Today I interview philosopher Lydia McGrew. Among other things, we discuss:
- The probability of the Resurrection vs. the probability of witchcraft at Salem and the Hindu milk miracle
- The practice of Christian philosophy
- The fine-tuning argument
- God as an explanation
Download CPBD episode 071 with Lydia McGrew. Total time is 1:17:02.
Lydia McGrew links:
Links for things we discussed:
- David Hume, Ernst Troeltsch, F.H. Bradley
- Hume’s “Of Miracles“
- Peter Bayne on Hume and “trial by proxy“
- John Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure
- J. Houston, Reported Miracles: A Critique of Hume
- McGrew & McGrew, “The Argument from Miracles“
- Salem Witch Trials
- Charles Leslie, A Short and Easy Method with the Deists; wherein the certainty of the Christian religion is demonstrated by infallible proof…
- Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief
- Richard Swinburne
- McGrew & McGrew, “Foundationalism, Probability, and Mutual Support“
- Plantinga, “Advice to Christian Philosophers“
- Plantinga, “Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments“
- McGrew & McGrew, “Probabilities and the Fine-Tuning Argument: A Skeptical View“
- My interview with Gregory Dawes
- Elliot Sober
- McGrew, “History and Theism” in The Routledge Companion to Theism
- McGrew, “Testability, Likelihoods, and Design” (containing Lydia’s argument re: a deep-space Volkswagen)
Also, Lydia’s recommendations in historical apologetics:
- Edmund Bennett, The Four Gospels from a Lawyer’s Standpoint (1899). Lydia says: “I don’t particularly like the introduction but recommend the body of the book.”
- E.M. Blaiklock, Compact Handbook of New Testament Life (1989)
- The Library of Historical Apologetics and its annotated bibliography
LUKE: I can’t introduce Dr. Lydia McGrew any better than she does on her website where she writes, “I am a homemaker and homeschooling mom and I do analytic philosophy in some of my spare time.”
Lydia is the co-author of the final chapter of the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology called “The Argument for Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth”, co-written with her husband, Timothy McGrew.
She is also the sole author of several papers in formal epistemology and other subjects and a contributor to “What’s Wrong With The World,” a group blog dedicated to “the defense of what remains of Christendom.” Lydia, welcome to the show.
LYDIA: Well, I’m glad to be here, Luke.
LUKE: Lydia, many philosophers and historians have argued that historians can’t establish that a miracle occurred in history. And that’s the view of David Hume and Ernst Troeltsch and F.H. Bradley, but you disagree with them. Could you summarize the arguments that are given by Hume and Troeltsch and Bradley about why historians can’t establish the occurrence of a miracle, and then explain why you disagree with them?
LYDIA: Well, I can make a stab. This is a huge topic of course, as you know. There is a lot of similarity among the three that you’ve picked out, but I would distinguish them also in that Troeltsch and Bradley are making a claim about historians qua historians, sort of the definition of history, and Hume is making a point concerning testimony.
So, of course there’s a lot that’s been written about Hume but to hit Hume first briefly. His argument is that it’s impossible to establish a religious miracle, specifically religious, by testimony. And of course there’s a lot that could be said there about his essay on miracles. But one point that I would stress, is that in the second part of Hume’s essay, he really evades the issue of historical testimony to the miraculous.
He sort of set us all up in the first part and, you know, “would it be a greater miracle if the testimony were false than if a miracle had occurred?” And then you expect him to go into this. Instead he does what the 19th century writer Peter Bain calls “a trial by proxy”. And Christian apologists had never said, “Oh, any miracle that’s attested by testimony we should just believe.”
Instead they had particular miracles in mind and especially the resurrection of Jesus. We’re saying that that was especially strong evidence there, but Hume doesn’t talk about that! Instead he talks about the purported miracles of Vespasian station, the purported miracles at the tomb of Abbey Paris. That’s really kind of an evasion.
It’s an attempt to imply we should accept sweeping generalizations about the unreliability of testimony to miracles without getting into the nitty-gritty of the particulars in investigating the ones that are his true target, the specific central Christian miracles. This point is actually made by the non-Christian author John Earman in his aptly titled book, “Hume’s Abject Failure.”
Now, Troeltsch and Bradley are working with the notion of an argument from analogy. So that’s their whole deal about history, what history is. They say, “Well, historians have to argue by analogy.” We can’t know anything about what occurs in history unless it’s got some analogy to our own experience. But a miracle would be disanalogous to our overall experience, so a miracle cannot be established by history. That’s sort of in a nutshell.
Now, a lot of problems with this argument, but one of them is that that principal of analogy really doesn’t get us nearly as far as they think it does because it really depends on where you go, and what reference class you put an event in. I mean, in one sense, any historical event can be regarded as singular. Napoleon being imprisoned on the island of Elba, we could say, well that particular thing never happened before, is this a violation of analogy?
So, a lot of times it depends on what level of description you take it at. Now, what this means is that we can look at a miracle or a purported miracle and we can actually speak of it in terms of being analogous in some sense to something in our experiences. This is a point made by J Houston in a book called “Reported Miracles: A Critique of Hume”.
We can think of a miracle in terms of a person, God, communicating with other people, us, and using that miracle as a sign, an identifying marker sort of, like a password to show that it really is God. He’s doing something that no one else could do. Now, that doesn’t mean that miracles have happened, OK, but it means that both skeptics and Christians alike generally do recognize this notion of what is a miracle supposed to be? Well, it’s supposed to be a sign from God. And we know what a sign from a person means, so that just means that this argument from an analogy does not really work. It doesn’t really show that there’s something special about a miracle that makes it impossible for us to have historical evidence for a miracle.
LUKE: Well, let’s go back to Hume for just a moment because I think one easy way for us to approach his concern about miracles is to ask a question like, “Well, OK. Given our experience, is it more likely that a first century Jewish prophet rose from the dead? Or is it more likely that a few people lied or exaggerated stories?”
And I think Hume would want to say, “Obviously it’s more likely that people lied or exaggerated stories because that happens all the time and it fits with our experience very well. Whereas a miracle like rising from the dead is just not something we experience.”
LYDIA: Sure. Well, the first part of the essay, which of course was not the part I had talked about before. But the first part of the essay, what he says is it would have to be, as he puts it, a greater miracle for the testimony could be false then for the actual miracle to occur. And of course that’s just a way of speaking and Earman models this as it would have to be more improbable that the testimony would be false than that the miracle occurred.
Now, you can cache that out probabilistically and you can put it the way you just did. Well, hey, you know, we know of people lying all the time and so forth. The problem is that that’s described at a very, very broad level and that we’re just saying people lying, OK?
And, you know, the point I would emphasize is that that’s… lazy. [laughs] When you’re investigating something you have to actually say, “OK. But we’re talking about the resources for lying here in this type of case, in this situation. Was it likely that these people would lie under these circumstances, that they would be motivated to lie” and so forth.
And, Hume makes no pass at that and in fact, he doesn’t even mention the resurrection of Jesus, you probably know that. He sort of artfully alludes to the possible resurrection of Queen Elizabeth instead. [laughs] It is kind of amusing. And he mentions the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. He has a serious sort of arch manner where he never even says what it is that he’s talking about.
