Making judgments about hypotheses

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by Neil Godfrey

What makes an historical or scientific explanation a good or bad one? I’m thinking in particular here of the various hypotheses applied to biblical studies and early Christian history.

  • Of course there are many competing hypotheses about the origins of Christianity, the nature of Jesus, and how biblical texts should be read and understood. (See for starters Peter Kirby’s Historical Jesus Theories page.)
  • If my blog stats are any guide, Bauckham’s hypothesis that the gospel authors drew on eyewitness reports to compile the gospels still holds strong ongoing interest.
  • It has been a long time since I have bothered to visit fundamentalist blogs whose authors seem unable to refrain from insulting and talking down to those who dare question their hypothesis that the Bible is the word of God and as such cannot contradict itself or be falsified in any way.

David Lewis-Williams has set out a very convenient list of criteria for making judgments between hypotheses in The Mind in the Cave. He is directly interested in evaluating explanations for Upper Paleolithic cave art, but in the course of this discussion he discusses scientific hypotheses at the theoretical level and draws on specific examples from both the physical, life and social sciences.

Of course there are many discussions about what makes a good scientific hypothesis but I am referencing this summary by Lewis-Williams here for convenience. I happen to be reading his The Mind in the Cave at the moment and so his discussion falls easily at hand.

I have broken the quote (indented and in bold type) from Lewis-Williams (pp 48-49) below with a few comments that relate to certain hypotheses in the area of biblical studies:

How does one recognize a ‘better’ explanation? If we are to understand the rollercoaster history of Upper Palaeolithic art research in the twentieth century, we need some insight into how science advances – or fails to advance. Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought on this matter; they are not necessarily exclusive, though they are sometimes presented as if they are. On the one hand, there are researchers totally committed to the objectivity of science; they believe that there are established rules and procedures of verifica­tion that lead to sure knowledge. At the other extreme, there are those who see all knowledge claims as relative and the product of social forces and cultural perceptions.

First, it needs to be repeatedly emphasized that no explanation of Upper Palaeolithic art can ever be ‘proved’. As we saw in Chapter 1, Darwin did not claim to have proved his explanation of the mechanism of evolution. Proof is a concept that should be restricted to closed systems, such as mathematics. At the end of an algebraic problem, a student can write ‘Q.E.D.’ – that which had to be demonstrated. But in archaeology, nothing of interest will ever be proved in that way. Philosophers of science have devoted much attention to this problem. We cannot now enter into a detailed account of scientific methodol­ogy, fascinating though that field is, but before we proceed to the far more complex explanations that succeeded art for art’s sake and sympathetic magic it will be useful to pause and consider how we shall be able to judge them. I therefore note a few of the common criteria by which scientists judge and compare hypotheses.

Fundamentally, an explanation for some phenomenon or other must accord with received, well-supported general work and with overall theory. One cannot, for instance, explain an aberration in a planet’s orbit by invoking laser beams directed at it from beings living in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri, while all other orbits are adequately explained by gravitational fields within the solar system.

Compare hypotheses that insist on treating data relating to biblical studies differently from the way data relating to nonbiblical literature and archaeological sites are assessed. Scepticism and critical analyses can lead wherever they may in ancient Greek texts and archaeology, but the motives and methods of researchers are considered invalid if they result in casting doubt on basic beliefs about the Bible.

Secondly, a hypothesis must be internally consistent. In other words, all parts of a hypothesis must depend on the same premises and must not contra­dict one another.

This is one of the areas where Bauckham’s hypothesis fails completely. It requires a host of ad hoc explanations for all the data that does not fit his hypothesis to make it “work”.

The third criterion is one on which, as we have seen, Darwin insisted. A hypothesis that covers diverse fields of evidence is more persuasive than one that pertains to only one, narrow type of evidence. For example, if the theory of gravity applied only to inanimate objects, such as tennis balls, and not to living creatures, such as people, its explanatory value would be so limited that scientists would reject it.

Fourthly, a hypothesis must be of such a nature that verifiable, empirical facts can be deduced from it: a hypothesis must relate explicitly to observable features of data. Art for art’s sake fails this test because there are no verifiable features of images that it explains and that cannot be explained by other hypotheses. Aesthetic judgment is so vague that any image can be declared to be the result of an innate aesthetic impulse, even if, by today’s Western stan­dards, its draughtsmanship is not very ‘good’.

Fifthly, useful hypotheses have heuristic potential, that is, they lead on to further questions and research. Art for art’s sake fails on this criterion too because, once stated, it closes off further research. It (apparently) says all that there is to say.

These two points also apply to the “The Bible is the Word of God” hypothesis. This hypothesis is unfalsifiable and explains everything there is to ask about the Bible. The problem with such a belief being presented as a “hypothesis” ought to be obvious if one stops to imagine for a minute if we replaced the word “Bible” in that hypothesis with another book title like the Iliad, Epic of Gilgamesh, Aeneid, Koran, Nostradamus.

Naturally many who do approach biblical studies from this perspective will dismiss that title substitution test by arguing that the evidence does indeed prove their faith-based “hypothesis”. What they fail to recognize is the circularity of their reasoning and the way they narrow the field of permissible evidence so as to disallow anything contradictory.

Moving on and away from David Lewis-Williams discussion . . . .

One can also say that so-called scholarly studies that begin with a “faith-hypothesis” are in fact intellectually dishonest. I discussed that in brief in an earlier post on the ethics of belief.

Further, a few believers accuse nonbelievers of bias if they do not accept faith-claims on an equally valid footing as observable or rationally derived data. Again, that’s a point I have raised in another context too, in Why religious arguments do not belong in public debate.


  • 2008-01-12 14:50:17 UTC - 14:50 | Permalink

    “there are those who see all knowledge claims as relative and the product of social forces and cultural perceptions” Really, the sensible point of view, but Lewis-Williams only pays it lip service. Science (and reason) are self serving when they define within their own terms of reference. This is the same error as in the arguments of the fundamentalists. The saving grace for science in this context would be the “heuristic potential”, if it is able to be recognised within the cultural perception. For example, climate change is forcing established scientific cultures in the energy industry into different cultural perception and exposing the narrow insular thinking of the experts.

  • 2008-01-12 18:24:02 UTC - 18:24 | Permalink

    Scientific enquiry and reason are methods by which hypotheses are tested. They often lead to counter-intuitive conclusions; and by all their conclusions are tentative pending further enquiries in the light of more evidence and refinement of methods.

    This is the antithesis of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is the assertion of dogma — that is, a religious belief system without proof. Evidence is sought to justify the belief, but is not really essential to the belief. Contradictory evidence is rationalized away or set aside. Fundamentalist teachings can never fundamentally change.

    To say science and fundamentalism are subject to the “same error” mystifies me.

    As for social relativity, aircraft and skyscrapers depend on the absoluteness of the laws and facts that underpin everyday reality. Rain makes me wet and falling from a height hurts me no matter what culture or social forces I belong to.

  • 2008-01-13 20:07:01 UTC - 20:07 | Permalink

    A mystifying moment! LOL. It’s a frames of reference thing. I should have mentioned that I am greatly enjoying Marcion’s story.

  • 2008-01-13 20:13:27 UTC - 20:13 | Permalink

    I’m glad the Marcion posts are of interest to a few others. He’s one of my favourite studies.

    But as for the “frames of refernce thing” you’ll have to explain to me how that fits with my contrast between science and fundamentalism.

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