Damned if he do, damned if he don’t.

Over at Evangelical Realism, I’m having an interesting conversation with one Kevin Harris, who gives his web site as William Lane Craig’s reasonablefaith.org, on the topic of “The 7th Criterion.” If you’ve read the post, you may recall that I proposed a 7th criterion for historical authenticity, in addition to the 6 Craig provides: to be historically authentic, a report must be consistent with real-world truth. Kevin originally criticized the 7th criterion for having an anti-supernatural bias, but I pointed out that it’s really a bias against falsehood, and that if a bias against falsehood is an anti-supernatural bias, that in itself tells you something about the supernatural. Kevin agreed that we want to avoid falsehood, but told me not to equivocate “falsehood” with “the supernatural,” which was ironic. My reply led to Kevin’s latest response to me, which is, shall we say, interesting.

The problem, I think, is that I’m holding up a perfectly fair and reasonable and even fundamental criterion. A true report, by definition, is one that is consistent with the real-world truth. Before we accept an ancient story as historically authentic, therefore, we should first examine whether or not it is consistent with real-world truth. If it isn’t, then by definition it’s a false story, and it wouldn’t do to designate false stories as historically authentic!

For some reason, Kevin appears reluctant to commit himself to agreeing to measure the Gospel according to that standard. I’ll give you a sample below the fold.

(Note: DD is me, KH is Kevin)

[DD] “Well, I’m not the one equating a bias against falsehood with an anti-supernatural bias. :) But I assume you’re not intending to do so either. So let’s just agree that to be historically authentic, a report needs to meet the 7th criterion and be consistent with real-world truth. Does that sound fair?”

KH> Obviously, any investigation, historical or otherwise would hope to discover real-world truth. You can clarify for me whether you consider a divine miracle or supernatural event possible. If they are, then they are open to historical investigation.

Notice, my question was whether he agreed that a report needs to be consistent with real-world truth to be historically authentic. His reply was evasive: he claims that any investigation would hope to discover real world truth (which is not a true statement, by the way), but leaves entirely open the question of whether they would use the 7th criterion as an essential means of doing so. In particular, he conspicuously fails to agree that the 7th criterion is a fair criterion, and tries instead to shift the burden onto me by asking whether I consider a magical event possible. In other words, he wants me to base my historical investigation on the assumption that magic is possible.

That, clearly, is a bias. We shouldn’t be conducting such an investigation with either the assumption that magic is possible, or with the assumption that magic is not possible. We should be trying to determine whether magic is possible, by examining reports of magical events, and seeing whether or not they meet the criterion of being consistent with real-world truth, among other principles.

[KH] And to call an event wherein God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead a falsehood begs the question.

[DD] “Does it not also beg the question to call it an actual event (as opposed to identifying it as a report or claim about an event)? The point is not to beg the question, but to answer it, and that means that we should examine the relevant possibilities and select the alternative that is most consistent with real-world truth. Does that sound like the correct approach to you?”

KH> It’s tautological for one to say that something can happen only if it conforms to reality. All the investigation in the world is not going to discover a married bachelor, or a woman that exists but never existed. Those things are contradictory and thus not reality.
But if you mean that an historical investigation should rule out an event a priori because it is unique, or rare, or possibly divine, then I disagree. Historical investigation can determine an event by exploring the best explanations the evidence offers.

If you go through the conversation as a whole, you’ll notice that I’ve never suggested ruling out any events just because they are unique or rare. The 7th criterion merely points out that we should not accept false stories as historically authentic: we should rule out reports that fail to be consistent with real-world truth. In a way, Kevin almost seems to agree: he says it’s tautological to say that a thing can only happen if it conforms to reality.

But notice once again how he shifts the topic away from what I’m saying to something entirely different. The 7th criterion is not about a tautology, it’s about investigating reports—stories told by men that might be either true or false. If we want to investigate a story, it’s essential that we determine, first and foremost, whether or not this story is consistent with real-world truth, because that’s the definition of a true story versus a false one. Kevin makes the broad statement that history has to “explore the best explanations,” but fails to answer the question of whether or not he agrees that the best explanations are those which are most consistent with real-world truth.

I don’t know if the conversation with Kevin is going to go anywhere, because real-world truth is—or should be—the one standard that believers have in common by which they can agree to evaluate the historical evidence. If he will not agree with real-world truth as the main criterion for judging the Gospel, if he insists on conducting his investigations under the assumption that magic is possible, then we’re probably not going to be able to agree because I can’t (and shouldn’t) accept such an obvious bias. And yet I can’t see him making either choice. He can’t seem to accept the 7th criterion, but he can’t outright reject it either. Damned if he do and damned if he don’t.


  1. I'm_not says

    I think you’re right and would be interested in Kevin’s view on supernatural claims by sources other than the bible. I’m willing to bet he doesn’t want the 7th criteria applied to his Book but would be more than happy to have it applied to other sources.

  2. sailor1031 says

    Christian belief is centred on alleged miracles, which by definition are not events that would normally occur in the real-world. By equating “not real-world” to “false” you are removing belief in miracles as a foundation for miracles actually happening. No wonder Kevin has a problem with it.

    Christians, and other religionists have to believe that their deities performed miracles because if they didn’t the deity is no more powerful than they, or you or me or anybody else, and therefore is no deity at all.

    • Thorne says

      It’s not a case of saying that “not real-world” = “false” but that if there is no real world evidence to support it, it cannot be considered “true”. Any miracle, which by definition would defy our understanding of reality, would have to leave some kind of evidence upon the world. If God stopped the world from rotating for a day for Joshua, then there should be independent evidence of such an occurrence around the world. One would expect to find at least passing mention of it in civilizations far removed from the Middle East. One might even expect to find some mention in the annals of the defeated enemy. Without such independent confirmation there is no evidence that a miracle actually occurred.

  3. Paul Neubauer says

    Kevin is, in one way at least, correct in calling that correspondence a tautology. A report or claim that some event happened corresponds to the real world iff the event actually happened. That tautology is just a definition and not in any way pernicious.

    The problem is that Kevin wants you to stipulate that miracles are possible when the existence of miracles is the issue. It looks to me (without having read the thread on your other site) like the two of you may be talking past each other.

    I think what you need to say is that for present purposes, you are not ruling miracles out a priori. The question of the moment is whether any given miracle actually took place, i.e., whether that specific claim does or does not correspond to real-world truth.

    The fly in the ointment, as I see it, is that when we are evaluating the real-world truth or falsity of a unique or very rare historical claim of a miracle, we don’t have hard data. Using the example of Jesus raising Lazarus, we have no physical evidence. The best we could have would be eyewitness testimony (which we all know is not nearly as reliable as we would like). And in fact, what we actually have is a third- or fourth-hand claim. In order to validate (or refute) the claimed miracle, what we need to do is evaluate the truth of this hearsay report.

    I’m too lazy at the moment to look up Craig’s six criteria, but IIRC they purport to be criteria for evaluating the reliability of historical claims. If the criteria for reliability are met, then we judge the report to be more likely to be true. Otherwise, we judge the report as less likely to be true. When we evaluate reports of purported historical events in the absence of physical evidence, we cannot, in general, come to an absolutely definitive conclusion. We are constrained to weigh the balance of probabilities.

    I certainly agree with you that real-world truth is important, but it seems to me that the real-world truth (or not) of such claims is the conclusion we want to draw, so we can’t really use it as a criterion.

    Now if you mean that correspondence with other things we know about the real world, such as the fact that all dead people we have actual evidence of have tended to remain dead, then I agree that this is a fairly standard criterion, but to be fair, the specific claim that we are evaluating is that Jesus caused that otherwise universal or near-universal fact to be otherwise in the case of Lazarus. Here, it would beg the question to say that reanimating dead people is impossible and therefore Jesus did not do it. The issue is whether Jesus performed a miracle, i.e., whether he suspended the laws of nature in this purported event. Frankly, I think the normal criteria for evaluating evidentiary reports allow me reasonable doubt. In fact, I think the normal criteria allow me to conclude that this claimed miracle is rather far-fetched, especially in light of the principle that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But I don’t think that your 7th Criterion of whether the claim “corresponds to real-world truth” is obviously useful in determining the reality of a claimed miracle.


    • says

      Thanks, Paul. Yours is the post I think clears it up. I think DD and I have indeed been talking past each other.

      I was trying to get DD out of circularity and tautology in things he was saying, for example, in what he just wrote above:

      “A true report, by definition, is one that is consistent with the real-world truth. Before we accept an ancient story as historically authentic, therefore, we should first examine whether or not it is consistent with real-world truth. If it isn’t, then by definition it’s a false story, and it wouldn’t do to designate false stories as historically authentic!”

      Okay. But that is just saying, “if it’s true then it’s true”, or “if it’s not historical then it’s not historical”! And, to exclude something from what constitutes “real world truth” without justification just begs the question.

      “Magic” is not the term I would use (sleight of hand or manipulation for entertainment purposes, or the attempt to manipulate objects via spiritism, etc.). So we have another equivocation to rid. Magic and supernatural are not the same thing.

      I think DD and I agree that one doesn’t hastily or automatically assume a supernatural explanation in an investigation, because a supernatural event would be rare by definition. But I’ve tried to point out that “real world truth” is not the same as real world regularity.

