When I was a teenager, I was very involved in electronics, something that has stuck with me. My first real efforts at understanding science came in working with electricity. One day I was discussing the theory of electricity, and specifically how it “moves” through a circuit with my father, also an electronics hobbyist. We had gone through electrons moving from one atom to the next, and the reasons why some things are better conductors than others, and why some things are so bad as conductors that they are insulators. This all applied to some circuit or another I wanted to build.
Then my father dropped a bombshell. “You know this is all a theory,” he said.
“What do you mean by theory?” I asked. To me at that point a theory was something not so well established. There were facts and then there were theories. Facts were good, theories were not so good.
“Well,” he continued, “we don’t actually observe subatomic particles in motion. We don’t know that an atom looks like those drawings you have.”
“So we don’t really know any of this? What good is it then?” Of course I well knew that I could build circuits based on it, but teenagers aren’t required to be logical with a parent.
“The theory does what it’s supposed to. It explains what we observe. It works. That’s all it has to do.”
But somewhere deep inside I was upset. I liked my little pictures of atoms. I wanted to believe that they were just that way, and that if I could get a good enough microscope, I could actually observe those little electrons doing their thing. Now electricity is based on very good theory, and it does work. My dad was himself a young earth creationist, though we never discussed that much. I suspect now that he was more along the Kurt Wise type–there may be substantial evidence for evolution, but the Bible says otherwise, so we must believe–only he never felt the need to work on a real theory.
A few years ago I was asked by the youth director of my church to talk to a group of her students about the genealogies of Matthew and Luke. When I arrived at the class she introduced me and told the students that she wanted a “real Bible expert” (a dangerous title which I eschew) to explain the genealogies to them. So I took out a bunch of overhead transparencies. I went through the ways in which Matthew created his 14 generation pattern, and how Luke used the LXX text for part of his. I talked about multiple ways in which they are reconciled, and discussed positive and negative points about each. I also presented the case for not trying to reconcile them, and advantages and disadvantages of that.
Having, in my view, covered the ground, I summarized and prepared for questions. There was complete silence for a considerable period of time, enough that I had begun to think there would be no questions. Then a hand went up. The question? “But what is the right answer?”
Well, for my money, not reconciling the genealogies, and only asking what each author wanted to accomplish by the material he presented and the way in which he did so, would be the “right” answer. But that is just my opinion, an educated opinion, I hope, but an opinion nonetheless. The bottom line is that we don’t have absolutely certain data on the genealogies, and we can’t absolutely rule out even some of the schemes that I regard a laughably improbable. But the discussion the followed proved that those young people wanted the answer. Not a survey of many answers, not even a ranking based on my view of the probabilities–they wanted to know, and knowing meant certainty.
For many people, degrees of certainty are just too difficult to work with. Like my teenaged self said of electricity, if we aren’t absolutely sure, what good is it? This comes into play in topics like the existence of God. Can I prove God exists? Well, if I can’t, I must obviously reject that idea. Are we certain about an intelligence report, such as the WMD report for Iraq? If not, let’s hang around until we are.
In historical study, this type of certainty is unattainable. Christians speak of the resurrection. They speak of overwhelming evidence. Some think that the resurrection is a proven historical fact. I especially enjoy reading Christian apologists who will apply legal standards of evidence to this issue, and tell us that it is proven “beyond reasonable doubt.” I guess it is then just as certain as the convictions of those many folks who have been exonerated by DNA evidence recently, often after serving many years in jail.
Now ideas like “preponderance of the evidence” and “beyond reasonable doubt” are quite useful, provided that we think about what they mean. They don’t mean beyond all doubt. They are not the same even as a result which can be replicated. They are essentially probability based standards, even though the probabilities are based on the feelings or personal assessments of jurors. They are not truly absolute proof. I really enjoy those occasions when someone will inform me that I can’t believe someone is guilty because he hasn’t been convicted yet. “Innocent until proven guilty,” they remind me. Well, not so fast. That’s a legal standard, not a reflection of the state of reality. In fact, O. J., for example, was either guilty or innocent. The reality was the same before and after his acquittal.
Also I must make a remark on another funny comment I hear from time to time. “You can’t regard so-and-so as guilty. He hasn’t been convicted. It’s unconstitutional!” As though the constitution gets to control my thought processes. A similar thing has come up in the presidential campaign where some have said it’s unconstitutional for a voter to exclude a candidate based on religious. After all, the constitution says there will be no religious test for office. Again, the constitution doesn’t control the thought processes of voters.
But back to the subject. I think this is a major reason why we have such massive debates about a topic like evolution. After all, scientists actually present us with uncertainties all the time. We’re just responding as we do in daily life. They don’t know precisely who the land-dwelling ancestor of whales is? Evolution must be wrong. There’s no time machine to let us go back and look? Well, one opinion is as good as another in that case.
But all of those views make the error of assuming that everything is either proven or not proven, rather than decided based on the available evidence, which may be equivocal.
Face it! We live in a world with many uncertainties. We make decisions based on incomplete and partially untested knowledge. Whatever I think today may need to be modified tomorrow as new evidence comes in.
We can run away from this into indecision, assuming that all ideas are equal, because nothing is proven. I’ve responded to this at times in discussions of post-modern Biblical interpretation. “You can’t know what the original author meant to the original audience,” says someone. “Well,” I ask, “is the text talking about pink elephants?” “No.” “OK, then we know something about the text.” (To all actual post-modern folks out there, I don’t mean to smear all post-modern ideas with that caricature, but unfortunately there are plenty of folks out there who live the caricature.)
On the other hand we can pretend certainty where none exists. Many people, unfortunately, are drawn to the person who expresses himself more forcefully and more certainly. We so like to be certain that the simple fact that someone is certain draws followers. That’s the most dangerous point of all. The folks who are absolutely certain the UFO is coming and will take them if they just ingest the proper amount of poison attain certainty–and then death.
Being certain is often not nearly as good as it promises to be.