Sci-fi and the Bible

Posted in character of God, creation, science on June 3rd, 2010 by yf

Before time began there was no before: language cannot encompass that first beginning. It is beyond human conception. The awkward opening of Genesis – as we have seen – points to the difficulty of beginning at the very beginning. Elohim becomes knowable only through His action in time to create the universe. The word order of Genesis 1:1 shows this.

The description of creation in that first verse, separates time – the “In the beginning” – from the physical creation of the heavens and the earth. Time is not just another dimension, it provides the grounds for creation.

time and spaceSurprisingly, for those who regard Genesis as necessarily unscientific, this approach is in advance of 20th C scientific thinking. Science in the 21st C is only now arriving at the understanding of the beginning that is set out for the simplest peasant in the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1.

Even the most sophisticated 20thC approaches to cosmology have usually worked on the basis of what is called Euclidean space. In Euclidean space, time is one of a number of dimensions. There are so many physical dimensions (whether 3 or 4 or 10 or n) plus one further dimension, which is time. The underlying assumption here is that fundamentally all the dimensions can be modeled together; theoretically one can move about in the time dimension as in the other dimensions. This is the idea of space-time and of lots of science-fiction

The hidden consequence is that causality – that a causes b and so forth – is lost as a fundamental precondition of the universe. Time’s arrow is lost. As scientists construct their models of the universe, they can reintroduce causality. But it is not part of the warp and whoof, the foundations, of the universe. Time’s arrow is fired late, so to speak. If time is another dimension of space-time, then causality is no longer fundamental, but a secondary phenomenon. If so, what causes it? Stephen Hawking’s famous Brief History of Time is, in part, a struggle with that conundrum.

Recently,* there has been a move away from thinking in terms of Euclidean space to what is called Lorentzian space. Here time is distinguished from the other dimensions of space-time. In Lorentzian space, time cannot be moved about within, in the same way as the other dimensions. It is fundamentally different. Time’s arrow is restored and causality is an initial condition of the universe. This approach seems to be yielding more elegant formulae and solutions than hitherto achieved in tackling the big issues of cosmology.

But, once time is distinguished from space and time’s arrow is restored, one arrives inevitably back at the question of who fired that arrow; what is the first cause or prime mover? This is exactly the discussion that Genesis 1:1 provides.

* See, notably, various articles by J. Ambjørn, J. Jurkiewicz and R. Loll in Physics Review, Nuclear Physics etc.

Can God measure?

Posted in science, specific Hebrew words on April 27th, 2010 by yf

God measures pi perhaps Atheists claim that a figure in the Bible shows the Bible to be inaccurate. Closer examination of the Hebrew shows the text to be extraordinarily accurate.

The ‘sea of metal’ to be placed in Solomon’s temple is described in 1 Kings 7:23. Its diameter is given as 10 cubits and it is stated to be 30 cubits in terms of a line around it: a ratio of 3 to 1 between the circumference (the line around) and the diameter. However, the ratio between the two is always given mathematically by the constant pi which is 3.1415926535897…… (its sequence of numbers is never ending).

So, if the diameter of the metal sea was 10 cubits, the figure of 30 cubits for its circumference is very approximate only. Maybe there is nothing wrong with that, but critics argue that the Bible normally gives quite detailed figures. In this case, they say, the Bible implies that pi is 3, rather than 3.14159…. and this is wrong

However, the Hebrew text yields a remarkably exact figure for the period it was written.

Hebrew uses the letters of the alphabet as its numbers, so aleph is 1, beth is 2 and so on. It follows that every word has a numerical value given by its letters. This has led to some fascination with numbers in Scripture. Whatever the merits and problems with that, in the case of the measurement of Solomon’s metal sea, it is reasonable to look to the numerical value of letters to discover if they can help.

In Hebrew, the word used for the line around the metal sea which gives its circumference is qav made up of the letters kof-vav. In 1 Kings the word is spelled with an extra letter: kof-vav-hey. Such variances in spelling are not unusual in Biblical Hebrew, and the rabbis maintain that each one give us a hint to look deeper.

The numerical value of kof-vav is 106 and that of kof-vav-hey is 111. Following the hint to go deeper, if we adjust the stated circumference of 30 cubits by 111 / 106 we arrive at the figure 31.415094336962 cubits.* This is very close to the figure given by applying pi to the diameter of 10 cubits: 31.415926535897……

In fact this Bible figure is much closer to the true value of pi than the calculations used by the ancient Bablyonians or Egyptians or Aristotle. Only the Greek Ptolemy (2nd C CE) got closer in the ancient world.

OK – but couldn’t God have got it even closer? No, not by using a two letter Hebrew word with an added letter. The fraction 111 / 106 is the closest to pi possible by this approach.

This result shows that we do well to question what Scripture seems to say, but if we do, then we must be prepared to do our homework. As we test Scripture, it tests us.

*The Vilna Gaon (18thC) may have been the first to have applied this approach.

The pope and the telescope

Posted in creation, science on March 12th, 2010 by yf

The pope refusing to look though Galileo’s telescope at the moons of Jupiter is an icon of humanism: science v religion (or ‘blind’ faith). The pope declined to view evidence that not everything in the universe revolves around the earth. Yet, from a Biblically based Hebraic perspective the moral of the story is turned upside down or, rather, put right-side up.

Why wouldn’t the pope look? Galileo developed the ideas of Copernicus about the solar system, with the cautious backing of cardinal Barberini. But, Galileo fell foul of Vatican politics and lost Barberini as an ally after he became pope Urban VIII. This is the pope who declined to look through the telescope and forced Galileo to recant his claims.

There is a deeper story here than the workings of a papal court. Greek philosophy dominated Western thought and rationalism. Aristotle’s idea of the sun, moon and stars fixed on crystal spheres revolving around the earth was generally accepted. The irrelevance or subordinate nature of the merely material world compared to higher thought comes from Plato and Aristotle. By the 17thC, it was embedded in Western thought – and to some extent in Jewish and Islamic thinking too. So why look through a contraption like a telescope to test an idea? Greek philosophy leaves only a subordinate role for empiricism.

Unlike the Greek philosophers, the Bible gives great weight to the material world as created by God and as humanity’s sphere of action. Viewing the material world as both to be engaged with by us and as where God reveals Himself is part of the Hebraic mind-set. Galileo’s development of the scientific method stands on this foundation.

The word ‘science’ originates from the Latin meaning ‘knowledge’. The Hebrew term for knowledge – yada – and related words are used in the Bible for practical knowledge (including the sexual act), for the ability to discriminate morally and for Divine knowledge (by man of God and by God of man). These are all part of a continuum of knowledge experienced and worked out in creation, without the hierarchy imposed by the Greek philosophers.

Copernicus, Galileo and other astronomers saw no contradiction between their theories and the Bible (Interpretation of the relevant Bible passages is for discussion another day.)

Zechariah 9:13 says “I will stir up your sons O Zion against your sons O Greece.” In these terms, the confrontation between Galileo and pope Urban was not between science and religion but between the sons of Zion and of Greece.