18
Mar

Why Science Is Not the Only Path to Knowledge

45My last post staked out the position that Christianity is based in truth. While not testable the same way hypotheses in chemistry or physics can be tested, the Christian worldview is nonetheless grounded in certain facts of history. Several readers posted challenges to this claim.

The first was that I was asserting but not proving this point. This is a fair comment. However, it would be nearly impossible within the confines of an 800 word essay to lay out the case for Christianity. Others much more knowledgeable have done so, establishing that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are indeed historical events. While much of what we know is based on the testimony of “believer’s” – those who personally witnessed these events and underwent changed beliefs and lives – their credibility was greatly enhanced by their willingness to face torture or death rather than deny the truth of what they had experienced. Moreover, there are other “non believers” who also corroborate Jesus’ life and crucifixion, as well as the transformative effect his life had on human history. But the case is much broader still, for it also encompasses the prophesies written before the time of Jesus that were fulfilled by him, lending additional support to his claim of divinity. Interested readers should consider: “The Historical Jesus” or “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus,” both by Gary Habermas; “Cold Case Christianity” by J. Warner Wallace, or “Reasonable Faith,” by William Lane Craig, as starting points.

The second challenged my assertion that science is not the only means for arriving at knowledge. The contention, a common one today, was that science is the best way to arrive at knowledge, including knowledge of past events. But to make sense of this assertion, one must first determine what it is that is in question. Past events are not repeatable experiments that can be recreated in the lab. Probability assessments become meaningless in many such settings. I have seen murder cases in which the probability that the defendant would have killed the victim was infinitesimally small – until they actually did the act. They could have countless character witnesses testify as to how out of character such behavior might be. But these probability assessments would be irrelevant if, for example, the defendant confessed or there was other powerful evidence which established guilt. Highly improbable events – like astronauts landing on the moon – do occasionally occur. Some events, like the assassination of President Lincoln – can only occur once, if they occur at all. A rational approach to determining truth as to such an historical event is to test the evidence, not consider probabilities in the abstract. Indeed, concluding that a particular person did not commit the crime, or that a particular event did not occur, because it was “improbable,” despite the actual evidence that it did occur, would reflect a bias which is interfering with the determination of truth.

Additionally, it is a mistake to assume that science can address all questions. Science is indeed a powerful tool. Much of what we take for granted – the many modern conveniences that enhance our lives – are the product of science. But science cannot prove that the scientific method is preferable, nor can it establish the validity of reason in reaching conclusions. It is not possible to use reason to support reason without begging the question. Moreover, a moment’s reflection reveals the many limitations of scientific knowledge. For example, “science” assisted Nazi Germany in developing one of the most efficient states ever organized on the planet, but it had nothing to say about the ends to which that knowledge was put. Survival of the fittest is a scientific theory that explains why some species survive. But science cannot “know” that applying it to members of the human family is always wrong. This type of knowledge – moral knowledge – comes from a different source.

Science may tell me why the colors of the rainbow appear the way they do, but it cannot help me to know that rainbows are pleasing to the eye. Indeed, science can measure many types of features with microscopic precision, but it cannot tell me what is beautiful or what is hideous. Finally, science can tell me about the ink and parchment used by an author, but it cannot tell me whether the ideas conveyed are valid or invalid, cogent or rambling.

Contrary to the implication of skeptics, Christians do not reject science. Indeed some of the greatest scientific minds were wholly devoted to Jesus Christ. But Christianity does not assume that science can provide all knowledge, including knowledge of God and his interaction with his creation. As it relates to such things, and especially to the historical underpinnings of Christianity and its fundamental philosophies, other forms of knowledge are at play.

Posted by Al Serrato

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2 Comments

  1. thom waters says:

    Al,

    Always enjoy reading your posts. It appears, at least, to me that at some point you must be willing to distinguish between those things best described as “fact”, and others best described as “belief”. There seems to be an intentional effort within the Christian apologetic community to lump everything they feel important to substantiating the Christian Worldview as “fact”. While self-serving this serves to misrepresent the actual state of things. A perfect example is the crucifixion of Jesus. From what we have it seems extremely reasonable to believe this to be a “fact” evidentially speaking. It appears to be evidentially true. That being said it is far from evidentially true that one Jesus died by means of crucifixion. Of course, this can be easily substantiated from what we know about crucifixions in general and the normal circumstances surrounding a crucifixion and how different Jesus’ crucifixion was from the norm. Additionally his so called death by crucifixion can be argued against from the New Testament documents themselves. That his death by crucifixion came to be believed and was, in fact, incorporated into early creeds is to say only that it was believed. And, indeed, if you’re going to claim that someone was resurrected from the dead it only makes sense that you must believe that the person died. However, belief in something doesn’t make it “fact” especially when such a belief can be argued against from the evidence. If it were evidentially true that Jesus was beheaded, his death would be equally as true. “Christianity does not assume that science can provide all knowledge . . . ” as you say, but it does beg the question, “Are there any assumptions that Christianity does make?” Perhaps the belief that Jesus died is one of those assumptions. Even though at this time it would appear that we cannot make a determination either way about his death, it might assist us in determining whether the Resurrection is the inference to the best explanation for the evidence we have. At the very least, I still feel it important to distinguish between “fact” and “belief”. It seems important. Thanks.

    • Al says:

      Thom,
      Thanks for the kind words. I see the distinction you are making between fact and belief. You may be using those terms a bit differently than me. When I consider an historical event, I’m usually dealing with a “fact” and not a “belief.” Facts can be proven by the testimony of witnesses. Beliefs, by contrast, suggest a topic that is subject to opinion. Chocolate is the best flavor of ice cream, for example, or giving to the poor is a good thing to do. Sometimes the line between the two is not clear cut, and always in the area of facts one must consider the level of certainty that should attach to it. For instance, I am certain that Lincoln was assassinated but less certain that Kennedy was killed by a lone gunman. At some point, I would agree that an historical event is so uncertain that I am holding to a “belief” that it occurred, as opposed to viewing an established fact. As it relates to the death of Jesus, I think that the available evidence establishes it as a fact, whereas you do not. My point is this: we should just discuss the historical record rather than labeling what we are doing; when you insist on calling it a “belief” you are concluding without first proving that the record is insufficiently clear to call it a fact.
      As for what assumptions Christians make, I would say the basic ones. I think we belief that our senses operate accurately and that our minds provide a tool – reason – from which we can form accurate knowledge about the universe. I think we assume that there is order and predictability so that scientific inquiry makes sense. Hope that helps.

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