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Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Atheists praise The Truth Behind New Atheism!

The Amazon site for my book, The Truth Behind the New Atheism, has been dominated by atheists almost from Day One.  While a number of very thoughtful (and positive, though that's not the only thing that makes them thoughtful!) reviews have been posted there by intelligent and well-read Christians, hoards of crusading "skeptics" have voted those excellent reviews down.  In the Amazon system, that means people won't see them. (See especially the reviews by William Muehlenberg, Clifford Martin, Sol Lobbes, Rick Thiessen, and Benjamin Devan.  Bruce Bain, a dedicated Amazon contributor, gets in some good points in his quirky way, too.  Please vote up the ones you like, even if it's a bit late, now!)

About a third of the reviews are negative.  These are all by people who are ideologically opposed to Christianity, and (in a few cases) have a personal grudge against the author.  (Two or three of the one-star reviews are actually by the same person, a lawyer from San Diego who uses various "sock puppets" to attack me -- a dozen or so of his reviews have already been removed by Amazon.)  I'm glad to say, no one who wasn't ideologically opposed, has yet claimed the book is a bad read.  There was a Young Earth creationist from Northern Ireland who gave the book three stars, but he removed his review.  Other than my mistaken notion that the universe is old, he seemed pretty cool with the book, anyway. 

But here I'd like to focus on those few reviewers on either side who "cross the picket line," so to speak, and review Truth Behind the New Atheism against their ideological interests. 

The book has received four such reviews, so far, as it happens, mostly by well-educated atheists who thought the book was pretty good.  (Though none gave it five stars.) 

Those reviewers include Richard Field, a professor of philosophy from Missouri, his former student Landon Hedrick, a PhD student who mentions his review on Amazon but posted it elsewhere, "Alan," and my old sparring partner, a scientist, philosopher, and musician from Oregon, "Dr. H." 

All four take pains to make it clear that they disagree with me on a whole slew of issues.  And having batted around some of those issues with three of them, two at great length and sometimes with real heat -- from epistemology to Isaiah's Suffering Servant to the Iraq War (we may disagree on politics even more than on religion!) -- how refreshing it is to disagree with people so much and manage to share mutual respect.  This is what the "New Atheism" tends to kill -- friendly conversation.  You don't see that with Dawkins, Grayling, Harris, Myers, Christina -- Hitchens comes closer, he was an oddball, by any accounting. 

Anyway, I think Dr. H's review is the most interesting of the four, as is often the case.  So I'll give most of his review here, followed by my initial response. 

DM

As this book was in progress I knew that it was to be, in part, a response to Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion," so I read both books around the same time (Dawkins' first). I agree with most of Dawkins' conclusions, though not always with the specific rationale by which he arrives at them. Having been an atheist for pretty much all of my adult life I found few surprises here, which perhaps accounts for my surprise at finding the phrase "the new atheism" in the title of David's book.

My initial reaction to David's book was "'New atheism?' What's 'new' about it?" Having worked through a number of the turgid "classical" expostulations and defenses of atheist philosophy, I really can't say that I see Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, or Dennett as having formulated any earth-shaking new insights on the subject. From my perspective they differ from the atheist philosophers mainly in two ways: (1) they write for a popular (rather than an academic) audience; (2) they are boldly outspoken, sometimes to the point of veritable militancy.

But atheist populism and militancy is hardly new, either. One need look no further than the prior generation and the likes of Madalyn Murray O'hair, who campaigned tirelessly to remove all vestige of religious (mostly Christian) symbolism from US schools, money, and public institutions, and who ultimately came to a bad and violent end (no doubt to the righteous delight of at least some of her religious detractors). Indeed, it is to be wondered that it took so long for another figure of similar public stature to fill the void left by O'hair's untimely demise. That not one, but several figures ultimately filled that void -- flamboyantly -- is at least partially attributable to the meteoric rise, in numbers, and/or public visibility, of more or less organized militant religions groups, and their blatant political and social efforts to force their values on those who share neither their militancy nor, often, their beliefs. Social action begets social reaction.

One of the traditional ways of maintaining order in a rag-tag multitude loosely organized around a militant agenda is to tighten the organization by providing a clear and specific enemy upon which to focus ire. For Reaganites, it was "the Evil Empire;" for Bush neocons, it was "the Axis of Evil." And for Christian militants, it is "the New Atheists." (Not that I necessarily consider David a militant, but that is, in part, the audience to which he speaks.) The label is necessary to provide focus: just saying "I'm going to oppose atheists" is rather like saying "I'm going to fight evil" -- well and good, but kind of vague and amorphous. Fighting the Evil _Empire_, on the other hand, is something concrete, something you can point to on a map with a sense of mission not unlike that of planning an overt military campaign.

So it is with the militant Christian movements and "the New Atheists." It is telling that one rarely (ever?) hears one of these nouveau godless refer to /themselves/ as a "new atheist;" instead that label is applied by those who would rather be seen as warriors defending society against a disciplined invading army, than as provincial rabble tossing brickbats at random individual non-believers. David takes this concept and runs with it, constructing a straw "movement" out of an essentially anarchic group of individuals who just happen to be running vaguely in the same direction. Then he draws a bull's eye on the faux movement, and fires his big guns at it. Because the movement isn't /really/ a movement, he mostly misses, and eventually has to take on the individuals involved more or less one-on-one, and this he does, to a point.

Which brings me to my second major impression of the book: the /kind/ of evidence that David brings to bear in his deceptively light-hearted attacks on Dennett, Dawkins, et al. David and I have argued at length over the meaning of terms such as "evidence," "knowledge," "belief," "faith," and over the inherent strengths and weaknesses of various kinds of evidence. We part company widely over this issue. Traditionally, "belief" comes in at least two basic forms: that held through examination of confirming evidence; and that held either without the support of evidence, or in the face of contrary evidence. The first of these is often called (with some qualifiers) "knowledge"; the second is generally called "faith". David, however, indulges in some creative etymology whereby he insists that faith is /based on evidence/.

This apparent contradiction is only superficially resolved by his particular concept of "evidence". He maintains, for example, that anecdotal evidence (which he prefers to call "testimonial") is, or can be of equivalent value to physical evidence, and he does not accept that anecdotal evidence, by itself, is necessarily, inherently weak. Upon this point turn many of my disagreements with the arguments presented in the book. While he brings multiple points to bear on a given issue, articulates them well, and cites original sources. he's really building a house of cards on a false premise, because so many of those original sources are wholly anecdotal.

Nonetheless, usually he stacks his cards with great skill, so that one often has to dig beneath impressive sounding arguments, backed by illustrious authorities, to find that their fundamental justification is mere hearsay.

Occasionally the construction is not so skillful, and the essentially circular reasoning (not uncommon in theology) shows through rather baldly. For example, in rejecting as authentic "gospels" any but the four Canonical Gospels, David makes reference to "50 characteristics" that define the Gospels. But he derives that list of 50 from a minute analysis /of the four Canonical Gospels/ themselves.

It is of course possible to take a set of four of /anything/ as complex as a Gospel, and extract a set of characteristics from the four such that no fifth item will share enough of the characteristics to warrant inclusion in the set. This whole exercise calls to mind a statement one of my philosophy professors was fond of making: "All reasoning is basically circular; philosophy is a process by which we make the circles as large as possible." Except in this particular case the circle isn't quite large enough: it still shows.

So why am I recommending that you read a book that I think is mostly wrong?

Two reasons, mainly: This is an entertaining book; David writes in a friendly, easy to read style, with gentle wit and humor throughout. He does -not- bash you in the face with his point like televangelists (or even some of our "new atheists) are wont to do, and he is willing to laugh at himself and his peers as well as his adversaries.

More importantly, unless you're a practicing amateur theologist or ex-theologist, some of his arguments will make you think. Even if you feel that the argument must be wrong, you will have to figure out /why/ it might be wrong, and that can sometimes be a subtle task. This is not a pamphletized screed written by a Bible-thumping young-Earther who believes that polyester is a sin because of Leviticus 19:19.

This is precisely why I say that -atheists- should read this book. Far too many atheists, when pressed to defend their position, lash out against the stereotypical redneck Bible-literalist. While many such creatures do exist, trashing their arguments is like shooting tunafish in a bathtub -- too ridiculously easy to be sport, and ultimately both unnecessary and unproductive. Those atheists who are serious about overcoming superstition and advancing the cause of rationality have to be prepared to take on the more difficult arguments raised by intelligent, erudite, and articulate apologists like David Marshall and those whose works he cites.

Of course no atheist /has/ to go out and actively defend their non-faith. You can continue to be a closet non-believer, go unobtrusively about your life, live and let live . . . and wake up one morning to find that your child is being taught biology from a copy of Genesis at the local public school. But if you believe your position is worth defending, you would do well to prepare to defend it not from the weakest arguments against it, but from the strongest. Reading this book is as good a place as any to start finding out what some of those other arguments are.

In closing, I note that I would actually rate this book _4-stars_, but since there was a dearth of 3-star reviews, it seemed appropriate to stake out new territory. :-)


My response:

Heh. Seriously, thanks for reading the book, recommending it, and disagreeing substantially, as usual.

It appears, though, that the seeds of truth may finally be nibbling away at the intellectual nutrients in the "plausibility structure" of your worldview. Just pray that the termites hold hands! (Irony intended.)

First of all, you seem to recognize in effect (though not in so many words) that your atheism may be undermined by admitting the relevance of human testimony.

No need to go through the whole argument again. But when we're not talking about epistemology, you are capable of arguing for years at a stretch without offering one whit of anything OTHER THAN human testimony in support of your views. So the denial of this strategy to Christians seems a little arbitrary. (Especially in view of the many examples I gave in which one reasonably risks one's life on the strength of human testimony, and in which it can be quite strong, even compared to more "scientific" epistemologies.)

(Note: I gave two examples in our earlier conversation.  One, leaving the home of my wife's parents in Japan with our two young sons in the back seats, I had to turn right across a lane coming from the left around a sharp bend -- they drive on the left in Japan.  I would ask my wife to monitor traffic coming from the left -- risking our lives, and our childrens' lives, on her say-so.  And yet I consider myself a safe driver -- I've never had an accident.  Second, I pointed out that airline pilots have often needed to trust air traffic controllers with the lives of hundreds of passengers.  And yet it can be quite reasonable to rely on human testimony in this way.) 

I also show, here but in more detail in the "Faith vs. Reason" article at christthetao.com, that there is nothing "creative" about my linking faith to reason, that's been the most orthodox view for 2000 years. Kierkegaardian "leaps of faith" are more the innovation.  (Note: I'm not even sure that's what Kierkegaard really meant.  Some say noAlso: see the new chapter by Timothy McGrew and myself in True Reason, coming out next year from Kregel, on what Christians have believed about faith and reason.

The other more substantial point to respond to seems to be your claim that my exclusion of Gnostic writings as "gospels" involves circular reasoning or some arbitrary act of classification. Here my main argument is not in this book, but in two others, especially "Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus." (Repeated and simplified in "The Truth about Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels.'")

The nub of my response is that:

(1) The the definition of a word is determined by useage; and as reflected in most dictionaries, Matthew, Mark, Luke & John has been the primary textual definition of "gospel" for centuries. It is up to anyone who wants to expand the meaning of the term in its textual sense to include other texts, to show that they resemble these four. (Just as one would judge whether a newly discovered carnivore does or does not belong to the dog family, by comparing it to wolves, foxes, canis familiarus, etc.)

(2) My basic procedure for classifying is a standard one: identify qualities shared among a given class, then see if a proposed specimen does or does not share those qualities. This is the same procedure used in astronomy, biology, etc.

(3) The 50 characteristics that define the canonical gospels are not in the slightest bit arbitrary. They are the most basic qualities that can be assigned to a text -- dating, cultural provinence, genre, moral stance, characterization, and so forth.


What's "new" about that?
(4) The argument I give in my books on the gospels is, I think, irrefutable, though admittedly I don't devote sufficient space in this book to make that case fully. It is certainly the case that no other work that can reasonably be placed in the same class as the canonical gospels has yet been found. The closest thing to it, I argue, is the Analects of Confucius -- certainly NOT the "Gospels" of Thomas or Judas.  (Note: see this recent post on Richard Carrier's failed attempts to find parallels.)

As for the long jazz riff off the title -- you should know the title wasn't entirely mine. I do think "new atheism" makes some sense, and when I speak, usually explain the class, and what's "new" about it. Here it might be enough to point out that Dawkins works at New College, Oxford, founded in 1379. (Not "new" anymore, even in Oxford terms.) Assume, for the sake of the argument, that the school of thought was named after the academic school, kind of like the "Copenhagen Interpretation" or the "Nicean Creed."

(Note: Kidding aside, I generally argue that the "New Atheist" deserves to be called "new" due to four relative novelties in their teaching: (1) A shrill tone, which I think explains most of the one-star reviews of this book! (2) The post 9/11 context.  Gnus feel a need or opportunity to project the evils of Islam on Christianity, thus, "the American Taliban." (3) A distinctly dark, I would say distorted, picture of Christian history, called Pope Pius XII "Hitler's Pope," for instance.  (4) "Jesus spin" that relies either on the Jesus Seminar, Bart Ehrman, and Elaine Pagels, or on more radical types like Carrier, Price, et al, and that tends to rely on the "Gnostic Gospels" mentioned above, to neutralize Jesus.

And of course it's not just Christians who use the term.  Victor Stenger, one of the most-cited Gnus after the Barbershop Quartet themselves, has written a book entitled The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason, in which he quotes a dozen or so times from this book. And PZ Myers and his followers seem happy to use the term.  Remember the word "Christian," like the word "bolshevik," was originally given those movements by outsiders.)

42 comments:

Brian Barrington said...

I think this reviewer scores a couple of hits with his comments about belief based on evidence versus belief that is not based on evidence, or belief that is even contrary to the evidence. He also makes a good point about the relative strength of testimony versus physical evidence.

There is probably an inconsistency in what you choose to believe based on human testimony– for example, in Portugal at Fatima a few years ago over 70,000 people saw the sun dance all over the sky, and yet I bet you do not believe that the sun danced all over the sky, despite the human testimony of 70,000 people who saw the sun dance around the sky.