      • Deacon Duncan says

        Hi Kevin.

        But that is just saying, “if it’s true then it’s true”, or “if it’s not historical then it’s not historical”!

        I think you’re rather missing the point. I’m not saying that something has to be true in order to be true. I’m saying, “How do we answer that ‘IF’?” You say “IF it’s true…” But how do we know whether it is or not?

        My answer is that we should look at what it means for a story to be true, and then compare the story to the definition of truth to see if it fits. The definition of a true story is “one that is consistent with reality.” Consequently, when you want to know “IF” the story is true, the appropriate test is to examine the story, and to examine the real world, and then to see if they are consistent with one another. What other test is there that could reliably distinguish true stories from false ones?

        “Magic” is not the term I would use (sleight of hand or manipulation for entertainment purposes, or the attempt to manipulate objects via spiritism, etc.). So we have another equivocation to rid. Magic and supernatural are not the same thing.

        By “magic” I mean the whole broad category of things that are supernatural, paranormal, etc. Whatever produces changes in the material world without obeying the laws of material physics, so to speak.

        I’ve tried to point out that “real world truth” is not the same as real world regularity.

        And as I’ve pointed out before, I’m not saying we should test stories by mere regularity. What I’m saying is that we ought to evaluate the stories of men based on how consistent they are with real-world truth. What more reliable method is there by which we can evaluate the stories of men to see whether or not it is reasonable to accept them as true? I’m sure you’d be the first to agree that it would be tautological to base your evaluation of the Bible on the assumption that miracles must be possible and therefore we should assume that the NT authors must be telling the truth, right?

  4. mikespeir says

    How quickly they run from “You must believe it’s true!” to the refuge of “You can’t prove it’s false!” They need to be reminded at every turn that they’re the ones trying to saddle us with the burden of obligation to believe.

  5. Tony Hoffman says

    As Leowontin tried to point out in his infamous quote, if we allow a supernatural explanation into something like our interpretation of historical events then we give up everything the study of History has given us, which is akin to saying that we give up on having our beliefs comport with real world truth.

    If there is a God who did what the New Testament writers claimed, all bets are off. We do not know that the Jews existed in the past, that ancient civilizations came and went, that there was a battle of Waterloo, that the Great Depression occurred, or that the last second even existed. If the historical method is to be ignored in one instance of historical enquiry, then all bets are off about any historical explanation.

    Seems like an awful lot to give up for one piece of “knowledge” against which nothing else meshes.

  6. Brad says

    It’s pretty obvious that he’s arguing the point because he knows that if he concedes it, your follow-up will be “… and since we don’t see well-documented miracles today (amputated limbs growing back, etc), this report of an ancient healing event violates our 7th criterion, and must be discounted.”

    Which, in all fairness, was likely to be your next point 🙂

    But as long as you aren’t using this 7th as a “trump card” to overrule strong evidence in the other 6, then I think its fair and reasonable.

  7. Robert B. says

    Hm. How exactly, then, would you address a Biblical miracle claim with Rule 7? The simplest reading, which I would be tempted to use and which Kevin obviously expects, is to say “Miracles are not consistent with known science, so the prior probability that they occurred is very low. Miracle claims are highly unreliable, and their presence decreases our confidence in the veracity of the text as a whole.”

    But if that’s your intention, your argument with Kevin seems a bit facetious. He knows you know that we observe the real world to have only one set of physical laws. There is no two-tiered physics with a “natural” and “supernatural.” There’s just “natural.” In practice “supernatural” means false-to-fact, and you know it, and he knows you know it. If you are in fact going to go in assuming that magic is just as unlikely to be true 2000 years ago as it is today, it seems very odd to dance around his accusations that you will do just that. If that’s not what you’re going to do, though, I’m not quite sure what you mean by your seventh criterion – I don’t say there can’t be a different interpretation of it, but I also don’t see what that interpretation might be.

    In my view, the problem with Kevin’s accusation of “bias” is not that it is false but that it is ridiculous. He’s basically saying, “You can’t disbelieve a claim just because it’s impossible! That’s unfair!” Being “unbiased” does not mean assigning a prior probability of 50% to everything. That practice is more properly known as “gullibility.” Being unbiased means aiming your expectations at the truth.

    • leftwingfox says

      The thing is, it’s pretty easy to imagine what evidence for one-off miracles might look like. The Flood might have water coming from “nowhere”, then evaporating into “nowhere” but in the meanwhile it would have interacted with the physical world. Similarly, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah might have been accomplished with an energy source that came from “nowhere”, but the actual destruction would have been a physical event with real-world scars. Statues might bleed, but what is the “blood” made of?

      The simple truth is that we have not found evidence of a biblical flood, the remains of an ancient city obliterated by unknown means, or any sign of unusual characteristics in the the blood from a martyr’s statue.

