Can you remember the famous refrain from the old television program called Dragnet? When questioning some witness to a crime Sergeant Joe Friday invariably intoned his signature deadpan line, “just the facts, sir, just the facts,” ─ implying that facts speak for themselves. Or do they? Television programs need to wrap up everything in a neat, tidy bundle at the end of a 30 or 60 minute segment and so factual evidence is often presented as unimpeachable. But if that were the case in real life there would really be no need for courts, judges, or juries would there?
The reality is that simple facts rarely tell the whole story. In order to ascertain the truth facts need to be weighed in some larger context. We need to know all the circumstances. There are hidden truths underlying even the most banal and seemingly obvious facts. That “My shoes are tan,” may be an unimpeachable fact to the eyes, but what if the lights suddenly go out? Are my shoes really tan or is tan simply a reflective quality observable in a certain light? In a darkly lit nightclub the phosphorescent lighting may turn my tan shoes a deep vermillion or perhaps muddy green. In fact what is really meant by the adjective “tan?” A sampling of the shoe leather under a microscope would quickly dispel the notion that “tan-ness” is any inherent substance in the leather. In short, things that we commonly observe as “factual” very often possess a far more complex reality.
Plain facts are not always sufficient to draw reliable conclusions. They require careful scrutiny without which facts may easily lead one into error, even mob action. Society has developed judicial institutions as a way to sort through the tangle of competing facts and, hopefully, arrive at reasonably truthful conclusions. For instance, it may be a fact that officer “A” shot citizen “B” but until one knows all the circumstances surrounding that unfortunate event it is dangerous to draw conclusions about motives, guilt, or innocence. That is why uncertain cases are handed over to an independent judicial body charged with impartially carrying out any subsequent inquest. That body may be given numerous “facts” but in order to arrive at a just and reasonable conclusion the facts are weighed carefully against one another, circumstances taken into account, motives probed, reliability of witnesses considered, etc. Granted, no system is fail safe still, legal procedures function far better than some visceral mob response.
There are billions upon billions of facts circulating around this universe which somehow interface with the truth, yet in order to make any sense of that mountain of disparate facts one must generally rely on some competent authority. No single human being has a reservoir of brain cells large enough to assimilate and coordinate a limitless quantity of facts on a multitude of subjects. The Supreme Court acts as such an authority but only as far as interpreting the meaning of laws within the broader scope of the Constitution. But the Court has no expertise in, nor ability to interpret the laws of physics for example. We rely on physicists to do that just as we depend on chemists to explain the principles of chemistry or theologians to decipher the mysteries of God and religion. In every case we depend on experts well versed in a particular field of knowledge to gather the facts together and interpret them in a rational and, hopefully, truthful way.
Facts are like so many datum points that can only give one a general outline of reality because reality is often complex, like an onion that is layered. Peeling off one layer only reveals more layers beneath which provide more facts that require further analysis in order to be understood. Without careful scrutiny facts can easily be used to support competing interpretations, even false conclusions just as evidence in a courtroom may not always lead to a just verdict. If facts alone invariably led to self evident conclusions there would be little need for juries to deliberation or scientific inquiry for that matter. But the quest for truth is often mysterious and leads even so-called experts into a great many conflicts.
Science v. religion, the current day manifestation of the debate between faith and reason provides a classic case study. Sometime in the 19th century a strange notion began to assert itself that science and religion were somehow inherently incompatible in their views. By mid 20th century scientists and religious figures were not merely jabbing at one another, many of them had declared open warfare. This senseless dispute has tarnished the credibility of both camps, but more-so on the religious side, I think. Initially, Enlightenment inspired anti-theism provoked a fight that might have been defused early on if certain clerics had showed more willingness to intelligently consider new scientific theories, not necessarily as fact but merely as possibilities.
Consider all the squawking over something as basic as estimating the age of the earth. For decades geologists, paleontologists, and even astrophysicists have synchronized numerous facts from extensive fossil records, residue from ancient volcanic eruptions, the time it takes for light to travel between interstellar bodies, even the breakdown of radioactive elements to demonstrate evidence of a very old universe. After nearly 200 years of observing, analyzing, and cross-referencing vast quantities of data (facts), the large majority of scientists now generally agree on an estimate of the earth’s age as being somewhere in the ballpark of 4.6 billion years. Against this body of carefully vetted evidence a significant number of Young-Earth Creationists still point to a few short texts in the biblical Book of Genesis and respond, “No, such an earth age is impossible because the Bible says such and such.” They insist unyieldingly that the earth cannot be much more than 10,000 years old in spite of overwhelming geologic evidence to the contrary.
