Wednesday, April 25, 2012

P'd off



Just when you think the ‘Jesus Myth’ controversy couldn't get any more surreal, out pops a paper from Stephen Law, a philosopher at theUniversity of London entitled “Evidence, miracles, and the existence of Jesus“ in which he concludes that the historical Jesus did not exist.  He does this by laying out two principles – P1 that if you get a series of extraordinary claims (i.e miracle stories without extraordinary evidence you have good reason to be skeptical and P2:

Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be sceptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.

I'm a little confused with how this works as a foundational principle for ancient history. For instance, of the Emperor Vespasian, the Roman historian Tacitus writes:

Among the lower classes at Alexandria was a blind man whom everybody knew as such. One day this fellow threw himself at Vespasian's feet, imploring him with groans to heal his blindness. He had been told to make this request by Serapis, the favourite god of a nation much addicted to strange beliefs… A second petitioner, who suffered from a withered hand, pleaded his case too, also on the advice of Serapis: would Caesar tread upon him with the imperial foot? At first Vespasian laughed at them and refused. When the two insisted, he hesitated. .. With a smiling expression and surrounded by an expectant crowd of bystanders, he did what was asked. Instantly the cripple recovered the use of his hand and the light of day dawned again upon his blind companion. Both these incidents are still vouched for by eye-witnesses, though there is now nothing to be gained by lying.

Does this mean we should deny the existence of Vespasian? Should we also deny the existence of Augustus because (according to Suetonius) he was sired by Apollo in the form of a snake. Now of course there is – by most standards – good independent evidence for both these historical figures – but as we have seen with the myther controversy, all of it can be dismissed as interpolations using the same methodology. Many other figures from history have miraculous occurrences sprinkled through our sources for them and could similarly be dismissed as fabricated.

Law concludes:

‘Our two prima facie plausible principles – P1 and P2 – combine with certain plausible empirical claims to deliver a conclusion very few Biblical scholars are willing to accept….

4. (P2) Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be sceptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.

5. The New Testament documents weave together a narrative about Jesus that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims.

6. There is no good independent evidence for even the mundane claims about Jesus (such as that he existed)

7. Therefore (from 3, 4, 5, and 6), there’s good reason to be sceptical about whether Jesus existed.
. . . So, our empirical premises – 2, 5 and 6, – have some prima facie plausibility. I suggest 2 and 5 have a great deal of plausibility, and 6 is at the very least debatable’

I think at this stage I have to present my own set of principles:

1) The Gavin Menzies principle – history and the methodology of historical research should be the art of historians who are properly qualified in their fields. Philosophers, English professors and retired submarine commanders can popularise, but beyond that should STFU (especially if they are 'introducing a new paradigm') .

2) The Egregious Jargon principle – history should remain free of the type of meaningless twaddle I have witness over the past few weeks – this would include Bayes probability theorem, obscure Marxist terminology, postmodern waffle, p’s q’s I’s brackets and other the other assorted excel formulas that seem to be creeping in. 

3)The James the Just principle – People that don't exist don't tend to have flesh and blood brothers (whose existence is multiply attested). 


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18 comments:

Matko said...

Craig's commentary on Law's argument:

www.reasonablefaith.org/stephen-law-on-the-non-existence-of-jesus-of-nazareth

Larry Tanner said...

"Does this mean we should deny the existence of Vespasian? Should we also deny the existence of Augustus because (according to Suetonius) he was sired by Apollo in the form of a snake."

Point of clarification: I imagine Law would not say "deny" but would rather use "exercise skepticism about."

Another point of clarification: Is your Gavin Menzies principle meant to say "History is for historians; everyone else, please STFU"?

Brandon said...

"Remain neutral about" is better than "exercise skepticism about", since the latter is ambiguous and admits of senses in which it is trivially true that historians should "exercise skepticism about" any source regardless of its claims, i.e., you have to have a certain skepticism approaching any claim from any source (even very reliable sources can be misread, or be assuming things that the reader doesn't actually know and without which the whole thing can be misinterpreted). So it's not just any kind of skepticism (e.g., it's not purely methodological skepticism) but a particular kind.

