science is look at data, try and imagine an underlying process which could explain it, and then build a conceptual model. (The models are often mathematical – but not always – because mathematics allows us to express concepts simply and clearly in a well-defined system). We then try and imagine what other observations would be consistent with that model, and we look for support for it. If it reliably predicts actual observations (or in scientific jargon, if it has good explanatory power), we might regard the model as having been confirmed. This is the stage at which we may move from regarding it as an hypothesis to calling it a theory.
What we cannot do in science is verify a model. Verification (from the Latin “verus”, meaning “truth”), implies that the model is actually the truth.
A classic paper by Naomi Oreskes, Kristin Shrader-Frechette and Kenneth Belitz in the journal Science phrased this point particularly succinctly:
“Verification and validation of numerical models of natural systems is impossible. This is because natural systems are never closed and because model results are always non-unique. Models can be confirmed by the demonstration of agreement between observation and prediction, but confirmation is inherently partial. Complete confirmation is logically precluded by the fallacy of affirming the consequent and by incomplete access to natural phenomena. Models can only be evaluated in relative terms, and their predictive value is always open to question. The primary value of models is heuristic.” (“Verification, Validation, and Confirmation of Numerical Models in the Earth Sciences”, Science 263 (5147), 1994)
Models are useful. The whole point of a model is to help us understand what is otherwise incomprehensible. But at all times we must remember that any model (including a scientific theory) is not truth.
Oreskes et al. continue:
“A model, like a novel, may resonate with nature, but it is not a “real” thing. Like a novel, a model may be convincing – it may “ring true” if it is consistent with our experience of the natural world. But just as we may wonder how much the characters in a novel are drawn from real life and how much is artifice, we might ask the same of a model: How much is based on observation and measurement of accessible phenomena, how much is based on informed judgment, and how much is convenience?” (Ibid.)
We’ll look at the implications that all this has for science and the search for truth in Part II.
This essay is part of a series which explores historical encounters which are often presented as “conflicts” between science and Christianity.
This article has been expanded – the full version can be found here.
“Not only by the plain and manifold testimonies of Holy Scripture, but also by light of reason well directed.” – James Ussher (A body of divinity: or, the sum and substance of Christian religion, 1641)
There is probably no name more indelibly linked with rigid church fundamentalism than that of Bishop James Ussher (1581 – 1656), who today is almost exclusively known as “the man who fixed the time of Creation at midday on October 23, 4004 BC”. As Stephen Jay Gould observed:
“One can scarcely find a textbook in introductory geology that does not take a swipe at Ussher’s date as the opening comment in an obligatory page or two on older concepts of the earth’s age (before radioactive dating allowed us to get it right). Other worthies are praised for good tries in a scientific spirit (even if their ages are way off), but Ussher is usually excoriated for biblical idolatry and just plain foolishness”
As with the essay on Galileo, I will argue that this interpretation of the events is based largely on a failure to adequately appreciate the scientific and social context of the work. Inappropriately applying a modern interpretation to historical events distorts our perceptions and generally does more to highlight current biases than historical truths.
To be clear, however, I do not intend to defend the substance of Ussher’s conclusion. I have great faith in cosmological and geochemical research and am happy to accept the postulated ages of approximately 14Gyr and 4.5Gyr for the Universe and the Earth respectively. But I think that it is greatly erroneous to blame work from a particular time and place for its accuracy regarding later and fundamentally different disciplines: we must evaluate the work in its proper context.
So what did Ussher’s work actually involve? The play (and later movie) Inherit the Wind, which is very loosely based on the 1925 trial of John Scopes, features a scene in which a fictionalised version of William Jennings Bryan named “Brady” presents the common impression of Ussher’s methodology:
Brady: A fine Biblical scholar, Bishop Ussher, has determined for us the exact date and hour of the Creation. It occurred in the year 4004 B.C.
Drummond: Well, uh, that’s Bishop Ussher’s opinion.
Brady: It is not an opinion. It is a literal fact, which the good Bishop arrived at through careful computation of the ages of the prophets as set down in the Old Testament.
We’ll deal with William Jennings Bryan in another essay – his participation in the Scopes trial has in itself an important place in the “conflict” mythos – but for now let us note that this exchange represents a common impression of Ussher’s work. In fact, it was nowhere near that simple, as anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Bible will realise. The question of the age of the Earth represented a major field of theological study, and within that context the quality of Ussher’s work was outstanding.
