It’s been awhile since I posted, but I couldn’t let this one go.
I spent the afternoon at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. While there in the exhibit on the dinosaurs and the displays on the origins of humanity, I noticed 2 questions. One of which is pictured here. The other, in reference to the history of life was, “How do we know?”Following that, they listed the evidence for the “knowledge” they claimed. I was immediately struck by the fact that these two questions, while on the surface looked innocuous, did not exactly belong where the scientists had placed them. They were both not scientific questions at all, but philosophical ones, more appropriately answered by religion or philosophy.
Now, before your eyes glaze over because I used the word “philosophical,” let me explain. While science can offer us immense details about the characteristics of humanity’s physical biological makeup with regard to comparisons to other primates, they cannot offer any explanation for the characteristics humanity carries that are intrinsic in nature. Why do humans have an imagination that expresses itself in art, music, literature etc.? Why do humans have the ability to create tools or the desire to use them to construct useless things? Why do humans have a consciousness that carries them above and creates the virtues and vices we have? I’m afraid that science has less to offer here than our faith would, and scientists should be extra careful when asking this question.
Did not the Psalmist have these questions, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:4-5, KJV).
Now, what about the second question, “How do we know?” When it’s referenced to something that no one has ever witnessed, such as the origins of life, does the questioner even have a right to offer an answer? Sure, evidence might be brought to substantiate a claim, but in the end do we really know? Unfortunately, again the scientist has traipsed into a discipline where he or she doesn’t belong: philosophy, and specifically epistemology. Should not the question rather have been, “Why do we think so?”
Scientists study repeatable phenomena. These are things they can recreate in a lab and then do over and over again to draw conclusions based upon actual observation. If, after careful study of a repeatable happening, the scientist makes a pronouncement, then sure we could call that “knowledge.” However, when the scientist moves into the realm of history, be careful. History is the study of non-repeatable events. Until such time as we have a time machine, we cannot “know” anything about the past. We can only make inferences based on the best available evidence. Perhaps the scientists should leave the epistemological questions to the philosophers and state their theories as just that, theories.
After all, maybe we should remember our own places in the universe, at least that’s what the Lord told Job:
“Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?” (38:2-7, NIV)
In the end, science should stick to science and leave the philosophy to the philosophers, or at least issue a disclaimer.