Science and the Popular Stories

After writing about the limitations of modern science and giving a fuller view of human knowing through the distinction between understanding, knowledge, belief, opinion, and suspicion or conjecture, I wrote last week about how the scientific developments of the past century tend to favor more the opinion of ‘intelligent design’ than that of atheistic belief. Nevertheless, atheistic belief retains a strong hold on the popular imagination of science.

Key to this underlying atheistic belief is not the facts, but the philosophical interpretation – or bad philosophical interpretation. The philosophical interpretations are communicated to the popular imagination by way of ‘stories’. So it might be good to consider the relation between different kinds of stories and the truth and facts.

You see there are fact-based stories that are true and there are fact-based stories that are false. There are also stories that are true, even though they are not factual. There are also stories that are neither factual nor true.

Consider stories that might be told about George Washington.

A story that tells us that George Washington was a land surveyor and slave owner, and nothing more, would be factual, but false. It gives us a picture of George Washington that is not true to the real historical person.

A story that tells of George Washington, the father of our country, leader of the Continental Army during the War of Independence and the 1st President of the United States, while omitting the fact that he owned slaves, would be true, but not complete.

Then there is the story about George Washington, chopping down the cherry tree and confessing the deed to his father, saying, “I cannot tell a lie.” The story is not factual, but tells either the truth about the character of George Washington, or what Americans have wanted to believe about his character. In the latter case it reveals a truth about American values and ideals.

Then there is the children’s story, “George Washington Rabbit”, which, apart from the name, has nothing whatsoever to do with George Washington.

There can also be stories that are mixtures of fact and fiction. For example, an historical novel about the life of George Washington might contain many facts about George Washington, mixed in with material that is made up for the sake of the story. The truth of the story would not be judged so much on the proportion of fact and fiction, but on whether or not it was true to George Washington’s character and historical importance.

There is yet another type of historical novel, that uses history (say the American revolution and Founding period) as a backdrop for the fictional story with its fictional characters. Such a story may or may not contain a true meaning and it may or may not be true to the history that serves as a backdrop for the action.

So how does the “scientific story” fit in here?

Roughly the popular story runs like this: In the beginning there was a big explosion of light and energy; from there the universe went expanding and cooling; as parts of the universe cooled, gaseous matter came together and stars were formed and from the stars planets came forth; some planets had the right conditions for water to form and from water life came; this happened on planet earth; after life came from the water it gradually evolved over time; from plant life, animal life developed, and from animal life came the conscious intelligent life of human beings. The End.

This is the story that is told in our schools and presented simply as “the scientific truth” and explanation for everything.

Nevertheless, factual as the story may be, it actually explains nothing. All it does is give us a sequence of events. The addition of physical laws would provide some connection between the events. Still, there is no explanation for why these laws and not others, no explanation for why anything exists at all, and no meaning and purpose to the things that do exist and the sequence of events. Most of all, it gives the illusion of explaining the universe without God, but fails to do so precisely because of what is taken for granted and left unexplained.

In the end, this popular scientific account is rather like the George Washington, land surveyor and slave owner story; it is factual, but leaves out what is most important about the universe.

And what about the 1st chapter of Genesis? What kind of story does it tell?

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.