It has long been the case that holocaust revisionists tend to focus their arguments on specifics, while anti-revisionists have claimed to rely on a big-picture view, while making rhetorical accusations of decontextualization against revisionists. To be sure, there have been some anti-revisionists willing to engage in specific questions (e.g. Jean-Claude Pressac) but the ignominious failure of such efforts has not encouraged imitation. In more recent years, authors who have engaged in such detailed discussion have come from much further down the intellectual totem pole. One gets the sense that the more prominent holocaustians are rather embarrassed at the whole thing, much as a modernist theologian is embarrassed when he hears a fundamentalist defending the thesis of biblical infallibility. Who could imagine someone like Peter Longerich actually defending the notion that 700-800 people can fit into a 25-square-meter room, as Charles Provan and his follower Roberto Muehlenkamp have done? Longerich wouldn’t be caught dead in such intellectual company.
In recent years, the more important “big picture” arguments for the holocaust thesis have come from Robert Jan van Pelt, who introduced the term “convergence of evidence”, and from Nick Terry, who has used the term “conspiracy theory” for rhetorical effect. The main property of this kind of arguments has been the claim that the evidence for the orthodox holocaust is so overwhelming that it could not possibly be false. Once a great mass of evidence has been presented, the holocaust believer rules out detailed criticism of the sources by claiming that this would be excessive and even pathological skepticism, an argument which he generally supports by some kind of analogy. Circumstantial arguments are then used to finish the rhetorical case. The style is polemical, insistent, insulting, and unwilling to stop and consider serious and extended critical questioning.
An illuminating parallel to some of the arguments that come up in this mode of argumentation can be found in the literature on miracles. For instance, with respect to arguments from extensive eyewitness accounts, see this or this. The article on miracles from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in particular the section Arguments for Miracle Claims, offers a summary of some of the arguments that often come into the miracle debate. It’s worth reviewing the matter here.
Four types of arguments for miracles are identified
most arguments for miracle claims fall into one of four structural categories: deductive, criteriological, explanatory, or probabilistic
We will now take up the first three types in turn, ignoring the last type because probabilistic arguments (which are generally based on Bayes’ theorem) have not played any role in the holocaust debate.
Deductive arguments for miracle claims are relatively rare in serious modern discussions, since they are subject to peculiar liabilities. Here, for example, is a deductive reconstruction of an argument given by William Paley (1859), broadly modeled on the version given by Richard Whately (1870: 254–258) and other Victorian logicians:
1. All miracles attested by persons, claiming to have witnessed them, who pass their lives in labors, dangers, and sufferings in support of their statements, and who, in consequence of their belief, submit to new rules of conduct, are worthy of credit.
2. The central Christian miracles are attested by such evidence.
3. The central Christian miracles are worthy of credit.
There are several strategies available for pressing a critique of this argument. In ancient times, premise 2 was generally conceded, while premise 1 was contested; since the Enlightenment, it has become somewhat more common for critics to contest premise 2 as well. There are also indirect approaches that exploit the deductive structure of the argument to argue that something must be wrong with the argument without getting bogged down in the details of a specific critique. Adding further true premises does not reduce the support that a deductive argument gives to its conclusion; but the addition of such premises may bring to light some awkward consequences. One interpretation of one part of Hume’s strategy in “Of Miracles,” part 2 is that he has in mind the addition of a further premise:
2*. Various non-Christian miracles are attested by such (or better) evidence,
the conclusion envisaged being, of course, that
3*. Various non-Christian miracles are worthy of credit.
The strategy is intended as a reductio ad absurdum of the first premise, since prima facie it is not the case that both the Christian miracles and the non-Christian miracles are worthy of credit.
Just as “Deductive arguments for miracle claims are relatively rare in serious modern discussions”, so too are they rare in serious anti-revisionism. It has been established that such arguments cannot stand up to scrutiny. The indirect approach discussed (showing that the deductive arguments for Christian miracles also imply non-Christian miracles) has been pursued by holocaust revisionists, for instance in showing that just as there are confessions to the existence of homicidal gas chambers in Auschwitz, so too are there confessions to the existence of homicidal gas chambers in Buchenwald, but historians universally dismiss the idea that there were homicidal gas chambers in Buchenwald, etc. Holocaust believers have preferred to avoid a direct confrontation with such arguments, employing instead more flexible and evasive strategies such as appealing to a “convergence of evidence”.
A classic formulation of a criteriological argument for miracles is employed by Charles Leslie (1697/1815: 13), who argues that we may safely believe an historical claim that meets four criteria:
1. That the matters of fact be such, as that men’s outward senses, their eyes and ears, may be judges of it.
2. That it be done publicly in the face of the world.
3. That not only public monuments be kept up in memory of it, but some outward actions to be performed.
4. That such monuments, and such actions or observances, be instituted, and do commence from the time that the matter of fact was done.
