Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Pics or it didn't happen

After many years out of the "debating" with atheists game I find myself dangerously close to being drawn back in.  The good news is I no longer have the desire to try to win anyone over to Christianity. The pressure of having to save people from Hell is gone.  And, thank G-d its gone, because I've realized it's an impossible task anyway.  The prevailing attitude of of today is expressed well in this image someone posted on Facebook.  The default position is "Prove it to me.  Pics, or it didn't happen."

When it comes to the Bible, I've found both fundamentalist Atheists (yes, they do exist) and fundamentalist Christians commit the same errors.  They both ask me the same questions.  They both destroy the Bible with hyper-literalism and irrational demands. The fundamentalist Christian says the Bible must be inerrant, literal and able to interpreted in one way to be of any value.  When I tell them the Bible has mistakes, is not (all) meant to be taken literally and contradicts itself, they say that's impossible because it's the Word of God. If it's anything less than 100% complete and perfect, then the entire thing has to be thrown out.   The Bible is either perfect or it's worthless. The fundamentalist Atheists says the Bible is of no value because he recognizes it can be interpreted in a multitude of ways, contradicts itself and contains errors.  He says "Well, using what you say, the Bible can be interpreted any way anyone wants to interpret it.  So, it's of no value." Both destroy the value of the library we call the Bible, one intentionally, the other unintentionally.

When it comes to the prove it to me attitude, my experience is the demand for more and more evidence is an unslakable thirst.  Does this mean I believe everything I hear with no evidence at all?  Certainly not. Believe it or not I'm pretty skeptical. When someone tells me something I want to know where they heard it. Does it mean that I don't recognize that extraordinary claims (like I saw an alien) are less credible than ordinary claims (I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch).  But, what I've found when it comes to certain matters (actually just about all the really big matters) the evidence really doesn't matter all that much to most of us ordinary laypeople, who suddenly turn into pseudo-scientists about certain issue- issues like global warming and whether Jesus rose from the dead or even if Jesus existed.   How is global warming related to issues of faith or the historicity of the Bible?  Well, I don't know too many people who have changed their minds on either based on the evidence.  I've been round and round with people about global warming. The fact is the vast majority of scientists who are credible in the field have said that climate change caused by man's actions is quite possible and is actually beginning to occur.  Yet, there are people who scramble to find evidence to the contrary.  And, in the courts of their minds they actively seek out evidence to support their position while people who "believe" in climate change do the opposite. The two sides go back and forth without a hope that either will ever change the other's mind as long as there is a shred of evidence to back up their view.  When it comes to the historicity of Jesus (let's aside the resurrection for a moment), there are those who now say there is "no" historical evidence that Jesus existed. The vast majority of people who have studied the matter say that Jesus was a real person.  The skeptics however dismiss the four gospels.  They dismiss Paul's writings. They dismiss the extra-canonical gospels.  They dismiss the extra-biblical writings.  They're like the "birthers" who continued to clamor for the long form of Obama's birth certificate and even now say it's a fake. If Jesus' birth certificate could be produced, I'm sure they'd find a way to dismiss that.   

Evidence, in these cases, is pretty much irrelevant.  We use the evidence we like to reinforce the belief we already have.  The atheist will not be swayed by mountains and reams of "evidence", most of which he will simply dismiss.  The true believer needs no evidence.  Oh he (me back the old days) might read some apologetics so he can brush up his debate points. Or, when he has some doubt, he might want to reinforce his beliefs by looking up some data.

I wish I had a nickel for every time I've been told the "burden of proof" is on me because I'm making extraordinary claims.  Back in my debating days that was true.  I was coming at atheists trying to win them over to my side.  What a waste of time!  Back when I was trying to win people over with arguments, the burden of proof was on me.  Now I have no interest in doing that.  The idea of this supposed burden of proof comes from the debating arena and a court of law.  I have two issues with that notion when it comes to matters of the Bible and its historicity.  The first is that there is no impartial judge or jury to weigh the evidence.  How much evidence would it take to sway a person from their default position?  When it comes to the birth of Jesus, how much evidence could we possibly hope to have?  The man was born 2,000 years ago in Palestine.  The second issue I have with the "burden of proof" argument is that it there is an objective reality here and no matter how much we argue about it, that's not going to change.  Jesus either was born or He was not.  Jesus either rose from the dead or He did not.  No lack of evidence will change that.  No clever debating tactics will change that.  Whether I "win" by providing you with what you deem sufficient evidence, or you win by declaring it wasn't enough, you and I are each going to decide what we choose to believe about it.  One of us will be right, the other will be wrong. But, whether either of us is right or wrong won't be because of the evidence.  If you say to me "Pics or it didn't happen."  I'll say to you "If you want to know the reason for the hope I have, I'm glad to give it to you.  But, I'm not at all interested in proving anything to you."

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smijer said...


Can't speak for atheists you see as "fundamentalist". I imagine they see themselves differently than you see them, but I'm sure some of your criticisms could stick. And for your points about how the Bible has worth even if it is not inerrant, I agree with you. It even has worth if it is not the word of God (and I believe it isn't, because I believe there is no anthropomorphic God).

On the burden of proof... This phrase is a bit overused, and maybe inapt (in the same way that "survival of the fittest" can be an inapt term for natural selection). But, the concepts behind that phrase are the tip of an epistemlogical iceberg that can be a real asset to those who truly want to know things.

