Monday, October 31, 2005

Testable Propositions

My old friend Ernie was kind enough to weigh in with some comments on my last post, and I would like to respond in a little more detail to something he said:

"While I find the Bible generally useful in an 'illustrative' way, I've become more concerned about finding 'testable propositions' that I can validate empirically, vs. attacking (or defending) historical accuracy."
I definitely appreciate the importance of testable propositions. As I struggled to figure out whether I believed what Christianity teaches, one issue that came up is really the whole question of how we know anything, or why we should believe something. The scientific method, with its demand that explanations must be falsifiable (testable), has been the foundation for remarkable progress in science. There seems to be very little comparable to that in Judeo-Christian theology; I offer the vast (and increasing) diversity of Christian theologies as evidence that Christians do not generally have a method of deciding what is false.

At one point I concluded that there are truths about the world that cannot be proven, and further that this was the place for faith. It struck me as a significant insight at the time, and it protected my faith for a time. But I think now that there are at least two problems with that, or rather one problem and one limitation.The problem is that there are any number of unprovable truths that one could choose to believe. How do you decide among them? What are the consequences of the beliefs? That depends on what is true; the consequences are no more knowable than the truth of the beliefs themselves. We see this diversity of beliefs throughout history and it continues today.

The limitation is that, while there may be true things that cannot be proven, not everything can be true. There are some things that can be proven false. So when we examine our beliefs, while we may not be able to prove them right, we can seek to prove them wrong.

Additionally, when we do choose to believe something, we need to reserve some skepticism, and the amount of skepticism should correspond with how little evidence we have for those beliefs. Christianity, on the other hand, specifically encourages belief in the absence of evidence: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." (Hebrews 11:1) Talk about confirmation bias! This is a recipe for believing untruth.

I do need to get back to Ernie's statement. He contrasted empirically testable propositions with attacking (and defending) historical accuracy. I am a bit confused by this because I think that historical accuracy is a testable proposition. Surely there is uncertainty, and history is not repeatedly testable in the same way that many science experiments can be replicated. But historians do consider not only what was recorded earlier, but also the biases of those reporting the events, the physical evidence that corroborates or conflicts with those reports, later better-understood events that would depend on earlier events, and so on. We can conclude, in some cases, that some particular account is very likely ahistorical.

It's getting late, and I am losing focus a bit. Did any of that help? And Ernie (or anybody else), I would be curious what kind of empirically verifiable, testable propositions you have in mind.

1 comment:

Dr. Ernie said...

Hi Bucky,
Thanks for the reply. As a matter of fact, I had just listed a bunch of them in my last blog post. Critique anyway!