I left this week blank for a while, not because there are a lack of topics, but rather because there were so many different choices that I wasn't sure what I wanted to talk about. In the end, I decided on a discussion of a particular argument you see thrown around a lot among the Modern Orthodox, sometimes where it is applicable, but often where it isn't. The argument is often stated as "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," and when misapplied yields to something akin to scientific nihilism. I will demonstrate this with two contrived examples, and then follow it up with a discussion of a topic relevant to Torah historicity.
Before I begin, I will make a caveat. This post assumes a general acceptance of scientific principles. There can certainly be discussion on this matter, but I am far from an expert in philosophy of science or on the finer points of epistemology. So, out of necessity, I'm going to take the accuracy of scientific methodology as an assumption. This isn't too bad for this topic, since in general, the people who misuse "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" aren't rejecting the value of the scientific method intentionally. They're attempting to use scientific principles in a way that supports an improbable event.
President Wilbur Thwilmond
Imagine a situation where you are in conversation with me, and I state that there was once a US president by the name of Wilbur Thwilmond. You might reply that there was no such president by that name. I will ask how you know that. You might pull up a list of presidents, perhaps on Wikipedia, or maybe from the government website, and you'll note that the name Wilbur Thwilmond does not appear on that list. "Ah," I'll reply, "but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because the name does not appear on the list is not sufficient to prove that there was no such president."
Depending on how ornery I wish to be, the discussion can then devolve down a line familiar to anyone who ever discussed something with a conspiracy theorist. I could bring up many possible scenarios that could have vaulted this individual to the highest office, along with lots of reasons as to why the person's name was suppressed in all historical records. I could even bring up alternate sources from other people (or myself under pseudonyms) sympathetic to the "Thwilmond Hypothesis" to bolster my claim. Another thing I could do is "move the goalposts." I could admit that there was no President of the United States named Wilbur Thwilmond, but there was a President of some other office. I would redefine my original statement and claim that the essence of what I was saying as still correct.
The truth is, it is impossible to prove with full certitude that there was no president named Wilbur Thwilmond. In fact, it's impossible to completely disprove any invention I could bring up. Nevertheless, you'd be wise to reject my claims, and in fact, scientifically, you absolutely should reject my claims. This is because scientific thinking never cares about one hundred percent certainty. The next example will make this clear.
A Bag of Balls
Here's the second thought experiment. Let's say I hand you a bag with ten balls in it. You can feel from the outside that there are clearly ten balls. You are allowed to take a ball from the bag, examine it, and then return it to the bag. After which you may take another ball out. You may never take more than one ball out of the bag, and each time you remove a ball, it must be randomly selected from all ten balls. Let's say the first ball you take out is green. So is the second. And the third. How many more consecutive green balls must you take out of the back before you can safely claim that there are only ten green balls in the bag? Does the answer change if I tell you at the beginning that there are 9 green balls and 1 red ball in the bag? What about, if I claim there were 9 red balls and 1 green ball?
The mathematical answer to both questions is "an infinite number of balls." Mathematics deals in absolutes. And no matter how low the probability goes, it never reaches zero. That is not the scientific answer though. Science deals in probability. For this example, it's actually pretty easy to calculate the probability of taking N consecutive green balls out of a bag filled with 9 green balls and 1 red ball. For example, there's a ~35% chance that the first 10 balls you take out of a 9-green, 1-red bag are all green. This amount falls off pretty quickly. There's only a 1/200 chance that the first 50 balls are green. There's less than a 1/37000 chance that the first 100 balls are green. And if you sit through and pick 1000 balls out of the bag, there's only a 1/5 billion billion billion billion billion billion chance (6 billions = 9 millions = 1 quattuordecillion).
After 10 balls if you were to claim, "hey there's no non-green balls in here." I might reply "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." And I'd be using it correctly! 35% chance is certainly reasonable. You have not picked enough balls to comfortably reject the red ball hypothesis. Even at 50 balls, I might be able to get away with it, that's an unlikely occurrence for sure, but 1/200 is not outside the realm of possibility. At 100, the phrase is misapplied, and it certainly is at 10000. At what point have you gathered enough evidence to conclude the absence of non-green balls?
The answer is somewhat subjective. In the scientific world everything is given with confidence intervals, or margins of error. Often a result is stated with a 95% probability that the value is between two bounds. In this case, it would take 28 balls to be 95% confident that there were only green balls in the bag. Is this good enough? It might be if you had no prior expectation of what colors of balls were in the bag. This is where the second part of the question comes in. If I told you there was one red ball in the bag, you might not be so confident in 95%. You might require 99.5% (50 balls) or more. Well, that's if you thought I was trustworthy. If you thought I was infallible and would never lie, then you might never be satisfied, even at 1000 balls. Everytime another green ball gets pulled out of the bag, you might claim "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." But now, you have abandoned scientific principles.
