bookmark_borderApologetics class

A high school senior emailed me and asked me to answer a bunch of questions, for her “Apologetics class.” Here are the questions and my short replies, for amusement value:

What is the origin of the universe and man? 

As physicists and biologists describe it. 

What is the purpose of mankind? 

We’re not tools: not the sort of things that have a predetermined purpose. 

What is satisfaction and how do I obtain it? (how can I be happy) 

This probably does not have a useful answer applicable to everyone. 

What has gone wrong with the world? (Why is there evil in the world – Why do bad things happen to good people) 

The way the world works is indifferent to human flourishing or suffering. 

What is the solution to the problems we face? (what happens when I fail and how do I make things right) 

There is no single meaningful answer to such a question. 

What is right and wrong? (is moral truth absolute or relative) 

Right and wrong is due to the interests of and agreements between sentient beings. 

Is there a universal moral law? (does everyone know the difference between right and wrong) 


What happens at death? (Where are we going when we die- How do we know and what does it look like, and if it is heaven-then how do we get there) 

Life ends. 

What does your faith do with the person of Jesus? 


Too bad I’m not going to get to see the canned apologetic comparisons between “faith”s designed to make Christianity the One True Faith.

bookmark_borderMartin Luther King and the Republican Race For Righteousness

If I believed in a god, and one with a sense of humor, I would think she had a big chuckle over timing the South Carolina Republican primary for the same week the nation celebrates Martin Luther King Day.

On May 2, 2000, South Carolina became the last state to make King’s birthday an official state holiday. But South Carolina also then created another official state holiday on May 10 — Confederate Memorial Day. Prior to this legislation, state employees had the choice of celebrating the birthday of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, or Martin Luther King.

Some of our South Carolina politicians think nothing of rewriting history, even when they can easily be caught. For instance, Congressman Joe Wilson claimed that he spearheaded the effort to have King’s birthday recognized. A friend of Wilson’s from his state legislature days said Wilson must have been confused about which holiday he supported, which was really Confederate Memorial Day. When confronted with circumstantial evidence, Wilson said his memory must have failed him. (This is the same Joe Wilson who famously yelled “You lie!” at the country’s first African-American president during a speech to a joint session of Congress.)

Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul voted against Martin Luther King Day both in 1979 and 1983, when the bill passed. In one of his newsletters, Paul referred to the holiday as “Hate Whitey Day.” Paul, who is viewed as the presidential candidate least likely to lie, claimed that he neither wrote nor read the newsletters that bore his name.

Martin Luther King is not the controversial figure he once was in South Carolina, with racism today subtler and less institutionally sanctioned. But in 1962, at the height of the civil rights movement led by King, the Confederate battle flag was placed atop the State Capitol by vote of an all-white legislature. In 2000, a so-called compromise moved the Confederate flag to the Capitol grounds. When the NAACP continued its boycott of South Carolina, state senator Arthur Ravenel, a member of Sons of Confederate Veterans, called the NAACP the “National Association for Retarded People.” He later apologized–to the mentally handicapped for comparing them to the NAACP.

Presidential candidates are often asked what they think of this flag situation. Former candidate John McCain went back and forth about whether it was a states rights’ issue or a symbol of racism and slavery. In 2008, Mitt Romney took a stronger stance, saying he didn’t think the Confederate flag should be flown at all. I’ll be interested to hear if he changes his mind about this, too, in time for Saturday’s election.

The safest, if not the most courageous, answer for national candidates is to call the Confederate flag an issue for South Carolinians to decide. In fact, last month Newt Gingrich said at a town hall meeting, “I have a very strong opinion: it’s up to the people of South Carolina.” He added that he is opposed to segregation and slavery. Well, that’s a relief. But I’m quite sure that Martin Luther King would disagree with Newt about what he just told a Charleston audience was the biggest domestic threat to America: “Removing God from the public arena.”

In 1998, fiscally conservative Charleston County councilman Tim Scott insisted on posting a Ten Commandments plaque on the wall of County Council chambers, ignoring advice that he would lose the anticipated legal challenge. Scott insisted that the display was needed to remind residents of moral absolutes. After the plaque went up, the Charleston Post and Courier asked Councilman Scott if he could name all the Commandments. He couldn’t. As expected, the court declared the display unconstitutional and handed taxpayers a substantial bill for legal costs.

