Applying scientific methodology to history

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Discussion by: stevens

A Brief Introduction:

Hello everyone, this is my first post on these boards despite my deep and extensive interest in secular and scientific triumph over the widespread religious nonsense that has plagued civilization since its inception. After having read books by the four hoursemen, and watching (probably all) of their debates, I decided to join this website in hopes of enriching my perspective and perhaps seeing a bit more from the opposing side. 

I am a student at Stony Brook University with a degree in Biochemistry.

The Question:

Throughout most of the debates held by Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, Krauss, etc., theologians or religious proponents often invoke historical "events" such as the resurrection, virgin births, etc to back up their position. However, I understand that the veracity of these claims cannot be distinguished from other obviously made up stories that exist in culture based on purely scientific investigation because they cannot be reproduced or falsified. This idea has been difficult for me to circumvent.

Furthermore, I also began clumping these "events" with other historical events that actually did occur, such as the existance of Napolean. Simply put, how can we scientifically investigate the existance of, for example, Napolean? I suppose that the presence of historical artifacts, books, or other historical "evidence" confirms that he actually existed, but then the empty tomb of jesus is also invoked in the same breath. The obvious scientific approach to the empty tomb involves competing ideas of why the tomb is empty, perhaps somebody removed the body, perhaps he never even existed, etc. But the point still remains, we cannot falsify historical events – therefore I have trouble applying science to them. Any conversation or additional insight would be appreciated, Thank you.

20 COMMENTS

  1. Furthermore, I also began clumping these “events” with other historical events that actually did occur, such as the existence of Napolean. Simply put, how can we scientifically investigate the existence of, for example, Napolean?

    Emperors like Napoleon, Roman emperors, Egyptian Pharaohs etc. can be confirmed by written records, inscriptions coins, weapons, statues, buildings with inscriptions, places named after them and such like.

    but then the empty tomb of jesus is also invoked in the same breath.

    These claims for tombs, shrouds, relics etc. are largely based on the wish-thinking of believers and charlatans, ancient and modern.

    The problem arises when archaeologists make speculative claims on slim evidence, allowing the hard data to be have a sliding scale of mythology, all the way to pure fiction. THE Bible (in English) is TrRRrrrroooooo! Troooo believers are not interested in evidence of mis-translations, self contradictions. absence of independent contemporary confirmations, or actual records of who edited it and when.

    It is the TrrrRRRrOOOOOF – their pastors (who may not have actually read the relevant sections), said so with airs of authority – and went on to confirm each other’s stories!

  2. That’s what real historians do. They debate over evidence, or lack thereof. If there is no evidence of a particular event, it’s at best a conjecture (in a loose term). If there are no conclusive evidence, it is ergo ‘inconclusive’. If you use inconclusive evidence as the basis of your theory, then it’s worthless.

    However, there is the question of what constitutes evidence, or ‘fact’. Testimonies are unreliable. Even falsified, distorted, misguided, biased, or their conclusions wrong. Sometimes accurate, sometimes not, therefore cannot be the basis for an affirmative argument.

    A scientist would look at physical evidence (event testimonies and records as supportive material, with a varying degree of skepticism), attempt to discard biases and agendas, present a theory based on his knowledge of the facts, which would lead to a more likely scenario. It means, no presuppositions, aside from arguments that have already met the scientific criteria, and no ‘miracle pink unicorn’ bust-out-of-jail-free card..

    Others are quite happy to take words ‘on faith’, arguments from authority, ect… With varying degree of biases, and agendas thrown in.

    Both are hypotheticals, it’s always a sliding scale between skepticism and faith. It’s mainly a problem of epistemology. which method would you trust to be more robust to arrive to the truth? So really, it’s not that complicated. Understand and be critical of the material that is available to you, and do not start with a conclusion already written to affirm your personal agenda.

    Napolean.

    Napoleon. Man, … you got some work ahead of you.

    we cannot falsify historical events – therefore I have trouble applying science to them.

