What Too Many Atheists Don’t Get About Christians (part two)

indiana-jonesThis morning a student asked me if she could leave the classroom to get a drink of water from the water fountain across the hall. Since it’s not ten feet from my door, I said “okay,” but I also kept an eye on her because she regularly disappears down the hallway when I let her do this. Sure enough, she disappeared again today. I knew better than to trust her and my suspicions were correct. Before she could make it all the way down the hall I was standing in the hallway, calling her back to class. Few things upset administrators at an inner city school more than letting students roam the halls unsupervised. She came back, but acted insulted that I felt the need to monitor her so closely. “You don’t trust me, Coach Carter? Why you don’t trust me?” This is a running joke, of course, because everyone in the class (including her) knows good and well that she can’t be trusted. She pulls this all the time. My expectation that she would bolt was based on a fairly consistent track record, and at some point my letting her leave the room under this pretense becomes a fallacy of slothful induction. Unless I have some experimental, empirical reason to change my expectations, I’d be a fool to keep trusting her to go where she says she’s going.

You could say I didn’t have “faith” in her. You could. But why choose a word so heavy-laden with religious connotations when it would fit the situation much better to say, “I don’t trust her?” It’s a quirk of language that we use the same word in different ways at different times, and this works fine for us in normal, everyday interactions. I can say “I love my children” in one breath and in the next say “I love 80’s movies” and no one would jump to the conclusion that my feelings for both are equally strong. That’s because words have usage more than they have meaning, so context can dramatically alter what you mean when you use a word. People know this, but they conveniently forget at the most inopportune times. If my student had asked me to “have faith” in her, there’s a sense in which that would have been more appropriate than asking me to trust her. Both faith and trust mean similar things, but I would argue that one of them points heavily toward past experience while another points away from it. Maybe you’ll see what I mean by the end of this post.

In my last post I explained one of the ways that too many atheists misunderstand and misrepresent Christians, and this story introduces another. Because language is a fluid thing, the words we use can pivot and turn without warning so that we end up misunderstanding each other, often ending the conversation in frustration. If we’re going to talk about something as fraught with intense emotion as religion, we’re going to have to work at being a little more precise and more consistent than usual about the words we use (at least during these discussions if nowhere else). Toward that end I’d like to tease out what people mean when they use words like “faith” and “evidence.” But first, let me begin by making sure my fellow atheists consider a second thing about Christians which I don’t think they always get:

2) When we say that “faith” means “believing without evidence,” we are misrepresenting what they usually mean when they use the word.

Now, I would qualify this by saying there’s some truth to the notion that faith, both in the Bible and in common parlance today, implies some measure of overlooking things which contradict (or at least appear to contradict) what we are being told to believe. It might be more accurate to say that faith is believing irrespective of the evidence because that means something slightly different. It’s not accurate to say there is no evidence. From their perspective, there is evidence, it just happens to be the kind of evidence which atheists don’t find particularly convincing. We can always discuss what is and isn’t persuasive evidence for the kinds of claims we’re evaluating
(and I will in a minute, so keep your shirt on). But first for the sake of promoting mutually beneficial conversation I think we should note that this phrase “without evidence” fails to acknowledge that most Christians feel they have a good many reasons to believe what they believe. I know I did when I was a Christian. In his response to Peter Boghossian’s book A Manual for Creating Atheists, Phil Vischer says:

Now, to be fair, the evidence presented in the New Testament typically isn’t the kind of evidence modern scientists [or atheists] favor – meaning, it isn’t evidence that can be repeated in laboratory experiments, published in papers and peer-reviewed. It tends to be evidence of a historical and/or testimonial nature. Some folks are so scientifically wired they carry strong biases against historical or testimonial evidence. And that’s fine. Rejecting the evidence for the claims of Jesus is perfectly reasonable. Claiming there is no evidence is much less reasonable.

If I were still a Christian, I imagine I also would have taken offense at being told I was “pretending to know things I don’t really know.” To be fair, again I confess that I have yet to read how Boghossian unpacks and applies this definition. Perhaps he addresses my concerns and covers those objections which I know any sincere believer would have to this choice of words. But in the meantime, it strikes me as understandably offensive wording, even if I get where he is headed. It seems to me that a phrase chosen more for its provocativeness than for its precision is great for generating buzz, but it isn’t so great for fostering sympathetic conversation. Perhaps I will change my mind about that after reading the book. But I can see why this phrasing would ruffle a few feathers.

What Kind of Evidence?

Looking back over my days as a Christian, I would say there were two general categories of evidence which satisfied me at the time. The first I would generally label personal experience. So many things fall into this category: Powerful emotional experiences, unexplained occurrences, seemingly improbable coincidences, answers to prayer (mainly noting when things went as desired, of course), and even a regular perception of being “in relationship” with someone whose communication with me required specially-trained sensibilities to detect that “still small voice” in my own head/heart (Christians are big on distinguishing between those two things). With enough years of practice, you can cultivate this “inner awareness” into a semblance of a living personality with whom you can interact and communicate. You might even learn to “hear” from him/her/it when you need most to hear something comforting, encouraging, or even exhortational.

What I’m trying to say is that there’s little point in telling a devout believer that God isn’t real because, for them, God does exist. If my irreverent theory is correct, and they themselves actively create and maintain this person in their own minds as I believe I once did, it wouldn’t do much good to try and tell them that no such person exists. It certainly will fall on deaf ears to suggest that they have “no evidence” or that they are just “pretending.” I often think of the protagonist’s lifelong friends in the movie A Beautiful Mind. No one but he could put an end to their intrusive presence in his own mental world. Nobody else could do it for him.

The second category of evidence comes from the Bible itself. Vischer puts it this way:

In 1st century Israel, a guy from Nazareth named Jesus made claims about his place and role in Jewish history, and asked 1st century Jews to put confidence in those claims..Quite a few 1st century Jews put confidence in his claims, and even more didn’t. Some disliked his claims so much they wanted him dead. But those that did put confidence in Jesus didn’t do so in the absence of evidence. They did so BECAUSE of evidence.

I know that for me, the Bible itself was for many years Exhibit A for the believability of the claims of Christianity. This is how as an Evangelical I was taught to think. At the time I wasn’t able to squarely face the fact that the Bible itself is one of the claims. Do you see the problem there? It seems to most Christians that Jesus doing such-and-such and Paul saying this-and-that would constitute evidence to support the claims of Christianity. But the stories themselves are part of the claim. Telling me what the Bible says about what Jesus did (or what others witnessed) isn’t for me today “evidence,” but rather more claims needing evidence of their own. You can’t use the claim to support the claim, not without being hopelessly circular.

When I ask my friends now why I should believe the stories about Jesus and not the stories about Muhammad or Joseph Smith, they tell me that 500 witnesses testified to the resurrection of Jesus. But we don’t have 500 testimonies, we have one: the Bible. We don’t have 500 letters from different people saying they saw these things, we have in fact one passage—one passage—written by someone who wasn’t even there, telling us third-hand about a multitude of witnesses to this appearance. That’s not five hundred points for Jesus, that’s just one. And for what it’s worth, Muhammad and Joseph Smith each had multiple witnesses to their claims as well, according to each of their respective holy books. If those aren’t convincing “evidence” for those religions, then why is this one any different? Clearly there is some kind of favoritism going on here. This, for the Christian, is reliable evidence for the claims of Christianity. It’s not that there isn’t any evidence, it’s just that what passes for evidence doesn’t live up to the standards which most atheists demand before they’re willing to buy into the claims of this (or any) religion. They would say that they’re simply applying the same skepticism towards the Christian faith which Christians already display toward all other religions besides their own.

What Exactly is “Faith?”

Because of the fluidity of language, there can be an awful lot of slippery semantics when it comes to discussing faith. Ordinarily we know good and well that we use words in different ways at different times, but when it comes to discussing philosophy and religion, people tend to talk as if our words must mean the same thing everywhere, all the time. As with the word “love,” the word “faith” can signify many different things. For example, it can indicate an entire system of religious beliefs (as in “the Christian faith”), which to my mind would include the epistemology (“the way of knowing”) championed within that system. At first, Vischer sets aside this usage of the word, saying it “isn’t relevant here.” But then later on he has to acknowledge that many Christians do in fact include certain epistemic assumptions in their usage of the word faith, and that for them, some kind of a disregarding (or even dismissing) of evidence goes along with that. Vischer is uncomfortable with this usage of “faith,” but he admits:

…though I believe Dawkins, Boghossian and others are misdefining faith, I believe some Christians may be guilty of the same mistake

So one problem we have here is that even the practitioners of “the Christian faith” don’t agree with each other about what this word means. No wonder we don’t always seem to be speaking the same language! Perhaps we’re not, in a way.

Seeking to emphasize a definition of faith which doesn’t imply turning a blind eye to evidence, Vischer uses the popular illustration of a chair.

A chair is asking us to put confidence in its claims. “Sit on me. No really. I mean it. I’ll hold you up.” And we have to make a decision.

“Do I trust the claims of this chair?”

If I trust the chair, I sit. If I don’t trust the chair, I stand. I vote with my hindquarters. It’s just that simple. And that is faith.

Is that really faith, though? Is that even a responsible use of the word? Is that consistent with how the Bible uses the word? After spending some time interacting with his critics, Vischer vowed to revise his vocabulary a bit:

One atheist responder made the point that if we mean “trust,” (which is a synonym in the Bible for “faith”), why don’t we just say trust? Faith must mean something different if we only use it when we talk about religious stuff and then switch to “trust” when we’re talking about other things…Which is a fair point. So, personally, I’m not going to use the word “faith” when I mean “to put trust or confidence in.” I’m going to use “trust” or “confidence.”

Indeed I agree that faith seems like the wrong word for this…but why? What is it about the word “faith” that makes it such an ill fit for this illustration? The answer is that no matter in what context we use this word, it points to a tentative relationship toward the most probable outcomes. Faith implies some kind of expectation which is far from a given, otherwise the situation would merit a different word. After 99% of all chairs I sit in hold me up, if I decide to trust most chairs, I wouldn’t call that faith. What would make it faith is if more and more chairs started collapsing under me. That would change my relationship to chairs! Before I replace the word “trust” with “faith,” there would need to be a noticeable decrease in either the probability of a favorable outcome or at least a decrease in available information. This, I think, gets us closer to a more honest representation of how the Bible itself uses the word.

I have written before that the Bible often speaks of faith and sight as if they are inversely proportionate to each other. In the Bible, a man’s faith is said to be “great” in direct proportion to how much contrary evidence he must overlook. Consider the stories mentioned in Hebrews 11. Abraham was so old! If he had been 30 and had already been the father of six, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal to announce he’s gonna be a daddy. Sarah was infertile, too, as the story goes. Believing in the face of those circumstances is what earned their confidence in those extraordinary claims the right to be called “faith.” The same goes for the rest of the people mentioned in Hebrews and throughout the rest of the Bible. They are praised according to the extent to which they believed claims which contradicted their circumstances. Noah had so much to do! And it had never rained like he was told it would rain. And Goliath was so big! How is a little rock going to take him down? And Gideon was such a nobody! And then he whittles his army down to 300 guys? On and on it goes. These people were praised because they believed before they could see the evidence which would validate their beliefs (not after).

Vischer supposes that each of them must have had prior evidences of God’s faithfulness to draw on or else they never would have expected their respective miracles to occur. Once again this supports the notion that “without evidence” wouldn’t a be fair thing to say.

In some manner (we aren’t told exactly how), God communicated to Abraham that IF he left Ur and followed God, God would bless him in certain specific ways. In whatever form it was that God showed up, it was enough to convince Abraham that A) this was a supernatural entity talking to him, and that B) this supernatural entity had the ability and the intent to bless him if he left Ur. So Abraham put confidence in the claims of God.

Of course none of this really changes things if the prior “evidences” which initially inspired the faith of people like Abraham turned out to be figures of their own imaginations. We’re still talking about Bible stories, after all, and for people like me that carries little weight to begin with. But to be fair we should note that people who believe things usually have reasons to believe those things, even if we aren’t particularly impressed with those reasons ourselves. So it’s not entirely accurate to say they are “believing without evidence.” In fact, looking at people who have reasons (good or bad) for believing what they believe and then telling them they don’t have any reasons just makes you look like you’re the one “pretending to know something you don’t really know” about them. A little bit of charity can go a long way in these discussions.

Faith Comes by Hearing

Having said all of that, I’m now going to turn around and make an assertion which sounds like I’m contradicting myself, but bear with me for a minute. When you say that faith is “believing without evidence,” you misrepresent how Christians themselves view their faith. However, there’s an element of truth in what these critics are trying to say which needs to be pointed out. It’s not entirely invalid for people to suggest that, at least as it’s conceived in the Bible, the Christian concept of faith demands acceptance of its claims without regard for evidence beyond the authority of the message itself. In other words, if you believe that the message itself is self-authenticating, you can then admit the stories themselves as evidence (as Vischer does above). Paul declared in Romans 10:17:

Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.

In theory this would trump even the absence of the first kind of “evidence” I mentioned above: Personal experience. When Thomas demanded tangible evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, the story says that he got it. That validates the skeptic’s desire for evidence, right? “Not so fast!” my Evangelical friends tell me. The story of Thomas doesn’t seem to have made it into the gospel to exonerate those of us who want more than just the word of people long since dead. In fact, in the story of Jesus appearing to Thomas, he makes a point of saying “Because you have seen me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed!” So even this story is there to suggest that it’s somehow better to believe without requiring the evidence which Thomas required. Most likely this is what Jesus meant when he said that you must become as a little child. Children believe things very easily. They are not naturally skeptical; they are innately trusting. That’s the kind of follower Jesus liked the best.

There is a principle throughout the Bible which asserts that the speaking of the message itself carries a kind of power and authority all its own. If you’ll forgive the expression, it’s like magic. That’s why so many Christians believe that the best way to answer a difficult question is to quote a Bible verse. They are taught to believe that the words themselves contain a kind of power which works on the listener whenever they are spoken. They are taught that reading it regularly will change them in a way which reading other books will not. Paul asserted that the Christian message is itself “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” The catch there is that it has no such power for someone who doesn’t believe, although this seldom stops believers from trying it on us anyway! I’ve said before that quoting the Bible doesn’t work like a Jedi mind trick on us. But many seem to think it should. That’s because they were taught that the message itself contains a power to persuade, making it somehow “self-authenticating” (a phrase they taught me in seminary—I’m not making it up).

To people like me, nothing is self-authenticating, not even empirical observation or personal experience. People like me have come to distrust ourselves and our own powers of perception to the point that we are willing to doubt and question everything we think and see and experience. Even science can be wrong, yes, we agree. But it’s always improved upon by better science, not by reverting to authoritative pronouncements which are somehow supposed to be self-validating. This notion is at least partially responsible for the perception which many have that faith is “believing without evidence.” It may not be how most Christians would want to put it. But maybe if you can imagine how it looks from the outside looking in, you’ll understand why so many atheists keep disagreeing with what you are trying to say about faith.

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579 Responses to What Too Many Atheists Don’t Get About Christians (part two)

  1. DB says:

    If anyone is interested, Matthew Ferguson, an humanist blogger with a background in classics has written an article disputing the authorship by MMLJ of the gospels on his blog. He makes some interesting points. See link. adversusapologetica.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/why-scholars-doubt-the-traditional-authors-of-the-gospels/

    • Esther O'Reilly says:

      Place-holder: I got this one. Detailed analysis of the post in that link is in drafts, on its way.

    • Esther O'Reilly says:

      Back now. DB, thanks for your continued interest in this thread. Your humble, courteous demeanor makes me actually ENJOY interacting with you, unlike a couple other commentators here. *cough* Anyway, dispensing with the silliness and getting back to the scholarly discussion, I just took a look at that link. Virtually none of the arguments I see Matthew using are new to me, and a lot of them have actually already been addressed in this thread. Much of it is straight out of Ehrman. I’ll highlight some of the problems I saw, in order, adding some additional positive evidence where appropriate. This isn’t quite exhaustive, so maybe John or someone else can come tie up the loose ends. Like I said, some of this is redundant, and for that I apologize in advance, but I think it’s important to see how these objections can get recycled:

      1. He’s translating the Greek agrammatoi (ἀγράμματοί) as “illiterate.” A better and more technical translation here is “uncultured.” Other scholarly accepted translations include “uneducated,” “untrained” or “unlearned.” In the Jewish context, since Peter and John were likely to have had basic reading and writing, it’s far more likely that this word means untrained in rabbinic theology (as Paul was) than “illiterate.” So, in other words, lower-class, without an advanced education. Fisherman didn’t go around expounding on the sort of stuff Peter and John did. And “illiterate peasant” seems doubly exaggerated since John would have been heir to a fishing business had he not left to follow Jesus. For more on reading and writing in Jesus’ world, see this excellent series of posts by Ben Witherington, starting here.

      2. We’ve also already dealt with the question of why Matthew would rely on Mark. It’s ironic that he cites the same out-of-context quote by Bruce Metzger circulated elsewhere, while again leaving out the paragraph where Metzger gives a boatload of clues within Mark that point to its being a reliable record of Peter’s eyewitness testimony. I will re-paste that paragraph here:

      “According to traditions reported by several Church fathers of the second and third centuries, the Gospel of mark embodies what John Mark (Acts 12:12, 25; 15:37) wrote down at Rome from the preaching of Peter. Its colloquial style and graphic description of incidents in which Simon Peter figures prominently or which must have had special interest for him (for example, Mark 1:16-20; 1:29-31; 1:35-38; 14:27-31, 32-42, 54, 66-72) give the impression of being derived directly from the reminiscence of Peter himself. Furthermore in 1:36 the disciples are called ‘Simon and those who were with him,’ and in 16:7 the women are commissioned to announce to ‘his disciples and Peter” that the risen Christ goes before them into Galilee.’ ”

      3. Once again, he refers to the “Mark was ignorant of Palestinian geography” objection, which once again was already dealt with here in McGrew’s lecture. The Apostate’s attempted rebuttal down below doesn’t take into account the fact that there was fresh water along the route Jesus chose and that there’s a pass through the range they chose to traverse. (By the way, you should read all of McGrew’s reply to that comment, it’s very thorough, well-sourced and instructive.)

      4. Incidentally, I find it amusing that Matt views something as trivial as switching the order of “Moses” and “Elijah” to be some kind of “corrective redaction” on Matthew’s part. That should give you a sense of the sort of molehills these guys’ snow-capped mountain ranges start from.

      5. Speaking of mountains from molehills, I see he cites Randall Helms, whose work has been scrupulously examined and dismantled, page-by-page, at this website pointed out earlier. Recall that Helms is the guy who tries to make an argument out of the fact that phrases like “standing up” and “against him” appear in both the New and Old Testaments. In this particular case, he’s quoting Helms’s “argument” that Luke mentions Mark in Acts but never spells out “Oh by the way, this is the guy whose gospel I used as source material for that other book I wrote. Props to Mark!” Luke isn’t writing about how the book of Luke came to be or about his process for gathering info about Jesus, he’s chronicling the journeys of Paul and the rise of the early church. A digression about Mark’s gospel isn’t germane to Luke’s purpose in this document.

      6. Here comes one of my favorite objections from Ehrman—the “different Jesuses” objection. Look at the “calm, cool and collected” Jesus in Luke and see if you don’t see a radical difference from the “agonized, despairing” Jesus in Mark! Aye-aye-aye, more bad lit. crit. parading as textual scholarship. First of all, I don’t know about Ehrman, but where I come from, different emotions can exist in the same man. What we get from the different gospel accounts is actually a very believable, complete portrayal of Jesus’ attitude toward crucifixion. We would expect Jesus to feel fear, but we would also expect him to show courage and steadfastness. We would expect him to show emotion and cry out in pain, but we would also expect him to summon up the strength for a few words to those people he came in contact with in his last hours. And Luke and Mark don’t contradict each other about Jesus’ final words. Mark says “With a loud cry,” Jesus breathed his last. This may well be the cry of “It is finished!” as recorded also in John. (By the way, that’s one plausible answer to a lot of the “Who did Luke talk to about x?” questions. How about John?)

