CPBD 071: Lydia McGrew – The Probability of Christianity

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 6, 2010 in Historical Jesus,Podcast

(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

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:

Also, Lydia’s recommendations in historical apologetics:

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Transcript

Transcript prepared by CastingWords and paid for by Silver Bullet. If you’d like to get a transcript made for other past or future episodes, please contact me.

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…

LUKE: Sure.

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.

LUKE: Mm-hmm.

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.

LUKE: Right.

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.

[laughter]

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.

LUKE: Right.

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.

LUKE: Yeah.

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.”

[laughter]

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.

LUKE: Yes.

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.

LUKE: Yes.

LYDIA: Now, he’s very skeptical about whether it ever actually will be.

LUKE: Yes.

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.

LUKE: Right.

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.

LUKE: Yes.

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.

LUKE: Yeah.

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.

LUKE: Yeah.

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.

LUKE: Yeah.

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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{ 113 comments… read them below or add one }

mattr October 5, 2010 at 9:37 pm

nice interview, luke. i haven’t listened to the last few, but it’s nice to see you being more combative, especially with a scary character like McGrew. she calls herself an “evidentialist” interested in the “nitty gritty” of miracle claims. wow. i checked the insane blogs she links to on her web page, one of which describes itself as “dispatches from the 10th crusade”. on her web site she opines that “(the) murder of the innocent, born and unborn, seems to me a crux of our time. If we don’t get it right when it comes to protecting innocent human beings from horrific slaughter—and we are getting it disastrously wrong, and worse all the time—our society will go to hell in a handbasket quite soon.” Except, of course, innocent Iraqis, innocent Palestinians, and innocent Afghans. Evidentialist indeed.

One thing that bugged me about your interview is how narrowly technical it is. If you have Hitler on the microphone, you might want to talk about more than just dog breeding. The analogy is (intentionally) hyperbolic, I know, but the point is: are questions about Baysian anaylses of the empty tomb story really THAT important next to the rabid conservatism of this fast-talking “professional housewife” (her description, not mine) who sees herself not just as a mother and an avocational philosopher, but as a soldier in an ongoing and massively violent crusade?

McGrew is indeed a clever apologist on all the technical stuff, but even there I was disappointed that you pushed her a little bit but then let her get away with evidential murder on the Salem and milk miracle analogies. In wish you should had pressed her to explain WHY the evidence for the resurrection doesn’t fail the same tests she applied to those other cases. Her “cui bono” about reprisals faced by the Disciples etc just stinks.

cheers and solidarity with your good work here, matt

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Brian_G October 6, 2010 at 6:17 am

Cool! I’m looking forward to listening to this one. She co-wrote an article in Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.

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Reginald Selkirk October 6, 2010 at 6:39 am

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.”

I’m only to page 8 of the text (page 28/84 of the PDF), and already the fallacies are flying fast and thick.

The question then is: Do wicked men write such books as these? Do liars proclaim that they and all other liars “shall have their part in the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone”? Does the thief denounce dishonesty, or the adulterer proclaim uncleanness, or Satan rebuke sin? If, then, these stories were not penned by wicked men, they must owe their origin to honest men, and if honest and truthful men wrote them, they must be honest and true narratives, and not a tissue of falsehoods. Is not the conclusion irresistible?

Liars do not admit they are liars, and thus do not proclaim that they share the fate of other liars, whom they would have no reluctance in condemning. Examples abound.

Thieves denounce dishonesty on a regular basis, as adulterers denounce adultery by others. Consider only the number of prominent gay-bashing clergy and politicians caught out in homosexual activity. Hypocrisy is rampant, particularly in the most publicly pious. Examples are so numerous that they could not possibly be listed here.

And even if the authors were generally upstanding, honest men, that is no guarantee that the works at issue (the four canonical gospels) would be honest works. “Lying for Jesus” is hardly novel or rare. Again, examples abound.

The conclusion is exceedingly resistable.

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mattr October 6, 2010 at 6:52 am

ps: LMcG didn’t actually use the term “professional housewife”, that’s just the crux of culture-warrior self-description on her blog. i’m assuming she’d actually endorse it.

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lukeprog October 6, 2010 at 7:52 am

First comment, my poor guest is (hyperbolically) compared to Hitler. :(

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Jwahler October 6, 2010 at 8:17 am

Oh boy…that was, could we say, interesting. The cherry on the top was the ‘Cartesian dualist’ bit. Incredible that when shes gets into the ‘nitty-gritty’ of her own miracle, the Bayesian computer pops out the result ‘extremely probable’. But we can be sure her Bayesian computer says though, that the the truth of the Druids, who were also persecuted by first century Romans, as ‘very improbable’. Amazing! Did not see that coming. Another case study in egegious special pleading, on top of using epistemology as sword and shield instead of sober searchlight.

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Jim T October 6, 2010 at 8:18 am

Can’t wait to listen to this one!

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mattr October 6, 2010 at 8:19 am

hey luke, i hope i’m not the first person to compare one of your guests to hitler; there’s so much of hitler to go around, after all. that’s of course not the point, though, as i already said. your “poor guest” happens to be ann coulter with philosophy creds. and that’s NOT hyperbole. it just seems odd to completely ignore this side of her public work in an interview, considering it’s so prominent a part of what she does. (i didn’t have to hunt around online to find it, like the part where she calls desmond tutu an “idiot” for sympathizing with the Palestinians in Gaza.) If there’s an ivory tower quality to anglo-american philosophy, then your otherwise very interesting and thoughtful interview is a pretty good case in point.

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Jwahler October 6, 2010 at 8:23 am

*egregious

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Justfinethanks October 6, 2010 at 9:12 am

First comment, my poor guest is (hyperbolically) compared to Hitler. :(

In the future, everyone will be Hitler for 15 minutes.

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mattr October 6, 2010 at 9:19 am

It turns out that the Hitler comparison was apter than I realized. Here’s the our Evidentialist Mom once again:

” Does this mean that I think Muslims in America should not have due process, should not be legally treated as innocent until proven guilty? No, it means I think they should not be in America….

[T]he time has come for conservative American parents to consider the danger posed to them by immigrant cultures that, to put it bluntly, make traditionalist parents look bad. It is in our interests to support the ending of Muslim immigration, thereby blocking a route by which the public will plausibly be made suspicious of parental rights and of countercultural groups.”

http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2009/05/stop_muslim_immigration_for_th.html

At the least she is an extremist cultural chauvenist, which is far enough on the way to fascism for me. I actually think interviewing her at all is questionable under the circumstances.

This may not

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Tim October 6, 2010 at 9:20 am

Well, didn’t take long for Godwin’s law to kick in there …

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mattr October 6, 2010 at 9:21 am

oops, “This may not” shouldn’t be there. Please ignore.

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Briang October 6, 2010 at 9:45 am

I think the first poster reveals something that seems implicit for many atheists. The motivation for atheism is not so much the evidence for or against God, but the opposition to conservatism. The argument can be made explicit:

1) If God exists, we would be morally obligated to vote Republican.
2) We’re not morally obligated to vote Republican.

Therefore, God doesn’t exists.

As stated, the argument is valid. However, the first premise would surprise the many Christians and other theists who regularly vote Democrat.

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Jeff Singer October 6, 2010 at 9:54 am

mattr,

Surely you know enough about real world historical fascism to know that immigration restriction of whatever form does not equal fascism. You do know that don’t you?

Jwahler,

Did the Druids make miracle claims? If so what were they? Then I’m sure Lydia would be more than happy to apply Bayesian probability to those claims and figure out how they stack up against the claim that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.

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mattr October 6, 2010 at 10:00 am

Unfortunately there are a lot of racist Democrats as well as Republicans–say, as far as the plight of the Palestinians go, or Afghan victims of NATO bombings. I myself don’t have any stake in the D vs. R party divide. Your syllogism is on the mark in one respect, though. I think McGrew makes something else explicit, which is that a sincere and consistent belief in the superiority of one set of holy texts can lead very easily to bigotry against the believers in other holy texts. That’s not a point that should be lost on too many readers here. But in the growing climate of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant hysteria, it’s pretty damned important to know WHO you are talking with over analytical tea and cupcakes about “evidence” for miracles and so forth. It so happens that L McG is the worst kind of bigot: the articulate one.

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Rob October 6, 2010 at 10:40 am

She gives away the farm when she admits that we ought to accept a natural explanation if it does a good job of explaining the evidence. We have overwhelming evidence that myths develop. We have overwhelming evidence that religious movements are naturally.

Decades after some event, a myth had developed about Jesus rising from the dead, and some folks wrote down these myths. McGrew is being extremely epistemically sloppy by reading the gospel stories as history rather than the obvious myth that they are.

