To Tell the Truth

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William Provine, a Distinguished Professor at Cornell University who served three different departments – History, Science and Technology Studies, and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology – was a brilliant scientist.

He also had supreme confidence when it came to discussing life’s most important philosophical questions.  Two decades ago he declared:

“Let me summarize my views on what evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear… There are no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind.  There is no life after death.  When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead.  That’s the end for me.  There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans, either.”

When smart people speak, other people listen. 

And for most of the past century, certain smart people – or “Brights,” as Cambridge professor Richard Dawkins prefers to call himself and his atheist peers – have been telling us that science is the antithesis of faith when it comes to certainty about Reality. 

To put it bluntly, science is about knowing.  Religion is about guessing.  Science is an edifice built on empirically tested facts.  Religion is a sand castle of unsubstantiated personal opinion.  Science is about reason and reasonableness.  Religion is about superstition and ignorance. 

This perspective has become so dominant on campuses and Western centers of learning that droves of Christians have meekly retreated from public discourse.  More than a few followers of Jesus are content to admit that while they know they can’t prove anything, they still believe that God loves them because they “feel it in my heart.” 

When scientists and thinkers who hold a strictly materialist view of the cosmos – there’s nothing out there but particles – hear such sentiments, they sigh deeply and feel a mixture of pity and scorn that Christians are wasting their lives wallowing in such delusions.

Author and philosopher Dallas Willard, for one, thought that was nonsense.    

Responding to the quote above, he wrote, “Logically viewed, [Provine’s] statement is simply laughable.  Nowhere within the published, peer-reviewed literature of biology – even evolutionary biology – do any of the statements of which the professor is ‘absolutely certain’ appear as valid conclusions of sound research.  One trembles to think that an expert in the field would not know this or else would feel free to disregard it.  Biology as a field of research and knowledge is not even about such issues.”  (from Knowing Christ Today)

For materialists, the pursuit of truth is straightforward:  No proposition about reality can be accepted unless it is open to verification by thorough scientific testing.   

Since religious affirmations cannot be scientifically tested, they are automatically ruled out as “knowledge.” 

But there’s a serious problem with this perspective.

The materialist criterion for truth cannot pass its own test.  Is the notion that “all propositions about reality must be verified by scientific testing” an idea that can itself be scientifically verified?  The answer is No.  Provine confidently made extraordinary claims about the meaning (or non-meaning) of life that could not possibly be evaluated through scientific inquiry.

It’s not unusual to encounter contemporary thinkers who openly declare that life is meaningless – not because they have discovered this, but because they have decided this.

What is unusual is hearing an admission from a contemporary thinker who openly acknowledges they have made such a decision on non-scientific grounds.   

The late British philosopher Aldous Huxley confessed that he “took it for granted that the world had no meaning.”  He admitted, “I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning, consequently assumed it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption.”  When pressed as to why he and others would do such a thing, he said, “We objected to morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.” 

Christians have often wrongly written off any skeptic as someone who must be trying to invent his or her own moral universe. 

It’s extraordinary when one of the Brights actually says, “Yes, that would be me.” 

Then there’s the eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel, who has no use for Christianity.  But his rejection of faith doesn’t come from reason, scientific verification, or philosophical principles.  His deepest objections are rooted in fear:

“I am talking about something much deeper, namely the fear of religion itself.  I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself.  I want atheism to be true, and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.  It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and naturally hope that I am right in my belief.  It’s that I hope there is no God.  I don’t want there to be a God.  I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Nagel gets top marks for candor.  Few Christians are as open about their own doubts and fears.

So where does that leave us in the search for truth? 

The world’s most renowned materialist thinkers always point to something they insist is true.  Karl Marx touts the telltale history of class warfare.  Charles Darwin and his disciples spotlight the drama of undirected biological evolution.  Sigmund Freud calls our attention to the secrets of the subconscious.  Jean-Paul Sartre and his existentialist colleagues proclaim the urgent need to choose our own meaning.

Likewise, the founders of the world’s most famous religions point to something they insist is true.  Buddha proclaims the Eightfold Path.  Lao Tzu describes the Tao or Way.  Muhammed affirms the Five Pillars of Islam.  Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai bearing the Torah to the people of Israel.    

Jesus is different.  He does something outrageous. 

Jesus doesn’t point to a set of truths, a way to follow, or a life to pursue.  He points to himself:  “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” (John 14:6)

He invites us not to give up the search for truth just because there are so many options on the market, or just because one of the Brights declares that the search for the truth always lead to the truth that there is no truth. 

In the opening chapter of the Gospel of John, as Jesus begins to gather his core group of disciples, Philip approaches Nathanael.  “We’ve found the Messiah!” he says. “It’s Jesus of Nazareth.”

Nathanael is unimpressed.  “Nazareth!” he snorts.  “Can anything good from there?” 

Philip memorably replies, “Come and see.” (John 1:46)

To the seeker, the doubter, the skeptic, the cynic, and the dreamer, that invitation still stands.