The Stupidity of Man

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3c/Albert_Edelfelt_-_Louis_Pasteur_-_1885.jpg
A painting of Louis Pasteur by Albert Edelfelt. Pasteur was a foundational scientist, making monumental discoveries about microbes and disease. Am I claiming that people like him are stupid?

Sounds kind of harsh, doesn’t it? “The stupidity of man”? Either, I am taking things a little too far or I am being hyperbolic about the state of secular science in our world.

Actually, I am doing neither. I am instead paraphrasing from Proverbs 30. This is the series of proverbs written by Agur son of Jakeh. Proverbs 30 is probably best known for its “three things and four” illustrations that appear later in the chapter. Instead, I want to focus on the first four verses. Here is what they say:

The words of Agur Son of Jakeh. The oracle. The man declares, I am weary, O God; I am weary, of God, and worn out. Surely I am too stupid to be a man. I have not the understand of a man. I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One. Who has ascended to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the wind in his fists? Who had wrapped up the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son’s name? Surely you know!

I especially want to focus on verse 4 (it is the series of questions at the end). These questions appear to be rhetorical, and their answer is either “No one,” because no man has, or can, do any of these things, or the answer is “Only God.” In fact, both of these answers are compatible with one another, and taking them together emphasizes mankind’s inferiority to God.

Now, I believe that the inferiority of man in comparison to God is a given in Christianity. After all, the central tenant of Christianity is that God had to stoop down to us by sending His Son to die on the cross for our sins. It is inherent in our doctrine that God is infinite and we are finite. By extension, then, creationists also believe that God and His account of creation given in Genesis 1-11 is superior to anything that humans can come up with on our own. However, even though we know these things, we often fail to understand the full depths of our inability to understand the world. Science is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we can use it to understand and describe the world around us. On the other hand, science can blind us to our lack of understanding, because we think that science can, or will, get around to revealing the secrets of the world. The truth is, we are actually in a position where we are incapable of knowing truth apart from God’s Word. Let me reiterate: I am actually claiming that truth, any truth, is unknowable to us or uncertain in our thinking without resorting to the Word of God as a source of truth.

Let us explore this idea of the inferiority of our understanding with the white swan illustration. I did not come up with this illustration: it is actually a rather common example used by philosophers of science to illustrate the limitations of inductive reasoning.[1] A (lengthy) explanation of the white swan problem goes like this:

Suppose you live in Kansas. You may see swans occasionally during their migrations. Upon observing these swans, you notice that all of the swans that you see are white. Now you may be curious, are all swans white, or have I happened to have seen only white swans? So, you do a little investigation. Your observations have been limited to Kansas, so you expand the area of your search. It takes time and effort, but you eventually search all of the United States and every swan you have seen is white. Therefore, you conclude that all swans are white.

Now, what you have done here is used inductive reasoning. It is basically taking a finite number of observations and extrapolating those observations to the whole of reality. In other words, you have taken limited observations (you searched for swans throughout the United States) and concluded that all swans everywhere are white.

The problem with inductive reasoning is that there might be an exception that you have overlooked. Perhaps there are swans outside of the United States that are some color other than white? To convince yourself, you expand your search again. Now you search all of North America. It takes more time and you have to search vast areas that have no swans whatsoever, but at the end of your investigations, your conclusion remains the same: every swan you find is white.

Still thinking you may have overlooked something, you expand your search to South America. Here, you find the black-necked swan which, as its name suggests, has a black neck. However, the rest of the body is white, so you count it as a white bird. Now, the whole of North and South America has been explored and all swans are white. Still, maybe there is a swan somewhere else that is not white.

You expand your search once more. In Europe, there are only white swans. There are no swans whatsoever in Africa and Antarctica, but just to be sure, you check anyway. You search Asia and find a few swans, which are all white, but the majority of Asia does not have any swans. Finally, your search takes you to the islands in southeast Asia.

By this time, you have searched six continents. Who knows how long this investigation has lasted, who knows how many places you have visited, who knows how exhausting this search has been. There is one more continent to search, the smallest of the continents: Australia. However, you are tired. After all of this searching, not one swan of a color other than white has shown up. Not one. Surely, it is good enough to say that your sample size is large enough. Enough of the world has been explored: one more little continent cannot make a difference, right?

Well…

Australia is the only place in the world where black swans occur naturally. That’s right. By stopping short of searching everywhere, you actually overlook the one place in the world that is the exception to the rule. By the way, this is not a theoretical example: it is true that swans across the world are white or predominantly white in color except for Australia. In other words, the white swan illustration is a real world example and not some hypothetical example dreamed up by scientists.

The white swan illustration shows the problem with inductive reasoning. Unless you observe every single possible permutation, there is still the possibility that the one thing you have not observed proves to be the exception to the rule. Let me stress again: unless every single last option is explored, then there still exists the possibility that your deductive reasoning can be wrong.

Now, some people may consider themselves to be very clever and claim, “Well then just explore Australia. You stopped short. Continue your investigation, then you can be certain that swans are all white or are not all white.” Here is the problem: it is impossible to explore every last option. To complete the white swan illustration, suppose we go on and explore Australia. Now we know that there are black swans in the world, so we know that our original hypothesis was incorrect. Now we make a new hypothesis: all swans are either white or black. They do not come in any other color varieties.