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Rob October 6, 2010 at 10:43 am

I meant:

We have overwhelming evidence that religious movements arise naturally.

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Haecceitas October 6, 2010 at 11:18 am

“Decades after some event, a myth had developed about Jesus rising from the dead, and some folks wrote down these myths.”

You’re out of touch with contemporary NT scholarship if you think that belief in the resurrection of Jesus only arose decades after his death.

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mattr October 6, 2010 at 11:21 am

Jeff Singer,

and surely you know enough about real-world history to know that singling out one ethnic or religious group for exclusion is too close to real-world fascism for polite conversation. the new racism doesn’t have to recapitulate every aspect of the old, but setting quotas for immigration based on religious identity should make any person here with an evidence- rather than miracle-based sense of history cringe and tremble. whether jesus rose or rotted seems pretty trivial by comparison.

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Rob October 6, 2010 at 11:27 am

Haecceitas says:

“You’re out of touch with contemporary NT scholarship if you think that belief in the resurrection of Jesus only arose decades after his death.”

Please read what I wrote carefully. I don’t think we know when belief in the resurrection story began. All I said was when the story was written down.

Regardless, since we have a natural explanation that can account for the data, then according to McGrew, we ought to go with that. I agree, so I do.

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Márcio October 6, 2010 at 11:58 am

“Regardless, since we have a natural explanation that can account for the data, then according to McGrew, we ought to go with that. I agree, so I do.”

The natural explanation available does a very poor job to explain the data, so they are not very reliable. It’s true that natural explanation have an advantage, but that doesn’t mean we should accept it just because it is a natural explanation. According to McGrew, we should prefer natural explanations that does a good job.

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Jwahler October 6, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Jeff S.,

As there is little written record of the exact metaphysical claims made by the Druid’s, we obviously can’t formally analyze in Bayesian terms their particular miracle claims. Though we can be sure they had them and for that matter still in some form have them. My point above being that Lydia and many other apologist seem to place heavy evidential weight to the general idea that “the disciples had nothing to gain, in fact they would have been persecuted for their miracle claims, wink wink, so there must be something to its truth.” Ok. Maybe. But if we apply that criterion consistently, (persecution by first century Romans for miracle claims), then we’d need to let in the door a whole lot of mystical groups I’m sure most Christians would dismiss. I’m ignoring here a cumulative case, only pointing out the special pleading going on in this particular criterion…hoping maybe it is abandoned more often by apologist.

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Jwahler October 6, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Marcio,

Help the skeptical crowd here understand what parts or pieces of the natural explanations do a “very poor job”. Specificity is going to be helpful. Thanks.

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kzndr October 6, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Interesting interview. May I suggest her co-blogger Ed Feser as a future guest? I think it could be an interesting conversation.

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Rob October 6, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Just finished the whole interview. Good stuff. I am more sympathetic to her views as discussed (not to her repulsive other baggage not discussed) than to any of the other theists you have interviewed. She is not one of these wishy-washy new theologians like Karen Armstrong, nor does she believe in the Thomistic God hidden by piles of obscure medieval jargon. She believes in the same personal God as WLC, but she chastises him for his feeble Holy Ghost epistemology. She is committed to the right sort of method, but has gone horribly wrong in the application of that method.

I also liked her preaching at the end, that skeptics need to be more skeptical of our own beliefs. Of course, we preach that to each other all the time. Just go to any skeptic meet-up or conference.

I was waiting for this question: If Jesus rose from the dead, how does that make the probability that God exists close to 1? Applying her own principle, we have many natural explanations that could explain that. Perhaps an extrasolar advanced alien race faked the whole thing. Or maybe a trans-dimensional alien joker decided to play a trick on us.

As wild as these explanations are, using her own advice about natural explanations, these wild stories certainly go counter to her claim that if Jesus rose from the dead, then Yahweh must almost certainly exist.

(I don’t think the evidence supports th resurrection. Not even close. But even if the resurrection occurred, that does not mean God exists.)

So my point is that if she were to apply her own principle consistently, it would submarine her whole world-view.

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Rob October 6, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Bring writes:

“The motivation for atheism is not so much the evidence for or against God, but the opposition to conservatism.”

How absurd, but typical of a simple minded view of motivations. Ever talked to libertarians? What about objectivist? Sure, a bunch of atheists vote for democrats. But swing a dead cat at an atheist convention and you will hit more libertarians than democrats.

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Reginald Selkirk October 6, 2010 at 12:31 pm

OK, so most Libertarians are too stupid to duck when someone is swinging a dead cat…

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Rob October 6, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Good point Reginald. Most smart atheists are democrats. The stupid ones are libertarians or objectivists or Raelians. The only atheist republicans I know of are Karl Rove and Abraham Lincoln.

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Charles October 6, 2010 at 1:00 pm

She agrees naturalistic explanations are far more likely for the Salem witch trials and Hindu milk miracles, but doesn’t apply that same thinking to the resurrection. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

I wish you had pressed her harder on the Gospels as evidence angle. She obviously didn’t have an answer. People need to be made to realize that they have left the realm of reason and evidence when they take such a simplistic view of the text.

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Jeff Singer October 6, 2010 at 1:09 pm

mattr,

You say, “and surely you know enough about real-world history to know that singling out one ethnic or religious group for exclusion is too close to real-world fascism for polite conversation.” Well, I know lots of history and I know lots about fascism. I also know that American immigration policy prior to 1965 singled out all sorts of ethnic and religious groups. I also know that countries all over the world with governments that do not fit the fascist description (although some are dictatorships and some are communist) do the same.

So I’m not sure what this says about “polite conversation” or cringing and trembling, but maybe you need to see a doctor for those symptoms?

Jwahler,

You make a good point. But speaking of specificity, I now want to know more about the persecution of those Druids…were they killed for their beliefs and were they given a chance to escape persecution if they gave up their beliefs as we know Christians were? The evidence for the early church comes to us from hostile sources (Roman historians who thought the Christians were nuts). What are our sources for the Druid persecutions?

Also, with respect to “natural” explanations for religion, I think I understand the evolutionary psychology story that suggests humans invented Gods to explain the natural world because it was scary and then used the Gods to enforce group solidarity when forming social bonds. But how to you explain the unique appearance in one place in the world of a single God who has a_relationship_ with man and this relationship is recorded in stories that become the Bible. Man is but a plaything for the Gods (multiple) in every other religion around the world. Something special happened in Iraq over 3000 years ago and your “naturalistic” explanation needs to account for the Jews decision to leave Iraq and wander over to the Holy Land.

Rob,

It seems to me that you are ruling out a miracle a priori and so you turn to “natural” explanations like aliens with super-powers. Does that make philosophical sense from an evidentialist point of view?

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Jwahler October 6, 2010 at 1:27 pm

Charles,

I think Lydia, and apologist like her, would say that they think the same sorts of ‘natural explanations’ do a poor job of explaining the particular case of the resurrection of a man named Jesus. Are their comparative evaluations sometimes caricatures of natural explanations, yes. Do they apply ‘natural explanations’, yes. Do they find them convincing, of course not. Only what I call ‘discrete voluntarist’ about beliefs would think arguments would change said beliefs in some kind of moment of clarity.

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Robert Gressis October 6, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Just for the record, Lydia McGrew was against the (most recent) war against Iraq. I don’t know whether she was also against the Afghanistan intervention, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she was.

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Charles October 6, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Jwahler,

The point is we have much better evidence for those other things.

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Jwahler October 6, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Jeff S.

Our sources for the persecution and near annihilation of the Druid’s comes from the hostile sources of Pliny the Elder and Suetonius. And of course Caesar himself during his Gallic Wars, wars in which he sought to wipe them out. Were some given the chance to rebuke their Druid-ism, I’m not certain enough with the primary texts, but I’d venture to guess some were. For more on this, R. Carrier gives a few more examples of persecuted cults in his book “Not the Impossible Faith”. But so what? Religious groups were slaughtered for the beliefs they thought were true and right, the Christians were not alone in this. Believers have better stuff than this particular criterion, just pointing out that it shouldn’t be as relied upon as it is. That’s all.

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Justfinethanks October 6, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Rob:

Most smart atheists are democrats. The stupid ones are libertarians or objectivists or Raelians.

I’m certainly glad you qualified that statement with “most,” as it would be tough to honestly classify someone like Michael Shermer as “stupid.”

