Thursday, March 28, 2013

Fact-Checking Carrier II: Looking for Aliens

I now continue with a more detailed analysis of Richard Carrier's initial argument in our debate in Alabama last month, especially his attempted rebuttals of my arguments for Miracles, God, and Jesus.  This will be the second and probably final part, unless I decide to take another shot at Carrier's "Problem of Evil" argument.

Several posters have kindly responded to my request for alternative and, hopefully, better rebuttals. 
Here, by Darrin Rasberry, an Orthodox Christian.  Here, by John Fraser, a missionary who is educated in philosophy.  Matthew Schultz has posted his response in the comment section for Carrier's talk.  Steve Hays posted this response, and then decided to have a little fun with Carrier's remarkable remarks about how Jesus' raising of the dead might have just been psychosomatic.  Thanks, guys!  More responses may yet come in. 

Carrier's arguments below, even more than in the first part, are of the scatter-shot, blunderbluss variety, and do not seem aimed even roughly in the vicinity of my actual arguments he is attempting to rebut, as I will show.  Yet he claims, at the end of his talk, to have "rebutted every one of his arguments that's relevant to this debate."  I therefore allow myself, in a few cases, to offer somewhat flippant responses. 

Jesus and Space Aliens?

I want to give you another example. Is it reasonable to believe an alien spaceship was recovered at Roswell, New Mexico, and alien bodies were autopsied by the government? Books written within forty years of the event in 1947 claim dozens of witnesses saw these things and gave detailed narratives of them.

We don't have access to the original evidence in the case of Jesus. We only have the writings, forty years later, of the hard-core believers. This is like only having the books of the hardcore believers in the Roswell spaceship and alien autopsies. Yet it is not reasonable to believe them, so it is not reasonable to believe the gospels. Books written 40 years later by fanatical believers just aren't reasonable evidence. We can't rely on them. We need the original evidence, or evidence we can directly confirm now. But we have no access to that anymore. We therefore cannot reasonably believe in Christianity based on its unverifiable faith literature. We need more reliable evidence than that, just as we would need more reliable evidence to believe in alien autopsies and space ships.

This is an "off-the-shelf" argument.  Richard is not interacting with my actual arguments for the gospels in any way, in these two paragraphs.  There is, therefore, no need to address anything here. 

I have, anyway, addressed the Argument From UFOs in the past on this blog, in going over some of the same issues with the philosopher Stephen Law, here.  I think the weakness of the analogy is evident.  One must remember that "aliens did it" is a different kind of hypothesis from "God did it," and must therefore be appraised according to its own assumptions.   One must ask questions like, "Are there any aliens?" "Do they live within a few lightyears of Earth?" "Could they have traveled here in less than thousands of years, without expending the resources of the galaxy to accelerate to a considerable fraction of the speed of light, then deccelerate?" "What about space debris?"  "If they had the advanced technology that it would take to get here safely in any reasonable amount of time -- or even unreasonable amount -- why don't they make a bigger splash?"  "Did they just come to see the Grand Canyon?" 

In addition, of course, to the purely historical questions about the evidence at Roswell itself. 

The Outsider Argument Against Miracles?

Let's talk about this thing called miracles. He gave several stories about lucky coincidences, and people experiencing a supernatural. People of all religious faiths can make those claims. If he could actually present scientific evidence that only Christians have those kinds of experiences, that only Christians experience supernatural aid, that only Christians experience lucky coincidences, then he might have a case.
The issue before us that evening was "Is the Christian Faith Reasonable?"  I offered three arguments in favor of that claim: (1) Miracles make belief in the supernatural credible, a Richard Carrier concedes would be the case in theory in his own writings.  (2) The anthropological transcendence of God makes believe in God credible, for reasons given by Durkheim, Dawkins, and to some extent Carrier in their writings.  (3) The person of Jesus makes Christian theism credible, for reasons given by a variety of scholars, but also clear to many ordinary readers. 
If Carrier wanted to argue that Buddhism or Islam was also credible, he was of course free to do so, though that would seem tangential to the evening's topic.  But blanketly asserting, "Miracles seem to happen in every tradition, so all traditions must be wrong" is weak both empirically and in terms of logic. 
Does Richard think miracles really happen in other traditions, or not?  If he does, why does he remain an atheist?  If he does not, why do the non-occurance of miracles in other traditions count as a strike against Christianity?  Or their occurance, for that matter?  My argument was not, "Miracles occur, therefore the Apostles' Creed."

