I argued in Genesis and Genes that many people make a crucial mistake when they confuse Nature with Science:
It happens because many people confuse science with nature. Judaism cannot countenance a contradiction between God and nature. God created the universe and its laws. We don’t think that God is schizophrenic, so there cannot be inconsistencies between Him and His creation. The proposition that there is a contradiction between the Torah and nature would invite the suggestion of multiple deities. But nature is not the same as science. Nature is God’s creation, with its laws and processes. Science is the attempt by human beings to understand these laws and processes. Being a human endeavour, it is not infallible. There is no reason why there should not be contradictions between Torah and science, just like we can expect there to be contradictions between Torah and any other human endeavour.
Insisting, as a matter of principle, that there cannot be contradictions between Judaism and science can have insalubrious consequences. As I wrote in my last post (Concordism and String Theory):
If you handcuff the Torah to some contemporary theory in physics, what will happen if that theory sinks? Retro-prophecy begets quickie emunah – flimsy and fragile. If the science fails – and science is a human endeavour with prominent historical failures – the Torah falls too.
I have now come across a fascinating statement in this context. It appears in a biography of the 19th century physicist James Clerk Maxwell, one of the greatest scientists of all time. His biographer relates that “He summarised [his approach] many years later when replying to an invitation to join the Victoria Institute, an eminent organisation specifically set up to establish common ground between Christianity and science. Over the years he had turned them down several times, but they were so keen to have him in their number that in 1875 the President and Council sent him a special request to join.” In declining the request, I believe that Maxwell, who was a pious Christian, was making the same point that I am making:
“I think that the results which each man arrives at in his attempts to harmonise his science with his Christianity ought not to be regarded as having any significance except to the man himself, and to him only for a time… For it is in the nature of science, especially those branches of science which are spreading into unknown regions, to be continually changing.” The Man who Changed Everything – The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, Basil Mahon, Wiley, 2004, page 37.
“For it is in the nature of science… to be continually changing.” What Maxwell realised is that science is not reliable when it addresses the most profound questions. As I explained at length in Genesis and Genes, science is not a monolith, all of whose results carry the same credibility. Science is strong – though never infallible – in elucidating phenomena which are repeatable, observable and limited. Its credibility rapidly diminishes when it confronts phenomena which stray beyond those parameters. So much so that Maxwell felt that because it is “continually changing”, it would be folly to commit to a particular viewpoint in science – say, when it discusses the origin of life or the age of the universe or whether Adam and Eve could have been real people – and try to pigeonhole his religion into that viewpoint.
I argued in Genesis and Genes that one cannot formulate Torah positions in response to the latest consensus position in science:
When Torah sources clearly and consistently describe a position about the physical universe, then that is the Torah position, whether one finds it conveniently modern or not.
If Maxwell were Jewish, I think he would concur.