Friday, April 18, 2014

Rom 1 reply, 49: Hume's argument against miracles defeated by probability . . . NEWSFLASH (not): in 1838, by Charles Babbage in the Ninth Bridgewater Treatise

On Good Friday, it is quite timely to remark on one of the hardy perennials of skepticism in thinking about God, scriptural reports and miraculous acts. Namely, David Hume's arguments  that in effect assert:
1 --> A miracle is a "violation" of a law of nature

2 --> But the laws of nature are established by firm, universal and unalterable experience

3 --> So that in principle a miracle must be established by evidence of such credit that it would be a bigger miracle for it to be wrong than for an error or cheat to have happened.

4 --> However, it is effectively always arguable that, that some error or fraud has happened is a likelier explanation, where also

5 --> Invariably, reports of miracles do not reach a standard of credibility that they are worth taking seriously
In Hume's words, from his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined . . . It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation . . . . 
The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), 'That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish . . . . '
When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened . . .
Sounds pretty conclusive, doesn't it.

 Yes, maybe we can accept a Jesus of history who got in trouble with the local and imperial authorities and came to a sticky end. But don't bother us with silly fairy-tales of his rising from the dead as the Christ of God.

Not so fast, pardnuh.

When you say:
But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country

. . . you are begging some very big questions and -- worse -- without even bothering to seriously assess, you are hyperskeptically dismissing some pretty serious testimony and record paid for in blood. 

Martyr's blood.  Christian martyr's blood.

As in, the standard Greek word for witness became our word for one who peacefully surrendered to death at the hands of persecutors, rather than recant or deny what s/he knows is true as the foundation of his or her Christian faith



And, I also have a bit of an inside track that you are definitively wrong in that dismissiveness about the possibility of miracles. 

You see, absent a miracle of supernatural guidance that saved my life I would not be here to be typing this

And for that matter only a few weeks past I saw -- far too up close and personal for comfort, in the presence of many others -- a DOUBLE miracle. One, demonic (a physical impossibility I will not give details on lest I give credence to Evil), the other . . . the restraint of Evil leading to the rescue and deliverance of the victim . . . clearly a manifestation of the power of the name of that risen Christ and of his sacrifice on the cross c. 30 AD.

When therefore, someone comes to me with the sort of cynical dismissiveness and implied accusation of feeble-mindedness or fraud that is a root of bitterness in what I have just cited, all it tells me . . . and many others, too . . .  is something about the unfortunate want of character and selectively hyperskeptical delusions of the one who swallows that talking-point list, hook, line and sinker. For, given literally millions of lives all around us rescued and transformed by encounter with that same risen Christ, for good reason, every person of reasonable intelligence is duty bound to know better than that sort of cynical skepticism.

Sorry if you find that offensive, but sometimes smug cynicism needs to be pointedly rebuked.

Then, perhaps, we can pause to find and fix some of the crucial errors in Hume's argument that has carried away ever so many; at grave peril to their souls.

(And you do not have to accept that you have a soul, to find yourself in sobering danger of losing it.)

Charles Babbage, C19 Polymath
Let us therefore now begin the correction, by making reference [HT: VJT of UD] to Charles Babbage -- yes, THAT Charles Babbage, the father of the digital, programmable computer (and BTW, when they built a complete unit from his drawings, to precision achievable in the Victorian era, it worked . . . if the British gov't had persisted, the IT revolution would have got off the ground 100 years early . . . ). 

Specifically, let us examine a remark he made in Chapter X of his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise:
The word miraculous employed in [Hume's well-known] passage is evidently equivalent to improbable, although the improbability is of a very high degree. 

The condition, therefore, which, it is asserted by the argument of Hume, must be fulfilled with regard to the testimony [that a miracle has happened], is that the improbability of its falsehood must be greater than the improbability of the occurrence of the fact.

This is a condition which, when the terms in which it is expressed are understood, immediately commands our assent. It is in the subsequent stage of the reasoning that the fallacy is introduced. 
 In short, Babbage accepts the challenge and intends to answer on the issue of relative improbabilities. 

