About Rationally Speaking


Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

On miracles

As I’ve often mentioned in this blog, philosopher David Hume famously said that “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish,” setting the bar for believing in miracles properly high.

Unfortunately, many people blatantly ignore Hume’s advice, moving that bar so low that banal coincidences suddenly count as “miracles,” reinforcing their preexisting supernaturalist view of the world. One such instance took place in the q&a session after a nice talk I attended a few days ago at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture. The talk was by Lawrence Bush, author of Waiting for God: The Spiritual Reflections of a Reluctant Atheist.

Bush gave an eminently sensible talk, starting out with the common observation of coincidences to which human beings attribute special meaning (a secular version of Carl Jung’s discredited idea of “syncronicity”). As Bush wryly commented at one point, while it is a good idea to pause and reflect on what happens to us in life, it is rather egomaniacal to imagine that the universe is sending us messages (often through catastrophes, personal or affecting others) just so that we can learn from our experiences.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, given the somewhat new-agey flavor of some (but by all means not all!) chapters of the Society for Ethical Culture, the q&a was as irritating as Bush’s talk had been level headed. One questioner in particular related a touching story of his adoptive grandmother being diagnosed with cancer and given six months life expectancy. The grandson reacted constructively to that abysmal prediction, using the remaining time to travel with his grandma to places where she had always wanted to go. Turns out the woman lived three years, which allowed for more travel and what I’m sure are indelibly good memories.

But then the grandson went back to the doctor and pointedly asked: “You said six months, she lived three years. What are the chances of that?” To which the doctor apparently replied with a no-nonsense (if a bit insensitive, assuming things really went that way) “One in seven hundred.” The conclusion of the story is that the questioner asked “What is the difference between 1/700 and a miracle?” strongly implying that his grandmother had of course been the beneficiary of a miracle.

Besides the obvious question of why god (or the universal life force, or whatever) couldn’t be bothered to perform a bit more substantial miracle, say by curing the woman instead of simply prolonging her life by a few weeks, the question highlights how easily we are impressed by occurrences that are in fact perfectly ordinary. One in seven hundred, the odds indicated by the doctor, are the known probability of someone affected by that particular tumor to survive three years instead of the six months of the original diagnosis. Medical research arrives at these numbers by statistical studies of large populations of patients, and surviving beyond average simply means that — for a variety of complex reasons, including age, general health, genetic makeup, and sheer luck — one’s position on the bell curve describing the mortality for that disease happens to be somewhat to the right of the population’s mean.

A miracle, on the other hand, is a suspension of the laws of nature, presumably actuated by a supernatural being. The odds of a miracle, as Hume hinted, are infinitesimally small (and cannot actually be calculated), because we see the laws of nature working just fine every minute of every day, and we have never reliably observed a suspension of such laws. Hume was careful enough not to say that miracles are impossible, just stating that if you want to claim one, the burden of proof is high indeed. Much higher than 1/700, I should think.

People find meaning in coincidences, as Bush pointed out in the lecture at Ethical Culture, because we are pattern-seeking animals. The discovery of patterns in nature is very important, because it can make the difference between life and death. Skeptical writer Michael Shermer recently wrote in Scientific American: “So we make two types of errors: a type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is real when it is not; a type II error, or false negative, is not believing a pattern is real when it is. If you believe that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is just the wind (a type I error), you are more likely to survive than if you believe that the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator (a type II error).”

The second reason for people’s penchant for interpreting coincidences as personally significant messages emanating from the forces of the universe is what philosopher Daniel Dennett called “the intentional stance,” the tendency of projecting agency on phenomena, even though they may be the result of mindless forces. As Dennett put it: “Here is how it works: first you decide to treat the object whose behavior is to be predicted as a rational agent; then you figure out what beliefs that agent ought to have, given its place in the world and its purpose. Then you figure out what desires it ought to have, on the same considerations, and finally you predict that this rational agent will act to further its goals in the light of its beliefs. A little practical reasoning from the chosen set of beliefs and desires will in most instances yield a decision about what the agent ought to do; that is what you predict the agent will do.”

Just like pattern-seeking, adopting an intentional stance is useful: this is how we make educated guesses about what other human beings will do, an absolutely necessary skill for navigating complex social spaces. But again, like pattern-seeking, the intentional stance is often applied indiscriminately, and the combination of these two natural attributes of the human mind is probably chiefly responsible for superstition, mysticism and eventually the roots of organized religion.

If you or a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal disease, it is sensible and indeed a positive thing to reflect on how this affects your view of life and how you wish to spend your remaining days. But it is a sad random occurrence of existence, not a message in a bottle sent to you by a strangely interested and yet largely uncaring (or even callous) cosmic entity. Life is what it is, not what we would like it to be, and it is the ethical duty of a reasonable person to accept things for what they are, trying to change what can be changed and enjoying the rest of the ride while it lasts.

88 comments:

  1. Another interesting habit is to thank God for having saved ONE passenger on hundreds, in an aeroplane accident...

    Why didn't It saved all the passengers?

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  2. My mother likes to say, "Everything happens for a reason," and I hate it. Nothing can justify the war crimes of Darfur or the Holocaust. If there were a benevolent higher power like the one she believes in, surely it could accomplish whatever good it wanted without evoking mass torture and slaughter.

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  3. A miracle, on the other hand, is a suspension of the laws of nature, presumably actuated by a supernatural being.


    I wrote about miracles recently on my blog, and I entertained the possibility that miracles could be a built-in feature of our universe. Though I don't in fact believe this, as far as I can tell it's impossible to refute. I think referring to "the laws of nature" can obscure understanding, because our usual conception of these "laws" (I prefer to say "patterns") assumes various types of regularity, and in particular excludes the possibility of miracles.

    The odds of a miracle, as Hume hinted, are infinitesimally small (and cannot actually be calculated), because we see the laws of nature working just fine every minute of every day, and we have never reliably observed a suspension of such laws.I'm not sure the quote from Hume should be interpreted that way. He was talking about how difficult it is to establish the occurrence of a miracle based on testimony, not whether miracles in fact exist.

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  4. Nick Barrowman wrote
    .
    I think referring to "the laws of nature" can obscure understanding, because our usual conception of these "laws" (I prefer to say "patterns") assumes various types of regularity, and in particular excludes the possibility of miracles.
    .
    "...assumes various types of regularity"? I'd say "identifies various types of regularity." In my view, a "natural law" is just the identification and labeling of a regularity, sometimes purely empirical, sometimes explained by a theory. All of science, of course, depends on the assumption that there are regularities. The task of science is to notice regularities, condense instances of them into classes, and to explain instances by referring to relations among those classes.

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  5. Jackie,

    "Everything happens for a reason" has got to be the most cringe-worthy cliche in the English language.

    A toddler burned to death in a car fire in my city this week. Try and make a good story out of that.

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  6. RBH wrote:

    In my view, a "natural law" is just the identification and labeling of a regularity, sometimes purely empirical, sometimes explained by a theory.

    The trouble is, there's no guarantee that the regularity will persist. A pattern that holds today may not hold tomorrow, and a pattern that holds here may not hold there. Even if we see the pattern repeated a million times, we cannot be certain it always holds. This is the philosophical problem of induction.

    I believe Hume pointed out that regardless, we behave as if induction is valid. And I think there's a simple evolutionary explanation: in a world full of patterns, belief that there are patterns is highly adaptive.

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  7. Nick,

    I see your points, but it still seems to me that a miracle is, by definition, a suspension of natural occurrings (whether you want to call them laws or not -- I also have doubts that one can coherently talk about "laws" in nature). If it's just a rare natural phenomenon, than there's nothing to discuss in terms of projected meaning.

    As for Hume's quote, I think my reading is fair. Yes, he was talking directly about establishing miracles by testimony, but it seems a perfectly logical and consistent extension of his thought that he doubted miracles as a phenomenon.

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  8. "One in seven hundred, the odds indicated by the doctor, are the known probability of someone affected by that particular tumor to survive beyond the mean survival time, i.e. the six months of the original diagnosis."

    I expect that rather more than 1/700 people lives past the "mean survival time", at least if "mean survival time" means what it seems to say.

    I suspect an awful lot of "medical miracles" can be chalked up to (1) people misinterpreting/ overinterpreting what a doctor told them, e.g. misinterpreting mean survival time as absolute maximum possible survival time; and (2) misdiagnosis, since every test and diagnosis has an error rate, some non-small number of people out of millions will be told they have a fatal condition and actually don't.

    Then there's (3), natural variability. And probably others.

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  9. Regarding the 1/700 3-year survival rate:

    The 1/700 rate was not the probability of being over the mean. By definition, the probability of being over the mean is always 50%.

