Christianity’s Truth Is Supported By Intersubjective Evidence
I’ve been trying to answer Phil’s points here, and apparently one or the other of us is missing something. In his August 24 post, he contrasts my statement, “faith is often based on objective evidence,” with “the sort of belief one finds in science.” He says,
I have absolutely no prior prejudices in favor of science (over religion), but I have become a huge fan of science precisely because of it’s extremely robust epistemological foundation in checkable evidence – evidence that one can always in principle see for oneself….
If other individuals witnessed this event too, there would be even more reason for believing. And if this event could – ideally, as scientists do all the time in the laboratory – be repeated multiple times, then we could be even surer that the evidence is solid (i.e., that it’s not the result of delusion, deception or trickery) and thus that the theistic beliefs based upon this evidence are reasonable to accept….
Now, however, he tells us that repeatability is not the issue. It’s desirable, but the “soft sciences” can proceed without them. That’s good for him to acknowledge and to articulate. It helps with his penultimate paragraphs, where he tells us,
Tom writes: “If theism is true, then your standard of knowledge is inappropriate to the question of whether theism is true. Thus to insist on your standard of knowledge as the only appropriate one is to insist that theism is false. But insisting is not arguing or demonstrating.*”
I think Tom is confusing “inappropriate” here with “doesn’t give the answer that I want.”
I would find that quite demeaning if I weren’t so busy finding it wrong on other levels. When I said that to require repeatable evidence to support theism was to define theism out of existence, that was quite true. Phil can bluster on about “what it means to be an epistemologically reasonable person,” but if one’s rules of epistemology have the effect, if there exists a personal creator God, he cannot reveal himself to the humans he created, then one’s epistemological reasonability flies out the proverbial window. That standard of knowledge is quite inappropriate to the question of whether there is a God who can be known to exist. All Phil’s protestations aside, that requirement, which I took to be one he was maintaining, most assuredly defines theism out of existence.
The repeatability requirement would guarantee that Phil got the answer he wanted, even if it were the wrong answer.
But now Phil assures us that repeatability is optional, in spite of what he said about checkability and “repeated multiple times.” That’s good. In that case then what I said about his defining theism out of existence doesn’t apply, because I spoke it specifically with respect to the requirement for repeatability. Either I misread him on that, and he has corrected me concerning what his opinion really is, or else he has corrected himself. One way or the other, we can set that objection of mine aside. (I’ll ask him at the same time to set aside his prejudicial error concerning whether “inappropriate” means “doesn’t give the answer I want.”)
Of course we still run up against difficulties of error correction, as Phil has aptly termed it. It’s a valid issue. How do we know we’re not being fooled, as Joseph Smith was, assuming Joseph Smith wasn’t simply lying through his teeth? How do we know we’re not being fooled as Joseph Smith’s followers have been?
Intersubjective error-checking is Phil’s answer. Note that he says the “soft sciences” do not always require repeatability. (There are some ironies associated with that. And more besides, for the statistically savvy.) I trust he accepts that the soft sciences are not the only class of epistemic methods for which repeatability is not required. He has stated it himself with respect to Franz Ferdinand’s assassination: “We have copious amounts of evidence, confirmed by multiple sources.” These are not scientific sources, not even “soft” scientific ones (though they may draw on science for support in various ways).
In contrast with that matter of historical certainty, Phil has brought up other religions’ assertions of angelic revelation or enlightenment, the raising of Lazarus, a rod turning into a snake, the crossing of the Red Sea, the burning bush, manna falling from the sky, water turning into wine, people walking on water, and a man ascending into heaven. These events cannot be known to be true, he says, because they don’t happen today.
At the risk of being overly blunt (not that he wasn’t asking for it), his examples are silly. Phil almost seems to think that belief in God rests on these things. Either that or else he thinks that theism taken generally, or perhaps Christian theism specifically, has exactly the same kind of evidential support as belief that God spoke to Moses in a burning bush. That’s absurd.
So I’m going to ask Phil to be more rational about theism. I’ll try to make it easy for him, in fact. I’m going to make my position on those events as vulnerable as it can be, and then I’m going to show why that’s okay. Here’s why I believe those particular stories: it’s based on authority, pure and simple.
As we all know, the argument from authority is often a fallacy, but not necessarily. I’m quite sure that Phil’s belief in the assassination of Ferdinand is authority-based, and appropriately so. The argument from authority is fallacious to the extent there is reason to doubt the claimed authority holds relevant knowledge and can be trusted to tell the truth. If the authority is known to be fully knowledgeable and fully honest, then we are fully justified to believe what that authority tells us.
