Saturday, July 26, 2008

Matt 24 watch, 63: Astronaut Edgar Mitchell's UFO revelations -- whose report do we believe, why?

This week, 77 year old US Apollo 14 Astronaut Dr Edgar Mitchell, made some remarks on UFO's -- Unidentified Flying Objects -- that have hit at least a few headlines around the world.

In the UK Telegraph's report, we may see that:

Dr Edgar Mitchell, said he was aware of several UFO visits during his career, but each one had been covered up . . . . [he] said sources at [NASA] the [American] space agency had described aliens as resembling "little people who look strange to us".

Dr Mitchell told Kerrang! Radio that human technology was "not nearly as sophisticated" as theirs and had they been hostile, he warned: "We would be been gone by now" . . . . "There's not much question at all that there's life throughout the universe, we are not alone at all. I'm most assured about that.

"Have we been able to identify where the other planets are? No, certainly not in our Solar System but we have been able to identify quite a number of planets that could be life bearing planets.

"I happen to have been privileged enough to be in on the fact that we've been visited on this planet and the UFO phenomena is real.

"It's been well covered up by all our governments for the last 60 years or so, but slowly it's leaked out and some of us have been privileged to have been briefed on some of it.

"I've been in military and intelligence circles, who know that beneath the surface of what has been public knowledge, yes – we have been visited.

"Reading the papers recently, it's been happening quite a bit." . . . .

Now, if this is true, it would indeed be earth-shaking news, not only that "we are not alone," but that there would have been a decades long conspiracy across several major governments to conceal the truth from us.

But, should we believe the claim?

Why, or why not?

That is a far more interesting issue, and brings to mind my recent devotional reading from John 8, just after Jesus had routed those who wanted to use the incident of the woman caught in the act of adultery to pose a dilemma to discredit or even destroy him:

JN 8:12 When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

JN 8:13 The Pharisees challenged him, "Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid."

JN 8:14 Jesus answered, "Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. 15 You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one . . . . "

JN 8:23 But he continued, "You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins."

JN 8:25 "Who are you?" they asked.

"Just what I have been claiming all along," Jesus replied. 26 "I have much to say in judgment of you. But he who sent me is reliable, and what I have heard from him I tell the world."

JN 8:27 They did not understand that he was telling them about his Father. 28 So Jesus said, "When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. 29 The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him."

So, we come now to the underlying issue of the trustworthiness of testimony: Whose report do -- or, should -- we believe, why?

Dr Mitchell's story gives us a first clue:

"[he] said he was aware of several UFO visits during his career, but each one had been covered up . . . . [he] said sources at [NASA] the [American] space agency had described aliens as resembling "little people who look strange to us."

In short, he acknowledges that he was not himself an eyewitness, but is reporting at second or third hand. Hearsay. (By contrast, observe the John 8 account: Jesus here says he was speaking at first hand from personal knowledge of the facts, which makes his testimony valid as testimony.)

We can go further.

It turns out that Dr Mitchell is a long-time UFO aficionado, and according to for instance so humble a first quick look source as Wikipedia, he has long had new age leanings. Similarly, in a world of the guesswork-based Drake equation and the recent wave of discoveries of extra-solarsystem earth-like planets, the idea that there are a lot of inhabited worlds out there is a commonplace. So is belief in UFO's, at least among enthusiasts -- and indeed this author as an enthusiastic High Schooler had a brief "UFO sighting" experience in the early 1970's.

However, plainly, before taking such statements of testimony or even experience at face value, it would be wise to get some corroboration.

A subtlety lurks -- and this is where my own interest has been sparked.

For, in the case of the citation from John, we are dealing with an ancient source [so that the eyewitnesses are long since dead], and one that is often hotly disputed or even coolly dismissed as anything but credible testimony to anything that happened on the ground in Judaea twenty centuries ago.

So, we must ask: how do we set about sifting wheat from chaff on matters of disputed testimony and claimed records of such testimony?

This is not so easy, but Simon Greenleaf, the justly famous C19 Harvard Law School Professor and a founding father of the modern theory of evidence has summarised some significant courtroom principles that will help us greatly:

1] THE ANCIENT DOCUMENTS RULE: Every document, apparently ancient, coming from the proper repository or custody, and bearing on its face no evident marks of forgery, the law presumes to be genuine, and devolves on the opposing party the burden of proving it to be otherwise. [p.16.]

2] Conversance: In matters of public and general interest, all persons must be presumed to be conversant, on the principle that individuals are presumed to be conversant with their own affairs. [p. 17.]

3] On Inquiries and Reports: If [a report] were "the result of inquiries, made under competent public authority, concerning matters in which the public are concerned" it would . . . be legally admissible . . . To entitle such results, however, to our full confidence, it is not necessary that they be obtained under a legal commission; it is sufficient if the inquiry is gravely undertaken and pursued, by a person of competent intelligence, sagacity and integrity. The request of a person in authority, or a desire to serve the public, are, to all moral intents, as sufficient a motive as a legal commission. [p. 25.]

