Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bad Arguments (and Non Arguments) Against the Higher Critics

I keep an eye on Triablogue just to see what they are up to. I mostly ignore all of them except Jason Engwer, who usually does try to formulate arguments. I'm always interested in good arguments against my view. Recently he commented on the beliefs of some skeptics regarding the authorship of the NT documents. My interest is piqued as it usually is when Jason goes into these issues. Perhaps we'll see some arguments this time.

He often starts with a little ad hominem. Those that deny the authorship attributions of all the books of the NT are "a small minority and usually of the more ignorant variety". You're used to this sort of thing if you read Jason regularly, but I find sometimes it's worth wading through the insults to try and find some substance.

Unfortunately there's little payoff in this case. I'll summarize his so called arguments here.

1-Critics are inconsistent in their skepticism, accepting authorship attributions for such writings as those of Tacitus or Josephus on less evidence.
2-Critics assert errors in the Bible, such as the Lukan census, on the basis of the acceptance of extra-Biblical texts like Josephus and Tacitus. This while they are less critical towards these extra-biblical sources (I assume he talking about "critical" with regards to the authorship attribution, though this is not entirely clear).
3-Jason offered a quote from the conservative evangelical Christian Craig Keener who likewise affirmed point 1 above.
4-Writing styles can change with time
5-Sometimes critics are just overly cynical
6-Jason quotes a more liberal scholar that agrees that some critics have gone too far in their skepticism
7-The same liberal scholar also asserts that Bauer's critical theories have been debunked

Notice what's missing here. An actual description of the critical arguments and a refutation of them. This is a constant annoyance to people like Robert Price, who advocates the view that all the NT authorship attributions are not justified. Why doesn't someone actually try and deal with the arguments?

Let me first comment on arguments 2-7 briefly, then I'll come back to the first one.

2-Let's suppose that the authorship attribution to Josephus is wrong. Do we base our confidence in Josephus on the fact that we know his name? No. Even if the author was really a guy named Steve, this author has demonstrated reliability over and over again. He shows the markers of being a reliable historian and he has been proved to be accurate often (not always). That's why he's preferred to Luke.

3-We expect such assertions from Craig Keener. Who cares?

4-Nobody disputes that writing styles change over time.

5-Yes, sometimes critics are overly cynical. Does this show that the arguments against authenticity of a text like Romans are bad? No.

6 and 7-Yes, lots of liberals don't agree with some other liberals. Yes, people constantly assert that the higher critics have been debunked. But why don't we take a look at the evidence, rather than taking the assertions of various people.

Jason's first argument reminded me of something he had written while debating Roman Catholics long ago. I was an evangelical Protestant like him and I admired his work against Roman Catholics. The difference between Jason and me is that I apply valid logical principles to Roman Catholic beliefs and my own beliefs. I don't think Jason does that.

Roman Catholics claim that we must posit an infallible magisterium in order to establish a canon of Scripture. How do we know which books belong in the Canon? How does Jason know that Hebrews belongs in the Canon? Jason says the evidence supports it. But the evidence is pretty weak. We don't even know who wrote it, says the Roman Catholic. Jason's response to this argument was spot on.

It should be emphasized that even if people disagree about which books meet the canonical criterion, the criterion remains the same. In other words, Catholic apologists cannot validate the Roman Catholic approach toward the canon by casting doubt on whether Matthew wrote the gospel attributed to him, whether Jude is an apostolic book, etc. The solution to canonical disputes is to arrive at the right canon, not to just uncritically follow the ruling of a church hierarchy so as to avoid any disputes. If the evidence doesn't support including Matthew in the canon, the solution is to not include Matthew in the canon. The solution is not to just believe whatever the Roman Catholic hierarchy says about the canon so as to avoid any controversies and difficulties. We shouldn't set up a false authority just for the sake of having an authority.

Pretty good stuff. But does this reasoning apply to Jason, or only to Roman Catholics? Scholars don't nit pick Tacitus and Josephus like they do the NT. If they did, and they were consistent, they'd reject the authorship attributions. OK. So what does this mean? Is the solution to therefore uncritically accept everything then? If the evidence does not justify the authenticity of accepting Tacitus, the solution is not to therefore assume all the claimed authorship attributions uncritically. The solution is to reject the authorship attribution to Tacitus. The arguments against the NT authorship attributions stand on their own. They are not dependent on other beliefs regarding Tacitus.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Are You Rapture Ready?

Sometimes as a Christian you have to escape from this normal, rational, disciplined world and just throw a tantrum and express how you really feel. Yikes!!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Brains Hard Wired for Belief

Why atheism will always be a tough sell.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Two Superb Performances from Atheists in Debate

I genuinely believe that Christians typically outperform atheists in formal debate. William Lane Craig almost never loses. The same is true of other Christians. But two performances I've recently heard I score as clear atheist victories. I regard them as among the best performances I've ever heard from atheists in formal debate. These are Paul Draper vs William Lane Craig on the existence of God, and one I heard more recently, Arif Ahmed vs Gary Habermas on the resurrection of Jesus.

Both Ahmed and Draper use a similar tactic that I found to be completely disarming towards their Christian opponents. Rather than overstating their case by arguing that God does not existent or that Jesus did not rise they focus on showing that it is not reasonable to believe either proposition by using illustrations and speaking in terms of probabilities. I will here outline Ahmed's arguments to show how this was done.