If testimony or anecdote conflicts with the physical evidence then the anecdotal evidence needs to be massively strong in order to overcome the relative weakness of anecdote\testimony when compared to physical evidence. To take some examples, when someone says, Caesar crossed the Rubicon, then that claim does not contradict the physical evidence – since people cross the Rubicon every single day even now, and people cross rivers all the time - crossing rivers is not contrary to the phsyical evidence. So we when someone makes the claim that Caesar crossed the Rubicon we do not have immediate grounds for being particularly suspicious of the claim (based on the claim alone), since the claim is not contrary to physical evidence. Or to take another example, the physical evidence is that people can swim in water but that people cannot walk on water. Therefore, if someone says, “I saw someone swimming today” we do not have any rational grounds for being immediately suspicious of the claim, based on the claim alone. But if someone says, “I saw someone walk on water today” then we have immediate and rational grounds for being very suspicious about the claim, since what they claim is contrary to physical evidence.

I presume you would agree with this?

David B Marshall said...

Brian: I see the sun dance around the sky all the time -- it's called weather. But what you're talking about is the prior probability of a given supernatural event. Some events I do assign a very low initial probability to, like witches flying on broomsticks, and arbitrary movements of a massive star 93 million miles away that would shake planets out of its orbit if it moved too much. (And the movement of which doesn't seem to accomplish much, anyway.) See my debate with Carrier, a month or so back, and the distinctions I offer between "miracles" and "magic."

There's also a difference between saying, "I saw someone walking on water" and "I saw Jesus walking on water." I sometimes saw people standing on bamboo rafts in China, that from the right angle might look like walking on water. (Amazing what you can do with bamboo!) Most of Jesus' miracles were very useful, reflected his character and the character of God, helped people, made sense, and pointed people to God. There was an overall internal consistency to his ministry, and between his character and his acts, that adds to rather than detracts from their evidential nature.

But in general, sure, I agree with those distinctions. I am probably not as suspicious of real miracles -- those that share the characteristics of Jesus' miracles -- as you are, because I have reason to think they still happen, sometimes. But one reasonable asks tough questions about all claims out of the ordinary, also including claims about murders, WMDs in Syria, people locked in basements, winning the lottery, the Seattle Mariners sweeping the New York Yankees, etc.

steve said...

I seriously doubt that Brian has actually studied the scholarly literature on "miracle of the sun." Seems more likely this is a thirdhand anecdote he picked up from some village atheist website.

For what it's worth, I did a lengthy analysis of that reported event a few years ago:

http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2007/01/miracle-of-sun.html


steve said...

Brian Barrington said...

"Or to take another example, the physical evidence is that people can swim in water but that people cannot walk on water...I presume you would agree with this?"

I don't. Your principle is simplistic. What you ought to say is that absent countervailing factors, people can't walk on water.

For instance, waterskiers don't sink due to countervailing factors (e.g. skis and motorboat).

Crude said...

– for example, in Portugal at Fatima a few years ago

October 13, 1917. It's almost a century, Brian.

If testimony or anecdote conflicts with the physical evidence then the anecdotal evidence needs to be massively strong

No, it just needs to be strong enough. You, apparently, don't consider eyewitness reports from tens of thousands, including skeptics, to be adequate. By most measures, that would be 'massively strong'.

As for the physical ramifications - as Steve said, countervailing factors are relevant. I'd add, your entire approach involves treating a given miracle report as, in essence, Just Another Physical Process - in fact, just another physical process according to our current scientific theories, which A) exclude not just the supernatural, but the sufficiently powerful and natural, as a matter of course and B) are incomplete anyway.

You may as well try to counter the claim that Jesus turned water into wine by talking about what kind of quantum process that would have been and the massive amount of energy that would have been released by the process. That's not a scientific, or even a rational, investigation of the claim. It's a bizarre kind of naivete.

Brian Barrington said...

Crude, I would think that all miracles are contrary to the physical evidence. If they were not contrary to the physical evidence then they would be (unusual) natural events rather than supernatural events – they would not be miracles, right? If this is not the case then how could any of these events be called miracles? The only reason they are called miracles is because they are flat out contrary to the physical evidence – we cannot think that there could be a natural, physical, materialist explanation for the event.

A highly unlikely event that is not contrary to the physical evidence is not a miracle – like the events that David talks about – claims about people locked in basements, winning the national lottery etc. If we hear claims about these from people we know then we are initially a little sceptical, so the testimony would have to be pretty good for us to accept the claim, even though the claim is not contrary to physical evidence. But if the claim IS contrary to the physical evidence then the testimony has to be massive to overcome our scepticism, if we are going to believe it based on the testimony alone (and it seems to me that David justifies his belief in the miracles of Jesus by bringing in some additional factors or considerations as well as the testimony).

Regarding Fatima – that was an event that is contrary to the physical evidence (the sun dancing around the sky), but even the testimony of 70,000 people is not enough to overcome David Marshall’s (and lots of other people’s) scepticism about whether the sun danced there.

Brian Barrington said...

Steve, if someone water-skis then that is not contrary to the physical evidence – it is a completely natural event that we have all witnessed, and not contrary to the laws of nature or to physical laws. So if someone says “I saw someone waterskiing today while I was down by the sea” then the claim is not in itself grounds for suspicion. But if someone just walks on water – that is contrary to the physical evidence – otherwise it would not be a miracle. So if someone said to you “I saw someone walk on water today while I was down by the lake” you would be immediately suspicious. You would demand a lot of testimony before you accepted that something contrary to the physical evidence had occurred.

steve said...

Brian Barrington said...

"Steve, if someone water-skis then that is not contrary to the physical evidence – it is a completely natural event that we have all witnessed, and not contrary to the laws of nature or to physical laws."

You're apparently unable to follow your own argument. You originally said:

"Or to take another example, the physical evidence is that people can swim in water but that people cannot walk on water...I presume you would agree with this?"

Why can't people walk on water? Actually, they can. I gave a rough counterexample.

So what your denial really amounts to is that absent a countervailing factor, a heavier body will sink in water. The force of gravity is dominant.

Yet supertankers float and skiers skim the surface.

That's because countervailing factors have been introduced.

Likewise, Jesus can walk on water because he introduces an additional cause. It's not a case of walking on water, where no additional conditions apply, but changing the conditions.

"But if someone just walks on water – that is contrary to the physical evidence – otherwise it would not be a miracle."

No, that's only contrary to "the physical evidence" if the only operative conditions are a man, water, and gravity.

If, however, we add an intervening medium (e.g. skis) and an artificial dynamic (motorboat) that counteracts gravity, then he won't sink.

"So if someone said to you 'I saw someone walk on water today while I was down by the lake' you would be immediately suspicious. You would demand a lot of testimony before you accepted that something contrary to the physical evidence had occurred."

Actually, I wouldn't. If, say, I knew the individual was an occultist, I'd find the claim far more credible. For that would explain why he might have the ability to walk on water.

steve said...

Brian Barrington said...