      This is only damning to the supernatural in that there is no sign for it happening, not in that excludes it by definition.

      • Robert B. says

        I hope I did not seem to argue that anything should be judged “by definition.”

        I agree with your basic point – it is quite possible to see what would count as evidence of a miracle. What I was trying to say is, if we had ever seen such a thing, it would prove that natural laws have exceptions, that there is some other factor which sometimes intervenes and which we might reasonably call “supernatural.” But in modern times, when we would expect the evidence to be best because we have the most direct access to it, the supernatural cannot reliably be demonstrated. We can therefore conclude that there is, almost certainly, no such thing as the supernatural. When someone talks about the supernatural, we know they’re talking about something false not because that’s the definition of “supernatural,” but for the same reason that we know that talk about phlogiston or elan vital or the luminiferous ether must be false. The supernatural didn’t have to not exist, but one of the things we know about the supernatural is that it does not, in fact, exist.

        And we can use that a posteriori knowledge, that evidence-based knowledge, to conclude that the next supernatural claim we hear will probably be wrong, too. Any evidence from that claim will be “fighting uphill” against everything we already know about the universe – it will take more evidence to prove that our prior knowledge about the supernatural was mistaken, than it would to convince someone who didn’t know anything about the supernatural.

      • leftwingfox says

        Agreed. Just as with deities, the more you attempt to define the supernatural as a concept, the more likely you are to hit either a lack of evidence for, or abundant evidence against such a proposition.

        I’ve just been thinking about definitions of magic and supernatural from various sources, like fantasy tales and new-age mysticism. That’s probably why my comment smacks of a supernatural agnosticism. 😉

        It appears most of what gets called supernatural has elements of one or all of the following: “spiritualism” (phenomena relating to souls as a discrete unit instead of an emergent property of biology), “divinity” (the gods created reality and are therefore capable of altering those rules), “intention” (The observer can change reality with enough will/faith/belief), or “metaphysics” (science that hasn’t been discovered yet).

        Of those 4 categories, only the last seems to have much hope of justification, but even then, it too often used as a dodge when science does gives them an answer they don’t agree with.

      • Artor says

        I remember reading something in my youth about buildings found in the Middle East that had been vitrifies, as if by an intense heat. The book (something by Hal Lindsey maybe?) claimed that these were actual remnants of Sodom, blasted by nuclear fire or God’s wrath or whatnot.

        I came across an archaeological account several years later & realized these buildings were just ancient brick kilns. No supernatural fire, no ancient nukes, just common, everyday structures. Pretty un-miraculous.

  8. Kevin says

    1. I am not that Kevin.

    2. The issue is not whether supernatural events are possible. It’s whether they’re ‘provable’.

    3. I agree with theists who claim that their gods (as defined by them) are “allowed” to do anything they want to. Bend the laws of physics a quarter turn to the left and stand them on their head. That’s what gods do, after all.

    4. So, the issue is not whether supernatural events (ie, miracles) are possible via supernatural means. The issue is whether we have enough evidence to judge whether or not they actually happened.

    5. To make that kind of “did it happen” judgement, you need evidence. Evidence that is reliably observable by a disinterested (or even hostile) party. And most specifically not merely second-hand reports of oral histories that only appear in anthologies of myths called “holy books” that were compiled decades to centuries after the events in question.

    6. There is not one single supernatural event (miracle) reported in any holy book (not even that other Kevin’s) that meets even the lowest bar to count as “evidence” that they even occurred — much less that they violated the laws of physics to be counted as supernatural.

    7. Any god powerful enough to violate the laws of physics could also have easily violated them in such a way as to leave a permanent record. I can easily think of dozens. A perpetually burning bush. A 2012-year-old zombie with a gaping hole in his gut living in Palestine. And on and on.

    8. The fact that other-Kevin’s god did not have enough imagination — or power — to leave behind verifiable evidence for any supernatural event attributed to it is pretty much all the proof you need to counter-claim that the event did not, in fact, occur at all.

    9. It’s not up to me to disprove that Uncle Ed did not, in fact, get abducted and anal-probed by aliens. It’s up to him to prove that he did. Same thing with supernatural events recorded in any so-called holy book.

    10. And finally, if you resort to the “you have to have faith” argument with regard to any and all supernatural events, you are admitting that they did not happen. You are also admitting that there will never be any way to verify they did happen. You are also admitting that you do not, in fact, have “faith” at all. You have what’s known as credulity. A well-known human characteristic that has been used by con men and preachers (I know, same thing) since before the beginning of recorded history.

