Getting back into the swing of things (GvNG)

It’s been awhile since I exercised my skeptical/atheistical muscles at any real length, so I thought I might start with an easy post. Pick some low-hanging fruit, swing for the slow pitch, put on some training wheels, fly with a net, that sort of thing. In importing everything over from Blogger, I was reminded that I spent a couple of posts some time ago sparring with a fella named Randy Kirk, running a site called The God vs. No God Debate [sic]. I decided to briefly revisit the site, only to find that it hasn’t been updated for almost two years. Perfect, I think, to test the old blogging muscles.

I am nothing if not on the bleeding edge.

Randy begins his last post thusly:

If I take a picture of Jesus sitting in my home tonight with an amazing glow around his head, showing me his scars, and telling me amazing stories and parables that would clearly identify him as having incredible brilliance and teaching skills, a naturalist would argue that this was great teaching, great acting, and doctored video to create the appearance of something supernatural.

Off to a great start. First, let’s dispense with the notion that Jesus was a guy of “incredible brilliance and teaching skills.” Sorry, no. The goal of a teacher is to impart knowledge and to help others understand. Jesus spoke in parables specifically and admittedly (Matthew 13:10-16) so that only certain people, those special few, would actually understand what he meant. That’s the antithesis of teaching.

Not to mention that what Jesus taught was often self-serving or wrong. The Sermon on the Mount, for instance, is full of terrible, terrible advice, of the same kind that Joe Hill lampooned in “The Preacher and the Slave.” “Your life sucks? Well, don’t worry, the next life won’t suck for you–it’ll suck for the people who have good lives now. Yeah, that’ll show ’em.”

I don’t know, I think a brilliant teacher with divine magic powers and wisdom beyond his years might be able to help make life suck less. But he was more interested in having perfume drenched over his head and performing magic tricks.

Getting back to Kirk’s claim, here, he’s got one point: a picture of a guy with a glow around his head and some scars (I’m not sure how “a picture” could show a guy teaching and telling parables, outside of Harry Potter or something. We’ll assume he means video) doesn’t prove the existence of Jesus. A good skeptic wouldn’t dismiss the video outright, but would note that a doctored video of an actor is a more likely explanation than a genuine video of God-made-flesh performing miracles in your living room.

A good skeptic would further ask Randy what reason he had to believe that the scarred, glowing teacher in his home was Jesus. The paragraph posits it as a given, setting up the “naturalist”‘s skepticism as unreasonable from the start. Yet I have to imagine that if I showed Randy a video of Thor in my home, speaking in ancient Norse with lightning crackling all about him, he’d probably have the exact same reaction.The skeptical position of initial doubt and seeking better corroborating evidence than “here’s some video” is the reasonable one.

And it represents a problem that’s existed for believers and people who trust in personal revelation as a method for apprehending reality, since the time of David Hume. If Randy came to me with this video, the hypothesis that “the video genuinely shows a genuine miracle” has to be weighed against the alternatives–that Randy was deceived, or is himself being deceptive.

I mean, I’ve seen video of David Blaine do stuff on the street that sure looks like magic to the people he performs for. How do I know that Randy wasn’t taken in by a particularly clever street magician, playing on how his religious beliefs make him more receptive to apparent miracles? I know that street magicians exist, I know that their tricks often fool people, and I know that religious people often have a lower threshold for accepting claims that fit with their preexisting beliefs, than others. All that makes the “deception” hypothesis more likely than the miracle one.

And it’s hard to imagine a situation where “someone is being deceived” isn’t the more reasonable hypothesis. Randy, I’m sure, would agree, if the miracles here were apparently being performed by anyone but Jesus.

If after careful analysis of the video, there was no doctoring, then it would be argued that there just wasn’t enough science to discover how it was doctored, and that the illusions in the film had natural explanations.

Or not. One can have genuine video which remains misleading. Take, for instance, this Richard Wiseman video. There’s no “doctoring” necessary to achieve apparently miraculous tricks, just exploiting the natural weaknesses of things like video cameras. The problem is not with the video, but with the interpretation of the video. And assuming that a single video tape–doctored or otherwise–actually shows what it purports to show, is problematic at best. It’s part of why editors are so powerful; a careful (or careless) bit of editing can completely change how you interpret something like an interview–let alone a miracle.

