Search Results for: aviezer tucker


2018-07-29

Even a Bayesian Historian Can Slip Up! (once)

by Neil Godfrey

I argue that the interpretation of Bayesianism that I present here is the best explanation of the actual practices of historians.

— Tucker, Aviezer. 2009. Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography. Reissue edition. Cambridge University Press. p. 134

Aviezer Tucker

I have posted aspects of Aviezer Tucker’s discussion of how Bayesian reasoning best represents the way historians conduct their research but here I want to post a few details in Tucker’s chapter that I have not covered so far.

(Interjection: it is not strictly fair to call Aviezer Tucker a “Bayesian historian” because, as is clear from the opening quote, what he argues is that all historians, at least at their best and overall, employ Bayesian logic without perhaps realizing it.)

Tucker includes discussion of biblical criticism in his book but in his chapter on Bayesian methods he unfortunately contradicts himself. The contradiction can best be explained, I think, by appealing to the power of the Christian story to implant unquestioned assumptions into even the best of scholars. I could call that my hypothesis and suggest that the prior probability for it being so in many historians is quite high.

No doubt readers will recall my recent quotation from Tucker:

There have been attempts to use the full Bayesian formula to evaluate hypotheses about the past, for example, whether miracles happened or not (Earman, 2000, pp. 53–9). Despite Earman’s correct criticism of Hume (1988), both ask the same full Bayesian question:

“What is the probability that a certain miracle happened, given the testimonies to that effect and our scientific background knowledge?”

But this is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask,

“What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?”

The center of research is the explanation of the evidence, not whether or not a literal interpretation of the evidence corresponds with what took place.

(Tucker, p. 99)

One explanation for the documents relating the miracles is that the miracles happened and were recorded. Other explanations can also come to mind.

No doubt because the question focused on miracles it was very easy for Tucker and countless others before and since to think of alternative hypotheses to explain the stories of miracles that have survived for our reading entertainment today.

The Slip Up

But look what happened to Tucker’s argument when he was faced with something that sounded more “historically plausible”: read more »


2018-07-18

“How did traditions of the sayings of Jesus and the events of his history reach the writers of the Gospels?”

by Neil Godfrey

How did traditions of the sayings of Jesus and the events of his history reach the writers of the Gospels?

That is the opening question of Richard Bauckham’s chapter, “Gospel Traditions: Anonymous Community Traditions or Eyewitness Testimony?”, in Jesus Research: New Methodologies and Perceptions — The Second Princeton-Prague Symposium on Jesus Research, Princeton 2007. His is the opening chapter in the section on Sources.

Our questions determine the answers we find and here we see questions arising from several layers of unquestioned assumptions.

Firstly, the section on Sources contains twelve chapters all of which embed the presumption of the gospel narratives having derived from historical events. Not one considers the possibility of the story having been crafted from “midrahic”-type retellings of “Old Testament” characters, stories and sayings despite our awareness of the many works linking almost every section of the various gospels to some “Old Testament” text.

The title of Bauckham’s chapter assumes that the gospel narratives were developed from sources for which we have no evidence — unless we take the conclusions of form criticism as evidence for earlier community traditions. Of course absence of evidence for pre-gospel eyewitness testimony is not proof that it did not exist, but in the absence of that evidence we surely need to have a very strong explanatory argument for the various sections of the gospel narratives to support the hypothesis. Is the “criterion of embarrassment” really a strong explanation for the particular details narrated about the baptism of Jesus?

Then we come down to the opening sentence itself. The question assumes that the gospel narratives were based on “the sayings of Jesus and the events of his history”.

The Kind of Question a Biblical Critic and Historian Asks

But contrast the question the historian Aviezer Tucker says is the one the historian should ask of his/her sources:

But this is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?” The center of research is the explanation of the evidence, not whether or not a literal interpretation of the evidence corresponds with what took place.

Tucker, Our Knowledge of the Past, p. 99

Fair enough. Tucker is addressing miracles here. But Bauckham does believe that miracles were indeed believed by eyewitnesses to have been performed by Jesus although he may have a more sophisticated modern understanding of what Jesus actually did. But I think we can take Tucker’s statement as a more professional guide to how historical inquiry ought to proceed.

