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Minimizing Self-Deception

Over the past few months I have read two novels by Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum and The Name of the Rose. Both are interesting if not quite easy reads, but there is one strand that is common between them (besides the obvious, of religious themes touched upon in both) that I think warrants discussion, and that is the ability of the human mind to see patterns in evidence that are not really there.

In Foucault's Pendulum, a group of men make up a historical narrative stringing together a series of facts to make an argument for a great Templar plan. They don't believe it and know the plan is fake but, the whole thing backfires when a key person who isn't in on the deception hears and believes the plan.

In the Name of the Rose a monk named William of Baskerville (reference to Sherlock Holmes was intentional) investigates a series of murders. He sees a series of coincidences as evidence of an elegant plan on the part of the murderer. The murderer learns of William's theory and starts acting according to it which results in the discovery of his identity (something the murderer hoped for from the beginning).

These two books exemplify the human tendency to see patterns where they aren't there. It extends to every aspect of life including theology. I am a statistician by education and profession so I have a bit more training than most on how to avoid this. There are tools that can be used to avoid 'overfitting' a model to data or drawing false inferences and while I won't talk about those tools here I will talk about some key disciplines that can be used by the theologian (which all Christians are) to help avoid those problems.

The first key is to read a variety of theologians from a variety of perspectives/theological traditions from a variety of points in time. The Spirit moved differently in different ages among different groups. Culture also opens up different vistas. They will have access to data that you don't have access to. That may lead them to interpret the data that you share with them differently resulting in drawing different inferences or conclusions. Reading what they have to say will give you a richer model from which to work and should help reduce some of your own biases.

A second point is that usually there is not one basic model to rule them all. There needs to be some accounting for local variation and that needs to be baked in to the argument. For example, biblical authors were human and had specific experiences which impacted them and what they wrote. Account for it.

Third, make your presuppositions explicit. It is perfectly fine to have presuppositions and to have them impact your theory or arhument, but make it clear and try to assess the degree of certainty surrounding your presuppositions (and this is accomplished by going back to the first point).

Finally, what if one was to remove that one key verse from the Bible? Or what if one took away one key assumption? Would your whole argument fall apart? If so, that may be a sign that the argument has a lot of uncertainty around it and should be held cautiously.


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