Scripture or Science?

A commenter (Keith) on my earlier post on the historicity of Adam poses a good question:

Can you comment on the broader theological/hermeneutical/epistemological issues here?

Let’s assume the following for the sake of discussion: (a) there are strong textual (referring to the whole Bible) reasons in favor of a historical Adam; (b) the textual evidence isn’t a “slam dunk” so it is possible that the text doesn’t necessitate a historical Adam; (c) there is a strong scientific consesus that the scientific evidence for evolution is a slam dunk; and (d) somehow evolution strongly undermines belief in a historical Adam. I leave (d) fuzzy because there are probably a number of ways one might think a belief in evolution would undermine belief in a historical Adam. (I can think of at least a couple quickly, but spelling it out isn’t necessary for the question I am asking.)

What should one do in this epistemic situation? The textual evidence is much stronger for a historical Adam (assuming the above assumptions) but it isn’t a slam dunk. Yet the scientific evidence for evolution, which per the illustration undermines belief in a historical Adam, is a slam dunk. Does one count all evidence of the epistemic situation equally or does one first resolve the interpretive issue based on textual reasons and then hold to a historical Adam over against the undermining scientific slam dunk?

I am asking, because I suspect that which side one takes often correlates with how one would resolve the epistemic situation in my illustration.

First, some preliminary comments. Speaking for myself (which I often do) I’m far from persuaded that the scientific evidence for evolution is a slam dunk, and whether or not there really is a scientific consensus that the evidence is a slam dunk is rather hard to determine, given the extent to which politics and metaphysics muddy the water (on both sides of the debate). Of course, part of the problem here is how one defines “evolution”. If you define it weakly as physiological changes over time due to natural selection, then not even Ken Ham would deny that the evidence for evolution is a slam dunk. On the other hand, if you define it strongly as universal common ancestry from a single-celled organism, with the present diversity and complexity of life accounted for by purely natural processes (such as natural selection and genetic mutation, i.e., the standard neo-Darwinian account), then that’s quite another matter.

Based on the question posed, it’s fair to assume Keith has in mind something close to the latter. As I say, I’m unimpressed by the arguments typically offered for evolution understood in that stronger sense, although it’s not my purpose here to enter into that issue in any detail. All I’ll mention at this point is that how one evaluates the evidence depends in large measure on how one understands “scientific evidence” in general and what hypotheses one is prepared to entertain. In particular, whether or not one is committed to methodological naturalism will have a significant bearing on the issue. If you’re not prepared to entertain non-natural causes or explanations in principle, the empirical case for evolution will look more compelling to you than if you don’t.

The upshot is that I’m about to comment on an epistemic scenario that, from my perspective, is very hypothetical. It’s as though I were being asked what conclusions a man should draw, based on his total evidence, if he were to kiss his wife goodbye at his home in Houston, fly direct by private jet to Anchorage, only to find her waiting for him there in the arrivals lounge. It’s not an epistemic scenario I can relate to very easily!

Nevertheless, I appreciate that some Christians (included some respected friends) find themselves in a different epistemic situation and such questions are more pertinent to them. So I’ll do my best to give an answer, granting the assumptions stated in the question for argument’s sake. I’ll also be taking for granted that the Bible is divinely inspired and inerrant (i.e., that it affirms no falsehoods when rightly interpreted) since that’s also one of the parameters of the question.

1. The specific scenario Keith describes can be generalized as follows. I find myself presented with strong grounds for believing P, Q, and ~(P & Q). It seems clear to me that Scripture teaches P. I also learn that there is a “strong scientific consensus” that there is compelling scientific evidence for Q. But on reflection, it appears that P and Q are logically incompatible (or, at least, it’s highly unlikely that they’re both true).

Faced with this scenario, I have three basic options if I want to preserve consistency in my beliefs:

Option 1: Reject P

Option 2: Reject Q

Option 3: Reject ~(P & Q)

(Strictly speaking, there are further options, e.g., reject both P and Q, but the three above are the least radical.)

