bookmark_borderWhy God did not raise Jesus from the Dead

The evidence for the claim that Jesus was alive and walking around on the first Easter Sunday is weak. Overall, the evidence indicates that the first post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus probably occurred in Galilee several days after, perhaps several weeks after, the crucifixion of Jesus.
Although there probably were  some sort of ‘resurrection’ experiences or visions or dreams by some of Jesus’ followers, it is difficult to determine what those experiences consisted in based on the skimpy, unreliable, and third or fourth-hand evidence that we possess now.
But we all know that a true resurrection is physically impossible, and thus would require some sort of supernatural intervention into the normal operation of the laws of physics and chemistry.  If God, a being who is omnipotent and omniscient and perfectly good, exists, then the resurrection of Jesus would be possible,  for the laws of physics and chemistry can certainly be overruled by an omnipotent and omniscient being.
The evidence for the existence of God, however, is far from compelling.  But, I like to grant as much as I can to the other side, to see whether such generosity will allow for a strong case to be made for a Christian or religious belief.  If we grant, for the sake of argument, that God exists, would that allow the case for the resurrection of Jesus to be strong and compelling?
An important, but often neglected, aspect of the issue of the resurrection of Jesus is the motivation(s) of God.  We can observe the behavior of human persons, and form hypotheses about their tendencies, habits, goals, and motivations, and then test our hypotheses by making further observations of the person.  If we spend enough time with a person, and if we carefully and thoughtfully observe his/her behavior, it is possible to make some predictions about what that person will or would do in certain circumstances with some degree of probability.
But we cannot observe the behavior of God in this way,  and God, although a person, is clearly not very similar to a human person.  God is omniscient and God is perfectly good, and no human being is omniscient or perfectly good, so we have no actual experiences of such a person to use as the basis for formulating hypotheses about what God will or would be likely to do in certain circumstances.
Nevertheless, since God is by definition both omniscient and perfectly good, this gives us some (admittedly thin) basis for drawing conclusions about how God, if he exists, will or would likely behave.   Apart from some such assumptions, the mere existence of God does little to support the claim that Jesus rose from the dead, or the closely associated claim that God raised Jesus from the dead.  One must establish a likely motive for God to raise Jesus from the dead in orderto use God’s existence as part of the case for Jesus’ resurrection.
Furthermore, one must also be able to disprove or discount any alleged motivations that God might have which would make God opposed to the resurrection of Jesus.   That is where a big problem for Christian believers comes into view.
There are many reasons why an omniscient and perfectly good person would be opposed to the resurrection of Jesus, and thus even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that God exists,  the existence of God can actually be used as an argument AGAINST the alleged resurrection of Jesus.
If you have read some of my posts on Jesus and Jehovah, you can probably guess one of my favorite reasons why I think that God would be opposed to the resurrection of Jesus:
 Jesus was a false prophet because he taught his followers to pray to and worship a false god (i.e. Jehovah).
This one reason, it seems to me, is sufficient to show that the existence of God would be a strong reason for believing that Jesus did NOT rise from the dead.
But there are several other reasons that point in the same direction:

  1. Jesus did not object to the slaughter of men, women, children, and babies by his namesake Joshua.
  2. Jesus did not object to slavery nor to the approval of slavery by Jehovah.
  3. Jesus was a sexist who did not object to the sexist ideas and laws of Jehovah.
  4. Jesus did not advocate logic, critical thinking, careful argumentation, but rather advocated faith over reason.
  5. Jesus was an otherworldly “pie in the sky” thinker, rather than a this-worldly practical-minded thinker.
  6. Jesus believed in and taught that diseases could be healed by faith, and was an advocate of the practice of faith healing.
  7. Jesus believed in and taught the existence of angels and demons and advocated the practice of exorcism.
  8. Jesus believed and taught the doctrine of eternal punishment, and thus he believed that the use of torture can be morally justified and that purely punitive punishment can be morally justified.
  9. Jesus believed and taught that the world was about to end and he discouraged long-range planning.
  10. Jesus believed and taught that the Jews were God’s chosen people, thus putting his stamp of approval on the sociocentric delusions of the Jews.
  11. Jesus was opposed to efforts to violently overthrow or rebel against the Roman oppressors of the Jewish people in Palestine.

In conclusion, an omniscient and perfectly good being would be opposed to the resurrection of Jesus, because the resurrection of Jesus would provide a divine stamp of approval upon:  the worship of a false god,  mass murder, slavery, sexism, cruelty, injustice, irrationality, superstition, sociocenrism, pacifism (i.e. tolerance of oppression) and other evils.
Christian believers are stuck between a rock and a hard place.  If there is no God, then the resurrection of Jesus would be unlikely because true resurrections are contrary to the laws of nature and thus require a supernatural intervention by God or a god-like being.  If there is a God, then the resurrection of Jesus would be unlikely because God, an omniscient and perfectly good person, would be opposed to the resurrection of Jesus.  Either way, the case for the resurrection fails.
 