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Jwahler October 6, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Charles,

Right, I think we do too. But Lydia would probably retort again with something like, “the naturalistic defeater explanations against the Milk Miracle and Salem Witches are greater than their purported miraculous explanations…but in the case of Jesus, the naturalistic defeaters fail against the miraculous explanation and here is why… blah blah blah.” We would then go on and on about certain probabilities, disagree on priors, and then finally come to an impasse at which no more can be said because we both refuse to budge on certain non-trivial prior probabilities. Been done that road a few times. Exhausting really…especially when there are so many wonderful other things to do.

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ildi October 6, 2010 at 2:41 pm

FYI, according to the Pew Forum U.S.Religious Landscape Survey, the break-down for political ideology for those who self-identified as atheist was:

Conservative – 14%
Moderate – 27%
Liberal – 50%
Don’t know/refused – 8%

Political affiliation:

Republican – 10%
Lean Republican – 6%
Independent – 13%
Lean Democrat – 28%
Democrat – 37%
don’t know/refused – 7%

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Reginald Selkirk October 6, 2010 at 2:58 pm

as it would be tough to honestly classify someone like Michael Shermer as “stupid.”

I’m tempted to make the case for that, but we’re getting pretty far off track.

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Reginald Selkirk October 6, 2010 at 3:01 pm

The only atheist republicans I know of are Karl Rove and Abraham Lincoln.

Rove denies being atheist, and says he was misinterpreted. His Wikipedia page lists him as Episcopalian.

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mikespeir October 6, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Once case: my own; anecdotal.

I voted for Bush the first time as a conservative Christian. I voted for him the second time as an atheist. I probably would have voted for McCain except for Palin.

I didn’t become an atheist to escape Conservatism or voting Republican. On the other hand, it’s true that I’ve become more liberal since becoming an atheist. That trend is likely to continue, but I certainly didn’t become an atheist to get out of anything

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TDC October 6, 2010 at 3:38 pm

I’ll just say, I really liked this interview. Thought it was very well done. Thanks to both Luke and Lydia. I’m a little disturbed by the acidic nature of some of the comments though.

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tinyfrog October 6, 2010 at 5:01 pm

I thought her comment on rising probabilities was odd. She didn’t seem to understand how they work. For example, she says that probabilities could rise is you find out more information – therefore (and I’m interpreting here) the probabilities calculation must be wrong because they don’t allow for rising probabilities. The problem with her thinking is that probabilities *do* allow for rising probabilities, but only if you reassign the values used in the calculation. For example, if we decide that the probability of Jesus being God is based on this calculation: [jesus was crucified] * [jesus rose from the dead] * [the apostles told the truth], and we decided that each of these has a 0.8 chance of being true, then the result of the calculation is 0.8*0.8*0.8 = 0.512. This probability can be increased if we adjusted the values of those variables. For example, if new evidence comes along and we adjust [jesus was crucified] to be 0.9 instead of 0.8, then the probability increases to 0.9*0.8*0.8 = 0.576. This is an example of the probability increasing based on new evidence.

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Charles October 6, 2010 at 5:01 pm

Jwahler: But Lydia would probably retort again with something like, “the naturalistic defeater explanations against the Milk Miracle and Salem Witches are greater than their purported miraculous explanations…

Did we just enter “reformed epistemology” land? Because I would never have that conversation…

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Rob October 6, 2010 at 5:14 pm

My comment above about “smart atheists” was intended as a joke. Thank you for the Rove correction.

Jeff Singer:

I do not rule out miracles a priori. My point is that it is a logical leap from “Jesus rose from the dead” to “Jesus rose from the dead via the miraculous intervention by the creator of the universe”. McGrew claims that if Jesus rose from the dead, then the probability that God exists is nearly one. Why? She just asserts it. I find it strange.

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lukeprog October 6, 2010 at 5:58 pm

tinyfrog,

I dunno. Have you read her paper on the subject?

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J Wahler October 6, 2010 at 6:22 pm

Charles,

That’s not at all reformed epistemology in my view…just me speculating that an apologist like Lydia finds the naturalist explanations in the Salem/Milk cases to be better fits than the supernatural ones in those cases but not in the case of Jesus coming back from the dead. I’m with you, the natural explanations of the Jesus cult are more probable than the miraculous ‘official’ ones…just that you need to understand that Christians don’t see it like that. In fact they find the magical story more probable than the mundane natural one…I think that in some posts is Luke’s goal here, making the natural explanations more lucid, more available, more readable. It’s a much needed project. Keep it up Luke.

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Jayman October 6, 2010 at 6:27 pm

Rob, if you accept that Jesus truly worked miracles and preached the kingdom of (Israel’s) God then the simplest explanation for his miracles is that he was truly God or that God truly worked through him. Any other explanation requires claiming that Jesus lied or was deceived (e.g., by aliens). Though that’s conceivable it seems to be unnecessary. I don’t claim that this is Lydia’s thinking, but it makes sense to look at Jesus’ resurrection within the context of his entire ministry and not as a completely random event. As a final conjecture, maybe she would think that the existence of Israel’s God is 75% if the resurrection did not happen and 95% if it did happen. If that’s the case, I could see how Jesus’ resurrection would make her nearly certain that God exists.

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Rob October 6, 2010 at 6:56 pm

Jayman,

Sure, if you import a bunch of other beliefs along with the belief that Jesus rose from the dead, then of course the resurrection would make you think it more likely that at least one god of some sort exists.

But that was not her claim at all.

She says that if it can be shown that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, then the probability that theism is true is close to one. She makes no claims that in order for this to be true you need a dump trunk filled with all sorts of other beliefs. She did not say anything about having to also believe that Jesus cursed a fig tree or whatever other tall tales we find about this character.

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Rob October 6, 2010 at 7:05 pm

Jeff Singer asks:

“But how to you explain the unique appearance in one place in the world of a single God who has a_relationship_ with man and this relationship is recorded in stories that become the Bible. Man is but a plaything for the Gods (multiple) in every other religion around the world.”

The PBS show NOVA has an excellent documentary about the synthesis of multiple gods into this one main god of the Hebrews and then the eventual notion that their god was the only one. This was a long process, and we find many places in the Bible that makes it clear that the writers believed there were other gods.

So what? Is monotheism somehow more plausible than polytheism? Just because monotheism arose in one place does not make it true.

It seems to me that if belief in gods is somehow evidence that gods exist, then polytheism is the way to go. Catholicism is indistinguishable from polytheism anyway, at least as practiced by the folk.

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Jayman October 6, 2010 at 7:11 pm

Jwahler:

(1) In order to show that McGrew is engaging in special pleading atheists need to play the Bayesian game. It would be great if we could see an atheist and a Christian provide a Bayesian analysis for the three miracles discussed (resurrection, Salem witch trials, Hindu milk miracle). It would probably also be helpful to see them analyze some mundane claims to detect anti-supernatural bias (in the atheist) and anti-non-Christian-miracle bias (in the Christian).

(2) Historians regularly take testimony to be sincere (not necessarily correct) if the witness had no reason to lie and especially if the witness had reason not to say what he said. In such situations, it is highly unlikely that the witnesses are trying to deceive people. Based on this interview alone, I don’t see where McGrew uses a double standard. The Druids (or whoever) should not be accused of lying if their situation truly parallels that of first-century Christians.

(3) Off the top of my head, I find natural explanations of the resurrection fail to explain: (a) why the tomb was empty, (b) why Jesus’ followers so firmly believed he had rose physically from the dead that they were willing to undergo persecution and martyrdom, (c) the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, and (d) why Christianity and not some other first-century Jewish messianic sect with a dead messiah continued on after the death of its messiah. We may disagree on certain of these points but at least you know where I am coming from.

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Jayman October 6, 2010 at 7:19 pm

Rob, if she believes the case for Jesus’ resurrection is strong then it is safe to assume that she believes the case for the general outlines of Jesus’ ministry is also strong. No historical event occurs in a vacuum. She may not have provided as much detail as you would like but I can see how someone might reach her conclusion. Maybe she’ll answer your question if you go over to the What’s Wrong With the World blog and ask her. She has a post on this interview.

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J Wahler October 6, 2010 at 8:12 pm

Jayman,

To your point (1), yes that would be interesting, the recent work of Chris Hallquist comes to mind as being down that road somewhat.

To your point (2), I’m not sure who you’re responding to about testimony there, I haven’t brought that up at all in this thread. The second part of this point we agree on, first century Druids should not be thought of as lying about their beliefs, they probably really believed their metaphysics to the death. So the criterion of ‘persecuted to the death by first century Romans’ seems pretty innocuous when met with the analogous examples of the Druids and other cults. But you still want to use it for some reason against natural explanations in your point number (3).