2. Consider the first option. If I reject P, it doesn’t follow that I must abandon biblical inerrancy. Rather than concluding that the Bible mistakenly teaches P, I could conclude that the Bible doesn’t teach P after all. In other words, I could conclude that my present interpretation of Scripture, however compelling, is mistaken.

Although this preserves inerrancy, it comes at a price. It may force me to accept a very unnatural reading of Scripture, one that flies in the face of grammatical-historical principles of interpretation. It may also thereby raise doubts about the clarity of Scripture — particularly so if the revised reading has significant theological implications that strike at core Christian doctrines. A “Sophie’s Choice” between denying the inerrancy of Scripture and denying the clarity of Scripture isn’t a pleasant prospect, especially if I have strong rational grounds for both doctrines.

3. Given the difficulties presented by rejecting P (on the assumption that the exegetical basis for P is very strong) it makes sense to ask what influence (if any) scientific evidences should have on our interpretation of Scripture. I believe that all truth is God’s truth, that God reveals truths in both general (natural) revelation and special revelation, and that there can be no final contradiction between general revelation and special revelation. Any apparent conflict must be merely apparent, and we should look for ways to resolve the apparent conflict that honor both forms of revelation.

It ought to be uncontroversial that our interpretation of Scripture is influenced in large measure by extra-biblical knowledge: linguistic knowledge, historical knowledge, cultural knowledge, etc. Moreover, I think there are relatively uncontroversial cases where our reading of the Bible can be (and has been) revised by scientific knowledge. For example, in Mark 4:31 Jesus says that the mustard seed is “the smallest of all seeds on earth”. Scientists tell us that there are, as a matter of fact, smaller seeds than the mustard seed. Such being the case, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to adjust our interpretation of Jesus’ words accordingly (e.g., Jesus had in mind those seeds planted by people for crops in first-century Palestine, a contextual qualification that was probably taken for granted by his audience).

So there doesn’t seem to be anything objectionable in principle about scientific knowledge informing our interpretations of Scripture. The problem arises, however, when scientific knowledge is given “veto power” over our best historical-grammatical interpretations of Scripture, forcing us to accept very contrived readings of the text.

4. I agree with Cornelius Van Til that natural revelation, since it is no less divine revelation than special revelation, has the attributes of necessity, sufficiency, authority, and clarity. (See, e.g., his essay ‘Nature and Scripture’.) But I also agree with Van Til that special revelation enjoys priority over natural revelation in the sense that whenever our best interpretations of them conflict, our interpretation of natural revelation should “give way” to our interpretation of special revelation. In other words, science must submit to Scripture, rather than the reverse.

One reason for this, as Calvin argued, is that special revelation (i.e., the Bible) was given to us to correct our sinful distortions of natural revelation. Scripture gives us the “spectacles” we need to read nature aright, not the reverse. (See Calvin’s Institutes, 1.6.1 & 1.14.1.) A further reason, in my view, is the very high view of Scripture reflected in Jesus’ use of the Old Testament. As a follower of Christ, I don’t want to hold any lower a view of Scripture than he did. So if I’m ever faced with a choice between what Scripture appears to tell me and what science appears to tell me, I will always err on the side of Scripture in the absence of any more satisfying resolution.

5. Of course, what we’d really like to determine here is just how strong the exegetical evidence for P has to be for me to be rationally justified in rejecting Q. I don’t see that there’s any easy way to answer that question. There’s certainly no straightforward formula for us to apply. But then, the same is true in most other areas of life (e.g., evaluating political issues). Each of us has to think through the issues as best we can, try to get as objective a view of the overall evidence as we can, and make our own best judgment with a clear conscience. As I’ve explained, when push comes to shove, my overall theology of revelation means that I consider it safest to side with Scripture in the case of any apparent conflict with contemporary science — all the more so when the historic testimony of the church supports that judgment.

