Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Show me the evidence!

I’m going to worm in on the Turkoman’s debate with Brian Fleming for just a moment

“When it comes to specific areas of scholarship, I may refer to experts in those areas, as I do not claim to be an expert in all the areas covered in The God Who Wasn't There. Richard Carrier, Robert M. Price and Earl Doherty have decades more experience than I on the subject of Biblical history. I am persuaded by their arguments that Jesus is fictional, but their arguments are best defended by themselves.”

This raises an interesting question. Why do we believe that various historical figures from the distant past ever existed? When you think about it, there’s often far less direct evidence for their existence than there is for the life of Christ.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can think of a couple of reasons:

1.To begin with, if an ancient historian tells us that someone existed, especially a contemporary or near contemporary, we are inclined to believe him. Unless we have evidence to the contrary, we don’t assume that he simply stuck a fictitious character into his historical account.

2.In addition, the reason an ancient historian discusses a historical figure is to explain certain historical events as a consequence of his agency. This happened because he made it happen. He did something, and this is the result.

Even though we lack direct access to the agent, we may well enjoy direct access to certain historical effects that our ancient sources attribute to his action.

When we, living in the present, can observe the effect for ourselves, and when a well-placed writer from the past attributes that effect to a particular individual, we generally accept his explanation—unless we have very good reason not to—precisely because the effect does demand an explanation, and the explanation given by the ancient historian successfully accounts for the effect.

A pathological sceptic like Carrier or Doherty or Price could attempt to explain the Hellenistic era without recourse to Alexander, or the Roman Empire without recourse to Caesar Augustus.

They could be just as creative and conjectural as a radical Bible critic, but we would find their reconstructions wholly implausible.

Not only do we have a record of the existence of Christ in the NT—as well as certain extra-Biblical sources.

But we also have a historical effect. We have the church. We have the conversion of the Roman Empire.

And we have a host of NT writers and church fathers who ascribe that effect to the impact of a particular individual. Even the heretics admit as much.

“The extraordinary claims in the literature have nothing approaching the extraordinary evidence a rational person would require to credit those claims. This should go without saying, as it's obvious. I have a feeling it doesn't go without saying on this blog, however.”

Why should this go without saying? How is it obvious that an extraordinary claim demands extraordinary evidence?

There is no doubt something catchy about that equation. If we’re going to apply the adjective to one word (extraordinary claim), then it’s appealing, as a matter of literary symmetry, to apply the same adjective to the other word (extraordinary evidence).

That makes for a tidy aesthetic pairing. But is there any inner logical to this pat equation?

Suppose what is extraordinary is the relation between two ordinary events like life and death?

Take the Resurrection. According to the NT, Christ was alive, then he was dead, then he was alive again.

When you string these relata together, it generates an extraordinary event, but while their interrelation is extraordinary, there is nothing the least bit extraordinary about each relatum, considered in isolation.

There’s nothing extraordinary about being alive. And there’s nothing extraordinary about being dead.

By the same token, you don’t demand extraordinary evidence for an ordinary event. You don’t demand extraordinary evidence that some one is dead or alive, do you?

So, on closer examination, there’s nothing obvious about this equation. To the contrary, it’s a very ill-considered equation. Facile, plausible, and specious.

Flemming also needs to define what he means by “extraordinary.” Does he mean rare, infrequent, unlikely, unnatural? What?

“Perhaps we will discover brand new, extraordinary, testable evidence of an omnipresent but previously undetectable being who watches our actions, hears our thoughts and intervenes in the real world.”

The insinuation is that if God is omnipresent, then he ought to be empirically detectable.

But that is not what Christian theology means by omnipresence. God is not spread around like an energy field.

Flemming also mentions our thoughts. But that raises another question. Are his own thoughts detectable?

Is there some scanning device that will enable me to directly perceive what he thinking?

If not, should I then assume that he has no thoughts?

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