To your point (3): Very quick ‘naturalistic type’ rebuttals to your points (a) thru (d):

(A)Jesus’ body was placed in a temporary tomb before sun down by Joseph of Arimathea being a good Sanhedrinist, he then moved the body to the graveyard of the condemned according to Mishnah tractate Sanhedrin(6.5e-f);See Carrier “The Burial of Jesus in Light of Jewish Law” for more on this.

(B) Humans have an incredible capacity to hold on to beliefs tenaciously (see Druids). Besides, there are good reasons to believe the earliest ‘eye witnesses’ weren’t persecuted at all. Legally mandated opposition to Christianity was not put in place until 62 A.D.; See Desilva “Patronage, Kinship, & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture” for more on first century Christians rarely being persecuted.

(C ) Human beings convert to all sorts of religions all the time, some to ones they probably disliked a great deal before a conversion experience. That’s if we take Paul at his word, perhaps he embellished his own story to give him street cred amongst other possible Christians. A tactic still used by evangelist to this day.

(D) Early Christian teachings were effective at synchronizing orthodox Jewish teachings with that of many themes found in late Paganism. This feature was not lost among diaspora Jews and the working and underclasses. Christianity makes its biggest move by the 3rd century, the Roman empire is falling apart from the top down. Christianity is not apart of the top and so it remains after the fall. Unlike Mithraism, that only converted men and those in the army, Christianity converts women, households, and the peasant classes; thus places their eggs in more durable baskets. And so it survived.

There we go Jayman. A few first pass responses to some of your concerns. Take care.

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Jayman October 6, 2010 at 8:56 pm

J Wahler:

To your point (1), yes that would be interesting, the recent work of Chris Hallquist comes to mind as being down that road somewhat.

Are you referring to UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God: Debunking the Resurrection of Jesus?

But you still want to use it [ the criterion of 'persecuted to the death by first century Romans'] for some reason against natural explanations in your point number (3).

I use it against those natural explanations that assert the first Christians made up the resurrection of Jesus.

(A)Jesus’ body was placed in a temporary tomb before sun down by Joseph of Arimathea being a good Sanhedrinist, he then moved the body to the graveyard of the condemned according to Mishnah tractate Sanhedrin(6.5e-f);See Carrier “The Burial of Jesus in Light of Jewish Law” for more on this.

There’s at least three problems with this hypothesis. First, you rely on a single late source about burials in general and assert that this outweighs the multiple, early sources specifically about Jesus’ burial. Second, you assume that Jesus’ followers, who were Jews, were ignorant of Jewish burial practices. Third, you assume that Jewish opponents of Christianity were ignorant of Jewish burial practices and thought it was more likely that Jesus’ body was stolen than that it was moved to the graveyard of the condemned.

(B) Humans have an incredible capacity to hold on to beliefs tenaciously (see Druids). Besides, there are good reasons to believe the earliest ‘eye witnesses’ weren’t persecuted at all. Legally mandated opposition to Christianity was not put in place until 62 A.D.; See Desilva “Patronage, Kinship, & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture” for more on first century Christians rarely being persecuted.

State-sanctioned persecution is not the only kind of persecution. Throughout the NT we see references to persecution or martyrdom. Acts describes the persecution of the Jerusalem Church, which was composed of the eyewitnesses.

(C ) Human beings convert to all sorts of religions all the time, some to ones they probably disliked a great deal before a conversion experience. That’s if we take Paul at his word, perhaps he embellished his own story to give him street cred amongst other possible Christians. A tactic still used by evangelist to this day.

Paul’s conversion and his behavior afterwards could be witnessed by others. Obviously his vision itself cannot be verified by others. The strength of this point depends on what natural explanation is being examined. I’ve seen explanations that do not take it into consideration.

(D) Early Christian teachings were effective at synchronizing orthodox Jewish teachings with that of many themes found in late Paganism. This feature was not lost among diaspora Jews and the working and underclasses. Christianity makes its biggest move by the 3rd century, the Roman empire is falling apart from the top down. Christianity is not apart of the top and so it remains after the fall. Unlike Mithraism, that only converted men and those in the army, Christianity converts women, households, and the peasant classes; thus places their eggs in more durable baskets. And so it survived.

I meant it more in the sense of why the disciples decided to continue on at all as followers of Christ. If Jesus did not rise from the dead the most likely scenario would have been that his disciples would return home and go back to their normal lives.

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Brian_G October 6, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Jayman
you wrote
“State-sanctioned persecution is not the only kind of persecution. Throughout the NT we see references to persecution or martyrdom. Acts describes the persecution of the Jerusalem Church, which was composed of the eyewitnesses.”

To add to your point, Paul specifically admits to persecuting Christian. “For I am the least 4 of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” 1 corn 15:9 He wasn’t proud of this fact, so it’s unlikely he was lying. His conversion is usually dated to within a few years after the resurrection, so there is evidence of Christians being persecuted within the early days of the movement.

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Chris October 6, 2010 at 11:28 pm

“Priors.” Are. Everything. Arguments from miracles do not persuade.

From Dale Allison’s Resurrecting Jesus (2005):

“It is our worldview that interprets the testual data, not the textual data that determines our worldview. One who disbelieves in all so-called miracles can, with good conscience, remain disbelieving in the literal resurrection of Jesus after an examination of the evidence, just as a traditional Christian can, without intellectual guilt, retain belief after surveying the pertinent particulars.” (p. 342)

Allison is a Christian, by the way. And he has a good point. As far as coming up with “what actually happened,” it’s lost to history. If the skeptic has independent reasons for rejecting theism in general or just Christianity in particular, she does not have to come up with the natural explantion.

Reimarus’ obvious point is worth quoting too:

“Just as little as miracles can prove that twice two are five, or that a triangle has four angles, can a contradiction lying in the history and dogmas of Christianity be removed by any number of miracles.” (The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples, 1778)

That is, if there are unrelated, sucessful arguments against Christianity, then any argument for the resurrection is a nonstarter. Arguing from miracles is a dead end; There’s nothing “dogmatic” or “closed minded” about this. Priors are everything.

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Patrick October 7, 2010 at 2:18 am

Unless you define what you mean by “witchcraft” a proper evaluation of the importance of historical records about witchcraft with respect to the historicity of the Resurrection is not possible. Concerning the existence of witchcraft the following positions can be formulated:

(1) It is possible to perform acts aiming at doing harm to people by means of magic.
(2) It is not possible to perform acts aiming at doing harm to people by means of magic as such acts are totally inefficacious. Whenever such acts seem to be efficacious it is because the effects were produced by demons and not by some magical power inherent in the acts.
(3) It is not possible to perform acts aiming at doing harm to people by means of magic as such acts are totally inefficacious. Whenever such acts seem to be efficacious it can be explained naturally. E.g., if a person feels bewitched due to another person’s behaviour he or she might react with a psychosomatic illness.
(4) Never have acts aiming at doing harm to people by means of magic been performed. Witchcraft is an entirely imaginary thing.

If you adhere to position (4) a comparison between witch trials and the Resurrection might even strengthen the historicity of latter. It’s because there is a consensus among historians investigating witch trials that there were indeed people who performed witchcraft. This can be seen from the following references from scholarly works:

Chadwick Hansen, Witchcraft at Salem, New York 1969, p. x;

Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, London 1971, pp. 513-514;

H. C. Erik Midelfort, Were There Really Witches? In: Robert M. Kingdon (ed.), Transition and Revolution: Problems and Issues of European Renaissance and Reformation History, Minneapolis 1974, p. 198;

E. William Monter, Witchcraft in France and Switzerland: The Borderlands during the Reformation, Ithaca and London 1976, p. 199;

Edward Watts Morton Bever, Witchcraft in Early Modern Wuerttemberg, diss. Princeton (N.J.) 1983, pp. 3-4, 383.

According to Hansen (pp. ix-xiv) and Bever (pp. 12-23) witchcraft worked because people who felt bewitched developed psychosomatic illnesses, as mentioned in connection with position (3). Position (2) was very common among Christian theologians. A very informative scholarly contribution in this respect is a paper entitled “The Disenchantment of Magic: Spells, Charms, and Superstition in Early European Witchcraft Literature”, written by Michael D. Bailey. It can be read in the following link:

http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/111.2/pdf/bailey_ahr111.2.pdf

The historicity of the miracle accounts in the New Testament in general and of the Resurrection in particular is furthermore strengthened by well-documented miracle accounts from more recent times. Such accounts can be found in the following biography of the Lutheran theologian and pastor Johann Christoph Blumhardt (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Blumhardt), written by a trained historian:

Dieter Ising, Johann Christoph Blumhardt: Life and Work: A New Biography, Translated by Monty Ledford, Eugene 2009.

