Thursday, July 23, 2009

Tail-chasing atheism

I mentioned earlier that I’ve been compiling a running commentary on Jon Curry’s replies to Jason Engwer. It looks like that side of the debate has died down, so I’ll post my little commentary.

"Let's use your earthquake example. Suppose an earthquake had never been observed. Scientific books never mentioned such a thing or imagined that they happen. You had no reliable eyewitness testimony that one had occurred."

"No reliable witnesses" begs the question.

"We know of billions of living things that have died and not come back to life."

Irrelevant. This is not about ants and eels and trilobites. There is no presumption that if God brought Jesus back from the dead, he’d also bring a trilobite back from the dead. Curry disregards the stated rationale for the Resurrection.

Of course, this may reflect the Biblical illiteracy which precipitated his defection in the first place. A basic failure to appreciate the theological context of the Resurrection.

"We know of no humans that were dead for 3 days that came back to life, whether naturally or supernaturally."

Begs the question. All his "argument" ever amounts to is: "Naturalism is true. We know naturalism is true because all the evidence supports naturalism. Therefore, any evidence for the supernatural can be dismissed without further ado."

It's a tight little vicious circle.

"The point is good evidence is needed for unusual claims and extraordinary evidence is needed for extraordinary claims."

I've addressed that facile objection on several different occasions. For example:

"Documents written decades after the fact by devoted, superstitious followers."

Begs the question in several respects. Were they written “decades” after the fact? Were the written by “superstitious” followers?

If someone is a “devoted follower,” does that automatically render his testimony suspect? What if someone is a devoted follower of Darwin?

“It should be obvious that the accuracy of the biblical reporting is the very thing in dispute. You can't assume your conclusion.”

That allegation cuts both ways. He can't automatically take the Bible off the table, for his own conclusion is also disputable. Yes, the accuracy of the Bible is in dispute, but the inaccuracy of the Bible is also in dispute. Both positions are disputable. Therefore, it's not as if a Christian has a unilateral burden of proof to discharge.

“…eyewitness testimony, which is notoriously unreliable…The primary evidence we have, even if we grant all of your assumptions about authorship and dating, is really just about the worst sort of evidence you could ask for. Documents written decades after the fact by devoted, superstitious followers.”

Curry, like many apostates, has given us a deconversion testimony:

Should we treat his firsthand account of his own apostasy as reliable or unreliable? He's hardly an impartial, disinterested witness.

If he thinks we should automatically discount the testimony of NT writers because they were devoted believers, should we automatically discount his own testimony because he's an unbeliever? If they have an ax to grind, so does he.

I'd add that his brother also has a deconversion testimony:

Should we apply the same skepticism to his brother's deconversion testimony that he applies to NT writers? If they have a bias, so does his brother. If they were writing to persuade others, so is his brother.

“The principle here is not complicated. We judge the veracity of a claim in light of our current experience.”

We do? Do cosmologists and paleontologists judge the veracity of a claim in light of our current experience?

Since we have no current experience of dinosaurs, dinosaurs never existed!

“Nobody is saying that things that haven't happened before won't happen. This is not about what can and can't happen. This is about what it is rational to believe has happened.”

How does he justify induction? Any inductive justification of induction would be circular.

“If you had no prior evidence of earthquakes, yes, you might not believe your own eyes. That's not irrational.”

Of course it’s irrational. Moreover, if you can’t believe an event the first time you see it, then every recurrence event is equivalent the “unbelievable” first-time occurrence. To see it a second time would be like seeing it for the first time, since you automatically discount the first time you saw it.

“The point is God hasn't ever done this before as far as we know.”

But he just said it’s rational to discount the first occurrence. Yet his appeal to precedence is self-refuting if you can never credit the first occurrence. You can’t have a second, third, fourth occurrence (&c.) apart from a first occurrence,

“I'm skeptical, and I demand exceptional evidence.”

“Exceptional” as it what? Cumulative evidence? But he can only have cumulative evidence if he can credit the first occurrence. Otherwise, he can never get started.

“Never once has a miraculous claim been proven true, whereas it's been proven false thousands of times.”

He’s pulling these claims out of thin air.

"And I'll put Eddie Tabash's question he posed to WL Craig to you. If a person claimed they flew around a couple of planets in an intergalactic spacecraft this morning you wouldn't believe them.”

This comparison makes the typical mistake of treating a miracle as if it’s synonymous with any weird, pointless event you can dream up. Indeed, the examples are chosen for their silliness.

But Biblical miracles aren’t bizarre, pointless events.