Again, Carrier seems to be simply throwing out a popular skeptical argument on reflex, without trying to "customize" it to the particular argument I gave.  In this case, his argument seems to belong to the genre of "Outsider Tests for Faith" (OTF), popularized by Carrier's sometime colleague, John Loftus. 

See my review of Loftus' new book on Amazon for a brief rebuttal of the general scheme.  For a longer analysis, please read my chapter on the OTF in True Reason, which is also due to come out as an article in Touchstone Magazine, in slightly different form, this spring.  The Christian theology of world religions is my academic field, so my views on the OTF may have been worth Carrier's time to read before we debated. 

Miracles: One in a Billion?

To give you an example, he talked about an Imam who heard a voice to say, "Follow Jesus." Now if everyone got that voice, if everyone on Earth heard a voice to follow Jesus, then you'd have a case. But instead, we're talking about a one-in-a-billion example, here.
No, we're not.  I deliberately chose a few examples of people I have met personally, precisely so that Richard couldn't say that.  If I have personally met a hundred or two hundred people who have converted to Christianity because of miracles, then the odds are already a whole lot higher than one-in-a-billion. 
In fact, millions of Muslims have converted to Christianity in the past few decades.  Most of those I have personally met, did so because of blatant miracles.  So it's not one-in-a-billion, it's one out of millions. 
If something like that happens so rarely, it looks a lot more like random coincidence or something that's not divine. If it happened to everybody then you'd have a case that maybe there might be something special going on.
Miracles seem to lie somewhere between "so rarely" and "happens to everyone."  They occur more in the pattern one finds in Scripture, in fact.  Miracles are rare enough to amaze people, as they always do in the gospels.  But they seem to have been common enough to change the world. 
One of Carrier's favorite arguments is, "If I were God, this is how I would do things.  That isn't how things actually happened, though, so there is no God."
The unspoken premise here is, "I know how a real God would do things -- just the way I think he should."
But that seems a highly questionable premise.  Columbia University is a prestigious school, but an omnipotent God is not likely to hire advisors even from among their successful doctoral candidates.   

Miracles: Do They All Fall Apart?

Just read the books of Joe Nickel. Joe Nickel has written many books about this. He actually investigates these miracle stories and finds that in reality, the evidence doesn't hold up. People's memories are often out of alignment with what really happened. Or the stories aren't true to begin with. So we can't really rely on these kinds of things.

I haven't read the books of Joe Nickel.  But if peoples' memories about the events in their lives that mattered to them most are so out of wack, how do we know Richard Carrier's memory of what he read in those books is accurate? 

Maybe Joe Nickel really writes detective novels based in Aukland, New Zealand.  Or Cajun cook books.  Or intimate biographies of mining magnates in Canada's New Territories.

But again, I was there for the hamburger incident, and other, similiar incidents.  And yes it did happen the way I related it.  And whoever Nickel is, and wherever he has been, I have no reason to believe all these people have entirely garbled the most important events that happened to them in their lives. 

Let me repeat the response I gave later in the debate: Carrier claims to be able to disprove all miracles, when a dozen of the best academic skeptics of the Resurrection have all lost debates with William Lane Craig trying to disprove just one of them.   