    Assuming the rest of the details were correct, the model the doctor used to predicted survival rates for that cancer would have predicted that 1/700th of patients survived at least 3 years after prognosis. Thus, if we surveyed 7000 cancer patients, we would expect about 10 of them to survive at least 3 years. If you take a large enough sample size, you will find some points on the fringe. That kid's grandmother happened to be one of the ones on the upper fringe. It's not magic: it's statistics.

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  10. Nick Barrowman wrote
    .
    The trouble is, there's no guarantee that the regularity will persist. A pattern that holds today may not hold tomorrow, and a pattern that holds here may not hold there. Even if we see the pattern repeated a million times, we cannot be certain it always holds. This is the philosophical problem of induction.

    .
    Of course. But then that's what theories in science do for us (in contrast to philosophical musings): they provide us with reasons for holding a justified belief that the pattern will persist under the conditions specified in the theory and not under other conditions. That is, they provide guides for determining which natural laws apply, and when. There are no guarantees, of course, just degrees of confidence.

    (By the way, if anyone is wondering why there are floating decimal points in my comments, they're my way of ensuring that this blasted commenting software doesn't screw up the formatting of paragraphs.)

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  11. Things just happen. Understanding probability is sometimes harder than we think.

    But then, many things happen according to our past actions and happenings. An event may lead to the occurrence of something else, and this keeps going until our life ends. So, everything happens for a reason?

    When people cannot seem to explain why things happen, they tend to attribute them to God.


    "By definition, the probability of being over the mean is always 50%."
    .

    Jackie, median it should be! :)

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  12. Unless I am misreading some of these posts, all seem to agree that miracles occur, as they are so named because we do not yet have the tools to explain them.

    Maybe some examples will help? Here are some miracles:

    (1) A cow walking backwards in the middle of a field jabbering away on a cellphone

    (2) The events in the movie "Groundhog Day"

    (3) The parting of the Red Sea

    (4) An errant black hole devouring Earth and all its inhabitants (with the exception of those who supported Obama)

    Given enough time, imagination, and better understanding of technology, all four of these can be explained up to a point where the word miracle becomes less and less of a viable explanation

    A side thread expresses hatred/disgust for one of my favorites: "Everything happens for a reason". I suspect you may dislike the phrase because of its association with superpowers at large, and agree that the saying obliquely refers to the behavior of a superpower. But change the saying to "... many reasons", and it starts to make more sense. Things happen because of the actions of many entities, some with varying degrees of scope. Just as our belief (there I said it) in miracles is an acknowledgment of the limits of our perspective, our attribution of randomness to events reflects our limited awareness of all preceding events that conspired to game the outcome.

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  13. Dave,

    I disagree with your understanding that everyone here accepts the idea of miracles. On the contrary, the tone of most comments seems to me to be skeptical to a high degree.

    The examples you mention would qualify as miracles IF it could be established that there is no natural explanation for them, which may or may not be the case. I would grant you the Obama one (funny!), but perhaps there are natural time warps that would cause a groundhog day-like experience. As for the parting of the Red Sea, I don't think it ever happened, of course.

    >"Everything happens for a reason". I suspect you may dislike the phrase because of its association with superpowers at large, and agree that the saying obliquely refers to the behavior of a superpower. But change the saying to "... many reasons", and it starts to make more sense. Things happen because of the actions of many entities.<

    Reason in this context implies a plan, a consciousness. So, no, most things *don't* happen for a reason. Unless by reason you mean "explanation," but then the point becomes trivial, and I doubt people who use that phrase mean it in that sense.

    >our belief (there I said it) in miracles is an acknowledgment of the limits of our perspective<

    An honest acknowledgment of our perspective would simply be to say "I don't know." Miracles are an expression of irrational hope and of an egomaniacal belief that the universe really cares.

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  14. Good presentation Massimo. I've said many times on internet forums that one of the best things that happened for me was a course in statistics in college. It gave me a whole new understanding of event distribution and specifically outlier points (like the 1/700 grandmother).

    And for Jackie; I too dislike that 'happens for a reason' attitude. I try, but weakly, to counteract it when it comes up in conversation. I don't have a lot of friends to begin with and bursting bubbles for those I do have would completely isolate me.

    *side note: the word verification was not displaying when using IE-7. I had to switch to Firefox in order to post.

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  15. >the word verification was not displaying when using IE-7. I had to switch to Firefox in order to post.<

    You mean there are still people out there who use Microsoft products? :)

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  16. So Massimo,

    You're using Linux and Open Office? :)

    Anyway I suspect that one reason that belief in miracles, and superstition, mysticism, and religion persist, is that people find it more entertaining compared to statistics and probability. Plus people simply don't want to put in the effort to understand and take the easy route and just believe.

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  17. Whether you believe it happened or not, the parting of the Red Sea is not tough to explain away. I think a number of people have done so, or at least tried to set up a fair explanation of how a freak trough could have existed at that place for a few hours.

    The reason I believe that "Everything happens for a reason" is because I believe in higher level machinery than that at a human level, and this machinery has its own plan, consciousness etc, sometimes aligned with our own agendas, sometimes understood by others, and sometimes caring.

    Just like I think it is a mark of arrogance for someone to think his/her religion is the only true one, I think it equally arrogant for someone to imagine that his/her species is the coolest thing around and that there is probably no higher order intelligence capable of conjuring those so-called miracles. And it was arrogant of me to think everyone on this blog acknowledged the existence of miracles (I missed the godly aspect in the definition's original post)

    While I agree that it is honest to say "I don't know" to the stuff we don't understand, it certainly isn't in the interests of science to leave things at that. When weird stuff happens, we want answers. A miracle remains a miracle until someone explains it well enough to fit aspects of it into RBH's classes. And if science was used to construct the underpinnings of those classes well then the miracle has just become scientific or natural fact.

    Again, miracles sometimes take time and imagination to explain to the point of acceptance.

    The Hume stuff is interesting and raises the completely different question of whether enough people believe some thing does it then become true? (Of course it does, when you stop believing in silly things like universal truths).

    But why was Jung's Synchronicity discredited? Did Sting and Police not devote an entire 45 minutes or so of music to its cause?

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  18. Dave,

    > When weird stuff happens, we want answers. A miracle remains a miracle until someone explains it well enough <

    Of course we want answers, but to say that something is a miracle doesn't provide any answer at all, it's simply a not too intellectually honest way of saying "I don't know."

    To say that a "higher" intelligence did it is also no answer, unless one can specify how and why.

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  19. Dave S said: "While I agree that it is honest to say "I don't know" to the stuff we don't understand, it certainly isn't in the interests of science to leave things at that. When weird stuff happens, we want answers. A miracle remains a miracle until someone explains it well enough..."

    Is this opposite day? If we can't explain something, we don't just say "must have been fairies." Or at least, scientists don't. Science is about inquiry - expanding knowledge - not shoving everything we don't understand into the black box that is the supernatural.

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  20. Max, if Trados were available for Mac, I'd make the change immeidately.
    Now, that really WOULD be a miracle.
    :)

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  21. <"Everything happens for a reason" has got to be the most cringe-worthy cliche in the English language.>

    Another one I hate that is related to this is:
    "there are no accidents"

    Again, the idea that there is some force out there guiding things for a reason. But why shouldn't there be accidents, and why shouldn't there be things that happen for no reason?

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  22. @MP: "You mean there are still people out there who use Microsoft products? :)"

    It's a corporate laptop. We have contracts and business agreements with MS and are pretty much locked in. Also the client to whom I'm contracted has software restrictions for PCs that connect to their network. That's why I was at IE-7 and not IE-8. Interestingly enough though, today the word verification picture is displaying just fine ... it's a miracle. Or more likely just a technical "feature" of the browser that I don't understand.

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  23. I thought a false positive was the error of rejecting a null hypothesis when it is actually true but Michale Shermer is quoted as saying a false positive (type 1) is "believing a pattern is real when it is not" (and the same problem exists for type II - seems reversed from what I learned.)

    Also, to Sheldon who states: "why shouldn't there be things that happen for no reason?"

    I assume you mean something along the lines of 'no supernatural reason' because you can't be arguing that an effect can be without a cause? All events are tied directly with no breaks of the laws of physics to prior events back to the Big Bang. right?

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  24. Another reading of Hume...

    I take Hume, in "On Miracles," to be presenting a proto- decision-theoretic account of belief acquisition and revision, with a very Bayesian flavor. Miracles, here, need not be events wholly outside the range of the possible, merely events so improbable as to tax credulity. The testimony, or other evidence, necessary to revise one's beliefs depend on the quality of the evidence *AND* the prior probability of the event etc. in question.

