Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Pursuit of Knowledge

One of the speakers at the conference was Dr. Charles Thaxton, co-author of the book The Soul of Science, a book that chronicles the relationship between religion and modern science down through the last several centuries. Dr. Thaxton gave two lectures on The Church and Science in Western Civilization. I don't have the time or space to go into everything he talked about, but I'll try to hit a few of the high points. It was very interesting to see how science progressed through the Middle Ages in dependence on a Judeo-Christian worldview.

Dr. Thaxton summed up his lecture at the beginning and end with the following quotation:

It is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge, that stands in the way of progress.

The Greeks viewed nature as an eternal, uncreated, self-existent creation. The Greek view of science was authority-based, dependent on the assumptions of authorities, rather than on sensory experience and scientific observation. During the Medieval Period the view of science was much the same, with the addition of God in the mix. Speculations of a geo-centric solar system and the movement of the planets imbedded in crystalline spheres, for example, were accepted without scientific investigation, based on the words of a few "experts". (This authority-based system can also be seen in the Roman Catholic view of the interpretation of scriptures.) Reason was sadly cast aside, as people willingly chose ignorance and blind acceptance.

As Dr. Thaxton was describing the state of education and science during the Medieval Period, I could not help but think of a passage from Les Miserables, a book which has much to say on the matter of knowledge, ignorance, and education. From Saint Denis, Book Seven, Chapter Four:
Intellectual and moral growth is no less indispensable than material amelioration. Knowledge is a viaticum, thought is of primary necessity, not only grain but truth is nourishment. Through fasting from knowledge and wisdom, reason becomes emaciated. As with stomachs, we should pity minds that do not eat. If there is anything more poignant than a body agonizing for want of bread, it is a soul dying of hunger for light.

A major shift from blind acceptance began when the printing press made the Bible available in the common languages of the people. As the Bible was widely read, people discovered that the Bible appeals to reason and sensory experience over and over again as evidence. (See I John 1:1-3, e.g.) As people began realizing that the Bible actually taught the use of sensory experience as an authority, waves of changes developed in what was formerly a very dead scientific age. Dr. Thaxton chronicled the contributions of John Calvin (inductive study), Sir Francis Bacon (the scientific method), Galileo Galilei (astronomy), Johannes Kepler (planetary orbits), and Isaac Newton (calculus), just to name a few of the many, many contributors to this new wave of science that used reasoning and observations to explain the wonders of creation.

As Christians we should not be afraid of knowledge and reasoning, or cast them aside to believe the claims of "authorities". Instead we should recognize knowledge and reasoning as gifts from God to explore and understand His creation. The Christian faith is not a blind faith that requires us to set aside our brains at the door. We are not only allowed to explore and reason and search for knowledge, but we are required to do so. Throughout the proverbs we are entreated to search for wisdom and understanding, and in the gospels we are commanded to love God with our heart, soul, body, and mind. And of course, the purpose of gaining knowledge should be to learn more about God and His creation. I liked this quote by Johannes Kepler:
The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony which has been imposed on it by God and which He revealed to us in the language of mathematics.
Dr. Thaxton also touched on the darker side of the scientific revolution, and explained some of the sad consequences that came out of the new investigations. Isaac Newton, a creationist scientist who revolutionized many areas of science and mathematics, in seeking to explain the omnipresence of God, instead paved the way for many of the heresies and secular views that we are still grappling with in this day and age. Newton sought to explain the Bible, not to discredit it through reason or science, but his theories had quite the opposite effect. To explain how God could be everywhere at all times, Newton theorized that God was actually equal to space in the literal sense, an idea that eventually led to his own doubts with regards to important pinnacles of orthodox Christianity and even more importantly, the development of the Deist movement, the Enlightenment, and the Materialist view.

Isaac Newton's story warns what happens when the pursuit of knowledge is taken in the wrong direction. I found it sad that some of the biggest skeptics of Christianity that I met in college were also the most brilliant math nerds in my higher math classes. How can someone study the intricacies of the system of mathematics without realizing that such a system had to have been created? Knowledge is a gift of God, but a small nugget of knowledge that is not properly utilized can also cause men to profess wisdom, when really they only have folly. Dr. Thaxton's closing quote was powerful:

When a man has a little bit of knowledge, he turns to atheism. When he learns more, he turns back to God.


Sherrin said...

Good post, Susan! I had to read it a few times to feel I was taking it in though, probably because I am not a maths/science person I did not know much of this history.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, I enjoyed reading this, as I do all your posts Susan. I'm not sure I agree with it. I'm all for blind acceptance really (not from 'authorities', but of God's word the only authority). Maybe I need to read it again.

Hope you enjoy your trip. Blessings :o) Sarah

Susan said...

Mrs. Blythe,
I see how my post could have been taken a different way than intended, so I understood why you may not agree with it. I'm hoping to write a short follow-up post clarifying what I meant about a few things. Thanks for sharing your thoughts :).