Last year after publishing my Countering the Resurrection video I participated in an informal discussion/debate with one of my favorite Christian apologists, Randal Rauser to discuss it. We were on Robert White’s YouTube channel and had a very friendly discussion.
Looking back on it, I appreciate both Randal and Robert’s time and I wanted to recount areas of the discussion where I think there were mistakes in points they or myself brought up, and to reflect on how I’d revise things in light of the good faith criticism I received in the discussion.
With Easter being around the corner, I figured now would be a good time to finally get moving to produce something to help strengthen my argument against their objections.
If you want to watch the hour long discussion you can view it here.
The Natural/Supernatural Distinction
The first issue Randal pressed me on was to clarify exactly what kinds of explanations were prohibited by the methodological naturalism I was arguing for. In my paper I wanted to avoid tying my argument to a specific conception of the Natural/Supernatural distinction because I thought the argument was stronger for not having to endorse any specific view on that particularly thorny problem. I still think that’s the case, but Randal is correct to point out that I should have been more specific on what kinds of explanations are ruled out by methodological naturalism.
I do want to comment on our digression on the Natural/Supernatural distinction, which highlights exactly why I wanted to avoid the rabbit trail in my argument and why I should have been more prepared for the discussion going into the video. After a digression on the Draperian view of natural vs. supernatural, I put forward the idea where the actions of non-embodied minds would be barred by methodological naturalism, Randal put forward the idea of Panentheism – the view that the universe is god’s “body” and so on the Panentheistic view god’s actions wouldn’t be barred by methodological naturalism.
I bring this up because I want to point out the oddity that even if we grant all this, the Christian theist would be forced to give up a wide variety of core doctrines held by the vast majority of Christians throughout history – god creating the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing). Or the idea that god as a necessary being with an unchangeable nature, unless the Christian also gives up the contingency argument about the properties of the physical universe, but even then I don’t see how god’s nature could be unchangeable. Randal points out that there are Christian’s who adopt a panentheistic view, but that’s because Christianity, like many religions can be stretched almost infinitely to cover an incredible variety of views. I believe you’d find quite a few Christians who would call such a view heretical, much like Gnosticism is considered heretical, but there were still Gnostic Christians.
I had pointed out these issues in the discussion and alluded to the fact that this was a rabbit trail, because the natural/supernatural distinction is contentious, with a variety of competing views in philosophy with no consensus. Randal responded that he’s OK with this state of affairs because he does not buy into methodological naturalism and so he doesn’t need to provide a good definition of the natural/supernatural distinction.
This position became a problem later on in the video when Randal spoke about the process Christians and theists should go through in order to determine whether or not a miracle has occurred.
Randal says he would first begin with natural explanations (32:45) – which I couldn’t contain myself and interjected that he couldn’t even define it. Randal’s reply was that he could define it and that natural explanations would pertain to nature and the processes of nature.
In the discussion I specifically refrained from going back down the definitional rabbit trail, but here I can expand on the problem Randal just opened. It turns out he does need to provide a definition of the natural/supernatural distinction! I could simply amend the definition of methodological naturalism so as to exclude explanations that are not natural explanations, and I could do this while only defining natural explanations as Randal does.
In fact all the proponent of methodological naturalism has to do is note that the natural/supernatural distinction is a thorny problem that both sides need to answer; and I believe the atheist can even use the theists definition.
After all, the occurrence of a miracle as a distinction from natural events is necessary for Christians to make the point I’m trying to counter: that the resurrection of Jesus is a miracle which provides evidence for the theological and philosophical teachings of the miracle worker.
A theist who believes in miracles needs the distinction between natural and supernatural just as much the methodological naturalist, because they acknowledge such distinctions in our everyday life.
For example, if a theist eats three Doritos Burrito Bel-Grande’s and then a few hours later is fighting diarrhea, they won’t be sitting on the toilet exclaiming “Holy shit! It’s a miracle!” No, they’ll believe that is the result of purely natural causes and effects.
What’s worse, if the theist wants to try and come up with some kind of definition that weaves the miraculous into the mundane; then they run into the same dilemma posed in my original argument. It’s sort of like the villain’s ethos from the first Incredibles movie: If everything is a miracle then nothing is.
