Is Christianity At War With Science? (14/20)
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.
1789-1857: Augustin Louis Cauchy: A French mathematician whose extreme Catholic views made him enemies, but whose skill in mathematics produced major contributions to the field. He wrote over 700 mathematical papers, was a pioneer in mathematical analysis, developed the wave theory in optics, and contributed significantly to algebra, physics, calculus, number series theory, and geometry. His work was highly influential in the development of 19th century mathematics.
1800-1861: Lars Levi Læstadius: A strict Swedish Lutheran, Læstadius was an accomplished botanist who served on a number of expeditions. Læstadius made a number of botanical discoveries, and was recognised internationally, belonging to several botanical societies. He is also well known for his influential religious revival in Lapland, leading social reforms in the underprivileged village of Karesuando, which was plagued by alcoholism and violence. Læstadius’ successful reformation of the village has been honoured by the production of an opera, and the award ‘Man of the Millennium’ by local Laplanders.
1793-1864: Edward Hitchcock: A renowned 19th century geologist, Hitchcock was responsible for building the scientific reputation of Amherst College, where he was Professor of Natural Theology and Geology. He made significant contributions to geology and palaeontology.
During the 19th century the developing field of geology raised questions regarding the age of the earth. As geological discoveries indicated the earth was older than 17th century theologians had suggested, Hitchcock was one of a number of Christians who enthusiastically embraced the scientific evidence, and argued convincingly that an ‘old earth’ was no challenge to the Biblical account of creation in ‘The Religion Of Geology And Its Connected Sciences’ (1851).
Ironically the 19th century battle over the age of the earth was not between secular scientists attempting to convince obtuse and obstinate Christians, but almost entirely between Christian geologists and scientists being opposed by fellow Christians who could not reconcile an old earth with their interpretations of Scripture.
This conflict between Christians over the age of the earth became one of the most significant theological controversies of the 19th century, and contributed disproportionately to the later view that Christianity and science were at war. In reality this was a dispute between Christians over interpretation, not a dispute between Christianity and science. Christian geologists were fearlessly leading the way in developing geological science, and the majority of Christians saw no incompatibility between the Biblical record and an earth older than 6,000 years.
1794-1866: William Whewell: A remarkable Englishman who contributed to a broad range of disciplines, Whewell was a polymath accomplished in mechanics, physics, geology, economics, astronomy, philosophy, and theology.
One of Whewell’s most significant legacies was his creation of new words for various scientific fields. Not only did he invent the actual word ‘scientist’, but a number of other science related terms, such as ‘physicist’, ‘anode’, ‘cathode’, ‘ion’, and ‘consilience’.
Whewell wrote extensively on theology, and contributed to the Bridgewater Papers. His writings included ‘Astronomy and General Physics considered with reference to Natural Theology’ (1833), in which he presented a detailed teleological argument for the existence of God, and ‘Of the Plurality of Worlds’ (1854), in which he addressed the possibility of life on other planets.
Like Hitchcock and other 19th century scientists, Whewell considered the new scientific discoveries to be exciting evidence of the handiwork of the Creator. He argued powerfully that an intelligent mind must have been responsible for establishing the laws of the universe, and that this mind belonged to an almighty Creator who wished His creation to learn about Him by studying His work.
Whewell was highly influential in the 19th century debates between Christians over the extent to which science could inform theology, and stood firmly on the side of the moderates who believed that no genuine scientific discovery could be a threat to the Bible correctly interpreted.
1791-1867: Michael Faraday: A famous chemist and physicist who made a large number of contributions to the understanding of electricity and magnetism. His discoveries included a correct understanding of electrical and magnetic fields, and are now part of what is called ‘field theory’, a collection of physical laws describing the properties of electromagnetic fields. This research became critical to the later development of electronic devices.
Faraday’s work is the basis of all modern applications of electricity, and his discovery of the relationship between electricity and magnetism was a scientific breakthrough of immense significance. Faraday was convinced that a unified field theory could explain electricity, magnetism, and gravity, and was searching for it long before Einstein:
‘The ‘holy grail’ of the relationship between the various powers of creation was a topic to which Faraday frequently referred, though it was a topic still so speculative that Faraday confided many of his most ambitious thoughts only to his diary.
