Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The case of the sixth islander

The case of the sixth islander

[another extract from a paper I am writing, this time a thought experiment related to the preceding post].

Suppose five people are rescued from a large, otherwise uninhabited island on which they were shipwrecked ten years previously. The shipwrecked party knew that if they survived they would, eventually, be rescued, for they knew the island was a nature reserve visited by ecologists every ten years.

As the rescued party recount their stories, they include amazing tales of a sixth member of their party shipwrecked along with them. This person, they claim, soon set himself apart from the others by performing amazing miracles - walking on the sea, miraculously curing one of the islanders who had died from a snakebite, conjuring up large quantities of food from nowhere, and so on. The mysterious sixth islander also had striking and original ethical views that, while unorthodox, were eventually enthusiastically embraced by the other islanders. Eventually, five years ago, the sixth islander died, but he came back to life three days later, after which he ascended into the sky. He was even seen again several times after that.

Let’s add some further details to this hypothetical scenario. Suppose that the five islanders tell much the same story about the revered sixth member of their party – while differing in style, their accounts are broadly consistent. Indeed, a vivid and forceful portrait of the sixth islander emerges from their collectively testimony.

Interestingly, the stories about the sixth islander also include a number of details that are clearly awkward or embarrassing for the remaining islanders. Indeed, they all agree that two of the surviving islanders actually betrayed and killed the sixth islander. Moreover, some of the deeds supposedly performed by the sixth islander are clearly at odds with what the survivors believe about him (for example, while believing the sixth islander to be utterly without malice, they also attribute to him actions that are clearly cruel, actions they then have a very hard time explaining). These are details it seems it could hardly be in their interests to invent.

Such is their admiration for their sixth companion and his unorthodox ethical views that the survivors try hard to convince us that both what they say is true, and that it is important that we too should also come to embrace his unorthodox views. Indeed, for the rescued party, the sixth islander is a revered cult figure, a figure they wish us to revere too.

Now suppose we have, as yet, no good independent evidence for the existence of the sixth islander, let alone that he performed the miracles attributed to him by the rescued party. What should be our attitude to these various claims?

Clearly, we would rightly be sceptical about the miraculous parts of the testimony concerning the sixth islander. Their collective testimony is not nearly good enough evidence that such events happened. But what of the sixth islander’s existence? Is it reasonable to believe, solely on the basis of this testimony, that the sixth islander was at least a real person, rather than a delusion, or deliberately invented fiction, or whatever?

Notice that the evidence presented by the five islanders meets three criteria discussed above.

First, we have multiple attestation: not one, but five, individuals claim that the sixth islander existed (moreover, we are dealing with the alleged eye-witnesses themselves, rather than second or third hand reports, so there is no possibility of other having tampered with or amended the story to suit themselves).

Secondly, their reports contain details that are clearly highly embarrassing to (indeed, that seriously incriminate) the tellers. This raises the question – why would the islanders deliberately include such details in a made-up story – a story that e.g. is clearly in tension with what they believe about their hero, and which, indeed, also portrays them as murderous betrayers?

Thirdly, why would they attribute to the sixth islander unorthodox ethical and other views very much discontinuous with accepted wisdom? If, for example, the sixth islander is an invention designed to set them up as chief gurus of a new cult, would they attribute to their mythical leader views unlikely to be easily accepted by others?

Now there’s no doubt that there could have been a sixth islander who said and did some of the things attributed to him. But ask yourself: does the collective testimony of the rescued party place the existence of the sixth islander beyond reasonable doubt? If not beyond reasonable doubt, is his existence something it would at least be reasonable for us to accept? Or would we be wiser, at this point, to reserve judgement and adopt a sceptical stance?

[nb. the following is for Sam's interest]


Sticking to the story despite the threat of death


Another difference between the two scenarios that might be exploited is: Those who made such claims about Jesus were prepared to, and on occasion did, die for their beliefs. No such threats are issued to the six islanders. Some may claim this is a key difference between the two sets of testimony that gives the testimony about Jesus much greater credibility.

Let’s suppose at least some of those with whom the Jesus testimony originated were prepared to die for their belief. That would at least raise the credibility of their collective testimony somewhat. But by how much?

Again, let’s adjust our hypothetical scenario so that the islanders are now threatened with death if they do not renounce their claims about the sixth islander (imagine, if you like, that they are unlucky enough to be rescued by a brutal totalitarian regime highly unsympathetic to such tales). The islanders stick to their story, and are executed as a result. How reasonable is it, now, to suppose that there was a sixth islander?

Still not terribly reasonable, I would suggest.

It is, of course, deeply puzzling why the islanders would be prepared to die for their beliefs if those beliefs were not true. If the islanders made the story up, surely they would have renounced it to save their own skins. But if they did not make it up, and yet the story is not true, then they would have to have collectively been the victims of some sort of deceit or delusion about the miraculous sixth islander. Yet that is scarcely credible either.

And yet – given the highly miraculous nature of much of what they recount about the sixth islander, surely it is still not clear that he existed, let alone performed any of the miracles attributed to him.

The fact that it is deeply puzzling why the rescued party would go to their deaths defending beliefs that they knew not to be true, and no less puzzling how they could collectively have become deceived or deluded about a miraculous sixth islander, still leaves us largely clueless about what really happened.

77 comments:

wombat said...

"Let’s suppose at least some of those with whom the Jesus testimony originated were prepared to die for their belief. "

After weeding out the ones who were killed because of their belief but did not get a chance to recant of course. It is quite plausible that such unfortunates should be claimed as martyrs by the survivors.

The fact that the islanders are prepared to stick to their respective stories does not seem that unlikely in the light of modern experience of closed communities. (Waco, Jonestown etc). It is baffling in the sense that it is difficult from our well adjusted and normally socialized perspective to understand why people should do such things but the phenomena are well catalogued. Some of the mechanisms whereby such fatal attitudes can arise are now understood to the extent that techniques by which they can be implanted are available. (e.g. training suicide bombers) False memories are also now being created in experiments (e.g. here )

Being cooped up on an island with small social group to reinforce attitudes and beliefs is a good start; add in some sense of intense shared experience (being shipwrecked together) and physical hardship and you are probably well on the way.

Stephen Law said...

I suppose - correct me if I am wrong, you experts - that we are also relying on the testimony of later Christians that several supposed "eye-witness" disciples were martyred?

But anyway, as I say, even if they were, how much additional credibility does this lend their testimony? Not much, I suggest...

AIGBusted said...

I don't think your conclusion is as obvious as you imply it is, or indeed, obvious at all.

My views about the existence and alleged resurrection of jesus may be found here:

http://aigbusted.blogspot.com/2009/05/idiot-america.html

http://secweb.infidels.org/?kiosk=articles&id=796

Sincerely,
Ryan

Steven Carr said...

AIG
(not to mention the fact that a James is named as a blood brother of Jesus in the gospels).

CARR
Luke/Acts never claims a James as a brother of Jesus.

Mark never claims any brother of Jesus had any relationship to a church.

Why would Luke/Acts try to write out all reference to Jesus having a brother called James, if the leader of the church itself had been a brother of Jesus called James?

The Epistle of James makes no reference to any blood relationship.

The author of Jude identifies himself as the brother of James, seemingly unaware that that would make him also a brother of Jesus.

Paul also refers to the brothers of the Lord in Philippians.

'Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.'

'Most'?

Just how many brothers did Jesus have who were now church leaders?

And why would these 'brothers in the Lord' be speaking out more fearlessly because of Paul, rather than because of their brother, who after all was Jesus?

In short, there is prima facie evidence that Paul refers to a real brother of Jesus called James (don't tell the Catholics), but this prima facie evidence is a lot weaker than you would think.

Luke/Acts is an semi-official church history and there is no reference to a brother of Jesus called James.

Why would the real brother of Jesus be airbrushed out of church history like that?

Greg O said...

I'm not sure quite what to make of this thought experiment. A hypothetical believer in a historical sixth islander might want to offer this sort of response:

"My central claim is this: there really was a sixth islander, a charismatic leader of some sort, whose biography has come to be embellished (especially, I suppose, since his death) by his fellow islanders with a number of fictitious, miraculous bells and whistles. Now, given everything we know about the social psychology of isolated groups with charismatic leaders, that's a perfectly mundane claim. Maybe true, maybe false, but perfectly mundane.

