Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Tomb of Jesus and Falsification: A Reply

[This is an answer to Yetimonk from this thread in the "Titanic director's new vid about Jesus' tomb..." diary over at Street Prophets. This is crossposted there as well]

In your [YM's] original entry into this thread you took exception with this statement

There can be no science in "this tomb announcement": it would not matter what they said they found - proof that it was Christ could never have any reality.
you [moi] go on record preemptively denying anything that could ever possibly invalidate parts of your belief system.
I do not think the Godel [see last link] categories:
  • false but unprovably false, or
  • true but unprovably true
apply to the resurrection of Jesus. I think the resurrection is objective and historical; and the only proof many will ever take is Thomas's: putting their fingers in the holes on his hands and side. That level of proof was available for about 40 days about 2000 years ago to about 500 people.

My response in the thread was
Weave an hypothesis about any discovery that could even begin to prove, with even a reasonable doubt, that a body was Jesus'?
This question still stands. If we are going to talk about "falsifiability"
Falsifiable does not mean false. For a proposition to be falsifiable, it must be possible in principle to make an observation that would show that the proposition was false, even if that observation is not actually made.
as a necessary aspect of scientific belief (even though this is not a discussion of scientific theory or philosophy of science, but of an historical event) then giving lip-service to falsifiability seems thin to me. I can "admit" to the "possibility in principle" of falsification - but I have no clue what that could possibly be in this case. What evidence could possibly falsify what we know historically even outside of Christian scripture and writings:
  • Jesus was a Jewish teacher who really existed
  • many people believed that he performed healings and exorcisms
  • some people believed him to be the Messiah
  • he was rejected by the Jewish leaders
  • he was crucified by Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius
  • his tomb was found empty
  • despite this shameful death, his followers, who thought he was still alive, spread beyond Palestine so that there were multitudes of them in Rome by AD 64
  • all kinds of people worshipped him as God
Throw in Luke, who is generally considered, in the rest of his work, to be a careful historian - and said that he had investigated the witnesses carefully; and there is a great deal of evidence for the resurrection by the normal standards we use to gauge ancient historical events. Of course, when it comes to Jesus normal standards do not apply.

However, when it comes to the examination of ancient historical events, and documents, most scholars have granted that while they may theoretically falsifiable, in actuality it is highly unlikely that some new discovery is going to overturn our knowledge about an event - we teach this history in schools as if it is true and known to have happened. My major objection in your [YM's] comments in the thread was to this statement
I consider it unethical to try to convince others of them and even if I am willing to do so myself, to in anyway urge others to bet their life or livelihood on such an idea.
If teaching things that are "true, but unprovably true" is unethical then quite a bit of the educational content of our history and science classes is unethical. My question still is: what makes teaching that Jesus' resurrection was true, even if it is unprovably true, more unethical than a bunch of what we already teach as true, even if though it is unprovably true?

Christ's grave is not going to be found, and identifiable, whether he is buried in it or not; and it will not provide adequate evidence to overturn the eyewitness historical accounts even if it is. His body being found would be proof of a major conspiracy by the Apostles and his followers, and the idea that they would bury him in a marked ossuary is, on the surface, silly - they would have destroyed the body or, out of reverence, buried it in a way that made sure it was never found and identified. They certainly wouldn't lead folks to the grave by burying his other family members with him later. This is not "preemptively denying anything that could ever possibly invalidate parts of [my] belief system" - it is a rational recognition about what the finding of Jesus' body would mean about the activities of the Apostles. They would have gone to a great deal of trouble to pull this scam off, and then died rather than admit the truth; and to think a sign would be on his grave - "Jesus is here" - is more incredible than belief he was resurrected.

I really did read, and appreciate, the links you gave in this comment on historical science and philosophy of science - folks really need to read these. I am just not sure how they apply to this event; and I did not want to turn this into one of those discussions on the naturalistic/ materialistic assumptions in science - with its natural progression to the ID/neo-Darwinist debate and all the discussion about what is "real" science. However, it was rude of me to dance around your attempt at raising the level of the discussion above this silly Discovery Channel show - I should have engaged the links rather than ignoring them. I apologize for that. So, maybe we can get to what you [YM] asked for here:
I told you I hold beliefs in the same class. I was looking for common ground and simply trying to explain my understanding of how they can be dangerous and therefore require the consideration of ethics, which is subtle but important and wasn't my final point but I guess even that isn't common ground.

What I didn't get to is that the real problem is, which I thought would be an easy point to make, that unknowingly accepting one , no matter if it is ultimately correct, allows more dangerous and damaging ones to easily follow, and they are usually exploitable. Too many of these is a classical definition of insanity. Awareness and understanding are key protections. I figured it would be easy to make this point and then see where the conversation would go but instead we are a foot off the right side of the page and nowhere near understanding of each other.
One final note for the science part of the discussion: By its very nature, the resurrection is a unique, non-repeated event; and it stands outside the normal processes of observed death. The typical "proofs" that the resurrection didn't occur - that miracles are:
  • not possible,
  • not credible,
  • not scientific,
  • not historical,
  • mythological, and/or
  • not definable
are based on a "question-begging" pre-suppositions; and/or that nothing is true, and provably true, that cannot be reduced to naturalistic, materialistic causes: methodological naturalism. There is an arrogant assumption in there that we understand all natural processes in the universe so well that we can say that Jesus' resurrection was not a natural process - but for the sake of this discussion I will grant that the resurrection was a real miracle -
a divine intervention into, or interruption of, the regular course of the world that produces a purposeful but unusual event the would not have occurred otherwise
- and not some natural process we cannot understand because it only happened once and therefore cannot be observed and measured scientifically.

Tying back to the falsifiability theme of this discussion, the same chapter in When Skeptics Ask that contained that definition of miracles makes this crucial point
But if miracles are not objective and historical, then they are neither verifiable nor falsifiable. You can't prove they happened, but no one can disprove them either. This appeals to some Christians because it removes the need for defending their beliefs and calls people to "simply believe" without evidence. However, it also makes us fall victim to a valid criticism from Antony Flew.
Now often it seems to people who are not religious as if there was no conceivable event or series of events the occurrence of which would be admitted by sophisticated religious people to be a sufficient reason for conceding "There wasn't a God after all." ... What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God?
In plain language, if a belief could never under any circumstance be false, then how can you say that it is really true? It has left the realm of true and false and simply exists as opinion . . . someone could deliver the corpse of Jesus Christ to [them] in a wheelbarrow and it would not falsify [their] faith in the Resurrection. The Apostle Paul, on the other hand, said that "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins" ( 1 Cor. 15: 17). This religious attempt to preserve Christianity from attack by modern science has left us with an empty faith that prevents us from ever calling our beliefs true.

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How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly