On Evidence

Simen has a few wonderful posts about atheism, including the best put-down of Dawkins’ nascent radicalism I’ve seen. He also has a very good post about the difference between atheists, agnostics, and theists.

In the latter post’s comment thread, a presumably theistic comment asks why atheists believe books that say the Earth spins but not a book that says God exists. It’s an argument I saw a few years ago, back when I was a regular on Hofesh: “Why do you believe Napoleon existed?” Since the unreflective answer is “Because history books say so,” it superficially exposes an analogy between the Bible and mainstream science.

In fact, Napoleon’s existence is more than just something written in a book. There’s a multitude of independent accounts of people who knew him, an even greater multitude of independent accounts of people who fought against or under him. There are maps he used when devising strategy, and contemporary newspapers referencing him. That’s not extraordinary evidence, but the claim that a short-statured Corsican came to be Emperor of France isn’t extraordinary either.

Now, compare Napoleon with an apocryphal historical figure, say Jesus. There’s only one independent source saying Jesus existed, Mark; the other Gospels are derivatives of him. Paul predated Mark, but he refers to Jesus in mythical terms, saying nothing about his life. Mark was not a contemporary of Jesus: he wrote his Gospel in the 70s, while Jesus supposedly died in 30. Mark’s account of Jesus is full of impossible religious miracles, while real historical accounts that leave Jesus out entirely, like Josephus’s, are not.

There is a gray area between the two extremes, of course. There are four independent pieces of evidence Socrates existed: a historical record showing Athens executed someone by that name in 399 BC, and the writings of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes. The writings by and large contradict one another, and although it’s probable that someone by the name existed, it’s entirely plausible Plato invented Socrates’ philosophy. But I digress.

The actual form of the theistic argument fielded in the comment to Simen’s post is not about history, though, but about science: “How do you know the Earth spins?” The best answer to that takes the form of Popper’s scientific principles, which, while not perfect, are by and large true. The objections to Popper that aren’t batshit crazy tend to apply only to established theories, but not so much to statements of scientific fact.

Scientific hypotheses, like “the Earth spins,” make an enormous number of falsifiable predictions that can be independently verified. In case of the statement about the Earth’s spinning, its converse also makes an equally large number of predictions that are falsified: that the Sun will be found to revolve around the Earth, that there will be no centrifugal force, that there will be no Coriolis effect, and so on.

Usually, independent verification takes the form of an appeal to better-established scientific principles. That’s why the falsification of a theory is a big deal: it tends to falsify a lot more than just a single statement. In the case of the Earth’s spinning, the easiest appeal is to the parallax effect, which shows it revolves around the Sun. That’s not why scientists accept heliocentrism, but the last geocentric theory to remain standing, Tycho’s, was based on the falsifiable prediction that no parallax could be observed. A more theoretical appeal will be to Newton, whose theory had a ton of empirical backing in its own right.

It’s this stack of scientific theories, each presuming a more basal one’s soundness, that causes science and religion to superficially appear comparable. The average person barely knows science, so to him, it really is just something he read in a textbook or heard from a teacher. Most people who are asked how they know the Earth spins can’t give any satisfactory answer.

The Enlightenment didn’t make the common people more rational; it made the scientific and philosophical establishment more rational. A century of developments in public education hasn’t been able to extend knowledge of scientific evidence to more than a few percent of any country’s population. It so happens that most people in the modern world believe in true things, but it’s sheer luck. Three hundred years ago, they’d believe in witches.

The increasing complexity of scientific theories makes things even worse. In 1750, an educated person could have a grasp of the entirety of human knowledge available in his locale. In 1900, a scientist could know everything in his field. Right now a scientist is restricted to one subfield; when he knows two, it’s usually as part of a fusion of fields, like biostatistics.

I know the precise evidence for the Earth’s spinning, but I know the evidence for relativity only in general and without the math that distinguishes it from woo. The only way I can know PZ Myers isn’t lying in his science posts is that there are other evo devo-minded commenters who’d check him, who I in turn trust because I have no reason to believe that scientists are only honest when I know enough to check their work.

In contrast, I do have reason to believe scientists are materially different from theologians. Theologians may be individually honest, but their entire enterprise is predicated on premises I know to be shaky. And while scientists concentrate on accumulating evidence for their theories, theologians content themselves with hermeneutics. Therefore, I have grounds to dismiss religion as false, while possessing no similar grounds to dismiss fields I know little about except that they’re scientific, like neuroscience.

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18 Responses to On Evidence

  1. SLC says:

    The answer to the claim that the earth is stationary and the rest of the universe revolves around it is very simple. Such a claim is contridicted by hurricanes and typhoons which would not exist if the earth were stationary.