Now - in the name of scepticism, no less! - you want me to accept the extraordinary claim that for no reason you can explain - through some deeply puzzling, hitherto unheard-of social or psychological mechanism you do not even claim to understand - the five surviving islanders have come to hold an elaborate, shared, yet wholly false set of beliefs revolving around a person they think they spent ten years of their lives with but who never actually existed at all!"

How persuasive that is I don't know, but it does serve to put the spotlight firmly on the empirical question of just how myths/cults/religions do, in fact, get started. Plausibly the believer in a 'historical islander' has the basis of a case that the balance of probability, at least, is in his favour - *if* he's right that stories like that of the sixth islander typically are based on a real person and not wholly fabricated.

Brian said...

The mysterious sixth islander also had striking and original ethical views that, while unorthodox

Not Jesus we're referring to then. Plato had Socrates say all those ethical goodies that Jesus said a few hundred years earlier. And the Golden rule regularly popped up BC.

Kosh3 said...

My favourite part of the Jesus resurrection story is many of the graves breaking open and the dead getting up and walking around. I'm not sure how you would build that into your island story though.

Kosh3 said...

Stephen, my issue with your calling into question the historical reality of basic Jesus (i.e. that there was such a man who got himself into trouble at a certain point) relates to human psychology. Are we more likely to invent, from scratch, the miraculous stories of a quite fictional person, or attach miraculous workings to a man already in existence? (especially if we really like that person and want them to be divine?) What I suspect is that people are more likely to add stories than to concoct a character altogether to facilitate a story.

Consider:

p(Jr|Jm) = x
p(Jf|Jm) = y

Where Jr is 'Jesus-real' (i.e. there was such a person most basically), Jm is 'Jesus-is-reported-miraculous', and Jf is 'Jesus-fictional'. What I would intuitively say is that x > y. Perhaps not terribly greater, but greater.

What could change the assessment is if those doing the reporting are on psychotropic drugs (or suffer some similarly cognitively distorting affliction). In which case the question is one of

p(Jr|Jm&Cd) = q
p(Jf|Jm&Cd) = r

Where Cd is cognitive distortion (e.g. drugs, mental illness). In this case, I think probably that r > q.

The Atheist Missionary said...

In Canada, the five survivors would quickly be granted charitable tax status for their "Sixth Ascending Survivor Cult" and anyone who dared to heap ridicule on their beliefs could expect to be hauled before a provincial Human Rights Commission.

Stephen, on a serious note, thank-you for posting these drafts. they are candy for the mind.

Jackie said...

Maybe I'm taking your thought experience too literally, but my first guess is that these people didn't know much about wilderness survival and ended up eating the wrong kind of mushrooms. In the 5 years since the death of the alleged 6th, they talked about their mushroom experiences enough that they convinced themselves they all shared them. Whether the 6th actually existed, I'd have to investigate. First I'd want to get the remaining 5 some medical attention.

Steven Carr said...

Suppose the 5 islanders say the 6th islander had been surrounded by a whole host of people, none of whom they had ever met personally, and none of whom had ever made any impact on the history of the island, despite claims by the 5 islanders that some of those people had been so famous that other people on the island plotted how to kill them...

Stephen Law said...

George - perhaps I am being dim but I don't see why the HS case is a threat to P2 as there presumably is good independent evidence that HS existed.

Kosh 3 and Greg's suggestion that perhaps we could infer the existence of a real Jesus by e.g. looking at the history of such legends, establishing that in most cases, they are based on a real person, and so inferring that that is likely to be the case here, is a good one, I think. I had been thinking about that.

Kyle's "but what does "extraordinary" mean? points could be made by any brand of wacko, of course. This is just standard theistic smokescreen. Kyle - ask yourself why you don't believe in fairies, goblins, elves, the miraculous powers of shamans or psychics, alien abduction, Atlantis, etc. etc. and in most cases that will be the reason why you shouldn't believe in this particular set of miracle stories either. Humanity has an amazing track record of being duped, misled or just out-and-out fabricating such stuff. Hence the need to NOT just e.g. trust testimony (as we would for more mundane claims), but set the evidential bar much higher (as of course I am sure you do for other such extraordinary claims - so why not here?).

The Barefoot Bum said...

I'm not at all impressed by this essay. You're still, fundamentally, making an appeal to intuition: We intuitively disbelieve the sixth islander, so intuitively we should disbelieve (or not give wholehearted assent to) Jesus stories. But what of the person who intuitively finds the sixth islander plausible or obvious?

I'd like to see a principled reason -- something more rigorous than appeal to intuition -- to reject the sixth islander, preferably by relating the Jesus stories somehow to a situation where we know the truth independently of the testimony. Where is testimony like the five surviving islanders reliable? Where is it unreliable?

Also, as other commenters have noted, your islanders are not really analogous to the situation we face regarding stories about Jesus. I would, for example, be much more inclined to credit stories if I could actually talk to and cross-examine the actual disciples as I could the five islanders. But of course what we have in the Bible is not testimony, but copies of lost originals of anonymous stories composed many decades after the supposed events depicted.

Fundamentally, we require extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims because extraordinary claims contradict or at least call into question the massive amounts of evidence generated by ordinary life. We are highly suspicious of reports of people rising from the dead precisely because we have graveyards full of people who didn't rise from the dead, as well as enormous amounts of evidence from the biological sciences that such a resurrection would also contradict.

Evidentiary claims must conform to all the available evidence; it's pure Cargo Cult Science to simply restrict the evidence to that which is favorable to some hypothesis.

Anonymous said...

Imagine now that in that islanf there already were other people. Lets say the 6th islander found those natives but nor the other 5. lets say the natives helped the 6th one to perform "miracles" so that he could be revered by the other five.

The other five are now completely convinced of what they say, but what they say is false nevertheless.

Stephen Law said...

Many thanks for all the comments, btw - have been very helpful in getting me to think through where this is all going (I still have not decided, exactly).

wombat said...

BB - The fact that there may be groups of people whose intuition differs in whether they find a story believable is not necessarily a problem is it - the aim is just to show that skepticism about the claim is reasonable.

(Provided of course that the groups contain sufficient numbers of people and their attitudes are not explicable by some other means such as madness, genetics, severe trauma and so on.)

Kyle said...

Stephen,

I'm not suggesting where the evidential bar should be set, but it does seem important to get a definition of extraordinary. It is not a technical term, and there will be a variety of opinions about what is extraordinary.

You seem to be suggesting that it is just obvious from the content of a report whether or not it contains an extraordinary claim. Take two examples:

A: There is a dog at the bottom of my garden.

B: There is a fairy at the bottom of my garden.

I think we'll both agree that B is extraordinary and A is not. However, it is not obvious purely from the content, independently of any beliefs about the world, that this is the case. You seem to be suggesting that we can know a priori that B is extraordinary, but I do not see how that is possible.

If extraordinary does depend upon background beliefs, then it seems that you should give some comments about the background beliefs that are being assumed in this discussion, because it may be that you are begging some important questions against the Christian.

Of course, I may have misunderstood you, but that is why I think a clearer explanation is needed.

anonymous said...

this thought experiment does not fit the events it's trying to reflect - today we arn't talking to the "eye witnesses" of Jesus but some written documetents by people we never saw, met or know even existed - thousands of years later - in fact their isn't a single piece of recorded history that mentions jesus durring his supposed life time - even the gospels are written years after his death.

Stephen Law said...

yes that's right anon (Barefoot bum also notes the point). so if we should be sceptical in the islander case, how much more sceptical we should be in the case of Jesus. I do acknowldge this in fuller version.

M. Tully said...

Stephen,

I really think your argument addresses the wrong question. You're trying to answer, "why not believe the purported miracles of the Bible."

Well, where else do we do that? Why not believe Gilgamesh? Why not believe the miracles in the Odyssey?

We don't believe them today because miraculous things don't happen today. Why don't they happen today? Because today we have modern technology and proven methods of finding the highest probabilities of truth (no doubt they'll improve but it's easy to argue they're better today than they were 2000 years ago).

