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Monday, September 03, 2012

Marshall - Law: Is the Resurrection Epistemic White Noise?

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.

RESURRECTION ARGUMENT

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
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .  . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . =

  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.
                                                                                         


       

 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ?

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. 

42 comments:

Stephen Law said...

That's a lot to respond to David. But, just to get the ball rolling,I am not committed to naturalism either. Nor did my argument assume naturalism.

You are running a standard apologetic theistic response that doesn't actually work here, I'm afraid (it doesn't work elsewhere either, in fact, but it certainly does not apply here).

You also continue to think that I am suggesting that post mortem reports of Jesus were a result of visual hallucination. I'm not making any such specific suggestion, in fact.

I am merely making the point that we tend to underestimate the extent to which even mundane mechanisms can give rise to pretty extraordinary reports - of e.g. an object about the size of a football field, rectangular, appearing to be on fire, hanging over a nuclear powerplant, corroborated by an independent radar blip. To say "Nah, they just saw Venus!" would produce hoots of derision from those thinking we're visited by aliens. "But we have police officers and a magistrate! Multiple attestation!" they'd say. "And hard evidence too - that radar blip. And the criterion of embarrassment applies here too!" They'd no doubt add. "Clearly this was no mere misidentified planet!" And of course that really would sound very plausible to naive ears, wouldn't it? Particularly to ears unschooled in how such wacky and weird can be and are often generated. Yet Venus is what they saw, nevertheless. Despite the fact that, to naive ears, the suggestion sounds highly improbable.

Now my point is there are all sorts of mechanisms - very, very, many - that generate false extraordinary claims. NOT just the one mechanisms involved here but (for illustrative purposes), for example, the power of suggestion, which certainly accounts for thousands of detailed reports of saucer-shaped objects (including windows, waving figures, etc. etc.) after the 1947 Arnold sighting.

Sometimes, it's very hard to come up with a plausible sounding mundane naturalistic explanation of what's reported. But of course that doesn't mean we should believe the claim. We're right to be pretty skeptical.

None of this is to assume naturalism is true, notice. It may not be. Personally, I'm undecided.

In essence, Craig's and your response sounds a lot like the UFO enthusiasts' claim that while very many UFO reports can be given plausible mundane explanations, about 3% are truly inexplicable in such terms (i.e. in terms of hallucination, sleep paralysis, lying, attention seeking, power of suggestion etc etc etc etc). They are the "true UFOs", as these OFO fans call them. But as Philip J Klass points out in "the Public Decieved" (I think it was?), actually, we should expect a few such cases to crop up, whether or not alien spacecraft are really visiting. We know that because we can point to cases that could so easily have gone down in UFOlogy as "true UFOs", but which were, in fact, a product of mundane mechanisms nevertheless (we just "got lucky" in discovering that they were nevertheless false). I am simply pointing out that this insight applies to your own favoured extraordinary event.

And of course you don't even have the original otherwise reliable eyewitnesses, as we do in many UFO and other such cases. You are relying on the testimony of largely anonymous true believers writing to spread the faith decades after the supposed events in question.

And you think this constitutes good evidence there was a resurrection? I find that jaw-dropping. Even many theists find it jaw dropping. Even quite a few Christians consider the historical evidence very weak (including Alvin Plantinga).

Clearly, some of us are deluded about what it's reasonable to believe in this case. Do you really think it's us?

Stephen Law said...

Check this out and ask yourself - does this sound like me?

I think it does sound like you. A lot.

http://www.trueufosightings.com/the-abject-failure-of-ufo-debunking/spekticism-proof-galore...-51102.html

Derek said...

"Deluded?" This from someone who gives lip-service to the Christ myth? Hardy har har.

Crude said...

I'm going to keep quiet until I see David's response to Law's "reaction". However, I just wanted to say this.

,I am not committed to naturalism either.

None of this is to assume naturalism is true, notice. It may not be. Personally, I'm undecided.

Interesting. I had no idea Law didn't find arguments for naturalism decisive, and that he denied the truth of naturalism for favor of agnosticism. That's pretty noteworthy.

Corny said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Corny said...

Dr. Law says

"I am not committed to naturalism either"

"Sometimes, it's very hard to come up with a plausible sounding mundane naturalistic explanation of what's reported. But of course that doesn't mean we should believe the claim. We're right to be pretty skeptical.

None of this is to assume naturalism is true, notice. It may not be. Personally, I'm undecided."

This is why Theists like myself find you to be a very honest philosopher who doesn't beat around the bush.

--------------------------

AS far as the claim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence goes, I'm going to have to disagree completely with this statement as it doesn't hold up to it's own scrutiny.

So take the statement:

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

This claim itself seems extraordinary, because it’s making a claim about truth. And it’s making a claim about every kind of truth that seems extraordinary, therefore the claim itself is extraordinary.

This statement is not analytically true, so what extraordinary evidence is there to support this extraordinary claim?

That's my strongest objection, I also think one can approach this in another way.

The word 'Extraordinary' can also be used as a subjective term.

I also see a problem with the 'time-period' in which the word is used as well.

A Jet in 2012 that would be considered to have extraordinary speed in modern times might be slow 10,000 years from now

David B Marshall said...

Stephen: Thanks for dropping by.

Sorry, but you're misreading my argument in one or two particulars. First of all, I did not misconstrue your argument as specifying that the disciples suffered a "visual hallucination." My point is rather that the analogy you offer is too weak to much support your argument. The unlikelihood that the disciples mistakenly perceived their dead teacher was alive again, compared to the relatively trivial error the police made, is indeed part of what draws the force from your argument, because of the positive strengths of the gospel evidence, not because of the clear weakness of the shining light story.

I understood your point, as should be evident in my posts above. In fact, I concede that point: sure, false historical claims are common, both about extraordinary and ordinary events. I fully agree that it is often rational to dismiss a claim (again, whether supernatural or not) even when one cannot completely explain the evidence. Indeed, I would go further: NO hypothesis EVER completely explains a complex field of data, without remainder. One does the best one can. Absolute certainty is for mathematicians, not historians.

I am not troubled by the fact that "decades" intervene between the alleged resurrection of Jesus, and the first extant written reports of the event. This for the simple reason that Jesus' followers were young, and would have lived for decades afterwards, as early historical reports say some did. Also because I have studied the gospels in depth, reading skeptics like the fellows of the Jesus Seminar, and found remarkable evidence in those gospels for essential (not absolute, I am not an inerracist) historical accuracy. Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is a good overview of some of that evidence, along with the works of NT Wright, and from a different angle, my own Why the Jesus Seminar Can't Find Jesus.

So yes, I think the historical evidence for the resurrection is excellent, and is undergirded by unusually strong a priori grounds for expecting it (but not random alien visitations) to occur.

I don't think Plantinga conceded that the historical evidence for the resurrection was weak absolutely, rather as grounding for the full Christian faith. And after being taken to task by Tim McGrew, a philosopher with more knowledge of the historical issues and arguments, I believe, he seems to have walked even this back in his recent book on science, to some extent.

As for the paper you linked to, I fail to see great relevance. I've given several reasons already why random alien visitations are unlikely. I can hardly even tell why the author thinks the story about the car crash suggests alien visitation: certainly he doesn't try to explain it. I can see why God (if there is a God) might raise Jesus from the dead, but I can't see why aliens (if they exist and are in range) would travel tens of thousands of years to dent some cop's windshield and shin a light in his eyes, without any fuller communication. I've heard numerous first-hand reports of miracles that were far more probative than that, and made more sense, too.

Let me recommend Keener's book to you. At the least, it'll give you something more to refute: at most, there's a chance it will persuade you.

Stephen Law said...

