From Jerusalem to Salem: A Conversation with Matt McCormick
After being ignored by all the essayists of The End of Christianity for so long it’s nice finally to get a little attention. And now Matt McCormick has responded to my critique … promptly … on a holiday (Labor Day) … courteously … with arguments. Looks like I hit the jackpot.
Thanks for joining us Matt!
Now down to business. Matt has not disputed my claim that his essay has evidence of confirmation bias. So those points stand (for now anyway). Instead, our discussion in the thread has focused on a couple other matters: properly basic belief about the resurrection and the Salem Trial argument. In this post I’m going to engage critically with a couple excerpts from Matt’s comments in the previous thread.
To begin with, Matt provides a very helpful characterization of his argument:
“The Salem Witch Trial argument is directed at someone who thinks that the historical evidence is the sole body of information that is relevant to deciding what is reasonable to think happened in history, not at someone who thinks they can just magically sense historical events in their minds.”
My first observation in response is that this is a rather strange focus for an essay in a book on The End of Christianity. After all, that book aims to provide a case against good old mundane Christian belief, the kind held by pew warmers the world over. But good old mundane Christian belief has never included the belief that “historical evidence is the sole body of information that is relevant to deciding what is reasonable to think happened in history….” So out of the gate McCormick has written an essay which is irrelevant to the stated purpose of the book in which it was included. Perhaps this argument would be of interest to Van Harvey, author of The Historian and the Believer, but it simply isn’t of interest to the vast majority of Christians.
Perhaps Matt would respond “Well it should be.” But this brings me to my second observation: I am confident that Matt McCormick himself does not think “that the historical evidence is the sole body of information that is relevant to deciding what is reasonable to think happened in history”. I know he doesn’t because he isn’t crazy. And it really would be crazy to think this. Don’t believe me? Consider the example I already used (but which was apparently not processed) in my initial critical review:
“Another source of properly basic rational belief is testimony. For example, my history teacher tells me “The last spike in the Canadian railway was driven at Craigellachie in 1885.” Assuming I have no defeaters to that claim, I can accept that testimony in a properly basic way.”
On this account, the way I gain justification for the proposition “The last spike in the Canadian railway was driven at Craigellachie in 1885” is not through historical investigation. I don’t go to the national and provincial archives searching documentation of the event coupled with a site visit to Craigellachie. Rather, my justification for the proposition in question traces to my teacher’s testimony. Nor is Craigellachie an exception in this regard. This is true for almost all of what we reasonably believe (and know) about history. We reasonably believe (and know) it in a properly basic way through the testimony of others. Of course the trust we place in others is prima facie and it can be shown to be mistaken. But absent defeaters it is wholly reasonable to assent to my teacher’s testimony.
Has Matt shown that it is not possible for a Christian to reasonably believe (note that I didn’t say know; I just said reasonably believe) “God raised Jesus from the dead” based on the testimony of others (for example, his pastor and his dad and N.T. Wright and Gary Habermas)? No. He didn’t even try to argue against this kind of properly basic doxastic process.
Let’s spend a bit more time thinking about the Canadian railway example. Where do you think my teacher learned that “The last spike in the Canadian railway was driven at Craigellachie in 1885”? Perhaps from his teacher. And his teacher in turn learned it from another teacher who read it in a book who learned it from another teacher who read it in a book and so on. The train of testimony justification (sorry for the pun) runs all the way back to eye witnesses. It is reasonable for me to believe this even if I cannot trace that unbroken line. (Indeed, nobody can trace it.)
If I have reason to believe there was such a train in the case of Christian belief as well running back to eye witnesses (some of the evidence for which Richard Bauckham lays out in Jesus and the Eye Witnesses) then why can I not reasonably believe “God raised Jesus from the dead” by the same doxastic process (testimony) that I believe the above mentioned Craigellachie factoid?
Now you might protest “But presumably there is evidence that 1885 Craigellachie was the site for the final spike. So if you want to you can confirm the proposition in question apart from the train of justification.” Yes, but nonetheless you don’t need to confirm it independently to believe it reasonably. Moreover, even if the original primary source evidence that is contained in provincial archives and elsewhere was lost, you could still reasonably believe it based on the train of testimony.
Note how different this is from Matt’s tendentious characterization of the position I presented. He described “someone who thinks they can just magically sense historical events in their minds.” This is a strange caricature. Here’s putting the shoe on the other foot. Imagine that Alfonso the atheist says he believes morality is a social construction. I don’t know whether Matt agrees with that or not, but I suspect he would find it distasteful if a Christian caricatured Alfonso’s views by saying “Oh you think you can just magically make up morality in your mind!” That’s not what Alfonso said. And I never said I magically sense historical events in my mind. I said you can gain justification for believing a proposition about history from testimony. You don’t have to limit yourself to first-order historical evidence.
Perhaps Matt is aiming his quip not at me and what I wrote but rather at Alvin Plantinga with his reference to doxastic mechanism called the sensus divinitatis and a doxastic process called the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit. That’s another conversation however. I’ve only appealed to testimony. But even if I had referenced the sensus divinitatis, it is hardly fair to marginalize it because it is “magical” (which I take to be code for “a process we don’t understand”). After all, as Matt knows, there is no agreement on how rational intuition works. I remember when I read Laurence BonJour’s In Defense of Pure Reason (Cambridge University Press, 1998). It is a first rate book by a first rate analytic epistemologist. But wow, is it ever “magical”. Philosophers have a habit of getting “magical” whenever they attempt to engage at a fundamental level with protean concepts like synthetic a priori knowledge, reference, property exemplification, et cetera. So I must say that Matt’s magical comments ring hollow.
Now for Matt’s second comment:
“I can sum up what I take to be the central matter pretty simply. First, do you or don’t you believe on the basis of the historical evidence available to us that the people who were tried and convicted of witchcraft at Salem actual possessed magical powers? Second, do you or don’t you believe on the basis of the historical evidence that is available to us that Jesus was resurrected from the dead? I have argued that answering yes to both questions is consistent, but it is adopting too liberal a standard for historical arguments concerning supernatural claims. Answering no to the first question and yes to the second is ad hoc and can only be defending with special pleading that is unreasonable given the poor quality and quantity of evidence we have concerning Jesus. Answering no to both questions is consistent and reasonable given the evidence we have. Some of the other issues are interesting, but I didn’t intend them to distract from the main Salem argument.”
I agree that there is more primary evidence available from the Salem trials than the death of Jesus. That’s indisputable. But the salient question is this: what is the most satisfactory explanation of all the available data? That is, which explanation maximizes consilience? I don’t think the best explanation for the Salem trials is demon possession or magic or otherwise supernatural, not least because it is quite easy to identify natural psychological and sociological factors which were operative and can provide a satisfactory explanation. But I am not aware of a comparable unified consilient explanation for the Jesus event and so Matt’s Salem argument is not compelling for me at all.
Now of course Matt will disagree not least because we approache the evidence within different plausibility structures. I approach the evidence as a theist, while Matt approaches it as an atheist. And these different starting points inevitably shape the credibility we grant to various possible reconstructions of the data. But if Matt wants to argue the atheological case, he has to show that my plausibility structure is crucially deficient. He hasn’t.
This means that Matt’s argument fails on both counts: It fails to show that the belief that “God raised Jesus from the dead” cannot be reasonably believed as properly basic and it fails to show it cannot be reasonably believed as an abduction from the available historical evidence.