Thursday, September 06, 2012

Response to Law III

A few days ago, I responded to some of Dr. Stephen Law's arguments against the Resurrection, both here and on his blog.  Law answered back, and we went a few rounds, with helpful contributions from some readers. I think Law made a couple good points, but those points were almost lost in a cloud of rhetorical cliches, careless assertions, unexamined assumptions, and half-forgotten references.  In a way, I admire Law for wading in against (initially) unknown on-line opponents.  The tricky thing for an eminent scholar in these forums, is that one clearly can't take as much time in a casual conversation, as for, say, an exchange of ideas in a journal.  So one either has to opt out of such conversation, or risk a few hasty claims, from time to time. And the more eminent (therefore busy) one is, the more hasty one must be.  So I admire eminent scholars who wade into the fray, regardless of their dignity.  And I think it's a good idea to test one's ideas like this.

Anyway, I think Law's arguments, at least at this stage, do more to illustrate why the Resurrection is credible, than to undermine it.  Here I post an interesting recent round of debate from below in one place where it's easy to find, which also allows me to add highlighting and links, and hopefully make it more readable.   

Dr. Law responded later, and I'll probably post one more time, to give those arguments, and my probably shorter response. 

I. The "Principle of Dwindling Probabilities" 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.  I believe McGraw takes that into account in his rebuttal, as I think anyone should. 

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 necessarily 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 further supports its strength.  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. I will also give the links for the McGrew's evidential arguments for the Resurrection, below.

II.  Resurrection claims 

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.

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 who want to understand the nature of reality, we are obliged to take all important facts into account, regardless of the artificial constraints that modern court systems might properly operate under.  And certainly, from any reasonable perspective, the gospels and writings of Paul contain 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 argue as you are doing, here. 

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, his testimony 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 the mundane character of their report was not clear in your OP, which seemed to conflate claimed aliens with 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.  Apart from 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? 

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.  If you have, the dismissal seems a tad blustery.  If you haven't, it's premature.    

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 the bye and bye, I would argue he has redeemed the human race in many concrete historical ways.  (Lots more books to recommend, here.)  And that makes the Resurrection much more plausible than it had it been claimed of, 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 surprisingly likely.  With all due respect, I don't think your arguments so far show that E is remotely probable with respect to naturalism, though maybe you can make it seem a bit more so with more convincing examples. 

V.  Plantinga vs. McGrew

"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.

Possibly he says both, in different ways.  I see McGrew quotes him as I represented above:

That case isn't strong enough to produce warranted belief that the main lines of Christian teaching are true.

Elsewhere he seems to set the historical evidence at .6 to .8, which could be called either weak or strong. 

But rereading their second rebuttal (Timothy and Lydia McGrew, "On the Historical Argument: A Rejoinder to Plantinga," Philosophia Christi, 8/1: 23-38), I have to say, I think you need to read that one, too.  For 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 . . . (29)

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. (31)

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 . . . (31-32)

Plantinga's choice of Meier as an expert on the historical evidence for the resurrection is particularly unfortunate . . . (32)

On and on it goes.  Those are not "nits," those are bombs striking the central foundations of Plantinga's argument.  They might strike the foundations of your argument, too, if you don't take care to avoid them.  One good way of doing so would be for you to read and seriously consider the McGrew's longer argument for the probability of the resurrection in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, which can also be accessed here

(Dr. McGrew also reminded me this morning that his initial rebuttal of Plantinga on the historical evidence for the resurrection is actually this piece.) 

In fact this is also the sensible view of very many Christians, including even a significant proportion of Biblical scholars. Many of them will happily acknowledge the historical evidence for the resurrection is, at best, pretty weak."

True, many will.  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.  McGrew points out that John Meier, a Christian, simply refuses to historically evaluate the resurrection -- not it seems that unusual a stance to adopt. 

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?  Do you remember the 20th Century? 

My BA came by 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.  It is still the case that most atheists in the world come to atheism via Marxist fairy tales.

Nor, of course, is atheist gullibility limited 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 excursions into the history of religion, some would add, into psychology and sex.  We have a new outbreak of "Christ mythicism" with Richard Carrer. 

Quackery does not seem to even tend to privilege people who believe in gods. 

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?

No it doesn't, and I'm surprised that you would suggest such a thing.  How could it possibly follow, however weakly, from the fact that 100 million religious believers falsely believe Young Earth Creationism, that Marshall, who disbelieves YEC, is deluded about the resurrection?

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 behind this, that irreligious people are more reasonable than religious people, is as we have seen highly dubious, given all the daft beliefs hundreds of millions of atheists have bought into.  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 and 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 St. Paul and St/ Augustine recognized.   

But in addition, this argument underestimates the difficulty of getting people to convert out of religions, ideologies, or cultural belief systems, to which they are committed, personally or by writ of birth.  (Who seek, as Rodney Stark puts it, to "preserve their religious capital," and in some cases their very lives.)  It would take strong evidence to convince a Saudi to convert to Christianity, if he knows conversion will mean torture, loss of family, or even disrespect from the community.  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. 

