The Fallibility of the Human Experience

Amongst all of the disagreements, both theists and secularists can generally agree on one proposition; human beings are eminently fallible and imperfect creatures. Given the limitations of human beings, is it a wonder that we crave infallible knowledge from an infallible source?

One of the truly pioneering aspects of the scientific method is its acknowledged fallibility as a way of knowing. All conclusions in science are held as provisional, and open to reinterpretation or outright rejection upon receipt of future data. Indeed, even such time-honored and central ideas such as the principle of causality and the nature of time and space have undergone relatively recent drastic changes. This is in outright contrast to previous metaphysical paradigms of naturalism, where the philosophy was central and the observations only valuable as ways to demonstrate the central metaphysical paradigm (for example, the idea of humorism, or the various ideas of elementalism). Science admits that people lie and cheat for personal reasons, and even well-meaning people can be deceived, deluded, or just plain wrong; therefore, science always leaves open the possibility that maybe it's conclusions are wrong. Unlike most human endeavors, science thrives on self-criticism (indeed, the regular ego-crushing I receive in my professional life make the attacks on this blog seem like affectionate nips), and is constantly changing itself.

Some theists have suggested that the provisional nature of scientific knowledge is, in and of itself, a weakness; such ideas can often be seen in the comments here at DC. They argue that the provisional nature of science prevents man from ever truly knowing anything (which is often expressed as "science can't prove anything). They further argue that religion offers "absolute truths" that are not subject to future changes, while science is always in flux. As such, they argue that the truth offered by religion is of inherently more value than the truth offered by science.

The trivial response to this argument is that the absolute assertions of religion are only of more value if they are completely true; otherwise, they are absolute falsities (or anti-truths, if you will) and are active hinderances in the search for truth, as they not only fail to be true, but discourage further searching for the truth. This powerful defense leaves the burden of evidence upon those advancing their "absolute truth" and points out the harm in "absolute falsities", but some may find it viscerally unsatisfying, as it leaves intact the potential superiority of religious absolute truth.

However, I wish to proffer an additional argument against the superior value of absolute religous truth, even in the case most favorable to the theist. As I mentioned earlier, the human mind is inherently fallible; this is something that both theists and secularists agree upon (e.g. 1 Corintians 1:17-25). We all agree that mental delusions exist; if a man claims to speak to Napoleon, both theists and secularists agree he is delusional (with the exception of a small number of spiritualists who may be open to the possibility). However, if a man claims to speak to God, we may differ on his mental state. Even most theists, however, will probably agree that not everyone who claims to speak to God actually does; some may be lying, others may be delusional. If you think you may disagree with this premise, then all I must do is claim God spoke to me and told me Jesus wasn't His son, and you must accept it as true. Notwithstanding these objections, we have established that most theists and secularists agree that people who think they have a revelation from God may be wrong; our knowledge as to the validity of personal revelation in and of itself must be fallible.

Now let us turn to the other source of God's revelation to Christians, the Bible. As I said before, we all agree that people's perceptions and minds are eminently fallible. Both theists and secularists have readily admitted that we cannot measure the world with complete accuracy; indeed, there is a physical principle to that effect. Now, I think we all agree that the Bible is a natural phenomenon. I'm not talking about God's Word here; I'm talking about whatever physical book or books (or CDs or other vessel) entitled "The Bible" you use, whatever physical manuscripts people wrote those translations from, etc. We have agreed that we cannot examine the physical world with 100% reliability. This means that our readings are suspect, the translations are suspect, the copies are suspect, etc. as all are based on our understanding of physical reality, and therefore, fallible.

The standard response to this line of reasoning is that God's divine personal revelation to the translators, scribes, and the reader prevents the introduction of meaningful error. However, we have already agreed previously that not everyone that claims to have a revelation from God really does. How can we know if the author AND the scribe AND the translator AND you, the reader (or whoever does your reading and interpretation for you) truly is a recipient of God's revelation?

The typical Christian response: the Bible assures us that it is so. However, remember that we have already established that there is no way to know if the authorship, copying, translation, and interpretation of this passage is correct and divinely inspired. Our understanding of Christianity is either based on personal revelation to a human agent (which is fallible) or a reading of a physical document (which is also fallible). In the end, even the theist must admit that all the foundations of their faith are, at their core, fallible.

Even assuming that God exists, and assuming that he tries to impart absolute truth to humans, the bottleneck is that the recipient is fallible, subject to self-delusion, trickery, deceit, and flat-out error. Therefore, even divine "absolute truth" must be accepted as provisional, as the media through which it is transmitted is eminently and demonstrably fallible, and at best of no greater worth than science. However, so long as religous revelation claims to represent absolute truth, it actively discourages the search for alternative truths, and so still retains the drawbacks of "absolute falsity" without the real benefits and reliability of "absolute truth".

The explosion in naturalistic knowledge occurred primarily due to the development of a method for examining the natural world that insisted upon not only acknowledging but embracing the provisional nature of knowledge and the fallibility of the human experience. I argue that the philosophic understanding of every person can only improve after that person is not only willing but eager to say "I may well be wrong, and I look forward to finding out."

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