(And of course, I note with C S Lewis, that the actual as alleged improbability of miracles very much hinges on the prior issue of the reality of God as Creator, Eternal Lord and Redeemer, who set up a world that reflects his Divine Order but reserves the right to speak and  act in the world beyond that usual order for good reasons of his own.  Once such is seriously at the table -- and absent inexcusably question-begging hyperskepticism, such must at minimum be at the table for discussion -- then it is by no means a given that miracles, though rare, are vastly or vanishingly improbable. Indeed, as God is a serious candidate necessary being, we may note on the famous S5 axiom, that if such a being is possible, it is actual . . . cf. here on in context. Let us also note Plantinga's observation on S5 clipped from Wikipedia speaking against general ideological interest:  
". . .  under S5, if X is necessarily, possibly, necessarily, possibly true, then X is possibly true. Unbolded qualifiers before the final "possibly" are pruned in S5. [NB: --> S5 is in effect the pruning axiom.] While this is useful for keeping propositions reasonably short, it also might appear counter-intuitive in that, under S5, if something is possibly necessary, then it is necessary.
Alvin Plantinga has argued that this feature of S5 is not, in fact, counter-intuitive. To justify, he reasons that if X is possibly necessary, it is necessary in at least one possible world; hence it is necessary in all possible worlds and thus is true in all possible worlds.  [NB: --> per basic meaning, necessity of being entails existence in all possible worlds, e.g. 2 + 3 = 5 is so in all possible worlds.] Such reasoning underpins 'modal' formulations of the ontological argument."

 . . . Hume's argument thus implicitly pivots on dismissing God as a serious candidate necessary being, or on the suppressed, implicit inference that he is effectively impossible. So, my further challenge is, if THAT is the real issue, debate it, not side-issues and strawman caricatures. E.g. cf. here recently at KF.)

Now, Babbage wants to meet Hume on his own ground, so he immediately continues, picking as target a fatal flaw:
Hume asserts, that this condition cannot be fulfilled by the evidence of any number of witnesses, because our experience of the truth of human testimony is not uniform and without any exceptions; whereas, our experience of the course of nature, or our experience against miracles, is uniform and uninterrupted.

The only sound way of trying the validity of this assertion is to measure the numerical value of the two improbabilities, one of which it is admitted must be greater than the other; and to ascertain whether, by making any hypothesis respecting the veracity of each witness, it is possible to fulfil that condition by any finite number of such witnesses.
He then drives the nail home:
Hume appears to have been but very slightly acquainted with the doctrine of probabilities, and, indeed, at the period when he wrote, the details by which the conclusions he had arrived at could be proved or refuted were yet to be examined and arranged. It is, however, remarkable that the opinion he maintained respecting our knowledge of causation is one which eminently brings the whole question within the province of the calculus of probabilities . . . . 

Let us suppose that there are witnesses who will speak the truth, and who are not themselves deceived in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred. Now, let us examine what is the probability of the falsehood of a statement about to be made by two such persons absolutely unknown to and unconnected with each other.

Since the order in which independent witnesses give their testimony does not affect their credit, we may suppose that, in a given number of statements, both witnesses tell the truth in the ninety-nine first cases, and the falsehood in the hundredth.

Then the first time the second witness B testifies, he will agree with the testimony of the first witness A, in the ninety-nine first cases, and differ from him in the hundredth. Similarly, in the second testimony of B, he will again agree with A in ninety-nine cases, and differ in the hundredth, and so on for ninety-nine times; so that, after A has testified a hundred, and B ninety-nine times, we shall have

99 X 99 cases in which both agree,
99 cases in which they differ, A being wrong. 
Now, in the hundredth case in which B testifies, he is wrong; and, if we combine this with the testimony of A, we have ninety-nine cases in which A will be right and B wrong; and one case only in which both A and B will . [129] agree in error. The whole number of cases, which amounts to ten thousand, may be thus divided: — .

99 x 99 =9801 cases in which A and B agree in truth,
1 x 99 = 99 cases in which B is true and A is false,
99 x 1 = 99 cases in which A is true and B false,
1 x 1 = 1 cases in which both A and B agree in a falsehood.
10,000 cases 
As there is only one case in ten thousand in which two such independent witnesses can agree in error, the probability of their future testimony being false is 

1/10,000 or 1/(100)2
The reader will already perceive how great a reliance is due to the future concurring testimony of two independent witnesses of tolerably good character and understanding. It appears that, previously to the testimony, the chance of one such witness being in error is that of two concurring in the same error (1/100)1 is (1/100)2 and if the same reasoning be applied to three independent witnesses, it will be found that the probability of their agreeing in error is (1/100)3; or that the odds are 999,999 to 1 against the agreement. 

Pursuing the same reasoning,
the probability of the falsehood of a fact which six such independent witnesses attest is, previously to the testimony, (1/100)6 or it is, in round numbers, .
1,000,000,000,000 to 1 against the falsehood of their testimony. [ --> 10^12:1]
This is the crucial step. Babbage here shows the mathematics behind the telling proverbial saying Jesus cited,  
"in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall a word be established." 

