Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Introduction

So, I’ve read a number of Jonathan MS Pearce’s books examining various aspects of Christianity, because I was conveniently ordering things from Amazon at the time and had heard about them from his blog, and it fit in with the “Examining Sophisticated Theology” thing I did in the past, being an Atheology aspect of that.  I’m going to talk about them off and on for the next while (I can’t promise it will be every week because there might be things that I want to talk about that I don’t want to wait to talk about).  Here, I’m going to start with the part that seems to most interest Pearce at the moment — he has written two recent books on it and is writing a third, although he has another book coming out that’s on more general topics — but interests me the least:  the historicity and accuracy of the Gospels and Bible in relating the Jesus story.

The reason this doesn’t interest me all that much comes from what seems to be the most common way skeptics go about challenging the Gospels or the Bible, which seems to me to be a Shotgun Approach:  fire off a great many arguments about contradictions with history and with each other and hope that by the sheer number their opponents will be overwhelmed and so their case will be made.  Why this doesn’t interest me much is because most of them end up being trivial and unimportant, most properly answered with a “I don’t care” than a “Yeah, that’s a tough one”.  I have long held that to make such arguments work you really need to find the critical components of the story and go after them, as it’s not crucial to the story how many angels or women were at the tomb, but is critical that Jesus was resurrected, for example.  As already noted, I think their hope is that with so many arguments they will overwhelm those who think the stories true and force them to come to the conclusion that they aren’t true, but I don’t think people work that way.  I think what happens instead is that people see all of these small arguments but in general don’t think them important, and so start to think that all of the arguments are just nitpicking, and so start ignoring them, especially if they were able to find reasonable — to them, at least — resolutions to the early ones.  It’s only people who are neutral or especially those who already have doubts that will eventually be overwhelmed by those arguments, concluding that their commitment to the belief isn’t strong enough to bother putting in the effort to resolve all of these arguments.  For any believer, however, for the most part they will be able to easily resolve these small arguments and will be motivated to do so, and so will be underwhelmed by the arguments (if that’s a word).

Pearce, I will say, is not as bad at this as others (I have read his book on the Nativity and his book on the Resurrection).  While he often does add up and reference a lot of really small arguments, he tends to focus on a couple of big cases at least that he then tries to shotgun, arguing that if this main component goes down then the whole thing goes down, and lists lots of reasons why that main component doesn’t seem to be correct.  However, that doesn’t mean that the ones he picks are actually important components or that he isn’t too quick to declare them impossible to resolve, which is something that I will probably go into in other posts.

The main approach that Pearce takes, particularly in this book on the Resurrection, is this:  he starts from the idea that the claims in the Gospels are extraordinary, and thus require extraordinary evidence to believe.  Then he wants to argue that the Gospels, for various reasons, are not reliable enough to be able to provide that sort of evidence.  He does this by pointing out contradictions between the Gospels themselves and between the Gospels and history, but also by showing that the Gospels are in general the sorts of historical documents that cannot provide that sort of evidence.  He does the latter by talking about how accounts that were not written down generally get corrupted easily, and also notes that ancient stories and histories tended to be unreliable unless they were done by dedicated historians, which none of the purported Gospel writers were (even Luke never claims to be and is never claimed to be a full historian, and only claims to be doing a more historical investigation).  So if they aren’t really reliable accounts, they could never provide the sort of evidence needed to justify that extraordinary claim.

Now, my first objection to this is that Pearce tends to consider anything supernatural “extraordinary” in that way, but the people he’s claiming should be convinced by this actually don’t consider the claims extraordinary in that way.  So this should result in an argument over that first, but Pearce tends to sidestep the arguments and maintain a naturalistic focus in the work, except to take small shots at anyone who is not a naturalist.  As most people reading this blog will know, I reject naturalism and all its works, mostly because I find the stance incoherent and ultimately meaningless.  So that the claims are supernatural don’t make the claims extraordinary to me, and a supernatural being that is claimed to have resurrected is actually less extraordinary than a being that wasn’t claimed to be supernatural.  So it is more reasonable to believe that Jesus qua Jesus was resurrected than any random person, and a lot of the arguments try to tie back to what ordinary people are expected to do, which is another flaw in naturalism.  The other, and perhaps larger, problem I have here is that let’s imagine that this really did happen, and this is the evidence we had.  Why couldn’t someone reasonably come to simply believe this based on this evidence?  Because if it is reasonable to think that this is the sort of evidence we could have, and the events really happened, then Pearce would have to be saying that it would be unreasonable to believe that what actually happened actually happened.  And that does not seem like a good epistemology.

Ultimately, this leads me to the major issue I’m having here:  Pearce — along with other people like Richard Carrier — seem to want believers, after they had read their works, to be compelled to give up their belief that these things happened on pain of being considered completely unreasonable and only acting on faith.  But the only way to be sure to get to that point is to be able to say that they know that these things didn’t happen, which means showing that key components of the story never happened.  You can’t do that by simply showing that the works are not necessarily accurate and are not necessarily reliable.  All that can do is cast doubt on the claims, and you cannot claim to know that something has not occurred by showing that we are reasonable to doubt that it occurred.  You need more than that.  To be fair, they do try to do this by showing that evidence that we should have is missing, but again that needs to be about important points and again they do tend to focus on a lot of points instead of on a few important ones.  While they tend to follow Bayesian epistemologies that rely on probabilities, I do not and do not agree that even under their model you can get to a reasonable definition of knowledge if you can merely claim that a claim is doubtful enough that the probability is low enough so that you can then claim to properly know that the claim is false.  That just seems weird, for the reasons I gave above:  true claims with unreliable evidence actually can’t result in a knowledge claim, so how could we ever know that a claim was false if all we have is that the evidence we have for it does not seem reliable enough to give a high enough probability?

So, for me, the important thing is the positive arguments against the claims, and that means given the evidence given in the books means looking at the cases where Pearce simply says that contradictions cannot be reasonably resolved in those cases where the story is critical to the belief.  Those are the cases that would justify a knowledge claim.  And so all I feel I need to do is show how they could be resolved, even if I can’t demonstrate that that’s what really happened.  Pearce and others really dislike that sort of response, but they need to establish that they can’t be reasonably resolved to make a knowledge claim and if I can show that they can be then they can’t make a knowledge claim.  And they can’t turn that around on me because I’m not making a knowledge claim here, but merely a belief claim.  And for a belief claim, I only need to claim what I personally think and don’t need to hold anyone else to what I believe, which again is not the case for them.

But I’ll get into more details on this when I get into the specific claims.  Here, I just want to outline what I think their project is — at least given their rhetoric — and what I feel they have to provide to succeed at their project. given that I don’t have the same philosophical foundations and starting points as them.  So, for me, they are not going to be able to use their preconditions in the way they normally do.

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One Response to “Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Introduction”

  1. Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Possibiliter ergo probabiliter | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] at the end of the last post I commented that it looked to me like Pearce is making a knowledge claim, and is basing that […]

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