Thursday, August 3, 2017

Yes, Bill, extraordinary claims do require extraordinary evidence: a response to William Lane Craig's strawman attack

When miracle skeptics say "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" (ECREE), they are not saying miraculous claims require miraculous evidence.  They are also not saying normative types of evidence such as testimony, documents, photos, video footage, can never suffice to establish an extraordinary claim.

That would be stupid.  NO fool says impossible claims require impossible evidence.  But many Christian apologists are fond of mischaracterizing ECREE in their desperation to avoid admitting how rational it is to dismiss biblical miracle claims.

Instead, the miracle skeptic merely means the more one's claim about reality depart from those experiences that we can agree all humans commonly share ( flames burn skin, money doesn't grow on trees, kittens don't massacre adult pit bulls, etc), the greater quality and quantity of evidence will be required before the hearer can be intellectually obligated to believe the claim. 

Yet there is no mechanical test for exactly how much or what type of evidence is minimally necessary to rationally justify rejecting or accepting any claim.

In light of this, by "greater quantity of evidence" we mean that the more a claim runs contrary to our perception of what's physically possible, the greater number of independently corroborative evidences will be needed.  Absent evidence that you are lying, I'd likely believe your claim to have won the lottery if I find that after you made that claim, you started buying expensive cars and homes.  However that type of corroboration is not conclusive, you could be claiming a lottery win merely to cover up a huge profit you made shipping illegal drugs.  ECREE is not about absolute verification or falsification, it's only about how to increase the odds that your rejection or acceptance of somebody else's claim will be reasonable and rational.  ECREE does not pretend to guarantee to show the truth to a person investigating a very deceptive scam or fraud.

Likewise "greater quality of evidence" simply means your corroborating evidences have a stronger ring of truth about them and are less susceptible to skepticism than other types of corroboration.  A person without any known ties to you emotionally, financially or socially, corroborating your claim of winning the lottery, would be a bit more objective of a proof than if the same testimony came from a family member or friend.

It's real easy:  When total strangers tell us they bought groceries at the store last week, we usually don't remain skeptical until they can corroborate their claim, because purchasing groceries at the store happens with routine regularity.  That is, most rational mature adults do in fact more readily believe claims that cohere perfectly with their own ideas of what's physically possible/likely.

When total strangers tell us they won the lottery for $45 million dollars, the greater unlikelihood in this example makes us slightly more hesitant to believe the story absent some type of corroboration.  It is highly unlikely for any certain person to win the lottery.  That is, most rational adults do in fact remain skeptical, in absence of corroborating evidence otherwise, of claims that substantially depart from their own ideas of what's possible/likely.  If anybody retains the least bit of skepticism toward a total stranger's claim of winning the lottery until some type of corroborating evidence has been disclosed, they are employing ECREE.

When total strangers tell us they can levitate their bodies using nothing more than their non-physical mental powers alone, we are very hesitant to believe such a claim.  Why?  For the same reason YOU are skeptical of such a claim, it's never happened to you before, you've never seen genuine levitation happen, there's no science to show it's possible and there's plenty of personal experience and science saying only some type of physical countering force (magnets, support beam, etc) can free you from gravity's influence.

Ok...suppose one friend of the stranger corroborates the stranger's grocery-store claim.  Is that a sufficient basis upon which to believe her claim that she bought groceries at the store?  If so, how do you know?  If not, why not?

Suppose one friend of the stranger corroborates the stranger's levitation claim.  Is that a sufficient basis upon which to believe her claim of levitation?  If so, how do you know?  If not, why not?

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With that preamble, let's dive into Craig's errors on ECREE:

First, Craig at :30 ff says this aphorism of ECREE is "demonstrably false".  That's his first error:  ECREE is not a mechanical test that produces a definite result of "believable" or "not believable".  It is a general rule of thumb intended to help a person properly decide whether any given claim is likely true or false.  Saying ECREE is demonstrably false is about as muddled as saying "interviewing witnesses is false".

Second, at :40 ff, he claims ECREE fails to take into account all the factors that play into assessing the probability of an event.  This too is an outrageously false strawman, since ECREE is a generalized rule of thumb and just what level of quantity and quality of evidence would be required to justify belief in a claim would possibly radically differ from case to case. 

Third, at :45 ff, Craig says if ECREE were true, we could never have adequate evidence for extraordinarily improbable events, and appeals to somebody winning the lottery.  But the reason we know people have won the lottery before is for reasons for more substantial than their own testimony.  We can obtain state records showing big payments to lottery winners, we can see claimants suddenly quitting their jobs and purchasing very expensive items for themselves, and the idea that winning the lottery is all mere "fake news" is contradicted by a great quantity and quality of objective reports from disinterested parties, which would thus qualify as the "extraordinary evidence" (i.e., evidence of greater quality and quantity than we normally demand for claims of routine everyday events).

Third, at 1:00, he says the evidence for the reliability of the evening news would be swamped by the improbability of the event reported.  But this is a weak argument simply because reporting something through the evening news does not more of less obligate a person to believe it truly happened. Again, when the evening news reports that somebody picked all the right numbers and won the lottery, they are not reporting something that runs afoul of what our everyday experience tells us is physically possible.

