Saturday, July 31, 2010

On debunking Christianity

Look, if you set up a site called DEBUNKING Christianity, you are going beyond just saying your opponents are mistaken. You are saying that their position is bunk. If you call your book The Christian DELUSION, then you are saying that their position isn't just erroneous, it's delusional. You're staking out the low ground, not the high ground. You gain some passion for your own position, but you undercut any hope you might have of walking away from the dialogue on some kind of a friendly basis once it's over. And you can't be terribly surprised that people whose position you are attempting to debunk don't like what you're doing, and hit back with as harsh as tone as you yourself employ. Why should anyone like it when they are told that what they believe and dedicate their lives to is bunk, and a delusion?

I'm not saying that debunking is always bad. There are some things in this world that deserve debunking. Of course, I don't think Christianity is one of them, but if you do, it's a free country.

If you want a polite exchange of ideas, you might want to name your site "Critiquing Christianity." Of course, some people who like to be nice might try to engage you in polite dialogue, anyway. But you should be surprised by the polite responses, not the harshly polemical ones. They go with the territory you have staked out.

The upside and the downside of Christianity

Yes, I don't like the idea of hell one bit, and I hope universalism is true.

The doctrine that any aspect of my character which I have not submitted to Christ is sinful is no fun. The fact that God isn't going to listen to all my self-justifications is no fun. There are many other things I would prefer to do on Sunday morning than attend church. All that stuff about giving to the church, yeah, I'd wish that away, too. The idea that there is someone superior to me judging my actions and not grading on the curve is something I would wish away, even if forgiveness is available. I'd like to say that my good deeds are my achievement, but, no, can't say that either. I like thinking that having a higher level of education makes me somehow better than other people, but nope, can't say that, either.

The idea that pride is a sin, or as Lewis has it, The Great Sin, is pretty tough doctrine for me. If I were an atheist I could think that my freedom from the superstitions of most of my fellow Americans makes me better than them, but since I'm a Christian, I can't say that.

The hope of an everlasting life with God is, of course appealing to me. God's love for everyone (which some Calvinists deny) is appealing as well.

So, it's a mixed bag, which is all that I have been saying all along.

Friday, July 30, 2010

What is means to say something is a matter of opinion

What does it mean to say that something is a matter of opinion? You could mean

1) Claims about subject matter X can neither be true nor false absolutely. Thus, a typical matter of opinion in this sense would be the question of whether McDonald's burgers are better tasting than Burger King's. There can't be any sense of saying that someone erroneously believes that McDonald's burgers are better when they are not, since each person's personal taste decides it for them. This would be a personal, as opposed to a cultural relativism.

Or, you could mean

2) Rational persons can disagree about subject matter X. An reasonable person, examining all of the relevant evidence, could decide the question either way. So, for example, with the question of whether there is life on other planets equivalent in intelligence to our own, many people think that we are not in a position to settle the question for sure one way or the other. However, the question has a true-or-false answer, but we are not in a position to determine which, because we don't have enough information. The question of whether or not there is a God is sometimes thought of being a matter of opinion in sense 2, but most would agree that either there is a God or there isn't.

Is Christianity built to suit our wishes?

Continuing the discussion with John W. Loftus.

Christianity, as you noted, begins with bad news. There is someone before whom we will have to stand accountable for our actions. Even "good people" aren't good enough. There is no room for excusing or justifying the wrongs we have done, no softening the blow by favorable comparisons with other people, "I thank God that I am not as other men." I'd certainly prefer a religion that would take seriously the kind of crap I like to tell myself about the fact that I am not such a bad guy after all, that while I may be worse than X, I'm certainly better than Y. But, but, I'm nice to my friends and family, and who told me I had to love those XXXs over there anyway. They don't coun't, they're just, well, XXXs. Besides, look at all the rules I successfully follow, at least on my good days. And as a human race, well, we'll be OK, if my party wins the next election, or when the Dialectic of Matter brings in the Classless and Stateless Society.

Although most atheists adhere to a moral code, Christian morality is tougher, and not just with respect to sex behavior. I remember reading C. S. Lewis's chapter on pride for the first time and getting mad at him. No religion built to suit our wishes would make Pride the first of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Islam tells me that if I follow the Qu'ran I can make it to Paradise by my works. If I do the Five Pillars, I'm in pretty good shape. And, I can look down on all those people who don't follow the rules as well as I do. Hinduism says that if I mess up in this life, I've got a lot more chances.

For Christians who take sin seriously, human history is no surprise. Overthrow the French monarch, and you can expect the guillotine in the streets of Paris. Overthrow the Czar, and end up with the Party Purges.

A secularist who has a guilty conscience has the chance of appealing to relativism to justify his answers. Moral codes are invented by human beings for their own benefit, so if I screw up, I at least didn't offend the Creator of the Universe.

I never said Christianity was not emotionally appealing. No belief system could survive without some emotional appeal. But there are a lot of ways that I could make Christianity more emotionally appealing than it is.

If you go on my site, you will find a few atheists making the case that there is an emotional upside and a downside to Christianity. What needs to be argued for is that there is something special about the emotional appeal of Christianity that is subversive to the fair examination of the evidence, that is somehow not present on the atheist side.

Further, you haven't come to terms with my observation that many of us tend to get suspicious about things that are too good to be true. Our desire to believe does have a tendency to bias us in favor of a belief, but it also makes us suspicious at the same time, especially if we have already heard that wishful thinking might undermine our rationality. In fact, people very often overcompensate in the direction of pessimism.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Is atheism depressing: A reply to John Loftus

I see the usual stuff about atheism being so horribly depressing that no one could possibly believe it that wasn't pursuing the truth disinterestly. That's been, well, debunked more times than I can count. Again, read my latest post on C. S. Lewis to get the classic rebuttal. Atheism is very appealing to pride, a passion so powerful that it heads the list of the Seven Deadly Sins. You get to feel smarter than most of the human race, who still believes, and you there is no being greater than yourself, so far as you know. There is no such thing as sin, no God to offend if you have done something that others might not approve of. There are none of those terribly annoying restrictions on sex behavior to cramp your style. And you can't go to hell either.

