Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Video: Debates on the Resurrection, Salem, and Miracles

We now have videos of all three recent debates between me and Asst. Prof. Russell DiSilvestro:

Debate 1 video:  Jesus and the Salem Witch Trials
          McCormick slides, Debate 1
          DiSilvestro slides, Debate 1

Debate 2 video:  Miracles and Probability from Lourdes to Lazarus
           McCormick slides, Debate 2.
           DiSilvestro slides, Debate 2.

Debate 3 video:  Does God Want Us to Believe in Miracles?
          McCormick slides, Debate 3.
          DiSilvestro slides, Debate 3.

Thanks to Russell for doing the debates, and thanks to David Corner and Christina Bellon for filming.

Summary:  In the first debate, I argued that the same epistemic standards that lead us to reject the occurrence of real witchcraft at Salem, if we are being consistent, should lead us to reject the historical argument for the resurrection. In fact, by any fair measure of quantity and quality, we have far more and far better evidence for real witchcraft at Salem. So a fortiori the case against the real resurrection is that much worse.  People can respond to this argument three ways:  1.  they can accept the implication for Jerusalem and conclude that we don't have sufficient evidence for anything supernatural in either case.  2.  They can argue that there are important differences between Salem and Jerusalem that justify accepting the former and rejecting the latter.  or 3. they can bite the bullet and accept that there was real witchcraft at Salem and a real resurrection at Jerusalem.

Much to my surprise, Prof. DiSilvestro has taken this last position.  It's hard for me to think that he's not just caught up in the grip of an ideology, but he seems to think that it's not that unreasonable to conclude that the women at Salem really were witches.  And, he argues, there are many other instances of magic, miracles, and other supernatural events in our ordinary lives.  This seems like the least reasonable alternative of the three options to me--some of my colleagues have pressed for 2. for some interesting reasons.  But there you have it.  I take Russell's embracing of that option to be, more or less, a reductio of his view.  And I can't imagine how someone could hear what was said and not conclude that I won that round of the debate, whatever "won" means in these contexts.

Russell also presented his historical argument for the resurrection.  Roughly the structure is something like:
There are facts:  Jesus was killed and buried.  The tomb was found empty.  The followers of Jesus reported having Jesus appear to them afterwards.  There are several possible natural explanations for these facts like hallucinations, the wrong tomb, etc.  And there is the possibility that he really was resurrected.  There are problems with all of these naturalistic explanations because they don't cohere with what the Gospels say or some things we think we know about the early Christians.  So the only remaining conclusion is that Jesus was really resurrected.

I have several responses to this sort of argument, but probably the easiest thing to point out is that the argument that I give in debate 2 gives us a number of very strong reasons to doubt the so-called "facts" that Russell is citing.  So I'd reject his first premise.  There are several other nit picky or technical problems with the rest of this argument, but it would be boring to delve into those here.

In the second debate, I presented the evidence from Lourdes that shows that humans are very, very unreliable sources of testimony about miracles.  And I presented a lot of other evidence from empirical psychology that shows why we should reduce our estimation of the reliability of the people who conveyed the resurrection story across the centuries to us.  When all of these reasons to doubt are in place, it forces us to acknowledge that we cannot reasonably conclude that the resurrection didn't really happen.

Again, I think Russell's replies here were quite weak.  He spent some time arguing that just because we have reasons to think that generally human miracle testimony is very unreliable, we shouldn't conclude that this particular case (the resurrection) is unreliable.  I didn't understand this argument, because as I see it, that's exactly what all of these reasons to doubt miracle testimony do--they should reduce our confidence in them.  That doesn't imply that resurrection didn't happen, but I have given a lot of reasons for thinking that we don't have enough reliable evidence to believe it.

One of the interesting ironies of the position that I am taking here is this:  I can grant for the sake of argument that the resurrection really did happen.  The problem is that it has been mired and obscured in an epistemic context that forces us to write it off.  Even if it did happen, we should look at the sketchy evidence and the doubt raising facts of the history of the evidence and conclude that it is not reasonable to believe.  Russell also  gave a number of contemporary anecdotal miracles stories that, as far as I could tell, illustrated just the sorts of psychological worries that I was trying to raise.  Again, I don't think I understood his point here.

In debate 3, I presented a number of ways in which the alleged Christian miracles could have and should have been better if God intended us to believe on their basis.  The evidence for the resurrection could have been far better than it is.  So since it is so poor, and since it looks just the way you would expect it to if the Christian religion arose from natural sources instead of supernatural ones, then we must conclude that God doesn't really want us to believe in them.  That is, let's assume that what the Christians are saying is right and that God does want us to believe in the resurrection on the basis of the evidence that we have.  I argue that even from the inside, this whole scheme doesn't add up.  It doesn't make sense that God wants us to believe the historical evidence because if he did, he would have made it so much better.

