Why Arguments are (almost) Never Convincing: A Dynamical Systems Approach to Belief Change


What I want to do in this piece is outline a perspective for thinking about belief systems and how people change (or don’t change) their beliefs in response to new arguments and evidence. The key observation that motivates this analysis is that in general, when people have a particular entrenched perspective with respect to an issue or subject, it is very rare that they find any new evidence or arguments sufficiently persuasive to significantly change their beliefs. I have been thinking about a model that would have to explain why this is the case, a model which incorporates concepts from physics and dynamical systems theory. That might sound very complicated, but I think the key idea is relatively simple. I am not claiming that this approach is exhaustive or completely accurate, but rather that it may be a useful way of thinking about when and why people change their beliefs, and why they seldom do. My focus here will be on disputes surrounding complicated and controversial matters such as politics, religion, and philosophy, though the model my be applicable elsewhere as well.


Imagine a bowl with a marble in the middle, lying stationary at the bottom of the curve of the bowl. If we jiggle the bowl around, or push the marble up one side or another, it will roll back down towards the centre. It may jiggle around for a while, rolling up one side and down the other, but eventually it will return to rest at the centre of the bowl. This behaviour corresponds to that of a potential energy well in physics, whereby a system has a state in which its energy is lowest, to which the system tends towards as a result of the overarching tendency to reach its lowest energy state. Perturbations away from this minimal energy state will generally only be temporary, and eventually the system will return towards its ‘preferred’ state. In the language of dynamical systems, this state is described as a stable equilibrium, because if the system (in our example the system consists of the bowl and the marble) is perturbed slightly one way or the other, it will eventually return to its initial resting equilibrium state.

Now imagine that we placed two bowls next to each other, and joined together their edges so that they were connected by a smooth, curved edge, sort of like two sinks nested next to each other in the same bench. If we placed our marble exactly halfway in between the two sinks, we could get it to rest there without moving. However this equilibrium state, unlike the one where the marble is in the middle of one of the bowls, is unstable, since a small nudge in either direction will send the marble rolling into one of the bowls, never to return. This illustrates the key point that in contrast to stable equilibria, unstable equilibria are not robust to small perturbations.

Now imagine that we place a third, much smaller and shallower bowl in between our larger bowls (again with the edges smoothly joined), but placed on a platform so that its top is level to the top of the other bowls. This may be slightly more difficult to imagine, but essentially it would correspond to a shallow sink placed in the same bench in between two deeper sinks. A marble placed in the centre of this smaller will remain there and will return when subject to small shocks. However if we push the marble with enough force, it will have sufficient energy to exit the central bowl, travel over the curve connecting it to one of the larger bowls, and fall down to the centre of this bowl. From this location, it will obviously not be able to return to its original position in the shallower, central bowl. In the language of dynamical systems theory, this central bowl is called a locally stable equilibrium – it is robust to small perturbations, but not to larger ones. Note that it is also possible in theory to knock the marble out of the larger bowl all the way over the lip and back into the shallower central bowl, however this would take a very large push indeed. Thus we say that the larger bowl is a more stable, ‘lower energy state’ (in physics terminology) than the central bowl.

A final concept that I need to introduce is that of a dynamical system. The precise technical definition of a dynamical system is not of interest to me here, and would detract from the key logic of the argument. What I mean by ‘dynamical system’ is in particular a system which changes over time in a manner which is (in some sense) ‘recursive’, such that changes of the system depend upon the current state of the system. A simple example would be differential equations, which are equations whereby the value of one variable (say x) depends on the rate at which that variable is changing with time (dx/dt), which itself depends upon the current value of x. The key property is that many such dynamical systems can evolve in quite complicated ways, leading to some solutions which are stable (corresponding to equilbria discussed above), and others that are not. Dynamical systems evolve over time in what is called the state space, which corresponds to the set of possible values that all the variables could take. A simple example of a dynamical system is a pendulum. The system is dynamic because the velocity of the pendulum depends on the height of the pendulum, which in turn obviously depends on past velocity values, producing a potentially complicated temporal trajectory. The state space consists of the possible values of the height of the pendulum and the rate at which that height is changing. As the pendulum moves from side to side, speeding up and slowing down under the force of gravity, the pendulum moves through the state space, constantly changing its velocity and position values.

The Model

Having outlined some key concepts, I will now apply these ideas in understanding belief formation and change. The key idea is to consider the process of belief formation as a dynamical system seeking to find the ‘lowest energy’ state. Imagine viewing our set of bowls from above. Our marble corresponds to a particular person, and the marbles position in and around the bowls represents that person’s current set of opinions and beliefs about a specific subject; ‘where they are at’ intellectually. We can describe movement in three dimensions: north and south (the ‘y axis’), east and west (the ‘x axis’), and up and down (which corresponds to the depth below the top of the bowl). The position along the x-axis represents one’s opinion on one particular specific question, while the position on the y-axis represents one’s opinion on a different particular question. The depth below the top of the bowl represents one’s degree of confidence in one’s overall set of positions. It should be noted that for any sufficiently complicated issue there will be far more than two particular questions of relevance – they may be dozens or even hundreds. Mathematically there is no limit to how many dimensions a dynamical system can have, however for simplicity of visualisation we will stick with only two for this example, always bearing in mind that for real world examples we would always wish to extrapolate out the analysis to many more dimensions.

The system is said to be dynamical because each individual evaluates the x- and y-axis positions interdependently. That is, it is not the case that they arrive at a position on the issue corresponding to the y-axis and then independently decide upon the issue corresponding to the x-axis. Rather, they consider both issues simultaneously, so that the plausibility of a particular position along x is judged in relation to the position along y, which in turn is judged with respect to the position along x, and so on. The overall degree of confidence (depth) then depends upon how well one’s views on the two issues cohere or fit together, and so will also vary in accordance with the positions along the x- and y-axes.

Sometimes it may seem to us that with respect to a particular issue, different people have opinions that are spread ‘all over the map’, with each person being similarly confident in their individual set of beliefs. In the context of our model, this would correspond to a situation where hundreds of marbles were thrown into a flat-bottomed swimming pool, each at the same depth (degree of confidence), spanning the entire range of views along the x- and y-axes. In practise, however, I think this is a relatively rare outcome. More typically there are a few particularly deep wells that seem to serve as attractors for opinions, with only a few people residing outside of these deeper wells. Each of these wells, or deep bowls to use our previous language, corresponds to a particularly common set of positions on the subject in question. The reason these wells are so common is because they are self-sustaining, or in the language of dynamical systems, they are stable equilibria. Small changes in beliefs along either the x- or y-axes will not have any significant long-term effect on the system (the individual’s set of beliefs), which eventually will return to its initial state at the bottom of the well. The reason few people reside in between the major wells is because these positions, being much ‘higher up’ (corresponding to the connections between bowls discussed above) are unstable equilibria, where small perturbations in beliefs will lead to that individual ‘rolling down’ into one or other of the surrounding wells, arriving at a new stable equilibrium.

Applying the Model

To provide an example for this rather abstract model, consider the issue of the truth of Christianity. In this broad issue, two (among many other) specific questions would be that of whether the cosmological argument for the existence of God is found to be persuasive, and whether the historical evidence for the resurrection is found to be compelling. In theory, any possible combination of positions on these two issues is possible. In practise, however, probably only three main subsets of beliefs will be found: those who find neither argument very compelling (atheists and agnostics), those who found both compelling (Christians), and those who find only the cosmological argument compelling (some Muslims, Jews, and generic theists). Of course other combinations and intermediate positions are possible, but in general views will tend to cluster around these three positions. The reason for this, I think, is that these positions constitute attractor ‘wells’, such that people whose views are nudged in the direction of one of the wells are likely to fall into that well, seeking the lowest ‘energy state’ (i.e. a position with a high self-sustaining degree of confidence).

I think there are two processes key at work that lead to this outcome. The first is the interdependent way in which people analyse different specific arguments: those who are compelled by the cosmological argument are likely to find the evidence for the resurrection more persuasive, which in turn can feed back and increase one’s confidence in the cosmological argument. Conversely, a skeptical attitude towards one of these is likely to contribute to a skeptical attitude towards the other, thereby in turn reinforcing the original skeptical belief. In this way particular clusters of beliefs corresponding to ‘potential wells’ are likely to be far more stable than other possible clusters of beliefs, and thus result in these clusters being far more populated. The second process is that people tend to seek greater confidence and certainty, and this is likely to be found when their set of opinions on particular issues is mutually coherent and reinforcing. Again, this leads to certain particular clusters of beliefs, corresponding to the self-sustaining potential wells, to be more highly populated than other possible positions.

The combined effect of these two processes explains why people with intermediate or conflicting views on many particular questions are relatively rare. These people are not highly confident because their views are not mutually reinforcing. As such they seek out new arguments and evidence and are much more likely to change their views in the direction of greater coherence. Intermediate positions are thus unstable or only locally stable, so small perturbations (consisting of exposure to new arguments and evidence) are much more likely to push them into more stable potential wells. Once in one of these wells, however, opinions are much more stable. Even when confronted with potentially powerful counter-evidence on one particular question, the combined force of all one’s other positions (forming the coherent, mutually-reinforcing position) serves to pull one back to the original, stable position near the bottom of the well.

The only time when most people will move out of their wells is when they are subject to very large shocks, or enough moderate shocks in a relatively short span of time. Large enough shocks, or enough additive smaller shocks, may be enough to push someone out of their potential well and into the unstable area that lies between opposing wells. From there they may eventually return to their original well, or find themselves in an opposing well. Either way, it is unlikely that they will remain in the intermediate position for long, since this corresponds to an unstable or only locally stable equilibrium, where beliefs are not mutually reinforcing to a large degree and hence overall levels of confidence (corresponding to the depth of the potential well) remain low.

Virtues of the Model

This model can allow us to understand not only why people tend to cluster around a few particular positions (sets of beliefs about particular questions), and why people seldom change their belief when exposed to new evidence, but also why people sitting in opposing ‘wells’ (stable sets of beliefs) tend to react in exasperation at the ‘irrationality’ of each other. Consider the example of an atheist providing one argument in favour of their position. A christian evaluates the argument not in the context of the atheist’s set of beliefs (where the argument is persuasive), but from the context of their own set of beliefs. Because their set of beliefs is very different, and also because it is mutually coherent and stabilizing, the christian will either not consider the argument to support atheism at all, or they will not regard it as sufficient evidence to move from their current position (again, because their current position is a stable equilbrium, robust to even moderate shocks). The atheist seeing this intransigence to (from their perspective) such an obviously reasonable argument, regards the Christian as unreasonable and irrational. Exactly the same process occurs in reverse when the Christian presents arguments in favour of their viewpoint. As such both sides become polarised, viewing the other as unreasonable or irrational.

This model can also explain another puzzling phenomena: when the same evidence is claimed by different people as supporting their own, mutually incompatible positions. In the context of our model, this corresponds to a push in the same ‘direction’ leads to very different subsequent movements in the state space of possible positions. The explanation for this behaviour is that the way people respond to evidence and arguments (‘pushes’ or ‘perturbations’) in a dynamical system does not depend only on the size and direction of the push, but also on one’s current position in state space (i.e. one’s current set of beliefs). As such, the very same evidence (push in the same direction) can be interpreted by both the atheist and the christian as supporting their existing set of views. This renders the idea that ‘evidence speaks for itself’ as essentially impossible, since the manner in which evidence is interpreted depends upon one’s current set of beliefs.


