August 27, 2011

On early Christian dishonesty

It seems to me that the best scholars even among historicists accept the fact of doctoring and dishonesty in the transmission of the major documents. I do not believe, though, that any early Christian who knew or even suspected that there was never a real Jesus ever did anything to try to convince anyone that there was one. At least, I'm not aware of any evidence for that having happened. Of course it could have, but I think the evolution of Christ from myth to history can be accounted for without that.

Naturally, such a scenario will always be appealing to those skeptics who regard religion generally, and Christianity especially, as some kind of social pathology. In the protracted conflict between reason and unreason, the battle lines have never separated believers from unbelievers.

August 16, 2011

On rewriting the historical Jesus essay

My revision of the historical Jesus essay is taking much longer than I expected. I still hope to finish it before returning to school next month, but I'll post an unfinished but readable version if it comes to that.

The delay is partly due to my intention that the essay not turn into a book. As most writers discover sooner or later, the price of brevity is sometimes a serious investment of time. There is a popular anecdote about some famous author who concluded a letter with the remark, "I'm sorry this was such a long letter, but I didn't have time to write a short one." It has been attributed to seemingly just about every pre-20th-century writer who managed to achieve household-name status, going all the way back to Pliny and including Samuel Johnson, Voltaire, and Mark Twain. So far as I've been able to discover, Blaise Pascal is the only one who actually wrote something that conveyed the general idea.

There is much to be said on the historicity question, and I'm not trying to say it all. Earl Doherty's current book on the subject runs to 800 pages, and even he hasn't said it all. And anyway, I'm not trying to duplicate his work.

August 1, 2011

Some reflections on historical research

One of the first essays I wrote for this Web site was a defense of my belief that Jesus of Nazareth probably never existed. At the time, I had not yet begun my formal education in philosophy, and I was about equally ignorant of historiography. I have since been working to correct both deficiencies. Besides pursuing a degree in philosophy, I have taken an upper-division historiography course and done as much independent study of the subject as I could manage.

I have begun a complete rewrite of the essay on Jesus' historicity, mainly to incorporate new ideas I have picked up over the past decade, not because I have found any substantial errors in my argument. By and large, everything I have learned has tended to confirm my earlier thinking. One thing new I discovered, though, was how illustrative an investigation of Jesus' historicity can be of some of the major issues in epistemology and, derivatively, in historiography. Whether one argues for or against Jesus' existence, one is challenged at every step of the way to ask: How do you know that?

It is, arguably, the philosophical community's prime directive to answer that question. It is of course the definitive question for epistemologists, but I suggest that it is no less central to other subdisciplines, just more specifically targeted. The philosophy of science, it seems to be, is just epistemology applied to the scientific enterprise, and likewise for the philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of history, and so on for every other philosophy of ______.

My own skepticism does not lead me to conclude that as long as we can ask the question, there must be no answer. My position rather is that we should not stop asking just because we feel certain that we already know the answer. There could be other reasons not to bother asking. The brevity of life, if nothing else, will always limit our intellectual options. But one excuse we cannot use for failing to question our assumed knowledge is the notion that we cannot have made a mistake or that a consensus of experts cannot be mistaken.

An inquiry into Jesus' historicity is a uniquely appropriate epistemological exercise for lay scholars because all the definitive evidence is accessible to anybody sufficiently motivated to look for it. In almost every other field, the experts are able to examine key pieces of evidence that the general public cannot get to, at least not without significant financial outlays. But there is nothing significant about the origins of Christianity, known to the experts, that an industrious lay person cannot learn just by spending enough time on the Internet.

Of course, mere possession of facts is no guarantee that one will know what to do with them. The explanation of facts is what theorizing—scientific, historical, philosophical, whatever—is about. But that too can be learned by anyone of ordinary intelligence if they are sufficiently motivated.

One of the most pivotal discoveries I made while looking into all of this was not about Christianity in particular, but it changed my attitude toward those who defend it. It was that there is no paradigm, or worldview, or whatever you want to call it, that can be defended entirely without noncircular arguments. This does not commit any of us to sheer postmodernist relativism. Some epistemological systems are more defensible than others. But it is no legitimate defense to argue, "Your worldview affirms X, but my worldview says X is obviously wrong, therefore your worldview is wrong." Way too many skeptics, most unfortunately, cannot do any better than that.

July 27, 2011

Reducing induction to deduction

In Logic 101 we learn to distinguish deductive logic from inductive logic as follows.

