Wednesday, January 7, 2009

When Evidence Isn't Proof

Vada came over the other day for tea, and was telling us about a time she was in quite a bit of pain, years ago, “And I had to take aspirin for three months, but you know, it paid off, because the pain went away, finally!”

Demetrios laughed and said, “In three months, lots of ailments go away, all by themselves, with or without aspirin!”

Vada had fallen into the logical fallacy known as post hoc propter hoc, which is the false assumption that since B (getting well) follows A (taking medicine), B was caused by A. Just because the pain disappeared after she had taken aspirin does not necessarily mean the aspirin had anything to do with it.

We had another example of what evidence doesn’t prove when Demetrios recently noticed that a certain male Red-bellied Woodpecker loves to sit in exactly the same spot on our neighbors’ house every single morning. We thought it very curious. At last, I said, “This cries out for a story, to explain such peculiar behavior! Let us make up an explanation. The bird is retarded and rejected by all the others of his species, which is why he just sits there alone. Or some jealous gnome has cast a spell on him that can only be broken if a termite kisses him. (What was the gnome jealous about?) Or the house holds some special charm for him; or perhaps it's something mundane, like a spot of warmth right there? Or he’s really only a toy bird, wishing, like the Velveteen Rabbit, he were real.” Our story-making was put to an end when the neighbor, with a laugh, told us it was indeed a fake bird, mounted there to scare away real woodpeckers, but that’s beside the point. The point is, we made up stories to account for the phenomenon. And we could imagine telling one of these magical stories to a grandchild, concluding with, “And the proof of it, if you’ll look out the window, is right there, for in that very same spot, the Woodpecker still sits, to this day!”

It would have been “proof” of nothing.

Which brings me, via the scenic route, to my real point, which is, it’s like that with biblical archaeology. Here’s the city of Jericho (just for one example), and its ancient walls have fallen down – outward from the city. So believers among Christians and Jews have jumped on this as proof of the biblical story of Joshua’s conquest told in Joshua 6. I mean, it wouldn't do, would it, to have found those walls still standing?

More skeptical people have pointed out that ‘tain’t necessarily so. It could be that somebody in ancient days found those walls having already so curiously fallen flat, and outwards, and this somebody (Israelites) made up a story to account for the peculiarity, the same way Demetrios and I made up stories to account for the woodpecker. “And here’s the proof; to this very day you can still see those walls…”

It just isn’t necessarily so! Christians, if they wish to be clear thinkers, ought to acknowledge this.

On the other hand, if you think the story in the Bible isn’t what happened, then what did? You still need to account for the evidence and explain why your story is any better than the Joshua story. Usually these sorts of attempts end up less believable, by far, than what you are trying to explain away.


Mike Baker said...

My favorite things is when you have two pieces of evidence. Lets say you have a Biblical account of an event. Then you have a stone painting depicting something different, but the author had everything to gain by telling a story other than the Biblical account... but the "archeological" evidence carries more weight than the "Bible story".