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Please email me at matt@wmbriggs.com before sending books to be reviewed.

May 14, 2018 | 20 Comments

Inference To An Explanation: Shapiro’s The Miracle Myth Reviewed — Part III

Read Part I, II.

Did Jesus walk on water? Eyewitnesses reported he did. The event was so well remarked that people wrote of it at a time when most events went unrecorded.

Here’s a different question: Could Jesus have walked on water? Well, he claimed to be God, and even a weak understanding of who God is would grant that if Jesus’s claim was (is) true, then walking on water, turning water into wine, raising people from the dead, restoring health instantaneously, and so on are within God’s abilities. If God can create an entire universe, skimming across a sea without sinking is trivial.

Here’s another different question: Why did Jesus walk on water, assuming he did? (Atheists are asked to hold in mind the conditional clause at the end of that question.) The same eyewitnesses report that Jesus took the shortest path to his pals, with whom he wanted to be. Presumably, being God, Jesus could have “transported” himself or even flew to the boat, under his own power or via the assistance of giant eagles à la JRR Tolkien. Those other methods of transportation are a tad showy, and then we recall Jesus was also a man, and walking (or swimming) is what men who cannot lay their hands on skiffs do.

Finally, here’s a last different question: How did Jesus walk on water? Perhaps the best answer is “I have no idea.” Stated with more metaphysical sophistication, but still in profound ignorance, we can say he changed the nature of the water so that it could support weight, whereas the nature or essence of water is that objects in the shape of unadorned walking men sink. Evidence to support that view is increased when we recall one of the eyewitnesses was so stoked by the spectacle that he jumped from the boat and bestrode the waves—until his faith fled and he began to sink. Intriguing.

Means, motive, opportunity.

We have answers, albeit tentative and incomplete on the total cause (form, material, efficient, final) of the miracle. If that’s what it was. We still have to work on the probability that it was a miracle, and that means finding probative evidence. Then we have to contrast the miraculous explanation with other possibilities in order to make a decision: to believe in the miracle or not.

Here is where inference to the best explanation (IBE) begins to fail—in the freedom to pick and choose the evidence we think is probative. And in not recognizing we have this freedom.

What alternatives to the eyewitness reports of the miracle are available? An infinity.

Shapiro’s list (as it did for other reported Biblical miracles) would start with some great power consortium of beings, maybe aliens or “seventeen” lesser gods. Maybe something natural we don’t understand (but not ice). Maybe the apostles were lying. Maybe they were under “mass hypnosis.” Could be Jesus was a “supermagician”. Maybe the sea spoken of was only inches deep.

Here Shapiro lets us down with his lack of imagination. He didn’t conjure a time traveler equipped with a holographic projector. Or maybe the apostles ate bad fish. And if we can posit seventeen gods, why not sixteen or eighteen?

We can see we’ve mixed things up, too. All alternate explanations say something about cause, but only parts of the cause. We want it all: means, motive, opportunity. There is no profit going on and on like this, either, because we could do it forever. Nor have we learned about the probability, except in the crude sense that if we accorded every imaginable scenario some probability, the probability of whatever the true cause is would head to zero. Not useful for making a decision, that.

No detective operates in the way Shapiro does. Detectives take what evidence is available and build a case from that. Detectives also draw upon their experience (which differs from detective to detective) to provide additional evidence. They do not begin investigations fretting about mass hypnosis or alien invasions.

Jorge slides some WonderBread into the toaster and up pops browned bread that, viewed from the side, looks a bit like a classical portrait of Jesus. Miracle?

What evidence do we have? One, any toast pattern will have to look like something. Two, people see faces in everything: :-). (That one was caused by me.) Three, there’s lots of toast out there, and given One and Two, we’d guess there’d be a lot of faces that look like Jesus. Four, Jorge believes. Five, we don’t think he’s lying or he cheated, though he could have. Six, we agree that, if viewed from the side and in the right light, the toast has a vague resemblance to certain portraits. Seven, it seems odd the good Lord would prep a peanut butter receiver with his face: if He wanted to give Jorge a message, He could do so without the risk of being smeared.

