November 22, 2005

Science Works

1547 page17 capn a radical shift from his earlier beliefs, a former Seventh-day Adventist professor attacked the church?s positions on a literal six-day Creation, no death before sin, and a worldwide flood. Science, he said, has made these beliefs untenable.

?Christians who fly through the heavens in planes and speed along the earth in cars, who watch television and use electric razors, cannot,? he wrote, ?fairly repudiate the conclusions of science. . . .?

Really? Because science allows us to fly planes and use electric razors, that is, because it bears practical fruit, it?s now the ultimate arbiter of truth?

What about Claudius Ptolemy?s Almagest, for 13 centuries the standard scientific treatise on celestial motion? This work ?was the first systematic mathematical treatise to give a complete, detailed, and quantitative account of all the celestial motions? (Thomas Kuhn; italics his). Only one problem--it was wrong. Ptolemy formulated his work on the idea that the stars, the sun, and the planets all moved around the earth. That fundamental flaw, about as accurate as flat-earth geography, didn?t stop people from using his science, and successfully too, for more than a thousand years.

1547 page17Next came Sir Isaac Newton, whose formulization of motion remains one of the greatest scientific achievements ever. Yet Newton based his physics on absolute time (wrong) and absolute space (wrong). Because he knew nothing about curved space, for him the idea of gravity, that ?one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum without a mediation of anything else,? was, he said, ?so great an absurdity that I believe no Man who has in philosophical matters a competent faculty of thinking can ever fall into it.? Nevertheless, his laws of physics, at ?slow? speeds anyway, continue to be used every day in most every practical way possible even though their theoretical basis has been overturned for almost a century.

Then there?s general relativity and quantum mechanics, two of the most successful scientific theories in history, each confirmed to an almost unimaginable accuracy. Only one problem: As currently formulated, one theory cannot be right if the other is. General relativity and quantum mechanics are, said physicist Brian Greene, the ?foundational pillars upon which modern physics rests,? yet they are ?mutually incompatible.? It?s as if the death of Jesus so contradicted His second coming that one doctrine couldn?t be right if the other was. Though both quantum mechanics and general relativity have borne practical fruit, particularly quantum mechanics--from which such marvels as transistors, computers, compact discs, and digital TV have arisen--something remains fundamentally wrong with our understanding of the science behind them.

Thus the practical gains from science prove only that we understand science enough to, well, get practical gains from it. Those gains prove nothing absolute about the correctness of the science itself.

Perhaps, though, the most significant line in this polemic against our church?s position on Creation was this: ?We may never know the full truth of our origins.?

?Never?? Is that while on this earth, or on the new one? Either way, this epistemological skepticism is revealing. Once severed from the intentional meaning of the text, interpretation becomes free-floating, blown about by every intellectual fad (higher criticism, Marxism, structuralism, feminism, scientism, whatever). Absolutes, even the idea of absolutes, inevitably become, if not necessarily nonexistent (I doubt the author would deny the existence of absolutes), then at least unknowable. We, we?re assured by those who know absolutely, just can?t absolutely know.

Whether one believes that absolutes don?t exist, or are just unknowable, the results are inevitably the same, and that is--pragmatism. The pursuit of truth shifts from metaphysics to physics to gadgetry. The only ?forms? we can know are those outsourced on a high-tech assembly line in Shanghai. After all, if ?we may never know the full truth,? what?s left? Truth becomes, quite simply, what works (what else?), and because science works--i.e., planes, cars, and electric razors--it becomes the final arbiter of everything else, even the most obvious meaning of Scripture, including the texts that teach a six-day Creation (Gen. 1), no death before sin (Rom. 5:12), and a worldwide flood (Gen. 7).

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, The Mules That Angels Ride, contains a collection of his columns for the Adventist Review, and is available from the Review and Herald Publishing Association.