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Jan 02 2012

Debunking Skepticism

A believer who goes by the handle “Jayman777″ has written a blog post taking me to task. He’s not happy with my remarks at Evangelical Realism about how William Lane Craig handles the historical arguments for Jesus.

I have not read this book by Craig but DD’s post contains a few problems common to arguments from skeptics that should be addressed. I will restrict my focus to whether the Gospels are the best sources for reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus and whether the Gospels are generally reliable on historical matters.

Fair enough, I welcome his input. Let’s see what his criticisms are.

DD begins:

Christianity is, above all else, a story. . . . Miracles like healing someone born blind, or resurrecting someone who died three days ago, only happen in the tales told from the pulpit and in ancient parchments.

Notice how it is merely assumed that miracles do not happen in the present. It is hardly surprising that when you presuppose metaphysical naturalism, and you judge the Gospels on this basis, that the Gospels are determined to be of questionable historical value. But what if we take an approach that is neutral concerning the occurrence of miracles?

Notice how he twists the words around to make them fit his worldview. We do not observe (says Jayman) that there’s an absence of raising the long-dead and of healing the congenitally blind. It’s “merely assumed that miracles do not happen.” He talks about taking a neutral approach towards miracles, but he wants to begin by declaring that anyone who observes the lack of verifiable miracles is merely assuming that miracles do not happen.

True neutrality does not attempt to bias our observations in this way. If you’re going to be genuinely neutral, you need to be able to make observations, and report them honestly, and not have them blithely dismissed as “mere assumptions” just because they’re inconsistent with some predetermined conclusion. In this case, we do not assume that miracles cannot happen, we simply observe that they do not.

Jayman himself provides us with one such observation. Since we are comparing the stories in the Gospel with real-world observations, he can easily debunk the observation that the long-dead are not raised and the congenitally-blind are not supernaturally healed by simply providing us with the name, address, and phone number of a modern day individual who was brought back to life after having been lifeless (no heartbeat, respiration, or brain activity for 72 hours or more), or who was born blind and then in early adulthood was miraculously (and documentably) restored to full vision. He does not do so, despite his desire to debunk the skeptical observation and despite the effectiveness with which this would indeed revolutionize the whole discussion. Thus, it is fairly obvious that he himself is among those who, if they were truly neutral, would have to admit that they do not observe such miracles happening in real life.

What he does offer is hearsay: unverifiable stories that some third party (or fourth party, or nth party) has reported about certain situations that “might” be miraculous (or else just urban legends—there’s not enough information given to allow fact-checking). In the process, he kindly documents for us just how low Christian standards are when it comes to what kind of “evidence” they’re willing to accept as a basis for believing in miracles. Jayman himself will only commit to the possibility that these stories claim miracles that “may still happen today” (emphasis his). He can’t verify them either, but other Christians still report them as true. Thus, we have two observations: that we do not see such miracles occurring, and that Christians use unreliable evidence to support their belief in miracles. So if there were nothing more to the Biblical stories than the same sort of evidence (which does not convince even him), would that really be so big a stretch, given our observations?

Remember, the issue here is not whether some remote, unknown, hypothetical observer might have seen some secret and unverifiable miracle, it’s whether WE ought to conclude that the stories in the Bible are consistent with the truth. We can speculate all we want about how magical invisible unicorns are supernaturally intervening in people’s lives to deceive them with false beliefs about Jesus, so that we’ll be too distracted to hunt for magical invisible unicorns. But if we’re truly neutral, we ought to admit that such fanciful speculations do not change the fact of our real-world observations. And that fact is simply that we do not see miracles happening in the real world. Even Jayman does not, no matter how much he might like to wish that we did. He assumes that they must be possible, but he does not have any verifiable observations to back that up.

Hence his accusations that skeptics are biased. Sigh.

8 comments

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  1. 1
    davidct

    At its’ base this is just another way of attempting to shift the burden of proof from the person making the claim to the person doubting the claim. For some reason proponents of belief in the supernatural seem to think this makes their arguments true. It seems to be their most popular tactic.

  2. 2
    mikespeir

    “It is hardly surprising that when you presuppose metaphysical naturalism….”

    Is there a reason we shouldn’t make that presupposition?

    1. 2.1
      Deacon Duncan

      Indeed there is. When a believer tells you that you are presupposing metaphysical naturalism, what he means is that you are engaging in content-based censorship of the evidence, and filtering out any facts that fail to support your predetermined conclusion of godlessness and non-supernaturalism.

      Granted, that’s not how you and I would necessarily define metaphysical naturalism, but it’s kind of hard to get a believer to understand what we really mean. I find it easier to point out that he is making false assumptions about my beliefs and methodology, and that my actual criteria really boils down to whether a given claim is objectively verifiable.

