Over and above the argument from evil, I suppose the most popular and “respectable” objection to Christianity or Scripture is the scientific objection. This can target specific examples, like the creation account and the flood account, or it can be more general, like the filter of methodological naturalism.
The specific objection takes the position that Scripture doesn’t fit the facts. Biblical descriptions are contradicted by the scientific evidence. They don’t match up with the world of empirical observation.
Of course, Christians of various stripes (e.g. YEC, OEC, ID-theory, theistic evolution) present specific counterarguments. But let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that all these Christian counterarguments misfire. Suppose we had no alternative explanation. Would that be a defeater for the inerrancy of Scripture?
Ironically, one basic problem with scientific objections to Scripture is internal to science itself. And that involves the role of the scientific observer. Here is how one philosopher describes the epistemic situation of the percipient:
“First of all, our sense organs by themselves reveal nothing. They work in conjunction with our brains, and it is our brains that convert the information they accumulate into our experience of colors, tastes, sounds, and so on. Without brains we would have no experience, no consciousness, at all. In the second place, our brains convert this information from the senses into the kind of experiences they do because our brains are structured the way they are. If our brains were constructed differently, they would convert that information into different kinds of experiences…If our brains were built differently we might experience light waves of various frequencies differently than we do. We might experience a wider or narrower range of colors, or no colors at all. Instead of experiencing light waves as color we might experience them as various kinds of tingles, or heat, or in some way we can’t even imagine (as people blind from birth can’t imagine colors). In short, the world as it appears to us through the senses is not the world as it is in itself but rather a consequence of the world as it is in itself interacting with sense organs and brains like our own. In addition, our senses detect only some aspects of that world. Unlike electric fish, we don’t sense objects entering electric fields. Unlike bees, we don’t directly sense ultraviolet light. This means that a deep knowledge of the physical world requires getting beyond the way the world discloses itself to us in perceptual experience. The goal of physics is to describe the world that underlies perception and the world to which we have no perceptual access at all,” M Philips, The Undercover Philosopher (Oneworld Publications, 2008), 18-19.
“But even in this world our brain produces a world of experience that goes well beyond the information presented to the brain by the senses. The brain ceaselessly edits and elaborates on that information. What we see, for example, is always both more and less than what meets the eye. This is true not only when we hallucinate, but also in normal perception,” ibid. 19.
“For one thing, the brain is highly selective…The brain also makes corrections and fills in missing information. If it simply reproduced the information recorded on the retina, we would see the world upside down, and have a big black hole in our visual field (the blind spot). The brain also sees to it that the color of objects we see remains relatively constant despite big changes in the color of the light in which we see them. A leaf looks green to us at midday, when the illumination is white sunlight, and also at sunset, when the illumination is mainly red (a phenomenon called ‘color constancy’). The brain also fills in color at the periphery of our visual field…the fact that we see color at the periphery is the result of the brain filling in on the basis of the information it has,” ibid. 20.
1.On the face of it, this generates a dilemma. For Philips’ analysis of the percipient would seem to lead to very skeptical conclusions concerning the possibility of scientific knowledge. Something close to phenomenalism. All we know are appearances. The way things appear to us. We can never bridge the gap between appearance and reality.
But in that case, even if you had a mismatch between a scientific description and a Biblical description, the scientific evidence is only phenomenal evidence: evidence of how things appear to us. It doesn’t put us in touch with the underlying facts.
As such, a description might be true to reality even though it doesn’t correspond to what we perceive–or scientifically reconstruct.
Take a videogame. To play the game, you need a user interface, viz. a game controller or input device, like a keyboard or joystick, steering wheel, &c., along with an output device.
For instance, in a racing simulator you use a pedal, clutch, and steering wheel. This includes simulated effects like sound reproduction and force feedback.
Of course, this isn’t a real steering wheel, even if it looks like one. It’s just a way of telling the computer what to do.
The empirical phenomena of an input or out device don’t reveal anything about the electronic hardware generating the simulation.
By the same token, while there’s a correlation between what you do and what happens, that doesn’t give you a window into how it happens. You don’t see the electronic hardware in action. You only see the simulated effects of the electronic hardware.
You can win the game without knowing how the gizmo works. You can manipulate the joystick and successfully navigate the virtual world without discovering the real machinery.
I’d add that this hiatus is exacerbated in case our brain is the byproduct of a mindless evolutionary process.
2.If anything, Philips understates the problem. Appealing to physics won’t bridge the gap. Although physics may go beyond naked eye observation, it can never go behind sensory perception or the structure of the brain. A physicist is just as dependent on the converter-box of the brain as an ancient stargazer.
3.Of course, a Christian might take issue with Philips’ physicalism. Since, however, physicalism is one of the usual operating assumptions in scientific objections to the Bible, then there’s no reason, at this stage of the game, to challenge that piece of the package. For if physicalism undermines the possibility of scientific knowledge, then that, in turn, undermines scientific objections to Scripture. So a Christian can grant that assumption for the sake of argument and then let the atheist suffocate on his stifling assumptions.
