Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Grave robbers or Magic?

My apologies in the recent “Should We Believe that Jesus Was Resurrected?” post. A big section of the post got left off of the end. Here’s the full version. It should make things clearer.

I have been working on a paper about the miracles of Jesus. I have put a draft of the paper here and would gladly get input from interested parties.

Problems for the Miracles of Jesus

The central idea is that in order for a person to accept some conclusion p on the basis of evidence E, then he or she needs to be confident that if p wasn't true, some indications of that could show up in E. What that means is that I shouldn't believe sources that indicate p is true unless there's a reasonable expectation that they would have informed me that p was false if that had been the case. Here's the principle:

Counter Evidence Principle (CEP): S would be reasonable in concluding that p is true on the basis of the evidence E only if it is reasonable for S to believe that the evidence E would indicate ~ p if ~p had been the case.

Many people who believe that Jesus existed and was divine believe that the Bible contains a reliable body of evidence that makes it reasonable to believe that Jesus was resurrected. There are 4 briefs accounts of the resurrection account in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

In a nutshell, what I argue is that when you consider the time between the alleged resurrection and the writing of the Gospels, and then the time between the writing to the oldest existing copies of those Gospels that we now have (about 200-300 years), it becomes obvious that those sources can’t be trusted to be telling us the whole story, if in fact there had been any available counter evidence to the resurrection. Suppose that Jesus was a fraud, or that the disciples faked the resurrection, or their enthusiasm led them to exaggerate, or Roman teenagers stole the body as a joke, or grave robbers got it, or the authors and transcribers over the next 300 years altered the story. Would we expect to find a record of that important counter evidence in the Bible that we have today? Is it reasonable to think that if Jesus had not been resurrected, and there was evidence that showed it, then that evidence would still be present in the Bible today for us to consider when making up our minds? Furthermore, is it reasonable to think that the people surrounding the alleged resurrection had the skills, the concepts, the methodology, and the objectivity to adequately investigate the alleged paranormal events?

The answers to these questions are all an obvious no. Hundreds or even thousands of invested, enthusiastic believers had ample opportunity and motive to make adjustments in the story to make it support the “Jesus is divine” conclusion. It would have been the norm for the uneducated, largely illiterate, superstitious people of the time to believe in all manner of omens, spiritual occurrences, ghosts, paranormal events, and miracles. No serious investigation by anyone without a vested interest in the events seems to have occurred or been recorded. Even if one had, they didn’t have the concepts or skills to get to the truth. Consider how many well-educated, smart people today are readily duped by religious charlatans performing easily debunked sleight of hand tricks. And we actually know that there was a great deal of trimming in the composition of the modern Bible to exclude those accounts of the resurrection and Jesus that did not satisfy later religious leaders.
To make matters worse, the four Gospel accounts we have all tell very different stories about what happened. See my recent post:

Perfect Word of God? Reliable Historical Document?

One of the alternative Gospels, the Gospel According to Peter, was deliberately excluded from the cannon of New Testament books. The story it tells of the resurrection deviates even more, and raises more questions about what happened. There, the Jews get Pilate to put Roman guards at the tomb. The guards hear a voice and then see two men come down from the sky and then carry a body out of the tomb. Later, Mary and her friends find someone dressed in white in the tomb who claims that Jesus is gone.

I won’t defend a particular alternative version of the events; my point with the CEP principle is that the Biblical evidence is undermined so that we can’t draw reasonable conclusions about what really happened. But consider that if we include the Gospel of Peter account, then in four out of the five accounts, the tomb isn’t found empty; rather some one or two people (“angels”) are found inside. And in the Peter case, they are even seen removing the body! In John, Jesus is still in the tomb and talks to Mary. If we are really going to take the Biblical evidence seriously, then the obvious conclusion to draw is either that Jesus never left the tomb (suggesting that he was alive all along), or that the people (“angels”) that they found in the tomb took the body. If I walked into a tomb and saw that the body was missing and there were some dudes in there, the first and obvious question I’d ask is, “What did you guys do with the body?” Wouldn’t you? And you wouldn’t take them seriously for a moment if they said, “He magically came back from the dead, and then flew up into the sky to be with an a invisible being who has super powers.”

Long story short: If the Bible is our body of information about whether or not Jesus was resurrected, then we can’t trust it to be telling us the whole story. If there had been some important counter evidence that showed that Jesus was not resurrected, it would not have made it through the centuries to us. So we can’t form a reasonable conclusion about what really happened on the basis of what is probably a doctored, adjusted, tilted, fragmentary, and ill-formed body of evidence.


