What is Wrong With Any-Loophole-Will-Do Hermenuetics
By Dave Matson
One solution, offered by the editor of a Bible newsletter, envisions two campfires in the courtyard. The rule this apologist is using holds that any loophole destroys the claim of error.
At first glance, the rule appears reasonable, but it is actually the single biggest blunder made in Bible apologetics! It is the chief source of misunderstanding between those who defend biblical inerrancy and those who reject it. Therefore, this rule deserves our closest scrutiny.
In its strictest sense, a contradiction consists of the statement "A and not A." That is, if we state that the earth is spherical and (at the same instant) not spherical, then we are guilty of a contradiction. Obviously, if the critical parts of a problem passage do not fit the form "A and not A," then we do not have a contradiction. That is to say, any loophole at all gets one off the hook. A harmonization--any harmonization--will do just fine.
That is the idea most biblicists have in mind when they offer forced, improbable explanations. In practice, Bible-believers extend this approach to biblical statements about historical and scientific matters as well. That is, they count every loophole that does not press the wildest imagination to the breaking point (and a few that do).
In short, believing that the Bible is something akin to a dictation from God, biblicists assume that the book is inerrant; they will not budge unless proven 100% wrong. "Don't claim an error," they say, "unless you're one hundred percent certain."
The problem with this philosophy is that, in the real world, statements often carry hidden or imprecise meanings. We are not dealing with well- defined mathematical propositions. The statement, "The earth is spherical," is not, according to how we actually speak, necessarily contradictory to the statement, "The earth is not spherical." I may offer the statement to you as a close approximation of the earth's shape as seen from the moon. Later, I may utter the second statement in recognition of the fact that the earth is slightly flattened at the poles. It is a matter of perspective.
The statement, "Los Angeles has a population of 2,968,528," is not necessarily in conflict with the statement, "Los Angeles has a population of three million." The intelligent reader assumes that the second figure was rounded off, not that the author has contradicted himself. Likewise, the statement, "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times," is not necessarily a blunder by some poor half-wit! To apply the hard rules of logic to such statements is to ignore the abbreviated way that we actually communicate. The real world is full of sentences that clearly have unstated conditions or implied meanings attached to them. Indeed, the simplest statements about everyday life are exceedingly difficult to make if rigor is demanded! If written communication is to function at all, let alone efficiently, then we must allow for unstated (but identifiable) conditions in a statement.
The upshot of all this should now be clear to you. If a "flat contradiction" (the strongest form of error) is not necessarily an error in practical discourse, then what is? By carefully juggling common sense with one hand and the above rule with the other, one can make contradictions disappear right and left. The biblicists are playing with loaded dice!
We must either seek a more realistic definition for "proof" (and, consequently, of "error") or else admit that we cannot even rule out Santa Claus and Little Red Riding Hood. Perhaps we should take a lesson from the sciences--that immensely successful enterprise--that put the moon within our reach. Scientists long ago recognized that our knowledge of the physical world is tied to inductive reasoning. In principle, inductive reasoning can yield a high degree of confidence, but it can never confer 100% certainty.
The uncertainty of inductive reasoning follows from the fact that any set of observations can be explained, in principle, by an infinite number of hypotheses. There will always be loopholes even to the most rigorous conclusions about the physical world. Strictly speaking, my own consciousness is the only thing I can know with certainty about the real world.
Take something pretty basic, for example, such as the physical existence of the earth. How can we prove (with 100% certainty, mind you) that the earth is not an illusion? Perhaps you are just a brain wired up in some alien laboratory, and the earth is just an illusion programmed for your benefit. How do you disprove that model with 100% certainty? As far as I know, nobody has the foggiest idea how to do that. It is just one of an infinite number of logically possible defenses for a nonexistent earth.
