Taking Knowledge for Granted

I’ll never forget a particular experiment in physics class. It was my senior year at the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics. We were using these air tracks to be able to demonstrate elastic and inelastic collisions. An air track is a piece of equipment which looks like a huge triangular or diamond shaped tube, usually made of aluminum (you can see it at https://wiki.brown.edu/confluence/display/PhysicsLabs/AIR+TRACKS ). One of the corners faces upward, so you can put a glider on it which can slide along the surface and not fall off. Now the key to the air track is there are little holes all along the track where air is pushed out. This allows that little glider to slide back and forth with almost no resistance. If you’ve ever played air hockey, it is the exact same idea.

I said almost no resistance. There is still some. So the mere fact that the glider is sliding along means some of its energy is lost as it slides. I mentioned we were testing collisions. At one end of the air track we basically put the equivalent to a strong rubber band. When the glider reached the end, it would hit the rubber band and bounce back in the opposite direction. In a perfect elastic collision, it would bounce back just as fast as it came in. However, with the device we were using, you can’t get a perfect elastic collision; there is always some energy lost as the piece of rubber stretches and recoils. It’s a small amount, but it’s measurable. And that means the glider should go back just a hair slower than it came in. So you add all that up and you get a glider that slows down very gradually over time. Nothing in the experiment causes it to speed up. There is nothing to help the glider along. So imagine our surprise when in that experiment that is exactly what we saw for a single pass!

For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally seen my face, that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. – Colossians 2:1-3, NASB

There is a knowledge which comes from God. We have it recorded in our Bibles.  Paul, in writing to the believers in Colosse, knew they were living in the midst of a culture that thrived on knowledge and wisdom. However, a lot of that so-called knowledge and wisdom was passed down. It wasn’t tested, it was simply accepted. Folks would debate and discuss things, but they made certain assumptions. We do the same. The catch is those assumptions lead to conclusions that may not be correct. One of the simplest ways I know to illustrate this is in the world of computers with division. Take, for instance, 10 / 4. Most folks would look at that and say, “Oh, that’s two and a half,” or “That’s 2.5.” So imagine our surprise if we see the computer spit back just the number two. No half and no .5. Just 2. What? How could this be?

It’s all about assumptions. The computer see the number 10 and says, “Integer.” It sees 4 and again says, “Integer.” So when it sees that, it says, “I’ve got to send back an integer.” Well, an integer doesn’t have a fraction or a decimal part. It’s just a solid number like 5, 203, -45, or 21. And we may be thinking, “But wait, then why doesn’t it round up to 3? That’s what I would assume it would do if it has to return an integer.” Again, it’s a wrong assumption. If you can remember back to when you were first doing long division, you probably had to write the number with a remainder. So if you saw 10 / 4, you would have written it, “2 R 2.” And that’s what the computer is doing, too. Only when it sees it has to return an integer back, it drops the remainder. So it spits back just 2.

When it came to that air track experiment, we assumed the track was level. If it was, we should never have gotten the glider to speed up. So when we showed our numbers to our professor, Dr. Clyde Smith, he first paused and then chuckled as we scratched our heads in amazement at the results. And he pointed out quite simply what we missed, “The track isn’t level.” And that did explain it all. Since the track wasn’t level, the glider wasn’t just sliding, it was also falling due to gravity. The angle wasn’t enough for our eyes to catch at a glance but you could see it if you took the time to examine it carefully. We re-lined up the track, eyeballed it the best we could, found it to look level, re-ran the experiment, and got the expected numbers. So our first run was flawed because of a poor assumption. We hadn’t tested to see if the track was level. Oops.

Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude. See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. – Colossians 2:6-8, NASB

In this world there are a lot of assumptions being thrown around which lead to certain conclusions. And those conclusions may be touted as knowledge. But we’ve got to be careful of what we just accept as a given. We need to test what we take in against the knowledge which comes from God. An easy example is a saying that was pointed out at youth group, “God helps those who help themselves.” That’s not a Biblical statement. But it’s a commonly quoted statement, even in church circles. However, all one has to do is look at the story of Hagar and Ishmael to know that the saying doesn’t mesh with Scripture. Hagar had completely given up. Yet God rescued her. Or look at Elijah after Jezebel threatened his life. Elijah just gave up, too. So God intervened. The statement may be “common sense” or “common wisdom,” but it’s not real knowledge and wisdom. So we must test everything against the authority of the Scripture. That’s Paul’s point. Otherwise we can be misled through philosophy and empty decision. We will be led away from the truth. As Christians, we must be about the truth. And that means knowing what is real knowledge and what isn’t. The only way to do that is to test it against the truth: the Bible.

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