Reflections on ‘Why I am not an Atheist’

Introduction

Recently I went along to an event entitled ‘Why I am not an atheist’, in which Scottish pastor and Christian apologist David Robertson answered questions outlining his answer to this question. Here I just want to respond to some of his remarks and record my reflections on the event. Overall I thought the evening was pleasant. It is always interesting to hear other people’s ‘worldview stories’, and I appreciated that Robertson emphasised at some points that he wasn’t making an assertion about what everyone should believe, but just outlining his reasons and thought processes about the various issues raised. I found this approach refreshing, and glad he did not pursue the approach that some apologists take of throwing out dozens of reasons which are supposed to be convincing to all those who hear and properly understand them. That being said, there were a number of things that grated at me about his remarks over the course of the evening. Here I want to discuss a few of them in turn. Since most of the words of this essay focus on criticisms, it is easy to infer that I disliked the evening or thought all Robertson’s remarks were rubbish. That isn’t the case – I am glad to have attended and glad these events can take place. However, since I value discourse and interchange of perspectives, I think its appropriate for me to focus on discussing the points of disagreement.

Critiques of Focus and Tone

Let me first begin by expressing my frustration at Robertson’s almost obsessive focus on New Atheism. This was manifested in his continual referencing of the works and sayings of various New Atheist writers, predominantly Richard Dawkins, but also people like Laurence Krauss and Steven Hawking. Granted there was some discussion of Bertrand Russell, largely in response to a few questions from the moderator, but overall the focus was overwhelmingly on the New Atheists. To some extent this is understandable, as these figures have certainly been the highest profile atheists of recent years and still attract a great deal of public attention. However, as many other prominent atheist scholars themselves have noted, New Atheism is also an extremely intellectually shaky version of atheism, at least when it comes to actually engaging with tricky philosophical issues. I think New Atheism has some valid political/social points to make, but beyond that it has little of value to add to the discussion. In particular, as I have said many times before, New Atheist arguments as to why one should not believe in God or why all religions are false, are almost universally crap. They just aren’t well thought-out, carefully developed arguments. If one is going to seriously consider atheism, I think its important to consider and respond to the writings of respected, contemporary atheist philosophers who write on relevant subjects, such as Graham Oppy, Quentin Smith, Michael Ruse, Jordan Sobel, and J.L Mackie (the latter two being deceased but much more recent than Russell). Such people basically never get a mention by Christian apologists in these sorts of talks, and this event was no exception. It is for this reason that I expressed to Rob Martin afterwards, perhaps 70% seriously, that we should think about doing an event on atheism in which all discussion of New Atheism and the works of New Atheists was banned. I think this would actually do a lot to advance the discussion.

Another thing that I found detracted from the evening was Robertson’s occasional tendency to be quite dismissive towards atheists, and to disregard their arguments or views with little serious thought. This is probably directly related to the first point, that most of his interaction has probably been with New Atheist thinkers or ‘fans’ (he did explicitly mention spending a lot of time on the Richard Dawkins forums so I think this is a safe assumption). In my experience, the arguments presented by such people to defend their atheism philosophically are quite weak, and often show profound lack of ignorance of pertinent philosophy, history, or science. As such, a degree of frustration and annoyance on Robertson’s part is understandable. Nevertheless, particularly in the context of the topic of the evening, I felt that some of his remarks were in very poor taste. With regard to the problem of evil, an issue that has been debated for centuries and continues to be the subject of much serious philosophical discussion, Robertson said “I think the problem of evil turns middle class liberals away from God because its a nice excuse”. To me, a flippant remark like this is up there with ‘people just believe in God because they like the idea of an afterlife’, as a mean-spirited just-so story by which one avoids having to seriously think or engage with disagreeable viewpoints. Is it really plausible that the problem of evil is not at all a serious intellectual/spiritual/emotional problem? I know Robertson didn’t exactly say that, but it sure sounds like that’s what he meant. When I hear a Christian apologist say something like that, I’m basically ready to end the discussion, because it seems clear they are not the slightest bit interested in what I actually think or why I think it, but will just dismiss anything I say as me making ‘an excuse’. I do hope this isn’t actually the case for Robertson, but this remark in particular (as well as a few other more minor ones) rather put me on the defensive for the rest of the event.

Critiques of Arguments

There were times in the evening when I felt that Robertson was not doing justice to the atheist arguments or positions he responded to. One particularly bizarre example which (to be honest) still confuses me, I will relate below. Robertson was responding to Russell’s claim that the theist cannot give any sensible answer to the question ‘who created God?’ He said that this is an “intellectually vacuous question”, and remarked (apparently only half joking) that if his twelve year old daughter could not have easily come up with a response to this, then he would have disowned her. Robertson’s own response was that theists have never claimed that God is a created being, and so asking who created him is a completely irrelevant and moot question. Now I don’t know if Robertson is being fair to Russell’s argument here, and honestly I don’t really care, as this argument itself is not what interests me. Rather my purpose is to compare Robertson’s response to this argument to a different argument that he presented a bit later in the evening. With respect to ethics, human rights, and equality, Robertson claimed that “you cannot argue that all human beings are equal if your whole basis is naturalistic materialism because obviously we are not”. He then gave an example of what he meant, saying: “I’m not equal to Brad Pitt in looks, or Usain Bolt in speed, or Steven Hawking in intelligence, etc.” It seems perfectly obvious, however, that when we are talking about all people being equal in this context, we do not mean that they are equal in every ability, or in every type of ranking we could devise. The idea is rather something like that every person is deserving of equal basic respect, or has equal human rights, or is of equal moral value, or something along these lines. Obviously there is a discussion to be had about what exactly we do mean by this sort of claim, but Robertson’s comparisons are clearly irrelevant, since no one is claiming the sorts of equalities that he mentions. I really find it hard to fathom how Robertson can be so dismissive of the ‘who created God’ argument on the one hand, while a few minutes later himself making such an absurdly weak and misconstrued argument.

There were a few times during the evening when Robertson made assertions that I thought were very dubious and should not have been stated in the bold, confident way there were without at least providing some further explanation, evidence, or qualifications. I will cite a few key examples. In response to some of the claims of New Atheists he stated ‘‘there’s lots of things that science can never explain because science by definition is not able to explain them”. Now I don’t know whether I agree with this statement or not, primarily because I have no idea what ‘definition’ of science he is talking about. He didn’t provide one, nor refer to any of the many competing theories and accounts of what constitutes ‘science’ that have been discussed in the literature. There is simply no such thing  as ‘the definition of science’, and thus no way to make any sense of what he’s talking about here. In a second example, Robertson claimed that “there has never been a human society ever where people did not believe in some sort of God.” Once again, I don’t know whether I agree with him or not because I don’t know what he means by ‘some sort of God’. If he means ‘any sort of supernatural being’, then I would probably agree with this statement, though defining it so broadly blunts the force of this claim rather a lot. If instead we interpret ‘God’ to be something at least moderately close to an all-powerful personal creator being that Christianity believes in, then I think his statement is clearly false. Two obvious counterexamples are Buddhist societies, and the many animistic religious traditions which worship nature-spirits, without necessarily having any concept of a supreme being over and beyond nature. There’s obviously much to examine here concerning conceptions of God and comparative anthropology of religion, and that may well go beyond what he wanted to convey, but I don’t think that justifies such a careless sweeping statement. I expect that somebody who spends much of their time writing and speaking about such things to be more precise in their statements and not make such bold, dubious, unqualified claims as this.

I now turn to a couple of the two major substantive reasons that Robertson gave for why he isn’t an atheist. He first mentioned that he didn’t think atheism could make any sense because “there’s no way that all this (nature/the world) is an accident”. I would have liked him to expand a bit more on exactly what he meant by this statement. At other times over the course of the evening he mentioned the origin of life, the origin of the universe itself, and cosmic fine-tuning, but none of these were ever really expanded upon or fleshed out, so it’s difficult to really evaluate what sort of argument he would want to advance. One thing that I did want to mention is that he appealed to the idea that nature/life/the universe clearly looks as if it were designed by an intelligence, and that therefore it is reasonable to infer that (more probably than not) it actually was. I actually think that in essence this is a perfectly valid argument – I just disagree with the crucial premise that the world looks as if it were designed by an intelligence. Robertson mentioned Dawkins and Hawking as saying something along the lines that they agree the world looks as if it were designed, however I’m not sure what this is supposed to demonstrate. So what if they do think that – does that mean that it must be right? The issue is what reasons we have for thinking that the world/the universe look designed. I don’t think one can simply side-step the issue by asserting that some of the staunchest advocates of atheism concede the point.

