Sunday, October 31, 2010

Armstrong and Kress on chronological snobbery

Please take note, especially, of the ad hominem attacks on William Lane Craig mentioned here.

Do false beliefs promote survivability? Is this a problem for the naturalist?

Ken Samples thinks that both answers should be answered with a yes.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Historical Intent and the Pervasiveness of the Miraculous

There are two sets of facts that, I think render a naturalistic account of Christian origins difficult. They are what you should expect if there were real miracles but not what you should expect if there were none. One is that it seems clear to me that the Gospels were written with the intent to be represent reality, and that they were written by people who, if not eyewitnesses themselves, were in a position to interview eyewitnesses. In the case of the later parts of Acts, I think it very clear that Luke WAS an eyewitness to at least some of the events he discusses.  I think the archaeological evidence, along with other types of evidence, shows that the New Testament has at the very least a significant historical core. I realize that this doesn't buy you inerrancy, but it does undercut any theory that the whole thing was made up. People didn't write novels at that time, and a comparison between the Gospels and other literature at the time shows that, whatever else the Gospels and Acts were, they were attempts to represent reality. Call this the Attempt to Represent Reality Thesis.

Of course it is open to the skeptic to say, at this point that OK, there was a significant historical core, but all the miracle reports were legendary. However, these documents seem to be pervasively supernaturalist, so that it doesn't seem even possible to isolate that naturalistically explicable historical core from the elements which, in one way or another, imply a supernatural character to the founding of Christianity. The passages used to back up the "Liar, Lunatic or Lord" argument are cases in point. Not just the healings, the claim to forgive sins, but also the claim to supersede the Law with "I say unto you," and Jesus' more explicit assertions like Mark 14: 61-62 make it difficult to isolate a naturalistically acceptable element. This is the thesis of the Pervasiveness of the Miraculous.

But the pervasiveness isn't just in the Gospels. In one debate on Acts, I had been pointing to the archaeological confirmation of later Acts. The event-to-writing gap is less, and, as I indicated, we have good reason to suppose that some of it is eyewitness testimony. So, someone who believes in a naturalistic account would expect a downturn in the element of the miraculous. Skeptic GearHedEd indeed floated just such a hypothesis, which is perfectly reasonable on naturalistic assumptions:

I submit that everything before Acts 9 is stage-setting, and that everything after the infamous "Road to Damascus" incident is probably historical, at least as much as anything is considered "historical" in any other early "historical" writings.

Things that make you go, "Hmmmm..."


Before Acts: 9? Many

After Acts 9:? Almost nothing, save vague statements of the "Holy Spirit descending on them" in Acts 11, and Peter's "miraculous" escape from prison in Acts 12 (who was there to record the circumstances of Peter's escape? And didn't he at first think he was "seeing a vision (Acts 12:9)? He should have trusted his first impression).

Only, as Tim McGrew pointed out subsequently, miracles don't drop off at this point. 

It is completely unclear to me why GearHedEd thinks it would be a point in his favor if the latter part of Acts contained no reported miracles. The suggestion that the gospels and the earlier parts of Acts are entirely fabricated does not warrant serious discussion.

But for the record, here is a partial list of miracles recounted in Acts from chapter 10 onward:

* Peter is liberated from prison by an angel (Acts 12:5-11)

* Paul temporarily blinds the sorcerer Elymas (Acts 13:9-12)

* Paul and Barnabas work miracles on their missionary journey (Acts 14:3)

* Paul cures the lame man of Lystra (Acts 14:7-9)

* Paul exorcises girl possessed of a divining spirit (Acts 16:16-18)

* Chains fall from Paul and Silas in prison (Acts 16:25-30)

* Paul raises Eutychus from the dead (Acts 20:9-12)

* Paul shakes off a viper from his arm and suffers no hurt (Acts 28:3-6)

* Paul heals Publius’s father of dysentery (Acts 28:7-8)

* Paul heals all the sick brought to him on Malta (Acts 28:9)

In addition, Tim could have also pointed out that the presence of signs and wonders was used as one of the major reasons which justified the Gentile ministry of Paul and Barnabas to the Council of Jerusalem. 

In other words, you should expect it to be the case that the more you find support for historicity, the less likely you are to find miracle claims, if naturalism is true. But this is not the case, so that disconfirms the naturalistic hypothesis.