James Ussher was born in 1581 and entered Trinity College Dublin when he was only 13 years old (in its founding class of 1594). In 1601 he was ordained as a priest and by 1607 had risen to professor at Trinity. In 1625, aged 43, he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh and head of the Anglo-Irish church – a difficult position to hold in a turbulent religious and political landscape. He was in England when civil war broke out in 1642 and remained there the rest of his life, devoting most of his last years to study and writing.
By temperament he was far more inclined towards scholarship than ecclesiastical administration. Although an effective bishop in a troubled time, he devoted much of his energies to works such as his 1639 treatise Britannicarum ecclesiarum antiquitates, a comprehensive study of the history of Christian churches in Britain. In 1650 he published his most famous work, the Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti, or “Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world”. It is on this work that we will focus our attention.
To understand his work, we must first rid ourselves of this notion that Ussher was working to “quench scientific knowledge and inquiry” with static dogma. To do so gravely misinterprets chronological thinking at the time. Attempts to establish a chronology of human history were a major scholarly pursuit in Ussher’s time, and his methods and conclusions were well supported by other researchers. The Venerable Bede, writing in about AD 723, had reckoned the dawn of humanity at 3952 BC, and more contemporary scholars such as Scaliger (3949 BC), the astronomer Johannes Kepler (3992 BC) and the great Isaac Newton (c. 4000 BC) had all come to similar calculations.
As to the scholarly merits of Ussher’s efforts, the calculation of such dates required some serious research and historical reckoning. James Barr emphasises this academic aspect in his study of Ussher’s chronology. Contrary to the common textbook presentation of simply adding up genealogies, Barr identifies three distinct periods of history that Ussher had to deal with to arrive at this dates:
- The genealogies (from Adam to Solomon). For this period, there is an unbroken succession of the male lineage with ages of each heir at the birth of their son. Even so, the Hebrew and Septuagint Bibles differ by nearly 1500 years in their totals. Ussher went with the Hebrew bible and added up the numbers.
- The period of kings (from Solomon to the Babylonian captivity, or around 930 BC – 586 BC). Here things get much more complicated: the succession of kings is not continuous, as regents sometimes rule for periods between successive kings, and there are even overlaps between reigns. Considerable cross-referencing is needed to correlate the Judean kings with other contemporaneous histories.
- Between the Testaments (from Ezra and Nehemiah to the birth of Jesus). The Biblical record of the Old Testament ends with the accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah returning to Jerusalem and rebuilding the Second Temple, which probably happened in about 515 BC. For this 5-century intermission, Ussher relied entirely on alternative timelines such as the Chaldean and Persian histories. By correlating significant events (such as the reign of Nebuchadnezzar), these histories could be used as a “bridge” to connect the Jewish and the Roman timelines, and thus ultimately arrive at the birth of Jesus in about 4 BC.
In all, it is reckoned that Ussher relied on the Biblical narrative for only one sixth of his chronology. The rest of his references came from his in-depth study of Chaldean, Persian, Greek and Roman history – which, we note, represented virtually all of ancient history know in Europe at the time. His dating of other historical events (such as the deaths of Alexander and Julius Caesar in 323 BC and 44 BC respectively) is in accordance with current estimates.
It may seem a little too neat that his estimate for “Creation to the birth of Jesus” comes out at exactly 4000 years. Indeed, it becomes even more suspicious in light of the common view (in Ussher’s day) that the Earth would last 6000 years. Barr considers this question in his study, but ultimately decides against the idea that Ussher “fiddled the numbers” according to a preconceived notion. Although he was no doubt delighted to calculate that the first temple was completed exactly 3000 years after Creation and was followed exactly 1000 years later by the coming of Christ (the fulfillment of the temple), Ussher appears to interpret these as confirmations of his work rather than a priori assumptions. Stephen Jay Gould comments on Barr’s analysis:
“First, Ussher’s chronology extends out to several volumes and 2,000 pages of text and seems carefully done, without substantial special pleading. Second, the death of Herod in 4 B.C. doesn’t establish the birth of Jesus in the same year. Herod became king of Judea (Roman puppet would be more accurate) in 37 B.C. – and Jesus might have been born at other times in this thirty-three-year interval. Moreover, other traditions argued that the 4,000 years would run from creation to Christ’s crucifixion, not to his birth – thus extending the possibilities to A.D. 33. By these flexibilities, creation could have been anywhere between 4037 B.C. (4,000 years to the beginning of Herod’s reign) and 3967 B.C. (4,000 years to the Crucifixion). Four thousand four is in the right range, but certainly not ordained by symbolic tradition. You still have to calculate.”
