Monday, January 11, 2021

Miracle reports, independence, and mutual support

This is the somewhat technical post to go along with my recent video on miracles and mutual support. It's been fun for me to revisit these topics mentally in the last week or so as I've been planning the video. Since 2008 when Tim and I published our mutual support paper in Erkenntnis, I've published individually a lot more work on independence and testimony. I'm going to include below a list of some relevant publications, some of them (alas) probably available only through institutional subscriptions. But some of them may be available to independent scholars through a free JSTOR account, so do give that a try. 

First, here is the diagram that I used in the talk. (Hat tip to Esteemed Husband for making it look nice.)


As I emphasized in the video, no line of support contains a loop. The discussion is necessarily simplified, especially as regards the role of background evidence concerning the reliability of a source (such as a single Gospel) that reports both the resurrection and the other miracle. Let me say a little more about that.

First, whether you have evidence that two reports are true or false, if they truly support one another in some way, this is always one-directional, even if you think that the people involved are lying or mistaken. The possibility of fabricated reports doesn't in any way mean that you have a loop. Let me make this concrete: Suppose that Joe tells you two different stories. In both of these stories, Joe is set upon by an enemy or by enemies who try to beat him up, and he wins the fist fight. You may suspect that Joe is lying in both cases. This would mean that you think he is a braggart who is trying to make himself look tough. Even so, there would be no loops of support. Call one story Report A and the other Report B. Call their contents Fight A and Fight B. Suppose that you, based on your other information about Joe (e.g., that he's a puny little guy) decide that neither Fight A nor Fight B happened. In that case, the reports still support each other, in the sense that receiving Report A gives you some additional reason to expect Report B, since Report A supports the umbrella hypothesis that Joe is a braggart who wants to look tough by telling fight stories. Hence, you have somewhat of an expectation that he will tell another story of the same general kind. By the same token Report B gives you some reason to think you may receive Report A, via the same route in the other direction. (Here it is somewhat helpful to imagine receiving the reports at different times and imagining that you receive them in one order and then imagining that you receive them in the other order, but this is just to help keep things clear.) So the reports are mutually supporting (each raises the probability of the other) via the proposition that Joe is a particular kind of liar, and that mutual support is non-circular. 

On the other hand, if you have, or gain, information that leads you to think of Joe as truthful and humble, as a person who tells things that are embarrassing to himself and doesn't make things up, if you learn independently that Joe has studied martial arts, and the like, this will decrease the probability that he is lying. In that case, Report A will have more force for Fight A (that that fight actually occurred). By the same token, you will have support from Report A (given your other background evidence about Joe's truthfulness) for a different umbrella hypothesis concerning character and circumstances--e.g., that Joe has (or tends to attract) enemies who try to beat him up, and that when that happens he is a good fighter. This "truthful" or "positive" unifying hypothesis will give you some additional reason to expect another actual fight in the real world, won by Joe. In this way, Report A supports Fight A; Fight A supports the hypothesis that Joe is a fellow who tends to get into fights and win them, which in turn raises the prior probability of Fight B. That also increases at least somewhat the prior probability that you will receive Report B, since Joe seems to tell you about these things. In turn, if you receive from Joe the input Report B, that provides some evidence via the opposite (non-looped) route that raises the prior probability of Fight A.

This means that in these kinds of scenarios, other background evidence that supports the truthfulness of a source that tells both stories tends to focus the evidential force of each report in such a way as to support the content of the other story. To apply this to a Gospel: The more separate reason we have to believe that John the evangelist is truthful and does not make up stories that promote a theological agenda, the more reason we have to believe (all else being equal) that his story about the healing of the man born blind is true. That, in turn, helps to support the hypothesis that there is something very special about Jesus (that he is at least a prophet, if not God himself), which increases at least somewhat the prior probability of the resurrection. And vice versa. The reports can be thought of as inputs. (Technically, as a strong foundationalist, I'm going to take the inputs at any given time to be things like your apparent memories at time t of reading the reports at time t - 1 and so forth--things to which you have direct access.) The force of each input in favor both of its own content and of the content reported by the other input is increased by other evidence that supports the truthfulness of a source that contains both reports.

