Who Can Plausibly Tell Us Who Jesus Was?

That’s easy. Academic scholars.

They’re the contemporary experts who study the subject using the historiographic, textual, and archeological methods that have been developed since the Enlightenment.

Bart Ehrman (for example) is a far more reliable guide to what the individual gospel writers were trying to say than either Billy Graham or Joseph Smith. Not because Ehrman is an agnostic, but because he has participated in high level debate on the subject in academic journals and conferences.

His opinion about who Jesus was carries far more weight (or ought to) than, say, suburban-dwelling Protestants and Mormons, arguing at their door steps on a Saturday morning, about this or that passage in the Bible.

Indeed, it’s precisely Christian and Mormon “interestedness” in Jesus that ought to make their judgments about him all the more suspect. By contrast, a biblical scholar, whatever his or her faith tradition (or lack thereof), relies on evidence and reason to draw, in argument with other scholars, conservative, as opposed to fanciful, conclusions.

Scholarship rewards cautious judgment, which makes for fewer errors.

Furthermore, the average religious believer—and that includes the meat-and-potato clergy—has the atrocious habit of conflating biblical authorship (“the Bible says this” or “the Bible says that”). The Bible actually doesn’t say anything. Individual authors of individual texts say things. And they have individual purposes (personal, rhetorical, theological) that may be at cross-purposes with others—including the other authors who made it into the Bible.

Traditions, sects, and cults downplay attention to the individual authorship of biblical texts because then they would have to admit that the texts don’t speak with one voice—their voice.

By contrast, academic scholars have actually studied the primary documents and data surrounding the individual authors in question and have argued about what the individual authors were up to. In this sense, the assertions of the religiously committed concerning “who Jesus was” fog our understanding of the early Jesus tradition (by making, say, Mark “fit” with John, and vice versa).

So, when it comes to the Bible, let’s name things for what they are. With respect to the conflation of the biblical authors favored by, say, traditional Christian believers, here’s the truth: it’s an appealing and imaginative associative interpretation that binds everything up in a tidy package. But there’s no good reason to think that the package’s relation to, say, the Jesus of history is anything more than a mirage.


I chose the above song, by the way, because it’s actually an old spiritual from the American black church. The contemporary evangelicals singing it changed the words to smooth out a biblical reference glitch. The original lyric (toward the beginning of the song) is the following:

In my God’s Bible, in the Book of James, Christ was a-healin’ the crippled and the lame.

The songwriter clearly needed a rhyme (or, at least, a near-rhyme) for “lame” and chose “James” (even though the story appears in Matthew). In the above, the error has been replaced with a conflation—“the Word proclaims.” 

It’s still a great song.

Here’s the original:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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18 Responses to Who Can Plausibly Tell Us Who Jesus Was?

  1. Iain McMahon says:


    You beat me to the punch on my reply to David.

  2. Josh W says:

    That scholars draw conservative assumptions is recent. I can’t give you the exact region unfortunately, but there was a period where people got respect for their radical or unusual interpretations. I don’t mean that they got respect and they were unusual, I mean the very fact that they were controversial gained people’s respect and interest.

    As in many literary fields, (as I’m sure you know) a novel interpretation of the same stuff gets interest, and it’s ingenuity and entertainment value can give it some leeway.

    There’s also those situations where people have an agenda of promoting a certain method of criticism, and so will temper their criticisms of each other so as to preserve those basic assumptions that underlie their own methods. It’s understandable, as that is their job, and so conferences tied around certain types of criticism can have an echo chamber effect.

    Fortunately that’s been moderated now, where people who call themselves scholars or theologians can far more easily criticise each other and debate across lines and from very different methodologies. I would say it’s probably been only in the last 30 years that that has happened properly.

    There is still the danger that people will package their most controversial and untested ideas in popular media, trading on their scholarly reputation but not applying it, but people generally catch them out.

    • Iain McMahon says:

      Some good points there.

