categoryHistory of Science

Kirk Dunston on Uncritical Faith in Science

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Many people today regard 21st-century science as a shining, monolithic spire of truth rising above the landscape of human ignorance and superstition. As a result, I often talk with people who fully apply all their critical thinking skills, and their full Internet-scouring abilities, to see if they can discover a weak link in evidence for the truth of Christian beliefs, but who have a complete, unquestioning faith in science. … As a scientist, I am increasingly appalled and even shocked at what passes for science. It has become a mix of good science, bad science, creative story-telling, science fiction, scientism (atheism dressed up as science), citation-bias, huge media announcements followed by quiet retractions, massaging the data, exaggeration for funding purposes, and outright fraud all rolled up together. In some disciplines, the problem has become so rampant that the “good science” part is drowning in a mess of everything else. ¶ To distinguish between good science and the other rubbish in 21st-century “science,” one must first understand what constitutes good science. Good science, properly practiced, requires very little faith and can be trusted insofar as we can trust anything that human beings try to do well.

Yuval Noah Harari on What Drives Science

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In academic circles, many are naive enough to believe in pure science. They believe that government and business altruistically give them money to pursue whatever research projects strike their fancy. But this hardly describes the realities of science funding. ¶ Most scientific studies are funded because somebody believes they can help attain some political, economic or religious goal. For example, in the sixteenth century, kings and bankers channelled enormous resources to finance geographical expeditions around the world but not a penny for studying child psychology. This is because kings and bankers surmised that the discovery of new geographical knowledge would enable them to conquer new lands and set up trade empires, whereas they couldn’t see any profit in understanding child psychology.

Noah J. Efron on Opposing Narratives of Science and Religion

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A Newtonian might put it this way: for every myth there is an equal and opposite myth. Consider popular accounts of Christianity’s relations to science. Everyone is familiar with the myth that popes, bishops, priests, ministers, and pastors all saw it as a sacred duty to silence scientists, stymie their inquiries, and stifle their innovations. Lately, a new account of Christianity’s link to science has been put forth, opposite in attitude to the first but equally bold and, in the end, equally wrong. In this account, not only did Christianity not quash science, but it and it alone gave birth to modern science and nurtured it to maturity. And the world is a far better place for it.

Darwin’s Doubt

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When Charles Darwin finished The Origin of Species, he thought that he had explained every clue, but one. Though his theory could explain many facts, Darwin knew that there was a significant event in the history of life that his theory did not explain. During this event, the “Cambrian explosion,” many animals suddenly appeared in the fossil record without apparent ancestors in earlier layers of rock.  In Darwin’s Doubt, Stephen C. Meyer tells the story of the mystery surrounding this explosion of animal life—a mystery that has intensified, not only because the expected ancestors of these animals have not been found, but because scientists have learned more about what it takes to construct an animal. During the last half century, biologists have come to appreciate the central importance of biological information—stored in DNA and elsewhere in cells—to building animal forms. Expanding on the compelling case he presented in his last book, Signature in the Cell, Meyer argues that the origin of this information, as well as other mysterious features of the Cambrian event, are best explained by intelligent design, rather than purely undirected evolutionary processes.

Dennis R. Danielson on Copernicus and Scientific Superiority

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In the hands of some, the myth of earth’s dethronement appears more than a mere anachronism or disinterested misunderstanding. For when Fontanelle and his successors tell the tale, they are openly “very well pleased” with the demotion they read into the accomplishment of Copernicus. But a trick of this supposed dethronement is that, while purportedly rendering “Man” less cosmically and metaphysically important, it actually enthrones us modern “scientific” humans in all our enlightened superiority. And often it insinuates, without warrant, that scientific advance is inevitably accompanied by an abandonment of the quest — a quest that may encompass what is sometimes called religion — to grasp humankind’s possible purpose or significance within the universe as a whole. By equating anthropocentrism with the now plainly untenable geocentrism, such modern ideology dismisses as nugatory or naïve the legitimate and still-open question about the role that earth and its inhabitants may play in the dance of the stars. Instead it offers, if anything at all, a role that is cast in exclusively existential or Promethean terms, with humankind lifting itself up by its own bootstraps and heroically, though in the end pointlessly, defying the universal silence.

