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Daniel Harrell on Embracing Truth

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February 17, 2011 Tags: Education

Today's entry was written by Daniel Harrell. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

In this video, Daniel Harrell affirms that science is not the only way to pursue truth. Rather, truth happens in a variety of different ways and each one ultimately leads to an understanding of God.

In our society, science is a very credible pursuit which lends intellectual weight to any discussion. Whatever we mean by truth, however, Harrell emphasizes that it happens in a variety of ways. What the scientist knows from the pursuit of science is different than what the poet, the theologian, or the businessman knows. If all of these voices could work together in celebration of the reality that is God, then significant change would actually take place.

Looking back at history, Harrell notes that at one time Christian faith did in fact permeate everything, including science. Returning Christianity to that position is an enormous challenge, and, as Harrell admits, may not even be the right thing to do.

Harrell concludes by claiming that searching for truth, whether it is through poetry, science, or art, will eventually bring us to God. As Christians, then, we should be confident in encouraging the pursuit of truth in any route or form.

Daniel Harrell is the Senior Minister of Colonial Church in Edina, Minnesota. He is the author of the books Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, How To Be Perfect: One Church’s Experiment with Living the Book of Leviticus, and the forthcoming Wisdom of the Saints (And Near Saints): Christian Inspiration from A-Z. He also teaches theology at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul.

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Daniel - #51608

February 18th 2011

Wow, another postmodern philosophical argument from BioLogos. I really am shocked that BioLogos is treating science and logic as “just another way of knowing.” I respect that you guys are trying to get Christians to interact honestly with scientific evidence, but giving lip service to objective truth while simultaneously using postmodern arguments about how to find truth is not something I am familiar with in (non-liberal) evangelical theology.

How does Mr. Harrell propose that we can kind out objective facts about reality through poetry or art? Basically this boils down to a belief that first we have to believe in God without evidence, then we use business, theology, science, art, and poetry as a guide to a truth we already accepted without evidence. This is not logical, although I’m guessing that Mr. Harrell would reply that logical arguments are just one of many ways of finding truth?

sy - #51655

February 19th 2011


I think you got it. Logical arguments can indeed lead to truth, but of course, can almost as easily lead to falsehood. (We know that a good deal of what you call “objective” truth, in other words the truth discovered by scientific experiment and observation is far from logical). And yes, the point is that not all truth is objectively verifiable. Did you have a dream about about a unicorn? You say you did, but I cant verify that. Is it true that you had that dream?

Daniel - #51687

February 19th 2011


Your example doesn’t make any sense, the question isn’t “how can I prove that I really had a dream about a unicorn?”, but “does a dream count as evidence that unicorns are real?” I have absolutely no problem admitting that people have SUBJECTIVE experiences of UFOs, the Holy Ghost, Shiva, the Loch Ness Monster, or a connection with their old life through reincarnation; the problem is that I do not believe these can be used as evidence of truth, since they are contradictory and by definition unable to be tested. Your example actually perfectly makes my point, dreams are NOT guides to objective truth, and neither is faith, art, or poetry. They can be wonderful examples of what we subjectively feel, and should absolutely be valued in that context, but they never count as objective evidence for real truth “out there.”

Please explain to me how poetry and art can lead to objective truth. I submit to you that evidence and logic are the only methods for approaching objective truth (albeit imperfectly); poetry and art are not adequate guides to objective truth.

Does it bother you that you are making a postmodern philosophical argument? Do you really think, as you claim, that illogical arguments are good guides to truth?

sy - #51715

February 19th 2011


You are missing my point. It has nothing to do with whether unicorns are real. Suppose you told me you had a dream about Jennifer Lopez, who I think we can agree, is probably real. The question is, is it true that you had such a dream? Your having that dream is either true or not. But how can it be objectively proven to be true?

Steve Ruble - #51726

February 19th 2011

Sy, I think you’re missing Daniel’s point.  Let’s try a different example. You’ve probably heard the story of August Kekulé, who was trying to figure out the molecular structure of benzene and had a dream about a snake eating its own tale, which inspired him to propose a ring structure for benzene, which he later proved to be accurate. (Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the story as I’ve told it here is true.)

