After the Eclipse: Science, Philosophy, Confusion, and Christ

The first person to predict a solar eclipse was the philosopher Thales in 585 B.C. I wonder if he knew not to look at directly at the sun back then. Christian pastor and author R.C. Sproul says that this was the day science was born.

To predict the eclipse, Thales simply studied natural phenomena. He didn’t need a religious system. It wasn’t a product of divine revelation. He didn’t rely upon the superstitious speculation of his day that attributed a divine conspiracy to every flash of lightening and roll of thunder.

But does this solve anything? Does better understanding the natural world really make earth a better place to live? Of course it does. I’m writing this from a computer that runs on electricity and is currently online via the wifi hot spot on my iPhone while connected to something called “The Internet,” apparently created by a former U.S. vice president.

Perhaps a better question is, “Can science answer all our questions?” The answer to that is surely no. What Thales really wanted was to understand, as Sproul points out, the unity from the diversity. For that Thales deployed philosophy. How is it that this world is as it is, what is really real, and so on. In short, Thales wanted to understand ultimate reality.

Thales concluded that the great unifying principle of the world was water. After all, most of the earth that is visible to us is made up of water. We are mostly water ourselves. And because of the tides, water offered an explanation for the source of motion. To tie it all together, since water can take the form of a solid, a liquid, or a gas, it made it the front runner candidate for the key to understanding how we live and move and have our being.

The only problem is that the water hypothesis is wrong. But you take a smart guy, give him some measure of scientific success and bada bing, bada boom: his ultimate theory of water seems plausible. That’s not too different from our day. Say someone observes minor variations within a species, we’re ready to crown them king for the day and accept their grand theories too.

It’s only a small step from a scientific observation to a full fledged theory of the world. Caution is in order. As John Lennox points out, not every statement from a scientist is a statement of science. There is always a philosophical commitment to the way the world is, the way the world works, what’s really real, lingering at the bottom of every claim.

It was into this philosophical and scientific and skeptical culture that Paul preached his famous sermon in Athens (Acts 17). Paul demonstrated the power of the gospel to answer our biggest questions. More than that, Paul shows how the gospel alone can satisfy and save our souls.

It is in him, in Jesus, that we live and move and have our being. And God raised him from the dead, Paul said, to give evidence to all men that he will one day judge the world. The good news, God is not far from us, the apostle reasoned.

God has placed us wherever we are so that we might seek him. Long after the hype of the solar eclipse is over, after the boundaries of science are demonstrably and repeatedly manifest, after the hope of philosophy to solve all our riddles is long abandoned, there is still a search for meaning that can only be found in the Creator. Seek the Son while he may be found.