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In the Beginning
Episodes in the Origin & Development of Science
by Michael Keas
Are Christianity and science at war with one another? Not according to leading historians. "The greatest myth in the history of science and religion holds that they have been in a state of constant conflict," wrote historian of science Ronald Numbers in 2009.1 Even though he and other historians of science have documented this conclusion thoroughly, many myths about the alleged warfare between science and theistic religion continue to be promulgated in popular literature and textbooks.
The truth is that science and biblical religion have been friends for a long time. Judeo-Christian theology has contributed in a friendly manner to such science-promoting ideas as discoverable natural history, experimental inquiry, universal natural laws, mathematical physics, and investigative confidence that is balanced with humility. Christian institutions, especially since the medieval university, have often provided a supportive environment for scientific inquiry and instruction.
Why have we forgotten most of the positive contributions of Christianity to the rise of modern science? This cultural amnesia is largely due to the influence of a number of anti-Christian myths about science and religion. These myths teach that science came of age only in the victory of naturalism over Christianity.
This article will review and correct some of those myths, so that the next time you hear one of them, you can counter it with the true story of science and faith.
Science "Versus" Theology
Science may broadly be defined as the attempt to explain natural phenomena. Theology, by contrast, is the study of the divine and how the world, especially humanity, is related to it. Although scientific and religious beliefs interact, the basic distinction between the two is nevertheless valid.
This distinction is especially helpful when encountering statements from scientists that purport to be scientific but, on closer examination, prove actually to be theological, and thus outside the domain of science. Take the following statement by Stephen Hawking, for example, which appeared in his bestselling, co-authored book The Grand Design: "Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing."2
As an allegedly scientific statement, it is contradictory on at least two counts. First, something can't cause itself to come into existence, because it would have to exist already to have any causal powers. And second, a natural law such as gravity is not "nothing."
But perhaps we can find a theological notion hiding behind Hawking's confused assertions. If we try to rescue his thesis from its self-contradictory formulation, a metaphysical idea does begin to surface. When Hawking speaks of the cosmos coming from "nothing," perhaps he is referring to something mathematical, that is, abstract, rather than physical. In that case, what he means by "nothing" is "nothing tangible." At least this view is not self-contradictory. It is, in fact, essentially the belief of Pythagoras and his ancient Greek followers: that mathematical reality is the uncaused and self-sufficient (i.e., divine) cause of everything else.
The important point here is that, whether expressed by Pythagoras or by Stephen Hawking, the notion of mathematical reality as the uncaused cause of everything is a theological idea, not a scientific one. Belief in this view is not based on observable evidence.
Here is Hawking's science/theology dilemma. Taken as a scientific assertion, as Hawking undoubtedly meant us to, his statement is self-contradictory and incoherent. But if it is interpreted so as not to be contradictory, it is not a scientific, but a theological statement. Hence, the reader who is attuned to the distinction between science and theology can see that Hawking failed to defeat theistic religion by "science." This recent episode illustrates the importance of using the history and philosophy of science to analyze grandiose statements made by scientists.
Ancient & Medieval Science
Interestingly, Aristotle (384–322 b.c.), in contrast to his teacher Plato and earlier Pythagorean natural philosophers, advanced a version of naturalism in which the cosmos is not caused by an underlying mathematical reality. He believed that the eternal cosmos was animated by the "world soul," or "prime mover," by means of qualitative rather than mathematical principles. He explained the origin and corruption of things in the terrestrial realm in terms of changing combinations of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. The heavens, in contrast, were incorruptible, composed of a fifth element that could only move in perfect circles around the cosmic center, the earth. Claudius Ptolemy (a.d. 90–168) developed Aristotle's physical cosmology alongside a mathematical planetary theory that dominated astronomy until the seventeenth century.
Since ancient times, theistic scholars have adapted and critiqued both Aristotle's non-mathematical physics and Ptolemy's mathematical astronomy. Already by the second century, most Christian intellectuals recognized that Greek science contained important truths about the world. For example, Clement of Alexandria argued that Greek "philosophy" (which included what we call "science") is "a stepping-stone to the philosophy which is according to Christ."3 And Bishop Theophilus of Antioch, noting that "an earthly king is believed to exist . . . by his laws," suggested that God, too, can be known "by his works," including "the timely rotation of the seasons . . . the various beauty of seeds, and plants, and fruits," and the various "species of quadrupeds, and birds, and . . . the instinct implanted in these animals."4
Early Christian thinkers also contributed to the idea of "natural laws" and our ability to know them—an essential precondition for science. In the second century, Athenagoras of Athens argued that the repeating patterns of nature reflected God's logos (his "rationality" or "word"). He wrote that "the general constitution of nature" is ruled "by the law of reason" such that "there is nothing out of order" among -natural things. "Each one of them has been produced by reason," he went on, and none of them "transgress the order prescribed to them" by God.5
This perspective echoes the opening of St. John's Gospel: "In the beginning was the logos and the logos was with God and the logos was God." St. John explains that this logos is Jesus, and that "all things were made through him." He is the source of all good things, including a lawful universe that can be known by rational human minds and reason itself.6
St. Augustine (354–430) contributed to Aristotelian physics in his Literal Commentary on Genesis by citing evidence that "light" air rises up through "heavy" water. He described an experiment: hold a cup with air trapped in it under water; then turn the cup sideways to see the air escape upward.7 This may be obvious to us today but was innovative for that time. More broadly, Augustine expressed confidence in our ability to read the "book of nature" because it is the "production of the Creator,"8 just as the book of the Bible is.
