The Psychology of Apologetics: Biblical Inerrancy

November 9, 2008 at 11:00 pm 47 comments

In this article, I want to examine one of the more recognizable yet curious features of fundamentalist belief: the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. Fundamentalist Christian apologists claim that the Bible is perfect and without error – certainly a striking thing to claim of any book. And this “wow factor” is exactly what gets apologists their mileage with this maneuver. If one were to become convinced that the Christian Bible really is utterly flawless in everything it says, that would certainly be a powerful argument for the truth of a religion based on it.

Now, let me remind the reader that in this series I am assuming a naturalistic stance. I am assuming without argument here that the Bible is not actually inerrant. Instead, what I wish to look at here is two things: one, how to apologists do it? How can they possibly argue that the Bible – which on an honest first reading appears to be resplendent in contradictions and errors – actually only has “apparent contradictions”, not “real” ones? Secondly, why do they do so? What is the pull of this idea, and why is it so hard to let go of for those de-converting?

The Case of the Missing Car

Let’s start with a simple thought experiment, seemingly far afield perhaps, but something that touches directly on how we form beliefs about the world. Suppose one morning you wake up, get dressed, and go outside to get in your car to drive to work, like any other morning. When you get outside, however, you discover that your car is missing. It is not where you think you left it. Here is my question: what explanations might we entertain to account for this finding?

Well, the first, most obvious possibility that springs to mind is that it was stolen. And that could certainly be, but consider a few others: you misremember where you parked it. Or, maybe your spouse moved it and forgot to tell you. Or perhaps you next door neighbor had a life-and-death emergency and needed a car, so he just took it, planning to tell you later. Or, perhaps it was towed for some reason.

Or, perhaps a passing alien spacecraft abducted it for sinister purposes all their own.

Hear me out! I am not by any means saying each of these explanations is equally good. But I am saying it can be very helpful to articulate why. Why exactly is it better to say the car might have been stolen than that it might have been abducted by aliens?

Now, one might be tempted to employ the skeptic’s trump card here: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And although I do agree with this principle, I also note it rather begs the question at hand: why do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? What makes this theory “extraordinary?” Moreover, in this example, I deliberately did not provide any evidence at all as to what really happened. Yet most people reading this would conclude – correctly, I think – that “stolen” is a possibility worth more serious consideration than “alien abduction”, despite there being no evidence either way.

My point is that rational belief formation is not simply a matter of what does, versus what does not, have evidential support. Neither is it simply a matter of logic: there is nothing strictly illogical about the UFO hypothesis. In the example above, all the explanations given (including “UFO abduction”) entirely explain the available evidence, and do so logically. But the “updating” of our belief system in the light of new information or evidence does not occur in a vacuum. It occurs, rather, in the context of a very large and complex array of “background beliefs” – not all of which are created equal.

The Web of Belief

W.V.O Quine, a 20th century American philosopher, was the first to articulate this view. Quine’s famous metaphor for this model of scientific reasoning and belief formation was “the web of belief.” Our belief systems consist of a vast set of interlocking statements that impinge on reality (that is, contact with new evidence and experiences) at the edges. There are any number of ways to distribute the “force” of new information and experiences throughout the web.

When a new experience (i.e., evidence) presents itself, we must update or alter our existing belief systems to accommodate it. But which beliefs actually get altered is never forced by the evidence itself. Any evidence can be accommodated, logically, in more than one way – infinitely many, in fact. Quine called this the “underdetermination of theory by data.” As the metaphor suggests, though, there are some beliefs that are more central to the web than others. For most of us, the belief that the laws of nature are constant across time and space is much more basic to our webs of belief than other claims. So, we never explain something by saying, for example, that today is Friday, and the laws of nature are different on Friday, and that’s why my experiment did not produce the expected result (as opposed to saying my prediction was just wrong). In our example above, you would probably be more willing, in this situation, to alter your pre-existent belief that you live in a low-crime neighborhood, than your belief that there are no car-abducting flying saucers.

But you wouldn’t have to, and this is the striking consequence of the “web of belief” model: any given theory can always be coherently maintained, whatever the evidence, if you are willing to make enough modifications elsewhere in your belief system. For example, if I wished to believe in the UFO abduction hypothesis no matter what, I could “explain” any contradictory evidence on other things – a cover-up, perhaps. I can also point to all the many sightings and photos of UFOs, and other (claimed) abductions – and dismiss skeptical efforts as the sinister machinations of malevolent aliens who really want my car. Now, this is not a very elegant theory. But it is not a contradictory one – and, importantly, it is one which any and all evidence (no matter what it is) can be accounted for.

So how do we choose one theory over another if the evidence can be construed to fit logically with any of them? I have already hinted at one way: an inherent conservatism in our belief systems. We usually wish to change the fewest beliefs, and the “smallest” beliefs, as strictly necessary in our pre-existent web to accommodate new evidence.

Quine also identified other “virtues” (his word) such as simplicity, explanatory reach, parsimony, etc. that can be used to guide belief formation. He called these “pragmatic” virtues. What it boils down to, in essence, is that the best way to run a web of belief is the way that makes the most practical, common-sense sense of the data we have. Ultimately, it’s really a matter of good judgment.

Tangled Apologetic Webs

What does this have to do with apologetics? This model of belief-formation bears directly on how we resolve potential contradictions between evidence and belief, and between one set of evidence and another. If we are willing to sacrifice some simplicity, parsimony, and the like, we can always maintain a consistent web of belief while simultaneously holding on to any particular belief we wish. Creationists do this all the time. So do conspiracy theorists, end-times theorists, and radical ideologues of every stripe. These folks all have a strong commitment to a handful of central claims, and they are able to retro-fit the rest of the data in around them. They say they can answer every objection – and they can.

So, when Biblical harmonizers say there are no contradictions in the Bible, in a way they’re right. There is nothing that can’t be “explained”, if you’re willing to accept some rather tortuous explanations. The differing times of Jesus’ death reported in Mark versus John are “really” the same, if you accept that one used “Roman time” and one used a different time frame. The differing stories of the Resurrection narrative are explained by voluntary omissions among different writers reflecting differing emphases. The different lineages of Jesus are explained as one coming through Mary, the other Joseph. Isaiah 53 becomes “really” about Jesus if you accept that all the parts that don’t seem to fit are to be understood as metaphor.

Given the complexities involved in the translation and study of any ancient text, there is always room to maneuver in your harmonizing efforts. One can always delve into the language, the sociology, the context, the historical details, etc., to create a coherent (though unsimple) rationale as to why, when “properly understood”, any two disparate passages “really” mean the same thing. Indeed, debates about inerrancy often turn on these very types of issues, as each debater challenges the other’s premises, and premises of premises, and the whole debate mushrooms into an ugly fractal of syllogistic minutia.

And that’s the point. Simplicity is the first casualty in this sort of endeavor, but for the fundamentalist, needful as he is of sure guidance from his god, this is an acceptable loss. A coherent belief system in which he can maintain his belief in inerrancy is his primary objective; all else is secondary. And so that’s what he creates.

God’s Perfect Word

Many years ago I was in the process of gradually shedding my faith. But I feared being wrong (as many de-cons do) and wanted a way to be “sure” I was on the right path. I searched high and low for some problem in the Bible – a contradiction, error, inaccuracy, something that was just too glaring. Something that just couldn’t be explained away by any apologist no matter how clever. I never found one.

What I have since realized is that, basically, I had been asking the wrong question. There are no irreconcilable discrepancies in the Bible… but that is only because inerrancy, for fundamentalists, is not a conclusion arrived at, it is a premise they start with. It is a central strand in their web of belief. In the face of seeming contradictions, it will be given up last of all – or never.

If you think about it, to even begin the task of harmonization is to assume inerrancy in the first place! After all, given two ordinary texts that contradict one another about some point, no one would sit down and try to show how they are somehow necessarily both correct. We would naturally assume one or the other, or perhaps both, to be simply wrong. Yet this is exactly what inerrancy apologists do not do. They try to find a way for both texts to be correct, and by so doing betray a pre-existing assumption that, in fact, they both are.

The real question, then, is whether these harmonization offered, individually and en masse, are the simplest and most parsimonious explanations for the existence of apparent Biblical discrepancies. Is it simpler to assume inerrancy and then have to write enormous justifications explaining away the hundreds to thousands of Biblical inaccuracies and contradictions? Or is it simpler to conclude that there appear to be contradictions and inaccuracies because there are contradictions and inaccuracies, and that that is exactly what one would expect from a patchwork of human religious texts written twenty centuries ago?

Again, it is not just whether one’s web of belief is coherent and answers all the questions. That part is easy; every crackpot conspiracy theorist in the world can do that. It is whether it does so in a simple, elegant, practical, and convincing way.

The Why Question

But what is the appeal of this idea, and why is it so difficult for many of us to give up? I suggest that Biblical inerrancy is so appealing because it meets a desperate psychological need, for believers. It provides a sure ground for certainty.

Certainty is a defining need of the fundamentalist mindset. Fundamentalists are overwhelmed at the prospect of not being sure, or at least not being sure about the things that matter – one’s role and purpose in life, the basis for ethical behavior, what happens after death, how to make good decisions for your life. Now, these sorts of things often arouse anxiety for many people, not just fundamentalists. But because of their religious indoctrination, adherents to fundamentalist religion have a hard time managing that anxiety any other way.

Remember, as I have been elucidating in this series, the value and competence of one’s self is thoroughly undermined, in fundamentalism. Fundamentalist Christianity powerfully hammers home the idea that we are “horrors” to God: corrupt, prideful, and incapable of improving ourselves. The goal of fundamentalist apologetics is to overwhelm you with a gut-level conviction of your own badness, and thereby induce a sense of profound helplessness. It’s every effort is directed against undermining a believer’s sense of self-esteem, competence, or efficacy.

Such a believer can hardly be blamed for feeling inadequate to run his own life! Making important decisions when you cannot be sure of the “rightness” of your decision arouses normal anxiety in everyone. And to tolerate this anxiety and make a decision anyway requires some measure of basic self-esteem and self-confidence. But fundamentalists often have neither, because it has been ground out of them. So they have to get their confidence from somewhere else.

An inerrant text comes in right handy for such purposes. A better anxiety emollient than a perfect Word from a perfect God can hardly be imagined. In errant text quells a believer’s anxiety about life. He does not feel in control of his life, worm that he is – but he doesn’t have to be, because he can hand the reigns to God, certain of the guidance he finds in his book. Inerrancy serves a desperately needed function of establishing confidence in the only guiding star a believer thinks exists. Without it, he is adrift with nothing at all to lead him across some very scary and very lonely waters. The idea of steering using his own judgment just doesn’t occur to him.

So, my proposal for understanding the claim of Biblical inerrancy is this: fundamentalist believers posit inerrancy just because they need inerrancy. They can then just fuss with the details until it all fits. The result is not very elegant, perhaps. But who cares about elegance when your very soul is at stake?

And for those de-converting, the question thus would seem to become: if it is true that there is not, and never will be, perfect and unfailing guidance for making important decisions about your life, how are you going to learn to trust yourself enough to make them on your own?

- Richard

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Moving Beyond De-Conversion? Free Will Hypocrisy

47 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Drew Tatusko  |  November 9, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    Hi,

    Just subscribed to your feed this weekend. In a somewhat synchronous moment I posted about this same issue today. Your analogy is a missing car, mine is a missing circle…

    http://notes-from-offcenter.com/2008/11/09/the-errancy-of-inerrancy-the-story-of-charlie-and-lola/

    Although, I was a little more pithy in the argument that inerrancy is fundamentally absurd with an open door to argue that it is actually idolatrous. ;-)

  • 2. blueollie  |  November 9, 2008 at 11:19 pm

    Question: WHICH VERSION is inerrant? Was it the Septuigant (sp) or the later Hebrew text which adds stuff?

    I suppose that the fundies could be considered to be postmodernists of sorts; they twist how they read accounts so as to make narrative essentially meaningless.

  • 3. Kat  |  November 10, 2008 at 2:21 am

    I’ve been waiting for this entry, Richard. The last paragraph pretty much hit the nail on the head for me.

  • 4. peridot  |  November 10, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    I searched high and low for some problem in the Bible – a contradiction, error, inaccuracy, something that was just too glaring. Something that just couldn’t be explained away by any apologist no matter how clever. I never found one.

    It’s really nice to hear someone else say that.

    There are no irreconcilable discrepancies in the Bible… but that is only because inerrancy, for fundamentalists, is not a conclusion arrived at, it is a premise they start with.

    I never really went to seminary or bible college, but I did take a few bible college courses at the local unaccredited place when I was in high school. (There was no way my parents would let me participate in any of the programs that the local secular university had for high school students.) The most interesting course I took was Biblical Hermeneutics, and I think that course that caused me to hang on to my faith a lot longer than I would have otherwise. They came right out and stated that the biblical canon as a whole was infallible as a starting point. Of course they didn’t call it an unproven presupposition — it was called one the great tenets of the faith. Then it was taught that you have to consider each verse in light of the entire canon, in light of scientific and historical evidence, in light of the ancient social structures, in light of what we know today about ancient Hebrew and Greek, etc. I have to admit that I was impressed. I came away from that course with a vision that the messages of the Bible could be figured out. That God had revealed Himself in a way that was understandable, if only you put the necessary research and mental effort into it.

    I suggest that Biblical inerrancy is so appealing because it meets a desperate psychological need, for believers. It provides a sure ground for certainty.

    I never was completely sold on the idea of inerrancy because the folk who influenced me were mostly into infallibility instead. But I think everything you say in the article can be applied to infallibility as well. The only difference, as I see it, between the inerrancy and infallibility camps is that the infallibility position sees some contradictions in scripture as being insignificant and not worth the trouble to try to harmonize. The Bible is infallible in all matters of faith and practice, but is obviously not a science or history textbook. The deep psychological need to have a book that offers certain truth on the most important issues in life is still the appeal.

    The result is not very elegant, perhaps. But who cares about elegance when your very soul is at stake?

    Anybody else here willing to admit that they believed in both theistic evolution and dispensationalism? Now that takes considerable powers of imagination . . .

    Richard, I am enjoying this series of articles very much. Every single one of them is helping me to articulate things that I’ve been chasing for a long time. Thank you.

  • 5. SnugglyBuffalo  |  November 10, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    peridot-

    Anybody else here willing to admit that they believed in both theistic evolution and dispensationalism? Now that takes considerable powers of imagination . . .

