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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton
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Saturday, January 25, 2003
How do we know anything historically?
Let me begin with a quote from noted historian Christopher Snyder about history and evidence:
"...all historians are taught to place the greatest value on primary
sources — that is, written evidence produced by eyewitnesses or at least
contemporary witnesses to the events. These can come in many forms —
chronicles, formal histories, inscriptions."
This is the reason why the historicity of King Arthur or Robin Hood is
doubtful while that of Jesus is not. We need to recognise that eyewitness
evidence is the bedrock of all historical investigation. Without it we would
know virtually nothing about any person or event from the past.
Snyder goes on to state: "There are also rules for the proper handling of
historical evidence. Historians seldom take their sources at face value. An
author’s background (gender, faith, nationality, profession) may colour the
way he or she portrays events... One must always remember that objectivity
(which many believe is impossible for even the modern historian) was not a
priority for most ancient and medieval chroniclers."
These rules for the proper handling of historical evidence can be applied to the life, deeds, death and resurrection of Jesus in the same way that they are used to investigate any other historical personage. There is no difference in this regard. From the evidence appropriate conclusions can be drawn. And as has been stated numerous times, by various authorities, the manuscript evidence for the life of Jesus far outweighs the records for any other figure of antiquity, in number, variety and closeness to the events described. There is then, not a question of evidence or lack thereof, but of the interpretation of the existing evidence. And interpretation can be influenced by the presuppositional and philosophical position of a careless historian, who allows his prejudies and biases to overrule the principles of historical investigation.
In dealing with historical matters the burden of proof is deemed to fall upon the person who wishes to argue that a particular document is reporting things which are false or untrue. It is a matter of historical etiquette and common sense that one should accept an historical account at face value rather than as deliberately false. The reason for this should be obvious: if we cannot accept that most people are telling the truth we are then in the ridiculous position of suspecting the validity of any and all historical information about persons and events - of history itself. This does not mean we accept things uncritically.There are grounds, as mentioned above, upon which any good historian makes judgments on the reliability of a particular account of an event, and about the perspectives, biases and intent of particular writers, utilising accepted methods of historiography. But the blanket assertion that cerrtain accounts (such as the gospels and the book of Acts) are NOT historical unless proven otherwise is itself a philosophically prejudiced position.
It is a common ploy among skeptics to claim that the asserter of a proposition must "prove" his assertion, not the one who denies it. This may be legitimate in some areas but in dealing with historical evidence - assessing whether historical accounts are valid - it is an uninformed and untenable position.
Usually this approach proceeds from the naturalistic assumption that anything outside of "natural" experience cannot be true and is ipso facto a lie or a myth or an hallucination. In following this tack one has entered the realm of metaphysics and abandoned historical enquiry. This is not to deny the possible philosophic validity of a position but merely to point out that one have moved beyond the question of historical evidence per se into the field of presuppositions and presumptions. Often critics of the Bible or of "miraculous" events will express this viewpoint with stupendous claims like "Hume has proved that miracles cannot happen" - when of course he did no such thing!
At this point I really do have to make some comment about the frequent use of the term "empirical" to describe the kind of evidence that is demanded before a skeptic will entertain belief in either God, Jesus or any "supernatural" intervention into the "natural" world.
Empirical evidence refers to data obtained by observation or experimentation; it utilises sense data alone as a valid means of deriving knowledge. There is of course an entire philosophic school called Empiricism based on this idea. But empirical evidence is only one type of evidence - both legal evidence and historical evidence are legitimate sources of evidence beyond the narrow parameters of experimentation.
For Jesus' first followers and associates there was indeed empirical, observable, sensate data for the reality of Jesus and for the incredible reality of his resurrection from the dead. It is not for us to act intellectually superior to these people by dismissing them as ignorant and superstitious peasants or some other such slander. They reported what they saw, heard and experienced, or at a secondary level what other eyewitnesses saw heard and experienced. We can assess and interpret their accounts but we have no right to make blanket dismissals of their reports. We can investigate their worldview, their biases, their prejudices, yes, but we cannot say "it's all baloney!" ...precisely because we have our ownworldviews, prejudices and biases that colour our own interpretations.
There is also a lot of confusion about the terms "evidence" and "proof". Both believers and skeptics seem to use the terms interchangeably but they are not synonymous. When people talk about "evidence" what they often really mean is "proof", something which is philosophically (and scientifically) notoriously difficult - even impossible - to obtain about anything. Those who claim to only accept or "believe" what they have proven to be true are fooling themselves because most of the basic assumptions upon which we base our lives are not proven or even amenable to "proof".