Scott D. Sampson on Interpretive Paleontology

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The bones were the same, nothing had changed. But people started to look at the dinosaurs differently. Same fossils. New ideas… People keep forgetting that paleontologists are really limited. We have a bunch of bones and teeth — for the most part — to work with. So really it’s the ideas that drive the science. The ideas, of course, are driven by the biases of that particular moment. So we went from a lizard bias to a bird bias, and now the pendulum is actually swinging, once again, back to the middle.

Michael Crichton on Scientific Consensus

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I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had. Let’s be clear: The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period… I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way…

Pearcey and Thaxton on Scientists’ De Facto Realism

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The majority [of scientists] continue to be naive realists, blithely assuming that science yields reliable facts. And given that the number of working scientists far exceeds the number of science historians, that makes realism the dominant view in science today. It is a view, moreover, that appears to be buttressed by the everyday experience of the bountiful practical benefits of science. When science works so well, it is difficult not to conclude that it bears at least some
relation to a world that really exists.

Pearcey and Thaxton on Tendentious Science Histories

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In The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers Carl Becker argues that histories written in the eighteenth century were designed with one purpose in mind — to discredit Christianity. Enlightenment philosophers knew they were engaged in a cultural battle for people’s hearts and minds. In Becker’s words, they felt themselves “engaged in a life-and-death struggle with Christian philosophy and the infamous things that support it — superstition, intolerance, tyranny.” Their historical accounts were intended as weapons in the struggle. ¶ These histories would generally open with the Greco-Roman world, praised as a golden age of reason; move to the Middle Ages, denounced as a dreary period of ignorance and oppression, and end with the contemporary age, the Enlightenment, heralded as a revival of ancient wisdom and rationality. Clearly, this was no attempt at objective, fact-base history.

Inventing the Flat Earth

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Neither Christopher Columbus nor his contemporaries thought the earth was flat. Yet this curious illusion persists today, firmly established with the help of the media, textbooks, teachers―even noted historians. Inventing the Flat Earth is Russell’s attempt to set the record straight. He begins with a discussion of geographical knowledge in the Middle Ages, examining what Columbus and his contemporaries actually did believe, and then moves to a look at how the error was first propagated in the 1820s and 1830s and then snowballed to outrageous proportions by the late 19th century. But perhaps the most intriguing focus of the book is the reason why we allow this error to persist. Do we prefer to languish in a comfortable and familiar error rather than exert the effort necessary to discover the truth? This uncomfortable question is engagingly answered.

Phillip E. Johnson on Darwinists Craving to Be Right

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Darwinists took the wrong view of science because they were infected with the craving to be right. Their scientific colleagues have allowed them to get away with pseudoscientific practices primarily because most scientists do not understand that there is a difference between the scientific method of inquiry, as articulated by Popper, and the philosophical program of scientific naturalism. One reason that they are not inclined to recognize the difference is that they fear the growth of religious fanaticism if the power of naturalistic philosophy is weakened. But whenever science is enlisted in some other cause — religious, political, or racialistic — the result is always that the scientists themselves become fanatics. Scientists see this clearly when they think about the mistakes of their predecessors, but they find it hard to believe that their colleagues could be making the same mistakes today.

The Logic of Scientific Discovery

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This is the book where Popper first introduced his famous "solution" to the problem of induction. Originally publish in German in 1934, this version is Popper’s own English translation undertaken in the 1950s. It should go without saying that the book is a classic in philosophic epistemology — perhaps the most important such work to appear since Hume’s "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding." Popper argues that scientific theories can never be proven, merely tested and corroborated. Scientific inquiry is distinguished from all other types of investigation by its testability, or, as Popper put, by the falsifiability of its theories. Unfalsifiable theories are unscientific precisely because they cannot be tested. ~ Greg Nyquist at Amazon.com

Galileo Galilei to the Grand Duchess Christina

Go As to the arrangement of the parts of the universe, I hold the sun to be situated motionless in the center of the revolution of the celestial orbs while the earth revolves about the sun. They know also that I support this position not only by refuting the arguments of Ptolemy and Aristotle, but by producing many counter-arguments; in particular, some which relate to physical effects whose causes can perhaps be assigned in no other way.

