Truth and Science

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” Genesis 1:1-2 KJV

 When thinking about the relationship between science and truth, there are so many questions and so few definitive answers.  Does science, the practice of it,  lead us to truth?  I doubt it, but better yet, in the world of science, is there any such thing as truth?  Again, I doubt it.

Truth, if it exists, is by definition eternal. Science is the study of the material world, which in our own experience is temporal.  Also, truth is terminal, meaning the search for it has an end.  Once we find it, we stop looking for it. The scientific method, which defines the practice of science, is open ended.  What do I mean by that?

The scientific method is the repeated application of five steps:

  1. Observation:  some natural phenomenon is observed
  2. Analysis: the phenomenon is dissected and broken down into it atomic parts
  3. Prediction: based upon analysis of the phenomenon, conclusions are drawn and predictions of future phenomena are made
  4. Experimentation:  experiments are conducted that are designed to bring about the predicted phenomena
  5. go to step 1.

Finally, science has an aura of certainty, while truth seems far more elusive.  The conclusions we draw from the scientific method are backed up by the observation and analysis we have done.  We see, therefore we believe.  That is until the next experiment comes along with different results.  Truth, on the other hand, can only be known by faith.  We don’t see, but we believe anyway.

This “not seeing but believing” is what leads many to think that there is no such thing as truth, but what I would say to that is – without truth, there can be no such thing as science.  Why?

Let’s take a closer look at the scientific method.  Why does the scientific method work?  At its heart, aren’t there certain assumptions, accepted on faith, that make up the foundation upon which it rests?  Isn’t the primary assumption being that there is an order to the universe that allows conclusions to be drawn and predictions based upon analysis to be made, and experiments derived that prove or disprove those predictions?

Now, one might argue that we assume this order exists because our experience tells us that it exists, but here we are engaging in circular reasoning.  This can be illustrated by postulating a “first scientist”.  This first scientist has not been given the scientific method, and therefore must discover it.  The problem is, the scientific method requires the assumption of an underlying order for it to work; but how do we know, without faith, that this order exists?  We don’t.

One can see this in the history of science itself.  It is no coincidence that science and mathematics only began to flourish with the advent and eventual dominance of Judaeo-Christian faith and philosophy.  Why?  Because it was only there that it made sense to answer a difficult question with G-d!

This ability, often perceived as western science’s greatest weakness, is actually it’s greatest strength.  How do we know that a + b = c for all possible values of a and b?  Another way of asking the question is, how do we know that we can predict the value of c for any possible numeric values of a and b?  Theoretically, there are an infinite number of possible values for a and b.  We can not possibly try them all, so how do we know?  The answer is G-d.

We know that G-d has created a certain predictable order and that He has given us the power of reasoning and logic to discern and utilize that order and so we can say, based upon our faith in G-d and His created order, that a + b = c.

This brings us to the scripture that opens this article.  The bible is not a science book, but it is a book of truth, or so claims its adherents.  But, if it is truth, then one would expect that it would at least be consistent with the observable universe.  Notice I didn’t say consistent with science, because scientific knowledge, at least when science is practiced correctly, is always in some degree of flux (see scientific method above).

“In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth.”  Well, we see a heavens and an earth, so that part seems consistent, but what about a beginning.  We can’t observe the beginning, it is in the past.  This in fact has been one of the greatest and most fundamental controversies of science.  While there are variations, there are two basic competing scientific theories for the origins of the universe: the Steady-State theory and the Big Bang theory.

The Steady-State theory suggests that the universe has always existed, that there was no beginning.  The Big Bang theory, alternatively, says there was a beginning billions of years ago, when the universe exploded into existence.  Which one is true?  As scientific theories go, neither; but, the Big Bang seems more consistent with the biblical account.  The important thing here is that we cannot know from simple observation whether there was a beginning, and science does not provide a verifiable answer.  A beginning, then, is something that we must accept on faith.

