Evolution and epistemic humility

"Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand." Job 38:4

"I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth." Apostles' Creed

"So you're a palaeontologist? What do you think about the millions of years then?" This is often the first question I am asked by Christians who discover what I research. I always find it a bit difficult to answer this question. In part, this is because the topic is so divisive in Christian circles, with people on one side accusing the other side of doing away with Biblical authority, and people on the other side accusing the first side of ignoring scientific research. In addition, it is just such a complicated question. Answering it requires knowledge of a wider range of scientific fields (astronomy, chemistry, geology, palaeontology, genetics, to mention but a few) than even a modern-day polymath could ever acquire.

Usually, my answer consists of two parts. Firstly, there is the Biblical story of creationfallredemptionrenewal of all things, which I find compelling, coherent and meaning- and life-giving. In my understanding of the overarching narrative of the Bible, death is a consequence of the fall, defeated by Jesus on the cross, with his resurrection giving us hope that we and all of creation will be liberated from our bondage to decay when he comes to make all things new (Rom. 8:21, Rev. 21). Although I recognise that many Christians view it differently, I find it difficult to see how this Biblical worldview can be reconciled with an evolutionary process full of death and suffering.

The second part of my answer relates to my own scientific work. Evolution has been the reigning paradigm in biology for some 150 years now, and much of modern biology to a greater or lesser extent depends on some aspect of evolutionary theory. There is much in evolutionary biology that is clearly true and insightful. And regardless of the fact that there are small communities of scientists who work from different assumptions, there is currently no real alternative scientific paradigm, especially not one that brings together all those disciplines I mentioned earlier into one coherent theory. That doesn't mean we should simply accept evolutionary theory uncritically and not bother looking for alternatives. But it does mean that in practice I accept (parts of) evolutionary theory as a working hypothesis to make progress in my field.

You might think this makes for a rather split personality. I don't think that is true for me, although I do live in the tension of these two at times conflicting stories. For me, the key to holding them together is epistemic humility. The realisation that our human minds are created and that therefore we are limited in what we know and understand is an important intellectual virtue, and often rarely practised in the academy, or even more widely in any situation that involves knowledge. Whatever marvellous gifts of intellect God has endowed us with, we are fallible, small creatures who only have the tiniest of grasps on his greatness as displayed in his creation. This realisation makes me cautious in claiming too much knowledge in any field, including Biblical hermeneutics and natural science, but it also frees me to pursue knowledge, accepting that our current assumptions and paradigms may not be the last word on it.

"Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! (…) For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen."  Romans 11:33,36

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Previous posts in the same series:

Evolution: a plea for Christian empathy

Integrating faith and evolution: a Christian ecologist's perspective

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