Saturday, January 24, 2015

Matthew McCormick's Spectral Evidence IV‏

In our last installment, we saw that Matthew McCormick argues that the evidence for genuine witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts was much stronger than the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus.  Oddly, however, he is remarkably coy about citing that evidence in detail, though he offers nebulous claims for reems (thousands of books) of the stuff.  Indeed, like the "evidence" for witchcraft itself, the evidence for that evidence, in McCormick's own telling, appears to be of the kind best described as "spectral," a terms  our anonymous friends at Wiki explain:  

"Spectral evidence is a form of evidence based upon dreams and visions. It was admitted into court during the Salem witch trials by the appointed chief justice, William Stoughton. The booklet A Tryal of Witches taken from a contemporary report of the proceedings of the Bury St. Edmunds witch trial of 1662 became a model for and was referenced in the Trials when the magistrates were looking for proof that such evidence could be used in a court of law.

"Spectral evidence was testimony that the accused witch's spirit (i.e. spectre) appeared to the witness in a dream or vision (for example, a black cat or wolf). The dream or vision was admitted as evidence. Thus, witnesses (who were often the accusers) would testify that "Goody Proctor bit, pinched, and almost choked me," and it would be taken as evidence that the accused were responsible for the biting, pinching and choking even though they were elsewhere at the time."

It's not hard to see, reading these two paragraphs, why Dr. McCormick was shy about producing all this wonderful evidence that he claims supports the reality of witchcraft in New England so well.  (Even though he personally refuses to believe, for reasons he is also coy about laying out in black and white.)  The answer is simple: if he ventured to be more specific, all but the most determined of his fans would laugh out loud, and not stop laughing until they had forgotten his book.  

A claim that one was bitten in a dream by a cat acting in the offices of a neighbor, falls somewhat short, shall we say, of "Reach here your hands and thrust them into my side, and do not be unbelieving."  So much further down the scale of "evidence" do mountains of books written "about" the trial that vaguely "surround" it like a bank of fog surrounds a hillock, before the wind begins to blow.  (Or while the hot air is already blowing over that hillock off an ocean of warm spit somewhat to windward, to mix our metaphors liberally and gaily, in the spirit of the thing.)  

So all we have left is spectres.  And this is McCormick's keynote chapter, the center of his case.  It can only go downhill from here, and generally does.  

I will not analyze most of the later chapters in equal detail to what we have given so far.   

However, let us venture through one more chapter, which is also somewhat important to McCormick's case, and purports to undermine Christian eyewitness.  (And would undermine history in general, if it were successful.)  Then I'll summarize the rest of the book more succinctly. 

Chapter Four is entitled, "Believing the Believers."  The chapter's point, of course, is to get the readers to disbelieve the "believers," that is those who believe claims not sanctioned by materialism, Christians in particular.  

Like previous chapters, it is largely hot spectral air, with little of substance to grasp.  But like a bank of fog, from a distance it can seem imposing, may even be mistaken for a mountain.  (I made that mistake a few weeks ago, looking for the volcanoes of Kamchatka peninsula on a flight from Seattle to Seoul, until a real mountain loomed out of the fog on the horizon.) 

Why should we disbelieve the alleged witnesses to the Resurrection?  The reasons McCormick gives are legion, one has to credit him with that.  He has thought through the position he wants to argue from numerous angles, and always comes to the same unified conclusion, without dissent of insight or a single difficulty to trouble his confidence.  

McCormick begins by pointing readers to Fatima.  Millions of Roman Catholics have visited this site since 1858, McCormick notes.  Here is the core of McCormick's "argument" (no, I am not making this up, as Dave Barry used to assure his readers):

"Out of those millions of visitors, many have had what they thought was a miraculous experience . . . And a number of those experiences have been submitted to an official investigating body of the Roman Catholic Church . . . As of now, out of the thousands of cases they have considered, sixty-seven miracles have been declared to be real by the Lourdes Medical Bureau, which is made up of church-appointed clergy and doctors who select themselves to serve . . . 