Now comes the really hard part.  “In the beginning, G-d created…”.  In order to keep it short, let’s just say that the existence of G-d cannot be directly observed, nor proven by science, so it must be accepted on faith.  Although, there is considerable evidence for the existence of G-d to the discerning eye, not the least of which is our own very existence.

“And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”  These attributes of the early earth have always been somewhat puzzling to me, particularly the “without form” one.  What does it mean to be without form?  “Void” is generally understood to mean “without life” and “desolate”.  Also, there was apparently no light, and there was something called “the deep”.  Not much can be concluded here as to its consistency with what we can observe and it generally must be accepted in faith.

“And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”  Here it gets really interesting for me because we have a real clue as to what “without form” means.  The early earth was made up mostly of water – the deep!  Water takes on the shape, or form, of that which contains it.  What shape does water have in space?  It doesn’t; it is literally without form!  Is this consistent with our observable universe?  Of course it is!  My question is, how did the writer of Genesis know this?

Another interesting observation is this.  Water is composed of 2 hydrogen atoms combined with one oxygen atom (H2O).  What are the most abundant elements in the  universe?  Hydrogen (~75%), Helium (~25%) and oxygen (<1%). “OK, what’s your point”, you might ask?  “Yes, hydrogen is abundant at 75%, but oxygen composes less than a percent of the mass of the universe.”  It is true that in the universe as a whole, oxygen is less than 1%, but oxygen composes about 47% of the mass of the earth!

Throughout the centuries there has been a perceived conflict between science and The Bible.  One of these controversies has been the meaning of the word “day.”  As we read the Genesis account, we see G-d completing, in stages, the heavens and earth in six days. “And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day,” for example.   Is it a literal day, or a symbolic day?

As previously stated, the Bible is not a science book and should not be read as such.  It purports to provide eternal truth, not temporal facts.  But as also indicated above, it should at least be consistent with observable known facts.  So, how long is a day?  If you answer 24 hours, you would of course be correct and if we accept this answer and interpret the passages in Genesis literally, then it would seem to indicate that the universe was completed in six 24 hour periods of time.

The only possible escape from this conclusion would seem to be to interpret these passages symbolically and say they indicate some very long eras of undetermined length.

But there is another equally valid definition of the word day, and that is the amount of time it takes the earth to rotate on its axis.  Using this definition changes things considerably. While it is true that currently the earth takes 24 hours to rotate on its axis one complete turn, that doesn’t mean that it has always been that way, and it probably wasn’t.  Why do I say that?

If we go back to the starting verses, the earth was an amorphous mass in space composed primarily of water.  Since the following verses indicate a “day,” we can conclude that this mass was spinning, probably very slowly as compared to today (there is a reason for this conclusion which should become clearer as we proceed).

Under this definition, a day could have initially been many thousands of years long and over time become much shorter. It would become shorter due to the law of conservation of angular momentum.  This is the simple observation that as a spinning object gets smaller, it spins at a faster rate. Think of a spinning ice skater. So it would have been with the earth.  As G-d coalesced the earth into a smaller, denser, rounder object, its rotation would speed up considerably.  It is very possible that the first day of creation was much longer than the last day, and the seventh day, the day of rest, may in fact have been the current 24 hour day.

 The Bible tells a story.  Many believe that the the story is true, that it represents actual history, past, present, and future (called prophecy).  If this is the case then the Bible would need to be reconcilable with human experience.  The problem is, it often seems not to be.  But is the problem with the Bible?  Or is it with the reader?

Grace

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV

It was a Saturday, late-afternoon and we were hanging out at the “church lot.” The church lot, for all intents and purposes, was our multi-purpose playground.  We played baseball there in the spring and summer, we played football in the fall, and when we were doing neither of these things, we would just meet there and “hang out.”  This was one of those hang out days.

When we were hanging out at the church lot, we often got into discussions, usually political, as our families were a mixed bunch politically, and sometimes about religion, even though we were mostly Roman Catholic.  I enjoyed these discussions very much, whether political or religious, and looked forward to them – and if at times they got a little heated, well, so much the better.  We can all benefit from having our beliefs challenged now and then; but, little did we know how challenging this particular day would be.

