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Notes on Victor Reppert’s Book: ‘C.S. Lewis’ Dangerous Idea’- Pt1: Criticisms of Naturalism.

April 18, 2016 6 comments

Reppert’s book focuses primarily on naturalism, using various rationalistic¹ arguments against such in an attempt to promote theistic conceptions of the mind, and the world (namely, that God, as defined by Christianity exists). I want to generally share some notes on this today, firstly we might want to see how Reppert defines and treats naturalism:

Naturalism is the view that the natural world is all there is and that there are no supernatural beings. Whatever takes place in the universe takes place through natural processes and not as a result of supernatural causation. The most popular kind of naturalism is known as materialism or physicalism. Materialism maintains that the basic substances of the physical world are pieces of matter, and physicalism maintains that those pieces of matter are properly understood by the discipline of physics. (Reppert, 2003, p.46-7)

He notes that there might be some slight differences in naturalism and materialism (relating to the status of non-matter linguistic structures such as propositions for example), but argues for the sake of his purposes that anything counts as naturalistic if it:

… posits a closed “basic level of analysis,” and if all other levels have the characteristics they have in virtue of those the basic level has. If the base level is mechanistic but is not composed of matter, then we would have naturalism without materialism. If we have a basic level that is composed of matter but it is not to be described by physicalism (I’m not sure how that’s possible), then we have materialism without physicalism. However, if the argument that I am proposing works against physicalism, it will work against nonphysicalist forms of naturalism as well. (Reppert, 2003, p. 47)

He continues by way of example, and as a bridge to his argument, how a purely physical universe, defined by science as starting with the big bang, containing material substances that act without purpose (being based on the laws of the universe) come together, guided by evolution, to further propagate the species. Reppert states that the issue for him likes in our brains, which use “rational inference”, but if they are created and driven by evolution, as they seemingly are on a physicalist’s worldview, they must also be explained at the most basic level of analysis. But, he asks, the most basic level of analysis is physics, and rational inference does not operate at this level, and thus we have our first problem with explanations proposed by physicalism.

Here he turns to secular philosophers Keith Parsons and Daniel Dennett to try and tease out what exactly is meant by the term “most basic level of analysis”. Parsons states that to explain material bodies, we can look at more fundamental bodies to explain them, and even more fundamental bodies to explain them. But, the problem is we must hit a rock bottom, or fundamental explanation (if we want to avoid absurdities like an infinite regress). Parsons doesn’t see this as a problem at all:

At present, rock bottom would be the powers and liabilities of such entities as quarks and electrons… to say that there is no explanation why a quark, given that it is a fundamental particle, has the powers and liabilities it possess, seems tantamount to saying that there is no explanation of why a quark is a quark. Surely, anything with different powers and liabilities would not be a quark. (Parsons, 1989, p. 91-2 quoted in Reppert, 2003, p. 48)

With this Reppert has shown that fundamental explanations within physicalist philosophy are flawed, that is, flawed in the sense that under the physicalist view we have properties (rational inference for example) that need explanation, that currently do not have one. To Reppert naturalistic explanations are fundamentally “nonpurposive” ones:

For if some purposive or intentional explanation can be given and no further analysis can be given in nonpurposive and nonrational terms, then reason must be viewed as a fundamental cause in the universe, and this strikes me as a huge concession to position such as theism, idealism and pantheism, which maintain that reasons are fundamental to the universe.(Reppert, 2003, p. 51)

More than just nonpurposive, naturalistic explanations at the most basic level occur either out of natural necessity or chance (p. 87), which problematizes the question of rational inference even more. Do we have free will under such a system? Could we? How can we make purposive, rational decisions when at our most fundamental level we are a closed system, based on random physics?

… it is my contention that a consistent physicalism leads to the conclusion that there are no mental states with propositional content, and if such states were to exist they would be epiphenonmenal, that is, without any causal efficacy. What is more, there is certainly the possibility that what is conducive to discovering the truth might not be conducive to survival and vice versa. We night survive better not knowing the truth but by believing just those falsehoods that would be most conducive to survival. (Reppert, 2003, p. 89)

Citing Dennett the author asks what purpose could there possibly be in a physicalist view of the world, one in which rational inference seems unlikely or is at the very least, problematic? To quote Dennett:

Darwin explains a world of final causes and teleological laws with a principle that is independent of “meaning” or “purpose”. [Evolutionary theory] assumes a world that is absurd in the existentialist’s sense of the term: not ludicrous or pointless, and this assumption is a necessary condition for any non-question-begging account of purpose. (Dennett, 1976, p.171 quoted in Reppert, 2003, p.49)

Reppert states that under the physicalist view the only “purpose” one can speak of is that of the function of something, and a Darwinian one at that, for example the function of the heart is to pump blood. More than this, to Reppert “meaning” and “reasoning” must also have similar explanations, that is in the final analysis the explanation must be mechanistic and nonpurposive (and as we’ve seen, borne out of physical necessity or chance).

Reppert has more to say on naturalism, materialism and physicalism, but for now, lest you become bored, let us leave it here for today. If you’re looking for a quick response to some of this, check out my blog on Nielsen’s naturalism, here).

Reference

Reppert, V. (2003). C.S Lewis’ Dangerous Idea. Downers Grove IL.  Intervarsity Press.

1: That is, the use of reason as a grounding for knowledge rather than, say, experience.

Articles.

February 11, 2013 Leave a comment

It’s been a while between articles posts, let’s get straight into it:

Philosophy Bites – Links to the First 176 Episodes -Edmonds and Warburton.

LCA 2013: distributed democracy, speaking stacks, links -Sky Croeser.

Anti-Muslim hysteria in Australia -Russell Glasser.

We get email: Believers and their security blankets -Martin Wagner.

The Argument from “It Just Makes Sense to Me”

Atheist Arrested for Blasphemy, and How You Can Help

Mail bin: arguing with the FAQ

Good luck in Somalia– Ophelia Benson.

Egyptian atheist facing blasphemy sentence – Jacob Fortin.

Repairs under way -Ophelia Benson.

A fabulous “Manly Meal”-Ophelia Benson.

WL Craig on Morality and Meaning (Series Index) -John Danaher.

My Favourite Posts of 2012 -John Danaher.

Sexual Objectification: An Atheist Perspective -Richard Carrier.

Prototypical Sexist Atheist on Exhibit– Richard Carrier.

Atheism+ : The Name for What’s Happening-Richard Carrier.

Waldron on pornography -Russell Blackford.

Gay Bishop Comes Up With the Worst Argument to Support Same-Sex Marriage– Greta Christina.

My Letter to the Boy Scouts– Greta Christina.

Same-Sex Marriage Opponents Increasingly Desperate and Stupid – Greta Christina.

String of atheism signs vandalized, no real action taken by officials – Jacob Fortin.

Catholic Priest blames women for bringing violence on themselves – Jacob Fortin.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews harass sexually abused girl – Jacob Fortin.

Bill O’Reilly calls David Silverman a Fascist – Jacob Fortin.

Top 10 anti-Christian acts of 2012 -J.T Eberhard.

Most insulting fundraiser ever. – J.T Eberhard.

Don’t Say Gay legislator: being gay is like shooting heroin. -J.T Eberhard.

74 years of female slave labor in the 20th century, courtesy of the Catholic Church. – J.T Eberhard.

How often god’s moral decrees bear no resemblance to justice. -J.T Eberhard.

Gay friends? Me dear? How very dare you! You’re mistaking me for Muhammad – Barry Duke.

Investigation launched over nurse who allegedly told a family to put their trust in Allah – Barry Duke.

Only fools and Christians: ‘Born-again’ Tennessee man quits job over 666 tax code – Barry Duke.

Catholic meddling appears to have delayed Boy Scouts of America’s decision on gay inclusion – Barry Duke.

Danish police on the hunt for a gunman who tried to kill Islam critic Lars Hedegaard – Barry Duke.

Brazilian pastor is behind bars after telling his flock that his penis contained ‘holy milk’ – Barry Duke.

Another devastating week for the RC Church as more of its criminality is exposed – Barry Duke.

Craig’s Argument for God from Intentionality – Philosotroll.

Witch Hunts in Papua New Guinea – Leo Igwe.

Randal Rauser on William Lane Craig’s defense of the Canaanite genocide -Chris Hallquist.

More Powerpoint Slides from a Christian Pastor’s Anti-Gay Sermon – Hermant Mehta.

Woman Brutally Murdered in Papua New Guinea After Being Accused of Sorcery – Hermant Mehta.

Christians in Indiana Unite to Create a Prom That Gay Students Can’t Attend – Hermant Mehta.

Virginia Senate Approves Bill Allowing College Groups to Discriminate Based On Religious Beliefs -Hermant Mehta.

Who Still Thinks the Church Has Any Moral Credibility? -Hermant Mehta.

Christian Pastor: I’d Rather Experience Chinese Water Torture Than Listen to a Woman Argue With Me – Hermant Mehta.

Shells and switches -Deacon Duncan.

God and the PlayStation 3 -Deacon Duncan.

The Gypsy Curse -Deacon Duncan.

Religions will never be satisfied — they will always up the ante until they are in charge -Eric MacDonald.

Faith: Pt.1 – Definitions.

February 21, 2012 2 comments

Today, let’s look at a few conceptions, and defences of the word ‘faith’, in the ‘religious faith’ sense of the word, to see if it really is anything more than simple ‘belief without evidence’ – as some skeptics might claim.

Firstly we must look at definitions and, of course, the Bible is the best place to start, to try to tease out what is meant by the word ‘faith’. We may find it hard to pinpoint any specific definition of faith, particularly one that won’t draw criticism and argument from theists. Perhaps the best we can hope for in attempting to lock the Bible down in anything, is to have a reasoned discussion, and simply let the passages speak for themselves.

