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Salemicus comments on Crisis of Faith - Less Wrong

57 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 October 2008 10:08PM

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Comment author: Jade 10 December 2016 10:38:59PM 1 point [-]
Comment author: Salemicus 07 January 2017 12:15:36PM 2 points [-]

Neither sufficient nor necessary:

  • The origins of Christianity become more mysterious, not less, if there never was a Jesus.
  • We don't need to tie ourselves to a fringe hypothesis to posit non-supernatural origins for the Gospels.
Comment author: arundelo 07 January 2017 08:00:44PM 1 point [-]

Broadly speaking, I agree, and Jesus mythicist Richard Carrier would also agree:

[A]mateurs should not be voicing certitude in a matter still being debated by experts ([Jesus] historicity agnosticism is far more defensible and makes far more sense for amateurs on the sidelines) and [...] criticizing Christianity with a lead of "Jesus didn't even exist" is strategically ill conceived -- it's bad strategy on many levels, it only makes atheists look illogical, and (counter-intuitively) it can actually make Christians more certain of their faith.

But reading some of his stuff made me upgrade the idea that there was no historical Jesus from "almost certainly false" to "plausible". (Carrier has written a couple books on this -- Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus and On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt -- but I haven't read those, only some stuff available on the web.)

  • Carrier:

    I think it is more likely that Jesus began in the Christian mind as a celestial being (like an archangel), believed or claimed to be revealing divine truths through revelations (and, by bending the ear of prophets in previous eras, through hidden messages planted in scripture). Christianity thus began the same way Islam and Mormonism did: by their principal apostles (Mohammed and Joseph Smith) claiming to have received visions from their religion's "actual" teacher and founder, in each case an angel (Gabriel dictated the Koran, Moroni provided the Book of Mormon).

    [...]

    It would be several decades later when subsequent members of this cult, after the world had not yet ended as claimed, started allegorizing the gospel of this angelic being by placing him in earth history as a divine man, as a commentary on the gospel and its relation to society and the Christian mission. The same had already been done to other celestial gods and heroes, who were being transported into earth history all over the Greco-Roman world, a process now called Euhemerization, after the author Euhemerus, who began the trend in the 4th century B.C. by converting the celestial Zeus and Uranus into ordinary human kings and placing them in past earth history, claiming they were "later" deified (in a book ironically titled Sacred Scripture). Other gods then underwent the same transformation, from Romulus (originally the celestial deity Quirinus) to Osiris (originally the heavenly lord whom pharaohs claimed to resemble, he was eventually transformed into a historical pharaoh himself).

  • Carrier:

    [I]n Jewish cosmology, all sorts of things that exist or occur on earth also do so in heaven: fighting, writing, scrolls, temples, chairs, trees, gardens.

  • (To make the following paragraph more concise I'll omit hedge phrases like "according to Carrier". And even Carrier doesn't regard this as certain, only more likely than not.)

    The writings about Jesus that come the closest to being contemporary with his putative lifetime are Paul's seven or so authentic letters. Paul, who converted to Christianity after Jesus came to him in a vision sometime around 33 CE, never claims to have met the historical Jesus, and never unambiguously talks about Jesus as a human who lived on Earth. (E.g.: Paul talks about about Jesus being crucified, but this crucifixion took place in some celestial realm not on Earth. Paul mentions "James the Lord's brother", but this means not that James was a literal brother of Jesus of Nazareth but that James is a fellow Christian, the way a modern Christian might refer to their "brothers and sisters in Christ".)

Comment author: Jiro 18 January 2017 05:08:08AM 1 point [-]

[A]mateurs should not be voicing certitude in a matter still being debated by experts

I think this fails in the case where the experts are infected by a meme plague.

Comment author: CCC 18 January 2017 10:45:17AM 2 points [-]

I think this fails in the case where the experts are infected by a meme plague.

Isn't this a Fully General Counterargument, though? Climate change deniers can claim that climate experts are 'infected by a meme plague'. Creationists can claim anyone who accepts evolution is 'infected by a meme plague'. So on and so forth.

Comment author: Jiro 18 January 2017 05:56:06PM *  1 point [-]

The predominant ways in which Christianity has spread are conversion by the sword, parent to child transmission, and social ostracism for people who refuse to believe it. It spreads for reasons related to its fitness as a system of ideas but unrelated to its factual truth. This is not how evolution spreads.

Also, distinguish between "anyone can claim X" and "anyone can correctly claim X". Creationists could claim that evolution spreads the same way--but they'd be wrong.