      In theology, as with in science, the unscrupulous take the fast track and produce “pop” work by releasing unconsidered or untested ideas early rather than put in the hard work of careful analysis and peer-criticism. Of course, knowing that we are better equipped to ignore those people and stick with the more reliable lot. 🙂

    • santitafarella says:


      I agree with Iain that you are making sensible observations, but it should also be noted that Christians (both early and modern) have not been conservative in their interpretation of the Bible. Instead, they have been elaborately speculative and imaginative—and this is what has gotten them into trouble with contemporary academic scholarship. The same goes for the Bible writers themselves. Paul, for example, made extraordinarily elaborate leaps of implication surrounding Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection that probably no one prior to him had made. But, whether Paul was right to make those leaps was something debated by the Christians of the time. That Paul’s view prevailed over other Christian understandings of Jesus in the first century does not make his view in accordance with the actual Jesus of history. It would be enormously informative (as Nikos Kazanzakas does in his novel, “The Last Temptation of Christ”) to have the Jesus of history encounter the theorizing Paul and have a conversation.


      • Josh W says:

        Isn’t that the one where he says “you didn’t go far enough”? 😛

        I tend to abe a bit zizek-ish or cybernetic about “the real historical Jesus”, and assume that to talk about “the real” is to talk about conceptual incompleteness.

        To discuss “the historical jesus (such as in that story you know?)” is a bit cheeky, because of the level swapping it involves. You distinguish between the culturally transmitted picture of something, gesture to “the thing in itself”, then cut and paste your own concept over the later.

        To not be too abstract, there is now a historical Jesus to your historical Jesus, a really real to your real and so on. To my mind the only way to define reality without this kind of recursive sillyness is to define it as “the place where surprises come from”, or the “limit of striving of our minds”, depending on how proactive we are being!

        Or you can embrace the recursion and talk about a more historical Jesus.

      • santitafarella says:


        I disagree. From the vantage of the real, it’s complete. There is the real and there is our interpretations placed upon the real. I like Zizek, but the truth is still out there, and it matters. That, in any case, is my metaphysical position after my flirtations, over the years, with postmodernism. The fact that the historical Jesus is inaccessible to us is all the more reason to be cautious and conservative (and, ultimately, agnostic) in asserting things about him.


      • Josh W says:

        Hmm, can’t seem to give a direct reply in this comment system, we’ve probably indented too many times.

        I’m a realist too personally, that’s not quite what I’m getting at:

        I think philosophically it’s totally legit to state (implicit bits in brackets)

        (according to my encyclopaedia of the world) jesus was x (although a new edition of that encyclopaedia may be produced by new knowledge)

        I just feel like it’s better to mentally locate the source of falsification and new information in the source of study itself.

        That’s not a very good way to say what I mean, but in the above situation, you’re just stating opinions, the ways your opinions change (and so the ways they are formed) are implicit but also invisible.

        The great thing about talking about more or less historical is that you’re clued up to the fact that there is a continuum, and you are asserting that you are closer to reality. You are constructing an ordering structure based on your pattern of epistemology.

        Or in more normal words, instead of two people saying “jesus was really x” “jesus was really y” till the cows come home, by saying something like “jesus x is more historical” or “jesus who thinks/behaves like x is more historical” suddenly in your mind your going “Than what? Why?”. The implicit statement, “this idea is formed via this method” is given a place to sit in the sentence.

        It’s a good language habit to make for yourself too, because it encourages you to temper any tendencies to dogmatism or immature crystallisation of ideas, while still allowing you to go around as opinionated as ever!

        But really what I was talking about was the idea behind it, holding the ways the idea formed in mind at the same time as the statement. It’s like the mandate of heaven in confucianism, or the procedure of falsification of science, it backs something up by making it conditional.

        Going totally overboard with detail; I think being a true realist means there must always be something supplementary to your ideas, our ideas etc. You have to couple that with the idea that we can truly engage with that supplement (otherwise it’s just solipsist idealism again) and so you have at best a succession of encyclopaedias, of views of the world, becoming more accurate but still remaining incomplete and partially contradictory, always taking on some more of the truth (and often being radically transformed by it) but never all of it. That “never all” approach allows you to pick up a sheadload of the ideas by people who like radical negativity without denying reality itself.

