Sunday, November 01, 2015

Skewed priorities

I will comment on this statement:

Keith Parsons
Like you, I have never really delved into the "evidence" for the resurrection very deeply and I am not terribly inclined to do so. 

That's a remarkable admission. Parsons is a militant atheist with a very long paper trail attacking Christianity. He has debated W. L. Craig twice. He's a philosophy prof. with two earned doctorates. Yet he's never taken the time to really delve very deeply into the evidence for the Resurrection. But shouldn't that be one of the very first things he examines when assessing the case for Christianity?

Does this make us derelict in our epistemic duties? 

More to the point, it makes him a monumental fool. 

Are we, as Craig might suggest, refusing to look out of fear of what we might find, like those who refused to look through Galileo's telescope? 

Having read lots of stuff by Parsons, I'd say his pride gets in the way. He's so pleased with himself. It's crucial to his self-esteem to feel intellectually superior to Christians. He tries very hard to impress others. 

I can't speak for you, of course, but my rationale/excuse is this: You just don't have time to investigate everything in the depth that you would like, so you have no choice but to make judgments about the prima facie reasonableness of a claim and decide whether it is really worth a massive investment of time, effort, and energy. Jeez. really to do it right, I would have to dig out my old textbook of Koine Greek and learn it all over again. 

That's true so far as it goes, but absurdly simplistic. In a risk assessment, you need to take two risk factors into account: 

Hazard: the magnitude of potential loss 

Risk: the likelihood that the loss will occur

A risk with high probability but low potential loss can be less risky than a risk with low probability but high potential loss.

Cf. "Risk Assessment," W. Kirch, ed., Encyclopedia of Public Health (Springer 2008), 1:1261ff. 

Suppose I'm stranded on a remote desert island. I could just do nothing and hope that I will be rescued. The chance of that happening is nearly nonexistent. 

Or I could collect rocks and arrange them on the beach to spell out S.O.S. Likewise, I could gather and arrange kindling and branches for a beacon fire. That way, if a boat or plane comes into view, I have a way to signal them. The chances of that happening are very low, but it's better than being stuck on this island for the rest of my life. 

Both require maintenance. Because the beach is unstable, I have to keep the rocks properly arranged. Keep sand off the rocks. Likewise, I have to keep the materials for the beacon fire dry. Or replace them if they get wet. Daily effort with dim prospects of success. 

Consider the stakes. If atheism is true, Parsons has nothing to gain. He is doomed. So he has nothing to lose by making a "massive investment of time, effort, and energy" into the case for the Resurrection, even if (ex hypothesi) that turns out to be false. Conversely, if the Resurrection is true, then he has everything to lose by neglecting that. 

I am  empathetic with Christians who take a similar view of the "mythicist" arguments. I can understand that such a claim might reasonably strike them as too implausible to merit a close and careful look or a detailed rebuttal. 

Those aren't symmetrical options (see above). Moreover, even liberal scholars like Bart Ehrman and James McGrath don't take mythicism seriously. 

Further, there are just so many obvious points that strongly favor skepticism. Here are just a few of them:
1) The only witnesses of the resurrection event itself mentioned in the NT (only Matthew) were the Roman soldiers set to guard the tomb by Pilate, and we have no testimony from them. 

Strictly speaking, no one saw the resurrection event itself. But if Jesus was dead for about 36 hours (from blood loss and asphyxiation), and people subsequently encountered him in the flesh, then, of necessity, he came back to life. 

2) The only firsthand report of an encounter with the resurrected Jesus is Paul's, an event that appears to have been of a visionary nature (all Paul is reported in Acts to have experienced was a bright light and a voice) and which occurred some years after the supposed resurrection.

That's equivocal. A record can include firsthand reports even if the historian or biographer was not himself an eyewitness. 

3) The list of other supposed eyewitnesses given by Paul in I Corinthians 15 is a bare list. We are given no information about what these people saw, the circumstances of their experiences (when and where did they occur?), their frame of mind, or their reliability as witnesses, corroborating evidence, etc. Consider the famous "500." Did Jesus appear to them on a stage or a hilltop so that they could clearly see him? Did each know Jesus well enough by sight that they could be sure that it was him? Did they get close enough for a good look? Were they in a state of emotional excitement, expecting to see something extraordinary? Paul says nothing about such crucial details.

But even if Parsons had an ancient record with that information, he'd dismiss it out of hand as a biased source (see below). 

