Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Evidence, Theism, Debates

Recently, The Barefoot Bum posted a blog:
“Theism and Evidence.” Jon also posted an entry on “Two Superb Performances from Atheists in Debate” mentioning how we are prone to argue evidence with Christian Apologists.

Both make very good points. Having been listening to Resurrection Debates recently, and knowing a thing or two about evidence, I thought to highlight a few particulars:

There are two factors about evidence—its definition and its “weight.”

Evidence is “testimony, writings, material objects or other things presented to the senses (such as a view of a scene) that are offered to prove the existence or non-existence of a fact.”

Notice it is comprised of two elements: both the fact (or non-existence of the fact) it is attempting to prove AND the piece of evidence itself. I often see confusion on this in theistic debates.

Imagine we are attempting to prove a woman wore a red shirt. So we call Witness Bob to the stand and he says, “The woman wore the red shirt.” The fact we are trying to prove is “the woman wore the red shirt;” the sensory item we are using is Witness Bob’s testimony.

The evidence is NOT “the woman wore the red shirt.” The evidence is “Bob testified, ‘the woman wore the red shirt.’” This is not merely nit-picking or quibbling over a definition without a distinction.

Part of what we look for, in testimony, is the credibility of the witness, their ability to observe, and their bias. What if Witness Bob is color-blind? Or was in a dark room? Or has an interest in proving the woman wore red? Understand--Witness Bob may be the most credible, honest, forthright individual who genuinely is attempting to testify to the truth, yet by being in a dark room, 100 yards away, and without his glasses on—this calls into the question how viable our “evidence” is, given these factors.

Gary Habermas often employs the same opening speech in which he states, “I am NOT going to do a number of things. I am NOT going to claim the Gospels are reliable. I am NOT going to rely upon scholars; rather I will point out if numerous scholars agree upon something it is because facts underlie their agreement.” (By the way, whenever someone starts off saying all the things they are not going to do, they inevitably fall into the trap of doing them. Dr. Habermas is no exception.)

Yet he then relies upon facts which are ONLY relevant evidence if the witness is reliable. In other words, using our example, he is saying, “I will NOT claim Witness Bob is reliable;”—but then he goes on to talk about how the woman’s shirt is red. If Witness Bob is not reliable—how can we even talk about the woman’s shirt color?

See, he wants to bifurcate the evidence between the sensory item and the fact we are attempting to prove. He does not want to talk about the sensory item, yet then assumes the fact we are attempting to prove!

He does the same thing with 1 Corinthians. The Corinthians received a letter from Paul, who said he received information from unknown persons about Jesus appearing to people after He died. Our evidence is, “Paul says, ‘______ told me, “Jesus appeared to certain people in a certain order.”’” The fact we are attempting to prove: Jesus appeared. The sensory item: “Paul says that they said.” (I should note Dr. Habermas indicates Paul received this from James and Peter. This doesn’t change the issue, the sensory item is still “I heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend.”

One of the things we look for in evidence is whether the witness ever said anything different. Did Witness Bob ever say the woman wore a different color? In Gal. 1:11-12, Paul says the gospel he received, he did not get from a man, but rather from direct revelation from God. Further, although I never see this addressed, one wonders if Paul was persecuting Christians—what was he persecuting them for if he didn’t even know what they believed? Are we seriously saying Paul did not know the claim Jesus was physically raised from the dead when he was going after Christians? I can’t see that helping the Christian apologist.

The first item is to understand evidence is a two-part concept. Both the sensory perception AND the fact it is attempting to establish. Removing one of those concepts from consideration means it is no longer evidence.

Secondly, we consider the “weight” of the evidence. Even though evidence may be admitted because it barely makes the cut, its “weight” may not bear up. It may not be considered very persuasive. An accused’s mother is allowed to testify the Defendant was with her, watching Seinfeld re-runs at the time of the crime. Her testimony (“I observed my son sitting next to me the whole time”) meets the criteria for evidence, but may not bear much weight. The fact the victim points out the Defendant, the Defendant’s fingerprints were on the gun, and the Defendant confessed all cause us to sympathetically question the strength of the mother’s memory as to which particular night the Defendant watched Seinfeld with her.

One frustrating aspect of treatment of evidence in these debates is the claim ALL evidence must be given the same weight. Poppycock.