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Zeb October 7, 2010 at 4:42 am

Mattr, look at the archive on Islam on this site. Most often it has been atheists making or defending xenophobic (in my opinion) arguments against Islam and an impending Muslim takeover, and the few theists here (along with atheists) challenging them.

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Zeb October 7, 2010 at 4:46 am

I did not understand how McGrew’s argument that the theism increases the likelihood of the ressurrection, which increases the likelihood of theism, was not circular. Can anyone help? You challenged her once Luke, but I did not understand her response and you let it go. Why?

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Steven Carr October 7, 2010 at 5:26 am

BRIAN
His conversion is usually dated to within a few years after the resurrection, so there is evidence of Christians being persecuted within the early days of the movement.

CARR
And Paul is very clear about how Christians avoided persecution.

Galatians 6
Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.

Paul even rhetorically uses the fact that he is still being persecuted as proof that he has not compromised on circumcision.

Galatians 5
Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

This is pretty clear. Paul takes persecution as an undeniable sign that he has not compromised on the issue of circumcision.

That was so clear to all Christians, that they could equate people being persecuted with people rejecting compulsory circumcision.

This makes no sense in the planet the McGrews live on, where Christians were persecuted on the issue of resurrection, and the Romans wrote letters explaining that they had heard of this Jesus that these Christians were following.

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Steven Carr October 7, 2010 at 5:29 am

JAYMAN
Rob, if you accept that Jesus truly worked miracles and preached the kingdom of (Israel’s) God then the simplest explanation for his miracles is that he was truly God or that God truly worked through him.

CARR
Yes, but the miracle stories in the New Testament are the same sorts of frauds and lies that Joseph Smith and Muhammad did.

They took old religious stories and recycled them for their own books.

So did the Gospellers. http://www.bowness.demon.co.uk/mirc1.htm

In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul scoffs at Jewish demands that Christianity have tales of miracles.

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Steven Carr October 7, 2010 at 5:51 am

JAYMAN
If Jesus did not rise from the dead the most likely scenario would have been that his disciples would return home and go back to their normal lives.

CARR
But if that had happened, Paul would have only mentioned , say, Peter and John, Matthew would have written that some people still doubted, and ‘Luke’ would not have been able to write stories about what happened to these 11 disciples.

Perhaps it would be easier if you could find a person in the first century who wrote a document naming himself as ever having heard of Judas, Thomas,Lazarus, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea,Mary Magdalene, Barabbas, Bartimaeus , Joanna, Salome,Simom of Cyrene , Martha and all the other people that for some reason Christians never actually met, and who only exist in the pages of the Gospels.

Much like characters in the Book of Mormon only exist in books with ‘Book of Mormon’ written on their spine, almost all of the Gospel characters were never met by living Christians.

Don’t tell me.

They all flew off into Heaven, just like the resurrected Jesus flew off into Heaven.

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Steven Carr October 7, 2010 at 5:52 am

JAYMAN
Off the top of my head, I find natural explanations of the resurrection fail to explain: (a) why the tomb was empty

CARR
Name one person who claimed personally to have seen an empty tomb.

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Steven Carr October 7, 2010 at 5:55 am

30 years after these alleged events, ‘Mark’ wrote a story which had no guard, no precautions against theft of a body, and had the followers of Jesus planning to access the body.

If there had been an empty tomb, then Christians would have been hammered for 30 years by charges of grave-robbing, and the first Novel would never have written that the body was left lying around, if only some big strong men could have been found to roll away the stone.

30 years of being accused of grave-robbbing and the first Novel doesn’t even explain that there was a guard?

Any idiot can see that this Novel was the first mention of an empty tomb, as very quickly Christians had to change their story and say there was a guard.

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Steven Carr October 7, 2010 at 5:57 am

Can Jayman explain why converts to Christianity were openly scoffing at the idea of their god choosing to raise corpses?

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Reginald Selkirk October 7, 2010 at 6:49 am

Jayman: Off the top of my head, I find natural explanations of the resurrection fail to explain: (a) why the tomb was empty

I cannot understand why anyone thinks the “empty tomb” argument would be convincing.

* The claim that an empty tomb was discovered comes from the same source as all the other miracle claims it is being put forward to justify.

* There’s an invisible miniature pink unicorn in the palm of my hand. Do you see it? No? Well there, that proves it really is invisible!

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Steven Carr October 7, 2010 at 6:57 am

But the empty tomb is as well attested as the second gun that shot JFK.

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kaka October 7, 2010 at 7:12 am

rob, where’s your “overwhelming evidence”? do you have a link?

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Rob October 7, 2010 at 7:32 am

kaka,

You want a link to the “overwhelming evidence” that religious movements arise naturally? How about any history book. Look into Mormonism, or cargo cults, or Scientology, or any of the thousands of other religions on this planet. Or read Breaking the Spell. That religion is a natural phenomenon is uncontroversial.

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lukeprog October 7, 2010 at 7:55 am

Zeb,

It’s very complicated. The paper is linked above if you want to read it. I haven’t read it yet.

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Jeff Singer October 7, 2010 at 7:59 am

Mr. Carr,

Name one person who claimed personally to have seen Alexander the Great, but you have to use sources that were written within 50 years of his death…whoops, those don’t exist…so maybe Alexander didn’t exist?!

I’m afraid your understanding of how history works is about as good as your understanding of how to read sacred scripture — what Paul is saying in Galatians is that circumcision doesn’t matter anymore now that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead for mankind’s sins! He is saying that some Jewish Christian converts are suggesting that if they get circumcised they might avoid persecution because they can pretend they are good ole’ fashioned Jews — but Paul calls them out and says they don’t plan to even keep the Jewish law, and no one should care about persecution anyway.

And speaking of your weak Biblical exegesis, do you really think that the one comment Paul makes about the Jews wanting “signs” means Christians should reject miracles? This is the same Paul who goes on to detail Christ’s resurrection in Chapter 15 of the same letter. The same Paul who was a devout Jew and like all devout Jews believed in God’s Old Testament miracles.

When you are done being silly here, I’ll meet you at the grassy knoll, and we can talk seriously about saving your soul.

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Jwahler October 7, 2010 at 9:19 am

Mr. Singer,

I’m supposing you don’t count the Esaglia astronomical calendar that recorded the battles and day of death of Alexander the Great as contemporary primary proof of his existence? Despite historians agreeing that it is a contemporary source? Really a tangential point, but I thought I’d ask.

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Jayman October 7, 2010 at 10:39 am

Mr. Carr, your arguments have been ridiculed on countless sites. Have you no shame?

(1) Muhammad and Joseph Smith were not renowned miracle workers. Moreover, the historical accuracy of the Gospels is superior to the historical accuracy of the Koran or Book of Mormon.

(2) You’re allegations of borrowing have already been refuted by Glenn Miller. Readers may also be interested to know that Timothy McGrew (husband of Lydia) showed that, using Carr’s arguments, one could posit that the Gospels borrowed from a Winnie the Pooh book. The comments are somewhere on Victor Reppert’s blog. If that won’t convince you that Carr’s methodology is unsound, nothing will.

(3) Hand selecting names you think aren’t mentioned by eyewitnesses is a clear attempt at deceiving the ignorant. Why leave out names you know are mentioned? Nonetheless, you still failed to adequately doctor your list. For example, the Gospel of John is from an eyewitness who was at the crucifixion alongside Jesus’ mother, her sister, Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. The Gospel of Mark mentions the sons of Simon of Cyrene and implies they were known to his audience. It’s time to update your talking points.

(4) John claims to have seen the empty tomb and the resurrected Jesus.

(5) The genre of novel post-dates the NT period. The scholarly consensus is that the Gospels are Greco-Roman biographies. Mark is the first extant source to provide a narrative account of the NT but Paul, by merely mentioning the resurrection, implies that Jesus’ tomb was empty. No serious scholar doubts that the belief in Jesus’ resurrection pre-dates the composition of Mark by decades. You’re merely trying to (mis-)present the evidence in a way that makes your hypothesis look remotely plausible.

(6) The concept of a physical resurrection was foreign and repugnant to pagans of the time. That is why Christ crucified was seen as “folly” by pagans.

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Jeff Singer October 7, 2010 at 10:43 am

Jwahler,

I don’t know if I trust the Persians, they are sneaky bunch ;-)

But more seriously, the calendar doesn’t answer my question or speak to Mr. Carr’s exacting standards.

Of course, I do believe in Alexander (who was great only at killing lots of people) and I also believe that Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross and was resurrected and I think we have excellent eyewitness accounts of His miracles and His resurrection. But apparently you and Mr. Carr evaluate the historical evidence differently.

I suggest you check out this book for more:

http://www.gregboyd.org/books/lord-or-legend-2/

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Reginald Selkirk October 7, 2010 at 10:55 am

I think we have excellent eyewitness accounts of His miracles and His resurrection.

Oh, which accounts would those be? The canonical gospels are not eyewitness accounts, and were not written contemporaneously.

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G'DIsraeli October 7, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Hey, can I ask for a interview with a philosopher of science?
Things are so much complex then “science works bitches”
Pretty please Luke? Thx if you consider!

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Jeff Singer October 7, 2010 at 12:58 pm

Reginald,

The Gospels were obviously stories told by eyewitnesses and although they weren’t written contemporaneously there is a good reason for that — nobody wrote down much of anything back then! So stories were told orally and there was a rich oral tradition of story-telling which eventually led to the Gospel authors deciding they needed to put quill to papyrus (or whatever they used back then). The book I linked to above goes into a lot of detail on these very matters so I’m glad you asked the question.

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lukeprog October 7, 2010 at 1:00 pm

G’Disraeli,

Absolutely. I’d love to.

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Steven Carr October 7, 2010 at 1:06 pm

‘Name one person who claimed personally to have seen Alexander the Great, but you have to use sources that were written within 50 years of his death’

More Christians explaining why sceptics are fools to expect evidence that Judas existed.

Nobody saw this empty tomb, and Christians now start claiming they don’t need people to have seen an empty tomb for them to believe in it , and scpetics are idiots for wanting people to have seen this empty tomb.

And if Paul points out Christians were persecuted on the issue of circumcision, then the genius get out to the obvious fact that the persecutions issue was circumcision, not resurrection, is , wait for it, Paul said ‘circumcision does not matter’.

It is astonishing what Christians will confabulate when they have no facts to support their claims.

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Steven Carr October 7, 2010 at 1:13 pm

‘And speaking of your weak Biblical exegesis, do you really think that the one comment Paul makes about the Jews wanting “signs” means Christians should reject miracles? ‘

More Christians saying the first thing that comes into their heads to explain away Paul scoffing at Jews for demaning that Christianity have stories of miraculous signs.

I’m sorry, but just blurting out stuff and claiming it is an answer is not an answer.

Even Christians were openly scoffing at the idea of their god raising corpses, yet Paul could not produce one word of eyewitness testimony about an empty tomb, just talk of ‘appearances’.

If any of those stories of Jesus explaining his body was made of flesh and bone had existed, would Paul have wasted one second in using them to explaing what a resurrected body was like, rather tahn waffling on about how jeuss became a life-giving spirit.?

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anon October 7, 2010 at 1:24 pm

*McGrewber*

A Song in honor of this the greatest of all Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot.

Sung to the tune of SNL’s MacGruber theme song.

*****

!MacGrewber!

Defends the Resurrection with Bayesian Epistemology

!MacGrewber!

Attacks the Design Argument although she finds it intuitive

!MacGrewber!

She got a paper in Erkenntnis and she’s really, really proud of it

!!!MACGREWBER!!!

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Márcio October 7, 2010 at 2:08 pm

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieZNp4D4aVo

Why the ressurection is the best explanation!

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Jayman October 7, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Reginald, an invisible pink unicorn is not analogous to an empty tomb. If you pointed at a tomb we could both agree whether it was empty or not. The criterion of embarrassment makes it unlikely that Matthew made up the Jewish accusation that the disciples stole Jesus’ body and admitted the tomb was empty. Unless I am supposed to disregard the criterion of embarrassment when it makes naturalists uncomfortable, I have no reason to doubt that the tomb was empty.

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Chris October 7, 2010 at 7:36 pm

anon: lol!!!

(actually I don’t think this was the best CPBD episode but that is the best guest theme song there ever could be)

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Steven Carr October 7, 2010 at 11:55 pm

JAYMAN
The criterion of embarrassment makes it unlikely that Matthew made up the Jewish accusation that the disciples stole Jesus’ body and admitted the tomb was empty

CARR
The criterion of embarrassment means it is unlikely Paul made up claims that converts to Christianity were scoffing at the idea that their god chose to raise corpses.

As for Jayman’s ludicrous claim that Christians are embarrassed by Matthew’ Gospel, Matthew had to say something because the first Novel left Christians wide open to charges of grave-robbing.

As soon as Mark’s Novel appeared, Christians were naturally accused of grave-robbing, because ‘Mark’ said the body was just left lying around and anybody could have taken it.

So Matthew had to rapidly put some spin on this and claim that there were guards.

But all this rewriting of history by Christians happened 30 years after the alleged events.

If Christians had been hammered with charges of grave-robbing for 30 years, then the first Novel itself would have had to defend against those long-standing charges, in the way that later Novels had to defend against them.

But, of course, in 30 years time, Jayman will respond to these points.

That is how he believes his Novels work.

If somebody makes a good point against Jayman, he will leave it for 30 years, write a post which never defends against it, then 10 years later, he will write a post which claimed something else happened.

In the real world, as opposed to the fantasy world of Christian apologetics, Christians would never have waited more than 30 years to defend themselves against charges of grave-robbing.

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Steven Carr October 8, 2010 at 12:03 am

I see Jayman cannot produce one single person who wrote a document naming himself as seeing an empty tomb.

Apologists like Mike Licona have now abandoned trying to show there was an empty tomb.

At least there really was a grassy knoll….

But wait a minute Steven, hold on, not so fast.

You’re saying Christians are no better than conspiracy theorists.

That’s absurd, Steven. You’re way out of order. You have no idea how conspiracy theories work. Get real.

If Christianity was a conspiracy theory like the second gunman who shot JFK, Christians would start telling stories about how the authorities tried to cover up the truth by concocting a story in a secret meeting that the Christians found out about.

Get real, Steven. Conspiracy theory….. Come on, Steven. This is fantasy.

Where are the reports of a secret cover up? Where are the stories of a secret meeting where the authorities covered up the truth? I thought Christianity was supposed to be no better than the theories that the Bush administration planned 9/11.

Where are the government meetings and coverup?

Matthew 28
While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened.

When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed

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Steven Carr October 8, 2010 at 2:53 am

Abortion?

Christians assure us that their god has a perfectly good moral reason to allow abortion , even if we have no idea what it could be.

So even if pro-abortionists cannot even begin to think of a good reason for allowing abortion, Christian apologists will tell us that there really is a good reason to allow abortion, and if we were god, we would know what it was.

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Steven Carr October 8, 2010 at 3:00 am

Don’t forget that Christian apologists claim there is a really good reason why their god allows suffering , although they have no idea what it is, just like the same Christian apologists are happy to let sceptics say there is a really good natural explanation for Jesus raising people from the dead, even if nobody knows what it is.

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Jeff Singer October 8, 2010 at 7:08 am
Reginald Selkirk October 8, 2010 at 7:18 am

Jeff singer: The Gospels were obviously stories told by eyewitnesses and although they weren’t written contemporaneously there is a good reason for that — nobody wrote down much of anything back then! So stories were told orally and there was a rich oral tradition of story-telling which eventually led to the Gospel authors deciding they needed to put quill to papyrus

So you acknowledge that the folks who wrote down these stories were not eyewitnesses. As for your contention that the stories were “obviously told by eyewitnesses,” this appears to be nothing but question-begging. Were the oral tradition fairy tales eventually written down by the brothers Grimm “obviously” also eyewitness accounts? How about the stories about Paul Bunyan?

Jayman: Reginald, an invisible pink unicorn is not analogous to an empty tomb. If you pointed at a tomb we could both agree whether it was empty or not… Unless I am supposed to disregard the criterion of embarrassment when it makes naturalists uncomfortable, I have no reason to doubt that the tomb was empty.

An invisible pink unicorn IS analogous to an empty tomb, in exactly the way i have drawn the analogy. If you look at the unicorn in my palm and cannot see it, and agree with me that you cannot see it, then obviously the unicorn is invisible. I can understand how this embarrasses you. Are you going to disregard the criterion of embarrassment when it makes you uncomfortable?

And don’t get Steven Carr started on the criterion of embarrassment. Oops, too late.

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anon October 8, 2010 at 11:43 am

@ Chris:

Thanks. I guess I thought it was the best because the interviewee seemed so weird and eccentric and funny. And she was so passionate about the topic. Also, Luke asked her the questions that I would have and I felt like she had really thoughtful well reasoned answers. I was really surprised.

I have to admit though that I went and looked at some of her blog posts and I was a little creeped out. But the interview was so awesome/hilarious that I can look past it.

