Dystopian science

Part 2: Conspiracy theories require a magical world

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Published: 4 April 2019 (GMT+10)
Diagram of Kepler’s Laws

In Part 1 of ‘Dystopian Science’, we set up a scenario where humanity is re-emerging from a major catastrophe, like a nuclear war, and we asked how long it would take to rebuild modern science (if you haven’t read Part 1, please go back and do so now). Even though much knowledge would be lost in such a scenario, we specifically said that people still had the Bible. We established that the Bible gives us a reason to believe that the world is real, that our perceptions of it conform closely to reality, and that nature works in ways that are generally consistent. These assumptions are grounded in the teaching of Scripture and are the basis of all branches of modern science.

We know that the Bible can give rise to science in our dystopian scenario, because it has already given rise to science in the real world. From history, we know the founders of most of the branches of modern science were Christians. They were doing science because they believed they were, in the words of the great astronomer Johannes Kepler, “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.” They were using these very assumptions, and these assumptions are what underpins the entire field we call “science”. We can now go out and perform experiments, and then extrapolate those results logically (since logic is based in the Person and Word of God) to come up with conclusions about how the world works. So it is not illogical to suggest that in a dystopian scenario, the Bible would again give rise to science, as long as there were still people around who wanted to “think God’s thoughts after Him.”

Many people today hold to one or more conspiracy theories that, if they were to be consistent, require the world to be unreal, as we documented previously. For example, among these alternate scientific ideas is the thought that the earth is the center of the universe and that everything revolves around us. But that contradicts many, many experiments in basic science. It is not just that NASA must be a billion-dollar lie-generating machine, but scientists all the way back to Newton (who gave us modern physics) must be wrong. Another, even more sketchy, alternate idea is that the earth is flat. This flies in the face of almost everything we know about science, but it also contradicts everything we know about other fields, like economics (or all international airlines would be forced to go bankrupt as they massively miscalculated their fuel costs).

This does not mean that the scientific consensus should not be challenged. Far from it! Science advances as older, sometimes flawed ideas are challenged and replaced with better ideas. And the Bible allows for this, because, while it is not a science textbook, it gives us a framework and a mandate for science. It also gives us a way of thinking that should enable us to more and more closely approach the truth, or at least to disprove false ideas.

The challenging part is to ensure that we are asking good questions that are based on good data, and that we are doing so in a way that is honoring to God and His revelation to us.

The Bible: our foundational authority

All knowledge is predicated on authority. We stated in part 1 that our absolute authority is the Word of God. But how do we know what the Word of God is? To answer that, we are going to have to apply our God-given abilities to think and study. But that also means using our God-given ability to consider information from previous generations who have also thought and studied about the Bible. Christians throughout Church history have studied the various candidates and accepted the 66 books of our Bible as inspired Scripture. We accept their authority, because we can’t go back and re-do every bit of studying that those thousands of people have already done for us. See How Did We Get Our Bible? for more information.

By the way, in today’s world, this doesn’t mean that we accept the 66 books, and only those, blindly.1 We can read the Bible and see how all the books belong there and are consistent with each other. We can read other ancient documents (like the so-called Gospel of Thomas) and see that they don’t belong.

How we know whether to accept or reject authorities

Most of the ‘big’ questions require that we trust others. We cannot be in all places at the same time and we need to lean on the expertise and data collected by others. Because of our finite abilities, we must take the simple step of pooling effort and information among multiple fallible people. By doing this, we can figure out more, and figure it out faster. Over time, building upon the work of previous generations, that increases our ability to do science and figure out the nature of reality exponentially. In fact, our entire modern scientific world is built on a platform of trust.

But it’s not built on blind trust. As Christians, we have an authoritative body of information—the Bible. We believe that God has given us true statements of fact in His inspired Word. Moreover, we have good reasons for believing the Bible has been well-preserved. So, if we reason from the Bible, and only the Bible—as best we can manage it—what can we know?