I think it sheds quite a bit of light onto the process of belief formation and change, including explaining why people tend to congregate into groups with particular sets of beliefs, why once arriving at such a stable equilibrium in a ‘potential well’ people are unlikely to change their beliefs, how different people can react so differently to the same evidence, and why people on both sides of an issue can plausibly see each other as being intransigent and irrational. I think the model can also account for why substantial belief change is rare but possible, since it requires sufficiently large or sufficiently many shocks to one’s beliefs, and these shocks are (plausibly, in many cases) randomly distributed across people, substantial belief changes will occur but only relatively infrequently. Supposing we take this model as useful and informative (though certainly not complete), how should we respond? What effect, if any, should this have on our discourse and belief forming process? My honest answer is that I don’t really know, I’m still thinking this through. I think that overall the model paints a pessimistic picture of prolonged and resilient disagreement, where each side regards itself as rational by its own lights. I suspect more can be said here, but at the moment I’m still uncertain as to where to go with this analysis. Nevertheless, I think it does highlight the importance of intellectual humility and of respectfully considering opposing positions from a sympathetic viewpoint.

Why Climate Change Won’t be Quite as Disastrous as you Thought


In this piece I thought I would share my views concerning global warming. My goal is to explain why I do not consider climate change to be quite the extreme or existential challenge that some portray it to be. I argue on that basis of the time scale involved, the adaptability of human socities, the role of technology, and by historical analogy, that climate change will be a considerable problem, but not a totally unprecedented or insuperable one.

Climate Change

Kevin Rudd once said that “climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation“, and many others have echoed this sentiment. In an article on The Conversation written by several health academics, it was stated that “human-driven climate change poses a great threat, unprecedented in type and scale, to well-being, health and perhaps even to human survival”. This sentiment, that climate change is a uniquely pressing problem that posses grave risks for the very survival of humanity, or at the very least of modern technological civilization, is in my anecdotal experience rather common. I don’t wish to get distracted by debating the details of these particular quotes – I use them merely to illustrate what seem to me to be common attitudes, at least among the circles I tend to frequent. I disagree with such sentiments, at least to some extent, and in this piece I hope to explain why.

First, I must make clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that climate change is not real – it is. I am not saying that it is not largely the product of human activity – it is. I am not saying that it will not have on balance substantial negative impacts on mankind – it will. I am not saying that we should not take action to prevent and/or mitigate the effects of climate change – we should.

My disagreement concerns something like ‘how much’ of a problem climate change represents, or ‘how worried’ we should be. I think we should be ‘concerned’, but not ‘extremely concerned’. I think climate change represents a ‘considerable problem’, but not one that is ‘unprecedented’ in scope or scale or degree. I think that climate change is in part a moral issue, but not the ‘greatest moral challenge of our generation’. I also do not believe that climate change poses any significant risk of actual human extinction, or even of the collapse of technological civilization.

Having hopefully made my position (relatively) clear, I want to now give some sense of the reasons why I reject some of what I consider to be the overly alarmist rhetoric about climate change. For convenience I will group these considerations under a number of subheadings, though in practise there is some overlap between them.

Adaptive Ability

I believe that human beings and human societies are, fundamentally, quite flexible and adaptive – or at least can be when they need to be. One piece of evidence for this is the fact that even before the industrial revolution humans inhabited almost every  conceivable ecological region of the planet, utilizing whatever tools, resources, and social systems were necessary to survive in sometimes some exceptionally harsh environments (deserts, steppes, tundra, etc).

Furthermore, human beings continue to go about their lives in regions of civil war, anarchy, political upheavels, famine, even genocide. I’m not saying that such events aren’t enormously disruptive, they certainly are, but what strikes me in studying such events is that always and inevitably, life goes on. I have no idea how people manage to survive day-to-day during events like the Russian Revolution or the Second Congo War or the Syrian Civil War, but somehow they do. People adapt. They innovate. They get by. They find a way to survive – and sometimes even to thrive, even in the most inhospitable environments and circumstances

Time Scale

One reason I am somewhat less concerned about climate change compared to other problems is because I believe the relevant timescale is not always properly considered. For example, the IPCC typically talks about the amount of warming that will take place by 2100. Although this date is arbitrary, what is clear is that the relevant changes which have occurred and will continue to occur take place over a time span of decades, not months or years. This substantially increases scope for adaptation.

Take sea level rise in fifty years time. How many buildings are more than fifty years old? How many are more than 85 years old (the time until the 2100 ‘cutoff’)? I don’t know the answer, but the point is that buildings and other infrastructure don’t last forever. Sea level rise therefore isn’t (at least in most cases) a matter of sudden inundation like in the movie The Day After Tomorrow, but rather a question of gradual loss of land and and increased depreciation of buildings and infrastructure. We already face similar problems with corrosion and soil erosion. This isn’t to say sea level rise won’t be a problem, but merely to somewhat recontextualise the extend and magnitude of the problem.

Consider also the question of climate refugees. Perhaps the most pressing example is Bangladesh, a very low-lying nation with a large and very poor population. Bangladesh will soon have a population of 200 million. Where are all these people supposed to go if most of them become climate refugees? Would this not be a refugee problem of totally unprecedented proportions? While I agree this would represent a very substantial problem and do not wish to underestimate the suffering and political instability that relocating 200 million Bengalis would represent, nor do I think is it helpful to overestimate the difficulty.

First, we are not talking about 200 million refugees all at once, but over a period of several decades, as climate change becomes more and more difficult to adapt to and forces increasing numbers of people to flee their homes. Second, every decade India accommodate an additional 200 million people in the form of population growth. Now of course this is not the same as accommodating refugees, but nonetheless we see that adding 200 million people to the population in a fairly short time is not totally infeasible for a nation like India.

Third, Bangladesh has already experienced two extremely traumatic periods generating millions of refugees in much shorter periods of time, namely the Partition of India and the Bangladesh Liberation War. Certainly such incidents caused immense suffering and political upheaval, but my point is simply that it didn’t cause the region to collapse into barbarism or perpetual civil war and discord. Life went on. Somehow people dealt with the crisis. I discuss this idea in more depth in the final section.


I am slightly old-fashioned in that I am still of the opinion that, overall, technology (broadly understood) represents one of humanity’s great achievements, and holds great promise for helping us to respond to the challenges of climate change. I’m not saying that there will be one amazing silver bullet that will save us from having to worry about climate change at all. Rather I think that, as has occurred many times in human history, a host of new innovative technologies will emerge in response to particular challenges of responding and adapting to climate change. None will by themselves totally prevent any particular problem, nor even will they do so collectively. I do think, however, that technology will considerably reduce the impact of climate change, and substantially increase our ability to adapt whist in many cases maintaining and improving living standards. Let me give just a few examples of the sort of thing I mean.

Climate change will have negative implications for crop yields in many parts of the world, owing to changing rainfall patterns, changing temperature, etc. However, we already have the ability to grow crops in artificially controlled environments, and to provide water through irrigation. There is also plenty of water on the oceans, it just takes energy to make it potable. Now all of these methods are expensive and not feasible in all circumstances and on all scales, but that is precisely my point. I don’t see it as an issue of ‘we won’t be able to grow enough crops anymore’ or ‘there won’t be enough water’. Rather it is a question of developing and deploying the appropriate technologies to deal with changing circumstances. This is fundamentally a technological question. We will need cheaper and more reliable sources of energy, among other things, but again, that is a problem that technological development has real scope of solving.

I am not saying that every problem posed by global warming will have a simple, specific technological solution (‘hey we can just get enough water by using a bunch of nuclear-powered desalination plants – easy!’). I don’t know what the particular solutions will turn out to be, or that it will be easy to develop technological solutions to every problem. Rather, what I am trying to do is recast many of the issues that I think people wrongly think about in fixed ecological terms (‘we only have so much farmland/fresh water and if we lose some of that we won’t be able to manage’) into, as I think is more reasonable, questions of cost and technical feasibility (‘with less freshwater we’re going to need to find cost-effective methods of desalination or similar methods. These new energy solutions look promising…’). I see what humanity can do not as fixed by nature, but as constantly changing as we learn new and better ways to use what nature has given us. I believe that considering the impact of climate change more in these terms can help to take the sting out of some of what I consider to be excessive pessimism.


I have already discussed a number of historical comparative cases, but I want to expand further on this idea. It is my belief that lack of historical perspective contributes to exaggerating the extent of present difficulties and crises, and as such I like to compare current and future challenges to those humanity has faced in the past. Although details are often different, the fundamental question of interest to me is how adaptive human social, political, and economic systems are to massive shocks and disruptions, and therefore how concerned we should be that such systems will be significantly impaired by the effects of climate change. It is my view that history furnishes with a number of examples of much more catastrophic events than climate change, all of which occurred at times when our ability to respond to them were significantly lower (owing variously to lack of technology, communication, developed economies, sophisticated political structures, etc). But nevertheless humanity managed to survive these challenges, and in some cases even flourish like never before in their aftermath.

Germany in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War is one of my favourite examples of this. The country lay completely devestated after six years of war and three years of intensive bombing by the allies. Millions were homeless, and millions more refugees were arriving after having been expelled from Eastern Europe. The government had been completely destroyed. Yet within ten years, at least the west part of the country was experiencing a so-called ‘economic miracle’, which would restore its living standards to among the highest in the world.

What is relevant about such past examples is not merely the sheer number of people killed or displaced, but also the enormous extent of physical destruction, and the immense strain and disruption experienced by extant social, economic, and political systems, often occurring over relatively short periods of time. Bearing this in mind, I would invite readers to consider such events as the Thirty Years War, the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, the Russian Revolution and subsequent Civil War and famines, the French Revolution, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the Taiping Rebellion, the First World War and subsequent Flu Pandemic, the Great Bengal Famine of 1770, the 1931 China floods, and last but not least, the Mongol Conquests and (following fairly shortly thereafter) the Black Death. That civilization (globally or locally) was able to survive and even flourish in the aftermath of these tragedies is quite astonishing to me, nevertheless it happened. Such historical cases give me hope that humanity is much more resilient to crisis than some of the more extreme climate change doomsayers seem to think.


Climate change is a big problem, and we as a global community should be doing much more about it than we are. Unfortunately many people still don’t even believe that climate change is occurring, or that we should do anything about it. As such, some may argue that my piece here is counterproductive, that I am giving ammunition to those who deny the reality or severity of the problem. In my view, however, neither the causes of truth-seeking nor of environmentalism are furthered by holding or propagating exaggerated and misleading notion. Climate change alarmism only gives ammunition for climate-deniers who use any opportunity they can to score rhetorical points. It was therefore my goal in this piece to emphasise that while climate change is a substantial problem, it is not an insoluable one, nor totally unprecedented in severity or magnitude, and nor does it pose a serious threat to the survival of humanity as a whole.

The Problem of Evil: Still A Strong Argument for Atheism


In this article I will consider the problem of evil, one of the main arguments against the existence of an all-good and all-knowing God. This article is written largely in response to a conference on the problem of evil I attended recently at which Christian apologist John Dickson presented keynote lectures. As such, much of my discussion, in particular the ‘inconsistency response’ which I critique at length, are inspired by his remarks at this event. However this piece is designed to stand alone, and so is not structured as a point-by-point critique of Dickson’s arguments. Instead, I discuss a number of issues which I think are of relevance to this question.

