Questioning Consensus

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

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18 thoughts on “Questioning Consensus

  1. No evidence “flatly contradicts” a minimalist understanding of Genesis and a minimalist understanding of the Biblical statements regarding Sennacherib’s western campaign. There is no good evidence to place the composition of any portion of Genesis at any time before the 10th century BC, and, as I have commented on Millard’s post,
    “This theory was promulgated despite the fact that the Assyrian emperor does not claim to have taken Jerusalem or to have met Hezekiah.
    I don’t quite get the “despite” here. There is no contradiction between the surrender of Hezekiah at Lachish and Hezekiah not meeting Sennacherib in person and sending tribute only after Sennacherib left. If Sennacherib wanted to destroy the Kingdom of Judah, he could have done so by sending all of his army to Jerusalem. He didn’t.”
    Also, why link to a pro-Intelligent Design blog post for a discussion of Nagel’s absurd ideas? Why not link to a skeptical treatment of Nagel’s beliefs about evolution? Nagel’s extraordinary claim that “the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False” requires extraordinary evidence which he does not provide. The fact Galileo questioned the prevailing consensus in his day does not mean anyone who questions the consensus in our day is anywhere near right. Millard’s article, on which I have commented on, sets an outrageous double standard on the matter of biblical criticism as contrasted with criticism of every other Bronze-Iron Age text in existence.

    Also, regarding

    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

    -Is not Israel Finkelstein, the leading scholarly critic of maximalist understandings of the Old Testament, a prime example of this? An Israeli-born Jew who led archaeological surveys deep into the West Bank in the 1980s who, in the late 1990s and even unto this day led and leads the charge for the present widespread scholarly rejection of the High Chronology of Iron Age Palestine, and, thus, any visions of a powerful Solomonic monarchy? Does he not qualify as an example of one courageous and openly criticizing a theory that not only appeared to offer support for his presuppositions, but also had the widespread support of the vast majority of relevant scholars?
    -Enopoletus Harding/Pithom

  2. “This theory was promulgated despite the fact that the Assyrian emperor does not claim to have taken Jerusalem or to have met Hezekiah.” is from Millard. “There is no contradiction between the surrender of Hezekiah at Lachish and Hezekiah not meeting Sennacherib in person and sending tribute only after Sennacherib left. If Sennacherib wanted to destroy the Kingdom of Judah, he could have done so by sending all of his army to Jerusalem. He didn’t.” is from me. Darn html.

    • Pithom, thanks for the comments. Don’t worry about the html, I think I got the gist of your ideas.

      First off, even if your comments are all correct, they simply confirm the essence of what I was getting at in this essay. These subjects are complex and interconnected so any person who examines them brings to the discussion some personal biases that will taint their perspectives on the matter and their interpretation of the evidence. Clearly the authors of the articles (and Nagel; author of the book) bring biases and these biases must be considered. I bring biases. You bring biases. This is precisely my point. We must all do our best to attempt (as difficult as this is for people) to think “past” our biases and try to work out the truth of the matter.

      Even though your observations do not undermine my primary thesis, let’s take a look at a few of them anyway.

      With respect to ancient history I must plead a fair bit of ignorance, so I will have to leave that subject largely untouched. I will, however, run your comments by some other folks I know who may be more knowledgable in that area and see if they wish to comment. However, I will say that if Finkelstein has taken on a role similar to what Nagel appears to be doing, then that should give us reason to take his views seriously. As with Nagel (per my article) that courage hardly settles the matter, but it does lend credibility to his perspective. However, even the most courageous scholar can still be wrong. Finkelstein might be wrong and so might Nagel. If you are willing to seriously consider Finkelstein because of his courage, are you willing to seriously consider Nagel?

      You suggest that I should have quoted Nagel from a site that was skeptical of Nagel, yet you seem opposed to the fact that I have used a site that is skeptical of Critical Scholarship. I assume you would have preferred that I used a site that favoured Critical Scholarship as well as a site that is skeptical of Nagel. Please help me understand how this is not a double standard.

      Further to my use of a Pro-ID website, that is utterly irrelevant to the discussion. I simply quote them quoting Nagel, I do not use any of the material provided by the author at that site at all. The fact that I found Nagel’s quote at a pro-ID site is as relevant as if it came from a Holocaust denying website or a website providing canine matchmaking services (if such a site exists – perhaps “puppy love?”). Nagel is the only person I quote in that context so it is him you need to address, not where I snagged his quote from. That is just a red herring.

