Thursday, October 31, 2013

Why History isn't Scientific (And Why It Can Still Tell Us About the Past)



(This is a guest post I was invited to write for the atheist blog Deity Schmeity.  Regular readers of Armarium Magnum or of my answers on Quora will recognise the general themes).

"History sucks."

 In April last year Grundy, the usual writer of this blog, posted "History Isn't My Area", commenting on the release of Bart Ehrman's critique of the Jesus Myth hypothesis, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.  Unlike the majority of actual historians, many prominent atheists find Jesus Mythicism convincing and many of them are unhappy with the generally sceptical and highly renowned Ehrman for criticising this idea.  Grundy, for his part, stated frankly "I honestly have little knowledge as to whether or not Jesus existed", though added  "I tend to think he did".  That said, he made it clear why the overwhelming consensus of historians and other relevant scholars that the Jesus Myth idea is junk was underwhelming for him:

"History sucks. Okay, that’s unfair, but it was never my subject. My confidence of the accuracy of historical events goes down exponentially with the paper trail. The idea that history is written by the victors highlights the biases of the past. Books are burned. Records fade. Who should I trust for an accurate portrayal of events two thousand years ago?"

Since history actually is my area, I responded by making some critical comments on this attitude and some points about how history , as an academic discipline, is studied.  Grundy, unlike many so-called "rationalists" I've encountered over the years, was happy to listen, and he invited me to expand on my points in this guest post.

Atheists and Historical Illiteracy

I should begin, however, by pointing out that I am an atheist.  I have been an atheist for my entire adult life, am a paid up member of several atheist and sceptical organisations and have a 21 year online record of posting to discussions as an unbeliever.  I note this because I've found that when I begin to criticise my fellow atheists and their grasp of history or historiography, people tend to assume I must be some kind of theist apologist (which doesn't follow at all, but this happens all the time anyway).

After 30+ years of observing and taking part in debates about history with many of my fellow atheists I can safely claim that most atheists are historically illiterate.  This is not particular to atheists:  they tend to be about as historically illiterate as most people, since historical illiteracy is pretty much the norm.   But it does mean that when most (not all) atheists comment about history or, worse, try to use history in debates about religion, they are usually doing so with a grasp of the subject that is stunted at about high school level.

This is hardly surprising, given that most people don't study history past high school.  But it means their understanding of any given historical person, subject or event is (like that of most people), based on half-remembered school lessons, perhaps a TV documentary or two and popular culture: mainly novels and movies.  Which is why most atheists (like most people) have a grasp of history which is, to be brutally frank, largely crap.

Worse, this also means that most atheists (again, like most people) have a grasp of how history is studied and the techniques of historical analysis and synthesis which is also stunted at high school level - i.e. virtually non-existent.  With a few laudable exceptions, high school history teachers still tend to reduce history to facts and dates organised into themes or broad topics.  How we can know what happened in the past, with what degree of certitude we can know it and the techniques used to arrive at these conclusions are rarely more than touched on at this level.  This means that when the average atheist (yet again, like the average person generally) grasps that our knowledge of the past is not as cut and dried and clear as Mr Wilkins the history teacher gave us to understand, they tend to reject the whole thing as highly uncertain at best or subjective waffle at worst.  Or, as Grundy put it, as "crap".

This rejection can be more pronounced in atheists, because many (not all) come to their atheism via a study of science.  Science seems very certain compared to history.  You can make hypotheses and test them in science.  You can actually prove things.  Scientific propositions are, by definition, falsifiable.  Compared to science, history can seem like so much hand-waving, where anyone can pretty much argue anything they like.

History and Science

In fact, history is very much a rigorous academic discipline, with its own rules and methodology much like the hard sciences.  This does not mean it is a science.  It is sometimes referred to as one, especially in Europe, but this is only in the broader sense of the word; as in "a systematic way of ordering and analysing knowledge".  But before looking at how the historical method works, it might be useful to look at how sciences differ from it.

The hard sciences are founded on the principle of probabilistic induction.   A scientist uses an inductive or "bottom up" approach to work from observing specific particulars ("mice injected with this drug put on less fat") to general propositions ("the drug is reducing their appetite").  These propositions are falsifiable via empirical testing to rule out other explanations of the particulars ("the drug is increasing their metabolism" or "those mice are more stressed by being stuck with syringes") and so can be tested.