Comment author: CCC 19 January 2017 12:29:30PM 0 points [-]

Also, distinguish between "anyone can claim X" and "anyone can correctly claim X". Creationists could claim that evolution spreads the same way--but they'd be wrong.

Assume a climate change denier or a creationist who (a) makes such an argument and (b) firmly believes it to be correct. How would he be best convinced that he is, in fact, wrong?

Comment author: Jiro 19 January 2017 10:00:10PM *  0 points [-]

Same way you convince him of anything else--by arguing specific facts.

Just because two sides can produce arguments with similar forms doesn't mean they also have similar facts. "Anyone can claim X", divorced from the facts about X, is only about having similar forms.

Comment author: CCC 20 January 2017 10:40:06AM 3 points [-]

Hmmm. Could work. Or perhaps the first thing he'd conclude is that you are infected by the meme plague, and the second thing he'd do is suspect that you are trying to infect him with the meme plague.

He could respond to this in two ways; either by ending the debate, in the hope of immunising himself; or by arguing against you, in the hopes of curing you.

...huh. Actually, thinking about this, a lot of bad debate habits (ignoring the other person's evidence, refusing to change your mind, etc.) actually make a lot of sense when seen as protective measures specifically to prevent infection by meme plagues.

Comment author: Lumifer 19 January 2017 04:17:11PM 0 points [-]

It spreads for reasons related to its fitness as a system of ideas but unrelated to its factual truth. This is not how evolution spreads.

The historical survival of religions and societies is a matter of factual truth. Evolution rewards success, not epistemic purity. Is peacock's plumage related to factual truth?

Comment author: Jiro 19 January 2017 09:59:40PM 3 points [-]

Please don't be Internet-pedantic here. "Factual truth" here means "the factual truth of the statements made by the religion", not "factual truths about the religion".

Comment author: onlytheseekerfinds 19 January 2017 11:36:11PM *  1 point [-]

Maybe there's a confusion being caused here by the sentence "This is not how evolution spreads."

It could mean at least one of the following: 1) "This is not how the theory of evolution itself was spread" 2) "This is not the mechanism according to which evolution spreads ideas"

It seems as if Lumifer interpreted your statement in the second sense (as I did initially), whereas reading your post in its original contexts suggests the first sense was the one which you intended.

Comment author: Lumifer 19 January 2017 04:13:18PM *  2 points [-]

Isn't this a Fully General Counterargument, though?

It's not a counterargument, it's an observation about the limits of the maxim quoted. And while it can certainly be misapplied, are you going to argue that a memetic plague never happens?

Comment author: CCC 20 January 2017 10:29:24AM 1 point [-]

Then I may have misunderstood the intention of the phrase.

As an observation about the limits of the maxim, I agree with it. And no, I'm not going to argue that a memetic plague never happens.

I am, however, going to argue that a memetic plague is hard to identify, making this observation very difficult to actually apply with any reliability. It's just too easy - if I see a bunch of experts in the subject all saying something that I disagree with - for me to think "they're infected by a memetic plague". It's so much more comforting to think that than to think "maybe I'm wrong" - especially when I already have some evidence that seems to say that I am right. So, while this observation can be applied correctly, it would be far, far too easy to misapply. And if I were to misapply it - I would have no idea that I am, in fact, misapplying it.

As a general observation, then, I cautiously agree. As a specific argument in virtually any debate, I deeply mistrust it.

I hope that makes my position clearer.

Comment author: Jiro 20 January 2017 04:16:50PM *  3 points [-]

We know how religion spreads. We know it well enough that when it is obvious enough that the "experts" are basing their "expertise" on religion, we can ignore it without worrying that we are just dismissing the experts because doing so is comforting.

It's not as if the way religion spreads is seriously in question.

Comment author: CCC 21 January 2017 12:21:56PM 3 points [-]

We know how religion spreads.

I'm not sure that you do.

From your previous post:

The predominant ways in which Christianity has spread are conversion by the sword, parent to child transmission, and social ostracism for people who refuse to believe it.

