Friday, October 28, 2005

Proofs that Infinitely Regress And Slippery Slopes that are Actually Bluffs

Proof and Denial
This month one of the theist/atheist dialogs on the web is considering the topic of proof. Looking at peoples' responses to various proofs, the most striking effect of "proof" in the real world is often peoples' response to it: denial. There is no such thing as logic or proof "compelling" people to believe anything at all; people on any side of any conceivable disagreement can vouch for that.

Arguments that Infinitely Regress
In the case of "proof" when relating to the things of God, one common maneuver is "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof", which is simply a detour onto what is necessarily an infinitely regressing argument. If a claim is labeled "extraordinary" then the proof must be extraordinary; but then that extraordinary proof itself becomes a claim which in turn requires extraordinary proof of its own, and the cycle continues. Notice that both ways out of this infinitely regressing argument are effectively blocked: if the next claim in the chain is "extraordinary" then the argument continues with need for further extraordinary support of the new claim; if the next claim in the chain is ordinary then, no matter how plausible, well-supported, and obvious it is, it can be swept away with simply not being "extraordinary" enough. The "extraordinary proof" method is therefore impossible to satisfy, leading either to a further extraordinary claim (in which case further regress) or to an ordinary claim (in which case the disputer simply asserts victory and dissatisfaction no matter how strong the plain old ordinary evidence). The "extraordinary proof" request is therefore inherently impossible to satisfy. It amounts to saying "I will not accept any argument for something extraordinary." Is it really logical that nothing extraordinary should ever happen, or should only be accepted on the basis of an infinite chain of extraordinary support?

Many of us do not actually see the claim of God's existence as anything extraordinary, given how obvious it is that there is a first cause and how likely it is, given the results, that the first cause is purposeful and intelligent. It is likely enough that everything you see about you in the natural world every day is proof of God's existence.

But, other than that, how exactly would someone prove that God exists? For that, God's intervention would count -- maybe some miracles. Not just "lucky" things, but the blind being healed, the lame walking, the deaf hearing. There are lots of miracles in the historical record, some with plenty of witnesses around. But those are extraordinary ...

But what if we wanted to know not just that God existed, but wanted to know God's mind? Even Einstein famously longed to know the mind of God. What if we wanted to hear him talk and see how he would approach life among us? For that, God could manifest himself among us, even incarnate among us if he chose to. Obviously Christianity claims that, in Jesus, God has done just that. To back up that extraordinary claim of who Jesus is, there is much extraordinary proof, more miracles than for any other religious figure in the history of the world including Moses and Elijah, and a proof unrivalled by any religious leader before or since: his own resurrection from the dead. But, then again, that's extraordinary ...

Of course, if God were to do something to catch our attention it would have to be extraordinary. It's no use complaining that we asked for something extraordinary but now that it's happened we won't believe it because it's extraordinary.

The Slippery Slope Is Actually A Big Bluff
The most common argument I have heard against believing that Jesus actually did the things his followers -- and enemies (see the Talmud) -- said that he did is that it is a "slippery slope". Oh what other things we would have to believe based on that level of proof! The worldview would disintegrate into incoherence and superstition! Actually, it would not. I would like to challenge someone to bring forward a claim that I would have to accept on the same grounds as accepting Jesus' miracles and resurrection:
  • multiple eyewitnesses with their identities known and recorded;
  • multiple same-century documents discussing the events in letters and biography (or "hagiography" if you prefer);
  • along with the identities of witnesses, extended descriptions of the events in question with details of events;
  • corroborating information from hostile sources (comparable to the Talmuld's references to Jesus as a sorcerer);
  • persistent belief in the reality of the event amongst a significant number of witnesses;
  • next-generation documents stating that the witnesses of certain events and the beneficiaries of miracles had survived to their own day and related the same accounts;
  • and the extraordinary events having changed their lives so much that they devoted their entire lives to it, to the point of death.

The point? There is no slippery slope. It is very easy to believe the early Christian accounts of extraordinary things based on their incomparably high level of plain historical support for these extraordinary things. Such a belief does not lead irrevocably down some slippery slope to superstition. That argument is a bluff. Unless someone can meet the criteria above, I'd say that I'd called the bluff.

The Proof Is In
Jesus' empty tomb is God's proof to us that our own tombs will be empty on the last day. But what proof is ever undeniable? It is one thing to say that the mere fact that "it is possible to deny it" provides a ledge to stand on; it is another thing to say that that is a good position that results from good logic.


jpe said...

With extraordinary proof, you don't need some crazy, mystical proof; you just need a lot of really reliable regular proof.

given how obvious it is that there is a first cause...

That post on humility came right on time.

Weekend Fisher said...

I'm with the "lot of really reliable regular proof" camp.

P.S. I was thinking of this post when I wrote the humility one, ironically enough. It just strikes me as odd that *that* was the line you'd single out (most people really do find "beginning" to be a stunningly obvious concept), I'd had the general tone in mind myself.

Hallq said...

Minus your last condition, alien abduction and the miracles of Uri Geller qualify. As we live in a free society, believers in neither were put to death. However, I just finished reading about Jim Jones, who claimed to be able to rise from the dead and whose followers willingly killed themselves down in Guyana. Happy?

Weekend Fisher said...

I don't think so hallq. Where is your well-documented multiple-witness alien abduction? For that alien abduction, where are the hostile witnesses who agree that something of that nature happened? You're still bluffing.

Jim Jones claimed to be able to rise from the dead -- so what? I'm talking about that people *saw* him rise from the dead, *documented* that they saw him rise from the dead, etc. down the list.

