Friday, April 05, 2013

Marshall vs. Carrier: Dr. McCoy helps fact-check 1st rebuttals

I'll offer some brief comments and corrections here, then deal with Carrier's more important claims, especially his attempts to find parallels to the gospels, in a later, longer post (or two).  I asked "Bones" to help with the final bit of fact-checking, because Spock was temporarily in another temporal dimension, but as so often been the case of late, left his logic behind. 

1.  Do God or Miracles matter to whether Christianity is credible (revisited)? 

Carrier: The question of whether or not God exists is not relevant to this debate for a simple reason. Pick any other religion - say, Islam, it doesn't matter. If the Islamic faith is reasonable, then Christianity is not. The point is, whether God exists or not, doesn't tell you whether Christianity has the right bead on him. Maybe some other religion does, maybe no religion has the correct bead on God. So the existence of God is not relevant. (1)

The existence of the supernatural is not relevant (1). What we want to know is whether the Christian faith itself is reasonable, and that's the only thing we're debating here today. Obviously we can't debate every conceivable proposition, every single question, in one debate. So that's not relevant. I don't need to address those arguments for this debate.  

As pointed out earlier, Carrier is confusing "relevant" with "decisive."  The reality of miracles and of God are intensely relevant to the truth of Christianity.  If miracles don't happen, and God doesn't exist, Christianity cannot possibly be true.  If they do, and He does, then it is much more likely that Christianity is true.  These two facts are necessary, though not sufficient, facts for the truth of Christianity -- and therefore, of great relevance, to put it mildly. 

And of course I have not forgotten, nor have those watching, that my opponent and most of his supporters are atheists.  Obviously, if miracles happen and God exists, they will have to look for a new worldview, which leaves Ratio Christi or the dignified Muslim lady who tried to hijack the Q and A session afterwards two potentially viable alternatives.

2. Are the Sizzling Fish relevant?

He talks about, on another occasion where I wrote about the mass resurrection of fish. That's not relevant to this debate, either (2). It's not an argument I made in this debate. He needs to respond to argument I'm making here in this debate. That's a fallacy called a red herring, trying to distract you from the fact that I didn't make that argument in this debate.

Also as pointed out earlier, Carrier does in fact bring that argument up earlier in the debate, when he refers readers to five essays he has written for John Loftus.  His only real argument against any of my points in this debate in those five essays, is his comparison of wacky "miracles" like the Sizzling Fish to the miracles of the gospels. 

I made the character of miracles in the gospels part of one of my arguments for the credibility of the gospels.  I argue that gospel miracles are quite distinct from miracles Carrier and others try to compare them with, and the likes of Sizzling Fish and Talking Dogs and Peter Flying Without a Broomstick are so different, that they should be called something else.  And the actual characteristics of the real gospels (overlooked by the likes of Carrier) make them more credible. 

But to give Carrier credit, that was a great line about the herring. 

3. Are Craig's debate victories on the Resurrection relevant? 

He also brings up the fact that I claim I lost the debate to William Lane Craig, and various other people have lost debates to William Lane Craig, therefore Christianity is reasonable, is kind of the implication. That's taken out of context, of course. I said I ran out of time. I didn't have time to rebut all of William Craig's arguments. So by the measure of whether you get all the rebuttals in under the clock or not, I did technically lose that debate. But that has nothing to do with whether William Lane Craig was right, or whether Christianity is reasonable.(3) And this is how Craig wins debates, generally. He gives enough arguments, tons and tons of arguments, using the shotgun effect, so that his rebutter, his opponent, doesn't have enough time to rebut them all before the clock runs out.  

Here, Carrier's own editor, John Loftus: "I think skeptics are in “scared mode” after watching Hitchens and Carrier both lose to Craig . .  ."

