Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bacon and Galileo

Those who believe scriptural principles are at odds with science may be unaware of the historic role of Christianity and Christian concepts as they helped promote scientific discovery. In a previous post on this topic, I set forth many of the inherent connections between scriptural principles and the early views of famous figures who were pioneers in the development of the scientific revolution beginning four centuries ago and in helping to codify elements of scientific methodology still practiced today.

Early scientists over 400 years ago began to appreciate ideals which had been advocated in scripture centuries before. For example, Francis Bacon (1561-1627) was one of the most important architects of the scientific method. In earlier centuries, natural philosophers (later known as “scientists”) answered questions about nature by quoting Aristotle and using a dialectical method--logical testing of ideas--often in a public venue. But Bacon was a pioneer of observation and testing by experiment. In the Middle Ages prior to Bacon, testing and experiment were not practiced. Bible passages in Acts 17:11, Romans 12:2, I Thes. 5:21, and I John 4:1, while having primary application to the discovery of theological truths in their use of terms such as testing and examining, also suggest to us the value of testing and examining to discover truths about the natural world.

Bacon, four years before his death, wrote of the problems arising from imposing personal, traditional interpretations on our view of the natural world: “We want to have all things as suits our fatuity [foolishness], not as fits the Divine Wisdom, not as they are found in nature. We impose the seal of our image on the creatures and works of God, we do not diligently seek to discover the seal of God on things…”

The well-known dispute between Galileo (1564-1642) and some leaders of the church concerning his support of Copernican cosmology--a sun-centered solar system--was due to church leaders incorrectly interpreting Bible passages on movement of the sun and planets without correctly establishing the frame of reference, or point of view, for observing such movements. Church leaders assumed the earth did not move, wrongly interpreting scriptures such as Psalm 93:1: “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.” Likewise, modern understanding of sequential creation events in Genesis 1-2 is crucially dependent on recognizing the change in the frame of reference from verse 1 to verse 2. Scientific investigation helps clarify the meaning of such passages. Scripture itself encourages us to discover and clarify concepts by testing.

Galileo also wrote of the difficulty arising when people put their personal spin on the meaning of scripture: “Holy Scripture can never lie, as long as its true meaning has been grasped; but I do not think one can deny that this is frequently recondite [difficult to understand] and very different from what appears to be the literal meaning of the words.” I am reminded of the many letters, articles, and books I have read which cite the expression “the plain meaning of scripture” in supporting their particular view of timelines of earth history. The plain meaning of scripture exhorts us to test, examine, and prove. Achievement of true beliefs is a painstaking process. We are encouraged by scripture to use the testing process not only to achieve theological truth, but also to understand scientific truths.