We reflect on some points previously made, before venturing into new material.
We mentioned earlier that unbiased natural theology may not always yield comforting conclusions. We've just seen an instance: based on what has occurred since the big bang we concluded that the universe would not miss us if Earth and all life on it somehow perished—possibly an uncomfortable conclusion for those attached to the "pinnacle of creation" view of humanity. We reached our conclusion not by consulting any revelation but by examining evidence, using science's epistemology, its way of knowing. That is, we tried to dispassionately reflect on data to reach our view of humanity.
Had we lived a few thousand years ago and reflected on the data of the day—that the sun and dome of heaven revolved around the earth, that humanity was superior to the animals—we might have adopted the "pinnacle of creation" view. This illustrates a virtue and, what some people consider, a weakness of science's way of knowing.
Because science's way of knowing allows correction and improvement, it does not bind us to old, outmoded beliefs. We consider science's ability to grow, change, and improve, one of its strengths.
However, because investigators may at any time uncover new facts, facts that contradict established views, science's way of knowing can only give us tentative conclusions, conclusions subject to change when we uncover new knowledge. To cite a familiar case, by 1900 Newton's theories had given the West unmatched technological superiority. Newton's theories seemed not merely useful, but eternally true. Yet a few years later, scientists had developed new theories that contradicted Newton's views of space, time, light, and gravity.
Had science a different way of knowing that allowed revelation, had Newton's theories found their way into science's revelation, scientists might have condemned the new theories. Thus, we might still accept Newton's theories as true, and not understand much that relativity and quantum mechanics explain.
People who desire the security of eternal, unchanging truth may find science's lack of a divine, eternal truth, its tentative, purely human conclusions, a weakness. However, compared to religion's way of knowing, that is, its reliance on supposed divine revelations, and the result—contradictory beliefs among religions and even among denominations of the same religion—we conclude that, though not perfect, science's way of knowing appears superior to any other known epistemological method.
In general, science advances when researchers dispassionately reflect on the data and reason, as best they may, to reach conclusions. This book records the conclusions and opinions of one individual. But if someday a group of investigators develops that does unbiased natural theology in the spirit of science, if that group eventually forms a school of thought and reaches consensus, then we might judge their school of thought a branch of science.
And if such a group eventually came to recognize a few, or even most, of our conclusions as wrong, but if they found value in our approach to the subject, if they embrace the method of dispassionately reflecting on the world science sees to reach theological conclusions, then this book will have served its purpose.
We now turn to another delicate question: what happens to me after death? We begin by exploring identity in general and then turn to personal identity.