    If a "miracle" has a very very low prior probability, as it surely must, then the evidence necessary to accept its occurrence would have to be very impressive indeed!

    One of Hume's points was therefore that, if our "evidence" for miracles is mostly based on the "testimony" of other people, it isn't going to cut it.

    On another note, oncologists are notorious for being bad at estimating average life expectancy for patients. Studies tend to systematically *underestimate* survival times (when these are in the months-to-years zone) because they artificially stop looking at some particular time. For end-stage treatment, doctors seem to *overestimate* survival times (when these are in the days-to-weeks zone) for reasons that aren't entirely clear.

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  25. Jonathan,

    yup, I tend to interpret Hume in quasi-Bayesian fashion too, which is why it makes perfect sense to me...

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  26. Ummmm Jonathan, can u share an example of an impossible event as opposed to improbable? As with all all paradoxes and other candidates for impossibility, they are usually shot down by recasting definitions or otherwise raising issues with the rhetoric used to toss them into the nonexistent trashcan.

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  27. DaveS -- you ask if I can "share an example of an impossible event as opposed to improbable?" and note that "As with all all paradoxes and other candidates for impossibility, they are usually shot down by recasting definitions or otherwise raising issues with the rhetoric used to toss them into the nonexistent trashcan."

    Part of the issue here might come down to whether you are thinking of logical or physical impossibility, and what force you think of "impossibility" as having. My comment, however, was not meant to get at those issues -- rather, I was merely suggesting that to get his point off the ground, Hume doesn't need actual violations of natural order, just events that are very improbable given what we know about the natural world...

    There is a sense -- a fairly stupid sense -- in which e.g. the parting of the red sea is possible -- just very very unlikely -- according to statistical mechanics. If you want to talk that way, fine, but given the prior likelihood of such an event, there is no amount of evidence that could be gathered such that I, or any sane person, would believe that such an event was the result of statistical mechanics -- if indeed I could be convinced that such an event had occurred at all (hard enough!), I'd look for another explanation. In that sense, the line between the physically "impossible" and the merely "very improbable" is perhaps a shifty one.

    If, and it is a big IF, our current understanding of physics is correct, there are a number of "imaginable" states of affairs that are physically impossible (objects with ordinary mass traveling faster than light, etc.). Whether you think these are interesting or merely the result of bad definitions, etc., is of course another matter. You might argue that we just don't know what we are talking about when we say that an object can't go faster than light but that we can imagine it -- if we really understood what we meant, we'd recognize that we *can't* imagine it. But that strikes me as reaching...

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  28. I have to agree with Hume and Massimo that the bar is very high to establish a miracle. Until I read this post, I did not realize that Hume did not rule out miracles entirely. I concur that the term miracle is overused and loosely employed. I do not agree that miracles do not exist, and I believe I can cite examples of miracles that would meet the bar statistically.

    Also just a comment on the cliche, everything happens for a reason. As a theist with a Biblical worldview, I believe we live in a broken world of suffering, pain, sorrow and evil which can touch anyone, including the innocent. Evil is the price of free will. However, evil can never be greater than the goodness of God and ultimately will serve His good purposes. I don't expect you to agree with this worldview, but I wanted to explain more fully was some of us theists find meaning even in tragedy.

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  29. Thanks Steve. I've been jonesing for an apologetic rationalization. Somehow, I gain no comfort from your assertion that the toddler burned to death because Eve ate some fruit. But I'm glad you do.

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  30. Massimo wrote:

    ... it still seems to me that a miracle is, by definition, a suspension of natural occurrings ...

    Interpreting that definition strictly, a miracle is not a natural occurence, therefore it's physically impossible. Thus by definition, there's no such thing as a miracle.

    The definition I propose is a bit different: A miracle is a physical event that cannot ever be explained in terms of physical patterns.

    A miracle is thus a sort of "one-off" (i.e. a sui generis natural event). It doesn't fit any natural patterns, but it is still a natural event.

    RBH wrote:

    theories in science ... provide us with reasons for holding a justified belief that the pattern will persist under the conditions specified in the theory and not under other conditions.

    I don't agree. Scientific theories are models based on observed patterns. In themselves, they provide no reasons for us to believe those patterns will persist.

    There are no guarantees, of course, just degrees of confidence.

    Here I agree. Our confidence in scientific theories is based on their ability to explain and predict natural phenomena. However this is inductive reasoning, and as Hume pointed out, induction cannot be logically justified.

    Except we all live by induction. Particularly statisticians, like me.

    Hume's thought on the various angles of this problem was brilliant. We can't prove that miracles are impossible, but justified acceptance of a miracle based on testimony seems extremely implausible.

    P.S. RBH, regarding formatting, I've started using the HTML <br> tag to force line breaks. This wasn't necessary before, but I think the Blogger commenting software must have changed recently.

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  31. Jonathan: I'd say that anything we can imagine is by definition possible. This because if the thing is imagined then it exists in very 'physical' form in at least one person's brain. If deemed useful, a lot of hardware and software could then do things to convert that thought or picture into a different physical form, one more in conformance with the reality of many and not a few or one.

    Below your post Nick has a reasonable enough definition of a miracle, wrapped around the physical. But exactly what it means for something to be physical or to exist may be in question. We debate whether gods exist. Particle physicists may not spend time debating what it means for anything to exist, but that's only because its not in their job description.

    Driving my thinking is this: Life is essentially an exchange of information between objects. Some of these objects seem more real, physical and natural to us than others. But the behavior is always the same - one thing sends, another receives. But this means that things do not stand on their own, and that the minimum possible number of objects in any universe is two. Therefore it makes more sense to me to say that something exists if and when it is perceived by another thing.

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  32. Dave S,

    There's a difference between an idea and an actual object. I can't sit on the idea of a chair.

    There's also a difference between existing in the present and existing in the past or future. I can't call my sister's unborn grandchilderen for a chat.

    Not everything we imagine will eventually exist - like those unborn grandchildren my sister might or might not have someday.

    If you redefine something someone says doesn't exist in order to make it more plausible, then you're making the logical fallacy of equivocation. If you're willing to make that kind of error, then you can also redefine "alive" to be "dead," "black" to "white," and "Have a nice day" to "Go to hell."

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  33. I agree Jackie - never said the chair we imagine is the chair we sit on, they are two different things. I am saying they both have very real or 'physical' qualities. Just reread all of your post and agree with pretty much everything you say, so I'm not sure what you are getting at???

    Take those unborn grandchildren. Pretend they will be born (& congrats in advance). Make it one grandchild to make the argument a bit simpler. All I'm saying is that if your grandchild is the only thing in the universe, then he or she cannot be said to exist.

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  34. Let’s apply Maximo's reasoning to where it matters -- to Jesus’ resurrection. History records the death of billions of people who never came back to life, while the Bible claims that this very thing happened to Jesus. Here’s Hume’s conclusion: The evidence of billions of un-resurrected folk has to override the evidence of the one.

    Impressed? Don’t be! Let’s take the example of Dr. Bullet who is on trial for killing his wife. The defense parades forward 100 witnesses who all testify that Bullet has never hurt anyone or even said a harsh word, while the prosecution has two witnesses who claim they saw Bullet strangle his wife until she fell lifeless to the ground. Should the 100 override the two? Of course not! Although they appropriately testified to his character, their testimony didn’t invalidate the two others. Simply because Bullet had always acted caringly, it didn’t prove that he didn’t murder his wife.

    Likewise, a billion un-resurrected corpses fail to prove that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. However, as Bullet’s fine character tends to argue against the fact that he killed his wife, so too a billion corpses should make us skeptical that our next-door-neighbor rose from the dead.

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  35. Daniel,

    it's hard to believe you are serious. But if you are:

    > Let’s take the example of Dr. Bullet who is on trial for killing his wife. The defense parades forward 100 witnesses who all testify that Bullet has never hurt anyone or even said a harsh word, while the prosecution has two witnesses who claim they saw Bullet strangle his wife until she fell lifeless to the ground. Should the 100 override the two? <

    First off, 100 vs. 1 is not even close to being in the same league as 1 billion vs. 1.

    Second, and more important, you are comparing apples and oranges. What if I had 100 witnesses that swore Bullet (is that his real name?) was on a different continent at the time his wife was killed? His character isn't the question, the murder is.

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  36. Massimo,

    You are correct: “His character isn’t the question; the murder is!” The fact that he didn’t kill anyone the first 50 years of his life isn’t the issue. Instead, the murder of his wife is! But this is precisely where Hume’s logical fallacy abides: A million examples of things working according to a pattern do not invalidate or contradict the one instance where that pattern isn’t followed (although it should lead us to carefully scrutinize the one instance).

    Let me use another example that I think will demonstrate this principle even more clearly than Dr. Bullet. A space probe is launched to Mars to seek evidence of intelligent life. For the first 99 days of the probe, no evidence of any life is found. However, in the final hours of the probe, one investigator roles away a store and finds a room filled with what appears to be books containing regular symbols resembling language. She returns to the craft as they are about to leave and reports her findings to the leader of the expedition. The leader dismisses her findings saying, “Very interesting, but our 99 days of evidence of finding no signs of any life whatsoever overrules whatever it might have been that you saw on this last day!”

    Of course this is absurd, but so too is Hume’s reasoning that there can never be enough evidence to prove that a miracle (something that violates the pattern) has taken place (because of the previously well-established pattern of things.)

    Likewise, dismissing the resurrection accounts of Jesus because of Hume’s objections reflects a commitment to an anti-supernatural bias rather than an objective look at the evidence. Interestingly, even the atheistic historian, Gerd Ludemann admitted that,

    It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ (Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus).

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  37. Daniel,

    you keep missing the point of Hume's reasoning. He is *not* saying that there can never be a miracle. He is saying that it is difficult to come up with enough evidence to be convinced of one.

    Induction is *not* a guarantee of truth. Philosophers have agreed, following Hume, that there is no such thing as a "proof" of anything empirical. There are only probabilistic statements. From that perspective, the probability of Jesus having being resurrected is close to (but not exactly) zero.

    See Jonathan's insightful comments above about a Bayesian interpretation of Hume.

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  38. in the 2 cents dept, 100:1 is not in the same league as 1MMM:1. It's larger(!) when compared to the swing number required to change the decider's mind. Only 10-15 people against 1 opposite testimony should sway the jury. 100 is overkill. When it comes to proving resurrections are impossible you might want more than a billion "type IIs" or false negatives or whatever they're called.

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  39. Dear Massimo and Dave S.,

    The issue isn’t whether the odds are 1 in 100 or 1 in a million. The issue is “What happens when an event takes place that is not in conformity with the usual pattern.” Do we dismiss it and make believe it never happened or never could happen, or do we take it seriously and evaluate the evidence for it.

    As all scientists would agree, we have to also regard the anomalies. However, Hume’s formulation doesn’t offer sufficient regard for the anomalies. He unjustifiably pits the evidence for the million events against the anomaly, supposing that there is a contradiction, that we have to choose either the evidence for the billion or the evidence for the one. His erroneous conclusion is this: Both sets of evidences can’t stand: Either the evidence favors the billion who never resurrected or the one who resurrected.

    I have tried to demonstrate the incoherence of Hume’s formulation through two examples: The evidence that Dr. Bullet never killed anyone during his first 50 years can coexist with the evidence that he subsequently killed his wife. Also, the evidence that no intelligent life was found on Mars for the first 99 days (thinks 1 million, if you’d like) can coexist with the evidence that intelligent life was found on the last day. Likewise, it’s a mistake to think that the evidence of a billion non-resurrected bodies somehow contradicts the resurrection of the One!

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  40. Daniel: I'm pretty much in your court on this one, with the exception of your use of the word "One" or phrase "The One". Rising from the dead is only 1 of x number of 'miracles' that have occurred in our history. There is nothing special about the Christian religion other than its relatively large and powerful number of adherents.

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  41. J "Not everything we imagine will eventually exist - like those unborn grandchildren my sister might or might not have someday. "

    It's quite good that we can't see the future. If we could, we might second guess or inadvertently ruin something that could turn out rather wonderfully if we had understood our capacities well enough to do the right thing (THE HOPE FILLED AND FAITH ORIENTED THING) and thus cause things turn out good in the end..

    My husband and I were driving down a CA freeway the other day, one he use to drive on daily 25 years ago or so. Of course going to a place that one use to spend a lot of time in brings back all kinds of emotions and memories. I asked him, as were driving down this familiar road, "could you have ever seen yourself driving away from a pastors conf. years ago?
    (at that time way back when, he was an alcoholic and a drug addict. and if you can imagine it, he probably had tried it.)

    NO, of course not. He couldn't see it, but God clearly could see it.

    "Time", it seems to me, was only created to mark our progress (inside or outside of) God. And Time itself is undoubtedly some level of a miracle then. Within the range of a possible 10 dimensions, there probably would be a considerable amount of info we simply cannot know about.

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  42. Wow, I almost witnessed a miracle! As soon as I started reading Massimo's original post, I thought: "it will be a miracle if Cal does not comment on this one"... Saved by the bell. :-)

    Daniel,

    You mostly make little sense, since you keep ignoring what the other guys said -- this is not about proof, but probability. Therefore your ludicrous examples are not relevant.

    Either way, there's nothing to be considered about resurrection, since it has never happened. You believe it happened at least once, but it's a myth. Get over it. Now, if my grandma (who's been dead for a few years now) shows up alive tomorrow, then we can start talking about such probabilities. Until then, it's discussing the chance of fairy tales. Hardly productive.

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  43. sorry J - you do NOT know that, <... there's nothing to be considered about resurrection, since it has never happened. You believe it happened at least once, but it's a myth. Get over it....>

    unless you have spent lots of time in the vicinity post-crucifixion, and had your eyes and ears and other sensory tools open at full throttle.

    We have got to stop thinking that events with a probability of ~.000000000000371 cannot happen.

    Where I differ from Daniel is that I believe even if it did happen, its not that big of a deal.

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  44. DaveS,

    I believe you still haven't got my point, I must have expressed myself badly.

    You are right that, technically, I do not know whether some Palestinian resurrected 2000 years ago. It's considered a myth by mentally healthy people because there is no evidence whatsoever that it did happen -- apart from one book saying so. We might as well say that Ford Prefect came from Betelgeuse, since that's written in some books too.

    But my point really was that neither I nor anyone alive nowadays (or in recent history) has seen a resurrection occur (whatever its probability might be). Has anyone done it? Where, when? Was the resurrected person dead indeed, no doubt about it? Was it widely evaluated, or just some crackpot saying so?

    Until we have a case like that to review, talk as much as you want about "improbable but possible", it's still irrelevant. And "impossible", by any reasonable values of "possible"...

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  45. Hi J- its a tough argument you make, but I will say this - its also simply a numbers game and this is not easy for me to explain after too many Belgian beers.

    - but -
    if enough people believe something happened, then it probably happened.

    For example, lots of folks believed the earth was flat. Adherents of science say they were wrong, I say, No they were right, to them the earth was INDEED flat, given their field of view. No amount of contravening data would be enough to change their mind s unless the roundness of the earth proved useful to the consumer of the information. Re "rising from the dead" same thing, but a much longer conversation. I know this sounds incredulous but I am not being flippant when I say even a lie repeated or believed enough times becomes the truth. This stuff is all in our minds, and not in some sort of objective reality.

    sorry for rambling but I did want to at least start on an answer.

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  46. Dave,

    methinks Belgian beers turn you into too much of a postmodernist, I would switch drink if I were you... :)

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  47. D "I know this sounds incredulous but I am not being flippant when I say even a lie repeated or believed enough times becomes the truth."

    That's right.

    Our congregation began the "Truth Project" with about 110, 120 people last night. The problem of what truth really is becomes a problem not so much when the world in general cannot identify it but when the Church cannot.

    The single most important question the a human being can ever ask is "What is Truth?"

    intro to the "truth project"
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzvKOgCrag8

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  48. I just do not think that "truth" equals the belief of the majority.

    My starting point is usally Karl Popper statement that truth is not clear. Sayings that something is "clear and simple" are usually wrong. In Popper's view, truth needs criticism and attempts at falsification before it can be (provisionally) accepted. His definition of truth is "correspondence with the facts" and truth is never 100%.

    Popper believed that arguments from authority ("the toothpaste most dentists prefer" etc.) were intrinsically fallacious.

    So truth cannot be arbitrary or just what a majority believe, like in Orwell's 1984, when a totalitarian regime can get people to believe they have always been fighting Eurasia, where in fact they have sometimes been fighting Eastasia. Or get them through torture to believe that 2+2=5, or that they love Big Brother.

    .

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  49. Arrgghhhh too much to reply to:

    Massimo: prob. was not the Belgian beers (Hoegaarden) but the nonexistence of accompanying food.

    Posts about Truth: reason I say what I do is that ALL truths are like beauty: in the eyes of the beholder. "1 + 1 = 2" only if the receiver of this info agrees with sender that discrete numbers, cardinality, and the 'plus' operator mean the same thing. As I stated earlier, the receiver or beholder must find utility in the purported fact. Truth, good, and other much discussed philosophical terms only make sense with the suffix "...for you" or "...for them" is added. they are also fluid, dynamic things which change like the wind.