"What the numbers suggest is that for every officially recognized miracle, there are hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of cases where someone thinks a miracle has occurred, but that claim would not pass muster, even with the favorably-inclined, church-appointed investigating board.  Now we must engage in some educated guesswork: out of the eight million to two hundred million visitors to Lourdes . . . Let us make the conservative conjecture that one half of the low estimate of total visitors, or four million people, thought that something miraculous from a spiritual source happened . . . then the general miracle reliability rating for visitors to Lourdes is 0.0000167 or 0.00167 percent." (76)

This is what happens when a philosopher who could also have considered a career a law or car sales, tries his hand at history.  

There is no "educated guesswork" here, at all.  There are just numbers dragged kicked and screaming, let us not say from whence, but certainly not from any real data base.  

How many visitors to Fatima really think they experienced a miracle?  McCormick has no idea, so he makes up a proportion, like love in the song, "out of nothing at all," not one single survey, not a chat with a single family, nothing: half, he claims, think they experienced a miracle.  

How many of those who think they experience a miracle, reported that miracle to local priests?  McCormick doesn't bother to ask this vital question.  

How many real miracles did the priests choose not to include, because they saw their task perhaps not as simply accepting what might possibly be true, but of certifying that for which they found strong evidence?  Is it not possible that God might do a miracle, but that a skeptically-minded Catholic intellectual may doubt that the evidence for that miracle is strong enough to put on public display?  Again, these questions, or possibilities, do not even occur to Dr. McCormick.  

And does God even like Fatima?  Or is it possibly that He is busy doing miracles in some other way, possibly because he finds the atmosphere at Fatima cheesy or offensive, or doesn't like being pushed into a corner, as Jesus himself indicated one when pressured to cough up a miracle on demand?  Again, McCormick doesn't mention this possibility, either.  

But all of that is besides the point.  McCormick is waving magic wands.  He does not know what has or has not occurred at Fatima.  He has no idea.  He's making figures up off the top of his head, and this is what he fancies an empirical argument is supposed to look like!  

McCormick then herds us back to the United States: 

"In informal discussions with students in my classes over the years, a majority claim to have seen at some point something spooky, supernatural, or that defied the ordinary natural course of things.  But it is very rare to hear of an example where there is not an obvious and better natural explanation.  On any given day in the United States there are thousands, or possibly hundreds of thousands, of faith healers who are holding faith-healing revivals . . . None of these appears to be real . . . " (77)

Indeed, they don't.  They are more spectres.  Again, where does McCormick get these figures of "thousands or hundreds of thousands" of faith-healing revivals in America on every day of the year?  He makes it up. 

Also, notice the slippery words "spooky, supernatural, or that defied the ordinary natural course of things."  The word "or" implies that only one of these need apply, for the sentence to be true.  So all he might mean, is that most his students have seen something "spooky."  What might these anonymous kids mean by that?  They went through the Haunted House ride at Disneyland?  A dark figure once crossed the window when they were half asleep as children?  A philosopher should make claims more carefully and clearly than this: "Most of my students claim to have seen events that they reported as appearing most immediately to have been caused by supernatural agents" would be better, if it were true.  

And if there was an "obvious and better natural explanation," how could those "miracles" at the same time "defy the ordinary natural course of things?"  To have an obvious natural explanation is precisely NOT to define the ordinary course of things -- if we assume that miracles are not ordinary.  McCormick is contradicting himself, and doesn't appear to know what he means.  

McCormick makes much of the "millions to one" spectre he has conjured in his imagination, evidence that Goody Proctor bit Western Civilization in the thigh with his talk about miracles.  

Why should be believe those low-IQ Galilean Hillbillies, Anyway?

