Monday, March 06, 2017

The Licona/Dillahunty debate

I recently watched the Licona/Dillahunty debate (although I skipped the minimal facts section). Before that, I watched James White trashing Licona's approach in that debate. (Didn't listen to White's entire DL screed.)

I've been severely critical of some of Licona's positions. But I think he did a generally fine job in this debate, and I appreciate Licona's strategy. He's using independent evidence (e.g. veridical NDEs/OBEs, veridical apparitions, "extreme" answered prayer) to debunk naturalism/physicalism. See 7:00-18.00. Licona gives another example between 1:00-1:02. At 1:42-43, Licona makes a telling observation about the dearth of well-documented group hallucinations. 

Many unbelievers say they find the Bible incredible because we don't live in that kind of world. We don't experience events like that. Everything we experience is naturalistically explicable. 

Licona is challenging and removing that intellectual obstacle in preparation to make a case for the Resurrection. That can be a necessary preliminary step. 

Perhaps White doesn't approve of paranormal evidence. But if there are well-documented phenomena that run counter to naturalism, why not adduce that evidence? 

From what I heard, before tuning out, White also took issue with Licona's suggestion that Paul may well have seen Jesus prior to the Resurrection. That, however, is not a new idea. For instance, Paul Barnett says "It is likely that Paul was in Jerusalem at the same time as Jesus, and that he [Paul] heard him [Jesus] speak." The Truth about Jesus: The Challenge of Evidence (Aquila Press, 2004), 40.

More recently, Stanley Porter has made a book-length case for that proposition: 

Keep in mind that Licona is simply responding to the oft-repeated claim that Paul never saw Jesus before the Resurrection. That's a claim with its own burden of proof. 

Some of Licona's statements smack of historical positivism. That's philosophically naive. Licona made some cringe-worthy statements in the course of the debate. He has his limitations. But it was a strong performance overall.

In some basic respects, the debate suffered from lack of clarity.  Licona could be clearer on the relevance of his examples from the paranormal and answered prayer. 

i) Atheists overwhelmingly champion physicalism. If physicalism is true, then all mental activity takes place inside our heads. We can only interact with the world through physical media. And we can only know about the world through the senses, although we might have some instinctive know-how.

That rules out the possibility of ESP, psychokinesis, ghosts, &c. Conversely, if there is credible evidence of ESP, psychokinesis, ghosts, &c., then that rules out physicalism–which leaves most atheists up a paddle without a creek. 

In theory, atheism can allow for the possibility of ESP, psychokinesis, &c., but that overlaps with the supernatural dimension of Christian theism, making it exceptionally difficult for atheists to rule out God, angels, demons, miracles, and the afterlife.

In general, the sticking point was establishing the supernatural. Dillahunty is a dogmatic methodological atheist. Indeed, he's a promissory methodological atheist. 

He dismisses the supernatural as a vacuous placeholder. But that's a confused objection:

ii) To begin with, it's self-defeating for Dillahunty to act as though the supernatural is indefinable. After all, atheism depends on the ability to distinguish between what's natural and what's not. Atheists deny miracles because they think miracles are contrary to nature, and they think nature is conterminous with reality. How can Dillahunty be an atheist, how can he champion metaphysical naturalism and methodological naturalism, if he's unable to define supernaturalism and thereby demarcate supernaturalism from naturalism, or vice versa? For an atheist, these are correlative, mutually definable categories. Naturalism stands in contrast to supernaturalism. So unless an atheist has a clear idea of what naturalism is not, of what stands in contrast to naturalism, of what's incompatible with naturalism, it is self-refuting for him to say that supernaturalism has no meaning or content. 

iii) Here's a stab at a philosophical definition:

Many ontological naturalists thus adopt a physicalist attitude to mental, biological and other such “special” subject matters. They hold that there is nothing more to the mental, biological and social realms than arrangements of physical entities. 
In the final twentieth-century phase, the acceptance of the casual closure of the physical led to full-fledged physicalism. The causal closure thesis implied that, if mental and other special causes are to produce physical effects, they must themselves be physically constituted. It thus gave rise to the strong physicalist doctrine that anything that has physical effects must itself be physical.

On that definition, a miracle or supernatural cause is not reducible to physical properties and their interactions. Evidence for events that don't fit the definition of naturalism automatically defaults to supernaturalism as the logical alternative. 

iv) In addition, Christians can and do define properties of supernatural agents. We specify the divine attributes. We state that angels, demons, and ghosts are discarnate minds. Those are claims with positive content. 

v) Another comparison would be telepathy or psychokinesis. Even if we can't explain "how" that's possible, there'd still be evidence for the phenomena. Indeed, the question of "how" begs the question, as if every effect must be facilitated by an intervening medium. But what if some events are directly caused, with no intervening medium? 

vi) Dillahunty appears to have no clear definition of a miracle. One way to define a miracle is to say a miracle is an event contrary to what happens when we let nature take its course. That's the way secular philosopher J. L. Mackie defines a miracle. On this view, nature is how the world works when operating as a closed system. A miracle is what happens when an external agent intervenes.

vii) That, however, depends on how "nature" is defined. In debates over miracles, "nature" is usually shorthand for the physical universe. Matter and energy. Inanimate physical processes. Physical cause and effect. 

They operate like automated machines that do whatever they were programmed to do, no more and no less. Although natural physical processes may be the product of intelligence, then are not intelligent in their own right. 

In the same context, "nature" includes animate agents, including humans. Humans have reason. But humans have limited power and intelligence. 

A miracle reflects rational discretion as well as superhuman ability. A miracle is more discriminating than natural processes. And it requires greater knowledge and/or power than human agents. 

I think that's a ballpark definition of a miracle. Events which fit that basic description justify the inference of a miracle. Dillahunty denied that anything could ever count as evidence for a miracle, or the supernatural, but that's because he has no clear definition of what a miracle is. 

viii) Dillahunty acts as though classifying an event as a miracle is always an argument from ignorance. For all we know, there might be some future scientific theory, some physical law yet to be discovered, that furnishes a naturalistic explanation for the event. 

But to repeat a comparison I recently used, a detective may have to determine whether a death was accidental, suicidal, or homicidal. A clever killer will stage a murder to make it appear to be accidental, suicidal, or death by natural causes. Yet there may be subtle indications that it was murder. Imagine an atheist objecting on the grounds that we should always be patient and assume death was accidental or due to natural causes. Even if we can't explain it that way, we should wait until we develop a theory to do so. To invoke a personal agent (murderer) is homicide of the gaps. 

ix) If, moreover, naturalism is so flexible as to be consistent with anything and everything, then it has no content. To stand for something, it must be opposed to something. If no evidence can ever count against naturalism, even in principle, then naturalism isn't based on evidence. 

x) Dillahunty labored to discredit Licona's paranormal evidence by appealing to magician's tricks. But Licona's examples don't involve professional magicians, so there was no sleight-of-hand. The attempted analogy is fallacious. 

xi) Dillahunty committed the schoolboy blunder of contending that you must prove God's existence before you can prove a miracle. But that's illogical. While God's existence is ontologically necessary for a miracle to be possible, it doesn't follow that belief in God must be prior to belief in miracles. 

xii) After objecting that the supernatural is indefinable, Dillahunty raises the additional objection that if God exists, he can provide convincing evidence to everyone. But these are contradictory objections. If, according to Dillahunty, we can't define the supernatural, then how could anything constitute evidence for the supernatural? He needs to pick one objection and stick with it. Better yet, ditch both objections! 

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