    Why these concepts degrade into a numbers game is because when you see true or false facts as simply information that is consumed, then the number of a proposition's adherents attest to its relative strength. E.g. scientists say that Planet Neptune seems to attract X-rays that have passed through planet Earth. As nobody (with the possible exception of dentists and some other scientists) gives a damn about this, it becomes a true fact, true for me and you. Moreover, it is a powerful truth. 20 believers in one thing form a 'perceived unit' and that unit is bigger than the unit of 10 believers in the opposite thing. So from an evolutionary perspective, or survival point of view, the 20-unit thing probably has better looking members of the opposite sex, better food and drink, and lower taxes. It is more saleable to a a third individual entity and of course its relative its relative power then determines its relative 'goodness'

    A bit rambly again, I apologize, but want to get this out fresh rather than edit it into staleness in the search for coherence.

    Back to the 2000 year old Palestinean, we probably all agree on the following:

    (1) Without this miracle the religion could fall apart.

    (2) The advent of 20th century physics has raised the probability of this event upwards from 0 to something else.

    (3) A very large majority of people on this planet (>80% ???) have a Yes/No/Not Sure/Don't Care view as to whether this particular event happened.

    My takeaway from these 3 points is that this is a very big deal. As a sort-of Jeffersonian style poly-deist( lots of gods did a lot of stuff, some still may do, may indeed give a damn what we do, etc...). This tells me that there is a high probability that this event occurred, possibly not as simple as someone getting a bunch of holes punched in him and left to rot, then going about his business the next day (.... don't really know the post-crux story...), but it does not make any sense to me that this event was a silly superstition. To me, this event represents a watershed moment in the creation of the Christian religion by a committee of christian-type gods. As was any moment that turned linux from a one-off experiment into a widely and seriously accepted computer operating system.

    Re J's:
    >>Its considered a myth by mentally healthy people because there is no evidence whatsoever that it did happen<<

    OK you've just called most people on earth who believe in miracles slightly unhealthy upstairs. Rather than say "not nice" to you I will say this. In my experience most ppl who experience (note I did not say believe) spiritual/superstitious/mystical connections indeed have some imbalances in play, or at a minimum something that favors the thoughts in their heads vs the thoughts and actions of other people. I will say this does not at all devalue the experience. Mental illness and eccentricities simply render one unfit to deal easily with other people but have little impact on the value of ones thoughts and feelings, and non-social actions. Happy to take this bit offline, as it does get somewhat personal.

    Finally, deep in the dark of night, atheists pray.

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  50. If I may take a step back from this postmodern dialog, which I don't track well on at all, I would like to react to J's statement:

    "You are right that, technically, I do not know whether some Palestinian resurrected 2000 years ago. It's considered a myth by mentally healthy people because there is no evidence whatsoever that it did happen -- apart from one book saying so."

    J, you are simply uninformed.

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  51. To Dave S: It is logically incoherent to maintain that “all truth is relative to one’s perspective” or “there’s no such thing as absolute truth.” In order to attack absolute truth as you do, you need to use an absolute measure of truth—the very thing you deny. It’s as if you said, “I don’t believe in absolute truth, so you can simply disregard everything I’m saying, because it’s merely the product of the way I feel.”

    To J: The historical evidence for the resurrection is really quite compelling. Let me just present a few considerations:

    1. All the Church Fathers, many of whom knew the Apostles and saw them die the death of martyrs for what they believed, are unanimous about the resurrection.

    2. There are the 27 books of the New Testament that all affirm this reality. These include many impressive eyewitness accounts. Some of these books had been written by people who had previously not believed in Jesus but were later convinced by the evidence of the resurrection. Paul had actually been persecuting the Church. James and Jude were brothers of Jesus who had not believed.

    3. The Book of Acts records many thousands of Jewish people coming to a faith in Christ after the crucifixion. This isn’t understandable apart from a resurrection.

    4. The Apostles, who were fleeing for the lives and had given up their faith after the crucifixion, were turned around by their experience with the resurrected Jesus who appeared to them for 40 days. These same men all became martyrs, never compromising their testimony even when offered their lives to do so. (Seldom if ever do we hear of two or three co-conspirators willing to die for a story they concocted.) Furthermore, the Mosaic Law demanded death for anyone who would teach novelties.

    5. Without a Resurrection, it would have been next to impossible to account for the growth of the Church. After all, who would invest their lives in a religion where its God had been put to death in such a disgraceful way, unless there was a final and decisive chapter to this story?

    6. Following the reports that Jesus had risen, both Romans and Jews were unable to produce the body. A Roman guard had been placed at the tomb to prevent the possibility that Jesus’ disciples would steal the body and claim that He rose and He had said He would. Nevertheless, the Jewish authorities had claimed that the cowardly disciples had stolen the body. However, no reputable historian takes this position. In view of this, historian William Ward, claims, “All the strictly historical evidence we have is in favor [of the empty tomb], and those scholars who reject it ought to recognize that they do so on some other ground than that of scientific evidence. (Lee Strobel, "The Case for the Real Jesus") Had there been a body, the Christian assertion of the Resurrection could easily have been put to rest.

    7. There is no contemporary counter-evidence. Instead, Jewish sources acknowledge that Jesus was crucified on the Passover and that He had been a worker of miracles.

    8. Evidently, the New Testament evidence had been so unimpeachable, that even the writers of other religions (Gnostic Gospels) piggy-backed on their miraculous accounts as they applied their own errant interpretations.

    William Lane Craig concludes, “All the theories, like ‘The Disciples stole the body,’ or ‘Jesus wasn’t really dead’ have been universally rejected by modern scholarship.” (Strobel)

    I think you owe it to yourself at least to pray about this. Jesus promised that all who seek will find. However, our problem is that we refuse to truly seek. We will seek as long as the search remains within our comfort zone.

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  52. Daniel,

    > William Lane Craig concludes, “All the theories, like ‘The Disciples stole the body,’ or ‘Jesus wasn’t really dead’ have been universally rejected by modern scholarship.” <

    Craig is sooo way out there that it isn't even funny. I debated him twice, and I know what I'm talking about. He is simply deluded about what he calls "scholarship." My understanding is that while most (serious) Bible scholars do not doubt the historicity of Jesus (just like they don't doubt, say, Julius Caesar's), *nobody* takes seriously the resurrection (just like they don't seriously think that Caesar ascended to the heavens courtesy of a chariot ride organized by the Olympian gods). To do so would be for a historian to buy into a fairy tale supported by no evidence whatsoever.

    You are, of course, free to believe it by faith, but that's a whole other story.

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  53. Massimo,

    May I disagree with you! There is a wealth of compelling historical evidence, so much so that the Jewish historian, Paula Fredricksen, acknowledges:

    The Disciples’ conviction that they had seen the risen Christ…is historical bedrock, facts known past doubting.” (L. Strobel, “The Case for the Real Jesus,” 119).

    Historian and atheist, Gerd Ludemann, also admitted that Jesus’ disciples were convinced that He had risen from the dead:

    It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ (Strobel).

    These represent weighty testimonies in favor of the historical evidence for the resurrection. Although they both deny the resurrection, it is not on the basis of the evidences, but rather their own philosophical presuppositions.

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  54. Daniel,

    of course you may disagree with me, I wouldn't expect anything less. But Strobel is a pretty bad source (and, I noticed, the only one you keep bringing up). Here is an in-depth critique of his book: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/strobel.html

    As for Ludemann, notice that he said that the disciples were convinced that Jesus was resurrected. This has nothing to do with the much stronger claim that he actually was resurrected! All sorts of people are convinced of bizarre things that are not true, like that the earth is a few thousand years old...

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  55. J

    I think we can be quite definitive over "You are right that, technically, I do not know whether some Palestinian resurrected 2000 years ago. " Since Palestine was not invented as a term for this region by the Romans till 132-135 CE we can be quite clear that no Palestinian was resurrected since none even existed then.

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  56. Massimo,

    With respect I must say that some of your sweeping generalizations impugn your credibility, i.e.

    "... while most (serious) Bible scholars do not doubt the historicity of Jesus (just like they don't doubt, say, Julius Caesar's), *nobody* takes seriously the resurrection... To do so would be for a historian to buy into a fairy tale supported by no evidence whatsoever."

    The statement is false on every count including both the "no evidence" and the "nobody" allegations.

