Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Follow the Evidence

On a recent broadcast of the Albert Mohler Radio show about evolution and Christianity a caller mentioned that we must follow the evidence, follow the truth wherever it leads. Now I think that this caller meant that whatever we believe, we need to let the evidence lead us to the truth that we should believe. Such a statement is an appeal to being objective not letting our own biases get in the way. But it betrays a simplistic understanding of evidence that is misleading. Allow me to illustrate this with an analogy.

Someone leaves a trail of bread crumbs as they walk through a cave. Another person finds this trail and follows it. He hopes to find either the source of the crumbs or the mouth of the cave by following this trail. There are two possibilities in his mind and he follows the evidence wherever it leads him. There it is a simple picture of what we mean by following the evidence. The problem is that this is not the kind of evidence that has been left around. I think this simple idea is also visible in popular television, where CSI and House rule the day. While the heroines follow the evidence, despite being sidetracked by a few rabbit trails along the way, they eventually come to the truth. It is a pretty picture of a scientific age in which scientific evidence always, ultimately, leads to the truth. In reality, however, this isn’t how things happen. In criminal investigations crimes are often unsolved and the innocent convicted. In the scientific world claims to what the truth is, namely theories, are verified or falsified, kept around because there is nothing better and many are useful though untrue. These theories are all supported by evidence. But the evidence has not led to the truth in every case. If one thing is clear, evidence is not truth.

What is it that constitutes evidence and what is it that constitutes truth? Let us explain this by way of example. A criminal investigator comes to a scene with some idea of what a crime scene looks like, this is the truth. When he arrives he examines the scene and decides whether it is a crime scene based on his knowledge of what one looks like. His examination reveals the evidence. The investigator decides what is evidence based on the truth, or what he supposes to be the truth not vice versa. The challenge, then, for creationists and evolutionists is not found in the evidence, but in what is considered the truth, because the truth determines what is evidence. The battle is over truth rather than evidence. The evidence may lead to or correspond to the truth, but it is no trail of crumbs. It is, rather, more akin to a mountain of bread crumbs.

Scientists do not have a unified body of thought that comes to one conclusion. Disagreements between scientist and opposing theories exist in abundance. But the more fundamental the questions that are asked the more important the answer and the more entrenched the opponents become; since it is on the fundamentals that everything is based. But the more fundamental the question is the more difficult it is to answer. There are many questions that science can not answer about reality. How does one scientifically, test the existence of God anyway? Instead, our worldview or understanding of the nature of reality determines what is truth and our sciences attempt to show how nature corresponds to that truth as in the example of our investigator given above. The grander a theory is the more tentative it should be considered and it will be, at least apart from the worldview to which it corresponds. When coupled with that worldview by those that affirm it, such theories are easily seen as truth. These grand theories of which I speak are ones that provide a framework for other theories to function within, that provide a sort of coherence by binding many theories to one. Theories that are compatible with different worldviews may not be as controversial and often times are judged without appeal to a worldview. But the more paradigmatic a theory is the more likely its justification is to be found not in sciences but in worldviews.

Finally, our worldviews determine truth which discriminates between evidences and weighs it. So, for materialist no supernatural event is evidence, because it is impossible and for a Christian that which contradicts the scripture can not be true. Clearly, the evidence is not objective nor does it lead to one truth as a trail of bread crumbs. Instead, following the evidence means that a person must see what evidence supports what worldview; and then which worldview provides the most coherent understanding of reality. Worldviews are not proven by only scientific evidence, but by historical and philosophical arguments as well. I hope this post serves to enlighten the reader by helping him to understand the proper place of evidence, especially scientific evidence.

By Sam Gantt

1 comment:

J*Rob said...

I like the example of the crime scene because it shows how contextual precommitments determine the meaning of "data." This is true not only in the more basic way -- Holmes's interpretation always bested Watson's because he had a better perspective -- but also in the broader sense that even using the name "crime scene" privileges certain questions and interpretations.

For instance, evolutionary theory clearly developed within a Newtonian world, and Einsteinian developments to it may not really pan out until physics is on the verge of yet another revolution.