Any discussion on the Bible’s use of the word ‘faith’ must ultimately begin in Hebrews 11:1:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1, King James Version, p. 1930)

In the footnotes on this section the editors of this edition of the Bible state that this above definition is not so much a function of what faith is, but rather a description of what faith does.  They state that faith provides substance, and in the orignal Greek this would normally mean “assurance”, which is why you may sometimes see this passage with the word ‘assurance’ instead of ‘substance’. Secondly the authors suggest that faith provides ‘evidence’, meaning in the “sense of proof that results in conviction.” (p. 1930) Hence, why you may also see ‘evidence’ substituted for ‘conviction’ in some passages. The authors state:

The difference between assurance and evidence would be minimal were it not for the phrase qualifying each: of things hoped for and of things not seen. The first involves future hope; the second involves present realities not seen. the first includes the hope of the resurrection, the return of Christ, and the glorification of the saints. The second involves unseen realities, such as the forgiveness of sin through Christ’s sacrifice and the present intercession of Christ in heaven. Hope is faith relating to the future; conviction is faith relating to the present. (King James Version, p. 1930)

Under this explanation and definition we can begin to discuss some of what ‘faith’ means to some biblical authors; firstly, to say that faith provides ‘substance’, properly understood as ‘assurance’ can be reasonably interpreted to mean ‘faith provides comfort’. Secondly to say that faith provides ‘evidence’ understood as ‘conviction’  seems to suggest that faith provides ‘strength of will’, or ‘character’ in the sense that one would face the challenges of the world, or adversity, or worldly struggles, under the Christian conception – a ‘stiff upper lip’ if you will.

Going further though, the authors explain ‘faith’ in the first sense as a ‘comfort in believing the resurrection, the return of Christ and the glorification of the saints, as true’, where as in the second sense faith provides a ‘strength of will to endure the hope of unseen forgiveness of Christ’s sacrifice and the present intercession of Christ in heaven.’

If my interpretation of the biblical authors above is accurate (and it may well not be), it would seem that the Hebrews passage both describes a personal feeling of assurance in the works of Christ, so recorded in the Bible (his acts) as well as a trusting in the things not seen (Jesus’ works of salvation).

At the very least we see that the above passage supports our earlier contention that there is a lot of language used to describe ‘faith’ that suggests a lack of rational or epistemic justification for belief in God, and His works, ergo, it seems justifiable to proclaim the ‘belief without evidence’ slogan that some atheists do, even if it is a touch simplistic, at least in this case.

Moving on, this isn’t the only passage that talks of faith in the Bible, John 20:29 states:

Jesus said unto him. Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet believed. (John 20:29, King James Version, p. 1654)

These isolated passages certainly seem to revel in a lack of epistemic justification for belief, and as Jesus is the authority of the Christian faith, this implies an epistemology Christians should follow. Moreover, this conception of belief without evidence, is consistent with the Hebrews passage.

Having said that though, there are also many passages (Romans 3:18, 5:1, Galatians 2:16, 2:8,  3:8-12, James 2:17, Revelation 2:12 etc)  that discuss faith as a verb, as something you do, or hold, which is consistent with another sense of the word ‘faith’ used by those who define it, both in the Bible (Hebrews above) and without (which we will discuss more in a moment). This should give critics of the word ‘faith’ pause, only long enough to investigate what the proponent means, when they use the word.

Moving away from the Bible, the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines faith as:

The conviction of the truth of some doctrine which is the result of a voluntary act of will. According to *fideists who happen to be believers in the same doctrine, this act may be meritorious (and a refusal to make it may be a fault or even a *sin); according to others, it may in fact be just as sinful to ride roughshod over the deliverance of reason (itself a divine gift) when that commands us to suspend judgement. (Blackburn, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 130, 2008)

Let us unpack this definition a little: it seems as if faith in the above sense, is the act of will over reason. Moreover, those who hold to this dogma, also assert that to rely on ‘evidence’ over faith, may in fact be a negative (“sin”)-  we might consider this the ‘common view’ of the word ‘faith’ (in the ‘religious faith’ sense), in that it portrays a lack of respect for evidence and epistemic or rational justification – at least by an atheists perception. It is also a view, as we see from above, that is supported, biblically.

For a more in-depth analysis, let us move to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of The Christian Church which gives us far too long a quote to list here, but paraphrased the author, Livingstone, suggests there are 2 ‘distinct senses’ in which the word faith is used, under the Christian conception. (1) The body of the Christian faith is found in the “Creeds, the definitions of Councils, etc., and especially in the Bible.” (p. 213) The teachings of which are said to come from Christ and are to be rejected at your own peril. (Livingstone, Oxford Concise Dictionary of The Christian Church, p. 213, 2006)

Under (1) we see that perhaps what is meant by ‘faith’ in the apparent objective sense implied is that the Christian creeds, dogma and tradition is simply labelled as “faith” (this is the second kind of usage of the word ‘faith’, that we talked about above, mentioned in the Bible). This is confusing though, why would a term be given, that certainly implies belief held without appropriate justification, when in fact, all that is simply meant is ‘tradition, creeds and the Bible‘, which is seemingly the justification for the belief system, or worldview known as Christianity? In essence, Christians have used a word that commonly means ‘belief without evidence’ to label their worldview, which they deem to be ‘belief with evidence’. This is intentional obfuscation, or intentional revisionism, I’m not sure which is better. But let us continue with our definitions before we make too loud a pronouncement.