Councilman Scott was not laughed off the political stage. He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 2010, the first African-American Republican in South Carolina to serve in Congress. He is now a tea party favorite, and all Republican presidential candidates are seeking his endorsement. He is my congressional representative, though I can’t say that he represents my views. I wonder what Rev. Martin Luther King would have thought about all this.

bookmark_borderDoes Craig Demonstrate a Fallacy in Hume?

A recent responder to my postings on Hume’s argument against miracles claims that Hume’s argument in Section X of An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding is “demonstrably fallacious.” After a bit of coaxing, he has produced the following alleged demonstration, taken from William Lane Craig’s debate with Bart Ehrman:

”When we talk about the probability of some event or hypothesis A, that probability is always
relative to a body of background information B. So we speak of the probability of A on B, or of
A with respect to B.

So in order to figure out the probability of the resurrection, let B stand for our background
knowledge of the world apart from any evidence for the resurrection. Let E stand for the specific
evidence for Jesus’ resurrection: the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and so on.
Finally, let R stand for Jesus’ resurrection. Now what we want to figure out is the probability of
Jesus’ resurrection given our background knowledge of the world and the specific evidence in
this case.
B = Background knowledge
E = Specific evidence (empty tomb, postmortem
appearances, etc.)
R = Resurrection of Jesus
Pr (R/B & E) = ?

Pr (R/B&E;)=

Pr (R/B) × Pr (E/B&R;)
Pr (R/B) × Pr (E/B&R;) + Pr (not-R/B) × Pr (E/B& not-R)

Pr (R/B) is called the intrinsic probability of the resurrection. It tells how probable the
resurrection is given our general knowledge of the world. Pr (E/B&R;) is called the explanatory power of the resurrection hypothesis. It tells how probable the resurrection makes the evidence of the empty tomb and so forth. These two factors form the numerator of this ratio. Basically, Pr (not-R/B) × Pr (E/B& not-R) represent the intrinsic probability and explanatory power of all the naturalistic alternatives to Jesus’ resurrection. The probability of the resurrection could still be very high even though the Pr(R/B) alone is terribly low. Hume just ignores the crucial factors of the probability of the naturalistic alternatives to the resurrection [Pr(not-R/B) × Pr(E/B& not-R)]. If these are sufficiently low, they outbalance any intrinsic improbability of the resurrection hypothesis. Bayes has the form of x/x-y which means that as the explanatory power of the resurrection tends toward 1, and as the explanatory power of the naturalistic explanations tend toward zero, then any initial intrinsic improbability can be overcome.” (Quoted from the correspondent “K-Dog”).

Does Craig demonstrate that Hume’s argument is fallacious? A couple of things to note: First, Hume does not employ Bayes’ Theorem in the presentation of his argument; it is expressed informally, and the Bayesian framework is imposed by later interpreters. Second, Hume does not directly address the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in “Of Miracles,” though his instance of an imagined report of the resurrection of Elizabeth I may be a coy allusion. Hume’s argument is about miracle claims in general and not a specific critique of the resurrection apologetic of the sort promoted by Craig.

Craig’s argument is that the likelihood of the evidence for the resurrection given the naturalistic alternatives to resurrection (i.e., given that the resurrection did not occur and given background information) might be so low as to counterbalance an extremely low probability of the resurrection given only background. In other words, p(E/~R & B) might be so very low, that even a very low p(R/B) might be overcome and the resultant p(R/E & B) might wind up very high (given, as seems reasonable, that p(E/ B & R) is not too low). Craig’s charge is that Hume simply ignores this possibility. This, presumably, is the demonstration of the claimed fallacy.
Does Hume ignore such a possibility? Even if Hume does, do we have to? That is, might we not adopt a neo-Humean argument against miracles that does consider what he failed to note?

Again, Hume is not specifically addressing claims about the resurrection, so to twit him for not taking into consideration specific evidence for the resurrection is obviously unfair. Well, then, does Hume consider, in general terms, the possibility that testimonial evidence for a miracle might exist even if the miracle did not occur? If we express it in formal terms, does Hume consider what values p(E/~M & B) might take, where E is the evidence for a miracle claim, M is that claim, and B is background? Well, he surely seems to. To take one succinct passage:

“When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened (p. 149; from the edition by Antony Flew, Open Court, 1988).”

