This is my second post in a series on the historical method. In my first post, I rejected the claim that skeptics are committed to a double standard for having a bias against magical claims. The reason for this has to do with probability, which will be a recurring theme in this series. This post will simply introduce the idea that we have to consider probability if we hope to make any progress.
Tell me why a given solution to a historical question is probable, rather than possible. I know I say this a lot, but it bears repeating. This has to be the starting point for resolving any historical question.
Imagine you are a historian and I come to you with some records written about Julius Caesar claiming that he was a god. Now, this claim seems to contradict everything we know from science and other sources, which leaves us with a problem. Let’s consider some possible solutions to the problem:
- The claim is correct, meaning Julius Caesar was a god and everything we think we know is false.
- The author was part of a conspiracy to puzzle later historians.
- The author was himself a god, but wanted to divert your attention elsewhere so he could be left alone.
Strictly speaking, these three solutions are all possible. But what do they have in common? They are all so unlikely that to describe them as “vastly improbable” would be an understatement. If we do not introduce probability, then we really have no reason to prefer any one possible explanation over any other. This means we should restrict acceptable proposed solutions to those that are relatively probable. So, the following explanations would be preferable:
- Rulers often demanded that people describe them as gods.
- People of the time did not have our current understanding that such gods probably do not exist, so the author did not know any better.
Hopefully you see why we might want to restrict solutions to the second kind of answer. Historical claims about Christianity are no different. If someone wants to propose a solution for something, like the virgin birth contradicting scientific knowledge or the differences in gospel genealogies, then they should provide reasons why their solution is probable. Then, we can compare it to reasons for an alternative solution. We may not be able to operate with the precision of comparing two options in Blackjack, but in many cases we can have a rough idea.
- Historical Method: Are skeptics committed to a double standard?
- Biblical Inerrancy is Not Probable
- Gospel Truth: Do we have eyewitness testimony?