Friend Iain recently read the New Testament and reviewed it. He made some comments on it, including the observation that the early Church members thought that Jesus would return within their lifetimes. This prompted some comments giving the standard evangelical gloss on these passages (see also), to avoid the conclusion that the Bible contains errors. I wrote a comment:
http://de-conversion.com/2008/11/09/the-psychology-of-apologetics-biblical-inerrancy/ is worth a read to understand what’s going on in the comments here 🙂 Short version: Quine says evidence alone doesn’t compel us to change a particular belief, because we can modify another one instead. Quine was writing in the context of scientific theories: if you don’t measure a difference in the speed of light in two directions, say, maybe there’s no luminiferous aether, but if you really think there must be one, maybe the Earth sort of drags the aether with it, or your instruments were faulty, or something. Paul thought Jesus was coming back within his life time, but if you really want Paul’s writings to be without error, what Paul actually meant is that you should live with a sort of Buddhist detachment to the things of this world.
Quine has clearly got something over the sort of naive falsificationism (i.e. if your theory is
disprovedcontradicted by a single experiment, it’s curtains for that theory) which is supposed by some to be how science works. Nobody discards a trusted hypothesis so easily.
Still, something seems to have gone wrong with a theory when it allows anything: if you started from the position that the Bible contains no factual errors (call this innerancy1), you probably would not have predicted what Paul wrote in 1 Thess or 1 Cor 7:29ff, 1 Cor 15:51 (“sleep” = “die” here) etc; yet there they are, and what-evangelicals-call-inerrancy (call this inerrancy2) is somehow compatible with them. I think this means that inerrancy2 doesn’t compress anything: it’s just a list of what happens (the Bible) with a cherry on the top (“this list contains no errors or contradictions”). I’m using Eliezer’s ideas about http://lesswrong.com/lw/jp/occams_razor/ here.