This is all possible in the hard sciences because of some well-established laws of cause and effect that form a basis for this kind of induction.  If something is affecting the mice in my examples above today, it will affect them in the same way tomorrow, all things being equal.  This allows a scientist to work from induction to make an assessment of probable causation via empirical assessment and do so with a high degree of confidence.  And their assessment can be confirmed by others because the empirical measures are controlled and repeatable.

Unfortunately, none of this works for the study of the past.  Events, large and small, occur and then are gone.  A historian can only assess information about them from traces they may, if we are lucky, leave behind.  But unlike a researcher from the hard sciences, a historian can't run the fall of the Western Roman Empire through a series of controlled lab experiments.  He can't even observe the events, as a zoologist might observe the behaviour of a gorilla band, and draw conclusions.  And there aren't well-defined laws and principles at work (apart from in a very broad and subjective sense) that allow him to, say, simulate the effects of the rise of the printing press or decide on the exact course of the downfall of Napoleon the way a theoretical physicist can with the composition of a distant galaxy or the formation of a long dead star.

All this leads some atheists, who have fallen in to the fallacy of scientism and reject anything that can't be definitively "proven", to reject the idea of any degree of certainty about the past.  This is an extreme position and it's rarely a consistent one.  As I've noted to some who have claimed this level of historical scepticism, I find it hard to believe they maintain this position when they read the newspaper, even though they should be just as sceptical about being able to know about a car accident yesterday as they are about knowing about a revolution 400 years ago.

The Historical Method

Just because history is not a hard science does not mean it can't tell us about the past or can't do so with a degree of certainty.  Early historians like Herodotus established the beginnings of the methods used by modern historical researchers, though historians only began to develop a systematic methodology based on agreed principles from the later eighteenth century onwards, using the techniques of Barthold Niebuhr (1776-1831) and Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886).

The Historical Method is based on three fundamental steps, each of which has its own techniques:

1. Heuristic - This is the identification of relevant material to use as sources of information.  These can range from the obvious, such as a historian of the time's account of events he witnessed personally, to the much less obvious, like a medieval manor's account book detailing purchases for the estate.  Everything from archaeological finds to coins to heraldry can be relevant here.  The key word here is "relevant", and there is a high degree of skill in working out which sources of information are pertinent to the subject in question.

2. Criticism - This is the process of appraisal of the source material in the light of the question being answered or subject being examined.  It involves such things as determining the level of "authenticity" of a source (Is it what is seems to be?), its "integrity" (Can its account be trusted?  What are its biases?), its context (What genre is it?  Is it responding or reacting to another source?  Is it using literary tropes that need to be treated with scepticism?)  Material evidence, such are archaeology, architecture, art , coins etc needs to be firmly put into context to be understood.  Documentary sources also need careful contextualisation - the social conditions of their production, their polemical intent (if any), their reason for production (more important for a political speech than a birth certificate, for example) , their intended audience and the background and biases of their writer (if known) all have to be taken into account.

3.  Synthesis and Exposition - This is the formal statement of the findings from steps 1 and 2, which each finding supported by reference to the relevant evidence.  

The main difference between this method and those used in the hard sciences is that the researcher lays all this material, its analysis and his conclusions out systematically, but the conclusions are a subjective assessment of likelihood rather than an objective statement of probabilistic induction.  This subjectivity is what many trained in the sciences find alien about history and lead them to reject history as insubstantial.  

But the key thing to understand here is that the historian is not working toward an absolute statement about what definitely happened in the past, since that is generally impossible except on trivial points (eg there is no doubt that Adolf HItler was born on April 20 1889).  A historian instead works to present what is called "the argument to the best explanation".  In other words, the argument that best accounts for the largest amount of relevant evidence with the least number of suppositions.  This means that the Principle of Parsimony, also known as Occam's Razor, is a key tool in historical analysis; historians always favour the most parsimonious interpretation that takes account of the most available evidence.  

