Thursday, May 31, 2007

Can One Believe in Heliocentrism and Still be a Scientist?

Four hundred years ago Judaism and Christianity were challenged by the rise of heliocentrism, the belief that the earth circles around the sun, and the collapse of geocentrism, the belief that the sun, stars and all the planets circle around the earth. This was a problem for Jews and Christians in that according to the book of Joshua, the sun stood still for the Children of Israel, implying that the sun circles the earth. This without any doubt is a major challenge to the authority of the Bible. In the standard Whig narrative, this shift is seen as one of the two great triumphs of the forces of science over the forces of religion, the other one, of course, being evolution. What is so often glossed over though is that, while heliocentrism is a challenge to Judaism and Christianity, this challenge pales in comparison to the challenge heliocentrism poses to empiricism and any faith in humanity’s ability to understand the natural world around him. If I accept heliocentrism, which I do, then I must recognize that when I look up at the sky I am falling victim to one massive optical illusion for the sun, the stars and the planets all appear to circle around the earth. If my senses can be fooled on something as basic as the sky above me then I must ask whether I am mistaken about everything else I think I know about the natural world. I must like Descartes come to doubt whether I have hands or feet or whether there is even an earth if it is not merely an illusion. If I cannot be confident that the world even exists then I must also come, like David Hume to question whether there is even such a thing as a law of nature. Why should a non-existent world even have consistent laws? If I cannot talk about laws of nature then I can have no science. How can I search for patterns and rules that do not exist? If my belief in science can survive admitting that the heavens are a giant optical illusion then surely my religion can survive admitting that Joshua is not meant to be taken literally.
Today with evolution we find ourselves in a similar situation. Can our faith survive admitting that Genesis is not meant to be taken literally? This may be a problem but it is nothing compared to the problem faced by the believer in science. If I accept evolution, which I do, then I must admit that, as C.S Lewis argued, my intelligence, my ability to reason, and every other tool with which I explore the natural world is the byproduct of natural selection. If human beings use the methodology of science simply because that mode of thinking helps the human species survive then we have no reason to assume that it is valid. As with heliocentrism, if my belief in science can survive admitting that the human mind is the product of natural selection then surely my religion can survive admitting that Genesis is not to be taken literally.
When reading Richard Dawkins, I am reminded of Nachmonides’ constant reply to Pablo Christiani at the Barcelona debate: if you truly understood what you were saying then you would realize that your claim is a far bigger problem for you than it is for me.

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