On putting Matt McCormick’s argument to rest
Let me summarize my arguments against Matt McCormick’s argument to this point. I will then quote his most recent full response and offer a final comment that engages his Salem argument.
So first off, where we’ve come so far. As I noted, the central issue was the issue of rational belief. In particular, is it possible for a Christian to believe rationally that God raised Jesus from the dead? McCormick aims to argue that it isn’t rational to believe this. To that end he dismisses appeals to proper basicality while charging that historical evidence fails to establish this thesis in a non-basic evidentialist way.
In my original post I responded in three ways. To begin with I pointed out that McCormick fails to represent the arguments of his Christian interlocutors accurately. This is significant because it means that he fails to appreciate the strength of the historical evidence for the resurrection. (For example, Matt completely ignores 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, an inexcusable omission.) And in failing to do that he has failed to provide an accurate comparison between the evidence for the resurrection and the Salem evidence for witches.
Next, I argued that McCormick’s depiction of the way that historians form hypotheses about the past lacks critical nuance. This creates big problems for Matt, for a person cannot offer a general comparison of the evidence for the resurrection and the evidence for the presence of witches in Salem without noting that people always assess this kind of evidence against a background set of beliefs. If a person believes, for example, that God exists but witches do not, then one will assess the evidence differently from a person who believes that neither God nor witches exist, or from a person who believes both God and witches exist. Unfortunately for McCormick, once we recognize that crucial fact, we must concede there can be no simplistic comparison between the rationality of belief in both cases. But this is fatal to the argument that Matt is proposing.
Finally, I pointed out that McCormick’s evidentialist argument leaves unaddressed the way most Christians believe in the resurrection, namely through a basic doxastic process like testimony. His argument only deals with an evidentialist way of knowing and thus is irrelevant to most Christians.
McCormick has offered a response to none of these arguments. Instead, he complained that I didn’t engage with the Salem argument. Apparently he didn’t notice that I blew out its foundation twice over by undercutting the notion that you can simply compare the rationality of belief in these two different hypotheses and by pointing out that his argument leaves properly basic belief untouched. So while McCormick has suggested that my various responses to his argument are somehow irrelevant, they’ve actually been right on the mark.
Now we have yet another response. McCormick writes:
Hmmm, well, this really doesn’t get to the core issues of my argument. One exercise that I run with my students is to have them spend time at the outset of an essay giving a clear, charitable, and accurate reconstruction of the author’s arguments they wish to criticize. I’m still not seeing anything like that in these posts. There is a lot of discussion of what I take to be irrelevant side issues. And I just don’t have the time, or frankly the interest, to pursue those. I could restate some of the argument, but it’s there in the chapter. It’s hard to tell, but it appears that in response to the Salem argument, you are taking the response that it is reasonable to reject magic at Salem, but it is reasonable to believe that the resurrection happened in Jerusalem. I have outlined several problems with that approach in the chapter, and I don’t think any of those have been addressed here, but maybe I missed them. I don’t think the chapter is so poorly written that they can’t be found, so I guess I’d just ask that you focus your attention on those and try to give a charitable and accurate reconstruction before offering the critical responses.
Let’s take our time going through that comment. McCormick begins with the charge that I have failed to present his argument clearly, charitably and accurately. This is a puzzling objection for many reasons. To begin with, it is puzzling because I began my review by summarizing McCormick’s argument in four propositions. By doing that I think I actually summarized his argument more succinctly than he did in his original paper. Nor did he take issue with that summary, so I take it he agrees with it. So why is he complaining? I did him a favor.
Matt’s objection is surprising, indeed it is ironic, for two other reasons. To begin with, as I already established McCormick fails to present the views of N.T. Wright in a way that is charitable and accurate. In fact, he explicitly imputes to Wright a view he never holds, thereby creating a strawman.
Actually, Matt also reduced my views of proper basicality and history to a strawman as well. So while he reduces the views of his opponents like Wright and myself to strawmen, he complains that I failed to engage the Salem argument even after I fairly and accurately summarized his views. Ironic, no?
The Resurrection and the Salem Witch Trials
Never, mind, if Matt wants me to engage his Salem argument then I’ll do so. Let me begin by reposting my original summary of Matt’s argument:
(1) The evidence for the claim that there were witches at Salem is better than the evidence for the claim that Jesus was resurrected.
(2) The evidence for the claim that there were witches at Salem is not sufficient to believe reasonably that there were witches at Salem.
(3) If your evidence for claim (a) is evidentially better supported than your evidence for claim (b) and you do not have sufficient evidence to believe (a) reasonably then neither do you have sufficient evidence to believe (b) reasonably.
(4) Therefore, the evidence is not sufficient to believe that Jesus was resurrected.
The burden of proof here lies on Matt to show that (1) is true and thus that evidentialist defenses of the resurrection are somehow required to accept the Salem witches as well. As it stands, he has failed to establish the truth of (1) and so his argument is stillborn.
But how can I just assert that Matt failed? We can see why Matt fails by first considering a quote from him and then pointing out the tendentious leap he makes in that quote:
“the evidence we have that there were real witches in Salem is vastly better than the evidence we have for the magical return from the dead by Jesus.” (210)
Perhaps this statement seems plausible, but in fact Matt hasn’t established it at all. This is what he actually established:
the data available to the historian concerning the Salem witch trials is vastly greater and of a better quality than the data that is available to the historian concerning the purported resurrection of Jesus.
I readily concede this. But this doesn’t entail that the witch hypothesis is a better interpretation of the available Salem data than the resurrection hypothesis is of the available resurrection data. In fact, I don’t think it is. To establish the contrary, Matt would have to lay out the major natural theories for the available Salem data alongside the supernatural witch theory and then lay out all the major natural theories for the available purported resurrection data alongside the supernatural resurrection theory. Then he’d have to argue (convincingly) that the supernatural Salem theory is stronger relative to the natural alternatives than the supernatural resurrection theory is relative to its natural alternatives. Needless to say, he didn’t even take the first step toward accomplishing this Herculean task.
I could leave it there but I’ll say a bit more.
Throughout his essay Matt repeatedly refers to “magic”. This is yet another of many ironic moments where Matt caricatures the views of others (I don’t know any Christian who appeals to “magic” to explain miracles) while decrying any failure to treat his own views with the utmost care and charity. So what is this thing Matt calls magic? He doesn’t provide a clear definition but one thing is clear: whatever it is Matt thinks it is absurd.
At the same time, Matt doesn’t want to exclude “magic” categorically as a potential historical explanation because that would open him to the charge of dogmatism. So he comes as close to being dogmatic as possible without crossing the line:
“This is not to rule out the magical explanation a priori–it remains a possibility, I suppose. But clearly the threshold of proof for reasonable people is and should be very high before magic becomes the best of all imaginable hypotheses.” (216)
Note how vague this all is. This just means that no matter how ad hoc and contrived Matt’s natural explanation of the available resurrection evidence may be, he can always say it is better than the divine action hypothesis because that hypothesis is “magic” and thus does not meet the “high” standard that Matt has set for such “magic” hypotheses.
This may be a convincing way to argue for people who already share Matt’s atheistic presuppositions, but there is nothing here that should concern a Christian. Consequently Matt’s argument fails to show that a Christian cannot know “God raised Jesus from the dead” either through a properly basic doxastic process like testimony or as the best explanation of the available historical evidence.