Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Waterloo of atheism

I'm posting some comments that Timothy McGrew left over at Victor Reppert's blog:

At July 15, 2010 5:52 PM , Tim said...

Mark writes:

No kidding. In practice, no miracle testimony has ever been strong enough to establish its conclusion. This is a far cry from saying Hume thinks it's impossible for testimony to establish the existence of miracles. Look at these sentences from part 2, which come immediately after the section you quoted:

"I beg the limitations here made may be remarked, when I say, that a miracle can never be proved, so as to be the foundation of a system of religion. For I own, that otherwise, there may possibly be miracles, or violations of the usual course of nature, of such a kind as to admit of proof from human testimony; though, perhaps, it will be impossible to find any such in all the records of history."

Still not convinced?

Well, no. Just look at the way that Hume goes on:

Thus, suppose, all authors, in all languages, agree, that, from the first of JANUARY 1600, there was a total darkness over the whole earth for eight days: Suppose that the tradition of this extraordinary event is still strong and lively among the people: That all travellers, who return from foreign countries, bring us accounts of the same tradition, without the least variation or contradiction: It is evident, that our present philosophers, instead of doubting the fact, ought to receive it as certain, and ought to search for the causes whence it might be derived.

The closing reference to ‘causes’ can scarcely be taken to mean anything but natural causes, and the ‘philosophers’ are natural philosophers, that is, scientists. This choice of words warns the reader that under the circumstances Hume would consider the period of darkness to be, not in the strict sense a miracle, that is, a violation of the laws of nature, but rather a violation of its usual course. He goes on to note that the ‘decay, corruption, and dissolution of nature’ is rendered so probable by many analogies that it ‘comes within the reach of human testimony, if that testimony be very extensive and uniform’. The event, in short, is a marvel rather than a miracle; Hume has taken back with the left hand what he appeared to concede with the right.

At July 16, 2010 6:51 AM , Tim said...


Why be so shy? You're missing out. Imagine the fun you could have if you approached Napoleon the way you approach Jesus. I'll illustrate, using the sort of reasoning that you've displayed over the years, just to get you started.

* You have Napoleon's body? Hah. All you have is some body or other.

* Napoleon really existed? Show us his birth certificate. You can't.

* We have not a single photograph of Napoleon. Not. One. Of course, Napoleon apologists will argue that Napoleon died in 1821, whereas the camera was not invented until 1839. That just shows you the desperate lengths to which they will go to explain away the lack of evidence.

* Supposedly we have Napoleon's autograph. But there are about a dozen wildly different ways that he supposedly signed his name, and even those who believe Napoleon existed will concede that most of the signatures purporting to be his are outright forgeries.

* The accounts of the exploits of Napoleon are wildly inconsistent. Just try to reconcile them. It can't be done.

* Even apart from the contradictions, the feats ascribed to Napoleon are wildly improbable; and it is a well-known fact that the more marvelous anything is the less likely is it to be true.

* It was in the interest of the British government to promote national unity at the time. What better way to do so than to invent a figure to play the "good part" of a common enemy against whom the gullible populace might be rallied?

* Supposed memorabilia of Napoleon fetch high prices at auctions. An encrusted sword with no documentation will fetch $30,000; Henry Wellcome even purchased a gold-plated toothbrush that supposedly belonged to Napoleon. The Napoleon myth is good business.

See how easy this is?

The one about the birth certificate illustrates a particularly useful trick that you will want to study closely and imitate as often as you can. No matter what the actual evidence is, you can always find something that isn't available. Fasten on that as if its absence were of crushing significance. If your interlocutors point out that it wasn't to be expected, at this point in time, that we should have every sort of ancillary evidence we might think up, deride them as ignorant and delusional. If they try to turn the discussion to the actual positive evidence for their primary contention, just shout louder about the absence of the thing you demand. It makes you seem like a serious historian.

At July 17, 2010 5:27 AM , Tim said...


It was not skeptical arguments Überhaupt that I was satirizing. It was yours. The transparent unfairness of these arguments against the existence of Napoleon is simply a mirror of the transparent unfairness of the arguments you use on the internet almost daily. You're the only one in this conversation who can't recognize yourself.

Thanks for the additional laughs in your link to the page of "photographic documented evidence." This is your own attempt at satire, right? Taking a few words in a row as proof of borrowing?

Golly, what a wide field for further research that one provides.

