Anomalies Don’t Necessarily Disprove Christianity

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 02/06/2015

Last week, Biola hosted a panel discussion between William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, and John Lennox (moderated by Hugh Hewitt) on the topic of “God, Science, and the Big Questions.”

In response to a question posed to William Lane Craig about the biggest challenge to Christianity from science that Christians need to work on, J.P. Moreland (at 1:23:04) reminded the audience that a theory (scientific, theological, etc.) ought not be rejected just because there’s an anomaly that can’t yet be reconciled with it. Instead, it’s legitimate to take time to work on finding an answer that resolves the alleged contradiction. He referenced the work he’s done on how to evaluate theories in light of anomalies:

I did a study of how people weigh and change theories, and one of the things I learned is that a theory of any kind—if it’s an economic theory, a scientific theory, it could be a theological theory—will have core commitments that are called the “paradigm carriers.” They’re the key things to the theory.... And then there will be less important commitments that are around the periphery of the theory.

Now, when does it become reasonable to think that an anomaly on the periphery—a problem—turns out to really be a falsification of the theory, as opposed to an anomaly that we can explain or it’s okay for us to work on it over a while?

Here’s what I think it is: ... If the evidence for the central part of the theory is stronger than the evidence that this [anomaly] falsifies the theory, then you are within your intellectual rights to say I don’t have an answer to this yet, but I can’t bring myself to think it falsifies the theory—not because I don’t want to, [but] because we have a ton of evidence for this theory.

He then gives an example of how this has worked for a scientific theory in the past. His ideas on this subject are well worth thinking about, as I think people often misunderstand how to evaluate evidence and anomalies, thinking any anomaly ought to put an end to consideration of the theory (in this case, Christianity). This is simply a misunderstanding of how evidence works.

Dr. Moreland previously wrote about this in an article titled “The Rationality of Belief in Inerrancy.” Here, from my summary of his article, are three principles we ought to keep in mind when developing and evaluating theories:

  1. In forming a theory, you start with the clear cases, not the borderline ones.
  2. The presence of as yet unexplained anomalies does not necessarily disprove the theory.
  3. No one instance (or even a few) of a class has the power to prove or disprove a theory about that class (even if, taken alone, it would seem to); it’s studied as a member of its larger class, in light of the evidence of the other examples of its kind.

One important insight I learned from J. Warner Wallace—who spent his career dealing with evidence—is that evidence is messy. We shouldn’t expect everything to line up perfectly. There will be anomalies or things that will remain unexplained, and yet it’s still reasonable to settle on the conclusion that makes the best sense of all of the evidence as it stands, even with loose ends. The loose ends shouldn’t panic you.

The whole panel discussion is worth watching.

(You can find the podcast series on creation and evolution Dr. Craig referenced in the discussion here and specifically, his response to the problem reconciling population genetics with Adam and Eve—the challenge he cited that initiated the conversation about anomalies—can be found in Part 11.)