Emotion Reason and Truth


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I had read an article a while back about the fact that political partisans mainly use emotional centers of the brain when analyzing statements and claims of various politicians. “We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.” The title of the article states “Democrats and Republicans Both Adept at Ignoring Facts, Study Finds”

Ok this article clearly condemns these partisans when it comes to their political thinking.  The underlying assumption we all hold is that if you are using the emotional part of your brain to draw conclusions instead of the reasoning parts then your conclusions will be unreliable.     Is this just for politics?  What about science, math, religion, or morals?

Well I don’t have all the answers or really the full answer on any of them.  But I think it is quite clear when it comes to morals we say the opposite of politics.  That is when people don’t primarily use emotional centers of the brain when drawing moral conclusions their conclusions are unreliable.

Where is the evidence?  It is coming in droves thanks to the use of MRI scans of the brain.   In particular when we compare the psychopaths brain with that of normal people. There have been numerous studies of psychopaths.  Psychopaths are people who distinguish themselves in society by at times behaving horrendously immorally.   It’s not only the murders, but also the extensive lying, and lack of guilt for their actions, that help separate them out.    MRI studies have found that they lack certain emotions that normal people experience.  It is not necessarily a complete lack of emotion but it is shown to be substantially diminished in test after test. (although it does appear they can turn on these emotions when they want)

However generally as a group psychopaths do not lack any ability to reason.  In fact, they seem to use the reasoning portion of their brain more than normal people.  So for example when psychaths were compared with normal people and asked to determine the emotional state of a protagonist they both were equally able to determine that person’s emotional state.  But psychopath used reason where as normal people used more of their emotional brains.

The study stated in its abstract: “The results emphasize that although psychopathic patients show no deficits in reasoning about other people’s emotion if an explicit evaluation is demanded, they use divergent neural processing strategies that are related to more rational, outcome-oriented processes.” This article discusses this study and others.

There are other philosophers who have drawn similar conclusions: http://dingo.sbs.arizona.edu/~snichols/Papers/PsychopathsFinal.pdf http://www.usfca.edu/fac-staff/mrvargas/Papers/VNFinal.pdf

One of the best known psychologists to draw this conclusion is Dr.  Haidt.  He published an article called “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail”, 14 years ago.  His thesis seems to be continually bolstered by later mri testing.

In the end I still maintain that reason and logic can play a part in moral decision making.   But the empirical evidence is quite overwhelming that, for most of us, we are primarily basing our moral views on emotional mechanisms.

Why is this relevant to Christianity?  Well mainly I think it is just interesting in it’s own right.  But also if you have read my other blogs you will see there is a view held by some that our moral judgments are the result of reasoning processes just like the reasoning that brings us scientific advances.   They argue that since our reasoning is a reliable mechanic to truth finding, we can rely on our “moral reasoning” for moral truth. Well as it turns out this idea of “moral reasoning” is for the most part a myth that science is debunking every day.

I would maintain that if naturalism is correct we shouldn’t think emotional responses will bring about truth beliefs in morality any more than it will bring about truth in politics.    If however, you think God wrote the moral law on our hearts, then you have a good reason to trust your moral emotions.  The fact that our moral views are driven by emotions fits quite well with Christian thought.

The Way


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Some might wonder why I keep talking about morality in relation to apologetics. For many Christianity is a set of beliefs. For me Christianity is a way of life. Yes our beliefs are important and even necessary in this way of life but that is not all there is to it – not by a long shot. According to the bible, the earliest followers of Christ were known as followers of “the way.” Acts 18:26; 19:9, 19:23; 22:4; 24:14, 24:22.

This description fits quite naturally with my understanding of what it means to be Christian. Accordingly when someone says they are no longer going to follow “the way” (i.e., they are not going to be Christian) it seems a natural question to then ask – well then what way will you live? Indeed when I strongly questioned whether I would remain Christian this was the question that seemed to come to the fore. How then should I live and on what basis will I choose that life?

When I looked at how I formed my moral beliefs in as dispassionate way as possible, I understood that ultimately it was my emotions that were primarily involved, not the reasoning process, or our empirical senses. Science combines reason and our empirical senses and effectively finds truth about reality. But that is not how our moral beliefs are primarily formed. In the next blog I will give further reasons and evidence for this view. For now suffice it to say that I realized that if our moral beliefs were to be reliable, in any real sense, then something beyond natural processes must have a hand in forming them.

