Response to James’ Opening: Was Jesus Christ Raised From the Dead?
Let me begin by thanking James for his well-constructed and interesting opening. It was very informative and I would recommend it to any reader wishing to get a better understanding of the resurrection evidence—Christian or not. Despite this being the case, I still think James draws the wrong conclusions from the facts. James claims that he affirms the resurrection of Christ because we have sufficient historical evidence that should persuade us to believe in the resurrection. I hate to be there the bearer of bad news, but just because you are persuaded towards an idea, does not say anything about the truth of that idea. For instance, was Eve not persuaded by the serpent to eat of the forbidden fruit? Are we not persuaded to partake in sinful activities every day, but still retain the ability not to give in? Obviously, having the characteristic of being persuasive does not mean that whatever has this characteristic must be good or true.
Furthermore, admitting that the evidence is simply persuasive, is to admit defeat in this debate. Having evidence that is only persuasive and not definitive implies that the evidence is disputed. If the evidence is disputed, we cannot be justified in believing in the resurrection as fact. There cannot be compelling evidence for something if it is not clear that the evidence exists in the first place. James claimed that to be successful in the debate he must make a persuasive case for Christ’s resurrection as a historical event. Even if we can assume that persuasiveness is a deciding factor of truth (or what’s most probably true), the evidence James has provided cannot be considered persuasive. Let’s explore why by looking at the questions James considerately provided for me at the end of his essay.
Question: Can the New Testament be approached as historical documents as James presented in section ? If not, is there an alternative non-resurrection hypothesis?
Sure, they can. However, this is not to say that because something can be approached as a historical document that it should be exempt from skepticism. We must remain skeptical because we know what is purported to have happened and we know how the natural world operates. For instance, people don’t tend to die and reliably come back to life after three days. People do, however, tend to reliably have memory errors and other cognitive biases. Therefore, when interpreting the text, we must appeal to what we already know is the case (i.e. what science tells us). A denial of this is simply to ignore what our best science tells us.
Think about it like this: say historians have an ancient text that claims there was a wizard who could make water disappear after leaving it in a pot for a couple of days. Should historians consider this as valid evidence that a wizard existed? Of course not, because we know about the science regarding water. We know water evaporates and we see it evaporate all the time—we can confidently assume that this is what explained the magician’s acts. We have a natural explanation so we are not forced to accept a supernatural explanation.
This also addresses the second question regarding the alternative hypothesis of Christ’s resurrection. Scientific explanations are the alternative hypotheses. Regardless of how improbable you might think these explanations are, you must admit that we can at least confirm their possibility whereas we cannot confirm that rising from the dead (or any miracle for that matter) is possible. This actually leads quite nicely into my answer for the next question.
Question: Does Christopher have an answer to the several arguments in section ?
I do, and I also have a better, more general, response that addresses all of them since I believe they can all be addressed using the same line of logic. Let me start by saying that just because an event seems improbable does not imply that it fails to explain something or is impossible. For example, it seems improbable that minor changes in the atmosphere might result in major weather changes down the road—yet this is the case (and hence why we cannot predict weather with 100% accuracy). This shows that a natural explanation’s explanatory potential is not diminished just because it seems unlikely.
For naturalistic accounts of the resurrection, James seems to think that because the natural explanations are so unlikely, we must invoke something that is even more unlikely. And since James brought up Bart Erhman, I will also use him as a reference. Indeed, Erhman correctly notes that supernatural explanations/miracles are by definition the least likely event (otherwise we’d be seeing them every day). Before even getting off the ground, this characterization requires us to establish miracles as inherently less probable than any conceivable combination of natural explanations. With this framework in mind, we can now look at the likelihood of the natural explanation and the supernatural explanation.
Natural and Supernatural Events Were Both Unlikely
At first, we find is that the natural and supernatural explanations are both unlikely given the circumstances. To deny the unlikelihood of supernatural explanations is to simply not reason honestly with what the definition of a miracle is. To deny the unlikelihood of natural explanations is to not reason honestly with the context (or to have not read James’ opening thoroughly enough). From here, it follows that we cannot distinguish between which explanation is more likely to have happened. We simply do not have enough information. But what we can do is distinguish between which explanations we know are at least possible (an attempt at finding nomological truths). This is simply a question of what can be replicated/reproduced. There are no documented cases where people have died and come back to life three days later. However, there are documented cases of cognitive biases, memory errors, hallucinations etc. Going back to the assumption that the natural and supernatural explanations are equally unlikely, the ability for natural explanations to be replicated adds just enough to its overall likelihood that it outdoes the supernatural explanation. Natural and supernatural explanations are both unlikely, but natural explanations are a little less unlikely—thus making them more likely than supernatural explanations.
Beyond Nomological Truths to Logical Truths
Is it correct logic to conjecture that natural explanations are more likely than supernatural explanations—even though both types of explanations are unlikely? Just because a natural event is unlikely does not ensure that it cannot happen and furthermore it does not quell the improbability of miracles. The point is that the condition miracles have of being the least probable event actually never changes due to inherently more probable events becoming more or less likely. James’ mistake in logic lies in assuming this point.