"Crude, I would think that all miracles are contrary to the physical evidence. If they were not contrary to the physical evidence then they would be (unusual) natural events rather than supernatural events – they would not be miracles, right? If this is not the case then how could any of these events be called miracles? The only reason they are called miracles is because they are flat out contrary to the physical evidence – we cannot think that there could be a natural, physical, materialist explanation for the event."

i) "Evidence" is an epistemological category, not a metaphysical category. If a miracle occurred, there could be physical evidence of the miracle, if the miracle had a physical effect.

ii) You're confusing "physical evidence" with "natural laws" or "physical laws." But appeal to such "laws" would be ontological rather than evidentiary.

iii) You need to define what you mean by a "law" of nature. Philosophers disagree on what natural laws are, or even whether there are natural laws.

iv) A miracle can be a "natural" event. Take a coincidence miracle. A miracle of timing, where a particular conjunction is prearranged by God. That's not "contrary" to any physical laws.

What would make it miraculous is that inanimate factors alone would be insufficient to account for that opportune conjunction. Rather, they are the result of forethought.

Brian Barrington said...

I agree that if someone water-skis then that is not a miracle – it is not contrary to the physical evidence and everyone agrees that it is an event that occurs, and sees it, and that it is a natural event that does not require supernatural intervention. So if someone claims they saw it happening then the claim alone is not grounds for suspicion that the claim is inaccurate.

Now, if someone just gets up and literally walks on water without any assistance from skis or a motorboat or some object of that sort, then that is contrary to the physical evidence, so it would be a miracle. That is the kind of walking on water that I was referring to, as I think is evident. So if someone claimed that they had been out walking on water this morning then I, for one, would be very sceptical about the testimony, even if (perhaps especially if) they claimed to be an “occultist”.

In other words, if the claims are based on testimony alone and the claims are contrary to physical evidence, then the testimony would have to be overwhelmingly strong before it would be justifiable to believe the claim based on testimony alone.

Brian Barrington said...

If a miracle is an unusual natural event then I agree that miracles occur. Generally, people mean that a miracle is a supernatural event. If the event is not contrary to natural laws then it is just an unusual natural event, which I agree happens. For example, coincidences occur all the time – in fact, if coincidences did not occur all the time it would require supernatural intervention to prevent them happening.

If there is physical evidence for a miracle then that needs to be considered in addition to the testimony, and, if the evidence is legit, then that would strengthen the case that a miracle had occurred.

But as far as I can work out you seem to be suggesting that there is no difference between the natural and the supernatural, or do I misinterpret you?

David B Marshall said...

A better definition of "miracle" is an event within the natural world that gives strong and specific evidence that God is at work. It can be but need not break the ordinary regularies of Nature. This fits biblical use of the term seimeyon or "sign," which includes both walking on water and finding a coin in a fish's mouth. In theory, either could be explained naturalistically. But both serve as positive, specific evidence that God is at work in the world.

steve said...

Brian Barrington said...

“Now, if someone just gets up and literally walks on water without any assistance from skis or a motorboat or some object of that sort, then that is contrary to the physical evidence…”

You seem to use “physical evidence” as a synonym for “natural law” or “physical law.” If that’s the case, then you continue to confuse epistemology with metaphysics. I already explained the problem with your usage, so why do you repeat yourself?

“That is the kind of walking on water that I was referring to, as I think is evident.”

You’re missing the point. The relevant distinction isn’t “physical” or “natural,” but causal. Walking on water requires an additional intervening cause to offset what would otherwise happen absent that countervailing factor. That’s the key principle.

Jesus can walk on water because he has causal resources at his disposal that ordinary human agents do not.

“So if someone claimed that they had been out walking on water this morning then I, for one, would be very sceptical about the testimony, even if (perhaps especially if) they claimed to be an ‘occultist.’”

Since you were asking me, how you yourself would respond is beside the point.

“If a miracle is an unusual natural event then I agree that miracles occur.”

Since I didn’t say anything to indicate that I define miracles that way, your comment is off the mark.

“Generally, people mean that a miracle is a supernatural event. If the event is not contrary to natural laws then it is just an unusual natural event, which I agree happens. For example, coincidences occur all the time – in fact, if coincidences did not occur all the time it would require supernatural intervention to prevent them happening.”

Did this event run counter to any natural laws?:

“Go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours” (Mt 17:27).

Is it just a coincidence? Or did many causally independent variables have to be coordinated to yield this particular outcome?

“But as far as I can work out you seem to be suggesting that there is no difference between the natural and the supernatural, or do I misinterpret you?”

From a Christian standpoint, every “natural” event is directly or indirectly an act of God.

Brian Barrington said...

Did this event run counter to any natural laws?: “Go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours” (Mt 17:27). 

If it happened it could be an remarkable coincidence (thus a completely natural event and not a miracle), or some magic trick based on deception (thus a completely natural event and not a miracle) or it could be that the person who made the prediction has supernatural powers that permitted him to make the amazing prediction (in which case it would be a miracle). Of course, the key word is 'if' it happened - the claim is based on testimony and the event is extremely unlikely to occur so anyone would be justified in treating the testimony with a pinch of salt, unless the testimony is so powerful so as to be extremely unlikely that it is incorrect.

If an event is contrary to the physical evidence (and to natural laws derived from the physical evidence) then its occurrence could be strong positive evidence (possibly even proof) that God or something supernatural exists. On the other hand, if an event is NOT contrary to the physical evidence then its occurrence would not be so strong as positive evidence that God or the supernatural exists, since it could just be an unusual natural event.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: I have had things like that happen to me, in similar contexts. The point is that they are evidence that God is at work - not proof. As you point out, alternative explanations are ALWAYS possible. That is also true of walking on the water, as the other posters here have pointed out. Even if there is no bamboo raft, and no water skis or rocks, it is POSSIBLE, for instance, that aliens landed on Earth 2000 years ago, and were suspending Jesus above the water with magnets, for purposes of their own. It is also possible that those aliens evolved naturalistically on their own planet.

We are talking about probabilities and evidence, not absolute proof.

So "signs" provide a continuum of evidence, from mildly strong to extremely strong, or perhaps quite weak, more a hint than a proof. I admit that one might want to preserve the word "miracle" for the stronger kinds of evidence, but there will always be alternative explanations.

We are not talking about innate supernatural powers, though. Miracles are acts of God, not of the human agent.

steve said...

Brian Barrington said...

“If it happened it could be an remarkable coincidence (thus a completely natural event and not a miracle), or some magic trick based on deception (thus a completely natural event and not a miracle) or it could be that the person who made the prediction has supernatural powers that permitted him to make the amazing prediction (in which case it would be a miracle). Of course, the key word is 'if' it happened - the claim is based on testimony and the event is extremely unlikely to occur so anyone would be justified in treating the testimony with a pinch of salt, unless the testimony is so powerful so as to be extremely unlikely that it is incorrect.”

i) You have a habit of missing the point. I didn’t cite this example because I thought you’d find it believable. Rather, I cited this example to test your definition of a miracle.

If you treat this as a hypothetical case, would it qualify as a miracle? No natural law is violated.

ii) There’s more to it than a supernatural prediction. It assumes a series of natural events which was divinely prearranged to yield this result.

iii) In what sense do you say this is extremely unlikely, demanding oh-so powerful testimony?

It is extremely unlikely that an undirected process would yield this result. If, however, God orchestrated prior events to yield this result, then in what sense is it extremely unlikely?

