There is an ongoing battle in the United States between Young Earth Creationists and the scientific community over the teaching of evolutionary biology. In Kansas this dispute spilled over into cosmology (see the article by James Glanz on the front page of the 10 Oct 1999 New York Times). In this article a minor part of my remarks to Glanz are quoted, regarding a misguided attempt to use General Relativity to explain the discrepancy between the 12 billion year age of the Universe and the Young Earth Creationists' 6000 year age for the Earth. This huge clock rate gradient defines a huge gravitational field that would create a huge gravitational blueshift in all astronomical observations, but no such effect is seen.
But any discussion of cosmology and religion should remember these general principles:
There are NOT just two sides in this issue that deserve equal time. Young Earth Creationism is a belief held by a small minority [~6%] of Christians, and Christianity is followed by a minority [albeit a large one: 33%] of all people on the world. For example, Catholics outnumber Young Earth Creationists by a large factor, and the Catholic Church has no objection to either Big Bang cosmology or evolutionary biology. Hindus outnumber Young Earth Creationists by a large factor, and believe in an infinitely old Universe evolving in cycles - a belief more in accord with Hoyle's Steady State Cosmology that the Big Bang, but directly contradicting the Young Earth Creationists.
And many scientists are believers who feel that God made the Universe but that evidence we find in Nature gives us the true history of the Universe: the Big Bang cosmology and biological evolution of the species. Hugh Ross is a prominent Christian believer with scientific training, who made this statement about the Kansas School Board decision on the Big Bang:
Ironically, members on both sides of the debate do agree about one thing: big bang cosmology puts their position in jeopardy. The big bang poses a problem for young-earth creationists because it makes the universe billions of years old rather than thousands. Such an assertion undercuts their system at its foundation. Big bang cosmology also presents a problem for atheistic scientists because it points directly to the existence of a transcendent Creator - a fact they dare not concede.It is true that scientists do not know what came before or caused the Big Bang, but that is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for invoking the Deity.
The evangelical Protestant denominations from which most Young Earth Creationists come have much deeper and more heartfelt disputes with other Christian denominations than with science. In particular they dispute the nature of the ultimate authority: the Catholics accept the Pope as the authority, while Protestants take the Bible as their authority. But:
"The Bible was written to show us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." - Cardinal Baronius (1598), a quote cited by Galileo.
The Bible has many self-contradictions and factual errors. Its original authors were polytheistic pagans who thought the Earth was flat and the Sun, planets and stars revolved around it. The later editing by monotheistic priests was incomplete, leaving a number of self-contradictions. Translations from the original languages have introduced further errors, but most Young Earth Creationists in the United States would take the King James version of the Bible as being the true word of God.
Some people claim that Biblical prophecies prove the Holy nature of the Bible. But such claims can be made about Moby Dick as well. Many people preach that current events are foretold by the Bible, but nobody has a consistent ability to predict future events. If the Bible did contain an unambiguous and successful collection of prophecies there would be no question about the existence of God. In the book Contact, by Carl Sagan, Ellie Arroway, after traveling to Vega and back in the machine, puts a computer to work calculating the digits of pi = 3.14159... which is the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle, and finds "hiding in the alternating patterns of digits, deep inside the transcendental number, was a perfect circle, its form traced out by unities in a field of noughts." That would be an unambiguous message from the Creator of the Universe, but Contact is science fiction, not fact.
But the authority taken by science is:
Karl Popper, in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, wrote:
But I shall admit a system as an empirical or scientific theory only if it is capable of being tested by experience. These considerations suggest that not the verifiability but the falsifiability of a system is to be taken as the criterion of demarcation. In other words: I shall not require of a scientific system that it shall be capable of being singled out, once and for all, in a positive sense; but I shall require that its logical form shall be such that it can be singled out, by means of empirical tests, in a negative sense: it must be possible for an empirical scientific system to be refuted by experience.A scientific theory must pass every test. It can be falsified but never verified, because the next datum might disagree. So Newton's Theory of Gravity was confirmed many times over two hundred years, but the excess precession of the perihelion of Mercury's orbit falsified it. By correctly fitting all of the previous 200 years of data, and also correctly explaining the motion of Mercury and the bending of light by the Sun, Einstein's General Relativity became the new and still reigning Theory of Gravity.
Are religious theories falsifiable by experience? Some are: for example, the theory of Biblical Inerrancy could be falsified by self-contradictions in the Bible - and it is! But almost all Young Earth Creationists swear by biblical inerrancy nonetheless. How is this possible? Most religious beliefs are matters of faith: a belief held in the absence of evidence or even despite contrary evidence. Such faith-based beliefs are not falsifiable by experience, and are thus not part of any scientific theory.
Popular usage equates theory with an untested hypothesis. But scientific theories are hypotheses that have passed many empirical tests. However, even a very well-tested theory can be falsified, as shown by Newtonian gravity. Falsifying a well-tested theory is the biggest achievement that a scientist can make, and thus many scientists are drawn to testing and retesting the best established theories. But these scientists recognize that the probability of falsifying a well-tested theory is low, and thus their work may come to naught. One can encourage the testing of well-established theories by proposing alternatives theories that explain all known facts but make different predictions for new experiments. In the 1950's the Big Bang was not well-tested, and the Steady State model was a very useful alternative that encouraged many observations. Now the Big Bang picture is well established, but the inflationary scenario added on before events in the classic Big Bang is not well-tested. Many alternatives versions of inflation have been suggested. But do not think that these alternatives represent weaknesses of the Big Bang.
The years prior to World War II were marked in Germany by a campaign against "Jewish science" which included relativity. As a result Einstein, Fermi, Teller, Bethe and Szilard all left Europe. Because of Hitler's injection of religious prejudice into science, the Allies and not the Axis were first to the atomic bomb. The next big technology will probably be biotechnology, and a failure to teach modern biology could lead to our downfall. We must teach our children both the methods of science and the latest well-tested theories of biology and physics to guarantee our future.
© 1999 Edward L. Wright. Last modified 25 Nov 1999