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Is the Secular Exclusion of Divine Explanations for History as Biased as Supernaturalistic Historiography?

Posted by NT Wrong on September 13, 2008

Sometimes Christians object that it is just as biased to reject ‘supernaturalistic’ explanations for the life of Jesus as it is to allow such explanations in one’s historiography.

A recent example comes from Jim West — that is, the prolific biblioblogger of that name, not the author of a recent travel-book on queer underground culture in Beijing. We understand they are different people.

Anyway, Jim West, the biblioblogger, recently said this:

“Is not the a priori exclusion of the possibility of divine activity in the human sphere just as prejudiced a viewpoint as that of the evangelical who insists that there is only one explanation for the Church; ie, divine activity?”

The context of Jim West’s rhetorical question is a response to James Crossley’s portion of a soon-to-be-released co-authored book on Jesus, the resurrection, and the origins of the early church, How Did Christianity Begin?

As phrased, Jim West’s point is undoubtedly true. If one excludes certain historical reconstructions from consideration on a priori grounds, then, that is undoubtedly as biased as any other a priori exclusion of possible explanations. It would be like a historian of Haitian colonisation consciously refusing to consider local Haitian viewpoints, but only considering the viewpoints of the colonisers. Such an approach would be obviously prejudiced and untrustworthy. And that’s why no good historian proceeds in such a fashion. In fact, what Jim West has described is not a credible scholarly method of historiography.

But those historians who reject supernaturalistic explanations don’t simply apply a priori reasoning. This is why Jim West’s criticism — a criticism, the tu quoque criticism, which is a very common apologetic criticism — is simply inapplicable. The basis for rejecting ‘supernaturalistic’ explanations is not in fact out-of-court and a priori — it is an attempt to arrive at the best explanation of the available facts. Having reviewed a large body of historical data from many places and many times, historians have consistently concluded that the better explanations involve a complex of social-historical factors. The best explanation of the victory of the Britons over the Romans involves the declining power of the Romans, not the supernatural powers of ‘Arthur’ or ‘Merlin’. The best explanation of the rise of Hitler involves certain social and political reasons between the two World Wars together with certain ideological developments of the time — and such an explanation is sufficient, so that any talk of an ‘evil power’ is nonsense. Time and again, historical investigations provide sufficient explanations in terms of mundane quotidian explanations, making otiose any additional ‘supernaturalistic’ explanations.

So, the old chestnut, ‘you’re biased too, because you reject supernaturalistic explanations out of court, on a priori grounds’ is demonstrably untrue. The rejection of supernaturalistic explanations in historiography is the result of a long build-up of explanations for the human and natural world that have rendered supernaturalistic explanations redundant. In other words, there is nothing ‘a priori’ (deductive) in the method at all. The method is abductive; establishing which types of explanations best and most economically fit the facts.

Ordinary mundane socio-political factors provide sufficient historical explanations for British history (without positing a magical Merlin), for Judean history (without positing a god who directs history), for the origin of the early Islamic empire (without positing an Allah who directs history), for the rise of the United States (without positing some ‘Manifest Destiny’), etc, etc. Sure, true believers will always be able to claim that the history in which they have a vested interest is unique in a way that fundamentally distinguishes it from all other reality. But in doing so, they have to counter the weight of historical and scientific explanation. Now, that is real ‘bias’.

Update: I just spotted James Crossley’s reply to Scot McKnight, which is on a similar parallel to this post, but is much more entertaining.

7 Responses to “Is the Secular Exclusion of Divine Explanations for History as Biased as Supernaturalistic Historiography?”

  1. Jim said

    Ya know, I wish my parents had named me something besides Jim. There are entirely too many of us out there and most of them are weirdos!!!!!

  2. ntwrong said

    At least you don’t have to spell your name each time you give your name.

    A few weeks ago I read a book review of that book in the newspaper, and tucked it away for further use. 😉

  3. Quixie said


    One example that I once saw Robert Price give:

    Suppose you turn on the television one night and on the screen appears to be a giant fire-breathing reptilian creature destroying what looks like a mock-up of the Tökyö skyline, would it be “biased” to induce that it is probably the SciFi channel that is on? Is it bias to induce that it is very probably NOT CNN or the BBC or the local news?

    The ancient Greek “think horses” axiom applies here.

    When you hear the sound of hoofbeats coming, think horses, not zebras.



  4. Roland said

    Um yeah, I have to spell my name everytime I use it. That’s what I get for having foreigners for parents (in US speak ‘aliens’) who wanted to give the cultural desert of an Australia an exotic feel.

  5. Bill said

    I was all set to give you a point or two on this, Bish. But I think your use of “better” and “best” make the whole argument circular. How does one decide which explanations are “better”?

    It also sounds like you’re basically saying the difference between “abductive” and “a priori” is in longstanding tradition. Whatever you call that, it’s still begging the question, isn’t it?

    Back to the drawing board…

  6. ntwrong said

    Bill – it can only be viciously circular if everything is dependent on the logical argument (in the case of deductive reasoning) or hypothesis (for abductive reasoning), and if, therefore, evaluation of facts cannot possibly falsify one’s hypothesis. I count myself in that contingent of people who think that facts are not wholly determined by one’s worldview, and can actually challenge one’s worldview. If this is true, then determination of what is ‘better’ is a function BOTH of facts and worldview. Now, if you have a worldview in which no fact can change your worldview (eg creationism, inerrancy), then you won’t even be entertaining abductive reasoning, and certainly won’t be able to engage in analysis of what is the ‘better’ hypothesis for the facts. But, I’m not advocating a method that everyone will want to follow.

    ‘Tradition’ is irrelevant.

    ‘Begging the question’ is technically only a fallacy in strict logic. But there is no strict logic in historiography.

    The method has its limitations, but it is not the ones you suggested.

  7. ntwrong said

    This is not to say that the criteria for ‘best explanation’ are not difficult to apply, open to subjectivity and bias, and difficult to delineate. It’s just that these aren’t fatal objections, if we can accept that ascertainment of fact always involves bias. It is inescapable. Yet, that is no excuse to indulge in bias for bias’ sake. Evaluation of facts is more likely than not to be correct in the long term when it proceeds by following criteria for determining the best explanation – criteria such as comprehensiveness of explanation of the data, fruitfulness in suggesting new observations and conceptual possibilities, cogency and plausibility with respect to established background knowledge, internal coherence and consistency, and simplicity or elegance.

    I mean, as a thought experiment, compare proceeding with a series of scientific experiments based on your private whimsy (say, depending on how ‘happy’ you feel about the experiment), and then by following the criteria above. Which one is presenting itself as having the greater chance of approaching truth?

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