I open my copy of The House at Pooh Corner at random -- it happened to fall open at p. 87 -- and the second line reads "... until he came to the place ..." What do you want to bet that we can find a close match for this in the Bible? Hey, how about Luke 23:33: "When they came to the place ..." And in fact, Luke is talking about the crucifixion of Jesus -- whom Christians identify as the Man of Sorrows -- while The House at Pooh Corner is talking about Eeyore ("... when he came to the place where Eeyore was ..."), who is also a man of sorrows! Yes, that clinches it: Milne is definitely borrowing from Luke. Or maybe Luke is borrowing from Milne. Or maybe picking out a few words in a row and claiming that it is "photographic documented evidence" that one document is borrowed from another is bonkers.

At July 18, 2010 9:58 AM , Tim said...

An "argument" for conscious borrowing in the service of mythmaking that can be replicated in 90 seconds with a copy of a Winnie the Pooh book in one hand and a copy of the Bible in the other is, to borrow a phrase from Hume, more properly a subject of derision than of argument. It belongs in the same pile with The Bible Code -- which, come to think of it, it rather resembles.

At July 18, 2010 7:05 PM , Tim said...


This has already been discussed above. Hume does use "miracle" and "extreme improbability" interchangeably sometimes, e.g. here:

"When any one tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself whether it be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact which he relates should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other." [Emphasis added]

On the epistemic side, extreme improbability is all we have to work with.

Whately's point is that the alleged events of Napoleon's career are wildly improbable. It is therefore fair game for the application of Hume's maxim.

By the way, there's a cookie for you if you can find a passage from Gibbon expressing doubt regarding the existence of Jesus. And no, the famous passage from Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire ch. 15 doesn't help you; that has to do with Jesus' reported miracles, not with his existence. (It's a lousy argument anyway, but that issue is being discussed in the thread on arguments from silence.)

At July 18, 2010 8:45 PM , Tim said...


All the work is being done by improbability. Hume sets up his argument from universal testimony in order to support his claim that a miracle is wildly improbable. That's why the comparison is fair game. You're free to argue that the aspects of the (reported) career of Napoleon cited by Whately aren't actually all that improbable. But that would require that you actually read Whately -- and judging from your comments so far, this is something that you haven't bothered to do.

At July 19, 2010 10:41 AM , Tim said...


No, you don't quite understand the like basic Fratboy-o-sopher point that it's an irrelevant analogy.

Perhaps that’s because, unlike you, I don’t do fratboy-o-sophy.

Napoleon's existence is not controversial

Neither is the existence of Jesus, except among the lunatic fringe. Good grief, even Bart Ehrman gets this.

Hume’s argument against miracles is that there is universal testimony against them. He isn’t even consistent, since elsewhere in the same piece he admits that miracle reports abound in all of history. But waive that. The argument from universal testimony to the contrary, if it were any good, would apply equally well to spontaneous proton decay. Yet we accept that testimony would be perfectly competent to confirm such an event. Hume’s argument, applied consistently, would truly be a science stopper.

You don't quite understand Humean tactics either. He wanted to undercut the supposed inerrancy of scripture, ie theocracy, like as a basis for law. And that he does, uh did.

Hume’s tactics and his motives would be two separate matters. But never mind that; your description is so far off from what Hume actually says that it is really rather bizarre. Hume’s critique of miracles has nothing to say about theocracy. You are simply jumbling together standard skeptical complaints that have nothing to do with one another in a sort of verbal salad. This may be standard fare in fratboy-o-sophy. But it is not reasoning.

At July 19, 2010 1:28 PM , Tim said...


You are apparently under the misimpression that, just because you are finally starting to understand Hume’s reasoning in Hume’s own terms, you can assert without argument that his reasoning is cogent. Maybe on the atheist blogs – but not here.

However, we aren’t even quite there yet. Let’s take this one step at a time.

Whether the biblical miracles are wildly improbable depends on two factors; the prior probability that something like the Judeo-Christian God exists, and the strength of the total evidence for the biblical miracle claims. Vic has repeatedly pointed out that estimates of the former vary from person to person. Every sensible Christian acknowledges that the evidence for some particular biblical miracle claims is better than for others.

Napoleon's existence isn't improbable, even if some details of his life can't be established. It's really a false analogy. He's merely pointing out that you can't necessarily prove Napoleon existed either.

You seem to be treating ‘Napoleon’ as a rigid designator. As a good neo-Russellian, I’m not obligated to let you get away with it. ‘Napoleon’ denotes someone who did at least approximately the things attributed to him in the historical accounts we have. These are quite astonishing and improbable, some of them quite unprecedented. That is all that is required for Whately’s satire to hit home. I suggest that you take the time actually to read Whately’s satire before you say again that it is a false analogy.

Spinoza also said much the same as Hume (as did other writers) in the 17th century, and suggested all biblical miracles could be accounted for by natural science.