This puts Russell and many other Christians into a bind.  They need to argue on the one hand, as Russell did on day 1, that the available evidence should lead us to think that the resurrection was real.  Russell argued that a real resurrection was the best available explanation given all the facts.  But then they need to explain why it is that the evidence isn't any better than it is given that God is all powerful and all knowing.  It certainly can't be the case that God wasn't able to make his existence or the resurrection known to us.  So the historical Christian is trapped trying to argue both that the evidence is just enough and compelling as it is, and that God has good reasons for not making it any clearer, or more evident to us.  If they argue that God is leaving room for love, or faith, or mystery, or choice by remaining hidden, as it were, then they are undermining the original argument that the historical evidence demands that we accept the resurrection.  You can't have it both ways.
My own take here was that Russell was thoroughly caught on the horns of this dilemma and that his efforts to have it both ways in debate 3 are very poor.  He also gave a number of other anecdotal miracle stories from books and people he knows.  I think these were intended to show that either real miracles do happen all the time, or that sometimes when a miracle does happen, even when it is obvious, we still reject it.  But the cases were things like trees getting struck by lightening or people rescued from floods.  I didn't understand how they were to the point at all given that we were debating whether or not we have sufficient historical evidence to justify believing in the resurrection.

Please watch the videos and judge for yourselves which arguments are most compelling.  I'd love to hear your conclusions and your reasons.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Slides: Believing the Resurrection

I have my Powerpoint slides for all three debates (Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, Sept. 20-22) up here:

Jesus and Salem
It's often argued that it is reasonable to believe in the resurrection of Jesus because of the historical evidence in its favor.  That's a mistake.  We have a mountain of comparable evidence, much more actually, that there were real witches at Salem, Mass in the 1690s.  We should reject the resurrection for the same reasons we don't think the Salem Witches were real.

Miracles and Probability from Lourdes to Lazarus 
We can see from cases like the (false) believers at Lourdes and others that humans are really, really unreliable when they report miracles.  Furthermore, the early Christians would have been highly disposed to believe supernatural claims about Jesus, they were ignorant of a wide range of psychological facts about humans and their religiousness, and the Jesus story has been filtered through a long process with the goal of promoting belief. I argue that these layers of doubt undermine the output--the resurrection story we now have.  And we should not believe it.

Does God Want Us to Believe Miracles?
It's clear that the Christian miracles, when viewed from a distance are really crummy miracles.  An all powerful, all knowing, and all good God with the various goals that Christianity has attributed to him could have and would have done a much better job.  Here's a number of ways to perform better miracles, for God's next attempt.  The argument:  1.  If God had sought to ground Christianity on the New Testament miracles, we would expect them to be much better in several ways.  2.  Since they are so poor, we have to conclude that God did not or does not want us to believe on their basis.  So that suggests that Christianity is based on a grand mistake.

How's that for three days work?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Three Debates: The Resurrection and Christian Miracles

Russell DiSilvestro (a colleague in my Philosophy Department) and I are going to do a series of debates about the resurrection at CSUS (California State University, Sacramento--where our dept. is) next week, Monday through Wednesday.  Here's the run down:

Debate 1:  The Resurrection:  Jesus and the Salem Witch Trials
Monday, Sept. 20, Hinde Auditorium, Student Union, 3:00-4:15:

McCormick:  The resurrection has frequently been supported by appeals to the quantity and quality of historical evidence that we have, primarily from the Bible.  But by a parallel argument, we should believe that there were really witches with magical powers at Salem, Mass. where we have  evidence of greater quantity and quality.  Therefore, by the standards we already employ, we should reject the resurrection. 

DiSilvestro: Salem and Jerusalem are disanalogous in ways that make the latter stronger than the former. But in any event, the evidential case for a real resurrection at Jerusalem is strong enough to conclude that it happened.  If this implies that the evidential case for real witches at Salem is strong enough to conclude that there were some, so be it.  The obstacles to believing in real witches are not as impregnable as they seem. 

Debate 2:  Miracles and Probability from Lourdes to Lazarus
Tuesday, Sept. 21, Hinde Auditorium, Student Union, 3:00-4:15

McCormick:  Large numbers of alleged miraces at Lourdes, France and elsewhere that have turned out to be mistaken have shown us that miracle testimony is very unreliable.  These cases and other considerations reduce our confidence in testimony about the resurrection to the point that we must reject it. 

DiSilvestro:  Some of the differences between the miracle reports from Lourdes and the resurrection reports make the latter stronger than the former.  But in any event, the resurrection reports have features that should lead us to accept them.  Even if miracle reports are in general very unreliable, this should not lead us to doubting all miracle reports, and it should not lead us to doubting the resurrection reports in particular. 

Debate 3:   Does God Want Us to Believe in Miracles? 
Wednesday, Sept. 22, Hinde Auditorium, Student Union, 3:00-4:15

 McCormick:  The evidence we have for the resurrection and other miracles is sketchy at best.  It would be well within God’s power to produce compelling miracles.  Since he has not done so, it must not be God’s intention for us to accept them. 

DiSilvestro: There are several good reasons that God might have for allowing the available evidence for the resurrection to be just about what it is already, rather than more or less.  When these reasons are carefully considered, it should lead us be very skeptical about—indeed, it should lead us to to reject--the claim that God does not intend for us to believe in the resurrection.

It should be a good set of discussions and it will be well attended judging by the early interest.

Russell and I have also been slated to be interviewed on Capitol Public Radio with Jeffrey Callison on Monday morning at 10:00.  Tune in if you're interested.   http://www.capradio.org/

There will be videos of the debates and we'll get them posted soon.