The correct question to ask is, "What would it take for you to believe a messiah claimant today?" And given that, do the biblical stories even approach that standard of evidence.

One theologian put it this way, "If you don't start with God, You won't get to God."

Now any empiricist worth her salt knows that starting with a conclusion and then trying to fit the evidence to it is a losing (if you really want to approach the truth) proposition.

But your paper addresses, "why not believe in God."

Well, "Why not believe in Gilgamesh?"

Why cede the empirical high ground?

Steven Carr said...

TULLY
You're trying to answer, "why not believe the purported miracles of the Bible."

CARR
Because there is documentary, photographic Evidence that they are literary creations - plagiarised stories in the same way that the Book of Mormon and the Koran contain plagiarised stories.

Stephen Law said...

I do not say we know a priori what extraordinary is, Kyle. My point is we both know perfectly well what we are talking about, and the demand for a philosophical definition at this point is really just a device for raising dust.

After all, I have no doubt you routinely rejected all sorts of testimony about fairies, Nostradamus, psychics and Atlantis in the basis that such extraordinary claims require evidence of a much higher standard to justify them. Yet, when it comes to your own extraordinary claims, suddenly you start to question the principle that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and ask for a philosophical definition of what "extraordinary" means. This seems intellectually dishonest to me. Like a judge who routinely sentences people for fraud, and yet when found by the same standards by which he has routinely judged others to be guilty, suddenly starts asking, in a philosophical way, "Ah yes, but what, really, IS fraud?" in an attempt to bog down the proceedings in a semantic dispute.

But OK, I will play your game. It would be sufficient (but not necessary) to qualify an event as extraordinary if it appeared to involve a clear violation of the laws of nature.

Kyle said...

Stephen,

you are purely talking about the content of testimony, and ignoring context. If my wife tells me I'm going to have curry for dinner, then I'll be inclined to believe her. If a complete stranger tells me that I'm going to have curry for dinner, I'll demand evidence. It doesn't matter that the content of the testimony is the same.

Also, if God exists, it is no longer clear that what Jesus did are violations of the laws of nature. Surely it's pretty reasonable to think that when God acts, the rules are a bit different to when we act.

I really don't see how to make sense of P1.

Sure I have an intuitive understanding of extraordinary, and I agree in some sense that the reports about Jesus are extraordinary, but then I also believe on the basis of a book that is inspired by God. And books that are inspired by God seem to count as pretty extraordinary evidence.

What counts as extraordinary seems pretty maleable. I might sit and think one evening, "Isn't it extraordinary that humans exist on this little planet", or "isn't it extraordinary that america has a black president". How extraordinary does the evidence have to be? Is perception sufficient? Are news reports sufficient?

Kyle said...

My point is we both know perfectly well what we are talking about, and the demand for a philosophical definition at this point is really just a device for raising dust.

Stephen, I'm sure you're not suggesting that the epistemology of testimony is really quite straight forward, but that is what it sounds like.

Are all those philosophers writing about testimony just wasting everyone's time by asking questions that don't need to be asked?

Greg O said...

Stephen - I certainly don't mean to wade into the debate over 'extraordinary claims' on the side of the supernaturalist (like you, I think it's clear enough that any claim about supernatural forces at work can safely be regarded as 'extraordinary') but I would like to suggest a caveat.

As suggested in my previous comment, it seems plausible that a sceptical social psychologist, or cult expert, or whatever, might (sticking with the islander case) regard the claim that the sixth islander is wholly fictional as 'extraordinary' in the sense that it requires us to accept the existence of anomalous social and psychological forces, something for which (by hypothesis) we have no evidence and which in fact flies in the face of current knowledge.

Again, I should emphasise that I have no idea if this hypothetical objector has a leg to stand on in empirical terms! All I'm saying is that the supernaturalist may not be alone in pressing you for an account of just what you take to be an 'extraordinary claim'.

If you could make a persuasive case that any claim for the historical existence of the chief protagonist in a heavily supernatural narrative is extraordinary by its very nature, then of course you'd be on to something!

Greg O said...

Kyle - you're the first theist I've ever known to suggest that miracles performed by God might not violate the laws of nature! I think you need to be very careful here, as you appear to be suggesting that God is subject to laws of nature (men have the natural ability to run, birds have the natural ability to fly, and God has the natural ability to turn water into wine). This is very, very unorthodox - in the theistic tradition God is quite explicitly supposed to be a *supernatural* agent.

You're right, of course, that what seems 'extraordinary' to you will depend on your frame of reference - e.g. as you say, if you think the Bible is (uniquely) a document inspired by God, you'll think Biblical testimony constitutes extraordinary evidence for (say) Jesus's miracles having really happened. But that just pushes the question back a level: OK, so where's your extraordinary evidence for the extraordinary claim that this particular book was inspired by God? Where's your extraordinary evidence for the extraordinary claim that this particular supernatural agent (God) exists in the first place?

Again, just think how *you* would react to parallel claims. If someone else said 'well, the claim that there are fairies at the bottom of my garden might look extraordinary to you, but I've believed in fairies all my life and what's more I have it on the authority of a very powerful psychic that that is indeed the case' - is that persuasive?

Sam Norton said...

Greg O - I don't think you're right about the laws of nature point. The sense of the words 'natural' and 'supernatural', and therefore of 'laws of nature' has changed over time. A theist can happily say that the 'laws of nature' are simply the observed regularities of God's consistent behaviour - which is pretty much standard before about 1200 AD, after which the understanding of God's activity in the world started to change, as a result of all the other theological changes at that time. So far as I can tell, someone like Aquinas would agree with Kyle against you on this.

Sam Norton said...

Stephen: "I do not say we know a priori what extraordinary is, Kyle. My point is we both know perfectly well what we are talking about, and the demand for a philosophical definition at this point is really just a device for raising dust."

How are you not guilty, here, of what you often accuse the theist of? We're simply asking you to be specific about what you're asserting, and you're responding with hand-waving. As Kyle intimates, these things are highly debatable, so why is the request for clarity being dismissed?

Sam Norton said...

"The fact that it is deeply puzzling why the rescued party would go to their deaths defending beliefs that they knew not to be true, and no less puzzling how they could collectively have become deceived or deluded about a miraculous sixth islander, still leaves us largely clueless about what really happened."

So, essentially, we're back to the Humean point about the implausibility of the 'miraculous' - which is different to the argument about the original existence of Jesus, which doesn't involve any miraculous claims.

I think this is an interesting thought-experiment by the way.

Steven Carr said...

SAM
We're simply asking you to be specific about what you're asserting....

CARR
So theists never assert that what Jesus did was extraordinary?

And if somebody claims that these were extraordinary events, theists say 'Huh? I don't understand. Could you explain why on earth you think walking on water is anything out of the ordinary?'

Brian said...

Could you explain why on earth you think walking on water is anything out of the ordinary?'

To which a Christian replies, well, if God could create the world, and all that entails, and Jesus is God, then why would walking on water be a biggy?

To which I request, show that God exists. If there's a possibility that God doesn't exist, i.e. suppose there were a God, then God, being necessary, doesn't exist. In any case, Plantigan reformed epistemlogy won't work, because it doesn't deal with truth, only with what is warranted. It doesn't tell us if God exists or not. In the end, that's the only question that matters. All else is tangled web. Rationally, there's no reason to suppose that God exists, and there's no reason to suppose that any feeling of God precludes a mundane explanation. The evidence is just not extraordinary, it's not even ordinary, it's worthless.

wombat said...

Even if you weaken the "extraordinary" claim to simply "very rare" doesn't the skeptical argument still stand?

If instead of claiming to have fairies at the bottom of the garden I claim to have seen a very rare animal - say a Siberian white tiger - it is still less plausible than a claim than having seen a dog. While it is true that additional context would clarify matters (my garden is not in Siberia, it is not next to a zoo). It's almost a definition of a Siberian White tiger that it is pretty uncommon in any context, and similarly that a garden does not often contain such.

Greg O said...

Brian - I'm a bit confused by "If there's a possibility that God doesn't exist, i.e. suppose there were a God, then God, being necessary, doesn't exist." Is the argument here:

Possibly, God does not exist.

But if God exists, he is a necessary being.

It is not possible that a necessary being does not exist.

Therefore, God does not exist.

I'm not sure I've come across that argument before. (I'm not sure it's successful either, and I'm probably too shaky on modal logic to really pick the bones out of it, but it's an interesting attempt to force the theist into an 'absolute certainty or nothing' position.)

Anonymous said...

Would you need them to prove the existence of the sixth islander beyond reasonable (or any?) doubt before you gave their beliefs credence? Or would the balance of probabilites (more likely than not likely) do?

Stephen Law said...

Sam

You are engaging in "the way of questions" again...

see:http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2009/02/how-to-bullshit-way-of-questions.html

OK, I'll play. Something sufficient to qualify as extraordinary, in the required sense, would an event that involved a violation of the laws of nature.

If you say, but if I define the laws of nature as which God wills, then a miracle is not such a violation! Ha! I say:

You can define a law how you like. But I define a law of nature as a regularity that holds throughout nature (whether or not as a result of God's will) - unless suspended, on some specific occasion, by e.g. God.

So, my claim is that the claim that there has been an event out of line with such (perhaps God ordained) laws of nature would require (ceteris paribus) much stronger evidence to support it than a claim that involves no suspension of regularities.

Here's a question for you. Do you require much stronger evidence before you believe such testimony as:

Atlantis exists (I have been there)
My wife has psychic powers
My dog can walk on water

Than such testimony as:

There exist a shed at the bottom of my garden
My wife has brown hair
My dog can eat two bowls of food at a time.

I am assuming you do require stronger evidence than just my and (and perhaps my friends) testimony for the former claims, right? But not the latter. If so, why?

What is it about the former claims that means the evidential bar must be set higher?

Greg O said...

Sam - a point that occurs to me as I read Stephen's last post is this:

Suppose we did adopt the view that both perfectly everyday events and remarkable 'miraculous' events are the result of divine action. God causes the Earth to orbit the sun, and causes the sick to be healed in just the same way; the natural/supernatural distinction is basically bunkum.

OK - now what? Someone makes the claim that she poured herself a bowl of cornflakes for breakfast; someone else makes the claim that he asked in Jesus's name that his bowl be filled with cornflakes, and lo! it was filled with cornflakes.

Now, in a sense neither event is more remarkable than the other; it's no more 'difficult' for God to cause cornflakes to appear from nowhere than it is for him to nourish crops, cause cornflakes tipped from a packet to head downwards into a bowl, etc.

Still, surely one of these claims looks 'extraordinary', and cries out for extraordinary evidence, while the other just doesn't.

Stephen Law said...

Greg O

You said:

As suggested in my previous comment, it seems plausible that a sceptical social psychologist, or cult expert, or whatever, might (sticking with the islander case) regard the claim that the sixth islander is wholly fictional as 'extraordinary' in the sense that it requires us to accept the existence of anomalous social and psychological forces, something for which (by hypothesis) we have no evidence and which in fact flies in the face of current knowledge.

My reply is: but the many miraculous claims, unsubstantiated, already give us grounds for supposing that some such forces might be in play. Whatever accounts for those (I assume false) extraordinary claims being made may, then, account for the mundane claims too. Once we know that a very efective bullshit generating mechanism is likely operating (even if we don't know what it is) everything becomes dubious...

Kyle said...

There are of course examples of people believing extraordinary claims on the basis of non-extraordinary evidence all the time.

When 12 year olds are taught in school that all physical objects are made up of electrons protons and neutrons they usually come to believe that this is true based purely on their teachers testimony.

However, from the students point of view, this claim is extraordinary. How can it be that a table is made up of loads of little balls flying around in space? It certainly doesn't seem that way.

Are these students (and most of the adult population) irrational to believe such things?

Greg O said...

Stephen - you said:

"Whatever accounts for those (I assume false) extraordinary claims being made may, then, account for the mundane claims too."

You're right; it *may* account for the mundane claims. Equally, it may not. As a matter of fact, it may or may not be the case that the very same bullshit-generating mechanism that could cause someone to believe that their dead friend Bob could heal the sick could equally well cause them to believe that they used to have a friend called Bob. All I'm saying is that *it's an empirical question* - intuition won't settle it, and an expert like a social psychologist might very well have something to say on the matter.

Suppose we had a single shipwreck survivor who claimed he used to live with his wife, but she was replaced by an identical-looking impostor after a time and later died. Intuitively, we might think 'Well, anyone nutty enough to believe his wife was replaced by an identical-looking impostor is easily nutty enough to believe he had a wife when he didn't' - but a psychologist might recognise a textbook case of the Capgras delusion

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capgras_delusion

and be inclined to conclude that the wife really existed.

Stephen Law said...

hi Greg - so if there is, for all we know, a fair chance the bullshit generating mechanism is generating the mundane claims too - and we don't know what the chance is, then we ought to be fairly sceptical about the mundane claims too surely. Remember, I am saying the miracle claims are pretty obviously bullshit, but the mundane claims - we just don't know.

Stephen Law said...

Kyle, you are throwing dust in my face.

Clearly, you won't take my word for it that:

my dog walks on water
my wife is psychic
i have been to Atlantis

but you will that:

my dog likes biscuits,
my wife has brown hair
I have been to Wales

what is it about the former claims that leads you to raise the evidential bar much much higher than for the former?

Answer that question, and you have answered the question "what does extraordinary mean here".

Clearly you already are operating with the principle that the phrase "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is intended to capture. You apply the principle habitually, on a daily basis, I imagine. Yet, when it's applied to your own wacky beliefs, suddenly you question it, and start asking: "But what does extraordinary mean?" etc.

Given you do undoubtedly do apply the principle elsewhere, this is, surely, an intellectually dishonest strategy.

But anyway - the scientific theory that physical objects are mostly empty space (for example) is "extraordinary" in the sense that it is counter-intuitive. For that reason, if I know nothing of science, and have no reason to think you know anything about it either, your assertion that it's true would leave me rather sceptical.

However, there is extraordinarily good scientific evidence that it is true. So scientists are warranted in believing it. And I am warranted in trusting the scientists, given I have very, very good evidence that they are using very reliable methods to investigate the universe, etc.

Kids are a different case. Is a 12 year old warranted in believing whatever her teacher tells her? Maybe. In which case she is warranted in believing her teacher if her teacher tells her there are fairies at the bottom of the garden and Jesus rose from the dead.

But you're not. Obviously.

Greg O said...

Stephen - you said: "if there is, for all we know, a fair chance the bullshit generating mechanism is generating the mundane claims too... then we ought to be fairly sceptical about the mundane claims too".

While I'm inclined to agree, and at the risk of labouring a point, I can only draw your attention to that "if" and the complementary, implicit "if not" which follows unacknowledged in its wake.

If there *isn't* a fair chance that the bullshit generating mechanism is generating the mundane claims too - e.g. because we have good reason to think that the BGM in question is a well-documented, well-understood process by which isolated communities come to embellish deceased leaders' biographies with miraculous features - the picture changes completely.

Returning to the Capgras case:

Yes, our starting point could be "if there is, for all we know, a fair chance the bullshit generating mechanism is generating the claim that the wife existed in addition to the claim that she was replaced by identical-looking impostor... then we ought to be fairly sceptical about the former claim".

But surely if, on the contrary, all the features of our survivor's story suggest that he suffers from a well-documented, well-understood syndrome which is known to generate the false belief that one's (real!) spouse has been replaced by an identical-looking impostor, the balance of probabilities shifts substantially in favour of the wife's reality. (Assuming there's no other, equally well-documented syndrome that fits the 'imaginary wife' hypothesis just as well, of course.)

(Thanks for this opportunity to engage with you, by the way. I'm starting a PhD in October and this is all good practice... if nothing else I'm having to overcome my natural reluctance to issue potentially dumb challenges to people whose opinions I respect!)

wombat said...

Kyle - As a 12 year old or thereabouts I was entertained by a series of demonstrations, films and experiments which illustrated the electrons, protons etc. My teachers also explained some of the historical background to these experiments and explained why they served to eliminate certain other possibilities. e.g the "plum pudding model" of the atom.

