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.
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Grainge Clarke on the assumptions of science

There’s an excellent article by W. Grainge Clarke on the philosophy of science and how it relates to the Christian worldview.

On the topic of the underlying assumptions of the scientific method, he writes:

“These presuppositions are, by their nature unprovable, and some philosophers would consider them unacceptable. Behind the acceptance of these presuppositions lies the fact that modern science developed when the dominant worldview in Europe was Christian. If the Christian worldview is accepted they all make reasonable sense. However, on the atheistic worldview, that all is the product of matter-energy, time and chance, then none of these presuppositions are justifiable. To consider just one case: ‘The human mind is capable of rational thought’. If the human mind has been developed solely by non rational forces then there is no reason to believe that it can be rational and certainly it is not to be relied upon. Consider two computers one of which was designed and assembled by the IT staff at the local university and the other by the local kindergarten. Which is most likely to function well? Yet the kindergarten children have much more intelligence than blind chance.”

You can find the whole article here:

“Wrong fight, wrong concepts, wrong everything” by Grainge Clarke

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Maths, science and abstractions

Where God meets physics

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God and the “God particle”

The Telegraph has an interesting short piece from Alistair McGrath today. He looks at the parallels between the faith in the Higgs boson and faith in God, both based on explanatory power rather than direct experiemental observation. He concludes:

“Some tell us that science is about what can be proved. The wise tell us it is really about offering the best explanations of what we see, realising that these explanations often cannot be proved, and may sometimes lie beyond proof. Science often proposes the existence of invisible (and often undetectable) entities – such as dark matter – to explain what can be seen. The reason why the Higgs boson is taken so seriously in science is not because its existence has been proved, but because it makes so much sense of observations that its existence seems assured. In other words, its power to explain is seen as an indicator of its truth.

“There’s an obvious and important parallel with the way religious believers think about God. While some demand proof that God exists, most see this as unrealistic. Believers argue that the existence of God gives the best framework for making sense of the world…

“There’s more to God than making sense of things. But for religious believers, it’s a great start.

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Read the rest of the article here:

Higgs boson: the particle of faith

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Doing a little mythbusting…

Hard to believe that in such an intellectually advanced age there are still some who cling tenaciously to the notion that “Jesus was not a real historical figure”, but apparently the light of education has still not penetrated all the deep corners.

Should be unfortunate enough to find yourself accosted by denialists, you may find this essay series by James Hannam useful. Hannam writes in his introduction:

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“The thesis that Jesus never existed has hovered around the fringes of research into the New Testament for at least a century but it has never been accepted as a mainstream theory. This is for good reason. It is simply a bad hypothesis based on arguments from silence, special pleading, and an awful lot of wishful thinking. It is ironic that certain atheists will buy into this idea and leave all their pretensions of critical thinking behind…

In this four-part series, it is not my intention to study the minutiae of the various arguments. Instead, I will focus on three central contentions often advanced in discussions about Jesus. These are 1) the lack of secular references,  2) the alleged similarities to paganism, and 3) the silence of St. Paul.”

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Hannam deals with each of these contentions in a highly readable and well-researched series of essays. Read the rest of Is Jesus Christ a Myth? here:

Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3  |  Part 4

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Hannam holds degrees in physics and history from Oxford and London universities, and his doctorate in the history of science from Cambridge University, and recently published God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, the first history of medieval science written for the layperson. (You can also read more from him at Quodlibeta).

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Related posts:

Faith: reflecting on evidence

A theoretical faith

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A theoretical faith

The title of this post contains a pair of words that can be difficult to nail down. Let’s take them one at a time:

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Theory

In common parlance the word “theory” is used to denote something purely conceptual, usually in contrast to something which has been implemented in the real world. This causes difficulty when referring to scientific theories, because in science, the word carries somewhat different implications. Scientific explanations for observed phenomena start as hypotheses, which are basically conjecture. After more testing and data collection, if the hypothesis appears to be useful in explaining the data and predicting results, confidence in the explanation increases. Once there is a strong weight of supporting evidence, we start to refer to the explanation as a “theory”.

