How not to argue about the resurrection

Since it’s Easter, I’ve been having a few discussions around the resurrection of Jesus (see Luke 24 for one account). One of the discussions involved my interlocutor arguing that the resurrection would require complete suspension of the laws of physics, and thus must be discounted. His idea was that the best explanation was “mass delusions and a series of hallucinations”.

I think it’s important to distinguish in what capacity we make different statements. As individual human beings we tend to be multifaceted; within specific disciplines, we must narrow our range of possibilities. Science, for instance, explores natural phenomena within the known universe. History explores multiple strands of evidence (some scientific, some not) to investigate and understand events in the human past. Psychology tries to unravel the curious workings of the human mind. Each of these is limited in scope, but powerful within its field.

So if you say:

“There was someone there who looked like Jesus and they assumed it was him and wanted to see him, so that is what they reported to a group primed to hear that.”

…then a psychologist with an understanding of actual delusions could say, “That is a very implausible explanation, that’s not how delusions and hallucinations work given the numbers of people involved and the fervour with which they retained those beliefs for the rest of their lives.”

The psychologist, speaking as a psychologist, could not say much about the physical laws involved or the reliability of the gospel manuscripts, that is not their proper domain.

And if you go on to say:

“You have to remain skeptical of all science if you are happy to have the natural world encapsulated by higher laws, apparently undiscoverable, which can inject random data at any juncture.”

…you are forcing a scientific explanation into a phenomenon which is not amenable to science. The resurrection (if that’s what happened) was a one-off event in the distant past, we have no physical evidence that can be scientifically investigated. The best we can do as scientists is to say, “How might this phenomenon have happened? Can it be reproduced?”

And the answer is, “There is no mechanism or operation of physical law that we can conceive of that would produce this effect.” And that’s pretty much the end of where the scientific approach can take us.

What we must be careful not to do is to confuse “undiscovered physical laws” (which would in principle be amenable to science) with supernatural agency (which, by definition, would not).

The eye-witness accounts, and the belief at the core of Christianity, is that this was not an event that can be explained by natural laws. It was direct supernatural intervention.

As a scientist, I can only respond to that with, “You’re right that it can’t be explained by natural laws, and any possible supernatural is outside my field.” (As a Christian, I can also have other responses).

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3 thoughts on “How not to argue about the resurrection

  1. the resurrection would require complete suspension of the laws of physics, and thus must be discounted

    Absolutely correct in that it must be discounted as a natural phenomenon.

    Which, if you think about it, only supports the case.

  2. … assuming it happened, which rather raises the question, is the event likely to have happened?

    Well, if you’re going to use the line of reasoning that because it’s impossible it is therefore evidence for a miracle, then we’ve left the playing field of what’s rational and have staked our claim in the field of the irrational. That’s why there continues to be this silly and badly confused notion that the resurrection is an explanation about a supposedly missing body and is therefore <i.evidence for divine intervention.

    It’s not. The resurrection is just another claim.

    We can make claims no matter how ludicrous or outlandish or imaginary as we want until the cows come home and it won;t increase our knowledge acquisition whatsoever.

    The resurrection is just another claimed effect about gods and magical properties devoid of any knowledge value because it has no link to the supposed cause… this divine agency going about reanimating dead cells. That’s why claims about the supernatural, claims beyond the physical, remain claims devoid of knowledge value and are not – as falsely advertised – in any way knowledgeable explanations. They remain claims for which all the explanatory work still lies before those who think they are actually the case, actually possible explanations.

    In fact, such claims that have no link between the offered claim and the selected effects for it are equivalent in all ways to what we call in medical terminology delusional. That many others share in the delusion – now bumped up by these numbers to be a religious belief – doesn’t alter it delusional character one iota, doesn’t magically turn an empty claim into a meaningful explanation that has any knowledge value whatsoever. Belief in the resurrection is a belief without any rational basis.

    • then we’ve left the playing field of what’s rational and have staked our claim in the field of the irrational

      That is an irrational claim.

      The resurrection is just another claim.

      No. It was predicted in advance and witnessed by hundreds of people.

      We can make claims no matter how ludicrous or outlandish or imaginary as we want until the cows come home and it won;t increase our knowledge acquisition whatsoever.

      Your statement proves itself.

      The resurrection is just another claimed effect about gods and magical properties devoid of any knowledge value because it has no link to the supposed cause…

      What is this “knowledge value” nonsense? There is no claim about gods or magical properties. Please try to be more informed.

      this divine agency going about reanimating dead cells

      Nothing of the kind. Please try to be more informed.

      In fact, such claims that have no link between the offered claim and the selected effects for it are equivalent in all ways to what we call in medical terminology delusional.

      Belief in the resurrection is a belief without any rational basis.

      Is your argument then delusional? Because it meets your self-proclaimed criteria.

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