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Justified Belief

August 30, 2009

By Michael Riggs

Christian theists make the claim that they have the particular knowledge that there is a God.
Atheists (at least of the weak variety, as I myself am) make no claim concerning such a God, neither his existence or nonexistence. Atheism is the state of being without a (positive belief in) God.

Extraordinary claims require special evidence for belief in them to be justified. No special evidence is required for disbelief to be justified.
Conversely…
Ordinary claims require special evidence for disbelief in them to be justified. No special evidence is required for belief to be justified.

And what do we mean by extraordinary? That which violates our lifelong empirical observation of how the world works. Such sensory evidence is ultimately the only source of information that we have. And before my Christian friends inform me that they do not share that ‘presupposition’, read Romans 1.20, which plainly states that sensory observation of the world is on what God will hold the heathen accountable, and that knowledge of God is discernible through such sensory observation.

If I were to inform you that I went to the store and purchased a gallon of milk, the sheer ordinariness of that claim renders you unable to justifiably disbelieve me (without some extenuating evidence). Such claims as these barely even merit investigation because they already fit our justified models of how the world works. You already know that people go to the store and purchase gallons of milk all the time, and even really raising doubt here would probably be absurd.
But if I told you that I hunted unicorns last week and then purchased Russia at the local convenience store, the total extraordinariness of the claim renders you unjustified in believing me without some (very radical and well documented) evidence, as it violates so many of our proven models about the world on so many levels!

Consider if I told you that I telepathically communicate with a man who is really three men, and that he arranged for his own death so that he could bring himself to forgive us for something that our very distant ancestors did? This man also happens to know everything and has the ability to perform any task that is logically possible!
‘But wait!’, the Christian protests, ‘This is a carefully worded caricature of my position!’
Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t, yet my point was to highlight the extraordinariness of the claims made by it, as the Bible itself does:

Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.
-Acts 2.22 NIV
The things that mark an apostle—signs, wonders and miracles—were done among you with great perseverance.
-2 Corinthians 12.12 NIV
And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.
-Mark 16.17-18 NIV
Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
-James 5.14-16 NIV

Belief in the truth of the Bible entails belief in the existence of such miracles, and the very concept of a miracle, sign, or wonder includes the idea of extraordinariness. Even the very idea of the supernatural denotes ‘beyond’ – ‘the ordinary’. These are things that do not occur naturally, and by their very nature would cause us to question our beliefs about reality and what is both possible and impossible. This, indeed, is the very point of the miraculous:

Tongues [the supernatural ability to speak in unknown languages], then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy [meaning instruction from God in this context], however, is for believers, not for unbelievers.
-1 Cor 14.22 NIV
He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.
-John 3.2 NIV
Do not believe me [Jesus] unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.
-John 10.37-38 NIV

The Bible attempts to offer such evidence. It puts forward miracles, signs, and wonders as evidence for it’s veracity. It accepts the burden of proof, which I, likewise, recognize to be upon it (so of course, I find the Christian cessationist position is as unbiblical as it is disingenuous).
Naturalism by its very nature is the belief in the ordinary. Everything invariably works according to rules, and even what we see as extraordinary is really ordinary when we understand the unfailing mechanisms behind it.
It is insufficient for the theist to provide a model of the world in which God, his attributes, miracles, and such are possible. Since the Bible itself claims extraordinariness, special evidence must be rendered to justify belief. Of course, if Christianity is an accurate model of the world, then this should not be a problem according to those last few passages I cited.

Therefore I posit:
Atheistic naturalism is an ordinary claim and (by default) does not require special evidence for belief to be justified.
Theism readily accepts and embraces it’s extraordinary nature and even claims the ultimately extraordinary as it’s proof and therefore requires special evidence for belief to be justified.
The burden of proof is upon the Christian theist to prove his position, not upon the atheistic naturalist who is justified by default.

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108 Comments leave one →
  1. Richard Eis permalink
    August 30, 2009 3:47 pm

    and proper miracles please. None of this Cheesus on toast malarky.

  2. August 30, 2009 4:25 pm

    Mark 16 and James 5 give us good benchmarks for what is supposed to be what we should see from Christians: legitimate, immediate healing (biblical examples include the lame walking, the blind seeing, the dead raised, etc), immunity to poisons and venoms, etc.

    These kinds of miracles could convert nearly every atheist on the planet if it were true.

  3. AdamK permalink
    August 30, 2009 6:33 pm

    Good post. I found it helpful. I was always a little unconfortable with the extraordinary claims/ extraordinary evidence line because I felt it was too subjective. But you’ve filled it out really well. The comparison of extraordinary with supernatural and ordinary with natural was clarifying for me, and the biblical stuff was helpful as well.

    I’ve always subjectively felt atheism to be the null hypothesis and I await any evidence to challenge it. But it’s “how I was brought up,” which christians often cite as a source of their presuppositions, and I didn’t want to adopt the null hypothesis as a presupposition of my own. Now I’m feeling more confident.

  4. AdamK permalink
    August 30, 2009 6:39 pm

    Miracle stories do absolutely nothing for me. So Krishna was born with blue skin, grew up as a cowboy and made love to all the cowgirls at the same time. Meh. Hercules strangled two serpents in his crib. Yeah, so now I believe in Hercules?

    Anecdotes aren’t data, and myths aren’t even anecdotes.

  5. August 30, 2009 6:45 pm

    Right. Stories about miracles aren’t the same thing as the performance of miracles; and I wouldn’t require them if the Christian’s own text didn’t claim them.

    ***

    Yeah, I agree that there could be some subjectivity in what is extraordinary and what isn’t, but as you noted that I noted, the Bible goes on to very helpfully claim it for us, which eliminates the ambiguity. The argument wouldn’t work nearly as well if it didn’t do that.

  6. Ray S. permalink
    August 30, 2009 11:25 pm

    ‘But wait!’, the Christian protests, ‘This is a carefully worded caricature of my position!’

    Sometimes restating things in fresh language helps to clarify. A succinct way of putting it is:

    God sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself.

    Or as I’ve also heard it phrased:

    God had a bad weekend 2000 years ago for your benefit.

  7. August 30, 2009 11:52 pm

    Michael, nice touch. You probably know that empirical studies reveal the irrelevance of religious confession (for practicing confessional Christians, i.e., Presbyterians) for attributions of real life events to God. And religious hypocrisy studies are underway testing preliminary hypotheses that without sufficient psychological priming of some ambient uber-consciousness (God, Government, Mom), religious people test highly ambiguous or hypocritical for moral action compared to the general population. There is something misplaced with “justified belief” in religious convictions under the scalpel of empirical observation. I’m curious, though, whether your own “justified belief” and “burden of proof” tests are coming from a foundationalist perspective, since these terms are usually associated with foundationalism of some sort? In a far more generic version of my question: I consider Sokal a great hero for his hoax, and I wonder just how much theists can even hear the point of your questions?

    Would you still consider religious belief to suffer problems with justification and burdens of proof if you had empirical evidence showing that believers already discount the very same beliefs that they confess? (See just one e.g., Miner, M. H. and McKnight, J. (1999). “Religious Attributions: Situational Factors and Effects on Coping.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 38(2), 274-287 (showing Calvinist orthodox creedal confessional theology produces no net effect among practicing Presbyterians as a population in their attributions to God of natural events). If no, then what do you do with this evidence?

  8. YorkshireSkeptic permalink
    August 31, 2009 8:12 am

    @Ray S.

    ‘God sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself.’

    Succinct and pithy! I’ve heard that way of putting it before but never used it in any discussions on belief/atheism because i was unsure whether all Christians see Christ as a god or just his son?

    I have a feeling i’m getting confused between Judaism and Christianity though…anyone able to clarify my confusion?

  9. YorkshireSkeptic permalink
    August 31, 2009 8:18 am

    @ Adam K.

    ‘Miracle stories do absolutely nothing for me’

    Same here; Just because someone can perform ‘miraculous’ acts does not make them morally superior or ‘right’.

  10. Matt Jordan permalink
    August 31, 2009 8:42 am

    Lots of good stuff here; I don’t have time right now to give a Christian defense against any of these challenges. (New job, new semester; must prioritize.) But here’s a question that seems relevant:

    Recently, some psychologists have argued that human children have a natural tendency to believe in purposiveness, that things exist for a reason. If this is true, I wonder how far it goes in undermining Michael’s confident claim about how “ordinary” a claim atheism is. See

    Two other questions:

    1. What about the enormous amount of work that’s been done in defense of the historicity of the resurrection?

    2. Is anyone reading this thread familiar with Paul Moser’s recent discussions of divine hiddenness? Those are highly relevant to this topic.

    And now I will be totally lame and fail to make any kind of argument at all. I have lecture notes to write.

  11. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 31, 2009 8:56 am

    Welcome, MJ. Your posts are now up. I have it set to moderate all “New” comments. That way, I can watch for spam. But, you are far from spam, my friend. When are you sending me your bio info?

  12. AdamK permalink
    August 31, 2009 9:50 am

    …human children have a natural tendency to believe in purposiveness, that things exist for a reason.

    When I was a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I quit doing that.

  13. AdamK permalink
    August 31, 2009 9:53 am

    What about the enormous amount of work that’s been done in defense of the historicity of the resurrection?

    Enormous amount of work = enormous FAIL.

    Better go back a step and prove that “Jesus of Nazareth” ever existed in the first place.

  14. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 31, 2009 10:01 am

    The enormous fail, Adam, is thinking he might not have existed. We have plenty of proof that He did. Atheists do themselves no favor by taking this line. Nearly every respectable historical scholar, believer or not, accepts the existence of Jesus.

  15. Shannon permalink
    August 31, 2009 10:13 am

    There is, however, a very long way to go from ‘he existed’ to ‘he was precisely as depicted in the Bible as written, including miracles’.

    I’ll be honest – I have no doubt that one preacher among the thousands that existed during the time of Jesus was indeed ‘Jesus’; our scholarship and the scholarship of that age are both at a level that would make that not only possible, but likely. He is as certain as L. Ron Hubbard, in fact.

    The claims that either man healed the sick by touch are likely exceedingly exaggerated, however.

  16. Andrew permalink
    August 31, 2009 10:14 am

    No, we don’t have any proof he existed; what we do have is a lot of arguments over whether he might have existed or not.

    “Proof” would be independent contemporary records or physical evidence, neither of which exists or is likely to be found.

  17. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 31, 2009 10:19 am

    Andrew,
    i would suggest a good book on how history is done to help you on this.

  18. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 31, 2009 10:20 am

    Shannon,
    That’s certainly a reasonable position to take.

  19. AdamK permalink
    August 31, 2009 10:55 am

    “Nearly every respectable historical scholar, believer or not, accepts the existence of Jesus.”

    If you define “respectable” as “not questioning the historicity of Jesus.”

    Andrew is right. The evidence is nowhere near conclusive. It is an empirical question, and has not been answered, and may never be answered from the available historical evidence. The myth theory is plausible and does not, despite your assertions, violate “respectable” historical methodology.

    An honest, non-faith-based answer is “nobody knows.” Sorry if that’s uncomfortable for you.

  20. AdamK permalink
    August 31, 2009 11:07 am

    And note that wise, bearded, peripatetic magicians are “ordinarily” (to use Michael’s well-chosen word) creatures of fiction, myth and legend: Merlin, Dumbledore, Gandalf, Moses, etc. The null hypothesis is that such a character is fictional, and the burden of proof falls where it does.

    There are scores of “messiahs” with a better claim to historicity. Wikipedia has a list, for example:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_Messiah_claimants

  21. Matt Jordan permalink
    August 31, 2009 11:09 am

    Adam, I think it’s fair to ask here if you could cite an example of a reputable and respected historian who takes seriously the claim that there was no such person as Jesus of Nazareth. Better still if you could provide a hint as to what it is that this (or these) scholar has noticed that justifies rejecting what is otherwise an overwhelming scholarly consensus.

    It also seems fair to ask whether you’ve ever read through Jesus Under Fire (linked to above), N. T. Wright’s massive tome The Resurrection of the Son of God, Richard Swinburne’s recent The Resurrection of God Incarnate, or any of the numerous articles and books published on the topic by Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig.

    And it seems fair to ask whether you think we should be agnostics about some, most, or all historical claims, since few if any seem likely to meet the burden of proof you’ve (apparently) established. Perhaps you could say a bit more about how we know when we’re justified in believing a proposition about the past?

  22. Andrew permalink
    August 31, 2009 11:12 am

    I’m well aware of how history is done.

  23. AdamK permalink
    August 31, 2009 11:45 am

    Matt – You want me to do your research for you? Google the “Jesus myth hypothesis” or “Christ myth” and the like. Don’t claim that there is no respectable historical research that takes the other position from yours; that’s just not true. It’s not just an argument from authority; it’s a failed argument from authority.

    You leave yourself an out when you use qualifiers like “respectable” and “reputable” — you can then respond to the other side’s position with “I don’t respect you.” You’ve set up conditions for a future ad hominem.

    I haven’t studied arguments for the historicity of the crucifixion, because I’m not persuaded of the historicity of Jesus, or that there is enough historical source material to decide such questions. (Also, you can’t imagine how boring these weak special-pleadings are to this particular atheist.)

    But even if I concede that some Jesus existed, II don’t consider it important. You need to show that Jesus was other than an ordinary rabbi who went around mouthing the current 1st-century rabbinic philosophy. And you need to do this with at least some objective, historical evidence that wasn’t generated — or falsified — by christians.

    As to the claim that some non-christian historians agree with the christian consensus: don’t you think they might be under a wee bit of political pressure? Like wanting to stay on your list of “respectable, reputable” historians? Maybe it’s easier to concede this moot point, since there is such a marked dearth of evidence, then to fight the christian majority who are so wildly emotionally invested in it.

  24. Andrew permalink
    August 31, 2009 11:50 am

    @Matt:

    The names you mention are apologists and theologians, not historians; their objective is not to contribute to historical knowledge but to argue a specific point of view (and it’s the point of view that they’ve staked their entire faith on; while you can argue whether or not anyone can be reasonably objective, it’s clear that for these people the faith came first, and the historical arguments later).

    As I mentioned in a previous comment, I’ve found that Wright relies far too much on personal incredulity, at least in the articles I’ve read; Craig is another supporter of the intelligent design fraud; I’ve not read anything from Swinburne.