Before leaving this issue there’s one further clarification I’d like to make, which may perhaps relate to the Dawkins et al quotes about design. This is to say that just because human minds are such that we have a strong tendency to make certain judgements or ascriptions doesn’t mean that such judgments are actually the most justified when all the evidence is properly considered. To give an example, to many people the famous ‘face on Mars’ really does look like a face that some agency constructed there. We are so well adapted to seeing faces that we make this ascription so readily, even of a blotch of blurry shadows on rocks. Of course, there is ample evidence, including multiple high-resolution images of the site in question, that there is no face there. And yet, to many people (including myself!) it still looks like there is a face on Mars! My point here is that something can ‘look like’ it is the case without it following that, when all evidence is properly considered, that is actually the best explanation for the phenomenon. Thus when people like Dawkins say that nature ‘looks designed’, I believe what they are saying is that we see design in nature because of the way our minds work (e.g. tendency to ascribe agency to inanimate objections, find patterns in noise, etc). They aren’t saying that ‘all considered, the evidence seems to indicate that nature is the product of design’. Its just our sort of naive, intuitive reaction that leads us to see design, but this is overcome by more careful consideration of all the evidence (like the face on Mars case). Now perhaps you think that there aren’t the sort of powerful countervailing reasons in the case of ascribing design to the universe as there is to rejecting the face on Mars, or perhaps you think that these naive ‘intuitive’ ascriptions of design are more reliable than Dawkins et al give credit. I’m not attempting here to adjudicate those issues. Rather, what I’m saying is that there is a plausible way to understand what Dawkins et al say about the appearance of design without them granting the premise that design actually is the best explanation for the state of the world.

The second major, substantive reason that Robertson advanced as to why he is not an atheist was the familiar one that if atheism were true, then there would be no free will, no good or evil, and no morality. I must confess at this point that I’m not entirely sure if Robertson would accept this characterisation of his position, but I did the best I could to note down his remarks and follow his reasoning – I just found this segment of the evening particularly disjointed. For instance, Robertson clearly expressed his view that determinism and free will are incompatible, but its unclear how this is relevant to atheism because the two (atheism and determinism) are completely independent positions. He did mention this in the context of responding to the problem of evil, however, so perhaps he had not intended that as an actual argument against atheism. Similarly, he clearly seemed to think that without God there would be no good or evil and no morality, but he never explained why. He didn’t mention anything about the various metaethical theories that attempt to account for the nature and origin of morality (most of which make no appeal to God), so its unclear to me what the basis of his objection is. Again, however, perhaps he never intended to offer this as an argument so much as a personal view of his – as I noted before, I found this part hard to follow. Later on in the evening he returned to the issue of morality when he discussed the idea that ‘all humans are equal’, as I discussed above. He argued that according to Christianity, all humans are created in the image of God, and thus are all fundamentally equal, whereas ‘naturalistic materialism’ cannot make any such appeal. Aside from the issues I discussed previously regarding this question, I also just fail to see the logic behind this argument. Suppose Robertson is right and all humans are created ‘in the image of God’. How does it follow that all humans are equal? Some humans could be created more ‘Godlike’ than others, thus negating any equality. I know this isn’t what traditional Christian doctrine says, but if the claim is really ‘Christian doctrine says all humans are equal because they are made in God’s image’, its hard to see how this is actually a compelling argument to anyone who doesn’t already accept such a doctrine. It doesn’t seem to follow from being a theist that all humans are equal, but rather seems to depend on particular theological assumptions that Robertson didn’t really discuss or defend. I also note that ‘naturalistic materialism’ is but a small subset of atheism – Buddhists are atheists but often not naturalistic materialists. As such it would have been good to know more about why Robertson rejects atheism as a whole, and not simply one particular subset of it.

Conclusions

Concluding, I was refreshed and encouraged by some aspects of Robertson’s presentation, in particular his willingness to engage, to share views, to take a more personal approach than ‘here’s a list of twenty reasons to believe’, and to acknowledge that he isn’t in the business of telling people what to believe. At the same time, I was disappointed and frustrated by the undue focus on New Atheism at the expense of engaging with more robust arguments from other atheist or non-religious philosophers, as well as the occasional unsubstantiated claims and poorly-structured arguments. I think these issues are important and typically far too little attention is paid to them in the popular discourse. As such I think its important that, when we do have these opportunities, we should seek to carefully articulate our own views with appropriate nuance, be charitable to opposing views to present them in their strongest form, and in general  stay respectful of those with whom we disagree. Unfortunately I didn’t feel like these virtues were exemplified as well as they could have been in this event.

Note: my quotations from Robertson at the event are based on notes that I took at the time. I believe they accurately reflect the views he presented at the event, however I cannot guarantee they are word-for-word perfect renditions, as I do not have access to a transcript.

A Naturalistic Worldview: Talk Notes

Attached is a link to my slides from a talk I presented at the Humanist Convention in April of 2017 (last week as at the time of posting). They summarise some of my recent thinking about metaphysical naturalism, an argument in defence of which constitutes the majority of the talk. I hope they may be of use and interest to some. Eventually I will get around to writing up my thoughts into a proper article, which I will post on my blog. I anticipate, however, that it will be significantly more technical than these slides, so these may make a good ‘first introduction’ to some of these issues for people with less philosophical background.

A Naturalistic Worldview 2.0, Apr 2017

The Resurrection of Jesus: Explaining the Historical Facts Debate Notes

Synopsis

The following is a lightly edited version of the notes that I compiled in preparation for a debate about the Resurrection of Jesus that was held in April 2016 against Robert Martin. They contain much of the crucial material and arguments in outlining my views on competing explanations for the resurrection, and so I thought I would provide them here for reference. A more detailed and scholarly version of this material, with additional notes, case studies, and references, is contained in my book critiquing the arguments of William Lane Craig, which I hope will be published sometime next year. In the meantime, I hope these will provide a useful reference for those interested in engaging with this important topic.

Opening Remarks

Introduction

My goal here is to outline and defend a naturalistic explanation for certain historical facts related to the death and subsequent appearances of Jesus of Nazareth. I will argue that my proposed explanation, the RHBS model, is superior to the Christian resurrection hypothesis. It is very important to understand that I am not arguing that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, or that it is irrational to believe that he did. Instead, I am attempting to refute a specific argument for that belief, one commonly raised by Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig, Mike Licona, and Gary Habermas. Other reasons for believing that Jesus rose from the dead, perhaps theological or experiential, or a combination of these with some appeal to the historical evidence, are not addressed by this piece. Here I solely address the question as to whether the historical evidence (and associated arguments and inference derived therefrom) are sufficient to warrant a belief that Jesus rose from the dead. That is, I argue that this ‘resurrection argument’ is not a particularly strong apologetic argument for the Christian faith, irrespective of whether Jesus actually did rise from the dead.

Henceforth I shall accept as historical facts the following events pertaining to the death of Jesus:

  • Jesus was crucified
  • He was buried in a tomb
  • The tomb was found empty by women followers
  • Many of his followers subsequently reported seeing and speaking to Jesus (‘the appearances’)
  • His disciples came to believe that Jesus had been resurrected by God
  • Aspects of these stories and beliefs were passed down and recorded in the gospels (thought not necessarily with all details correct)

I do not believe that denying any of these facts, as so many atheist respondents to this argument do, is a satisfactory or defensible approach. Of these facts, only the empty tomb is subject to any real scholarly dispute, and even that is accepted by many sceptical scholars. Even if they are not all certain, they are at least plausibly true, and thus require an explanation. Nor do I think it is philosophically defensible to a priori reject miracles on the basis of (for instance) the arguments of David Hume. Thus I think it is incumbent upon the atheist to present a plausible (thought not fully comprehensive or perfect) account of these facts. My challenge here, therefore, is to explain how these facts could come to be without divine intervention, and furthermore to argue that in fact these facts can be better accounted for by such a non-miraculous (naturalistic) explanation. In order to do so, I first must discuss what I mean by an ‘explanation’.

