Sunday, August 31, 2008

Jesus - historical evidence: another quick response to Sam

Sam, you say:

"My point here is to say that it is illegitimate to expect certain forms of high-quality evidence to be available. That doesn't make the lower-quality evidence that is available more true, it just means that it isn't a criticism of that evidence to say 'it's not higher quality than it is'."

If I understand you correctly, I am amazed and shocked by this - genuinely.

Crap evidence - i.e. evidence no where near good enough to rationally support a belief - is crap evidence. Pointing out that, were the belief true, better evidence couldn't necessarily be expected, is simply irrelevant to the question of whether or not it's crap evidence.

If my toddler says a fairy came in the night and did magic tricks in her bedroom, that's crap evidence it's true. Saying "Ah, but Stephen, you forget that, if there were such a fairy visitor, well, she'd be very unlikely to leave much better evidence of her visit - so it's no criticism of this evidence for a fairy visitation that it's not higher quality than it is!" would, I suggest, be a patently bullshit thing to say.

It's certainly a very good criticism of this evidence for fairy visitation that it's crap, whether or not higher quality evidence could be expected.

If significant numbers of biblical scholars think otherwise - and indeed think this a credible move to make in defence of the rationality of various Christian claims about Jesus made on the basis of the NT documents - well, then, wow! I'm genuinely gobsmacked.

This shows an astonishing - I am tempted to say almost wilfull - misunderstanding of how evidence actually works.

The suggestion seems to be that, if we should expect little evidence for the truth of certain claims (if they're true), we should then lower our standards and deem those claims fairly reasonable on the basis of weak evidence.

This would make belief in widespread alien abductions come out as fairly reasonable!

19 comments:

Tony Lloyd said...

"If my toddler says a fairy came in the night and did magic tricks in her bedroom, that's crap evidence it's true."

But the evidence being crap is, at least partly, due to the fact that there is no corroboration of any fairies doing any magic tricks. Jewish chaps being born in Judea around 3 BC happened a lot. That these chaps then went around preaching also happened a lot. Sadly, that these chaps ended up getting killed by the Romans also happened a lot. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" surely implies "pretty mundane claims require pretty mundane evidence".

Kosh3 said...

What kind of evidence one would expect in the case that a theory T is true does carry evidential significance, but only in relation to the probability of having that evidence in any case. In Bayesian analysis, p(E|T), or the probability of evidence E given the truth of theory T, is important for determining the extent to which E confirms T. However, also important is p(E|~T), or the probability of the evidence in question being the case even if the theory is not true.

If a range of evidence is particularly weak, for example, as testimony relating to miracles is, because we have a high expectation of all kinds of reports of weird and wonderful happenings as a result of human ignorance, "religious zeal" (as Hume put it), and so on, then the extent to which E(reports of miracles) confirms T(theism) may be placed in great doubt.

In the case of fairies, the evidence being minimal-to-none of also expected in the case that fairies do not exist. Thus, that evidence (being minimal-to-none) may not confirm T(fairies) barely at all.

Kosh3 said...

Drat, wish there was an edit function to these posts. The last paragraph was supposed to read:

In the case of fairies, the evidence being minimal-to-none *is* also expected in the case that fairies do not exist. Thus, that evidence (being minimal-to-none) may confirm T(fairies) barely at all, if at all.

Psiomniac said...

I agree that if testimony is given by a witness then their credibility is relevant and if they talk of things that are a priori improbable without very good evidence in support, then their credibility is diminished.

There are two further separate issues here though. The one covered by the problem of reference, which deals with the issue of associating any of the people who existed, preached and were executed with the protagonist of the NT.

The other issue is concerned with the question of what evidence we could expect if it were true that Jesus is the son of god. This is because, if it is true, then all bets are off regarding the kind of evidence we could expect.

On the one hand you could take the view that Jesus could have planted some evidence starting at the 100billionth decimal place of pi or buried deep inside a famous mountain. He could have said so and this would have been written in the Bible. He could have chosen a form of evidence that would have been less difficult to find if he had wanted convincing evidence to emerge earlier in history of course.

On the other hand there seems to be no arbitrary point in history that is a more worthy candidate than any other. So the believer is led to the conclusion that compelling evidence is not what this is about.

Kosh3 said...

Incidentally, what I said is not inconsistent with Stephens position except as a technical point. It all depends on what we mean we say that the expectability of evidence matters or doesn't matter.

The religious apologist can say "but look, if Jesus really worked miracles then the kind of evidence we will have for this is troubled by the fact that it is also predicted in alternative theories in which he did not (in other words, "the evidence we would expect if the theory is true was *always* not going to be problematic").

Their opponent can rightly say "well that's not my problem; what matters is the extent to which the evidence supports the theory."

Kosh3 said...

sigh, and again (not my morning).

"(in other words, "the evidence we would expect if the theory is true was *always* going to be problematic").

Owen said...

I don't think I've heard this idea yet, so I'll try it out here:

The only evidence that would make sense is that every single person on the planet would know that god exists, and there would be no way to change that.

We'd still be able to choose to worship him or not (removing the "but we have to have free will" objection), but there should never be any doubt as to his existence. Given the stakes are so high, why would god leave it so much to chance that you find the right religion?

Kosh3 said...