Elsewhere Loftus explains Craig's advantages: he's wrong, Loftus thinks, but has been doing debates since he was in high school, and is  also master of the material.  But I took pains to point out that I was not singling Carrier out: a dozen or so more eminent skeptical New Testament scholars have also lost to Craig in debating the Resurrection.  Muelhauser admits that Craig's wins in debates over the Resurrection not just because of his debating skills, but because he forcefully presents effective arguments.  

But the point, which Carrier understandably takes personally, is not really about Carrier, nor about Craig.  Nor is the point about oral debates generally -- Christian books on this subject, like NT Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God, are also hard to rebut.  The real point is about miracles, of which the Resurrection of Jesus is the most famous, most-debated ever.  If Top Guns in the academic chart, skeptical philosophers and historians of great prominence and erudition, cannot dislodge one single miracle from the Christian record, anyone who claims that when checked into, ALL miracles turn out to be bogus, can be dismissed as engaging in wishful thinking. 

4.  Are the gospels just the same as other "faith literature?" 

Now everything he says about the gospels is true of all kinds of faith literature in all religions.  He picks on certain kinds of examples that look different from the gospels. But that's special pleading. He's picking certain examples through selection bias to make his argument.  

There are other examples that look more like the gospels, for example, the Book of Tobit. Or Plutarch's biography of Romulus. Or Philostratus' biography of Apollonius of Tyana. There are a lot of these examples of faith literature that look more like the gospels.  And if you wanted me to sit down and research and find the most similiar example, I could. But it's not necessary. There's plenty of examples like this that have all the characteristics of the gospels.  

Carrier makes a few major claims about the gospels, and their relationship to other ancient literature, here: (a) That "all kinds of faith literature" share all the characteristics I noted about the gospels.  (b) That I chose particular examples to make my case.  (c) That three particular books "look more like the gospels."  (Not knowing that one of those books was among those I compared, actually, and that it came up looking very, very different.)  (d) Not only that this "faith literature" resembles the gospels on the characteristics I mentioned, but that "plenty of" works share ALL the characteristics of the gospels.

These claims merit careful analysis.  (Apart from the last one, which strictly speaking cannot be true even in theory, since if a non-gospel work shared ALL the characteristics of a gospel, it would itself be a gospel, and therefore not a non-gospel work.  But of course my own oral arguments would be vulnerable to the same sort of nit-picking, so let's not take that too literally.) 

As we shall see, the fact that such alleged "parallels" are the best Carrier (or other skeptics) can offer (and he does no worse than others in this regard), shows in C. S. Lewis' immortal words:

"These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can't see an elephant ten yards way in broad daylight."

The elephant, the true nature of the gospels and Jesus who inhabits them, will be the major point of those posts. 

(5) Gandhi Returns

Again, if I gave you a book about Gandhi, having all the same attributes that he claims the gospels have, with all those same miracles I was talking about, you still wouldn't believe it.  Because you can be objective about that, and agree that it still wouldn't be reasonable to believe stories like that. But you can't even verify who wrote those stories -- much less, what their sources were, or that the stories were true.

Here, again, Carrier is begging the question, and also contradicting his alternative approach to discounting the miracles of Jesus.  One approach is to claim Jesus did nothing extraordinary, didn't heal anyone who was really, really sick -- it was all just psychosomatic.  The other is to claim Jesus did such flagrantly fantastic deeds -- walking on water, stilling storms, feeding the 5000 and the like -- that come on, we all know that kind of stuff doesn't happen, imagine someone claiming it of Gandhi, or if you read it in Herodotus!

These two approaches contradict each other, and also the facts.  In truth, Jesus' miracles are of a different character from those of Herodotus, etc, as I have already pointed out with the five characteristics.  Carrier does not respond to this point, apparently because he has not noticed it before. But obviously, they also go far beyond the plausible realm of the psychosomatic -- not just feeding 5000, but bringing the dead to life, curing a man who has been blind since birth, etc. 

To scoff and say, "Come on!  You don't really believe that!"  Is begging the question, assuming materialistic dogmas that Carrier desires to prove.  And of course Gandhi was not Jesus -- in some ways, he was a follower of Jesus. 