The rest of the chapter is largely dedicated to explaining the various factors that make "us" (Americans who do not buy his arguments) such gullible rubes.  When people undergo traumatic events, such as the loss of a loved one, we often hallucinate that person's presence, "bereavement hallucination."  (Do we?  Have you?)  Sometimes the dead visit us in our dreams.  (If they did, would we be unable to tell the difference between waking and sleeping?)  In fact, it would "verge on the miraculous" if none of Jesus' disciples at all had "not reported seeing Jesus return from the dead."  (85)  (So that's why there are parallel accounts by their near disciples of Confucius, Mencius, Buddha, Socrates, Plato, Isaiah, Mohammed, Alexander the Great, Dante, King Alfred, and Vladimir Lenin all rising from the dead, too?)  Reports of these experiences would then have circulated ("it is easy to imagine" [86]), the stories embellished, they converged and were recorded, and there you get (after decades of "embellishments, annexations, and edits") the Gospel of Mark. 

By which logic, we should have thousands of gospel-like documents, about various historical figures.  But we do not.  

McCormick then launches into an extended discourse on how perilous a thing human memory turns out to be, citing (as usual) the work of Elizabeth Loftus.  We hear people tell stories and "begin to remember the event as happening to me."  Memes "take on lives of their own," (spectral lives!) and over "thirty to ninety years," "movements of global import that span centuries are spawned on the basis of mistakes." (89)  Furthermore, people remember important events under stress even worse than ordinary events in calm times -- empirical research proves that.  (Though again, McCormick cites that research only in the vaguest way.)  And the evangelists were subject to the pressures of social conformity.  

McCormick seldom fails to use the pronoun "we" when he means "you dummies:" 

"In general, the line between what is consciously experienced and what is imagined is murky, at best." (92)

Did "we" mention that people in those days were stupid?  They were, you know.  James Flynn has demonstrated that IQ has been increasing at the rate of "about three points a decade," what is called the "Flynn Effect."  (It has a name!  That must make it scientific!)  What would happen if we "project it backward in time?"  Well, we can't assume a "steady downward slope," but it is clear that the ancients were really thick, on average -- the very same ancients who founded the worlds' modern religions: 

"The IQ problem raises serious issues for all of the historically based religions.  The people who founded the world's religions, on average, would have had distinctly worse reasoning abilities . . . " (98)

I have been trying to keep the sarcasm in check, but I find that it is flowing out of every pore now, and I am unable to resist the tide any longer.

It is well that McCormick reminds his readers that one cannot precisely extrapolate this "3 points per decade" voodoo effect in a straight line.  If we could, it would have the embarrassing consequence that the founders of the United States of America, the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, lived in a time when the average IQ was about 30.  It would, in that case, be a wonder that the Revolutionary Army knew which sides of their muskets to hold and which to fire.  

It would follow that the average intelligence in the time of Christ was about minus 500, and in the days of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, just three kids from a small town facing the Mediterranean who somehow made it big (and still awe modern readers with sense), some minus 650.  

Yet "we" know (we religious rubes), from reading their books, that Plato was actually a bit smarter than Dr. McCormick.  M. Scott Peck identifies Jesus Christ  as the "smartest person who ever lived," and Peck was a bright fellow himself, with a fair understanding of the human mind.  

I therefore take the "Flynn Effect" and toss it in the rubbish pan of flim-flannery.  My common sense is offended, and my historical sense doubly offended, and I recognize nonsense when I see it.  "When you meet the voodoo, kill the voodoo," to corrupt another clever ancient tradition.  

According to the Bible, God created humanity in His image, which we have effaced somewhat.  According to evolution, homo sapiens evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago.  DNA are passed on by sex, not by education or atmosphere and certainly not over the Internet or by reading Michael McCormick's books.  So brain hardware is a given.  Given decent nutrition, the big variables are education and experience.  Intelligence cannot be determined a priori for broad sets of human beings, but must be recognized on a case-by-case basis.  Smart and stupid people have lived in every era.  This, intelligent people should understand by now.  