David Lindberg, a leading historian of medieval science, has concluded that "no institution or cultural force of the patristic period offered more encouragement for the investigation of nature than did the Christian church."9 This encouragement was ongoing, leading to the accomplishments of late medieval Europe, when the "establishment of universities, the development of a culture of disputation, and the logical rigor of Scholastic theology all helped to provide the climate and culture that were necessary for the Scientific Revolution."10
Academic "disputation" involved presenting arguments both for and against a particular theory—such as that the earth is in motion—in an effort to ascertain its truth. The question of the earth's motion was, in fact, debated in medieval universities, and some of the arguments Galileo put forth to account for our inability to detect that motion in everyday life (thus making the moving-earth hypothesis more reasonable) could have been found centuries earlier in the mouths of medieval professors.11
In modern textbooks, the Middle Ages are often mislabeled the "Dark Ages" and erroneously characterized as a period of unusual ignorance in the West, attributable to the dominance of the Catholic Church. The most familiar component of this Dark Ages myth is, of course, the alleged belief of educated medieval Europeans in a flat earth. Historian Jeffrey Russell has traced the origin of this myth, which he calls the "Flat Error," to the early nineteenth century, particularly Washington Irving's History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), a popular piece of historical fiction that many took to be serious history.
In his book, Irving suggested that flat-earth churchmen had opposed Columbus's proposed voyage.12 But in fact, the earth's sphericity was widely accepted in fifteenth-century Europe.13 Columbus didn't need to argue for a round earth, but only for a small earth (with small oceans) to get support for his trip.
But the Flat Error persists, such that, in the two decades I've spent teaching astronomy and its history, I've found that most college students believe that Columbus discovered the earth's sphericity and thereby defeated medieval ignorance. I've also found that my own students (prior to taking my courses) have been less able to defend the earth's sphericity than medieval university students were. So which age is actually darker?
I also noticed the Flat Error surfacing among educators when, in January 2009, I testified before the Texas State Board of Education in a successful bid to establish robust science standards in schools. My opponents, who were lobbying for a Darwin-only education policy, distributed flyers equating Darwin doubters with flat-earthers—a rhetorical ploy that Jeffrey Russell has traced back to the earliest controversies over Darwin's theory in the 1860s.
Early Modern Science
What about Christianity's "greatest failure," as atheist Christopher Hitchens called it in a 2009 debate?14 This is its alleged failure to retain humanity's status as "the center of the universe." Copernicus, Hitchens claimed, earned the church's opposition because his theory demoted humans from their privileged position at the cosmic center, a position the church had hitherto jealously guarded.
But here Hitchens makes the false assumption that geocentricism (earth at the center cosmologically) is equivalent to anthropocentricism (people at the center metaphysically). Furthermore, the ancient Greek viewpoint, held up through the time of Galileo, was that the earth was at the bottom of the universe. This was no honor. "Up above" were the exalted, incorruptible heavens. "Down here," in the terrestrial realm, things fell apart. Thus, Galileo offered heliocentric astronomy as a promotion for humanity. As he wrote in 1610, "I will prove that the Earth does have motion . . . and that it is not the sump where the universe's filth and ephemera collect."15
The great astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) took this even further: We "could not remain at rest in the center," he wrote, because of "that contemplation for which man was created," which includes acting like "surveyors" who use "triangulation" for "measuring inaccessible objects."16 Because the earth is a moving observation platform, we can triangulate from it to calculate distances to the other planets. This would be impossible if we were stationary in the dead center, as Ptolemy had it. The earth was designed for scientific discovery, Kepler argued.17 Hitchens could not have been more wrong about Christianity's "greatest failure."
