Science as true worship, Part II


Part II: The truth will set you free

In Part I, we talked about the Christian influence on the philosophy of science and the increasing corruption of science the further it moves from its Christian roots. I identified the two significant corruptors of science as

  1. the desire for worldly approval.
  2. the desire to cling to a cherished idea or worldview.

Christianity acts as a brake on these corruptors, because encoded in the Christian way of life is the struggle to resist worldly things and to embrace the truth (John 8:32), however difficult it might seem.

As we discussed before, this does not mean Christians are immune to these corrupting influences, and particularly have to guard against dismissing uncomfortable truths because they go against a cherished interpretation of scripture. I promised Christians a way to avoid this trap, and here it is.

Have faith and go where the evidence leads.

Do not be afraid of the truth, because the truth will set you free. That’s how you avoid falling into trap #2. If you truly believe God is the sovereign creator of the universe, then honest scientific inquiry can only reveal truths about God’s character.

So, have faith and go where the evidence leads.

How that works in practical terms is up to you. You can take the approach of Georges Lemaître, and compartmentalize your religious and scientific views, or you can take the approach of Gerald Schroeder or Hugh Ross and attempt to reconcile the two. It will astonish no one that I favor the latter, since that’s what this blog and ministry is all about.

In my last few posts, I repeatedly hammered on the importance of evidence in science, and how that standard is gradually being eroded. Mostly I have criticized atheists for this, but Christians are guilty of it, as well. As Christians, we must not abandon that standard out of a misguided sense of devotion to scripture, but rather uphold that standard as being fully according to God’s will.

Here is a lesson in the importance of empiricism from an unlikely source:

While experience tells us plainly that the earth is standing still, if there were a real proof that the sun is in the center of the universe … and that the sun does not go round the earth but the earth round the sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true. But this is not a thing to be done in haste, and as for myself, I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me.

These words were spoken by Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, who was head of the Inquisition that prosecuted Galileo. As Dinesh D’Souza commented in his book, What’s So Great About Christianity, this is a model of sensible procedure. D’Souza goes on to say:

Bellarmine assumed that there could be no real conflict between science and scripture, which is what Christianity has always taught. Consequently, he argued, if we have been reading scripture one way and the natural evidence shows that we are wrong, then we need to revise our interpretation of scripture and acknowledge our mistake. But first let us make sure that there is in fact conclusive scientific proof before we start changing scriptural interpretations that have been taught for a very long time.

It’s unfortunate that Galileo’s arguments in favor of heliocentrism were flawed, otherwise Bellarmine might well have been convinced. (If you want to read more about Galileo’s run-in with the church, go here.)

History treats the Church rather unfairly with regard to the Galileo affair, because we know in hindsight that Galileo was right (albeit for the wrong reasons), and we now have no difficulty reconciling scripture with the notion that the Earth moves around the Sun. In Bellarmine’s time, there was no conclusive scientific proof of heliocentrism, so he and others like him should be forgiven. We, however, are at the point where there is “conclusive scientific proof” of the very old age of the universe and the Earth, among other things. It is time for Christians to revise our interpretation of scripture, and understand how an old universe is consistent with a literal interpretation of Genesis.

Have faith and go where the evidence leads. And here is why you should not be afraid to do so.

Science does not progress in timid little steps, but in courageous leaps. The history of science is full of revolutionaries who had the courage and perseverance to go where the evidence led, and as a result overturned old, incomplete ideas and replaced them with new ones that have given us astounding insights into the workings of the universe and the character of its Creator.

Here are just a few scientists who had the faith to go where the evidence leads:

  • Copernicus: Overturned the almost 2,000 year-old Earth-centered model of the universe with a model in which the Earth goes around the Sun. The heliocentric model represented the beginning of the scientific revolution.
  • Galileo: Demonstrated the importance of observation and experiment in science, and was one of the first scientists to emphasize the mathematical nature of physical laws. He also laid the groundwork for Newton’s laws of motion and Einstein’s relativity.
  • Newton: Though he made many important contributions, he is best known for uniting the heavens and the Earth with his law of universal gravitation. Newton’s work represented the closing book end of the scientific revolution.
  • Lemaître: Demonstrated mathematically that the universe isn’t necessarily static and eternal, but could be expanding and finite in time. His dedicated work on this idea earned him the informal title of “Father of the big bang.”
  • Planck: Discovered a solution to the so-called “ultraviolet catastrophe” and in the process discovered that energy in particles is quantized. His work kicked off the quantum revolution, and earned him the informal title of “Father of quantum mechanics.”
  • Einstein: With his special and general relativity, he expanded our understanding of gravity and overturned the rigid and distinct concepts of space and time with the concept of a flexible spacetime.