That evidence—and we could have gone on to suppose aliens, etc.—indicates two main candidates: (1) an odd miracle, or (2) Jorge’s earnest faith and coincidence. The minor possibility of Jorge lying we give very little probability, based on the evidence of his demeanor, etc.

We now form the probability of both: (1) small, (2) large (neither can be quantified). We know more about the totality of the cause for (2) rather than for (1). What decision to make? That depends on the probability, which is in favor of (2), and of the consequences.

If it was a miracle and we say it was, we receive a minor boost in faith. Has to be minor because of the danger of peanut butter: we could have missed it.

If it was a miracle and we say it wasn’t, we lose out, but not, I think, by a lot.

If it wasn’t a miracle and we say it wasn’t, we gain a wee bit of satisfaction, but really the incident will be quickly forgotten.

If it wasn’t a miracle and we say it was, we make a small error, with the benefit of added faith. Believing harms nobody.

No matter which way we look at it, the stakes are minor. So we say (2), a natural event. This is inference to an explanation—the best explanation given only the evidence we assumed and given my take on the decision. Jorge will still decide to believe, even if he agrees on the probability, because the consequences for him are different. To him we say, God bless you.

Of course, we never reach absolute proof.

We have to play detective in the same manner for every claim we hear—not just claims of miracles. It’s because most claims are mundane—“Did you put the meat in the fridge?” “Yes, dear”—that we don’t see ourselves wearing deerstalkers and smoking pipes. It’s only when they are fantastic we do.

Next time, we wrap up the review, discussing motives and probability.

May 11, 2018 | 36 Comments

Inference To The Best Explanation: Shapiro’s The Miracle Myth Reviewed — Part II

Read Part I.

A researcher puts you into a room. On the table is a blue ball. Somebody put it there. It could have been Alice, Bob, or Charlie. Given only that information—and no more—who put it there? You have to pick one and only one.

If the choice seems arbitrary, it’s because it is. Whoever you pick has equal justification given only the information provided.

Instead of choosing, we can switch to probability. Given only the information provided, what is the probability Alice placed the ball? Same as for the other two: one-third (the proof of that is found in here).

We have learned three things. One, probability is conditional on only the information given or assumed. Two, decision (or choice) is not probability: decision uses probability, but it is a step beyond it. Three, there must have been a cause for the ball.

The probability is straightforward (but see this page if you want to learn more). The choice, decision, or act is less so. Given the probability, and given what you think will happen if you were to guess right or wrong, you make a choice, a decision, or you act. Two people can have the exact same precise duplicate identical information, and thus must necessarily come to the same probability, but they can easily come to different (even wildly different) decisions because they believe their choices will have different consequences—and their choices may very well have different consequences. And no matter what the (conditional) probability is, and no matter what we decide, there will still be a true cause.

Probability (epistemology), act (or will), and cause (metaphysics). All different steps which must be kept distinct when analyzing any problem.

The philosophical concept of inference to the best explanation can confuse and conflate these three steps or categories. Not systematically, so that we can apply a correction, but willy-nilly, depending on who is wielding the tool.

Inference to the best explanation (IBE) asks us to make a choice on a cause without examining—in any thorough sense—probability or the consequences of decision. This is not to say the technique does not and cannot come to correct probabilities, decisions, and understandings of cause. It can and very often does, especially in those areas in which we have expertise or extensive knowledge.

The reason IBE works, when it works, is that people are good at the individual steps without knowing or explicitly acknowledging they are using those steps. That will be obvious in a moment.

What happens when you see a ball and you really want to know the cause of it being there? You run through possibilities. I specified only three, and then said nothing more except that there were these three. There is no information about Alice’s motives, or her placement (where was she?), her personality, nothing. The information allowed was restricted in the extreme. Given only it, we could make a choice, but we recognized that choice’s arbitrariness. That arbitrariness informs the decision we would make, depending on how we view the consequences of making right or wrong decisions (which may well be different for each reader).