Explanations

An explanation consists of a set of propositions which, taken together, entail the facts to be explained. The facts don’t have to follow with deductive certainty, but they should follow with reasonable probability. In the words of philosopher Charles Pierce, given an explanation, the facts to be explained should follow ‘as a matter of course’.

Explanations are judged in accordance with three main criteria, which I will use to compare my naturalistic explanation to the resurrection hypothesis.

  • Explanatory scope: the larger the range of facts that an explanation can account for, the better is that explanation
  • Explanatory power: the more likely the facts are rendered by the explanation, the better and more clearly they are accounted for by it, the better is the explanation
  • Plausibility: the more likely are the propositions posited by the explanation given existing background knowledge (outside of the facts to be explained), the better is the explanation

The RHBS Model

The RHBS model consists of the following key elements:

  1. Reburial: Under one possible scenario, Jesus’ burial in Joseph’s tomb was only ever intended to be temporary, a decision made as a result of the fast approaching Sabbath, the nearness of Joseph’s tomb, and the desire to avoid another disruptive public spectacle. This temporary burial hypothesis is plausible in light of several known facts.
    • Jewish law required bodies to be taken down before evening: (Deuteronomy 21:22) “If a man has committed a sin worthy of death… and you hang him from a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day” (also mentioned in John 19:31 “so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath”)
    • The gospels indicate the burial was rushed: Mark 15:42 Joseph asked for Jesus’ body “When evening had already come, because it was the preparation day, that is, the day before the Sabbath”, and John 19:42 “Therefore because of the Jewish day of preparation, since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there”. That the women came on the Sunday morning to anoint Jesus shows that the burial had not been completed on Friday night
    • Criminals were buried in a different location to ordinary Jews, likely some distance away
    • The Jewish and Roman authorities were concerned about keeping public order, and so wanted Jesus’ burial to be as private as possible
  2. Individual Hallucinations: Following the discovery of the empty tomb, and exacerbated by grief and emotional excitement, one or more of Jesus’ women followers experienced individual hallucinations of the risen Jesus.
    • Hallucinations are common among non-mentally ill: ‘studies of normal populations have found that between 10 and 37% of people report having experienced auditory hallucinations’, “Affective reactions to auditory hallucinations in psychotic, evangelical and control groups”, British Journal of Clinical Psychology
    • Especially common are bereavement hallucinations: ‘half of the subjects felt the presence of the deceased (illusions); about one third reported seeing, hearing and talking to the deceased’,”Bereavement among elderly people: grief reactions, post-bereavement hallucinations and quality of life”, Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica
    • It is well known that hallucinations are extremely common in religious contexts and settings imbued with religious significance
  3. Group Religious Experiences: the women followers then discussed their experiences with the disciples, generating an expectation that they might experience something similar. Partly as a result of this expectancy, and also mediated by social reinforcement and strong emotions, the early disciples had several collective religious experiences of the risen Jesus, thereby accounting for the appearances.
    • This is psychologically known behaviour. Psychologist Donovan H. Rawcliffe wrote “The same factors which operate for a single individual in the induction of hallucinations… may become even more effective in an excited or expectant crowd, and on occasion may result in mass hallucinations. This is not to say that any two people are capable of having precisely the same hallucination identical in every respect. But similar preconceptions and expectations can undoubtedly result in hallucinatory visions so alike that subsequent comparisons would not disclose any major discrepancy… dissimilar hallucinatory experiences often attain a spurious similarity by a process of harmonisation in subsequent recollection and conversation.”
    • Numerous historical cases are known, including the Westall UFO encounter of 1966, when a flying saucer was seen over a school by a large group of hundreds of people, the many Maritain appearances to often thousands of people (such as Our Lady of Zeitoun in Cairo), reports of seeing angels in the trenches (the Angels of Mons), and mass hysteria such as genital shrinking epidemics in Africa and reports of German air raids in Canada during the First World War.
  4. Memory and Cognitive Biases: In the process of discussing these experiences among themselves afterwards, the disciples’ memories of what they experienced were reshaped through processes of reconstructive recall and social memory contagion in the direction of increased coherence between individual accounts, and also greater impressiveness of the experiences. Cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, and other similar biases combined to reduce any inconsistencies or discrepancies in the accounts or memories.
    • Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus studies the formation of false memories, with an emphasis on the legal system. In a TED talk she narrates the famous case of Steve Titus, whom was accused of rape, the victim declaring at the trial that “I’m absolutely positive that’s the man”. In fact, he was innocent. The real culprit was a serial rapist who later was found and confessed. The victim’s memory had been manipulated by repeated exposure and suggestion of the police officers
    • “Granhag, Stromwall, and Billings (2003) found that 76% of participants came to remember seeing non-existent film footage of the sinking of the passenger liner the Estonia… Similarly, Ost, Hogbin, and Granhag,(2005) found that 40% of participants recalled seeing non-existent CCTV footage of an explosion in a Bali nightclub”, Collaborative recall and collective memory
    • Other studies have found that people incorporate misinformation from others into their own memories of an event (memory contagion), even if they are warned this might occur
  5. Socialization and Marginalisation of Doubt: Public expressions of doubt, disagreement, and skepticism were further muted by forces of socialisation and conformity in the early tightly-knit community. Most of those exposed to these claims had neither the inclination nor the ability to check them for themselves, or question the developing orthodoxy. This accounts for the origin of belief in the resurrection and the writing of the gospels.
    • One example of this would be how Jehovah’s Witness have used social reinforcement of their beliefs and motivated reasoning to survive multiple failed end of world predictions

This explanation has the explanatory scope and power to account for all of the facts. Thus I argue the RHBS model has sufficient explanatory scope to account for all the facts, and is plausible given background knowledge from history, psychology, and sociology. See below for more discussion and examples of some of this evidence.

The Resurrection Hypothesis

Compared to the RHBS model, we find that the resurrection hypothesis as typically stated (“God raised Jesus from the dead”) lacks the explanatory scope and power necessary to account for all of the facts. It does account for the empty tomb, but fails to account for the appearances. Perhaps if any of us were to rise from the dead we would rush to show ourselves to all our friends, but God raising Jesus from the dead is another matter entirely. Unless we have prior knowledge of God’s intentions, it doesn’t follow at all that the disciples (or anyone else) would see the risen Jesus:

  • Jesus could have appeared even if he wasn’t resurrected (as some Gnostics believe)
  • He might have been resurrected without appearing to anyone (per the old copies of Mark)
  • He might have appeared to anyone else, like the Mesoamericans as the Mormons believe

In order to have the explanatory scope to account for all the facts, therefore, the resurrection hypothesis requires three key assumptions:

  • God exists
  • God had a desire or reason to raise Jesus from the dead
  • Jesus had reason to appear to his disciples after being raised to vindicate his divine mission

But each of these assumptions is subject to significant dispute, and none of them are among our widely accepted set of background beliefs. Of course if one already believes that Jesus was divine then they will be very plausible indeed, but this is not among our generally accepted background facts. The fundamental trouble is these assumptions rely on knowledge of God’s intentions, which is something that we do not have access to without making prior theological assumptions. By contrast, the RHBS model relies only on assumptions which can be shown to be plausible given shared background knowledge from history, psychology, and sociology.

Thus, we find that the RHBS model relies on assumptions which are plausible given shared background knowledge from psychology, sociology, and historical scholarship. By contrast, the resurrection hypothesis relies on assumptions whose plausibility is impossible to adjudicate in a non-question begging way. As such, the RBHS model is a superior explanation of the historical facts. This does not necessarily mean that it describes what actually happened, but with respect to identifying an explanatory framework for interpreting the historical facts, I believe it is superior to the resurrection hypothesis.

Rebuttals and Responses

Assumptions of the RBHS model

The RHBS Model requires four main assumptions:

  • Jesus’ body was removed from the tomb before its discovery by Jesus’ women followers
  • Some of Jesus’ followers experienced individual hallucinations of Jesus appearing to them
  • Reports of the empty tomb and these first appearances triggered a serious of collective experiences of the risen Jesus among the disciples
  • The memories and understanding of these experiences were reshaped over time by psychological and sociological forces towards being more consistent and impressive

The resurrection hypothesis is much simpler than the RHBS model

The resurrection hypothesis as typically stated is much simpler: ‘God (bodily) raised Jesus from the dead’. Since the RHBS model is so much more complicated, does not Occam’s Razor say we should prefer the resurrection hypothesis? In fact this is not the case, because Occam’s Razor does not, contrary to how it is often stated, say that ‘simpler explanations are more likely to be true’. Rather, it states that explanations which must make fewer new (previously unestablished) assumptions are to be preferred. Thus it is essentially equivalent to the criterion of plausibility – given our background information, how likely is the proposed explanation?

