Stephen Law, editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy Journal and professor at the University of London, argues here that many accounts of apparently miraculous events are to be expected, on naturalistic premises, even if nothing supernatural is going on. He suggests that the story of Jesus resurrecting from the dead is no surprise, then: a naturalist would expect such odd tales to turn up, from time to time.
I reproduce (I) his argument below, (II) give my initial reply to it, and then (III) his response to that. Finally, (IV) I explain why I still think his argument fails (though the objection is of value to the discussion, and worth further investigating), plus a few brief comments on why I think the evidence for the resurrection remains convincing. Readers may well pick up points I miss, and I welcome other perspectives.
I. Law: Below is a transcript of what I said about William Lane Craig's resurrection argument for the existence of the Christian God (taken from our debate). In case anyone is interested. My point is that we should expect quite a few baffling, exceedingly-hard-to-explain-naturalistically miracle and other extraordinary testimonies to crop up through the centuries, whether or not there's any truth to them. But then the fact that there are such testimonies provides no support to such miracle and other extraordinary claims.
Several people have misunderstood my point (largely because they have tried to use one of the standard, scripted answers provided by Craig and other Christian apologists in response to doubts about the resurrection - but they don't work here). I do think Craig understood my point. In fact, I'm exploiting a point Craig himself often makes in connection with the maxim "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", namely: that evidence for an extraordinary claim can give strong support to that extraordinary claim IF the probability of the evidence obtaining if the claim were false is very low. Craig says:
"1. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This sounds so commonsensical, doesn’t it? But in fact it is demonstrably false. Probability theorists studying what sort of evidence it would take to establish a highly improbable event came to realize that if you just weigh the improbability of the event against the reliability of the testimony, we’d have to be sceptical of many commonly accepted claims. Rather what’s crucial is the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred. This can easily offset any improbability of the event itself. In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, for example, this means that we must also ask, “What is the probability of the facts of the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection, if the resurrection had not occurred?” It is highly, highly, highly, improbable that we should have that evidence if the resurrection had not occurred." Source.
My point is that the probability that such evidence would exist if the corresponding extraordinary claims were false is NOT very low. In fact, this is exactly the sort of evidence we should expect to crop up on occasion whether or not miracles etc. happen.
This is so blindingly obvious it is weird the point is not being made against Craig et al on a regular basis. The usual apologetic argument-to-the-best-explanation blather about "Well it's hardly plausible the eyewitnesses would lie, were hallucinating, etc." is all smokescreen.
To see why, consider the 1967 UFO case described below. It could similarly so very easily have been a case that went down in annals of UFOlogy as deeply baffling and unexplained (rather more so, in fact, as in that case we have real first-hand eyewitness testimony from trained eyewitnesses - police officers - with no ideological to grind, backed up by a radar blip, rather than [in the resurrection case] second- or third-hand testimony recorded a decade or more later by passionate True Believers). "What's the BEST EXPLANATION?" the UFO-enthiasiasts would have said. "That several independent eyewitnesses, police officers no less, would have mistaken e.g. Venus for such an amazing object? Or that they would have collectively made it up? Thereby potentially deeply embarrassing themselves? And that the radar blip was just a coincidence? Or that they really did see an extraordinary object hanging over the plant?" Clearly the latter!!"
The fact that we couldn't come up with a plausible-sounding naturalistic explanation for the police officers's and magistrate's testimony and that simultaneous radar blip gives us little, if any, reason to suppose that there really was something extraordinary hovering over the power plant. Similarly, even if it were true (which it isn't) that we couldn't come up with a plausible-sounding naturalistic explanation for the Gospel testimony regarding the empty tomb, post mortem appearances, etc. that would give us little, if any, reason to suppose Jesus really rose from the dead.
Let’s now turn to the resurrection argument.
It turns on claims made in the New Testament: that there was an empty tomb, that there were independent eyewitness reports of Jesus alive after the crucifixion, and so on.
The claim is that the best explanation of these alleged facts is that Jesus was resurrected by god. You should always be suspicious of arguments to the best explanation in such contexts.
Let me tell you a UFO story from 1967. There were reports of a strange object appearing nightly over a nuclear power site in Wake County. The police investigated. An police officer confirmed “It was about half the size of the moon, and it just hung there over the plant.” The next night the same thing happened. The Deputy Sheriff described a “large lighted object.” The County magistrate saw, and I quote, “a rectangular object, looked like it was on fire… We figured it about the size of a football field. It was huge and very bright.” There was, in addition, hard data: a curious radar blip reported by local air traffic control.
