VERIFYING THE ETERNAL BY THE TEMPORAL?
TYPICAL FEATURES OF THE "The BIBLE vs SCIENCE" LITERATURE
First posted on May 10, 1999
By Mark Perakh
The problem of relationship between the biblical stories and scientific data has often occupied the minds of many people, believers and skeptics alike. Many believers would like to reconcile the biblical account with science, whereas many skeptics would like to find proofs in favor either of the biblical account or of science. This interest can be easily understood, since science provides a very strong rational evidence supporting its conclusions, whereas religion satisfies a deep emotional desire to believe in miracles, which lift humans above their animal nature and defy the tragedy of unavoidable death.
Every person faces the choice among the three alternative world views:
One choice is to accept religious dogma as the ultimate truth and hence to deny scientific data and theories on the ground of its being contrary to the divine revelation of truth. Another choice is the opposite, to adhere to the scientific view and to reject the biblical story, viewing it at best as a mere literature, and at worst as a baseless concoction.
There is, though, one more choice, an attempt to reconcile the scientific data and the biblical account.
The advantages of the third choice are obvious, because in case such an attempt is successful, it enables one to accept the intellectually rigorous claims of science while saving one's emotionally satisfying religious beliefs.
As a response to the demand, a multitude of books, papers, websites, etc, have appeared recently, all of them offering various arguments purportedly proving the compatibility of the Bible and science.
Surveying the literature, which discusses the relationship between the Bible and science, one cannot fail to notice several features common to the overwhelming majority of these publications.
One such feature is the simple fact that the books and papers in question do not belong to scientific literature.
In scientific publications, their authors usually ask a certain question and then proceed to find the answer to it, without a preconceived idea as to what the answer may be. In an alternative form of scientific publications, their authors suggest a certain hypothesis (or, often, several competing hypotheses) and then proceed to make a rational choice between those hypotheses, based on factual evidence. The conclusions suggested in a scientific publication usually are not offered as the ultimate truth, but rather as the most likely one out of several choices, within the framework of the available data. It usually implies that in case additional data are discovered, the conclusion may be reconsidered. (The above description is not necessarily true for mathematical publications, where often a proven theorem may be the closest thing to the absolute truth).
One more typical feature of scientific publications is that their authors usually try themselves to consider possible arguments against their conclusions, weighing them as impartially as possible against their own views.
A type of literature, which is in a certain sense opposite to the scientific one, is that which is polemic. Recall that the word itself stems from Greek where it means "hostility" or "war." Publications in that category are aimed at convincing the readers in the validity of their authorsí views or beliefs. In this type of literature, a common feature is emphasizing arguments in favor of their authorsí position and downplaying the counter-arguments.
One more difference between scientific and polemic literature is in that the scientific literature is usually addressed to everybody equally, provided the readers have a sufficient educational background to understand the subject. Polemic literature is usually addressed to a specific audience, so that the argumentation is adjusted to the expected readership.
The publications dealing with the relationship between the Bible and science are overwhelmingly of the polemic type.
Contrary to their authorsí usual claims of objectivity, i.e. of comparing the Biblical story with scientific data in a non-prejudiced way, the actual goal of all those writings is always to prove the supremacy of the religious revelation. For example, in publications discussing the Torah vs science, the Torah is viewed as the indisputable depository of the ultimate truth, whereas only the scientific data are subjected to a critical discussion.
A good illustration of the above observation can be provided by a quotation from the book by Professor Nathan Aviezer, titled "In the Beginning" (KTAV publishing house, 1990). On page 124 of that book, in a section titled "Credo," Aviezer wrote: "If I were to find that traditional Judaism appeared to be inconsistent with certain aspects of modern science, this would in no way weaken my commitment." (The commitment mentioned in that quotation was that to Aviezerís religious faith). In a book by Gerald L. Schroeder titled "The Science of God" (The Free Press, 1997) on page 51 we find the following frank statement by the author: "I have an agenda, to demonstrate the harmony between science and the Bible." Pursuing an agenda is not what is usually considered an unbiased approach to subject. Similar statements can be found in publications by authors who are Christians. For example, mathematician William A. Dembski who is one of the most prominent promoters of the so-called intelligent design concept, in a paper published in the collection Mere Creation (InterVarsity Publishers, 1998) writes: "As Christians we know naturalism is false." Dembski makes this statement before having discussed any arguments either in favor or against his anti-naturalism views. Similar statements, often made in a rather uncompromisingly categorical manner, can be found in many other publications of the defenders of the Bible. For example, one of the most prolific adversaries of the evolution theory, professor of law Phillip E. Johnson, more than once expressed in his books and articles a bluntly contemptuous attitude toward those scientists who do not share his rejection of the evolution theory.
It is not hard to figure out to whom the literature in question is addressed. True believers usually are not concerned with the compatibility of the biblical story with science. Therefore these true believers are not much interested in books and papers aimed at proving in rational terms something they anyway deeply believe to be true. There are though many believers who adhere to their faith simply because they grew up in a religious family, or are accustomed to certain rituals and modes of behavior, or have a strong emotional need in faith. It could be proper to say that such people actually wish to believe, and are searching for rational arguments supporting the religious dogma. The literature in question is addressed mainly to this category of readers, and therefore uses arguments, which are expected to be sufficiently convincing to these "doubting believers."
There is one more category of potential readers of the literature in question, skeptics. It is that category of readers the writers of the books and papers in question consider to be their opponents. In view of possible rebuttals from skeptics, the writers of the literature in question realize that arguments, which are sufficiently convincing for "doubting believers" may be not convincing at all to skeptics. Therefore most of the literature in question is implicitly addressed also to skeptics, utilizing more or less clever and ingenious arguments, designed to convince the latter in the writerís views and beliefs.
Whereas arguments, which are sufficiently convincing for "doubting believers," may not necessarily be distinguished by strict logic and scientific rigor, the arguments, which are supposed to work for skeptics, must meet much more stringent requirements. One requirement, which is necessary for the argument to work, is their being impeccably logical and consistent. Besides that requirement, one can imagine several types of argumentation, to wit:
a) Arguments, which are both relevant and correct,
b) Arguments, which are scientifically correct, but irrelevant,
c) Arguments, which are relevant, but scientifically wrong,
d) Arguments, which are both irrelevant and wrong.
One can imagine also all kinds of arguments, which do not belong to any of the above four "pure" types, but rather being of an in-between type, displaying partial features of more than one of the above types (for example, being partially correct, etc).
Obviously, only arguments of type a) can be convincing to skeptics. Nevertheless, the books and papers aimed at proving the compatibility of the Bible with science often make use of arguments belonging to types b) through d). While such arguments may be sufficiently convincing to "doubting believers," not to mention the true believers, they hardly can have any effect on skeptics.
From another angle, the literature in question has the following features:
1). The levels of requirements are different for the Bible and science. The Biblical story is usually not subjected to a critical evaluation in accordance with any criteria. It is assumed to be true, and if it seems illogical on the face of it, this is assumed to simply signify an insufficient understanding of its real meaning. The scientific data though are required to be proven in the most unambiguous and uncontroversial way.
If the biblical account is or seems to be compatible with scientific data, these data are viewed as a rational proof of the biblical account.
If though the scientific data contradict the biblical account, this is viewed simply as a misunderstanding (if the scientific data are firmly proven) or as the falsity of scientific data (if the latter have not been proven beyond doubt).
2) Consequently, there are four situations, each treated in its own way, to wit:a). If a certain biblical assertion is (or seems to be) in agreement with proven scientific data, then such scientific data are referred to as a scientific confirmation of the biblical story.
b. If a certain biblical assertion seems to be in agreement with some scientific theory which has not been firmly proven, this scientific theory is usually referred to as if it is proven. (Example: the big bang theory).
c. If a certain biblical assertion seems to contradict a proven scientific theory, attempts are made to interpret the biblical story in a way compatible with scientific data. (Example: the six days of creation). As it will become evident when we discuss particular books and papers, such attempts often put the writers in a rather awkward position, forcing them to perform some mental acrobatics.
d. If a certain biblical story seems to contradict a scientific theory which may seem to be not proven, various arguments are forwarded aimed at disproving the scientific theory. (Example: the theory of evolution).
There are, among the multitude of books dealing with the relationship between the Bible and science, some, which cover all four situations listed above. The books in this category can be referred to as being of "Bible and science" type. Examples of this type of publications are the already mentioned books by Schroeder and Aviezer. In such books one can find examples of all four types of argumentation listed above.
Some other books cover only three, or two or even only one of the above four situations. In particular, there are books in that category, dedicated solely to rebuttals of Darwinís or post-Darwinís theories of evolution (for example, "Darwinís Black Box" by Michae J. Behe, Simon and Shuster, 1996 or "Not by Chance" by Lee Spetner, The Judaica Press, 1997) and a series of books by Phillip E. Johnson. Such books usually explicitly deny the scientific theory in favor of the biblical story. Sometimes it is done in a rather brazen way, rejecting the scientific view in a categorical and even disdainful manner. Some others do the same in a subtler manner, trying to profess respect for science and somehow creating the impression that the author is ashamed of being considered anti-science.
In another respect, one can imagine two types of arguments in favor of the biblical story. One type is rational argumentation and the other, the extra-rational one. The extra-rational arguments are obviously excessive for any true believer, as in a believerís view the Bible itself supplies more than enough of the strong, and even undeniable evidence, which itself is of extra-rational type and makes unnecessary any additional extra-rational arguments. As to the skeptics, they cannot be swayed by only extra-rational arguments. Therefore the books and papers aimed at proving the biblical story use some allegedly rational argumentation, thus appealing to the skepticsí minds rather than to their emotions. In view of that, the argumentation forwarded in the books in question is a legitimate object of discussion in rational terms, and revealing flaws in those arguments is what those publications call for.
This short article is meant as an introduction into a series of articles on this site discussing in detail various books and papers devoted either to proving the harmony between the Bible and science or to rebuttals of some scientific theories, which contradict the biblical story.
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