Archives of Reception of the Bible

Past blogging in more ways than one.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The book that has most influenced me...

Looking over recent discussion about the resurrection, it occurs to me that my own response remains heavily marked by one of the very first books I ever read as an undergraduate.

I had read a chapter by Michael Goulder on the synoptic problem in an edited volume on alternative approaches to the New Testament. The title was something to do with houses built on sand, I think. The gist of his argument was that the elasticity of the two source hypothesis was its major flaw, and he used the work of two philosophers of science, Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, to show this. This led to me reading A.F. Chalmers' book, What is this thing called science? (I remember the cover has a cat on it which was apparently significant for a previous edition but had now been removed from the text and remained only on the cover - weird what you remember, eh). The book was itself heavily influenced by the work of Paul Feyerabend and his Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge, but what I remember most was Chalmer's rehearsal of the problems of induction, of Popper's falsificationism, and his critical comments on Kuhn's paradigms and Lakatos' research programmes.

Though this book was the start of my journey into the work of the pragmatists, the development of my thinking was never just theory led. The simple fact of the matter was that the methodological and exegetical questions that arose at each level of my studies always seemed to be best answered by the work of people like Stanley Fish. That this still seems to be the case is why I count this book as the one that has marked me the most.

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Response to comments on April DeConick's blog

A final response to the comments on April's blog re-resurrection


Dear Wade (and April),

"...Either we use inductive reasoning, knowing its flaws mean we can never have absolute certainty and that we may well have to revise theories based on new evidence, or we don't and we basically give up the search for knowledge...."

Please don't attribute to me any kind of nonsense about how we may as well just give up and go bake cookies or something. I have no problem with April's historical methodologies if we all agree that what we are trying to do is make good arguments about the probability of things happening and basing them on the data we have (such as it is). All I am trying to do here is make a technical point. Such probability cannot be a function of induction because if it were it would always be zero. (Don't shoot the messenger - go read Hume!) Instead it is a psychological probability - what we think is most likely to have happened. That is fine, normal and what historians (amongst others) base their lives on, but it is no use to us if we wish to claim that we have absolute certainty about the impossibility of something like the resurrection. Induction just won’t give us that.

Best wishes,


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A comment on resurrection

A comment left on April Deconick's blog following the recent discussion of resurrection occasioned by James Crossley's post on Tom Wright and resurrection.


Fascinating discussion. But I doubt you’ll find it touching someone who believes in the resurrection. Part of the problem is that a certain utilitarianism keeps echoing - without ‘x’ we can’t do history. True, but not the ‘Truth’, I can already hear your critics saying.

Without wishing to criticise your historical methods, virtually all of which I habitually use, child of the Enlightenment that I am :), I would like to point out that your take on induction is badly flawed.

‘Tomorrow I might wake up to find myself green, or the floor no longer solid, or dead bodies rising out of the tombs. But I doubt that that will be the case tomorrow or the next day or any day of my life. Mr. Walters is correct that an inductive argument does not lead to a logically necessary conclusion. But the point of making arguments from history is that they are very strong inductive arguments.’

This is incorrect for two reasons. Historical arguments do not work from the events themselves, but rather from the traces of the events left in history. In other word, you are not operating as an empirical scientist would work, from present experimentation, but rather extrapolating from our texts and artefacts. Not problematic, but not very strong either – it is commonly called a weak form of induction.

The second reason is much more damning. The problem with induction - long recognised by the likes of David Hume and Karl Popper – is that however many times an event happens, there is an infinite number of times it has yet to happen. Dividing the sample by infinity always leaves a probability of virtually zero. In terms of induction, you can *never* have a strong argument. All I think you could say is that you have a strong psychological argument against resurrection.

Incidentally, Altmann’s solution is basically a version of Kuhn’s paradigms or Lakatos’ research programmes, both of which are responses to and replacements for induction. But both are very susceptible to a relativistic interpretation and quite probably will never be able to quell your opponents.

Best wishes


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