Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tim and Lydia McGrew on the Resurrection, part 4

[Continued from Part 3.]

I hope that by now readers - you better have read the previous parts if you are reading this! - understand that the McGrews' CCRJ cannot be dismissed in an ordinary blog comment which spells out things that are intuitive and obvious to a layman. I hope that I've convinced you already not to invest too heavily in highly dubious alternative explanations to the Resurrection. (I would hope that I wouldn't have to say that.) And I hope you have some idea of what to expect now that we are now actually calculating a Bayes factor to replace that proposed by the McGrews on their assumptions, roughly how we can expect to do that, and the limitations on our conclusions which that method imposes.

As I mentioned in Part 3, I for some time avoided mentioning explicitly the set of salient facts. As one reason, I gave that I do not accept the relevance of that set of salient facts. In particular, I do not think that the conversion of Paul should significantly affect a cumulative Bayes factor. Now that we've checked the depth of the waters so as to avoid high-diving into a kiddie-pool, we may now safely plunge into the subject. Recall that the McGrews place a value of 103 on the Bayes factor derived from conditioning on Paul's Damascene moment (See CCRJ pp.37-9 for their argument):

More specifically (p.39):


As against this, I propose that


where the bi-directional arrow denotes the equivalence of these claims. That equivalence is mathematically trivial, but conceptually challenging: why should I expect Paul's conversion to be equally likely whether or not the Resurrection occurred? I give a hint - also mentioned by the McGrews but not adequately pursued - that there is a qualitative difference between P and the other facts - recall that namely these are the women's testimony (W) and the witness of the disciples (D). I'll give another hint: how significant would Paul's conversion be in contrast to the range of reasonable argument over the contribution of the disciples - which alone, to the McGrews, is 1039 if you recall - if the factor produced by Paul's conversion can only be convincingly argued to be something as low as 5 or 10? In answering these, understand why I am not requiring that all involved recognize an exact equality. Given this sense of approximation and that I will be successful, reintroducing Paul's conversion as a significant fact should only be done after accepting that the more direct witness testimony is far less powerful and that the important range of priors includes some relatively large odds on the Resurrection.

The McGrews expend most of their brief effort on p(P|~R) and may not give any argument for p(P|R) at all. They say that "on the assumption of R there is no difficulty whatever in accounting for P" (p.39), making no other argument, unless their emphasizing that Paul would later insist on a physical resurrection is significant (p.38). On the contrary, I do not think that the facts around Paul's conversion support this `no difficulty' assertion at all. To see how this is the case, let's think about how their comments at the expense of a significant p(P|~R) reflect on p(P|R):
Delusions that change the minds of vicious persecutors and transform them into faithful martyrs are unfortunately quite rare; one looks in vain for comparable conversions among the notorious murdering zealots of the ages. (p.38)
While I think we probably can find cases with important parallels, I'm not sure that the McGrews want to insist on this statement. If the Resurrection had occurred and is supposed to make at all probable that someone like Paul would be transformed through a vision into an apostle, why then are Pauls so rare? Do we lack similar circumstances where a persecuted Church is suffering under a hostile regime? We can ask other uncomfortable questions as well. Why would we expect Jesus to wait for martyrs like Stephen to become such before making Paul a martyr? Is that how we should expect Jesus to send messages? Why should skeptics accept that, and further, if that is the case, why are Pauls so rare? And why Paul? If he was, as the McGrews insist, an unrepentant, guiltless zealot up to the Damascene moment, why not appear to more powerful persecutors? Why wait until the 4th century to send the Emperor a sign? Nothing about the Resurrection makes Paul's conversion likely, and if it did, we may generate a powerful argument against the Resurrection from the rarity of such conversions.

Before going further, something needs to be said about the inconsistencies in the scriptures describing Paul's conversion. I agree with the McGrews that one should not make too much of the minor inconsistencies in scripture, which they admit while pointing out that this is what we expect of any historical text (p.6). I'm not interested in inviting the hyper-literalists to the discussion. But I think that they are incautious wherever those non-fatal inconsistencies emerge. As I will discuss later, this is also important when they are describing some (relatively minor) secular facts surrounding the witness of the disciples. I think, in the argumentation for Paul's contribution especially, that the McGrews are sometimes uncharacteristically lax, uncharitable to skeptics, and preemptively dismissive. But then, this essay is part of an anthology, and there may have been space constraints. This would not excuse the casualness with which they approach these details, but it is worth keeping that eventuality in mind, along with the tentative and very restrictive nature of their conclusions.

