Questions: their role in discovery

 

When we are seeking answers, it matters a great deal what questions we ask. That seems obvious, but asking the right questions does not always happen automatically. And one of the important questions is “can I expect to know the answer to this question?”

I am especially thinking of questions and answers relating to faith and science: questions about origins and geological history. First of all, consider two very different questions. If I am skipping flat stones across a pond, and want to know the best angle for the stone to hit the water, I can do experiments to answer that question. Someone did the experiments, and even published the answer in the prestigious scientific journal Nature! There is a vast range of such questions that can be answered with experiments or observations. If I want to know where my grandfather was in the year 1896, and there is no written record, how would I find the answer to this question?

The difference between these two questions is that skipping stones is a process that can happen now, any time we choose to seek answers to our questions about it. But my grandfather’s experiences happened in the past, and we can’t repeat those experiences to study them. There are some events or processes that we can never know unless a reliable eyewitness tells us about them. Some examples are the time I carried a can of gasoline for my empty Chevrolet gas tank and tore my pants wide open on the fence along the freeway, the murder of Robert Kennedy, or the creation of the world. These are all events in history, and we can only know they happened if someone tells us about them.

If our questions are about events in geological history, can’t we do research to answer them? Yes we can, but with definite limitations. If we want to know how a particular layer of sandstone was deposited, we can study how sand is deposited in modern rivers, deserts, or the ocean. This can help us develop hypotheses about the deposit of the sandstone in question, but since we cannot go back in time and watch the sandstone form, our hypotheses will always remain as only hypotheses. Careful study can eliminate the least likely hypotheses, but it may be that none of our hypotheses are correct.

I enjoy asking questions about geological history or about the origins of living organisms, but it is not realistic to think we can ever be sure of the answers to many of these questions. The only written record of this history is found in the Bible, and it only addresses the most basic questions about ancient history. It is OK to have unanswered questions, since it will be impossible for us to find all the answers about history.

When we are seeking to understand the larger issues about biological origins or geological history, we all bring an individual mindset (set of assumptions) to the table. We can refer to this mindset as a worldview. One worldview accepts the Bible account of origins as a true description of history. A very different worldview assumes that the Bible does not give an accurate history, there is no creator or designer, and life has evolved on earth for millions of years (naturalism). These worldviews influence, and often control, the questions we will ask and the range of answers that we will think of. This has far more influence on science than is commonly realized.

Several colleagues and I spent a decade of research on the Eocene Bridger Formation in SW Wyoming, a rock unit containing thousands of fossil turtles and mammals. If we had approached this research from the usual naturalistic worldview, it would have led to questions like the following:

Did this rock formation with its fossils accumulate in five millions years, or in perhaps four million years?

During Eocene time, which of the mammals evolved first, the brontotheres, or the creodonts?

But since we were working within a biblical worldview, we asked questions like the following:

Did this rock formation accumulate slowly, or very rapidly?

Did it accumulate quickly during the global flood?

Did it accumulate slower, over perhaps a few hundred years, after the global flood?

Why are there such massive accumulations of fossil turtles?

Were the turtles killed and buried quickly, or over extended time?

A worldview based on a literal biblical worldview broadened our thinking to include new questions that would not be suggested, and in fact would not be allowed within a naturalistic worldview. We were also very much aware of the interpretations of the rocks given by naturalistic scientists, and deliberately sought to compare the two views and ask which gave better explanations of the evidence. We were not there when the rocks formed, so proving our hypotheses was not a possibility, but our worldview opened our eyes to see things that were not noticed by others, and suggested new, constructive questions, like those listed above (also see Origins Number 64, p. 6-20. 2015). Thus our biblical approach was a benefit, not a hindrance to the research. This has been my experience in all my geology/paleontology research. The approach described here can result in careful research and publications in scientific research journals, and new scientific insights (e.g. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 162:171-209, 2000). God is the most knowledgeable geologist ever, and, contrary to the prevailing worldview, following his biblical outline of history can give us a scientific advantage.

 Leo field photo 96 jpg

Leonard Brand, PhD, Loma Linda University

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