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Tuesday 2007-03-27


A parable

Let us suppose that you have an interest in the history of science. While browsing in a bookshop, you come across three biographies of a chap called Joe Bloggs. They all claim that he was the greatest scientist of his day (a few hundred years ago), and that he developed an astonishing new theory of physics that works much better than the theories that prevail today, which enabled him to transport objects faster than light. Apparently he demonstrated this to a few groups of his students, but the demonstration has never been repeated.

It turns out that none of the other reference works you have access to even mentions Bloggs's work. (A couple mention that his partisans speak very highly of him.) Still, there's no good reason to think they're complete, and you'd like to give these biographies a fair hearing. How can you assess their claims?

Are their authors credible?Well, on further investigation you find that all the biographies are published by the Joseph Bloggs Society, an organization whose declared aim is "to further the reputation of Joe Bloggs, the greatest scientist of his generation". Two of them are anonymous, so you can't check up on the authors' credentials; basically nothing is known about the third author other than that he wrote a number of books for the Joseph Bloggs Society. Furthermore, you notice a lot of near-identical passages in two of the books; it seems that one has cribbed greatly from the other, or both are copying some earlier work. And it's not clear that any of the authors ever met Bloggs, saw his demonstrations, or read his scientific publications. Hmm.

Do they agree with other information you already have? They don't really have much to say about anything other than Bloggs, so it's hard to tell for sure. But, basically, sometimes they're right and sometimes they're wrong. (Sometimes quite badly wrong.)

Do they agree with one another? No, it turns out that they frequently disagree. On the particularly important question of Bloggs's allegedly world-class scientific research, there's hardly any point on which they are in clear agreement. Two of the books allege that his faster-than-light demonstration was shown to be genuine by a clear instance of time travel, but the third doesn't mention that. They do broadly agree that his scientific work was very hard to understand and that even his own students often completely misunderstood his papers until he explained them.

Is what they say plausible in itself? Much of what they say about Bloggs's life is plausible enough, though it's not too encouraging that one of them says he was married twice and had three children, another says he renounced all human relationships to devote his life to his research, and the third doesn't even mention his family. But there's that thing about faster-than-light travel, which you feel could do with a little more evidence. Oddly, some senior members of the Joe Bloggs Society now say that actually he never exactly developed a practical means of faster-than-light travel, but he did develop new ways of thinking about the possibility and so in a very real sense he did achieve it.

Also, one of the biographies says that Bloggs gave a public demonstration of levitation and another that his work was the cause of large-scale rioting; odd, given that no other record of such things remains.

Gentle reader: in this situation, is there anything that those biographies could contain that you'd regard as sufficient evidence that Bloggs had a correct and revolutionary theory of physics that enabled him to make things travel faster than light?

Update: I find that I've been misinterpreted by at least one intelligent and sensible person, so let me clarify: this is not meant to be a refutation of Christianity, or anything of the kind; it's pointing out the weakness of any argument for the resurrection that has the form "we have these accounts of what happened, and the only decent way to explain them is to say that Jesus was really raised from the dead". This isn't a straw man; for instance, N T Wright's recent book on the resurrection makes an argument of just that form. And of course this sort of argument is a staple of less-intellectual apologetics, as with McDowell or Morison or Strobel. (Disclaimer: It's some time since I read McDowell, and with Strobel I'm going on the basis of the publisher's summary; and of course both have arguments for Christianity other than ones based on the Resurrection.)