2007-04-27

Is “intellectual parasite” too strong a term?

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by Neil Godfrey

A “no-no” in any genuine intellectual enquiry is to pick selectively only the data and research that supports your hypothesis and giving scant attention to whatever denies it. By “scant attention” I mean ad hoc rationalization, routine focusing on only those articles that point to limitations of the problematic data and its interpretation, or simply opting to ignore it.

This, of course, is an obvious truism, so how could one possibly do this? One answer: by working with a hypothesis that is ultimately rooted in a “faith” or “belief” as opposed to hypothesis that is methodically or intuitively worked out through a grappling with tests, data, research and the methods and values that underpin the selection and understanding of these. Add to this a failure to appreciate the next step: a hypothesis is just a hypothesis and needs to be thoroughly tested, not rationalized or selectively supported.

This is why there is no place in true scholarship for a “biblical scholar” selecting a hypothesis that coheres with their faith and backing it up with whatever evidence respectably does the job. Michael Fox states what should be obvious:

Faith-based study is a different realm of intellectual activity that can dip into Bible scholarship for its own purposes, but cannot contribute to it.

Should one school of faith-based scholarship ever dominate the scholarly field we would see an end of genuine intellectual enquiry and a return, in effect, to the philosophical level of mediaeval scholasticism. One scholar calls it modern day Anselmian hermeneutics. (I made some comment about this in my discussion of Bauckham’s Eyewitness 15th chapter.)

The creation of new questions, new directions, new and deeper understandings of how the world works outside the framework of the faith, would die. Since faith and belief have a black and white perspective it could even be said that this state would be a return to a new dark age. That sounds ridiculous on the face of it, but less so when one recalls how little hold true science has taken hold in the US. The depressing stats repeat the facts often enough: huge majorities believing in Adam and Eve or at least a rejection of evolution, beliefs in angels and miracles, in the resurrection of Jesus and the second coming, atheism potentially being the ruin of a public, especially political, figure.

Vardis Fisher’s novel of those days, My Holy Satan, has a memorable line where the only true light of day is found the dungeons. And the closing words of that novel were the thoughts of one of those dungeon victims whose body had been broken by torture, the painfully ambiguous, “He was sure now that a light was breaking. . . .”

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Neil Godfrey

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  • 2007-04-27 08:58:41 GMT+0000 - 08:58 | Permalink

    “A “no-no” in any genuine intellectual enquiry is to pick selectively only the data and research that supports your hypothesis and giving scant attention to whatever denies it. By “scant attention” I mean ad hoc rationalization, routine focusing on only those articles that point to limitations of the problematic data and its interpretation, or simply opting to ignore it.”

    Willard Quine demonstrated conclusively that there are an infinite number of hypothesis which ‘fit’ any given set of data. It is not at all obvious whether evidence ‘supports’ or ‘denies’ a hypothesis, how and to what extent. Especially in humanities subjects, ‘ad hoc’ can be in the eye of the beholder, and everyone rationalizes to a certain extent, as witnessed in one of your earlier posts on Acts 27-28 when you try to explain the number of shifts between we-they by appealing to some ‘arcane’ golden mean. When does rationalization go too far? That is not at all easy to tell and will depend to a large extent on the overall paradigm that you are working under. For example, take Darrell Doughty’s arguments for a new Pauline paradigm which recognizes that all the Pauline letters are heavily interpolated and/or redacted, just like the Gospels. The questions he points to, such as the inability to locate Paul anywhere in particular in 1st-Century Judaism, the apparent inconsistency of some of his thought, etc. are seen as problems by most scholars but not mysteries. They would say that he is making mountains out of molehills. To Doughty, on the other hand, having already embraced his alternate paradigm, Pauline studies are approaching a crisis point which can only be relieved by embracing his new paradigm.

    “hypothesis that is methodically or intuitively worked out through a grappling with tests, data, research and the methods and values that underpin the selection and understanding of these.”

    ‘Intuitively worked out’? But I thought there was no room for instinct, much less ‘professional instincts’ in the work of a historian!