This claim is half right, half wrong. The half that is right is that Spinoza did suggest that the root of belief in the biblical miracles was ignorance of natural causes. But the other half is wrong. Spinoza’s argument against miracles is completely different from Hume’s argument, and Hume does not suggest that the biblical miracles were just misunderstood natural phenomena.

If you think the apparitions of Mary are even remotely akin to the resurrection, then you have not read the gospels through even once with attention. The use of the misspelling “Hebbin’” as a derogatory term may make you feel that you are better educated than those with whom you disagree, but that feeling, I regret to inform you, is an illusion, and the affectation is childish.

If it were any part of the Christian faith that the resurrection of Jesus would end all war and suffering, then the occurrence of these things might have a point. But it isn’t, so the only relevance of these remarks is that they direct attention to the general problem of evil, which has of course been discussed at great length by Christian authors. Incidentally, using the diminutive form of someone’s name does not increase the cogency of your argument. Nor does the spelling “Jeezus” magically transform your opponents into hapless rednecks.

I have no clear sense of what you mean by a “fundamentalist,” but there are certainly many Christians who believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead who have written serious works grappling with the problem of evil. If you are aware of these works but are going to disqualify the authors from being “fundamentalists” because many of the authors are well-published professional philosophers with graduate degrees, then why are you even commenting about fundamentalism here? Is it because you don’t realize that Vic and several of his commentators have earned doctorates and have been teaching and writing philosophy longer than you have been alive? If, on the other hand, you are not familiar with the literature of Christian philosophers addressing the problem of evil, perhaps you should read up on the topic a bit before you stride into Vic’s comboxes with your cape fluttering behind you.

At July 19, 2010 2:51 PM , Tim said...


You persist in assuming that understanding Hume’s point and agreeing with it are the same thing. This requires argument – which you have yet to provide. We’re also waiting on you to provide any reference to “theocracy” in Hume’s writings.

As I already mentioned, Spinoza’s argument against the credibility of the biblical miracle reports is completely different from Hume’s. But I’m beginning to realize that you are working from a hazy recollection of someone else's talking points and have never actually read either author for yourself.

Hume’s grasp of the mathematics of probable reasoning was minimal. Have a look at John Earman’s discussion of the subject in Hume’s Abject Failure. As for inconsistencies in the gospels, suppose it to be true in some ancillary matters; how would this render the main outlines of the history incredible?

... 4000 BC or whatever judeo-christian tradition held

By the late 18th century, before either Darwin or Lyell was born, the majority position among Protestant theologians was that the earth is extremely old and that the chronologies worked out by Bishop Ussher and other well-intentioned scholars were based on a faulty understanding of the biblical narrative.

Indeed the historical view of the Gospels arguably misses the point anyway. It's not Herodotus or Tacitus, but more like....ethics...and poetry. Consider the lilies of the field. etc. Jeeezuss was a William Blake type, man. Or the Grateful Dead, on a good night.

Cherry picking some inspirational quotations from Jesus’ teaching will not substantiate the claim that the genre of the Gospels is not history. Please try to do at least a little reading on the subject before you say silly things like this. You might start here.

You also seem to need reminding again that saying "Jeeezuss" does not give you gravitas.

At July 19, 2010 2:58 PM , Tim said...


If that were a real wager, you’d be paying me money right now. Pointing out that you are a clueless internet hack is not, per se, unchristian. Think of it as compassionate intervention.

The only things I’ve been concerned to argue about here are your repeated and pervasive misconceptions regarding Whately, Hume, Spinoza, and the New Testament. It took me a while to realize that you haven’t read any of them. There is no shame in this; many otherwise fine people have not read them. But for someone who pretends to know all about them, a lack of firsthand acquaintance with these works must surely be an inconvenience.

At July 19, 2010 3:13 PM , Tim said...


Can you read? I mean, at all? I just said that the only thing I’ve been concerned to argue about is your misreading of just about everybody. Now it appears that you can’t even be bothered to read what I write. It does rather diminish the interest of having a conversation.

You say that proving Napoleon existed poses the exact same difficulties as does establishing the veracity of biblical miracles.

Actually, I didn’t say that; I said that the nub of the problem is extreme improbability in both cases. There are, of course, various disanalogies, some of which tell in favor of the accounts of Napoleon’s exploits and some of which tell in the other direction.

In everything I have ever written on the subject, I have consistently maintained that the only legitimate way to deal with these issues is by straightforward historical scholarship. The reason to believe in the resurrection but not in the supposed miracles of other religions or even of later ecclesiastical history is simply that the evidence for the resurrection is many orders of magnitude stronger than the evidence for those other claims. If you really think that Christians are unaware of the issue of other religious miracle claims, I can only surmise that you have been hiding in a cave for the past 400 years or so.