 

bookmark_borderOn Dealing with Doubt

If you ever spent much time reading Christian apologetics, you’ve probably encountered writings which counsel Christians on “dealing with doubt.” (If you haven’t, do an Internet search on “dealing with doubt” and click on some of the links in the search results to see what I’m talking about.) The assumption seems to be that doubt is either intrinsically bad or, at the very least, potentially dangerous (insofar as it might lead to nonbelief).

I have to confess I find myself slightly amused by the very expression, “dealing with doubt.” As opposed to what? Dealing with evidence? Imagine reading a web page devoted to dealing with evidence that goes like this.

Most freethinkers struggle with evidence at one time or another. Evidence by itself is not unethical but it can be dangerous. It can also be a spur to enormous intellectual growth. It’s what you do with your evidence that matters. Here are seven simple suggestions about how to handle your evidence….

If that strikes you as odd, well, that’s exactly how I feel when I read the words, “dealing with doubt.” It seems to me that any viewpoint which struggles with how to “deal with doubt” is already admitting a defeat of sorts; it comes across as emphasizing the importance of belief over truth.

For example, pick any branch of science which is relatively disconnected from theological issues, such as basic chemistry. It’s my understanding that there is no real doubt among chemists about the periodic table of elements, but let’s assume there were such doubt. If the periodic table of elements were controversial among chemists, it’s difficult to even imagine someone seriously trying to counsel chemists about how to handle their doubts about the periodic table of elements. Rather, chemists would embrace those doubts and try to design experiments to gather further evidence one way or the other.

