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Replying to Findo’s 12 Facts #1.1: An update

by Findo on November 20th, 2010

If you haven’t already read the intro to this series, please click here.

After my post on the 1st ‘fact’, Andrew replied with 12 Facts Redux (and you can see from the discussion on that page, I still owe a reply about the authorship and dating of the NT documents). I’ve already responded in detail to his ‘Chinese Whispers‘ objection, however I think he threw a bit of a game-changer in:

In fact, if my dear readers were to revisit the original post they might see I do not have any real objections to any of the “12 facts”.  What I have serious problems with are the explanations which require the supernatural.

Well, I’m not so sure. Readers of the original post will immediately see a number of comments which indicate that the very existence of Jesus was under question, as well as, of course, the details of the crucifixion, to which I’ve already responded to. In any case, we can see from this remark that the real issue then is not with the historicity of the 12 facts, but whether they constitut sufficient evidence for an historical supernatural event. Andrew seems to be invoking Hume’s old axiom that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  I’m not convinced by Hume’s axiom – I think claims need persuasive evidence, though what is going to be persuasive is certainly going to be influenced by whatever prior assumptions we might hold. I intend to look at this axiom in more detail down the track.

Andrew continues:

To be crystal clear, I am not denying the possibility of supernatural explanations … but why are they considered more likely than perfectly rational and reasonable naturalistic events?

As I already outlined, none of these 12 facts are particularly stunning.  Nor do I see any requirement to explain them all with a single encompassing framework.  These are isolated events, not different accounts of critical moments in history which demand historians weight the evidence and arrive at consensus.

Oops – he seems to be begging the question there with ‘rational & reasonable’, but let’s ignore that and take the point that he’s speaking of naturalistic explanations. I think it comes back to the criteria of argument to best explanation, which is summed up by McCullagh:

if the scope and strength of an explanation are very great, so that it explains a large number and variety of facts, many more than any competing explanation, then it is likely to be true.

So that is why an all-encompassing explanation is preferred – because it is the normal methodology. As I’ve said before, if someone can provide a naturalistic explanation that can actually account for the 12 facts, then great; but I’m yet to see one that actually has sufficient scope and power. To suggest that these 12 facts are isolated events is simply mistaken. They are clearly connected and related to a central event, and thus, the argument to best explanation criteria remain. If one is not denying the possibility of the supernatural as Andrew claims, then one cannot disregard it a priori. I completely understand that if a naturalistic explanation fulfils the criteria as well as a supernatural one, then it is preferable – we could consider a priori probability in that case. But if a naturalistic explanation doesn’t fulfil the criteria as well, then why should it be preferred? To my mind that is simply imposing prior philosophical assumptions. However, let’s not jump the gun – we’ll come back to conclusions once we’ve looked at all the 12 points.

Now, recognising that the issue is not actually the facts themselves, but the explanation of them, and the Humean assumptions about what kind of evidence is required for such a claim, it’s worth questioning whether it’s worth continuing this series. If Andrew has ‘no real objection’ to these facts, why continue defending them? Well, the objections he did make (and which he now appears to have retracted) are not exactly original and come up not infrequently, so I will keep going using his original remarks as a kind of generalised example of such objections. As such, I don’t expect Andrew to necessarily respond, though he is of course most welcome to do so if he wishes.

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