Transcript: Podcast 4- Extraordinary Evidence

19 April 2007

It is often claimed that ‘extraordinary beliefs require extraordinary evidence.’ In today’s show, we will critically analyze this claim and see what sort of evidence should be required to establish belief in God and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. For the book reviews I will take a look at Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig and Does God Exist, which is a debate between J.P. Moreland and Kai Nielsen. But before any of that, let’s first take a look at the news.

News

An article on LiveScience.com discussed a recent study which found that people who believe in reincarnation, or believe they have lived past lives, are more likely to make certain types of memory errors. 1 Compared with a control group of reincarnation doubters, those who claimed to have lived past lives were almost twice as likely to make source-monitoring errors when trying to identify from a list the names of famous people that they had previously seen. The study indicates that reincarnation believers have difficulty recognizing where memories come from.

Michael Sandel wrote an article for the Boston Globe titled Embryo ethics: Why Stem Cells Aren’t People this month. 2 This caught my attention because I recently wrote an article on the issue of embryonic stem cell research, where I concluded that it is immoral because it involves the destruction of a human person without adequate moral justification. According to Sandel, however, the embryo is not a human person.

Sandel should be commended for actually focusing in on the important issue of whether or no the embryo is a human person. Many people involved in this debate, on both sides of the issue, have simply offered emotional appeals and have failed to address the issue carefully. However, Sandel does not offer any evidence for his viewpoint, he only criticizes the viewpoint that human persons exist at conception. I think this is because any sort of distinction he could possibly make would turn out to be arbitrary. If he wants to claim that it is self-awareness, consciousness, personality, memories, and the like that are the important distinction between the embryo and a ‘true’ human persoon, then he must be prepared to accept the killing of infants who lack these properties.

In actual fact, the view that human persons exist at conception is the most reasonable position. After all, the embryo has all the genetic components in place and is in a stage of development as a human life, just like infants, toddlers, and adults. So if Sandel wants to refute the pro-life position concerning embryonic stem cell research, he is going to have to provide some sort of criteria for when the unborn child counts as a human person. As already mentioned, however, any such hoped for distinction is bound to be arbitrary and morally unacceptable because it will allow infanticide.

Main Feature: Do Extraordinary Events Require Extraordinary Evidence?

It is often considered intuitively obvious that ‘extraordinary events require extraordinary evidence,’ and this mantra is usually applied to the existence of God and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. But does this supposed truism really pass rational scrutiny. In today’s show I would like to take a look at this principle in general, and then I want to look at it in context of God’s existence and Christ’s resurrection.

So, what constitutes an extraordinary event or belief, and what quantity or quality of evidence is required to support such an event? Here I will offer three different reasons something may be classified as ‘extraordinary’

1.) If it apparently involves a logical or conceptual impossibility.
2.) If it violates currently accepted laws of physics.
3.) If it conflicts with our expectations based on background knowledge.

It is easy to see that type 1 is the most extraordinary and type 3 is the least. But in each case, the evidence provided for the belief must be sufficient to override the inherent problem and then still compel or incline belief. Thus, for instance, in order to accept a belief that something has violated a law of physics (which is type 2), there must be enough evidence for the event to override the inherent improbability of the physical law being incorrect or incomplete. So, for example, if we see a human being levitate, we will be very suspicious that they are actually levitating without any sort of trickery because such a feat would violate the currently accepted law of gravity. There needs to be enough evidence for the event to override the inherent unlikelihood that the theory of gravity is either incomplete or false. Obviously, the theory of gravity is in pretty good standing, so we need a lot of evidence before we rationally accept a levitation event.

Consider a type 3 event, which conflicts with our expectations based on background knowledge. Again, we need evidence strong enough to overcome the initial improbability. So, in a type 3 case, we need evidence strong enough for us to overcome the improbability based on background knowledge. This can be done in two ways- either we can provide very strong evidence that overcomes the background knowledge, or we can provide new background knowledge which eliminates the initial improbability.

Consider a case example. If a new acquaintance of yours, James, tells you that he owns a car, you will probably believe him because, based on your background knowledge, it is relatively plausible for him to own a car. However, if he tells you that he owns a yacht, you may be initially skeptical because of the background knowledge that it is relatively unlikely for someone to own a yacht. James could reduce your skepticism either by providing you really good evidence- showing you pictures of his yacht or showing you the contract he signed to purchase it. Alternatively, James could change your background knowledge by demonstrating that he is a multi-billionaire. With this new background knowledge, you would judge it quite plausible for James to own a yacht.

So, in sum, an event is only extraordinary if it conflicts with what we already know, and it is only extraordinary to the extent in which it actually conflicts. Moreover, an extraordinary event can be rationally believed if the evidence in favor of it it strong enough to overcome the initial improbability.

The Existence of God

I’d like to apply this analysis to God’s existence. Is belief in God extraordinary? If so, in what sense?

Some may claim that the very concept of God involves logical contradictions or difficulties, and is thus an example of type 1 improbability. Although this is an issue for a separate show, most of these objections are unconvincing. Even if they were convincing, however, God could easily be construed as finitely powerful, intelligent, or whatever else. Since the objections only argue against an infinite God, a finite God escapes all of the supposed problems.

The existence of God is not a violation of the laws of physics either, since God, if He exists, exists outside of space.

Finally, does the existence of God conflict with our background knowledge? This seems unlikely; what sort of ‘background knowledge’ could possibly have any bearing on the existence of something that exists outside of the physical universe? Some might claim that the existence of evil or nonbelief is background knowledge which makes God’s existence unlikely, but there are several problems with this claim. First of all, the argument from evil and the argument from nonbelief only apply to a an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God. They do not address the existence of God per se; they are issues to be considered after God’s bare existence is confirmed and they address His nature, not His existence. Moreover, I would contend that the arguments from evil and nonbelief are not actually successful, or are only very marginally successful, and therefore do not have a significant negative impact on the probability of God’s existence.

But even granting that evil and nonbelief constitute background knowledge that counts against God’s existence, it may be the case that there are strong enough arguments for His existence to override these background considerations. For example, it seems to me that the Kalam Cosmological Argument, discussed in episode two of this podcast, is persuasive enough to override these background considerations.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ

What about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ? Surely, the resurrection of Christ from the dead would qualify as an extraordinary event. In our experience, dead men simply do not rise.

However, the Christian does not claim that Christ rose from the grave by natural means. The Christian claims that God raised Christ from the dead in order to vindicate Him and His claims. This explanation obviously hinges on the existence of God, yet, if His existence is granted, it seems like raising Christ from the dead is one of those things that God would have little trouble doing.

Thus, Christ’s resurrection surely cannot by a type 1 or 2 extraordinary event. It is not logically or conceptually impossible for a man who was once dead to be alive again. And the resurrection does not involve a “violation of currently accepted physics” because the hypothesis has nothing to do with physics- it deals with God resurrecting a man from the dead. It may be construed as a type 3, since in our experience God, if He exists, does not often raise people from the dead. As discussed previously, this can be overcome either by providing powerful evidence in favor of the event or by changing the background knowledge. In this case, the strength of this background knowledge is somewhat reduced due to the historical and religious context in which Christ’s resurrection took place. We may not expect God to randomly raise a man from the dead, but Jesus Christ was no ordinary man (which is admitted even by non-Christians). Christ made radical claims to be the Messiah and was consequently put to death in a shameful way. His resurrection from the dead by God thus plausibly vindicates Christ’s claims. So, in essence, the historical and religious context is a form of specified background knowledge that undermines the more general background knowledge that God usually does not raise men from the dead.

