There have been at least two conversations I have been part of, one with a creative writing teacher and one with a materials physicist, where the topic of "different kinds of truth" came up. In each conversation, the differences were different. For the creative writer the question was whether there was any absolute truth at all or whether it might be the case that each person's truth was right for them but not right for someone else. For the physicist, there was the truth found by science as distinct from the truth found from religion (which was implicitly somehow less reliable and more a matter of personal taste).

I can understand a scientist moving to this position as a knee-jerk reaction to dogmatic statements made by religious leaders who have tried to apply their personal flavor of religion on all people or who have tried to interpret the Bible as a science textbook and made provably untrue claims as a result. This is similar to what happens in a conversation with an older relative who is starting to become senile and stating things that are obviously false; you coddle them and say things like "of course, that might be right for you, but I'm going to avoid drinking hair gel because it just doesn't work for me." Not because you believe that drinking hair gel is right for anybody but rather because you recognize the futility of arguing the point with them. This has the unintended but difficult to avoid consequence of placing other types of truth on a tier below scientific truth.

I can sympathize with the creative writer's view as a knee-jerk reaction to scientists and others who overstate and claim that our current understanding of science is the only method to decide truth, and that there is no truth apart from what can be proven (see dangerous myths about science for more on this topic). This approach avoids the entire (artificial) science vs. religion debate and the problem of the plethora of religions by asserting that there is no absolute truth, but only one's own viewpoint. This has the unintended but difficult to avoid consequence of placing theories that have enabled the scientific and medical revolutions on the same tier as statements like "the world rides on the back of a turtle".

This concept, that there is a separate kind of truth for religion that is personal and is not the same for all people, strikes me as very odd and counterproductive. When I say "I believe that God created the universe and sent his son here to save us from our sins," I do not intend to be making a different kind of truth statement than when I say "objects that are much smaller than the Earth and near its surface are accelerated toward the Earth with a force of approximately 9.8 meters/second/second due to gravity." I believe that each is true in the same way, universally for all people, and independently of whether we believe in them or not. I believe them to be true and useful statements for all who hear them. I believe that Christianity is true in the same way that gravity is true.

True like gravity

If you ask different physicists about some topics, you get the same answer from each. However, if you ask different physicists about what gravity is, you get different answers. Is it a particle, or a wave, or some sort of field? Does it travel at the speed of light or instantaneously (they really don't know this!)? (They will give the same answer about how gravity behaves at human spatial and time scales, but not about what it is.)

I'm picking gravity because it is a thing that we know to be true but we don't presently know what it is. I have no doubt that it actually is a particular way (nor do I doubt that God actually is a particular way). I do not doubt that one day we will discover how it actually is (nor do I doubt that one day each of us will see God and then know him). I am not trying to argue that because we don't know what gravity is there must be a God. I'm trying to use gravity as an example of something that we know partially but not in essence and which is nonetheless true as an analogy for the state of our knowledge about God.

To make the analogy between knowledge of gravity and knowledge of God stronger, imagine the following scenario (which has not happened but could in the future): A group of people has undertaken an interstellar trip, hoping to fly a spaceship to a planet orbiting another star in order to populate it. The journey takes so long that children are born and grow up on the spaceship before it arrives. Those people who grew up on this spaceship wouldn't have direct experience with gravity (it would be too weak for them to sense). Their ancestors' admonitions that "when we get to the planet, you'll see" would sound just as otherworldly to them as "when we get to heaven, you'll see" does to us. Note that gravity does exist for all of the people on the ship, and indeed some people on the ship have had direct experience of it in the past. Their task of describing it to their shipmates mirrors the Christian's task on Spaceship Earth.

Scientific Understanding

Actually, physicists are still arguing over what gravity is and how it behaves at extremely high speeds and small scales. I'm reading the book The Elegant Universe by the famous string theorist Brian G. Greene. In it, he describes how physicists are working on a "Theory of Everything" that will encompass all observable phenomena in the Universe. Published in 2000, the book points out that gravity is still a "fly in the ointment" whose properties have not been completely explained: there is debate over whether gravity is particle-like, or whether it is a field that acts continuously over all space. It is not even known whether gravity travels at the speed of light or effects objects instantaneously. Although we are all very familiar with gravity and its effects at our scale of time and space, its true nature is not completely known to us.

The Elegant Universe also points out that the two most successful theories in physics, Einstein's special relativity, and Feinman and others' quantum mechanics, although they each are able to describe a set of behaviors at different scales, cannot both be true. This is because the chaotic behavior at very small scale required by quantum mechanics is at odds with smoothness required by special relativity.

Lest we despair of ever knowing anything, Greene uses this inconsistency to motivate the push towards String Theory, which he strongly believes will unify the inconsistencies and provide the theory of everything. Currently, the biggest problem with string theory is this major obstacle: not only do we not know how to solve the equations of string theory, we don't even know what dimension they live in or what form they take.

I point all of this out not to poke fun at physicists (who have done an amazing job of producing theories that are both broad in their explanatory power and incredibly useful in their practical implications), and not to claim that we will never have a theory that explains everything in the universe (scientists are getting closer every day), but rather to remind us that a touch of humility is often warranted even in the presence of our exhilaration over our successes. Feinman expresses this humility in a wonderful way when he (one of the greatest practitioners of quantum mechanics) wrote in 1965:

There was a time when the newspapers said that only twelve men understood the theory of relativity. I do not believe that there ever was such a time. There might have been a time when only one man did because he was the only guy who caught on, before he wrote his paper. But after people read the paper a lot of people understood the theory of relativity in one way or other, certainly more than twelve. On the other hand I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics. -- The Character of Physical Law (MIT Press), page 129.

