In any philosophical or scientific discussion it is important to lay out some grounding principles first. When I was younger I would get into arguments with creationists that went in circles because we were speaking two different languages.
The difference was not actually our languages, but rather our enthymemes. I am using enthymeme in the loose sense to mean a statement which forms a premise in an argument but is implicit or otherwise unstated. It is good at the start of a scientific or philosophical project to flush out all enthymemes and make sure they are rational or axiomatic.
This is important as a basic premise of logic. If you argue correctly, you cannot deduce a false conclusion from true premises (this is an overstatement of course, as it applies only to deductive reasoning.) However if your premises are false from the start even a valid argument can lead to a false conclusion.
Enthymemes are also called “axioms”. In common speech, axioms are base premises which are taken as not requiring any further justification. “Axiom” also has a special meaning in Logic and Math – a logical axiom is roughly a tautology; it can be proven to be fundamentally true in all instances. Axioms in this sense are never false while Axioms in the first sense can be false. That is an important point, so let me repeat it. Many of the things people take as axiomatic (in the vulgar sense) are false. As a corollary, being axiomatic does not invoke some special degree of correctness.
Because axioms can be right or wrong that must also mean they can be checked for correctness. And they should be checked for correctness. If your only axioms are Logical and Mathematical axioms and true statements then you have nothing to fear. If not, even any well crafted arguments you make can be wrong because you take as a premise something which is not true. This is also important, so I shall say it once more. Axioms can and should be evaluated. Using the word axiomatic is not a get out rationality free card.
Most people who are not philosophers take a set of things as axiomatic without bothering to evaluate those axioms. Some examples are the fact that you exist, the fact that the physical world exists, the sentience of other people you meet, the fact that your senses convey a fairly accurate description of the physical world to you, the fact that the physical world operates on certain law-like rules of causality, the validity of math and logic. These are generally taken as true as a point of convenience; Philosophers like Descartes and Hume liked to take them apart, but we’re too busy for that kind of thing.
People take lots of other things as evidently true without a background justification, and that can be dangerous. If we take a false premise as axiomatic we are in constant danger of reaching false conclusions from valid arguments. We can’t even trust logic if that happens, because deductive logic is garbage in-garbage out.
So we must look at our axioms and see what background suppositions we are making. I generally expect to lay my premises out clearly, but for the sake of convenience I will lay out the principles I shall take as axiomatic and not be giving arguments for.
1. The existence of the physical world, myself included
2. The reliability of the senses
3. That the world is governed by causality which works in reliable, predictable ways.
There are other background suppositions I would like to take as true, but I will not hold them as axioms. I will justify these points instead. They are:
1. That the western scientific method generally produces inductively sound results although it cannot deliver absolute truth
2. That the postulates of western peer reviewed science can safely be taken as non fraudulent and not fabricated, excepting the very slim minutia of cases where this has been positively shown to be the case.
1. The validity of the scientific method.
The scientific method is a model of inductive reasoning for investigating and explaining the world and the things in it. It describes and explains phenomena and can make predictions about phenomena we have not yet encountered.
Scientific inquiry proceeds from an objective viewpoint; though individual scientists have their own beliefs about the way the world it, science itself is guided by the facts.
Scientific inquiry starts with a hypothesis. A scientist proposes a hypothetical explanation of some phenomenon in the world.
The next step is experimentation. The scientist contrives an experiment that will test the hypothesis by seeing if it will also explain as-of-yet unencountered phenomena. Not all experiments are done in laboratories with control groups – some are done by looking at things in the world. The important point is that we must look at new things to test our prediction.
Next is observation and measurement. The scientist carefully records the results she finds out in the world.
Next is what is called “peer review” which has two parts. Other scientists look at the methodology used in the experiment and make sure that the results prove the hypothesis and cannot be accounted for in another realistic way. Next, other scientists attempt to replicate the experiment to make sure that the results were not due to fluke or error.
When an experiment is consistent with a hypothesis that hypothesis is corroborated. When an experiment is inconsistent with a hypothesis it is falsified. Corroborated hypotheses must be subjected to more, broader experiments to make sure that they can stand up to other novel facts. Falsified hypotheses must be revised.
Theory is a scientific term of art, a special kind of phrase with a fixed meaning in specialist discourse. Theory means a long stand hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have endured repeated tests and continued to endure in roughly the same form. Generally theories have broader scopes of explanatory power than a single hypothesis would. “Theory” in the common sense means a hunch or a guess – in science it is much much stronger. Though they are still revised regularly they represent a well demonstrated principle that is broadly accepted.
No postulate of science is ever “true”. Facts about the world are objectively true or false (the Earth either has a magnetic pole or it does not) but the theories and hypotheses that account for and explain those facts can always be shown to be false later. Older, more well developed theories generally aren’t knocked down by a single contrary observation mind you. Once a theory has endured hundreds of falsification attempts it is more likely that the contrary observation is a statistical fluke after all. That is not to say that old theories are not revised all the time, that would be a blatant lie.
Certain propositions in science are called “laws”. Laws are mathematical models that explain how things will behave under certain circumstances with exact certainty. They are not always completely certain however. Laws are just special math-based hypotheses.
This process is the scientific method. It one way of examining the world we live in. I don’t know of a better way to examine the physical world and make accurate statements about novel phenomena. It has a good track record for producing useful and accurate descriptions of the world we live in. We will be taking it, therefore, as a useful inductive tool. Its accepted findings can safely be taken as “likely” “highly plausible” or “probable” because they come from a process of careful testing, rigorous scrutiny, and open minded objectivity.
