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Friday, November 4, 2016

Objections to Bible-thumpers: "Science, Yo"

Some people believe that we have to treat the Bible skeptically on certain matters because the people who wrote it knew less about the world than we do. They did not have modern science, so in many cases they did not know what they were making pronouncements about. This (people assume) includes scientific understandings of gender and sexuality, for example. So unless we want to return to the level of science and technology of the Iron Age, we should dismiss what the Bible teaches on such topics.

Unfortunately, this assumption not only misunderstands the Bible, it also misunderstands science.

It is true that some of biblical authors' understanding of the world was inaccurate. For example, they sometimes called lightning "fire from heaven," not knowing that fire is composed of gas in a process of combustion whereas lightning is composed of plasma in an electrostatic discharge.

Yet their inaccuracies about nature appear mostly in poetry, and to this day we continue to put scientific inaccuracies in poetry for the sake of artistry. Moreover, what the biblical authors assumed about the physical world is not the same as what they taught in their writings (more on this distinction in the next post). The Bible teaches little to nothing either scientifically correct or incorrect. By and large, what the Bible teaches is not in the realm of science (as we commonly use the term) at all.

Science tells us "what," not "so what"

In science, why? means how? In other words, the answer to why? is an explanation of the physical influences, mechanisms, and processes that produced the thing we are looking at.

In science, why? does not mean for what purpose? The answer to why? does not involve a goal or standard or ideal that a phenomenon is intended to conform to. Or if it does—as in the science of animal behavior—it is not an ultimate explanation. For example, the explanation for a squirrel gathering acorns may be that the squirrel intends to amass a food supply to survive the winter, but the ultimate explanation is that natural selection has produced an animal with an instinct to do so.

Science is good at telling us what is (and sometimes what was) in the physical realm but tells us nothing about what ought to be. It can tell us what, but it cannot tell us so what. Our stubborn ideas that reality should be a certain way come from another source than science.

Let's return to the examples of gender and sexuality. Great effort has been exerted to find a scientific explanation for gender dysphoria and fluidity and for homosexuality. To date, little has been found, and what has been found tends to be overstated by partisans. But even if it were found to be scientifically unassailable that gender dysphoric, genderfluid, and homosexual people were biologically determined to think and desire as they do, it would prove exactly nothing about how they ought to be.

To the contrary, it would actually prove the Bible's point. The Bible maintains that all people are fundamentally flawed; in our very nature we do not fit what moral beings ought to be, what humans once were, and what humans will be again.

One might retort that a moral standard that a person is incapable of ever reaching is unreasonable and unfair. But that assertion is not grounded in science either. Any claim about the way things ought to be, including what the ought ought to be, is beyond science.

So if science, no matter how far it advances, can never tell us what ought to be, how can we know it? How can we know whose ought is right?

The ought must be outside this world, because it is the standard that we are comparing this world to. If only we had some way of breaking out of the world to get it, or for the standard to break into this world to show itself to us.

Christians assert that this is exactly what has happened. This is, in part, what the Bible is—the verbal breaking of the ought into the is, into the human world that no longer conforms to the ought but retains a persistent memory of how it once did and might again.

Whether Christians are right or wrong about the Bible, dismissing what it or anyone else says about what ought to be because of what science says is is a logical error. If you have a problem with the Bible's ought, it's because it contradicts some other ought—your own, not science's.

So where does your ought come from? How do you know it is closer to the real ought than is the ought expressed in the parts of the Bible you don't like? Why should anyone believe your ought? Why should you believe it yourself?

1 comment:

  1. I really like this post. Also, it is exactly the gospel: "One might retort that a moral standard that a person is incapable of ever reaching is unreasonable and unfair." But this is exactly the point! We are ALL completely incapable of reaching God's moral standard. Salvation come to those who agree with God that His standard is out of our reach, and gratefully trust that the sacrificial death of Christ met this standard for us. Then through the miracle of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we cooperate with God to become closer and closer to His standard, through His power, as He actually changes our hearts and our desires, until we reach the New Heaven and the New Earth where we will be perfected once and for all! Hallelujah!