Okay, I’m sure some wonder why I would write a summary of Dharmakirti’s Logic of Debate in my last post. It’s primarily because I want to preserve this information for those interested in Dharmakirti and the history of logic. But it’s got a secondary interest here: Dharmakirti was one of the first philosophers, of whom I am aware, who takes on the question of whether one can make an argument for the non-existence of something, sometimes called proving a negative, even if such a thing isn’t inherently improbable or implausible. His answer is a highly-qualified “yes.”
The qualifications made by the Indian logician are that the object under consideration must be assumed to be nearby in space and time and, further, apprehensible by its self-nature to the one who wishes to know that it does not exist. This is a philosopher’s way of telling his reader to be humble enough to admit lack of knowledge about a specific claim of non-existence unless this reader is speaking of something that should be visible (or otherwise apprehensible) right then and there. If we agree with Dharmakirti, the relevance to the contemporary debate sometimes conducted over the historical existence of Jesus is twofold.
Firstly, those who are attempting to show the non-historicity of Jesus can with humility admit the inability of our data and logic to be used to demonstrate that conclusion. Even with the most thoroughgoing justification for organizing our understanding of early Christian writings and of Christian origins in a way that does not necessitate a historical Jesus, there always remains the possibility that a historical Jesus, coincidentally, still lived. This is particularly true when even a completely allegorical, fictional, or mythological Gospel story could have drawn inspiration from details in the life of such a person, even if this possible Jesus is not foundational to the Christian movement but rather only incidental to the origins of Christianity.
And secondly? Simply that, if it is impossible to form a logically valid argument to the non-historicity of Jesus, then it cannot be held as an argument for the historical existence of Jesus that no such logically valid argument against it exists; no such argument could be found under the hypothesis of historical existence or of historical non-existence.
In an essay to be commended for its irenic approach, Fernando Bermejo-Rubio presents his first of three arguments for the historicity of the Jesus in the words, “one of my main arguments against the non-historicity of Jesus is that –after having analyzed sine ira et studio quite a few works of the proponents of the idea, since Bauer to the very present– I have found no compelling arguments in its favor.” If anyone is thinking about the topic in precisely these terms, such that the absence of a strong argument for non-historicity forms an argument for historicity, they would have committed Dharmakirti’s asadhanangavacana (an occasion of the defeat of the disputant), particularly that of invalid inference, because this situation is what should be expected under either hypothesis, that of historical existence or of historical non-existence.
Even if we don’t accept Dharmakirti’s approach, the argument quoted is still problematic and invalid. In the contemporary parlance of the fallacies in informal logic, this is a specific example of the fallacy of “argument from ignorance,” which is any attempt to argue for the conclusion A (historicity of Jesus) from the absence of argument for the conclusion not-A (non-historicity of Jesus). I would also question the parallel drawn to the argument over the death penalty: besides the fact that some people would also question such an argument in the case of the death penalty, it is possible to understand the comment sometimes attributed to the German jurist Paul Bockelmann as resolving into a statement that the burden of proof lies with the death penalty for proving its ethical, legal, or criminological merit before applying the sentence to anybody. That such an analogy should be carried over to the question of the non-historicity of anyone is highly questionable firstly and chiefly because there is nobody who is injured by the hypothesis of non-historicity. That the non-historicity of anyone should carry a burden of proof is further highly questionable because of the difficulties already mentioned in a general way (noted long ago in seventh century India) about proving the non-existence of a particular thing. There are indeed those who would want to put a burden of proof on the hypothesis of historicity (without which non-historicity prevails as a hypothesis), but the most reasonable approach out of all these approaches would be to assign the burden of proof to anyone making a claim while defaulting to simple skepticism.
It is possible that in this terse essay Bermejo-Rubio actually means something stronger than what he says and that he finds nothing compelling either about the arguments to the non-historicity of Jesus or to any of the attendant hypotheses formed by those who have thus far attempted to describe Christian origins without a historical Jesus. Could this be made into a compelling argument? I think that it could if this argument were elaborated so as to include and justify premises that (1) the non-historicity of Jesus requires some attendant hypothesis about the early Christian writings or Christian origins and (2) that this hypothesis can be argued, compellingly, to be false. However, this argument would actually be independent of any effort made by proponents of the idea of the non-historicity of Jesus to make valid arguments. It would indeed stand alone as a potentially valid argument for the historicity of Jesus. However, Bermejo-Rubio does not, in the space allowed to him in the brief essay, make any such particular argument regarding the data available to us, and, moreover, the most evident sense of his stated first argument is that the historicity of Jesus is made more probable by the failed efforts of Bauer and others to prove their case.
This is, thus, the fallacy known as the argument from ignorance. Let simple skepticism instead be our default.