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Monday, May 27, 2013

The Bible As Science Text

Many people, even many Catholics, have an incoherent desire to treat the Bible as a science textbook. Let's examine how well that works out.

1) The Earth is Flat: Most of the Old Testament was written by about 400 BC. Unfortunately, Eratosthenes of Cyrene didn't demonstrate that the earth was round until about 200 BC.

So, the Old Testament assumes that the earth is a flat disc, hanging in space and immoveable. The sky is a dome, and above the sky are the waters. When doors in the sky open up, the waters fall: this is called rain.

Now, when the ancient Hebrews heard about Eratosthenes' work, they undoubtedly said that his proposal was just an unproven theory, and that there was a lot of evidence against this novel and un-Biblical idea of sphericity. But, if the Bible is a science textbook, then we must assume that the sphericity of the earth is unproven (although it is the case that almost all the Church Fathers ignored the Scripture's teachings on this point, and instead taught a spherical earth).

And, indeed, you might even point out that the earth is not actually a sphere. Most modern geographers insist it is actually pear-shaped, with the Northern Hemisphere pinched slightly inward in comparison to the Southern Hemisphere. Because there are competing theories - perfect sphere versus slight pear-shape - we can argue there is no consensus about the earth's sphericity and thus the world must, indeed, be flat.

2) The Earth is Young: Of course, the same arguments are used to hold to the idea that both the earth and the universe it inhabits are around 6000 years old. When confronted with the evidence to the contrary, Young Earthers have even been known to say that God is not bound by the laws of logic! This is a much stronger argument for Muslims than it is for Christians, since Muslims teach exactly this: God is SO powerful that he is not bound by the laws of logic. He can make a square circle. He can make a rock so big He can't lift it. Except He could, because He's God and can do whatever He wants, even to the point of wanting or doing logically contradictory/impossible things.

Sadly, most Young Earthers are Christians who don't appear to realize that Christianity has always taught God to be pure rationality. Not only is God bound by the laws of rationality, He IS rationality itself. All that is rational is a reflection of His perfect nature, all that is irrational is a distortion of who God is. God is rational for His own Name's sake, because to do that which is irrational would be to violate his own divinity.

The problem here is clear. People who insist on Intelligent Design when it comes to the creation of life apparently want to insist on Inscrutable Design when it comes to the creation of the physical universe.

If we accept that God is rational and that the heavens are telling the glory of God and all creation shows forth His handiwork, then we must accept that rational evidence is to be accepted as part of nature's testimony about God.  Robert Bellarmine, one of the 35 Doctors of the Church, wrote to Galileo explaining precisely this:
I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun was in the center of the universe and the earth in the third sphere, and that the sun did not travel around the earth but the earth circled the sun, then it would be necessary to proceed with great caution in explaining the passages of Scripture which seemed contrary, and we would rather have to say that we did not understand them (the Scriptures) than to say that something was false which has been demonstrated.
Catholics, did you catch that? According to Bellarmine, the mute testimony of nature actually trumps the literary communications of Scripture! Why? Because nature can speak with only one voice, while literary works can be interpreted in multiple ways. Since truth cannot contradict truth, if something is demonstrated in nature, the truth that has many levels of interpretation must be interpreted in such a way that the truth with more limited levels of interpretation coincide.

Now, does the Catholic Church require Young Earthism? A lot of traditionalist Catholics would insist that She does. I would disagree. Neither the Catechism of Trent nor the Universal Catechism teaches Young Earth, nor do any of the Councils require it. The Church doesn't forbid Catholics believing it, but She doesn't encourage it.

3) The Earth is the center of the Universe: The great irony of "Bible as science textbook" lies in the assertion of geocentrism. Of all the things you can say about the Bible as science, geocentrism is the one experimentally demonstrably provable tenet. Despite this, almost no one who wants to make the Bible a science textbook insists publicly on this point.

Now, I am not a geocentrist, but I am fairly well-acquainted with someone who is: Robert Sungenis of Catholic Apologetics International and the Bellarmine Report.

