Only a half-century ago , a Christian speaker, mistrustful of men of science told them: ‘Stop finally, and do not dig to hell.’ Today gentlemen, reassured about the steadfastness of our unshakeable faith, we say, dig, dig again; the further down you go, the closer you come to the great mystery of the impotence of man and truth of religion. So dig, always dig: and when science has stuck it’s final hammer blow on the bosom of the earth, you will be able to ignite a burst of light, read furthermore the mind of God, and contemplate the imprint of His hand.
– Louis Rendu, French Roman Catholic Bishop of Annecy and Scientist (1789-1859)
Science and theology can sometimes be seen to contradict each other. How was the Earth created? How old is the Earth? How and when was man created? Can science answer these questions? Can the Bible answer these questions? These are all issues we have been discussing in 10th grade Biology class recently. When it comes to questions such as these, questions that can cause division and even at times, an examination of one’s faith, it is important to also ask: are the answers to these questions truth or are they facts? The difference between truth and fact is one of the first lessons our high school freshmen are introduced to in their Introductory Physics class. The difference may seem trivial at first thought, but upon further delving into the definitions of the two terms, we will see that a deeper understanding of the distinguishing characteristics of truth and facts is important to us as Christians when studying science.
Let’s start with the idea of truth. The author of our Introductory Physics textbook, John D. Mays, defines truth as “the way things really are.” How do we know the way things really are? There are two main ways in which we can know. The first is by direct experience: it is true for me to say, “I have two arms” or “crows can fly.” If you have seen me, you can agree it is true I have two arms (Let’s not get too philosophical here. It’s possible that tomorrow I may lose an arm and then this will no longer be the truth. However, for now, as I write this, I am typing with two arms). I think everyone would also agree it is true that crows can fly. You have seen it for yourself. These things are evident when you observe them. The second way we can know truth is from God. Truth from God comes from the Bible, through the Holy Spirit, and through His works of nature. It is true to say, “God created the world.” We know this from reading Genesis 1. The most important distinguishing characteristic of truth is that it is unchanging.
Facts, on the other hand, are correct as far as we know, yet can change as new information is discovered. Scientific facts are generated by the process of using observation, experimentation, and logical reasoning. This process is called science. The purpose of science is to develop theories, models that help to explain the phenomena of the natural world. Scientific theories are backed by facts and although facts (and theories) can change, it is important to note scientific facts and theories are not just hunches or guesses, they are backed by evidence and data. Current scientific evidence suggests that the Earth is 4.54 billion years old. This is not a truth statement; it is a scientific fact. It is possible that it is the truth, but only God truly knows this.
So, if science is not truth, what is it and why do we study it? Science is the process we use to discover how the world works. It is generated from facts. Facts are generated through data, experiments, and observation. Through this process, we have eradicated certain diseases with the use of vaccines, we can kill bacteria with antibiotics, and we can communicate with people who are thousands of miles away by pressing a single button on our phones. These are all good things and were discovered through man’s quest to answer how. God, however, answers the why. Why was the world created? Why was man created? Science can create facts to answer the how to these questions, and at the same time generate ways to help the world and its inhabitants, but in the end, it is the why that really matters.