XFiles Friday: No stinkin’ evidence.

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 12.)

Last week, Geisler and Turek began their defense against the principle that “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.” They took a scattershot approach, first arguing that this was an unreasonable demand, then adopting a most peculiar definition of “extraordinary” in order to build a straw man they could easily cast down, then attempting to argue (unsuccessfully) that they did have extraordinary evidence after all.

This week, they try and turn the tables, arguing that skeptics themselves believe in extraordinary claims without having any extraordinary evidence.

We don’t need “extraordinary” evidence to believe something. Atheists affirm that from their own worldview. They believe in the Big Bang not because they have “extraordinary” evidence for it but because there is good evidence that the universe exploded into being out of nothing. Good evidence is all you need to believe something. However, atheists don’t have even good evidence for some of their own precious beliefs. For example, atheists believe in spontaneous generation and macroevolution on faith alone. We say faith alone because, as we saw in chapters 5 and 6, there’s not only little or no evidence for spontaneous generation and macroevolution, but there’s strong evidence against those possibilities.

Let’s count how many things Geisler and Turek manage to distort, misrepresent, or otherwise get wrong in these brief seven sentences.

  1. Nobody is saying “We need extraordinary evidence to believe something.” The point G&T purport to address is that extraordinary evidence is needed to believe extraordinary claims, not just any old claims.
  2. There is no such thing as an “atheistic worldview,” any more than there is a “people-who-do-not-believe-in-Santa worldview,” or a “people-who-do-not-like-Bruce-Lee-movies worldview.” Atheists are a diverse group with diverse views, having in common only their lack of belief in the deities promoted by men.
  3. Not only is there not “good evidence that the universe exploded into being out of nothing,” there is no evidence for this at all. Geisler and Turek simply have a very naive and very wrong image of what the Big Bang is, and what evidence ought to accompany it.
  4. The Big Bang theory, despite its picturesque name, is not a literal explosion, as in a sudden release of energy forcefully propelling matter out in all directions. The Big Bang is a sudden, rapid expansion of space itself, which is why there is no center to the universe.
  5. The Big Bang theory says that time, space, and matter/energy all originate in the same singularity, not that they all originate in “nothing.”
  6. Because time and the material universe had the same origin, it can truthfully be said that the universe has no “beginning,” since there was never a time when it did not exist.
  7. Saying that “good” evidence is all we need begs the question of what it takes for the evidence to be “good”. In the case of extraordinary claims, mere hearsay is not good evidence.
  8. Atheists are not the only people who believe in abiogenesis and evolution.
  9. Not all atheists believe in abiogenesis and evolution.
  10. Abiogenesis is not spontaneous generation, just as sexual reproduction is not cloning. They may produce similar results, but the two processes are significantly different, and occur under different circumstances. Spontaneous generation refers to maggots, rodents, and other complex creatures magically poofing into existence out of decaying meat, wheat fields, etc.
  11. Macroevolution is not a distinct process from evolution (or microevolution). The term macroevolution refers to the cumulative effects of microevolution over longer periods of time.
  12. Atheists do not take evolution on faith alone, as shown by the number of theistic evolutionists.
  13. Scientists, whether atheistic or theistic, do not regard abiogenesis as a proven conclusion, since there is currently no working model for how it would operate. Abiogenesis is simply the alternative whose possibilities are the most consistent with the evidence we have so far.
  14. Chapters 5 and 6 proved only that Geisler and Turek are willing and even eager to prostitute their limited understanding of science in order to promote a biased conclusion.

Ok, so they have about twice as many goofs, distortions and outright falsehoods as there are sentences in their paragraph. So much for turning the tables on the skeptics! But wait, there’s more:

Furthermore, skeptics don’t demand “extraordinary” evidence for other “extraordinary” events from history. For example, few events from ancient history are more “extraordinary” than the accomplishments of Alexander the Great (356-323 B. C.). Despite living only 33 years, Alexander achieved unparalleled success. He conquered much of the civilized world at the time… Yet how do we know this about Alexander? We have no sources from his lifetime or soon after his death. And we have only fragments of two works from about 100 years after his death. The truth is, we base virtually everything we know about the “extraordinary” life of Alexander the Great from historians who wrote 300 to 500 years after his death! In light of the robust evidence for the life of Christ, anyone who doubts Christ’s historicity should also doubt the historicity of Alexander the Great. In fact, to be consistent, such a skeptic would have to doubt all of ancient history.

Speaking of consistency, it’s hard to see how Alexander’s life is “extraordinary” if, as Geisler and Turek argued last week, the term “extraordinary” means “repeatable in a laboratory.” But I digress.

Geisler and Turek’s approach in the above paragraph is a simple equivocation on the meaning of “extraordinary.” Alexander’s life is “extraordinary” in the sense that few people are both emperors and generals, and fewer still achieve the same kind of success as Alexander did. This is “extraordinary” in the simple sense of being “rare.” We’re not talking about an Alexander the Great who achieved his military success by magically growing into an 80-foot-tall giant who literally stomped the opposition, or an Alexander who could make his men invulnerable just by pinching his nose. We’re not talking, in other words, about “extraordinary” in the sense of “contrary to and in violation of the apparent limits imposed by natural law.”

Notice, too, the defective view of “evidence” proposed by Geisler and Turek. In their view, only written accounts are evidence. This is the apologist’s emphasis, once again, on the mandate that we must put our faith in the words of men. There is no place, in their verbally-based standard of evidence, for considering things like the sudden establishment of the Greek language as a multinational common tongue, or widely distant cities named (*ahem*) “Alexandria,” or the difference between early documents not existing today and early documents not existing period, or the deductive approach we can take by comparing records across disparate traditions.

More importantly, Geisler and Turek fail to ask the important question of why some witnesses might be more questionable than others, even despite an apparent chronological advantage. The documents Geisler and Turek cite as being “robust evidence” for the life of Christ consists entirely of the claims of men, some some allegedly first-hand, some hearsay, all written by evangelists, by zealous proponents for a particular dogma, men who by G&T’s own testimony were so committed to their version of things that they were willing to die for it. Neutral, unbiased historians? Come on!

The history of Alexander the Great is documented by a huge amount of corollary anthropological information on the spread of Greek culture and civilization that followed after him, and there is currently no good reason to doubt that his story, though rarely repeated, is entirely within the realm of ordinary mortals exercising purely natural leadership skills and exploiting military, political, and economic opportunities to their own advantage. No one would use the life of Alexander as proof that the Greek pantheon were all real gods. His life wasn’t that kind of “extraordinary.”

The story of the life of Christ, however, involves quite a bit more. It’s not just that people only occasionally rise from the dead as immortal deities, nor is it a question of this alleged resurrection being witnessed and testified to outside the immediate circle of die-hard believers, no matter when their testimonies were written. There is, I believe, sufficient evidence to document that a man named Jesus did exist, and did form the core of what eventually became Christianity. The key claims of the Gospel, however—up to and including the so-called resurrection—are “extraordinary” in the extreme sense of not being at all consistent with what you and I can see in the real world. The story is much more consistent, in fact, with the conclusion that spiritually-minded Christians fooled themselves first, before turning to fool others with their oral and written words.

Ultimately, the “robust evidence” Geisler and Turek refer to consists exclusively of men making claims that are unsupported by the evidence. The early date at which they made these claims does not change the fact that the nature of this “evidence” is that it consists of unsupported claims.

Alexander’s career, by contrast, had a huge impact on ancient civilization, and is the reason that, for example, the New Testament was written in Greek instead of in the native language of the people that wrote it. Granted, there is similar evidence for the accomplishments of Christians in the years following Jesus, but this is all evidence of what the men said and did, not evidence that the “miracles” of the first century were anything more than the “miracles” we see today (which consist of men talking themselves into believing they’ve experienced something other observers cannot detect).

Geisler and Turek close this section by repeating the tired canard that “atheists just don’t want to believe,” which they “rebut” by repeating their earlier (somewhat backwards) claims that we know miracles are possible because God exists.

Why do skeptics demand “extraordinary” evidence for the life of Christ but not the life of Alexander the Great? Because they’re hung up on miracles again. Despite the fact that miracles are possible because God exists—and despite the fact that miracles were predicted and then witnessed—skeptics can’t bear to admit that miracles have actually occurred. So they set the bar for believability to high. It’s as if some skeptics are saying, “I won’t believe in miracles because I haven’t seen one. If the resurrected Jesus were to appear to me, then I would believe in him.” Now that would be extraordinary evidence.

Finally, after all that flailing around, Geisler and Turek stumble onto the truth. The extraordinary claim is that Jesus rose from the dead. The extraordinary evidence that would be consistent with that claim would be for a risen Jesus to show up for someone besides fanatical believers to see. Geisler and Turek could have saved themselves a lot of fumbling around by simply admitting the truth up front.

Alas, they’re only playing at devil’s advocate here, and having raised the subject of the genuine “extraordinary” evidence that would fit their extraordinary claim, they can’t wait to jump away from it.

It certainly would be extraordinary, but is it really necessary? Does Jesus have to appear to every person in the world to make his claims credible? Why would he? We don’t have to witness every event firsthand in order to believe the event actually occurred. In fact, it would be physically impossible to do so. We believe the testimony of others if they are trustworthy individuals, and especially if their testimony is corroborated by other data. This is exactly the case with the testimony of the New Testament writers.

Once again, they take a reasonable standard of evidence, and try to twist it into some kind of unreasonable demand by taking it to unreasonable extremes. Instead of Jesus just showing up in real life after his resurrection, Geisler and Turek take us straight to the extreme of Jesus has to personally appear to every person in the world, which would be physically impossible, right? I mean, Jesus would have to be God or something.

But it’s not either/or. We don’t have to choose between “Jesus appears to every person” and “Jesus doesn’t appear at all.” President Obama does not personally visit each and every person in the world individually, yet (unlike Jesus) he shows up in real life enough to establish as factual the conclusion that he exists. Jesus, unfortunately, can’t quite live up to a standard set so high.

They close by repeating their earlier claim that God can’t show up in real life without committing a sin against our free will.

Furthermore, as we pointed out in chapter 8, if God were too overt because of frequent miraculous displays, then he might, in some cases, infringe on our free will. If the purpose of this life  is to allow us to freely make choices that will prepare us for eternity, then God will give us convincing evidence but not compelling evidence of his existence and purposes.

As they declared before, this means God can only give us a Book, and can’t actually do any of the miracles that are claimed by the Book. To go beyond a mere tale would be to infringe on our free will by allowing us to make informed and truth-based choices, instead of having to rely solely on gullibility and faith in the words of men. Sigh.

Thus, Geisler and Turek come to their feeble, hand-waving conclusion. Having done everything to distract us from the real evidence which would actually support the claims of the Gospel, when they finally do confront it, they have to implicitly concede that they do not have this evidence, and then pretend we don’t really need it anyway. In a book whose entire premise is that the evidence is on the Christian’s side, Geisler and Turek end up pleading, “We don’t need no stinkin’ evidence, we can just put our faith in whatever unsubstantiated claims men try to sell us.”

Like I said before, they could have saved themselves a lot of fumbling if they’d just admitted up front that they have no answer for the problem of extraordinary claims demanding extraordinary evidence. When it comes right down to it, they evidence they really need is precisely the evidence they don’t have, because neither the Father nor the Son actually shows up in real life. And that’s been the apologist’s problem for the past 2,000 years.

 
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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 108 Comments »

108 Responses to “XFiles Friday: No stinkin’ evidence.”

  1. cl Says:

    I didn’t ‘run off’ to fetch Dan here. I assume he traced back the link I posted.

    Well then I stand corrected, and see jim – it’s that easy. As far as the actual arguments are concerned, this is an irrelevant technicality. Either way, the rest of what I said remains true. I demonstrated that I did not commit the inconsistencies you alleged. Stating the fact of the controversy followed by one’s opinions is not the same as stating one’s opinions while omitting the fact of the controversy. If you can’t see that, I can’t help you.

