A Dialogue of Science and Faith

Post updated on 18 November 2017 to include reference  to previous post and include link to post about parallax (link to parallax removed on 18 August 2021).

The genesis of this piece came when I chanced upon an article about Isaac Newton and the Bible (“Sir Isaac Newton and the Bible” by Professor Arthur B. Anderson). This is an extremely laudatory and what can be considered a very truthful piece. The problem lies in the interpretation of the information presented, as illustrated by the last two paragraphs:

Sir Isaac Newton and all reputable scientists believed that today’s scarred and marred earth as the result of the great Flood. This was the common opinion of the majority of educated people until around the year 1870!!

In conclusion: Sir Isaac Newton was totally correct in his Observations. If the greatest scientist who ever lived had no problem believing the Bible, what excuse will evolutionists, atheists, agnostics, or other so called men of science have on Judgment Day!!

I will not disagree with Professor Anderson’s assertion that Newton, reputable scientists and the majority of educated people believed in the Flood until 1870, for that is essentially correct. Up until that point, there was no reason to believe otherwise.

But his selection of the year 1870 coincides rather nicely with the debate on the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. It also coincides rather nicely with the development of geology and explanations that went beyond a Biblical explanation.

The problem that I have with his conclusion is two-fold. First, nothing in what Professor Anderson writes suggests what Isaac Newton would have said or thought if he had lived at the time of Darwin.

He was a physicist and a mathematician; his work on the science of optics, the development of calculus, and the development of the idea behind gravity all suggest a man interested in what was happening in the world; would he have dismissed Darwin’s work without a thought or might he have explored the premise behind the work? These are questions we can ask but which we cannot answer.

Second, Professor Anderson’s article also leaves out quite a bit of information about Newton, information that calls into question his rather emphatic conclusion.

In “A Study in Scarlet” Sherlock Holmes tells Dr. Watson that “it is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence.” A corollary to this is that you cannot and should not make the facts fit the theory. Professor Anderson’s conclusion seems to fit into that latter category. He wants, as do several others, to find scientists who have a professed interest in the Bible and God in order to discredit others or to give credence to their own viewpoint.

Like so many who will tell you that Thomas Jefferson was guided by God in the writing of the Declaration of Independence or how our founding fathers were devoted Christians, the evidence offered is often incomplete and the conclusions drawn are incorrect (see “Don’t Know Much History”).

Tycho Brahe is best known in history for the detailed observations that he made of the planets and the stars prior to the invention of the telescope. His observations of a supernova in 1572 contradicted the accepted notion that the cosmos (or universe) was fixed and unchanging. His observations of the movement of a comet in 1577 showed that comets were further away from the earth than was the moon, a conclusion that also contradicted the teachings of Aristotle.

In his observations of the heavens, Brahe determined that there was no parallax for the stars. Parallax is the apparent movement of something when you look at the object with one eye open and the other shut and then change the eye which is open and the eye which is shut. As you blink your eyes, the object you are looking at appears to move; that is what is known as parallax.  Brahe showed that the stars did not exhibit such movement and this meant that either 1) the stars were very far away or 2) the earth was motionless at the center of the universe.

Like so many other instances of human thought, Brahe correctly formulated the responses to his thought but then chose the wrong answer. He did not believe that the stars could be as far away from the earth as his observations suggested so he concluded that the earth was motionless and at the center of the universe.

Note on Brahe’s and Kepler’s thoughts on parallax adapted from “The Order of Things”; blog was updated on 18 November 2018 to include link to post about the measurement of parallax.

Isaac Newton did believe in the Bible as it was written; he had no other information upon which to make a conclusion. In fact, Newton’s writings concerning the Bible were as numerous as his other works and this should not be surprising considering that he was interested in the relationship of God to the universe. His work on the discovery of the law of gravitation told him how gravity worked but not why it worked. His study of the Bible was as much driven by a desire to understand how God made the universe as it was to understand who God was.

My notes on Isaac Newton include a book by Michael White, Isaac Newton – The Last Sorcerer and “Newton’s Hair” by Mark S. Lesney from Today’s Chemist at Work (April, 2003) that relied in part on White’s work. In his book, Michael White also describes the work that Newton did with regards to a scholarly examination of the Book of Daniel and an attempt to determine the end of time (which White says Newton determined to be 1948).

