Sunday, October 09, 2005

Critique of the Foundations of Contemporary Natural Science

These are the questions for week 5. Fortunately the Dulles text actually arrived, albeit after three weeks of stalling by the original bookseller. I had to cancel my original order and reorder from Powell's, who had the book to me in five days.

Powell's Books rocks! Abebooks also rocks.

So, on to the questions!

What did the founders of modern science think about the relation of science and religion?

The founders of modern science—Galileo, Newton, Harvey, Descartes—were all devout men who believed that the study of natural science could lead us closer to God. It would make sense that studying God's creation would tell us something about the creator. In this sense, science is at the service of faith, not vice versa. We study the creation in order to come to greater knowledge of God.

What caused the break between modern science and religion?
Galileo's observations using his telescope confirmed the Copernican heliocentric theory of the universe. This theory contradicted the geocentric conception of the universe to which Aristotle subscribed. Galileo's observation of sunspots also contradicted Aristotle's belief that the sun was composed of something different than the matter which made up the Earth and our physical world.

Galileo's findings of error in the details of Aristotle's theories caused many to discard all of his thought and to search elsewhere for foundational thought for science. They turned to the earlier materialist, Democritus, who provided a mechanistic view of the universe. This mechanistic view posited that there really was no need for anything outside of the physical universe to explain its existence. It was always here in one form or another. As Democritus claimed, "Nothing comes from nothing" (Catholic Encyclopedia, "Materialism).

What is meant by the "foundational principles and concepts" of natural science?

Foundational principles and concepts are those assumptions upon which all further thoughts must be based. With Aristotle, the "foundational principles and concepts" are those that we derive from our sense experience. We know the world through our senses, and we can trust our senses to tell us about the world. With the empiricists, we only know our sense impressions, which somehow reflect sense objects in the real world. The problem is that if we only know reflections of real objects, we cannot know the properties of the object itself. A reflection distorts that which it presents (just as we see a reverse image of an object in a reflection and not the object as it really stands). For this reason, our sense impressions are not trustworthy. The problem with this view is that all means we have for scientific observation and measurement ultimately require us to interpret the raw data with the same senses, hence the same sense impressions. Eventually, this belief of the separation of object from impression leaves us eternally separated from knowledge of reality.

If we know only our sense impressions, we can know nothing outside of our minds. However, we do know things exist outside of our minds. Otherwise, our coming to knowledge of things outside of our immediate experience would be impossible. Therefore, we must be able to know things in the real world and not only our sense impressions.

Are natural science and religion on such different planes that there is no contact between them?

Natural science and religion complement each other. The former provides knowledge of things in our experience. The latter abuts the former and extends beyond our sense experience to things we cannot affirm through the senses. Natural science can provide a rational basis for faith. Our knowledge of change, of cause and effect, and of of potential versus actual reality all point to something in existence prior to our current material universe. In this way, natural science can support faith, by showing the necessity of something in existence outside of the material universe.

How is the Biblical view of creation related to modern science and the theory of the Big Bang?

The Biblical view of creation is a narrative explanation in poetic language that describes the rational thought of a prescientific people into the origins of the universe. It doesn't attempt to describe what is but provide a framework by which prescientific people could explain origin. Being narrative in poetic language, it uses the tools of narrative: metaphor, idiom, and other figures of speech. It also uses such idiom that was appropriate to the people of the time. It describes creation without the benefit of objective observation of other heavenly bodies and prior to the existence of matter.

The Big Bang theory is a view of creation from a scientific perspective using technical, precise language. It attempts to describe the "creation" of the universe in terms of observable cause and effect, based on observations that are inaccessible by the naked eye. It uses language that attempts to minimize figurative speech. It does not attempt to provide a framework outside of immediate observation and known physical laws to describe a process that took place billions of years ago. It does not attempt to describe origins prior to the existence of matter.

The Biblical account of creation and the Big Bang theory are two attempts from different perspectives that attempt to describe origins. However, once restricts itself to things that can be described in terms of matter alone, while the other does not. They represent two different perspectives for two different purposes for two different cultures.
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