Miracles: still no rebuttals, just flights of fancy

Let's be honest here. You don't really trust these kinds of things. If I gave you a book that claimed that Gandhi flew through the sky with the devil, battled demons, cured the blind with magical mud, stopped hurricanes with a single command, cast spells that made dinner materialize out of thin air, levitated at will, transmutated substances with a gesture, and survived a month without eating a single morsel, would you believe that book? No, you would not. And you wouldn't make excuses for why you should believe it. You'd know it's bunk, you wouldn't need to research it.

Actually, I think Gandhi probably did go a month without eating.  It can be and sometimes is done, even without any miraculous powers. 

Gandhi was admirable in many ways, but he was no Jesus, as I expect he might have admitted.  He was a great admirer of Jesus, who learned much from him, and who would have scoffed at Richard's claim (below) that there was nothing special about the man.  But no, he was not the savior of the world, and one should not expect too much of him. 

Of course, Jesus didn't "fly through the sky with the devil." Nor did he "battle demons:" he rebuked them, and they came out. (One meets people in the 21st Century who have done that.) Nor was the mud "magical:" it was ordinary mud, and God who healed the blind man.

But Carrier is just begging the question. 

And this would be the case especially when you asked me who wrote the book and I told you I wasn't sure. I don't really know. Even more especially when you asked where the mysterious author of this book learned of these things, and I told you, he never really says. It is simply not reasonable to believe books like this, and there is simply no way to honestly gainsay that fact. You would not trust such a book from any other religion. And yet the book I just described is the New Testament. The gospels claim that Jesus did all these things that I just mentioned there. It even narrates them.

You wouldn't believe such a book about Gandhi. Why would you believe such a book about Jesus?

Again, Carrier fails to interact with my actual argument here, which is based on the unique and historically-credible character of Jesus as transmitted through the gospels.  My argument is not, "There are such books, therefore we must believe them."  Nor is it, "We know for certain who wrote these books, therefore we must believe them."  I based my argument on the character of the evidence, not its provenance.

God: does he transcend cultures?   
Dr. Marshall also talked about the idea of God transcending all cultures. Of course this is just God, not Christianity. That actually kind of refutes his case. If Christianity were reasonable then the Christian faith would transcend all cultures. It does not. Different gods, different religions transcend all cultures. So really that's evidence against Christianity. If Christianity were true, everybody would have been hearing the Gospel from God since the first shaman 40,000 years ago. But that's not the case.

Here Carrier shows even less evidence of understanding my actual argument.  In a sense, I feel for him: this may not be an argument he is familiar with, and he doesn't seem to know what to do with it.  But then again, I've made this argument at least in part, in three of my books: True Son of Heaven, Jesus and the Religions of Man, and (short version) The Truth Behind the New Atheism.  Perhaps Carrier should have read one of those books. 

The first Christian to point to the fact that the Judeo-Christian God transcends culture may have been the Apostle Paul.  He seemed to make that part of his argument at Mars Hill in Athens, borrowing from Stoic writings that reflect belief in a God greater than deities like Mars himself. 

Augustine predicted, sort of following Paul in Romans 1, that awareness of God would be found in all four directions of the globe.  And so it has been, as James Legge, Andrew Lang, and others began to show (contradicting secularists like David Hume and Edward Tylor), in the late 19th Century. 

Why should the fact that this Christian tenet has proven true, somehow disconfirm Christianity? 

Anyway, Carrier forgets that I began by showing that the argument I am making here, is his own, and one also put forward by Richard Dawkins, Emile Durkheim, and (let me add now) Dan Dennett.  I quoted the first three men in my opening talk. 

The skeptical argument is that if God were real, he would transcend any given culture.  But he does not transcend any given culture.  He is the creation of Jewish culture.  This allegedly shows that he is not real, just a cultural artifact. 

That is their argument.  I merely pointing out that one of the premises needs to be changed, which also changes the conclusion. 

God does transcend particular cultures. 

Therefore  (by their own reasoning) God would seem to be real. 
Another culturally transcendent theory?
Now I should also point out that the Flat Earth Theory and the Geocentric Theory once transcended all cultures, and those also turned out to be false. So transcending all cultures is not a hot recommendation for being true.