But here I want to stress that Christianity had much more to do with being a basis for my moral beliefs, rather than any belief about science. After all, where do we get the idea that Jesus was so concerned with scientific teaching? If the Son of God was so concerned with science and came down to make sure we understood it, wouldn’t we expect to have iphones at least by the 1980s? If the Holy Spirit was inspiring people to write books with the aim of teaching science wouldn’t we expect far fewer computer crashes then we have?

Yet when I read so many blogs of people who left Christianity I see allot of talk about science. It struck me as quite bizarre. Moreover, when I bring up morality they seem to think that has no bearing on their decision. They seemed to think I was just as bizarre for raising, that issue and not talking about science. Finally in reading many of the books, comments, and blogs from those who deconverted I also see a presumption that they thought they were really “hard core Christians.” And what that meant is that they studied the bible – every bit – and they took every bit of it literally.

So for example Bart Ehrman talks about how he had studied at the Moody Bible Institute, but then started to lose his faith after agonizing over whether the mustard seed was truly the smallest seed. At first I had real difficulty understanding how anyone could think that is such a fundamental part of Christianity that they would lose their faith over it.

But I have spent time studying Christian history and these sorts of views make more sense. Let me piece together the logic as I see it. We have Martin Luther who eventually found that his views could not even be supported by prior church councils. So he retreated to the bible alone. Now from the Catholic view he actually even had to trim some of the Old Testament, but there are various arguments on both side of that debate. He *may* even have wanted to trim even some of the new testament books, or at least he de-emphasized some of them. See for example his prefaces to James, Jude, and revelation in his 1522 translation of the New Testament.

But in any case he started the belief that Scripture alone was the sole authority in matters of Christianity. This belief took hold Protestant Christians. For many Protestant Christians they insert this view into their very basic creeds and understandings what Christianity is. Rejecting this view, like the non protestant churches do, is often viewed as making them non-Christian.

The results of scripture alone should not be surprising. Even before Luther died not only was the Pope the anti-christ for disagreeing with him but even other protestants like Zwingli were accused of being guided by the devil in their faulty interpretation of scripture. See eg., http://steadfastlutherans.org/?p=30081

The differing interpretations continued to happen. And over time we see the Protestant Christians who adhere to Scripture alone being divided and re-divided, how many times? With the rise of non-denominational churches it is difficult to even know. After all they hold certain beliefs but how they might differ from other “non-denominational” churches is difficult to calculate. Now one might not see this as a problem. But scripture itself seems to suggest this division is indeed a problem.

So something should be done. But what? Fast forward centuries and we get a potential solution. It seems like a sensible solution to say every part of the bible should be viewed as equally important for our salvation as any other part. After all there is no authority outside the bible that can tell us this or that part is more important or deserving of focus. But that is only part of the problem. The other problem is not so much a question of emphasis but one of interpretation. Zwingli thought the same words meant something different with respect to the Eucharist. He read them symbolically not literally.

How should that be addressed? Well the most common way to understand something is usually in a literal sense. Therefore to avoid these divisions we should read all of the bible in this sense. Hence we have the literalists who can claim a certain high ground among denominations. Everyone else is deemed to be less “hard core” Christian because they are shying away from accepting the bible. They are reading this or that passage symbolically because they lack faith and refuse to accept what the Holy Spirit is really saying in the most common sense way i.e., literal way.

Now the point is *not* to say that Catholics are right and people should reject “scripture alone” just like I do. Rather the point is to draw out the logic of this position precisely so that it can be analyzed and hopefully shown to be lacking. Does unity mean complete unity on all questions or just relevant ones? Does not the bible itself suggest that emphasis is on certain of its passages as opposed to others? My point to Christians is that you should reject the line of thinking I set out and find the holes yourself.

Have faith in your own church that meets in Christ’s name and is therefore guided by the Holy Spirit. I place faith in the Lutheran Church by sending my children to a Lutheran School. I believe very much that the Holy Spirit guides the Lutheran Church in teaching my children Christianity. I think the Lutheran church does have a tradition and an important one.

At base I want to point out this line of thinking so you can pinpoint for yourself where the reasoning breaks down. By clearly identifying the problem you will be spared the road that leads to your faith hinging on your beliefs about the relative size of seeds.

As for some atheists who might think they were “hard core” Christians because they accepted this literalist view, and therefore ultimately rejected your faith due to science, my point is different. Maybe consider it’s at least possible, you never really understood the “core” of Christianity. Perhaps, you missed the forest for the trees.

