Posted on Sep 25, 2013 by Tom Gilson
Commenter kaapstorm posed an interesting scenario some time ago. It’s led me to think of a new way to discuss what it means to be open or closed to evidence. It’s fanciful, of course; but it’s an interesting thought experiment nonetheless.
Imagine your friend Matt spent the weekend with his friend Josh in a cabin in the woods. You see Matt the following Tuesday and he is very excited. You’ve never met Josh, but you have no reason to question his existence. You never even consider asking for evidence that Matt really does have a friend called Josh, and that he’s a real person. That would be silly.
But then Matt says that on Friday morning Josh walked on water, across half the lake, to the boat that Matt was in! Really?! You are a curious person. You want to know whether there was a sandbank just under the surface. Were Josh’s feet wet when he got into the boat? How fast was he walking — could there have been some mysterious non-Newtonian fluid where he thought there was water? Was it extremely cold — cold enough for ice to have formed and Matt not to have noticed?
That’s not “big evidence”. That’s just “light evidence”. Matt’s not finished. He continues, “That’s nothing! There was a terrible accident! Some hunters shot Josh … through the head! It was terrible! There was this massive hole in his skull, and I was nearly sick; I could see right through. I haven’t slept since then. I just keep seeing it over and over in my mind. We put him in the back of the car and drove him to hospital. But … and you’ll never believe this … but on Sunday he woke up in the morgue! He literally got up! His head is much better. There’s just a scar where the bullet when in, and he’s bald where the massive hole was on the other side.”
And at this point I’m expecting you’re looking for “big evidence”.
But Matt’s still not finished, “Oh, and he’s God.”
The Sort of Evidence That Could Conceivably Convince
Implausible? No, impossible. That’s the only sane way to think of it. And yet it could be instructive. Suppose you were Matt, and you really, really wanted to convince me your Josh story was true. The focal point would have to be Josh’s astonishing recovery from a fatal head wound. What would you need to give me before I could even begin to entertain the possibility your story was worth listening to? What would it take before I might begin to think it could be true?
Let me suggest several things that would help you, if you were actually able to provide them:
- Evidence that Josh is an exceedingly extraordinary person, which might provide theoretical grounding for the next point following.
- An explanation for why this might have happened to Josh: specifically, why he might have been granted this recovery from a fatal wound.
- Some strong indication that Josh had had other remarkable, unexplainable events associated with him.
- Eyewitness testimony from others who saw him before he was shot, while he was (brutally) dead, and after he had recovered.
- Your own personal commitment, as well as the other eyewitnesses’, to your belief, even to your own cost.
- Your own character: your demonstrated trustworthiness and mental balance; and the same again for the other eyewitnesses.
What Would It Take For Me To Deny You At That Point?
Suppose you provided all of that for me. What I mean is that you were really able to do so. (Of course no such person as this Josh exists, and we all know this could never happen. This is a thought experiment, so please go there with me anyway.) I could remain skeptical, but only on pain of denying what I know to be true not only of your character and sanity, but also that of the other eyewitnesses. I would have to deny what I know about human nature in general: that people do not hold on tightly to known untruths, to their own harm.
I would have to deny the supporting evidence that indicates Josh might have been the kind of person for whom this would make sense: that he is an exceedingly extraordinary person, that there was a good theoretical backing for his being a person who would recover from such a wound, and that (while it would have been the most extreme) it would not have been the first extraordinary event that happened in his presence.
I could continue to deny it in spite of all that, just because “dead men don’t come back to life.” That is, I could stake my claim on that seemingly universal principle, based perhaps on my conviction that whatever theoretical explanation there might have been for Josh’s amazing experience, it couldn’t possibly be good enough: because I know in advance of the evidence that these things never happen.
Are You Closed to Evidence?
This is precisely the way most strong atheists respond when presented with apologetic arguments for Jesus’ resurrection. Sure, it’s not their only response: they’ll also deny that there were eyewitnesses, or that Jesus performed other miracles, and so on. Frequently, though, they also come back to their committed belief that the world just isn’t that way: dead men don’t rise. There’s a natural order to life and the universe, and nothing violates it.
That’s the position I would hope to challenge through this thought exercise. There’s obviously nothing in it to provide evidence for Jesus’ miracles, or even for his resurrection. There is something in it, however, that’s relevant to atheists’ prior commitment to the impossibility of something like a resurrection violating (so they would say) the natural order.
And here it is, in the form some atheists hold it:
Whatever theoretical backing you might have to explain why Jesus lived, died, and rose again; whatever personal testimony you could bring forth; whatever commitment the original eyewitnesses might have had to their testimony; whatever strength of moral and mental character they might have displayed after the fact; none of that could possibly be good enough to budge me!
That’s known as being impervious — closed off — to evidence. Most atheists, as I understand them, do not prefer to be regarded that way.
Note: like many of my blog posts, this one is about a specific topic: atheists’ attitude toward the possibility of evidence disconfirming their position. It is not about whether the available evidence actually does disconfirm their position. I predict some commenter will fail to notice that and try to swing the discussion that way anyway, making me responsible for proving that all the evidence is adequate: which is the project of libraries, not of blog discussions. Be advised that I intend to remain on topic.