      Speaking of John, I’ll just go ahead and mention one thing that’s kind of cool about John’s version of the crucifixion here, which as you’ll see lends authenticity to the authorship of that gospel. In John 19:27, after Jesus designates Mary as John’s responsibility (Woman, behold thy son, son behold thy mother), one very plausible reading of the Greek [emphasis added] “ἀπὸ τῆς ὥρας ἐκείνης” is that John IMMEDIATELY took her away from the scene. (The phrase reads literally: “And from that very hour…”) Curiously, John’s gospel seems to pick up abruptly after that verse without recording other words from the cross included in the synoptics. That would fit with John’s leaving with Mary, then returning again. He would simply have missed the intervening words.

      7. Lack of authorial personality has already been dealt with in Mark, with the various verses indicating Peter’s personal touch. Also, Luke speaks in more detail about the diseases of the people Jesus healed. As one example, note the ironic knife-twist in his description of the woman with an issue of blood, not included in Matthew, that she had “spent all her living on physicians, neither could be healed of any.” (Luke 8:43) I already gave an example above for John. There are many more subtle details like this.

      8. Now we’re getting into supposed “discrepancies” between the Acts and the epistles. Right away we get one where Ehrman has clipped and trimmed the verses to his satisfaction. Supposedly, we are told in Acts that Paul immediately went to Jerusalem from Damascus, while in Galatians Paul says he “told no one” about his experience and came to Jerusalem only three years later. Let’s look at the full context, for both verses. First, the Acts passage gives details of Paul’s long stay at Damascus after the vision, as well as his escape from an angry Jewish mob. Then Acts 9:26 begins, abruptly, “When he came to Jerusalem…” It doesn’t give any indication that Paul left Damascus with intent to go to Jerusalem, it doesn’t tell us where Paul might have traveled before coming there, and it doesn’t tell us anything about the time elapsed between the two occurrences. Galatians 1:16-19 is simply filling in the blanks. Note that Paul writes [emphasis added], “I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went away to Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus. Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days.” So not only is it misleading to say “Look, Paul writes he didn’t tell anyone!” (because he merely says he didn’t IMMEDIATELY tell anyone), it’s also misleading to act like the accounts contradict each other in their record of how long it was before he came to Jerusalem. As for the discrepancy regarding his meeting the apostles, Paul tells us he met Peter and James, and Acts says Barnabas introduced him to “the apostles.” Barnabas may have introduced Paul to just Peter and James, and there would be no contradiction there. We’re really nit-picking at this point.

      9. I would have to research the bit about circumcision in more detail to get the full context, but it seems as though the scenarios aren’t exactly alike. As for the “discrepancies” about apostolic authority, he’s actually quoting some of my favorite passages in Paul there. I’ve always found these bits entertaining because they expose some of Paul’s very human grumpiness/insecurity about his apostolic stature. But first of all, let me note in passing that there’s nothing in Acts 13:31 to indicate that Paul “grants higher authority” to the apostles. He says they traveled with Christ (true) and can therefore speak to what they witnessed of Jesus’ entire ministry (true). Nowhere in this passage does he compare his status with theirs. Now Galatians 2 is describing how he first came to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. When the passage says that Peter, James and John “contributed nothing” to him and that God shows no partiality, he’s talking specifically about their shared labor in preaching the same gospel message. Even though Peter, James and John were of higher repute, Paul was called to preach to the Gentiles just as they were called to preach to the Jews. You could say that Paul’s tone is a little huffy/acerbic in this passage, and I’d be willing to concede that, but is it then such a coincidence that he immediately follows up with his confrontation of Peter over his hang-ups about eating with Gentiles? I see no contradiction here. It’s perfectly believable that Paul would have had his insecurities and differences with the apostles, yet be honest enough to say “Look, these guys walked and talked with Jesus” when giving a public message.

      As for the apostolic standard for Paul clashing with the process for choosing Matthias as Judas’ replacement—again, this doesn’t seem like a big deal to me. Yes, at the time Matthias was chosen Peter would quite naturally say “We need to pick someone who knew Jesus.” Paul’s was an exceptional post-resurrection vision Peter couldn’t have foreseen. Clearly the apostles consulted later and decided that Paul’s having seen the risen Jesus was a strong enough mark of the status Jesus wanted to bestow on Paul.

      10. The author then goes on to show how Tacitus is internally consistent with Pliny’s letters, intended as a contrast with Acts and the epistles. Actually, we have many similar internal corroborations between Acts and the epistles, which the author either isn’t aware of or conveniently leaves out. For a detailed look at some of them, there is an excellent 6-part series of articles by McGrew, all of which you can access from a handy jumping-off point here.

      11. More regurgitated material from Ehrman about the canonization process, some of which I think John Fraser has addressed below. Suffice it to say that “the other gospels” were certainly not excluded by some arbitrary standard. Read one of the Gnostic texts some time and see if you can keep a straight face.

      12. Claims that Luke wasn’t really up close to the facts or an assistant of Paul. I recommend a lovely little book by Jefferson White called Evidence and Paul’s Journeys for details on just how accurate Luke’s account really is, down to the minutest details of sailing and sailing conditions in certain areas.

      13. And some wild speculation about the authorship of John to wrap it all up. The whole thing about the Lazarus who was raised from the dead being somehow connected to the Lazarus in Jesus’ parable is especially amusing—do people who make this connection not realize how common the name Lazarus was at that time? Also, there seems to be this conception that placing the gospel as late as 90 A.D. makes it less trustworthy. In all likelihood, John was a very young man when Jesus began his ministry. If we look at the age other young men began to follow and sit under the teachings of a rabbi, 15 wouldn’t be a stretch at all. So that would put John at around 85 in 90 A.D. WWII veterans of that age are routinely interviewed about their experiences in the war. I’ve personally conducted some of those interviews. Are their accounts not reliable? Finally, his reading of the bit in John 21:23 about “John living to an inordinate age” seems to be completely missing the context and the point of that verse. Jesus has just been telling Peter the grim details of how Peter will be martyred in his old age. Peter then sees John some ways behind them and says “Hey, what about him?” (As in “Is he going to be martyred or die of natural causes or what?”) Jesus’ answer boils down to: “None of your beeswax.” Whatever Jesus’ plan for John and however long he lets John live, he asks Peter, “What is that to you?” So then the rumor spreads around that John will live forever, but the author of John himself is quick to correct this.

      For more on John, McGrew’s comment for a link to a detailed post collecting all the various internal/external evidences for John’s gospel authorship.

      Once again, I apologize for the loose ends, but this is the best I could do in a couple hours. I hope you find this comment interesting and of some use.

      • Esther O'Reilly says:

        (Note to anyone wondering why there seem to be no links: They got stripped out when I composed this comment somewhere else and did a copy and paste. I’ve provided them together in a list in a comment awaiting moderation.)

      • Esther O'Reilly says:

        (Another small note: Meant to say John’s age would be around SEVENTY-five in 90 A.D. if we place his age at around 15 circa 30 A.D. Or around 80 if we bump things back a few years.)

    • Esther O'Reilly says:

      I just recently had a chance to look at the passages about Timothy and Titus more closely. First of all, it seems to be assume that Timothy was a Gentile since he had a Greek father. The author doesn’t show awareness of the fact that the bloodline was passed through the mother. Timothy’s mother was Jewish, hence Timothy was considered Jewish. Paul circumcised Timothy to avoid causing needless offence (which Paul talks about a good bit in general throughout his epistles). Also, just because Paul felt specially called to preach to the uncircumcised doesn’t mean that he would refuse/close doors on the chance to preach to any Jews he encountered in his travels through predominantly Gentile areas. Finally, there’s no comparison between Timothy and Titus, because Titus wasn’t Jewish at all, on his mother’s or father’s side. So this is just another case of what must be either ignorance or intent to mislead.

  2. vinnyjh57 says:

    Evidence is an effect from which we infer a cause. If we find a body with a knife in its back and the knife has little swirly patterns on the handle, we infer that the person whose fingerprints match those patterns is the person who put the knife there. We can do this because we understand the natural processes of cause and effect that cause those little swirly patterns to appear on objects and we believe that those natural processes are overwhelmingly consistent, if not invariable. If we thought that those little swirly patterns appeared randomly or by divine fiat, they wouldn’t be evidence of anything. We could not say it was Professor Plum with the knife in the library.

    The intellectual tools by which we draw inferences from evidence use the consistency of natural processes of cause and effect. As a result, they cannot identify supernatural causes regardless of whether our world view allows for them. We do not know what effects require supernatural causes and we do not know what effects supernatural causes are likely to produce.

    The evidence for the resurrection consists of a collection of ancient supernatural stories. While it might be perfectly plausible to think that an actual supernatural event might cause fantastic stories like these to be told, knowledge and experience suggest that the most common cause of such stories is some combination of human shortcomings such as superstition, ignorance, prevarication, wishful thinking gullibility and exaggeration.

    • John Fraser says:

      “The intellectual tools by which we draw inferences from evidence use the consistency of natural processes of cause and effect. As a result, they cannot identify supernatural causes regardless of whether our world view allows for them. We do not know what effects require supernatural causes and we do not know what effects supernatural causes are likely to produce.”

      Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure about that. What would you say of a man rising from the dead after three days? Would we be justified in inferring a supernatural cause for that, or would we just be forced to maintain that there could be some natural explanation for such a thing? Are you willing to bite the bullet on that one?

      “While it might be perfectly plausible to think that an actual supernatural event might cause fantastic stories like these to be told, knowledge and experience suggest that the most common cause of such stories is some combination of human shortcomings such as superstition, ignorance, prevarication, wishful thinking gullibility and exaggeration.”

      You may be right about this, it’s hard to say. PERHAPS the most common cause of “such stories” (overlooking the vague wording here) is what you have suggested. At a minimum we could say that it’s a distinct possibility that this is the cause. If that’s the case, then that would dictate that we set a low prior probability for such events taking place. However, prior probability is just that. It’s the probability that you assign to some event before considering the actual evidence. You seem to overlook the possibility that the evidence in a particular case (or perhaps more than one case) could be sufficient to overcome the low prior probability. One way that this can be done as philosopher John Earman has shown is to have a lot of eyewitnesses (Earman, by the way, is not a believer). So you can’t just brush off the evidence because of a low prior probability. The only way to see in a particular case is to examine the specifics to see if you actually have credible evidence of multiple eyewitness testimony. Interestingly, this is exactly what we do have in the case of the Resurrection. It’s almost as if those ancient Jews knew centuries in advance what sort of evidence would later be shown to be needed by the development of the probability calculus.

      There has been a considerable amount of evidence presented on this thread for credible eyewitness testimony in the New Testament (we’ve mostly been talking about the Gospels but we also have Paul’s letters as well which contain earlier evidence than any of the Gospels). On what basis do you deem it to be inadequate?

  3. vinnyjh57 says:

    What we have for the resurrection is fantastic stories related decades after the fact by true believers . When I was a child in Catholic school, the nuns used to tell us about the appearances of the Virgin Mary at Fatima and Lourdes. When I grew up and read sources closer to the events, I found that the evidence was not nearly as impressive as the nuns made it out to be. When I compare the stories that Mormons tell about their early history to sources closer to the events, I find little reason to trust the later reports. When I compare contemporary sources from 1947 Roswell to the books written by UFO nuts in the 1980’s, I find the later tales to be completely unfounded. I know of no cases where fantastic stories from decades after the fact were corroborated by sources closer to the events so I see no reason to think they would be in the case of the resurrection.

    If there were to be any credible evidence of a man rising from the dead after three days–and by that I mean evidence that would enable me to eliminate superstition, ignorance, prevarication, wishful thinking, gullibility, and exaggeration as possible causes of the reports–I suspect that the best I could do would be to say that I didn’t know what the cause was. However, I would have no qualms about saying to the theist “That’s sure a good one for your side.”

    • John Fraser says:

      “What we have for the resurrection is fantastic stories related decades after the fact by true believers .”

      We actually have quite a bit more than that as I indicated with my reference to Paul’s letters.

      Your references to Fatima, Lourdes, Mormons, and UFOs have nothing to do with the credibility of the evidence for the Resurrection. Do you really think it’s a good argument to say “the evidence for Fatima and UFOs isn’t convincing to me so the Resurrection is probably false”?

      “If there were to be any credible evidence of a man rising from the dead after three days–and by that I mean evidence that would enable me to eliminate superstition, ignorance, prevarication, wishful thinking, gullibility, and exaggeration as possible causes of the reports–I suspect that the best I could do would be to say that I didn’t know what the cause was.”

      The question was whether or not one could be justified in inferring a supernatural (ie. outside of the powers of nature) cause. Do you seriously mean to say that you wouldn’t know if a man could rise from the dead naturally? That strikes me as unreasonable.

      “However, I would have no qualms about saying to the theist “That’s sure a good one for your side.””

      I think so, too.

      • vinnyjh57 says:

        Paul’s letters tell me nothing more than that people claimed that Jesus appeared to them after his crucifixion. I have no problem believing that some people claimed that just as I don’t have any problem believing that some people claimed that the Virgin Mary appeared to them at Fatima.

        If the fantastic stories told by true believers decades after the fact proved to be unreliable in those other cases, why should I think that they are reliable in the case of the resurrection?

        If a man rose from the dead, I would probably have to question my previous understanding that men don’t rise from the dead, wouldn’t I? By the same token, if the Virgin Mary or the Angel Moroni appeared to me, I might be forced to rethink my understanding of how the world works.

        • cjoint says:

          Or if a couple 100 to 1000 dead saints start walking around Jerusalem and only one guy says anything, you can easily just dismiss it as metaphorical or unimportant to larger credibility.

        • John Fraser says:

          “If the fantastic stories told by true believers decades after the fact proved to be unreliable in those other cases, why should I think that they are reliable in the case of the resurrection?”

          Not decades after the fact. Even skeptical scholars like Gerd Ludemann acknowledge that the list of eyewitnesses in 1Cor. 15:3-8 goes back to within 2 years of the crucifixion. In other words, the entire Christian movement is founded upon the testimony of those who were eyewitnesses to the Resurrection, and who endured persecution, imprisonment, and in some cases excruciating death to tell others about it. The comparison with Fatima falls apart pretty quickly I think. This strategy of ignoring the evidence for the Resurrection and instead arguing against the evidence for something else really isn’t a valid approach, although I encounter it so often I’ve taken to calling it the “Bigfoot” defense. The skeptic simply says “I don’t believe in X (insert favorite skeptical belief here – Bigfoot, UFOs, Elvis, Fatima, etc.) and the evidence looks about the same to me, so that pretty much settles it.” Well, no it doesn’t settle it. It’s actually nothing more than hand waving. If you want to show why the evidence for the Resurrection doesn’t hold up, you need to talk about that – not Fatima (or Bigfoot, or UFOs, or the Virgin Mary, or Moroni, or Santa Claus for that matter). That’s the only approach with intellectual integrity.

          “If a man rose from the dead, I would probably have to question my previous understanding that men don’t rise from the dead, wouldn’t I?”

          You mean that they don’t rise from the dead naturally? No, I don’t think you would need to revise that belief. I think for most people it would make them conclude that there was something at work besides natural forces.

          “By the same token, if the Virgin Mary or the Angel Moroni appeared to me, I might be forced to rethink my understanding of how the world works.”

          Or rather than simply talk about hypotheticals, you could address the actual evidence. Do you have any intention of doing that, or are you going to just keep up this same hopeless line of argument?

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            The stories that the nuns told me “went back” to eyewitnesses at Fatima. The UFO stories “go back” to events at Roswell. The Mormons’ tales “go back” to Joseph Smith’s first followers. That a list of mostly unnamed people “goes back” to something that occurred decades earlier doesn’t give me much evidence of what that event actually was.

            You were the one who started the hypotheticals with “What would you say of a man rising from the dead after three days?” I’m happy to drop them if you wish.

            I’m not ignoring the evidence for the resurrection. I am looking at the stories recorded decades after the fact and drawing the perfectly logical conclusion that they are probably caused by the same things that caused other such stories.

          • Howie says:

            Hi John – I’ve been watching this war since I posted the other day, and want to add something here with the hopes of avoiding the bullets. I’d like to request that if I make a mistake in this comment that you guys/gals not put a scarlet letter on me as you did with Neil.

            Regarding the “Bigfoot defense”, comparisons and analogies are something I’ve seen historians use, and it seems to me to be a valid approach. In fact it is an approach that Christian apologists suggest all the time – I’ve read and heard several of them make analogies to Julius Caesar and claiming that skeptics aren’t treating the bible with the same historical standards that they approach other things in history. And I’ve also seen scholars use these same kinds of analogies to try and decipher how we should view the resurrection.

            I didn’t see Vinny ignore the evidence as you are suggesting – he was making comparisons to other historical events while trying to describe how it is analogous to the evidence we have for the resurrection. He even responded directly to that evidence in some of his replies. If you think the analogy is a bad one that’s fine – then just use the evidence to explain why it is a bad analogy instead of coming up with a catch phrase and suggesting that we should not even consider comparison cases. I personally think that each of these analogies has aspects that are applicable to the subject – no analogy is perfect of course because if it was perfect then it would be the event itself.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Howie, see some of my comments below which furnish many disanalogies between the founding of Mormonism and Christianity. John may come in with disanalogies for other examples as he thinks of them. Suffice it to say that when examined more closely, such “Bigfoot” scenarios are simply nowhere close to as clear or reliably attested. Many supposed “faith healings” are heavily subjective and can be best explained by other factors (John of God, for example). Joni Eareckson Tada tells an interesting story about attending a meeting of one such “faith healer.” As you may or may not know, she is a quadriplegic. Before the meeting, she and several other hopeless paralytics were quietly wheeled off to the side and told that the illustrious so-and-so (would have to look up the name) would see them separately later. Of course, the illustrious so-and-so never showed up, because he was a complete fake, and nothing he could conjure up would cover up what would be embarrassingly apparent had he attempted to “heal” Tada—he didn’t have the power to heal anyone, let alone an open-and-shut paralytic case.

          • John Fraser says:

            “The stories that the nuns told me “went back” to eyewitnesses at Fatima.”

            That’s way too vague for me to base anything on. Here’s the problem. First, we aren’t actually examining any actual evidence for Fatima, we’re just talking about what you seem to think you recall hearing from some nuns years ago. The second problem is: so what? I have nothing invested in Fatima either way. It has no bearing on the Resurrection. So again, you aren’t actually making an argument you’re just engaging in hand waving with what you think are one or two parallels and think you can blow the rest off.

            The third problem is much worse, and that is you could apply this same logic to ANY eyewitness testimony for any event. So there were eyewitnesses who said they saw President Lincoln assassinated? So what? There were eyewitnesses who said they saw the Virgin Mary at Fatima. And before you think you can salvage this by saying that assassinations aren’t supernatural, that’s irrelevant to the question of whether something goes back to eyewitness testimony or not. So you can’t just keep moving the goalposts (hence I’m trying to preempt that move).

            “You were the one who started the hypotheticals with “What would you say of a man rising from the dead after three days?” I’m happy to drop them if you wish.”

            That had to do with the question of whether or not someone could infer supernatural causes for some event, which you claimed was never a valid inference. I don’t think that position holds much water for the case of a man rising from the dead on the third day, but I guess you missed the point.

            “I’m not ignoring the evidence for the resurrection.”

            Yes, actually you are.