    I did, briefly. I would guess for about a year, maybe a bit less, I held to roughly that view (I wasn’t ever completely sold on evolution before de-conversion, but I had heard enough solid arguments that I had to accept it as a possibility, at least). After that, I de-converted.

  • 6. Josh  |  November 10, 2008 at 1:25 pm

    Once again an excellent post Richard. Thank you.

    I have to confess that this is the most frustrating issue when dealing with my fundamentalist friends. The problem with inerrancy is that it can just be redefined to make all the apparent errors go away – as you have rightly pointed out. The chief importance seems to be that a believer needs to be able to claim the Bible is inerrant. As to what that means – well, it can mean whatever they want. There is nothing in the Bible against reinventing definitions. After all, Christians have God on their side so why not just reinvent definitions until things fit? Eventually inerrantists, when backed into a corner, simply say that the Bible is inerrant in all that it teaches. If someone finds an error, then, well, this just means that this is not something the Bible is teaching. Basically by defining inerrancy in this way the inerrantist shields the Bible from all attack. It ultimately means that if nobody in the world can figure out what a passage means, this is not a problem with the Bible, it is only more evidence of the inadequacy and fallenness of man.

    This would be similar to a cook who writes a recipe and claims the recipe is inerrant. Every single person in the world could try the recipe and fail (including the cook himself), and the cook would then just claim that everyone in the world is not doing it right.

    Come to think of it, this is exactly what inerrantists do. Every single person in the last 2000 years has been wrong about eschatology (including Jesus Himself). But the inerrantist would simply just claim this is not because Revelation is wrong, but just because everyone has interpreted it improperly.

    *takes deep breath*

    The magic bullet that every Christian expects to show up some day is the non-existent interpretation that makes everything fit. Thousands of people (literally) have thought they found the magic interpretation that makes the Bible harmonize. Fundamentalists in the end do not care whether it is the “accurate” interpretation, as long as it seems to harmonize every Bible passage they consider important.

    Ultimately inerrancy appears to me to be a cheap conjuring trick of the mind. The goal is not to make the Bible inerrant. The goal is to make God truthful. Inerrantists realize that if the trustworthiness of God is destroyed in the least, then nobody can trust any message they believe is from God.

    It is not about the Bible, it is about theology. They start with theology and end up with inerrancy.

    Oh gosh, Richard, I could go on… thanks for your insightful post.

  • 7. freestyleroadtrip  |  November 10, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    I am not sure where I fit in all this. I am still a Christian and do not feel the need to de-convert from the faith but sure do agree with a lot that you guys point out. And I know that I currently exist in a huge gray area, but you know, I am just fine with it. I don’t feel that the bible has to be inerrant or infallible. I then realize that this creates a problem in then deciding which parts are believable and which are not, but I am OK with that right now. I don’t have to have all the answers right now. I see that the fundamentalism from which I am coming almost makes the bible itself into God. And when you get God packaged into a nice little box of systematic theology, then you really don’t have God either, you have an image of God that you are worshiping which is idolatry. I am comfortable right now with seeing the bible as a narrative that reveals some truths about God, but believing in the exsitence of God based on evidence from outside the bible. I really haven’t read much of the bible for a couple years intentionally so that I may come back to it (which I find that I am about ready to do) to hopefully read it differently (not like my fundamentalist upbringing). I truly find myself in an interesting place that I don’t quite understand but am OK with not having all the answers. Thanks for the post.

  • 8. Quester  |  November 10, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    Freestyle,

    Nothing wrong with not having all the answers. Things become harder when it begins to look like we don’t have any. Who is God? What does God want? Is there a God at all (or many gods)? Why should we care? How do we know? Finding no evidence to support answers to any of these questions is a little more uncomfortable than just realizing there is some knowledge we don’t have.

  • 9. orDover  |  November 10, 2008 at 2:47 pm

    While reading this article I was thinking back over my Christian school days. It really is interesting how, as peridot pointed out, Biblical inerrancy is declared without any proof. Obviously that kind of stuff is easy to swallow when you are 10 years old. Your teacher says that the Bible is without error because it is the word of a perfect God. That’s good enough. Later in high school the Bible teachers attempted to build a defense for the inerrancy of the Bible, but they did it in a very interesting way. I agree with Richard that all contradictions or errors can be reasoned away, and these teachers were definitely good at that, but what they did for us was to present only the weakest of the contradictions, simple things like errors between numbers that did not really affect the text. They called them “scribe errors.” It didn’t make a difference if David took 700 or 7,000 horsemen. The story remained the same, with the same message and meaning. In a sense they admitted that Bible was not inerrant, but insisted that the few errors didn’t matter. They insisted that “they” (evil atheist) liked to nitpick and point out the few errors without addressing the bigger picture of the Bible’s central meaning. Of course the biggies were never brought up, like the contradictions between salvation through faith or salvation through works.

  • 10. peridot  |  November 10, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    Biblical inerrancy is declared without any proof. Obviously that kind of stuff is easy to swallow when you are 10 years old. (orDover)

    I distinctly remember verses like 2 Tim 3:16 and Matt 24:35 were given as prooftexts. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it wasn’t until years later that I realized how circular this is.

    Richard is right on the money about why people drink this stuff up. It is reassuring to believe that God has given us a reliable book. It is scary to think that people have to figure out what is most important on our own.

  • 11. Richard  |  November 10, 2008 at 4:24 pm

    Thanks to everyone for their thoughts (and patience in reading such a long article!)

    peridot –

    Then it was taught that you have to consider each verse in light of the entire canon, in light of scientific and historical evidence, in light of the ancient social structures, in light of what we know today about ancient Hebrew and Greek, etc.

    Yes, and this is exactly where apologists get their room to move. Look at all the juicy little tidbits of historical, linguistic, etc information you can call on to concoct an argument that your two verses really mean the same thing! But again, the cost is simplicity. After all, if *God* wrote this, why cant it just be about a page’s worth of simple, declarative sentences outlying the plan of salvation? “The Four Spiritual Laws” are a far simpler and clearer document than the new testament.

    Josh – If you look more closely at what Quine wrote, your idea about defintions is exactly what he was getting at. Basically, he said that there is no *functional* distinction to be drawn, in our epsitemology, between statements that are definitions and those that are empirical. In other words, *any* statement can be held definitionally true, **if* you are willing to move other statements and concepts around it to make things coherent. You can, in essence, *define* the bible as inerrant — which is what apologists essentially do — and then, of course, nothing can count as an error.

    The flip side is that, on Quine’s view, *any* statement or idea can be open to empirical revision if that seems to be the best way to run a web of belief. But that requires an open mind!

    freestyle — if you are no longer tied to, and feeling desparate for, certainty, and you are able to tolerate grayness, not knowing, being unsure, and just doing your best, then I think you have left fundamentalism behind in all the ways that count. Someone who is able to see shades of grey is not likely to jam-fit the world into a black-and-white worldview. Congratulations!

    ps- peridot, the fact that you can fit together evoltuion and dispensationalism is a wonderful example of what I talked about in my post. Anything can be made to fit with anything, if you are motivated enough. Question is, does it make any damn sense to do so?

  • 12. freestyleroadtrip  |  November 10, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    Richard. I think that is about the most respectful and gracious thing that has been said to me in quite some time. And on a blog for de-converting Christians. That is amazing. In the last 2 years, I have been near completely marginalized from the fundamental world. Thanks for the encouragement.