    That sounds like a Freudian slip. Or to be more conciliatory, a bad turn of phrase. Say again? :)

  3. First of all I’m pretty sure you are wrong about “the empty tomb of Jesus”. As far as I know there is no such tomb that any serious archeologists or anthropologists believe actually was that tomb. And the reason for that is simple, and it applies to a lot of the issues that people bring up in regard to the historical Jesus: if a historical Jesus existed he was a blip on the Roman radar. Crucifying people who claimed to be the messiah wasn’t all that uncommon and such people were not considered to be worth much more consideration than you average crack pots.

    And when you talk about explanations for the empty tomb you are ignoring a very obvious one: once the Roman Catholic Church took over the holy roman empire they had enormous power and influence. There were all sorts of incentives for people to make shit up for personal and institutional gain.

    I think where atheist critics go wrong is that they assume that the answer “people just made shit up” is the only possible answer for EVERY issue dealing with the historical Jesus. And from what I’ve read (I’m no expert but I find the topic kind of an interesting diversion once in a while) the very strong consensus among scholars, anthropologists, etc. is that almost certainly there was an actual person named Jesus. Explaining away everything as stuff that people made up requires some very convoluted theories, the theories that it was based on an actual person are far more credible.

    Getting back to the general question, this is something I think even a lot of scientists get wrong. There is no reason you can’t apply the scientific method to ANY topic. Critical thinking, data, hypothesis, etc. You can do all of that with the analysis of ancient texts and ancient history. You don’t have to wear a white lab coat or work with test tubes or particle accelerators to do science. Indeed, the whole division between the Natural Sciences and Liberal Arts is a recent modern invention only a couple of centuries old.

    Here is an article by one of the best known bible scholars Bart Ehrman. He goes into why there probably was a historical Jesus and gets into some of those techniques.

    • In reply to #3 by Red Dog:

      And from what I’ve read (I’m no expert but I find the topic kind of an interesting diversion once in a while) the very strong consensus among scholars, anthropologists, etc. is that almost certainly there was an actual person named Jesus.

      Consensus based on what? There was a very strong consensus that there was an historical Moses and to think otherwise was to be a kook on the fringe…since the 70′s that is no longer the case.

      Jesus, the English for the Greek name for the Hebrew Yesuah…or Joshua…was as common as muck in those times and long before. The OT is replete with the name, meaning “to deliver, to save, to rescue”, handy enough for someone who coincedentally became the “saviour” don’t ya think? Joshua was as generic a name as Bob, Steve or Brian is today. If one was about creating a myth about a person that was going to deliver, save and rescue, I can’t think of a better name.

      Many of those that declare an historical Jesus are biased, not least for financial reasons…including Bart Ehrman. How long do you think his tenure would last at Chapel Hill is he denied the existence of the Biblical Jesus…even the non-supernatural version? For a scholar to claim to be a mythicist is to self ostracise themselves to the fringe and commit professional suicide within the community. Ehrman proves that to be the case.

      Explaining away everything as stuff that people made up requires some very convoluted theories, the theories that it was based on an actual person are far more credible.

      Not really. At least not insofar as what I’ve read on the subject. The problem is that critical biblical scholars agree, by and large, that just about everything was made up. By the standard you put foreword, all fictional characters would require a kernel of truth in a historical character. Take the mythical Romulus and Remus for example, characters with many parallels to the gospel Jesus, including biographies and “historical details” by respected ancient Roman historians such as Plutarch.

      “Modern scholarship approaches the various known stories of Romulus and Remus as cumulative elaborations and later interpretations of Roman foundation-myth. Particular versions and collations were presented by Roman historians as authoritative, an official history trimmed of contradictions and untidy variants to justify contemporary developments, genealogies and actions in relation to Roman morality.”

      Any of that sound familiar?

      Getting back to the general question, this is something I think even a lot of scientists get wrong. There is no reason you can’t apply the scientific method to ANY topic. Critical thinking, data, hypothesis, etc. You can do all of that with the analysis of ancient texts and ancient history.

      Indeed, I agree. But in the case of the Historical Jesus Hypothesis the results are inconclusive. Given that, a critical thinker has to be agnostic on the subject.

      Here is an article by one of the best known bible scholars Bart Ehrman. He goes into why there probably was a historical Jesus and gets into some of those techniques.