    The strongest advocate of the historical reliability of the New Testament documents, including the accounts of the resurrection, are most scholars in the field of historical criticism. What skeptical Biblical scholars you will find are almost to a man in the field of textual criticism, a highly subjective endeavor, and even here few mainline scholars are as radical as the Jesus Seminar and ilk often featured in popular media.

    The credentials of F.F. Bruce as a historian can hardly be disputed. If you wish, I can give you a lengthy list of such as he, but I begin to suspect you will keep repeating the same line. You once acknowledged that you were aware of former atheist C.S. Lewis's quote that he was brought "kicking and struggling into the Kingdom of God" "the most reluctant convert in all England" by the historical evidence for the resurrection of Christ. Do you not consider this Cambridge professor to be a scholar?

    Your reply in the face of Daniel's points, is not even to say weak evidence, but a categorical "no evidence whatsoever". [Massimo] doth protest too much, methinks.

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  57. Steve,

    Evidence. You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means.

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  58. Massimo:

    "As for Ludemann, notice that he said that the disciples were convinced that Jesus was resurrected. This has nothing to do with the much stronger claim that he actually was resurrected!"

    Great point. And a great starting place, if you are willing to concede that the disciples were convinced, and I think you can make a very strong case that they were.

    The next step is to ask what convinced them. They were reluctant believers. None believed on the basis of the empty tomb. Only when Christ stood before them, they were convinced he was a ghost. They had to touch him and see him eat fish before them. Then they "disbelieved for joy". Thomas wasn't present, and despite what his companions said, insisted on empirical evidence - to touch the wounds of Christ. He got the chance, and the church founded by Thomas in India is still in existence today. Not only Thomas but all the disciples were empiricists...

    "We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty..."
    2 Peter 1:16

    "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim..."
    1 John 1:1

    So these men tell us what convinced them. Their accounts would more easily be dismissed as blatant falsehoods than as the accounts of sincerely deceived men. But then, you are left with deliberate liars who loved their enemies and paid with their lives for their hoax without hope of personal gain.

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  59. Unbeguiled,

    So what does "evidence" mean, and what do you think I think it means?

    In historical matters, my understanding is that you are dealing with the same kinds of evidence as that used in such fields as say, forensic science or archaeology.

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  60. DaveS,

    OK you've just called most people on earth who believe in miracles slightly unhealthy upstairs.

    Yup.

    First: Life is not always necessarily pretty. Or "nice".

    Second: that mental problem is very selective, as you must have noticed if you have been watching. The same people who will be very in command of their mental capacities when, say, taking their vehicles to the car shop, turn that all off when it comes to believing what some guy in power at their church of choice tells them to believe.

    Finally, deep in the dark of night, atheists pray.

    That I do know is not true. Akin to the offensive lie that "there are no atheists in foxholes". Don't project your weaknesses on me. I have my own, and among them is not weeping to big daddy when things get tough and my life is in danger of ending -- has happened by disease and, less acutely, accident. I've survived both, for now.

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  61. Daniel,

    I'm sorry but my understanding of the field of Biblical criticism is, obviously, entirely different from yours. I don't think the Jesus Seminar folks are "radical" at all! The point, of course, is still what sort of "evidence" one could possibly marshal in favor of miracles - of any kind.

    C.S. Lewis was a smart guy and a good writer, but he was being a complete fool when he said that evidence dragged him into Christianity.

    Again, I maintain that there is no evidence *whatsoever* for the resurrection. Please provide any piece of evidence you think counts, and I'll show you why you are not talking evidence at all (not only in the scientific sense, but not even in the much weaker juridical sense).

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  62. Massimo,

    You then acknowledge that there is at least one scholar (C.S. Lewis) who holds to the resurrection. I will take this as a retraction of your earlier statement. You may consider them "complete fools", but that is a different matter.

    "Again, I maintain that there is no evidence *whatsoever* for the resurrection. Please provide any piece of evidence you think counts, and I'll show you why you are not talking evidence at all...not even in the much weaker juridical sense."

    Fair enough. Another "fool" for a scholar Simon Greenleaf wrote "A Treatise on the Law of Evidence", a foundational document in the American legal system. While a Harvard law professor he also wrote "An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice".

    Quoting the Univ. of Missouri entry:

    "Greenleaf, one of the principle founders of the Harvard Law School, originally set out to disprove the biblical testimony concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He was certain that a careful examination of the internal witness of the Gospels would dispel all the myths at the heart of Christianity. But this legal scholar came to the conclusion that the witnesses were reliable, and that the resurrection did in fact happen."

    Greenleaf defines evidence such: "By competent evidence, is meant such as the nature of the thing to be proved requires; and by satisfactory evidence, is meant that amount of proof, which ordinarily satisfies an unprejudiced mind, beyond any reasonable doubt."

    He sets a condition: "In examining the evidence of the Christian religion, it is essential to the discovery of truth that we bring to the investigation a mind freed, as far as possible, from existing prejudice, and open to conviction."

    Unless you are agreeable to these two propositions, then we should stop here and not waste blog space.

    Greenleaf's short presentation may be read at:
    http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/jesus/greenleaf.html

    Greenleaf's conclusion: "Either the men of Galilee were men of superlative wisdom, and extensive knowledge and experience, and of deeper skill in the arts of deception, than any and all others, before or after them, or they have truly stated the astonishing things which they saw and heard."

    In presenting his legal case for this conclusion, where would you fault Greenleaf? Remember, you have claimed there is no evidence whatsoever for the resurrection even in the juridicial sense.

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  63. Steve,

    > ou then acknowledge that there is at least one scholar (C.S. Lewis) who holds to the resurrection. I will take this as a retraction of your earlier statement. <

    Nope, Lewis was no Bible scholar, my friend.

    > He was certain that a careful examination of the internal witness of the Gospels would dispel all the myths at the heart of Christianity. But this legal scholar came to the conclusion that the witnesses were reliable, and that the resurrection did in fact happen. <

    First of all, bad approach: the burden of proof is on those who claims miracles. One cannot disprove an alleged miracle, nor does one need to.

    Second, how on earth can one conclude that eyewitnesses who have been dead for a couple of millennia, and who we know were not recounting events fresh in their minds (I'm sure you know that the Gospels were written decades after the alleged facts) are "reliable"?

    > By competent evidence, is meant such as the nature of the thing to be proved requires; and by satisfactory evidence, is meant that amount of proof, which ordinarily satisfies an unprejudiced mind, beyond any reasonable doubt <

    A completely vacuous and useless definition.

    > Either the men of Galilee were men of superlative wisdom, and extensive knowledge and experience, and of deeper skill in the arts of deception, than any and all others, before or after them, or they have truly stated the astonishing things which they saw and heard. <

    Or they made up a fable, like the ancient Greeks (or do you believe in the Olympian gods too?); or they elaborated on a grain of historical events in a fanciful manner (the latter is most likely, especially considering that the more recent Gospels sport a suspiciously increasing number of "miracles" compared to those that were written earleir).

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  64. Several thousand years ago, a small tribe of ignorant near-savages wrote various collections of myths, wild tales, lies, and gibberish. Over the centuries, these stories were embroidered, garbled, mutilated, and torn into small pieces that were then repeatedly shuffled.

    Finally, this material was badly translated into several languages successively.

    The resultant text, Steve believes, is an accurate record of historical events.

    Steve is mistaken.

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  65. where did Unbeguiled go? I also want to know what "evidence" means" and what s/he thinks Steve thinks it means.

    faithlessgod: Should he have used the term Israelite? Palestinean is cooler and takes a political stand. Here's a thought. Heard of the Islamic Republic of Iran? How about the Israelite Republic of Palestine! Can u copyright a nation's name??

    DaveS: You are aware that a quick read of your posts reveal contradictions:
    >Where I differ from Daniel is that I believe even if it did happen, its not that big of a deal. June 10, 2009 11:46 AM<

    and

    >My takeaway from these 3 points is that this is a very big deal. June 11, 2009 1:31 PM<

    Aside from being conflicted about the resurrection, I think you need to be more careful about your posts. Daniel among others speak for the godly, Massimo and others for the secular, and you keep pushing something else nobody pretends to understand, so slow down.

    Daniel:
    I do not understand what you mean by >In order to attack absolute truth as you do, you need to use an absolute measure of truth<

    I believe it doesn't exist, yes & you can indeed disregard anything I say, but are you saying I'm using some absolute measure here??? Confused.