The church, for which the church lot was named, had a reputation as being one of those “fundamentalist” congregations.  The church building itself was relatively new, and was a large, impressive brick structure, with one of the tallest steeples in a town that had about a dozen churches.  Not only was the church impressive, but it was part of a complex of buildings that included a K-12 school and a gymnasium.

It was near the gymnasium that we came across several young people who belonged to the church.  They were a little older than us, but not by much.  There were three of them, two boys and a girl. The girl appeared to be the oldest.  They asked us what we were doing.  “Just hanging out,” we said.

They asked us what church we went to.  We told them.  They asked us if we would like to hang out in the gym.  “Sure,” we responded.  I for one had always wanted to get inside the gym. After all, a church with its own gym?  Not common in my youth.

Once we got inside they began to engage us in conversation, which soon turned into a discussion about religion. Ahhhh, so we weren’t the only kids in town who liked to debate.  This was too good to be true.  A discussion about religion with others who were not our religion.  I was enjoying this very much.

The conversation was polite and went very well, but then the young lady said something like, “you know, just living a good life doesn’t get you into heaven.”

A momentary silence ensued as we, the Catholics, tried to figure out what she was trying to say.  Finally, one of us asked her.  “I mean,” she replied, “that doing good things, going to church, praying a lot, doing those things won’t get you into heaven.”

This sounded ridiculous to me.  Doing good, helping people, going to church and praying won’t get you into heaven?  This was to much.  “Then how do people get to heaven,” I asked?

“By believing in Jesus,” she said.  “By putting your faith in Him.  He died for your sins.”

Oh, oh, now I was getting it.  Of course, being a Catholic, I knew that Jesus died for our sins.  But I thought she was a little confused.  “You still have to be good, go to church, pray; you still have  to be a good person,” I said.

“No,” she said, “You just have to have faith.”

At this point we, my friends and I, decided it was time to leave, and so we amicably parted company with our new found debate opponents.  It had been an interesting discussion, and one that I would never forget.  But that thing about “being good won’t get you into heaven” – what was that all about?

Sometime later in religion class, I was in parochial school at the time, the topic  came up about the seeming conflict between faith and works.  There is a passage in the Letter of James which goes “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” James 2:18-20

This, apparently, has been debate between Protestants and Catholics for centuries.  Are we saved by faith (Protestant)?  Or, are we saved by works (Catholic)? I thought that this was an interesting topic, and I came down firmly on the Catholic side-no surprise there. It wasn’t long after this, though, that I started to explore other, non-Christian beliefs, and I thought little of my debate or the question of faith or works for quite a while.

Years later I would come back to my Christian, and eventually Catholic faith, but when I did, I took a distinctly Protestant route.  Of course, the faith/works debate was central to my “re-conversion,” only now, I came down hard on the Protestant side of the argument.  I understood what the young lady was trying to say so many years prior and what Paul was saying in Ephesians.

As fervently as I now believed that our good works could not save us, still, that passage from James gnawed at me.  “Faith without works is dead faith.”  What did that mean?

As time passed, my discomfort over James grew.  This was probably due to the fact that although I was a Christian believer, I was not exactly a paragon of Christian behavior.  My misbehavior would cause me to question my faith, and this is when the passages from James would start to kick in.  “Faith without works is dead...Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”  

It wasn’t that I was trying to justify my misbehavior with Ephesians, I knew that some of the things I was doing were wrong.  But I would take comfort in Ephesians – that is until the passages from James came to mind.  No comfort for the back-slidden sinner there, for sure.  So, of course, I would avoid James as much as possible.

I was able to do this successfully for quite some time, but it finally got to the point where I just had to come to terms with James.  I was getting less and less comfort from Ephesians, and more and more discomfort from James.  But I faced a dilemma.

The dilemma was this:  Whenever I tried to “be good,” I would be more inclined not to “be good.”  Paul describes a similar experience in Romans 7:21: “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.”  So, I thought, the answer was not in trying to be good.  Then how do you be good?

Of course, the passages from James, the ones that were causing me so much pain, also held the cure.  I started to realize that when my faith was strong, my natural inclination was to “be good.”  When my faith was weak, well, my inclinations were otherwise.  But according to Ephesians, faith, like salvation is a free gift from G-d.  Now my temptation here was to blame G-d.

After all, if faith, like salvation, is a gift from G-d, and if G-d wanted me to be good, he had to give me more faith, right?  No, wrong.  Faith is faith.  OK, I know that this is a tautology, but nevertheless, it is a very meaningful one.  Faith is not weak, it is not strong – it just is. And we either have it or we don’t.  When G-d gives us faith, and he gives it to all freely, what we then do with it is up to us.

One of the things we can do with faith is act on it, and when we act on our faith in G-d, then by definition, we are doing good.  How could it be otherwise?  Faith comes from G-d, we act on and out of that faith; would G-d let us do evil? I don’t think that is possible!

The other thing we can do with faith is not act on it.  But if we act, and not on faith, then what are we acting on – or out of?  We are by default, acting on and out of our own desires, motivations, and (good?) intentions.  Uh-oh. What did Paul say again?  “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.”

So, I learned that it is when the person of faith stops trying to be good, it is then that faith takes over, and we are good.  But, faith is very willing to step aside when the person of faith wants to take over for a while.  This is when we say our faith is weak; but no, our faith is not weak, we are weak.  And when we act out of our weakness and not out of our faith, we are putting our weakness on display and hiding our faith.  Again, “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” 

I started to become comfortable with James.  I started to use my “good works,” or lack thereof, as a measure, not just of my faith, but of how well I was doing in letting G-d be good in me, so to speak.  Whenever I try to do the right thing under my own power, my faith starts to weaken, and I find myself less able to do the right thing that I desire to do.

When I stop trying to do the right thing, and just rely in faith, on G-d, I find that what I do is the right thing.  How could it be otherwise?

So who is right in the faith versus works debate?  Are the Catholics right? Do our works of faith save us? Or, are the Protestants right?  Is faith alone sufficient to save us?  The answer to those questions, I believe, is “Yes.”

 

What is Faith?

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” Hebrews 11:1 NIV

When I was in my self-improvement phase, I came across a book titled “The Power of Positive Thinking“, by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.  The basic premise of the book is that in order to accomplish our goals, whatever they may be, we need to believe that we will accomplish them.

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? After all, if we do not believe we can accomplish our goal, it is unlikely we are even going to try; and, if we do try, our efforts will be halfhearted, at best.  Which, of course, makes success very unlikely.  On the other hand, there does seem to be a natural inclination to follow through on those things we believe in, and do what is necessary to bring them about.

Anyway, after I read the book, I would try to get the things I wanted by using the techniques presented there, and in fact, the problem is they didn’t work, at least not for me.  I would try to believe, but something would come along that would shake my faith, introduce doubt, and I would fail to achieve my goal.  Oh, I would say the prayers, I would recite the scripture, I would try to picture in my mind achievement of the desired end, but it just didn’t work.

To be quite honest, my goals weren’t really the loftiest, but why should that matter?  After all, if I just stayed positive, continued to believe, visualized success, I could do anything, right?  The answer I got was no, not right.

For some time after that, I would often wonder what went wrong.  I assumed there was something wrong with me because this book had sold millions of copies, so the problem had to be me, right?  My faith just wasn’t strong enough; I was weak, and I was a failure.

Where did go wrong?  It would be years before I got any reasonable answer to that question, but as my knowledge of G-d, scripture, and faith grew, I eventually did come to some understanding, and yes, what we desire does matter, to answer my earlier question.  Let’s start there.

What do we want?  Years ago, I used to play the horses.  I read up on it, studied it, and was actually pretty good.  Periodically, I would buy a system for picking winners, and one such system came in a paperback book.  On the cover was a picture of the author and creator of the system.  He was sitting in the clubhouse of Santa Anita Park, legs crossed, wearing a sports jacket, with an open shirt, and ascot.  In one hand was the Daily Racing Form, which he studied intently, and in the other was a pipe.  He was the picture of success, exuding class and competence.  I wanted to be just like him!

I did try for a time to be that person, but after some effort, I finally gave up.  I never did achieve my goal, and to this day I am thankful to G-d I didn’t.  Why?  Because I started to value other things.  I started thinking about the incompatibility of my goal with some of my other goals, such as wanting a family.  I wanted to get an education, get a job that had some benefit to others, make a contribution.  If I had achieved my gambling goal, it might have been years before I realized what a mistake I had made.

The point is, what we want at some particular time in our lives may not be what is really good for us, and it may not be in G-d’s will for our lives.  To be successful at these things would actually be a curse rather than a blessing and could set us back years on the path we should be on.

So this is the first thing I learned: what we want is important to our ultimate success or failure, and very often, failure is a blessing.  It is just one way G-d lets us know what is and is not in His plan for us.  But, this is where it gets tricky – just because something is hard, or seems impossible, doesn’t mean we should not pursue it.

Later in my life, I decided to go for my masters degree in Computer Science.  I was married at this point, with two young children, and I was working full time.  In order to get done as soon as possible, I took two classes per semester, at night.  This turned out to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  I spent long hours away from home either working, in class, or in the computer lab.  When I was home, I was very often off away from the family studying.  And, just to put some icing on the cake, I was plagued with almost constant doubt and fear of failure.

Yet, somehow, in three years I achieved my goal and received my Master of Science in Computer Science from a prestigious university.  How did I do it?  You may think that the details are important, but they are not, really.  What is important, I learned, is that if you are on the “right” path, G-d will provide you with what you need for success, including the will and the desire, no matter how difficult things are or how improbable success seems to be.

But how, you might ask, do you know if you are on the right path?  And my answer to your question is, “you don’t really ‘know’ but more on that later!”

What I did know when I went for my masters was that I was really interested in computers, you might even say I loved computers (still do).  I wanted to know how they worked and why they worked, how they were made, and how to better use them.  I wanted to know about the hardware, the firmware and the software.

The other thing I knew is I had an aptitude for computers, having earned a B. S. in Business Information Systems, and had worked in the field several years as a programmer/analyst and systems programmer.  I already had a good basic understanding of computers and wanted to know more.

I also had some “reverse” incentives, as well.  My company would pay 80% of the cost for every course passed with a B or better.  Less than a B, and I had to pay for it..  But this wasn’t the worst part, what was worse is that failure would have been humiliating; at work, at home, with family and with friends – failure was just not an option.

This experience was so intense, in fact, that for years after I graduated, I had a recurring nightmare.  In the dream,  I was one class short of graduation, everything else was done. I just needed to finish the one course with a passing grade, but in the dream, I never did!  I would wake up convinced I had failed and never had earned my degree.

Doubt and fear are funny things.  We try to avoid them, put them out of our minds, be brave and certain, but they still persist.  It seems the more we resist them, the stronger they get!  The more we resist them, the more they control and dominate our lives!

So what is the answer?  How do we overcome doubt and fear?  Simply put, we don’t.  What we do is stop trying to overcome them, and, in faith, embrace them!  What?!

Once we recognize that doubt and fear are not the enemy, but actually our friends, we start to live in confidence and peace.  They are our friends because they tell us there is something that needs to be looked into, issues that need to be resolved.  Too often, we let doubt and fear prevent us from fulfilling  G-d’s will and plan for our lives, when in actuality, they are G-d’s way of telling us to stop and think, to evaluate, to question, to learn, and thereby continue on, armed with faith, knowledge, and confidence.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example.  We want to go to London, and our idea is to build a boat and sail there.  We dream of this for years, and finally, we’re in a position to build the boat, so we start right in.  We buy the lumber, and some plans, and start building.  We are so excited about the prospect of fulfilling our dream that we make great progress, but over time we start to have doubts.