Kepler, celebrated over four centuries for his "three laws of planetary motion," uprooted Aristotle's "eternal cosmos animated by a world soul." His Christian orientation shines in a 1605 letter about the work that produced his first two laws of planetary motion:
I am now much engaged in investigating physical causes. My aim is to say that the celestial machine is not like a divine animal but like a clock (and anyone who believes a clock has a soul gives the work the honor due to its maker) and that in it almost all the variety of motions is from one very simple magnetic force acting on bodies, as in the clock all motions are from a very simple weight.18
Kepler used a clock metaphor to distinguish his celestial physics from Aristotle's idea of planets moving by means of a world soul. He also contrasted his mathematical analysis of the physical heavens with that of Aristotle, "who did not believe that the World had been created and thus could not recognize the power of these quantitative figures as archetypes [design plans for the material world], because without an architect there is no such power in them to make anything" physical.
Thus, Kepler also rejected a strictly mechanical view of the cosmos, by which it could run without God's providence. God had a regular manner of managing the cosmos, and that manner could be known by discovering the mathematical rules that planets obeyed. So, Kepler continued, a mathematical study of celestial physics "is acceptable to me and to all Christians, since our Faith holds that the World, which had no previous existence, was created by God in weight, measure, and number,19 that is in accordance with ideas coeternal with Him."20
Kepler was guided in his work by the belief that mathematical ideas exist eternally in the mind of God, and that God freely selected some of these ideas to govern his creation. Stephen Hawking could have avoided making his self-contradictory everything-from-nothing claims had he been grounded in Kepler's Christian approach to science and mathematics.
The Galileo Myth
Like Kepler, Galileo believed that God composed his book of the cosmos "in mathematical language." God's cosmic book "is constantly open before our eyes," Galileo assured his 1623 audience, which included the learned Pope Urban VIII.21 Galileo later offended Urban by putting one of the pope's weak geocentric arguments into the mouth of Simplicio, the ignorant character in his famous Dialogue on the Two Chief Systems of the World (1632). But what really happened between Galileo and his beloved church? This matters today because many atheist scientists such as Stephen Hawking claim Galileo as their "rebel" hero.22
A common myth would have us believe that Galileo was imprisoned and tortured by the Catholic Church because of his heliocentric astronomy. Neither is true. In its interrogation of Galileo in 1633, the Inquisition did make the customary verbal threats of torture, but probably with no real intimidation of torture. In any case, no torture actually occurred. And although Galileo remained under house arrest during his trial and for the last nine years of his life, he never went to prison.23 His freedom was restricted, but he otherwise enjoyed most of the comforts available to a person of his stature.
Nor was the Galileo affair a genuine instance of science versus Christianity, because the Aristotelian viewpoint, held by most church leaders, was the majority scientific view of the time, while Copernican astronomy was held by a theological and scientific minority. Another theory, that of Tycho Brahe, included the most defensible parts of the other two theories and was endorsed by the Jesuit astronomers in Rome.
Galileo and other minority scholars argued that a heliocentric cosmos was scientifically superior and biblically allowable. Curiously, given the scientific data available up through 1633, the Copernican system had not yet been shown to be superior to the Tychonic system of astronomy. Galileo also (unfairly) ignored the Tychonic system in his Dialogue on the Two Chief Systems of the World, which got him into more trouble. Yet even so, only seven of the ten inquisitors found him "vehemently suspected of heresy," which indicates the existence of factions within the church.
Such episodes show that, although God's book of creation "is constantly open before our eyes," accurately reading that book can be challenging. Galileo and Kepler argued that it required new instruments like the telescope and the newly framed techniques of mathematical physics. God's other book, the Bible, uses only observational expressions about the sun and earth (such as "sunrise") because "the intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes," as Galileo wisely noted, quoting Cardinal Baronio.24 But rather than a fundamental conflict between science and Christianity, the Galileo affair is better characterized as a period of rapid conceptual change—and political intrigue.25 Both scientists and theologians were learning how to better interpret God's two books: Scripture and nature.
Christianity also played a significant role in the development of experimental methods that were aimed at a closer reading of God's book of nature. The Christian belief in divine freedom undercut the view, established by Plato and Aristotle, that the structure of the cosmos is a necessary one. Christians insisted that God could have created a universe quite different from the one Aristotle imagined, so multiple-hypothesis testing by experiment is an effective way to determine which set of natural laws God actually created.26
Confidence & Humility
As we dig deeper into the foundations of science, we see that Christianity cultivated both humility and confidence in human knowledge. The confidence derives from the orderliness of God's world, which has been designed for discovery by his human image-bearers. However, the Christian doctrine of the fall of Adam and Eve (and our status as finite creatures) provides an explanation for the difficulty of human reason to achieve certainty about the cosmos, with a consequent emphasis on the testing of hypotheses. Many medieval and early modern scientists embraced this balance of confidence and humility.27
In the first Copernican astronomy textbook, Kepler depicted science and Christianity as being in mutual support. His aim in the book was to reach the "school benches of the lower classes" with the "natural" and "archetypal" causes of "Celestial Physics."28 This was a giant leap for mankind beyond the constraining world of Aristotle's non-mathematical physics. In continuity with earlier theological and observational challenges to Aristotle's incorruptible heavens (such as Galileo's telescopic evidence of the moon's irregular surface),29 Kepler promised that his textbook would teach "the truth concerning the mutable nature of the heavens."30 He alluded to Psalm 102:25–26, in which both heaven and earth are said to "wear out like a garment."