The American National Academy of Sciences describes the distinction in usage thus:

“In everyday language a theory means a hunch or speculation. Not so in science. In science, the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature supported by [data] gathered over time. Theories also allow scientists to make predictions about as yet unobserved phenomena…”

So it is understandable that scientists become frustrated with the dismissal of a scientific theory with phrases like, “oh, it’s just a theory”. This sort of language shows a grave misunderstanding of the subject.

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Faith

Likewise, in common parlance, “faith” is often understood to mean “a belief without evidence”. But in the Christian context, faith carries very different connotations. Theologian Tyron Inbody (in The faith of the Christian church: an introduction to theology) notes three uses of “faith” within Christianity:

  • Assent: we believe that God has revealed Himself to us and can be known personally. This aspect of faith is largely intellectual: we are presented with God’s assertions about Himself (in the Bible, for instance), we decide that they are trustworthy and assert that they are true.
  • Trust: we believe that God will honour His promises, and that He is reliable.
  • Loyalty: we strive to ‘live out our faith’. In this context: “To have faith is… to obey Jesus; it is to be loyal in life and death to the God whom we meet in Jesus Christ.”

Although these three aspects of Christian faith are distinguishable, they are also inseparable. Christian faith is inextricably entwined with understanding: we have knowledge and understanding of God from personal experience, Scripture and the community of believers, and this forms the basis of our trust in God. Inbody writes:

“Faith in the New Testament means belief, specifically belief in God’s Word in Scripture. To have faith is to assent or to give credence; it is to believe. Faith refers to our acceptance of the message of the gospel… Faith means ‘belief in and acceptance of His revelation as true… an act of intellect assenting to revealed truth.”

The Christian faith is not divorced from reason: it is inseparable from reason. But as Thomas Aquinas explained, it is not just an intellectual exercise: it is also an act of will. I decide that certain things are true, and I choose to act on that belief.

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A theoretical faith

Now, why have I put these two difficult words together?

Well, my personal exploration and acceptance of the Christian faith was similar in many ways to the development of a scientific theory. From the tentative hypothesis that Christianity is true, I sought more data with which to test this conjecture. The central elements of Christianity are the claims about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I found the evidence of his death and resurrection convincing enough to explore further.

A scientific theory is a framework which helps to explain observed phenomena. What about Jesus’ life and teachings? Do they make sense of the world I experience?  The framework of Christianity explains the world that I see around me more coherently than any other.

Of course, we should seek to challenge any theory to test its robustness, so I do this with my faith. The “problem of evil” is often considered the biggest counter to Christianity: Given that we observe evil in the world, how can we believe in the existence of a God who is both loving and all-powerful? I explore this question, and I come to a remarkable conclusion: Firstly, I find in Christianity a compelling and convincing framework to explain the coexistence of evil in this world and the Christian understanding of God. Secondly, if I try to remove God from the picture, I don’t even know what the word “evil” means. It turns out that the “challenge” becomes still further support for my beliefs. And so my faith grows. The more that I test it, the more compelling it becomes.

Christianity also claims that we can experience God personally. Here we must move to the “belief in”. I move from a position of intellectual assent and step out: I seek to meet with God through prayer and personal experience. He meets me. The God I encounter personally resonates completely with the God of my intellectual assent. My faith grows.

From my experience, my belief in God, comes my loyalty to God. I have found that if I seek to live my life in accordance with His will and listening to Him, my life is a much better place. He has shown Himself to be faithful and good.

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I do not think that my personal experiences are unusual: in fact, I would say that the process I have described is analogous to the faith of most any Christian. The details will be a bit different, of course. St Paul had a rather more dramatic starting point for his faith, but he still based it on beliefs about God: specifically, beliefs that Jesus was God and that he was resurrected from the dead. Paul’s belief in and loyalty to God were a response to this.

