Saturday, May 30, 2015

Scientific Revolution Methodology

Skilled science philosophers and historians contribute to our understanding of seminal topics such as the Scientific Revolution. Robert Bishop is a Professor of Philosophy and History of Science from Wheaton College. His article “God and Methodological Naturalism in the Scientific Revolution and Beyond” appeared in the ASA Journal Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith (PSCF), March, 2013. His observations were insightful and fruitful on this important issue. We use many concepts from Dr. Bishop in this post.

The Scientific Revolution of the last four centuries is monumental. At the onset of the revolution scientists turned away from the mystical Aristotelian philosophy, in effect for nearly two millennia, to a modern scientific methodology. Early scientists “were united in their convictions that the ultimate goal was understanding what kind of creation God had made and how God was at work in and through creation.” The new methodology permitted startling advances in man’s knowledge of the natural world. The progress of our civilization began an unprecedented upswing. We owe much of that upswing to a revised outlook on metaphysical and theological reality together with astonishing progress in scientific discovery beginning with the onset of the Scientific Revolution.

There was little question whether scientific discoveries at that time supported the fact of God’s existence or his activity in the natural world at the beginning. Many scientists were devout Christians. Robert Boyle and other Scientific Revolution scientists acknowledged the creative activity of God and respected Bible truth. There was little conflict between interpretation of the Bible and science. Boyle recognized God’s workmanship. Viewing the wonders of the heavens he exclaimed, “How many are your works O Lord! In wisdom thou hast made them all” (Psalm 104:24). Boyle worked hard to diminish the long-standing dominance of Aristotelianism.

Boyle and other theistic scientists often focused on secondary causes to explain the wonders of the natural world. They were intent on declaring that science was governed by the laws of operation originally emplaced by God. Subsequently they investigated how the systems functioned. Robert Bishop writes “Boyle’s experimental approach to inquiry was a means for gathering as much information as possible about creation’s processes for the construction of ‘the most coherent interpretation of how the particulars of nature are connected into one grand cosmic mechanism.’”

Bishop further elaborates on secondary causes: “With respect to MN (methodological naturalism) Boyle argued that it was illegitimate to explain the operations of natural phenomena in terms of the actions of spiritual beings….. Without denying that God was the Creator, Sustainer, and Governor of the entirety of creation, Boyle sought to study and understand natural phenomena without intermeddling with supernatural mysteries.” Present day writers call this an effort to “understand natural phenomena on its own terms.” The term MN did not originate until centuries after Boyle, 1983 to be precise. In terms of recognition of “secondary causes” and “understanding natural phenomena on its own terms,” we do not object to the use of MN nor of crediting Robert Boyle as promoter of the MN concept.

The following link contains one of our blog’s previous discussions of MN, including when and where the MN term originated:

Lest our readers have become lost in an esoteric topic, we relate a humorous personal story related to MN. In one of my discussions on the topic of my view of naturalism, a friend wondered if there was a direct appeal to God for a divine miracle each time my auto mechanic used a wrench or screwdriver to repair my car. I replied that I possess plentiful naturalistic confidence that the laws originated by God for exerting productive energy on my automobile would apply until completion of the work. Therefore, I am a methodological naturalist. I do not perform or observe experiments and activities as if God does not exist.

Robert Boyle and many other early theistic scientists did not hesitate to credit God as the pre-existing Primary Cause.       


Thursday, May 28, 2015

Discovery or Revolution?

Several times in past posts we have referred to landmark scientific discoveries during the lifetimes of several of our most recent generations. For example, retirement age residents of the present day may be surprised to learn that sub-atomic particles, now commonly part of our current science lexicon—electrons, protons, and neutrons—were discovered and named during the lifetimes of their parents and grandparents. The vast structure and size of our universe, now known with great precision, was unknown during the prime adult lifetimes of our parents.

In 1897 J. B. Rutherford discovered electrons. Atomic nuclei were credited to Ernest Rutherford in 1911. Later he named protons as components of nuclei in 1920. And James Chadwick described neutrons with experiments reported in 1932. In astronomy Edwin Hubble revealed his findings during the 1920s concerning the size of the universe. That information upstaged the already enormously large distances then known to comprise our Milky Way Galaxy of which we are part. Edwin Hubble died in 1953 when I was in high school.

