I am currently having a discussion with a Young Earth Creationist who posits that the whole question of science is a philosophical one and that the view on evidence is purely philosophical. I don’t know how to respond to (what I think) is an absurd argument. Do you have any tips?
Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz
Okay: Let’s leave science and philosophy to one side — we don’t need them anyway for a surefire case against creationist notions. As it happens, one of the fundamental features of humanness is our unquenchable thirst for stories; therefore humans are inveterate story tellers, and this happens in so many forms and guises that we can hardly keep a tally of them all. We look over humanity’s output from Gilgamesh to the latest novel, and a clear trend emerges. Whatever bothers us, whatever gives us pleasure — adventures, uncommon experiences, mysteries, challenges, riddles, heroism, discovery, love, situations of conflict and high emotion — all are grist to the mill.
But in our reactions to literature, whether dramas, novels, comedies, movies etc., we “suspend disbelief” while it lasts in order to enjoy the story, fully aware that stories are not the “real thing”, but either a reflection or an analogue of reality. This pertains even to such fanciful impositions as Ariosto’s sorcerors and flying horses or Shakespeare’s ghosts and witches. Suspended disbelief allows us to go along with the story if otherwise it captures our imagination. And so we find plenty of it in myths, legends, fairy tales and science fiction stories as well.
In other words: story telling is an almost universal currency for the communication of human predilections, serving to lighten up the boring routines of daily life for a few hours, after which we return to them refreshed and, sometimes, with our consciousness of the human condition deepened by the experience, more ready for authentic rather than merely humdrum pursuits. The devices of story telling have that potential, which is precisely the reason why we cultivate them.
Coming now to religions, it is hardly surprising that they also begin with stories. But the message they project tends to carry more radical implications — as if Ariosto or Shakespeare, Little Red Riding Hood and Blade Runner were suddenly revealed as purveying the literal truth, rather than merely stimulating the imagination. Logically this implies a demand to suspend the suspended disbelief and accept the existence of a supernatural realm beyond the human sphere, whose denizens are spiritual beings with superhuman powers which nonetheless have purely physical effects in the world. Objectively regarded, however, these story tellers are still humans, like the rest of us — prone to errors, false information, hallucinations etc. Therefore it is a pretty tall order to demand from us an implicit belief in the credibility of their stories. This is not sticking to the rules of the game. So we are reduced to asking, who are the authors of these tales and who can vouch for their “truths”?
Which brings us to another criterion: “Omniscient author”. When you read (say) D.H. Lawrence, the author knows everything about the lives of his protagonists, including their thoughts and feelings. To say the obvious: This is not possible in reality, but in fiction it is the most common narrative device. Now, who authored the Old and New Testaments? Obviously its writers, most of whom are remarkably anonymous. And these writers claim, just as Lawrence did, insider access to the souls of their subjects and occasional privileged audition of God’s own words. However, neither the Bible nor the Gospels were authored by God, nor did any of the authors claim divine inspiration for their text. This was done subsequently, by preachers who found plenty of gullible subjects willing to believe them. But the logic of this situation is plainly, that all these stories are just stories. None of them wore a label in their inception, that can be traced directly to the divinity of which they wrote. The writers themselves are the only authorities vouching for their truth (disregarding later proselytisers) and yet the stories of the Gospels do not fit together at any point to make one story.
But we might well ask: Who cares about these discrepancies? For which the answer is plain: those with a vested interest in representing them as sacred scriptures. But if they are the highest authority to vouch for the truth content of these tales, then we are in trouble. Then we are legitimately entitled to question the justification for their label “The Word of God.”
The moral is: With any story, whatever its intent or purpose, our discretionary suspension of disbelief should not be enacted until the truth content of the story is established “beyond reasonable doubt”. This applies to history as well, and even the news bulletins on TV. How many of them are subsequently convicted of being mere allegations, prejudicial accounts or plain fibs!
Summing up: There is no higher authority than human judges on the truth content of any story whatever. No such truth can be shown to exist outside of the human domain; and this is interesting from another angle too. Namely, that the truths associated with divinities do not belong into our world because they have no opposite (i.e. falsehood). But without this foil to truth, how can we know what truth is?