Christian faith intrinsically contains a rational and evidentiary basis. N. T. Wright, the bishop of Durham, writes:

“I cannot… imagine a Christianity in which the would-be Christian has no sense, and never has had any sense, of the presence and love of God, or the reality of prayer, of their everyday, this-worldly life being somehow addressed, interpenetrated, confronted, embraced by a personal being understood as the God we know through Jesus.”

For a final description of faith in a Christian context, I close – as is often the case – with C. S. Lewis. In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes:

“Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.”

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Related posts:

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Believing and understanding

Chesterton on Miracles

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Maths, science and abstractions

I attended a forum last week entitled “Is there certainty beyond science?”. As one of the speakers pointed out, perhaps a useful starting question would be, “Is there certainty within science?”, but the title did raise some interesting questions about what we mean by the words “certainty” and “science”.

Certainly (see what I did there?) there seems to be a common assumption that science at least aims to find certainty in the midst of confusion. The general perception is that science rigorously follows a trail of evidence to reach conclusions which can be claimed with a high degree of confidence. And there are even mechanisms to try and assess the degree of uncertainty in a given scientific theorem (although the willingness of adherents to acknowledge that uncertainty may be somewhat hit-and-miss).

What is often missing from the conversation is the impact of methodological assumptions on the usefulness of the conclusions which result from a particular methodology. Let’s look at mathematics as an extreme example.

Maths operates within the ultimate abstraction. It is a realm of pure ideas. This has advantages: because the system is entirely conceptual, the laws can be rigorously defined. This allows us to “prove” mathematical theorems by conclusively demonstrating a logical consistency. But to apply a mathematical concept to anything real, we must project from the abstraction back to the real world, where we cannot rigorously define the laws. Some of the projections are useful: arithmetic operations are easily projected onto everyday objects (so “3 bananas + 4 bananas” can easily be understood as seven actual bananas). Some projections are less straightforward: the relationship between a second-order differential equation and the acceleration of a car under constant force is not quite as intuitive.

Science also operates within an abstraction. The realm of science is limited by its methodological assumptions, such as philosophical naturalism and the regularity of nature. These assumptions are useful in that they allow us to limit the potential interactions that we investigate to those which are amenable to the tools of science. In other words, we limit what we will accept as an explanation of phenomena, and this allows us to define our area of investigation. But in making these assumptions, we have created an abstraction of the real world, and it is this abstraction that we investigate rather than the real world itself. As in the case of mathematics, the conclusions may or may not be readily suited to being projected back into our understanding of the real world.

It is worth noting that any of our abstractions are only definable from outside the system. We say that mathematics operates within a logically consistent and rigorously defined framework, but its logical consistency cannot be proven mathematically. (This isn’t a case of “It hasn’t been done yet”, this is a case of “It’s impossible even in principle”). We make a working assumption of methodological naturalism when we engage in scientific research, but we cannot scientifically demonstrate the validity of such an assumption.

Perhaps more interestingly, this also implies that we cannot fully define the operational parameters of the real world from within the system.

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Chesterton on Miracles

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Chesterton on Miracles

Another excerpt from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, this time on the subject of miracles:

But my belief that miracles have happened in human history is not a mystical belief at all; I believe in them upon human evidences as I do in the discovery of America. Upon this point there is a simple logical fact that only requires to be stated and cleared up.  Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma.  The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them.  The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder … If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural.  If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things … you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism — the abstract impossibility of miracle.  You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist.  It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence — it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed. But I am not constrained by any creed in the matter, and looking impartially into certain miracles of mediaeval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that they occurred.  All argument against these plain facts is always argument in a circle.  If I say, “Mediaeval documents attest certain miracles as much as they attest certain battles,” they answer, “But mediaevals were superstitious”; if I want to know in what they were superstitious, the only ultimate answer is that they believed in the miracles … Iceland is impossible because only stupid sailors have seen it; and the sailors are only stupid because they say they have seen Iceland.

The sceptic always takes one of the two positions; either an ordinary man need not be believed, or an extraordinary event must not be believed.

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Believing and understanding

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Plus ça change…

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