            “I am looking at the stories recorded decades after the fact and drawing the perfectly logical conclusion that they are probably caused by the same things that caused other such stories.”

            The “decades after the fact” has already been answered. So if you’re going to just keep repeating points that have been refuted, I’m going to have to declare this conversation pointless.

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            I’m sorry that you don’t understand my argument. I agree that it would be pointless for me to try to explain it again.

          • John Fraser says:

            Howie,

            “I’d like to request that if I make a mistake in this comment that you guys/gals not put a scarlet letter on me as you did with Neil.”

            I have no idea what you mean by this. I mean, I know about the Scarlet Letter, but I don’t know what we were supposed to have done with Neil that was comparable.

            “Regarding the “Bigfoot defense”, comparisons and analogies are something I’ve seen historians use, and it seems to me to be a valid approach.”

            That doesn’t mean you can use them any old way you want! The problem with the “Bigfoot defense” approach is that you have to show that the relevant analogies are actually valid when it comes down to the details, but the skeptic never does this. In no such argument have I seen a skeptic actually bring out the evidence for any of these other claims and show that all of the relevant analogies are a match. If you COULD show such a thing, then you might move me towards becoming a believer in one of these other things but from what I know of them the analogies are really superficial (“there were eyewitnesses”) and would apply to not only other events which the skeptic doubts, but lots of events which the skeptic DOESN’T doubt. So you would have to show in detail how the analogy holds in cases the skeptic wants to dismiss and NOT in cases the skeptic wants to accept. But if you’re going to do all that work, why not just argue about the actual details of the Resurrection? It’s because the skeptic isn’t actually intending to do any of this, it’s just an empty rhetorical ploy, basically bluster. It’s not an argument, which is what I’m trying to show.

            “In fact it is an approach that Christian apologists suggest all the time – I’ve read and heard several of them make analogies to Julius Caesar and claiming that skeptics aren’t treating the bible with the same historical standards that they approach other things in history.”

            And that’s exactly what I’m saying you need to do. You don’t get to just say, “well, some nuns told me there were eyewitnesses to such-and-such, so the Resurrection is probably b.s.” You need to actually engage in the detailed historical work which is what Tim, Esther, and I have been giving.

            “I didn’t see Vinny ignore the evidence as you are suggesting – he was making comparisons to other historical events while trying to describe how it is analogous to the evidence we have for the resurrection.”

            His “description” was to basically say, “I heard there were eyewitnesses who claimed to see the Virgin Mary. I don’t think that’s true, so I don’t think the Resurrection is true.” There really wasn’t any more “description” than that. That’s called hand waving. And any skeptic I’ve ever seen use this approach uses it in the same illegitimate way. And yes, he is ignoring the evidence for the Resurrection.

            ” If you think the analogy is a bad one that’s fine – then just use the evidence to explain why it is a bad analogy instead of coming up with a catch phrase and suggesting that we should not even consider comparison cases.”

            What evidence? Nobody has presented any for any of these other things. I’m sorry, but if you’re going to claim that there’s a relevant parallel then that’s your burden of proof, not mine. I realize that in the skeptical playbook the skeptic never has a burden of proof even when making an argument, but that isn’t actually how it works. What you’ve just done is made an argument from ignorance – that X is true unless proven false. Of course, nobody is actually going to present any evidence or argument because the whole point of the Bigfoot defense is to allow you to blow off even looking at the evidence.

            ” I personally think that each of these analogies has aspects that are applicable to the subject – no analogy is perfect of course because if it was perfect then it would be the event itself.”

            Well, if one of the analogies is “eyewitness testimony” then you need to explain why that doesn’t also eliminate a lot of events that you would presumably accept as historical. And please don’t tell me “because those aren’t supernatural,” because that’s begging the question. And you’re right – if the analogy was perfect it WOULD be the event itself – in which case wouldn’t it make more sense to just look at THAT? That’s what you should do if you really want to know the truth about it rather than avoiding the subject. So I have to say that the Bigfoot defense appears to me to be simply a mechanism for avoiding the subject. It is certainly not a valid argument in any form that I have seen.

    • Esther O'Reilly says:

      The shallowness is overwhelming, but just for fun, let’s lean on each of your alternate “explanations.” See also the now over 400 word discussion which you’re apparently not interested in engaging with.

      1. Superstition/ignorance: Again with this line. I throw up my hands. Let me speak slowly, using short Anglo-Saxon words: The average 1st century Jew was not an idiot. Joseph was immediately minded to divorce Mary quietly because he leapt to the first obvious conclusion about her pregnancy, like any man with two brain cells to rub together. And the resurrection? “So Peter, you think Jesus might rise from the dead?” “Doh… maybe, I dunno man, it happens all the time!”

      2. Prevarication: Many men will die for something they believe to be true. No man will die for something he knows to be false.

      3. Wishful thinking: Yes, all twelve apostles conjured up experiences of Jesus talking, touching, speaking to and eating with them after his death just by the power of wishful thinking. Also, the other post-resurrection witnesses referred to in an authentic letter from Paul the Apostle, dated to less than forty years after Jesus’ death, many of whom were still alive at the time… more wishful thinking, or deception. (See 2.)

      4. Exaggeration: I repeat, many men will die for something they believe to be true. No man will die for something he knows to be false.

      • vinnyjh57 says:

        1. I do not think that the average 1st century Jew was any more an idiot than the average 19th century American. Nevertheless, there are nearly 14,000,000 Mormons in the world today. What matters is that there were enough 19th century Americans who were willing to buy Joseph Smith’s stories with no proof whatsoever.

        2. I don’t know that it can be established that no man will die for something they know to be false, but since I have no way to establish how or why anyone who was an eyewitness to any of the events actually died or what it was they actually knew when they died, it doesn’t really matter.

        3. I don’t have contemporary accounts of what the twelve apostles experienced. What I have are stories told decades after the fact by true believers, much like the Fatima stories the nuns told me as a child. Interestingly, at the time the nuns told me those stories, there were still eyewitnesses alive and many of their statements had even been recorded shortly after the events. That didn’t stop the nuns from greatly exaggerating what actually happened..

        4. And I repeat, I don’t know that it can be established that no man will die for something they know to be false, but since I have no way to establish how or why anyone who was an eyewitness to any of the events actually died or what it was they actually knew when they died, it doesn’t really matter.

        • cjoint says:

          Good points. There’s also the John of God example happening right now. Thousands of eyewitnesses. But very few Christians accept him as a true healer.

        • Esther O'Reilly says:

          RE martyrdom, I think you’re forgetting about a letter to the Corinthian church reliably dated to 96 A.D. and generally attributed to Clement of Rome. Here is the record of Peter’s death, with indications of other apostolic martyrdoms: “Let us take the noble examples furnished in our own generation. Through envy and jealousy the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the church] have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him.” Every record we have of Peter’s testimony includes the loud and clear message that Jesus rose from the dead. There’s no way you can argue Peter didn’t claim that.

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            If Peter died during Nero’s persecution as church tradition holds, he was put to death for the crime of arson. Nero was scapegoating the Christians for his own crime. He did not care what they believed or what they claimed. There is no reason to think that any of his victims would have been given the chance to save their lives by recanting their beliefs.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Precisely, he was executing Christians. Peter could have made every effort to distance himself from the Christian community, protesting to his last breath that he’d made up a big fish story and wasn’t one of THOSE people Nero thought he was. Was it guaranteed to secure Peter’s release? Not a guarantee, but why would Peter not at least have made the effort? Yet this doesn’t square with the account of how Peter died.

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            What account of how Peter died are you talking about?

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            The best is the letter attributed to Clement of Rome which I quoted. There’s also James the brother of Jesus, who was stoned by the Jews as recorded in several extra-biblical accounts, and James the son of Zebedee “killed with a sword” by Herod.

            The problem you’re going to run into with Peter is that you can’t have it both ways. On the one hand, you’re positing that he was a liar and arguing that for all we know, he might have renounced his beliefs, attempted escape, etc., etc. and the Christians who recorded his noble martyrdom covered it up after the fact. (Never mind of course that Peter never had his own private army.) However, you also need to reckon with the fact that Peter (and all the apostles) voluntarily submitted to new rules of conduct and underwent many other hard labors and social ridicule in the course of spreading Christianity. Unlike Smith, who, as I’ve documented below, squeezed quite a bit of “juice” out of his new religion. All the boxes of “earthly gain” that you could possibly tick are ticked in Smith’s case. He was just unlucky enough to miscalculate the odds that he would actually get killed for being a (legitimate) trouble-maker. Not so in the apostles’ case. Smith’s behavior was consistent all the way down the line to the point of his death. Peter would have had to undergo a radical change of character for the kind of recantation you’re imagining.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Furthermore, it is not merely reports of their ACTUAL death that we are working from, but their repeatedly demonstrated WILLINGNESS to die. For example, after the stoning of Steven in the book of Acts, there was a very tense period where the apostles could easily have been killed by the Jews, yet they stayed in Jerusalem. Of course, if you’d like to dispute the historicity of Acts, knock yourself out, but you’re going to have an uphill climb of it, and we’ve already anticipated and fielded many arguments in this thread alone.

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            There is no account of Peter’s death in 1 Clement.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Er, did you not read the quote from that letter? Chapter 5, to be exact? Full text here:

            http://www.ewtn.com/library/patristc/anf1-1.htm

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            I have read 1 Clement, but I don’t consider the fact that Peter died to be an account of his death.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Oh I see, because it doesn’t spell it out in detail, it doesn’t count. Look, this was what you said: “I have no way to establish how or why anyone who was an eyewitness to any of the events actually died or what it was they actually knew when they died.” That’s pretty sweeping. To most normal observers, 1 Clement is a piece of evidence against that claim. Besides, we have no evidence of Peter’s being in Rome until the Neronian persecution. It’s strange that he would even go to Rome, hearing Christians were being killed there.

            And you know, I’ll bet you Bart Ehrman would agree with me, but that’s just a hunch. I know you’re something of a Carrier fanboy though, so whatever.

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            If the circumstances of Peter’s death are to be offered as proof of a supernatural event, then I think it is reasonable to require a little detail.

          • Mary says:

            The Christians were a laughable little cult in the early years..not taken seriously enough to be persecuted over their fetish for their dead leader. All of the evidence suggests that when the persecutions happened, it was for being a nuisance to those in power…by causing disturbances and disrespecting authorities. There is no evidence at all that the authorities in the first century cared enough about the disciple’s crazy beliefs to put a sword to their throat and demand “Renounce your belief in the resurrection or DIEEEE”. In order to make the “wouldn’t die for a lie” argument stick, you would need strong evidence that the disciples were killed specifically for their belief in the resurrection, and that they had the opportunity to before recant being killed. You have nothing even remotely close to this.

          • Mary says:

            I should add, that even if you did have solid evidence that Peter was killed *specifically* for believing in the resurrection, and not for any other reason, and that that he maintained his belief even after offered a choice to recant and live, at best you’ve got a recorded event of a religious fanatic dying for his convictions (woop-dee-doo.)

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Oh hullo Mary, nice to see you back. How are you coming on that page by page analysis of Helms?

            As I tried to explain once already, but will happily explain again, it is first not merely Peter, and second not merely their actual death but their willingness to die (as recorded repeatedly throughout the book of Acts, whose historicity I would love to see you try to dispute), and not merely their willingness to die but their voluntary submission to a life of new conduct, hard labors and ridicule, which we are using as evidence. As you apparently missed, two out of three of the specific people named (the two Jameses) were not killed by the Romans but killed either by the Jews (in the brother of Jesus’ case) or killed by Herod in an attempt to appease the Jews (in the son of Zebedee’s case). And since the Jews were the ones who demanded Jesus’ crucifixion in the first place, I’d say they probably cared a little bit about exactly what the disciples were claiming. Wouldn’t you agree? Also, do you have sources on the “causing disturbances and disrespecting authorities” bit? Because every biblical or extra-biblical source that I can lay hands on off the top of my head contradicts that.

      • cjoint says:

        “4. Exaggeration: I repeat, many men will die for something they believe to be true. No man will die for something he knows to be false.”

        This kind of linear thinking always struck me as weak. Based on what? I think if we applied a systems thinking, which contrast with a linear cause and effectth thinking, is more reciprocal and circular. The systems/cybernetic principle of equfinity states that an outcome may have many alternative sources. We could all start posting other reason why people might meet death believing true or false things they subjectively held dear. They could have positively belied a false thing, committing type 1 or type 2 two errors in reasoning. They could have not been given the choice wether or not they recanted to escape death. The records of their deaths may not be accurate. We may be projecting an apologetic attitude onto otherwise regretting incidents. On and on.

        This raises I think a fair point that is neither for or against your position. But the weight you give that statement is in direct poportion to the conclusion you hold. We all, scholars and lay people alike, make statements about what we think these first century Jews and Gentiles in context may have thought, done and been motivated by, seeking to link it to our affirmation or criticism. (I.e. Illiterate vs. unlearned; criteria of embarrassment; use chiasms etc) Which one makes more sense to each of us appeals to our bias, and it would be difficult to be completely objective. This applies within Christianity too, and is why John doesn’t buy Calvanism or talking snakes, as others within the church do, a might even call him a heretic. It just doesn’t jive with his subjective reasoning. This thread conversation just happens to be about the whole story rather than implications of the story on particular theology. But it’s the same kind of discussion. Instead of two Christians trading verses in a spar, and quoting their favorite theologian, we are trading scholars and our view of first century contexts. I believe that these things make sense to you, and that you sincerely believe and would die for them. The tragedy that I find in both your tones is that you do not believe in the “others” sincerity or integrity and think of yourself as objectively qualified. It seems highly conflicting with the spirit you say you’ve received. Kind of confusing if apologetics is about evangelism.

        So what makes sense to one person, seeking to evaluate the inner thoughts and intents of people living centuries removed, relies heavily on mixing what that person thinks we know about them with some factoid. But each person is affected differently by their own culture. I encounter people all the time in therapy who have made sense of their particular ethnic culture subjectively, and to project my understanding of their sterytypical cultural knowledge would be prejudicial (I.e. Because most iltlians consider family loyalty above all, this client will not self differentiate, or because this clientis Asian, they will not respond to individuation interventions etc) so one could posit tha tax collectors may have known Greek and Aramaic, but that’s all it is, and doesn’t really advance an argument for either side.

        Again, we see as we are. Faith in the meta story here has a large influence on the details your both asserting. The same is true of me and others who for many different reasons do not posses a faith in that meta narrative, and therefore aren’t moved by projective arguments that make sense to a true beleivers reasoning. In that sense, I thought the Nun example is analgous.

        • Esther O'Reilly says:

          “Faith in the meta story?” Sorry man, but I think you’re starting to drift off into post-modern speak here.

        • davewarnock says:

          people will die for what they believe to be true. Suicide bombers, hunger strikes, setting oneself on fire; these kinds of extreme acts all prove that. Their sincerity and devotion however, do not prove that what they believed was indeed true. It simply says they really believed it.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Did you not see the part where I acknowledged that many men will die for what they believe to be true, but then further pointed out that no man will die for what he knows is false?

          • davewarnock says:

            yes, just repeating it here. speaking slowly. in short anglo-saxon words.

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            Joseph Smith knew when he surrendered to the sheriff in Carthage, Illinois that he risked being lynched and he had ample opportunity to flee rather than surrender. If anyone should have known that the Book of Mormon was a crock of crap, it was him,

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            You’re leaving out the fact that Smith had his own personal legion (the Nauvoo Legion) and was confident that they were on their way to break him out of jail, down to the moment when the mob came to assassinate him. We have this on the authority of his jailer. So it’s quite easy to understand his motives. He gets to surrender to the sheriff while uttering some high-sounding BS about “going like a lamb to the slaughter,” while counting on his little 5,000 man army to cover his rear and make sure he doesn’t ACTUALLY die or anything. Of course, he miscalculated disastrously. Smith died with a six-shooter in his hand, firing it until he was out of rounds and trying to escape out the window when he was fatally shot.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            But hey, since you brought up Joseph Smith, let’s take stock of what he got out of his new belief system. First, the obvious:

            Emma Hale
            Fanny Alger
            Lucinda Morgan Harris
            Louisa Beaman
            Zina Huntington Jacobs
            Presendia Huntington Buell
            Agnes Coolbrith
            Sylvia Sessions Lyon
            Mary Rollins Lightner
            Patty Bartlett Sessions
            Marinda Johnson Hyde
            Elizabeth Davis Durfee
            Sarah Kingsley Cleveland
            Delcena Johnson
            Eliza R. Snow
            Sarah Ann Whitney
            Martha McBride Knight
            Ruth Vose Sayers
            Flora Ann Woodworth
            Emily Dow Partridge
            Eliza Maria Partridge
            Almera Johnson
            Lucy Walker
            Sarah Lawrence
            Maria Lawrence
            Helen Mar Kimball
            Hanna Ells
            Elvira Cowles Holmes
            Rhoda Richards
            Desdemona Fullmer
            Olive Frost
            Melissa Lott
            Nancy Winchester
            Fanny Young

            Also, the aforementioned Nauvoo Legion, the largest standing army in the country outside of Washington D.C. Also, some extra cash…

            http://www.utlm.org/onlinebooks/changech14.htm

            For evidence that this was all according to plan, see Doctrine and Covenants 132:

            https://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/132

            And those supposed “witnesses?” This interview with Emma Smith should give you an idea of the nature of their testimony:

            Question. Are you sure that he had the plates at the time you were writing for him?

            Answer. The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen tablecloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once felt of the plates, as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book.

            [...]

            Question. I should suppose that you would have uncovered the plates and examined them?

            Answer. I did not attempt to handle the plates, other than I have told you, nor uncover them to look at them. I was satisfied that it was the work of God, and therefore did not feel it to be necessary to do so;

            Major Bidamon here suggested: Did Mr. Smith forbid your examining the plates?

            Answer. I do not think he did. I knew that he had them, and was not specially curious about them. I moved them from place to place on the table, as it was necessary in doing my work.

            Full text here:

            http://www.moroni10.com/witnesses/Emma_Smith.html

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            It may surprise you to know that the Mormons tell the story of Smith’s death a little differently. In their version, he is a pure and noble martyr from start to finish.

          • John Fraser says:

            “It may surprise you to know that the Mormons tell the story of Smith’s death a little differently. In their version, he is a pure and noble martyr from start to finish.”

            Oh, well that proves it, then *eyeroll*.

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            Oh, well that proves it, then *eyeroll*

            If by “it” you mean that you cannot rely on the stories that true believers tell about their own religion’s origins, then yes, that proves it..

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Josephus gives an account of the martyrdom of James Jesus’ brother. I suppose Josephus was a “true believer?” That eminent Chrisitan historian Tacitus gives an account of the Neronian persecution. You have also not brought any evidence to bear against Luke’s reliability as an historian, whereas we’ve been piling up the evidence for it all throughout this thread.

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            Josephus doesn’t say anything about James being a martyr for his Christian faith or that the charges against him had anything to do with Christianity, or even that James was a Christian.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            His account doesn’t offer many details, that is correct, though we have a fuller account of James’ death from Hegesippus. But we do know that the Jews looked for every opportunity to persecute the apostles, and we also know that James was a pillar of the early church from various passing references in Acts and authenticated letters of Paul. These passing references (notable by their passing nature—one would expect exaggerated emphasis to be placed on this point by a forger, perhaps even writing in this scene for James) mention that Jesus appeared to James after his resurrection. And curiously, it’s indicated in the gospels that Jesus’ family members distanced themselves from him during his ministry. James is mentioned nowhere until after the resurrection accounts, implying he was a skeptic up until that time.

            I see you’ve refused to engage with any of my other points so far. Sigh.

  4. I left some comments a few days ago and I did read all the responses. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to give out detailed response to each individual who replied.

