Thursday, October 28, 2010

Arizona Atheist Defends the OTF argument

During the recent discussion of the Outsider Test for Faith, I had trouble, or at least so I thought, in getting my critique of the Test argument actually addressed. Arizona Atheist has attempted a defense of Loftus' argument which I think really does address the points I was making, and so deserves a response. 

Let me review what, as I see it, has been going on in this debate so far. First, I am willing to grant that there is something appealing out the Test, in we would like, certainly, not to be guilty of applying double standards to our own beliefs and those of others. So, on one level, the OTF serves as a kind of intellectual "fairness doctrine." On the other hand, I argued in an earlier set of discussions, that at the very least we ought to be careful not to apply a standard to religious beliefs that we don't apply to beliefs in general. It would be a mistake to be, for example, a classical foundationalist about religious beliefs but a coherentist about other beliefs. The epistemology I learned in grad school, mostly from unbelieving professors, was skeptical of the legitimacy of throwing one's prior probabilities and beliefs away and moving to a neutral corner to begin investigation. Nevertheless, when I was an undergrad, I did ask myself if I had believed in Christianity only because I happened to be taken to a Christian church when I was a child, and I did worry about whether I was believing because of my wishes, and not because I had reason to believe. So I am willing to agree that the OTF appeals to some legitimate epistemic concerns, and can be a useful thought experiment. 

Further, Loftus points to psychological evidence of our intellectual frailties. It's extremely difficult to be objective. But here, I think Loftus draws the wrong moral. If we have such frailties, those frailties are not curable by virtue of taking an "outsider test" or by becoming a nonbeliever. Surely, human proclivity towards  confirmation bias continues for those who leave the fold. When I go on Debunking Christianity and see pretty much an echo chamber there, I get the feeling that the whole site is one huge monument to confirmation bias on the atheist side. 

But what I then objected to was the confident assertions Loftus was making that no one could remain a Christian if they truly took the OTF. What I find objectionable is not so much the outsider test, which is OK as a heuristic within limits, but what I called the Answer Key or the Outsider Test for Faith Test, the confident assertion that the OTF, properly taken, must be fatal to Christian belief. 

The Test, presumably, requires that one have the same level of skepticism of one's own religion that one has for other religions. In other words, if I began being as skeptical of Christianity as I am of, say, Islam, would I be a believer now? 

It was my contention that someone could decide that Christianity is true and Islam false, if one were to accept the arguments of this site, which applies three tests to the Bible and the Qur'an, the Manuscript Evidence Test, the Documentary Evidence Test, and the Archaeological Evidence test. The Bible, according to these tests, stands on firmer ground than stands the Qur'an, so if the bar were set at the same level for each religion, Christianity could clear the bar, while Islam would fail to clear the bar. Although I am not sure about some of the supporting arguments the site uses in the area of archaeology, I am inclined to think that the overall comparison of these two sacred books is correct. The Bible is in far better shape than the Qur'an in all three areas. 

I pointed to a passage in Loftus' OTF contribution to The Christian Delusion in which he argues that Christian critics of other religions either naively assume that those religions are false because they contradict the Bible, or they investigate the rival religion using a kind of methodological naturalism which, if applied to Christianity, would result in the rejection of Christianity. I believe that the website I referenced refutes this claim by Loftus, and I hoped at the very least that Loftus would acknowledge this much. The site contains no Humean appeals to methodological naturalism, no claim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Instead, for all intents and purposes it test the two religions by exactly the same three standards, and says Christianity is in far better shape. 

Arizona Atheist makes the case even if the Bible stands on better evidential grounds than the Qur'an, deeper investigation would surely lead us to the conclusion that the evidence for the Bible is insufficient. He writes. 

If I understand correctly, the OTF is a method whereby a person looks at all views as if they are an outsider; consider all of the evidence against their beliefs. Well, I can understand how some call this the “Atheist” TF since it seems to lead to atheism. However, what I believe is missing in this discussion is the fact that, despite these people appearing to do some research (I’m unaware of the comparative historical reliability of both books so I’ll just assume it’s true for the sake of argument), the bible is still a horribly flawed retelling of history, even though it may be better than other religions’ books. I agree that at first glance it seems to satisfy the OTF but does it really? 

OK, so the Bible might be better off than the Qur'an but nevertheless not be believable. The evidence might be better, but still not sufficient.  Sure, though I think different rational persons can look at the evidence with different set of intellectual predispositions without anybody being open to irrationality charges. 

Arizona Atheist goes on: 

How much time did those Christians put into their research, because the bible is on shaky ground historically. Sure, it contains several verifiable historical accounts but overall it’s flawed. People who are said to have existed in the bible we can find no traces of, such as Moses. All the gospel writers are anonymous. Several events, such as the Exodus, seem to not have happened due to no evidence being found of half a million people wandering in the Sinai. And of course, the central story of Christianity, the resurrection. Again, there is no evidence outside of the bible that any of the things that are purported to have happened. The bible is surely on shaky historical ground, so even though it may be better than another religion’s book the Christians are obviously not looking at their bible with the same skepticism as the Qu'ran and therefore, in reality, their beliefs about their own bible I’d think also fail the test if they looked at it objectively. 

