Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Creation of the World

This post is a continuation from Faith and the First Scientists

The heated debate over the working of the universe, we have discussed so far, had little relevance outside the scientific and theological communities. Whether it was the sun or the earth at the center of the universe, or what laws falling bodies obeyed, it made no difference to people’s faith. The new discoveries diminished neither the splendor of the creation nor the greatness of the creator. For most people, religious teachings were about how one goes to heaven, and not how heaven goes.

This attitude still prevails nowadays, when even the most religious of people do not expect their religious practices to explain nature, and are happy to leave these pondering to science. In all areas, that is, but two: the age of the universe and evolution.

According to Genesis, the world was created in six days, and by counting the generations in the Bible since Adam and Eve, theologists concluded that the creation took place some 6000 years ago. This figure is supported by the Jewish calendar, which is believed to commence from the first day of the creation. Contemporary mainstream scientific theory, on the other hand, draws an entirely different picture. It estimates the age of the earth at about 4.6 billion years, and that of the universe at over 13 billion years. Interestingly 6000 years, roughly coincides with the end of the last ice-age, and the beginning of human civilization, as we know it.

Interpretations of the text in Genesis which aim to address this dichotomy have been around since the 19th century. A common explanation was that the Bible, speaking to the ancients who could not comprehend numbers like a million or a billion, did not speak of a ‘day’ (yom in Hebrew) as a period of 24 hours, but rather in a metaphorical way as an unspecified duration of events which could last thousands, millions or even billions of years. (By the way, such big numbers could not be written, let alone understood, before the introduction of ‘0’, which happened around the 7th century in the Arab world, and 13th century in Europe.) Alternative interpretation suggests that the six-days of Genesis do not represent the time of the creation itself, but a six-day period during which God revealed the truth of the creation to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

Despite the various interpretations, many are still adamant that the literal interpretation of the Bible is correct, and that the problem lies with science. They point out that unlike the previous conflicts mentioned, the age of the universe cannot be found by observation or any other direct method, but is deduced from a combination of complex theories with many underlying assumptions. They claim that as theories change frequently they cannot be trusted, and in the end, scientific theory will discover that the biblical age of the universe is correct.

Regardless of future scientific development, this dispute – just like those mentioned previously – threatens only human interpretation and not faith itself. Six days or 13 billion years, it leaves the magnificence of the creation intact, as it does the need for a creator. This, however, is not the case with the theory of evolution, which threatens not only the role of God, but also Her very existence.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Faith and the First Scientists

This post is a continuation from The inquisition strikes back
Standing upon the shoulders of giants, it was the British physicist Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) who can be considered the true father of modern physics – based on solid mathematical models. Newton work evolved science in four different areas: his work of the nature of light, his laws of motion, his development of Calculus, and the laws of universal gravitation. Each of these works would have been considered a life time achievement and would have suffice to place him as one of the greatest scientists of all time. Newton achieved them all.

His law of universal gravitation and the three laws of motion could explain the motion of bodies on earth and the motion of the planets bodies. This was a blow to the Church's worldview in which the rules that governed the ‘corrupt’ transient earth were different from the laws obeyed by the perfect eternal heavens. According to Newton, the laws of nature were universal, and applied equally to earth and heavens. The Aristotelian model of the universe had to be replaced, and so was the Church's hegemony of knowledge. The workings of the universe became the realm of science.

While the new scientific way of thinking was partially responsible for the decline in the power of the Church, the resultant image of the world neither threatened the fundamentals of faith, nor replaced the need for a creator. For many scientists, revealing the nature of the world was the way to understanding the creation and the glory of God. Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton, were all devout believers who saw their scientific work as a religious undertaking. For example, Kepler wrote in his Harmony of the Worlds:

Geometry provided God with a model for the Creation and was implanted into man, together with God's own likeness. ... It is absolutely necessary that the work of such a Creator be of the greatest beauty.

Although these scientists were aware of the objections their work would provoke, they did not consider the new discoveries to contradict religious teachings. They held the view that the scriptures, written for everyone to understand, were not to be taken literally. Any contradiction between religious teachings and the scientific discoveries was due to human’s mistaken interpretation. They believed that correct knowledge of the cosmos would provide a better insight into the scriptures, and that it was our pious responsibility to reinterpret the texts to match the known facts, as there should be no inconsistency between science and the scriptures when they were rightly understood.