"We'd still be able to choose to worship him or not (removing the "but we have to have free will" objection), but there should never be any doubt as to his existence. Given the stakes are so high, why would god leave it so much to chance that you find the right religion?"

I agree with you. A religious answer to this might go: if gods existence is obvious, then there is no real 'choice' to believe in him, no merit in doing so. Faith is virtuous, and it is that which god rewards. Hence, god cannot make himself obviously existent, since that would force our belief in him.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Tony

"If my toddler says a fairy came in the night and did magic tricks in her bedroom, that's crap evidence it's true."

But the evidence being crap is, at least partly, due to the fact that there is no corroboration of any fairies doing any magic tricks. Jewish chaps being born in Judea around 3 BC happened a lot. That these chaps then went around preaching also happened a lot. Sadly, that these chaps ended up getting killed by the Romans also happened a lot. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" surely implies "pretty mundane claims require pretty mundane evidence".

MY REPLY: Yes, you are right. And of course, the mundane details of what Bert did (he sat on the sofa and drank coffee), if all that's claimed is that he visited last night and did mundane things, would be confirmed by this mundane evidence of my friends testimony. However, my point is that once extraordinary claims are mixed in, that testimony as a whole is tarnished. It's no longer nearly good enough evidence that there was a man called Bert who drank coffee on the sofa that my friends say so.

{{{BTW, that there was a Bert (who drugged them) is not nec the simplest explanation of their testimony - lying is probably the simplest, and there are many other possibilities, including subsequent hypnotism, etc.}}}

Stephen Law said...

Hi Kosh 3. The Bayesian thing supports the intuitively correct point that for strong confirmation of a claim you need evidence that would not otherwise expect if the claim is false. As you say:

"However, also important is p(E|~T), or the probability of the evidence in question being the case even if the theory is not true."

I agree. I nearly added that very point, in fact.

Compare UFO claims. Given what we know about human nature and credibility, the power of suggestion etc. etc. we should expect a lot of wacky reports about aliens, ghosts etc. anyway, whether or not such things exist (including some reports we cannot explain). Thus that there are such reports is not good evidence for these things.

Similarly, given what we know about the human fascination with gods, miracles etc. etc. we should expect a great many claims down through the centuries of such things, whether or not true. So the fact that such claims are made is not good evidence for their truth.

This still further weakens the evidence provided by the Jesus stories.

anticant said...

It doesn't have to be deliberate lying. Lots of people easily convince themselves of the weirdest things - see Charles Mackay's 19th-century classic "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds".

Anonymous said...

Kosh3 - re Choice.

We may be forced to believe in his existence.but the remaining problem of evil would still be with us and we would still be faced with whether to accept His goodness etc. [George Bush exists but I do not "believe" in him.]

Even those who "know God exists" commit "sin" so free will isn't an issue there either.

Anonymous said...

Given the number of intermediate minds through which the account of Jesus must have passed is it not worth considering how likely mundane claims are to have survived at all?

Would anyone repeat a dull story very often and would they have much of an audience?

Paul Power said...

This whole debate is rather weird. If we had just one contemporaneous link to Jesus, say something we were sure he owned or a reference to him by a non-follower, then there would be no debate. Instead we have people being called mad for questioning his existence in the absence of such direct evidence.

Anonymous said...

Well yes - all it would have taken in 26AD ( +/- some error) to get something like this started (and generate the evidence we have left now) would be one (slightly) mad bloke or one sane bloke with an axe or two to grind.

(Modern examples - Mormonism, Scientology)

So which is more likely - one mad bloke then or one now (Stephen Law)? Who's sanity would you vouch for?

Sam Norton said...

Hi Stephen, I think you are misunderstanding me. My point is that textual evidence is reasonable evidence (including evidence from texts written by Christian communities). Such evidence is not as good as, eg, direct archaeological evidence, but it isn't nothing. So, given the nature of the story being discussed, when the relevant sort of archaeological evidence isn't to be expected (because, eg, Jesus was not an Emperor) it is a complete red herring to be seeking it or expecting it.

I don't dispute that having the archaeological etc evidence would make for a stronger evidentiary base. Yet it is also better evidence than, for example, the Iliad is for Hector and Achilles (because the sources are both more diverse and can be situated more closely in time to the events described).

There is a scale of evidence, from the most concrete to the most remote. My point is that arguing that textual evidence is not the highest quality evidence available does not, of itself, mean that this textual evidence is invalid. The textual evidence has to be evaluated on its own merits.

anticant said...

Exactly. What are the merits of the textual evidence? Who wrote it? When? Where? What is known about them and their credentials? Is there any corroboration for their stories? How do we know they weren't the precursors of modern science fiction writers? Etc. etc.

Come on, Sam - surely they taught you a few plausible answers to questions such as these at your theoloogical college? Or didn't they?

Stephen Law said...

I have a new post up...

Owen said...

We may be forced to believe in his existence.but the remaining problem of evil would still be with us and we would still be faced with whether to accept His goodness etc.

Exactly! Even if I knew the god of the bible existed, I still couldn't worship him (not as he is represented in said bible).

This, for me, is now a completely compelling argument. If the christian god exists, he'd make sure ALL people would know about it without question. Or even the possibility of question.