Dermott J. Mullan
Foreword: the conversion of a Philistine
I stood before the painting in a state of awe. I had never seen a picture like it in my entire life. Up to that point in time, my background and training as a scientist had given me little or no instruction in the topic of art appreciation. When I would enter an art gallery, I usually felt like a Philistine, moving quickly from room to room, anxious to find the exit. But this time, something was different, very different. Here was a painting that immediately riveted my attention. It showed an old man, paying the utmost attention to what looked like a young child. The man held a pen and paper in his hands, as if he were ready to write down whatever the child told him. The intensity in the old man’s face as he tried to focus all of his attention on the task at hand, as well as the joy in the child’s face, conveyed to me a powerful message.
I was consumed with curiosity to know the name of the artist who had attracted my attention in such a manner. If I could find the name, I would search to see what else he had painted. Perhaps there were other treasures in store for me.
How was I to discover the artist’s name? I walked up to the painting as closely as I was permitted, and examined it in detail. Sure enough, tucked in a corner there were some words written faintly in a small hand. A casual observer might easily miss the writing altogether.
The words gave me the information I was seeking: I had never heard the name of Guido Reni before, but finding the artist’s signature changed my approach to the art world. Now when I enter an art gallery, it is with a sense of anticipation: maybe I will find there another work by Guido Reni, the artist who first opened my eyes to a new world.
What does all this have to with science and the Bible? Well, even in terms of literature, the Bible is a work of art of the highest quality. It describes the human condition in a multitude of stories that have attracted people’s attention all over the world: more copies of the Bible have been printed than any other book. So the question arises: who is the “artist” (i.e. author) of the Bible? Of course, to a believer the answer is obvious: the author is God.
But what is an unbeliever to think? Is there any way for an unbeliever such as a skeptical modern scientist to discover the author of the Bible? I would like to suggest that there is. I submit that the author has left his “signature” in the Bible. To be sure, the writing is faint, and easy to overlook. But I believe it is there.
In the Book of Genesis, written some 3000 years ago, Moses gave an account of creation that agrees in surprising detail with modern scientific information.
Among all the creation stories that have emerged from world cultures, the one written by Moses is the only one that is consistent with modern science.
This raises the question: how did Moses know so much about certain properties of the material world?
1.1. Channels for discovering the truth
In order to discover any of the properties of the material world, it is necessary to have a channel of some kind so that a signal can be detected, and information can be extracted.
Scientists in the modern world use a channel called the scientific method to obtain information about certain material properties of the world. The discoveries that have emerged from application of the scientific method have led to a seemingly endless series of inventions that have had a major impact on modern life. Because of these, the scientific method enjoys wide respect in our culture.
But there is more than one channel to learn the truth about the world. Moses had access to a different channel for finding the truth: revelation. This channel (which was also available to the writers of the other books in the Bible) is principally used to “detect signals" of a spiritual nature. Spiritual information that arrives to us through this channel is generally not “detectable" by the scientific method. As a result, there is in general no possibility of conflict between the Bible and science.
However, there are a few occasions when the “revelation channel" detects a signal containing information that overlaps with information obtained with the other channel (the scientific method). These overlaps are what I would like to discuss in the present work.
1.2. Tensions between faith and science
The occasions where there is overlap of information between revelation and science can give rise to tensions between people who profess religious belief and those who espouse the scientific method. These tensions lead some people to struggle with the question that worried me as a teenager: can I be a scientist and a believer at the same time? Or more blatantly, one hears charges such as: "You just can't believe both science and the Bible. You have to pick one or the other."
These are serious tensions that strike deep into the heart of modern culture. Are there any rules to guide those of us who are Catholics in addressing them? Fortunately, the answer is Yes. The Church provides us with meaningful guidance here by means of documents that appeared first in 1893, and then on the 50th and 100th anniversary of that date.
In the year 1893, Pope Leo XIII issued the first encyclical on the topic of biblical studies: Providentissimus Deus. In paragraph 18 of that encyclical, the Pope makes the following statement:
“If scientists ever succeed in demonstrating any scientific truth
with irrefutable evidence, let us show that that truth is not opposed
to our Scripture" (emphasis added).
This is a remarkable statement. Catholics have long known that the Pope has authority to speak about “religious" matters, i.e. the truths which have been detected through the ``revelation channel". But here, Pope Leo uses his apostolic authority to pay a serious compliment to the truths that are obtained by the “other channel". The Pope acknowledges that real truth about the world can in fact be established by the scientific method.
To be sure, there is a converse aspect of this teaching: the Pope goes on to teach that truths that have been established through the “revelation channel" should not be contradicted by scientific truths.
In other words, when truth is found by either “channel", the truth found by the other channel must not contradict it.
Now, the Pope does not pay this compliment to science just to make us all feel good. Rather, the Pope’s statement actually contains a specific demand for work on our part. Once science establishes a certain truth, the Church had better make sure that what she preaches does not contradict that truth. To a Catholic scientist such as myself, this sounds like a clarion call to action of a specific kind. The purpose of this article is to consider how Catholic scientists might begin to respond to this call.