4) The Gospels, by contrast, have rich and detailed stories of encounters with the risen Christ. However, if we are going to appeal to scholarly consensus…

The appeal to scholarly consensus can be useful for the sake of argument. Even if we confine ourselves to scholars consensus, then certain core facts are not in serious dispute. 

That, however, doesn't mean scholarly consensus should be the standard of comparison. It comes down to the quality of the arguments. 

…then the overwhelming consensus has long been that the Gospels (a) were written decades after the events, (b) were written by persons unknown, except for Luke, who admits that he was not an eyewitness, (c) were based on oral traditions (i.e. telling and re-telling), (d) contain unmistakable fictional elements, (e) have an apologetic ax to grind (i.e. the Gospel writers were clearly not disinterested reporters), and (f) have no independent corroborating accounts. 

i) He simply ignores, through studied ignorance, moderate to conservative scholarship to the contrary.

ii) Consider (f). What qualifies as an "independent corroborating account"? In the nature of the case, any writer who corroborates the Resurrection will believe in the Resurrection. So Parsons' criterion is circular. If you corroborate the Resurrection, then you can't be "independent." You can only be independent if you deny it. Parsons has an unfalsifiable position. 

Fact is, if someone was going to collect all the reports of the Resurrection by individuals closest to the event, that collection would coincide with the NT. And any "independent corroborating account" would be part of that collection. 

5) If the apologetic argument is aimed at skeptics, and surely it is, then it must begin with the skeptic's priors and not the apologists'. This is an obvious point that often seems ignored. 

Actually, that's obviously false. What if the skeptic's priors are arbitrary? That's subject to challenge. 

In other words, apologists don't get to choose their own burden of proof. 

Both sides have a burden of proof. In philosophical analysis, moreover, a standard method of assessing the opposing position is to assume it's true for the sake of argument, then consider it on its own terms. 

Skeptics have much latitude in how low they want to set their priors for the resurrection. If I want to put it at, say, .0000000001, why can I not? 

Because you pulled that figure out of thin air. It has no philosophical merit.

What epistemic duty have I violated in doing so? 

Conjuring up a bogus statistic is a good place to start (see above).

6) We now have copious knowledge about how extraordinary stories can get started and spread, despite the opposition of eyewitnesses. Soon after Darwin's death, evangelicals began to preach that Darwin had repented on his deathbed, repudiated his theory, and accepted Christ as his savior. This legend flourished for decades, finally being put into print by one "Lady Hope" who claimed to have interviewed Darwin shortly before his death. The Darwin children, who were present for their father's final illness and death, roundly repudiated those claims, declaring them utterly false. Yet, the claims continued to proliferate.

i) Parsons is so gullible. The deathbed conversion of the notorious infidel is such a familiar trope that I, for one, always greet such claims with antecedent skepticism. It's a traditional genre unto itself. Parsons has to be very credulous to imagine that's a good example to illustrate his contention.

ii) That said, imminent death is an incentive to conversion. It's more likely to happen in that circumstance than when the individual is healthy and has years ahead of him. 

iii) Moreover, he fails to show how that furnishes a detailed analogy to the Resurrection accounts. 

7) In sum, these purported events happened a long, long time ago, under obscure circumstances…

Like the extinction of the dinosaurs? 

…with NO contemporary accounts and no independent later accounts by unbiased persons.

i) Like the extinction of the dinosaurs? 

ii) In addition, there's equivocation over the definition of "contemporary accounts." An account can be written years later by someone who was contemporaneous with the events. Likewise, an account may incorporate firsthand reports, even if the writer was not himself an observer. Consider history books and presidential biographies. Parsons is overlooking really obvious counterexamples. 

The claimed events were of a miraculous nature and skeptics are fully within their epistemic rights to demand a very heavy burden of proof. It is just dead obvious that skepticism is reasonable.

Why do events of a miraculous nature demand a very heaven burden of proof? That involves a prejudgment about the kind of world we live in. If there's well-attested evidence for the occurrence of miracles, then shouldn't his a priori denial demand a very heavy burden of proof? 


