Thursday, June 07, 2007

Wherein I Respond to a Thoughtful Critique

Throughout the time I've been writing on this blog I've been fortunate not to have encountered any trolls lurking in my comments section. Instead, most comments from theists have been thoughtful and productive. Recently, I just received a extremely thoughtful comment from Jesse V. in response to my recent post concerning evidence. In that post, I was mostly concerned with evidence in the purely scientific sense. However, Jesse's argument is from the historical perspective, using the available sources concerning particular events. Luckily, I majored in history, so I feel more than up to the challenge of debating Jesse's points.

Before getting into the history, Jesse says:

For example, can you prove what word I said yesterday at 12:52pm? No, not by the scientific method. The best you can do is ask those who were around me, IF there was anyone around me. At that point you are relying on the testimony of witnesses, which is not perfect, since someone may have forgotten what I said, or misheard me, or perhaps no one heard what I said. This doesn't mean it didn't happen. Much of written history that we accept would be thrown out the window on the basis of not having enough scientific evidence.
I won't go too in depth on this, but you could consider the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment. Basically, you have a cat in a box set in a situation where it has a 50% chance of either being killed or still living and you don't know which until you actually open the box. Schrödinger suggested that the cat would be both alive and dead until the act of observing it set it one way or the other. If you want to know more, I recommend reading the Wikipedia article here, but it basically suggests that anything that can happen will happen until the act of observing it establishes the reality. Jesse could have said anything at 12:52 or nothing at all. However, that's not the point of this post, I just wanted to bring it up to tickle your mind a bit.

Now, getting to the history. Jesse says:
You and I agree that "science is the best tool we have for understanding the workings of the universe." However, it is limited and not universal for proving truth as I have just demonstrated by way of example. When this happens, the wise among us would at least consider the testimony of witnesses and any other alternate methods for discerning truth from fiction. If one solely relied on the inadequate scientific method, then one would potentially be dismissing the vast majority of reality and truth.
This ignores the primary problem with history. Namely, historians can never determine the absolute truth of what happened. For the eyewitness accounts of what Jesse said at 12:52, we might have two witnesses relaying completely different accounts. The historian's job is to use his or her judgment and reasoning to determine the most accurate account. However, another historian could come and favor the opposite witness of the first historian. In reality, history never deals with absolutes. All historians can really do is provide what they feel is the most accurate description of the events with the evidence they have. I'll get into some examples later, but moving on:
In the case of the existence of a god, there may or may not be physical evidence. Perhaps there is but we don’t recognize it. In the mean time, one should consider the reliable corroborating (based on my research) testimonies of witnesses collected primarily in the Bible and elsewhere. In the end, it will not be scientific, but it remains that one must either reject, ignore, or believe the testimonies. In researching, one should be careful to read both sides of the argument. Just like anything else, it can be easy to misinterpret and abuse something that was written to a specific audience 2000 years ago in a different culture. Just because it can be misinterpreted, doesn’t make it false. It would be wise to read many different experts commentaries on the interpretations.
First off, I'd like to point out that you cannot corroborate the Bible with the Bible. Also, Jesse left out an important option: historians can accept parts of an account and reject those that seem unreasonable. One does not have to accept or reject the entire thing.

Now, the authors of the Gospels might not have been the Apostles. The apostles might not have ever existed. You can make the same argument concerning Plato. There is legitimate grounds for debate over whether or not Plato was a real person because no sources ouside his writings mention him. Plato may have been one person, several people, or even an Islamic scholar masquerading as a Greek author (unlikely, but you never know). That is the misfortune of ancient history. There’s simply little reliable evidence for what actually happened. We’ll probably never know the reality of those days long gone. This same problem exists for most of the ancient and classical authors including Homer, Thucydides, Herodotus, Livy, etc.

Where the doubt goes away is when various contemporary sources verify the existence of a specific person. For example, along with his own writings, Julius Caesar has multiple, contemporary sources from different authors verifying his existence along with the archaeological evidence. There’s really no doubt whether or not Caesar was a real person.

On the other hand, the Bible does not enjoy any contemporary evidence verifying the events related within. This goes for both Old and New Testaments. That doesn’t mean it’s all false, it just means we can’t be sure that the events described within actually happened. Therefore, any decent historian would treat the Bible with a degree of skepticism. Now, Jesse claims to have reliable outside evidence, and it would behoove him to provide it if he wants to strengthen his argument.

More importantly, the Gospels might not be eyewitness accounts. Historians aren’t sure if those actually are first-hand accounts. The most important rule historians learn is to not take anything at face value. Just because the Gospels say they’re first-person accounts doesn’t mean that they actually are or that they’re entirely accurate. For example, The Book of Mormon claims to be an eyewitness account too. Without the evidence to verify what people say in sources, they must be treated with a degree of skepticism. Even if they are eyewitness accounts, one must consider the author's bias.

Case and point, Julius Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic Wars and Civil Wars are filled with over-exaggerations and pure falsehoods, and we know by looking at the other sources available that describe the events. Nevertheless, Caesar claims they are accurate. As it turns out, much of what he said was inflated or altered for his political gain. Sure, Caesar's writings are an eyewitness account that have some usefulness, but they are not 100% accurate.

In the same way, the authors of the Gospels might well have taken liberties with the truth to help spread their faith. Until we find archaeological or historical sources to validate what the Gospels say, they’re not particularly useful as historical accounts, especially when the Gospels themselves contradict each other (the link lists all the Bible's contradictions, but you can find the ones for the Gospels towards the bottom).

Now for a little bit about how sources can be used to verify a particular source.

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is the best, most detailed account we have for that conflict. We know the conflict happened because there are contemporary inscriptions commemorating the war and several contemporary mentions of it in other Greek writing. Many of these sources reference specific events in Thucydides’ writings. That’s how we know it’s reliable.

The other great Greek source, The Iliad, is the exact opposite. It’s not reliable at all as a pure history. First off, the epic was clearly written in 800 BC even though it describes events that supposedly took place in c.1250 BC. We know this because the style of warfare described in the epic matches ninth century BC style warfare and not that of the 13th century BC based on archaeological evidence. Furthermore, historians questioned whether or not the war even happened until Troy was discovered around the turn of the century and showed signs of having been destroyed. It provided the verifying evidence that the war at least happened. However, we don’t have any other sources for the events, so historians write off most of it as a myth. Instead of being an accurate account of the Trojan War, it teaches us the values and beliefs of Greeks living in the 9th century BC. Also, it has been well copied through the ages, but that doesn’t mean the Greek gods came down and fought with the combatants before the walls of Troy.

The Bible has the same problems as the Iliad. It references people and places we know to have existed. True, it has more references we can verify. It mentions Ramses and Augustus Caesar in the OT and NT, respectively. However, that wasn’t exactly a secret. They were the rulers of the most powerful Mediterranean nations at the time. This doesn't validate the Bible, though. It validates the existence of Augustus and Ramses. The problem is that none of the specific events in the Bible can be verified from other sources. The Egyptians never mention having Jewish slaves. The Romans make no mention of Jesus. Even contemporary Jewish writings make no mentions of Jesus. Therefore, the Bible simply shows that the authors were aware of the most powerful nations around them. Some of the events may very well be true. Unfortunately, we can’t verify that. Therefore, historians don’t use the Bible for an accurate historical account. But they do use it to understand the culture of the people who wrote it.

I guess my point in all of this is that history is not a discipline that deals in absolutes. Due to the paucity of available sources, historians are always seeking the truth, but will never actually find it. The best they can do is come to a bi of a consensus. This is the same in science. It cannot know anything for certainty. That's why it uses theories. They can change as new information comes to light. The same goes for history. It changes as new sources come to light, but nothing is ever absolute. The fact that Jesse suggests historians can discern absolute truth makes me slightly dubious about his historian credentials.

In the end, until some substantial sources arise verifying the Bible, it is pretty much useless as an "eyewitness account." Otherwise, we'd have to accept the Koran and The Book of Mormon as well, simply because they claim to be eyewitness accounts.

At any rate, Jesse, I hope you come back so we can continue this discussion.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Another Dover Seems to Be Brewing

This time it's in Chesterfield County, Virginia. Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars has more.