I think that a natural way to interpret this passage is that Hume is recommending that we consider that the testimony for a miracle might well exist even if the miracle did not occur, i.e., that p(E/~M & B) might not be low, because the testifier was either a deceiver or a victim of deception. How might we get miracle reports even when the reported miracles did not occur? The reporter might deceive or be deceived, and if we consider either probability not to be too low, then we will consider p(E/ ~M & B) not to be too low in that case.

In general, as I noted in an earlier post, Hume considers that the “knavery and folly” of humans is such that miracle reports are often likely even where no miracle has occurred. Further, if this is Hume’s claim, it is obviously right, as, indeed, everyone who is not totally credulous will admit. No rational person believes more than a small fraction of the myriad miracle reports that infest historical records and tales. Even some evangelical scholars now doubt some biblical miracle reports (one, Michael Licona, was recently fired for doing so). Clearly, then, miracle reports do frequently arise when no miracle has occurred.

Suppose, though, for the sake of argument, that Hume did not devote enough attention to the possibility that the evidence for a miracle might be very low given that the miracle did not occur. Do we modern-day neo-Humeans have to make that same mistake? No. We can simply revise Hume’s argument to take p(E/~M & B) into due consideration. And we do. Specifically, we can and do address the likelihood that there would be the given testimonial evidence for the resurrection of Jesus even if Jesus did not rise. We can and do judge p(E/~R & B) to not be terribly low—certainly not nearly low enough to counterbalance the very low background probability, p(R/B), that we rationally assign.

So, the above claim that Hume’s miracle argument commits a demonstrable fallacy amounts to nothing. The argument demonstrates only the perennial tendency of Hume’s critics to attribute to him a weaker argument than the one he makes.

bookmark_borderHow Would Jesus Vote? Christian Politics in the State Of Lost Causes

Christianity and many other religions are sometimes described by category, rather than by denomination, as conservative, liberal or cultural. To that, I would add a fourth category: political Christian, i.e. a candidate for public office who feels the need to profess deeply held Christian beliefs.

In my home state of South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley was raised as a Sikh, and became a Christian prior to running for public office. When she first became a gubernatorial candidate, her website said, “I believe in the power and grace of Almighty God.” She later felt the need to change it to “My faith in Christ has a profound impact on my daily life. Being a Christian is not about words, but about living for Christ every day.”

A cynic might say, “Maybe it’s also about winning elections.”

Her predecessor, former governor Mark Sanford, had sex with his “soul mate” in Argentina, which he mistook for the Appalachian Trail. After being caught, he held a press conference in which he apologizedto his spiritual advisor and to people of faith across South Carolina. Implicit in his apology is that people of faith are expected to be more moral than people without faith. What seems clear to me is that politicians who continually proclaim their faith are likely to be more hypocritical than those who don’t.

I watched with some sympathy when Mitt Romney, a Mormon, ran unsuccessfully for president in 2008. My sympathy was not for his political positions, but because surveys showed the main thing atheists like me and Mormons have in common is that a significant number of Americans wouldn’t vote for either of us, no matter how qualified the candidate.

In trying to explain how reasonable Mormonism is, Romney said on the June 5, 2006 Charlie Rose show, “The most unusual thing in my church is that we believe there was once a flood upon the earth, and that a man took a boat and put two of each animal inside the boat, and saved humanity by doing that.” Romney essentially said that his holy book is no more preposterous than the holy books of other candidates. I think he has a point.

Here is a brief history of non-religious freedom in South Carolina. The 1778 State Constitution stated, “That the Christian religion is the true religion” and “The Christian Protestant religion shall be deemed, and is hereby constituted and declared to be, the established religion of this State.” That was updated in 1868 to its present form, “No person shall be eligible to the office of Governor who denies the existence of the Supreme Being.”

Of course, this more “tolerant” version is still unconstitutional, since Article VI of the U.S. Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office. So I assumed this was just an anachronism, and could easily be changed. I was wrong. To challenge this unconstitutional provision, I wound up running in 1990 first as a gubernatorial candidate, and then applying to be a notary public, since atheists were prohibited from holding any public office. It took eight years and a unanimous verdict of the South Carolina Supreme Court to state the obvious, that no religious test for public office may be applied, not even in South Carolina.

While atheists are now eligible for any office in South Carolina, the South Carolina Constitution can only be amended by a referendum in which the majority of voters approve the change. This is not likely to happen any time soon. It took a referendum in 1998 for South Carolina to remove its anti-miscegenation laws from the State Constitution. Even then, 38% of South Carolinians voted against allowing blacks and whites to marry, though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that states could no longer prevent interracial marriage.

