|God & Nature Magazine||
If Christianity and Cosmology Are in Conflict, Whose Side Is Philosophy on?
By Vaughan Rees
To my mind there is no simple and uncontentious answer to the question of whether or not Christianity and cosmology (or indeed science in general) are in conflict, as the answer is almost entirely subjective. What is undeniable, however, is that there have been serious conflicts between individual scientists and individual Christian leaders. For example, let's consider the famous case of Galileo in some detail.
To begin with, there is considerable irony in the fact that Galileo’s conflict with the church actually started with the scientific establishment of his time and only later progressed to a theological matter. The issue causing all the trouble was Galileo’s defense of a theory that had been derived some 70 years before by Nicholas Copernicus.
At the time, the established scientific view of the Cosmos followed the teachings of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle expounded on a Cosmos with Earth at its center and with the Sun, Moon, planets and stars all rotating around it, fixed to “celestial spheres.” Ptolemy subsequently added complex mathematical refinements to make the theory “work” for predicting the movements of the planets properly. Despite the apparent problems with Aristotle’s geocentric model, this was the prevailing theory at the time of Galileo.
Copernicus’ theory instead put the Sun at the center with the Earth as one of the planets orbiting it. This model had the advantage of much greater simplicity and predictive power but nevertheless, it was not generally accepted. Although Copernicus’ theory was disregarded by most astronomers of the day, Galileo was an advocate. When he discovered four moons orbiting Jupiter, he reasoned that he had found powerful evidence that not all astronomical bodies orbited the Earth. He was initially opposed in this by Aristotelian philosophers of the day, and when Galileo persisted, they called in the Roman Catholic Church.
Now the Bible does not contain a description of the spatial relationships between astronomical bodies; the Church, therefore, adopted the prevailing scientific consensus on the matter, which was the Ancient Greek view. It did not derive its own model developed from a theological basis, however certain scriptures were used in support of the Greek model. For example in Ecclesiastes 1:5 Solomon describes the motion of the Sun as follows:
“The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.”
And in 1 Chronicles 16:30 (and elsewhere) the Earth is described as fixed:
“Tremble before him, all the earth! The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.”
Galileo’s response to this was that these were not matters of faith. To quote from his Dialogue:
“Take note, theologians, that in your desire to make matters of faith out of propositions relating to the fixity of sun and earth you run the risk of eventually having to condemn as heretics those who would declare the earth to stand still and the sun to change position -- eventually, I say, at such a time as it might be proved that the earth moves and the sun stands still.”
The objections against Galileo and Copernicus were not as much theological as scientific and philosophical, but in the period after the Reformation, the Catholic Church was more invested in encouraging followers to toe the party line. This after all was the time of the Inquisition. The final result was that Galileo was put under house arrest from 1633 to his death in 1642 and his greatest work banned by the Church until 1835.
Behind all this was a reluctance to accept a challenge to accepted norms, both scientific and religious, exacerbated at the time by a backward looking scientific establishment, and a religious establishment that had become extraordinarily inflexible. (By the way, it would be unfair to say that it was just the Catholic Church that had a problem with the new theory, it is worth noting that Martin Luther was similarly dismissive.)
Not all Christians thought like this, however. Among them was Johannes Kepler, the first person to properly describe the motion of bodies within the solar system, by identifying that the planets actually move in ellipses rather than circles.
Kepler had intended to be a Lutheran Minister but ended up as an astronomer and mathematician pretty much by accident. He believed that Copernicus was correct because the Copernican system allowed for simpler and more accurate predictions of planetary movement. Kepler also believed that God had created an incredibly orderly world and he found it more philosophically satisfying to have the Sun, (which is often used to symbolize the glory of God in the Bible), at the centre of all things rather than the Earth, which was the home of mankind.
So the disagreement about whether the Sun went around the Earth or vice versa was not simply one of narrow minded Christians against enlightened scientists. The truth was actually much more complex with much of the rancour being between an entrenched scientific establishment and those putting forward radical new theories.
So what of the present day? There is a general myth in the media and society at large that science fully explains the origin of the universe. Scientists, it is thought, know pretty much everything there is to know about it and God is redundant. If you ask someone who does not believe God created the universe, about its origin, then typically they will say they believe in the “scientific explanation.” They may not know much about this in the way of detail, but will probably point to the Big Bang as the ultimate origin of the universe.
Yet to claim science can provide a complete explanation of how the universe came into being is false. Consider a recent quote from Russian cosmologist Alex Vilenkin: "The universe may have a beginning but we may never be able to know exactly what the beginning was like." Not only does cosmology not have an explanation for the beginning of the universe, it is not even clear on whether there was a beginning or not.
Now I do need to put those comments into context. Vilenkin is not talking about the Big Bang. The overwhelming consensus among cosmologists is still that the Big Bang started off “our universe” i.e. the universe we can see. The problem is that there is also a consensus among cosmologists that there was something before the Big Bang that led to it. They just don’t know what.
From a philosophical point of view, it turns out there is actually a fair bit of common ground between the Christian and the scientific worldview. Both science and Christianity accept the premise believed by Kepler and described more contemporarily by apologist John Lennox as, “the rational intelligibility of the universe”, i.e., the idea that the universe is ordered rather than chaotic and based on rules that humans can make sense of. There are also areas of significant philosophical difference between science and Christianity. For example, many scientists regard an idea based on something that cannot be measured as having no real value. It seems to me that many of those who think like this do not really consider it too deeply; they just intuitively believe that any other way of thinking is simply illogical.
This viewpoint is effectively characterized by secular physicist Lawrence Krauss, who stated:“...ultimately the only source of facts is via empirical exploration” (i.e. the making of measurements). But whether something is true or exists has nothing to do with whether we can measure it. For example, the planet we now call Jupiter was not “measured” until it was discovered by Herschel in 1781. This did not stop it being real and existing before then.
So are there areas where cosmology actually encourages Christian belief? I increasingly think so. The more we become aware of the scale and complexity of the universe, the harder it is for me to be reconciled to the view that it all came into being by chance. Of course, our expanding view of the grandness of the universe has the opposite effect on some. Richard Fenyman is famously quoted as saying, “the theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man's struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.” In essence, Feynman complains, why is the universe so grand if God is only interested in the small spec of insignificance that is the Earth? I tend to think this is missing the point in a big way. Psalm 19, says, “The Heavens declare the glory of the Lord.” If the universe is indeed a stage, I think it is a stage for us to view God.
Vaughan Rees has a PhD in nuclear physics from the University of Surrey and works for the UK nuclear regulatory authority.
He is a member of Kennet Christian Centre, an independent Pentecostal church in Newbury U.K. and is married with three children. He is interested in the roles of faith and science as routes to discovering the truth about the universe.