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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. A continually updated table of contents for all entries so far can be found here.

Near the end of the previous entry, which begins chapter 12, I introduced an example featuring myself making a cloud through supernatural power, and considering what a naturalist friend of mine, Chase, might decide about my claim that I had done such a thing. This entry continues the chapter by expanding the complexity of the example.]


Let us say Chase has a friend, Reed, who is a supernaturalist. The possibilities become complex from here, so I will set up a sieve to help distinguish them. Remember, however, that in every case I am in fact producing the cloud through supernatural power. My claim is presumed (for purposes of this illustration of principles) to in fact be true.

I.) I create a cloud with supernatural power, and then call Chase (the naturalist) and Reed (the supernaturalist) to come look at it. I claim I did this with supernatural power. (Although I don't have a (II) element, I am assigning this a (I) label in order to help emphasize the ovearaching unity within which the suboptions are occurring.)

I.A.) I am someone who, for one reason or another, often claims what is not true.

I.A.1.) Chase.

I.A.1.a.) Chase knows me well; and so knows I am someone who often claims what is not true. So he has no preliminary expectation to believe me--thus, prudently speaking, he should not believe me.

I.A.1.b.) Chase does not know me. But Chase is a naturalist; as far as he knows, supernatural manipulation of Nature cannot happen. Why should he believe me? Anyone can point at a cloud and say, "I created that."

I.A.2.) Reed.

I.A.2.a.) Reed knows me well. As far as he knows, such a thing could occur; but also he knows I am someone who should not be trusted. Unless he had good prior (or other concurrent) grounds for accepting my word (which I have not provided in this example), there is no good reason why he should be expected to believe me.

I.A.2.b.) Reed does not know me. At this point, it's a toss-up; but I think he would be justified in a fairly agnostic stance, reserving judgment until he finds or receive more evidence (which, in practice, could amount to provisionally discounting my claim, of course).

I.B.) I am someone who usually tells the truth, or someone who would not be expected to invent something like this in my circumstances.

I.B.1.) Chase.

I.B.1.a.) Chase knows me well. It would therefore be quite fair for him to conclude that I believe what I am saying; but he has no good reason to deny his naturalism on my mere say-so. And, after all, a cloud is pretty much a cloud. His most reasonable conclusion would probably be that I am mistaken. (Medically, psychologically, coincidentally, whatever.) Let us go further: he gives me a medical/psych exam and (assuming no exam-rigging presumptions based on my claim vs. his philosophy) I receive a clean bill of health; meaning that he has good grounds to believe I saw the cloud form when I wished for it to form. And the chances that an atmospheric phenomenon of this sort would spontaneously arise at that point in time (when I wished for it) are remote; but even the most remote possibility is better than what Chase thinks is impossible. So he should go with that, and disbelieve me.

I.B.1.b.) Chase does not know me. He is basically in the same position as option I:A:1:b--anyone can point at a cloud and claim to have made it through supernatural power. Given his philosophy, he would be justified to disbelieve me.

I.B.2.) Reed.

I.B.2.a.) Reed knows me well. He would still have to contend with the possibility that I am mistaken, or even the possibility that I am playing a game with him. But he would be inclined, I think, to believe me; and it would be fair of him to do so. Still, it might be a very cautious and provisional sort of belief. He did not actually see me make the cloud.

I.B.2.b.) Reed does not know me. Basically the same as I:A:2:b.

I could introduce the concept of witnesses now. When Chase and Reed arrive they find x-number of witnesses who claim to have seen me do this. The weight this lends to my claim would usually be positive, but could vary widely according to circumstances.

In the best-case scenario, numerous witnesses who are demonstrably upstanding sensible and honest citizens (perhaps even likely to suffer by the claim, certainly not gain much) might convince Chase that he is not being intentionally deceived. Their testimony might even convince him to take a closer look at his core belief (upon which his judgment of the possibility of the cloud's supernatural formation depends). But as long as that core belief remains honestly accepted as valid (even if he has done 'the math' wrong, and just hasn't found the error or hasn't carried the math far enough yet), Chase might still properly decide that a spontaneous mass hallucination, or mass lying by people not otherwise known to be liars, or a freak atmospheric phenomenon, or some other (perhaps unknown) grotesquely improbable explanation must be true--because (he thinks) the other cannot be true. [See first comment below for a deferred footnote here.]

Reed, meanwhile, believes that something like this could happen, and so such ideal witnesses would be good grounds for him to more strongly advocate a good belief in the cloud's appearance.

Please note that both Chase and Reed are (I believe, and am claiming) making proper decisions in every one of the situations I have presented. Chase (in this example) happens to be wrong, but it is a very understandable error. In the case of the numerous ideal witnesses, he might possibly be a bit embarrassed--or maybe even honestly relieved!--to be shown after all to be wrong; but he was still making a very prudently proper choice (in my idealized example) given his data. I do not think he would have anything to be ashamed of, given his core belief plus only scanty evidence. [Footnote: or, worse, given countervailing evidence! If the crowd of people asserting my little miracle happen to be obviously untrustworthy and/or likely to gain heavily by lying, then this might count very fairly against my claim!] Of course, if the truth ever does become clear to him, he could still choose to reject (as far as possible) what he himself has now recognized to be true. But that is another issue for another chapter. [Footnote: I will be thoroughly considering this behavior, its implications, and its consequences, in Section Four--primarily in connection to my responsibility as a person.]