Don't know who Uri Geller is but if he has proof of miracles (which I don't rule out miracles as impossible) then bring it on.

You didn't come close to meeting the conditions; you're still bluffing. Big difference between someone like Jim Jones who says "I can come back from the dead" and someone who actually has reliable witnesses running all over the known world putting their lives ont he line and saying they actually saw it for themselves.

Hallq said...

Uri Geller

Not sure if all of these are eyewitness, though I know Mind-Reach and the Andrija Puharich one are. Note that you'll have to scroll down a ways before you get to these. Jesus, as you may be aware, never wrote an autobiography. At any rate, that covers bullets 1-3 and 5. I'm not entirely sure what you mean with 6, it sounds non-applicable as Uri is still alive.

For 4, look up The Truth About Uri Geller by James Randi, in which Randi, who calls Uri a fraud, admits he cannot explain all of Geller's miracles.

Let me be clear here: I'm convinced Randi is right. Read his book, you'll see why. But the events are far better documented than Jesus's miracles. If Uri's are easily explained, it is only because there is so much documentation. For example, in Randi's book he says that one of the ways he figured out Geller's scams was by watching video tapes of them. Where are the videos of Jesus's resurrection?

Review, for a moment, the documentation for the resurrection:
-The brief testimony in I Corinthians, which identifies its author (Paul).
-The Gospels, which do not identifiy their authors.
-Documents from a century later claiming two Gospels are first hand acounts, one is a second hand acount, and one is a third hand acount.
-Other later documents on the martrydom of various apostles (including Paul), which sometimes conflict with eachother.

Flimsy as the evidence for alien abductions may be, this is no better. With the abductions, there is at least an undisputed connection between witness as written acounts in more than one case. And two of the most famous alien abductions, the Hill case and the Pascagoula abduction, involved multiple people.

Weekend Fisher said...

Let's go with Uri Geller; it looks like a fun one. Let's say that just for the sake of expediency I'll assume that they meet the criteria posted and grant that he's doing something unusual, regardless of how. Again, assuming that the evidence holds up, that seems a completely sane opinion. After all, even his detractors aren't saying "he's not doing it, it's not really happening." Saying it's a trick maybe, but not saying "didn't happen." So regardless of whether I can explain (say) how he makes a watch stop ticking then start again, I accept the fact that the watch does stop then start again. Even "debunking" it as a trick starts with the assumption that the events in question are actually happening. Again, assuming for expediency's sake that this meets the criteria, then there would in fact be good evidence that he's doing something unusual. You may be pro (say he's psychic) or con (say he's doing tricks), but the fact that he's doing unusual things is not the point in question.

Now, based on the same line of reasoning, I'd say Jesus is doing something worth noticing, something worth investigating. Again, you have the "pro" people saying he's from God (see various Christian documents) or the "anti" people saying he's a sorcerer who deserved death (see the Talmud). But it's really not rationally disputable that he was doing something remarkable.

You raise "the usual" arguments about the gospels. Here's an old reply of mine to "the usual".

You really wouldn't be reeled down some slippery slope to keep an open mind to the fact that something remarkable did, in fact, happen.

Take care & God bless

Hallq said...

Did something remarkable happen? Yes, but not in any sense that shows Jesus was God. Worth investigating? Not now, so long after all the witnesses are dead. Also, the remarkable thing isn't necessarily what the Talmud said - the reference comes in the 4th century, so the rabbis writting it wouldn't have been in much of a position to know the truth.

I could find nothing in your old reply on why we should trust identifications of the authors made a century after the Gospels were written. I was aware of Papias's statement regarding Mark, but its not clear if it refers to the same Gospel of Mark we have, and in any case came decades after the Gospel. On the matter of John, I have to side with the scholars who conclude, based on later date and other factors, that the appendix simply means that the author thought his testimony went back to a disciple.

What do we have, in the end? Good reason to think that Paul and some other people, who knows how many, thought Jesus appeared to them after death. Remarkable, but no more so than that many people think they've been abducted by aliens.

UberKuh said...

This post's title is grammatically incorrect and, frankly, annoying.

I hate when I do it, too, so no worries. I thought you should know.

Weekend Fisher said...

Well, as I began my post, the most typical response to proof is actually denial. "If they do not believe Moses and the prophets, they will not believe even if someone should rise from the dead." -- Jesus

Just keep an open mind. And you can have the "last word" if you like. (I think you're probably obliged to deny being in denial ... )

Take care & God bless

Jason Bradfield said...

I fail to see why Buddhism and Islam do not qualify. Furthermore, what about all of the variety of occultism? Christians in the Middle Ages attested to the ability of witches. Today witches use these accusations to suggest that they really do have special powers. There are a ton of belief systems that fit these criteria.

Weekend Fisher said...

HI there

I found your comment long after it was written. I'll reply and maybe you'll have turned on email comment notification or something.

For Islam, Mohammed didn't actually claim to have done any miracles, and his early followers didn't claim so either. They said the Qur'an itself is their self-evident proof. I've read the thing, and invite you to do the same. No really, the whole thing. So I don't see that as comparable. (Have you read the life of Mohammed? To judge by what his own followers bragged about in his actions, he had a lot of blood on his hands. I'm not remotely tempted to call him holy.)

For the Buddha, sure, some of his teachings are good -- but there also kind of unspecific. "Right path" -- who could argue? But it's also a fill-in-the blank, where someone else has to provide the answer about what the "right path" is.

I did my "due diligence" regarding religions. A lot of people don't -- not just Christians, but anti-Christians too. A lot of people say "Everybody loves their own stuff so it all must be the same." I'd invite you to look closer: It's not.

Take care & God bless