My state wasted about $100,000 trying to keep me from becoming a notary public. Most of the political leaders in South Carolina, and the lawyers advising them, knew they wouldn’t prevail legally. Yet, those same politicians showed that they would rather waste time and money on a lost cause than risk the wrath and lose the votes of the state’s well-organized religious right. South Carolina is known as a state that fights lost causes.

I’m planning to cast a write-in vote in the Republican primary for fellow Charlestonian Stephen Colbert. He’s a Christian with a sense of humor about his faith, and he doesn’t use his faith to pander for votes in South Carolina. Please check the presidential scorecard of the Secular Coalition for America.

I wish Romney, Paul, Gingrich, Santorum and Perry would learn that marketing their faith for political gain might just be sending some voters running to support the “none of the above” candidate, Stephen Colbert.

bookmark_borderArgument Against the Resurrection of Jesus – Part 14

The Fourth Gospel plays an important role in determining the probability of the claim that Jesus died on the cross.

Two of the key injuries allegedly inflicted upon Jesus are documented only in the Fourth Gospel:

1. Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed to the cross.

2. Jesus was stabbed in the chest with a spear while on the cross.
None of the Gospels state that Jesus was nailed to the cross when they describe the crucifixion. They just say that Jesus was crucified. Crucifixion does not necessarily involve nailing the victim to a cross. It only requires that the victim be attached somehow to a tree or a stake or a cross.

Only the Fourth Gospel specifically mentions nails in relation to the crucifixion, and the reference occurs not in the crucifixion scenes but in the resurrection scenes where Jesus allegedly appears to his disciples in Jerusalem after the crucifixion.

So, if the Fourth Gospel is historically unreliable in relation to the details of the crucifixion and the details of the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus, then the case for the death of Jesus on the cross is significantly weaker than most Christian believers and Christian apologists think it is.

According to the scholars of the Jesus Seminar, the Fourth Gospel is very unreliable, and there are very few details in this Gospel that are historically true or even probable. The scholars of the Jesus seminar color John 19:26-37 black, meaning: “This information is improbable. It does not fit verifiable evidence; it is largely or entirely fictive.” (The Acts of Jesus, p.37).

The concluding comment on this passage is clear:

Aside from the notice that some of the women were present at the crucifixion in v.25, the Johannine version of Jesus’ death, like other gospel versions, is the product of imagination laced with scriptural allusions. Black is the correct color. (The Acts of Jesus, p. 439).

So, according to the scholars of the Jesus Seminar, the spear-wound incident in the Fourth Gospel is probably fictional rather than historical.

A similar negative verdict is given on the Doubting Thomas story in the Fourth Gospel, which contains the only specific reference to nails in any of the Gospels. John 20:19-29 is colored black by the Jesus Seminar scholars:

Although claims have been made for the Thomas story as an independent tradition, the Fellows were inclined to regard it as a late and fictional tale. (The Acts of Jesus, p.488).

Thus, in the judgment of the Jesus Seminar the passages of the Fourth Gospel that provide important details about the crucifixion that, if true, would make the death of Jesus on the cross probable, are themselves probably fictional. If we follow the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar, then the details and stories of the Fourth Gospel are generally dubious, and the specific passages in the Fourth Gospel that support the above two key claims in support of view that Jesus died on the cross should be rejected as unhistorical.

However, Evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics tend to have a negative view of the Jesus Seminar scholars as being overly skeptical about the historical reliability of the Gospels.

Many Evangelical and Catholic believers think that the Fourth Gospel was written by John the apostle, who they think was an eyewitness to the crucifixion and to the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus to his disciples. So, from their point of view, the above mentioned passages from the Fourth Gospel provide us with eyewitness testimony supporting the two key claims about the wounds inflicted upon Jesus.

