Sunday, December 14, 2008

Science and Faith: The Origins of Modern Science

Over the past two centuries, the gap between science and Christianity has widened considerably, leaving little ground upon which Christians who believe in science, and vice versa, can stand. The divergence of these two quests for truth is due in part to the increased secularization of Western society, and more importantly to prejudices, misunderstandings, and ignorance on both sides. The disintegration of the relationship between science and Christianity has been to the detriment of all who seek the truth, and to society as a whole. (below right from

Origins of Modern Science

Differing opinions exists as to the exact origins of modern science as it is known today, ranging from origins in the Fertile Crescent, the Greco-Roman world, India, and China, among others. However, it is generally held that the birth of modern science came in the Early Modern Period (1500-1800 in Western Europe), specifically during the Scientific Revolution, which spanned the 16th and 17th centuries in Western Europe. The Scientific Revolution began in 1543 with the publishing of Nicolaus Copernicus's De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) and Andrea Vesalius's De humani corporis fabcrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), and saw fundamental advancements in the disciplines of physics, astronomy, and biology. During this period, the foundations of modern science were laid, and the eventual divergence of science and faith was conceived in disagreements between revolutionary scientists and the Church. (below from
Modern science developed in a time of great unrest in Europe, in which the questioning of preexisting doctrine, both scientific and religious, became conceivable. Notably, the Protestant Reformation, with the writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin, showcased the questioning and subsequent reformation of religious doctrine. Events such as this paved the way for Copernicus to begin questioning the validity of the geocentric model, and laid the framework of modern science with is heliocentric model. Galileo, with the support of Johannes Kepler, continued and added to the work of Copernicus by introducing the use of mathematics to describe motion, and effectively "proving" Copernican astronomy. Years later, Isaac Newton took science to a new level with his advances in mathematics and physics. Some historians see the publication of Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687 as the end of the Scientific Revolution. Thus, modern science, whose beginnings are rooted in the realization of the Earth's true place in the solar system, stands upon the shoulders of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, among others.

Basis For Modern Science

Yet the beginnigs of modern science are not found only in the achievements of the men mentioned above, but also in the philosophical climate taht allowed scientific thought to mature. The cultural climate of Western Europe in the Early Modern Period was decidedly Christian. Although early scientists came into conflict and were often opposed by the Christian Church, Christianity itself facilitated the birth of modern science. Alfred North Whitehead proclaimed Christianity to be "the mother of modern science," due to the Christian "insistence on the rationality of God." Many of the fathers of modern science wer devout Christians - Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Pascal, etc. These men had confidence that natural phenomena could be explained, because they believed that Creation reflects the rationality of the Creator. Likewise, they believed in the goodness of God's creation, and that not only was it worth study, but that their religious duty bound them to study it (Genesis 1:28, Psalm 111:2).

More specifically, the Christian origins of modern science can be evidenced philosophically. Science is founded on some basic philosophical presuppositions that are fundamental to its validity and practice. The following are five basic presuppositions to science:
  1. The orderliness and uniformity of nature: nature is inherently ordered and uniform, meaning the forces that act in nature are uniform through space and time
  2. The existence of an objectively real world
  3. The comprehensibility of the world: humans have the ability to understand the world in which they live
  4. The reliability of sense perceptions: truthful data can be gathered via the senses
  5. Moral responsibility: all scientists have the responsibility to report data honestly
The above presuppositions are foundational to the belief in and practice of science, and all point to the existence of an infinite, eternal, and personal Creator who carefully ordered the universe and gave man the ability to comprehend it. Taking this a step further, these presuppositions are consistent with Christians' unique understand of a God who:
  1. is eternal
  2. is infinite
  3. is righteous
  4. is personal
  5. creates ex-nihilo, meaning He created the universe out of nothing
  6. transcends the universe and time
This unique understanding of God in turn leads to the following two principles that form a rational basis for the presuppositions necessary for science:

  1. Creation reflects the Creator - Christians believe that God created the universe, and thus it follows that His creation reflects His character and purpose. As stated in Psalm 19:1-6 and Romans !:18-20, nature declares the Glory of God
  2. Mankind was created distinctly from the rest of nature (Genesis 1:26-27), and thus is able to stand apart from nature and comprehend its uniformity and orderliness. As stated above, Creation reflects and reveals God, so God has given man the ability to comprehend nature so that he man appreciate the revelation of God through nature. Additionally because man is created in God's image, he has the capacity for godly traits, such as honesty and integrity.
In conclusion, the beginnings of modern sciecne are inseparably intertwined with the Christian belief in a righteous, eternal, infinite, and personal God. Not only are the presuppositions fundamental to science philosophically Christian, the climate in which modern science began was decidedly Christian.

Why then, must Christianity and science be irreconcilable? Clearly, science and Christianity were linked in the 16th and 17th centuries, and that link persists to this day, regardless of whether it is realized. In essence, both science and Christianity are quests for truth. Truth is defined by Merriam Webster's Dictionary as "a transcendent fundamental or spiritual reality." Truth does not contradict itself, nor can it. Rather it's only one's perceptions of the truth that can come into conflict.

"Religion and science are opposed... but only in the same sense as that in which my thumb and forefinger are opposed - and between the two one can grasp anything."
-Physicist Sir William Bragg
Relevant Quotes

  • Galileo Galilei: "The world is the work and the scriptures the word of the same God."
  • Johannes Kepler: "[I am] a high priest in the Book of Nature, religiously bound to alter not one jot or title of what it had pleased God to write." / "[science is] thinking God's thoughts after Him."
  • Lord Kelvin: "If you think strongly enough, you will be forced by science to the belief in God."
  • Albert Einstein: "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."
  • Theologian C.S. Lewis" "Nature never taught me that there exists a God of glory and of infinite majesty. I had to learn that in other ways. But nature gave the word glory a meaning for me. I still do not know where else I could have found one."

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