Sunday, October 03, 2010

Historians and Antecedent Probabilities

JWL: And yet your problem is that the OTF disallows faith. Since the evidence for faith in extraordinary claims cannot lead a historian qua historian to faith your faith fails the test.

VR: Do you have any method for figuring out what claims are most extraordinary?

How extraordinary would the Resurrection have been to people who saw Jesus feed the 5000, heal every leper in sight, and raise Lazarus from the dead. Of course there you assume there are no such people, but what if you were one of such people yourself?

My thesis is that different people, being equally rational, can come at the same piece of evidence and reach different conclusions. There is no method that I know of for determining correct antecedent probabilities, so we are stuck with the ones we have, and have to conditionalize on them. Do you have a method for proving that I ought to have naturalistic antecedent probabilities? This is actually an issue where McGrew and I differ and where Tim knows a lot more about it than I do, since he thinks there are objective antecedent probabilities. However, I take it that he and I agree that simplistic ways of getting antecedent probabilities that force us all into a methodological naturalism don't work. I realize that Hume's essay on miracles has its defenders like Sobel and Fogelin, but I think the majority position on Hume's essay is pretty close to my Internet Infidels paper on the subject, and to the similar view found in University of Pittsburgh atheist philosopher of science John Earman's book Hume's Abject Failure.

I'm still pretty much a card-carrying Bayesian subjectivist who comes to the miracle stories of Christianity with higher priors than you have. But you have no way of proving that my priors are wrong. You can ridicule them if you want to, but that doesn't do anything for the argument.

There's no mathematical metric for determining whether the best story you can tell about how Christianity came to be founded is more or less miraculous than the claim that Jesus was resurrected. I think if you can buy the resurrection story, the rest of the evidence makes more sense than if you reject it. Why I think that is a long story, involving some of the things I've talked about, such as Lukan accuracy, and the evidence for martyrdom risk behavior amongst the witnesses, as well as what I think is right about the Trilemma, and the weaknesses in what I think is the best counter-theory out there, the hallucination theory. It's a long story that requires a lot of patience to go through.

History can make progress only when lots of historians come at the past with lots of different priors, and, if possible, the evidence drives a convergence to a correct answer. Strictly speaking, on my view, the historical evidence can't force a verdict one way or another, since on my view there are various rational credence functions. Given the fact that different people can have different priors about the miraculous, I can say that the evidence, as I read it, pushes in the direction of accepting the Christian account, but given the fact that there are different possible rational priors, it need not do so decisively, at least so far as I can tell.


Blaise Pascal said...

"And yet your problem is that the OTF disallows faith. Since the evidence for faith in extraordinary claims cannot lead a historian qua historian to faith your faith fails the test."

I think there are historians who believe in the resurrection. Doesnt Pinchas Lapide, an orthodox Jew, believe in it?

Blaise Pascal said...

"[A]s a faithful Jew, I cannot explain a historical development which, despite many errors and much confusion, has carried the central message of Israel into the world of the nations, as the result of blind happenstance, or human error, or a materialistic determinism . . . . [T]he Easter faith has to be recognized as a part of divine providence."

The quote is taken from a Amazon customer review.

Victor Reppert said...

We talked about Lapide last June 17th here.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Vic, QUESTIONS (please send response to my email as well)

1) I understand your point that you and I "weight" the evidence differently, right from the start. And that's why you "are" a Christian and I "was" a Christian.

So why do you think we each "weight" the evidence differently right from the start?

2) What parts of the "evidence" for the resurrection have you personally experienced? Have you seen Jesus? Did he ever "appear" to you? Speak to you? And how do you know it was Jesus?

3) What exactly is the evidence?
Please cite all of the "evidence" for the resurrection and ascenion into heaven (don't leave anything out of the story that's in the Bible) and put it together for me in some manner. If there's parts that don't fit easily, please explain why you are excluding them or disregarding them compared with your emphasis on other parts of the story.

Resurrection was already a common enough category before it was applied to Jesus. So it seems probable to me that his followers might have used that term after his death. The Dead Sea Scroll folks used it too. As did the Pharisees. "He was resurrected" thus seems the term for first century people to use if they can't accept the death of a person they chose to follow. As in the case of Jesus himself being asked whether or not "he was John the Baptist raised from the dead."

John W. Loftus said...