  • 13. peridot  |  November 10, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    This reminds me of when I heard Bart Ehrman. He said that once when he was in seminary he wrote a 35 page research paper harmonizing some minor inconsistency from the book of Mark. He said he worked very hard on this research paper. When it was graded and he got it back, his professor had written on it, “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.”

    He said that was one of his “aha moments.”

    One of my most significant “aha moments” was when I was about 26 and I read a book on various interpretations of Rev. 20:2-7 (the millenium). At this point in my life I had church-hopped enough to know that christians don’t agree on what this means. I had seen many very sincere, knowledgable, good christians give conflicting teachings on this passage. So when I found this book, which was a more scholarly book of theology than I had ever read before on this subject, I was hopeful that it would shed light on the subject. Well, it didn’t. I figured I had considered the passage as exaustively as anyone could short of going to seminary. The passage, indeed the whole dispensationalist thing, was still riddled with big problems. And I wasn’t the only one with this problem. All these other good christian teachers couldn’t agree either. I finally had to say to myself that this didn’t seem to be the way an omniscient and omnipotent and all-loving god would reveal himself to humanity.

    I’ve always found it ironic that it was all those truly sincere bible-believing teachers and authors who ended up making me sceptical of the bible.

  • 14. orDover  |  November 10, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    peridot wrote:
    I’ve always found it ironic that it was all those truly sincere bible-believing teachers and authors who ended up making me sceptical of the bible.

    That is exactly the way it happened for me too. I was okay and willing to just accept a concept like Biblical inerrancy. It was only when I was being trained in “serious” apologetics and teachers were actually trying hard to defend such concepts that I said, “Hey, wait a minute, this doesn’t make much sense.” Forcing me to actually think about it was what lead me to reject it.

  • 15. BigHouse  |  November 10, 2008 at 5:55 pm

    I echo many of these sentiments, great series, Richard!

    It’s amazing what a little critical thinking can do and the lengths to which those who don’t want to “know” otherwise will go to reinforce something they hope is true.

  • 16. Josh  |  November 11, 2008 at 12:00 am

    Wow Richard, you really have me interested in Quine now, I’ll have to look into some of his stuff!

  • 17. VorJack  |  November 11, 2008 at 12:26 am

    Richard –
    Could you recommend one or two books that best describe this “web of belief” thinking? I’m working on a project, and this may be just the thing I’m looking for.

  • 18. The Apostate  |  November 11, 2008 at 12:47 am

    I searched high and low for some problem in the Bible – a contradiction, error, inaccuracy, something that was just too glaring. Something that just couldn’t be explained away by any apologist no matter how clever. I never found one.

    Contradiction: 1) a combination of statements, ideas, or features of a situation that are opposed to one another 2) a person, thing, or situation in which inconsistent elements are present 3) the statement of a position opposite to one already made

    Error: 1) a mistake 2) the state or condition of being wrong in conduct or judgment

    Richard, I have to disagree. You made a judgment that simply because you, or the hypothetical fundamentalist, can employ imaginative cognitive dissonance towards an otherwise obvious contradiction, error, mistake, etc. means that it is actually so. In many regards, the contradictions and errors in the Bible and other Holy works are the equivalent of saying a black ball is white. One is really two. Three days are really twenty-four hours. One really does equal two. And law-keeping Jews always make exceptions for crucifixions. All metaphorically speaking, of course.

    The fact is there are blaring contradictions, errors, and inaccuracies in the Bible, but in order to ignore them, we employ our cognitive blocks and radical re-definitions [of contradiction, error, inaccuracy]. The illogical reasoning you are using now only perpetuates the ironically radical postmodern hermeneutics of today’s fundamentalists.

  • 19. Richard  |  November 11, 2008 at 1:00 am

    He wrote a book with a guy named JS Ullian, called “The Web of Belief”, which was intended as an introduction to rational thinking for undergraduates. Its pretty readable and you can get it on amazon.

    The Teaching Company also has a lecture series on the philosophy of science, taught by Jeffrey Kasser, that has an entire lecture devoted to Quine. This is nice because it also contains, in other lectures, all the necessary background (i.e., Quine is best understood in contrast to what other philosophies he was reacting to). And IMHO an understanding of the philosophy of science will do more to promote your understanding of how we know what we know than anything else. (This has even helped me figure out how to argue with presuppositionalists….)

    Let me plug this lecture series a bit more: it is challenging — I have listened to all 36 30-minutesd lectures at lesst 4 times each — but I have learned more from this series than from many courses I took in actual college. They are really wonderful. No one else I have ever heard or read has made the philosophy of logical positivism, or Thomas Kuhn, or Bayesianism, etc make sense like Kassler does.

    Currently, the audio download for this is running about $200. But all courses go on sale at least once a year at the price for this will drop to about $50-$60. Its well worth it.

    Also, good old wikipedia has a decent article on this topic. Look up “confirmation holism”.

  • 20. Richard  |  November 11, 2008 at 1:58 am

    Apostate-
    You speak of “obvious” contradictions. Obvious to whom? If you presume from the outset that it is definitionally true that the text is inerrant, then there simply are no contradictions, period. However “obvious” it might seem to you (you heretic!). That’s the thing about definitions — they are not falsifiable by any observation because they are not up for grabs in the first place.

    Quine’s thinking is properly regarded as relentlessly pragmatic (in the formal sense), not postmodern, whatever that is taken to mean. He is actually the most empirical of empiricists. His ultimate point is that, since there is no distinction that can be maintained between analytic statements (those true by definition) and synthetic ones (those true empirically), *all* our beliefs are and should be open to revision in the light of new evidence. There are no sacred cows, here, and for that reason I think Quine is doubly liberating: he shows us how thinking goes wrong (overcommittment to certain beliefs), and how it should go right (openness to revision of any belief) — *in the same mechanism*. And, pragmatically, making it go right is really a question of what makes maximal sense of the world to us.

    I’ll admit, saying “your beliefs are unwieldy and needlessly contorted” isn’t as in-your-face satisfying, when addressing fundys, as declaring “your beliefs are illogical”. But its more honest and, I think, at least somewhat more likely to win a hearing. After all, if it really is not literally *illogical* to believe what he does, and you say that it is, he will just think you’re a loon. No, actually, he will think you’re another prideful atheist, corrupted by his own sin so that he can’t even tell logical beliefs from illogical ones.

    Look, I’m not satisfied by these harmonizations either. I’m not trying to convince you to believe them. I’m just trying to clarify and sharpen the content of our criticism. It’s just false to say they’re necessarily “illogical” or contradictory, if you mean that in the standard sense. Where’s the contradiction between a metaphorical “day” and a nonmetaphorical 24 hours? That’s no more necessarily illogical than speaking of the warm sunshine in my heart, while its literally raining outside.

    Even the proverbial “black = white” can, and has been, harmonized by creative apologists who, again, take as *definitionally* true the inerrancy of their text. The result may not satisfy you (or me), but I propose for your consideration that that is because you are already employing the pragmatic virtues I am discussing. You (and I) recognize a contorted way of making two things fit as just that, because we have no commitment to the central belief believers are trying to protect by doing so, namely, inerrancy. We think it makes more sense to explain “apparent” contradictions as real ones, because (we think) the text was humanly authored. But again, this is only because we became willing to alter a belief that for a long time, we wouldn’t.

