Epistemological Thought of the Day

Hmm, that could be the title of a great, fascinating series of posts. Or not..

I saw a sign the other day that says “In God we trust, all others must bring data.” At first glance, it’s cute. At second thought, it’s interesting from an anthropological perspective. I believe a good word for this is syncretism- an incorporation of beliefs or systems of thought from various sources, often without acknowledgement of an apparent inconsistency (because in the eyes of those who subscribe to the syncretistic beliefs, there is no contradiction). The statement can be looked at from two perspectives:

First, we (speaking of relatively modern American Christians, who accept that science is a valid way to explore the physical world) have incorporated a scientific epistemology pretty thoroughly into our worldview. In a truly biblical world view a flood covered the entire earth, the earth ain’t billions of years old, humanity originated in a Mesopotamian Eden, the sky is a vault over the flat earth (where the sun can simply be stopped in its path), the number pi is exactly 3 (I Kings 7:23ff), and disease is caused by demonic possession. Over time we’ve discovered through science that there was no world-wide flood, the earth is billions of years old, humanity descended from primate ancestors in Africa, the earth orbits the sun, pi is 3.14 (etc., ad nauseam), and disease (both physical and mental) is caused by genetics, bacteria, and viruses.

Fortunately, at least for those who want to maintain Christian belief at any cost, the Bible is sufficiently vague on many points, and has such a large volume of statements that can be applied to any given subject, that as scientific knowledge changes, believers rejoice that they have finally gotten it right each time something that was previously “misunderstood” (because of an obvious meaning) is replaced by a less literalistic view. Some writers- Sam Harris is a good example- think that religious belief will simply vanish as people become more educated. While being highly educated in the U.S. is correlated with not holding fundamentalist belief, Harris underestimates the ability of faith systems- even those entirely reliant on ancient texts- to evolve in unexpected ways to survive faith crises.

Alternately, it’s impressive that individuals (and I’m assuming whoever posted this sign has a Ph.D. in science) can hold separate epistemological standards for separate realms of knowledge. If you’re really going to take the position that anyone who wants to convince you of something needs to bring data, why is God exempt? Are you afraid He (or she) wouldn’t live up to the same standards? Is it a respect thing? Or is it a tacit acknowledgement that God is ultimately unknowable by scientific means because He’s completely metaphysical and therefore outside the realm of data? Of course, if that’s case, He’s not really the God the Bible says he is in the first place.

Enough for random epistemological musings, I’m off to something more concrete- physics.

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