Sunday, July 14, 2019

Is the Data Consistent?

Psychological experiments have shown that people tend to embrace evidence that confirms their already-held beliefs while overlooking evidence that conflicts with their beliefs, a phenomena called "confirmation bias." As a scientist who consistently analyzes data, not only must I be careful to avoid confirmation bias, but I must also take precautions against the opposite effect, which would be to bias experimental data with the goal of finding something new rather than just confirming what is already known. Many of the great discoveries in science have been made when the data shows an unexpected result rather than a confirmation of an already known effect. In short, it is important to be able to sift through the data in an unbiased way to try to determine the truth of a proposition. To assist me in this endeavor, I have developed an informal list of questions to ask that serve as a guideline to follow for determining the truth of an idea while trying to minimize bias.

In this blog I have regularly claimed that Christian beliefs are evidentially based, and not just a product of blind conviction. As a thinking person, a scientist, and a Christian, I have a desire to determine what is true about spiritual ideas and to try to avoid simple confirmation bias when examining evidence for Christian truth claims. Consequently, it may serve as an interesting exercise to apply the general principles I have developed for determining the truth of a proposition to certain spiritual claims and ideas. If the claims of Christianity are objectively true, then they should hold up under an examination that uses reasonable criteria to determine their validity.

The eight questions that are helpful to ask when determining truth from the data are:
  1. Is the data logically self-consistent?
  2. Is there enough evidence to support the hypothesis?
  3. Is the hypothesis compatible with other known data?
  4. Is contradictory evidence conclusive?
  5. Is something essential missing?
  6. Is there external confirmation?
  7. Can the hypothesis be falsified or confirmed with other data?
  8. Are there other possible explanations that are more feasible?
Let's start by looking at the first question in this blog post, and then we'll explore the other questions in future posts. We'll ask these questions about certain biblical and Christian ideas to explore some of the objective truth claims made.

1. Is the data self-consistent?

Something cannot be true if it contradicts itself; if it is not self-consistent. For example, many years ago some scientists claimed that they had discovered evidence that neutrinos had a mass of 17 keV. (Kilo-electron volts is a unit of energy. In particle physics the mass of particles is given in energy units since mass is just one form of energy as expressed in Einstein's famous equation E = mc2.) As it turned out, there were two different techniques used to search for this massive neutrino. One technique used solid state detectors and one technique used detectors filled with gas. After some time it became clear that the solid state detectors seemed to be observing the 17 keV neutrino, but the gas detectors were not. Clearly there was an inconsistency in the data. Either a 17 keV neutrino existed or it didn't and, if it did, both types of detectors should be able to see it. This discrepancy was finally resolved when scientists realized there was an unaccounted systematic effect in the solid state detectors that made it appear there was a 17 keV neutrino although none actually existed. The inconsistency in the data led to a correct and consistent understanding of the data, but alas, no Nobel prize for the discovery of a 17 keV neutrino.

When it comes to spiritual claims from the world's religions it quickly becomes obvious that the various beliefs contradict each other. For instance, some religions teach that after death an individual is reincarnated, while others teach that each individual only lives once. Some religions believe that Jesus was simply a good moral teacher, while Christianity maintains that Jesus was God himself. These ideas contradict each other and cannot both be true. The only logical conclusion is that either all religions are false, or only one of them is true. If you were to try to reconcile these beliefs by choosing various aspects of the world's religions to develop a belief system that consists of ideas common to many religions, the result would be to create another "new" religion that still contradicts other world religions. Consequently, it is not bigoted or arrogant to claim that one religion is true and the others are false (or that all are false). It is the only possibility given that the data must be consistent.

Critics of Christianity will claim that the Bible cannot be true because it has contradictions within it. I would argue that there are not actually logical contradictions within the Bible, although there are accounts that may, with a cursory reading, appear to present contradictions. Many of these apparent contradictions can be resolved by simply understanding that the same story can be told from different viewpoints or that similar stories may actually be different incidents. The theologian R.C. Sproul tells the story of a student who claimed that the Bible was full of contradictions. Sproul asked the student to find as many of the contradictions as he could and the two of them would then look carefully to see if they were actually logical contradictions or not. Sproul writes,

"The next day he returned bleary-eyed with a list of 30 contradictions. He admitted that he had worked long into the night and could come up with only 30. But he presented me a list of the most blatant contradictions he could find. (He made use of critical books that listed such contradictions.) He went through his list, one at a time, applying the test of formal logic to each alleged contradiction. We used syllogisms, the laws of immediate inference, truth tables, and even Venn diagrams to test for logical inconsistency and contradictions. In every single incident we proved objectively, not only to my satisfaction, but to his, that not a single violation of the law of contradiction was made."1

Sproul illustrates one example of reconciling apparent conflicts by discussing the number of angels that were present at Jesus' tomb on Easter Sunday. The gospels of Matthew and Mark mention one angel while Luke mentions two. Of course, Matthew and Mark don't say there was only one angel and they focus on what the angel said. If I were to attend a concert where a number of bands played and I described the music of only one band while my wife described the music of two bands, there is no contradiction. I simply chose to only mentioned one band while she mentioned more. There is no logical contradiction. The same event can be described from different perspectives with no logical contradiction. This occurs with some frequency in biblical records.

In reality the consistency of the Bible is quite remarkable. It was written over a period of 1500 years or so by about forty different people from all walks of life including shepherds, a doctor, fisherman, farmers, kings, and soldiers. It was written in three languages on three different continents, yet presents a self-consistent view of God and humanity. It consistently presents a portrait of humans who are separated from God because of their rebellion, and of God’s relentless pursuit to draw people to himself.

The message of the Bible is consistent in its logic regarding the consequences of that rebellion, starting with the declaration that God is infinite in his holiness and righteousness. Since the consequences of a violation of any law should be commensurate with the severity of the violation, an infraction against an infinite holy standard leads to an infinite debt. Such a debt can be paid either by a finite being for an infinite amount of time or by an infinite being in a finite amount of time. Thus, the logical message of Christianity is that Jesus had to be the infinite God himself to possess the resources to pay for the consequences of human rebellion against an infinite God. The idea that Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnation of the infinite God is a necessary requirement for a self-consistent Christian story of human redemption given the character of God's infinite holiness and human finiteness.

In a short blog post it is impossible to delve into the subject of the internal consistency of the Bible or of the biblical message in any depth. But my long-term study of the subject has convinced me that Christian beliefs about the biblical text and the person of Jesus present a logically-consistent picture, and therefore pass the first criteria necessary for determining the likelihood that an idea is true: the data is internally consistent.

The opening figure is taken from A. Hime and N.A. Jelley, “New evidence for the 17 keV neutrino”, Phys. Lett. B 257, 441 (1991), and shows the "evidence" for a 17 keV neutrino.
1 (accessed on July 14, 2019)


  1. I understand there are ongoing arguments apparently by credentialed scientists concerning the cosmologicaL expansion; it is formulated because the big bang requires it; it was finite in duration and has ended; it is "infinite in duration" and of course continues. Can you describe the data consistency principles or propose such to this argument among scientists? And as a chuckle, how much less time did Buzz Aldridge experience than his hypothetical earthbound brother?

    1. I assume you mean the period of cosmic inflation at the very beginning of the universe. Something called "eternal inflation" postulates that inflation continues to go on in different "universes" but has stopped in ours.

      If the Apollo capsule went about 10,000 m/s for six days, then Buzz was about 0.10 ms younger than he would have been if he had stayed on earth.