Well, then, Carrier should take himself to task, for making that argument.  Also Durkheim, Dawkins, and Dennett. 

Obviously, I am not claiming that cultural transcendence  absolutely proves God to be real.  But all things being equal, as these skeptics recognize when they think the premises work in their favor, the fact that a recognizably similar God can be found in hundreds of cultures on all inhabited continents, does make His reality far more credible.  The facts that this was predicted by the Bible, and that God in many cultures is also distant and forgotten because of sin as also predicted by the Bible (Lang and others show all this), increases the credibility of this ancient Christian argument. 

We also happen to know the psychological mechanisms that lead to belief in God, and belief in the supernatural. Read Guthrie's book Faces in the Clouds, for example. We know a lot about this, how the brain gets tricked into this, and why some of these beliefs transcend all cultures. And I (can) also point out that atheism transcends all cultures, not only because we have been communicating our ideas across all cultures, but even independently, atheism has arisen in several cultures. So if atheism transcends all cultures, does that mean atheism is true? I would say, it doesn't mean atheism is true, you need more evidence than that. Therefore, transcending cultures is not relevant.

Atheism is not a positive belief.  If people in many cultures on a certain planet report seeing a moon circling that planet and describe it in such a way that we recognize that moon as being one and the same object, then that may well be evidence for the reality of such a satellite.  But if a much smaller number of people in a few countries on the same planet, say they look into the sky and never see the moon, it is possible the majority is deluded or mistaken.  It is also possible that the minority lives where it's always cloudy, or they are blind, or perhaps the moon is in tidal lock around the planet, and only appears to some people and not others. Or maybe it's a small moon, like one of Mars, and can't be seen easily. 

We wouldn't automatically throw out the reports of the many who see an object that matches description across many cultures, just because a few people don't see it. 

A better analogy might be to a person.  If ten people independantly claim they have met a certain person, and describe her height, shape, skin color, occupation, biography, ancestry, and likes and dislikes in fairly consistent terms, then you may reasonably conclude that such a person really does exist.  That you meet an eleventh person who admits he has never met such a person, need not dissuade you. 

Jesus: the character of his teaching

He talks about the eloquence and beauty of Jesus' statements in the gospels. I find this a typical view of Christians who are somehow enamored of the gospels. I read a lot of ancient philosophy from a lot of ancient philosophers. And in fact, I find them much more eloquent and beautiful. I think there are things in Seneca, there are things in Musofeus Rufus, that are much more brilliant, much more deeply argued, much more beautiful, and much more eloquent, for sure. And there are many other Greek and Roman philosophers that are more impressive than the gospels. If you want to see examples, I've written about Musonius Rufus, I've even written about Jesus as a philosopher. You can google "Jesus" "philosopher" and "Richard Carrier" and you'll probably find those writings.

Read the philosophers I talked about and compare them to Jesus, and you'll see that there isn't anything actually special about Jesus. There isn't anything divinely great or more eloquent or more beautiful than the things that were being thought of by humans throughout history.

I think I give a decent response to this argument later in the debate, and don't need to repeat that here. 

But let me just ask the obvious question: Who cares what Richard Carrier thinks about the quality of Jesus' teaching?   I've already cited some of the most eminent scholars in the field, who come to diametrically opposite conclusions.  I'm not just giving my own opinion.  Also, I preempted part of Carrier's objection, by citing not just "Christians," but also radically anti-Christian scholars,and thinkers, like Robert Funk, John Crossan, Marcus Borg, and Thomas Jefferson.  And I will cite more of them later. 

Does Dr. Carrier claim his own impressions are more to be trusted that those of these men? 

Nor am I making so simplistic an argument as Carrier seems to think.  It's not that "These teachings are beautiful, therefore Christianity is true."  It's that the gospels hold 50 characteristics, 26 of which support their essential historicity.  The transcendent quality of Jesus' teaching, which Marcus Borg and others (Jefferson, Renan) recognize, is one clue to the essential historicity of the gospels.  That's the argument, in short. 