6. Rejecting mainstream scientific opinion is never a comfortable move, even when rationally and morally justified, so it’s worth considering how much stock to put in scientific consensus. (According to the scenario we’re considering here, it’s the scientific consensus on the empirical evidence, rather than a personal evaluation of that evidence, that serves as the grounds for believing Q.) In general, I respect scientific consensus and normally have no reason to doubt it on matters that don’t have significant religious, ethical, or political implications. But when the scientific consensus is tied up with other matters in which people have significant vested interests, I’m more skeptical.

Take global warming, for example. I’m happy to grant there’s good evidence for global warming in the sense that the average temperature of the planet has steadily increased over the last hundred years or so. But we’re routinely told by the media that all reputable scientists agree not only that global warming has occurred, but also that (i) this is largely due to carbon dioxide emissions, (ii) human economic activity is one of the main contributors to these emissions, (iii) it will be very, very bad for our planet if this continues, and (iv) if we take certain drastic actions (e.g., those demanded by the Kyoto Protocol) then we can avert disaster, despite the considerable economic costs involved.

These far more ambitious claims are based in large part on computer models. The models are very sophisticated, no doubt, but anyone who has worked with computer models (as I have) knows that such models are notoriously dependent on extrapolations, simplifications, and assumptions that often owe more to intuitions or guesswork than hard empirical data. I have good reason to conclude, therefore, that the media-reported scientific consensus on global warming is not a reliable guide to the actual facts of the matter. The claims made go far beyond the empirical evidence and don’t warrant the degree of certainty attributed to them. Furthermore, it isn’t hard to see that the “global warming consensus” is driven as much by political and economic factors as by dispassionate evaluations of the empirical evidence. Environmentalism is the political fashion of the day. Governments are eager to throw money at the issues, and scientists are eager to catch it; they’re only human, after all. (See this recent article for other reasons to doubt the “scientific consensus”.)

[Update on 2 Dec 2009: It looks like my argument here has been nicely confirmed by the recent Climategate scandal.]

7. All this to say that it’s not unreasonable to question the epistemic force of scientific consensus, especially in cases where the claims made have significant religious, ethical, or political implications. And there are further reasons not to give it too much weight. For one thing, most scientists are specialists. They have no more expertise on most scientific issues (and may in fact have less) than a well-read non-scientist. (I’m speaking here of professional scientists.) This holds even for biologists when it comes to the evidential basis for neo-Darwinism, if my personal experience of biologists is anything to go by. They’re exposed to the standard textbook case for evolution in their undergraduate studies, alongside all the other core topics in biology; most have no reason to question it (and plenty of reason not to) and so it persists unchallenged as a background assumption without much further evaluation. Then one day they’re invited to answer a poll question on whether or not the scientific evidence for evolution is compelling and — surprise, surprise — they reply in the affirmative.

8. Another consideration: the scientific community is no more immune to peer-pressure than any other community. In fact, scientific peer-pressure may be one of the strongest forms. Labels like “unscientific” and “pseudo-scientific” carry the worse kind of stigma. And the pressure to conform to Darwinian orthodoxy is considerable. It’s no secret that scientists in the West who express doubts about Darwinism face ridicule, ostracism, and — in the most extreme cases — loss of livelihood. Expelled wasn’t an exposé for those who had already been following the debate over Intelligent Design. So here we find one more reason not to put too much stock in scientific consensus, especially when it comes to evolutionary theory. There’s clearly more going on than a sober evaluation of empirical evidence.