bookmark_borderThe Atheist named Richard Swinburne

I was reading the Martyrdom of Polycarp recently, which is “the oldest written account of a Christian martyrdom outside the New Testament.” (The Apostolic Fathers, updated edition, edited and revised by Michael Holmes, p.222; hereafter: TAF). Polycarp was killed between 155 and 160 C.E:
The Martyrdom of Polycarp sets out quite clearly both the issue at stake–Lord Christ versus Lord Caesar—and the state’s (as well as the general population’s) view of Christians as disloyal atheists who threatened the well-being of the empire. (TAF, p.222)
Long ago, long before Joseph McCarthy became a senator, long before the John Birch society existed, long before the Boy Scouts were formed, long before the words “one nation under God” were added to the pledge of allegiance, Christians were looked upon as ‘disloyal atheists’.
Polycarp was an elderly bishop of the church of Smyrna, a major seaport in the Roman province of Asia (located on the west coast of Turkey).  He went into hiding, was hunted down, arrested, tried, and was then executed.  His confrontation with the Roman authorities makes reference to the idea that Christians were considered to be atheists:
But as Polycarp entered the stadium, there came a voice from heaven: “Be strong, Polycarp, and act like a man.”  An no one saw the speaker, but those of our people who were present heard the voice.  And then, as he was brought forward, there was a great tumult when they heard that Polycarp had been arrested. Therefore, when he was brought before him, the proconsul asked if he were Polycarp.  And when he confessed that he was, the proconsul tried to persuade him to recant, saying, “Have respect for your age,” and other such things as they are accustomed to say: “Swear by the Genius of Caesar; repent; say, ‘Away with the atheists!’”   So Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd of lawless heathen who were in the stadium, motioned toward them with his hand, and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, “Away with the atheists!”
(TAF, p.233 & 235)
Ever since Polycarp, Christians have been trying to throw the word ‘atheist’ at us “lawless heathen” as an insult, deflecting the application of the word away from themselves.
Now, of course Christians do believe in a god, specifically, they believe in ‘God’, the God of western theism.  The philosopher Richard Swinburne is a Christian, and a fairly traditional one at that, so he too believes in God.  Nevertheless, Christians are atheists, in that they deny the existence of many gods.  Swinburne not only denies the existence of Zeus, Athena, Apollo, Ares, etc., but he also denies the existence of God as conceived of by Thomas Aquinas and other great Christian philosophers.
In The Coherence of Theism, Swinburne attempts to show that the sentence “God exists” makes a logically coherent statement.  In his effort to do this, he sets aside various beliefs about God, and conceptions of God, that he quite rightly rejects as being logically incoherent.
For example, Swinburne rejects that idea of a God who is omnipotent in the sense that ‘God can do anything’.  God cannot make a married bachelor nor can God make a four-sided triangle, according to Swinburne.  So, belief in an ‘omnipotent’ God, where the believer understands this to mean that God can literally do anything, is an incoherent belief which ought to be rejected in Swinburne’s view.  Thus, Swinburne is an atheist, in that he rejects the existence of God, conceived of in terms of that very strong sense of ‘omnipotence’.
Swinburne also rejects the existence of God, where God is conceived of as being omnipotent in the sense that ‘God can do anything that it is logically possible for a person to do’.  It is logically possible for me to divorce my wife, but it is NOT logically possible for God to divorce my wife, at least not until AFTER he marries her (and it is also not clear that that would be possible).  So, no such God exists, according to Swinburne, for the idea of such a being is logically incoherent.  There are things that it is logically possible for some persons to do, that it is not logically possible for God to do (COT, p.154).
More importantly, Swinburne rejects the existence of God, where God is conceived of as being omniscient in the sense that ‘God knows everything that has ever happened and that ever will happen’.  Many people, including many Christian believers, believe in such a God.  But Swinburne asserts that these many devout Christian believers are mistaken, and that there is no such being.
God is a perfectly free person, according to Swinburne, and a perfectly free person cannot know with certainty what actions he/she will choose to do in the future (COT, p. 177).   Perfect knowledge of the future is logically incompatible with perfect freedom; therefore, it is logically impossible for God to both be perfectly free and for God to also have perfect knowledge of the future.
God must either be perfectly free and have imperfect knowledge of the future, or else God has perfect knowledge of the future and does NOT have perfect freedom.  Thus, Christians who believe in a God who is both perfectly free and who has perfect knowledge of the future believe in a God who not only does not exist, but they believe in a God who cannot possibly exist, because they believe in the existence of a being with attributes that are logically contradictory.
Swinburne also denies the existence of God conceived of as a person who exists outside of time, contrary to the view of many Christian theologians:
Most of the great Christian theologians from Augustine to Aquinas taught that God is timeless. (The Coherence of Theism, revised edition, p.223)
Not only is this conception of God impossible to reconcile with the common Christian belief that God interacts with human beings, responding to prayers and requests for forgiveness, but the idea of a person who exists outside of time is logically incoherent (COT, p.228-229).  This idea requires that God observe my actions today simultaneously with observing my actions tomorrow, but that means that today is simultaneous with tomorrow, which is incoherent (COT, p.228). There can be no such being.  Yet many Christians, including many great Christian philosophers and theologians have believed in such a God.
Swinburne believes that God is a source of moral obligations for human beings, but he denies that morality is in general grounded in the commands or will of God (COT, p.210, see also p.203-207).  Yet, many Christian believe that God is the ultimate ground and basis for morality.  Swinburne believes that basic moral principles are necessary truths, truths that would hold whether or not God existed.  Basic moral principles are like basic truths of logic and mathematics.  Such necessary truths exist and are true independently of the existence of God.
Thus, the idea of a God who is the ground of morality is logically incoherent in Swinburne’s view.  Many Christian believers hold the belief that such a deity exists, and Swinburne strongly disagrees.  Not only are these many Christians mistaken in believing that such a God exists, but the God they believe in cannot possibly exist, because the very concept of this God is logically incoherent.
Swinburne rejects the belief that God is immutable, in the strong sense that God never changes in any way.  According to Swinburne “Being perfectly free is incompatible with being immutable in the strong sense.” (COT, p.222).  But Aquinas and other Christian thinkers believe in a God who is, by definition, immutable in this strong sense.  Thus Swinburne rejects belief in the existence of God as conceived of by Thomas Aquinas.  Such a being does not exist, and cannot possibly exist, because the concept of an absolutely unchanging person who is perfectly free contains a logical contradiction.
Finally, although Swinburne believes that there is a sense in which God may be considered to be a ‘necessary being’, he rejects the belief that God is a logically necessary being.  In other words, he rejects the view of some Christian thinkers that the existence of God is a necessary truth. Swinburne argues that God’s existence is a logically contingent fact, not a necessary truth.The idea of a God who has logically necessary existence is incoherent.  The existence of such a God is impossible, logically impossible, according to Swinburne.
So, the next time a Christian tries to throw the word ‘atheist’ at you or other “lawless heathen”, as a term of insult, please remind him or her that one of the leading Christian philosophers of our time is also an ‘atheist’ in that he has strongly rejected belief in God, at least in God as conceived of by many Christian believers.
I agree with Richard Swinburne’s atheism.  I agree with him that many Christians believe in the existence of a god who not only does not exist but who cannot possibly exist, because they believe in a God who has logically contradictory attributes.  There is, however,  at least one point on which I part company with Mr. Swinburne.  I believe that his God, the God that he believes in, does not exist, and I believe that his God is also logically incoherent, that his concept of God contains logical contradictions and thus cannot possibly exist.

bookmark_borderA Simple Post about Transubstantiation

With all the news about the new Pope, I’ve been thinking about the doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants. I do not come from a Catholic background, but one thing I’ve never understood is the doctrine of transubstantiation.
First, other than Catholic tradition or dogma, what reason is there to think the doctrine is actually true?
Second, since Catholics do believe it is true, why don’t they also consider themselves to be practicing cannibalism–the eating of the flesh of another person–every time they eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ? And, even if they have some way to get around the label of cannibalism, from a purely subjective point of view, this doctrine is literally disgusting to me. If I were a Catholic and believed transubstantiation, every time I took the Eucharist I would be grossed out.

