This post is a slightly polished-up set of notes I took while watching Arif Ahmed’s debate with Gary Habermas on the plausibility of the resurrection. The debate is quite old at this stage (probably 7 or 8 years at least), and I watched it quite some time ago, but it is often highly regarded among internet atheists. Why? Because it is one of those cases in which the non-religious party seems to have got the better of the argument.
I’m not a huge fan of public debates myself. I see some value to them in relation to political and social questions, but less in relation to classic philosophical questions (particularly those relating to philosophy of religion). I think dialogues are generally better. They are usually less combative and ill-tempered, and can involve some genuinely useful probing and questioning of alternative points of view. Still, I can’t resist watching the odd debate and I must confess that among atheist debaters, Arif Ahmed is my favourite. He has a relentlessly logical and well-ordered approach. He also has the advantage of being a highly competent philosopher (check out his professional work on decision theory or his books on Kripke and Wittgenstein).
The success of his debate against Habermas was, I believe, down to two things. First, he tried to undercut Habermas’s entire argumentative method before Habermas had a chance to speak. Habermas, for those who don’t know, is notorious for using an ‘argument from scholarly consensus’ to support the historicity of the resurrection. Ahmed showed why that wasn’t very appropriate in a public debate of this sort. Second, Ahmed himself used some disarmingly simple arguments in his case against the resurrection.
It is those arguments that I wish to summarise in this post. I know this has been done by others before, but I want to provide some elaboration and context. I do so not because I think these arguments are logically watertight and above reproach — far from it. I do so because I think the three arguments Ahmed presents provide a model for building a philosophical case against a claim in a short space of time (his speech lasts less than 20 minutes). I also do so because I want to try to understand these arguments better. I’m not well-versed on the whole miracles/resurrection debate (though I’ve written some stuff about it) and I want to learn more.
For those who are interested, I have embedded a video of the debate at the end of this post. You might like to watch it before or after reading this.
1. The Implied Case for the Resurrection Hypothesis
Before looking at Ahmed’s arguments, I think it is worth pondering what he is arguing against. This is not explicitly stated in his talk, but it is implied. First of all, he is arguing against something like the following hypothesis:
Resurrection Hypothesis: Jesus was crucified, died and was then raised bodily from the dead by God.
This is a reasonably austere version of the hypothesis. I suspect a more detailed version could be specified that would state the rationale or justification for God raising Jesus from the dead (part of the general plan for atonement/salvation). But I’ll stick with the austere version for now.
There are two things to note about the resurrection hypothesis. The first is that it depends on the truth of a factual/historical claim, namely: that Jesus died and was then seen alive several days later (in an embodied not a spiritual form). The second is that it posits a supernatural explanatory force to account for that fact, namely: God.
Christians typically defend the resurrection hypothesis by using an inference to best explanation style of argument. This is what William Lane Craig does in his defence of the resurrection hypothesis. More sophisticated argumentative structures — such as those adopted by Richard Swinburne — use probability theory. I won’t go into those sophisticated versions here since Ahmed doesn’t appeal to them. He sticks to a fairly intuitive and commonsensical understanding of probability, which makes sense given the format of the debate. Unless you are guaranteed an audience of mathematicians, it is pretty difficult to give a persuasive bayesian argument in less than 20 minutes.
The inference to best explanation in favour of the resurrection hypothesis works a little something like this:
- (1) It is a historical fact that Jesus died and rose from the dead.
- (2) There is no naturalistic explanation that could account for this historical fact.
- (3) The resurrection hypothesis is the only plausible supernatural explanation for this historical fact.
- (4) Therefore, the resurrection hypothesis is (probably) true.
I have constructed this in a way that best makes sense of Ahmed’s subsequent arguments. One thing worth noting is that this is not a formally valid argument. The conclusion does not in fact follow from the premises. This is a problem with all inferences to best explanation. They are, at best, probabilistic and defeasible in nature.
The main body of Ahmed’s talk presents three argument for doubting this inference to best explanation. Let’s go through each of these now.