First I begin by presenting a simple ‘naive’ argument from evil, setting the groundwork for a discussion and critique of a common rebuttal to the argument, namely that the problem of evil requires a presupposition of theism and therefore is self-contradictory. I argue that both of the key premises of this rebuttal, namely that an atheist must presuppose moral realism in order for the argument to work, and that moral realism cannot be justified under atheism, are both false, and therefore the inconsistency rebuttal dependent upon these premises is unsound. I then present an improved, inference to the best explanation form of the argument from evil, and consider various criticisms of this form of argument. I conclude that the problem of evil remains a powerful argument in favour of atheism.

A Naive Argument from Evil

I will begin by presenting what I describe as a ‘naive’ argument from evil. I describe it as ‘naive’ not in order to denigrate the argument (which I think is promising albeit in need of further refinement), but merely in order to distinguish this simple, generic version of the argument from evil from more sophisticated, specific versions of the argument that have been advocated in the philosophical literature. It is something like this ‘naive’ argument that atheists often raise and theists often respond to in more popular discourse, and therefore I think it useful to frame the discussion for much of the remainder of this piece. The argument is given as follows:

P1. There exist a large number of horrible forms of evil and suffering for which we can see no greater purpose or compensating good.

P2. If an all-powerful, all-good God existed, then such horrific, apparently purposeless evils would not exist.

C. Therefore, an all-powerful, all-good God does not exist.

Note that the conclusion could be interpreted as being arrived at with deductive certainly, or (more plausibly), as being established by the argument as probably true to some level of certainty. Logical versions of the problem of evil are much more difficult to defend philosophically than evidential versions, but I don’t wish to get distracted by such distinctions here, so readers may feel free to interpret the above argument through either lens.

The Inconsistency Response

One common avenue of response to the problem of evil is for a theist to argue that the atheist critique of the ‘problem of evil’ is self-contradictory, depending for its force upon the existence of God in order to argue against God’s existence. The idea is that if atheism holds and God does not exist, there cannot be any objective existence of evil or suffering, for to make any sense of such concepts requires the existence of God, whose perfectly good being serves as the grounding of all notions of goodness, and against which the countervailing notions of evil and suffering can be contrasted. Without God providing grounding for goodness, therefore, there can be no evil and no suffering, and so in appealing to these concepts the atheist is actually contradicting themselves, unintentionally furnishing an indirect argument in favour of the very God they seek to disprove. We may summarise this response in the form of the following syllogism:

P1. In order for the argument from evil to be sound, it must appeal to an antecedently established source of objective morality.

P2. Under atheism, there can be no source of objective morality.

C. Therefore, the argument from evil is unsound.

I reject both premises of this argument. In the next two sections I shall successively explain why I think each of them is false. My purpose is to show that the problem of evil survives this popular criticism against it, and thus retains its force as a reason for disbelief in an all-good, all-powerful God.

Is the Problem of Evil Self-Undermining?

Beginning with the first premise, I do not agree that it is necessary for the atheist to appeal to any notion of objective morality or evil in order for the argument from evil to be sound. This is because the argument from evil can be understood as a form of reductio ad absurdum. Such arguments work by assuming the truth of the conclusion they wish to critique, and then demonstrating that this leads to absurd results. On the basis of these absurd consequences it is therefore reasoned that the contention in question is impossible (or at least unlikely) to be true.

In the case of the problem of evil, all that is needed is a recognition that certain states of affairs prevail in the world that possess properties contrary to the purported nature of God. For example, natural disasters and diseases cause millions to suffer and die for no apparent purpose. Such occurrences are contrary to God’s nature to be caring and loving towards his creation, not wishing them to suffer without reason. We therefore may use words like ‘evil’ to describe such occurrences, not in the sense that the hurricane was malevolent, but in the sense that the states of affairs resulting from such occurrences are contrary to God’s alleged good nature. Once we recognise this contradiction between God’s purported nature and the actual state of affairs in the world, we arrive at the reductio portion of the argument. Namely, that if a God with a god nature did exist and was all powerful, the world should be absent of horrific pointless suffering this being against God’s nature. But this is absurd, for the world abounds in horrific pointless suffering. Thus we infer that God does not exist.

The crucial point to realise about this argument is that it does not require the atheist to present a grounded, objective conception of evil or suffering in order for this argument to work. Rather, all they need to demonstrate is a conflict between an all-good God and other facts about the world. Thus the response that this argument ‘presupposes the existence of God’ thus entirely misses the point, since presupposing the conclusion one wishes to refute is precisely the point of this line of argument, and does not represent some sort of mistake or defect. The idea is to presume the truth of the conclusion and then show that this leads to absurd results. This type of argument is used widely in philosophy and indeed even in mathematics, and responding to such an argument by asserting that it ‘presupposes the conclusion it seeks to refute’ demonstrates a lack of understanding of a basic tool in logical reasoning.

Does Atheism Entail Moral Nihilism?

Proceeding now to the second premise of the rebuttal, I will argue that there is in fact no good reason to think that atheistic worldviews are in principle incapable of supporting objective morality. In my experience this alleged incompatibility between atheism and objective morality is seldom actually argued for by those making this argument, but rather it is merely asserted. What reason is given for this exactly?

Morality, at least under one understanding, consists of a set of propositions concerning the goodness or badness of certain actions and/or states of affairs. What exactly is the reason for supposing that such facts cannot pertain in the absence of a God? There are numerous serious accounts presented in the literature as to how such propositions might be instantiated or justified in a naturalistic framework. Indeed, I think it is much more plausible to argue that we suffer from a plethora of competing accounts for how this could be, rather than a complete lack of any such proposals as the theist claims.

In order to justify the claim that no naturalistic accounts of morality are viable, therefore, one would need first to demonstrate the inadequacy of all serious proposals for a naturalistic morality, and furthermore provide an argument for why no similar future proposal could possibly work. Usually I find virtually no attempt to do the former, and only very weak arguments made in defence of the latter. Below I briefly respond to a few common points that are often made when criticising atheistic morality, and show why they are fallacious. Note that the particular forms of the arguments I quote in italics were written by me, but I think are broadly representative of the sorts of claims often made in the context of such discussions.

The Materiality of Mankind

‘Under naturalism humans are nothing more than bags of cells brought about by chance collisions of particles, with no inherent purpose or value whatever.’

I have two main objections to this argument. Firstly, this argument commits the fallacy of composition, inferring that because atoms or cells have no moral value in themselves, that therefore any collection of them cannot have moral value. This is equivalent to arguing that because individual water molecules are not wet, that therefore collections of them cannot have the property of wetness. Such reasoning is fallacious therefore and cannot be used to ground a case against atheistic moral realism.

Second, it is question-begging to say that without anything beyond the material world, there can be no moral significance to anything in the material world, because that is precisely the point of contention which the atheist moral realist denies. It is necessary to give an argument as to why something beyond the material world is necessary for objective moral values to exist, rather than merely assert that since atheism lacks such a thing that therefore atheistic morality must fail. In particular, the theist needs to explain what would be necessary in order for objective morality to exist, what epistemological or ontological function needs to be fulfilled, and then explain how God fulfills such a function while no purely material entities could do. An example might be: ‘any ground for morality must be eternal, but no material thing is eternal. Hence the ground for morality must be God’. I disagree with the first premise, but the point is that this is the type of argument that would need to be given to show that some supernatural entity fulfills some specific function that a material entity could not. Absent such an explanation, this rebuttal is entirely question-begging.

The Is-Ought Gap

‘There is no way for atheists to bridge the ‘is-ought’ gap.’

The idea of the is/ought gap is that one cannot validly draw an ethical conclusion from a series of non-ethical premises, without implicitly relying on unstated ethical premises. The idea is that there is a ‘gap’ between any factual ‘is’ statements one may make, and any normative conclusion that one may wish to draw from them. Allegedly, this serves as a fatal flaw to any attempted naturalistic account of morality, for it is impossible to argue from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ without incorporating normative premises into one’s argument, thereby begging the question.

Along with a number of other philosophers who have considered this question, I am of the belief that this notion of an argumentative ‘gap’ is not specific to morality at all, but rather is a much broader point concerning how to connect different subject matters or spheres of discourse. To understand this, think about how one might try to give a reductive account of why an event was ‘fun’. One might talk about playing with friends, going on rides at a fair, telling great jokes, having stimulating new experiences, and many other such things, but none of these premises would allow us to say anything about having fun. To make a conclusion about ‘fun’, we would need to include an additional premise of the form ‘laughing is fun’, or ‘having stimulating new experiences is a fun experience’, etc. These premises, however, include the notion of ‘fun’, which is precisely what we are attempting to give an account of, and thus we may be accused of begging the question. From arguments like this, we could conclude that there is an ‘is/fun’ gap, or no way of giving an explanation as to why an experience was fun using purely non-fun concepts.

This particular example is my invention, but this general idea has been discussed in the philosophical literature. My own preferred response to such matters is that there simply is nothing problematic about such arguments, and that the person taking issue with them ultimately is forced into a position of widespread scepticism, in that they will be unable to justify a large range of claims they typically would wish to make without (by their own criteria) begging the question.

A second, independent consideration that theists raising the is/ought gap seldom acknowledge is that if an is/ought gap does exist, appealing to God does nothing whatever to overcome it, a point that has been discussed by philosophers like G.E. Moore. Indeed, Hume himself explicitly includes ‘the being of a God’ as one such ‘is’ fact in his original formulation of the dilemma! Theists can make a long list of assertions about God’s commandments, or God’s nature, or God’s relationship to us, or whatever other facts they may wish to appeal to, however since these are all claims about what ‘is’, they are vulnerable to the ‘is/ought gap’ critique in exactly the same way as any naturalistic ethical theory would be. That is, in order to infer based on what God commands what one ought to do, one must introduce a premise something like ‘one ought to do what God commands’, which is a moral premise. Thus theistic ethical theories do no better in bridging the is/ought gap then atheistic moral theories.

Blind Forces of Nature

‘There can be no greater purpose to life or objective moral worth in a universe run solely by the blind forces of nature.’

This is very similar to the first objection, but I include both because I often find that theists will make this same fundamental point in a number of different ways, using slightly different language. My response, as before, is that this objection is question begging. The atheist moral realist claims that there can be objective morality in a purely material universe. Rather than presenting an argument for why this is impossible, the theist making this statement is merely asserting their position as if it were self-evident and requiring of no further substantiation. Perhaps such views are self-evident to some theists, but they certainly are not to many atheists, and as such it is incumbent upon those making the claim to provide a cogent argument for it, rather than merely asserting it.

The atheist moral realist is totally unfazed by talk of ‘blindness laws of nature’ or the ‘cruelty of the natural world’, and other such aphorisms. The atheist moral realist believes that facts regarding meaning and purpose can supervene upon, or emerge out of, purely materialistic states of affairs, in a way analogous to how the meaning of language derives from mere neural firings and vibrations of air molecules, or how living beings are comprised of nothing but materials which themselves are non-living chemicals. The atheist has numerous sophisticated philosophical accounts to appeal to in support of this contention, none of which are addressed by this argument.

Laws Imply a Law-Giver

‘Laws imply a law-giver, and therefore moral laws imply the existence of a moral law-giver’.

I dispute the notion that the existence of laws implies or requires a law-giver, as I think there are many examples of various sorts of laws that exist despite the absence of any clear law-giver. There are laws of propriety and etiquette without any person or body to act as ‘law giver’. Laws of grammar and spelling exist without any lawgiver. Laws of physics/nature can exist without any lawgiver. (Note that if theists dispute this, they are taking the position that without the existence of God, there could be no form of orderliness to the cosmos at all. If this very strong position were true then I question why theists would even bother arguing about morality, as atheism would not even be able to account for the regularities discovered by science).

Perhaps one could argue that none of these are really ‘laws’, but are customs, practices, rules, or mere regularities. In some cases this may be a valid distinction to make, but I very much doubt this will apply to all such examples. For example, there are very explicit laws about the spelling of many English words, without requiring any person or group who gives such laws. These are not mere optional customs: if you violate them you will be described as doing something “wrong” (not morally or legally wrong, but wrong in terms of the laws of spelling), and often reprimanded (often by social or professional disapproval). Call these spelling rules if you prefer, but I fail to see the relevant difference.

Notwithstanding one’s views on science or spelling, even in an explicitly legal context, I think it is clear that the principle of laws requiring a law-giver is false. What lawgiver establishes the legality of a constitution, or of international laws? For instance, by what legal authority was the United States Constitution promulgated as lawful? What lawgiver established the legal force of the International Criminal Court? In the United Kingdom, which lacks a written constitution, who exactly is the supreme law-giver supposed to be? Is it the monarch who imbues legal authority to the parliament, or the parliament who imbues legal status to the Queen? The very fact that in cases like this legal scholars can argue at length about technical de jure justifications and de facto realities just illustrates my point that this notion that ‘laws require a lawgiver’ is predicated upon an absurdly naive and indefensible notion of what constitute ‘laws’ and on what virtue they have normative force.

On the basis of such examples and numerous others, I see no reason at all to accept the premise that laws require lawgivers. The only way to save this argument that I can see is to assert by definitional fiat that laws must be established by lawgivers, in which case the argument becomes question-begging, since the theist would have to begin with the presumption that a moral lawgiver (i.e. God) exists, in order to establish the existence of the very ‘moral laws’ they seek to use as proof of the existence of said God.

An IBE Argument from Evil

Having considered two main objections to a naive form of the argument from evil, I now wish to reiterate the argument in a form which I think has considerable persuasive power. The argument takes the form of an inference to the best explanation as a mode of argument to establish the probable truth of the conclusion on the basis of the premises.

P1. There exist many diverse forms of apparently purposeless evil and suffering in the world.

P2. The best explanation for this is the non-existence of an all-powerful, all-good God

C. Therefore an all-powerful, all-good God (probably) does not exist


Besides the objection I responded to at length above (singled out because it seems to be the most common objection), theistic responses to this argument typically take one of three forms. The first is to deny P1, which is typically done by appealing to some form of theodicy, or an explanation of God’s reasons for allowing suffering and evil of various types, and therefore denying the existence of pointless suffering and evil. I regard all extant theodicies as incomplete or problematic, especially with regard to natural evil (e.g. natural disasters, diseases), and thus incapable of explaining all instances of apparently pointless suffering, as would be required in order to disprove P1. For time and space constraints, however, I will not offer critiques of specific theodicies here, something however that the atheist does need to do in order to provide a completely rigorous defense of this argument. For the moment, however, I shall simply appeal to the fact that many Christians seem to be in agreement we me that no extant theodicy is satisfactory. Indeed, most theodicies are theologically very controversial, which may be one reason why many apologists often seem to avoid offering them.

Skeptical Theism

The second broad form of response is to deny P2, the most prominent justification of which takes the form of a position known as sceptical theism. Skeptical theism does not deny that there many apparently pointless evils and sufferings in the world, but instead argues that atheism is not the best explanation for them. Instead it is argued that we have no particular reason to be aware of the reasons, complex and far beyond or ken as they may well be, that God may have for permitting such suffering and evil. Thus it is asserted that lack of ability to gain insight into which such reasons might be is the best explanation for apparently pointless suffering, rather than the absence of an all-powerful, all-good God. I regard this response is more convincing than any theodicies I have heard, but still I think it fails to defeat P2. The reason I think it so fails is because sceptical theism does not offer any explanatory power of its own. It merely asserts that we are not in the capacity to know why God may permit suffering and evil, but offers nothing comparable to the explanatory power naturally provided by the atheistic explanation. To use an imperfect but perhaps helpful metaphor, sceptical theism may give a reason why theism does not ‘lose points’ as a result of failing to explain suffering and evil, but it does not alter the fact that atheism ‘gains points’ as a result of the explanatory power that this hypothesis gives us regarding the observed phenomena of evil and suffering in the world.


The third general form of response to this argument is to accept P1 and P2, but deny the validity of the argument. One method for doing this would be to say that the argument is only valid ‘all else being equal’, but that even granting the premises, the conclusion can be avoided if sufficiently strong ‘defeaters’ are present. Such defeaters would likely take the form of independent arguments for the existence of God, which establish the falsity of atheism to a sufficiently high degree of likelihood such that even after factoring in the negative evidence provided by the problem of evil, on balance one is still left with a greater likelihood than not that an all-powerful, all-good God exists. Such an approach is, in my view, by far the most reasonable theistic response to the problem of evil – basically to say that apparently pointless evil and suffering constitute some evidence against the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God, but not sufficient evidence against to make belief unwarranted. Where I differ from theists offering this defense is of course the strength of those other, independent reasons for believing in God’s existence, however discussion of such further matters is best left for another blog post.


In this piece I have argued that the problem of evil, especially when presented in the form of an inference to the best explanation, survives common refutations and emerges as a powerful argument against the existence of an all-powerful and all-good God. In particular, I argued that the existence of apparently pointless suffering and evil in the world is better explained by atheism than theism, and thus constitutes a reason for belief in atheism. I defended this argument against the criticism that it is self-contradictory, briefly discussed some problems with theodicies, and argued that sceptical theism fails to address the issue of explanatory power which is at the heart of the IBE form of the argument. As such, it is my belief that the problem of evil remains one of the strongest arguments in favour of atheism over theism.

If Jesus was Raised, Could the Bible be False?


In this piece I consider what we can infer about the bible, in particular the New Testament, beginning from a belief in the divinity of Jesus. I argue that there is no straightforward, direct relationship between Jesus’ divinity and the accuracy or reliability of the gospels or of Paul’s teachings, and thus Christians should be more cautious in making hasty leaps from one to the other, and should be more ready to acknowledge the role that faith plays in their convictions regarding scripture.


A great deal of scholarly attention and critical debate has surrounded the question of whether or not there is sufficient historical evidence to establish the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I myself have written a number of pieces regarding this question. Here, however, I want to venture into realms of inquiry that I seldom hear addressed at all. In particular, I want to consider the question of what we can infer if we came to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead? That is, suppose that one comes to believe that Jesus was resurrected, and furthermore that we was really the Jewish Messiah and also the son of God. The question I want to ask is: what then? What can we infer from this knowledge?

To set the scene more clearly, suppose I arrive at this belief as a result of some minimal facts-type argument for the historicity of the Resurrection, which leaves me with belief in perhaps the empty tomb, the resurrection, and early proclamation that Jesus was raised by God as vindication of his divinity, but little else beyond this core bedrock. Another route may be an experiential one: I could believe that I have come to a knowledge of Jesus’ divinity through direct personal experience of some kind, experience which allows me to form a justified belief that Jesus is Lord, but does not tell me anything substantive beyond this. In either case, we have determined to follow Jesus and shape our lives in accordance with his will for us. But before we can do this, we need to ask, what is his will for us? I think the typical response from many Christians is just a sort of automatic acceptance of much or all of what the Bible says as being the true ‘word of God’. Not so fast. As I have stated, all we have established thusfar is that Jesus is the son of God. We don’t yet know much else about him or his teachings, at least not in any detail. What did Jesus say? What did he teach? How should we understand our lives and our relationship to God in the light of this knowledge? I think the answer to these questions is far from clear.

The Gospels as History

Let’s start with the gospels. These are the texts which claim to present the words and deeds of Jesus during his life on Earth. Our first problem: which gospels? Of course there are the four canonical ones, but there are also dozens of others. How do we know which of them (if any) accurately preserve the words and teachings of Jesus? How about we restrict ourselves to only early writings, say first century or maybe early second century at the outside. This seems a reasonable approach – later materials are much less likely to preserve accurately the sayings and teachings of Jesus. Restricting ourselves in this way, we are left with the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, plus the first century Gospel of Thomas, and (depending upon exactly when it is dated) also the second century gospel of Peter. We also know of a number of other gospels and similar texts that existed in the first and early second century, which survive today only in brief quotations or fragments found in other sources.

Having restricted our analysis to these five or six texts, we next ask: who wrote these gospels, and where did they get their material from? The answer to the first question is that we don’t know. All the canonical gospels are anonymous (the titles the bear today being later additions), while Thomas and Peter are widely agreed to be pseudepigraphies (i.e. written by someone other than the person claimed in the text as the author). As to the second question, the answer is disputed and complicated, though suffice it to say most scholars would agree that the gospel writers had access to eyewitness testimony of some form, perhaps direct or indirect as preserved through oral tradition or earlier sources. Exactly how much and how accurate this testimony was is the subject of scholarly dispute. For our purposes, I think we would have enough to come to confident beliefs about some broad points. For example, its clear that Jesus taught to love others, to have faith in God and follow him, to be a friend of the poor and downcast in society. He was known to be a miracle worker, to speak with great authority, and he spoke at length about the coming kingdom of God. I’m sure that more could be added to this list, but the real difficulty comes to when we ask about specifics. Christians generally believe a great deal more about Jesus and his teachings (his ‘gospel’) than just these ‘bare bones’ general facts. Can we justify these more specific beliefs given our starting point?

One approach to take would be the purely historical one. We could go through the gospels, canonical and non-canonical, and exhaustively apply careful historical criteria to vouch for each and every purported deed and saying of Jesus, making a judgement as to their likely historicity. This is essentially the approach that was taken by the Jesus Seminar, and although their methodologies have been criticised (as has nearly everything in NT studies), I think they serve as a useful indicative case study as to where this approach is likely to lead. They ended up rejecting over 80% of the deeds and sayings of Jesus reported in the gospels, and even if we were to reassess their criteria, we doubtless will find it difficult to firmly substantiate a large number of the individual claims made in the gospels. I think this approach is a defensible one, however it is doubtful to me that the Christian will be able to build up anything approaching the sort of canon of Jesus’ teachings that they typically believe in, and not with the same level of confidence. I also doubt that this approach would tell us what to do with the writings of Paul (see below).

So why, you might be wondering, did we end up with these four gospels exactly, and not any of the other gospels which existed at the time? The answer to this is complicated, but in short, the early church over the second and third centuries gradually came to a consensus that these four gospels, but none of the others, were sufficiently reliable to include in the canon. Notice this key point: we are trusting the wisdom of man in regard to what is included in the New Testament. Perhaps this process was divinely guided (more on that idea later), but at the very least it is very clear that the immediate, direct responsibility for what ended up in the New Testament canon was the actions and decisions of early Christians over the first couple of centuries. The NT did not fall as a divine package straight from heaven, but as a messy outcome of historically contingent forces. As such, we have to be careful judging its accuracy.