  25. AdamK permalink
    August 31, 2009 11:53 am

    Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig

    …a reputable and respected historian…

    You and I are miles apart, and it’s possible we just may not reach a resolution of this boring dispute in blog comments. Sorry. No hard feelings, okay?

    I just have less than zero “respect” for christian apologetics and its perpetrators.

  26. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 31, 2009 12:20 pm

    There is no such thing has empiricial history.

  27. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 31, 2009 12:26 pm

    Adam,
    The Jesus myth hypothesis is NOT respected among most historians. It just isn’t. And there is a reason for it. It’s BAD history. Allow me to refer you to Skeptic magazine’s article on the “Jesus as a sun-god” controversy.

    You can’t seriously think that a non-Christian historian would bow to political pressure from Christians, especially in Europe, where most of Biblical scholarship takes place?

  28. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 31, 2009 12:27 pm

    Andrew,
    You haven’t read enough of N.T. Wright.

  29. AdamK permalink
    August 31, 2009 12:36 pm

    Jonathan – You’re arguing against the weakest version of the theory. You found something so kooky, it’s obviously easy to argue against it. Good for you. I’m not arguing that every kook is right.

    I note that this is the same mess you cited before. Perhaps you should look elsewhere.

    Earl Doherty makes a better argument. Here’s his summary of his view:

    http://jesuspuzzle.humanists.net/jhcjp.htm

    Note that it’s just a summary, and that he includes extensive links and citations.

    I’m sympathetic that christians HAVE to maintain that despite all the other demigods ever conceived being mythical, THEIR demigod is historical. And that the HAVE to insist that their demigod is UNQUESTIONABLY historical, and jump in with bucketloads of adhominems to DISCREDIT anyone who says differently.

    I’m not even claiming that Jesus is a myth — just that his historicity is questionable, and look how frantic you get.

    Sorry.

  30. AdamK permalink
    August 31, 2009 12:44 pm

    The Jesus myth hypothesis is NOT respected among most historians. It just isn’t.

    You can keep asserting this argument from authority until you turn blue, and it still isn’t going to get any more persuasive. On occasion, “most” historians are wrong and novel historical hypotheses are right. You need to actually address the hypothesis with evidence.

    Is Richard Carrier “respectable”?

    http://www.richardcarrier.info/

  31. AdamK permalink
    August 31, 2009 12:50 pm

    Here’s a Wikipedia page, another place to start looking at the question.

    There’s far more responsible scholarship on the question than you’re admitting. And it doesn’t go away no matter how tightly shut you squeeze your eyes and pretend it isn’t there.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_myth_theory

  32. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 31, 2009 1:12 pm

    I’m not getting frantic because you are raising the question. I’m getting frantic because the question, once considered, is BAD history and it makes me crazy.

  33. Andrew permalink
    August 31, 2009 1:12 pm

    Jon has already expressed dismissal of Carrier in earlier comments, despite the fact that Carrier has a Ph.D in ancient history which is more than most of his pet theologians can claim.

    Carrier comments on Doherty here including some points that Doherty missed, and some points that he got wrong.

  34. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 31, 2009 1:19 pm

    Andrew,
    If you have your pet atheists scholars, I can have my pet theologians. Does it really matter?

    I have read Carrier’s stuff and I don’t find it compeling. I think we have all agreed here that just because you have a PHD in someting, doesn’t mean you have automatic crediblity. If we want to play that game, we can, but the scholars I can list in comparision to Carrier would be a bit too much, I think. Plus, I get annoyed with people like Carrier who claim to have this starling new insights into disproving Christianity. When, much of what he argues was actually written down by the pagan critic, Celsus. A much better and entertaining read.

  35. August 31, 2009 4:49 pm

    Ok, I have 4 things to say:

    1. @Jim
    Yes, I’m a foundationalist empiric.

    On another note, I’m more concerned with whether the claims of scripture can be taken on their own merits then on what believers do with them (except in the case that the scripture claims it will have certain effects on it’s belivers).

    2. @Matt Jordan
    Purpose has absolutely nothing to do with atheism or theism. Purpose is the intended reaction to a given concept that a mind takes. I am an existentialist, not a nihilist, as are many (I suspect most) atheists!

    3. @Matt Jordan
    Historicity of the resurrection? That kind of claim cannot be historically confirmed without accidentally confirming the claims of a hundred other religious stories.
    First there is the ludicrous claim of many eyewitnesses that is simply untrue. You have maybe two testifying eyewitnesses (John and possibly Matthew), both of which were under extreme duress and group suggestion at the time of the supposed events; both offer conflicting accounts of the resurrection differing in major points (Matthew’s double earthquake with an angel descending from the sky to paralyze the guards vs John’s confused women who visit the tomb over a period of three days and not even recognizing Christ, mistaking him for the gardener). Both of these men attempt to narrate parts of the gospel story that they shouldn’t have had knowledge of. On top of that, many of Christ’s supposed miracles would definitely have received historical mention if they happened, such as the feedings of the 5000 and 7000. It said ‘not counting men’. Conservatively guessing one woman and child per man, we are talking about 15k to 21k people wandering around the desert following Jesus’ teachings. That very nearly the entire population of Jerusalem in those days, and yet no one mentions it historically? According to Matthew, many people resurrected with Christ and went into the city and were seen by many, and yet no historian notes it? What about Matthew’s double earthquake? Both were claimed to be ‘severe’ and yet it is not noted by any historian.
    I’ve digressed a bit here, but seriously, there is no decent historicity of the resurrection. The Christian is better off trying to prove the rest first and letting the resurrection fall in as a last part.

    4. As for the historical Christ, I’ll be honest: most atheist literature I’ve read on it was weak and made bad leaps of logic, and all to prove a point we don’t even need to make. The question isn’t whether Christ lived, it’s whether he is God and resurrected from the dead.
    That being said, the Christian literature on it is just about as bad. Craig isn’t nearly as good as his reputation implies, and Wright is decent, but inconclusive. Honestly, I’m agnostic toward the existence of a historical Jesus, but it neither helps nor harms our position either way.

  36. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 31, 2009 5:20 pm

    I would tend to agree with you on Craig, completely disagree with you on Wright. Have you read all three of his work on this subject? Craig is not a full on New testament scholar. In his place, I would recommend the following besides Wright, Richard Bauckham, Bruce Metzger, F.F. Bruce, I. Howard Marshall, D.A. Carson, Ben Witherington, and Gordon Fee.

    From a nonbeliever’s perspetive
    John Dominic Crossan
    EP Sanders
    James Dunn
    Marcus Borg
    Bart Ehrman

    If you are going to engage this question seriously, you have to engage this scholars. Otherwise, there is no way you can that a person can say they have engaged the question in full measure. These are people who ACTUALLY study this stuff for a living and are all respected scholars in their fields.

  37. August 31, 2009 10:39 pm

    First of all, I don’t debate Jesus’ existence. It is stupid.

    Secondly, any attempt in interpreting what is historical and non-historical will involve genre criticism. Therefore, I advise reading What Are The Gospels?: A Comparison With Graeco-roman Biography (Biblical Resource) by Richard A. Burridge. As Burridge says, “Genre is the like a kind of contract between the author and the reader, or between the producers of a programme and the audience, about how they will write or produce something and how you should interpret what they have written. Therefore, it is important that you know what the genre of the thing is before you come to interpret it.”

    Thirdly, any issue of making a huge deal about conflicting reports or any contradictions need to take into account the following. There have been supposed contradictions in twentieth century biographies of Abraham Lincoln. In most of the contradictions were only apparent, but they could be shown to be such only by engaging in a bit of sympathetic harmonization of these accounts. Examples like this demonstrate that a hypercritical historical methodology is just as damaging to good “critical” historiography as is a naively uncritical approach. Furthermore, James Cameron says while working on Titanic he discovered numerous conflicts in the available eyewitness reports about what happened on Titanic’s fateful voyage. Some of the reports were given in court under oath, meaning there was no need to doubt their essential veracity. Yet, as is typical of multiple eyewitness accounts, the reports contained a variety of apparent contradictions. Despite the conflicts in the reports, Cameron reported that he found enough in common among the reports o start reconconstructing he main lines of what really happened.

    Marc Bloch notes that there is a type of similarity/consistency that “discredits” is of course, that which is so similar that one cannot avoid the conclusion one is dealing with “intentional imitation and even forgery.” Any reports that have no significant differences or apparent contradictions naturally raise the suspicion that they are independent of one another. Gilbert Garraghan says in Guide to Historical Method that “almost any critical history that discusses the evidence for important statements will furnish examples of discrepant or contradictory accounts and the attempts which are made to reconcile them.” G. Garraghan, A Guide to Historical Method (New York; Fordham, 1946), 314

    Fourth,
    In relation to eyewitness testimony, trusting testimony is indefensible to historiography. As Richard Bauckham notes on his book, The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, the Greek word for “eyewitness” (autoptai), does not have forensic meaning, and in that sense the English word “eyewitnesses” with its suggestion of a metaphor from the law courts, is a little misleading. The autoptai are simply firsthand observers of those events.

    As Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy note in their book The Jesus Legend: A Case For the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition, Christianity cannot be understood apart from it’s first century Jewish context. Therefore, it is important to mention that the Jewish tradition placed a strong emphasis on eyewitness testimony.

    For example, only by appealing to a credible eyewitness could one certify a claim as factual. One of the primary stipulations of the Sinai Covenant was that bearing false witness was considered to be a major crime (Exod 20:16). The Jewish law of multiple witnesses reflects the life-or-death importance of the command (Deut 17:6-7; Num. 35:30).

    It can also be observed that the emphasis on eyewitness testimony was carried on through the early church. The Sinai teaching that multiple witnesses was retained Mark 14:56,59; John 5:31-32; Heb 10:28) and also used for church discipline (Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor 13:1;1 Tim 5:19). Loveday Alexander, in his book The Preface to Luke’s Gospel offers the translations: “those with personal/firsthand experience; those who know the facts at hand (Bauckham, pg 117). One of the greatest assets of Bauckham’s book is the reminder that ancient historians thought that history had to be written during a time when eyewitnesses were still available to be cross-examined.

    Mike, look forward to seeing you at our resurrection presentation this fall. I know you will enjoy it!
    Eric

  38. Ray S. permalink
    September 1, 2009 12:18 am

    You put a lot more stock in eyewitness testimony than I do.

  39. Richard Eis permalink
    September 1, 2009 3:48 am

    I fail to see why you would need magical powers to appear to be healing people. The tricks for appearing to do so are common knowledge and plentiful nowadays.
    Making a Jesus up, when prophets were 10 a penny anyway at that time seems a bit silly.

  40. September 1, 2009 8:51 pm

    I would generally agree with the substance of your counterpoints except that we are still omitting that the claim we are trying to support is vastly more extraordinary than that of Abe Lincoln. Claims about Lincoln do not strain our credulity and violate our justified models of the world like the claims about Christ do!

    Do you see what I mean?

    Furthermore, we are to accept the biblical accounts with a level of trust, reverence, and response that no one is trying to ask of us concerning Lincoln here.

    The kind of claim is why this testimony is insufficient. As to the claim that Christ existed as a man? I’ve already conceded that it is not necessarily unlikely. The gospel accounts are sufficient for that within reasonable doubt. As for the claim that he resurrected from the dead and is God incarnate? The testimony of one or two biased testifying witnesses that differ on details is insufficient, and greatly so.

    If we really placed such stock unbiasedly in eyewitnesses to miracles, then we’d all be Mormons or accept things like the solar miracle of Fatima.

  41. September 4, 2009 9:13 am

    Hey Mike,

    Thanks for the post.

    I think the point you are trying to make is confused. What you want to say with the claim “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is that theism has a low intrinsic probability. That is to say, there is some internal feature of the hypothesis that makes it unlikely – before any evidence is examined – to be true.

    The reason why this is so is that your conclusion is that the theist bears a stronger burden of proof. However, all burden of proof claims are claims about intrinsic probability. Therefore, if you want to make the claim, you must explain what is the *intrinsic* problem with theism.

    The problem is that what you instead do is base your claim on empirical evidence. But if you bring into question empirical evidence, you are no longer making a burden of proof claim; rather, you are making an argument. Your argument is “The laws of nature are uniform, this means there are only natural causes, which means there is probably no God.” The conclusion of your argument is emphatically *not* that theists have a higher burden of proof: rather, it is that theism is improbable based on some bit of evidence.

    However, this is rather uninteresting as the conclusion of every argument for a certain position is that the other position is improbable. What you are in effect doing would be like if a theist claimed that atheists have a higher burden of proof because the beginning of the universe requires a personal cause. Of course, that’s confused. You are equivocating “this makes your hypothesis have a higher burden of proof” with “this piece of evidence lowers the probability of your hypothesis.”

    So you can either take this to term as an argument, or modify it so it is a claim about intrinsic probability.

    If you do the former, I will argue that uniform laws of nature make more sense if there is a God than if there isn’t. The laws of nature do not help the atheist.

    If you do the latter, the burden of proof is on you to explain what the feature of theism is which makes it intrinsically improbable; I don’t see anything in this post which is helpfully suggestive of something substantial in this direction. That God is something of which we have no prior experience is not interesting. It is only interesting if there is something logically incoherent that there is a disembodied mind: but there isn’t. It isn’t something we’re empirically familiar with, but that doesn’t speak to its logical possibility unless you can establish a necessary connection between bodies and minds, and that is far too bold for the claim to be a successful attack on theism’s intrinsic improbability.

  42. Andrew permalink
    September 4, 2009 9:53 am

    “theism” isn’t really stated clearly enough to assign it a prior probability with any reliability, I would think.

    But we can assign a prior probability to “miracles” (defined as events not consistent with purely naturalistic physical laws) on a purely frequentist basis; many claimed miracles have been investigated, none stand up to serious scrutiny, therefore the prior probability is low and we are entitled to demand overwhelming evidence before accepting them as genuine.

  43. September 4, 2009 9:33 pm

    Philip,

    First, note that I didn’t say ‘require extraordinary evidence’. I’m careful to leave out that problematic adjective there, as it is unnecessary and I’m not convinced it’s accurate.

    You are failing to take into account the implicit claims of Christian theism. As I pointed out above (it was really the main thrust of the article), Christianity *claims* to be extraordinary. It claims to be ‘intrinsically improbable’ by claiming the miraculous, which is , by definition, extraordinary. The mere existence of the supernatural (which is a logical contradiction in and of itself, I would argue) is sufficient to establish that a position bears the burden of proof.

    And the idea of a mind without a body is not only extraordinary but is also absurd. Every scrap of evidence we have demonstrates that thoughts are dependent upon neural processes. I challenge you to give a demonstrable counter-example.

    Finally, your mention of uniformity in nature seems to belie a presuppositionalist thought process. Am I wrong? If you try presuppositionalism on me (especially Von Til and Bahnsen’s variety, then I’ll just belabor Romans 1.20 which is diametrically opposed to such a position.

    Thanks for replying.

  44. September 5, 2009 2:00 am

    The confusion now is about what claims you are saying bear a stonger burden of proof.

    If it’s *miracles* you are saying bear a high burden of proof, then that’s a trivial claim coming from a person who doesn’t believe in God. Of course, miracles will be improbable when there is not only no reason for someone to bring them about, but no person to have a reason who could even *possibly* bring them about.

    In other words, a miracle like the resurrection is improbable on our background evidence only if our background evidence is that there are only natural causes. But it’s not clear why the resurrection would be improbable if 1) There are good reasons to think God exists and 2) God had good reasons to raise Jesus from the dead.

    The miraculous is only intrinsically improbable if you assume that there is no God.

    I understand that in our experience minds are connected with brains, but there is nothing in our experience which suggests that minds are *necessarily* connected with brains. In fact, if minds are capable of influencing brains in the first place (i.e. downward mental causation), then we have good reason to believe that the relation between them is contingent.

    That is to say, if mental states can influence physical states, then nothing at all follows from the fact that God desn’t have a body except that he can’t influence it (since it doesn’t exist). A mind having a body just means it has an area of immediatecontrol. In the case that there is a universe, God will be causally efficient at any point of it, in the same way our minds are capable of determining the movements of our bodies (although the universe is certainly not God’s body).

    So I don’t think there’s any connection between brains and minds which makes theism any less plausible.

    On the laws of nature: of course, it only makes sense for the laws of nature to behave in predictable patterns if there is a cause for why they should do so. On naturalism, it is just a brute fact that there are the laws of nature that there are, and that they continue to behave exactly as they always have.

    But brute facts are a bad thing. We don’t want them in our worldview; brute facts make our worldviews less probable. Theism postulates that there is only one brute fact, viz. God. And God not only created the universe but sustains it in existence, thus providing an explanation for why the laws of nature continue in predictable patterns. Surely that is more reasonable than supposing all of the laws of nature just so happen to be as they are, and continue as such. It is therefore much more to be expected on theism than on atheism.

    So I don’t think there any feasible claims for the intrinsic improbability of miracles or theism here, while we have wound up at a good reason to think that God exists.

  45. Andrew permalink
    September 5, 2009 2:55 am

    In other words, a miracle like the resurrection is improbable on our background evidence only if our background evidence is that there are only natural causes

    Wrong. We can disregard the background evidence entirely and just look at the numbers: number of verifiable miracles = zero, number of claimed miracles = very large, therefore p(miracle) = 0/large = 0. Therefore we are not justified in assigning anything other than a very tiny prior probability to a miracle regardless of what we think our background assumptions ought to be.

  46. Andrew permalink
    September 5, 2009 3:38 am

    I understand that in our experience minds are connected with brains, but there is nothing in our experience which suggests that minds are *necessarily* connected with brains.

    On the contrary, we have overwhelming hard evidence that “minds” only exist in the form of processes operating within physical brains; substance dualism is as dead as geocentrism or the classical four elements, it just hasn’t stopped moving yet. The only forms of dualism not refuted by hard evidence are pretty much wholly vacuous, in that they do not allow any causation occurring in “minds” that is not in itself caused by brain states.

  47. September 5, 2009 5:43 am

    Andrew,

    I don’t think the frequency of miracle claims which haven’t been verified is any reason to think miracles have a low prior probability. I am not in a position to verify many claims of certain sorts, but that doesn’t mean that once I come into contact with detailed evidence for one of them I ought to disregard it.

    However, what about if many miracle claims had been falsified systematically? Three points here.

    First, I don’t think this is the case in the actual world. It simply is not the case that there have been detailed refutations of a large percentage of all the miracle claims in history; rather, most of us are simply at a distance from the evidence, rather than having a refutation of it in hand.

    Second, I think that beyond the fact we don’t have many refutations, and that we are at a distance from the much of the testimony concerning miracles, sometimes there is good positive evidence of miracles occurring in the world: http://tinyurl.com/m6kdax.

    Third, when there are false miracle claims, many times we can identify the cause of those claims and discredit them on that basis. So if there is no reason to accept a miracle claim, and an explanation for why that miracle claim would be made, then we should probably not believe that the miracle happened. Some people use miracle claims to gain power, and other times it is because of trenchant supersition. The more these are absent, however, means the miracle’s prior probability would not be so damaged.

    And those two criteria I spelt out above – the existence of God and his having a reason for performing a miracle – would offset any minimal probability damage some false claims would have on a miracle claim.

    As for minds, there is good evidence from neuroplasticity that mental events can influence brain events unidirectionally. Phenomena such as the placebo effect, and other treatment of disorders like OCD based on mental efforts to reorder brain patterns show a clear ability possessed by minds to intentionally influence brains. Physicalism, eliminativism, and emergentism can’t accomodate such downward mental causation.

  48. Rilke's Granddaughter permalink
    September 5, 2009 11:23 pm

    Philip, I think you read Andrew’s points more carefully. We have zero (0) instances of verified miracles. We have almost innumerable instances of claimed miracles. And we have miracles which inherently contradict each other.

    Similarly, with regard to neural activity; we have no instances of aphysical thought processes, and no instances of ‘thoughts’ affecting physical systems except where those ‘thoughts’ originate in physical systems. We have extensive evidence that changes in the physiological structure of the brain result in changes in basic thought patterns – including, one might note, the acquisition or discontinuation of ‘faith’.

    You seem to be claiming the great negative: since we cannot prove that immaterial ‘souls’ (to use an analogy) don’t exist, we therefore must operate as if they did exist. This is very poor logic indeed.

  49. Rilke's Granddaughter permalink
    September 5, 2009 11:24 pm

    Also, with regard to your ‘miracles’ claim: we have only refuted and unverified miracles. We have no instances of verified miracles. Not one.

  50. Rilke's Granddaughter permalink
    September 5, 2009 11:27 pm

    Basically, theism is implausible on the grounds of lack of evidence and inherent logical contradictions. In so far as any faith makes empirical claims (a world-wide flood in the c. 2000-3000 B.C. timeframe, for instance), all such claims are either unverifiable or refuted (or unexamined, I suppose). If religion wishes to confine itself to deities and theologies which make no empirical claims, then it is, admittedly, unrefutable.

    But inherently meaningless.

  51. Andrew permalink
    September 6, 2009 1:58 pm

    You’re not really helping your case here.

    The fact that a large proportion of miracle claims go uninvestigated does not affect the probability estimate which we calculate from the ones that are investigated. This is obvious from the fact that there are always an unlimited number of uninvestigated claims: the ones that haven’t happened yet.

    The “evidence” given by people like Rutz is always lacking (and usually conveniently inaccessible to investigators).

    Arguing that we can throw out the cases where we know there were false claims is to miss the point; by doing so you’re moving from arguing about the prior probability (which by definition must apply before you look at the evidence) to arguing about the posterior probability of the miracle given the failure of the test for false claims. The point here is that since the prior probability is low, we require highly accurate tests (i.e. overwhelmingly strong evidence) in order to overcome it. If miracles actually did occur, then finding this overwhelming evidence wouldn’t be hard (the classic example is that while miraculous healings are claimed for almost all conditions, the one notable exception is amputation – which is conspicuous by its absence).

    As for minds, there is good evidence from neuroplasticity that mental events can influence brain events unidirectionally. Phenomena such as the placebo effect, and other treatment of disorders like OCD based on mental efforts to reorder brain patterns show a clear ability possessed by minds to intentionally influence brains. Physicalism, eliminativism, and emergentism can’t accomodate such downward mental causation.

    Nonsense; under physicalism this is merely the brain influencing itself, which is no challenge at all.

  52. Andrew permalink
    September 6, 2009 2:00 pm

    (in case it’s not clear, that was a response to Philip)

  53. September 6, 2009 2:02 pm

    Philip,

    You said:
    ‘The miraculous is only intrinsically improbable if you assume that there is no God.’

    Yet, the Bible’s very use of the words ‘signs’, ‘wonders’, and ‘miracles’ implicate the idea of extraordinary phenomena. If the Christian worldview considered these events to be ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’, it would not use language that included the idea of extraordinarity in them. *By definition* the probability of a miracle is extremely low. It denotes an event that has an extremely low probability! This is the scripture’s choice of words to describe these events.

    *Note that I at no point claimed that such miracles cannot happen*. There are valid models of the world in which a ‘god’ could naturally, and logically perform miracles in a limited frame of reference that could be analogous to our universe. What I am claiming is that the Bible attempts to validate it’s extraordinary claims with the empirical prediction of extraordinary events and that these events do not empirically correspond with reality.

    It’s not a matter of what metaphysical model you are using. It’s a matter of whether the empirically testable claims of the bible pan out! Whenever a Christian dies of poisoning (Mark 16), whenever someone fails to be fully healed by the application of the laying on of hands (James 5), whenever we examine the failure of the handful of prophecies that actually attempt to clearly and accurately predict an unlikely, uninfluencable, future event and see that they fail, the failure of the Bible as a tool to give us ‘supernatural’ knowledge about the workings of the world is demonstrated.

    Examine Romans 1, focusing on verse 20. It is through empirical observation of the world that man knows of God, biblically. This passage denies you any recourse to the idea that metaphysical presuppositions carry any weight in this argument.

    Your allegation of brute facts is countered by foundational empiricism. It or skepticism are the only epistemologies that can address reality in a non-circular manner. My adherence to this view is what causes me to speak of ‘justified belief’ rather than ‘absolute truth’. Do not confuse this with skepticism. I am not a metaphysical skeptic.

    Finally, since it runs counter to all of our observations, in order to posit that a mind can exist without a neural substrate, you’d need evidence. I’m not even (at least in this conversation) claiming that minds cannot exist outside of bodies. I’m claiming that your claim can’t be taken seriously without some indication beyond your mere desire to confirm your faith-held beliefs. We posit what we do, because we’ve observed time and time again that damaging a brain equals damaging a mind. We’ve never witnessed a mind operating normally in spite of appropriate neural damage. We observe an augmentation of mental capacity as a child’s brain develops and grows. That’s the foundation of our claims. The foundation of your claim here is nothing more than a desire to defend views that were formed by people who lived long before we had the tools to investigate these matters.

    Out of curiosity, what do you think the relationship between the brain and the mind is then? Do you think that lobotomy victims and those under the influence of psychotropic drugs are actually internally in their ‘right mind’ but simply can’t ‘express’ it? That would be a consequence of your view. What do you think happens when a substance or illness or event of physical exhaustion causes the mind to shut down (that is, in sleep)? How is this accomplished if the mind is independent of the brain? The evidence shows us that minds (that is, series of mental events) only exist while supported by healthy, relatively undamaged neural structures. You must account for this and provide a respectable motive for belief to be taken seriously on this.

  54. September 6, 2009 5:56 pm

    Andrew,

    You have now narrowed your claim from:

    1. The prior probability of any miracle claim is small because out of the number of miracles that have been claim to have occurred, none have been verified.

    to

    2. The prior probability of any miracle claim is small because out of the number of miracles that have been investigated, none have been verified.

    There are a number of problems with 2.

    1) The reason that past miracle claims have turned out to be false are important. You claim this is a claim about posterior probability; I fail to see how it is in the case we are talking about miracle claims *in the past.*

    2 is a claim about past miracle claims; but in the case that we know many of these miracle claims had the accompanying characteristics I mentioned above (superstition, power grab), their unverified nature does nothing to the prior probability of a miracle claim in the present which does not have such characteristics. For why would a past miracle claim made out of a superstitious impulse affect the prior probability of a miracle claim made in the present where such an impulse is completely absent?

    In the case you do want to transfer these considerations to the category of posterior evidence (I tend to think the actual testimony of witnesses is the main content of posterior evidence), then it simply makes the claim that miracles have a low prior improbability out to be trivial. For by putting them in the posterior evidence, the Pr(E/~M) vanishes when such motivations are absent, and a miracle then has a good chance to be the best explanation of certain evidence.

    2) The claim equivocates on the word “verified.” What does it mean to have verified a miracle? The problem here is that a person who investigates a miracle who thinks there is a low prior probability of miracles occurring in the first place will tend to think that miracles have not been verified.

    People who think that the natural world is a closed system, for example, tend to think miracles haven’t happened, even if they collect a lot of testimony from people who claimed to have witnessed one. But this is the trivial claim I said doesn’t matter in the first place. This to say, if God exists, there is no reason that miracles are improbable, and therefore sometimes testimony will be sufficient to verify a miracle. Your claim that there are no verified miracles presupposes that this claim about prior probability is false, and is therefore begging the question.

    Thus, your claim that there are no verified miracles is false for people who think that God exists. In the most recent issue of Philosophia Christi, a journal of philosophy of religion, Gary Habermas provides these examples:

    “After noticing a puzzling lump, a middle-aged man from Michigan visited his doctor. Two separate biopsies confirmed the verdict of a rare, aggressive, and highly lethal cancer. Surgery was needed immediately. Family, friends, and the man’s church set up a prayer chain and started praying vigorously. The operation was performed and the results took several weeks to return from the lab. In spite of the two biopsies, not a single cancer cell was discovered in the tumor! Almost eight years later, no further signs have appeared. The family physician has copies of both the two positive biopsies, as well as the final report of a benign tumor!