Many Evangelical NT scholars, unlike most Evangelical Christian believers and most Christian apologists, do not hold the traditional view that John the apostle is the author of the Fourth Gospel.
Evangelical NT scholar Rodney Whitacre tries to break the bad news to naive Evangelical Christians by putting a positive spin on his more skeptical view of the authorship of the Fourth Gospel:

We will dive in at the deep end with some of the most difficult questions. The answers to these questions will not affect our respect for this material [the Fourth Gospel] as inspired scripture, but they will give us an appreciation for the wondrous complexity of its production, very much analogous to God’s working in the realm of nature.
(John, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, p.13-14)

George Beasley-Murray, another Evangelical NT scholar, also gives his readers a bit of a heads up at the beginning of his introduction to the Fourth gospel:

There was a time when the subject indicated by the above title [‘The Origin of the Fourth Gospel’] would have been considered superfluous; for the tradition was unquestioned that the Gospel was composed by the apostle John on the basis of his own memories, with no other assistance than the prompting of his friends and colleagues to set down in writing his recollections of Jesus. The question of authorship, however, is not so simple; the answer has to take into account evidence relating to other sources of information about Jesus and considerations that arise from the book itself.(John, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 36, 2nd edition, p.xxxv)

In the IVP Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, the Evangelical NT scholar M.M. Thompson, opens the section on the authorship of the Fourth gospel with objections to the traditional view of the authorship of this gospel:

The Gospel itself comes to us anonymously, as do all the Gospels and, in fact, much ancient literature. The title ‘According to John’…is derived from the tradition that the Gospel was written by the apostle John, the son of Zebedee. This tradition has been challenged for the following reasons: (1) The evidence of the earliest sources and church fathers…is deemed ambiguous, inadequate, wrong, legendary or polemical. (2) Those statements within the Gospel which might allude to its authorship…are also ambiguous and perhaps even point away from authorship by one of the Twelve. (3) The content of the Gospel suggests that it was not written by an eyewitness or by one of the twelve disciples of Jesus.
(‘John, Gospel of’, IVP Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, p.369)

After reviewing the relevant evidence, Thompson suggests a fairly skeptical conclusion on the authorship of the Fourth gospel:

A common understanding of the Beloved Disciple is that he is a person who heard and followed Jesus, although he was not one of the Twelve. That there clearly were such persons is obvious from the rest of the NT (Acts 1:21-26). He exercised a role of leadership in one group of early Christian congregations, probably gathering a circle of disciples around him. One (or more) of his disciples wrote the Gospel, but who this author is remains unknown to us. He preserved, shaped and interpreted the witness of his master, the Beloved Disciple, who had in turn interpreted the teaching of the Master himself. (IVP Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, p.370).

Rodney Whitacre rightly shows respect for the views of the great Catholic NT scholar Raymond Brown concerning the authorship and composition/revision history of the Fourth Gospel (see John, IVP NT Commentary, p. 14-27).

Brown initially argued that John the apostle was the ultimate source behind the Fourth Gospel, but that the Gospel went through five stages of development and revision, thus allowing for a good deal of additions and alterations of the original oral traditions/sources. Whitacre notes that Brown later concluded that ‘the Beloved Disciple’ the original source behind this gospel, was not John the apostle. In Brown’s view, the Beloved Disciple was an eyewitness, but was not John the apostle, and was not the author of the Fourth Gospel. The evangelist or author, in Brown’s view, was a prominent preacher in the Johannine community, who used traditions from the Beloved Disciple to formulate his own sermons which he also wrote down, and this document went through editing and revisions, including a final revision that was done by someone other than the evangelist.

Whitacre settles on a more conservative view than Brown, but still does not fully support the naive traditional view:

I will refer to John as the author not in the sense that he necessarily wrote it all as it stands, but in recognition that it is his witness that is presented here and that he at least caused it to be written (21:24). (John, p. 21)

Beasley-Murray, on the other hand, opts for a more thoroughly skeptical view of the authorship of the Fourth gospel:

The Beloved Disciple is not a member of the Twelve, nor a well-known person in the early Church.

The Beloved Disciple is not the author of the Gospel-neither of chaps. 1-20 nor of chap. 21.

He [the Beloved Disciple] is the prime source of the traditions about Jesus in the Johannine circle.

As with the Beloved Disciple, so with the Evangelist [the author of the Gospel]: we do not know his name.(John, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 36, p. lxxiii-lxxiv)

There are, of course, Evangelical NT scholars who still support the traditional view that the apostle John wrote the Fourth Gospel, but skepticism about the traditional view is not limited to the liberal scholars of the Jesus Seminar. Many prominent Evangelical NT scholars also question and sometimes outright reject the traditional view of the author and composition of the Fourth gospel.