Now you may feel that we are in a hopeless quagmire, but that is true only if we insist on 100% certainty. Once we make the reasonable assumption that our collective senses do give meaningful data about the real world, once we understand that every proof must contain an element of uncertainty, then we are back in business. If we err in trusting our collective senses at their most basic level, then we have lost nothing. We have nothing to lose, and, judging by the success of the sciences, everything to gain. This is the only "leap of faith" that science allows itself. It is the bare minimum if we are to understand reality at all.
Truth and error, then, at least in the physical world of atoms and energy, cannot be established with 100% certainty. Outside the realm of mathematics, of abstract reasoning, proof of error is always accompanied by loopholes; no amount of data will ever remove all doubt. To put it another way, in matters of inductive reasoning no one can ever plug the last loophole. There will ALWAYS be loopholes in every theory about the real world. It is how we handle them that marks us as seekers of truth or as wishful dreamers.
THE SIMPLE FACT OF POINTING OUT A LOOPHOLE COUNTS FOR NOTHING IN EVALUATING A CLAIM ABOUT THE PHYSICAL WORLD. For each bone of contention, we must weigh the hypothesis of biblical inerrancy against that of errancy and select the better argument. Which argument makes the more credible claims? Both will have loopholes; that much we already know.
That brings us to the very important concept of objectivity. "Objectivity" is not an easy term to define, and books have no doubt been written on the subject. In a nutshell, an objective procedure tries to maximize the chances of being right by employing rules distilled from past successes.
What might these rules entail? To begin with, an objective argument favors explanations with an established track record. The most common experiences, the most likely assumptions, are tried first in the evaluation process. Secondly, an objective argument attempts to minimize the number of assumptions needed to explain a matter fully.
It follows that an objective argument concerning the real world must, at some point, be grounded in repeatable observations. Judging by the phenomenal success of the sciences, it appears that nothing more (save logic itself) is needed to explain things. Thus, in keeping with our concept of objectivity, we must strive to explain the universe in those terms. If someday that proves to be an oversimplification, then we will adjust our thinking accordingly.
You might object that this procedure is prejudiced in that it rules out the supernatural. But, all that is really being asked for is that extraordinary claims be backed up by extraordinary evidence. It is a fool's gamble to bet on improbable explanations when common ones will do. A miracle, for example, is not established if ordinary explanations are available; the latter are infinitely more probable. Fraudulent claims and confused witnesses abound the world over while, as far as I can tell, no supernatural event has ever been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Objectivity means sticking to the face value of a verse (the common meaning of the words) unless doing so would be a clear cause of error. Again, it is a matter of starting with the common explanations and working, if necessary, towards the more exotic ones. Objectivity is not a matter of trying to see if our ideas will fit in but rather of seeing if our ideas should fit in. "Objectivity" is a fisherman who goes into muddy waters with a big net. "Wishful thinking" is a fisherman who uses a teaspoon! Now, it is just possible that a fish might leap into that teaspoon while the big net comes up empty. But who are you going to depend on for dinner?
An argument that lacks objectivity is like a fisherman who uses a teaspoon to catch fish!
Let us now get back to our two-campfire argument. That two campfires are lit, that they are conveniently located to support biblical inerrancy, is strictly an ad hoc argument with no support from the text whatsoever. None of the Gospels remotely suggest such a scene. We must reject ad hoc arguments, because they are not the fruit of positive evidence. They are the gods of the gaps, thriving where positive evidence is absent. The fact that something might have happened is a mighty poor substitute for the claim that it DID happen!
To sum up, we must weigh the merits of inerrancy against those of errancy. On those scales, what MIGHT have happened is a hollow weight. Thus, the two-campfire defense lacks objectivity. The solution tries to overthrow the face value of the text without benefit of factual support. That is excellent grounds for rejecting any interpretation.
(Dave Matson's address is 330 South Hill Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91106. His booklet Bible Errors: a Sampling from Four Topics from which this article was excerpted can be obtained from Complimentary Copy Press, 1525 Canterbury Road, Lakewood, NJ 08701.)
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