For example, regarding the existence of Jesus, it is far more parsimonious to conclude that Christianity's  figure of "Jesus Christ" evolved out of the ideas of the followers of a historical Jewish preacher, since all of our earliest information tells us that this "Jesus Christ" was a historical Jewish preacher who had been executed circa 30 CE.  People have tried to propose alternative origins for the figure of "Jesus Christ", positing an earlier Jewish sect that believed in a purely celestial figure who became "historicised" into an earthly, historical Jesus later.  But there is no evidence of any such proto-Christian sect and no reason such a sect would exist and then vanish without leaving any trace in the historical record.  This is why historians find these "Jesus Myth" hypotheses uncompelling - they are not the most parsimonious way of looking at the evidence and require us to imagine ad hoc, "what if" style suppositions to keep them from collapsing. 

Ways Atheists (Sometimes) Get History Wrong

Managing this process of systematic historical analysis requires training, practice and a degree of skill.  Without these, it's very easy to do something that looks a bit like historical analysis and arrive at flawed conclusions.

Take the initial heuristic process, for example.  I've come across many atheists who don't accept that a historical Jesus existed on the grounds that "there are no contemporary references to him and all references to him are later hearsay" or even that "there are no eyewitness accounts of his career".  So they rule out any evidence we do have referring to him on the basis that it is not contemporary and/or from eyewitnesses.  But if we ruled out any reference to an ancient, medieval or pre-modern person or event on these grounds, we'd effectively have to abandon the study of early history: we don't have contemporary evidence for most people and events in the ancient world, so this would make almost all of our sources invalid, which is clearly absurd.  Given that we have no eyewitness or contemporary sources for far more prominent figures, such as Hannibal, expecting them for a peasant preacher like Jesus is clearly ridiculous.  No historian of the ancient world would regard this as a valid historical heuristic.

Atheists can often make similar elementary errors in the criticism of sources as well.  There is no shortage of lurid material on the horrors of the Inquisition, with whole books detailing vile tortures and giving accounts of hundreds of thousands of wretched victims being consigned to the flames by the Catholic Church.  In the past, nineteenth century writers took these sources at face value and until the early twentieth century this was essentially the story of the Inquisition to be found in textbooks, especially in the English-speaking (i.e. substantially Protestant) sphere.

But much of this was based on sources that had severe biases - mainly sixteenth and seventeenth century Protestant polemical material, usually produced in England which, as a political, religious and economic enemy of Spain, was hardly going to produce unbiased accounts of the Spanish church and crown's use of the Inquisition.  Uncritical use of this material gives a warped, enemy's-eye-view of the Inquisition that has been substantially overturned by more careful analysis of the source material and the Inquisition's own records.  The result is that it is now known that in the 160 years of its operation in Spain, the Inquisition resulted in 3,000-5,000 executions, not the hundreds of thousands alleged by uncritical nineteenth century writers like Henry Charles Lea.  Basing an argument on the earlier, uncritical accounts of the Inquisition might suit many atheists' agendas, but it would be bad history nonetheless.

Finally, historical synthesis and exposition requires at least an attempt at a high degree of objectivity.  An analyst of the past may have personal beliefs with the potential to bias their analysis and incline them towards certain conclusions.  Worse, these beliefs could make them begin with assumptions about the past and so make them select only the evidence that supports this a priori idea.  Historians strive to avoid both and examine the evidence on its merits, though polemicists often don't bother with this objective approach.  All too often many atheists can be polemicists when dealing with the past, only crediting information or analysis that fits an argument against religion they are trying to make  while downplaying, dismissing or ignoring evidence or analysis that does not fit their agenda.  Again, this is bad history and rarely serves any function other than preaching to the converted.

So, for example, until the early twentieth century the history of science was popularly seen as a centuries-long conflict between forward thinking scientific minds trying to advance knowledge and human progress but constantly being persecuted and suppressed by retrograde religious forces determined to retard scientific progress.  Again, in the mid-twentieth century historians of science reassessed this general idea and rejected what is now referred to as the "Conflict Thesis", presenting a far more complex, nuanced and well-founded analysis of the development of science that shows that while there were occasional conflicts, which were rarely as simple as "science versus religion", religion was usually neutral on the rational analysis of the physical world and often actively supportive of it.  Overt conflicts, such as the Galileo Affair, were exceptions rather than the rule and, in that case as in many others, more complicated than simply “religion” repressing “science”.

