I once thought David Hume's reasons for being skeptical about scientific laws were inconsistent with his arguments against miracles. He argues that we can't know about scientific laws or causes, because all we perceive are one thing happening followed by another thing happening. We don't perceive any causing, just the things we take to be cause and effect. Our taking it to be cause and effect is thoroughly irrational, Hume says, and thus we know nothing about whether there are any causes or scientific laws. For all we know, a ball you throw into the air could come back down, as you expect it, or it could turn into a bird and fly away. We expect it to do the former, but there's no reason we have to think it can't do the latter.
Hume goes on to say that we should never believe in miracles, because you should always proportion your belief to the evidence, and there is zero evidence for miracles. He rules out the very possibility of miracles, it seems, and he does this in the very same work where he has spent so much time setting up worries about whether our entire scientific understanding of the world might be wrong, leaving us with the result that, for all we know, basketballs might turn into seagulls and fly away. How can he consistently say both of these things?
But then I read Hume more closely in subsequent readings, and I came to the conclusion that Hume's approach is consistent after all. What he says in his skepticism about science is that we don't know there are scientific laws of the sort that we believe in if we think one thing makes another happen. He also says that, for all we know, unexpected things that would seem to violate the laws of physics that we believe in could be possible. But he does go on to give a pragmatist account of why we might as well believe in scientific laws anyway, since it's served us well so far, and it's not as if we can help it anyway. It's also not as if we have a choice.
But then in the miracles chapter, he gives a careful argument. He first defines probability as how often something happens in our own personal experience. Then he says that, if you haven't experienced miracles, it follows that miracles have zero probability. But why, then, could he say that plants could sprout legs and start walking around, as far as we know? Isn't that like a miracle? But he's careful here. If we believe that a plant did such a thing, we'd be believing in a miracle. We shouldn't do that, because it has zero probability. It's never happened, in my experience, so I should think it has zero probability. At the same time, I can't rule it out. So it's not impossible, as far as I know. If I did witness it, I'd have to proportion my beliefs with the evidence I then had. But as it is, I shouldn't believe in such things. I should just believe in their possibility, but I shouldn't allow for anything more than zero probability.
The key here is in defining probability in terms of how often it's happened in your experience, while defining possibility in terms of whether it's consistent with your experience. Something could then have zero probability but be well within the realm of possibility. So, because of that, I came to think that Hume's view was indeed consistent, even if it's a strange set of views.
But now I've become convinced again that there's a deep inconsistency in Hume's approach to these two issues. It has to do with his willingness to extend pragmatist arguments toward functioning the way we ordinarily do with respect to the scientific skepticism he begins with, while not extending pragmatism toward functioning the way we ordinarily do with the issue of miracles. He accepts our ordinary views on scientific laws, even though he insists that such beliefs are irrational and not grounded in anything more likely to produce true beliefs than crystal-ball gazing, at least as far as we can be sure. He relies on the testimony of other people in order to believe in regularities in nature that he can rely on to live his life. He refuses to accept the testimony of other people when it comes to miracles, however.
Earlier this week the NYT published a critique of Genesis based on, of all things, the appearance of camels within its narratives, and I'm starting to see more and more discussion of this, virtually all of it simply repeating the claims of that article, without much at all in the way of careful reflection on the problems in the broader thesis that it puts forward, which I don't think the evidence actually supports.
This isn't actually a very new objection. Scholars have long objected that there isn't a lot of evidence of domesticated animals within the Canaanite region during that time. But there is evidence of domesticated animals in Egypt and Mesopotamia during the period Genesis describes, and the NYT article even mentions that, and it says they were more commonly used more by those nomadic peoples living in the more desert regions. The only thing new here is some carbon dating of the bones of camels, along with techniques for measuring properties of the bone, which can allow them to determine whether they were wild or domesticated and had to carry greater weight for much of the time.