No Evidence!


I hear this claim quite a bit.  There is “no evidence” for God or anything supernatural.

What is evidence?  As a Trial Lawyer I have an understanding of evidence and what it is.  I also think I have learned allot about how honest people can make mistakes from memory yet this does not mean their entire testimony should be thrown out.   But let me give a legal definition.

The United States’ Federal Rules of Evidence defines relevant evidence.  (Each state will have its own rules of evidence but this is pretty similar state to state.)

Rule 401 says:

“Relevant evidence” means evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.

Is there much to argue against?   On the whole I think it’s pretty good.  “…having any tendency” suggests that that some evidence might have varying degrees of strength to different people.   “Any” “tendency” seems pretty broad.   But since I am well convinced that different reasonable people can often draw different conclusions from the very same piece of evidence I am fine with that.

I have long understood that you prove things to someone.  And you need to know who your audience is and adjust your proof accordingly.    If you prove something to no one, then you have not accomplished much.

It seems to me that the various New Testament accounts do provide some relevant evidence for Jesus’s miracles.  Would we not agree that having these accounts tends to increase the probability that the resurrection happened than if we did not have these documents?   So for example if we had none of these ancient accounts and I just got up in my closing argument and said “a person that lived 2000 years ago rose from the dead,” would we not think the case weaker?  So yes the existence of these ancient documents does have some tendency to show the fact that is of consequence “is more probable… than it would be without the evidence.”    They are almost certainly relevant evidence.

Is a miracle evidence that God exists?  Well it might or might not be.  In the case of Jesus miracles I think they are clearly evidence of the Christian God.  Why?  Because Jesus says he was sent from God and that it was by God’s power he can do supernatural things.  And then he does them.  Does that fit our definition of relevant evidence?

Consider if I had a trial on the issue of whether God exists and someone says well if God exists then prove it by performing a miracle!  And sure enough I then say by Gods power I will raise this corpse from the dead and a dead person stands up and walks.  Would this miracle have “any tendency” to make the existence of God more probable “than it would be without the evidence.”  Of course, it would.  The fact that the person asked for a miracle shows it has a tendency for him.


Plenty of atheists have asked for miracles as proof.  So presumably it would have that tendency for them.   Of course some might argue even that is not enough proof for them, but my case for God would be much stronger than if I offered no evidence at all, and just said in my closing argument “God exists so you should find for my side.”   Therefore these miracles are evidence of God.

I think this is an important point to get people off the whole “No Evidence!” “No Evidence!” mantra we hear.  There clearly is *some* evidence.  Is it is enough evidence for you?  How much evidence do you need? Are really the questions we are getting and that is a subjective matter.  I discussed this in a prior blog here:


The evidence in the OJ Simpson criminal trial was not enough evidence to “prove” he was guilty beyond reasonable doubt to that jury.  However the trial was televised and lots of people saw that very same evidence, and thought it was enough to “prove” his guilt beyond reasonable doubt.   Both sides had plenty of relevant evidence to support their case but different people drew different conclusions from that same relevant evidence.

A Moral Hypothetical


Consider the case of psychopath orthodontist.  He puts a woman under, fixes her teeth, undresses her, molests her and puts her clothes back on.  He then wakes her up.  The woman wakes up none the wiser.  He didn’t physically injure her.  He received sexual gratification.

Now if we assume the following about our moral view:

1) maximizing happiness is the goal of morality.

2) sexual gratification is as a form of happiness

would this be a good thing for the orthodontist to do?

You might say he will feel guilty, but he is a psychopath and so will suffer no guilty feelings.   Does his lack of guilt make the act better?

I am also curious if people accept the 2 premises of the morality I present.  Perhaps they need to be reworded.


Just to clarify. By “happiness” I do not mean to limit it to epicurean moralism at all. The term for happiness here can be much broader and even mean the equivalent of the Greek word eudaimonia which is usually translated as happiness.  This can mean well being or human flourishing.

Of course, in this hypothetical the definition of “happiness” “wellbeing” “human flourishing “must place value sexual gratification (which I think the vast majority of secular humanists do) but “happiness” isn’t intended to be limited to that or limited to purely pleasure and pain.  I hope that clarifies and explains why the hypothetical applies to many more moral systems.

Why do I like History?