If this were true - and if it were an exhaustive list of the predominant ways - then I would expect to see the following:

  • Parent-to-child transmission only works if the parents are Christian. Social ostracisation only works if a majority of a given person's possible social acquaintances are.
  • Thus, the only means on the list of introducing is into a new area is by the sword
  • Thus, I would expect missionaries to either have been abandoned, or to be given a sword as standard equipment on setting out. I do not see this.
  • Furthermore, I would expect to see, in countries where it is not a majority religion, it would slowly fade and die (as social ostracism is used against it by the majority)

Now, I am not saying that it is never spread by such means. (Fortunately, 'by the sword' appears to have been largely abandoned in recent history). But assuming it to be an exhaustive list does not appear to match reality - there seems to be a rather large gap where a single missionary, armed with nothing more than information and presumably a fairly persuasive tongue, can go into a large enough group of humans who have little or no previous knowledge of religion and end up persuading a number of them to join.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 21 January 2017 03:51:38PM 1 point [-]

This is a good argument, and one way of seeing that is by contrast with Islam, where the method described is historically much closer to being exhaustive -- and in general it was indeed introduced into new areas was by means of swords, and missionaries did take swords with them as standard equipment. (In the future Islam may continue to spread more in the fashion that Christianity did in the past, however.)

Comment author: Jiro 21 January 2017 06:16:09PM *  0 points [-]

Furthermore, I would expect to see, in countries where it is not a majority religion, it would slowly fade and die (as social ostracism is used against it by the majority)

No, it just has to get big enough that Christians have enough other Christians around that the social structure becomes self-sustaining. Social ostracism is used to get rid of spontaneously appearing non-Christian individuals, not large groups.

But assuming it to be an exhaustive list does not appear to match reality -

So don't assume it's an exhaustive list.

It really doesn't matter for the purposes of my point that it also spreads through peaceful missionaries. You seem to think that I'm complaining that Christianity spreads violently, so you're bringing up non-violent missionaries. But that isn't my point.

My point is that Christianity spreads as a meme system. Belief systems have traits which lead them to spread regardless of their truth. Some of those traits I listed above. Other traits include, of course, the belief system telling its members to send out missionaries to spread the belief system. Having missionaries is an adaptation which helps the belief system to spread, in the same way that coconuts being able to float so they can travel to distant islands helps coconuts to spread. Belief systems which spread efficiently will do better than belief systems that don't, and will soon cover as much area as they can right until they run into other well-adapted belief systems.

Comment author: waveman 21 January 2017 10:23:34PM 1 point [-]

The book "The Rise of Christianity" is an excellent analysis, using the tools of modern sociology, of the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Key insights

  1. It grew exponentially mostly via transmission from people you knew. As your social world became more than 50% Christian, you were more likely to convert. In recent times Mormanism has grown in a similar fashion.

  2. It had many rules that encouraged having large families (no birth control, no abortion, no infanticide, no sex outside marriage which encouraged young marriage, bans on many sources of fun other than having sex with your spouse, bans of divorce which made marriage more secure in a sense).

  3. The higher status of women in Christianity than in the Roman world encouraged women to convert. An example of this higher status was that a pagan man could order his wife to have an abortion. Many of the patriarchal statements in the new testament were latter additions when the church, which was originally very egalitarian, did become very patriarchal.

  4. Christians were only allowed to marry pagans if the pagan converted, or at a minimum, agreed for the children to brought up as Christians.

  5. (3) and (4) combined with the shortage of women due to infanticide of female children meant that men who wanted a wife often had little choice but to marry a Christian. The children would then be Christians.

Once they achieved critical mass they seized control of the state and enacted coercive measures which ruthlessly crushed the other religions. As an example, even visiting pagan temples was banned, books were destroyed, priests killed, temples burned or converted to churches.

Comment author: hairyfigment 23 January 2017 03:32:30AM 0 points [-]

there seems to be a rather large gap where a single missionary, armed with nothing more than information and presumably a fairly persuasive tongue, can go into a large enough group of humans who have little or no previous knowledge of religion and end up persuading a number of them to join.

When do you believe this happened, aside from cases where "Jesus" was translated as "Buddha"? Missionaries today typically harass other Christians.

Comment author: gjm 24 January 2017 03:00:50AM 1 point [-]

I would expect missionaries to either have been abandoned, or to be given a sword as standard equipment on setting out.

You would expect (peaceful) missionaries to be abandoned (at least as a tool for spreading Christianity to places where there is no Christianity) if there were a careful effort to track their effectiveness. I do not believe there usually is. Is your impression different?

If you look at the places where there are a lot of Christians, they do seem to match up pretty well with (1) where the Roman Empire was plus (2) places colonized by countries that used to be part of the Roman Empire.

One obvious counterexample is Korea, which (I think) is evidence that missionaries can sometimes introduce Christianity to a new place with long-term success. But what others are there?

(Incidentally, I think your analysis is incomplete. Another way to introduce Christianity to a new area would be immigration. I don't know to what extent this has actually happened.)