Ah, but people are so motivated by that "horror of nonentity" that they will accept anything rather than admit that they will die and rot. Only the elect, those rational enough to leave the fold, can escape this universal passion and see the truth. And you know this how? Lewis said he had no "horror of nonentity" until he became a Christian.

I would like to believe that there is an independent external world, and I have good reason to believe there is one. I want to believe that my wife loves me, and I have good reason to believe that as well. I want to believe that the Suns swept the Spurs in the playoffs a couple of months ago, and they did. I want to believe that Obama is President, and he is. I want to believe that the Democrats control both houses of Congress, and they do. I want to believe that SB1070 was struck down in court, and it was. Intellectual masochism as a way of forming beliefs is no better than wish-fulfillment.

If you talk to sports fans, you will always find the eternal optimist who thinks their team is sure to win the championship every year, but you also find people who are pleasantly surprised when their team finally makes it to the top.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Did Lewis Believe what he Preferred to be True?

"And it remains true that I have, almost all of my life, been quite unable to feel that horror of nonentity, of annhilation, which, say Dr. Johnson felt so strongly. I felt it for the first time only in 1947. But that was after I had long been reconverted and thus begun to know what life really is and what would be lost by missing it."

(Surprised by Joy, Harcourt Brace and Company, p. 117.)

There was one way in which the world, as ... rationalism taught me to see it, gratified my wishes. It might be grim and deadly but at least it was free from the Christian God. Some people (not all) will find it hard to understand why this seemed to me such an overwhelming advantage... I was, as you may remember, one whose negative demands were more violent than his positive, far more eager to escape pain than to achieve happiness, and feeling it something of an outrage that I had been created without my own permission. To such a craven the materialist's universe had the enormous attraction that it offered you limited liabilities. No strictly infinite disaster could overtake you in it. Death ended all. And if ever finite disaster proved greater than one wished to bear suicide would always be possible. The horror of the Christian universe was that it had no door marked Exit.

 (p. 171)

"You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The hardness of God is softer than the softness of men." (C S Lewis) p. 228-229.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Reply to Loftus on Preferring to Believe

John Loftus wrote: Vic, I am like most people. I never denied that. We human beings do not think very well or come to reasonable conclusions based on the objective facts. We're all in the same boat about this. I accept this fact, why won't you?

Yet I most emphatically did prefer Christianity to be true. You have the right to deny this, of course, but it is my claim, as it is with the claim of almost everyone I've ever heard who left the fold. Or are you wanting to claim people don't change their minds against what they prefer to be the case? It happens all the time. It's just that it doesn't happen very often without solid evidence. Evidence will change a mind against what it prefers to be true. The problem is that with the omniscience and mystery cards you believers have as an escape clause for any lack of evidence there is no single piece of evidence that can help you see that what you prefer to believe is false.

If you were to leave the fold in the future then just wait until someone comes along and tells you the reason you left the fold is because you preferred doing so. If that happens then so will the other.

But remember today. You DO prefer to believe. So also once did I.

VR: People have preferences on both sides of most issues. C. S. Lewis says he absolutely hated the idea of believing in God, or becoming a Christian, but that he came to believe because he thought the evidence for it was good.

Hence what we prefer to believe is something of a red herring in the discussion. Everyone has emotional preferences, thinking carefully about these matters is difficult, and sometimes people do change their minds because of the evidence. You have the phenomenon that I have experienced, where your desire to believe something makes you suspicious of that very belief.

But what you have to avoid doing is implying that people on the other side have emotional motives, but that no one on your own side does. That's circumstantial ad hominem, and last time I checked, it was a fallacy.

People typically want a future life, but they also don't want some Supreme Being to be able to tell them that what they are doing is wrong and they have to repent. People want to think of themselves as the supreme being, above whom there is no one. Josh McDowell says there are three reasons why people reject Christianity: Pride, ignorance (usually self-imposed), and a moral problem. I have criticized McDowell for making that kind of a generalization (and Russell for explaining religion in terms of fear of death, fear of hell, and fear that the universe should be meaningless), but you can't deny that these facts do play a role in unbelief, just as Russell's factors play a role in belief.

Your post in which you loudly protest that you don't want atheism to be true rings a tad hollow, in light of what you say in the other posts. Atheists act like they are intellectual saints, that they, and they alone, have transcended all the psychological and sociological forces pressing upon them and hold their beliefs only in response to the evidence. I would never make that kind of a claim about myself.

People believe and defend what they prefer to be true, except me! - John Loftus

John: I looked at the list of posts where you say people and defend what they prefer to be true, and you assert and defend that thesis except when it is applied to you. Then you deny it.

According to you, you are a decisive counterexample to your own thesis.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Carrier on logical laws and physical laws

From his critique of my book. 

For logical laws are just like physical laws, because physical laws describe the way the universe works, and logical laws describe the way reason works — or, to avoid begging the question, logical laws describe the way a truth-finding machine works, in the very same way that the laws of aerodynamics describe the way a flying-machine works, or the laws of ballistics describe the way guns shoot their targets. The only difference between logical laws and physical laws is the fact that physical laws describe physics and logical laws describe logic. But that is a difference both trivial and obvious. 

I kind of thought logical laws were normative, myself. 

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The New Passover Plot

When I was redating the last post I found this comment by Ed Babinski:

Secondly, the high priest Ciaphas who condemned Jesus probably couldn't care less what happened to his body, so long as the disciples left town, and got out of his jurisdiction. And to make sure, he could (for all anyone knows) have had the body moved, and had a man in white wait at the empty the tomb to tell the scared ladies that morning, "He has gone before you to Galilee, for THERE ye shall see him." BECAUSE THEN THE JESUS MOVEMENT WOULD BE THE PROBLEM OF THE RULER OF GALILEE.

