Saturday, September 22, 2012

Dirt in the Cat Dish and Extrabiblical Contemporary Evidence

Cat dish and dirt water
I'll say it right up front - these two topics are mostly unrelated.

Dirt in the Cat Dish

I'm trying to grow plants indoors through the winter - onions, areca palms, basil, etc. My success thus far as been underwhelming. My plant pots/containers typically have holes in the bottom, where the excess water drains into a drainage tray.

My cat has been a bit obsessive about trying to crawl between the plant pots to access that dirty drain water. Today, he completely dumped a couple containers that had sprouts, trying to access it.


"The heck are you doing, cat?", I inquired, "You have an automatically filtering water dish thing that I spent $45 on."

Clearly, the cat likes dirty water. It must be a flavor thing, I deduced. Half-jokingly, I decided that maybe I needed to sprinkle soil into the cat's water fountain thing.

What I ended up figuring out was that, while the water appeared to be clear, the machine had some gunk in it, purely due to my neglect, that was making the water taste odd. The dirty water was an improvement, basically. Once I gave that thing a good cleaning, he was gulping down water from it.

My point with telling you this little anecdote is because I thought it was a good example of the failure of deduction if it's not coupled with empirical confirmation. Just because I happened to deduce a conclusion doesn't mean it was correct. In this case, the deduction was sort of dumb. Further information, and further critical thinking made that abundantly clear. If I hadn't realized these additional points, I might have actually stayed with that analysis.

Logical induction/deduction is the first step in investigation. It's not the conclusion in itself.

Extrabiblical Contemporary Evidence

As usual, I've had an ongoing "debate" with "the Christian". I may post the recent dialog here at some point, but this is the condensed version.

To paraphrase, the discussion eventually got the point where he asked, "What makes you doubt the historical fact of Jesus's miracles?" Of course, I pointed out, "How about the fact that it isn't historical fact?"

He attempted to demonstrate this claim, which is good, since it is his burden of proof. Prepare yourself for the shockwave of what will be the undoing of my atheism.

He cited Celsus, a 2nd century Greek philosopher, who is known, among other things, for the earliest known intellectual attack on Christianity in about 177 CE. I haven't gone into the full details, mostly because the core problem rendered them irrelevant (though it's on my todo-list to familiarize myself). His point was that Celsus debated the miracles and eventually relented and thought they were real.

That's right. Jesus's miracles are historical fact because some guy, more than a century later, thought they were real. I'm supposed to believe that a guy, around 33 CE, broke laws of physics... because some other guy more than a century later said so?

I pointed out that this was insufficient, and that I'd rather see what evidence Celsus had to support his claims.

"It's testimony, and that is the evidence", the Christian retorted. At that moment, I was witness to an example of the sheer beauty of theistic "thinking".  Still paraphrasing - "Either Celsus was correct in his assessment, or you think he's insane. Since you're rejecting the miracles, you're saying he's insane, and you have a burden of proof to demonstrate that."

It was a marvelous combination of a false dilemma and shifting the burden of proof. The discussion continued, where I dismantled this argument, but my purpose here today is to address something about the standards of evidence.

This wasn't eyewitness evidence. It was 2nd 3rd or 4th hand data - so there's a lot of room for error. The question arises, however, of whether eye-witness accounts would be sufficient anyway.

I asked him whether he believed in UFO abduction stories (I don't, in case you were wondering). One can actually talk to people who claim to have first-hand knowledge. I thought it was a good point, however, as usual, he ignored it, along with any other damaging rebuttal.

Is eye-witness testimony sufficient to establish that Jesus performed miracles? No. It's sufficient to establish that Jesus did things that people thought were miracles, but whether they were real miracles or not is another question.

People go watch professional magicians all the time, where no actual magic is performed. It's all "smoke and mirrors". Despite that, many people are tricked into thinking they saw actual magic. 

Testimony is truly the bottom of the barrel in terms of evidentiary value.

Even if we were to find several correctly dated parchments which described that not only did Jesus exist, and was preaching, but the author wrote that he was performing miracles, that only gets us so far.

There's three basic possibilities (and of course, probably more) of what happened:
  • The author lied, and if the other example documents corroborate it, it could be that they all agreed to lie.
  • The author(s) were tricked by Jesus being a Professional Magician (no supernatural powers - just smoke and mirrors)
  • Jesus had supernatural powers.
This is why investigation is hard, especially when it comes to history - we have to falsify a lot of possibilities as well as support others. We have three possibilities here. How can we tell which is the correct one? It's fairly easy to tell which is the least likely of the bunch - the one that is a suggestion of something unprecedented and contradictory to our understanding of reality - miracles. 

This is what happens when one starts with a conclusion and cherry picks reality to support it - those other two possibilities are either unconsidered or dismissed out of hand, yet, one of those is the most likely possibility.

The apologist, in these scenarios, as far as I can tell, merely picks his or her favorite possibility and claims it's the correct one.

I'm sorry, but testimony isn't going to cut it. I'm going to need actual empirical evidence before I can accept that some guy could break the laws of physics, because someone said so.

Extrabiblical contemporary textual evidence is a good start to supporting that the mundane claims occurred, but not the supernatural ones.

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