I think there are several reasons to be very skeptical of the conclusions the NYT article draws. Here are a few:
1. Genesis doesn't report lots of camels being used during the time of the patriarchs, as the article claims. They are sometimes listed among the animals they owned, but usually it's in smaller numbers, and the only reports of their being used for riding are to cross the desert regions or when referring to nomadic peoples like the Midianites who lived within such regions.
2. Abraham and Lot had to cross that desert to get to Canaan, and the only animals they could have used would have been camels. The NYT article even says that no other animals would be able to make that journey so easily, and even their skepticism doesn't apply to that sort of trip. So if Abraham did come from a region where camels were used regularly at this time (as the article admits), and he had to use them to cross the desert (as the article admits), it stands to reason that he wouldn't have killed them all when he got there and would have had at least a small enough number remaining when he had to send his servant to find a wife for Isaac and so on, and we know they kept their own cultural identity and may have been hesitant to trade their camels because of their relatively small number and inability or procure more while there. They might have increased in number during the time he was living in Canaan, as long as there were only a relatively small number of them in this period, belonging precisely to his family, but that doesn't mean we should think there would be evidence of the larger number of them that the NYT article seems to expect there would be if they had them.
3. Abraham is portrayed as being rich, and the existence of a small number of camels in the lists of animals he owned is presented in the book as evidence of his wealth. If they were common around him, the small number of camels would seem insignificant compared with the huge number of other animals he had. But even a smaller number is presented as evidence of his great wealth. So the portrayal of his camels in the book fits nicely with the claim that the locals didn't have them.
4. If his family only used them when traveling across the desert or on long journeys (as the narrative itself indicates) but just maintained them as domesticated by not pack animals or riding animals, then even the ones that they did have might not have appeared to be domesticated by the methods of measuring the bone density and such that these scientists have been using.
5. So I think at best the conclusion being put forward here goes way beyond the evidence. If someone were to conclude from the Genesis narrative that camels were being used throughout the Canaanite region the way the article assumes the book presents things, then it would create a problem. It's still an argument from silence, but it would be odd for there to be no preserved camels from this period if they were that commonly used. But the Genesis narrative doesn't present such a picture, and there's no reason to think the picture it does present is unlikely to have produced the (lack of) evidence this new research provides.
I recently rewatched the 1975 Doctor Who episode "Genesis of the Daleks" by Terry Nation. Some online discussions I looked at about "Genesis of the Daleks" made some interesting, and to my mind obviously false, claims about how it fits (or doesn't) into the overall canonical fictional world of Doctor Who.
One claim in particular claim that caught my interest was the accusation that Terry Nation contradicted some of his earlier Doctor Who episodes about the Daleks in giving the origin of the Daleks in this serial. One discussion pointed out that Nation had made an effort not to contradict his first serial "The Daleks" from 1963, where he establishes the Daleks as creations of a race called the Dals in their war against the Thals. The supposed contradiction comes with "Genesis of the Daleks" when Nation actually shows us this war between the Thals and the race that created the Daleks, and the creator race is not called the Dals but is called The Kaleds.
Here's my problem. This is not a contradiction. A contradiction takes the form 'P and not-P". There is nothing of that form here. What you do have is:
1. The race who created the Daleks at the time of the Daleks' creation called themselves the Kaleds.
2. The Thals also called them the Kaleds at that time.
3. At a much later time, probably many centuries later, after an apocalyptic destruction of all civilization and a loss of a good deal of accurate information about the details of that earlier time, someone speaks of the race that created the Daleks as the Dals.
I'm sorry, but I'm not seeing how any of that makes for an inconsistency. If we were sure the person telling us they were called the Dals was speaking the truth, that would even be difficult to get a contradiction, because it's possible they came to be called the Dals at some time after "Genesis of the Daleks" or that they were called that at some earlier time, and that name came to be the more common one to use again after the apocalypse. But we can't even be sure the Thal telling us this has the right information. Maybe it's just that the wrong name was preserved. There are quite a number of things that could explain how 1-3 might all be true. Terry Nation simply did not contradict his earlier Dalek stories. What he did is use a different name without explaining why different names were used at those two different times, but it's not a contradiction.
I think there's a certain personality type that just likes to find contradictions in everything. A lot of fan criticism of science fiction and fantasy stories exhibits similar problems to the one I've been discussing here. I could point out lots of other examples. That doesn't mean there aren't legitimate criticisms to level against authors. I've criticized J.K. Rowling in print about her concept of changing the past in the third Harry Potter novel, although I did so after pointing out some rather implausible ways of making the story work to avoid the problem I raised. The implausibility there would involve reliable narrators who would know better telling untruths, however, which is more of a stretch than someone centuries after an apocalyptic event getting a name of an extinct civilization wrong or the possibility that the group was actually called by two different names.
How you evaluate such attempts to make canonical worlds coherent in part does depend on how plausible the explanation might be to avoid the contradiction. It's nice for fictional worlds to be coherent. Sometimes that's impossible. Sometimes it involves an implausibility but is possible. And sometimes it's not all that implausible if you just think a little harder to see how things might fit together, when at first they seem not to.
It's hard not to think of critics who like to find contradictions in the Bible when I look at these stories. There are some genuine difficulties in fitting together some parts of the Bible. I've never seen one that guarantees a contradiction, especially when you take into account that inerrantists don't take the current manuscripts to be inerrant but allow for errors in transcription from manuscript to manuscript. But I have seen places where it's not easy to come up with one highly plausible explanation that shows for sure why the apparent contradiction is not a real one. In most of them, there have been several explanations, where not one stands out as the most plausible, and even most of them involve something somewhat unlikely but possible. There's none I know of where I would judge all the explanations as so implausible as to require rational evaluators to think it has to involve two contradictory statements that can't be resolved. But I'm coming from an epistemological standpoint where I think the prior plausibility is relatively high. I consider myself to be in a position where I think I have good reasons for taking the Bible as it presents itself, as God's word, and it follows from that that it's more likely that there is a solution even if I don't know what it is than that there isn't. So I'm going to take the less-plausible-sounding accounts as less certain, but I'm going to be more likely to think that one of them is probably true.
That's one difference with fictional worlds. I don't believe there even are Daleks or Time Lords, never mind that the entire Doctor Who canon is consistent. (I think it certainly isn't coherent when it comes to fundamental questions of time travel, for example.) But someone who thinks God is real and is basically the way God is presented in the Bible is going to place a higher prior probability on there being some resolution to a proposed contradiction than someone who has no prior trust in those documents. And I would argue that someone doing this is right to do so if the prior probability is based on a good epistemic state to begin with. And that makes accepting truth in texts that are hard to fit together much easier to do (and not in a way that undermines rationality, assuming the prior probability itself has a rational grounding.
That assumption of prior probability, of course, is one of the fundamental disputes to begin with, but you can't just assume at the outset that someone who is more willing to trust a set of scriptures is wrong in doing so, and pointing to potential contradictions isn't necessarily going to turn the tide of the conversation unless you first undermine the prior probability. Supposed but not actual contradictions, even if they are difficult to put together, are therefore very weak evidence against the coherence of a worldview when the person who holds that worldview is more sure of it than they are of the irresolvability of the supposed contradiction. That makes for people coming from very different standpoints evaluating the supposed contradictions very differently, and from within their world view each seems to themselves to be right in how they do that. That's something that I think not enough people on either side of such debates can see.
This is the fourth post in an ongoing series of reflections on the gospel of Mark, which I haven't been very good at keeping up with. I think at this point I might just abandon it, because the long list of posts I had ready to go disappeared with my hard drive when it failed, and I'm not excited about figuring out again what I wanted to do. Also, I was doing this as I was working through the first half of Mark in a Bible study group that I'm not able to attend this semester because it meets while I'm teaching. I wanted to gather together some of the thoughts I did save in a draft of a post a number of months ago, though. Perhaps at some point I'll decide to do some more of these now and then, but this will be the last I expect to do for now.