As to the claim that most materials are made up of little balls why is this extraordinary to a 12 year old who has been making things out of Lego bricks for some years at this point?

M. Tully said...

CARR,

"Because there is documentary, photographic Evidence that they are literary creations - plagiarised stories..."

Carr,

Great article! I've booked marked it.

My point is that rational people shouldn't cede the burden of proof. The rule of thumb that the burden of proof belongs to the one making the positive claim, isn't an arbitrary construct. It is based on demonstrated success about explaining the past and predicting the future.

Stephen's post does that in sort of a subtle way. By presenting a counter example, he leaves it up to the audience to draw the logical conclusions.

My argument is, he shouldn't. He should come right out and say unless you present convincing evidence for highly improbable hypotheses, you're wrong.

And that is based on a large body of evidence.

I guess what I'm looking for is not why anyone shouldn't believe in a specific hypothesis, but more of why an empirical method is most (by a huge margin) likely to lead to a correct hypothesis.

In the end, people really do gravitate to what works. As they should. Why are naturalists still so reticent to go with that?

M. Tully said...

I guess my actual point is, "We have all the data on our side, why are we still arguing pre-enlightenment sophisms?"

Well, my hypothesis is, because we have chosen to argue them.

If we argue epistemology, we rationally win. Every time. Let's argue that. The answer to the theism question follows naturally after that. It won't even take effort.

Not only that, fundamentalist theism is only one of the many ills that empiricism has the potential to mitigate? Aids denialism anyone?

Sam Norton said...

Stephen, re: the way of questions, surely you'd accept it is sometimes legitimate (eg Socrates) and therefore there's a need to distinguish between legitimate uses and illegitimate. I still think this is legitimate, so I'm glad you're running with it.

I'm happy to accept that there is a different degree of evidence required for extraordinary claims (eg existence of Atlantis vs shed at bottom of garden). We disagree about where the existence of Jesus fits on the spectrum of possibilities.

I think you are eliding the distinction between extraordinary and 'violation-of-natural-law-extraordinary', and as a consequence you're smuggling in some assumptions that need to be brought out into the open air. Consider: winning the National Lottery is an extraordinarily unlikely event, and yet people win it on a regular basis. So if someone tells me that they have won the lottery I am liable to be sceptical until they show me the ticket, or a letter from the lottery board, or whatever. Something can be very unlikely without being impossible.

So far as I can tell you see the 'violation-of-natural-law-extraordinary' events as impossible - or as near to being impossible as to be not worth the difference. From such a perspective there is no equivalent of showing the lottery ticket because the existence of such a ticket has already been ruled to be impossible, as part of the definition of 'violation-of-natural-law-extraordinary'.

To bring this back to the question of the existence of an historical Jesus, it seems to me that your argument implies that the vast majority of humanity has been deceived - which is an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence. It's not impossible in a 'violation-of-natural-law-extraordinary' sense, but it is something that is radically unlikely, and what you need to do is 'show the winning ticket'. I really don't think a Humean approach to miracles suffices.

Steven Carr said...

SAM
it seems to me that your argument implies that the vast majority of humanity has been deceived - which is an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence.

CARR
Not it isn't.

The vast majority of humanity has been deceived about a lot of things.

That is just a fact.

That is why there are quiz programmes on TV, and why not everybody wins the million pound prizes on offer.

It is hardly an extraordinary claim to say that the vast majority of humanity can have a mistaken view of history.

M. Tully said...

Sam,

"I'm happy to accept that there is a different degree of evidence required for extraordinary claims (eg existence of Atlantis vs shed at bottom of garden). We disagree about where the existence of Jesus fits on the spectrum of possibilities."

Glad to hear you accept that difference. So do I.

Without miracles, what does the fact that an itinerant Jewish preacher existed in the Levant 2kya have to do with anything of relevance today?

Without extraordinary evidence that's what you got. Another Confucius. Not that there is anything wrong with another Confucius, but I have to evaluate their mandates the same way; ancient philosophy, not divine certainty.

Dick said...

The trouble with much of this conversation is that it follows a forensic route of isolating certain propositions from their context, determining whether (in a completely different context) they are 'extraordinary', and then deciding on their rationality (taking into account this perceived extraordinariness) without reference to their implications - leaving me to feel (whatever conclusion is reached) "so what?"

The people in question were not isolated islanders but part of a people with a 1500 year history in which truth was spoken about, argued about, acted out using a different language : religious, mythical, liturgical language that integrates 'body, mind and spirit'. The whole account of Jesus is cross-referenced to that 1500 year old discourse in virtually every link. What seems to have been problematic was not resurrection (Jesus is told at one point that some people are thinking he was John the Baptist resurrected) but that the Chosen One should have been *executed*.

There is a fundamental assumption here that people can detach themselves from all context, then in some "culture-free" intellectual isolation make purely rational judgements about various propositions, then work out what the implications of their conclusions are and start acting on them.

That is not how the world works. The idea that a philosopher can stand 'outside God' (where "God" = "Ultimate Reality") is flawed. One can discuss whether God is 'existent' or not (once you've defined what it means for something to "exist") but, personally,it seems a rather pointless discussion. More important is whether reality coheres around any particular cluster-points of meaning which are more worthy of shaping our lives around than others, because they make for a better world.

Pure intellectual rationalism locates all meaning in a discourse about objectively provable realities - it's located ultimately in human mind. Admittedly we can never see the world other that through human experience, but to say that human Mind is the only ultimate reality is a step too far for me.

Stephen Law said...

Dick

That is the sort of general post-modern sceptical cobblers people often start appealing to when they realize rational argument is running against them.

It's really a version of what I call going nuclear. See here:

http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2007/12/letter-to-ibrahim-nuclear-option.html

Stephen Law said...

Also Dick, whether or not 1st century Palestinians thought miracle claims "extraordinary" is irrelevant. The fact that, say, a friend of yours considers ghosts and ghouls commonplace and not "extraordinary" does not mean you should then take his word for it that there's a ghost living in his house (as you would if he said a lodger lived in his house). Clearly, whatever your friend thinks is irrelevant.

But actually, even first century Palestinians would consider walking on water etc etc. extraordinary in the relevant sense. They wouldn't just yawn and say "uh, another guy walking on water - big deal" would they?

Greg O said...

Good old post-modernists. You've got to love the way they say things like "That is not how the world works" with cast-iron certainty, demanding that all rational people from every culture everywhere should accept the Immutable Truth of their own account of how the world *does* work - then proceed without a hint of irony to explain that in fact there *is* no Truth about how the world works really because it's all, like, relative to the, like, culturally normativational pseudo-perspectivity of, like, transformative discursional intertextualities, and stuff.

I sometimes wonder if the best way to respond to post-modernist arguments is just to say "well, from your cultural perspective as a member of the post-modernist community I'm sure that's right - but surely you can't be expecting me to detach myself from my own cultural perspective and agree with you?"

Andrew Louis said...

Stephen,
Relative to Dicks point (and the nuclear argument):

If one would agree that there is ultimately no non-circular logical argument with which to appeal to for justification of a certain world view, than certainly Dick is spot on when he suggests, “More important is whether reality coheres around any particular cluster-points of meaning which are more worthy of shaping our lives around than others, because they make for a better world.”

He seems to also be pointing to another phenomenon of (let’s call it realist thinking), which tends to consider rational inquiry (or scientific inquiry) as a method of finding out more and more about the same objects – which I tend to consider one of the dogmas of realism.

We may be tempted to consider the following statements about Aristotle relative to Newton and/or current physics; “Aristotle said mostly false things about motion”, or “Aristotle said mostly true things about what HE called motion, but we don’t believe there is any such thing.” Or we might want to say, “Here Aristotle goofed, even in his own terms.” Or, “here we have a statement which would be true if anything in Aristotelian physics were, but which, alas, refers to something which does not exist and thus is false.” What we’re trying to accomplish here is to distinguish between Aristotelian falsehoods which are the result of the nonexistence of what he was talking about, and those which result from his misuse of his own theoretical apparatus (the same goes for the islanders, and the same goes for the apostles). However in both cases we’re making a judgment of a particular system of thought relative to the dogma of another system of thought (or as Dick stated, “There is a fundamental assumption here that people can detach themselves from all context….) – on the one hand, assuming we’re talking about the same things, he completely misconstrued and/or misrepresented the nature of motion. On the other hand, he was talking about ghosts and fairies that we can’t seem connect with any phenomenon by today’s standards. In both cases we neglect whatever practical purpose his dialogue about motion served at the time and instead substitute it with the practical purposes we have today – thus it is by those standards we make a call.

