Cliff’s Edge - Enchanted at Cambridge
A few years back I visited a friend studying at the University of Cambridge in England. As the train slowed for the station I saw these words on the side of a building: Cambridge University Press. Cambridge University Press! For decades I had been reading great tomes, perhaps some of the greatest in the world, with the imprimatur of Cambridge University Press. And now—outside my window and all over my eyes—there was Cambridge University Press?
From the moment I disembarked I felt like an enchanted man in an enchanted land. I walked past Isaac Newton’s office. Saw the street where Bertrand Russell lived. Walked the same paths as did Ludwig Wittgenstein. Walking along narrow stone streets in the old stone town I came upon a sign on an old stone building and shouted, “Cavendish Laboratory of Physical Chemistry?” Only the place where the electron was discovered. Around another corner I stood within a few feet of a plaque that said this pub is where Crick and Watson first announced they had discovered the DNA double helix. Then, having wandered into the Cambridge University Press bookstore, I felt as if immersed in vat of warm intellectual chocolate.
Later that day, the student who showed me around, a philosophy major, took me into a cafeteria. Large old paintings of white-haired men (those who had any) looked down from the high walls, and as we ate I couldn’t imagine what great thoughts were fueled on this slop. I asked my friend, rather naively (come to think of it), “Does anyone at Cambridge believe in biblical creation?”
Of course not. What could I have been thinking? Probably the last biblical creationist at Cambridge, at least as a lecturer, died before the War (that’s World War I). Who needs Genesis when you have Darwin’s On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, Or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life? Though I was still in awe, the wonder eased, as if discovering how the magician did his deepest trick.
No question, amid these walls at Cambridge facts have been created faster than factories in Europe make Legos. But no matter how vast and deep the troves of information and knowledge manufactured here (or anywhere), it’s always just human knowledge—derived, processed, and interpreted amid the neurons, chemicals, clefts, and dendrites of subjective human brains (different neurons, different chemicals, different clefts, different dendrites—different knowledge?). Though Francis Bacon, Cambridge, Class of ’75 (that’s 1575), wanted to free human inquiry from the shackles imposed upon it by Aristotle, 400 years later it’s still shackled, now by Darwin.
Facts, information, knowledge, and wisdom have their role, even sometimes (as in science) when they’re wrong.
Sure, facts, information, knowledge, and wisdom have their role, even sometimes (as in science) when they’re wrong. (One of the last century’s most influential philosophers of science, Bas C. Van Fraassen, wrote that scientific “theories need not be true to be good.”) But sitting in that cafeteria in the rarefied air at Cambridge, I realized that facts, knowledge, even wisdom can be different from, in contrast to, or even opposed to truth, especially the Truth. After all, how many knowledgeable, wise, and smart people don’t know Jesus, or “present truth” (2 Peter 1:12; see also 1 Cor. 1:26), and would balk were they to hear it?
Consider the vast gap between what Truth is, and what the intelligentsia thinks it is. The Truth is that the Lord made all that’s created in the cosmos (John 1:1-3; Heb. 1:2; Col. 1:16, 17), and that He sustains it as well (Heb. 1:3; Acts 17:28; Job 38);that He created life on this earth in six days and rested on the seventh (Gen. 1-3); that this God incarnated into human flesh, where He died on the cross (Phil. 2:5-8) as a substitute for our sins (Isa. 53:4-6; Gal. 3:13; 1 Peter 2:23-25); that He rose from the dead (Acts 3:15; 1 Cor. 15:3, 4; 1 Peter 1:3);that He ministers in heaven in our behalf (Heb. 8:1, 2);that He is returning to this earth in judgment (1 Thess. 4:16, 17; Heb. 9:28; Matt. 16:27); that He will resurrect the dead (Dan. 12:2; John 5:28 29; Rev. 20:12, 13);and, finally, that He will remake this world (2 Peter 3:13; Isa. 65:17; Rev. 21:1).
Contrast Truth with the idea that billions of years ago—out of nothing—space, time, and matter “exploded” into existence, the start of our godless cosmos. As this matter, space, and time expanded, clumps of burning masses—via the force of gravity—coalesced into stars and planets. When one of these masses cooled, chemicals arose along its surface that, over time and by chance, formed the first life forms, which through random mutation and natural selection and with no forethought created all life on earth. Finally, our universe—possibly one of billions of others (which is supposed to explain the complexity of life: with enough universes out there, sooner or later one like ours is bound to arise)—will either burn out in the “cosmic heat death,” or gravity will cause it to collapse back on itself in “the big crunch.”
Scientist and writer Steven Pinker expressed the intelligentsia’s view of truth like this: “To begin with the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken. We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history. We know that our species is a tiny twig of a genealogical tree that embraces all living things and that emerged from prebiotic chemicals almost four billion years ago. . . . We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are. . . . The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet. For the same reason, they undercut any moral or political system based on mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, struggles, or messianic ages” (The New Republic, Aug. 6, 2013).
These are the things, says Pinker, that “we know.”
How fascinating: on the most basic and important facts, what the intellectual movers and shakers “know” couldn’t be more wrong. And though the context was different, the principle applies so well when Paul wrote, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor. 1:20).Knowledge, information, skill, and wisdom do not of necessity lead to Truth but, even in the “enchanted” land of Cambridge, could in fact work against it.