What Science Is and What It Is Not, part 1

Some conservatives especially seem to have great difficulty with the splintering of classical understandings of learning and science. It is true that in the past there was not so much a separation between various learning disciplines. A scientist was trained in philosophy. Leonardo or Michelangelo were gifted across the disciplines of art, science, and theology. Ever wonder why universities are organized along the lines of colleges of “arts and sciences?” The great specialization of knowledge and professional disciplines has changed a great deal, hasn’t it? Argue against it, if you choose, but don’t derail other important conversations with the possibility.
Let’s ponder Galileo for a moment. His problem was not so much that he dissed theology, but that his culture so entwined the material and the spiritual spheres of knowledge, few people could get their heads around what he was actually trying to say.

If one wants to argue that Western learning institutions have gone afoul by separating out various disciplines and contributing to the splintering of knowledge schooling, go ahead. But be aware you will be probably tackling a much larger issue than dino-displays at an ID museum.

Let’s take the classic example of Noah’s Flood. Geologists have yet to uncover evidence for a global flood. We do know that from time to time in Earth’s recent geological history, large patches of the world have endured catastrophic flooding on what would seem to be a universal scale for an ancient society. Before Gibraltar split Spain from Morocco, we know that the Mediterranean Sea was completely dry. At least once that great salty Euro-African desert was flooded like nothing we’ve ever seen this side of special effects sf movies. We also know that the Black Sea has been partially drained and refilled, flooding once-coastal communities whose remains are now under dozens of feet of water.

But the scientific evidence for a worldwide flooding does not exist. Does that mean it didn’t happen? Science cannot say with concrete surety it never happened. But the evidence points to massive regional flooding in prehistory. Which would have been impressive nonetheless to pre-civilization human beings, not to mention Western ancients who thought the whole world ended not far beyond those above-mentioned seas.
For better or for worse, the discipline of modern science has split from religion, not to mention music, philosophy, and other “soft” studies. Conservatives temselves, by and large, accept and embrace this as part of Enlightened Western culture.

Religious conservatives badly misread the landscape by attempting to select a narrow set of issues (say, those hovering around evolution) for the injection of faith and philosophy.  The Bible says it’s true. And the human behavioral evidence suggests it may well be. But the Bible isn’t science, not as modern science defines itself.

For better or for worse, modern science deals with observable facts and with logical thought experiments based on what we know factually about the universe. Take the age of the universe. Give or take a few hundred million years, observed evidence points to a universe about 13,700,000,000 years old. Could God have created everything 6,000 years ago and manufactured things to fit a much greater age? Could be. But science is unconcerned about that–by self-definition. And I’m not sure I’d want scientists puttering around in theology. Journalists do a poor enough job getting religious facts straight. Why should we be at ease with scientists bungling the same?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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2 Responses to What Science Is and What It Is Not, part 1

  1. Talmida says:

    The Bible says it’s true.

    Says what is true? That humans were created on the 6th day, after all the plants and animals in Genesis 1? Or that man was created first, then all the plants and animals, and then woman, in Genesis 2? Or that God created the world from the bodies of the sea monsters he destroyed in Psalm 74? And these are only 3 — there are other models of creation in the Bible as well.

    And take a close look at Genesis 1. If you have an accurate literal translation, God created the world out of the pre-existing watery chaos. He didn’t really create water (in this particular telling), he just pushed it aside, above and below to make space for earth and sky. Who created water, according to these “conservatives”?

    The Bible is a theology text, not a science text. It can be true without being accurate.

    I have to say, I cannot for the life of me understand how Bible Literalists reconcile all the contradictions in the text.

  2. I’d say that there is truth, for example, in the story of the Fall. But I would agree that it is neither science nor history. The other aspect of Creation stories is their departure from earlier creation myths suggesting that the universe was a by-product of the pettiness or sins or peccadilloes of gods and goddesses. Human beings were and are created for a divine purpose. That part of Genesis 1 and 2 are true. Or perhaps “real” is a more accurate term. But the reality of evolution and cosmology are factual, and in a scientific way, just as “true” or “real.”

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