This get’s back to Dick’s point, rather than attempt to establish some sort of authority, whether it be God or rationality, we should be more concerned with what ideas, methods of analysis, ways of thinking etc., make for a better world.

I would tend to agree with you that the Palestinians, having viewed a man walking on water, would have thought it extraordinary. But whether or not they would have found this extraordinary is irrelevant (at least to me). What I find relevant isn’t whether or not what the people wrote in the bible 2000 years ago is true or untrue by today’s standard, but rather what did they mean by it, how is it relevant to us, and is there something to gain by following in the ways of people such as Christ; withstanding all the miracles.

M. Tully said...

Which is it Dick?

See here is pomo's fatal flaw. Dick, I'm going to quote passages from back to back paragraphs that you wrote:

"There is a fundamental assumption here that people can detach themselves from all context, then in some "culture-free" intellectual isolation make purely rational judgements about various propositions"

and

"That is not how the world works."

Well, if it is all culturally driven, if there is no objective reality, how do you presume to claim, "That is not how the world works."

You obviously can't know how the world works (by your own epistemology), so what gives you the warrant to state that some line of reasoning is NOT, "how the world works."

It's like the ancient argument for rationality. If you argue against rationality, you must do that from a point of being irrational. If you're being irrational, why argue at all?

Stephen Law said...

I have slightly lost track of who I have and have not responded to at this point. There has been a huge amount of smokescreen produced though. Just so we don't lose sight of the issue, it is this:

If I tell you my wife has psychic powers and can raise people from the dead, and can walk on water, you certainly won't take my (or even my family's) word for it. Testimony is not nearly good enough to justify you in believing these claims.

But then why is Gospel testimony that Jesus did these things good enough to justify you in believing these things?

Notice I have not used the words "miracle" extraordinary" etc. to set up this challenge, so don't generate smokescreen by asking for philosophically watertight definitions of these terms, etc.

Notice it won't do to say - the Jesus testimony comes from a culture in which belief in such amazing actions was far more widespread - it was part of their culture.

That hardly makes the testimony more credible, does it? If anything, it makes it even less credible!

Greg O said...

Andrew (or Dick?) - help me out on this. You suggest that:

"rather than attempt to establish some sort of authority, whether it be God or rationality, we should be more concerned with what ideas, methods of analysis, ways of thinking etc., make for a better world."

You also said:

"What I find relevant isn’t whether or not what the people wrote in the bible 2000 years ago is true or untrue by today’s standard, but rather what did they mean by it, how is it relevant to us, and is there something to gain by following in the ways of people such as Christ; withstanding all the miracles."

The idea here seems to be: rather than worry about whether certain claims made in the bible are 'true' - as if there were some 'culture-free', universal standard of truth available - we should instead ask whether adopting a world-view based on such claims might make for a better world.

(I hope that's a fair statement of the point you and Dick are making, at least so far as it relates specifically to Christian claims?)

OK - now, what follows might look facetious, since some of it just seems absurd (to me, anyway). But honestly, I'm just trying to take your argument seriously and suggest something about what the implications seem to be.

Are you saying that, in assessing the relevance to us of Christian claims - in making a judgment, that is, about the ways in which a world-view based on those claims might tend to produce a better world - questions like the following are just not relevant:

(NB 'true' can here be taken as shorthand for 'true by today's standards', if you like.)

* Is it true that Jesus was an incarnation of an all-knowing and perfectly good being, and that his moral teachings therefore have a special authority?

* Is it true that people who believe in Jesus will experience eternal bliss after their death, while people who do not will experience eternal suffering?

* Is it true that Jesus is still alive, and if called upon will cure anyone who believes in him of any disease?

This leaves me baffled. Let's assume we do all want to adopt ways of thinking and acting that tend to make a better world. That's our agreed aim. OK - so, when it comes to public health policy (say), should we give more weight to religiously-inpired testimony and focus our resources on the promotion and delivery of faith healing; or should we listen to the scientists and focus our resources on research and medical treatments? In educating our children, should we be concerned primarily with enabling them to flourish during their brief time on earth, or with ensuring that they do not suffer eternal torment after their deaths?

Since, in your view, the truth of claims about eternal life, the power of God to heal etc. is (I think?) just not relevant, on what basis do you think we should make judgments in such cases?

Kyle said...

Sorry I haven't been able to reply sooner.

Stephen,

You are presenting a very simplistic view of testimony. You seem to be suggesting that one should consider the content of the testimony alone, and decide upon that basis what evidence is required.

Testimony involves much more than that, you must consider circumstances and your relationship to the testifier.

Clearly, you won't take my word for it that:

my dog walks on water
my wife is psychic
i have been to Atlantis

but you will that:

my dog likes biscuits,
my wife has brown hair
I have been to Wales

what is it about the former claims that leads you to raise the evidential bar much much higher than for the former?


This sounds a bit proof by example. I agree with you that the principle holds in a large number of cases, but you have given no reason to think that it always holds.

Also, the principle sounds more like a slogan than a principle. It seems implausible that extraordinary has the same meaning in the case of testimony and in the case of evidence.

I'm not trying to say that extraordinary has no meaning, or that I don't have an intuitive grasp of what it means. But it seems like a very vague term, and it is not clear that it plays an epistemic role.

You seem to be treating extraordinary like it was a property of reports, so that we can divide up objectively extraordinary and ordinary reports, just like we can divide up reports that occurred this century into one group, and reports that occurred before that into another group.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Kyle, you said:

"You are presenting a very simplistic view of testimony. You seem to be suggesting that one should consider the content of the testimony alone, and decide upon that basis what evidence is required.

Testimony involves much more than that, you must consider circumstances and your relationship to the testifier."

Not so. I would acknowledge many things need to be taken into account in assessing testimony. But that does not mean that P1 is not justified.

Let me put it this way. Consider the claims that:

Someone I know can walk on water

Someone I know can raise the dead

These are claims we do not, as a rule accept on the basis of testimony (unlike many other claims). It matters not whether I make these claims, or a scientist, or a New Age mystic, or a remote tribal person, or someone living in the Elizabethan age, etc etc. Not even if it is someone whose opinion I trust as much as I trust anyone's. I won't just take their word for it. Indeed, I'll remain sceptical for now. And so, I am sure, will you.

Until we get to the Jesus testimony, when suddenly, you suppose different standards apply.

Indeed, you insist the onus is on me to show that different standards don't apply in the Jesus case.

But that's wrong, surely. If the Jesus case is the exception to the general rule, the onus is on you to explain why it is an exception, not on me to explain why it isn't.

Kyle said...

If the Jesus case is the exception to the general rule, the onus is on you to explain why it is an exception, not on me to explain why it isn't.

That assumes you have established that there is a general rule.

1. Your argument seems to be enumerative induction. You amass lots of examples of the principle holding, then conclude from that that it holds for all cases. However, this simply begs the question against the theist. If the the Jesus case is an exception then you have no argument for your general principle, so you cannot use it against the Jesus case.

It is like gathering lots of instances of white swans to prove that 'All swans are white', and then claiming that an apparent case of a black swan cannot really be a swan because that would violate the rule.

Perhaps, you can say that all the examples of testimony you can think of support the general rule, but I do not see why that should place any obligation upon the theist.

2. Also, there are cases where people rationally believe that two cases are different, even though they cannot say why. For example, most people would say that diverting a trolley cart from the line with 5 people to the one with only one person is morally acceptable, whereas killing someone and harvesting their organs to save five people is not acceptable. These two cases seem analogous yet must of us judge them differently. This seems perfectly rational, even if we are not able to say why they are different.