What Feinman meant was that although people could apply the equations of quantum mechanics and get answers that agreed with experiment, the theory goes so far against intuition and says things that seem so contradictory, that we don't understand why the equations work, and indeed cannot comprehend that it should be the case that they do.

I appreciate the sentiment expressed in 1981 by Eugene Wigner, a Princeton physicist, as quoted by Donald Knuth in Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About:

It is good that the completion of our scientific work is an unattainable ideal. Striving toward it is attracting many of us, and gives much pleasure and satisfaction. ... If science were completed, the satisfaction which research, the furthering of human knowledge, had provided, would disappear. Also, even more men would strive for power and domination. ... We know that there are facts and insights which we cannot communicate to animals -- no animal is familiar, for instance, with the associative law of multiplication. ... Is it not possible that our own understanding of nature also has limitations?

If we can't understand something, can it be true?

We are able to understand things that animals cannot understand. However, knowing that we may have limitations brings us to a fork in the road. Along one path, we can go forward seeking truth no matter whether we can explain everything or not. Along the other path (embodied by the scientific method), we accept as true only those things that can be fully explained.

This is what causes the fork: the existence of God may imply that there are things which are true but which we cannot explain. Deuteronomy 6:16 brings this to a point, proclaiming "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test..." I attribute my favorite paraphrase of this to Fred Brooks, who renders it "Don't try to do experiments on God." The essential foolishness of this becomes clear to anyone who watches a small child trying to figure out how to get Mom to do what they want by trying various theorems and strategies; somehow, she always seems to see what the child is after and blocks the way to danger no matter that (in the eyes of a child) it is inconsistent with her earlier behavior. The mother's behavior in preventing the child from reaching a hot stove is consistent and real, even though her young son cannot comprehend the reasoning behind it. It is simply the case that the mother's experience and intelligence is far above that of the son and, because she loves him, she gives him rules that are good for him to follow.

The fact that even the greatest physicists cannot agree on the exact characteristics of gravity doesn't cause any of us to worry that gravity does not exist. The fact that neither special relativity nor quantum mechanics fully explains the behavior of the universe is no cause for concern that there might not be a universe. In short, our lack of ability to understand something does not prevent its existence. Nor do our models of the universe constrain its actual characteristics (its characteristics are the yardstick against which the models are measured).

How can we recognize God?

The "only what can be explained is true" treatment ignores the large body of positive evidence for miracles ("exceedingly improbable events") found in the old and new testaments of the Bible. Here is one reason that this is important: how can a God who is outside of nature make himself known to us except through exceedingly improbable events? How could he convince us that it was really God? Moses was faced with this in Exodus 4, when he pointed out that the Hebrews wouldn't take him at his word that he talked with God; God responded by providing miraculous proof. The test of whether a prophet spoke the word of God was whether all of their predictions came true: a series of unlikely predictions coincident with their coming true. Jesus responded to John the Baptist's questions about his deity with "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them." [Matthew 11:4-5]

The evidence for miracles is presented most convincingly in the miracles and statements of Yeshua the Hebrew messiah (best known today by the name Jesus the Christ). This message is brought to us by his apostles, who experienced something after Jesus' death that turned them from a scattered band of commoners who had lost their leader into a group of evangelists willing to go to their deaths (literally) in order to proclaim the truth of Jesus' rising from the dead. One of the strongest opponents of early Christianity (Saul of Tarsus) testifies that he was converted from a dedicated hunter and slayer of heretics (Christians) into an apostle spreading the word by an encounter with the risen Jesus.

Many dismiss these miracles as nonfactual without examining the evidence for and against their literal truthfulness, but several skeptics who have done this investigation have found the evidence compelling: C.S. Lewis set out to prove on linguistic grounds that the Bible was fabricated by man but his study lead him to conclude it could only be true (read, for example, Mere Christianity). Lee Stroebel proceeded as an investigative reporter and came to the same conclusion in The Case for Christ.


Gravity is not the only basic feature of our world that is not understood. If you ask a quantum physicist how many dimensions there are in the universe, the most likely answer is three (perhaps one more for time). If you ask a string theorist, a more likely answer is "we don't know yet, but it is around 11."

Given such an incomplete understanding of things lesser (in complexity and intelligence) than ourselves, why are we surprised to find that we have an incomplete understanding of a creator God? Yet somehow people get hung up on "I can't understand why God would allow such-and-so, and I can't believe in a God that I can't understand." Others get stuck because they think that science has (or will) explain the origin of life. If indeed God has made himself known to us through miracles other than creation itself (which I earnestly believe because of both historical evidence and personal experience), then the question of whether supernatural forces were required for the origin of life is moot. We can choose to believe God when he said that he created life, or not, just as we choose to accept or reject his other claims and offers.

Each of us has direct experience with gravity, and an intuitive feeling for how it works. That intuition is sometimes incorrect (heavier things don't fall faster due to gravity even though my intuition says that they should, and the fact that I attract the Earth just as much as the Earth attracts me also seems absurd). Just so, some things are intuitively known about God (some correctly, and some not). The fact that some of us hold incorrect beliefs about gravity, and express those beliefs as truth, does not affect either the existence or the characteristics of gravity itself. It does not stop us from seeking to understand which are the true things and calling the inconsistent things wrong.

We should adopt the same approach to understanding God, taking the best parts of the both the creative writer's and the materials scientist's approaches. Like the creative writer, we can take the position that we don't individually have the complete truth and we should be open to learning from the experiences of others. Like the materials physicist, we can search for universal truth and we can weigh alternate explanations based on the available evidence to help determine which is more correct.

Related essays

I'm not the judge.

He is not my God.

Comments on The Blind Watchmaker

Dangerous Myths about Science

Version 1. Copyright 2007, Russell M. Taylor II