There is, in the end, no substitute for studying the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus directly. 


David B Marshall said...

Kilo: I delete vitriolic rants. Come back as a rational human being, or not at all.

Derek said...

Hey Dr. Marshall,

I jumped over to this thread since the other one has a pretty decent amount of comments on it.

“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.”

Hanina was a healer (Keener reports that it was said when dies that there were “no workers of miracles left” in Israel, see p 63 of vol 1 of Miracles), and Honi was said to be able to influence the weather. The fact remains that they were both “miracle working” Jews who lived before and roughly contemporaneous with Jesus of Nazareth. The fact also remains that historians of ancient Israel do not doubt their historicity because of these miracle accounts (as you agree).

Still, you are correct that in our extant literature they are not recorded as having performed as many miracles as Jesus. But we know much less about these two than we do about Jesus. Much much less. Given Law’s reasoning we should be much more skeptical of their existences. But historians aren’t

“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.”

Fair enough. But just to drive the point home, there are many examples of men and women rumored to work lots of miracles (healings, exorcisms) who lived in just this last century, even in the current one! Keener documents these people along with the hundreds of people who say they witnessed healings, some more fantastic than even the Lord Jesus’, at the hand of these modern day miracle workers. Kimbangu is obviously one. But there are also people like T.L. and Daisy Osborn, Father Ralph DiOrio, and John Wimber (pp. 457-506). There are also earlier legends that heavily associate historical figures with miracles, like Saint George of Choziba. The issue becomes thornier when Law says something like:

“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.”

“Large proportion” in relation to what? What Law feels is a large proportion of miracle claims? How much is too much? Too little?”

Lots of those listed above could fit this description. I know you agree with me Dr. Marshall, but I’ll say it again just for fun:

It does not matter how much miracle (or magical?) material is attached to a person’s life. Historians take that information into consideration, sure. But its presence, whether in great or small quantities, does NOTHING to cast doubt on that figures historicity. That call needs to be made using other criteria that Law talks about in his article as well. Of course, I don’t agree with most of what he says, but hopefully I’ll get around to typing out a response to it for JP Holding’s Ticker blog.

“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.”

Keener does a pretty good job of separating “miracles” and “magic,” but I am enjoying reading your thought in the new posts.

“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.”

As to dig, all I can say is I, as a trained historian, don’t like people throwin’ the word “deluded” at other people just because the people they are throwing it at are following the extant historical evidence to the best, most reasonable conclusion: that Jesus was Resurrected.

David B Marshall said...

Derek: Fair enough on all of that. As someone who has worked on the mission field, and studied the history of missions, of course I agree that experience of miracles in general (maybe of some sorts) do nothing to render a figure less historically-probable. If they did, whole families would disappear, cars would kareen out of control on the Interstate, army posts would go unmanned, as millions of formerly real people disappeared, including a good proportion of the people I know. It would look a lot like the Rapture.

My point about Stephen Law is that I think the man deserves respect. Lots of people make historical mistakes (or show historical biases) without being generally bad at history, and anyway, one needn't say it.

Please call me David.

Derek said...

David (another congrats on the Dr part however),

We'll have to disagree that Law deserves respect. Like Holding says about Dawkins:

I think Law is using his influence in the atheist community to further the Christ-myth hypothesis. Like Dawkins, who doesn't actually commit to the hypothesis (saying in The God Delusion that it is possible to mount a "serious" case that Jesus did not exist), Law says that we SHOULD remain skeptical about his existence.

This is not a simple mistake. A simple mistake would be saying something like "Jesus was probably born in Alexandria" or "Jesus probably spoke only Greek." Law is way off base. Again, what Holding says about Dawkins, as far as I am concerned, equally applies to him:

"From the perspective of serious historians, the Christ myth is precisely that. It is a ‘staggering mistake’ and ‘no small error’–equivalent to someone believing, despite the evidence, that the width of North America from one coast to the other is only three centimeters, and that the continent itself is made of burnt toffee. Yet Dawkins willingly gives this fringe view a hearing and directs his readers to sources that advocate it."

Minus the "directing his readers to sources that advocate it" part. At least as far as I can see (the footnotes to his article aren't on his blog post).

David B Marshall said...

Derek: I can see that POV. However, given the 1st Century data, and atheist presuppositions, as Machen pointed out almost a century ago, cognitive dissonance will force some skeptics to impossible solutions (he was referring to Christ mythicism) to resolve the dissonance between their dogmatic expectations and the actual nature of the facts.

I frankly don't much care whether an atheist embraces mythicism, or some "more reasonable" means of reducing the tension. But maybe if I'd read the comments you're referring to, I'd cut Dr. Law less slack with his history.