Jesus' Miracles

How much time do I have left? ("Three minutes.")

All right.

Well, I've rebutted every one of his arguments that's relevant to this debate.  So let me see if there's something else I can talk about.

The famous Carrier swagger.  This is quite untrue, though, as shown in this and the earlier blog. 

Let's get back to the gospels, and the idea that the miracles in them are somehow believable.

They're not.

This is an important point. The gospels not only claim Jesus walked on water, by the way, they claim Peter did as well. So let's take that as an example, here. If you believe that actually happened, I'm sorry, but you're being unreasonably gullible. Notice that we don't get to see this walking on water. Nor do we get to know who told that story of it. And notice how it only ever happened once, conveniently in private.

Well, with a dozen witnesses, if that's what you mean by "private."  And most of Jesus' miracles were done in front of crowds, often very large crowds.

If any Christians, then or now, could walk on water, like regularly, like this is something Christians could do as soon as they had enough faith, then Dr. Marshall here might have an argument. But no. Christians can't walk on water, or do anything miraculous at all, anymore miraculously than any other faith tradition can, pagan or otherwise.

Carrier is conflating miracles with fantasy-book magic, like a Harry Potter novel.  Harry Potter can always fly on a broomstick.  But miracles are not special powers possessed by the person who experiences them.  They are acts of God. 

To refute a phenomena, one must deal with the purported nature of that phenomena.   

When we see stories from religious fanatics about amazing powers that no one can ever reproduce, those are the kinds of stories we don't believe. We don't believe loading magical weapons defended the Greek temple of Delphi all by themselves. Yet within forty years of that, Herodotus claims witnesses said they did. It simply isn't reasonable to believe such claims. That the gospels contain such dubious tales, not only proves they aren't reliable, it proves their authors couldn't tell the difference between a true story and a false one. They just wrote down anything they wanted, or whatever they were told. It's not reasonable to believe an author like that, when nothing they claim can be reproduced.

And I'll end up my case there.

Here Carrier is, again, just begging the question.  He thinks he's made a case somehow against my argument for miracles, but he hasn't.

I didn't say anything about 40 years, because I realize false reports of miracles, or murder, mumps or melon-snatching, can arise in four minutes.  The fact that the gospels were written within the plausible life-span of the first disciples is one of 50 characteristics that help define the gospels, and one of 26 that make them historically credible, in my book.  But the timing of the gospels, while obviously relevant to their historicity, didn't happen to be a characteristic I mentioned in my opening argument. 

And actually, the gospels do not contain stories about temples miraculously defending themselves.  Again, telling stories from Herodotus that do not resemble the miracles of the gospels (as I argue later), and that Carrier does not believe, is a strange way to disprove either modern or ancient Christian miracles.  


All in all, then, while Dr. Carrier gave what I felt was a strong opening Argument From Evil, one that I feel to my bones, I don't think he laid a glove on any of my own opening arguments for the Christian faith.  To a surprising extent, it often seemed that he was arguing against someone else.  I said nothing about 40 years.  I made no argument from the "beauty of Jesus' language" per se.  I didn't claim that miracles alone prove Christianity.  I cited Carrier, Dawkins, and Durkheim on why a culturally-transcendent God is credible, but Carrier treated the argument as if it were mine alone, forgetting his own previous assent.  I cited non-Christians on the character of the gospels, but Carrier represented my view as being common only among Christians. 

There are more fundamental weaknesses with Carrier's response, which come up later in debate.  But while Carrier gave me a lot to respond to in a short time, I was partly gratified and a little taken aback, to see my three positive arguments for Christianity pass through 20 minutes of fast-talking critique by so clever and widely-read a person as Dr. Carrier, with nary a scratch on any of them.  Of course that does not mean they succeed, but it is encouraging.      


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