Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Historical Doubts Concerning P. Z. Myers

Atheist P. Z. Myers has recently articulated the position that there is no way he could ever even conceivably be convinced that God exists. His position is disputed by another atheistic biologist, Jerry Coyne. Myers position is that there is, by definition, no evidence that does or could count for God's existence; Coyne's position is that there is evidence that could count for God's existence, but that, in fact, there isn't any.

Here is Myers summarizing his case:
The nature of this god is always vague and undefined and most annoyingly, plastic — suggest a test and it is always redefined safely away from the risk. Furthermore, any evidence of a deity will be natural, repeatable, measurable, and even observable…properties which god is exempted from by the believers' own definitions, so there can be no evidence for it. And any being who did suddenly manifest in some way — a 900 foot tall Jesus, for instance — would not fit any existing theology, so such a creature would not fit the claims of any religion, but the existence of any phenomenon that science cannot explain would not discomfit science at all, since we know there is much we don't understand already, and adding one more mystery to the multitude will not faze us in the slightest.
So yes, I agree. There is no valid god hypothesis, so there can be no god evidence, so let's stop pretending the believers have a shot at persuading us.
Okay, so his first point is that religious beliefs are stated in such a way as to be non-falsifiable. I dealt yesterday with the similar position of Jerry Coyne, who claims that even the Resurrection is not falsifiable for the strange reason that believers (he asserts) do not defend this claim with reason or evidence. My response was that a) it wouldn't matter to the claim's actual falsifiability how its defenders defended it; and b) that his assertion is false, since there are plenty of defenses of the Resurrection based on reason and evidence. The Resurrection is a falsifiable claim, and waving one's hand and casually dismissing it does not count as a legitimate refutation.

Secondly, Myers says that any evidence for God would have to be "natural, repeatable, measurable, and even observable." The problem with setting the bar so high should be evident. Indeed, under these criteria, something like the Resurrection could not count as evidence for God. The problem is that the Resurrection would not be the only thing that could not be proven under these criteria.

In fact, along with the Resurrection, one would have to reject every other historical fact, even the ones everyone accepts. The assassination of Julius Ceasar is natural, but it is not repeatable, measurable, or even, given that it happened in the past, observable. The Norman Conquest of England is likewise not repeatable, measurable, nor observable. Nor is the existence of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The case of Napoleon has particular historical interest in this regard. When David Hume articulated his influential argument against miracles in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Bishop Richard Whately responded in a book entitled Doubts Concerning the Existence of Napoleon Bonaparte by taking all of the criteria Hume said a miracle would have to meet and applied them to the existence of Napoleon and concluded, tongue firmly planted in cheek, that Napoleon did not exist. Problem was, Napoleon was actually living on the island of Elba, in exile, when Whately wrote the book.

One could perform an equally damning reductio ad absurdum on Myer's criteria. In fact, if we took Myer's criteria and applied them to what he had for breakfast this morning, we would have to say the event never happened. In fact, under Myer's criteria, no event ever happened. The only events that can be accepted are events that are happening, since they are the only ones that are actually observable. Anything that happened in the past must be rejected under this view.

Finally, Myers responds to Coyne by admitting that Coyne's imaginary case of a 900 foot tall Jesus appearing now for all to see would fit the criteria but that no religion actually makes such a claim. He's right, of course. He could have added that it would be hard to say what such an event would actually prove. It doesn't address the central problem of human existence: death. Nor does it prove that there is life after death as does the claim that Christianity does, in fact, make.

And, actually, even that event wouldn't meet Myer's criteria, since it wouldn't be repeatable, and after it had happened and wasn't happening any more it wouldn't be observable either.

If Myers actually had any philosophical sophistication in him, he would make an argument more similar to Gottlieb Lessing, who argued that the contingent truths of history cannot imply anything about the necessary truths of religion. Known as "Lessing's ditch," the argument, fallacious as it was, at least had prima facie plausibility. Myer's ditch on the other hand, is embarrassingly shallow in comparison.

Someone get the man a good shovel.


KyCobb said...


Exactly how would one go about falsifying the Resurrection?

Theoretically, we could determine what Myer's had for breakfast by pumping out the contents of his stomach. Historical facts can be verified by contemporaneous first-person writings and physical evidence: If Napoleon is fictional, most of the 19th Century Western world participated in a vast conspiracy to fool us, with no conceivable motive for doing so. In contrast, the earliest known records of the Resurrection were written at least decades after the fact, and no physical evidence exists.

Anonymous said...

Martin Cothran said...


Napoleon's life was a relatively modern event; Christ's life and acts are an ancient one. How does the evidence for Christ's life compare to other ancient events? Or are we supposed to reject ancient events altogether since there are very few first person writings and physical evidence?

KyCobb said...


There is quite a lot of physical evidence of ancient civilizations-I know you have little interest in science, but archeology is a very robust science with lots of material to work with and more being discovered every day.

BTW, even more recent than Napoleon is the eyewitness testimony of witnesses who saw the Angel Moroni, heard the voice of God and saw the golden plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. By your standards, does that not compel you to the conclusion that the Book of Mormon is the word of God?