Now, of course, no one can prove whether or not Kekulé had such a dream, nor that the dream was the inspiration for his discovery.  But the fact of the dream has no bearing on the evidence for the truth of his discovery - the fact that Kekulé had a dream does absolutely nothing to increase or decrease the probability that benzene has a ring-like structure, because we don’t regard the dreams of scientists as being evidence for anything. Similarly, it wouldn’t matter if Kekulé had written a beautiful poem, or painted a beautiful picture of a ring-shaped benzene molecule.  Dreams, poems, and paintings are not things which we use to substantiate factual claims about the world.  They may reflect our inner states, but they tell us little about the nature of the world outside of ourselves.

merv - #51737

February 19th 2011

Daniel, when we get to Job or Psalms or other parts of the Bible where someone has unleashed Spirit-led poetry (music)—praises of and to God, should we just flip past those as so much nonsense because poetry “can’t count as evidence towards objective truth”?

I think Steve’s example of the dream about the benzene ring is a wonderful example (if indeed it happened that way) of something subjective ending up pointing towards an objective truth.  As Steve explains—we don’t hearken to such things as being themselves, evidence.  But that doesn’t mean they can’t lead to truth.


sy - #51741

February 19th 2011


No, I completely get Daniel’s point, but my point is that is not the point I am discussing. (BTW, Kekule never actually had that dream, it was an urban legend, but again thats beside the point.). I am not discussing great truths about the world. Let’s make the example a bit clearer.

I tell a woman who I have not been in touch with for a while that I called her up because I had a dream about her. She doesnt know if this is true, and it matters to her if it is or isnt. In other words, there is a significant meaning (for her) to the truth of my statement about have this particular dream.

I can never prove objectively that my statement of reality is true, nor can she prove it is false.
And yet, having or not have the dream is an actual truth claim about reality. It might not be as consequential as the structure of benzene, but it is still an important question of truth, which could have implications for several human lives.

So to sum up what my point was, not all true statements about the nature of reality are verifiable or refutable.

Steve Ruble - #51954

February 20th 2011

Sy, thanks for clarifying. FYI, the story of Kekulé‘s dream originated from the man himself, per Wikipedia, in a speech he delivered in 1890 - you can read the speech itself if you have access to the journal.  Of course, it may still be the case that it never happened, but you can’t say it was an urban legend.

To the point: yes, of course, claims about whether or not one had a dream are not verifiable truth claims. So what? Everyone in this conversation has already agreed that claims about the occurrence (or non-occurring) of subjective experiential phenomena must be taken at face value. As Daniel wrote,

I have absolutely no problem admitting that people have SUBJECTIVE experiences of UFOs, the Holy Ghost, Shiva…

The question is, what evidential value do these claims have for anything other than the claim that the experience in question actually was experienced? Obviously, neither you nor I nor Daniel takes all claims to have had experiences as evidence that the putative cause of the experience was a real event in the world, as opposed to a delusion - but what standard do you use to decide whether stories of experiences constitute evidence for events?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #51752

February 19th 2011

Michael Faraday was one of the greatest scientists of all time.  He was also “highly religious; he was a member of the Sandemanian Church, a Christian sect founded in 1730 that demanded total faith and commitment. Biographers have noted that “a strong sense of the unity of God and nature pervaded Faraday’s life and work.”[7]” Wiki

Faraday discovered electro-magnetic fields which inspired Einstein when he was thinking about the nature of gravity.  The theology of the sect to which Faraday belonged probably inspired his discovery of force fields because in their teachings, the Holy Spirit resembled a force field hold the universe and its people together. 

Christians believe that life, the universe is one Whole.  I think that most scientists do also.  Science as we usually think of it is concerned about things, the physical sciences, but there is also the life sciences and the human sciences.  Most people live in a human created setting and are interdependent on others for all our needs.  Thus to live we must have all sorts of knowledge, just not scientific knowledge.  Also moral, social, spiritual, cultural, political historical knowledge.  If science thinks that its is only kind of important thinking it is wrong.

sy - #51777

February 19th 2011

Nice comment Roger, and I agree entirely, except for the wording of the last sentence. Science is not an entity that thinks. There are some people who think that science provides the only kind of knowledge worth having, but they are not necessarily scientists. Most of my colleagues do not hold that view, which is limited to some militant atheists who dont really understand science. They think it provides an all encompassing world view that elminates everything else. Maxwell is not the only scientist who would strongly disagree. I know very few (other than Dawkins and his friends) who hold such a view.