      The problem with naturalism vs. the supernatural is that there’s no comprehensive canonical list of all the things that constitute what is natural. Science, thus, has no means of even knowing whether or not a claimed phenomenon is natural or supernatural. All science can find out is whether or not the phenomenon is objectively verifiable. If it is, then great, it’s part of material (i.e. non-subjective, non-imaginary) reality, aka “Nature.” If not, then it’s not.

      So, for example, you can take allegedly supernatural phenomena like the wrath of God, aka “the fire from heaven,” aka lightning, and since it’s actually real, science can study it and add it to the list of things that are part of material reality. To qualify as “supernatural,” though, a phenomenon must first fail to satisfy the scientific test for reality, which means that the supernatural, in order to be supernatural, must be indistinguishable from falsehood.

      The discussion typically becomes quite interesting from there (until the believer flames out anyway).

      1. Owlmirror

        That’s certainly one way to define supernatural, and is the one that I generally prefer. But I also think that Richard Carrier made an interesting attempt to define “supernatural” as something that might be logically possible, but for which there is no evidence. Although I agree that, given current knowledge, it is indistinguishable from something imaginary.

        http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2007/01/defining-supernatural.html

        When I get into these sorts of definitional arguments, I ask what they mean by “supernatural”, and if they agree with Carrier’s definition.

        This has had almost no results, except for one thread argument with David Heddle, which stalled out before getting to the root of his disagreement with Carrier’s definition (said disagreement may have been because he didn’t quite understand it).

        http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/02/bring_it_on_al.php

        For all that the thread ended abruptly without real resolution, I think that it contains some very interesting points.

      2. mikespeir

        “…he means is that you are engaging in content-based censorship of the evidence, and filtering out any facts that fail to support your predetermined conclusion of godlessness and non-supernaturalism.”

        Sure, but I don’t see how we can fail to “predispose.” Even the inclination to avoid presupposing would be a predisposition. The believer needs to show me why I should start from a position (which is what presupposing is) of supernaturalism rather than naturalism–or even to begin by assuming there might be a supernatural. (Even the position that the supernatural is possible is a presupposition.) That doesn’t imply that I automatically dismiss any chance of the supernatural, but I assume any phenomenon has a natural cause until it can be demonstrated that it doesn’t. And, yes, that’s a pretty high hurdle to jump. It ought to be. But by complaining that I “presuppose metaphysical naturalism” the believer is just grousing that I don’t share his presuppositions. Which is fine, providing he can show me why I should share them.

      3. Deacon Duncan

        Meanwhile, presuppositions aside, we do share a common objective reality. If I jump off a building, I’m going to fall at about 32 ft/sec2 (plus or minus an adjustment for wind resistance etc), regardless of whether I “presuppose” that the acceleration of gravity is 16, or 42, or 3 ft/sec2. This gives us a common basis against which we can test our presuppositions.

        Granted, this assumes that solipsism is not true, but that’s actually a pretty irrelevant concern—if “the supernatural” turns out to have nothing to do with objective reality, you can have all the supernatural you want as far as I’m concerned.

  3. 3
    Art

    IMHO miracles, low probability events caused by a supernatural power after being petitioned by a believer, don’t happen. Yes, low probability events happen. It is the causal links between petition and the hypothetical supernatural being, and between this mythical supernatural being and the event, that are lacking.

    Seems to me that there is one commonality to all low probability events that are called miracle. Picture a lollipop in a sea of shit. A bus load of mothers and babies goes off a cliff. Against all odds a child survives. One out of forty people lives, discovered in a pile of mangles corpses, and it is a miracle that ‘proves the existence of God’.

    From WW2 comes the tale of a crewman on a bomber. On fire and flying over the Alps the rest of the crew has taken to their parachutes. Except for the one guy who has no parachute. Figuring dying by fire is worse than the sudden stop after a long fall he jumps. Against all odds he falls on the near-vertical face of a glacier, slides down it, and survives.

    Miracle or proof that if you drop enough people out of enough airplanes randomly a few will survive? Vertical glacier face, mattress factory, or really big pile of hay under you means you live. Harder surfaces mean you die. And consider the many other airmen who were forced to jump and died. Somebody gets the lollipop.

    People benefiting from low probability events are statistical artifacts. Somebody will win the lottery. People pointing to such events and claiming a miracle are mainly proving both their profound need to prove the existence of the supernatural and their willingness misinterpret a simple statistical fluke to achieve that end.

  4. 4
    Tige Gibson

    You have picked up on his saying neutral when you should be saying objective. Although both words seek to dismiss the influence of bias, neutral suggests a refrain from judgment or response. As far as I have experienced, neutral people will not get involved even to correct an error (even a grievous one) and are even likely to stop me from correcting an error because of my appearance of bias.

  1. 5
    Response to Selective Sources 2 | Biblical Scholarship

    [...] Duncan (DD) has responded to my previous post. Unfortunately he misunderstands my position, misrepresents the evidence, and [...]

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