      That article, like his book DJE?, is an atrocious bit of scholarship and has been decimated by a number of mythicists because it is such. Inaccurate research and disingenuous pokes at those that don’t agree with him, much to Ehrmans embarrassment and with a modicum of back peddling on a number of points, have left me a bit disappointed in a scholar whose other works I had a very high regard for in the past.

      Perhaps it would be incumbent on those with an interest in the subject to avail themselves of both sides of the debate.

      The first, an initial reply to the HuffPo article can be found here, Ehrman Trashtalks Mythicism, subsequent interaction can be found HERE

      The second, is an extensive reply by some of the mythicists Ehrman decries as loonies in “DJE?” published as a compilation book, Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth

      The Argument by Consensus should be sceptically viewed on this occasion as a warranted fallacy given that there is no irrefutable evidence for a historical Jesus whatsoever. If there were, the subject would be moot.

  4. Try reading (or listening as Audio book from audible.com) to Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature”. Steven is certainly a scientist and this book is historical review of levels of violence. Is a great book but also very interesting to see how he seeks accurate historical data on rates of violence. Same story coming from multiple independent sources always adds credibility. Eg. In 15th century England family entertainment included burning of live cats and also competitions to head butt a live cat to death while it was nailed to a wall! These events were documented in common advertising and quite common. In conjunction with some official records of violence, some autopsy records and various other sources he is able to put together a model of the levels of violence at this time. This is just a rough example. His book is, obviously, far more precise and detailed.

  5. By Stevens “Simply put, how can we scientifically investigate the existence of”

    In these discussions, when a question like this comes up, I respond that for such and such an event to occur, it would require the laws of physics to be suspended or broken. Given the laws of physics are universal throughout the universe, an event, that requires such a breaking of those laws, can be dismissed…. Or, if there is no evidence, it gets filed as “Not Known”. Move on.

    In relation to the “empty tomb”, I think Steven might be referring to the two day post the crucifixion fiction, when the tomb was visited and found empty. No evidence either way so it can be ignored.

    In response to Red Dog as to whether Jesus existed, Josephus makes an oblique and passing reference to him. If he was big news at the time, that is, a really important person, Josephus I suspect would have been more expansive. The Clementine Chronicles out of Rome make reference to people rioting on the instance of “Christus”. The people who wrote the bibles felt it was important to lay out Jesus genealogy, that is, that he was a direct descendant of King David, and thus was a contender to the Jewish throne. “King of the Jews”, Messiah, etc when read against a campaign to claim that earthly throne make a lot more sense that the religious interpretations. It also makes him a political target by those in established power.

    I suspect (without evidence) that those behind the campaign, the spin doctors realized they were getting traction with the Jesus story, virgin birth, rise from the dead etc, and embellished and sent it out on the social media of the time. The campaign also appealed to Gentiles, so their voter base was much larger than just those identifying as Jewish. The story of turning water into wine is code for the Gentiles being able to become priests, full initiates, and thus take wine as a sacrament, a privilege only available to Jews, with Gentiles never to become priests and thus, never to drink wine. It was also a cashed up campaign, with the yearly tithes for salvation flowing in from all over Asia Minor. A good story. Plenty of cash. Constantine giving it a tick. It took off. (I often wonder if Constantine hadn’t signed up for political reasons, whether it wouldn’t have died out, and we would have had the Holy Roman Catholic Church of Zeus.}

    • In reply to #7 by David R Allen:

      In response to Red Dog as to whether Jesus existed, Josephus makes an oblique and passing reference to him. If he was big news at the time, that is, a really important person, Josephus I suspect would have been more expansive.

      You are making the exact mistake I mentioned in an earlier comment. The whole point is that Jesus if he existed was NOT big news. He was just another Jewish trouble maker that the Romans got rid of. Not much more meaningful to Rome than US drone victims are to the US empire. Although with much poorer intel.

      • In reply to #8 by Red Dog:

        You are making the exact mistake I men…You are making the exact mistake I mentioned in an earlier comment. The whole point is that Jesus if he existed was NOT big news.