Steve Ruble - #51965

February 20th 2011

Sy, you can’t possibly read any of Dawkins’ books without realizing that he has a deep affection for and appreciation of literature and music. He absolutely does not think that “science provides the only kind of knowledge worth having” nor that it “eliminates everything else”.  What he does advocate strongly for is skepticism about extraordinary factual claims.  If you’d like to get a clearer picture of Dawkins’ actual ideas about the topic, I’d recommend his book Unweaving the Rainbow, in which he writes,

I am in danger of being misunderstood, and it is important that I confront this danger. It would be too easy to claim complacently that our present scientific knowledge is all that there is to know…[continued here]

I’m skeptical of the existence of the people you describe; if you really know such people, point them out and I’ll mock them right along with you.  But such a view is very different from the view that extraordinary claims about the way the world really is ought not to be believed in the absence of strong evidence.  To act as if they are the same is deeply dishonest.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #51978

February 20th 2011

Steve and Sy,

It is comforting to hear from both sides of the faith question that most scientists are abourt to reduce life to one dimension.  However I wonder if you are aware of such an attempt called physicalism.  Now let me say Steve, I am not saying the materialists like Dawkins cannot or do not appreciate music and literature, what I am saying is that at least some and I would include Dawkins in this number that are trying seriously to reduce reality including life to the physical, which LOGICALLY means that the intellectual, the rational, and the meaningful do not exist.  I believe that this is why a young graduate student at Harvard recently killed himself as he put it, “an experiment in nihilism” after writing an 1000 page book on the topic. 

Dawkins has said that he is a monist which means that only the physical exists.  Physicalists are intent to prove that the brain does not think.  Dawkins says that the brain is governed by memes which are extensions of the genes.  From where comes thinking?  It doesn’t.

Dawkins says that philosophy is bogus.  He freely says that life has no real meaning & no one seems to seriously dispute him.  What hold does he have over intellectuals that so few dispute him?

Steve Ruble - #51988

February 20th 2011

My goodness, where does this stuff come from?

Dawkins says that philosophy is bogus.

Nonsense.  Dawkins says here that Daniel Dennett (a philosopher) is his “intellectual hero”. Hardly the action of a man who thinks “philosophy is bogus”.

He freely says that life has no real meaning…

More nonsense.  Another quote from Unweaving the Rainbow:

To accuse science of robbing life of the warmth that makes it worth living is so preposterously mistaken, so diametrically opposite to my own feelings and those of most working scientists, I am almost driven to the despair of which I am wrongly suspected.

Back to Roger:

... to reduce reality including life to the physical, which LOGICALLY means that the intellectual, the rational, and the meaningful do not exist.

There is no such logical (or perhaps LOGICAL) implication. For an extensive exposition of one way in which such words can be sensibly used under reductive physicalism, see here.  You may think that Carrier is wrong, but even if he is his case is not one you can simply dismiss by using capital letters.

Sw - #52054

February 21st 2011

Yeah, to properly dismiss Carrier you also need to have some laughter involved.

Anyway, putting the has-beens (Dawkins) and never-weres (Carrier) aside to comment on the original post…

I have to admit, I don’t think Harrell effectively makes his point. Then again, it’s a short clip. Sy’s more on target with discussing the practical, everyday limits of science, our experiences and knowledge, etc. In fact, even before getting into the deeper ‘ways of knowing’, those mere practical limitations are tremendous. I think Mike Gene on this site has mentioned that there’s a factual answer to the question of “What did I have for breakfast X weeks/months/years ago”, but science is going to be nearly useless answering that question. What about accepting the claims of scientists from an amateur’s point of view?

So even putting aside the in-principle limitations of science, the practical limitations are weighty themselves.

Also, I’m surprised (unless I missed something) no one mentioned this: “Logical arguments” aren’t science. Unless philosophers, historians, theologians and more are now “scientists”.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #52077

February 21st 2011

Steve Ruble,

Thank you very much for the link to Richard Carrier’s work.  You will probably be surprised that I agree basically with what he says.  I do not suggest a universe where the physical, intellectual, and the spiritual are separate, but where they are integrated.  They are integrated in that they have the same basic structure, which is relational. 

As I understand Carrier, he seems to agree, at least concerning the mental.  Now the physical is relational, although science and philosophy have yet to come to this conclusion.  However it is hard say that the physical which cannot think can give RATIONAL structure to the universe and reality as we experience it.  This is where monistic physicalism breaks down and this is my point. 

This view of knowing undermines relativism which is the foundation of much atheistic thinking. 

Concerning Dennett while he does admit to being a philosopher, I have often seen him called a scientist of the mind.  He certainly does not write on what are seen as philosophical questions.  Dawkins has rejected the Why question which other philosophers as Lord Russell consider basic to philosophy.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #52079

February 21st 2011

Sw wrote:

“Also, I’m surprised (unless I missed something) no one mentioned this: “Logical arguments” aren’t science. Unless philosophers, historians, theologians and more are now “scientists”.”