The Gospels as Scripture

A second approach, more commonly taken in practise it seems, is belief in divine inspiration. That is, if we believed that the canonical gospels were authoritative texts produced through divine inspiration and whose content has been protected from being corrupted or changed, that would allow us to be confident in taking the words and deeds of Jesus as reported in the gospels as accurate. Indeed, I think most Christians just reflexively and uncritically assume that if Jesus was the son of God, then obviously what the gospels say about him is divinely inspired, right? I question the validity of this inference. Remember, Jesus said nothing at all about the gospels – obviously, as they weren’t written until after he ascended! Nor does our belief in the resurrection and divinity of Jesus entail anything about the gospels themselves – Jesus could have been raised, but the gospels could still be the work of man and not divinely inspired (even Christians believe that most gospels are like this). Reliance on the early date of the canonicals is useful for historical analysis (see above), but its unclear that this especially relevant to the question of whether they were in fact divinely inspired. One argument that comes to mind is an explicitly theological one. We might reason that, given that Jesus is the Son of God, it is reasonable to believe that God would ensure that his essential words and deeds were preserved accurately to serve as guidance for future generations. I think this is the much more plausible option, and something akin to what many Christians (perhaps implicitly) believe. I think, however, that on closer investigation we find a number of problems with this approach.

First, we know that at least some of the books in the New Testament are pseudepigraphies, that is they were written by someone other than the person who claimed to write them. First and Second Timothy, Titus, and Ephesians are all widely agreed to have not in fact been written by Paul, despite the fact that they purport to be his letters, and the the early church believed them to be such. From this we can infer that the process of determining the NT canon was imperfect, subject to errors. This is not necessarily inconsistent with the process being (to an extent) divinely guided, but I think it does raise a certain level of doubt, certainly to the precision of the process. It seems far more likely that the spirit and core content of God’s message was what was protected, and not all details. This is not purely an academic exercise. As an example, the famous passage often interpreted as an injunction against women preachers “but I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” is found in First Timothy.

Second, we know that some passages of the New Testament, in particular the gospels, were added or changed later. Most famously, the earliest manuscripts of Mark that we have end with the women running away after finding the empty tomb, and include no references to Jesus’ postmortem appearances. We know therefore that some later Christian or Christians inserted an ending onto Mark, and that this ‘improved’ version came to be the predominately accepted version in Christian circles. Again, this casts doubt on the complete integrity of the canonisation process or divine inspiration argument. Another example of a passages not attested by the earliest manuscripts include the story of the woman taken in adultery found in John 7-8. There are also many shorter phrases and passages absent in the earliest manuscripts. Given that the earliest manuscripts generally date from the third century, I am left to wonder what other versus may have been added or changed at a still earlier date, from which time no extant manuscripts survive.

Third, there are passages in the Gospels which cannot have been eyewitness testimony, and bare all the hallmarks of being later inventions, embellishments, or legends. Examples include the genealogies of Jesus (widely disputed, and differing between Luke and Matthew), the birth narratives (which are almost completely different in Matthew and Luke, contain various historical anomalies, and for which there is no clear source), and various statements attributed to Jewish or Roman authorities even when none of Jesus’ disciples were present (for example Matt 27:62-66). Perhaps some details that were not passed on by eyewitnesses were divinely inspired directly, though there seems to be no reason for this when everything else is supposed to come through eyewitnesses, and to me this hypothesis seems rather ad hoc.

Fourth, what is our reason for believing that God would act in this manner? Where does this belief come from? It seems to be nothing more than an assumption. Weighing against this assumption are a number of facts, including that God had not previously revealed and protected his word in this way to serve as a witness to the world (so we have no precedent for this – I don’t count the Old Testament as a precedent because its codification only predates the New Testament by a few centuries, and anyway was only a holy text to the Jews, not to the world). Furthermore, we know that God (if he exists) permits contradictory revelations to be believed, written down, preserved, and widely disseminated: at least one of the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Koran must be examples of such false texts. This isn’t definitive reason to believe that God did not preserve the New Testament, but I think it does cast serious doubt on the assumption that god would do such a thing. What is the basis for this inference about God’s motives and behaviours? It seems that the reasons I cite are at least considerable reasons for doubt that God should act in such a way. Even if one doesn’t regard my reasons against as compelling, one must have a substantive reason for this belief and not merely take it as an assumption.

The Role of Paul

Another fascinating angle to this question is how Paul fits into this story. Paul was exceptionally influential in shaping the practices and doctrines of the early church. Indeed, it is my view (along with a number of other scholars) that it is largely thanks to Paul that the early ‘Jesus movement’ sect within Judaism evolved into the distinct religion we now call ‘Christianity’. But remember, our starting point was belief in Jesus’ resurrection and his divinity. Where does Paul fit into all this? Paul never even met Jesus; he only claimed that Jesus appeared to him a couple of years after his death. But heaps of people then and now claim that Jesus (or other figures) appeared to them – why believe Paul but not anyone else? Furthermore, even if Jesus did appear to Paul and he converted as a result, does it follow that everything Paul says about religious matters is taken as the word of Jesus himself? That seems to be a rather big leap to me – what is the justification for it? We know that Paul met with Jesus’ disciples, including Peter and John, did they not approve of his teachings and doctrines? Well, Paul says that they did, but we don’t have anything from Peter or the others, so we don’t know what their side of the story was. Did they really agree with everything Paul was teaching and doing? Perhaps they agreed only with most of it? Some parts but not others? Most of what he said, but with some qualifications? We have mentions in Acts about early disputes between Paul and other disciples, though little detail of the content of these. So how do we really know that Paul’s writings accurately reflect the beliefs and teachings of Jesus in all respects? I’m not saying that Paul was in total disagreement with the disciples, but there may well have been notable differences and sharp disputes. So when Christians appeal to Paul’s teachings about (for example) homosexual behaviour (something Jesus is never recorded as having said a single word about), how are we to know that Paul is accurately reflecting what Jesus would have to say on the subject?

A natural rejoinder is that if Jesus were divine, God would not allow his teachings to be distorted (even to a degree) or changed so soon after his death by people claiming to speak in his name. But once again, we must ask what the basis is for such an assumption? How do we know that this is how God would think or behave? Furthermore, this hypothesis seems to be in conflict with the stories in the Old Testament, where the Israelites repeatedly and very rapidly fall into apostasy after having received God’s word through his prophets. The bible, Old and New Testaments, warns explicitly about false prophets who would claim to speak in the name of God. Christians think Mohammed and Joseph Smith were false prophets, despite them being very successful in attracting followers and spreading their message, just as Paul was. So the argument that God would not permit this to happen appears dubious. Perhaps the argument could be refined to say that God might allow false prophets to arise, but not so close to his earthly ministry in time and location. But this seems problematic too. Firstly, what reason do we have for believing that God is so sensitive to time in this way? Secondly, we know that there were many figures just before and just after Christ, people who claimed to be the Messiah, people who claimed to write gospels of his life, people who promoted various doctrines which were later judged heretical (e.g. the gnostics). There just doesn’t appear to be any evidence that God provided some sort of ‘window of protection’ around the life of Jesus wherein false teachings could not arise.

One final reason for trusting Paul might be that he knew Jesus’ original apostles. Perhaps they didn’t agree with every little thing, but surely they supported him in broad outlines, as otherwise we would surely have more records of deep disputes and discords between them. This is perhaps the case, though it seems to me that we know very little about the details of what was going on at that time, other than what Paul chooses to tell us (our other source for that time is Acts, which was written decades later by an unknown author, so its hard to judge its objectivity on such matters). More importantly, however, is that we don’t have any particular reason for believing Jesus’ disciples to be highly reliable transmitters of his word. From their presentation in the gospels, they are often portrayed as not understanding Jesus’ purpose of message, and being less then conscientious about their duties. They are described as bickering with each other and arguing about who was the greatest. Peter denied Jesus three times, and the others ‘forsook him and fled’. Now this isn’t to say that the disciples did not understand any of Jesus’ teachings or could not have preserved his words with some reasonable degree of accuracy, but I don’t see any particular reason to treat them as bastions of unquestionable authority and truth when it comes to Jesus’ teachings and message. There seems to be no reason why they could not have got things wrong. Thus, even if they did approve of Paul and his teachings, that doesn’t by itself validate them as conclusive and fully authoritative, as if they came from the mouth of Jesus himself.


So where does this leave us? It seems to me it leaves us at a position, not of total skepticism regarding the teachings of Jesus (recall that I did argue for a historical core that is beyond reasonable doubt), but nevertheless of substantial uncertainty concerning many details and specifics. Thus, even if we do believe in Jesus as the son of God, it remains quite difficult to infer particulars about what he taught, and how he would want us to live. My point in this piece has largely been to emphasise that the latter does not follow clearly or directly from the former, and that even granting the former leaves us with considerable doubt and question about the latter. In light of this, I think Christians should be more upfront (as some already are) about the fact that there are considerable elements of faith underpinning their beliefs – not just in the divinity of Jesus, but also that the New Testament accurately preserves his teachings, deeds, and doctrines. I think that a great deal more justificatory work needs to be done in order to bridge the gap between belief in Jesus and belief the New Testament, particularly belief in all of the New Testament as the direct word of God. I do not believe that Jesus was the son of God, but if I did arrive at this belief, I would be seriously considering these questions. Given their importance, I think Christians should pay more attention to them then they typically do.

Responding to a Marxist Critique of Effective Altruism


In his recent article in Jacobin magazine, Mathew Snow argues that Effective Altruism as a movement is ‘myopic’ and ‘pernicious’ because of its focus on ‘creating a culture of giving’ instead of ‘challenging capitalism’s institutionalized taking’. Here I present a critique of Snow’s argument, analysing why first and foremost it fails as a critique of effective altruism, and secondly highlighting some problematic aspects of his critique of ‘capital’ that are of relevance.

Misunderstanding EA

Briefly at the outset, I want to emphasise that I do not believe Snow understands effective altruism very well at all. One key reason for this is his statement that ‘Effective Altruists treat charities as black boxes — money goes in, good consequences come out’. Even a cursory look through the intricate and careful process used by organisations such as GiveWell and GiveDirectly to evaluate the performance and effectiveness of different charities, which incorporate a diversity of different considerations and lines of evidence, should be more than sufficient refutation of this absurd claim. The fact that Snow makes it in such a cavalier fashion indicates I think a fundamental misunderstanding of the movement – although possibly it also bodes ill for the ability of effective altruists to clearly communicate our core ideas to others in a clear, concise manner.

On Political Predispositions

Snow’s piece is clearly written from a Marxist perspective – the word ‘capital’ appears some sixteen times, often used in an oddly reified way, as if ‘capital’ were some sort of malevolent force which has particular motives and takes specific actions to oppress the poor. I do not share this perspective, and later on in this piece I will make some further comments about the weakness of Snow’s arguments against capitalism. But for the moment, let us suppose that Snow is completely correct in his indictment of capitalism. Let us suppose that capitalism really is responsible for the vast majority of the world’s ills as Snow says that it is (and I don’t think this is a strawman). Granting Snow all this, we now ask – does his conclusion about effective altruism follow? My contention is that it manifestedly does not.