  1. The Shroud of Turin, if authentic, offers something like photographic evidence of the resurrection.

    We have independent evidence for the resurrection not only in the Shroud, but also in the early Jewish corroboration of the empty tomb. Justin Martyr, in section 108 of his Dialogue With Trypho, seems to quote a Jewish tradition or document on the matter. And dismissing Justin's report on the basis that he's a Christian source won't work, since scholars in relevant fields and many skeptics frequently accept fragments of one source cited within another. I can document example after example of skeptics, even radically liberal ones, doing so (relying on Christian sources to reconstruct what Celsus wrote, relying on Christian sources to reconstruct what Seneca wrote, etc.). Besides, the idea that men like the author of Matthew's gospel, Justin Martyr, and Tertullian were all mistaken or lying about Jewish corroboration of the empty tomb is absurd.

    Parsons is demonstrably wrong in his claim that "all Paul is reported in Acts to have experienced was a bright light and a voice". It's remarkable how much evidence Parsons has to be ignorant of or ignore in order to reach his conclusion.

    (continued below)

  2. (continued from above)

    His dismissal of the 1 Corinthians 15 witnesses is shallow. The historical context in which Paul wrote provides us with a lot of details, even if the details aren't spelled out in 1 Corinthians 15. For example, we have good evidence that the James mentioned in that passage was a skeptic of Jesus, even as late as the time of the crucifixion. That creates significant problems for theories that James was hallucinating, lying, etc. Similarly, the larger context in which Paul wrote gives us reason to think the resurrection appearances in question were thought to involve the physical resurrection of the body that had died. Parsons suggests that the witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15 might not have been close enough to get a good look at the person they thought was Jesus risen from the dead, etc. But the possibility that hundreds of eyewitnesses were all mistaken in some manner, like in the ways Parsons suggests, doesn't prevent us from concluding that they probably weren't mistaken. We don't begin with a default assumption that hundreds of reported eyewitnesses were all mistaken in some way or another. To the contrary, the general reliability of human memory, human senses, human testimony, etc. gives us reason to trust something that so many eyewitnesses report. There could be overriding factors involved that tip the scale in the other direction, but Parsons hasn't provided that here.

    Paul and the resurrection appearances he refers to can't be separated from the gospel resurrection accounts as easily as Parsons suggests. We have good evidence that some of the gospels were circulating while Paul was alive, and 1 Timothy 5:18 seems to cite Luke's gospel as scripture. And it's not enough to dismiss 1 Timothy as not having been written by Paul, for reasons I explain in the post just linked. Furthermore, what sense does it make to suggest that all four gospels represent some later view of Jesus' resurrection, with the earlier view of Paul and other earlier Christians having left no trace in the gospels and other early literature? That's a ridiculous scenario. The burden of proof is on the shoulders of those who want to propose that there was some major shift in how Christians viewed Jesus' resurrection between Paul and the gospels. Given the earliness of the gospels, the fact that all four are attributed to close companions of Paul, and the fact that the gospels were accepted so early among so many Pauline Christians and churches, the idea that they're all radically, or even moderately, departing from Paul is unlikely. Why would every gospel depart from Paul and do so in the same way? Again, the issue here is probability, so a possibility that it would happen isn't enough.

    1. ...the fact that all four [Gospels] are attributed to close companions of Paul...

      Jason, how do you figure this? I understand how Mark and Luke/Acts is connected to Paul, but I don't know how Matthew and John are.


      Paul's letters often refer to how he had met with the other apostles and had followed their work closely enough to know what they were teaching, where they had brought the gospel, how they were conducting themselves in particular contexts, etc. He often refers to how he and his fellow apostles are governing the church as its leaders and foundation. See, for example, the many references to the work of the other apostles, including references to how Paul coordinated his efforts with theirs, in his letters to the Corinthians and the Galatians. John is mentioned by name in Galatians 2, whereas Matthew isn't named in any of these passages, but his inclusion is implied in some of the contexts. References to the apostles collectively, where they had brought the gospel, how Paul was coordinating his efforts with theirs, how Paul was evaluating his own conduct in light of theirs, etc. have to include Matthew, regardless of whether he's named.

  3. I should add that it's often the case that two or more of the gospel resurrection accounts agree on details that would be unlikely to have been fabricated. There are good reasons to accept some portions of the gospel accounts even if we doubt their traditional dating, traditional authorship attributions, etc.

    Here's a thread in which I outline several independent lines of evidence for Jesus' resurrection.

  4. Thanks for the resources and logical arguments, Jason. Although I don't personally share your views regarding the Shroud of Turin, I do think you have a great many very helpful things to say about the historicity of Christianity.