But he certainly makes no attempt, none at all, to actually argue that the disciples, specifically of Jesus, were likely to have been lying. Or were likely to have been deceived. How was that supposed to work? He doesn’t even touch that, he doesn’t get into that at all. And that’s what Earman calls sort of standing up above and trying to hurl thunderbolts down from the sort of philosophical height rather than descending into the trenches and actually duking it out, as it were, over the actual historical evidence and he doesn’t even attempt to do that. So, it’s something that’s been frustrating to apologists all along, actually.
LUKE: So, I’m not sure how getting more specific is going to help the case for the Resurrection. I mean, if you want to get more specific about say, people lying or telling exaggerated stories or deceiving themselves amidst a situation of religious fanaticism and the death of a charismatic leader of a small cult, I mean that happens all the time as well. So when we get more specific in that way it also seems extremely likely that there was falsehoods being told and still extremely unlikely that somebody would actually come back from the dead.
LYDIA: Well of course the prior probability is very low and we all know that. And one of the approaches of what I would call Humeans, for Humes’ followers, is always to take us back to the prior and say, “Come on. Miracles just never happen otherwise in our experience.” And of course no good Christian apologist is going to deny that the prior probability is low because if the prior probability weren’t low it wouldn’t be very useful as a sign if it were something that happened every day.
So you’re definitely going to acknowledge that but as far as specificity is concerned, first of all, I would definitely question the picture here of “religious fanaticism”. I think these guys, the picture we have of them is after the death of Jesus they were just holed up and they were just ready to you know keep a low profile and not involved in religious fanaticism.
Moreover, there’s the question of what was likely to happen to them if they started coming out and saying this? Resources for lying and probable consequences of preaching more were pretty bad, pretty negative. Really they had no particular reason to do that.
In fact what’s interesting is that you’ll find even among skeptical historians the outright fraud hypothesis it’s just, it’s not in favor, it hasn’t been for a long time. People usually go more with some kind of mutual tale telling or some form of vision or hallucination or something like that.
The idea is, that is I believe it was Antonin Scalia put it, that these guys engaged in a conspiracy to get themselves killed, it’s just, it’s very, very implausible. They stood to gain nothing. They really stood to lose a great deal. And that’s why of course I think they really would have just lain low and really the whole thing would have just died away. You know, they were terrified: witnessing or even hearing about a crucifixion will do that to you.
So, actually I think the specifics are very valuable because they have to do with the question of how likely are we to have the evidence that in fact we do have in the context in which it actually occurred if the event did not take place.
LUKE: And I think I should say, Lydia, where I’m coming from is a generally skeptical view about the idea that we have much evidence at all about Jesus certainly and also his disciples. So for me it’s hard to get on board with the program that so specifically speculates about the nature of, say, the death of Jesus, or the psychology of the disciples or, I mean, all of that stuff I think is just extremely speculative from my point of view anyway.
So I’m not sure how much we could be serious about presenting reasons why… I mean “we understand the situation well enough that we can say that it would be very unlikely for them to exaggerate stories or hallucinate as in the case of so many other religious cults.”
LYDIA: Well you know, the origin of Christianity of course is a historical phenomenon. You didn’t have it and then you had it, you know. That much I think, you know, anyone would agree. Certainly if you’re going to throw the text out wholesale, all right, you’re going to be left without much evidence. I mean that kind of goes without saying. I’m not prepared to here and now to launch into the general authenticity of those texts…
LYDIA: … but what I would emphasize is that authenticity or origin does not presuppose that everything that’s said there is true but does indicate, and I would say that I believe we do have sufficient evidence to locate these as first century texts and as being written by people who were close to the situation and therefore as reflecting what was said, what was claimed, what the disciples in fact did.
OK now that you can then say, “Well they might have just been making it all up.” But at that point we are getting into hypothesizing how did that come about, that they were out there preaching this message. And I do think we have a pretty good reason to take these to be an authentic indication of what their testimony was, of the content of that testimony, and of when they began saying it and what it was that they began saying. And then, that evidence is in a sense, a datum for a set of data that we need to find an explanation for.
LUKE: So Lydia, you talked about how, yes the prior probability of somebody rising from the dead is very, very low. So how is it in your article for the “Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology” that you go about developing an argument to start with that prior probability being very low, to end up saying that we have good reason to believe that the resurrection did occur?
LYDIA: OK. That’s an excellent question and I think we do have to have very strong evidence. Something you’re probably going to find me repeating over and over again so I hope that doesn’t get boring but… is that no one has to say, or should say that you just automatically believe anything that anyone testifies to, that we just say, “Oh! A testimony, well I’ll buy that.”
There’s a most unfortunate passage by G.K. Chesterton in which he says, “If my Apple woman, the woman who sells me apples tells me that she saw a miracle I should believe her. I believe her about apples so I should believe her about miracles.” That’s a paraphrase; it’s not an exact quotation.
I really wish Chesterton hadn’t said that because that’s just wrong as an approach. You don’t just automatically say, “Oh, somebody says they saw a miracle, I’m going to buy it.” You have to have much stronger evidence than that. So in Bayesian terms, what we do in the article is that we try to separate what we would call the indirect,what one might call I should say-the indirect evidence which would be relevant to that prior probability from the direct evidence.
So the things that would be relevant to the prior probability would be things like evidence for and against Theism, for example. Evidence for and against the existence specifically of the God of Israel, the God of the Jews or other evidence prior to Jesus’ purported resurrection regarding who Jesus was, and so forth. That would all be relevant to the prior.
And what we focus on in the article instead is what we might call the direct evidence. The evidence that supposedly tells you what happened; what you might call reports, or that kind of thing. You might call it evidence after the fact. So we focus on the testimony of the disciples and of certain women that said they saw and spoke with Jesus, the evidence of the disciple’s willingness to die for that testimony, and the evidence of the conversion of the Apostle Paul.
And what we try to do is we use a modeling device known as the Bayes factor. Roughly speaking, the Bayes factor tries to model. . . number one: Which way the evidence is pointing, and number two: How strongly the evidence is pointing that way.
What you’re trying to do at that point is trying to look at explanatory resources of the hypotheses – in this case the Resurrection – and the negation of the hypotheses. How well does each of these explain the evidence and is there a big difference between how well each of these explains the evidence?
I should clarify that when I say “difference to” it’s actually a ratio and it’s very important to be measured by the ratio, not by the difference. But you need to look at those two hypotheses and see which one gives you a better expectation of that evidence and how much better is that expectation.
So we ask to make Bayes factors for these various separate pieces of evidence, then we argue for the legitimacy of multiplying these Bayes factors because that gives you a lot of kick and you have to discuss the issue, and we do of independence and whether it’s legitimate to multiply them in order to combine those Bayes factors. And that ends up with this very high combined Bayes factor in our estimate as we go over that evidence.
And so what we estimate is that you could have this overwhelmingly low prior probability, and I don’t think actually think the prior probability is this low. I think it’s low but I don’t think it’s this low …of 10 to the negative 40th and so give a probability to the resurrection in excess of .9999.
And we don’t get to that by saying “In fact the evidence gives us a posterior probability in excess of .9999.” We just say “Well this is the power of the Bayes factor and of the combined Bayes factor and a combined power that great could overcome this great of a prior improbability and would give you this high of a posterior probability.” So that’s the basic method.
LUKE: Yeah. And then, there are a number of questions that would follow from that. The first one is what if we applied those same methods to, say, other claims for which, it seems to me anyway, that we have far greater evidence than for the resurrection of Jesus, just based on proximity to the events.
For example, we have lots of written testimony about witchcraft being practiced in Salem. Or, much more recently, the so-called Hindu ‘milk miracle’ of 1995, where we have living witnesses by the dozens, contemporary original documents, and video documentation. The evidence is much better for these types of miracles, and yet, I don’t think we take them very seriously despite having better evidence for them, than for an event that supposedly occurred 2, 000 years ago.
LYDIA: Sure. As you can probably imagine, of course, I’m not going to agree that we have far better evidence in those cases. One of the things we need to realize it’s not ever just a matter of nose-counting. You never just say, “Oh, we have ‘N’ witnesses here, and we have ‘N’ times 10 witnesses over here, so this must be better.” Instead, we have to be always, always comparing explanations, looking at those explanatory resources. How well can we explain the evidence given the supernatural explanation? And how well can we explain it given no supernatural occurrence?
Now in the Salem case, the so-called evidence was not even publicly available in principle, and this was actually controversial even at the time. People objected on this basis; it was what was called ‘spectral evidence’. And the supposed victims said that they saw the specters of the accused people afflicting them, which could not be independently checked. There was a writer in the Deist controversy named Charles Leslie, and actually that’s right around the same time, late 17th century.
He wrote “A short, easy method with the Deists.” And one of the things he pointed out was that the first criterion for detecting a miracle is that it has to be the sort of thing of which men’s outward senses can be the judge. So, for example, if someone is dead, and other people are out there saying that he’s alive, you can go check. You can go see if the body is there. But there was no way of checking these claims in the Salem witch trials. They could say whatever they liked. These were supposedly holy, private visions of the specter.
And they suffered no repercussions. Nobody got in trouble. Nobody was turned around and burned or hung for having given this evidence. So the possibility of outright lying had to be extremely high because there was no particular motive not to; there was no penalty.
And we also are sometimes dealing with children who had the suggestion of witchcraft made to them by authority figures. In one case, a child … I don’t have the name here, was sick, and a doctor came. And the doctor suggested to the family, for all we know in the hearing of the child, that this might be caused by witchcraft. So we have vast resources, it seems to me here, for a purely natural explanation, which means there’s not going to be traction for that Bayes factor.
To put this in colloquial terms, if natural explanations can do a good job of explaining the evidence that we have, then we’re not going to be justified in reaching for a supernatural explanation. And I really believe that’s true in the Salem case. Now in the case of the Hindu ‘milk miracle’, I looked this up and did a little research on it, and I was actually able, to some extent, recreate this in my own kitchen.
I used water because it’s not as messy as milk. I have a piece of tile with an unglazed back, and I got a little spoonful of water, which is what they were offering to the gods, the idols. They were offered with spoon. So I had a spoon, and I dipped the corners of the tile into the water. And I was actually able to soak up water from that spoon, although it took a while, because a square tile is not a very good shape. An elephant trunk would be a better shape.
Now this ‘milk miracle’ involved a vast number of different people. One thing I want to emphasize is when you say, “Oh, there were so many people”, but they weren’t all attesting of course to the very same event. They were attesting to different tokens of what was allegedly the same type of event.
So you could have different explanations in different cases. And some people easily could just be lying; nobody was there checking every single event. But, it does appear that, in at least in one case, an investigators used food coloring, and verified that something like what happened in my kitchen was happening, that the statue was soaking the milk up. Naturally, it was getting all over the underside of the statue.
And, of course, another possibility, in some cases, you could just be fooling yourself. You look at, you stick something into a little spoon, and it’s easy to say, “Well, you know, maybe that went down, that level went down.” There could have been a variety of non-supernatural things going on here, but I would say that that capillary action probably is what kept off that hysteria, and probably happened in more than one case.
So, then, we have to look at the power of different types of explanations. We have to compare that explanatory power. And many purported miracles won’t stand up to that types of investigation.
LUKE: Well, that’s fascinating, the way that you’ve clarified the different ways that we might have evidence for these events. So, it sounds like you’re saying that there are some natural explanations that are available for accounting for things like Salem witch testimony, and also the Hindu milk miracle, that may not be available when trying to explain the data surrounding the resurrection of Jesus, but also that, in lots of other ways, the types of evidence in each case are quite different, and have to be handled quite differently.
LYDIA: Absolutely, always. In fact, there’s a paper that Tim and I are working on right now, concerning witness reliability. And there used to be a kind of crude way of approaching this, where you would say, “Imagine a witness who speaks the truth nine times out of ten” or, whatever, you sort of give this witness a reliability number. And then you’d say, “And suppose we have three of these” or how many ever, you know, “and they are independent. How many of these witnesses is it going to take to overcome this prior improbability?”
Now, that’s just an interesting and neat mathematical way to approach it, and as a mathematical approach, I don’t object to it. But as an approach to actual historical evidence, it just won’t do. Because you don’t go at it that way.
When you’re figuring a Bayes factor, you shouldn’t just say, “Well, let’s assign a reliability number to this witness. And then that’s going to kind of be the way I do my Bayes factor.” Instead, you look at all sorts of surroundings, circumstances, in which the witness gives his testimony, and that’s how you decide how much that evidence favors, or even whether that evidence favors, the events in which he’s testifying. And, it’s going to be vastly different in every different case.
LUKE: Now, in his book, “Warranted Christian Belief”, Alvin Plantinga expressed a particular concern about this way of arguing for the resurrection, or similar miracles, and he called it “the problem of dwindling probabilities”. I wonder, could you explain, what was Plantinga’s concern, and how would you respond to it?
LYDIA: OK, well, and it’s very hard, I have to admit, even as a philosopher, for me to explain sympathetically, because, in my opinion, his worry is based on a rather fundamental error in probability theory, and, actually, he has, to some extent, retrenched. I think he kind of goes back and forth a little bit here, since the exchange that we had in Philosophia Christi.
But, stated very briefly, his worry is that, we have to, he believes, treat the existence of God as a premise, so, the conclusion that Christianity is true, and that, for example, Jesus rose from the dead, and that if we do this, if we treat the existence of God as the premise, then even if we estimate, to begin with, a relatively high probability for the existence of God, he gives .9, for example, in “Warranted Christian Belief”, it’s a generous estimate.
Then, it’s all downhill from there, that’s the way I like to explain it. And the highest probability we’ll be able to support, for the much richer claims of Christianity, as the argument goes on, it’s going to be something way lower than that. And he gives a complex reason for this, because of the need to multiply probabilities in a chain, what I would call a concatenated argument, a chain argument.
Now, I think it’s important to be very precise here. Sometimes people, including philosophers, will use the phrase, “principle of dwindling possibilities”, for any sort of well estimate of the historical evidence for Christianity, or for anything that has sort of something to do with multiplying. Plantinga’s got a very specific strategy, a very specific concern, where you start with that estimated probability for theism, and then you go downward from there in estimating your probability for these richer claims.
And, in essence, the way he gets into this confusion, as I would call it, is to treat a probability for theism as a single probability, a fixed point, without distinguishing when the probability for theism as it should be without the detailed evidence for a miracle, like the resurrection, for example, and a probability with that evidence or after taking that evidence into account.
That’s just not right. Because the probability of theism is going to be different, well it should be different, before and after you take new evidence into account. That should change. It shouldn’t remain the same before and after and especially if this is, as I believe, this evidence is itself fairly strong. You shouldn’t just keep that evidence of probability of theism the same.
So sometimes he’ll say something like suppose somebody is an agnostic. And Plantinga he even still said this in the “Philosophia Christi” exchange. Suppose somebody is an agnostic, well then his probability for theism is at most point five. And then ‘boom’ we’re off to the races.
Well, of course, someone might be an agnostic before he looks at the evidence but maybe he shouldn’t be an agnostic after he looks at the evidence. From a Bayesian perspective we always have to be updating our probabilities on the basis of whatever new evidence we’ve taken into account.
I remember when I first read that passage in “Warranted Christian Belief” and someone drew it to my attention. What is going on here? I opened it, I looked through, and I looked at page after page, and I turned to him and I said, “Where’s Bayes theorem? I don’t see Bayes theorem in here anywhere.” And the problem is that when it gets continually working the theorem on total probabilities never working with Bayes theorem.
And that is really a huge problem because he never has a chance to update that probability of theism. And that I think is how he gets into this, because he’s not really doing a cumulative case where we update at different steps. And there really is no such thing as the principle of dwindling probabilities for a cumulative case argument.
LUKE: Well, and I think the intuition maybe behind his worry is something like this. If you’re starting with, let’s just be generous and say, the probability of theism is point nine. But in order to establish the resurrection you’re pulling on these other factors.
Let’s say, that Jesus existed and was crucified by the Romans. Let’s say the probability of that is point nine. You’ve got the reports about him actually appearing to certain people. Maybe the probability of those is like point seven or something. If you get a bunch of these and you consider the possibility of them all being true, all of these things, then you multiply the probabilities and you end up with something lower than point five.
Is that, maybe, the intuition that’s going on here?
LYDIA: In very relative terms. Although, he doesn’t use those particular ones. He uses [indecipherable 31:29] one make a revelation and things like that. But the problem is that you should not keep the probability of theism what you started with it at.
And here we need to think a little bit about Richard Swinburne whom Plantinga claims to be, actually, using as sort of his model of the best presentation of the case for evidence with historical approach. And Swinburne argues for theism first. But Swinburne is very clear. He says if you have good reason to believe that God exists given, he says, “other evidence.” Swinburne is very clear: “other evidence.”
Now what Swinburne means there, I think, a cosmological argument, arguments from natural theology, the kind of arguments that Swinburne gives before he gets to the resurrection of the son of God. OK, so that might give you whatever it is. You know, your point nine or whatever. But that is going to then change after. You are not going to just multiply. That’s completely incorrect.
Let me give you a sort of rough and ready example. Suppose that a girl is wondering if she is going to have a date with a certain man next week and the only place she has to meet this man is at a party. So she says: “Well, it’s very, very probably I’m going to go to this party. And if I go to this party I have a new dress and it’s probable that this guy is going to notice me. And if he notices me it’s probable that he is going to talk to me. And if he talks to me, I’m just so charming that it’s probable that he is going to ask me out for a date.”
So, then she thinks, probably I am going to have a date next week.
Now if we assume that there are no other resources for this young woman to have a date with this man next week then that’s what I would call a chain argument. We have to have all these things, right? And she is not bringing in any more evidence about this date or anything. She’s reasoning, as you might say, before the fact.
She is trying before the fact to guess: will she have a date with this man next week? And that would be sort of this chain of thing when you multiply down and by the time you’re done, it’s not nearly as good as she might think it is if she really stopped to think about it.
On the other hand, what I would be advocating instead would be something more analogous to her waking up one morning and looking at her calendar and seeing that she has written down, “I have a date with John this evening.” OK. Now in that case, whatever her probability was going into the party, for John’s noticing her or talking to her or whatever, that’s like old news at this point. At this point, she has direct evidence that John has asked her to the party.
So, in the same way, the .5 probability that Plantinga estimates for the existence of God — which he calls generous — and I suppose if we were just considering the arguments in natural theology, it probably is kind of generous. That’s old news by the time we get to evidence directly that Jesus rose from the dead.
There, we should be updating and if we had a 0.9 probability for the existence of God before, then I would say after we take this evidence into account, then you should have something much higher than the 0.9 probability for God after. Because obviously if Jesus rose from the dead, the probability that God exists is a lot higher than if we have no evidence that Jesus rose from the dead.
LUKE: But how does this work because we are relying on the assumption that God exists in order to make it probable that Jesus rose from the dead. I mean, it’s extremely improbable that Jesus rose from the dead if God doesn’t exist, right?
LYDIA: Right. I think the problem here and I think it’s interesting that you should it put this way. We have an email exchange with Alvin Plantinga. I think it was before the “Philosophia Christi” exchange. And I wasn’t writing the email, Tim was. I suggested to him. I said, “Put in this email, ask him whether he thinks this would be circular otherwise, whether he thinks this would conflict with his – and our – foundationalist model of epistemology. If we used God’s existence in some sense of the premise towards the resurrection and the evidence for the resurrection is a premise supporting the existence of God.” And Tim asked him this question and he said, “No. I don’t think that’s what’s bothering me”.
But actually in a sense I think it’s because we think we are dealing with what you might call a deductive model. And that is not going to do when dealing with non deductive inference.
Tim and I have an article in Erktenntis which has no mention of anything in the philosophy of religion whatsoever. It is about mutual support and foundationalism. And I just love this article, I am just so proud of this article. It’s a colossal work.
But what it does is to show how you can model within a foundationalist system of epistemology support going in two different directions. And so no, to begin with first of all, we don’t have to assume that God exists to believe that the resurrection occurred. Certainly our evidence regarding the existence of God will influence the prior probability of the resurrection and that kind of goes without saying, right?
We have got some evidence for the existence of God that is relevant to the resurrection. If you believe because of the problem of evil you have evidence against the existence of God, that’s relevant to the resurrection. All this stuff is relevant, but no, you don’t have to definitely believe God exists, and then argue in some sense deductively to the resurrection from this.
Instead you’ve simply got evidence that as we put it in the Blackwell article on Plantinga borrowing from this article is channeled to the resurrection by the proposition that God exists. But then on the other hand, you have evidence that is channeled by the resurrection, the proposition that the resurrection occurred, to the proposition that God exists.
So, in essence we’ve got what we call lines of evidence going in both directions. So, there is no circularity actually going on. It’s just that you have evidence that affects one of them by means of the other in each direction.
LUKE: Now, Lydia, in the article that you wrote with Tim for the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology you took a Bayesian approach to establishing the resurrection of Jesus.
There are many others who would take what you might call an explanationist account, where it’s more modeled after an inference to the best explanation where you look for the explanation of the facts that has the greatest number and degree of explanatory virtues, like explanatory scope, explanatory power, all those kinds of things. Are the two mutually compatible, do you think that the other approach is wrong-headed, or what are your thoughts on that?
LYDIA: I would call what we are doing a Bayesian model of an inference to the best explanation. I like to call what we’re doing an inference to the best explanation.
LYDIA: But it’s definitely modeled in probabilistic terms. One of the problems with explanationism, you know, with that “-ism” on the end, is that there’s kind of a territorial desire to make IDE independent of probabilities. To make it, “No, no, no, you can’t just explain this in probabilistic terms. This is, has its, sort of, irreducible nature to it.”
And, I think that is a mistake. I think explanationism in that strong sense is a mistake. But I love inference to the best explanation, it’s just that I think being a good Bayesian is really, in essence, being the best kind of explanationist.
LUKE: Right. OK. And then, we’ve been talking about the resurrection, and it’s been fascinating so far, but I wonder, if we take a step back, and just talk about Christian philosophy in general, I’d like to hear your thoughts on that, because, there’s some Christian philosophers, like Alvin Plantinga, or William Lane Craig, who define themselves as Christians first, and philosophers second, and make no apologies about it.
They make no apologies that they start from Christian assumptions and are doing philosophy from there, but then, there are other philosophers who want to say, “Well, no, I’m a philosopher who assesses the evidence, and the reasons first, and then, I come to Christianity by way of that.” What is your view on all that?
LYDIA: OK, that’s a fascinating and great set of questions, and I want to say at the outset, in fairness, that both William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga have argued for theism, and, in the case of Craig, for Christianity specifically, from evidence, and Plantinga has that, what is it, two dozen ways, you know, arguments for the existence of God. And, of course, Dr. Craig is a very strong proponent of historical apologetics, and knows a great deal about it.
So, I don’t want to seem to be going along with any characterization of them, you could almost say they, you know, they don’t practice what they preach, or whatever, but they really do give, they really do give evidence. They really do give arguments, although Plantinga, unfortunately, has attacked specifically to historical argument, but he does argue for theism.
As far as the question of the right way to do it, in part, that’s a philosophical question, and in part, that’s a practical question. I’m a staunch evidentialist, I do believe that Christianity is rationally defensible. I believe that Christians ought to be able, within their capacities, to defend their faith.
That doesn’t mean, from a practical perspective, that I would hold some kind of caricatured view, according to which, for example, Christian parents should never teach their children anything about God until they’re at least 15 years old, and they can [laughter] evaluate the evidence for themselves. I mean, after all, parents teach their children about atoms, and planets, and all kinds of scientific things, when they’re younger, on the basis of just answering their questions.
The kid says, “Mom, why is the sky blue?” and you give the scientific answer, you expect the child to accept your credibility, you have good reasons for it, and therefore you believe you’re not deceiving the child. So, I think that’s completely legitimate with Christianity as well.
Now, as far as starting with the evidence and seeing if it leads to Christianity, you know, of course, chronologically, I was a Christian before I was a philosopher. But there came a time when I questioned that. And I think when that comes, and I think that’s going to come for anybody, you ought to have evidence. And I don’t think that falling back on something like, this is properly basic, as in, that’s Plantinga’s system. I don’t think that’s correct.
I disagree with him, that the existence of God or the truth of Christianity, is properly basic. And I think that it’s because of that notion, that Plantinga thinks that we can, as you put it, start with Christian assumptions, and so in a sense, I don’t believe that. But, to say, “Well, I’m a philosopher first and a Christian second.” I don’t look at it that way. I’m a philosopher and a Christian, and I view this as all fitting together extremely well from an evidential perspective.
Now, I do agree with one thing that Plantinga says, in his paper on his “Advice to Christian philosophers”, which I know is the one that you are particularly alluding to here, when he says that we should be tough minded, and we shouldn’t always be out there assuming that other positions, naturalism or whatever, are based on arguments, or some kind of new discovery, when they’re really just a trend of the times.
He was very amusing about this with positivism and the criterion for meaning. And he does it extremely well. And he talks about being rational in believing in Christianity, in that article.
And, of course, I know that he’s packing all his proper basicality into that, but I can take that in my own sense. And I can say and agree with this form of words, even if they don’t mean quite the same thing he does, if we are rational in believing that Christianity is true, which as an evidentialist I think we can be, but of course, we have reasons to believe that positions that contradict Christianity are false. I mean, that just sort of follows. And, as a good Bayesian, of course I’m going to advocate making sure that your probability distribution is consistent.
So, of course I’m going to say that your reasons for Christianity are, ipso facto, reasons against physicalism, for example. But I also think that, Plantinga doesn’t, in that paper, give sufficient weight or talk enough about or acknowledge that many of these positions that he mentions, for example, physicalism is one he discusses, could be seen to be false philosophically, as well as by way of an indirect argument where we’d say, “Well, I have reason, you know, because of the resurrection, or whatever, to believe that God exists, therefore I have reason to believe physicalism is false.”
And, that you can go that way, but in some ways, that’s a detour. In some ways, that’s an indirect route, and he doesn’t seem to want to talk about the fact that there can be a much more direct way of discussing these, from a purely philosophical point of view. And so, some of his rhetoric in that paper, particularly, gives the impression that he advocates a kind of in-house Christian philosophy.
LUKE: Mm hm.
LYDIA: And he even says, I really cringed over this, something about, “We should be dealing with the problems, we should be philosophers for the Christian community, and dealing with the problems that concern the Christian community.”
And that was just a real head scratcher for me, because, maybe I’m just too much of an individualist, but, I don’t regard myself as dealing with the problems for any community. [laughter] I’m dealing with the problems that interest me! And he sort of gives that in-house impression, that Christian philosophers should just go off into their little corner and do Christian philosophy, and I think that’s, that would not be a good idea. And I don’t think Christians should do that.
LUKE: Well, you spoke about your disagreements with Alvin Plantinga’s position that his Christianity is properly basic, and it’s hard to even, you know, have a dialogue with somebody like that, because there is no evidence that would be interesting to him, I don’t think.
But then, there’s also somebody like William Lane Craig, who says that, well, he quotes Luther, Martin Luther, in saying that, “The only proper use of reason is to clarify and defend Christianity, and reason can’t stand above Christianity, and demonstrate anything about its falsehood or potential weaknesses or anything like that.” And that, too, is also just kind of conversation stopping, and I’m always heartened to find somebody like yourself who is an evidentialist, because we can actually have a dialogue.
Unfortunately, it’ll be 20 years before I can interact with your Bayesian analysis of the resurrection or something like that, but, you know, we’re at least talking, and we supposedly are both responsive to evidence and things like that. From your perspective, what does that sound like?
LYDIA: You know, it’s just sounds so odd, coming from someone so incredibly learned as Dr. Craig, who knows so wellthe historical evidence. You know what I’m saying? He knows, I mean, there are more things that he doesn’t, maybe, talk about, concerning, for example, the authenticity of the texts he, he just kind of sticks to this minimal facts approach.
LUKE: Mm hm.
LYDIA: Which I think is a little too restricted, but, he is really very learned and he has always, in one sense, I’ve always thought of him as an evidentialist. And then, there’s other stuff just sort of comes out of nowhere, and I don’t understand why he says that. And I don’t know why he wants to say that.
Now, my impression, and I should check this out, but, again, my impression is that he’s not always said the same thing, but in some places he has said that, for example, if he could be convinced that, you know, Jesus’ body had really been found, or something, you know, he would, he would abandon Christianity, so I’m not sure he always says the very same thing about this, but I would never say anything like what Luther says.
I think that it’s very confusing, it’s very misleading, I mostly have Calvinist friends, who say stuff like that to me, and they’ll quote, you know, Calvin, along similar lines, and my response is always that you have to start from where you are. And that you cannot leap, literally leap, outside of your own head, and say, “OK, well, what I’m going to do now, is I’m going to go check separately from evidence and see if this is true. And then I’ll compare it, to by evidence,” or something like that.
Evidence isn’t a way of finding out if this is true. That’s what, that is our only route, we don’t have some kind of direct insight to the existence of God, or the truth of Christianity. I think there are things that we can know directly. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in a prior knowledge: mathematics, for example, or of my own existence, for example. But I don’t believe that there is some way to have a direct foundational apprehension of the truth of Christianity.
So, this seems to me always like a misguided way to talk about it, to say, “Well, I’m putting my reason above God.” What I want to say is, well, no, in a sense, you’re not, because you, you don’t worship your reason, if you’re a Christian, you worship God, you don’t worship your reason. But as far as your route to know about God, there is no other way. There is no other route, and so, why pretend that you have some other special access to it?
And, you know, I don’t want to close down the possibility of mystical experience, or something that someone else might have had, that I haven’t had. But, speaking for myself, I have no other route to know whether God exists.
LUKE: Well, and you would probably, in mystical experiences, just count that as a type of evidence that adds a certain…
LYDIA: I would, I would! I would talk about how would I explain this? I mean, I had someone bring up some near death experience, you know, someone had recounted, and I said, right away, “Are there tie downs to… ” it was something about, you know, there’d be new details of the surgery, operating room, or something like that. I said, “Well, what did he, did he check? Were those correct?” I’d be looking for tie downs to, something external to my own mind, or external to my own head, because, say, wow, you know, then I might be impressed. You know what I’m saying?
It’s like, if, I’m just making this up, if I heard a voice in my head that said, you know, “Go check on old Mrs. So-and-so, your neighbor, because she’s having a problem.” And I actually went over there, and I opened the door, and I called her and she said, “Oh, I’m so glad you came, I was just praying, I fell down and I couldn’t get…” Now, that would be really an interesting kind of mystical experience.
Because, there, it would be one kind of evidence, I would check on it, and then the evidence would be that coincidence between what the voice in my head had said, and what I saw when I went to the house. So, you’re right, that would be just another kind of evidence.
LUKE: Now, finally, one more topic to ask you about. You’ve also done some work on the fine tuning argument for the existence of God, and one of the papers that you wrote offers what you call a skeptical view about the probabilities involved in the fine tuning argument. I wonder, I think most of my listeners are going to be pretty familiar with the basics of the fine tuning argument, but where does your concern come in?
LYDIA: OK, well, yeah, to get the short version, we think there’s a technical problem with that probability of a life permitting universe, given no design. So, you know, most of these approaches are Bayesian, so they’re comparing the probability given design, and given no design. And, in that paper, in Mind, that you’re mentioning, we discuss the probability given no design. And, it has to do with the fact, that when you’re dealing with constants, with numbers, there are an infinite number of possibilities that these numbers could take. And there is no non-arbitrary way to do what we call “putting down a function over them”.
And, you know, if you think about this, a Bell curve is a function, or any kind of a curve like that, that’s a function. Well, there’s no way to do that. And, usually, what people try to do is, they try to put a flat function down over them. It gives equal probability to all this infinite number of possibilities. Right away, you have a problem with standard probability theory, with the Kolmogorov axioms. You can’t do that.
It’s like an infinite lottery, where you’re trying to give every one of an infinite number of tickets an equal probability of winning the lottery. And you’re just, you’re not going to be able to make them all, as I put it, add up to one. Which is what probabilities are usually supposed to do.
Now, advocates of the fine tuning argument have offered various attempted ways around this, but they’ve run into other problems. One way to do it is to throw out some of the axioms. That’s pretty radical. And, by doing that, then, they say, now we’re going to be allowed to have equal probabilities for all of an infinite number of possibilities.
Now, what’s interesting there is that, it’s easy enough to just say, “Oh, well, they threw out some of the axioms of probability, so what? What are the consequences of that?” From, every man’s philosopher’s point of view, that doesn’t necessarily sound like a huge problem.
Well, an intuitive problem there is that that attempted fix then makes the fine-tuning argument as traditionally presented no stronger than what we call a “coarse-tuning argument.” Now, as you know, the fine-tuning argument as traditionally presented focuses on this extremely narrow range which says the constants have to fall on this extremely narrow range. If they don’t fall on this extremely narrow range, no life’s permitted in the universe. It just can’t happen. It would be all black holes or whatnot.
OK, well, the coarse-tuning argument would say, if the constants didn’t fall into this gigantic range, it’s not narrow at all. It’s absolutely gigantic, but it is finite. OK, it’s a finite range. They have to fall somewhere within this finite range. But it’s huge, many, many orders of magnitude larger than what we believe in fact is the range in which they have to fall. That argument would be just as strong as the fine-tuning argument.
LYDIA: As traditionally…
LUKE: Because the possible range of the values is infinite.
LYDIA: Is infinite. That’s right, to which you are comparing it. That’s right. So any finite range is going to be just as strong of an argument for design. Now, something’s got to be wrong there. The thing is, I kind of like the fine-tuning argument. I feel a little bad that I’m sort of known as this person who wrote this article attacking the fine-tuning argument. So I have this intuitive sympathy for it. But my intuitive sympathy is for the original fine-tuning argument.
I have no sympathy for an argument that’s going to make that equivalent to a coarse-tuning argument. If there is some solution to this problem that we raise, that can’t be it. Any solution that is going to make the fine-tuning argument no stronger than a coarse-tuning argument has got to be wrong.
LUKE: Well, have there been any solutions that sounded a bit more promising so far?
LYDIA: I thought of one the other day, but Tim shot it down.
LYDIA: I do try to do this because I like the argument. I thought to myself, well, suppose we were to try to give meaning to this notion of a probability on no design for the universe to have these features. Suppose we argued that in order to give meaning to this there actually has to be some physical process that generates universes.
You’ll sometimes see presentations of this. They’ll actually draw a funny-looking sort of machine, universe-generating mechanism or something.
Not that it would actually have to be a machine, but that it would be some sort of physical process and maybe with a collapsing and expanding series of universes or something. There would have to be this process. Then, what I tried to argue was then because it would be a physical process, it would have limits.
LYDIA: There would be only a finite number of possibilities that this physical process could generate. Therefore, we actually don’t have to compare it to an infinite range.
So I presented that to him. He pointed out though that from our perspective epistemically we don’t know which physical process is. So therefore, we’re going to be bringing that infinite number of possibilities back.
Again, in terms of that epistemic probability, because then there is going to be an infinite number of different mechanisms or machines that could be, machine being just a term here, but that could be generating universes and so we still are stuck with that infinite number of possibilities that we can’t put a function down over. So much for that one. But no; I haven’t, otherwise.
LUKE: Well, what if we somehow, I’m not sure how, but what if we somehow discovered and had high certainty about a physical process that produced our universe and produces other universes as well, and so we knew what the real limits of the values were? Would that help?
LYDIA: I don’t know how we could possibly know that. I think it might. Of course, one question would be if that were a non-personal process, then the question would be does that sort of in a sense remove the force of the argument by saying “Oh, well, we know where it came from. It came from this non-personal process. So, we’re not going to argue the existence of God.”
But I suppose one could at that point say “but that itself had to have a cause” or something like that and try to seek some sort of explanation for that process. So yeah, I think potentially that could help. But part of the problem is, of course, that universes are usually understood in terms of causal isolation from one another.
LYDIA: So if we cannot because of this causal isolation know even about the characteristics of other universes than ours, how, if we’re a fortiori, could we know the characteristics of a mechanism that generated ours or a group of them? I just don’t know how that would even be, which is unfortunate, in my opinion.
I once met an atheist who did not know that I criticized the fine-tuning argument, and who said… I think, at the moment, he thought that I was a fellow atheist, and said, “That’s the best one they’ve got. That fine-tuning argument, that’s the best one they’ve got.”
And I just felt awful… as a Christian. I think the conversation got interrupted, or something and we didn’t get into discussing it further. I would love to see that argument fly. So, I’m still waiting, I’m still listening for further suggestions.
LUKE: Well, and, of course, that’s Dawkins’ view. Of any of the arguments, he would say that the fine-tuning argument is the most interesting to him. But I’m quite certain he’s not aware of your paper. [laughs]
LYDIA: That could be. That could well be. I don’t want to psychologize too much, but I would say sometimes that I think, some people like the fine-tuning argument because they don’t like miracles. And fine-tuning arguments seem faithfully non-miraculous, because it’s almost that God is just setting it up. And that doesn’t tell us anything about his actually intervening.
LYDIA: And intervention is where the problem is supposed to come in.
LUKE: Yes. Now, Lydia, one of my major interests in philosophy of religion is this issue of theism and explanation. Gregory Dawes recently wrote a book that is very useful in this field. He points out that there seem to be a lot of problems when talking about a good explanation that is a supernatural explanation. Now, he’s coming at it from an explanationist point of view. You’re coming at it from a Bayesian point of view. But there are still both methods of inference to the best explanation.
It’s hard for me to grapple with the idea of offering a best explanation that, for example, is something that is defined to be the opposite of everything we understand. God is supposed to be a person, but without a body. He thinks without a brain. He acts, but not in space. He draws plans, but not in time; all these kinds of paradoxes.
That seems like the most radically, extremely, ad-hoc hypothesis that could even, ever be concocted. How could that ever be the best explanation for something? Especially, if we’re looking at the design argument, even aliens, that are the product of evolution on another planet, and snuck here without our knowledge, and made some bizarre complex structure.
Even that seems to be a less ad-hoc, more plausible explanation for some specific design. How is it that a supernatural being, defined as the opposite of everything we do understand, could be the best explanation for something like the resurrection of Jesus?
LYDIA: Sure. Well, as you know, of course, Dawes does say that it is, in principle, possible that theism could be the best explanation.
LYDIA: Now, he’s very skeptical about whether it ever actually will be.
LYDIA: But he actually does argue that it could be. Also, I’m going to get myself in trouble with my Thomist friends here, but I think it is important that we not think in terms of this extreme, negative theology; God is unknowably different from anything that we could ever imagine, or something like that. I think that’s a mistake. I don’t see why we should start with that concept of God.
I think, in fact, that if we do start with a concept of God as, literally, being unknowably different from anything we could ever imagine, and then it is going to be impossible for him to communicate with us.
I don’t think theists’ should saddle themselves with that concept of God. I think it will be a joy to skeptics and our opponents if we do say that we’re saddling ourselves with that. To me, to say that God is a person is itself, quite informative. I don’t think of that as being part of the problem, I think of that as being part of the solution, in a sense.
As far as him being disembodied, I suppose I should say in the interest of full disclosure, that I’m a Cartesian Dualist. So, that doesn’t bother me at all. [laughs] To imagine thinking without a body, I can imagine, myself, without a body, much less God.
Ad-hocness, of course, is a different kind of issue. It’s an epistemic issue in which I have an enormous amount of interest. I’m actually working right now on an article concerning the existence of the external world, and different scenarios, and the issue of ad hocness.
Ad hocness is always in relation to evidence. It’s always understood, in terms of adding auxiliary hypothesis to avoid the – Popper would say falsification, I would say disconfirmation – of a hypothesis. I certainly don’t think that the qualities that are traditionally attributed to God are attributed to him, in a sense, to avoid falsification.
That isn’t the point. It’s not like we started out by believing in God as a little green man, and then we changed it and said, “Oh no, whoops. He’s disembodied, because we didn’t see a little green man”, or something like that. I don’t say those as ad-hoc.
It is certainly an unusual hypothesis, and I’m not going to say that we should start out with some kind of high probability for the existence of God. Here, I think I would depart from Swinburne. I would not say that there’s some kind of an absolute prior probability for the existence of God, prior to all evidence, which is not too bad, because it’s simple, or something like that. I’m not going to buy that. It’s an existence claim.
LYDIA: Like any other specific existence claim; any specific existence claim. A specific claim that a certain planet exists isn’t going to have a very high prior probability. I don’t know how to model that. I think the issue of priors; what you might call ‘absolute priors;’ prior to all evidence, is extremely difficult, and, probably, we should not be claiming that we have them.
LYDIA: Yes. “No evidence, but I have a prior.” I don’t even know what that means. But certainly, any specific existence claim, and the stronger it is; the more evidence you require. I would definitely accept that burden of proof, with respect to the existence of God.
But as far as how it could be an explanation, I would say, in something like the same way that my existence and my actions can be an explanation of events in the world. I know that sounds like a pretty strong analogy between God and man.
But I actually think that we’re entitled to hypothesize, and then test the hypothesis of a God who bears a sufficient similarity to man that we can detect his presence and we can detect his action.
Now, we may go out there then and say, “Well, no. I guess such a God doesn’t exist, because we don’t find that evidence.” But I think that’s a hypothesis, and we can take that as a hypothesis and test it. So, that’s why I think we need miracles. I really do.
