Monday, 25 June 2012

Respect my Authoritah!

Well the good news is that there was enough interest in the Virtually University course I was planning on running on the existence of Jesus for it to go ahead (and so are the other two classes in RS, which is great).

If you’ve already read my introductory post on mythicism, you’ll know that mythicist view of Jesus (that he did not exist historically), is rejected by an overwhelming majority of experts within the field of Biblical Studies.

One of the interesting questions raised by mythicism is how far we should accept the authority of experts, and how far we should consider challenges to their views? An argument frequently made by mythicists is that those who accept the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth do so because they accept the authority of experts without question, and do not consider the evidence fairly or rationally.

And perhaps they have a point: Experts said that the Beatles wouldn’t make it, that Muhammad Ali could not beat George Foremanthat Sadam Hussein had a whole bunch of nasty WMDs. If you’re one of my students, you’ll know that we have a house named after Jane Tomlinson, who ignored the prognosis of her very well qualified doctors that she only had six months to live, and not only lived for another seven years, but also went on to compete in a number of marathons, triathlons, and long distance bike rides.

History is full of examples people who have successfully defied expert opinion, and it has even been argued that science progresses as one accepted theory is gradually challenged and ultimately overturned by a new one. So not only are experts and authority figures sometimes wrong, but those who prove them wrong are often – rightly – the very people we admire most.

However, just because the experts are sometimes wrong, it can’t be the case that everybody who disagrees with the experts is always right. From your AS level RS, you’ll know that there is group we call creationists who disagree with evolution, and if you study A level History, you should have heard of Holocaust deniers, who claim that the systematic murder of the Jews during World War Two never took place. If you study English, you might even have about a theories that William Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him. Each of views of these views is rejected by qualified experts in the fields of, respectively, Science, History and English Literature, and (in my view) rightly so.

The problem is then, how do we distinguish between the next great theory that’s going to revolutionise our understanding and theories which are simply nonsense or worse, racist nonsense?

An obvious answer would seem to that if we just examine the evidence ourselves we can tell the good theories from the bad. But it’s not quite as simple as this: very often the evidence is complex or its value is disputed. So unless we are experts ourselves, at some point we have to rely on the authority of experts to interpret or assess the evidence for us.

If you don’t believe me, have a crack at reading Einstein’s original paper on the special theory of relativity.

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