    Thank you to those who did.

    I find the answers to my questions unsatisfying to say the least. I will try to explain why as briefly and concisely as I can.

    Whenever I encounter a claim, I try to look at it objectively, and I step back and evaluate in two stages

    1. If accepted, would this contradict anything I already know and have observed.
    2. Is there substantial evidence to overcome the evidence for the knowledge I already have and have observed.

    Stage 1 gives me an idea of how invested I should be in investigating the claim. If it makes little difference to accept/reject the claim, then there’s almost no need to follow up on it. For example if someone told me they bought a cat yesterday, I would not spend months compiling data on their cat in order to prove that this was the case.

    Stage 2 allows me to portion my beliefs about the claim to the evidence. If there is a lot of evidence for something, I can put more stock into it. If there is little evidence, I can hold the claim to be untrue, or “possible” even. For example if someone told me the oceans have turned into jello rather than water.

    So with the claim of a resurrected man who was God, I first address it using stage 1. This is a very rare, world altering, life-changing claim. Little dispute will be had about this between myself and the most fervent believer. If Jesus resurrected, it was a big deal. I feel like this claim has deserved the tenacity it has been pursued with.

    When I address it with stage 2, I feel like I must be consistent. We typically don’t see people claiming to be God (and that being true), and we typically don’t see those that rise from the dead and ascend into heaven. Therefore, the evidence has to be substantial.

    This is why I asked the questions about knowing if the people who wrote the gospels are giving an accurate account. I am open to hearing the answers, but the information must be substantial.

    I asked because I wanted to know if people believed the claims for good enough reasons. The reasons I got were still in the form of hearsay and “this person was probably reliable”.

    If I were to address the claim that the oceans have turned to jello, I would not accept the following as evidence:

    -Hearsay
    -One person’s eyewitness account
    -Several people’s eyewitness accounts.
    -Several reliable people’s account.
    -Written accounts that claim there were thousands of eyewitnesses to this fact.

    And so on and so on. Hopefully you get the point. The claim being true would alter everything I knew about the physical universe. This still leaves room however for plenty of evidence to breath the reasonable level of scrutiny I hold on this claim. A visual demonstration of the fact verified by people around me would likely be sufficient.

    What I hope to avoid by being skeptical is accepting a claim that is not sufficiently supported to overturn other conclusions I have reached that ARE well supported.

    Historical figures and events almost easily pass through stage 1. The biblical accounts, accounts of jello oceans, and the claims about Greek Gods get stuck in stage 1 and must be supported in stage 2.

    I feel like the people who accept these claims would not accept other similar claims with similar or better evidence.

    I ask you to think about this.

    If your friend came and told you the ocean had turned to jello, would you believe him/her?
    What if 12 friends came and made the same claim?
    What about 4 people who came and said that a thousand people made that claim?

    Now what if they weren’t your friends, or people you even knew?
    What if the claims were made in a book written 2000 years ago?
    What if we discovered that these 4 people were great at recounting information, and in the same written material, proved that they were reliable? Would you still believe the claim that the ocean turned to jello 2000 years ago?

    If the answer is no, and yet you believe that Jesus rose from the dead, you’re being inconsistent with your standards, and that should indicate to you that you have a strong bias for this particular claim.

    Thanks for reading.
    Ernest

    • John Fraser says:

      “Stage 2 allows me to portion my beliefs about the claim to the evidence. If there is a lot of evidence for something, I can put more stock into it. If there is little evidence, I can hold the claim to be untrue, or “possible” even. For example if someone told me the oceans have turned into jello rather than water. ”

      Why stop with the oceans turning into jello? How about Australia turning into a giant Milky Way chocolate bar?

      Sorry, but this is even worse than the “Bigfoot” objection. Just make up a hypothetical analogy of something completely ridiculous and say “I wouldn’t accept the evidence for X that you accept for the Resurrection, so you shouldn’t accept it for the Resurrection, either.”

      I could give a whole host of reasons as to why the oceans turning into jello is not even a remotely good analogy to the Resurrection. Hume had some much better ones, but even his fail as I’ll mention below. But I’ll mention two fatal flaws in the jello analogy here. Let’s start with the scenario that you have proposed:

      “If your friend came and told you the ocean had turned to jello, would you believe him/her?
      What if 12 friends came and made the same claim?
      What about 4 people who came and said that a thousand people made that claim?”

      The first question to ask here is this: supposing that the oceans actually did turn to jello, how many people would you expect to hear that from? Maybe you weren’t really thinking of how big the oceans are and how many people come in contact with the earth’s oceans every day, but it is doubtless hundreds of millions of people who live on the coast, who make their livelihood on the oceans, etc. Thousands of sea-faring vessels are on the oceans at any given moment, and presumably they would all be stuck in this fanciful scenario. So the question of how much evidence we would expect in the case that this actually happened is that there would obviously be way more than this. On the other hand, presuming the Resurrection actually happened, how much would we expect for that? I would say the amount that we have is reasonable (and certainly adequate) given that the Resurrection actually happened. So the analogy completely fails at this first basic point.

      The second problem has to do with context. Let’s start with the Resurrection, which is reportedly an event which vindicated the teachings of Jesus as being from God by a demonstration of a clearly divine act. I could expand this point by discussing the question of life after death, overcoming death and so forth which also factors into this, but for now we can just stick with this basic point. Now, is it implausible that God exists? Naturalistic assumptions notwithstanding, there are, in fact, very plausible reasons for thinking that God exists – from cosmology, cosmic fine-tuning, the existence of natural laws (whatever their ontological status), and so forth. Most of humanity at least finds the existence of the supernatural as plausible, if not actual. Second, is it plausible to think that if God exists that he would communicate with human beings? It certainly seems plausible to me and to a great many other people, many of whom claim to have such a message. Third, if God were to communicate a message to humanity, is it plausible to think he would do so by means of something like a resurrection? Again I see good reasons to think so. It’s a clearly divine act, and not only vindicates the prophetic message of the man he raised from the dead but also gives an indication of future hope after death (which is, after all, part of the message). So we have what we might call a religio-historical context in which a miracle like the Resurrection would make sense.

      What would be the sense of the oceans turning into jello? For one thing, it would kill all marine life which would also lead pretty quickly I would think to the death of just about every living thing on the planet, not to mention a lot of issues having to do with climate (the ocean currents have a lot to do with that and I don’t think jello flows so well), and probably lots of other things. So I don’t see that there is any viable context for such an event even regardless of the problem with how much evidence we should expect that I gave above. So basically this proposed scenario is not a good parallel to the Resurrection no matter how you slice it. I’ve actually been somewhat generous in actually treating it this seriously. I don’t think it actually deserves as much space as I’ve given it.

      Hume had a much better attempt, asking whether he should believe that the Queen of England died, was interred for a month, then returned to life and resumed her throne even if her physicians, the whole court, and all of parliament affirmed that it was true. Hume’s answer was that he would not, although he would accept a claim from “all authors in all languages” that there was total darkness over the whole earth for 8 days in January, 1600 (if such a claim was made and supported by that much evidence). The problem with Hume’s thesis is that it is demonstrably false using the probability calculus as John Earman details in “Hume’s Abject Failure.” Charles Babbage (the inventor of the computer) actually pointed out long ago that “it is always possible to assign a number of independent witnesses, the improbability of the falsehood of whose concurring testimonies shall be greater than that of the improbability of the miracle itself.” He was correct, as the probability calculus shows.

      But there is also the problem of the Indian Prince objection. Suppose that there was (long ago, before refrigeration) an Indian Prince who had never traveled to a cold climate or talked to anyone from such a place, that heard testimony that in some faraway land the water turned hard enough to support the weight of an elephant? If he were to follow the approach of skeptics, he should disbelieve the testimony no matter how many people told him because it was so contrary to his experience. However, he would be incorrect in his reasoning and his rejection of the claims. This same problem comes up with respect to new scientific discoveries, as Earman also shows. So the skeptic has no way of applying the skeptical rule in such a way as to rule out miracles but allow these others kinds of occurrences. It simply becomes an exercise in dismissing whatever the skeptic has decided (on some other basis) to reject.

      “If the answer is no, and yet you believe that Jesus rose from the dead, you’re being inconsistent with your standards, and that should indicate to you that you have a strong bias for this particular claim.”

      No, I don’t think I am being inconsistent as I have shown above. The ocean-jello analogy fails miserably. But more importantly, the much more sophisticated and nuanced analogies that Hume attempted also fail miserably. This should indicate to you that you have a strong bias against this particular claim.

      • vinnyjh57 says:

        Is it plausible that God exists?

        I don’t think the evidence is sufficient to establish the existence of God, but I do not find the idea implausible.

        Is it plausible that God would communicate with human being?

        Certainly many people want him to and believe he has, but that doesn’t make it plausible. If an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God exists, he is so far above human beings that I can see no greater plausibility in him wishing to communicate with us than in him wishing to communicate with dolphins. Human beings might be more intelligent than dolphins, but the difference is infinitesimal compared to such a God. To imagine that we occupy some special place in God’s scheme of things is akin to my dog thinking that she is the center of my universe just because she is slightly smarter than my cat. If an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God exists, it is equally plausible to me that the universe is little more to him than an ant farm which he chooses to observe from time to time for reasons that I could never hope to fathom.

        Is it plausible to think God would do so by means of something like a resurrection?

        Now we are into the realm of pure wishful thinking. If an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God exists, I cannot hope to comprehend his ways and purposes, which leaves me with no basis other than conceit or arrogance for claiming to know what is would make sense for him to do.

        • John Fraser says:

          “Certainly many people want him to and believe he has, but that doesn’t make it plausible.”

          Did you see anyone make an argument that this is what makes it plausible? I actually left this was without much elaboration because honestly I think the answer is so obvious. If there is a supreme being who created human beings in his image then it seems very plausible (even probable) that he would want to communicate with them.

          “To imagine that we occupy some special place in God’s scheme of things is akin to my dog thinking that she is the center of my universe just because she is slightly smarter than my cat.”

          Do you communicate with your dog and your cat even though they are just pets and can’t really communicate back on the same level? I assume the answer is yes (lots of people do). So actually the analogy is a good one as to why God would want to communicate with his creatures even though there is, as you note, a vast difference in level of intelligence and so forth. But actually God would have more reason than you with your pets. If he created us, then his concern for us would be greater than your concern for your pets which you did not create but only came to regard as your own.

          “Now we are into the realm of pure wishful thinking. If an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God exists, I cannot hope to comprehend his ways and purposes, which leaves me with no basis other than conceit or arrogance for claiming to know what is would make sense for him to do.”

          You must have a hard time with skeptics who frequently argue things like, “but God wouldn’t do it THAT way!” Of course, we aren’t hypothesizing in the realm of pure conjecture, we’re talking about actual claims here – namely that God raised Jesus from the dead as a vindication of his message and also as part of the message itself. I didn’t make any of that up, so whatever it is you find arrogant about that is quite a bit beyond me. Is it plausible for God to do such a thing? Sure seems like it to me. For one thing, as I mentioned many people claim to have a message from God, so it would stand to reason that God would do something to distinguish his message from other messages which are not actually from him. What other way could he do that other than by some kind of miracle? And unlike other claimed divine messages, this one does not depend upon the word of one person (the Koran was allegedly dictated to Mohammad by the angel Gabriel in a cave and only Joseph Smith allegedly had the ability to translate the language in which it was written – and then only by using a hat and some stones rather than by actually reading the text itself!). Instead it has as its central feature multiple eyewitness testimony, which as the probability calculus shows is exactly the kind of evidence that we would need in order to establish a miracle. Those ancient Jews sure were a clever bunch to anticipate the development of the probability calculus over a millennium and a half in advance!

          • John Fraser says:

            Sorry, I noticed that I left out the Book of Mormon, when I talked about what it was that Joseph Smith was translated. In my editing I took out a previous mention of the Book of Mormon, making it look like Smith translated the Koran. So it should read: “the Koran was allegedly dictated to Mohammad by the angel Gabriel in a cave and only Joseph Smith allegedly had the ability to translate the language in which the Book of Mormon was written – and then only by using a hat and some stones rather than by actually reading the text itself!

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            Of course the notion that we are created in God’s image is a huge new bit of wishful thinking that you are adding.

            I do communicate with my cat and dog in a rudimentary way, but the gap between my pets and myself is infinitesimal compared to the gap between human beings and God. Certainly my dog has no basis to infer that I communicate differently with him than I do with the cat.

            I don’t have a hard time with skeptics who argue “God wouldn’t do it that way,” because they are responding to theists claims about what it would be plausible to do given what they imagine his purposes to be. I did not choose to respond that way to your claim that it made sense for God to communicate through a resurrection, but I might have..

      • “I could give a whole host of reasons as to why the oceans turning into jello is not even a remotely good analogy to the Resurrection. But I’ll mention two fatal flaws in the jello analogy here. Let’s start with the scenario that you have proposed.”

        No analogy is perfect. Pointing out the differences between the analogies and the situation it is being used to represent doesn’t defeat the point that I was trying to make. The analogy is meant to correspond with two methods that we typically use when evaluating claims. You demonstrate it clearly here:

        “I’ve actually been somewhat generous in actually treating it this seriously. I don’t think it actually deserves as much space as I’ve given it.”

        The jello analogy and Jesus are both events that occurred that would be difficult for any reasonable person to accept just on the basis of someone’s (or even many people’s) word. This means that it doesn’t pass stage 1 of accepting a claim because the effect would be arbitrary.

        Stage 2 then means that for something to be accepted as a true proposition it would require evidence in the same portion as evidence that would overturn it. We have a large body of evidence that would suggest that water doesn’t spontaneously turn into jello. We also have a large body of evidence to suggest that the natural laws do not suspend. We have a large body of evidence that suggests that people can’t resurrect after 3 days. There would need to be a large body of evidence to reasonably overturn the existing evidence or to demonstrate that this highly abnormal event took place. Hearsay and speculation about “what we would expect” is insufficient. We could all speculate correctly or incorrectly about what we would expect to see if Jesus was resurrected. If the event never occurred, we could all rationalize that the exact evidence we have is exactly what we would expect if the event occurred. Especially if we are looking for the evidence to lead us there.

        In judging things by these two simple standards that most reasonable people employ, the analogy works. Do you reject that you employ either of these methods when examining claims?

        It is interested that people go to such great lengths to try to put so much worth in the testimony of eyewitnesses from 2000 years ago. You mention later about my bias because I won’t accept this type evidence. I think it’s more telling that you wouldn’t accept this type of evidence for nearly any other claim of equal stature, but for this one claim, you will not only accept it, but go to great lengths trying to convince others that they should suspend their skepticism.

        “The problem with Hume’s thesis is that it is demonstrably false using the probability calculus as John Earman details in “Hume’s Abject Failure.” Charles Babbage (the inventor of the computer) actually pointed out long ago that “it is always possible to assign a number of independent witnesses, the improbability of the falsehood of whose concurring testimonies shall be greater than that of the improbability of the miracle itself.” He was correct, as the probability calculus shows.”

        I don’t understand this point if you could elaborate a little more please?

        “But there is also the problem of the Indian Prince objection. Suppose that there was (long ago, before refrigeration) an Indian Prince who had never traveled to a cold climate or talked to anyone from such a place, that heard testimony that in some faraway land the water turned hard enough to support the weight of an elephant? If he were to follow the approach of skeptics, he should disbelieve the testimony no matter how many people told him because it was so contrary to his experience. However, he would be incorrect in his reasoning and his rejection of the claims. This same problem comes up with respect to new scientific discoveries, as Earman also shows. So the skeptic has no way of applying the skeptical rule in such a way as to rule out miracles but allow these others kinds of occurrences. It simply becomes an exercise in dismissing whatever the skeptic has decided (on some other basis) to reject.”

        He would be correct to be skeptical. Perhaps he would be correct to dismiss these claims without sufficient evidence. Of course, he would be right if he accepted the claim, but the power of skepticism isn’t in being right about all claims every time. It’s about avoiding being wrong about them. There are more ways to be wrong about the world than there are to be right, so it’s simply more rational to reject most claims without sufficient evidence.

        Let’s say another man came to him and said that an elephant actually spouted fire from his nose and burned the entire country. From the Prince’s perspective, both claims (the ice and the fire elephant) have equal merit. They both have not been demonstrated, and contradictory to what he knows about elephants, ice, water, etc. Should he accept them both? Reject them both? Accept one? Reject the other? Accepting both would be unreasonable. Rejecting both (or suspending judgement) would be more reasonable. Accepting one while rejecting the other would be inconsistent and unreasonable.

        The reasonable, consistent thing to do is to reject both until either one has sufficiently been demonstrated.

        “No, I don’t think I am being inconsistent as I have shown above. The ocean-jello analogy fails miserably. But more importantly, the much more sophisticated and nuanced analogies that Hume attempted also fail miserably. This should indicate to you that you have a strong bias against this particular claim.”

        As I said before, you pointed out the differences in the analogy. Every analogy has differences. What about the similarities? Can you treat my argument charitably?

        Choose a hypothetical situation in which the natural laws would be suspended, and there would only be eyewitness testimony or hearsay to account for it. It doesn’t matter if it’s jello, bigfoot, whatever.

        Would you accept the evidence as sufficient?

        • John Fraser says:

          “No analogy is perfect. Pointing out the differences between the analogies and the situation it is being used to represent doesn’t defeat the point that I was trying to make.”

          No, the only analogous point between the two of them is that you consider both to be equally ridiculous and implausible. That, however, is entirely irrelevant. What matters is the actual details of each respective scenario, not your level of personal incredulity regarding them. And on that level, it’s a complete bust. Sorry, but like I said I already gave it more attention then it deserves.

          • Yes, i did want to address your treatment of the analogy. It was given more treatment than it deserves. We can’t address every claim to that extent because there are so many of them. We also can’t just accept them on the basis of hearsay or weak assertions of what we might accept.

            I didn’t give the Indian Prince analogy a fair shake.

            If thousands or more people made the claim about ice might give the Prince pause to consider or possibly even tentatively accept it as true.

            This is far from the amount of eyewitness accounts we have for the resurrection story.

            Claims must be either so commonplace that denying them would keep you from functioning normally, OR they must have sufficient evidence to overturn evidence for the general consistency of the natural laws.

            I feel like you’ve tried to downplay the magnitude of the claim. As if at any moment the natural laws will break down and no one would be surprised.

            I also feel like you’ve attempted to dishonestly frame the evidence as more substantial as it is.

            You are free to convince me of either, and i will accept your claims.

            Would you deny that the resurrection account is miraculous, or will you contend that the evidence we have is compelling enough to reasonably accept that natural laws can turn off off and on?

          • John Fraser says:

            “If thousands or more people made the claim about ice might give the Prince pause to consider or possibly even tentatively accept it as true.”

            Why thousands? Just because you know there aren’t that many for the Resurrection so you wanted to pick a high enough number so as not to be used against you? No, a rational person should not require thousands. Or even hundreds. If ten people independently told him this was the case, that should be more than enough. In order to deny their cumulative testimony, he would have to assume they were all lying (but for what motive?), they were all mistaken (but how could ten people all be mistaken about such a thing?), or they were all deceived somehow (but how and why?).

            “Claims must be either so commonplace that denying them would keep you from functioning normally, OR they must have sufficient evidence to overturn evidence for the general consistency of the natural laws.”

            Well, I would argue the latter is the case although the “evidence for the general consistency of the natural laws” is also punctuated with literally millions of testimonies of miracles. In order to assume the consistency of natural laws one must assume that miracles don’t really happen – but then it becomes a circular argument because you have assumed the conclusion (miracles don’t happen) as a premise.

            “I feel like you’ve tried to downplay the magnitude of the claim. As if at any moment the natural laws will break down and no one would be surprised.”