We also implicitly recognized one aspect of the cause: the efficient cause. We know a person placed it there, but we don’t know why. We do not know anything of the final cause, the reason the ball was put there. That we don’t know the motivation does not, obviously, mean we do not know the ball isn’t there. It is there. We also do not know the formal and material causes: we do not know the means the person used. Again, our ignorance of these does not mean the ball is not there.

That the IBE does not work here—there is no single best explanation and no identification of all aspects of the cause—is not the fault of the artificial nature of the problem: it is the fault of IBE. Any epistemological technique that claims to be an algorithm to discover the best guess of truth on given information (IBE does not claim to always find truth) has to work everywhere, or we have to look elsewhere for better algorithms. I claim we can’t find one: we’re stuck with probability, decision, and cause. Life and thinking isn’t so easy.

Now in real life you are not as restricted as in this artificial situation. You are free to guess or assume or measure other probative evidence that will modify the probability, change the decision, or lead to fuller understanding of the causes.

Didn’t I see Alice here earlier? I thought Bob said he was driving somewhere. That looks a lot like a ball Charlie plays with. Fastidious Alice might have been here, but I can’t see why she’d leave a ball lying about. Et cetera. You must play detective.

Means, motive, opportunity. That’s what detectives look for, because why? Because these items identify all aspects of the cause of the event. Detectives know they might not always guess right, that the wrong man is sometimes pegged, that some motives are opaque, and on and on. Detectives also know that the defense attorneys are free to form their own list of probative evidence, and so will come to different probabilities, decisions, and understandings of cause.

The possibility of differences in assumptions is the key to understanding the IBE’s general weakness—and it’s sometime usefullness.

It is the freedom to choose the evidence, and that there is no algorithm that leads us to the right set of perfect evidence that results in uncertainty. Uncertainty is often our lot.

Of course, there will always be a right set of perfect evidence that puts the probability at 0 or 1, as the case may be, evidence that results in a flawless decision, and that nails all parts of the cause. Our goal is to get as close as we can to this perfect set. But there is no guarantee we will even come close to it much of the time. (And there is even proof that in some cases, such as in quantum mechanics, it is impossible to come to it.)

A strange blip on the bubble chamber screen. Something caused it. What? The physicist must piece together the evidence. Means, motive, opportunity. In the end, and especially if the blip never repeats, he may just shrug his shoulders and say “Chance”—which is only and ever a euphemism for “I don’t know.”

The nature of evidence is the same at home, in science, in math, and in religion. Why something is is different from that or how it is. (I won’t prove here it works in math, but I do prove it here.)

None of this is controversial, except to die-hard followers of IBE who somehow believe that if only they exerted themselves sufficiently, they can always come to the best explanation of all aspects of a case—which is not synonymous with true. When IBE works, it’s really common sense, carefully explicated.

Next week we’ll see how Shapiro’s use of IBE to dismiss miracles relies on premises he didn’t know he was assuming, on how he did not account for the freedom to assume what evidence is probative, and how he didn’t grasp all aspects of cause.

Update Since it has arisen, there are other interpretations of quantum mechanics which differ from the classical ones. For instance: Quantum Potency & Probability, which restores Heisenberg’s original surmise. About cause. Now everything potential that becomes actual only can do do by something actual—a fancy way of saying QM events are not “uncaused”, as some would have it. On the nature of cause in QM see inter alia Wolfgang Smith’s The Quantum Enigma: Finding the Hidden Key (3rd Edition) Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. There is another recent monograph by (I think) a Dominican scientist on the same subject which is escaping my memory. When I recall, I’ll post.

May 9, 2018 | 22 Comments

Profoundly Ignorant: Shapiro’s The Miracle Myth Reviewed — Part I

There is almost nothing to like in Larry Shapiro’s The Miracle Myth: Why Belief in the Resurrection and the Supernatural is Unjustified. But, as Shapiro would be sure to agree almost nothing is not nothing.

