Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Complete Knowledge

There are few areas of human understanding where we can confidently say that our knowledge is complete. Determining historical timelines is one of those areas. We wish to date the sudden explosion of fully modern human culture, or the age of the dinosaurs. We may attempt to refine the age of the earth as a planet or determine the age of the universe itself.

Over many years of careful scientific investigation and testing, our knowledge of these topics comes into clearer focus. The reliability of our tools and the improvements in our methodology gives us increased confidence in the truth of our conclusions. But rarely is our knowledge complete. At times a new finding strengthens our confidence in the truth of our belief. On other occasions a new discovery inspires us to rethink and investigate further. Rarely does a new discovery serve to overturn a major framework of belief.

Recently I had an extensive, high-level email exchange with a fellow Christian who cited soft tissue preservation of blood cell-like structures in about half of the preserved specimens of dinosaur bones. He claimed this was convincing evidence that dinosaurs lived recently on earth and that the earth, therfore, is very young. If this is true, dinosaurs and man must have co-existed in the last 6000 to 10000 years--a proposition for which there is no valid historical evidence.

Preservation of soft tissue in dinosaurs and also in the unique Burgess Shale deposits of the Candian Rockies is fascinating indeed. The Burgess Shale preserves many thousands of species which appeared suddenly during the Cambrian Period, dated 540 million years ago. There are rare instances where fossils are preserved having been suddenly buried alive in sediment where no oxygen was available to promote deterioration of even the soft organ tissue. In the case of the dinosaur soft tissue, my friend wrote "I think such evidence has stand-alone, deal-breaker quality." But does it?

Jeff Zweerink, Reasons to Believe scholar, has written, "A common perception is that results from a single experiment arbitrate between competing scientific models. Rarely does science operate so cleanly. Instead...scientific advance usually occurs through incremental gains in knowledge with meticulous cross-checking of assumptions and elimination of possible errors."

Knowledge is the intersection of truth and belief. Objective truth sometimes overlaps with what we believe. Such overlap is termed "knowledge." But only rarely is our knowledge complete.