Epistemology 101: Clash of Authorities Part III

This three-part blog series is essentially the talk I gave at the recent Clearing the Air Forum, which was entitled “Discovering Truth in the Synthesis of Science and Faith.” The audience was comprised of scientists, church leaders, journalists and other interested parties so this is a fairly lay introduction to epistemology.

In my first post, Epistemology 101: Science, Faith and Authority Part I, I set out some basics about epistemology. In Part II I looked at testimony and authority. Now I will turn to my final point, what about the clash of traditions or authorities, what should we believe then?

Here is a fairly obvious example, suppose I am not a biologist but I hear it on authority that the scientific consensus is that evolutionary theory is the correct account of human origins. In the absence of any defeaters for this, such as the absence of compelling reasons for thinking that the biological sciences are unreliable in this area or some compelling disproof of evolution, I should accept this claim. One the other hand, I read the Bible and it looks like it states that the world was created by God in six 24-hour days and that humans and animals were created on separate days. I examine the subsequent genealogies and I discover that when added up these entail that the world is only a few thousand years old. If I accept the Bible as authoritative and as the word of God, then I have a reason for thinking that evolution is false. What should I do?

I am using this case as a vivid example because it is such an obvious one in an evangelical setting, particularly one like this full of scientists who will have experienced the tension first hand. I want to look at two approaches that I think are mistaken. The first is exemplified by a well meaning school board member I encountered a few years ago. I was applying for a job as a curriculum developer at a Christian school. I was asked if I would teach that Genesis was true. I responded by saying that at the senior level, students should learn about the debate over how Genesis should be interpreted. They should be encouraged to ask whether it literally teaches that the world was created in six 24-hour days or whether, as some scholars believe, the days are a kind of literary device drawing out the relationship between human and divine work. The board member responded in horror,  he said “are you saying God might be wrong?” I did not get the job.

There was some wisdom in the board member’s response. If God teaches something then it is true and what God says trumps all human opinion, including scientific opinion. The problem is that I was not questioning what God said, I was questioning an interpretation of Genesis which was the basis of the board member’s conclusions about what God said. God does not make mistakes but human interpreters do.

Throughout history brilliant Christian theologians have disagreed as to how to interpret scripture and also which theological perspectives are correct. The fact that they disagree means that they cannot all be correct. Our theologising then is fallible and it is not given that we are always correct. It is mistaken then to assume that when the scientific consensus clashes with our theology it is always wrong and our theology is always correct.

In a room full of scientists this is probably uncontroversial but I want to also reject an equally erroneous view. This is the view that whenever scientific consensus clashes with a theological position, the theological position is always incorrect. Often this view is based on mistaken views on history. In the 19th century an interpretation of Church history known as the conflict thesis emerged. This position taught that religion and science had been locked in conflict throughout their history and that science had flourished only by fighting off the shackles of the church, which had consistently suppressed its ideas. The picture was of a Church constantly losing ground to science. This view of the history of science has been rejected by most historians today but its legacy lingers on.

In fact the history of science and religion is quite different. There were few conflicts of the sort this thesis puts forward and when they did occur issues were not as simple as science being right and theology wrong. In fact, in some cases the opposite was been true. The fact is that scientific consensus can be and has been, in the past, mistaken. Only a few decades ago the steady state theory of cosmology was widely accepted and it was believed the universe had no beginning, a thesis in direct contradiction to the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Today, theology now appears to have been correct. In the 12th century a similar clash occurred between aristotlean science and that of the Church. The church was proven correct. There are other examples, such as denials that people groups such as the Hittites ever existed and claims people could not write at the time of Moses.

