How Do We Know What We Know?
by Lane P. Lester, Ph.D.
Creation Research Society Quarterly 32(2) 1995
Each one of us knows lots of things. We know our name. We know our address. We know the sum of two plus two. We know which political party is best for the country... hmm. It seems that some people know things that are the opposite from what other people know. For example, many people know that evolution is the correct explanation for the history of life. But many other people know that creation is the correct explanation. How is it possible for different people to know different things? What does it mean to know something?
Perhaps we could agree that to know something is to be personally convinced of its truth. Notice the personal element here: knowing something doesn't make it true; it only means that we consider it to be true. The fact that some people know things that are the opposite from what other people know means that some people know things that are false!
Whether true or false, how do we come to know things? There are really only two ways: personal experience or someone tells us.
Each of us knows many things we learned on our own. Let me give you some examples of mine:
- Stubbing your toe is painful. Knowledge like this we pick up early in life.
- Rolling through a stop sign will get you a traffic ticket.
Actually, I had to experience this twice before I really knew it.
- Accepting Christ provides benefits in this life. I believe it was a former pastor of mine who pointed out that one of the benefits is that you associate with a better class of people! More seriously, I have the benefit of seeing my prayers answered.
- Passing electricity through water produces both hydrogen and oxygen gases. Perhaps in some science class, you also performed this classic experiment with a battery, wires, and test tubes.
SOMEONE TELLS US
If you know something and you didn't experience it yourself, someone had to tell you. Here are a few examples:
- The word "cat" is spelled "c-a-t." For the most part, education involves someone telling you things, either orally or in print.
- The speed limit on the expressway is 55 m.p.h. If you don't learn this from the printed sign, a policeman will be glad to explain it to you both orally and in print.
- Accepting Christ gives me eternal life. I haven't experienced the full truth of this yet, but God has told me in the Bible that it is so.
- Hydrogen is the smallest element. You and I lack the equipment and knowledge to determine the truth of this scientific fact, so we have to learn it from a science book.
CAN YOU TRUST YOUR OWN EYES?
In general, we are more willing to believe what we learn from personal experience than what someone tells us. But can we always believe what personal experience tells us? Would anything make you doubt the evidence of your senses? Imagine that you are walking along a busy sidewalk that fronts a large park. Out in the park you see a flying saucer descend and land. Would you immediately begin exclaiming to others about your discovery? I think I would first glance around and see if anyone else was experiencing the same thing. On the other hand, if the landing craft were a helicopter, there would be no reason to doubt what my eyes had told me.
The general principle here is that we expect to see the commonplace and not the unusual. Indeed, our senses may even lie to us based on what we expect to be true. A good example of this comes from the life of Jesus when he cries out, "Father, glorify your name! Then a voice came from heaven, 'I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.' The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him." (John 12:28-29 NIV)
WHOM DO YOU BELIEVE?
What about the things we know because someone has told us? Remember that we're defining "know" as "being personally convinced of the truth of something." Not everything that we're told is the truth, is it? What is it that makes you more inclined to believe some people than others, to add what they say to the things you know? Here's a short list of pairs of individuals who tell us things:
- casual acquaintances and best friends
- philosophy professors and science professors
- newspaper reporters and television reporters - pastors and God (Bible)
What determines how readily you would be to believe each of the above persons when they tell you something is true? Would you be more likely to believe one member rather than another in each of the above pairs? How long you've known the person might be one factor, and you would probably be more likely to believe your best friend than you would a casual acquaintance. In my case, there would be a problem because, when I was growing up, my best friend was a compulsive liar. A really nice guy, mind you, but he had a problem with the truth.
What about those two professors? If a science professor told you something about science, and the philosophy prof told you the opposite, you'd be more likely to believe the scientist, wouldn't you? So here's another factor in our willingness to believe what we're told: the expertise of the person making the statement.
Ah, but what if two equally knowledgeable people tell you opposite things, what then? This is a dilemma with which I often have to deal in questions about the creation/evolution controversy. Sure, I'm a scientist, but I certainly don't know all of science! My specialty is genetics, and I've never even had a course in geology. How do I evaluate the competing claims of evolutionist geologists and creationist geologists? Sometimes I have to choose on the basis of philosophy rather than science: I choose to believe the Christian rather than the atheist. This is not as nonrational as it may first appear. We all live our lives based on some set of assumptions of what is true, and that set of assumptions affects our decisions about many things. A person with a false philosophy will be drawn infallibly into false conclusions about important matters.
The pair of reporters in our list brings us to the question of how does the fact of something being printed affect our willingness to believe it? It seems that we're more ready to believe something that's printed than something that is just spoken, so the newspaper reporter might get more credibility than the TV journalist. Of course, Peter Jennings does look awfully sincere!
Seriously now, does something being printed mean that it is more likely to be true? Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. Sometimes all it takes to get something published is money. We need a healthy skepticism for both what we hear and what we read.
SCIENCE - A WAY OF KNOWING
Science is a very important way for coming to know things. Some of this scientific knowledge can come from personal experience, but almost all of it will come from being told by someone else. Even the science a scientist knows has come mostly from being told: through periodicals, books, meetings, etc.
Even though the achievements of science today seem very modern, the modern way of doing science actually started in the 1600s. Although it's not mentioned much and maybe hard to believe, most of the founders of modern science believed in a personal God who had created the universe. Their belief that the Creation was the result of intelligent design gave them confidence that they could study it and discover truth about it.
Because science is such an important path to knowledge and because science is so intimately associated with origins, it's important to understand something about it. Plainly stated, science proceeds by making and testing hypotheses. Scientists observe things, and then they try to explain their observations. Those explanations are called hypotheses. A hypothesis is a tentative explanation for observations, an "educated guess."
Making hypotheses about things is only the first step; much more difficult is the second step: testing hypotheses. The scientist has to design an experiment that will indicate whether the hypothesis is correct or not. Let's look at an actual example.
European eels reproduce in the Sargasso Sea, a part of the Atlantic Ocean. They migrate to freshwater streams where they spend most of their lives.. How do they find those freshwater streams from the ocean? Some scientists hypothesized that the eels are able to sense the chemical composition of freshwater. They designed an experiment to test that hypothesis, using bottles of water leading through tubing to a separate box for each bottle and then to a common box. Each bottle held a different kind of water: tap, distilled, salt, fresh (from a stream). Baby eels were placed in the common box from which they could swim through the tubes to one of the boxes holding a particular kind of water. The eels showed no preference for tap water over salt, but most of them swam into the box that contain natural freshwater. These results supported the hypothesis that the eels are able to detect the chemical nature of freshwater.
IS THE STUDY OF ORIGINS SCIENTIFIC?
There are hundreds (thousands?) of scientists studying origins: the origin of the universe, the origin of the earth, the origin of life, and the origin of species. Surely, the study of origins is scientific! Isn't it? Well, it depends on what you mean by science. If you mean the kind of science done by those studying the eels, the answer is no.
The late Dr. Richard Bliss, a great educator, explained the distinction better than anyone else when he coined the word "operation science" to contrast with "origins science." Operation science is what is done when scientists are trying to learn how something works, how it "operates." They can gather observations, make hypotheses, and test those hypotheses with experiments. Scientists who study origins can also gather observations, such as studying the stars or collecting fossils. They also can make educated guesses about what those observations mean in terms of origins. But, with few exceptions, they cannot design experiments that will determine what happened in the prehistoric past. This is the same problem faced by the forensic scientist. He or she can gather clues: fingerprints, bloodstains, fibers, etc. Using that evidence, it is possible to suggest what took place, but there is no experiment that can be done to determine whether or not that suggestion is correct.
So while scientists can provide us with valuable information about events that happened a long time ago, they cannot provide us with answers that are as final as those about things taking place today. Because of that uncertainty, we can expect the philosophy of a scientist (Conservative Christian, Liberal Christian, Orthodox Jew, Reformed Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Atheist) to affect the conclusions they'll make. Whom will you believe?
Creation Research Society Quarterly, Creation Research Society, P.O. Box 969, Ashland, OH 44805-0969, $20 per year, $15 for students. The Creation Research Society is the international creation organization for scientists and those interested in science. Articles range from general interest to highly scientific.
Acts and Facts, Institute for Creation Research, Box 2667, El Cajon, CA 92021, donations appreciated. News about ICR, a group of creation scientists. Includes articles on Biblical and scientific topics.
Creator, His Creation, P.O. Box 785, Arvada, CO 80001, donations appreciated. Fine little newsletter including excellent materials for children.
Discovery, Apologetics Press, 230 Landmark Drive, Montgomery, AL 36117, $11 per year. Brief but beautiful 7-page "monthly paper of Bible and science for kids." Packed with good stuff.
What Is Creation Science?, Henry M. Morris and Gary. E. Parker, Master Books. Good overview of the creation-evolution controversy.
The following are available from the Creation Research Society:
_Starlight and Time: Solving the Puzzle of Distant Starlight in a Young Universe_, D. Russell Humphreys, Master Books. An exciting new model for the origin of the universe, which denies neither the observations of scientists nor the truth of the Bible.
_Science and the Bible: 30 Scientific Demonstrations Illustrating Scriptural Truths_, Donald B. DeYoung, Baker Books. An excellent tool for anyone wishing to demonstrate both scientific and scriptural principles.
Creation Scientists Answer Their Critics, Duane T. Gish, Master Books. Creationism's most outspoken proponent examines the claims and writings of creation's most vocal critics.