Hundreds of examples could be offered of discoveries in science over the last four hundred years. Groups of discoveries do not constitute a revolution, however. Within the famous Scientific Revolution of the last four hundred years, collective progress in science fully qualifies as a revolution, defined as replacement of one system in favor of a new system. When the 17th century dawned, Aristotelian thinking still dominated science. Aristotle lived in the fourth century BC. For centuries “science” was termed “natural philosophy.”

Aristotelian science held sway until the 17th century. Aristotelian philosophy is full of mystery to the modern mind. Matter was supposedly composed of spheres of earth, water, air, and fire. Objects moved in straight lines to their “natural” positions. Natural circumstances were determined through reasoning about mystical “final causes.” These beliefs held sway for hundreds of years with few exceptions. A few earlier enlightened thinkers such as Roger Bacon had introduced empiricism in the study of nature.

In the scope of humanity’s history, the Scientific Revolution is a recent development. Its inception was pivotal to man’s progress on many fronts. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment were cultural and intellectual social movements roughly coincidental with the Scientific Revolution. 

The Scientific Revolution was the removal of one system in favor of a new system. We remind readers that 400 years in the history of humanity is a relatively short time interval. In that time frame we experienced an overthrow of the old system followed by hundreds of discoveries affirming that we are in a new regime in the history of humanity in terms of science. We revel in new discoveries such as subatomic particles and the enormity of our universe in less than 100 years. God oversees the pace of past, present, and future progress in the field of science, whether discoveries or true revolutions.

What philosophical dimensions accompany this new regime of science? How does our society justify the claims being made for our newfound human knowledge? Does science draw us closer to the knowledge of God’s reality as Creator? Does science exalt humanity instead? Or are both exalted? Hundreds of volumes have analyzed these questions. Our blog commentary serves only as a conversation starter.  

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Uplift or Accident

Childish dreams sometimes materialize into adult reality. When I was in early primary school I envisioned becoming a teacher after observing my classroom instructor hold forth. The seed was planted in my awareness. My interest in science education did not materialize fully until after my senior college year. Many prior incidents had piqued my interest in adhering to ever-present physical laws of science, a necessary learning experience for science teachers and their students in everyday life.

As I progressed into high school, I transitioned to church activities and basketball, among other interests. My older brother also had church activities as a high priority. He eventually went into full time service as a pastor and evangelist. One of his gifts as a young boy was an interest in aviation, possibly sparked by the fortuitous decision of World War II officials to rent my grandfather’s L-shaped farm field in central New York State to use as a training venue for small reconnaissance planes. Piper Cubs were useful for the war effort. The farm was a few hundred feet from our home. Several rides Piper pilots offered my brother piqued his interest in aviation. Without such memories, he may not have taken flying lessons at the Budd Lake (NJ) airport in the early 1950s after we moved there from New York in 1951 a few years later.

One day my brother, a senior in high school and I drove eight miles to the Budd Lake Air Field where his lessons were offered. He had arranged a flight for his younger brother over the northwest NJ ridges. With a sense of adventure, I agreed. The flight instructor and I taxied across the field in the small Piper J-3. Off we went, gunning the motor on the short gravel runway in the small two-seater. In what seemed like no time the pilot pulled back on the control stick, The small plane briefly started to ascend, but quickly returned to the ground. The scenario was repeated several times, bouncing as we went. We were running out of take-off space. One more bounce and we would have landed in what appeared to be a large tomato patch with disastrous results. But my time had not yet come! Finally, we were airborne. We will return to the story in a few moments.

My early envisionings of becoming a teacher were fulfilled immediately after college. In succeeding years, one of my favorite curriculum topics was “weather.” Embedded in the weather unit were many references to air pressure. Our class performed many experiments to illustrate the force of air pressure when the pressure gradient (difference) between two adjacent regions differed by even a small amount. Air flows from higher pressure to lower pressure regions, often exerting a great force. This is not a reference to the force of wind—moving masses of air blowing across the surface of the earth. The force of air pressure acts even when there is no wind. Wind is a separate force.