9. I don’t buy into Thomas Kuhn’s scientific anti-realism, but I think his account of the role paradigms play in the scientific community has much to be said for it. It seems to me that neo-Darwinism is almost a paradigm example (so to speak) of a scientific paradigm. It’s taken for granted by nearly all scientists. It largely predetermines how the evidence should be interpreted (e.g., the fossil record), what theories are deemed viable and ‘scientific’, what assumptions can be made, what the ‘problems’ are that need to be solved, what methods can be used to solve them, and what research programs are worthy of time and funding. What’s more, it’s suspiciously resistant to empirical disconfirmation, despite the growing number of ‘anomalies’. If neo-Darwinism currently functions much like a Kuhnian paradigm, the scientific consensus in its favor may be worth little more than the consensus in favor of phlogiston theory 300 years ago or Newtonian physics 200 years ago.

10. I’ve made some observations about scientific consensus in general, but also raised some specific questions about the consensus in favor of evolutionary theory. Here’s one final observation on the latter. It’s worth noting that the “overwhelming evidence” cited today in support of evolution is not the same “overwhelming evidence” that was cited 50 years ago. Back then, the emphasis was on evidences such as Darwin’s finches, peppered moths, homology, embryonic recapitulation, and so forth. It’s now widely (if reluctantly) conceded that these don’t offer the evidential support they were once thought to. So now the emphasis has shifted to evidence from biogeography, genetics, and molecular biology. What this suggests is that the support for the theory of evolution among scientists was never based wholly — or even primarily — on “slam dunk” empirical evidences. Would we be surprised to find, 50 years from now, that the scientific case for evolution has been relocated to yet other evidential avenues?

11. So far, I’ve considered the first two of our three options: rejecting P and rejecting Q. But what about the third option? If we’re convinced that our evidential grounds for P and Q are strong, the most rational solution might well be to reject ~(P & Q) — that is, to conclude that the apparent conflict between P and Q is merely apparent. We may not be able to explain just how they’re to be reconciled, but if both P and Q are strongly warranted, and aren’t clearly and explicitly contradictory, the mere fact that we cannot (yet) reconcile them need not serve as a defeater for their conjunction. (Some readers may be aware that I discuss closely-related issues in my book on paradoxical Christian doctrines.)

Let’s consider the case of evolutionary theory in this regard. Suppose that some Christian — call him Sam — is convinced that Scripture commits him to the historicity of Adam, but also that the evolutionary account of human origins is substantially correct. (Again, for the record, this is not my position; I’m only considering it for argument’s sake.) In fact, let’s amplify the problem by supposing that Sam believes in evolution not merely on the basis of scientific consensus, but on the basis of a thorough personal evaluation of the empirical evidence, so that the doubts I raised above (about scientific consensuses) are less relevant. Can he continue to rationally believe both P and Q?

On the face of it, it’s hard to see why not. As far as I can tell, the theory of evolution doesn’t entail the non-historicity of Adam. And there are a good number of Christian scholars who accept some version of theistic evolution whilst also maintaining that Adam was a real historical person and the head (in some relevant sense) of the human race. Apparently they don’t see any logical incompatibility between the two views.

The commenter (Keith) who originally posed the question said he could imagine at least a couple of ways in which “a belief in evolution would undermine belief in a historical Adam.” I can too, but it’s dubious whether any of these considerations would involve an outright contradiction between the two beliefs. I’m aware that some have raised more direct scientific arguments against the existence of an original human pair (based on backwards extrapolations of the current human gene pool). However, these aren’t based on evolutionary theory alone but rather evolutionary theory supplemented with other arguments. And those supplementary arguments are even more inferential, speculative, and tenuous. In any case, even if those arguments were sound, it wouldn’t follow that the person called Adam in the Bible never existed (even if they imply other things about the human race that are difficult to reconcile with what the Bible says about Adam).

12. Still, one might argue that while evolutionary theory isn’t logically incompatible with the historicity of Adam, it at least renders it highly unlikely. But even if we grant this, it doesn’t follow for a moment that Sam couldn’t rationally believe both.