            On the contrary, the disciples are depicted as being so surprised that they refused to believe the initial testimony of the women (Luke 24:11). They thought it was nonsense at first. Nobody said anything about no one being surprised – that’s actually the whole point of miracles which in the Bible are called “signs” and “wonders.” It wouldn’t be much of a wonder if it didn’t surprise anybody! So I’m perfectly well aware of the magnitude of the claim, I’m simply trying to say that brushing off the evidence based on bad analogies is not a valid approach.

            “I also feel like you’ve attempted to dishonestly frame the evidence as more substantial as it is.”

            Where did I do that?

            “You are free to convince me of either, and i will accept your claims.”

            No, I’m not here to convince you. I’m here to present the evidence in as clear a light as possible. What you do with that is up to you, not me.

            “Would you deny that the resurrection account is miraculous, or will you contend that the evidence we have is compelling enough to reasonably accept that natural laws can turn off off and on?”

            The resurrection is miraculous, if that’s what you mean. But we really need to do some work on the idea of natural laws, because I think you’re using some outdated 19th-century philosophy of science. A “law” of nature is simply a description of what normally happens when nature is left to itself. It isn’t a literal “law.” There isn’t a book somewhere that objects are obliged to obey. So there is no “turning on” or “turning off” of anything. Of course a bigger question is WHY are there such regularities to begin with? Is it just a brute fact with no explanation? Did the universe just get lucky to not be in complete and utter chaos? Many of the early scientists believed that the universe was the product of a supreme mind, and that because of that we should expect 1) the universe to exhibit order and 2) that our minds are designed to recognize those patterns. Neither of these are a natural consequence of materialism, but they are of theism. Furthermore, in order for there to even BE miracles, there must be a backdrop of regularities in nature for us to even recognize them. So regularities in nature (“laws” if you like, as long as we don’t take the term too literally as you have done) are required by Christianity. Again, they are not required by materialism and under materialism have no obvious explanation.

    • Esther O'Reilly says:

      John’s right, Ernest. Nothing you’re saying here is new, Hume thought of it centuries ago (only his examples were better) and has been refuted in several different ways since. Please, please read up on the responses to Hume, both contemporary to him and modern. George Campbell is one among several good contemporaries. John Earman, not a Christian, is a modern writer who focuses on the math of why he’s wrong. Believe it or not, his wrongness is quantifiable.

      • I’m aware that this conversation has been ongoing for centuries. I’m happy that you’ve looked into both Hume and rebuttals to his work.

        I, myself, am slowly working through a lot of different books, and will probably never read everything I want to read in my entire life.

        Given that, I wish to engage with people who might have information that I do not have. I want to learn, and possibly present my point of view in a way that is persuasive to other people. I don’t wish to just read books and accept them at face value. We should all be keenly aware that because a particular source claims to have rebutted something doesn’t make it so.

        This is why I ask people who have delved into these works. My questions are basically “in what way has this idea been rebutted”?

        It’s possible they weren’t. So my purpose in dialoguing is to form my own opinions, and then see where I am wrong, and where I might be right. If my purpose was to just learn what other people have said before me, I would read books until I was dead.

        • Esther O'Reilly says:

          Ernest, in the case of Hume his influence is so profound, and his failure so abject (in Earman’s words) that you should make it a priority to look into the rebuttals to his arguments. Campbell is an excellent (and freely available) layman-accessible treatment that answers Hume in his own terms. As for Earman, keep in mind that Hume was writing and opining long before the development of the kind of probability calculus Earman is using to quantify his failure. Moreover, Hume was an amateur philosopher, and Earman is a pro. So the gap there is huge in terms both of expertise and advances in the field, and furthermore as an atheist, Earman should have no particular bias against Hume. You seem to find Hume’s arguments particularly persuasive, so I think for you this should not simply be, “Yet more stuff to tack onto the reading list.”

          • I wasn’t persuaded by a philosopher or a book. I was persuaded by the idea. I find arguments from authority to be more like pissing contests, so if you can round out some of the issues with the philosophy of skepticism that would be great.

            I unfortunately do not have time to go judge everyone’s opinion on Hume’s arguments or my own for that matter, but I try as best as I can.

            I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you are not arguing from authority or placing higher merit on an idea simply because “someone smarter said it”. I agree that maybe in tangible sciences a biologist may be more qualified to speak about life than an engineer, but with philosophy…it’s a little more subjective. I am interested in reading the “quantifiable wrongness” of Hume though

            I am genuinely interested in what you and others have to say about the ideas I’ve put forth. I appreciate the recommendation for reading (I am working on solidifying my own points of view), but arguments aren’t any more or less convincing because Hume said them or some other person rebutting him. In fact I would venture to say that there are probably rebuttals to the rebuttals out there. Our reading lists should never be empty :-)

            Thanks for responding and feel free to put forth some criticisms of your own.

    • Esther O'Reilly says:

      Also, you say that we’re rejecting similarly reliable claims on the part of other religions, but we’ve just been giving evidence that the claims are not analogous. In the case of Mormonism, it boiled down to “Well, this very charismatic guy swayed me into thinking he had a message from God,” and in the case of men, “This very charismatic guy told me I could have all the sex I want!” while said charismatic guy accumulated wealth, women, power and an army. In the case of various faith healings, it’s along the lines of “I just had this amazingly warm, fuzzy feeling, and I just KNEW inside that I was healed of my breast cancer, and wouldn’t you know it I was scanned and the doctor said it was in remission!”

      As for the “Salem witch trials example” which I think David W brought up earlier, here is an excellent little resource by a late 19th century freethinker named John Fiske exposing why claims that the witchcraft was “well attested” are completely uninformed:

      https://archive.org/details/witchcraftinsale00fisk

      • I haven’t made any real attempt to analogize the Christ story to any real event yet.

        Admittedly the jello analogy was silly and not meant to be taken as a literal occurrence, but hypothetical. The main issue I was address was if it would even be possible for a believer to analogize his belief with something else and then either accept it on the same merits or reject it.

        So I guess my basic question is, if a claim came about with the same basic qualities (suspension of natural laws, suspension of previously accepted truths) and the same basic evidence (speculation and hearsay), would you accept it?

        I think the main issue is that in this one claim believers typically place undue importance and reverence to the evidence, but even in hypotheticals they would not.

        Thanks for responding cordially, and I look forward to hearing your response.

        • Esther O'Reilly says:

          Again, the problem is that it’s not enough to leave it at “the same basic qualities” or “the same basic evidence.” The devil is in the details. That’s what John and I have been trying to get at here.

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            Suppose I want to know whether the referee missed the call on a key play in a football game and my only evidence is a still photograph taken from high in the stands that seems to show pass interference that the referee did not call. Before I considered the details of the photograph, I might consider whether the photograph contained the information I needed to make the decision. I might consider how often seeing an instant replay from a different camera angle changes my opinion of a play. I might consider the fact that the motion and momentum of the players cannot be judged from the photographs. If I had a collection of similar photographs for which video was available from multiple angles, I might find that the referee’s call was confirmed in the large majority of cases. In that case, I could very reasonably conclude that the kind of photograph I had was not the kind of evidence upon which the determination could be made.

            I know of multiple cases in which the fantastic stories told by true believers decades after the fact were proved to be wildly unreliable by sources closer to the events and no cases where the reverse is true. As a result, in a case where I have only the true believers’ version of events, I have no reason to think that I can get at the truth of what really happened no matter how much I get into the details.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Yes, yes, I’ve read your blog. Now, explain to me how I can tell that Paul’s epistles and the book of Acts were written decades after the events they report.

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            I’m sure you know the arguments that scholars give for the various dates as well as I do.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Well, I know there’s a scholarly consensus about Acts and many of Paul’s epistles, certainly the ones I referred to, and I know it favors my proposal that they are up close to the events they record. If that’s what you meant.

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            Is your evidence for that scholarly consensus as strong as your evidence for the martyrdom of Peter and the martyrdom of James?

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            At a bare minimum, you will be hard pressed to find anyone on either side questioning the status of Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon as authentic Pauline epistles.

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            No, but the consensus would still his most of writings two decades after the resurrection. Moreover, he gives us no detail concerning the appearance experiences.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            At the moment, I was discussing references to James as a pillar of the church. 1 Corinthians 15:7 was the reference to the post-resurrection experience I had in mind. You say it has no detail, and yet I reply that if anything this lends credibility to it. Again, if James was so important in the early church, we would expect a forger to go on at some length about the details of his conversion and Jesus’ appearance to him. The passing way in which James and his conversion is mentioned gives the impression that to the intended audience of the books, it was common knowledge already. This is true for many, many facts scattered throughout.

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            To what does it lend credibility? I do not doubt that Paul believed that the risen Christ appeared to James. Of what that experience consisted–e.g., a dream, a hallucination, a warm fuzzy feeling, or a full sensory encounter–Paul does not say.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Read the verse more carefully. This is the first creed we have on record of the early church—“for I have delivered unto you that which I also received.” In it, Paul is giving a chronological account of Christ’s post-Resurrection appearances. He was raised, then he appeared to Peter, then he appeared to the twelve, then he appeared to the 500, then to James, then to all the apostles at once. He then places himself last of all, making a clear distinction between these appearances and his own vision “as one born out of due time,” to delineate plainly that everyone ELSE saw Jesus in his pre-Ascension state immediately after the resurrection, whereas his vision was delayed, post-Ascension. So actually, you’re just wrong that Paul leaves the nature of Jesus’ appearance to James ambiguous.

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            When does Paul ever refer to the ascension? Your ability to divine details which the texts do not contain is remarkable.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            What do you think the phrase “born out of due time” is supposed to refer to?

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            I’m not sure what it means, and from my reading, I can’t see that scholars have reached any consensus on the question either. There sure isn’t anything “plain” about its meaning.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Well, I’m sorry if you persist on acting less intelligent than you are, but the more you continue to evade the point, the more tedious this becomes. You still have not answered the fact that all records we have speak unanimously to the apostles’ repeated RISK of death, even when they were not in fact killed, nor to their voluntary acceptance of an itinerant life with no material benefits and constant hardship. The very fact that you sought to use Joseph Smith as some kind of comparable analogy is risible.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Furthermore, why would there ever be the slightest debate or insecurity on Paul’s part over his apostleship if all of them had exactly the same kind of experiences of Jesus? Paul’s experience is repeatedly treated as unusual and exceptional, occurring well after Peter, James and the other apostles have begun to preach the resurrection and plant churches.

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            The simple fact that the others could say “Jesus appeared to us first” explains Paul’s insecurity. What are you referring to when you say that Paul’s experience is repeatedly treated as unusual?

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            The other apostles are initially afraid to accept him into their inner circle (as a former persecutor of the church) and must be convinced that he’s had his own separate experience of Jesus. Paul also says “If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you,” speaking to the Corinthian church, which indicates that some questioned his rights as an apostle.

            The fact that Paul’s conversion is post-Ascension should be so obvious I can’t believe you’re pretending it’s obscure. This is ridiculous. Just read the Acts account of the founding of the early church. The fact that there WAS a church for Paul to persecute should be a clear indication of that fact.

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            It is only obvious if you accept fantastic stories written decades after the fact, i.e., the ascension, as true.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            You keep using the phrase “decades after the fact.” I do not think it means what you think it means. There are numerous anchoring details throughout Acts and the epistles, supported by archaeology, that place the establishment of the early church almost immediately after the best date for Christ’s crucifixion. In Galatians 1:17, Paul makes a passing reference to the fact that he escaped from Damascus during the reign of King Aretas. We have much more on this king from secular sources like Josephus, who describes his border war with Herod Antipas. Among other details, Josephus says that Tiberius took Aretas’s side in the dispute. (Read it all for yourself here…)

            http://books.google.com/books?id=pTY4kBRIVQYC&lpg=PA595&ots=ZgmVBN8ERQ&dq=josephus%20aretas&pg=PA595#v=onepage&q=josephus%20aretas&f=false

            Tiberius died in 37 A.D., with Damascus still under Roman rule. This control must have been transferred to Aretas before his own death in 40 A.D. This places Paul’s conversion somewhere in that short three-year gap. We also have evidence from a coin that Aretas may have gained control of Damascus the same year Tiberius died, so it could have been as early as 37.

            There are so many chronological markers like this within the text itself that I hardly know where to continue. And I haven’t even mentioned other internal marks of credibility in Acts, like Paul’s brilliantly subtle differences of address when preaching to different audiences. But why should I bother? You seem more interested in making other people waste their time explaining things for you while you refuse to engage with any of the actual evidence.

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            You would find just as many, if not lots more, anchoring details in the Mormons’ histories of the founding of their movement. You would find all sorts of places and events that could be verified in secular sources. Nevertheless, you would also find many places where the truth is stretched beyond all recognition. Accurate details about places, dates, and people are frequently found side by side with preposterous religious propaganda.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            I was referring specifically to your “decades after the fact” line, which archaeology has kind of PWNED. As for Mormonism, well, I guess we should look at (shocker) more evidence to find disanalogies between Mormonism and Christianity. Which I’ve been doing for a couple days now—maybe you weren’t paying attention.

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            It isn’t that I’m not paying attention. It’s that your evidence isn’t relevant to the point I am making. In fact it helps make it. The fact that Mormons continue to believe their own fantastic stories–and willingly took tremendous risks–despite all the evidence to the contrary tells that we cannot assume that early Christians had any reliable evidence for their beliefs.

            We know the true story of Joseph Smith because we have contemporary sources from outside the Mormon movement. We have the reports of non-Mormons who dealt with Smith and ex-Mormons who left the fold. That is precisely the kind of data we lack for Christianity. What we have for Christianity are the kind of insider reports that must be taken with a huge grain of salt.

          • Do you belief the resurrection, if true, would be a remarkable event in history?
            Do you believe that if someone claims something remarkable happened, something that would overturn the natural laws we adhere to daily, there ought to be good evidence?

            I agree that as a rule, one claim is not exactly like the other so making a perfect analogy would not be possible. Different claims should be handled differently and the details observed differently.

            But anything that overturns what we observe daily should be handled with more incredulity than accepting written accounts and speculation.

            Sure sometimes we will deny something that are true, but those things haven’t been demonstrated to be true yet. There are standards that we all have, and I would rather my standards be high, so to avoid believing jello oceans.

  5. I was thinking more about this thread and Esther and John’s comments.

    I think a common error here is that you are assuming that “X is too remarkable to assume” is equal to “X is not possible”.

    Supernatural claims should be treated with a certain amount of incredulity until the supernatural has been demonstrated to be possible or plausible.

    The issue is that if you assume or accept that supernatural events are possible, you run into several issues. If the laws of nature are able to be suspended, then you must take every claim equally seriously. If you accept that it’s possibly that even incoherent claims or claims that defy natural laws are possible, then every claim must be given treatment. This is a time consuming and ridiculous because its based on the initial acceptance of a premise that has not been sufficiently demonstrated (that the laws of nature can be suspended).

    I assume that Esther, John, and most people in the world accept that the natural laws are (reasonably) consistent. If someone were to make the positive claim that supernatural events are possible, or are impossible, the burden would be on them to make a solid case for this. Since they are working on the acceptance that supernatural events are possible, I think this issue should be addressed before lumping in historical supernatural events with the same credibility as historical natural events.

    Before moving forward, I would need a coherent idea of what a supernatural event is and how it might be observed. Then some evidence for the possibility of something like this occurring would have to be provided in order for me to accept it on the same level as historical evidence for naturally occurring events.

    Here’s another analogy. If Luke, John, Mark, and Matthew talked about the existence of a square circle, would we have to seriously treat this claim?

    No. We wouldn’t have to examine the detailed evidence or the context in which the events took place to be able to reasonably assert that the claim doesn’t have sufficient evidence. Until it’s been sufficiently demonstrated that such an event is even possible, we shouldn’t reasonably assume that an eyewitness account of something otherwise incoherent should be sufficient.

    So I ask a few more questions:

    Can you offer a coherent definition of the supernatural?

    If so, how we might be able to ascertain the possibility that such a thing exists?

    Thanks again for reading.
    Ernest

    • I was thinking more about the statement I made concerning supernatural events, and I want to go back and make sure that I clarified that it’s not JUST supernatural accounts that we use this kind of analysis on.

      I’ll offer another not perfect analogy and shuffle back to the jello ocean analogy to tie it all together.

      If we had 10 eye witness accounts that a Roman warrior cut through ten soldiers with a single sword slice 2000 years ago, this isn’t outside of the realm of natural possibility, but it’s still implausible. This is something that we could test in the present day, though. Estimate the density of 10 soldiers, estimate the amount of force it would take a sharp blade to cut through them, etc.

      We could then make a statement about the historical accounts based on the plausibility of the event reported. It’s far more complicated than, “x amount of reliable people said it, it’s possible that it occured, done deal.” Plausibility is a larger factor than you’re giving it credit.

      To avoid the obvious objection that this analogy is different than the Christ accounts because (insert a treatment detailing the differences in an analogy), I’ll again state that every analogy has differences. That’s what makes it an analogy. But further, it’s the common thread between all of these analogies that makes the point.

      In every situation, the warrior chopping 10 guys, the jello ocean, big foot, Jesus, there are two factors that we apply in determining if they’re plausible and worth treating:

      1. If it’s something we can repeat and test today. If the conditions are the same, and we have the technology to recreate the event (we probably do because technology only gets better and better), we can recreate the event and if it seems impossible to recreate, there might be a problem with the plausibility. On the other hand, if it’s easy to recreate, then we could likely call the event plausible. Think about the attempts to recreate the building of stonehenge.

      2. If it’s something we might expect to see, or be able to predict given some other better piece of evidence. For example, if we had information that soldier armor back 2000 years ago was weak and human bones/flesh was far less dense, we might find the idea more plausible because it’s what we would expect to see. We may not be able to test it exactly, but if other pieces of evidence corroborate that this type of thing is possible, then we can make a case for it.

      It’s very important to note though, that the account is no longer contingent just on the reliability of the accounts, but also many other pieces of evidence. Arguing for the reliability of the account on it’s own merit would be nearly pointless, and putting the cart before the horse. Establishing the prediction/plausibility first would be the correct way to run down the claim or convince others of it.

      Thanks again for reading
      Ernest

      • Further establishing plausibility and enforcing the burden of proof is becoming more and more important.

        With the invention of the internet and information traveling faster and becoming more accessible every day. Claims are flying around the Earth at a greater number and speed than every before. We can’t possible treat and address every one we come across with the kind of attention to detail that you both are expecting us to.

        That Indian Prince that was mentioned earlier is a great example. The ice is probably one of 10 things new pieces of information that people gave him that day. He’s a prince after all. People probably tell him a lot of things. It’s not unreasonable for him to use plausibility as a filter for things that have not been established with proper evidence yet. It’s not unreasonable for him to expect someone to demonstrate their knowledge of a given claim.

      • Last thing, I promise..The two factors I mentioned are what was used to treat my jello ocean claim too. You asked several questions about what we would expect to see, why would it have occurred, etc.

        You’re attempting to find out if the idea is coherent and plausible. If it isn’t, then it would be difficult to determine the truth of the claim too without more evidence.

        The difference is that I expect the person claiming the event occurred to be able to provide this information up front, while you’re more willing to run down an idea that hasn’t even been shown to be plausible or coherent.

    • Esther O'Reilly says:

      You need to distinguish between “logically impossible” and “physically impossible.” A square circle is a logical impossibility. It’s equivalent to the question “Can God make a rock so big he can’t lift it?” That’s like asking if he can make 3 + 3 equal 7. Or 3 + 3 equal red.

      What is physically impossible may be impossible under the ordinary laws of nature, but possible given the intervention of a force not bound by nature’s laws.