Objectivity, Bias and Historical Fables

We atheists and freethinkers regularly deride believers for their irrational thinking, lack of critical analysis and tendency to cling to ideas out of faith even when confronted by contrary evidence.  Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to talk about being rational, and criticise others for not being so, than it is to practice what we preach.  Everyone has their biases and “confirmation bias”  - the tendency to favour information that confirms our prior beliefs - is an innate psychological propensity that is hard to counter even when we are aware of it.  This means that atheists can, in many cases, be as bad as believers in accepting appealing ideas without checking their facts, holding to common misconceptions in the face of contrary evidence and liking neat, simple stories over messy, complex and more detailed alternatives that happen to be more solidly supported by the evidence.

The idea that the medieval Church taught the earth was flat, that Columbus bravely defied their primitive Biblical superstition and proved they were wrong by sailing to America is a great story.  Unfortunately, it’s historical nonsense – a fable with zero basis in reality.  It’s bad enough that I have  had the experience of intelligent and educated atheists repeating this story as an example of the Church holding back progress without bothering to check if it’s true.  What’s worse is that I’ve also experienced atheists who have been shown extensive, clear evidence that the medieval Church taught the earth was round and that the myth of medieval Flat Earth belief was invented by the novelist Washington Irving in 1828, and they have simply refused to believe that the myth could be wrong.

Neat historical fables such as the ones about Christians burning down the Great Library of Alexandria (they didn’t) or murdering Hypatia because of their hatred of her learning and science (ditto) are appealing parables.  Which means some atheists fight tooth and nail to preserve them even when confronted with clear evidence that they are pseudo historical fairy tales.  Fundamentalists aren’t the only ones who can be dogmatic about their myths.

One of the main reasons for studying history is to get a better understanding of why things today are as they are by grasping what has gone before.  But it only works with a good grasp of how we can know about the past, the methods of analysis used and the relevant material our understanding should be based on.  It also only works if we strive to put aside what we may like to be true along with any preconceptions (since they are often wrong) and look at the material objectively.  Atheists who attempt to use history in their arguments who don’t do these things can not only end up getting things badly wrong, but can also wind up looking as stupid or even as dogmatic as fundamentalists.  And that’s not a good look.

23 comments:

  1. Nice post Tim. Crystal clear. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This makes me feel like I'm back in 1995. It's level-headed. Clearly articulated. Common sense. Fairminded. Surely pre-world wide web. Made me forget I was online.... ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  3. "For example, regarding the existence of Jesus, it is far more parsimonious to conclude that Christianity's figure of "Jesus Christ" evolved out of the ideas of the followers of a historical Jewish preacher, since all of our earliest information tells us that this "Jesus Christ" was a historical Jewish preacher who had been executed circa 30 CE."

    Interesting, so "early information" cannot have been invented. I guess Moroni must be real then.

    "People have tried to propose alternative origins for the figure of "Jesus Christ", positing an earlier Jewish sect that believed in a purely celestial figure who became "historicised" into an earthly, historical Jesus later. But there is no evidence of any such proto-Christian sect and no reason such a sect would exist and then vanish without leaving any trace in the historical record."

    Nor is there any plausible historical reason why a "Jewish sect" would begin worshipping a contemporary man as the incarnation of YHWH, then spread this idea to non-Jews, then suddenly vanish after about 20 years. None of this makes sense at all, yet we are told that this is what happened. Sometimes religious groups make things up. I know that's astonishing to realize.

    ReplyDelete
  4. AB wrote:

    Interesting, so "early information" cannot have been invented. I guess Moroni must be real then.

    Early information can indeed be invented. The point here, however, is that we have no account or even so much as a hint of any other origin for the sect apart from its establishment by this preacher called Jesus. If someone wants to propose an alternative origin that doesn’t involve a historical Jesus they need to either (a) produce some evidence of this alternative origin or (b) explain the total lack of any evidence in a way that stands up to Occam’s Razor.