Charels Freeman argues the probability of just such an hypothesis in his new book, A NEW HISTORY OF EARLY CHRISTIANITY.

Interestingly, the priests did have white garments, and interestingly the earliest Gospel does mention a young man in white at the tomb telling the women to tell the apostles to go elsewhere to see Jesus (get out of town). And in Galilee they probably had "appearances" as Paul says, and even the ones who didn't actually "see" anything probably said they did because otherwise they would lose status and feel left out. And stories of a physical bodily resurrection with Jesus saying he has "flesh and bone" and "eating," and denying he was a "SPIRIT" at all came LAST in such late works as Luke-Acts, and the Gospel of John.

Interestingly, the earliest Gospel, Mark, has a young man in white at the tomb, and also has a young man following after Jesus at his arrest whom the soldiers try to capture, but who flees away naked into the night. Then a young man appears dressed at the tomb, the first to arrive. This young man thus is the last to leave Jesus at his arrest, leaves naked, then is the first at the tomb, dressed in white. He is probably employed as a sort of ideal follower, an example to Mark's readers. But if Freeman is correct, he's a real person, and the body was moved, and for a reason, to get the apostles and Jesus' followers out of Ciaphas' hair and so others would have to deal with them way off in Galilee.

Note that the later Gospels, the ones composed after Mark all change the young man at the tomb into an angel and even TWO angels! And they also drop the story about the young man following Jesus on the night of his arrest and then fleeing away naked. They drop that story of the young man, and change the young man at the tomb into an angel.

There are a lot of things you can say about Caiaphas. Stupid isn't on the top of the list. Wouldn't Caiaphas have learned from experience that movements that start in Galilee might have a tendency to find their way back down to Judaea? As Bilbo noted on that thread:

Caiaphas et al deliberately start the resurrection story of Jesus in order to get rid of his followers? You think that once Jesus was dead the movement would come to a grinding halt on its own. Was there any indication that the disciples would continue causing trouble? Did they mount an uprising to save Jesus either at his trial or crucifixion? No. Why give them new hope? Wouldn't that defeat the purpose? There's no guarantee that they would stay in Galilee. If Acts reflects actual history, the movement becomes centered in Jerusalem. In Galatians Paul goes to Jerusalem to confer with the apostles. I believe Josephus said that James was killed there.

The only question I have is why Babinski, who does read a lot of modern biblical scholarship, would tout such a theory. Are skeptics that desperate? Why are there so many just awful theories out there to explain away the events surrounding the founding of Christianity? Why not go back to the swoon theory? It's more plausible.

"I will never believe that an error against which so many and various weapons was deemed necessary was, from the outset, wholly lacking in plausibility. All this 'post haste and rummaging in the land' obviously implies a respectable enemy."  -C. S. Lewis, "On Obstinacy of Belief"

Or is the passion for the sensational at work here? The Da Vinci Syndrome.

But, I suppose someone will say "At least he's not saying that the Sky Daddy revived a corpse. I mean, how do you know it wasn't the Flying Spaghetti Monster?"

Of course, skeptics are too sophisticated to say that. No?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The argument from ancient credulity

A popular argument against the New Testament miracle claims is to say that ancient peoples were credulous and would be disinclined to doubt miracle claims in general. Glenn Miller responds, mostly, to Richard Carrier on this point, suggesting that present-day skeptics overrate ancient credulity.

HT: The Infidel Delusion.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why Bart Ehrman is not a Christian

Bart Ehrman defends the historical Jesus

HT: Tim McGrew.

The Calvinists Strike Back: The Infidel Delusion

I should very quickly point out that, although the authors are all, I think Calvinists and Triabloggers, none of this is about what is at issue between Calvinists and their opponents. From what I have seen, it does make some strong points. See especially Manata's discussion of the Outsider Test. (I'm not going to vouch for the tone of this document, though).

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Sermon by R. A. Torrey

In which he makes use of the Trilemma, some years before C. S. Lewis was converted.

Since a great-granddaughter of Torrey mentioned it, I thought I would redate this post, linking to the sermon.

McGrew on the origins of the Trilemma argument

"In an unrelated web search this afternoon I came upon a post of yours on a secularist blog in which you stated that you hadn't been able to trace the origins of the trilemma, and that you had asked Purtill, Kreeft, and Beversluis for its origin but they did not know. Your conjecture that it was an anti-Arian argument is, I think correct; in this form I have traced it back to the mid 300s. See Marius Victorinus Afer, De Gener. I, p. 1020 c (Migne):

Haec dicens Deus fuit, si mentitus non est: si autem mentitus est, non opus Dei omnimodis perfectum

Roughly, 'If it is not a lie, then he was God as he said: but if on the other hand it is a lie, the works of God are not perfect (or, complete) in every way.'

Thanks Tim. I had thought I would find a trilemma in Athanasius' De Incarnatione, since Lewis wrote the preface to a translation of it, and was a little disappointed to discover it wasn't there. You have to remember that Lewis never referred to it as the Trilemma, he called it aut deus aut homo malus, Latin for Either God or a Bad Man. The first I ever saw the word "trilemma" used was by Josh McDowell.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Loser Letters: Screwtape Meets Dawkins

Hurtado on the methods of Steven Carr

HT: Triablogue. Hurtado, who apparently is far from being a fundamentalist, nevertheless reacts harshly to some of Steven Carr's attacks on Scripture. It reminds me of some of the exchanges he has had here on DI.

Theism, atheism, and non-rational motivations

Victor wrote: "And none of us is intellectually pure, in that, emotional reasons are always going to be present no matter what we believe, so long as we care about what we believe."

Ken: I'm a sinner. I don't ever think that any other atheists have any huge advantage in the objectivity department. One can always cite some sources of bias for the opposition. This doesn't mean atheists can't have an edge in objectivity.

A case can be made that the emotional motivations of Christians are stronger than that of atheists and agnostics, so while there is no question about the lack of objectivity of both sides, there remains the question of the degree of which our respective beliefs are determined by our emotions.