1.3. What “truth” should we be concerned about?
The problem is: it is not a simple matter to discover the real truth through the “science channel”. At any given moment in time, the scientists of the day may think (erroneously) that they have discovered “the truth" about some aspect of the physical world. As examples, we may cite Ptolemy's epicycles to explain planetary motion, or Aristotle's claim that the universe is eternal and unchanging, or the phlogiston theory of heat, or the ether theory of light propagation, or "humors" as the origin of personal temperament. When these theories were in vogue, scientists of the day regarded the theories as “the truth" about the world (the “paradigm"). However, we now know better: the evidence on which those old ideas were based was refuted by subsequent evidence. The overthrow of the old "paradigm" is the stuff of scientific revolutions.
Because of the proven possibility that some scientific evidence is incorrect, Pope Leo set a strict standard by which scientific evidence should be evaluated. He taught: before one sets out to evaluate a putative overlap between information received by the “revelation channel" and information received by the “scientific method channel", one must make sure that the scientific “truth" under discussion really rests on “irrefutable evidence".
Although this is simply common sense, the Pope needed to say it: a lot of energy can be wasted, and a lot of heat generated, in trying to build bridges between a supposed “revealed truth" and a supposed “scientific truth". If either of these supposed “truths" is based on weak evidence, there is no point in attempting the bridge-building in the first place. With this caution, Pope Leo is literally fulfilling his role as described by one of the most ancient of the papal titles: Pontifex Maximus (supreme bridge-builder).
2. The scientific method
The scientific method is based on detecting certain signals from objects in the physical world and interpreting these signals in terms of the material properties of the object. As a specific example, the oldest of the sciences, astronomy, determines the properties of celestial bodies by detecting the only signal that comes to Earth from the stars, i.e. light. Since stars can be detected with the unaided eye, ordinary people can participate in the scientific method and can extract information about the stars, such as their relative positions, their motions, their relative brightness, and their colors.
Light is the simplest means we have of gathering information about the universe in which we live.
Light also plays a role in the description of the origin of the Universe as written down by Moses. In our search for bridges between science and revelation, it will be worthwhile therefore to learn some of the "irrefutable" truths about light.
A key discovery of modern science is that the light that our eyes can see is only one particular example of a more general physical entity called electromagnetic radiation, or “radiation”, for short.
The various types of radiation that exist in the world around us include gamma-rays, X-rays, ultraviolet, visible light, infra-red, microwaves, FM radio waves, and AM radio waves. All of these phenomena involve waves of an electromagnetic nature. This means that they all include an oscillating electric field which causes an oscillating magnetic field, which in turn causes an oscillating electric field, and so on. The oscillating electric and magnetic fields are intertwined in such a way that they propagate through space as a wave moving at a unique speed: this is the "speed of light".
How do the various types of radiation differ? They differ in their wavelength or frequency. For example, AM radio waves have wavelengths of about a thousand feet. FM radio waves have wavelengths of about 10 feet. Microwaves have wavelengths of a foot or less. Gamma-rays have the shortest wavelengths: less than a millionth of an inch. Visible light occurs somewhere near the middle of the range, with wavelengths of about 1 ten-thousandth of an inch.
If a scientist wishes to study a particular form of radiation, he must build a detector that is sensitive to that radiation. A detector that picks up radiation of one kind will not necessarily pick up radiation of another. For example, an AM radio, designed so as to detect AM radio waves, will not respond to FM radio waves. Similarly, a gamma-ray detector will not respond to infra-red radiation. Our eyes have the property that they can detect visible light, but they will not respond to (say) X-rays or microwaves.
As a result, if I happen to be in a location where all types of radiation are present, the only one that I will detect will be the visible light. This seems like a trivial point to make, but, as we shall see, it has a bearing on what Moses wrote in Genesis.
2.3. Falsifiability in science
Before moving on, it is worthwhile, in the context of Pope Leo's strict standards, to make a brief (and final) point about the scientific method.
Interpretation of data often leads scientists to put forward a theory that is supposed to explain "how a piece of the world works". The mark of a good scientific theory is that it makes predictions that are specific enough to be testable. If a prediction is tested and found to be a good one, this adds confidence to the theory, although it might not prove it conclusively. On the other hand, if even a single reliable test shows that a prediction is false, then the conclusion that one must draw is clear and specific: the theory fails. This aspect of "falsifiability" is regarded by some as the keystone of the scientific method. The more tests of falsifiability a theory successfully passes, the more reliable the theory is considered.
We now turn to a theory which has passed the test of falsifiability.
3. Microwave radiation from the Universe
In 1964, two radio astronomers in Holmdel (New Jersey) used a special detector in order to search for microwave radiation coming from the sky. These scientists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, combined a large antenna with an especially sensitive detector, so that they could detect fainter sources than anyone had previously discovered. Their instrument had no trouble picking up radiation from various sources that were well-known: nearby TV stations, the Earth's atmosphere, the Sun, various stars, the Milky Way Galaxy, and other galaxies.