This is the type of situation in which most people find themselves concerning 'evidence' of supernatural events (or even often of claims about natural events!) If a supernatural event occurs, it will either be perceptible or imperceptible. If it is imperceptible in its effects (immediately or otherwise), there is an end to the matter. No matter how perceptible such an event may be to me, if it is functionally (according to its characteristics) imperceptible to you, then I do not think you can legitimately be considered unreasonable for not believing it happened. From your perspective, it would be indistinguishable from a lie or a mistake. If, for example, God speaks to me and gives me a message to pass on to you, how are you to tell whether I am lying or mistaken or not?

I think this is why prophets in Jewish and Christian scripture (and to a certain extent in Muslim tradition--and not discounting other religious traditions as well) almost always are portrayed as being able to back up their claims with "attesting signs". Whether or not those events actually happened, you should be able to understand why such events would be considered very useful and helpful; especially to a population who lacks access to formal analysis principles. Once authority has been solidly established, the attesting signs would not strictly be necessary.

For that matter, if the signs were sent by an Entity Who strongly wanted us to establish a personal and loving relationship to Him, I think there would very probably be a sharp limit to how many (and under what circumstances) signs would be given by this Entity. Such events would excite (almost inevitably) fear and wonder; which are not necessarily bad feelings in themselves, but could possibly build up attitudes of cowed submission rather than personal trust and love.

If, besides all this, the sub-entities in question were rebellious to one degree or another (and thus likely to abuse any authoritative power given to them), then an even sharper limit could reasonably be established by the Entity as to where, when and how many attesting signs would be sent.

Finally, if this Entity was also the IF--the Independent Fact of reality upon which everything else is based, including Nature--and if the IF was supernatural; then at the level of the system we call Nature, 'natural' events would be by default the 'norm': this is why Nature could be distinguished as one system and not another. Thus, effects introduced into this system by the IF, other than what we might call 'maintenance' effects (normally below our threshold of perception), would be relatively rare purely by Nature being, per the supernaturalistic hypothesis, an established and distinct subsystem.

Of course, I have not yet argued positively for any of this. But it doesn't take much imagination to see, that if certain conditions could be established, then the frequency, circumstances, and types of 'obvious' miracles--obvious interruptions or supercessions of the natural process--might easily follow an inferable pattern.

Let me jump ahead quite a lot, for a moment: it does not surprise me in the least (once I have thought the situation all the way through) to hear that God sends obvious miracles at what He (not necessarily I) would consider to be lynchpins of history; nor does it surprise me to see a lack of obvious activity (setting aside what I may think of as suspiciously convenient circumstance!) in my own general vicinity; nor that there should be few prayers of mine granted in an obvious and immediate fashion; nor that missionaries in underdeveloped regions should report a higher incidence of obvious miracle than either they or I find in already heavily Christianized societies (even if increasingly apostate ones) such as the United States and most of Europe; nor that the reports of Christianity's spread through 1st Century Mediterranea in the face of strongly established religious/state conflicts of interest should include reports of an unusually high incident-rate of miraculous activity; nor that as the burgeoning Church becomes stronger over time, such activity begins to drop off in the reports; nor that such activities are reported to be lesser in scale than the reported activities of the founder of Christianity himself.

I easily grant that particular instances of these reports should always be up for discussion (and also debate--which is the only means a sceptic has of entering into discussion, I remind my brethren!) And I also grant that elements of this pattern can be explained in other ways. I even grant that the total pattern can be explained in other ways. Yet the general pattern that emerges from my own tradition and experience, does also fit the inferred pattern I find emerging (subordinately) from my metaphysic. And this increases my confidence, that by following this particular tradition, I am on the right trail. [See second comment below for a deferred footnote here.]

As I have said, however, this is jumping ahead quite a lot; it may be only of direct interest to my Christian (and perhaps other theistic) fellow-believers. My sceptical readers should very properly have a different perspective on the subject of 'evidence': specifically, what kind of evidence could a sceptic fairly accept? This leads me back to my main topic for this chapter.

If I was a sceptic, what kind of evidence would I accept?


[Next up: evidence from reasonable scepticism to reasonable belief]

2 comments:

.......[first deferred footnote here]

It should be fairly noted, in order to avoid drawing somewhat false comparisons, that due to the complexity of the case for the canonical resurrection of Jesus, some sceptics do present more complex variations of the alternative explanations represented here. The simple sceptical hypotheses here are intended to be commensurate with the simplicity of the incident setup; and keep in mind that I am presenting them as properly rational conclusions anyway. Anyone (on any side of the aisle) who thinks I’m trying to tacitly refute scepticism of claims of supernatural events by this example, or in this chapter generally, has completely misunderstood and misread what I am doing.

.......[second deferred footnote here]

The chain of inference goes: if my argument, beginning in Section Two, is deductively valid (and if its presumptions are accurate as to the facts), then my speculations about how God would operate in our world will fall into a general pattern that will be accurate with respect to His intents (although shy of detail). This, if my argument is correct, is what I may confidently expect God to do. A tradition of God's behavior that matches this expectation of mine, would therefore be a tradition seriously worth my time and effort to pay attention to; even though the historical accuracy of the tradition would be a further issue still to be judged according to historical criteria.

This will be the shape, and goal, of the remainder of my book, beginning in Section Two.

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