Thursday, 21 July 2011
Not the Impossible Faith
By Richard Carrier
Can we agree that "Jesus rose from the dead" is an extraordinary claim?
Even if we can, so what?
What is an extraordinary claim, really, and does it really need any special kind of evidence to support it?
Whether we call something extraordinary obviously must depend on what we're calling ordinary. A claim that a miracle occurred will perhaps not seem extraordinary to people who are already convinced that miracles happen every day. They therefore will, with some justification, accept evidence that will not convince us who doubt that any miracle has ever happened.
Apologist criticisms often reflect a suspicion that the maxim "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is employed less as a standard for rational evaluation than as an excuse for rejecting out of hand any evidence for any claim contrary to a secular orthodoxy.
And in fairness, some skeptics do sometimes seem to saying something like:
- An extraordinary claim is one that we're already convinced cannot be true; and
- Extraordinary evidence is any kind that we know you can't produce.
We might start by remembering that no evidence, ordinary or otherwise, can prove any claim in a mathematical sense. Facts about empirical reality can never be established to that level of certainty. We can justify what we believe, but we can never with perfect certainty rule out the possibility that we are mistaken.
We can get close, though. Broadly speaking, evidence for a claim is a set of facts that justifies belief in the claim. The facts justify the belief if they logically imply, to some significant level of probability, that they are inconsistent with the falsity of the claim. The higher that probability, the stronger the evidence is said to be; and if the probability approaches certainty, then we may say the evidence is conclusive.
But conclusive evidence can be quite ordinary. A corpse, whether or not it can be identified, is conclusive evidence that somebody has died, but there is nothing extraordinary about a corpse.
Now, the claim "Somebody died" is itself pretty ordinary in the usual sense. As far as we know, death happens to everyone. Also as far as we know, it is always permanent, at least for humans and other mammals. People who do die stay dead, without exception.
Such is the common experience of humanity. All people have witnessed death. Almost no people have witnessed any dead person returning to life. That "almost" is necessary because there are people who claim to have seen at least one dead person return to life. Those people are very few, but they exist.
And, their testimony is evidence of something. But of what?
Mistaken or dishonest testimony is also part of humanity's common experience. We are all subject to error in our perceptions and memories, and we all know that. Some people also tell lies. We all know that, too.
It is also part of common experience for people to tell stories that they know are not true but don't expect anyone to believe. We call these stories fiction. They are usually told primarily for entertainment, but they are sometimes intended also for enlightenment of some kind.
It also sometimes happens that people who hear fictional stories believe they are hearing factual history. Therefore, while testimony of a resurrection could be evidence for a resurrection, it could also be evidence for any number of other events. Other relevant facts might help us decide how best to account for the testimony's occurrence. I propose now to define an extraordinary claim as one that is inconsistent with well justified beliefs based on the common experience of humanity. Let us call the those beliefs conventional beliefs. I then suggest that the evidence required to support such a claim should be sufficient to falsify those conventional beliefs. Such evidence would be a set of incontrovertible facts that are logically inconsistent with our conventional beliefs and therefore compel the inference that those beliefs are untrue. If it can be demonstrated by a cogent argument that the facts in evidence are inexplicable except by supposing that the conventional beliefs are wrong, then we have our extraordinary evidence. But if the conventional beliefs can explain the evidence, then the evidence is not sufficiently extraordinary to support the claim.
Extraordinary evidence although it might be intrinsically ordinary, must be extraordinarily in its implications. If it is offered as proof that a natural law has been violated, then the violation of a natural law — and nothing else — must be the only way to account for it.
In other words, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is a kind of restatement of Occam's razor. If our conventional beliefs can account for the evidence, then we don't need any new beliefs.
Conventional beliefs as I have here defined them would include any consensus of the scientific community. Although science affirms things that seem to go beyond common experience, the scientific method leading to such affirmations is ultimately based on common experience. This is what the principle of replicability is all about. Any person can, in principle, do any of the experiments on which any scientific theory, no matter how counterintuitive, is based.
If this seems to stack the deck in favor of conventional thinking, then so be it. Our survival as a species historically has depended, and still does depend, on our being reluctant to change our beliefs when our beliefs have served us well. Of necessity, it ought to be difficult to convince us that lessons we have learned and confirmed by long experience should be unlearned.