Thanks again for the response David. I might have to make this the last one as I feel pressure of other work! Anyway, my thoughts, for what they are worth…

David, you say: “I did not misconstrue your argument as specifying that the disciples suffered a "visual hallucination." My point is rather that the analogy you offer is too weak to much support your argument. The unlikelihood that the disciples mistakenly perceived their dead teacher was alive again, compared to the relatively trivial error the police made, is indeed part of what draws the force from your argument, both because of the positive strengths of the gospel evidence, and because of the clear weakness of the shining light story.”

Yes indeed, my point is NOT that the disciples misperceived. That’s just one of very many possible prosaic explanations that would account for this testimony in documents written by anonymous, ideologically committed zealots – not even eyewitnesses – decades after the supposed events in question, in order to spread their faith.

The point I am making is that Craig type arguments – in which several prosaic explanations for an extraordinary event are looked at and dismissed as not seeming very plausible/probable, leaving the miracle claim as the “best explanation” - and thus supposedly the most reasonable thing to believe - are flawed. The mere fact that such hard-to-explain-prosaically evidence crops up is NOT good evidence for the alleged events given we should expect such hard-to-explain testimony to crop up on occasion in any case. Such dodgy “arguments to the best explanation” are a form of bogus reasoning - a form you find cropping up right across the sweep of extraordinary claims, from ghosts to religious miracles to alien abduction. The link I gave provides a nice example: an argument for alien visitation that relies on the same form of “argument to the best explanation” strategy that Craig uses.

Are you conceding this point? You should – it’s correct.

David, you say: “I understood your point. In fact, I concede that point…I fully agree that it is often rational to dismiss a claim (again, whether supernatural or not) even when one cannot completely explain the evidence. “

But that’s not my point. My point is much stronger – it is that even when we find ourselves entirely baffled when it comes to providing mundane explanations, that does not mean we have good evidence for the extraordinary claim.

[continues below...]

Stephen Law said...

[continues from above]...

David you say” ““I am not troubled by the fact that "decades" intervene between the alleged resurrection of Jesus, and the first extant written reports of the event. This for the simple reason that Jesus' followers were young, and would have lived for decades afterwards, as early historical reports say some did.”

In a court of law, the judge will rightly look much less favourably on testimony provided only decades after the alleged event. So we should also take that into account here too. But in any case, you ignore the other points I made, which are that (unlike the UFO case) your witnesses are powerfully ideologically committed anonymous individuals with an axe to grind, who are not even eyewitnesses. We’re dealing with hearsay evidence trotted out by anonymous true believers decades after the events in question. What would such testimony be worth in a court of law? That’s what it’s worth here.

David, you say: “So yes, I think the historical evidence for the resurrection is excellent, and is undergirded by unusually strong a priori grounds for expecting it (but not random alien visitations) to occur.”

Trying to exploit some difference between prior expected (God raising Jesus) and prior unexpected events (alien visitors) won’t work here, David, for at least three reasons (i) what the UFO witnesses reported was NOT alien visitors, but merely a remarkable object (rectangular, the size of a football field, apparently on fire). So the fact that there is indeed good prior reason to suppose aliens aren’t visiting given vast interstellar distances is irrelevant, (ii) your “usually strong grounds” for expecting God to raise a Jesus-like figure from the dead is just hyperbole – it seems to me, as it does to very many, including many academics, that the resurrection/redemption theory is pretty ludicrous. Even Christians struggle to make sense of it, disagreeing even amongst themselves regarding the mechanics of God/Jesus apparently having to die (why?) to pay our sin debt for us (how?) so we can – IF we believe he is indeed the Christ who came back to life (and what a brilliant bit of viral marketing that suggestion was – compare those spam emails that say: “Pass this email on to ten friends and get amazing good fortune; fail to do so a be CURSED!”) - enjoy eternal life ourselves rather than eternal punishment, (iii) in any case, and most importantly, whether or not the prior probability of a hypothesis H is high or low, if the probability of the alleged evidence E existing is almost as high given H as not H, then E is STILL weak evidence for H. That’s to say, your point about prior probability is just irrelevant here.

[continues below...]

Stephen Law said...

[continues from above...]

David, you say: “I don't think Plantinga conceded that the historical evidence for the resurrection was weak absolutely, rather as grounding for the full Christian faith.”

I don’t have the quote to hand either, but Plantinga does say the purely historical evidence for the “great claims of the gospels” is weak. And of course he’s right to do so, notwithstanding McGrew’s nit-picky points. In fact this is also the sensible view of very many Christians, including even a significant proportion of Blblical scholars. Many of them will happily acknowledge the historical evidence for the resurrection is, at best, pretty weak.

Now, why do they fail to see that the evidence does very strongly support the resurrection? It can’t be because they are all biased atheists. They aren’t. Nor is it because they are all ignorant of the evidence. As I say, many Biblical scholars who are Christians admit the purely historical evidence is pretty weak (I actually work with some).

On the other hand, we do know that, unlike atheism, religion has an amazing ability to get even smart, college educated people to believe absurd things. Witness for example the 100+ million Americans who suppose the hypothesis that the universe is 6k years old is a good, well-supported scientific theory. Some are college professors. And they are really, really good at cooking up ever more convoluted and ingenious explanations for why what they believe is supported by the empirical evidence. Yet it’s obvious to the rest of us, including even very many Christians, that they’re just deluded.

This very strongly suggests that you and Craig are deluded about the Gospels being good evidence for the resurrection, does it not?

If the excellent evidence for the resurrection is really there, it’s surprising, is it not, that not only atheists, but theistic followers of other religions, and even many Christians, fail to recognize it. On the other hand, if this supposedly excellent evidence is not really there, it’s not very surprising that many would nevertheless think it was, given the amazing power of religion to get even smart, educated people to believe rather silly things. [END]

RD Miksa said...

Good Day to All,

At this moment, I just wanted to add one quick point (although I may have more in the future).

To me, it appears that Prof. Law’s argument fails right from the start, and it fails precisely because his main contention is mired in ambiguity, subjectivity, and imprecision.

After all, Prof. Law’s argument rests on the following contention:

“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.”

Immediately notice, however, some of the weak and slippery terms that are being used here.

FIRST: What counts as ‘A FEW’ baffling, exceedingly-hard-to-explain-naturalistically miracle and other extraordinary testimonies? Are five such occurrences a few? Are ten? Are ten thousand? Unless Prof. Law provides us with some clear number as to what constitutes ‘a few’, then his argument is endlessly malleable and undefeatable, for he can always continue to claim that whatever number of “baffling, exceedingly-hard-to-explain-naturalistically miracle and other extraordinary testimonies” is provided, that number always falls into his definition of ‘a few’. But the problem does not end there, because even if Prof. Law provides us with such a number, it is hard to see why that number would be anything but Prof. Law’s own subjective choice, thereby providing us with grounds to reject that number due to its subjective nature (and even legitimately substitute our own subjective choice for it). Next, even if we—for the sake of argument—accept Prof. Law’s subjective determination of what ‘a few’ is, the problems still do not end. For if Prof. Law chooses a number that is quite large (say 10,000), then his argument could be objected to by showing that such a large number of “baffling, exceedingly-hard-to-explain-naturalistically miracle and other extraordinary testimonies” would not at all be expected to crop up throughout the centuries, thus defeating Prof. Law’s contention. But if Prof. Law chooses a number that is quite small (say ten), then his argument could be objected to by showing that there are in fact a vastly larger number of such “few baffling, exceedingly-hard-to-explain-naturalistically miracle and other extraordinary testimonies” then just ten, thereby once again defeating his contention by countering it through evidence of the miraculous. And finally, even if Prof. Law chooses a number in the ‘Goldie-Locks’ zone, we can simply return to the issue of subjectivity, and ask him to provide objective reasons for why that particular number should be chosen.

(Cont'd)

RD Miksa said...

(Cont'd)

SECOND: Why is it that ‘WE SHOULD EXPECT’ quite a few baffling, exceedingly-hard-to-explain-naturalistically miracle and other extraordinary testimonies? What are the objective reasons for this expectation? Are these reasons sound? Are they defeasible? Prof. Law provides us with no objective grounds for subscribing to this expectation, he merely asserts it. But if this is the case, and if such an assertion is at the heart of his main point, then that point is obviously weak and insubstantial. In fact, it could just as easily be asserted that: We should NOT expect quite a few baffling, exceedingly-hard-to-explain-naturalistically miracle and other extraordinary testimonies. After all, if naturalism is true, then that latter claim would be my expectation. So why is my expectation wrong, but Prof. Law’s expectation correct? And note that appealing to the large numbers of events that have occurred in human history is no assistance here, for in order for it to be of assistance, it would need to be shown that there is a necessary relationship—which would in turn create a legitimate expectation—between a vast number of events occurring and some of those events being “baffling, exceedingly-hard-to-explain-naturalistically miracle and other extraordinary testimonies.” But no such relationship exists. After all, it is by no means apparent that “quite a few baffling, exceedingly-hard-to-explain-naturalistically miracle and other extraordinary testimonies” should happen in human history, and thus it is by no means apparent that I should expect this to be so.

THIRD: What counts as ‘EXCEEDINGLY-HARD-TO-EXPLAIN-NATURALISTICALLY’? ‘Exceedingly’, is, after all, a subjective term. And this subjectivity causes a problem for Prof. Law’s main point, for it once again means that he can add or remove certain miraculous claims from this criterion as he sees fits, and as it aids his argument, all the while not giving us any reason to accept his subjective definition of what ‘exceedingly’ actually means. Perhaps the use of a more objective criterion, such as ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ would be more appropriate here.

FOURTH: What does Prof. Law mean by ‘EXTRAORDINARY’ testimonies? If he means any testimony of the “supernatural” (although I dislike that word), then he is stacking the deck in favor of his preferred worldview. If, by contrast, he means what most people mean by extraordinary, namely “beyond what is usual, ordinary, regular, or established,” (dictionary.com), then Prof. Law runs into a serious problem. For a large number of people—see Craig S. Keener’s book for this, as well as others—not only believe that miracles happen on a regular basis, but have actually experienced what they take to be miracles and “supernatural” events. And therefore, it is hard to see why testimony of the miraculous should be considered extraordinary if we are using the common definition of extraordinary. By contrast, what would fall under the “extraordinary” umbrella here would be such naturalistic claims that, for example, non-living matter can somehow naturalistically come alive, that a single-celled mold can eventually become a man through natural processes alone, or that consciousness and rationality can naturalistically arise from unconscious and irrational matter. Essentially, the point that I am trying to make is that when the term ‘extraordinary’ is properly defined, its force actually turns against an argument like Prof. Law’s, rather than supporting it.

(Cont'd)

RD Miksa said...

(Cont'd)

FIFTH: Prof. Law’s argument leads to absurd and irrational conclusions. Consider this thought-experiment. Say your best and most honest friend, who is an atheist—with the strange name of Lyman Lee Luther Larry Leblanc, and who, due to the recession, has been unemployed and severely depressed for a number of years—comes running up to you and tells you this story. He was at the beach in the early hours of the morning and he was just about to kill himself by blowing his head off. Your friend says that he closed his eyes, put his gun to his temple, and was about to pull the trigger. Your friend adds, however, that just before he did so, with haughty and mocking derision, he whispered “If there is a God, why doesn’t he stop me now?” His finger then began to pull the trigger. Suddenly, however, your friend says that ‘a voice’ told him to stop, turn around, and look at the ocean. Your friend then says that he did so, and when he looked at the ocean, he saw a bottle floating towards him. The bottle stopped at his feet. When he opened the bottle, there was a letter inside specifically addressed to him (using his full name), which said it was from God, and which further told him that the minute he left the beach, he would be offered his dream job. Your friend then tells you that he did leave the beach, and right when he did so, he was suddenly met by an old business acquaintance who was jogging, and who had just started a new business and wanted to hire your friend as CFO. To support his story, your friend shows you the letter, the business card from his old business acquaintance, and video evidence from a life-guard tower that corroborated all the actions that he told you about. Finally, your friend tells you that he has experienced a miracle and now knows that God exists.

Now, given Prof. Law’s main point, it seems that our answer to our friend’s story should be this: well, Lyman, I understand your story, but I should expect quite a few baffling, exceedingly-hard-to-explain-naturalistically miracles and other extraordinary testimonies to crop up throughout your live, whether or not there's any truth to them, so the fact is that your testimony provides no support to such miracle and other extraordinary claims.

But I contend that such a response to the above story is clearly absurd, and that most people would agree that such a response is absurd and irrational. And yet it fits Prof. Law’s criteria just as well as any other miraculous claim. And as such, it is possible to see that, if accepted, Prof. Law’s main point would essentially lead us to absurd and irrational conclusions that could not be justified except through a pre-determined and indefeasible bias against supernatural claims.

Take care,

RD Miksa

Stephen Law said...

Dear Miksa

Given the many thousands of extraordinary claims that are actually made each year, and given we know that there will be a significant proportion of them that will be hard-to-explain-prosaically even if they are false (and the history of wacky claims provides many examples of cases that might easily have qualified, had we not got lucky - read a few issues of Skeptical Inquirer), that's enough to show that pointing, as Craig does, to just one such claim and saying "Hmm, all the prosaic explanations seem very implausible. So it's reasonable to believe Jesus rose from the dead!" s clearly absurd.

You can claim if you like that there are tons of well-attested miracle claims that might also be considered, but that's just to concede my point re Craig's argument.

And of course, not only many atheists, but many theists, and indeed a significant number of Christians, find this collective evidence pretty unconvincing - even those who have really looked into it in some detail. That's somewhat surprising, isn't it, if the evidence is as strong as you suppose?

But of course there's no surprise in finding that large numbers of smart college educated religious people believe pretty clearly false wacky claims, is there? That's well documented.

As to the rest of your response, it sounds like a classic smokescreen move. Consider a juror asked to deliver a verdict. He says, "But what does "reasonable doubt mean" here?! Please define these terms precisely precisely. I want a objectively measurable, mathematically precise figure please. Until you do provide such a definition and precise criteria, there can be no possibility of my finding anyone innocent or guilty!"

We'd see through their drivel pretty quick, wouldn't we?

Stephen Law said...

As to you strange story about Leblanc: if there's really good evidence from video in addition to direct eyewitness testimony, etc then that might, if properly investigated and confirmed, be pretty strong evidence that the events in question happened (though I'd still be pretty suspicious, given TV magicians do this sort of thing all the time, and given the enthusiasm for lies and trickery exhibited by many religious folk down through the years).

But of course that's a bit different from trusting the say-so of a few highly partisan ideologues, not even eye-witnesses, about events that happened decades earlier.

Stephen Law said...

Perhaps I should have stressed - the point I am making is about trusting testimony re miracle and other wacky claims (ghosts, alien abduction, and all the other tall tales, hocus pocus and magical stuff for which human beings have such a prediliction). The mere fact that it's hard to explain why such testimony would be given if false doesn't give us much reason to suppose it's true.

Once we've add a clear, unambiguous, confirmed-as- unadulterated video recording, that obviously adds considerable weight (though as I say, the story would still smell v fishy).Unfortunately, no one had a VCR to record the crucifixion, resurrection, etc.

I don't say there can never be good evidence for the miraculous. But the fact that a bunch of guys say something miraculous happened, and we can't come up with a plausible-sounding prosaic explanation for why they would give such testimony if it were false, pretty clearly ain't good evidence that it's true.

If it were, we'd have to accept all sorts of ghost, god, goblin, alien abduction and other wacky claims too.

Crude said...

The mere fact that it's hard to explain why such testimony would be given if false doesn't give us much reason to suppose it's true.

