"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Paradox of the Resurrection

I’ve just finished reading Simon Blackburn’s ‘Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed’ (highly recommended), which at one point looks at Hume’s argument on miracles. This argument is succinctly expressed in the maxim that:

‘…no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish…'


Mulling this over in the shower earlier, I think that this claim exposes what I see as a paradox when it comes to texts such as the Gospels:

The more outlandish a claim, the more it undermines the credibility of the witness – so miraculous events can’t be established on the basis of hearsay alone.

For example:

You answer the door to find A stood there. A is someone who lives in your area, you know of him but have never really spoken before. He says: “Just thought you should know, me and my friends just saw a group of kids messing about near your car.”

Most of us, assuming we have a car, would thank A and probably go check that our car is okay. His claim is reasonable and we have no real reason to doubt him – this holds even if, when we reach the car, there’s no sign of the kids or any damage.

However, now imagine that instead he says: “Just thought you should know, me and my friends just saw a flying elephant hovering about near your car.”

I doubt that nay but the most credulous of us would react with much more than a “wuh?” if this happened.

Even if we discovered a dent near the top of our car afterwards, the concept of a flying elephant would be so outlandish as to make alternative explanations seem the more likely: We’d assume that A was either joking, lying or deluded in some way.

The same holds true for texts like the Gospels. Unless the validity of the ‘God hypothesis’ is established some other way, eyewitness testimony will never be sufficient to support miraculous claims such as the resurrection.

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42 Comments:

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

I dunno, dude.

"Flying cow lands on car roof, kills man, SHOCKER"

6:42 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Incitatus,
He said a flying elephant not a cow! That's totally different...

Matt,
Yessir, I would have to agree with you on this one. This whole post relates very closely to that Swineburne quote I was tossing around awhile back:

“It is simply not possible to investigate whether Jesus rose from the dead without taking a view about how probable it is that there is a God likely to intervene in human history in this kind of way. If the reader thinks that all the evidence suggests there is no God of the traditional kind, or that although perfectly good he would not intervene in human history, then the detailed historical evidence about what happened in Palestine in the first century AD is perhaps not strong enough to make it probable that Jesus rose from the dead. And this despite the very striking coincidence that the one prophet in human history about whom there is the kind of life was also the one prophet about whom there is the kind of evidence not too unexpected if his life was culminated by a super-miracle. There is significant historical evidence that Jesus did satisfy the requirements, and the coincidence to which I referred must be taken seriously. If the background evidence leaves it not too improbable that there is a God likely to act in the ways discussed, then the total evidence makes it very probable that Jesus was God Incarnate who rose from the dead.”

The thing is there are certain things that I perceive to be real:

1. "Me" (in a way that is not "just" mindless matter"
2. Moral truths
3. Anything at all
4. Love
5. Beauty

Now when we look at the two(ish) wold views we have been toying with for the last several months I see one as honoring all of these qualities and giving them a ground. The other renders each one meaningless at best, or at worst denies their existence all together. (See here for a little more Kantian rationalization) Now I realize that you passionately disagree with me on this, but I still have a hard time seeing how you justify your disagreement.

When you go to the outer edge of what human knowledge has discovered... when physics fall apart and we don't even know the words to talk about what logically proceeded... Why does God seem more unreasonable than nothing?

When you look at the immediate fact of your own existence... the sensations you are perceiving... the loves... the joys... the beauty. Why does God seem so unreasonable?

Fantastic, yes. Incomprehensible, sure. But why unreasonable?

7:37 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

You can't write a list of 5 things that are real and then put "anything at all" in as number 3!

That makes me smile almost as much as the picture...

8:49 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Perhaps I should have included: In no particular order. ;-)

9:10 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Why does God seem so unreasonable?

The idea that there might be something beyond the material world is not in itself unreasonable (though I'd say the evidence for it is extremely thin). After all, given the atheistic view that we're simply an incredibly lucky organism on a large rock hurtling through space in a corner of just one of over a hundred billion galaxies makes it seem unlikely that we've managed to completely figure out the nature of existence.

But to move from that something to a specific entity such as God is a whole different kettle of fish - I personally see no reason to do it.

9:34 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

Actually, this may have a very interesting implication:

"It is simply not possible to investigate whether Jesus rose from the dead without taking a view about how probable it is that there is a God likely to intervene in human history in this kind of way"

If we can't assess the likelihood of miracle-claims being true without first. assessing the likelihood of God's existence, then the (putative) occurrence of miracles can't be used in an argument for God's existence.

Is that a bullet-hole I see in Professor Swinburne's foot?