      • “What is physically impossible may be impossible under the ordinary laws of nature, but possible given the intervention of a force not bound by nature’s laws.”

        Is a force not bound by nature’s laws possible? This needs to be substantiated first.

        Also, if a concept is logically impossible, it’s also physically impossible. A rock so big God couldn’t lift it is not able to exist physically, and neither is a square circle.

        • Esther O'Reilly says:

          Your last statement is true, but I’m not sure what it adds to anything. My point was simply that a logical impossibility can’t even be conceived—there’s no possible universe in which 2 + 2 = 5.

          I think one way to argue for the possibility of a force outside nature is to go back to the Thomistic idea of a first cause, or a first mover. Scientists will tell you honestly that nobody knows what caused the Big Bang. In Bill Nye’s words, it’s “a great mystery.” Would you not acknowledge that this does rather invite the possibility of something or someone who exists outside of our universe?

          • It’s definitely inviting to speculate on the many possibilities of the things that we don’t know. It’s one of my favorite things to do. :-)

            There may be a logical coherency issue with positing something that is both timeless yet a part of a causal chain. Actions, changes, etc require time. If something was in a state of “causing the universe” then became in a state of “causing the universe”. Or the opposite. Something “caused the universe” then “stopped causing the universe”. It would seem that the changes in those states would require at least something similar to what we call time.

            I think the first cause idea is interesting to think about. Infinite regress doesn’t quite seem plausible, so what other options could there be? It could be something that we haven’t even been able to think of yet. Maybe we encounter some entirely new concept that is logically coherent, overturns a few assumptions we’ve made, etc.

            So that’s why I say I don’t know if it’s even possible for the supernatural to exist. A coherent clear definition of what we’re talking about would have to be presented first. It’s difficult to talk about a concept when it’s defined by what it’s not. I’m not sure how you would define it but most attempts seem similar to defining some color as “not black”.

            Look forward to continuing Esther! Thanks for reading.
            Ernest

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Are you looking for a definition of a person or an event? And are you looking for a definition of God or merely a being like an angel or a demon?

  6. ctcss says:

    Ernest

    “I would rather my standards be high”

    I can appreciate the desire not to be fooled into believing that which is false, but at some point, taking such a position can unintentionally morph into intransigence. Esther, John, and Tim (EJT) have put forward some rather detailed data concerning the reliability of the NT documents. I don’t think I have ever run into such useful and clear information regarding this subject before. I am definitely going to bookmark this thread for future reference. But that said, my religious faith is not founded on, nor bound up with, their very detailed scholarship, helpful though it may be from a historical viewpoint. But for what it is, it certainly appears to lend credibility to the basic NT documents as sources of 1st century information regarding the early Christian church. At the very least I would expect this detailed examination to make an outsider look at the NT texts with a greater amount of respect. However, I don’t think that an outsider should (or would) consider that the Christian religion must therefore be believed without question based on what has been presented here. And I don’t think that EJT would expect anyone to become convinced of the truth of the Christian religion simply based on this discussion either. They all seem to have respect for research, learning, and thinking. So given that, I would expect that they would want people to arrive at their own conclusions regarding what each person would ultimately regard as convincing proof for them. But that said, the data they have presented shows a lot of careful,insightful work on their part. And I have yet to see an opposing post that addresses and effectively refutes all the points being made. And as your own honest plea implored “Can you treat my argument charitably?”, perhaps the naysayers in this discussion can grant that same favor to the hard work put forth by EJT. (Those three are amazing!)

    However, I am not interested in hearing what would convince you and others. (Most people here have given fairly clear comments on that matter.) I am, however, curious as to what would pique your interest enough for you to to investigate something further in order to arrive at (or completely depart from) a convinced state. So far, I get the distinct impression that the people on the negative side of this discussion want the equivalent of near indisputable proof before they will even CONSIDER looking further. To me, that is a bit of an unwise stance.

    I don’t have a problem with that kind of approach when the concept of a personal state of convinced belief is under discussion, such as “I most definitely believe that God exists”. However, such a state is achieved at the end point of a search, not at the beginning. For example, for me to arrive at convinced belief, I would very much want to be sure of what it was that I was believing in, and that means I need to be willing to make a thorough effort in order to help determine that. But IMO that ultra-skeptical kind of attitude isn’t as wise when it comes to simply wanting to know more about something that you currently don’t have enough information on. Asking for missing (or more detailed) information to be presented to one’s self on a silver platter is not how any great discoveries are made. Personal effort needs to be made in order to uncover such things. Why? Because usually such things are life-altering.

    Requesting the silver platter approach is also not how people develop strong friendships or marriages because those are also life-altering. (You can’t get very far with a relationship with someone when you start out by being ultra-skeptical of their integrity as a person. “Prove to me that you’re not a gold-digger!” “Prove to me that you don’t just want to be friends with me for my social and political connections!” And please note, a person’s integrity is not a physical feature of a person that can be viewed at will, it’s an invisible, mental attribute. The fact that a person physically exists does not mean that they possess (or lack) a specific mental attribute. Discerning such things about a person takes time, experience, and an acquired trust regarding their inward characteristics.)

    The point is, usually people realize that hard work is involved in life-altering things like searching for discoveries of import, as well as in establishing and maintaining strong relationships. And usually, the desire to discover something, or to establish a permanent relationship such as a marriage with someone, is done under a person’s own volition. No one is forcing anyone to pursue these paths. But something has to prompt that person to begin to engage in that effort. A fascination with a subject area may prompt a person to delve further into it. The initially (or sometimes slowly appearing) attractive characteristics of a person may prompt a person to want to spend more time with that other person and learn more about them. And thus the long haul of a lifelong effort starts.

    Are there any guarantees that the desired discovery will be found? No. Are there any guarantees that the marriage or the friendship with be lasting? No. But still, people persist in trying to get “there”, wherever “there” happens to be. A former long-term marriage to an unworthy partner does not mean that all potential future marriage partners are unworthy. A failure to discover a desired fact or principle does not necessarily mean that a continued search for that discovery is wasted effort. (Edison discovered many ways NOT to make a working light bulb before he ended up with a working bulb. Similar failures plagued powered flight. However, the beckoning concepts relating to both continued to intrigue and impel the searchers’ efforts before success was ever achieved, despite the manifest failures prior to those successes.) Similarly, a bad former experience with religion (even a long term, sincerely held and fully engaged-in experience) does not mean that all future religious endeavors are therefore a waste of time. We learn by thinking, doing, and experiencing. Even negative experiences have worth, as long as they don’t convince us to stop moving forward and grow, or cease our efforts to understand. Sitting on the sidelines waiting for someone else to make the effort gets one nowhere IMO.

    For myself, I am fascinated with trying to more deeply understand my Christian faith. What I have read in the Bible, as well as what I have read of other people’s experiences, as well as my own experiences, have encouraged me to go forward. I am, for all intents and purposes, a convinced believer. (In other words, the preponderance of evidence I possess for my own needs is convincing enough that I am willing to proceed forward as though it were all entirely validated, even though I do not have all the possible information I would need to make a 100% determination. Which means I have a reasoned faith/reasoned trust regarding it.)

    But that conviction did not just happen. It’s been a long, hard slog, often because of my own laziness and hypocrisy. And there have been (and continue to be) doubts and fears. But that which intrigues me and encourages me outweighs those issues, just as my interest and love for my wife as a partner outweighs the difficulties and vagaries of life (married and otherwise) I have encountered with her. I haven’t given up on either my marriage or my religion because there is too much that I want (and have gotten) out of both areas to know that I won’t be able to attain what I am desiring out of either endeavor if I am not willing to put strong, sincere, and persistent effort into it.

    So, once again, what would intrigue or inspire you enough to want to make you put persistent effort (both initial and ongoing) into investigating X further without having any solid guarantee of success? (Again, think what it takes to consider marrying someone, or anything else life-altering.) Because if a person simply wants a “done deal” handed to them (IOW someone else does the long, and sometimes slow and slogging, work), I would personally have a hard time believing that such a person is actually all that deeply interested/intrigued in X.

    Perhaps that is not you. You seem to sincerely want to know what truth is. The question is, are you (or any of us) willing to sell all that we have in order to obtain the pearl of great price? If we really have an interest in it and want it badly enough, we might very well exchange what we previously held to be precious for something worth even more. If not, we will likely sit back and wait for something more “interesting” to show up.

    (For the record, I am a very non-mainstream Christian. I was taught what is effectively universal salvation, I was never taught to believe in a personal devil or a personal God, I was never taught to believe in hell, I was never taught to regard Jesus as God, I was never taught to believe in original sin, along with a number of other theological stances that differ from the mainstream. Which is to say, I am not pursuing my Christian pathway out of fear of what will happen to me if I don’t. I am pursuing it because it interests and intrigues me, that is, I am interested in understanding God in the same way that Jesus appeared to understand God.)

    • Esther O'Reilly says:

      ctcss, hate to rain on the parade of this long and thoughtful comment, but to clarify—you say you weren’t raised to believe in Jesus as God. Of all the deviations you described in that paragraph, that’s the one that strikes closest to the heart of what it means to be a Christian, though it’s connected to the rest (e.g., what exactly was the purpose of Christ’s death?) I ask this with some trepidation—do you now feel you have a good understanding of Christ’s divinity?

    • First, thank you so much for your long and thoughtful response. I will try to read, digest, and reply to as much of it as I can without being long-winded, a problem I typically have.

      I will address three main themes you brought up.

      1. EJT’s work in this thread.

      I think that hard work should never be dismissed out of hand, and if someone has done a proper job of putting together a lot of information, it should not be dismissed out of hand.

      They, and others before them, have gone to great lengths to provide evidence for the historical accuracy of the New Testament. The problem with this is something I’ve tried to state less plainly elsewhere.

      Some of the claims of what happened in the New Testament may not be logically coherent or plausible in the first place. The same evidence used to support a nation fighting a war (something very plausible, logically coherent, and something we have plenty of accounts of) may not be sufficient for something like the existence of a square circle. Especially if that evidence is largely unobservable in nature (eyewitness accounts, hearsay, etc.)

      How much eyewitness testimony would we need to believe that a square circle exists? We wouldn’t really know unless we could first deem how plausible the concept is.

      You said “And I have yet to see an opposing post that addresses and effectively refutes all the points being made.”

      While dismissing someone else’s hard work may seem rude, or lazy, that’s not the intention. Imagine if someone wrote thesis after thesis and books and books and books on the assumed premise that it may be possible that a square circle exists, and that there are accounts that people have seen one. It’s unfortunate, but we may be forced to dismiss all of those ideas because they’re based on an assumed premise.

      Ideas deserve no respect inherently. They must earn it. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect the hard work of people trying to fortify ideas. I think it’s wonderful, but sometimes it’s fruitless.

      2. The silver platter concept.

      Its an assumption on your part that because someone didn’t come to the same conclusion or maybe did not come to a conclusion that they “stopped looking” or “gave up” or maybe they are “waiting for someone else to do all the work.”

      The “you’re not looking hard enough” argument is frustrating to hear for someone like me, who has spent 10 years already in what’s sure to be a lifelong journey already.

      Most importantly than this though, is that it’s not bad to expect someone who claims to know something to do the majority of the grunt work in convincing you. We literally do not have time to address every claim made about every thing.

      I feel like I’ve done my due diligence in trying to run down the issues I have with supernatural claims. I am still asking questions, and still hoping that one day, either I will have a good answer or people will stop claiming that they know that supernatural things are possible.

      3. Proof
      This is a throwaway, but you said “So far, I get the distinct impression that the people on the negative side of this discussion want the equivalent of near indisputable proof before they will even CONSIDER looking further.”

      I don’t want indisputable proof. I just want the assumption to be addressed first.

      This was getting long so I cut it down to size a bit. Hopefully it’s not too much to address.

      Thanks for reading.
      Ernest

      • Esther O'Reilly says:

        By the way, you keep using the example of a square circle, but the very fact that we have eyewitness testimony of a miracle at all places it in a different category from the square circle. You could never have testimony of a square circle. You can’t even conceive of a square circle. That’s the nature of a logical impossibility as distinct from a physical one.

        • I read this earlier today and thought about it all day. I also have rewritten and erased this response three times. Haha. Hopefully this will be the last time.

          You don’t think a square circle can be conceptualized? I can conceptualize it. It would have all the qualities of a square, and all the qualities of a circle. It’s not a coherent concept though.

          This is what I’m trying to determine about the supposed physical impossible supernatural occurrences.

          We can conceive of them, sure. The only other difference you might consider is that we can visualize them too, but that’s not true. We can only visualize the physical components. The water, the wine, etc. What actually is occurring during a supernatural event would be beyond our perception.

          What we can’t visualize is the most important part. The supernatural processes. I’m not even sure I can conceptualize that. That’s what I’m asking you to do. You’re claiming that it makes sense such that we can assume it, but I haven’t seen any explanation of how it works.

          The analogy still works. We have two concepts that haven’t been demonstrated to be plausible, especially in spite of the evidence for the fact that they aren’t.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Can you clearly demonstrate the logical contradiction inherent in a resurrection?

          • vinnyjh57 says:

            Ernest,

            The analogy may be valid, but I don’t think it “works” well at all because you first need to establish a common understanding “perception” and “conceptualization,” which is not an easy task.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            We can clearly define why a “square circle” is a logical contradiction. It’s a contradiction in terms. By our definitions of “square” and “circle,” a shape possessing the properties of both is fundamentally incoherent. But I fail to see what in the definition of the laws of nature renders a miracle not merely unusual but INCOHERENT. You would have to assume that a natural law is by definition incapable of being interrupted, but this begs the question. As I think John Fraser pointed out earlier, you’d be taking the closure of the physical as a given.

  7. To answer Esther’s question:

    “Are you looking for a definition of a person or an event? And are you looking for a definition of God or merely a being like an angel or a demon?”

    Obviously it depends on what we’re talking about. In this case the supernatural appears in the form of events (the resurrection, miracles, etc.) brought on by a supernatural being (God) with supernatural powers (the ability to manipulate the laws of nature).

    At the risk of making a blanket statement or a wrong assumption, I think all of these things would be considered supernatural. So my question is what makes these things supernatural and is that a coherent, plausible concept?

    Side note, we’ve been mainly talking about the events in scripture but you brought up supernatural “beings” like angels and demons. Some might say God is also a “being” or maybe an “entity”. Given that supernatural things are often claimed to be non-physical, is this a coherent logical concept?

    Thanks for reading.
    Ernest

    • Esther O'Reilly says:

      Okay, then I would say a supernatural event is a disturbance of the laws of nature. So, water into wine, resurrection, etc., all qualify. God is the eternally existent, self-sustaining, all-powerful, all-knowing creator of the universe. He is literally “over” nature. He is a “being,” but a spiritual being (however, technically in Christian theology the Son existed/exists as both God and man). Angels and demons are probably spirit beings as well, although in the Bible they can take on a bodily form. But technically, under Christian theology, they’re part of nature too, since they’re created by God. But they’re “supernatural” in the sense of being unearthly.

      • I’ll probably expand a bit more in my other reply, but here is where we u-turn back to the original discussion a bit. When we look at historical evidences, we don’t need to assume that natural things can occur. Therefore, when a historical source reports that a man lead a nation, a river ran through Egypt, etc, we don’t even need to address the issue of assumed premises. The premise of the plausibility of these events is justified so much in the uniformity of nature and the replication of said events that perhaps historical reports are sufficient to believe the claim. It’s not simply assumed that a man could lead a nation or that rivers can run through countries. It’s been demonstrated so much so that we take it for granted and sometimes forget that this is an important step in demonstrating the plausibility and reliability of any eyewitness account.

        (Side note, but even the most reliable historical records are meant to be held within a reasonable degree of certainty. After all reports are almost always bias to some degree.)

        When we jump into the realm of supernatural claims or other types of claims that haven’t been demonstrated to be plausible, we can’t simply assume that they are. In the same way I have seen theists berate atheists for assuming that the supernatural isn’t possible, we can’t also assume that it is.

        So I ask before we address the historical record, can you demonstrate that something like being arisen from the dead or water turning into wine through supernatural means are plausible ideas? Do we have any solid evidence that these types of things can occur?

        We can’t use the Biblical accounts because that would be circular. The conclusion we’re trying to draw is the veracity of those claims.

        Thanks for reading.
        Ernest

    • Esther O'Reilly says:

      Also, if you haven’t yet read the Stanford article on miracles, definitely do so here. (As you might notice, Tim wrote it.)

      http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/miracles/

      • I’m already half way through and it’s been a great read. Thanks.

        • Esther O'Reilly says:

          I’m glad. I thought it spoke helpfully and more thoroughly than a blog comment could to the questions you’ve raised. You might enjoy diving into more of the literature on this, and I doubt there’s a better jumping-off point for that purpose.

  8. In reply to Esther again…lol, forgive us Neil for clouding up the comments.

    “Can you clearly demonstrate the logical contradiction inherent in a resurrection?”

    I never made that claim. The burden is on you to determine that it’s a plausible concept. First you should be able to clearly explain the process you’re defending.

    “But I fail to see what in the definition of the laws of nature renders a miracle not merely unusual but INCOHERENT.”

    Knowing what we know about the laws of nature, it would be incoherent if someone claimed that the ocean transformed into jello, or that a soldier slashed through 10 men with one blow. This is because it overturns the mountains of evidence in what we normally see within nature.

    “You would have to assume that a natural law is by definition incapable of being interrupted, but this begs the question. As I think John Fraser pointed out earlier, you’d be taking the closure of the physical as a given.”

    I’m not assuming anything. I have a level of certainty about how the laws of nature work proportional to what I can observe and interact with. It’s hardly an assumption.

    More importantly I have not stated that the laws are incapable of being interrupted. I’ve said several times that I don’t know. You, John and others are claiming that you know that they can be. If you can give an example of this, I would likely accept that they can be interrupted, and most likely even accept the Biblical claims to a degree.

    Thanks for reading
    Ernest.

    • Esther O'Reilly says:

      Okay, I think we’re talking past each other, a bit. You don’t seem to understand how I’m using the word “incoherent.” I’m referring very narrowly to a logical contradiction, a contradiction in terms. A square circle is a contradiction in terms, hence logically impossible. You are trying to compare a physical miracle to a square circle. If you’re going to make that claim, then the burden of proof is actually on you to explain clearly what the logical contradiction is in a miracle. If you can’t do that, you can’t continue to use the analogy. That’s my point.

      • I’m not trying to make the claim that miracles are a logical contradiction. I can’t understand how I haven’t made that clear. That’s what you’re inferring by trying to point out the differences in the analogy.

        I am aware now that you are using a very narrow definition of the word incoherent. You’re using it to mean illogical, and I am not sure why you wouldn’t just use the word illogical.

        I don’t think that anything I’ve said has indicated to you that this is the way I was using it. If it is easier, I will use the terms “unintelligible” or phrase “unable to be understood” from now on.

        And again, I am fully aware that there is a difference between the physically impossible supernatural miracles and a logical impossibility. Pointing out the differences in an analogy doesn’t defeat it. The similarities the two concepts have are what I am analogizing.

        They’re both unintelligible in different ways, but they are still both unintelligible. Logical contradictions are unintelligible because they have contradictory properties. Miracles are unintelligible because the process behind them lacks proper explanation and thus can’t even be addressed as plausible.

        If a supernatural process can’t be explained or understood, it is by definition incoherent of unintelligible, until it is defined into coherency or intelligibility. This is the first step you have to deal with before assuming that supernature exists. Define it in an intelligible way.

        Only after that could we address whether the concept your referring to is plausible. And I have not assumed that it couldn’t be. I just need more information, and I think that we would all need more information before jumping to those conclusions and assumptions.