This is flatly ridiculous.

You're saying, in the case of a miracle (let's here say, 'an event which defies a naturalistic explanation', though even this definition is problematic), no credence is gained in accepting a miracle by the fact that it is difficult to explain naturalistically.

I think that's a fair summary of what you're offering here. And I think, put like that, it's easy to see why it's hogwash. Granted, it does not prove that a miracle occurred. But 'doesn't give reason'? C'mon, knock it off.

David B Marshall said...

I appreciate your willingness to defend your arguments as far as you have. I realize time is limitted. If you can't respond further, that'll be understandable. But there are several points that merit responding to, I think.

I. Baynes and the resurrection.

"Yes indeed, my point is NOT that the disciples misperceived. That’s just one of very many possible prosaic explanations that would account for this testimony in documents written by anonymous, ideologically committed zealots – not even eyewitnesses – decades after the supposed events in question, in order to spread their faith.

"The point I am making is that Craig type arguments – in which several prosaic explanations for an extraordinary event are looked at and dismissed as not seeming very plausible/probable, leaving the miracle claim as the “best explanation” - and thus supposedly the most reasonable thing to believe - are flawed. The mere fact that such hard-to-explain-prosaically evidence crops up is NOT good evidence for the alleged events given we should expect such hard-to-explain testimony to crop up on occasion in any case. Such dodgy “arguments to the best explanation” are a form of bogus reasoning - a form you find cropping up right across the sweep of extraordinary claims, from ghosts to religious miracles to alien abduction. The link I gave provides a nice example: an argument for alien visitation that relies on the same form of “argument to the best explanation” strategy that Craig uses."

"Are you conceding this point? You should – it’s correct."

One point here, as I take it, is that the Resurrection is in competition not just with the best naturalistic explanation, but with the combined probability of all naturalistic explanations. Even if the Resurrection seems more likely than, say, the Swoon Theory, that is not enough to show that it is more likely than all naturalistic explanations for the data, combined.

I concede that point, and I think that is one of Plantinga's arguments, as well. McGraw takes that into account in his rebuttal, as I recall, as I think anyone should. (I asked him about your characterization of his argument: he didn't go into any detail, but obviously didn't agree. Perhaps I'll link to it later, and delve a little more deeply.)

A second point, which I have also already conceded, is that one may be baffled for an explanation, yet still reasonably reject a particular explanation that is offered, even if it seems to explain the data. Or as you put it,

"Even when we find ourselves entirely baffled when it comes to providing mundane explanations, that does not mean we have good evidence for the extraordinary claim."

No, it doesn't mean we have such evidence -- but it doesn't mean we DON'T have such evidence, either. The devil (or angels, in this case) are in the details. We may have good evidence, or we may not.

Or -- I asked this question before -- are you asserting a priori that there can be no such thing as good evidence for the supernatural? If so, what distinguishes your position from fideism? If not, when exactly might you concede that there would be such evidence?

It is in light of those two concessions, that I still maintain that the Resurrection is both strongly supported by the historical evidence, and that there is other worthwhile background evidence that renders it stronger. This is, admittedly, mostly just assertion on my part at this point. I have, however, referenced NT Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God, which contains some of that evidence, and a blog or two I wrote earlier, which contains some more

David B Marshall said...

II. Resurrection claims

"In a court of law, the judge will rightly look much less favourably on testimony provided only decades after the alleged event. So we should also take that into account here too. But in any case, you ignore the other points I made, which are that (unlike the UFO case) your witnesses are powerfully ideologically committed anonymous individuals with an axe to grind, who are not even eyewitnesses. We’re dealing with hearsay evidence trotted out by anonymous true believers decades after the events in question. What would such testimony be worth in a court of law? That’s what it’s worth here."

First of all, we're not in a court of law. History does not often provide eyewitness testimony of the sort you are asking for. We are the judges, and as people serious about understanding the nature of reality, we are obliged to take all important facts into account, regardless of any artificial constraints modern court systems might properly operate under. And certainly, from any reasonable perspective, the gospels and writings of Paul constitute important data.

Secondly, I think much of the Gospels are eyewitness accounts, supplemented by close second-hand accounts. Richard Bauckham makes the case for this in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. The book has wonderful reviews from leading NT scholars, and one cannot afford to ignore it if one is going to make this claim.

Third, Paul indeed did have an "axe to grind," and it was over the necks of the first Christians. So if bias is to be taken into account, the conversion of an anti-Christian bigot should be taken as more credible than that of a neutral observer. To a lesser extent, the way in which other early followers of Jesus risked their own necks to give witness for the resurrection, also greatly strengthens their credibility.

Fourth, I maintain that there is a great deal of internal evidence within the four Gospels that uniquely supports their generally trustworthy character. I make the case for this in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, and will be presenting a shorter version of the argument in Faith Seeking Understanding, which has just been released in the US.

III. Aliens, Again. "Trying to exploit some difference between prior expected (God raising Jesus) and prior unexpected events (alien visitors) won’t work here, David, for at least three reasons (i) what the UFO witnesses reported was NOT alien visitors, but merely a remarkable object (rectangular, the size of a football field, apparently on fire). So the fact that there is indeed good prior reason to suppose aliens aren’t visiting given vast interstellar distances is irrelevant . . . "

That actually makes your purported analogy weaker, as I pointed out. And this point was not clear in your OP, which moved back and forth between references to aliens and the claim that some big bright object was seen above a power station.

The witnesses saw Venus, apparently, and thought it was something else. They didn't specify what that something else was, but the site you linked to did seem to imply it was an alien space ship. There is nothing extraordinary about seeing Venus, or even about mistaking its size. Without the implied little green men, what is the point of the analogy? This is becoming increasingly obscure. How is seeing Venus late at night like having a heart-to-heart conversation and a public meal with your best friend and ten others three days after he has died a vicious public death?

David B Marshall said...

(Sigh. I see this is growing very long, again. I may need to put this in a more readable format.)

IV. Resurrection or Redemption?

(ii) "Your “usually strong grounds” for expecting God to raise a Jesus-like figure from the dead is just hyperbole – it seems to me, as it does to very many, including many academics, that the resurrection/redemption theory is pretty ludicrous. Even Christians struggle to make sense of it, disagreeing even amongst themselves regarding the mechanics of God/Jesus apparently having to die (why?) to pay our sin debt for us (how?) so we can – IF we believe he is indeed the Christ who came back to life (and what a brilliant bit of viral marketing that suggestion was – compare those spam emails that say: “Pass this email on to ten friends and get amazing good fortune; fail to do so a be CURSED!”) - enjoy eternal life ourselves rather than eternal punishment . . ."

First of all, I don't think you've read my evidence, linked to above. If you have, the dismissal seems a tad blustery.

More importantly, let's not conflate (a) evidence for the Resurrection, with (b) the plausibility of a particular theory of Redemption. The topic here is (a). God may have raised Jesus from the dead for all kinds of good reasons, some of which I discuss, that do not depend on any particular theory of Redemption. Anyway, I would argue that some theories of Redemption are not only plausible, they are supported by a wealth of empirical data, especially from history. Jesus not only redeems us for heaven in theory, I would argue he has redeemed the human race in many ways, in concrete historical fact. (Lots more books, support that notion.) And that makes the Resurrection more plausible than it would be, had it happened to, say, the grocery clerk you mentioned earlier.

(iii) "In any case, and most importantly, whether or not the prior probability of a hypothesis H is high or low, if the probability of the alleged evidence E existing is almost as high given H as not H, then E is STILL weak evidence for H. That’s to say, your point about prior probability is just irrelevant here."

The probability of H is a function of both prior probability and a posteriori evidence. It's proper to take both into account, and I see the combination of the two as rendering the Resurrection unusually plausible. With all due respect, I don't think your arguments so far show that E (the extand historical evidence regarding the resurrection) is remotely probable with respect to naturalism, though maybe you can make it seem a bit more so with more convincing examples.

