See here for Christopher’s opening remarks.
See here for James’s opening remarks.
See here for Christopher’s first rebuttal.
See here for James’ first rebuttal.
See here for James’ second rebuttal.
Let me begin by thanking James for his obviously thorough analysis of my essay. It seems as though most of the critical points were addressed in a well thought out manner. However, the main arguments against my position that James employs do not take to heart the implications of my position. I will be happy to clarify points of confusion by addressing specific points that I thought were most relevant to the misunderstandings James or any reader might have. First, however, I want to address a couple of general points about my position.
Psychoanalysis vs. Inferential Statistics
The first thing that should be noted is the distinction between different kinds of psychology. James noted in his conclusion that I am attempting to psychoanalyze historical people and then goes on to fault my position for it. Two things to note on this point. Firstly, psychoanalysis is a type of therapy used to infer behavior based on unconscious drives. What I think James means to say is, “…Christopher assumes [inferences can be drawn from] historical people…” This is because drawing inferences is exactly what I am doing here—not psychoanalysis. The second point is that there is nothing wrong with inferring historical people’s behavior based on what science tells us today. It is certainly not the case that science only applies at the time when we study it. Nonetheless, the reason we are “allowed” to infer behavior is because we have multiple independent samples to makes inferences from. Indeed, having multiple independent samples is an assumption for many inferential statistical analyses. What’s the use of these samples? An inference must be based on something (i.e. a sample). The more “somethings” you have, the stronger your inference is. This is the basic outline for how statisticians (and scientists) go about finding information. In the current situation, I am making inferences about the resurrection story based on what science tells us. It is of interest consider how one could infer that Christ rose from the dead. What independent samples does that person draw their conclusion from? To skip right to the inference without appealing to these is simply bad logic.
Defining “extraordinary” Claims
We are skeptical of Christ’s resurrection because it is an extraordinary claim. However, James says that my naturalistic explanations could be characterized as extraordinary as well—thus warranting similar skepticism. This is actually addressed in the logic section of my first rebuttal, but I’ll touch on it briefly again here. The point is that both natural and supernatural explanations seem extraordinary given the context. Despite this, natural explanations are given a slight edge due to their agreement with what we see in the natural word. James seems to think that because natural explanations are unlikely, you can compare them with miracles. This is a tempting but clearly false way of reasoning. For example, consider the probability of you (exactly you) being born. Think of all the historical circumstances leading up to the moment your mother and father met and subsequently had you. If any of those circumstances had been slightly different then you might not be here. So, in a sense, it is very unlikely that you are here. But does that mean it is a miracle that you were born? One’s mother might certainly think so, but we know that child birth is a natural phenomenon that we can explain with biology. There is no need to say that the child’s birth was supernatural just because that particular baby’s existence was unlikely given all the other possible babies that could have been born instead. James makes a similar mistake in reasoning when he claims that because natural explanations are so unlikely, the only explanation is a supernatural one.
Are Naturalists Biased Against Supernatural Evidence?
This section refers to James’ “substantial proof” complaint. He essentially is claiming that I only require substantial proof when something doesn’t mesh well with my established worldview. This is only partly correct, but I do not think it is a fault. Naturalism, by definition, assumes that what we see is what we got. And “what we got” is the science of psychology that allows us to see how memories could be distorted and eyewitness accounts can be misleading. To scientists, this is substantial evidence! Therefore James’ claim is right and wrong. I do require substantial evidence when something doesn’t mesh well with naturalism, but I also require that same substantial evidence from naturalism’s explanations. The only difference (and hence why I am a naturalist) is that there is real time evidence for one and not the other. If some day we find that people are able to rise from the dead similarly to the way Christ did, then I will adjust my beliefs accordingly. But until then, we must work with what we have, and what we have points to natural explanations.
James makes a strong argument by pointing out that “Philosophers, of different worldviews, debate naturalism in hindsight of other worldviews as well as different tenets of naturalism but Chris wouldn’t say that because of this naturalism is difficult to establish.” This simply is an incorrect assumption about me. I believe that there are objective ways to establish which worldviews are more consistent with what we observe and expect to see in the natural world. Although naturalism is debated in academic discussions, it cannot be denied that naturalism is more consistent with what we see in our everyday life (e.g. we don’t see people rising from the dead). Humans are forced to adopt some type of worldview and this worldview should be consistent. I will be the first to concede that no worldview is without flaw, but this is not to say we cannot establish one worldview as being more consistent than another. In direct response to James’ question, I would absolutely consider naturalism difficult to establish if it was shown to be less consistent than other worldviews. However, this has not been shown to be the case.
For the remainder of the rebuttal, I will pull comments (in bold) from James’ essay and address them individually.
James: “Consider Mark writing 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Mark’s author, in time gap, would be similar to that of a German historian today penning his account of the Berlin Wall falling down in the year 1989. We are just as able to access Mark’s recollection of the past as we can our German historian.”
One important aspect that should be considered about this analogy is that the German historian has access to modern record keeping devices. If that German historian did not have access to these devices, then no, I would not trust him to give an accurate account of the Berlin Wall. Mark’s author, of course, did not have access to modern record keeping devices—or any device that would ensure a document’s unchanged preservation. I would urge whoever thinks this is a good analogy to take that point into consideration. Consider, for instance, why there is progress at all on record keeping instruments. We make progress in the quality of our record keeping because we recognized that it was (and still can be to some degree) an imperfect process. Thus, we are able to distinguish between good and not-so-good history keeping. And this is exactly what I have been attempting to do in this debate.
James: “To begin, a lot of people don’t write peer reviewed articles today but we still trust their accounts. This can be anything from the likes of a letter one sends home via the mail, a personal testimony, or an article on a blog/website. Just because a certain text is not peer reviewed does not mean it is untrustworthy.”
Again, valid facts but the interpretation is off. It is not a question of whether we can or cannot trust sources that aren’t peer reviewed. It is a question of whether we can trust these two types of sources to reliably tell us about important information. I don’t think James truly believes himself when he tries to justify the reliability of historical documents by saying we do not really need peer review to establish what most likely happened. For instance, consider your reaction if you read some random blog article that claimed the world was to end the following day. Most likely, you would not take that information too seriously. But what if your local news station, your newspaper, and even the international news began to report this same story? You may even then not believe such a story, but I wager that you would give it a little more thought than you would the random blog. This is because you trust the credibility of peer reviewed sources (e.g. multiple news sources that get their information from a similar peer review process). I think this difference in trust is something that obviously follows so I’m left vexed at how James can still make his comparison. James is correct in saying that lack of peer review does not entail untrustworthiness. That’s not to say, however, that peer review does not make a difference in our confidence of some event happening. In fact, it makes most of the difference. For example, consider why research that saves lives (such as medical research) must be scrupulously peer reviewed to weed out any potential bias or error. I would be interested to know whether James would take prescription medicine that has not undergone a peer review process. After all, James is making the claim that we can put trust in something as important as Christianity by appealing to non-peer reviewed sources—would James put that same trust in non-peer review medicine?
James: “Secondly, it feels anachronistic to apply a modern 21st century peer review process to ancient writers. It speaks of 21st century bias. Further, our authors of the gospels and New Testament could, and did, fact check their sources.”
The authors of the New Testament did indeed check their sources to a degree. This is not to say that their method of source checking was impeccable. In fact, we have good reason to believe that it was not. We know that the authors had no way of knowing about the various ways by which natural biases could influence their work. Furthermore, the authors had little understanding of how other cultures would interpret and alter their texts to make it congruent with their own traditions. In fact, many cultures that would eventually interpret the Bible did not even exist at the time the Bible was written—making it that much harder for the authors to anticipate multicultural interpretations! This should be especially worrisome for the Christian reader because we know that the biblical texts were handed down through various cultures before becoming the text it is today. So we can be critical of the gospel’s authors and demand that we have extraordinary evidence (or at least some process similar to a modern peer reviewed process). After all, peer-review is how we establish the credibility of incredible claims. Science is full of incredible claims that I would probably never be tempted to trust unless their sources were peer-reviewed.
James: “Such claims of fact checking are prevalent elsewhere in the texts themselves. The authors claim that they’ve fact checked their information with those who were eyewitnesses to the events described, that they checked multiple sources, and so on. That is pretty good fact checking.”
This point is a failure to distinguish sources from facts. Just because sources are being checked doesn’t mean facts are being checked. Sources aren’t always factual. Therefore, historians must remain skeptical. This gives us yet another reason to not fully trust the gospels. Why didn’t God ensure a strictly monitored review process of the bible? We (and historians) should expect an all knowing God to be able to distinguish his book from other ancient religious texts by having it go through a more strenuous review process, but yet, this is not what we find. In fact, what we find is that the Biblical text went through less of a peer review process than many historical texts!
James: “Here Chris immediately takes the guilty until proven innocent approach.”
This statement is just an error in reasoning about burden of proof. The burden of proof is on the person making the positive claim (i.e. saying that there is something as opposed to saying that there isn’t something). The burden of proof is on the positive claim because we assume innocence until guilt is proven. In the case of the resurrection, comparing “guilty until proven innocent” to my claim that “no resurrection until we have evidence” is simply a mixing up of terms. Guilty implies that the positive claim is true (e.g. in a court room when a defendant is shown to be guilty that means the prosecutor making the positive claim won). I, however, am making no such positive claim. I am in fact making a negative claim—much like a defendant in a courtroom would by saying that something is not the case. When you really look at the types of claims being made here, I am actually taking an innocent (nothing happened) until proven guilty (something happened) approach because I do not have the evidence that’s necessary for justified belief in the resurrection. Upon close inspection of this logic, it follows that I am actually not burdened to provide any evidence since I am making a negative claim. However, I can be correctly charged with making the positive claim of memory error explanations, but I think we can agree that I have addressed my burden of marshalling proof for that claim.
James: “But second and third hand testimony is far from bad testimony.”
Once again, I do not think James believes himself when he says this. My response to this will be similar to my response regarding the importance of peer reviewed sources. The first thing to understand is that the need for good quality of testimony is directly related to how important that testimony is. For example, if I heard from second or third hand testimony that it was a good idea to tie my left shoe before tying my right shoe because it helped me increase my intelligence, I actually might try it. After all, what could it hurt? Even though it might not be true, it is of little consequence to act on the assumption that it is true and try it out. Increasing your intelligence by tying your shoe a particular way is not that important of a claim. However, with very important claims, we are not allowed the luxury of discounting the quality of the source. For instance, the claim that Christ rose from the dead and that our eternal salvation is dependent on that being true is quite the important claim! Therefore, we must demand high quality testimony from these sources—not second or third hand testimony. I will leave James with this question: Let’s say that James is going about his normal day. Unexpectedly James receives a phone call from a stranger. This stranger goes on to explain that unless James gets on the next plane to America and join the Green party, the world economy will go into ruins. Because James is the intelligent person that he is, he asks the stranger where he got his information. The stranger informs James that he got his information from a trusted source, who got their information from another trusted source. If James is to be consistent with his logic he would be forced to take what the stranger said at face value and travel to America and join the Green party. But we all know that James would not do this. Why not? Because James actually does not believe the claim that “second and third hand testimony is far from bad testimony”—and neither should anyone else.
The Argument from Memory.
The point of me explaining the memory experiments is to show that the most subtle of changes in the environment can influence your memory—often time without you even realizing. This is not to say that situations similar to the described experiments took place, but instead to say that there is no way for us to know all of the subtle nuances that could have affected critical features of the resurrection story. The challenge for the advocate of the resurrection story is to show why these natural explanations could not have happened or at least that there is a more plausible explanation that is still consistent with what we observe in the natural world. It is not enough to say that because the experiments aren’t exactly the same as the stories in the bible that they do not possess any explanatory power. This asymmetry is not a bad thing. To see why, just consider how most scientific experiments are not exact replications of the phenomenon in question—yet we still trust their validity. For example, we have never created a black hole, but we have equations and other experiments that are consistent with the natural world that explain black hole features. The same can be said for much of neuroscience. Many neuroscientists study the brains of mice or other animals in order to make inferences about human brains that ultimately create life-saving drugs that save millions of people. I could keep going with examples, but I trust the point has been made. Sure, it would be nice if we could replicate the exact circumstances of the resurrection, but this is not needed. It should be clear that the strength of my argument lies not in the ability for me to map features of the experiments directly onto features of the resurrection account (as James suggests), but instead lies in the ability for the experiments to reproduce errors that the sources of the text were also susceptible to.
Does the skill of rote memorization generalize to other areas of memory?
I’m surprised James did not address the study I referenced by Patihis and colleagues (2013) that showed how even people with superior memory are just as susceptible to memory errors. James has successfully made his case that the ancient Jews prided their selves in memorization. But memorization is not to be confused with accurate memory. After all, I made the case in my opening that the only reason a functioning memory system works in the first place is because they are built from a network of error susceptible mechanisms. It simply does not follow that because there was a culture that was skilled at memorization that we should believe whatever they say. For example, I suppose that Hitler was a pretty smart dude and would further wager that he could probably memorize more material than me. Should I then believe everything he says? Of course not. So should I then believe the Jews just because of their superior memory ability? Not necessarily, in fact, the Jews themselves don’t even believe in the resurrection yet James is using their own culture to support its validity. If these people with such great memory don’t even believe their own historical accounts, why should I or anyone else for that matter?