Before I begin, I think it is appropriate to articulate my own political biases, for such biases afflict us all in many subtle (and not so subtle) ways. For my part, I used to describe myself as a libertarian. I now reject this label, preferring something along the lines of ‘classical liberal’, or even more recently ‘radical centrist’. As a result, I am naturally predisposed against the sort of Marxist critique presented here by Snow. That said, I do not here wish to offer a comprehensive critique of Marxist political theory (a surprising amount of which I actually agree with – at least in its more classical incarnations), nor do I wish to expound the virtues of free markets (I think they do have many virtues, as well as many important vices). Rather, what I want to focus on here are some particular claims that Snow makes, and why I think they are mistaken and unhelpful.

Snow on Effective Altruism

One of Snows core arguments is his assertion that ‘(effective) altruists abstract from – and thereby exonerate – the social dynamics constitutive of capitalism’. I agree with Snow that effective altruists typically ‘abstract from’ the social dynamics of capitalism, as they seldom discuss such things and generally speak at a higher level of analysis, abstracting from the particulars of any specific economic system. Does it follow, however, that this constitutes an ‘exoneration’ of said system? I do not believe that it does. Merely to not focus on something, to abstract from details and focus on some other aspect or broader issue, is not in any way to condone or ‘exonerate’ said thing. To give an example, suppose I were to say ‘such and such many people are murdered every year, and through better policing and criminal justice laws, as well as improvements in education and social welfare programs, etc, we could reduce this number by so and so percent’. By Snow’s logic, such remarks would be illegitimate because I would be ‘abstracting from the social dynamics of violent crime’ thereby apparently ‘exonerating the actions of the perpetrators and overlooking their role as agents in the process’. I contend that this is simply nonsense – to adopt an abstract view of a phenomenon, or to focus on one aspect of it, in no way necessarily exonerates or condones anything. Often it is helpful to focus on particular aspects of reality (complex and multifaceted as it is), and indeed this is precisely what effective altruists claim, namely that it is helpful to talk about giving abstracted (to a degree) from the particular economic system in which they are embedded. Snow does not dispute this, he merely accuses them of ‘exonerating capitalism’ for doing so. To me, this seems little more than a way for Snow to whine that discussion of his evident pet topic is not what effective altruists judge to be the most productive method of aiding the world’s poor.

Snow then proceeds to describe the ‘irony of effective altruism’ as demonstrated by its ‘imploring individuals to use their money to procure necessities’ while ‘ignoring the system that determines how those necessities are produced and distributed in the first place’. While it may be the case, as indicated above, that effective altruists seldom discuss ‘the system’ as such, what Snow does not establish is that this constitutes ‘irony’, or indeed that there is anything wrong with EAs focusing their attention and exhortations in the way that they do. It is quite plausible, indeed I think history indicates overwhelmingly probable, that even if all EAs on the planet, and ten times more that number, denounced the evils of capitalism in as loud and shrill voices as they could muster, that nothing whatever of any substance would change to the benefit of the world’s poor. As such, if our main objective is to actually help people, rather than to indulge in our own intellectual prejudices by attributing all evil in the world to the bogeyman of ‘capital’, then it is perfectly reasonable to ‘implore individuals to use their money to procure necessities for those who desperately need them’, rather than ‘saying something’ (what exactly? to whom? to what end?) about ‘the system that determines how those necessities are produced’.

Later on in his article, Snow utters the seemingly incredulous exclamation ‘(the fact) that subsidizing capital accumulation has become the only readily available way for most to act on compassion for others is perverse’. He subsequently refers to much the same phenomenon as an ‘insidious state of affairs’. Once again, however, the reader is left wondering exactly why this outcome should necessarily be so perverse? Again, even if ‘capital’ is the uniquely culpable cause of so much ill, as Snow is want to continually reiterate, it is extremely common in this non-utopian real-world in which we live that we must choose the least bad of several unpalatable alternatives. Likewise, it is often the case that working within the constraints of a flawed and ineffectual system is the best method available for achieving actual progress. (I invite readers to reflect on their own experiences with literally any human institution they have been involved in as validation of this key point.) As such, I argue that it is perfectly plausible, and not at all ‘perverse’ that, even if capital is to blame for the problems of global poverty, working within the capitalist system may still be the best method that we have available for helping those in extreme poverty.

Finally, let us examine Snow’s second last paragraph. Here he states: ‘rather than asking how individual consumers can guarantee the basic sustenance of millions of people, we should be questioning an economic system that only halts misery and starvation if it is profitable. Rather than solely creating an individualized “culture of giving,” we should be challenging capitalism’s institutionalized taking’. As previously, however, Snow here makes strong injunctions without providing any clear argument for them. At best, all that Snow could be said to have argued in his piece is that ‘we should be questioning capitalism’. He does not even try to establish why we should be doing this instead of, or at the expense of, ‘creating an individualized “culture of giving”‘. To make this argument, Snow would need to provide some basis for the one being better than the other – but yet he does nothing of the sort. Indeed, reading this piece I am quite at a loss to say what Snow’s goals or objectives actually are. He seems to strongly desire the overthrow of ‘capital’, and seems to scoff in derision at those who are working as ‘accountants and marketers for charities with pretensions of “acting now to end world poverty” and figuring out “the most good you can do”‘, but yet it remains a mystery as to exactly what his more immediate objective might be. Does he want to help the world’s poor as best as he can? If so, what is his argument that writing polemical pieces against capitalism is the best way of doing this? (or, indeed, is beneficial in any way for achieving this?) Conversely, if he does not care about helping the world’s poor as best he can, then why should effective altruists pay heed to his injunction to prioritise armchair Marxist critique over charitable giving that demonstrably saves lives?

Snow on Capitalism and Scarcity

So much for Snow’s critiques of effective altruism as a social movement. Now I wish to turn my attention to some of his criticisms of ‘capital’, demonstrating how they rest upon faulty logic, and historical and economic misconceptions. Note that my purpose here is not to get distracted into a discussion of political philosophy per se. I want to focus on a subset of the claims Snow makes which I think are incorrect or highly misleading, and furthermore which I think are relevant to effective altruists as informing how we go about attempting to do the most good we can.

The single largest mistake that I believe Snow makes, in a variety of different ways, is to ignore the fact of scarcity. By ‘scarcity’, I mean that there are not enough goods and services for everyone to have as much as they would like, and therefore some form of allocative rationing is necessary to decide who gets what. Numerous times, Snow argues in a way which belies either ignorance of, or naïve lack of concern for, the fact of scarcity. As one example, he states ‘as men and women with money and moral consciences, we can’t put a price on life, but as men and women participating in a system governed by the logic of capital, we must’. Snow is a student of Kantian ethics, so it is perhaps not surprising that he thinks this way, but I would argue the exact opposite – namely that it is precisely because we are moral men and women that we must (with appropriate care) put a price on human life. By doing so we able to make intelligent and informed decisions about how to allocate scare resources to protect as many lives as we can. Without putting a price on life (implicitly or otherwise), we are unable to make any decision about whether a given safety initiative, health intervention, public policy, or other action we might take is beneficial. Absent sufficient resources to accomplish every good outcome we would want, we are forced to make decisions about prioritising some things over others, and it is precisely by putting a price on life that we are able to do this. Even such mundane decisions as driving an automobile involve putting an implicit price on our own lives (as well as those of others), given that we are taking a non-zero risk of death or serious injury for ourselves and others, in exchange for greatly reduced travel time and increased convenience. Most people will have a notion that this tradeoff is ‘worth the risk’, and in thinking this way, about driving or anything else, they are implicitly ‘putting a price on life’. Without doing so, we would be paralysed in all our decision making, unable to weigh any action that involves risk to life or safety (i.e. any action at all) against any other outcome that we value.

Snow again illustrates his neglect of the fact of scarcity when he speaks of ‘capital demanding’ a market price be paid for goods and services. He argues as if it is only the existence of ‘capital’ which causes there to be people suffering extreme poverty, as demonstrated by his use of phrases like ‘capital’s commodification of necessities’ and ‘capitalism’s institutionalization of immoral maxims’. Even a cursory study of economic history, however, is more than sufficient to demonstrate that essentially all societies (certainly all those of even moderate size and complexity, perhaps excluding certain isolated tribal peoples) engage in trade and barter of goods – the ‘commodification of necessities’ that Snow attributes to capitalism. Now it is true that the global capitalist system in existence today does so to a much greater extent than ever before in human history. If Snow’s analysis were correct, however, we would thereby expect to be seeing absolute poverty becoming worse over time, as the degree of ‘commodification of necessities’ increases. In fact, what we see is precisely the opposite. Three centuries ago, practically the entire population of the world lived in what we would today call ‘absolute poverty’. Today the proportion is less than one quarter, even despite massive increases in global population. As the world becomes ever more globalised, the proportion and even absolute number of people in absolute poverty is still declining by the decade. I won’t go so far as to argue here that this is because of global capitalism (I think that is true to a notable extent, but there isn’t space to argue that here, nor to make all appropriate caveats that such a claim requires), but at the very least it certainly seems highly inconsistent with Snow’s claim that ‘capital’ is the source and cause of global impoverishment.

Snow likewise explicitly states that capital is the cause of the inability of the global poor to access necessities such as vaccines, malaria nets, basic education, nutritious food, etc. In a sense I agree with him, because the world’s economic system (like any that has ever existed on the face of the planet, ‘socialist’ ones included) is set up in many instances to favour the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and marginalised. (Rather than blame this all on ‘capital’ as such, I would describe the situation as resulting from an unfortunate confluence of interests between governments and powerful corporations and other lobby groups, but that’s another matter). That being said, it demonstrably was not the case that the world’s poor had plentiful access to such things before the rise of global capitalism, and that somehow they have now been deprived of them.

Malaria nets, vaccines, and everything else are scarce, meaning (as stated above) that there is not enough for everyone to have as much of them as they would like. This necessitates some form of allocation, or of rationing. Snow sometimes talks as if his idealised socialist utopia would do away with all scarcity and hence of the need to ration such goods at all. I contend that there has never existed a single society in the Earth’s history that has not rationed ‘essentials’ by some method. This is essentially true almost by definition, since not everyone can have as much as they would like, some people must necessarily go without, at least to an extent (note: that doesn’t mean some people need to go hungry necessarily, it just means food etc must be rationed somehow). In the modern market economy, rationing takes the form of prices to be paid for goods and services – in Snow’s words this is ‘what capitalist institutions demand’. What Show neglects is the because of scarcity, any other possible system would necessarily ‘demand’ something similar, be it in the form of ration cards, political connections, or sheer luck, examples of other, I would argue far worse, mechanisms of rationing scarce resources.

There is a final point I wish to make about Snow’s analysis, which concerns the identity of his mythical ‘capitalist class’. At least in classical Marxist analysis, the ‘capitalist class’ are the owners of capital, that is the owners of the means of production (such as land and factories). Today they would, presumably, constitute the owners of the world’s great corporations. But who owns the world’s corporations? The answer is that we (read wealthy westerners) all do. Anyone who has a superannuation fund, owns shares, or even has money in a bank account is, directly or indirectly, an owner of capital. Now granted, the ownership of capital is far from evenly distributed, and a very small number of individuals own a disproportionate share (probably it is this so-called ‘1%’ that Snow demonises repeatedly in his piece, efforts of the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet evidently notwithstanding). Nevertheless, the fact remains that we, as part owners of capital and custodians of resources far greater than most people in history could ever dream of, it is up to us to rectify what Snow correctly identifies as an ‘inability of companies to profit from those with little or no purchasing power’, precisely by improving the purchasing power (directly or indirectly) of those in the greatest need. Snow presumably supports this outcome, though probably he would advocate changes in purchasing power brought about by revolutionary struggle (this having always worked out so well in the past, as indeed recalled (ironically?) in the name of the very magazine Snow is writing for), instead of by philanthropic empowerment of the poor to improve their own lives by providing them greater resources. Granted, this has often been done poorly in the past as well, but effective altruists have advocated numerous, very specific ways in which the process and outcomes can be improved, something the likes of Snow seldom express much interest in doing when it comes to socialist revolution.


