Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the Editor


Understandability as Criterion for Belief
Russell Maatman
Dordt College
Sioux Center, Iowa 51250

From: JASA 29 (September 1977): 141-142.

Let us consider what happens to a person who considers what the world is like. Do you think that such a person can choose his starting point and then work out a consistent position?

A person might take one of two basic positions as he considers the world. First, he might assume that man cannot necessarily comprehend everything, but that there is a sovereign God Who not only comprehends but controls everything in Creation. Second, a person might assume that he does not need a god-concept, or any other concept that he cannot understand. In short, such a person says in formulating his picture of the world that the only things which exist are those which he can, at least in principle, understand. He would even claim that an idea would have to be understood before being accepted. Whether or not there are positions other than the two just described is not the issue here. Nor is it necessary to consider here the first position, the position of the Christian. Let us consider only one matter at this time: Can a person be consistent in building up his world picture if he assumes at the outset that the only things which exist, and the only ideas which need be accepted, are those things and ideas which can, at least in principle, be understood?

At first, setting up understandability as a criterion for accepting the existence of a thing or an idea seems innocent enough. Why not start out this way if one has not made a faith commitment to the Christian position? Isn't it possible for us to took at the world around us, attempt to understand what we see, and, when we encounter that which we cannot understand, claim that man will eventually gain understanding? It is unfortunate for the person who embarks on such a program that serious, perhaps insurmountable, problems arise. Two of those problems are considered here.

The person who believes that man's ability to understand is the measure of all things is also a person who rejects belief in miracles. In what follows, an attempt is made to show that a problem arises because of this rejection.

(1) The heart of the position is the idea that man can, in principle, understand all things, including events and valid ideas. Thus, the "fact" which cannot be understood is in his mind actually a "non-fact. "

(2) Since man is then to sit in judgment to decide whether a thing exists or an event has occurred, man is required to sift evidence.

(3) Statement (2) implies that all evidence will be treated impartially; if it is not treated impartially, wrong conclusions can be made.

(4) No matter who it is that defines a miracle, the idea that a miracle is not understandable is included in the definition of a miracle.

(5) Therefore, the person who uses understandability as a criterion for existence does not accept miracles.

(6) Therefore, according to such a person, there can be no valid evidence that a miracle has ever occurred.

(7) It follows that evidence which could show that a miracle has occurred is automatically rejected; such evidence is not even considered. For example, the Virgin Birth is not actually rejected by such a person on the grounds that the evidence is weak. Rather, such a person rejects the Virgin Birth because there could not have been such an event. It is even denied that miracles can occur in the future.

(8) Statements (3) and (7) contradict each other. Therefore, there is an internal inconsistency in the position of the person who uses understandability as a criterion for existence.

Notice that it has not been concluded above that the person who rejects any idea of a god is wrong because miracles have, in fact, occurred. Of course, it is also true that he is wrong for such a reason. What is claimed here is that the world has been made so that a person cannot with consistency maintain that things, events, and valid ideas are, in principle, understandable. Such a person cannot formulate a program in which he examines evidence impartially.

There is another serious problem which arises for the person who claims to use understandability as a criterion for existence. Such a person says that he cannot understand how man and animals could suddenly appear on the scene. Nor can he understand how plants or, indeed, life itself, could suddenly appear. It is not relevant here to debate the evolution question, but it must be pointed out that the various creation events recorded in the Bible are rejected by the person who uses understandability as a criterion. He rejects the historicity of such events just because creation events are not understandable. What is relevant here, however, is that we notice how the no-creation idea has been extended. Many persons who insist upon understandability as a criterion now claim that there never was a beginning. They extend the idea of rejecting certain creation events (of man, animals, etc.) to the entire cosmos: it was always there.

Those who hold to the no-beginning idea use reasoning something like the following: "As we try to understand the world around us, we find that the natural ways we then formulate describe only processes. Those laws never describe beginnings. Therefore, our attempt to understand can never lead us to an understanding of the idea of creation. Since we should accept only that which we can, at least in principle, understand, we should not accept the idea of creation. Therefore, we are left with the only alternative, the idea of no beginning. We do not understand the no-beginning idea either, but that does not mean we will never be able to understand this idea. We cannot say that the no-beginning idea is in principle an idea we cannot understand."

In effect, the person who uses understandability as a criterion for the existence of a thing or an event and for the validity of an idea chooses between the following two statements:

(1) The world was created.
(2) There never was a beginning.

He chooses the second statement. Since he insists on the understandability criterion, it is easy to see why he rejects the first statement. Such a rejection forces him to choose the second statement. Notice, however, what he is in addition forced to say:

(3) The idea of no beginning is in principle understandable. There is no way out. He who accepts the understandability. criterion must also accept Statement 3. He says that man is capable of understanding the no-beginning concept; in fact, he says, man may some day actually understand such a concept. Here is the crux of the matter: If understandability is the criterion for accepting the existence of things and events, and for accepting the validity of ideas, how is it possible to accept Statement 3? In the very nature of the case Statement 3 can only be accepted on faith, without supporting evidence.

Notice that the person who takes this position is not criticized here because Statement 3 seems ridiculous, although such a statement does seem ridiculous to those accustomed to thinking in Christian categories. Rather, the criticism made here is that it is impossible to accept Statement 3 without proof and also accept the understandability criterion. The person who says he will accept only those things, events, and ideas which are understandable is forced to be inconsistent.

Thus, in two different ways we can see that a person is inconsistent if he starts out with the idea that everything is understandable. Too often we Christians assume that once a person has a starting point, regardless of what that starting point is, he can work out a consistent picture of the world. It seems that such a consistent picture cannot always be worked out.

Do these considerations prove that the Christian starting point is the correct one? No, they do not. The Christian idea of how things are is based on faith, a gift which comes from God. We do not prove the truth of the Christian faith in the way we prove a mathematical theorem.

What Christians should teach is that one cannot simply say, "You pays yer money and takes yer choice." The Lord did not make that kind of world.