Now, what’s the best explanation for these reports? We have multiple attestation. We have trained eye-witnesses – police officers – putting their reputations on the line by reporting a UFO. We have hard, independent confirmation – that blip on the radar scope. Surely, then, it’s highly unlikely these witnesses were, say, all hallucinating, or lying, or merely looking at a planet. Clearly, by far the best explanation is that they really did see a large, lighted object hovering close to the plant, right?
Wrong. Here’s the thing. We know, pretty much for sure, that what was seen by those police officers was the planet Venus. Journalists arrived on the scene, were shown the object, and chased it in their car. They found they couldn’t approach it. Finally, they looked at it through a long lens and saw it was Venus. That radar blip was just a coincidence.
What does this show? Every year there are countless amazing reports of religious miracles, alien abductions, ghosts, and so on. In most cases, it’s easy to come up with plausible mundane explanations for them. But not all. Some remain deeply baffling.
So should we believe in such things, then?
No. For, as my UFO story illustrates, we know that some very hard-to-explain reports of miracles, flying saucers, and so on are likely to crop up anyway, whether or not there’s any truth to such claims. That 1967 case could easily have been such a baffling case. Had those reporters not shown up and investigated, this case might well have gone down as "unsolved".
So, let’s suppose that Biblical documents written a decade or more after the events they report, written exclusively by devotees of a new religious movement, not even by first hand witnesses, detailing events for which there’s pretty much no independent confirmation, constitutes really, really good evidence that there was an empty tomb and that the disciples did report seeing the risen Christ.
Is that, in turn, good evidence Jesus was resurrected?
Evidence supports a hypothesis to the extent that the evidence is expected given the hypothesis is true, and unexpected otherwise.
The absolutely crucial point to note is this: we have good reason to expect some baffling, very hard-to-explain-in-mundane-terms reports to crop up occasionally anyway, whether or not there are any miracles, gods or flying saucers. So the fact that an otherwise baffling, hard-to-explain case has shown up provides us with little, if any, evidence that a miracle happened.
II. Marshall: Interesting response, but I see several problems with this argument.
First, Jesus is not just a random point in human history. It's not just that he later became the most famous and influential person who ever lived. It's also that the character and significance of his life and teachings are intrinsically unique. I could give a long list of quotes from great non-Christian thinkers who recognize this.
What does that mean for Law's argument? He claims that "very hard to explain reports" are bound to turn up, on materialistic assumptions. That's because we have billions of people living, and undergoing trillions of experiences -- one expects a few mysteries. Sure. But one does not expect so remarkable a mystery to show up at the most significant point in what is already arguably the most significant life. That's uncanny, and worth attending to.
Second, of course Law's argument does not favor materialism in any way. Strange events may be reported on atheistic premises; they are more to be expected on supernaturalistic premises. On what grounds, then, does he favor the former model?
Third, the UFO analogy is not really so good. The "U" in UFO stands for "unidentified," of course. It's one thing to say, "I see I know not what light in the sky," quite another to say, "Ronald Reagan barbecued fish by the lake for me yesterday!" "I thought he was dead?" "So did I!" This, from several people who knew the former president well, in the days before makeup artists, would require a different explanation.
Fourth, of course it would seem pretty arbitrary for even a former president to resurrect from the dead. Nothing in conservatism requires that, though it might seem nice to get such a divine imprimatur on our movement. But Christianity is about bigger and specifically divine issues. The resurrection of Jesus was recognized (and predicted, even in Isaiah 53) as a fundamental divine stamp of approval on Jesus, and sign of hope for all humanity. So Jesus' resurrection fits the claims he made, in a way the resurrection of Ronald Reagan or Martin Luther King would not.
Fifth, yes there are many other reports of miracles. And many of them are, evidently, true. (See Craig Keener's two volume series on the subject, if you haven't encountered evidence of your own.) The fact that the Resurrection fits into this larger pattern, should hardly be held as evidence against it. On the contrary, in some cases they make it more credible.
It seems that there may even be an element of circularity to Dr. Law's argument.
(III) (Law) Thanks David B Marshall for the thoughtful comments.
You say: "What does that mean for Law's argument? He claims that "very hard to explain reports" are bound to turn up, on materialistic assumptions."
I made no materialistic assumptions. I don't even sign up to materialism.
You say: "Third, the UFO analogy is not really so good. The "U" in UFO stands for "unidentified," of course. It's one thing to say, "I see I know not what light in the sky," quite another to say, "Ronald Reagan barbecued fish by the lake for me yesterday!" "I thought he was dead?" "So did I!" This, from several people who knew the former president well, in the days before makeup artists, would require a different explanation. "
This is to misunderstand my analogy. The point is, the UFO eyewitnesses reported a large lighted object hovering over the plant where there was none. This illustrates the point that even trained eyewitnesses can get things very, very wrong, particularly in relation to wacky claims. My point is there are very many ways (not just misperception) that can produce false testimony (of which this is merely an illustration). These ways may seem highly implausible in some cases, but in fact many will still be correct. But if such false reports are to be expected anyway, whether or not true, they are not good evidence.
You say: "Fifth, yes there are many other reports of miracles. And many of them are, evidently, true. (See Craig Keener's two volume series on the subject, if you haven't encountered evidence of your own.) The fact that the Resurrection fits into this larger pattern, should hardly be held as evidence against it. On the contrary, in some cases they make it more credible."
This is to miss the point that there are a great many false reports or miracles, flying saucers etc, - reports that in some cases we won't be able to provide a plausible naturalistic explanation for. But they are false nevertheless. Hence a report for which we can’t provide a plausible naturalistic explanation is not good evidence for the event. Whether or not some reports are also true is irrelevant.
The rest of your response seems to be that Jesus was special, and this means it’s much more likely the testimony about his resurrection is true.
Note, first, that the claim Jesus is special is often supported by the claim he was resurrected. In fact, his resurrection is what Craig et al tend to focus on in proving his specialness. Such an appeal to specialness in support of the resurrection really happening is clearly entirely circular.
But in any case, even if Jesus were special in some other ways – if he said particularly deep and unusual things, say - that hardly lends further credibility to a miracle claim made about him, as it's precisely such a person, rather than a supermarket checkout attendant, that is likely to attract *false* miracle reports in the first place. It's hardly an amazing coincidence that it should be Jesus that has false miracle claims made about him rather than someone else (particularly given those prophecies to which you allude!). But than the existence of such claims about this "special" person is not good evidence of their truth.
IV. (Marshall) The claim that Jesus rose from the dead is perhaps the most important and most fervently-debated historical claim one can find. It is, therefore, healthy and appropriate that skeptics like Stephen Law test that claim from every possible angle, looking for chinks in the Christian armor, even trying out new arguments. It is also healthy that we Christians kick the tires of those arguments, and see if they are sound.
Several points here continue to seem weak to me, or I think worth further
(a) Dr. Law's UFO analogy or example is even thinner than I noticed at first. +
In his OP, he says of the lights in the sky over the power station:
This is exactly the sort of evidence we should expect to crop up on occasion whether or not miracles etc happen.
What sort of evidence is that? A large ("half the size of the moon) and stationary light that "just hung over the plant."
That is, as I pointed out, miles away from claiming to have met someone you know intimately after he has died a vicious death, witnessed the scars on his hands, had an intense and meaningful conversation with him, and eaten a meal of fish that he roasted by a lake
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In response to my objections, Law explains:
This illustrates the point that even trained eyewitesses can get things very, very wrong, particularly in relation to wacky claims.
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But a "bright (unspecified) light in the sky" does not seem that wacky by itself, nor do these rather dim-witted officers add much of the interpretation that would make it so. (As, no doubt, is sometimes added.) The only "wacky" part is their estimate of the object's size, which is just a matter of perspective, and their failure to move from one spot to see it moves with them. Admittedly, those two errors are almost worthy of Chief Wiggum in the Simpsons, but the error is pretty minor compared to the empirical reports from Easter.
So this example really doesn't much help make Law's case.
(b) This object has a tendency to metamorphasize in Law's argument, as well as in the police officer's imagination, to enhance that argument. It begins as a "large lighted object" (a strictly accurate description, as it turns out) which "hung over" the plant. Then Law says the police "put their reputations on the line by reporting a UFO." But that term is not used in the testimony he quotes -- with its extraterrestrial connotations, a UFO might indeed seem more risky to one's career than a "large lighted object." A few paragraphs later, Law adds,
As my UFO story illustrates, we know that some very hard-to-explain reports of miracles, flying saucers, and so on are likely to crop up anyway, whether or not there's any truth to such claims. That 1967 case could easily have been such a baffling case . . .