But after Penzias and Wilson had allowed for all the sources they knew about, and after going to great lengths to eliminate spurious radiation in the telescope, they found that there was still a faint residual signal in their detector. This residual signal came in from all directions, and was constantly present, all day, all night, all year. After excluding other options, Penzias and Wilson concluded that they had actually detected some faint radiation coming not from any particular source in the sky, but from the Universe as a whole. According to their theory, the radiation they discovered is truly a "cosmic microwave background".
Penzias and Wilson's theory allowed them to make a specific prediction: if the radiation comes from the Universe as a whole, then it should be stronger at certain wavelengths than at others. And the relative strength at different wavelengths should follow a well-known curve that in physics textbooks is called "black-body radiation". In the years since 1964, a large number of radio studies have tested this prediction. The culmination of the testing came in 1990 when a specially designed satellite called COBE (for "COsmic Background Explorer") made extremely precise measurements of the strength of the radiation at about 100 different wavelengths. The results were stunning: every one of the data points fell right where it ought to be on the “black-body” curve. When these results were first presented at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington DC, the audience of about a thousand people broke out in spontaneous applause. The chairman of the session was heard to remark: "Maybe the Bible was right after all".
The results from COBE (and other instruments) have shown convincingly that the ``cosmic microwave background" fills the Universe. The evidence is irrefutable.
4. Radiation from the Universe: how hot is it?
The radiation that fills the Universe is extremely faint at the present time. As an indication of how faint the radiation is, we note that astronomers often denote the intensity of a radio source by ascribing a temperature to the radiation. In the case of the cosmic microwave background, the temperature of the radiation is less than 3 degrees above absolute zero. Because of this extremely low temperature, the radiation is very difficult to detect. This explains why no-one had detected it before Penzias and Wilson built an instrument of exceptionally high sensitivity in 1964.
At the present time, the radiation that fills the Universe is so faint and cold that it is utterly unimportant as far as our life on Earth is concerned. The energy contained in this radiation is tiny compared to the energy contained in the material that we can see in the Universe. As the astronomers say: we now live in a universe that is dominated by matter.
But it was not always true that the material was dominant in the Universe. There was a time in the past when things were very different. The reason for this has to do with the fact that the universe is expanding. How do we know this? By observing galaxies and noting that light from distant galaxies is shifted to longer wavelengths. Evidence for this universal expansion has been obtained by so many independent observers that it also qualifies for Pope Leo's "irrefutable" standard of evidence.
4.1 The future of the Universe
As regards the future, scientists who study the Universe as a whole do not yet know for sure what will happen to the expanding Universe: will it expand forever at the rate it is expanding now? or will the expansion speed up? or will it slow down and eventually stop? The answers to these questions cannot be given reliably at present.
4.2. The past history of the Universe
However, as regards the past history of the Universe, cosmologists know a great deal. In the past, the universe was definitely smaller than it is today. A smaller universe means that it was hotter in the past than it is today. How hot was the cosmic microwave radiation in the past? A simple calculation allows cosmologists to answer this question with confidence. Let us step backward in time and look at the results.
The age of the Universe now, when the radiation has a temperature of a mere 3 degrees, is estimated to be in the range 10-20 billion years. (This age estimate is derived from four separate and independent methods, and so the evidence appears “irrefutable”.) When the Universe had an age of 1 billion years (i.e. when it was about one-tenth as old as it is today), the radiation had a temperature of about 15 degrees. At an age of 1 million years, the temperature was about 1500 K, hot enough to melt most solids and turn many materials into gas. When the Universe was 1000 years old, the temperature was about 150 thousand degrees, hot enough to make all materials gaseous and strip off electrons from many atoms. And back when the universe was only 1 day old, the temperature was a billion degrees, hot enough to disintegrate the nucleus of many atoms. In the first minute of the Universe’s existence, the temperature was above 100 billion degrees, so hot that matter was almost entirely destroyed.
The point of this calculation is to demonstrate that in the earliest stages of the Universe, everything was very hot. So hot, in fact, that the energy in radiation far exceeded the energy in matter.
4.3. The early Universe
The early Universe was a very different place from what we see around us today. Whereas the Universe we live in today is dominated by matter, the early Universe was completely dominated by radiation.
Because of this, when cosmologists are asked to describe what the Universe was like in its very earliest stages, they say (in essence): ``In the beginning, there was radiation".
This conclusion qualifies as ``irrefutable evidence" in Pope Leo's terminology. Following Pope Leo's teaching, therefore, we had better make sure that our scriptures are not in contradiction with this conclusion. Let us therefore look at how the writing of Moses overlaps with this topic.
5. Moses and the Big Bang
When Moses wrote about the creation of the Universe, he had this to say:
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth...God said
`LET THERE BE LIGHT', and there was light". (Genesis 1, 1-3)
At this point, we recall that “light" is one particular form of radiation. Specifically, light is the only form of radiation that an unaided human being can detect. If, therefore, it were possible for a human being to have been present at the creation, the only radiation that such a person could have detected would be light. Such a person would therefore transform the cosmologists' statement ("In the beginning there was radiation") into the more specifically human report: "In the beginning, there was light".
It is remarkable that, among the variety of creation stories that have emerged from cultures around the world, not a single creation story other than that of Moses begins with the creation of light (radiation).