On the non-theist side we have elitism, desire for a carefree, sinful lifestyle, and sometimes peer pressure, other times the desire to be different, with the latter conflicting influences depending on the circumstances (such as conforming to a nonconformist ingroup).

On the Christian side, the most obvious are the self-preservation imperative (cultural or personal), widespread indoctrination, desire for good fortune, moral security, moral certainty and conformity.

Of course the more particular motivations of non-theists may also account for their relative scarcity, assuming all other things being equal such as reasoning ability. But if we could distill the objective out of the subjective, we may find that atheism is the modestly more pure position as an initial, very simple assumption.

VR: I suppose we can start analyzing this by looking at non-truth-tracking causes for beliefs. Believing, religiously, what one is raised to believe, for example, doesn't appear to be truth-tracking, since clearly we people are raised to believe various things, and the likelihood of coming with falsehoods just picking your beliefs that way seems rather high. Believing what you wish to believe is in general not truth-tracking, your wishes and your fears come true, for the most parts, in equal proportions.

But how many people in our society have strong Christian upbringings? I don't think most people in America are raised by dedicated Christians. Sure, there are high polling numbers for theism on Gallup surveys, but most households, I think, do not provide anything like a strong indoctrination into Christianity. I grew up in a United Methodist church, but I also spent most of my academic career in atmospheres which were hostile to Christianity.

Also, when you start reflecting on your beliefs, your non-rational reasons for believing somethings start making you suspicious, as opposed to supporting your beliefs. Insofar as I felt myself wanting to believe that Christianity is true, it was a source of doubt rather than faith. I had, after all, read Russell, who told me it was "pusillanimous and sniveling" to give in to the will to believe.

And these non-rational factors are so variable from person to person. While many people fear extinction, C. S. Lewis claimed to have no such fear. He wrote:

"And it remains true that I have, almost all of my life, been quite unable to feel that horror of nonentity, of annhilation, which, say Dr. Johnson felt so strongly. I felt it for the first time only in 1947. But that was after I had long been reconverted and thus begun to know what life really is and what would be lost by missing it."
(Surprised by Joy, Harcourt Brace and Company, p. 117.)

Now, I suppose a skeptic could sit here and play Freud, and argue that this was a piece of disingenuous subtle propaganda to make us think he was really persuaded by argument to believe, when really he wished his way back to Christianity. But on what possible evidence? And couldn't we play that game with everyone, if we some particular theory of why people believe, or why people disbelieve? If I hold the thesis that everyone who rejects Christianity does so out of a desire to engage in sexual conduct that Christianity proscribes, surely I could follow Freud in finding sexual motivations where none appear to be on the face of things.

So, I think we have reason to be aware of the non-rational motivations that might be moving us toward belief or unbelief. But this probably is not going to give us much of an argument one way or another. If anything, I could make the case that the Christian philosophers I know tend to be more conscious of their own intellectual frailties, than most atheist philosophers I know.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Faith, Evidence, and Intellectual Honesty: A Reply to Loftus

This concerns the famous, or infamous Bill Craig claim that the witness of the Holy Spirit provides such a powerful warrant for his belief in Christianity that he would keep believing even if his assessment of all the objective arguments were to turn negatve. I wrote on a thread on debunking Christianity:

VR: OK, here's one from me. Bill has done a lot of good work, but he's shooting himself in the foot with this response.

John W. Loftus said...

Agreed Vic, but what do you make of an earlier question of mine that Bill answered right here with regard to Lessing's Ugly Broad Ditch that historical proofs cannot lead the believer to faith?

Am I wrong to think that Bill is impaled on the horns of a huge dilemma? On the one hand historical evidence cannot lead him to faith, yet on the other hand the inner witness of the Spirit leads him to say what he did here?

VR: Well, I think you are setting up a false dilemma here. I would personally have a lot of trouble continuing to believe based on some inner voice if I really thought the objective evidence for theism or Christianity were bad. But, I believe that part of what the Holy Spirit does in my life is acquaint me with objective reasons as well as subjective feelings. We come to intellectual discussion of the reasons to believe with a set of intellectual predispositions, or what Bayesians call "priors." I don't think you can legislate priors, or require that we retreat from our existing belief system to some neutral position and go from there. It didn't really work for Descartes, so why should it work for me? And none of us is intellectually pure, in that, emotional reasons are always going to be present no matter what we believe, so long as we care about what we believe. What we have to do is our due diligence with respect to the reasons on both sides of the question, and combine that with a trust that God will give us our "daily bread," the means by which to remain faithful to Christ and intellectually honest at the same time. (The intellectual self-canonization of at least some unbelievers, but also of some Christians as well, is an annoying characteristic). For nearly 38 years, God has not disappointed me.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A book on American Theologians

I thought I was a Christian philosopher, not a theologian.

Hume, Biblical Criticism, and Wagging the Dog

A redated post. 

 A response to some discussion on Debunking Christianity.

A lot of biblical criticism is done by people who either accept Hume's essay on miracles, or are influenced by people who accept Hume's essay. This goes all the way back to David F. Strauss in the 19th Century. This poses a profound question as to whether the biblical-critical dog is wagging the philosophical tail, or whether the philosophical tail is wagging the biblical-critical dog. This was the point that Lewis was making when he wrote his book Miracles; A Preliminary Study. Preliminary to what? Preliminary to the actual study of the biblical documents. If you are coming to those documents thinking that miracles are maximally improbable, then you get one set of results. Bultmann was the representative figure of a scholar of that persuasion. All Bultmann said was you couldn't live in the modern world and consistently believe in the New Testament miracles. Bart Ehrman is another example of present-day vintage, as are the scholars of the Jesus Seminar.

Now if I want to know whether the New Testament miracles have occurred or did not occur, having the testimony of some expert who has claimed to have "discovered" that they didn't might be a tad suspicious unless I know that this is a scholar who would have accepted the miracle claims had the evidence been there. If we know, in advance, that miracles cannot occur, then perhaps the scholar is applying Sherlock Holmes' maxim: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." However, if the scholar is entering the field thinking that the miraculous is not the impossible, then we are likely to get different results.

