Existence and universal claims

An interesting discussion has broken out in the comments section of the post The weak historical evidence for Jesus that is related to the question of where the burden of proof lies when promoting or refuting a claim.

Those who started reading my blogs only after I moved to Freethought Blogs have been (so far at least) mercifully spared the many multi-part series on some topics that those at my previous location had to suffer through. There is one 17-part (!) series that I wrote on The Logic of Science that is particularly relevant to the question of how we judge whether it is reasonable to believe that figures like Jesus, Socrates, Homer, etc. existed at all. Is the burden of proof on those who say they existed or on those who deny their existence?

I won’t burden you by asking to read the whole series (though it is one of my favorites) but #7 titled The burden of proof in science is a particularly relevant one to the current discussion. It is where I discuss the difference in the burden of proof between existence and universal statements.


  1. M.Nieuweboer says

    Actually I have read the whole series and quite a few more as well. Because of these series in the first place I decided to follow your blog.

    “In science the burden of proof in existence claims lies, as in legal claims, with those who make the claim.”
    The nice thing here is that in this particular case it works two ways. If the hypothesis is “Jesus is historical” the burden of proof indeed is with the ones who give a positive answer. At the other hand, if someone actually provides evidence, more or less in order of importance the Gospels, Flavius Josephus, Polycarpus, the Acts and the Babylonian Talmud (all the others are not independent), and eg Fitzgerald claims that all this evidence is false, then the burden suddenly is with him.
    My problem with Fitzgerald, as hopefully is clear, is that he fails in this respect by using a pseudo-scientific method. Here the burden of proof is with me of course. So I have done my best to back this claim up.
    Alas I don’t have the time – busy with my school – to get deeply involved in this discussion. It took me two days to watch a video of less than an hour. So shoot me.

  2. Jared A says

    I currently am not familiar enough with the evidence to have an opinion on the historicity of Jesus; I tend to rely on the Bertrand Russell criterion about something controversial that also requires expert knowledge.

    Having no prior strong opinion on the matter (maybe slightly toward Jesus was 100% myth), I have to say that reading the previous comment section the “Jesus as myth” side was coming off pretty negatively. Specifically what struck me was the Dunnig-Kruger effect in full force. That is, a lot of people not realizing how little they know.

    I mean this in the most friendly way possible.

    To show an example, Reginald Selkirk said

    There is a problem with self-selection in the field of Biblical history. Few nonbelievers are willing to dedicate their careers to something they think is a myth.

    Have you never heard of the Classics department?! Academia is full of people who are willing to spend their careers studying ancient culture, and understanding the basis of the mythology is part of that. What made you decide that the typical early christian historian considers his or her field all that different from their colleague studying ancient sumerian history?

    (Sorry to pick on you, but I felt I should give a specific example. You’re not the only one; the comment section is replete with that attitude)

    My major point is that every time I have seen an actual expert talk about this topic, they are quite aware of all the things that keep being brought up (gospels aren’t reliable because they were written generations later, texts were doctored at later dates (Josephus), etc.). They are interested in taking evidence as a whole, and using the best techniques for interpreting ambiguous or unreliable documents and artifacts. So before you start criticizing people, you should make an effort to understand their position, otherwise you are attacking a strawman.

    And now I am sure I will draw tons of flame. Just remember that evidence showing that Jesus was not historical isn’t really apropos.

  3. DB says

    I began to read through the series this morning, and noticed that article #4, Truth and proof in mathematics (13-Jul-2011), is wrongly “Uncategorized”. Fix it, please?

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    Have you never heard of the Classics department?! Academia is full of people…

    I have a friend who is a professor (emeritus) of Classics. But how many universities still have such a department?
    Meanwhile, departments of “Religious Studies” at secular universities have a problem in hiring of faculty, in which discomfort to students and alumni donors takes precedence over academic standards.
    Scholar of Mormon History, Expelled From Church, Hits a Wall in Job Search

    In 1993, the Mormon church excommunicated D. Michael Quinn, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the faith, whose writings had frequently contradicted the church’s traditional history.
    Now, he has become a pariah in some higher-education circles as well.
    Although Mormon studies is a fast-growing academic discipline, Mr. Quinn — a former professor at Mormon-run Brigham Young University and the author of six books on Mormon history — can’t find a job. In 2004, he was the leading candidate for openings at two state universities. Both rejected him.
    At least three other secular schools plan new professorships in Mormon studies, but he appears to be a long shot for these posts, too — not because he lacks qualifications, but because almost all the funding for the jobs is coming from Mormon donors.
    “At this point, I’m unhireable,” says the 62-year-old scholar, who lives with his mother to save money in this town east of Los Angeles.
    Mr. Quinn’s struggles reflect the rising influence of religious groups over the teaching of their faiths at secular colleges, despite concerns about academic freedom. U.S. universities have usually hired religious-studies professors regardless of whether they practiced or admired the faiths they researched. But some universities are bending to the views of private donors and state legislators by hiring the faithful.

  5. Jared A says

    Thanks for your response Reginald. Perhaps I have a skewed perspective because many in my family study classics, but I thought that there are still lots of classics departments in the US and UK. Sometimes they get glommed together with another department such as philosophy or linguistics. But there is a lot of overlap between ancient philosophy and classics, no?

    I am actually quite familiar with the mormon aspect, since I grew up in the same dissident mormon tradition as Dr. Quinn comes from. I don’t know him personally, but I do know some of the other people in the september six, and I remember the excommunication events. Indeed, that is really the catalyst for my eventual deconversion from mormonism. (Coincidental to this topic, Margaret Toscano, who should be considered the 7th of the september six, is now a professor of classics in the department of linguistics at the university of Utah). I am sorry to hear that Dr. Quinn is still having trouble finding employment since he was purged from BYU (a sadly common occurrence there.)

    From my perspective, and it could be a skewed by my background, the mormon angle is a bit misleading for the field as a whole. Not even Catholicism has such a stranglehold on its own history as the LDS church does.

    I do agree with the article you quoted that doctrinaire religious control over secular universities is a rising problem. Even at BYU there used to be a healthy inquisitive side to the humanities (even if biased towards a Mormon outlook) that was only quashed in the last few decades in the church’s move to conformism and “respectability”. A lot of people got purged for being too “liberal”.

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