Logic is a part of science, just as it is a part of the other disciplines that you mention.  We are all human, which means that we all take part in endeavors that make us western humans, which includes philosophy, history and theology (or atheology.)

Sw - #52117

February 21st 2011


Yes, we all use logical arguments. But if making logical arguments is sufficient for “doing science”, then historians, philosophers and theologians are all scientists.

Re: Dennett, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Dennett doesn’t engage in philosophy, or that he is a scientist. He clearly does the former (philosophy is more than just those Why? questions), and while he certainly focuses on neuroscience, he’s a far cry from the latter. That said, he does largely function as a cheerleader for materialism and scientism, and in that capacity backs up what I take your point to be.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #52251

February 22nd 2011


You are right in saying that just logic is not sufficient for doing science.  It is not sufficient for doing anything else either.  Science begins with evidence and evidence plus logic moves to theory.  History, philosophy, and theology also begin with evidence, but of a different sort and move from this evidence through logic to theory. 

What separates these disciplines is not evidence or logic, but primarily the type of evidence and the subject matter.

Daniel - #52442

February 24th 2011


Sorry, you still seem to be missing my point. Sure, you can describe a subjective feeling you have of a dream or an emotion (love, anger, etc), and that description may be valuable to a person you care about, but those do not point to an “ultimate” dream, or love, or anger that exists outside of yourself. You might want to look up the term qualia in a philosophical dictionary to better understand my point.

You are using a postmodern relativistic argument when you claim that dreams are guides to objective truth. I’m not denying that some people have subjective experiences of Jehovah, Zeus, Jesus, Thor, or dream unicorns; I am denying that those experiences can be divorced from logic or science to discover the ultimate truth of the experience.

Again, I’d appreciate it if you would deal with my original questions to you:

Please explain to me how poetry and art can lead to objective truth. I submit to you that evidence and logic are the only methods for approaching objective truth (albeit imperfectly); poetry and art are not adequate guides to objective truth. Does it bother you that you are making a postmodern philosophical argument? Do you really think that illogical arguments can be good guides to truth?

Daniel - #52444

February 24th 2011


You seem to have misunderstood Steve’s post. His point wasn’t that the urban legend about a dream of the structure of benzene was a way of finding truth; it was clearly that dreams are NOT a guide to truth; it had to be verified experimentally. I’ve had many dreams, but I would never claim that they were guides to objective truth. If we could experimentally or logically verify that the poetry in Psalms was from God and true then your example would make sense, but we can’t. (By the way, I’m not denying that truth can be explained in poetry or art AFTER it has been verified in some way, but that it is a guide to discover truth.)

Daniel - #52445

February 24th 2011


Also, you seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works. There is a huge amount of creativity that goes into science or philosophy (creative hypothesis, thought experiments, novel ways to test experiments, new mathematic and statistical methods, maybe even inspiration from dreams), but the ‘poetic’ or creative aspects of science or philosophy cannot be used as guides to truth themselves; we need evidence and logic for that. In the same way claiming that art, faith, and poetry are guides to discovering truth about God is not an intellectually coherent thought, unless you also believe that the millions of other pieces of art, dreams, and poetry about other gods are also guides to the truthfulness of those religions (which I doubt you would grant).

That’s my point, without logic, evidence, or science we have no way to distinguish true poetry, art, faith, or supposed revelation from false ones. Therefore those things are not guides to truth.

penman - #52618

February 26th 2011

Daniel - #52445
=That’s my point, without logic, evidence, or science we have no way to distinguish true poetry, art, faith, or supposed revelation from false ones.=

Does that mean that the realm of moral values can’t bear the weight of terms like “truth”? I don’t think it’s logic, evidence, or science that gives us our basic intuitions of moral obligation. (Unless evidence is broadened out to embrace the evidence of moral intuition itself - the phenomenon of conscience; but I think it’s being used to refer to physical evidence.)

I wouldn’t put “Be compassionate, not cruel” on the level of a subjective preference which someone else might just as well reverse: I like cheese but not apples, he likes apples but not cheese. But “Be compassionate, not cruel” doesn’t stem from logic or science, nor from physical evidence. There are true moral judgments – judgments where we can say it is true that X is morally right but Y is morally wrong. But those true judgments have a source beyond logic, science, & physical evidence.

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