In 1990, when I was a junior fellow at Notre Dame's Center for Philosophy of Religion, I attended a conference in which a number of biblical scholars got into it with some Christian philosophers, and there it seemed to me that the biblical scholars were on the whole more skeptical than the philosophers, and that they were largely unconscious of the philosophical presuppositions underlying their own work.

I took Critical Introduction to the Bible from two professors at the liberal Candler School of Theology in the mid-1970s. The New Testament professor was Dr. Arthur Wainwright, and his overall conclusion was that you can bring anti-miraculous presuppositions into biblical scholarship and end up like Bultmann, or you can go in thinking miracles possible, in which case you end up believing in the central Christian miracles, as Dr. Wainwright in fact did.

Nothing I have read in biblical studies since has altered the perspective I took from Dr. Wainwright's course.

On believing newspaper reports of lottery victories

In my paper on miracles I presented a typical objection to Hume-style arguments from probability against the acceptance of miracle reports.

But when one attempts to develop this idea into mathematical probability theory, one must avoid untoward consequences, and Hume simply did not possess the mathematical sophistication to accomplish this. If the theory of probabilistic inference he himself presents in "Of Miracles" is taken literally, it has the consequence that if the Arizona Republic were to report that I won the lottery, you should disbelieve the report, because my chance of winning the lottery is less than the percentage of erroneous reports by the Republic. But surely this is implausible.

Or consider reports in the media of one-time events, such as the election of an African-American President, or a landing on the moon. Before those events occurred, we had uniform experience of their nonoccurrence. If you assign those events a probability zero, then that means that whatever evidence we have for their occurrence has to be trumped by their antecedent improbability. This sort of example was pointed out by Hume's 18th century critics, and it looks as if it was even pointed out to Hume when he was writing "Of Miracles," since his treatment of the Indian Prince case looks to me like a response to a critic of an earlier draft.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

My Bayesian paper on Hume on Miracles

A  redated post. 

My first published paper, "Miracles and the Case for Theism" replied to Mackie's treatment of miracles in The Miracle of Theism. I discovered a formal error in Mackie's analysis, which violates the Mackie Revelance Principle. The paper came out in February 1989 International Journal for Philosophy of Religion. And, of course, a follow-up treatment of miracles is on Internet Infidels. Someone who wants to defend Mackie's or Hume's position might want to start by rebutting me in those papers.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The McGrews defend the Resurrection

A redated post.

This is a chapter in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology also includes

 my essay on the argument from reason. Tim is a master-strength chessplayer who had the Gambit Cartel column in Chess Cafe for between 2002 and 2005.

Miracles, Singularities, and Moonwalking

Bob Prokop: Early on in George MacDonald's fairy story Phantastes, we come upon the following scene. The book's main character (Anodos) is suddenly confronted by a magical creature, who then speaks to him. Allow me to quote the passage in full:

"Anodos, you never saw such a little creature before, did you?"

"No," said I, "and indeed I hardly believe I do now."

"Ah, that is always the way with you men; you believe nothing the first time; and it is foolish enough to let mere repetition convince you of what you consider in itself unbelievable."

That little three line exchange is one of the most profound statements I have ever read about how many people approach the miraculous. Just think about it. Were a person to come across a single lifeform in an otherwise lifeless universe - heck, were he to find a single strand of DNA, he would either refuse to believe it existed, or proclaim it a miracle. But here we are in the real world, surrounded by trillions and trillions of incomprehensibly complex lifeforms, and all too many many people dismiss it all as just “the way things are", or even the product of blind, purposeless chance.

The same thing goes for the Resurrection. Its very singularity is a stumbling block to many skeptics, but the same people will not be bothered for a second by the fact that there are billions of people alive all around them right now. Why should coming to life a second time be any more unbelievable than the first time? (The usual objection is we don’t see it happening every day.) So is it "mere repetition", in MacDonald's words, that makes the starkly incredible fact of one's own existence so casually accepted?

I believe that MacDonald has hit upon an unexamined (and therefore unchallenged) assumption underlying skeptical thinking. Let me call it The Singularity Problem. (A problem, that is, for the skeptic.) Basically, the issue can be stated quite simply. A main objection to miraculous events raised by skeptics is that they are not common, or even sui generis. Thus, we frequently hear people objecting to Christ’s Virgin Birth because we don’t see such births happening around us as a norm. But why should we? The singularity of the event is definitionally mandated by its miraculous nature. Until we somehow rule out the possibility of one-of-a-kind events on grounds stronger than ruling them out on principle (which, after all, amounts to a "because I said so" argument), we cannot object to their existence on those grounds alone.

I say this underlying assumption needs to be examined and defended, not simply accepted a priori. Otherwise, the skeptic must somehow make the case that we are not quite literally surrounded by countless miracles all the time.

Any inductive inference is an induction from the observed to the unobserved, and proceeds by similarity. So a dissimilarity to what we have experienced in the past is a stumbling-block to belief. But if you make it too big of a stumbling block, you will end up thinking that the lunar landing that Bob and I are both old enough and privileged enough to have seen and heard on televison (one small step....), was really the result of machinations in Area 51.

Anything but a miracle!

From C. S. Lewis's Miracles: A Preliminary Study.

