Sunday, January 01, 2006

Any Naturalistic Explanation Will Do?

The atheist I referred to in my last blog entry claims that his name is Dave Wave. Dave is now posting at Steve Hays' blog. He writes:

If 6,000 people swore on a stack of bibles that they saw someone walking on water, I would rest upon the confirmed physical laws to laugh in their faces.

Am I wrong for using uniformity of physical laws to discount thousands of eyewitnesses to a single event which they further interpret as a miracle? Why? Isn't eyewitness testimony more prone to false reporting and prone to complex problems such as group-think and cognitive dissonance, than is, say, the unanimous consent of the scientific community that earth's gravity affects all material objects? WHo among the two groups, has more probability of being wrong?...

I've never seen a bad naturalistic explanation for any alleged miracle, that's why I refuse to include miracles as part of true history. When you come up with the kind of miracle evidence that I cannot find a naturalistic explanation for, NOW you are talking the possibility of miracles.

Notice the multiple flaws in Dave's reasoning. The fact that a naturalistic explanation is possible doesn't make it the best explanation. According to Dave's logic, we would still be justified in rejecting the resurrection of Jesus even if we had multiple video tapes of the event and thousands of eyewitness accounts. After all, it's possible to come up with naturalistic explanations of such evidence. Maybe all of the video tapes were altered by some naturalistic means that we don't know how to detect. And maybe all of the eyewitnesses were hallucinating. Therefore, since a naturalistic explanation is possible, we're justified in dismissing multiple video tapes and thousands of eyewitnesses. Dave would most likely apply such reasoning to a passage like 1 Corinthians 15, which mentions hundreds of eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ.

If a miracle was to occur, we as humans would perceive it through the faculties we have as humans. And humans are fallible. Human perceptions can be dismissed as potentially mistaken. The fact that a human perception could be wrong isn't sufficient grounds for concluding that it is wrong. If hundreds of people might have hallucinated, we shouldn't conclude that they therefore did hallucinate. If the event they reported seeing would be something we would classify as supernatural, then the actual occurrence of that event might better explain the evidence than would the occurrence of hundreds of hallucinations.

The Christian philosopher William Craig, who specializes in the study of Jesus' resurrection, has written some good responses to the sort of reasoning we're seeing from Dave Wave:

"The problem here can best be understood, I think, as a disagreement over what sort of explanations constitute live options for a best explanation of the facts. According to the pattern of inductive reasoning known as inference to the best explanation, in explaining a body of data, we first assemble a pool of live options and then pick from the pool, on the basis of certain criteria, that explanation which, if true, would best explain the data. The problem at hand is that scientific naturalists will not permit supernatural explanations even to be in the pool of live options. By contrast, I am open to scientific naturalistic explanations in the sense that I include naturalistic explanations in the pool of live options, for I assess such a explanations using the standard criteria for being a best explanation rather than dismiss such hypotheses out of hand. But [atheistic scholar Gerd] Lüdemann is so sure that supernatural explanations are wrong that he thinks himself justified in no longer being open to them: they cannot even be permitted into the pool of live options. But, of course, if only naturalistic explanations are permitted into the pool of live options, then the claim or proof that the Hallucination Hypothesis is the best explanation is hollow. For I could happily admit that of all the naturalistic explanations on tap, the best naturalistic explanation is the Hallucination Hypothesis. But, of course, the question is not whether the Hallucination Hypothesis is the best naturalistic explanation, but whether it is true. After all, we are interested in veracity, not orthodoxy (whether naturalistic or supernaturalistic). So in order to be sure that he is not excluding the true theory from even being considered, Lüdemann had better have pretty good reasons for limiting the pool of live options to naturalistic explanations. So what justification does Dr. Lüdemann give for this crucial presupposition of the inadmissibility of miracles? All he offers is a couple of one–sentence allusions to Hume and Kant….Now Lüdemann's procedure here of merely dropping names of famous philosophers is sadly all too typical of theologians….Hume’s argument against miracles was already refuted in the 18th century by Paley, Less, and Campbell, and most contemporary philosophers also reject it as fallacious, including such prominent philosophers of science as Richard Swinburne and John Earman and analytic philosophers such as George Mavrodes and William Alston. Even the atheist philosopher Antony Flew, himself a Hume scholar, admits that Hume’s argument is defective as it stands. As for philosophical realism, this is in fact the dominant view among philosophers today, at least in the analytic tradition. So if Lüdemann wants to reject the historicity of miracles on the basis of Hume and Kant, then he’s got a lot of explaining to do. Otherwise, his rejection of the resurrection hypothesis is based on a groundless presupposition. Reject that presupposition, and it’s pretty hard to deny that the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of the facts." ("Visions of Jesus")

"Contrary to [Michael] Goulder, it is not the case that a supernatural explanation should be considered only 'when totally at a loss for a natural one' (p. 102), for, after all, any explanation has some explanatory scope, explanatory power, plausibility, etc. To say that one must be totally at a loss is a subterfuge for saying that we should never consider a supernatural explanation. Rather, as [Stephen] Davis suggests, one may adopt a supernatural explanation just in case all natural explanations fail to meet as successfully the criteria for a best explanation as a supernatural one. Davis goes on to explain that a proper understanding of the concept of miracle involves neither a violation of natural laws nor denial of the scientific method (pp. 74-75; cf. p. 105). Davis rightly recognizes that at root the question of miracles is whether supernaturalism is tenable, or a live option (p. 76)." (in Paul Copan and Ronald Tacelli, editors, Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment? [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000], p. 203)