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Monday, October 11, 2010

A "Biblical" way to escape methodological naturalism, Part 2

This post is 5th in a series.  To save time and effort, rather than reviewing what I've been doing in this series, I will simply point you to the previous posts:

In the last post I covered the story of Numbers 16.  Now I would like to review the story of Jesus and "doubting" Thomas found in the Gospel of John 20:24-31. 

For my purposes in this post the commonalities in these two texts are more important.  Here is a short list:
  • God's servant -- by extension God himself -- is questioned or doubted.
  • One of God's servants proclaims in advance the occurrence of a feat that will put beyond doubt the credentials of the one quetioned/doubted (Moses announces that earth will swallow his opponents/"Scripture" predicts Jesus will rise from the dead).
  • The feat occurs as predicted.
  • Manifest evidence of the feat is witnessed and the witnesses express their conviction that the feat has occurred.
  • The text of the story expresses, directly or indirectly, that the proper
  • reaction of a witness was/should have been conviction that the feat occurred and that God's servant is vindicated.
For the purpose of this post I am foregoing any discussion of whether seeing people swallowed alive by a sudden fault or seeing alive and touching someone you know was crucified, dead, and buried 3 days ago, both of which events were predicted to occur more or less as experienced by people claiming to speak for God -- whether such events produce enough evidence to believe 1.) the events took place and 2.) the alleged spokesperson does indeed speak for God.   Instead, I'm going to assume that they do.

Both of these stories conform to a standard argument found in numerous Biblical narratives that goes something like this:
1.  If  someone claiming to speak for God predicts that God will bring about the occurrence of an event that is
   a.  highly improbable and unknown to the experience of most/all human beings
   b.  beyond the capability of the speaker or any other individual or group of humans to bring about
2.  the predicted event takes place as described by the speaker and at the time predicted by the speaker,
3.  God was speaking through the speaker and he caused the event to take place.

IOW, God demonstrates his existence and intelligence by predicting his performance of deeds out of our ordinary experience and then performing them as predicted.

To save time and space I am simply going to assert that many instances of this type of argumentation can be found in the Bible.   You will find it abundantly in narratives about the wilderness wanderings, the stories of conflicts involving prophets in the books of Kings, narrative portions of the Book of Isaiah, the entirety of the Book of Ezekiel, the Gospel of John, the resurrection stories, etc.  This fact partly invalidates claims that the authors of the Bible and their audiences were epistemologically naive.  The authors would not have resorted to this argument unless they felt the need.  They encountered scepticism in their target audiences and fought against it by marshalling evidence in favor of their claims.  They found this type of empirical argument useful.   How many Thomases were there in the communities amongst which the early Christians lived?  More than one or two, I'm sure.  Likewise, I suspect the stories of the wilderness wanderings take on a hostile, confrontational tone toward the people of Israel because many of the actual early hearers of these stories did not respond in awed credulity.  The "orthodox" Yahwist priests/prophets met a rough reception and paid their audiences back in kind.  Or alternatively, God and/or the human author anticipated the scepticism the story would encounter and provided an empirical argument to forestall rejection and stimulate belief.  The Thomas story puts this tactic on display big-time. 

But we must not skip over a huge qualification.  The Thomas story and all the other examples we can find in the Bible are about empirical evidence shown to characters in the story.   The characters are convinced by the evidence, but the hearing/reading audience doesn't get to experience it; we get to participate in the story by the use of our imaginations.   As a piece of scientific method, this stinks.  I can stand there with Thomas touching a thousand different apparitions in my imagination and learn absolutely nothing about their existence.

The author of the Gospel of John is apparently aware of this; he tries to finesse his way around it by providing us with Jesus's famous follow-up line:  "Because you have seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."  (John 20:29 NIV)  This statement tells us that John's audience should not expect to be given the kind of empirical evidence provided to Thomas.  Second, it implicitly casts aspersions on Thomas's scepticism.  Thomas demanded and got empirical evidence for Jesus's resurrection.  By doing so he missed out on a blessing available to the members of John's audience who believe without it.   We are not told what blessing Thomas missed out on.  We are told quite plainly throughout John's gospel what the blessing of having faith in Jesus is:  eternal life.  Putting these things together, we are presented with a clear choice:  Believe in Jesus without solid empirical evidence for the resurrection or miss out on eternal life.

We should pause to point out that in Thomas's case one may question whether his scepticism is warranted.  As one of Jesus's travelling companions Thomas witnessed the miracle at the wedding at Cana, the feeding of the 5000, and the raising of Lazarus.  With all that accumulated evidence prior to the resurrection, the story told by the women and the other apostles should not have been so unbelievable.  But the readers of John's Gospel are not in Thomas's shoes.  We didn't get to see any of those miracles.  Are we nonetheless open to criticism for being unreasonably sceptical if we doubt the stories of the resurrection?   
Yes, according to John, because we have the books of the Bible!  So we have to add to this empirical argument the premiss that we know the books in which the evidence is presented are telling the truth.   Once again to save space and time I am going to simply assert that the Biblical authors stake their argument on this premiss or something similar.  Note the many times in the Book of Psalms that the psalmist mentions how he learned about Yahweh's deeds from the stories passed down from his ancestors.   There are so many examples in the NT of confidence in the truth of the Hebrew Bible that it hardly needs citation.   That the writings of the apostles were also to be granted this high degree of trust is one of the points made in 2 Peter 2:16-20, a classic text on this topic.

Here I think we can make a better case for epistemological naivety on the part of the Biblical authors.  The sceptic asks, "Why should I trust these writings to tell me the truth any better than any other ancient writings?"  They apparently did not think to provide sufficient evidence to convince sceptics raising these questions hundreds of years after they had died.    Mind you, providing the kind of case that can survive the depredations of time would be difficult in our day.  As difficult as it would have been back then, they could have secured some confirming testimony from enemies of their faith that was not embedded in their own documents and could be verified not to have been doctored by later Christian scribes, etc., etc.

But this is not their approach at all.  Instead, their strategy is to blame the victim.  The real reason sceptics don't have a high degree of confidence in the truthfulness of Biblical authors is that 1.)  they hate God, and 2.) they have already rejected abundant evidence for the reality of God and the truthfulness of the Biblical writings that testify of his existence, character, purposess, and deeds.  There is already sufficient empirical evidence to satisfy someone who was really open to persuasion and for that reason God has determined not to provide any more. (See Luke 16:31)

This strategy is still widely employed by defenders of orthodoxy.   It is also deeply flawed.  If somebody is dead-set against a belief the surest way to reveal his prejudice and defeat him is to present him with a massive amount of evidence.  Instead, this strategy attempts to blame the sceptic for the lack of greater evidence.  This will only make the sceptic more certain that he is right.

Why use this strategy then?  Maybe the Biblical authors weren't so epistemologically naive.  Maybe they knew they couldn't provide stronger confirming evidence because they didn't have any.   Hence they fall back on arguments from authority, character assassination against sceptical critics, and carrot/stick arguments such as that in John 20:29.

To sum things up, then, we see that whatever theoretical promise the "Biblical" method to escape methodological naturalism may have, it is fatally flawed in execution because it hasn't provided any real evidence, only questionable testimonies that somebody else long ago and far away had this evidence.  As a Christian, I find this conclusion disconcerting and frustrating.  IMHO, the only proper responses are 1.)  to rebuild Christian theology from the ground up from within the framework of methodological naturalism or 2.)  give up on Christianity altogether.

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