James: “Bauckham thus comes to the opposite conclusion of Chris saying that “We may conclude that the memories of eyewitnesses of the history of Jesus score highly by the criteria for likely reliability that have been established by the psychological study of recollective memory”.
Perhaps few people are aware of this, so allow me to be the bearer of bad news here and inform everyone that Dr. Bauckham is not a memory researcher. A quick google search of Dr. Bauckham will reveal that he has never been involved in applied memory research of any kind. Furthermore, he seems to mainly publish in religiously oriented journals—how convenient. I wonder why, if his conclusions are so powerful, he has not been able to get published in a mainstream scientific journal where other memory researchers publish. Dr. Bauckham might come to a different conclusion than me, but I think we can confidently assume that his inclination towards this conclusion is due to a strong bias from his faith. If Dr. Bauckham had a research degree in memory or cognitive science, I might be more inclined to take his conclusion seriously (or perhaps if his research was in a reputable journal with a high impact factor).
The reason Dr. Bauckham’s claim is antithetical to actual memory research is because he has no way of knowing the various subtleties that could potentially influence the memories of witnesses—despite his claim that psychology has established his position. The psychological study of recollective memory does not support the idea that the witnesses of the resurrection events score highly by the criteria for likely reliability. This is because James and Dr. Bauckham are skipping over the distinction between recollection and accuracy. I mentioned in my opening how recollection is enhanced by emotion, but it is a slippery slope to then assume that accuracy is also enhanced. One more time with meaning—enhanced recall does not mean enhanced accuracy. Now that we know emotion does not increase accuracy (just attention) we find we have much more room to be skeptical of eyewitness accounts. Furthermore, we simply must be skeptical about people lying. There are hundreds of religions in the world and if you are a Christian you must accept that the authors of other religious text simply fabricated historical events to add credibility to their stories. Are the authors of the Bible exempt from this temptation? They are not.
Furthermore, I would be curious to know if Dr. Bauckham would conclude that eyewitness testimony of Islamic miracles are just as reliable as Christian eyewitness testimony. I highly doubt that Dr. Bauckam would come to the same conclusion. Because of this, we can conclude that his interpretation of memory research is inconsistent at best and we should not take his conclusion seriously just because he has a degree in theology. For readers who are interested in real emotion and memory research/theory I would direct you to Reisberg & Hertel (2003). One thing to note about this source is that it is a compilation of many researchers (peer reviewed) as opposed to just one person from Cambridge.
James made some very good counterpoints to my argument that an untrained eye might fall victim to. However, many of his arguments only hold water if you skip over important distinctions (e.g. memory recollection vs. accuracy). Furthermore, weakly supported assumptions about science (e.g. wrong assumptions about the methods of science), naturalism (e.g. wrong assumptions about the epistemology of naturalism), and history (e.g. misplaced trust in historical claims) prevented James from making a withstanding argument that Christ rose from the dead. Ultimately, it will take miracles being performed today in real time to convince any rational person that miracles took place in the past. However, I am willing to concede that perhaps Christ did seemingly die on the cross and subsequently was placed in a tomb. I am willing to concede to this because there are still natural explanations that could explain this—James detailed some of them in his opening. The main point is that the natural explanations will always be there—preventing miracles from encroaching upon our historical understanding of the world. This implies a quite unfortunate outcome for the Christian because even if there were scientific explanations for Christ’s rising from the dead, those explanations would not be considered miracles anymore! They would be considered scientific explanations! So even if James could explain detail for detail what happened, the resurrection would then lose its status as a miracle. It seems that the only way out is for James is to assume that natural explanations contributed to the resurrection account and that perhaps Christ did awesome things, but Christ never performed miracles or rose from the dead.
Patihis, L., Frenda, S. J., LePort, A. K., Petersen, N., Nichols, R. M., Stark, C. E., … & Loftus, E. F. (2013). False memories in highly superior autobiographical memory individuals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(52), 20947-20952.
Reisberg, D., & Hertel, P. (Eds.). (2003). Memory and emotion. Oxford University Press.
[…] remarks. See here for Christopher’s first rebuttal. See here for James’ first rebuttal. See here for Christopher’s second rebuttal. Conclusions […]
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Chris, thank you for your posts. You seem like a very brilliant person! However, I believe that you haven’t quite adequetely applied your memory or psychological principles to the state of the early Church. I would love to hear you talking about hallucinations or memory dissonance with regard to the early Christian proclamation. Thanks a lot! Looking forward to more posts by you