Science, faith, & history

This topic should be quite straightforward, but for some reason it is not. Can we agree that we inhabit a universe of space-time, atoms, energy, and now the mysterious dark matter? For thousands of years people have studied this universe by observation, and such observations have been interpreted by techniques which include mathematics and logic. It is perfectly apparent that despite the enormous progress in technology and physical science there remain vast areas of ignorance still to be explored. Some areas of scientific knowledge which are firmly based in experiment can also be counter intuitive; after all doesn’t the sun rise and set? Naturally, in view of my previous life, I include modern medicine in this discussion as an applied science. More controversially perhaps I shall also consider history since it adopts quasi-scientific procedures such as the comparison of sources and the assessment of their internal consistency. The fundamental property of all scientific proposals is not that they are ever true beyond any doubt but that they are both predictive and open to falsification by new data.

I would define faith as a firm belief for which no evidence, in a scientific sense, exists or can exist. Examples of common faiths are belief in progress, God, or the ultimate goodness of mankind. For centuries searchers for religious enlightenment have had, or consider that they have had, mystical experiences which they have interpreted as contact with a creative intelligence quite outside the everyday world. Whether we accept this interpretation as correct or not it is surely remarkable how similar these reported experiences are, whatever the religious tradition of the person involved. Evidently the precise location of this creative power has been heavily influenced by humankind’s expanding knowledge of the world. The tops of mountains were sufficient for the classical Greeks and medieval Christians assumed the sky was involved. Today this power would have to be placed outside our three spatial dimension universe, or multiple alternate universes, or whatever the current theory of everything encompasses. Matters of faith cannot really be tested by prediction and certainly cannot be falsified since there is no question of physical evidence. This does not mean of course that under certain circumstances people may not ‘lose their faith’. I have absolutely no difficulty with those who have science based views nor those who believe as a matter of faith, even if they espouse convictions that I cannot share. A difficulty arises if there is no agreement as to the class where a particular belief best fits.

It is perfectly understandable that many people are curious about the age of the earth; is the determination of this question a matter of science or faith? You will not be surprised if I say that I take it to be purely a matter of science. The addition together of the life spans of biblical figures to give a date of creation some 6,000 years in the past was cogently criticised even in the nineteenth century. Geologists first appreciated that the enormous thickness of sedimentary rocks, like chalk and limestone, must have required untold ages for their accumulation. They could not conceivably have been deposited by ‘Noah’s flood’. Today igneous rocks are generally dated by radio-isotopic methods. There is a well-founded belief that radioactive elements decay at a fixed rate which is universally constant and entirely uninfluenced by chemical processes. Even allowing for the inevitable experimental errors these techniques give an age of the earth of around 4.5 billion years. I have met myself a physicist who, for religious reasons, believed in the recent creation of the world. She was compelled as a result to believe that radioactive decay had proceeded at a much faster rate in the past but I know of no experimental evidence to support this concept. Without going into details the fact that 100,000 year old fossils of our own genus contain virtually no carbon 14, whereas as 10,000 year old bones from our own species do, would seem alone to dismiss the possibility of a recently created earth. To make matters worse my reading of the New Testament suggests that its author or authors concerned themselves about the manner in which human beings should live their lives, not how long they had been doing it.

In the UK & USA belief in a ‘young’ earth and creationism, rather than biological evolution, as the origin of species is associated with evangelical Christianity, but other religious faiths also share this point of view. But convictions which seem totally at variance with accepted science need not necessarily have a religious basis. I am just old enough to remember meeting ‘flat-earthers’ although I rather imagine that the society of which they were members was a casualty of artificial earth satellites and the space-shuttle missions. Plenty of strange beliefs remain for there are those who feel we are at risk of abduction by aliens, being ruled by humanoid lizards, falling into a hollow earth, or at risk from unknown anthropoid apes lurking in US forests and dinosaur-like creatures in Scottish lakes. Fortunately any harm done to us as a result can be adjusted by manipulation of our energy meridians or by homeopathy. We cannot attribute any of these minority views to formal religious belief.

Some of these believers may have a financial commitment in their views but others are honestly motivated, highly intelligent, and can very ably defend their position. They seem to be what the late Patrick Moore once tolerantly described as ‘independent thinkers’. An element of conspiracy may enter here since many independent thinkers consider that the authorities know ‘the truth’ but that the public are kept in ignorance for political reasons. From an opposite perspective some of us who oppose these independent thoughts are restrained in our hostility by the thought that some of the true believers are emotionally or psychologically ill. In my former life I met several people who had what were, from my perspective, delusional views about their health which virtually amounted to a psychosis. As far as I can judge the other parts of their world picture were conventionally normal.

What has this all to do with history? There are a very vocal group devoted to the memory of King Richard III and who are determined to rehabilitate his reputation from the damage inflicted by Shakespeare’s play.  I am fairly neutral in this issue since archaeology does not normally involve itself in identifying single historical figures. Even the extraordinary recent discoveries by the University of Leicester are scientific since they could be falsified by, for example, a hypothetical new dating method. My personal feeling is that being a successful medieval monarch was not achieved by charm but would involve many acts which were, by the standards of our age, brutal and vindictive. Henry IV had his predecessor killed and Henry V executed non-combatant prisoners. You certainly did not rebel against Henry VIII, or even disagree publicly with his views, if you knew what was good for you. If your religious beliefs were heterodox you probably weren’t safe from violence at any time between the reign of William the Conqueror until the Glorious Revolution. What is it about Richard III that inspires such devotion? Why will his modern supporters hear no evil spoken about him whatsoever? My own personal favourite monarchs are Alfred and the first Elizabeth but I appreciate that both had significant faults. But in the eyes of Ricardians the one-time Duke of Gloucester is without spot or stain. Is this history, or science, or yet another independent thought?

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