The Best Thesis Defense

 

I smiled when I saw the above XKCD cartoon on Facebook. But from a more serious side, despite the saying that “the best defense is a good offense,” that isn't true in the world of arguments and reasoning, whatever its validity may or may not be in the realm of sports.

No matter how much you attack, attempt to poke holes in, or argue against a viewpoint different than your own, it does not make your viewpoint correct.

If you have a thesis – whether in the sense of a written dissertation or in the sense of a viewpoint you have been developing in your mind – the question of its truthfulness or its usefulness in making sense of the world must be determined by assessing its fit to the evidence.

If it doesn't fit the evidence, and someone points this out, it is no good attacking alternative views. It may turn out that those other views are wrong in some way, shape, or form. It is likely that all human viewpoints are to a significant extent. But you viewpoint may be even more wrong than those you are attacking.

And so by all means relax yourself when you have a thesis defense by imagining yourself chasing the examiners with a sword.

But when considering things more seriously, know that a solid thesis must have as good a defense as an offense. If there is nothing to criticize about other viewpoints, then you will probably have nothing insightful to contribute. But in order to have a valid thesis, your own viewpoint must withstand criticism better than those other viewpoints do. Otherwise you have (as should be obvious) made no progress towards getting closer to the truth. You have just added one more problematic viewpoint – and perhaps a more problematic viewpoint – alongside others.

 

  • http://www.itsallrandommostly.com/ The Shape

    You’re giving me flashbacks…

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    This is a remarkably good post, James. Sometimes a solid defense stands up better than a Pyrrhic victory.

  • Anonymous Coward

    I agree with what you say here, and I think it’s important to note that the blog post you linked to is guilty of the very “offense” you’re describing… Or maybe that’s why you linked to it. ;)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      On the contrary, mainstream historical scholarship has offered a case that all professional historians find persuasive. Constantly asserting the contrary doesn’t make your stance seem less like bunk, but even more like motivated reasoning at its worst.

      • Anonymous Coward

        Well I said the blog post itself commits the same offence as the one your post describes, I didn’t mean to imply that mainstream historical scholarship commits the offense.

        I agree that constantly asserting the contrary doesn’t make one’s stance seem less like bunk.

  • Anonymous Coward

    The linked blog article offers three criticisms of mythicism:

    1. The gospels are more like biographies than like mythical literature.

    2. Mythicism relies on an assumption that resemblance is evidence for equivalence

    3. Mythicist logic would lead us to conclude that Napoleon never existed.

    Interestingly, the strength of objection one in part relies on an assumption that resemblance is evidence for equivalence (since it seems like part of the idea is to argue that since the gospels resemble biographies, this constitutes evidence that they ARE biographies)–yet that contradicts objection 2!

    To this it might be replied that I’ve misrepresented objection 2, since he doesn’t ascribe to mythicists just the view that resemblance “is evidence for” equivalence, but rather the view that resemblance positively implies equivalence. But of course that’s an extremely implausible thing to ascribe to mythicists. I doubt even the really far out mythicists (as opposed to careful ones like Carrier) work from such an assumption. Certainly evidence would need to be provided that mythicists assume resemblance implies equivalence.

    So forgetting about 2, what about objection 1 by itself? Ignoring the implicit positive case for historicism and treating it just as a case against mythicism, It seems to go like this:

    Mythicism relies heavily on meaningful parallels to mythical literature
    The gospels aren’t meaningfully parallel to mythical literature
    Therefore considerable support for mythicism is undercut.

    I don’t think the first premise is true. Carrier, for example, while he does make references to parallels and does use this to bolster his case, doesn’t “rely heavily” on them. His main evidence–what he relies heavily on–is what Paul says and doesn’t say about his Christ, and whether there is much (or anything) in the gospels that seem hard to explain if they are fiction.

    There’s an interesting and detailed discussion to be had there, such that replying to this post with a first obvious wave of reasons to think they’re not fiction would be missing the point–that discussion’s to be found in Carrier’s book, and it would be best to use what’s in there as a starting point rather than re-covering the whole discussion on a blog comment thread.

    For purposes of this post, rather, the important point is just that Carrier’s argument doesn’t “rely heavily” on parallels between the gospels and other texts in an attempt to show that the gospels “must be” myths since they resemble myths. He intentionally and pretty carefully avoids that argument, in fact.

    Objection 3, surely, you do not yourself endorse, so I won’t here bother trying to refute it. It would be kind of like refuting someone’s view that the sky is typically striped purple and green.