Virtually all of Kepler's publications contain significant theological content like this. The sincerity of his Christian commitment is evident in his response to a question about the basis of his salvation made shortly before his death, when he "responded confidently" that he was saved "solely by the merit of our savior Jesus Christ."31 He was serious about knowing God and nature with confidence and humility.
Geology as Nature's History
Much more could be written about the history of Christianity and science, but I would like to conclude with the story of one remarkable development: the rise of geology as a scientific discipline. Today, science is seen as seeking two distinct kinds of knowledge: "how things work" and "how things originated," with each of these aims requiring a somewhat different set of investigative tools.
But it was not always so. The first concern, "how things work," was the primary focus of nearly all science until the early nineteenth century. It was not until then that the fledgling field of geology developed the tools and methods needed to investigate "how things originated."32 But first, geology itself needed to undergo a change of approach. James Hutton (1726–1797) is often called the father of geology, but science historian Martin Rudwick has shown that the development of geology as a reliable study of the earth's history required a break from Hutton's approach. Christianity assisted in this breakthrough.
Hutton, a deist, believed that the earth had "no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end." In his view, which was shared by the ancient Greeks, the earth moved through time in repeating cycles, like the seasons of the year, but with no overall direction. This contrasts with the Judeo-Christian view, according to which creation had a definite beginning, has experienced unique stages of development ever since, and is moving toward a purposeful end.
It turns out that such a directional or developmental view of history was necessary for geology, and Rudwick tells how Christianity provided that key ingredient.33 The Judeo-Christian approach to the study of religious and secular human history provided analogies that guided early modern attempts at geologic history. For example, early geologists used fossils as markers of the earth's historical record in much the same way that artifacts, such as coins, had been used as important chronological markers in human history. In fact, fossils became known as "nature's coins."34
Rudwick also identifies Jean-André de Luc of Geneva (1727–1817) as a pivotal character in the rise of geology. De Luc called himself a "Christian philosopher" in contrast to Enlightenment deists and atheists. He realized that many possible histories of the earth were consistent with the natural laws that God created, so, in order to discover the actual history, it was necessary to engage in field observation of the earth's layered formations, and not merely to conduct experiments. He coined a term for this kind of study: "geology." Rudwick concludes: "It is no coincidence that de Luc's system was the most strongly geohistorical, because . . .he was the one most explicitly committed to the historical perspective of biblical religion, a perspective he aspired to extend to the whole of geohistory."35
The Real Dark Ages
We have documented the truth that Christianity was a major factor in the growth of science. Why do myths of science–faith disharmony dominate popular culture today? Misconception flourishes when famous and influential scientists make pronouncements about the history of science based on their own biased assumptions rather than the actual historical record. An anti-Christian agenda also often lurks below.
Stephen Hawking is among the worst offenders. His A Brief History of Time (1988), the second-best-selling science book of all time,36 is riddled with falsehoods about the history of science and theistic religion. For instance, Hawking asserts that the earliest explanations of the cosmos invoked unpredictable spiritual beings as the cause of natural phenomena. Christianity never offered such an explication, but you'd never know it from him. "Gradually, however," Hawking goes on, "it must have been noticed that there were certain regularities." So, by the nineteenth century, scientists considered God's role in the history of the cosmos to be limited to choosing "how the universe began and what laws it obeyed, but he would not intervene in the universe once it had started. In effect, God was confined to the areas that 19th-century science did not understand."37
This is a triumphalist account of science history, in which naturalism is the heroic defeater of science-stopping biblical religion. It is also pure myth, thoroughly at odds with a half-century's worth of research by historians of science.
Hawking is a bright physicist, but a poor historian and a reckless philosopher. "Philosophy is dead," he announced in Grand Design, because it "has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics."38 This very statement is philosophical,39 not scientific, and thus as self-refuting as saying "I can't speak a word of English." Such self-refutation is a more serious error than the absurdity of a self-creating universe, which we observed Hawking advocating earlier.
We should be grateful that Hawking has discovered wonderful things about nature despite a rationality-defying atheistic faith that has prompted him to declare philosophy "dead" while bowing the knee to mother mathematical nature. Could such a naturalistic faith eventually undermine the foundations of science, to which the Judeo-Christian tradition has contributed so much? If so, then we might find ourselves living in the real Dark Ages of scientific history. •
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