    There are two kinds of source where we’d expect to find this evidence if it existed. Firstly, we have a lot of information about variant sects of Christianity, both from their own writings and from refutations of them by orthodox apologists. These apologists were keen to refute the claims of these “heretics” and discuss a wide array of them. Yet there is no hint of any alternative Christianity that believed in a mythic, purely celestial or metaphorical Jesus as opposed to a historical one.

    Secondly, we would expect some of the opponents of Christianity to use the idea that Jesus never existed as a historical person in their attacks on Christianity, which we know about in detail from apologists’ responses to them. These opponents use many other claims about Jesus – that he was a magician, illegitimate, a false prophet etc – but never mention the idea that he never existed. Yet Jesus Myth theorists like Doherty depict his hypothetical “mythic/celestial Jesus” form of Christianity co-existing with its “historicised Jesus” offshoot for almost 200 years.

    The total absence of evidence for a non-historical Jesus form of Christianity and the complete consistency of all of our accounts of the origins of the sect with a historical preacher (both Christian and non-Christian accounts) means the most parsimonious reading of the evidence is that the sect was founded by this preacher.

    Nor is there any plausible historical reason why a "Jewish sect" would begin worshipping a contemporary man as the incarnation of YHWH, then spread this idea to non-Jews, then suddenly vanish after about 20 years. None of this makes sense at all, yet we are told that this is what happened.

    Only the most conservative scholars suppose that the first Jesus sect worshipped Jesus “as the incarnation of YHWH”. It’s strange that Jesus Mythers work from such naïve, Sunday school understandings of the evidence rather than actually reading the scholarship. What we see in the evidence is a sect that acknowledged Jesus as Yahweh’s anointed one and believed that Yahweh had raised him from the dead as a sign of his status as the Messiah. But there is nothing in the letters of Paul or the synoptic gospels than can be read as a belief Jesus was God. Even in gJohn, where this idea is beginning to emerge, it’s ambiguous and his exact status is unclear (thus the centuries of Christological wrangling that followed).

    As the Jesus sect drifted from its Jewish roots in the wake of the Jewish Revolt we see this idea of Jesus as God developing, but even then we see evidence of remnants of the older stratum of the sect in vestigal Jewish Christian groups like the Ebionites and Nazoreans etc.

    Sometimes religious groups make things up. I know that's astonishing to realize.

    It’s hardly astonishing. But if you want to claim it was all just made up, you’ll need to present actual evidence and see if it stands the test of parsimony next to the alternative idea that the sect began the way it and everyone else said it began. It’s that test that the Jesus Mythers keep failing.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I have a small problem with your definition of Atheism. I tend to believe Atheism is simply non belief in gods, ala Sam Harris. You describe being a member of several Atheist organizations, this does not compute for me.

    ReplyDelete
  6. An Anonymouse squeaked:

    I have a small problem with your definition of Atheism.

    I don't give a definition of atheism in my post, so I have no idea what you're talking about.

    I tend to believe Atheism is simply non belief in gods, ala Sam Harris.

    That would be what I mean by the word as well. So, again, I have no idea what you're trying to say.

    You describe being a member of several Atheist organizations, this does not compute for me.

    Well, I am. So I have no idea why you find me stating a plain fact so hard to compute.

    If you're going to post here, try to make what you're saying clear. I have a low tolerance for people who post anonymously and a lower tolerance for non sequential gibberish.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Long time reader, first time commenter.

    I have a very big problem with your introduction into this post. "History is not a science." Maybe it is due to my European bias, as you imply, but I cannot, for the life of me, see why the historical method is unfit to be classified as science.

    The basic outline of scientific method is: hypothesis -> experiment -> theory. The starting hypothesis must have some heuristic value, i.e., as you say, be relevant to the field of study. Experiment is a critical examination of one or more hypothetical models, based on observation and evaluation of hard data. It's not running mice in lab coats, it's, at it's most fundamental level, simply fitting the hypothesis into whatever objective, hard evidence and arguments you've got (and the lack of argument and evidence relating to hypothesis generally implies it's lack of heuristic value for a given topic). And finally, a theory arises when you've got the most verifiable, simplest and elegant hypothesis with the least amount of holes in it. A theory is not so much some hard truth, but a explanation which works the best at a given time, and can, in future, be replaced by a superior model.