In the end, Randal and other theists are just as stuck with the natural/supernatural distinction as anyone else in this debate, and arguments around how we define that aren’t going to blunt the force of arguments for methodological naturalism.
A-priori vs. Evidential
A lot of the time in the discussion Randal continued to refer to insisting that history be bound by methodological naturalism as an a priori ruling out of possible explanations. The problem here is because my assessment is not before considering the evidence, it’s about considering the total type of evidence we have for miracles as a whole.
I spent a lot of time breaking down the various types of non-verifiable miracle claims and the wide variety of them that we have available from contradictory religions and then comparing that to the complete lack of contemporary verifiable miracles from literally any religion.
This is compounded by the nature of verifiable miracles – that they quickly can lapse into being non-verifiable, and that the bible and other holy texts from contradictory religions make reference to a large amount of miracles that would have been empirically verifiable at the time. The fact that these sorts of verifiable miracles just seem to have conveniently stopped for no reason and left us with only the unverifiable miracles claimed by all religions is evidence against those miracle claims being true. I even pointed out that if verifiable miracles started to occur in the context of only one religion – I would convert, even to Christianity again.
Randal’s response here in the discussion (31:39) was a wonderful rhetorical flourish that at the time I didn’t fully catch. He accuses me of begging the question because “your problem with miracles is that they’re miracles”.
Randal then partially defines a miracle as an “extraordinary event” and my complaint is that miracles are not “mundane” where I can verify that they happen. In the discussion I pushed back hard on this aspect of avoiding the problem I pose – a verifiable miracle occurring every mass, like turning the water into wine will still be extraordinary every single time it happens. The highlight of every single service.
Randal is conflating “extraordinary” with “rare”, which simply isn’t the case and it’s also a particularly poor definition of miracle. After all, even if the transmutation of water into wine every mass was eventually considered mundane, I don’t think anyone in such a world would deny that it’s occurrence is “no longer a miracle”.
In responding to this point and the fact that the bible is full of instances of disciples after Jesus’s death doing verifiable miracles, Randal ends up being the one that begs the question; stating that “miracles happen in clusters when god is active in the world”. He references miracles happening around the Exodus, then Elijah and Elisha, then around Jesus, and then around the establishment of the church.
The problem here is that to make this kind of knowledge claim about when god is performing miracles is to already assume that the Christian god exists and that the Christian/Jewish miracle claims happened. How can Randal claim that those verifiable miracles happened where as the other stories of verifiable miracles of Joseph Smith and Sathya Sai Babba didn’t happen?
In fact it gets even worse, because later in the video Randal says that he is open to other miracles of contradictory religions happening – but then if that’s the case then miracles don’t happen in clusters or the definition of “clusters” gets expanded to just about any old reported occurrence of a miracle gets counted as a new “cluster”.
This ends up contradicting Randal’s other works defending miracles in his books and his blog where he recounts the story of non-verifiable miracle claims and the rational basis on which Christians can believe those miracle claims. Randal recounts a story he was told by someone who supposedly experienced a miracle on a missionary trip and Randal believes him; but how can this be if miracles are supposed to come in clusters?
Is it that only verifiable miracles happen in clusters but non-verifiable miracles can happen at any time? If so this is a particularly ad hoc and convenient principle, but then Randal is stuck on the previous problem of verifiable miracles performed by non-Christian holy figures – and the whole cluster idea goes out the window.
Finally, as I pointed out in the discussion, once we allow that god could act in performing miracles in other religious and theological contexts then the Christian gives up the idea that miracles, and specifically the resurrection of Jesus can provide unique evidence for the theological truths of Christianity. Perhaps those other religions are true and the Christian stories are just instances of god acting in the world for unknown reasons.
But What About The Evidence
There was a key point in the debate when I had gone through the most forceful part of my case about how the variety of equally or better attested miracle claims from exclusive religions along with the complete lack of contemporary verifiable miracles results in a kind of methodological naturalism we would employ in our everyday lives, especially in a court of law - and then in response, Randal wants to “get back to the evidence for the resurrection” and how I personally account for it.