Livingstone continues providing (2), accompanying the ‘objective’ standard for faith given in (1), there is also an apparent ‘subjective’ faith which is the individuals response to the divine itself, “depicted in the NT as involving trust in God rather than intellectual assent.” Livingstone states that according to theologians this acceptance is not a natural act, but rather, something given by, and is dependant solely on, God’s “action in the soul.”  Livingstone continues stating that in the Middle Ages the term was slightly re-defined to select between those truths accessible by the human intellect via reason (for example: the existence of God), and those truths that could be understood only by faith alone (for example: the Trinity).

Under (2) we get a more traditional definition of what most of us atheists understand ‘religious faith’ to be, with words and phrases used like ‘trust’, ‘act of will’, ‘those truths that could be understood only by faith alone’ – something like what we saw with the Hebrews, and John passage. It seems the Christian ‘faith’, at least on the subjective level, viz. Livingstone, Hebrews, John 20:29 et al,  is based on a series of words and phrases, which override epistemic justification, and rely simply on accepting the word of dogma, irrespective of evidence or rational justification. Which seems to support the contention that, at least in some respects ‘religious faith’, it can be argued, is ‘belief without evidence’, or rather, ‘belief irrespective of (counter) evidence’. After all, why do you need trust, or faith, in a conclusion that you have rational justification for? You merely (tentatively?) accept it, and your acceptance is proportional to the evidence, and changes with the evidence – if you care about what is true, and having good reasons for belief.

Moreover under (2) there is a fine line drawn, that may in fact be outright question begging: according to Livingstone Christianity finds its justification through faith, which also comes from, and relies upon, God. How is this not circular? It amounts to saying: “God exists, and Christianity is true, because God tells me it is so.”

It seems from the 2 senses Livingstone gives above, that (1) implies simply the catalogue of Christian ‘evidence’ for the belief system, which itself, is simply titled ‘faith’ without actually implying what the word is commonly meant to imply (belief without evidence). And under (2) the common view of the word ‘faith’ is given, in that it is an act of will, over the light of reason, a ‘trust’ in the dogma, tradition and creeds provided by the Christian ‘faith’ that is not dependent on reason (re: evidence?), but rather is dependent on God’s grace. Livingtone’s definition provides a conflicting message, on (1) the Christian ‘faith’ seemingly has its evidence in the Bible, yet under (2) the ‘faith’ is defined as trusting in the supernatural works of God. We are left to ask, if (1) does not provide rational justification for (2), then there is seemingly no rational way to accept (2) or (1). From this we can conclude that if the ‘tradition, creeds and the Bible’ is not enough to provide rational justification for the Christian faith, if epistemic leaps are being made, then we might be justified in inferring, yet again, that in some senses the Christian faith is based on ‘belief without rational justification.’

In our next post we will discuss what popular apologists have to say regarding faith.

Conclusion

It seems in the end, based on our very cursory examination of what ‘faith’ means, that the word has 2 meanings, or senses in which it is used. (1) appears to denote a kind of ‘belief without evidence’ in the sense that, it involves a trust, belief, or even hope in a god or god’s works and existence. None of these words inspire us to much confidence that what the authors mean is “epistemically or rational justified true belief’, but we need not make assumptions. The definitions above seem to imply that while there are portions of the Christian ‘faith’ that are accepted based on evidence (natural theology for example) there are aspects that are not (salvation, the Trinity etc), which can allow us to conclude, that any simple rhetoric about ‘belief without evidence’ might need to be unpacked in discussion, before simply being bandied about.

Then there is (2) in which faith is the experience of being a Christian, that the system is simply entitled a ‘faith’ without adhering to what we might naturally think the word means. This isn’t simply a modern delineation either, as we see there is biblical precedent for the definition of ‘faith’ as ‘belief that goes beyond the evidence’. Under (2) faith becomes the traditions, creeds, the Bible and doctrines that make up the Christian faith.

This analysis should give us pause, from making any simple pronouncements about the word ‘faith’ and to get us thinking about the context with which it is used. It should be noted, and possibly stressed, that in our discussion of the word ‘faith’, and deciding whether the ‘belief without evidence’ slogan is fair, that Christians actually do offer a rational defense for their faith, with evidence, argument, and logic – hence why they certainly wouldn’t see their ‘faith’ as being ‘belief without evidence’. In this discussion we are only addressing what is meant by the word ‘faith’, not the arguments and evidence Christians offer. Given time to think about it, however,  the fact that Christians do offer argument and evidence, makes the use of the word ‘faith’ even more baffling. Why use a word, that promotes such a negative connotation, to define your belief system, when you believe it to be epistemically and rational justified? Is it simply tradition, and dogma that keeps such an antiquated word going? The problem is, it forces apologists and theologians into such bizarre contortions to attempt to free it from its common usage, that we might wonder why the word isn’t simply dropped altogether.

References

Blackburn S. (2008).  The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition).  New York. Oxford University Press. P. 130.

Livingstone E.A. (2006) P. 236. Oxford Concise Dictionary of The Christian Church (Revised 2nd Edition). New York. Oxford University Press. P. 213.

King James Version. (1988). Thomas Nelson Inc. Pp. 1654, 1930.

Categories: Skepticism, The Bible, Theism

The Case For The Historicity of… Spiderman?

