28 August 2011

Testimony & Epistemology

After recently reading Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham, some thoughts crystallised in my mind that had been floating around for a bit. This post is my attempt to articulate those thoughts.

Epistemology is a subject in which I have a steadily growing interest. I have just started reading Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery, though it’s a bit of a beast of a book, so don’t expect to see the review much before October. I may come back and revise this post after I have finished that.

As alluded to in my review of Bauckham’s book, the willingness to accept eyewitness testimony (hereafter, to be simply referred to as testimony) does not immediately imply a hermeneutic of credulity. There is a word for those who would accept without critique what they are told as testimony: gullible. Now, in spite of how often I have heard that accusation levelled at all Christians, it simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny; if it were true then everyone who has ever professed faith must be intellectually retarded, but a brief look around the world today, and in history reveals this to be untrue. Of course, that is not to say that every Christian has reached their faith by careful reasoning and the examination of the available evidence; indeed I have met many who prefer to not think about the challenges posed to the claims of Christianity, but these are the minority. There is also then the adage that if you have met a Christian who doesn’t seem to have any doubts, then you just don’t know them well enough.

When I read or talk to critics of the bible, there is a phrase I often hear is “there’s no evidence for….” At which point a look of puzzlement usually smothers my face. The reason for this is that the person I am speaking to has completely disregarded the fact that we have the collection of books known as the bible, which is evidence. I think a far more honest term would be “there’s no corroborative evidence for…” which is a very different statement.

I have heard it said that Christianity is the religion of the historian. I am increasingly coming round to this point of view as most of the strongest arguments come from history, rather than science, philosophy or sociology. That is not to say that these don’t have important things to say about Christianity (and vice versa), rather I just don’t find them as convincing as I do for the historical basis for the person, death and resurrection of Jesus. Where certain ideas taken as cherished by Christians have had to be thrown out of the window because of subsequent research, there do not appear to be any scholars who have credibly formed and tested hypotheses for the origins of Christianity on an historical basis; there may be plenty of supposition, but very little evidence to support this. If anyone knows of a suitable riposte, please let me know as I would love to read it/them.

As I have said before, my worldview is that the set of things for which there is evidence is smaller than the set of things which are true. That is to say, there may be many truths for which there is no evidence. Of course, this then raises the question, “How do we know it’s true?” which is perfectly valid and deserves serious consideration. I still don’t have a definitive answer for that.

One of the key differences between history and science is the ability to generate evidence. Science can devise experiments in order to gather new evidence from well-designed experiments in order to confirm or deny an hypothesis. History, on the other hand, has to build the most reasonable explanation, based on the evidence available. Of course, you can always do archaeological excavations, or search through ancient libraries, but you can’t always find what you want. To go back to Bauckham, much of his book was based on the testimony of Papias, but we have no surviving manuscripts of his; only some quotes from Eusebius a couple of centuries afterwards.

To give a somewhat trivial example, I could tell you what I had for dinner last night. It happened to be a chicken curry. I can testify that that is true, and I know it to be so. However, I ate alone, with the blinds shut, so there are no other eyewitnesses, as far as I know. So how might one determine whether or not my testimony is true? Well, one could go through my bins and examine the contents thereof to find evidence of the ingredients of a chicken curry. This would certainly not constitute proof as there would be no way to pin the ingredients down to a specific date (it could have been the night before) or to ascertain that the ingredients were used together, as opposed to being used in the cooking of two separate meals.

An alternative approach may be to pump my stomach and examine the contents. Now this is a pretty extreme measure, but if you really wanted to find out, then this may be an option; albeit one that I would resist with what little physical strength I have! Also, this method would only work for the last couple of meals. If my question had been posed about what I ate on the 10th of February this year (or last year) then the answer would be quite unknowable; although in this case, I couldn’t testify myself, as I don’t have that good a memory.

Of course, we could try to falsify the proposition, yet what are the falsification criteria? Perhaps I was seen elsewhere, eating something different; but in the absence of other eyewitnesses, this cannot be a possibility. It is not clear to me that there are, given what the circumstances outlined above, any criteria upon which can be based any level of falsifiability. To draw the analogy to a close, before it gets over-strained, the fact that I ate a chicken curry is, for all practical purposes, unfalsifiable. However, this does not impact on the truth of the assertion. So it is with testimony. There may be many potential ways in which a testimony may be falsified (e.g. by direct contradiction with another testimony – although we need to be careful about the possibility of two different views of the same thing appearing radically different, or contradiction with other corroborative evidence, etc.). However, as noted above, the historian cannot generate additional evidence. He or she may search for it, but it may simply be the case that what they are searching for has been lost.

So then, if testimony is all we have, what can we say about it? Bauckham’s approach was to give them the benefit of the doubt. In this, I would somewhat agree with him, but with a word of warning. If a witness is shown to be untrustworthy in related key areas, then extra doubt may of course be cast on their testimony. I would think it unwise to reject them outright because of this.

There has been a recent example, when such a rejection has taken place. That is, in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK). The case was dependent on an eyewitness, but the case was ultimately thrown out because of a lack of corroborative evidence and aspersions made against the eyewitness. For my part, I do not hold an opinion as to the guilt or innocence of DSK. I merely include this paragraph to get you thinking at how relevant, and thorny, the issue still is today. It is not a problem restricted to historical theology, and one which I think we will continue to wrestle with for many years to come.

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