“The ordinary procedure of the modern historian even if he admits the possibility of miracle, is to admit no particular instance of it until every possibility of “natural” explanation has been tried and failed. That is, he will accept the most improbable “natural” explanations rather than say that a miracle occurred. Collective hallucination, hypnotism or unconsenting spectators, widespread instantaneous conspiracy in lying by persons not otherwise known to be liars and not likely to gain by the lie — all these are known to be very improbable events: so improbable that, except for the special purpose of excluding a miracle, they are never suggested. But they are preferred to the admission of a miracle.” (C.S. Lewis, Miracles, p. 133)

The sounds of silence

I have my differences with the folks over at Triablogue, but some considerable agreements as well. This post, by Paul Manata, drives a well-deserved stake through arguments from silence.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Bob Prokop on Mark and the Resurrection

Bob: I have an answer for those critics who claim that Mark is evidence that the Resurrection was a late idea cooked up by subsequent Evangelists. The usual claim is, because of the unique nature and uncertain authorship of the ending of Mark's Gospel, that originally the Resurrection wasn't part of his story. My reply: Then why does Jesus quite explicitly foretell his rising from the dead to the Apostles, and not once but multiple times, scattered all through Mark. Surely, I ask, you don't think all those passages are also late additions? And these are not isolated, stand alone verses, but woven into the very fabric of the Gospel, with long lead-in and subsequent narratives that hang off of those very predictions. You can't expunge the Resurrection narrative from Mark without doing violence to the entire work.

As to what the actual circumstances were behind the authorship of the ending of Mark, I doubt that we'll ever solve that one.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

We Walk by Faith and not by.....

The Apostle Paul contrasts faith with sight, not faith with proof or reason. Sight is a particular type of proof, one that we lack for a lot of things like electrons and dinosaurs.

Timothy McGrew's Argument for the Resurrection

This should provide a helpful structure to resurrection debate.

Tim passed this argument on to me in the context of a bunch of other material. In the context, he prefaces it with the line "If the Gospels were written by people who were in a position to know what really happened" and expressly says that it is an argument that can come into play "once it is established that the Gospels contain authentic apostolic testimony regarding the resurrection." He is fully aware that, in the context of current debates, these are disputed propositions that require independent argument.

Again, this post is an attempt to provide a structure to the discussion, something that the formal structure of the Kalam Cosmological argument also helps to do. By looking at such a formal structure, you can divide criticisms of the argument into two classes: ones that challenge the causal premise, and ones that challenge the claim that the universe began to exist.

1. If the resurrection of Jesus did not occur, as the apostles said it did, then either they knew that Jesus had not risen, and therefore they were deceivers, or they did not know that Jesus had not risen, and therefore they were deceived.

2. If they were deceivers, they were willing to die for something they knew to be a lie, without any expectation of earthly gain for it.

3. People are not willing to die for something they know to be a lie without any expectation of earthly gain for it.

4. If they were deceived, then they were subjected to massive hallucinations involving multiple people, extended across forty days.

5. Massive hallucinations of this sort do not happen.


6. The apostles were neither deceivers nor deceived.


7. The resurrection of Jesus occurred, as the apostles said it did.

Did Matthew, Mark, Luke and John invent the novel?

Or were they trying to report the facts? People familiar with ancient myths and legends see a huge difference between the New Testament and ancient myths and legends.

“If [a man] tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, . . . I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage ... pretty close up to the facts ... [o]r else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors, or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned to read.” – C. S. Lewis, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” (1959)

Part of Lewis's chapter on Hell from the Problem of Pain

Without hell, can evil triumph?

First, there is an objection, in many minds, to the idea of retributive punishment as such. This has been partly dealt with in a previous chapter. It was there maintained that all punishment became unjust if the ideas of ill-desert and retribution were removed from it; and a core of righteousness was discovered within the vindictive passion itself, in the demand that the evil man must not be left perfectly satisfied with his own evil, that it must be made to appear to him what it rightly appears to others--evil. I said that Pain plants the flag of truth within a rebel fortress. We were then discussing pain which might still lead to repentance. How if it does not--if no further conquest than the planting of the flag ever takes place? Let us try to be honest with ourselves. Picture to yourself a man who has risen to wealth or power by a continued course of treachery and cruelty, by exploiting for purely selfish ends the noble motions of his victims, laughing the while at their simplicity; who, having thus attained success, uses it for the gratification of lust and hatred and finally parts with the last rag of honour among thieves by betraying his own accomplices and jeering at their last moments of bewildered disillusionment. Suppose further, that he does all this, not (as we like to imagine) tormented by remorse or even misgiving, but eating like a schoolboy and sleeping like a healthy infant--a jolly, ruddy-checked man, without a care in the world, unshakably confident to the very end that he alone has found the answer to the riddle of life, that God and man are fools whom he has got the better of, that his way of life is utterly successful, satisfactory, unassailable. We must be careful at this point. The least indulgence of the passion for revenge is very deadly sin. Christian charity counsels us to make every effort for the conversion of such a man: to prefer his conversion, at the peril of our own lives, perhaps of our own souls, to his punishment; to prefer it infinitely. But that is not the question. Supposing be will not be converted, what destiny in the eternal world can you regard as proper for him? Can you really desire that such a man, remaining what he is (and he must be able to do that if he has free will) should be confirmed forever in his present happiness should continue, for all eternity, to be perfectly convinced that the laugh is on his side? And if you cannot regard this as tolerable, is it only your wickedness--only spite--that prevents you from doing so? Or do you find that conflict between justice and Mercy, which has sometimes seemed to you such an outmoded piece of theology, now actually at work in your own mind, and feeling very much as if it came to you from above, not from below? You are moved, not by a desire for the wretched creature's pain as such, but by a truly ethical demand that, soon or late, the right should be asserted, the flag planted in this horribly rebellious soul, even if no fuller and better conquest is to follow. In a sense, it is better for the creature itself, even if it never becomes good, that it should know itself a failure, a mistake. Even mercy can hardly wish to such a man his eternal, contented continuance in such ghastly illusion. Thomas Aquinas said of suffering, as Aristotle had said of shame, that it was a thing not good in itself, but a thing which might have a certain goodness in particular circumstances. That is to say, if evil is present, pain at recognition of the evil, being a kind of knowledge, is relatively good; for the alternative is that the soul should be ignorant of the evil, or ignorant that the evil is contrary to its nature, "either of which," says the philosopher, "is manifestly bad." (Summa Theol., 1, 11ae,Q. xxxix, Art. 1.) And I think, though we tremble, we agree.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Does the Death Penalty Deter Capital Crime?