        Anyway, that’s a lot of words for a little tease, thanks for instigating me to express it!

  3. David Yates says:


    Let me begin by saying that, in large part, I agree with you — and wholeheartedly so. But the fact is, the process for which you’re advocating here is already happening, and has been (at least as far as the Judeo-Christian tradition is concerned) since the initial writings of the apostle Paul. (I include Judaism in this only because it was roughly contemporary with the birth of the Christian Church — i.e. just prior to and subsequent with the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70 — that rabbis successfully translated Jewish worship from the Temple cultus to the necessarily more academically-inclined study of Torah.) Orthodox Christian theology has always been derived from a close reading and consequent interpretation of the biblical text, and then refined via rational theological debate.
    While it’s obviously true that your average, run-of-the-mill Christian isn’t going to possess the utmost in theological sophistication, pace McMahon and yourself, Christians do differentiate between the various Christologies of the New Testament writers. Ever since I became a Christian nearly 30 yrs ago and was initially encouraged to read the Gospels for myself, I’ve been told by even the most ‘lay’ of lay Christians that, as I made my way through them, I should bear in mind that it was most likely that Matthew’s Gospel was directed towards a Jewish audience, that Mark’s was intended for a specifically Roman audience, and both Luke’s and John’s, with their more elegant and sophisticated Greek, were largely tailored for Asian Gentile believers (and by “Asian” I obviously don’t mean Chinese or Indo-Asian, but rather Anatolian and Eastern Mediterranean).
    Nonetheless, it evidently still needs noting that even though there exist distinct differences, and even discrepancies, between the four canonical Gospels, this does not necessarily indicate that one version is wrong and another more-or-less accurate in each of their representations of Jesus, but merely that for their own particular reasons, each Gospel writer tended to emphasize certain aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry over certain others. But even still, they can all be perfectly accurate.
    I remember several years back reading four different biographies on Winston Churchill. One emphasized Winston Churchill the military man; soldier, officer, commander, and strategist. The second emphasized Churchill the politician and statesman. The third dealt mainly with Churchill the historian and writer. And the fourth preoccupied itself with Churchill the artist; as a skilled and commendable impressionist painter of landscapes. If each of these were collected together into, say, the four Gospels of Winston Churchill, a couple thousand years from now one can only imagine the high-critical debates, the relatively vicious aspersions cast by sceptical “Churchill” scholars concerning the motives and deliberate inventions of this or that (or each) biographer, the doubts, the denials, the denunciations. Certain academics would argue for this aspect of Churchill’s life or career over-against that. Other more radical scholars might go so far as to proclaim that, in light of all the wildly divergent depictions of the man, they feel they’ve little logical choice but to highly question as to whether such a person existed at all! And then there would be those oh-so-unsophisticated and all-too-credulous rubes who would be so gauche as to insist that each of the four portrayals of Churchill are in fact both authoritative and accurate, and that it’s perfectly within the realms of reason and sound scholarship to accept each of them as such. And, needless to say (but that’s not going to keep me from saying it anyway), it’s these last ones who would be right.

    -: David

    • santitafarella says:


      Orthodox Christian reading of the Bible is not “close reading,” and has never been “close reading.” It’s not conservative in interpretation. It’s IMAGINATIVE and associative. It takes an associative mind, not the historicist’s mind, to arrive at the interpretations of orthodoxy. You don’t think them unconservative and weird because you swim in them.

      And the Bible writers themselves are imaginative and associative readers of the Bible as it had come to them. Example: Matthew’s reading of Isaiah and the other prophets is not historicist. Instead, the writings of the prophets point to Jesus. That’s an imaginative leap, not that of the conservative historian looking, say, at Isaiah 53 in historical context. The leap may, indeed, be justified, but it is still a leap.

      When Paul called Jesus the Second Adam, that’s an imaginative leap. When a contemporary Christian makes John fit with Mark, that requires an imaginative leap. When a liberal scholar posits “Q” as a sayings source for what’s common to Matthew and Luke, that’s an imaginative leap—an inference derived from noticing certain similarities and contrasts in the texts. What’s actually real behind all of these kinds of leaps is utterly and completely open to debate (which is why they are debated).