Joseph of Arimathea had no reason to rebury the body of Jesus

I see two broad possibilities here:

  • Intended temporary storage: Joseph always intended to rebury Jesus, having only placed Jesus’ body in his tomb temporarily, intending a reburial after the Sabbath was over. This may have been done because his tomb was very close to the site of execution, as implied by John 19:42, and as implied by Mark and John the Sabbath was approaching and it was against Jewish law to leave crucified victims out on the Sabbath. Another possibility was that the authorities wanted a quiet, private site to place Jesus’ body for a couple of days until the commotion surrounding his crucifixion had died down, or for both reasons.
  • Change of heart: Joseph may have originally intended to leave Jesus’ body in his family tomb (being perhaps a sympathiser or even secret supporter), however after spending time with family and/or friends over the Sabbath and telling them what he had done, he had second thoughts and was prevailed upon to move the body from his (expensive) family tomb. (I can just imagine Joseph going home and his wife yelling incredulously “you did what with our family tomb!?”) In Jewish burial custom criminals were buried in a separate location to those who received honourable burials, and having Jesus buried in one’s tomb (or even nearby to one’s tomb) would have been considered to be an insult.

If Joseph of Arimathea moved the body, he would have told the disciples about it to refute their claims that Jesus was raised

  1. Not enough information to know this: absolutely nothing is known about Joseph except that he was a member of the council who buried Jesus. We do not know his reasons for doing so (the gospels are not entirely consistent about this, and it is unclear if they can be trusted as many scholars have identified a tendency to progressively ‘christianise’ Joseph). We do now know how connected, if at all, he was to the Christian movement. We do not know if he knew any of the disciples of kept in contact with them (whom it must be remembered were in hiding from the Jewish establishment after the crucifixion). He may have died very shortly after these events, he may have moved away, or simply have not cared enough about figures he may have regarded as radical zealots to attempt to dissuade them of their views.
  2. Disciples would not have been convinced anyway: even if Joseph had made known the reburial to the disciples, I doubt that would have convinced them. In this case, the body would soon have become unrecognisable, and the disciples would likely have suspected a Jewish plot. Even aside from that problem, irrational belief persistence is well documented in new religious movements. As such, I think it possible (though less likely) that Joseph did make known the reburial to the disciples, but they did not believe him and so the incident was accorded no important, never recorded and subsequently forgotten.

Reinterment was against Jewish law

  1. Joseph had a plausible excuse: Joseph may have justified the reburial on the grounds that his tomb was publically known and therefore not safe from tomb robbers. Whether or not this was his actual reason, he could have used this as a plausible justification, as this is an acknowledged exception to the normal Jewish rule against reburying bodies
  2. Mary doesn’t agree: Mary Magdelene also doesn’t seem to think that a reburial is implausible, as in John 20:2 she says “they have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him”.
  3. Parallel cases: Temporary burial is attested in Jewish sources: Semakhot, 13:5 ‘Whosoever finds a corpse in a tomb should not move it from its place, unless he knows that this is a temporary grave’ and ‘Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar says: Rabban Gamliel had a temporary (borrowed) tomb in Yabneh into which they bring the corpse and lock the door upon it’

If the body had been removed, the Jewish authorities would have produced it to disprove the disciples’ claims

This argument relies on five key premises, each of which I regard as dubious or highly unlikely.

  1. Jews were interested in debate: for this objection to hold, the Jewish authorities must have been sufficiently interested in debating or disproving specific factual claims made by the early Christians. I see no reson to believe that this was the case. The Jewish authorities did not like the Christians making claims they regarded as blasphemous, stirring up trouble among the people, or building up a rival religious power structure. Their activities as recorded in Acts are consistent with these focuses: they persecute, they arrest, they bring to trial, they criticise and forbid from teaching. They make no attempt to persuade or present counter evidence. The original (uninterpolated) Testimonium Flavianum, an early example of Jewish responses to Christianity, does not mention the resurrection: “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” As Michael Martin says “This hardly suggests that Jewish leaders were actively engaged in attempting to refute the Resurrection story but failing in their efforts”.
  1. Jews knew where the body was: if the body of Jesus was reburied in a mass grave, or some other unmarked site, or possibly stolen by another third party or misplaced in some other way, there is no reason why the Jewish authorities would have known where it was. It is not at all clear why initially they would have cared what happened to the body or have made any effort to keep tabs on it. That the outcome of the body would be important only became clear weeks later when the disciples began to publically declare the resurrection. By that time the body may have long been lost.
  1. We would have a record of Jews displaying the body: this response assumes that if the Jewish authorities had presented the body of Jesus publically in some way, we would have a record of this fact. We have no records at all about the early Christian movement from first century Jewish authorities whom the Christians were dealing with. We have no critical reports, only a few accounts in Acts and elsewhere about what Christians said was being done to them. If the authorities had presented the body of Jesus, it seems very plausible that this is something Christians (believing it to be faked) would not have recorded. Even if they had, since we have virtually no records at all from this period, there is no reason to suppose that we would written records of this particular occurrence would have survived.
  1. The corpse of Jesus would have been recognisable: Corpses decay quite quickly, especially in the often hot and humid conditions of Palestine. Probably within a few days, or a week or two at most, Jesus’ corpse would not have been recognisable. Thus the Jewish authorities had a very short window in which a corpse could be presented with any chance that the disciples would accept it as Jesus. It seems eminently reasonable to me that, even had they wanted to produce the body and known where it could be found, by the time it could be done it was too late to bother, or too late to make any difference, as the corpse had decaying beyond clear recognition.
  1. Presentation of Jesus’ body would have stopped Christianity: this response assumes that if the disciples had recognised a corpse as that of Jesus, they would have given up their claims, or at least been unable to persuade anyone else of their claims. This assumption runs contrary to the ample evidence we have of the power of irrational belief persistence, particularly in the context of new religious movements. People are perfectly capable of believing things in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. As such, even if the followers of Jesus believed that they corpse they saw was that of Jesus, I believe it is not at all implausible that they would have found some way to rationalise this away, and the event was not recorded and eventually dropped from the Christian narrative. Consider for instance the claim of apologist William Lane Craig: “should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa”.

The appearance to the 500 cannot be explained naturalistically

  1. The claim is unverifiable: Paul is making a very safe claim. He knew that no one he was speaking to would have the means and inclination to check up his claims. Today misinformation that can be checked using a quick google search keeps on being propagated. To have checked Paul’s claims would have required a lengthy and expensive journey, and then hunting around for the early church and trying to find the, now elderly, remnants of this group. Very few people would have had the means or time to be able to do this.
  2. Witnesses were not in a position to identify Jesus: how did all 500 people know it was Jesus? Were they all close enough to get a good look? Did they all know him when he was alive? This seems unlikely.
  3. Similar cases known: Large appearances like this are documented, including many apparitions of the virgin mary, and moving and drinking statues of the Buddha (see some cases in ‘Additional Material’ section).

Jesus’ followers, or some of them, were sceptical and so did not expect his appearances

  1. Not explained well by resurrection hypothesis: that Jesus’ followers were sceptical is hard to understand given all of the many miracles they are said to have witnessed during Jesus’ life, including healings, exorcisms, raising of the dead, feeding thousands, walk on water, etc. This motif of scepticism in the gospels seems very hard to understand if these miracles had really occurred
  2. Avowel of prior scepticism is a common motif: the RHBS model better explains references to the disciples being sceptical at first since this is a known phenomenon in the psychological literature. Psychologist Anna Stone explains: “the avowal of prior scepticism is a narrative device designed to enhance the credibility of the narrator and the likelihood of attribution of the event to a paranormal cause. The technique works like this: a typical narrative account starts with the avowal of prior scepticism (“at first I was sceptical”), followed by a description of an anomalous occurrence (“but a psychic told me things she could not have known”), which in turn is followed by a conversion (“I realised that something out of the ordinary was occurring”). This technique highlights the strength of evidence that caused a change in the narrator’s attitude from initial scepticism to belief. By highlighting the narrator’s reliance on evidence the account also positions the narrator as a rational thinker”

The disciples would not have come to believe Jesus had been resurrected from mere hallucinations since Jews did not believe in the resurrection of a single person during history, but a general resurrection of all the righteous at the end of history

  1. The logic is the same in both explanations: the proponent of the resurrection hypothesis argues that the disciples came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus because of a combination of his empty tomb and his appearances to them. This is exactly is proposed in the RHBS model. The only difference is that I argue the empty tomb and the appearances in turn were caused by different factors than the resurrection proponent asserts were at work. But with respect to the belief of the disciples in the resurrection, the logic is essentially identical: empty tomb plus appearances leads to belief in the resurrection.
  2. This exaggerates the degree of change in beliefs: As scholars like Bart Eahrman have argued, the early Christian movement was at least in part an apocalyptic movement. Jesus made numerous statements about the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and the coming of God’s kingdom. Thus when his early followers believed that he had been resurrected, they would not have viewed this as an event in the ‘middle’ of history as we do today, but rather as a further sign of the beginning of the end times. Jesus was described as ‘the firstfruits of them that slept’, indicating that Jesus was but the first of a general resurrection that was to come very soon, when the final end will come. This perspective if further evidenced by the report of the ‘opening of the tombs’ in Matthew, and bodies being raised to life and appearing to many. The disciples thus did not give up their belief that the resurrection was something that would happen at the end of history to everyone. It was only altered a small degree such that Jesus was the ‘firstfruits’ of this general resurrection, with the remainder to follow very shortly at the end of the world. Christians today use similar language in the form of ‘inaugurated eschatology’. Furthermore, we know that the disciples were not ‘typical Jews’, as they followed a reforming figure as Jesus who was widely condemned by the Jewish authorities as a heretic and even a blasphemer. At the very least, we know the disciples were open to innovation and new understandings of their religion.
  3. Religious innovation can occur: A final point is that this argument can be taken to an extreme which would preclude the possibility of any sort of religious innovation. As New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado writes: ‘It is simplistic to regard religious experiences as only derivative from prior beliefs and to fail to see that religious experiences can modify beliefs and/or generate new ones, in some cases resulting in significant innovations… Several decades ago Rodney Stark made similar observations about the capacity of certain “revelational” experiences to generate religious innovations, even “to contradict and challenge prevailing theological ‘truths’,” noting that such innovations can produce “new theologies, eschatological prophecies, or commissions to launch social reforms.”’, L. W. Hurtado, “Revelatory Experiences and Religious Innovation in Earliest Christianity”, The Expository Times.
  4. Other examples of religious innovation: development of new ideas and reconceptualising and rethinking old ones, is common throughout history, and indeed I would argue forms a crucial part of the birth of most new religions. For example, Joseph Smith claimed to have seen a vision of God and Jesus even though he grew up in a Trinitarian environment, Muhammad claimed to receive revelation from the one true god in a polytheistic environment (and though there was some degree of Jewish and Christian presence, neither of these faiths had ‘room’ for a new prophet of God), while the Buddha broke substantially with most of the orthodox tradition of Indian religious thought by rejecting the authority of the Vedas. To say that the disciples of Jesus could not alter or innovate within their existing religious framework is to fly in the face of religious history.

The appearances were too diverse to be accounted for by hallucinations or collective delusory experiences

Exactly how diverse the appearances were depends upon which specific appearance narratives we regard as historical. Certainly I agree that Jesus is reported to have appeared on multiple occasions in group settings, not always in the same location. The same can be said, however, of the appearances to Joseph Smith and his different groups of followers, to Marian apparitions, the miracles of various modern Hindu gurus, and various UFO encounters. Given the psychological and sociological processes at work, there seems to be no reason why group experiences could not have occurred multiple times in varying settings. Absent some specific criteria as to what constitutes ‘too much’ diversity to be accounted for psychologically and why this degree of diversity but no more can be so explained, I see no reason to regard this objection as having any significant force.

Hallucinations don’t occur in groups

In psychology the term ‘hallucination’ is typically used to refer to a sensory perception in the absence of any actual stimulation of the relevant sensory organ. Since perceptions are, at the most fundamental level, private and subjective, hallucinations are generally regarded as being individual phenomena that are not shared between persons or among groups. This, however, is true only of the most rigorous and specific use of the term in psychology. More broadly, it is well documented that large groups of people can and do report experiencing phenomena which clearly did not occur. These aren’t true ‘mass hallucinations’, but they are collective illusory experiences which result in the formation of false beliefs on the basis of experiences shared in groups of people. Some of these I document in the ‘additional material’ below.

Hallucinations don’t eat or hold conversations as did Jesus

  1. Question-begging: this presumes that Jesus actually dead eat or hold conversations with his disciples, which has not been established. All that can be established is that such events are reported in (some) of the gospels. There is no reason why, even if these details are historical, they could not have been aspects of the hallucination and/or later embellishments of memory. Presumably hallucinated aliens don’t abduct people out of buildings, mutilate cattle, or insert anal probes, all of which are reported.
  2. Matthew reports unreliable events: We also know that the gospels contain unreliable details. Matthew’s story of the guard posted at the tomb includes private conversations between Roman officials and Jewish authorities that have no plausible historical source, as well as the Earthquake reported in Matthew 28:2-4.

The guard at the tomb would have prevented any tampering with the body

  1. The guard of the tomb is widely acknowledged to be an apologetic insertion by Matthew
  2. The guard was only set on the Sabbath after Friday night was over, as in Matthew 27:62-64 “Now on the next day, the day after the preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together with Pilate, and said, “Sir, we remember that when He was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I am to rise again.’ “Therefore, give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day, otherwise His disciples may come and steal Him away and say to the people”.
  3. If the guard was set by the Jewish authorities, they would have had the ability to remove the guard when moving the body

Appearance to Thomas the skeptic cannot be explained as a hallucination

This is only reported in John, the latest of the gospels, and seems to have clear apologetic intent. John 20:26-31: “Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”  Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;  but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”

The appearance to James the brother of Jesus could not be a hallucination as he wasn’t a believer

This reasoning commits the fallacy of post-hoc ergo promptor-hoc, arguing that because one event follows another that therefore it must have been caused by the former. There is no biblical record that James was converted as a result of an appearance. What we have are indications that he wasn’t a believer during part of Jesus’ ministry, and that later on Jesus appeared to him and he became a disciple. We cannot simply infer from this that James became a believer because of this appearance. I think it more likely that be became a follower sometime before his experience, which confirmed and consolidated his faith.

The conversion of Paul cannot be explained naturalistically

  1. I believe that Paul experienced a hallucination which he interpreted as Jesus appearing to him, thereby triggering a gradual conversion transition
  2. This more gradual conversion would explain why he waited so long to visit the disciples in Jerusalem
  3. Paul gives no detailed account of his conversion story. The only detail account is found in Acts, which was written after Paul died (AD 67, Acts written in AD 80s). As such the details of the account must be treated with caution
  4. ‘Evidence is offered to suggest a neurological origin for Paul’s ecstatic visions. Paul’s physical state at the time of his conversion is discussed and related to these ecstatic experiences. It is postulated that both were manifestations of temporal lobe epilepsy’, “St Paul and temporal lobe epilepsy”, J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry , http://jnnp.bmj.com/content/50/6/659.short
  5. “D. Landsborough published an article in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, in which he stated that Paul’s conversion experience, with the bright light, loss of normal bodily posture, a message of strong religious content, and his subsequent blindness, suggested ‘an attack of [temporal lobe epilepsy], perhaps ending in a convulsion … The blindness which followed may have been post-ictal’”
  6. We do have other cases of very strange and unusual conversion stories, see list below, so this assumption that Paul had a vision and subsequent conversion is plausible
  7. By contrast, we have no way of adjudicating whether God would wish to appear to someone so disconnected from the historical Jesus as Paul; Paul’s conversion does not follow ‘as a matter of course’ from the other assumptions

Additional Material

Psychology of memory and biases

These various processes would have shaped the disciples’ original experiences of seeing Jesus, their memories of what they had experienced, and led them to understand their experiences in ways that supported existing beliefs and confirmed with the emerging consensus among their peers.

  1. ‘Pentecostal miracles and healings have often been described and interpreted, but rarely explained in their sociological workings. As former research implies, actual biomedical effects of Pentecostal healings are possible (the so-called placebo effect), but quite limited. In Pentecostal healing services, however, very impressive miracles and healings are routinely produced: paralytics arise from wheelchairs, cancerous ulcers disappear, legs grow, cavities are mysteriously filled, and the deaf suddenly hear. Drawing on a case study and qualitative interviews, this paper offers a sociological, mechanism-based, explanatory scheme for the observed phenomena. It is argued that a number of “social techniques” (e.g., suggestion, rhythm, music), context factors (e.g., audience size and beliefs), and causal mechanisms (e.g., probability, latency, selection, and editing effects) are combined in an ingenious way in order to produce miracles and healings’, “All Things Are Possible: Towards a Sociological Explanation of Pentecostal Miracles and Healings”, Sociology of Religion, http://www.unil.ch/webdav/site/issrc/shared/Healing_Final1.pdf
  2. ‘Hauntings and poltergeist-like episodes are argued to be products of contagious reactions to ambiguous environmental or cognitive events. In particular, evidence suggests that the subjective and objective effects reported by percipients are the function of independent, nonparanoraml etiologies whose constitutions have been previously established and described. According to this multivariate model, the labeling of ambiguous events as “abnormal” or “paranormal” initiates the reactive process which is subsequently sustained by perceptual contagion, i.e., flurries of paranormal observations due self-reinforcing attentional processes’, “Hauntings and poltergeist-like episodes as a confluence of conventional phenomena: a general hypothesis”, Perceptual and Motor Skills, http://www.amsciepub.com/doi/abs/10.2466/pms.1996.83.3f.1307
  3. Many people report unusual experiences merely from sitting in a room if they are told to expect them beforehand. ‘Participants were required to spend 50 min in a specially constructed chamber, within which they were exposed to infrasound, complex EMFs, both or neither… A considerable proportion of the participants reported a number of anomalous sensations in response to a fairly mild suggestion that in our white, round, featureless room they might feel some unusual sensations. Such an explanation is in line with the observations of Houran and Lange (1996). They asked two volunteers to keep a diary for 30 days of unusual events of the type that are traditionally associated with hauntings and poltergeists in a residence with no prior history of such activity. As expected, the instructions themselves were sufficient for the volunteers to note, with increasing frequency, anomalous or unusual events presumably simply because the volunteers were now primed to notice… Although many participants reported anomalous sensations of various kinds, the number reported was unrelated to experimental condition but was related to TLS scores. The most parsimonious explanation for our findings is in terms of suggestibility’, “The ‘‘Haunt’’ project: An attempt to build a ‘‘haunted’’ room by manipulating complex electromagnetic fields and infrasound”, Cortex, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18635163
  4. ‘Granhag, Stromwall, and Billings (2003) found that 76% of participants came to remember seeing non-existent film footage of the sinking of the passenger liner the Estonia… Similarly, Ost, Hogbin, and Granhag,(2005) found that 40% of participants recalled seeing non-existent CCTV footage of an explosion in a Bali nightclub, and that the number of false reports increased or decreased in line with confirmatory or disconfirmatory social influence exerted by the confederate. Hence, memory conformity effects can occur for significant and emotional autobiographical events’, “Collaborative recall and collective memory: What happens when we remember together?”, Memory, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09658210701811862
  5. ‘Numerous studies have shown that eyewitness testimony for pseudo-psychic demonstrations, such as fake séances and fork bending, may be inaccurate and vulnerable to memory distortion. Wiseman and Morris (1995), for example, have presented evidence suggesting that believers in the paranormal had poorer memories for pseudo-psychic demonstrations (i.e., conjuring tricks) than non-believers. Furthermore, the memory differences between believers and non-believers were particularly marked for information that was crucial to explaining how a particular effect had been achieved. For example, the fact that a key disappeared from view during a metal-bending demonstration was critical because it was at this point that a straight key was switched for a bent key. Believers also tended to rate demonstrations of such pseudo-psychic feats as more paranormal than non-believers’, “Memory Conformity and Paranormal Belief”, http://archived.parapsych.org/papers/56.pdf
  6. ‘In contrast to laboratory free recall (which emphasizes detailed and accurate remembering), conversational retellings depend upon the speaker’s goals, the audience, and the social context more generally. Because memories are frequently retrieved in social contexts, retellings of events are often incomplete or distorted, with consequences for later memory. Selective rehearsal contributes to the memory effects, as does the schema activated during retelling. Retellings can be linked to memory errors observed in domains such as eyewitness testimony and flashbulb memories; in all of these situations, people retell events rather than engage in verbatim remembering’, “Retelling Is Not the Same as Recalling Implications for Memory”, Current Directions in Psychological Science, http://cdp.sagepub.com/content/16/1/16.abstract
  7. ‘Sixty first-year Jagiellonian University students described two important autobiographical events twice. In between the two recall sessions, participants from the experimental group viewed two films. The first was a short televised account of the two events; the second was a corresponding videotaped description of the personal experiences of a young woman. In addition, participants were asked to imagine what she had been talking about. Most of the participants from the experimental group incorporated elements of the woman’s description into their own subsequent accounts. In spite of this, they rated the vividness and the accuracy of their post-test memories as very high’, “Distortion of autobiographical memories”, Applied Cognitive Psychology, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/acp.847/abstract
  8. ‘Participants were shown a crime video and then asked to discuss the video in groups, with some receiving misinformation about the event from their discussion partners. After a one week delay some participants were warned about possible misinformation before all participants provided their own account of the event. Co-witness information was incorporated into participants testimonies, and this effect was not reduced by warnings or source monitoring instructions, suggesting memory change may have occurred’, “Can a witness report hearsay evidence unintentionally? The effects of discussion on eyewitness memory”, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1068316X.2010.510117

Irrational belief persistence

Even if compelling evidence had been presented to the disciples that Jesus hadn’t been resurrected from the dead, I doubt this would have changed their minds. There is ample psychological and historical evidence about the tendency of people (especially in the context of new and charismatic religious movements) to deny very obvious counter-evidence to their beliefs. A review of religious groups which made falsified prophecies, “When Prophecy Fails and Faith Persists: A Theoretical Overview”, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/nr.1999.3.1.60, found that twelve of the thirteen groups they analysed survived the failure of specific prophecies. Jehovah’s Witness multiple failed end of world predictions are a well known example. Another famous example was the 1844 so-called “Great Disappointment”, following the failed prediction of the Millerites that Jesus would return in that year. There were many attempted justifications and some fell away, but the movement continued and gave rise to the contemporary Seventh Day Adventist church.

One form of rationalisation has been described by religious scholar J Gordon Melton as ‘spiritualisation’:

“The prophesied event is reinterpreted in such a way that what was supposed to have been a visible, verifiable occurrence is seen to have been in reality an invisible, spiritual occurrence. The event occurred as predicted, only on a spiritual level.”

According to Joseph Zygmunt, the response to each of the prophetic failures by Watch Tower Society adherents followed a general pattern:

  • The initial reaction by both rank and file and the movement’s leaders was usually a combination of disappointment and puzzlement.
  • Proselytism declined, but members maintained an attitude of watchful waiting for the predictions to materialize. The doctrinal bases for the prophecies were reexamined and conjectures offered as to why the expected events might have been “delayed”.
  • A fuller realization of the quandary was achieved. The group asserted that the prophecies had, in fact, been partially fulfilled, or that some event of prophetic significance—usually supernatural and hence not open to disconfirmation—had actually transpired on the nominated dates. Belief was sustained that God’s plan was continuing to unfold.
  • Unfulfilled portions of the failed prophecies were projected into the future by issuing re-dated predictions, in association with retrospective reinterpretation of earlier failures.
  • A selective interpretation of emerging historical events as confirmation of the signs of the approaching end. A pessimistic worldview sensitized the group to perceive almost every social disturbance and natural disaster as an indicator of the impending collapse of the earthly system.