Snow seems to want to avoid sharing any of the blame for the plight of the global poor. He wants to blame everything on global capital (once again, I do not think this is a strawman of his argument), denying both his own culpability (by not doing more to help, something we all are culpable of alongside him), and also of the amazing opportunity he has to do real, demonstrable good for others. When people die from lack of food, clean water, and medical care, Marxists like Snow seem to callously say ‘it is not owing to me; it is owing to capital’. Rather than blaming others for the plight of the global poor, based on faulty arguments, questionable economic doctrines, and inaccurate beliefs about history, we should instead acknowledge the good we ourselves can do to make a real difference in this world, and join effective altruists in creating a ‘culture of giving’.

Review of John Dickson’s ‘A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible’

In A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible, John Dickson seeks to provide ‘a sense of the whole biblical narrative and of the theology that emerges from it’ in a manner accessible to non-believers. An ambitious task for such a slim volume, Dickson nevertheless succeeds admirably in providing a solid, clear overview of the core themes of the bible. Shaping each chapter around a key biblical figure or event (Creation, Abraham, Moses, David, etc), he provides a tightly structured and very readable survey of how the entire bible ‘hangs together’ according to a Christian interpretive framework.

Notwithstanding the virtues of this book, there are several occasions when Dickson makes claims which I feel distracted from the book’s key message, and potentially reduce the author’s credibility with a skeptical audience. Of particular concern was Dickson’s apparent inconsistency in appealing to the authority of the ‘scholarly mainstream’ regarding the bible. Though he mentions this notion a number of times with reference to the life of Jesus, elsewhere he asserts the traditional authorship of all four gospels and also all thirteen epistles of Paul, views which I doubt can reasonably be defended as consistent with the ‘historical mainstream’. Furthermore, elsewhere he argues that the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, unlike any other ancient ‘national histories’, describe their kings in a very negative light, speaking as if said books had all been commissioned by Israel’s kings and written at the time of the events they narrate – as opposed to centuries later, as most scholars believe.

Dickson also makes a number of problematic claims concerning other religions. For instance, he states that salvation through grace is a concept unique to Christianity, neglecting to mention the immensely important role that Kripa (divine grace) plays in Bhakti Hinduism, or the emphasis of grace within Islam, with one of the names of God being Ar-Rahman, meaning ‘the gracious’. Elsewhere Dickson states that besides Jesus ‘no other figure from ancient history’ has sufficient evidence to corroborate a miraculous healing ministry, a claim which left me wondering how Dickson could possibly have investigated every claimed miracle-worker from ancient history to judge the quality of the evidence. Dickson also describes it as ‘unthinkable’ and ‘miraculous’ that Christianity could ‘conquer an empire with little more than words and acts of kindness’, seemingly ignoring the fact that the same could be said for Buddhism in China and Islam in Indonesia.

Various other offhanded remarks and sloppy arguments are likely to frustrate skeptical readers. When discussing creation, for example, Dickson makes the ambiguous statement that ‘the modern evolutionary story is probably not even good science’, before proceeding to admit ‘I don’t know enough about this subject to pontificate about such things’ (so why mention it at all?). Later he makes the bold assertion that ‘an evolutionary worldview…will lead to relativism, because there are no absolute values’, totally disregarding the centuries of philosophical work on secular ethics. Particularly unfortunate and unnecessary is his comparison of Nietzsche’s views on Christianity with those of Adolf Hitler, and his dismissive retort that atheists concerned about biblical atrocities should stop ‘simply mining the text for stories to complain about’.

Despite its shortcomings, Dickson’s book is short, highly readable, and informative. Non-Christian readers who can overlook the occasional dubious claims and poorly-executed excurses into apologetics will profit greatly from this concise elucidation of how Christians understand the bible.


The Resurrection of Jesus: Why Eyewitness Testimony is not Enough

Apologists on the Resurrection

“There are four facts agreed upon by the majority of scholars who have written on these subjects which any adequate historical hypothesis must account for: Jesus’ entombment by Joseph of Arimathea, the discovery of his empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection. Now the question is: what is the best explanation of these four facts? Most scholars probably remain agnostic about this question. But the Christian can maintain that the hypothesis that best explains these facts is ‘God raised Jesus from the dead.'” – William Lane Craig

“The most crucial aspect of an argument for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection is that the disciples were totally convinced that they had seen appearances of the risen Jesus. The community of critical scholars holds that these experiences are thoroughly historical. These same scholars nearly always recognize that natural alternative responses do not explain the data. Therefore, the impressive evidences that establish the disciples’ experiences, especially in light of the failure of these alternatives, now become impressive evidences for the resurrection ap­pearances themselves.” – Gary Habermas

“The resurrection hypothesis fulfills all five criteria for the best explanation of the relevant historical bedrock… Accordingly we are warranted in placing it on our spectrum of historical certainty at “very certain.” The only legitimate reasons for rejecting the resurrection hypothesis are philosophical and theological in nature: if supernaturalism is false or a non-Christian religion is exclusively true. However, if one brackets the question of worldview, neither presupposing nor a priori excluding supernaturalism, and examines the data, the historical conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead follows.” – Mike Licona

“How we interpret the above historical data depends significantly on our prior philosophical assumptions. If I am convinced that the laws of nature are the only things regulating the universe…then I will refuse to accept any evidence as sufficient to demonstrate the occurrence of a ‘miracle’, whether a healing or a resurrection. But those of us who don’t share this atheistic assumption…can logically conclude that, since we have exactly the kind of evidence you would expect a resurrection to leave behind, we are warranted in declaring that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead.” – John Dickson


Examining the quotes presented above from some leading Christian apologists, we see a common thread. Namely, the claim that the only plausible explanation for certain established historical facts (in particular, the claims of the disciples to have personally seen and spoken with the risen Jesus) is that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. Only a philosophical objection to the supernatural or miracles in general, it is said, could serve to undermine such a conclusion, for the evidence itself is strongly compelling. I have written elsewhere outlining my proposed HBS Model, a proposal for a plausible naturalistic explanation of the resurrection appearances of Jesus. In this article I will not defend this account as a whole, but will restrict myself to an analysis of the reliability of eyewitness testimony.

In particular, I will focus on Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, in which he defends the position that the gospels faithfully preserve eyewitness testimony concerning the words and deeds of Jesus. For my purpose here, I am happy to accept much of the argument of the book (which I have not read in its entirety), as I do indeed believe that, in particular, the disciples (among others) strongly believed that the risen Jesus had appeared to them in bodily form. Whilst I do not accept every detail of the gospels as historical, that core fact I do not deny. What I want to focus on, rather, is what we can infer from this fact, particularly with reference to some of the claims made by Bauckham about the reliability of memory and testimony. My claim, in brief, is that eyewitness testimony of emotionally-charged anomolous events (e.g. the resurrection appearances as described in the gospels), is unreliable, and that therefore we cannot infer from such testimony that Jesus actually did rise from the dead.

Bauckham on Eyewitness Testimony

The reliability of eyewitness testimony is an issue I believe Christian apologists have for the most part not addressed satisfactorily in their arguments for the resurrection. Bauckham likewise makes a very similar claim at the beginning of Chapter 13:

Psychologists have been studying recollective memory for well over a century. There is a large body of data and interpretation available that is highly relevant to these questions about the reliability of eyewitness memories. New Testament scholars have rarely made any use of these resources, and this chapter (chapter 13) represents a first attempt to access the relevant data and theory and relate them to the gospel traditions in a systematic way.

Bauckham then proceeds with an analysis of certain aspects of the psychological literature on memory, including a discussion of the different types of memory (of which ‘episodic’ memory is the sort of most interest to us here), a comparison of the ‘copy’ and ‘reconstructive’ theories of memory, a discussion of schemas and how they are used in memory storage and recall, and an overview of some of the factors which effect the accuracy of memory. Much of the material he presents is fairly expository and as such, although I do not always agree precisely with some of his interpretations, I do not have a great deal to say about it. What is of most interest to me here is the section ‘Remembering Jesus’, in which he compares the gospel narratives against the factors mentioned earlier that mitigate for more or less reliable memory storage and retrieval. He summarises this section as follows:

The eyewitnesses who remembered the events of the history of Jesus were remembering inherently very memorable events, unusual events that would have impressed themselves on the memory, events of key significance for those who remembered them, landmark or life-changing events for them in many cases, and their memories would have been reinforced and stabilized by frequent rehearsal, beginning soon after the event. They did not need to remember — and the Gospels rarely record — merely peripheral aspects of the scene or the event, the aspects of recollective memory that are least reliable. Such details may often have been subject to performative variation in the eyewitnesses’ tellings of their stories, but the central features of the memory, those that constituted its meaning for those who witnessed and attested it, are likely to have been preserved reliably. We may conclude that the memories of eyewitnesses of the history of Jesus score highly by the criteria for likely reliability that have been established by the psychological study of recollective memory.

Although I have quibbles about some of these claims (in particular, I think the gospels do include a number of tangential details about the resurrection appearances which I think are quite questionable), overall I agree with Bauckham that the gospel accounts share a number of features which would tend to increase our credence in the testimony having been accuracy preserved and recalled. There is, however, another side to this question that I do not think Bauckham adequately addresses in this section, nor do I believe has really been dealt with in any considerable depth by other Christian apologists in their discussion of the evidence for the resurrection. This concerns the psychology surrounding memories of what I shall call ‘anomalous events’.

Memory of Anomalous Events

Most of the studies on the reliability of memory to be found in the literature are concerned with fairly ‘ordinary’ types of episodic memory: remembering the details of a story, forgetting curve for remembered events, remembering what took place in a film, producing false memories of being lost in a shopping centre, etc. In such circumstances, Bauckham is correct in his assertion that we generally are more likely to remember the general gist of novel, unusual events when we engage in frequent rehearsal (i.e. as per the situation with the resurrection appearances). As Bauckham himself goes to some lengths in various sections of his book to point out, however, the experiences of the apostles with respect to the risen Jesus were not by any means ordinary – they were exceptional. They fall into a broad class of events which I call ‘anomalous events’, which encompasses miracle reports, paranormal experiences, mass hysterias, and perhaps also certain types of traumatic experiences (though I will not discuss these in much depth). These sorts of events have a number of key elements in common:

  • They are often experienced in groups, and so remembering takes on a very distinctive communal form, not being a purely individualistic activity of the sort most studied in psychology
  • They have very high emotional content
  • They can often be life-changing for those who experience them (less applicable for mass hysterias)
  • They often involve people reporting to have experienced or witnessed very strange phenomena quite far outside ordinary experience
  • These memories are often maintained with high levels of confidence in spite of lack of corroborating evidence or even in the presence of strong counter-evidence

These quite unique attributes mean that eyewitness testimony concerning anomalistic experiences involves distinct factors beyond those captured in investigating memory in ordinary contexts. This is not at all to say that the findings of memory research are irrelevant – they are still very relevant – but it does mean that to neglect the particular literature on the psychology underpinning these sorts of anomalistic experiences, as I believe Bauckham does, is to miss a very sizeable component of the evidence relevant to the case of the resurrection appearances.

I believe that the relevant question here is not, as per Bauckham’s analysis, ‘are memories of anonalous events reliable?’, but rather the broader question of ‘how likely are such eyewitness reports to be veridical?’ The difference between these two questions is that the former supposes that events were originally perceived in essentially a correct manner and that only later may memories become corrupted, whereas the latter considers the reliability of eyewitness testimony of such events to be a broader question incorporating a diversity of psychological and sociological processes, including the effects of expectation, group interaction, perceptual biases, suggestibility, and a variety of other such factors, many of which I discuss in my HBS Model. It must be acknowledged that the literature concerning such events and processes is not nearly as extensive as we would like, and I believe there is still a great deal that we do not understand about the psychological and sociological mechanisms behind these sorts of events.

Nevertheless, I think one broad conclusion can be drawn from the available evidence, and this I will state as follows: in the right circumstances, it is quite possible for psychologically healthy people to form confident, detailed memories of highly emotive and unusual occurrences, even when such events did not in fact occur in anything resembling the manner in which they are remembered. In some cases, something may well have happened, but very different to how it is later remembered. In other cases, such memories can be completely falsified, with no basis in reality at all. This claim will doubtless strike many as far-fetched, however I think it can be quite readily substantiated.

Examples of False Anomalous Memories

I have presented a large number of additional cases in my HBS document, and I so will not attempt a full analysis at present. Here I seek only to give a few key which I believe serve as strong evidence in support of my claim that people can confidently come to believe in having experienced or witness very strange, memorable things which they did not.

  1. False memory of Satanic abuse: ‘The Thurston County ritual abuse case was a case in which Paul Ingram…was accused by his daughters of sexual abuse, by at least one daughter of satanic ritual abuse… Psychologist Richard Ofshe claimed that Ingram, because of his long-standing and routine experiences in his church, was inadvertently hypnotized by authority figures who conducted his interrogation, although no mental health professionals were present, and that the confessions were the result of false memories being implanted with suggestion. Ofshe tested this hypothesis by telling Ingram that a son and daughter had accused him of forcing them to commit incest with each other. Interrogating officers had previously accused Ingram of this, but he denied it, and also denied Ofshe’s accusation. Ofshe instructed Ingram to pray on the idea, and later Ingram produced a full, detailed written confession. Questioning the daughter who was supposed to have been involved, despite many other accusations against her father, she denied that such an incident had ever occurred. Upon being told that no such accusation had been made by either his son or daughter, Ingram refused to believe the incident wasn’t real, maintaining “it’s just as real to me as anything else”. Ofshe became convinced that Ingram’s confessions were solely the result of extensive interrogation sessions and questions being applied to an unusually suggestible individual.’ (see the wikipedia article).

  2. Mass hysteria resulting in psychogenic illness: though not exclusively a matter of memory, I think this case (and others like it that I document) is highly instructive for the social processes it illustrates: ‘In 1962 a mysterious disease broke out in a dressmaking department of a US textile factory. The symptoms included numbness, nausea, dizziness, and vomiting. Word of a bug in the factory that would bite its victims and cause them to develop the above symptoms quickly spread. Soon sixty two employees developed this mysterious illness, some of whom were hospitalized…After research by company physicians and experts from the US Public Health Service Communicable Disease Center, it was concluded that the case was one of mass hysteria. While the researchers believed some workers were bitten by the bug, anxiety was probably the cause of the symptoms. No evidence was ever found for a bug which could cause the above flu-like symptoms, nor did all workers demonstrate bites.’ (see wikipedia).

  3. False identification of rapist: ‘Donald M. Thomson, an Australian psychologist and lawyer, undoubtedly will never forget the day 15 years ago when he walked into a Sydney police station on routine court-related business and was arrested for assault and rape…The evening before his arrest, Thomson appeared on a local television program, where he discussed psychological research on eyewitness testimony and how people might best remember the faces of criminals observed during a robbery. As he spoke, a Sydney woman watching the show was attacked, raped and left unconscious in her apartment. When she awoke several hours later, she called the police and named Thomson as her assailant. The following day, after Thomson’s arrest, the woman confidently selected him as the perpetrator from a lineup of possible rapists at the police station. Thomson, of course, professed his innocence. “The police didn’t believe me at first,” he recalls, but I had appeared on a live television show when the crime occurred, so I had a good alibi.” Officials quickly dropped the charges when they realized the woman had unwittingly substituted Thomson’s televised face for that of the attacker.’ (see here for more on this).

  4. Alien abduction accounts: see for instance this excellent study ‘Autobiographical memories are often suspect. For example, a  surprisingly large number of people  report having been abducted by extraterrestrials. We offer a prototype of the abduction experience and an assessment of the frequency of such reports. These accounts are hard to dismiss on the basis of mendacity or insanity, but there are ample reasons to doubt their literal accuracy. We offer a cognitive-motivational explanation for how spurious memories of unidentified flying object (UFO) abductions can be created and maintained. The motivational roots lie in the desire to escape from ordinary self-awareness, and this explanation is supported by parallels
    between UFO abduction accounts and masochistic fantasies. The cognitive bases involve the integration and elaboration of hallucinations, general knowledge, and contextual cues into full-blown accounts, usually with the aid of hypnosis. Due to the pitfalls of hypnosis, people develop a high degree of confidence in the veridicality of spurious UFO abduction memories.’ The masochistic elements of their account have been criticised, but I think it is clear from this paper and others that many non-psychotic people confidently claim to have been abducted by aliens, and that such claims can be understood to be the product of psychological and sociological processes leading to false memories. (see here for original article).

  5. Jesus appears to a crowd in Nairobi: ‘On 11 June 1988, a man suddenly appeared before a vast crowd in Nairobi, Kenya, gathered to witness healing prayers. Instantly recognizing the tall, white-robed figure as “Jesus Christ,” the crowds fell down overcome with emotion. The editor of the Swahili edition of the Kenya Times, veteran journalist Job Mutungi, witnessed the event and took some pictures’ (see for example this article. Interested readers can contact me for additional sources I’ve collected on this, or search for their own. It is a very unusual event).

Note that I am not arguing the eyewitness testimony of these sorts of events is unreliable because we know that miracles etc do not occur, and therefore all testimony of them must be mistaken. What I am saying is rather that, irrespective of whether there are real miracles or genuine paranormal occurrences, there are a very large number of eyewitness reports of such things which we know (by corroboration with other evidence, and in some cases by direct experimental manipulation) are not veridical. That is, we know that confident, detailed eyewitness testimony can be completely mistaken. Of course, a key question here is ‘how frequently does this happen?’ I believe that there are enough documented cases of religious miracles, paranormal encounters, mass hysteria, false memories of crime, and other such things to make the claim that with respect to such anomalistic events, eyewitness testimony is quite unreliable. That doesn’t mean that it is always unreliable in such circumstances, nor does it mean that such events never actually occur. What it does mean, however, is that the mere existence of eyewitness testimony for such events is itself insufficient evidence for such events, because we know that such evidence is in general quite unreliable.

Eyewitness Testimony in Courts

In concluding his section on the reliability of memory, Bauckham makes some comments regarding the use of eyewitness testimony in courts:

An important problem for the use of eyewitness testimony in court is that, as we have noticed, recollection is usually accurate as far as the central features of an event are concerned but often unreliable in remembering peripheral details. But it is often precisely the latter that a court needs: exact words of a statement made long ago, exact times of day, voice recognition of a person met only once, faces of people merely glimpsed fleetingly. Witnesses may have been wholly uninvolved bystanders who had no reason to notice or remember the details required…Interviewing techniques, especially leading questions, may serve to feed information to witnesses who come to think they remember it. But these aspects of testimony in court that have led psychologists to question its accuracy in significant respects bear scarcely at all on the kind of eyewitness testimony with which we are concerned in the Gospels. The witnesses in these cases were not mere uninvolved bystanders, but participants in the events. What their testimonies needed to convey were not peripheral details but the central gist of the events they recalled. They were not required to recall faces (so important in modern legal trials), nor were they pressed to remember what did not come easily to mind.

I think Bauckham here is somewhat understating the degree to which the evidence points towards there existing very considerable limitations and distortions to memory in legal and courtroom settings. Consider this extract from a very useful review article on the subject:

Sixty-four psychologists were asked about their courtroom experiences and opinions on 30 eyewitness phenomena. By an agreement rate of at least 80%, there was a strong consensus that the following phenomena are sufficiently reliable to present in court: the wording of questions, lineup instructions, confidence malleability, mug-shot-induced bias, postevent information, child witness suggestibility, attitudes and expectations, hypnotic suggestibility, alcoholic intoxication, the cross-race bias, weapon focus, the accuracy–confidence correlation, the forgetting curve, exposure time, presentation format, and unconscious transference

Furthermore, I do not agree with Bauckham that all of these courtroom factors are of limited relevance to the resurrection appearances. Clearly some of them are not relevant, such as mugshot-induced bias or lineup instructions, however others I think are of immense relevance, such as unconscious transference, post-event information, and hypnotic suggestibility (note I am not claiming that the disciples hypnotised each other explicitly, but there is nothing mystical about hypnosis – its just a form of heightened suggestibility, and suggestibility may well have played a considerable role in shaping their experiences, as it has been documented to do in other cases of miracle and paranormal reports). Even something like the recognition of faces is of potential relevance, as in some of the accounts Jesus is not first recognised by those who seem him, but they only realise who it is later on, which to me is possibly indicative of later memory distortion (though of course we cannot say for sure). In any case, I think the literature on the problems with the use of eyewitness testimony in courts is both more extensive and more relevant to the gospels than Bauckham admits in this section, and I believe it is something Christian apologists should address in more detail.


People will doubtless infer from this article that I am saying that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Indeed, people have even characterised my HBS model as stating or implying that the disciples invented their stories, or engaged in conscious deception in some way. I am not making any such claims here. The disciples and others claimed to have seen the risen Jesus. They believed what they said, and were sincere enough to suffer persecution for their claims. These claims were made by eyewitnesses who knew Jesus personally, and are not (at least in their essentials) the later accretions of legend. All these facts notwithstanding, the claim I have defended is that eyewitness testimony of emotionally charged anomalous events is unreliable, and therefore we cannot infer from the testimony of the apostles that Jesus actually did rise from the dead and appear to them.

I therefore am in disagreement with the Christian apologists quoted at the beginning of this piece. I do not believe it is the case that the only reasonable interpretation of the historical facts is that Jesus actually did rise from the dead, and nor does a reluctance to assent to this explanation require philosophical predispositions against supernaturalism. Rather, my reluctance to accept such an explanation stems, first and foremost, from my belief that the available literature shows clearly that memory and eyewitness testimony about such occurrences is unreliable, and that people can and do make confident eyewitness reports about such things even when the events in question demonstrably did not occur. Bauckham, despite his commendable efforts to engage with a body of literature heretofore largely ignored by Christian apologists, has nevertheless in my view failed to address this fundamental point. For this reason, I do not believe that the resurrection appearances constitute sufficient evidence to warrant confident belief that Jesus rose from the dead. Maybe he did rise from the dead, but the historical evidence and eyewitness testimony we have is by itself insufficient evidence to warrant such a belief.