Tuesday, 19 January 2010

knowledge or certainty

‘Epistemology’ is not a word that you can infiltrate into everyday conversation, but it is a word that is frequently used by academics who want to sound clever. Unfortunately, such people tend to use the word inappropriately, as a mere synonym for ‘knowledge’, as in the phrases ‘social epistemology’ and ‘feminist epistemology’. However, the word’s true meaning can be summed up in the title of a book that I once edited for Routledge: Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge by Robert Audi, which is concerned with how we know what we think we know, what justifies us in believing what we believe, and what standards of evidence we should use in seeking the truth about human experience of the world.

This is especially relevant in discussions about religion, which tend to degenerate into a shouting match between confirmed sceptics (scientists and atheists mostly) on one side and religious fundamentalists on the other. I believe that atheism is the default rationalist position and that a belief in God is completely irrational. However, I have no quarrel with anyone who has a personal faith in God; it is their choice, and I respect that. It is with the extreme ends of the spectrum that I take issue. There is no doubt that militant atheists, Richard Dawkins being the best-known example, actually sneer at believers, even if they are not aware that they are doing so. Because they have reached their conclusions by a process of rational deduction, they look down on those who have reached their conclusions entirely on faith. Obviously, religious faith is, ipso facto, the acceptance of a set of beliefs without concrete evidence, but that is not a good reason to ridicule those who hold those beliefs unless, as a result of their beliefs, they stray into areas of thought about which they know nothing.

The problem with the fundamentalist viewpoint is that those who hold it know that they have the necessary evidence, a principle source of that ‘evidence’ being the Bible, the Qur’an or other ‘holy’ book. From this point, however, I will confine my commentary to the Bible, which is the only scriptural text with which I am reasonably familiar. A common phrase that you will read on Christian websites is “the Bible is inerrant”. In other words, everything that you read in the Bible is a true account. I think that the Bible contains a great deal of wisdom, the passage from Ecclesiastes that I referenced in Fact or Fiction being a classic example. However, to suggest that there are no errors in the Bible is a logically untenable point of view. Out of the many examples I could have selected, I put forward just two, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament:
3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
19 And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

Genesis 1 (Authorized Version).
One is bound to ask, if the first thing that God allegedly created was light, how it is that he didn’t create the source of that light until the fourth day.
1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

Matthew 2 (Authorized Version).
It is a reasonable deduction that these wise men will have come from somewhere in the region of Mesopotamia, so if they were following a star in the east, how is it that they didn’t end up in India?

Of course, these are trivial errors that do not invalidate the Bible’s status as a valuable document. You will perceive a problem only if you believe that the Bible is the word of God and is therefore inerrant. On this subject, I came across an interesting article while researching this essay. The author starts by quoting an acceptable albeit imperfect definition of science as “knowledge of natural phenomena that is subjected to some degree of sceptical rigour and explained by rational causes.” He then states:
Natural, in this definition, is opposed to supernatural. Rational is opposed to philosophical, spiritual or theological. Science, according to this definition, only allows for the examination of the natural. It will not allow the possibility of the supernatural.…No matter what evidence these scientists see, they are not allowed to see God.…Evolution, therefore, begins on a godless foundation. You don’t arrive at evolution because the evidence demands God played no part. You arrive at evolution by removing God’s involvement before you even look at the evidence.
Franklin Church of Christ (The Origins of Man: Fact vs. Story).
You have to look very closely to see the flaws in this argument. First, the word ‘evidence’ is not used in anything like the sense that most people understand it. It suggests, misleadingly, the process used in a court of law to determine the guilt or innocence of someone accused of a crime. Evidence in the scientific sense is even more rigorous than its forensic equivalent: scientific evidence is verifiable, or it is not evidence. Claiming that the Bible is the word of God because you believe it to be so because it says so in the Bible is, unfortunately, a self-referencing or circular argument. It is certainly not evidence.

Second, there is the a priori assumption that God exists, which violates the mediaeval scholastic principle known as Occam's razor (entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem: ‘entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity’), explained by Sir Isaac Newton as “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” The bulk of the writer’s argument is therefore invalidated by the absence of verifiable evidence for his conjecture. However, this should not be taken to imply that science doesn’t make assumptions; it does. A classic example is Newton’s laws of motion, which do work well enough in everyday situations and were the best approximation to reality for 200 years. However, they are based on the assumption that space is absolute; in other words, Newton regarded space as a Euclidean three-dimensional grid that stretches unchanging into infinity, so it was inevitable that this limitation, pointed out at the time by Liebnitz, would eventually have to be confronted. And although the successor to Newton’s laws, Einstein’s theory of relativity, eliminates Newton’s assumption, it too is an approximation to reality, albeit a closer approximation than its predecessor. The interesting philosophical question that arises here is whether it will ever be possible to explain absolutely everything.

