Saturday, May 31, 2008

Book Review - Know Why You Believe

Was there ever that one book that started a journey of knowledge and discovery for you? For me, that book was Know Why You Believe by Paul Little. I was just starting out in my Christian walk when I first read this book, and an unexpected but exciting world of Christian rationality opened up before my eyes and strengthened my new-born faith.

Know Why You Believe attempts to answer 12 questions regularly asked by university students (both Christian and non-Christian) the author encountered during his speaking tours. However, this review is reserved for only one chapter: “Do Science and Scripture Agree?” I'll take you through several themes in the chapter that stood out for me. As for the rest of the book, I'll leave that for your reading pleasure.

Advice to the Scientist

One of the many things that fuels the so-called “war” between faith and science is the belief some scientists hold that science is the only way to truth. Paul Little takes issue with that stance. (Note: all bolded and italicised words are my emphasis).

"Christians ... believe that science is one avenue to the discovery of truth about physical things, but that there are other non-material realities and other means of attaining truth."

" is incapable of making value judgments about the things it measures."

" can tell us how something works but not why it works that way."

Think about the above statements for a minute. It means science is a tool, not a way of life. When science is used within its proper context, it is a powerful tool to learn about the world and universe we live in. In contrast, when science is politicised or used to prop up a philosophy, it fails miserably.

Paul Little also addresses the human side of science:

"The presupposition one brings to the facts, rather than the facts themselves, determines one's conclusions."

This book was written in 1967 and it would appear not much has changed in the 40+ years since. Worldviews still have a habit of impressing themselves on the domain of science and influencing how this tool is (or “should be”) used.

"[An] unprovable presupposition that must be accepted by faith is the reliability of our sense perceptions."

Human fallibility is always a potential source of error in an experiment; something that was hammered into my head in junior high science class.

Paul then provides a theological point for the scientist to ponder:

"[Some scientists]...forget that God is not only Creator, but also sustainer. ... Knowing how the universe is sustained is not the same thing as sustaining it."

Sage advice for scientists who like to dabble in theology.

Advice to Christians

Paul also gives good advice to Christians by quoting Kenneth Kantzer [1]:

“‘Let scientists battle it out on the basis of the scientific evidence, but we should not bolster weak scientific positions with misinterpretations of the Bible conjured up for that purpose. God rarely sees fit merely to gratify our curiosity’”

Two things to take from this: a) the Bible is NOT a science textbook, and b) Christians should not try to fit God into a little box (a very tempting thing to do, at times).

Paul Little then describes the variability of science and the consequences of too closely linking the Bible with science:

"Scientific theory is a matter of the highest degree of probability based on the data available. There are no absolutes in it. ... Yesterday's generalization is today's discarded hypothesis. ... If the Bible becomes wedded to today's scientific theories, what will happen to it when science, ten years from now, has shifted?"


Let's all give a big scary “oooooooooooooooh!”

All kidding aside, Paul treats this subject very seriously. He starts out by identifying three types of evolution:

1. Evolutionism: a pure naturalistic view of the universe

2. Microevolution: the change or development within a species where new varieties of the species are formed but the varieties remain within the species boundary.

3. Macroevolution: crossing the species boundaries into higher and more complex classification (genus, family, order, class, phylum, and kingdom). On a side note, Paul mentions this is also called megaevolution. Boy, you gotta think Dawkins missed the boat on this one, eh?

All kidding aside, Paul then describes two "non-negotiables" for the Christian regarding human origins:

"God supernaturally and deliberately created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1), and God supernaturally and deliberately created the first man and the first woman (Gen 1:27)."

With that in mind, Paul ends the chapter by providing a typical conversation between an undergraduate student and evolutionist G.A. Kerkut [2]:

"It is quite common ... to ask the student if he knows the evidence for evolution. This usually evokes a faintly superior smile. ...

'Well sir, there is evidence from paleontology, comparative anatomy, embryology, systematics and geographical distributions,' the student would say in a nursery-rhyme jargon. ...

'So you believe in evolution because there is no other theory?'

'Oh, no, sir, I believe in it because of the evidence I just mentioned.'

'Have you read any book on the evidence for evolution?' I would ask.

'Yes, sir.' And here he would mention the names of authors of a popular school textbook. "And of course, sir, there is that book by Darwin, The Origin of the Species.'

'Have you read this book?' I would ask.

'Well, not all through, sir.'

'The first fifty pages?'

'Yes, sir, about that much; maybe a little less.'

'I see. ... Well, now, if you really understand an argument you will be able to indicate to me not only the points in favor of the argument, but also the most telling points against it.' ...

'But there isn't any [arguments against evolution], sir.'

Here the conversation would take on a more strained atmosphere. The student would look at me as if I were playing a very unfair game. He would take it rather badly when I suggested that he was not being very scientific in his outlook...

I would ... indicate to him that the theory of evolution was of considerable antiquity, and would mention that he might have looked at the book by Radi, The History of Biological Theories. ...

There are, however, seven basic assumptions that are often not mentioned during discussions of evolution. ...

The first assumption is that nonliving things gave rise to living material, i.e., that spontaneous generation occurred.

The second assumption is that spontaneous generation occurred only once.

The third ... is that viruses, bacteria, plants and animals are all interrelated.

The fourth ... is that the protozoa gave rise to the metazoa.

The fifth ... is that the various invertebrate phyla are interrelated.

The sixth ... is that the invertebrates gave rise to the vertebrates.

The seventh ... is that the vertebrates and fish gave rise to the amphibia, the amphibia to the reptiles, and the reptiles to the birds and mammals. ...

The first point that I should like to make is that the seven assumptions by their nature are not capable of experimental verification. They assume that a certain series of events has occurred in the past. Thus, though it may be possible to mimic some of these events under present-day conditions, this does not mean that these events must therefore have taken place in the past. All that it shows is that it is possible for such a change to take place. ... Unfortunately, we cannot bring about even this change; instead we have to depend upon limited circumstantial evidence for our assumptions.”

Hmmmm, I wonder how many biology teachers today are/were like that student?

Paul Little does NOT provide a comprehensive critique of evolution; that was never his purpose. The point he wanted to emphasise was that the science of evolution must be separated from the philosophy of evolution (or the Great Myth, as C.S. Lewis calls it).

Know Why You Believe was not meant to be a comprehensive answer to all tough questions facing Christians, but rather a stepping stone in a journey of faith, of which I am eternally grateful to Paul Little for that.


[1]Kenneth S. Kantzer, "Guideposts for the Current Debate Over Origins," Christianity Today, October 8, 1982

[2]G.A. Kerkut, The Implications of Evolution, London: Pergamon Press, 1960


  1. "... the belief some scientists hold that science is the only way to truth."

    I've never heard any scientist say that. Can you name any of these scientists, perhaps provide a couple of quotes?

  2. Here are a set of quotes from Carl Sagan that the book records:

    "The cosmos is all that there is or ever was or ever will be."

    "Whatever significance we humans have is that which we make ourselves"

    "If we must worship a power greater than ourselves, does it not make sense to worship the sun and the stars"

    -from U.S. News & World Report, Inc. (Dec 1, 19080): 62

    IMO, the above quotes implies that Carl Sagan et al believe "that science is the only way to truth."

    Also, IMO, Phill Plait's blog (Bad Astronomy) is awash with that philosophy.

  3. "Here are a set of quotes from Carl Sagan..."

    As I think you know, none of the quotes you provided indicate that Sagan claimed that the beliefs therein were scientific conclusions.

    "IMO, the above quotes implies that Carl Sagan et al believe 'that science is the only way to truth.'"

    He didn't even mention science in those quotes. You need to learn more about what scientists actually say that they think rather than (1) what you surmise that scientists think or (2) what evangelists tell you that scientists think.

    You could start with Mark Isaak's paper called A Philosophical Premise of 'Naturalism'? [ ]

    "One of the many things that fuels the so-called “war” between faith and science is the belief some scientists hold that science is the only way to truth."

    No, the problem is evangelists such as Little creating boogie men to scare their followers. Science is not scientism and science is not atheism. Scientists don't claim to be finding Ultimate Truth any more than Engineers claim to be building the Ultimate Airplane or the Ultimate Bridge.

  4. Freelurker,

    Paul Little's chapter was not fuel for the "war" between faith and science. IMO, it was a balanced view with advice for both the PN scientist and the Christian scientist/layman. Advice is advice; you can choose to take it or leave it. I would say read the chapter and then come back and tell me if Paul Little is "creating boogie men to scare their followers"

    Also, Little did not single out athiests. All he did was point out that science is not the sole means to determine truth, which is implied in the general populace today, and I'm assuming it was implied in Little's time. The paper is interesting, but ultimately irrelevant since most people only hear the "party line" as espoused from Dawkins et al.

    Maybe Chris Mooney (I believe it was him, I can't find the link right now, but I will provide it soon) was right; Dawkins et al. should take a back seat in the debate.

  5. Sorry, it was Matthew Nisbet, not Chris Mooney. Here is the link.

    From the link:

    "If Dawkins and PZ really care about countering the message of The Expelled camp, they need to play the role of Samantha Power, Geraldine Ferraro and so many other political operatives who through misstatements and polarizing rhetoric have ended up being liabilities to the causes and campaigns that they support: Lay low and let others do the talking.

  6. jjs, the corroborated evidence from the bible itself isn't all that great. While there are some historical narratives that can be tied to actual places, it isn't a good source for physical sciences (physics, chemistry, or biology). I am afraid that Mr. Little evidently wasn't very up to speed on his biology. Evolution is simply evolution. The Micro and Macro labels effectively mean very little. Spontaneous generation is also not necessarily thought to have occurred only once, there are various theories about abiogenesis that are being worked on. On the non-negotiables, point one could easily be blended into current scientific understanding from a theistic evolutionary standpoint, and even number two. Where Christians get into trouble with number two is by holding onto a dogmatic viewpoint that states that humans are a sort of "magical" event, that are specifically set aside from the rest of the creation. Given our current state of biological knowledge, this would be a foolish dogma, given that DNA analysis keeps tying all of creation together going quite far back in time, definitely much too far for a YEC's comfort. Remember, science does not answer moral questions, it answers physical questions. I would recommend reading this post by Wilkins to give yourself a better understanding of the delineation between religion and science.

  7. a friend of mine told why she believed is that because she has faith.

  8. Faith is good, but what is the foundation of that faith? For me, that is just as important as faith.