David B Marshall said...

V. "I don’t have the quote to hand either, but Plantinga does say the purely historical evidence for the “great claims of the gospels” is weak. And of course he’s right to do so, notwithstanding McGrew’s nit-picky points. In fact this is also the sensible view of very many Christians, including even a significant proportion of Blblical scholars. Many of them will happily acknowledge the historical evidence for the resurrection is, at best, pretty weak."

True, some would say that. Yet some non-Christian scholars, like Pinchas Lapide, admit it is surprisingly strong, even convincing. And many skeptical scholars (Bultmann, Borg, Crossan, even Sanders) confess that the reason they deny it, is because of prior materialistic assumptions.

"Now, why do they fail to see that the evidence does very strongly support the resurrection? It can’t be because they are all biased atheists. They aren’t. Nor is it because they are all ignorant of the evidence. As I say, many Biblical scholars who are Christians admit the purely historical evidence is pretty weak (I actually work with some)."

Well, I disagree with those scholars, whoever they are -- though perhaps direct quotes would ameliorate the disagreement, somewhat.

David B Marshall said...

VI. "Are religious people particularly deluded? On the other hand, we do know that, unlike atheism, religion has an amazing ability to get even smart, college educated people to believe absurd things."

Unlike atheism? Are you kidding? Have you forgotten the 20th Century?

My BA came in studying the Russian and Chinese communist movements. All these revolutionary movements, which swept up hundreds of millions of people, were chock full of smart, college-educated atheists who believed absurd things. It was the defining characteristic of the movement: tens of millions of highly gullible atheists, swallowing nonsense for bad reasons.

Nor, of course, is atheist gullibility limitted to communists. We have Ayn Rand, and her nutty acolytes. We have the sham science of Alfred Kinsey, and his many eager disciples. We have Ernest Haeckel's Social Darwinism. We have Sigmund Freud's quack excurssions into the history of religion, some would add, into psychology and sex.

Quackery is not limitted to people who believe in gods, by any count.

"Witness for example the 100+ million Americans who suppose the hypothesis that the universe is 6k years old is a good, well-supported scientific theory. Some are college professors . . . Yet it’s obvious to the rest of us, including even very many Christians, that they’re just deluded.

"This very strongly suggests that you and Craig are deluded about the Gospels being good evidence for the resurrection, does it not?"

No it doesn't, and I'm surprised that you would suggest so. How could it possibly follow, however gently, from the fact that 100 million religious believers falsely believe Y, that M, who disbelieves Y, is deluded about R?

"If the excellent evidence for the resurrection is really there, it’s surprising, is it not, that not only atheists, but theistic followers of other religions, and even many Christians, fail to recognize it. On the other hand, if this supposedly excellent evidence is not really there, it’s not very surprising that many would nevertheless think it was, given the amazing power of religion to get even smart, educated people to believe rather silly things."

The assumption here, that irreligious people are more reasonable than religious people, is as we have seen hard to support, in view of the last century. It is also a fact that millions of non-Christians became Christians precisely because they perceived the evidence for miracles in general, the Resurrection in particular, to be strong. The very existence of the Christian church is evidence (as many have pointed out) for the resurrection, built as it was on the bold, dangerous proclaimation of Easter by those who claimed to have met Jesus. The continuing spread of Christianity has also often depended on the on-going work of God in the world, as even seminal converts like Sts. Paul, Augustine and Patrick recognized.

But also, this argument underestimates the difficulty of getting people to convert out of ideologies to which they are committed, personally or by chance of birth. It would take strong evidence to convince a Saudi to convert to Christianity, if he knows conversion will mean torture and loss of family. And not many people study the evidence for Jesus' resurrection in that much depth. Many who do, including some who call themselves Christians, are committed to positions that would be compromised by admitting the strength of the evidence.

RD Miksa said...

Good Day to All,

First, full disclosure: I am a police officer, which is one of the reasons for my somewhat unorthodox examples and thought-experiments. Now, onto more important things.

PROF. LAW SAID: “Given the many thousands of extraordinary claims that are actually made each year, and given we know that there will be a significant proportion of them that will be hard-to-explain-prosaically even if they are false (and the history of wacky claims provides many examples of cases that might easily have qualified, had we not got lucky - read a few issues of Skeptical Inquirer), that's enough to show that pointing, as Craig does, to just one such claim and saying "Hmm, all the prosaic explanations seem very implausible. So it's reasonable to believe Jesus rose from the dead!" is clearly absurd.”

Yet this claim is very clearly false. To see why, consider this analogy: “Given the many thousands of random-stalker claims that are actually made each year, and given we know that there will be a significant proportion of them that will be hard-to-explain-coincidentally or by chance-events even if they are ultimately false, that's enough to show that pointing to just one such claim and saying ‘Hmm, all the coincidental, benign explanations seem very implausible. So it's reasonable to believe that this person is being randomly-stalked!’ is clearly absurd.”

But it is obviously not absurd. In fact, it is quite reasonable. And it is reasonable precisely because the amount of previously claimed but false random-stalker allegations has no specific bearing on this one case, for what matters is the evidence in this particular case regardless of how many false, but hard-to-explain allegations have been made in the past. Indeed, if the evidence in the one particular case is strong enough to show that a coincidental, benign explanation could only be accepted via an unreasonable doubt, then it would be entirely rational to believe that the random-stalker explanation is the only reasonable explanation to hold.

So the fact is this whole issue really has little to nothing to do with how many other hard-to-explain-but-false claims there are, and everything to do with how strong the evidence is for each particular claim. But then if this latter point is the case, then Prof. Law’s objection really boils down to nothing more than an objection concerning the type and amount of evidence that there is for the resurrection. And this objection is nothing new.

RD Miksa said...

(Cont'd)

PROF. LAW SAID: “You can claim if you like that there are tons of well-attested miracle claims that might also be considered, but that's just to concede my point re Craig's argument.”

Actually, this does not concede your point at all, but rather destroys it. For, as per your original claim, your main point was that “we should expect quite a few” hard-to-explain-naturalistically miraculous claims to crop up through-out the centuries. Therefore, by your own standard, if instead of ‘a few’ hard-to-explain-naturalistically miraculous claims we actually have a ton of them, then this fact would play against your claim, and would actually give us a reason to believe that supernaturalism is true, for such an occurrence would not be expected otherwise.


PROF. LAW SAID: “But of course there's no surprise in finding that large numbers of smart college educated religious people believe pretty clearly false wacky claims, is there? That's well documented.”

What a strange comment! In my experience, the ones believing the wacky claims are the atheists (Wacky Claim: There is no God), the materialists (Wacky Claim: Consciousness and rationality arise from utterly unconscious and irrational matter), the Blind-Watchmaker Darwinists (Wacky Claim: That it is reasonable to believe that such a weakly evidenced mechanism like unguided Natural Selection coupled with random mutation is sufficient to account for the development of Man from molecules), the moral relativists (Wacky Claim: There are no objective moral rules or duties, ie – child torture really is not wrong in any absolute sense), and some irreligious historians (Wacky Claim: Jesus never existed!)…not to mention the Marxists, Feminists, and so on.

See, it’s all a matter of perspective!

(Cont'd)

RD Miksa said...

PROF. LAW SAID: “As to the rest of your response, it sounds like a classic smokescreen move. Consider a juror asked to deliver a verdict. He says, "But what does "reasonable doubt mean" here?! Please define these terms precisely. I want a objectively measurable, mathematically precise figure please. Until you do provide such a definition and precise criteria, there can be no possibility of my finding anyone innocent or guilty!"

Please excuse me, but the only smokescreen that I see is yours. You are the one who used terms like ‘a few’, ‘exceedingly’, and ‘extraordinary’, and yet simultaneously, you did not define those terms as any responsible arguer should do.

Furthermore, I find your use of legal proceedings to be particularly telling, for unlike your own use of terminology within this argument, legal terminology is precisely and objectively defined. Thus, if your imaginary juror asked “But what does ‘reasonable doubt mean’ here?”, he—along with every other juror who asked this question—would be provided with the clear definition that reasonable doubt means: “A set of facts or circumstances, which would satisfy an ordinary, cautious, and prudent person, that there is reason to doubt and which goes beyond mere possibility.” And thus, my request that you clearly define your terms is by no means a smokescreen, but a simple request for precision.

I might also note that the bringing up of the issue of legal proceeding raises another interesting point: namely, just how badly this argument would fail in an actual court. Consider a defence attorney who tries to employ the—for lack of a better term—‘Prof. Law defense’:

“Dear Jurors, given the many thousands of claims of guilt that are actually made each year against various accused individuals, and given that we know that there will be a significant proportion of these accused that will be extremely hard-to-exonerate even though they are actually innocent, that's enough to show that pointing, as the Prosecutor does, to just this one case and saying ‘Hmm, all the defense explanations seem very implausible, so it's reasonable to believe that my accused client is guilty!’ is clearly absurd. And therefore, based on this, you should consider my client innocent.”

But of course, not only is it NOT absurd, but this is precisely what many prosecutors do. They first show their explanation to be the best explanation (as Craig does), then they show that none of the explanations provided by the Defence are plausible or reasonable (as Craig does), and then they use this combination to prove that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

So, in a real court, Craig’s argument is precisely the type of argument that is used. And the Prof. Law defense would be laughed out of court.

PROF. LAW SAID: “We'd see through their drivel pretty quick, wouldn't we?”

So far, in my opinion, the only thing that has been seen through is your argument.

Take care,

RD Miksa

RD Miksa said...

Good Day to All,

PROF. LAW SAID: “The mere fact that it's hard to explain why such testimony would be given if false doesn't give us much reason to suppose it's true.”

But the amount of reason that we have to believe a claim made by testimonial evidence is directly proportional to where and from whom the testimony comes from. So, for example, if I have two informants who are both telling me equally shocking and surprising claims about something they experienced, but one informant has never lied to me and has always been reliable, then testimony from him would actually give me a great deal of reason to suppose that the thing that he experienced actually happened. By contrast, this would not be the case with an informant who was a known liar and who had a very poor reliability record.


PROF. LAW SAID: “I don't say there can never be good evidence for the miraculous.”

So please tell us what would, for you, constitute such ‘good evidence’.


PROF. LAW SAID: “But the fact that a bunch of guys say something miraculous happened, and we can't come up with a plausible-sounding prosaic explanation for why they would give such testimony if it were false, pretty clearly ain't good evidence that it's true.”

Again, this entirely misses the point that in order to determine if it was good evidence or not, we would have to first determine what kind of guys these people were, their track-record of reliability, if they gained anything from making such claims, etc. Just asserting that it would not be good evidence is just that: an assertion.

Take care,

RD Miksa

David B Marshall said...

Sorry to pile on, here, but I should note that having reread Timothy and Lydia McGrew's "On the Historical Record: A Rejoinder to Plantinga," I must recommend that Dr. Law reread it too. Far from making "nit-picky points," the McGrews launch broadside after broadside at the heart of Plantinga's dismissive argument:

"And it is more than strange that, having chosen for his representative of the historical argument Richard Swinburne, the formost living exponent of the use of Bayes' Theorum in the philosophy of religion, Plantinga should repeatedly refuse to use Bayes's Theorum when attempting to represent Swinburne's argument . . . "

"If one's initial estimate of the probability of theism on all of the relevant evidence is really to be generous, or even rational, it must take into account inter alia that portion of the background evidence that supports mere theism by way of its direct support for more specifically Christian claims such as the resurrection."

"In this entire discussion he made not the most minimal attempt to engage with the actual historical evidence for the resurrection. Plantinga now falls back on his amateur status . . . (but in that case) your personal probability bears no significant relation to the publicly available evidence . . . "

"Plantinga's choice of Meier as an expert on the historical evidence for the resurrection is particularly unfortunate . . . "

On and on it goes. Those are not "nits," those are bombs striking the central foundations of Plantinga's argument on the resurrection.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Guys

That's 4,000 words to respond to. As this is about my own post on my own blog, I'll switch back there after this, rather than write your blog for you, David!

But, David, you still haven't got my point. Remember, I am discussing Craig's argument to the best explanation. Does it strongly support his resurrection claim? I suggest not, because the evidence he points to (testimony) is the kind some of which is likely to crop up occasionally re wacky claims down through the centuries in any case - i.e. hard-to-explain-prosaically testimony.

You concede the different (but also correct) point that just because each prosaic explanation is individually implausible doesn't mean it's implausible that one of them is nevertheless correct (as opposed to the non-prosaic explanation). That's a good, related, but different point.

My point is that if I spot a pair of my wife's shoes by the door, and there's a high probability such shoes would be there if she's in, that's not necessarily good evidence that she is in, *even if the prior probability that she's in is high*. That *prior* probability is beside the point, if the probability a pair of shoes would be there anyway even if she wasn't in is also high. In that case, the evidence of the shoes being there is still weak.

Hopefully you've got it now. If this is the kind of testimony would should expect to crop up anyway, whether or not the miracle claim in question are true, then it's not good evidence the miracle claim is true. Whether or not the prior probability of the claim is high - that's irrelevant. THAT's my point.

Won't respond to Miksa other than to say the smokescreen is now being compounded. He is right that in a court of law we might explain "reasonable doubt" thus: “A set of facts or circumstances, which would satisfy an ordinary, cautious, and prudent person, that there is reason to doubt and which goes beyond mere possibility.” But of course this just postpones the problem, doesn't it? When does someone qualify as "prudent"? Who is "ordinary"? etc. Please give clearly defined, mathematical values to these terms! I could similarly define the terms I used above. As I say, this is a classic smokescreen move (in my book "Believing Bullshit" I actually give it a title - "The Way of Questions" - phrase search here: http://tinyurl.com/bscr6jz.) Miksa's trying to get me bogged down in an endless definitional wild goose chase to distract attention away from the fact that the court has rightly found the accused guilty as charged.

But in any case, given I am discussing Craig’s argument involving just one such miracle claim, if we should expect even just ten hard-to-explain-prosaically-but still-false such claims over a couple of thousand years of history, the fact that Craig can point to one such example of such testimony is not, as it stands, good evidence for the truth of his particular claim. Are one and ten mathematically precise enough for you Miksa?

[continues below]

Stephen Law said...

[continues from above...]

As to atheism (believing there's no God) generating false wacky beliefs - it doesn't particularly. Of course theists can and do point to wacky and stupid things atheists believe (“Communism!” “Conspiracy theories!”). But that doesn't establish a causal connection. Whereas there's a clear causal connection between religion and believing false wacky stuff. Religion has a proven track record of causing people to think in characteristically unreliable and deluded ways (which is not to say all religious people are victims of that, of course). e.g. YEC, Scientology, Branch Davidians, etc. etc. Religion often clearly encourages patterns of thought that make people susceptible to illusion, patterns of thought common to other wacko belief systems, such as conspiracy theories (see my own book Believing Bullshit, which provides many examples).

Nor is e.g. believing materialism etc. comparably wacky, Miksa. The truth of materialism is a thorny, hard-to-settle philosophical issue (on which I’m personally neutral). Believing the Earth is 6k years old, on the other hand, is a dumbass theory that's straightforwardly scientifically falsified. Atheism per se is not an effective mechanism for getting people to believe such patent nonsense. Religion, very clearly, is.