      It’s thus all very plausible to you that four biographies of Churchill might be compared to the gospels, but you should not confuse analogy for proof. You are engaged in a speculation about the gospels that may or may not be correct. What may be closer to the truth is that Mark would not have recognized the Jesus of John’s gospel; that Matthew may have regarded Paul as a heretic from Judaism; and that Isaiah might well have regarded Matthew reading of his prophecies as completely divorced from his intentions. Likewise, Paul’s Second Adam thesis is all goofed up if Adam didn’t, in fact, exist.

      What I’m suggesting is that Orthodoxy imagines itself normative and conservative, but it is no more conservative than, say, the pop-theologian’s best seller in the 1970s titled, “Who Moved the Stone?”

      Like string theory in physics, you can arrive at very elaborate and imaginative theories that pull together diverse apparently contradictory threads of information into a grand unified theory, but that theory may be a castle built into the air.

      I submit that Paul’s interpretation of Jesus is akin to the clever string theorist: plausible and pleasing, but lacking in any obvious way to confirm or disconfirm it. Likewise, with the whole elaborate edifice of orthodoxy: it all holds together until you start asking a simple question: are there other possibilities here? Am I under the spell of a thesis that, on a more conservative reflection, might admit of other ways of reading the books of the Bible? Might Matthew not have approved of Paul? Might John’s christology really be an imaginative leap the other gospel writers were unwilling to make? Might Matthew have not been writing history surprised at Jesus’s fulfilling of Isaiah 53, but actually using the text of Isaiah 53 as scaffolding for his imaginative narrative: “Jesus must have experienced this because it says such and such in Isaiah,” etc.

      My point is that non-conservative imaginative and associative leaps are not characteristic of everybody but the Orthodox. The Orthodox are playing the same non-conservative game, and that’s why conservative historicists, honing their arguments near to the actual evidence at hand and reminding us always of the rhetorical presence of the individual biblical authors, are able to goof up tidy non-conservative narratives based in associative thinking so easily.

      Example: read any scholar on the Exodus and conquest of Canaan. They say it didn’t happen. Period. The Israelites are an offshoot of the Canaanites. That means no 6 million people trudging about in the desert for forty years. No wiping out Canaan in a swarm. No Moses plaguing Egypt. No sun stopping in the sky for Joshua’s armies. These are all wildly non-conservative stories by imaginative Israelite authors. The stories are not a conservative understanding of the actual history of the early Israelites, but an imaginative rendering.

      What scholars say about the exodus and conquest of Canaan is not the liberal interpretation, it’s the conservative interpretation (the one taking into full account the data at hand and drawing cautious conclusions).


      • Josh W says:

        How do you create a new conservative idea? Isn’t creating an alternative always an imaginative leap?

        My take would be, that a conservative approach is based on analysing a previous tradition and trying to use previous scholarship etc. and that an imaginative approach is making a new conceptual approach.

        If you take conservative to mean, “the same as my assumptions”, and imaginative to mean “different from my assumptions” then of course people will think of their own stuff as conservative.

        But instead if you take it to mean, “bringing a new insight and idea”, then maybe Paul was imaginative and untraditional, even as those Q document bible critics were. But to step back from that, I’m not sure about the background of either of those, maybe Paul was using a development of old school rabbi methods, and the Q document people were using methods that were previously applied in seperate but associated areas.

        It’s probably a bit of both!

        In fact one of the great things about scholarly discourse, is that it can turn imaginative ideas into conservative ones, by forcing people to cite sources and argue with reference to analyses your critic accepts, you tie new ideas solidly into the existing framework. Now hopefully that will preserve both those elements of the idea that are novel, and those that are true; hopefully the person proposing it will have enough stamina to support both.

      • santitafarella says:


        What I mean by conservative is honing close to data; cautious empiricism. “Q” as a sayings source for what’s in Matthew and Luke is an imaginative leap, but it is also a conservative theory. Something like it is almost certainly true, though somebody had to be creative enough to see it in the data. Einstein’s theory of relativity is a conservative theory because it is based on data upon which prediction and reality testing can be applied.