2. The Modified Humean Argument
Ahmed’s first argument targets the first premise of the preceding argument. It is a modified version of Hume’s classic (and often misunderstood) argument against testimonial evidence for miracles. Ahmed doesn’t appeal to Hume’s work in his defence of this argument. Instead, he uses a three simple analogies to explain the idea:
Water Temperature1: Suppose you have a bucket filled with water and there are five thermometers in the water giving a temperature readout. Now imagine that the thermometers say that the water is 10 C. You put your hand into the water and it feels reasonably cool.
Water Temperature2: Suppose you have a bucket filled with water and that there are five thermometers in the water. This time the thermometers say that the water is at 30 C. You put your hand in the water and it feels reasonably cool.
Water Tempoerature3: Again, suppose you have a bucket filled with water and that there are five thermometers in the water. This time the thermometers say that the water is at 600 C. You put your hand in and it feels reasonably cool.
In each of these cases we have several independent measuring devices providing us with evidence regarding the water’s temperature and we also have the evidence of our own senses. Ahmed’s question is what should we believe regarding the temperature readout on the thermometers in these three cases: Should we believe that they accurately record temperature or not?
The answer varies depending on the content of the readout and our other sources of evidence. In the first case, we would probably accept that the temperature readout is accurate. The water feels cool to the touch, it is in a liquid state, and it conforms with our background evidence about how water and temperature work. In the second case, we might wonder why the water still feels pretty cool to the touch, but since our ability to discriminate temperatures based on touch is doubtful, and we have five thermometers confirming that the water is at 30 C, we would still be right to believe that they accurately record the temperature. The third case is very different. Water has never be observed in a liquid state, at sea level, at 600 C. We have repeatedly observed water at temperatures significantly higher than 100 C as being gaseous in nature. We also know, from repeated experience, that water at temperatures like that would be extremely hot to the touch. So in this case, we have strong evidence to suggest that the thermometers are misleading guides to the true temperature of the water.
How does this analogy apply? Ahmed doesn’t spell it out directly but I presume the idea is that when it comes to the historicity of Jesus’s death and resurrection, we don’t have any direct evidence of what happened. We have second-hand (possibly worse than that) evidence handed down to us through a series of texts. In other words, we have a set of ‘resurrection narratives’, which may or may not join up with actual eyewitnesses to the event. These narratives are like the thermometers: they are the measuring devices for what happening in the distant past. Should we trust them?
Ahmed’s argument is that our position relative to the evidence in the case of the resurrection narrative is akin to our position in relation to thermometers in the third version of the water temperature analogy. Let’s assume, for sake of argument, that the narratives do genuinely link up with original eyewitness evidence. In that case, the eyewitness accounts are akin to the thermometers. We know that eyewitness accounts can be misleading. To this effect, Ahmed cites Robert Buckhout’s famous 1975 paper on the reliability of eyewitness evidence LINK. He could have cited many more. We also know that there is near uniform evidence against the hypothesis that people, once dead, rise bodily from the dead. This near-uniformity of evidence against the possibility of bodily resurrection should cause us to doubt the testimony.
What is the formal argument? In his talk, Ahmed mentions that the argument has three premises but as best I can tell, he never clearly articulates them. Instead, he keeps referring to a handout, which alas I do not have. So here’s my attempt to reconstruct the argument:
- (5) If we have frequently observed X’s providing an unreliable guide to the truth, and if we have never observed Y, then in any case in which X provides support for Y, it is more likely that X is misleading us than that Y is true.
- (6) We have frequently observed cases in which intelligent and competent eyewitnesses have lied or made mistakes about what they have seen.
- (7) We have never observed a case in which a human body has risen from the dead (and been able to pass through solid walls etc.)
- (8) Therefore, it is more likely that eyewitness testimony concerning Jesus’s bodily resurrection is mistaken, than that the resurrection actually occurred.
The first premise of this argument (5) is effectively a modified version of Hume’s key premise in Of Miracles.
