Science as Shifting Sand

Science as Shifting Sand

Ethan R. Longhenry

The modern world stands torn between competing understandings of the origins of the universe and of life on Earth: the spiritual understanding of the creation by God as described in Genesis 1-2, and the naturalistic explanations of modern scientific theory. The conflict between these understandings represents a significant stumbling-block to many. Let us look into these matters to see if we can have a better understanding of the conflict between our spiritual understanding and the naturalistic explanations currently offered.

Ever since the middle of the nineteenth century there has been rising incompatibility between religion and modern scientific theories. Before this time, many scientists were deeply devoted theists, and saw the world in terms of having been created by God. Ever since the Enlightenment, and especially since Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859, religion and science have become as enemies, not complements.

On a personal level, the matter of science was a significant stumbling-block during and immediately after my conversion. I had been raised in an agnostic environment and was taught to accept what science said was the way things were. At first, I lived in cognitive dissonance (holding to two incompatible ideas simultaneously) -- not quite able to explain away science, and yet not wanting to dispense with Genesis 1, either.

My epiphany that led me out of my cognitive dissonance came not from the Scriptures but from reading Aristotle. For those who may not be knowledgeable on Aristotle, he was a Greek philosopher of the fourth century before Christ. He was a disciple of Plato, but was far more interested in nature than his teacher. The majority of the corpus of his works represents discussion on natural phonomenon.

When one reads Aristotle, one is struck by the simpleness -- primitiveness -- of his science. His conclusions are, in modern terms, laughable: illness is caused by being too cold or too warm, or having bad humors in the body. I read such things, and at first chuckled a bit-- but then I began to reflect upon it. If you dispense with the microscope, and looked at a patient and could see only what the naked eye can see, the conclusions seem to make sense. Ill people are either feverish or plumb cold. When some illnesses strike, mucus, blood, and other unpleasant substances can sometimes come out. It's easy to see those things and consider them the source of the illness, not recognizing that it's merely a symptom.

These things prompted me to consider what would happen if you were able to travel back in time to the fourth century before Christ and talk with Aristotle. What if you told him that illness was not caused by humors or temperature change but by little bacteria and virii that you need a microscope to see? Let's face it-- he'd laugh at you. It would be considered preposterous that something so small that it cannot be seen by the eyes would cause such terrible things.

What, then, shall we say about these things? The problem that Aristotle would have is scientific arrogance-- the concept that one's theories are right no matter what because you percieved them to be true. Are we any better off today? Yes, we can see smaller things with microscopes and larger things with telescopes, but are we not still limited by the same handicaps as Aristotle, being confined to what we percieve? And the major question: if we look at Aristotle as primitive with simple theories that don't take into account things he cannot see, how will people 2400 years from now (if man is allotted to live that long) view our science? Will it not look just as primitive to them?

The point, then, is that science is shifting sand. It is based on what we humans can see, hear, smell, touch, or taste. We may invent instruments that can allow us to sense things we could not sense before, but the limitations are not removed. Science constantly changes: as an example, the theory of human evolution presented to me in high school is different from the theory advanced now-- and I am not that far removed from high school! What if people 2400 years from now view the modern theory of evolution as we view Aristotle's theories about illness?

Does this mean that science has no value? Far from it! Science has great value to us in its proper place. Sir Francis Bacon established the theory of science-- the scientific method-- and it is still valid today. Something can only be validated as scientifically true if it can be tested and reproduced. In strict scientific terms, macroevolution is a mere hypothesis, since it cannot be tested nor reproduced in a suitable setting. Now, many things can be tested and reproduced-- including microevolution-- and we have no qualms or quibbles with such matters. One can work well in biological sciences believing only in microevolution, and all of science would do much better if they recognized their own limitations and that no matter how much proof they can compile for any theory, it will always be tenuous.

Science can tell us how things work now; all science can do is hypothetize about what happened before. This is my problem with the theory of macroevolution-- it is beyond the reach of the scientific method and cannot explain everything. It requires blind trust in dirt deposits and the ability to ascertain dates of thousands, millions, or billions of years based on location in dirt. It necessitates belief in the randomness of creation, and takes far more faith to accept than Genesis 1 does. Therefore, it is best remain a strong skeptic of that which is completely beyond the realm of scientific practice to prove -- and time will tell if evolution is perpetuated or if it falls out of favor.

It is lamentable that many, in an attempt to harmonize science and faith, have espoused "theistic evolution," an attempt to say that evolution did occur, but was guided by the hand of God. Such an effort is misdirected, and we can see from the past that it is not wise to attempt to harmonize faith with science.

This can be seen in the "major clash of religion and science" as evidenced in the conflict between the Roman Catholic church and Galileo Galilei. The story should be familiar to us: in the seventeenth century, Galileo, thanks to the invention of the telescope, confirmed that we live in a heliocentric (sun as center), not geocentric (earth as center), solar system. The Roman Catholic church believed the earth to be the center of the solar system, and therefore persecuted Galileo. The bias added to the story demonizes the Roman Catholic church for persecuting "science" on the basis of "faith".

The Roman Catholic church was certainly in the wrong in this event, but not for the reason most determine it to be wrong. They were wrong because they accepted the scientific assumptions of the Greco-Roman world, and then attempted to rationalize them with some Biblical passages. The Bible never teaches that the world is flat or that the world is in the center of the universe -- the language used in the Old Testament describing the sun, moon, and stars is little different from the language we use today, despite our "enlightenment." The conflict in the seventeenth century was not religion vs. science; it was a conflict between the scientific assumptions of the Greco-Roman world vs. the new scientific assumptions of the seventeenth century. Had the Roman Catholic church not been dogmatic on scientific theory concerning which the Bible is silent, the conflict may never have happened. Imagine, for a minute, the irony of the future: imagine that in the year 2905, that a newspaper article is written about a conflict going on between the Roman Catholics of that day and the scientific community since the Roman Catholic church espoused theistic evolution and justified it with some biblical passages, when everyone else knew better that the world developed in x way. It's a very possible scenario.

The irony: that which science wants religion to do becomes anathema to a later generation of scientists.

In the end, we must believe that the world was created as God said it did. He spoke, and it happened. This world is full of unimaginable complexity that we do not currently understand; we understand it better than our forefathers, yet those who come after us (if God wills) will understand it better than we do. The problem comes in when we become dogmatic on that which we percieve-- and this has been the sin of science since its origins.

Let us not conform our faith to science, but recognize the limitations of science and the greatness of God. Science is as shifting sand, with its assumptions and beliefs changing whenever new things are discovered. As Jesus said in Matthew 7:24-27:

"Every one therefore that heareth these words of mine, and doeth them, shall be likened unto a wise man, who built his house upon the rock: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and if fell not: for it was founded upon the rock. And every one that heareth these words of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and smote upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall thereof."

Let us build upon the Rock, and not shifting sand.

Take heed lest there shall be any one that maketh spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ: for in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily, and in him ye are made full, who is the head of all principality and power, (Colossians 2:8-10).

O Timothy, guard that which is committed unto thee, turning away from the profane babblings and oppositions of the knowledge which is falsely so called; which some professing have erred concerning the faith. Grace be with you, (I Timothy 6:20-21).