Science - Now and Then

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April 26, 2010 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Science - Now and Then

(Left: Anti-evolutionists like to argue that belief in evolution does not derive from considering the scientific data, but from arbitrarily choosing a "starting point" of human reason over God's Word.)



A common argument against evolution as science is that science can study only present-day processes. Claims about what happened in the past are just conjecture, since we were not there and thus cannot confirm that processes of the past were the same as those in the present. By restricting the focus of science in this way, the methodology of the historical sciences is supposedly undermined.

Henry Morris, in his classic Scientific Creationism, put it like this:

The essence of the scientific method is experimental observation and repeatability. A scientific investigator, be he ever so resourceful and brilliant, can neither observe nor repeat origins! This means that, though it is important to have a philosophy of origins, it can only be achieved by faith, not by sight.

From this subtly misleading definition of science Morris then infers: “it is impossible to prove scientifically any particular concept of origins to be true.”

This limitation, argued Morris, is fundamental to science: Morris wrote these words decades ago and, despite a rather thorough refutation by philosophers of science, his claims are still being repeated. In a recent blog post Ken Ham repeats Morris’s statement from several decades ago:

Now it is true that those scientists who believe in evolution discuss and research such things as natural selection, speciation, mutations, genetics, and so on—but such things involve observational science that all scientists (including evolutionists and creationists) can deal with. However, when evolutionists use what they observe in the present (such as speciation) to extrapolate these observations in an attempt to explain molecules to man evolution, they are in the realm of belief.

The study of present-day processes is sometimes called operations science—that is, it asks how the world operates now—while the study of past process is called origins science, which wonders how the world operates in the past.

The anti-evolutionists need to split off the study of origins from the larger scientific enterprise to make their arguments work.

If, as Ham suggests, evolution is in “the realm of belief,” then he can argue that ideas about origins are all based on assumptions. In fact, this is the predominant strategy employed in the literature of Answers in Genesis and in the Creation Museum. One large display in the Museum proclaims that there are “different views for different starting points.”

The argument is developed that evolution is not based on careful science but follows from a particular starting point embraced for personal reasons, such as rejection of God or the enthronement of human reason.

This is the reason, says Ham, why “creationists and evolutionists develop totally different reconstructions of history.” Their “different conclusions about origins arise from different starting assumptions, not the research methods themselves.” And, since the “starting assumptions” are not scientific, the final conclusion is not either.

The distinction that Ham and the anti-evolutionists demand between the past and the present, however, does not exist. The study of present-day processes fades smoothly into the study of past processes with no sudden or even gradual break to distinguish operations science from origins science.

Take astronomy and cosmology for example. As I write these words the sun is coming up. Or I think it is. It takes eight minutes for the light to reach me so that regular event called “sunrise” is actually in the past. A few hours earlier the stars were out. The light from the closest stars—a group called proxima centauri— took four years to reach earth. When we look at these stars we see them as they looked before the Great Recession—seemingly oblivious to the impending financial catastrophe. The light from the stars in the Hyades cluster began its journey toward earth centuries ago, at roughly the same time that Captain Cook was heading off on his great voyage.

Because there are so many stars, we can find them at almost any distance we want. No change of any sort indicates that we have suddenly—or even gradually—entered a realm where “assumptions” have taken over. This simple fact obliterates arguments that the universe is a few thousand years old because that “model” requires that there be something different going on to explain how light can have been traveling in the universe for millions and even billions of years. Unless a real distinction can be found between operations and origins science when it comes to stars, there is simply no way to make sense of all this.

Practicing scientists in almost every discipline work with assumptions. But an assumption is not, as Ham implies, a guess based on one’s religious beliefs or lack thereof. Assumptions in science are typically positions we hold because they are so well established we don’t need to think about them any more.

We all assume the sun will come up tomorrow and plan accordingly. Chemists assume that all hydrogen atoms are identical because no evidence has ever indicated otherwise. Astronomers assume that light always travels at the same speed because every measurement indicates this. Physicists assume that radioactive decay rates are constant because they have never detected any variation.

Simple examination of the most recent past—the last few minutes—indicates that it is like the present. Ditto for last year. And, as we gradually work our way back to the distant past—a few billion years ago—we encounter no boundary where our assumption that the past is like the present needs to be re-examined.


Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.


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John VanZwieten - #11537

April 28th 2010

Credo—Cont.

We affirm that no man is righteous and so all are in need of salvation, which is the free gift of God, given by the grace of God, and not to be obtained through any merit or works of our own. We affirm that salvation is available only through faith in the shed blood and finished work of our risen LORD and saviour, Jesus Christ.