In deductive logic, the truth of the premises is supposed to guarantee the truth of the conclusion. That is to say that if the argument is properly formulated, then it is not possible for all of the premises to be true and the conclusion be false. In inductive logic, the truth of the premises is supposed only to make the conclusion probably true. That is the say that if the argument is properly formulated, then it is unlikely for all the premises to be true and the conclusion be false.

I have occasionally seen assertions similar to this:

At one time, some philosophers tried to show that any inductive argument could be reduced in some way to a deductive argument. They were not successful, and it has been proven that they never could have succeeded, i.e. that there is no way to reduce any inductive argument to a deductive argument.

I have spent a lot of time trying to find that proof, and so far I have not succeeded. Until I do find it, I maintain that any inductive argument may take one or both of the following forms.

Case 1.

Premise: It is probable that A is true.

Premise: If A, then B.

Conclusion: It is probable that B is true.

Case 2.

Premise: A is true.

Premise: If A is true, then it is probable that B is true.

Conclusion: B is probably true.

Both are valid deductive arguments. The premises, if true, guarantee that the conclusion is true. But the conclusion in each case asserts only a probable truth, which is all we expect from an inductive argument.

July 24, 2011

Like it or not

A coworker friend and I, at a place where I used to work, one day got into a discussion of human origins. I believe, for scientific reasons, that we have a common ancestor with chimpanzees. He believed, for religious reasons, that we don’t. He asked me at one point, “How does it make you feel to think you’re descended from apes?” I told him I felt quite all right about it. Remembering the conversation a few days later, though, I realized I’d missed a more pertinent issue.

My response should have been: “How I feel about it is quite beside the point. It’s either true or it isn’t. I happen to think it is, and whether I like or not won’t change that.” As it happens, I find it sublimely satisfying to contemplate my literal kinship with all the other creatures in this world, but this is no more evidence for the idea than a revulsion would be evidence against it. This is perhaps why some people accuse science of being dehumanizing. Scientific inquiry, when done correctly, is quite oblivious to whether anyone likes the answers it produces. The most passionate sincerity with which a belief is held won’t make it true if there is no evidence to support it, and our most passionate loathing won’t make it false if the evidence does support it.

But just how dehumanizing is this, really?

Science is a quintessentially human activity. The scientific method was invented by humans. No other species does anything like it. It is true that certain research protocols are intended to separate observers from what is being observed. Double-blind medical tests are an example of this. It was human intelligence, though, that figured out the need for this separation. We humans, and we alone, have not only discovered our limitations but also figured out how to compensate for them. It is because of those so-called dehumanizing protocols that we have developed so many medicines and other medical technologies that actually work to reduce human suffering.

It is quite human, also, to be aware that at least some truths have nothing to do with our preferences. My friend, who tried to suggest that I should disbelieve evolution if I didn’t like it, was married. I’m very sure that he believed that the statement “A man should be faithful to his wife” was true regardless of whether he wanted to be faithful. Most of us believe “Stealing is wrong” to be true even at times when we wish it were not.

And so my friend was being somewhat inconsistent. Well, inconsistency, too, is a quintessentially human trait, but then so is the realization that it presents a problem. Few people are familiar with the particular of formal logic, but just about everybody understands its basic principle, which may be expressed informally as “You can’t have it both ways.” Anything meaningful that one might say can be either true or false, but not both. It might be hard to figure out which, but that’s another issue. Some people try to dodge that issue by saying none of us can ever figure out what is true, that we’re all just guessing, and that everybody’s guess is as good as anyone else’s.

To the extent that this know-nothingism justifies a thorough tolerance for dissenting opinions, it sounds nicely enlightened. The world has certainly seen quite enough bloodshed and other oppressions carried out against people whose only offense was to embrace unapproved ideas. Genuine enlightenment, though, is in the tolerance of erroneous thinking, not in denying either its existence or the possibility of recognizing it. The belief that one has embraced the truth is best manifest by allowing others the greatest possible freedom to think otherwise. This notion is a major part of the scientific enterprise, in which the greatest rewards go to anyone who can disprove a well-established theory. Theories don’t become well established except by surviving many such attempts at disproof. So it has been with evolution, to cite only one example.

Among disbelievers in evolution, the best known are certain religious groups, but others have opposed the theory for political reasons. The dissenters, whatever else is on their agenda, allege that those who favor the theory are attracted to it for ideological reasons. The religious critics say it justifies disbelief in religion. The political critics say it justifies political oppression. In fact it does neither, but whether that is so need not concern us at the moment. If it is a fact that A implies B, then whether A is true has nothing to do with how we feel about B. We can use the implication to prove that A is false if we can prove independently that B is false, but we cannot falsify B just by carrying on about how much we don’t like it.