How a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament

If we do so, I believe we will be moving more in the direction that the sadly recently departed Philip R. Davies suggested biblical scholars should move on the question of Christian origins: read more »


2018-07-19

My turn to jump the gun: Bart Ehrman’s courtroom analogy

by Neil Godfrey

My post of two days ago Once more on that false courtroom analogy jumped the gun. I see now that Bart Ehrman has just today (19th July) posted his extract from his 1999 book on the courtroom analogy to illustrate his method of historical inquiry: An Important Criterion for Establishing What Actually Happened.

Since Ehrman explains in his introduction that

I haven’t changed my views of these matters in all these years!

I would be interested to know if he has previously encountered in any forum the objections to his methods that I have raised here (I cannot believe my criticisms are unique since I have developed them from reading the works of biblical scholars themselves), or if he has anywhere addressed the specific criticisms of his methods that have been raised by not only Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier but even among tenured academics in his own field of interest.

Ehrman writes:

Over the course of the past fifty years, historians have worked hard to develop methods for uncovering historically reliable information about the life of Jesus. I need to say up front that this is a hotly debated area of research, with some very smart and competent historians (and quite a few less than competent ones) expressing divergent views both about what criteria to use and about what conclusions to draw, once they agree on the criteria.

Here I’d like to sketch several of the methodological principles that have emerged from these debates. As you will see, there is a real logic behind each of them, and the logic needs to be understood for the criterion itself not to seem hopelessly arbitrary. In particular, it might help to use an analogy: in many respects, the historian is like a prosecuting attorney. He or she is trying to make a case and is expected to bear the burden of proof.

In fact, part of the “hotly debated” aspects have been the very idea of the “criteria of authenticity” and the logical fallacies behind each one of them, not just some of them. Anyone reading the above words would not be aware of such challenges to not just particular criteria but to the entire exercise of what has been termed “criteriology”. Ehrman did appear to be addressing the new area of memory studies in historical Jesus research — a field that is critical of the “criteriology” approach Ehrman endorses — in his book Jesus Before the Gospels, but as one reviewer noted,

Ehrman engages almost none of the New Testament scholarship concerned with memory.

I am not suggesting that memory theory is “the answer” to the flaws in the “criteria of authenticity”. It is not if only because its application is based on the same groundless assumptions and misguided questions as the criteria approach. The “memory” scholar also needs to be asking the genuine research question: how best to explain the narrative found in the documents, not whether the narrative is at any level true. That question does not exclude historicity but it establishes the answer (whether historical core or something else) on a sound foundation. See the historian Aviezer Tucker’s words in the previous three posts if that sounds wrong.

I have profited immensely from some of Ehrman’s earlier books. What I would like to see is clear evidence that he continues to keep abreast of critics, even if minority voices, among his peers. His blog is meant to engage with lay readers, too, so one might hope that specific critical questions would be raised there as well.

 


2018-07-07

Reply to James McGrath’s Criticism of Bayes’s Theorem in the Jesus Mythicism Debate

by Neil Godfrey
Aviezer Tucker

James McGrath in a recent post, Jesus Mythicism: Two Truths and a Lie, made the following criticism of the use of Bayes’s theorem in the Jesus Mythicism debate:

. . . . as I was reminded of the problematic case that Richard Carrier has made for incorporating mathematical probability (and more specifically a Bayesian approach) into historical methods. . . .

If one followed Carrier’s logic, each bit of evidence of untruth would diminish the evidence for truth, and each bit of evidence that is compatible with the non-historicity of Jesus diminishes the case for his historicity.

The logic of this argument is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of historical inquiry and how a historian is expected to apply Bayesian logic. (It also misconstrues Carrier’s argument but that is another question. I want only to focus on a correct understanding of how a historian validly applies Bayesian reasoning.)

In support of my assertion that James McGrath’s criticism is misinformed I turn to a historian and philosopher of history, Aviezer Tucker (see also here and here), author of Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography. He treats Bayesian reasoning by historical researchers in depth in chapter three. I quote a section from that chapter (with my own formatting):

There have been attempts to use the full Bayesian formula to evaluate hypotheses about the past, for example, whether miracles happened or not (Earman, 2000, pp. 53–9).

We may compare McGrath’s criticism. He is of the impression that the Bayesian formula is used to evaluate the hypothesis that Jesus did exist. This is a common misunderstanding. If you are confused, continue to read.

Despite Earman’s correct criticism of Hume (1988), both ask the same full Bayesian question:

“What is the probability that a certain miracle happened, given the testimonies to that effect and our scientific background knowledge?”