What’s good is Shapiro admits he cannot prove the impossibility of miracles, saying he “wouldn’t even know where to start” such a proof. It’s clear he believes in this impossibility, however, just as it’s also clear he wouldn’t know where to start. For though Shapiro has interesting, but mostly wrong, things to say on the epistemology of miracles, his metaphysics is lacking.

The book is focused, however, on the epistemology of miraculous claims, a subject near and dear to regular readers. Shapiro has two main arguments which insist nobody is ever justified in believing in miracles which involve the probability of miracles and something called inference to the best explanation. Since explaining these will takes some space, I will in other parts refute these arguments. Today I highlight some general problems.

Another thing worthy of praise. Shapiro loves a bad joke and never passes up an opportunity to insert a groaner. I am a connoissewer of bad jokes—maybe because these are the only jokes I’m good at. Let that pass.

Here’s one more jewel. Shapiro recognizes the lousy but popular argument that says the laws of nature are inviolable, and miracles are violations of these laws; therefore miracles are impossible. This assumes what it wishes to prove. “I don’t assume that there’s a way the world works that makes violations of natural laws impossible. Maybe laws of nature can be violated.” But he doubts it.

All this rather depends on what a “law” is, or if laws are, and here Shapiro is of no help. His lack of metaphysical grounding (a bad joke!) stings. He says things like “after all, the very recently dead can be revived with medical interventions in some lucky cases.” So is it a law of nature that the dead can return to life? Hence resurrections are possible? No. Dead means dead, and it is the nature of dead things to stay dead things unless a supernatural force changes the nature of that particular dead thing so that it can come back to life.

It has been said, and said with truth, that the laws of nature are the law of natures. What we see are the operations of things according to their natures, not puppets operated on (somehow) by laws. Natures have to have authors, and there is only one candidate for the author of the essence of all things. Even if this explanation of nature is wrong, which it isn’t, and laws were the rule (another gem!), it still must be that the laws had to have an author other than themselves. And again there is only one candidate.

But let’s skip all that for now, coming back to it as needed in explaining Shapiro’s epistemology. Let’s do history, instead.

Today’s title is a quotation from page 111 from the chapter in which Shapiro in vain attempts to disprove Jesus’s resurrection.

Before I began researching this book, I had a pretty naive view about the New Testament. Actually, the word naive hardly begins to capture my understanding of it. “Profoundly ignorant” is perhaps a better way of putting things.

If he started that way before researching the book, he didn’t end far from it at its end, either. His case would have been far better if he did not attack a subject in which he was blind, and it’s a wonder he included it at all. A guess would be his publisher thought a book of only epistemology would be dull, and could he juice it up by attacking a cherished belief?

He says, “The men who followed Jesus around also couldn’t or didn’t write anything. They were fishermen, day laborers, and tax collectors. We thus have no written record from Jesus or anyone associated with Jesus of anything Jesus said or did during his lifetime.”

Except for Peter and John, of course, the authors of letters and, in John’s case, a gospel and an apocalypse. And then there’s Paul and Luke, and, but, oh, never mind. But since Shapiro admits to never having read the New Testament before, it’s not surprisingly these lowly men, and the lengthy chapters containing their exploits, slipped his mind.

Shapiro does explain he’s “not an expert in this literature” and that professional historians would do a better job. And that leads him to say, in print and in public and without blushing, that “Most of what [he] learned about the gospels and their history comes from reading historians such as Bart Ehrman and”—wait for it…wait for it—“Richard Carrier.”

To which the learned response is Bwahahahahahahahahaha!

You’ll allow me that bad joke. The litigious Richard Carrier is an embarrassment even to fellow atheists. What Shapiro never tells his audience is that Carrier not only denies Jesus rose from the dead, but he insists Jesus never even lived. This “Jesus” is one gigantic conspiracy theory, designed to keep Carrier from his utopia-pan-orientation, or whatever label he is using now. Don’t believe me. Read Tim O’Neill, a self-described atheist appalled by Carrier’s antics.

Next time, an explanation of inference to the best explanation and its limitations.