“In those cases the likelihood that the evidence would be produced even if the event didn't occur goes up, and therefore my confidence that the ground had actually moved goes down. On the other hand if I'm totally sober and in my right mind, then the likelihood that the evidence would be produced if the ground didn't move is very low, and therefore I conclude that the ground did move.”

These are clichés in sifting testimonial evidence. Proponents of the Resurrection already take such factors into account.

“If religious people typically produce this type of evidence even when the claim is false…”

Do they typically produce this type of evidence? Is there such a thing as a typical religious person? Don’t religious people range along a continuum similar to the continuum of irreligious people?

Take ufology. Ufology is a secular phenomenon. If irreligious people typically produce this type of evidence even when the claim is false, then the testimony of unbelievers can’t be trusted. Therefore, we can safely disregard the deconversion testimonies of all apostates.

“So what is the likelihood of seeing the evidence we have for the resurrection given that the resurrection is false? We've seen devoted followers report similar false things before.”

Again, you could pose the same question with reference to secular reporters, like ufologists. Therefore, are the firsthand reports of secular observers automatically suspect?

“We've seen gullible and superstitious people report similar false things before.”

Of course, that’s true by definition. If you define the witnesses as “gullible and superstitious,” then it’s more likely that their testimony will be unreliable. That’s a tautology.

But you could say the same thing about secularists who report alien abductions, &c. Does this mean secular eyewitnesses are automatically suspect?

“We see it today. We've seen this type of claim in a religious context before.”

Of course, that objection cuts both ways. He’s assuming, sans argument, that all modern miracles are bogus. But suppose what we actually see today is a combination of plausibly reported miracles as well as implausibly reported miracles?

In that event, there’d be no presumption that a reported miracle is bogus. Rather, we’d have to judge the claims on a case-by-case basis.

“But God doesn't normally raise people from the dead.”

Which is completely irrelevant to the credibility of the Resurrection, since the Resurrection was never presented as a normal event. That’s not a presupposition of the Resurrection. Just the opposite.

If we’re even going to frame miracles in terms of their probabilities, then the probability of an event (miraculous or otherwise) depends on the kind of event we’re dealing with.

“In fact we have no examples of God ever raising anyone from the dead.”

i) That depends, in part, on how he defines a resurrection. Does he include Lazarus? The saints in Mt 27:52-53?

ii) And, of course, even if we had multiple reports of God raising people from the dead, Curry would dismiss them out of hand as the claims of “gullible, superstitious” believers.

ii) Likewise, if he regards the first occurrence of an event as unbelievable, then the second or third occurrence will be equally unbelievable. For if you automatically discount the first occurrence as unbelievable, then it’s impossible to develop cumulative evidence for any event or type of event. You can never build a case.

iv) Moreover, we’d expect some miracles to be one-time events, for some miracles are specific to specific circumstances. Take Aaron’s rod turning into a serpent. That miracle is keyed to ancient Egyptian theology. It’s a direct challenge to ancient Egyptian ophiolatry, and the cult of Pharaoh.

We wouldn’t expect a miracle like that to either have precedents or subsequent parallels. We wouldn’t expect all miracles to be repeated, for some miracles are particular to the particulars of that time and place.

"The conditions described in the NT lead us to conclude that these are devoted followers that happen to be superstitious and gullible people."

He repeats that assertion ad nauseum without ever offering a supporting argument. I suspect the reason he doesn't argue for his assertion is that, if he tried to, it would expose the circularity of his objection. I'm sure his real objection boils down to this:

We can't believe NT reports of miracles because the NT reporters were gullible and superstitious. And we know the NT reporters were gullible and superstitious because they report miracles.

"Take as an example Matthew's correction of Mark 2:25. In Mark Jesus misidentifies who the high priest was at a particular time (Abiathar) so at Matthew 12:3 Matthew has a new memory of Jesus words and the error is corrected."

Three problems with this statement:

i) He makes no effort to interact with contrary interpretations, such as Blomberg's discussion in the 2nd ed. of his Historical Reliability of the Gospels (244-46).

ii) An "improvement" is not the same thing as a "correction." It may be the case that, on some occasions, Mark makes an ambiguously worded statement which Matthew or Luke reword to avoid the ambiguity. That's a clarification, not a correction.

To some extent, ambiguity depends on the audience. What is clear to one reader may be unclear to another for lack of background information. What is clear to a Jewish reader may be unclear to a gentile audience, or vice versa.

iii) Even if, for the sake of argument, Mark made a mistake, factual errors are no evidence of superstition or gullibility. Does Curry think an atheist never makes factual mistakes?

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