I heard a talk recently by Richard Palmer, who is a God-believing scientist (he’s a Professor of Experimental Physics at Birmingham University), on whether there is a conflict between science and the Bible. I enjoyed the talk a great deal, so thought I’d share some of the key arguments…most of which I agree with! It’s important to recognise that a conventional understanding of science does create conflict with a simple reading of the Bible. However, the areas where science and the Bible seem to contradict can be narrowed greatly with some reasonable thought!
The talk began by establishing some principles of science and evidence. Science is essentially the pursuit of knowledge. Scientific understanding is not set in stone, and is prone to change as knowledge deepens (e.g. the flat earth). There are various types of evidence that are used to expand scientific knowledge: experimental evidence (the strongest), observational evidence (somewhere in between), and ‘reconstructed’ evidence from past events (the weakest). It is difficult to argue with well-performed experimental evidence (and Richard knows an awful lot about this from his day job!) but it’s a different story with reconstructed evidence from past events, which cannot be based on experimental or even (in most cases) observational evidence.
The Bible is also concerned with the pursuit of knowledge, not about the physical world, but about God. Faith doesn’t have to be blind; it can be evidence-based. See, for example, Acts 17:2 or 18:4, where the Bible talks of early proponents of Christianity logically reasoning with an informed audience about matters of faith.
The Origin of Life
The Bible gives a clear account of the origin of life: God created it. Scientists will agree that the origin of life (as opposed to evolution by natural selection) is a real challenge to explain without a creator God. Where did the first organism with the capacity to reproduce come from? The chances of even the most simple bacterium emerging from the primordial soup are infinitely small. It is difficult to see how the hugely complex structures in the most simple organisms could have come about in the first place (e.g. the bacterial flagellum).
There are undoubtedly hallmarks of design in creation. A whole field of scientific research to mimic the natural world in an engineering sense – ‘biomemetics’ – has emerged. Does this prove the existence of a creator? No, it’s quite possible that the natural world could have emerged without a creator and still bear hallmarks of design – but which scenario is most likely?
Many have claimed that the fossil record argues convincingly for evolution by gradual natural selection. But, a critical evaluation of the fossil record shows that it is more like a few links in a chain rather than a chain with a few links missing! Stephen Gould, as close to an atheist as you can get, acknowledged that lack of transitional fossils is a real surprise and a thorny issue for those believing in evolution by natural section.
Science in the Bible
Although not a scientific textbook, there are some glimpses of an understanding of science far ahead of its time in the Bible. Richard did acknowledge that some of these may be stretching it a bit, but interesting enough to share I think:
· The earth is described as a globe hanging on nothing (not a flat earth riding on the back of a turtle) (Isa 40:22, Job 26:7)!
· The heavens are described as being ‘stretched out’ (or ‘expanded’), consistent with an expanding universe (Isa 40:22 (again!), Isa 42:5).
· The earth is spread upon the waters, consistent with plate tectonics (Psa 136:6).
· Light was created before the sun in the creation story in Gen 1, which is, interestingly, consistent with the ‘Standard Model’ of the Big Bang.
· The Bible describes time as being relative (Psa 90:4), which has been proven by scientific observation and experimentation; the passage of time can change subtly at altitude, and dramatically close to black holes!
I enjoyed the talk very much. But, as a scientist myself, I don’t feel the need to iron out every apparent contradiction between the Bible and science. I don’t think God ever intended the Bible to be read as a scientific document. Science and religion are asking different questions and, in my life at least, can co-exist quite happily without major conflict!