It was interesting to read a pamphlet, included in the Gladstone unbound volumes, by the eminent mathematician and physicist, George Stokes, titled On the bearing of the study of Natural Science and the contemplation of the discoveries to which that study leads on our religious ideas.
Stokes was eager to show his readers that scientific discoveries change but they don’t undermine religious belief. He believed that gaining knowledge of the laws of natural science helps people to appreciate religion and deepen their faith. He gives several examples to support this.
He starts by asking his readers to imagine an undiscovered island in the Pacific Ocean. He calls the island Irene. The Irenians are intelligent and deeply religious, but because they are cut off from the rest of the world, they don’t understand natural science. They valued the sense of sight and believed it was a special gift from the Creator.
Eventually, the island was discovered by the captain of a ship with a team of scientists on board. They got along well with the islanders and the scientists taught the Irenians much about physics. They taught them about optics, the existence of rays and the laws of reflection and refraction, also the formation of images by a telescope. After dissecting an eye, they showed that it acted just like an optical instrument in forming external objects on the retina. The Irenians had accepted the sense of sight as a direct gift from the Creator, but now they realised that their eyes acted like any other lifeless matter. They were forced to accept that so much they saw around them just obeyed the laws of nature.
After the scientists had left, the islanders started to form a more moderate opinion of what they had learned. Human reasoning had taught them that images had formed in the retina like those in optical instruments. But how were its parts so well adapted to fulfil this? They had become impressed with the evidence of design. There must have been a designer. They had learned to think of God in a different way. God accomplished his design by working with natural laws rather than against them.
Stokes then compares the state of the islanders with the state of his readers when new scientific discoveries are made. He implores his readers to keep a balanced mind between scientific evidence and religious ideas. This is good advice for us today.
Stokes discusses other scientific theories such as the conservation of energy and the theory of evolution to support his belief that a Creator lies behind the natural order of the world. The fact that one of the most renowned scientists of the nineteenth century saw fit to address this topic emphasises its importance to his readers then. It remains of much interest to us today (see the second item in the Bibliography).
Stokes, G.G. (1879) On the bearings of the Study of Natural Science and of the contemplation of the discoveries to which that study leads, on our religious ideas. London: E. Stanford.
Davies, Noel and Jones, T. Hefin (2017) Cristnogaeth a Gwyddoniaeth. Cardiff: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru.
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