    A nurse was diagnosed with a level-four cancer and told that she most likely only had a few months to live. The night before surgery, a group of church elders visited her in the hospital room, placed their hands on her, and prayed passionately. Immediately after the prayer the nurse could no longer feel the main tumor, which was very large. Thinking she just was not touching the right place, she went to sleep. The surgery was performed the next day. However, the chief surgeon later reported that there was no tumor where it was supposed to be, and a four-hour scheduled surgery was over in a very short time. A full seven years later, the cancer has never reappeared. Three of the four major physicians from the surgery, all specialists, confided privately that the case had absolutely no medical explanation, and two put their comments in writing, both using the word “miracle.”

    A very young boy in Florida was diagnosed with leukemia. The night before the first treatment, the elders at his church circled him and prayed for his healing. The next day, a final blood test at the hospital showed no hint of the dreaded disease. The chief physician suspected that an abnormality occurred in the testing, and ordered another blood test a few days later. Again there was no trace of the disease! The fellow is today close to graduating from college and has never had another difficulty since. I have personally interviewed the physician, who freely volunteered all these details, and termed the occurrence a medical miracle.

    Another woman in the northeastern US was also diagnosed with terminal, level-four pancreatic cancer. Her cancer had spread to several other major areas. Her oncologist told her that surgery could not fix the problem. She was told to prepare for what would probably be two to three months to live. I joined those who were praying for her.

    A call a short time later from the woman’s husband indicated that oddly, she had begun to feel much better. At first it was just a few small things, but the good news increased. Upon visiting her oncologist, she was told that these sorts of things happened from time to time. But at her insistence, her physician ordered some tests. After full blood work, a CT scan, and even another biopsy of the tissue, the cancer could not be located. Seven years later, no further problems have developed.”

    Dismissing the claims by Rutz out of hand is not good intellectual posture; he _is_ an investigator, so it makes no sense to say his claims are not available to investigators. His is testimony about miracles that have happened; on your view, either he is lying or in some odd way mistaken about the miracle claims. And this goes further to show how many “verfied miracles” there are depends on the subjective prior probabilities.

    As for physicalism, I understand what its conclusion is. That does not show how it accounts for the evidence. That certain mental states should align perfectly with a series of brain states does not make sense on physicalism. The mental state of trying to reorient a mental disorder only coinciding by chance with the actual brain state of that mental state being reoriented is not a plausible claim.

  55. September 6, 2009 6:10 pm

    Mike,

    It isn’t interesting to me that the definition of a miracle is that it is an extremely improbable event; all that means is that, in light of my claims, that definition is false. The specific language the Bible uses about certain events occurring is similarly irrelevant; that merely means they were awed at what occurred, not that we should consider these things improbable.

    The *reason* a miracle is defined as being improbable is because IF the world were to always go on occurring naturally, that which we term a “miracle” wouldn’t happen. However, this does nothing to the objective probability of miracles in the case that God exists and has a reason to bring about a miracle. You have to explain why a miracle would be improbable if those two conditions held. However, the fact of the matter is that if they do hold, then miracles aren’t improbable.

    On minds:

    1) There is nothing about substance dualism which says that brains cannot influence minds. This is a rather empirical fact, and doesn’t vitiate dualism at all. For humans, bodies can be the medium by which minds are capable of influencing the physical world. It does not follow that the brain should not be able to influence the mind.

    2) I’ve already claimed that it is an equal fact of our experience that minds can influence brain events. There is no reason to think this is not the case. Thus, the intrinsic probability of theism isn’t reduced whatsoever. (Since it shows mental events can supercede physical ones, which shows the existence of mental events qua mental events.)

    For other helpful background considerations, see here: http://tinyurl.com/mqu2f8

  56. September 6, 2009 6:22 pm

    Rilke’s Granddaughter,

    Interestingly enough, Christianity is the only religion in the world which makes empirical claims. It claims that roughly 72 hours after his death, Jesus of Nazareth switched from the state of being dead into a state of active life in a transformed body. Over the course of the next 40 days, he was observed by a host of eyewitnesses, some of whom are named. This, of course, is the event which stampeded Christianity into world history.

    So how do we “verify” the resurrection? As long as there is no natural hypothesis which makes the data probable, and the claim that “God raised Jesus from the dead” makes the data probable, then you ought to affirm the latter hypothesis.

    However, as explained above, whether or not the latter hypothesis is a good one does depend in part on its prior probability. You seem to think there is not good evidence for theism. That will affect the prior probability you assign the Resurrection Hypothesis. In that case, you first should check out the detailed arguments for God’s existence which many philosophers have put forth recently in books like Richard Swinburne’s The Existence of God (2004), The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2009), The Rationality of Theism (2003), or Reasonable Faith (2008).

    Not to mention, philosophers tend to leave out the more basic reasons and experiences we have for believing in God, such as our life of love, friendships, and art, which is meaningful and good. However, all these things turn out to be emphatically meaningless in a naturalstic universe. That makes inherently much less sense than in a picture of the universe where these all hold some sort of *actual* meaning, rather than just being randomly occurring subjective illusions.

  57. September 6, 2009 6:55 pm

    Philip,

    You can’t just play with a definition you don’t like. The Greek words I’m referring to are semeion, teras, and thaumazo. You cannot spin them to mean otherwise than their simple meaning. God himself uses these terms to describe the events in Acts 2. And the issue isn’t ‘improbability’ as much as ‘extraordinarity’. My article didn’t claim that miracles are ‘improbable’ but rather that they extraordinary circumstances, meant to alert the observers that the laws of the universe and logic were being fooled with.

    If your contention is true, then miracles could not serve their biblical purpose of provoking belief in unbelievers.

    Plain and simple, the Bible claims that extraordinary events are proof that it is true, and then we observe that the claimed extraordinary phenomena do not represent reality.

    You analysis of the mind is not parsimonious. Simpler models produce the same results. Occam’s Razor. Give me a single example of any phenomenon that gives us an indication of minds independent of brains.

    I would enjoy discussing Swinburne’s views (I think he caricatures materialism and indulges in category error when defining the relevant features discussed), but this is crossing outside the scope of this article. Perhaps request that Jon start a thread on Mind/body dualism and we can further hash it out there. Acceptable?

  58. Rilke's Granddaughter permalink
    September 6, 2009 6:57 pm

    Actually, Philip, you are incorrect. Many religions other than Christianity make empirical claims; virtually all of them make miracle claims – miracles occuring the present and not merely past historical.

    And your examples are, I’m sorry to say, appear little more than a combination of misdiagnosis and the probability of remission that exists with cancer.

    There have been a number of studies done on the efficacy of prayer; all have returned a negative correlation.

  59. Andrew permalink
    September 6, 2009 7:54 pm

    In the most recent issue of Philosophia Christi, a journal of philosophy of religion, Gary Habermas provides these examples:

    Right, a Christian apologist publishing in a specifically Christian journal not related to the subject matter of his fact claims; this is hardly a reliable source. Does he claim to have engaged any independent investigators?

    When he gets it published in a medical journal (and not one of the joke ones), then we can talk.

    More importantly, cancer is a highly unpredictable disease, and is known to occasionally go into spontaneous remission from essentially all stages and therefore is prime material for false or mistaken miracle claims. In fact it’s pretty much a defining characteristic of claims of medical miracles that they deal only with such conditions; a single properly documented healing of an amputee would be more reliable evidence than all of the claimed resurrections and “miraculous” cancer cures throughout recorded history.

    As for Rutz being an investigator, he’s hardly unbiased in the matter either.

  60. Andrew permalink
    September 6, 2009 7:57 pm

    The *reason* a miracle is defined as being improbable is because IF the world were to always go on occurring naturally, that which we term a “miracle” wouldn’t happen. However, this does nothing to the objective probability of miracles in the case that God exists and has a reason to bring about a miracle. You have to explain why a miracle would be improbable if those two conditions held. However, the fact of the matter is that if they do hold, then miracles aren’t improbable.

    “God exists and has reason to bring about a miracle” is part of the hypothesis, not (validly) part of the evidence or the prior. To smuggle that assumption into the prior is to beg the question.

  61. Andrew permalink
    September 6, 2009 8:20 pm

    2 is a claim about past miracle claims; but in the case that we know many of these miracle claims had the accompanying characteristics I mentioned above (superstition, power grab), their unverified nature does nothing to the prior probability of a miracle claim in the present which does not have such characteristics. For why would a past miracle claim made out of a superstitious impulse affect the prior probability of a miracle claim made in the present where such an impulse is completely absent?

    If you think the “superstitious impulse” is completely absent in the present then you’re not living in the real world, sorry.

    All you have to do is look at the TV psychics, the televangelists exposed as frauds, the whole field of “alternative” medicine, the anti-vaxxers, the New Age movement, etc. etc. ad nauseam.

  62. September 6, 2009 9:28 pm

    Very good points by Andrew and Rilkes.

    Almost every religion in the world makes empirical claims. Mohamed ascending to heaven and the Kaba coming from heaven for the Muslims. Hundreds of miracle claims from the Jews. Claims of healing and miracles from the Hindus. Prophecies from nearly all ancient religions: 2012 apocalypse from the Mayan religion, Ragnorak from the Norse, etc, etc

    Andrew said:
    “God exists and has reason to bring about a miracle” is part of the hypothesis, not (validly) part of the evidence or the prior. To smuggle that assumption into the prior is to beg the question.

    Spot on. Your ‘presuppositions’ are part of your hypothesis. Bear in mind that we atheists aren’t bringing presuppositions outside of yours. We neither posit nor conclude that there is no God, we simply fail to see any evidence.

    And please don’t start on the eyewitnesses thing. Mentioning the name of an eyewitness is hardly worthy of mention. Imagine if the cops interviewed a witness to a murder and the witness claimed that there were dozens who also saw, but then those witnesses were unavailable to testify. They wouldn’t be taken into account! Only John, and maybe Matthew are your testifying witnesses, and even then, both obviously ‘fill in the blanks’ on parts that they couldn’t have seen. Let’s not forget that they contradict each other as well.

    Why aren’t you a Mormon with your thought process? They have 12 testifying eyewitnesses to Joseph Smith’s claims. Personally, I couldn’t care less, because biased eyewitness testimony isn’t sufficient to confirm claims that extraordinary. What about Catholicism? The solar miracle of Fatima was supposedly witnesses by thousands, with newspaper reports and everything, many of the witnesses being doctors and Portuguese officials.

  63. September 6, 2009 9:57 pm

    And what’s this about the idea that meaning and purpose are part of the theistic model and not the the atheistic? I will never understand that misconception.

    I don’t see at all why the existence or nonexistence of a God would matter to that either way.

  64. September 7, 2009 12:01 am

    Andrew,

    The claim is that God’s existence and the existence of positive reasons for him to bring about a certain miracle increases the prior probability that that miracle occurred. Your response is that God’s existence and his reasons are a part of the hypothesis.

    Two things.

    First, God’s reasons are not a part of the hypothesis. The hypothesis is about God’s *actions*, not his reasons. “God raised Jesus from the dead” describes an action of God’s, not his mental content.

    Secondly, I accept that God’s existence is presupposed by the hypothesis. That’s exactly the point. The hypothesis that a miracle has occurred by the hand of God *presupposes* that God exists. _That_ is why his existence matters to the prior probability of miracles! For how could a miracle occur if there was no agent who could possibly bring it about?

    And in the case that the probability of God is close to zero, so the miracle’s probability will similarly be. The whole point is to simply show that the probabilities are interconnected.

    That’s all that needs to be said about that. However, I am glad you also accept the superstition point; I didn’t say such superstition didn’t occur in the present. I emphatically agree that it _does_. I only said it is also relevant to prior probability claims (where there is a lot of superstition, the prior probability is decreased.)

    You indict sources. First of all, Philosophia Christi is not a “Christian” journal, by which I mean it publishes atheists and their responses to theistic arguments.

    Second of all, you clearly do not know Gary Habermas’s backstory: http://www.theopedia.com/Gary_Habermas

    Third of all, I agree that Rutz is extremely biased. As a Christian, he believes the creator of the universe has told him not to lie. That, I believe, definitely affects his reporting.

    Fourth, you can appeal to mystery in all the cases where someone was healed after prayer that you want. But it is terrible for your worldview. It means you have to rely on more and more coincidences. And coincidences are bad things. If a guy hits on your girlfriend at school, and then later you see her wink at him in the hallway, and then you see her car at his house, you ought to think that something is up. But of course she could always say, “Oh that car only looked like mine. And in the hallway my eye had a twitch. And he just happened ot be walking by at that time. And he also just happens to like me a lot.” Coincidences make your view more and more improbable, especially when there is an explanation which could unite all the facts in one fell swoop.

    A guy at my old church named Mike had epilepsy for 15 years, he was prayed for one sunday, and his epilepsy ensuingly disappeared. He eventually got his lisence, which he could not legally have when he was epileptic. But of course, I suppose that’s just a coincidence.

  65. September 7, 2009 12:17 am

    Mike,

    You claim to have backed off thinking improbability is the issue, and have instead claimed that an event being “extaordinary” is a problem. But clearly that’s confused. If a miraculous event can be believed on the evidence that it is true, what does it matter that it is extraordinary? Something being extraordinary just means it’s really cool. That is not interesting as a philosophical claim at all.

    You need an improbability claim for it to be interesting, and for that you will have to respond to how God’s existence and his reasons for brining about a miracle would not, if satisfied, raise the antecedent probability of a miracle’s occurrence. Of course, I think you already accept the point since you nodded at Andrew when he tacitly accepted the point as well.

    Onto theism’s intrinsic probability:

    As long as it is feasible that minds can influence physical events, there is no intrinsic improbability in the theistic hypothesis. I explained what I thought constituted evidence for this, i.e. scientific evidence from the placebo effect and from people trying to rid themselves of OCD through mental effort rather than medication. The placebo effect, as you may know, occurs when a patient receives worse medication, or no medication for an illness, but is still cured of the disease. Or it could manifest itself in the form of extreme confidence in their doctor. Either way, mental events, namely their confidence in their ability to heal, contribute to the healing process. This shows that mental events can influence brains, and that an independent mind is therefore not an intrinsically improbable hypothesis.

  66. September 7, 2009 12:27 am

    Rilke’s Granddaughter,

    By empirical claims made by a religion, I meant one’s central to their veracity. Other religions claim miracles a la carte to their central truths. The resurrection, however, is inextricable from the truth of Christianity. They live and fall together.