Maybe such reports do "crop up." But let's be careful, here. No one (so far as cited) said anything about flying saucers or (also mentioned by Law) alien abductions. Later he adds that "even trained eyewitnesses can get things very, very wrong, particularly in relation to wacky claims." We seem to be getting "weirdness creep," here. There were no very wacky claims here, so far as Law has shown, nor did the cops get things all THAT wrong -- just the relative size of the object, and they were apparently too dim to bother walking to the side a few feet before calling in their report. Chief Wiggum does worse almost every donut and coffee break.
(c) The word "extraordinary" may be misleading, when we say of the Resurrection that "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
If I were to claim to run naked down the aisle of Airforce One every Tuesday evening, you might call that an extraordinary claim. But if I were president of the United States, while still finding the claim startling, you might also find it somewhat more plausible (especially with certain presidents). So what one finds "ordinary" or "extraordinary" is relative to the character of the object of which an act is predicated.
I argue here that it is really not so extraordinary to say Jesus rose from the dead, given who Jesus was, prophecies of his life, and the plausible proposal that God intended to redeem the world in some such way. One cannot reasonably treat Jesus as just another person to whom something strange is said to have happened.
(d) I think it is much less probable that aliens, if they exist so close in vast space (a highly questionable assumption, see Ward and Brownlee, Rare Earth), would travel thousands of lightyears, at enormous cost and for tens of thousands of years, in order to "hover" over a uber low-tech power station and freek out a few Keystone Kops, then be on their way.
(e) Why should such reports "crop up?" Presumably, because over the past two thousand years, some 100 billion human beings have lived, experiencing trillions of events. Some of them are bound to be strange. The random character Law ascribes to these events is suggested by the term "crop up," which suggests things occurring in odd, unexpected places, and also by this example of the power station. The witnesses are no one special -- a couple dumb cops whom no one has otherwise heard of, and have nothing profound to say or important to do, so far as we know. Nor do the purported aliens do anything important.
(f) But Jesus, I pointed out, is not random. There are not 100 billion of him, just one. M. Scott Peck described him as the smartest man who ever lived. The Hindu reformer Ram Mohan Roy, the father of modern India, called Jesus' teachings "the guide to peace and happiness," anthologizing them in the hope of changing India. Jesus is arguably unique in fulfilling more of the Old Testament, more of the Chinese classics (I have just finished my dissertation on this subject, and yes, an interested argument can be made for this), and more of Indian tradition (see J. N. Farquhar's The Crown of Hinduism, also Ivan Satyavrata), than anyone else. So this is not a matter of strange stories "cropping up" at random. The so-called "Power of Large Numbers," mentioned by one of Law's readers, is useless to explain the resurrection of Jesus, even if it has such power elsewhere. (As I doubt it does.)
(f) Law responds: "It's precisely such a person, rather than a supermarket checkout attendant, that is likely to attract false miracle reports in the first place."
Notice that this argument looks a little different from the one Law started with. Now we are not claiming that given many events, a few odd reports are likely to "crop up," but claiming that the importance ascribed to Jesus for non-arbitrary reasons is likely to attract such reports.
But similiarly, couldn't we also say that God is more likely to do an amazing miracle on behalf of someone set to change the world, than the checkout clerk Law refers to? So again we find an element of circularity in the argument: it does not help establish rationalism, but may prove useful as a rationalization after one adopts Law's philosophy. (And I apologize for my sloppiness in calling it "materialism," earlier.)
(g) Do great figures really attract miracle claims? Do they inspire early resurrection sightings of the character and detail found in the New Testament?
The former, sometimes. Mohammed is not said, in early literature, to have done any miracles, nor is Confucius, nor I think Lao Zi. But as the centuries pass, miracle stories do tend to accumulate -- faster about some disreputable gurus, like Sai Baba. I have argued that the character of such stories is markedly different and far less believable than those in the Gospels (see Jesus and the Religions of Man, also Why the Jesus Seminar Can't Find Jesus.)
If Dr. Law could point to cases of full-blown resurrection that appear as early and seem as historically genuine as the earliest accounts of Easter, occurring to key figures, and of a a similiar character, that might help his argument. (Especially if, in fact, we know those reports to be false.)