November 1, 2011 Leave a comment

We have great reasons to think that Spiderman was a historical figure – we have saved works, first hand testimonies of both his family and friends saved in the canon (Amazing Spiderman, Spectacular Spiderman etc). A large amount of archaeology (Manhattan, New York, Queens) has been found to support the claims made in the canon, including places he lived.

It seems to me, the most obvious conclusion, for those willing to see it is that Peter Parker was the Spiderman, who saved millions of lives, the world even.

The case for the historicity of Spiderman goes to a historical certainty – despite the claims of the aspidermanists – who usually beg the question toward aspidermanism. They make fallacious claims like “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, but Spiderman’s existence and his powers are not extraordinary to his believers, who experience the living Spiderman through his works and the canon.

Moreover if we have the evidence we have, why would you reject the notion of the existence of Spiderman, and his deeds? Surely you see that the testimonies from Mary-Jane Watson, Matthew Murdock, Johnny Storm etc, the physical evidence, provided by the canon, and the archaeological evidence surely leads us all to the same conclusion. Why do you deny it then? Do you have good reasons? Are they philosophical? Historical? Prejudicial?

Categories: The Bible

Barr on inerrancy vs literalism

September 14, 2011 2 comments

I recently read James Barr’s really enlightening book ‘Fundamentalism‘ whose main thesis was as the namesake suggests. Something that I hadn’t really considered before, was the difference between ‘literalism’ and ‘inerrancy’ and how this pertains to a fundamentalists reasoning.

It’s important to note at the outset, that defining a fundamentalist is tricky, the term is not used in a pejorative sense herein, but simply to describe a Christian that holds

(a) a very strong emphasis on the inerrancy of the Bible, the absence from it of any sort of error;

(b) a strong hostility to modern theology and to the methods, results and implications of modern critical study of the Bible;

(c) an assurance that those who do not share their religious viewpoint are not really ‘true Christians’ at all (Barr, Fundamentalism, p. 1, 1977).

Barr recognizes that these views are not held by all fundamentalists and that these definitions require expanding and elaboration, to be even in the ball park of ‘fair’ in their accuracy:  ‘complex social and religious movements are not defined in a few words’. But it gives you, the reader, a picture of what I’m talking about when I say ‘fundamentalist’.

Fundamentalists are concerned with minimizing error in the Bible- in fact they believe there are no errors in it, be they theological, geographical, historical or scientific. They are working under the less than Biblical (I will discuss that in a moment) assumption that the Bible is divinely inspired and infallible, but to keep a 2,000 year old tome like the Bible relevant with current scientific, literary and historical understanding, the fundamentalist will drop literalism to maintain that inerrancy has not been disrupted.

Genesis represents a perfect example of this:

“…most conservative evangelical opinion today does not pursue a literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis. A literal interpretation would hold that the world was created in six days, these days being the first of the series which we still experience as days and nights. Not at all according to conservative evangelical sources; on the contrary, they are full of warnings about the dangers and difficulties involved for those who take the day literally… E.F. Kevan tells us that there are ‘serious difficulties’ in taking them as ordinary days… (Barr, Fundamentalism, pp. 40-1, 1977)

Barr continues demonstrating some of the apologetics used to get around the apparent ‘serious difficulties’ with the scientific contradiction that is Genesis- be it the days being ‘days of dramatic vision’, or that they do not ‘represent a twenty-four hour period’ but rather a ‘geological age’ or that the textual strategy is a ‘poetic figure’ (quoting Meredith Kline, p. 41). The problem with this being that the days are represented as having a ‘morning’ and ‘evening’ which seems to suggest the kind of day we experience. Again, the rebuttal being that the ‘day’ represents ‘clearly defined epochs’, not actual, literal days. How silly of us to read into it so. The point we are to take away, is that the Biblical authors are telling us that ‘God created the world out of nothing and that He did it in a specific period, which came to an end.’ (p. 41)

As we see, all kinds of contortions are made, to keep the Bible from being interpreted literally in this instance, moreover, at least in the passages of Genesis (Barr offers other examples taken as non-literal from Genesis- the genealogical lists from Adam to Noah, the specific creation account; i.e. light was created before the sun etc)  it is considered silly to interpret them literally.

But why is there a shift away from a literal interpretation of Genesis? Barr says it’s to do with the fundamentalists acceptance of science. The evidence for the age of the Earth, says Barr has become too strong for the fundamentalists to resist, a literal interpretation would mean

pitting the Bible against scientific truths which fundamentalist intellectuals now accept; this would in turn force the admission that the Bible in this respect had been wrong. In order to avoid this, the conservative interpreter moves over into a non-literal exegesis; only this will save the inerrancy of the Bible. (Barr, Fundamentalism, p. 42, 1977)

A hundred years ago, (probably less, says Barr, p.42) a literal interpretation would have been insisted upon, and if science had something contrary to say, science be damned.It’s not as if fundamentalism has given up the fight against science though, there still remains a resistance against evolutionary, climate, and stem cell sciences.

It needs to be reiterated- the fundamentalist does not, therefore, think that the Genesis accounts are fiction or myth, no, the characters, despite whatever ‘non-literal’ interpretation fundamentalists have of them, are still described as being real people, living in a real historical setting, in a real historical age.