What I find curious is that Law considers P1 and P2 as "prima facie plausible" given that they are both clearly controversial (P1 because it's imprecise and there's difficulty in giving a precise characterization that everyone would actually agree on, and P2 because it's a very high standard that seems to ignore the problem of narrative conventions, and also, if we understand it in a strong enough form to get the neutrality claim, requires the rejection of certain kinds of evidence that we usually think are perfectly OK -- e.g., evidence of textual reliability for particular kinds of claims rather than for particular claims), Also, neither is really consistent with how respected historians, even quite skeptical ones, actually draw historical conclusions, since that's not primarily content-based but cause-and-effect-based. So how he thinks he can get to the plausibility claim -- in context it has to be plausibility for people who do historical work, not just random people who don't know anything about it -- on the basis of the rather limited range of argument he has for them is a bit puzzling.

He also, I think, somewhat misunderstands the usual role of the criteria (multiple attestation), which are not used as rigid rules or arguments in their own right, but as labels for kinds of arguments, each of which is based on a kind of question historians need to answer, but each of which in any given particular case would have to be argued out in a way that distinctively fits that particular kind of case. The strangest part of the paper is the sixth-islander thought experiment, which conveniently tells us only extraordinary claims, does not clearly fit multiple attestation as most historians use it (it might, but Law is too vague about details), does not give us any real answers to the embarrassment and discontinuity questions despite the fact that they need to be answered, and does not consider the general questions that real historians would have asked (such as, what are the possible causal sequences that would lead to our having this evidence in this state, and what evidence do we actually have for these different possible sequences). And while he says he's showed the thought experiment around to people, his argument requires that we be considering experts, or at least people reasonably practiced, in historical reasoning, and he doesn't say much of anything about their reactions in particular; which makes me worry that this really ends up being the same sort of paper as you would get if one wrote one about how physicists should reason about the existence of dark matter based solely on the intuitions of people on the street.

Humphrey said...

Hi Larry. On the Gavin Menzies principle (which is really a bit of a rant) - no history doesn't just have to be for historians; good thing otherwise I'd have to stop blogging!. There are many good popular historians - example would be Tom Holland who has a degree in English and Latin but writes very good books as an amateur historian. But one has to know ones limits and not run roughshod into a field where you don't know what you are talking about.

Baerista said...

I'm a historian and I think Law desperately needs to STFU.

Anonymous said...

All in all, Law's attempt at delving into history is very amusing.

Fake Herzog said...

You might enjoy Ed Feser's tussle with Mr. Law last year:

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/11/broken-law.html

Stephen Law said...

"in which he concludes that the historical Jesus did not exist."

No he doesn't. As Larry says. At least get your facts right. I thought historians were supposed to be good at that?

Stephen Law
PS as the argument is philosophical not historical, who cares what historians think? Perhaps Baerista should go STFU.

Stephen Law said...

PS you might enjoy this too - http://stephenlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/fumbling-feser.html

Brandon said...

PS as the argument is philosophical not historical, who cares what historians think? Perhaps Baerista should go STFU.

This is the most dimwitted and irresponsible response imaginable. The argument is explicitly about the epistemology of historical inference, explicitly deals with inferences made by certain historians, explicitly makes claims about what they can and cannot infer. Because of this you don't get to make things up; you must show that your claims have an actual relevance to the historical scholarship you are addressing. Because of it you don't get to ignore the actual practices of historians; you have to look at the variety of inferences they draw upon and take them into account. Because of this, you have to take into account the serious concerns of historians. And so forth. That you would make such a response is embarrassing, and, frankly, makes it sound like you were caught trying to sound like you knew what you were talking about when you didn't, and that you are now trying to backpedal and pretend that your argument has nothing to do with actual historical scholarship, even though everyone can go and read the paper and see that this is false. If that's not the case, you need to provide a rational response and not pretend that you weren't arguing for how one should reason in historical work, when your paper makes quite clear that you were.