But the value of being resistant to changing one's mind does not imply a greater value to being immune to it. The challenge is to figure out when we cross the line between prudent resistance and imprudent obstinance. It is a challenge not easily met, and there is no good formula universally agreed upon that anyone can use to define the line.
What we could all agree to, though, is to give each other credit for some good faith.
Every one of us, skeptic and believer, holds to certain ideas that it would be extremely difficult to convince us are wrong. For good or ill, we are not going to believe that something happened contrary to those ideas just because a few people say it happened. Rationalists are by no means the only people who insist on extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.
Where we are perhaps trying to be different is in our attempt to objectivize the distinction between the credible and the incredible. When we call a claim extraordinary, we are merely noting that you are asking us to abandon a fundamental belief about how the universe works. We are no more ready than you are to do that just on somebody's say-so, no matter how reputable that somebody is.
Applying this to the resurrection, I can describe a body of very ordinary documentary evidence that, if it were discovered, would convince me that Jesus of Nazareth was seen alive by his disciples after his execution. Whether I would infer from that that he was God's only begotten son is another issue, but let's take this one step at a time. I am in no way obliged to accept his divinity until I am first convinced of his resurrection.
Many apologists say that (a) there is no great likelihood that the documentation I want would have been produced, and (b) even if it had been produced, there was little probability that it would have been preserved. In other words, they suggest, for this miraculous claim I am asking for miraculous evidence.
I don't agree that the creation and preservation of those documents would have been improbable to the point of miraculous if the resurrection had in fact occurred, but that's really beside the point. The point is that their existence would have required nothing like the sort of divine intervention that presumably effected the resurrection.
The documents I'm talking about could have been produced in the ordinary course of events. People see things and they write about them. We know it happens. It is part of the common experience of humanity. If it had happened in this case, then those writings could have been preserved the same way all other surviving documents from the past have been preserved.
But let us now stipulate the improbability of there ever having been such evidence of the resurrection or of its having survived into modern times. One of the following must then be true.
- The documents never existed because the resurrection never happened.
- The documents never existed because, although the resurrection happened, nobody who knew about it wrote anything about it at the time.
- The documents were produced but were not preserved.
- The documents were produced and still exist. They will be found someday, but nobody knows where or when.
The apologists claim that #2 is most likely and #3 a possibility. I assume they allow #4 as a theoretical possibility, but they certainly aren't holding their breath.
Anyway, evidence not known to exist must, I would suggest, be treated as nonexistent. We are obliged to base our beliefs only on evidence known to exist. We can always change our minds when the evidence is actually discovered.
That is what I hope I would be honest enough to do if those documents do get found. But they have not been found, and as far as anyone today knows they never will be.
Now some apologists raise an odd argument at this point. We have stipulated the improbability of there being such evidence even if the claim were true. According to those apologists, if evidence for a claim is prima facie unlikely to exist, then I am not justified in rejecting the claim on grounds of insufficient evidence.
But why not? The logical relevance of evidence has nothing to do with the probability of finding it. A belief cannot be supported by nonexistent evidence, no matter what the reason for its nonexistence. If a claim is extraordinary, and the known evidence has an ordinary explanation, then Occam's razor rules against the claim.
The apologist will say that in following this reasoning, I am ruling out a chance at eternal life. Actually, that does not logically follow, but even if it did, it's a risk I am obliged to take. "If you don't believe X, then something bad will happen to you, therefore X is true" is fundamentally fallacious. It cannot justify belief in any X, never mind one that looks improbable on its face.
None of this means that an extraordinary claim must be false if its proponents cannot produce the evidence skeptics ask for. A truly scientific rationalist would never argue, "You haven't convinced me, therefore you must be wrong." But still less can the believer argue, "I could be right, therefore you must be wrong."
We're talking here about justification for one's own beliefs, not about a standard under which any of us is entitled to demonize those who disagree with us. Not that there aren't plenty of skeptics as well as believers who deserve some demonizing. Like any other tool, the methods of critical thinking are susceptible to abuse by those unskilled in their use. But the appropriate remedy is not to blame the tool.here.