We can test authority. We can see if it should be trusted. And we can reject authorities when needed. But we need to do so cautiously; if we are to do so, we need a good reason. We also need to understand that, if we do so, we are likely not going without any authority, but trading one authority for another. For instance, perhaps ‘Big Pharma’ is only peddling vaccines because they want to make lots of money. But is the person claiming this acting purely out of pure benevolence with no monetary incentives? Often, they are also selling or supporting an alternative therapy. Likewise, it’s fine to be skeptical of NASA, but we should be just as skeptical of the random person with a blog. Big corporations have sometimes-sinister motives, but so do individuals. In the end, applying good science and sound reasoning can tell us that, in fact, NASA is not lying about the shape of the earth or the nature of gravity. When they get into exobiology, however, we can disagree with them and still remain on a sound footing.

One way to test an authority is to look for contradictions. You can also judge an authority, or claimed authority, based on an authority you’ve already deemed to be trustworthy. If a claimed authority is refuted by mathematics, it is wrong, according to the laws of basic logic. If a claimed authority contradicts what we know to be true in Scripture, it is wrong. If a claimed authority comes up with a new doctrine that no other Christian ever saw in the Bible, it is probably wrong. Likewise, if an authority challenges us to reject something that Christians have always taught and believed, we need to be extremely skeptical.

This does not mean that authorities always win. In fact, there are multiple times in Church history where an authority was tried and found wanting. Examples include the early debates on the Trinity, of which there were several important people holding to something most Christians today consider heresy. Another example is the challenge Martin Luther issued to the Catholic church that sparked what we call the Protestant Reformation. But there were other Christians making similar challenges in all the centuries leading up to Luther. This tells us that we should challenge authorities, but for the right reasons only.

Luther on trial at Worms by Anton von Werner, 1877.

A consistent approach that asks good questions

We should all strive for consistency in the way we think. This unlocks another key in our quest to rebuild science. Does a certain theory require you to think inconsistently? Do the facts in front of you reflect the conclusions the person is drawing from them? Is the person drawing conclusions that contradict what is obviously true, or are they perhaps drawing conclusions beyond what is warranted by the facts? These are all warning signs that perhaps what is being discussed is actually false. But this does not mean we know everything.

The predictions of opposing scientific theories often overlap. Any argument that is true for both sides (zone II) cannot be used as proof for one side. Yet, we often hear arguments like, “The fact that species change over time proves Darwinian evolution.” But since 'change over time' is accepted by biblical creationists, this cannot be “proof” of evolution.

As we learn and grow, everyone eventually comes to realize that all systems have unanswerable questions. This is the case whether or not you believe in God. It is also the case whether or not you accept the Bible as your starting foundation. All religions and philosophical schemes have unanswerable questions. But having incomplete information does not invalidate a system of thought. There are things we cannot and will never know. However, there are things that we can know (e.g. a man named Jesus walked this earth about 2,000 years ago) and things that we can safely assume (e.g. the New Testament writers were not insane). What the student of knowledge needs to do is figure such things out. It is not always easy.

We also need to carefully craft the questions we ask so that they actually get us to a relevant answer. This is harder than it seems and all sorts of people (from politicians to theologians) can use an easy trick to deceive people. What is the trick? It is to simply say a bunch of things that are true, and that match the theory being discussed, even if they do nothing to answer the question. We see examples of this in evolutionary writings all the way back to the time of Charles Darwin. For example, he wrote about natural selection, but creationists had been writing about that for decades prior to Darwin (e.g. Edward Blyth). Thus, while natural selection might be part of a model of evolution, it is also part of most models of creation. Both sides accept the fact that the organism and the environment interact and that this interaction over the long term might affect what genes are carried in future generations. Natural selection is what we call “non-discriminating information”. That is, it is an idea that cannot be used to separate evolution from creation, because both sides accept it as a given.

The idea of non-discriminating information was described a couple years ago in How to think, not what to think. We are serious about helping people to approach the world in a rational way, and this concept is a great way to do that. Essentially, any two theories that are designed to answer a question usually have a certain amount of overlap. This is definitely true in the evolution/creation debate. Both sides claim things change over time and that similar looking things should be more similar in their genetics than more dissimilar things, for example. Thus, if you want to really get to the heart of an argument, you have to get outside the area of overlap; you have to ask questions that really separate the two ideas. So talking about natural selection will generally not get you anywhere, but talking about the absolute improbability of the origin of life from non-living chemicals will.

