On interpreting facts

Spring 2005

Comments on Creation: 'where's the proof?' by Ken Ham and Loving God with all your mind: logic and creation (link no longer valid) by Jonathan D. Sarfati. (http://www.answersingenesis.org)

Creationists and evolutionists . . . all have the same evidence-the same facts. . . . The difference is in the way we all interpret the facts. And why do we interpret facts differently? Because we start with different presuppositions.

That might be true if we were all perfectly rational, but no one is. There is surely much more to many disagreements than mere differences of presuppositions. However, in examining the rationality of any belief system, given that the system's advocates claim to be rational, it certainly is to the point to examine its axioms.

All reasoning is based on presuppositions (also called axioms). This becomes especially relevant when dealing with past events.

So far, so good.

We all exist in the present-and the facts all exist in the present. When one is trying to understand how the evidence came about (Where did the animals come from? How did the fossil layers form? etc.), what we are actually trying to do is to connect the past to the present.

However, if we weren't there in the past to observe events, how can we know what happened so we can explain the present? It would be great to have a time machine so we could know for sure about past events.

It would be great indeed. But we don't. We're stuck with facts that exist in the present. What we may reasonably believe about the past is only what we can logically infer from those facts.

Christians of course claim they do, in a sense, have a 'time machine'.

It is a fact that they make that claim, yes.

They have a book called the Bible which claims to be the Word of God who has always been there, and has revealed to us the major events of the past about which we need to know.

That is not a fact. The Bible does not make that claim. The claim is an interpretation of facts based on the presupposition that the interpretation is correct. The argument is circular.

For one thing, "the Bible" cannot claim anything for itself. The men who wrote it made certain claims, but not about the book that we call the Bible. That book did not exist in their lifetimes, and they gave no hint that they expected such a book to come into existence.

On the basis of these events (Creation, Fall, Flood, Babel, etc.), we have a set of presuppositions to build a way of thinking which enables us to interpret the evidence of the present.

In other words, by presupposing the inerrancy of scripture, evangelicals derive a set of doctrines about earth's history, and those doctrines become axioms. All other claims about earth's history are then evaluated according to whether they are consistent with evangelical doctrine.

Evolutionists have certain beliefs about the past/present that they presuppose, e.g. no God (or at least none who performed acts of special creation)

An evolutionary scientist does not, qua scientist, presuppose the nonexistence of any god. A person who does not assume that X is true is not thereby compelled to assume that X is false.

I've found that a Christian who understands these things can actually put on the evolutionist's glasses (without accepting the presuppositions as true) and understand how they look at evidence.

Yes, it can be done, but one supposes that it must be extremely difficult, because most creationists make it perfectly clear that they do not understand how scientists look at the evidence for evolution. Creationist apologetics are rife with mistakes, distortions and outright lies about the nature of scientific theory in general, about the specific content of evolutionary theory in particular, and about the evidence offered in its support.

However . . . a non-Christian usually can't put on the Christian's glasses

That is probably true if he or she has never been a Christian. Many skeptics—perhaps a majority of them—are indeed baffled by evangelical Christianity. Nevertheless, there are legions of us who can put on Christian glasses very easily, because we used to wear them ourselves all the time.

This is not the place to discuss the implications of the asymmetry of conversion, but it seems to be a fact that, among people well informed on both sides of the intellectual divide, there are more skeptics who used to be Christians than there are Christians who used to be skeptics.

All philosophical systems rely on logical deductions from starting assumptions-axioms-which, by definition, cannot be proven from prior assumption.

It does not follow that one is justified in choosing axioms at whim. Still less is one justified in presupposing that any axiom or set of axioms is infallible. Any axiom is a product of human intelligence. To assume infallibility for one's axioms is to assume infallibility for oneself.

There are a few generally accepted criteria for choosing one's axioms. One is consistency. Given two axioms from which one may deduce a contradiction, one of those axioms must be abandoned or replaced. Another is parsimony. If we can make sense of the universe with five axioms, then we are not justified in using more than those five. Yet another is independence. Given a set of axioms, none of them can be logically deducible from any of the others. If it can be deduced from other axioms, then by definition it is not itself an axiom.

Logic and reason are far from being incompatible with biblical Christianity. Rather, they are essential. Without them it is impossible to deduce anything from the true propositions of the 66 books of Scripture, the Christian's final authority.

Sarfati does not say whether he is treating the Bible as a set of independent axioms or is inferring the truth of all statements in the Bible from some other axiom. The former would be grossly unparsimonious, to say the least, and it also runs afoul of consistency. Many of the Bible's "apparent contradictions" cannot be resolved without presuming as an axiom "The Bible is without error" or inferring its inerrancy from yet another set of more basic axioms, and so that is probably what Sarfati is doing.

It is awfully hard to critique any set of axioms if the person who relies on them will not tell you what they are, and I have never seen any apologist spell out precisely what are the axioms of evangelical Christianity. One might presume that God's existence is one of them. However, "God exists" does not imply the inerrancy of any particular book written about him. However, if "the Bible is without error" is an axiom, then God's existence is not an axiom, since it can be inferred from biblical inerrancy.

One solution would be to stipulate these axioms:

One could then argue that since a perfect God would not inspire any erroneous writing, then the Bible must be without error. But whether Sarfati so argues, he provides no hint.

Given these assumptions, then of course any conceivable fact can, with enough imagination, be interpreted consistently with them. The ability of human beings to reconcile their beliefs with any amount of apparently disconfirming evidence is a wonder to behold. It is called rationalization, and both skeptics and evangelicals routinely accuse each another of doing it.

But here is something to consider before calling down a plague on both our houses. It is the common experience of humanity that nobody is perfect, either in their thinking or in their behavior. We all do things we should not do. We all fail to do things we should do. We all believe some things that are not true. We all disbelieve some things that are true.

People disagree about what constitutes right or wrong behavior, but nobody to my knowledge claims always to do right and never to do wrong. People disagree about how to distinguish truth from falsehood, but no matter how they do it, nobody to my knowledge claims a perfect ability to make the distinction.

That is one reason why, from a secular humanist viewpoint, it makes good logical sense to be merciful, to be slow to anger, and to be extremely reluctant to pass judgment. History has been extremely unkind to every belief system whose adherents have considered it axiomatic that all who question their dogma are in thrall to some evil force.

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