Don’t Believe Everything You Think

BY: ALEX FREEMAN

Recently, Bill Nye and Ken Ham debated whether Biblical creationism is a viable scientific theory. Though I fully agree with Nye that it is not, I thought the arguments he presented were pretty unremarkable, until the moderator asked both debaters the question, “What, if anything, would ever change your mind?”[1] Their radically different answers revealed this debate as a manifestation of the age-old conflict between science and faith. This conflict has gone unresolved for thousands of years, and at its core it is a conflict between epistemological systems, ways of answering the question, “How do we know anything?”

Science and faith are so often pitted against each other because they exist for the same reason: human brains are not made for discerning truth. Though they are reliable most of the time, there is no denying that our minds are prone to unfounded biases and fallacious reasoning, and even our own senses can deceive us. Yet, all any of us can rely on is our fallible sensory experiences, which is problematic for trying to discover absolute truth. When presented with a proposition, there is no way for anyone to determine whether the proposition corresponds with reality because we have no access to reality itself, only to our perceptions of it.[2] To be clear, absolute truth exists, but there also exists an impenetrable barrier between our subjective experiences and the objective reality that creates them. Both science and faith attempt to reach past this barrier and give us grounds to make declarations about the reality despite the limited nature of our own minds, but they do this by different methods and with different results.

Science uses an epistemic framework wherein a proposition only has value if it is testable. In other words, the only beliefs worth scientific consideration are those that make predictions about the outcomes of certain actions. A belief that makes no predictions about the world is impossible to test experimentally and lies outside the domain of science. This is because the scientific method holds no proposition to be true; the propositions we use in our current models of the world are simply those that have not yet been proven false. According to this idea, when a hypothesis is tested, the evidence either supports or falsifies it, and skepticism cautions the scientist against believing any proposition that has not withstood rigorous attempts at falsification. If no such experiments are possible for a proposition, then it can be neither supported nor falsified and should be discarded from scientific models until evidence is presented for one side or another. These are the limits of scientific knowledge, but these restrictions also give science its greatest strength: universal adaptability to changing evidence. Beliefs based on science are not dogmatic but tentative and open to change. When the predictions of a scientific theory turn out false, that theory is abandoned, and a new one is formulated to account for the new data. Faith, on the other hand, does not require beliefs to be testable and in fact makes a virtue of holding fast to one’s beliefs. Thus, it is antithetical to the skepticism that makes science the only reliable method for discovering the nature of the real world.

Faith, as I use it here, can be defined as complete trust and confidence in something, or a wholehearted belief that some proposition is true. By this definition, faith can be entirely based on evidence, but even if this is the case, there is no room for such a thing in science, as science has an unattainably high bar for what can be considered true. Where faith is useful is in supporting beliefs that cannot be tested, as well as providing comfort and a sense of community to believers. These benefits are not trivial, but history has shown that reality is better discerned by experimentation than revelation. The certainty with which faith-based beliefs are held stands in opposition to the tentativeness of scientific claims, making faith incompatible with a scientific worldview. This is why faith is typically relegated to questions that are beyond science’s capacity to answer.

The nature of science raises problems for faith, however, as science continues to expand its domain and encroach on territory once firmly governed by faith. The moment we can find evidence for or against faith-based claims, they become scientific claims and should be modified to fit new findings. This has already happened in numerous cases, the most notable in recent decades being evolutionary theory overturning the model of creation as described in the Bible. The irreconcilability of evolutionary theory with a “young-earth” view of human origins has led some to retreat behind faith and assert that no proposition that contradicts Biblical claims can be true. This is a fine tactic for personal reassurance, but to take the entire Bible as axiomatic in this way will inevitably cause one’s worldview to fall out of touch. Ken Ham’s epistemology leaves no room for change based on new observed phenomena, and his answer to the question of what would change his mind reveals this. When Ham says that his starting point is the Bible, he admits that there is no evidence that would change his mind about certain propositions.[3] Bill Nye speaks next, and this is where I believe he delivers the fatal blow to Ham’s total reliance on Scripture. What would change his mind, says Nye, is one piece of evidence, such as a fossil found in rocks supposedly too old to contain such a creature. While this would seriously challenge the prevailing theory of a geologic column laid down over billions of years, scientists would embrace such a challenge as an opportunity to ask and answer more questions about the world. By staying open to the possibility of being wrong, Nye’s worldview can, with each new finding, bring itself closer to how the world really is in a way that Ham’s simply cannot.

Finally, I would like to address another issue about the nature of science that is often raised when science and faith are discussed. In an article on his website, Christian apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig states that “religion furnishes the conceptual framework in which science can flourish.”[4] Craig argues that the rationality and consistency of the world are Christian ideas that scientists must simply assume, as they have no grounding in a naturalistic worldview. The flaw in this line of reasoning is that scientists do not assume consistency; they demonstrate consistency by observing exactly what would be expected given a consistent universe. Universal constants can be shown to be universal and constant insofar as repeatable experiments give reliable outcomes. For the entire history of science, the universe has been observed to operate the same way, and there is no known mechanism by which physical laws could be made to work any differently. Until an inconsistency in physical laws is observed, we can safely say that these laws are universal, and, because they are simply man-made ideas that describe what happens, they require no universal lawgiver.
Craig also appeals to the laws of logic, asserting that Christianity has an explanation for their existence while science does not. While this is true, Craig overlooks the point that the laws of logic need no explanation. The laws of logic are axioms; that is, we define them as true in order to establish a basis for determining other truths. Why do we choose these axioms (identity, noncontradiction, etc.) and not others? Because they are useful, and seem to describe well what we observe (we never see something that is both red and not red). We choose them because reasoning based on these axioms leads to practical conclusions more often than does reasoning based on any other set of axioms.

I doubt that this article has shaken anyone’s faith or converted anyone to scientific naturalism, but that was not my goal. I simply want to present my non-Christian perspective for a Christian audience in the hope that you will consider these ideas worth looking into. If I could have you take away one thing from here it would be this: in true Berkeley spirit, question everything. When something is presented as fact, ask, “How do you know this?” And remember, as the saying goes, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

 

[1] “Bill Nye Debates Ken Ham – HD (Official),” 2:04:00, Answers in Genesis, accessed March 5, 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6j8Babr_n4w.

[2] “Philosophical Failures of Christian Apologetics,” AntiCitizenX, accessed March 6, 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1YnlW59–JE. This video and the rest in the series provide a decent treatment of this topic and have inspired many of the ideas expressed in this article.

[3] “Bill Nye Debates Ken Ham”

[4] William Lane Craig, “What is the Relation between Science and Religion,” Reasonable Faith, accessed March 6, 2014, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/what-is-the-relation-between-science-and-religion.

 

Other Sources:
“Bill Nye Debates Ken Ham – HD (Official),” Answers in Genesis, accessed March 5, 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6j8Babr_n4w.
Craig, William Lane, “What is the Relation between Science and Religion,” Reasonable Faith, accessed March 6, 2014, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/what-is-the-relation-between-science-and-religion.
“Philosophical Failures of Christian Apologetics,” AntiCitizenX, accessed March 6, 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1YnlW59–JE.

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2 thoughts on “Don’t Believe Everything You Think

  1. Being a little nitpicky, but you say that human brains are not made for discerning truth, but are reliable most of the time. Do you realize the questions that this simple statement raises? If we concede that our brains aren’t reliable all of the time, then we have no idea when our brains are actually reliable, because they aren’t reliable enough to tell us that the brains themselves are reliable!

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