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How do you know what you know?

#1. There’s no such thing as an atheist.
#2. Science vs. Religion
#3. How do you know what you know?
#4. The illogic of evolution
#5. Evidence: Handle with care!
#6. What do “Creation” and Evolution” really mean from a scientific perspective?

by David Prentice, M.Ed., M.A.S.T.

  Throughout our lives people try to persuade us that they know things we can’t verify for ourselves. One such thing we hear more and more often is that scientists know evolution to be a fact. But how do they know? How do any of us know what we know — or at least, what we think we know?
   Part of the trouble in answering this question is that, at least in the English language, we can mean very different things when we say we know something.
    1. You might know that a bee sting hurts because it happened to you. You might know how to ride a bicycle because you’ve done it yourself. You might know what an apple tastes like because you’ve eaten one. Just about anyone can know any of these things because they are available for all of us to experience personally.
   2. You might know that the sun is 93 million miles away because you read it in a book. You might know Jesus died for you because the Bible says so. You might know that a gunshot hurts because you know someone who was shot and lived to tell about it. What you really mean is that you’re relying on an authority that you trust, rather than personal experience. (If you wanted to, you could shoot yourself in the foot to be sure that it really does hurt. Until then, you have to rely on someone’s word.)
   3. You know a million plus a million equals two million even if you’ve never counted that high. You know that the measures of the angles in any triangle add up to a hundred eighty degrees, even though you haven’t measured every triangle that could possibly exist. How do you know these things? You don’t need personal experience and don’t even need an authority to tell you. You can figure them out through logic.
   4. A man who meets the woman of his dreams might say that he knows she’s the one he should spend the rest of his life with. A pastor might say that he knows God has called him to the ministry. Nobody else in the world could have exactly the same personal experience as these two people; no authority figure told them the things they claim to know; they didn’t figure it out logically. Instead, when each of them says he “knows,” he is relying on feeling or intuition.
   5. A student in danger of failing because of a late assignment might tell her teacher that she knows she can complete it if given two more days. Any teacher could tell you that this is most likely a case of wishful thinking rather than experience, authority, logic, or intuition.
   6. Someone trying to recoup the money he spent for season tickets for a professional sports team might emphatically tell a potential buyer that he knows the team is going to win the championship this year. A paleontologist whose funding is about to be cut off might insist to his financial backer that he knows the new bone he just found is the “missing link.” The person who says these things doesn’t really believe them, but uses them to gain some sort of advantage. To use an old word, we could call these “bluster,” or simply lying.
   In summary, most people use the word “know” in any of six ways. (1) Personal Experience. (2) Reliance on Authority. (3) Logic. (4) Feeling or Intuition. (5) Wishful Thinking. (6) Bluster.
   Which of these types of “knowledge” can we consider scientific? Since the scientific method requires observation, a scientific statement must ultimately be based on someone’s personal experience. In some cases the speaker had the experience himself, but more often he cites authorities. However, in order for this to be science, somebody at the beginning of the chain of authorities must have had personal experience. If not, it’s nothing more than storytelling.
   How does evolution fit into this?
(1) We should ask if anyone alive has personal experience with it. Of course not! Our ancestors are supposed to have evolved millions of years ago.
(2) Can we appeal to any of our ancestors who saw the process of evolution firsthand? No, because none of them would have been intelligent enough to leave us a written record!
Thus, when people say they know evolution is a fact, they must have one of four reasons.
(3) They think it’s logical.
(4) They have a feeling about it.
(5) They want it to be true.
(6) They have a personal stake in persuading the rest of us. Imagine a person who’s spent her whole academic career as a professor of evolutionary biology. She realizes that if she admits the possibility of creation, she’s going to lose her job. It’s not likely that she’s going to admit publicly that evolution could be wrong.
   With nobody having personal experience of evolution, then, we shouldn’t trust someone’s feeling or wishful thinking or bluster with something so important as the question of where we came from. The only kind of “knowledge” that could give reasonable support to evolution would be logic.
   Be careful! Logic is only reliable if it’s done correctly. Even if a series of statements follows a logical structure, it doesn’t automatically mean that the conclusion is right. For instance, you could say: All living things need oxygen; the organism I am studying is a living thing; therefore, it must need oxygen. Though the logic is flawless, it starts with a false premise. Certain types of anaerobic bacteria do not need oxygen. The conclusion may sound logical, but it is unreliable. Only if both the structure of the argument and the premises are correct can you be sure that logic will give correct results.
   Next time we’ll go into the details of the logic used in support of evolution. We’ll see that it is fundamentally flawed and totally unreliable.