To go out there and say, “OK, this looks like a better explanation, that this deity did this.” But that requires an enormous amount of nitty-gritty work.
LUKE: Yes, so you would offer a God as an intentional explanation, in terms of, something like beliefs and desires, or beliefs and pro-attitudes.
One difficulty there, of course, is depending on what type of theism you endorse, you’re going to have different ideas about how much we really can understand God’s pro-attitudes. And therefore, if we don’t understand God’s pro-attitudes, then it’s… I don’t see, at least, how you could be offering an intentional explanation, right?
LYDIA: Well, here we get into the question of the prior probability. I think that what you’re talking about there, to some extent, is a question regarding priors, rather than a question regarding likelihoods or posteriors.
I would not agree with Elliott Sober, for example, that we must have independent evidence of the desires or motives of God, in order to conclude that God has done something. I would say, very simply speaking, we don’t have that in the case of our interactions with other human beings.
The paper that I just sent off on history and theism gets into this. I give there, an explanation, and I hope that my friend, Madeline, won’t mind my using her name here, because she gave me permission to use it in the paper.
Suppose that I wake up one morning and I have, absolutely, no reason to believe that a law student named, Madeline Flannagan, in New Zealand, exists. I’ve never heard of such a person. This is beyond my ken at that moment.
And I certainly have no reason to believe that she wants to make contact with me or anything about her desires at all, one way or another. I have no evidence on this subject.
Then I go and open my email, and I find an email note purporting to be from Madeline Flannagan, saying, “Would you please send me a copy of this paper that I heard that you wrote?” or something like that. Now, the point is, I don’t have to have independent evidence that this person has this desire to make contact with me. I discovered that this person has this desire to make contact with me by receiving the email.
And I would say, in the same way, I don’t have to have a dependent reason to believe that God desires to make contact with man, or that God desires to raise Jesus from the dead, or something like that, that it has to have what may call a high probability.
We might investigate evidence that would be pertinent to it, for example, if Jesus were a charlatan, and we had separate evidence that he was out there cheating little old ladies out of their money or something, you know, OK, that would be a problem for the possibility that God would want to raise him from the dead.
So, whatever independent evidence we have, sure, we throw that in there. But I certainly don’t have to have a high probability going into it, that God is going to raise Jesus from the dead, or that he’s going to want to, in order to conclude, after the fact, that that was in fact what he wanted to do. And this is how we interact with people all the time. We discover what their desires and their intentions are by looking at what they do.
LUKE: Yeah, and one analogy that I enjoy is Bill Craig’s story about an alien scrap yard that we discover on the back side of the moon. Certainly we would explain such a scrap yard in terms of intentions and desires of beings whose motivational makeup we have no knowledge of whatsoever, and yet…
LYDIA: Previously, right.
LUKE: Exactly, exactly. But the evidence itself would still…
LYDIA: It speaks.
LYDIA: The evidence speaks. And we have to let the evidence speak. An example I give in a article that was published in Philo concerning, also concerning Sober, but that was in relation to design argument, I supposed that we found a Volkswagen circling, a Volkswagen Beetle car, circling a planet out there somewhere, you know, near Alpha Centauri or something, you know. We would have had no previous reason to believe that there was any alien who had a desire to make a Volkswagen. But, there it is.
You know, and once it’s there, then you have to take it into account, and one of the problems I see with any approach that says, “Well, we would have to have other knowledge of God’s intentions and so forth”, is that it would make it impossible to get communication with even an alien race off the ground. In other words, you’re not going to have knowledge of their intentions going into the situation anyway.
So, you have to start somewhere. You always have to start with an initial contact, with that first contact. And in that first contact, you’re just going to find out what their capacities are and their intentions and so forth by looking at what it appears that they are doing. And what you appear to have discovered, the artifacts, or whatever that you appear to have discovered.
LUKE: Well, Lydia, I must say I’ve been really enjoying our conversation. Some of the people on my blog insisted that it would be a very heated discussion. [laughter] I think probably because they see you, at least, as a socially and politically conservative person, which maybe you are, and I’m an extreme leftist and progressive.
But, what’s been really great for me is that we agree so much on methodology and on the points of your epistemology that I don’t understand, like, the more arcane Bayesian strategies, I at least, don’t have any reason to disagree with them. And so I feel like, we’re on the same page where it matters, and then people like you and I can really have a discussion on the same grounds about where does the evidence point? You know, does it point towards Christian theism?
LYDIA: And I think that’s what we have to do, and you know, I love analytic philosophy, and whether we even fell in love with analytic philosophy is because it can be, and in my opinion should be, apolitical and focused on good arguments and good evidence.
LYDIA: And I think it will be a sad day, or it would be a sad day, when analytic philosophy loses that character. And I hope that never happens, because I’ve always found, that when I’ve submitted articles, or I’ve gone and gone to a conference or whatever, we’re just doing philosophy. We’re doing philosophy.
LYDIA: Because we love philosophy, and that’s what it’s all about. And that’s why, well, you and I are able to have this good conversation.
LUKE: Well, Lydia, what is it that you would like to say on any topic, really, to the non-believers who are listening to this podcast?
LYDIA: I would like to say two things. The first thing I want to suggest to any non-believers listening, so many non-believers and possibly, including yourself, are deconverts. They used to be Christians and now they’re not. Maybe they were raised Christians or whatever.
If you or anyone listening deconverted from the very rigid form of Christianity that taught that any discrepancy in the text of Scripture, any contradiction, any trivial error would undermine Christianity. I would like to suggest that you would reconsider.
And in the same way Christianity does not stand or fall based on the age of the Earth, for example.
First and foremost Christianity is historical. And historical investigation doesn’t work in that tidy, rigid way that some people are most unfortunately taught as Christians.
That you know this is true and if this is true then every tiniest bit of it is true because the Holy Spirit inspired it. And if any part of it is false then I’ve got to throw it all out of the window.
That is just not the proper way to approach Christianity. And it’s not the proper way to teach young people to be Christians.
And I encourage people to realize that there are more robust forms of Christianity that are out there. And to be challenged by that thought.
And the second thing, sort of related, I’d like to suggest that, concerning skepticism… C.S. Lewis once said in an essay, “People who doubt Christianity on the basis of modern textual scholarship should not reduce their doubts.”
He said, “I’m not here to try to make you doubt less.” He said, “Instead I want to expand your doubts. I want to get you to doubt… to try to doubt something else.”
“For example try doubting that the supposed weakness of the historical evidence for Christianity is being explained to you from a perspective of truly objective scholarship. Try doubting that physicalism has simply been established by science. It’s just a fact.”
Scientists now have told us that the physical is all that there is in the world. Try doubting that, and so forth.
And then once there are these doubts about skepticism, once people have begun to have doubts about skepticism, follow God. Seek the truth. Christianity has no reason to be afraid of the truth. And Christianity has no reason to be afraid of people who truly seek the truth.
And I believe as a Christian that God will help those who truly seek the truth and who really want to know the truth. Because that’s what He wants too, is for you to know the truth.
LUKE: Well Lydia, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Thanks for coming on the show.
LYDIA: Thanks very much. It’s been a lot of fun, Luke.
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