10:29 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Is that a bullet-hole I see in Professor Swinburne's foot?

Heh, I suppose if he was attempting to validate his faith purely on the basis of miraculous occurrences then yes. However: Is he?

I admit I have tried that road here in the past. I am sure I have done less than an adequate job at it. What I did notice from those endeavors was this: Ones willingness to accept the evidence is directly related to the presuppositions one holds. If one's starting point is, "there is no God", there will be no way to convince such a person that the ancient historical evidence says otherwise.

What interests me is a more big-picture view. When we take in all of reality that we experience, which reality best honors our experience? Personally, the whole of reality that I inhabit speaks of something that transcends my immediate experience. When you get down to brass tacks Christ not only fits into that picture. He painted it, lives in it and ultimately will complete it.

Now that sounds like a load of wishful thinking, but the more I continue to hold Him up to the disciplines of, psychology, cosmology, history, philosophy etc... He brings answers to the questions scholars have been asking since the beginning of time. The question is, do we choose to accept them?

P.S. Really looking forward to addressing your latest response on "The ground we stand on" thread. Good stuff as always.

10:52 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

The question is, do we choose to accept them?

Sounds dangerously relativistic - almost something that Rorty might say.

Surely the question isn't what "honours" our perceptions, but what's "true".

11:28 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

The way I see it, reality is one thing — what we choose to believe is another. Now that by no means makes our beliefs true, but it does make us accountable for our choices.

Surely the question isn't what "honours" our perceptions, but what's "true".

Right on Matt. So how does one go about establishing "truth". I would hope to think we would hold up our hypothesis against every possible avenue of inquiry and see how it fares. Is there any explanation for the TOTALITY of our experience?

11:47 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

So how does one go about establishing "truth".

That's something philosophers will battle over for a long while yet.

Personally, I think that the coherence theory - technically: theories - of truth is the best option currently on the table. An experience is true to the extent it coheres with the totality of our experience.

Is there any explanation for the TOTALITY of our experience?

I'm not quite sure what you mean by this.

11:59 AM

 
Blogger james higham said...

Truly ridiculous argument from a supposedly rational person.

Unless the validity of the ‘God hypothesis’ is established some other way, eyewitness testimony will never be sufficient to support miraculous claims such as the resurrection.

Having failed to establish that the discrepancies between different Gospel accounts negates them in any way, you leap to an erroneous conclusion, bringing in premises which were never present in the first place.

Have to do better than this, Matt.

The resurrection is not a claim. It was an observed event which was written up and has never been debunked by other scribes of the century following the event.

12:06 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

James,

The gospels are discredited not by discrepancies, but by the simple fact that extraordinary claims undermine themselves.

It was an observed event which was written up and has never been debunked by other scribes of the century following the event.

It's up to people to prove that something is true, not for others to prove it false.

12:15 PM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Is that a bullet-hole I see in Professor Swinburne's foot?

I think Swinburne's point is just this. Before we can go about determining whether this or that even was a miracle, we need to have some view about the likelihood of finding miracles in the first place. If you think that miracles are impossible a priori, then no amount of historical evidence will be sufficient to persuade you that a miracle has occurred.

Or, let me put it another way. If we think that the problem of evil gives us very strong evidence against the existence of God, then we have, antecedent to historical inquiry, reason to put very high standards on the evidence required to convince us that a miracle has occurred. I recall C.S. Lewis discussing this sort of thing in Miracles...

We know from Kuhn and other philosophers of science that experimental investigation is theory-laden. So, likewise, any investigation into the historicity of the gospels will also be theory-laden, and the presuppositions about miracles brought to that inquiry determine the rules of the game.

12:33 PM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"But to move from that something to a specific entity such as God is a whole different kettle of fish - I personally see no reason to do it."

And to go further and subscribe to a specific interpretation of God tests the boundaries of reason even more so.

"The resurrection is not a claim. It was an observed event which was written up and has never been debunked by other scribes of the century following the event."

The resurrection certainly is merely a claim. Currently, it would neither hold up to legal let alone scientific enquiry (would a contemporary judge believe L Ron Hubbard rose from the dead and ascended into the Thetan spaceship purely on the basis of claims made by none other than Tom Cruise, Kirsty Alley and John Travolta... of course not).

