The Need For A Firm Footing

Just over a week ago, a young man and woman were climbing up South Boulder Peak located near my home in Colorado. They ended up stranded on the summit when a thunderstorm blew onto the scene. As the couple tried to descend, they found the rocks to be slippery causing the young woman to fall and injure herself. When the young man tried to come to her aid, he also slipped on the rocks and fell 30 feet, sustaining a head injury. A search-and-rescue team was able to get them off the mountain, but sadly, the young man later died at the hospital from his injuries.

Hiking up mountains is a very common past time in this part of the country, and for good reason – the views are spectacular and well worth the effort. It is also common to find hikers who do not take all the necessary precautions to avoid the inherent dangers in this activity. Stories like the one above are reported with some regularity. I don’t share all this to condemn or mock these hikers – as a fellow hiker, I have done my fair share of stupid and lived to tell about it. Rather, I see a parallel with this and how we approach our understanding of the universe.

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders [sic] of Giants

One of the greatest minds in the history of science was Sir Isaac Newton. He described the laws of motion, thermodynamics, gravity; he did groundbreaking work in optics and light; he invented calculus. The amount of scientific progress stemming from Newton’s work are incalculable. He understood to some degree the significance of his own work, and yet also understood that his progress was owed in part to those who preceded him. Newton has made famous the quote, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders [sic] of Giants”[1] Who Newton referred to here is anybody’s best guess, but such revolutionary figures such as Galileo, Kepler and Copernicus come to mind.

Astronomers Monument at Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, CA (L to R: Kepler, Galileo, Copernicus)

These scientists were equally aware of their connection to previous developments in the history of science. The strides against Aristotelian astronomy made by Galileo and Kepler were grounded in the work of Copernicus. Copernicus, while often attributed for proposing the heliocentric model of the solar system, did not take credit for that innovation. Rather, in his famous work On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, he traced his inspiration back to the writings of the ancient philosophers such as Nicetus and Aristarchus.

This notion of standing on the shoulders of giants is akin to the hiker standing on a peak. It affords a vantage point to see new things, but there is more required for greater discovery than just prior knowledge and insight. As in hiking, there is a risk of falling and failing if one’s footing on the high place is not firm.

There are certain foundations upon which the scientific endeavor has relied in order to make its advances: that we live in a mind-independent world; that the world is both orderly and predictable; that our universe is both knowable and intelligible in regards to things which are both seen and unseen. These are ideas we in western civilization seem to take for granted, but they are truths which are not held by all people – now or throughout history.

If what I think and observe come as a result of random mutations and chemical interactions, then there is no good reason to presume they are very reliable.

The justification for these underlying ideas has become untethered as more and more people (scientists in particular) have gravitated toward a materialistic world view (i.e. nothing exists but matter, and all things came about by chance through natural laws with no purpose or intent). If what we observe is nothing more than a subjective perspective of the world, then the work of previous scientists is not reliable. If the universe can only be explained by the cause and effect relationships we observe today (i.e. natural laws), there is no certainty that these laws will be in place tomorrow. If what I think and observe come as a result of random mutations and chemical interactions, then there is no good reason to presume they are very reliable.

Darwin understood the precarious nature of grounding scientific understanding in materialism. “With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”[2] As Ken Sample puts it, the reason for Darwin’s apprehension of his own theory is “it fails to provide a viable pathway to ensure that humans develop reliable, true beliefs about reality; and the deliverances of science depend upon humans having trustworthy and accurate beliefs about the natural world.”[3]

Scientists from about the 11th century on were able to move forward with confidence because these foundational ideas mentioned above were grounded, in theistic beliefs. We were made as a part of a greater creation, so there are objects which are mind-independent with which we can know and interact. An unchanging, dependable God was the agent who established natural laws, so we can expect order and predictability in the universe. We were made in the image of a rational God, so we can expect to have some level of rational understanding of the universe. These are the conditions which allow us to have a firm footing when we “stand on the shoulders of giants.”


[1] Maria Popova has written an interesting blog about the history behind this famous quote at: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/02/16/newton-standing-on-the-shoulders-of-giants/

[2] Charles Darwin to W. Graham, July 3, 1881, in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin (1897; repr., Boston: Elibron, 2005), 1:285.

[3] Ken Samples elaborates on this further at: https://reasons.org/explore/blogs/reflections/read/reflections/2013/02/12/darwin’s-doubt

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