Wednesday, February 27, 2008

William Lane Craig and Kettle Logic, Part 2

During his debate with William Lane Craig, Bart Ehrman was discussing whether it is possible for a historian to affirm a miracle. Here is what he said:

Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and by definition a miracle is the least probable occurrence. And so, by the very nature of the canons of historical research, we can’t claim historically that a miracle probably happened. By definition, it probably didn’t. And history can only establish what probably did.

Craig was expecting this statement apparently and had alluded to it in his opening statement. In his first rebuttal he replied:

Dr. Ehrman maintains that we can never say that a miracle like the resurrection probably occurred because miracles by their very nature are inherently improbable. Now despite what he said, this argument is nothing new. It was already propounded in the 18th century by David Hume in his essay “Of Miracles.” Dr. Ehrman’s argument is just a warmed-over version of Hume’s reasoning.

The first thing I want to say is as far as I know this is not Hume's argument. Hume didn't argue that miracles were unknowable. Here is what Hume said:

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish... When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider... whether it be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact which he relates should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other... and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous than the event which he relates-then, and not until then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.[Hume, "of Miracles"]

According to Hume a miracle is known if its falsehood is more miraculous than the fact that it endeavors to establish. Miracles are knowable.

This statement is a great expression of how a miraculous claim would apply to Bayes' Theorem. Bayes' Theorem is a mathematical expression that can be used to help a person understand whether or not they ought to believe a certain proposition. It produces a number between 0 and 1 representing the probability that a given proposition ought to be believed based upon your own subjective assessments.

It is explained by my brother here, and applied to the resurrection by my brother here, here, and here. Two important terms in the expression are terms which represent the initial probability of a claim and also a term which represents how well alternative explanations fit the evidence.

What Hume is saying basically is that a miracle carries a strong presumption against it. Extremely strong. So to affirm a miracle it would have to be the case that alternative explanations would have to fit the data EXTREMELY poorly. Not just poorly, but EXTREMELY poorly. In other words, the "initial probability" term in Bayes' Theorem is extremely low. To affirm a miracle the term that represents how well the alternative explanations fit the data must also be extremely low. It would have to be about as low as the initial probability term.

So back to the debate between Craig and Ehrman, Craig rolled out Bayes' Theorem and made this point, and explained it all under the heading "Ehrman's Egregious Error". It was a bit of a stunt, and it probably played well to the audience. Bayes' Theorem looks like complicated math, so likely few knew what was being said. Ehrman wasn't prepared to respond to it because he probably didn't even really know what was being said. Craig made the point that if the term that represents how well the alternative explanations fit the data were low enough, then you could conclude that a miracle had occurred.

Technically I think Craig is right. In theory it is possible to know a miracle, and Bayes' Theorem shows this. But for practical purposes Ehrman is right. To say that we can't know a miracle by definition is going too far. But as far as the historian is concerned in the real world you can't know a miracle. You don't control the conditions by which you attain knowledge well enough to have confidence in a miraculous claim. The alternative explanation term in Bayes' Theorem may be low, but it is never low enough to conclude that a miracle occurred. The expression "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is another way of stating Bayes' Theorem, and as applied to a miracle you recognize that the evidence for claims of the miraculous are never good enough.

So this is where Craig's kettle logic once again manifests itself. Bayes' Thoerem does show that you can't go so far as to say that it is logically impossible to know a miracle. But Bayes' Theorem also makes it clear that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Craig doesn't like this conclusion because he knows it is devastating to his position.

So during the question and answer period Craig was confronted with this issue. He was asked to actually use Bayes' Theorem, which is the equation he used to rebut Ehrman, and apply it to the resurrection. Now, this is not a path Craig wants to travel on. He is going to want to avoid inserting real numbers because in conceding the usefulness of Bayes' Theorem he would be forced to admit that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But if Bayes' Theorem is valid in rebuttal to Ehrman, how can it not be valid for Craig? Here is how Craig goes about avoiding the issue:

Question for Dr. Craig: I am very interested in the probability equation you gave. To say it’s probable that Jesus was resurrected, you must put numbers into that equation and get a answer greater than 0.5. I am very interested in what the actual number was and the margin of error for it. And how were the numbers for it determined?