    This is exactly the process you describe in your explanation of historical method, only using different terminology for each step. Step 2., criticism, is an experimental step in historical method. It serves to validate hypothesis, either reject it or turn it into a theoretical model which will serve you to make sense of a certain historical era/process. True, in history, you generally cannot experiment on things in lab, but to a large degree, neither can you in "hard" sciences (and btw, you never exactly explain what these "hard" sciences are. The way you write about it, it seems to me like the "hard" sciences are stuff like geology or metallurgy). Yeah, a historian cannot run an experiment to simulate the fall of a Roman Empire, but neither can an astrophysicist run an experiment to simulate the collapse of supernova into a black hole. In both cases, they need to 'tone down' the scale of their research, and patch up a general theoretical model from minutae critical evaluation ('experiments') of many small, and at a first glance often unrelated hypotheses.

    Please do not be offended by a polemical tone in my comment, I wouldn't be so heated up about this particular issue if I did not see it as a big blooper in an otherwise good post on an otherwise great blog.

    ReplyDelete
  8. @Lucius

    First of all, I won’t take offence at good comment that raises some interesting issues. The post you’ve commented on was written as a guest post on another blog and one aimed at a particular audience. If I was writing it specifically for Armarium Magnum and its audience the post would probably be much longer, much more detailed and more nuanced on several points.

    I could have expanded greatly on the section where I discuss the differences between the hard sciences and history. This is because while history is very different to what I call the hard sciences (eg physics, chemistry, most astronomy etc), it’s actually quite close to some other sciences, including several you refer to. These are what are sometimes called the historical sciences, though in his book The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past John Lewis Gaddis refers to them as sciences which rely on “virtual replicability” to test hypotheses rather than “actual replicability”.

    It would have taken a lot of explanation to go over how history is more like some sciences (eg palaeontology) but not others (eg physics), involving a long discussion of how science isn’t as hard and fast in its conclusions than many people, including many scientists, actually realise. I may cover all this in the book I’m planning to write on how many atheists get history wrong, but the short post I reproduce above meant I was constrained to keep the discussion fairly short and simple.

    History is still not a science, since its conclusions are far more subjective than even those of the historical sciences and don’t meet the epistemological criteria of Popperian falsification. But it is much closer to a science than many people realise, and it is still a valid, rigorous discipline in its own right.

    ReplyDelete
  9. At the risk of spiralling off the cusp of this topic, I find Tim's comments to be insightful and valuable additions to age-old questions.
    I, too, am an atheist. I know what I mean by that without having to condescend to others' semantic definitions. Simply, I don't believe in gods. Nor can I prove they do not exist. Neither am I "anti gods" or "anti religion". I see no paradoxes here.
    I believe that a historical Jesus existed. The likelihood that he didn't challenges common sense and is driven (I suspect) more by anti-religious dogma than sound reasoning.
    I don't believe in the institutionalised, mythologised version of Jesus as a deity, demigod or worker of miracles. Much of this emanated from the zealotry of his later followers, not the man himself.
    Anther age-old question emerging from the subtext is the zealotry of pseudoscience -'sciencism': a behaviour grounded in an unshakeable belief in science; and not dissimilar to the blinkered fundamentalism of religions that proponents of science so often single out for derision.
    Semantic argument about the true nature of science is simply playing the pseudoscience game. We have only a (quite useful) notion of "science", not a strict universal definition. Pretence at otherwise is simply disingenuous and self-serving.
    Similarly with Christianity, the sciences emerged victorious from the oppression of ignorance and superstition, then slowly insinuated its own form of oppression on other disciplines - some even daring to declare it to be the only way we can truly perceive our world.
    It is my proposition that this attitude of sciencism eventually butchered the Renaissance Man.
    Yours,
    "Monniehawk"

    ReplyDelete
  10. Tim,

    You wrote "Only the most conservative scholars suppose that the first Jesus sect worshipped Jesus “as the incarnation of YHWH”. It’s strange that Jesus Mythers work from such naïve, Sunday school understandings of the evidence rather than actually reading the scholarship. What we see in the evidence is a sect that acknowledged Jesus as Yahweh’s anointed one and believed that Yahweh had raised him from the dead as a sign of his status as the Messiah. But there is nothing in the letters of Paul or the synoptic gospels than can be read as a belief Jesus was God. Even in gJohn, where this idea is beginning to emerge, it’s ambiguous and his exact status is unclear (thus the centuries of Christological wrangling that followed)."

