Thursday, September 30, 2010

Chesterton on the OTF

HT: Bob Prokop

"The next best thing to being really inside Christendom is to be really outside it. And a particular point of it is that the popular critics of Christianity are not really outside it. They are on a debatable ground, in every sense of the term. They are doubtful in their very doubts. Their criticism has taken on a curious tone; as of a random and illiterate heckling."

"I do seriously recommend the imaginative effort of conceiving the Twelve Apostles as Chinamen. In other words, I recommend [one] try to do as much justice to Christian saints as if they were Pagan sages. ... When we do make this imaginative effort to see the whole thing from the outside, we find that it really looks like what is traditionally said about it inside. ... It is exactly when we see the Christian Church from afar ... that we see that it is really the Church of Christ. To put it shortly, the moment we are really impartial about it, we know why people are partial to it."

The test and the answer key

JWL: You must seek to justify what you consider the facts apart from faith. Now you might not like me engaging you in this argument after you recognize the validity of the OTF all you want to, but if you truly wish to be an outsider to your own faith then to evaluate it properly an outsider like me can be of extreme value to you.

So, let me be of service. ;-)

VR:  No. That's where you start turning the Outsider Test for Faith into an Insider Test for Infidels. The OTF is a thought experiment, nothing more. Just because you invented the term for the test (the idea has always been around in some form or another), doesn't mean that you have the answer key in your desk drawer. I'm not convinced that there is any rational obligation to make one's faith depend on passing it. The argument you present in your book for why religious beliefs must pass the OTF is full of holes.

In one sense, you really never do get outside. When you go from theism to atheism, atheism becomes inside and theism becomes outside. I think the presuppositionalists have this much right; I don't think there is any real neutral ground.

But it is healthy to ask the question "What if I had come into all of this with a different experiences and background than what I in fact have?" But that's a question I have been asking since I was 18, and it's part of why I majored in philosophy. That's part of the good faith effort to be intellectually honest.

In particular, I don't believe in the Feldman-type argument where we have to stop holding positions because our epistemic peers disagree. I think that kind of thing stultifies thought, and as I understand the philosophy of science, I think it would stultify science.

I take it that cognitive science shows us that rationality is difficult. Of course, I've been arguing that rationality isn't even possible if naturalism is true, an argument you somehow don't feel any need to even respond to. But setting that aside, if it is difficult to be rational, then the OTF, or the deconversion the OTF is supposed to engender, is not going to make people automatically rational. It is one tool among many that we might use to help us become more rational, nothing more.

There is an appeal to intellectual honesty and fairness which is legitimate, but not an overwhelming argument against Christianity. What gets loaded on top of it, though, is what concerns me: a lot of unrealistic and questionable epistemology, a lot of highly questionable psychologizing, and an evaluation of the available evidence which is very different from mine. In fact, the claim that Christianity can't pass the test is backed up by statements that strike me as demonstratably false, such as the claim that Christians operate with a double standard when they, for example, reject Islam and accept Christianity. They appear for all the world to be submitting both religions to the same test, and claiming that Christianity comes out better.

And part of what you are calling faith, particularly an individual person's religious experience, is relevant evidence for people to use in evaluating their beliefs. 

That's what I object to: The Outsider Test for Faith Test, based on how closely your answers fit Loftus's answer key.

Moral subjectivism and the value of rationality

What's interesting to me here is the extent to which commitment to rationality is linked to a belief in moral objectivity. A believer in objective morality can argue that everyone ought to do one's best to believe what is true, even when believing the truth is emotionally costly. Whatever is legitimate in the Outsider Test for Faith appeals to this kind of commitment. But does this commitment make sense if moral relativism or moral subjectivism is presupposed?

Bertrand Russell wrote, concerning fideistic believers:

There is something pusillanimous and sniveling about this point of view, that makes me scarcely able to consider it with patience. To refuse to face facts merely because they are unpleasant is considered the mark of a weak character, except in the sphere of religion. I do not see how it can be ignoble to yield to the tyranny of fear in all terrestrial matters, but noble and virtuous to do the same things where God and the future life are concerned. 

But, if there's nothing objective about moral values, then there's no objective reason why I shouldn't be "pusillanimous and sniveling" if it keeps me emotionally comfortable. The appeal to intellectual honesty presupposes a commitment to the value of truth, which is going to be a subjective matter unless we accept objective moral values.

Why be rational?

Philosophers often ask the question "Why be moral?" Is there a parallel question "Why be rational."

Now, if we shouldn't be rational, I'm probably at least going to try, anyway. But can rationality be rationally justified?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How to pass the outsider test for faith

 Let's get back to the central point at issue here. You claimed that Christian opponents of other religions either question-beggingly assume the authority of the Bible, or exercise a kind of methodological naturalism with respect to other religions which, if applied to Christianity, would result in the rejection of Christianity as well. Looking at a paradigm case of Christian apologetic response to Islam, we find that this is not the case. We find that Christian apologists compare the Bible and the Qu'ran with respect to manuscript evidence, documentary evidence, and archaeological evidence. Given the fact that, on this reading of the evidence, the evidence supporting Christianity is better than that of Islam, an outsider could choose Christianity over Islam based on the evidence. In fact, as an unbeliever you can accept the claim that the Christian Bible has better manuscript evidence, documentary evidence, and archaeological evidence than has the Qu'ran. The comparison doesn't say what the evidential threshold should be, but it does say that Christianity is better evidenced than Islam. So, an atheist might say the evidence isn't sufficiently "extraordinary" to warrant belief, but even an unbeliever should realize that the Christian Bible is in better evidential shape than the Qu'ran.

I've even made the claim that if you could show me that the situation was really reversed, that the Qu'ran had better evidence, my faith would be in trouble.

Of course, there are many more gods, and more holy books. Do you know of any that would do better than either the Bible or the Qu'ran on these three tests?

So let's take Outsider Tester Joe, someone who has, hypothetically, put all religions, prior to investigation at the same level of epistemic probability. Joe takes each religion's holy books, and runs the three tests on each. The Christian Bible wins by a considerable margin, so Outsider Tester Joe either becomes or remains a Christian. He can only be thought to have failed to employ the OTF if he has treated similar cases differently because he is a Christian insider. But the cases are not similar. There's an evidential difference.

In any event, John, you should either show, specifically, how the comparison site I have referred to somehow uses methodological naturalism with respect to Islam but rejects in with respect to Christianity, thus employing a double standard, or abandon the claim you make in your book that Christian apologists appeal to methodological naturalism in response to other religions.

I should further emphasize that I don't necessarily buy all the arguments in support of the Bible on that site. That's not the point. The point is that it is hard to doubt that the Bible is far stronger than the Qu'ran in the three categories on which it tests the two holy books.

Put up or shut up.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Do Christians say that all other religions are just bunk?

C. S. Lewis didn't. 

To me, who first approached Christianity from a delighted interest in, and reverence for, the best pagan imagination, who loved Balder before Christ and Plato before St. Augustine, the anthropological argument against Christianity has never been formidable. On the contrary, I could not believe Christianity if I were forced to say that there were a thousand religions in the world of which 999 were pure nonsense and the thousandth (fortunately) true. My conversion, very largely, depended on recognizing Christianity as the completion, the actualization, the entelechy, of something that had never been wholly absent from the mind of man.1

I couldn't believe that nine-hundred and ninety-nine religions were completely false and the remaining one true. In reality, Christianity is primarily the fulfillment of the Jewish religion, but also the fulfillment of what was vaguely hinted in all the religions at their best. What was vaguely seen in them all comes into focus in Christianity.2

1 C. S. Lewis, God In The Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970), p. 132. 
2 Ibid., p. 54.

An Old Tennessee Saying

Back in Tennessee there's an old saying: When you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. When you have the law on your side, argue the law. When you have neither, holler.

I got this from an Al Gore e-mail. It may have a wider application than he intended.

I would recommend him to read Auerbach

This is a famous passage from C. S. Lewis's "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism."

In what is already a very old commentary I read that the fourth Gospel is regarded by one school as a 'spiritual romance', 'a poem not a history', to be judged by the same canons as Nathan's parable, the book of Jonah, Paradise Lost 'or, more exactly, Pilgrim's Progress'. After a man has said that, why need one attend to anything else he says about any book in the world? Note that he regards Pilgrim's Progress, a story which professes to be a dream and flaunts its allegorical nature by every single proper name it uses, as the closest parallel. Note that the whole epic panoply of Milton goes for nothing. But even if we leave our the grosser absurdities and keep to Jonah, the insensitiveness is crass - Jonah, a tale with as few even pretended historical attachments as Job, grotesque in incident and surely not without a distinct, though of course edifying, vein of typically Jewish humour. Then turn to John. Read the dialogues: that with the Samaritan woman at the well, or that which follows the healing of the man born blind. Look at its pictures: Jesus (if I may use the word) doodling with his finger in the dust; the unforgettable nv vuz (13:30). 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 - though it may no doubt contain errors - pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or 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. I would recommend him to read Auerbach. 

