A wife comes homes and catches her husband in bed with another woman. The husband denies it, saying, “Who are you going to believe, me or your eyes?”
Though silly, the line has important implications for all of us who experience so much of reality the way it appears in our own sight. The question is, How accurately do our sight, hearing, and other senses portray the world to us? After all, who hasn’t been fooled by a mirage, an optical illusion, or a magician on stage?
The issue gets more important when the question of science arises. Science is a form of “empiricism”—the concept that knowledge comes from what we experience with our five senses, especially sight. Yet if sensory experience, such as sight, is deceptive, how much does this deception influence science as well?
This issue gets even more important when it comes to the question of faith and science. For most of history, science and faith have gotten along just fine. Even today, in most cases, little conflict exists. However, in one important area, that of origins, the authority of science and the authority of God’s Word conflict. And the sad fact is that many people believe science should have the final say. After all, “It’s science!”—the idea being that, because it’s science, it has to be correct.
This notion is a fallacy—one that even many Christians have bought in to. There’s no question that science has done wonderful things, allowing us to manipulate and interact with nature in ways that would boggle the minds of our ancestors. However, should science trump the Bible in areas where the two conflict, especially when science is merely one source of knowledge?
The room and the light
An account I read of someone’s visit to a museum will help lead us to an answer.
“At the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.,” the writer said, “I entered an exhibit—a small room so dark that an usher had to guide me in. The only light was a dimly lit wall opposite my seat. However, within a few minutes the light got brighter. As I sat there, still wondering what it was all about, the usher guided another man to a seat. But why? There was plenty of light now.
“Then it hit me: the room seemed bright enough to my mind, which had adjusted to the dim light. But to the man who had just entered, the room was so dark that he needed an usher. In other words, the reality of the room appeared one way to me and another way to him.
“There was only one room and one light in it, so whose view of the room and of the light was the true one that accurately corresponded to the immediate environment around us both—his or mine?”
This anecdote says something significant about the limits that are inherent in all human attempts to understand the world, including those of science: we aren’t granted complete access to reality. The world comes to us through our five senses. And, as we know, our senses can be exceedingly deceiving, even when use science. Hence, how much can we trust even what science tells us?
Sense and science
Keep in mind that science is a human attempt to understand, interpret, describe, and, ideally, explain the world. Whether it’s Aristotle 2,500 years ago looking at bugs, Darwin in the Galapagos Islands studying birds, chemists working for the Philip Morris tobacco company, astronomers using the Hubble space telescope to examine stars, or biologists claiming that life began on earth between 3.8 and 4 billion years ago—science is human beings, sometimes with the aid of devices, using their senses to explore the natural world.
And that’s fine. After all, one could argue that most of what we know, at least about the natural world, we know only from our senses. Even knowledge that’s revealed to us—things we couldn’t know otherwise, such as our birthday—we know only because someone told us (our ears) or we read it (our eyes). And if we know that John F. Kennedy was assassinated or that Julius Caesar held the title pontifex maximus, how did we know these things other than, again, by either our eyes or ears or both?
Yet for thousands of years people have struggled with the difficult question about how accurately, or inaccurately, our senses funnel the world to us. What’s the difference between what’s outside our brains and how it appears to us inside our brains?
When a scientist looks at a tree, what he sees is not the tree itself but an image of the tree that exists in his mind. If his mind suddenly stopped functioning, the image of the tree in his head would cease to exist, but the tree outside his brain would continue to exist. Obviously, the image of the tree in the scientist’s brain and the tree outside his brain are two different things. Whatever is in his head, which appears to him to be the tree, is certainly not the tree itself.
So what transformation takes place by the time whatever is external to us is captured by our senses and converted into the chemical-electrical impulses in our bodies and brains that underlie all our experience? What’s the difference between the image of the tree existing in your head, and the tree itself? Certainly a lot, because whatever’s in your head, it isn’t two tons of bark, leaves, and wood.