3. Your general rule does not seem very general. A general rule that does not take into account all the relevant information, such as context and who is speaking seems like a poor candidate for being general.

When i say that I think there is a difference in the Jesus case to a madman claiming he can walk on water, it is not as if it is obvious that no such difference could be found. After all, testimony is a complex, and at times confusing thing. The content is not the only, nor even the main thing that should be considered in any epistemology of testimony.

Steven Carr said...

KYLE
It is like gathering lots of instances of white swans to prove that 'All swans are white', and then claiming that an apparent case of a black swan cannot really be a swan because that would violate the rule.

CARR
Actually it is Christian apologists like Plantinga who have taught us that we can rationally believe that all swans are white , even if we have seen a black swan.

For Plantinga has taught us that there is no logical contradiction between the two statements
1) All swans are white
2) I can see with my eyes a black swan.

We simply posit a logically possible world where my eyes deceive me, and there is suddenly no logical contradiction.

Isn't Christian apologetics wonderful!


And the Christian 'testimony' to the miracles of Jesus is the sort of Lies and Frauds that Christians routinely dismiss out of hand when other religions have tried to palm off lies as facts.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Kyle. It is enumerative induction, yes. And there is nothing wrong with that, of course.

The claim: I know someone who walked on water, when considered in every other case I (and, so far, you) can think of, is not accepted on testimony alone (not withstanding the fact that, as you say, content alone is not the only thing relevant to the reliability of testimony).

The onus is on you to show that when it is said about Jesus, this is an exception to the rule.

Saying "but it just is" is not enough - identify what is different about the Jesus case.

The analogy with the black swan case fails, because we can be shown the blackness of the swan, you can't identify what it about the Jesus case that makes it an exception to the rule. Indeed, the only people who think it is an exception are Christians (and not even all of them, notice). This suggests that your intuitions are being distorted by your faith, doesn't it?

I suggest prima face, P1 is true. Your judgements and mine are in line with it in all cases considered so far, until we get to the Jesus case, when suddenly you say "Hold on I think this is an exception", yet cannot say why.

Imagine a wacko saying, Oh yes, the claim "I know someone who can walk on water" is not something I would accept on someone's say so, except when Jack, leader of my cult, says it. That's an exception to the rule. "Why?" Er. I can't say. But so what? The onus is on you to prove it ISN'T an exception! Ha!

I suggest this person would clearly be very seriously deluded. Their mind is being warped by their adherence to the cult.

Has it ever occurred to you that yours might be? For this is exactly what you are saying.

Kyle said...

Plantinga has taught us that there is no logical contradiction between the two statements
1) All swans are white
2) I can see with my eyes a black swan.


Where did he teach that? There is no possible world in which 1 and 2 are both true. If your eyes are deceiving you, then 2 is false.

you can't identify what it about the Jesus case that makes it an exception to the rule.

So what?

Plenty of people can't explain why they accept one testimony over another in plenty of cases.

Also, few people can identify any relevant difference between between the two moral examples, but that doesn't place any burden on them.

You are arguing in a circle here. You are using examples of rational acceptance of testimony to prove a general rule, then using that rule to decide what counts as a rational acceptance of testimony.

Either you need to produce a difference proof of your rule, or show that the Jesus case is not rational without relying on the rule.

Stephen Law said...

Kyle - are you responding to me or Steven C? If me, your response is off target and can explain why...

Kyle said...

That was to you Stephen.

Stephen Law said...

"You are arguing in a circle here. You are using examples of rational acceptance of testimony to prove a general rule, then using that rule to decide what counts as a rational acceptance of testimony."

Bit of straw man here Kyle. I don't claim to "prove" a rule. I say a certain rule is prima facie plausible. My way of showing this is to show that it fits our actual way of assessing testimony. Including your way of assessing testimony - until, crucially, we get to the Jesus case. I went through various examples in which it fits. You have failed to come up with a single counter-example. So, the case for prima facie plausibility has been made.

You say:

"Either you need to produce a difference proof of your rule, or show that the Jesus case is not rational without relying on the rule"

Again, I don't offer "proof" of the principle, rather I suggest the principle or rule is prima facie plausible. Which it is, because as I say it fits with how we (including you) do assess testimony. When someone says "I know someone who can walk on water" neither you nor I take a person's word for it, whether dealing with friends, relatives, scientists, mystics, moderns, ancients, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. until we get to the claim made about Jesus when suddenly you so "Oh, except here! Now it's good enough just to take their word for it!"

Yeh, right. The suggestion that as a rule we don't just take someone's word for it that they know someone who walks on water, clearly isn't prima facie plausible at all. What was I thinking...

Giford said...

'lo all, scuse a late comment please.

I'm not sold on the idea that we would have sufficient reason to strongly conclude that there was a sixth islander here.

It seems that our options are:

1) There was no sixth islander; the whole thing is a lie/delusion.

2) There was a sixth islander, but the five islanders are lying/mistaken.

Either scenario could give the result observed, both seem roughly equally plausible (if anything, I would say the second is more likely). Whilst this certainly casts doubt on the existence of a Sixth Islander / Jesus, I don't think it allows us to confidently claim he didn't exist.

As another island-related analogy - most people would say it is 'unclear' whether John Frum existed, despite his connection to implausible claims:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Frum

Gif

Stephen Law said...

Hi Giford

you say: "I don't think it allows us to confidently claim he didn't exist. "

yes I agree - we can't tell either way. we should be skeptical either way.

nb to be skeptical re X is not necessarily to say X is not true - just that one is not yet convinced it is.

Kyle said...

I think this discussion has taken a few turns that are obscuring some things.

Firstly, we are talking about cases of people claiming that someone has walked on water. I'm not sure that I'm aware of many cases outside the Bible, or derived from the Bible. From the way you describe it, it sounds like its a regular occurrence for you.

But despite questions about how much evidence there is for rules like "claims about people walking on water require evidence", it is doubtful that enumerative induction is an acceptable method. Goodman has talk that not every property is projectible, and I imagine it would be easy to come up with wacky examples if we permit properties like "being a claim about X".

So, I think it is preferable to discuss P1, rather than narrowing the field.

Also, you have claimed that I evaluate using the rule in most cases. That is simply not true. There is a difference between using a rule to evaluate a claim, and evaluating in a way consistent with the claim.

If someone tells me that they have walked on water, and I ask for evidence, then I am evaluating in a way consistent with the rule, but I'm also evaluating in a way consistent with the following rule:

Always ask for evidence on a Friday.

Also, I'm not clear what you are claiming the status of your rule is? You say that it is not proved, but plausible. This sounds like a rule of thumb, something helpful. If that is it, then I agree with you. But you need something stronger for your argument.

Stephen Law said...

Kyle - this boils down to you raising the skeptical problem of induction. This is a version of going nuclear:

http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2007/12/letter-to-ibrahim-nuclear-option.html

You use induction constantly - indeed trust your life to it. Except when someone gives you an argument to a conclusion you don't want to accept when you pull out the new riddle of induction!

My argument is against those who claim that the existence of Jesus is established beyond reasonable doubt by the historical evidence, and in particular, the NT docs.

As I said in the post, my aim is not to "prove" we should be sceptical using the argument of which P1 is a premise, but to use the argument as a challenge - if the argument is valid (it is) and based on prima facie plausible premises, then those who think Jesus' existence is established beyond reasonable doubt need to refute it.

So, for the above purpose, P1 only needs to be shown to be plausible.

Your comment about not knowing about many actual cases of people walking on water is irrelevant, as an evidential principle applies to not just real cases but possible ones too, and can be tested against hypothetical scenarios. In every *possible* scenario I can envisage, we do not take someone's word for it that they know someone who can walk on water. P1 does not just fit actual cases, but any *possible* case I can think of. Or anyone else can think of, so far. That makes it prima facie plausible.

Of course you assert the Jesus case is different, but without providing any explanation or justification as to why the principle does not apply in that case. That is called "special pleading": (from wiki) "Essentially, this involves someone attempting to cite something as an exemption to a generally accepted rule, principle, etc. without justifying the exemption."

Kyle said...

Kyle - this boils down to you raising the skeptical problem of induction.