It is important to remember that God’s existence and Christ’s resurrection have been shown, I believe, to marginally conflict with our background expectations, at best. Therefore, if it is true that they require “extraordinary” evidence, then the type of evidence that they require is little more than would be required for a mundane event or belief. Nonbelievers will have to consider arguments for the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ on their own merits.

Book Reviews

Reasonable Faith

Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, published in 1984, is William Lane Craig’s foundational apologetics book. It covers a broad scope, including the epistemic justification for belief, evidence for the existence of God, and historical evidence for the credibility of the New Testament and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In each chapter, Craig begins with a discussion of historical approaches to the issue. He then offers an analysis of the topic, and lastly, he gives a brief “Practical Application” section where he discusses some effective ways to use the information for evangelism.

Personally, I prefer getting down to absolute meat and potatoes, so I found the historical sections a bit boring, even though the information is no doubt useful and some will probably appreciate this aspect of the book. Regardless, Craig’s analysis of the issues is well-written, persuasive, and extremely powerful. Also, the practical application section is a great addition because it provides believers with some information on how to effectively minister to nonbelievers using the evidence and arguments that Craig provides.

Craig is especially strong in the third chapter, where he discusses evidence for the existence of God. He gives a terrific analysis of the Cosmological Argument, answering a slew of objections brought against the argument. However, the book would have been more complete, in my opinion, if Craig had included a more comprehensive defense of the Design Argument from the structure of the universe.

Craig also gives a strong defense of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, arguing from the basis of three strongly attested historical facts: first, that Jesus’ tomb was found empty, second, that Jesus appeared bodily resurrected to the disciples and others, and third, the origin of the disciples belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Craig argues forcefully that these well-attested facts help to furnish a plausible inference to Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

Overall, Craig’s Reasonable Faith is an excellent work of apologetics, especially recommended to those who want to learn how to effectively share their faith. My rating for this book, 4 stars out of 5.

Does God Exist?

The second book I’d like to review today is Does God Exist? The Debate between Theists and Atheists, which is the catalog of a debate between Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland and atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen that took place in 1988. In addition to the main debate transcript, there are reviews of the debate by atheists Keith Parsons and Antony Flew and Christians Dallas Willard and William Lane Craig.

Unfortunately, the individual chapters are too short to develop much substance, and the debate participants often talk past each other. Thankfully, the four respondents add quite a bit of substance to the book.

Moreland primarily argues his case with the Cosmological Argument and the Argument from the Resurrection of Christ, while Nielsen exclusively focuses on his argument that the concept of the Christian God is not coherently defined and thus is irrational to believe.

In the main debate, Nielsen doesn’t really answer Moreland’s arguments at all. He dismisses them with the pompous claim that he has “dealt with them before”. On the other hand, although to a lesser extent, Moreland does not address Nielsen’s claims sufficiently, in my opinion. The result is a debate in which the participants are speaking past each other.

Since the debate itself is so weak, the book suffers quite a bit. Even though the ensuing discussion by the respondents and the final conclusions offered by Moreland and Nielsen get into greater substance, at the end of the day this book is just not as impressive as other debates on God’s existence that have been published in book form. So, although there is some good material here, you may wish to look elsewhere for an engaging debate on this topic. My rating for this book: 2.5 stars out of 5.

Conclusion

That wraps up just about everything for this week. Please send any questions or comments you have about this show to kyle@skepticalchristian.com, I would love to receive some feedback. Also, if you enjoy listening to this show, please consider giving it a review at the ITunes music store.

I have not yet given thanks to Wes Lambert for the music I use in this podcast. All music is from Wes’s album “The Morning House”, you can check out the web site at squaysh.com.

NOTES:

1. Wenner, Melinda. Belief in Reincarnation Tied to Memory Errors. Found at http://www.livescience.com/othernews/070406_past_lives.html

2. Sandel, Michael. Embryo Ethics: Why Stem Cells Aren’t People. Found at http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2007/04/08/embryo_ethics/.



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