Going back to the first example. Can we say for sure that there was no President Wilbur? No. Can we state with a high degree of confidence that there was no President Wilbur? Yes. Prior information, such as me saying that there is a President Wilbur, or that there is a red ball in the bag should only change the degree of confidence you need to reject the hypothesis. If you set that degree of confidence at 100%, then you've put yourself in a situation where the scientific methodology will never produce an answer. That's why I said above that using "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" in situations like these is akin to scientific nihilism.
Finally, the Kefirah
So now let's turn to an example of relevance. There are no dearth of biblical claims that can be analyzed using scientific analysis, but in order to preview some topics we will discuss in future weeks, let's look at the Exodus story, one that begins at the end of Bereishit (Genesis) and culminates all the way in Yehoshua (Joshua) with the conquest of Eretz Yisrael (Israel). The story makes several claims that appear to be testable.
The story claims a very large group of people leaving Egypt. The number is given as 600,000 males between 20 and 60 along with women and children, giving a total number of roughly 1.5 million. It claims a complete destruction of the Egyptian army at the time of departure. It claims that the entire nation lived in various locations in the Sinai desert for 40 years, 38 of which were spent at one location, Kadesh Barnea. It mentions other nations around at the time, kingdoms in Arad and Heshbon. It mentions states of Ammon, Moab and Edom. In the conquest, it claims that the Israelites captures many cities in a quick campaign, displacing the inhabitants. It mentions destructions of the cities at Jericho and Ai, as well as other locations. In a nutshell, this is the biblical claim.
We can pretend the ground is a giant bag, now with an infinite number of balls. Each ball that we pull out that supports the hypothesis can be a red ball, each one we pull out that does not support it, can be a green one. Note, that it's not important here that the green balls contradict the hypothesis, just that they do not support it. This analogy isn't perfect, no analogies are. In truth things aren't as binary as green and red. But for this thought experiment, let's assume they can be.
We can temper our expectations based on location. If we're excavating at Kadesh Barnea, and we're pretty sure we know where it is, we might have good expectations to get a red ball. Similarly, if we're digging up Jericho. If we're excavating in Syria, we might not expect to see much. The type of evidence matters. If we're trying to see the 70 individuals who went down to Egypt with Yaakov (Jacob) we might not be surprised if nothing turns up. It's more likely than not that 70 people would get lost in the 2-5 million in the Egyptian empire. However, with the 1.5 million that left, we would expect to see some trace. Also, the time period matters. Let's say we're looking for references to some of the other nation states, Ammon, Edom and Moab. If we're looking in a period with a lot of recovered correspondence between states in the region, discussing treaties and trade details, then we might expect to see references to these nations if they existed at the time. If we're looking in "dark age" regions with a very limited amount of correspondence, then it wouldn't be surprising to see nothing.
Just focusing on one event, the encampment at Kadesh Barnea. The Torah claims that approximately 1 million people encamped there for 38 years. There are two census counts in the Torah that claim this number, as well as the 600,000 count upon leaving Egypt. An encampment of 1 million people would make this one of, if not, the largest city in the world. We can also set bounds on the time period, loose ones for now . It must occur in the middle to late bronze age, between about 1600 BCE and 1000 BCE. Do we know where Kadesh Barnea is? We think we do. It is well known in later times as a trade route city between Arabia and Egypt. It is located near an oasis, and while we could be wrong about the exact location of this settlement, cities of 1 million people are phenomenally large. We dig in the region and what to we come up with? Absolutely nothing. Their are remains there from small outpost settlements much earlier, and much later, but nothing in the time frame in which the Israelites are supposedly there. No pottery shards, no animal bones from the numerous sacrifices, no human remains from the entire generation that supposedly died there, no tombs or graves, no written records. Every historian who looks at the archaeological result comes to the conclusion that if this account is referring to a real event, the numbers are horribly inflated. If there were indeed 1 million people here, we would not be only digging up green balls. We would have hit at least one red ball. We have not, despite an incredibly large number of motivated expeditions in the area, most of them by religious groups wishing to verify the biblical account and coming up empty-handed .
So the question I leave with, and one I won't answer here, is "How many consecutive 'green balls' would you need to pull out of the ground before you convinced yourself that there were no red balls in there. This is something to keep in mind in future weeks, and if you do any of your own reading on the subject. I will discuss the Exodus story in detail 3 weeks from now, and at some unspecified later point I will deal with the conquest of Israel.
1. We'll look at the dates of the Exodus in 3 weeks (parshat Bo) and determine that it fits in no time period at all.^
2. Finkelstein and Silberman discuss the difficulty of Kadesh Barnea in "The Bible Unearthed."^