  2. Bushbaptist says:

    A note about Jesus: Ther was a contemporary writer at that time called Josephus. His books are available on the net just Google the name. He mentions Jesus several times in his book ‘The Jewish Wars’
    Josephus was commisioned by Rome the write records of Judea at the time of Christ.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    SLC, hurricanes and typhoons are just part of the Coriolis effect. It’s theoretically possible some other force could generate them, but then it’d be hard to explain why they spin one way north of the Equator and the other way south of it.

    Bushbaptist, linguistic analysis of the paragraph in Josephus mentioning Jesus reveals that it’s actually a later insert, presumably by a Christian who was so flabbergasted Josephus said nothing of Jesus that he was willing to rewrite history. Josephus refers to Christians several times, but not to Jesus.

  4. Would you send us a translation to Hebrew with a permission to publish? Or just a permission, and we’ll do the translation?

    — Nitsan from ‘Hofesh’

  5. Alon Levy says:

    Oh, feel free to use the article.

    I can translate it for you, it’ll take me a week, since I’ll only have access to a Hebrew keyboard on the 5th. If you want it sooner, you’ll have to do the translation yourself.

    Thanks for expressing interest, Nitsan.

  6. Katie Kish says:

    There are virtual hebrew keyboards… > http://www.mikledet.com/ although I’m sure that doesn’t make it any easier.

  7. Thanks… no hurry.
    If you can translate later on, it will be great!

  8. Russell says:

    The problem with pointing to Josephus and Tacitus as evidence of Jesus is that neither provide any direct evidence. What they knew, all they were in a position to know, is that there were Christians, who worshiped Jesus. Now, the fact that there was a Jesus cult is indeed a form of evidence that there was a Jesus, just as the fact that there is a Seth cult is indeed a form of evidence that there was a Seth.

  9. Bruce says:

    Alon, do you happen to have a link to the Josephus linguistic? Interestingly, some Christian apologists criticize the somewhat pejorative references to Jesus by Josephus, i.e. he is perceived as a hostile witness to overcome. Ditto Tacitus. It would be ironic if this material were fraudulent.

  10. SLC says:

    Re Joshua of Nazareth

    The majoritarian opinion of historians is that such a person as Joshua of Nazareth, who was an itinerant preacher in ancient Judea, existed. The argument over this issue sounds much like the argument over who wrote the plays attributed to the man William Shakespeare of Stratford on Avon. Again, the majoritarian opinion is that

    a. such a person existed;

    b. the plays and other works were written by this person.

    The majoritarian opinion in both cases has not stopped the deniers; in the case of Shakespeare, the deniers assign the plays to other authors such as Christopher Marlowe or Francis Bacon, or individuals such as William Devere, the Earl of Oxford. The direct evidence for Shakespeare appears to be every bit as sparse as the evidence for Joshua of Nazareth.

  11. Alon Levy says:

    Bruce, most of the stuff about Josephus as well as other purported pieces of evidence for Jesus can be found here. But it fails to mention one additional piece of evidence against the Testimonium, namely that it has hapax legomena; unfortunately, the only link I have for this is a Yahoo Groups one.

    SLC, there is some independent evidence that there existed an actor named Shakespeare – if memory serves, there’s a grave bearing his name. Shakespeare skepticism isn’t about the existence of a William Shakespeare, but about whether the actor is the same person as the playwright.

  12. [...] the Carnival of the Godless this time around. It contains a good piece from Abstract Nonsense, for example, and another good one from Kingdom of Heathen, which addresses the same topic as does [...]

  13. Flyspeck says:

    Whenever someone speaks of “the historical Jesus”, I refer them to the historical Pecos Bill, the historical Yosemite Sam, and the historical Frosty the Snowman, and then I remind them that God, Jesus, and Moses are cartoon characters on South Park.

    By then they’ve given up.

  14. [...] posts a lot better when the internet’s down. I spent most of the down time translating my post on evidence into Hebrew, which took me more time than writing it in the first place. But if I hadn’t, [...]

  15. Tyler DiPietro says:

    Alon, how on earth is that “the best” put-down of Dawkins “nascent radicalism” that you’ve seen? It’s nothing but the same “WHAAA HE’S A BIG MEANIE ATHEIST DOODY HEAD!” pap we’ve seen from about a gazillion others at this point.

  16. Assulsexele says:

    C наступающим Вас! Пусть Ваши мечты сбудутся!

  17. Please continue to write more good blog.i will keep reading. Thank you.

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