There is a nice moment for the biblical critic when we realise that the Bible actually has very little to say about its own inspiration and inerrancy (indeed about itself at all). Barr reasons that this is due to that fact that there was no Bible as it was being written, it is only when we take an unhistorical look at the Bible, as the word of God, inspired and infallible from the beginning, that we can hope to make claims about what the Bible ‘said about itself’. This is why there are a paucity of passages in the Bible proper claiming it to be ‘inerrant’ (2 Peter 1:20 and 2 Timothy 3:16  for example), after all, what would the authors of these passages have been claiming was inerrant? ‘The scriptures’  was a reference to the OT, and even if these authors were aware of other books of the Bible, we have no way of knowing which ones they knew of, or which ones they considered to be authentic. Besides, even if 2 Peter and 2 Timothy were referring to their own passages as inspired, it would be a difficult burden of proof to meet indeed, to demonstrate they speak for the entire canon. This makes the claim of inerrancy by fundamentalists a philosophical and seemingly esoteric (not to mention circular) definition.

The fundamentalist will listen to the arguments of critical scholarship- when they hear questions like: ‘might the linguistic and literary form suggest that the passage is myth or legend?’ ‘Might it be mistaken in matters of historical facts?’ ‘Might it be something generated not by external events which occurred in this sequence, but by problems in the inner experience of the early church?’ (p. 51) Barr states however, that these kinds of questions are isolated and eliminated from the beginning of the fundamentalists exegesis, they may be considered but only insofar as they are forced to do so by the arguments of critical scholars- and even then it is only to fashion an appropriate apologetic.

Generally, theological necessity is a guiding light for what must be taken as literal and not, for example, the virgin birth is taken literally because its physical necessity is required for the Christian faith. The law that the seventh day be taken as rest however is not taken literally for precisely the opposite reason. Barr states that it is only upon criticism that passages lacking theological necessity are defended, not because they become theologically necessary, but rather due to the fact that fundamentalists need to at least maintain the appearance that the Bible contains inerrant true in the face of critical scholarship.

As we see, this makes for a confusing, muddled and completely individualistic way of interpreting the Bible- inerrancy is maintained by ‘constantly altering the mode of interpretation’ as Barr says (p. 46).

Barr concludes:

Literality, though it might well be deserving of criticism, would at least be a somewhat consistent interpretive principle, and the carrying out of it would deserve some attention as a significant achievement. What fundamentalists do pursue is completely unprincipled- in the strict sense unprincipled, because guided by no principle of interpretation- approach, in which the only guiding criterion is that the Bible should, by the sorts of truths that fundamentalists respect and follow, be true and not in any sort of error.

Inerrancy is the guiding light for the fundamentalist, with literalness being a varying nicety to be enjoyed if possible. If you do not share this perspective with the fundamentalist you are of course left to wonder, as I do, why anyone accepts this book, as the word of a God- when such contortions have to be made to understand it.

Categories: Apologetics, Atheism, The Bible

John Dominic Crossan on finding the historical Jesus

August 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Is an understanding of the historical Jesus of any permanent relevance to Christianity itself? Is it all simply interesting historical background but quite irrelevant to faith itself? Is any historical reconstruction, and not just the preceding one, of any importance ever?

By historical study I mean analysis whose theories and methods, evidence and arguments, results and conclusions are open, in principle and practice, to any human observer, any disciplined investigator, and self-conscious and self-critical student. Abstracting, then, from my own or anyone else’s analysis, is such work mere background scenery, mere optional detail, or is it part and parcel of the whole? Granted, of course, that the historical Jesus is always an interpretive construct of its own time and place but open to all of that time and place, is such a construct always in dialectical tension with itself? (Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p. 199, 1994)

Crossan J D. (1994).  Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. New York, New York.  Harper Collins. pp. 199.

Categories: The Bible

Meta problems with minimal facts

August 27, 2011 Leave a comment

I was going to do a post discussing my personal thoughts relating to Habermas and Licona’s “minimal facts” approach, but upon re-reading Martin’s objections to the full list of 12 “minimal facts” Habermas has previously used (the authors only use 4 of those in this book), having agreed with his objections, and having referred you to them, I believe they are sufficient for my purposes here.

What I did want to do is a very basic treatise on, which isn’t mentioned in Martin’s book, are the meta problems I see with the authors “historical” approach to establishing (a) the supernatural, and by extension (b) the resurrection of Jesus via these minimal facts (obviously I’m not addressing all problems related to them, as I’d be going for days, simply those related to the problem below):

Testimony is never sufficient to establish a supernatural event or miracle

Firstly, what are Habermas and Licona’s “minimal facts”?

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion- p48
  2. Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them- 49
  3. The church persecutor Paul, was suddenly changed-64
  4. The skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed-67

The problem with using personal testimony to establish a miracle or supernatural event, lies in the fact that, if we allowed this, as an acceptable standard, we would then be required to accept all kinds of conflicting/contradictory reports, and supernatural claims. If we allow testimonial evidence to be sufficient to establish the above facts, but not the claims of other religious, or cultish sects, we are guilty of special pleading. Logic begs us consider a reliable method of detection.