Friday, October 29, 2010

A further reply to Arizona Atheist

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

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

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

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The full text of Chesterton's Everlasting Man is online

Arizona Atheist Defends the OTF argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arizona Atheist goes on: 

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

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

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

In one comment Tim McGrew wrote: 

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

C. S. Lewis's Spirits in Bondage

This is a pdf of Lewis's early poems, which he titled Spirits in Bondage. The poem, Ode to a New Year's Day, shows his atheism at the time.

Some discussion of the historicity of the empty tomb

Based on Dale Allison's book.

Changing reactions to Shirley Jackson's The Lottery

Are we losing the battle against student relativism? This report, by Lydia McGrew, isn't very encouraging.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Apologetic Arguments Played a Key Role

In leading two unbelievers to faith. Oh, wait. There are no ex-atheists. I forgot.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Call it what it is: Hate

Brian: I argued in a set of previous posts that Dawkins' charge that raising children to be a particular religion is child abuse worse than that of pedophilia. He didn't restrict it to religious parents who scare kids with Jonathan Edwards-type hellfire threats, he made the claim general to all religious people who raise their children in a religious faith. In other words, he is referring to most parents who have ever walked on this earth. Now child abuse is, quite rightly, criminalized by law, and pedophiles are put in prison. They are forcibly prevented from continuing their abuse. If raising a child as a Methodist, for example, is worse than pedophilia, then whether he draws the conclusion or not, the only logical conclusion is that such parents should be forcibly prevented from raising their children in the way that they do. So this is NOT just an anecdote. This is someone taking Dawkins' position and drawing the only logical conclusion possible.

I had a talk with my old friend and sometime commentator here, Bob Prokop, and he said that when he was in England, and there was some kind of terrorist threat going on at the time, there were several letters to newspapers that he read which echoed this "child abuse" line. It's out there. Dawkins can't put the genie back into the bottle without recanting his position.

Of course, whether he realizes it or not, Dawkins made a scientifically testable claim, since we can measure the effects of pedophilia on its victims as opposed to the effects of religious upbringing. We can look at scholastic success, suicide rates, and other indicators of how healthy people who were raised in religious households are as opposed to the victims of pedophilia. The results, I strongly suspect, will not bear out Dawkins' claims.

In any event, let's call this what it is. It's hate. Pure and simple. To my mind, it deserves no more respect than racial hatred, or hatred of homosexuals. Atheists of good will need to repudiate it.

Atheism, violence and human rights

Here is the final words of a comment on a Debunking Christianity thread: 

I long for the day when you people are put into camps and made sterile, so you cannot spread your destructive hate and child abuse any longer.

There you have it. I argued at some length on this site a couple of years back that the logical conclusions of some of Richard Dawkins' ideas about child abuse lead logically to violence against Christians and the forcible denial of fundamental human rights to Christians by the government. I pointed out that even if Dawkins hadn't drawn out those conclusions from his own arguments, some of his followers would eventually do so. People tried to argue that, no, it really doesn't have to come to this, and he was just talking about Christians who frighten their children with hell to get them to be obedient. 

Well, I was right. I hope Loftus will post a response saying that he does NOT approve this message. In the meantime, you have to start rethinking the argument that RELIGION leads to violence. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Does science presuppose a theological world-view?

In the ensuing three hundred years, the theological dimension of science has faded. People take it for granted that the physical world is both ordered and intelligible. The underlying order in nature-the laws of physics-are simply accepted as given, as brute facts. Nobody asks where they come from; at least they do not do so in polite company. However, even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith that the universe is not absurd, that there is a rational basis to physical existence manifested as a lawlike order in nature that is at least in part comprehensible to us. So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview.

Physicist Paul Davies "Physics and the Mind of God"

Why IS the universe not absurd, if there is no God? Why don't the laws of nature change from one week to the next?

There are no ex-atheists

I guess this is the atheist equivalent of the Fifth Point of Calvinism: There are no ex-atheists. People who claim to be atheists but became Christians weren't were never REAL atheists in the first place.

They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.- I John 2:19. 

Friday, October 22, 2010

On the proper context of Pascal's Wager

If I remember from what are now two-decades-plus-old conversations with Jeff Jordan, Pascal offers arguments to the effect that if there is a God, He is most likely to be revealed in the Christian revelation as opposed to others. So the question then is posed to people who must either choose the Christian God or none at all, and who see a substantial amount of merit in both views. If we are in THAT position, then we are given a reason to accept theism as opposed to atheism. Addressing the Wager to someone like Dawkins or Loftus, who considers Christian theism to be not only false but preposterous, and to recommend to them that they ought to submit themselves to brainwashing seems to be a mistake.

Unlike some people, I am going to define brainwashing for the purposes of this discussion. You are submitting to brainwashing if you are knowingly trying to cause yourself to believe something that your best reasoning tells you is very probably false. If you really do think that the Christian God is no more probable than Zeus, or Athena, or the Invisible Pink Unicorn, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, then the Wager is out of play.

The Wager can take different forms; the traditional Pascalian form uses the concepts of heaven and hell, the Jamesian form views it in terms of what it would take to have a meaningful life, and the Kantian form looks at what would make it easier or harder to live a moral life. I think the argument can be hitched to a Lewisian argument from desire, whereby it is argued (and Pascal is one of those that argues it most forcefully), that humans have built into their nature a desire for infinite and permanent joy, and we must accept the permanent frustration of a significant part of our nature if we decide there is no hope for that.

I think the Wager does one other thing: It undercuts "default" arguments for atheism or agnosticism by pointing out the practical implications of belief and nonbelief. It has always seemed to me that we must either structure our lives with God in mind or without God in mind, so we can't have the kind of neutrality on this issue that we have on, way, the truth of Fermat's last theorem of its denial. Therefore, waiting for a decisive swing in the evidence leaves us without guidance as to how we ought to live our lives now.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Jeff Jordan defends Pascal's Wager

A redated post. 

Jeff is a former office-mate of mine from my year as a Center for Philosophy of Religion Fellow at Notre Dame, and a doctoral student of William Rowe.

Better never to have been?

This is a book by David Benatar. Of course, one is tempted to accuse this guy of inconsistency, since he finished the book before he slashed his wrists. Or is he still alive?

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.  Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.  All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards.  These are games; one must first answer [the questions of suicide].”- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

D'Souza debates Shermer at Grand Canyon University

This will take place of Nov. 17.

David Wood debates a Muslim on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus

God, Cause and Effect, and Natural Belief

One reason people offer for believing in God is it natural to do so. David Hume argued that if you had to prove the legitimacy of the principle of cause and effect, you could never do so without begging the question (that is, assuming what you're trying to prove). But since it comes naturally to us, and is practically useful, we have no reason do be skeptical of cause and effect. Others have argued that belief in God comes naturally to us, and even though perhaps we can't prove that God exists, it is sufficiently natural that we ought to continue to believe it until someone proves to us the contrary. 

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Inerrancy and Scissors

Walter: Even the most fundamentalist of Protestant inerrantists approach the bible like it is a buffet from which they take what they want or need and leave the rest on the table. The truth is that most believers are mentally snipping out sections of the bible that they find hard to believe or morally distasteful. Did Jonah really live three days in the belly of a fish? No, that's just crazy. Did our heavenly Father really order the brutal deaths of women and children? That can't be right.

If you are an "errantist," then in reality you are implicitly doing the same thing Jefferson did overtly with a pair of scissors.

I think Christians would say that even parts that are not taken in a purely literal way are edifying and do have a role in God's inspired message. So they aren't snipping them out exactly, but they are assigning somewhat of a different role to them within the framework of a broadly inspired Scripture, even where the narrow content is, strictly speaking, incorrect.

I think even people who would say they believe in inerrancy do this.

One example of this would be the message of some portions of Deuteronomy and the Wisdom literature that, in the course of earthly life (and there is no robust belief in heaven or hell through most of the OT), that righteousness is rewarded and evil punished on earth. If there's a God then something like this has to be true, but if you restrict your vision to earthly life, it looks pretty obviously false, as books like Job forcefully point out. Narrowly speaking, you can't say "God said it, I believe it, that settles it", and yet it is part of a message which, taken as a whole, is thought to be inspired.

Interestingly enough, debunkers of Christianity really rely on the sort of "inerrancy-or-chaos" argument used by fundamentalists against compromising inerrancy. In his chapter on Ancient Near Eastern cosmology in The Christian Delusion, Ed Babinski lays out the prescientific cosmology of the Old Testament. What of course is going to be the reaction from just about anybody except the AIG crowd, is to ask why we should expect God to give us lots of good science lessons and straighten out our cosmology in inspiring the Bible.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Christianity, tolerance, and Rodney King

A redated post

Occasionally, when I used to present the Craig-Parsons debate on Christianity or the Craig-Jesseph debate on theism in my classes, someone would say something like "Do we have to argue about this? Can't we all just get along?"

It's not that easy.

Let's take a look at what Christians claim for a minute. They claim that God almighty came to earth in Christ to save us from our sins. That means that the human race is in pretty bad shape apart from Christ, and we can get connected with God through Christ. Some Christians go further and say that while people who accept Christ are saved, everyone else is going to hell.

Now if you really, really, believed that, wouldn't you want people to believe what you believe. I mean, if you are "tolerant" of them and just let them continue going on without knowing Christ, they may never get the message and have to spend eternity in hell. Don't you think you would want to give them a reason to know Jesus and go to heaven instead?

On the other hand, if this is all false, then it can be argued people are spending their whole lives worshipping a being who is imaginary. In so doing, they are telling their people they can't have sex before marriage, they obstruct the progress of science, they get people to pay attention to some afterlife that will never happen instead of doing the best they can to make this life better for everyone. And, in some cases, they even commit acts of violence in the name of their religion, as did the 9/11 hijackers. Not that the Bush administration was any better, they used their religion to justify starting a couple of wars of their own.

A lot of believers, as well as unbelievers, think that there is a great deal at stake in this whole business of religion. Given that so much is at stake, isn't it a little misguided to implore people to accept a Rodney-King-style political correctness: "Can't we all just get along?"

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Lessons from the Canaanite Conquest

Did God want the Israelites to kill all the Canaanites? Or is this the response of a repentant group of Israelites who have come to realize that allowing Canaanite influence led to their downfall as a nation?

This solution may seem to "errantist" for some. But that doesn't bother me especially. Should it?

Thinking Christian on why Muslims convert to Christianity

Apparently it has something to do with seeing God work miracles, at least in many cases. We had some discussion of present-day miracles several months ago here.

Tim McGrew's entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Miracles

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Steve Lovell's New Blog

Lewis scholar Steve Lovell has a new blog.

Friday, October 08, 2010

On the Moss trade

Since BDK was interested, I thought I would put up a thread for the Randy Moss trade. Since he at one point said this, may I recommend that he look up Romans 9:20 and apply its lesson to the Moss trade. 

Just so my cards are on the table, I am a theist, and His name is Belichick.

No offense to Commandment One.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Jason Pratt develops his version of the AFR

Among other things, in a book he wrote in the early 2000s, called Sword to the Heart. He will be publishing it on CADRE.

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson on atheism

This looks like a very insightful column, from a few years ago. I am surprised I missed it.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Jonathan Kvanvig defends coherentism

Atheists comment on Loftus's Debate with D'Souza

The atheists who posted here, some of them pretty militant, think Loftus' treatment of dialogue with opponents left a great deal to be desired.

On Bayesian subjectivism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Reply to Loftus on miracles and prior probabilities

I argue that when it comes to miraculous claims yesterday’s evidence no longer can hold water for me, for in order to see yesterday’s evidence as evidence for me, I must already believe the Christian framework (i.e., the Bayesian priors) that allows me to see yesterday’s evidence as evidence for Christianity.

Are these your prior probabilities, or are these priors everyone else is supposed to have? If the former, that may be true. But if that's all it is, then you are going to have trouble getting irrationality charges off the ground. I am not in the business of making irrationality charges. I don't think that the evidence for the Resurrection is sufficient by itself to rationally compel belief. I just think there is a lot that is hard to explain about the founding of Christianity that makes more sense if the supernatural is admitted than if the supernatural is not admitted. I realize people like McDowell say it's irrational to be skeptical, given the evidence, but it's beyond my powers to make such a case. In other words, I am engaged in what Steve Davis calls soft apologetics, although I also maintain that the Resurrection evidence is a cumulative case role-player in a case for theism. (You haven't read my two papers on miracles, have you?)

The problem is that no amount of philosophical thinking alone will produce the conclusion that any event actually took place in the past, much less a miraculous resurrection. So on the on hand, in order to establish the Christian faith believers must use historical evidence at every juncture. But on the other hand, in order to see that evidence as evidence we need to have good reasons to do so. Where do those reasons come from? Not from any “background knowledge” or “priors” of theirs. They cannot use their so-called “background knowledge” or their “priors” to help determine whether the evidence shows Jesus arose from the dead until they can first show that he did. Christians must independently establish that the resurrection took place in history before such a belief can be placed into their bag of "priors."  

If we can't use our priors, whose priors do we use? My claim is you have lots of people out there, from people who think Christianity very antecedently likely, to people who think the central events of Christianity might or might not have happened and are looking at the evidence to see if it did, to people who think Christianity is absurd and wouldn't believe if Jesus were to sit down across from them at lunch. The subjectivist theory of prior probabilities says that rather than find "correct" priors and argue from those, we simply have to use our own priors and adjust our confidence as we look at the evidence. How do we look at the evidence? We ask if the evidence, such as we have it, is more likely to be the way it is if the Christian story is true than if the Christian story is false. Now suppose I successfully show that the evidence that comes down to us from the first century is more likely to be the way it is if the Christian story were true than if the Christian story were false. Well, then we Christians would have grounds for having more probabilistic confidence in our Christianity, people sitting on the fence would become Christians, but those who have strongly skeptical priors would remain skeptics, but they might scratch their heads a little bit of how this could possibly have happened the way it did. AS C. S. Lewis said.

Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. “Rum thing,” he went on. “All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it really happened once. “… Was there no escape?”
by C. S. Lewis Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1942), pp. 223-224

That hard-boiled atheist never converted, but he nonetheless accepted the fact that the founding of Christianity was "rum" from the standpoint of his atheism. And maybe that's all we can expect from the argument.

But we can look at the facts and see if they are more likely given Christianity than given not-Christianity. That is a comparison we can make regardless of our priors. We have no logical method that I know of for determining what our priors ought to be, and certainly no argument proving that the prior for miracles ought to be vanishingly low.

This problem is fatal for anyone who wishes to believe Jesus bodily arose from the dead in history. We can even grant the existence of Yahweh or a creator god and the possibility of miracles and it changes nothing. For what needs to be shown is that Yahweh did such a miracle here in this particular case and the historical tools we have available to assess whether he did are inadequate for the task. 

The reason why our historical tools are in some sense inadequate is that we have to live with a situation where prior probabilities differ widely. So historical evidence will probably not be sufficient to allow us to pin irrationality charges on our opponents. But guess what. YOU are the one making the irrationality charges, which means YOU have to prove them. I believe that we can determine, historically, whether the evidence is more likely to exist given a supernatural theory of the founding of Christianity, or whether it is more likely to exist as it does given a naturalistic theory of the founding of Christianity.

I like Bob Price who says that even if God raised Jesus from the dead there is no way we can know that he did.

Depends on your understanding of knowledge. If what we mean is that the evidence is sufficient to persuade all reasonable persons, then no. If what we mean is that we can have good reason to suppose that the historical evidence confirms the supernaturalist hypothesis, that it is more likely to exist as it does given supernaturalism than given naturalism, then yes, I think we can have a justified, true, belief that Jesus rose from the dead if, indeed, Jesus did in fact rise from the dead.

THAT is the case and only practically brain dead people refuse to acknowledge this.

There you go again, with this irrationality charges, for which you need proof, and for which you have provided none. You are claiming that no reasonable person can believe in the miraculous origin of Christianity. You have to demonstrate either that the historical evidence, such as we have it, is more likely given naturalism than supernaturalism, or show that everyone ought to have very low priors for the Christian miracles. Good luck with that.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Where will YOU spend Eternity?

This is from David Wood's review of Richard Carrier's Sense and Goodness without God.

Richard’s chapter on “The Secular Humanist’s Heaven” (in which he declares his hope that humans will spend eternity inside computer programs) would be comical, even to secular humanists, if it weren’t obviously meant to be taken seriously. 

And I thought atheists all thought that everlasting life would be boring.  

Does the outsider test lead to an infinite regress?

Does the outsider test set up an infinite regress? If we can't believe anything unless we pass an outsider test for that belief, then doesn't the outsider test have to itself be outsider tested, and then that there has to be an outsider test for the outsider test for the outsider test, and then we would also need an outsider test for the outsider test for the outsider test for the outsider test, etc.

Exclusivism, Inclusivism, Universalism, and the OTF

 JWL: The fact is that Christianity MUST pass the OTF. Otherwise, people who could not be convinced to believe because they were raised as outsiders will be thrown into hell.

He adds: Some Christians might say that universalism is the case; that no one ends up in hell. And they'll claim this takes away from the force of what I wrote.

Okay. See you in heaven then. If this is the case why bother with religion at all?

In any case this is another example of Christians reinventing their faith when they encounter a difficulty. You see, they believe, so when faced with something like the OTF they would rather change what they believe rather than face the facts and abandon it. Repeatedly reinventing one's faith to meet objections is a sure sign of faith, not that of an outsider.

