Monday, April 12, 2010

Argument from Historical Proximity: Invalid

I've been writing about my migivings with Catholicism lately. I've also been semi-debating an aspiring Catholic philosopher. Why the sudden focus on Catholic thought? I'm not sure. However, something occured to me today, and I'd like to share it.

Getting into academic jousting matches with Catholic apologists (and a good many Protestant Evangelicals, too, just to be clear) over differences in doctrine, or even just the sensibility of this-or-that doctrine has highlighted a tactic often used against me. I'd like to call the tactic in question, "The Argument from Historical Proximity."

The argument is as follows: historical figures closer to the time of Jesus have a greater, more precise understanding of the details attending Jesus's life, and the lives of people close to Jesus (e.g., the Apostles, Mary, the first Christians, etc.). So, if I were to argue that recent historical research casts reasonable doubt on the perpetual virginity of Mary, the argument from historical proximity would counter that Mary was most definitely ever-virgin because the writings of the early church fathers state as much. And because the early church fathers lived closer to the time of Mary, they would have more reliable claims on the status of Mary's bedroom activities than today's historians. The assumption is essentially that the less the passage of time, the more accurate the claim, and the less chance of distortions to confuse the claim.

On the surface, the argument seems to carry with it some validity: it seems reasonable to think that people in the second century would have less confusions to work through than people in the twenty-first century concerning church beliefs. But given a moment's thought, the argument breaks down on a crucial point.

If we reason from historical proximity, then we have to be willing to accept opposing claims as valid, too. The Roman historian Tacitus (AD 56 - 117) wrote extremely close to the time of Jesus and the first Christians, and was a contemporary of the early church fathers. Tacitus considered Christianity a "deadly superstition"; i.e., it was a grave error, and a falsehood. Emperor Domitian (AD 51 - 96) claimed that Christians were 'atheists' and slaughtered them. Pliny the Younger (AD 61 - ca. 112) commissioned the murder of Christians because he considered them hedonists and cannibals.

So, if we take claims opposing Christianity on equal footing with Catholic arguments from historical proximity, then we can reasonably say that Christians believed falsehoods, and were orgiastic cannibals who believed in an untrue God.

Clearly, the argument from historical proximity is groundless; just as groundless as it would be to argue for the falsehood of Christianity by claiming Tacitus, Domitian, or Pliny the Younger as truth-measures. Christians, and Catholics especially, need to move on to better methods of truth-seeking than quixotic claims to historical proximity.


E said...

Sure, historical proximity *itself* isn't an "argument settler", let's say. But surely it counts as a truth indicator when it comes to testimony, right?

Of course there might be other factors that outweigh historical proximity.

For example, if someone claims that Nazi concentration camps weren't so bad, then the fact that they lived down the road from one back in the 40s, taken in isolation, obviously counts towards the credibility of their testimony. But, equally obviously, other factors outweigh historical proximity as a truth indicator in this case. (So much other testimony, documentary evidence, etc.)

E said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kane Augustus said...


"Sure, historical proximity *itself* isn't an "argument settler", let's say. But surely it counts as a truth indicator when it comes to testimony, right?"

That's a loaded question, in my opinion. It would seem fair to say that no-one can deny personal testimony. We can reasonably believe the insane man really does think his neighbour is god incarnate, and that every time he mows the lawn he's trimming the devil's hair. That same man may even keep a journal of his lawn-mowing, and personal revelations about god. Six-hundred years afterward, someone might come across the diaries of said madman and argue that that man's testimony is a truth-indicator of the reality he wrote about. But does that make it true? Not so much.

But, like you say, "[...]there might be other factors that outweigh historical proximity." And your example of benign Nazi camps is quite fitting. It also highlights my point exactly: mere claims to this-that-or-the-other-thing have to have more reliable means of verification.

For example, what verifies Mary's perpetual virginity? The fact that other people believed that to be the case? Not good enough. Other people have and do believe that the Nazi abattoirs were not so bad as to not have existed. They're particular beliefs are countered by the precise co-ordinates of the camps, the bodies buried there, the torture machines present on-site, and the confessions of the people who did the killings. In other words, the beliefs of the people who deny the existence of the camps is countered by the physical evidence that we can readily know.

The same cannot be said of Mary, say. Sure, people believe in her perpetual virginity the same way as the madman believes he's trimming the devil's hair every time he mows the lawn. Reasonable historical evidence, however, suggests that married women, even in Mary's time, had sex. Ergo, Mary, quite reasonably, had sex.

Now, the fault in my reasoning with the above example is simply that I'm exchanging a long-held belief for a reasonable hypothesis. Like the Catholics, I do not actually know that Mary had sexual congress with Joseph. But the upshot of that is simply that it becomes a bagatelle: whether she did or not has no practical implications in reality. So my continued use of that as an example, or a topic du jour is merely academic.

The point is, however, that testimony from history, even if it is close to the events in question, must needs be backed by evidence-based documentation, and not just the collected ramblings of traditional beliefs based in manufactured nostalgia.

For a perfect example of what I'm describing, see the mockery called The Flying Spaghetti Monster. It has no basis in reality, but it sure points out the ease with which one can claim what one likes, and create a whole mythology around it without a shred of evidence. I personally think the doctrines surrounding Mary's post-marital virginal status, her impeccability, and her assumption have all the same clout as the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

E said...

Truth-indicators are entirely different from truth-makers. You seem to be confusing the two.

I find it hard to believe that your apologist friend means to suggest that the historical proximity of certain testimonies *makes* these testimonies true.