Is Christianity At War With Science? (11/20

The following is a continuing list of Christians down through the centuries who, far from being constantly at war with science (commonly called ‘natural philosophy’ in previous times), took an active interest in seeking to understand how the universe worked. The first page in this list is here.

1577-1674:  Jan Baptist van Helmont:  Applied the scientific method to his investigations of the natural world.  He made discoveries in the physics of gas, and advances in the application of chemistry to the preparation of medicine

1618-1663:  Francesco Maria Grimaldi:  Applied the scientific method to his investigations of the natural world. He made major advances in physics, optics and light, discovered the principles of free fall acceleration, discovered the refraction of light, observed geological features on the Moon and drew an accurate map of its surface.  His studies enabled later scientists to prove light is a wave, and his research on light was used by Sir Isaac Newton in his own study.

1564–1642:  Galileo Galilei:  One of the most famous astronomers and astrophysicists in history, Galileo’s contributions to science have resulted in him being called the ‘father of astronomy’ and the ‘father of modern physics’.  Albert Einstein even called him the ‘father of modern science’.  He rejected the concept that faith should be based simply on authority, and is recognised for having made the scientific method of experimentation the basis of his studies.

Galileo made improvements to the telescope and compass, invented a thermometer, was the first to use a telescope as a compound microscope, proved a number of Aristotle’s scientific theories to be wrong (notably the idea that the sun moves around the earth), and contributed significantly to physics (mainly in the areas of motion, such as inertia and acceleration).

Like many Christians before him, Galileo believed firmly that the ‘two books’ of God (the Scriptures and the creation), were both in harmony, and that any apparent contradiction between the two was the result of misinterpretation by human error.

Galileo was certain that scientific studies would in fact assist the study of the Bible, rather than contradict it:

‘On the contrary, having arrived at any certainties in physics, we ought to utilize these as the most appropriate aids in the true exposition of the Bible and in the investigation of those meanings which are necessarily contained therein, for these must be concordant with demonstrated truths.’

Galileo Galilei, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, 1615

It was Galileo’s opinion that the Scriptures and the creation had two separate functions in revealing God, the Scriptures teaching what the natural creation could not:

‘I should judge that the authority of the Bible was designed to persuade men of those articles and propositions which, surpassing all human reasoning could not be made credible by science, or by any other means than through the very mouth of the Holy Spirit.’

‘I would say here something that was heard from an ecclesiastic of the most eminent degree: “That the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven. not how heaven goes.”’

Galileo Galilei, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, 1615

Because he believed the Scriptures and creation to be in complete harmony with the same purpose of revealing God (though in two different ways), Galileo was absolutely certain that reason, and knowledge gained from practical experience. were tools from God by which the truth of His existence could be found in the creation.

For this reason, Galileo believed it was wrong to consider that knowledge gained from experience and observation was untrustworthy.  These tools, given by God, should be used and trusted:

‘But I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them. He would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and minds by direct experience or necessary demonstrations.

This must be especially true in those sciences of which but the faintest trace (and that consisting of conclusions) is to be found in the Bible.’

Galileo Galilei, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, 1615

Galileo was insistent that the study of sciences such as astronomy was entirely in harmony with the Scriptures, and provided evidence that what they said was true – that God’s glory and power is revealed in His creation:

‘And to prohibit the whole science would be to censure a hundred passages of holy Scripture which teach us that the glory and greatness of Almighty God are marvelously discerned in all his works and divinely read in the open book of heaven.’

Galileo Galilei, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, 1615

:  Marin Mersenne:  Involved in an extensive correspondence with scientists from a number of different fields, Mersenne acted as an informal journal of scientific knowledge, his correspondence making the discoveries of others widely available.  He also organised regular meetings of scientists and scholars in different fields, in order for them to share, review, and assess each other’s work.  As a part of this system of meetings (called the ‘Académie Parisiensis’, or Académie Mersenne’), Mersenne required experiments to be repeated (to check for error), and to be described in specific detail so that others could repeat them.

This was arguably his greatest contribution to the advancement of science and learning, and enabled many of the most gifted scientists and thinkers of his day to benefit from each other’s discoveries.  It was the first example of the modern system of scientific validation, the system known today as ‘peer review’.

A firm believer in God, he wrote ‘Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim’ (1623), and ‘L’Impieté des déistes’ (1624), refuting the ideas of atheist and Deist skeptics, arguing that the Bible was entirely compatible with both reason and science.

