Does God Make Scientific Errors?

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In this week’s philosophy post we’ll be moving on from the Medieval period to look at the beginnings of modern science and the life and work of Nicolaus Copernicus. I will offer a snapshot of this scientific thinker whose work would challenge the very role of the Church, and the Bible, in society.

Who Was He?

Copernicus lived between 1473-1543 AD, and was born to a Polish father and a German mother. His father was a merchant who dealt in copper, and his mother was the daughter of a wealthy city counsellor. The surname ‘Copernicus’ is derived from a village named Koperniki in Poland (to where his father’s family history has been traced) although Nicolaus used different titles and surnames throughout his life.

In 1491 Copernicus enrolled into the University of Kraków in the Polish capital, and began to study within the astronomical-mathematical school there, which ignited the interest in astronomy that would subsequently be the focus of much of his life’s work. Key philosophers who Copernicus studied during his time at university include the famous Greek master Aristotle and the Muslim polymath Averroes.

What’s the Big Idea?

Up until the time of Copernicus, astronomers had embraced what is known as the Ptolemaic system, that harks back to 2nd century Alexandria. The system held that the earth was the centre of the universe, and that the planets and stars circulated around it. This would be the prominent idea in astronomy until the 16th century.

Copernicus studied observations that indicated that the sun, rather than the earth, is at the centre of our solar system. This caused a great deal of unrest within the Catholic Church, as theologians had always found biblical support for the ‘geocentric’ model of the universe. Well known Christian scholars, including Martin Luther and John Calvin, vehemently opposed the ‘heliocentric’ model, with reference to Scripture. For instance, in Psalm 93 the psalmist addresses God, saying “Thou hast fixed the earth immovable and firm”.

My Reflections

The scientific breakthrough Copernicus made is of tremendous philosophical importance, so much so that it really makes us think about who we are and our place in the grand scheme of things. The Bible suggests that human beings have a very special, and central, place in existence, as we are made in the imago dei; the image of God. But if we are not at the centre of the universe, this special place may be seen in a different light.

Being convinced, as I am, that God exists, it would be appropriate to question why God would place in a sacred text words that seem to contradict scientific observation and understanding. For me, it would be absurd to think that an omniscient God would have made a mistake in this respect. The solution to this predicament, in my understanding, is that the progress of science, and the evolution of knowledge and wisdom, are all a part of God’s long-term plan for creation.

I don’t believe, as many religious people do, that God is distinct from creation and that we are free creatures. My perspective is that God is in control of all things, and is unfolding a plan for all of creation, and that there is a role within that unfolding for diverse religious perspectives and also for science. Of course, this means that I would have to disagree with many fundamental teachings of, for instance, Christianity and Islam, with their exclusive truth claims and insistence on free will. But I am happy to do that, as the impartial pursuit of Truth is my guiding principle.

While the Copernican revolution in astronomy posed a significant threat to the power and influence of the Catholic Church, it certainly doesn’t pose any threat to the existence of God, which I believe is still the most realistic and rational explanation for the unfolding of creation, including the patterns we observe in our solar system.


My Friday Philosophy series aims to provide a weekly snapshot of a key thinker from the history of philosophy. Next week, we’ll continue our look at modern science with some reflections on the life and work of Sir Isaac Newton. If you would like to follow the series, please consider subscribing to this blog. Thank you for reading!

15 comments

  1. Awesome post. I really liked this one. I love that science and God go hand-in-hand though so many people out there think they are exclusive of one another. (Which doesn’t even make logical sense, does it??) I am fascinated how God reveals Himself in all aspects of science and nature.

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    1. Really glad to hear from you and that you enjoyed the post, Tara! There’s something wonderful about the idea that God has a plan for all aspects of creation, and all people, and not just some. I believe that’s the truth (controversial as it is), and yes, like you say, it is logical 🙂

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  2. Great post and interesting history you bring up. On theologians like Luther and Calvin disagreeing with Copernicus, I believe the science was disagreeing with their understanding of Scripture rather than Scripture itself. It’s sort of like the “young Earth” vs. “old earth” debate. We since understand there need be no real conflict.

    There’s a lot of popular atheist myths written about Copernicus, a devout Catholic himself, and the church (like he delayed publication until on his deathbed out of fear of the church, which is not true). The fact is, the Ptolemaic model had been questioned for over a century by his time. And the Catholic Church did not get around to condemning his heliocentric cosmology until the Inquisition’s injunction against Galileo in 1616 (over 100 years later). And what’s interesting there, the Inquisition came to this conclusion because the majority of scientists in Europe at the time disagreed with it, not because he was a threat to the church. It wasn’t until Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” (1687) that the consensus of scientists came around to his theory. So much for the myth of science vs. religion. 🙂

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    1. Hi Mel, thank your for your insights and the historical context you provided, very interesting! I was thinking about covering Galileo next week, but thought I would go straight to Newton, as if I spend too long on scientists it kind of feels like I’m moving away from Philosophy. But perhaps I should cover Galileo next week, so the historical progression is more coherent. I’ll give it some thought!

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      1. Sounds good. What’s ironic about the popular accusations against the church with Galileo was that he was more of a threat to the science of the time than to the church.

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  3. As always, appreciate the lesson, Steven. I hear and largely concur with you. Raised in the Roman Catholic Church I am often amused (and not surprised) to learn how often their teachings are found to be both threatened and disproved. Perhaps, someday, they (the church) will learn to be less rigid.

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    1. Hi Eric! That’s fascinating that you were raised in the Roman Catholic Church. I’m intrigued to know what led you from that background to your current beliefs. Is that something you wrote about in your book, or is there an article you can point me to?

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      1. Would love to elaborate, Steven but I’m scrambling to catch a flight and won’t be back home until 01 Dec. However, the short answer is I left the church some time ago, due measurably to its hypocrisy. Will endeavor to elaborate when I’ve returned (nominal cell reception where I am going). Be well!

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  4. An excellent analysis! However, please allow me to nitpick one point: “why God would place in a sacred text words that seem to contradict scientific observation and understanding.”

    Observation and understanding are different things. The Ptolemaic and Copernican models could both explain the astronomical observations of the time, and both could predict astronomical phenomena. However, the Copernican model was simpler, more aesthetically pleasing (it had perfectly circular orbits around the sun instead of the Ptolemaic model’s epicycle-punctuated orbits around the earth), and it made calculations simpler. Hence, the Copernican *understanding* of the solar system made observations easier to handle. Pragmatically, the Copernican model is superior; but logically, the choice between the two models is arbitrary. Hence, IMHO, the Bible does not err, at least on that issue.

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    1. Hello there! Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

      I think you are implying that scientific observation is something objective, which (if I wanted to nitpick!) I would probably dispute. Observations require a subject in order to understand them, and are therefore necessarily subjective.

      In any case, the philosophical point I was trying to make in the post is that God is in control of all the thoughts, words, and actions, of the people He creates (and of course their different perspectives). It’s all part of what I call God’s Grand Game.

      As you’re new to my blog, you may not be aware of the broader philosophical perspective from which I make these statements, but you’re welcome to take a look around, should you have the time and interest.

      Thanks again, and feel free to comment in the future, I like your style! 🙂

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  5. It amazes me how the more we learn about the universe through scientific discovery, the more awesome and wonderful God’s creation appears to be. I don’t believe we will ever learn everything, however, and there will always be aspects that will remain a mystery to us, thank goodness. I think that God has the creation and growth of the universe well in hand and I also believe that he allows us to play a part.

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