Sunday, March 04, 2007

A Vital Proposition

Last time, I argued against what I called the evidentialist principle, the claim that we should always suspend belief in a proposition in the absence of persuasive evidence for that proposition. Instead, I propounded William James' apology for religious faith. James thinks that when we are confronted with a forced and momentous option between live hypotheses, it is both necessary and acceptable to make a leap of faith in one of the hypotheses.

The main thrust of my essay was that following the evidentialist principle leaves us hanging when we find ourselves in an evidential gridlock, but at the same time must do something. Since we ought always act according to standards of rationality, it follows we can act rationally in this situation. In such a case it is rationally permissible to take a leap of faith and believe a proposition which has not yet been demonstrated to be true.

I should emphasize that despite the fact that faith is a passionate commitment to unproven propositions, it is a rational commitment (given suitable circumstances). Hobbes said that one who puts away reason to make room for something else puts out the light of both. I heartily agree; I am engaging what I take to be Harris' and the evidentialists' faulty conception of rationality, not advocating a vision of Faith as contrary to Reason.

Larry, the Bum, wants to know if we really are ever confronted with any options like this, and asked me to provide a detailed example. The example I have chosen is vitally important to Christianity (since I am, after all, a Christian theist), and with it stands or falls the rest of Christianity. This post is a brief answer to his fair minded challenge, considering the proposition:

(J) Jesus rose from the dead.

This proposition reports a particular concrete event occurred; a certain man in a certain place who, after his execution, miraculously healed and revived in his tomb. So, there is no worry that (J) is non-propositional or otherwise unable to convey any factual content.

Since there are important and vital goods at stake, the choice to believe or disbelieve (J) is a momentous option for us; if Jesus was resurrected, then it was the most important event in human history. It has profound implications for who we are and what is our relationship to the divine. St. Augustine wrote, "The supreme good is that which is possessed of supreme existence whom we are to seek after with supreme affection." Jesus' resurrection implies that we can share in a loving relationship with God, a relationship which can elevate the soul toward the infinite, its highest good.

The option of whether to believe or disbelieve (J) is forced. In this particular case, I do not think it is reasonable to merely be agnostic about (J). To see this, consider Russell's teapot. We can imagine someone asserting that there is a teapot orbiting the sun, but that no telescope in the world was capable of detecting it. Should we be agnostic about it because we do not have evidence to decide either way? Of course not! Russell points out, “…If I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.” We can say something stronger than that: just as it would be unreasonable to be agnostic about the existence of celestial teapots, it would be unreasonable to be agnostic about a man being resurrected from the dead. To say the least, we have strong prima facie evidence that that people, when dead, stay dead! Thus, there is no being on the fence – we must either affirm or deny (J).

The hypothesis that there are celestial teapots is a dead one; at least until we learn (we can imagine) that astronauts ceremoniously hurl teapots into space! Some Biblical scholars have argued that there is evidence in favor of (J). Lee Strobel’s book The Case for Christ discusses some of this historical evidence. Also, N.T. Wright has argued that (J) is the best explanation for the emergence of Christianity in the unique socio-historical conditions of first century Israel. It is beyond the scope of this post to defend Wright's thesis, so I only mean to point out that a cogent case has been made by qualified scholars in its favor.

However, I do not think we can determine the truth or falsity of (J) by an appeal to historical evidence alone. As discussed in Terence Hines’ book Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, scientists have investigated paranormal phenomena ranging from ghosts to ESP -- sometimes under controlled conditions -- and have yet to find persuasive evidence in favor of a non-naturalistic explanation of the phenomenon being investigated. The epistemological point I take from this is that paranormal events, if there are any, are rare, and thus we require powerful evidence to prove they occur.

Raising the bar in this way means we cannot establish (J) on the basis of purely historical evidence: we never possess historical evidence that passes the kinds of stringent standards scientific evidence does. My point is that (J) is a live hypothesis – given its intellectual defensibility and ability to coherently explain the historical data, it could be true.