Apparently not. The statistics don't support this idea. Quite the reverse.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

What Luke got right, and why it matters

Walter: Sounds like you answered your own question. Acts of the Apostles is more than likely a second century document of dubious historical value.

VR: This flies in the face of some hard evidence. Acts contains to much detailed first-century information that has been confirmed by archaeology to be accurate. Luke gets the titles right for the leaders for various cities before whom Paul appeared. This is especially interesting since in some cases the governmental forms changed in the middle of the first century. That was the whole point of my rhetorical "How did Luke research his novel" question I posed to Steven. This information is detailed in F. F. Bruce's "The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable. You would have to go around the Mediterranean world getting arrested on a regular basis in order to know that much about the political and judicial systems of the time. And since those changed, nobody in the second century would have had that information available to them.

You can bring up problems with Luke's account that have to be dealt with if you are an inerrantist, but this is not about inerrancy, or calling Luke the greatest historian of the ancient world, or anything like that. All I am doing here is putting a cap on the idea that Acts is a late, legendary product. Luke had to be in a position to know exactly who you deal with in Cyprus, Achaia, Asia, in Ephesus, in Thessalonica, in Philippi, in Athens, and in Malta.

Now, whenever I bring this stuff up, I get told that, of course, Luke could get this stuff right, but the supernatural stuff wrong. Yes, he could. But the evidence takes the "late and legendary" option away from the critic.

A lot of these archaeological discoveries were made by Sir William Ramsay, who had originally subscribed to the late-dating theories of the Tubingen school. He abandoned that position when he found extensive archaeological evidence that confirmed the reliabilty of Luke's account, over and over again.

I'm not saying a supernatural explanation is proved by all of this, but the options for developing a skeptical counter-story are reduced considerably by this kind of evidence.

I am linking to the relevant chapter of Bruce's book.

What martyrdom arguments are designed to show

Back when I first heard Josh McDowell speak on the evidences for Christianity, he said that, of course, many people have died for a lie. What they don't do is die for something they know to be a lie.

Arguments from martyrdom are not designed to establish the truth of the claims in question. They are simply strong evidence that those who died sincerely believed in the propositions for which they were martyred. Yet, I keep hearing the skeptics argue that martyrdom doesn't prove the truth of anything, as if that was how Christians were arguing. This is a straw man. Martyrdom arguments are defeaters for deliberate fraud theories. The fact that the 9/11 hijackers flew planes into the towers doesn't prove that their peculiar version of Islam is true. What it does show is that they really believed that they would go to paradise if the died for Allah in this way.

Second, it's not the actual killing of the person that needs explaining. It's what I call martyrdom risk behavior. Here is a example of it, from Peter's speech outside the gate of Jerusalem:

Acts 2:36 "Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."

In other words, Peter is telling people whom he believed had the power to engineer a crucifixion, that God had vindicated Jesus and made him Lord and Christ. So you've got a guy who, before the cock crowed, showed shall we say a pretty normal concern for his own life, now telling people whom he believes had gotten somebody crucified, that God had resurrected Jesus.

Now unless this part of the story is legend, it certainly needs explanation. Even if Peter wasn't martyred, he's setting himself up for it here.

I'm not sure Joseph Smith engaged in martyrdom risk behavior, although I am sure he knew that what he was doing was making enemies.

This wouldn't be an argument against hallucination theories. If Peter had had a believable hallucination of the risen Jesus, that would explain why he came to be firmly convinced of the resurrection.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Another reply to Hallquist

Chris Hallquist thought it was weird that I was jumping from talking point to talking point without responding to the criticisms I had raised. Here is my response:

First, I posed two questions. One had to do with what you thought we did have hard evidence for. The second had to do with how you would regard the evidence if it was presented about the life of Rabbi Hillel, a person about whom no supernatural claims are made that I know of. I don’t think I’m just jumping from talking point to talking point, I am first, trying to get a sense of what will count as evidence here, and second, how the supernatural character of Jesus’ claims is affecting the rules of evidence. If this were about Hillel, it seems to me that most of us would be happy with the amount of evidence provided, as opposed to discounting it all because it came from supporters. I would have thought that testimony in the Gospels is at least some evidence, even if that evidence is defeasible.

My own view is that the supernatural element in these works is going to incline people towards skepticism to varying degrees, depending on the remainder of your belief system. So when I talk about this sort of thing, I am inclined to bracket the effect of the supernatural on one's priors, and ask what kind of evidence is actually there. Is there something that is difficult for the naturalist to explain, setting aside the question of whether a supernaturalist option might be deemed intellectually feasible.
My other point by way of response is taht skepticism about the sources solve the explanatory problems. There is hard evidence for the Persecution of Nero, and there is also hard evidence (Josephus) for the martyrdom of James the Lord’s brother. Martyrdom doesn’t prove the truth of the beliefs in question, but it does prove a high likelihood for the sincerity of those beliefs. So something had to have convinced those people that Jesus was Lord. What could that be? If nothing like the Jesus story was true, and they were all just making it up as they went along, why wouldn’t they head for the exits when Nero started rounding Christians up and killing them? As for James, what would convince you that your brother was the Lord? Why go on missionary journeys where you get arrested time after time unless there was something to convince you that the truth about God was to be found in Christ crucified and resurrected? If we impugn all the sources, then you’re left with a bunch of people butting heads with Jewish leaders, and ultimately with the Roman emperor, but why?

At least a hallucination theory gives you a proposed explanation for why these people have the convictions that they do.

Truncated Thought part II

And this is a follow-up post I did afterwards.

I must admit that Lewis's "it is obvious" response made the issue seem like more of a slam dunk than I would think of it as being. This chapter was written before he encountered Anscombe, when he had underestimated the complexity of the argument, but Lewis just revised one chapter of the book in response to Anscombe, not all of it.