bookmark_borderThis Knee Won’t Bow

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Philipians 2:9-11 (NIV)
I don’t think so. Not this knee. This knee will NOT be bowing at “the name of Jesus”.
My knee will remain straight and unbent, because I know and understand “the name of Jesus”. I know what this name means, and so I cannot in good conscience bow my knee to this name.
Jesus is Jehovah to me, and Jehovah is as good and as morally upright as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.  There ain’t no way this knee will bow to Jehovah.  So, since Jehovah is immoral and unjust, and since Jesus is Jehovah, this knee will not bow to Jesus.
One reason why Jesus is Jehovah to me, is that Jesus was named after a bloodthirsty and genocidal murderer: Joshua. Because the parents of the carpenter from Galilee named their son after this ‘hero’ of the Old Testament, I infer that his parents admired this genocidal murderer. Because Jesus never changed or renounced his own name, I infer that Jesus probably also admired this genocidal murderer, and clearly he did not publically condemn the bloody deeds of Joshua.
Joshua claimed to be following the orders of Jehovah in leading the army of Israel to slaughter thousands of innocent men, women, teenagers, young children, babies, pregnant women (including their fetuses), dogs, donkeys, and cattle.
The carpenter from Galilee was in fact, named Joshua, after the ‘great warrior’ of the Old Testament by that name.  Jehovah ordered the brutal slaughter of thousands of innocent men, women, teenagers, young children, babies, etc.  Joshua made sure that the army of Israel carried out this order.  The man we call ‘Jesus’ was actually named ‘Joshua’ after the bloodthirsty genocidal murderer Joshua. So, Jesus is Joshua to me, and Joshua is Jehovah to me, so Jesus is Jehovah to me.
The very name “Jesus” comes from the bloodiest warrior/hero of the Old Testament: Joshua. The name “Jesus” is the English transliteration of the the greek name “Iesous” but the name “Iesous” is translated as “Joshua” in other cases where the founder of Christianity is not who is being referenced (Luke 3:29; Acts 7:45; Heb. 4:8).
The Hebrew name for the warrior “Joshua” was “Yehoshua.” In the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint, the Hebrew name “Yehoshua” (Joshua) was translated as “Iesous” which is the same name used of the son of Mary and Joseph in the Greek New Testament.
Jesus and his parents almost certainly spoke Aramaic rather than Greek, and the Aramaic form of the name of the Old Testament warrior Joshua was “Yeshua”, so Jesus was probably called “Yeshua” by friends and family members.  In other words, his actual name, in English, was: Joshua.
Read the book of Joshua, especially Chapters 6-12. It will probably take an hour or two to read those seven chapters. It is filled with slaughter and the glorification of genocidal violence. Here is just one example from Chapter 6:
Joshua said to the people “Shout! For the LORD has given you the city [Jericho]. The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction. …”
[…]
So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall [around Jericho] fell down flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it. Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.
[…]
They burned down the city, and everything in it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD. (Joshua 6: 16-17, 20-21, & 24)
This genocidal warrior is the person that Mary and Joseph honored by giving his name to their son, the founder of Christianity.
Some believe I will face damnation unless I bow my knee to “the name of Jesus”,  but I’ll be damned if I ever bow my knee to the name of Jesus, because I know that would mean bowing my knee to the name of the genocidal murderer Joshua, and to name of the genocidal god Jehovah who gave Joshua the order to spill the blood of innocent grandparents, women, teenagers, young children, babies, and fetuses.
 

bookmark_borderIs It a Crock to Use Bayes’ Theorem to Measure Evidence about God? Part 2

I want to continue where I left off in part 1 of my response to Metacrock on the use of Bayes’ Theorem (BT) to measure evidence about God.

Here is Metacrock:

Bayes’ theorem was introduced first as an argument against Hume’s argument on miracles, that is to say, a proof of the probability of miracles. The theorem was learned by Richard Price from Bayes papers after the death of the latter, and was first communicated to the Royal society in 1763.[6] The major difference in the version Bayes and Price used and modern (especially skeptical versions) is that Laplace worked out how to introduce differentiation in prior distributions. The original version gave 50-50 probability to the prior distribution.[7] The problem with using principles such as Bayes theorem is that they can’t tell us what we need to know to make the calculations of probability accurate in dealing with issues where our knowledge is fragmentary and sparse. The theorem is good for dealing with concrete things like tests for cancer, developing spam filters, and military applications but not for determining the answer to questions about reality that are philosophical by nature and that would require an understanding of realms beyond, realms of which we know nothing. (Italics are mine.)

1. Again, Metacrock claims that we can’t use BT to measure the probability of God’s existence. Why? Because BT is not good

for determining the answer to questions about reality that are philosophical by nature and that would require an understanding of realms beyond, realms of which we know nothing.

In other words, Metacrock seems to embrace a kind of so-called “skeptical theism,” according to which we don’t have sufficient knowledge in order to measure the probability of certain items of evidence on theism (such as, but not limited to, evil). That position is a double-edged sword, however, for it implies that we also don’t have sufficient knowledge to conclude that certain items of evidence (such as, say, fine-tuning) are more probable on theism than on naturalism.

2. But is Metacrock correct that we cannot use BT to assess the probability of God’s existence? No. As Doug Hubbard writes, “We use probabilistic methods because we lack perfect data, not in spite of lacking it. If we had perfect data, probabilities would not be required.”[1] Furthermore, “It is a fallacy that when a variable is highly uncertain, we need a lot of data to reduce the uncertainty. The fact is that when there is a lot of uncertainty, less data is needed to yield a large reduction in uncertainty.”[2]

Bayes conquered the problem of what level of chance or probability to assign the prior estimate by guessing. This worked because the precept was that future information would come in that would tell him if his guesses were in the ball park or not. Then he could correct them and guess again. As new information came in he would narrow the field to the point where eventually he’s not just in the park but rounding the right base so to speak.

The problem is that doesn’t work as well when no new information comes in, which is what happens when dealing with things beyond human understanding. We don’t have an incoming flood of empirical evidence clarifying the situation with God because God is not the subject of empirical observation.

Again, Metacrock argues that we don’t have empirical evidence about God and, again, Bayesian philosophers of religion (including theists, agnostics, and atheists) must disagree with him. Metacrock needs to study Richard Swinburne’s classic, The Existence of God.[3] Although I disagree with his conclusions, I largely agree with his overall Bayesian approach.

Where we set the prior, which is crucial to the outcome of the whole thing, is always going to be a matter of ideological assumption.

With all due respect to Metacrock, this statement reveals that he simply doesn’t know what he is talking about. He needs to study the philosophy of science and specifically confirmation theory. According to the epistemic interpretation of probability, the probability of a statement is a measure of the probability that a statement is true, given some stock of knowledge.  In other words, epistemic probability measures a person’s degree of belief in a statement, given some body of evidence. The epistemic probability of a statement can vary from person to person and from time to time (based upon what knowledge a given person had at a given time).[4] For example, the epistemic personal probability that a factory worker Joe will get a pay raise might be different for Joe than it is for Joe’s supervisor, due to differences in their knowledge.

When we are comparing two rival explanations or hypotheses (such as theism and naturalism), we can compare their intrinsic epistemic probabilities by considering (1) their modesty and (2) their degree of coherence. Regarding (1), as Paul Draper explains,

The degree of modesty of a hypothesis depends inversely on how much it asserts (that we do not know by rational intuition to be true). Other things being equal, hypotheses that are narrower in scope or less specific assert less and so are more modest than hypotheses that are broader in scope or more specific.[5]

As for (2), I will again quote Draper.

The degree of coherence of a hypothesis depends on how well its parts (i.e. its logical implications) fit together. To the extent that the various claims entailed by a hypothesis support each other (relative only to what we know by rational intuition), the hypothesis is more coherent. To the extent that they count against each other, the hypothesis is less coherent. Hypotheses that postulate objective uniformity are, other things being equal, more coherent than hypotheses that postulate variety, either at a time or over time.[6]

The upshot is that the intrinsic epistemic probability of a hypothesis is entirely objective, not “a matter of ideological assumption” as Metacrock claims.

For example we could put the prior at 50-50 (either God exists or not) and that would yield a high probability of God.[8] Or the atheist can argue that the odds of God are low because God is not given in the sense data, which is in itself is an ideological assumption. It assumes that the only valid form of knowledge is empirical data. It also ignores several sources of empirical data that can be argued as evidence for God (such as the universal nature of mystical experience).[9] It assumes that God can’t be understood as reality based upon other means of deciding such as personal experience or logic, and it assumes the probability of God is low based upon unbelief because the it could just as easily be assumed as high based upon it’s properly basic nature or some form of elegance (parsimony). In other words this is all a matter of how e chooses to see things. Perspective matters. There is no fortress of facts giving the day to atheism, there is only the prior assumptions one chooses to make and the paradigm under which one chooses to operate; that means the perception one chooses to filter the data through.