On the other hand, if we were to have independent evidence that John the evangelist makes up marvellous stories about Jesus, the story about the man born blind would have little force to support the resurrection of Jesus, not only because it would probably be false (would have little force for its own content), but also because it wouldn't support a positive "unifying hypothesis" (such as Jesus' deity or the idea that there is something special and supernatural about Jesus) that would in turn increase the probability that Jesus would really rise from the dead. A negative "unifying hypothesis" (that John makes up theological stories) could still unify the reports--the report of the man born blind in John might give us some additional reason to think that John would also report the resurrection--but not by way of allowing each report to support the truth of its own content and thereby to support the other event.

To put it briefly, as we come to have more and more justified confidence that this person/author doesn’t make stuff up, we get closer and closer to an uncomplicated situation in which we can reasonably say, “Well, since that event happened, that makes it more likely that this other event happened, too.”

Another point: While the testimony of an otherwise highly reliable source is itself good evidence that the next thing he tells us is true, it is of course especially helpful if the story in question contains specific marks of realism. That makes the report even stronger evidence for what it attests, and this comes on a quasi-continuum. We should not be agnostic about each report on a passage-by-passage basis. That is something I have always spoken out against and will have much more to say about in The Eye of the Beholder. On the other hand, a brief, undetailed report will in the nature of the case carry less weight that a longer report in which we can point to specific marks of truth. In the accompanying video I draw a contrast in this regard between the account in John 9 of the healing of the man born blind and Mark's account of Jesus' healing of a blind man in Mark 8:22-26. Even the latter is not a bare statement, "Jesus healed a blind man near Bethsaida" and nothing more. It contains the oddity of Jesus spitting on the man's eyes (similar to his creating a paste from saliva and mud in John 9). It contains the bit of dialogue in which the man says he sees people walking like trees and Jesus touches his eyes again, which could potentially be embarrassing to a person wanting to make Jesus look more powerful. (Yes, I know that one can make up theological meanings for this, but those are subjective and unconvincing.) And there is Jesus' attempt to get him not to tell others about the miracle, which fits with other cases in the Gospels. So even here there are indicators of truth. An example of an even more spare account would be John 2:23, which just says that Jesus performed "signs," unspecified, when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover. The healing of the man born blind in John 9, being longer and more detailed, provides more opportunity for markers of truth to come up. 

The discussion of general reliability above concerns one source that tells both stories. If you have additional evidence from another document, another person, etc., for one or both of the events or for details mentioned in the story, all the better. That, too, would be included in the direct evidence for that story as modeled in the diagram. In the video, I included a bundle of different things in E1. In the case of the resurrection, we have several different Gospel accounts, evidence for the reliability of those other Gospels, as well as other evidence (e.g., in Acts) for the disciples' early attestation of the physical resurrection under conditions of great personal danger. Undesigned coincidences between accounts help to show independence as well as truth--a twofer. Apparent contradictions help to show independence.

As I say, it's been a lot of fun to return to this material, and believe it or not, there are still more complexities that I haven't discussed here. I've been making some additional notes in a document of some other thoughts on the probabilistic issues that I'm not including here.

Below is a small bibliography, ordered from most recent on top to oldest on the bottom, of some of my professional publications on these topics, including a more recent individual publication in Erkenntnis on undesigned coincidences. At a minimum, the combination of the video and this post shows that it is possible to "keep accounts" so that we are not using loops of support when there really is mutual support between miracle accounts (or between any accounts). Evidence for Gospel reliability is highly relevant to all of these issues, though "keeping accounts" is somewhat complex.

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“Undesigned Coincidences and Coherence for an Hypothesis,” Erkenntnis, 85 (4) (August 15, 2020), pp. 801-828. On-Line First, August 6, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-018-0050-4 Author’s accepted manuscript version archived here.

“Finessing Independent Attestation: A Study in Interdisciplinary Biblical Criticism,” Themelios 44.1, pp. 89-102 (April, 2019)

“Accounting for Dependence: Relative Consilience as a Correction Factor in Cumulative Case Arguments,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy. 95:3 (2017), 560-572, DOI 10.1080/00048402.2016.1219753. Abstract here. Does not include whole article.

“Evidential Diversity and the Negation of H: A Probabilistic Account of the Value of Varied Evidence,”  Ergo 3:10 (2016), available here.

“Foundationalism, Probability, and Mutual Support,” With Timothy McGrew, Erkenntnis 68 (2008):55-77. JSTOR entry here (does not include whole article).

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Pain is the price of patriotism

The events of the last few days here in the U.S. could almost have been calculated to break the heart of anyone who loves this country. First I'm referring to the loss of the Senate to the Democrats. And here I solidly blame none other than our feckless man-child of a President, Donald Trump. In a distant alternative possible universe, had Trump been less narcissistic, had he thought that something mattered besides himself, he would have taken the spotlight off the presidential election shortly after November 3 (whatever he thought about the fairness of the results) and focused solidly on using his considerable influence with his base to rally the voters for the Georgia runoffs. Well, we all know how that went, including Lin Wood's insane recommendation to Republican voters to stay home. The elections were close. Had Trump barnstormed Georgia on behalf of those candidates, the Democrats might not have won the Senate. I don't usually indulge in such what-ifs, and there are plenty of places where I think Trump gets blamed that are far more complicated than they are made to appear in Punditland, but this one is just too darned obvious. 

And then, of course, the Capitol-storming yesterday, deadly for at least four people, deadly for any remaining shred of American dignity. (The news media seem to be notably coy about three of these--who they were and what exactly happened--but about Ashli Babbitt, the woman whom the police shot, there seems to be little doubt about what happened.) This ridiculous attempt at insurrection (seriously?) will be treated as iconic of conservatism for decades to come (at least) and used as a stick with which to beat everyone who supports conservative ideals and ideas. Don't like gay "marriage"? Well, you're just like those terrifying insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol building. Maybe you're planning terrorism, even. Don't think a man can turn into a woman? The same. Support the lives of the unborn--man, you're a scary person. And on, ad infinitum. 

If that hasn't upset some readers already ("How terrible that that is why she's upset!" "She didn't say what I wanted her to say!"), here follows my really upsetting paragraph, so feel free to skip, especially if you lean a bit left or are wanting me to say some predetermined thing you have in mind to prove my non-partisanship. I basically like this take by Ben Domenech, with a caveat or two. More about the caveats below. He is so right about the demonization of the really peaceful Tea Partiers not so long ago, the boy who cried wolf phenomenon, and so forth. The most I can say to prove my non-partisanship is that, while I think it tragic, I don't have a huge amount of sympathy for Ashli Babbitt, whom the police shot. She paid high for her mad folly, for her anarchic action; death in that context could have been foreseen as a not-implausible result. This is horrible. If she was motivated by malice, her death would be less tragic, but I don't at all know that she was motivated by malice and suspect (call me naive) that she was incurably muddle-headed by ideology. But everybody who invaded that building forcibly certainly deserves arrest. What I'd really like to see at this point is for the same spirit of get-tough-on-rioters to travel to Portland and other cities so that the truly malicious evildoers who burn down innocent people's businesses would also have a credible deterrent thought to think: "Hey, maybe the police will shoot me if I try to do that." Supported (in my fantasy world) by the eager tough-mindedness of the media that stridently reported yesterday's invasion of the Capitol. But no, "Civil Rights Groups Raise Alarms About Mayor's Harsher Stance on Protesters," as the anarchy in Portland goes on without apparent end and peaceful businessmen have no credible hope of living their peaceful lives. That is shameful. And those who are saying diametrically opposite things now about the rioters yesterday from what they were saying this summer are nothing but despicable partisan hacks whom I will never try to satisfy. (I'm looking at you, Sally Kohn: 5/30 on Twitter, "I don't like violent protests, but I understand them. And those wagging their fingers against them need to read up on their American history." Yesterday, "The mobs storming the Capitol right now are neither patriots nor revolutionaries. They are traitors and cowards, trying to upend our democracy by force." I'm looking at Nancy I-don't-know-why-there-aren't-uprisings-all-over-the-country Pelosi. And more.) Yes, this paragraph probably means that I don't evaluate these two types of mobs exactly as some reading this would like me to. But I do condemn them both, believe both are shameful and both should be arrested and stopped, violently if there is no other way, and that's the most you're going to get out of me.

All that said, the last few days have been dark, in more senses than one. The take from Domenech doesn't give us a whole lot to hope for. If, as he says, the anarchic spirit is now running loose on the American right and is not going away, how in the world can principled conservatives speak credibly to the legitimate concerns of that political element while firmly refusing to become like them? That's the million-dollar question, and I don't have a good answer. Neither, apparently, does Domenech. If he does, he's not revealing it. What has just happened is, like so much of the last four years, a mix of tragedy and farce and turns the country into a mix of tragedy and farce. Yesterday is in some ways the unkindest cut of all. Who could have imagined four years ago the image of "Buffalo horns guy" posing in the Senate chamber with some people (on both sides) actually believing that he is a representative of "the right" in the U.S.? 

And in response we have the President, apparently really shocked (is it possible?) at what his incessant, narcissistic drum-beating of the past few weeks and days has raised, calling for non-violence after it's too late. Can he really be that stupid? I suppose he can. And that is the best we can say for him! Dear Lord, I can remember being a child and being told quite solemnly all about respecting the "office of the President" no matter who was in office. There was still some vestige then of respect for the processes of our governance--respect owed, perhaps, to history, to the vision of the Founders, and to that partly-abstract, partly-concrete entity that we called "our country." The land of the free and the home of the brave, remember? The land of Presidents we could be really proud to get behind, or who could (to put it no higher) at least pretend to behave themselves. Are we now either free or brave? I wonder.

Cynicism is a luxury we cannot afford. And that is my main caveat about Ben Domenech's otherwise insightful piece. He says he wasn't as depressed as others were (presumably conservatives) about yesterday's events. I have to say it: Maybe he should be more depressed. Being hurt by the slow, painful death of ideals in our society is what we pay for being human. Pain is the price of patriotism. If we are to rebuild anything from the ruins of conservatism, if we are even to survive the current and growing totalitarianism of leftism, we have to continue to hurt and to have ideals. This is something that my recent re-reading of Witness by Whittaker Chambers has taught me. Chambers regained his humanity when he learned to love--first his wife, then their unborn child, then his farm and his country--and thus learned again to suffer, but to suffer creatively, to suffer as a witness. That painful process of learning to love was what made him give up the Communist idea that the ends justify the means. We cannot travel the opposite road now. Clear-eyed we must be, and being clear-eyed will undoubtedly lead to pessimism. But hardened we cannot be.

I could close there, but since I'm not blogging a whole lot these days and was only moved by these recent events to blog now, I want to add this: The future of this country and of Western civilization lies, I now firmly believe, with those who are willing to share constructive ideals and truths in person as well as virtually. To do that, we must be both brave and free--free in heart, at least, and claiming our freedom with our actions as much as we are able. While I'm quite willing and even grateful to use the blessings of technology, and while I hope to continue to have the opportunity to do so and to reach more people that way, we can't convey everything that needs to be conveyed that way. The John MacArthurs of the world, these courageous Canadian pastors and elders, and many others quietly "breaking" the insane lockdown "rules" to meet in their churches, to meet with their friends and neighbors and loved ones, to fall in love without masks and get married, to baptize (which you can't do six feet apart), to hug the grieving, to teach children (yea, even children outside their own households) by standing at their elbows while tutor and student see each others' faces, the builders of incarnate community and interpersonal love are the future of mankind. Does that sound over-the-top to you? So be it. 

I hear people speak of our hope in Jesus and of their hope for revival in the U.S. or in the West. That's all well and good. But the high probability is that revival will bear fruit in the dark, lonely spaces of individual hearts and souls only insofar as those souls become strongly connected to in-person communities of saints and brethren. So pastors: Open up your doors and invite them to come in. And sing. And pray together. And speak the truth about unpopular social subjects, and encourage your people by word and example to be willing to lose everything for the truth. It's the only way. It will hurt. But pain is the price not only of patriotism but also of discipleship.