Standing on the shoulders of giants

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Isaac Newton certainly did see further than other people of his time.

When the entire scientific world was trying to understand the nature of light — was it a particle or a wave? — Isaac was playing in his bedroom with some prisms and mirrors, and came up with an answer that put much of the debate to rest. His science-shattering “Corpuscular Theory of Light” is hailed today as a monument in scientific achievement.

One reason that the rest of the scientific world hadn’t been successful till then was that they didn’t have powerful enough mathematics for the challenge.  Isaac recognized that limitation, and simply invented an entirely new class of mathematics — calculus — which has since turbocharged many other fields of science.

Coming up with two major scientific breakthroughs is hard work: one day, while taking a break in his backyard, leaning against a tree while looking at shapes formed in the clouds in the sky, Isaac noticed an apple drop from a tree.  That got him thinking, and he quickly scribbled out a whole new theory, complete with mathematical equations and diagrams, to describe forces of attraction between two chunks of matter — the Theory of Gravity — which later helped us put men on the moon (sorry ladies, your time will come).

Three permanent contributions to human history that will be forever remembered.  And he was only in his twenties when he made them!

But when attention was drawn to him and his astounding achievements, he deflected the praise with his “…standing on the shoulders of giants…” comment, another way of saying, “I couldn’t have done it without the help of Bob, and Nathan, and …”  He recognized that he was taking ideas from many others before him and, from the new perspective they gave him, looking just a little bit further than they did.  Even in using this metaphor he was borrowing from the words of another luminary, Bernard of Chartres, a philosopher who used it centuries before him.

I thought that image — of someone standing on the shoulders of a giant — was a perfect metaphor for the subject of my second book, which focuses on human evolution and the evolution of religion/theology.

What is evolution, but the building up of newer, better ideas on top of previously great ideas.  I blogged before about the ability of an organism to see, which you must admit is a fantastically advantageous thing to be able to do: how that occurred through a slow accumulation of changes to proteins.  Changes to one protein which caused it to rearrange its shape when it absorbed a photon of light (Isaac, take a bow), and changes to other proteins which caused them to fire off an electrical signal when their shape was rearranged: vision!  Albeit in black and white.  But through yet another small change in that protein, it became possible to see in two colors.  And then another change gave us three colors.  As I noted in that blog, some women can see in four colors! Small changes building on accumulations of previous ones to give color vision.

The same process can explain (in part) many other ever increasingly more complicated biochemistry … and cells … and organisms … and hominids.

Sometimes progress involves letting go of old ideas when newer and better ones come along.  Another previous blog looked at how goosebumps, and being able to wiggle ones ears, and nerves that trace very bizarre paths in our bodies, and genetic coding to produce a tail or egg proteins, make no sense to us anymore today, but made perfect sense to ancestors long ago who needed those to survive.

So one way to see the world around us is as a slow accumulation of great ideas (genes and proteins), and the occasional setting aside of old outdated ones.  Which brings me to the title of book #2: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants.

As humans spread across the earth, we carried with us a sense of something bigger out there, and tried to understand it (again, a subject of a previous blog).  Across all of human history, all corners of the globe, and every slice of the demographic pie, we have tried to understand the “Great Being,” and have developed all kinds of religions and theologies, often borrowing ideas from other groups and developing them further in our own unique journey.  As we sat around the communal fires and listened to our elders, we shared ideas and added our own insights.  So our understandings of the Great Being began to change shape, and develop shades of grey, and colors, and take on lives of their own, developing into ever increasingly complex forms that we call religions and theologies.

One of those campfires was started by Abram and Sarai, when they left Mesopotamia and its many Babylonian gods and stories, and began a journey to Canaan … and to monotheism.  Their descendants continued to build on those ideas, adding more and more insights: the unique perspectives of JHWH had by people like Moses, David, Isaiah, and many others.

Once again, though, as was the case with biological evolution, sometimes progress involves letting go of old ideas.  Jesus gave us a whole new perspective on those ancient Jewish teachings: “You have heard it said … but now I say …”  The Apostle Paul, who was thoroughly trained in the ways and thinking of Judaism, looked across that Jewish tradition from his new perspective and developed a new framework around the “first Adam” and “the last Adam.”  Augustine scaled Paul’s shoulders and took that theology further yet with his teaching of Original Sin (which isn’t in the Bible) which he said we all inherited from father Adam following the Fall in the Garden of Eden (Judaism understands this event and the concept of sin completely differently).

But today, we see much further than Paul and Augustine: we have since learned that there never was a “first Adam.”  They built up an entire theology on a metaphor.  And metaphors have a tendency of breaking when you stretch them too far, as you try to use them to cover more and more of reality.  If we want to find truth, then it seems to be time to re-think some of that theology because it’s clearly bumping up against cold hard fact.

That’s the main focus of book #2: how do we adjust Christian theology in light of the new—and absolutely compelling—evidence of the evolution of humans, and of human religions?

Doing so doesn’t mean we have to erase God from the picture.  None of what I wrote above necessarily excludes his involvement.  Many people believe that he intervened from time to time, stepping into human history in various ways to nudge us along toward a greater understanding of him.  If one can accept that he prodded religious evolution through these little nudges, one can also say he gently prodded biological evolution.  It isn’t absolutely necessary that evolution be random and unguided.  Humans have been guiding evolution for millennia by selecting out certain strains of plants or desirable breeds of animals: adding our fingerprints to “natural” selection.  More recently, we’ve begun to introduce new mutations into those plants and animals: those genetically-modified organisms that are now appearing on our supermarket shelves.  Life will look quite different a million years from now because of human intervention in the two processes of mutation and selection: why can’t one accept that the same kind of nudging could have been occurring at the hand of God?