For this post we will not go into detail about the aerodynamic details of how “lift” operates when an airplane wing slices through air. Briefly, however, the upward forces of the air pressure acting on the bottom of the wing must be greater than downward pressure from the top. Therefore, the pressure “lifts” the airplane into the air, overcoming several other opposing downward forces. But the air speed of the plane must be sufficient. Before we taxied down the runway, air speed was 0 mph. There was no lift. Soon, after perhaps 15-20 seconds with moving air flowing over the wing, the pilot judged that air speed was sufficient to lift the plane into the air. He pulled back on the control stick, but he had misjudged. In the next moments the Piper J3 managed just enough additional speed to become permanently airborne. In our case, an additional two or three mph of air speed spelled the difference between a successful flight and a disastrous crash into the tomato field. Many times over the years I have told the story that, but for two or three mph of air speed in 1952, no one would be listening to my story.

There are many object lessons to enjoy concerning the wisdom of knowing and adhering to physical laws. The behavior of matter, including the behavior of air molecules and the lifting power of airplane wings, is predicable under many differing conditions. The difference between a successful and an unsuccessful flight is the difference between rigorous and careless adherence to the rules of successful flight. Hundreds of similar rules are set in place for operational success in our physical world and in the world of the spiritual. Our Creator is the author of both worlds.  


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Salvation is Created

Sacred Music is a rich and satisfying expression of man’s exultations from deep in the human soul. Musical creativity is the recognition of something new, different, and worthwhile. We shall later discuss a classic sacred choral work entitled “Salvation is Created” by Russian sacred music composer Pavel G. Chesnokov. Even its title expresses a profound theological truth. The combined impact of the text and music is powerful.

Creativity has been celebrated and recognized from early human existence. In any endeavor, creativity is generally acknowledged as significantly different, novel, valuable, and worthwhile. Creativity is identifiable beyond any doubt. It is easy to recognize creative works that are significantly praiseworthy. They attract attention far exceeding ordinary worthiness.

One term related to creativity is genius—the possession and application of exceptional intellectual or creative ability. Genius relates to ability to produce a recognizably superior product. Human achievements are grouped under a broad number of categories. The arts are a major category, including visual arts such as painting and sculpture. Creative genius accomplishments range from the composition and production of music, art, literature, and architecture to development of new science strategies and achievements in technology and skills of leadership. A separate category of creativity relates to the ability to identify and analyze creative genius. Without human ability to recognize creative traits we could not value their existence.

Let us consider the divine component of creativity. Divine reality pre-existed human reality. Therefore, human creative and genius traits are but an outcome of divine action. The origin of the physical cosmic creation took place in the divine mind of God at an unknown time before the beginning of the time, space, matter, and energy dimensions of our universe even existed. This concept is difficult to grasp at the human level of our present physical existence.

Likewise, another creative act originated in the mind of God before the origin of time, space, matter, and energy. Four verses in the NIV translation are commonly interpreted to mean God’s creative salvation plan conceived before the beginning of time. Included are Ephesians 1:4 (For he chose us in him before the creation of the world), Titus 1:2 (A faith and knowledge resting on the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time), 2 Timothy 1:9 (This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time), and I Corinthians. 2:7 (Hidden wisdom which God destined before the world began). This divine act—the creation of salvation—has been set to music and text in an inspired choral composition by Pavel G. Chesnokov (1877-1944), a Russian Empire Composer.

Chesnokov’s liturgy-driven choral compositions are works of haunting beauty, deliberate and pensive. Even high school choristers exult in the emotional beauty of his choral dynamics and progressions. The text of “Salvation is Created” is simple and elegant: “Salvation is Created, in the midst of the earth, O God, O our God. Allelujah.”

Divine creativity exceeds human creativity by orders of magnitude. If our redemption and eternal salvation were created in the mind of God before time began they are noteworthy beyond human comprehension. They are works surpassing all other works of human creation and human genius.  