With his report of light as the beginning of creation, Moses seems to have had access to information that modern cosmologists have known only since 1964. How did Moses know this bit of cosmology?
6. Moses and the late formation of the Sun
Moses writes that on the fourth day of creation:
``God said: `Let there be lights in the dome of the sky...' And so it happened. God made the two great lights...to shed light upon the earth." (Genesis 1, 14-19)
This passage from Genesis contains a description of the creation of the Sun (and Moon). We note that Moses places the event on the fourth day, whereas the command "Let there be light" occurred earlier, on the first day. In previous centuries, critics of the book of Genesis used to point to this as a serious inconsistency in scripture. How (they used to say) could there have been light on the first day (Gen. 1,3) if the Sun itself was not created until the fourth day (Gen. 1,19)? After all (they used to say), isn't the Sun the source of all light?
In view of what we now know from modern cosmology, we see that those critics (unwittingly) failed to distinguish between two very different sources of light. The "light" on the first day of creation was due to the creation of the Universe as a whole (the "Big Bang"). The light that comes from a star (such as the Sun) has a very different origin: it originates in thermonuclear reactions occurring deep inside the core of the star. Therefore, the light in the early Universe had nothing whatsoever to do with the light that is created by a star such as the Sun.
Moreover, as mentioned above, the age of the Universe is about 10-20 billion years. The best estimates of the age of the Sun are much less than this: according to modern theories of star formation and evolution, the Sun is only 4.5 billion years old. The Universe was already 5-15 billion years old before the Sun appeared on the scene. The modern theory of star formation indicates that the Sun emerged as a star quite late in history: about two-thirds of the Universe's history had already elapsed before the Sun ever began to shine.
Thus, when Moses writes that the light from the Sun started on day four, whereas the light from the Universe started on day one, there is no contradiction.
It seems that Moses had access to some reliable information about the timing of the formation of the Sun relative to the formation of the Universe. As in the case of cosmology, we are led to ask: how did Moses get this piece of modern astrophysical information?
7. The diet of early human beings
When Moses wrote about some of the earliest human beings, there were two separate occasions on which he included details about food. One of these occurs in Genesis Chapter 1, the other in Genesis Chapter 9. Both incidents involve instructions from God as to which kinds of food are to be eaten. There is a striking difference between the diets that God ordered on these two occasions.
In Chapter 1, God tells the first human beings (Adam and Eve) about what they are to eat:
God created man in His image: in the divine image He created him, male and female He created them. God blessed them saying: ...``Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food". And it was so. (Gen. 1, 27-30)
This passage shows that the earliest human beings were instructed to eat plants only.
Adam and Eve were herbivores.
In contrast, after the flood, when God comes to speak to Noah, the dietary instructions are very different.
God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them: ``Every moving thing that lives
shall be food for you: and as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything." (Gen. 9, 1-3)
Noah and his descendants were instructed by God to eat not only the green plants (as Adam and Eve had been allowed to do), but also animals. Noah is told that meat is now to be part of the human diet. Humans are no longer to be herbivores: they are now omnivores.
Now, paleo-anthropologists such as Richard Leakey and his family in East Africa have spent the last few decades painstakingly investigating the skeletal remains of our earliest ancestors. In the course of several decades of this research, it has emerged that there was indeed a change over time in the diet of the creatures that can be classified as hominids (i.e. the primates who walk upright). The work of the Leakey’s and others have shown that the skeletons of the earliest hominids (with ages estimated to be almost 2 million years) contain teeth that were useful mainly for eating plants. That is, these early hominids had strong flat-topped teeth (molars) that are essential for grinding tough seeds and the fibers of plants. Because of the teeth structure, it would have been very difficult for the earliest hominids to eat meat.
In contrast, the skeletons of later hominids (with ages estimated to be less than about one million years) contain teeth that were used to eat not only plants but also meat. These later hominid skeletons contain not only molars for grinding food, but also sharp-edged teeth (incisors, canines) that are essential for the task of tearing meat.
Moses apparently had access to reliable information about a basic alteration in the human diet over time. Although Moses may not have known it, he was in essence engaging in an aspect of the scientific method: he was making a prediction that was falsifiable. And when the world's leading paleo-anthropologists were finally able to test the prediction (in the late 20th century), the prediction held up.
8. The order of creation of living things
When Moses writes about the creation of living things, he follows a certain order. He writes that the first living things that God created were the plants. He writes that the animals were created later than the plants.
Moreover, when Moses writes about the creation of animals, he says that animal life began first in the ocean: fishes are the first animal named by Moses. Then he writes that birds were the next animals to be created after fish. Later there are the animals that live on land, mammals and insects. And last of all in the order of creation. Moses writes that man was created.
A remarkable aspect of Moses' ordering of the appearance of living things is that it parallels what is now known from the modern study of fossil records. The relative timings between species in the fossil record proceed from fish to birds to land animals
to man, just as Moses wrote.
Note that when we refer to the fossil record, we are using it only to make a statement about the relative ages of various fossils. It seems likely that fossils buried in older rocks are older than fossils buried in younger rocks. But this conclusion about relative ages is as far as the fossil record takes us; the fossil record does not prove that macroevolution has occurred.