If I persuaded Jesus to come back on another evening, and invited 1000 folks to be there as well, and had five cameras with well know atheists manning all five cameras, and Jesus healed someone blind since birth by touching mud to his eyes, there would be claims of mass hysteria, the videos would be suspected of being altered before or after the fact, or replaced.

I wonder, does Randy accept that Benny Hinn and Peter Popoff have miraculous healing abilities? Popoff routinely “healed” people of various ailments in front of crowds of thousands, without the help of camera tricks (but with the help of radio tricks). Yes, “healing a blind person” is the kind of ‘miracle’ that would require additional verification before we could accept it at face value.

I tell you what would be more impressive: healing an amputee. Doing it repeatedly, under controlled conditions. The standard of evidence for most science is not “did we get it with a camcorder” but “the results can be repeated reliably under controlled conditions.”

The fact of having 1000 folks agreeing on what happened would be further dismissed as a conspiracy by all in attendance.

I bet if you polled 1000 people coming out of a Penn and Teller show, they’d agree that they saw the duo cut a snake in half and leave it unharmed. No conspiracy necessary, just humans with human limitations. I wonder, is Randy Catholic? If not, how does he explain the Fatima Miracle of the sun?

And these would just be the contemporaneous skeptics. 100 years from now the skepticism would merely grow. 2000 years from now it would just be compared with other videos of the time.

For good reason: a video is not good evidence of anything. Except, perhaps, the existence of video recording technology. The other good reason is that revelation is necessarily first-hand. It’s possible that the 1000 people in attendance could see things that would convince any reasonable person, but to anyone else it’s just hearsay. Watching Jesus cure someone of blindness might in fact be amazing and convincing, entailing more evidence than the video would convey (provided, of course, that the onlookers could trust both their senses and their interpretations of their senses, which are by no means a given–see, again, magicians). But to anyone else, it’s just a story, indistinguishable from any of a billion other such stories with conflicting and contradictory interpretations. Yes, in fact, it is just another video from the time, no more proof of miracles than “The Passion of the Christ” is.

In other words, it doesn’t really matter what kind or how much evidence is produced, the Bible cannot be proved to a naturalist to be supernatural,

I think that’s a pretty big leap; video is not the be-all end-all of evidence (nor is eyewitness testimony). But as a basis, sure: a natural explanation is always more acceptable than a supernatural one. As Tim Minchin put it, “every mystery, throughout history, has turned out to be ‘not magic’. Even just based on induction and experience, we have no reason to ever suspect the “supernatural.” “Supernatural” is a category about which we can say absolutely nothing. What are the qualities of a “supernatural” thing?

What we can see is whether or not the miracle-producer can reliably produce effects which are what they appear to be. It wouldn’t necessarily imply supernatural anything, whatever that is, but it would demonstrate abilities that go beyond what we currently understand. If they were demonstrated, they would become part of our understanding of nature–even if it’s just the nature of this one extraordinary individual.

Jesus cannot have been other than man, and there is no afterlife, heaven, etc.

Randy says this, but I’m not sure how any of it’s connected. Let’s say that a guy calling himself Jesus shows up and starts performing miracles that are verified to be reliable healings and multiplications of loaves and fishes and so forth. It tells us a lot of things, but it says nothing about:

  1. Whether Jesus is or has been something other than a man
  2. If there is an afterlife, heaven, etc.
  3. The reliability of any of the Biblical account
  4. The existence of Bigfoot, mermaids, etc.
  5. The price of tea in China

If a guy calling himself Jesus shows up and starts performing things that could reasonably be termed miracles, let me tell you what believers of other religious traditions are going to suggest: he’s a demonic deceiver, he’s an alien, he’s a djinn, he’s from a technologically-advanced future, etc. Some of those are more reasonable than others, but they’re all possible hypotheses to explain the observations, and we’d have to rule out every natural hypothesis before positing the existence of supernatural agents. Because again, what is “supernatural”?

And all those other claims are separate claims which would need separate verification. Some guy calling himself Jesus rearranging subatomic particles in water to transform it into wine under controlled lab conditions tells us nothing about the existence of an afterlife. The claims are not connected in any meaningful way. Similarly, if a Klingon Warbird lands in Times Square tomorrow, it doesn’t tell us that Sto-Vo-Kor is a real place or that Capt. Kirk is destined to be born in Iowa in a century.

This also begs the question of what is natural. If there is a God, then he would be the most natural thing of all.

Agreed. And being natural, he would be open to examination and verification.