    • Anonymous Coward

      Well, to elaborate on objection 3:

      Objection 3 is just false. The kind of reasoning used by careful mythicists would lead to the conclusion that Bonaparte existed, because any “napoleon myth” hypothesis would be made extremely improbable by things such as written contemporary eyewitness accounts, the historical record of the napoleonic war and its causes, contemporary inscriptions, and so on. This is not to say that Jesus mythicism relies solely on remarks that these things don’t exist for Jesus. It is just to say that the presence of such things suffices to make Napoleon-mythicism implausible, on mythicist reasoning.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        The only thing that makes Napoleon-mythicism implausible is that you lack the motivation to engage in it. True, it is much easier to be a mythicist about a figure from the more distant past, one who was in no position to mint coins or otherwise leave tangible evidence. But the hurdles are not insurmountable. If you are happy to treat references to someone’s birth, death, and burial as taking place in the celestial realm even though that is not stated, one can do the same with anyone, and can treat references to a purportedly historical leader as in fact references to his leadership in the celestial realm.

        • Anonymous Coward

          //If you are happy to treat references to someone’s birth, death, and burial as taking place in the celestial realm even though that is not stated, one can do the same with anyone, and can treat references to a purportedly historical leader as in fact references to his leadership in the celestial realm.//

          That sentence is false. The very differences you pointed out concerning Jesus and Napoleon show that _just because_ one should be happy to treat references to one as fictional, this _does not_ in fact mean you should treat references to the other as fictional.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      On the contrary, I agree completely that mythicism’s approach is fundamentally the same as other forms of denialism, whether Napoleon, Holocaust, climate change of any other.

      The “objection” that something that has been typical of mythicism for more than a century is not the mythicist stance because one book published very recently does not adopt it is pretty silly, I think.

      The same can be said of your attempt to suggest that rejecting parallelomania where it has been shown to be a problem, namely in assuming that all instances of an idea need not have a genetic relationship, means that one should not seek to evaluate the genre of a piece of ancient literature in light of the evidence provided by other exemplars.

      I really do wonder whether you think that merely by posting strings of word, no matter how unpersuasive or illogical, you are somehow doing your bit to support mythicism. I must say that I appreciate it when mythicists provide evidence of their problematic claims in the comments section here! But I still wonder from time to time what exactly you gain by doing so.

      • Anonymous Coward

        //The “objection” that something that has been typical of mythicism for more than a century is not the mythicist stance because one book published very recently does not adopt it is pretty silly, I think.//

        I am sorry you think it’s silly. The fact is it should be taken seriously. “Mythicism” can refer to a sociological grouping, or to a set of intellectual positions. I am assuming we’re here mostly to talk about the latter than the former. And as a set of intellectual positions, it is always considered best, if one is arguing against that set, to argue against the best the set has to offer.

        I don’t care–and don’t think anyone else should care in the context of trying to figure out the best arguments–what mythicists have typically done in the past. I care what the best argument for mythicism is. Don’t you?

        //I really do wonder whether you think that merely by posting strings of word, no matter how unpersuasive or illogical, you are somehow doing your bit to support mythicism. //

        I invite you to ask any of your colleagues in the analytic side of philosophy in your department to examine my post and see whether they agree with you that my post consists in an illogical strings of words.

        By saying this about my post you’ve made your judgments of the logical quality of a string of words very suspect. I cannot think of any way to provide evidence of this that you would accept, however, except by asking you to turn towards relevant experts whose identity is known to you.*

        Fat chance, I know, because you’ll probably not want to waste their time. But the fact is that what you are calling an “illogical string of words” will clearly show itself to anyone who actually knows anything about logic (for example, me) to be a string of words that exhibits a great deal of care in ensuring a strong logical connection between its premises and its conclusions, and a strong relevance connection between its conclusions and the argument it is replying to.

        (If there is anything I learned in life how to do, THIS is a thing I know how to do, and I teach others to do it. I have spent over a decade honing this skill, under the tutelage of world-famous experts in the area. I remain a nobody, to be sure, but I’m a nobody who knows damn well how to put words together logically and think things through. You are simply, certifiably wrong to call what I’ve said an “illogical” “string of words.”)

        * I myself have the requisite credentials but I keep keepin’ on with the anonymity thing, in part because (creepy alert!) you actually could concievably be in a position to determine part of my employment status one of these days.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I may have been exaggerating, but if you think that you have an argument that works logically, then I would encourage you to run it by the world-famous experts you know to see if they concur. I am certainly open to being corrected.