This is refuted by Draper’s objective criteria explained above. Since metaphysical naturalism and (metaphysical) supernaturalism are equally modest and equally coherent, it follows that they have equal intrinsic epistemic probabilities. Since there are other options besides naturalism and supernaturalism, however, it follows that the intrinsic probabilities of both naturalism and supernaturalism are less than 1/2.[7]

Unlike naturalism and supernaturalism, however, naturalism and theism are not symmetrical claims. Theism entails supernaturalism but is not entailed by it; theism is one of many variants or more specific versions of supernaturalism. Thus, theism is less modest than supernaturalism. Furthermore, theism is not epistemically certain given supernaturalism. So metaphysical naturalism has a higher intrinsic epistemic probability than theism.[8]

Moving on:

Stephen Unwin tries to produce a simple analysis that would prove the ultimate truth of God using Bayes. The calculations he gives for the priors are as such:

Recognition of goodness (D = 10)

Existence of moral evil (D = 0.5)

Existence of natural evil (D = 0.1)

Intra-natural miracles (e.g., a friend recovers from an illness after you have prayed for him) (D = 2)

Extra-natural miracles (e.g., someone who is dead is brought back to life) (D = 1)

Religious experiences (D = 2)[10]

Metacrock’s article reminds me that I need to add Unwin’s book to my list of books to read. Since I haven’t read it, I cannot yet comment on how he justifies these values. I do, however, have one nitpick. Metacrock refers to these values as “priors,” but that is obviously wrong for the simple reason that probability values, regardless of one’s philosophical interpretation of probability, are by definition always real numbers between 0 and 1 inclusive. It would appear that the D values quoted by Metacrock are what is known as “Bayes’ factors.”

This is admittedly subjective, and all one need do is examine it to see this. Why give recognition of moral evil 0.5? If you read C.S. Lewis its obvious if you read B.F. Skinner there’s no such thing. That’s not scientific fact but opinon. [sic]

Misleading. While epistemic final probabilities and estimates of explanatory power are subjective, it doesn’t follow that they are entirely arbitrary in the way that Metacrock suggests.

When NASA does analysis of gas pockets on moons of Jupiter they don’t start out by saying “now let’s discuss the value system that would allow us to posit the existence of gas.” They are dealing with observable things that must be proved regardless of one’s value system. These questions (setting the prior for God) are matters for theology. The existence of moral evil for example this is not a done deal. [sic] This is not a proof or disproof of God. It’s a job for a theologian, not a scientist, to decide why God allows moral evil, or in fact if moral evil exists. These issues are all too touchy to just blithely plug in the conclusions in assessing the prior probability of God. That makes the process of obtaining a probability of God fairly presumptive.

Again, Metacrock seems to assume that theism makes no empirical predictions and, again, Bayesians disagree. To cite just one example of so-called “natural evil,” theism does not predict the observations we do, in fact, make regarding the biological role of pain and pleasure. Those observations are antecedently very much more probable on naturalism than on theism and hence are strong evidence against theism.

Notes

[1] Douglas W. Hubbard, The Failure of Risk Management (New York: Wiley, 2009), kindle reference: 2296. Italics are mine.

[2] Hubbard 2009, Kindle location 3950-1.

[3] Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (2nd ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[4] Brian Skyrms, Choice & Chance: An Introduction to Inductive Logic (4th ed., Belmont: Wadsworth, 2000), 23.

[5] Paul Draper, “A New Theory of Intrinsic Probability,” unpublished manuscript.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Paul Draper, “Theism, Naturalism, and the Burden of Proof,” 2009 Presidential Address to the Society for the Philosophy of Religion.

[8] Ibid.

bookmark_borderIs It a Crock to Use Bayes’ Theorem to Measure Evidence about God? Part 1

Over at the Christian Cadre, “Metacrock” has written a post entitled, “Bayes Theorum [sic] and Probability of God: No Dice!” Metacrock makes a number of points regarding the use of Bayes’ Theorem (BT) with evidence about God’s existence. I want to comment on many of those points.

It is understandable that naturalistic thinkers are uneasy with the concept of miracles.

I think I understand the point that Metacrock is trying to get across, but I disagree with this sentence as written. Metaphysical naturalists are not literally “uneasy” with the concept of miracles any more than they are “uneasy” with, say, the concept that the evil lord Sauron is a threat to Middle Earth. The point is that calling both things concepts means just that: they are concepts. Nothing more, nothing less. Being a “concept” is neutral about whether the concept is about something real (as theists believe God is) or something fictional (which everyone knows Sauron is).

I think the point that Metacrock is trying to make is that, if we define “miracle” as an event which requires a supernatural explanation, then by definition a miracle is logically incompatible with metaphysical naturalism, which denies the existence of all supernatural beings, including God. So naturalists can’t remain naturalists and believe a miracle has occurred. The options seem to be: (1) give up naturalism, (2) deny the event took place at all, or (3) agree the event did take place, but deny it has a supernatural explanation.

So should we all be watchful not to believe too quickly because its easy to get caught up in private reasons and ignore reason itself. Thus has more than one intelligent person been taken by both scams and honest mistakes. By the the same token it is equally a danger that one will remain too long in the skeptical place and become overly committed to doubting everything. From that position the circular reasoning of the naturalist seems so reasonable. There’s never been any proof of miracles before so we can’t accept that there is any now. But that’s only because we keep making the same assumption and thus have always dismissed the evidence that was valid.