Does my evidence support what I think it does?

While we are going about trying to ask good questions, we also have to learn to properly differentiate bad arguments from good ones. This is actually very hard to do, and almost everybody is subject to lapses of reason when they are trying to defend a certain position. But we learn. We grow. We correct. And then we try again. While we are trying to rebuild science from the ground up, however, we start with a tremendous advantage, for we already have a worldview that is strongly influenced by the Bible. It would be shocking to think that, in our imaginary scenario, people might fall back to “Zeus on a mountaintop” religious views. It is hard to imagine this happening because we have been so influenced by the biblical idea that the universe follows a certain set of prescribed rules. So even if incorrect religious views do appear, they should be corrected quickly. But remember, our initial setup specifically included the existence of the Bible. This will help us to jumpstart our return to civilization.

How fast might science advance in our new world? Probably faster than it did initially. But even if it takes centuries to get to where we once were, so what? By following the principles laid out in the Bible we should be able to make tremendous advances in knowledge quickly. We might have to wait for civilization to develop substantially to make some gains (for example, to re-discover practical nuclear energy you first need a large mining industry and a large enough population to sustain such an industry), but all the groundwork will be done fairly quickly.

The Bible gave science a tremendous boost once. It can do it again.

We wonder if methodological naturalism would re-emerge in our Bible-influenced new world. Sadly, we believe it would. The universe clearly obeys laws, and those laws were clearly discovered though a biblical approach to science, but the laws were essentially kidnapped by the philosophy of naturalism during a period in history called the Enlightenment. It was during this time that philosophers steered the scientists away from God as an explanation for the universe. Essentially, once the universe was discovered to operate according to law, the Lawgiver was forgotten. Sadly, this would probably happen again because, as we read in Romans 8:7:

For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.

Yet, methodological naturalism is being questioned by many young professors today. They were raised with an understanding of how complex life is and with the idea that Darwinism really struggles to explain this complexity. This is why many are turning toward ‘Gaia’, or ‘emergent complexity’, or ‘directed panspermia’. The latter are essentially saying, “Aliens did it”. We cannot say such a thing will not happen again, and it might happen quickly, but the Bible will still shine brightly against such views because it provides a real alternative. The fact is, the universe makes sense. But why it makes sense makes no sense, in most systems of thought. Einstein (who was himself an atheist2) said:

The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility…The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.3

Once again, the comprehensibility of the universe can be directly derived from the Bible.

When (not if) scientists lie

Today, a random person with a blog can get their message out there as easily as NASA can, and sometimes they can even seem more persuasive than the biggest authorities. Yes, people will cheat, because they are sinful, but cheaters eventually get caught, especially when what they are saying flies in the face of real facts. Can we decide, using nothing but a biblical approach to knowledge, who is right: the blogosphere or traditional authorities?

Yes, we can decide, but we have to take everything on a case-by-case basis. We don’t have to trust NASA with every truth claim it makes just because it is correct that the earth is round and that we did go to the moon.

What can we know?

In Part 3 (coming soon), we will attempt to outline how we can rebuild the foundations of modern science using very simple tools and very simple record keeping. We will be able to test the ‘authorities’ and we will be able to build on what we know. Our goal is to show you why the evidence is consistent with the earth being round, that the earth goes around the sun, and that controlled scientific experiments are better than opinion. But we will also attempt to show why evolution fails to explain origins.

References and notes

  1. We are not going to get into issues of text criticism and language translation, which would obviously complicate the scenario even more. Return to text.
  2. Einstein privately wrote in 1954, ‘The word God is for me nothing but the expression of and product of human weaknesses … ’ Barron, J., Einstein’s ‘God Letter,’ a Viral Missive From 1954, nytimes.com, 2 December 2018. Return to text.
  3. Robinson, A., We Just Can’t Stop Misquoting Einstein, primemind.com, 14 March 2016. Return to text.

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