          As for your suggestion that you would, like creationists so often do, apply for a job in higher education under false pretenses, while being opposed to the very ethos of a university’s mission, which is not only to foster the free exchange of ideas but also to evaluate ideas and combat shoddy thinking, then I concur that that is creepy.

          • Anonymous Coward

            I don’t understand your final comment and wonder if there may have been a misunderstanding of some kind. Concerning evaluating ideas and combating shoddy thinking, this is of course what I claim to do so I assume you’re not saying I’m against that. But are you saying I’m against the free exchange of ideas then? Why?

            • anonymous coward

              //I don’t understand your final comment and wonder if there may have been a misunderstanding of some kind. Concerning evaluating ideas and combating shoddy thinking, this is of course what I claim to do so I assume you’re not saying I’m against that. But are you saying I’m against the free exchange of ideas then? Why?//

              Also, what do you mean by false pretenses?

              • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                If I were a biologist, and you were a proponent of Intelligent Design, and said you remain anonymous because I might have an impact on your employment sometime, how would you understand the connotations of such a statement?

                • Anonymous Coward

                  Ah okay, I got it. I actually didn’t mean you might refuse to hire me because I argue for mythicism (naively that didn’t even occur to me!) but rather just was alluding to the idea of keeping professional and personal interactions separate. I think of this as more of a personal interaction, and would be afraid someone who knew who I was might mistakenly ascribe my less-careful, outside-the-profession style here to my ability to do professional work and to teach philosophy.

                  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                    I have encountered a lot of mythicists who think that universities and scholars are conspiring to exclude them. I would happily hire someone who was interested in making a scholarly case for mythicism, or any viewpoint, in the appropriate scholarly venues and following the appropriate methods. I would, in the other hand, be very disappointed if I found that someone pretended to embrace mainstream scholarship in order to get hired and then used their academic position to lend credibility to a view that is not in fact something they were doing academic work on.

                    Now that I have understood your point, I should say in response that I am clearly persuaded that one can have an online presence that is at times frivolous, and still do one’s work as an educator and researcher – indeed, perhaps do it better as a result! ;-)

                    • arcseconds

                      Would you take on a Ph.D. student who was keen on disproving the historical existence of Jesus?

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      If I were at an institution with a doctoral program then I would gladly taken on a student who was keen on exploring that possibility. I would hesitate to take on a student who was so keen on proving anything that I had reason to suspect they would not follow the evidence where it leads.

                    • arcseconds

                      That’s a good answer, but even were it to be undertaken in an open-minded way, is there not a significant probability that the result would not be something that would be considered worthy of a Ph.D.?

                      If the examiners accept it makes a solid case for a mythical Jesus, then of course not only would they get the Ph.D. but they’d have a career for life as the original mainstream academic mythicist. They can be assured of continual citations as people attack their work! And there’s a ready-made market for popular books on the subject.

                      But the chances are rather against that, are they not? And the alternative is that they produce a work examining arguments for mythical Jesus and reject them. Would this count as original work enough for a Ph.D. thesis? Given that there are already books written by scholars on this topic, I would think probably not.

                      I realise this is a more extreme example, but I would expect there will be no science or engineering lecturers who would accept a Ph.D. student trying to develop a water-powered car in the sense that is meant by the fringe inventor crowd. So much we know about chemistry and physics would have to be wrong for that to be a possibility. And a result of ‘Oh, it turns out the mainstream was right and it’s thermodynamically impossible: here is some more evidence for what we already were pretty certain of’ isn’t likely to be acceptable as a Ph.D. thesis.

                    • Gary

                      I tend to find the cartoon not funny. It leaves a rather bad taste in my mouth.
                      http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Diego_State_University_shooting

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Wow, I didn’t associate the cartoon with that at all. :-(

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      The biggest risks in undertaking doctoral research are (1) that your original idea will turn out not to have been so original, and (2) that your original idea will turn out to be wildly implausible. The latter is less make-or-break in the humanities than it is in the natural sciences. I’ve read doctoral dissertations turned into books which I found thoroughly unpersuasive. It is precisely for that reason that I emphasize so frequently that the mere fact of a viewpoint being published in a field like history or Biblical studies is not in any way, shape, or form evidence that that viewpoint is correct. But, on the other hand, publishing something that most readers will find unpersuasive may not help you get employed, assuming your prospective employers have actually read your monograph.


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