Evidence, Knowledge, & Science: How Does Christianity Measure Up?

Tyler VanderWeele

Science has fundamentally altered our standards of what counts as knowledge. We turn to science when we think of rigorous investigation. We contrast science with mere opinion. We have, to some extent, allowed science to set the standards for many other disciplines. Today, some may wonder, “do we really have knowledge beyond science?”

What does “science” mean?

It is important to consider what it is that we mean by ‘science’. The English-language word ‘science’ derives from the Latin ‘scientia’ meaning ‘knowledge.’ In its broadest sense, we might see ‘science’ as simply knowledge established through rigorous investigation. Usually, however, we understand ‘science’ in a more narrow sense (e.g. the study of the natural world). Sometimes the notion of science is used in a more methodological sense: knowledge established by repeated experiment. We sometimes hear reference to the ‘scientific method.’ However, perhaps the most common use of ‘science’ is in an institutional sense: all that has been accomplished both in knowledge and technical achievement by the investigators, laboratories, publications, and institutional bodies that are devoted to the study of the natural world and to the applications of the resulting knowledge.

So what is the relationship of science to what we know? Do we really know anything beyond what science delivers? Certainly science has given us remarkable achievements: an understanding of the laws of nature, an extraordinary capacity to predict, and technological advancement that is genuinely mind-boggling. What other set of academic disciplines can boast such achievements?

Is science the only route to truth?

We may be tempted then to rely on science, and on the scientific method, to establish all knowledge. This, however, would be a mistake. Science is not the only source of knowledge. Many questions fundamental to human life and meaning simply are not subject to the scientific method.  For example, while the natural sciences can often proceed by repeated experiment, history cannot. The past is not subject to experiment and replication in the same way a chemical reaction is.  In general, questions about history, about what occurred in the past, are only accessible through different modes of inference, through circumstantial evidence, through the synthesis of such evidence, or through inference to the best explanation.

There is, for example, broad consensus that Julius Caesar died in the year 44 BC and almost certainly sometime within the fifth decade BC, between 40 and 50 BC. This is generally accepted as knowledge. But is this science? Well, it is not established by repeated experiment. Julius Caesar’s death was a singular event. It is thus not something we can replicate. So how do we know it is true? Well, we have inscriptions that suggest it is so, we have other evidence about the relationship between his death and various other events, and we have relatively early written accounts of his life. Is it possible that all of this evidence points us in the wrong direction? Well, maybe. But it does seem rather unlikely. We would have to come up with a very convoluted explanation indeed to explain how all of the evidence points to 44 BC but that this is entirely wrong.  Perhaps we cannot establish this with absolute certainty, but we can be pretty sure.

How can different kinds of knowledge be verified?

What we have seen with history, in contrasting it with the natural sciences, is that different types of knowledge admit differing levels of certainty and require different methodologies for verification.  In terms of its ability to establish things with certainty, at the top of the hierarchy is, arguably, mathematics and philosophical logic…

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Evidence, Knowledge, & Science: How Does Christianity Measure Up? – The Veritas Forum