Humphrey said...

Hi Stephen - and welcome.

First a mea culpa, I will admit that I have presented a caricature of your argument. You do state that you 'remain skeptical about, the claim that the Jesus story is entirely mythical'.

However if you follow the premises of your argument through - in particular principle P2 - then the conclusion that the historical Jesus never existed is inescapable. So you have presented a philosophical framework for a case of non-historicity (and then partially disowned it by stating you are skeptical of the position)

P2 is going to cause a lot of issues for historicity. It means that testimony for Jesus's existence must come from outside the NT and be from an account uncontaminated by miracles. Perhaps the reference to Jesus's brother in Josephus would suffice for this since it doesn't appear to have been tampered with. Well possibly not. Josephus's history is replete with accounts of miracles including a star resembling a sword that stood over Jerusalem and a comet that continued a whole year which which were seen by the populace; also chariots and troops of soldiers in armor were seen running about among the clouds during the 20th day of Jyar.

Then there's Josephus's account of the defenders of Jerusalem who 'shamefully gave themselves up to effeminate practices, plaiting their hair and putting on women’s clothes, drenching themselves with perfumes and painting their eyelids to make themselves attractive. They copied not merely the dress, but also the passions of women, devising in their excess of licentiousness unlawful pleasures in which they wallowed as in a brothel. Thus they entirely polluted the city with their foul practices. Yet though they wore women’s faces, their hands were murderous. They would approach with mincing steps, and, whipping out their swords from under dyed cloaks, they would impale passers-by.'

Pretty implausible - so we should chuck the whole lot out? That's the problem - the sources don't conform to the high standards we demand of them for the simple reason that they were authored by people with a very alien mindset to ours.

You should present your argument to a bona fide ancient historian and see what response you get.

Baerista said...

"PS as the argument is philosophical not historical, who cares what historians think? Perhaps Baerista should go STFU."

See Brandon's post.

Heather Creps Mansfield said...

Jesus could not have existed as a matter of "logic." I set forth the proof in a chapter of a book, which you can find at:

http://www.writerscafe.org/writing/job1/956388/

The chapter is entitled, "The Richard Dawkins Delusion Detour," and it's in a book I recently published online (the content is still in progress.)

The Writerscafe site requires one to sign-up to view the content, I believe because I tagged it as suitable for "over 18," because of strong language.

I'd certainly appreciate feedback on what I've written, positive or negative.

Heather Creps Mansfield said...

I admit to being a bit confused about Mr. Law's arguments.

As a "matter of law," what the disciples said that Jesus said and did--things they recorded in the gospels of the New Testament-- is all "hearsay."

But that's not necessarily a reason for rejecting it as evidence.

Applying legal principles (including "God's Law," or the logic of God) to the content in an attempt to find the "truth" is a very useful thing to do.

nd in that regard, the disciples/apostles are witnesses against themselves that they aren't following Jesus's teachings (for example, see Acts 5, where Peter extorts money from Ananias and Sapphira, under threat of death).

That poses a fundamental problem for a religion that is based on what the disciples/apostles wrote, REGARDLESS of whether the disciples/apostles, or even Jesus, were "real people."

Anonymous said...

and it's in a book I recently published online (the content is still in progress.)

lol

The Writerscafe site requires one to sign-up to view the content, I believe because I tagged it as suitable for "over 18," because of strong language.

I'd certainly appreciate feedback on what I've written, positive or negative.


The shit sucks.

Ben Schuldt said...

Subscribing for comments.

Derek said...

Law and Carrier need to keep writing. They just keep making themselves look more and more ridiculous.

David B Marshall said...

My rebuttal of Law takes a different approach, which some posters might find interesting. I argue that Law is confusing miracles with magic, offering an argument from analogy by means of an analogy that is not analogous -- equivocating, in other words:

http://www.blogger.com/post-edit.g?blogID=5071813&postID=6758760271548374330