I'm not employing scepticism here. I'm employing the lessons learned from the new riddle of induction. That is, that not every regularity justifies the inductive inference.

Here are some reasons why I take Jesus case a bit differently:

1. Jesus is God, so it is easier to believe that he can walk on water
2. It is reported in a book that I believe to be inspired by God

I am also inclined not to believe other claims about people walking on water because I believe that was a one off event.

Stephen Law said...

"That is, that not every regularity justifies the inductive inference."

Yes, of course. But that doesn't mean we don't have a prima facie plausible principle. We do.

So now you are at least trying to explain why the Jesus case is an exception to the principle. That's step in right direction, I think, rather than just insisting it's not prima facie plausible.

But now notice that I am attacking a specific target - that there is historical evidence (many would say, even just in the NT docs) sufficient to place the existence of/miracles of Jesus beyond reasonable doubt.

To say - "Ah, well, we are justified in believing in the existence/miracles of Jesus solely on the basis of this historical testimony, because Jesus is God, and because God says so in this book" is actually to supplement the historical evidence with a number of (ridiculous) assumptions. Including, crucially, the assumption that Jesus exists. You are now just *presupposing* Jesus exists.

Presuppose that if you like. But then don't pretend, as so many historians do, that his existence has been established solely on the basis of the historical evidence. That, remember, is the issue we are discussing.

Dick said...

hard drive failure cut me out of the loop for a few days . . .

Those who took me for a post-modernist way back in the comments got me wrong : that's certainly *not* where I'm at. I am clear that 'meaning clusters' around Jesus to such an extent that the figure of Jesus offers the only possibility, not of some propositional truth based on theoretical arguments about whether he existed or not, or walked on water or not (which cannot be rationally proved), but the only possibility of 'eternal life' - that is, life freed of the dread of nothingness and a deep sense of 'grace'. As a Christian, I have no idea whether when I die I go to a life of eternal bliss. I have no idea whether Jesus "actually" walked on water, or was raised from the dead. 'Belief' is not a tick against a propositional scientific statement. It seems incredibly unlikely - but the fundamental miracle is that there is anything at all. That anything exists from nothing is so awe-inspiring that walking on water and raising the dead seems small beer.

God is a word for the creative, non-existent nothingness that was in the beginning and that still holds all things in existence. God, by and large, makes no difference to anything. God is why there is anything in the first place.

The funny thing is that when people trust God, give their lives to Jesus, pray &c, improbable things happen. Not 2000 years ago - now. Remarkable healing and transformation happens all the time in quite a lot of Christian communities in Britain. Many Christians would be quite bemused by the idea that miracles didn't happen 2000 years ago : they experience them *now*. That's what I meant when I said "that's not how the world works". I wasn't proposing a single rational theory to contradict other theories - I was referring to the experiences people have.

You can explain them away, but for me (as Marx said) 'the point is not to explain it but to change it'. There's enough humanly-created poverty and misery in the world not to reject out of hand seemingly irrational experiences which bring hope, healing, reconciliation, justice, peace &c to millions. Instead of trying to prove miracles don't happen, let's try to get a few happening.

Stephen Law said...

Dick you said: "God is a word for the creative, non-existent nothingness that was in the beginning and that still holds all things in existence. God, by and large, makes no difference to anything. God is why there is anything in the first place."

In which case your view is indistinguishable from that of most atheists. See:

http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2007/03/problem-of-evil-mystery-move.html

As I said in that post:

But now here's my question: what is the difference between the atheist who admits there is indeed a fascinating mystery about why there is anything at all, a mystery to which they do not have the answer, and Vernon's theist who says there's a mystery about why there is anything at all, and calls this mystery "God"?

Surely the difference is entirely trivial and semantic?

Dick said...

In one sense - the 'rational scientific' sense - I guess there isn't much difference at all between the (Christian) theist and the atheist who nonetheless finds themself amazed 'that there is anything at all'. Perhaps just that the Christian theist who sees the universe itself as a miracle may be rather more open to the possibility of 'miracle' than the 'rational scientist' who has ruled miracles out.

But I don't think the difference is just semantic or trivial, because for me it's about the starting 'platform' for all human thinking : the departure platform on which all other thinking and response to the universe sits.

I've just joined the Green Party, and my reason for doing so is that I believe we are entering an era when the ground platform for all political science can no longer be e.g. class analysis or rational liberal democracy. Those things may be necessary too, but the basic platform needs to be the relationship between a (humanly-speaking, morally neutral) planet and the human race. I have lost the hope that anthropocentric thinking will save us. "Those who would save their life will lose it", I suppose. But as a Christian theist, I'm always wanting to push the thinking back even beyond the planet, even the physical universe : it's a matter of always reaching for a better perspective.

The practical, spiritual, behavioural difference is that I want to give my life to God and serve God, who is 'why anything exists' in the first place. The fact that this God is so utterly transcendent (I have a Calvinist background!) as to 'not exist' creates problems inasmuch as humans find it hard to resist the urge to 'put God in a box' of religion, and reduce God to a god - the superstitious nonsense that Richard Dawkins rightly criticises. But on the other hand, Christianity and Judaism contain within them such a powerful sense of the corruptibility of religions and deep scepticism about the gods (that resistance to idolatry) that sooner or later they continually reinvent themselves : as Jesus said, new wineskins are found for the new wine (which bursts the old wineskins). How it is that Christians worship an utterly transcendent God in an utterly contingent human being (Jesus) will have to wait for some other time! (But certainly Jesus's obscurity doesn't present a problem - rather, a necessary reminder to Christians not to put Jesus in a box too readily either!)

You're not entirely wrong to say the difference is semantic. But a word of caution here : the whole language of Christian theism is a vast interlocking symbolic language field that holds in one 'language' questions of transcendence, immanence, ethics, spirituality, rational thought ('wisdom') etc. etc. Rational scientific language has to restrict itself to what can be physically measured; that's its power, but also its weakness : in spiritual and aesthetic terms it's very arid. To one, like me, who inhabits a religious thought-world, much of the discussion I find on blogsites feels arid and rather pointless, sometimes negative and cynical, lacking in hope.

So although the difference may be semantic, in the end it is absolutely not trivial for the human race.

ignatz said...

Speaking of mysterious islanders, this might be a distraction, but it touches on some of the same questions.

Fifteen years ago I was living in Indonesia, and traveled with friends to an island called Flores, just past Komodo. It's basically a volcanic ridge, with lots of remote grassy uplands. We were on the backpacking trail, but speaking in Indonesian to locals, they said that there were still villages up there that hadn't really been touched by modern life. We joked about cannibals.

The older ones then explained how, in their grandparents' generation, there used to be little dwarf people on the island. Not humans. They hadn't bothered anyone very often, but now and again they had raided villages, with stories of them trying to take babies, maybe for food. They hadn't been seen now for around a hundred years.

I was fascinated by this myth, but it didn't seem to fulfill most of the cultural needs that myths do. They were matter-of-fact about it. There was no supernatural element to it. They weren't claiming that these creatures still existed - no-one in living memory had seen one. They joked that they sometimes now used stories of the dwarf people stealing babies to frighten the kids into behaving. They thought the "little brothers and sisters" had died out, and were sad about that.

So, without any empirical evidence and nothing but oral history to go on, these people firmly believed in the recent existence of a species of dwarf humans on Flores.

Ten years later, of course, archaeologists turned up remains of the Flores "hobbit", a three-foot humanoid, dated to as recent as 13,000 years old - contemporaneous with modern humans.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_floresiensis

Debate rages on about whether this find really is a new species or just a human with a genetic deformity.

But what does this do for the islanders' stories of their little brothers and sisters?

Of course, it's impossible that the hobbits, if they really existed, lived up until modern times. The stories must be a coincidence, or at best, a gross exaggeration and distortion of ancient sightings. Right?

What's really going on here? Why don't we believe these people?

Anonymous said...

This anology falls aparts because in it you are speaking directly to people who are still alive and can be identified. This is completely different from a situation where unknown anonymous long dead persons are the only witnesses.

Sorry.

Stephen Law said...

Anonymous - yes of course. Which makes the situation even worse re the Jesus testimony. It's even less credible. Perhaps that's what you mean?