Is the argument any good? I won’t give a complete answer to that right now. I think there is merit to it — particularly in light of the fact that it grants the best case scenario to the defender of the resurrection hypothesis (viz. that the Gospel accounts and the account of St. Paul are, in fact, genuine eyewitness accounts). Nevertheless, I also think that a more thorough discussion of Hume’s principle is in order, as is a more thorough survey of when exactly eyewitness testimony is likely to be trustworthy and when it is likely to be misleading.
3. The Argument from the Historical Inadequacy of Supernatural Explanations
Ahmed’s first argument is, by far, his most complicated. His two remaining arguments are much more straightforward and, in my opinion, more effective. They work in that classic philosophical tradition of conceding a huge amount of ground to the pro-resurrection side, but still arguing that belief in the resurrection hypothesis is unreasonable.
The first of those arguments is the argument from the historical inadequacy of supernatural explanations. The name is a bit of a mouthful but the idea is simple enough. Suppose we grant premise (1) of the original argument, i.e. we accept accept the resurrection narrative as a historical fact. This means that we believe that ancient people saw Jesus die and then say him again three days later. Even if we grant that, we still have no reason to favour a supernatural explanation over a natural explanation. This is because in all historical cases in which we did not have a viable naturalistic explanation and hence appealed to supernatural explanations, we later learned that those explanations were wrong and that there were sound natural explanations. Ahmed gives examples such as the mystery surrounding the construction of the pyramids, or the appeal to some mystical ‘life force’ to explain the difference between life and non-life. The latter was abandoned thanks to the work of scientists like Darwin and Watson and Crick.
The upshot of this is that, even if we thought that the resurrection narrative was true, we should not run into the arms of the resurrection hypothesis. We should simply suspend belief. It is more likely that we will come across viable naturalistic explanation in the future. Ahmed makes a special point about hallucinations at this stage of his argument. Apologists often claim that the resurrection narrative could not be based on hallucinations of the risen Jesus because there are simply too many witnesses. For instance, in the writings of St. Paul it is alleged that 500 people saw the risen Jesus at one time, and apologists sometimes claim that it is not possible for 500 people to hallucinate the same thing at the same time. Let’s assume that this is correct. Ahmed says that this is still not a good ground for believing the resurrection hypothesis. We are still relatively ignorant about the workings of the human mind. It is more likely that there is some, as yet improperly understood, mechanism for mass hallucinations (to be explained in naturalistic terms) than that there is some supernatural force responsible for a bodily resurrection.
It is difficult to detect the formal argument in all of this, and, again, Ahmed doesn’t state the premises explicitly in his talk but I think it works something like this:
- (9) There were many historical cases in which we had no good naturalistic explanation for X at T1 but we later discovered a good naturalistic explanation for X at T2; conversely, there are no historical cases in which supernaturalistic explanations seem to win out over naturalistic ones in the long-run.
- (10) Therefore, in any case in which we lack a naturalistic explanation for X at T1 it is more likely that there will be a plausible naturalistic explanation for X at T2 than that any posited supernaturalistic explanation is true.
- (11) We do not currently have a plausible naturalistic explanation for the resurrection narrative.
- (12) Therefore, nevertheless, it is still more likely that there will be a plausible naturalistic explanation for the narrative in the future, than that the resurrection hypothesis is true.
I know this is messy and I would appreciate any suggestions for cleaning it up. I think the main problem with it is in relation to the inference from (9) to (10). It is obviously an inductive inference. We generate the principle for denying supernaturalistic explanations from historical success cases. But is that a warranted inference? All inductive inferences are somewhat vulnerable. It appeals to me because I’m a fan of naturalistic explanations and I’m pretty closed to the idea of there ever being a successful supernaturalistic explanation. But I think the terminology being used here is vague, and I think religious believers will be disinclined to accept the inference.
4. The Argument from the Unconstrained Nature of Supernaturalistic Explanation
This brings us to the last of Ahmed’s arguments. This one is actually my favourite because I think it highlights a genuine problem for any proponent of a supernaturalistic explanation. It may also help to justify the claim I made in the previous paragraph about being pretty closed to the notion of a supernaturalistic explanation.
The argument starts with a major concession to the pro-resurrection side. It concedes that there is no possible naturalistic explanation of the resurrection narrative. Consequently, the only possible form of explanation will be supernaturalistic in nature. Granting this, it still does not follow that the resurrection hypothesis is the most plausible explanation.
To illustrate the problem, we can go back to Paul’s claim that 500 people saw the risen Jesus at the same time. As noted, apologists reject naturalistic explanations for this vision on the grounds that it is not plausible to suppose that 500 people hallucinate the same thing. Therefore the explanation must be supernaturalistic. But notice what is happening here: the assumption that 500 people cannot hallucinate at the same time is based on an inference from empirical and naturalistic constraints. The claim is that we have no good evidence for such mass hallucinations and we have no reason to think that there is a naturalistic mechanism that could account for that hallucination. To put it another way, we are supposing that it is empirically implausible for such a thing to happen based on what we know of the working of the human mind.
But in assuming such constraints, we are sticking to the rigours of the naturalistic worldview. If we are entitled to abandon those rigours, and appeal instead to possible supernatural forces, then we are no longer entitled to those constraints. If we are going to appeal to the supernatural, then we could just as easily suppose that there is some supernaturally induced mass hallucination as that there is a supernaturally induced bodily resurrection. In other words, once we abandon the constraints of naturalistic explanation, all bets are off. There are innumerable possible supernaturalistic explanations for the resurrection narrative (maybe its all a divine lie; maybe its the product of the devil; and so on). We have no reason for favouring one over another.
To dress this up in more formal garb:
- (13) There are no probabilistic constraints on what makes for a good supernatural explanation, i.e. if we are going to appeal to a supernaturalistic explanation for X, there is no reason to endorse one supernatural explanation over another.
- (14) The resurrection hypothesis is a supernatural explanation for the resurrection narrative, but there are many such explanations that may not entail an actual bodily resurrection (e.g. divine hallucination; devil’s deception etc.).
- (15) Therefore, there is no reason to favour the resurrection hypothesis over some alternative supernatural explanations that entail the same facts.
This, again, is a little messy but I’m trying to extrapolate from what Ahmed says. I suspect theists will have a problem with this insofar as they will try to argue that not all supernatural explanations are on a par. There are some desiderata we can use when deciding between supernatural explanations and these might allow us to favour the resurrection hypothesis.
I think there are two things to be said in response to this. First, it is important to realise that this argument does not claim that all possible supernatural forces must be viewed equally. The posited supernatural force must actually entail the facts (probabilistically or otherwise) it is alleged to explain. Second, I think that even if you could say that theistic explanations are better than other possible supernatural explanations, you would still be prevented from favouring one theistic explanation over another. Why? Well, as skeptical theists are keen to point out, we do not really know the mind of god. He could have beyond-our-ken reasons for allowing all manner of things to occur. But this, as critics of the skeptical theist position have pointed out, means that it is difficult to say why we should favour any theistic explanation over another. We might like to think that the bible is the authoritative and truthful word of God. But God could have beyond-our-ken reasons for deceiving us as to the historical truth.
Okay, so that’s it for this post. I think it is worth finishing up by noting, once more, the nice structure to Ahmed’s case. He contests all the main parts of the resurrectionist’s inference to best explanation. He starts by challenging their reliance on biblical testimony; he then challenges their dismissal of naturalistic explanations for the resurrection narrative; and he then challenges the grounds upon which they favour the resurrection hypothesis over all other supernatural explanations. At each stage, he concedes more territory to their position, but still maintains that those concessions do not favour their preferred conclusion.
This doesn’t mean that Ahmed’s arguments are infallible or overwhelmingly persuasive. There is plenty that could be challenged and disputed. But as an opening salvo in a public debate, I think it does a nice job.
Anyway, you may as well watch the whole debate now: