On Restoring Science to its "Rightful Place"

by Richard Peachey

[Featured as an advertorial in Cascade News, University of the Fraser Valley student newspaper, Oct. 23, 2009]

Back in January, as the recent Nobel prizewinner Barack Obama was being inaugurated into the most powerful political office in the world, the new U.S. president voiced this commitment:

"We will restore science to its rightful place."

Obama was perhaps thinking about stem cell research, or some other current controversial issue . . . but I began to muse: What exactly is science's "rightful place"?

Science is essentially an investigative procedure, known as the scientific method, or the experimental method. It involves the formulation of questions and hypotheses, controlled experiments, conclusions of either support or disconfirmation of the hypotheses, and the communication of results to colleagues.

It is a matter of generally accepted history that science (then called "natural philosophy") arose in Christianized western Europe. Other groups (such as ancient Greek, Chinese, and Islamic cultures) certainly made significant contributions to high technology or to the intellectual environment in which science arose. But, evidently, the Biblical worldview of medieval Europe provided some necessary impetus for the Scientific Revolution.

We now take it for granted that nature is reliable and orderly, and is therefore subject to investigation through repeatable experiments. But in an animistic or polytheistic culture — or in a Hindu context where the whole world of material objects is maya, an illusion — such a belief has no rational basis.

An earlier Nobel prizewinner, biochemist Melvin Calvin (who worked out many of the chemical steps of plant photosynthesis) commented: "As I try to discern the origin of that conviction [that the universe is ordered], I seem to find it in a basic notion discovered 2000 or 3000 years ago, and enunciated first in the Western world by the ancient Hebrews: namely, that the universe is governed by a single God, and is not the product of the whims of many gods, each governing his own province according to his own laws. This monotheistic view seems to be the historical foundation for modern science" (Pearcey and Thaxton, The Soul of Science, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994, p. 25).

For science to develop, practitioners would need to see matter as amenable to investigation. The Greek philosopher Plato suggested that the "demiurge" (his subordinate "deity") had to wrestle with uncooperative matter in order to achieve what he wanted. But the Bible portrays a God who created an originally "very good" world, fashioning it according to his own sovereign will and power.

The noted German physicist and philosopher C. F. von Weizsacker stated: "Matter in the Platonic sense, which must be 'prevailed upon' by reason, will not obey mathematical laws exactly: matter which God has created from nothing may well strictly follow the rules which its Creator has laid down for it. In this sense I called modern science a legacy, I might even have said a child, of Christianity" (Pearcey and Thaxton, p. 28).

As well as providing a worldview in which experimental science makes sense, the Bible also presents motivations for doing science: the glory of God, and the benefit of people created in God's own image. ". . . as science historian P. M. Rattansi argues, it is now generally accepted that the Christian concept of moral obligation played an important role in attracting people to the study of nature. . . . In his words, Protestant principles 'encouraged a commitment to the study of God's "Book of Nature" as complementing the study of the book of God’s word. They imposed a religious obligation to make such study serve the twin ends of glorifying God and benefiting fellow-men.' " (Pearcey and Thaxton, pp. 35f.)

In 1998, historian of science Peter Harrison published The Bible, Protestantism, and the rise of natural science (Cambridge University Press), in which he argued that the Reformation approach to the Bible was "a major catalyst in the emergence of science": "While I do not wish to be seen as setting out a monocausal thesis for the rise of modern science, for there is no reason why a range of factors should not play some role, yet I shall argue that of these factors by far the most significant was the literalist mentality initiated by the Protestant reformers, and sponsored by their successors" (p. 8).

What Harrison calls the "literalist mentality" is just the determination by Luther, Calvin, and others to avoid allegorical interpretations of Scripture, and instead to strive for a straightforward historico-grammatical understanding of texts in their context. Science, then, arose in a historical setting in which the Bible was believed and honoured, and in which the early chapters of Genesis were read as a plain record of how God actually made the universe!

Indeed, many of the well-known founders of the various scientific disciplines were Bible-believing men (and in several cases they were also overt young-Earth creationists). The list includes Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Ray, Steno, Newton, Linnaeus, Herschel, Faraday, Henry, Pasteur, and Maxwell.

Isaac Newton's calculation of the age of the Earth closely matched that of the much-reviled Anglican archbishop James Ussher.

Robert Boyle, known as the "father of modern chemistry," declared: "I see no just reason to embrace their opinion, that would so turn the first two chapters of Genesis into an allegory, as to overthrow the literal and historical sense of them" (T. Birch [ed.], The Words of the Honourable Robert Boyle, London: J. Rivington et al., Vol. 4, p. 11).

The Bible teaches that God formed the universe, and that he created man and woman to have dominion over the Earth. This "dominion mandate" means that we are God's stewards over this planet, its life-forms, and its resources. In line with this mandate Solomon, Israel's wisest king, exercised a significant part of his great wisdom in studying the disciplines of botany and zoology (1 Kings 4:33).

If we wish to "restore science to its rightful place," here is what we must do: use it to glorify the God who in six days created the heavens and the Earth, the sea, and all that is in them — and then, armed with a biblical view of the special status of human beings, let us labour for their benefit and blessing.

In other words, for science to be restored to its rightful place, it would have to be given back to guess who . . . the Bible-believing creationists!

Richard Peachey is UFV's first science graduate (BSc, Biology and Chemistry, 1995); he also has a degree in Theology. Peachey is vice-president of the Creation Science Association of British Columbia. To the dismay of some UFV instructors, he has for 13 years taught science within the Abbotsford public school system.