    Once again I refer to Swinburne on the claim about studies on prayer: http://users.ox.ac.uk/~orie0087/framesetpdfs.shtml

    I will argue for his reasoning if you take any issue with it.

  67. Andrew permalink
    September 7, 2009 12:04 pm

    First, God’s reasons are not a part of the hypothesis. The hypothesis is about God’s *actions*, not his reasons. “God raised Jesus from the dead” describes an action of God’s, not his mental content.

    Secondly, I accept that God’s existence is presupposed by the hypothesis. That’s exactly the point. The hypothesis that a miracle has occurred by the hand of God *presupposes* that God exists. _That_ is why his existence matters to the prior probability of miracles! For how could a miracle occur if there was no agent who could possibly bring it about?

    And in the case that the probability of God is close to zero, so the miracle’s probability will similarly be. The whole point is to simply show that the probabilities are interconnected.

    You clearly don’t understand the use of Bayesian reasoning in these cases. By insisting on bringing such assumptions into the prior, you’re effectively walling yourself off from anyone who disagrees with you; saying “I can’t talk to you because you don’t accept X”. If you want to actually communicate with someone else, you have to limit the assumptions in the prior to those which are shared by your audience too.

    You indict sources. First of all, Philosophia Christi is not a “Christian” journal, by which I mean it publishes atheists and their responses to theistic arguments.

    It also publishes articles by theists who take out-of-context quotes from atheists in order to support nonsense like ID. As for it not being a Christian journal:

    Philosophia Christi is a peer-reviewed journal published twice a year by the Evangelical Philosophical Society with the support of Biola University as a vehicle for the scholarly discussion of philosophy and philosophical issues in the fields of apologetics, ethics, theology, and religion.

    To be a member of the Evangelical Philosophical Society (EPS), one must agree to the following doctrinal affirmation:

    The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and therefore inerrant in the original manuscripts. God is a Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.

    Biola University is a private Christian university located in Southern California.

    Case closed.

    As for Habermas’ backstory, I’ve heard it before.

    Third of all, I agree that Rutz is extremely biased. As a Christian, he believes the creator of the universe has told him not to lie. That, I believe, definitely affects his reporting.

    Oh please. “Lying for Jesus” has been a widespread practice since the 2nd century or so, and the sordid tales of the modern-day televangelists (including faked miracles) show that it hasn’t died out yet.

    That said, I doubt Rutz (or Habermas) is necessarily lying; the most likely is that they are uncritically accepting the tales they are told without doing a proper assessment of the evidence, and then (especially in Rutz’ case) interpreting the claimed event in the way that most suits them.

    Fourth, you can appeal to mystery in all the cases where someone was healed after prayer that you want. But it is terrible for your worldview. It means you have to rely on more and more coincidences. And coincidences are bad things. If a guy hits on your girlfriend at school, and then later you see her wink at him in the hallway, and then you see her car at his house, you ought to think that something is up. But of course she could always say, “Oh that car only looked like mine. And in the hallway my eye had a twitch. And he just happened ot be walking by at that time. And he also just happens to like me a lot.” Coincidences make your view more and more improbable, especially when there is an explanation which could unite all the facts in one fell swoop.

    Not at all. Firstly, there is no appeal to “coincidence”, just to the well-known fact that cancer occasionally goes into spontaneous remission for reasons that are not yet understood, and that this happens independently of any religious intervention. Combine that with reporting bias: you never hear one word about the hundreds of thousands of people with cancer who get prayed for in exactly the same way, but who don’t get their “miraculous” cure and have to work their way through the normal treatment process instead (or die); those cases of spontaneous remission which weren’t prayed for might appear in the medical journals, but usually don’t attract much attention elsewhere. So the results are absolutely no surprise (low-probability event + large number of trials + hugely strong reporting bias = many reports) and no appeal to “coincidence” is needed.

    Plus, postulating a miracle does not even come close to “uniting all the facts”; it leaves unexplained the vast numbers of missing miracles: all those people prayed for who didn’t get healed; all those people with conditions that aren’t subject to spontaneous remission, for which no miraculous healing has ever happened; and so on.

    A guy at my old church named Mike had epilepsy for 15 years, he was prayed for one sunday, and his epilepsy ensuingly disappeared. He eventually got his lisence, which he could not legally have when he was epileptic. But of course, I suppose that’s just a coincidence.

    When was his last seizure relative to the prayer incident? Was he being treated conventionally? How old was he? (“Epilepsy” isn’t a single condition but a large number of similar ones with different causes and prognosis; not all are permanent.)

    (In both the UK and the US, epileptics are allowed licenses to drive under certain conditions generally based on time since last seizure (often with different rules for nighttime-only seizures) and time since last change of medication status.)

  68. September 7, 2009 12:32 pm

    First of all in your response to Andrew you continue to ignore that were not claiming that miracles *cannot* happen. We’re claiming that they have not happened in any verifiable setting, and no your anecdotal evidence doesn’t count anymore than anyone else’s anecdotal evidence!
    I would be more than happy to see a situation where we set up a series of double blind tests to verify the miraculous claims of the Bible with clear positive and negative criteria. Again, anecdotal evidence is completely insufficient for this. What about the anecdotal claims of all of your theistic competition? Should we believe that your friend was magically healed but then reject an equally valid (or rather invalid) claim from a new age healer?
    ____

    ‘Backed off’? Reread my article. ‘Extraordinary’ was my terminology all along. The idea of probability was what you brought in, not me. I never even used the word in my article. I find it a bit dishonest that you are attempting o paint this as if I’ve conceded something here.

    You said:
    ‘If a miraculous event can be believed on the evidence that it is true, what does it matter that it is extraordinary? Something being extraordinary just means it’s really cool. That is not interesting as a philosophical claim at all.’

    Bingo. The fact that something is extraordinary does not mean it is untrue, and I suspect that is one of the points where you missed the entire point behind my article. Take Einstein’s general relativity. That was an extraordinary claim, but then, through evidence it was demonstrated to be true. In 1900, if some guy said ‘Hey I think space and time are the same general thing!’, you would be justified in disbelieving his extraordinary claim. It was the *evidence* that later empirical studies *demonstrated* that made the claim justifiable.

    Reread this from my article above:
    ‘Extraordinary claims require special evidence for belief in them to be justified. No special evidence is required for disbelief to be justified.
    Conversely…
    Ordinary claims require special evidence for disbelief in them to be justified. No special evidence is required for belief to be justified.’

    At no time here yet did I claim that anything was true or untrue, merely that the more outside-of-what-we’ve-ever-witnessed-before claims need to have evidence to be justified. I don’t think you’ve grasped the ides presented in this discussion.
    ____

    On minds, you are ignoring the fact that the thoughts you claim have already been demonstrated to be the *products of the brain itself*. You have created a regress that makes no sense.

    Please respond to my prior objections:
    ‘If your contention is true, then miracles could not serve their biblical purpose of provoking belief in unbelievers.’
    Your response?

    And on why you aren’t a Mormon as they have between 6 to 12 times the testifying eyewitness that orthodox Christianity has?

  69. Andrew permalink
    September 7, 2009 12:39 pm

    Arguing that the fact that mental events can influence brains is evidence for dualism is to miss the point; physicalism has a better explanation for that, which is that mental events are physical events, and therefore no new entities or causal mechanisms need to be introduced in order to explain them.

    To claim evidence for dualism you need to find evidence which is inconsistent with physicalism.

  70. September 7, 2009 12:51 pm

    And, Philip, before you ask Andrew why physicalism gets the ‘default’ status it does, it’s because it’s more parsimonious. Again Occam’s Razor. Your mystic explanation posits unnecessary entities, and the only way, therefore, to combat our claim here is to show that our model doesn’t actually work.

  71. Andrew permalink
    September 7, 2009 1:04 pm

    While it’s true that physicalism is more parsimonious, it’s also true that we’re increasingly building up evidence that is actively inconsistent with substance dualism (such as the time lag between physical and mental perception of decision-making – the physical events come first).

    For theists, probably the biggest obstacle is that we now know that physical effects in the brain can turn a saint into a sinner or vice-versa. How can that be made consistent with the usual Christian concepts of free will and responsibility? How can a God who wants moral behaviour from his followers justify inflicting them with, for example, brain tumours which make them physically unable to behave morally?

  72. September 7, 2009 1:15 pm

    “such as the time lag between physical and mental perception of decision-making – the physical events come first.”

    Quite right. It seems that action potentials for motor planning precede cognitive awareness of the decision to move.

  73. September 7, 2009 1:24 pm

    The lag with the neural events’ precursors happening first, that’s a great point here. It didn’t even occur to me to bring that up.

    By far the best Christian systems don’t espouse freewill at all. Calvinism is directly scriptural and solves so many problems (except the problem of evil, which it makes infinitely worse). I believe that Jon and Cruz are both staunch Calvinists.

    Check this passage out:

    Romans 9.10 Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. 11 Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: 12 not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

    14 What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15 For he says to Moses,
    “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
    and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

    19 One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ ” 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?

    And of course, when Christians show you the freewill passages in rebuttal, remind them that solving biblical contradictions isn’t our job. Pointing them out is. Thank them for the assistance.

  74. chab123 permalink
    September 8, 2009 9:12 pm

    Mike,

    There is no need for me to comment on your comments about biased testimony. I have answered that one in the past. Not to be arrogant, but I long for the day when I see a much more careful analysis of how eyewitness testimony works in historiography (especially in the first century). But who cares, right?

    If extraordinary=miraculous, it would lead to an infinite regress. In other words, if the theist kept providing miraculous evidence, the objector would keep asking for miraculous evidence. It would go on and on. If an “extraordinary claim” means something that is non-natural, than it must be shown that natural laws are immutable. However, natural laws are not immutable because they are descriptions of what happens, not prescriptions of what must happen. Natural laws don’t cause anything, they only describe what happens in nature.

    It would also help in discussions like these if we would examine each claim in its own historical and theological context. Is the Christian claim about Jesus rose the same as believing in unicorns? I don’t have any background evidence for unicorns. In other words, I really don’t have any kind of theistic or historical context in evaluating an extraordinary claim such as the existence of unicorns. And in relation to Mormonism there is a major difference between the eleven witnesses to the gold plates and the apostles of Jesus. While six of the eleven witnesses left the Mormon Church, we have no record of the apostles of Jesus (Paul, James and John, others) even leaving the early Christian movement. Furthermore, in the case of Joseph Smith, even though they may have been eyewitnesses to the plates, this does not mean the plates contain the revealed truth of God.

    Does the resurrection of Jesus requires extraordinary evidence? Unfortunately, this can cut both ways. One must explain how naturalistic theories that have been presented throughout the centuries have better explanatory power for 1. Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimatha. 2. The discovery of Jesus’ tomb. 3. The postmortem appearances. 4. The origin of the disciple’s belief in Jesus resurrection. 5. A high Christology in a very short time period after Jesus’ resurrection. What not must not be forgotten is that the Jews were resistant to Hellenism and paganism. There are references to the negative views of gentile polytheism (Acts 17: 22-23; 1 Cor 8:5). In other words, to try to claim that the Jewish believers laid aside their monotheism in order to reach a Gentile audience is problematic. They regard Gentiles as sinners (Gal 2:5) and idolaters (Rom 1:23). The attempt to show that the early believers tried to make Jesus into another Greek god is problematic.

    You say: Such sensory evidence is ultimately the only source of information that we have.
    Are you defining “extraordinary” as something that is non-empirical? If so, strict empiricism is self-defeating. If I accepted the statement “I only believe what I can see,” I would not be able to accept the statement itself, because the belief is not visible- it can’t be seen. Furthermore, there are several nonempirical things exist that can’t be seen such as aesthetic beauty, normative judgments, the laws of logic, theories (which start as mental entities in people’s minds) and so forth. I can perceive realities other than by sensory experience such as inference and intuition. Also, my own feelings, thoughts, etc… are not known by using my senses. I have yet to see a feeling or thought. That is why these things are understood by first person introspection-not by the five senses.

    Also, any attempt to make God into a material object which must be verified with the five senses is a category mistake.

    That will be it for a while,
    Eric

  75. September 8, 2009 9:27 pm

    Just so we are clear on the path of conversation, I take our issues to be 1) the prior probability of miracles, 2) the evidence that miracles provide for theism, and 3) the intrinsic probability of theism.

    First to Andrew.

    1)

    You claim that incorporating the probability that God exists (among other things) into the prior probability of a claim that a miracle has occurred makes the probability subjective. All I can say is, tu quoque! *Of course* it makes the probability subjective. This means that you can’t communicate with *me* either, since you think the probability that God exists is low (I assume). So why would any probability that you calculate based on *your* assumption of that low probability make any difference to me? I disagree with you about a fundamental aspect of the calculation!

    This is, of course, what I have been saying the entire time. Your claim that miracles are improbable *must be* predicated on this assumption. But that makes the claim that miracles are improbable trivial. In fact, for those who disagree with your assumption, it makes it totally irrelevant.

    2) Here you claim that Pr(h/k) is high. Why? You need to do more than make a general appeal to frequency. I understand it being somewhat rational to think that cancer fluctuates between stages, often going into remission, etc. The instability of cancer in this manner is generally uninteresting I suppose.

    But for cancer in a lethal stage to vanish entirely cries out for a chemical explanation. There must be some state of affairs, and a set of accompanying natural causes, which explains why ensuing states of affairs would see the wiping out of a large tumor.

    Unless you can explain what this is, then your appeal to Pr(e/k) being high is begging the question. You are merely restating that such things *do* happen, and therefore they can happen without God. But there mere frequency of an event doesn’t establish that it is possible on naturalism, unless you assume naturalism is true and so there _must_ be some explanation for how such things happen.

    The man was being treated, and was in his 30s. I don’t know when his last seizure was.

    Habermas was only providing a few samples which will be in a new book of his; furthermore, saying he accepted the stories uncritically is a bit odd when you remember he was a participant in one of the stories.

    3) Mental events are not physical events. These are starting facts in our conversation about the matter. The thought “I am late for class” may be *caused* by a physical event, but it is not itself a physical event. The same goes for pains, emotions, volitions, thoughts, intentions, etc. Tell me, how much does the thought “I am late for class” weigh?