    Then, you spouted off about your “fairly informed and interesting criticism of Mr. Moran’s position” – which also happens to be mine. You were clearly trying to discredit our position, and you said as much yourself when you called it “minority.” Then, you accused me of cherry-picking when I pointed out that the article you claimed was an “informed criticism” of Moran’s position was *actually* an informed concession of Moran’s position – which also happens to be mine. Then, I correctly accused you of cherry-picking, because you only included the portions of the link where Dan was initially disagreeing with Moran, and not the latter parts of the link where Dan explicitly concedes Moran’s point. You didn’t like that too much, and of course, that can’t be right, because that would mean cl is right and jim is wrong, and that’s simply not an acceptable option no matter what – so as you were in the middle of teasing me presumably to avoid cognitive dissonance, the author of the article shows up and tells everyone that “Yes” – what I’ve been saying all along is true – that there is legitimate debate on the sufficiency of microevolution – with himself, Moran, MacNeill, Freidenker, nal and myself all in agreement.

    How do those inconvenient facts affect your “minority opinion” claims, jim? I’ll answer for you: These facts demolish your “minority opinion” claims. Again, for reasons known only to yourselves, you and R.C. Moore tried to make it look like I was some dumb creationist simply “parroting” the “minority opinion” – but the majority of experts have now agreed with me and completely undermined your arguments.

    That’s my four experts to your zero, and since you don’t seem privy, the keynote definition of trolling is making preposterous arguments in bad faith – not making cogent arguments in good faith and winning them.

  2. Dan Says:

    Jim,
    Sorry for the delay in my response. You asked, “In other words, can’t we choose to see everything as a buildup of microevolutionary processes if we consider the whole theatre of change as a whole, as a single process?”

    This IS where it becomes less straightforward, because in a sense, yes, but in another sense, no.

    As you note, more basic processes are still occurring above the species level, such as selection and drift. But how then do incipient species stop interbreeding, enabling divergence? Reproducive, behavioral, geographic and/or ecological divisions must occur within a species for it to become two or more species, as you know. While these are necessarily selective/drift-related phenomena, the concepts of selection and drift do not themselves encompass the division of populations, only the anagenesis of them. Additional concepts need to be invented to explain the establishment of clades.

    At least that’s how I’ve come to view the dilemna.

    Cl,
    No worries on the discussion of who thinks who is an ass. :-) As with your discussion with Jim, frustration sometimes gets the better of all of us; you, me, Moran, and others all included. I know I’ve long since let it go, except for remembering that it was MacNeill who was the one who helped me understand where I was wrong when I so strongly thought I was right. The point is that in the end it doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong, it matters what you’ve learned, or whether you’ve helped another learn something.

    In short, guys, let it go as to who is right and who is wrong.

  3. Dan Says:

    Jim,
    I was thinking, and perhaps I should add to my simple statement that “While these are necessarily selective/drift-related phenomena… Additional concepts need to be invented to explain the establishment of clades,” especially regarding your mention of emergent properties.

    Wilkins describes an emergent property is simply a property that we have trouble computing or predicting from a knowledge of the constituent parts. He then goes on to vaguely describe mechanisms. I would add to that by referencing allopatric and sympatric modes of speciation, encompassing what I’d mentioned as reproducive, behavioral, geographic and/or ecological divisions which must occur for speciation to occur.

    I don’t know how much you know about allopatric vs. sympatric speciation discussions. But this is an entire area where there has (over the last 150 years) been much disagreement on amongst biologists. Is geographic isolation necessary for speciation to occur? Is ecological specialization sufficient for speciation to occur? These are prime examples of factors other than either selection or drift that are commonly discussed as mechanisms of “macroevolution”.

    I think that may be of additional help in your search for higher-order mechanisms of evolutionary change.

  4. Freidenker Says:

    Bah, it’s getting really hard to follow this comment thread, it’s gone Pharyngul-esque.

    cl –

    Anyhow, I’m surprised that you didn’t spot that one, since last time I commented I mentioned you didn’t address my “abiogenesis dissent”, so to speak – and you mentioned it yourself when you replied. I’m not gonna copy my original comment again, since I think that by now you’ve figured out what I was referring to.

    Other than that, I gotta admit that the heated discussion here is making it very hard to understand where the fault lies – and that stands for both sides…

    I realize that there is some controversy regarding metaphysics and the supernatural, etc. – but I really don’t see how that kind of controversy can be resolved. I see people who are willing to believe in things without substantiating those beliefs as a certain kind of people, and there’s nothing unique about them, other than the fact that they’re different than me in that respect.

    I’m not saying that you’re like them, since I have no idea what your say was in the matter – but I am saying is that ultimately, if someone is willing to believe in something that doesn’t have explicit evidence for it, then he can be my guest – the scientific method is not the only way to understand the universe, it’s just the method I prefer.

  5. cl Says:

    Freidenker,

    I agreed with your abiogenesis comments, and I understand if my response got missed. Did you see this?

    As far as your abiogenesis thing, I did read that, and fully agreed with it, so that explains my absence of comment, I guess. I liked your comment a lot, actually. I think it’s intellectually honest, and I wish you would have been my sophomore biology teacher. Creationists aren’t the only ones pushing false conclusions based off distorted readings of evidence, but that’s an entirely different discussion, one I’m not willing to pursue here. (cl)

    My only question was why you labeled the comments, “an approach,” and what position you considered them an approach towards or against. That’s all.

  6. John Morales Says:

    cl:

    That’s my four experts to your zero, and since you don’t seem privy, the keynote definition of trolling is making preposterous arguments in bad faith – not making cogent arguments in good faith and winning them.

    Please, spare my irony meter.

  7. Freidenker Says:

    Cl – I guess I missed it. This comment section is getting confusing. I know people are gonna hate me for that, but I’ve always been a fan of threaded comments. Maybe it’s because the first blog I had had them.

    Anyway, I don’t know of any biologists who push abiogenesis as fact. Last year, RNA-world abiogenesis was mentioned in my introduction to Zoology class and this was treated as a hypothesis going through research. The evidence was quite intriguing, but nobody implicated that “this is how it happened”.

    Uh, by “approach” I mean “not believe in abiogenesis on faith alone” or something like that. I got the idea that you thought that atheists believe in abiogenesis on faith alone or something like that. I’m not exactly sure how you’d put it. Here, I gave you an example (myself) of an atheist who doesn’t “buy into abiogenesis on faith alone”. I have no problem being agnostic (hah) about topics I don’t understand.

    That includes the big bang, too, btw. Since I don’t know the details about the big bang, I can’t say I “know” how the universe began. I’m assuming that since the big bang is scientifically consensual, then it’s probably true. There’s nothing wrong with standing on the shoulders of giants.

  8. cl Says:

    Freidenker,

    This comment section is getting confusing. I know people are gonna hate me for that, but I’ve always been a fan of threaded comments.

    Curiously, threaded comments proved more troublesome for guests of my blog. Perhaps I’ll return to my ultra-anal technique of timestamping all citations? It’s tedious, and takes extra time, but it sure can be helpful.

    I don’t know of any biologists who push abiogenesis as fact.

    Well, I don’t either, and if I said that anywhere, I misspoke. Incidentally, like Ma and Mi, people often mean different things when they say abiogenesis, which creationists tend to conflate with spontaneous generation, something Redi and others have sufficiently disproven. In the context of aminos organizing into proteins, and the role of nucleic acid, then no, abiogenesis is not fact. I’d say the evidence and research are promising though, and we’ll probably jump the hurdle in knowledge very soon. In fact, it might be more accurate to say we’ve already jumped and are just waiting to land.

    ..by “approach” I mean “not believe in abiogenesis on faith alone” or something like that. I got the idea that you thought that atheists believe in abiogenesis on faith alone or something like that.

    Okay, makes sense now. No, I didn’t make that argument at all, and if anyone got that implication from something I said, please, point me to it. That’s an elementary rhetorical argument that really obfuscates a stronger logical argument, which is why people trust the validity of their senses. But I don’t want to get into that. Not here at least.

    I have no problem being agnostic (hah) about topics I don’t understand. That includes the big bang, too, btw. Since I don’t know the details about the big bang, I can’t say I “know” how the universe began.

    Honestly, I love how candid and honest you are. My formal education is stronger in Astronomy than Biology, and I still agree with you. Although I had no gripe with 5, what you just said was much of the reasoning behind my disagreement with DD’s 6.

    There’s nothing wrong with standing on the shoulders of giants.

    cl tips hat.