On March 19, 1849, his diary records: ‘Gravity. Surely this force must be capable of an experimental relation to Electricity, Magnetism and the other forces, so as to bind it up with them in reciprocal action and equivalent effect. Consider for a moment how to set about touching this matter by facts and trial’.
Article ‘Who Was Michael Faraday?’, The Faraday Institute For Science And Religion
Faraday was a devout Christian who served as an elder in a church of the Glasite (or ‘Sandemanian’), Christian sect. He was known for his sermons, which were always well prepared, carefully articulated, and consisted largely of Scriptural passages, as well as for his pastoral visits to the elderly and poor.
The Faraday Institute For Science and Religion (at St Edmunds College, Cambrdige University), was named after Faraday, and identifies him as an example of a Christian who saw no threat in scientific discovery, but rather believed that every advancement in science was a witness to the greatness of the Creator:
‘Faraday firmly believed in God as creator, but was critical of the natural theology that dominated much early Victorian science, and neither did he look to the Bible as a source of scientific information. Like Bacon, Faraday was convinced that the book of God’s world and the book of God’s word had the same author, so that ‘the natural works of God can never by any possibility come into contradiction with the higher things that belong to our future existence…’’
‘Faraday had a deep sense of the order of God’s creation. The laws of nature ‘were established from the beginning’ and so were ‘as old as creation’. The notes of one of his earliest lectures contain the pithy exhortation ‘Search for laws’. The task of science was to discover those laws by a process of empirical investigation.
As Faraday argued in a memorandum (1844) on the nature of matter: ‘God has been pleased to work in his material creation by laws’ and ‘the Creator governs his material works by definite laws resulting from the forces impressed on matter‘. The ‘beauty of electricity….[is] that it is under law’.’
Article ‘Who Was Michael Faraday?’, The Faraday Institute For Science And Religion
1791-1871: Charles Babbage: English mathematician and engineer who designed the first programmable computer. His devices were too complicated to be constructed with 19th century engineering, requiring fine machining and tolerances at a level well beyond the technology of the day. Yet the designs were sound, and a modern reconstruction of Babbage’s ‘Difference Engine’ proved successful, able to provide accurate answers to 31 digits. Babbage’s ‘Analytical Engine’ was even more complicated, and even closer in design to the modern electronic computer.
It could be programmed with instructions on punch cards (just as early electronic computers were in the 20th century), could store data in a mechanical memory, and was designed with a printer for hardcopy data output. It was in fact more complex and advanced than the first electronic computers in the 1940s.
Babbage also distinguished himself in the fields of mechanics, invented the heliograph and ophthalmoscope, and made a breakthrough in cryptography by cracking the supposedly ‘undecipherable cipher’, the famous auto-key cipher of Vigenère’, an achievement which proved essential to British intelligence during war.
Babbage wrote the ninth of the Bridgewater Treaties, in which he argued that scientific discovery provided evidence for the existence of God, and encouraged other Christians to embrace the latest discoveries of geology, arguing that they were no danger to the Biblical text.
Like many other famous 19th century, Babbage believed in an ‘old earth’, and was more concerned by poorly made Christian arguments attempting to prove the Bible true than he was about the possibility of scientific discovery proving it false:
‘Thus, then, had those who attempt to show that the account of the creation, in the book of Genesis, is contradicted by the discoveries of modern science, succeeded, they would have destroyed the testimony of Moses—they would have uncanonised one portion of Scripture, and by implication have thrown doubt on the remainder.
But minds which thus failed to trace out the necessary consequences of their own argument, were not likely to have laid very secure foundations for the basis on which it rested ; and I shall presently prove that the contradiction they have imagined can have no real existence ; and that whilst the testimony of Moses remains unimpeached, we may also be permitted to confide in the testimony of our senses.’
‘Those observers and philosophers who have spent their lives in the study of Geology, have arrived at the conclusion that there exists irresistible evidence, that the date of the earth’s first formation is far anterior to the epoch supposed to be assigned to it by Moses ; and it is now admitted by all competent persons, that the formation even of those strata which are nearest the surface must have occupied vast periods—probably millions of years—in arriving at their present state.’