As I get older for some reason I am more and more interested in history.  I recently listened to the Bloodlands and a lecture series on Russian history.  I recommend both.  I think I was more surprised by Bloodlands which I listened to first.  I was not aware that Germany and Russia had basically agreed how to divide Poland and other Eastern European countries before Hitler invaded Poland.   After listening to the Bloodlands I see no moral difference between Hitler and Stalin.

I first became interested in History for largely apologetic reasons.  I wanted to learn about the Crusades, Medieval history and early Christian history.  As I read the history I certainly found plenty of ammunition that can be used for any side if one wants to do that.  That’s true whether we are talking about Muslim versus Christian, or Atheist versus Christian, or even Christian versus Christian in regards to the reformation.    Reading history for those reasons, or at least mainly for those reasons, lost it’s luster.

People say you can learn “lessons” from history.   I am not so sure or at least I think people might take that too far.  They strain comparisons of today’s events with those of history.  History is a one time thing.  It’s not going to repeat itself exactly and it will always be controversial to claim that this current event is just like some event from the past.  It is very difficult to try to speculate about causes of certain events.  Like why did Stalin and Hitler end up leading their countries?   I like many people like to draw my own conclusions.  I think I can better sort out the good from the bad in people based on experiences I live directly or vicariously through reading history.  But I have read enough history (and lived enough life) that I also know that many of my previous theories weren’t right after all.  So concocting theories about human behavior is part of the reason I like history but its not an entirely satisfactory answer.

Sure what I learn in history is truth, and I value the truth for its own sake.  But certain truths are more important than others.   For example it seems facts dealing with morality are more important than just descriptive facts.  So it seems somehow more important that the truth about the secret Soviet and German agreement to divide Poland is revealed, than whether or not Stalin had siblings.   Finding out who was really responsible for the Katyn massacre seemed more significant despite the fact that those who were responsible are now dead.

I also read history for the same reason I read current events.  It can be interesting.  Current events that I read about in the paper might have some impact on my life, but really it’s pretty rare that learning about them will change my behavior very much.    The events of history are yesterdays headlines and are even less likely to change my behavior, but they are usually much more interesting and surprising.

From the philosophical and religious perspective that this blog usually takes, is it important whether or not Hitler was a Christrian?  Does it matter that Stalin was atheist? Does it matter that Christians have done wrong?   I think the answers are somewhat more complicated than I thought when I originally took an interest in history.

Notre Dame Pass Interference Call and the Actual Rule.


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College football fans are probably aware of the recent call against Notre Dame that resulted in them losing the game. Now we see many people talking about the call but very few actually mentioning the actual rule. Some don’t even show video of the play preferring still pictures that they hope supports their view. Here will look at both.
First the rule:

Illegal Contact and Pass Interference
ARTICLE 8. a. During a down in which a legal forward pass crosses the neutral zone, illegal contact by Team A and Team B players is prohibited from the time the ball is snapped until it is touched by any player or an official (A.R. 7-3-8-II).
b. Offensive pass interference by a Team A player beyond the neutral zone during a legal forward pass play in which a forward pass crosses the neutral zone is contact that interferes with a Team B eligible player. It is
the responsibility of the offensive player to avoid the opponents. It is not offensive pass interference (A.R. 7-3-8-IV, V, X, XV and XVI):

2. When two or more eligible players are making a simultaneous and bona fide attempt to reach, catch or bat the pass. Eligible players of either team have equal rights to the ball (A.R. 7-3-8-IX).
3. When the pass is in flight and two or more eligible players are in the area where they might receive or intercept the pass and an offensive player in that area impedes an opponent, and the pass is not catchable…..

1. Those infractions that occur during a down in which a forward pass crosses the neutral zone are pass interference infractions only if the receiver had the opportunity to receive a catchable forward pass.

g. Each player has territorial rights, and incidental contact is ruled under “attempt to reach…the pass’’ in Rule 7-3-8. If opponents who are beyond the line collide while moving toward the pass, a foul by one or both players is indicated only if intent to impede the opponent is obvious. It is pass
interference only if a catchable forward pass is involved.


Ok there are the relevant rules. It’s clear that the rule is for players trying to catch the ball and it’s clear. “It is pass interference only if a catchable forward pass is involved.” The question is whether the interference “involved” the pass.   I have been watching football for 30 years and have never seen pass interference called involving people other than those who could potentially catch the ball. I have never see calls for pass interference on the other side of the field from where the ball was thrown. This ball was thrown on the sideline and the alleged pass interference was supposedly at the hash mark. So traditional interpretation goes against this call.

