Monday, April 28, 2014

What is Truth?

“There is nothing less appropriate than treating the Resurrection as something that can happen naturally. For an incalculable miracle is before us, which overcomes our senses in its greatness.”

About 5,774 years ago, God created the world. On the first day of the universe he created light, on the fifth he made whales and fish, and on the sixth day he created animals and humans. In about two hundred years, though, man’s crimes had become so repugnant that God destroyed almost everything alive in an enormous flood. The animals that survived that flood are the ones around today.

Now, the world looks to us like it’s much older. That’s because the Devil has put ancient-looking sediment and dinosaur bones in the earth to tempt us into atheism. And he’s sent his agents—the scientists—to confuse mankind and steer us from the truth.

That’s, of course, nonsense. But how do I know? More generally, why do I accept the findings of science over what we read in Scripture? This isn’t an idle question; let me list my reasons.

One, science makes refutable propositions. When a scientist looks at the world, she can make a prediction and not be bound to it: she can work off the theory of earth-shrinkage until plate tectonics suggests itself as a better explanation of why the continents move. The conclusions of science thus come from the accumulation of unprejudiced observations. Though there’s obviously bias in the process, I can trust that the information I have from scientific journals comes from people who have no motive except getting the answer right.

Second, I would be happy to believe what’s written in the Bible if there were a scrap of independent evidence for it. If a bearded man came up to me on the street and told me that Zeus came to earth to seduce Alcmene, I’d be happy to believe it as long as he gave me enough evidence besides the papyrus that he’s holding in his hand. But without that evidence, I’d laugh at him or write a nuanced post about what he believes. Why is it different for the Creation or the Flood? Just that there are more bearded men these days insisting on it?

But now comes a more important question: why do I accept those reasons? Refutability and evidence-based knowledge are my justifications, sure. But do they insist on themselves? Why can’t I just reject them? If that seems like foolish speculation, consider what orthodox Protestants have done for centuries. In the first place, they say, refutability is completely besides the point. God’s truth is only refutable to those who rebel against him. Truth—real truth—is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and it’s supposed to be irrefutable. And when it comes to evidence, why is the Bible not enough? You have your evidence from geology class, I have mine from a book that God wrote for all mankind. What makes you think mine isn't enough?

There's no evidence for this,
except the only evidence that counts.

In other words, creationists and scientists have utterly different criteria for truth. A creationist looks at the Bible to figure out how the world was created; I look at a journal. And there's no law that tells us which set of criteria we should live by. There's no tablet to dig up that will say THOU SHALT SUBSCRIBE TO MODERN SCIENTIFIC METHODS. When it comes to finding our way epistemologically, we're radically free.

(To ward off an obvious misinterpretation: just because my criteria for truth aren't "empirically justified", whatever that would mean, doesn't mean that I don't hold them dear. Ditto for my moral convictions, by the way.)

This conceptual problem was completely ignored last winter when Bill Nye debated creationist Ken Ham. Each debater justified his position by referring to the evidence in the scientific record. Ken Ham was dishonest when he did this: fossil record does not suggest a young earth, and I think Ham knows it. But why does he need to justify his position with rocks, if he has the truth on authority from God? (And if he wants to proselytize, there are plenty of ways he can do it that actually work.)

As for Nye, by arguing from the facts, he misunderstood the problem that needed to be solved. The gulf between moderns and fundamentalists is not a difference in opinion about the facts, but a difference in which facts are important. This is a problem that can't be solved by simply adducing more evidence. Only rhetoric will save the day. Christopher Hitchens and his ilk approach the problem with a much sounder attitude: merciless contempt for the creationists. 

This is a good time for my monthly reminder that I'm not a fundamentalist Christian.