(6) Miracles in Other Religions, Revisited

Now let's get back to the issue of other religions. If other religions can do miracles, and they can, supposedly -- all religious traditions have miracle traditions -- then it cannot be argued that Christianity is any more reasonable than those religions. You can't appeal to the fact that Christians can witness miracles, as evidence for Christianity. If only Christians could perform miracles, and we could verify that, then you might have a case. But we don't have that kind of evidence.

Carrier is missing several important points, here.  First, I never claimed that the fact of miracles by itself proves Christianity is true.  But belief in the supernatural is part of Christianity, and something that separates Carrier and his atheist fans, who seemed to make up a large part of our common audience, from faith in Jesus. It was both rational and relevant to try to remove that barrier.

Second, Carrier is equivocating between (a) some religions can do miracles and (b) some religions claim to do miracles.  I have argued to this point for (a), real miracles occur in the Christian tradition.  Responding with (b) is no answer at all.  While if Carrier believes (a), he should stop calling himself an atheist.

Third, as noted already, there is no reason for me to fall in with Carrier's straw man description of how Christians see other religions.  If God does miracles in other religions, why should that bother me?  If God had, at some point, allowed Gandhi to, say, heal a blind man, why should I object?  Our friend Margaret Brand healed many blind people in India as a missionary optometrist: and the Brands never seemed to mind when people of other religions participated in God's work by doing good deeds.  Why should God?

But fourth, the nature and meaning of the miracles is at least as important as the fact of them, even given good historical evidence.  (Which Carrier has not offered.)  As C. S. Lewis pointed out, if God allowed some relatively kind Roman emperor to heal someone once, so what?  But that is not the same as the records of Jesus going around villages and healing people by the hundreds as an announcement of the Kingdom of God:

"Are you he he was to come, or should we look for another?"

"The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.  And blessed is he, whoever shall not be offended in me. (Matthew 11:3-5)

The people of Israel seemed to think Jesus' miracles were of special significance, of so, of course, would anyone who saw them.  And skeptics who search for genuine parallels in the ancient world (no, Apollonius does not work, and neither does Honi the Circle-Drawer), have come up surprisingly dry. 

(7) Just these criteria for belief?

For the Christian faith to be reasonable, we have to look for evidence that meets three criteria at least: (a) It has to be only true for Christianity, and not other religions. (b) We can actually verify that it's true. (c) It indicates knowledge or power beyond what humans of that time could have already had. (8) We just don't have any evidence like that. And he hasn't presented any.

Why should we accept these criteria?

(a) It may be that more than one religion is reasonable.  In theory, there might be two great sages in the world, who give strong evidence for their sagehood or divine calling, and whose message seems worthy.  In that case, it might be reasonable to believe either of them.  Perhaps one might choose by accident of birth or friendship, or some smaller bit of evidence might tip the scales betwen them.

It may be that God really has called more than one great teacher, besides his Son.

This is a matter for empirical observation, not for atheists to come along and play off teams against one another, as if we were all participants in a cut-throat spiritual Hunger Game.  But if any real miracle occurs in any tradition, and they seem to, atheism is sunk.  (And the fact that they seem to, Carrier has already conceded as I have shown, is enough by itself to make some sort of faith reasonable.)

(b) I tend to agree that verifying a belief with evidence makes it more reasonable.  I'm not sure that it is absolutely necessary, with Alvin Plantinga arguing that it need not be.  But I agree it's helpful, which is why I gave some evidence for Christianity in my opening statement.

(c) Certainly Jesus showed power beyond what the people of his time had.  This is obvious from how his audience (and those he cured) reacted: "Since the beginning of time, no one has ever heard of someone curing the eyes of a man born blind!"  Carrier's "psychosomatic" evasion underlines that fact, rather than discrediting it.

