Saturday, December 21, 2013

It's Not the Horizons

Michael Licona spends a lot of time talking about a historian's horizons, but he is like a man trying to use a ruler to measure the radon levels in his basement. Unfortunately, it's not possible to measure radon with a ruler, but Mike doesn't want to hear that. When someone tries to explain how a ruler works, he accuses them of having an anti-radon bias.  He insists that they need to be open to the possibility that radon gas exists, like he is.  What he can't seem to understand is that it's not a question of whether radon exists.  It's a question of having a tool that allows you to measure it.

Among the tools historians use to investigate the past is the principle of analogy which assumes that events of the past do not differ in kind from those in the present.  Since events in the present appear to follow natural law, it is difficult to see how any historian could conclude that a miracle occurred in the past as there are no events within present knowledge or experience with which to draw analogies.   If an event is unlike anything in the historian's knowledge and experience, he has to conclude that it is unlikely.  The principle of analogy doesn't preclude supernatural causes of events, but it has a very difficult time detecting them just as a ruler has a hard time detecting radon gas.

Naturally Licona doesn't like the principle of analogy, but some of his objections to it are pretty silly.
Numerous established modern beliefs would fail according to the principle of analogy. For example, we could not conclude that dinosaurs existed in the past.
Licona doesn't seem to get that it's the principle of analogy. Big reptiles are analogous to small reptiles so there they pose no problem.

He also has some stupid reasons for thinking the principle of analogy unnecessary.
If historians do not follow the principle of analogy, will they find themselves embracing superstitions? I see no reason why this must be the case if proper historical method is applied. We do not interpret Aesop's Fables as history because a highly plausible natural hypothesis is available considering genre. Miracle-claims must be judged on an individual basis. Accordingly the threat of superstition should not prohibit historians from proceeding while being careful to apply sound method.
I don't know about Licona, but the reason I don't interpret Aesop's Fables as history is because they are filled with talking animals.  It is because Aesop's Fables are filled with talking animals that I conclude that the genre is something other than history.  I don't need to decide on the genre before I decide whether to believe that the animals really talked.

Licona is correct that the principle of analogy makes it difficult to recognize unique events, but that's just the nature of historical inquiry.  The historian can only say what probably happened in the past and it is always going to be difficult to assess an unprecedented event as more likely than a common one.  

Licona keeps accusing the principle of analogy of ruling out God and miracles a priori, but it doesn't. If present knowledge and experience could be shown to include miracles worked by God and a past miracle could be shown to be similar to those that are currently known, the principle of analogy could be used to argue for the historicity of the event.  Unfortunately, as Licona's criteria acknowledges, establishing a miracle requires knowledge of that it is the kind of thing God would want to do.

Licona wants to claim that the historicity of the resurrection turns on whether one believes in a God who acts in history, but he can't because he knows perfectly well that a belief in such a God doesn't lead to the conclusion that He acted in any particular situation.  Again and again, Licona is forced to acknowledge that belief in a God who wanted to raise Jesus from the dead is required.
However, if we take into consideration the existence of a God who may have reasons for raising Jesus from the dead, the probability that Jesus rose is increased significantly. For example, if a historian holds that God does not exist, she will also hold that Jesus' resurrection is implausible. However, if she holds that God exists, that he acts within human history and that Christianity is probably true, she is most likely to hold that Jesus' resurrection is quite plausible
Why should a historian take into consideration the existence of a God who may have reasons for raising Jesus from rather that a God who may have reasons for not raising Jesus?  Of course if we beg the question by holding that Christianity is true, we will conclude that the resurrection is plausible.
The failure of billions who have not returned from the dead only warrants the conclusion that the dead are not raised by natural causes. The Christian claim is not "Jesus is risen by natural causes." The claim is "Jesus, the Son of God, is risen" or "God raised Jesus from the dead."40 Can historians a priori conclude that if Jesus is divine he cannot raise himself or that if God wanted to raise Jesus from the dead there is a high degree of probability that he cannot have done so? It would not appear so. 
Actually, the success of billions who have remained dead warrants the conclusion that the dead stay dead, period.   Until someone can be shown to have returned from the dead, their is no justification for limit those who are not raised to "those who are not raised by natural causes."  Of course it is impossible to show that a God who wanted to raise Jesus from the dead couldn't do so but neither is it possible to show historically that God would want to do so.
Since we are bracketing the question of worldview in relation to RH [the Resurrection Hyposthesis], it is difficult to name widely accepted truths that suggest RH. In order to illustrate this point, let us presuppose for the moment that supernaturalism is false. In this case, we can conclude that RH is implausible, since it is certainly not implied by other accepted truths, namely that metaphysical naturalism is an accurate representation of reality. Conversely, let us presuppose for the moment that supernaturalism is true or that God or some supernatural being wanted to raise Jesus from the dead. In this case, we can conclude that RH is very plausible, since it is certainly implied by the accepted truth that a supernatural being wanted to raise Jesus.
Ta Da!  By presupposing that God wanted to raise Jesus from the dead, Licona has turned it into "the accepted truth."