John Beversluis is critical of this claim. He says:

But that is not an argument. It is a question based on the false assumption that wide reading in a particular genre necessarily makes one's judgment more reliable than narrow intensive reading in the same genre. 

Well, if you put a necessity operator in, I suppose it is a false assumption. It could be that someone who engaged in a wide reading of a genre could have worse judgment than someone who read more narrowly and intensively. Still, one could certainly make mistakes reading narrowly within a particular genre and ignoring the types of literature extant at the time. For example, calling the Gospels novels is a mistake someone might make who is familiar with Biblical literature but is not aware that no one wrote novels in ancient times. It certainly seems reasonable that Lewis could have knowledge, as a literary scholar, that would allow him to avoid mistakes that a narrowly focused biblical scholar could make.

This is a particularly forceful consideration when one realizes that the idea that John is a spiritual romance is not a consensus claim amongst biblical scholars. There are plenty of scholars who think that John is a good-faith attempt to record what Jesus really said and did.

But also notice that Lewis doesn't just appeal to his own authority as a biblical scholar, he cites an authority, the Jewish scholar Auerbach, whose Mimesis made him a heavyweight in literary criticism.

Gene Veith, in his treatment of Auerbach's argument says:

Homer, Auerbach shows, puts everything in the foreground — giving us what the characters look like, describing their surroundings in detail, and even telling us what they are thinking. This approach, which has become the model for Western fiction, is “to represent phenomena in a fully externalized form, visible and palpable in all their parts, and completely fixed in their spatial and temporal relations,” says Auerbach.
He contrasts this highly-imaginative approach to the way the Bible in Genesis describes the sacrifice of Isaac. We do not know what Abraham or Isaac look like; there is no description of the landscape; we are not told what Abraham thinks as he prepares to sacrifice his son; nor are we informed why God acts as He does. Such meaning is in the “background,” requiring interpretation and reflection and opening up untold depths.
This kind of narrative testifies to the real because it is messy, unpredictable, and compels, just like real life. Auerbach says that the story of David has to be historical. “In Absalom’s rebellion, for example, or in the scenes from David’s last days, the contradictions and crossing of motives both in individuals and in the general action have become so concrete that it is impossible to doubt the historicity of the information conveyed.”

David Bentley Hart skewers the New Atheism

I think I am very close to concluding that this whole “New Atheism” movement is only a passing fad—not the cultural watershed its purveyors imagine it to be, but simply one of those occasional and inexplicable marketing vogues that inevitably go the way of pet rocks, disco, prime-time soaps, and The Bridges of Madison County.-David Bentley Hart.

See also this excellent paragraph: 

But a true skeptic is also someone who understands that an attitude of critical suspicion is quite different from the glib abandonment of one vision of absolute truth for another—say, fundamentalist Christianity for fundamentalist materialism or something vaguely and inaccurately called “humanism.” Hume, for instance, never traded one dogmatism for another, or one facile certitude for another. He understood how radical were the implications of the skepticism he recommended, and how they struck at the foundations not only of unthinking faith, but of proud rationality as well.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Some Confusions from Loftus on Methodological Naturalism

I was away from the computer yesterday, so I didn't see John's comment.

And you are being extremely disingenuous Vic, to the point of lying (yes, lying. You are at least lying to yourself).
Look at Walter Martin's book on the cults. Listen, I am not stupid. You are. Martin and all others assume there is a natural explanation for every other religion but their own.

I have never seen such utter stupidity before.

I am not subscribing. Anyone with a brain can read Martin's books or Geisler's or McDowell's.

Listen, if you wish to engage me take a basic primer in apologetics.

Sheesh. Is this the level or ignorance it takes to believe?

I think so, and that's why I want nothing to do with it. I am a thinking person. Critique this all you want but with such a buffoonish post as this it is MORE obvious than the nose on your face.

 I am going to ignore Mr. Loftus' unfortunate tone here, and proceed to the logical point I think he has missed. Martin, Geisler, and McDowell, I take it, believe that the founding of other religions can be explained naturalistically. Of course, it is critical only in Western revealed religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, etc. to have supernaturally explained founding events. Christians believe that God was active in the founding of both Judaism and Christianity, but they do not think God participated in the founding of the Islam, or the founding of Mormonism. It is certainly open to Christians to accept a supernatural explanation for the founding of these religions, namely a demonic explanation, but Martin and others don't ordinarily go that way, and I am inclined to suppose that they are right to do so. I heard a Christian caller to Hank Hanegraaf's show say that Moroni was an angel, but he was a fallen angel. Richard Abanes, a Mormonism expert, said that he didn't think that this was the case.

The obvious point, which seems to have escaped Mr. Loftus, is that explaining something naturalistically is not sufficient to make one a methodological naturalist. Here is the definition of methodological naturalism, provided by Paul Kurtz here

First, naturalism is committed to a methodological principle within the context of scientific inquiry; i.e., all hypotheses and events are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events. To introduce a supernatural or transcendental cause within science is to depart from naturalistic explanations. On this ground, to invoke an intelligent designer or creator is inadmissible....

In other words, before investigating some phenomenon, a methodological naturalist decides that whatever explanations are to be given it cannot be a supernatural explanation. Someone who adopts methodological naturalism assumes from the outset that no supernatural explanation can or will be given. What that means is that if an event in fact has a supernatural explanation, the investigator, who has committed himself to MN, will miss that explanation.

Now, people who believe in miracles explain many, indeed most things non-miraculously.  When Catholics canonize saints, they have to verify the miracles. They can conclude that the prospective saint didn't produce any miracles, in which case he (or she) is not canonized. That doesn't mean they are methodological naturalists, that means they didn't find enough evidence to support this particular prospective saint's miracle claims.

Now, look at the structure of the arguments in the comparison between the founding of Islam and the founding of Christianity, which I linked to in the previous post. I'm not even vouching for the argumentation in defense of Christianity here, I am just making the case that that site compared the manuscript evidence, the documentary evidence, and the archaeological evidence for the Bible as opposed to the Qu'ran. No doubt the author of this site thinks that the founding of Islam is in fact to be explained naturalistically, but there is nothing on the site that I can see that says it must be explained naturalistically. The central characteristic of methodological naturalism is a necessity that the subject matter be explained naturalistically, and that any supernatural explanations, even if true, be overlooked. In fact, by presenting this kind of evidence, the author of the website is implying that if the evidential situation were reversed, them we ought to seriously consider the Qu'ran, and not the Bible, is divine rather than human in origin.

Martin, Geisler, and McDowell do not assume that there is a naturalistic explanation for the founding of Islam. I contend that they argue that, in this case, there is a naturalistic explanation for the founding of Islam. 

So Mr. Loftus is making a leap from

1) Martin, Geisler, and McDowell in fact explain the origins of Islam naturalistically,


2) Martin, Geisler, and McDowell are employing methodological naturalism in their explanation of the founding of Islam.

And this, I submit, does not follow. Only be conflating the acceptance of a naturalistic explanation in a particular case with the acceptance of methodological naturalism can Mr. Loftus make his case that my last post was stupid. Once the distinction between these is clarified, his criticism falls flat.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Comparing the Bible and the Qu'ran

According to John Loftus, critiques of other religions either simply quote the Bible as an authority, thus begging the question, or else, in their analysis of the other religions, they operate from the perspective of methodological naturalism with respect to the other religions while failing to employ that same methodological naturalism in dealing with the Christian Bible. That is why Christianity fails the outsider test for faith.

No doubt critics of Christian apologetics will take issue with some of the claims put forth in this comparison. But I don't think the case can be made that the author is employing a different standard for the Bible and for the Qu'ran. Nor does this comparison support Loftus' claim that any analysis of the Qu'ran either presupposes the inerrancy of Scripture or is methodologically naturalistic.

I would like to see some evidence to support Loftus's claims that Christians employ methodological naturalism when they critique other religions. It seems howlingly false to me.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Bonjour on the Argument from Intentionality

A major philosopher defends what he thinks is a decisive objection to physicalism.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Pratt on Pervo on Theudas

Following up on a dialogue that began here at DI, Jason Pratt has now finished his seven-part critique of Pervo's claim that Luke's way of using Theudas's name, as it appears in Gamaliel's speech, shows Luke's dependence on Josephus (and hence the late date of the work).

My central interest in the controversy surrounding late-dating Acts was the question that, given their apparent recognition of how so much accurate information about places and times and governmental systems that seems to be recorded in Acts, it is odd that they do not even ask the question of how that information could have been preserved into the early second century. Having looked at this essay by Richard Carrier, it looks as if he recognizes the amount of accurate content in Acts. He then points out that this was just means he was good with public information, as opposed to having a good idea of, say, whether the apostles might have hallucinated the risen Jesus. But he makes no attempt to explain how Acts came to have so much accurate detail, and given the fact that he holds a position like Pervo's on the dating of Acts, this is a dismaying omission. In other words, it looks as if Carrier doesn't even ask the question that I asked about Luke's knowledge.Does he really think this information would have been easy for someone in the second century to get?

Anyway, Pervo's book, along with Colin Hemer's, await me at the Glendale Community College library. I will see if he addresses the problem I posed.

Feser on Dretske

For all you Dretske fans.

The C. S. Lewis Bible: Something we don't need

This looks like a bald marketing ploy and an appeal to Lewis hero-worship. I think this proliferation of study bibles is kind of ridiculous. What's next, the Calvinist Bible and the Arminian Bible?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

On being persuasive

Our assessments of the question of whether to be a believer of one kind or not cannot be, and I think should not be, affected completely by arguments and evidence. And if we do change our minds about something because of the evidence, it is usually a process that percolates over a period of time. Most of the time, we don't hear an argument that we decide is a good one and think "I never thought of that! I must be completely wrong!" That isn't how we operate.

Where religious conversion, or, I suppose, deconversion is concerned, there is a dimension of it that is open to rational debate, and a part that isn't really debatable. One must find the reason to make the move one is considering, but then one must have the will to take that step and accept a different position that may change your life forever.

Nevertheless, when we are in discussion, we do the most for our respective positions by sticking to the issues and debating them as forcefully and as charitably as we can. That's what we're here for. Let the conversions and deconversions fall where they may.

There is nothing I enjoy more than a discussion with an atheist in which I succeed in making Christianity just seem just a little more reasonable to him than when we started. I remember conversations I had 25 years ago with a fellow grad student at Illinois who liked to argue down Christians. I heard later he said after arguing with me "Boy, this is tough! I'm used to Christians just folding, or appealing to faith." Now, he remained a firmly committed atheist, and so far as I know, he still is. But who knows? 

The internet is a little bit driving, in that we deal with people but we don't actually see their faces. Hence, I think, we are more likely to call each other names and flip one another off (or the cyber equivalent thereof), because we do not know one another as persons.

I will say this: ridicule and abuse are, at least for me, very bad PR. I've heard enough anti-Christian ridicule to last three lifetimes. I happen to think that the culture of unbelief in many secular philosophy departments is sustained not by argument, but by intellectual peer pressure. I think about the people I have found impressive in my intellectual life: C. S. Lewis, Ted Guleserian,  Doug Arner, Bob Prokop, Joe Sheffer, Don Saliers, Hugh Chandler, Patrick Maher, Bill Hasker, and there are others. Most are Christians, others are not, but I think their character, as well as their intellectual capacities, made a difference to me.

Honestly, in dealing with some internet atheists, I think to myself "You know, even if ____ had some good arguments, if that's what atheism does to you, I never want to be like that. And I am sure that many skeptics react the same way in dealing with some Christians.

I am sure if I had been Lewis's friend Christian friend Arthur Greeves, I would have thought that I had lost all the arguments with my young atheist friend. So I am going to dedicate this post to all the Christians who got into arguments with the young C. S. Lewis and ended up thinking they had lost.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Lofty Thoughts By Loftus on Loftus

BDK, if brain studies mean anything people are persuaded into thinking differently. They aren't just reasoned into it. Persuasion. So in the interests of persuading people rather than follow up on what seems to me to be a dead end I simply try a different tact. You can claim what you do all you want to. It's just that I can better persuade my opponents by several different ways of seeking the same truth than following them down the rabbit hole.

We see things differently. I know this. You don't seem to. That's our difference. It's not about more detailed arguments and reasoning. It's about helping those who disagree with me to see things my way. It takes a conversion, a new way of seeing the evidence, much like a lawyer who becomes a prosecutor in the midst of the same trial.

That's the genius of what I do, although for this I am railed against by my own side. Still I know what I'm doing and I'm making a difference.

There you have it, in his own words. This is a time-honored tradition that goes all the way back to the Sophists of ancient Greece.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

On being right, and being wrong, in religion

Suppose I am a Protestant Christian, and Catholicism is true. Was I wrong about religion? Well, I was right about God, right about Christ, right about God having revealed himself, right about the Resurrection. Just wrong about church structure and the locus of authority. I am right about far more things than an atheist or even an agnostic is.

Suppose I am a Protestant Christian and Judaism is true. Then I was right about God, right about God's commands, just wrong about Jesus. An atheist or agnostic is wrong about the things I am right about.

Suppose I am a Protestant Christian and Islam is true. Then I am right about God, right that God has some things to say to us, right about Jesus as a prophet, just wrong about the Seal of the Prophets, Muhammad, and, of course, wrong about the Qu'ran. I am right about many things that the atheist or agnostic is wrong about.

Suppose I am a Protestant Christian and Hinduism is true. I am right about a transcendent reality, but wrong about its nature. Still, an atheist or agnostic is wrong to deny this transcendent reality.

It seems as if being in the wrong religion doesn't mean that you are completely wrong about religion.

Is it a bigger mistake to miss religious truth, if there is any, than to embrace false religious beliefs?

The Argument from Reason and the Outsider Test

Loftus has given me no real indication that he has studied my argument from reason, or has any understanding of the arguments in MY book. And unlike him, I'm not going to complain if he gets all of his information from DI and DI2 instead of purchasing the books. You could get that information those sites as well. And it is relevant to the OTF, because when Lewis presented his argument originally, the argument went like this.

1. No thought is valid (perhaps we could say "No belief is justified") if it can be fully explained in terms of irrational causes.

2. If naturalism is true, then all beliefs can be explained in terms of irrational causes.

3. Therefore, if naturalism is true, it cannot be rationally held.

Critics of the argument, like Anscombe, argued that the presence of non-rational causes didn't necessarily invalidate a belief, essentially accusing Lewis's original version of the argument of the genetic fallacy.

But Loftus, using the psychological underpinnings of the outsider test, is arguing that we can dismiss religious beliefs because they are formed irrationally. The argument from reason asks how rational beliefs are possible on the naturalistic view that Loftus espouses. Unless the Argument from Reason can be effectively countered, even the Skeptical Threat version from which I actually distanced myself for epistemological reasons, we end up with the conclusion that the psychological analysis of belief, pressed against religious believers, can logically be extended to all beliefs if naturalism is true. And if that's the case, then the Knights of Reason who reject religion have their beliefs produced in the same irrational way as the "brainwashed" religious believers. If naturalism is true, we're all brainwashed, no matter what we believe.

It looks like the Outsider argument won't work unless the AFR can be rebutted.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

My final (?) critique of the Outsider Test for Faith

The centerpiece of The Christian Delusion seems to be the Outsider Test for Faith. Here is Loftus's presentation in TCD:

1. Rational people in distinct geographical locations around the globe overwhelmingly adopt and defend a wide diversity of religious faiths due to their upbringing and cultural heritage. This is the religious diversity thesis.
2. Consequently, it seems very likely that adopting one's religious faith is not merely a matter of independent rational judgment but is causally dependent on cultural conditions to an overwhelming degree. This is the religious dependency thesis.
3. Hence the odds are highly likely that any given adopted religious faith is false.
4. So the best way to test one's adopted religious faith is from the perspective of an outsider with the same level of skepticism used to evaluate other religious faiths. This expresses the OTF. (82)

It seems to me that we can raise some questions about the first two premises. People today grow up in a culturally diverse world. Perhaps their early religious education may come from one religion or another, but plenty of people get hit with outside perspectives in high school or in college. There are aware that there are other religions. They are aware that there are some who deny the existence of any supernatural beings whatsoever. They know about controversies surrounding creation and evolution.

The cultural influence on people to adopt and be strongly committed to the faith they grew up in is mitigated by numerous influences from many sources. Peer pressure drives young people toward premarital sex, even when Christian groups oppose it. What we get from most media outlets does not drive us in the direction of a serious faith. We may find ourselves wanting to believe, but if we have heard the warnings about wishful thinking, that is going to make it harder, not easier to believe. As a result, even from a relatively early age, our beliefs with regard to religion, we are considering evidence. The image Loftus presented of believers who are "brainwashed" doesn't match a large number of Christians I have gotten to know over the years. In fact, the failure of most Christians to satisfy the stereotype found in anti-religious literature made their views on these matters lose credibility for me.

So the third premise, that one's religious beliefs should be regarded as probably false based on upbringing, seems to be highly questionable, simply because most of us are not only interacting with upbringing, but with evidence.

But now we come down to the test itself. One should approach one's own religion with the same level of skepticism that one approaches other religions. Is that a fair expectation? On one level, it's a kind of "fairness doctrine" for religious beliefs. Don't use a double standard for other religions that you don't use for your own.
At least hypothetically ask yourself if the evidence for your own religion would really be convincing if you weren't a believer.

But if that's all there is to it, then I would have to say that I believe that Christianity has an evidence base that is unmatched in other religions, and furthermore, if I came to think that the Christian evidence base was matched by, say, the evidence base for Islam or Mormonism, that I would probably start having serious doubts about what I believe. Now some of you may wonder how I could possibly believe such a thing, but I do believe it.

Does that mean that my Christianity passes the Outsider Test for Faith? Well, Loftus is going to say that, no, those psychological and sociological influences still have be in their grip.What would be evidence convincing to Loftus that I had passed the OTF? Deconversion, of course.

However, while I believe in pursuing objectivity, I also believe that human beings have no cheap and easy way of setting their intellectual biases aside. Remember Descartes? He knew that he had a lot of ideas and beliefs that he thought weren't justified. And he decided to doubt, not just religion, but everything. And he proved, in the Meditations, that God exists, that the soul is distinct from the body, that the will is free, etc. Would Loftus then say that his beliefs had passed the Outsider Test for Beliefs? Or would he say that he only thought he got outside, but really didn't. But you have to wonder what Descartes could have done that he didn't do.

Loftus makes couple of claims about how Christians deal with other religions, about which need some attention. In dealing with, say, Mormonism, Christians will argue that what Mormons teach conflicts with the Bible. That may be more of an internal critique of Mormonism than we realize, because Mormons, supposedly, accept the authority of the Old and New Testaments as well as modern revelation such as the Book of Mormon.

The other method Christians have of responding to other religions is to take a Humean method of evaluating the evidence and presume methodological naturalism in analyzing those religions. Now, for example, I think that the origins of Mormonism can be explained naturalistically. But that's not because of my method, that conclusion came on the basis of my study of how the religion was founded. There could be information about the evidence base for Mormonism that would make me think twice about whether or not it is true, but as it happens, there isn't. So no, I don't approach Mormonism as a methodological naturalist. In fact, some Christians explain the founding of Mormonism supernaturalistically; they think Joseph Smith was visited by an angel, a fallen angel. I happen to think that is not supported by the evidence. But it could have been, just as it could have turned out that that evidence supports the claim that Moroni was a good angel.

So, his description of how Christians evaluate other religions is off base. To be a real methodological naturalist is to give up on knowing that there has been supernatural activity, even if there has indeed been supernatural activity. I don't believe that the orthodox Christian critique of, say, Mormonism, entails that kind of opportunity cost. 

Loftus makes what I consider to be a bizarre claim, in endorsing Richard Feldman's argument that when there are two "epistemic peers" who have a "genuine disagreement" based on "shared evidence," it is rational for both to suspend judgment. This would effectively shut down philosophy if it were followed, and I think it would even shut down science, and it is a very good thing that people don't operate that way. If we go by my credentials, I am certainly Loftus' epistemic peer (actually his superior, since I have a Ph.D and he does not), so since we disagree on God, and even on the legitimacy of the Outsider Test for Faith, he's now obligated to suspend judgment on what he says. Will he follow Feldman's advice? When hell freezes over!

I am deeply skeptical about "default positions." My biggest problem with the outsider test for faith is that there is no outside. If we can imagine all the possible positions with respect to the probability of theism from 100% sure that theism is true to 0% probability that theism is true, I don't see any spot on that continuum that is a default position. I think that, realistically, what real people do is just begin from where they are and conditionalize, as Bayesians say, on the evidence. If there is enough evidence, and we all keep conditionalizing, we'll eventually converge on the truth. I think this is a more realistic way of looking at the process of thinking through controversial issues than is the idea of some neutral "ground zero" to which we should all be expected to move. Maybe part of that comes from my philosophical upbringing; I went through grad school when both in religious philosophy and in secular philosophy I kept hearing about the decline and fall of classical foundationalism. So I don't believe that there is such a thing as a "neutral corner" and I am suspicious of those who think they have gone there.

Yet, I do think the evidence both for the existence of a theistic God, and the evidence for the central claims of Christianity, is sufficiently strong that it should be convincing to an open-minded agnostic, just as it convinced the former atheist C. S. Lewis. If I perform the thought experiment of asking myself what I would believe had I started out from open-minded agnosticism, my answer is still Christianity. I don't think it reasonable for me to actually make myself an agnostic in order to do a real outsider test, but insofar as I perform the hypothetical outsider test, that's the outcome.  Now, it could be that I have mis-evaluated the evidence. There are people whom I deeply respect who have evaluated it differently. Now, no doubt Loftus evaluates the evidence differently from the way I do. But that evaluation isn't part of his outsider test argument.

What does Loftus say about that? Well, he gives us the sociological and psychological analyses of people like Eller, Long and Tarico, defending the claim of Shermer's that smart people believe weird things because they are good and defending what they already believe for non-smart reasons. But you can only say that if you have actually shown the reasons that we have for believing what we do to be bad. That step can't be skipped. Of course I know I could have misevaluated the evidence, and there are psychological and sociological mechanisms that might be the causes of that misevaluation. But those same forces affect us all. No deconversion, no "outsider test," is going to save us from making mistakes. C. S. Lewis became a believer, overcoming a considerable emotional resistance to becoming a believer. Loftus says the same thing about how he became an atheist. But crossing from one world-view to another doesn't guarantee the correctness of how one has reasoned..

Loftus writes: So upon what basis do nearly all believers around the world, including Reppert, think they are exceptions if this is the case? They cannot all be the exceptions! Believers are simply in denial when they claim that their religious faith passes the OTF. 

But I could say the same thing about Loftus. He has a belief about matters of religion. Atheism is a cultural and psychological phenomenon, just like Christianity, in spite of Loftus's protestations to the contrary.  The anti-Christian movement has as sociological and psychological dimension, to be sure, as is the New Atheism. Loftus is subject to sociological and psychological influences. He is subject to confirmation bias. He, and his cadre of debunkers of Christianity cannot be the exceptions. With all the psychologizing in his book, it is rather surprising that he says nothing whatsoever about Paul Vitz's work on the Psychology of Atheism. You see, the more you argue the pervasiveness of human irrationality, the more difficult it is to explain who Loftus and company can be the Knights of Reason who have escaped all the psychological influences and have apportioned their belief to the evidence. I happen to realize how difficult it is to be rational. Because I realize this, I believe that I work harder at it than most people on either side of aisle.

To test this, compare his website and mine. How frequently do I bring something up that is a problem for my Christian beliefs, and try to deal with it. Now, how often does he bring something up that is a problem for atheism, and try to deal with it?

I conclude that while the OTF can be a valuable thought experiment, it hardly provides a basis for an argument against Christianity. It can be only a hypothetical test at best, it cannot be perfectly performed by anyone on any side of the fence, and no one can judge whether any of their ideological opponents has truly passed it.

Notes on the Christian Delusion: The Bible-bashing chapters

Having read through The Christian Delusion, I have some comments. I have given some a few posts back, and I have some now.

I must admit that the target of the book is somewhat confusing. It seems to target "evangelicalism" primarily, though its claim is that all Christianity is bunk. A number of the chapters are what I would call Bible-bashing chapters. The trouble here is that these chapters seem to me to have paid no attention to attempts on the part of Christian theology to read Scripture in a nuanced way. It is hardly the case that atheists are the ones who have discovered difficulties with the Old Testament, or the New Testament for that matter. Even if we restrict ourselves to those who hold to "inerrancy" or "plenary inspiration" there were no references, so far as I could see, to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which is where that doctrine was clarified and developed in a sophisticated manner. And then there are other attempts to come to terms with the Bible as in some sense God's word while distancing oneself from inerrancy. C. S. Lewis is a certainly a highly respected figure amongst evangelicals, but he didn't accept inerrancy, and he also raised questions about the moral character of the Old Testament in Reflections on the Psalms. Lewis is a profoundly orthodox Trinitarian Christian, but certainly not a hard-line inerrantist.

In Tobin's essay, you get a brief treatment of "liberal" theology, as if the only deviations from the evangelical hard-line is going to a full-blown liberalism. Stephen Davis's book on inerrancy and infallibility represents a moderately conservative view, as would Pinnock's The Scripture Principle. There's no attempt, in the Christian delusion, to grapple with people like this.

Some further exchange between McGrew and Babinski

The title link goes to Babinksi's response to McGrew at his own site, this is Tim's response.  Tim's new comments are in blue, those from Ed are in black.

Ed has taken the time to explain some of his thoughts on the first couple of points of our initial exchange, and I have, today, a bit of time to respond. Since the semester has begun and I have various other commitments, I cannot promise to keep up an exchange in a timely fashion. I say this, not out of a desire to avoid discussion, but to give fair warning that it isn’t something I anticipate being able to carry on indefinitely. I would not want to give anyone a pretext for inferring anything from silence.

EB [FURTHER REPLY]: What does the word "appeared" mean exactly? I read in Carnely's book on the resurrection that the term can apply to something less than physical.

Ophthe comes from optanomai, which means simply “to appear.” Further shades of meaning cannot be squeezed out of lexical entries alone; we must look at the context, both textual (how does such a claim function in a creed?) and socio-cultural (what would a Jewish audience have understood by a resurrection?). The suggestion that an early creed would be taken seriously if its point were that lots of people had experienced purely subjective “appearances” is bizarre; in the Jewish context, Jesus’ rising again could only have been understood as a physical rising again, a point argued in extenso in Licona’s forthcoming book. To read ophthe here as “to have a purely subjective appearance-experience with no objective physical correlate” is, in face of these considerations, insupportable.

As for appearing to Peter first of all, that's not in the Gospels. Neither is a lone appearance to James. (Neither is an appearance to over 500. But more on that below.)

This sounds like an argument from silence in the making. In any event, though an appearance to Peter is not described in the Gospels, it is alluded to in Luke 24:34.

Let's say that Jesus' core group of initial followers returned to Galilee, mourning the loss of their leader, and Peter had a post-mortum appearance-experience (not unheard of), and the rest of the apostles WENT ALONG with it, saying, "Oh yes, the Lord appeared to Peter and the rest of us also." And perhaps by saying such a thing they originally only meant that THEY BELIEVED that the Lord had appeared to Peter and he was their leader? And suppose other followers of Jesus tended to view James as a leader at least equal to Peter, and they saw how the notion of an "appearance" to Peter rallied the Jesus movement round him, and so a story arose that James saw the Lord too--"and then the apostles," just as in the case of Peter, making them equal. In other words I'm suggesting that an early story grew, prompted by questions of leadership. As for the idea of miracle stories growing, an examination of the NT itself provides prima facie evidence of the addition, growth and change of miracle stories over time. If TM wishes to disavow my case and instead conduct his own based on harmonizing tales, that's his prerogative. But I'd say from my perspective that the prima facie evidence and each question raised by such evidence, comes first.

This chain of perhapses and supposes is pure fabrication; I cannot imagine why you think that it is supported by the evidence of the texts. There is no power struggle recorded between Peter and James. Most of the conditions requisite for this sort of post-mortem experience are missing. Any misunderstanding of an initial claim to have believed that Peter hallucinated something would have been easily quashed by those who had made the initial claim. To suppose that the misunderstanding arose and took over in the first years, to the point that the truth had disappeared within five years of the events of Easter and the creed reported only the misunderstanding, is not credible.

The simple explanation for why there are no more details in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is that this is a creed, not a Gospel. Virtually all scholars agree that it was composed and circulated at a time when the majority of the principals were alive, in the 30s. The suggestion that because this creed, which is by its very nature streamlined and structured for easy memorization, does not contain further details, none were known, is extremely puzzling. Does anyone seriously maintain that an inquirer in Jerusalem who had heard the claims in this creed and came to the disciples asking what had happened would have been sent away no wiser than when he first came? Or that he would have been told only stories of “pneumatic ecstasies”?

As for the helter-skelter nature of the resurrection reports we have, I think any candid reader will agree that it is just the sort of evidence we might expect if events happened more or less as they have traditionally been thought to have happened. We have a good number of accounts, narrated by different persons, of different appearances in different places, complete with the loose ends that accompany all sincere eyewitness testimony. By far the simplest explanation for this is that the first Christians had complete conviction that Jesus, after His resurrection, had been seen so often and by so many persons that there was no real dispute about the central fact of the matter. The discrepancies in the accounts are no greater than—indeed, rather less striking than—those in the accounts of the death of Callisthenes, or Caesar, or Caracalla.

Dr. Robert M. Price also notes that a host of questions have been raised by theologians concerning the above passage in 1 Cor.  [A long quotation from Price follows.]

It does seem reasonable to suppose that the creed was composed to give a list of prominent males in the early church who could give testimony to having seen the risen Lord. Price’s question about the absence of an explicit Gospel reference to the 500 is actually awkward for him, since he must then try to argue that it wasn’t present in the original text of 1 Corinthians 15. I am deeply unimpressed by such arguments from silence.

Another paragraph from Price follows; the only portion that could be construed as a gesture toward an argument is this:

“[I]f such an overwhelmingly potent proof of the resurrection had ever occurred it would have been widely repeated from the first.”

There are multiple problems here. If the creed in 1 Corinthians 15 was, as most scholars grant, circulated in the 30s, then it was widely repeated from the first, and we have it, in the very words in which it was repeated. Paul, in quoting the creed to the Corinthians, reminds them that this is what they received at the first—reminds them, that is, of their own catechesis. The suggestion that it wasn’t widely known unless it was mentioned twice is absurd; the assumption that it must post-date the Gospels is just another argument from silence and deserves no further notice.

Regarding that line in 1 Corinthians 15 and the description of Pentecost in Acts 2, Price writes:

In fact, would it not be far more natural to suppose that if any connection existed between the two passages, the relation must be just the opposite? That, rather, an originally subjective pneumatic ecstasy on the part of a smaller number at Pentecost has been concretized into the appearance of the Risen Lord to a larger group on Easter? But then we are simply underscoring more heavily the apocryphal character of the result. Lüdemann unwittingly confirms this: "The number 'more than 500 brethren' is to be understood as 'an enormous number', i.e., not taken literally. (Who could have counted?)" It is just this sort of detail that denotes the fictive character of a narrative. It is like asking how the narrator knew the inner thoughts of a character: he knows them because he made them up! No more successful is the suggestion that the appearance to the 500 be identified with Luke 24:36ff. The same question presents itself: if there were as many as 500 present on that occasion, how can the evangelist have thought this "detail" unworthy of mention? And if we suppose he did include it, what copyist in his right mind would have omitted it?

In a word, no. It is not more natural to suppose that the appearance to over 500 brethren at once is a legend growing out of Pentecost, for many reasons, one of which is that no appearance of Jesus is even hinted at in Acts 2. As for the question about counting I hope that we can get beyond the sort of chronological snobbery that suggests ancient people could not or would not count. Price’s attempt to parlay the numerical reference into a piece of evidence that the story is fictional looks suspiciously like an attempt to affirm the consequent.

The argument from silence regarding Luke 24:36 would be worth puncturing if it were not for the fact that the hypothesis that there were 500 people present at that time is not itself particularly plausible (see verse 33). Matthew 28:16-20 is a better candidate; here we simply have another argument from silence, and Price has not provided any compelling line of argument for the inclusion of that detail. If anyone feels a need for a further explanation for Matthew’s brevity, I have already remarked on the fact that Matthew’s final remarks are quite condensed, a fact that has led competent commentators (e.g. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 698) to suggest that, like Josephus in Contra Apion 1.320, Matthew was running out of scroll. The omission of a detail in writing that could be supplied by a living witness to anyone who asked is not a serious ground for erecting an elaborate theory of legendary embellishment.

I cannot for the life of me see why anyone should take the view that the reference to the 500 is an interpolation seriously. And, in fact, apart from Price, virtually no scholar does. There is no shred of textual evidence against its authenticity, and it makes (pace Price) perfectly good sense in the context. I am deeply suspicious of the kind of historical fantasy that would permit us, if it were not reserved exclusively for the Scriptures, to deconstruct all history.

For literalists, let me add that when Paul states that Jesus "appeared" to "over 500 brethren at once" (1Cor. 15:6), that would have been to a greater number of "brethren" than were mentioned at the time of Jesus' alleged bodily ascension into heaven because Acts 1:9,14-15,22 mentions only "120 brethren" meeting together in Jerusalem just prior to Jesus' bodily ascension. Acts also limits the number of people who saw the body of Jesus ascend into heaven to just the apostles (Luke 24:49-53 & Acts 1:2-9 ). But I don't want to rush to discussing Luke-Acts since we still haven't discussed Mark and Matthew's tales of the post-resurrection Jesus yet, which most scholars would admit were probably composed sometime between 1 Cor. and Luke-Acts.

Here we have another argument from silence. The bulk of Jesus’ ministry was in Galilee, and it is widely acknowledged that he had a larger body of followers there than in Jerusalem. So the reference to 120 brethren gathered together in Jerusalem does not cast any doubt on whether Jesus appeared to over 500 people at once. It is generally and, I think, reasonably conjectured that the reference to the 500+ is an allusion to the same event as the one mentioned in Matthew 28:16-20.

TM: It isn’t the point of a creed to give a lengthy description of all that Jesus did and said after his resurrection. This one circulated in the 30s; one of the purposes, plainly, was to list the people of whom one might inquire.

EB [FURTHER REPLY]: The point is not that it was an "early creed," the point is HOW CAN WE KNOW FOR SURE HOW SUCH A CREED ORIGINATED? We can't know, we don't have any evidence BUT this early creed. And it is sparse evidence indeed. So unless you are assuming a harmonization stance to begin with, you don't know either. My view considers the evidence in chronological order, and the most obvious questions that come to mind -- prima facie evidence of what appears to be legendary additions, growth, changes in the story over time. For further reading along such lines I suggest:

I await any account of its origin apart from the obvious one—that people who were convinced they had seen Jesus alive again after his death set down a compact record of notable witnesses—that is remotely plausible. Regarding priority, I will just note en passant that Joachim Jeremias, who agrees that the creed in 1 Corinthians 15 is very early, argues that the report in Luke 24:34 represents a tradition that predates that creed. (“Easter: The Earliest Tradition and the Earliest Interpretation,” in New Testament Theology (New York: Scribner’s, 1971), p. 306) Dodd and Bultmann also note the connection between Luke 24:34 and 1 Corinthians 15:5.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

McGrew versus Babinski on the reliability of the New Testament

Tim was having trouble getting his rebuttal to Ed Babinski up onto Blogger, so I am reproducing the dialogue here. 

EB: What exactly did their eyes witness?

TM: More or less what they said they did.

EB: 1 Cor. is the earliest and also the most sparse example. All it tells us is that "Jesus appeared."

TM: ... to Peter, and to the twelve, and to five hundred people at once, and to James -- all of which means just what it sounds like it means. It isn’t the point of a creed to give a lengthy description of all that Jesus did and said after his resurrection. This one circulated in the 30s; one of the purposes, plainly, was to list the people of whom one might inquire.

EB: As for Jesus "speaking" that story builds as any legend might, from no words related by Paul,

TM;... which we would not particularly have expected, given the sort of work Paul is writing and the nature of the creed he is quoting

EB: ... to no words related by Mark, ...<

TM: Arguments from silence are almost always lousy, but you cannot build one here at all since the ending of Mark’s Gospel is lost.

EB:... to a few sentences in Matthew ...

TM: ... whose account becomes so compressed in the final chapter that it is very likely he was running out of scroll, in which case it is not possible to press any inference very hard here ...

EB: ... to hundreds of words and allusions to entire speeches and 49 days of meeting with Jesus in Luke-Acts and John.

TM: What else would you expect? With Luke, you have someone who set out to collect reminiscences of Jesus; with John, you have someone who was perhaps the only disciple personally to accompany Jesus on his earlier trips to Judea and who set out to fill in the gaps left by the previous Gospels.

EB: The legend grew.

TM: This conclusion is not well supported by the evidence you have presented. It is antecedently improbable, it is contradicted by numerous other facts about the text, it flies in the face of the testimony we have regarding the origin of these documents, and there is an alternative explanation that covers more of the facts better.

EB: Singh and Sevi are NOT beside the point.

TM: They are completely irrelevant to the point under discussion. I personally know a guy who claims that Jesus came and lived with him for a few weeks. This proves nothing. Good grief.

EB: As for the Gospel of John's description in chapter 3 of meeting with Nicodemus, it's in Greek and contains a pun that confuses Nicodemus which is shouldn't have happened since they were mostly likely speaking Aramaic, not Greek to one another, ...

TM: Please read what I wrote above. It is very plausible that they were speaking Greek, a language that Jesus, as a tradesman working in Galilee, would have had to acquire.

EB: The previous Gospels have Jesus teaching many plainly Jewish things about "how to inherit eternal life" during the day in front of other people.

TM: ... and not using the phrase “born again.” Yes, quite. But what of it? The entire premise of your objection here is based on a careless reading of John 3. John doesn’t say that Jesus spoke with Nicodemus by night to hide His true teaching from the Jews; it says that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night for fear of the Jews.

EB: Interestingly, only in the Gospel of John do you find the continual depiction of Jesus as the Lamb of God, right from Jesus' first meeting with John the Baptist and put on the lips of John the Baptist, to the "secret nighttime meeting" with "Nicodemus," ...

TM: Right: John uses a phrase not found in the other Gospels. (Yawn.)

EB: ... to the end of the Gospel of John which (unlike the other Gospels) has Jesus slaughtered on the same day they are slaughtering the "lambs" for the Passover Feast.

TM: Another misreading: John has Jesus crucified on the same day as the Synoptics.

EB: My conclusion is that YES, people were making stuff up about Jesus.

TM: People certainly did make up stories about Jesus; we just disagree as to whether the Gospels are instances of that genre.

EB: And I think any religion that wants me to believe in made up hints of stories that continued to be passed along and flourish as legends via a game of "telephone" ..

TM: It wasn’t a game of telephone. Even Bart Ehrman, when he is speaking with serious scholars instead of selling soap to the masses, doesn’t try to pretend this.

EB: ... (played out from Palestine to the Greek speaking world where the stories took root and became "Gospel") ...

TM: Memo to Ed: Palestine was part of the Greek speaking world.  

EB: equivalent to asking me to turn in my questioning brain.

TM: I would have a good deal more sympathy for you if you showed any willingness to question some of the lousy arguments you have posted on your own website. Skepticism need not be reserved for the Gospels and the creed, Ed. Try doubting something else.


Monday, September 13, 2010

David Werther reviews Beversluis's revised C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion

Although this review levels some criticisms, and, in fact, some of the criticisms that I have made (see especially the discussion of Davis on the trilemma and the discussion of Russellian vs. Humean subjectivism), I don't think even Beversluis can complain about the tone of this review.

HT: Steve Hays.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Some revisions in Talbott's response to Beversluis, and a lesson from Lewis on Ad Hominem arguments

Those who are familiar with what I write are aware that I have strict standards for avoiding ad hominem arguments. In my view, we are poorly situated to understand the motives and character of other people, and so we should stick to the issues and avoid casting aspersions on the character of those whose views we oppose. Some people think this is a matter of niceness, but I see it rather as a way of keeping discussion productive.

I think one example where a lot of people with whom I sympathize made a mistake in this direction was the various responses made by critics of the original edition of John Beversluis's C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, published in 1985. As a Lewis defender, I was sympathetic to the content of their criticisms. At the same time Richard Purtill, for example, implied that Beversluis was being deliberately dishonest in his treatment, for example, of Lewis's A Grief Observed. Now, having written a book that was harshly critical of a highly regarded Christian thinker such as Lewis, he could expect harsh criticism in return. But I do think that moving from a critique of the contents of his treatment of Lewis to a discussion of his motives and character was misguided.

Now, of course, Beversluis wrote his 2007 revision of the book, this time with Prometheus Press as opposed to Eerdmans, and he there responded to various critics of his work. Just recently, Thomas Talbott has written a reply to Beversluis's revised edition, claiming that Beversluis badly misinterpreted his defense of Lewis's treatment of the problem of evil. I linked to it a few posts back. However, Talbott's essay, as it appeared when I linked to it, did contain some aspersions against Dr. Beversluis's character, and Beversluis e-mailed me to point out that Talbott's rejoinded did not meet what he knew to be my standards of ad hominem avoidance.

I sympathize with Talbott, and am inclined to agree that Beversluis committed some serious errors in interpreting his essay. (Interestingly enough James Petrik, who independently wrote an essay which made a number of points that are similar to those of Talbott, also complained about how his essay was interpreted by Beversluis, and I heard from him before I heard from Talbott). However, Talbott said that Beversluis "had no concern for accuracy" and even that he "had deliberately removed a modal operator" from one of Talbott's statements, and that steps over the line.

One important piece of evidence that makes me very reluctant to charge Beversluis with dishonesty is the fact that, in spite of the fact that it would advance the overall thesis of Beversluis's book that Lewis's apologetics fails miserably, in a review of A. N. Wilson's biography, and later in the revised book, he argued that Lewis did not abandon apologetics after his exchange with Elizabeth Anscombe. No one trying to tear Lewis down dishonestly would have given up on what I have called the Anscombe Legend. That legend is just too juicy for Lewis's opponents to throw away, and the only reason someone like Beversluis would abandon it was because it doesn't fit the facts.

It is very irritating, surely to be misinterpreted by a critic. However, we cannot do better than follow the example of Lewis himself, in his Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger.

How many times does a man have to say something before he is safe from the accusation of having said exactly the opposite? (I am not for a moment imputing dishonesty to Dr. Pittenger; we all know too well how difficult it is to grasp or retain the substance of a book one finds antipathetic.)"

In any event, Talbott has made some revisions in his essay to meet my criticisms. Those who want to determine how right, or wrong, Talbott is in his criticisms of Beversluis's interpretations should read Talbott's original article, read Beversluis's criticisms, and read Talbott's response. I realize that the relevant portions of Beversluis aren't available online.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Prosblogion entry on atheist burnout

Knowing both Parsons and Beversluis, (Parsons through having lived in a house with him when we were both seminary students in the late 70s, Beversluis through correspondence about Lewis), I do find this dismaying.

I would just note that the believer-unbeliever divide is one of the things that divides us most deeply. Being in error about God certainly has a greater impact on who we are than being in error about abstract objects, or counterfactual conditionals. You also have to realize that the atheist philosopher is talking about what he doesn't believe, while the Christian is talking about what he does believe.

Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism

The well-known C. S. Lewis essay. Tim McGrew probably knows some people from the history of  apologetics who have made similar arguments.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Doctor Logic and Tim and Lydia McGrew on the independence of the Gospels

This is a comparison of a comment by Doctor Logic about the independence of the New Testament authors, and a prescient response by Tim and Lydia McGrew from the Blackwell essay quoted in the previous post.

DL: There are several Christian claims that I see repeated here at DI that drive me bananas. First, there's the claim that there were independent witnesses to the Resurrection. There weren't. You have essentially one account because the authors were part of the same cabal. The collaborated at every stage.

T & L McGrew: Though some scholars have challenged these accounts as later additions,
there are serious reasons to take them to be authentic reports of what the
women said. First, the prima facie tensions in the narratives of the
discovery of the tomb and the first appearances of Christ tell strongly
against collusion, copying, and embellishment. One evangelist gives
an account of one angel at the tomb, another of two; one has the
women setting out “early, while it was yet dark,” another sets the scene
“when the sun was risen.” The lists of the women who are named in the
various gospels overlap only partially. Some puzzling details are never
worked out for the reader. If Mary Magdalene ran back to tell Peter
and John, how did they fail to meet the other women as they returned?
What did Jesus mean when he said “Touch me not” to Mary Magdalene?
These are the sorts of loose ends and incongruities one would expect
 from independent eyewitness accounts of the same event, where
 substantial unity – agreement on the main facts – is accompanied
 by circumstantial variety.

Tim and Lydia McGrew on archaeological support for the New Testament

I have linked to the McGrews' essay from the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.

The role of such naturalism as a motivating factor in the work of the form
critics is often explicit, but as an argument against a more traditional
position it suffers from the obvious drawback of circularity. Consequently,
form critics have typically supported their conclusion of late dating of the
gospels and Acts by pointing to ostensible anachronisms and errors of
detail that show the authors to have been, not eyewitnesses, but creative
and tendentious redactors writing at a substantial remove from the events
they are purportedly recording.

Unquestionably, if we examine the gospels with a literary lens of sufficient
resolving power, we find that they contain material belonging to various
literary types: logia, parables,pronouncement stories, speeches, and so
forth. To recognize this fact is not to make any concession on the point of
interest to us here. And anyone who has read much biblical criticism
knows that the form and redaction critics often command much real
scholarship and sometimes display astonishing imagination. But there are
good reasons for dismissing the sweeping negative conclusions of form
criticism regarding the authenticity and reliability of the narratives. There
are no independent textual traditions preserving the allegedly earliest
forms; one must discern them in the existing text, and in many cases
the layers are visible only when the text is viewed with eyes of
form-critical faith. There is a substantial and growing body of
evidence that thegospels were indeed written by eyewitnesses or by
those with access to eyewitnesses. And the conjectures of the form
critics regarding the dating and accuracy of the New Testament writings
have repeatedly been shown by scholars in other fields to be embarrassing

A few examples may help to illustrate the latter point. In the early 20th
century,the French critic Alfred Loisy dismissed the description in the fourth
gospel (John 5:2) of the pool of Bethesda as having five porches. This,
Loisy said, was a literary alteration or addition designed to represent the
five books of the law which Jesus had come to fulfill. On the basis of such
reasoning, and in harmony with the late dating advocated in the previous
century by the Tübingen scholar Ferdinand Christian Baur, Loisy set the
date for the composition of the gospel at some time after A.D. 150.
Excavations of the pool of Bethesda in 1956 revealed that it was located
where John said it was, bounded on the sides with four colonnades and
spanned across the middle by a fifth (Leon-Dufour, 1967, p. 67; Jeremias,
1966, pp. 36-38). As E. M. Blaiklock says, “No further comment is
necessary” (Blaiklock, 1983, p. 65).

Archaeology has not been kind to literary criticism of the gospels and Acts.
The discovery in Caesarea Maritima in 1961 of an inscription bearing
Pilate’s name and title, the discovery of a boundary stone of the emperor
Claudius bearing the name of Sergius Paulus (cf. Acts 13:7), the very
recent discovery of the Pool of Siloam (John 9) from the time of Jesus,
and numerous other discoveries indicate a level of accuracy incompatible
with the picture of the development of the gospels as an accretion of legend
over the course of two or more generations. Our point is not that these
discoveries demonstrate the accuracy of all other portions of the gospels;
rather, it is the commonsense principle that authors who have been shown
to be accurate in matters that we can check against existing independent
evidence deserve, within reasonable bounds, the benefit of the doubt when
they speak of matters of putative public fact that we cannot at present verify
independently. Several such discoveries also indicate that the author of the
gospel of John was familiar with Jerusalem prior to its destruction, a point
that directly addresses the attempt to place a very late date on the text.
 (See Shanks, 2005, p. 23.)

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Lewis's Famous Essay on Bulverism

Here's Bulverism. C. S. Lewis replies to Eller, Tarico, and Long, before any of them were born.

If Lewis is correct, spending three chapters on psychological explanation is a fundamental logical mistake. If you give the arguments against Christianity, and then someone comes back and says "But, if those arguments are good, how come I feel so sure that Jesus loves me? How come there are so many believers? They can't all be deluded, can they? Besides, aren't there a lot of smart people who believe?: then these sorts of psychological arguments are relevant. But to lead off with this stuff? Isn't that putting Descartes before Dehorse?

Reply to Parsons (and Eller, Tarico, and Long), on the Psychological Explanation of Religion

I notice the fully three chapters of The Christian Delusion are devoted to the psychological explanation of religion (Eller, Tarico, and Long). So, I thought I would re-present my critique of Keith Parsons' anti-theistic argument based on the psychological explanation. For some reason, I had trouble redating the post, so I copied it here. But I am linking back to the previous edition of this post. In addition, you can go back to the original Secular Outpost exchange between Parsons and myself, here. If you follow the link to the Secular Outpost posting, you will an original post by Keith, a reply by me, and a reply by Keith, to which I respond here.

Keith Parsons replied to my genetic fallacy discussion on the Secular Outpost.

Vic, thanks loads for your reply. I do not think that we have a theory that shows that most people would believe in the Judeo-Christian God. I don't know of any theory, except maybe Plantinga's sensus divinitatis, that says that belief in God is hardwired. However, there is much evidence that belief in a god or gods is. Here is a sample of recent books adducing such evidence: The "God" Part of the Brain by Matthew Alper, Faces in the Clouds, by Stewart Guthrie, Darwin's Cathedral by David Sloan Wilson, In Gods we Trust, by Scott Atran, The Evolution of Morality and Religion, by Donald M. Broom, Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer, and Breaking the Spell, by Daniel Dennett (We are a LONG way beyond the old Freudian and Marxist explanations). Each of the theories presented in these books is what I call a Biological Belief Theory (BBT). Each BBT adduces vast amounts of information from neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and anthropology to argue that humans have a natural proclivity towards belief in gods. No BBT holds that belief in a specific god, Zeus, Marduk, or Yahweh, for instance, is "hardwired." All of these writers recognize that specific gods are social constructs, the products of particular cultures and historical contingencies and subject to historical development. But they argue that culture does not write on a blank slate. God myths are avidly invented, promulgated, and believed because they satisfy a natural yearning and give a specific shape to innate but inchoate urgings. Vic, you say that explaining God is a tougher case than Hobbits. We know how Hobbits were made up, but we cannot say so clearly how God was made up. But it seems that we can. Karen Armstrong's A History of God recounts in considerable detail how a small-time, truculent tribal god of a minor pastoral people became the one universal God of the later prophets, and then the triune God of Christianity, and then the ferociously unitary Allah of Islam, and, eventually, the watchmaker God of the Enlightenment. Armstrong explains cogently how these evolving concepts of God were responses to the spiritual needs and cultural exegincies of particular times and places. Of course, just one person thought up Hobbits (though, of course, Tolkien was drawing upon a vast history of folklore about "little people"), and no one person made up God. But the principle is the same. If we know that an idea was a product of myth and folklore(and, prima face, this seems to be the case with Yahweh just as much as for Zeus, Odin, or Quetzalcoatl), and if we know that people will be inclined to invent, promulgate, and believe such myths whether they are true or not, then, absent compelling contrary evidence, it is rational to discount such ideas. Further, as I argued, such discounting does not commit the genetic fallacy.Vic, you say that wanting to believe in God was for you a major obstacle to belief. Knowing you as a person of exceptional honesty and intellectual integrity, I'll take you at your word. However, I also know how easy it is for our introspective self-reports to be wrong, however honest our self-scrutiny is. For instance, over the years I have heard many people preface a statement of belief (in God, ESP, UFO's, conspiracy theories, monsters, or what have you) with the claim that they started off as skeptics but were brought around by "overwhelming evidence." Then, when you look at the evidence, and find it to be very underwhelming, you have to conclude that their initial skepticism did not run nearly so deep as it subjectively seemed to them. So, we can easily be wrong about what we perceive as our real, deep-down desires and motivations. Tell me, do you really think that, had you been born Vijay instead of Victor, and if you were from Bangalore rather than Phoenix, AZ, that you would not now be as devoted to Brahma as you are to God?