In view of this, there is no need for us at the present time to attempt to build a bridge between the scriptures and Darwinian evolution: the latter does not yet meet the strict standard of "irrefutability" set by Pope Leo XIII. In fact, even from the point of view of the scientific method, Darwinian evolution does not qualify as a good theory: it has never made a single falsifiable prediction that has been subsequently tested in a meaningful way. The theory is based on the idea that a new species may arise from an older one: but no such speciation event has ever been observed.
It is safer to regard the fossil record simply as an indication of the order in which various living things were created. Accepting this, we are led to ask: how did Moses manage to come up with an order of creation of living things that agrees so well with what 19th and 20th century fossil studies have determined?
9. Water on Earth: a single ocean
Moses writes in Genesis about an incident involving the waters on the face of the earth. Then God said: ``Let the water under the sky be gathered into a single basin, so that the dry land may appear." And so it happened: the water under the sky was gathered into its basin and the dry land appeared. (Gen. 1, 9-10).
This passage indicates that at some point in the process of Earth formation, the waters on the surface of the Earth were gathered into a single ocean. With the water in a single ocean, this suggests that the dry land might also have been gathered at that time into a single continent.
9.1. A single continent on Earth?
The occurrence of a single continent is obviously completely inconsistent with what we see on the Earth's surface today: after all, the continents of Asia, America, Australia, and Antarctica are separated by thousands of miles from one another.
However, according to the theory of continental drift, the continents that are so familiar to us were not always in the positions they occupy today. The theory of continental drift started in the early 20th century with the recognition of similar patterns in the land-forms on either side of the Atlantic Ocean: it seems that they might fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. In 1963, the theory of continental drift was placed on a firm basis with the discovery of irrefutable evidence: the material on the sea-floor near the mid-Atlantic ridge is spreading away from the ridge at a rate of an inch or two per year.
Extrapolating back in time using these measured speeds, geophysicists have found that at one point in the past, all of the continental landmasses were actually in contact with one another, forming a single super-continent. One must go back into the past by several hundred million years to find this super-continent. Nevertheless, so confident are the geophysicists of this conclusion that they have even given a name to the super-continent: "Pangaea".
9.2. A super-continent on Mars?
It is not easy for us to accept the conclusion that all of the land that we see on the surface of the Earth was at one time located in a single continent. But evidence recently obtained from another planet suggests that this conclusion is not so ridiculous after all.
The evidence comes from Mars. Of course, the surface of Mars at present is very different from that of the Earth. For example, there are no bodies of liquid water visible on Mars at the present time, and so it is impossible to make the obvious distinction between continents and oceans that is so easy to make on Earth. The entire surface of Mars is "land" in the traditional sense. So how are we to determine where the "continents" are?
To answer this, we note that even if all the water in the oceans on Earth dried up, we would still be able to recognize the traditional continents. We would simply look at measurements of elevation: the continents would be the regions where the elevation (i.e. the distance from the center of the planet) exceeds a certain value.
Now, measurements of the elevation of the Martian surface have been made by a number of different spacecraft since the 1970's. Measurements of especially high precision have been made since the mid-1990's by the Mars Global Surveyor. These data show that there is a fundamental distinction between the northern and southern hemispheres on Mars: large-scale areas of elevated landforms on Mars are concentrated almost entirely in a single hemisphere (the southern). As a result, the southern hemisphere as a whole has a large radius than the northern hemisphere. The south pole of Mars is 6 kilometers (about 20,000 feet) farther from the center of Mars than the north pole.
If the correspondence between maximum elevation and continents can be applied to Mars, then the data indicate that the "continents" on Mars at the present time are grouped together into a single land-mass (super-continent). Mars today may have the topography that Earth possessed in the days of Pangaea.
It seems, therefore, that if Moses was indeed referring to a single continent on the Earth at an early stage of its history, this would not be inconsistent with modern geophysics.
10. Moses and the Theory of Relativity
In the year 1905, Albert Einstein burst on the world stage by publishing three papers dealing in significant ways with three separate areas of physics. One of the three papers bore the apparently innocuous title "On the electrodynamics of moving bodies". The title does not convey the widespread and enormous importance that the paper (which contains the famous formula E=mc squared) would eventually garner. So great was the attention that Einstein eventually gained for his work (especially for the electrodynamics" paper), that TIME magazine in 1999 would declare Einstein to be its "Man of the Century".
10.1. Special relativity
In the "electrodynamics" paper in 1905, Einstein developed what he called the "special theory of relativity". Using masterly insight and convincing logic, Einstein proved that we should not think of measurements in space and time as absolutes. Instead, when an "observer" measures some interval in space or in time, Einstein showed that the result of the measurement will be different depending on who is making the measurement.
For example, suppose a star brightens up in the sky at a certain time, and then another star brightens up at a later time. One observer might find that the time interval between the two brightenings is one day. A second observer, moving at a high speed relative to the first, might find that the time interval between the very same brightenings is only one hour. Which of them is right? Einstein showed the surprising result that both of them are right. There is nothing wrong with either clock. It is just that the properties of space and time are different for different observers. Each clock is behaving exactly as it should, keeping track of the passage of time as each observer experiences it. Einstein derived a precise formula that allows us to convert the time interval measured by one observer to the value measured by the other.
