The Relationship between Christian Revelation and Scientific Progress: Past, Present and Future
Peter Hodgson FAITH Magazine July-Aug 2007
Science is our knowledge of the natural world obtained by observation, experiment and theoretical analysis. It may conveniently be divided into the empirical knowledge obtained by observation and experience and the much more detailed knowledge that we have today. The former, which may be called primitive science, describes the knowledge of the properties of materials gained by craftsmen working with wood, stone and metals, and that of plants and animals obtained by experience. It includes also the observational knowledge of the planets and stars. This primitive science is found in all human societies, particularly in the great civilisations of the past.
Our own civilisation is unique in that it has a knowledge of the natural world and goes far beyond primitive science. Modern science is able to describe the behaviour of matter in a precise quantitative way by differential equations. Once the initial conditions are specified, solution of the equations gives all the subsequent behaviour of the system. Thus Newton’s laws, together with his theory of gravitation, enables the motions on the earth and of the planets and other celestial bodies to be calculated to high accuracy. Maxwell’s equations similarly describe electromagnetic phenomena and Schrodinger’s equation the phenomena of the atomic and nuclear realms. This understanding of nature is the unique achievement of our own Western European Catholic civilisation.
The most important interaction between theology and science is that theology confirms the essential beliefs about the natural world on which modern science is based. Thus Catholic theology, based on the Old and New Testaments, teaches us that the world is good, rational, contingent and open to the human mind. This all follows from the belief that God created the world and gave each particle its properties which determine its movements and its interactions with other particles until the end of time. Without these beliefs modern science could not exist, and that is why it never achieved a viable birth in any of the civilisations of antiquity. Belief in the creation of the world in time, contrary to Artistotle’s belief in an eternal universe, led Buridan to the concept of inertia, which isbasic to the understanding of local motion, itself the starting point of physics and hence of all modern science.
In all these discussions, philosophy carries out its perennial task of critically analysing and assessing the validity of the arguments used. As we have seen, the philosophical beliefs about the world, which are derived from Catholic theology, provide the basic presuppositions that make science possible. Can this process be reversed? From looking at scientific results and theories can we discern definite metaphysics? Certainly not in a strictly deductive sense, because scientific theories are subject to change and revision. Nevertheless it is possible to find the philosophy behind physics by examining the consequences of the denial of any of certain basic tenets. Furthermore, examination of the way science is actually done shows that scientists, often unconsciously, make certainassumptions about the natural world and to the extent that science based on them is successful they are retrospectively justified.
From time to time philosophies have been developed that claim to provide the basis of science. Thus it was maintained in the Soviet Union that science is to be founded on the iron rock of Marxist dialectical materialisation. However the result of this was to put science into a straitjacket that stifled all progress. This suffices to disprove Marxism as providing an acceptable basis of science. Similar remarks can be made about the much cruder theories espoused by the Nazis. By their fruits you shall know them.
It is essential for the development of science that the Catholic beliefs about the material world mentioned above are firmly held, even though it is at a deep psychological level where they are implicit rather than explicit. This explains why it is so difficult to convey science to non-Christian countries. This difficulty is not immediately evident because technology is easy to convey, and this is frequently confused or considered similar to science. It is easy to teach people in other countries how to set up and run manufacturing industries that provide them with their daily needs. But it is exceedingly difficult to convey science so as to enable the establishment of flourishing and fruitful research communities in such countries. It is of course easy to build and equip scientificlaboratories but it is almost impossible to fill them with really innovative indigenous scientists. It is not generally realised, but the level of research in most non-Christian countries is very low. The few exceptions are those that have been for many centuries in contact with Western Europe. Here many generations have been taught in Westernised schools and so have absorbed the Christian presuppositions of science.
Since Western education is now often politically unacceptable in non-western nations the situation is likely to worsen. Indeed, the decline in Christian belief in Western countries is likely to result in a slow decline of science. Already the falling numbers of aspiring students of physics is a sign of this decline. The only way to reverse this trend is by a return to Catholic beliefs. The motive for such a return is not of course that they may be expected to support the further development of science, but simply the recognition that they are true.