Monday, June 04, 2007

Internal Consistency

Internal Consistency

In the past year I have read a few books on the early history of Christianity. The best of these were written by Bart Ehrman. In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman described the process that textual critics go through when they are trying to verify what was originally intended by the author of a book. Before the age of printing and Xerox machines scriptures where hand copied and then taken to another town. From there more copies were made and taken to other towns etc. Over time small errors would be introduced to the text and get passed down to all subsequent copies of that book. Many of the errors were benign but, occasionally a serious doctrinal discrepancy arises. Without access to the previous variations of a text it is very hard to correct the meaning back to what was originally intended. One of the tools that textual critics use to correct these differences in the text is to look for what they call internal consistencies. This concept of internal consistency has intrigued me and I think there are many other possible uses of the tool.
Suppose I have a copy of the gospel of “Jack”. In chapter 2 of Jack we have account of Jack relaying a story to one group of people. In chapter 4 and 7 there are two other accounts of Jack telling the same story and the details are small. However, in chapter 10 there is yet another account and the details are very different, not just in the tiny detail but the doctrinal issues are in direct conflict with the first three times the story was told. This is an example of an internal consistency. Which doctrine did Jack actually believe? At the very least you know that you shouldn’t put too much confidence in either account until you have solved the inconsistency.
I have a similar problem with many political and philosophical debates. Take for instance; 911 conspiracy theories. They are not internally consistent. Most of these theories would have us believe that the same Republican party that can’t keep control of congress or find Bin Laden are also capable of the greatest cover-up of all time. Well make up you mind! Are they morons who can’t manage the war or are they brilliant political strategists? You can’t have us believe both. It’s internally inconsistent.
A local talk radio personality likes to claim that global warming is happening but that it is not caused by man. Yet give us one colder than average day and he attempts to use that to claim that it isn’t even happening. Never mind that one event doesn’t prove or disprove the overall trend. The real problem here is that he is defeating his own position. He’s internally inconsistent.
Most of the so called logical proofs I’ve read of God’s existence have similar internal inconsistencies. They start out with a goal of using science and logic to make their point and in only a few steps they declare something to the effect that God is the cosmic singularity that is outside of space-time and therefore not subject to logic and science as we know it. Well that may be true but again it’s not consistent. Is God provable or not? Saying that God can only be proven by science that we do not yet understand is hardly a logical proof. It’s a fallacy called special pleading. With this same logic I could claim that silent, invisible, odorless dragons live in my garage but the science doesn’t yet exist to detect them. Again, this may be true but my “proof” is anything but.
I offer this not to take a position on any of the specific topics discussed. I just suggest that if you find a source that is not even internally consistent then how well are those arguments going to stand up when you put them out and compare them to others.

With apologies to Carl Sagan. The “dragons in the garage” analogy was borrowed from The Demon Haunted World.


  1. Granny Sue3:46 PM

    I am fond of listening to Michael Medved on 920 radio. He has disagreement day when anyone who disagrees with anything he has said on a previous program can call and debate him. He also has Conspiracy theory day on Thursdays. Anyone, kook or not, can call and talk about his "favorite" conspiracy theory. Medved is a very good debater. The best on radio.

  2. Anonymous4:11 PM

    Bart Ehrman

  3. Thank you, Anonymous, I've made the corrections. I read a book by Paul Ekman the same week and just transposed the names.