What is also included in the White biography that is not included in the Anderson article is that Newton was a Christian apostate and an adherent to the Arian heresy, a belief that Jesus was not divine. A further reading showed that even though he signed papers agreeing to a career in the ministry following his graduation with his Bachelor and Master’s degrees, he was reluctant to take that step when he was awarded his doctorate. It took a special dispensation from the King to allow him to remain as the Lucasian professor (a dispensation that still is in effect today).

We cannot say whether Newton would have accepted or rejected Darwin’s ideas. History tells us that he was very much opposed to those whose ideas were contrary to his own but we have nothing to suggest what he would have done if he had been presented with Darwin’s theory. But if we are to apply modern day situations to Isaac Newton and his own beliefs about God, Christ, and the church, it is very likely that many churches today would have rejected him for his thoughts and statements.

My own curiosity about the idea that Isaac Newton might have had fundamentalist type religious beliefs led me to another article, “Maxwell, Molecules, and Evolution” by Charles Petzold. In this article, Petzold points out that James Clerk Maxwell and several other early scientists (Lord Kelvin, Robert Boyle, Johannes Kepler, Michael Faraday, and Samuel F. B. Morse) are listed as “Christian men of science”. Now, it would be very difficult to presume that either Boyle or Kepler were opposed to Darwin’s theory for the simple fact is that they didn’t even know that there was such a theory. As Petzold also points out, the presumption that Maxwell might have been opposed to Darwin’s theory is made by very carefully selecting the words that Maxwell spoke and using them out of the context in which they were spoken.

It strikes me that modern day creationists or those who expound on the notion of intelligent design would quickly add Robert Boyle and Johannes Kepler to a list of scientists. I am sure that along with Newton, they accepted the notion of a creator who put into play the work of the universe. But like Newton, their belief in God is radically different from what they would have you believe it to be.

Robert Boyle could hardly be considered the paragon of virtue that one might suspect when given the label of “Christian man of science.” Now, I am familiar with Robert Boyle as the father of modern day chemistry. But it was a surprise to me that there was a corollary between his life and mine. In one aspect, I would agree with those who say that our students today are not given the full story about the individuals who laid the basis for what we do today. But I think that such full disclosures must include all the stories and not just the ones that support the point that the presenter wishes to present.

When he was young, Boyle was introduced to the works of Galileo and he became a strong supporter of his philosophy and approach. It was this that led Boyle to the study of science and mechanics, a study that would be reflected in his later achievements. But at the same time that he was being introduced to Galileo, he also experienced another transformative event that would shape his life, his philosophy and his science, a profound religious experience. In his autobiography, Boyle noted that that his conversion occurred during a majestic thunderstorm and that his spiritual change would be enduring and led him towards a strongly theistic perspective that informed his views on natural philosophy.

In 1643, at the age of 16, Boyle’s father died and he inherited the family estate. Here he settled in to begin a life as a writer, not of scientific manuscripts, but pious, moralistic tracts inspired by his newfound Christian faith.

He would begin the studies that would lead to the writing of The Skeptical Chemist shortly after this. His work in chemistry was aimed at establishing chemistry as a mathematical science that was based on a mechanistic theory of nature.

But even while developing the experimental methods would make chemistry a science, Robert Boyle, like Isaac Newton, also studied alchemy. While we today may see the difference between the two areas, it is likely that such practitioners like Newton and Boyle did not. It can even be suggested that the work that Newton and Boyle did in alchemy was driven by their religious beliefs.

Boyle believed wholeheartedly in the existence of a supernatural realm, a world in which humankind had little experience. For him, alchemy was the link between the two worlds; a link that might provide evidence of God’s existence.

For Boyle, alchemy was a gift from God that, along with chemistry, offered a path to the truth. He was hostile to views of nature that did not demonstrate a proper understanding or appreciation of God’s power in the world. And while he was a devout Christian, he despised taking oaths. His refusal to take holy orders prevented him from becoming the provost of Eton and he would decline the offer to serve as the President of The Royal Society because of the oath he would have had to take.

In reading the information about Boyle (from The Last Sorcerer and “Founding Chymist” by Richard A. Pizzi from Today’s Chemist at Work, August, 2003), I can’t help but think that there are many today who would not welcome Robert Boyle into their church. But like Newton, his work meant to show what God had done and he believed in experimentation over a priori theorizing. He drew on various sources as long as they could be confirmed by experimental results. It remains to be seen how he would have reacted to Darwin’s work or the view of the modern day church.

