Wednesday, 15 August 2012

William Lane Craig's Resurrection Argument

Below is a transcript of what I said about William Lane Craig's resurrection argument for the existence of the Christian God (taken from our debate). In case anyone is interested. My point is that we should expect quite a few baffling, exceedingly-hard-to-explain-naturalistically miracle and other extraordinary testimonies to crop up through the centuries, whether or not there's any truth to them. But then the fact that there are such testimonies provides no support to such miracle and other extraordinary claims.

Several people have misunderstood my point (largely because they have tried to use one of the standard, scripted answers provided by Craig and other Christian apologists in response to doubts about the resurrection - but they don't work here). I do think Craig understood my point. In fact, I'm exploiting a point Craig himself often makes in connection with the maxim "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", namely: that evidence for an extraordinary claim can give strong support to that extraordinary claim IF the probability of the evidence obtaining if the claim were false is very low. Craig says:

"1. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This sounds so commonsensical, doesn’t it? But in fact it is demonstrably false. Probability theorists studying what sort of evidence it would take to establish a highly improbable event came to realize that if you just weigh the improbability of the event against the reliability of the testimony, we’d have to be sceptical of many commonly accepted claims. Rather what’s crucial is the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred. This can easily offset any improbability of the event itself. In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, for example, this means that we must also ask, “What is the probability of the facts of the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection, if the resurrection had not occurred?” It is highly, highly, highly, improbable that we should have that evidence if the resurrection had not occurred." Source.

My point is that the probability that such evidence would exist if the corresponding extraordinary claims were false is NOT very low. In fact, this is exactly the sort of evidence we should expect to crop up on occasion whether or not miracles etc. happen.

This is so blindingly obvious it is weird the point is not being made against Craig et al on a regular basis. The usual apologetic argument-to-the-best-explanation blather about "Well it's hardly plausible the eyewitnesses would lie, were hallucinating, etc." is all smokescreen.

To see why, consider the 1967 UFO case described below. It  could similarly so very easily have been a case that went down in annals of UFOlogy as deeply baffling and unexplained (rather more so, in fact, as in that case we have real first-hand eyewitness testimony from trained eyewitnesses - police officers - with no ideological to grind, backed up by a radar blip, rather than [in the resurrection case] second- or third-hand testimony recorded a decade or more later by passionate True Believers). "What's the BEST EXPLANATION?" the UFO-enthiasiasts would have said. "That several independent eyewitnesses, police officers no less, would have mistaken e.g. Venus for such an amazing object? Or that they would have collectively made it up? Thereby potentially deeply embarrassing themselves? And that the radar blip was just a coincidence? Or that they really did see an extraordinary object hanging over the plant?" Clearly the latter!!"

The fact that we couldn't come up with a plausible-sounding naturalistic explanation for the police officers's and magistrate's testimony and that simultaneous radar blip gives us little, if any, reason to suppose that there really was something extraordinary hovering over the power plant. Similarly, even if it were true (which it isn't) that we couldn't come up with a plausible-sounding naturalistic explanation for the Gospel testimony regarding the empty tomb, post mortem appearances, etc. that would give us little, if any, reason to suppose Jesus really rose from the dead.


Let’s now turn to the resurrection argument.

It turns on claims made in the New Testament: that there was an empty tomb, that there were independent eyewitness reports of Jesus alive after the crucifixion, and so on.

The claim is that the best explanation of these alleged facts is that Jesus was resurrected by god. You should always be suspicious of arguments to the best explanation in such contexts.

Let me tell you a UFO story from 1967. There were reports of a strange object appearing nightly over a nuclear power site in Wake County. The police investigated. An police officer confirmed “It was about half the size of the moon, and it just hung there over the plant.” The next night the same thing happened. The Deputy Sheriff described a “large lighted object.” The County magistrate saw, and I quote, “a rectangular object, looked like it was on fire… We figured it about the size of a football field. It was huge and very bright.” There was, in addition, hard data: a curious radar blip reported by local air traffic control.

Now, what’s the best explanation for these reports? We have multiple attestation. We have trained eye-witnesses – police officers – putting their reputations on the line by reporting a UFO. We have hard, independent confirmation – that blip on the radar scope. Surely, then, it’s highly unlikely these witnesses were, say, all hallucinating, or lying, or merely looking at a planet. Clearly, by far the best explanation is that they really did see a large, lighted object hovering close to the plant, right?

Wrong. Here’s the thing. We know, pretty much for sure, that what was seen by those police officers was the planet Venus. Journalists arrived on the scene, were shown the object, and chased it in their car. They found they couldn’t approach it. Finally, they looked at it through a long lens and saw it was Venus. That radar blip was just a coincidence.

What does this show? Every year there are countless amazing reports of religious miracles, alien abductions, ghosts, and so on. In most cases, it’s easy to come up with plausible mundane explanations for them. But not all. Some remain deeply baffling.

So should we believe in such things, then?

No. For, as my UFO story illustrates, we know that some very hard-to-explain reports of miracles, flying saucers, and so on are likely to crop up anyway, whether or not there’s any truth to such claims. That 1967 case could easily have been such a baffling case. Had those reporters not shown up and investigated, this case might well have gone down as "unsolved".

So, let’s suppose that Biblical documents written a decade or more after the events they report, written exclusively by devotees of a new religious movement, not even by first hand witnesses, detailing events for which there’s pretty much no independent confirmation, constitutes really, really good evidence that there was an empty tomb and that the disciples did report seeing the risen Christ.

Is that, in turn, good evidence Jesus was resurrected?

Evidence supports a hypothesis to the extent that the evidence is expected given the hypothesis is true, and unexpected otherwise.

The absolutely crucial point to note is this: we have good reason to expect some baffling, very hard-to-explain-in-mundane-terms reports to crop up occasionally anyway, whether or not there are any miracles, gods or flying saucers. So the fact that an otherwise baffling, hard-to-explain case has shown up provides us with little, if any, evidence that a miracle happened.

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