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Wrong Question

Why do some church ministries deal with complex science-related questions in their pulpit ministry only infrequently? They seem to revel in simpler, more comfortable questions involving Christian behavior, theology, and doctrine, leaving complex science issues for the science professionals. One reason may be that pastors feel more comfortable dealing with their acknowledged area of expertise. In this day of knowledge specialization there is some wisdom in this approach. Educated people, however, are expected to maintain reasonable expertise in broad areas of knowledge. That is the approach of a so-called “liberal” education.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities has drafted a statement concerning 21st century liberal education. “Liberal education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e. g. science, culture, and society) as well as an in-depth study in a specific area of interest.”

In terms of a liberal pulpit education, science is a candidate for elevation to greater importance. Our point locates the key to unlock private attitudes concerning the importance of science from the pulpit. Asking the question concerning the importance of science as a pulpit topic generates a plethora of diverse reactions. We have received more positive input concerning the topic of science in general. 
When I have introduced my personal “avocation” as a blogger on the interface of science and faith issues, I have often received a warm response. Many respondents report their positive attitudes toward science as a general topic. Church members’ attitudes toward science from the pulpit is somewhat less positive.

Why, we may ask, is the response toward science sometimes less than positive? Many answers could be offered. Topics such as evolution and climate change (global warming) are controversial. Even Christians do not agree on these important issues, not to mention professional scientists. Most similar issues, along with issues of even less theological and global impact, arrange themselves along a philosophical, theological, world view, or opinion spectrum. So arranged, there is plenty of room for individual differences. These differences intermix with shades of truth and personal preference all along the spectrum.

What is the correct question? Is science an appropriate topic to be addressed from our pulpits? Many people stumble at this question. Perhaps the question should not be phrased in this manner. More appropriately the question revolves around the truths we acquire from observing creation itself—not the act of creation—but the created system which surrounds us. The created system speaks volumes about the Creator. 


Monday, May 4, 2015

Goals for Church Science

The Reasons to Believe Monthly Partners Ministry published some “stunning” findings in their February newsletter. As I read it I became aware that our science/faith blog is concerned with many of the same issues expressed in the RTB letter. They  quote the president of The Barna Group, an opinion gathering research organization with outreaches to the spiritual landscape of the nation. David Kinnaman, president of  The Barna Group, reported that church pastors and leaders seldom address science in their teaching. The statistics indicate that only 1% of young adult pastors/leaders ever address science in their teaching.

We do not propose to diminish the theological message of salvation through Christ and righteous and effective Christian living in our modern world. Many sound churches present these messages with great effectiveness. But what we lack in a substantial majority of church programs is a challenging ministry of Christian apologetics. How do we balance the theme of salvation with joyful fulfillment of God’s purpose for His created order? How do we defend the basis for our faith? Is a message of balance needed? The omnipotent God of Creation has designed the physical universe for the purpose of giving glory to himself.

The Westminster Shorter Confession (a Reformation Statement of faith of 1647) begins with the reflective question, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Two great works of God, creation and redemption, are intended to display God’s sovereignty and glory. These profound spiritual truths are summed up in just a few words. The full harvest of truth has been elaborated upon in many scholarly works since it was originally penned nearly four centuries ago.

Consider the two great works of God—creation and redemption. If we focus primarily on redemption, creation topics may acquire a secondary role. By creation we mean the beauty, order, and purpose of our physical universe. Many other characteristics describe creation. We are not, however, intent on rank-ordering these two great works of God. This rank ordering would impose a human appraisal categorizing some of God’s works as superior to others. One way to state the relative importance of the two great works is Both/and but not either/or.

Properly applied principles of science call attention to the glory of the created order. Thereby, we really call attention to the glory of God. Do we advocate turning our Sunday morning sermon time into a science lesson? No, we do not. Misunderstanding of the preacher’s pulpit vision could be counterproductive to the stated fact in our opening paragraph: “Only 1% of young adult pastors/leaders ever address science in their teaching.”

In future posts we contemplate dealing with the challenges of this reality. Science has taken a secondary role in many church ministries. Topics of science have been rank-ordered by many church members as low on the spectrum of importance. This is a strange turn of events in an era where science discovery has expanded. As greater discoveries of the natural world are made, the wonders of the Creator appear ever more astonishing!