If there is an afterlife, then it would merely be an extension of the natural. The spiritual realm is certainly no more fantastic than quarks or black holes, just part of nature.

This sentence is missing the key caveat, “if it exists.” If it exists, the spiritual realm is certainly no more fantastic than quarks or black holes, just part of nature. But we have no good reason to suppose it does exist, and so it remains in the same category as fairies and gnomes and unicorns and 11-dimensional superstrings: not more fantastic than reality, just less real (until evidence shows otherwise).

So I think we commonly end up with debates that can’t be decided, much less won because the definitions of such things as truth, evidence, and natural differ between the debaters.

Agreed, which is why it’s important to define terms specifically and early on.

I come to all of these conclusions after spending 7 hours on Sunday reading about the shroud of Turin. It cannot be explained by Science, and the historical evidence is that it really is the burial shroud of Christ.

Um…no. We can leave aside the mountain of evidence that shows the Shroud to be a 14th-century forgery. All you need to debunk the Shroud of Turin is a lick of common sense. Take a look at the Shroud’s face:

Notice how it looks like a normal face. That’s the most striking thing about it, totally normal kind of European, tall, gaunt, bearded, long-haired face. Take a look now at this image:

That’s an image of a head texture from this site, designed to be wrapped around the wireframe polygonal head of a video game character. It’s exaggerated, but it illustrates the point: when you take the features of a person’s three-dimensional face and flatten them out, they become distorted, stretched at the sides, because a human face isn’t flat. The Shroud of Turin supposedly has this image burned into it from being wrapped around Jesus’s body, but if that’s the case, why isn’t it all stretched out? The only way to make this make sense is to imagine that Jesus was literally as thin as a pole, or that this was really the Hammock of Turin, tied flat just above Jesus to absorb his soul-picture as it passed through.

You don’t actually need science to debunk or explain the Shroud of Turin, just a little experience with Silly Putty or map projections.

That combination is pretty powerful. However, the naturalists merely state, calmly, that they will eventually figure out how the image got there by some natural means, not by the transmutation of Christ.

Who are these naturalists? The ones who reproduced it in March of the year that Randy wrote that post, using 14th-century technology? The truth is that science had already explained the Shroud, as had history, as one of the many forged artifacts that existed in the Middle Ages. Randy just conveniently ignored, denied, or discounted that evidence to make his point.

Which is the real problem: not that people can’t agree on how to define evidence, but that one side already has a conclusion and will wave away any evidence that contradicts it, while credulously accepting even crappy evidence to support their presupposition.

Randy has one last bit, worth examining briefly:

So 1000 years from now, we could be no closer. In the meantime, one “natural” explanation would be that this was the natural result of a man/God transitioning from human to spirit.

Sure, that’s one hypothesis. Here’s the thing: to accept that hypothesis, we’d need:

  • Evidence that there are such things as spirits
  • Evidence that humans can “transition” to spirits
  • Evidence that the transitioning from human to spirit causes effects observable in particular kinds of cloth
  • An explanation as to why we don’t see such shrouds more often (do most people not transition to spirits? Are only certain kinds of cloth affected?)
  • An explanation as to why the available (historical and radiocarbon dating) evidence shows this to be no older than the 14th century
  • An explanation as to why the image is not distorted, as we would expect it to be if representing a 3D human body in a 2D medium, due to having been wrapped around that body
  • An explanation as to why apparently identical artifacts can be recreated using 14th century technology

When Randy (or someone else) leaps that hurdle, we can consider that a valid and well-supported hypothesis. Until then, the evidence points to “medieval fraud,” and shows, as the whole post does, that people are prone to turning off their normal skepticism when it comes to things that confirm their preconceived notions.

It’s good to be back.

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3 Responses to Getting back into the swing of things (GvNG)

  1. Bronze Dog says:

    I remember an old show that demonstrated the “moonface” problem. I think it was from the 70’s or 80’s. I somehow find it surprising that someone isn’t aware of that problem, but that’s probably just me overestimating the Christian community’s ability to adapt.

  2. Bronze Dog says:

    Oh, one thing I just noticed: Your link for “The Preacher and the Slave” is broken.

  3. Doubting Tom says:

    Yeah, I definitely had seen the ‘moonface’ problem mentioned elsewhere, and I’m surprised it doesn’t get brought up more often, since it seems like the most obvious piece of evidence against the whole enterprise.

    And thanks, I fixed the link.

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