Science has also made plenty of wrong guesses in the past, the phlogiston theory of combustion and the aether theory of light transmission being classic examples. There may be more to come, although the theory of evolution won’t be among them: hard, real, evidence for this theory is being accumulated on an almost daily basis. However, I did suggest one possible candidate in Who’s Fooling Who? In fact, there are key areas of science where a measure of faith is a prerequisite. Theoretical physics is a case in point: modern entrants to the discipline have been schooled in mathematics and taught that experiment and observation are an inferior road to knowledge. This leads to concepts such as string theory, an elegant hypothesis for which there is no observational evidence and which produces no testable predictions. Another example is the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle the existence of which has been calculated mathematically but never confirmed experimentally. However, the difference between this and religious belief is that experiments are now underway (the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland) that will either confirm or deny the existence of this hypothetical particle. Science never stands still, while theism is frozen in time and space.

Third, there is the implicit assumption that the theologian is as much an expert in his field (the supernatural) as the scientist in his, someone whose opinions carry as much weight. And because the theologian deals in certainty, he assumes that the scientist does too. However, this is a delusion. The scientist deals with uncertainty; the scientist knows that there is a limit to what we can know, what we can prove beyond reasonable doubt. The scientific basis for this insight is Werner Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty, which relates to the subatomic world and states that if you know how fast an electron is travelling, you will have no way of knowing where it is. Conversely, if you know where it is, you will have no way of determining its speed of travel. I have to confess that this is a crude formulation of what is in practice a very precise law, one of the bizarre consequences of which is that an electron can be everywhere in its orbit at once. Well, not really. The orbit is merely the sum of the probabilities of all the possible positions that the electron may be in, a tolerance within which all possible information is confined.

I have used the word ‘tolerance’ here in its engineering sense, but it would be equally appropriate to use it in its conventional meaning. It is one of the grim ironies of history that within a few years of Heisenberg’s seminal work, Hitler had risen to power in Germany. The idea that science is an adventure on the borderland between knowledge and uncertainty was suddenly confronted by the arrogance of monstrous certainty, of dogma.

Dogma has its roots in beliefs that are unshakeable, beliefs that the holder will never countenance changing. Which is why I detest it. Dogma is a denial of the human spirit, a closing of the mind against questioning, against adventure, against discovery, against knowledge. Dogma would turn us into a regiment of ghosts, a tortured host of manipulated automata.

However, it is important not to confuse dogma with faith, and I do not do so. I close with a quote from Oliver Cromwell, a man not otherwise noted for his tolerance:
I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.


  1. Dennis, this is a brilliantly constructed piece. As it happens, I do believe in God. I also understand that evolution is the process by which every form of life on earth has come to it's current position. I don't see the two as mutually exclusive and I appreciate the logical discussion. And for more of the supernatural, the Clean White Page is always open to you!

  2. In regards to the statement " However, the difference between this and religious belief is that experiments are now underway ...... that will either confirm or deny the existence of this hypothetical particle. Science never stands still." (theoretical physics)

    I disagree. And I'll try to be half as comprehensible as you were.
    If there were ever an area under constant scrutiny that demanded some sort of proof, and pertained to the human spirit; or was against a closing of the mind to adventure, discovery or knowledge, it would be faith based. And I'm not necessarily attaching that to organized religion. Religion is to faith what the body is to the soul. (Or if it makes you more comfortable "the human spirit" , that spark that makes you you.)
    Those of us who do believe in a higher power do experiment. We fast, we pray, we believe, we try to reach a higher consciousness; be it meditation or otherwise. And though those aren't the conventional standards to which mankind has limited his earthy science to, perhaps in time he will expand his mind enough to allow for possibility. After all, early "great scientific minds" weren't very open to unconventional thinkers like Galileo either. (The irony being how the roles have reversed.)
    Faith, like science, is what it is. Both exist, both follow finite laws and rules. The evolution of our perception regarding either of them is really the only thing that ever changes. Two-hundred years from now someone could read this blog and laugh the both of us into eternity, should some new dimension of life pop up that our australopithecus like brains could just never conceive.

    That's the great thing about life, the only constant is change, and I take a nod from your quote; "think it possible we BOTH may be mistaken." ;)
    -sorry for the length.

  3. Jessica, I don't think there's anything substantive in what you write that I could actually disagree with. Although I didn't stress the point in my essay, I suspect that the LHC will force a major rethink of current theory. I've already expressed scepticism about the Big Bang theory in Who's Fooling Who?, and if the Higgs boson isn't found, what will that do to the theory? Revisions of the calculations, or a completely new theory?

    You're right, radical new ideas in science do get a rough ride at first, but after all Galileo was a pioneer of the scientific method, which has brought us to where we are today. And even if the theories change, the method of investigation doesn't.

    Finally, I don't feel that this essay is my final word on the matter, merely where I am currently in my own investigations of what is a serious matter with grave implications for the future of the human race. I always think that I may be mistaken.

    Thank you for taking the time to contribute such a detailed and thoughtful reply.