Galileo Galilei to Benedetto Castelli

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Very Reverend Father and My Most Respectable Sir

Yesterday Mr. Niccolò Arrighetti came to visit me and told me about you. Thus I took infinite pleasure in hearing about what I did not doubt at all, namely about the great satisfaction you have been giving to the whole University.. However, the seal of my pleasure was to hear him relate the arguments which through the great kindness of their Most Serene Highness, you had the occasion of advancing at their table and then of continuing in the chambers of the Most Serene Ladyship, in the presence also of the Grand Duke and the Most Serene Archduchess, the Most Illustrious and Excellent Don Antonio and Don Paolo Giordano, and some of the very excellent philosophers there. What greater fortune can you wish than to se their Highnesses themselves enjoying discussing with you, putting forth doubts, listening to your solutions, and finally remaining satisfied with your answers?

After Mr. Arrighetti related the details you had mentioned, they gave me the occasion to go back to examine some general questions about he use of the Holy Scripture in disputes involving physical conclusions and some particular other ones about Joshua’s passage, which was presented in opposition to the earth’s motion and sun’s stability by the Grand Duchess Dowager with some support by the Most Serene Archduchess.

In regard to the first general point of the Most Serene Ladyship, it seems to me very prudent of her to propose and of you to concede and to agree that the Holy Scripture can never lie or err, and that its declarations are absolutely and inviolably true. I should have added only that, through the Scripture cannot err, nevertheless some of its interpreters and expositors can sometimes err in various ways. One of these would be very serious and very frequent, namely to want to limit oneself always to the literal meaning of the words; for there would thus emerge not only various contradictions but also serious heresies and blasphemies, and it would be necessary to attribute to God feet, hands and eyes, as well as bodily and human feelings like anger, regret, hate and sometimes even forgetfulness of things past and ignorance of future ones. Thus in the Scripture one finds many propositions which look different from the truth if one goes by the literal meaning of the words, but which are expressed in this manner to accommodate the incapacity of common people; likewise, for the few who deserve to be separated from the masses, it is necessary that wise interpreters produce their true meaning and indicate the particular reasons why they have been expressed by means of such words.

Thus, given that in many places the Scripture is not only capable but necessarily in need of interpretations different from the apparent meaning of the words, it seems to me that in disputes about natural phenomena it should be reserved to the last place. For the Holy Scripture and nature both equally derive from the divine Word, the former as the dictation of the Holy Spirit, the latter as the most obedient executrix of God’s commands; moreover, in order to adapt itself to the understanding of all people, it was appropriate for the Scripture to say many things which are different from absolute truth, in appearance and in regard to the meaning of the words; on the other hand, nature is inexorable and immutable, and she does not care at all whether or not her recondite reasons and modes of operations are revealed to human understanding, and so she never transgresses the terms of the laws imposed on her; therefore, whatever sensory experience places before our eyes or necessary demonstrations prove to us concerning natural effects should not in any way be called into question on account of scriptural passages whose words appear to have a different meaning, since not every statement of the Scripture is bound to obligations as severely as each effect of nature. Indeed, because of the aim of adapting itself to the capacity of unrefined and undisciplined peoples, the Scripture has not abstained from somewhat concealing its most basic dogmas, thus attributing to God himself properties contrary to and very far from his essence; so who will categorically maintain that, in speaking even incidentally of the earth of the sun or other creatures, it abandoned this aim and chose to restrict itself rigorously within the limited and narrow meanings of the words: This would have been especially problematic when saying about these creatures things which are very far from the primary function of the Holy Writ, indeed things which, if said and put forth in their naked and unadorned truth, would more likely harm its primary intention and make people more resistant to persuasion about the articles pertaining to salvation.

