This month’s great scientist is a character from ancient history, predating even the Greeks by a long shot. Yet in many ways, he exceeded them all. He was a veritable philosopher-king, a many-talented individual with a reputation that is legendary to this day. He was a mineralogist, taxonomist, botanist, zoologist, ornithologist, ichthyologist, and entomologist. His writings even convey an understanding of thermodynamics and the hydrologic cycle – principles that are not always intuitively obvious – long before they were rediscovered in the 19th century. And though a religious man (at times), he was one of the earliest practitioners of what is known today as methodological naturalism (at least until he got older and wiser).
Although records of his scientific work are scanty, they are intriguing. They provide a glimpse into what must have been a profound analytical mind. His photographic memory was phenomenal. He seems to have taken special interest in gymnosperms and angiosperms; we know that he was an expert on Cedrus libani and Origanum syriacum, but probably hundreds more between these extremes; he cultivated many varieties of plants in his own experimental arboreta. In fact, he was sufficiently wealthy to employ a small army of lab assistants, not only in his gardens, but his ranches and zoos. He was particularly fond of equines, collecting an extensive assortment of specimens. Exotic mammals and birds imported from distant lands were a special hobby in which he delighted.
We know that this scientist published a great deal; unfortunately, only tantalizing fragments and short biographical references remain. But in his day, his reputation spread far and wide; fellow scientists and intellectuals travelled great distances to converse with and learn from him. We can easily imagine that he had a large retinue of students and disciples.
This scientist was one of the first to approach the study of natural phenomena mechanistically. You might say he was a “naturalist naturalist,” using two diverse meanings of the word side by side: he loved nature, but approached his systematic study and classification of phenomena without reference to spiritual or miraculous elements. In other words, though he was a theist, not a philosophical naturalist, he practiced methodological naturalism in his scientific approach. Apparently this served him well, for a time. It provided him a great deal of satisfaction and motivation to classify things, describe them, and learn about them. He also sought to understand their underlying causes and build theories: he said, “I applied my heart to know, To search and seek out wisdom and the reason of things.” He apparently felt no need for what we would call today creationism or intelligent design thinking, except in a general sense (he was not an atheist, after all). Yet in his later years, his thinking underwent a dramatic reversal.
Over time, this scientist began to despair of ever really achieving a unified theory or even believing that getting a substantial grasp on science was even possible. He lost interest in the particulars and became more concerned with general principles; less stamp-collecting and more philosophy, in other words.
One of his fundamental conclusions sounds remarkably like Godel’s Theorem, i.e., that it is impossible to establish the validity of system without reference to external axioms. Contemplation of this principle, and his increasing dissatisfaction with collecting and publishing the minutiae, gradually opened his mind to his own inadequacy, and the absolute requirement to build on the foundation of divine revelation. He became a creationist.
Have you figured out who we are talking about? His name is Solomon. King Solomon, richest man of his day and wisest man who ever lived (with a wisdom given him by God), is often overlooked as a scientist. But I Kings 4 says he “spoke of trees, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that springs out of the wall; he spoke also of animals, of birds, of creeping things, and of fish.” From the context, these are clearly the meagerest of samples. Kings and dignitaries from around the world came to hear the wisdom and knowledge of Solomon. In his book Ecclesiastes, the summation of his old-age philosophical musings, he recalls some of his earlier efforts in horticulture, ranching, engineering and architecture. The Proverbs of Solomon are frequently peppered with animal and plant allusions that provide glimpses into his natural knowledge, which must have been encyclopedic. He enjoyed the exotic gifts foreign dignitaries would bring, including apes and peacocks. Living in peacetime with unlimited wealth, he was almost single-handedly responsible for the greatest scientific renaissance the world had ever seen.
The theistic (Hebrew) world view that permitted Solomon to view the work as a great machine or puzzle to be solved also permitted Solomon to get wrapped up in his own efforts. That is why he seemed to approach his science – and all his works – as “under the sun” – a grievous task given by God to mankind, devoid of meaning, purpose, and value when approached without reference to the Creator. “Under the sun” is analogous to methodological naturalism: the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, forgetting the Creator, trying to figure it all out by human effort. Solomon eventually realized it cannot be done. Thus his famous phrase, “Vanity of vanities: all is vanity.”
Solomon never lost his love for nature, but realized that there is more to it than meets the eye. There is a spiritual element to man that resists naturalistic explanation, and that there are purposes we can never know in and of ourselves. He said, “He [God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end” (Eccl. 3:11). For the logical positivist who thinks there is no limit to scientific inquiry, he speaks from experience: “When I applied my heart to know wisdom and to see the business that is done on earth, even though one sees no sleep day or night, then I saw all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. For though a man labors to discover it, yet he will not find it; moreover, though a wise man attempts to know it, he will not be able to find it” (Eccl. 8:16-17). Today’s scientists would do well to avoid trying to hoe that row again, unless they think they can reach infinity.
So after years of self-centered searching for knowledge, Solomon came to his senses and rearranged his priorities. He decided that “much study is a weariness of the flesh, and of the making of many books there is no end.” He called his final anthropic principle “the whole duty of man” (Eccl. 12): “Fear God, and keep His commandments.” In other words, realize that natural revelation without special revelation is pointless and ultimately dissatisfying. For aspiring scientists young enough to avoid his mistake, he has sober advice: “Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth.”