    The identification of a “choice” ready to be made circa 350 milliseconds prior to the act itself does not pose a problem to mental causation because the choices can also be seen to diappear. This actually reinforces that the choice is a separate event, and mental events can therefore explain why some are rejected. A useful analogy would be a president who is free to veto legislation put on his desk.

    So there is still no problem in concluding that theism has any lower prior improbability on account of its postulating a disembodied mind.

  76. September 8, 2009 10:30 pm

    Mike,

    1) On September 4th you said: “It claims to be ‘intrinsically improbable’ by claiming the miraculous, which is , by definition, extraordinary.”

    Therefore I was not being dishonest when you decided that improbability was no longer the issue.

    Here is where we currently are: either your claim is irrelevant, or we are talking about improbability. For of course it is an *extraordinary* thing that I am alive; but the probability of it is 1. Some extraordinary claims are, of course, untrue; but they are never untrue *in virtue of* being extaordinary. An extraordinary (read: something really cool) claim might be true or might not be true. It being extaordinary does not tell you either way.

    If you want to say that things which are extraordinary are improbable, that’s entirely fine. But then you need to respond to what I’ve said above about relevant considerations to prior probability.

    Your claim about Einstein is helpful; the reason someone would have been unjustified in believing his theory prima facie is emphatically *not* because it was really cool. It was because it had no evidential support. Once evidential support comes in, then we are justified in believing in it, and it being extraordinary simply reveals itsef to not be a relevant feature of belief at all.

    Of course, the claim that we simply need more posterior evidence for Christianity could be the claim that Pr(e/~h &k) is high. But I think what you’ve been saying is more plausibly interpreted as being that Pr(h/k) is low. If it’s not either of these, then my beliefs will still be true (since you aren’t telling me the probability of my beliefs is any lower than I originally thought), and you will have informed me that they are also really cool.

    2) Of course, whenever something happens which naturalism cannot make sense of, and theism can make sense of it, it is evidence for theism. Where is the problem.

    Mormonism suffers from coherence claims (God is a physical being on another planet), and a lack of evidence. It is extremely important for Christianity that Jesus comes in a context in which he ties off hundreds of threads from a pre-existing theological tradition. Lots of overall considerations confirm Christianity in a way that they do not do so for Mormonism.

    3) Allow me to point out here that all I need is the possibility that mental events can influence physical events. That would show that mental events can be independent of physical events, and therefore that theism postulates nothing with any starting difficulties.

  77. September 8, 2009 10:35 pm

    By the way, my conclusion to Andrew is of course that theism does _not_ have any lower prior probability on account of postulating a disembodied mind.

  78. September 9, 2009 12:33 am

    I’m sorry, Andrew. On point 2 your claim is that Pr(e/~h & k) is high, not that Pr(h/k) is high, which would make no sense. I wrote those responses with some quite unruly distractions in the vicinity.

  79. Andrew permalink
    September 9, 2009 12:26 pm

    You claim that incorporating the probability that God exists (among other things) into the prior probability of a claim that a miracle has occurred makes the probability subjective. All I can say is, tu quoque! *Of course* it makes the probability subjective. This means that you can’t communicate with *me* either, since you think the probability that God exists is low (I assume). So why would any probability that you calculate based on *your* assumption of that low probability make any difference to me? I disagree with you about a fundamental aspect of the calculation!

    The issue isn’t symmetrical. Firstly, having a low prior probability doesn’t amount to uncritically rejecting the hypothesis, since the prior can always be overcome by the evidence. On the other hand, assigning a high prior probability amounts to accepting the hypothesis with no evidence at all.

    Secondly, the only facts you can legitimately put into the background of the prior are those that are more or less universally accepted; the stuff we’re disagreeing about goes into the hypothesis, and only there.

    2) Here you claim that [ Pr(e | ~h & k) –corrected] is high. Why? You need to do more than make a general appeal to frequency. I understand it being somewhat rational to think that cancer fluctuates between stages, often going into remission, etc. The instability of cancer in this manner is generally uninteresting I suppose.

    But for cancer in a lethal stage to vanish entirely cries out for a chemical explanation. There must be some state of affairs, and a set of accompanying natural causes, which explains why ensuing states of affairs would see the wiping out of a large tumor.

    1. Cancer in all stages is known to undergo spontaneous remission for reasons which are not currently known; it’s an unpredictable disease, and is the subject of a very large amount of ongoing research. If we knew the biological causes of spontaneous remission you can bet your life (and a lot of other people’s) that it would lead to vast improvements in treatment methods. However, spontaneous remission is naturally very hard to study, not least because of the ethical considerations.

    2. Spontaneous remission in late-stage cancers is of course exceedingly rare; but it’s far from unknown. But we can’t simply say that Pr(e | ~h&k) is equal to the spontaneous remission rate; if we did, we’d be ignoring key elements of the hypothesis, which is not merely that the claimed miracle occurred, but also that we heard about it. Reporting bias affects both Pr(e | h&k) and Pr(e | ~h&k) in the following ways: firstly, we don’t hear about cases where someone was prayed for but failed to recover miraculously; the existence of these cases depresses Pr(e | h&k), since they are part of the evidence (e) but not explained by (h); secondly, we are vastly more likely to hear about a case of spontaneous remission simply because it is such a rare event, and we’re also vastly more likely to hear about it if it is attributed as a “miracle” since that provides a social context in which the story will spread widely and come to the attention of people with a powerful motive to report it; this hugely increases Pr(e | ~h&k).

    To put some numbers on it: suppose spontaneous remission from late-stage terminal cancer is a literal one-in-a-million shot (that estimate may be conservative). That means that in the US, we’ll see about 5 such cases per decade. I estimate probably even odds (due to small-world effects) of any of those cases attracting the attention of miracle collectors like Rutz or Habermas if they occurred in a suitable context (i.e. a church even slightly open to the concept of praying for healing); so if only 1 in 3 to 1 in 5 cases matched the context, we’d expect to see about one report per decade or two in the US alone (but notice that if our original assumption was wrong and it’s a one-in-a-hundred-thousand shot, we’d be talking 5-10 reports per decade instead). (Did Habermas put dates on his reported cases? It’s all very well to trot out a list of case reports, but with no specification of the time frame, this can be very deceptive regarding the rate.)

    So the probability of “Habermas will be able to cite examples of late-stage cancer recovery after prayer” given the negative hypothesis “miracles do not occur” is clearly not at all low.

    (Obviously spontaneous remission is much more common in early stages, so we expect to see more of those, but given reporting bias, possibly not as many more reports, since the late-stage ones are so much more notable.)

    As for whether we are justified in claiming that spontaneous remission occurs purely naturalistically: (1) that’s the null hypothesis, and therefore the burden is on theistic-miracle claimants to show that remission occurs more often in people prayed for than in random unbelievers; (2) we have good theoretical reasons to expect natural spontaneous remission, since cancer involves complex interactions between the cancer cells and the immune system, and complex biochemistry within the cancer cells themselves; these things are very incompletely understood (and hence are the subjects of much research), but the effects of remission seen are not outside the theoretically possible range; (3) for conditions (such as amputation) where we do have good theoretical grounds to expect that natural cures are impossible, we also find that “miraculous” cures don’t happen either.

  80. Andrew permalink
    September 9, 2009 12:42 pm

    Is the Christian claim about Jesus rose the same as believing in unicorns? I don’t have any background evidence for unicorns. In other words, I really don’t have any kind of theistic or historical context in evaluating an extraordinary claim such as the existence of unicorns.

    Other than the fact that unicorns are biblical too? (at least if you believe the KJV)

  81. Andrew permalink
    September 9, 2009 2:05 pm

    Mental events are not physical events.

    That remains to be shown; it’s not something you can take for granted.

    These are starting facts in our conversation about the matter. The thought “I am late for class” may be *caused* by a physical event, but it is not itself a physical event. The same goes for pains, emotions, volitions, thoughts, intentions, etc. Tell me, how much does the thought “I am late for class” weigh?

    How much does “running” weigh? Is it any less physical for not having a weight? (If you think that’s too abstract, perform any specific physical act and then ask yourself how much did that act weigh?)

    How much does the web browser I’m typing this into weigh? it exists not as a physical object but only as a pattern of physical relationships (magnetic domains on disk, short-lived patterns of stored charge or absence of charge in RAM, changes in current flow in electronic components as it runs, conversion of charge patterns into patterns of visible light on the display); is it any less physical as a result?

    Part of the problem here is that of historical baggage; pre-scientific philosophers, with no grasp of brain structure or the possibility of emergent behaviour in physical processes, went down a lot of blind alleys in trying to reason about minds without having a proper foundation of evidence (or indeed even theory) to build on.

  82. September 9, 2009 10:04 pm

    Andrew,

    Thanks for that specific and to the point reply. I am going on a trip starting in the morning and am unsure when I will be able to reply. I do want to respond, and will at least get back to you on Monday or Tuesday. If you want to leave the conversation aside until then and then come back, I think we will be able to pick back up the thread of argument then.

    🙂

  83. September 11, 2009 1:29 pm

    If extraordinary=miraculous, it would lead to an infinite regress. In other words, if the theist kept providing miraculous evidence, the objector would keep asking for miraculous evidence. It would go on and on. If an “extraordinary claim” means something that is non-natural, than it must be shown that natural laws are immutable. However, natural laws are not immutable because they are descriptions of what happens, not prescriptions of what must happen. Natural laws don’t cause anything, they only describe what happens in nature.

    I never said extraordinary=miraculous. There are many extraordinary claims that are natural, and many (formerly) extraordinary claims that have been demonstrated to be true.

    Such a regress wouldn’t happen, because demonstration will justify your claims if they are true. The Bible makes many claims about all Christians abilities to perform the miraculous (Mark 16 1 Cor 12-14, etc.) Demonstrate those and the former claims will be rendered believable. Fail to demonstrate them (as is the situation up to now), and we will hold your other extraordinary claims as unjustified. After all, if Christ was wrong about Christians immunity to poison, why should I believe the other claims?

    Is the Christian claim about Jesus rose the same as believing in unicorns?

    Yes, it’s similar epistemologically.

    I don’t have any background evidence for unicorns. In other words, I really don’t have any kind of theistic or historical context in evaluating an extraordinary claim such as the existence of unicorns.

    Theistic context? Such a body of claims would be part of your claim about Christ. It is part of your hypothesis, not the supporting evidence.

    And in relation to Mormonism there is a major difference between the eleven witnesses to the gold plates and the apostles of Jesus. While six of the eleven witnesses left the Mormon Church, we have no record of the apostles of Jesus (Paul, James and John, others) even leaving the early Christian movement.

    And yet they all returned to the Mormon faith after denying it, just as Peter returned after denying Christ. Oliver Cowdery, one of the first three, even used that same analogy after his rebaptism into the church. And even David Whitmer while estranged from the church still insisted he saw not only the golden plates, but also, the ‘brass Plates, the plates containing the record of the wickedness of the people of the world….the sword of Laban, the Directors and the Interpreters. I saw them just as plain as I see this bed….’

    Their ‘evidence’ is as good as yours. Better in fact, because they have far more testifying witnesses.

    Also, you’re forgetting Mary Whitmer. She was the 12th witness.

    Furthermore, in the case of Joseph Smith, even though they may have been eyewitnesses to the plates, this does not mean the plates contain the revealed truth of God.

    Likewise to the claims in your stories. Eyewitnesses to these kinds of things aren’t worthwhile.
    If I, and a few friends all told you that we saw a fire-breathing dragon in the woods, would our eyewitness testimony be sufficient to convince you of such an extraordinary claim? What of the eyewitness testimony for bigfoot, nessie, and other such things? Many people have ruined their reputations and had nothing to gain from their claims. Do you accept them? You have to in order to remain consistent.

    Does the resurrection of Jesus requires extraordinary evidence? Unfortunately, this can cut both ways. One must explain how naturalistic theories that have been presented throughout the centuries have better explanatory power for 1. Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimatha. 2. The discovery of Jesus’ tomb. 3. The postmortem appearances. 4. The origin of the disciple’s belief in Jesus resurrection.

    Joseph was a disciple; the empty tomb stories contradict each other far too much to be taken as evidence; the postmortem appearances involve too many weird factors like many of the ‘witnesses’ not recognizing Jesus, sometimes for hours; and the origin of their belief is as simple as the origin of Joseph Smith’s beliefs: sometimes, people get weird ideas in their head, and others go along with it, interpreting their experiences in light of their companions claims. It’s a well known fact that we revise our memories every time we revisit them.

    5. A high Christology in a very short time period after Jesus’ resurrection. What not must not be forgotten is that the Jews were resistant to Hellenism and paganism.

    John’s gospel draws heavily from Philo, who incorporated many Hellenistic ideas into Judaic theology. It’s obvious that the Christians already had radical ideas about Judaism and the Law of Moses before Christ’s death.

    Furthermore, there was not a consistent Christiology right away. Hebrews 5 offers a rather aberrant Christiology from the rest of the Bible.

    There are references to the negative views of gentile polytheism (Acts 17: 22-23; 1 Cor 8:5). In other words, to try to claim that the Jewish believers laid aside their monotheism in order to reach a Gentile audience is problematic. They regard Gentiles as sinners (Gal 2:5) and idolaters (Rom 1:23). The attempt to show that the early believers tried to make Jesus into another Greek god is problematic.

    No one is arguing that they were making Jesus into a Greek god per se. We are claiming a kind of syncretism, not at all dissimilar from what Philo did. Using Greek ideas, the early Christians interpreted the Tanakh.

    You say: Such sensory evidence is ultimately the only source of information that we have.

    I suppose that did come out a bit vague. I meant it in a foundationally empirical way. It was a statement against rationalism really. Even Romans 1.20 supports this too.

    Are you defining “extraordinary” as something that is non-empirical? If so, strict empiricism is self-defeating. If I accepted the statement “I only believe what I can see,” I would not be able to accept the statement itself, because the belief is not visible- it can’t be seen.

    Strawman to the point of caricature.