Given this, and moreover it being obvious that two truths can never contradict each other, the task of wise interpreters is to strive to find the true meanings of scriptural passages agreeing with those physical conclusions of which we are already certain and sure from clear sensory experience or from necessary demonstrations. Furthermore, as I already said, though the Scripture was inspired by the Holy Spirit, because of the mentioned reasons many passages admit of interpretations far removed from the literal meaning, and also we cannot assert with certainty that all interpreters speak by divine inspiration; hence I should think it would be prudent not to allow anyone to oblige scriptural passages to have to maintain the truth of any physical conclusions whose contrary could ever be proved to us by the senses and demonstrative and necessary reasons. Who wants to fix a limit for the human mind? Who wants to assert that everything which is knowable in the world is already known? Because of this, it would be most advisable not to add anything beyond necessity to the articles concerning salvation and the definition of the Faith, which are firm enough that there is no danger of any valid and effective doctrine ever rising against them. If this is so, what greater disorder would result from adding them upon request by persons of whom we do not know whether they speak with celestial inspiration, and of whom also we see clearly that they are completely lacking in the intelligence needed to understand, let alone to criticize, the demonstrations by means of which the most exact sciences proceed in the confirmation of some of their conclusions?

I should believe that the authority of the Holy Write has merely the aim of persuading men of those article and propositions which are necessary for their salvation and surpass all human reason, and so could not become credible through some other science or any other means except the mouth of the Holy Spirit itself. However, I do not think it necessary to believe that the same God who has furnished us with senses, language, and intellect would want to bypass their use and give us by other means the information we can obtain with them. This applies especially to those sciences about which one can read only very small phrases and scattered conclusions in the Scripture, as is particularly the case for astronomy, of which it contains such a small portion that one does not even find in it the names of all the planets; but if the first sacred writers had been thinking of persuading the people about the arrangement and the movements of the heavenly bodies, they would not have treated of them so sparsely, which is to say almost nothing in comparison to the infinity of very lofty and admirable conclusions contained in such a science.

So you see, if I am not mistaken, how disorderly is the procedure of those who in disputes about natural phenomena that do not directly involve the Faith give first place to scriptural passages, which they quite often misunderstand anyway. However, if these people really believe they have grasped the true meaning of a particular scriptural passage, and if they consequently feel sure of possessing the absolute truth on the question they intend to dispute about, then let them sincerely tell me whether they think that someone in a scientific dispute who happens to be right has a great advantage over another who happens to be wrong. I know they will answer Yes, and that the one who supports the true side will be able to provide a thousand experiments and a thousand necessary demonstrations for his side, whereas the other person can have nothing but sophisms, paralogisms, and fallacies. But is they know they have such an advantage over their opponents as long as the discussion is limited to physical questions and only philosophical weapons are used, why is it that when they come to the meeting they immediately introduce an irresistible and terrible weapon, the mere sight of which terrifies even the most skillful and expert champion? If I must tell the truth, I believe it is they who are the most terrified, and that they are trying to find a way of not letting the opponent approach because they feel unable to resist his assaults. However, consider that, as I just said, whoever has truth on his side has a great, indeed the greatest, advantage over the opponent, and that it is impossible for two truths to contradict each other; it follows therefore that we must not fear any assaults launched against us by anyone, as long as we are allowed to speak and to be heard by competent persons who are not excessively upset by their own emotions and interests.\

To confirm this I now come to examining the specific passage of Joshua, concerning which you put forth three theses for their Most Serene Highness. I take the third one, which you advanced as mine (as indeed it is), but I add some other consideration that I do not believe I have ever told you.

Let us then assume and concede to the opponent that the words of the sacred text should be taken precisely in their literal meaning, namely that in answer to Joshua’s prayers God made the sun stop and lengthened the day, so that as a result he achieved victory; but I request that the same rule should apply to both, so that the opponent should not pretend to tie me and to leave himself free to change or modify the meanings of the words. Given this, I say that this passage shows clearly the falsity and impossibility of the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic world system, and on the other hand agrees very well with the Copernican one.