INDEX of Argument Against the Resurrection of Jesus posts:

bookmark_borderThe Parsons Test of Biblical Literalism

A number of posts and commentaries recently have argued that even conservative Christian apologists have now largely abandoned the old-fashioned literalist view of scripture. I am still not sure. I don’t know how deep or broad their skepticism is. Hence I offer the following Parsons Test of Biblical Literalism. It is, of course, a completely unscientific test that I made up just for fun. Still, I would be very surprised at many scores of much less than 40 from our evangelical interlocutors. I would also be interested to see how many give low credibility scores to the first eight passages and high ones to the last two. In that case, I would be interested in hearing the reasons for the difference.

INSTRUCTIONS: After each Biblical passage (5 from the OT, 5 from the NT) rate your assessment its degree of certainty or uncertainty of occurrence according to the following scale:

1: Definitely did not happen/Extremely improbable.
2: Somewhat improbable.
3: Maybe happened; maybe not/Can’t say/No opinion.
4: Somewhat probable.
5: Definitely happened/Extremely probable.

1: But the Lord ordained that a great fish should swallow Jonah, and for three days and three nights he remained in its belly (Jonah 1:17).

2: And so the Lord God put the man into a trance, and while he slept, he took one of his ribs and closed the flesh over the place. The Lord God then built up the rib, which he had taken out of the man, into a woman (Genesis 2:21-22).

3: And into the ark with Noah went one pair, male and female, of all beasts, clean and unclean, of birds and of everything that crawls on the ground, two by two, as God had commanded (Genesis 7:8-9).

4: He [Elisha] went up from there to Bethel and as he was on his way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him saying, “Get along with you, bald head, get along.” And he turned round and looked at them and he cursed them in the name of the Lord; and two she-bears came out of a wood and mauled forty two of them (II Kings 2: 23-24).

5: So the sun stood still and the moon halted until a nation had taken vengeance on its enemies…The sun stayed in mid heaven and made no haste to set for almost a whole day (Joshua 10: 13).

6: When he [Jesus] reached the other side, in the country of the Gadarenes, he was met by two men who came out of the tombs; they were possessed by devils, and so violent that no one dared pass that way. “You son of God,” they shouted, “what do you want with us? Have you come here to torment us before our time?” In the distance a large herd of pigs was feeding; and the devils begged him, “if you drive us out, send us into that herd of pigs.” “Begone!” he said. Then they came out and went into the pigs; the whole herd rushed over the edge into the lake, and perished in the water (Matthew 8: 28-32).

7: At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in tow from top to bottom. There was an earthquake, the rocks split and the graves opened, and many of God’s saints were raised from sleep; and coming out of their graves after his resurrection they entered the Holy City, where many saw them (Matthew 27: 51-53).

8: Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him and led them up a high mountain where they were alone; and in their presence he was transfigured; his clothes became dazzling white, with a whiteness no bleacher on earth could equal. Then they saw Elijah and Moses with him, and there they were, conversing with Jesus (Mark 9: 2-4).

9: Early on Sunday morning while it was still dark, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb. She saw that the stone had been moved away from the entrance…(John 20: 1).

10: As they were talking about all of this, there he [Jesus] was standing among them. Startled and terrified, they thought they were seeing a ghost. But he said “Why are you so perturbed? Why do questionings arise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself. Touch me and see; no ghost has flesh and bones as you can see that I have (Luke 24: 36-40).

bookmark_borderDoes Hume Commit a Fallacy?

One respondent to my previous post, “The Gospels and Critical History,” in addition to the usual bluster and bombast, manages to offer a few interesting arguments. He had this to say about Hume’s miracle argument from section 1o of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

“As for Hume’s beautiful argument; it is demonstrably fallacious. Hume had an excuse because probability calculus hadn’t been fully developed in his day, but we now know that what Hume forgot to factor was the probability that if a miraculous event didn’t happen, then we should have the evidence that we do. For example, the report of the winning lottery pick is an extraordinarliy [sic] improbable event, but the improbability that we should hear that number reported if it weren’t really the winning lotto pick is even higher. So, in terms of the resurrection, what is the probability that we would have the evidence of the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples [sic] belief if the resurrection actually didn’t happen? Well, if that improbability is high enough, it outweighs any initial improbability. Why think there is any initial improbability to begin with? If there aren’t any conclusive arguments for atheism (which there aren’t), then an agnostic wouldn’t believe that miracles have a high intrinsic improbability. As for Fogelin’s book, I think he fell very short of refuting Earman’s argument. For example, Fogelin doesn’t interact with at least three fundamental arguments Earman raises: the epistemic significance of multiple witnesses, for example, or Hume’s neglect of the voluminous literature from the deist controversy, or the notorious passage on the Indian prince.

