Understanding the Spirit vs. the Letter of Probability

My apologies for there being so little activity on Civitas Humana for a long while now. I have been insanely busy and stressed lately (both professionally and personally), and I have only recently been able to catch up with blogging.

I’ll begin pumping some fresh blood into Civ by discussing Bayes’ theorem, the resurrection of Jesus, and why I think that, even with a non-zero prior (which is still very, very low) for the resurrection event, Paul’s letters and the Gospels are far too weak of consequent evidence to offset more probable (naturalistic or mundane) explanations for the same data.

Over a decade ago (March 2006) secular New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman debated Christian philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig about the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus (the transcript of the debate can be read here). Overall, the debate left me with the impression that Ehrman made a better case for naturalistic or non-paranormal explanations being more probable than a veridical resurrection event, with regards to the origin of the resurrection belief among Jesus’ disciples and the first generation of Christians. But there was one area where I think Craig scored a technical, though relatively minor point against Ehrman (as will be discussed below), and this was with regards to how Ehrman was defining a miracle event and conflating prior probability with posterior probability.

Lowder’s Summary of Craig’s First Rebuttal

Jeff Lowder on the Secular Outpost has made a useful summary of Craig’s critique of how Ehrman was defining a miracle event, and the arguments Ehrman had presented (in earlier publications) for why historians cannot argue that a miracle is the most probable explanation for a past event. This summary can be read in Lowder’s post “William Lane Craig’s Critique of Bart Ehrman on the Probability of Miracles.” Since the ensuing discussion involves Bayesian reasoning, you can read my essay “History, Probability, and Miracles” for a basic overview of how Bayesian logic works, if you are unfamiliar with the theorem.

Lowder begins by listing two published statements by Ehrman, which were quoted by Craig during the debate (bolding is my own):

(1) “Because historians can only establish what probably happened, and a miracle of this nature is highly improbable, the historian cannot say it probably occurred.”
(The Historical Jesus, part 2, page 50)
(2) “Since historians can establish only what probably happened in the past, they cannot show that miracles happened, since this would involve a contradiction — that the most improbable event is the most probable.”
(The New Testament: A Historical Introduction, page 229)
In his response to these statements of Ehrman, Craig critiques his line of reasoning by arguing that Ehrman is conflating prior probability with posterior probability. The odds that a given individual may resurrect from the dead could, indeed, be very, very low. But if there is very, very good evidence that such a resurrection event has occurred, it may offset the low prior, and even outweigh alternative explanations, to degree such that Pr (R/B & E) > 0.5 (perhaps even by a wide margin, e.g., +0.9).
Here is what Craig states in his own words (bolding is my own):
“In other words, in calculating the probability of Jesus’ resurrection, the only factor he [Ehrman] considers is the intrinsic probability of the resurrection alone [Pr(R/B)]. He just ignores all of the other factors. And that’s just mathematically fallacious. The probability of the resurrection could still be very high even though the Pr(R/B) alone is terribly low.”
Lowder likewise offers his own interpretation of Ehrman’s two quotations, and here is what he states regarding the first:
“I am inclined to interpret (1) as the following claim: (1′) Pr(R/B) is so low that it is impossible, even in theory, for there to be sufficient evidence to confer a high final epistemic probability on R, i.e., Pr(R/B & E) > 0.5.”

I would argue that to describe a miracle as an event that cannot be probable, even in theory, one would need to assign its prior probability a value of zero. And this is the same conclusion that Lowder reaches, when he states (bolding is my own):

The only way to reconcile (1′) with BT would be to assign Pr(R/B) a value of zero. If Pr(R/B) = 0, then it follows from BT that Pr(R/B&E;)=0. So, on the basis of (1) alone, as Craig has quoted Ehrman, I think it is premature to assume that Ehrman ‘just ignores all of the other factors.’ Maybe he does do that, but the quotation provided in (1) doesn’t show that. What I can say is that either Ehrman ignores all of the other factors or Ehrman assumes that historians must assign Pr(R/B) a value of zero. If the latter, then I think that is false.”

With regards to Ehrman’s second quotation, Lowder briefly states:

“Turning to (2), I don’t have much to say, other than I think Craig is 100% correct when he says that Ehrman ‘Confuses Pr (R/B & E) with Pr (R/B).’”

My Thoughts on Ehrman’s Quotes

At the end of this essay, I will make some suggestions for improving Ehrman’s arguments (which in spirit I think are correct, even if they may be formally invalid at parts). That said, I agree with Lowder’s conclusions on both accounts, for at least three reasons:

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Jeff Lowder, “The VICTIMs of Christian Apologetics”

I’ve been taking a break from blogging lately, in order to focus on my dissertation work, but a recent counter-apologetics video was posted that is worth mention. I have been co-authoring a critical review of apologists Norman Geisler and Frank Turek’s I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, with Jeff Lowder, founder of the Internet Infidels and blogger at the Secular Outpost.