        I thought that is what I said…

        • In reply to #10 by David R Allen:

          In reply to #8 by Red Dog:

          You are making the exact mistake I men…You are making the exact mistake I mentioned in an earlier comment. The whole point is that Jesus if he existed was NOT big news.

          I thought that is what I said…

          Sorry, my mistake, I thought you were citing that as an example of why Jesus didn’t exist.

  6. Falsification isn’t the be all and end all of science. Have a look at Sean Carroll’s article here.

    There has been a lot of research done on what is usually called “the historicity of Jesus”. Have a look on wikipedia.

    Historical events involving miracles come with an additional problem which is they are always less likely than the most apparently implausible alternative. Try it. What is more likely “Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven” or “aliens stole Jesus from the tomb”. Far-fetched though the second alternative is it involves no overturning of fundamental physics like the first one does.

    Michael

  7. you can’t really apply much science to history as it is by definition a collection of written events.

    archeology can help add a scientific dimension but ultimately history can only really be handed with logic and reason. there are not many testable hipotheses available.

    when an event has contemporary corroboration (e.g. both sides of a war described the same event) you can assume it’s fairly trustworthy and the bits that are different reflect the differing political attitudes. this is one of the problems, even people who have accepted the bible as a true historical record have interpreted it differently depending on the politics of the time. nowadays it’s gay marriage, before that it was slavery, who knows before that they really might have been obsessed with fabric matchings..?

    I think in general, deciding on if something is fact or not has to come down to reason, i.e. how much support there is for any given “fact”. I try to see it as if an assertion is “top heavy” (too much built on too little) or “bottom heavy”.

    The bible is not a historical record. there are as many historical facts in it as you’d expect from any collection of stories form any time in history. any facts are there by chance. theologans will argue for top heavy assertions. sometimes linking some small archeological discovery with a proposed biblical event then using it as proof for everything the bible has to say about that event.

    Good history is scientific in as much as it acknowledges the error margin; what can’t be known from the writings. arguing for a historical bible is like arguing for grimms fairy tails. they’re folk stories. furthermore the bible is so full of self-contradictions it would be impossible to ever find evidence that could ever make the bible “true”.

    The strength of the scientific method is that literature is written by a person, just like history, but in a way that allows replication. can’t do that in history but you can take the eliments of logic from science and use it to demolish any historical account that is lacking in evidence

  8. Which of Jesus supposed tombs are you referring to exactly? There’s around half a dozen such sites (tourist traps) scattered across Jerusalem. There is the same problem when you consider the “True Cross” the fragments of which would have required a sizeable forest to produce, and even the site of the execution which has numerous locations attributed.
    We know that the bulk of these claims are false simply because at most only one could be true.

  9. @OP

    The obvious scientific approach to the empty tomb involves competing ideas of why the tomb is empty, perhaps somebody removed the body, perhaps he never even existed, etc. But the point still remains, we cannot falsify historical events – therefore I have trouble applying science to them. Any conversation or additional insight would be appreciated, Thank you.

    The Reverend Thomas Bayes’ Theroem as laid out in Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus is an interesting read. The follow-up book is due early in the new year and I’m waiting in fervent anticipation.

  10. Where history is concerned there can be no 100% conclusive evidence. Events have varying degrees of likelihood so the idea that you can convince someone with foolproof evidence is a non-starter. The best approach is convergence of evidence. The evidence for the existence of Napoleon’s existence comes from several sources which all coincide in important ways. As far as I can tell there is no such convergence with the Jesus story. In fact, I don’t think that he is actually mentioned outside the bible, which is odd since he was supposed to be such an important character and thorn in the side of the Romans, who were avid keepers of documents.

    Apart from that, though you might find some evidence for the existence of a man called Jesus, what evidence could there possibly be for his Resurrection? A vapour trail that someone caught on film?

    I have come to believe that concentrating on evidence is the wrong approach with believers since they clearly didn’t come to belief through evidence. I think the best you can do is ask them how likely they think it is that the laws of physics were repealed for a short time 2,000 years ago in a land full of illiterate and superstitious goatherds and then brought back into force. If they say ‘quite likely’ then there is little you can do. However, you might have planted a seed of doubt in their minds. The rest you must leave up to them. If they are intellectually honest they will come round eventually. If not, then not.