Of course, I am assuming that the Gospel accounts do seem fairly reliable, historically, for reasons I also give in the second of those two books.
(h) Note, first, that the claim Jesus is special is often supported by the claim he was resurrected.
Yes, but I wasn't doing that, as Law apparently recognizes. I formulated my rebuttal specifically to avoid such circularity.
(i) In response to my claim that some miracles seem to enjoy strong historical support, Law writes:
This is to miss the point that there are a great many false reports of miracles, flying saucers, etc -- reports that in some cases we won't be able to provide a plausible naturalistic explanation for. But they are false nevertheless. Hence a report for which we can't provide a plausible naturalistic explanation is not good evidence for the event. Whether or not some reports are also true is irrelevant.
I am not quite sure what to make of this argument -- perhaps readers can help me. If this is not an attempt to justify holding to naturalism, no matter what the evidence may be, where is the portal here marked "escape hatch from fideism?"
What does Law mean by "plausible?" Are we assuming that any naturalistic story is more likely to be true than any supernatural story, under any conceivable conditions? Is he saying that EVEN IF supernaturalism is true, and there is strong evidence for it, he remains within his rights to disbelieve it?
Maybe not. Presumably, at some point the weight of the evidence would be allowed to overpower Law's prior assumption that naturalism is true: it would be interesting to know where that might happen.
One will want to ask how "plausible" a "plausible naturalistic explanation" has to be, compared to a plausible supernatural explanation. (Unless we beg the question by assuming the latter can't possibly exist.)
(j) Strictly speaking, space aliens ARE a "naturalistic explanation." It might aid clarity for Dr. Law to avoid conflating miracles and UFOs. One rational deduction from our experience from both sets of phenomena is that SOME historical claims, both natural and supernatural, prove dubious.
So where does this discussion leave us? Law's challenge underlines the fact that historical claims are about more than just pure history -- the number, proximity, and credibilty of witnesses, internal and external archeological support, coherence, embarrassing details that suggest the author is forthright in his reporting, and so forth. There is also the question of how likely it is that such reports will appear, on various assumptions, such as naturalism, Jewish theism, or that ET lives on a nearby planet, and is prone to hovering over terrestrial power plants and "topping off the tank." Law has not shown that reports like those in the Gospels, that can be explained naturalistically, exist anywhere -- the alleged parallel he offers is remarkably weak. But it is a question worth asking, and investigating further. Maybe closer parallels can be found. One cannot predict, in advance, whether such parallels would prove to support naturalism or Christian theism, though from past experience, and years of studying world religions, I am inclined to predict the latter.
Law's argument also underlines the importance of what I call, in an earlier post, "prior probability." We don't come to the historical evidence intellectually naked. Obviously Law does not: he seems to hold naturalism with a tenacity that allows him to withstand contrary evidence before he has much considered it. No doubt Law has explained the grounds for this a priori conviction elsewhere, but I think he still needs to explain how much contrary evidence that conviction could withstand. If he himself were to witness one of the remarkable miracles described in Keener's book, for example, would his interpretive model still convince him nothing could have happened?
In any case, for the reasons given above, the "law"of Big Numbers holds no power to explain Easter. Nor do I know of any evidence that stories much like those in the Gospels have in fact accumulated around other great figures in human history. The purely historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection, while excellent, is, I argue, only one of the reasons to believe it. A whole range of extra-historical facts conspire to render the resurrection of Jesus more credible than some random miracle to a random cop or grocery clerk. (Although if the clerk is also a saint, a pioneer missionary, in special need of God's tangible love, or happens to meet Jesus in the checkout line, she should not give up hope.)
Postscript: As you can see, the debate continued below, and on Dr. Law's blog, with other participants here as well. I particularly found some of the comments by a police officer named Miksa interesting. I've consolidated part of the conversation between Law and myself in a second blog, so that I could add references and appropriate highlighting, and will probably add a third post, as well. Fixing on Law's legal analogy, JP Holding has also posted an interesting series of questions that seem to undermine that analogy. All in all, while I still think there are a couple useful facets to Law's argument, quite a few good reasons have been given by participants to dismiss it as an argument against the historicity of the resurrection. But Law was badly outnumbered: thoughtful counter-arguments from other skeptics are welcome.