That is, in absence of credible evidence of collusion, in the presence of detailed agreement among independent witnesses, we have excellent reason to accept that the common core testimony is so.  Where of course, it is a hallmark of true testimony that we will have diversity of perspective or emphasis and even disagreement on details, but a solid core that emerges all the more as we cross-check and confirm.

Babbage then summarises in light of an estimate of the odds of a man being raised from death: 
The improbability of the miracle of a dead man being restored, is, on the principles stated by Hume, 
1/20 (100)5or it is —
200,000,000.000 to 1 against its occurrence. [200 billion to 1 (--> he gives the basis)]
It follows, then, that the chances of accidental or other independent concurrence of only six such independent witnesses, is already five times as great as the improbability against the miracle of a dead man's being restored to life, deduced from Hume's method of estimating its probability solely from experience.
That is worth noting, but the pivotal point has already been made: coherent, credibly independent testimony is a powerful inductive proof.  Babbage, aptly, concludes:
 it results that, provided we assume that independent witnesses can be found of whose testimony it can be stated that it is more probable that it is true than that it is false, we can always assign a number of witnesses which will, according to Hume's argument, prove the truth of a miracle.
Where also, because of the exponential nature of the result, the requisite number, n, is surprisingly small.

Now, of course, the obvious case of a man being raised from the dead that Hume refused to directly identify by name and address on the specific merits is the resurrection of Jesus

So, let us cite the classic primary source text in Paul's first epistle to Corinth, c. 55 AD, which documents -- some 25 years after the event while most of the eyewitnesses were still alive --  the standard, summary statement of the testimony of the leading witnesses . . . altogether about 20. 

A summary that in the underlying oral form credibly dates to 35 - 38 AD, i.e. within a few years of the event; namely:
1 Cor 15:1 Now I would remind you, brothers,[a] of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:
  •  that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 
  • that he was buried,
  •  that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and 
  • that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
  •   Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.
  •   Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
  •   Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me . . . .
 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.

  14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope[b] in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. 

 20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. [ESV, bullets added to highlight the list of facts and witnesses.]
Now, too, there is another factor that we must reckon with.

For, generally speaking friends are highly unlikely to misidentify a colleague they have worked closely with for years, when they sit to supper with him. Similarly, we can fairly easily tell a live man from one brutally whipped and put to death by agonising torture culminating in a death-cry, made sure of by a spear thrust. Likewise, we commonly can tell which of a list of events across several days came first, second, third, etc. 

In short, the witnesses actually testify to quite ordinary (and sometimes very sad) things: supper with Jesus, his betrayal, unjust trials and sentence, public execution by the brutal means that were then all too common, etc. Nothing in these things is extraordinary in itself. That is, the miracle of resurrection does not lie in what was experienced directly, but in the implications of a timeline: Jesus had two suppers with his disciples, one Thursday night, one Sunday night. Only, between these two events, he was betrayed and judicially murdered, then buried and guarded (against terrified disciples who had literally run for their lives).

The miracle lies in the timeline, and in the list of encounters with Jesus across that fateful first Easter Sunday, culminating in supper on Sunday night.

So, skeptics like Hume have a problem.

The Disciples are NOT testifying to the extraordinary, save by implication.

Nor will it do to try to dismiss the chain of custody of the key documents:

That chain is as solid as we are going to get from events from 2,000 years ago.

And, we can identify about 20 of the witnesses listed. There are too many, under too diverse a set of circumstances to make dismissive notions like hallucination even remotely reasonable. Besides, hallucinations have to come from ideas in currency. Jesus' resurrection cut across the Jewish eschatological thought in that day.

So, we are back at 20 identifiable witnesses, and five hundred in total.

None -- none -- of whom could be turned, not in the face of dungeons, whips, fire, sword and worse.

Beyond that, across twenty centuries now, we have millions who have been transformed for the good by encounter with the Living God in the face of Jesus, through the gospels and scriptures that ever so many are inclined to despise and cavalierly dismiss today.

Let me close off by citing one of those witnesses, facing public crucifixion at the hands of the demonically mad Nero, who was hoping to divert suspicion regarding the July 18, 64 AD fire in Rome, by falsely blaming the Christians. 

Who were a despised minority; just as is again so, today.

Peter speaks, c.64 -  65 AD:
2 Peter 1:13 I think it right, as long as I am in this body,[h] to stir you up by way of reminder, 14 since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me.

  15 And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 

 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son,[i] with whom I am well pleased,” 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 

19 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation.

  21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. [ESV]
So, now, whose report will we believe, why, to what result? END

PS: Lee Stroebel speaks out: