"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." -- Bertrand Russell

Monday, October 29, 2012

Contradictions Imply... Truthyness?

At one of the recent meeting of Free@VT, I mentioned that contradictions between Biblical accounts can actually be evidence that some of the events in the relevant Biblical account occurred. I was met with a great deal of credulity and confusion. "If there are contradictions, then, at most, one account has to be true and the other false," I remember one person stating. Another told me that he felt this criteria was deeply troubling.

The use of contradictions in making inferences of this kind might seem to raise all kinds of epistemic worries; but, properly contextualised, this actually seems reasonable.
There are a few different criteria that scholars use to critically analyse Biblical texts. At the meeting, we had been discussing miracles that were supposedly performed by Jesus. Therefore, the suggestion would be that we should analyse those events using the standard criteria used in studying the historical Jesus. The criteria that are used to study the historical Jesus include:

1. Multiple attestation: Having multiple, independent sources.
2. Embarrassment: The text saying things that would be doctrinally embarrassing, but were included anyway.
3. Coherence: consistency between the text in question and texts that have already been authenticated.

The idea is that when one or more of (1)-(3) (and similar other criteria) are inferred about a Biblical text, we should raise the probability of its content being true. This does not mean that we should believe the content, because the probability might only be raised by a small amount.

This is not to be taken as an exhaustive list and there are plenty of people from all different kinds of backgrounds who have brought (1)-(3) into question. Criticisms range from atheist critics (such as Richard Carrier) to Christian fundamentalists. However, the current academic consensus is that (1)-(3), or something like them, should be used in Jesus studies. Thus, for our purposes, I'm going to assume that these criteria are sound.

Now, about those contradictions...

When a contradiction is small enough not to make a substantive problem for the event being described, one possible explanation is that this was due to having multiple sources. Provided that other reasons for discrepancies can be ruled out -- such as mistranslations and copying errors -- this gives us good reason to think that it is a case of multiple attestation. Conceivably, criterion (2) could be fulfilled as well if we thought that the Biblical authors would have been worried by contradictions (though the bulk of contradictions in the Biblical text might indicate that they would not have been worried by contradictions at all.)

However, all this means is that the probability for the event in question having occurred is raised. That does not mean that we should infer that the events actually did occur. In fact, as David Hume pointed out in his "On Miracles", eye witness testimony is always insufficient to establish the occurrence of miracles. The probability of a miracle having occurred is so low, and the amount by which the probability is raised by almost any evidence so small, that we can almost never infer that a miracle really took place. The only way to infer that a miracle really took place is if it would have been miraculous that the miracle in question had not occurred. This is because we can only infer the miracle if the alternative is even less likely (and therefore more miraculous.)

Also notice a problem with criterion (2). Not only would accounts of Jesus performing miracles not have bothered early Christians but such claims would have directly benefited the political aspirations of that group. Therefore, early Christians would have been directly incentivised to either invent or exaggerate stories about the miracles performed by Jesus (as one can infer that they almost certainly did by examining the canonical and non-canonical gospels in chronological order.)

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