Atheists don't think there's good evidence Jesus was resurrected. Nor, pretty much without exception, do those of other faiths. And neither do a good many Christians either – including even Biblically pretty knowledgable ones. My father is a good example (degree in theology). It's pretty much a hard-core subset of Christians who think the historical evidence for resurrection is strong. As I say, it's pretty easy to explain why this would be so if the belief were false (religions get people to believe wacky false stuff all the time), but very baffling indeed if the belief is true. This does strongly suggest that it is that Christian minority that is deluded.

Of course, it might still be reasonable to be a Christian - Plantinga thinks the historical evidence weak but is still a Christian, for example, and arguably reasonably so. But Craig's particular argument fails. That's my point.

Miksa's random stalker example is obviously disanalogous... but hey I’m writing your blog for you again David! That’s 850 words already…

Thanks for taking the time to comment on my stuff David. I do genuinely appreciate it

Stephen Law said...

"Of course, it might still be reasonable to be a Christian - Plantinga thinks the historical evidence weak but is still a Christian, for example, and arguably reasonably so. But Craig's particular argument fails. That's my point."

PS here I am referring to my original criticism of Craig's argument (which perhaps you might now even agree with?), not the immediately preceding more general point about why it is that so many, including many Christians, fail to recognise the evidence is as good as you say it is, if it is.

I'll stop there, David! Thanks again...

Stephen Law said...

OK one last point! - Miksa mistakenly thinks I am rejecting abduction - "argument to the best explanation" generally, including its use in a court of law. But of course I'm not doing that. Perhaps I should make this clearer.

What I am doing is pointing out that, with respect to miracle and other wacky claims of the sort humans have a clear predilection to make falsely (ghosts, goblins, dead relatives appearing, alien abduction, etc.), we have good reason to expect some to crop up that, while false, will nevertheless are hard to explain prosaically. That's to say, we won't be able to come up with plausible sounding prosaic explanation. Given that this is so, pointing to such a case and saying - none of the prosaic explanations for this seem at all plausible - therefore it's reasonable to believe this particularly wacky claim (for it's "the best explanation"), is poor reasoning. But it is Craig's reasoning.

Miksa’s court example is just muddled. First, it’s a defence of abduction (“argument to the best explanation”) generally, including in a law court, which I am not even attacking. Secondly, if it’s known that a large proportion of those found guilty in a certain sort of case are actually innocent but are nevertheless found guilty because their defence sounded highly implausible to the jury, then all cases of that sort WOULD indeed be thrown into significant doubt.

Thanks again - it's been interesting!

Stephen Law said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephen Law said...

PS re my final line above: "then all cases of that sort WOULD indeed be thrown into significant doubt." that's badly put - I mean such cases, as a class, would thereby immediately have significant doubt cast upon them (there might then be a general inquiry). Of course, some individual convictions might subsequently still be shown to be safe. Similarly, even given my point re Craig's argument, some miracle claims might still be shown to be well-established. Not denying that. I am just pointing out that testimony of the sort I describe is pretty clearly nowhere near good enough. Even if we know we have otherwise generally trustworthy eyewitnesses with no axe to grind, them saying they saw Ted's dead grandmother in their sitting room is not not very good evidence that they did, despite the fact we cannot come up with a plausible-sounding prosaic explanation of why they would say such a thing if it were not true. If it was good evidence, then we're going to have to accept an *awful* lot of such wacky claims...

And, as I say, re the Gospels, we don't even know who the authors are. They're not even eyewitnesses, and they're all highly partisan True Believers writing documents to spread the faith, writing decades later. If that's good evidence, I'm a Dutchman.

The real mystery to me (and even many theists, and indeed many Christians) is why you guys can't see this.

RD Miksa said...

Good Day to All,

PROF. LAW SAID: “But in any case, given I am discussing Craig’s argument involving just one such miracle claim, if we should expect even just ten hard-to-explain-prosaically-but still-false such claims over a couple of thousand years of history, the fact that Craig can point to one such example of such testimony is not, as it stands, good evidence for the truth of his particular claim. Are one and ten mathematically precise enough for you Miksa?”

Indeed they are precise enough.

But now, given that you have finally provided a clear amount of what to you constitutes ‘a few’—as you should have done from the beginning—your argument thus runs into the very problem that I mentioned in my first comment. Namely, if you claim that we should expect ten hard-to-explain-prosaically-but-still-false claims over the last few thousand years, but instead we have ten times ten of such claims (which I assert, and can substantiate, is easily the case), then your argument fails. Why? Because if we have many more such cases than we would expect, then that fact would provide us with some initial reason to believe that some of these claims are true. And if we would have reasons to believe that, then we would actually have more grounds to believe that the testimony for one example, such as the resurrection, is actually true, than we would have grounds to believe it false. For if we expect that ten such hard-to-explain-prosaically cases should exist while still being false, but in reality we have ten times that amount of cases, then since our expectation is strongly disconfirmed, we now have good reasons to believe that some of these hard-to-explain-prosaically claims are likely true.

And this is why I asked for a precise number from you, Prof. Law, because only through a precise number in comparison to the cases which exist in reality can we determine whether your expectation has been confirmed or disconfirmed. But without this precise number, your argument would become endlessly stretchy, thereby letting you adapt and change it to suit whatever your argumentative needs are. But by giving a precise number, I can then hold you to that number, and show why your expectation is disconfirmed, which would then bury your argument from the start.

(Cont’d)

RD Miksa said...

(Cont’d)

PROF. LAW SAID: “As to atheism (believing there's no God) generating false wacky beliefs - it doesn't particularly. Of course theists can and do point to wacky and stupid things atheists believe (“Communism!” “Conspiracy theories!”). But that doesn't establish a causal connection.”

Just an aside: Given the historical connection between atheism and the wackiness of such major social forces as communism, eugenics, Cults of Reason, moral relativism…as well as other generally crazy utopian ideas, I would argue that a causal connection between atheism and wackiness is quite readily apparent to any sober observer. It may not be “religious” wackiness, but it is wackiness nonetheless.


PROF. LAW SAID: “Nor is e.g. believing materialism etc. comparably wacky, Miksa. The truth of materialism is a thorny, hard-to-settle philosophical issue (on which I’m personally neutral). Believing the Earth is 6k years old, on the other hand, is a dumbass theory that's straightforwardly scientifically falsified. Atheism per se is not an effective mechanism for getting people to believe such patent nonsense. Religion, very clearly, is.”

But if materialism is not wacky simply because it is a thorny, hard-to-settle philosophical issue, then solipsism and radical skepticism about the existence of the external world, other minds, whether we are in the matrix, the existence of the past, etc. must also not be wacky because those too are thorny, hard-to-settle philosophical issues. However, next to the philosopher who wonders—as quite a few philosophers do—about whether he is just a brain-in-a-vat or if the world was created just 5 minutes ago, the Young-Earth-Creationist looks like a paragon of rationality.

I might add, furthermore, that even next to the scientist who claims—as they do in some Many Worlds Interpretations of Physics—that ever action committed, even by a rat, creates a whole new universe, the Young-Earth-Creationist once again looks quite rational.

Disclaimer: I am not a Young-Earth-Creationist.

(Cont’d)

RD Miksa said...

(Cont’d)

PROF. LAW SAID: “PS re my final line above: "then all cases of that sort WOULD indeed be thrown into significant doubt." that's badly put - I mean such cases, as a class, would thereby immediately have significant doubt cast upon them (there might then be a general inquiry). Of course, some individual convictions might subsequently still be shown to be safe.”

Prof. Law, given all of your past few statements, may I be so bold as to suggest that I believe that I now understand the main problem with your argument, and I believe I know why so much confusion is arising here. Namely, the primary problem with your overall contention is that you have not provided us with a specific and objective threshold which the evidence for a hard-to-explain-prosaically claim must pass in order for that claim to move from the likely false category to the likely true category. In a Court of Law, the threshold is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” where reasonable is a clearly and objectively defined legal term.