    You know very well that physicalists accept a category of reality that is not the matter itself, but rather, is a pattern of matter in space and/or time. The example I used before was running. We can’t see running itself, but that is a word we use to describe legs moving in a particular way. We can’t see love itself, but we see matter behaving in certain ways, and that is what we call ‘love’.
    Note that neither love nor running can actually exist without matter in this model, as they require physical objects to do them and/or minds to model them. They exist in the objects performing and the minds modeling.

    Furthermore, there are several nonempirical things exist that can’t be seen such as aesthetic beauty, normative judgments, the laws of logic, theories (which start as mental entities in people’s minds) and so forth. I can perceive realities other than by sensory experience such as inference and intuition. Also, my own feelings, thoughts, etc… are not known by using my senses. I have yet to see a feeling or thought. That is why these things are understood by first person introspection-not by the five senses.

    All of these things are descriptions of how matter behaves. Aesthetic beauty is a neural reaction to certain patterns of matter. It only exists when minds are exposed to those patterns. It is a material reality.
    And again, I do not belabor the 5 senses. There are other types of sensory perception, including those you mentioned, but they are all neural (which entails material) in the end. Neurologists confirm this.

    Also, any attempt to make God into a material object which must be verified with the five senses is a category mistake.

    Have we done this? I actually formulated a model once where we can have God outside the universe and not be a material object within it conforming to naturalism.

    And again, I accept that there are certain ‘senses’ outside the 5 if we include introspection.

  84. September 11, 2009 2:29 pm

    Philip,

    First, I’m not claiming that you’re being dishonest. I meant that it was starting to come across that way when you claimed I was ‘backing off’.

    I put the phrase ‘intrinsically improbable’ in quote marks because I was using your term in your previous reply. You introduced the idea, not me, was my point.

    Here is where we currently are: either your claim is irrelevant, or we are talking about improbability. For of course it is an *extraordinary* thing that I am alive; but the probability of it is 1. Some extraordinary claims are, of course, untrue; but they are never untrue *in virtue of* being extaordinary. An extraordinary (read: something really cool) claim might be true or might not be true. It being extaordinary does not tell you either way.

    There is nothing extraordinary about the fact you are alive. The opposite claim would be extraordinary, in fact.

    I really think you are misunderstanding what I mean by ‘extraordinary’.
    That a claim is extraordinary has nothing to do with it’s truth. Many extraordinary claims are true and some ordinary claims are false. For respective examples: ‘Space and time are the same kind of thing’ and ‘I work at a gas station’. That first claim is extraordinary and true and that second claim is ordinary and false.
    The point of extraordinarity is whether you are *justified* in belief. For example, say that you were the suspicious type and you attempted to challenge my claim that I work at a gas station, even though you are right, you would be unjustified. to use everyday language, it would be a lucky guess, and you couldn’t take any credit for being right.

    The point of the article is that you guys don’t currently have justification for making the claims you do. Even if it turns out by some miracle that Christ really did raise from the dead, you guys are making a lucky guess, because the evidence isn’t there.

    Being ‘really cool’ has nothing to do with extraordinarity, though it sometimes applies. Many ordinary claims are ‘really cool’ such as Megan Fox’s hotness, or a great football play, or the taste of a good pizza.
    Some extraordinary claims are not so cool, like perhaps, that even emotional states are entirely material? I don’t think that’s an extraordinary claim, but you think it is both extraordinary and uncool.

    Your claim about Einstein is helpful; the reason someone would have been unjustified in believing his theory prima facie is emphatically *not* because it was really cool. It was because it had no evidential support. Once evidential support comes in, then we are justified in believing in it, and it being extraordinary simply reveals itsef to not be a relevant feature of belief at all.

    Yes that’s the gist of my meaning.

    It is very relevant in that it tells us how much evidence we need for a disputed claim. Ordinary claims do not require evidence. The more extraordinary a claim is, the more strict evidence it requires.

    Of course, the claim that we simply need more posterior evidence for Christianity could be the claim that Pr(e/~h &k) is high. But I think what you’ve been saying is more plausibly interpreted as being that Pr(h/k) is low. If it’s not either of these, then my beliefs will still be true (since you aren’t telling me the probability of my beliefs is any lower than I originally thought), and you will have informed me that they are also really cool.

    First, yes, your beliefs are cool. Comparative religion is fascinating to me, and a lack of coolness was certainly not why I left Christianity.I still attend Catholic mass simply for the beauty, pageantry, and coolness of it.

    Since your beliefs posit things inconsistent with how we know that the universe works (people rising from the dead, being healed in non biological ways, being immune to poison, etc) the burden of proof is on you.

    2) Of course, whenever something happens which naturalism cannot make sense of, and theism can make sense of it, it is evidence for theism. Where is the problem.

    If something like that where to occur, I would concede it (though I won’t accept the typical god-of-the-gaps argument, an argument from ignorance, nor an ‘It’s just too cool to happen by accident lol’ argument. What situation has ever been more readily explainable, all things considered, by supernatural theism over naturalism?

    Mormonism suffers from coherence claims (God is a physical being on another planet), and a lack of evidence. It is extremely important for Christianity that Jesus comes in a context in which he ties off hundreds of threads from a pre-existing theological tradition. Lots of overall considerations confirm Christianity in a way that they do not do so for Mormonism.

    Christianity has numerous consistency and coherence problems as well, whether you recognize them or not, though I think it would be outside of the scope of this article’s comments to discuss it here. I would be happy to on a thread about biblical incoherency (which I may post myself eventually).

    Why is God being a physical being on a planet an incoherent claim?

    Besides, Mormonism relies on the basis of Christianity (and therefore Judaism) which is your foundation and claim itself. You know that. All those supposedly tied-up loose ends are also claimed by the Mormons as well, as they accept the NT as being inspired.

    What evidence does Christianity have that Mormonism doesn’t? Neither have acceptable fulfilled prophecy (and the Mormons claim all of your prophecy too, bear in mind) and neither have miracles outside the claims of a handful of eyewitnesses, and the Mormons have more than you do.

    3) Allow me to point out here that all I need is the possibility that mental events can influence physical events. That would show that mental events can be independent of physical events, and therefore that theism postulates nothing with any starting difficulties.

    That conclusion is contradicted by the neurological evidence as we’ve covered before.
    And yet again, I am not opposed to the theoretical possibility of a disembodied mind (though evidentially that’s not the case in this universe), I am opposed to the specific claims of Christianity. You do realize that even proving the supernatural was a reality only eliminates naturalism, not atheism or any competing religion (and certain models of naturalism could still work).

  85. September 11, 2009 2:35 pm

    This is a good discussion.

    I certainly wouldn’t want any of my ideological opponents to take this disagreement in any way personally.

    Just wanted to throw that out there.

    🙂

  86. Andrew permalink
    September 16, 2009 12:12 pm

    Thanks for that specific and to the point reply. I am going on a trip starting in the morning and am unsure when I will be able to reply. I do want to respond, and will at least get back to you on Monday or Tuesday. If you want to leave the conversation aside until then and then come back, I think we will be able to pick back up the thread of argument then.

    I’m still here 🙂

  87. September 17, 2009 6:40 pm

    Mike,

    “That a claim is extraordinary has nothing to do with it’s truth.”

    “The point of extraordinarity is whether you are *justified* in belief.”

    You cannot hold these claims simultaneously. Whether a belief is justified is determined by whether or not we have good reason to think it is true (when in public discourse, at least). Thus, to *not* be justified means that we have reason to think that a given belief is false. If we don’t have any reason to think that something is false, then, as you said, we could just guess and we may well be right.

    Basically, given the first quote of yours I gave, you are not saying anything which will impact my beliefs. Your claim essentially seems to be that in order for you to become a Christian, you need to find evidence that it is true. Sure. That’s fine. That doesn’t impact my beliefs and is pretty sensical for you to think. (Though I suspect that what you mean by “evidence” is something like an angel appearing before you and then warping back into heaven after explaining that Christianity is true.)

    As for evidence for God and Christ as the revelation of God, I can think of a few things which are better accounted for by both of those claims being true rather than being false. God makes sense of many of the things which we observe in the world. We can see the relation between God and the universe existing, it having a beginning, the fact that it is a beautiful universe, the fact that all of nature seems to behave according to natural laws (which continue to be the same througout all of time), the fact that this universe is of the sort that humans should emerge in it, the fact that those humans would be conscious, the fact that they can reason, the fact that they have the opportunity to choose good or bad, the fact that they have intense spiritual lives in which they can choose to be holy or not, the fact that each one stands amidst a web of meaningful relationships for them to conduct, the fact that a select group of people would believe in a monotheistic God despite being surrounded by influences which informed them not to, the fact that they would develop the Law, which would create many loose ends which would then be tied off by Jesus, who would make sense of everything that had happened up to that point, the fact that many things would happen that would only happen if Jesus raised from the dead, like his disciples preaching like fanatics that he had risen from the dead all over the world, the fact that the Church started and spread all over the world, the fact that we can think about the theology surrounding God and Jesus so fruitfully, the fact that billions of people throughout history have claimed to have experienced God, the fact that we live in a world cluttered with some well-substantiated reports of miracles, and that we are in a position to obverse all this as an individual who can decide how to react to it. Finally, that it is something we can see the application of in our lives, so that by seeking God’s Kingdom, where we love our enemies and forgive everyone, we can partake in a real movement of God in the world, makes sense if God exists, and Jesus is the exact representation of his being.

    If I were a naturalist, the fact that I would need a different naturalistic explanation for each of these, would make me very worried.

    God cannot be a physically contingent creature, since he is the creator of the physical universe.

    Additionally, there are reasons to think that God’s revelation is exhausted by the OT and NT. Jesus was meant to enact the plan of salvation for the whole world, which presents another background consideration to lower the probability of Mormonism.

    I already said that physical events causing mental events is not a problem for dualism, or the smaller claim I’m making about mental events causing physical ones. All I need is the latter claim, and theism is a perfectly plausible hypothesis on this score.

  88. Andrew permalink
    September 18, 2009 12:30 pm

    I already said that physical events causing mental events is not a problem for dualism, or the smaller claim I’m making about mental events causing physical ones.

    The problem for dualism is showing that mental events exist at all in any sense that distinguishes them from physical events.

    The fact that we can introduce into the physical brain a substance which interferes with a specific class of physical processes (cell membrane ion channels) and find that consciousness stops as a result, and only starts again when the substance is removed, implies that “mental events” are wholly dependent in a very fundamental way on physical processes.

    The other evidence only confirms this, in half a dozen different ways. (And I think you misunderstood the earlier discussion about timing of decision-making; we can detect the lateralized motor potential (which reflects the decision of which hand to move) before the subject is consciously aware of having made that decision; the subject’s ability to decide not to move at all (which is a separate neurological function) has nothing to do with this.)

  89. September 18, 2009 1:00 pm

    Well said, Andrew. The idea of mental events and physical events being mutually exclusive is entirely inconsistent with observations. If the term “mental event” is to be used, it should be understood as a particular type of physical event, rather than distinct from physical events altogether.

  90. Alex permalink
    September 19, 2009 1:14 am

    @Philip: “We can see the relation between God and the universe existing, it having a beginning, the fact that it is a beautiful universe, the fact that all of nature seems to behave according to natural laws (which continue to be the same througout all of time), the fact that this universe is of the sort that humans should emerge in it, the fact that those humans would be conscious, the fact that they can reason…”

    Everything you said up to this point can be answered simply by saying that what happens happens, and having happened, has happened, to paraphrase Douglas Adams. There are a million million galaxies, a billion billion planets, and potentially thousands, millions, or even infinite universes with even more planets and galaxies, where these things DID NOT happen. And as for the Universe being beautiful, that’s subjective to human interpretation, and I think it would be surprising if humans found the world they lived in to be hideous and unseemly – it is, after all, conditioning of the highest order to be satisfied with something that successfully provides for you.

    again, @philip: “the fact that they have the opportunity to choose good or bad, the fact that they have intense spiritual lives in which they can choose to be holy or not, … and that we are in a position to obverse all this as an individual who can decide how to react to it.”

    Everything you said here can be attributed, (and I say should be attributed) to human nature, God’s existence being an unnecessary hypothesis for the formation of spirituality. The only proof you need, personally, that the argument is ridiculous is to replace the words God, Jesus, Temple with Allah, Mohammed, and mosque, or Zeus and the Temple, or Wodin and the Norse Pantheon. Because some Druids worshiped an earth mother, it can be construed that an earth mother is the basis for the creation of the cosmos? What you are saying is akin to this exact argument to anyone but a Christian apologist.

    I personally find cargo cults to be adorable and ridiculous, and yet the behavior they exhibit is perfectly analogous to the argument you are making here. Building theological runways like Jesus and the church doesn’t mean the planes will come back, so to speak. You are saying, “because the world works in this way, and I’ve decided to believe in God, God is responsible for the world working this way.” A circular argument based around sympathetic magic in any other shape is still circular. Christianity has fetishized (original meaning, not the kink version) reality, not the other way around.

    If the earth had an argon-based atmosphere, but humans breathed argon, you wouldn’t think it was odd at all. It only seems convenient to you because you evolved into that convenience, plain and simple.

  91. Andrew permalink
    September 19, 2009 6:08 pm

    If the earth had an argon-based atmosphere, but humans breathed argon, you wouldn’t think it was odd at all.

    Well, I’d think it was odd, because argon is a bit on the unreactive side.

    Chlorine, on the other hand… or going the other way, hydrogen sulphide or maybe methane…

  92. Alex permalink
    September 19, 2009 9:10 pm

    @andrew: “Well, I’d think it was odd, because argon is a bit on the unreactive side.”

    Well, you see, that’s my point exactly. Philip makes the point that God’s existence is proven by the existence of natural laws, but the truth of the matter is, if the natural laws we know didn’t exist, a different set of laws would. Laws, perhaps, which would include argon being perfectly reactive. It’s easy for apologists to make the teleological argument of the watchmaker, but what I feel Philip is missing is that the watchmaker analogy presupposes that we were EXPECTING a watch, and not a toaster or a gerbil, a sandwich or a ceiling fan, or any of million, billion, trillion different configurations.

  93. September 19, 2009 10:04 pm

    Heh. I wasn’t using the watchmaker analogy. I will get back to Andrew first. Then Alex.