    I am really interested in the evolution of "Christology" in early Christianity. I am interested in the evidence that scholarship has produced that the first Christians believed that Jesus was God's anointed one and that he rose from the dead, and only later, came to be seen as a divine being.

    Do you know of any material (books, essays, etc) that would greatly educate me on the subject?

    Thank you!

    Matthew

    ReplyDelete
  11. @Matthew:

    Paula Fredricksen's From Jesus to Christ and Bart Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium should be what you're looking for.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I actually don't see a radical difference between physics and history. It's just that history is much, much harder to research and analyze. I hope that that someday we might have monster computers with such analytic models that will enable us to run at least simple simulations and really test historical situations.

    I don't really see how we could have serious academic history without touching the issue of causality at least on some level whether implicitly or explicitly - and to me that necessitates that we should posit at least in rough form a formal model of historical causation. We do it anyway, only not mentioning it because as yet we lack the tools to make it very sophisticated. But that's not honest or scholarly of us.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Sadly this article makes the classice mistake of ignoring SOCIAL sciences which history is a part of (along with historical anthropology which is THE field what should really be addressing the whole Jesus issue)

    The modern Christ myther can point to the John Frum cargo cult as prime example in how in as short as 17 years all oral evidence of a actually founder has been obliterated.

    ReplyDelete
  14. "The modern Christ myther can point to the John Frum cargo cult as prime example in how in as short as 17 years all oral evidence of a actually founder has been obliterated."

    Good thing Jesus has more going for him than oral evidence (see Tacitus).

    Of course, you can go ahead and go into conspiracy theorist mode and/or attack Tacitus's competence as an historian.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I know this is but tangentially related to your post, but I'm wondering if you could do a post maybe on how the "rationalism" of Continental Europe versus the "empiricism" of the Anglophone world leads to this ambiguity as to the "scientific" status of many subjects which some consider to be the "humanities" like history, anthropology, the social sciences, etc.

    My theory is that while, as you say, the European conception of “science” is more “systematic” as an “organised body of knowledge” in some vague general sense, but the Anglophone world considers “science” in the much more “pragmatic” operational sense of being capable of “application” or empirical predictions.

    Most of the “authority” of the sciences, at least for the masses, comes not so much from the methodology by which the conclusions are arrived (except in the case of mathematics whereby from the deduction comes the proof), but from the fact that you can “replicate” directly to us the consequences of the theorems and formulas in experiments and engineering, etc. It is this empirical “immediacy”, the replicability and applicability of the hard sciences, which gives it its normative and authoritative force.

    This interestingly enough suggests a very interesting reason why deniers of evolution or old earth theories are mainly to be found on the Anglophone world, especially in America, compared to the rest of the Western world which is much more bound to the “rationalistic” ideals of the European continent as opposed to the “empiricism” of the Anglophone world.

    The reason is very simply that you cannot “replicate” experimentally macroevolution. And evolution has very little actual application in the use of bioengineering or medicine. It is strictly speaking, an “organised systematic body of conclusions”. As such, given its lack of “empirical” or “operational” force, it is very easy to deny evolution or old earth theories because it has very little actual “immediate” effect upon the lives of the deniers.

    This is of course different from the “European” world which includes also those who remain in the British Dominion. They see “science” as a rigorous systematic organisation of facts which may or may not have “immediate” application. There is also a greater respect for the traditional “academia” institutions which the Americans lack. As such, most people in those worlds would accept it as a matter of course the scientific consensus of evolution and old earth theories.

