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I Don’t Know

by Noah Lugeons

Among the many vapid but beloved tactics employed by Christian apologists is the “unanswerable” list of questions.  Kent Hovind seems to have a genetic predilection for it and his questions tend to be predictably vacuous.  Here’s a sample of some of the hard-hitting questions he “stumps” “evolutionists” with:

  1. Where did the space for the universe come from?
  2. Where did matter come from?
  3. Where did the laws of the universe come from?
  4. How did matter get so perfectly organized?
  5. Where did the energy come from to do all the organizing?

Plenty of scientists and bloggers far more informed than myself have answered these questions for him so I won’t bother treading the same well-worn path in the carpet (although if you’d like some answers, Rosa Rubicondior provides some great ones).  I won’t bother pointing out that not a damn one of these has the slightest thing to do with evolution (he eventually gets to that in 2 or 3 of his 10 questions) and I won’t bother pointing out that he kept asking long after the questions had been answered.

Instead, I’d like to look at the assumption behind all of these.  Hovind, like far too many zealots, seems to believe that as science fails, magical space-men somehow win by default.  The “God of the Gaps” theory (also known as the “Incredible Shrinking God”) rests on this preposterous notion that one guy’s “I don’t know” is somehow trumped by another guy’s “I don’t know”.  In their warped folds of gray matter, science’s ability to explain (for example) where the “space came from” for the universe somehow empowers their inability to explain it.

Let’s set aside for a moment what a meaningless inquiry it is to ask where the space that space is in came from.  Let’s set aside the fact that there actually are some workable (if not wholly comprehensible) theories that seek to tackle this esoteric question.  Let’s set aside the fact that asking where it came from all but assumes the existence of the thing they’re trying to prove to begin with.  Let’s suppose that this was a legitimate and intellectually coherent puzzler.  Let’s pretend that scientists, when confronted with this query, could but throw their shoulders up and offer their palms with a cocked head and an apologetic “I don’t know”.

So what?

“I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer.  It is almost always an intellectually honest answer.  What’s more is that it is readily acceptable when the tables are turned on the apologist.  Where did god come from? “I don’t know”. Why did god have to kill his son to appease himself? “I don’t know”. Why couldn’t the writers of the gospels get the Lord’s Prayer transcribed with remote consistency? “I don’t know”. Why do so many of the stories about Christ predate his existence and show up in the mythological record or earlier faiths? “I don’t know”. Oh, and while we’re at it, where did the space that space is in come from? “I don’t know”.

Of course, their “I don’t know” is okay because they’re not meant to know.  Their “I don’t know” is cloaked in a mystery they embrace.  Religion exists to embrace its own ignorance.  Science, on the other hand, seeks to answer questions.  It’s okay in the mind of the religious to simply chalk up the tough questions to the inexplicable nature of god, but there’s really only a semantic difference between “I don’t know” and “The lord works in mysterious ways”.

The primary difference between the two approaches is one of specificity.  Science, by its very nature, is uncertain.  The whole point of science is a lack of unalterable dogma.  As established as the laws of science are, none of them are incontrovertible.  Physicists would agree that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, but all it would take to overturn that belief would be an observation of something moving faster than light.  It doesn’t matter who told who what.  Despite the well deserved apotheosis of Einstein, nobody thinks him infallible.  He is not a messiah.  His words aren’t the gospel.

People crave certainty but certainty is an illusion.  Religion is happy to sell you whatever illusion you’d like to buy, but science refuses to offer it as it would close off avenues of further research and it would stifle the continued growth of scientific knowledge.  The price of unbounded inquiry is ambiguity.  The genesis of knowledge is the admission of ignorance.  Every break through in the history of human thought began with the recognition that “I don’t know”.

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