Lastly, the reason why we deem a return to a geocentric astronomy a first apologetic necessity is that its rejection at the beginning of our Modern Age constitutes one very important, if not the most important, cause of the historical development of Bible criticism, now resulting in an increasingly anti-Christian world in which atheistic existentialism is preaching a life that is really meaningless.

Maybe someone could compare this statement of faith to other YEC organizations?


John VanZwieten - #11541

April 28th 2010

As for when we had evidence for heliocentrism and what various Christians said about it, here’s a little timeline:

1543 Copernicus’ _On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres_ published
1554 Calvin’s _Commentaries on Genesis_ condemns all who asserted that the earth is not at the centre of the universe (on theological grounds, not scientific)
1605~ Kepler’s laws
1611 Galileo views the phases of Venus, which were predicted by Copernicus
1656 John White _Commentaries on the 1st Three Chapters of Genesis
1670 Turretin _Institutes_
1687 Newton’s _Principias Mathematicas_ provided the physics of planetary motions
1727 John Hutchinson _Moses’ Principia_
1753 Samuel Pike _Sacred Philosophy_
1785 Halley’s Comet returns as predicted by geocentric model

What do all the Christian’s writings above have in common?  They reject heliocentrism on _theological_ grounds (not scientific grounds) in the face of increasing success theoretically and observationally of the heliocentric model.


Kendalf - #11552

April 28th 2010

John, thank you for the link (I think you meant geocentricity.com, not geocentric). I was actually thinking more about historical Christians from around the 17th and 18th century, but your link most certainly proves your point.

From the homepage:

This site is devoted to the historical relationship between the Bible and astronomy. It assumes that whenever the two are at variance, it is always astronomy—that is, our “reading” of the “Book of Nature,” not our reading of the Holy Bible—that is wrong. History bears consistent witness to the truth of that stance.

At least they seem to acknowledge that both the Bible and Nature require “reading”, but that insistence that their particular reading of the Bible is absolutely infallible is the critical mistake.


Kendalf - #11554

April 28th 2010

John (#11541) - Since all the people you listed (including the scientists) were Christians, what does that list demonstrate? Also, as stated earlier, since actual empirical evidence for heliocentrism didn’t appear until 1728, the only one on that list that might count is Samuel Pike. I’m not familiar with him; if you could share something he wrote that rejects heliocentrism on theological grounds I’d appreciate it.


Kendalf - #11555

April 28th 2010

(cont)
I’m not trying to deny that there are indeed Christians who stubbornly refuse to accept reasonable evidences (your link to the “Biblical Astronomer” page being one example). My concern is that all too often people use too broad of a brush to paint Christians as being opposed to scientific evidence (both historically and in the present), when in fact if you dive deeper into the actual history and understand the distinctions and nuances of their beliefs you see that the large majority of the Christians involved in the debate were grappling with the different evidences and reasons that they had in a very reasonable and intellectually honest manner.

There will always be exceptions, but I think the history of science actually shows that Christians in general have had a significantly positive impact in the field of science, while popular media tends to paint just the opposite picture. I think that’s a picture that we should strive to correct.


Gordon J. Glover - #11557

April 28th 2010

pds,

“It is not about a few missing fossils.  It is about the overall pattern in the fossil record.”

A pattren which is wholly consistent with evolution no matter how you slice it.  Missing fossils do not contradict the pattern.  Out of place fossils would contradict the pattern.  That is why paleontologists who recognize the “problem” of missing fossils still accept evolution as the best explanation for the fossils that we do find.  Without evolution, the fossils that we do find suggest that a creator adds / deletes species periodically with slight modifications.  Is that what you believe?


John VanZwieten - #11566

April 28th 2010

Kendalf,

I couldn’t agree more that “Christians in general have had a significantly possitive impact in the field of science.”

Yet where there have been notable exceptions, as Christians we should take a look at _why_, and then ask ourselves which position we are in now.  In every case I can find, it comes down to questions of how we interpret scripture, and how we see the relationship of theology and science.

I ran across this essay that does a pretty good job in relatively few words:
http://www.peterwallace.org/essays/history.htm
The essay is titled “The Doctrine of Creation in the History of the Church”


unapologetic catholic - #11568

April 28th 2010

PDS

If you are actually saying “I don’t know” then I think you would be intellectually honest enough to recognize that your arguument is an argument from incredulity and others better schooled than you in this area of expertise perhaps “DO” know.

If you argument is merely “I don’t know,” then that is no evidence at all for Intelligent Design.  The very rare instance of fossilization of soft-bodied ancestors to trilobites would seem to be a very likely explanation if “I don’t know” is your actual position.  If “I don’t know” was your actual position you also would haver thanked those who provided links to trilobite ancestors—essentially curing the “I don’t know” claim.