July 11, 2011

The Pournelle axes

I came across an article in the mid-80s (reproduced at by science fiction author and science essayist Jerry Pournelle that seemed to make a lot of sense to me, but apparently not to anybody whose opinions carry public weight. I learned later that it was a rewrite of the political science PhD thesis he had written over 20 years earlier. The fact that it has been generally ignored says something not good about the modern American political climate.

Many have noticed that the labels “liberal” and “conservative” or “left” and “right” often don't work well as designators of people’s political opinions. The observation is typically dismissed as signifying nothing more remarkable than the fact of our cognitive diversity. People are complicated and therefore difficult to categorize. However, life is full of complex phenomena for which we have nonetheless come up with useful taxonomies. The problem with our political taxonomy, as Pournelle notes, is that we insist on using a single metric, compounded by our inability to agree on just what it is we're measuring. The solution, he suggests, it to get it into our heads that one metric is not enough. At the very least, we need two.

Of course that would complicate our political discourse, but the result would be a better match between discourse and reality. The obvlivion into which Pournelle’s proposal has fallen could be a sign that almost nobody cares much these days about matching their discourse to reality. There does seem to be a lot of such indifference, but something else could be at work, too.

In mathematical terms, a one-dimensional metric is a scalar quantity while anything in two or more dimensions is a vector quantity. One big difference between scalars and vectors is that scalars can be ordered while vectors cannot. That means this. For any two things measured by a scalar, you can say that if they're not equal, then one of them is more than the other, or bigger, or greater, or heavier, or something similar. Some kind of ranking is possible. That is not ever possible with vectors. They can be equal or unequal, but if unequal, there is no “more than” or “less than.” All you can say is that they're not the same.

This does not sit well with our compulsion to assign virtue to certain political inclinations. The metric of virtue is a scalar: You can have more or less of it, and you can know how much a person has by counting the number of correct political opinions they hold. This lends itself very nicely to a manichean us-versus-them mindset: Left is good, right is bad, or vice versa. It's a hard notion to give up, even if one wants to, and almost nobody does want to.

June 17, 2011

A writer's apology

My latest posting here is "Platonism and the theists."

Some visitors to this site might think that anyone who puts his schoolwork on the Web must be awfully full of himself.

Perhaps I am. I cannot prove otherwise. But, I am a writer, and regardless of the occasion, I really do try to make all my work worth reading. Whether I succeed is of course for the readers themselves to judge, but I have no reason to suppose that all will make the same judgment about any of my essays. If only 10 percent enjoy reading my stuff, then the other 90 percent can just exercise their right to ignore it.

Of course as an undergraduate I'm not making any new discoveries, but what I learn in the course of writing these essays is new to me and therefore almost certainly new to at least a few other people as well. I like learning new stuff, and I know I'm not the only one who does, and so I'm sharing my discoveries. If my ego gets a few strokes while I'm doing it, I fail to see any harm being done. The miniscule traffic count for this site are an effective antidote to any delusions of grandeur I might entertain.

PDF viewers

Most Web sites with PDF files include a link for downloading Adobe's free PDF viewer, Adobe Reader. After putting up for several years with the annoyance of Adobe's continual update requests, I went looking for an alternative. I decided to try PDF XChange Viewer. I have used it for about a year now and have been entirely satisfied. It is available from CNET:

June 5, 2011

Some changes coming soon, I hope

For the past couple of years, obligations to my employer along with my academic workload have combined to leave me almost no time for working on this Web site. A recent change of circumstances has, at least temporarily, freed up some discretionary time for me. If the change is as permanent as I hope it will be, visitors to this site will find new material more often than has been the case for a long time.

Following are some random comments for the time being.

Considering all things

The credibility of any proposition depends on the cumulative strength of all relevant evidence. All else being equal (and it almost never is), a proposition  having some supporting evidence and no contrary evidence is more credible than it would be if there were some contrary evidence.

Antecedent or prima facie credibility is always relevant. This is roughly the proposition's consistency with prior knowledge, whatever that may consist of. No one is ever obliged to treat every new proposition as if they had never in their lives learned anything to the contrary, unless it is a fact that they never have.

There is no reason to think we all have the same body of prior knowledge. This goes to how we should judge people who differ with us in their assignment of  antecedent probability.