If the Jamesean apology for faith is correct, and proposition (J) fits into its criteria as I have argued, then we should conclude that when it comes to Christianity there is no objective way of deciding what to do. We must act on the basis of our passions, resolving either to make a leap of faith in (J) or resigning ourselves to its falsehood. Our predicament is one of anxiety, uncertainty, and angst, but we are free, if we are bold enough, to respond to that existential condition with faith.



[Timmo is the proprietor of Remarks of a Fish; this essay is original to The Barefoot Bum. --ed.]


  1. Timmo,

    You seem to want have your agnostic cake and eat it too in this post:

    You present us with Russel's celestial teapot: an object which could exist, even if at the margin of liklihood.

    If we are otherwise thoroughgoing in our intellectual honesty, we should be agnostic about the teapot since we can't prove it doesn't exist. But you (and Russell) rightly point out that remaining agnostic about the teapot is silly: What are the chances that in all of human history, a teapot has managed to leave earth orbit and make it to the sun? Strict intellectual honesty compels us to aknowledge that agnosticism is the required position, but reason (in some sense) shows agnosticism in this context to be silly. Just as belief in the teapot itself is silly. I will return to the celestial teapot later.

    Next we move on to Jesus. You tranfer the analogy of the teapot to Jesus's Resurrection and claim that remaining agnostic about that is also silly.

    I must aknowledge first that I am unclear why this event requires a non-agnostic assessment. One surely doesn't want to "miss out" on a fatefully-important movement - but this story about Jesus is only important (rather than just another tale from the pre-scientific era) if you already think Chrisitianity is valid. That is, if you already think your life/soul depends on it. Otherwise, making a truth assessment of the reality of Jesus's recurrection is as important as a decision about whether Hephaestus created the first woman out of clay - which is to say, not very.

    However, if your own decisions are an example, the "silly quotient" for resurrections points toward belief rather than non-belief as it did with the teapot. Somehow, an event which is just as unlikely as the celestial teapot (and given biological reality, even *more* unlikely) suggests to you that you should positively assert it rather than doubt it.

    You seem to recognize that the force of Russell's teapot analogy works against this conclusion, so you wheel out some extraneous evidence in support of resurrection by authors (I'll put my money on them all being Christians) who somehow manage to conclude that it is more likely that Jesus's resurrection is true rather than it simply being yet another fantastical tale from an era and area rife with them.

    I do not wish to suggest that your choice of Russell's analogy somehow ties your particular example to its same logic - the analogy need only go so far. However, you use that analogy to make your case plausible and that analogy points toward an opposite conclusion. You owe us a better analogy or explanation as to why resurrection is the truth-value opposite of celestial teapots.

    Returning to the celestial teapot, let me accessorize a bit: The Celestial Teapot that orbits the sun eternally steeps the Tea of Life&#174. In addition to Tea, the teapot also pours out the wisdom of altruism, empathy, and peace to any who will listen. All those who have faith in the perfecly elliptical revolution of the teapot reap the benfit of immortality through "spiritual sipping" of this tea - and indeed, when the world was young and pure, all people drank the Tea of Life and lived very long lives. But doubt eventually set it and hence we now experience death. But even today, all those who believe in the Celestial Teapot will have eternal life. Should we allow ourselves to doubt the Teapot, however, immortality will be taken from us just as it was bestowed.

    So, what are we to conclude now about the new&improved Celestial Teapot? It remains silly to be agnostic about it - but are we silly for still doubting it or still silly for believing it? And how is Jesus any different?

  2. Timmo,

    And a minor point: Jesus did not heal in his tomb - the wounds were there for Thomas to stick his finger in them. You seem to be using a modern understanding of medical biology (that "bringing someone back from death" would require a healing process to repair the wounds that caused death) to rewrite a story based on a pre-medical conception of life-energy animating a body independent of that body's phyisical integrity (hence traditional tales about headless zombies, walking skeletons, mummies, etc).