As Dagoods pointed out on a comment on an earlier post "Just because a god could transform me into a giant pickle, does not create an expectation a god would."  Being open to the possibility of a God who can act in history may make the resurrection not impossible, but it does nothing to make it any more than infinitesimally probable.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A New Historiographical Approach or the Same Old Apologetic Claptrap?

In my last post I looked at Michael Licona's assertion that miracles are subject to historical analysis.
We may recognize that an event is a miracle when the event (a) is extremely unlikely to have occurred, given the circumstances and/or natural law and (b) occurs in an environment or context that is charged with religious significance. In other words, the event occurs in a context where we might expect a god to act.
I call this an assertion rather than an argument because Licona never explains how a historian determines that an event is sufficiently unlikely to satisfy the criteria nor does he explain how a historian determines where God might be expected to act.   He simply asserts that it can be done.

One obvious hypothesis when a person starts claiming to have seen a dead person is that he has experienced a hallucination or some other known psychological phenomenon.  How can a historian possibly conclude that such an explanation for appearance claims is "extremely unlikely."  What evidence could there possibly be? Licona deals with Michael Goulder's hypothesis concerning the psychological basis for the appearance claims quite neatly:
We may likewise note that Goulder's psychoanalysis of those who lived two thousand years ago is a highly problematic exercise. As Craig explains: "Psychoanalysis is notoriously difficult even when the patient is seated in front of you, but it is virtually impossible with historical figures."
TA DA!   Psychological explanations for the appearances are now off the table, not because there is any way to eliminate them or to declare them unlikely, but because we can't put Peter and Paul on the couch. This fits quite nicely with the historical bedrock that Licona declares any theory must explain.
1. Jesus died by crucifixion
2. Very shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.
3. Within a few years after Jesus death, Paul converted after a personal experience that he interpreted as a post resurrection appearance of Jesus to him.
Talk about stacking the deck.  If Licona doesn't have to eliminate psychological processes that might give rise to the type of experience in the last two facts, it is not surprising that his resurrection hypothesis is going to come out on top.

Licona resorts to the same trick to undermine Gerd Ludemann's hypothesis:
Psychoanalyzing persons who are not only absent but who also lived in an ancient foreign culture involves a great deal of speculation and is a very difficult and chancy practice. Allison opines that Ludemann's conjectures "are just that: conjectures. They do not constitute knowledge. In recent decades contemporary historians have been more leery than their predecessors of the viability of reconstructing and then analyzing the psycho-histories of men and women long dead .Ludemann appears not to recognize this. Instead, his approach is a methodical skepticism that says, "As long as I can offer a naturalistic proposal that has an ounce of plausibility, I do not need to consider a supernatural one."
Surprise, surprise!  Licona is criticizing exactly what his methodology requires.  Under Licona's criteria, the historian needs to consider any natural explanation that is not extremely unlikely because if he determines that there is one, he is not justified in affirming the historicity of a miracle. I suppose, however, that an explanation with only an ounce of plausibility may be still be deemed extremely unlikely.  Perhaps a cup of plausibility is required before a miraculous explanation can be rejected.  Perhaps the natural explanation requires a gallon of plausibility before it gains priority over the supernatural one. Alas, Licona never explains how much plausibility is enough.

So we can see that Licona is happy to jettison the first half of his historical miracle criteria when it proves inconvenient for his position.  How about the second half of the criteria?  Well, we can see that tossed overboard when Licona responds to Dominic Crossan's ethical objections to the doctrine of the resurrection.

The ethical objection should be offered only after a close examination of the data and a firm conclusion that Jesus did not rise from the dead has been made. Crossan's ethical objection is an emotional, even political, appeal that says, "Can't we all just get along?" But it is not historical. He has put the cart of theological implications before the horse of historical truth.
Once again, Licona is criticizing what his methodology seems to require.  Surely we have to consider the theological implications of the event in question in order to determine whether it is the kind of thing that we might expect God to do.

According to Licona, his approach "differs from previous approaches in providing unprecedented interaction with philosophers of history related to hermeneutical and methodological considerations and applies these to an investigation pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus."  Unfortunately, he still provides no method for determining that Christianity's supernatural claims are any more likely to be true than any others.  It looks like the same old bullshit to me.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Michael Licona on Proving Miracles

I am skeptical that a supernatural event can ever be established by evidence.

Evidence is an effect from which we infer a cause.  If we find a body with a knife sticking out of its back and the knife has little swirly patterns on the handle, we infer that the person whose fingerprints match those patterns is the person who put the knife there. We can do this because we understand the natural processes of cause and effect that lead to the appearance of those little swirly patterns on objects. Just as importantly, we believe that those natural processes are overwhelmingly consistent, if not invariable. If we thought that those little swirly patterns appeared randomly or by divine fiat, they wouldn’t be evidence of anything. We could not say it was Professor Plum with the knife in the library.

 The intellectual tools by which we draw inferences from evidence use the consistency of natural processes of cause and effect. As a result, they can not identify supernatural causes regardless of whether one's world view allows for them. We do not know what effects require supernatural causes and we do not know what effects supernatural causes are likely to produce.

I have finally gotten around to reading Michael Licona's The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, which came out in 2010.    I have done so because Kris Komarnitsky was kind enough to supply me a review copy of the second edition of his book Doubting the Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box? in which he engages with Licona's conclusions on a number of points.   As Licona's book has been so highly praised by Christian apologists, I figured it would contain the best possible explanation of how a historian might go about distinguishing a miracle story that was the product of an actual supernatural event from one that was the product of the usual human shortcomings like superstition, ignorance, wishful thinking, gullibility, exaggeration, and prevarication.

The best they have is pretty bad.  Writes Licona,
We may recognize that an event is a miracle when the event (a) is extremely unlikely to have occurred, given the circumstances and/or natural law and (b) occurs in an environment or context that is charged with religious significance. In other words, the event occurs in a context where we might expect a god to act. The stronger the context is charged in this manner, the stronger the evidence becomes that we have a miracle on our hands, if the historical evidence for the event itself is good. (p.163)

The first question I have is how can the evidence for an event be good if it is extremely unlikely to have occurred given the circumstances and/or natural law?  The simple fact that an event is extremely unlikely given natural law must at the very least put the possibility of the event's non-occurrence on the radar.  If as I proposed above, we draw inferences from evidence based on the regularity of natural processes of cause and effect, it is hard to see how we can ever claim to have "good evidence" of an event that is inconsistent with those processes.

The second question is how the hell can a historian identify the contexts in which a god might be expected to act?  What the hell does "significantly charged religious context" even mean?  What basis other than wishful thinking is there to believe that a god, God, an angel, a demon, or any other supernatural being is any more likely to act in such a context than in any other?  On what basis can the historian claim to know the mind of an infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being?  Not surprisingly, Licona provides no answers to any of these questions.  He simply takes the expectation of God's action as self-evident.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Christmas Jesus

Despite my agnosticism, I still put out the Nativity set every Christmas because I still love the idea of God manifesting Himself in humble circumstances. Like Ricky Bobby, Christmas Baby Jesus is my favorite Jesus.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Why do Historians Consider the Crucifixion of Jesus to be a Fact?

If someone told me that a dead person they knew had come back to life, I think my first question would be "How do you know that he was dead?"  If they didn't have any credible evidence, I think I would be justified is suspecting that the guy had never really died.

