Followers of the Bible were centuries ahead of science and philosophy, using the methodology put forth in the Scriptures to underpin what became known as the scientific way of thinking.
The great 20th century philosopher, Karl Popper, in his book The Logic Of Scientific Discovery, summarized the boundary of true science this way.
"In so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable; and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality."
Logicians tell us that if something cannot be falsified, it cannot be proven or accepted as scientific. Having something always turn out "true" won't quite work. For example, take the statement "bigfoot is real but we can never capture one because they can become invisible whenever they want to". A proponent of this statement may say it passes the test for being logical and rational because it always proves to be true. If they are really out there and we never caught one, it must be true they can become invisible when they want to. But for this to be a truly logical scientific statement, it must be something that we could falsify, such as "mammals can live without oxygen" or "gravity is stronger on the moon than on earth".
Whether you are a student of science, history, philosophy or western civilization, you know that Popper was simply providing a succinct summary. The seminal work of using the falsification principle in describing and discovering logical, scientific information did not begin with him. Most think back to the work of Francis Bacon as the defining catalyst of this foundation of modern rational, scientific thought.
Many believe it is not an overstatement to suggest that the entire modern world of science and technology has been built off of the Scientific Method, proposed by Francis Bacon in the late 16th century. According to the iterative process with which he is credited, hypotheses are tested with experiments which are designed in such a way as to allow the conjectures to be falsified.
People often point out that Bacon was a deeply religious Christian and serious student of the Bible. In fact, he wrote that his logical process for discovering truth as a "most faithful handmaid" to religion. But this is usually only mentioned as a way to show that science and (Bible-based) religion are not at odds with one another (which they are not but more on that in a bit).
What so many people unfortunately don't remember today is that, before Popper or Bacon, the Bible had taught us about the use of the falsification principle. It began, initially on the most important subject within which we need to discern truth from error, with God's words to Moses about religion. After using Moses as a prophet to relay to the Hebrew people various moral instructions (such as the 10 Commandments) and after having him tell the people a greater prophet was yet to come (a reference to Jesus), God told Moses He knew people would always question how they would be able to discern whether a self-proclaimed prophet's religious message was from God or not. In providing His solution to address this issue, God taught mankind for the first time in human history to use the falsification principle for sifting truth and building knowledge.
"And if you say in your heart, 'How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?'—when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him." -Deuteronomy 18: 21 – 22) [ESV]
Eight centuries or so after Moses (but more than five centuries before Christ), God delivered the same message through the prophet Ezekiel, warning against the false prophets who were making predictions in God's name that did not come true.
In analyzing the requisite conditions set forth in the Bible, we can say that a text cannot claim to be a religious writing if it does not contain explanations of how things work and/or predictions about future events. And even if it claims to be a religious work of divine inspiration, we are only to hold to it as valid if the explanations and predictions contained therein pass the falsification test. Over time, false religions have fallen one by one as their "god of the gap" explanations for the natural world or their predictions about future events fail the test. As detailed in my book Clear Vision: How The Bible Teaches Us To View The World, in the end, the only religious work left which hasn't been falsified is the complete Bible of the Old and New Testaments.
God helps us to understand why the words captured for us in the Bible by His prophets always pass the falsification test He designed.
"Declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.'" - Isaiah 46: 10 [ESV]
In the New Testament, Jesus expands on the falsification principle, warning us to be wary of those whose results, whose "fruits", were inconsistent with their teachings or proclamations.
"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles." - Matthew 7: 15 – 16 [ESV]
Jesus not only repeated our need to make use of the falsification principle but He expanded it beyond just prophets (or spokespeople) who claim to speak for God. After stating in the previous verses in Matthew chapter 7 that the path to destruction is wide, Jesus warns us against all representatives who make false claims, all whose predictions or explanations fail the falsification test. Based on what else we know about the teachings of the Bible and the teachings of Jesus specifically, why did He repeat and expand this old set of biblical instructions?
Plainly speaking, He knew that Humans have a tendency to decide what we want to be true and then ignore evidence to the contrary (what Preachers, Economists and Psychiatrists call Confirmation Bias). Jesus knew all too well that almost all of us at some point would run the risk of falling prey to a smooth-talking, con-artist who was saying just what we wanted to hear. Of course, this would not be a threat in just religious circles but in political, philosophical, economic and many other arenas as well. The book of Proverbs in the Old Testament had warned about such traps in various ways well before Jesus' time. Thus, He instructed us to always be rational people, to always use the falsification principle instead of running on hope, intuition or emotion.
Going back to Francis Bacon, we can see that he was well aware that the Bible taught (warned about) this intrinsic human fault. He wrote things such as "Let every student of nature take this as his rule, that whatever the mind seizes upon with particular satisfaction be held in suspicion" and "The general root of superstition is men observe when things hit, and not when they miss, and commit to memory the one and pass over the other". Of course, modern researchers also agree with this premise. The renown Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes in his book The Righteous Mind "the first principle of moral psychology is intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second".
In his writings, Bacon also mentioned that the he believed the structured process he was developing for accumulating knowledge by testing and potentially falsifying hypotheses would help repair the dominion mandate given to man in the first book of the Bible. As Bacon understood, even a cursory reading of the Bible plainly details why Bible-based religion and science are not at odds with each other. Within the first few chapters of the first book, Genesis, God told man twice that the world He had created would work in a consistent, mechanistic manner. God also told man that we were to subdue the earth and have dominion over it.
The only way to subdue the earth is to gain an understanding of how nature works (and we should be able to do that if it works in the consistent manner God promised). Using modern terms, humans were/are to document the consistent workings of nature through scientific discoveries and then leverage the resulting technological innovations to have dominion over God's creation. The Bible not only provided us the instructions on the use and expansion of the falsification principle but, in the most literal sense, the Bible gave birth to science.
God said nature works consistently now go figure it out. Bacon asked the question "how do I figure out how it works"? And the process he hit on was an extension of the Bible's falsification methodology.
The Bible provided a way for its hearers and readers to verify it. Once verified, we are to take our main understanding of the nature of God and the nature of man from it (the foundation of a biblical worldview). Of course, certain moral guidelines are explicitly put down for us in the Bible and those are to be taken as an immutable line between absolute right and wrong. But there is an almost unending number of questions to be asked and knowledge to be gained which is not to be found directly in the pages of God's word. In attempting to accumulate knowledge of this type, Christians ultimately hit on the idea of refining the falsification principle which we had taken from the pages of the Bible to begin with.
Without question, Christians were the first logical, rational people to think scientifically, first filtering the most important decision of all – whether there is a God speaking to us and how – through the lens of the falsification principle and ultimately discovering and subduing the world through that same principle and process.
Dr. Daniell is the author of the recently released book Clear Vision: How The Bible Teaches Us To View The World. He is the Sr. Minister at a church outside of Atlanta, Georgia and the President and CEO of an analytical consulting company. This essay is adapted from his book.