If we restrict this, for our purposes, simply to religious claims (and not UFO or Elvis sightings which while not necessarily supernatural, are still extraordinary), I believe the first place we need to start, is revelation. Paul’s, James’ and the disciples supposed experiences and testimonies are used as evidence for the resurrection of Jesus (re: Habermas and Licona The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, pp48-67), presumably based on some form of revelation from God or personal experience.

I agree with Kai Nielsen (see Atheism and Philosophy, pp84-5, 2005) and Norman L. Geisler (see Christian Apologetics, p77, 1976 )  that we may not be able to discount someones revelatory experiences (as revelation is necessarily first person), there is however,  no reason for us to accept the exceptional as true, based solely on their word. As Geisler puts it, the experience may be enough to attest to the truth of that experience for that person, however

“truth finds its source in experience, but not its substantiation” (Geisler, Christian Apologetics, p77, 1976)

Habermas and Licona admit that natural explanations are preferable to supernatural explanations (p82), we must then consider Ehrman who has noted that due to the very improbable nature of miracles (by definition they are the least probable explanation), no matter how improbable the natural explanation for a supernatural event it is always more probable than a miraculous one (re: supernatural event) (for more see Ehrman’s book, Jesus, Interrupted, pp-171-9, 2009).  With that in mind, Richard Carrier explains in his book Sense and Goodness without God, that we can generally rely on testimony, but when we come across a single unexamined experience that runs counter to what is scientifically and logically well-proven we have good reason to reject that experience in favour of more trustworthy and analyzed explanations (p55). Habermas and Licona ostensibly agree with Carrier on p137 when they admit that science has indeed demonstrated that people do not rise from the dead:

“what science has shown is that a person does not rise from the dead by natural causes.”

The authors concede that the biblical testimony they offer in their “minimal facts” is counter to what is “scientifically well-proven”, hence making it subject to immediate skepticism, however they add:

“But this does not apply to Jesus’ resurrection since we are not claiming that Jesus came back to life naturally. The writers of the New Testament asserted that it was God who raised Jesus from the dead.” (Habermas & Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, p-137, 2004)

Does this objection help them though? Now they’ve entered the realm of circularity, as they have made no effort thus far to demonstrate the existence of a god or god’s, which begs the question: is the resurrection evidence for God, or is God evidence for the resurrection? How can they simple assume the Christian God into the equation, without first, demonstrating the existence of such an entity,  that this being would want to bring about Jesus’ resurrection, and indeed, how it did so?

Carrier offers us a natural explanation for the rise of early Christianity: all we would need,  is the belief that the resurrection occurred:

“There is nothing that an actual resurrection would have caused that could not have been caused by a mere belief in that resurrection.” (Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God, 242, 2005)

A Christian may still claim a naturalistic bias (which would be ad hominem), however we see that even in the historical method, testimony is not considered to be very reliable in setting up any historical claims, natural or otherwise, in the sense that, it is the least reliable piece of evidence we can gather, Carrier outlines categories of evidence:

First, what I call “physical-historical necessity.”
Second, direct physical evidence.
Third, unbiased or counterbiased corroboration.
Fourth, credible critical accounts by known scholars from the period.
Fifth, an eyewitness account.” (Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God, p242, 2005)

As we see, testimony begins at third on this list! Even if we deemed testimony to be worthy of demonstrating the supernatural or the miraculous resurrection of Jesus, Habermas and Licona still have to explain how they’re doing it, with the very worst of evidence! They concede that the historical method is not relevant to their case on p135 when they mention that the historian may not actually be able to detect that the resurrection of Jesus occurred since he is

“unable to detect God’s actions with the tools of his trade.” (Habermas & Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, p-135, 2004)

Implying as I’ve stated previously that they must engage in theology/apologetics to discover it, which makes it not a historical search anymore, but rather a confirmation of previously held ideas and beliefs, this may explain why they allow the abundant use of testimony to establish the supernatural.

Continuing, not only is testimony by itself horrible evidence to set up the resurrection, we then have problems with the testimony given in the Bible. For a meta discussion on the Bible’s reliability we turn to Ehrman, again from his book; Jesus, Interrupted (see also Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, ppX-XIV, 1994 for a similar diatribe), who states that we don’t have any autographs of any books of the Bible, only copies written centuries later, all of which have been tampered with and many of them are pseudonymous (e.g written in the name of an Apostle by someone else) (pp12-3). No biblical authors were Jesus contemporaries (the Gospels,were written decades later by unknown authors) (p12), and in the case of Paul, whose testimony is integral to Habermas and Licona’s “minimal facts” effort, did not even meet Jesus in person, only 7 of his 13 letters are considered to be authentic, Acts (the story of the Disciples lives after Jesus execution) is considered to be written around 85-90 C.E, about 25 years after Paul’s death, which makes information about him less than reliable and the Pauline Corpus itself is filled with discrepancies (pp53-6) (for a full elaboration see pp63-70). This is why I charge the authors here with attempting to sneak in inerrancy. They address very few, to none of these concerns within biblical scholarship, they simply assume the Bible as true, or that scholarship is on their side (see Martin’s, The Case Against Christianity, pp88-9, 1991, for more on this).

