Who Needs an Ultimate Source of Authority?

Over at Creation Today, Paul Hovind (son of Kent “Dr. Dino” Hovind) and Eric Taylor have a video entitled What Is Your Ultimate Source of Authority?. The blurb says,

Paul and Eric welcome guest Jay Seegert of the Creation Education Center to discuss the importance of world-views, historical science versus observational science, and the importance of the authority of Scripture.

As much as I love each and every one of you, I couldn’t bring myself to watch the video to critique its specific points for you, so what I say below may not have any bearing on their actual positions. If it helps, imagine I’m having a conversation with a fundie sockpuppet that bears only the most fleeting resemblance to any person or event, living or dead.

But presumably the point is that people are unreliable, observations are unreliable, historical records are unreliable, chains of reasoning are unreliable, and so you need some kind of pole star to guide you. And, of course, the only reliable guide is the word of God because we’ve made up our minds that God never lies; and that the Bible is the word of God because we’ve made up our minds that it is. QED.

But what if the Bible isn’t reliable? What if there aren’t any reliable pole stars by which we can unambiguously guide the truth or falseness of a proposition? Would that mean that we can’t know anything? Do we, in short, need an ultimate source of authority?

Actually, murder mysteries are an entire literary genre where stories often take place in a context where there are no 100% reliable witnesses. Any of the suspects might or might not be lying; any given clue may or may not have been planted; anyone might be concealing information or covering for someone or lying for some other reason. And yet, the detective usually manages to figure out whodunit.

The thing is that just because something isn’t 100% reliable doesn’t make it absolutely unreliable. The GPS unit in your car is only reliable to something like 7 feet (and it was worse back when they had Selective Availability turned on), so it may not be able to tell you whether you’re in the northbound or southbound lane, but it can tell you whether you’re in Washington or Baltimore. Weather forecasts are often wrong, but if you consistently bet even money on tomorrow’s forecast being wrong, you’re going to lose money.

You could, of course, ask how we can know that the weather report was wrong. For all we know, meteorologists are always right and it’s only our lying eyes that tell us it’s raining on a day that was supposed to be sunny. Except that when we see rain, we usually have multiple lines of evidence: we can hear the rain, feel it on our skin, hear from friends who also think it’s raining, etc. So you have a cluster of information sources (sight, hearing, touch, friends) that confirm each other, and one outlier (the weather report).

As we grow up and observe the world around us through our senses and other sources of information, we can figure out how reliable those sources are, and under which conditions. For instance, if it’s broad daylight and I don’t see a cat in front of me, it’s a safe bet that there’s no cat in front of me; if it’s dark, then the fact that I don’t see a cat is a far less reliable indicator of the absence of cat (sorry about your tail, kitty!).

In fact, we can look at the scientific method as an ongoing search to figure out which observations are reliable and which ones aren’t, one that has so far come up with hundreds or thousands of Ways of Being Wrong. All the business with lab coats and double-blind studies and such is secondary, in service of the primary goal of avoiding Ways of Being Wrong.

Everything I’ve said above also applies if one of our sources of information is 100% reliable. If, say, the Bible as interpreted by Eric Hovind were absolutely correct in all cases, we should be able to figure it out by comparing it to other sources of information that we’re pretty sure are pretty reliable, like scientific observation. But unfortunately for him, we have far too many cases where multiple independent lines of evidence (such as radiometric dating, dendochronology, and historical records) agree with each other, and disagree with the Bible. That’s not what we’d expect to see if the Bible is 100% reliable and scientific investigation is 95% reliable.

But my broader point is that we don’t need to assume that there are any 100%-reliable sources of information or authority, so Hovind’s and Taylor’s question is premature; first we need to establish that there is an ultimate source of knowledge. It’s also malformed: the word “your” implies (with the caveats noted above) that he uses the Bible, and if I don’t, then I’m wrong. But if the Bible is the reliable source of information that he thinks it is, then he should be able to demonstrate that it is. But the fact that Hovind isn’t taken seriously even by a majority of other Christians tells me that he still has a lot of work to do in that regard.

One thought on “Who Needs an Ultimate Source of Authority?”

  1. I bit the bullet and watched the video. My rough once-through notes:

    The very first thing I noticed was a placard facing the camera, roughly 6″ x 6″, that says “THINK!” Ironic, since the bulk of the video discourages thinking in favor of accepting an authority that can’t stand up to critical analysis.

    Spends some time dissing Bill Nye. Sets him in the “authority” mode–we trust him because he’s the science guy.

    Response to Nye: “It evokes the fallacy of equivocation” by equating “science” and “evolution.” Seques into “operational” versus “historical” science. Historical science is based on “… guesses and assumptions …” then into presuppositionalism: Guesses and assumptions are “driven by your world view.”

    Riffing on Bill Nye’s video about creationism, one of the hosts said “Just because we’re creationists doesn’t mean we’re not crazy.” LOL!

    “Deep time kind of solves everyting. It’s in a sense magic fairy dust that makes things that initially might seem crazy or impossible seem possible because of deep time.”

    A little dissing of Pat Robertson’s comments on the age of the earth.

    Hovind: “If [the foundation of knowledge] is not God’s word, what is it?” Answer: Skeptics are trusting their reason, and they’re “… using reason to justify trusting reason, which is circular.” And it’s “A circular argument that’s not virtuous, it’s vicious.”

    When Hovind expressed the hope that “you got some interesting facts and some interesting science here” I quit.

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