Thursday, March 19, 2009

Possibility, Probability, And Certainty

Jon Curry writes:

Jason is criticizing me because I “left the discussion” when we argued about whether Romans betrays knowledge of the destruction of the temple. I copied and pasted the thread into Word. It’s 95 pages in length. Nobody that I know of has made a better effort to interact with Jason’s arguments than I have, but it’s still not enough. How long would the thread have to be, Jason, before you might recognize that the reason I left wasn’t related to the force of your arguments or my inability to deal with them?

Overall though I think it’s a useful thread. I reference the thread occasionally at my blog here. What I would suggest to Jason is that to make threads more bearable and shorter he should consider spending more time arguing and less time confidently asserting that he’s in the right and everyone else is wrong. We know you think you’re right Jason. We know you are certain that skeptical arguments are feeble. The question I have is, why do you feel the need to assert your correctness so often?

Just in the course of the discussion on Romans Jason offered the following:

Nothing in the passage suggests the destruction of the temple as a past event.

To assume that the table of Romans 11:9 is a reference to the temple, and that it's already been destroyed, is dubious.

nothing in the context of Romans 11 suggests an application of the theme as narrow as yours.

And you aren’t giving us any reason to interpret Romans 11 as you have.

You had no good reason to interpret Romans 11 as you did in the first place,

You haven't given us any reason to conclude that the table in question is a reference to the temple.

You still haven't shown that a past destruction of the temple is in view.

You're not giving us any reason to think that an association with the temple is in view.

You’re wrong, I’m right. You’re wrong, I’m right. You’re wrong, I’m right. Sweeping and confident claims. I haven’t given any reason for anyone to draw my conclusions. There’s nothing to even suggest such an understanding. What does this behavior really tell us? I’m reminded of a statement from George Salmon.

Indeed with respect to this word certainty I may remark the more people talk about their certainty the less they have. If one of you came in and told me ‘I saw the Prince of Wales just now walking down Sackville street’ I might be a good deal surprised at your news but there would nothing in your language to make me think you were saying anything about which you had not full knowledge. But if you said ‘I am certain I saw the Prince of Wales just now’ I should conclude you were by no means assured yourself of the truth of what you said.

The length of a thread doesn't tell us whether Jon interacted with a particular argument on a particular subject discussed within that thread. The fact that the thread is 95 pages long doesn't make it inappropriate for me to point out that Jon didn't interact with, and still isn't interacting with, what I last wrote in response to him on the subject of Romans 11.

Jon selectively quotes some of my comments in the thread and summarizes them as "You're wrong, I'm right." He then quotes something George Salmon wrote about those who speak of their certainty. Here's something else I wrote in the thread Jon is citing, something Jon didn't quote:

"You're making the assertion that Romans probably is a forgery because it refers to the destruction of the temple as a past event. You carry the burden of proof. I don't have to demonstrate that interpreting the 'table' of Romans 11:9 is something that 'violates the context', for example, in order to conclude that you've given us no reason to believe that the temple probably is in view."

Notice that I said that the issue is probability, not certainty. And if you search the rest of the thread for terms like "probably" and "probability", you'll see that I made similar comments many other times. Anybody who has read much of my material on historical issues should know that I often make comments like the following from the thread Jon is quoting:

"You keep misrepresenting the issue under consideration by referring to what 'can' happen, what’s 'possible', etc., as if we can’t establish a probability if a contrary possibility exists....Our historical judgments are about what we think is probable, not what we think is possible. To say that something is possible isn't of much significance if the evidence suggests that it's not probable."

I haven't claimed certainty regarding my view of Romans 11. What I've argued (not just asserted) is that my view of the passage is probable, and I've argued (not just asserted) that Jon hasn't given us any reason to think that his view is probable. For Jon to act as if I was suggesting certainty for my view, and was denying that his view is possible, is unreasonable in light of the comments I made about probability in that thread and have made in many other contexts. Even if I hadn't made such comments about probability, Jon's interpretation of what I said would be unreasonable, since people commonly speak about probabilities without using a term like "probable".

How significant is it for Jon's view of Romans 11 to be possible? It's also possible that the table of Romans 11:9 is referring to something that neither of us has suggested, such as a pagan altar or a pagan temple. But the issue is probability, not possibility.

Not only is Jon's objection in his latest post incorrect, but it's also a repetition of an objection I had already answered in the 95-page thread Jon is referring to. The length of that thread doesn't prove that Jon has sufficiently addressed the issues discussed there.

1 comment:

  1. Jon has posted more comments in the thread linked above. He claims that my response to him is "trivial", but he replies to it anyway.

    He writes:

    "Jason seems to be having reading comprehension problems."

    If I had made that comment, Jon probably would complain again about how I'm "insulting" him, engaging in "ad hominem", etc.

    He writes:

    "I didn't say it did....I didn't say it was."

    I didn't say that you said it did, and I didn't say that you said it was. I was redirecting the discussion to my original point, which was about your interaction with my arguments relevant to Romans 11, not whether you were wrong to leave the thread. If you hadn't changed the subject in the first place, I wouldn't have commented on the irrelevance of your response to my original point.

    You go on:

    "You can be certain of things and still regard your views as probable. I'm certain the Holocaust ocurred, but this doesn't mean there isn't some measure of probability. It's not an either/or."

    People sometimes use the term "certainty" to refer to a probability, but the highest of probabilities, not all probabilities. The "I am certain" example you cited from George Salmon isn't equivalent to my references to probability in the thread we're discussing.

    You write:

    "I didn't say otherwise. I said you should spend more time arguing and less time asserting. This means you're already doing some arguing."

    That's not all you said. You also cited an example, by means of quoting George Salmon, of somebody who asserts "I am certain", without any accompanying arguments.

    And your claim that I do too much asserting and not enough arguing was poorly argued. Posting several quotes of what I said in that thread doesn't prove much. I can likewise post several quotes of assertions you made in that thread. It wouldn't therefore follow that you assert too often or don't argue for your positions enough.

    You write:

    "Who has denied that [the issue is probability rather than possibility]?"

    You sometimes have. For example:

    "It's not misrepresentation to talk about what 'can' happen and what's 'possible.' These things do happen, so clearly they are quite possible with regards to Christianity. That's relevant. Neither of us know for certain what did happen." (source)