I am quite happy to defer to “the expert consensus” when that consensus of experts is grounded upon advanced mathematics, quantum physics or anything medical.
There is a blog out there with a curious byline:
A community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality.
The first post on this blog that I read, however, indicated to me that that byline was ironic. That article, Trusting Expert Consensus, is a mix of good and evil, impeccable logic and fundamental fallacies.
In the introductory section of the post we read:
Expert opinion should be discounted when their opinions could be predicted solely from information not relevant to the truth of the claims. This may be the only reliable, easy heuristic a non-expert can use to figure out a particular group of experts should not be trusted.
From that principle I concluded that the opinion among biblical scholars and theologians that there was an historical Jesus should be discounted. But LessRight disagrees. He/she concludes the opposite, in fact.
The reasoning appears to be basically along these lines:
- Although an obvious minority in the field, there are a good number of scholars who reject traditional Christianity and espouse quite unconventional and “liberal” views (e.g. Crossan, Borg).
- This subset of scholars, including even a few who are even atheists, for most part accept the historicity of Jesus.
- Their liberal or non-religious personal views would not lead us to expect them to believe in the historicity of Jesus.
- Therefore “non-experts” should defer to the view that Jesus was an historical figure.
(By the way, I owe a thanks to J. Quinton for alerting me to this post.)
Yet the same article also concedes that virtually all of even those liberal or atheistic scholars were at some time in their lives believing Christians.
That tells us something that the article nowhere addresses. People do not like admitting they were wrong. That’s not to say we are incapable of it. Many of us do admit it despite the embarrassment it sometimes causes. But we all have limits. Some people who leave extremist cults will regret some of their former beliefs but not all of them. They will migrate to a more conventional church. Or become a liberal Christian similar to Borg or Crossan.
Besides, the belief that Jesus was an historical person is both a religious dogma and a cultural heritage. It is fundamental Christian dogma that God acted through Jesus in history. It is also a part of our cultural identity — at least for those of us in countries with a Christian heritage. The historical Jesus is an icon rich in meaning for all types of philosophies. There is a natural fascination among many — Christian or not — with discovering and explaining the original person for this very reason.
To challenge the historicity of Jesus is to go beyond challenging a fundamentalist believer. Atheists will also be as likely to look askance at someone doing that. That’s true especially if the atheist is struggling to feel accepted in the wider community. We have seen on the net some people who claim to be atheists saying just that: they don’t want to be embarrassed by fellow-atheists questioning the historicity of Jesus.
So in the educational institutions of many Western countries I would expect people of all shades of opinion about God, the universe, life, to be interested in studying or attempting to uncover the “real historical Jesus” as far as they could.
Besides, even the non-expert (who reads Bart Ehrman, say) can see at a glance that scholars have not sat down to thrash out the question of Jesus’ historicity. Ehrman even says his own book is the first attempt in his entire field to do anything like that. So we have the admission from the expert that Jesus’ historicity has been assumed. Other experts (e.g. Thomas Thompson) say the same thing.
And of course we would expect many of their peers to be offended by such statements. They are embarrassing. Of course other experts would try to deny it. But the fact that the claims could be made in the first place tells us a lot.
It is ironic that a website expressing devotion to refining the art of human rationality should advise a deference to authority when surely we could indeed predict most scholars (who after all often entered their studies with a view to learning more about one of our defining religious or cultural icons) would assume the existence of Jesus.
And we would also expect for reasons irrelevant to the conclusion of the historicity of Jesus that most scholars would be offended and denounce any such claims.
Finally, we would expect that if there were well-established reasons for believing in the historicity of Jesus that scholars would be very willing and able to present them without the wrapping of appeals to authority and ad hominem and outright misrepresentation. We would expect them to know the arguments they oppose and to not make inconsistent claims (e.g. Ehrman’s claims on Galatians) in their defence of historicity.
If I were associated with a blog called LessWrong and were devoted to refining the art of human rationality I would counsel that non-experts should adopt an agnostic position on the historicity of Jesus. Certainly the opinions of the experts are indeed predictable solely from information not relevant to the truth of the claims.
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