    The human mind is very, very good at rationalizing, if it needs a way to hold on to something dear to it. Quine just shows us how we do it, not whether.

  • 21. Monty  |  November 11, 2008 at 2:20 am

    “My point is that rational belief formation is not simply a matter of what does, versus what does not, have evidential support.”

    I disagree. This is exactly what rational belief formation is.

    “Neither is it simply a matter of logic: there is nothing strictly illogical about the UFO hypothesis.”

    I disagree. It is absolutely illogical to consider the possibility the car was taken by aliens when other explanations (however more prosaic) abound.

    We all have an innate predisposition to blindly accept what we are told by persons in authority. There was a time generations ago when this was key to our survival. Times have changed. The difficult part is to unlearn this behavior, and this can only be done by making the decision to follow the evidence where it leads. This is not a matter of intelligence, but rather what Sagan called being “a truth junky”. I want to know that what I believe is true, and the only way this can be accomplished is to verify what I believe by facts; not by squelching my doubts. Once we make this conscious effort, this “web of beliefs” to which you refer falls apart and no longer hinders us with the force it once did (although it can still slow us down a bit).

    Richard, here’s what I want to know: You’re in an elevator on your way down. The elevator stops and a gentleman holding a bible gets on. The door closes and the elevator promptly breaks down. The intercom squeaks something about several hours until the fire department arrives to free you. Your companion begins to explain in detail the inerrant word of God he holds (and waves in your face) in his hand. What do you do now?

    To me this is the gist of the matter: how to deal with these people.

    Thank you, Richard. I have enjoyed this series immensely.

    Monty

  • 22. becky  |  November 11, 2008 at 8:48 am

    Apostate,

    I tried to leave a comment at your blog site but couldn’t because I think I have to be a subscriber. I’m writing on something maybe you might like to read or not.

    becky

  • 23. Eshu  |  November 11, 2008 at 9:19 am

    Again, it is not just whether one’s web of belief is coherent and answers all the questions. That part is easy; every crackpot conspiracy theorist in the world can do that.

    That is a very insightful and revealing observation. Even holocaust deniers can answer the questions they inevitably get asked. It doesn’t mean they’re right!

  • 24. Richard  |  November 11, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    Monty-
    I entirely share your concern with (and frustration with) dealing with overzealous believers. Part of my purpose here is to expand our toolkit for doing just that. And hence my ideas here – again, I think it is a mistake to say that these matters are just questions of evidence and logic. This is just where the “new atheism” goes wrong. That approach is really pretty philosophically uninformed.

    Why? because the hookup between evidence and logic is more complex than many would like to think. There are many ways one can remain true to the evidence and yet reach different conclusions.

    This is not so esoteric. Reasonable, honest, well-informed people look at similar evidence all the time and reach different conclusions about it. Some secular historians think Jesus was a (nondivine) Jewish apocalypticist, some think he is entirely a legend who never existed. They both look at the evidence and reach different conclusions.

    My objection to your reply is that you have asserted, not argued, that raitonal belief formation is just a matter of evidence and logic. I wrote a pretty long post showing whats wrong with that over-simple conception.

    Not everyone like the kind of pragmatic result that ensues, I admit. We’d all like to Know, capital-K, what is True. Unfortunately, for the sorts of reasons I outlined, honest epistemology just doesnt work like that.

    You say its “illogical” to consider the UFO hypothesis when more “prosaic” explanations exist. So heres my question for you: on what basis do you say an explanation is “prosaic” or not? How do you make that determination?

    So how do you deal with those sorts of believers? By pointing out that simpler, more parsimonious, less contorted explanations exist. That if you didnt assume from the outset that it was inerrant, no reasonable person would conclude that it was.

  • 25. Josh  |  November 11, 2008 at 7:26 pm

    “That approach is really pretty philosophically uninformed.”

    I think I somewhat agree with you on this Richard, although the “new atheism” was probably the primary motivator (besides my own critical reasoning and curiosity) that moved me out of the faith – so it is certainly a beneficial movement.

    I am a little curious, Richard, if perhaps the terms “psychological” and “philosophical” are not easily interchangeable in most of what has been spoken about in your articles. It is true that the arguments you present are philosophical in nature, but I would go further to argue that they are – if indeed real – far more at the psychological core of how human beings think about and deal with the real world. From this perspective, one would need to realize that ‘believers’ are human beings with the same psychological capabilities and capacities as any other individual – including those who de-convert. From my perspective, discussions of philosophy would be better served if we focused on the psychological aspects of how the human mind works in order to better understand why philosophies work the way they do. Once the underpinnings of the human psyche are revealed, one would think that “philosophy” becomes just another word for a way of thinking. Ultimately, if psychology is understood well, a person could effectively change the way another person thinks quite effectively without focusing so much on the philosophical aspects. Philosophy becomes subject to psychology if this is true.

    Just thoughts :) You know quite a lot more about this than I do, so I am curious about your thoughts on the difference between philosophy and psychology from a naturalistic perspective.

  • 26. Richard  |  November 11, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    Josh-
    Its very interesting that you picked up on that. Quine was at the forefront of a movement in philosophy known as epistemological naturalism that indeed proposed something very similar to what you suggest.

    Let me go at this by way of background – forgive me for a (very, very) long reply, but this topic is an interest of mine and, hey, you asked…

    Quine was reacting to the movement in philosophy of science that dominated the first half of the 20th century known as logical positivism (LP). LP attempted to provide an empirically rigorous grounding or justification for science. Essentially, it tried to build all of scientific theorizing out of observation (i.e., evidence) + logic. Nothing else. In this way, they hoped to avoid both metaphysics (e.g., Hegelian philosophy) and pseudoscience (e.g., Marxism). LP included such people as Bertrand Russell, Rudolph Carnap, Wittgenstein (in his early years) and many others. In the end, LP was abandoned as it was more or less universally concluded that it didn’t work. You cant do science with such a meager toolset. So why not?

    LP wanted to “ground” all meaningful statements as either being (a) observations about the world or (b) logical statements (which include definitions). From the outset, it had trouble accommodating theoretical terms, like electron or black hole or gene, which are intrinsic to science but nonobservational. No one has ever seen an electron and no one ever will, so using observation alone how can make meaningful claims about them? E.g., “an electron has a mass of x”. Observations that do bear on “electrons” are mediated to us only through a very large body of theory, most of it also nonobservational. Even more mundane terms like “fragile” are difficult to cash out in direct observations, as we might speak of the fragility of objects that we do not ever actually test for fragility.

    LP had difficulty creating any notion of explanation. Most of us see science as in the business of explaining, but to positivists, explanation invited metaphysics – unverifiable speculation about what was “really” going on behind the scenes, as it were. Things you never observe. And as David Hume had pointed out, we never observe causes – we observe x happening, then y. We do not see x *causing* y. (What color would it be?)

    Additionally, many of us think concepts like natural law involve statements about what “must” happen. But that “mustness” is very unempirical. We do not ever see what “must” happen, we just see what does, in fact, happen. Where do we get the ”must”? We also cant test inductive generalizations (“all copper conducts electricity”) because no finite amount of observation can ever confirm this statement.

    For these and other reasons, most philosophers concluded that LP didn’t work and couldn’t work. In effect – and this is the point – LP tried to create a model for scientific theory construction using philosophically basic tools, evidence and logic. This was, in essence, to create a *conceptual* basis for science. Away of explaining why we can trust it based on first principles, so that the justification isn’t circular. Again, to emphasize, it has been universally concluded that this approach doesn’t work. You need more than that to do anything of value in science. So, what is it that you need? You need to know how we, as a species, have been able so far to form successful theories in the past. When you know that, you’ll know how to do it better, and how you can “justify” science.

    Quines approach was what he called “epistemological naturalism”. You deal with the question of the “grounding” for science by not trying to justify it conceptually. Or, rather, you accept that how we *do* form theories is at least the beginnings of a guide to how we *ought* to form theories.
    By analogy, consider the issue of how we can trust our vision. How do we know that our eyes show us is true? Well, you can explain the anatomy and physiology, and delve into optics and the like. But from a position of radical skepticism, this is likely to be unsatisfying. All that we know from optics and physiology is obtained by using vision. So we have to assume the accuracy of our vision, in the first place, in order to explain it – which is supposed to justify it. Isnt that circular? How can you justify vision without reference to all those sight-dependent theories?

    You cant, Quine would say, but you don’t have to. Truly pure skepticism is part of no one’s web of belief. No one really doubts that vision is reliable (in general). You cant live like that, on a human level – going around doubting the reliability of everything you think you see. And no one actually tries. So lets drop the pretense of radical skepticism. We all trust our vision; evolution has seen to that. If we just start from there, we can go and explain why it is reliable very nicely. In other words, the way to understand how we see is based in how we do, in fact, see.

    Science works like that. Doubt about the general accuracy of the scientific worldview is not something anyone really maintains. Everyone accepts it, even religious believers. (The most they do is doubt those conclusions they don’t happen to like, such as cosmology or biblical higher criticism.) Thus, using things like cognitive and evolutionary psychology, we can explain how it is we come to form accurate theories about the world. And thus, suggests to us how to avoid things like bias, misconceptions, fallacies. In effect, science “grows”, so to speak, out of disciplined common-sense.

    Getting back to your question, Quine himself concluded, at first, that all epistemology should collapse into psychology. Most philosophers have no followed him that far, believing that there is still an issue of normative versus descriptive questions to be discussed. But the larger point, that there is no sharp distinction to be drawn between philosophy(our concepts), psychology (how we think), and science (what the world shows us), remains. Our scientific theories are not God’s-eye views about the world, not mirrors of nature, but reflect at least some choices about what sorts of concepts and constructions make the most sense to creatures like us.

    For example, its not clear that there is any single thing in nature that answers to many of our scientific concepts like species or gene, both of which can be defined different ways for different purposes, and wherein none of the definitions are clearly “better” than the others. “Better” depends on what use you put the concept to. “Better” is relevant to a purpose or goal, and this is, in essence, pragmatism. Both species and gene are still very useful for our purposes of understanding the world and organizing our observations, but they are not Absolute Truth Claims. Or, again, “predator” is a highly useful concept in ecology and population biology, but there is nothing really that directly connects all the things we refer to as “predators.” Individual creatures that we classify as predators exist, of course, but the class, “predator”, is unified at the level of concept and utility only.

    Whew! This has been incredibly long winded, and still does not do justice to this concept. I hope it has been readable! As an bonus for your forbearance in reading this far, let me suggest that naturalized epistemology is the answer to presuppers – an explanation for how we can justify knowledge in a way that isn’t question-begging or self-contradictory and makes, again, more pragmatic sense than their answer. It is seamless with the rest of our web of belief, whereas theirs requires science to be jam-fit with the Bible.

    So, your intuition is correct (and I think you have a keen nose for philosophy.) A lot of epistemology has to take psychology into account and at times the distinction is very hazy. The best, most honest epistemology has to do with how we come to form theories about the world, disciplined by logic and evidence, but not dictated by them, which they cannot do by themselves.

  • 27. Monty  |  November 12, 2008 at 5:20 am

    “I entirely share your concern with (and frustration with) dealing with overzealous believers. Part of my purpose here is to expand our toolkit for doing just that. And hence my ideas here – again, I think it is a mistake to say that these matters are just questions of evidence and logic. This is just where the “new atheism” goes wrong. That approach is really pretty philosophically uninformed.”

    I understand the purpose of your toolkit and I commend you for your work. As I said in my post, I have enjoyed your articles immensely. This is certainly my problem and not yours, but I’m a little short on patience and any desire to understand fundamentalists. I guess I am more interested in how to deal with them, but again, that’s my problem. Also, I didn’t know there was a “new atheism”. I’m obviously not as well read as I should be. I wonder what I am..

    “Why? because the hookup between evidence and logic is more complex than many would like to think. There are many ways one can remain true to the evidence and yet reach different conclusions.”

    It’s not as complicated as you would have me believe. Once the decision is made to understand the world around us based on evidence and observations, it becomes pretty simple. It becomes a habit, just like being gullible once was.

    “This is not so esoteric. Reasonable, honest, well-informed people look at similar evidence all the time and reach different conclusions about it.”

    Absolutely true, but you’ll have to come up with better examples than a missing car and an old book. In the first case, there isn’t a shred of evidence the car was taken by aliens; in the second there isn’t a shred of evidence of divine authorship. It is not rational to form the conclusions you suggest.

    “My objection to your reply is that you have asserted, not argued, that raitonal belief formation is just a matter of evidence and logic. I wrote a pretty long post showing whats wrong with that over-simple conception.”

    Richard, I think we’re just going to argue about definitions at this point. For me, this is what rational belief formation is all about i.e. evidence and logic.

    “You say its “illogical” to consider the UFO hypothesis when more “prosaic” explanations exist. So heres my question for you: on what basis do you say an explanation is “prosaic” or not? How do you make that determination?”

    The alien hypothesis is pretty exciting stuff. By “prosaic” I simply mean dull and everyday. It is the process of a logical mind, during the investigation of any given phenomenon, in determining a possible cause to explain the phenomenon, to suggest as an explanation (especially when little or no evidence exists) the simplest and the most likely; not to leap to the fantastic. How to make that determination? Try Occam’s razor.

    “So how do you deal with those sorts of believers? By pointing out that simpler, more parsimonious, less contorted explanations exist. That if you didnt assume from the outset that it was inerrant, no reasonable person would conclude that it was.”

    You make my point for me in this final paragraph! You suggest that it is possible to be both rational and logical, and still believe aliens are responsible for the missing car, or that the bible is inerrant. Then you suggest in dealing with this sort of believer, to point out that if the assumption that the bible is inerrant is not made from the outset, no reasonable person would conclude that it was. That’s my point! Reasonable people (rational, logical) don’t assume aliens steal cars nor do they assume the bible is inerrant. Why? Because it isn’t reasonable!

    Richard, thank you for taking the time to respond to my post and I want to thank everyone at this site. I’m working in China at the moment. No TV, no newspaper, spotty internet connection. This site has been a real lifeline. Thank you all for posting and please forgive me for being thick headed in spots.

    Monty

  • 28. Richard  |  November 12, 2008 at 10:57 am

    Monty — No, thank you for taking the time to read and give consideration to my posts. I am not known for brevity, and if you are willing to risk time with a spotty internet connection on me, then I am honored.