However, there is a potential, if partial, comeback to this sort of objection. As one philosopher puts it:
“This line of defense appears to crash, however, on the example of a cognitively disabling pill–call it DISABLEX. This is a pill that terminally disables one’s cognitive faculties, so that none is any longer reliable. How can you right now be sure that you have never taken any such pill? Appealing to the present deliverances of your faculties would seem vicious, since these are of course deliverances that would be made misleading by your having taken the pill,” E. Sosa, “Natural Theology and Natural Atheology,” D. Baker, ed. Alvin Plantinga (Cambridge 2007), 104.
“Does DISABLEX pose a problem for us? Well, consider right now the possibility that we did once take such a pill. How do we properly get to assume that we did not? How so, if not just by relying on our faculties in the sort of default way in which we normally do? But by so relying, we manifest our commitment to the claim that our faculties are indeed reliable, our commitment to this shown at least in our intellectual practice,” ibid. 104.
“For the claim that you have taken the pill is a self-defeating claim. Both believing that you have taken the pill and even suspending judgment on that question is epistemically self-defeating. The contrary claim, that you have taken no such pill, follows logically from what is epistemically obligatory and self-sustaining, namely, the commitment to the reliability of your faculties. Therefore, it is hard to see how you could possibly go wrong epistemically not only in affirming the reliability of your faculties but also in affirming anything you can see to follow logically from that, including the consequence that you have never taken any such pill,” ibid. 104-05.
“And the same goes for Plantinga’s evolutionary argument. Again, believing that our faculties are unreliable is self-defeating, as is even suspending judgment on that question. On the question whether your faculties are reliable, you have no rational choice but to assent, therefore, and so you would be within your rights to draw the further conclusion that if your origins are evolutionary, then such origins cannot make your faculties unreliable,” ibid. 105.
However, there are several basic problems with Sosa’s comeback:
1.It equivocates over the concept of “reliability.” The fact that we may rely on something doesn’t render that reliable. A man with brain cancer must still rely on his unreliable brain (unless he has friends who compensate for his mental impairment). A drunk driver must still rely on his inebriated brain.
But his doesn’t change the fact that his perception of reality is seriously distorted. Sure, it may be self-defeating for the affected party to claim that he is mentally impaired. If he’s mentally impaired, then he may be in no position to bear witness to his own state of mind. But, of course, this creates no presumption that the affected party is not severely impaired.
2.Apropos (1), the fact that a Darwinian must rely on his brain doesn’t presume that his brain is reliable. It only means that this is all he has to work with. Philips analysis is simply a description of how the brain appears to the brain. We have to use our brain to examine our brain, and compare our brain with the brains of other animals. We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got.
But this doesn’t presume the reliability of the underlying process. It may be an accurate description of an unreliable process. The end-result looking in the mirror. A man who’s high on acid can accurately describe his hallucination. His impressions of reality may be misimpressions, but he can provide a trustworthy description of an untrustworthy perception.
3.Furthermore, even if the testimonial claim is self-defeating, we need to ask what makes it self-defeating. It may not be the testimonial claim in itself. Rather, it may be the logical implication or probable consequence of an incoherent scientific position. In that case, the inconsistency hardly shows you have no rational choice but to affirm the very position which generates that tension.
The question at issue is not the reliability of our faculties, per se, but the reliability of our faculties given certain theoretical preconditions. If an atheist or Darwinian posits certain initial conditions which undermine rationality, then that doesn’t undermine rationality, per se. Rather, it undermines the postulate.
3.Moreover, this is a best-case scenario. And that’s the conundrum. Even if you assume the brain is sufficiently reliable to describe itself, the result of that description yields a skeptical conclusion.
And if that’s the conclusion we derive from the assumption that our brain is reliable, then the alternative assumption would yield an even more skeptical conclusion. You end up with radical skepticism however you slice it. Different degrees of radical skepticism.
4.There is another equivocation as well. The brain could be quite reliable, but also be quite selective. That is to say, it could be quite reliable in doing just what it’s supposed to do, but its range is very restricted.
For example, a human eye has poor nocturnal vision. This doesn’t mean the human eye is generally or intrinsically untrustworthy. It doesn’t mean the human eye is defective.
It merely means the human eye is not designed or adapted to function as well at night–compared a feline eye. That’s not a design flaw. Within its intended parameters, it may be quite efficient. It accurately samples what it was made or meant to sample.
Of course, if you think the brain (or its sensory extensions) is the byproduct of an undirected process, then all bets are off. In that case, there’s nothing the brain is supposed to do.
5.From a Christian standpoint, the way out of the fly-bottle is the presupposition of God’s creative and providential control. Even if our mind, brain, and senses are highly selective, and even if they fall short of letting us know what the sensible world is like without our sensory filtering device, they are reliable within their intended parameters. The sample is representative.