        Not so an assertion like the following: The destruction of Jerusalem forty years after Jesus’s death is because the Jews killed Jesus, and God was judging them. This slander is associative and completely beyond any evidential appeal short of the association itself, but it is something that early Christians leaped to as an “explanation” of the destruction of Jerusalem. They attributed the association to a prophecy of Jesus (the parable of the wedding invitation, etc), but it is not a conservative interpretation of data; it is an imaginative leap far beyond empirical verification or argumentation: you either believe it or you don’t. Pat Robertson does the same when he blames this or that hurricane on gays in America. Likewise, Paul’s assertion that Jesus is the second Adam.


      • David Yates says:

        Please forgive my absence these last few days. I had other personal and professional things I needed to attend to.

        First: Perhaps your definition of “close reading” varies from mine, but when it comes to interpreting Scripture, if taking into account how practically each and every word in the text would have been used given the socio-historical, rhetorical, and cultural contexts of the day, along with each term’s various semantic domains fails to constitute a close reading of the text, then I honestly don’t know what will. For goodness sake, the book of Amos takes up a total of six pages in my Bible, yet I have a commentary on it that’s just under a thousand pages long. Paul’s letter to Philemon takes up a single(!) page in the average Bible, yet I have a commentary on it that’s 561 pages long. Granted, Luke’s Gospel is considerably lengthy — especially relative to most ancient writings of that time — but nevertheless, I have a two volume commentary on Luke that totals 2,148 pages. I have a three-volume commentary on the Psalms that’s 2,195 pages in total. Likewise, I have a commentary on the sixteen chapters of Romans that’s 1140 pages. And finally, 1 Peter takes up just over three pages in my Bible, but nonetheless I own a commentary on it that’s 956 pages long. You can’t seriously insist that these fail to provide a close reading of these texts.

        Second: I didn’t make the claim that orthodox doctrine is derived from a “conservative” interpretation of the Bible’s teachings. Indeed, I believe much of it, properly understood, to be both radical and revolutionary! Nor did I claim that the NT writers were bereft of imagination or of “associative minds.” Heck, I’ll insist on it! (Although I do fail to understand why so many Bible readers who are of a more liberal bent are so quick to credit the NT writers with inventiveness when it comes to the content of their writings, but obstinately refuse to allow Jesus equal imagination when it came to his actions.)

        Third: Sure Paul utilized his imagination when it came to him labelling Jesus “the second Adam,” and then illustrating certain theological truths through use of such an analogy. How does this pose a problem?
        And no, Paul’s use of the figure of Adam is not “all goofed up” unless Adam was a historical person. How many people draw important truths from works of fiction? How many profound truths have been learned and communicated through a figure like Hamlet? Neither the legitimacy of those lessons are jeopardized by doing this nor is the integrity of the one doing it.

        Fourth: Here again, I find myself in hardy agreement with you. I also regard ‘Q’ as a purely speculative concept dreamt up by certain scholars. I blame gross anachronism on their part as the culprit.

        Fifth: LOL! I didn’t at all intend my use of the four biographies of Churchill to stand as any sort of “proof.” Rather, my intention was simply to illustrate how four disparate portrayals of one man can significantly vary from each other, and yet their respective depictions can still be perfectly accurate. And while it MAY be possible that Mark would not have recognized the Jesus of John’s Gospel, there’s really very little warrant for supposing so. While the style and content of each Gospel is considerably different from each other, even still, in all four Jesus performs certain “mighty acts,” such as walking on the sea and commanding the storm to be still, and miraculously feeding a multitude in the wilderness, performs mighty acts of healing even to the point of raising the dead, he draws talmidim (or disciples) to himself, he “cleanses” the Temple, sufficiently threatens and angers the Jewish leadership so that they seek to kill him, he shares a “last supper” with his talmidim, is arrested in a garden, put on trial, is sentenced to crucifixion, dies, and then is bodily resurrected, after which he appears to his disciples and finally commissions them to be his apostles. Yes, the details may differ, but the similarities are far more compelling. (As well, that the Fourth Gospel is very different from the other three has been obvious to believers for over 1500 years, which is why the “Synoptic” Gospels are placed together and then John, whereas the natural tendency would have been to situate Luke just prior to the book of Acts, since they make up ‘Part 1′ and Part 2’ of Luke’s writings.)

