George Ellis on physics and free will


George Ellis

Over at Scientific American, there’s an excellent interview with physicist-mathematician-cosmologist George Ellis.

Ellis is a world-renowned authority on cosmology, particularly the large-scale structure of the universe and the Big Bang. The interview deals particularly with some recent over-reaching claims by physicists such as Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking, but also touches on the philosophy, free will, and the nature of scientific inquiry. The interview is conducted by John Horgan.

A few highlights:

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“In the Beginning” Symposium, Part Three: The Age of the Earth

In-the-Beginning-slideThis 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.

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“In the Beginning” Symposium, Part Two: Science, Christianity and Bibilical interpretation

In-the-Beginning-slideThis 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.

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“In the Beginning” Symposium, Part One: Fossils

In-the-Beginning-slideThis 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.

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Creationism ≠ Christianity

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:


Not the conflict


The real conflict


*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.



Related posts:

“Creation Science” isn’t.

Conflict myths: Bishop Ussher

Intelligent Design: dodgy science, worse theology


Nicolas Steno: bishop and scientist

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.

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Conflict Myths: Wilberforce and Huxley

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:

  1. 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.
  2. While selective pressures did indeed seem to have an effect of causing changes in morphology (body type), they do not cause changes between species.
  3. 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.”


Conflicting stories

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.”

Conflict Myths: Bishop Ussher

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.


Ussher’s Chronology

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Conflict Myths: Galileo Galilei

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.


Conflicting opinions

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.

Conflict Myths: Series Overview

This series explores key historical encounters which are often presented as “conflicts” between science and Christianity.

I believe that the perceived “conflict” is overwhelmingly based on a revisionist presentation of history, as well as fear and misunderstanding on both sides of the discussion. My intention is to explore the actual events and characters involved in each case, and understand them in their proper historical context.

Essays in this series include:

  1. Galileo Galilei
  2. Bishop Ussher
  3. Wilberforce and Huxley