But that’s not your actual position.  I think you are making an underhanded argument about the lack of trilobite ancestors to say “The alleged lack of trilobite ancestors is physical evicence for the intervention of an intelligent desinger.”  Your “I don’t know” is a cover when you are called out on your implied argument.


unapologetic catholic - #11574

April 28th 2010

Here is the undisguised argument that lack of trilobite ancestors is evidence of “Fiat creation: 

“The trilobite’s extraordinary complexity hardly warrants the creature being called “primitive,” but herein lies the dilemma for evolutionists. There are no possible evolutionary ancestors to the trilobites in the rock layers beneath where the trilobites are found, for example, in the Grand Canyon. In fact, the trilobites appear in the geological record suddenly, fully-formed and complexly integrated creatures with the most sophisticated optical systems ever utilized by any organism, without any hint or trace of an ancestor in the many rock layers beneath. There is absolutely no clue as to how the amazing complexity of trilobites arose, and thus they quite clearly argue for design and fiat creation, just as we would predict from the biblical account in Genesis.”

http://www.answersingenesis.org/home/area/isd/snelling.asp

PDS’s argumment, his protestations to the contrary, is identical.


Kendalf - #11575

April 28th 2010

John, I’m curious where you found that timeline for heliocentrism? It seems that a number of references on google cite Andrew White’s

A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom

as the source for the claim that Turretin, Hutchinson, and Samuel Pike rejected heliocentrism on theological grounds. But White has been discredited by historians of science as a reliable source. I’m sure you know that it’s always better when possible to dig up the actual words of the people cited, to obtain both context and their true meaning.

So I dug up Pike’s Sacred Philosophy and found that even a cursory search using “sun” and “motion” turn up a number of passages that clearly show that Pike believed the earth orbited the sun:


Kendalf - #11576

April 28th 2010

Pg 121:

“The present philosophers acknowledge, if we can account for two things, namely, the law of gravitation and the continuance of a motion when once impressed, that these two principles combined together, will exactly account for the motion of the earth round its own axis, and round the fun: and they are likewise of opinion, that the same principles will explain the cause of the motions of the moon, and indeed of all the planets, both primary and secondary.”

P.123:

“All this the heav’ns can do; only upon this supposition, that God gave the motion to the earth at first, and placed the sun in the center of the system to lhine continually upon it”


Kendalf - #11577

April 28th 2010

He goes in-depth to distinguish between the “light” of the sun and the “body” of the sun, and uses it to correct the misinterpretation of passages that seem to imply the motion of the sun around the earth.

P. 52-53:

“The solar-light is in continual motion to and from the body of the sun, as appears from Ps. xix. 5, 6. which place has been constantly, thro’ mistake, understood of the apparent motion of the body of the sun round the earth. But since the word SHeMeSH, does not mean the body of the sun, as has been proved, therefore the place must have a different translation and interpretation”

 
This is an example of how, in the history of science especially, conventional wisdom has often been mislead by those with an axe to grind against Christianity, and who also need to be called out for the manner in which they ignore the evidence.

Google Books Link: http://books.google.com/books?id=PvUqAAAAYAAJ


John VanZwieten - #11594

April 28th 2010

Good catch, Kendalf.  I would agree that in _Sacred Philosophy_ Pike supports earth revolving and rotating around the sun (even if he presents some odd ideas of the causes based on his reading of scripture.

Did you read the openning paragraph:
...As for common Christians, ‘tis well known that they are very much prejudiced against several parts of true philosophy, merely because they cannot reconcile the sentiments of the learned world with the direct expressions of sacred scripture.  For this reason it is, that many serious Christians account themselves bound to disbelieve, and oppose the philosopher, particularly when he asserts the motion of the earth round its own axis and round the sun.  From whence, ‘tis evident, that many true believers look on themselves as bound in conscience to believe what scripture asserts, not only in spiritual things, but also in natural things.

So in 1753, “common Christians” are still holding to geocentrism, not because they are convinced of the old science, but because they feel bound by scripture.

Pike takes the concordist route, retranslating troublesome scriptures to match the science of his day.


John VanZwieten - #11595

April 28th 2010

Take out “asserts the motion of the earth round its own axis and round the sun” and replace with “asserts a natural history based on common ancestry” in the paragraph above and you have a perfect description of much of present-day (American) evangelicalism.


beaglelady - #11676

April 29th 2010

I loved Chris Massey’s analogy about science fiction. Science fiction is futuristic, but like Genesis,  it often tacitly instructs us about our own generation.


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