Have we proved that all swans are white or black? No, not at all. For one thing, it is highly likely that, despite our attempts, there have be some swans somewhere that have been overlooked. It is rather difficult to claim that we have accounted for every single swan in existence. However, our problems extend beyond that. What about swans alive in the past? Swans that are long dead no longer reveal their colors. What about swans in the future? Is it possible that are swan breed will develop that has a color other than black or white? In other words, observing every single swan in existence is incredibly difficult to do, but beyond that, it is impossible for humans to observe every swan that has existed or will exist. In other words, inductive reasoning can never be used to prove something true: we always have to assume that the remaining, unobserved situations will follow the trend we have already seen.

Now, it is all well and good to talk about swans, so let us talk about something more real, something that we all take for granted. We all know that gravity exists. In fact, we have laws and equations that describe gravity, such as the universal law of gravitation. The reason we accept the universal law of gravitation is because it successfully explains everything from objects falling on Earth to the orbit of the Moon around the Earth and the planets around the Sun.[2] As such, we use inductive reasoning to conclude that gravity is a universal property of all matter.

Do we know for sure that all matter is affected by gravity according to the universal law of gravitation? Well, no we cannot know it to be true. It has been true every time we have tested it, but what if the next experiment shows that it doesn’t work? What if there is some region of space where matter is not attracted to each other the way the universal law of gravitation says that it should? All it takes is one counterexample to demonstrate that the universal law of gravitation is not true, and unless we can test gravity everywhere on Earth, everywhere throughout the universe, and everywhere throughout time, we are only assuming that the universal law of gravitation is, well, universal.

Who can confirm for us that the universal law of gravitation is universal? God can. He knows all, so He does know whether or not it has worked the same way throughout time and across the universe. Also, He created it, so He should know by predominance how gravity works and whether it is universal. In other words, compared to God, we are stupid. Not because we cannot reason, but simply because we cannot check enough options, enough possibilities, enough places to confirm that a set of observations is true everywhere.

Now, science, being a human driven endeavor, has to make the assumption that the world, and the universe, is uniform. That is, we have to assume that what we see in limited tests and experiments applies to the whole universe. This is an assumption because to test it, we will have to be everywhere testing everything at every moment in time, which is an impossibility for us. Ultimately, we have to turn to something else, like, say, the Word of God, to confirm or deny that our assumptions about science are true. Our very institution of science requires an outside source of knowledge to confirm that science works.

In case you are wondering what is that outside knowledge from God that supports our use of science, consider the following verses. First, we have Genesis 1:28:

And God blessed them [man and woman]. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

This verse shows us that we humans were put in the world for the purpose of understanding it, for if we are expected to subdue it, then we must be able to comprehend it. Therefore, what we perceive about the world is a reflection of the world. Then we have Genesis 1:14-15:

And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.”

While the focus here is on the light that God made, we are told that their purpose is to keep time. That implies that there will be some regularity to the things that God created: we can expected repeated days, seasons, and years, so God built regularity (uniformity) into the world. This regularity is reiterated in Genesis 8:21-21:

And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

These verses describe God’s covenant with Noah after the Flood, and He promises that the Earth and its regular cycles (uniformity) will continue without end and without interruption until the end of the world. Finally, we can trust God when He says these things we because we know from James 1:17 that:

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

God Himself does not change, and if He has promised that His creation will continue in an orderly fashion, and that we are designed to comprehend and manage it, then we have every reason to believe that the world is uniform and that we can go out, study the world, and make sense out of it. In other words, to a creationist, science is reliable because we have the Word of God affirming that the natural world is comprehensible.

I want to stress something here: creationists can trust science because we trust in the Bible. Compared to God, we are still stupid. The only way we can demonstrate the reliability of science is by turning to God for confirmation. Creationists are not privy to a special knowledge or a special type of science that automatically makes our investigations correct. We still have extremely limited observations about the world around us and are still prone to making incorrect conclusions. We can, however, turn to the Bible to fill in some of those gaps, some of those universal truths that we ourselves are incapable of reasoning out ourselves.

What does someone who does not accept the Bible have to rely on? Without the revelation of God, he has to rely on his own intellect and the collective intellect of humankind. As we have seen already, that is insufficient to even prove that something like gravity must be universal. As such, he has to trust that science leads to truth.[3]  Where does his trust stem from? Simply because it works. It has worked for others, it works for himself, so it must work everywhere. But that is the very same assumption we are trying to answer: how do we know that science applies to all of nature across the universe and across all of time? Because he does not allow anything outside of the realm of human knowledge to impact his thinking, he is limiting himself to only those things that stupid humans are able to know.

Thoughts from Steven

P.S. Just so we are clear, I am not saying that evolutionists are stupid by nature. I have met several evolutionists and they are very intelligent people who are quite capable of making observing and drawing conclusions about the natural world. However, they, as are all humans, are simply stupid compared to God.


[1]For example, Loxton, Daniel and Donald Prothero (2013) Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids, Columbia University Press, New York, New York, pg 5 uses the white swan illustration.

[2]To add an aside, physicists do not believe that the universal law of gravitation is correct anymore. Granted, it is an approximation, and a good approximation for most applications, but at extreme scales, such as black holes, other equations work better. I will continue to treat the universal law of gravitation as if it is true to make my point, and leave the fact that it is no longer considered to be completely true as further evidence to support my point.

[3]As a quick aside, many scientists may claim that “Science is not about truth, it is about facts.” However, this is a distinction without a difference. Sure, science may brings facts to the table, as opposed to truth, but what do we do with these facts? We make statements about the true nature of the world. The very fact that we can ask “True or False” questions on a science test demonstrates that scientists do, indeed, treat facts as a starting point for divining truth.