Actually, an inclusivist like Sennett or myself, even without universalism, avoid the consequence you mention. And Calvinists will just say that if God creates people as "outsiders" who can't be converted, that is just God's way of reprobating them, allowing them to receive the just damnation that everyone deserves, as opposed to the merciful salvation that those who accept Christ's redemption receive. So the only people this would be addressed to would be Arminian soteriological exclusivists.  

Why bother with religion if you're a universalist? You mean the only reason for knowing the God of the Universe, or expressive proper gratitude to him for saving not only yourself but all of your loved ones as well, would be if you were afraid you might go to hell if you didn't know God, and worship him. If God was the true meaning of the universe, and I had spent my life not serving him, I would feel as if I had led my life wrongly, even if God did forgive me and save me anyway. Some people would think this was a very ignorant response to universalism. But I won't say that. I'll let either Tom Talbott or Jason Pratt say it.

And is it reinventing Christianity? Tom Talbott believes quite firmly, and argues in some detail, that his universalism is biblical, that he is restoring the original message of the faith from the distortion that he takes to be the doctrine of everlasting punishment.

Historians and Antecedent Probabilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 01, 2010

The Insider Test for Infidels

Acknowledging points on the other side doesn't even require granting legitimacy to theism or to Christianity. You made the argument that Christian apologetics in response to other religions either appeals to biblical authority (which is NOT question-begging to the extent that the other religion in question accepts biblical authority), or appeals to methodological naturalism in a way that would undercut Christian apologetics if applied to Christianity. I pointed out, using a fairly pedestrian Christian anti-Islamic website, that this appears to be demonstratably false. There were no appeals to biblical authority, there was no appeal to Humean views on miracles, there was no appeal to the principle that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. No, there was just the argument that, using three evidential tests, the Bible stands on far firmer historical ground than does the Qu'ran. This was a conclusion that an atheist could easily draw and remain an atheist. This was a reason you were giving for why Christianity couldn't possibly pass the outsider test, and it look fairly obvious to me that it flew in the face of the evidence. The website looked clearly to applying the same standard of evidence to each religion. It would hardly be the end of atheism for you to just acknowledge the point. You didn't. In fact you said my claim was laughable. But yet you want to set yourself up as my "guide" in viewing my religious beliefs from an outside perspective, someone who can be truly impartial because he isn't religiously committed? It's like saying Rush Limbaugh can be objective about the Democratic Party because he's an outsider.

The fact is that Christian apologists reject religions like Mormonism and Scientology, because, to be quite honest, Joseph Smith looks like a charlatan using ordinary evidence. ECREA isn't necessary to the argument, and is never, so far as I know, invoked.

Bald assertions claiming that your opponents are ignorant is another thing that does nothing and accomplishes less for your cause. Here at Dangerous Idea I have worked to establish an atmosphere of fairness for our discussions. That's the culture here, and people on both sides of the Christian debate recognize it. I have a reputation for fair-mindedness that I believe I have earned. You come in shooting from the hip, and you aren't going to persuade anyone. You shoot from the hip, and all you will hit is your own foot, over and over again.

Unfortunately, you have hyped and hyped and hyped the OTF to the point where I feel I need to bring it back down to earth. In its place, and within limits, it is a fine idea. What I object to is all the tendentious stuff piled on top of it. It's because of all that other stuff that I have to concur with Steve Hays (whatever our differences may have been in the past), that by the time you get through with it, the Outsider Test for Faith becomes the Insider Test for Infidels.

Someone who deconverts and spends all his time attacking Christianity is not a real outsider. He is a partisan. He is a player in the language game of Christianity. There are plenty of people who grew up as Christians and deconverted, and are now sworn enemies of what they once embraced. Psychology has a name for it, it's called "reaction formation."

Your OTF, what's legitimate about it, appeals to fair intellectual play, but you don't practice it in the way you conduct debate. That's on thing I find stinkingly hypocritical about the whole project.

You actually appeal to Feldman, and yet assert with absolute certainty what your academic superiors deny. That's blatant hypocrisy.

I think one appeal atheism has for some people, something that they look for from fundamentalism, is the need for absolute certainty. They can't tolerate living with doubt, with the possibility that they might be wrong. They start doubting the Bible, or Christianity, and then Richard Dawkins or John Loftus come along and say, "Sure, you can have absolute certainty, or almost absolute certainty. Just deconvert and become and atheist." It appeals to people emotionally. But, in my view, that's what's really delusional.