Answer from Dr. Craig: Thank you for that question! Richard Swinburne, who’s a professor at Oxford University, has written a book on incarnation and resurrection in which he actually uses the probability calculus that I have just given. He comes up with an estimate of 0.97 for the resurrection of Jesus in terms of its probability, and you can look at his book for that. I myself don’t use the probability calculus in arguing for resurrection of Jesus. The reason I brought it up is because of the response to the Humean sort of argument that Dr. Ehrman was offering, which I think is completely misconceived because he tries to say that the resurrection is improbable simply because of the improbability of the resurrection on the background information alone. In fact, I think that that probability is inscrutable, given that we’re dealing with a free agent. I don’t see how we can assess or assign specific numbers for those.

When Bayes' Theorem can be used to expose another person's error, then it's a great tool. But in the case where it would also expose Craig's error, suddenly these things are "inscrutable" and Bayes' Theorem isn't useful. But if it is impossible to know what numbers should be involved, then how can we know that Ehrman is wrong when he says miracles are unknowable? If these things are impossible to assess, then the term which Craig says could in theory be low enough to allow knowledge of a miracle can never be known to be low enough. Craig wants to have his cake and eat it too.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

William Lane Craig and Kettle Logic

Willaim Lane Craig debated Bart Ehrman in 2006. I read the transcript soon after this debate ocurred, and just recently listened to it since the audio has become available.

Ehrman brilliantly exposed in Craig what I've heard Robert Price refer to as "Kettle Logic." That is, it doesn't matter if the arguments are consistent with one another. All that matters is that they are pointed at the same target. It would go like this. Suppose I'd borrowed your kettle and I had broken it. When you ask me about it I say "It was broken when I borrowed it, plus it was too weak to hold anything and broke on its own when I filled it, and besides I never borrowed your kettle in the first place." Clearly I'm responsible and will grab any argument to extract myself even if one argument is not consistent with another.

Ehrman exposed this well when he said the following:
But in his own writings he indicates that Mark has a sparse narrative of Jesus being buried and since it's an unembellished narrative, as he calls it, it's more likely then to be historical. I want to know if he still thinks that; that an unembellished tradition is more likely to be historical. Because if that is true, then I want him to tell us whether he thinks that Matthew's more embellished tradition is unhistorical. This is comparable to his comment a few minutes ago that the earliest traditions all agree on something, so we don't have to worry about the later ones. Well, then, tell us, do you think that the later ones are unhistorical?

The Markan passion narrative is more reliable because it is unembellished. That's because unembellished accounts are more reliable and embellished accounts are less reliable. That's a great argument for Craig when it is useful for proving the reliability of Mark. Unfortunately it's not so great for Craig when the same argument is applied to Matthew. But it doesn't matter that this argument is inconsistent with Craig's other opinions. What matters is that it serves Craig's purpose at the moment.

Here is how Craig answered this question in his following rebuttal.

Dr. Ehrman also says, "Is it true that unembellished narratives are more likely to be historical?" I would say yes. This is what his own wish list included, that the earlier the narrative the better. Similarly, the less embellished has a better claim to historical credibility.

This response is pure smokescreen. He's entirely altered the question so that he can defend what is not in dispute. In my mind this was a big score for Ehrman and helped push him to a near draw in the overall debate, or perhaps a close victory.

But Craig scored a rhetorical victory during the debate by once again embracing kettle logic. This time he temporarily embraced a mathematicians tool, only to abandon it when it didn't suit him. That will be the subject of my next post.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Prankster God

I saw this as a Christian and even then this was funny to me. I didn't panic when I heard some foul language and I was old earth, so if you are a Christian and you're the same way you'll probably enjoy this.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Iranian History Lesson

Info for my good friend HP.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Paradigm Shift

I supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq when it occurred in 2003. I voted for Bush twice. I put up a sign in my yard showing my support. The war made a lot of sense to me. Saddam had lost a war with us in 1991, and as a condition of his surrender he had agreed to disarm. All the intelligence agencies indicated that he wasn't disarming. Also 5000 children were dying every month due to U.N. sanctions that deprived kids of medical supplies and food. Starvation is a terrible way to die. I'm a person that is saddened by this type of suffering. I was willing to spend my tax dollars to help. Also, I believed this action would make the world safer. I believed Islam was a little bit crazy. Their doctrines for some reason led them to do strange violent things for seemingly irrational reasons, such as what occurred on 9/11. We needed to stabilize that region.