Note that all but one of these men were Christian. Copernicus and Lemaître were both priests, and Newton wrote more about theology than anything else combined. Einstein, though not Christian, characterized his immense curiosity about the natural world as “wanting to know God’s thoughts.”

Science is true worship. The question is, does science worship the world or God? If it abandons empiricism and places anything ahead of the search for truth, it worships the world. If it embraces empiricism and goes where the evidence leads, it worships God.

We will discuss the ways in which science is currently being corrupted in Part III.

7 thoughts on “Science as true worship, Part II

  1. Sarah, thank you for today’s post. The concept of following the evidence is indeed how science should progress but as often happens even in today’s research field is that sometimes the resistance to new ideas is very strong.
    I like to use the modern day example of Australian scientists Barry Marshall and Robin Warren on the study of chronic gastritis and gastric ulcers as another example of science taking a leap. This was part of my RTB Austin mini-talk a couple of summers ago titled “Why Science Sometimes Gets it Wrong.” (Note, portions of this response are snippets from the wikipedia article on H. pylori.) The prevailing wisdom up through the 1980’s was that gastritis and ulcers were primarily caused by ‘stress’ or spicy foods that people ate. Most treatments at the time were not very effective. Marshall and Warren found that many people with ulcers also had a bacteria in their stomach called helicobacter pylori. At the time, the conventional thinking was that no bacterium could live in the acid environment of the human stomach. Through their research Warren and Marshall discovered that many people have H. pylori in their stomachs and that most stomach ulcers and gastritis were caused by this bacterial infection and not by stress or spicy food, as had been the prevailing theory.
    They followed the evidence where it led! To demonstrate H. pylori caused gastritis and was not merely a bystander, Marshall drank a beaker of H. pylori culture. He became ill with nausea and vomiting several days later. An endoscopy 10 days after inoculation revealed signs of gastritis and the presence of H. pylori. In recognition of their discovery, Marshall and Warren were awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

  2. Glad you liked it, Ed.

    Yes, I remember reading about stomach ulcers and H. pylori — that surprised even me. This is a perfect example of why empiricism is so important in science — it seemed so intuitive that stress and spicy foods would cause ulcers, and that wasn’t the case at all.

  3. “Have faith and go where the evidence leads.”

    And doing so will set you as different from the rest of the world. As a Christian, this is a good thing, and should be embraced, not a cause of embarrassment.

    As an aside, a good portion of Galileo’s problems were self-inflicted. Take his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” for example.

    Pope Urban VIII was interested in his work, gave him permission to go ahead and publish it, but he wanted Galileo to present both arguments for and against his theory fairly.

    The Pope, like most of the scientific world, held Aristotle’s theory that the Earth was the center of everything, a theory that had been built on for centuries. But he was interested in this new model of the sun being the center.

    Galileo all but spit in the Pope’s face by having Simplicio espouse the geocentric view as a simple minded fool. The same view the Pope held, and, as I said, most of the scientific world held.

    So Galileo ended up mocking the Pope and angering his former allies, the Jesuits, by insulting them.

    Having dumped the protection and he support he needed, Galileo fell into the hands of his opposition, and another Church Court was held to see if he had violated the terms from the Court’s decision in 1616.

    Had he not pissed off people back in 1616, the “Dialogue” wouldn’t have caused the Church to see if it was in violation of the previous ruling. Had he not pissed off the Jesuits and mocked the Pope, he would have had the political allies needed to defuse the situation.

    In short, Galileo was a sharp guy, but a real pain in the ass, completely tone deaf when it came to political realities, and that’s what bit him in the end.

    He ended up under house arrest for being an freaking moron, not because he was some sort of revolutionary firebrand, destroying religion with the blazing torch of Truth.

  4. In short, Galileo was a sharp guy, but a real pain in the ass…

    Gee, this is nothing like scientists at all… such an aberration. ;-) Anyway, thanks for the handy synopsis.

  5. Ha! Most of the brighter scientists are pains in their own special ways, but the majority of them don’t manage to bite the hand that protects them from their political opponents quite the same way Galileo did.

  6. You’re right, most of them manage not to so completely alienate their benefactors or allies to that degree. Galileo might well have been an extreme case of Asperger’s.

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