Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Possibiliter ergo probabiliter

So 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 knowledge claim to a great degree on an argument that there are contradictions that cannot be reasonably resolved between the stories — either with themselves or with the historical record — and so the stories aren’t accurate and so aren’t true.  I noted there that if they base their argument on statements that these things cannot be resolved then all I need to do is show one possible way that they can be reasonably resolved to blunt their claim and so defeat their knowledge claim (at least to the point where it relies on that argument).  I can do this because if they are making a knowledge claim it has to be the case that, well, we really know that their argument is true, and if they are making a knowledge claim and I can introduce doubt into their arguments then they can’t be making a knowledge claim anymore.  If, on the other hand, they were just making a “I believe this” or “This is one credible option” argument then that argument wouldn’t be available.

I also noted there that they wouldn’t like this reply, and the reason is that this is something that Pearce and Carrier constantly call a possibiliter ergo probabiliter fallacy, where they argue that this is arguing “Possibly, therefore probably” and you can’t get from the fact that something is possibly the case to the fact that something is probably the case.  But where this goes awry — at least in the arguments that I will be using that sort of argument against — is that the argument is not being used to argue that something is possible so therefore it is probable so therefore we should believe that and, by extension, believe in the original proposition (usually, for them, the existence of God).  No, instead it’s being used strictly to challenge their arguments, which are presented as “There is no reasonable way this can happen/make sense”.  In that case, if I can show that there is a reasonable way that can happen then their argument falters.  This holds even if they could argue that their take on it is the more probable by whatever standard they are using, because what the argument would do is shift the debate from the one that more favours them of “This doesn’t and can’t make sense” to the one that favours their opponents more of “Which of these is actually the more probable, and if one is more probable than the other are we rationally required to take that option than the other one?”, which involves a lot more epistemology and the like.  And, again, as already noted the former can support a knowledge claim but the latter, in general, cannot (at least not without being able to demonstrate that the have evidence for their alternative that rises to the level of knowledge).

So if I am right that they are making knowledge claims or that their strong stances require them to make a knowledge claim, then all I need to do is introduce doubt, and doubt sufficient enough to mean that they can’t know their position is correct.  So for any argument they make that says that there is no reasonable way to reconcile the stories and events, all I need to do is show that there is a reasonable way to do that to blunt their argument.  As long as I am never stupid enough to make a knowledge claim, I can blunt their argument even if after all of this they still believe that their interpretation is more probable.  On the other hand, they must be careful never to use an argument that their interpretation is possible when they aren’t being challenged by a knowledge claim (Pearce actually does this at the end of his book on the Resurrection, so I hope to look at that when I get here).

Let me finish off this analysis of the typical fallacy claims involved in these arguments by looking at the theistic response of “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.  I think that Pearce is right to point out that that is not true if that absence of evidence is in a case where you would reasonably expect that evidence to exist, and so it is conspicuous by its absence.  Pearce, I think, in general uses this correctly, as he tends to use it against the strong supernatural claims of Matthew — the dead walking through the streets of Jerusalem, for example — by pointing out that if something that strange had actually happened, other contemporary writers certainly would have noted it.  He has to be careful, though, to make sure that the examples really are that strong, because again this argument is vulnerable to a counter that says that we can find a reasonable explanation for why they wouldn’t, and some of Pearce’s examples do seem to fall into that category.

To summarize, because I see Pearce and others as making a strong knowledge claim, I can oppose their claims by raising doubts and so in a number of cases simply raising a reasonably possible alternative as being the case.  It’s important to note this before I get into the specific claims because there I will be arguing for reasonably possible resolutions to the contradictions Pearce sees and I don’t want to have to deal with charges of the fallacy of possibiliter ergo probabiliter.

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