Of course thought is solidly based in the body, but can a complete description of the state of one's body thereby account for what one's thought is about? If we had all the physical facts, would any mental facts follow logically? It isn't just religious people who say that physicalists have problems accounting for the mind. For example's here's naturalist Ned Block:

We gain some perspective on the explanatory gap if we contrast the issue of the physical/functional basis of consciousness with the issue of the physical/functional basis of thought. In the case of thought, we do have some theoretical proposals about what thought is, or at least what human thought is, in scientific terms. Cognitive scientists have had some success in explaining some features of our thought processes in terms of the notions of representation and computation. There are many disagreements among cognitive scientists: especially notable is the disagreement between connectionists and classical "language of thought" theorists. However, the fact is that in the case of thought, we actually have more than one substantive research program and their proponents are busy fighting it out, comparing which research program handles which phenomena best. But in the case of consciousness, we have nothing--zilch--worthy of being called a research program, nor are there any substantive proposals about how to go about starting one. Researchers are stumped. There have been many tantalizing discoveries recently about neuropsychological syndromes in which consciousness seems to be in some way missing or defective, but no one has yet come up with a theoretical perspective that uses these data to narrow the explanatory gap, even a little bit.

Ned Block, ‘Consciousness’, in A Companion to Philosophy of Mind, (ed.) Samuel Guttenplan, (Blackwell, 1994), p. 211.

Or try that infamous Christian apologist Richard Dawkins

Neither Steven Pinker nor I can explain human subjective consciousness... In How the Mind Works Steven elegantly sets out the problem of subjective consciousness, and asks where it comes from and what’s the explanation. Then he’s honest enough to say, ‘Beats the heck out of me.’ That is an honest thing to say, and I echo it. We don’t know. We don’t understand it.

Richard Dawkins, quoted by Varghese, The Wonder of the World, p. 56.

Or how about that raving religious lunatic Susan Blackmore:

How can objective things like brain cells produce subjective experiences like the feeling that ‘I’ am striding through the grass? This gap is what David Chalmers calls ‘the hard problem.’ ...It is a modern version of the ancient mind/body problem – but it seems to get worse, not better, the more we learn about the brain... The objective world out there, and the subjective experiences in here, seem to be totally different kinds of things. Asking how one produces the other seems to be nonsense. The intractability of this problem suggests to me that we are making a fundamental mistake in the way we think about consciousness – perhaps right at the very beginning.

Susan Blackmore, ‘What is consciousness?’, Big Questions in Science, in Harriet Swain (ed.), Big Questions in Science, (Jonathan Cape, 2002), p. 29-40.

Now I am not saying these people are anywhere near arguing that the mind is supernatural. Far from it. But what I am suggesting is that the "facts" do not prove the the mind is physical, and that there should be no mystery about it, and that of course we all know that it is true. Rather, the conviction that the mind must be physical is one that is "read in" to the scientific data based on prior convictions about what people think must be true about nature.

And no, Lewis doesn't give you numbered premise arguments. I know of one guy, though, who wrote a book pulling enough numbered premise arguments out of Lewis to choke a horse. I forget his name. I'm not saying you need the numbers necessarily, but I thought asking for numbered premises might be useful in understanding the argument from evil, and so I asked for them. I've found numbered premise arguments a useful tool, but that is it.

Of course, Lewis and others such as myself have detailed arguments for why the mental states are not natural phenomena. To say that the facts prove that it is a natural phenomena is to provide a proof surrogate, not a proof.

What I was trying to do was show how Lewis perceived scientific thought: the right tool for many types of inquiry but nevertheless a "truncated" way to come up with a complete philosophy. Russell thought otherwise. He said "What science cannot discover, mankind cannot know." (I wonder what scientific discovery he based that off of? Unless he wasn't pretending to know it).

The Outsider and the Elephant

Loftus attributes religious belief to sociological conditioning. The elephant in the room is the culture of disbelief that is perpetuated, not by argumentation, but by intellectual intimidation and bullying, which anybody can find at most secular institutions of higher learning. I'm talking about the sort of "nobody believes that anymore" chronological snobbery that makes you feel as if some overwhelming argument was given on the day you were absent. It's the sort of attitude that makes an adolescent feel like a truly independent thinker because he has learned to be critical of his parents' attitudes and has adopted, instead, the attitudes of his peers. The idea that becoming a religious skeptic means transcending sociological pressures strikes me as ludicrous.

How to Solve Illegal Immigration

There are several parts to a solution here. One is border security, and Obama isn't going to get anywhere on his plans if he doesn't increase security on the border more than he has done so far. If he doesn't show seriousness about enforcement, he won't get bipartisan support in the Senate and his reform bill is going to die by filibuster. But, more than that, it's a good idea. Especially if you reform immigration along the path-to-citizenship lines, you need improved security so that the cycle doesn't repeat itself. This border security has to be primarily aimed at the smugglers, drug traffickers, and gun runners. These criminals are a problem for both countries, so part of the "enforcement" operation has to be focused on a cooperative effort with the Mexican government to shut these people down.

I don't know what enforcement-first means. If it means that we have to commit to enforcement if we want reform, then yes. If it means we have to have a perfectly secure border before we make other changes, then that is putting off reform indefinitely, and that won't do.

Second, a system of workplace enforcement where a person's fingerprint could be indexed to his social security number, so that this could be checked at the workplace, and then coming down on people who employ illegal immigrants could become effective.

Third, I do support a path to citizenship for those already here. In a way that's not fair, but I don't think it's possible or economically feasible to deport them all, and leaving people in their illegal status is a worse solution.

Fourth, I think a more rational legal immigration policy that makes legal immigration somewhat less limited is also important. Particularly where this is simply a matter of ineffiency in the process, that has to be addressed. That doesn't mean it should be unlimited, or that quotas are always wrong.

Fifth, we have to re-examine our trade policies, to make sure that we are not encouraging labor exploitation of foreign countries. In particular, we should not be permitting American companies to be running slave labor operations in Mexico or anywhere else. When we get serious about stopping worldwide slavery, we will also produce a demand-side deterrent for illegal immigration.