Are you claiming it’s extremely unlikely that God would do that? Is so, how do you prejudge what God is likely to do?

Of is it a question of God’s existence? If so, how do you prejudge the likelihood of God’s existence?

iv) To take a comparison, if multiple witnesses say they saw a gambler roll sixes ten times in a row, is that believable?

Is it likely or unlikely that a gambler would roll sixes ten times in a row?

Well, that depends on whether or not the dice are loaded. So you can’t say in the abstract what the odds are. If you knew the dice were loaded, your assessment would be very different.

steve said...

Brian Barrington said...

“If an event is contrary to the physical evidence (and to natural laws derived from the physical evidence)…”

You’re very enamored with the phrase “physical evidence,” which you don’t bother to define. Are you using “physical evidence” as shorthand for inductive natural regularities…or something else?

Likewise, you don’t bother to define “natural law.” Do you think natural laws are causes or general descriptions?

For instance, natural regularities only tell us what inanimate natural processes will do if left to their own devices. But an agent can deflect or divert natural processes to yield a different outcome. Water runs downstream unless a beaver dams the stream.

Brian Barrington said...

Regarding the " coin in the fish" - if there was some intervention from a supernatural being that caused it then, if it happened, it was a miracle. If there was no supernatural intervention, then it was a natural event, like any other natural event, and therefore not a miracle.

The reason people regard turning water into wine and people rising from the dead etc. as evidence that God exists, or that the supernatural, exists is precisely because these events are contrary to the physical evidence, and to natural laws readily observable to everyone. Without this distinction, I see no grounds for calling one event miraculous and another event non-miraculous. If you don't accept the distinction between what is natural and supernatural, then what are your grounds for calling one event miraculous and another non-miraculous? The reason why these events are regarded as miracles by religious people is because they are contrary to the physical evidence, whereas, for example, getting up and going to the toilet to urinate is not regarded as a miracle, since it is a natural act that everyone observes regularly, and one that does not contradict any regularity of nature derived from constant and replicable observation of physical reality. 

You might, I suppose, say that absolutely everything that happens in the world (including genocide, child rape, earthquakes, tsunamis and so on)  is  a "miraculous" act of God - this seems to be where your line of reasoning is leading you. But if that is the case, then me picking my nose is as miraculous as Jesus rising from the dead.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: You have to keep in mind that for Christians, the agent working a miracle -- in the sense I defined -- is God. Since God created Nature, the fact that God might work through Nature in no way precludes a given event from providing evidence that God is at work. Again, my definition of miracles above is "an event within the natural world that gives strong and specific evidence that God is at work." That answers your question about my criteria. All you need to do is read more carefully -- you're better than most atheists for that, but I know it takes concentration to really take in new and possibly uncomfortable notions.

steve said...

Brian Barrington said...

“Regarding the ‘coin in the fish’ - if there was some intervention from a supernatural being that caused it then, if it happened, it was a miracle.”

i) You have difficulty following your own argument. You were the one who defined a miracle in opposition to natural law. However, the “coin in the fish” doesn’t violate any natural law, yet it can still be supernaturally orchestrated.

ii) A miracle doesn’t require divine “intervention.” Prearranging an outcome isn’t equivalent to intervention. “Intervention” suggest things were going a certain way on their own until an agent diverted the natural course of events. If, however, the “coin in the fish” was divinely orchestrated, then events were prepositioned to converge on that outcome from the get-go.

“The reason people regard turning water into wine and people rising from the dead etc. as evidence that God exists, or that the supernatural, exists is precisely because these events are contrary to the physical evidence, and to natural laws readily observable to everyone. Without this distinction, I see no grounds for calling one event miraculous and another event non-miraculous. If you don't accept the distinction between what is natural and supernatural, then what are your grounds for calling one event miraculous and another non-miraculous?”

To the contrary, a miracle can be miraculous precisely because it is customized to fit an individual need, where only the party concerned discerns the significance of the event. Say a Christian has a very specific need. He prays about it. Out of the blue his need is met is a very specific and unexpected fashion.

Only he (or some of his confidants) is in a position to appreciate how timely this is, and how unlikely this would be apart from supernatural provision.

Which is not to deny miracles of a more public character, but that’s not a definite feature of a miracle.

“The reason why these events are regarded as miracles by religious people is because they are contrary to the physical evidence, whereas, for example, getting up and going to the toilet to urinate is not regarded as a miracle, since it is a natural act that everyone observes regularly, and one that does not contradict any regularity of nature derived from constant and replicable observation of physical reality.”

Is history replicable?

“You might, I suppose, say that absolutely everything that happens in the world (including genocide, child rape, earthquakes, tsunamis and so on) is a "miraculous" act of God - this seems to be where your line of reasoning is leading you. But if that is the case, then me picking my nose is as miraculous as Jesus rising from the dead.”

You’re not paying attention. I said every natural event is directly or indirectly an act of God. Are you defining child rape and genocide as natural events?

Likewise, don’t you grasp the distinction between direct and indirect? An indirect act of God would employ a physical medium.

You added “miraculous” to “act of God,” as if an act of God is ipso facto miraculous.

Brian Barrington said...

If you want to call some natural events miracles then I won't quibble over the terminology, although for the sake of clarity it might be useful to still distinguish between miracles that are contrary to physical evidence and natural laws i.e. those caused by direct supernatural intervention (we could call these supernatural miracles), and these other miracles that are more like pre-arranged coincidences that could conceivably occur naturally without any pre-arranging by a supernatural entity (we could call these natural miracles). But in relation to this I would re-emphasise that remarkable coincidences occur all the time in our world, and about as frequently as one would expect, and they do not require any supernatural explanation - in fact, if remarkable coincidences did not occur all the time it would really amount to proof that there is supernatural intervention in our world, since it is to be expected that coincidences should continually occur in the world and it would require supernatural intervention to prevent them happening.

"Is history replicable?" No, so our knowledge of much history is fairly tentative, especially as we go further back. But if a claimed historical event does not contradict any regularity of nature derived from constant and replicable observation of physical reality (e.g. The claim that Caesar crossed the Rubicon) then we have less reason to be immediately sceptical about the claim than if the claim DOES contradict any regularity of nature (e.g. a claim that Caesar turned water into wine, or a claim that he rose from the dead and so on).

steve said...

Brian Barrington said...

“If you want to call some natural events miracles then I won't quibble over the terminology, although for the sake of clarity it might be useful to still distinguish between miracles that are contrary to physical evidence and natural laws i.e. those caused by direct supernatural intervention (we could call these supernatural miracles)…”

To define a miracle as an event that’s “contrary to physical evidence” (whatever that means) or “contrary to natural laws” (whatever that means) is a highly contested definition. For instance:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/miracles/#MirVioLawNat

What philosophical literature have you read on miracles?

“…and these other miracles that are more like pre-arranged coincidences that could conceivably occur naturally without any pre-arranging by a supernatural entity (we could call these natural miracles).”

And the term for that is coincidence miracle. See David Bartholomew’s discussion in Uncertain Belief: Is it Rational to be a Christian? (Oxford 1996), chap. 4.