What I wanted to do in the post I had saved as a draft was to consider two subtle clues even in the beginning of the book of Mark that run counter to a prevailing view among scholars. A number of respected scholars have claimed that Mark represents an early portrait of Jesus from a time before what the scholars call a higher christology had developed. The idea is that Jesus wasn't perceived to be anything other than the Messiah at first, and eventually he came to be identified as God. This usually puts John's gospel as the height of the high christology, at least within the New Testament itself. They might still consider the creeds a step or two beyond that.
I don't want to challenge the idea that theological understanding developed over time. Nor am I interested in arguing that every nuance to the Johannine portrait of Jesus is in the synoptic gospels, never mind in Mark, the most simple of the synoptics by many measures, including with regard to theological statements. What I want to point out is that the gospel of Mark has two important references even in the first two chapters (in Mark 1:3 and 2:10) to things that entail, but do not make explicit, a fairly high christology.
There's a debate within those who believe in some sort of rational defense of Christianity about how it should be done. The main lines of the debate are between what I call the classical apologetics view and the presuppositional view. I've never understood the presuppositionalist position, and all the arguments I've ever seen in favor of it seem so bad to me that I have to think there's something to the view beyond what people seem to me to be saying, but I've still seen no evidence that anyone has a better statement of the view and its claims than the bad ones I've so far seen. I've finally gotten around to putting together my thoughts on why I think presuppositionalism is fundamentally mistaken.
Not too long ago my wife and I finished reading through Matthew's gospel, and my own reading of the gospel strikes me as so far removed from the direction of a lot of scholarship. There seems to be a sense among some scholars that Matthew had a loose view of history and just sort of made things up about Jesus, not caring if many of it really happened. There's also this contrary sense from the same people that Matthew looked long and hard to find passages in the Hebrew scriptures that were vaguely similar to events in Jesus' life, usually resulting in huge stretches of the imagination to try to connect the two as if the first had been a prophecy of the second.
This combination creates a strong tension. How can it be both that Matthew twists OT passages way out of context and that he invents stories that never happened to fulfill those same OT passages? If he was in the business of inventing stories that never happened, he could have made it so that they were closer to the events as described in the OT passages he's referencing. That suggests that he's not simply inventing stories and finding OT passages to fit them. I think it's absolutely obvious and not even an open question that there are many levels of what it might mean to fulfill something, and Matthew is well aware of that.
The view I'm questioning assumes only the kind of fulfillment that simplistic apologists assume when they say that a reference to an OT passage is about Jesus simply because the NT references it, then listing countless passages and giving the sum of all this as an argument that Jesus must have been who he said he was because he fulfilled so many prophecies. Not all the fulfillment in the NT is that kind of fulfillment, as if some prophet said something and it was about Jesus and not about anything else.
Some people say something like the following:
"You can't quote the Bible to prove the Bible because it's circular reasoning."
There's something about what they're saying that's right. The following is a bad argument:
1. The Bible says it's the word of God.
2. I can trust what it says, since it's the word of God.
3. Therefore, I can trust it when it says it's the word of God, so I should believe that it's the word of God.
However, that's not the only thing someone can mean when saying that the Bible can count as evidence for Christianity. I have in mind a very different kind of argument. What Christians call the Old Testament (and what scholars today call the Hebrew Bible) could have taken something like 1500 years to produce, perhaps shorter but certainly well over 1000 years even by liberal estimates (though how much of it one says is early depends on one's presuppositions). Adding in the New Testament (or Greek Bible, if you prefer that name) brings it to 1500-2000 years. Think about what's happened in the last 2000 years.
Two related arguments come to mind. One has to do with prophecy. The other is from the unity of the Bible.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.