Well, here is the center of the argument.  Arizona Atheist is presenting these points as what any objective investigator will run into if they investigate the Bible "objectively," and these are the telling points which ought to decide the question against Christianity. Anyone who rejects these conclusions just isn't being objective.  Surely you can't be looking at the Bible with the same skepticism with which you look at the Qu'ran if you don't draw these conclusions. 

Now I can understand coming to this conclusion, but you have to realize that there are a lot of experts out there who don't draw these sorts of negative conclusions about the Bible. Yes, you have your Robert Prices Bart Ehrmans, and Gerd Ludemanns out there, but you also have people like Craig Blomberg, Richard Bauckham, and Joachim Jeremias on the other side.  Saying that these guys didn't study the issue very deeply seems implausible to me. (The idea that people who sign inerrancy statements to teach where they do means that they all have their thumb on the scale is not as telling as it might seem at first, and of course Bauckham and many other believing scholars sign no such statements). I personally think that the archaeological and historical confirmation of the latter part of the book of Acts, which I have emphasized on this site, is a far more telling fact than  the fact that, strictly speaking, Luke and the other gospel writers didn't put their names on their books. To some extent, in this area, we are reliant on experts, but there is a decided lack of consensus amongst the experts.  There's a wide range of presuppositional issues that have to be teased out, and some of these are not matters of Bible scholarship, but rather are philosophical matters.  So I would be reluctant to make the argument that anyone who made a serious effort to be objective would perforce come to the same conclusions that I have come to, and I think I would say this whether I were a skeptic or a believer. 

In one comment Tim McGrew wrote: 

 I'm just trying to sort through the variety of ways that the phrase "outsider test" gets used. I tried, in my question here (which no one has directly answered) to find out whether its primary sense is as a heuristic ("Here, try thinking about things this way, it may help to correct for some hard-to-spot biases") or as a diagnostic ("Once you've taken this test, tell me where you wind up -- and if it isn't where I wound up, you fail").

So far, the answers have strongly suggested that it's the latter. And I think that's a problem, because the attraction and intuitiveness of an outsider test is, I think, largely a function of it's being conceived of in the former way, as a heuristic. The diagonstic use, applied the way that John seems intent on applying it, really does collapse into the Insider Test for Infidels.

Even if you think your outcome is inevitable, I don't think you can make the outcome part of the test, or use your outcome as a basis for claiming that they other guy didn't REALLY take the test. That, to my mind, is question-begging. And that seems to be what is going on in the OTF debate. 


Anonymous said...

Bob Prokop writing:

I stongly suggest that anyone interested in this topic read G.K. Chesterton's "The Everlasting Man", first published in 1925. In it, Chesterton essentially invents the outsider test (decades before Loftus' birth), and applies it to the New Testament. Chesterton's conclusion is that the case for Christianity is STRONGER after subjecting it to the outsider test.

unkleE said...


1. I think you have demonstrated yet again that you are attempting to be objective on this matter, whereas the "diagnostic" version of the test is not.

2. The NT case is stronger than you say. While it is true that there is a wide range of scholarly views on the historical reliability of the NT, the consensus is that the documents do give reliable history. Michael Grant's conclusion is typical:

"if we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus' existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned ..... the picture they [the Gospels] present is largely authentic .... information about Jesus can be derived from the gospels."

Furthermore, the list of "known facts" about Jesus was presented by EP Sanders (a cautious scholar - many others I have read, including Grant, would endorse more than this) includes:

Jesus was born about 4 BCE
He grew up in Nazareth in Galilee
he was baptised by John the baptist
He was a Galilean, and an apocalyptic prophet
He called 12 disciples
He taught in Galilee, and his main theme was the kingdom of God
He gained fame as a healer and exorcist
About AD 30 he went to Jerusalem for the Passover and caused a disturbance in the temple
He had a final meal with his followers
He was arrested and interrogated by the Jewish authorities and crucified by the Roman Pontius Pilate
His followers initially fled, then they had resurrection experiences (though he cannot say of what nature)
His followers continued as a movement, believing Jesus would return to establish his kingdom

Grant even argues that, far from favouring christianity as OTF proponents infer, much scholarship about Jesus is the opposite' [much of contemporary Jesus studies] “is too extreme a viewpoint and would not be applied in other fields." AN Sherwin-White echoes this.

shiningwhiffle said...

at the very least we ought to be careful not to apply a standard to religious beliefs that we don't apply to beliefs in general.

This is my problem with the diagnostic version of the OTF. It's not hard to construct situations where perfectly ordinary, non-religious beliefs would the Outsider Test.

Platinga proposed the situation where all evidence pointed to your guilt in a crime, but you personally know that you weren't even in the area at the time. The Outsider Test would seem to suggest that you conclude your own guilt in such a situation, because you can't prove it to anyone else.

Steve Lovell said...

Good post Vic. I think this heuristic/diagnostic distinction really gets to the heart of the issue we have with Loftus's use of the OTF.