“But in relation to this I would re-emphasise that remarkable coincidences occur all the time in our world, and about as frequently as one would expect, and they do not require any supernatural explanation - in fact, if remarkable coincidences did not occur all the time it would really amount to proof that there is supernatural intervention in our world, since it is to be expected that coincidences should continually occur in the world and it would require supernatural intervention to prevent them happening.”

i) Once again, you’re missing the point. You seem to think you can just wing it without bothering to acquaint yourself with the relevant literature. A coincidence miracle has a fairly rigorous definition with highly specified conditions.

ii) Some events are too coincidental to be purely coincidental. They reflect a calculated and concerted plan.

iii) You need to distinguish between an event which reflects intelligent agency in general, and one which reflects divine agency in particular. Some events require a mastery of detail and magisterial control over the relevant variables that exceeds human intelligence, power, and/or longevity.

You yourself find the “coin in the mouth” too convenient to be realistic absent supernatural involvement. And since you’re an atheist, you therefore dismiss it out of hand.

“Is history replicable?’ No, so our knowledge of much history is fairly tentative, especially as we go further back.”

Which undermines your appeal to natural regularities, inasmuch you depend on testimonial evidence for your appeal to the (alleged) uniformity of nature.

“But if a claimed historical event does not contradict any regularity of nature derived from constant and replicable observation of physical reality (e.g. The claim that Caesar crossed the Rubicon) then we have less reason to be immediately sceptical about the claim than if the claim DOES contradict any regularity of nature (e.g. a claim that Caesar turned water into wine, or a claim that he rose from the dead and so on).”

I’ve already explained to you why your contention is false. You simply blow past the rebuttal rather than presenting a counterargument.

Dr H said...

David kindly gave me a 'heads up' that he would be posting my old Amazon review over in the blog, so I thought I'd drop in and see what was up. Real Life™ is a bit on the hectic side for me just now, so I'm not sure how long I can stick around, but for now, here I am. And of course I'd like to address some of David's comments regarding my review.

David says: "First of all, you seem to recognize in effect (though not in so many words) that your atheism may be undermined by admitting the relevance of human testimony."

I find this an absolutely fabulous conclusion upon which to leap, as I've not only said no such thing "in so many words", but I've not even implied it, and in fact have explicitly dismissed it elsewhere.

I have never failed to admit the relevance of human testimony, I simply insist on assigning it the proper weight. Human testimony -- anecdotal evidence -- is an inherently weak form of evidence, and in no way begins to approach the relevance of physical evidence. It is weak because it always comes with the baggage that it may be: mistaken; fabricated; reflect misinterpretation; the result of delusion; the result of illusion or sensory distortion; incomplete; or deliberately or unconsciously embellished. It cannot be directly examined by another person; physical evidence can.

In short, human testimony amounts to hearsay.

The truth value of any evidence must be tested by seeing how strongly it correlates with reality. This requires, at some point, and on some level, referencing the real, physical world. Human testimony is hearsay until and unless it can be shown to correlate with something real, and hence the priority of value is accorded to the real (ie. physical) evidence.

Given that anecdotal evidence in inherently weak, a lot of people with arguments which hinge on the veracity of such testimony fall into another fallacy, which David has also employed, and which I see reflected in some of the comments here. This is the assumption that, if you have a LOT of testimony, that somehow increases its value as evidence. Not so: having a lot of weak evidence doesn't somehow magically convert it into strong evidence.

Majority opinion may sometimes determine the structure of social reality, but it certainly doesn't determine the structure of physical reality. At one time, most people living believed the Earth to be flat and located at the center of the universe. Turns out, they were wrong.
In April 1983 several hundred people (and a live television audience of millions) "witnessed" the Statue of Liberty vanish, due to the "magic" of David Copperfield. Turns out the Statue is still there. Thousands of people have "witnessed" Chris Angel and David Blain "levitate".

There has been a great deal of research done, much of it in the past 15-20 years, that has revealed the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, and the fallibility of the human memory upon which it relies. As a result of this research the legal machinery in many jurisdictions is in the slow, tedious process of redefining their rules for the admission of such testimony in court. David has, thus far, chosen to pretty much ignore this research; perhaps someday he will attempt to deal with it directly.

If my atheism is to be "undermined" it's going to have to be with hard evidence. Human testimony alone isn't even going to scuff the surface.

Dr H said...

(I notice your blog software is still having trouble counting to 4096... )

A few other points which wouldn't fit in the prior post:



As regards the definition of the category "Gospel", I have debated all four of the points David mentions here, but the key, I think, is to be found in his point #2, "... identify qualities shared among a given class, then see if a proposed specimen does or does not share those qualities."

The problem is that David has predefined the class in this case, as consisting of only the Canonical Gospels. He extracts his qualities from this predefined class, and only then does he apply them to other alleged members of the class and find them wanting. This is not unlike determining the qualities of "dog" by examining only beagles, basset hounds, and foxhounds, and then concluding that German shepherds, malamutes, and poodles aren't really "dogs" because they don't share enough of the qualities of the predefined class of dogs.

Not to mention that this approach sidesteps completely what is probably the most important single quality where selection of the Canon is concerned: it fit the agenda of the Church.




As to the possible reasons for "new atheist," yes, there might be many explanations for that, and perhaps some of David's suggestions hit close to the truth. I do, however, stand by my contention that religionists have seized upon the term with relish for precisely the reasons I stated: it provides an easy means of defining a faux "movement", that opposition can more efficiently be mobilized against. It's always easier to rabble-rouse against a group, than it is against a bunch of individual cranks. Religion has, from the beginning, recognized the power implicit in organization.

David B Marshall said...

Dr. H: Sorry for the software trouble; more often it discriminates against riff-raff, not solid citizens like yourself.

My point is, you disparage the importance of human testimony because you recognize that it has the drop on your worldview -- in my opinion.

And yes, you do disparage it, except when you're using it yourself.

ALL of science depends on human testimony. Every bit of it. I used to say "most," but I realize now that it is all.

How do you know apples fall from trees when their stems break? You heard the story of Sir Isaac Newton as a boy. You told yourself, "Hmmn. Anecdotal evidence. Highly suspicious. Must test for myself Scientifistically (TM)by means of physical evidence."

You go into the back yard and climb up your Dad's Yellow Banana apple tree with a stick. Nobody cares: these apples are no good, anyway. You knock half a dozen apples out of the tree. Sure enough, they all fall to the ground, at various angles, depending on how you hit them -- some in pieces, already.

Forty years later, you're typing on your computer. "I have physical evidence that apples fall from trees!"

Where is it? Stored in a mental locker in your brain.

In fact, it's not physical evidence at all. It's a highly fallible memory.

Oh, but you wrote up an article for a journal! See! Real, peer-reviewed paper!

Only half the peers are dead now, one has alteimers, and the others don't even remember your name.

It's just paper. An historical artifact.

"Oh, but I can always go and knock down some more apples! Anyone can test my theory!"

That's a prediction about the future. While it is happening, it is something you observe with highly fallible eyes and cords going from them into the interpretive centers of your unseen, untouched, unsmelt, brain. After it happens, its visual images stored elsewhere in the same fallible brain, that you retrieve through Lord knows how many unobserved mental circuits.

You will never, ever, ever get away from relying on human testimony, including of course your own, for as long as you live. Not for anything.

I did not ignore the research you sent, as you ought to remember, if your own highly fallible brain were recalling accurately. I read through a lot of it, and found nothing contradicting my position, or my own experiments testing human memory. I found that under some circumstances, human testimony can be highly reliable. But you know that, since you rely on it constantly, like all the rest of us.

Brian Barrington said...

Steve, apologies for delay in getting back. Regarding the coin in the fish - one possibility is that it did not happen. A second possibility is that it (or something like it) happened and that it was an entirely natural event - most likely some sort of magic trick, or else a natural coincidence. Another possibility is that it was a miracle due to supernatural intervention or supernatural planning.

Looking at the evidence (a couple of sentences in a single book) and judging what is most likely based on the testimonial evidence or anecdotal evidence, by far the most likely thing is that it didn't happen. Second most likely (but considerably less likely) is that it or something like it happened and it was a completely natural event (e.g. a magic trick). Way, way, way behind either of these possibilities is the possibility that it happened and was a miracle.

Having said that, if it makes some people happier to think that it happened and that it was a miracle, then I don't necessarily object to them thinking that - whatever gets you through the day!

When you say "Some events are too coincidental to be purely coincidental" it means that the alleged event is so improbable based on what we know concerning physical evidence and the regularities of nature that the event requires supernatural planning or intervention. That is the basis on which the event is deemed to be virtually impossible based on natural causes alone - without that, you have no basis for claiming that the specific event is improbable/impossible without supernatural planning or intervention.

Crossing rivers is a natural event that occurs frequently and requires no supernatural explanation. Turning water instantly into wine would (absent some new technological discovery) seem to require a supernatural explanation. That is why the first is not a miracle, but the second would plausibly be regarded as miracle if it occurred.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: But it is possible that aliens with that technology arrived on Earth at the time of Jesus, happened to be at that feast, felt sorry for the family, and aided in the transformation. Highly, highly improbable. But so is catching a fish with a coin in it's mouth just when you need to pay taxes, have no money, and Jesus told you to do that in response to a query about taxes.

Why is a miracle by God the least likely explanation? Aren't you just being dogmatic?

BTW, Happy Mother's Day, everyone, even if you're not a mother.

steve said...

Brian Barrington said...

“Steve, apologies for delay in getting back. Regarding the coin in the fish - one possibility is that it did not happen.”

You’re repeating the same mistake you made before, which I already corrected you on. My argument wasn’t predicated on it actually happening. Rather, I used this as an example of a type of miracle that doesn’t conform to your artificial definition.

I think it happened, by that wasn’t the point of the argument.

Is there same reason you mechanically repeat the same formulaic responses rather than adapting to the actual state of the argument?

“A second possibility is that it (or something like it) happened and that it was an entirely natural event - most likely some sort of magic trick, or else a natural coincidence… Second most likely (but considerably less likely) is that it or something like it happened and it was a completely natural event (e.g. a magic trick).”

Have you made a serious effort to consider what that would entail?

a) A fish swallows a coin.
b) The fish swallowed the coin no later than when Peter went fishing.
c) The fish swallowing the coin no earlier than the lifespan of the fish.
d) Within the same narrow timeframe, Peter was talking with Jesus about the temple tax.
e) The coin inside the fish was the exact amount required to pay the tax for two persons: Jesus and Peter.
d) Jesus predicted that if Peter went fishing, he would catch the fish with the coin.
e) Peter went fishing at the exact time the fish was swimming by.
f) Peter went fishing at the exact place the fish was swimming by.
g) Peter successfully caught the fish.

Now, considered hypothetically, what are the odds that all those independent variables would converge? Why do you think that’s more likely than a supernatural explanation?

In what sense would it be a magic trick? Are you suggesting Jesus caught a fish, put a coin in the fish, then told Peter to go fishing, while Jesus trained the fish to swim by at just the right time and place for Peter to catch it?

“Another possibility is that it was a miracle due to supernatural intervention or supernatural planning.
Looking at the evidence (a couple of sentences in a single book) and judging what is most likely based on the testimonial evidence or anecdotal evidence, by far the most likely thing is that it didn't happen… Way, way, way behind either of these possibilities is the possibility that it happened and was a miracle.”

i) To begin with, that’s a false dichotomy. To say testimonial evidence is the source of our information hardly counts as an alternative explanation to the miraculous explanation. You’re confusing a miracle with how we know about a miracle.

ii) And, once again, you’re just repeating your claim about the alleged improbability of miracles, in the teeth of my counterargument. Why is that? If you raise an objection, and I present a counterargument, it’s incumbent on you to take the counterargument into account and either improve on your objection or withdraw your objection.

steve said...

cont. “Having said that, if it makes some people happier to think that it happened and that it was a miracle, then I don't necessarily object to them thinking that - whatever gets you through the day!”

Your condescension isn’t justified by the level of your performance.

“When you say ‘Some events are too coincidental to be purely coincidental’ it means that the alleged event is so improbable based on what we know concerning physical evidence and the regularities of nature that the event requires supernatural planning or intervention. That is the basis on which the event is deemed to be virtually impossible based on natural causes alone - without that, you have no basis for claiming that the specific event is improbable/impossible without supernatural planning or intervention.”

Once more, you’re just repeating yourself. That’s intellectually lazy. As I already pointed out to you, your framework is simplistic. Some events are too coincidental to be purely coincidental because they are the result of personal agency. Take a card sharp. You constantly fail to distinguish between inanimate agencies and personal agency.

If an event can’t be plausibly accounted for by inanimate agencies, then we turn to personal agents.

The next question is the kind of personal agent required to account for the event. If it exceeds human abilities, then it’s superhuman.

“Crossing rivers is a natural event that occurs frequently and requires no supernatural explanation.”

I said nothing about crossing rivers, so how is that responsive to my argument?

“Turning water instantly into wine would (absent some new technological discovery) seem to require a supernatural explanation. That is why the first is not a miracle, but the second would plausibly be regarded as miracle if it occurred.”

Once again, you’ve come back full circle to your original paradigm, having failed to acquire a more sophisticated grasp of the issues, despite my examples and explanations.

I don’t know what your problem is. Are you just frivolous? Do you lack the mental concentration to keep track of the argument?

You need to put your flash cards down and start to actually think through the issues.

Brian Barrington said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian Barrington said...

I am agreeing with you that if the event occurred and was the result of specific supernatural planning or supernatural intervention by a supernatural being, then it was a miracle – so I don’t think we really have any disagreement over what constitutes a miracle. If the coin-in-the-mouth incident occurred and was not a miracle but a natural event, then most likely the coin was somehow slipped into the mouth of the fish by a human AFTER the fish was caught. But another strong possibility is that nothing of the sort occurred in the first place – that the anecdote related just didn’t happen.

“To say testimonial evidence is the source of our information hardly counts as an alternative explanation to the miraculous explanation.” Well, that is not what I am saying – everyone agrees that the evidence we have for the coin-in-the-mouth story is the testimony or the anecdote. So what are the possible explanations for the existence of the testimony or anecdote? The first possibility is that the testimony is incorrect – that the events related in the anecdote did not happen. The second possibility is that the testimony\anecdote is correct and that there is a natural explanation for the event. The third possibility is that the testimony\anecdote is correct and that there is a supernatural explanation for the event – in which case it would be a miracle. Again, I don’t think there is any disagreement between us here.

“If it exceeds human abilities, then it’s superhuman.” Again, we may be in basic agreement here – if an event occurs that cannot be explained by natural causes (either caused by humans or by other natural beings) then the cause must have been a supernatural being (assuming the event occurred). So that is what a miracle would be – an event caused by the specific planning or intervention of a supernatural being.

steve said...

Brian Barrington said...

“If the coin-in-the-mouth incident occurred and was not a miracle but a natural event, then most likely the coin was somehow slipped into the mouth of the fish by a human AFTER the fish was caught.”

i) You’re concocting a backstory for which there’s no evidence.

ii) If you think it was a magic trick, then who would be the magician? Logically, that would have to be Jesus, for Jesus is the one who made the prediction. Jesus would be the beneficiary of a successful prediction.

But according to the account, Jesus didn’t catch the fish. He wasn’t there when the fish was caught. Peter caught the fish.

Therefore, your explanation isn’t consistent with the internals of the account, even if the account were fictitious.

“But another strong possibility is that nothing of the sort occurred in the first place – that the anecdote related just didn’t happen…Well, that is not what I am saying – everyone agrees that the evidence we have for the coin-in-the-mouth story is the testimony or the anecdote. So what are the possible explanations for the existence of the testimony or anecdote? The first possibility is that the testimony is incorrect – that the events related in the anecdote did not happen.”

That’s only plausible if we grant your hyperskepticism regarding anecdotal/testimonial evidence. I don’t share your hyperskepticism.

For instance, I remember lots of things that happened when I was in junior high or high school. You may call that “anecdotal,” but so what? The fact that it’s anecdotal doesn’t make it unreliable. Do you systematically doubt your own memories?

Brian Barrington said...

Steve, there are probably thousands of miracle-claims made every year. Do you believe all or most of these miracles occured because it would be hypersceptical to regard the testimony as incorrect? Let's take the last 10,000 miracle-claims/supernatural claims made by humans over the last while - claims of moving statues, statues crying milk, apparitions of the Virgin Mary, visits from dead relatives, levitation, predictive feats inexplicable by natural means, mind-reading feats inexplicable by natural means etc. - unless you are prepared to say that you believe all or most of this testimony is correct then that makes you a hypersceptic with regards to human testimony. But I bet you don’t just accept that these miracles all happened just because someone says they witnessed them happening – you are sceptical about the testimony, and rightly so.

Regarding the coin-in-the-fish, I'm saying that if something like the event occured (a very big “if”, admittedly) and if there is a natural explanation, then most likely someone put the coin in the fish after it was caught. This is obvious and unless you can come up with a natural explanation that is more likely, I'll take it you agree that this is the most likely natural explanation, if we assume that something like the event occured.

steve said...

Brian Barrington said...

“Steve, there are probably thousands of miracle-claims made every year. Do you believe all or most of these miracles occured because it would be hypersceptical to regard the testimony as incorrect? Let's take the last 10,000 miracle-claims/supernatural claims made by humans over the last while - claims of moving statues, statues crying milk, apparitions of the Virgin Mary, visits from dead relatives, levitation, predictive feats inexplicable by natural means, mind-reading feats inexplicable by natural means etc. - unless you are prepared to say that you believe all or most of this testimony is correct then that makes you a hypersceptic with regards to human testimony. But I bet you don’t just accept that these miracles all happened just because someone says they witnessed them happening – you are sceptical about the testimony, and rightly so.”

i) That’s grossly simplistic. There are standard criteria for sifting testimonial evidence, viz. C. A. J. Coady, Testimony: A Philosophical Study.

ii) Why do you bring up Marian miracles when my first comment on this thread was to link to lengthy analysis of Fatima?

iii) Likewise, I frequently evaluate the paranormal, viz.

http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2012/04/pauli-effect.html

http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2009/02/bell-book-candle.html

“Regarding the coin-in-the-fish, I'm saying that if something like the event occured (a very big “if”, admittedly) and if there is a natural explanation, then most likely someone put the coin in the fish after it was caught. This is obvious and unless you can come up with a natural explanation that is more likely, I'll take it you agree that this is the most likely natural explanation, if we assume that something like the event occured.”

Since there is zero evidence for your alternative explanation, the onus is not on me to disprove a claim for which you have no evidence. A claim, moreover, that runs counter to the available evidence.

Brian Barrington said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian Barrington said...

The only reason I mention Marian miracles is because I personally know honest, intelligent, sane people who claim to have witnessed them - in some cases simultaneously, meaning there were multiple witnesses to these post-mortem appearances of the Virgin Mary.

Indeed, Marian appearances are so frequent and occur in so many places that I reckon one would have to be a real "hyper-sceptic" to hold that the vast array of testimony we have in relation to this matter is all incorrect.

I'm not asking you to disprove anything - I'm just saying that if something like the coin-in-fish event actually occurred (a big "if") then the most likely natural explanation I can think of is that someone put the coin in the fish after it was caught. If someone draws my attention to a more likely natural explanation then I will change my views on the matter.

steve said...

Brian Barrington said...

“The only reason I mention Marian miracles is because I personally know honest, intelligent, sane people who claim to have witnessed them - in some cases simultaneously, meaning there were multiple witnesses to these post-mortem appearances of the Virgin Mary. Indeed, Marian appearances are so frequent and occur in so many places that I reckon one would have to be a real "hyper-sceptic" to hold that the vast array of testimony we have in relation to this matter is all incorrect.”

Since I linked to my detailed approach to Catholic miracles, your example is moot. A constant problem with our exchange is that you repeat your rote responses, which are always one step (or more) behind the actual state of the argument.

“I'm not asking you to disprove anything - I'm just saying that if something like the coin-in-fish event actually occurred (a big ‘if’) then the most likely natural explanation I can think of is that someone put the coin in the fish after it was caught. If someone draws my attention to a more likely natural explanation then I will change my views on the matter.”

I was never my ambition to change your views. That’s not my responsibility. I can’t reason with unreasonable interlocutors. But I can show how unreasonable they are.

David Marshall said...

My ambition is to change Brian's thinking, eventually. But I admit it's an uphill slog. : -)

steve said...

One more thing about Brian’s dismissive attitude towards “anecdotes.”

i) Anecdotes can be unreliable if we try to extrapolate from a few isolated anecdotes to a general claim.

ii) On the other hand, if many observers report seeing, say, ball lightning, then it would be irrational to discount their testimony merely because it was anecdotal.

iii) Finally, while it may be unreliable to extrapolate from anecdotes to a general claim, there’s nothing inherently suspect about anecdotal reports of particular events.

Brian Barrington said...

Steve, I have long hoped to persuade David to find his inner humanist, but the atheist within him is protected by so many impenetrable layers of thick religious armour that I sometimes despair of ever getting through to him :-)

Billy Squibs said...

Also known as the armour of Christ.

David Marshall said...

Brian may also be thinking of the Belt of Truth (Ephesians 6:14).