Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Science needing Christianity

Here's an extract from a talk I'm doing next week about science and religion:

As you probably know, people didn't always have science lessons in school and whatever. Science as a field of study in the modern sense only really got going in the 1600s, with people like Francis Bacon, Galileo and Isaac Newton. And it's an interesting question why it didn't happen before that.

See, for people to even try to do science, you've got to have five basic ideas about how the world works.

Firstly, you've got to believe that the world is in some sense rational and by a single author. If the world is just full of lots of gods who are fighting each other, like lots of ancient people used to believe, then there's no point trying to do science. And as we've seen, the Bible teaches that.

Secondly, you've got to believe that there are underlying patterns to the way the world works. It isn't all just random. That's actually a bit of a problem for atheism – it doesn't give any reason why there should be patterns in the way the world works, it just assumes there are. But the Bible gives some reasons. In Jeremiah 33:25, God says that he has established a covenant with day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth.

Third, you've got to believe that people are somehow able to understand the patterns in the way the world works. Once again, atheism kind of struggles with that one, because the ability to do science doesn't really confer an evolutionary advantage, unless being a science geek has become sexy since last time I was single. Even Albert Einstein said that “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible.” But the Bible comes up with an answer. It says that God made the universe, and we were made in the image of God, so it makes sense that we should be able to understand some of what he's done.

Fourth, science needs us to believe that although we can understand the rules, our minds don't work that well – we need to believe that our human reason is fallen. That's where the ancient Greeks fell down. They thought that we could understand the world around us and they made a fair bit of progress, but they thought we could understand it so well that we could just sit and think and get the right answer and we didn't need to do experiments or actually look at the universe. That was one of the big things Galileo did – he started trying to test some of the Ancient Greek ideas like a big cannonball falling faster than a small one, and he found that they didn't work even though people had been taught them for over a thousand years.

Now why is it that our brains are good enough to make some sense of how the universe works, but not so good that we can do it by just sitting in a chair and thinking? Once again, the Bible has the answer. You see, we weren't just created in God's image, we rebelled against him and we damaged that image. It's still there, just messed up and broken. And so we can understand the world, but we need experiments to do it, and we need people checking our working and trying the same experiments after us. You need science, in other words.

The fifth thing that people need to believe for science to work is that it is possible for people to improve – that we aren't just stuck doing things exactly the way our ancestors did. And once again, that's an idea that's there in the Bible. Christians in the 1600s looked at people like Solomon, who the Bible says knew lots and lots of stuff about nature. They looked at Adam before the Fall, and they thought that they could try to get back there and try to recover some of what had been lost. They also read Daniel 12:4, which says that in the last days, people will go here and there and will increase knowledge, and they thought “that's us!”

And you know what? In the 1600s, just as modern science is starting, you actually get all five of those ideas being talked about, and being talked about from the Bible. Here's the great English physicist Richard Hooke of Hooke's Law fame, writing in the 1600s.

every man, both from a deriv'd corruption, innate and born with him, and from his breeding and converse with men, is very subject to slip into all sorts of errors.... These being the dangers in the process of germane Reason, the remedies of them all can only proceed from the real, the mechanical, the experimental Philosophy.

In other words, he's saying we need to do experiments because we're fallen human beings and so we make all sorts of mistakes.

So why did it take until the 1600s? Well, the answer is that in the 1500s, there was a big movement called the Reformation where people started taking the Bible seriously again. Before that, people hadn't been studying it much and trying to interpret it allegorically and all that sort of thing. But in the 1500s, people really started reading and studying the Bible again, and taking it seriously. Result – in the 1600s, modern science starts.

Now since then, of course, those 5 ideas have kind of become detached from Christianity, and we'd probably all agree with them, whether we're Christians or not, because science is doing such a good job of explaining the universe. But we shouldn't forget where they come from originally.

Some people today think that it's pretty much impossible to be a scientist and a Christian. Actually, I've got to say that I think that if you're a scientist it's much easier to be a Christian than an atheist, because if you're an atheist there's all these nagging questions going on in the background about how science can possibly work, and you've got to take a huge leap of faith to just get on with it.

And actually, historically, an awful lot of scientists have been Christians. The Royal Society is the top scientific organisation in the country. It was founded in 1660, and every single one of its founder members were involved in some religious organisation or other. During the whole of the 19th century, 30% of the members of the Royal Society weren't just religious – they were ordained ministers in the Church of England. 30% of the top scientists in the country were clergy during the 19th century. And lots of the very top scientists were Christians too – Kelvin, Faraday, Maxwell are maybe the top three physicists of the whole 19th century. And all of them were committed Christians.

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