Another chemist whose interests also included theology was Joseph Priestley. And like the others mentioned, his religious beliefs were clearly outside the mainstream of orthodox religion. As a student, his studies lead him to question the orthodox tenets of the Calvinist faith. Like Newton, he could not find scriptural support for the Trinity

This decision effectively denied him access to the great universities of England and he attended a more liberal school where his interest in natural phenomena and experimentation were encouraged. And again, where today his unorthodox views on religion might be cause for his expulsion from the church, he was able to work in an environment where differences in opinion were looked upon as a means of discovering the truth and not as a sign of moral reprobation.

After his fundamental research on the nature of oxygen, done while serving as a minister in Birmingham, he published three rather controversial manuscripts: Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever, an attempt to defend natural religion against the skepticism of David Hume; a History of the Corruptions of the Christianity, a direct attack on the central tenets of orthodox religion, particularly the doctrine of the Trinity; and a History of the Early Opinions Concerning Jesus Christ, where he set out to prove that the doctrine of the Trinity was not according to Scripture. Because of these publications, Priestley was denounced from the pulpit and a mob destroyed his home, laboratory, and library. Ultimately he was forced to move to America. 

In the same mode are the notes that I have gathered concerning Johannes Kepler. Kepler struggled very much with the conflict between his science and his faith. In reading the short biography that Charles Hummel put together in his book The Galileo Connection I also discovered that Kepler was a devout Christian whose interests in science often ran counter to the beliefs of the community. Parenthetically, Kepler, whose work was central to Galileo’s work and the confirmation of the Copernican model of the universe, died without a church. He would not sign a statement affirming a creed in the Lutheran church and so the Lutheran church denied him communion and employment in Lutheran universities. And because he was a Lutheran, the Catholic Church denied him communion and employment. (From the Galileo Connection)

I would have to say that Newton, Boyle, Priestley and Kepler were all men of faith. Their work was focused on seeing how God created this world and better understanding that creation. But their study was very much like that of Nikolai Copernicus.

He saw no conflict between his Christian faith and his scientific activity. During his forty years as a canon, he faithfully served his church with extraordinary commitment and courage. At the same time, he studied the world “which has been built for us by the Best and Most Orderly Workman of all.” He pursued his science with a sense of “loving duty to seek the truth in all things, in so far as God has granted that to human reason.” He declared that although his views were “difficult, almost inconceivable, and quite contrary to the opinion of the multitude, nevertheless in what follows we will with God’s help make them clearer than day – at least for those who are not ignorant of the art of mathematics. (From The Galileo Connection by Charles E. Hummel)

The work of a scientist is not to discover God nor is it to prove or disprove His existence. Such work can only be done, perhaps, in the heart of the individual. The work of the scientist is to examine the evidence before him and make sense of what that evidence means.

I remember a conversation I had with someone several years ago. At that time, the Missouri State Legislature was contemplating the passage of legislation that would have included the teaching of intelligent design in the biology curriculum. I told my colleague that if that legislation passed, I would resign immediately. Now, as a chemistry teacher, this legislation would not have affected my teaching (the benefit of not being certified to teach biology). But such legislation would have interfered with my rights as a teacher by dictating what I can or cannot teach; my colleague, who was both a Southern Baptist and a biology teacher, said that he would be right behind me.

The problem today is that we seek a world in which both faith and science are one and the same or they are permanently split. There are those who say that the argument between faith and science are part of a greater cultural war. And I would agree. But the issue at hand is not what one believes, either by actual evidence or faith alone but rather who controls the thought process.

The present discussion is all about power and who has the power. Both those who argue for the fundamentalist view of the world and those who argue for a more sectarian view of the world want to control the thought process of those who would like to learn about the world. And in their vigorous defense of their view and their vigorous attempts to deny the other viewpoint, they merely show the weakness of their own view.

It may be argued that the strength of one’s argument is inversely proportional to the strength of one’s belief system. The stronger the argument, the weaker the belief; it is entirely logical to assume that the fervor you put into keeping me from thinking about things is that your thoughts are indefensible. What was it that G. K. Chesterton said about atheism, that is was an argument for a “universal negative”?

It has been documented several times that employment at several Christian colleges is predicated on the signing of an oath that your beliefs are in line with that of the faith. I remind the reader that Boyle refused to sign such oaths, Priestley refused to sign such oaths, and Newton did so but then violated them even before the ink was dry on the vellum.

Science is an attempt to discover the world around us. Faith is an attempt to discover who we are. We need both in life and cannot replace the one with the other. We must ask ourselves as we begin the second decade of the 21st century if we are prepared to do both. We cannot discover the world around us if we do not know who we are nor can we find out who we are unless we can find out what this world is all about.

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