So, until you provide such a specific and objective threshold, your argument will essentially be as stretchy and as malleable as you wish it to be; it will be, in essence, an indefeasible argument more suited to ideology than philosophy.

(Cont'd)

RD Miksa said...

(Cont'd)

PROF. LAW SAID: “What I am doing is pointing out that, with respect to miracle and other wacky claims of the sort humans have a clear predilection to make falsely (ghosts, goblins, dead relatives appearing, alien abduction, etc.), we have good reason to expect some to crop up that, while false, will nevertheless are hard to explain prosaically. That's to say, we won't be able to come up with plausible sounding prosaic explanation. Given that this is so, pointing to such a case and saying - none of the prosaic explanations for this seem at all plausible - therefore it's reasonable to believe this particularly wacky claim (for it's "the best explanation"), is poor reasoning. But it is Craig's reasoning.”

The problem with your statement here is that this is NOT what Craig does—at least not as I read him. Instead, just like a Prosecutor, Craig does the following: 1) the resurrection is the best explanation of the evidence; 2) no alternate prosaic explanation can defeat Point 1 except by using an unreasonable doubt; therefore, 3) the resurrection is the best explanation of the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, and thus it is rational to believe in the resurrection. This is just like a Prosecutor who argues that: 1) the accused murdering the victim is the best explanation of the evidence; 2) no alternate explanation provided by the Defence defeats Point 1 except through the use of an unreasonable doubt; therefore, 3) that the accused murdered the victim is the best explanation of the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, and thus it is rational to convict the accused of murder.

This is eminently rational reasoning. And note that we would be rational to believe the best explanation in such cases even if that explanation turned out to ultimately be wrong.


So, when you say this…

“That's to say, we won't be able to come up with plausible sounding prosaic explanation. Given that this is so, pointing to such a case and saying - none of the prosaic explanations for this seem at all plausible - therefore it's reasonable to believe this particularly wacky claim (for it's "the best explanation"), is poor reasoning…”

…it is, in fact, not poor reasoning if the arguer can show that the best explanation is best beyond a certain threshold, such as the threshold of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. If he can do that, then all this talk of past hard-to-explain-prosaically-but-false cases is superfluous. If the defined evidentiary threshold can be crossed, then it would be reasonable and rational to believe in the best explanation.

Thus, given all this, I would ask you: what is your evidentiary threshold for miraculous claims? Would it be beyond a reasonable doubt? Beyond any doubt? What is it? Once this is established, then we can seriously parse the evidence.

Take care,

RD Miksa

RD Miksa said...

Just as an aside:

PROF. LAW SAID: “Even if we know we have otherwise generally trustworthy eyewitnesses with no axe to grind, them saying they saw Ted's dead grandmother in their sitting room is not not very good evidence that they did, despite the fact we cannot come up with a plausible-sounding prosaic explanation of why they would say such a thing if it were not true.”

Why would this not be good evidence?

To me, especially as a police officer, eminently credible, reliable, and trustworthy eyewitnesses are the best type of evidence that exists, and they are the type of evidence that win cases...which is why testimonial evidence, be it through eyewitnesses or a confession, are so often sought in court cases, rather than just physical evidence which is readily open to reasonable doubt.

So if a number of mentally-sane, seriously trustworthy eyewitness with no medical conditions affecting their sensory capacities, and with no axe to grind who knew Ted’s grandmother while she was alive told me that they saw Ted’s dead grandmother in their sitting room, I would count that as essentially the best form of evidence possible for such a claim…especially if those same eyewitnesses then suffered ridicule, mockery, and hardship for making the claim, and even more so if none of them ever recanted, not even under pressure, and if they were transformed by the experience (say from a hard-nosed materialist to a spiritualist), and if no prosaic explanation was readily forthcoming. This would be excellent evidence for any claim, no matter how unorthodox.

To me, the strangest thing would be anyone who thinks that this is not good evidence.

Take care,

RD Miksa

David B Marshall said...

Miksa: Thanks for your insight as a police officer. Now you have me wondering: did the "note in a bottle" story actually happen to someone you know?

Derek said...

Posted over at Christ the Tao as well.

Law tries to avoid the work of sifting the historical evidence. I would too if I was as bad at it as he is. Take his argument noted on Craig’s site:

http://www.reasonablefaith.org/stephen-law-on-the-non-existence-of-jesus-of-nazareth

Craig reports that Law said:

Law: I've never said, by the way, that I've never argued that Jesus doesn't exist.

Craig: No, I said you defended the claim. I was careful about that.

Law: That Jesus doesn't exist?

Craig: That—I said you defended the claim that—something to the effect that—Jesus of Nazareth didn't exist.

Law: No.

Craig: In your argument in your article in Faith and Philosophy, you give a seven point argument—

Law: Yeah . . . That's not my view. My view is—The argument that I gave in that piece in Faith and Philosophy journal was that it looks like there's a good philosophical case for remaining neutral. I mean, we just can't be sure one way or the other, and that's not at all the same thing as defending the view that Jesus wasn't a historical individual.

Craig: All right! So agnosticism about the reality of Jesus. . . . All right!


Law’s position is ridiculous, firstly, because his argument from the actual article is ridiculous. He argues (from the article):

http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2012/04/published-in-faith-and-philosophy-2011.html

“given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of independent evidence for an historical Jesus, remain sceptical about his existence.”

Ridiculous. Lots of people we know existed in ancient history (Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the Circle Drawer are both roughly contemporaneous with Jesus) had lots of miracle material attached to their life stories. What amount of miracle material is too much? What amount is acceptable? Barely more than sixty years ago Simon Kimbangu went about in Africa and was said to have done all kinds of miraculous things. Craig Keener's recent work on miracles talks about lots of historical figures, like the "mad monk" Rasputin of Russia, who were said to have worked miracles. Should this cast doubt on his existence? Law’s article shows he has no idea what he is talking about.

Given that, his argument that we should “remain skeptical” because we “can’t be sure one way or the other” is ridiculous, secondly, because 1) it is historical paranoia/deceptive (who really knows if Lincoln existed?) and 2) it ultimately boils down to obvious information that real historians already know: we need to sift the historical evidence, using the historical method, to develop both what best fits the evidence, and what least strains the evidence.

Given that Law is so off base with the critical scholarship (even atheist New Testament and scholars of ancient history in general), and given that he has shown such poor abilities concerning the mere existence of Jesus of Nazareth, there is no reason, at all, anyone, anywhere, should accept his analysis of the Resurrection. He has shown that he is both too biased and too ignorant of the relevant evidence/methods to weigh in on this issue.

David B Marshall said...

Derek: I would disagree slightly on two points. First, neither Honi nor Hanina worked miracles anything like those of Jesus, and can barely be called "miracle workers" at all.

Second, Rasputin is also a very bad parallel to Jesus, except in the limitted context of your argument, and that needs to be made clear. In Jesus and the Religions of Man, I describe five characteristics that distinguish "miracles" from "magic." I don't know if Keener does that (I've only read his second volume, so far): if he doesn't, it's a weakness, since there's so much confusion on the nature of miracle claims, which is also very historically relevant.

But your overall point (not the dig against Dr. Law's general history, which is not required by your argument) is I think spot-on. We know darn well that miracle claims are often made of people who are historical: I would go further and say they are often made IN PRIVATE by FRIENDS who are honest and highly credible, and witnessed the work of God personally. If everyone to whom a miracle happened were suddenly ahistorical, that would be like the rapture: whole villages would be depopulated, and cars would careen out of control on the highway.

RD Miksa said...

Good Day D. Marshall,

I apologize for my late reply.

No, that "message in a bottle" story did not actually happen.

However, I do have some other "very interesting" stories....

Take care,

RD Miksa