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Faith’s role in birth of science reviewed at think tank conference

SEATTLE (BP)–Today’s scientific advances owe their genesis to Christianity, and every new discovery of the cosmos is an affirmation of God at work in the universe he created, noted scientists and educators said in addressing a “Cosmos and Creator” conference at the Discovery Institute public policy think tank in Seattle.

“Christianity was the midwife bringing modern science to birth in the mid-1700s,” declared Sir John Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest and physicist from Cambridge University in England.

As such, both science and Christianity have things to offer each other; far from being at war with one another, science and Christianity should be good friends, Polkinghorne said at the two-day conference sponsored by the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture and attended by about 700 participants in late April.

“There is a cumulative case for God the creator,” the scientist-theologian said. “Centuries of scientific discovery has done much to corroborate religion.”

Polkinghorne’s view was supported by nuclear physicist Peter E. Hodgson of Oxford University and five other conference speakers who are noted experts in varied scientific fields revolving around cosmology, the study of the universe and its origins.

Cosmology is a hot topic in scientific circles today. It’s a special section in the June 2001 issue of Astronomy magazine, and it was the cover article in the January 2001 issue of Scientific American, with a shorter article also in the March 2001 issue.

“It is such a hot topic partially because it is so speculative and theoretical, but mostly because the origin of the universe is the point where most people expect to find God, whether they like it or not,” said Discovery Institute spokesman Mark Edwards after the conference.

The Cosmos and Creator speakers explained that evidence for intelligent design of the universe is increasing (compared to the “random chance” of evolution) as is the awareness that former explanations for the origins of the universe (such as evolution) are incomplete and inadequate. The Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture — one of six program areas at the Discovery Institute — has become known as the “intelligent design” movement’s national think tank.

Four developments converged for the birth of modern science, Hodgson explained: systems of writing, mathematics and communication and, fourth, a well-developed social structure so various responsibilities could be divided among the people, leaving some to spend their lives studying, thinking and writing about what they learn.

Ancient Greece made an important start in the development of modern science, Hodgson said, noting that Greek thinkers showed how to ask the right questions. But, he said, Aristotle’s belief that the earth was the center of the universe kept physics — the study of motion, force, light, sound and more — from being developed for 1,800 years. Aristotle died in 322 B.C.

Muslims, as their culture flourished from the 7th to 9th centuries, developed a high level of civilization and made advances in astronomy and medicine, but the impetus was not continued, Hodgson said. “They had a 500-year start on us but they did not develop modern civilization,” he said. The reason? Muslims emphasized that everything depends moment to moment on God; they focused on the freedom of God, rather than his sense of order, Hodgson recounted.

The Chinese, despite their 5,000-year history, were locked into a rigid system of memorized learning that took decades to master and was rigorously controlled, thus stifling intellectual endeavor, Hodgson continued.

Hodgson suggested the reason modern science developed as it did in the 17th century was because of the cultural acceptance of Christian beliefs about the world:

— The world — matter — is good.

— Matter is rational; it behaves in an orderly way.

— The study of matter is practical; it has value to the society.

— Selfishness is counterproductive: If you discover something, share that knowledge with others.

Modern science was founded on the belief that God as creator was both free to do what he wanted and yet rational, in that what was done, was done systematically and in order — if one seed would grow after being planted and watered, so would similar seeds, Hodgson said.

Dating modern science to the last 300 to 400 years, Hodgson cited as groundbreaking the work of four individuals whose discoveries were each made about a century apart:

— German astronomer Johannes Kepler, born in 1571, who believed he was discovering the work of the Creator. Kepler broke the barrier of ancient scientific belief and set the stage for modern science to be born when he formulated three scientific laws concerning the elliptical (rather than Aristotle’s circular) motion and orbit of planets.

— English physicist and mathematician Sir Issac Newton, born 1642, who studied Kepler’s work and who also believed his work brought honor to God. Newton invented calculus, a branch of mathematics that dealt with continuously varying quantities. He also developed the first reflecting telescope and formulated the laws of motion and the theory of gravity.

— James Clerk Maxwell, born 1831, a British physicist who developed four equations that described all forms of electromagnetism, an essential component of studying the universe and its origins.

— Austrian physicist Erwin Schroedinger, who lived from 1871-1961 and laid the mathematical groundwork for a new quantum understanding of the atom. In the early 1900s Albert Einstein used Schroedinger’s work when Einstein established quantum theory — that a certain precise amount of energy was required to knock an electron loose from its orbit.

“At each stage of the process Christian belief was vital,” Hodgson said. “[Early 20th century theologian] Alfred North Whitehead said the development of science was due to the work of medieval theologians who embedded the idea of order, of cause and effect.”

Mathematics was the key that unlocked the secrets of the universe, Polkinghorne had explained in the opening lecture of the Cosmos and Creation conference. Scientists use mathematics among other things to calculate the change in their observations, which leads to the formulation of physical laws and the development of theories used to predict new events.

In science there are three modes of explanation: chance, law and design, said Stephen Meyer, philosopher of science at Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash., and director of the Discovery Institute. In the 1800s it became fashionable to combine chance and law and leave God out of the design element, he noted. This was the period when British naturalist Charles Darwin postulated his ideas on evolution through the process of natural selection — the survival of the fittest.

“Darwin accounted for designer substitutes,” Meyer said. “Darwin made the theological unnecessary.”

Darwin, who died in 1882, believed that the universe had existed from eternity, that it evolved into living matter, which in its most complex form — humans — conceived of God to explain what they could not otherwise explain, Meyer said.

Edwin Hubble was born seven years after Darwin died. He was a lawyer who became an astronomer with access to the big new telescopes of his day, which could identify what previously had been pinpricks of light, Meyer said. Instead of just one galaxy in the university, or band of stars, the Milky Way galaxy, Hubble learned that there are many galaxies, Meyer explained. At least 100,000 galaxies have since been identified, out of a projected 250,000.

“The galaxies Hubble discovered are moving away from us in every direction,” Meyer said, “The farther, the faster. This gave rise to the Big Bang theory.”

The Big Bang theory — first published in 1948 and now accepted as the standard creation theory in the scientific community — is that matter, energy, space and time all came into existence in a single moment. The universe since that time has been expanding, and the speed of that expansion is greatest at the outside edges of the universe, Meyer said.

Christians find similarities between the Big Bang and the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing).

“Big Bang is not a causal theory,” Meyer clarified. “It is a theory that explains why we have evidence of the beginning” and gained confirmation among Bell Laboratories scientists in the mid-1960s.

There are three major choices for an explanation as to how life exists, and three belief forms, explained Robert Spitzer, a Jesuit priest and president of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. The first suggests there is a guiding force, but it’s not God; the second, that the improbabilities of the universe shouldn’t be a surprise because they have to be that way for us to exist.

“Third, there really is a supernatural intelligence that’s loading the dice,” Spitzer said. “Faith is inescapable. Some try to explain the universe without putting God into it, but putting God into it makes the most sense from the evidence.”

Guillermo Gonzalez, an astronomer at the University of Washington, and Jay Richards, program director for the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, wrapped up the Cosmos and Creator conference with their joint addresses on the correlation between the measurability and habitability of the universe.

“The most habitable bodies appear to allow for the highest degree of measurability of their environments,” Gonzalez said. “The same processes and physical conditions that optimize habitability on a planetary body also optimize measurability.”

The implication, Richards explained, was that the cosmos is fine-tuned not only for the existence of intelligent life, but for scientific discovery as well.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: GOD & SCIENCE, DISCOVERING GOD’S UNIVERSE, and SIR JOHN POLKINGHORNE.