  9. cag says

    Beliefs based on a compilation of myths that begins with the earth being the centre of the universe (“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”) can instantly be dismissed as ridiculous. Day and night before creation of the sun – more absurdity. Miracles described in a discredited book – preposterous. Discussing rationality with the deluded – unproductive.

    • Robert B. says

      If you’re waiting for an un-deluded person to talk rationality with, you’re apt to be waiting a long time. Obviously some people are more rational than others, but everyone is deluded about some things to some extent, and everyone (or at least, everyone functional enough to use language) is rational about some things to some extent. How could talking about rationality be less productive than not talking about it? Or, for that matter, than talking about it only with people who already know about it?

  10. David Evans says

    “to be historically authentic, a report must be consistent with real-world truth.”

    I completely understand Kevin’s reluctance to accept this as a premise. On one level it seems merely a restatement of the law of non-contradiction – a truth cannot contradict another truth – and therefore harmless. But the law of non-contradiction is also, in a sense, useless. It doesn’t rule out anything that might conceivably happen. That’s not how you are using it. You want to rule out the possibility that certain events happened.

    Let’s try a thought experiment. Your real-world truth includes the proposition that miracles don’t happen. Now suppose we uncover evidence that some of the miracles described in the gospels did happen, but were staged by someone (visiting aliens, Atlanteans, whoever) with a high technology, perhaps as part of a long-term research project in human psychology. Maybe we find their actual research notes, or meet the aliens themselves.

    You would have 3 possible responses, I think:

    1. That’s inconsistent with my real-world truth, I don’t believe it.

    2. That’s not what I meant by a miracle.

    3. My view of what constitutes real-world truth was too limited.

    Do you agree that #1 would be a wrong response?

    • Robert B. says

      Well, gee. If you posit extremely strong evidence rather than extremely weak evidence, suddenly it all sounds much more believable! How shocking!

      How about this: suppose someone argues that the events in the Bible were staged with the help of futuristic Atlantean technology, but does not offer any further evidence beyond the Bible itself, would you believe them? Or would you say that this claim would need extremely good evidence, because it’s so out of line with the rest of what you know about the world?

      It is always possible to encounter a totally new phenomenon you never expected. There is always a point where the evidence piles up too high, and you have to say, “Oops, I was wrong.” But if you’ve got decent justification for your prior beliefs, that pile of evidence needs to be pretty big to overturn them. Which is more likely: that there was a man named Jesus who wandered around preaching and then got executed, or that there was a man named Jesus who walked on water and came back from the dead? (And the Bible can’t even make a knockdown case for the first claim…)

      • David Evans says

        I accept all that. I just don’t think that talk of “real-world truth” is helpful, when the argument is precisely about what events are part of “real-world truth”.

      • Robert B. says

        No, we can’t just discard what we already know when considering new information. If you flip a coin a thousand times and it always turns up heads, you conclude this coin is biased (or just two-headed.) If George says “no no, it’s a fair coin, watch: I’ll flip it and it’ll turn up tails,” or “the last time I flipped it, it was tails,” the probability that George’s claim is true is not .5, it’s on the order of 2^-1000. When you’re arguing about X, you have to consider what you already know about X.

      • David Evans says

        Is that really how you operate? If George says it came up tails, and is not a habitual liar, wouldn’t you look for some explanation which would not entail that he is lying this time? Maybe someone switched the coin, or is controlling it remotely.

  11. josh says

    Duncan, I do think you’re being a little unfair to Kevin, or perhaps not expressing yourself clearly. Your 7th criterion is true in that we want what we believe to be consistent with reality, but to Kevin it looks like a baited, question-begging trap. The question is, ‘What is consistent with reality?’, so if you assume a priori that Kevin’s preferred story is ruled out you’re not really offering an argument. If that’s the case then you should justify why you rule it out a priori and argue that.

    But I think the correct route, and the one you have in mind, is that we are arguing a posteriori. We are not obligated to start from some fictional state of philosophical purity and evidential naivety. Rather, the way the world around us appears to work apart from some miracle story, and everything we know about the way humans concoct and transmit such stories; these have to weigh on our evaluation of any particular story. We don’t try to weigh it in a vacuum because that would be ignoring all the other evidence available. So we aren’t just asking ‘what is the best explanation for this story’, we are asking ‘what is the best explanation for the story and everything else we can say about the world.’
    So, is it more consistent to believe in a miracle that provides no solid evidence, is recorded only by a means and in a style which we know to be unreliable, and contradicts everything we can discover under more careful and rigorous observation; or is it more likely that the known physics and psychology that account for everything else, including miracle reports where no miracle took place, holds true? Which I suppose is just another way of saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Your 7th criterion is true in that we want what we believe to be consistent with reality, but to Kevin it looks like a baited, question-begging trap. The question is, ‘What is consistent with reality?’, so if you assume a priori that Kevin’s preferred story is ruled out you’re not really offering an argument.

