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Science and Faith

Science, History and the Bible
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

I love science, and love to find the intersecting circles of scientific knowledge.  As a linguist, I also always watch how different specialists discuss their field and their findings.  I snicker when I find "scientists" talking, without realizing it, in "spiritual" or metaphysical terms from a supposedly empirical base. 

Likewise, I am amused when religious advocates try to use scientific data or arguments to defend their religious texts or beliefs.  One of these areas is trying to prove the historical matters in the Old Testament.  In 2000 I read a report of an archaeological team which had studied the Black Sea coast and seabed and discovered apparent evidence of Noah's flood. 

I think there may well be scientifically verifiable evidence for historical aspects of the biblical record.  But I think focused attempts to find such evidence overlook the implication that this approach submits the biblical texts to the approaches and assumptions of modern science. 

While there is nothing wrong with that in itself, this approach ignores the deeper question of worldview and context of the ancient texts and of modern categories of knowledge.  It appears to me that the parameters within which the ancient biblical texts were written hardly intersect with the parameters of modern approaches.   

That is, these texts, now collected into what we call the Bible ("The Book"), were written in a different context, with different assumptions about history, truth and knowledge.  There was no "scientific" formulation in the ancient worldview out of which these originally oral records developed, and for which they were recorded to be passed on in written form.  There was no "scientific" perspective for anyone to write from, or think in,  until the recent modern era.

Really True?
Science is a method or discipline seeking knowledge and thereby truth. As with any discipline of learning, science sets out its parameters and procedures (the scientific method has developed out of this process), initially based on observation.

This began, of course, with the senses (what can be seen, felt, tasted, etc.). The same concept and procedures extend to technological perception, such as microscopes, telescopes and forms of indirect perception, such as instruments of quantum physics. Such technology has pretty well proven the existence of particles, or at least forces, far beyond the human senses.

Reason is used to draw logical conclusions from knowledge thus gained, and make predictions, which then may be further tested to yield more knowledge. This method is self-limiting, and continually self-redefining. The Bible was not written in the 19th or 20th century from a scientific perspective. It seems to me illogical to impose on the biblical texts the modern scientific viewpoint.

The scientific perspective is recent in history and thus cannot be an adequate precondition for how the Bible must make sense. It makes sense on grounds appropriate to the time and cultures it originally addressed. If taken out of that context, its meaning actually becomes distorted and less clear to modern times.

When modern religious defenders use scientific approaches to defend their beliefs or the validity of the Bible, it often sounds like they are saying that now they have really proven such and such.  The argument, or assumption, seems to be that this particular discovery or theory-explanation from a scientific perspective finally "proves" a certain detail.  That is, since science proves it, we now have a certainty it is true -- as though we weren't really sure before.

This seems to submit the ancient records to a context of judgement that is unqualified to judge.  That is, the parameters of evaluation and judgement, of assumption and belief, of intention and format all vary, so there is little contact point.  It assumes that a claim cannot be really true on any other grounds than science and empirical verification.

Out of Context
It is like judging someone for knowledge he could not have had, by standards he could not have known.  Like judging the conditions and decisions of 20 or 30 centuries ago by modern standards of knowledge and technology, when these were not available to people of that time.  Things make more sense when evaluated in their own context. 

Then at that point, correlation can be made for evaluation to discover and interpret the equivalents to the current conditions, situations and standards, taking into account new knowledge and technology, as well as worldview assumptions. 

This allows the modern investigator to appreciate more positively the aspects of the ancient style or point of view within its own context.  This does not require agreement, but is a matter of fairness toward the document and the culture and time it represents.  This approach enables us to better determine the meaning and content of the ancient records.

It Does Not Correlate
One upshot of this is that some matters cannot be fully correlated, and perhaps no definitive determination can be made.  You do not necessarily overcome skepticism by reducing an ancient insight or record to the modern technological approach based on different assumptions.  This may do violence to the ancient wisdom or literary style, and is especially likely to overlook the original oral nature of the ancient wisdom.

The tone of the flood story I related is more reasonable than some scientistic religious literature, expressing caution and speaking in terms of possibilities, not definite conclusions.  We should not expect the Bible to read like a modern treatise from science, history or linguistics.  

I do not like to unfairly limit the meaning of biblical phrases or numerology to modern anglo-scientific definitions, which are by definition self-limiting to a certain sphere of knowledge (empirical investigation and verification).  Likewise, it is not appropriate to reduce the findings or claims of science to the pre-scientific (or non-scientific) terms, categories and worldview of the biblical texts.

When someone tries to shoe-horn a Biblical claim or perspective into the scientific arena, I think this discounts the separate, different worldview and cultural context to which the biblical record was originally addressed.

To argue in turn that God knows science and thus the Bible is consistent with science denies the basic Christian doctrine of Incarnation -- God coming into human culture and history, speaking in human terms and categories to reveal himself. Jesus, for instance, had to live in a particular time in history, be born into a specific cultural setting, into a particular tribe of people with a particular language. He could not have made sense without that identification.

Scientists make the same mistake when they make pronouncements (usually of disproof) about a spiritual or theological concept, based on a "scientific" concept, fact or theory.  Science defines a certain arena of enquiry, not denying the validity of other sources or types of knowledge, but simply stating the limiting parameters for empirical verification, calmly declaring its incompetence to investigate other areas. 

Scientists who try to leverage science to support their own personal atheism forget the foundation of science, which is to discover knowledge, and procedurally, to investigate and verify empirical data. 

Scientific Method
It is a different matter again to consider the Scientific Method.  This is a logical approach to a problem, investigation and theory, which may apply to any area of knowledge.  This method is investigation, evaluation, generalization, a new cycle with additional investigation, evaluation, correlation with previous conclusions, a new cycle of additional investigation, etc.  

The basis of verification is still empirical in concept, that is, based on sense data, observation and verification by reproducing consistent empirical results.  This has been extended by mechanical observation devices, such as microscopes, telescopes, particle accelerators and X-rays. 

Reason and patterns of logic further assist scientists in inferring conclusions beyond verified data.  The validity of such logical conclusions, or predictions, then can lead to the search for and discovery of new data which might verify the logical extensions, thus adding to our "confirmed" body of knowledge.

This provides a systematic approach to any information, field of knowledge or cultural worldview, but it works thereby within the assumptions and conclusions of the particular field of knowledge, while still allowing evaluation and possible revision of those assumptions or information, based on the findings and conclusions of each cycle of investigation, evaluation and conclusion.

The same procedures of logical verification can assist in determining the likelihood and level of validity of conclusions and claims in disciplines dealing with less empirical information and realms of enquiry, including metaphysics, that is, philosophy, theology and theoretical physics.
A More Fair Approach

This should thereby allow a more even-handed comparison of the perspectives and claims of different disciplines of knowledge or belief systems.  This should also be more productive in adding consistently to the full range of human knowledge from different worldviews, different eras of history or different styles of writing.

First written 12 June 2001
Updated and posted 09 November 2002
Last edited on 18 October 2004

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD

Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 2002
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.
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