    I find your predictions about what would happen if ‘faith-based scholarship’ were to prevail to be laughingly paranoid. Even those who openly advocate faith-based scholarship (though not how Michael Fox means it), such as George Marsden, Mark Noll and C. John Sommerville, are keenly aware of the danger of accepting only those theories which fit a pre-conceived framework and have developed sophisticated methodologies to deal with it. By no means do they want to silence alternative voices in the academy. See “The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship” by Marsden, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” by Noll and “The Decline of the Secular University” by Sommerville.

  • 2007-04-27 13:10:51 GMT+0000 - 13:10 | Permalink

    JD: “and everyone rationalizes to a certain extent, as witnessed in one of your earlier posts on Acts 27-28 when you try to explain the number of shifts between we-they by appealing to some ‘arcane’ golden mean.”

    You sure misread what I wrote then in that Acts post. (Though incidentally I can make a comment: I have no idea if there was some numerical factor at work (as there was in other texts). I don’t know if it’s ever been studied in relation to Acts before. Maybe it’s worth looking into. I don’t know.)

    You seem to say that Doughty’s thesis is wrong because it solves a particular problem by viewing the evidence through another paradigm. I don’t see anything wrong with that at all. Very sensible approach in fact. I’ve not looked closely at Doughty for a long time so I can’t comment on your selection of what points he sees as problems, but the principle sounds fine if it answers more questions than it solves about the data. The only ones who would object would be those who’d rather keep the old paradigm despite its problems. I can understand that.

    JD: “‘Intuitively worked out’? But I thought there was no room for instinct, much less ‘professional instincts’ in the work of a historian!”

    Again you misrepresent what I write. Read the next part after my mention of intuition and you will see that I did not attribute to intuition the role you gave it for establishing what happened in the past. Only a hypothesis might be intuitively grasped, but the hypothesis is not knowledge and a hypothesis does not establish what is historical knowledge.

    Minorities within a given field generally find it to their benefit to promote a certain level of diversity and tolerance that is necessary to ensure their survival as minorities. It’s when some of those become the majorities that the implications of their beliefs are allowed to flourish. The manichaeistic mindsets of religions, ideologies and racial groups fanning into barbaric behaviours when they are no longer minorities is amply witnessed. But possible long term historical consequences are not the fundamental reasons I gave in my post.

  • 2007-04-27 13:43:54 GMT+0000 - 13:43 | Permalink

    “You seem to say that Doughty’s thesis is wrong because it solves a particular problem by viewing the evidence through another paradigm.”

    No, not at all. You completely misunderstood. I never said that paradigm change is always bad. I was just making the point that the factors which lead some people to change their paradigm are not necessarily significant enough to cause everyone to do so. Now in THIS particular case I DO happen to think that Doughty makes a mountain out of molehills, or rather turns what most scholars would see as legitimate problems into mysteries to support his paradigm. But in general if a different paradigm leads to a better understanding of the data I am all for it.

    I think you will find if you research the cognitive science of learning that intuition plays a large part not only in the formation of hypotheses but also in their subjective verification in the human mind. In fact, the two aren’t usually separated. As we intuitively form a hypothesis we are already testing it in various subliminal ways against the evidence, adjusting the hypothesis as we continue. It’s not as if we ‘intuit’ a full-fledged hypothesis and only then test its fit with the data.

    “But possible long term historical consequences are not the fundamental reasons I gave in my post.”

    Even so, for whatever purpose you did list those reasons and however strongly you are committed to them I found them to be unreasonably paranoid.

  • 2009-11-02 01:48:01 GMT+0000 - 01:48 | Permalink

    I have an idea for a new sort of biblical (and other religious text) hermeneutic: namely, identifying and extracting all of the passages that could involve the tinge of the writer’s or the religion’s self-interest. What sort of text would emerge? If you are interested, pls see my post at http://deligentia.wordpress.com/2009/11/01/self-interest-in-religion-and-the-related-conflicts-of-interest/

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