      I think what’s happening is that Kevin wants to put that exact spin on my argument. He wants to say that I’m assuming a priori that miracles cannot happen, so that he can simply dismiss my arguments as the product of bias. In fact, though, I think it’s the other way around. The bias here is his bias in favor of miracles being possible.

      I think it’s equally biased to assume either that miracles can occur or to assume that they cannot. The proper approach is not to pick one assumption or the other, but rather to look at the stories men tell, and measure them against the standard of what we see in the real world, and then select the conclusions most consistent with the real world as we observe it. I’d be more than happy to ask the question “What is consistent with the real world as we observe it?” The problem is trying to get Kevin to agree that this is the right question by which to measure the claims in the New Testament.

      So, is it more consistent to believe in a miracle that provides no solid evidence, is recorded only by a means and in a style which we know to be unreliable, and contradicts everything we can discover under more careful and rigorous observation; or is it more likely that the known physics and psychology that account for everything else, including miracle reports where no miracle took place, holds true?

      I would take it a step further and cite specific and well-known/widespread examples of people believing in various sorts of magic where no such phenomena actually manifest in the real world, e.g. people thinking that God has spoken to them when no sound is audible, or thinking that Jesus is in their heart when nothing shows up on the X-ray, etc. Non-miraculous explanations of the New Testament are entirely consistent with what we observe as a matter of course in the real world; miraculous explanations are not. Regardless of whether or not you might believe that magic is possible, it’s still going to be true that the non-miraculous explanations are more consistent with what we actually see than the magical explanations are. The non-miraculous conclusion, therefore, is more consistent with reality, since it does not have the discrepancies that the miraculous explanation has.

      • josh says

        Yeah, I think we’re pretty much in agreement then, particularly with your last paragraph replying to me, which refers to some of the ‘total’ evidence I had in mind. I’d quibble that the way you were trying to force the question on Kevin seemed a bit loaded, at least in your summary above. But, I haven’t followed your entire exchange and if you’ve explained your meaning in equivalent detail then he’s being obtuse. Good luck.

  12. Robert B. says

    @ David Evans:

    I didn’t say he was necessarily lying, I said his claim was not true. If the exact course of events was important to me, I might very well investigate whether, say, the coins were switched, or if George might be mistaken some other way. I might very well be willing to watch George try for himself a few times. But I would certainly expect his coin tosses to all turn up heads until he gave up. I would not be prepared to believe that the coin I had flipped a thousand times was fair, not without an amount of new evidence tantamount to a thousand coin flips.

    Frankly, it is more likely that George has been switched with some lying impostor than that a fair coin returns a thousand consecutive heads on a thousand trials. It is likelier still that George, despite his habitual honesty, has some important reason to want to believe, or want me to believe, that this coin is fair, and is lying (to himself or to me) in defiance of his usual practice. If George is trustworthy and has no conflict of interest, the most likely hypothesis is that it’s not the same coin.

    • David Evans says


      I’m trying to think my way around why the coin isn’t a fair analogy. I think it’s because (for instance) Christ’s resurrection isn’t believed to be the exact same process (death without divine intervention) that has been seen a thousand times, suddenly giving a different result. It’s believed to be the result of a totally new process, divine intervention, which doesn’t have to conform to previous statistics.

      In the coin analogy, I suppose the equivalent of divine intervention would be someone controlling the coin from outside your field of view. Whatever the probability of that is, it certainly isn’t 1/(2^1000).

      • Robert B. says

        No, it is still 2^-1000. It’s important to notice that this is the probability I expect, based on the evidence available to me. I can’t use evidence that I imagine someone else might have, and – most importantly – I can only change my expectations based on evidence. A new theory (like outside intervention) cannot change what I expect to see.

        All a theory can do for me is to summarize the evidence I’ve seen, and make it easier to understand. As regards the coin, I don’t have to think “Flip 1 was heads, and flip 2 was heads, and flip 3 was heads…” and so on a thousand times. Instead I can think “This damn coin always comes up heads! (probability about 2^-1000)” But I am not allowed (i.e. not rationally justified) to think “This coin always comes up heads except sometimes it is controlled by an outside force, and so the next toss might return either heads or tails.” The evidence I have does not summarize to that theory.

        Now, the fact that George is telling me about a coin flip that does not fit my theory, does technically count as evidence – after all, something must have made George say that. But human testimony is relatively weak evidence, because humans say wrong things a lot. (If we want our analogy to be really accurate, George would be very excited about the coin, and call himself a “Fair-Coinist,” and spend two hours every week staring at a picture of a coin that turned up tails, and he didn’t actually flip the coin and get tails himself, he read in a book that someone did it a long time ago, and when he has flipped the coin himself a couple times it might have been heads, but he’s sure that’s not important, the outside controller must have a plan.) It’s more likely that he reports a “tails” result because of some error than that it was true.