I agree with everything Metacrock writes here, with two important exceptions. First, that metaphysical naturalists do, in fact, reason in the way he describes. Second, that metaphysical naturalists rely upon “circular reasoning” to avoid the conclusion that a miracle has occurred. It is true, of course, that some individual metaphysical naturalists have made fallacious inferences about miracles. The same could be said about some individual theists. But so what? Metacrock presents absolutely no evidence to justify the assumption that such individuals are representative of the position they represent. Metacrock is attacking a straw man of his own creation.

At this point most atheists will interject the ECREE issue (or ECREP—extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, or “proof”). That would justify the notion of remaining skeptical about miracle evidence even when its [sic] good.

With all due respect to Metacrock, this statement suggests he does not understand ECREE. As I have explained elsewhere, the best interpretation of ECREE is the Bayesian interpretation. According to BT, the final probability of a hypothesis is determined by two other values: the prior probability of a hypothesis and the hypothesis’s explanatory power. Now explanatory power is, by definition, a measure of how well a hypothesis “predicts” (i.e., make probable) the data.

Metacrock’s statement, “That would justify the notion of remaining skeptical about miracle evidence even when its [sic] good,” is ambiguous. “Good evidence for a miracle” could mean one of two things. First, it could mean the miracle hypothesis has high explanatory power with respect to the relevant data. Second, it could mean that, compared to rival explanations, the miracle hypothesis has the greatest overall balance of prior probability and explanatory power (and so the miracle hypothesis is probably true).

Depending on the miracle claim, metaphysical naturalists may agree with the first interpretation. It may indeed be the case that a particular hypothesis about miracles may have strong explanatory power but such low prior probability that the resulting final probability is low. (In other words, the miracle probably never happened.)

But, as pointed out earlier, as long as a person remains a metaphysical naturalist, the second interpretation is not an option. This seems to be what Metacrock has in mind. But notice that to write as if there is “good” evidence for one or more miracles is to beg the question. In fact, he writes in an unnecessarily partisan manner, as if it were only “atheists” who assign a low prior probability to miracles. That is, of course, false. Many theists can and do assign low prior probabilities to all sorts of miracles, such as miracles which are seen as “competing” with the claims of their own faith tradition or religious community. (For example, orthodox Christians don’t hesitate to assign a low prior probability to the Mormon claim that the angel Moroni revealed the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith on golden tablets.) Even no less an authority than Christian philosopher Stephen T. Davis has written about the “shocking” nature of the Resurrection.

Moving on:

There are many refutations of this phrase, which was popularized by Karl [sic] Sagan. One of the major problems with this idea is that atheists rarely get around to defining “extraordinary” either in terms of the claim [sic]

Irrelevant. The fact that many atheists do not define “extraordinary” does not in any way “refute” ECREE.

(why would belief in God be extraordinary? 90% of humanity believe in some form of God) [1]

Again, with all due respect to Metacrock, this statement shows that Metacrock doesn’t understand ECREE. We don’t determine whether a belief is extraordinary by measuring the percentage of people who hold that belief. Rather, ECREE is epistemic in nature; it has to do with what we would expect to be the case based upon our background knowledge.

The slogan ECREE is usually said to be based upon the Bayes [sic] completeness theorem.

No, this isn’t true. ECREE is often said to be best interpreted by BT, not “Bayes [sic] completeness theorem.”

Sagan popularized the slogan ECREE but the mathematical formula that it is often linked to (but not identical to) was invented by the man whose name it bears, working in the seventeen forties but then he abandoned it, perhaps because mathematicians didn’t like it. It was picked up by the great scientist and atheist Laplace and improved upon.[2] This method affords new atheism the claim of a “scientific/mathematical” procedure that disproves God by demonstrating that God is totally improbable. It is also used to supposedly disprove supernatural effects as well as they are rendered totally improbable.[3]

It is often assumed that the theorem was developed to back up Hume’s argument against miracles. Bayes was trying to argue against Hume and to find a
mathematical way to prove that there must be a first cause to the universe.[4] Mathematicians have disapproved of the theorem for most of its existence. It has been rejected on the grounds that it’s based upon guesswork. It was regarded as a parlor trick until World War II then it was regarded as a useful parlor trick. This explains why it was strangely absent from my younger days and early education as a student of the existence of God. I used to pour through philosophy anthologies with God articles in them and never came across it. It was just part of the discussion on the existence of God until about the year 2000 suddenly it’s all over the net. It’s resurgence is primarily due to it’s use by skeptics in trying to argue that God is improbable. It was not taught in math from the end fo [sic] the war to the early 90s.[5]

There are several problems with this account, but I will mention just the two most important.

