Summary: Faith vs science

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?

Sensory deprivation

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.

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