Experimental studies also support this:

  1. ‘An accomplice presented three common magician’s tricks, which resembled “psychic” performances, to six introductory psychology classes. In the two classes comprising the Psychic condition, the instructors skeptically introduced the accomplice as an alleged psychic; in the Weak Magic condition, as an amateur magician; in the Strong Magic condition, as an amateur magician who would perform stunts which resembled psychic phenomena, but were really not. Belief was assessed through free-form written response, in the form of feedback to the performer. These instructional sets succeeded in manipulating proportion of occult belief. However, proportion of occult belief was above 50% and far exceeding magic beliefs in each experimental condition, even though, as indicated by a manipulation check, subjects in the Magic conditions heard and understood the instructors’ assertions that the accomplice was a magician who would be faking a psychic performance’, “Occult Belief: Seeing Is Believing”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1386128
  2. ‘A study is reported in which 50 adolescent female high school students were given a chance to commit themselves publicly to a religious belief and were then faced with information which seemed to disconfirm that belief. Consistent with dissonance interpretations of earlier field studies, subjects who both expressed belief and accepted the veracity of the disconfirming information subsequently expressed a significant increase in intensity of belief. This reaction was not found among subjects who either had not expressed initial belief or had not accepted the veracity of the disconfirming information’, “Rational processing or rationalization? The effect of disconfirming information on a stated religious belief”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/32/1/176/
  3. ‘When people are motivated to cling to a belief, they do not feel comfortable with blithely ignoring adverse evidence or simply shutting their ears to anyone who opposes their views. Instead, they engage in more subtle forms of ad hoc reasoning, rationalization, and special pleading to arrive at their desired conclusions and to justify their beliefs to others, e.g., reinterpreting the facts, weighing them against background knowledge, finding some reason to discredit the source, etc. This practice allows them to uphold an ‘illusion of objectivity concerning the manner in which… inferences were derived’, “How convenient! The epistemic rationale of self-validating belief systems”, Philosophical Psychology, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09515089.2011.579420

Examples of collective miracle/paranormal reports

  1. The Allagash Abductions (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allagash_Abductions): ‘In August of 1976, four men, brothers Jack and Jim Weiner, and their friends Chuck Rak and Charlie Foltz, went on a camping trip for two weeks in the Allagash Wilderness in Maine. On the second night, Jim noticed a strange bright object in the sky that appeared for about thirty seconds and then vanished. Two days later on August 20, the men decided to go fishing when the bright object appeared again. This time, the object shot out a bright light, which began following the men. The men began paddling back to shore, and the next thing they remembered was being on shore, and the bright light vanishing. The men thought it was strange that the fire that they had set minutes before they went fishing had completely burnt out, suggesting that they had been gone for several hours. The four men spent six more days in the wilderness, but never again saw the bright object. The men told their families and friends about the strange sightings, but nobody believed them. Then, in 1988, Jack and Jim began having strange nightmares about the four men sitting on a bench naked, with great fears. Jim decided to contact UFO researcher Ray Fowler in order to help with the strange nightmares. The four men decided to go under hypnosis and described in frightening detail about how they were abducted and then probed by aliens back in 1976. They each took polygraph examinations and passed. However, skeptics are not certain that their stories are true, and that the strange nightmares and hypnosis were a result of watching movies and TV shows about aliens. However, the four men are certain that what happened to them is real’, http://unsolvedmysteries.wikia.com/wiki/The_Allagash_Abductions
  2. Case at Melbourne Airport: “Mystery illness at Melbourne Airport: toxic poisoning or mass hysteria?”, Robert E Bartholomew, https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2005/183/11/mystery-illness-melbourne-airport-toxic-poisoning-or-mass-hysteria
  3. Simon Kimbangu (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Kimbangu): 20th century African religious leader who claimed to be a special envoy of Christ, and attributed many miracles, including healings and raising the dead. See for example http://www.dacb.org/stories/demrepcongo/kimbangu4_simon.html , http://www.katinkahesselink.net/his/Kimgangu.html (Lebone Lumbu, 2005). See here (http://scholar.google.com.au/scholar?q=Simon+Kimbangu) for earliest sources – unfortunately most of the oldest stuff is in French. See also Britannica source for raising of the dead (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/317913/Simon-Kimbangu).
  4. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaitanya_Mahaprabhu): 15th century Indian saint with many miracles attributed to them (some described here http://www.dlshq.org/saints/gauranga.htm). There are multiple biographies of him written within a few decades of his death (two main ones are by http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaitanya_Bhagavata and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaitanya_Charitamrita). More sources here http://veda.harekrsna.cz/encyclopedia/parampara2.htm#22. Example: “At Puri a miracle happened. During the car festival, the car of Jagannath did not move. All the pilgrims tried their combined strength. It proved futile. The gigantic elephants of the Raja of Puri also failed to move the car. All were in a stage of suspense and dilemma. Gauranga came just then. He pushed the car by his head and the car moved at once.”
  5. Our Lady of Zeitoun (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeitoun_apparitions): Marian apparition reported in Cairo for several years in the late 1960s. Tens of thousands of people reported seeing the apparitions, including many Muslims and non-Christians. There is plenty of documentation on this, see for example this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMEWxRB-1dc.
  6. Bruce T. Grindal (http://scholar.google.com.au/scholar?hl=en&q=Bruce+T.+Grindal=): A respected academic anthropologist who wrote a scholarly account of his experience ‘seeing’ a person raised from the dead in an African ritual. Note that he doesn’t believe the event really happened this way, but that is what he claims to have seen. His paper on the topic is called ‘Into the Heart of Sisala Experience: Witnessing Death Divination’. Also an interesting link (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transpersonal_anthropology).
  7. Apollonius of Tyana (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollonius_of_Tyana):  credited with many miracles. We have many written accounts. An excellent outline of the evidence can be found here http://www.livius.org/ap-ark/apollonius/apollonius07.html. Our main source of information is Apollonius’ biographer Philostratus who wrote his Life of Apollonius of Tyana (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_of_Apollonius_of_Tyana ) between 217 and 238 (about 100-150 years after the event). After 180 AD Lucian wrote a pamphlet where he attacked Alexander of Abonoteichus, a student of one of Apollonius’ students, as a charlatan; and suggested that the whole school was based on fraud. From this we can infer that Apollonius really had students and that his school survived at least until Lucian’s time. More sources here http://www.biblequery.org/History/Legends/ApolloniusOfTyana.htm. Maria Dzielska casts doubt on the historicity of Philostratus’ accounts in her work ‘Apollonius of Tyana in Legend and History’; see http://www.history.snn.gr/apollonius.html.

Examples of strange or unexpected conversions

These can serve as parallel cases in reference to which the conversion of Paul can be better understood.

  1. Michael Sudduth: Why did a Christian philosopher of religion convert to Hinduism?, http://www.newappsblog.com/2012/07/why-did-a-christian-philosopher-of-religion-convert-to-hinduism.html
  2. Arnoud van Doorn: From anti-Islamic film-maker to hajj pilgrim, http://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2013/oct/23/arnoud-van-doorn-anti-islamic-convert-hajj
  3. Lord George Gordon: Eighteenth Century British Politician who converted to Judaism, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_George_Gordon#Conversion_to_Judaism
  4. Ashoka the Great: Indian military conqueror of the second century BC converts to Buddhism, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashoka_the_Great#Buddhist_conversion
  5. Yvonne Ridley: British journalist hold captive by the Taliban and later converted to Islam, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yvonne_Ridley
  6. Julian the Apostate: Christian-educated Roman Emperor who reverted to Paganism, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_%28emperor. One could argue there may have been political motivations, but it’s not clear that his anti-Christian efforts were really politically advantageous, and seem very unusual given his family background and the trend of all other emperors since Constantine.
  7. Emanuel Swedenborg: Not exactly a conversion, but a strange case of a Swedish philosopher who, in his fifties, began to experience dramatic religious visions and dreams, and thought he was called by God to reform Christianity, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emanuel_Swedenborg

Examples of apparitions of the dead

Reported in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research:

  1. “s 25. In March 1846, the wife and two adult daughters of Dr R., in their home in West Philadelphia, Pa., all saw at the same time an apparition which they instantly and independently recognised as Dr R.’s mother, who had died ten years before. The apparition conformed with a promise made by the old lady before her death, and coincided with the purchase of a house by her son along lines which she had advised. That same evening the ladies related their experience to the Rev. Y. He later told the story to Robert Dale Owen. Mr Owen then secured an account of the story direct from the elder daughter, and afterwards secured confirmation from the mother. The direct accounts from the percipients tallied exactly with the story as it had been told by Mr Y. Both the mother and the daughter re- collected the precise dress of the apparition and their accounts agreed entirely that the apparition had crossed the room, approached a portrait of Dr R., fingered to look at it, recrossed to the door, and inexplicably vanished.”
  2. “s 29. Julia Murray died in Yonkers, N.Y., on 23 March 1901. At about 3 a.m. the next morning, seven relatives and friends (all Catholics) each saw and recognised an apparition of the deceased which came into view near a picture of the Virgin Mary, on the wall of a room next to the one where the body lay. Katie Cain, Rose Kearne and Mrs Corbalis, when interviewed separately, all agreed on the following facts: a wreath or crown (of ‘flowers’, ‘leaves and flowers’, or ‘evergreens’) was on the head; rosary beads hung from the hands, which were crossed on the breast or in a position of prayer, or both successively; the figure wore a robe which ended at the bottom in clouds. Points mentioned by two, but not all three of the percipients interviewed were as follows : The apparition was seen in profile ; the hair was hanging down the back ; the robe was white ; the figure appeared to be solid (or was seen as plainly as in life) ; it faded toward the ceiling, or disappeared slowly through the ceiling. The newspapers made a great sensation about these events. James H. Hyslop heard about it and interviewed Mrs Corbalis on 30 March, and Katie Cain and Rosie Kearns on 5 April 1901, but did not secure signed statements from them.”
  3. Sir George Grey was a British explorer who, in his journey to an aboriginal tribe living North of Perth in 1838, reported an experience whereby he was believed to be the son of one of the aboriginal families reborn as a white man. This belief has been documented by other white explorers who were believed by natives to be dead relatives reborn. Here I quote a passage from Grey’s diary: “After we had tethered the horses and made ourselves tolerably comfortable we heard loud voices from the hills above us… Our guides shouted in return and gradually the approaching cries came nearer and nearer. I was however wholly unprepared for the scene that was about to take place. A sort of procession came up headed by two women down whose cheeks tears were streaming. The eldest of these came up to me and looking for a moment at me said—‘Gwa gwa bundo bal’—‘Yes yes in truth it is him’; and then throwing her arms round me cried bitterly her head resting on my breast… the other younger one knelt at my feet also crying. At last the old lady emboldened by my submission deliberately kissed me on each cheek just in the manner a Frenchwoman would have done; she then cried a little more and at length relieving me assured me that I was the ghost of her son who had some time before been killed by a spear-wound in his breast. The younger female was my sister… My new mother expressed almost as much delight at my return to my family as my real mother would have done had I been unexpectedly restored to her. As soon as she left me my brothers and father (the old man who had previously been so frightened) came up and embraced me after their manner—that is they threw their arms round my waist placed their right knee against my right knee and their breast against my breast holding me in this way for several minutes… This belief that white people are the souls of departed blacks is by no means an uncommon superstition amongst them; they themselves never having an idea of quitting their own land cannot imagine others doing it;—and thus when they see white people suddenly appear in their country and settling themselves down in particular spots they imagine that they must have formed an attachment for this land in some other state of existence; and hence conclude the settlers were at one period black men and their own relations. Likenesses whether real or imagined complete the delusion; and from the manner of the old woman I have just alluded to from her many tears and from her warm caresses I feel firmly convinced that she really believed I was her son whose first thought upon his return to earth had been to re-visit his old mother and bring her a present.”

Updates and the Road Ahead

Its been a year since I’ve last posted on my blog. Perhaps some of my readers have wondered what I’ve been up to, or if I’ve abandoned my blog. The answer is I have not – rather, over the past year I have devoted most of my writing energies into my book, which as of the time of writing this post is being considered by a publisher. I hope it might be published sometime next year, though this will depend upon how things go with the publisher of course. My book is a detailed critique of the apologetic arguments of William Lane Craig, with a focus on the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Fine-Tuning Argument, the Moral Argument, and the Resurrection Argument. Some of these are issues I have written about on this blog, while others are relatively new. Over the course of the next few months I plan to prepare summaries of each chapter of the book and upload them to this blog.

Considering the road ahead on my intellectual journey, I have become increasingly interested in the idea of developing a coherent, unified worldview for my various positions, situated within the framework of a naturalistic ontology. I will be presenting a short talk on this subject at the Humanist Convention in early April 2017 (next week as of the time of writing), after which I will write up a version of this material for this blog. In the meantime, I thought I’d include a brief ‘roadmap’ for the future to provide an overview of my (some of) my various interests and endeavours, along with some various thoughts concerning some issues I’ve been thinking about lately. This list is as much for me as for anyone else – I won’t explain anything in great detail or expect everything to make complete sense to all readers. Nevertheless, perhaps some will find the foregoing interesting and stimulate some thought or discussion.

  • Philosophy is existence – what does it mean to exist? Are there different categories of existence? How can we classify what exists? I am particularly interested in developing some ideas I have on this matter drawing upon statistical mechanics. Actions: develop a reductive naturalistic account of ontology, drawing ideas from statistical mechanics and the concept of supervenience.
  • Philosophy of physics – what does physics say about the fundamental constituents of reality? Particularly related to Quantum Field Theory and General Relativity. Actions: complete current graduate physics courses, read up on philosophy of physics and related metaphysics arguments to inform my views. Incorporate some of these ideas with other philosophical material in writing up responses to the Cosmological argument.
  • Metaethics – what are moral values, and where do they come from? I have already written about this question, but am particularly interested in integrating Railton’s reductive naturalistic theory of ethics with the reductive theory of ontology mentioned above. Actions: prepare new pieces summarising my naturalistic approach to meta-ethics and linking it in with a naturalistic ontology. Also update old responses to the moral argument accordingly. Continue to oppose arguments attempting to ground ethics in divine commands.
  • Philosophy of mind and neuroscience – what is the mind, and how does it work? This project has both scientific and philosophical elements. On the philosophical side I am interested in learning more about naturalistic theories of the mind, and incorporating such accounts into a reductive naturalistic ontology (see above). On the scientific side, I hope to pursue a PhD in computational neuroscience, and in doing so wish to investigate the computational principles underpinning the operation of higher order cognitive processes in the brain. Actions: continue more detailed reading into computational neuroscience and philosophy of mind, with a focus on computational approaches to cognition. Work on incorporating computational theories of mind into my integrated naturalistic ontology (see above). Hopefully next year commence PhD (or other further studies) in computational neuroscience.
  • Applied ethics – what is the best ways we can make the world better? I see effective altruism as one of the functional end goals of the above philosophical work. If we can better understand what morality is, and better understand how people think and make decisions, and what motivates people, then we will be in a much stronger position to both help those in need, and to encourage others to do likewise. No specific actions here other than continuing to promote the ideas of effective altruism, as well as thinking about how to better apply these ideas in my own life. I do also want to think about how the EA movement can better present itself to the public at large (image), and how to balance abstract theory and ‘hands on’ actual doing in EA.
  • Epistemology and cognition – what is knowledge? How do we come to know things? One of my ultimate goals is to develop an integrated epistemological theory based both on philosophical arguments as well as findings about how higher human cognition actually works at a psychological and neuroscientific level. In particular I am interested in developing a theory of abductive inference (inference to the best explanation) that is based upon (but not limited to) what actually goes on in the brain when such inferences are performed. The goal would then to apply this account to help gain clarity in issues where very different explanations compete for superiority. Philosophy and history are two fields this would be particularly relevant to, notably (for me) the question of competing explanations for the historical facts pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus. Actions: work on clarifying my thoughts and preparing some articles concerning an epistemological framework which both connects with a naturalistic ontology and also with more cognitive approaches. Include more material about this on my podcast. I would also like to give some talks on how epistemology is connected to neuroscience.
  • Politics – I am interested in writing about how my political and economic views are underpinned by more fundamental philosophical (and even scientific) beliefs, and also how disagreements on such matters often can often be the basis for all sorts of practical political differences. I am also interested in trying to understand how ‘ordinary people’ (non-academics or politicians, etc) form their political views, in particular the cognitive processes underlying such decision-making. Ideally an account of these processes could be used to develop more effective methods of promoting better social and political outcomes (e.g. pertaining to the Brexit and Trump incidents). I’m unsure about specific actions here – I still am shaping my thoughts about these matters.

That’s enough for now – more details to come in the ensuring months (and years!)

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

Introduction

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.

Background

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.

Conclusion

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

Synopsis

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.

Technology

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.

History

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.

Conclusion

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

Introduction

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

Theodicies

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.

Defeaters

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.

Conclusion

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.