Such obstinacy only provides fodder for religious critics who, for reasons of their own, delight in making all religious believers look ridiculous. Thus, they eagerly tar anyone who credits God with creation, regardless of the time-frame involved, as obscurants. The whole debate is a tempest in a teacup exploited by journalists and sensationalists whose currency is public controversy for the sake of controversy. But what the creationists really fear, I believe, is not a geologically old earth but those neo-Darwinian theories that tend to strip humans down to the animal level. That is a different argument altogether and one which truly represents an affront to the Christian understanding of man’s great dignity as made in God’s own image. It is interesting that one contemporary scientist, an atheist even, noted that modern science has a tendency to “humanize” animals and “animalize” humans. It is an astute observation for a non-believer. Modern man seems to be gradually losing any sense of special relationship with his Creator which only turns him more to the savage side of his nature.
Is neo-Darwinism really a credible threat to faith and the revealed word of God in Scripture? Perhaps less than some Evangelicals may fear. Evolution describes a process but it fails to account for a primary cause. Any well formed Christian should understand the difference, however. God is the first cause of all being regardless of whichever processes He may have used in accomplishing his creative ends. But to confuse a mechanistic process with the Mind which designed and set it in motion it is not particularly rational. Still, too many scientists and teachers treat evolutionary processes as if these were effectively the cause of life. This is shoddy science and shoddier reasoning. Classic Darwinism and subsequent neo-Darwinism are purely materialistic systems which is why they cannot attribute any first cause to the creation. God, being pure Mind, transcends all material contingencies.
Many fundamentalist Christians argue that there is another important principle at stake here, which is the inerrancy of the Bible as the inspired word of God. In short, is the Bible true or not? Can it be relied upon as a credible authority? As a spiritual authority, yes! But the job of Holy Writ is not to scientific investigation. The job of science is to help us more fully understand the natural world. It is not an attack on the Scriptures. Truth is truth, whether it is about God or about his creation. Problems only arise when one expects spiritual truths about immaterial things to conveniently dovetail with our limited human understanding of this purely material world. It’s really apples and oranges at that point, folks. The Bible exists to deepen our understanding of spiritual realities, not material ones. We don’t expect the Supreme Court to decide the optimum launch date for the next space probe. It is equally absurd to expect that the Bible inform us about the processes that formed the Rocky Mountains. Just so, no rational person would consult a geology manual in order to discern what God thinks about sleeping with your neighbor’s wife.
There are many different competent authorities which exist to answer different questions. The Bible is not concerned with the myriad processes that went into making up the world as we see it today. The message of Scripture speaks directly to man’s proper relationship with God and neighbor, a very different subject. To argue that the alliterative language of the Bible must also function to answer scientific inquiries is both presumptuous and unreasonable. And to try to bend science in order to fit poetical Scripture passages is a betrayal of both science and the Sacred Scriptures.
Faith and reason are unique gifts from God himself which he intended for our joy and edification. He gave us rational natures so that we might come to better understand and therefore rejoice in his magnificent creation. But he also gave us a spiritual sense so that we could come to know him, the wholly (and holy) spiritual Supreme Being who, incidentally, is also responsible for the material realm. Faith should not preclude reason just as reason must never preclude faith. Both are designed to lead one towards ultimate fulfillment, which is found only in God. The Bible is not meant to mislead either our faith or our reason, nor will it when properly interpreted and understood.
The beauty of the natural sciences is that, as the 21st century progresses, true scientists are getting beyond the old 19th century prejudices about science somehow butting heads with revealed religion. (It’s time to put the whole Galileo business to rest. A careful reading of that incident shows that both sides were simply caught up in their own intransigence.) The fact is that scientists are more and more discovering that earlier assumptions of an accidental universe no longer even fit the parameters of mathematical probability. Astronomers and physicists are slowly coming to the conclusion that our universe is no mere “cosmic accident.” As one Oxford University don recently stated, “the more we get to know about the universe, the more the hypothesis that there is a Creator… gains in credibility.” (Dr. John Lennox) There are insignificant facts and then there are hugely important facts. But all true facts, large and small, somehow fit together like a multi-dimensional jigsaw puzzle that will one day be revealed to us in its beautifully finished form, a magnificent work of God’s creative genius.
Francis J. Pierson