  11. Should remember that history is almost invariably written by the winners.
    With science the scientific method will eventually cause truth to rise to the top.
    But a note of caution exists in that sometimes the reputation of an individual will delay his/her interpretation of an observation from being challenged.

  12. Hi Stevens,

    Throughout most of the debates held by Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, Krauss, etc., theologians or religious proponents often invoke historical “events” such as the resurrection, virgin births, etc to back up their position.

    However, I understand that the veracity of these claims cannot be distinguished from other obviously made up stories that exist in culture based on purely scientific investigation because they cannot be reproduced or falsified.

    If, by this, you mean that history cannot be investigated using evidence and by testing theories based on that evidence … you’re wrong.

    This idea has been difficult for me to circumvent.

    Why?

    Furthermore, I also began clumping these “events” [assumed meaning: reports of events, by clergymen, claimed as fact] with other historical events that actually did occur, such as the existance of Napoleon.

    Simply put, how can we scientifically investigate the existance of, for example, Napoleon?

    I don’t understand the need to include the word scientific?

    That aside, what’s stopping you investigating any historical event?

    There are indisputable facts about Napoleon. His history is recorded by thousands of people, written records by people who were there, at the time. There are literally hundreds of places that Napoleon visited that we too can, and do, visit. As another Poster points out there are also artefacts.

    Just as scientists compare notes, so too do historians. Napoleon’s existence has been investigated many times, and no-one has found a reason to question Napoleon’s existence.

    The same standard, applied to Jesus Christ, is a lot less simple. There are no eye witnesses. Written records are conspicuous only for their absence. What we have is second hand reports, dictated to scribes (if, indeed they were dictated – the writers were so keen to remain anonymous one wonders … ). Artefacts that exist, and are claimed to link to JC cannot be dated to the right era.

    But as you brought up the empty tomb, let’s look at that. Except, of course, that we can’t.

    But the biggest difference is this; for Napoleon we have different records that tell the same stories and, thereby, reinforce each other.

    The Romans made Christianity a major religion – by empirical fiat – yet those same Romans made records of JC’s time without JC.

    I suppose that the presence of historical artifacts, books, or other historical “evidence” confirms that he [Napoleon] actually existed …

    I’m not clear on why the word evidence needs to be in quotes?

    The frequency, quantity and variety of evidence for Napoleon assures that the quality of the case for his existence is very high.

    The evidence for JC is far more troublesome. Even if he existed his history has clearly been interfered with by people with a lot invested in a particular story who have, just as obviously, clouded in that agenda.

    To be sure the history of Napoleon was, and continues to be, written by people with agenda. But you’ll find no-one questioning his actual existence, nor denying that he was a product of the French Revolution, or questioning that he was on the winning side at Austerlitz.

    … but then the empty tomb of jesus is also invoked in the same breath.

    I assume that you mean that clergy use bible references as if it were a history book? Yes, that is sad.

    The obvious scientific approach to the empty tomb involves competing ideas of why the tomb is empty, perhaps somebody removed the body, perhaps he never even existed, etc.

    Again with the word scientific. Historical investigations by professional historians are quite rigorous. As you rightly point out, they are limited by the available evidence. Science is no different.

    But the point still remains, we cannot falsify historical events …

    Your use of the word events assumes that all historical claims are equal. They are not.

    Historians are quick to deny historical claims where evidence has been ignored, falsified, poorly interpreted or where the claim is not supported

    Claims about JC fall at all of these hurdles, many claims about Napoleon pass all these tests – though interpretation can prove difficult.

    Peace.

    • In reply to #18 by Stephen of Wimbledon:

      Correction:

      The evidence for JC is far more troublesome. Even if he existed his history has clearly been interfered with by people with a lot invested in a particular story who have, just as obviously, clouded in that agenda.

      Should read:

      The evidence for JC is far more troublesome. Even if he existed his history has clearly been interfered with by people with a lot invested in a particular story who have, just as obviously, coluded in that agenda.

      Please forward all complaints to Apple Computer Inc.

      Peace.

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