Further, scientific consensuses changes over time. Alvin Plantinga notes,

According to Bryan Appleyard, “At Harvard University in the 1880′s John Trowbridge, head of the physics department, was telling his students that it was not worthwhile to major in physics, since all the very important discoveries in the subject had now been made. All that remained was a routine tidying up of loose ends, hardly a heroic task worthy of a Harvard graduate.”4 Twenty years later the same opinion seemed dominant: for example, in 1902 Albert Michelson, of Michelson-Morley fame declared that “the most important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted on consequences of new discoveries is remote.”5 And of course we all know of the scientific theories that once enjoyed consensus but are now discarded: caloric theories of heat, effluvial theories of electricity and magnetism, theories involving the existence of phlogiston, vital forces in physiology, theories of spontaneous generation of life, the luminiferous ether, and so on.[1]

Scientific consensuses then can and have been mistaken. In addition to this there is an important insight in the comment of the school board member who cost me employment. Given the fallibility of humans, even as a group, if God says something and the scientific community says something else then we have good reasons for thinking the scientific community is wrong and hence we do have a viable defeater for the testimony we have heard. God, understood as a all knowing, all powerful, perfectly good being, certainly is not mistaken and it is not as if he needs some scientists to enlighten him or correct his teaching.

I think the correct response is to allow science and theology to mutually correct each other. Take the case of evolution and the Bible. One needs to ask just how likely is it, given the evidence, that evolution occurred? One also needs to ask just how likely is it that the interpretation of Genesis underlying creationism is correct? If it is more likely that a literal interpretation of Genesis is true than it is that evolution is true then we should reject evolution despite the consensus in favour of it. On the other hand, if there are reasons for thinking our interpretation of Genesis is mistaken and that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming then we should conclude that God is not teaching us that the world is only a few thousand years old.

My own view is that there are good reasons for rejecting a literal interpretation drawn from what we have learned about ancient near-eastern texts from the same period. Evidence suggests that ancient genealogies did not function the way the literalist picture suggests and that much of early Genesis is a polemic against ancient near-eastern mythology rather than sober history. But my views are beside the point main point.

My point is that I think as Christians we need to say that both science and theology are valid ways of knowing and that human theorising in both fields are fallible.

There is a view in our culture which denies this, this is a view called scientism which claims, following Bertrand Russell, that whatever is knowable is knowable by the methods of science and what science does not tell us is not knowable. This is, however, a philosophical and theological view that rejects the existence of revelation. If we accept that God has spoken to humanity then we should not assume that God has not said something that is the basis for a legitimate critique of scientific claims or culture and if he has then we should not cower from offering such a critique despite the fact that the scientific community thinks otherwise. At the same time we should not embrace the kind of naiive theologising that reads the bible in English, ignores the fact that God’s word was mediated through human texts in different languages which essentially boils down to “God said it, that settles it” type thinking. Both approaches should be repudiated.

Let me make a final comment in this area. If we are to gain an accurate picture of the world then we need to take into account all information we know that is relevant to the question. If we bracket some information which is relevant then the picture we will only be probable on “part of the evidence” and may not be probable when everything else is factored in. If one accepts that science is the only way of knowing this does not matter much. Nor does it matter much if we think that all that is at issue is what we find in the scriptures. But if we accept, as I think we should, that both are valid sources of information then theologians and scientists needs to take others insights into account. There might be areas of reality in which both make claims. If scientists proceed ignoring information from theology that is relevant to what they study and theologians ignore what scientists are saying when it is relevant to the issue both will end up with a distorted view.

I think this picture applies to the issue of climate change. We have scientific claims about anthropogenic global warming being affirmed and contradicted in the media, in the pulpit, on talk-back radio, in the blogosphere and so on. Those of us who are not climatologists rely on testimony and we need to start being critical about whether much of what we hear is subject to defeaters. Similarly, the issue has moved beyond science into areas of ethics, public policy, laws and even pictures of eschatology. In these areas scientists are not experts and questions of theology and ethics, among other things, come into play and we need to have a method for negotiating this.

[1] Alvin Plantinga “Creation and Evolution: A Modest Proposal” in Robert Pennock Ed Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological and Scientific Perspectives (Cambridge, The MIT Press – Bradford Books, 2001) 785.

Epistemology 101: Science, Faith and Authority Part I
Epistemology 101: Science, Faith and Authority Part II

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