After all what do we know about shipbuilding, or navigation?  Nothing, really.  So far, we just have this dream and some pent up energy.  We could just quit and take a plane to London – maybe we’ll do just that.  But no, the dream is to sail with our own boat.  So what do we do?  Well, in this case, we do some research.

Let’s say we research boat travel and we find that only 1% of the most seaworthy of vessels makes it across the Atlantic intact, all of the rest sink.  Not very good odds, to say the least, and so for very good reason, we drop the boat idea, and move on to plan B, take a plane.  So doubt was a good thing because it saved us from near certain death.

On the other hand, let’s say we research boat travel and we find that 99.9% of the most seaworthy boats make it across the Atlantic intact.  Now, that’s better.  Knowing this, we research boat building a little more to determine what makes a boat seaworthy, and we continue with our plan.  So here, doubt was a good thing because it caused us to build a better boat and increase our chances of success, and confidence in our plan has been restored.

But, as time goes on, we start to have doubts again, because there is still that .1% chance that the boat will sink, and that’s if we have the skill to build the most seaworthy of boats.  And how do we know?  Maybe our real chances are only 90%, or 85%, or even 50%.  How do we know?

The bottom line is, we don’t know, but that is where true faith comes in because I am talking about faith in G-d, not in our research skills, our shipbuilding skills, or our navigation skills.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t need all of those things – we do – it just means that we don’t trust in them, we trust in G-d.

The story of David and Goliath illustrates this point perfectly.  G-d told David to go out and face Goliath and He would put victory in David’s hands.  David, a young boy, went to the river and picked five smooth stones for his sling.  David then went to face Goliath, and we all know what happened.  With one of those stones, he felled the giant and then cut off his head with Goliath’s own sword.

I have often wondered why David picked five stones instead of just one.  After all, G-d Himself had promised David victory, didn’t He?  And David was an expert with a sling, so why five stones?

The answer that I have come to is this: David understood his own limitations, and G-d hadn’t actually told David how He would give him victory, only that He would.  As good as David was with a sling, it would have been the height of chutzpah and foolhardiness to go up against a raging giant with only one stone.

Now, all it took was one stone, but if David had gone out with only one stone, do you think it possible doubt would have crept in?  That once he got out there, David might have started to think, gee, what if I miss with only this one stone?  The time for doubt was before he went out, not after.

Of course, G-d knew that David was humble and smart, that’s why He picked him.  He knew that David would prepare himself for battle the best way he knew how.

So it is with our dream of sailing to London in our homemade boat.  Not only is faith in G-d necessary to achieve this goal, but we must make the necessary preparations.  We may believe that G-d has blessed our undertaking, but there are no shortcuts.  Skill and preparation are necessary, otherwise we may be testing G-d, which we are not permitted to do.

No matter what we undertake, we should place the outcome in G-d’s hands in faith, then prepare in every way we need to be successful.  When doubt and fear step in, use it as an opportunity to question and evaluate.  Perhaps we are on the wrong path, and our reasoning will show this.  Or perhaps, we are on the right path – we just need to adjust our plan, learn some new skill, or maybe we have started to put our faith in someone or something other than G-d, including possibly our self.  In these cases, just make the adjustment and move on.

The Bible verse that starts this post provides tremendous clues as to how this process works.  It seems to be saying that simply having faith is evidence that the thing we hope for is true or will come to pass, even though we cannot see the thing itself.  How can this be?  Because G-d is the source of all true faith, and He would not mislead us.

When He needs us to make changes, He allows doubt and fear to creep in.  When we resolve those doubts and fears through reason and work and make the necessary adjustments, He restores our confidence, and we move on with a stronger faith in Him than before.

It is in this sense that faith is the substance, or raw material, of those things that we hope for.