    Steve: you are absolutely leaving open the issue of whether the apostles were or were not deceivers. A perceived con-artist paying with his/her life for a belief does not become less of a con-artist. They could have been on the run from a similar fate

    J:
    Lots of spiritual factors are in play at the car shop, esp when it comes to the relationship you have with your car

    I try not to pray (which I define as talking to a particular god, very 1-way if u ask me) in times of physical or mental adversity as I feel it is a sign of weakness. Sometimes it just comes out. Sure I know, I'm talking to a parent, or replaying an earlier cry for help, but it is still an attempt at a spiritual communication, and explaining only the psycho-social mechanisms and ignoring other implications just does not cut it
    ....
    ....
    for me.

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  66. As I was praying to my god for the return of Unbeguiled, lo he doth return.

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  67. It would be too coincidental if there were no coincidences (Isaac Asimov) :)

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  68. DaveS,

    I think it would be futile for me to try and define evidence in a way that both you and I would accept.

    In my experience, religious folk set the bar extremely low for what they consider evidence. More scientifically minded people demand that the bar be set high.

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  69. Massimo,

    There is a wealth of evidence for the resurrection and the Christian faith. (Perhaps I might seem foolish to even try to offer it to someone who refuses to give the evidence a fair shake?!?)

    I find particularly impressive the evidence that comes from those who are opposed to our faith in every way—enemy testimony! In “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus,” Orthodox Jewish writer David Klinghoffer writes:

    "The Talmud states that from forty years before the Temple's destruction [immediately after the crucifixion] and onward, there were supernatural omens of the disaster to come--that is, starting from the inception of the Christian religion following the death of Jesus. The eternal fire of the Temple altar would not stay lit. The monumental bronze Temple gates opened by themselves. Josephus confirms the Talmud's account of the inner Sanctuary's east gate and its mysterious openings. He adds other portents from these years: a bright light shinning around the altar and the Sanctuary at three in the morning, a cow brought for sacrifice giving birth to a lamb, apparitions of chariots and armies flying through the sky above the whole land of Israel." (pg. 117)

    This recalls the miraculous signs at accompanying crucifixion, documented in the NT and elsewhere -- for instance, the darkness that had covered the land for three hours.

    Professional anti-Christian apologist, Rabbi Tuvia Singer responded to the question, “Why didn’t the red ribbon on the head of the Scapegoat turn white in 30 CE (AD)?” on his website, www.outreachjudaism.org:

    “In Tractate Yoma 39b, the Talmud quotes a Baraisa that discusses numerous remarkable phenomena that occurred in the Temple during the Yom Kippur service. More specifically, the Talmud states that there was a strip of scarlet-dyed wool tied to the head of the scapegoat which would turn white in the presence of the large crowd gathered at the Temple on the Day of Atonement. The Jewish people perceived this miraculous transformation as a heavenly sign that their sins were forgiven. The Talmud relates, however, that 40 years before the destruction of the second Temple [approximately 30 AD] the scarlet colored strip of wool did not turn white. The text of the Talmud which missionaries quote states":

    “The Rabbis taught that forty years prior to the destruction of the Temple [approximately from the time of the crucifixion, 30 AD] the lot did not come up in the [high priest’s] right hand nor did the tongue of scarlet wool become white.”

    For the Christian, the miracle and its termination make perfect sense. Following the ultimate sacrifice of the crucifixion and its fulfillment of the Temple offerings, God was warning Israel that He was no longer willing to accept animal sacrifices!

    Our Lord has not remained silent. He remains willing to speak (both subjectively and objectively) to those who are willing to hear.

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  70. Daniel,

    I'm sorry but I can't take seriously the fact that you are bringing "scholars" who spend their lives dissecting a series of fables and legends as if they were historical facts (Orthodox Jews) in support of another set of fables and legends (the Christian variety).

    Again, all of this has no more nor less standing than any other "sacred" text of any other religion. I just believe in one less god than you do...

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  71. Massimo, my fried,

    My, you are slippery. So your "nobody" is qualified to mean Biblical scholars? And you disqualify Lewis, an expert in ancient history and Greek literature, from that category?

    Then you are stating that no serious Biblical scholar believes the resurrection happened. OK, how about F. F. Bruce?

    "...educated at the University of Aberdeen, Cambridge University and the University of Vienna. After teaching Greek for several years first at the University of Edinburgh and then at the University of Leeds he became head of the Department of Biblical History and Literature at the University of Sheffield in 1947. In 1959 he moved to the University of Manchester where he became Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis." —Wikipedia

    Massimo: "First of all, bad approach: the burden of proof is on those who claim miracles. One cannot disprove an alleged miracle, nor does one need to."

    What are you saying? Certainly I agree the burden of proof is on those who claim miracles, but then are you saying that their claim cannot be disproved? Is this nonsense, or am I misreading?

    And what is wrong with the approach? The approach was not assuming miracles; there was even a predisposition against them.

    Massimo: "Second, how on earth can one conclude that eyewitnesses who have been dead for a couple of millennia, and who we know were not recounting events fresh in their minds (I'm sure you know that the Gospels were written decades after the alleged facts) are "reliable"?

    If you read Greenleaf, you would discover why he considered the manuscripts reliable and the eyewitnesses accurate in what they related. Let me try to respond briefly for myself (not Greenleaf).

    The time period for a legend to accrue - for example, Buddha a philosopher, to be transformed by legend into a deity, requires hundreds of years after the death of the person and of the contemporaries who remembered him. In Jesus's case, Daniel's point is quite relevant. The contemporary enemies of Jesus, who had a vested interest in discounting the resurrection, provide some of the strongest evidence. Paul writes of the resurrection within 20 years of the event: "After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born." (1 Corinthians 15:6-8) He is saying at the time of his writing people are still living who saw Christ after his resurrection. The authorities would be glad to render the statement absurd. Instead, the statement (and the book of 1 Corinthians) was widely circulated and translated into many other languages (numerous ancient manuscripts) indicating their wide acceptance all within the lifetime of Jesus's contemporaries.

    But after all is said and done, I think it is the nature of what is written in the Gospels that is the most convincing, and that is part of the case made by Greenleaf.

    Massimo: "A completely vacuous and useless definition."

    This is a refutation - your opinion? This definition is from Greenleaf's Treatise on the Law of Evidence, a classic of American jurisprudence and a standard textbook in American law throughout the Nineteenth century. (Wikipedia)

    Massimo: "Or they made up a fable..."

    This was Greenleaf's original assumption. If you examine the details more closely, as he did, you will discover this was an intellectual feat of which they (and anyone else) were simply incapable.

    If only one of them had broken down while being torched in Nero's gardens, thrown to the lions, or crucified upside down and confessed - "OK, I admit it - we made this thing up".... but you have to grasp at what you've got, I suppose.

    You haven't addressed Greenleaf's arguments, and I suspect you won't.

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  72. Steve,

    as predictable, this is getting nowhere, and one of us will simply soon tire of repeating the same arguments or slight variations thereof (probably me). For now tough:

    > So your "nobody" is qualified to mean Biblical scholars? And you disqualify Lewis, an expert in ancient history and Greek literature, from that category? <

    I thought it was clear from the original context that I was talking about Biblical scholars, and no, Lewis wasn't one of 'em.

    > Certainly I agree the burden of proof is on those who claim miracles, but then are you saying that their claim cannot be disproved? Is this nonsense, or am I misreading? <

    You are misreading. I meant to say that one cannot disprof miracles just like you cannot disprove the existence of Zeus, or of unicorns. If I believe in Zeus (or unicorns) the burden of evidence is on me.

    > The time period for a legend to accrue - for example, Buddha a philosopher, to be transformed by legend into a deity, requires hundreds of years after the death of the person <

    Really, so I take it that you are also a Mormon and a Scientologist?

    > This definition is from Greenleaf's Treatise on the Law of Evidence, a classic of American jurisprudence and a standard textbook in American law throughout the Nineteenth century. <

    So much the worse for American jurisprudence. As I said, it is vacuous and not useful. What kind of things would not count as "evidence" under that definition?

    For an in-depth discussion of the concept of evidence see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evidence/

    > f only one of them had broken down while being torched in Nero's gardens, thrown to the lions, or crucified upside down and confessed - "OK, I admit it - we made this thing up".... but you have to grasp at what you've got, I suppose. <

    There were probably plenty of Christians who disavowed their faith under torture, but that isn't the point. Plenty of people believe all sorts of things, and are willing to be killed for their beliefs. So?

    > You haven't addressed Greenleaf's arguments, and I suspect you won't. <

    I haven't read any argument, only an appeal to authority...

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  73. Well, I actually thought we went somewhere. :)

    Massimo: "I haven't read any argument, only an appeal to authority..."

    I was referring not to Greenleaf himself, but to the brief treatise he wrote for which I gave a link.

