How do we know about the past?

The other day I was listening to an audio presentation by a Christian who is also an archeologist. Very interesting. What he said was rather obvious but somehow hearing someone say it was still novel. I guess as a scientist type, I'm always assuming science has a lot of answers about things.

He was making the point about how do we know ANYTHING about the past?

Of course, you can find stuff about it. That is what archeologists do. But we know about the past by what people write about it, for instance, the Bible.

He then went on to say, for some reason a few centuries ago, the assumption was the Bible must be wrong unless there is evidence to say it is right.

He asked, does this really make sense?

He proposed a thought experiment: take a look at your house and imagine it is 2000-3000 years later. How much of your house is left? Factor in rain, wind, fires, earthquakes, floods, etc. Will someone be able to figure out much about your life from what's left?

Why should written information about the past be totally discounted in favor of artifacts from the past which are hard to come by for the difficulties highlighted by the thought experiment.

People make the assumption that the Bible must be wrong unless there is evidence to say it is right.

One could just as easily assume that the written record is reasonable accurate unless evidence says its wrong.

And indeed, to what extent is the Bible confirmed by archeological findings?

He cited a variety of findings that show the Bible is consistent with what is being found by archeologists.

So if someone is doubtful about the historicity of the Bible, walk them through this to get at their underlaying assumption about how do we know about the past and maybe they will think it over and give the Bible a fair shake. One can hope anyway!


Anonymous said…
This reasoning doesn't make sense. It's special pleading. If people make incredible claims about magical happenings, they should be treated as simply another magical belief that's not true, unless we have excellent reasons to think otherwise. We can look at other cultures who believed in all sorts of myths that we don't waste one second thinking might be true, so why should we treat our own culture any different? We can even see today (using another form of logic) how people can believe in nonsense, so why should we waste time believing in old nonsense, unless we have outside evidence. You don't have to read Hume to understand that anyone who makes a claim that a miracle happened needs pretty good proof before anyone believes it.

It saddens me that people need to believe in their religion so much that they make such poor arguments, and then force themselves to believe their good arguments.

I could say more on how we can understand things better though artifacts, which, unlike humans, don't make up tales and wish to believe in miracles, but that's beside the point.
Rene said…
Thanks for dropping by "anonymous." I have a sitemeter and I know people are dropping by but most don't say anything! So it is good to hear from the visitors even if they disagree. 8-)

If I understand the definition of "special pleading" ... it is when one uses an argument in regards to A but doesn't use the same standard in regards to B?

Did I engage in special pleading? Maybe. I'm not an epistemologist, I'm a molecular biologist! 8-)

Archeology is a useful tool to tell us about the past. I'm always excited to hear about the latest findings. But I recognize there are limits to what we can know from artifacts.

The question then is this: are written documents (which are artifacts too) useful tools to tell us about the past?

As with artifacts, there are limits to what we can know from written documents.

However, do we assume what is written down is *automatically* a fabrication or not?

The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and Christian Scriptures (New Testament) make certain claims (natural and supernatural) about people, events, nations and cultures.

If archeology NEVER found ANY of those people, events, nations or cultures then one would have no rational basis to even consider the possibility that anything in the Bible is true.

But archeology has found things that confirm what is in the Bible. Not everything of course but a certain number of things. Thus, the Bible has a track record of being correct and true about at least some things.

Indeed, it is an act of faith to believe something is true when there is no direct evidence. However, if source A makes a claim B and claim B is supported by other lines of evidence, then how should we react to source A making claim C for which evidence is absent?

In life, when we come across a person we may start by being skeptical, we then move to giving them the benefit of the doubt and then we move to believing they can be trusted. It is a mix of reason and faith that we make that journey.

One can choose to live life with a rationalistic hyper skeptical persepctive. If so, one would believe in very few things. People are free to do that. I choose not assume that reason is the only route to truth.

As I have said, I am not a philosopher but from what I have heard about Hume, he was noted for his hyper skepticism about the certainty of knowledge?

Thus, he might have gotten a laugh out of this philosophy joke ...

An engineer, an experimental physicist, a theoretical physicist, and a philosopher were hiking through the hills of Scotland. Cresting the top of one hill, they see, on top of the next, a black sheep. The engineer says: "What do you know, the sheep in Scotland are black." "Well, *some* of the sheep in Scotland are black," replies the experimental physicist. The theoretical physicist considers this for a moment and says "Well, at least one of the sheep in Scotland is black." "Well," the philosopher responds, "on one side, anyway."

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