Ahmed offered three arguments as follows:

Argument 1

Imagine you have 4 independent temperature sensing devices measuring the temperature of water in a bucket. Suppose they indicate 10°C. You place your finger in the bucket and the water feels quite cool. You assume the temperature reading is accurate.

Imagine instead that the temperature indicates 30°C. You find that to be surprising based upon the way the water feels to your finger, but you might again likewise conclude that the readings are accurate.

Now imagine that all 4 of the measuring devices read 600°C. Would you believe the temperature readings? No. Why not? Because water has never been observed to be 600°C at atmospheric conditions in a liquid state. On the other hand multiple independent witnesses have been observed to be in error. Ahmed cited a case study of such an incident involving multiple witnesses, all of whom were well educated, reasonable people.

Bodies that have been dead for 3 days have never been observed to come back to life. Solid bodies have never been observed to pass through solid rock. Granting that we have eyewitness testimony about Jesus (which most skeptics don't believe anyway) the rational person still rejects belief in resurrection.

Argument 2

Suppose an event has been witnessed that has no current plausible naturalistic explanations. In that case, is it reasonable to assume a miraculous explanation? No. Why? Because in many cases currently unexplained phenomenon were later able to be explained naturally due to knew discoveries or new unearthed facts. For instance regarding meteorites, a man no less enlightened than Thomas Jefferson said that he would sooner believe a witness was lying than believe somethings so preposterous as the claim that rocks fall from the sky. Lightening was thought to be supernatural for a time, but subsequently Benjamin Franklin's showed that it was just a form of electricity. Many other examples could be produced. Time and again events thought to have a supernatural origin at the time have subsequently been shown to have natural causes. A person is justified in thinking similarly with regards to the resurrection in the event he has no naturalistic explanation.

Argument 3

This argument takes Argument 2 to its most extreme. Let's imagine that not only are there no current naturalistic explanations of the resurrection, but in addition the Christian has proved that no conceivable future naturalistic explanation could ever explain the known facts. There's no possible way for the Christian to prove this, but let's imagine that he did. We still should not believe in the miracle of the resurrection. Here's why.

We are being asked to believe that a supernatural event has occurred. We're told to believe it for a variety of reasons, such as the fact that a risen Jesus appeared to 500 people at one time. We're told that 500 people cannot have a collective hallucination. But why should we believe that? Because we have no experience with such a phenomenon.

But we're being asked to believe that a man dead for 3 days has come alive. We're being asked to believe that a solid body can pass through rock. We have no experience with that either. But these are permissible, says the Christian, because we're invoking a miracle here. But if invoking miracles is permissible, then aren't there many other possible explanations for the data. Jesus appeared to 500 and people don't normally have a collective hallucination. Unless a miracle occurred. What if they had a supernatural mass hallucination? What if God replaced the dead Jesus with a copycat version? What if the devil impersonated Jesus after his death to trick us into thinking that he is alive? Once we permit miraculous explanations, how do we adjudicate between competing miraculous explanations? What is the justification for preferring one to the other?

The temptation from skeptics, myself included, is to debate Christians on their own terms. I don't think we have eyewitness testimony regarding Jesus. I think alternative explanations explain the data better than the miraculous explanations. So I want to challenge the Christian on these points and show these things. So we get into reliability, errors in the Bible, markers of fiction and legend, etc. Around and around we go. But at the end of the day I've sort of thought that the very nature of the claim coupled with our experience makes the claim unknowable. So even if I were wrong that the Jesus story makes great sense as legend, this doesn't make Christianity reasonable. Every evidential claim that Habermas threw at Ahmed just didn't stick in the face of his arguments. It doesn't matter that the majority of critical scholars think the tomb was empty. See arguments 2 and 3. It doesn't matter that people are dying for this belief. None of that can overturn the common sense arguments that Ahmed presented.

Habermas clearly struggled in the face of these arguments. He replied by bringing up Near Death Experiences to show that these indicate God, which if true would alter the initial implausibility claim that Ahmed is basing his arguments upon. With regards to argument 3 he claimed that Ahmed's example of appearances being miraculous would require more miracles since there were multiple appearances, so this would seem less plausible. Otherwise he was somewhat muddled. More than one questioner from the audience asked Habermas to simply tell us which of Ahmed's premises he denied. Ahmed had provided his arguments on paper in syllogistic form, numbered, so that Habermas could respond clearly. Habermas initially didn't answer. Finally the last questioner again asked Habermas to identify the premises he denied, and at that point he did identify them, but no discussion was possible about his denial at that point.

The emphasis from Ahmed is on the initial implausibility of the claim of resurrection. This is all very familiar to those of us familiar with Bayesian analysis, but Ahmed has couched the concepts in non-mathematical terms that are very accessible to the average person. Ahmed's thinking is also very linear and intelligible. Contrast this with Habermas. To me it seemed Habermas was just way out classed in this one. Which is not to take anything away from Habermas. He's an intelligent person. I just though Ahmed was outstanding.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Two New Fossil Finds

New whale fossils suggest that early whales gave birth on land. Another find would be the oldest animal fossil ever discovered. It would be 635 million years old, which is prior to the Cambrian Era.

Sunday, February 1, 2009