Let E stand for the proposition that the theory of evolution is substantially true, H for the proposition that Adam was a real historical individual, and S for the proposition that the most natural reading of Scripture strongly supports the historicity of Adam (as I argued earlier). Even if P(H|E) is very low (i.e., the probability that H is true given that E is true) it doesn’t follow that P(H|E&S) is very low. Indeed, P(H|E&S) may turn out to be very high.

Consider this analogy. The probability of getting a perfect bridge hand in a single deal is extremely low. (I’m told it’s about one in 160 billion.) But suppose I’m fortunate enough to be dealt that hand; I can see the cards (all 13 spades) in front of me. Should I refuse to believe that I’ve actually been dealt that hand because I know that its prior probability is incredibly low? Of course not! I have other epistemic grounds for my belief, namely, my direct observations. By the same principle, Sam could have a warranted belief in H even if he also believes that P(H|E) is very low. The divine testimony of Scripture is sufficient to warrant his belief in H despite the considerations to the contrary.

Indeed, the same goes for other Christian beliefs. From a purely scientific point of view, the probability that the Red Sea parted when Moses raised his staff is extremely low; yet I know that it happened. From a purely scientific point of view, the probability of an axe head floating is also extremely low; yet I know that it happened. From a purely scientific point of view, the probability of a crucified man coming back to life three days later is extremely low; yet I know that it happened. In each case, the scientific evidence is only one variable in the epistemic equation — and it’s far from decisive.

13. So this is where the above considerations lead me. Given (i) a conservative evangelical view of biblical inspiration, (ii) a recognition of the non-evidential factors that contribute to scientific consensuses, and (iii) the fallible and probabilistic nature of large-scale scientific theories (especially ones that concern past unrepeatable events), I don’t believe a strong consensus that there is “slam dunk” evidence for such-and-such a scientific theory (e.g.,  neo-Darwinian evolution) could give a Christian sufficient reason to adopt an unnatural, contrived, and historically novel reading of Scripture.

14. Readers interested to know what far brighter minds that mine think about these and related issues should check out these exchanges between Alvin Plantinga, Howard Van Till, Pattle Pun, Ernan McMullin, and William Hasker. (Try to overlook the atrocious use of Comic Sans font on the main page.) I think Plantinga has the better of the argument, but that’s probably because out of all the participants his theological and epistemological outlook is closest to my own.

8 thoughts on “Scripture or Science?”

  1. Thanks for the lengthy response to my question!

    I will have to read it again more thoroughly, but I did have a few comments in my first read through.
    1. You wrote, “In general, I respect scientific consensus and normally have no reason to doubt it on matters that don’t have significant religious, ethical, or political implications. But when the scientific consensus is tied up with other matters in which people have significant vested interests, I’m more skeptical.” Is this based upon your view of the noetic influence of sin or some other reason? I know a number of theologians have argued that we should expect the noetic influence of sin to be stronger in areas more connected to the heart (e.g. psychology vs. algebra problems).
    2. I was trying to avoid the rejecting ~(P & Q) option by stipulating it as a slam dunk. I realize that made the illustration more artificial and hypothetical (as the whole scenario is for many Christians since they don’t put as much stock in scientific consensus about evolution), but I was trying to get at the broader epistemic/theological/hermeneutical issue.
    3. I wrote a paper for a seminar on an issue like this, but instead of scientific evidence/arguments I was looking at philosophical arguments. So it wasn’t an option for me to raise the issues you raised with “scientific consesus” in general and evolution in particular. I tried focusing on the theological rationale you presented, but I had a very hard time making my case. One interesting issue that came to my mind in your point (12) is whether there is a certain similarity to the issue of miracles. Yet I am not sure that any insight I could draw from that would transfer to the same issue with philosophical arguments.

    Thanks again for the response.

    1. Yes, it turned out a lot longer than I intended! But it was a good opportunity to articulate my thoughts on the issue, so thanks again for the question.

      As to your first point, my qualified skepticism about scientific consensus is based partly on my view of the noetic effects of sin, as you suggest, but also on an understanding of human psychology that would be shared by many non-Christians. In short: it’s human nature to be inclined toward interpretations and conclusions that (i) fit with one’s personal outlook on life and (ii) fit with the expectations of one’s community.

  2. Thank you very much for this in-depth response. It seems very solid. I agree with 99%

    However, I want to critique the examples you chose in #12. You’re failing to make an important distinction–a distinction that is frequently overlooked by Christians discussing these issues. (I’m not sure whether this matters to the specific point you were making, but I do believe it’s an important consideration–and it’s one that deserves attention in such an in-depth discussion of the issues.)


    From a purely scientific point of view, the probability that the Red Sea parted when Moses raised his staff is extremely low;

    In one sense, that’s true. In another sense, science says absolutely nothing about whether the Red Sea parted when Moses raised his staff.

    There is scientific evidence about how the universe works. It tells us that there is no natural way for such a thing to happen. And Christians agree with that conclusion. (The same goes for floating axe heads and resurrections.)

    That’s about evidence pointing to natural law.

    On the other hand, there is scientific evidence about what has happened in the past. In that category we have distant starlight, paleontology, radioisotopes, or the evolutionary lines of argument you mentioned–biogeography & comparative genetics. This is where non-theistic evolutionists tend to disagree with the general consensus. (I think I would also include evidence about what’s happening in the present, but in places we can’t directly observe or easily control–like observations of the center of the earth, or most astronomy. It’s not identical, but it’s similar.)

    That’s about evidence pointing to what happened. Like forensics.

    Science tells us that resurrections don’t happen in natural law, but it doesn’t suggest anything about Christ’s resurrection, in the forensic sense.

    And usually, when Christians go old-earth or theistic-evolutionist, it’s usually because of what they perceive in the forensic scientific evidence about what actually happened. They’re comparing their interpretation of Scripture’s testimony about what happened, with their interpretation of what the physical evidence tells us about what happened.

    Scientific evidence about natural law doesn’t even apparently contradict Scriptural testimony about what happened.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I agree that this is an important distinction, but I’m not sure how it bears on the point I made. My point was simply that recognizing the low probability of some state-of-affairs with respect to scientific evidence alone (whether evidence about natural laws or evidence about what happened in the past) needn’t defeat a person’s belief that the state-of-affairs has obtained. It’s a general point about probability and epistemic defeaters which doesn’t depend on the kind of scientific evidence in view. But that’s not to deny, as you point out, the relevance of the distinction in other contexts.

  3. Fascinating discussion. The ASA had a panel on Adam at its conference over the summer; audio recordings are available at the website (Symposium II). I look forward to reading Prof Collins’ paper when it becomes available.

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  5. Dear James,

    As a cautionary note, which I hope will be taken in the spirit of how brothers should regard their own, as well as other’s logs and motes in the eyes, I would like to offer my own re-phrasing of one of your points.

    I hope anyone involved in this controversy will consider this *very well*. Total depravity means that all men, redeemed or otherwise, are blind and need the cross constantly– Van Til notwithstanding.

    The “peer pressure among scientists” argument, commonly heard from dedicated biblicists, is one of those which cuts both ways.



    8. Another consideration: the protestant evangelical community is no more immune to peer-pressure than any other community. In fact, protestant evangelical peer-pressure may be one of the strongest forms. Labels like “unbiblical” and “denial of inerrancy” carry the worse kind of stigma. And the pressure to conform to protestant evangelical interpretive orthodoxy is considerable. It’s no secret that protestant evangelicals in the West who express doubts about young earth creationism or ID face ridicule, excommunication, and — in the most extreme cases — loss of livelihood… …So here we find one more reason not to put too much stock in protestant evangelical consensus, especially when it comes to evolutionary theory.

    ***There’s clearly more going on than a sober evaluation of biblical OR empirical natural evidence.***

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