I first ask the opponent whether he knows with how many motions the sun moves. If he knows, he must answer that is moves with two motions, namely with the annual motion from west to east and with the diurnal motion in the opposite direction from east to west.

Then, secondly, I ask him whether these two motions, so different and almost contrary to each other, belong to the sun and are its own to an equal extent. The answer must be No, but that only one is specifically its own, namely the annual motion, whereas the other is not but belongs to the highest heaven, I mean the Prime Mobile; the latter carries along with it the sun as well as the other planets and the stellar sphere, forcing them to make a revolution around the earth in twenty-four hours, with a motion, as I said, almost contrary to their own natural motion.

Coming to the third question, I ask him with which of these two motions the sun produces night and day, that is, whether with its own motion or else with that of the Prime Mobile. The answer must be that night and day are effects of the motion of the Prime Mobile and that what depends on the sun’s own motion is not night or day but the various seasons and the year itself.

Now, if the day derives not from the sun’s motion but from that of the Prime Mobile, who does not see that to lengthen the day one must stop the Prime Mobile and not the sun? Indeed, is there anyone who understands these first elements of astronomy and does not know that, if God had stopped the sun’s motion, He would have cut and shortened the day instead fo lengthening it? For, the sun’s motion being contrary to the diurnal turning, the more the sun moves toward the east the more its progression toward the west is slowed down, whereas by its motion being diminished or annihilated the sun would set that much sooner; this phenomenon is observed in the moon, whose diurnal revolutions are slower than those of the sun inasmuch as is own motion is faster than that of the sun. It follows that it is absolutely impossible to stop the sun and lengthen the day in the system of Ptolemy and Aristotle, and therefore either the motions must not be arranged as Ptolemy says or we must modify the meaning of the words of the Scripture; we would have to claim that, when it says that God stopped the sun, it meant to say that He stopped the Prime Mobile, and that is said the contrary of what it would have said if speaking to educated men in order to adapt itself to the capacity of those who are barely able to understand the rising and setting of the sun.

Add to this that it is not believable that God would stop only the sun, letting the other spheres proceed; for He would have unnecessarily altered and upset all the order, appearances, and arrangements of the other stars in relation to the sun, and would have greatly disturbed the whole system of nature. On the other hand, it is believable that He would stop the whole system of celestial spheres, which could then together return to their operations without any confusion or change after the period of intervening rest.

However, we have already agreed not to change the meaning of the words in the text; therefore it is necessary to resort to another arrangement of the parts of the world, and to see whether the literal meaning of the words flows directly and without obstacle from its point of view. This is in fact what we see happening.

For I have discovered and conclusively demonstrated that the solar globe turns on itself, completing an entire rotation in about one lunar month, in exactly the same direction as all the other heavenly revolutions; moreover, it is very probable and reasonable that, as the chief instrument and minister of nature and almost the heart of the world, the sun gives not only light (as it obviously does) but also motion to all the planets that revolve around it; hence, if in conformity with Copernicus’s position the diurnal motion is attributed to the earth, anyone can see that is sufficed stopping the sun to stop the whole system, and thus to lengthen the period of the diurnal illumination without altering in any way the rest of the mutual relationships of the planets; and that is exactly how the words of the sacred text sound. Here then is the manner in which by stopping the sun one can lengthen the day on the earth, without introducing any confusion among the parts of the world and without altering the words of the Scripture.

I have written much more than is appropriate in the view of my slight illness. So I end by reminding you that I am at your service, and I kiss your hands and pray the Lord to give you happy holidays and all you desire.

Florence, December, 21, 1613

To Your Very Reverend Paternity.

Your Most Affectionate Servant, Galileo Galilei

Original text published in Opere di Galileo Galilei , Edizione Nazionale edited by Antonio Favaro,  vol. V (Firenze: Giunti Barbera, 1968),  pp. 282-288.