      And with respect to Nagel you suggest, “Nagel’s extraordinary claim … requires extraordinary evidence which he does not provide.” I would assume that he didn’t fill the 144 pages of his book with mere opinion and rant, but with reasoned analysis and a careful examination of the evidence. You seem to be suggesting that my assumption is wrong. I haven’t read it, but it sounds as though you have read it, am I right? Perhaps you have written a book review somewhere that we can consider? If you have not read it, on what grounds can you be so confident that he does not provide “extraordinary evidence?”

      “The fact Galileo questioned the prevailing consensus in his day does not mean anyone who questions the consensus in our day is anywhere near right.” Indeed, and nobody is suggesting otherwise. I mention geocentrism merely to point out that consensus can be wrong. Even if it is right most of the time we would be foolhardy to assume that it is ALWAYS right. Epistemic humility is always the order of the day. I once heard it said that all scientific pronouncements should begin with, “at our present level of ignorance we think we know…” I whole-heartily agree.

      • If you are willing to seriously consider Finkelstein because of his courage, are you willing to seriously consider Nagel?

        I am not so much willing to seriously consider Finkelstein because of his courage, but due to the fact his hypotheses are extremely likely to be true in light of the evidence we have. Looking at his scholarly papers (telaviv.academia.edu/IsraelFinkelstein), his arguments are almost always backed by physical evidence (e.g., texts, potsherds), from his analysis of the pottery of Khirbet en-Nahas to his analysis of the text of Shoshenq I’s campaign, to his architectural analysis of the Large Stone Structure.
        As for Nagel’s book, I have not read it, however, looking at the quotes which constitute the main points of his argument, (amazon.com/Mind-Cosmos-Materialist-Neo-Darwinian-Conception/product-reviews/0199919755/ref=cm_cr_pr_hist_1?ie=UTF8&filterBy=addOneStar&showViewpoints=0), it seems to me Nagel’s “argument” is merely a series of evidence-less assertions. I have no opposition to your using A.R. Millard’s recent piece-I do have an opposition to your using it uncritically (and ignoring my comment on the post, which you are likely to have seen). Your use of a pro-ID website is relevant to the discussion-you could have just linked to the quote itself on Amazon.com and not given a pro-ID website any pageviews. I do think you should have looked around the web for websites skeptical of Nagel’s views on the mind, as “the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature” is backed by a good amount of evidence and is accepted by almost every biologist.

        • Well the conversation seems to be diverging rather rapidly from the actual content of my initial article so I suspect this may be my last reply. A few points in response.

          “I am not so much willing to seriously consider Finkelstein because of his courage, but due to the fact his hypotheses are extremely likely to be true in light of the evidence we have.” – This is precisely the attitude I would like to encourage everybody to adopt. Examine the evidence and don’t just accept or reject something because it conforms to your worldview or as a response to any kind of ‘nose count’ of scholars.

          “Looking at his scholarly papers … his arguments are almost always backed by physical evidence.” I have no reason to believe the situation is any different on the other side of the fence. The question is rarely the existence of evidence, but the interpretation of evidence. The initial article at Bible History Daily examines some of the physical evidence.

          “As for Nagel’s book, I have not read it, however, … it seems to me Nagel’s “argument” is merely a series of evidence-less assertions.” If you ever do read it and post a book review somewhere online do let me know.

          [As an aside, I have done a little more research on philosophy of mind questions than Old Testament textual issues and I find Nagels’ ideas rather compelling, especially in light of the weakness of the objections against them.]

          “I have no opposition to your using A.R. Millard’s recent piece-I do have an opposition to your using it uncritically (and ignoring my comment on the post, which you are likely to have seen).” I’m sorry to disappoint, but I feel no compulsion to chase you around the internet and address what you might say at other people’s websites. Issues you raise at my website can be addressed here, but issus you raise at other people’s websites can be addressed by the people who run those websites.

          “Your use of a pro-ID website is relevant to the discussion-you could have … not given a pro-ID website any pageviews.” I am not a proponent of censorship except perhaps in extreme cases like, maybe, Mein Kampf. Even then, I would not automatically censor; it would depend on the circumstances. Censorship may be your preferred approach but I support free speech and free inquiry.

          • How is noticing and/or considering my comment and the criticisms I make in it equivalent to chasing me around the internet and addressing what I might say at other people’s websites? I do not think you should necessarily have addressed my claims in my comment, though you should definitely have taken Millard’s post with a more critical mind than you did (most notably, you should not have emboldened Millard’s non sequiturs on Sennacherib and Hezekiah).
            Since when was mere non-inclusion censorship? If your definition of censorship encompasses mere non-inclusion, is your non-inclusion of viewpoints contrary to Nagel and Millard’s viewpoints censorship? Why or why not?
            Also, can you expound on your aside in the above comment?

