When Atheists Attack: Responding to Michael Shermer

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Introduction

Michael Shermer recently published an article titled, “What Would it Take to Prove the Resurrection?” in which he purportedly helps readers think about truth claims—mainly the Resurrection.1 This critique will show some of the fundamental flaws within Dr. Shermer’s article, while demonstrating the column’s inability to aid readers in their critical thinking process.

 

Article Précis

Dr. Shermer opens by offering a definition of the term skeptic, while simultaneously affirming adequate grounds for propositional certainty. Summarizing his epistemology, he professes that knowledge is attainable through 1) direct observation, 2) scientific experimentation (i.e., verification and replication), and 3) inference. Additionally, he identifies a fundamental difference between positive propositions (i.e., x exists), negative propositions (i.e., x does not exist), and those which are only true by internal validation (i.e., subjective assertions).2 Dr. Shermer asserts positive propositions (e.g., “The universe began with a big bang”) are “‘true’ in the sense that the evidence is so substantial that it would be unreasonable to withhold one’s provisional assent.”

On Shermer’s view, historically based propositions of Christianity (e.g., Jesus was crucified) “may be true by historical validation,” whereas the religious or faith-based claims (e.g., Jesus died for our sins) have “no purchase on valid knowledge.”3 He contends the Resurrection resides somewhere in between, and though the event is not impossible, it is highly improbable, and “would be a miracle if it were true.” Dr. Shermer categorically rejects the validity of the Resurrection; however, he never answers the central question of the article—what he would accept as proof of the event—merely offering the vague statement, “The principle of proportionality demands extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.”

 

The Principle of Proportionality

The “principle of proportionality” (i.e., the assertion, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”) is not an epistemological, scientific, or evidential criterion.4 Rather than appealing to a putative epistemological framework, a scrupulous mythological approach, or evidentiary standards prescribed in judicial processes and forensic examination, Dr. Shermer elects to embrace a phrase popularized by the late Carl Sagan.5

The principle of proportionality (also referred to as ‘Sagan’s Saw’) is merely a subjective assertion—something Shermer describes as only being true by internal validation—and neither Sagan nor Shermer provide any reason for others to adopt the philosophy. Additionally, the principle appears to be self-refuting. After all, the statement is an extraordinary proposition, one that (if objectively true) has universal implications for the acquisition of knowledge. Accordingly, under its own criteria, there must be extraordinary evidence to establish the proposition as factual, yet confirmation is nonexistent. Evidence and logic provide the basis for all rational belief, and there is simply no rational reason to adopt the extreme skepticism, a priori assumptions, or philosophical commitments of Dr. Shermer, Dr. Sagan, and the like.

 

Extraordinary vs. Sufficient Evidence

Temporarily ignoring the inherent problems with the “principle of proportionality,” what would constitute an extraordinary claim, and do we typically require extraordinary evidence to support such propositions? Although the term extraordinary is somewhat arbitrary in this case, we could take it to mean uncommon, rare, or out of the ordinary. With odds of approximately 1:293 million, winning the lottery jackpot is an uncommon event, yet the only evidence needed to verify person X won the drawing is an ordinary lottery ticket, person X’s name annotated on the official lottery website, or a bank statement showing the jackpot deposit.6 Such evidence is not extraordinary, but it is sufficient to adjudicate the claim that person X won the lottery jackpot.

Using a similar example, historian Michael Licona explains,

Landing on the moon in July 1969 was an extraordinary event. It was extremely difficult and had never occurred previously. Yet most people believed the reports when they watched astronauts walking on the moon on their televisions, a medium that often distorts truths and presents untruths, legends, and fictions. The moon events were extraordinary. The reports were believed because they were thought to be credible and the authorial intent to communicate the event as it occurred was known. In neither case was extraordinary evidence required.7

One can fathom many similar examples, reinforcing the fact that all propositions require sufficient, not extraordinary, evidence.8 It is important to note that sufficient evidence is a qualitative term rather than a quantitative one. Philosopher William Lane Craig explains,

To establish the occurrence of a highly improbable event, one need not have lots of evidence… [By appealing to Sagan’s Saw, the skeptic seems to be saying] that in order to believe rationally in a miraculous event, you must have an enormous amount of evidence. But why think that is the case? “Because a miracle is so improbable,” the skeptic will say. But Bayes’ Theorem shows that rationally believing in a highly improbable event doesn’t require an enormous amount of evidence. What is crucial is that the evidence be far more probable given that the event did occur than given that it did not.9

The Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions reinforces this principle, stating that the preponderance of the evidence “means what it says, viz., that the evidence on one side outweighs, preponderates over, is more than, the evidence on the other side, not necessarily in number of witnesses or quantity, but in its effect on those to whom it is addressed.”10 Therefore, sufficient evidence is the requirement for support of a proposition—meaning that in light of proof, the proposition is more probable than its negation. Any alternative hypothesis must account for all of the available evidence—proving equal or superior in explanatory power and scope.