Our evidence for Jesus's crucifixion consists of stories passed down by men who claimed to have seen him alive after he had been crucified.  For the most part, however, these stories give us little reason to think that the men were likely to have seen Jesus crucified. As his followers, they had every reason to be in hiding out of fear that they might be arrested and crucified along side Jesus.  So if the men who claim to have seen Jesus returned from the dead mightn't have been in any position to verify his crucifixion and there is no independent corroboration for the event, mightn't that be sufficient reason for a historian to doubt that it actually took place?

Perhaps when the crowd of men with clubs and swords showed up at the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus and his disciples scattered and most of them got away.  Judas, wishing to collect his thirty pieces of silver, simply kissed one of the men who had not gotten away and that man was crucified.  Jesus managed to make his way back to Galilee while his disciples, assuming that he had been crucified, remained in hiding in Jerusalem.  Later when they encountered Jesus in Galilee, they concluded that he had returned from the dead and not wanting the Romans to find out that he hadn't been crucified, Jesus declined to disabuse them of that notion.   I cannot see how that is any more far fetched than the idea that he actually returned from the dead.

I think that the simplest explanation for a claim that a person has been encountered alive is not only that he is not dead, but that he has never been dead.  Before embracing either hallucination or resurrection as the explanation for the encounter, I think a historian would wish to corroborate that the person had in fact died prior to the claimed encounter.  It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which Jesus's followers might mistakenly believe that he had been captured and crucified.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Criteria Embarrassment and the Changed Lives of the Disciples

Christian apologists like to argue that the gospel writers are telling the truth because no early Christian would have invented embarrassing stories that made early Christian  leaders look bad, such as Peter denying Jesus three times.  On the other hand, they also like to argue that changed lives of the disciples are proof of the resurrection because only a real encounter with the risen Christ would be sufficient to explain the transformation of cowardly weasels into champions of the faith.

Sadly, they never seem to notice the inconsistency in their arguments.  If the transformation of the disciples is proof of the resurrection, then their earlier cowardice isn't embarrassing at all.  It is an absolutely essential element in the story.  In fact, the gospel writers would have every reason to make the disciples look as bad as possible prior to the crucifixion in order to highlight the transformative power of the resurrection.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Where Did Peter's Clout Come From?

In the mythicist reconstruction of Christian origins, the risen Christ is analagous to the Angel Moroni in Mormonism and Peter is analogous to Joseph Smith as the first person to experience a revelation of the heavenly being.  Smith figured out at a fairly early point, however, that being first in line wasn't sufficient to maintain control of the movement when everyone claimed to be receiving divine revelations.  Smith found it necessary to proclaim himself the supreme revelator in order to make everyone else's revelations subordinate to his.  He was able to do this by virtue of being the recipient of the Golden Plates and the seer stones from Moroni.  Although there were periodic challenges to Smith's authority and occasional splinter groups, his status gave him the clout to weather them.

In my last post, I noted how Paul claims in Galatians that he received his revelation independently of Peter, and yet, he still acknowledges Peter as his predecessor in the faith.  In both Romans and 1 Corinthians, Paul instructs the recipients of his letters to raise money for the church in Jerusalem. Under the mythicist reconstruction, the only way any of the apostles encountered Christ was through appearances, revelations, and scripture.  Nevertheless, the group in Jerusalem headed by Peter seems to have some special claim to superiority that--to me at least--is not fully explained by the mere fact that Peter was the first one to receive a revelation.

I asked Dr. Richard Carrier about this in an email and he suggested that "Peter started the cult and began the evangelization abroad that created a useful network of dues paying churches and garnered support for his cult-center long before Paul joined it."  While I think that this would explain Paul's deference, I don't think that Paul gives us enough information to determine how and when the practice of submitting offerings to Jerusalem developed or what role Paul himself may have played in that development.

I have a feeling that there is something that Paul isn't telling us that might better explain the basis for Peter's clout.  I'm guessing that it is not as impressive as Smith's Golden Plates because Peter doesn't seem to have been able to maintain as much control as Smith did, but I suspect that it is something more than mere chronological priority.