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Rob October 8, 2010 at 1:31 pm

If you read the above article “The Argument from Miracles”, the McGrews acknowledge that they are assuming that the gospels and Acts are basically historically reliable.

So, if you start with that assumption, is it any wonder you come away thinking Jesus rose from the dead?

If you assume the Koran is historically reliable, then you would come away thinking Mohammed flew around on a winged horse.

Myths are not history.

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Madeleine October 9, 2010 at 4:21 am

Luke that was great. You and Lydia were really interesting to listen to and I am glad I persevered with some technical difficulties (at my end) to get it to play through to the end.

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Keith October 9, 2010 at 3:57 pm

For someone who based the conclusions of her paper on statistics, McGrew seemed wholly incapable of providing a coherent description of how these statistics were constructed, or what exactly they meant.

When someone uses a complicated statistical model in a situation that offers very little in the way of reliable input, I get worried. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.

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Matt October 9, 2010 at 8:26 pm

Rob, if you believe the Koran is infallible you would draw that conclusion reliability is not infallibility.

Historians accept ancient egyptian accounts as reliable without accepting the accounts of Isis and so on in them, so Lydia starting with the reliability of the OT does not entail what you say.

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Steven Carr October 10, 2010 at 12:58 am

‘Historians accept ancient egyptian accounts as reliable…’

And historians have crashed and burned trying to rescue the historical Jesus from the Gospels to the extent that they now write books enumerating and documenting the failures of the quests to find the historical Jesus.

After all, it is is like trying to find the historical second gunman who shot JFK

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Bram van Dijk October 26, 2010 at 11:34 am

I’m still a few episodes behind, so that’s why I am late.

But I was really looking forward to this one as I have been emailing with both McGrews about their resurrection paper. The main problem I have with it is that they view the testimony of the disciples (13 of the: the 12 and James) as being independent of each other.

They do recognize in the paper that this is not a very plausible assumption, but then they go on to argue that when you would take account of the dependencies between the 13 disciples it would make their case stronger. Main reason is because the disciples died for their beliefs, and the death of one of them should have a deterrent effect on the others.

It seems to me that what we know of group psychology teaches us that it should be the other way around. As soon as a few of them started to believe Jesus was raised the probability of others starting to believe the same goes up enormously.

This would dramatically reduce their Bayes factor, as most of the weight comes from the disciples.

So this got our argument started, and next they started using many of the details of the gospels as evidence. So in the end their argument relies on rejecting much of the mainstream critical scholarship.

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Chuck October 29, 2010 at 8:34 am

For someone who based the conclusions of her paper on statistics, McGrew seemed wholly incapable of providing a coherent description of how these statistics were constructed, or what exactly they meant.When someone uses a complicated statistical model in a situation that offers very little in the way of reliable input, I get worried. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.  

Well said Keith. I use conditional probabilities to make strategic decisions for a living and make assumptions based on an internal feeling to the data set would get me fired. I hate it when Evangelical Christians try to assert Bayesian Statistics onto their doctrinal commitments. What prior probability are they using to estimate the data they are weighing if the resurrection of Jesus is a doctrinally unique experience by definition.

It is snake-oil BS and I’m not buying it. I’m sure it works on smart people who want the emotional benefits religion offers without seeming all spooky and supernatural but, it is a malpractice of statistics as a science for decision making.

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Chuck October 29, 2010 at 8:40 am

Also,

What sources exist that name the 12 disciples and how they died? It is an assumption based on tradition that each disciple was tortured and died for their faith. That is a specious argument dependent on folk-lore. Have Christians died for their faith, sure, contemporary ones die all the time. Are Evangelicals going to argue that these contemporary figures physically saw the resurrected Jesus too.

We have NO reliable data to validate that the 12 disciples were tortured and died for their faith so making an argument to Bayesian probability using this as a prior is not honest thinking.

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Patrick October 30, 2010 at 1:56 am

Instead of looking at the records telling us how the disciples died let’s look at the apostle Paul, the only person of whom we have first hand testimonies of an apparition of the risen Jesus. Paul had every reason not to believe in the Resurrection if there was even the slightest possibility that it could not have happened. Not only was his belief the cause of much hardship (see 1 Corinthians 4,9-13, 15,30-32, 2 Corinthians 11,16-33), but in addition he had to fear that in the end he would turn out to be a false witness about God (1 Corinthians 15,15).

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Shane McKee November 3, 2010 at 4:10 pm

Luke, I’m coming to this late because I only got listening to it on the car stereo on a long drive up to Derry this morning. It was a really good interview. However, I really do cringe when I come across Christian apologists trying to use Bayes’ theorem to add spurious statistical oomph to some really poor arguments. Swinburne got tossed around a bit in the discussion, and his use of Bayes was utterly ridiculous. I haven’t yet dissected Lydia’s article, but in my job as a geneticist, I have to use Bayes’ theorem quite a bit, and there is simply no way that she can get from a probability of 10^-40 to 0.99999 using the evidence supplied by the gospels. It just cannot work. Now maybe she addresses this in the paper, but you need to be hugely sceptical of this. Bayes in the hands of apologists is not a pretty sight.

As it happens, and as several posters have pointed out, there is very good evidence in the gospels and other books of the NT that show that the resurrection was NOT a historical event, even if there actually was an empty tomb. For one thing, *all* the post-resurrection appearance stories have a magical unearthly character to them, pretty much proving that they are pure myth, not history (and of course they disagree and display embellishments, showing that they are not eyewitness accounts, but hearsay at best). For another thing, the whole shebang changes if the young man at the tomb in Mark says to Mary, “He is not here; we have moved his body to Galilee for a proper funeral; go and tell his disciples to come north to the funeral”. So it is very easy to see how a tiny misunderstanding could have become amplified into a simple piece of nonsense that has had enormous historical repercussions.

The bottom line is that the bible effectively *proves* that the resurrection did not actually occur. It sometimes surprises me that sceptics do not make more of a deal of this; the evidence is pretty darned clear.

However, nice interview. Anyone who takes Plantinga apart for his dopey circular “warrant” nonsense can’t be all bad.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 3, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Shane,

Yeah, I’m not at all persuaded by Christian apologist’s use of Bayes’ Theorem so far. If you ever take the time to work through Lydia’s article and have any thoughts, please do let us know!

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Shane McKee November 4, 2010 at 12:39 am

Hi Luke, I’ll give it a stab at some stage, but first impressions are a/ it is far far too long; 15 pages would have covered it (is this normal in the philosophical literature??), and b/ she pre-loads her arguments with a lot of assumptions about the reliability & provenance of the texts that could (should) have been incorporated as Bayesian factors in their own rights – except they would seriously undermine her stats. But I’ll need to cover all that in a more detailed critique. Also, when you strip away the polemic and apologetics, there is not that much beef there. I doubt this would pass peer review in a stats journal, for example. Maybe that’s OK – maybe this is an article for general popular consumption, rather than a robust scholarly contribution. But hey, who am I to talk?

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Patrick November 6, 2010 at 1:53 pm

Even if you accept Troeltsch’s and Bradley’s notion of an argument from analogy miracle accounts can turn out to be reliable. The fact that in 19th century Germany in connection with the work of Johann Christoph Blumhardt (see my first post) well-documented miraculous events happened can be seen as resulting in the following analogy: If in 19th century Germany miracles happened, why shouldn’t such events have happened in 1st century Judea?

As I mentioned earlier there is a new biography of Johann Christoph Blumhardt, which contains accounts of such events (mostly faith healings). To get an idea how well-documented the events described are, one may go to the following link, then go to the link “Search inside this book” and have a look at the section “Sources and Literature”.

http://www.amazon.com/Johann-Christoph-Blumhardt-Life-Work/dp/1606085395/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1289074764&sr=1-1

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Keith November 6, 2010 at 5:34 pm

@Patrick:

It is one thing to argue that a particular event was reported by witnesses. It is quite another to show that the event was a miracle. For instance, I’m sure you can find plenty of people who have witnessed David Blaine levitating. Does this mean that we should conclude that Blaine has, indeed, levitated? I think not.

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Patrick November 8, 2010 at 11:15 am

Keith

Your objection may be correct, but it is irrelevant, as it is based on a misconception concerning my argument. Maybe I could have prevented this misconception if I had used the expression “seemingly miraculous events” instead of “miracles”. Whether or not the events I refer to were really miracles is not important in this respect. What I want to point to is the argument that events that reliable witnesses describe as real must be real. To use your example of the illusionist David Blaine and his supposed levitations, it is certainly beyond doubt that this person really exists and that his performances are real.

It seems to me that atheists often argue that with respect to (seemingly) supernatural events it is possible that events that reliable witnesses describe as real in fact are not at all real; the witnesses are regarded as being either liars or lunatics.

