Friday, April 22, 2016

Fact-Checking the Torah -- silence is not golden

Possibly the most important fallacy when it comes to archaeological finds, is the false argument from silence saying that something didn’t happen or didn’t exist because the evidence hasn’t been found.
There are two arguments from silence, one true and one false.
The true argument from silence has a specific requirement.  If the person making the argument has access to complete data, then the argument that something didn’t happen or didn’t exist based on its absence from the dataset is true.
When somebody says that a given sports performance is not an Olympic record because it’s not in the Olympic record book, that’s a true argument from silence.  The Olympic committee has absolute control over what constitutes a record for purposes of the Olympics. 
Archaeology doesn’t have a complete record.  This is another resemblance with paleontology, and for similar reasons.  Normal weathering or decay processes destroy fossils and human artifacts.
Humans also destroy them. We don’t know the extent of the library of Alexandria, because it was deliberately destroyed by people.  In 500 years, if people are still around, there may be arguments about whether there were Buddhist statues at Bamian in Afghanistan.  Humans destroyed those statues.  The records of them may go missing or also be destroyed.  In 500 years it will be a false argument from silence that they didn’t exist.  The same is true for Tell Nimrud, destroyed in 2015 (after the antiquities were looted for sale to support terrorist activity).
What paleontologists do, in that case, is the same thing archaeologists do, or should do.  Actually it’s several things.
One is drawing conclusions from what they did find.  If a paleontologist finds a fish skeleton which is a fossil and not just a recently dead fish, then the paleontologist knows that a long line of ancestors back to the original life form came before that fossil fish.  Identifying the geological age of the rock containing the fossil shows where in the geological age of earth the fish lived, and thus how much of the 4 billion years of life on earth stand behind that fish. 
Archaeologists have to do the same thing.  In particular, this applies to the Merneptah stele.  Given the determination that it was put up about 1207 BCE, archaeologists realize, from the part of the inscription giving Israel as the name of an ethnic group raided at the same time as the K’naani, that such an ethnic group existed in the Holy Land at that time, and had done so for long enough to be generally known to the Egyptians as living there.
What’s more, archaeologists know that the two ethnic groups could somehow be distinguished from each other, or nobody would give them two names.  That’s the lesson of the terms Ekwesh and Peleshet in the Medinat Habu inscription.  The Ekwesh had a distinct cultural feature that did not apply to the Peleshet, and the Peleshet were culturally indistinguishable from people living in Crete, right down to using Linear B writing.  Likewise from the point of view of the Hittites, the Ahiyyawa did not have distinctive subgroups.  For us to decide that Ekwesh means Ahiyyawa ignores some of the facts and therefore doesn’t meet the test of Occam’s Razor.  The process of elimination that identifies the circumcised Ekwesh with the Ahiyyawa breaks down, and it is much more reasonable to identify them with Kush, a people known to be circumcised.
Finally, archaeologists know that no ethnic group leaps into existence at the moment it is first named in writing but has developed distinctive characteristics over a period of time.  How long?
For that, archaeologists can use Occam’s Razor as a diagnostic.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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