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.

.

19 comments:

Matthew said...

Well I think my questions clearly indicate who I thought won, although I thought Prof. D's 3rd debate argument was the most intellectually honest. I have to admit, hard as I tried, I could not get him to say the "f" word either night.

What happened to the Q&A section of the 2nd video? Seems to be cut.

Ken Pulliam said...

Matt,

Just listened to the first debate. Good job. I would like to have heard you respond to Russell's three arguments in which he distinguished the evidence for the resurrection from the evidence for witchcraft at Salem. 1. The Depth of Conviction; 2. The Number of Eyewitnesses; and 3. The Recanting of some witnesses in Salem.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Ken. I think I deal with those things on day 2, if not in the first presentation, then in the questions.

Michaeljacksonsightings.com is a pretty good way to show how the depth of conviction point is irrelevant. People get themselves really deeply wrapped up in all sorts of silly things. When MJ died, over a dozen people committed suicide. 2. Russell has (consistently) confused one report of 500 witnesses with 500 witness reports. I bring that up a couple of times on the later days. 3. There may have been some recantings at Salem. Given the history of the church and the aggressive efforts by early Christians to promote belief, and canonization, we wouldn't really expect any recanting or critical inquiries at all to have survived. Early Christians made sure that the only things we have today are supportive of the Jesus myth. So claiming support by the absence of critical evidence is bogus.
Thanks again.

pensiveblake said...

Matt, I think there are some problems with your claim that one should accept witchcraft in Salem before they accept the resurrection in Jerusalem. Leaving out the empty tomb argument, these are the three evidences in question:
Ej: Groups in [J]erusalem genuinely thought they witnessed Jesus visiting them after his crucifixion (which they interpreted as Jesus' resurrection).
Es: Individuals in [S]alem genuinely thought they witnessed various people contorting themselves into peculiar positions, uttering strange sounds, throwing things around the room, crawling under furniture etc. (which they interpreted as witchcraft).

Ej is supposed to be evidence for "Jesus resurrected in Jerusalem" (R), and Es is supposed to be evidence for "Witchcraft (supernatural) occurred in Salem" (W). To decide whether R or W is better substantiated by its respective evidence(s), we need to employ quasi-bayesian inference, or the likelihood principle. We are asking, therefore, whether W or R's respective null hypothesis is more surprised by its respective credible evidence (Ej and Es). I think it's clear that, given some appropriately chosen background knowledge, p(~R|Ej) < p(~W|Es).

(a) Given witchcraft didn't occur in Salem, the critic *does not* suffer any real tension or surprise in accounting for Es. Why? Because he can easily and responsibly say: "[Reasonable explanations include] psychological hysteria in response to Indian attacks, convulsive ergotism caused by eating rye bread made from grain infected by the fungus Claviceps purpurea (which is the natural substance from which LSD is derived),[73] an epidemic of bird-borne encephalitis lethargica, and sleep paralysis to explain the nighttime attacks alleged by some of the accusers.[74] Other modern academic historians are less inclined to believe that the cause for the behavior was biological, exploring instead motivations of jealousy, spite and a need for attention to explain behavior they contend was simply acting." (Wikipedia)

(b) Given the resurrection didn't occur in Jerusalem, the critic *does* suffer real tension or surprise in accounting for Ej. The hallucination hypothesis, twin brother hypothesis, and every other naturalistic hypothesis so far put forward comes with enormous epistemic cost (esp. relative to the easy explanations for Es).

Therefore, it is far from the the case that one should sooner accept "Witchcraft (supernatural) occurred in Salem" than "Jesus resurrected in Jerusalem". Quite the contrary.

pensiveblake said...

Matt, I think there are some problems with your claim that one should accept witchcraft in Salem before they accept the resurrection in Jerusalem. Leaving out the empty tomb argument, these are the three evidences in question:
Ej: Groups in [J]erusalem genuinely thought they witnessed Jesus visiting them after his crucifixion (which they interpreted as Jesus' resurrection).
Es: Individuals in [S]alem genuinely thought they witnessed various people contorting themselves into peculiar positions, uttering strange sounds, throwing things around the room, crawling under furniture etc. (which they interpreted as witchcraft).

Ej is supposed to be evidence for "Jesus resurrected in Jerusalem" (R), and Es is supposed to be evidence for "Witchcraft (supernatural) occurred in Salem" (W). To decide whether R or W is better substantiated by its respective evidence(s), we need to employ quasi-bayesian inference, or the likelihood principle. We are asking, therefore, whether W or R's respective null hypothesis is more surprised by its respective credible evidence (Ej and Es). I think it's clear that, given some appropriately chosen background knowledge, p(~R|Ej) < p(~W|Es) for the following reasons:

pensiveblake said...

(a) Given witchcraft didn't occur in Salem, the critic *does not* suffer any real tension or surprise in accounting for Es. Why? Because he can easily and responsibly say: "[Reasonable explanations include] psychological hysteria in response to Indian attacks, convulsive ergotism caused by eating rye bread made from grain infected by the fungus Claviceps purpurea (which is the natural substance from which LSD is derived),[73] an epidemic of bird-borne encephalitis lethargica, and sleep paralysis to explain the nighttime attacks alleged by some of the accusers.[74] Other modern academic historians are less inclined to believe that the cause for the behavior was biological, exploring instead motivations of jealousy, spite and a need for attention to explain behavior they contend was simply acting." (Wikipedia)

(b) Given the resurrection didn't occur in Jerusalem, the critic *does* suffer real tension or surprise in accounting for Ej. The hallucination hypothesis, twin brother hypothesis, and every other naturalistic hypothesis so far put forward comes with enormous epistemic cost relative to the easy explanations for Es.

Therefore, it's not the case that one should sooner accept "Witchcraft (supernatural) occurred in Salem" than "Jesus resurrected in Jerusalem". Quite the contrary

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Blake. Very interesting points. First, I don't have to be too wedding to the "accept magic at Salem first" claim. But by a fair accounting of the evidence in both cases, I still insist that magic is Salem is better supported by it. I'm not exactly sure what you're getting at, but I think you're artificially narrowing Es. Many of the sworn witnesses at Salem thought they had genuinely witnessed actual magic, not just contortions or table crawling. One testifying claims that one of the witches took him on a flight over the mountains and cast spells on him. Many of the others claimed to have actually seen black magic performed--spells cast, hexes enacted, etc.

Third, if we resort to a Bayesian account of one's subjective measure of surprise about real magic in Salem or in Jerusalem, it is certainly possible engineer one's prior probability assumptions to make it come out that real magic at Salem is much more surprising than real magic in Jerusalem. But you can only do that by stacking the deck heavily in favor of Christian metaphysics within those prior probability assumptions. So now you have a belief in the authenticity or truth of Christian metaphysics feedings one's expectations about what sort of events are surprising, and then one concludes that (begging the question) that Jesus' resurrection is perfectly plausible and unsurprising. By setting up the prior probabilities the right way, you can make ANY event or outcome unsurprising with a Bayesian account. This is why I have not argued for the improbability of the resurrection on the Salem grounds. Fourth, so far all of the dismissals of naturalistic explanations that I have heard by Christian apologists for the resurrection have been the worst sort of Straw Men. Habermas seems to think that people only hallucinate those things that they want and will to hallucinate. Craig thinks that "legends" can't develop in 15 years, etc. So I'd place a much higher probability on one or some of those hypotheses than the folks that are working so hard to prove the historical resurrection.

Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

MM

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Jim Thompson said...

1st debate -- OMG not the "Four Facts"

Sorry I checked out after that.

Matt McCormick said...

Yeah, I know. Russell keeps presenting these when we debate. I've been thinking about it: He says that these are four widely acknowledged facts by the mainstream historical scholarly establishment. Ok, here's my challenge: find me a stack of history textbooks that list these as historical facts that aren't written for Christian schools by Christian apologists. I suspect you can't even find a single such textbook that is being used in a public high school or college in the U.S. Case closed.
MM

pensiveblake said...

Thanks Matt. Hmm.. here are my thoughts:

One one hand, we can *very* easily explain all of Es on ~W (the not-witchcraft hypothesis) by saying either:
(a) The groups/individuals were not honest about what they saw, or-
(b) The groups/individuals of witnesses were honest about what they saw, but mistakenly interpreted it.
I susupect you would agree, as a result of (a) and (b), Es is fairly innocuous; we dont have to feel at all uncomfortable in affirming ~W.

