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Bible and Science (1)
Introduction
(Bible Study - June 2003)

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? (Psalm 8:3,4).

Do the Bible and science have anything in common?  The question is simple, the answer complex, and without a doubt utterly dependent on the particular bias of the responder.  In setting out to write these essays, I make no apologies for my own biases; readers will have to judge for themselves whether or not the thoughts expressed have merit.  I believe in both the Bible and science and all that follows is written from that perspective.

An underlying quest for truth
Science has been defined as a search for knowledge with specific reference to the physical nature of all things in the universe.  This includes things terrestrial and cosmological, ranging from the origins of man to the creation of the universe.  On the other hand, studying the word of God in our Bibles may be considered a quest for faith, addressing in a sense the same underlying question, namely, what is the nature of mankind and what is our place in the universe.

At first blush it seems this is simply a contest between “knowledge” vs. “faith.”  Some would be so crude as to suggest that faith in the Bible is based on blind obedience to superstition and legend.  Equally, there are people who would claim that science, and scientists in particular, deliberately fabricate their observations to discredit the scriptures.

While there is some minor credence to both of these negative views, my own experience has been that the vast majority of people on both sides of the Bible/scientific divide are honestly seeking for “truth.”  Furthermore, at the very heart of both approaches, they have in common a desire to answer the same awesome question: “What is man and what is his place in the Universe?”

Science considers “how”
Scientific inquiry, in its purest form, unravels the question: “How?”  The scientist observes nature as it is and seeks by theory and experiment to understand how things function.  Controlled experiments then test these theories and observations, which serve as a framework for establishing physical models; these are subsequently refined in an iterative process until a satisfactory picture of natural behavior is generally accepted.  Eventually, if everything works correctly, particular questions are answered definitively in the form of “laws of nature.”

On occasion, future observations require modifying, or even scrapping “laws” when new experimental evidence shoots holes in old theories.  An example of this is the extension and modification of Newton’s laws of motion that took place at the beginning of the 20th century.  It turned out that Newton’s laws were precisely accurate under ordinary conditions, i.e., in low gravitational fields and at velocities usually experienced on earth.  However, as the velocity of matter approaches the speed of light[i] the laws of Newton break down.  Similarly, when immense gravitational fields are encountered, the classical laws of gravity no longer were effectual.  The work of Einstein solved this dilemma when he developed the “special theory of relativity” and a few years later the “general theory of relativity.”

It turns out that the laws of Newton were not wrong, at least under everyday conditions; rather they are a limiting case for the usual velocities and gravitational fields experienced on earth.  These laws, discovered in the 17th century, are still used every day to design automobiles, fly airplanes and guide rockets to their destinations.

Nevertheless, there is still a fundamental conundrum; science hasn’t a clue why the laws of Newton are of the form they take.  Neither, for that matter, can this question why be answered for Einstein’s equations, nor for any other physical law of nature!

The law of gravity
Consider the gravitational law of Newton.  Please note that I will try to keep things simple so that they can be readily understood by those without any detailed mathematical background.[ii]  This law states that the attraction between two bodies of matter depends directly on the product of their masses and inversely as the square of the distance between them.  This simply means that if the distance between two bodies of mass doubles then the gravitational attraction decays by a factor of four; if it triples it decays by a factor of nine, and so on.  Hence, if I throw a ball into the air, the gravitational pull of the earth interacts with the ball and both are mutually attracted toward each other.  However, since the planet is so massive compared to, for example, a puny ball, we only experience the ball falling back to earth.  Nevertheless, the earth has also been attracted to the ball and in turn it moves a small virtually imperceptible, amount.  The harder I throw the ball the higher it will soar, and if I give it enough velocity it will eventually escape the gravitational field of the earth (which is exactly what NASA does when it sends a rocket into space).

As well defined and exact as these laws of physics may be, and regardless of how many times they are tested and perform correctly, nevertheless we don’t know why they are of the form that has been uncovered by Newton (or Einstein for more advanced problems).

Why does the gravitational attraction between two bodies depend on the product of their respective masses?  Why not the masses divided by one another, or multiplied by some power law function, or anything else for that matter?

Regardless of whether or not you understood the previous sentence, the key mystery is: are the physical laws of the universe unique?   If yes, why?  And if no, what other form could they take?

