Having faith in magicians – Letter on debate

Hi,

I visited the debates (on Jesus’s resurrection) and enjoyed them. I also hope you did plenty of sightseeing while visiting.

Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to ask you a certain common question. Namely, what makes you so sure the Christian religion is truer than any other that lays claims to miracles? There were so many religions – there are about 5,000 gods on godfinder.org alone. There’s an apt quote that, “Most people don’t believe in Gods, but Atheists simply go one step further.”

I suppose what I wish to point out is…. “Even if we grant that Jesus was resurrected, we still have no way of knowing that he gave a divinely sanctioned message without telling us lies.” God incarnate is not beholden to any higher authority, and God has no obligation to ever tell the truth. Neither does Jesus.

To believe in all of a man’s words simply because he did one or more miracles (and must be blessed with supernatural gifts by God) is to fall victim to the appeal to authority fallacy. To use an analogy, just because a magician pulls a rabbit out of his hat and appears to do a miracle, that doesn’t mean we should accept his claim that God is asking you to stuff your money into the hat.

Or for a different example you could take an alleged miracle. (Let’s go with the girls at Fatima.) Even if the girls led people to see a miraculous light show in the sky, it’s still a non-sequitur to believe that their ability to predict miraculous light shows has any bearing on their ability to accurately convey the messages of a God. I might trust them to predict more light shows, but I see no reason to trust them in other supernatural fields that they had yet to prove were of their expertise. (Namely prophecy making.)

As an aside, the main thing that led me toward agnosticism was a class in the history of Buddhism, and when I attempted to write an epic. I loved fleshing out my story and eventually I could reread it and find layers of depth in it just like with the bible. The bible began to seem less holy and more like a compilation of polished stories a multitude of men might have developed over a thousand years. In other words, I had begun to suspect I was reading someone else’s bygone daydream.

You ask a very good question.  Here is a point related to it.  It seems to me that, with the exception of those p (propositions) entailed by G (Theism) or are (probabilistically) independent of it, P(p|G) is undefined.  My guess is that P(G) is itself undefined — not 0.  Here P(  ) is rational degree of belief, as opposed to subjective degree of belief, of course.  This is why I find the fine-tuning and Kalam arguments unappealing.  Where E is whatever evidence, it seems to me that P(E|G) is undefined.  I don’t think that G explains anything.  

Thanks for asking the question.

The short answer to your question is that I think the evidence for the miraculous in the case of Jesus is much greater than in the case of magicians and other religion. I think the ministry of Jesus also comports well with what we might expect from God incarnate. The reason we would expect God not to lie is the same reason we don’t believe in other inductively problematic hypotheses: for example, the belief that we are a brain in a vat, or being tricked by a Cartesian demon, and so on. This is that we are justified in taking the world at face value until we have good reason to suppose otherwise. And the idea that God is a liar and tricks us into believing wrong things seems to be more analogous to Descartes’ demonic hypothesis and the brain in a vat hypothesis than it does to the idea that the universe is roughly as it seems (despite the fact that the evidence technically underdetermines the theory). The argument isn’t simply that we have evidence of a miracle and should therefore trust everything someone says. The argument is that the evidence very strongly supports the conjunction of Jesus being raised from the dead and his being God Incarnate, and that ex hypothesi we would expect God not to greatly deceive us about the most important things he ostensibly teaches us.
I hope this helps. Thanks again for coming!

I just realized I didn’t actually respond to your e-mail.  I don’t have much to add, but I wanted to say thanks for taking the time to write me back. I also prefer to take the universe as it seems, but when religion comes in it raises a lot of questions. There are for instance scriptures that were omitted from the bible that I’ve heard suggested Jesus kept certain esoteric teachings for certain disciples, and there are a few biblical passages where it seems like God could deceive the prophets to meet his own mysterious objectives.  But I’ll leave that line of thought for someone else to debate someday!

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