Einstein's work involved nothing short of a revolution in the way physicists think of space and time. His theory made certain specific predictions that can be tested: these predictions are easiest to test by measuring the properties of sub-atomic particles moving at high speeds. In the years that have elapsed since 1905, none of these predictions has proven to be false. According to the high standards demanded by Pope Leo, the evidence for the special theory of relativity is truly "irrefutable".
10.2. The "days" of creation
What does the theory of relativity have to do with Moses and the story of creation? The relevance appears when we note that Moses writes about a series of events that occurred in the course of what Moses calls the six "days" of creation. The point is the following: the term "day" represents a measurement of a certain interval of time: a certain observer made a measurement of the interval between two events, and came up with the answer "one day".
Now, according to Einstein, it is impossible to assign absolute significance to the measure of this (or any) interval of time. Only a relative significance can be assigned to the value of the time interval. If we, in our day and age, wish to interpret the measured time interval as our clocks would measure it, then we need to know two pieces of information. First, who was the original "observer"? And second, what is the formula for converting time intervals on that “observer’s” clock into the corresponding intervals that would be measured by our own clock?
10.3. The "observer" of creation
Although it seems trivial to say it, Moses was not present at creation. So even though he wrote about a time interval that he called "one day of creation", Einstein's work tells us that Moses' own interpretation of the term "one day" is irrelevant as far as Genesis is concerned.
Only God was present to "observe" the creation of the world. Therefore, Einstein tells us that if we want to translate the Genesis phrase "day of creation" into our own time, we need to ask the following specific question: what value does the time interval "day" have when God measures it? Or in other words, what does the term "day" mean to God?
Interestingly enough, God had the prescience to answer this question for us in two places in the Bible. First, in the Old Testament: ``A thousand years in [God's] sight are like yesterday, now that it is past, or like a watch in the night" (Ps 90, 4). Second, in the New Testament: ``This point must not be overlooked, dear friends: in the LORD's eyes, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day" (2 Pet 3, 8).
In order to appreciate the meaning of these two quotes, we note that the term "thousand" was the largest number for which the Jews of Biblical times had a name. Biblical Jews had no words for our large numbers such as million, billion, "gazillion" etc. Thus, when a Biblical Jew uses the expression "a thousand years", it is equivalent to a modern person using the expression "a gazillion years". In both cases, the expression is meant to convey the concept of an indefinitely long time interval.
Obviously, the common word "day" means something very different to God from what it means to us.
Now, astronomers can demonstrate (with evidence so diverse as to be rightfully called irrefutable) that the Universe and the Sun and Earth developed over time spans of billions of years according to our way of measuring time.
But thanks to the insights of Einstein, and thanks to the prescience of God, we now see that there is no contradiction with the "days of creation" as written by Moses. Those "days" that Moses was inspired to write about were measured by an "Observer" who has told us explicitly that for Him, the measurement of time intervals is very different from our experience.
11. Moses and science
We have seen that when Moses wrote the Book of Genesis, he included certain details about topics that overlap with results of 20th century scientific research. The fields where overlap occurs include cosmology, astrophysics, paleo-anthropology, the fossil record, geophysics, and relativity.
Many of the scientific results we have discussed in the preceding sections rest on evidence that seems to deserve the title "irrefutable". In view of that, Pope Leo XIII sets before us the task of ensuring that our understanding of scriptures does not contradict these overlapping scientific truths.
How are we to undertake this task that Pope Leo has set before us?
11.1. A minimalist approach
One possible approach is simply to say right up front that Moses's writings were never meant to be read as a science textbook: after all (we might say), Moses' primary concern was with salvation history, and therefore everything else (we might claim) is peripheral. From this point of view, it should not bother us one way or another whether or not Moses gave an accurate description of any particular scientific process.
Now it is true that the core messages of salvation history would not be harmed in any way if all of the overlapping references to science mentioned above were simply excised from Genesis.
Nevertheless, it remains a fact that Moses, under inspiration, did include in his
writing certain pieces of information that 20th century science has obtained information about. A minimalist approach leaves the nagging doubt that we might be engaging in over-simplification: maybe we have thrown out a baby with the bath-water. Could it be that there is some valuable information content in these references that Moses makes?
11.2. Another approach
A second possible approach to the task that has been set for us by Pope Leo XIII might be called the "Shroud of Turin approach". As is well known, the Shroud is a piece of cloth that has been revered for many centuries as a religious relic. With the unaided eye, it is hard to make out any distinct patterns in the stains that are on the fabric. But since the invention of photography, the ability to create a "negative" image has revealed hitherto unseen details in the image contained in the Shroud. Suddenly, with the application of photography, one can see in striking detail that the Shroud contained the image of someone who had been subjected to severe punishment.
Whatever one thinks of the Shroud as a religious article, the fact of the matter is that the scientific discovery of photography provided a new tool that helped in a material way to shed new light on an ancient artifact.