At some point, continued skepticism would be perverse.  Then we may have to revise our understanding of the  laws of nature. Is anybody going to say we've never done that before? Haven't theists always been the first to tell us that science does not have all the answers? Will they then insist that religion does?

Moral judgments

We like moral certainty so much because it's so easy to get. It is so quintessentially subjective, there is no way to be proven wrong. Even better, if enough people agree with us, we can claim that it's actually objective. In that case, any who disagree are ipso facto pathological, like those who suffer from blindness or paralysis. It might not be their fault, but something certainly is  wrong with them.

This is one consequence of logical positivism that so disturbed people. If moral principles are not falsifiable, then they don't say anything except about how we feel. We insist that there should be more to ethics than our likes and dislikes. Nevertheless, there is no good reason to think there is any more to it than that. How then do we justify enforcing some of our norms?

It's not really that difficult. Evil does not have to be objectively wrong for us to have good reason to condemn it. Changing labels does not change facts, nor does creating a label create a fact. There are some behaviors we do not tolerate because our survival depends on our not tolerating  them. That is a fact independent of any label we stick on such behaviors. We can call them evil, or we can call them antisocial, or we can call them intolerable, or we can call them bad manners, or we can just call them annoying. That doesn't matter. We have all the reason we need to impose unpleasant consequences on people who do them, sufficiently unpleasant to deter others if nothing else, and with some luck to make the offender wish he had not done it.

January 23, 2011

Parity of evidence

A common apologetic argument is that Jesus' existence is at least as well attested as that of other ancient personages whose existence nobody questions. To which claim, several points must be made.

First, the evaluation of historical evidence is not an exact  science -- which is not the same as saying that it cannot be done scientifically. There is no algorithm for rating the credibility of  ancient writers, so is not really possible to assemble documents attesting to X and documents attesting to Y, measure each set for reliability and then say that X has more evidence or is 10 percent better than the evidence for Y; and there if y on behind y the yond better believe x too

Second, it is begging the question to claim that if no historians doubt the existence of those other people, then those other people had to have existed. If as a matter of fact their existence is no better attested than Jesus' existence, then maybe the logical conclusion would be that those other people didn't really exist, either. We have no reason at all to presume that our present understanding of secular history is infallible. Granted, historians don't condemn each other to hell for disagreeing about the historicity of King Arthur, but that says more about the nature of religious dogma than it does about the feelings of secular historians.

Further, I have never seen the claim of equal evidence presented by anyone qualified to know whether that is the case. I myself have no knowledge regarding the merits of the claim, because I am essentially ignorant about the amount and the nature of the evidence for any ancient person's existence, other than with respect to Jesus and Socrates, and even in Socrates' case I know less than I know about Jesus.

Given the current state of my knowledge, it is theoretically possible that if I were to track down and examine every bit of evidence for Julius Caesar's existence, then I would doubt it, too. But the point is not what I would conclude at the end of that investigation. The point is that I have done no such investigation, and so I do not know exactly why all historians feel so certain about Caesar's existence. I just assume that they really do have a very good reason, and I will continue to assume it just as long as I remain as ignorant on the  subject as I now am.

So it is for most of us regarding most of history's famous figures. We assume that historians have good evidence for their existence and that we would agree, were we to examine that evidence for ourselves, that it was good evidence. Some of us suspect that in a few cases this assumption would be wrong, but we don't know which cases those are, and we don't care a great deal, either. In general, it just doesn't matter that much, to our modern times, whether so-and-so really lived at this or that place and time. And in most cases the time and effort needed to find all the relevant evidence would cost way more time and money than we can afford just to satisfy idle curiosity. Most of the documents are in museums without any reproductions being available yet on the Internet.

With Jesus it's different. For a modest investment of time and none at all in money, anyone can know as much as the professional historians know about the evidence for Jesus' existence. Practically every scrap of every document having anything to do with the issue is available for inspection online. And so, I don't have to assume anything about what the historians know about the evidence for Jesus. I can examine that evidence for myself and then, when someone says, "That proves Jesus really existed," I can say "No, it doesn't." And I can defend that opinion without being intimidated by any consensus of authorities.

The most charitable interpretation of the evidence is that it is inconclusive. Whether Jesus existed or not, the documentary record, as it survives, is consistent with either hypothesis. That being so, reasonable people can accept either hypothesis or they can be undecided. What the evidence will not support is anybody's claim that only fools can disagree with them.


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