Thursday, 2 August 2018

It's Inference, People

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine who was staying in Toronto for a bit came to visit me at the Lonergan Research Institute. Around 11 am, he texted me to say that he was at Bay and Bloor. I immediately apprehended three things. One, he had taken the subway to get to the LRI. Two, he had taken the Bloor-Danforth line. Three, he had just exited the Bay St. subway station, which is located at Bay and Bloor. How did I know all this? Well, because I know the city, and I knew that he knows the city. I know that Bay and Bloor is the closest station on the Bloor-Danforth line to the LRI. I know that the only reason one would specifically text from that location to say one is in the area is if one was just getting out of the station. I further know that he had exited the station because I know that wi-fi is virtually nonexistent in Toronto subway stations. This is all data, and when presented with the new datum that was this text message, led me to correctly apprehend my friend's past actions, even though I neither witnessed them nor was told what they were.

And that is history. That's how we make judgments. We take our relevant knowledge about the world, and use that to infer what happened in the past. The study of the ancient past does not differ from this methodologically. It tends to be more difficult, not for methodological reasons but rather empirical. Quite simply, our data on the past is spottier than that on the present. That increases the work that must be undertaken to arrive at historical judgments, and requires us to recognize more fully that historical judgments are always implicitly if not explicitly probabilistic. Some can be described as certain, or if we're exercising an abundance of caution virtually certain. For instance, using a modern example, we can be virtually certain that on 31 August, 1939, Hitler ordered German forces to invade Poland on the following day, and that this resulted not only in Polish defeat but also in the start of the Second World War in the European theatre. In the ancient world, we can be virtually certain that the Battle of Issus occurred on 5 November, 333 B.C.E., resulted in Macedonian victory, and was a crucial moment in the conquest of the Achaemenid empire. Other matters will allow comparable certainty, but less specificity. We can be virtually certain that Jesus died on a cross at Passover, sometime between 27 and 35 (after the earliest that we can date the fifteenth year of Tiberius, but before Pilate left Judea); that Paul was converted no earlier than the summer of 27 (as his conversion postdated Jesus' death) and no later than 35 (thirteen years before the Jerusalem conference), and that he died sometime between early 62 and mid-68 (after the end of his two years at Rome, but before Nero's death as we know that he died under said emperor). We can marshal evidence to present arguments for particular dates within those specified possibilities, but barring new evidence no one argument is likely to exceed the level of possibility (although that said, in each case we can suggest that both the very early and the very late dates are far less likely than those in the middle). But the crucial point is that while our capacity to speak with certainty to the specific details of the lives of a Jesus or Paul might be less than our capacity to speak to the life of a Hitler or an Alexander, that is not due to methodological but rather empirical limitations. The fundamental procedure of historical judgment remains the same, whether inferring from someone's message that they took the subway to meet up with you, or inferring from data scattered across a number of relevant ancient texts that certain events had to have happened within a specified range. It's inference, people.

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