By analogy, some of the discoveries of 20th century science provide us with new tools to go back and look at Genesis from a fresh perspective. Let us use the theory of relativity to do just this.
11.3. Moses as the "observer"
In the spirit of relativity theory, where the core question in evaluating information is "Who is the observer?" we now come to the central question of this essay: what
happened to Moses when he was inspired by God to write the Book of Genesis?
To answer this question, we turn at first to the Church for guidance. The general experience of the authors of inspired scripture has been described by Pope Leo XIII in the encyclical that we have already quoted (Providentissimus Deus):
"...by supernatural power, God so moved and impelled [the authors] to write, He was so present to them, that the things which He ordered, and those only, they, first, rightly understood, then willed faithfully to write down, and finally expressed in apt words and with infallible truth" (para. 20).
This passage indicates that someone who is the author of one of the Books of Scripture has had an experience that the vast majority of human beings have simply never had. In the experience, God came close to the author and presented (somehow) to the author's mind what it was that God wanted the author to write about.
How would God do such a thing? God inspired Moses to write down what may be an answer to this. It can be found in the story of Balaam (Numbers, chap. 24, 1-4). This story deals with an incident that occurred during one of the many wars that the Israelites were fighting. The enemy king summoned the prophet Balaam to come to the battlefield and curse the Israelite army before battle. Balaam arrived to do as the king wanted, but things did not work out the way he expected. When Balaam looked out across the Israelites in their camp, and prepared to curse them, God intervened, and provided Balaam with an altogether singular experience:
``When Balaam raised his eyes and saw Israel encamped, tribe by tribe,
the spirit of God came upon him, and he gave voice to his oracle:
The utterance of Balaam, son of Beor,
the utterance of the man whose eye is true,
the utterance of one who HEARS WHAT GOD SAYS,
KNOWS WHAT THE MOST HIGH KNOWS,
SEES WHAT THE ALMIGHTY SEES,
enraptured, and with eyes unveiled."
In this experience, Balaam is allowed to "see what the Almighty sees", and to "know what the Most High knows". From such a perspective, the very idea of cursing God's chosen people is simply beyond Balaam’s power to perform. Instead, Balaam ends up blessing the Israelites, much to the chagrin of the enemy king who had hired him.
The scriptural account of Balaam sounds like a paraphrase of Pope Leo XIII’s definition of the process of inspiration. It provides some insight into what may have happened to Moses when he wrote the Book of Genesis.
11.4. What did Moses see?
What happened to Moses when God inspired him to write Genesis? The incident of Balaam suggests that God somehow presented to Moses' eyes an image of what had happened in the course of creation (“to see what the Almighty sees”). Moreover, God somehow presented to Moses' ears the sounds of words that Moses could understand (“to hear what God says”). And finally, Moses was allowed to "know what the Most High knows".
As a result of this experience, Moses was given unprecedented access to some detailed pieces of information about the material world, information that came directly from the maker of the world Himself.
What would Moses have seen when the image of creation was presented to him? Moses would have been presented with an image of the radiation-dominated Universe, but he would not have been able to "detect" the radio waves, the gamma-rays, or the X-rays or much of the other radiation. But there would have been one type of radiation that he would have "detected", namely, the only type of radiation that unaided humans can detect: light. Therefore, when Moses was shown an image of the beginning of the Universe, i.e. when he "saw what the Almighty saw", he would have written down only the part of it that he saw. That is, he would have written down that "In the beginning, there was light".
Following the experience of “seeing creation”, God may have presented to Moses a series of images of the Earth “as the Almighty saw it” in an early stage of continental drift. Then may have followed an image of the Earth containing plant life, then an image with animal life, and finally an image that included man, each one “as the Almighty saw it”.
12. Channels for discovering the truth
The channel that Moses used to obtain information about the world was Revelation. This is a distinct channel from that which is used in the scientific method.
Because of the fundamental distinctions between these channels, it is not surprising that different ``detectors" are involved in making these channels work. It is easy to describe what sort of detectors are necessary for the scientific method. For example, one uses an antenna for radio, a bolometer for infrared, a photo-detector for ultraviolet, and a crystal of germanium for gamma rays.
It is more difficult to say what sort of "detector" is necessary in order to operate the “Revelation channel”. Moses was apparently a detector, as were Isaias and the other prophets, as well as Saint Matthew and the other evangelists, and St Paul and the other epistle writers. It is not immediately obvious what the common denominator is among all these writers. But whatever it is, they were able to “detect signals in the revelation channel”.
12.1. AM and FM radio
I would like to suggest that that one may think of the two channels of science and revelation as analogous to AM and FM radio. The scientific method "listens" for signals coming in from the world on the equivalent of AM channels. Revelation "listens" for information coming in from the world on the equivalent of FM channels.
Now, as far as radio is concerned, there is often little overlap between the programming content on AM and FM channels on the radio. Because of the nature of the transmitted signals (with very different bandwidths), it is a fact of life that AM channels usually broadcast talk shows and sports events, whereas FM channels are better suited to broadcasting high-fidelity music. As a result, FM listeners are often "tuned" to a different sort of message from that which is heard by AM listeners. One does not say that one message is better than another: they are simply different.
