Newton's Apple: Forbidden Fruit?

Science and Religion Introduction

13th October, 2013

Rev Dr Simon Perry

The word ‘scientist’ was first used here in Cambridge.    It was here that Stephen Hawking first showed that the universe is expanding; that Watson and Crick solved the structure of DNA; that J.J. Thompson discovered the electron; and of course, that Isaac Newton discovered gravity.  In fact, if you go to the botanical garden you can see a clone of the tree from which Newton’s famous apple is said to have fallen.  There are members of the university who, this week, are eating apples from Newton’s tree. 

Is it forbidden fruit?  Newton’s apple is dangerous:  When Newton discovered gravity, it did not simply pull apples from trees, but sparked a revolution that pulled bishops from their seats and kings from their thrones and in the end, in the popular mind-set it pulled god down from heaven.  The so-called scientific revolution of the seventeenth century has had massive repercussions in the modern west – and left us with a particular understanding of what science is – and that is what we are looking at during the Sunday evening services this term.

The popular understanding of science runs something like this: – is that it was born in ancient Greece, developed in ancient Rome, and continued to progress until Christianity became the dominant religion.    The Christian God didn’t think much of science – and wanted to see it abolished.  Knowledge was forbidden, because God prefers people to be stupid and ignorant.  The more that science expanded its territory, the more God himself was forced into retreat.  The church of Christendom, seeing the threat and desperate to defend its divine fairy tale against those who were slowly but surely picking it to pieces, reacted violently.  But … science was an unstoppable force that would march forwards through time, evicting God from the public sphere, forcing him to take up residence in ever-shrinking ‘gaps’ beyond either the reach or interest of science.

After three centuries in which the scientific empire enlarged its territory by wrestling truth out of the unknown, God himself had aged considerably and was forced to accept his weakened status.  Having once been a powerful, malevolent dictator, he was now shuffled out of the world of public life, away into a celestial nursing home.  From here, any claims he makes are heard as the toothless, meaningless and pointless ramblings of a being who has lost all connection with reality.

This popular story of the relationship between science and religion is mythological through and through – no matter how many scientists subscribe to it.  Its credibility in the world of serious contemporary peer-reviewed historical scholarship is identical to the status of a seven-day creation or a literal worldwide flood.  It is a persistent myth, nevertheless, passionately defended by those who believe that science and religion are mutually incompatible.

Science is simply a way of knowing, of making sense of our experience of the world.  Traditionally we do that through the five senses – but where do we inherit the belief that there are only five?  It is, in fact, Aristotle who taught that there are five senses: Through the early Middle Ages, Aristotle had been largely forgotten in the West, but Islamic scholars had long retained their interest in Aristotle, and after the crusades, he was eventually popularised in the west – where his writings gained near infallible status.  Part of his legacy is the infallibility with which his thought is still treated, even unwittingly, even by some scientists. 

Might it be possible that scientific perception is itself destined to remain severely limited, because there are other ways of knowing and experiencing the world that are currently viewed as ‘unscientific’ because they do not fit Aristotle’s model?  Is it possible that there are major facets of the universe that simply do not register on the radar of human perception?  To insist that everything in the universe gains its existence from revealing itself to the five senses identified by an ancient Mediterranean philosopher hardly sounds scientific.  The infallibility Christendom bestowed upon Aristotle continues to assert itself through the secular arguments of science – proving that even in the sterilized sanctity of the lab, (as Julian Barnes famously wrote) “history just burps, and we taste again that raw-onion sandwich it swallowed centuries ago.”

Conclusion

Being scientific, after all, like being Christian, requires that we embrace what human life really is.  A human being is an assembly of subatomic particles, which – for a tragically miniscule nano-fragment of time – have taken the form of carnal matter.  We are comprised exclusively of shrapnel from the big bang, human wreckage, briefly animated corpses. The entire life span of our race, the greatest heights of our civilization and the profoundest depths of our love, occupy no more than a hideously insignificant splinter of history.  And so we are left floating through a dark corner of time and space, through the unfathomable expanse of infinite void, until we are soon engulfed in the cold shadow of eternal silence.  

How do we cope with this scientifically revealed reality?  If you’re a card-carrying, bible-thumping Christian, surely you respond by closing your eyes, sticking your fingers in your ears, and singing “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.”  If you’re a card-carrying dyed in the wool, secular modernist – surely you are compelled to cram your life full of something called “meaning,” hurrying to complete the 40 must-do tasks, visit the 40 must-see places, and read the 40 must-read books, before you die.  

To be Christian, to be scientific, is to see the world as it really is:

If we gaze through a telescope, we are reminded that an eternal record of all activity is streaming live from every point in space and time.  (Any being in the Andromeda Galaxy furnished with a powerful enough telescope, could point it at planet earth today and witness as live events, whatever was happening here 2.5 million years ago.)  Hurtling across space at the speed of light is the unbroken everlasting imprint of every nanosecond we live.  Every detail of every moment of every life will far outlast the lifespan of our planet, to survive at least as long as the universe itself.  At least, that is what my son claimed when he was 7 years old.  Our every action and experience is packed with cosmic significance, broadcast on waves of light rippling through the infinite reaches of space and time. 

If we gaze through a microscope, we are reminded of the impenetrable depths of any object in our hand, the bottomless mystery of how it holds together as an object, and the cruel limitations of our human perception.  The most powerful microscope in the world is currently the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland, a monument to humanity’s thirst for knowledge and phenomenal ability to understand the world around us.  This feat of human knowledge is a worthy object of wonder in and of itself.  And yet, even the LHC has a limited depth of sight.  Growing numbers of physicists continuing to seek a Unified Theory of Everything concede that, “physics will not be complete until it can explain how space and time emerge from something more fundamental.”[1]  The microscope reveals that the ground beneath our feat is a swirling vortex of entropy, like certain undergraduate rooms after the bop formerly known as Corruption.

Part of the privilege of being at Cambridge, is being immersed in the sheer diversity of different ways of seeing the world as it really is.  By the sciences in particular, we are invited to see the world differently, to see new dimensions, and to see new discoveries – all of which highlights the wonder of what our universe is.  From a Christian perspective, we join the scientists in their wonder – allowing them to show us ever more fully the world and the life which we receive as a gift.  This gift will be celebrated in different ways throughout the coming term, as we hear from a variety of scientists and theologians here at Robinson College. 

Newton’s apple is not forbidden fruit.  The approach of these Sunday evenings, will simply be to say grace before we taste Newton’s apple.

 

[1]  Merali, Zeeya, “Theoretical Physics: The origins of space and time,” in Nature, 28 Aug 2013.