The first of these in particular is of the utmost importance. John DePoe has shown how just 10 witnesses can have the effect of overcoming a prior improbability of a million to one, with a posterior confidence of .9999!”

When you assert that something is “demonstrably fallacious,” it would be helpful to include the demonstration, but I cannot find one here.

Since Hume’s argument is not expressed in the probability calculus, let’s set out a simple Bayesian framework to make things clearer. M is the claim that a given miracle has occurred (the bodily resurrection of Jesus in this instance), T is the assertion that a given body of testimonial evidence exists, and K is the conjoint assertion of all relevant background knowledge. Hence, the probability that M has occurred given T and K [p(M/T&K;)] is given by Bayes’ Theorem (note: I have trouble getting math to properly display in this medium, so please bear with me):

p(T/M&K;) x p(M/K)

p(M/T&K;) = ——————————————–
p(T/M&K;) x p(M/K) + p(T/~M&K;) x p(~M/K)

Now the respondent’s argument is that Hume failed to consider how improbable it must be that we would have all of the evidence for the resurrection—the empty tomb, the postmortem appearances, the disciples’ belief in the resurrection, etc.—if the resurrection did not occur. In other words, Hume allegedly failed to note how small must be the likelihood p(T/~M&K;). If it is extremely unlikely that we would have the testimony for the resurrection if the resurrection did not occur, then this degree of improbability could be great enough to overcome the initially very low initial probability of the miracle—p(M/K).

But Hume explicitly mentions several reasons why we might have the testimony for miracles even if the miracles had not occurred. We today, knowing much more about psychology, can provide many additional reasons. In part II of section X, Hume notes:

“…The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived. And this goes so far, that even those who cannot enjoy this pleasure immediately, nor can believe those miraculous events of which they are informed, yet love to partake the satisfaction at second-hand or by rebound, and place a pride and delight in exciting the admiration of others.

With what greediness are the miraculous accounts of travelers received, their descriptions of sea and land monsters, their relations of wonderful adventures, strange men, and uncouth manners? But if the spirit of religion join itself to the love of wonder, there is an end of common sense; and human testimony, in these circumstances, loses all pretensions to authority. A religionist may be an enthusiast [i.e., a fanatic], and imagine he sees what has no reality; he may know his narrative to be false, and yet persevere in it, with the best intentions in the world for the sake of promoting so holy a cause; or even where this delusion has not place, vanity, excited by so strong a temptation, operates on him more powerfully than on the rest of mankind in any other circumstance, and self-interest with equal force.”

In general, Hume attributes the generation of false testimony for miracle claims to the “knavery and folly” of mankind. In particular he notes, what is simply undeniable, that humans love hearing and passing on tales of the marvelous, and that when the “spirit of religion” synergizes with that natural appetite for the wondrous, then all sorts of wild stories can take wing.

Today we have copious experimental evidence showing just how easily eyewitnesses are misled and how easily false memories are created. It has been repeatedly shown how predispositions bias perceptions, that is, how easily we will “see” what we expect or want to see instead of what is there. We can watch these things as they happen (I have). Experimenters can induce false memories on the spot, and once spurious memories are created, it can be very hard to disabuse people of them. Could testimony about the empty tomb and the postmortem appearances have arisen even if Jesus was not resurrected? Of course it could have, and it does not even take much imagination to see how it might have happened. Could the disciples have come to believe that Jesus was resurrected even if he was not? Of course they could have. And such things happen all the time.

People go on TV claiming to have been abducted by aliens. These reports are often specific about time, place, and circumstance and often include a great deal of detail. I have met people, to all appearances mentally stable, who claim to have seen demons, healing miracles, or Bigfoot (the first was almost certainly a case of hypnopompic hallucination; the second had very likely been misled by a simple magic trick; the third I don’t know). Of the eleven “special witnesses” of the golden plates from which Joseph Smith Jr. supposedly translated the Book of Mormon, eight testified that they had not only seen but handled the plates. Innumerable people have seen ghosts and many famous people, like Hitler, Amelia Earhart, and Elvis, were repeatedly and independently spotted by “eyewitnesses” after their deaths. Detailed, explicit testimony from sane, honest, and intelligent people for miracles, monsters, paranormal happenings, and prodigies of all sorts can be compiled ad nauseam (see the past 35 years of back issues of Skeptical Inquirer). Is there any reason, any reason at all beyond special pleading, for thinking that the followers of Jesus of Nazareth were immune to the sorts of influences that have led untold numbers of people to concoct such reports? I simply defy anyone to show that they were.

