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The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 8)

May 4, 2015

We are continuing from the previous post, and examining the patterns that God uses in providing evidence for our faith in him. These patterns are:

1. God provides evidence whenever he asks us to believe something, especially when he does something new. 

2. God expects us to test and verify the evidence he provides. 

3. God does not want us to be irrational. He does not want us to be overly skeptical or overly gullible, but to find the rational center. He rebukes those who refuse to test the evidence, believe too easily, don't believe despite the evidence, or refuse to infer beyond the merely empirical things.  

4. God provides evidence on his own terms. It is meaningless to test the evidence from outside the framework provided by God himself.  

5. We are to remember the previous evidence that God has provided, and take the past history of his faithfulness as evidence for our belief.   

6. Dramatic evidence, in the form of miraculous signs and wonders, comes only when God is doing something new and important. Other time periods are relatively more quiet.

Today, we examine another philosophical objection against these patterns:

"Your so-called evidence for God is not any real evidence, because it's not repeatable. Your faith has to rely on records of things that happened thousands of years ago. In science, experiments must be repeatable, and that kind of evidence is the only real evidence. Scientists who disagree can always settle their difference in the lab, whereas no one has ever performed any miracles in controlled, laboratory conditions."

On the contrary, non-repeatable events in the past are often the subjects of scientific discourse, and they are studied by the records left behind by those events - exactly like in Christianity. In order to be considered "science", it is not necessary for the original event to be repeatable. Only the experiments on the record of these events need to be repeatable.

Consider Kepler's Supernova, the last observed supernova to have exploded in our own galaxy. It was bright enough to be seen even in daytime. It appeared in 1604.

Now, Supernovae are not repeatable in a controlled experimental setting. If you meet someone that says "I don't think supernovae occur in the Milky Way", you can't just say "let's walk on over to my lab, and I'll show you one". Given that you can't make a supernova, and that you weren't alive in 1604, how can you be sure that this supernova really appeared? By studying the records it left behind, of course. It was widely observed by many people (including its namesake Kepler), who left written records of their observation. Furthermore, its remnant can be observed today. Both the physical remnant and the written records can be queried in a repeatable fashion, and that is sufficient for its study to be considered science.

Consider also the K-T impactor that killed the dinosaurs. This faces the same problems as Kepler's Supernova, except it's a million times worse. Neither you nor any other humans were alive 65 million years ago. You cannot repeat this experiment and observe it in a lab. The only thing we can do is observe the records it left behind, in the form of an impact crater and the worldwide deposition of an iridium-rich geological layer. And the experiments done on these records are repeatable: you can collect samples from the K-T layer, and measure its iridium levels. You can go to the crater and measure its size. You will get consistent, repeatable results when you do so. And it is this repeatability, and not the repeatability of the original impact, that places the extinction of dinosaurs within the domain of science.

In general, you will get nowhere in science unless you accept records of previous experiments and events. No scientist performs every relevant experiment; that would simply take an impossibly long time. Even performing a single experiment that only confirms a theory is considered notable. Given this limitation, a scientist places his or her faith in other scientists, and relies on their records of previous experiments. Science, then, is built on believing in the records. Consider Arthur Eddington's measurement of the bending of starlight during the 1919 solar eclipse. This was considered the experimental verification of Einstein's General Relativity. Now, did you perform this experiment yourself? In fact, even among physicists, how many of them do you think actually repeated this experiment? Given that the vast majority of people have chosen to rely on the records left by others instead of doing their own experiment, would it then be irrational for them to accept General Relativity? Of course not.

Consider furthermore the origin of life. In this case the "repeatability" criterion fares even worse than the case of dinosaur extinction. We don't even have a coherent theory of the origin of life, and therefore cannot even propose what experiment we would need to repeat. And yet, because this event left records - namely in the commonalities that all living organism share, such as the structures of DNA and proteins - the origin of life can be studied. And experiments on or about these records are repeatable, and this is enough to bring the origin of life into the domain of science, even though the event itself is not repeatable.