 

Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus

While the evidentiary threshold for belief is subjective, there is substantial evidence to justify believing the Resurrection account. Although brevity precludes an exhaustive inquiry of the Resurrection, a summary of the evidentiary case follows:

1. There are strong philosophical (deductive) and empirically based (inductive) arguments for the existence of God (e.g., the cosmological argument, the theological argument, the ontological argument, the moral argument, and the argument from the mind).11

2. If it is possible that God exists, then miraculous events are also possible.12

3. There are at least four established facts concerning the fate of Jesus of Nazareth: His death by crucifixion, the discovery of His empty tomb, His post-mortem appearances, and the origin of His disciples’ belief in his resurrection.13

4. The Resurrection hypothesis provides the best explanation of these facts.14

Even though some may choose to dismiss the evidence-based upon philosophical or theological presuppositions, there is substantial evidence to support the Christian worldview.

 

Conclusion

At no point does Dr. Shermer provide the criteria for extraordinary evidence. Considering the arbitrary nature of these terms and his adamant rejection of historical and philosophical evidence for the Resurrection, one must question whether Dr. Shermer is legitimately concerned with discovering the truth, or if his goal is simply to propagate a naturalistic worldview. Nevertheless, he provides no rational reason to accept his “principle of proportionality,” or to discount any evidence supporting the Resurrection. Perhaps most frustrating is his refusal to address the fundamental question of the article, as he never answers the question, What Would it Take to Prove the Resurrection?15 Consequently, Dr. Shermer’s article proves useless in empowering the reader to think critically, does not offer a respectable refutation of Christian truth claims, and fails to provide a viable alternative to the Resurrection account.

 

 

Footnotes

  1. Michael Shermer, “What Would It Take to Prove the Resurrection?” Scientific American, April 01, 2017, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-would-it-take-to-prove-the-resurrection/.
  2. Dr. Shermer’s explanation accurately demonstrates the difference between objective truth claims (positive and negative statements that pertain to external reality) and subjective claims (statements concerning the individual making the assertion).
  3. Dr. Shermer does not appear to recognize the fact that many “faith-based claims” are objective—as they pertain to external reality (i.e., the object) rather than the individual (i.e., the subject)—and are consequently pivotal in understanding numerous aspects of reality and the human experience.
  4. For example, no such criterion exists within the Judicial Council of California, Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI), December 2016, http://www.courts.ca.gov/partners/documents/CACI_2017_Edition.pdf; or the Judicial Council of California, Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (CALCRIM), 2016, http://www.courts.ca.gov/partners/documents/calcrim_2016_edition.pdf.
  5. Sagan uses the popular phrase, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” in the (US) television miniseries Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, 1980.
  6. “How is POWERBALL® played and what are the odds of winning a prize?” California Lottery, accessed June 14, 2017, http://www.calottery.com/play/draw-games/powerball/faqs.
  7. Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 194.
  8. Cold case detective J. Warner Wallace does a great job of explaining how ordinary evidence provides a rational basis for extraordinary propositions in his popular apologetic books and on his website. See J. Warner Wallace, Forensic Faith: A Homicide Detective Makes the Case for a More Reasonable, Evidential Christian Faith (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2017), Chapter 3; and J. Warner Wallace, “The Extraordinary Nature of Murder and the Evidence for God,” Cold-Case Christianity, July 22, 2015, http://coldcasechristianity.com/2015/the-extraordinary-nature-of-murder-and-the-evidence-for-god/.
  9. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, Third Edition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 273.
  10. Judicial Council of California, CACI, 36 [emphasis added].
  11. The Kalām Cosmological Argument provides strong evidence for the existence of God. See “Facing the Facts: The Kalām Cosmological Argument,” for additional interaction with this topic.
  12. See “Supernatural Origin: Arguing for the Miraculous,” for additional interaction with this topic.
  13. Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004); William Lane Craig, “Does God Exist?” Reasonable Faith, accessed August 30, 2016, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/does-god-exist-1.
  14. The hallucination theory is perhaps the best naturalistic alternative and Dr. Shermer specifically mentions this hypothesis in his article. For a detailed explanation of why this theory fails, see “Resurrection Under Attack: Refuting the Hallucination Hypothesis.
  15. Even though Dr. Shermer does not answer the fundamental question of his article, it seems apparent that the Resurrection hypothesis requires sufficient evidence to substantiate the claim—as is the case with any proposition. Dr. Shermer may dislike the theological ramifications of the Resurrection event and may reject the historical evidence because of his worldview limitations or philosophical commitments, but he does not present a valid epistemological objection, nor does he provide an alternative hypothesis with adequate explanatory power and scope.

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