The truth is that 100% of humans have systematic flaws in their thinking which lead them to improper conclusions. More generally, a majority of people hold certain beliefs strongly for reasons that have little to do with the truth or falsity of those beliefs. If atheists have an advantage over believers in this regard, it is only a statistical one.

Some people cannot be convinced with evidence. But most people can be convinced - of anything - with evidence, because most people do not understand the rules of evidence - how to collect it, how to be moved by it, and how to avoid allowing any of an extremely large number of other factors to influence how you are persuaded.

As I said, "burden of proof" is part of this. One way to talk about this principle is in terms of skillful construction of "priors" (just in case, this refers to "prior probabilities" in Bayesian probability theory). It is easy to construct our priors on the basis of a number of criteria only indirectly related to the evidence.

smijer said...

If we are (only for instance!) talking about God:

Without a good grasp on how to construct prior probabilities, or without adequate reflection, bring a certain amount of priviledge to the God hypothesis. At first blush, a thing that billions of people believe in does not seem very unlikely to be true, for instance.

The God hypothesis might seem to explain a large number of disparate experiences (without considering that cultures have expended a great deal of time and resources working out narrative explanations for these experiences in terms of God. Without considering that these explanations do not always arise naturally from critical consideration of the nature of the experiences they are set up to explain...)

Our brains are evolved to interpret as much experience as possible in terms of intentional agents - to bias in favor of this type of explanation (because there is more survival value in finding more of those events that have intention at their root, with the side effect that you find more "false positives". There is less survival value in finding fewer "false positives" at the cost of missing some truly intentional events).

This type of reasoning is very psychologically available to us. So, we may be apt to set the evidentiary bar for the God hypothesis much lower than we should to begin with. In other words, we do not accept the "burden of proof" that we might require for another hypothesis which was just as likely or unlikely as God, but was not the object of distortions of this type.

So that's why there is so much harping on the burden of proof. There are many stories that we are offered to believe - not discoveries we are trying to make, but full-fledged narratives that we are offered to believe: stories we may want to believe, stories other people want us to believe, stories we've "always" believed without much thought. These stories can get enough of our attention and put enough pressure on us that we forget to be curious. We forget to want to know. We forget to construct our priors carefully, collect our evidence carefully, and update our priors properly on the basis of the best and most relevant evidence.

It is as though we each need to learn how to think for the first time. We can do it. With training and experience, a good mechanic learns how to think rationally about cars. But since the rest of the world is comlpex and not the subject of expertise, the mechanic may forget to apply the same rational toolkit in pursuit of knowledge about the world. We all have areas where it is easy to think critically. The problem is we don't recognize that we depart from critical thinking at the first hint that it is not going to be simple and straightforward... and we forget that we want to know - need to know - the truth about the rest of the world just as much as we do about the simple puzzles that we solve excellently.

When we get as serious about global warming, or God, or the historicity of Jesus as we are about the fuel injector in the Pontiac, then we will grab hold of the burden of proof as though it is the key to the first lock on the bank vault. We will apply it just as mechanically and carefully as we would the bank key. We won't look at evidence as a gathering of toy guns to be used to win a game of cops and robbers... we will look at it as a collection of keys, each of which must fit precisely to open the vault. We'll recognize the limits of our reach and dexterity. We'll get a box to stand on so that we can reach the higher locks. We'll write down the order in which the locks must be turned, and return to our plan before we touch the next key, every time. We'll jiggle what needs to be jiggled, and jaggle what needs to be jaggled. And if we are lucky, we'll get into the vault to where the answers are kept.

Brian said...


I doubt anyone sees himself as a fundamentalist anything. The fundamentalist Muslim thinks he's a true believer. The fundamentalist Christian thinks he's a true believer. The fundamentalist Atheist thinks he's a rational thinker. But, I've seen Atheists who are just as smug about their "beliefs" as any Christian. I've met Atheists who are just as determined to proselytize. I've met Atheists who are just as sure they've got it all figured out. Those are the Atheists I refer to as fundamentalist Atheists.

Your comments seem to imply that we can get to the point where we can objectively look at the data and come to a definitive conclusion. I have two problems with that. One is I don't think any human being can set aside all of his biases, presuppositions, fears, wishes, etc. and look at data in the way a computer would. The best we can do is to understand our filters and try to adjust for them. Secondly, we don't have perfect data. In the case of the historicity of Jesus if we're going to go just on the data, a fundamental question is "How much data is required to tip the scales?" A quick example. The gospels were written a matter of decades after Jesus' death. Some characterize that as a long time and conclude that we cannot have a lot of confidence the words attributed to Jesus are his because of the gap between the time he said them and the time they were recorded. On the other hand, the words attributed to the Buddha were written down 500 years after his death. Christians look at that and say we can have a lot more confidence about the words of Jesus than we have about the words of Buddha. Just how much evidence can we expect to have from a figure born so long ago and so far away? Do we have a little or do we have a lot? It's not a question that can be answered objectively.

I understand the evolution of our brain to make patterns and sense out of things. But, I don't think that fully explains the almost universal agreement that humans are more than just our bodies. It certainly doesn't explain all of the data I've examined . And, sometimes it's just used as a crutch, IMO. For example the Near Death Experience is dismissed as some sort of evolutionary trait. But, that makes no sense to me. Why would our brains evolve to give us this experience at the moment of death? What survival value is there in having a comforting death with images of loved ones, a feeling of universal love, life reviews, etc.?

Thanks for your comments.