Theories of Knowledge (or – What Are Some Starting Points for Christians Thinking about Science and Epistemology?)
The word “epistemology” comes from the Greek episteme, which is one of that language’s words for “knowledge.” I used to teach a college course called “Epistemology” but the name scared off too many potential students, so we changed it to “Theories of Knowledge.” Perhaps here too we ought to make the question sound less like we’re trying to decide on some kind of medical procedure!
The question in the title of this chapter is trying to get at how we know things, or what sources of knowledge we should trust. I’d like to answer first by asking another question, “How do we know what?” because it makes a pretty big difference for which source of information we should look to. If you want to know what time it is, it may be best to look at your phone because it keeps the time automatically up to date. If you want to know how old a celebrity is, check her Wikipedia page. Of course these are not infallible—last week the time on my phone was goofed up and I had to restart; and anyone can edit Wikipedia. But these have fairly effective self-correcting mechanisms—I got a notification from one of my phone apps that something seemed wrong with the time, and just try changing Oprah’s age on her Wikipedia page and see how long that edit lasts. These are pretty reliable sources for that kind of information.
So perhaps we can generalize from the specific examples to answer the more general question about how we know with “take it on the authority of a reliable source.” The problem is that such an answer only pushes back the question another level: how do we know which sources are reliable? It’s not too hard to determine that when what we want to know is fairly straightforward information, like the time or someone’s age. But what if we want to know the answers to questions that are not so easy to fact check? Then, I’ll suggest, we ought to look to the experts in the relevant fields.
When our car is making a funny sound, most of us would take it to someone who knows something about auto repair. If we want to know the nuances of a word in the Old Testament, we ask a Hebrew scholar. The same goes for doctors, tax attorneys, and rocket scientists. There’s a strong anti-expert sentiment in our culture these days, but I doubt if populists go to the doctor’s office and simply poll the people in the waiting room about the best course of treatment for their sickness!
Now, of course, there is a further complication: What if the experts don’t agree? I recently edited a book called Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design. There were four experts who contributed and came to very different conclusions. I reflected in the conclusion to the book that readers might come away from the book wondering which expert they’re supposed to trust. There are no hard and fast rules to lay down for this kind of thing, but I think there are some general principles that are wise to follow:
Make sure you know what the experts have to say on the topic. Our mode of public discourse can be deceiving on this front. Even if the experts are overwhelmingly on one side, it is only fair to make sure the other sides are represented. It is easy to be left with the impression that experts are evenly divided on the subject.
When the Pew Research group asked whether scientists agree that the universe was created in a big bang, 69% of white evangelicals claimed that scientists do not agree. But when Pew asked the scientists themselves, 99% agreed. Again, the experts can be wrong, but when 99% of them agree on their area of expertise, that needs to be taken seriously. And of course you can find experts who disagree, because there are thousands and thousands of professionals working in these areas. But if we’re serious about investigating a topic, we ought to know something about the distribution of expert opinions on the matter and not assume that, say, the four views present in a book like the one I mentioned earlier reflect the consensus.
Next, there may be times that we still adopt a position that runs contrary to what the overwhelming majority of experts have to say, particularly when the topic might legitimately be influenced by factors outside of their area of expertise. The topic of human origins is one of those for Christians. We think the Bible is relevant to this question and we submit ourselves to its authority. But what does it claim about the process by which humans were created? Christian Bible scholars are divided on this. But scientists are not divided about the evidence from the natural world (99% of those working in biology and medicine are in consensus). We need to be in dialogue with these two groups, then, and it could be that we end up disagreeing with one group of experts. So my second general principle is, if you accept a view that is contrary to the vast majority of experts, there is a higher burden of proof for you. It is not enough to merely note that not all experts agree. All views should continue to be tested against new findings, but the minority report should be subjected to additional scrutiny. The amount of evidence needed to reject the majority view is much higher than the amount of evidence required for the majority to reject a minority view. Too often those holding the minority view think they have justified their position simply by pointing out areas of the majority view that have not been fully resolved—when in fact their own minority view has many more of those kinds of problems.
Finally: If you’re going to persist in holding a view that is contrary to the vast majority of experts in the field, do so with a big dose of humility. It is possible that all the experts are wrong, but most likely they are not. You’ll need to enter into dialogue with people in order to persuade them of your view, and that will go much better when you approach it with gentleness and respect. No one wants to seriously engage a know-it-all who claims that all the experts are wrong and he alone has found the truth.
So, to sum up, how do you know things in a certain field? Start with the experts. Or at least know what the range of experts has to say about the issue. If you’re going to reject the expert consensus, do so with extreme caution and extensive investigation. And do so with humility. I suppose that last bit of advice should apply to us all. A little epistemic humility goes a long way in a sincere pursuit of knowledge.
1. What are some specific topics where Christians might not trust the scientific experts?
2. What additional data do Christians bring from Scripture that might be relevant to these areas?
3. Can that scriptural data be interpreted in ways that are consistent with the consensus of scientific experts?
4. Have you seen examples of humility in action in the midst of debates about contentious issues?
5. In conversations about controversial issues, which do you struggle to maintain humility during and why?
Text of “What Are Some Starting Points for Christians Thinking about Epistemology?” Chapter 13 in Science & Faith: Student Questions Explored, Ed. Hannah Eagleson (Hendrickson, 2019) © InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA/Emerging Scholars Network, reproduced here by stump.