When I was growing up, few things captured my imagination like a good mystery. I wanted to solve a conundrum before reading the solution, but no matter how good I got, my prediction often failed because it depended on how the author presented (or misrepresented) the evidence. Solving mysteries became a game of guessing the author’s intent rather than solving the mystery.
I thought little about these frustrations until I became interested in forensic science. Have you ever wondered why the American court system employs both a defense attorney and a prosecutor for each case? It’s because evidence doesn’t speak for itself. The prosecution and defense see the same evidence, but they paint different pictures of the incident. The showdown in the courtroom is a battle of interpretations.
The origins conversation is much like a courtroom drama. The evidence is presented, and opposing sides (i.e., the creationist and the evolutionist) try to present the most convincing interpretation. Often an evolutionist will appeal to the authority of science to make a more compelling case. But what is science and what role does it actually play?
Objection: Operational vs. Historical Science
Science refers to the process by which we learn about the natural world. Science can be divided into two basic categories. Operational science employs experimentation to verify ideas that are observable, repeatable, and testable. If a scientist pours vinegar into a papier-mâché volcano filled with baking soda, the volcano will erupt with fizzy lava. This will happen each time, no matter how many times he repeats the experiment. No matter the scientist or his system of beliefs, we can trust his claim that vinegar reacts with baking soda.
Not all that we call science, however, is operational science. While operational science focuses on what can be observed in the present, historical science uses scientific processes to gather and observe evidence in the present to determine what happened in the unobservable past. Because the past is not observable or repeatable, conclusions are more dependent on interpretations, assumptions, and presuppositions.
Presuppositions refer to an individual’s basic beliefs. Sometimes presuppositions are biases the individual is not aware he has. Other times they are foundational beliefs the individual intentionally holds as unarguable truths. The way a person interprets evidence is based on this set of presuppositions, his worldview. Even the most objective scientist has a worldview that will affect how he interprets evidence.
Evidence: Rock Layers
To explore the differences between these two types of science, consider Exhibit A: rock layers in the Grand Canyon. In the present, a geologist can observe rock layers in the canyon and can employ operational science to determine, among other things, the type of rock in each layer and to analyze the minerals found at each depth. Assuming he follows appropriate scientific methodology, no geologist would dispute the evidential result of the tests. However, an evolutionist reaches the conclusion that over millions of years, water slowly carved through the layers of sediment that had been gradually deposited. A creationist determines that, as a result of a catastrophic flood, the layers of sediment formed rapidly and, before they could completely harden, water quickly cut the canyon. The evidence is the same, and the results of the observational science experiments can be repeated and confirmed. Yet the two scientists walk away with different interpretations of the past because they had different presuppositions about the rates of geological processes in the past.
Understanding the difference between operational and historical science clarifies what kind of science describes the things we see around us in the observable present and what kind of science relies on someone’s assumptions about the unobservable past. Also, understanding historical science helps us develop a strategy that will deepen the origins conversation. Although evidence can be used to support young-earth creation or to refute evolutionary ideas, if we argue only with evidence, we deal with only the surface issues. What happens when an evolutionist delivers a more eloquent closing statement?
By exposing the role of assumptions in the interpretation of evidence, we equip seekers to evaluate their own worldview and to think for themselves.
Our focus instead should be to challenge faulty presuppositions and to demonstrate the role interpretation based on assumptions plays in historical science. For example, the evolutionist claims that science proves the Grand Canyon was formed by a little water over a long period of time because he assumes the earth is millions of years old and geological processes operate slowly. Based on the same science, the creationist believes the canyon was formed by a lot of water over a short period of time because he believes the biblical account of a global flood, during which geological processes operated catastrophically. By exposing the role of assumptions in the interpretation of evidence, we equip seekers to evaluate their own worldview and to think for themselves.
Is the Jury Still Out?
If the present evidence is the same for both creation and evolution, how can anyone know which to believe? In many judicial cases, a confession or an eyewitness testimony ultimately shifts the balance. A reliable witness who was present when the event occurred can recount what happened with a high degree of accuracy.
Evolutionists and creationists agree that mankind was not present to witness the origin of the universe. Unlike evolutionists, creationists call upon an eyewitness who has recorded the events of creation (Genesis 1). In fact, this is stronger than an eyewitness account; it is a willing confession by a holy God whose testimony is infallible. When presented with a reliable eyewitness testimony, a fair jury should interpret any evidence in light of that testimony. In the case of Exhibit A, the interpretation presented by the evolutionist directly contradicts the eyewitness testimony because it requires millions of years, while the creationist’s interpretation fully supports a young earth.
The case of origins is not written like a traditional mystery novel in which evidence leads backward to the event. Rather, the Author clearly describes the event, and any evidence simply corroborates the account. As Christians who stand on the authority of God’s Word, we can be confident that both operational and historical science, when done well, support the perfect testimony of our Creator.