    I still think you have an oversimple view of how this process works. The problem with defining rational belief formation as strictly a matter of evidence and logic is that you wind up dividing the world between reasonable people — everyone who agrees with you — and unreasonable people, everyone who does not. Anyone who disagrees with *you* becomes just unreasonable. That may be easy to swallow when its fundamentalists youre dealing with. But its not always.

    You asked for examples of reasonable disagreement? Take your pick: dark matter, superstring theory, punctuated equilibrium, the causes of sociopathy, the causes of school shootings, the causes of poverty. Whether Jesus actually even existed or not. The causes of the American civil war. A recent issue of Skeptic magazine had a set of pro and con articles on whether global warming is a justified hypothesis. Neither side was “just illogical”. They just disagreed about the correct interpretation of the evidence.

    It would be nice if, once we determined to just follow evidence and logic, that settled all questions. But even a brief look at major scientific, sociological, and historical theories out there today show that that is not true. Reasonable people reasonably differ, even when looking at the same evidence.

    Occams razor is fine, but that is just restating your principle that prosaic explanation should be considered first. **Why** do we believe in Occams Razor? **Why** are simpler theories to be preferred? Why do we expect the world to be simple rather than complex? Thats what Im hoping you’ll think about.

  • 29. Mark C.  |  November 12, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    Might it be helpful to explain what exactly evidence is? Now, there might be a more rigorous way to formulate this, but from all the ways I’ve seen the term “evidence” used, it seems that evidence is anything which supports or is at least consistent with some hypothesis. Perhaps it is not just that, but also eliminates other possible explanations.

    I think this really is an important issue, since many of us tell theists that there is no evidence for their gods, but they see evidence all over the place (or so they say), and by this I think they mean that everything they see seems to be at least consistent with the hypothesis that their god exists.

  • 30. BigHouse  |  November 12, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    Good point, Mark. I think one of the reasons atheists/theists talk past each other is over misuse of the terms “evidence’ and “proof”. Another, is that people can disgaree on the degrees to which evidence is strong or weak, convincing or unconvincing.

  • 31. Josh  |  November 12, 2008 at 2:03 pm

    “It’s not as complicated as you would have me believe.”

    It is for a fundamentalist!

  • 32. Josh  |  November 12, 2008 at 2:06 pm

    Playing fundamentalist advocate:

    “Try Occam’s razor.”

    Do you have good evidence that Occam’s razor exists? How do you know that Occam’s razor should be followed? By admitting that you are subject to Occam’s razor, you are admitting that you trust man’s logic. And man’s logic is inherently flawed due to the fallenness of man. Where does this logic come from after all? It comes from God, the very God you are denying!

    Haha.

  • 33. Richard  |  November 12, 2008 at 11:48 pm

    Mark- I think evidence is the term for observations about the world that are construed to support a hypothesis (or disconfirm).

    I think this really is an important issue, since many of us tell theists that there is no evidence for their gods, but they see evidence all over the place

    Yes, yes, yes. This is exactly my point. Since observations have to be construed as evidence — they do not force one hypothesis over another — it is exactly the case that believers and skeptics look at the same thing and see evidence for different theories. E.g., believers look at the existence of the conscience and see evidence for God.

    Is it? It is if its construed that way. The case I am making is that asking “is there evidence for x” is the wrong question, because it can always be yes. (For consipiracy theorists, the very lack of any observations in obvious support of their theories is taken to be evidence of how clever and powerful the conspiricists are!)

    The better question is, does my hypothesis make the best sense of the available data? If you have to tie yourself into logical pretzels to accommodate the data — like in biblical inerrancy — then the answer is no.

  • 34. Monty  |  November 13, 2008 at 3:17 am

    Josh,

    If a fundamentalist were to ask, I would reply that Occam’s razor is a fairly well known principle. Although it cannot be weighed or held in ones hand, it can indeed be said to exist as much as any principle can be said to exist. It is wise to utilize any tool with proven usefulness, so yes it should be followed. Of course it has limitations as does any tool. It can be used to perfection and yet yield wrong answers (maybe aliens DID take the car, the little bastards). I trust man’s logic to a degree, but I also know full well that it is fallible and it has limitations. There is no evidence (here we go again) that logic comes from any God.

    Regarding this concept of man the fallen, should a fundamentalist try that one on me, with as straight a face as I can muster, I will proceed to tell him about Santa and the happy little elves at the north pole, and when I can no longer keep from smiling, I’ll laugh in his face. This is probably more respect than he deserves. This is not a belief grownups should be allowed to express in public and escape ridicule.

    Monty

  • 35. Monty  |  November 13, 2008 at 8:05 am

    Richard,

    First of all, I’d like to clarify what I believe about people regarding our ability to be rational: It is natural among us for sane, educated, sincere people to be logical and rational in many aspects of our lives, yet on certain matters, especially matters of faith, we are capable of suspending our otherwise good judgment to accept any manner of irrational beliefs. None of us is totally rational. If I implied the world is made up of rational and irrational people based on whether or not they agree with my views, I apologize. I have been humbled too many times to hold such an opinion. Twelve years ago I was as certain God exists as I am certain now He does not. What could I possibly know?

    “You asked for examples of reasonable disagreement? Take your pick: dark matter, superstring theory, punctuated equilibrium, the causes of sociopathy, the causes of school shootings, the causes of poverty. “

    These are all excellent examples of reasonable disagreement! There is ample evidence, but it is inconclusive. Such situations can give rise to any number of theories, often conflicting. The fact that conflict exists does not necessarily indicate (although it may) one theory is more logical, reasonable and rational than another. This is all perfectly healthy, but when someone suggests school shootings are the result of aliens beaming messages through mobile phones, or perhaps due to the wrath of God over the number of abortions on campus, please don’t tell me that’s rational unless the proponents have evidence to back it up.

    “It would be nice if, once we determined to just follow evidence and logic, that settled all questions. But even a brief look at major scientific, sociological, and historical theories out there today show that that is not true. Reasonable people reasonably differ, even when looking at the same evidence.”

    No argument here. My argument has been that the tendency to jump to some fantastic explanation in the absence of evidence should not be called rational.

    “Occams razor is fine, but that is just restating your principle that prosaic explanation should be considered first. **Why** do we believe in Occams Razor? **Why** are simpler theories to be preferred? Why do we expect the world to be simple rather than complex? Thats what Im hoping you’ll think about.”

    Occam’s razor is nothing more than a useful tool, and as with any tool, there are limits to its usefulness. I believe it because of its obvious value. If it didn’t work, I’d chuck it. Below (at the risk of opening a few more cans of worms) are some examples, but the caveat here of course is that I can’t prove any of them:
    • The car was stolen or towed; not beamed up.
    • The bible is apparently chock full of contradictions because it’s chock full of contradictions. It isn’t inerrant.
    • The debris found in the dessert near Roswell in 1947 was a high altitude balloon launched by the US Air Force to test the radar signatures of various materials; not crashed visitors from Rigel.
    • JFK was assassinated by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald.
    • Lady Diana was killed in a traffic accident. Her chauffeur was drunk and had taken barbiturates.

    The world can be a terribly complicated place and there’s no need to muck it up any worse than it already is. That’s where I think Occam’s razor can come in handy.

    Thank you,
    Monty

  • 36. The Apostate  |  November 13, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    Richard (comment 20)

    You speak of “obvious” contradictions. Obvious to whom? If you presume from the outset that it is definitionally true that the text is inerrant, then there simply are no contradictions, period.