        Sixth: Re: The alleged “pop-theologian” who wrote “Who Moved the Stone?” all I can say is, “Huh?” I have no idea why you brought this up.

        Seventh: You then go into a fair bit of speculative and imaginative thinking yourself, much of which I don’t think I really need to address. (Unless there was something in there that I missed that you strongly feel deserves serious attention. Then, by all means, please bring to my attention and I’ll be only too happy to oblige.)

        Eighth: And finally. There are actually plenty of very credible scholars and archaeologists who will attest to the historical authenticity of the exodus event and Israel’s conquest of ancient Canaan. See e.g. James K. Hoffmeier, “Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition” (NY/Oxford: OUP, 1996). Notice this is a book published by Oxford University Press; hardly what one would call a hothouse for conservative, evangelical Christian book publishing.

        -: David

  4. santitafarella says:


    I’ll respond to your eight points by making some broad observations. You said that evangelicals take “into account how practically each and every word in the text” is used. In that sense, I agree that they are close reading. In fact, I’ll even concede that in making a provocative point I overstated it. But here’s the question: evangelicals take account of words to what purpose?

    Here, the answer is clear: to a very specific thesis. In other words, the authors are not being noticed for their particularity, but for their support of the broader thesis (such as finding Jesus everywhere in the Hebrew Bible). Where the thesis is not supported, the author is forced into some form of reconciliation (as when evangelicals read Genesis 1’s “let us make man in our image” as the trinity; as when Mark is made to fit with John; as when evangelicals deny that there was a Q source common to Matthew and Luke used for different purposes by them; as when the Canaanite origins of the Israelites as discovered by archeology are denied and the stories of the Exodus are read literally, etc).

    In other words, evangelicals read the Bible the way that conspiracy theorists read a newspaper: though they might read every word, and write long books on what is in them, they’re not really reading closely; they’re reading through a lens that warps context in service of a thesis.

    Now, you might retort that this is just a conflict of worldviews, and perhaps it is partly that. But it is also a conflict of objectivity v. subjectivity. Scholars, whatever else they are, usually try to be objective readers going where the evidence takes them. That includes evangelical scholars. I certainly don’t deny that they exist. But most evangelicals (like most atheists; like most Mormons) don’t read the Bible objectively, but with a very particular thesis in mind to prove (all that’s in the Bible is bullshit, Jesus is God, the Bible supports polytheism, etc). This leads to a disregard of each author’s central importance in each text of the Bible; of time and place and context.

    As for the Oxford author who wrote in favor of the Exodus, I’m completely dubious. I’ll check out the book, but there are no serious academic authors anywhere positing (for example) that Egypt had a slave population of 6 million Jews who left Egypt around 1250 BCE, wondered in Sinai for forty years, wiped out Canaaan, set up a large Davidic kingdom in 1050 CE, etc.

    All these things are in the Bible. Archeology has shown them to be demonstrably false. The Oxford author may be proposing some modified memory of certain events that roughly match aspects of the Bible stories, but the grander story depicted by the Bible has no archeological support.

    An example: the Canaanites have a long history in relation to Egypt, and part of that history includes incidents of slavery. The biblical story of Israelite slavery in Egypt may reflect this memory (since the early Israelites stemmed from the larger Canaanite society).


  5. Josh W says:

    I’m quite interested in your definition of cautious empiricism, and I get the feeling your developing quite an enthusiasm for expressing it. Keep going!

    But it does mean this might be pretty out of date given what you’ve explored in the last month:

    Basically I think that “honing close to data” is something that actually supports superstition. Why? Because a superstitious “point mechanism” approach to reality means that everything has an explanation, but those mechanisms never reach beyond that to “verifiability”. Or to finish the implicit phrase, “verified predictions”. In other words, it may “fit the facts”, because it fits all the data it is there to support, but it has no way for someone else to come along and poke it, because it is made to avoid reaching towards other facts. In contrast, systematic approaches, developing theories that are ambitious and precarious, yet still do not fall, is seen as a mark of likelihood-of-truth in physics: It’s like a bold strategic gesture that could capture the whole universe or break into pieces.