Comment author: waveman 24 January 2017 02:50:17AM 0 points [-]

What to do then, when experts sometimes are infected with meme plagues, have conflicts of interest, are able to prevent alternative views from being presented?

Comment author: CCC 25 January 2017 07:45:47AM 0 points [-]

If all experts are infected with meme plagues, and are able to prevent alternative views from being presented, then you have a problem. This implies that one of the following is true:

  • Studying the subject at all carries a strong risk of meme plague infection
  • Only those pre-infected with the meme plague have the interest and/or the ability to study the subject
  • You're wrong about something - either the presence of the meme plague or its spread or... something.

You could attempt to study the subject to expert level yourself, taking appropriate anti-meme-plague precautions; but you have to be very careful that you're not shutting your ears to something that's really true (you don't want to become a climate-change-denying weather expert, after all) so you'll need to seriously consider all necessary data (maybe re-run some vital experiments). This would take significant time and effort.

I don't know what other strategy could reasonably be followed...

Comment author: Lumifer 25 January 2017 03:18:19PM 3 points [-]

If all experts are infected with meme plagues, and are able to prevent alternative views from being presented, then you have a problem.

Real-life example. A relevant quote:

A deciding factor was that I no longer know what to say to students and postdocs regarding how to navigate the CRAZINESS in the field of climate science. Research and other professional activities are professionally rewarded only if they are channeled in certain directions approved by a politicized academic establishment — funding, ease of getting your papers published, getting hired in prestigious positions, appointments to prestigious committees and boards, professional recognition, etc.

How young scientists are to navigate all this is beyond me, and it often becomes a battle of scientific integrity versus career suicide (I have worked through these issues with a number of skeptical young scientists).

Comment author: CCC 30 January 2017 10:52:14AM 2 points [-]

Huh.

Okay. In this particular real-life example, though, it is clear that the politicisation is in the infrastructure around the science, not in the science itself. That is to say, learning climate science is not memetically dangerous - it is simply difficult to get a paper published that does not agree with certain politics. And that is bad, but it is not the worst possibility - it means that someone merely studying climate science is safe in so doing.

So, in this particular case, the solution of studying climate science oneself, becoming an expert, and then forming a suitable opinion is a viable strategy (albeit one that takes some significant time).

(An alternative solution - which will also be a hard thing to do - is to create some form of parallel infrastructure for climate science; another magazine in which to publish, another source of funding, and so on. There will likely be serious attempts to politicise this infrastructure as well, of course, and fending off such attempts will doubtless take some effort).

Comment author: Lumifer 30 January 2017 04:19:26PM 2 points [-]

learning climate science is not memetically dangerous

If you are an autodidact and study the climate science by yourself from first principles, yes, it's not dangerous. However if you study it in the usual way -- by going to a university, learning from professors and published papers, etc. -- you will absorb the memes.

Comment author: hairyfigment 09 January 2017 09:43:45AM 1 point [-]

Your second point is clearly true. The first seems false; Christianity makes much more sense from a Greco-Roman perspective if Jesus was supposed to be a celestial being, not an eternal unchanging principle that was executed for treason. And the sibling comment leaves out the part about first-century Israelites wanting a way to replace the 'corrupt,' Roman-controlled, Temple cult of sacrifice with something like a sacrifice that Rome could never control.

Josephus saw the destruction of that Temple coming. For others to believe it would happen if they 'restored the purity of the religion' only requires the existence of some sensible zealots.

Comment author: Jade 11 January 2017 02:53:48AM 1 point [-]

Would you say the origins of other religions become more mysterious if there never were whatever magical beings those religions posit? Would you think it likely that Guanyin was real human of unknown gender? Do the origins of fictional stories become more mysterious if there never were the fictitious characters in the flesh? Did Paul Bunyan exist, as there were similar lumberjacks?

You're not supposed to tie yourself to any hypothesis, even if mainstream, but rather update your probability distributions. Bits of the NT weren't written until long enough after the supposed death of Jesus that people wouldn't have been like, 'Who you talkin' about?' And I doubt they would've cared whether the character existed, like no one cares whether Harry Potter existed, because it's the stories that matter.

Comment author: Salemicus 12 January 2017 11:36:08AM 1 point [-]

Would you say the origins of other religions become more mysterious if there never were whatever magical beings those religions posit?

Yes, of course.

The least mysterious explanation of Paul Bunyan stories is that there really was a Paul Bunyan. And the closer the real Paul Bunyan hews to the Bunyan of the stories, the smaller the mystery. P(stories about Bunyan | Bunyan) > P(stories about Bunyan | !Bunyan).