  3. Timmo,

    No one can fault your boldness. You've committed to a solid non-nonsense statement without any indication of a retreat into unfalsifiability. It seems clear that (J) is indeed propositional syntactically, semantically, and metaphysically--indeed it is every bit as realistic as any prosaic statement about rocks and trees.

    In order to hold that (J) is special and thus deserving of abandonment of evidentialism, you purport to establish that (J) is 1) momentous, 2) forced, 3) unavailable to evidentiary resolution and 4) a "live" option (which seems related to (3)).

    Is the question of (J) truly momentous? I think not. Even if we were confident on good evidence that (J) were true, it would mean only that our notions about the irreversibility of death were mistaken (or perhaps that we were mistaken about Jesus being dead in the first place). (J) would certainly be important, but no more momentous than any other paradigm-changing observation in science--none of which ask us to abandon evidentialism.

    I share kipp's evaluation that your argument on whether a decision on (J) is forced does not pass muster. (I was expecting more of a "fork in the road" metaphor.) You seem to be having your philosophical cake and eating it too: Following your argument by analogy, agnosticism is ruled out because we have good indirect evidence to disbelieve the proposition, but then you reintroduce agnosticism to make the question live. The irony of resurrecting a dead point in this context might be delicious, but the argumentation falls short.

    For precisely the reasons you describe trying to establish that an answer is forced, we can see that the question is decidable on the evidence. The universal that people do not rise from the dead is supported on the evidence of every dead person who has not risen--powerful evidence indeed--compels active disbelief in (J). The evidence to the contrary, on the other hand, is woefully thin, "expert" opinion notwithstanding.

    The strongest objection to your thesis, though, is that the factual question is irrelevant, even if one chooses to take some sort of "leap of faith" for whatever reason (or no reason at all).

    The issue with the leap of faith is not only whether to leap, but--perhaps more importantly--to determine which direction to leap. If one is inclined to leap in the direction of Christianity, then that which the factual resurrection of Jesus is purported to establish has already been decided--had it not, one would have decided to leap towards acceptance of Mohammed as Allah's prophet, or belief in the transcendental enlightenment of the Buddha, or belief in the existence of the angel Moroni and the golden plates, and so forth.

    I understand that you are not claiming exclusivity, that (J) is not the only statement that might meet your criteria. But the presence of alternatives does establish that one must choose a direction first before deciding to believe some statement of fact; once the direction has been chosen, acceptance of the factual statement which entails that direction is superfluous and seems like ex post facto rationalization.

  4. Something about this rings similar to the ontological argument for God's existence. It seems clever, but something nags that it must be false. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I am reminded of Pascal's Wager, leading me to think there's a false dichotomy of choice involved.

  5. Kipp,

    The point of the bringing up Russell's teapot was to show that it is not always reasonable to be agnostic about things for which you have no evidence. Even if you don't share my intuition about that example, the key point is that the option of whether to believe or disbelieve (J) is forced. Once we have resigned ourselves to agnosticism about (J), the life we live is functionally equivalent to one premised on denying (J). That is, practically speaking, living a life of agnosticism with respect to (J) is the same as living as if (J) were outright false.

    Allow me to continue your narrative about the Celestial Teapot which brews the Tea of Life. We can imagine that the Celestial Teapot was spotted by the great astronomers of antiquity, Aristarchus and Eratosthenes. Indeed, they even saw and tasted droplets of the Tea of Life which fell from the sky when the Celestial Teapot passed by the earth. By showing the Greek people the power of the Tea, they transformed Greek society and human history.
    But, as it happens, the Celestial Teapot's orbit takes it very far from the Earth, becoming visible at only rare moments in human history. People at the time would have been quite justified to believe the testimony of Eratosthenes -- he did predict the circumference of the earth accurately to a margin of 5%!

