Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth: Modelling in Science and Scripture

Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth: Modelling in Science and Scripture
Presented by Michael Smith at the ISCAST Vic Intensive 2010


Michael Smith was born in 1978 in a little corner of Africa which has long since been washed away by the ravages of political and economic turmoil. Michael studied electro-mechanical engineering at the University of Cape Town. After graduating in 2000, he spent the next 7 years in Asia, the USA and South Africa, teaching and working in software development. In 2008 he started a Masters in Applied Marine Science at UCT. Upon completion in 2009 he moved to Melbourne to undertake a PhD in marine ecosystem modelling at the University of Melbourne. 


Through the lens of systems modelling, I explore the problem of inherited assumptions in scientific and theological frameworks. I start from the background of scientific modelling as a tool for understanding the natural world, and then extend that philosophical framework to a practical hermeneutic for Scripture.

In science, we believe that there is an underlying truth that is the natural order, and we build and test models (including theories) to try and understand that natural order better. Our models are not the fullness of nature, but they represent (sometimes well, sometimes poorly) certain aspects of nature.

Similarly, we believe that the Bible contains God’s truth, and remains relevant to all of us at all times. But to understand a given passage, we must first understand the context and literary style of the writing, and then interpret the text within that framework. 

In the same way that we cannot take a scientific theory which describes the interaction of sub-atomic particles at a quantum scale and apply it to larger scales, we cannot take a hermeneutic which is appropriate for one book and apply it to the whole Bible. Our hermeneutic for a particular passage incorporates assumptions that are specific to that book, and we risk inheriting inappropriate assumptions in using the same hermeneutic for another passage. It is inappropriate to use a theory from the field of genetics and apply it to psychology, but it is equally inappropriate to use a literal historical hermeneutic from (for instance) 1 Samuel and apply it to the Psalms.

We must also recognise that our interpretation of the scripture remains a representation of the Truth, rather than being the fullness of the Truth. Again, we may draw a comparison to science:

Science operates within an abstraction. The realm of science is limited by its methodological assumptions, such as philosophical naturalism and the regularity of nature. These assumptions are useful in that they allow us to limit the potential interactions that we investigate to those which are amenable to the tools of science, and provide a framework within which we can understand and analyse data. But in making these assumptions, we have created an abstraction of the real world, and it is this abstraction that we investigate rather than the real world itself. Conclusions drawn from investigations in this abstraction may or may not be readily suited to projection back into our understanding of the real world.

When we first read a Biblical passage, it may be opaque or it may have immediately obvious meaning. Either way, further study of the surrounding text and the context in which the passage was written will bring greater depth to our interpretation of the passage. But our interpretation remains an abstraction – a model – and it is this model that we try to understand. If our exegesis has been good, our model may resemble the underlying Truth very closely. If our exegesis is poor, we risk making inferences from our model that do not reflect the underlying Biblical truth.

In science, study in a particular field advances and builds on previous understanding. The underlying principles and workings of the universe do not (as far as we know) change, but our understanding of them grows with further study. The Biblical text does not change, but our understanding of it does. Modelling provides us with a vocabulary and a philosophical framework through which to reconcile the changing interpretations and theories with the immutability of the underlying Truth.



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