Indeed Robert makes the comment about how the resurrection is an area where skeptics seem to be the ones trying to fit a square peg in a round hole (as opposed to say theists dealing with the problem of evil); because “you have to deal with the evidence”.
The problem with this is that my argument against miracle claims justified only by testimony are rightfully discarded in our everyday lives; so how I account for the stories is irrelevant. Our background knowledge leaves us in a position where if we were to hear claims of miracles, magic, or science fiction like technology indistinguishable from magic - we do not accept those explanations; especially not in the most serious situations like say in a court of law. In fact if a god wanted to rectify this, it could just make contemporary verifiable miracles happen only in the context of it’s one true religion.
Further, if the theist wants to insist that we must allow history to justify belief in miracle claims then they are put in a dilemma of other contradictory religions miracle claims being equally justified -or- they must give up the idea that a miracle counts as evidence for the theological truths of the miracle worker.
But there are further problems here that I want to point out. A substantial amount of our time in the discussion was about how I would deal with Paul or Peter’s testimony. When I point out that they could have been mistaken (from a hallucination) or lying, I’m told “there’s no evidence for that!”.
Well these things happened over two thousand years ago in a mostly illiterate part of the world; what survived was the records most preserved by religious believers. So even if there were somehow records of Paul or Peter being of ill repute, or prone to fancies, or whatever else, the chances of such information surviving is small. Given my background knowledge about how if a god exists, it does not engage in the sort of verifiable miracles told in the bible and other holy texts in our time, and the contradictory and equally well attested miracles of other religions - I think it is more plausible that they were either mistaken or lying than a miracle occurred.
It is extremely easy to have a naturalistic explanation for any kind of testimony of this sort: the people were lying, or hallucinated, or suffered emotional trauma that led to weird beliefs - and so these stories came out.
To ask me “but what about the empty tomb accounts!” is just nonsensical because if I were to make up and augment a story involving miracles, magic, or science fiction it is not hard to make up ancillary facts as part of the story that are only explicable if the non-natural elements of the story were true.
If I told you a story that related to me by Bob from Phoenix about how he saw a Superman equivalent superhero bring a plane back to the ground in the middle of the Arizona desert after the engines failed in mid air, and a skeptic were to tell me they don’t believe it - it doesn’t do much to insist “well how do you explain the multiple accounts of an airplane sitting in the middle of the desert!?” It especially doesn’t do much if you back that up with “Bob said there were hundreds of people at a burning man event who witnessed the hero land the plane in the desert!”. It becomes even more problematic when Bob’s story continues on that the gov’t came in and cleaned up all the evidence of a plane and took all the passengers to their eventual destinations so as to hide the existence of a superhero.” This is because the facts of the story make it so that any publicly available accounts sure look a lot like there was no superhero or downed plane.
When you’re making up a story to explain lies or hallucinations, it’s not hard to come up with facets of the story that make the narrative unfalsifiable by nature. Given that we have good reasons to think the gospel narrative grew in the telling over a number of years, it’s not hard to see this kind of narrative forming to account for a lack of hard evidence.
I often hear a YouTube apologist ask the rhetorical question “Why is it that the bible is always assumed guilty until proven innocent?” and the answer is because it is full of miracle/magical claims we would immediately discount in a court of law - and that’s with a living breathing person giving said testimony.
The ultimate problem for Christians trying to make the argument for the resurrection to prove the Christian theological claims is that if I am to take the bible’s incredible stories seriously, then I have to take seriously a lot of other stories of miracle claims that justify contradictory theological truths.
The dichotomy gets another level - if the Christian grants the other miracle claims can also be true because god acts in other ways, then the central point of arguing for the Christian miracles - to prove Christian theology - is completely undercut.
This is the dichotomy for Christians trying to make the resurrection argument, and why we are entirely justified in methodological naturalism on the basis of our background knowledge, whether mere theist or atheist, and why if we give up methodological naturalism, the argument for the resurrection doesn’t achieve its goal of proving that Christianity is the one true religion.