I have written previously (also here, and of course in Arguing with Friends) about the unavoidable presence of bias in every single human being (yes, I include myself) from the armchair philosopher to the upper echelons of academia. Because of this unavoidable reality there are tricks we need to learn to help us figure out which person’s biases are most likely to line up with reality. One of the key tricks is to examine the exact same subject from multiple perspectives, specifically taking in the works of authors and scholars who disagree with each other. This is one of the benefits of debates, for instance.
In this article from Bible History Daily the author shows some of the ways that “Critical Scholarship” has plowed forward, even in the face of evidence that flatly contradicts their underlying assumptions and previously declared conclusions. Part of the reason it plows forward is because ‘everybody knows’ the underlying assumptions are right. This is a perfect example of how bias leads people to filter out evidence that really does not fit their preconceived ideas about reality. Here are some examples.
In 1975, John van Seters published Abraham in History and Tradition,2 a book that has heavily influenced all studies of the Patriarchs since. He argued that there is no basis for the opinions of W. F. Albright and others who wrote that the biography of Abraham in Genesis describes life in the Middle Bronze Age (the early second millennium B.C.). Among the many reasons he gave was the rarity of references to tents in documents from that period, while the next millennium offered more (page 14). Today we have more sources from the earlier period.
Some Hebrew Bible scholars have used various textual sources (e.g., Psalm 48) to trace a belief in “the inviolability of Zion” to the late in the seventh century B.C. in Judah. This theological theorizing led to a conception of Assyria’s failure to capture Jerusalem long after the events of 701 B.C., created to hide the fact that Hezekiah had actually surrendered to Sennacherib at Lachish to be allowed to keep his throne. This theory was promulgated despite the fact that the Assyrian emperor does not claim to have taken Jerusalem or to have met Hezekiah.
A prime case in recent years concerns King David. Thomas Thompson stated, “The Bible’s stories about Saul, David and Solomon aren’t about history at all.” When a broken Aramaic inscription was unearthed at Tel Dan in 1993 mentioning the “house of David,” he and others used every means they could to avoid the conclusion that such an expression would refer to a dynasty founded by the man named David, though this would be a logical conclusion if taken from comparable ancient texts.
Other examples are provided. The message is simple, as the author summarizes, “Biblical scholars, whether critical, skeptical or respectful, should recognize that alternatives may exist and need to take care not to express their conclusions as certainties when there is room for doubt.” Such humility is surely a virtue we should all exercise. I hope (and suspect) the author practices what he preaches.
While we are on the subject of epistemic humility, imagine the courage it would take for a scholar with certain publicly declared presuppositions about reality to openly criticize a certain scientific theory that not only appeared to offer support for his presuppositions, but also had the widespread support of the vast majority of scientific scholars. In other words, he is going clearly and firmly against the grain of popularity, and casting doubt on a theory that (on the face of it) seems to offer support for his own worldview! Such musings could only make sense if two conditions are met. First, it seems probable that he is a scholar of the most honest, open-minded variety. Second, the evidence in favour of the theory he is criticizing would have to be pretty dismal; at least in his assessment.
Thomas Nagel, dedicated Atheist that he is, has written a book claiming, “It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection.”
Excuse me?!?! An Atheist who questions the theory of evolution? Did I read that right?
Indeed you did. Nagel’s book, and the criticisms it contains, obviously do not refute evolution, or come anywhere close to settling the case, but they serve as a reminder that even the most commonly accepted theory, supported by what seems to be watertight evidence (like, say, the previously believed theory of geocentrism) could, possibly, be wrong.
Always keep an open mind. You (and your biases) may be right, and you may be wrong. Live the life of questioning and investigating! May we be more like Nagel – honestly examining the evidence even if it means questioning our own convictions – and less like the previously mentioned “Critical Scholarship” who attempted (rather ineffectively) to wedge conflicting data into their faltering theories. One quote I included in Arguing with Friends that I have long considered a noble standard for every human is this:
To have doubted one’s own first principles is the mark of a civilized man. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr