The Biblical Basis of Western Science

REV. STANLEY JAKI

Nothing irks the secular world so much as a hint, let alone a scholarly demonstration, that supernatural revelation, as registered in the Bible, is germane to science.

Rev. Stanley Jaki

Science may be a refined form of common sense, but at times all-too refined. Some basic laws of science can, of course, be fully rendered in commonsense terms. One gives the full truth of the three laws of thermodynamics by saying that, first, you cannot win; second, you cannot break even; third, you cannot even get out of the game.

Those three laws mean that ultimately all physical activity tends toward an absolute standstill. This is true even if the present expansion of the universe were followed by its contraction. The next cycle of expansion-contraction would be less energetic, and the one after that even less so. Physics, the most exact form of science, tells us, if it tells anything, that all physical processes are part of a one-directional, essentially linear process.

Scientists were not the first to perceive that such is the case. In a more commonsense form it was the Bible that first spelled out this unidirectional process of everything. First, there is creation, then cosmic and human history, all tending toward a final judgment and to a final consummation for all in a new heaven and a new earth.

Wherever we find this linear perspective we find the Bible in the background. This is best appreciated if we take a look at the cosmic view of all great ancient cultures. They are all dominated by the belief that everything will repeat itself to no end, or by the idea of eternal returns. Only on occasion does one hear about this. One hardly ever hears that this belief was responsible for the fact that science suffered a stillbirth, indeed a monumental stillbirth, in all ancient cultures.

I coined this phrase, the stillbirths of science, about thirty years ago. The phrase certainly did not catch on in secular academia. The reason is obvious. Nothing irks the secular world so much as a hint, let alone a scholarly demonstration, that supernatural revelation, as registered in the Bible, is germane to science. Yet biblical revelation is not only germane to science — it made the only viable birth of science possible.

That birth took place in a once-Christian West. Still today it is that birth that fuels neocapitalism that not only needs free markets, but also merchandise to bring to market, and needs that merchandise in ever larger quantities. Only science can deliver them. The rise of that science, so crucial for Western man and for the modern world, has distinctly biblical origins insofar as the Bible is a record of Christian faith.

Whether modern man would be willing to learn in detail about the dependence of science on the Bible is strongly doubtful. But Christians will overlook those details only at grave peril in a great cultural contestation where science plays such a prominent role.


Genesis 1 and Science

The notion of cosmic linearity, already mentioned, is rooted in the biblical teaching of creation our of nothing. This teaching is not yet present in the classic biblical document about creation, the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, or simply Genesis 1. To read that teaching into that chapter is forgivable in comparison with efforts to see in that chapter something, namely science, which is certainly not there in any form whatsoever. The sad fact is that nothing has brought so much discredit to the Bible as the chronic effort to take Genesis 1 for a science textbook. This effort did not start yesterday. But as long as this process goes on, any argument about the biblical basis of Western science will surely boomerang.

Primarily, Genesis 1 is not about creation. It is about the importance of the Sabbath observance. In Genesis 1 God is set up as a role model who works six days and rests on the seventh. But once God is set up in this role, he is to be assigned the highest conceivable work which is the making of everything.

Genesis 1 states this in three steps, each time using the same metaphor. In English we have the metaphor “lock, stock, and barrel,” or the three main parts of a rifle. We often use that metaphor to state literally that we mean everything under consideration. When the Bible states that God made the heaven and the earth, it uses the two main parts of the Hebrew world view, to convey the message that God made everything. The same procedure is .repeated in reference to the work done on the second and third days, the special formation of the two main parts, the firmament and the earth. It is with the same thrust that Genesis 1 speaks of the work of the fourth and fifth days, the main decorations of those two main parts. The procedure is to assert that the object of God's work is that totality which is the universe.

The Bible nowhere suggests that the six days can be taken for six geological ages. Nowhere does the Bible suggest that we should read the modern biological notion of species into Genesis 1, where it is stated that God created all the living things according to their kind.

With all that discredit piling up on the Bible through its very first chapter, we should not be surprised that it is well-nigh impossible to sell to secular modern culture a most fundamental biblical message: the total dependence of all on God. In the Bible even the heavens and the stars are on equal footing with muddy earth in respect to their dependence on God. Within the biblical world view it was ultimately possible to assume that the heavens and the earth are ruled by the same laws. But it was not possible to do this within the world vision that dominated all other ancient cultures. In all of them the heavens were divine.

And the Greeks drew the logic of this with a particular precision, which is the reason why science suffered a stillbirth even among the Greeks of old, those mythical models of modern rationality. Within the Greek ambiance it was impossible, in fact it would have been a sacrilege, to assume that the motion of the moon and the fall of an apple were governed by the same law. It was, however, possible for Newton, because he was the beneficiary of the age-old Christian faith.

The faith was Christian in that most fundamental sense, in which the Bible holds Christ to be the only-begotten (monogenes) Son of God. When faced with that proposition, a well-educated Roman or Greek had his major intellectual shock, apart from shock relating to the moral level. For in Greco-Roman antiquity, the word monogenes was an attribute of the universe itself. Therefore, such a pagan, ready to convert, had to face up to the following choice: either Jesus or the universe was the only begotten. In other words, Christian faith and pantheism were concretely irreconcilable with one another because of the concreteness of Jesus. This is why only genuine Christian faith, and it alone, can resist the modern juggernaut of nature worship.

A belief in Jesus, in whom God created everything, is the very same belief that concretely opposes efforts to take the universe as a necessary fact that cannot be otherwise. Such efforts are apt even today to lead science into a blind alley. Two thousand years ago they caused science to suffer a stillbirth among the Greeks of old.

Only one aspect of this intricate subject can be discussed here. It has to do with the Christian, biblical teaching of the creation of the universe in time. God, of course, could have created the world eternally. This is a possibility which neither philosophy nor science can determine in one way or another. Science could prove the eternity of the universe only if it were possible to perform an experiment that would extend from eternity to eternity. Such an experiment would take a chain of an infinite number of Rip Van Winkles to perform.

The Bible strongly suggests, and Christian faith explicitly states, that the world was created in time, which means that its past history is finite. How long that history has been, nobody will ever know. We know that physical processes have been going on for at least 15 billion years. But there is no science that can pinpoint that absolutely first moment of existence. For in order to do so, science would have to be able to observe the transition from non-being into being, which is not a physical process.


Making Science Possible

Science owes to Christian faith the very spark that made Newtonian science possible. That science is based on the three laws of motion. Once those laws were formulated, a science was at hand which from that point on developed on its own terms, with no end to its progress, with no end to its ever new findings, and with no end to the ever new merchandise it makes available for the free, and, at times, not-so-free markets of neocapitalism.

But that irresistible progress needed a spark, the idea of inertial motion, which is the first and most fundamental of Newton's three laws.

The formulation of the first law preceded Newton by more than three hundred years. It first appears in the commentaries on Aristotle's book on cosmology, On the Heavens, which John Buridan gave at the Sorbonne around 1348. By then many other medieval philosophers had commented on that book and radically disagreed with Aristotle's claim that the universe was eternal, that the celestial sphere rotated eternally. The Aristotelian world machine is a perpetual motion machine. As such it blocks the possibility of perceiving an absolute beginning for physical motion. It was, however, this perception that sparked Buridan's insight.

Unlike his many theological predecessors, he did not merely testate the fact of an absolute beginning. He also inquired about the how of that beginning. In reply he said almost verbatim: in the beginning when God made the heavens and the earth, he gave a certain quantity of motion to all celestial bodies, which quantity they keep because they move in an area where there is no friction. This is, of course, an uncanny anticipation of Newton's first law, the law of inertial motion. Only after that first law had been formulated was it possible to think about the other two laws.

Secular academia still does its very best to play down the importance of Buridan and of Pierre Duhem, who almost a hundred years ago set forth the evidence about Buridan and medieval science in huge, heroically researched volumes.

Whether a dent will be made on that resistance to the biblical origins of Western science depends, first, on the Bible being read intelligently and, second, on the history of science being studied sedulously. Both are needed if one is to make not so much a spirited, but an intellectually respectable case on behalf of the biblical origins of Western science.

In saying intellectually respectable, I also mean biblically genuine. For of all places it is in Paul's Letter to the Romans, that great document on God's grace, that we find the warning: Christian worship must be intellectually respectable. Paul's words, logike latreia, certainly do not mean logic chopping. Rather, they mean “reasonable,” or being “respectful of reason.” Why? Because God created men in his own image, an image that certainly includes rationality.

That rationality imposes nothing less than full respect for the ability and rights of reason. This is why Saint Augustine had already laid down the rule that whenever a phrase of the Bible conflicts with what can be known by reason with certainty, it is that phrase that should be reinterpreted accordingly. Otherwise, he said, infidels would raise their laughter sky high and rightly so. The rule of Augustine had already been quietly obeyed in respect to the difference between the Bible's view of the earth as a flat disk and the truth established by Greek science that the earth is spherical.

Unfortunately, Augustine himself did not exploit his rule with respect to the firmament, which he blandly located in a vapory layer in the orbit of Saturn. Nor was Augustine's rule heeded when it became imperative, through the work of Copernicus, to attribute two motions to the earth. With an eye on the Bible, Martin Luther called Copernicus a fool; later Rome condemned Galileo, again with an eye on the Bible.


A God of Gaps?

The proper lesson was at long last drawn by the Catholic Church when she left Darwin alone. Darwin is still resisted by many Christians on the ground that god made all plants and animals according to their kind. They resist for the wrong reasons a Darwin who himself failed to realize that the strongest reasons on behalf of evolution were offered by the metaphysical abilities of the human mind which he tried to discredit once and for all. For only that mind can see an interlocking unity across all time and space: from subatomic particles on to the human body itself, with no gaps in between whatsoever.

Of course, evolutionary biology is far from having filled all those gaps. Some of them, buried in the past, it may never bridge. But to try to fill those gaps with a recourse to God and to the Bible, would be a most unbiblical thing. First, the history of science has provided countless examples of filling gaps of knowledge, each time exposing to ridicule a God whom some ill-advised Christians let perch over this or that gap in their science. They took improbabilities for impossibilities, which is an elementary fallacy in reasoning.

One can indeed make an impressive sport of calculating the improbability of this or that physical process. But time and again science performs the “impossible.” It should be enough to think of the synthesis of urea by Wohler in 1828, who in one stroke eliminated the allegedly absolute difference between inorganic and organic matter. After he did that the laughter of some materialists reached high heaven.

Another reason for holding evolution to be true relates to the emphatic affirmations in the Bible that all matter is good. By saying that matter is good, the Bible certainly implies that matter is not evil, but it also says that the edifice raised by God is as good as any other edifice which is good. But an edifice is good only insofar as it is compact, solid, consistent in its working. In other words, such a material edifice fully obeys the rationality of its architect. Why not say all of this, and in a superlative sense about the material universe made by God? Is God a second-rate architect, is God a second rate materials physicist or chemist, or molecular biologist who always has to improve on what he has done already?

Indeed, all the praises accorded by materialists to matter should pale beside the praises which Christians should accord to that same matter. Herein lies the reason why a Christian should be an all-out materialist, provided the human mind is excepted. This is why a Christian should be an all-out evolutionist, provided the human mind and the human mind alone is considered as a special creation of God.

Anything short of this would add to the materialists' laughter that reaches to high heaven. I hope that Carl Sagan is now in heaven. So God has the last laugh, that God whose infinite mercy has souls for its object. Even Almighty God cannot be merciful with mere matter. But Carl Sagan has the next-to-last laugh. This chief village atheist of our times, or rather the chief atheist performer of the village called evolutionary science, now can laugh fully, knowing that there is no Christian physics, no Christian chemistry, no Christian evolutionary science as long as these are science and not philosophies. But Sagan also laughs at his folly of having promoted the cause of an atheistic science.

This shows that nothing is so dangerous as to latch philosophies to purely quantitative considerations, which are the exclusive business of science. For unless we grant science everything which is its right, we cannot deny anything to science which it cannot rightfully claim.


The Business of Science

Nothing which is non-quantitative is the business of science. But everything which is quantitative is its business. Non-quantitative aspects of existence, such as purpose, freedom, design, honesty, cannot he handle by science because they are not quantitative propositions. But every bit of matter is quantitative and therefore the business of science. Does not the Bible say that God “disposed everything according to measure and number and weight”?

Please note that the Bible does not say that measure, number and weight, or quantities in short, are everything. But the Bible says that every thing has measure, number, and weight or quantitative properties. Wherever there is matter, quantities are present. This is what gives science its unlimited competence in everything material, whether living or dead. But this is also the reason for the radical limitation of science to what is material insofar as it can be measured.

Herein lies an apparent paradox. It will certainly bother those who do not want to use properly their God-given reason. They do not have to over-exert themselves. It is enough to consider that of the various categories of human conceptualization, there is one that stands utterly apart from the rest. That category is the category of quantities. About all the other categories, various qualities for instance, it is possible to apply the phrase, “more or less.” Goodness can be realized in various degrees, more or less. Alertness too. Any food can taste good, more or less. But it is not possible to state about the number five that it is more five or less five.

This profound difference between quantities and any other concepts may not exist for pure spirits and certainly not for God. But it exists for us as long as we are in this mortal body. Chafe as we may, we cannot do anything about the fact that God created the human mind in such a way that, for it, quantities and everything else remain in two separate conceptual compartments. In other words, what God has separated, no man should try to join, that is, to fuse together. Those busy with integrating theology and science should pause.

There were, of course, some who tried to make it appear that if you pile quantities upon quantities you get qualities and even mind and free will thrown in for good measure. Unluckily for them, they tried to write science on that basis, but only made a mockery of it and utter fools of themselves. Examples are the Hegelian Right and the Hegelian Left. They made a horrible mess not only of human life, but also of science, including the science of evolution.


What Darwin Failed to See

It matters not that Darwin's mechanism of evolution is incomplete. It may indeed be grievously faulty. It is always useful to learn about the latest fault lines in Darwinian theory, because its materialist champions love to present it as something scientifically faultless. But this leaves intact Darwin's basic insight. Only those who are inclined to resist either facts or sane philosophy or both resist Darwin. Yet nothing supports evolution so strongly as sane philosophy and especially that biblical precept that everything God made is good and that he arranged everything according to measure, number, and weight. That Darwin failed to see this is largely irrelevant. Without any doubt he proposed his mechanism of evolution as a rebuttal to belief in God, who at that time, and certainly in Darwin's broader ambiance, was equated with the God of innumerable special creations.

It was not the first time in intellectual history that God allowed a monumental half-truth so that full truth might be perceived the more effectively. The half-truth was the combination of an inadequate mechanism of evolution with a magnificent vision of the coherence of all material beings, together with a much needed radical exclusion of special creation. Darwin's greatest mistake was that he did not take that vision for what it was, a genuinely metaphysical vision.

Metaphysics, and not so much science, is the chief rational basis for stating that the material realm is fully coherent, that is, it needs no special interventions from an outside factor, such as God, to keep it running. Science is and will remain profoundly materialistic as long as it is science and not something else. Science can be materialistic only because all matter was created by God. Only a God who is a Creator was capable of giving autonomy to his material creation without suffering thereby a loss to his omnipotence. Such a God is the God of the Bible.

We shall do the worst disservice to the idea of the biblical origin of Western science as long as we hanker to find in science that “something else” on the basis of science and in its own terms. For if we take the phrase “according to their kinds” of Genesis 1 in a scientific sense, we have to take everything there also scientifically. What is sauce for the gander is also sauce for the goose. Then we must explain how visible light came before the making of the sun on the fourth day. It is rather ridiculous to claim that the light of the first day was electromagnetic radiation, let alone that it was the 2.7K cosmic background radiation. Then some explanation has to be found for the firmament and for the astronauts. The Bible deserves much better than to be exposed to endless ridicule by taking it for a science textbook. But the Bible also demands serious intellectual effort if one is to make a case on behalf of its having served as the origin of Western science.

We must make that case partly because the future of Western culture hangs in the balance. That culture needs much more than science. We must use both the best means and also the most effective means if we want to obtain a hearing for that much more. A most effective means is nowadays a reference to science. Science, unfortunately, has become one of the three most effective marketing means. The other two are Sports and Sex, writ large. Such are the three S's that rule modern life.

Science, of course, deserves much better, and it deserves the best in the way of intellectual efforts. At times it is enough to use common sense. Science may be much more than a refined form of common sense, but in interpreting science correctly some such sense is indispensable. The Bible is an unexcelled source of common sense, and also a chief depository of information about that infinitely “much more” which is the Kingdom of God. To seek first that Kingdom has been the God-enjoined method of obtaining the rest, which, as history shows, includes even science.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Jaki, Rev. Stanley. “The Biblical Basis of Western Science.” Crisis 15, no. 9 (October 1997): 17-20.

Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.

This article is the text of Father Jaki's lecture delivered to the Philadelphia Society on April 26, 1997.

THE AUTHOR

Stanley L. Jaki has received many honors and is widely acclaimed in his field. He was the 1987 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He has been the Gifford Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and Fremantle Lecturer at Balliol College, Oxford. He was the Hoyt Fellow at Yale University and has earned the Lecomte de Nouy Prize. Professor Jaki presently teaches the History of Science at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

Copyright © 1997 Crisis




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