The case of the sixth islander
The case of the sixth islander
[another extract from a paper I am writing, this time a thought experiment related to the preceding post].
Suppose five people are rescued from a large, otherwise uninhabited island on which they were shipwrecked ten years previously. The shipwrecked party knew that if they survived they would, eventually, be rescued, for they knew the island was a nature reserve visited by ecologists every ten years.
As the rescued party recount their stories, they include amazing tales of a sixth member of their party shipwrecked along with them. This person, they claim, soon set himself apart from the others by performing amazing miracles – walking on the sea, miraculously curing one of the islanders who had died from a snakebite, conjuring up large quantities of food from nowhere, and so on. The mysterious sixth islander also had striking and original ethical views that, while unorthodox, were eventually enthusiastically embraced by the other islanders. Eventually, five years ago, the sixth islander died, but he came back to life three days later, after which he ascended into the sky. He was even seen again several times after that.
Let’s add some further details to this hypothetical scenario. Suppose that the five islanders tell much the same story about the revered sixth member of their party – while differing in style, their accounts are broadly consistent. Indeed, a vivid and forceful portrait of the sixth islander emerges from their collectively testimony.
Interestingly, the stories about the sixth islander also include a number of details that are clearly awkward or embarrassing for the remaining islanders. Indeed, they all agree that two of the surviving islanders actually betrayed and killed the sixth islander. Moreover, some of the deeds supposedly performed by the sixth islander are clearly at odds with what the survivors believe about him (for example, while believing the sixth islander to be utterly without malice, they also attribute to him actions that are clearly cruel, actions they then have a very hard time explaining). These are details it seems it could hardly be in their interests to invent.
Such is their admiration for their sixth companion and his unorthodox ethical views that the survivors try hard to convince us that both what they say is true, and that it is important that we too should also come to embrace his unorthodox views. Indeed, for the rescued party, the sixth islander is a revered cult figure, a figure they wish us to revere too.
Now suppose we have, as yet, no good independent evidence for the existence of the sixth islander, let alone that he performed the miracles attributed to him by the rescued party. What should be our attitude to these various claims?
Clearly, we would rightly be sceptical about the miraculous parts of the testimony concerning the sixth islander. Their collective testimony is not nearly good enough evidence that such events happened. But what of the sixth islander’s existence? Is it reasonable to believe, solely on the basis of this testimony, that the sixth islander was at least a real person, rather than a delusion, or deliberately invented fiction, or whatever?
Notice that the evidence presented by the five islanders meets three criteria discussed above.
First, we have multiple attestation: not one, but five, individuals claim that the sixth islander existed (moreover, we are dealing with the alleged eye-witnesses themselves, rather than second or third hand reports, so there is no possibility of other having tampered with or amended the story to suit themselves).
Secondly, their reports contain details that are clearly highly embarrassing to (indeed, that seriously incriminate) the tellers. This raises the question – why would the islanders deliberately include such details in a made-up story – a story that e.g. is clearly in tension with what they believe about their hero, and which, indeed, also portrays them as murderous betrayers?
Thirdly, why would they attribute to the sixth islander unorthodox ethical and other views very much discontinuous with accepted wisdom? If, for example, the sixth islander is an invention designed to set them up as chief gurus of a new cult, would they attribute to their mythical leader views unlikely to be easily accepted by others?
Now there’s no doubt that there could have been a sixth islander who said and did some of the things attributed to him. But ask yourself: does the collective testimony of the rescued party place the existence of the sixth islander beyond reasonable doubt? If not beyond reasonable doubt, is his existence something it would at least be reasonable for us to accept? Or would we be wiser, at this point, to reserve judgement and adopt a sceptical stance?
[nb. the following is for Sam’s interest]
Sticking to the story despite the threat of death
Another difference between the two scenarios that might be exploited is: Those who made such claims about Jesus were prepared to, and on occasion did, die for their beliefs. No such threats are issued to the six islanders. Some may claim this is a key difference between the two sets of testimony that gives the testimony about Jesus much greater credibility.
Let’s suppose at least some of those with whom the Jesus testimony originated were prepared to die for their belief. That would at least raise the credibility of their collective testimony somewhat. But by how much?
Again, let’s adjust our hypothetical scenario so that the islanders are now threatened with death if they do not renounce their claims about the sixth islander (imagine, if you like, that they are unlucky enough to be rescued by a brutal totalitarian regime highly unsympathetic to such tales). The islanders stick to their story, and are executed as a result. How reasonable is it, now, to suppose that there was a sixth islander?
Still not terribly reasonable, I would suggest.
It is, of course, deeply puzzling why the islanders would be prepared to die for their beliefs if those beliefs were not true. If the islanders made the story up, surely they would have renounced it to save their own skins. But if they did not make it up, and yet the story is not true, then they would have to have collectively been the victims of some sort of deceit or delusion about the miraculous sixth islander. Yet that is scarcely credible either.
And yet – given the highly miraculous nature of much of what they recount about the sixth islander, surely it is still not clear that he existed, let alone performed any of the miracles attributed to him.
The fact that it is deeply puzzling why the rescued party would go to their deaths defending beliefs that they knew not to be true, and no less puzzling how they could collectively have become deceived or deluded about a miraculous sixth islander, still leaves us largely clueless about what really happened.