To support these strong statements:

1. They claim that Jesus appeared to Paul in the flesh (p.38). To cut a quote from Loftus out of context and into context:
...Paul [claimed] to have experienced the resurrected Jesus in what is surely a visionary experience (so we read in Acts 26:19, cf. II Cor. 12:1-6; Rev. 1:10-3:21--although he didn't actually see Jesus, Acts 9:4-8; 22:7-11; 26:13-14)...
I have not seen McGrews cite Revelations, but Acts and II Corinthians are in necessary, regular appearance, and it is in Acts that it is not said that Paul actually saw Jesus, but only heard a voice. For example:
And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. (KJV Acts 9:4-9)
This passage also says that Paul's companions heard a voice. That is explicitly contradicted elsewhere. This the McGrews recognize and accordingly claim to place no weight on the experience of Paul's companions earlier in CCRJ (p.24). They do appear to insist on the visual hallucination (p.25), however, but I'm unsure as to whether the difference between a visual, as opposed to merely auditory, vision is supposed to have a great effect. They rely heavily on the `complexity of the vision' - I wonder where that is - in dismissing delusion and hallucination as explanations of Paul's conversion. (Complexity-of-recall concerning hallucinations would validate the seeings of many a schizophrenic.) This does not change that Paul's conversion is almost surely sincere and almost surely involved a dramatic moment - more on this next - but I do not think that the McGrews were sufficiently diligent in explaining what exactly they reject, what they allow others to reasonably reject, and how those details should or should not be significant in making their case. And they did not make clear at the outset that the account of Paul's subsequent blindness would be involved, as it turned out to be, just as the supposed reaction of his companions on the road to Damascus would later be employed (p.38).

2. More culpable is their treatment of a hypothesis proposed by another scholar:
Perhaps aware of just how feeble [explanations like Paul not really converting or that he was the victim of a clever prank] might be, Strauss suggests delicately that Paul might have been overcome by feelings of doubt and guild during a thunderstorm [citation omitted]. This remarkable conjecture might be worth discussing were it not for the fact that the doubt, the guilt, and the thunderstorm are all invented out of whole cloth. Having made the insinuation, Strauss wisely drops this hypothesis and takes refuge behind the claim that the book of Acts cannot possibly be historical. (p.38)
Let's stop and ask: is the suggestion that Paul - evidently a man capable of great feats of conscience, as zealots often are - might have felt guilt over his actions ridiculously implausible? Even SS Concentration Camp guards occasionally felt guilt and uncertainty. This is dismissed out of hand, but the previously cited passage (Acts 9:4-9) makes the accusation of whole-cloth fabrication that much weaker: "it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks" naturally translates as "you know what you're doing is wrong, and it bothers your conscience." It appears elsewhere in the KJV, and does not appear in the NIV in Acts 9, so I'll leave whether or not this passage is crucial to those with more experience in textual criticism. It's just not obvious prima facie that Strauss was wise to drop that very very silly and unserious hypothesis of his. No effort was made here to state the case charitably. No mention of the fact that Strauss' proposed external stressor, a thunderstorm, was not crucial to his idea. Any strong stimulus or external stressor may have triggered a dramatic event, assuming Paul was predisposed to conversion. And though the McGrews say that it is "an odd sort of hallucination that is followed by three days of blindness," they give no reason why that blindness - if at all considered a common fact - should be expected (by skeptics) had Paul received a genuine vision (p.38). Nor do they mention that temporary blindness is known to be associated with severe emotional trauma and stress.

I agree with the McGrews that Paul can not credibly be thought of as a conscious fraud. I think that his conversion was sincere, and it is very well evidenced, as is Paul's historical personage. But they fail to imagine why Paul, a sincere convert, might manufacture a vision story because he's a sincere convert. Imagine that you are Paul: you have been overcome with horror at the guilt of your actions, and you wish to make amends. As a new-found Christian, you care deeply about Christians and the fate of the persecuted churches. There is, however, a small problem: you do not expect these beleaguered communities to accept a killer with open arms and smiles. You especially do not expect this beleaguered communities to recognize your education and expertise as conferring status upon you. What would you do to convince them? Claim a vision, and proudly, and take the very real risks of doing so.

This `emotive-incentive hypothesis', along with a serious look at Strauss' explanation, allows us to safely assert that p(P|~R) is not significantly less than the value of p(P|R), which has no convincing support.

Before moving on to the disciples and the women, a post on the assumptions of conditional independence, its importance, and how the McGrews actually employ it is in order, especially for the 13 disciples. Once this is addressed, I think that the tentative finish line will be in clear view.

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