I also think it's telling that in the defence of the argument AA ends up throwing himself into the arguments about the historicity of the NT.

I think this is the sort of this which simply has to happen. The OTF is not an independent argument for atheism. It stands or falls with our evaluation of the other arguments for and/or against the views in question. In short, we have to do our best to find out the truth, while acknowledging our limitations and biases, and then anything worthwhile in the OTF will take care of itself.

Gregory said...

Let's take a Gettier example:

Upon looking at a clock's hands, which indicate that the time is 11:45, Jane Doe forms the belief that it is 11:45. And it really is 11:45 when Jane notices the time. However, the clock's battery ran out of juice exactly 24 hours before Jane looked at the clock.

We can clearly see that Jane is believing the right thing (i.e. that it's 11:45) for the wrong reason (i.e. reading a faulty clock).

Now, suppose someone calls Jane right after she sees the clock, and--in the midst of the conversation--asks her for the time. Jane immediately answers with "it's about a quarter 'til noon". Both Jane and the caller believe the right thing....and, in a sense, they believe it for the right reason (albeit a faulty clock). Why would either one of them think that they would--or should--need an "outsider test for time", when this particular clock is taken--without a blinking of hesitation--as the measure?

In reality a person can not, and will not, assess any given situation or phenomena without first having/consulting some set of background beliefs which are taken qua that, by which, he/she adjudicates any--or all--hypothetical options available to him/her. But as for Jane herself: she cannot avail herself of strict "objectivity" since the "faulty" clock she had consulted was taken as the standard/measure. And it's doubtful anyone would find epistemic malfeasance regarding Jane's situation.

Another problem with the OTF is the failure to appreciate the enormous amount of background beliefs, assumptions and criteria that are "givens", when formulating any type of test. "IQ Tests" are an obvious choice for observing the nuanced prejudice in those who are responsible for formulating these sorts of tests. For instance, some IQ tests are timed, while others are not. Some assume a greater IQ is present, among those tested, with high ranking scores along the mathematical/logical axis. Others find language, grammar and communication a priority. And some tests fall in between.

Therefore, the ineliminability of basic background beliefs and assumptions when assessing a belief system--regardless of whether that system happens to fall "inside" or "outside" the parameters of your own beliefs--makes the OTF best.

Gregory said...

When we use the term "standardized tests", we ought to bear in mind that those 'standards' also happen to be stipulations....agreements between those people who are busy creating a "standardized test". I suspect that many people take these tests in a Platonic/Idealist sense....meaning, that these tests are not simply inventions but, rather, are "objective" approximations. It could be argued, and has been argued, that standardized testing is relative to each culture and, therefore, susceptible to significant modification by the the State sees fit.

For instance, an increased pandering to children of first or second generation immigrants, and to minorities, has helped diminish the education of all U.S. citizens; compared to persons educated in places like Germany or Scandinavia. Also, the U.S. has become, largely, an entertainment culture. Americans dream more about becoming singing "Idols" than they do about becoming Physicists, Chemists, Philosophers and/or Writers. That stuff's for geeks and eggheads, right?!?!

Arizona Atheist said...

Hi Mr. Reppert. I hope my comment goes through this time. If not, hopefully you'll stop by my blog and see that I've responded (I've added an update to the original post).

Thanks again for the discussion.

Take care.

Victor Reppert said...

Thank you for your response. First of all, while I think the OTF, used as a heuristic, can help us try to escape our biases, I have serious doubts, based on my training in epistemology, that real, genuine, freedom from bias is really possible. In the real world, we have to chip away at our biases, as opposed to performing some miraculous operation that will eliminate them entirely. As Steven Jay Gould once said, "We don't know what our biases are, because if we did, we'd eliminate them." Interesting enough, in the Christian Delusion Loftus emphasizes all the sources of bias that we fall prey to, which suggests to me that we aren't going to achieve intellectual liberation with one simple test, or just by "being careful." Intellectual sainthood is about as rare as moral sainthood, as I see it. And, I really don't believe in the existence of "neutral ground."

Second, there may have been passages in the site which I referenced which indicate a Christian bias. Unfortunately, the link to the page is now broken, so I couldn't check the passages to see if, in full context, your reading of them was correct.

But, even if they fell into question-begging at certain points doesn't mean that the central argument of the site begs the question. The site, as I saw it, was primarily concerned with comparing the manuscript evidence, the documentary evidence, and the archaeological evidence for the Bible and the Qur'an. Suppose they had stuck to just those comparisons. It looks to me as if those comparisons can be made, and that, in fact, the Bible does come out better if you compare on those grounds. I don't expect any investigator to be perfectly unbiased, but this site did set of a format which, if they stuck to the format, would show a legitimate difference between the Bible and the Qur'an. Thus, so far as I can see, evidence does exist that gives us better reason to believe that the Bible is revelatory than to believe that believe that the Qur'an is. So at least some of their content falls into neither category that Loftus mentioned: either assuming methodological naturalism on the one hand, or assuming the truth of the Bible on the other. And my claim is that it looks perfectly possible to find reasons to believe in Christianity that one cannot find for Islam.