Is Christianity At War With Science? (12/20)
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.
1629-1695: Christiaan Huygens: A notable physicist, astronomer, and mathematician, Huygens made an extraordinary number of significant contributions to a range of fields. In mathematics he contributed to the development of modern calculus and wrote the first work on probability theory (1657).
In physics he correctly argued that light exists in the form of a wave (later studies showed that it exists as a wave and particle), formulated a law which Newton later developed as the second law of motion, and made discoveries regarding the motion of pendulums (published as ‘Horologium Oscillatorium’, 1673), which led to his revolutionary new designs in time keeping devices, specifically the pendulum clock (which he patented in 1657), the balance spring clock (though he was narrowly preceded in this invention by the Englishman Robert Hooke), and the pocket watch (which he patented in 1675). His improvements in time keeping contributed significantly to naval navigation, a field in which accurate time keeping was essential.
In astronomy Huygens invented a new telescope design (used in today’s modern telescopes), discovered Saturn’s rings (which he correctly identified as consisting of rocks), as well as Saturn’s moon Titan, examined the Orion Nebula (his drawings of which were the first ever made), accurately identifying it as made up of different star groups. He believed the universe must be full of life, and speculated that there existed earth-like conditions and inhabitants on other planets (‘Cosmotheoros: The celestial worlds discover’d: or, conjectures concerning the inhabitants, plants and productions of the worlds in the planets’, 1698).
‘But besides the Nobleness and Pleasure of the Studies, may not we be so bold as to say, they are no small help to the advancement of Wisdom and Morality? so far are they from being of no use at all. For here we may mount from this dull Earth, and viewing it from on high, consider whether Nature has laid out all her cost and finery upon this small speck of Dirt. So, like Travellers into other distant Countrys, we shall be better able to judg of what’s done at home, know how to make a true estimate of, and set its own value upon every thing.
We shall be less apt to admire what this World calls great, shall nobly despise those Trifles the generality of Men set their Affections on, when we know that there are a multitude of such Earths inhabited and adorned as well as our own. And we shall worship and reverence that God the Maker of all these things; we shall admire and adore his Providence and wonderful Wisdom which is displayed and manifested all over the Universe, to the confusion of those who would have the Earth and all things formed by the shuffling Concourse of Atoms, or to be without beginning.’
Christiaan Huygens, ‘Comsotheoros’ Book 1, 1698
1656-1695: William Molyneux: Although his research was largely focussed on optics, Molyneux also contributed to astronomy, history, and philosophy. He designed new scientific instruments (including a telescopic sundial and an improved hygroscope), and contributed to engineering.
His work ‘Dioptrica Nova’ (1692), was the first work on optics to be published in English, and was highly influential. He made the first visual observations of the circulatory system, by examining the movement of the bloodstream of a newt, using a microscope:
‘I have been often delighted with the curious Appearance of many Objects seen through the Microscope. But none ever surprised me more, than the visible Circulation of the Blood in Water-Newts (Lacerta aquatica) to be seen as plainly as Water running in a River, and proportionably much more rapid.’
William Molyneux, ‘Dioptrica Nova’, page 281, 1692
1616-1703: John Wallis: An English mathematician, Wallis was involved in developing modern calculus, and introduced the use of the symbol ‘∞’ for infinity. His most important work was ‘Arithmetica Infinitorum’ (1656), in which he contributed to the understanding of infinite series. He made other advances in trigonometry and geometry.
He was an accomplished cryptographer, and had a natural capacity for performing extremely complex mathematical calculations in his head (he once calculated the square root of a 53 digit number while in bed, and recited the 27 digit answer the following morning from memory).
1627-1705: John Ray: An important botanist and biologist, Ray made a considerable effort to gather, examine, and classify as much of the natural world as possible. He created a systematic classification of animals and plants which preceded the more well known system of Linnaeus in the 18th century, and laid the groundwork for later research in the field. Ray is considered to have established the first truly systematic approach to biological classification, and is considered by some to have been the founder of modern zoology.
An important aspect of Ray’s biological studies was his firm conviction that the natural world was evidence for the existence of its creator. He made a detailed case for this in his work ‘The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of the Creation’ (1691), which gained great popularity and was translated into several languages.
‘But these Proofs taken from Effects, and Operations, exposed to every Man’s view, not to be denied or questioned by any, are most effectual to convince all that deny or doubt of it. Neither are they only convictive of the greatest and subtlest Adversaries, but intelligible also to the meanest Capacities: For you may hear illiterate Persons of the lowest Rank of the Commonalty affirming, That they need no Proof of the Being of a God, for that every Pile of Grass, or Ear of Corn, sufficiently proves that: For, say they, all the Men of the World cannot make such a thing as one of these; and if they cannot do it, who can, or did make it but God?
To tell them, that it made itself, or sprung up by Chance, would be as ridiculous as to tell the greatest Philosopher so.’
John Ray, ‘The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of the Creation’, pages 5-6, 1691
1646-1716: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: An outstanding thinker and genuine polymath, Leibniz contributed to a vast range of fields, including mathematics, physics, information science, philosophy, psychology, medicine, biology, history, theology, geology philology, and technology. The writings of Leibniz are numbered in the tens of thousands, and are so numerous that they have yet to be fully collected and classified. No complete edition of his works yet exists, and his impact on various fields of study still cannot be assessed accurately.
Perhaps the most famous of his accomplishments, Leibniz discovered the calculus independent of Newton (a hotly disputed fact which led to animosity and rivalry between their respective followers), and though Newton is credited with having made the discovery earlier, it is Leibniz’s notation method which is used today. Leibniz also invented the binary method of mathematical notation which is used in every computer today.
Leibniz was a deeply religious man, and a dedicated Christian. He wrote ‘Théodicée’ (1710), as an attempt to answer the famous ‘problem of evil’.