    Obviously I believe this is obviously false. To whom is it obvious? Me, obviously. As an obviously former fundamentalist, who once found the obviousness of inerrancy, well, obvious, I obviously believe it is possible, nay, probable that someone looking for obviousness in the text will obviously find the obvious contradictions in the text. If what you say in your article and posts is true, I obviously would not be writing this annoyingly obvious comment, since my de-conversion from fundamentalism was the direct result of these obvious contradictions, no matter how hard I tried to fight it (including, but not limited to, attending the most conservative Bible college in my area).

    And anyone who says “whatever that means” to a comment about postmodernism already knows exactly what it means, no need to get all performatist on me.

  • 37. Richard  |  November 13, 2008 at 10:24 pm

    TA-

    You suggested what I wrote is postmodern. It isn’t. So forgive me if I’m not clear what you, personally, might mean by “postmodern”, because you have misunderstood either it or pragmatism, or both. If you disagree with what Im putting forth, okay, but everything that doesnt posit capital-T Truth as its basis is not somehow necessarily “postmodern”. C’mon! Thats the sort of thing the fundys say. You seem to know your way around philosophy, so you should know that things are more nuanced than that.

    IAnd if your deconversion was based on biblical contradictions, then fine, I’m not challenging that. I’m a pragmatist — whatever works. But pinning an entire epistemology on what you personally consider obvious is a bit subjective. Actually, its ragingly, screamingly, shriekingly subjective and I’m not sure how claiming the contradictions are now “obvious” is any better argument than claiming, when you were a believer, that biblical inerrancy was “obvious.” Can’t we do better than that?

  • 38. Richard  |  November 13, 2008 at 10:40 pm

    Monty – I agree with most of what you wrote. ANd I think I have been remiss bfor not being clearer. In my head I draw a distinction between being irrational and being illogical (come on, why didnt you read my mind and know that?…) In my sense of things, “logical” means deductively or inductively valid arguments. I.e., in the formal sense. “Rational” as I use it has a different, broader sense and means something like “jusitifed” or “warranted.”

    Hence, to my way of thinking you can be simultaneously irrational but not illogical, and that is what conspiracy theorists, and biblical inerrantists, do. Their belief system is not illogical — for the reasons I laid out in this article. But it is irrational, because they prefer wildly contorted explanations in order to protect a more central belief from change, so they create webs of belief that are unsimple and implausible.

    My main point is that I agree with Occams razor but its useful to articulate *why* we think simple theories are to be preferred. It is, after all, an assumption we make: that the world will be simple rather than complex. We need an argument for that assumption, or at least I believe we do.

    And I think the reason is that it tends to help us avoid bias. If we find ourselves bending our theories around a central premise that we seem resistant to changing, we should be careful, because we may be avoiding the better explanation for what, I agree, are likely to be emotional or other reasons.

    Im just trying to point out that, in addition to evidentiary and logical considerations, we usually employ some notion of simplicity — Occams razor — in our belief formation. So, the UFO hypothesis isnt illogical — it is not obviously impossible or contradicting something else — but it is irrational, because it is needlessly complex, compared to our background beliefs.

  • 39. guitarstrummr  |  November 13, 2008 at 11:34 pm

    “Hence, to my way of thinking you can be simultaneously irrational but not illogical, and that is what conspiracy theorists, and biblical inerrantists, do.”

    Richard, I could not agree with you more. I was at a meeting of brights the other day, and was sharing my de-conversion story. A ‘seasoned’ atheist was explaining to me just how hard it was for him to understand how fundys can be so, well, staunch in their beliefs. I basically explained to him what you have said. Fundys are logical, it is just their assumptions that are wrong. They are thinking perfectly logically, but their fear of submitting their presuppositions to scrutiny is what keeps them irrational in their thinking.

  • 40. Richard  |  November 14, 2008 at 2:23 am

    guitarstrummr – Right. They are overcommitted to their core belief, central to their web, that claims the Bible is inerrant. They will change any belief other than that one. The result is a sprawling, frankensteinian mess of argumentation needed to explain away all the problems. But it works: it keeps the core safe. How much simpler is it to say of the bible: it is a human text.

    My favorite non-biblical example of “harmonization” is WL Craig’s effort to explain how an omnipotent god, who wants us all to be saved, is not necessarily in contradiction with people actually not being saved. He invents this idea of “transworld damnation” — seriously, he had a whole article on this — wherein he argues that, given free will, some people would reject god in any possible world that even god could actualize. Thus, we can rest assured that god has set things up that this is the world in which the maximum number possible will be saved.

    (…which means, dear Christian, that if you are on your way to witness to someone you think is close to converting, and you pop off for a quick latte on your way there, and in the interum your potential convert gets smacked by a bus, you cant rest assured he would not have converted anyway.)

    He plucked this concept right out of his as– um, the air, solely for the purpose of making omnipotent goodnes + damnation fit together. Logically, of course, it may very well succeed.

    But what a *mess*!

  • 41. FFFearlesss  |  November 18, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    The magic bullet that every Christian expects to show up some day is the non-existent interpretation that makes everything fit.

    So what you’re saying is that the Bible needs its own “String Theory.” An interpretation of everything so to speak. Actually now that I think of it, that’s kind of a fun analogy since string theory apparently has something like 6 different versions which has bugged scientists for several years until some brilliant guy comes along and says, “Oh no, it’s just six different ways of looking at the same thing.” Sounds kind of apologetic doesn’t it? Or at least enough that a Christian who wanted to could use it as an empty argument.

  • 42. Josh  |  November 18, 2008 at 6:28 pm

    I’m not quite sure what you are implying FFFearlesss. Are you implying that the massive number of interpretations for string theory is analogous to the massive number of interpretations in favor of biblical inerrancy?

    If so, I guess I would only say that there are not eternal consequences if you are wrong about string theory, although if you are wrong about biblical inerrancy (and choose to believe it is a human text) then Christianity teaches you probably are not orthodox and therefore not saved. The analogy is good, except it does not include the potential risks and rewards associated with the two theories.

    Correct me if I misunderstood your post.

  • 43. SnugglyBuffalo  |  November 18, 2008 at 7:37 pm

    Maybe it’s like the ultimate question and answer to life, the universe, and everything. If we ever manage to completely figure out the bible in a coherent manner, the universe will cease to exist and be replaced by something even more bizarre.

  • 44. FFFearlesss  |  November 19, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    Hey Josh, it honestly wasn’t any deeper than me just being a smartass and then realizing in retrospect that there was KIND OF an interesting parallel. :-)

  • 45. Josh  |  November 19, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    FFFearlesss,

    lol, okay, I wasn’t sure!

  • 46. Josh  |  November 19, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    “He plucked this concept right out of his as– um, the air, solely for the purpose of making omnipotent goodnes + damnation fit together. Logically, of course, it may very well succeed.”

    Ah yes, Craig is yet another individual in the continual process of progressive revelation!

    I can remember going into apologetics that one of the biggest things I hoped to do was “discover” a new argument for the existence of God and be the next C.S.Lewis or Aquinas. Then it started occurring to me that “discover” was simply a synonym for “invent”. Progressive revelation is really a synonym for progressive invention. This was hard to swallow!

  • [...] always possible to make inerrancy work (Quine), however odd it looks from the [...]

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Attention Christian Readers

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de-conversion wager

Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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