        For that matter, in this example, I could flip and get tails myself and still not change my theory – one tails result on the 1001st toss increases the odds of a fair coin by, let’s see, about 500 times. But that’s still incredibly small! It’s actually more likely – much more likely – that I just had a one-in-a-trillion-chance hallucinatory experience. Granted, I don’t claim that part of the analogy is valid – if I saw someone come back from the dead, I would be very confused, and I’d have to do my best to throw out all theories and investigate fresh.

  13. Andrew Woods says

    He is disturbed because you are coming very close to Hume’s argument against miracles, which is that they are advanced with “special pleading” and defeat the mechanisms by which we determine truth in the absence of direct evidence:

    1. When somebody tells us a supposedly true story, for which we have no direct evidence, we decide whether it is true or not by asking ourselves, “Is that the sort of thing that would happen?”

    2. But a miracle is, by definition, the sort of thing that just doesn’t happen.

    3. Therefore, given the unreliability of human testimony, we are always entitled to disbelieve in a miracle, even if we cannot prove we are correct to do so in any given case.

    The key here is that the believer expects you to believe on the basis of evidence that they would not accept, if it were advanced for the sake of a miracle they did not admire, by a person they were indifferent or hostile to. A reported miracle is a sudden greatly-desired exception cropping up in the fabric of reality, with little around it assimilating it to a larger rule or contributing to its plausibility.

    • says

      (Again, not that Kevin)…

      Rational people can clearly see that no miracles have ever happened. Defining “miracle” as a deliberate suspension of the laws of physics, chemistry, or biology for a specific purpose.

      Miracles are, however, the only reason to suppose that the “Jesus” fellow in the myth was a half-god with superpowers.

      That’s why other-Kevin is so reluctant to agree with the contention that miracles are not a usual part of our understanding of how the universe works.

      It’s my contention that you don’t have to force other-Kevin into that corner. You merely have to agree upon the standard definition of what constitutes “evidence” in order to discern whether a claim of a miraculous event actually occurred.

      The tales told large (and late) in the compilation of myths known as “the bible” do not constitute anything close to what a normal person would agree is “evidence”. Nor is evidence an observation about the natural world with a supernatural agent appended to it like the antler on Mr. Grich’s dog Max. For something to qualify as evidence, it would have to obligatorily reject natural explanations. Argument from design is nothing more than argument from apparent design, for example. It says nothing about the cause of the apparent design (but a lot about how our brains work).

      Back on point: All of the miracles in the bible, from the first to the last, left no evidence that obligates you to point to a supernatural agent. And the vast majority of miracles reported in the bible left precisely and exactly no evidence that they even happened, much less that they involved supernatural agency. (The one ‘miracle’ that might be wrongly claimed by theists is the existence of the universe itself. But since mere existence does not demonstrate supernatural agency, this can be discounted at well).

      Damn I’m getting wordy. I’ll stop.

      Bottom line: Let other-Kevin have his belief that miracles can occur. Now, let him prove that they did occur.

  14. F says

    It is quite apparent that Kevin does not think the supernatural is part of the real world.

    This is Kevin’s problem, and not something which anyone else needs to accommodate.

  15. Tony Hoffman says

    The broader issue, and I think the more important one, is about the most effective way to change the mind of those who find a position like Kevin’s to be reasonable and rational. After participating in these discussion over the years many times now, I would summarize the Kevin Defense as this:

    Kevin-Style Apologist: “My dear boy, the Humean objection has been exposed as invalid (the problem of induction), because we cannot rule out an event just because it has not happened before. And because we cannot use our experience to determine the likelihood of highly improbable events (which the Christian apologist usually allows about the supernatural events described the New Testament), our experience is a poor filter with which to view the accounts of the New Testament.” (This is all usually said with a lot more condescension, btw.)

    In other words, the apologist will usually work toward a strong version of the argument (Craig’s “best explanation” nonsense), but when pressed on the line of thinking that leads to this conclusion they usually retreat to the “not impossible” defense (and also, “You’re philosophically ignorant. So there.”).

    I think it’s bad argument but good psychology in that I think the first version (“best explanation”) works with unsophisticated audiences, and by retreating to the softer “not impossible” defense in the face of rigorous examination the psyche of the apologist seems to be left sufficiently undamaged with the raft of “still not impossible.” The inconsistency of the apologist’s position can also be protected with a Calvinist approach (“I guess I’m just predestined, for unknowable reasons, to be given the gift of true faith,”), as well as the shop-worn comfort found in psychological protection (“It’s the naturalist who is biased against the supernatural.”)