As the museum example showed, our senses can give us conflicting views of what’s out there. To one person the room appeared well lit; to the other it appeared dark. If science studies what’s “out there,” then it shouldn’t be concerned with how the room appears to different people. The issue is the reality of the room itself. Why would a geologist studying a shale cliff care about how the cliff appears to the eyes of bats, or to the lens of a Canon camera, or to someone who’s color-blind? In the same way, science is concerned only with what the room is really like in and of itself, regardless of the size of the pupils in the eyes of the intelligent beings in the room.
Yet the difficult question remains: How well do our senses, even for scientists, reveal the world?
Realists vs. empiricists
There are two philosophies about what constitutes science: scientific realism and scientific empiricism.
Scientific realists argue that science does give us, if not an absolutely true account of the world, then at least an approximate one. They argue that even though science rests on the experience inside our brains, it goes deeper than that to the truth about the reality that exists outside our brains. Science must discover what’s really “out there,” which is why realism is, in the words of Hilary Putnam, “the only philosophy of science that does not make the success of science a miracle.”
In contrast, scientific “empiricists” argue that science gives us only our own subjective experiences of how the world appears to us and that it never gets to the real world, the truth itself. According to empiricists, the most that science can do is to explain, even somewhat superficially, why the things we observe appear to us as they do.
Now, if the philosophers of science can’t agree on whether science is giving us “a true account of the world,” then why do so many people, including Christians, lie down and play dead before nearly every scientific declaration, as if what science says must be true?
There’s no question that science has been an incredibly fruitful human endeavor. But it’s still just that: a human endeavor. And thus it comes with all the limitations, weaknesses, and prejudices that accompany everything human. How else can one explain why scientists are constantly changing their views and theories about the natural world?
For instance, how many decades ago did the latest and greatest science warn us about the dangers of saturated fat for our arteries? Yet now the same latest and greatest science declares that all of that previous “latest and greatest” science was wrong: Saturated fat isn’t bad for our arteries after all.1 What changed, saturated fat and our arteries? No, it was the science itself, which, as a human and cultural project, simply shifted in the wind.
This is nothing new. Earlier in the twentieth century, one famous writer and thinker, Alfred North Whitehead, wrote: “Fifty-seven years ago it was when I was a young man in the University of Cambridge. I was taught science and mathematics by brilliant men and I did well in them; since the turn of the century I have lived to see every one of the basic assumptions of both set aside. . . . And yet, in the face of that, the discoverers of the new hypotheses in science are declaring, ‘Now at last, we have certitude.’?”
Unfortunately, one generation’s scientific “certitude” often becomes another generation’s myth. What scientific “certitudes” of today will our grandchildren laugh at?
Faith and Science
Belief in the Bible and belief in science both rest upon assumptions. Science assumes that we can learn about the natural world through observation and reason. Christians assume that God exists and that He has revealed Himself, not just through nature, but also through the Bible. In most cases, these assumptions, and the conclusion drawn from them, do not clash. For instance, the microscope and the telescope, both inventions of science, have revealed a depth and complexity to the natural world that point clearly to the wonderful creative power of God. “Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it” (Isaiah 42:5, ESV).2 One could argue, and rightly so, that in many ways science has made this truth more apparent.
Nevertheless, the conflict over origins—and it’s a conflict, a consequential one—remains. The most popular, current scientific model for the origin of life on earth, what’s called macroevolution, contradicts the Bible at the most basic level, destroying not just the biblical creation account but two crucial doctrines that stem directly from it: the Fall of Adam and Eve, which tells how we humans became sinners, and the gospel, which tells us of God’s plan to rescue us from our sins. And, yes, the issue is that important.
Two thousand years ago Jesus warned, “In vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9, NKJV).3 Though the context is different, the principle fits the challenge that this scientific “certitude” about creation presents us with. Christians, then, need to ask themselves where they put their faith, for in both cases it’s still a matter of faith, either in God’s Word or in the doctrines of men, even when those “doctrines” come wrapped in the mantle of science.