Fourth, at 1:17 ff, Craig says ECREE would lead to skepticism toward non-supernatural claims.  Yeah, so?  The alibi witness on the stand stand corroborating the murder-suspects alibi, is his mother, and since mothers have an obvious natural instinct to protect their children, the mother's credibility does not become trustworthy or believable merely because she causes her vocal cords to do something that can be percieved by the human ear, and jurors would naturally require her credibility be established a bit more objectively than they would if it was a cop on the stand corroborating the alibi, who otherwise was biased against the suspect by arresting him for the crime.  IF ECREE would justified skepticism of non-supernatural claims, that would be a good thing.

Fifth, at 1:25, Craig says probability theorists concluded that we have to consider how likely the evidence would be if the event had not occurred.  Since the question concerned Jesus's resurrection being extraordinary, Craig likely means skeptics needs to explain how the resurrection evidence came about at all, if in fact the resurrection claim is false.  Fair enough, and hardly anything that sends skeptics running in fear.

Religious people are known to be delusional, Pentecostals have individual experiences at church, but the collective nature of their corporate worship encourages them to insist that they all had the same experience, the first 100 years after Jesus died are the textually dark period of the NT where we don't have the first fucking clue just how close the original versions of the gospels mirrored the canonical form they take today, John the apostle was prone to visions anyway, Apostle Paul was a self-confessed liar, the last 100 years shows how true Paul's claim was that some can peddle the gospel solely for money, Mark's gospel was eariliest and contains no resurrection appearance stories like we normally expect if Mark or Peter had believed such reports were true. 

But let's also not lose sight of the fact that the claimant is the one with the burden of proof.  There is no general rule of evidence or reasoning that says the skeptic is required to come up with reasons to reject the claim (because the logical opposite of that would be a requirement that byou believe every claim you hear until you have reasons to reject it, which is the very definition of gullibility.  We don't just believe everything we hear).  The skeptic's goal is successfully completed if he can show enough legitimate evidentiary shortcomings in your evidence that it becomes rational to be suspicious of your claim.  The idea that we are obligated to provide the actual naturalistic truth behind the claim is total bullshit, since many fake religious claims arise in private circumstances that can never be fully debunked, such as the kids pretending to see visions of Mary at Fatima.  Nobody can go back and perfectly reconstruct all the realities that led up to this alleged vision to show that the vision claim is false.


Sixth, Craig at 1:55 ff asks how probable would be the Empty Tomb, the post mortem appearances, and origin of the disciples' resurrection belief, if Jesus hadn't rose from the dead.  Again, this is old hat:  Craig's  belief in the Empty Tomb draws from the minimal facts argument of Gary Habermas, and I'll soon be explaining why independent evaluation of each piece of NT evidence overthrows the idea that the empty tomb is a reasonably certain fact of history.  How likely true the post-mortem appearances are, depends in part on how early they are, which depends in part on how early one dates the gospel reports of such resurrection appearances.  And Gospel dating itself arises from other presuppositions that could be debated.  One thing appears reasonably certain, it doesn't matter if the alleged hymn of resurrection Paul repeats in 1st Corinthians 15 started the third day after Jesus died, that hymn is not a resurrection appearance story, and carries no more weight than when today's Christians recite John 3:16.  They don't say this because they have empriical evidence that God loves the world, they say it as a mere matter of theological devotion, nothing more.  As far as origin of the disciple's resurrection belief, this too is hazy:  therer were allegedly 12 disciples, with Matthias replacing Judas in Acts 1.  We don't have a clue just how strongly the majority of these twelve held to a belief that Jesus rose from the dead, and one could plausibly argue that the reason only Peter, James, John and Paul far overshadow the others in the NT is because a substantial number of original disciples stopped believing Jesus rose from the dead.  That becomes worse when we remember it isn't just some of the 12 that never left any surviving records of resurrection preaching, in Acts 1 there are about 120 people who are intimately associated with the apostles, likely including the 70 otherwise unnamed disciples.  There's an awful lot of allegedly amazingly transformed Christians in league with the original apostles, whose preaching activity was apparently not extreme enough to protect it from destruction by the passing of time.

Seventh, Craig at 2:12 boasts that we'd agree that if Jesus didn't rise, these "facts" would be enormously improbable, but he is just talking crazy at this point.  Even if we grant yes they would be improbable, so what?  ECREE neither expresses nor implies that if some claimed event has any degree of improbability, then it must be false.

Eighth, Craig at 2:25 ff says we don't need to have extraordinary evidence to establish extraordinary claims, but he fails to define "extraordinary evidence" here, which is why I took the time to do so in this blog post, supra.  The sad truth for apologists is that ECREE is not just reasonable and rational, but is so precisely because it is how everybody including Christians, decide which types of claims in the real world they will believe, reject, or remain undecided about.  ECREE does not assert that a claim should always be capable of meeting the demands of greater quality and quantity of evidence.  It is not unreasonable to suppose that evidence for improbable events is lost or destroyed.  It may be true that byour dad told you orally, before he died, that he is leaving his entire estate to you, but if you didn't record it or otherwise have other people hear your dad say such a thing, and if what he said is contrary to what he stated in his will, then the truth doesn't matter, the administrator will still be reasonable and rational to insist that the written will constitutes the more objective evidence of what dad wished.  Even so, it doesn't matter if Jesus really did rise from the dead, the issue is whether you can demonstrate this contention to another person with such force that a reasonable person would feel compelled to agree that the claim is true.  You can't.

Craig's response here was little more than a desperate strawman; ECREE is the type of reasons that Christians themselves employ when they attempt to evaluate ANY truth-claim, even truth-claims of other competing religions.  Indeed, it is what we employ when making ANY decision about whether a given claim is likely true or false.

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