‘Such being the present state of the case ;— it surely becomes a duty to require a very high degree of evidence, before we again claim authority for the opinion that the book of Genesis contains such a precise account of the work of the creation, that we may venture to appeal to it as a refutation of observed facts. The history of the past errors of our parent Church supplies us with a lesson of caution which ought not to be lost by its reformed successors.
The fact that the venerable Galileo was compelled publicly to deny, on bended knee, a truth of which he had the most convincing demonstration, remains as a beacon to all after time, and ought not to be without its influence on the inquiring minds of the present day.’
Charles Babbage, ‘The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, A Fragment’, Bridgewater Treatise series, number 9, 1838
1785-1873: Adam Sedgwick: A major contributor to modern geology, Sedgwick was another scientist who saw no contradiction between scientific discovery and Biblical truth. Like his contemporary John Thomas, he believed that geology proved the earth was more than 6,000 years old, and held a ‘catastrophist’ view which involved the Divine destruction of former life on earth, which was replaced through later creative acts.
Sedgwick was influential in developing geology. He contribute to the geological time scale by defining the Devonian and Cambrian eras, as well as making advances in stratification and the formation of rock layers.
Though Sedgwick had no difficulty with the concept of an old earth, he rejected utterly any form of evolution. In writing to Charles Darwin (a personal friend), he expressed in extremely strong terms his scepticism of Darwin’s hypothesis:
‘If I did not think you a good tempered and truth-loving man I should not tell you that… I have read your book with more pain than pleasure. Parts of it I admired greatly; parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore; other parts I read with absolute sorrow; because I think them utterly false and grievously mischievous. You have deserted – after a start in that tram-road of all solid physical truth – the true method of induction…’
Letter to Charles Darwin from Adam Sedgwick, November 24th, 1859, in ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin’, volume. 7, page 396
In the 5th edition of his work ‘Discourses On The Studies Of The University Of Cambridge’ (1850), Sedgwick wrote a lengthy rebuttal of evolutionary theory, and addressed also various common sceptical arguments against Christianity, including arguments from Hume and Locke. In the same work he wrote also on the relationship between Christianity and science, natural theology (identifying evidence for the existence of God from creation), and addressed a number of theological controversies.
1790-1874: John Bachman: A naturalist and social reformer, who was one of the first to argue from a scientific basis that black and white humans belonged to the same race. His work ‘The Doctrine of the Unity of the Human Race Examined on the Principles of Science’ (1850), was revolutionary in an era when dark skinned humans were considered to be an inferior or ‘primitive’ earlier form of human, or belonging to a different race to white skinned humans.
His contributions to natural history were significant and wide ranging, including studies of biology, zoology, and ethnicity. Several notable naturalists named species or animals after him, in recognition of his valuable work.
Bachman was Lutheran minister who promoted religious and secular education, and provided services for both African Americans and whites, slave and free. He organised educational services in Carolina for African Americans during an era when in the southern states such activity was considered useless at least, and subversive at worst.
Although he supported slavery and the secession of the southern states from the Union, and believed that the Africans had fallen to a lower position among the human species as a result of environmental conditions, he did not consider African Americans to be irredeemable, or to be little more than brute beasts, as did many in his day.
In 1854 he published the article ‘Types of Mankind’, in which he reviewed a work by J C Nott and George Gliddon entitled ‘Types of Mankind, or Ethnological Researches, &c.’, which defended the teaching of polygenesis (that man and the animals were created in numerous different groups simultaneously around the globe). Nott and Gliddon’s book attacked the Biblical doctrine of the unity of man, which Bachman defended in his critical review of their work.
This led to a number of other controversies in print with Nott, Gliddon, and their supporters, and Bachman went on to publish the articles ‘An examination of a few of the statements of Prof. Agassiz, in his ‘Sketch of the natural provinces of the animal world, and their relation to the different types of men’ (1854), ‘Continuation of the Review of “Nott and Gliddon’s Types of Mankind’ (1854), ‘An Examination of the Characteristics of Genera and Species as Applicable to the Doctrine of the Unity of the Human Race’ (1855), and ‘An Examination of Prof. Agassiz’s Sketch of the Natural Provinces of the Animal World, and Their Relation to the Different Types of Man, with a Tableau Accompanying the Sketch’ (1855), in a continued battle with Nott and Gliddon’s theories.