I argue that when it comes to miraculous claims yesterday’s evidence no longer can hold water for me, for in order to see yesterday’s evidence as evidence for me, I must already believe the Christian framework (i.e., the Bayesian priors) that allows me to see yesterday’s evidence as evidence for Christianity. The problem is that no amount of philosophical thinking alone will produce the conclusion that any event actually took place in the past, much less a miraculous resurrection. So on the on hand, in order to establish the Christian faith believers must use historical evidence at every juncture. But on the other hand, in order to see that evidence as evidence we need to have good reasons to do so. Where do those reasons come from? Not from any “background knowledge” or “priors” of theirs. They cannot use their so-called “background knowledge” or their “priors” to help determine whether the evidence shows Jesus arose from the dead until they can first show that he did. Christians must independently establish that the resurrection took place in history before such a belief can be placed into their bag of "priors." This problem is fatal for anyone who wishes to believe Jesus bodily arose from the dead in history. We can even grant the existence of Yahweh or a creator god and the possibility of miracles and it changes nothing. For what needs to be shown is that Yahweh did such a miracle here in this particular case and the historical tools we have available to assess whether he did are inadequate for the task.

I like Bob Price who says that even if God raised Jesus from the dead there is no way we can know that he did. THAT is the case and only practically brain dead people refuse to acknowledge this.

Blue Devil Knight said...

It is great to see some discussion of the issues here from Loftus.

We discussed these issues in some depth in this thread.

That convinced me to read more of the history, but I've started by embarking on a re-reading of the four gospels. It's easy, in these debates, to lose sight of the fact that these are some amazing documents no matter what your stance.

Victor Reppert said...

John, is there any more to your argument than the obvious fact that your prior are different from mine? That much is obvious.

If we don't use our own priors, whose priors do we use? My argument is that there is no method known to man for calculating "correct" priors. None. If you want to go around saying that only brain-dead people have priors that are open to supernaturalism, then we need to see the argument. Otherwise, it's just vain name-calling, and it reflects badly on your ability to engage opposing positions in reasonable dialogue.

I take it you take the position a lot of people take, that no ancient evidence, no difficulty in explaining ancient history naturalistically, could possibly be sufficient for you. And that may be. What we don't have here is an argument that your priors ought to be normative for me.

By itself, I never thought the case for the resurrection is sufficiently strong that all rational persons ought to believe in it. What I do believe is that there is a cumulative case argument for a supernatural account of the whole story of the founding of Christianity, which includes the resurrection, and that this evidence can not only be an argument in support of Christianity, but also a cumulative-case role-player in an argument for theism. Further, I claim that evidence of this type is not available in other religions. Most of them don't even attempt to provide a historical argument.

If you want to press irrationality charges, then YOU have to argue that NO reasonable person, regardless of their prior probabilities, can possibly conclude that the Resurrection occurred. I don't think that the evidence shows that Resurrection skeptics are irrational, so I am not using the evidence to support irrationality charges. All I need to show is that some reasonable people can believe that a resurrection occurred.

There's been an ongoing debate on Hume's treatment of miracles that went Bayesian about 25 years ago, and as a philosopher who has participated in that debate and knows the relevant literature, I maintain that the debate is going in favor of Hume's critics. If you read my essay on Infidels (and it got on Infidels because I sent it to Jeff Lowder, who wanted to publish it when he read it), you will find that to defend a Humean position you have to solve what in Bayesian theory is called the problem of the single case that supports Hume's conclusions.

Price (a Bible scholar who strikes me as so hostile to the Bible and to evangelicalism that I consider him thoroughly biased), says no one could know that Jesus was resurrected, even if God resurrected him. If what he means by this is that it could not be proved to the satisfaction of all reasonable persons, that may be true. But his position is a philosophical position, not a position that can possibly arise as a result of Bible scholarship. In other words, this kind of a claim is one that has to be based on considerations from my specialization, not his.

John W. Loftus said...

Vic, if your "priors" are truly "priors" then they need to be there "prior."

So here you are wondering whether Christian theism is true. You were probably raised to believe in this Christian culture but now as the adult you have become you want to examine the case for yourself.

So when doing so what are your "priors" at that point? That is, what do you know and when? When do you place which "priors" into your bag of "priors"?

Name them in order to the best of your ability. And tell me how you arrived at them without using any subsequent ones.

Victor Reppert said...

But the whole subjectivist theory of Bayesianism says that we best arrive at the truth if we conditionalize on the priors we have, since an arbitrary shift in priors won't be helpful in getting to the truth. If our priors are bad priors, then the evidence should move us off those priors to a more adequate belief system.

Bayesian subjectivism is a strongly anti-foundationalist theory of knowledge. I suppose it's a version of coherentism.