Christians might chime in that we have corroborating evidence of Paul’s and James’ conversions, and the disciples experiences, which might increase the probability of the resurrection, but it seems to me, confirmation of Paul’s, James and the disciples experiences, via testimony, by the Apostolic fathers and extrabiblical sources (assuming, rather generously their reliability) decades or even hundreds of years later, helps us little, and is circular, given that testimony itself is the very issue at hand.

Finally I want to talk about special pleading, which I believe Habermas and Licona are engaging in, in their defense of the resurrection via testimony. Throughout history there have been other miracle claims by other religions and cultish sects; Apollonius of Tyana, whose miracles, healings, casting out of demons, resurrection (and reappearance to his disciples) are all reported by Philostratus via oral tradition, and Apollonius’ closest disciple Damis in his diary (Price, The Case Against the Case for Christ, pp154-6, 2010). We have the charismatic messiah Sabbatai Sevi, in the 17th century, of whom “contemporary records, rumours and reports survive” (which is all better evidence than that for Jesus’ resurrection). (Price, The Case Against the Case for Christ, p155, 2010). As Price continues, there are also the dying and rising god religions of Baal, Osiris and Tammuz whose rituals and followers are attested to in the Bible itself (see Price, The Case Against the Case for Christ, p157, 2010, for the full details).

There are more examples, Richard Carrier, again in his book Sense and Goodness without God discusses the pagan god Asclepius who has surviving “testimonies to his influence and healing power throughout the classical age are common enough to fill a two-volume book.” We have first hand testimony to his miracles by those healed at his temples, which continues on for centuries (from 4th century B.C.E to 3rd century C.E), going all over the mediterranean. (Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God, p233, 2005). There is the emperor Vespasian who was thought to have cured the blind and lame, and statues with healing powers were common attractions for the sick people of this era (p233). Lunar eclipses were thought to be a monster devouring the moon, or witches using diabolical spells, so when an eclipse occurred people would bang pots and blow horns, to scare away the demons. The list goes on, Proteus Peregrinus (who resurrected), Alexander of Abonuteichos etc all attested to by testimony! When Habermas and Licona dismiss other accounts of religious or cultish miracle workers and sects which are attested to via testimony as they do implicitly (as they are Christians making a case for Jesus’ resurrection) and explicitly (on pp92,142) they are engaging in special pleading.

Conclusion

The fact that believers believed in their religious experiences is no more to the point than any other believer believing in the truth of their deity and experiences, or for that matter, me attempting to justify my atheism because I “feel that it’s true”, or  because  “I don’t have experiences of a god or gods”.

We see that establishing the supernatural via testimony is impossible as it would force us, if we wished to avoid special pleading, to accept all claims given by testimony. We see that even if one doesn’t accept this, we still can’t use testimony that is contrary to established scientific and logically well-proven data. Even if one doesn’t accept this,  by the authors own admission natural explanations are more preferrable to supernatural ones , we see that miracles by their definition are the least likely events to happen, and that any natural explanation is prima facie more probable than a supernatural one, hence a fallible human belief in the resurrection as opposed to an actual resurrection is far more likely. Still, if one doesn’t accept this either, we see that testimony itself is the worst kind of evidence we can have to establish a natural event, hence it would almost certainly be insufficient to establish the supernatural. Still oh obstinate one, if you do not accept that, there is the unreliability of the Biblical account of the resurrection and the resulting testimony and subsequent confirmation by extrabiblical sources (re: decades to hundreds of years later, which Habermas and Licona don’t accept for other supernatural claims).  Again even, if by some insane chance, you accept none of the above, we see that other religious and cult leaders death, resurrection and miracles are established by testimony, viz our first point, if we wish to avoid special pleading we have to accept these as true, if we’re going to accept the resurrection.

From this do I conclude that Jesus was in fact not raised from the dead? Well, no, I don’t make such a claim, only that the evidence I’ve been presented with thus far, is unconvincing to me. I’m a fallabilst, I could be wrong, and I don’t go so far as to say what I’ve written here is complete, I’m sure there are many logical and factual errors, as well as much more that could be said on the subject. But hopefully this investigation gives you some insight into why I don’t accept, at the very least, Habermas and Licona’s portrayal of the events.

References

Carrier R. (2005).  Sense and Goodness without God. Bloomington, Indiana. Arthur House. pp-55,233,242.

Crossan J D. (1994).  Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. New York, New York.  Harper Collins. ppX-XIV.

Ehrman B. (2009). Jesus, Interrupted, New York, New York. Harper-Collins Publishing. pp-12-3,53-6,63-70,171-9.

Geisler N L. (1976).  Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Baker Book House Company. p- 177.

Habermas G R., Licona M R. (2004). The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Kregel Publications. pp-48-9,64-7,82,135,137.

Martin M. (1991). The Case Against Christianity. Philadelphia. Temple University Press. pp-88-9.

Nielsen K. (2005). Atheism and Philosophy. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. pp-84-5.

Price R M. (2010). The Case Against the Case for Christ. Cranford, New Jersey. American Atheist Press. pp-154-7.

Categories: Apologetics, The Bible
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