2. Science is not a conspiracy contrived to destroy Christianity.
Scientists generally don’t make things up just because they want them to be true. They may postulate hypotheses because they want them to be true. But on the whole there are very few instances of scientific fraud and hoaxes – yes, there was the thing with the Piltdown Man, but for the most part the process of academic peer review prevents these sorts of things; the ratio of fraud to legitimate finding is far too low to consider it a real threat. In relying on scientific findings it will be our practice to take scientists at their word absent evidence that their findings are fraudulent. Piltdown man will not be relied upon, though Java man may be.
Any additional premises I intend to rely upon I shall try to make plain. When I am relying on the products of science I will lay them out as best I am able. Though I have studied physics and biology as well as the philosophy of science in some depth, I am no scientist. My explanations will be want for detail compared to one you may get from an academic journal or a university lecture. I will research the scientific topics in depth beforehand and lay them out as well as I am able. I will also do my best to present holes in theories where knowledge is incomplete and make clear what is postulated and what is proven fact. Remember we are committed to taking any accepted findings of science as probable and any observations made by scientists as reliable. Our program is to survey; if it were otherwise we could not complete it without becoming experts on par with the scientist we’ll be discussing.
The last point I want to touch on is a very important one regarding a very dangerous axiom.
Remember, axioms are not magic get out of rationality free cards. They can and should be evaluated.
Some people hold it as axiomatic that the Bible is 100% literally and infallibly true from cover to cover (except for the name of the publisher). Moses actually saw a burning bush, God actually made Animals out of dust, the world was created in six days. Some people say that if you read the bible and count the dates you can figure out the age of the universe – when they count back the events in the Bible they find that the Earth and the whole universe is between 6000 and 10,000 years old. This is inconsistent with much of what physics, chemistry, and biology have had to say over the last 100 years.
Generally, the Bible does not concern itself heavily with facts. It’s trying to impart a moral lesson and metaphysical worldview which cannot be disproved by science. However, people of this persuasion are committed to the view that all the facts in the Bible are infallibly true. Statements about facts can and should be tested; science is a program to make the best statements about facts that we can. However if the findings of science show that the Bible is not correct about facts it completely undermines this kind of world view. Hence the resistance to Evolution in some Christian circles.
Axioms can and should be evaluated. Axioms that are false should be thrown out to prevent errors. If you accept that the Bible is always literally true and it isn’t, you will come to the wrong conclusion about lots of things. So there is much that hinges on this point.
Now, I have two things I would ask you to do if you are committed to this world view. First, and best, would be to do like Descartes and suspend Judgement. Read on as if you could not tell if the Bible was literally true. If you find facts that are inconsistent with it, you will know yo have to come down on the side of non-literalism (or commit to being irrational, which is not a very good thing to do)
If you are unwilling to do that, you need to justify your axiom. Axioms can and should be evaluated, and you do not get a “get out of rationality free card” for saying that the infallibility of the Bible is self evident. You have to ask yourself how you know that. If you are not willing to do one of these things I put it to you that you are behaving irrationally for refusing to examine and justify an axiom you centrally rely on which makes a statement about the truth of certain fundamental facts in the world. If you are committed to being irrational then you are wasting your time if you try to read anything on this page or discourse with me about its subject matter.
So to make this last point clear, ask yourself: how do you know the Bible is literally true? You can’t say “because it says so in the Bible” – that’s circular reasoning. Likewise, you can’t say “because it’s the word of God, which is infallible” – I would ask you how you know that the word is God is infallible. You would say “Minister X told me” or “it’s in the Bible”. How could Minister X know that God is infallible? Either somebody told him, or it’s in the Bible – circular reasoning again. Any argument based on the authority of God, the Bible, or someone who gets their authority from a knowledge of or a connection with one of those two things is out.
Remember too that unless you’ve had a (reliable) communication from the big guy, God is only known to us through the Bible and other Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) dogma. If you want to hold that God cannot possibly mislead you and therefore the Bible must be true, you need a reason that God must have the quality of complete and frank honesty. That reason can’t be one based on Dogma that itself takes God as an axiom itself, or we’re back to a circle. That’s also called boot strapping.
Faith is also out. Faith may be beautiful and useful, but it is not a rational tool to examine the truth of facts. You can have it, but you hold things as true on faith entirely because you don’t know and can’t figure out if they actually are true. In other words, faith says “I don’t know, but I believe anyway”. This is fine sometimes, but it isn’t a rational way to explore the world we live in.
Lastly, I have some things I want to say in closing. I’m not a Christian. I’m something like an agnostic and something like an atheist. Atheists are the same as religious people – where religious people accept on faith that there is more to this world than we can see or know in this lifetime, atheists accept on faith that what you see is what you get. Neither can tell – religion and areligion both deal with the world outside of experience. An agnostic says I can’t tell, so I’m not going to decide. Absolutely anything is possible beyond what we can know and there’s no reason to prefer one thing over the other. Rationally, it’s the only position that makes sense when no evidence exists. But in my heart I really don’t believe in God. So while my rationality says agnosticism in my private thoughts I’m an atheist.
That being said, I’m a jurist and a philosopher of ethics. I realize, probably more astutely than most Christians, just how important Christian thought is in Western Law and Ethics. Christian morality as fully realized in Jesus is a beautiful system of ethics based on love, charity, and forgiveness. I think very highly of it. The Bible doesn’t get its sanctity or its importance from how good of a history text it is. The moral lessons that are really at the core of Christianity are what really make it a thing worth having and saving.
Now you can insist that the Bible stands or falls as a whole, but the truth of the matter is that all the scientific consensus is that creationism is incorrect, and this has been the concensus for a century. If the Bible stands or falls as a whole, then the moral lessons must die with the genesis account. And that would be a real loss.