May 4, 2018 | 10 Comments

Strobel’s The Case for Miracles Reviewed

We earlier did Strobel’s press conference. I won’t repeat details of that here, which is concerned solely with the book.

Strobel sticks with the formula that brought him to the ball. He begins and ends each chapter as a breathless race against the clock. He runs to the car to hurry to the next interview—before it’s too late. He bursts out, pondering the clues, and jumps on an airplane to the next man in the chain. It’s a mystery whether miracles are real, and our hero is going to solve it.

Not unlike modern journalists, he’s always inserting himself into the story. He smiles, holds up his hand, feels “emotional punches”, and pads with things like “‘Good point’, I said”, and “I was about to ask a follow-up question when Strauss jumped in with an interesting theological observation.”

This makes for what book reviewers call a “breezy” read. There isn’t anything challenging, and it’s doubtful any atheist would be convinced by the material. But it does provide a useful starting point for Christians who have not thought deeply about the subject.

There are pleasant surprises. Such as the interview with arch-skeptic Michael Shermer, who is given three chapters, and who comes across as a sympathetic character. Shermer started as a protesting Christian but fell away after experiencing what seemed to him unanswered prayers. He then leaned too hard on Hume and became a skeptic.

But Shermer is not dogmatic. He ends with an eerie story of a radio coming to life at just the right moment, only to die again as the moment passed. (More about that here in his own words.) Strobel asked, “Did this incident crack open a door for you?” Shermer answered, “A little, yeah. Maybe a bit.”

I paused and considered this. I wondered at how I felt about it. But this book review had to be done by 7 AM, so I quickly turned the page to the next chapter. “What was this next chapter about?” I asked myself.

It’s about Craig Keener pointing up the absurdity of David Hume’s argument against miracles. “Hume defines miracle as a violation of natural law, and he defines natural law as being principles that cannot be violated.” Many were persuaded by that maneuver.

Strobel acknowledges the weaknesses of medical miracles. Spontaneous remissions, placebo effects, misdiagnoses, even scams account for many supposed miracles. A shortcoming Strobel did not flesh out is that as medical knowledge increases, what earlier seemed miraculous becomes mundane. That also shows his working definition of miracle is in need of fixing (which I will do elsewhere). Still, some cures, such as being raised from the dead, are surely miraculous.

He met with Candy Gunther Brown, a physician who explained what happened when scientists tried studying miracles. These earnest researchers must never have heard Thou shalt not tempt [test] the Lord thy God.

One peer-reviewed study was the “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer” study, a “prospective, randomized, double-blind, parallel group controlled trial”, published in American Heart Journal. One group prayed for, one group not. No wee p-values were found.

But then the prayer team in the study were not “genuinely Christian”. “Reading through Unity’s [the prayer group’s] beliefs, I detected a mixture of Hinduism, Spritism, Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, and Christian Science.” Not quite classical theological views.

Brown pointed to other statistical studies where prayer did produce wee ps, which was enough to convince her. It will not be convincing to those who understand the severe limitations of statistical models. Nor to those who question the theology of statistically testing the Lord’s powers.

An intriguing anecdote came from missionary Tom Doyle, whose milieu is the Muslim world.

[M]ore Muslims have become Christians in the last couple of decades than in the previous fourteen hundred years since Muhammad, and it’s estimated that a quarter to a third of them experienced a dream or vision of Jesus before their salvation experience.

The dream is (reportedly) the same: a vision of a man in a white robe bringing the feeling of intense love.

Strobel spends some time with physics: the Big Bang, multiverses, fine tuning of physics constants, and so on. This section is, as would be expected, hand-wavy. (See instead Robert Spitzer’s New Proofs for the Existence of God, which requires advanced study in physics to follow.)

The last words on when miracles don’t happen is poignant, and even more unsolvable than eternal inflation theory.

What’s more fascinating, but not unexpected, is how many Christians are embarrassed about the subject, preferring to side with atheists on the impossibility of miracles (at least in our time). Once you allow miracles you are forced to acknowledge the supernatural—and all that that entails.