    But, centuries have passed, and despite the progress of science, the Celestial Teapot has yet to be re-sighted. Some scholars have carefully reviewed the observations of Aristarchus and Eratosthenes and have argued that the evidence really does point to the Celestial Teapot! (Naturally, this scenario will seem very silly to us, but we do not inhabit other possible worlds in which such bizarre things happen; we live only in the actual one.) Would it really be so silly anymore? Wouldn't that hypothesis be a live one?

    I do not see how I am somehow imparting a "modern understanding of medical biology" to ancient people. Jesus said to the disciples, "Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have" (Luke 24:39). The disciples were overjoyed -- hardly a plausible reaction to a Jesus-zombie. After this, Jesus asked for something to eat. It is hard to see why this would be if his body were not healed. (And we know, just like the ancients, that healed injuries form scars and other examinable things that Thomas could have touched.)



  6. Larry,

    I hope that my response to Kipp helps answer some of your questions.

    To be sure, if you think (J) is too implausible or the evidence evinced for it is bad, then (J) is a dead hypothesis for you. Full stop. But, what hypotheses are live is a person and situation specific thing. Someone else might reasonably disagree (like N.T. Wright) that the evidence for (J) is not too paltry, making (J) a live hypothesis for them.

    Because (J) is central to Christianity, it is hard to see how the option to believe or disbelieve (J) is not momentous. Christianity shapes one's entire way of life, so there is clearly a lot at stake.

    Perhaps you can already predict my response to your last query. There is simply no objective way to decide whether or not to believe (J), or any other proposition like it. There is no rationalization for your choice: it is a matter of subjective, passionate commitment What we can do is give a philosophical account of such commitments which explains how they are compatible with standards of rationality.

    If, like me, you find yourself with a genuine option about (J), I cannot tell you whether it is as a matter of fact correct. Whatever you or I choose, we incur risk, but that is the occupational hazard of being human.

  7. Timmo,

    To the contrary: I do in fact share you intuition about Russell's teapot. The intuition is that maintaining agnosticism is silly because we shouldn't believe in the teapot. This is the opposite intuition you draw from the story of Jesus's resurrection. Why?

    The intuition I do not share is the one you seem to imply with your extended Celestial Teapot example.

    I must quibble with the construction of the analogy - there are no "great observers" of antiquity who saw Jesus. The only accounts we have of Jesus come from the Bible and recount events that occurred decades before their writing. We also have numerous apocryphal books that claim to tell different and sometimes contradictory stories about Jesus and other biblical events not to mention the inconcistencies in the "official" bilblical account itself. And the scholars who see the evidence pointing in the direction of Jesus's resurrection are, coicidentally enough, Christians (I will also put my money on their belief in Christ's resurrection having preceded their analysis of the evidence).

    So instead we have 1) Several, second-hand accounts of the Celestial Teapot that are inconsistent in their details - and all from a land and time where tales of miraculous dinnerware are common, 2) a lack of any subsequent appearance of the Teapot despite ardent searching, 3)equally compelling, equally substantiated (which is to say, not much at all) stories of Celestial Creamers and Celestial Gravyboats that explicitly denounce the Celestial Teapot, 4) positive scholarly evalutations of the evidence confined to people with a vested interest in the truth of the Celestaial Teapot, 5)contemporary examples of charlatans making-up teapot-like stories to fool the gullible and 6)modern scientific facts, unknown to the ancients, about the nature of interplanetary space and the behavior of liquids that counsel strongly against an actual teapot pouring down tea... The silliness remains.

    My point about Thomas was minor, but healed wounds do not generally remain open for one to insert a finger as Thomas did. This account only makes sense if the unhealed wounds were still there - an account consistent with the ancient notion of re-animation. I agree that Jesus was not perceived as a zombie (his asking for food doesn't help because ancients attributed eating to all kinds of creatures that didn't need food in the way humans do). I am simply pointing out that you use modern medical knowledge to infer healing from a Biblical account that only implies re-animation.

  8. Timmo,

    I am unsatisfied with your justification that belief in Christ's resurrection is forced and momentous. One could believe that Christ was not resurrected and yet still live by his teachings - reaping all the benefits Christianity has to offer. That's why I (and probly Larry) don't think the choice is forced.

    I anticipate a possible response based on your usage of "risk" in your last sentence. The risk of living a Christ-inspired life without a belief in Christ's resurrection is the purported heavenly penalty for doubting Jesus's divinity - damnation. I'm sure a sophisticated Christian like you doesn't want to be imputed with such lowbrow ideas as eternal damnation for non-belief... but I also don't see how James's argument works without it. I think that's what James E. was intimating when he mentioned the smilarity of this argument to Pascal's wager - both seem to turn on the accepted reality of a divine penalty for non-belief.

  9. Timmo,

    The point of the bringing up Russell's teapot was to show that it is not always reasonable to be agnostic about things for which you have no evidence.

    But this is the crux of the biscuit: we do have evidence against teapots in orbit--evidence you actually present in your argument: all the evidence which leads us to believe that teapots are typically not to be found in space.

    I cannot really fault you personally for this confusion; I think Russell--thirty years Popper's senior--himself was not crystal clear on what constituted "evidence" in the scientific sense.

    If we were to take a purely Positivist view, then history would not even qualify as a rational discipline, much less a scientific one. I cannot observe even yesterday's events, much less those of a hundred or a thousand years previous.

    [T]he key point is that the option of whether to believe or disbelieve (J) is forced. Once we have resigned ourselves to agnosticism about (J), the life we live is functionally equivalent to one premised on denying (J). That is, practically speaking, living a life of agnosticism with respect to (J) is the same as living as if (J) were outright false.

    This is a much better argument for the "forced-ness" of (J) than the one you employ in the OP. But it's still quite problematic. If we simply lump agnosticism in with active denial, then every choice is "forced" in this sense: (J) does not become at all special on this criterion.

    To be sure, if you think (J) is too implausible or the evidence evinced for it is bad, then (J) is a dead hypothesis for you.

    My actual evaluation of (J) is more or less beside the point. We're talking about your assertion that (J) cannot be evaluated on the evidence in the first place. If your thesis is correct, then I must be mistaken that I can come to any conclusion at all on the basis of evidence, regardless of which conclusion I come to. (And you can most definitely call me mistaken without giving offense.)

    To admit that I can come to any conclusion at all on the evidence is to undermine your thesis about what kind of question (J) represents.

    We probably do disagree about the quality of the evidence. But once we start discussing the actual evidence, we have decided to evaluate the question according to evidentialism, which you appear to deny--or at least from which you appear to be attempting to carve out an exception.

    There is simply no objective way to decide whether or not to believe (J), or any other proposition like it.

    This again is the crux of the biscuit and the position I'm arguing against. There is an objective way to evaluate (J), specifically by (a) examining the historical record and (b) examining the assertion in light of scientifically justified universals. Both of which are entirely based on evidentialism.

    Further commentary will have to wait until tomorrow.

  10. I did some more thinking about this last night, and I believe that the problem lies, ironically enough, with the "will to believe." This is the same problem Pascal's Wager runs headlong into. It is cognitively impossible to force yourself to believe something you are not previously disposed to; especially when that something is irrational, in the sense that it is divorced from the evidentiary rules by which we live our lives.

    Larry's point about history raises the issue tangentially: We are prone to believe certain irrational things (by which I mean things which are not physically evident) due to circumstance of culture, history, and the authorities of one's upbringing. The "leap of faith" cannot be divorced from other systemic influences; I don't believe that it can ever be a volitional, and therefore rational, decision.

  11. James,

    I think the "will to believe" is the heart of the problem, but I don't think it's entirely beyond the bounds of volition.