        I understand that you have defined it as “over nature” or “outside of nature”, but this is just another way of saying that it’s “not nature” and is similar to defining purple as “not black”. It’s not clear what you mean. Especially within specific events. What exactly occurred when something outside of nature intervened to transform water into wine.

        It’s similar to saying that there was water, and then “asdfjkl;” happened, and it was wine. “asdfjkl;” is defined as “not a process we know of that can transform water to wine”. It lacks explanatory power and the definition we need to determine it’s intelligibility or coherency.

        • Esther O'Reilly says:

          I’m sorry you can’t see why you should drop the analogy. I don’t know what your philosophy background might be, but no philosopher would make that analogy without doing his best to argue for why miracles are logically incoherent. You’re welcome to go ahead and make that case, and other people have tried various ways of approaching that, but until you can produce that sort of an argument, the disanalogy is so crucial that it’s akin to predicting mouse behavior based on horse behavior.

          But, since you like analogies, I’ll give you some analogies of my own.,You’re saying miracles aren’t easily describable or explainable. Can you explain what a photon is? Or a quark? What if you read a science textbook that explained that first there was a quantum vacuum, and then there was matter. Is that understandable or intelligible to you? We describe a black hole by saying it’s “not matter,” but that doesn’t help us get a positive understanding of what a black hole really IS.

          I realize that you want to think of science as this tube-tested, cut-and-dried kind of thing. But if there’s one thing my studies in the history of science have shown me, it’s that science is full of mysteries. This is not to say that every Christian scientist should entertain the thought of a miracle at each new discovery, but I’m trying to give you a sense of the deep, long-running problems of explanation that still lie at the heart of the true scientific process. Your particular complaint about miracles could just as well be applied to some of these mysteries. It’s just not that strong of an argument.

          • “I’m sorry you can’t see why you should drop the analogy. I don’t know what your philosophy background might be, but no philosopher would make that analogy without doing his best to argue for why miracles are logically incoherent.”

            This is just the worst most misguided statement. The two things I’m analogizing are both unintelligible concepts, which is the issue I would like you to resolve with your particular half of it. If you can’t, the analogy stands.

            The best you can do is try to belittle me out of it. You also keep asserting that I make a case that both are logically inconsistent, which is an argument I did not make. I can’t even possibly make that argument until I know the qualities of the miraculous physically impossible supernatural processes you’re referring to. I have a feeling you are doing this as an attempt to shift the burden of proof on me to show something I didn’t even claim.

            I know almost nothing about quarks, black holes, and protons so I would have to ask someone a lot of questions about those too. Especially if they were going onto blogs belittling people for not believing in them. Especially if they were positing them for explanations to claims that had big consequences on my life.

            I wonder what would happen if I asked the same sorts of questions though. I wonder if a scientist would tap dance around the difference between a quark and a square circle or if they would just attempt to explain a quark to me and how they know about them.

            I had high hopes that this conversation might end as nicely as it started, but the credentials pissing contest you brought up leaves me discouraged of that. Feel free to reply with an explanation of the supernatural that is intelligible and how we can know that it exists, or message me through my blog. I’ll try my best to respond to something of that nature, but I can’t guarantee I’ll respond to anything belittling or resembling a pissing contest.

            Thanks for reading.
            Ernest

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            I don’t want to belittle you. That’s not my goal or my desire. I want to help you. But I can’t do that unless you calm down and hear what I’m saying.

            Let me try to be clear(er) about what I am/was trying to explain. First of all, you confused me by beginning, tentatively, to poke at a couple lines of reasoning about the logical coherence of a miracle. In particular, you raised the question of whether or not God is in time. That made me think you were interested in pursuing that specific question. Also, the fact that you made the analogy to a square circle seemed immediately to indicate that you wanted to place it into the “logically impossible” category. You need to understand the message that explicit of an analogy sends to someone who wants to engage in a philosophical conversation. By pointing out the fatal disanalogy, I’m not attempting to belittle you, I’m trying to help you refine your terms and your reasoning. I realize now that you didn’t see the need to argue for a miracle’s logical impossibility in order to continue using the analogy, but I don’t think it was unreasonable for me to be confused about your intentions at first.

            Secondly, I brought up quantum vacuums, black holes and the like to demonstrate the crucial truth that there are still areas even in science where NOBODY will be able to give you a clear answer! Scientists still cannot agree on whether light is a particle or a wave. And if you try to read a textbook explanation of how the Big Bang occurred, you will realize very quickly that _there is no textbook explanation_. By this I mean that no textbook can REALLY explain what the quantum vacuum really was or how matter really resulted from it. Scientists are no closer to pinning down that mechanism than they are to pinning down the mechanism of a miracle.

            Does that mean scientists should reject the existence of something like a black hole entirely? No. Why? Because they have evidence for its existence! And here we come full circle. I say that just as the scientist has evidence for a black hole, even though he can’t articulate what it is, and just as the scientist has evidence that the universe had a beginning, even though he can’t explain the process whereby it came into being, we have evidence that Jesus rose from the dead, even though we can’t offer a step-by-step of how it happened.

            That was my whole point with the analogies I made. I wasn’t trying to snow you, I was trying to do the exact opposite. I was trying to explain that there are some things nobody has figured out, and probably nobody ever will. So, it really doesn’t matter how many books you’ve read about astrophysics, biochemistry, and the like. These are questions to which you will simply not get a concrete answer.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            A sample of what I’m describing, Ernest: Tyson & Goldsmith, p. 25: “… the structure of space and time became severely curved as it gurgled into a spongy, foamlike structure.”

            Here’s another angle from which to approach the question: At a certain point, you can only have so many “in-between” steps. One billiard ball cannot send another rolling unless there is direct contact between the two at some moment. My mind can’t set the action of raising my arm into motion unless there is a direct connection between mind and brain/body.

            I could give you a “picture” describing potential methods Jesus might have chosen to turn water into wine. For example, Jesus might have caused the water in the jars to evaporate and then created the wine ex nihilo. It was spoken into existence by his word. And that may be all the “process” there is to it. Just as my mind wills the arm to be raised, God wills the miracle to happen, and it happens. There’s a direct connection between His will and nature, as there is a direct connection between my mind and my body. You can’t endlessly add a middle man, else nothing could happen at all, natural or supernatural! That way lies paradox. There has to be direct contact somewhere.

            I’ve done my best to engage with you on this, but the truth you’ll need to realize sooner or later is that you need to get into the actual evidences for Christianity. That’s where the action really is, and that’s where you’ll need to come to a decision.

          • In regards to the science claims, I would hold them to the same level of scrutiny if they were proposed as a method of explaining something recounted via eye witness accounts. I would expect the idea to be intelligible, and then substantiated with evidence.

            And I apologize for the confusion regarding the analogy. I am also interested in pursuing the possible logical contradictions of certain claims, but I can’t do that until the claim has been clarified, which is my main goal. And until the claim is clarified, I don’t wish to assume the possibility or impossibility of it.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            The claim is that there is a God who created nature and whose word has the power to suspend the natural laws. He could do this by:

            1. Changing one form of matter into another (e.g., causing water to evaporate instantly).

            2. Changing the molecular composition of a substance.

            3. Exerting a force that counter-acts gravity in order to hold something up seemingly with no support.

            4. Creating matter ex nihilo.

            5. Etc.

            My point in raising the paradox of the third man was that if you continue to ask “But HOW does Jesus’ word make the wine appear?” we face the same problem we face if you ask “But HOW does my mind interact with my brain?” We can’t have an endless regress of steps.

            And you have to admit that passage from Tyson & Goldsmith is pretty ridiculous.

  9. ctcss says:

    From above somewhere, because these threads are getting hard to follow.

    Esther O’Reilly says:
    February 8, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    ctcss, hate to rain on the parade of this long and thoughtful comment, but to clarify—you say you weren’t raised to believe in Jesus as God. Of all the deviations you described in that paragraph, that’s the one that strikes closest to the heart of what it means to be a Christian, though it’s connected to the rest (e.g., what exactly was the purpose of Christ’s death?) I ask this with some trepidation—do you now feel you have a good understanding of Christ’s divinity?

    Esther, should I take it that you think only those who believe in the Trinity are true Christians, and those who consider God to be One (not three), and who simply regard Jesus as the Son of God and the promised messiah, are not trying to follow him? From what I conceptually understand, there would be very little difference (in effect) between God carrying out actions and Jesus (acting in accordance with God and utilizing the power of God) carrying out actions as God directed. Jesus doesn’t have to be God in order to be unique and remarkable.

    The theology I was taught regards Jesus and the Christ as two different things. Jesus was the man who best expressed the concept of Christ, or the idea of divine sonship with God. Jesus wanted his followers to do the same works (and even greater works) than he did. If only God (in the flesh) was capable of doing such works, then Jesus was promising something impossible to his followers, since only he, as God, would be able to do such things. But if being at one with God (i.e. being in harmony with God and understanding God as Jesus did) conferred such abilities, then it would make a great deal of sense for a follower of Jesus to be able to do those works. Jesus pointed out, “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.” So it would make a great deal of sense for those who learned about God and who were in harmony with God, just as Jesus apparently was, to also be able to do the same works. But in order to get there, a person would obviously need to grow quite a bit spiritually. For example, there is a huge difference in the thought and understanding of Simon, the fisherman, who said “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord”, and Peter, the disciple, who raised Tabitha from death.

    And the point of the crucifixion wasn’t for Jesus to die, but rather, to prove that even death itself has no power over God’s man. Jesus went through the crucifixion in order to demonstrate the powerlessness of death, even death that was cruelly and willfully carried out by the vindictiveness of worldly thought. He made that sacrifice for humanity, helping us to understand what it means to be the child (the reflection) of God. That demonstration apparently made a huge impact on the disciples’ understanding and faith, giving them confidence to boldly go forward after the resurrection and ascension.

    (Remember, I did say I was very non-mainstream.)

    • Esther O'Reilly says:

      I believe you are sincere. It’s a difficult question for me, whether Unitarians are saved. Perhaps that’s what Purgatory is for. I’m an agnostic on the existence of Purgatory, but it may be a real possibility for cases like yours. I do believe that you can’t understand Jesus as he meant himself to be understood without the understanding that he is divine. And I believe that Jesus’ sacrifice was necessary because I believe every crime in history must be paid for. God in His mercy chose to sacrifice Himself and give us a chance to repent. This could only be accomplished through a perfect offering. Romans says that all men have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. How then could Jesus be sinless if he were merely a man?

      Of what crime was Jesus accused by the Jews? The crime of blasphemy. Why? The Jews themselves made it clear: “He has made himself equal with God.” And Jesus confirmed this, repeatedly.

      There are so many places in the scriptures I could point to, words from Jesus himself and elsewhere that should not leave any doubt about this. I could quote all of them here, but I found a convenient gathering-place for all the major ones at this page. Brother, I urge you to consider these scriptures carefully. Test your theology against them and see if it is found wanting.

      http://carm.org/bible-verses-show-jesus-divine

      • ctcss says:

        Esther

        Well, I certainly appreciate your concern for me and my spiritual safety. And I appreciate the intelligence which you have brought to these discussions.(BTW, I thought you were Episcopalian/Anglican. I thought only Catholics had the concept called Purgatory.) I read the link you supplied (thanks), but I would say that both their (and your) view of things (as well as mine) are all dependent upon how one interprets the meaning of Bible verses. As I mentioned in my post describing some of the theological concepts I was taught, Jesus and the Christ are two different things, Jesus being the human who best understood the Christ, and the Christ being the divine expression of son-ship. With such notions in mind, it is not a very big stretch to think of John’s gospel referring to the Word being made flesh as the Christ being expressed in the person of Jesus. That is, not the Christ becoming flesh and blood, but the Christ idea having it’s expression in the person of Jesus. The point being, the Christ was and is always divine and eternal, but Jesus the human was not. In like manner, the statement “I and my Father are one” my religious teaching considers to be meaning one in quality, not in quantity. In other words, Jesus was in harmony with God. (Atonement is actually at-one-ment, which is a state of harmony.) And as I tried to state before, it makes a whole lot more sense (to me, anyway) for Jesus to understand God and to be able to convey that understanding to his followers just as a teacher might, than Jesus being some form of “magical” being imparting “magical” properties on them. (I’m just using the term “magical” in a conceptual way here. Magic has nothing to do with Christianity.)

        But I am a bit puzzled as to you take on some things which seem to miss the main point of what Jesus was trying to teach and illustrate. Because whether or not Jesus was God in the flesh, the nature of God is what all of this centers on. And in that regard, I find it a bit odd that you have such a seemingly low opinion of God’s nature.

        I assume that you consider God to be Love itself (you do, don’t you?), to exist in eternity, not time, to be patient and to desire redemption for all of His children, so that none are lost. And yet, despite these concepts about God, do you really consider it logical for God to concern Himself with time regarding His creation (as opposed to timelessness, eyeing His children with a jaundiced view as to their prospects, with stopwatch in hand, waiting for them to fail as the clock ticks down), and considering a human lifetime, however short it may be for any particular person, to be sufficient for each one to grasp what He wants them to understand, despite it being hard or seemingly impossible for them to do so? And is God (who created all of His infinitely vast and grand creation in minute, loving detail) at the same time so petty and vindictive that He is going to destroy someone (heck, many someones!) just because they missed a question on some giant cosmic quiz?

        Is this really what you consider God’s nature to be? Honestly? Would you consider someone to be a good teacher who, instead of desiring for their students to succeed, was more than happy to have them fail? Who, rather than working with each student to help them understand and to rejoice in the subject being taught, as well as being willing to do whatever it took to impart this knowledge and ability to them, was instead content to be distant and cold and indifferent to their fate? And rather than merely failing them, thus allowing them to repeat a subject so that they would have an opportunity to master it the next school year, instead had them sentenced to life imprisonment or even death for their failure?

        I can’t believe you would consider this to be loving behavior for a human. How much less would it be considered to be loving nature for God, who is Love itself?

        Please remember that humans often have a very limited view of God. So instead of grasping what infinite and eternal love must be all about, they instead focus on some form of limited, unjust, mysterious, stern, human father-figure and consider that to be a worthy stand-in for God. As nearly as I can tell, Jesus tried very hard to give the people a clearer sense of God, which often put him at odds not just with the lay person of his time, but also with learned theologians of his time, not to mention his own disciples. Let’s not forget the incident where James and John, “the sons of thunder”, wanted to destroy a village of Samaritans just because they weren’t being welcoming to Jesus because he was focused on heading to Jerusalem, people that the Samaritans had no love for, nor did Jerusalem have any love for them. “But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to to save them.”

        For some reason you seem to think that I will need “protecting” from that which is Love itself. I can’t imagine why. And if I, with such a minor mistaken notion, am worthy of eternal roasting, what is the fate of all those people who are really on a different theological track (or no track at all)? Is Jonathon Edward’s view of God (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”) the best view that Christianity has to offer to the world? I certainly hope not.

        “And I believe that Jesus’ sacrifice was necessary because I believe every crime in history must be paid for. God in His mercy chose to sacrifice Himself and give us a chance to repent.”

        I sort of agree with this, but in a different way that you probably do. It’s not just “every crime in history must be paid for”, but every incorrect thought and action must be corrected. Nothing unlike God’s nature can exist within the Kingdom of God. The only way for someone to find themselves in the Kingdom of God is to have all that is unlike God removed from thought. For without un-God-like thoughts, there can be no un-God-like action. And the sacrifice that Jesus made was to show how it is possible for everyone to put off that which is un-God-like (even death) so as to be in complete harmony with God. He led the way for all of us, overcoming everything that would seem to stand in the way of one’s salvation. The image and likeness of God can only be that which is completely free of sin. But since I consider God’s Kingdom, like God, to exist in eternity, not time, then every person has all eternity to work out their own salvation. (Not through re-incarnation, but simply continuing on where ever we find ourselves until all that is un-God-like is put off.)

        There is no deadline in the theology I was taught. Basically, I was taught a form of conditional universal salvation. It’s conditional because God’s standards must be met. But it is effectively unconditional because God will never let anyone fail, ever. He will always be there to help. No one is left out. No one is abandoned.

        You probably won’t agree with any of this, but that’s OK. And for the record, I am not a Unitarian (as in the religious sect). I am something probably even worse in your eyes, a Christian Scientist. We are world-wide, but rather small. And we seem to be reviled by a number of Christian sects just for daring to believe what we believe. (Hopefully, you won’t be one of those.)

        • Esther O'Reilly says:

          Christian Scientist, eh? Don’t worry, I won’t revile you, but expect at least one lame Tom Cruise joke. :-) Maybe a little Yoda too, because of the gnostic angle. Your Christology is clearer to me now—you’re a separatist, one who believes Jesus was literally two different persons (one divine, the other not).

          No, I’m definitely not Episcopalian. I also don’t subscribe to some of what’s currently practiced in Anglicanism. I hum through a couple of the papish post-Oxford Movement additions to our church’s liturgy. ;-) But I borrow ideas and traditions from different denominations, including Catholicism. I studied the entire Divine Comedy in highschool, among other things, so I’m very familiar with Catholic theology. Some of it I disagree with, obviously, since I’m at heart a Protestant, but the idea of Purgatory intrigues me. I don’t definitely believe in it, but it may fulfill a certain purpose.

          I’m sure you know the orthodox responses to your questions as well as I do. I’m not really interested in slugging it out with you, so I won’t respond in too much detail here. I can boil a lot of it down to two concepts: sin and free will. I believe God does want all men to be saved, but He wants even more for those who do choose Him to choose Him freely. I will also just say that C. S. Lewis is very, very helpful and clarifying on this. If you have not already checked out _The Great Divorce_, definitely do so. Lesser thinkers such as Rob Bell have tried to claim Lewis for their own, but the truth is they don’t really understand Lewis as he meant himself to be understood. A favorite example of theirs is the character of Emeth in _The Last Battle_, who’s like the archetypical noble heathen. Admittedly, it’s a sticking-point for a certain brand of fundamentalist who believes there can never be ANY post-death opportunity, even for those who have never heard the gospel. However, it’s hardly meant to be taken as fuel for the universalist’s fire. Emeth is certainly required to accept, love and worship Christ (Aslan) before he can enter heaven. It is still true as Jesus said that “no man comes to the father except through me.” But I think some people are closer to that place of acceptance than others. Emeth was the kind of person who would worship Aslan as soon as he recognized him. But another heathen might scorn the same truth. Satan knows God exists, yet he still hates Him. A heathen might stand in the presence of Christ for the first time and curse him. To the soul who declares that it is better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven, God says, “Thy will be done.” And to assume that anybody would eventually relent to “God the nagging boyfriend” betrays a failure to understand human nature.

          But apparently it works for Tom Cruise, so…

          (I did promise!)

        • Esther O'Reilly says:

          (Addendum: Make that “ironic lame joke,” since I forgot Cruise is into scientology, not Christian Science. Don’t worry, I know scientology is different, and much crazier. Which reminds me of that Dana Carvey skit…)

  10. ctcss says:

    Ernest

    Regarding the 3 themes you discerned in my long post above somewhere.

    1. EJT’s work

    Although you admire their efforts, you are apparently still throwing out their work as meaningless because you are rejecting the focal points of what they are laying the groundwork for. Basically, they have made rather strong cases for an event or events to have occurred, based on the narratives of the NT, as well as pointing to outside sources that help solidify their case. Of course, the case they have made does not establish anything saying that Jesus is God (a theological claim) but it does make a strong case for looking further into the question of whether Christianity (both then and now) has something of merit to examine. The case they have made obviously only appeals to people who are intrigued by what may have happened back then (since something of note obviously did happen), even if what did happen is not minutely documented and crystal clear from our vantage point.