This doesn’t mean that the interpretations of such events as being supernatural must be correct. I don’t rule out the possibility that there can be naturalistic explanations for seemingly supernatural events. However, I don’t see why a supernatural explanation must be ruled out a priori. If no plausible naturalistic explanation for an event can be found, an interpretation of such an event as being supernatural seems to me quite reasonable.

As far as I can see nobody has been able to present a plausible naturalistic explanation for the post mortem appearances of Jesus. As I pointed out in my first post for the effect of witchcraft rituals a plausible naturalistic explanation has been formulated. But this doesn’t mean that there have never been people who regarded themselves as witches and acted accordingly. Therefore the rule that events that reliable witnesses describe as real must be real also applies in such cases.

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Keith November 9, 2010 at 11:50 am

Patrick:

“It seems to me that atheists often argue that with respect to (seemingly) supernatural events it is possible that events that reliable witnesses describe as real in fact are not at all real; the witnesses are regarded as being either liars or lunatics.”

For a start, most scholars agree that the Biblical accounts of Jesus were not written by eye witnesses, so we can’t even assume that we have any eye witness records to discuss here. Secondly, I think it is, in fact, perfectly legitimate to question the motives of any self-proclaimed eye witness, no matter the circumstances. If you have any reason why we should automatically take every eye witnesses’ account at face value, I’d like to hear it.

“However, I don’t see why a supernatural explanation must be ruled out a priori.”

They must be ruled out because they aren’t actually explanations in the first place. The very concept of “supernatural” is so poorly defined that it cannot support proper explanations. (See the recent debate that has been raging between PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne.)

“As far as I can see nobody has been able to present a plausible naturalistic explanation for the post mortem appearances of Jesus.”

What post mortem appearances of Jesus? Are you really prepared to take, at face value, the reports in an ancient religious text that a man died and then reappeared to his followers? If you are that easily convinced, then why are you not a Muslim instead? Or a Jew? Or a Hindu? These religions offer similar miraculous claims in their texts.

“As I pointed out in my first post for the effect of witchcraft rituals a plausible naturalistic explanation has been formulated. But this doesn’t mean that there have never been people who regarded themselves as witches and acted accordingly.”

Christine O’Donnell, for one.

Are you suggesting that a supernatural element to witchcraft exists simply because witches believe it does?

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Patrick November 10, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Keith

You wrote: “For a start, most scholars agree that the Biblical accounts of Jesus were not written by eye witnesses, so we can’t even assume that we have any eye witness records to discuss here.”

With respect to the principle of analogy the question whether or not the gospels were written by eyewitnesses is not important. According to this principle the historicity of the miracle accounts in the gospels are not questioned with this argument, but with the argument that there are supposedly no reliable miracle accounts from modern times, which could serve as an analogy of the accounts in the gospels. I questioned this argument by pointing to analogous events that are well-documented.

Apart from this, there is a general consensus among New Testament scholars that the apostle Paul’s testimonies about a post mortem appearance of Jesus (1 Corinthians 9,1, 15,8) are genuine. So we have indeed eyewitness records to discuss here.

You wrote: “Secondly, I think it is, in fact, perfectly legitimate to question the motives of any self-proclaimed eye witness, no matter the circumstances. If you have any reason why we should automatically take every eye witnesses’ account at face value, I’d like to hear it.“

I agree with you that it is perfectly legitimate to question the motives of eyewitnesses. In fact, in my second post I tried to show that the apostle Paul had no motif to make up his testimonies about a post mortem appearance of Jesus.

You wrote: “[Supernatural explanations] must be ruled out because they aren’t actually explanations in the first place. The very concept of “supernatural” is so poorly defined that it cannot support proper explanations. (See the recent debate that has been raging between PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne.)“

Your objection may be correct, but in connection with the principle of analogy the statement is irrelevant. Even if one could find plausible naturalistic explanations for all (seemingly) supernatural events described in the New Testament, this wouldn’t weaken the case for the historicity of the New Testament.

My definition of “supernatural” is very pragmatic. For me a phenomenon can be regarded as supernatural if no plausible naturalistic explanation for it has been presented. As long as no one has been able to prove that naturalism is true it seems to me quite reasonable to assume supernatural causes in such cases.

You wrote: “What post mortem appearances of Jesus? Are you really prepared to take, at face value, the reports in an ancient religious text that a man died and then reappeared to his followers? If you are that easily convinced, then why are you not a Muslim instead? Or a Jew? Or a Hindu? These religions offer similar miraculous claims in their texts.

Do these religions really offer similar miraculous claims in their texts? Even if this is the case, according to the Bible miraculous claims or even genuine miracles do not prove the truth of the religious claims the (alleged) miracle workers support (see e.g. Exodus 7,10-13 or 2 Thessalonians 2,9). So for a Christian it is possible to accept supernatural claims of other religions without having to accept the doctrines of these religions.

You wrote: “Are you suggesting that a supernatural element to witchcraft exists simply because witches believe it does?“

My concern here is not whether or not there is a supernatural element to witchcraft. In his interview with Lydia McGrew Luke used the testimonies about witchcraft at the Salem witch trials to question the testimonies about the Resurrection. However, with respect to the reliability of these testimonies the question whether or not there is a supernatural element to witchcraft is entirely irrelevant. As I pointed out in my first post there is a general consensus among historians investigating witch trials that there were indeed people who regarded themselves as witches and who performed magical acts aiming at doing harm to people, regardless of whether or not these acts were efficacious. Therefore in general testimonies about such acts are reliable.

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Shane November 10, 2010 at 11:45 pm

Patrick, at least part of the issue here is whether there were any “supernatural” events to account for in the first place. There are not. There are STORIES, and as mentioned many times, stories are *easy* to explain. Regardless of what witnesses think they saw, there is no window here into the actuality of these thingies, whether they be giants roaming the slopes of Vesuvius hurling rocks at Pompeii, or ghostie appearances after the death of Jesus (or Elvis for that matter).

Yeah, sure, many early Christians believed Jesus had resurrected (we also know that many *didn’t*), but we’re no further on. There remains no useful evidence to suggest the resurrection actually took place – and plenty of evidence that the gospels incorporate multiply worked-over versions of the original fairy story.

The bottom line is that regardless of whether the testimonies are “reliable”, we still have no evidence that a miracle actually took place. Just a story.

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Patrick November 11, 2010 at 6:10 am

Shane

It’s not clear to me what exactly you mean by “stories”. Is it synonymous with “fiction” or with “anecdotal evidence”? If the former is correct, it certainly doesn’t apply here. Whatever one thinks about the historicity of the Resurrection it seems to me to be quite clear that Paul’s remarks about this issue are not meant to be fiction.

The same applies also to accounts about the miraculous events that happened in Möttlingen (Germany) when Johann Christoph Blumhardt served there as a pastor. One of these accounts is the report submitted by Blumhardt to his ecclesiastical superiors that can be read in the link below. Such a report certainly is not meant to be fiction.

http://sites.google.com/site/davidkeames2/blumhardt%27sbattle

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Shane November 11, 2010 at 7:43 am

No, Patrick – “stories” are merely narratives. “Fiction” and “anecdote” refer to an ontologically lower level. We have lots of stories, from Goldilocks to Genesis. Stories are easy to explain. The question is how much information about the real world we can derive from them. And when it comes to the resurrection stories, this is not much at all – indeed an actual resurrection is a remarkably poor inference.

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Eric January 21, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Patrick –
or me a phenomenon can be regarded as supernatural if no plausible naturalistic explanation for it has been presented.

Textbook “argument from ignorance”

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Mike April 21, 2011 at 6:06 pm

I really appreciate what Lydia McGrew had to say in this interview. I thought the questions were good and allowed enough freedom to answer but also were careful to come back to her on points where he felt there was some ambiguity [so well done Luke!]. I think myself that McGrew’s evidentialism is a much more satisfactory and philosophically tenable position than the ‘properly basic’ view of Plantinga. McGrew’s position allows for a much greater amount of discussion and less dead ends I think. It is also encouraging to see more professional female philosophers around these days. It always makes me slightly suspicious of philosophy that it is almost completely male dominated [please save the sexist jokes for your mothers]. I admit to skipping past most of the comments which quickly bored me unlike the interview itself. I think some of the ridiculous attempts to discredit McGrew just demonstrate the absurdity of the respondants rather than McGrew. Perhaps we could also write Hume’s concerns off on causation because he played billiards? Or totally ignore Plato because he thought philosophers would make the best rulers? Lots of disappointing and childish responses marred what was an, otherwise, very enjoyable read. Thank you!

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