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Uncertainty Part 2: Margins of Error

January 7, 2013

The first objection I get when I suggest that the Bible is uncertain is entirely predictable. It’s an objection that centers around the very real, and very common, people who say that the Bible is uncertain and use that as a license to make it say whatever they want. If you point out that a particular passage means something they say, “Well, who can know?” Their use of the Bible has little or nothing to do with evidence and everything to do with grabbing the authority of the Bible to attach to their own wishes.

This is a problem of recognizing degrees of uncertainty.

In my field (biology) uncertainty is always measured and reported. There are some issues with the way in which it is measured and reported but we are at least expected to do some measuring and reporting. Do you know that two populations of snakes actually differ in length? Give me the p-value associated with your hypothesis test so that I might know the level to which you are certain of this. Oddly, many laypeople think science is about certainty. Not really. It’s about measuring uncertainty so that it can be compensated for.

The way to deal with uncertainty is first to know how much uncertainty there is and then to act in a way that respects that amount of uncertainty. So, for instance, I was not certain that the world was not going to end when the Mayan calendar rolled over into the next baktun but the reasons for believing that the Maya would get that right through anything other than dumb luck were pretty bad. I did not change my lifestyle a single bit in response to this information.

On the other hand, there are a few people that I work with occasionally whose attitudes toward me are unclear to me. I can’t tell if they like me but have bad tempers, if they are neutral to me, or if they hate me and disguise it most of the time. I believe that these people fall into the first two options but I won’t act as if they like me until I see some solid evidence of it. I’ll take my uncertainty into account and I won’t act rashly until I know more.

This is the way that we always deal with situations. We grade our certainty so automatically that we don’t even realize that we’ve done so. We already know how to deal with uncertainty.

So, if the Bible is less certain than we think (for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere) will that throw us into chaos? No. Let’s say that, for instance, you agree with me that there are several well-attested ways to treat the early sections of the book of Genesis. This is less certain than pretending that early Genesis is astonishingly clear. However, there are no well-attested options for dealing with Genesis that do not take it as given that the early section of Genesis establishes God’s creative rule and purpose for the world. If someone were to say “Well, it’s all up in the air,” and then ignore Genesis until, say, Chapter 37 we would have every right to consider this a stupid decision. Everything is sort of up in the air. If parts of Genesis are up in the air how much are they uncertain and how does that compare to, say, the uncertainty that the speaker has about whether their best friend is just using them for beer money?

I believe that we need to be very cautious about assuming that our first-pass readings of the Bible are very good. I also think we need to flat-out reject the claim that any uncertainty is the same as total uncertainty. Uncertainty may not ever end but we can move from very uncertain to relatively certain. We can gather more data, read more carefully, find more lines of evidence, reject bad cases, and build better ones.

The Bible is not an easy book to read. It was not written in English, it was not written in our culture, and anything written to explain divine mysteries automatically dabbles in realms beyond mortal ken. However, we need not be afraid of this. If we are willing to work with our minds and spirits we can approach the things that we did not know before. Uncertainty is not a deal-breaker. It is merely the cost of doing business as a human being.

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