    But you don’t appear to be one of those people. You are simply saying that until someone proves that the focal point is true, or likely to be true such that even an everyday person would encounter it in their everyday life, you are going to stay firmly where you are. In essence, you won’t go “there”, and even beyond that, you don’t appear to be interested in going to look to see if a “there” might exist. You would prefer for someone else to do the heavy lifting. Which makes about as much sense as having someone else climb Mt. Everest for you, or to get married instead of you. The person who actually climbs the mountain, or who gets married is going to have a very different take on such things than the one who does not. And once again, climbing a mountain or getting married are not things that “just happen”. They happen because someone has a strong interest in doing those things. And they only happen to the people who do them, not to the people who don’t.

    2. silver platter

    I understand your feelings about how hard you (and others) may have been working looking for truth, but consider the simple case of either Judaism being true or Christianity being true. Let’s say in this case that Judaism is true and Christianity is false. No matter how hard and how long a person searched within Christianity, they would come up with a zero at the end because it was false. However if, at that point, they had decided “enough is enough” and left out the examination of Judaism (having already rejected that religion while being a Christian) they really couldn’t say they had done as much as they could. They simply had done as much as they felt an interest in doing.

    That was my point. If a person lacks (or loses) interest they are no longer going to be looking. Which means they have left the effort for someone else to do. And even then, they really aren’t interested all that much anymore. I suppose this could be considered to be “burnout” of some sort. I actually wrote to a fairly well known atheist who had casually mentioned my faith in a newspaper piece while making a point of his own about the possibilities of faith having an effect in people’s lives. My response to him was trying to point out to him that even when evidence of some sort was available, there seemed to be a distinct lack of interest in examining that evidence from those on the atheism side. Dismissiveness-out-of-hand of such evidence was usually the response. And to prove my own sincerity regarding the fact that I considered relevant evidence to be available, I even gave him some very specific references to look up so he wouldn’t have to do research to find them. (All very short reads, but he’d have to go to them locally, because they weren’t online.) His reply, “I have neither the time nor the interest.” Not exactly an inspiring response. (And John has repeatedly cited “Miracles” as a book that he considers to have useful information. Not a single person here has expressed an interest in examining it to see what it says.)

    3. proof

    Sometimes if a person wants an assumption addressed, they may need to put boots on the ground themselves.

    All of which simply reiterates the point, a person needs to have an interest, otherwise they are not going to want to bother, and they are not likely to find out things outside of what they consider to be possible. To point out a Biblical example, the Pharisees typically didn’t seem to have much of an interest or a need for what Jesus was teaching or doing. However, Jairus very much had a need, was desperate, and sought Jesus out. And by doing so, he received an answer that they did not. But interestingly, even after witnessing such a personally striking event, we never hear about Jairus again in the narratives. Apparently he did not value (or understand, perhaps) what Jesus was teaching and doing. The disciples did, and continued to persist in following after Jesus despite the difficulties of the path they were treading.

    The ones who persistently want something and are willing to go to great lengths to obtain it are the ones most likely to get it.

    • You can appreciate effort while still disagreeing or dismissing. A strong case has been presented that relies on two assumptions:

      -The supernatural is real and can be used as an explanation for some phenomenon.
      -Eye witness testimony would be enough to overturn the observable uniformity of nature.

      Unfortunately, until the assumptions are justified, the strength of the case stands or falls on these two assumptions.

      I agree that there might be something similar to “burn-out” in dismissing these claims. There’s reason why though. As an atheist, I’ve probably spent the better part of 5 years examining the intricate details of the majority of the arguments for God’s existence, or for the reliability of the Gospels, or any number of claims that I previously accepted. I would never throw those beliefs away without a large amount of effort.

      The implications that I won’t go “there” or won’t put forth effort is an assumption on your part. You only know about me what you’ve read here, and there’s nothing I can say to make you believe that I have (and still continue) to dig for answers. You can only take my word that I will probably never give up asking questions.

      I suspect that this assumption is made simply because I haven’t found the conclusion that you’ve found. This is made apparent in your analogies about mount everest and marriage. Would you suggest I pursue marriage with a girl who I only assumed was there? Would you suggest that I try to climb a mountain that I only assume is there?

      If there’s a marriage to be had, and a mountain the be climbed I don’t see it despite my effort. It’s on you, who are claiming to see the beautiful girl and the mountain, to show it to me.

      Having put in all the effort that I have, and continue to do, it can be tiresome to hear the same arguments over and over. For the most part, they all hinge firmly on a few basic assumptions that haven’t been justified sufficiently like the ones I point out above.

      I still do have interest otherwise I wouldn’t be commenting and posting. Usually my interest begins with a few questions rather than pointing out all the flaws in someone’s argument. That’s how I proceeded in this thread. I have genuine curiosity, but it is tiresome to get the same rationalizations instead of good reasons.

      In the hopes that you’ll see that I’m willing to genuinely open to learning something new, if you have anything you find particularly convincing about God or the supernatural, I would be willing to hear it. I will warn you though, if it rests heavily on assumptions, I’m not likely to believe you.

      • Esther O'Reilly says:

        Ernest, once again you are blurring the lines. I never assumed the supernatural was real in making my arguments, I merely granted that it was a possibility. From various other arguments of natural law, design, and so on and so forth, the prior probability that there is a God isn’t so implausible as all that. The evidence we have for the resurrection is then raising the probability of the supernatural, not based on the assumption that it must be real! Do you not see how this works?

        • Sorry, I meant that assumption to be more of a general statement and not attributed to your exact argument.

          Something at the heart of this that hasn’t been addressed:

          How do you qualify something as possible or plausible?

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Well, it actually matters whether you mean possible or plausible. “Possible” might encompass anything from possible but infinitesimally unlikely to possible as in “This is a not unreasonable option,” which would be more like plausible.

            Anything that does not involve a contradiction in terms is possible, theoretically. So, in that sense, if I hear a low rumbling noise, it is POSSIBLE that some gremlins have set up a bowling alley in my attic. Is it plausible? Hardly. But that’s because I have absolutely no independent evidence whatsoever for the existence of gremlins. However, the miracles reported in the New Testament are not in that same category, both because we have many independent clues that God exists, and the miracles reported are not of a pointless or arbitrary nature. They point to the common purpose of granting revelation to and redeeming mankind—hardly a random party trick, if true.

            There’s this idea that a Christian who practices science must live in constant doubt as to whether each new unexplained phenomenon is natural or miraculous. But why must we assume that the more powerful a being becomes, the more capricious he becomes? If anything, would we not expect a being with perfect knowledge to be infinitely rational?

          • You said that anything that does not have a contradiction in terms is possible. Would you agree then that we would have to know the terms before declaring a thing as possible?

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Yes, but I think I’ve defined the terms clearly enough to see whether there’s a logical contradiction inherent in a miracle. Earlier I asked what you thought the contradiction might be, but you didn’t want to pursue that question.

          • I don’t think you defined supernatural clearly enough. You gave it negative terms, but no positive terms.

            If I tell you I have an object and it’s not a triangle, and it’s not round, and it’s not black, and it’s not white, and it’s not etc etc etc, it could still have contradictory qualities. It would take a long time to define something by listing what it’s not.

          • Or what constitutes a miracle.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Au contraire, I believe I did define a miracle positively. It’s the spoken word of God, the infinitely powerful creator of nature, willing nature’s laws to be suspended for a specific, chosen purpose. In some cases (as water into wine), the word is spoken through Jesus, who is God incarnate. God has dominion over nature and hence has the causal ability to destroy and create what he chooses in that process.

          • How does speaking bend the laws of nature?

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            “Speaking” can here be read as equivalent to “willing.” God’s will has the same kind of direct relationship with his creation that my mind has with my body, so that whatever he wishes to happen, happens. Think of it as an author with his novel. Just as the novelist has the power to change the course of events in a book of his own writing, God has the power to manipulate his own creation. He made it, he controls it.

          • You think God has physical nerves that he uses to will the universe to do things unnatural?

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Er, no Ernest. A mind is not a brain. ;-)

          • Cjoint says:

            Disembodied minds? Oye ve. Substance dualism? Hard to prove in the face of the evidence. But then again that’s the whole game right? To believe in a god you have to believe that the mind is something other than the brain and ignore the evidence that if I changed or damaged your brain, you might actually no longer believe.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            *shrug* So I’m a substance dualist. Why so surprised?

            I’m an embodied being, so if my brain is my mind’s hardware, then of course things will change if the hardware is broken. I don’t see a problem there.

          • The problem comes, of course, when you suggest that software can exist without hardware, as if it is ontologically separate from the machine it runs on. In reality, it is not. All programs exist on the machines that run them. When we speak of “sending” information or programs we are speaking metaphorically. Machines are just performing prescribed calculations.

            But now imagine a whole subculture of people who insist that software can live on after the machines have fallen apart. And their evidence for this belief is that a man from Africa several years ago said his computer upgraded itself with all new parts.

            Unfortunately, no one can see that new computer because reasons. If he showed you the computer it would totally cheapen the experience of believing that the computer exists. Where’s the fun in that?

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Any analogy to a computer will obviously be a crude one, one glaring reason being that a computer isn’t a living, breathing, thinking being. But if software/hardware doesn’t work for you, perhaps a clearer analogy might be that if I smash my computer’s monitor while leaving the tower-case untouched, it’s not going to display anything for me. The unit that’s actually generating data still exists, but the conduit is broken.

            You may ask “If a mind is a wholly separate kind of thing from a body, then how can the two interact?” But here’s the rub about causality: All causality is ultimately a surd. At a certain level, we can ask the same question of material with material interaction and receive the answer “It just… happens.” I can just as well ask a scientist, “Explain to me HOW two electrons repel one another.”

          • Seems to me the hardware/software analogy fit the body/mind question better, which is why you initially chose it.

            Now suddenly we’re comparing two similarly visible, locatable pieces of hardware, which is a much poorer analogy because you can’t see the supposed “mind” which substance dualism says exists ontologically separate from the brain.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            Well, software can exist apart from a machine to run it, if we want to nit-pick. ;-) However, my point was that as a non-being, a computer doesn’t “live” or “die” in the same sense that a human “lives” and “dies,” so we can only extend the analogy so far.

          • Yes, I know analogies break down when the similarities fail, but they’re still useful when the similarities hold. That’s why we use them. So humor me a minute: Can you explain in what way software has an existence, other than a metaphorical one, apart from the machine on which it runs? Do you mean that one could print the lines of code on paper? Do you mean that the idea of the code exists in the minds of the writers? Where does it exist?

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            It might depend on exactly what we mean by “software.” I was simply thinking about some program that multiple computers could download from the Internet, or install with a CD.

        • Hey,

          Took me a few days to collect my thoughts on this one. You bring up some good points. This might be a good place to find some common ground and tuck this discussion in. I’ll gladly let you have the last word unless there’s an urgent question or objection.

          First, I apologize for this being long. My first draft was about 10 paragraphs and I am going to attempt to cut it down some.

          While I fundamentally disagree with your definition of “possible”, it helps me to understand where the heart of the discourse is. Where you’re definition is “whatever doesn’t have an apparent logical contradiction”, I would define it as “whatever can be shown to have potential” or something similar. The key being that I would expect some demonstration or at least some evidence toward the positive. For example, if I were to wonder if it were possible for me to throw a football 1000 yards with no technological aid at this very moment, I would say that it is not possible, despite there being no inherent logical contradictions, but even if we grant your definition of possible, there may be some “hidden” logical contradictions. I’ll explain.

          If I grant your definition that possible is just “whatever concept doesn’t have an apparent logical contradiction of terms”, then I can understand how the supernatural, gremlins, jello oceans, etc might be considered possible from your perspective. As I’ve been thinking about this, it struck me that my attempt to get you to define and explain the supernatural was an attempt to map out IF there were any logical contradictions. I thought about this principle though:

          The more complex something is, the more difficult it is to define and list qualities.

          This is important. Consider a square circle. Squares and circles are pretty easy to define as they are objects with finite properties. We can see the logical flaws in the easy to list definitions. Processes and actions are by nature more complicated, and more difficult to define. What qualities does “running” have? Or “speaking something into existence”? It would be nearly impossible to list them. Further, nature itself and the supernatural are difficult to define fully. Especially given that there’s a great deal we don’t know about both.

          This is where I hope to find some common ground. I think we both can accept that “nature” is complicated, and might have properties that we don’t know about, and even the ones we do know about are difficult to pin down. Further, I would say that the supernatural realm, if it exists, would be even more mysterious, difficult to describe, comprehend, and define.

          Given the almost infinite amount of information we lack about both the supernatural realm and the natural realm, it may be possible within either or between the two there might be some logical impossibilities. Perhaps for something to be considered “over nature” it must also be defined as “never being able to interfere with nature”. This would cause a logical contradiction with any claim that a supernatural entity interfered with nature. I’m not proposing this, I’m just listing it as an example of a contradiction we might not be aware of. Another example might be that someday we discover that the natural world has the quality of “not being open to supernatural interference”

          Given this, it would seem to follow that complicated concepts, like the supernatural, COULD be impossible (again by your definition), we just don’t have enough information about the natural world or the supernatural world to list all the qualities of them and compare. Back to my football example, you could possibly define my throwing arm as “incapable of throwing a football 1000 yards” so saying that action is possible would be a logical contradiction of terms.

          If could be possible, it could be impossible. We just don’t have a good enough working understanding to be able to parse out all the terms and defining qualities to rule out a logical contradiction within the concept or to positively show that there are no logical contradictions.

          I think this is why I put such a stress, in my definition of possible, on having some demonstrable potential. It puts all the semantics games to rest, and instead of having to define out every term to determine if a given concept is possible, it burdens the one claiming for something to be possible with the task of showing the potential of the concept in some way. Plus, we know that if something can be shown, it is not a logical contradiction.

          Hopefully this makes sense. I wrote it after 28 hours with no sleep, haha. Anyways, hopefully we will correspond more, and if your reply is the last, thanks for the conversation. I promise I will read it.

          • TLDR: If we grant your definition, then everything that doesn’t have an apparent logical contradiction is possible, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a logical contradiction. It could very well also be impossible. We wouldn’t know unless we had either all the defining qualities of the thing being proposed (like we do with a square circle) OR if we had some demonstration of it’s potential.

          • One more thing. You might ask “what’s so bad about assuming that things aren’t logically impossible?”

            On it’s face, nothing. To use your example, if you assumed that it was possible the noise you heard was a gremlin in your attic, we could discover one day that it’s just not possible for Gremlins to exist. We’ve searched the entire natural world and they aren’t there. At worst, you might just have a little egg on your face, even if you didn’t entertain the idea that the Gremlin explanation was plausible.

            But on a grand scale, assumptions like this lead to a precedent. That any concept without apparent logical contradictions might be possible. There’s a chance we could be wrong about that, and if we were to build knowledge on top of that assumption then we could be on dangerous grounds. Further, if we have multiple arguments based on similar assumptions (since we’ve decided that those assumptions are okay), then they could feasibly all be fallible.

            Still not super dangerous until you build a foundational way of life on top of multiple assumptions like this. A lot of claims of things being possible doesn’t lead more credence to something being actual.

          • Esther O'Reilly says:

            What about quantum gremlins—they disappear the moment you go looking for them, so you couldn’t find them if you tried? ;-)

            The football example you came up with is clever, but I think it’s flawed. Here’s why: We can more properly define your arm as “incapable of throwing a football 1000 yards… in the normal course of football-throwing.” I’m not claiming that it’s possible for you to be both able and unable to throw a football 1000 yards at the same time. That would be a contradiction in terms. I’m claiming that it’s possible (though only trivially so—certainly not “plausible!”) for your arm to change. Suppose you are generally incapable of throwing a football 1000 yards, but through some process or other (perhaps your latent super-powers are only now manifesting themselves), you are suddenly enabled to do so at a certain moment in time. Then your arm would no longer possess any of the properties of an arm that can’t throw a football 1000 yards. It would be completely transformed into a super-arm. So it’s not really analogous to a square circle. It’s really like a square that’s squished and bent until it becomes a circle. (For some reason, this example makes me think of the little kid who said “I’m so glad I hate broccoli. Because if I did like broccoli, then I would have to eat it, and I hate it!”)

            Your string of “what if” questions could be applied to anything. Although I’m not sure what you even mean by “discovering that nature couldn’t be interfered with by the supernatural” (what experiment could we run that would demonstrate this?) there’s the broader problem that such questioning needn’t stop with the supernatural. What if we discover that there is no external world? What if we all wake up tomorrow and realize we were in the Matrix? See, once you begin wandering down that road, the possibilities are endless. And yet I’m perfectly comfortable in continuing to maintain my belief that there is an external world, and you should be too. We shouldn’t feel paralyzed in our belief-forming. I form my beliefs about the supernatural the same way I form any of my beliefs. I gather evidence, I sift through the data, I weigh the testimony, I come to a conclusion by following the argument where it seems to be pointing. And the same process that leads me to dismiss some claims as groundless and spurious is the same process that leads me to recognize the plausibility that there’s a God who’s created the universe and made His existence felt in it via miracles—by Hume’s definition: “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”

          • I believe you missed the point of the football concept. I tried to specify that I meant at any given moment. Not that my arm couldn’t have a change in qualities. Like at one moment my arm couldn’t throw 1000 yards, then the next it could (given superpowers or something). Just as a square could change into a circle. This isn’t a logical contradiction. What I meant is that any given time, my arm has the actual defined quality of either being able to throw 1000 yards, or it does not. To determine that we would need to know a lot more about what is actually possible. We wouldn’t be able to determine the possibility or impossibility of it.

            Couldn’t it be impossible for my arm at this given moment to be able to throw a football 1000 yards?

            In the same way, couldn’t it be impossible for the supernatural realm to “exist”?

            We’ve determine that from your perspective something *just* has to have no apparent logical contradictions to be ruled out as not impossible. But what if it is actually impossible?

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  13. Esther O'Reilly says:

    Neil, to avoid taking Deanna’s post further OT I’ve shifted my response to your last question here. I see now that you thought I was referring to this post, which I just came back and re-read in full, when I said you gave the impression of not believing there was any evidence. I wasn’t actually thinking of this post when I said that, but I’m also not sure why you said that you were making the exact opposite point with it. You spend the post

    1) Explaining why experiential evidence is unconvincing (something I also don’t depend on for my belief)

    2) Saying that some people believe simply because the Bible says it, which I would agree is also unfortunately common, and circular.

    You make the point that a lot of people do have reasons for what they believe, whether or not they’re good reasons, so that makes Boghossian’s definition of “pretending to know” problematic—which I agree with. You say, “It’s not that there isn’t any evidence, it’s just that what passes for evidence doesn’t live up to the standards which most atheists demand before they’re willing to buy into the claims of this (or any) religion.” But then you stop without explaining why you reject the Bible’s claims about Jesus. You do have a quote from Phil Vischer saying that the evidence for the gospels’ reliability is of a historical/testimonial nature, which is a great conversation starter for getting into that sort of discussion, but you don’t go anywhere with it. You compare Christianity to Islam or Mormonism without going into any detail on whether the claims of the founders were even similar, or whether the evidence for all is equally unconvincing.

    If I’m still misreading you, feel free to correct me, but this seems consistent with the point I was making, which is that you’ve already concluded Christianity doesn’t pass muster from a rational perspective. You believe there’s no evidence strong enough to make you take its claims seriously—your investigations have led you to a dead end. But the other part of my point is that in this post and others, you’re taking this as a given. And in fact, when you cite the primary reasons for your de-conversion, they’re not evidential in nature, or even especially focused on the truth/falsehood of things like Jesus’ resurrection.

    Finally, you mentioned that I had made mistakes/blunders of my own without admitting them. If you had something specific in mind, feel free to point out and explain it for me. It’s not my intention to persist in error if there’s something for me to learn.

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