At July 19, 2010 4:05 PM , Tim said...


Actually, Hume is wrong on the uniformity of experience claim, since miracles other than the resurrection have occasionally occurred. And even if he weren't wrong, in this context, it would be begging the question to make that claim. But there's another claim in the neighborhood that is true, namely, that outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, there are no well-attested miracle reports. We can charitably read him as really meaning that.

What on earth the First Amendment has to so with any of this is completely obscure. No one is abridging your freedom of speech, even though you are making a complete fool of yourself.

You were indeed the first one to use the phrase "uniformity of experience" in this thread. Why you think that shows me to be lying is a mystery. It's right up there with your juvenile fascination with the diminutive form of my name. Whatever.

You're "pretty well acquainted with zee klassix" because you are aware of a fact about Kant that can be read off of the Wikipedia article on him? Well, I'm convinced.

And you still think Hume was talking about theocracy. I've asked you a couple of times to provide a reference for this, but to no avail. It seems like providing evidence to back up your assertions isn't your strong suit.

On the other hand, you do show some elementary facility with vulgar insults, like the Spanish word for a male prostitute. Your upbringing apparently left out some basic training in manners, but trust me: it's considered impolite.

At July 19, 2010 5:48 PM , Tim said...


You are seriously delusional and probably need professional help. It is a trial of patience simply to respond to all of the palpable falsehoods you continue to spew out. Just so that you cannot with any show of plausibility claim that my silence gave color to your claims, here are responses to ten of them:

I never blogged at Right Reason. I am not a Calvinist. I did not favor going into the war in Iraq. I have never defended or even discussed the claim that there were WMDs there. To the best of my recollection, I have never discussed Ann Coulter on the internet (though I once did tell a reporter that I thought she was over the top). I have no objection to carbon-14 dating when used within the limits of its range (i.e. up to about 60K years BP). Widespread Christian belief in an indefinitely old earth and cosmos predated Lyell and Darwin. The First Amendment is not about inerrancy. No one in this conversation is trying to infringe your First Amendment rights. My criticisms of Hume are very nearly identical to those of John Earman, a well-respected philosopher of science at the University of Pittsburgh; Earman is not a religious believer of any stripe.



  1. I once got in a "debate" with J over the origins of Hebrew. At the time he argued that it post-dated Jesus. He even denied the DSS were Hebrew. Needless to say he's one of the least intelligent internet infidels (which his misunderstandings of basic philosophy clearly show).

  2. "The one about the birth certificate illustrates a particularly useful trick that you will want to study closely and imitate as often as you can. No matter what the actual evidence is, you can always find something that isn't available. Fasten on that as if its absence were of crushing significance. If your interlocutors point out that it wasn't to be expected, at this point in time, that we should have every sort of ancillary evidence we might think up, deride them as ignorant and delusional. If they try to turn the discussion to the actual positive evidence for their primary contention, just shout louder about the absence of the thing you demand. It makes you seem like a serious historian."

    It would be good, however, if Obama released his birth certificate to put the entire matter to rest. Assuming that he has a legitimate birth certificate which is ....

  3. Although Tim's smackdowns of the infidels stand very nicely on their own, I should add that he had entered into a discussion of Whately's 19th Century parody of Hume's essay on miracles which I linked to in my post. The parody uses the kinds of skeptical arguments used by Hume against belief in miracles against belief in the existence of Napoleon Bonaparte.

    This is my post.

    And this is the original Whately piece:

    The introduction says: Largely under Hume's influence, many writers of the next few decades professed sweeping doubts concerning the teachings of Christianity, and the events narrated in the Gospels. A popular book of the early 1800's was called HISTORIC DOUBTS RELATIVE TO JESUS OF NAZARETH, and the author concluded that the evidence that such a person had ever lived was very weak.

    Which suggests that things like The God Who Wasn't There are a) not new and b) refuted over and over again centuries ago.

  4. Hmmm ... how did Brit Hume get in there as a tag?

  5. Vic,

    I'm not aware of any book from the early 19th century entitled Historic Doubts Relative to Jesus of Nazareth, so I wonder whether the author of the introduction is simply confused about Walpole’s Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of Richard III (1768). There were "Jesus Myth" books in the late 18th and early 19th century, e.g. Volney's Ruins of Empires, though the fad really took root in the 19th century with the amateur Egyptologist Gerald Massey, to whose fanciful speculations Acharya S is so deeply indebted.