The great pursuit of knowledge
Finally, and most inportantly, let us note the intent of Ussher’s chronology. He was not attempting to impose the authority of rigid dogma: rather, he sought to illuminate and give meaning to human endeavour by giving it a proper historical context. As Barr wrote:
“It is a great mistake, therefore, to suppose that Ussher was simply concerned with working out the date of creation: this can be supposed only by those who have never looked into its pages. . . . The Annales are an attempt at a comprehensive chronological synthesis of all known historical knowledge, biblical and classical. . . . Of its volume only perhaps one sixth or less is biblical material.”
Contrary to the common presentation of Ussher struggling to refute geological timescales, his scholarship was actually at odds with the Aristotelian notion of an eternal Earth, in which human history has neither context nor consequence. Ironically, Ussher was more concerned with why God had chosen to take a whole six days for Creation, when surely he could have achieved it all in an instant. Gould writes:
“We castigate Ussher for making the creation so short–a mere six days, where we reckon billions for evolution. But Ussher fears that six days might seem too long in the opinion of his contemporaries, for why should God, who could do all in an instant, so spread out his work? “Why was he creating so long, seeing he could have perfected all the creatures at once and in a moment?” Ussher gives a list of answers, but one caught my attention both for its charm and for its incisive statement about the need for sequential order in teaching–as good a rationale as one could ever devise for working out a chronology in the first place! “To teach us the better to understand their workmanship; even as a man which will teach a child in the frame of a letter, will first teach him one line of the letter, and not the whole letter together.”
Note: This essay was motivated by Stephen Jay Gould’s Fall in the House of Ussher, which I recommend as further reading. The Gould quotations in this piece are all taken from that essay.
This essay is the first in a series which explores historical encounters which are often presented as conflicts between science and Christianity.
This article has been expanded – the full version can be found here.
“The laws of nature are written by the hand of God in the language of mathematics” – Galileo Galilei (Il Saggiatore, 1623)
Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642) was a brilliant mathematician, astronomer and physicist. He was appointed to the chair of Mathematics at the University of Pisa in 1589, and spent the next 20 years conducting excellent astronomical observations and making significant discoveries in pure and applied science. He did groundbreaking work in the mechanics of falling bodies under gravity (although, contrary to that other myth, he never dropped anything off the Tower of Pisa), and made significant improvements to the design of telescopes. In 1610 he published his observations of the moons of Jupiter, and it is at this point that our interest in him really starts.
Astronomical understanding in the early 17th century was still rooted in the Aristotelian model, the core of which was that the heavens were composed of concentric circles, with the Earth at the centre. The celestial bodies themselves were perfect circles made of “incorruptible aether” and were eternal – subject neither to generation nor decay.
This was the reigning scientific model which the secular universities were adamant to maintain, but Galileo’s observations of sunspots and lunar craters cast doubt on the “perfect circles”, and his observation in 1604 of a supernova contradicted the immutability of Aristotle’s heavens. Moreover, his observations of Jupiter’s moons challenged the notion that all celestial bodies orbit the Earth. Galileo endorsed the heliocentric system developed by Nicolaus Copernicus, a Catholic priest who published his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543.
In 1611 Galileo travelled to Rome to present his findings, and was greeted with great acclaim. He demonstrated his observations of Jupiter to Christopher Clavius, a Jesuit at the Collegio Romano and the most respected astronomer in Europe at the time, who confirmed Galileo’s observations and parts of his theses of planetary motion.
The secular university professors were not as accommodating to this activity as the Jesuits had been, however. After several years spent as a public advocate for the Copernican theory, Galileo wrote in his famous Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina in 1615 that his theories had “stirred up against me no small number of professors”, and that these academics had agitated strongly for ecclesiastical support in their cause.
This letter is also an excellent illustration of some personal aspects of Galileo. He was monumentally arrogant, belligerent and abrasive towards any who opposed him. He wrote concerning the professors:
“I should pay no more attention to them than to those who previously contradicted me – at whom I always laugh, being assured of the eventual outcome.”
It was in this letter, also, that Galileo himself defined the astronomical debate as being irrevocably rooted in interpretation of the Bible. Under pressure from both sides of the dispute, the Church was drawn into the fray. Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII and a friend of Galileo, cautioned him to drop the matter. Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino, the “Consultor of the Holy Office and Master of Controversial Questions” (don’t you just love that title?), wrote a letter to Galileo in April 1615 outlining the Church’s official position. He pointed out that Copernican theory was perfectly acceptable as a working hypothesis, and if there were proof that the earth circles around the sun, “then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary.”
In effect, he challenged Galileo to offer some proof for his theory or stop pestering the Church publicly with it, but that if proof were offered he was open to hearing it.