Now, you might think that leads inevitably to the question of whether Christians’ source of authority, the Bible, is sufficiently well informed and trustworthy on these matters. It doesn’t. The reason is because the events Phil has been focusing on are quite peripheral. Suppose there was never any independent reason to believe in the burning bush, the manna from heaven, the walk on the water. Better yet, suppose no one ever wrote down any account of them happening, so that no one has any idea that they did. Would theism fail on that account? No. If theism—specifically Christian theism—failed, then those stories and several others in the biblical record (not all, but many) would fall with it; but it has to be in that order. Christian theism (taken broadly) is the reason we believe those things happened, not vice-versa.
In view of that, I hope Phil will find it in him to stop laughing at these stories. It’s unbecoming, on the one hand. On the other hand, it’s question-begging–even in the extreme case of the herd of swine. Phil says we know enough about psychology, neurology, etc. that “this story isn’t believable for a moment.” Really? I’ve never seen science qua science conclude anything of the sort. I’ve only seen science-plus-materialistic-assumptions reach that conclusion. (There’s a long explanation for that, and I won’t take time to go into it fully here.) Or in other words, the reason Phil “knows” the swine story is silly is because he “knows” Christianity is false; but he keeps bringing up things like the swine story in the course of trying to make his case that Christianity is false. That’s approaching things in the wrong order. It’s circular.
The sciences of neurology and psychology are incapable of proving that a man by the Sea of Galilee wasn’t afflicted by demons, or that demons could not send pigs running down a hill. It’s not in their scope or competence to do that. Science qua science speaks to the regular and repeatable, or more technically, to the abstract-able: that which can be abstracted from, or in a sense pulled out of, large numbers of observations. Science is very bad at the one-off event. We have other ways of studying such things. Historical and forensic methods such as examination of testimony, analysis of effects, observation of artifacts, and so on, are far more appropriate to unique events.
What I’m discovering as we continue in this debate is that Phil’s question about the truth of theism is not as clear as he seems to think it is. He has brought up repeatability and then backed down from it. He has told us that science has disproved certain events in the Bible, but clearly that’s not something science could do in the cases he has cited. So what is he asking?
I note by the way that Phil has offered to answer every one of my questions about science’s explanatory adequacy, and to do it in one article. I’m going to say “no, thanks” to that. I’m surprised he would think he could do that; each of those topics has filled multiple books. I’m surprised he would think that the attempt to do it could possibly move this discussion forward. And I’m surprised he’s forgotten what he agreed to in taking up this debate (point 2 here).
I intend to stick with a focused debate. The one real question at hand is epistemology, and how Christians can claim there is reliable, sufficiently error-corrected knowledge that God exists and has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. At least that’s the question as I understand it. But as I have already said, Phil has phrased the question multiple ways: How can we be sure a herd of swine ran down a hill into the sea? How can we be confident Lazarus was raised from the dead? How do we trust the Bible’s stories of demon possession now that science knows that kind of thing can’t happen (begging the question there, I remind you)?
I could ask Phil to ask his question in a more focused, non-question-begging, non-peripheral way, since he’s the one who’s asking. What I’ll do instead is outline the kinds of theistic answers that might guide his question in a more easily discussable direction. We know Christianity is true, and we know it with “error correction,” because:
- There is sound historical evidence supporting the most crucial claims of Christianity, having to do with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
- There are sound philosophical reasons to believe in the necessary existence of the God of theism
- Theism proposes a God who can communicate successfully with humans on his own terms (he is not incapable of correcting errors!)
- Miracles happen in answer to prayer, frequently, still in the 21st century
- Non-theistic (especially materialistic) explanations for human experience are completely inadequate
- Materialistic protestations that science has disproved theism are entirely question-begging
- Other major rebuttals offered to Christian theism, including for example the problem of evil, are weakly supported and/or fail to overwhelm the positive evidence for Christianity
- Although not fully packaged with a bow around it, the Christian explanation for all of human experience is existentially and intellectually satisfying
There, now I’ve gone and raised multiple topics. Let me simplify it down to two: there exist intersubjectively checkable evidences for Christianity, both of a historical and philosophical nature; and objections raised against Christianity do not stand.
If I am right about these things, then Phil is wrong to suppose that Christianity is nothing better than looking for “the answer we want” (hoping he’ll forgive me for bending that slightly out of context), or of evidence-free subjectivity.
And let me add this, without any “if I am right about these things” conditional. Phil has strongly implied, even if he has not explicitly stated it, that Christianity has little intersubjective evidence to support it. That’s utterly false. There are libraries and museums full of intersubjective evidence for Christianity. There is the entire history of the effect of Christianity on the world. I’ve outlined several categories of evidence. Phil knows enough to know roughly what they have to offer.
So I say to you, Phil, it’s time to give up on this theme of yours that theism lacks intersubjective evidence. If you have a question about that evidence—one or two questions, not 20, and on central matters, not peripheral—I invite you now to ask it.