  4. I always say 'epistemology' when I sneeze. This is because I can't spell 'gezundheight'.

    Plus, the LHC is a smokescreen designed to draw attention from the unemployment figures; rather like the so-called 'moon landings'. Everyone knows that

  5. Hello. I really like your blog. It is well written. Anyway let me just cut to the chase. When you talk about the verses in Gen. 3-19 (how light was created) Yes it is true that light was created the first day, but the sun, moon and stars were not created until the fourth day. Let me ask you this: If he truely is God then who are we to say that God needs a source to create light? Cannot he do it on his own? Also God refers to himself as "the light" in many passages of the Bible. So if he himself is the light, then there is no need for a source.
    As for your passage in Matt. I do not have an answer, I have not researched the geography, but I do know that when it comes to the Bible reasonable deduction is not good enough. You must have proof. So I will now look into that. Even though I disagree with most of this post I did find your views very interesting. Thanks for wrighting. =]

  6. LoveMyScraps, Thank you for taking the time to comment on this essay, which was intended to make the reader think. However, I detect a flaw in your argument: if God is 'the light', then what you appear to be suggesting is that he created himself on the first day. Surely that can't be right?

  7. Mr. Hodgson,
    I enjoyed reading your comments, and it reminds me a great deal of myself at a time. However, I must disagree with a significant portion of your thinking. I would like to take this second to remind you of Christ's love for you. And I submit that both God and science can co-exist just fine. Having said all that, I'd like to address your point about the text in Matthew. Even in the translation that you have chosen to quote here, it does not state that the star was in the east sky, but merely they saw it in the east, as in the east where they lived, east of Bethlehem. I do believe that the bible is the inerrant word of God, and that whatever points might seem confusing or possibly illogical are simply things which God has not made known to us, after all it would be rather presumptuous to think that we could understand all that the true God of the universe does. Next I'd like to submit that the rest of your thoughts are based on faith. I will give you the fact that you can not prove God exists, however there is one valid portion of the excerpt you pulled from “The Origins of Man” which is the fact that you can not disprove God either. It is illogical to think that you could find evidence of the supernatural by looking at the natural. There are some ways which I think it is evident, but that isn't the point. So, just as it takes faith to believe in God, it takes faith not to. You are putting your faith in something, whether it be God, Alla, science, or the flying spaghetti monster. It is not important to your soul, and hence your eternal future if you think God made everything in 6 24hr days, or 6 billion years, as long as you resoundingly say that it's God who made it, it is you and I and every other human that has sinned(and hence need a savior), and that Jesus Christ the son of God, willingly gave up His life, and became your sin so that you could be with Him one day in heaven for eternity. He offers this to you now, all you have to do is say yes please I’ll take it! I know I’m not very elegant with words, but I pray that the Holy Spirit might work in your heart so that you might come to know the love of God.

  8. I like your moderate approach on this matter.

    Richard Dawkins and his friends are indeed somewhat "militant" when it comes to discussing "God exists or not?"

    However, in my opinion, there are times we need to take the nearest shade of black or white that we are most comfortable with and tell everyone what we really see and feel. I always seem to get myself in trouble when trying to explain to my Christian friends about the circular argument "The Bible is God's words therefore it must be right" and "The Bible says God exists therefore He does" that they never seem to be able to recognize.

    We can always find militants on either side. However I find that in one camp they are far more numerous and vicious than those in the other camp.

  9. Dennis,
    sorry it has taken me so long to wright back to you!! I've been busy and haven't ben keeping up with blogs!!
    Anyway no I am not saying God created himself on the first day. We have to really think about it. What is light? There is a difference between actual light and the source that creates light. I am saying God created light the first day, but not the source. It is hard to imagine because here and now if we see light we know there is a source, but in Genesis this is not the case. Because he is God he can create light without a source, or maby he himself is the source.
    God has exsisted throught all of time, but light has not. So God can create light in himself on the first day, but also have exsisted before the first day.

  10. Mr. Hodgson,
    I've referenced this post in one of my own. I've also quoted you twice. If you would prefer that I not, please let me know. The post can be found at:


    Thanks for your consideration.

  11. Wow, this writing has completely blown my mind away. It's pretty late so I kind of had a problem following it but later when I am not so tired I will definatly try to go more in depth. You have me very intrigued.

  12. This is very well written Dennis. Just one thought here, my belief that science and god can and do co-exist. Not believing in something, or believing too much in one thing is extreme.

  13. Dennis, this is an excellent post. I like how you demonstrate how us atheists have come to our conclusions based on deductive reasoning and how people of faith have to come to their conclusions based on faith without concrete evidence. Most bloggers (atheists or people of faith) don't explain how they've come to their conclusions.

  14. This is very important. I wish more people read this. I found now most people take "knowledge" as "absolute". I also think it might be one of our nature (or at least a strong tendency) to rely on something "absolute", because people feel insecure when knowing that there is nothing really "absolute".
    I think beside errors you mentions, the first day of what God did is also impossible: created "heaven" and "earth", because earth did not existed until a quite late stage of the whole history of universe.
    Thanks for sharing your expertise and made this "uncertainty" so convincing. And I totally agree the difference between dogma and faith.


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