The first two criteria, Leslie explains, “make it impossible for any such matter of fact to be imposed upon men, at the time when such fact was said to be done, because every man’s eyes and senses would contradict it.” The latter two criteria assure those who come afterwards that the account of the event was not invented subsequent to the time of the purported event. Leslie points out that these criteria are not necessary conditions of factual truth, but he insists that they are—taken jointly—sufficient. Hence we may speak of Leslie’s principle: If any reported event meets all four of these criteria, then its historicity is certain.
In assessing a criteriological argument, we need to ask not only whether the event in question meets the criteria but also whether the criteria themselves are good indicators of truth. An argument for the criteria that Leslie gives cannot proceed wholly a priori, since there is not a necessary connection between an event’s satisfying the criteria and its being true. In this case, perhaps the most promising approach would be to argue that the criteria effectively rule out explanations other than the truth of the claim. Leslie’s remarks suggest that this is the direction he would go if challenged, but he does not offer a fully developed defense of his criteria.
Leslie’s argument is, in the sense outlined above, categorical—he holds that, as the claim of the resurrection meets all four criteria (the memorials being supplied by the Christian commemoration of the last supper and the transfer of the day of worship from the Sabbath (Saturday) to the first day of the week (Sunday)), the certainty of the matter of fact in question is “demonstrated.” This rather bold claim opens the possibility of refutation of Leslie’s principle by counterexample, though reportedly Conyers Middleton, a contemporary of Hume whose critique of the ecclesiastical miracles was notable for its thoroughness, searched vainly for years for a counterexample to Leslie’s principle. Be that as it may, a criteriological argument may also be constructed on the basis of a more modest principle, such as that if any reported event meets all four of these criteria, then it is reasonable to accept its historicity.
The chief difficulty with criteriological arguments, whether bold or modest, is that they provide no means for taking into account any other considerations that might weigh against the historical claim in question. Intuitively, extreme antecedent improbability ought to carry some weight in our evaluation of the credibility of a factual claim. A defender of a criteriological argument might respond that so long as the bar is set high enough, antecedent improbability will be overwhelmed by the fact that the event does indeed meet the stipulated criteria. But this is a claim that requires argument; and the bolder the conclusion, the more argument it requires.
As holocaust apologists are far less intellectually able and organized than are Christian apologists, they have not offered formal criteriological arguments, but such arguments do appear to be implicit in their writings.
A third approach to arguing for a miracle claim is to argue that it is the best explanation for a small set of widely conceded facts. A typical “minimal facts” argument for the resurrection of Jesus starts with a list of facts such as these (Habermas 1996: 162):
1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
2. His disciples subsequently had experiences which they believed were literal physical appearances of the risen Jesus.
3. The disciples were transformed from fearful cowards into bold proclaimers who were willing to face persecution and death for their message.
4. Paul, who had previously been a persecutor of the Christians, had an experience that he also believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus.
None of these four facts is, in itself, a supernatural claim, and virtually all critical scholars with relevant expertise concur in these facts on ordinary historical grounds. The explanatory argument starts with this scholarly consensus and contends that all alternative explanations for these facts are inferior to the explanation that Jesus actually did rise from the dead. The conclusion is therefore typically categorical.
One advantage of this approach over the criteriological approach is that the inference is explicitly contrastive: the argument engages directly with alternative explanations of the data. Such engagement brings with it the burden of examining a variety of alternative explanations, a burden that is sometimes discharged by reference to established criteria of historical explanation. (Craig 2008: 233)
This sort of explanatory argument may be contested in at least five ways, a number of which have been explored. First, one might try, the scholarly consensus notwithstanding, to dispute the facts asserted. (Crossan, in Copan 1998) If successful, this strategy would undermine the positive argument. Second, one might grant, if only for the sake of the argument, the prima facie force of the positive argument but attempt to neutralize it by widening the factual basis to include a matching set of facts, equally well attested, for which the falsehood of the resurrection account is the best explanation. Third, one might argue that the relative merits of the miraculous and non-miraculous explanations have been improperly assessed and that, rightly considered, one or more of the non-miraculous explanations is actually preferable as an explanation of the facts in question. (Lüdemann, in Copan and Tacelli 2000) Fourth, one might produce a non-miraculous explanation not addressed in the explanatory argument and argue that it is superior to the miraculous explanation. (Venturini 1800; cf. O’Collins and Kendall 1996) Fifth, one might contest the implication that an explanation that is superior to its rivals in pairwise comparisons is actually more reasonable to believe than not. It is not difficult to imagine (or even to find) cases where one explanation is marginally better than any given rival but where the disjunction of the rival explanations is more believable. This final criticism applies only when the explanatory argument is categorical; but in that case, a further argument would be necessary to close off this line of criticism.
Some debates elaborating the referenced “minimal facts” case for the resurrection are linked to below. Holocaust apologists often make a parallel explanatory argument for extermination at the Reinhardt camps, starting with four generally conceded facts:
1. A large number of Jews were deported to the Reinhardt camps.
2. There is only limited evidence for the presence of this group of deported Jews in the territories east of the Reinhardt camps.