    To be epistemologically conservative might be to make statements that are not at all predictive, “what has happened happened, and may or may not ever happen again in the same or a different way”. I’ve actually met people who hold to this kind of attitude, where every occurrence is shrugged off as a special case. It’s quite a staggering position, but these people seem to function with it fine, breezily bouncing in a low-consequence way through other people’s systems.

    I suspect that the systematic approach is better served in those situations where you have real pruning procedures, like analysing real archaeology. There the grand theories can be undermined by seeing if their great claims are mirrored in the world. My favourite term for theories that lack this is “unrooted”.

    Why? Because as you’d expect from my previous comments, I like language that encourages us to think about epistemology, that doesn’t automatically assume linkages between the socially static (the conventional meaning of conservative) and the accurate.

    Unrooted and conservative? What everyone knows to be true but is not, what fits our social framework but not how things really run. etc.

    Now if the biblical narrative does come unstuck when faced with archaeology, but the more naturalist approach doesn’t, that’s a pretty legit reason to go with the latter. Or you can draw up battle formations and seek to reroot biblical narratives, or other equally unrooted narratives, to that new higher standard.

    Either one is good really! Although I prefer the potential for competition in the latter.

    About justification of terrible events, the great irony is that what can begin as conciliation can become motivations for terrible acts. It’s natural to assume that powerfully experienced evil must come with some kind of separate special mechanism, that a president cannot simply be killed by a normal bullet. To suggest instead that this hurt comes from the same building blocks as normal functional life, as one freak wave based on the normal rhythms of the sea, is deeply uncomfortable, because of how fragile it makes that which we value.

    So it’s more comfortable to give special experienced evil over to special sin, to find the reason that a group deserves this or that. Or to assign it to an evil genius, who knows just the place to hurt us. It feels proportional, but in both cases leads to ridiculous and terrible results.

    It is much more functional, more helpful to those who derive it, to look at other’s misfortune as something that could happen to you, if certain conditions are right, and by analysis of those conditions, seek to avoid it. But this requires total dedication to finding the real reasons, however mundane or close to home.

    • santitafarella says:


      Well, you’ve written a very interesting response and opened a can of worms. I agree with you that it’s difficult to know at what level one should theorize. We wouldn’t have, for example, string theory to even talk about if people didn’t go imaginatively wild with mathematical models; nor would we have Liebnitz’s ideas about possible worlds in relation to the problem of suffering and God.

      But, then, absent epistemic conservatism we wouldn’t have Voltaire’s famous mockery of Liebnitz in “Candide” or the cautious empiricists at the Large Hadron Collider seeing if there is some way to actual test predictions from string theory.

      And that’s the problem, isn’t it? The number of logically possible worlds is infinite. For example, in logic there’s nothing forbidding flying cats in the atmosphere of Saturn. We think it’s physically impossible (given what we know empirically of cats and of Saturn), but nothing prevents us from imagining flying cats in the atmosphere of Saturn as a logically possible world. Where science fiction runs riot is in logically possible worlds (think “The Matrix”). But, what we want to do is distinguish the logically possible from the physically possible, the technologically possible, and the true or actual.

      And that’s where empiricism comes in. We look at things and see if they are actually the way we speculate them to be. Or, if we are concerned with technological possibility, we look to see how things are at present, and how they might be changed to our benefit in the future. We want to know, for example, if it’s even physically possible to turn lead into gold. We can imagine it, but can we actually figure out a way to do it?

      What empiricism does is reduce our search in the vast library of logically possible worlds. We don’t go looking for cats on Saturn, but we might go looking for extremophile bacteria some day. We might give up on trying to transform lead into gold, but we might well think it plausible to transform beach sand into solar energy capturing devices, or think it worth our while to try to figure out how run-of-the-mill chemistry might turn into organic chemistry. An IDer might say this latter project is akin to alchemy (trying to turn lead into gold). But, scientists pursue the subject of abiogenesis because it’s logically possible—we can imagine it happening in vague terms—and it would function as a big piece of the puzzle in giving a full material explanation of the universe (that is, one consistent with strictly materialist philosophical premises).