We can even see how this plays out formally. We have already established that the ability of an explanation to be replicated increases its probability that it happened in the past. Let us represent the probability of an explanation being true as: p(e). For all es there exist a set of features that cannot be replicated, let’s refer to these features as “x.” In order for replicable features of an explanation to contribute to that explanation’s probability, we can look the explanation in terms of what cannot be replicated (e/(e+x)). The (e+x) comes from adding information about replication to the existing explanation. If we can agree that this is a good way to characterize how information (such as the ability to be replicated) contributes to the probability of an event, the following formula can be used:
∀e: ∃!x: p(e) = e/(e + x)
In plain English, this simply means “for all explanations (∀e), there exist only one set of features that cannot be replicated (∃!x) such that the probability of an explanation being true (p(e)) can be inferred from how the non-replicable features contribute to the explanation (e/(e+x)). Let’s refer to this formula as “f”. If f is true (experiment with the truth value of this formula for yourself by plugging in numbers for variables), then through thought experiment we can plug in natural or supernatural explanations for e. As previously established, supernatural explanations are completely comprised of features that cannot be replicated (otherwise they wouldn’t be called super natural/miracles). Therefore, by definition, a supernatural explanation’s x is larger than a natural explanation’s x and can be represented by the inequality
x(esupernatural) > x(enatural)
Given the truth of this inequality, when you plug esupernatural or enatural into f, it necessarily follows that the probability of natural explanations is greater than the probability of supernatural explanations. The point of expressing the argument this way is not to suggest that because you can put it in a formula, then it must be true. Indeed, there are many untrue things that you can represent with a formula. Instead, the point is to show that my argument about explanations is simple to follow from the definitions of miracles and the context of the Bible. Furthermore, I am not expecting James to comment specifically on the way I constructed the formula. However, that is not to say James has a pass on the implications of the argument.
If James is to continue to appeal to his many sources for evidence suggesting we should take the historical accounts of the resurrection as more persuasive and thus more probable, then he must show were the previously discussed logic breaks down. Specifically, the claim that a supernatural explanation’s inherently improbable nature never becomes more probable than a natural explanation’s probability. If James cannot do this, then it is mere conjecture for him to say that supernatural/miraculous explanations were more probable than natural explanations of Christ’s seeming resurrection—regardless of support from professionals (after all we don’t want to merely rely on appealing to authority when trying to establish justified belief in Christ’s resurrection). Indeed, historians are not exempt from this logic either. It is simply not enough to say, “…scholars accept the New Testament and gospels to be generally historical.” Although the texts might be historical, the historicity of the documents says nothing about the probability of their occurrence. Probability is information, not an actual state of affairs. Therefore, our assignment of probability should be based on information we have available today (e.g. information from scientific replication) and not appeals to the best game in town (although it should be noted that if the best game in town arguments have scientific support then they would certainly help our assignment of probability).
Furthermore, appealing to historians does not get you a free pass around science. Although history is very useful to us, like many things, when it comes up against scientific skepticism, it must yield. Indeed, much of history must work on assumptions that put science before history. For example, the assumption that all scientific laws remain constant over time is necessary because the absence of this assumption would leave scholars unable to distinguish the historicity between accurate historical documents and fictitious documents such as Homer’s Illiad.
Historically Valid but not Historically Reliable
Believe it or not, my position is not to butt heads with historians. I concede that historians (and indeed most likely my opponent) are far more familiar with facts regarding the past. But the point is that this does not matter. Consider the following scenario: A psychologist might construct some theory for a behavior that seems plausible, but if neuroscience or biology comes along and shows that this theory doesn’t line up with what their fields show, then the psychological theory must yield—except perhaps when there are emergent benefits to this “folk psychology explanation.” Further consider this question: how often has it been the case that history tells us about something that contradicts science and go on to accept it as truth? We don’t use history to interpret the natural world, we use the knowledge and the skills accrued by science to tell us about the natural world. In conclusion, although it is possible to set up the historical facts in such a way that miraculous explanations are easily integrated into the framework, the improbability of miracles is not affected and thus natural explanations will always be more likely than supernatural explanations. The evidence James appeals to are indeed historically valid, but not historically reliable.
How does Christopher explain the dramatic conversions of both Paul and James if Jesus had never appeared to them in his resurrection body?
I consider this question already addressed by appealing the logic above. However, for sake of argument, I will nonetheless provide an explanation of their seemingly dramatic conversions. I do this only to emphasize the further implausibility of Christ’s resurrection when we take into account social scientific phenomena that we see every day. Even if we skip over the fact that supernatural explanations are far less likely than any natural explanation, we cannot escape the fact that circumstantial evidence does not compel us to believe the resurrection. Indeed, this circumstantial evidence I am referring to is the purported behavior of Paul and James. This evidence is circumstantial and unconvincing because it explains too much. For instance, it also explains why people apostasize out of Christianity and join religions like Islam. One would simply claim that the radical change in behavior shows that Islam must be true. Of course my opponent does not believe this to be the case so why does he (and others) use this logic in support of Christ’s resurrection as opposed to other similar situations? I am not sure, but this inconsistency in logic shows that we cannot appeal to the radical conversion of Paul and James to establish belief in Christ’s resurrection.
My more general critique of James’ opening will leave some readers wanting more no doubt. However, I am confident that any points James does not feel are addressed by my critique will be brought up in his response to this essay. Furthermore, I think it wise to wait for his critique regarding my claim about memory errors undermining the credibility of the resurrection accounts before delving too deep into that argument. Regarding the current essay, I still believe I have provided a valid response to each of James’ questions that leave the reader with logical and coherent ways of thinking about the resurrection—without having to invoke super natural events. In conclusion, the claim that there is persuasive evidence of Christ rising from the dead is not supported. Thus, the claim that Christ rose from the dead is still not supported.