Both Geisler and Turek repeat the slogan “the atheist must borrow X from theism” (e.g., logic, morality, agency, mathematics, etc.) in a dozen of variations, all making assertions about metaphysical issues that allegedly cannot be explained under the hypothesis of naturalism, and require the existence of God. Of course, actual naturalist philosophers, such as Jack Ritche in Understanding Naturalism, have also thought about such things, and written philosophical resources extensively discussing issues of physicalism, logic, and value. But what is nice is that Lowder provides a detailed, point-by-point refutation against arguments of this sort in a two and half hour video, based on slides he used to prepare for a public debate with Turek.

A lot of the things that Lowder discusses have overlap with my metaphysics series–“Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism”–here on Civitas Humana, where I have discussed issues of cosmology, agency, and value from a secular and naturalistic point of view. Lowder’s video supplements this material quite nicely, so check it out (and take notes)!

-Matthew Ferguson

A Minimalist Definition of Naturalism

I have been away from blogging here on Civitas Humana for a while, due to being busy with graduate work as part of my Ph.D. program. Thankfully, I passed my dissertation prospectus and advanced to Ph.D. candidacy last quarter, and so now I can dedicate more time to research and blogging.

I am going to start posting again here on Civ by beginning with a relatively short discussion of my definition of metaphysical naturalism. I have discussed some of the conceptual and ontological ways of defining both the “natural” and the “supernatural” in a couple of my previous essays on this blog (see here and here). In those essays I discuss criteria such as physicalism, reductionism, uniformity, and teleology. I think that all of these criteria are useful for articulating some of the ways that we differentiate the natural from the supernatural, but recently I have started to think that an even more minimal definition of naturalism is sufficient to deny one particular supernatural concept, namely the existence of God.


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Can There Be Empirical Evidence of God’s Existence? Thoughts on Summa Theologica I, 1, vii, Aquinas’ Five Ways (I, 2, iii), and Miracles

aquinasI have been doing a read through St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica recently, along with Brian Davies’ newly published commentary on the text–Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae: A Guide and Commentary (2014)I’ve also decided to blog some of my thoughts and notes along the way, in order to discuss a few of the differences between Christian theology and metaphysical naturalism. In this post, I will be discussing some of the implications of Aquinas’ theology for the possibility of there being empirical evidence of God’s existence, particularly with regards to how Aquinas describes God as the object of the study of his sacred science (part I, question 1, article 7), and Aquinas’ Five Ways of demonstrating God’s existence (part 1, question 2, article 3).

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Are All Norms Moral Norms?

For the next part of my blog series, “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism,” I am going to discuss metaphysical naturalism’s implications for ethics and moral imperatives. Before that, however, I am also going to discuss the meaning of normative statements and whether all normative claims are specifically “moral” normative claims.

boromir-is-oughtA normative statement is a claim that expresses value, preference, or obligation. Words like “should” and “ought,” or “good” and “bad,” or even “beautiful” and “ugly” are not merely factual descriptions of the world, but also include underlying judgements. It can be a factual statement that a piece of art consists of certain colors, shapes, and patterns, for example, but that is not the same thing as saying whether a piece of art is pleasant to look at or beautiful. Normative statements investigate different properties pertaining to objects and behavior. Their underlying meaning is not merely descriptive, but also preferential. This distinction is often termed the “is-ought problem.”

One of the major objections made against metaphysical naturalism is that it is unable to account for the truth of normative claims. In particular, apologetic moral arguments often levy the charge that naturalism cannot account for the truth of moral values and imperatives, and that naturalist metaphysics thus entails moral anti-realism. Whether this assertion is defensible is a question that I will investigate later in this blog series. Before that, however, I want to make some key distinctions between “moral” normative statements and other types of normative claims. In particular, a response that I often get, from both theists and atheists alike when using words like “should” and “ought,” is that such words inherently possess moral judgements. I do not think that this interpretation is correct, and accordingly, I am going to lay out certain types of normative statements below that do not necessarily relate to moral judgements, despite their normative character.

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Science, Philosophy, and Placement Problems

ACU-Ritchie-cover.inddAs I have been doing research this holiday season on naturalist metaphysics, I have been reading philosopher Jack Ritchie’s Understanding Naturalism. Ritchie, unlike myself, is a non-physicalist naturalist, but I greatly appreciate his open-minded discussion of some of the metaphysical problems posed by physicalism — such as how one can explain things like consciousness, morality, or mathematics in purely physical terms. Ritchie also proposes a number of solutions for how physicalists can respond to these problems.

One solution that Ritchie proposes for explaining apparently non-physical things— like internal subjective experiences —within a purely physical universe is not to argue that the methods of physics can conceptually explain all things, rather than that physics can causally explain all things. This proposal leads to an interesting understanding of the relationship between science and philosophy, and what Ritchie (citing Frank Jackson in From Metaphysics to Ethics) calls “placement problems.”

Ritchie (pg. 133) writes:

“Metaphysical naturalists who call themselves physicalists do not have to endorse the idea that the methods of science and those of philosophy are continuous. Philosophy finds a special role in dealing with … placement problems. Science tells us that everything is physical; the philosopher’s job, then, is to show us how the things that don’t seem physical – minds, meanings, morals – fit into the physical world. The work of placing non-physical things into the physical world is not (or at least need not be considered to be) science or like science in its methods, but a priori metaphysical work … [This] leads to the surprising conclusion that a naturalist should be committed to work that he calls conceptual analysis.”

Personally, I found this approach to be rather interesting, and it also resonated with some of my recent thinking. One thing that strikes me doing research in metaphysical naturalism is just how much of it is abstract “metaphysical” work. That would seem odd, because naturalists are normally thought to eschew metaphysics and rely solely on the methods of science. But that is not so.

A lot of scientists have been criticized for arguing that the scientific method has replaced the need for philosophy in the modern world, and that philosophy is now “dead” or “useless.” Physicist Sean Carroll, however, has criticized this attitude in his post “Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things about Philosophy.” Among the complaints against philosophy that Carroll discusses is the following:

  • “Philosophers care too much about deep-sounding meta-questions, instead of sticking to what can be observed and calculated.”

To which Carroll responds:

“Here we see the unfortunate consequence of a lifetime spent in an academic/educational system that is focused on taking ambitious dreams and crushing them into easily-quantified units of productive work. The idea is apparently that developing a new technique for calculating a certain wave function is an honorable enterprise worthy of support, while trying to understand what wave functions actually are and how they capture reality is a boring waste of time.”

This criticism made me think of Jack Ritchie’s analysis above. The methods of science and philosophy do not need to be continuos. Science can be our primary method for telling us what exists, but we will still need philosophy for describing what it is like. Science is empirical. Philosophy is conceptual.

That is why, here on Civitas Humana philosophy is fully embraced, even among us scientific, physicalist naturalists. We will always need philosophy to deal with the placement problems of what science discovers. Only then can we explain things like consciousness, morality, mathematics, etc. within a purely secular framework.

Cutting philosophy out of the picture will only give advantage to critics of metaphysical naturalism, who delight in posing philosophical problems. But, for the philosophically-minded naturalist, these problems can all be easily addressed. They cannot be addressed, however, if we just ignore the conceptual analysis of philosophy and only study science. So, study philosophy too! It will make you smarter and better equipped to articulate and defend the naturalist worldview!

-Matthew Ferguson

Philosophically Defining the Supernatural

[Yesterday I presented a conference paper at the 112th Annual Meeting of the Pacific Ancient and Modern Languages Association (PAMLA). The conference theme for this year was “Familiar Spirits,” and I presented a paper titled “Philosophically Defining the Supernatural.” The topic relates to previous articles that I have written, both here in my blog series on metaphysical naturalism and in an earlier article here

This article represents my most up-to-date view on how to metaphysically define “supernatural” phenomena in opposition to “natural” phenomena. I discuss five areas of metaphysical distinction between the two: 1) physicality, 2) uniformity, 3) open vs. closed causality, 4) mental objects & properties, and 5) teleology. Below is the transcript of my paper, with images added from the slides of my attending PowerPoint presentation.]

Screenshot 2014-11-02 11.11.54

Halloween is a time of year when we celebrate the supernatural, being a holiday associated with the souls of the dead, witchcraft, and even (from certain quarters) the occult. The “supernatural” is something that is, by definition, different from ordinary “natural” phenomena. Often times we are able to distinguish between the “natural” and the “supernatural” prima facie, meaning that each can be identified at first glance. When we see an apple fall from a tree, we immediately recognize such an event to be “natural.” If, on the other hand, we were to see a ghost, magical spell, or vampire, we would not hesitate to call such phenomena “supernatural.” But what is the real difference that allows us to make such a distinction?

Whereas on the level of common sense the difference between the “natural” and the “supernatural” is often obvious, metaphysically distinguishing between the two on a philosophical level can be far more challenging. For example, if we were to see a witch cast a spell of fire, we would not hesitate to call such a superhuman ability “supernatural.” But how is this ability metaphysically different from a mutant (let’s say an X-man) who has evolved the ability to produce flames from his hands? Both would be superhuman abilities, but we would only consider the witch to be “supernatural.” Given that the two abilities would look the same, however, can we really make such a categorical distinction? Today I will discuss some of the different definitions of the “natural” and “supernatural” proposed by philosophers. My goal will be to show that there are certain attributes of “supernatural” phenomena that make them categorical different from “natural” phenomena, so that there can be a clear and meaningful metaphysical distinction between the two, justifying our use of these terms.

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