A Christian friend of mine and I have been debating back and forth for years now, and in one of the recent exchanges, he was chastising my reliance on empirical knowledge. Pesky engineers, always leaning on empiricism. I replied with something to the effect of "empirical data isn't everything, but it's pretty damn important."
I need to clarify. Equally important as empirical data itself is having an accurate interpretation of that data.
In a 2006 interview with Bill Moyers (part of an excellent series called "on Faith and Reason" available on Netflix), Welsh climatologist Sir John Houghton (scientist, Christian, author, and leading figure in global climate change research) discussed the perspective of being a leading scientist as well as a lifelong Christian. Houghton expressed how he didn't really see a conflict. Pointing to the creation story in Genesis, he opined that it was obviously meant as a fable or metaphor because light was created on the first day (Genesis 1:1-5) while the sun and stars were created on the fourth day (Genesis 1:14-19). Anyone knows that this is impossible.
However, Genesis was written a long, long time ago; during a time before mankind fully understood the reflective, refractive, wave-like, and ray nature of light. This is not to say that physics was any different back then, but rather they did not have the proper mental tools to completely understand them.
The picture to the right here is of Yellowstone Lake in Wyoming, roughly twenty minutes before sunrise.
Notice anything common in these photos? Despite the fact that the sun is not visible, there is still light. It may not seem so in the photos, but there was enough light to read books then!
What would someone five thousand years ago think about that?
What does this empirical evidence point to? That the sun is the source of our primary light here on earth? Or does it suggest instead that while the sun is a source of light, it is not the source of light?
The "light" of five thousand years ago was not the same as we understand "light" today. It matched the empirical observations and the level of "scientific knowledge" which they had at the time. Just like it was obvious that light appeared every day before the sun actually arose from the horizon, there was no difficulty in their understanding that "God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light" before there was a sun in the sky. What appears to us today as fable, metaphor, or myth was very real and logical back then.
I have another good friend who is on the fringes of being a conspiracy theorist, and he has been hooked into the "ancient astronaut" theory. As he was describing the theory and some of the evidence, I was very skeptical. He kept prodding me to watch the History Channel's series called "Ancient Aliens." In the spirit of being a good friend, and enjoying a challenge to my own belief systems, I took him up on it.
I had somewhat expected it to be a bologna and crazy sandwich, but the series actually has proven to be pretty interesting. Check out this episode from Season 2, for example. That's not to say I believe it. It's not that I strain at a gnat (Christianity) and swallow a camel (aliens bred us to be a slave race, one of dozens of theories proposed during the series). However, they point out many finds from archeology which are fascinating to ponder. There are many more spectacular and mysterious megalithic structures on this earth than I was aware of, and that alone has made the series slightly addicting.
However, the show also serves as an excellent case study in confirmation bias. While the show does sometimes present alternate opinions, the major hosts have already sold themselves completely on the surety of ancient alien contact. When you are a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And apparently when you are an ancient alien astronaut theorist, every little bit of evidence which could possibly support that theory, no matter how flimsy, is accepted as factual evidence. So many of their legitimate points, questions, and theories are sullied by junk science; by empiricism gone wrong due to incorrect interpretation.
Incorrect interpretation is just one reason why empiricism is not always the best tool in trying to arrive at the truth. Other reasons will have to come in later posts... :-)