Jon said...

The part where you say "Were it not for the miracles of Jesus, Christians would not believe in god."

I doubt that because you would think that historically they would still believe in Jupiter/Zeus, or Odin, or some druid god.

Now, if not historically- and you are talking about today (2008) if they all of a sudden did not believe in the miracles of Jesus when they woke up tommorow, then your right there would be a much higher chance that they may not believe in god.

s d owen said...

Wonderful post, Matt. I think the bible needs to be deconstucted in relation to the other texts out there that christians CHOSE not to include because it made their "literal" narrative less consistent.

Sadly for christians, as you point out, the bible is still incredibly inconsistent.

But, if atheists continue to point out the arbitrary and contradictory nature of christian texts, we may go a long way in making belief in christianity highly problematic, and embarrassing.

NAL said...

pg 1:
After the Romans and Jews executing Jesus, it is reported that his body was put in a tomb.

After the Romans and Jews executed Jesus, it is reported that his body was put in a tomb.

pg 2:
... but the sort and amount of information that he includes clearly implicates Smith and not anyone else.

... but the sort and amount of information that he includes clearly implicates Jones and not anyone else.

NAL said...

pg 3:
... convinced that Jones has eats too many dairy products ...

... convinced that Jones has eaten too many dairy products ...

pg 6:
In the case of all of the surviving copies of the different Gospels, there are many variations in wording occur.

In the case of all of the surviving copies of the different Gospels, there occurs many variations in wording.

NAL said...

pg 9:
We don’t have intersubjectively verifications.

We don’t have intersubjective verifications.

NAL said...

pg 11:
And it is doubtful that the output allows us to satisfy PCE.

And it is doubtful that the output allows us to satisfy CPE.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks NAL for reading all that closely. I'll fix those.


Matt McCormick said...

Ok, those are all fixed. Thanks again NAL.


James Sweet said...

Sorry to comment on such an old post, but I think your Counter-Evidence Principle is overstated. To reiterate how you phrased it:

S would be reasonable in concluding that p is true on the basis of the evidence E only if it is reasonable for S to believe that the evidence E would indicate ~ p if ~p had been the case.

And here is how I would phrase it:

S would be reasonable in concluding that p is true on the basis of the evidence E only if it is reasonable for S to believe that the evidence E would not have been possible if ~p had been the case.

In other words, it is not necessary that a change in the evidence would have proved -- or even indicated -- ~p.

Perhaps I can phrase what I am saying more clearly in logical notation... It is only reasonable to conclude that E->p if ~p->F, where ~(E ^ F) (which is just a fancy way of writing (E->p) -> (~p->~E), eh?)

For instance, I might believe that my friend owns a Ferrari because I saw him driving it. That is reasonable under my more weakly-stated CEP, because if he did not own a Ferrari, I most definitely would not see him driving it. However, that belief fails your too-strong CEP, because if in reality he did not own a Ferrari, the fact that I didn't see him driving it would not prove anything. The evidence E (whether or not I saw him driving it) would not at all indicate ~p (that he doesn't own a Ferrari). Perhaps he owns it but I just haven't seen it yet.

Not that this impacts the rest of the post/paper, but I think your CEP, as stated, is a logical fallacy.

Matt McCormick said...

James, thanks for thinking about this principle and working up the counter example. It's a very interesting case you give. First, it's surely not a logical fallacy, although the principle may be stricter than our ordinary, intuitively acceptable cases of justification. I'd be happy to raise the bar on our ordinary practices. But to the point: I think you're construing evidence too narrowly here. Your evidence that your friend owns a Ferrari, or doesn't, is not confined to just whether you saw him driving it or not. It also includes a whole host of information you have about the relative rarity of Ferraris, your friend's income, your friends other cars, and so on. Your have a great deal of evidence that I do not drive a Ferrari, for example. Perhaps you know that I am a college professor, and you know they are rare, and some professor writing a blog about atheism just doesn't fit the demographic. So if we construe evidence more broadly, it is the case that you're justified in believing that I don't own one. And not just because you haven't seen me driving one.

Nevertheless, I don't think either my principle or yours will really withstand any hardcore Chisolming, or Gettier style analysis in the end. I'm ok with having a rough and ready principle that makes the vital point about the importance of counter evidence and a search that would have revealed some if it was there. Also, the Jesus claims are special and the principles that should be applied to them won't be the same as the standards that justify us for ordinary, daily belief formation about trivial, real time matters.