The formation of the moon, and the Big Bang, also share these characteristics. Neither event is repeatable, and they cannot be performed in a lab. Yet they left records (e.g. the size of the moon, or the expansion of the universe), and because the experiments performed on these records are repeatable, their study is considered science. The evidence about them is therefore considered true evidence.

And all this is exactly how things work in Christianity as well. The resurrection of Christ is not a repeatable event; we cannot bring him back down to earth and kill him again and see what happens. But his death and resurrection left records. Because this was a historical event, the records are historical in nature, just as astronomical events leave astronomical records and chemical events leave chemical records. Specifically, Christ left behind the writings of his followers (the New Testament) and the community of his believers (Christians) - records that testify to his life, death, and resurrection. And these records, as they exist now, can be queried in a repeatable fashion to see what kind of evidence they yield. You can, for instance, read different translations of the Bible across multiple languages across space and time, and see how consistent they are with one another, and with known history. You can observe Christians and their practices and see if they are accurately predicted in the Bible. You can dig into Christian interpretations of the Bible. You can apply psychological or sociological studies to the eyewitnesses of Christ's resurrection, and see whether they are likely to be liars or mythologizers. You can analyze the linguistic style of the Gospels, and judge whether they are likely to be real or fictionalized. And the fact that you can do all this, with the things we have today right now (Christians and the Bible), in a repeatable fashion, makes the evidence concerning Christianity as "real" as any evidence in the sciences.

I remind you that for now, I am not addressing whether the evidence for Christianity is any good; I'm merely addressing the fact that you cannot simply dismiss it because of some arbitrary criterion about "science". You have to actually consider the evidence for Christianity: some philosophical remark about how science does or does not work will not let you off that hook.

Next week, I will consider further when you can and cannot demand repeatability.


You may next want to read:
The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 9) (Next post of this series)
How physics fits within Christianity (part 1)
The trends in science as evidence for Christianity against atheism (part 2)
Another post, from the table of contents

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2 comments on “The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 8)”

  1. It's worth drawing a distinction, sometimes, between the measurable and provable facts and the deductions that come from them (the facts and the interpretation, as mentioned in previous posts). For instance, you state that the extinction of the dinosaurs is part of science because we can look at the crater. I would draw the line between those two points; we can look at the crater and conclude with strong evidence that something hit our planet there, and we can look at iridium levels and figure that it was probably an iridium-rich thing from outer space, but stating that that's why dinosaurs don't roam the earth is a bit beyond that clarity of deduction. (For instance, there's reasonable support for the theory that classic stories of dragon slaying may have been derived from told-and-retold stories involving dinosaurs. Sure, we don't have any evidence that any dinosaurs breathed fire, but we also don't have any evidence that Robin Hood was a red-furred fox, but Disney's portrayal doesn't stop there from having been an actual Robin of Sherwood.)

    The origin of life is another point of contention. We can look at all the similarities between different beings' DNA structures and interpret it as evidence for a common ancestor, or we could interpret it as evidence for a common architect and designer. There's obviously no evidence that the Buxton Opera House evolved from the Gaiety Theatre, as they're inanimate objects - but there is a certain similarity between them, adequately explained by the fact that they were both designed by Frank Matcham (and if you look up his Wikipedia page, you'll see photos of both).

    I agree that both of these points are in the realm of scientific discussion, not blind faith; but in both cases - and all others, quite frankly - there is a section that can be measured, and then a section of deduction which cannot. Acknowledging where the boundary is between the measurable and the immeasurable is an important part of being scientific.

  2. Absolutely; there's definitely a difference between data and interpretation, or "inference" as I've been calling it in these posts. However, the point of the last post was that this interpretation step is absolutely necessary to do science; you can't just stick with data and call yourself a scientist if you don't interpret it to infer theories from it. Yes, the theories are not as certain as the data, but without the theories you have no insight, no understanding, nothing that makes science what it is. Ultimately, we believe that the theories are more important than the data, even though the theories ultimately come from the data.

    And yes, the difference between data and interpretation is super important and must be acknowledged. Data is sacred in a way that theories, as we humans understand them, can never be.

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