Current scientific thinking is that for the observable universe they are unique, but why this is so remains unanswered.  Scientists don’t like to call unanswered questions “mysteries”; rather they consider such questions, works in progress.  Nevertheless, most scientists would agree that the question “Why?” cannot be answered in terms of the usual scientific method of theory and observation, because this will end up transferring the question of “Why” from the realm of one set of equations to yet another.  For example, if one says that the general theory of relativity is formulated the way that it is because of the four dimensional geometry of the universe (which is probably true!), then you still have to ask why is the geometry of the universe the way it is, and so on?  The general theory may be a beautiful and perfect (as far as we currently know) description of gravity, but it still is necessarily only an answer to the question “How?”, i.e. how the universe functions when masses interact with one another. 

Religion seeks to know “why”
Religion, and for the purposes of the discussion that follows, specifically the Judeo-Christian Bible, presumes to answer the question: “Why?”  It gives a very straightforward and unambiguous answer to the question of why man is here on earth and what indeed is the purpose of the earth (and, by extension, the reason for all of creation).

The prophet Isaiah says: For thus saith the LORD that created the heavens; God himself that formed the earth and made it; he hath established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited: I am the LORD; and there is none else. Isaiah 45:18 (KJV).

The Lord did not create the universe in vain, but to be inhabited.   This planet was not just to be filled with vain, purposeless life forms, but with creatures that could render glory to Lord as we are told by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy: But as truly as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD  (Num. 14:21).

In a sense we might call this latter passage the “prime directive.”  It spells out the purpose of God for His creation, namely, to establish the earth as a place that will eventually be filled with a great assembly of men and women who will glorify their maker.  By extension, if God created the earth not in vain and intends to fill it with His glory, then a similar purpose can be attributed to the rest of His creation.

The Bible is exact in spelling out the moral and spiritual circumstances that are required for human beings to eventually become part of the glorified multitude that will fulfil the “prime directive” for this planet as outlined by the prophets Moses and Isaiah.  It was certainly possible that God could have created perfect beings from the very beginning, but that would not have been very different from fashioning a multitude of robots.  Thus we can appreciate, at least from the Biblical prospective, why we are here.  On the other hand the Bible is very sparse in providing detailed answers to the question: How?

The Bible is NOT a scientific textbook and the picture it supplies about the creation of the universe, of the earth, and of all the life forms upon it, occupies a scant chapter plus bits and pieces elsewhere, filling slightly less than two to three pages of text in most translations.  Similarly, other scientific allusions are tossed out in scattered verses throughout the scriptures virtually as casual discards.  Needless to say, scientists have written literally millions of pages over the past two centuries on similar topics.

Passages that comment on “how”
There is no need to reconcile these two very different points of view, namely the scientific quest for understanding how the universe works and the Biblical prospective on why it exists.  Since nature and the Bible may both be considered to be the handiwork[iii] of God, we might instead look to see if there are, as it were, coincidence sites, which reveal this duality.  The viewpoint that will prevail, in what follows, is to examine certain Bible passages and see how they fare in the light of current scientific thinking.  This is not done with the idea in mind that science can prove the Bible; indeed the word of God stands on its own.

Conversely, the Biblical literalists who believe that the universe was created in the year 4004 B.C. appear to want to toss out all the observations of modern science.  Such thinking discounts the fact that the Lord is also the author of nature and studying how it works is as legitimate an enterprise as analysing the scriptures.

The danger, especially for young people, is that often science is presented, especially at the secondary school level, as the new religion.  The parallel danger is the blind faith approach to religion, which says, in effect, that one must throw out all the observations of science and simply have faith in a literal interpretation of the Bible.  Of course, by “literal” religious zealots mean their particular literal interpretation of scripture!

These essays reject the extreme views sometimes put forth by some in both the religious and scientific communities.  God is the God of the Bible, as well as the God of nature, and studies of both are entirely within the purview of men and women searching for the answers to the fundamental question of our existence.

John C. Bilello
 

Footnotes:


[i] The velocity of light is 186,000 miles/sec.  One has to travel very near this speed to experience effects that differ from the equations of motion originally found by Newton.

[ii]  For those with scientific training the approach may seem too simple or even appear trivial, if so I apologize in advance.  I have decided to eliminate math as much as possible throughout the text in the hope that the general reader will not be put off.

[iii]  The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Psalm 19:1(KJV)

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