      So, perhaps the question should be: why posit one possible world over another, and can it be tested? In the vast library of possible worlds, why pursue one avenue of speculation and leave another one unexplored?

      I suppose part of the answer has to do with desire. Gods, free of mortality and suffering, might well be indifferent to finding out what’s really true. They might even be content with logical impossibilities and absurdities (cats that fly and don’t fly in the atmosphere of Saturn at the exact same time). They might, in other words, be happy to treat the universe as play. Humans have difficulty leaving it at that. Logic and empiricism are the only methods we really have for narrowing our search at least a bit. Then, we combine these with walks in solitude and dialogue with others (on blogs, in science journals, at conferences, etc.). Short of scriptural revelation or directly experienced epiphanies or theophanies, what else can we really do to get at the truth of matters? And if we ever did get a theophany, how would we know our experience was not illusory short of reasoning about it?


      • Josh W says:

        Well my gut answer is “try it safely and cheaply”.
        I’m an experimentalist at heart; say you have some grand new idea, and you want to act on it, first add a few stops that need you to be right to succeed. That’s where reason comes in for me, it’s like the first barrier; can you make it make sense, can you fit it with broader concerns and principles?
        That saves you a lot of bother working against yourself, and trying to see if something fits with what you already know can produce ideas for how to get them to fight it out without harm.
        For me reason is first and foremost about the search for consistency.
        Next there’s convincing other people; gently and politely getting someone else to agree with you is a great advocate for the quality of your ideas, it’s another roadblock that good ideas can usually pass.
        It also means that if your idea starts interfering with other people’s lives, you’re already taking the stance that you should get them on board, implicit democracy.
        There are loads of other “proofs of concept”/prototypes you can make, from models to books to paintings to pieces of music or programming, just working through it in some alternative form can save you a bit of hardship when actually trying to act on your ideas.

        The natural answer here is “but that takes so much time” which is true, but I think that multiple people instantiating their ideas culturally first, or in small experiments, is a better way to proceed than a few people pushing on with their ideas and bulldozing the rest. The problem space is large, so we might as well explore it as fast as possible.

        Yes there’s a place for ridicule, and of teasing people with grand pretensions, but you have to go through with that too. It takes work. The man who goes round splurting and coughing that something is nonsense is really adding nothing but noise, instead you need the people who say “really? even given this?”. That’s why I loved “boobquake”, instead of just scoffing at someone’s ideas, they took them seriously and so made them into a joke.

        I also love no-go theorems, which are the same kind of things. Real blocks that must be surmounted rather than a general feeling of implausibility. I like obstacle courses rather than categories of acceptable thought.

        I mean in a way that is a kind of caution, a literal caution, I suppose.
        But I’ve no idea if it’s the sort of thing you mean!

      • santitafarella says:


        I agree with you that a good deal of reasoning—at least synthetic reasoning—is engaged in making things consistent. I prefer the word coherent. Does your background knowledge—the things you think you already know—match well with whatever new data points are incoming? If not, you’ve got to come up with a new and coherent theory that accounts for everything well and plausibly.

        I also agree with you that, if you can get a lot of other people to agree that your theory is not crazy, you might be making progress. Two heads tend to see more of the truth-picture than one. Expert consensus can be informative, for example. But I’d be cautious here. A popular movement or a consensus can work against rationality if it calcifies into habits of thought that encourage no longer looking at things with fresh eyes. This is especially true where money or fulfilled emotional desires are implicit in a group’s conclusion.

        A lot of people think we continue to live after death, but the conclusion is not better established because of it. If anything, the conclusion, based in visceral desire, is rendered more suspicious by the mass approval.

        As Orwell wrote of separating objectivity from subjectivity, facing facts, and acknowledging what we know (and don’t know) head-on: “To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant effort.”


  6. Josh W says:

    Makes sense to me! 😛

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