03 June 2012

Internal consistency, coherentism, the Bible, and Star Wars

As has happened several times in the past, a conversation/debate with our friend/adversary Jack Hudson got me thinking about a particular topic: in this case, the idea of "internal consistency" as a measure of reliability. Jack wrote a post in which he, citing a graph, claimed that the Bible is "reliable" because it has many more preserved copies closer to antiquity than other famous works. Tristan did a bang-up job of shooting that down, so I won't parrot him here. Instead, I want to focus specifically on something Jack said in his post (emphasis mine):
The New Testament has many more existing copies from antiquity which are closer to the the writing of the original text than any other well known ancient text we have – which would be expected for a document understood by believers as being Divinely inspired.
In a subsequent comment, responding to some of my objections, he said:
Consistency is merely the necessary condition of the truth of any argument. For example I could not argue both that my dog is all black or all white – the two claims contradict each other.

Thus the wide availability of demonstrably reliable copies of the New Testament would be consistent with the idea that a loving and powerful God had a hand in their production and desires humans to know the truths contained within those texts – which is a pretty decent if general explanation of Divine Inspiration.
He may or may not know it, but Jack is advocating an epistemological framework called coherentism.  The Wiki article on it isn't exactly light reading, but I've culled what I think is the most important point:
Coherentists typically hold that justification is solely a function of some relationship between beliefs
In other words, Jack is arguing that his concept of divine inspiration of scripture is justified by its internal consistency. He begins not with a null hypothesis, but with the assumption that scripture is divinely inspired. Then, as the evidence rolls in, he can interpret it in whatever way is most convenient for his assumption – while denying, omitting, rationalizing or minimizing evidence that might otherwise been seen as inconsistent.

For example, I noted in my review for the movie The Case for Christ that Lee Strobel et al did not deny the existence of factual contradictions among the gospels. In fact they not only acknowledged them, but went on to claim that these errors were actually desirable. This is an example of a post-hoc rationalization designed to preserve internal consistency.


Star Wars apologetics

A similar but more entertaining example that Bud introduced me to some time ago is the "Parsec Apologetic" – a post-hoc rationalization designed to establish the internal consistency of Han Solo's claim that the Millennium Falcon could do the Kessel Run in "less than twelve Parsecs". The problem is that a Parsec is a measure of distance, not of time. The Wookipedia entry says,
Solo was not referring directly to his ship's speed when he made this claim. Instead, he was referring to the shorter route he was able to travel by skirting the nearby Maw black hole cluster, thus making the run in under the standard distance. By moving closer to the black holes, Solo managed to cut the distance down to about 11.5 parsecs.

The Parsec Apologetic has something in common with the apologetics of divine inspiration – both attempt to preserve internal consistency by retroactively interpreting the evidence after the initial assumption was made.

But here's the rub: internal consistency, while a necessary condition for epistemological justification, is not a sufficient condition for it. This is called the Isolation Objection to Coherentism. The Parsec Apologetic is based on the assumption that script writers didn't just make a goof, which of course is a far more parsimonious explanation. Similarly, divine inspiration apologetics are based upon the a priori assumption that the Bible is in fact divinely inspired. But to get to the root of the problem, we need to ask why that is assumed in the first place.

That's exactly what I'm doing with my Gospel Challenge: I'm challenging Christians to establish an independent justification for their assumption of divine intervention. Occam's Razor tells us not to multiply assumptions beyond necessity – the principle of parsimony. So the million-dollar question is this: based on the evidence, why is it necessary to assume that the Bible was divinely inspired at all? What evidence simply cannot be explained as merely the work of human beings, but indeed requires any reasonable person to accept divine inspiration as the best explanation?


The root of the problem

And that, in my experience, is where believers trip up. Some of the more enthusiastic apologetics-types are absolute experts at conjuring up complicated, nuanced rationalizations for their a priori assumptions. The question that must be asked of them is: What is the basis for that assumption in the first place?

I asked this question of believers some time back regarding the unjustified assumptions behind the so-called "big questions", and couldn't get a straight answer. Believers claim, for example, that science cannot tell us the meaning of life – but that very question requires an a priori assumption that there is, in fact, an objective meaning of life. This is one of the most important ways we non-believers can really hammer believers; I don't think it's a stretch to say that it may be the single most important part of the conversation. Undoubtedly, believers will attempt to claim that atheism itself is predicated on unjustified assumptions, and it's a good idea to have enough of a grasp on epistemology to explain why they're wrong.


This post ended up being way longer than I thought it would be. If you actually read it instead of just skimming it, give yourself a cookie.

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