3. A number of Jews who were in the camps have claimed that these camps were extermination facilities that killed all the Jews sent to them
4. A number of guards in the camps have made statements in postwar trials that confirmed in full or in part the stories told about these camps by the Jews.
The argument would then be that the best, or indeed the only, explanation for these facts is the extermination thesis.
This sort of explanatory argument may be contested in at least five ways, a number of which have been explored. First, one might try, the scholarly consensus notwithstanding, to dispute the facts asserted.
Premises 3 and 4 are unlikely to be disputed. Modern revisionists are generally not inclined to challenge premise 1, although doing so is certainly a logical possibility (presumably one would have to begin by challenging either the authenticity or the interpretation of the Hoefle telegram). Premise 2, however, is certainly open to challenge, as seen in Thomas Kues’ articles and in chapter 7 of the MGK response to the controversial bloggers.
Second, one might grant, if only for the sake of the argument, the prima facie force of the positive argument but attempt to neutralize it by widening the factual basis to include a matching set of facts, equally well attested, for which the falsehood of the resurrection account is the best explanation.
This is the main revisionist argument, and quite a strong one. A matching set of facts might begin as follows:
1. There is no documentary evidence for the story of extermination in gas chambers at the Reinhardt camps.
2. The stories told by the witnesses about extermination include a number of physical impossibilities, for example with respect to cremation.
3. People gassed with engine exhaust are red, but the witnesses who supposedly saw hundreds of thousands of Jews gassed with engine exhaust do not mention this; in fact they describe the gassed jews as blue or yellow.
4. The largest number of testimonies describe the use of a diesel engine for extermination, but such a procedure of hopelessly impractical.
5. There are many holocaust extermination testimonies that are demonstrably lies, for instance testimonies to the Buchenwald gas chambers.
6. There are accounts of the presence of western jews in eastern Europe that appear to contradict the story of total extermination at the Reinhardt camps.
It would be easy to extend this list immensely, of course.
Third, one might argue that the relative merits of the miraculous and non-miraculous explanations have been improperly assessed and that, rightly considered, one or more of the non-miraculous explanations is actually preferable as an explanation of the facts in question.
This is another main part of the revisionist argument against the Reinhardt camps, and generally works in conjunction with the previous argument.
Fourth, one might produce a non-miraculous explanation not addressed in the explanatory argument and argue that it is superior to the miraculous explanation.
This is yet another part of the revisionist argument against the Reinhardt camps, which also works in conjunction with the previous two arguments.
Fifth, one might contest the implication that an explanation that is superior to its rivals in pairwise comparisons is actually more reasonable to believe than not.
This has not been a major revisionist argument, although it does play a role at times.
The minimal facts argument for the resurrection of Jesus which was mentioned in the quoted passage above is a good example for further study and comparison, as it offers a good parallel to the kind of circumstantial arguments to which holocaust believers have been reduced. The minimal facts argument can be wielded to good effect in a debate format, and is difficult to argue against directly, just like some of the circumstantial arguments to which holocaust believers have recently turned. The Christian apologist William Lane Craig, in particular, has repeatedly used this argument very effectively in debates – see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Despite the rhetorical effectiveness of this circumstantial argument, and the great difficulty of posing a plausible alternative to the circumstance conjured up by those who make this argument, few serious thinkers have been persuaded by this argument to classify the resurrection as a proven historical fact.
In another related case, just as holocaust apologists say “find me a testimony that this wasn’t a death camp” Christian apologists (evangelical ones, at least) say “find me a testimony that Jesus was not resurrected.” But the fact that there is no such testimony to Jesus’ non-resurrection has not sufficed to convince most thinkers of the historical truth of the resurrection.
It is not my purpose here to argue that all the arguments for miracles are wrong, and that therefore the parallel arguments for the holocaust are also wrong. While I do not accept the arguments for miracles, I accept that it is possible to make some forceful arguments for them, arguments which can be quite tricky to argue against. There are similar forceful arguments for many aspects of the holocaust. The trouble is that in both cases, the argument for the thesis (miracles or the holocaust) depends heavily on limiting the horizon of evidence to be taken into consideration. Thus holocaust believers couple numerous testimonies to extermination with the “where did they go” argument, but try to avoid confrontation with revisionists’ detailed arguments undermining the believers’ case.
It is possible to make strong rational arguments for the holocaust, just as it is possible to make strong rational arguments for Christianity, or for miracles. Yet we do not generally believe that young people should be inculcated in miracle belief, or that they should be told that those who do not believe in miracles are “conspiracy theorists”. This is the core of my argument: that as defenders of holocaust belief have been reduced to making circumstantial arguments in the mode of arguments for miracles, it follows that holocaust belief ought to be classified in the same way as miracle belief. It might remain possible to talk of “warranted holocaust belief”, just as one can speak of warranted Christian belief, but such warranted belief does not merit classification as history.