I don’t particularly care for the phrase, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” as the term “extraordinary” is too difficult to define. To a theist, resurrection is NOT extraordinary. And what is the difference between “extraordinary evidence” and “regular evidence”? I do appreciate the notion behind the phrase, that we require weightier evidence the more a claim is outside our normal observations.

Imagine I told you three things:

1) Yesterday, my brother had lunch with my Father;
2) Yesterday, my brother had lunch with President Obama;
3) Yesterday, my brother had lunch with Elvis Presley. (Lives in Santa Monica, as it turns out!)

As to the first claim, we would not require very much, or strong evidence. Sons eat with fathers all the time. This is within our normal experience. I suspect for most people, my word on the matter, in one sentence, would be more than sufficient.

As to the second claim, we would start to require more evidence. President Obama does eat lunch, so it is certainly feasible he had lunch with somebody yesterday. And we can conceptualize a situation where more proof would be sufficient. Perhaps my showing my brother works in the White House, or my brother’s ticket to a fund-raising event attended by Pres. Obama.

As to the third claim, since Elvis is believed to be dead, and proof that he is still alive would have a HUGE impact on the next day’s newspaper headlines, we would require quite a bit more evidence. My brother’s lunch receipt signed by “Elvis” would not have enough weight to carry the day. Our testimony is certainly not enough. Even my brother’s insistence, to the point of exasperation, that he really, really, really, really saw Elvis is not enough. A picture with Elvis (impersonator?) would not be enough.

As claims go farther and farther from our normal observation, the more and weightier evidence we require to substantiate them. It is absolutely, patently ridiculous to take umbrage you don’t believe my brother had lunch with Elvis by claiming, “Well! Then you can’t even believe my brother had lunch with my father, since it is much the same thing.”

Wrong. Caesars battled wars. Believing a man came back from the dead after three days is not “the same.” It is time to bury the comparisons to Alexander the Great, Socrates and Julius Caesar every time the apologist says, “We have A LOT more information about Jesus than these people, yet you don’t accept the claims about Jesus.”

Great. I have a LOT more information about my brother eating with Elvis—a signed Lunch receipt and a picture—than I have about my brother eating with my Father. Surely you accept both claims as true? No? Why not?

Because we “weigh” evidence in light of the claims being made! Claims of Socrates philosophizing (people philosophize), Alexander the Great overtaking countries (it happens) and Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon (within our normal observation) pale in comparison to supernatural, miraculous resurrections.

The idea we must give the same “weight” to evidence describing normal events, as evidence describing one-time supernatural events is not born out in our normal lives.

Unless you think, “my brother ate lunch with my father” must be given the same weight as “my brother ate lunch with Elvis.”

In which case, I have an autograph to sell you that is invaluable…a 2009 Elvis.

1 comment:

  1. I don’t particularly care for the phrase, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” as the term “extraordinary” is too difficult to define.

    And yet your whole post does just that: defines extraordinary with respect to both claims and evidence. <wink>

    We can see how evidentiary apologists — professional academics — egregiously contradict fundamental evidentiary methodology.

    First, the resurrection is presented as not extraordinary, i.e. not improbable on our background information. William Lane Craig asserts, "That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead."

    Second, as you note, the actual evidence is what we have in our hands, the testimony, and not the facts asserted in the testimony. This is a really terrific point and a point even many lawyers miss (I suspect because the rules of evidence (supposedly) try to improve the veracity of testimony).

    Third, theism is unfalsifiable. Evidentiary arguments are completely irrelevant to unfalsifiable assertions. Making an evidentiary argument for an unfalsifiable proposition is not just incompetence, it's actually lying.

    Again, we can look to Craig: "In order to show that that hypothesis is improbable, you’d have to show that God’s existence is improbable. But Dr. Ehrman says that the historian cannot say anything about God. Therefore, he cannot say that God’s existence is improbable. But if he can’t say that, neither can he say that the resurrection of Jesus is improbable."

    We cannot speak meaningfully about the probability or improbability of Jesus' resurrection. Evidence, therefore, cannot affect the probability of an assertion to which probability is explicitly disclaimed.

    Thus my conclusion: all evidentiary apologists, professional or amateur, are liars or those directly or indirectly duped by liars, and thus lack the competence and/or good will necessary to conduct a rational discussion.