Only an inflexible desire to believe … note that word: believe … that there is no God.

Even if one chooses to ignore the evidence that hominids and religions have been evolving, it’s still important to understand it.  Otherwise, one loses the ability to relate to the next generation as they go to high school and other campuses of higher learning: they will take Biology 101, and will encounter new theologies and world views.  They will take their place in a society that assumes an acceptance of Evolution Theory.  And unless we inform ourselves, we won’t be available to give them any advice or guidance as we hand off the torch to them. They will see the previous generations as being just as out-of-touch as the Flat Earthers and those who once believed in the Dome/Firmament that covered the Earth like a great upside-down bowl.  Statistics show clearly how they’re responding to the new perspectives which science—the search for truth—has given us.

It’s a bold claim to make: “we can see further than Paul.”  But do we have reason to make such a claim?  It’s time to climb on the shoulders of the giants that went before us and expand our horizons.

Tell me what you think. Does this threaten your faith? Or does it help you hold onto faith in the face of science? Do we need to put the words of the Bible ahead of the findings of science? Can we call into question the teachings of inspired writers from two millennia ago, even giants like Paul?

The ball’s in your court …


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4 thoughts on “Standing on the shoulders of giants

  1. Doesn’t threaten my faith at all! Questions are not necessarily signs of doubt, they can just as readily be signs of faith seeking deeper understanding. If Jesus can ask his Father such a radical question as “Why have you abandoned me?”, then surely we are allowed to ask questions too. If our kids don’t ask questions, then we would be very worried about their intellectual and emotional development. Likewise for faith. Luke, these are important questions you are asking.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is one of the most refreshing things I’ve heard recently: “If we want to find truth, then it seems to be time to re-think some of that theology because it’s clearly bumping up against cold hard fact.”

    Thanks Luke, keep doing what you’re doing. GB

    On Fri, Jun 24, 2016 at 7:14 AM, Reaching into Platos Cave wrote:

    > lukejjanssen posted: ““If I have seen further, it is by standing on the > shoulders of giants.” Isaac Newton certainly did see further than other > people of his time. When the entire scientific world was trying to > understand the nature of light — was it a particle or a wave? — ” >


  3. Luke,

    I’ve been thinking about the implications of what mankind has learned, especially in the area of electronics, since the days of Michael Faraday. Our entire world of computation is built upon knowledge of electricity, electrical charges, binary numbers, material science (silicon microchip), static charge, etc, etc. My brother Gerry has a career built upon understanding and applying electrical principles and theories. Right now they are testing solar powered boats and pressing into new areas of testing and discovery. They are expanding the practical knowledge in solar boat technology. It’s what all good engineers do.

    How these seemingly random, happenstance discoveries have come to be absolutely foundational to our present survival is scandalous! Standing on the shoulders of giants means it’s a damn long way to fall, and I didn’t choose to stand way up there, yet here I am? Isaac Newton just draws a few conclusions and makes some astute observations, and describes some interesting correlations, and now here we are a couple of centuries later. Have we painted ourselves into a corner?

    It’s hard to imagine what people did when they couldn’t make a phone call, and when they formed their opinions and beliefs based upon an extremely limited amount of actual knowledge, when there was no electricity or instantaneous way to transmit information or store it, or compute with it. Yet now we have computational power to break open the genetic codes that define who we are. We have bio technology waiting in the wings to create whatever genetic solution or biological solution we want. Yet, it is still all standing on the shoulders of electronics. At the same time we sense our great knowledge and power, we have to reckon our great weakness and vulnerability. We have truly painted ourselves into a corner.

    It must be glaringly obvious to any thoughtful person that our current technological world and our way of life is built upon hundreds of technological foundations. We have now come to depend upon all of the technologies we have invented!

    If our power grid disappears, mankind dissolves culturally and we return to barbarianism (food shortages, bankruptcy, no money, and so on). Communication and communal knowledge ie. culture, is now dependent upon electricity.

    With such an “evolutionary” gain comes a huge vulnerability.

    Is this what “god” was thinking as he (supposedly) influenced our genetic development?

    Does he want us to come crashing down once more upon ourselves, like in the story of The Great Flood?

    Of course he doesn’t want that. But it’s what will happen. God just can’t get this human thing to work. It’s a pretty big dilemma. Sounds like a damn waste of time.

    On the other hand…

    Maybe all of our wonderful intellectual powers and genetic advances are… just… poof!! Of no meaning. Just purely beautiful, like a flower. Enjoy the flower’s beauty, because it’s amazing.

    Does the flower spend all day worrying about why it is blooming? No. What makes us any different, even as thinking beings?

    Work hard and make something great happen in the world. Why? Because you can.

    Would it be okay if you didn’t want to do that? If you just wanted to be lazy and suck up oxygen and eat food?

    Maybe it would be okay too. After all, when you’re laid down in the ground, it all gets recycled just like the flower. Nothing is wasted. “Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

    I really don’t know what way of thinking is better.

    Do you?


    PS. The real issue seems to be about the idea of judgement, and whether or not we are moral beings while we live on earth.

    On Fri, Jun 24, 2016 at 7:14 AM, Reaching into Platos Cave wrote:

    > lukejjanssen posted: ““If I have seen further, it is by standing on the > shoulders of giants.” Isaac Newton certainly did see further than other > people of his time. When the entire scientific world was trying to > understand the nature of light — was it a particle or a wave? — ” >


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