First, this history of BT is misleading insofar as it suggests that BT is in doubt. It isn’t. BT follows from the Kolmogorov axioms of the probability calculus. To be sure, there are disagreements over the proper interpretation of probability (such as frequency vs. epistemic), but those issues do nothing to undermine the truth of BT.

Second, if someone read nothing about BT except the paragraphs quoted above, they would get the impression that BT is used solely by atheists and skeptics. That is nonsense! BT is used around the world every day on a variety of statistical problems that have nothing whatsoever to do with God, miracles, or the philosophy of religion. Furthermore, even within the philosophy of religion, it’s not just atheists who employ BT.

To cite the most obvious counter-example, has Metacrock never heard of Richard Swinburne or read any of his numerous books which use BT to defend Christian theism? (See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) Or seen Tim and Lydia McGrew’s impressive use of BT to argue for the Resurrection in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology? (See here.)

Metacrock is simply “barking up the wrong tree” on this one. I cannot think of any way to salvage his point.

(to be continued)

bookmark_borderJohn Loftus’s New Book, Outsider Test for Faith, is Now Out!

John Loftus recently announced the publication of his latest book, The Outsider Test for Faith.

I am massively behind on my list of books to read, so I haven’t read it yet. But I have no doubt it’s a book everyone—theists, agnostics, atheists—interested in the “big questions” should read.

So, if you haven’t yet read it, I encourage you to check it out!

bookmark_borderThe Holy Spirit and the Affect Heuristic

I’ve been re-reading Daniel Kahnman’s wonderful book, Thinking, Fast and Slow and came upon the section in which he discusses the ‘affect heuristic’. The affect heuristic is the notion that people often make decisions based on their feelings or emotions about the topic at hand. It is an example of “substitution”, in which “the answer to an easy question (How do I feel about it?) serves as an answer to a much harder question (What do I think about it?)”. (139)

One of the most famous experiments (by Paul Slovic and colleagues) on the affect heuristic involves surveying subjects’ opinions on various technologies, and asking them to list the risks and benefits associated with each technology. The result was fascinating: they observed a very high negative correlation between the estimates on the level of benefits and the level of risks that they attributed to the technologies. This correlation was even higher when they were under a strict time limit. If they favored a technology, it was given a high rating for benefits and very little accompanying risk. When they disliked a technology, they produced very little benefits and listed a lot of disadvantages. As Kahneman notes, “Because the technologies were lined up neatly from good to bad, no painful tradeoffs needed to be faced.”

Then, subjects were given pamphlets which gave brief arguments in favor of a certain technology. Some pamphlets focused on the benefits, while others focused on the risks. The pamphlets were effective in changing the subjects’ mind, but there was an even more interesting result: subjects who only received evidence relevant to the benefits also revised their beliefs about the risk. The same went for the group which only received evidence regarding the mild nature of the risks, they revised the benefits to be more favorable.

This is an intriguing phenomenon, and it immediately reminded me of discourse about the Holy Spirit’s witness in Christianity. In this video about handling doubt, Dr. William Lane Craig argues that the way he knows Christianity to be true (first and foremost – before any arguments or evidence), is on the witness of the Holy Spirit. He knows this “in his heart”, and it gives him a self-authenticating means of knowing that Christianity is true wholly apart from the evidence.

Of course, this sort of reasoning is troubling for a number of reasons (see the ‘Great Pumpkin Objection’ for one line of objection). However, despite the regular objections to this case for veridical knowledge from the Holy Spirit, this seems to me a clear case of the affect heuristic. Craig is substituting a hard question (Does the evidence support the view that God exists?) with an easy one (How do I feel, in my heart, about the existence of God?).

It’s important to note that this does not seem as simple as wish-fulfillment. Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel has not been shy about his desire for God’s non-existence. He doesn’t “want the world to be like that”. Whether or not this functions as evidence for his atheism is another matter entirely. But this isn’t what Craig, at least not obviously, is doing here. Craig isn’t saying “I want Christianity to be true, so I will believe despite the historical contingency of available evidence”. Instead, Craig is arguing that this self-authenticating witness (his feelings about whether or not God exists) of the Holy Spirit is prior to the available evidence. He’s substituting the easy question for the hard question.

Knowing what we know about the affect heuristic, it seems positively irrational to adopt this sort of view. If the witness of the Holy Spirit presents itself as a sort of feeling (as indicated by “in my heart/soul”), we have serious grounds for wondering about the capability of rationally evaluating the arguments for and against the proposition that Craig feels so strongly toward. In fact, the affect heuristic is probably aggravated in such an emotionally-powerful question like “Does God exist?”.

A final worry that one might have: what could possibly serve as a defeater for the witness of the Holy Spirit? If the witness of the Holy Spirit imparts a feeling of confidence about the proposition “God exists”, then couldn’t a period of doubt be sufficient reason for abandoning belief? If it cannot, then a positive feeling about God’s existence cannot and should not be taken as evidence of God’s existence (let alone be prior to the evidence!).