4] Probability of Truthfulness: In trials of fact, by oral testimony, the proper inquiry is not whether it is possible that the testimony may be false, but whether there is a sufficient probability that it is true. [p. 28.]

5] Criteria of Proof: A proposition of fact is proved, when its truth is established by competent and satisfactory evidence. By competent evidence is meant such as the nature of the thing to be proved requires; and by satisfactory evidence is meant that amount of proof, which ordinarily satisfies an unprejudiced mind, beyond any reasonable doubt. [pp. 28 - 9.]

6] Credibility of Witnesses: In the absence of circumstances which generate suspicion, every witness is to be presumed credible, until the contrary is shown; the burden of impeaching his credibility lying on the objector. [p. 29]

7] Credit due to testimony: The credit due to the testimony of witnesses depends upon, firstly, their honesty; secondly, their ability; thirdly, their number and the consistency of their testimony; fourthly, the conformity of their testimony with experience; and fifthly, the coincidence of their testimony with collateral circumstances. [p.31.]

8] Ability of a Witness to speak truth: the ability of a witness to speak the truth depends on the opportunities which he has had for observing the facts, the accuracy of his powers of discerning, and the faithfulness of his memory in retaining the facts, once observed and known . . . It is always to be presumed that men are honest, and of sound mind, and of the average and ordinary degree of intelligence . . . Whenever an objection is raised in opposition to ordinary presumptions of law, or to the ordinary experience of mankind, the burden of proof is devolved on the objector. [pp. 33 - 4.]

9] Internal coherence and external corroboration: Every event which actually transpires has its appropriate relation and place in the vast complication of circumstances, of which the affairs of men consist; it owes its origin to the events which have preceded it, it is intimately connected with all others which occur at the same time and place, and often with those of remote regions, and in its turn gives birth to numberless others which succeed. In all this almost inconceivable contexture, and seeming discord, there is perfect harmony; and while the fact, which really happened, tallies exactly with every other contemporaneous incident, related to it in the remotest degree, it is not possible for the wit of man to invent a story, which, if closely compared with the actual occurrences of the same time and place, may not be shown to be false. [p. 39.]

10] Marks of false vs true testimony: a false witness will not willingly detail any circumstances in which his testimony will be open to contradiction, nor multiply them where there is a danger of his being detected by a comparison of them with other accounts, equally circumstantial . . . . [False witnesses] are often copious and even profuse in their statements, as far as these may have been previously fabricated, and in relation to the principal matter; but beyond this, all will be reserved and meagre, from fear of detection . . . in the testimony of the true witness there is a visible and striking naturalness of manner, and an unaffected readiness and copiousness in the detail of circumstances, as well in one part of the narrative as another, and evidently without the least regard to the facility or difficulty of verification or detection . . . the increased number of witnesses to circumstances, and the increased number of circumstances themselves, all tend to increase the probability of detection if the witnesses are false. [pp. 39 - 40.]

11] Procedure: let the witnesses be compared with themselves, with each other, and with surrounding facts and circumstances.[p. 42.]
12] The degree of coherence expected of true witnesses: substantial truth, under circumstantial variety. There is enough of discrepancy to show that there could have been no previous concert among them, and at the same time such substantial agreement as to show that they all were independent narrators of the same great transaction, as the events actually occurred. [p.34. All cites from The Testimony of the Evangelists (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Classics, 1995).]

In the case of John 8, of course, we have the Rylands codex [book-form] papyrus fragment from Egypt, ~ 125 - 150 AD, hundreds of miles from the probable place of composition in or near Ephesus, Asia Minor. This early publication in codex format strongly supports that the Gospel, one of the last NT documents to be written, is indeed a C1 document -- and indeed, the very first circle of writing Church Fathers, AD 96 - 112, cite or allude to it. An unbroken, continent-wide chain of custody takes the document thereafter right down to the invention of printing. Fraudulent or inadvertent material distortion of the record is simply not on the cards.

That is, it is effectively morally certain that the document records a C1 Christian account of Jesus.

But, is it likely to be an eyewitness account, and is it likely to be valid and trustworthy?

For many, immediately as they see the element of the miraculous, they dismiss: we "know," scientifically, that miracles are impossible -- laws of nature get to be such, only because they are exception-less.

However, this begs the question, whether at the gross level of inferring from finitely many fallibly observed cases to what "must" be, or at the more subtle Humean level of asserting that any other explanation than accepting the reality of miracles is to be preferred; as we know of no exceptions to the laws of nature per universal experience of such laws. (But in the face of abundant contemporary testimony and massive record across the ages to the contrary, how do we know -- without begging the question -- that all of these accounts are and must be false?)