We may compare McGrath’s criticism again. He is of the impression that the historian using Bayesian logic is asking what is the probability that Jesus existed, given the testimonies to that effect and our background knowledge. If you are still confused then you share McGrath’s misunderstanding of the nature of historical inquiry. So continue with Tucker:

But this is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask,

“What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?”

The center of research is the explanation of the evidence, not whether or not a literal interpretation of the evidence corresponds with what took place.

(Tucker, p. 99)

In other words, biblical critics and historians ask (Tucker is assuming the biblical critic and historian is using Bayesian logic validly and with a correct understand of the true nature of historical research) what is the best explanation for a document that, say, purports to be by Paul saying he met the James, “the brother of the Lord”.

I use that particular example because — and someone correct me if I am mistaken — Jame McGrath and others believe that passage (Galatians 1:19) makes any questioning of the historicity of Jesus an act of “denialism”. (McGrath does not tell his readers in the post we are addressing what he has in mind as the “clear-cut” evidence for the historicity of Jesus but from previous posts and comments I am convinced that it is the “brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians 1:19 that he has in mind. If I am wrong then someone will no doubt inform me.)

No one, I am sure, would mean to infer that the late and highly respected Philip R. Davies was guilty of denialism when he suggested that the historical methods he applied to the Old Testament should also be applied to the New — a method I have sought to apply to the study of Christian origins ever since I read Davies’ groundbreaking book.

Back to the question. It is the question of what is the best explanation for the passage in our version of Galatians that I have attempted to address several times now.

That is the question that the historian needs to ask. Every decent book I have read for students about to undertake advanced historical studies has stressed, among many other duties, the necessity for the researcher to question the provenance, the authenticity, of the documents he or she is using, and to know all the questions related to such questions from a thorough investigation of the entire field. My several posts have attempted to introduce such questions that should be basic to any historical study.

Tucker, from my reading of his book, would not consider such an exercise to be “denialism”, but sound and fundamental historical method — and even sound biblical criticism. read more »


2016-02-03

A Historian Reviews Carrier: “The Bayesian perspective on historiography is commonsensical”

by Neil Godfrey
dr_tucker
Aviezer Tucker

Thanks to a reader who has alerted me to an article by a philosopher of history, Aviezer Tucker, on Richard Carrier’s Proving History in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal History and Theory. I have since seen an rss feed alerting me to Carrier’s own comments on the review. I look forward to reading it but meantime I’d like to remind readers of a post I did a few years ago on the author:

Real Historians Do Bayes!

I also see that Tucker’s review has been made open access. (The journal’s policy is to make a work open access if the author or their supporting institution pays a fee of $3000. So do appreciate the access you have to this article. It’s free to you but the publisher is not giving it away free.)

The Reverend Bayes vs Jesus Christ.

See also Carrier’s comments. No doubt I’ll write something once I have had a chance to read it, too.

 


2013-07-18

Real Historians Do Bayes!

by Neil Godfrey

How do historians, comparative linguists, biblical and textual critics, and evolutionary biologists establish beliefs about the past? How do they know the past?

dr_tucker
Aviezer Tucker

That’s the subject of Aviezer Tucker‘s Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography (2004). Tucker’s interest is the relationship between the writing of history (historiography) and evidence (p. 8). It is written for audiences interested in philosophy, history, biblical criticism, the classics, comparative linguistics and evolutionary biology (p. 22).

When I began to review Richard Carrier’s book, Proving History, I pointed out that far from substituting crude mathematics for historical inquiry, the application of Bayes’ Theorem merely expresses in symbolic terms the way historians evaluate the nature of evidence and test hypotheses to explain evidence for certain events and artefacts. Some fearful critics have objected to the application of Bayes because they have never understood this fact.

All Bayes’ theorem does is help us clarify our thinking. Bayes theorem is simply a symbolic way of expressing how we do our best thinking when seeking explanations for evidence or evaluating hypotheses against the evidence. The more complex the factors that need to be considered in addressing a problem the easier it is for us to overlook a critical point or draw invalid comparisons. Bayes’ helps us to clarify thinking about the most complex of issues, including those in the social sciences and history. *

Why Bayes?

Tucker writes as a philosopher and concurs with the above assessments of other authors addressed in my earlier posts. Philosophers like to clarify the complexities they are discussing and are apt to use illustrative symbols to this end.

Philosophers find often that formal representation, Bayesian probability in our case, clarifies and concentrates the discussion. Some historians and many classicists may not be as used to this form of representation as their philosophical colleagues. . . . When I use formal representation, I express the same concepts in words, for the benefit of readers who are not accustomed to formal notation. (p. 22)

Historians ask questions like the following:

To what degree does a piece of evidence contribute or not to the confirmation of a hypothesis, given background conditions? (p. 96)

Specifically:

To what extent does a similar saying in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke support, or not support, the Q hypothesis, given everything else we know that is relevant to the question?

To what extent does the passage “born of a woman” in Galatians 4:4 support, or not, the hypothesis that the author believed Jesus was an historical person in the recent past, given everything else we know about Galatians, that verse in particular and its context, and evidence for Jesus?

The Bayesian theorem purports to state formally the relation between a particular piece of evidence and the hypothesis. (p. 96)

In the fifty or so pages of chapter 3 Tucker demonstrates

that an interpretation of Bayesian logic is the best explanation for the actual practices of historians. (p. 96) read more »


2013-06-26

The Laziness and Incompetence of Yet Another Biblical Scholar

by Neil Godfrey

In the past I have posted on biblical scholars I have caught out promoting and citing Wikipedia articles, books, journal articles, archaeological finds in support of their views that in fact directly contradicted their arguments and claims. Mercifully the names of these scholars have been relatively few. I have posted far more on many excellent biblical scholars who produce informative and interesting work.

But there is one more published biblical scholar who has come to my attention as another charlatan. I would hope that this post will embarrass him enough to pull him up and lead him to mend his ways. I really would much rather argue with a competent and honest scholar than an incompetent charlatan.

Recently Joel Watts referred to “the science of history” in a blog article. My blogging colleague queried the meaning of that phrase, and someone tweeted Joel to protest, so Joel Watts has come back like a steam-roller to squash any suggestion that history is not a science.

Normally this sort of ignorance can be overlooked. But Watts is a PhD student and a published scholar so he has attained the status of being a “public intellectual”. As a public intellectual he deserves to be held accountable for what he publicly writes.

Joel Watts has no specialty in historical studies that I am aware of. I suspect few New Testament scholars have any idea of landmark names in the history and philosophy of historiography like von Ranke, Collingwood, Carr, Elton, White or the various schools of history. Yet he is quite prepared to publish on something he knows nothing about and insult others who do know what they are talking about.

Joel, if there’s one lesson I’d like you to take from this post, it is this: Don’t treat your reading public as fools. They really are smarter than you think. You even explicitly call us stupid, imbeciles, etc. yet you produce blatant charlatanry like the following.

Here is his post:

(I have shortened some of the longer urls)

there are times you just can’t help stupidity… mythicism falls into this category, but…

So Bahumuth, one blessed with a special kind of mythicism, tweeted this regarding my use of the phrase “science of history.

The “science of history”? I don’t know about you, but I studied history when I got my M.A., not my B.S.

 

Well.. ha ha… boy, that’s really got me there. Whew-who. Man do I have egg on my face.

Egg-cept…

Guess he does have a special sort of b.s. as well.

Remember, what is here are links with a variety of resources, including some responses against the idea. If you can’t understand the use of a multitude of sources… oh wait… some do not even get the idea of sources.

 

Joel’s method?

So what is Joel’s method here? How does he prove his point that history is a science? It appears he Googles the phrase “history is a science” or similar, collects a quick grab-bag of URLs that pop up, and posts them as a “There! Gotcha!” But he can’t help but notice a few at least don’t support the idea, so he mentions that too.

What he doesn’t grasp is that the whole collection is nothing but a testimony to the fact that history is not today considered a science — the main exceptions being some Marxists. The days when many historians thought of it as a science are now over a century gone.

This is the very method that his good friend and Associate Professor at Butler University has been caught out doing repeatedly — and unrepentantly — with Wikipedia articles on historical method and with citations from historians. How is it possible that such “scholars” continue to do this sort of thing? I can only presume they assume everyone else is as lazy and incompetent as they are and no-one will bother to check their citations.

Unfortunately for Joel Watts I have checked every one of those links and not a single one of them demonstrates that history is a science. Many/most (not “some”) of them actually argue the very opposite! Many plead that they would like it to be a science, and most of these are from the nineteenth century or modern Marxists.

Checking each link

Let’s look at each of those sites and ask what we learn about this scholarly fraud in the process: read more »