But just because a story is simple, doesn't necessarily make it likely. We can't conclude from the above that P(Bunyan | stories about Bunyan) > P(!Bunyan | stories about Bunyan).

Comment author: CCC 12 January 2017 05:19:42PM *  1 point [-]

Hmmm. To mess around with equations a bit... what can we say about P(Bunyan | stories about Bunyan) and P(!Bunyan | stories about Bunyan), given P(stories about Bunyan | Bunyan) > P(stories about Bunyan | !Bunyan)?

Let's genaralise it a bit (and reduce typing). What can we say about P(A|B) and P(!A|B) when P(B|A) > P(B|!A)?

Consider Bayes' Theorem: P(A|B) = [(P(B|A)*P(A)]/P(B). Thus, P(B) = [(P(B|A)*P(A)]/P(A|B)

Therefore, P(!A|B) = [(P(B|!A)*P(!A)]/P(B)

Now, P(!A) = 1-P(A). So:

P(!A|B) = [(P(B|!A)*{1-P(A)}]/P(B)

Solve for P(B):

P(B) = [(P(B|!A)*{1-P(A)}]/P(!A|B)

Since P(B) = [(P(B|A)*P(A)]/P(A|B):

[(P(B|A)*P(A)]/P(A|B) = [(P(B|!A)*{1-P(A)}]/P(!A|B)

Since P(B|A) > P(B|!A)

[(P(B|A)*P(A)]/P(A|B) > [(P(B|!A)*P(A)]/P(A|B)

Therefore:

[(P(B|!A)*{1-P(A)}]/P(!A|B) > [(P(B|!A)*P(A)]/P(A|B)

Since probabilities cannot be negative:

[{1-P(A)}]/P(!A|B) > [P(A)]/P(A|B)

.[1-P(A)]*P(A|B) > [P(A)]*P(!A|B)

...which means that either (1-P(A)) > P(A) or P(A|B) > P(!A|B), and quite possibly both; and whichever of these two inequalities is false (if either) the ratio between the two sides is closer than the inequality that is true.

To return to the original example; either P(Bunyan | stories about Bunyan) > P(!Bunyan | stories about Bunyan) OR P(!Bunyan) > P(Bunyan).

Also, if P(Bunyan | stories about Bunyan) > P(!Bunyan | stories about Bunyan) is false, then it must be true that P(Bunyan|stories about Bunyan) > P(Bunyan).

Comment author: Jade 16 January 2017 03:00:52AM *  1 point [-]

You left out the 'magical' part of my question. If magical beings exist(ed), then everything becomes more mysterious. That's partly why we don't pester JK Rowling about what extra-special boy Harry Potter was based on. We don't even suspect comic superheros like Batman, who has no magic, to have been based on a real-life billionaire. We certainly don't have scholars wasting time looking for evidence of 'the real Batman.' Modern stories of unlikely events are easily taken as imaginings, yet when people bucket a story as 'old/traditonal', for some people, that bucket includes 'characters must've been real persons', as if humans must've been too stupid to have imagination. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fakelore

Comment author: Salemicus 19 January 2017 12:08:27PM *  1 point [-]

No, I didn't leave that part out.

the closer the real Paul Bunyan hews to the Bunyan of the stories, the smaller the mystery

Of course magic makes everything else more mysterious i.e. P(magical Jesus) is infinitesimal. But P(non magical Jesus) is not low. We do ask JK Rowling what non magical boy inspired Harry Potter.

Comment author: CCC 19 January 2017 12:22:03PM 1 point [-]

Interestingly, after looking over Wikipedia a bit, apparently there may have been a Paul Bon Jean on whom the earliest Paul Bunyan tales could have been based... a big lumberjack, but with "big" being more like six to seven foot and less like sixty to seventy foot.

Comment author: gjm 20 January 2017 02:35:36PM 1 point [-]

We do ask J K Rowling what non-magical boy inspired Harry Potter.

I guess you mean that we could and it wouldn't be obviously silly, with which I agree. But, for what it's worth, it never crossed my mind to assume that Harry Potter was based on any specific non-magical boy. The characteristics he has that aren't essentially dependent on story-specific things (magic, being the prime target of a supervillain, etc.) seem pretty ordinary and not in any particular need of explanation.

I wouldn't be astonished if it turned out that there was some kid Rowling knew once whom she used as a sort of basis for the character of Harry Potter, but I'd be a bit surprised. And if it did, I wouldn't expect particular incidents in the books to be derived from particular things that happened to that child.

