Nitzan Hamburg

Science and Mythology: Bridging the Gap

As a secular Jew, I hold the Tanakh dear to my heart, not as a historical or scientific book, but as a significant part of Israeli-Jewish mythology. Exploring its contents is a captivating endeavor, as it offers insights into the ancient worldview of my ancestors.

Unlike many atheists, I do not harbor anger or contempt towards the biblical writers’ misconceptions; quite the contrary. Had I lived in their time, my own perceptions might have been similar or even more limited. In an era devoid of modern technologies and observational tools, understanding the true nature of natural phenomena was a challenging task. Limited by their senses, the biblical writers had to rely on their subjective observations, making it highly probable for them to have misunderstood those phenomena.

Consequently, there is a stark contrast between the biblical depiction of reality and the scientific consensus of today. According to the Torah, the world was created approximately 5,783 years ago, and it describes the sky as touching the sea: “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters.” This implies a flat Earth model. Moreover, etymologically, the sun is described as “rising” in the east and “sinking” into the sea. The firmament mentioned in the Torah is housing the stars and celestial lights. Additionally, the creation story outlines the formation of humans from the earth soil on the sixth day.

In ancient times, the biblical writer would witness a radiant light preceding the rising sun, without comprehending that this light emanated from the same sun, but served “to govern the day” (Genesis 1). Similarly, the moon, reflecting sunlight in the darkness, is mentioned in the Torah as “ruling the night,” despite the fact that it doesn’t emit light on its own and is sometimes visible during the day. This could potentially explain the recurring phrase “between the evenings” found in the Tanakh, which might refer to the period between the first evening (the sunset) and the second evening (the fading of light).

In biblical terms, “sky” encompasses everything one sees when looking upwards. However, the term “sky” in the Tanakh is not synonymous with the modern understanding of Earth’s atmosphere. Instead, it includes birds, clouds, the sun, the moon, and other stars. Therefore, when the biblical God creates “sky,” it refers to the visual expanse observed by a subject’s eye and not a distinct physical realm.

Nowadays, advanced technologies like telescopes and the confirmation of the Copernican theory, along with human lunar exploration, have dispelled doubts. The geocentric model, prevalent in certain societies for thousands of years, has been replaced by the heliocentric model, revealing that the Earth is merely a spherical planet revolving around the sun.

Furthermore, scientific theories such as the Big Bang and evolution challenge the foundational beliefs of the biblical creation story. It is essential to recognize that scientific theories, although not definitively proven, are formulated based on observations, measurements, and evidence. They often require a paradigm shift in understanding that goes against prevailing intuitions.

It is no secret that we all exhibit varying degrees of conservatism. Accepting facts that challenge widely held perceptions can be difficult. However, throughout history, individuals of exceptional virtue have emerged to challenge the status quo. Albert Einstein, for instance, faced significant skepticism and criticism from his peers when he introduced the special theory of relativity. Yet, he ultimately proved to be on the right side of history.

Other pioneering researchers, like Ignaz Semmelweis, who advocated for handwashing to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, or Alfred Wegener, who proposed the theory of continental drift, were initially met with skepticism and rejection. However, they were ultimately proven correct. Similarly, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren’s assertion that Helicobacter pylori infection is the primary cause of stomach ulcers was initially met with resistance.

Anyway, attempts by creationist believers to challenge theories such as the Big Bang and evolution often appear misguided. On one hand, they defend their truth, while on the other hand, they conveniently utilize scientific advancements and technologies based on scientific findings.

For instance, satellites rely on orbital mechanics to maintain their positions in space. Satellite applications are crucial for navigation systems (e.g., GPS), weather forecasting, and communication. It is somewhat contradictory and even hypocritical that religious individuals who perceive the Earth as flat or the center of the universe still benefit from these technological advancements.

Humanity’s dependence on oil reserves for various purposes can be characterized in a similar manner. Oil is a byproduct of ancient marine organisms like algae and plankton. The presence of biological markers in oil serves as significant evidence supporting this claim. Radiometric dating techniques consistently estimate the age of oil deposits to be millions of years old, contradicting the notion that they are merely a few thousand years old.

It is crucial to understand that scientific theories, although distinct from scientific laws that describe fundamental relationships between observed phenomena, are built upon empirical evidence. They offer explanations of how and why certain phenomena occur, thereby expanding our understanding of the world.

Scientific theories offer explanations that go beyond our immediate intuitions and require a willingness to challenge prevailing notions. Additionally, science does not claim infallibility but aims to explain reality. We must also recognize that knowledge and facts have a certain “half-life”. As Samuel Arbesman, mathematician and author of “The Half-Life of Facts” (2012), highlights, facts constantly evolve in the modern world. In fact, “Any hypothesis that cannot be disproved is not a scientific hypothesis,” as philosopher Karl Popper famously stated.

In this complex interplay between science and mythology, it is important to embrace the dynamic nature of knowledge. Through this harmonious integration, we navigate the ever-changing landscape of our world, enriched by the wonders of scientific inquiry and the richness of human mythology.

About the Author
Nitzan Hamburg is a writer, Hebrew lover and medical student.
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