For Christians to take the historical case for Jesus’ resurrection seriously is a surprising and, on the whole, positive thing. By even engaging in the discussion about whether or not we have sufficient evidence to think that Jesus came back from the dead suggests a number of important presumptions. First, and most obviously, engaging the topic indicates that you think the evidence matters. This is a vast improvement over the host of peculiar, and a-rational accounts of belief and its functions that have proliferated in the post-modern era. There are Wittgensteinian, Fideistic, Kierkegaardian, Tillich-ian, and Plantinga style approaches among many others, where, in one form or another, a straight up appeal to the facts is not considered necessary or even important to the grounding of religious belief. They aren’t interested in what actually happened or what our evidence is. As I see it, the insufficiency of the evidence for the resurrection utterly undermines the whole edifice of Christianity; as these non-evidentialist thinkers see it, the lack of evidence doesn’t matter in the slightest. So for the Christian to take the question seriously with those views in the background represents a huge step forward. It would seem that the historical believer and I agree about the basics at least: whether or not we have adequate historical evidence for thinking that Jesus was real and that he returned from the dead after being executed matters.
Friday, April 23, 2010
Monday, April 19, 2010
Objections: Doesn’t the Case Against the Resurrection Make You a History Skeptic? And Preserving the Jesus Story through the Jewish Oral Tradition
In addition, on the subject of Eyewitness Testimony, an article was just published this month rebutting the book by Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. It is entitled: “How Accurate are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research” Journal of Biblical Literature 129 (2010) 177-197.
Friday, April 16, 2010
It’s not uncommon for critics of the Jesus story to cite the Telephone Game as an analogy for why we should doubt the information we have about him. In the Telephone Game, a group of children sit in a circle. The first kid whispers a sentence into the ear of the second, the second whispers it to the third and so on. When the last kid compares notes with the first one, the original sentence has often been warped beyond recognition. The analogy is supposed to be to the long series of people that the Jesus story passed through from the alleged eyewitnesses, to those who repeated the story, to the authors of the Gospels, to the scribes to copied the Gospels that we have now. We can’t trust the information coming out of this conduit to be the same as the information that went in.
We can divide the layers of interference into five groups: the alleged eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, the people who heard the story from them and repeated them until the authors of the Gospels wrote them down 30 to 100 years later, the athors of the Gospels, the copiers who copied and recopied the stories over the next two centuries, and the canonizers who made a deliberate effort to cull one particular narrative about the life and death of Jesus out of thousands of early Christian writings that were circulating around until the Christian Bible as we know it was formed. That’s Alleged Eyewitnesses, Repeaters, Authors, Copiers, and Canonizers.
Monday, April 12, 2010
One of my colleagues, Prof. Russell DiSilvestro and I are going to have a debate and discussion at a Sacramento church about the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. If you've read the blog in the last year or so, you've seen a lot of arguments that I have developed for the conclusion that it isn't reasonable for us to believe on the basis of the crummy little body of evidence we have. Prof. DiSilvestro is a Christian and has the view that there is a compelling historical case to be made for the resurrection. He's a sharp guy and he's very interested in this question, so this should be a very stimulating discussion. Here's the announcement. If you're in the Sacramento area, I encourage you to come and participate. If nothing else, you'll get to see me on a church podium. That's got to be worth something. And I confess that I've had a secret wish to get invited to a big church to do this for a long time.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
These examples also suggest several specific ways we can help them. Many of us in the non-believer community (myself included) are naively inclined to take believers at their word when they offer arguments for God's existence or justifications for believing. But these examples should remind us that many of so-called believers, even the important among them actually don't even buy all the nonsense themselves. They say what they are supposed to say, but it would appear that they are trying to convince themselves as much or more than they are trying to convince us. We must remember that the best response to the broken arguments may be, "I don't think you actually believe that. And I know that you've felt the force of the doubts against God that I am raising." What they need to see is that it would be worse to sustain the lie than to come out and clear their minds and conscience of the bad faith their peculiar situation has created.
“I didn’t plan to become an atheist. I didn’t even want to become an atheist. It’s just that I had no choice. If I’m being honest with myself. . . . I want to understand Christianity, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. And I’ve wanted to be a Christian. I’ve tried to be a Christian, and all the ways they say to do it. It just didn’t add up.”
“The love stuff is good. And you can still believe in that, and live a life like that. But the whole grand scheme of Christianity, for me, is just a bunch of bunk.”
Thursday, April 8, 2010
Here's a write up of some material from Michael Martin that we use in my philosophy of religion course. It gives a fairly lightweight summary of a strategy for proving that God does not exist. Some of the material is rudimentary, but many of the issues are relevant and interesting for our discussions here on the blog:
- understands and believes that all of the premises in the argument for p are true.
- understands and believes that the premises when taken jointly imply p
- then, that person is rationally committed to believing p.
- the area where evidence would appear, if there were any, has been comprehensively examined, and
- all of the available evidence that X exists is inadequate, and
- X is the sort of entity that, if X exists, then it would show.
- If conditions A,B, and C, are met concerning an entity, then it is reasonable to conclude that no such entity exists.