But there is no reason to suppose Christianity can only be supported by evidence in the form of (a) or (c).  As I also pointed out in my opening statement, I and other Christians have in fact offered a number of other arguments for the Christian faith.  And the character of Jesus, the quality of his teaching, the coherence of the faith, its value in changing the world as prophesied, Jesus' fulfillment of prophecies, the way the Gospel fulfills truths in world traditions -- Carrier either asks us to discount such arguments a priori, for some reason, or is not apparently familiar with them.

(8) Was Jesus uniquely kind?   
He talks, for example, about Jesus noticing individuals, about that being unusual. I don't see that as being unusual. There are lots of stories in the ancient world -- Apollonius of Tyana notices individuals.  Pliny the Younger notives individuals. You can pick just about any kind of genre of writing and find examples of people noticing and interacting with individuals and having compassion on them. There's an example from Isis' cult, Apolleus in The Golden Ass, which is often praised by classicists as showing an unusual amount of compassion to the subjects, including slaves and animals. Because what happens to the hero is, he turns into a donkey, and he goes through all the experiences of a donkey. And it relates all the suffering and misery and abuse he endures as a donkey, showing sympathy even for animals. We don't get that from Jesus, of course.

He talks about the way Jesus treated women as being unique. That's not even remotely true. If you read the writings of Musonius Rufus again, or Epicurus, they actually have more enlightened and more extensive feminist views about women, judging by the standards of the ancient world. So that's not an exceptional case.

I don't think Richard is quite following my argument, here.  That's understandable, it's not the most common approach to the gospels.

What I did was analyze 50 characteristics that define the gospels, according to setting, morality, character development, social qualities, literary qualities, pedagogical qualities, and theology.  I separate these qualities in two ways: (1) those traits that relate to historicity, versus those that do not; and (2) theological traits, versus non-theological traits.

The fact that Jesus noticed people, and treated women (not philosophized about women, as Musonius Rufus did) with particular dignity, is not a direct argument for the truth of Christianity.  The point, rather, is that these characteristics are two out of 26 that support the historicity of the gospels.  As Jesus Seminar scholar Walter Wink has pointed out:

"In every single encounter with women in the four gospels, Jesus violate the mores of his time." (Engaging the Powers, 129)

The fact that Rufus or Epicurus also had an unusually (Carrier admits) positive view of females makes Jesus actual behavior slightly less astounding.  But that behavior is still a very good reason to trust the gospels' account of Jesus.  Either all our sources on Jesus independently decided to make him that rare creature, an ancient man who understood, sympathized with, yet also deeply challenged the women in his life to higher callings.  (And they were all feminists!)  Or they recorded facts about Jesus that are independent of any theological points they made, because Jesus really was like that, and we can trust the gospels even on such a detail.

It is simply not credible that several different early Christian scholars independently made up a Jesus who acted like that.  It is far more credible that Jesus was really like that, and that is why he is reported as doing those things. 

(9) Jesus and Germs, again

So the arguments he made just don't hold up the reasonableness of Christianity. And he didn't give an adequate response to the problem, not just that diseases are here and Jesus didn't do anything about them, but more importantly, Jesus didn't know about them. And that's really the key issue, here. Jesus had no idea about germs. He had no idea about parasites. If you read the gospels, it looks like he assidously avoided encountering anyone with malaria, typhoid or tuberculosis, much less curing those diseases, much less telling people very simple pieces on information they could have had, to fight those diseases. The basic fact that germs exist. The basic fact that pasteurizing milk is a good idea. The basic ideas about how to combat malaria through combatting mosquitoes. Jesus didn't know these things. That means that Jesus is an ordinary human, which means that Christianity is not a reasonable religion.  It's based about what an ordinary guy said, or was said about an ordinary guy. So we just don't have a case, based on that.

Perhaps Carrier's second-most astounding claim in the debate, or first: that Jesus was an "ordinary guy." Carrier admits otherwise, when he scoffs at the non-psychosomatic miracles of the gospels.

But as I showed earlier, in fact Jesus did NOT "assiduously avoid" encountering people with those diseases, or curing them.  A few miracles are highlighted, and those are obviously life-changing and naturally inexplicable events.  Far more miracles are mentioned in passing -- "Jesus cured everyone who came to him," and glosses like that.  If may be that the evangelists simply chose not to highly many people with fever or the runs, perhaps on the contrary because their diseases seemed less spectacular, or out of delicacy.  But the vast majority of miracles in the gospels are mentioned in general overviews. 

(10) Outsider Test for Faith Against Miracles

And again, if we get to those criteria that I was talking about -- it's only true for Christianity and not other religions. Did Jesus cure all the diseases in the world? Do Christians now consistently have the ability to cure unusual and lethal diseases? Do we have faith healing wings in hospitals, and is it only Christians who can work in those wings? No, these things aren't true. So we don't have any actual evidence that Christianity is any more true than any other religion on the planet. And that's what makes Christianity not a reasonable faith. (13)

Here Carrier seems to be assuming again that if God doesn't do things exactly the way he would do them, there is no God.  If Jesus doesn't do what he thinks he would do, Jesus can't be from God.

But obviously even if the premises are true (some might say that every wing is a faith healing wing), lack of one particular form of evidence, hardly justifies the concluson, "so we don't have any actual evidence that Christianity is more true . . . "

This is like cutting a cherry tree down because it fails to yield apples. 

(11) Should Dr. McCoy banish all diseases?

And I'll revisit the point I made about the time traveler. If you went back in time, you would do these things You would tell them about germ theory. You would tell them about how to fight malaria. You would tell them about pasteurizing milk. So how could you have more information, and be more compassionate, than the Christian God, or than Jesus? It doesn't make any sense. Unless, of course, Jesus didn't know about those things, and then, at least, he has an excuse.

Are you sure?  Knowing that, if you changed the past, you yourself would almost certainly never live?  And would it be purely selfish on your part if you declined?  Or does the Prime Directive from the Star Trek TV series perhaps make some sense -- let civilizations develop in their own way and time?

Jesus described the church as being like a tree growing from a seed.  If Jesus cured everyone instantly, Christianity would instead take off like a field of grass, from everywhere, instantly.  Would human beings have freedom to believe or not believe, in that case?  Would we be acting with dignity on our own, as stewards of our planet, learning, growing, and figuring out how the world works?  Or would life on this planet be somehow different, not necessarily all better, as if the Boss were breathing down our necks?  (And they call us Christians sheep!)

I like trees. I like history.  I like freedom.  With all due respect to Carrier's suggestion, I don't think determining history is such a simple matter as he assumes.  It may well be that the plans of God are better, though wrapped in admitted mystery, than the plans of a Doctor of philosophy in history from Columbia University. 

(12) So much time, so few arguments to answer.

How much time do I have?

(Three minutes.)

This doesn't usually happen. I rebut all the arguments before the clock runs out It's the exact opposite of William Lane Craig.

I basically made all my points, so I'm going to have to sit down. There's nothing more to say.

True, I only offered three arguments.  And only one of those went specifically to support Christianity as opposed to other theistic religions.  (Aside from the fact that all the modern miracles I related occurred in the Christian tradition, and that Christianity had predicted culturally-transcendent awareness of God, as atheists themselves, including Carrier, demanded, while Humanists, like Hume, guessed wrong.)

But in reality, Carrier hasn't engage seriously with any of my arguments so far, even those whose premises he has supported in his previous writings. He didn't seem to quite see them, like a fish watching a bicycle.  And they seem to have passed him by, so far, just as swiftly.  (Not necessarily his fault: one learns in these things how short 20 minutes can be.)

The only argument that Carrier engaged much was my argument for Jesus, and that he misconstrued in all kinds of ways.  We'll get into more depth on that, when we analyze the parallels he proffered for the gospels. 

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