More on Galileo

July 12, 2016

More on Galileo’s theory of the two books (nature and the Bible).

To recap from last week’s journal: Galileo proposed that the Bible’s purpose is strictly to instruct us about salvation. Put differently, the Bible has nothing to say about the natural world–or at least nothing that might conflict with scientific theories. So, there are two sources of information, two books, each providing knowledge of a different domain–salvation and nature.

Last week I noted how popular this view is in the world of Christian universities. It guarantees that scientists can teach potentially controversial subjects like Big Bang cosmology and evolution, since they are expounding the book of nature and since the Bible has nothing to say about nature. Buried in the fine print of this deal is a clause that reserves matters bearing on salvation to the theological community.

Far be it from me to ruin a workable arrangement; no one except card-carrying Fundamentalists want to inhibit the steady progress of scientific knowledge and of course no one wants a repeat of the Galileo fiasco, one of Christianity’s greatest PR blunders.

At the same time, even a casual reading of the Bible reveals that it has a fair amount to say about the natural world.

Take, for example, Proverbs 30:24-28:

Four things on earth are small, yet they are exceedingly wise:Four animals Proverbs 30

the ants are a people without strength, yet they provide their food in the summer;

the badgers are a people without power, yet they make their homes in the rocks;

the locusts have no king, yet all of them march in rank;

the lizard can be grasped in the hand, yet it is found in kings’ palaces. (NRSV)

Such a passage is not trying to offer a scientific account of natural phenomena, but it is also not inconsequential. Proverbs is here drawing moral lessons from animal behavior. It is saying that wisdom is not simply a human phenomenon, but is in fact found throughout the world. Even animals act wisely.

love-monkey-bonobo-8I’m not convinced of the advisability of drawing moral lessons from the animal world–we know too much about animal behavior to simply extract a morality from it. Some primates (especially the highly social ones–bonobos and chimps) do seem to exhibit the beginnings of a moral sense and do sometimes deliberately engage in behavior that benefits other members of their communities. (My knowledge of this comes mostly from the writings of Frans de Waal.)

Still, the vast majority of animal behavior is either strictly amoral or such that any moral lessons would be highly problematic.

Here’s my suggestion: It is true that the Bible is not offering scientific knowledge of animals; on this issue, Galileo is right and Fundamentalists are wrong. At the same time, the Bible is offering a different sort of knowledge about animals–knowledge from a different perspective.

CellsThe project of modern science lies in abstracting things from their connection to humans and studying them in relation to each other. Take the stars: in ancient times, our interest in the stars related to their usefulness in setting the calendar of religious festivals and events. It related as well to the stars’ presumed influence on our lives–hence the popularity of astrology.

In other words, until the rise of modern science, humanity’s interest in the natural world concerned the way in which stars, animals and other things relate to us and to our interests.

Modern science constitutes a different way of knowing–a way that removes natural phenomena from their relation to us and instead studies their relations to each other: the relation of a population to its environment, or of one to cell to surrounding cells, or of one molecule to other molecules.

The Bible, an ancient document, understandably talks about animals and other bits of nature in the ancient way–in connection with their relation to us. In the case of Proverbs 30, this means finding salience in the ways in which animals exhibit human-like qualities such as wisdom.

So, Galileo was correct in one sense: the knowledge conveyed by the Bible does not compete with scientific knowledge; however, I think he misunderstood why this is so. It’s not that the Bible is strictly and only about salvation. Instead, it’s because it meditates upon nature in a way that differs from the scientific way. It is truly knowledge, just not what we today call scientific knowledge. It is knowledge of how nature relates to us.

More in a few days on Psalm 104.

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