Friday, 26 September 2014

Probability and Criteria

What is the probability that on September 3, 1939, the German head of state, a man by the name of Hitler, would order the invasion of Poland, thus setting in motion the most destructive conflict in human history? It turns out, 100%, because this did happen. But that can only be known retrospectively, by consulting the data. If I were to ask this question on September 3, 1839, it would sound like science fiction (although, as a matter of pedantry, they did not have science fiction as we know the genre in 1839, which speaks really to how benighted the era truly was). I would be laughed at, told that there was no way to know this. And, unless I were a time traveler they'd be right.

This is why such talk of antecedent probability does not work in history. The probability that any given action will be carried out by any person on any given day is infinitesimally small. What we need is a way of thinking about things that can do with the fact that what was initially virtually a zero probability that on September 3, 1939, the German head of state, a man by the name of Hitler, would order the invasion of Poland, became in fact a 100% probably. The only way to do that is through what Lonergan calls emergent probability.

In emergent probability one recognizes that every action, every decision, creates new possibilities whilst closing off old ones. Hitler's birth significantly increased the possibility that he would take over the German state. His decision to become involved with the NSDAP increased it that much more, and his takeover of the party even more. The conditions put in place after Versailles increased the possibility that much more, and those conditions in turn were made possible by earlier occurrences. All this meant that by early September, 1939, a German invasion of Poland, by order of Adolf Hitler, and a consequent second world war, became a virtual certainty.

This has implications for our thinking about the criteria. In abstraction the chance that a guy named Jesus of Nazareth would have uttered a given phrase c. 30 C.E. somewhere in the Galilee or perhaps Jerusalem is actually quite low. That he was crucified in perhaps April of that year, on or around Passover, even lower. Jesus' life and death were what they were because of emergent probabilities. His choices, the choices of those around him, determined the course of his life, his ministry, his theology, his teaching. The criteria aim to think about what Jesus could or could not have done absent such a web of emergent probabilities.

What this means is that whilst it might seem embarrassing to us to claim that the founder of their movement was a crucified criminal it might not have seemed that way to the early Christians. In fact, the very fact that Paul makes so much out of the fact of the crucifixion suggests that this is the case. What we need to ask is what were the emergent probabilities that made crucifixion, in this particular case, not a sign of shame but a sign of glory. That Jesus actually was crucified almost certainly would occupy a significant place in such an account of emergent possibilities; the idea had to come from somewhere, and nothing seems a better candidate than the actual event. But it wouldn't be the beginning; that would be the decisions, Jesus's and others, that led to the cross. Nor would it be the end; that would be the still-ongoing doctrinal development related to the cross as something good to think with.

The crucifixion is just an example of course; there are all sorts of other matters related to Jesus's life that one might well consider. But it's 3 am and I'm only writing due to insomnia, so I'll not get into those. The point is, the criteria assume that they can know in an antecedent fashion what was and was not probable in Jesus's life, when in fact such antecedent knowledge is rendered impossible by the very nature of historical progression. If, as Christian Smith suggests, inerrancy makes the bible impossible, then the criteria do the same to historical knowledge.

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