- Conditions A,B, and C are met concerning God.
- Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that God does not exist.
Sunday, April 4, 2010
One of the arguments that have been circulating amongst apologetically and philosophically inclined believers lately is the so-called argument from consciousness. The reasoning roughly runs like this. No matter how advanced or complete a scientific explanation of consciousness becomes that is based on an external, empirical investigation of the brain, there are some facts about mind that it will not and cannot even in principle explain. No scientific account will be able to tell us why any particular state of our neurons produces just this internal conscious feel rather than some other. We can analyze the brain states correlated with eating a ripe banana all we want and explain it all the way down to the molecular level, but none of that explanation will ever account for why it tastes just the way it does instead of like a guacamole. Then somehow, improbably, these arguments move from this alleged irreducibility of mind to God. The only way that brain states can be accompanied by any phenomenal states at all, the only thing that could have made them actually feel like something (with banana flavor) to you inside there is if God set it up that way. (See Richard Swinburne's The Existence of God, Robert Adams' "Flavors, Colors, and God," and J.P. Moreland's "Argument from Consciousness."
This God of the neural gaps line suffers from a familiar problem in philosophy. Very often philosophers will consider the radically disparate ends of some phenomena and its alleged mechanical, physical, molecular, or material causes, and throw their hands up at the prospects of ever connecting the two. When we consider it from our philosophical (and evangelical) armchairs, it seems like that just can’t be any way that mere atoms of matter, molecules, or meat could possibly be responsible for the transcendental joys of listening to Beethoven, or the nuances of a fine French meal, or the rapturous elation of love. From the inside, mere meat just seems too different from what it feels like to be me. It just seems to debasing, dehumanizing, and demoralizing to render us down to simply brains.
Part of the problem here arises from linking such a low level physical account with such abstract, high level mental states, and then trusting our imaginations and our intuitions to be a reliable guide to what can or cannot be accomplished by serious scientific research. I can’t fathom how a vast and complicated physical system like O’Hare airport in Chicago can possibly function either when I watch the janitor at gate 263B empty the trash. My imagination and intuitions are red lined when I try to leap from my micro access perspective at the gate to what the whole, vast system is doing. But it would be silly for me to conclude on similar grounds that the airport is therefore some sort of magical, transcendent, emergent, or immaterial entity.
Another part of the problem comes from people confidently concluding that science can never possibly do X, or neuroscience will never explain Y when they just don’t know much about it. It’s very easy to make these kinds of sweeping pronouncements from a position of ignorance. That’s also why serious neuroscientists and cognitive scientists aren't about to shut down their research labs because they find the reasoning behind the “Consciousness therefore God,” argument to be so compelling. A note from history: declarations that science will never do X usually prove to be quite embarrassing.
Here’s an interesting relevant bit from Cristof Koch’s book The Quest for Consciousness that summarizes one of the major theories we have to explain consciousness now. Koch is a leading neuroscientist--Professor of biology and engineering at Cal Tech--working on the subject. Neuroscientists have been looking for the neural correlate for consciousness (NCC) for a while. They seem to be zeroing on some likely candidates. (Please don’t argue at this point that correlation doesn’t imply causation—I’m well aware of that and the discipline of neuroscience is well aware of it. If you’re really sure that the neural events in your brain that correlate with your thoughts are not the causes of your thoughts, then you wouldn’t mind if we, say, opened up your skull and excised those regions of brain tissue, or poured acid on them, right?) So the view that has emerged involves certain neural firing structures outcompeting or out-shouting, as it were, other firing structure/patterns for temporary ascendency to being more globally broadcast across the brain. Think of the cases when you can’t get that annoying Lady GaGa song out of your head. That’s a informational/representational neural firing pattern that has achieved some temporary fame-in-the-brain, as Dennett puts it. Eventually those neurons will get exhausted and something else will move to the forefront. But Koch is the expert. Let him explain it:
"The NCC involve temporary coalitions of neurons, coding for particular events or objects, that are competing with other coalitions. A particular assembly--biased by attention--emerges as the winner by dint of the strength of its firing activity. The winning coalition, corresponding to the current content of consciousness, suppresses competing assemblies for some time until it either fatigues, adapts, or is superseded by a novel input and a new victor emerges. Given that at any one time one or a few such coalitions dominate, one can speak of sequential processing without implying an clock-like process. This dynamic process can be compared to politics in a democracy with voting blocks and interest groups constantly forming and dissolving.
Francis (Crick) and I postulate that the NCC are built on a foundation of explicit neuronal representations. A feature is made explicit if a small set of neighboring cortical neurons directly encode this feature. The depth of computation inherent in an implicit representation is shallower than in an explicit one. Additional processing is necessary to transform an implicit into an explicitly representation. " (47)There's lots more, but that's a good start. This offers us amateurs a glimpse of what part of a neurobiological account of mental phenomena might look like. And it’s surprisingly potent to explain a lot of things that might have otherwise seemed inexplicable. So at the very least, we should not gallop off on the God horse when a clear answer to the big how question eludes us. Those answers have always come into focus through the steady, diligent, and hard work of science. And it’s closing the gap on this so-called miracle too.