    At the present moment, however, I have a game of Settlers of Catan to win. 😉

  94. Alex permalink
    September 20, 2009 10:06 am

    @philip: “Heh. I wasn’t using the watchmaker analogy.”

    I’ll grant you weren’t making the argument in, say, the David Hume fashion of the term, but “We can see the relation between God and the universe existing… the fact that all of nature seems to behave according to natural laws (which continue to be the same throughout all of time)…” is the analogy by definition. Avoiding the words “creation” and “design” doesn’t negate making an argument by design.

    Off to work, look forward to your response.

  95. September 21, 2009 12:10 am

    Andrew,

    1. Prior probabilities of miracles

    Suppose you have a friend named Brian and you wake up one morning to find a car with a huge ribbon on it parked in your driveway. Now note that the following are distinct hypotheses:

    1. Brian is a very generous person.

    2. Brian gave you the car in the driveway.

    It’s quite clear you can have evidence for 1 before the car shows up on your driveway. It would make no sense, then, for someone to say, “Hey, you can’t say there’s a high prior probability that Brian is generous – that’s included in your hypothesis.”

    So the fact that something particular is being claimed, a part of which might be supported by other evidence (Brian’s generosity), is no objection at all. So we can have evidence that

    3. God exists

    before we examine the hypothesis that

    4 . God raised Jesus from the dead.

    It is futhermore no objection to your belief that Brian gave you the car that I don’t know of the evidence that Brian is a generous person. The fact that I am not privvy to this knowledge does not mean that you have to bring yourself down to my level in order to calculate what would then essentially only be the probability for me that Brian gave you the car. Rather the fact that you think Brian is a generous person simply means that you will be more justified in believing the hypothesis that he gave you the car.

    2. Miracles as evidence

    The problem here is that we are not aware of the relevant laws of nature. If there were a known law of nature that predicted full-blown cancer could not disappear instantly, then we would know that either the law is wrong, or that there is an explanation for why the law was temporarily suspended.

    However, there are two points that reinforce that miracles, however minimally, are a form of evidence for theism:

    1. In the case that the total disappearance of cancer late in its development is the result of a natural law, theism would still provide a better explanation for why there would be a natural law with this peculiar characteristic in the first place. For in the case that God does not exist, there is no particular reason why the law would have this characteristic. It is a good thing for people to be healed of their cancer, and there is therefore good reason for God to give the relevant natural laws the feature of sometimes causing the remission of cancer.

    2. It seems improbable that there is not at least a probabilistic law which dictates full-blown cancer should not suddenly vanish. It is simpler to suppoe that cancer, having developed extensively within a person, will not disappear without some form of treatment. And, of course, the simpler, the truer. Thus, in the case we have good reason to expect this is not what the laws of nature dictate, we have good reason to think it is in some form a violation of them, and therefore an explanation for why it has happened is needed. An explanation is available if we admit that persons with the requisite powers acted on the situation for a good reason.

    The complexity of the interaction between cancer and the body still only gives an outside shot that this is something prone to occur naturally; our expectation, for reasons of simplicity, is the opposite.

    The reporting bias isn’t important; the claim is not that prayer works in some sort of probabilistic fashion to heal only believers. When it is in response to prayer, we have good reason to think that God was involved, unless of course someone with a certain disease is always being prayed for, in which case there is nothing special about the fact that he or she was healed with regards to the fact he was being prayed for.

    It is of course up to God how much evidence for his existence we are given; he could heal amputees if he wanted to, but having what would in your eyes be nearly absolutely confirmatory evidence that he exists would probably not be a good thing, given how you would not have the significant moral freedom you would have without such evidence.

    3. Mental properties

    Of course, “running” is a description of certain physical actions. The thought of the idea of running, however, is not the same thing. That is a private subjective experience which occurs to you specifically, and in order to have a full description of reality at that point in time, you have to describe more than the physical state of your brain. Your experience of thinking about running is a part of that state of affairs.

    The claim that mental processes are dependent upon physical processes presupposes that they are distinct events in the first place; if you claim something causes something else, you cannot then identify one with the other. You can claim all mental events are caused by physical events, but if you then claim that mental events are physical events, your claims are incoherent.

  96. Andrew permalink
    September 21, 2009 4:09 pm

    Addressing just your first point for the moment, it’s clear you don’t fully understand how Bayesian reasoning works.

    Under Bayesian probability, it’s entirely possible to talk about all of these (separate) quantities and the relationships between them
    (read the | sign as given that):

    P(Brian is generous)
    P(Brian gave us the car)
    P(Brian gave us the car | Brian is generous)
    P(Brian is generous | Brian gave us the car)
    P(Brian is generous AND Brian gave us the car)

    Before the car shows up, we may have assigned a probability to “Brian is generous” based on other evidence (which I’ll label “background”). But note that in order to do this, we need a different prior, the probability that “Brian is generous” given that we know nothing about Brian. This is the fundamental basis of Bayesian reasoning, the fact that as you add more evidence, the posterior probability based on what you know so far becomes the prior probability used when evaluating new evidence.

    But if you’re going to use Bayesian reasoning to convince somebody else, or even to communicate in a meaningful fashion about the subject under discussion, you need to start with a prior that is based on a set of background facts which includes nothing more than what you and your audience already agree on. By arguing from the basis of a prior which is conditional upon assumptions that your audience doesn’t share, you’re deliberately choosing not to communicate.

    So to continue your example, suppose I’m talking to you about the probability that Brian gave me the car, but you don’t know Brian from Adam and therefore have no reason to assign any different probability to the statements “Brian gave me the car” and “some random person gave me the car”. If I want to convince you, then I can’t just arbitrarily claim a higher probability based on a claim “Brian is generous” which wasn’t previously part of the argument, since then we would be arguing from different premises; instead, what I need to do is take all the evidence I have about Brian’s generosity, not including anything about the car, and add that into the “evidence” category of my reasoning (NOT the “background” category, since it’s not part of your background). Furthermore, unless I can convince you to accept “Brian is generous” as a certain fact rather than merely an inference, then it has no place in the prior probability for the distinct hypothesis “Brian gave me the car”, unless I’m happy to represent my entire argument as being conditional on “Brian is generous” as an established fact (which would mean the whole argument fails for someone who has any reason at all to believe the contrary).

    Using one hypothesis as part of the calculation of the probability of another is possible, but that goes beyond simple Bayesian inference into the realm of Bayesian networks, and the calculations become much more complex, because we have to consider the effect of our earlier hypothesis possibly being false. If you don’t believe this, I invite you to actually write down the equations for yourself.

  97. Andrew permalink
    September 21, 2009 4:36 pm

    It is of course up to God how much evidence for his existence we are given; he could heal amputees if he wanted to, but having what would in your eyes be nearly absolutely confirmatory evidence that he exists would probably not be a good thing, given how you would not have the significant moral freedom you would have without such evidence.

    Which directly conflicts with the biblical quotations given in the original article, plus dozens more plain statements throughout the Gospels. I like this one (John 14:11-14, emphasis mine):

    [11] Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. [12] I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. [13] And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. [14] You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

    Anything. Not “anything as long as it’s not too impressive”. Whatever you ask, not “whatever you ask as long as it won’t convince people”.

    I could find half a dozen more of these with no trouble at all, and there are others here far more familiar with the NT than I am.

    All the standard excuses (of which yours is but one) are answered on the “Why Won’t God Heal Amputees” website.

  98. Andrew permalink
    September 21, 2009 6:09 pm

    Of course, “running” is a description of certain physical actions. The thought of the idea of running, however, is not the same thing. That is a private subjective experience which occurs to you specifically,

    I made no claim that “running” and “the thought of the idea of running” were the same thing.

    Just as “running” is an abstracted description of certain physical processes, “thinking” is an abstracted description of certain other physical processes. (Just as two people running are not making identical physical movements, two people thinking about the same thing are not performing identical physical processes, so some degree of abstraction in the description is necessary.) “Thinking about running” is in turn a specific subclass of the processes called “thinking”; “thinking about an apple” is a different subclass.

    and in order to have a full description of reality at that point in time, you have to describe more than the physical state of your brain. Your experience of thinking about running is a part of that state of affairs

    That’s begging the question; you have already assumed your conclusion that mental events are not physical. What evidence do you have that the physical state of the brain is not a sufficient description?

    The claim that mental processes are dependent upon physical processes presupposes that they are distinct events in the first place; if you claim something causes something else, you cannot then identify one with the other. You can claim all mental events are caused by physical events, but if you then claim that mental events are physical events, your claims are incoherent.

    I claim that what you call “mental events” are a subclass of physical events (at least to the extent that “mental events” can be said to exist at all as a useful abstraction). Clearly, in this case, “mental events” can both cause and be caused by physical events which may be outside the category of “mental events”, just as “running” may cause “perspiration” even though the latter is not part of the class of events called “running”.

    Nothing in your argument renders this position incoherent. Only evidence can defeat it; and right now, the evidence is overwhelmingly on the side of physicalism.

  99. September 22, 2009 8:17 am

    We’re getting to the point where I would be repeating myself.

    “That a claim is extraordinary has nothing to do with it’s truth.”

    “The point of extraordinarity is whether you are *justified* in belief.”

    You cannot hold these claims simultaneously.

    I’ve already given examples of true extraordinary belief and false ordinary belief.

    ‘Extraordinarity’ as I’m using concerns the weight of evidence needed prior to the complete examination of the subject. Since this issue defies good examination (as many Christians scrupulously avoid any kind of verification either by appeals to metaphor for prophecy or claims that God simply isn’t interested in being verified in the case of miracles), this is what we have to go on.

  100. AdamK permalink
    September 22, 2009 6:24 pm

    Michael,

    This QualiaSoup video is of interest, and relevent to the post:

  101. Johann permalink
    September 22, 2009 7:44 pm

    An especially relevant quote from the video – “A hundred invalid arguments don’t accumulate into one valid one”.

  102. September 22, 2009 8:29 pm

    That video very succinctly covers alot of the ideas that I tried to cover. It’s excellent.

    I’m now subscribing to QualiaSoup’s channel.

  103. AdamK permalink
    September 23, 2009 2:58 pm

    The one called “Absolutely…not”, about theistic “absolute” morality, and that ridiculous canard that atheists have no “basis” for their morality, is also excellent.

  104. Andrew permalink
    September 24, 2009 11:01 pm

    (trying to rate-limit my responses here a bit, but still refute the major points)

    @AdamK: excellent videos.

    @Philip:

    The complexity of the interaction between cancer and the body still only gives an outside shot that this is something prone to occur naturally; our expectation, for reasons of simplicity, is the opposite.

    Simplicity is a dangerous guide. While Occam’s Razor is useful, there are many pitfalls waiting to trap the unwary thinker who assumes that simplicity is always the answer.

    The most common manifestation of this is when people think as though there were some sort of fundamental law that causes complexity to be preserved; when in fact it is common for complex effects to have simple causes, and simple effects to have complex causes. Again, the field of cellular automata provides the most striking proofs of this; the rule governing the evolution of states in Conway’s Life is almost trivial, and yet we cannot even in theory predict whether a given pattern will evolve into a stable or repeating state rather than developing indefinitely (since that would require solving the Halting Problem).

    While, as the joke goes, biology is just applied chemistry, and chemistry is just applied physics, that still means we have at least two layers of emergent properties to cope with; so any question of the simplicity of the underlying physical laws is irrelevant.

    As for our expectations regarding cancer: we have (sometime back when we were primitive fish) evolved an adaptive immune system, which has (to oversimplify) the job of finding stuff in our bodies that is not supposed to be there, and killing it off. Cancers do not normally trigger the immune system; however, recent research shows:

    1) most cancers do express at least one distinctive antigen, that could act as a target for an immune system response if the immune system were activated sufficiently to detect it;

    2) some cancer patients do show the presence of a partial immune system response to the cancer, and these patients have vastly improved odds of long-term survival compared to those patients who do not;

    3) there is evidence that an immune system challenge not related to the cancer, for example an ordinary infection, can in some cases result in an immune response to the cancer as well;

    4) there are possibly other reasons for spontaneous remission not related to the immune system, e.g. hormonal changes.

    This is still an area in which very little is known, but this already gives us entirely reasonable naturalistic explanations both for why spontaneous remission happens, and why it is relatively rare. Exactly how rare is still not known with any certainty, and likely depend on the type of cancer; figures quoted range from 1 in 100,000 up to as high as 1 in 5 for certain specific cancers.

    It should at least be clear from the above that it’s not a question of what “natural law” tells us about cancer, but about the (highly contingent) development of both our immune systems, other physiological mechanisms such as hormone responses, and the nature of cancer itself.

    As for the reporting bias, you completely missed the point there, I think. The point of that is that if the rate of spontaneous remission is 1 per 100,000 then we can expect there to be on the order of 5-10 cases per decade in the US alone which occur in the context of a religious environment and have a high probability of being reported widely enough to come to the attention of miracle apologists such as Habermas. So if we take our evidence E as “Habermas can produce 5 or more convincing case reports of cancer remission within a 20-year period”, then the probability P(E|~H&B) where ~H is the negative hypothesis “no miracles” is on the order of 95% even on a conservative estimate of the remission rate.

    When it is in response to prayer, we have good reason to think that God was involved, unless of course someone with a certain disease is always being prayed for, in which case there is nothing special about the fact that he or she was healed with regards to the fact he was being prayed for.

    In the US, rather more than half a million people die of cancer every year; that’s almost exactly one per minute.

    By population demographics, the US has a very large Christian majority, so we can reasonably expect that at least a working majority of those deaths are of people who were being prayed for by at least one close relative, friend, pastor, church congregation etc.

    So in a decade, that’s 2.5 million prayed-for cancer victims who died, and perhaps 10-20 who were prayed for and survived unexpectedly (we’re not counting here the number who got conventional treatment and survived). That’s pretty poor odds on the whole.

    So the bottom line is that no, we do not have any grounds at all, let along “good reason”, to claim that God was involved.

  105. Andrew permalink
    September 25, 2009 1:26 am

    Huh. Wonder how I botched that link; it was supposed to be:

    While, as the joke goes,

  106. September 27, 2009 9:45 am

    xkcd for the win.

    I don’t suppose you liek mudkipz?

  107. Andrew permalink
    October 1, 2009 9:06 pm

    Aww, I think he went away.

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