On a related issue, Professor Swinburne needs to brush up on his copy of Antiquities of the Jews; there were numerous wannabe messiahs popping up in Judea and Egypt, among other places before, during and after Christ. Can Christians be absolutely sure that their predecessors didn't accidentally pick Brian? Furthermore, this contentious spiritual environment provided a clear incentive for various messianic groups to perhaps be a little liberal with the truth in order to elevate their particular messiah above all the others, thus casting further doubt on any personal testimony. If there was solid testimony from a variety of non-Christian sources it would be more believable. Currently, there is one undisputed piece of testimony that Christ was indeed executed (Tacitus). There are then two bits of more questionable testimony; one that says that Jesus died, was resurrected and was the messiah (even Christian theologians regard the Testimonium Flavium as a well-intentioned forgery), and a second piece of questionable testimony that claims he was never executed at all (thanks to Islam).
That's not to mention the fact that the entire Jewish tradition has remained steadfast in its refusal to acknowledge Christ as the Messiah. It's therefore a little off-base to suggest that the resurrection is established fact!



[insert Chico Marx quote here]

12:40 PM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

BTW, Even if one is operating under the presupposition that miracles can happen, one will still require proof that a specific miraculous claim did happen.

Jews and Muslims both generally believe in miracles, but they don't believe in the resurrection of Christ.

12:48 PM

 
Blogger The Tin Drummer said...

Matt said: An experience is true to the extent it coheres with the totality of our experience.

I'm not sure I follow this. Does this mean if you do see something outside your experience, say, a flying saucer, then it is de facto unreal, whether or not it really is? Or have I misread this?

3:12 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Tin Drummer,

Coherence theory can only give you probability, not objective truth. So the idea that UFOs are alien in origin (given the absence of supporting evidence) is extremely unlikely.

4:41 AM

 
Blogger The Tin Drummer said...

Ah, I see. Forgive me for being naive here but I don't know anything of this coherence theory of which you speak.

But if I did see something in the sky which seemed to me ET in origin, say it was metallic, and dipped and disappeared, accelerated and so on, in ways that human-made craft can't, perhaps also with little guys in it beeping at me, I should assume it to be a figment of my imagination, as that is the most likely explanation - and thereby distrust the evidence of my own eyes and reason - yes? I'm not being funny here, I'm just trying to get at what you mean.

5:54 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Tin,

No worries - it's not an easy theory, and I can only put forward a particularly crude version of it. But in the case of your example, I'd say that the chances of it being a hoax/illusion/delusion are much higher than it being an alien craft. After all, the evidence that people are prone to mistakes/hallucinations is much more substantial than the evidence for aliens visiting Earth.

Think of it along the lines of Occams Razor: a hallucination/hoax requires less speculation than an advanced alien race with the technology to cross the galaxy in order to pop up on Earth for some unknown reason.

This doesn't rule out the possibility that it's actually an alien spacecraft, it just points out that there are more likely explanations that are more consistent with the state of knowledge at the current moment.

6:21 AM

 
Blogger The Tin Drummer said...

Fair enough, that sounds perfectly rational, although I understand why people in that situation (seeing a flying saucer)might get frustrated by those who were not there telling them their senses and reasoning were malfunctioning. but it's such a difficult subject - you have no evidence, it's all very unlikely, and yet people are determined they saw something. Yes, often they are delusional, sometimes they're lying, but...well, I used to be keen on the subject, until most of it turned out to be horse manure, anyway.

7:29 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

frustrated by those who were not there telling them their senses and reasoning were malfunctioning.

I think you have to be careful about how you criticise a position. As I said, it's impossible to prove that people haven't seen a genuine alien spacecraft, it's just that the odds are against it.

If a number of governments announced that they'd got their hands on one of these crafts, and were prepared to release hard evidence to those who wanted it, the situation would change considerably. It still wouldn't validate every claim, but it would mean we'd have to take them a bit more seriously.

(I used to be quite interested in the subject as a teenager, reading various books by the likes of Nick Pope, etc. I still think there are some interesting claims that should be looked into further, but for me there just isn't enough evidence to prove that aliens are among us.)

11:44 AM

 
Blogger Liz said...

So Matt, you don't believe in God or aliens. What a simple black and white life you must lead.

You can look at the sky at night and not imagine life forms anywhere else in this universe; you can accept that the accident that gave us giraffes, bacteria and mankind - and the ideal environment in which to live - was a complete one-off? You can study the inside of your computer and believe it could have been designed by accident?

1:55 PM

 
Blogger The Tin Drummer said...

Nick Pope,


Tin Drummer breathes in and out aggressively like Harry Enfield used to..Nick Pope? Nick....Pope? NICK POPE????


Matt, for what it's worth, I agree with you, it's just that...Nick Pope? That jackanapes?

2:15 PM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

How would aliens fit in with contemporary human religion, I wonder? How would theists reconcile a human-slanted tradition with the knowledge that other civilisations, blissfully unaware of those traditions, are existing quite happily out there in space?

3:01 PM

 
Blogger The Tin Drummer said...

Rev Dr said: How would theists reconcile a human-slanted tradition with the knowledge that other civilisations, blissfully unaware of those traditions, are existing quite happily out there in space?

uh, well, traditionally, it's been quite a problem, as you might guess, but for me, not really. I see no problem with Christ coming for earth (appropriately enough, to sort or help with an earth-evolved morality) and there being other civilisations: some - in a shock move - not needing a saviour, or having another one, or whatever. I see no problem at all with us being a tiny part of an infinite bounty of life from this fabulously fertile universe, this magnificent expression of the creator's mind and love. I know that sets me at odds with all kinds of doctrines, but what the heck.

In the marvellous BBC radio comedy "Old Harry's Game" (mid 90s I think) the atheist scientist, condemned to hell, for some reason which I now forget, gets to ask God a question, which is, "Is there life on other planets?" to which God responds, "Do you really think you're the best I could manage?" which seems fair comment to me, great though I think we are.

3:12 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Incitatus,
Now there's a "what if" question if I've seen one! There seems to be an assumption that theists are barred from belief in life outside of this planet. Personally I'm happily agnostic on this issue. I see no reason that God could not give the appropriate revelation to other intelligent life.

3:14 PM

 
Blogger The Tin Drummer said...

Rev Dr, when you wrote "How would theists reconcile a human-slanted tradition" I am assuming you mean "of religious belief and practice", just to be clear.

3:18 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Liz,

You can look at the sky at night and not imagine life forms anywhere else in this universe

I've never said this. What I said was that the chances of strange bright lights turning out to be aliens are slim - because there's little substantial evidence to suggest otherwise.

For what it's worth, I'd be extremely surprised if we're the only life form in the universe. I follow with interest news about possible life on places such as Mars or Europa. But there's a crucial difference between speculation and fact.

You can study the inside of your computer and believe it could have been designed by accident?

I assume this refers to God and not aliens.

The argument from design was shot down centuries ago, most notably by the likes of David Hume. I don't know why the universe came about, but suggesting some kind of pre-existing divine figure was behind it strikes me as far more unlikely than the idea it came about by accident.

3:16 AM

 
Blogger Liz said...

Matt,

" ... pre-existing divine figure was behind it strikes me as far more unlikely than the idea it came about by accident."

To go back to the computer. You can understand the technology of it (and the internet) and could imagine that it could have been created by a series of circumstances with no thought or planning?

Unless you see substantial evidence for something you treat it as unlikely. I repeat: what a black and white world you inhabit.

5:22 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Liz,

imagine that it could have been created by a series of circumstances with no thought or planning?

Actually, to an extent it really is: the technology behind the computer rests on a diverse range of knowledge built up over hundreds of years by people who probably could never have conceive of something like the Internet. Modern technicians simply put together pre-existing ideas.

Unless you see substantial evidence for something you treat it as unlikely.

If not evidence, then what do you judge something on?

I'd like to believe I'm a rock-god sexbomb, given that there's no evidence to support that claim, am I still justified in holding it?

5:39 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

I'd like to believe I'm a rock-god sexbomb

Your not?

Aw well. I guess that's just one more of my perceptions of you that bites the dust. ;-)

Incitatus,
there were numerous wannabe messiahs popping up in Judea and Egypt, among other places before, during and after Christ.

And of these folks what was their end? What became of their movements? What was the character of their lives? How many of their followers were so convinced of their message that they were able to grow their ranks then be killed for their message; all this AFTER their messiah had been killed?

(still sifting through what you posted yesterday.)

6:45 AM

 
Blogger The Tin Drummer said...

I'd like to believe I'm a rock-god sexbomb, given that there's no evidence to support that claim, am I still justified in holding it?


Don't be so hard on yourself, Matt. What if you were good looking, and quite good at the guitar, say in a pub band? Then your belief may still be extreme, but along the right lines, at least. It would not be irrational to think that you were in some way sexually desirable and that this was connected to your moderate musical talent and looks.

6:50 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

I'd like to believe I'm a rock-god sexbomb

Your not?


No. My guitar playing is lousy.

(ba-dum PSH!)

7:14 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

You're bad, Matt.

7:25 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Tin Drummer,
You answered my question just fine. Ultimately, aliens will probably generate more religions than they'll undermine. However, it would require many of the mainstream religions to not only shelve certain aspects of doctrine, but also tweak some of their dogma.