Well, why begin with the assumption that miracles are extremely improbable, i.e., why assign p(M/K) such a low order of probability? It is important to remember that in Hume’s day, as in ours, miracle claims are often adduced as part of an apologetic enterprise. Apologetics is generally intended not just an exercise in self-justification for believers, but an attempt to take the battle to unbelievers and to meet them on t
heir own epistemic turf. In that case, if you are trying to show me that a miracle has occurred, you have to address my priors, not yours. If you only meet your own burden of proof, my response will be a shrug and yawn. How low can I reasonably put my priors for the occurrence of an event that I regard as physically impossible, like resurrecting a dead body? Well, pretty much as low as I like. If I want to put it at one in a million, I can put it at one in a million. Show that I can’t. Prove that this would be unreasonable. If you can’t (and you can’t), then that is the burden of proof you have to meet: one in a million.

OK, well can’t the testimony of multiple witnesses overcome even very low initial probabilities, even one in a million? Not necessarily. Depending on the circumstances, 10 alleged witnesses or 500 might not be enough. Indeed, there are circumstances where many witnesses make for poorer, less credible testimony than a single witness. The 19th Century classic by Charles Mackay Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds showed how easily members of groups can reinforce each other’s delusions and credulity. Bandwagon effects most definitely occur in groups and here also psychological experiments have demonstrated how easily and effectively individual perceptions are warped by the perceptions of groups. Mob psychology is a poor basis for miracle claims.

Again, you can watch as these phenomena occur. About twenty years ago a woman in Conyers, Georgia claimed to experience Marian apparitions on the thirteenth of every month. When the thirteenth fell on a Sunday, huge crowds would gather to hear her report of the banal “revelations.” A skeptical friend attended one of these and, as she watched, members of the crowd, playing on each other’s excitement, were testifying that the sun was spinning and dancing in the sky, as was reported at the Fatima Marian apparitions. In the meantime, she had a telescope with a solar filter trained on the sun, demonstrating to anyone who would look that the sun was not dancing or spinning about the sky.

To assure the credibility of multiple alleged witnesses, their independence is a vital condition. We have to be sure that different witnesses did not influence each other and did not come under a common influence, otherwise what looks like many witnesses might really be just one. But even multiple instances of independent testimony might be worthless. Suppose that dozens of reports of independent sightings of the Kardashians start to flow in from shoppers at upscale malls and boutiques. Good evidence that your city is suffering a Kardashian invasion? Not necessarily. Suppose that you know that the Society of Kardashian Impersonators is currently holding a convention in town. In that case, you will rightly dismiss even dozens of independent Kardashian sightings. (BTW, I heard someone say that if the world does end in 2012, at least we will be rid of those goddamned Kardashians)

Further, if there are many independent testimonies, how do we deal with the inevitable differences between them? How different may such testimonies be and still be counted as good evidence? If three witnesses independently say that they saw Smith commit the crime, but Smith’s attorney demonstrates substantial discrepancies in their testimony (One says that Smith had an accomplice; the other two said he acted alone. One says that Smith held a knife; the other two say a gun. And so forth.), shouldn’t this plant a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors?
The upshot is that the conditions under which multiple alleged witnesses constitute good evidence are really quite complex and need to be spelled out in detail. Still, Hume himself recognized the value of multiple independent witnesses who give consistent testimony. He imagines an paradigm case:

“…suppose, all authors, in all languages, agree, that, from the first of January 1600, there was a total darkness over the whole earth for eight days: suppose that the tradition of this extraordinary event is still strong and lively among the people: that all travelers, who return from foreign countries, bring us accounts of the same tradition, without the least variation or contradiction: it is evident that our present philosophers, instead of doubting the fact, ought to receive it as certain…”

Even philosophers, says Hume, should receive consistent reports from so many independent witnesses as true, indeed certain.

Now suppose that we were to suggest to Hume that maybe the Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus approximate this ideal case. I imagine that at first he would raise a quizzical eyebrow, but then relax into a placid smile and mildly remark, “Why, sir, I perceive that you do but jest.”