1632-1723: Anton van Leeuwenhoek: Known as the ‘father of microbiology’, Leeuwenhoek was extraordinary for his improvements in optical microscopy. With the aid of microscopes he made by hand using a new lens forming technique he invented himself and kept secret (though he shared his scientific observations freely), he was able to make revolutionary biological observations. Surviving microscopes made by Leeuwenhoek have a magnification power of up to 275 times, though it is believed he made others which were capable of almost double this level of magnification.
Leeuwenhoek became known to the famous English Royal Society (to which Newton and other leading scientists belonged), and gained considerable recognition for his accomplishments. However, his first observations of single celled organisms were so revolutionary that the Royal Society initially refused to accept them as genuine. To date life had never been found on such a small scale, and the detailed drawings sent to them by Leeuwenhoek (made by artists he hired), were dismissed as fraudulent since the Royal Society was unable to reproduce his findings (not having microscopes of sufficient power). It was not until after the Royal Society had sent an investigative committee to Holland to verify his discoveries that Leeuwenhoek’s findings were recognised as valid, in 1680. He was subsequently made a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Leeuwenhoek’s investigations of microscopic life were revolutionary, not merely because of what he discovered (such as bacteria in 1676, spermatozoa in 1677), but also because they contributed to the overthrow of the false theory of spontaneous generation, one of the last of Aristotle’s great errors to be overcome by modern science. Although Leeuwenhoek’s research proved inevitably hostile to those who still wished to cling to this stumblingblock Aristotle had thrown in the path of science, the Christian churches in Leeuwenhoek’s day saw no danger in his studies, and he was never impeded or challenged by ecclesiastical interference.
Leeuwenhoek took great delight in observing microscopic life (which he described as ‘animalcules’, or ‘little animals’), viewing this as clear evidence of the hand of the Creator:
‘From all these observations, we discern most plainly the incomprehensible perfection, the exact order, and the inscrutable providential care with which the most wise Creator and Lord of the Universe had formed the bodies of these animalcules, which are so minute as to escape our sight, to the end that different species of them may be preserved in existence. And this most wonderful disposition of nature with regard to these animalcules for the preservation of their species; which at the same time strikes us with astonishment, must surely convince all of the absurdity of those old opinions, that living creatures can be produced from corruption or putrefaction.’
1643-1727: Isaac Newton: An undisputed genius, Newton arguably contributed more to modern science than any other individual. The extant collection of Newton’s works has only become available for academic study relatively recently, and scholars are still assessing his many thousands of writings.
Newton produced revolutionary work on optics, physics, mathematics, and astronomy. He created his own telescopes, which were superior to those commonly available, and also made a basic electrostatic generator. He conducted many experiments in chemistry, as a result of his studies in alchemy.
Newton was a devout Christian, whose religious views were so unorthodox that he could not reveal them openly (among other things, he rejected the trinity, which in his day was still technically punishable by death). He refused membership of the church, and wrote thousands of pages in his studies of the Scripture. He held to a simple Biblical faith which was based firmly on the Bible, and rejected all post-Biblical doctrines accumulated through tradition or controversy. Newton’s personal religious views were influential on a number of other men, including William Whiston.
Convinced that the true apostolic teaching had become corrupted by later apostasy, he not only studied the Bible itself but also conducted a critical examination of the texts from which the English Bible had been translated, identifying two famous textual corruptions in the process (1 Timothy 3:16 and 1 John 5:7), in his work ‘An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture’ (published posthumously in 1754). Newton’s examination of these texts was proved correct by later studies, although even two hundred years later they were still being published in English Bibles without alteration or comment.
Newton believed that the universe was a clear sign of the handiwork of a divine creator, and constructed an argument from design for the existence of God. Unlike various Deists of his era, however, he believed that the design of the universe revealed a personal God who was emotionally involved in His creation, with which He had an ultimate purpose.
Newton wrote pages in his exposition of Daniel and Revelation, two books he considered essential to a correct understanding of Bible prophecy (which he considered further evidence for the existence of God), including a systematic explanation of Biblical symbolism as used in the prophetic works. A Historicist in his understanding of prophecy, Newton was convinced that the Jews would return to their land, and that their nation would be re-established (though he acknowledged he did not know how this would take place).
1698-1746: Colin Maclaurin: An exceptionally gifted mathematician, Maclaurin entered the University of Glasgow aged 11, graduated with a thesis at 14, and by 19 held a professorship in mathematics at the University of Aberdeen.
His thesis had been entitled ‘On the power of gravity’, and was built on Isaac Newton’s theories. Appropriately, at 27 years of age his skill was noted by Newton, who recommended him for the position of deputy to the professor of mathematics at the University of Edinburgh, to which he was accepted. Newton had such a high regard for Maclaurin’s ability that he offered to supply his salary for the position:
‘I am glad to understand that Mr Maclaurin is in good repute amongst you, for I think he deserves it very well: And to satisfy you that I do not flatter him, and also to encourage him to accept the place of assisting Mr Gregory, in order to succeed him, I am ready (if you will please give me leave) to contribute twenty pounds per annum towards a provision for him till Mr Gregory’s place becomes void, if I live so long.’
For his part, Maclaurin much admired Newton’s work, and spoke highly of him:
‘I received the greatest civility from [members of the Royal Society] and particularly from the great Sir Isaac Newton with whom I was very often.’
Colin Maclaurin, letter 3 in ‘The collected letters of Colin Maclaurin’, 1982
In 1720 he was awarded a joint prize shared with the two finest mathematicians of the day. Maclaurin’s work contributed to trigonometry, calculus (systematizing Newton’s earlier work), physics (again building on Newton’s research), geometry algebra, and actuarial studies.