4 December 2014


Owen Gingerich. God's Planet. Harvard University Press, 2014

This book, consisting of three lectures delivered to the American Scientific Affiliation, "a fellowship of Christians in the sciences founded in 1941", is devoted to discussing the tensions between science and religion.
Gingerich writes in the Prologue: "The relationship between the arena of science and the religious domain has been tense going back to the time of Galileo and beyond, but it has been particularly fraught in twentieth-century America, with issues relating to the age of the cosmos and the rise of life on earth".

The interactions between scientific observations and theories and religious beliefs are explored by considering the work of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Charles Darwin (1809-1882), and Fred Hoyle (1915-2001).

Introducing the chapter on Copernicus, Gingerich notes that five centuries ago theology was considered the queen of the sciences. It is obvious, though, that today it is no longer regarded as a science, and is treated with contempt by many scientists. Stephen Jay Gould tried to alleviate this controversy, exacerbated by American Creationists, by writing a book entitled Rocks of Ages, in which he declared that there was no need for this dispute, as science and religion each belonged to its own domain or "magisterium". This is a very controversial idea, which is denounced by atheists such as Richard Dawkins (not mentioned in this book).

Gingerich begins his discussion of the development of the relationships between science and theology by asking why, if Copernicus's cosmology was right, it took a century and a half before most educated people accepted the idea "that the Earth moved and the Sun stood still". There were a number of reasons for this, apart from possible religious objections. One reason was that the Ptolemaic system, with Earth as the centre of the universe, could be made to work on calculating the positions of the planets by applying certain corrections. Also, Copernicus realised that if Earth orbited the Sun, there should be a parallax effect on the observed positions of the stars. This effect, though, was not convincingly measured until 1838. The demonstration of Earth's axial rotation had to wait for the first public swinging of Foucault's pendulum in 1851. Thus it was not until the 19th century that the present model of the solar system came to be generally accepted.

Darwin's On the Origin of Species was first published in 1859 but many people, particularly in America, still refuse to believe in evolution. Gingerich notes that a recent Gallup poll (11 February 2009) shows that only four out of ten Americans believe in evolution and, for frequent churchgoers, the number is one out of four.

Since Darwin's time, there has been great progress in revealing the development of life on Earth, but the main concern in this chapter is the tension between the scientific findings and theories, and religious belief. Gingerich tells us that the vast majority of naturalists at the time of Darwin's voyage in HMS Beagle built their work firmly on the assumption that each organic form was created by the Deity. He notes that when Pope John Paul II spoke to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996 he took the evolutionary picture seriously, but recognised the deeply significant transition to a spiritual being. Gingerich certainly does not agree that science and religion are incompatible. He reports being astonished by a biologist from the University of Chicago declaring: "Evolution demands atheism."

The chapter on Fred Hoyle is concerned with the universe and the theological implications of different cosmologies. There was the Big Bang theory which was ridiculed by Hoyle, who invented the steady state theory in which the universe has always existed and its expansion is caused by the spontaneous creation of hydrogen atoms. He eventually had to give up this when it was realised that there were too many problems with it.

An interesting question about Hoyle is whether or not he was an atheist. He advanced the hypothesis that the laws of science had been designed to promote the origin of life. Gingerich believes this hypothesis to be true. "The mere fact that the universe is comprehensible to our minds is also powerful evidence for a superintelligent designer." -- John Harney


Terry the Censor said...

> "The mere fact that the universe is comprehensible to our minds is also powerful evidence for a superintelligent designer."

It's astonishing that any intelligent person could form such a ridiculous argument.

That's a wish, not logic.

Ross said...

Fred Hoyle modified his "steady state" theory, but he never gave it up. He never accepted the "Big Bang" theory, and he thought its widespread acceptance was a product of religious conditioning (the "Genesis" account of creation).

Ross said...

Gingerich assumes that the universe is comprehensible to our minds. Is it? Maybe we have not yet comprehended that the universe is incomprehensible to our minds.