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Monday, July 15, 2013

Hector Avalos debunks all historical knowledge.

Sergeant Avalos: "We know nu-theeng!" 
Perhaps the phrase "cut off your nose to spite your face" was coined with atheists of a logical positivist mindset in mind.  Logical positivism, or scientism, is the doctrine that the only really useful way of finding truth is through science, or through direct sensual testing of physical objects. 

The unstudied contempt Richard Dawkins sometimes seems to express towards disciplines like history, philosophy, and theology, may make him our generation's patron saint of scientism.  But some scholars who are not themselves scientists, who in fact spend years studying and writing about history, in effect deny the very history from which they gain a living.

Some seem to do this in order to deny that miracles really happen.  By definition, miracles are historical reports, unrepeatable because God does them when He wants to, not because we add 200 grams of the right reactant to a test tube, or pray loudly in Jesus' name, facing Mecca and standing on one leg in a graveyard.  So the reasoning seems to be (whether conscious or not): deny that history can furnish us with real knowledge at all, and you can deny miracles, and God, with a clean conscience and perfect logical consistency. 

At any rate, once one gets beyond petty personal attacks, that seemed to be Hector Avalos' strategy in his response earlier this year to me, "Alexander the Great, Jesus, and David Marshall: A Simpleton's Approach to History."  (I bring it up now, because an historian-in-training named Matthew Ferguson -- Celsus on Amazon, who I think has visited these pages before, to I hope his immense embarrassment -- cited this article recently, in a discussion that some friends pointed out.) 

I actually think the subtitle of Avalos' article here is catchy, and deadly accurate.  What Avalos betrays, not so much in the article itself (which is pettifogging and irrelevant, more on that later), but in the comments section below it, after some interrogation, is indeed a "simpleton's approach to history."  The simplest thing one can do to history, is deny it.  "History is bunk!"  Which, while foolish, also rather impressive, coming from someone who makes his living teaching history.

Your nose may hurt for a while.  But will this ever embarrass your face! 


Back Story

Dr. Avalos and I have traded arguments, and sometimes barbs, for three years, now.  Four months ago, in a discussion about the resurrection of Jesus by Avalos, a former debate partner also of William Lane Craig, I came across the following intriguing line of reasoning:

Of course, we have no “existing knowledge” that there was an empty tomb, or that Jesus resurrected.  These are simply claims made by ancient authors. We have no existing knowledge that people resurrect, but that does not stop (William Lane) Craig from positing something that is not “existing knowledge.”
           
On the other hand, people lying, having hallucinations, and not dying after severe  injuries are part of our existing knowledge, and so can be used as explanations where the evidence fits.
 
 
By that standard, we also have no "existing knowledge" that Alexander the Great faced elephants on the battlefield in India, or that Confucius climbed Mount Tai in the state of Lu.  These, too, are "simply claims made by ancient authors."

But again, the question is not "whether people resurrect," but whether God (an all-powerful, benevolent being) may have resurrected one or more people.  One needs to be careful not to phrase this to make a miracle sound like spontaneous combustion, or some other arbitrary, inexplicable event. 

Craig Keener argues, in effect, that miracles may also be taken as part of our existing knowledge.  Certainly I have met far more people who have experienced miracles, than who have hallucinated on the scale required to explain the resurrection appearances, or who have survived crucifixion and then been well enough to walk through walls to tell the story afterwards.

Avalos responded not by answering the main substance of my argument (of which this was a part) but by turning the full force of his scholarly apparatus on a casual phrase here that he found vulnerable.  He wrote a long article for Deconstructing Christianity in "response" entitled, "Alexander the Great, Jesus, and David Marshall: A Simpleton's Approach to History," focusing almost entirely on my fairly off-the-cuff example of Alexander's visit to India. (Which no, did not occur to me because of Josh McDowell.) 

Let us suppose, for the sake of the argument, that I really am a simpleton.  In my simple way, let me point out that the real question is not about Marshall, Craig, Alexander the Great, or elephants in India, but whether we have reason to believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead -- and whether we know anything about history, in general. 

So I pressed Avalos.  After going down many tangents, I extracted the following confession:

But, if you wish a more direct answer, then I am saying that claims by ancient authors “or human witnesses generally” DO NOT constitute “KNOWLEDGE” unless corroborated by independent empirico-rationalist evidence.

So what does constitute "knowledge?"  What, if anything, can we "know?" Avalos explained:

I use the word KNOW only for the highest types of available certainty, which would be conclusions that I can directly verify with one or more of my five senses and/or logic on the presupposition that those faculties can provide reliable data.

Now this opens quite a can of worms. 

Does that mean no school child "knows" that Washington, D. C. is America's capital, because that knowledge depends entirely on other witnesses?   Or does any adult though that, even the president at the White House?  Obama cannot verify that he lives in Washington by logic or senses alone, without human testimony.  His aides are human as were his teachers.  Look at a map, and people put those names on the map.  I don't "know" that I have lungs, since I rely on authority and human testimony for that "pseudo-knowledge."  Practically none of us "knows" that Mars has two small moons, or that Uranus exists at all.

In fact, it appears that Avalos is thus limiting "knowledge" to things he has himself touched, smelled, tasted, heard, or seen.  But even there, does he mean only those things he senses at this exact moment?  Or is he including things he merely remembers seeing, etc, as "knowledge?"

Note that this definition also undermines his other claim:

On the other hand, people lying, having hallucinations, and not dying after severe  injuries are part of our existing knowledge, and so can be used as explanations where the evidence fits.

But how do I know anyone ever has hallucinations?  I've never had one.  I believe they happen, because other people report them, not because I have witnessed them myself.  In fact on Avalos' premises, the very term "our existing knowledge" is rendered null and void.  There is no "we," since reports from others are no longer genuine "knowledge," which is why Avalos uses the pronoun "I"  above. 

And if we exclude memory, even I "know" about ten things right now, if I attend to them.  (Which I cannot do all at once -- so I can only "know" one thing at a time?)  If Avalos accepts his own memory as providing genuine knowledge, then on what basis does he trust it in addition to his senses?  We all know how fallible that is -- extending Elizabeth Loftus' research on auto accidents to support general skepticism being a familiar plank in the skeptical platform for some time, now.  (I recall arguing about this matter more than a decade ago, when we lived in Japan.) 

In any case, what gives Avalos the right to impose his special definition of "knowledge" on William Lane Craig?  Avalos is using a very special definition of "knowledge."  He has no right to assume everyone else, including myself, Bill Craig, or the readers of DC,  assume that vocabulary. 

For instance, Samuel Johnson said, "Why, Madam, the greater part of our knowledge is implicit faith."  (Life of Johnson, 1917, 382)  As author of a renowned English dictionary, Dr. Johnson ranks higher as an authority on word use than Hector Avalos, and I think higher also as an epistemologist. 

Put bluntly (and here's the logical problem), why should Avalos privilege his own brain processes, over those of other people? Maybe his logically faculties are defective. (Read our previous debates and tell me that is so incredible!) Why should he assume that his own faculties, sensory and cognitive, should be preferred over those of billions of other people?

And is it not true, in practice, that sometimes our senses and reason are less dependable than the authority of another person?   Isn't that why people with bad eyes sometimes ask their children for help making out a prescription? 
 
So I'm glad for Avalos' attempted rebuttal, however far afield he took the discussion. Eventually we come to a serious problem in his understanding of science, an arbitrary and narrowly-focused skepticism that comports neither with normal word use, nor with reasonable epistemology, nor with common sense, nor hardly even with itself.   One might even describe it as a "simplistic" philosophy.  In embracing this kind of positivism, Avalos may indeed cast doubt on the gospels -- but at the steep price of 99.9% or more of what human beings used to call knowledge.

Indeed, in order to debunk the Resurrection, Hector Avalos seems to have justified the saying of that great German philosopher, Sergeant Shultz:

I know nu-thing! 
 
Now that's what I call dedication.

(Next, I respond to some of the ankle-biting.)

9 comments:

RD Miksa said...

Dr. Avalos said:

“I use the word KNOW only for the highest types of available certainty, which would be conclusions that I can directly verify with one or more of my five senses and/or logic on the presupposition that those faculties can provide reliable data.”

David, as you mentioned, this is literally an insane / absurd epistemological standard!

For example, I guess this means that Dr. Avalos would not really know whether his wife loved him or not (if he is married, that is), given that such knowledge relies on testimony that cannot, even in principle, be directly verified with his senses.

And I guess that this means that Dr. Avalos would not really know whether his children were his or not (if he has children), given that he did not directly view their conception happen and that he would have to rely on the testimony of his wife concerning her fidelity.

And I also guess that Dr. Avalos would not even really know whether he was actually Hector Avalos or not. I mean all the information concerning his birth, identity and family background comes from testimonial evidence, so Dr. Avalos would be hard pressed to justify claiming his own identity as knowledge.

And such examples could be multiplied endlessly.

Now these examples are personal, and I have chosen them as such for two reasons. First, by potentially raising as emotional reaction, they might hopefully show Dr. Avalos just how absurd his position is, thus inspiring him to revise it. Second, since we all know (wink, wink) that in reality Dr. Avalos does know that his wife loves him, and he does know who his children are, and he also knows his own identity, then it is clear that in real-life, Avalos does not use his own standard at all. In fact, I would wager that he likely only uses it when discussing the Gospels or other evidences for Christianity.

RD Miksa

David B Marshall said...

Well, most philosophical positions are crazy, if those who hold them are only willing to state them clearly. I have to give Avalos credit for (finally) voicing the madness out loud.

If I had to defend it, I'd say he doesn't mean we can't know anything in history in a lower sense of "know," but that we lack strong certainty, and can only be strongly certain of what we see with our own eyes. But there are still all kinds of problems with that, as explained, not least being that Avalos is obliged to interpret Craig's words by how Craig likely intended them. One hopes that clear foolishness would prove a step on the path to truth, but it doesn't always happen that way.

steve said...

Avalos sometimes gives interviews in which he tells stories about his past. How he used to be a boy preacher. How he lost his faith.

Does his testimony rise to the level of historical *knowledge*? Or should we discount his testimony unless "corroborated by independent empirico-rationalist evidence?"

David B Marshall said...

Good point. My first question, though, would be, "What is empirico-rationalist evidence?" That seems to combine the inductive with the deductive in some unspecified form. Perhaps it means, "What I think plus what I see, plus what I think I see or have seen -- the heck with what everybody else reports."

Brian Barrington said...

If people make claims about a natural event occuring in the past then, all else being equal, there is less reason to disbelieve them than if they make a claim about a supernatural event occuring in the past. Why? Because I see lots of natural of events everyday. For example, since I was born I have witnessed countless millions of natural events. I do not have any good reason to doubt that natural events occur, since I have knowlingly witnessed gazillions of them. In contrast, I have not witnessed a single supernatural event. So if someone makes a claim about history that some natural event occurred then that is decisively different than someone who makes a claim for a supernatural historical event e.g. a miracle claim. Having said that, even many historical claims for natural events are questionable, especially if you go back far enough. Would I be surprised if Confucius never climbed Mount Tai in the state of Lu? Not overly – for all I know somebody could just have made the story up. Maybe you could say that , all things considered, it’s more likely than not that he climbed up Mount Tai – but I still wouldn’t fancy devoting my life to the proposition that Confucius climbed Mount Tai in the state of Lu. In fact, I wouldn’t want to bet too much money (or anything else) on many claims from Ancient history.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: I have never witnessed a murder. I have witnessed events that, while not supernatural in the strong sense, did suggest divine action. And I've met lots more people who have witnessed miracles, than murder. (Not sure anyone I know has, the latter.) And there's something unnatural about murder. So if witnessing an event is the criteria, I should believe in miracles long before I believe in murders.

Fortunately, evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus is much stronger than for that Confucius climbed Mount Tai -- though I am, maybe, 95% sure of the latter.

Brian Barrington said...

Is the only reason you believe murder has occurred because of testimony? Throughout your life you have witnessed death, corpses, acts of violence, injuries, animals being killed, insects being killed and so on – events like these have been witnessed by you all through your life over and over again, countless times, directly experienced and observed by you. You have killed insects and perhaps other animals, and you have doubtless physically injured other people, perhaps by accident. By a process of reasoning, based solely on your personal life-long experiences and observations, you have every reason to think that one person can kill another person, and you have no good reason to think it is impossible for one person to kill another person, even if you have never directly witnessed a person killing another person. In fact, even if (for some bizarrre reason) you had never heard any testimony concerning a person killing another person, it could be said that you would still have good reason to think that doing so is possible, based solely on your own life-long experiences and observations. Now, if you add the massive testimony about murder\killing (coming from all types of people – those who believe in the supernatural and those who do not), as well as other evidence (video footage, photos etc.) to your own experiences and observations, you have overwhelmingly good evidence to believe that murder\killing occurs or that it can occur. The combination of life-long personal experience and observation, when added together with the testimony and other external evidence, is just overwhelmingly powerful. That’s why I have never met a single person anywhere who thinks that murder does not occur – but I have met many, many people who think that miracles do not occur. And needless to say, murder is not a supernatural event.

Brian Barrington said...

Another very important point here: it’s easier to disprove a false murder-claim than a false miracle-claim. If someone says, “I just saw a murder” there will likely be a corpse, a murder weapon, and so on. If there isn’t, then we would doubt that the murder occurred – we would say that the murder did not occur, and that the person made it up. If someone says “I just saw my dead granny, who died ten years ago. She said she was visiting me from the other world and now she has gone back to the other world”. Well, there is no way to corroborate the claim with physical evidence – so it is easier to make it up. It is much easier to make a false miracle-claim than a false-murder claim. If you make a false murder-claim and have no other evidence to corroborate it then no one will believe you.

David B Marshall said...

I agree that the case that murder occurs, is overwhelming. But if you're talking about direct experience -- the criteria you introduced -- and for direct eyewitness accounts, then for me, that for miracles is far stronger. (Notice that you use the phrase, "testimony concerning a person killing another person," rather than "testimony OF a person MURDERING another person" -- probably because you recognized how rare direct witnesses are, in that case, and murder by definition is in part interpretation.)

All the evidence you refer to, is useless without interpretation, which comes from other people. That interpretation can be denied.

Also, of course, atheists have no reason to deny murder.