    I should probably work out a flow chart.

    • says

      (Not-Kevin again).

      Thing is, you don’t have to be biased against the possibility of the supernatural. You just have to expose the claims of supernatural events as what they are: myths wrapped up in nonsense.

      Why do you suppose that theists fall back on “faith” when challenged about the existence of miracles? Because it’s the only way they can defend their belief in them. Falling back to a “faith” defense is a direct acknowledgment that there is no evidence in favor of the supernatural.

      Anytime someone uses the word “faith” in such situations, I correct them. It’s not “faith” they’re offering. It’s “credulity”.

  16. Reginald Selkirk says

    I heard Alvin Plantinga being interviewed on NPR the other day. He was expounding the view that miracles are not incompatible with science. He said that the laws of physics mostly deal with closed systems, so if God wanted to materialise a horse in Times Square, it wouldn’t violate any laws of physics.
    This completely avoids the question of why God has never chosen to implement such a studly miracle in a way that is well-evidenced and verifiable.

  17. says

    This discussion usually leads straight to a principle from Wolfhart Pannenberg. That’s why I brought it up right off the bat in DD’s other blog.

    In a nutshell, the religio-historical context of an alleged event can add weight to the claims. It can balance the possible evidence against it. Nothing more.

    I think it is an outstanding tool in certain historical investigations. It asks, upon the seeming failure or inadequacy of purely naturalistic explanations, is there any further warrant for considering a supernatural or ultra-mundane explanation?

  18. Tony Hoffman says

    KH: “This discussion usually leads straight to a principle from Wolfhart Pannenberg…. It asks, upon the seeming failure or inadequacy of purely naturalistic explanations, is there any further warrant for considering a supernatural or ultra-mundane explanation?”

    Then we have no grounds for invoking this principle you speak of; there’s nothing whatsoever that is not natural or common in the claims of the religious cult known as early Christianity. On the contrary, by their own admission, false reports of the kind for which they ask for an exception were the rule back then, as they are now.

    Btw, it is considered impolite (at best) to cite the opinion of a non-technical authority rather than paraphrase his argument or cite the relevant passages that support your argument. If you think Pannenberg has something to teach us, you should strive to do more than repeat his name and state something along the line that he has this all figure out.

    • says

      Pannenberg is an authority and his views are well known. It would not be hard to google.

      The early Christian hypothesis was, “God raised Jesus from the dead”. That is a supernatural explanation.

      • Janney says

        You are welcome to explain your thinking, if you ever decide that’s something you’d like to do.

  19. Tony Hoffman says

    KH: “Pannenberg is an authority and his views are well known. It would not be hard to google.”

    Ha. Apparently it is very hard to paraphrase his views, however. That does not bode well for your argument.

    KH: “The early Christian hypothesis was, “God raised Jesus from the dead”. That is a supernatural explanation.”

    No. No you are showing yourself to be scientifically illiterate. A hypothesis that cannot be tested is not a hypothesis at all. Is the hypothesis “God raised Jesus from the dead” testable? No, it is not. You see, there’s a test right there that you can run to see if a hypothesis is even viable or not.

  20. Tony Hoffman says

    KH: “You are confusing a (material) scientific hypothesis with an historical hypothesis.”

    Yeah, I explained some of this in the other thread, but I’ll re-paste it here. Basically, the term “hypothesis” is seldom, if ever, used when discussing History. I know because I was a history major in college, and I can’t remember the term ever being applied, and because I read a lot of History still, and I don’t think I can recall it ever being used. The term (hypothesis) simply isn’t apt when discussing the study of History.

    More importantly, an explanation that included a supernatural component is simply ahistorical. It is not allowed, for obvious reasons. One need consider only the fact that if you tried to explain that the North won the Civil War because God intervened on the North’s behalf, you would fail the essay section on the History AP final.

    Here’s one snippet that explains the difference between theological and historical study, from L.H. Marshall on Supernatural Occurrences, “Historical Criticism,” New Testament Interpretation; Essay on Principles.

    Marhsall: “On the other hand, it is argued that even if a person believes in the supernatural as a private individual, he cannot as a historian allow supernatural explanations of events. To do so would be to abandon the ordinary principle of natural cause and effect in history and to allow a place to the irrational. This procedure would put an end to historical method, since historical method, like scientific method, must proceed on the basis of natural causation. To accept the supernatural would mean giving up the usual methods of establishing historical probability and leave no firm basis for historical investigation, since no grounds would exist for preferring one account of an event to another.”

    At this point, I have to ask — do you have a college education? If you do, did you go to a religious college? I am mostly curious where it is that the notions you have are being taught.

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