This was my starting paradigm. But slowly over the next few years certain facts started to undermine this paradigm. The first thing that I recall was the success of the Iraqi soccer team in the 2004 Olympics. I was pleased that they did well, knowing that they wouldn't be taken home and beaten for failure, as would likely occur if Saddam were still in power. President Bush expressed his pleasure at their success. But the players' reaction to Bush astounded me. They attacked him and American foreign policy in Iraq vitriolicly. They seemed to hate us. Those ungrateful bastards!! How can they speak of us this way after all we've done for them? Would they rather be going home to be beaten by Saddam? This made no sense to me. Within my paradigm, that is.

The next step in my shift resulted from contact with some Muslim people. I became friends with a colleague at work from Pakistan. At this point I had abandoned my previous Christian faith, but I said to my Muslim friend "I have to tell you, if I were an alien from another planet and I came to earth and picked a religion simply based upon the behavior of the adherents, I would take Christianity over Islam. Pat Robertson may be crazy, but he's not violent. Same with Falwell or Benny Hinn. You guys are violent. You must be in the wrong." My friend responded by asserting that I am looking at a very narrow window of history. It is true that Islam today appears more violent, in that Middle Eastern countries seem less stable. But consider the last 14 centuries. Islam looks very good in comparison with Christianity when considering that window. Also look at the teachings of the Qur'an. There is no reason to conclude that it is more violent than the Bible. He provided me with some resources to consider his claim. I looked into it.

I found a couple of good PBS documentaries (available at the library) that seemed to confirm his claims. These were Islam: Empire of Faith and The Crusades. Christianity doesn't look so great in comparison to Islam in these videos. I also scoured the internet looking for violent teachings from the Qur'an. I challenged anti-Muslim friends of mine to likewise show that the Qur'an is inordinately violent. There are a few things that aren't great, but certainly no worse than the Bible. One example critics often point to is Sura 9. If you'll look at my comments here, this doesn't really work.

The next component in the evolution of my thinking involved the failure to find WMD in Iraq. Ultimately we want to take military action when there is a threat to our own national security, and WMD was that threat. Without the WMD I started to wonder if this had been a mistake. It was great that people were able to be free, but perhaps if the goal is to make the U.S. and the world safe maybe the half a trillion would have been better spent elsewhere. But I can't blame Bush. The whole world thought he had WMD, as did the Democrats. Perhaps he was wrong, but it wasn't a lie. Bush probably thought he did have them. Still, I have to be unhappy about what Bush did. He may have meant well, but he's the top dog. He has to share some of the blame for this huge blunder. But regardless, we're in Iraq now. We have to finish the job and make the region stable.

My confidence in my Republican president was shaken, but not destroyed. Anybody can make a mistake, and this was an understandable one. Then I watched another show on PBS. Bill Moyer's Buying the War. This was an eye opener. He showed with video clips that this was more than incompetence. This was an effort to persuade us to go to war without good evidence, and the media itself was complicit.

This was very depressing for me. Now I started to think that Bush wasn't just honestly mistaken. He was at best incompetent, and at worst intentionally misleading us. He had gotten us into a war for the wrong reasons. And this war wasn't going well. Deficits were skyrocketing. And there didn't seem to be any good solution. I'm not sure we can afford to continue to fight this war, yet we couldn't just leave. Could we?

Enter Ron Paul at the South Carolina debate. He claimed that they don't attack us because we're free and prosperous. They attack us because we're over there. We've been bombing Iraq for 10 years. How would we feel if China built military bases in our country? How would we feel if China overthrew our legitimately elected leaders and installed their own? We need to look at things from the perspective of how we would feel if these things were done to us.

This was a complete revelation. Is he right? I had to look into it. I started to dig into things and Paul's assertions seemed to be true. I learned other things I was unaware of. One fact hit me pretty hard. It was about the starving children in Iraq. It was the U.S. and Britain that had forced this issue. Apparently Madeleine Albright was asked on 60 minutes in '96 whether the half a million dead children (at that point) was worth it. She said it was. This statement, which received widespread coverage in foreign press, was barely mentioned domestically.