1596-1650:  Rene Descartes:  His invention of analytic geometry led to the discovery of the calculus, a revolution in mathematics.  He also contributed to optics, and proposed the law of conservation of momentum.  A devout Catholic, he wrote extensively on the defence of the Bible against scepticism.

1623-1662:  Blaise Pascal:  Contributed significantly to mathematics, especially in the field of geometry, and created many mechanical calculating devices.  Pascal also made discoveries in the fields of hydraulics and vacuum.  He started a comprehensive work defending Christianity (‘Defense of the Christian Religion’), but it was still incomplete when he died.

1630-1677:  Isaac Barrow:  Made contributions to mathematics and optics, improving the understanding of the refraction of light, and creating a new method of calculating tangents.  His pupil was Sir Isaac Newton, considered to be the only mathematician in England who was superior to Barrow himself.  He also wrote extensively on Christianity.

1638-1686:  Nicolas Steno:  Made important discoveries in geology and anatomy.  Steno’s study of fossils led him to believe that they were the remains of living beings.  This was not an original thought, but Steno’s work included an explanation of how fossils came to be embedded in other materials, and he was responsible for creating the field of stratigraphy in his work ‘Dissertationis prodromus’ (1669).  This was a model for dating materials found at different levels (or ‘strata’), in the earth’s surface, and explaining how strata were formed.

1617-1689:  Seth Ward:  A mathematician, Ward was one of the founding members of the Royal Society of London, the first formal academy of science in England, and one of the first formal ‘peer review’ bodies of scientific knowledge.  He contributed work on planetary motion.

1627-1691:  Robert Boyle:  Known as the first modern chemist, for his work on chemistry (‘The Sceptical Chymist’, 1661).  Boyle kept accurate experiment notes, essential for enabling his work to be checked and repeat by others.  He contributed significantly to a range of scientific disciplines, including chemistry (in the fields of combustion, respiration and investigative methodology), and physics (in the fields of light, hydrodynamics, sound, colour, electricity, hydrostatics, gas, refraction, and specific gravity).

His experiments in the physics of gasses resulted in ‘Boyle’s Law’, describing the relationship of a gases pressure and volume at a given temperature.  Boyle is well known for his practical approach to science, and his careful and methodical process of investigation.  Rejecting speculation and unproven hypotheses, he endeavoured to draw conclusions only from observable repeatable experimentation.

A dedicated Christian, Boyle was determined to use his scientific investigations to improve the human condition.  Like other Christian scientists, he saw no conflict between science and Christianity, and believed that science was to be used as the tool to achieve Christian aims:

‘During the course of his life he sought constantly to improve the lot of humanity. He was interested in the improvement of agricultural methods, in the possibility of extracting fresh water from salt, in the improvement of medicines and medicinal practice, in the possibility of preserving food by vacuum packing, and in a number of other useful results, actual or potential, of experimental philosophy.

He viewed his theological interests and his work in natural philosophy as forming a seamless whole and constantly used results from the one area to enlighten matters in the other.’

JJ Mactintosh and Peter Anstey, article ‘Robert Boyle’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006

As a result of his strong Christian convictions, Boyle was also an evangelist who contributed considerably to preaching efforts:

‘Convinced that Christianity was the religion instituted by God, Boyle was concerned that the Bible should be widely promulgated and he devoted time and energy to having it translated into a variety of languages such as Irish, Turkish, and various native American languages.’

JJ Mactintosh and Peter Anstey, Article ‘Robert Boyle’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006

Boyle applied the same rigorous scientific investigation to his Christian faith as he did to his experiments.  Rejecting the concept of blind faith, he was convinced that a true Christian should have a faith which was properly grounded in reason and experience.

‘The promise seems never to have been broken, and indeed the later Boyle stressed the need to have an examined faith. He pointed out that “usually, such as are born in such a place, espouse the opinions true or false, that obtain there” (BW, 12:421, Birch 1772, VI:712), indeed, “the greatest number of those that pass for Christians, profess themselves such only because Christianity is the religion of their Parents, or their Country, or their Prince, or those that have been, or may be, their Benefactors; which is in effect to say, that they are Christians, but upon the same grounds that would have made them Mahometans, if they had been born and bred in Turky” (BP 7:233, BOA §3.7.5, pp 301-2).

Boyle felt that more was required of the thinking believer
. Locke agreed: often a child’s notion of God does more “resemble the Opinion, and Notion of the Teacher, than represent the True God” (Essay, 1.14.13). ’

JJ Mactintosh and Peter Anstey, Article ‘Robert Boyle’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

His work in this area made important and valuable contributions to the challenge of providing evidence for the existence of God, and testing the Christian religion against experience and against the claims of other religions.  Many of the arguments which would later be used by atheists and skeptics to attack Christianity, were in fact anticipated and addressed by Boyle

Boyle believed that there was sufficient evidence for the existence of God, and that this evidence (in the form of a design argument), could be used to convince the non-believer:

‘Boyle, too, held that design arguments were both available and the most likely to persuade rational, open-minded hearers. Such arguments were intended to form a large part of a book on atheism, something he worked on throughout his adult life but never published, though parts of it were used in various other works of a theological nature.’

‘Well, that was the plan, and Boyle certainly thought that the design arguments he intended for section two should convince the open-minded. Moreover, he thought, such arguments should particularly convince those who were knowledgeable about nature, who knew enough about the details of the world to be impressed by the intricacy of the presumed workmanship. “[T]here are,” he wrote, “positive Reasons afforded by Philosophy to prove a Deity, namely … the Cartesian Idæa, the Originall of Motion, the use of Parts in Animalls, especially the Eye, the valves of the heart, the musculi perforantes &  perforati,[23]  & the temporary [parts][24]  of a foetus <& the Mother>.”’

JJ Mactintosh and Peter Anstey, Article ‘Robert Boyle’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006

He approached the difficulty of discerning true religions from false in the same practical and methodical manner he applied to his scientific investigations:

Boyle was aware that most believers held their belief on insufficient grounds (see BP 4:60, BOA §3.7.5, pp. 301-2), but felt himself fortunate in that sound philosophy showed that the religion to which he was born was the correct one. For Boyle, miracles (in particular the miracle of Pentecost) were a crucial factor in opting for Christianity. The Christian miracles, he felt, clearly bore the stamp of God upon them. There were, he agreed, other miracles or apparent miracles, but the miracles which purported to establish Christianity were neither pretenses nor diabolical, and they were miraculous.

Locke believed that “Mahomet having none to produce, pretends to no miracles for the vouching of his mission,” but Boyle was aware of the argument that the Koran itself is miraculous (in view of the disparity between it and what might reasonably be expected of its author in the absence of divine inspiration). He felt, not that this argument was inappropriate, but that it failed the test empirically:

[T]he Saracens, press’d with their Religions being destitute of attesting Miracles, … reply, That though there were no other Miracle to manifest the Excellency of their Religion …, yet the Alcoran it Self were sufficient, as being a Lasting Miracle that transcends all other Miracles. How Charming its Eloquence may be in its Original, I confesse my self too unskilfull in the Arabick Tongue, to be a competent Judge … but the Recent Translations I have seen of it in French, and … Latin, elaborated by great Scholars, and accurate Arabicians, by making it very Conformable to its Eastern Original, have not so rendred it, but that Persons that judge of Rhetorick by the Rules of it current in these Western Parts of the World, would instead of extolling it for the Superlative, not allow it the Positive Degree of Eloquence; [and] would think the Style as destitute of Graces, as the Theology of Truth …’’

JJ Mactintosh and Peter Anstey, Article ‘Robert Boyle’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006

Like other Christian scientists, Boyle was convinced that God had ordered both reason and revelation so that the who were in perfect harmony.  Reasoning accurately from experimentation and experience would never contradict the divine revelation of Scripture, but would instead affirm it.  The two together, Boyle insisted, contribute to a correct understanding of the universe:

‘…it ought much to recommend many of the things that Revelation discovers to us, that they are congruous, and if I may so speak Symmetrical to what reason it self teaches us; and this Supernatural Light does not only confirm, but advance and compleat the truths discoverable by the light of nature. For God has so excellently orderd the discoverys he makes of Theological <Veritys> by meer reason, and by the holy Scriptures, that what Revelation superadds to Reason, does both very well agree with it, and supply what was wanting to it, that from them both might result as compleat a body of Theological Verities, as is either necessary or fit for us in our Mortal State (BP 7:245-6, 4:23, BW 14:275).’

As part of his legacy, Boyle left money to fund a series of annual lectures for the promotion of Christianity, specifically directed at evidence for the existence of God.  These started in 1692, and continued into the late 19th century, when they ended.  They were recently revived in 2004, though the lecture topics are no longer restricted to their original focus.


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