(Interestingly, the heliocentric model had been considered by Aristotle and rejected – he wrote that under such a system we should see stellar parallaxes. In other words, the change of position of the earth from one side of its orbit to the other should change the relative positions of the stars in different seasons. The scientific strength of this objection is illustrated by the fact that stellar parallax was only observed in 1838 by Friedrich Bessel.)
Galileo had no astronomical proof to offer, partly because his own observations did not align properly with his theory. He insisted that planets move in perfect circles (based on Aristotle’s hypothesis) and rejected the theories of Johannes Kepler, who proposed in his Astronomia nova (1609) that planetary orbits are elliptical. Instead, Galileo proposed as proof a flawed and unconvincing theory that the tides were evidence of the Earth’s rotation (and, incidentally, specifically denying that lunar attraction was involved). In 1616 the Church ordered him to cease and desist his public advocacy of the unproven theory.
For the next seven years, Galileo acquiesced to the Church’s injunction, but in 1623 his friend and supporter Maffeo Barberini ascended to the papacy, and Galileo confidently re-entered the public fray. In the same year he published Il Saggiatore (“The Assayer”), in which he launched a vicious assault on a treatise on comets by Orazio Grassi, a Jesuit mathematician at the Collegio Romano. Grassi used observations of parallax to argue that comets are further away than the moon; Galileo ridiculed this idea and claimed rather that comets are an optical illusion. His factual error notwithstanding, the harshness of Galileo’s tone permanently soured his relations with the Jesuit order. Pope Urban VIII thoroughly enjoyed the rhetorical flourishes of Galileo’s prose, however, and composed a poem in his honour.
Like Galileo, Urban was a vain and irascible man. After listening to Galileo’s arguments for years, he declared that the possible ways of arranging the universe were so numerous that it was impertinent for mortals to claim that they had discovered the unique truth. He insisted that Galileo include the Aristotelian alternative in his presentations of the universe.
In 1632, Galileo published his response to these arguments: Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. In it, he presented his astronomical theories as a conversation between Salviati, who is referred to as “the Academician” and represents Galileo’s own views; and Simplicio (or “The Fool”), who bumbles about and contradicts himself as he ineptly offers a straw-man version of the Aristotelian / Ptolemaic perspective – and more importantly, represents the Pope’s views.
Not too surprisingly, this didn’t go down very well with the Pope. His hubris and vanity would not tolerate public ridicule, and Galileo was called before the ecclesiastical court. He was condemned by the Catholic Church as “suspected of heresy” – about the strongest charge that could be brought, since Copernicanism had never been declared heretical – and was then whipped tortured killed burned housed with a personal valet in a luxurious apartment overlooking the Vatican gardens. He spent the remainder of his life in comfort (albeit technically under house arrest), working on his final masterpiece, Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences. Published in 1638, this book was the grand summation of much of his work in physics over the preceding thirty years.
So what shall we make of this tale? Although our 21st century perspective makes us indignant that the “truth” was being muzzled and declared heretical, I think there are some important misconceptions in that attitude:
- First, the obvious: Despite the fact that prominent atheists love to invoke Galileo as an example of the supposed “conflict” between science and religion, Galileo was a Christian. He responded to the secular professors who attacked his theory from a distinctly Christian perspective: in Letter to the Grand Duchess he invokes arguments by St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas regarding Biblical interpretation.
- Although we view Galileo’s theories as an obvious improvement over the Aristotelian model of a geocentric solar system, it is important to reiterate that this was not provable by Galileo’s own evidence. His observations of the moons of Jupiter and the craters of the moon suggested problems with the pure geocentric model, but he certainly could not prove his case. In fact, an objection could have been made on purely scientific grounds that the heliocentric model offered insufficient improvement in explanatory power to justifiably replace the reigning paradigm.
- I make no excuses for the Pope’s abuse of his position to silence a critic, but the church’s treatment of Galileo was remarkably restrained by the standards of 17th century Europe. Giorgio de Santillana, Professor of Humanities at MIT, wrote that “We must, if anything, admire the cautiousness and legal scruples of the Roman authorities”. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote:
“In a generation which saw the Thirty Years’ War and remembered Alva in the Netherlands, the worst that happened to men of science was that Galileo suffered an honourable detention and a mild reproof, before dying peacefully in his bed.”
Consider, in closing, this analogy:
John is a brilliant employee in a major corporation. He is also in charge of producing the company newsletter. The CEO of the company holds a view that John disagrees with. John publishes an article featuring a caricature of the CEO named “Retard Boy”. He gets fired.
The point in that scenario is not whether John’s views will eventually be proved right by later scientific discovery – he still exercised supremely poor judgement.