            • There are no traces of the original subject of my article left, only splitting hairs on blogging methodologies, so I’ll leave the conversation here. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Just quickly on the dating of the Old Testament documents, the links below may be a good start. You’ll notice at the first link that there is a section specifically addressing the question of the date of the Pentateuch, and the thrust of the entire article (spread over several pages – you need to click to the next page by the link at the top of each page) is an examination of Critical Scholarship, including a response to it.

      http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/P/pentateuch-1.html

      There are also several articles on the Documentary Hypothesis at this website that may be informative.

      http://christianthinktank.com/topix.html

      As I said, this is not a major interest area of mine so I’m not sure I’ll have much to offer beyond this. Hopefully you find this informative and thought provoking.

      • I only own one book on the Documentary Hypothesis (R. E. Friedman’s popular one). I see no evidence to suggest any kind of literacy in any alphabetic script in the highlands of Canaan until the mid-11th century BC. I also see no evidence that any portion of the Bible was written before the 10th century BC. The ISBE is roughly a hundred years old now. Critical scholarship has advanced in those hundred years. I do not hold dogmatically to JEDP or JEPD (it might as well have been JEPDJP), but I think Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch is almost impossible.

        • Out of interest, I took a look at your claims above. According to the resources cited at the Christian Thinktank, “It is not widely enough known that in the time of Moses the Canaanites were familiar with at least eight languages recording five completely different systems of writing” – http://christianthinktank.com/aec2.html

          His reference for that quote is “The Pentateuch in Its Cultural Environment. Livingston, Herbert G., Baker, 1974” within which the quote is attributed to Mendenhall (page 71)

          A VERY brief internet search also reveals:

          “The Phoenician alphabet developed from the Proto-Canaanite alphabet, during the 15th century BC.” – http://www.omniglot.com/writing/phoenician.htm

          “There have been two major discoveries of inscriptions that may be related to the Proto-Sinaitic script, the first … dated to circa 1700-1400 BCE, and … [another one] dated to the 18th century BCE” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proto-Sinaitic_script

          This seemed relevant but I’ll leave it to others to chew on it and decipher.

          • The Phoenician alphabet developed in the eleventh century BC and was introduced to the rest of Palestine only in the late tenth (academia.edu/480526/Epigraphic_West_Semitic_Scripts). The statement “the Canaanites were familiar with at least eight languages recording five completely different systems of writing” would only be true if all the people of the Levant were counted as comprising “the Canaanites”. I strongly suspect the only languages a cosmopolitan Amarna-era Jebusite would be familiar with would be Egyptian, a variety of Canaanite and Transjordanian dialects, and some variety of Akkadian. I still see no evidence to suggest any kind of literacy in any alphabetic script in the highlands of Canaan until the mid-11th century BC.

            • I think I might have to do an entire blog entry just on this exchange. It is fascinating that you feel the link you provided unequivocally supports your presentation of the facts. Truly fascinating.

      • Ah! I forgot I also own ISBN: 9657052351 , a slim volume on why the features used by some source critics to argue for the DH may be simply Hebrew stylistic features not indicative of changes in source.

        • This one?

          http://www.amazon.com/The-Documentary-Hypothesis-Umberto-Cassuto/dp/9657052351

          Thanks for sharing the link. Some of the links I provided previously to the Christian Thinktank touch on the DH. The most telling, perhaps, is this brief summary of the state of scholarship on the matter.

          http://christianthinktank.com/dochypo.html

          Again, I offer this merely for the consideration of others; I am about as far from an expert on the subject as you can get. If you have any other relevant links or books that might be of interest to people, feel free to drop them in the combox.

          • I also had this cross my “desk” this morning. It claims there has been a discovery of VERY old proto-Caananite writing (as in about 2000 BC).

            “The 3,000-year-old text dates to the time of the Hebrew Bible’s King David and is thought to be written in proto-Canaanite, a precursor to the Hebrew alphabet. While other people used proto-Canaanite characters as well, the inscription contains a three-letter verb meaning “to do” that existed only in Hebrew.”

            Naturally, “other scholars have urged caution” and they are right to do so (I wrote previously about the “Thrill of Sensationalism”). However, it is a piece of the puzzle worth keeping an eye on as it seems relevant to this subject. See how scholarly analysis plays out on this one.

            http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28162671/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/jewish-archaeological-discoveries/#.UH1f9I6pWxI

            • “3000-year-old” “2000 BC” -You did not do the math correctly. This is 2012 AD, not 1000 AD. This is my video on Khirbet Qeiyafa.

              Alan Millard discusses the Qeiyafa inscription here.

              The earliest proto-alphabetic inscriptions I know of are the Wadi el-Hol inscriptions in Egypt, which do date to roughly 2000 BC.

  3. Pingback: I Debate A Very Credulous McDowellish Christian « Against Jebel al-Lawz

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