Saturday, August 3, 2013

Arguments From Absence Of Evidence

The following is part of an excellent discussion between Farrell Till and a Christian, Paul Smith, on when absence of evidence, where there should be evidence, is a good argument against a claim. From the alt. Bible. errancy Yahoo group, May 21, 2000:

TILL (1)
Kent, you and David Sparrow need to put your heads together. The two of
you, working independently, have yet to provide a sensible explanation for
this absence of evidence that should be there if these [Exodus] wilderness
stories are historically accurate.

SMITH: (2)
Woah! ...does this mean that arguments from absence are now
considered weighty here? Cool! Someone please let me know,
'cuz I have a BUNCH of arguments from absence that I think bode
well for the God Hypothesis -

TILL (3)
Now, come on, Paul, you have to know that the absence of evidence
where evidence would have to be if certain alleged events had happened
is a compelling reason not to believe reports of the events. If someone
tells you that a flash flood swept through Podunk Valley last week, what
are you going to conclude if you go to Podunk Valley and see no evidence
that would have to be present if such a flood had occurred? This is so
simple that you can surely see it. I'm sure that if you saw absolutely no
evidence of a flash flood, you would view with suspicion any claims that
the civic pride in Podunk Valley was such that everyone had worked
diligently to clean up and repair the damage and that this is why no signs
of the flood remain. You would know that such would be too unlikely
to believe.

We can apply this to the biblical claim of a universal flood that allegedly
happened about 4500 years ago. The absence of evidence that such a
worldwide flood ever occurred has to be considered a compelling reason
not to believe this story, especially since it is beset with even more
absurdities than the wilderness wandering tales.

The gospel accounts of the resurrection claim that there was a three-hour
period of darkness at midday while Jesus was on the cross and that the
darkness resulted from the failure of the sun's light (Luke 23:44), but if
such an event as this had actually happened, records of it would have
been left all over the hemisphere where the sun should have been shining
at that time, yet no such records exist. Please don't wag out the old
Africanus/(X)hallus bit again, because this has been repeatedly refuted as
any kind of reliable evidence. Pliny the elder and Seneca were both
contemporaries of Jesus (if he lived at the time claimed in the NT), and
both of them wrote works about natural disasters and phenomena, such
as earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, comets, eclipses, etc., but neither one
of them referred to a three-hour period of darkness at midday, although
they did spend considerable time discussing phenomena that were much
less sensational than prolonged darkness at midday.

There is absence of evidence that can be accounted for, and there is
absence of evidence that cannot be reasonably accounted for. You are
failing to see the difference in the two. We can use "Darius the Mede"
as an example. Although the writer of the book of Daniel claimed that
Darius the Mede received the kingdom when Babylon fell, contemporary
Babylonian and Persian records make no reference at all to him. The
silence of these records casts serious doubts on "Daniel's" claim that
Darius the Mede received the kingdom. In this case, however, it is at
least imaginable that such a person could have existed without being
mentioned in records that have survived  from that era, but it is not at
all reasonable to think that surviving first-century  records would be
completely silent about a phenomenon that would have created  such
alarm and hysteria as the alleged three hours of darkness at midday.
It is not  at all reasonable to think that a worldwide flood could have
happened just 4500 years ago without having left geological evidence
that would be indisputable.

In the same way, it just isn't reasonable to think that Egypt could have
been devastated by the plagues described in Exodus without having left
both geological evidence and written references to it in Egyptian records,
and  it is unreasonable to think that 3 million people could have lived for
40 years in 40 different locations, while trekking through other areas they
didn't camp in, without having left behind evidence that would have been
found in the extensive archaeological work that has been done there.
Besides the absence of archaeological evidence, there is the sheer weight
of logistical absurdity after logistical absurdity in these tales that gives
additional reason to doubt the historicity of the stories. If these tales were
in any other ancient records besides the Bible, you wouldn't give a
moment's serious thought to them, Paul, and you know you wouldn't.

perhaps some good examples could be, oh, the absence of evidence that
any part of the book of Isaiah ever existed separately from any other part,
or the absence of evidence for the Jews ever attributing any part of that
book to individual other than Isaiah son of Amoz.

TILL (3)
Well, gee, Paul, there is reasonable evidence of collective authorship
of Isaiah, and that evidence is in the book itself. I've mentioned before--
maybe not in this forum--that I found many cases of plagiarism  in
student essays during my career as a writing instructor. I didn't see the
students plagiarizing, but I knew they did, because the evidence was in
the written work they submitted. I accused many students of plagiarizing
and laid before them the evidence that I had found in their writing that
enabled me to know that they had cheated. I had only one student to deny
the charge; the others admitted it and seemed kind of awestricken that I
had been able to tell that they had plagiarized. There was nothing brilliant
at all about my discoveries, because the evidence was in the writing. It
was easy to spot.

By the way, I allowed the one student who denied plagiarizing to remain in
class, and on her final essay, I saw again that she had obviously copied
from some source. The style, organization, and lack of depth in her
discussion suggested to me that she had plagiarized from a general
encyclopedia. I had to spend less then a half hour in the college library
to find her source.

So the absence of the evidence you mentioned above about the book of
Isaiah isn't at all comparable to the kind of absence we have been talking
about. It is easy to believe that if Jewish leaders had wanted to revise the
original book of Isaiah, they could have done so and left behind no
records that reported what they had done. However, they couldn't revise
the book and try to pass it off as the work of one person without leaving
behind the book itself, which in an age that specializes in literary
criticism became clear evidence that Isaiah was a collective work.

Maybe the absence of evidence that Jesus' post-crucifixion body
was put anywhere other than where the Gospels say it was put,
or the absence of evidence that any B.C.E. Rabbi ever interpreted
Isaiah 53's suffering servant non-messiainically could be our
next exhibits.

TILL (3)
As I said, Paul, there is absence of evidence that can be accounted for,
and there is absence of evidence that cannot reasonably be accounted
for. You are focusing on the first and obviously evading the second.
Let's use your reference to the body of Jesus as an example. I don't
know if you read my replies to Vincent Sabatino (who has apparently
turned out to be another hit-and-run apologist), but in one of them, I
summarized the myth of Osiris's resurrection. As much as in the matter
of Jesus's body, there is a complete absence of evidence to dispute the
claim that Isis found the 14 parts of Osiris's body, put them back
together again, and fanned into him the breath of life. I'm sure, however,
that you would never think that the absence of evidence to the contrary
would constitute a logical reason to think that this event ever happened.

If y'all don't mind, perhaps we could all show how logical we are
here; "logical" meaning we apply our tests for truth consistently
to the data we come across. So with regards to arguments from
absence, let's all do a little multiple choice:

I, _____________, think that arguments from absence...

(1) carry strong logical weight
(2) carry little logical weight
(3) have their logical weight situationally determined,
primarily by how well they support my position.

For the record, I, Paul Smith would check the (2).

TILL (3)
Then can we conclude that you would put little logical weight on the
absence of evidence in a matter like the hypothetical flash flood at
Podunk Valley? If someone reported that he/she saw an oil tanker sink
in the Strait of Gibraltar but investigation found no other witnesses to
this alleged event, no sign of oil slicks, no sonar images of a sunken
tanker, would you then check # 2 and say that the absence of such
evidence as this carried "little logical weight"?

In other words, Paul, I'm trying to get you to see that there is absence
of evidence that can be reasonably explained, but there is absence of
evidence that cannot be reasonably explained. Kent Loar, David Sparrow,
and now apparently you are trying to defend the latter.

Farrell Till

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