Monday, January 14, 2008

Should We Believe that Jesus was Resurrected?

I've been working on a paper about problems with believing the evidence for 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.

The principle here is similar to Wykstra’s CORNEA principle that he brings against William Rowe’s inductive argument from evil against the existence of God. Wykstra says,

On the basis of cognized situation s, human H is entitled to claim "It appears that p" only if it is reasonable for H to believe that, given her cognitive faculties and the use she has made of them, if p were not the case, s would likely be different than it is in some way discernible by her.

Wykstra, Stephen J. The Humean Obstacle to Evidential Arguments from Suffering: On Avoiding the Evils of “Appearance”” Int J PhiI Re116: 73-93 (1984).


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paulv said...

While it is important to convey the weakness of the chain of custody of the evidence (gospels), you might want to mention Paul's letters as they date from about AD50. I don't know the chain of custody for these.

Not mentioning them, makes it look like you might be exagerating the gap between events and the texts. Not that I think this will convince the faithful. Your own formula, explains in part why. How likely is an avowed atheist likely to tell them God exists. "I shouldn't believe sources that that indicate p is [false] unless there is a reasonable expectation that they would have informed me that p was [true]"

I think this may be why Sam Harris feels atheists should stop identifying themselves as atheists, and instead as truth seekers. If we argue that atheists are not necessarily blinded by their initial position, then we must also accept that religious people can regard truth as more important than a vested interest in religion.

I am not so sure Christianity's success is mostly due to belief in miracles as your first paragraph suggests. I think Christianity emerged in an era when everyone believed in gods and miracles.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for your comment Paulv. I Corinthians, Paul's earliest letter, is usually dated at in the mid 50s. So that's relevant. But it isn't considered one of the Gospel Accounts about Jesus and it doesn't allege to present the story of Jesus' resurrection (although Paul seems to believe it and it spreading the story around.) I'm trying to keep the discussion in the paper from exploding into a very large discussion of boring New Testament archeology and history. But doing that may, as you say, set me up for some objections.


Jon said...

Of course not.

Eric Sotnak said...

This is very much off the cuff, but...

Suppose Zeke believes that there are no invisible stealth elephants on the basis of his failure to observe any. Zelda replies, "of course you don't observe them - they are invisible and stealthy, and that's exactly why we should expect you not to observe them if they did exist!"

Does this example pose any problems for your counter-evidence principle?

Matt McCormick said...

Hello Prof. Sotnak, and good to hear from you. Smart atheists have a moral responsibility to not merely lurk, you know.

Is the invisible elephant a counter example? First, I don't intend to defend a hard positivist line with the CEP. And it need not be a universal principle of evidence, but I think it is reasonable to apply it to cases like the Jesus one.
Second, if someone believes in invisible elephants reasonably, then I take it that they must have some reasons or other, and there must be hypothetical conditions under which they would conclude that the elephants don't exist. If they wouldn't allow that there are no invisible elephants under any circumstances, then they are being unreasonable. (I hadn't realized how related Flew's Invisible Gardener example was here). Probably unlike the younger, atheist Flew, I am willing to employ "evidence" here in a very broad sense.
Third, the argument for Jesus' divinity and God's existence that is in question here is one that is based upon Jesus' miracles, and the evidence that they really happened. There are other theists who might resemble your invisible elephantists and who would not defend the Biblical argument for the resurrection. They might insist that God exists no matter what the evidential circumstances. I'll deal with that silly position differently, and not with this argument. My intention here is to take those Christians seriously who think that the Bible gives them adequate evidence for a belief in the resurrection of Jesus and show what a poor body of evidence that really is.