In fact, we may make no proper exclusion of the miraculous based on finite and fallible observations of what usually obtains -- miracles, by definition will be exceptional and to stand out as signs that point to something beyond nature, would have to exist in a context where there is a usual, orderly and predictable course of nature. Miracles would be invsible in a chaotic, disorderly world in which anything can and does happen willy nilly. (And reesponsible choice would be impossible in such a world too, i.e morality would evaporate, as would knowledge and reason.)

So, existence of generally observed natural law is simply not sufficient to rule out the possibility of miraculous "exceptions" to the general pattern. or, better stated: what is an exception to a narrower pattern, may well be an instance of a wider one. For, if God has made an orderly natural world, he may have good reason to act in it from time to time in extraordinary ways.

Moreover, in a Christian context, we have twenty centuries of testimony to the miraculous through the name of Jesus, not just in remote areas or times, but in the lives of many in today's world; including many of the most sophisticated and educated. Such testimony in aggregate carries weight, serious weight.

Most important of all, to explain the otherwise inexplicable, life-transforming and wonder-working power of that name in prayer, we have the resurrection of Jesus, as testified to by over five hundred eyewitnesses, and recorded as early as 55 AD within 25 - 30 years of the event, in 1 Cor 15:1 - 11. Up to twenty of those witnesses are named or identifiable, and NONE of them were ever shaken in their testimony, not even in the face of the most horrible threats, tortures and deaths.

A conspiracy or mass hallucination to propagate such a story is simply even more incredible than the resurrection of Jesus.

Coming back to John's account, for just one instance, the way in which he casually, artlessly, and naturally refers to many geographical, cultural and historical scenes and facts in pre-AD 70 Judaea and Galilee, is a point on which he can be and was checked in details. A point that he would not have anticipated being checked on, as the idea of Archaeology is a most modern one.

The reporter in John, as it turns out on checking, is right, which in a context where there was a massively destructive war AD 66 - 70+, speaks to the authenticity of the claim to be eyewitness, truthful testimony.

As Warren E. Berkley nicely summarises:

The author was a Jew. He understood and quoted from the Old Testament (12:40;13:18; 19:37). He knew and understood Jewish customs (2:1-10; 3:25; 11:55; 11:38,44; 19:40). He knew and understood the Jewish expectation of the coming Messiah (1:19-18). He was aware of the religious differences between Jews and Samaritans (4:9,20). The writer was a Jew. A Jew from Palestine. He knew the pool of Bethesda had five porches (5:2). {Archaeologists have unearthed the five porticoes of the pool of Bethesda by the Sheep Gate. Among many scholars who were not asked to participate in the Jesus Seminar, there is a new consensus of confidence in John due to these recent discoveries. Some have even asserted that John's record is more reliable than the synoptics (Smalley, quoted in THE EVIDENCE FOR JESUS, by France, p.#131)}. But further, he knew that Bethany was only fifteen furlongs away from Jerusalem (11:18). He knew that Ephraim was near the wilderness (11:54). He knew that the Garden of Gethsemane was on the other side of the brook Kidron (18:1). He knew that there was a paved area outside of the praetorium (19:13). He was aware of the region of Samaria and that Jacob's well was located in Sychar (4:5-6), and that it was deep (4:11). Again, archaeologists have found this well. He knew about the sacred mountain of Samaritan worship (4:20-21). He was aware of Galilee (1:44,46; 2:1,2). Another interesting feature of John is that, when compared with the Synoptics, his Gospel consistently gives more references to chronology, geography, topography, and the like. As recently as 1961 an inscription was discovered in Caesarea, providing for the first time extra-biblical corroboration of Pilate as Judea's prefect during the time of Christ.

Also, the writer was an eye-witness of what happened. He does not state his name, but there are traces of his own hand in the gospel. "We beheld his glory," (1:14). He knew the number of pots used at the wedding at Cana (2:6). He knew the value of the anointing perfume (12:5). He was at the crucifixion (19:33-35). He knew the distance from the shore of the apostles boat and the number of fish caught (21:8,11). "This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true," (21:24).

So the writer was a Jew from Palestine, who was an eye-witness and he was a master of accuracy in chronology, geography and history. Also, an apostle, "whom Jesus loved." . . . . if it is true that he was an apostle, and one of the inner three, and he was not Peter, or James [cf the details in the linked], then he must have been the Apostle John, the son of Zebedee.

So, we have good reason to infer that John was written by the traditional author, John Zebedee, the beloved disciple and the only one to live to truly old age and die a more or less natural death.

So, this brings us right back to the key challenge: whose report will we believe, why?

Should we believe Dr Mitchell's hearsay account, or the recorded, carefully transmitted eyewitness testimony of John Zebedee?

Again, and again (with our souls potentially in the balance), why, or why not? END

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