And here was the real kick in the crotch. While I was unaware of this until it was needed as an excuse for war, Michael Moore, who in my view was a leftist crackpot, was well aware of it and was breaking laws smuggling food to these poor starving children in the year 2000! How is it that he, as a liberal crazy person, knows about this and is risking much to do something about it, and yet I as a supposedly more enlightened conservative was so in the dark?

What else am I in the dark about? If I'm wrong, someone please correct me, but there are a few other things I stumbled upon that the press didn't talk about that I think they should have talked about.

1-The U.S. initially may have given Saddam the green light to invade Kuwait
2-Bush the Elder justified the war with complete lies about babies in incubators
3-There is a lot of history worth knowing unknown to most Americans regarding our dealings with Iran that truly justifies their hatred of us
4-The U.S. has killed a lot of people without provocation. Consider tiny Laos, an impoverished country. We dropped more bombs on them then were dropped during the entirety of WWII, forcing residents to live in caves.

Due to this and other revelations, my old paradigm had crumbled. Our supposed free press, which in my opinion had to be amongst the best in the world, in fact could not be trusted to inform the people of what the real issues are. The politicians that I had supported were starting wars for reasons that weren't in fact being made clear at the time, and the real motivations simply weren't noble. The country I thought I lived in didn't really exist. I liked thinking that life was as simple as saying that they're the bad guys and we're the good guys. I liked thinking that we were the greatest nation in the world and the world's hatred of us was jealousy and irrationality. That vision of my country is gone now, and it's a sad, sad day.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Mental Health and Truth

I read an interesting book recently called The Road Less Traveled. It's about phsychotherapy. A major premise is that mental illness is often the result of being unwilling to face reality. In our minds we build paradigms that we use to make sense of the world. The facts of life usually assimilate well into our paradigms. But sometimes they don't. When they don't we have a couple of choices. We can either modify our paradigms or we can ignore reality. Modifying your paradigm can be frightening. For a while you may not be able to make sense of the world. This is like traveling without a map. But when you ignore reality you set yourself up for problems that are usually worse.

One example of this in Peck's book was of a woman that was experiencing severe anxiety attacks. She was married and thought of her marriage as a happy one. She said she enjoyed her job as a clerk in a supermarket. She lived modestly, but thought she was happy.

Therapy brought out some realities though. It turned out that she was a very intelligent person, but during college while getting excellent grades she had suddenly dropped out. She immediately married the "boy next door." He was a mechanic. She took her job as a clerk. Then she started to experience these anxiety attacks. It was always when she was alone, without her husband. She would try to get with her husband as soon as possible, and this would help her cope with her fear.

Further realities began to surface. Why had she dropped out of school? She felt like it just wasn't the right place for her. Everyone was into sex and drugs. This was an effront to her Catholic sensibilities and upbringing.

The real problem was this. She had thought that perhaps she wanted to experience a freer lifestyle, with sex and drugs. But this was a challenge to her Catholic paradigm. The thought of changing that paradigm frightened her, so she withdrew and got married. But those fears resurfaced during moments where she was alone and again free. So she needed to face reality and consider changing her paradigm. Maybe freedom to follow ones desires isn't always so bad, as the Catholic church might suggest.

Ultimately she realized that perhaps she wasn't so happy in her marriage. Her husbands' lack of ambition annoyed her. She conquered her fears and returned to college. This was followed by more financial success. Her husband also became more ambitious and also returned to school. But the woman was forced to shift her Catholic paradigm in order for this to happen.

My own experience was like that somewhat. When I first discovered apologetics it was great. I was voracious in my appetite for knowledge. The more I learned the more it confirmed the paradigm that I already held. But that study lead to other truths that didn't assimilate well into my paradigm. I tried to fight through them, but struggled. I withdrew. I stopped studying Christianity. But I still went to church and I continued to hear the Bible. Every now and then problems with the Bible would again become evident to me. I continued to try to ignore them, but this all came crashing down one day and I resolved to face this issue. But I didn't. I continued to ignore it for a year or so until finally my own conscience demanded it. I faced the issue desiring still to sustain my Christian paradigm, but with a willingness to change it if the facts demanded. And the facts did demand. I changed my view, and in the process probably staved off mental illness.

I've been going through another paradigm shift over the last few months. That will be the subject of my next post.