However, from time to time the AM and FM stations do overlap in their content. Examples of this occur during news and weather broadcasts. If I hear on an FM station that there will be snow tomorrow, then I had better also hear a snow forecast on an AM station.
By analogy, the scientific method and revelation usually contain different "programming content" because of the intrinsic differences in the nature of the "transmissions". However, even if we do not know how the various detectors operate, we can state an important conclusion based on the weather forecast analogy: there can be no contradictions IF truth has truly been "detected" by both channels.
According to this analogy, someone who says: “I believe only what I learn from the scientific method” is like a person who says: “I only believe what I hear on AM radio. I don’t trust what they say on FM radio”.
12.2. The Nobel laureate and the Bible
As an example of the lack of contradiction, we may refer to an interview that Arno Penzias gave in 1978, the year that he (along with Robert Wilson) won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the cosmic microwave background. In the interview, Penzias was asked the question that we mentioned at the beginning of this essay: Do you find it difficult to be a scientist and a believer at the same time? Penzias answered No: nothing he had discovered in his scientific work (he said) ever contradicted what he had learned in Torah (the 5 books of Moses) or in the Psalms.
13. The inerrancy of Scripture
Fifty years after Pope Leo XIII issued the first encyclical on Biblical studies, Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical entitled Divino Afflante Spiritu dealing with the same topic. In paragraph 37 of this encyclical, Pope Pius wrote the following remarkable words::
“As the substantial Word of God became like man in everything except sin,
so the words of God, expressed in human language, are like human expression in every respect except error".
This teaching of Pope Pius was re-iterated by Pope John Paul II in 1993. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Providentissimus Deus, the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith (headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) issued a document entitled "Biblical Interpretation in the Church". Pope John Paul wrote a lengthy introduction to this document. And in the course of that Introduction, Pope John Paul quoted verbatim the above Passage from paragraph 37 of Divino Afflante Spiritu.
The imagery in the above quote (which Pope Pius ascribes to St John Chrysostom) is striking: just as Jesus was sinless, so the words inspired by God in scripture are inerrant.
Conversely, if I decide to believe that the words of the scripture are in error (even if only in a few locations), then I implicitly impugn the sinlessness of Jesus.
13.1 The Bible and science
This teaching of Pope Pius XII and of Pope John Paul II has important implications when it comes to the process of bridge-building between science and faith. It is readily admissible that the Bible was not written as a science textbook. In fact, Pope Leo explicitly wrote that the authors of the scriptural books ``dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time".
Nevertheless, we have seen that there are occasions in the Bible where
the “revelation channel" contains information about the material world which overlaps with information from the ``scientific channel". Some of the latter rests on what appears to deserve the title of ``irrefutable evidence". Since the word of the LORD is inerrant, we must conclude that if the Bible happens to refer to an irrefutable property of the material world, that reference must be truthful.
If this were not the case, i.e. if (mirabile dictu) the scriptures could be in error when they happened to discuss certain topics (e.g., scientific truth), then we could not honestly say “This is the word of the LORD."
13.2 The signature of the author?
The scientific insights that occur from time to time in Moses' writing remind me of an artist's signature, inserted unobtrusively somewhere in a painting. Such a signature is not an essential part of the "big picture". But it is a way for the viewers to determine who was responsible for the work of art.
Now, the Bible was written primarily to provide information of a spiritual nature. Our access to the fullness of the means of salvation would not be affected at all if not a single scientific reference had ever been included in the Bible. Nevertheless, in the process of inspiration, presumably by God's design, some such references were included among the words of scripture.
There they sit, staring at us across space and time, and raising a possibility that at first sight seems downright fantastic: Moses somehow knew certain information about the world that science has discovered only in the 20th century.
What are we to make of this? How did Moses know so much when he sat down to write words to describe the material world? The following conclusion seems almost unavoidable: Moses must have been supplied with pieces of information by Someone who had access to a great variety of truths about the material world.
When the Irish poet Joseph Plunkett thought about how God could be discovered in the world of nature, he wrote "I see His blood upon the rose". Paraphrasing this, I (who am also Irish, but no poet) might say: "I see His signature in the truths about the material world that appear in the words He inspired".
From this perspective, I find renewed meaning in some words that Pope Leo XIII used in the encyclical I cited at the very beginning. The Pope wrote: "the Canonical Scriptures...are...a Letter, written by our heavenly Father, and transmitted by the sacred writers to the human race in its pilgrimage so far from its heavenly country" (Providentissimus Deus, para. 1).
The scientific knowledge that is in scripture represents to me a sort of
signature that God has embedded in the text of His Letter to me while I am far from home. To be sure, the signature is unobtrusive. But so is Guido Reni’s signature in the painting I admire so much. God signs His work quietly, and people are free to go right past without taking any notice if they so desire. However, once in a while, some people find their attention attracted, and they notice God's quiet hand at work. After that, life is never quite the same again. For such people, there is a whole new meaning to the familiar phrase: “This is the word of the LORD”.
To which the only appropriate response is: Thanks be to God.