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History vs. Science as enquiry into Truth
November 22nd, 2007 by teragram

Zoomie’s most recent post, though only tangentally related, reminded me of a topic I wanted to blog.

As I was thinking about arguments I could have used in that debate*, I realised that “theological enquiry” (for want of a better phrase) is much more like historical enquiry than it is like scientific enquiry (for one thing, much of it is historical enquiry). Many of our peers have somehow been convinced that if science doesn’t show it, then you can’t know it (for any useful value of “know”). That’s not actually the way they live though. Not only do they accept the word of people they trust, but they also believe the history books.

We all know that science must be open to revision based on new evidence, but history is open for debate in quite a different way. It’s okay for us to have differing opinions on historical events even though it actually only happened one way. In a sense, this is because we have accepted that we are working with limited evidence. Within science, the reputation and trustworthiness of the source of any given claim has very little relevance. Experiments can be repeated by other teams in slightly different circumstances to see if the same results are obtained. You can’t re-run the fall of the Roman Empire. Either you were there, or you weren’t (I’m assuming you weren’t).

Historians differentiate between primary evidence (effectively eye-witness accounts), secondary evidence (close in time and relation to the event), and tertiary evidence (usually interpretations of primary and secondary evidence). They must also try to account for the reliability of the witness in question. Should we take Caesar’s account of the gallic wars literally, or can we assume that he was trying to portray a particular angle for his own aims? The historian is treading on much less sure ground, but that doesn’t make her work irrelevant or useless.

When we enquire into the nature of God we are often asking historical questions: “Did Jesus really rise from the grave?”, “Did Jesus actually walk on water?”, “Did many of the first Christians really give up their lives for what they believed?”. Many of our other questions are historical in a much more personal way: “Does God answer prayers? Can I believe the accounts of other people who claim their prayers were answered, and can I believe my own memories of answered prayers?” Historical questions have to be answered with the right methods. Who are the people on whose testimony we are relying? How reliable are they? What can we assume about their agendas and contexts? How close to the event were they? Is there a contradictory testimony? Can we come up with alternative (viable) explanations? And so on.

Well I’m not sure I’ve made my point very clearly, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Tg

* Just because I’ve decided not to participate, doesn’t mean I can stop thinking of arguments I would have used 🙂


8 Responses  
  • zoomtard writes:
    November 22nd, 200710:58 amat

    “Christianity appeals to history and so to history we must go.” -NT Wright

    Good post. Lots for me to think about. But just off the top of my head, the question is more, “how does the subjectivity of Caesar’s view on the Gallic wars affect his ability to relay the truth” than whether or not we can take it “literally”. We ought to take it literally, by which we read as best we can what he intends us to understand but having done that, we have to critically assess how relevant it is to our exploration.

    Of course, that assessment is subjective… 🙂

  • Disapproving Housemate writes:
    November 22nd, 200711:05 amat

    It’s worth noting that in Caesar’s case (as in many others), it’s not merely his subjectivity affecting his ability to relay the truth: he has an agenda, and is trying to show himself in a certain light to the folks at home.

  • teragram writes:
    November 22nd, 200711:12 amat

    That was my point, DH. That’s why I used the word “literally”, meaning “should we take Caesar’s account to be his actual experience of the Gallic wars, or is it more complicated than that?”. What he intends us to understand, and what we can learn from it are not necessarily the same things 🙂

    Tg

  • jimlad writes:
    November 22nd, 20071:14 pmat

    StOP STOP! Too complicated! Just take it literally. Why do you have to think so much? Can’t you see it stops you relating to dumb people like me?

  • Peskey burdens of proof « Mary Quite Contrary writes:
    November 22nd, 20071:59 pmat

    […] Jimlad seems to have a brain in his head, and uses it to aplomb on this subject as can be read in the original post. He does however come across as someone with a reasonably open, investigative and searching mind, which I respect a lot. I always think one finds it easier to open an ‘opponent’ to you point of view, if it’s obvious that you are putting everything on the table, as it were. And I think he does this. I’m yet to be convinced about others… specialy those whos livelyhood depends on it […]

  • zoomtard writes:
    November 22nd, 20072:11 pmat

    But my point DH, is that he is objectively organising and presenting the data in a particular way to fit his personal agenda.

    Everyone has an agenda, especially the people who claim they don’t. 🙂

  • Disapproving Housemate writes:
    November 22nd, 20075:15 pmat

    Exactly, Zoomster: by understanding context (social, personal and in Caesar’s case, political) we can get a much richer and nuanced understanding of the text. Hurrah for history!

  • zoomtard writes:
    November 22nd, 20076:40 pmat

    Boo for history! If I can’t prove it in a test-tube, it can’t be true!

    Wait! I just realised I can’t prove that assertion.

    Argh! I’m melting in a vat of my own self-referential non-empiricism!


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