For example, often Christians claim that there is proof for the existence of God and instead of proof, they offer evidence, perhaps some significant scientific phenomena of nature. What they offer may even be good evidence, but evidence is not the same as proof, and eventually they get a smug rebuke: "Yeah, well that's what you believe but you still didn’t actually prove anything."
Skeptics pretend otherwise but they do the very same thing.
Science can't "observe" God. But we can observe a universe that yields
evidence of one of two things: It's either a designer's handiwork, or it
got here by accident, without a creator. The evidence has to point one way or the other. But prove it, no...
The constant demand by skeptics for "empirical proof" of the existence of
God, Jesus or the "supernatural" before they will entertain belief is a
piece of self-serving and circular reasoning, a philosophical sleight of
hand that is self-fulfilling and non-refutable.
It is based on the belief that the only type of evidence which is acceptable is that which can be proved "scientifically". But that premise is self-contradictory and therefore intellectually irresponsible. Peter Kreeft writes:
"You cannot scientifically prove that the only acceptable proofs are
scientific proofs. You cannot prove logically or empirically that only
logical or empirical proofs are acceptable as proofs. You cannot prove it
logically because its contradiction does not entail a contradiction, and you
cannot prove it empirically because neither a proof nor the criterion of
acceptability are empirical entities. Thus scientism (the premise that only
scientific proofs count as proofs) is not scientific; it is a dogma of
faith, a religion."
Here are some definitions of evidence and proof:
Evidence can be defined as "that which points to a high probability that a
given claim is true" or "testimony or facts in support of or for a conclusion".
Proof can be defined as "something establishing an absolute fact."
I do not believe we can "know" anything for an absolute fact apart from personal experience. Here is an example of what I mean: I can have evidence (other people's testimony, theoretical data about temperature and heat and its effects, etc.) for the burning and pain that is caused by plunging my hand into a bowl of boiling water but until I (foolishly) do it will I not know the full truth of the matter. It's just one of those things you have to learn from experience!
Here's another one. I "knew" all about the danger of electricity abstractly but it really became part of my personal experience and "absolute knowledge" when I accidentally touched a live wire!
Here is a third illustration of this point:
"If you were doing jury duty on a murder case, it is very unlikely that you
would ever have genuine proof concerning the guilt or innocence of the
accused. All you would have to go by is the evidence offered by those who claim to be eyewitnesses or perhaps the logic presented by an attorney as motive and probability were explored. Finally, based on everything you could see, hear and think about the case, you would reach a decision. Your choice might very well stand upon good evidence and sound logic. There may even be a 99 percent probability that your decision is the right one. But let’s face it; there will always be room for doubt. Why? Because you weren’t there. You did not see the crime committed. Maybe there is a unique and mysterious side of the story that nobody has heard. Perhaps it is a clever frame up. Who knows? Who really has full assurance? Only a genuine eye witness. Her own senses would draw the final conclusion."
There is no "scientific" proof that Lincoln was ever the president of the United States. No one living today saw, heard or touched him. He cannot be recreated in a laboratory or brought back to life (not yet anyway!): in short we cannot "reproduce the experiment". But we can assert with a high degree of probability that Lincoln was indeed president and was assassinated in 1865. We do this by appealing to historical evidence. Many contemporary people saw Lincoln. We have some of his writings and even his picture, not to mention his likeness on coins. But none of this "proves", in a scientific sense, that Lincoln ever lived or was the president. In practical terms it would seem foolish to deny his existence but this is the very thing that many skeptics in regard to Jesus and other persons in the Bilblical accounts.
In science nothing is "proven" unless it is repeatable. History is NOT repeatable. (Yeah,I know we may jest: "history repeats itself" - but "it has to, no one listens"). An honest historian would have to admit that without the use of a time machine, historical facts are really historical records pointing to a likely probability. We have every reason in the world to believe that Julius Caesar ruled Rome. But is the existence of documentation proof positive of this assertion? After all, we weren’t there. We are trusting the manuscripts, accounts and testimonies of human historians whom we hope weren’t lying or deceived. To demand empirical evidence means in practice to declare most figures of history to be unverifiable and therefore nonexistent. Patent nonsense.