    Brains and minds are curious level-crossing, hierarchy-destroying, strange-loop creating machines. It is both our greatest virtue, allowing us to look at problems in a wide variety of ways, but it's also our greatest vice, allowing us to perform truly irrational thinking.

    I do not hold to the "if you don't work it out consciously, it's irrational" school. Rationality, to me, means conformance with reality. We can have subconscious and preconscious mental processes that are rational notwithstanding their non-conscious nature.

    That said, I suspect that Timmo's thesis is fundamentally circular: The only non evidentiary reason to buy (J) is because you've already bought what (J) entails.

    In other words, for those who have accepted Christian theism for non-evidentiary reasons, (J) is irrelevant--they have already bought what (J) entails--and they buy (J) precisely because it entails what they already believe.

    It is possible that someone might buy Christian theism because they have first bought (J), but those people will buy (J) on the basis of the evidence.

    In neither case is (J) at all "special" in an epistemic sense.

  12. Larry and James,

    I made the point in a previous comment, but it bears repeating in light of your last posts: People can buy into what (J) entails without buying (J) at all. The Jews certainly get alot of the same benefits Chrsitians do since they share many of the same doctrinal sources. Likewise, an agnostic or atheist could happily live a life based on Christian moral philosophy without believing in the resurrection - moreover, if believing Christians are faithful to their ideals of openness and community for all who follow Christ's example, then the these nonbelievers would presumbly enjoy the same fellowship afforded those who believe Jesus was resurrected.

    However, James E. brings up the point that some people simply can't get themselves to believe things they think are silly. Thus Timmo could respond that he himself is unable to follow Christs example in life (and hence reap the benefits) without also believing that Christ was resurrected. Thus, for him to reap the benefits of a Christian life, he must make the leap of faith for Christianity. And hence, for him, agnosticism about Jesus's resurrection is equivalent to non-belief.

    The problem is that holding the benefits of a Christian-believing life as superior to the benefits of a pagan, atheist, or Buddhist life are not forced choices. That evaluation assesses a range of factors including evidence, intuition, and passion - but it isn't forced.

    It might feel forced if you were aready biased in favor of Christianity - say, if you had been raised in the society where the superiority of Christian life was broadly assumed and implicitly inculcated by even casually religious parents. Or if, say, you were emmersed in theological study in a framework of Western religious thought in a field dominated by ruminations and scholarly works highlighting Christianity more than other faiths. Considerations like this add an independent whiff of circularity to nature of W. James's argument.

  13. kipp

    People can buy into what (J) entails without buying (J) at all.

    This is a good point. Your additional point is also spot on: Timmo may well be forcing himself to make this choice, but the choice does not seem at all intrinsically forced.

    This is related to a problem that I didn't quite have fully worked out in my head: Timmo's reformulation of the forced nature of the choice:

    That is, practically speaking, living a life of agnosticism with respect to (J) is the same as living as if (J) were outright false.

    But the premise of the original essay was not that there is a choice between belief and (agnosticism or disbelief), it was that agnosticism itself was excluded, leaving one to choose between a definite position even when the unavailability of the evidence argues against any definite position.

    Agnosticism is not a definite choice about the question itself; even if it might entail the same consequences as active denial it is still different from active disbelief. (Of course, I do maintain that Timmo is mistaken about the agnostic conclusions he draws from the evidence: active denial is the only rational conclusion.)

    I think both our criticisms are valid: Agnosticism--and even active denial (cough Jefferson)--of (J) does not force non-self-identification as Christian or adherence to the better parts of Christian morality.

    And it is also the case that Timmo fails to exclude agnosticism by simply lumping it in with disbelief, even if they did entail different conclusions.

    Your own point, though, is definitely more profound. It makes abundantly clear that Timmo can rationally retain all his own moral and political beliefs even if he were to abandon his conviction about the literal truth of (J). And they might well be even stronger if he holds those moral beliefs on the authority of his own conscience rather than by passing the buck to the resurrection.


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