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  74. Massimo,

    I apologize for the overcall on being slippery. Still - F.F. Bruce? I see your point on not disproving a miracle - although that is not a universal because if someone is claiming Ron Hubbard or Joseph Smith rose from the dead, I can put a damper on that with hard evidence, which is why it is unlikely to happen for a few hundred years.

    "There were probably plenty of Christians who disavowed their faith under torture, but that isn't the point. Plenty of people believe all sorts of things, and are willing to be killed for their beliefs. So?"

    I don't believe that is the point, either. The point is that, though people may be deceived into dying for something others made up, people are rarely willing to die for something they themselves made up.

    Unless they're all crazy, which is possibility #3.

    "I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen— that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.” At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.” “I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.” Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.” -Acts 26

    So there are the possibilities - liars, lunatics, legend or...?

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  75. Faithlessgod,

    Fair enough, from a historical point of view. But from a genetic and linguistic point of view, I suspect they were all Palestinians (and/or Israelites if you prefer) no matter what we call them. You know, Semitic brethren.

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  76. "All sorts of people are convinced of bizarre things that are not true, like that the earth is a few thousand years old..."

    It might be thousands or millions, but the bottom line is that neither camp knows precisely what the age of the earth is. What we do know for certain tho is that the series of adjustments that the old earth people (be they creationists or evolutionists) are much greater than the young earthers every time there is an adjustment made on time lines.

    If that kind of standard (HUGE MOVING GOAL POSTS) was set for something like a murder investigation, regular people, not influenced by ideology one way or another would find it ridiculous.

    And I do.

    The fundamental problem is not the age of the earth, it is something much more personal. Evolution inevitably favors 'the selfish'. And if that doesn't bother you, you'll likely prefer evolution no matter what the evidence looks like.

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  77. And further, the earth and everything on it is quite a miracle whether it is ten thousand or ten million years old. Gradualism also does absolutely nothing to erase everyday miracles that we totally take for granted.

    Blink your eyes for instance.
    Shut them and keep them closed for awhile.

    How long would you want to go about your day, intentionally walking around in darkness?

    Not too long I would imagine.

    So being able to blink ones eyes is an amazing thing, isn't it?

    That's what it's like to think about reality on real terms.

    There's wonder, beauty, love and hope all around you. When will you be able to open your eyes to see it?

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  78. Massimo,

    I have given you evidences that professional historians regard as highly significant and you flippantly push them aside as “fables and legends.” I mention scholars and you dismiss them as “fools.” You claim that you “can’t take seriously” the evidence that I’ve presented. However, based upon your previously stated bias against miracles, it seems clear that you WON’T take them seriously. So allow me to open another line of consideration.

    I had been a severely maladjusted youth who saw five highly recommended psychotherapists in hope of finding some mental peace. However, each of these pillars of modern secular wisdom left me worse than before. Instead, it was only in Christ that I found what I needed, and so many other people can attest to the fact that He gave them the peace, hope, assurance, moral certitude, meaning/direction/purpose, joy, wisdom for life and getting along with others, ability to cope with hardships, and joy. How is it possible that a belief system that is merely a collection of “fables and legends” can consistently confer such rich benefits upon those who embrace it?

    Look at it from a grander perspective. Christianity was the engine that propelled the West’s ascendency. It is a clear lesson from history that those who believe in delusions live their lives based on those delusions. Their lives are consequently out of step with reality and therefore reap negative consequences. Wisdom should tell us that perhaps Christians know something worth knowing. In contrast, at the end of his life, the famous British mathematician and atheist, Bertrand Russell, confessed:

    “I wrote with passion and force, because I really thought I had a gospel [good news]. Now I am cynical about the gospel because it won’t stand the test of life.” (Os Guinness, “The Journey,” 106)

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  79. Anecdotes.

    Now there's a solid epistemic foundation.

    Not.

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  80. Daniel,

    sorry to seem/be flippant, but no I simply cannot take your suggestions seriously. It really amazes me that so many grownups take fables and myths at face value because they wish to feel like someone with great powers somewhere in the universe directly cares for them.

    > How is it possible that a belief system that is merely a collection of “fables and legends” can consistently confer such rich benefits upon those who embrace it? <

    Easily. We know that people can be fooled into all sorts of ideologies and beliefs, and that they have very real consequences -- sometime positive, as in the case you mention, sometimes horrible, as with the Nazi and the Holocaust. This says precisely *nothing* about whether those beliefs are true or not.

    btw, I seriously doubt the quote from Russell is real and not taken out of context. I read several books by him, and I don't recall anything of the kind. Do you have a reference from one of his writings?

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  81. Massimo,

    I don’t think you answered my challenge: “How can people devoted to such irrational ‘myths and legends’ be living such productive and beneficent lives?”

    While you maintain that believing in the super-natural is irrational, there are many scientists who are despairing of ever finding natural answers. Paul Davies, for example, staggers at the possibility of life’s building blocks naturalistically self-assembling:

    “Can specific randomness be the guaranteed product of a deterministic, mechanical, law-like process, like a primordial soup left to the mercy of familiar laws of physics and chemistry? No it couldn’t. No known law of nature could achieve this.” (“The Fifth Miracle”, 88)

    “We conclude that biologically relevant macromolecules simultaneously possess two vital properties: randomness and extreme specificity. A chaotic process could possibly achieve the former property but would have a negligible probability of achieving the latter. At first sight this appears to make the genome an impossible object, unattainable by either known laws of chance.”

    And this is just in consideration of building blocks, and not the cellular machines or even life. Anticipating your objection, let me cite John C. Lennox from his masterful “God’s Undertaken” (148):

    “This suggestion will be met by a chorus of protest that…[this] is a ‘God of the gaps type – solution…’I can’t explain it therefore God did it’…it is also very easy to say ‘evolution did it’ when one has not got the faintest idea how, or has simply cobbled up a speculative just-so story with no evidential basis…it is just as easy to end up with an ‘evolution of the gaps’ as with a ‘God of the gaps. One might even say that it is easier to end up with an ‘evolution of the gaps’ than a ‘God of the gaps’ since the former suggestion is likely to attract far less criticism than the former.”

    Even the militant Richard Dawkins has written, “It is grindingly, creakingly, crashingly obvious that, if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it wouldn’t work. You don’t need to be a mathematician or a physicist to calculate that an eye or a haemoglobin molecule would take from here to infinity to self-assemble by sheer higgledy-piggledy luck.” (Lennox, 103)

    By claiming that Darwinism requires more than chance, Dawkins is secretly smuggling in intelligence and design. Isn’t he then playing the hypocrite when he mocks and disdains theism and the super-natural!

    The only reference I have on the Russell quote is from Os Guinness’ book, which I’ve already referenced.

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  82. "By claiming that Darwinism requires more than chance, Dawkins is secretly smuggling in intelligence and design."

    No he's not. He's introducing natural selection, you silly creduloid.

    So typical. Creationist quote mining.

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  83. Dear UnBeguiled,

    Upon re-examining the Dawkins quote, I now see that I took it further than I should have. Although Dawkins and others attribute creative, almost God-like powers to natural selection, Dawkins wasn’t explicitly ascribing intelligence to it. You were indeed UnBeguiled!

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  84. Evolution inevitably favors 'the selfish'.

    Hey, you could say the exact same about "capitalism". I didn't know you were a socialist, Cal! Wonders never cease, but maybe it should be expected, since Jesus was quite a socialist himself, it sometimes seems.

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  85. I may be sort of a socialist on a, b and c(I like people to work together and cooperate and blah, blah, blah)...and a capitalist on d, e and f.

    But if one doesn't choose to save lives before their born, whats the actual point of being "conservative" and cooperative on the expendature of resources from that point forward? More resources for fewer people? That is the epitome of being selfish. In the past, children have always been our future. But foolishly we have systematically exterminated 1/3 of our current graduating class.

    When you sit down and think about it, isn't that just ABSOLUTELY THE MOST Self CENTERED THING YOU CAN POSSIBLY THINK OF?

    If that's what socialism and progressivism truly represents, "more for me", what a total waste of time and resources.

    AND THAT is exactly why the US is in economic chaos. We thoroughly deserve it.

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  86. I'm jumping in now, only just scanning the threads today. Sorry for not following everyone's comments more closely over time. Science, I think, is simply making inferences from repeated observations. You observe a pattern that repeats with every observation and begin to make predictions based on that inference. It seems a little arrogant to me, not to mention illogical, to then infer that no exceptions to the pattern are possible. The whole point of a miracle is that it defies probability as a proof that God or Jesus is God. @ Jackie - freedom has real consequences for good or evil. I would rephrase your mother's statement to say, "No evil can be greater than the goodness of good, and in the end will be turned to serve His purposes."

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