Liz,
You seem to be stuck on some very old and tired anecdotes re creationism. The computer (are rehashed version of the Boeing story) is in the same bag of logical fallacies as the Coke can and the eyeball &c. They've all been more than adequately refuted (articles online everywhere).

Before you embark on a criticism of evolution, you first have to be confident that you have a sufficient understanding of the theory and the current evidence supporting it. Otherwise, you're arguments are likely to be directed at a straw man (as many are).

I've taken the time to read into ID in order to avoid making similar spurious claims about the intent of the hypothesis and its plausibility. But of course, the more I read about ID the more I think of L. Ron Hubbard and his brand of pseudoscience. It's in the same camp.

9:34 AM

 
Blogger Liz said...

Matt,
"Modern technicians simply put together pre-existing ideas."

Which were conceived by someone or created themslevs?

"If not evidence, then what do you judge something on?"

You don't have to judge something, just be able to imagine it.

If you tell me you're a rock god sex bomb, I'll believe you! I have no reason to doubt you. (I've got a horrible feeling I'm talking myself into a circle here!)

Rev.

"Before you embark on a criticism of evolution..."
I'm not criticising evolution. I believe in it.

P.S. What is ID?

10:15 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Liz,

Which were conceived by someone or created themslevs?

They probably sprang - like most ideas - from basic interaction with our environment. From "red berry = bad" to complex microchips is pretty easy, given enough time.

You don't have to judge something, just be able to imagine it.

I have no trouble imagining aliens and god-like beings. But when the talk turns to whether they actual exist or not we have to use judgement, and that requires evaluating the evidence.

If you tell me you're a rock god sex bomb, I'll believe you!

Yes, I'm a sexbomb rock-god. Who spends a lot of his time on a computer. Blogging. About 'Doctor Who'. :-)

10:52 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

I'm a sexbomb rock-god. Who spends a lot of his time on a computer. Blogging. About 'Doctor Who'.

You need to put that one in your profile Matt! LOL!

That's just quality material.

As for what Liz is getting at I think it is just this:

The atheist looks around the world and is in awe that a system exists that has created such a complicated reality. A reality that holds it's precise complexity form the smallest elements known, to the inconceivable expanse of deep space, as well as the mathematical elegance that underpins the entire endeavor. "How amazing that I have come to exist as a result of all this!" ..."surly there is no God."

The theist sees all the same things the atheist does, yet the conclusion is the exact opposite. The breadth of reality seems to be clearly pointing to something beyond itself. We must not forget that the personal "I" that is evaluating all this evidence is itself a part of the equation. What does my own sentience point towards? What do my moral intuitions point towards?

I firmly believe that the factor that determines our theistic bent is not an intellectual one. Once all our presuppositions are laid bare it should be clear that our reasons for belief/disbelief are not evidentiary in nature.

11:21 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Liz,
My bad. Sorry for misrepresenting your position (looks like it was me who popped one on the chin of the straw man after all).

When you asked,
"You can study the inside of your computer and believe it could have been designed by accident?"

I interpreted it as an inference that you were a proponent of Intelligent Design (ID). If you believe in evolution (even from a "God started the ball rolling" hypothesis, as many do) then you clearly don't subscribe to Intelligent Design.

11:46 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

If you believe in evolution (even from a "God started the ball rolling" hypothesis, as many do) then you clearly don't subscribe to Intelligent Design.

aren't you confusing that with the creationist camp? I was unawares that the ID folk were required to deny evolution.

12:06 PM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"aren't you confusing that with the creationist camp? I was unawares that the ID folk were required to deny evolution.br/>
The central argument of ID is that natural selection cannot possibly explain the complexity of biology. Therefore, ID proponents believe that every stage of macroevolution has and is being guided by a currently unspecified intelligence. They are not saying that evolution is simply a tool of God (as is the liberal Christian view), they are straighforwardly saying that evolution is impossible.

1:00 AM

 
Blogger The Tin Drummer said...

The Very Rev Dr said: However, it would require many of the mainstream religions to not only shelve certain aspects of doctrine, but also tweak some of their dogma.


Yes, of course, not least of which being my recent reading: "in the likeness of God" and all that jazz. I prefer to think of it as meaning "with moral and intellectual capability such that the universe is transparent to them" rather than "they have two legs and hair on their head and privates etc etc".

I have been castigated many, many times by my left-footed family for my view that aliens are not just possible ("you can't be a catholic then"/"er..yes I am") but an integral part of the divine creation, so being against loads of dogmas doesn't bother me.

I still don't know what the Nephilim are either, but I don't assume that _they_ are aliens anymore,like I did some years ago...

12:33 PM

 

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