    However, I remember reading a conservative Christian's reason for holding on to old earth theories and evolution. He argues that people who search for oil need the theories of paleontology to find the crude oils underground. Ironically, he is here is being a very good American, deriving the credibility of a theory based on its applicability…

    I think though that there is something deliciously ironic about how the extreme empiricism of the Americans leads them to deny evolution, hahaha…

    ReplyDelete
  16. @rationalityofaith I know it's fun to scoff at Americans but I would think you would know better than to generalize and direct your comment to all Americans. It's not very intelligent to stereotype a whole continent of over 315,000,000 people.

    ReplyDelete
  17. As a follower of Jesus, a physicist, and a lover of history (something I did not come to appreciate until High school, and all the more once I began following Jesus, reading the bible, etc...), I want to thank you for this article on history's value, and difference from hard science. Too many atheists that I talk with embarrass the hades out of themselves by refusing to even read historical documents, let alone consider them. Quite frankly, I'm surprised modern atheism actually has any legs left to stand on-- they've thrown them all out, and appear to prefer levitation.
    SteveB.

    ReplyDelete
  18. The author need to go back and learn about SOFT (social) science which history is actually part of.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Another anonymouse squeaked:

    "The author need to go back and learn about SOFT (social) science which history is actually part of. "

    No, the author is quite aware that history is a humanities discipline and so nothing like the so-called "social sciences" and their pretentious to be theories of everything. So the author doesn't have to go back to do anything at all.

    ReplyDelete
  20. "even though they should be just as sceptical about being able to know about a car accident yesterday as they are about knowing about a revolution 400 years ago."

    An interesting idea I recently came across in Catholic circles is the "myth line". Like most historical method theories, it is rather nebulous and non-exact, but basically the idea is sometime between 300-500 years in the past, documents written in a vernacular language start to lose their original meaning due to changes in language, and by 500 years in the past, what was once "recorded history" becomes "myth".

    Computers actually made this worse at the beginning, much of what we experienced in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s was recorded so biased that entire events cannot be found online, and if the last written document has been destroyed without making it to the web, all that is left is a vague memory; and due to how literate our society is, we're incredibly bad at vague memory.

    I have to wonder if cloud storage- eternally refreshed even if you haven't paid up the account, and with things like blogs being stored for the simple reason that it is cheaper to copy them to a new hard drive than sort them out from newer, fresher content to delete them, will extend that line. Would be exciting to go a few centuries into the future to see if our own time gets recorded any better.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Tim,

    I'm not familiar with Fredricksen work, but I certainly wouldn't recommend Ehrman's "Apocalyptic" work. I found Ehrman's book to be an extended exercise in confirmation bias. I found his work to be very limited to a very American Protestant hermeneutic. Many of the "problems" that his theses solve only exist within that hermeneutic. His work really reads more as a refutation of the literalism of Evangelical Christianity that ultimately betrayed him. But that refutation is done using a very similar literalism.

    The book makes some interesting points and includes some interesting evidence, but overall, I think, falls quite flat.

    As to the notion of Jesus as God, I think you have to differentiate two different concepts. The first is the idea of whether Jesus was God. The second was what it meant that Jesus was God.

    I think the first idea can be supported at a very early age, supported by the earliest epistle and Gospel accounts. But those accounts leave significant ambiguity as to what it actually meant for Jesus to be God.

    And so that second concept developed over a much longer period. But it is striking that when you look at most of the Christological controversies, few were concerned with whether he was God, and those were quite marginalized positions; most were concerned with what it meant for Jesus to be God. In many ways, that controversy is still on-going, as we can see from movements like the new-Arianism of Mormonism to the "wise teacher" thesis of today.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Tim O'Neill: I love this post in general; a clear statement of what I have always found wrong with atheist arguments. I'm all the more surprised then, that you are relying on Bart Ehrman for anything relating to history. His expertise is in textual criticism. He is not a trained historian, much less a trained theologian, so his qualifications for discussing the history of Christology are shaky indeed, judging by your own criteria. And boy, does it ever show. His case is weak and shows little historical understanding (I am a trained historian, with a Ph.D., so I can say this).

    ReplyDelete
  23. "His case is weak and shows little historical understanding (I am a trained historian, with a Ph.D., so I can say this)."

    Let me guess - you're also a Christian.

    ReplyDelete