In particular, I wouldn't say that the simplest (still less the most likely) explanation for the Harry Potter stories involves there being some non-magical child on whom they are based.

I don't think any of this has much bearing on whether the simplest explanation for stories about Jesus, Muhammad, the Buddha, Zeus, etc., involves actual historical characters on which they're based. The answer to that surely varies a lot from case to case. (FWIW I'd say: historical Jesus of some sort likely but not certain; historical Muhammad almost certain; historical Buddha likely but not certain; historical Zeus-predecessor very unlikely. But I am not expert enough for my guesses to be worth anything.)

Comment author: Jade 23 January 2017 02:57:37AM *  0 points [-]

Historical Muhammad not certain: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB122669909279629451 . Of course, people have set about trying to protect minds from a 'fringe' Bayesian view: "Prof. Kalisch was told he could keep his professorship but must stop teaching Islam to future school teachers." In case anyone missed it, Richard Carrier explicitly used Bayes on question of historical Jesus. I don't know if Kalisch used Bayes, but his language conveys intuitive Bayesian update.

The bearing of fictional stories is simple: calculate probabilities of historical X based on practically 100% probability that human imagination was a factor (given that the stories contain highly unlikely magic like in known-to-be fiction stories, plus were written long after X supposedly lived). Note that that still leaves out probabilities of motivations for passing fiction as nonfiction like Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard did. Once you figure probabilities including motivations and iterations of previous religious memes, it becomes increasingly unlikely that X existed. Paul Bunyan, AFAIK, wasn't based on previous memes for controlling people, nor were the stories used to control people, so I wouldn't be suspicious if someone believed the stories started based on someone real. When people insist religious characters were real, OTOH, I become suspicious of their motivations, given unlikelihood that they examined evidence and updated Bayesian-like.

@Salemicus: Citation for "We do ask JK Rowling what non magical boy inspired Harry Potter"?

Comment author: gjm 23 January 2017 10:28:47AM 0 points [-]

Historical Muhammad not certain

I did say almost certain. My impression -- which, as I said above, is no more than that and could easily be very wrong -- is that the Jesus-myth theories require less "conspiracy" than the Muhammad-myth ones.

Comment author: Lumifer 23 January 2017 05:47:52PM 2 points [-]

Historical Muhammad not certain

What's your comparison baseline? Compared to the screen in front of your face, he's not certain. Compared to pretty much anyone born in the VI century, he is quite certain.

Comment author: Jade 24 January 2017 01:56:00AM *  0 points [-]

Then why don't you just point to evidence of his existence being more likely than others'? We have bodily remains, intact own writings, or historical records made during the lives of many born in 6th century, e.g. Columbanus, Pope Gregory I, founding emperor of Tang Dynasty, Radegund, Venantius Fortunatus, Theodora). So why don't we have any one of those types of evidence about Muhammad?

Comment author: math 31 January 2017 02:29:35AM 1 point [-]

I don't think any of this has much bearing on whether the simplest explanation for stories about Jesus, Muhammad, the Buddha, Zeus, etc., involves actual historical characters on which they're based. The answer to that surely varies a lot from case to case.

I find it interesting that no one questions the historicity of say Pythagoras, even though the evidence for him is comparable to that for Jesus, and Muhammad, namely documented existence of a cult that attributes founder status to him and some second or third hand sayings attributed to him.

Probably because the real motive is to poke the rival tribe in the eye.

Comment author: gjm 31 January 2017 02:50:55AM 1 point [-]

no one questions the historicity of say Pythagoras

Really?

Here's a newspaper review whose author says Pythagoras "may well be a mythical amalgam of various forgotten sages". The book under review itself says "Sadly, it is now almost universally assumed by classical scholars that Pythagoras never existed". I suspect this is partly tongue in cheek, since the other information I can find doesn't seem consistent with what it says on its face, but if it's a joke I think it's the sort that depends on not being too far from the truth. Here's the History Channel suggesting Pythagoras may not have existed. Everything I can find about Pythagoras, scholarly or popular, emphasizes that our sources of information about him are late and untrustworthy and that scarcely anything is known about him.

It looks to me as if the usual belief is "probably real but essentially nothing is actually known about his life", and a few people, mostly not actual scholars, say "actually, the evidence is so thin he may well not have been real". Which is not so different from the situation with Jesus, except that most people who aren't out-and-out mythicists about Jesus are willing to concede that some things are known about his life.