As for the rest of McCormick's arguments, he seems to be in a funk.  He knows if he ventures out of the realm of pure philosophy, he will need to make an empirical argument or two, but does not appear to know how to make one.  

Notice, for instance, the confusion he gets in over the Gospel of Mark: 

"It is quite possible that the author of Mark was the first one to put together some of the disparate accounts into the form his narrative takes.  The late, long ending of Mark could have been taken from several different stories circulating at that time.  And it bears repeating that this central source of information about the resurrected Jesus did not surface until one hundred or two hundred years after the alleged events.  So the objection that all of the apostles couldn't have had the same hallucination is not as strong as we might have thought.  What we have are reports from decades and centuries later . . . " (86)

Such a passage, and that it could get by professional editors, makes one despair of the IQ level of one's own generation.  

If the Mark story of the resurrection was so late, then of course it was not the source for much earlier, 1st Century reports of the resurrection, such as those given in the other gospels.  Isn't that obvious?  Yet McCormick tries somehow to have his cake and eat it here -- to accept the late dating of Mark's final verses, and STILL suppose that that account was the source for the other gospels on the resurrection story.  That's the only way it could be described as "this central source of information about the resurrected Jesus."   Licona, of course, does not treat the ending of Mark as central to an historical account of the resurrection, nor does any other serious scholar I know. 

McCormick is not usually as stupid as he makes himself sound with this "argument."  He certainly is no match for those old cognitively undeveloped fogeys Plato or Aristotle, still less for a Jesus.  (And Socrates would recognize, like Jesus, that his unwillingness to admit his intellectual blindness, is the truest blindness of all.)  Whatever Flynn has been up to, he doesn't seem to have been evolving the world a uniformly smarter, still less humbler and therefore wiser, set of skeptical philosophers.  

But what about the claim that human memory simply can't be trusted?  Here our skeptic wants to navigate between two awkward facts: (a) that all knowledge resides, if it resides anywhere among mortals, in human memory.  (Books are not knowledge, till someone reads and interprets them.)  (b) That if we allow Christian history to be treated fairly, according to the normal canons of study, many miracles will pass reasonably rigorous standards, with flying colors, including the Resurrection of Jesus.  

Can memory be trusted?  More than McCormick allows, I think.   Having been challenged on this point for some twelve years or more, I have taken to testing my own long-term memory, and that of family members, when we "drive down memory lane" -- by traveling back to Alaska where we grew up, when I wrote a short bio of my father after he passed away.  (Interviewing his older siblings, all well over 80 years old, about events that occurred up to 70 or more years ago.)  

I just don't buy the critics' arguments.  I find that people often do remember events, including important events, in a way that jibes with both history and with other memories.  I know I do.  

And that is how books like The Right Stuff and Band of Brothers come to get written, and why they are not purest fantasy.  I note some parallels between the latter book and the gospels in my recent Amazon review: 

"Some skeptics claim that the human memory is too frail a reed, too unreliable and suggestible, for historical reports written decades after the fact to be trustworthy. I think Ambrose shows them wrong. Given that the gospels were written under somewhat similiar circumstances -- 35-60 years after the fact, based apparently on the eyewitness testimony of many once young men (mostly) who had traveled together for a few years and experienced and witnessed traumatic and remarkable events -- I think Ambrose's success (despite occasionally contradictory sources) should give those skeptics pause."

Normandy was conquered.  The Battle of the Bulge did occur.  Dick Winter did lead E Company to successfully take German positions.  

The boundary between history and imagination is not so universally vague or loose as McCormick supposes.  And if it were, history would be impossible, and so would science, and we might as well all just pack up and go home.  

Which is a big price to pay, to keep God out of one's life. 

1 comment:

Jayman said...

You may be interested in a couple of posts I wrote.

Review of Chapter 8 of The End of Christianity

Rebuttal to Miracles and Probability from Lourdes to Lazarus - I attempt to use somewhat realistic numbers to show eyewitnesses are not as unreliable as McCormick believes.