Sunday, May 21, 2006

Dark Forebodings, Continued

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

I ended Dark Forebodings a bit abruptly, and with little explanation of why Ernie's last post had led me to the point that it did. I will try to fill in those details here, briefly.

What I realized in a way that I had not realized before was the stress that Ernie seems to be placing on his personal experience and on his personal observations of others. Because of the weight he places on these experiences, he appears to be willing to overlook difficulties of other sorts. Historical inaccuracies, Biblical contradictions and evil done by the church are examples of such difficulties. Despite claiming to be able defend his position on a number of grounds including history, I get the impression that some of those are not necessarily so important to him personally. This does not make him dishonest or deceitful in any way; different people will weigh different kinds of evidence differently and defending one's position with additional kinds of evidence beyond what is found important personally is a reasonable approach.

My mistake was to misunderstand the kind of empirical evidence that Ernie finds most compelling and the comparative weight of that evidence.

Contrast these two statements. The first is from Ernie's last post:

The interrelatedness of the parts [of Ernie's Standard Model of Christianity] means that those aspects which are historically testable and/or empirically verifiable lend credence to those that are less, and ultimately to the whole.

The second comes from the comment Ernie left concerning Solomon's Temple, one of my earliest posts, a comment that was essentially the trigger for this conversation. In that comment, Ernie 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.

At first glance, there might appear to be, if not a contradiction, at least a healthy tension between these two statements as they describe the importance of historical accuracy. But since the first one says "historically testable and/or empirically verifiable" that leaves open the possibility that empirical verification is substantially more important to Ernie. Likewise, the second one emphasizes the importance (to Ernie) of empirical validation over defending historical accuracy without going so far as to say that historical accuracy cannot be defended.

What then constitutes empirical verification? From Ernie's "short answer" it appears to be his own personal experience and the changed lives of others, as well as his assessment that "the most loving, courageous, and wise people I have ever known have ascribed all their virtue to Christ, and none to themselves."

We have touched on this at various times, but the only time either of us has really focused on it (that I recall) was Making Change, my response to the testimony that Ernie posted. This happened to occur in the middle of a string of posts by me, and there was essentially no follow-up as the conversation took a different turn.

Perhaps, then, we should turn the discussion towards Ernie's criteria for empirical verification. I, at least, have some comments about why I distrust the kinds of evidence that Ernie seems to be advocating.

1 comment:

Dr. Ernie said...

Dear Alan,
Fear not, my friend! I have not abandoned everything Caltech taught me about the empirical method. If anything, I suspect I worry more about "standards of evidence" even more than you do -- though you do raise some valid concerns about the usefulness of subjective experience. Stay tuned for my response...
-- Ernie P.