On the other hand, we can't *very* easily explain Ej on ~R (the not-resurrection hypothesis).
--With respect to (a), even atheist historians seem fairly convinced for good reasons that the relevant groups/individuals were honest about what they thought they saw (i.e. experiences of Jesus appearing to them).[1]
--With respect to (b), to say they mistakenly interpreted the appearances normally reduces to saying they hallucinated (this seems to be the most academically popular naturalistic explanation for Ej). However, among other objections (e.g. lack of expectation), group hallucinations are extremely rare, if they occur at all (I'm skeptical).

So, in fact, in addition to it not being *very* easy to explain Ej on ~R, I find it extremely difficult. Of course, I don't need to defend it's being extremely difficult right now. All that needs to be established is that Es is very easily explained, while Ej is not as easily explained.
Looking forward to your thoughts.


- - - -
[1]Gary Habermas, "Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What Are Critical Scholars Saying?" Philosophic Christi

pensiveblake said...

Oh, regarding your third point, I'm suggesting that, in all likelihood, even given your personal priors, Salem magic should come out more surprising. I agree that it's always *possible* to engineer our priors in such a way that the reverse is true, but I doubt either of us are in danger of doing or having done such a thing.

I actually had a difficult time understanding your fourth point. e.g. Are you saying that the straw man, in Habermas' case, is his claim that the best naturalistic explanation of the resurrection is the hallucination hypothesis? But then I don't know why you'd go on to say "I'd place a much higher probability on one or some of those hypotheses". Can you put your fourth point in other words? Thanks in advance. = )

Matt McCormick said...

Sorry for the delays getting some of your comments published, folks. I've had to start screening the comments because of some of the more, shall we say, enthusiastic readers.

Matt McCormick said...

What I meant, Blake, is that when I've read some of the historical resurrection defenses, many authors like Habermas, Craig, Wright, etc. will pay some lip service to dealing with some naturalistic hypotheses. They will argue that either some natural hypothesis explains the Gospel stories, or there really was a resurrection. Then they briefly explain a flimsy and unthoughtful version of some natural hypothesis, knock it down--usually by quoting more scriptures (never mind that it's their reliability that is at issue), and then move on to conclude that no other hypothesis makes sense of all the available "facts" as well as a real resurrection. This is the strategy that DiSilvesto has taken in his debates with me.

There are just too many details to deal with them all here, but I think once we're clear on what the history of the evidence has been, it casts enough doubt on all the claims of the Gospel stories to torpedo these pro resurrection arguments. Right, groups don't usually all hallucinate the same thing. But people do regularly hallucinate, especially when a loved one dies. Then the talk, they modify memories, rumors spread, memories get altered, the Asch effect kicks in, poor eyewitness problems contribute, stories get repeated and altered, and so on, until in a very short time you can have a movement built up around a completely altered picture of reality. Thanks for the interest.
MM

Bogdan said...

Matt, what do you think about DiSilvestro's anecdotes from the second debate? The strangest one seems to be about the three angels. A woman sees three angels, DiSilvestro prays to God to make him see the angels or at least let him know about their presence. Several days later, a student comes and tells him he saw three angels around DiSilvestro during one of his lectures. If you had to say something about this case during the debate what would it have been? Thank you for your time.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Bogdan. As I see it, I gave a mountain of evidence for how prone people are to tell false, mistaken, or misguided miracle stories. And I established very clearly how unreliable people are when they report such strange events. And I argued that anecdotal in general is a highly unreliable way to find out the facts. In response, Prof. DiSilvestro told a whole bunch of miracle stories that fit just the sort of profile I was describing. I argued that miracle anecdotes are unreliable, and he gave miracle anecdotes. As I said several times, people hedge these stories, they modify their memories, they misremember, they revise to make them more impressive, they search and find significance where there is none, they experience bereavement hallucinations, auditory and visual hallucinations, ecstatic religious states, and so on. Giving more of these stories only substantiates my arguments, it doesn't cast any doubts on it.
MM

Aristopus said...

So the only remaining conclusion is that Jesus was really resurrected.

You gotta be kiddin'. They can't even prove that Jesus really existed, and now we're supposed to believe that he resurrected.

All right, answer this one: When the Lord arose from the dead, why did he appear only to his friends, who would believe anything? If it were me, I'd create my own limo and ride into Jerusalem with a marching band. One of the Popemobiles without the security protection will do, (who needs it when you're dead? He's God, he should have known that everyone loves a parade.)

Jesus had a chance to really stick it to his detractors and he blew it. Some God.