Keith: First of all, I think the Hobbit example is flawed because almost no Tolkien readers have the slightest inclination to be realists about hobbits, since the words “fantasy fiction” are right on the cover of the book. Maybe the case of Tim, who sees snakes in his room after a long drinking binge, might be better. We have good reason to suppose that his room contains no snakes, and we can explain how someone having consumed as much alcohol as he has consumed would come to hold such beliefs. Here, however, you are typically going to find people in the room who see no snakes, etc. In short there will be a body of evidence undermining the claim that there are snakes in Tim’s bedroom.

Do we have anything like this with respect to religious beliefs? I think it is difficult. Now IF we have assessed the overall evidence for theism as pretty poor, in much the way that the others of us in Tim’s room who see no snakes assess the evidence negatively, then we might try to figure out how Tim got his belief that there were snakes in the room. But presumably you are offering these psychological explanations as a piece of atheological evidence itself, as a reason to reject belief in God that stands independent of such arguments as the argument from evil. Now I do suppose that if we knew enough about alcohol and its effects on the brain we could dismiss claims of that sort even in the absence of evidence against the claim itself, simply on the grounds that it was produced by an unreliable belief-producing mechanism.

But the challenge for this argument is going to be daunting. You have to remember, first, that if the Christian God really does exist, it is highly likely that God would make us in such a way that our true needs are met by a knowledge of, and relation to him.

And let’s look at what we have to explain. First of all, you must explain the proclivity to think in terms of deities, and to produce religious explanations. Then you have to explain how a society moved from polytheism to monotheism. Then you have to explain how, right from the midst of a people whose whole history had been a battle for monotheism, someone came along who claimed to be the Incarnate God and got a significant enough following to spread belief in him throughout the Roman Empire, resulting in a monotheistic God that is nevertheless triune. And then you have to explain the fact that people at the highest levels in science and philosophy still think the evidence sufficient for belief in this triune God. These are four separate steps, and they all need to be accounted for.
For the sake of this discussion, I will grant that if naturalism is true human beings can be expected to produce supernaturalist beliefs. When we get to the second and third steps, I think the naturalist is going to run into problems. Parsons writes:

Karen Armstrong's A History of God recounts in considerable detail how a small-time, truculent tribal god of a minor pastoral people became the one universal God of the later prophets, and then the triune God of Christianity, and then the ferociously unitary Allah of Islam, and, eventually, the watchmaker God of the Enlightenment. Armstrong explains cogently how these evolving concepts of God were responses to the spiritual needs and cultural exigencies of particular times and places.

Really now! I haven’t read Armstrong, but let me point out that this job is a going to be a tough one. Let me present an analogy. The Arizona Cardinals are about to play in their first Super Bowl tomorrow. I do not know whether they will win, as I hope, or whether the Pittsburgh Steelers will win, as Keith hopes. But let’s concern ourselves with how we might explain the Cardinals’ playoff victories to date, the three triumphs over the Atlanta Falcons, the Carolina Panthers, and the Philadelphia Eagles. Now you can talk, if you want, about the stellar passing of Kurt Warner, the opportunistic defense and the enormously positive turnover ratio, the almost superhuman catches of Larry Fitzgerald, the resurgence of the Cardinals’ running game, and their enormous success in shutting down some pretty effective running backs. But if you take all of these things and say that, with them, they were the inevitable NFC Champions, you would be overlooking the fact that this franchise had been NFL doormats since the mid 1970s, that they had lost several games toward the end of the season, some by large margins, and that they were not favored to win any of the playoff games they eventually did win. In short, you have to take seriously what the Cardinals were up against in this playoff run if your explanation of their success is to have any credibility. That is why Cardinal fans who say they knew all year that this would happen are, well, blowing hot air out of some undignified places.

What does this have to do with the explanation of religious belief? Surely I am not following the example of our quarterback in explaining these victories theologically. No, all I am saying is that if you are going to explain the emergence of such developments as Western theism, you had better be aware of the forces arrayed against this development.

If it were perfectly natural for polytheists to turn to monotheism, why didn’t it happen in Greece, in Rome, in Moab, in Babylonia, in Assyria, in Syria, amongst the Hittites, or the Scythians, or in India (where there was some development, but not classical monotheism) in China, or in Egypt? No, your explanation has to explain how it happened in Israel and why it didn’t happen elsewhere. And if we look at the history of Israel, we find that the supporters of Hebrew monotheism had to fight a battle for it against what seemed like the forces of gravity dragging them back in to the polytheism of the other nations. The Golden Calf, Baal, and a host of other deities beckoned the ancient Hebrews away from Yahweh, and for the most part that gravitational power sucked them in. All of the kings of Israel and most of the kings of Judah were idol-worshippers. Remember any military defeat in that time was typically explained as the god of the victorious nation beating the god of the defeated nation. Seeing how Yahwism could hang on in that kind of an atmosphere is tougher than seeing how the Cardinals pulled off three straight playoff upsets and made it to the Super Bowl. The religion of Yahweh was tougher and more demanding, and did not promise the worshipper any magical power over his deity. If there had been no Babylonian captivity followed by an opportunity for those who held on to monotheism in the face of captivity (amazing given what I said about beliefs regarding military defeats) to return to the homeland, the belief in the Hebrew God would have died out as surely as belief in the gods of Moab did, or the gods of Assyria and Babylonia.

And Egypt? Remember King Tut? He succeeded Pharaoh Iknaton, the innovative Pharaoh who introduced monotheism. But only for his reign. Young King Tut brought the force of gravity back to Egypt, he reinstituted the ancient Egyptian polytheistic God and got rid of Iknaton's little experiment with monotheism.

And then, once that is in place, we now have to tell the story of Jesus. How in the world does someone arise in the very bastion of monotheism who claims to be God incarnate, and who ends up being regarded as the second person of a Triune but still monotheistic God? First, someone has to make some remarkable claims about himself while at the same time having the kind of profound moral insight sufficient to provide him with a following. I think this is where the Liar, Lunatic or Lord argument has its proper place. I think this is difficult to explain. But that’s not all. Then Jesus has to be crucified, dead, buried, and resurrection claims now have to emerge. Did the disciples hallucinate? And then who else had to hallucinate? Saul of Tarsus? Without him the message of Jesus never makes it out to the Gentiles. I’m not exactly saying that it’s too all too improbable to be false (well, I actually do think this), but the idea that this is all easy to explain in terms of human needs and psychological impulses is crazier than saying that the Cardinals were inevitable NFC champions from the first snap of the 2008 season.

And then we have to explain how people like Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Robert Adams, Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne, etc. come to look at the reasons for believing in the Christian God and find it good. Oh yeah, then there’s that Reppert guy, too. Now apart form actually refuting their arguments, I don’t see how you can criticize their beliefs. Yes, these people could have misevaluated the evidence. But I don’t see how a psychological explanation can possibly be a good argument against their convictions. Yes, there are possible psychological explanations, but that is all I will grant. I could give, just as easily, possible psychological explanation for the unbelief of Keith Parsons or any other atheist. Paul Vitz offers psychological explanations for atheism. I don’t think any psychological theory is deep enough and complex enough to be complete, in the absence of independent reasons to accept or reject religious belief.

I conclude, therefore, that the psychological explanation of religious belief fails to constitute a reason to reject religious belief.