And here's the mystery: while most Young Earthers would reject geocentrism, the idea that the earth is at the center of the universe, it is the only proposition which is undeniably true. Well, given certain caveats. Let me explain.

From the beginning of human history until about the time of the Greeks, everyone thought the earth was the center of the universe. About 270 BC, a Greek, Aristarchus of Samos, proposed that the sun was actually at the center of the universe. Seleucus of Seleucia (190 BC) agreed with him and used a theory of tides to support the idea. While many Greeks accepted this idea, Ptolemy (90-168 AD) did not. Ptolemy taught what had always been taught: the earth is at the center of the universe.

In the 1500s, Copernicus ran across Aristarchus' idea and revived it. Galileo adopted Seleucus' tidal argument to support Copernicus. The heliocentric theory, the idea that the sun is at the center of the universe, was gradually adopted throughout the civilized world. Now, that version of heliocentrism is just as wrong as geocentrism, in the sense that the sun is not the center of the universe, merely of the solar system. But we'll let that pass. The point is, at least one version of heliocentrism was so universally accepted that, today, even Young Earthers swallow it without question.

Which just goes to show that Young Earthers don't understand physics. When Einstein came along, he pointed out that what was considered the center of any system depended entirely on one's frame of reference. With appropriate modifications, math equations can be used which allow *ANY* given body to be considered the center of the universe without doing any harm to the observational results obtained from the system.

So, from:
  • the dawn of time to Copernicus, the earth was considered the center of the universe,
  • Copernicus to Einstein, the sun was considered the center of the universe,
  • Einstein to today, we recognize that anything can be considered the center. Using one point instead of another might make the calculations easier, but there really isn't any difference.
Now, does the Church require Catholics to hold a geocentric position?

Bob Sungenis, who is a wonderful Catholic apologist in most respects, says "YES! It's DOCTRINE that the earth is the center of the universe. Given that anything can be center, Catholics are required to hold that the earth is the most appropriate center."

I say "I sincerely doubt that it is doctrine."

What I can't understand is this: if the Church requires us to hold to Young Earth Creationism, why aren't Young Earthers logically consistent? Why don't they ALSO hold to geocentrism, which is a lot easier to defend than Young Earthism is? This is a mystery to me.

4) Beginning of Life: According to traditionalists, God had to create everything through special creation because the Bible would have it so. Holding to special creation - the theory that God created everything fully formed and immediately - is the only way to fight perfidious evolution!

Except perfidious evolution doesn't even address how or when life begins. The origin of life is not part of any evolutionary theory. All evolutionary theories (and there are lots of them, many of them mutually exclusive), begin by assuming life already exists. Furthermore, the Church is quite clear that how life gets on in the world, whether by evolution or no, is not a point of doctrine. If you want to believe in special creation, have at it. If you want to believe in evolution, enjoy yourself. As long as you acknowledge God as the Lord and Giver of Life, it makes no difference to the Church.

So, the whole argument about how life begins is a pure strawman on the part of the anti-evolutionist Young Earther traditionalists. They argue that evolutionary theory takes a position on when/how life begins when it takes no position on that issue whatsoever.

Personally, I find creationism absurd and evolutionary theories, at best, woefully inadequate. I don't think anyone has a real handle on how life began or how we got to the point of having had all the species to which archeology provides witness. 95% of all the species that have ever lived are now extinct, and almost all of them went extinct well before human beings walked the planet. Why is that? How is that? No one really seems to have a decent explanation of the mechanics. The only people who seem to have a decent explanation of the "why" are monotheists, and even there, it isn't clear why so many species went belly up before God brought us into the picture.

So, if you want to use the Bible as a science text, I ask only that you be consistent. If you are a Young Earther, you really should promote geocentrism as well. Stop attributing to evolution that which evolution doesn't even address: the beginning of life. Seriously consider joining the Flat Earth Society.

Be consistent.

UPDATE:
Apparently, Saint Augustine said the word firmament was used "to indicate not that it is motionless but that it is solid and that it constitutes an impassable boundary between the waters above and the waters below" (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, ACW 41.1.61). So, it's not clear if Augustine supported the flat earth or not.