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Now the play. It’s somewhat unclear who the ref actually called the opi on. He may have called it on 20, or he may have called it on 7. Let’s look at each. As for number 20 it is clear that his defender never makes any attempt to cover 88 at all until after the ball would have been uncatchable. He was clearly covering number 20 and even illegally holding his left sleeve. So again number 20 did not do anything to prevent that defender from being able to catch the ball. The ball was uncatchable for that defender because that defender chose to come up and jam 20 at the line and then hold/cover number 20 instead of the person the ball was being thrown to.  That interference seemed to not “involve” the actual pass at all.

But what if the flag was called on number 7? The video clearly shows that the defender covering number 7 also makes no attempt to cover number 88. If he was he would try to step to the outside of number 7 and cover 88. But the video clearly shows that defender steps to the inside of number seven taking away 7s posting route and leading to a collision between both players. It is clear he steps that way and he was not trying to get outside but was picked.  So again the intereference had nothing to do with that actual pass to a different player about 25-20 yeards away.

So it’s quite clear from the video
1) That the ball was not catchable for either of the defenders. And
2) The ball was not catchable for either defender not because of anything the offensive player did but rather because those defenders decided to try to cover players other than the receiver that had the ball thrown to him.

If the receivers were not even trying to cover the receiver that the ball was thrown to and and therefore neither could catch it anyway and it is hard to see how this interference call “involved” the actual pass at all.

Euthyphro Dilemma and William Lane Craig’s Response

Some argue that real morals cannot possibly exist unless God exists. The common and I think proper response to this claim directs them to the Euthyphro dilemma. The Euthyphro was one of Plato’s dialogues where Socrates asks whether something is good because it pleases the gods, or is it pleasing to the gods because it’s good?

This is an interesting question isn’t it? Most of my readers I suspect tend to be monotheists so let’s change “gods” to “God” and consider each possibility mentioned:
1) Something is pleasing to God because it is good.
2) Something is good because it is pleasing to God.

Ok I tend to think the first prong is a contender. I tend to think it’s possible that something is pleasing to God because it is good. That position has been criticized, because it is claimed that means God can’t be omnipotent or something along those lines. That is they would argue, God is caged in by goodness, and can’t make evil into goodness and therefore is not omnipotent.

Ok my view here is to fall back to Alvin Plantinga’s exposition about God’s omnipotence when he was dealing with the problem of evil. That is we should first try to understand what we mean by “omnipotent.” If omnipotent means God is not bound by the rules of logic then none of this philosophical talk will help us understand the possibility of his existence. For example the problem of evil would go away since it at best portends to show that God’s traits contradict the possibility that he would create this world with evil. Of course, if God is not bound by logical rules (such as the rule of non-contradiction) then this argument is of questionable worth.

So by “omnipotent” I tend think God’s power is still bounded by the rules of logic. (If I am wrong so be it. He is then truly well beyond my understanding so I can only hope for the best.) This is why people who ask can God make a rock so heavy even he cannot lift it, are asking something of dubious relevance.

The other observation from this first view is that the good seems capable of existing independent of God. I do not deny that this first view explains how morality might exist independent of God.

Now let’s consider the second possibility. Something is good because it pleases God. In this situation there is a sort of relativism based on God’s subjective wants. This view is in line with what is called the divine command theory of morality. I tend to agree that this makes right and wrong a bit too arbitrary.

Now a popular philosopher and apologist, William Lane Craig, points out that this is really a false dichotomy. I think he is correct on that point. These two options are not the only possible two options. “Murray Macbeath (1982), submits that the horns of the ED are not exhaustive given the logical possibility of this scenario that represents Macbeath’s own view: God might choose actions because they maximize our happiness, which might be the reason why those commands are morally right, but God might not command them because they are right but because he loves us. Thus, both disjuncts of the ED would be false, and ought to be rejected anyway, Macbeath would say..” THEISTIC ACTIVISM AND THE EUTHYPHRO DILEMMA by DAVID BAGGET


But also as William Lane Craig says we can reject both options and say “God wills something because he is good. That is to say it is God’s own nature which determines what is the good.” Therefore morality is not arbitrarily based on God’s whims as the second prong suggests. But also the good is not external to God. It flows from God’s nature. This view of God and his nature date at least as early as Anselm.

I think William Lane Craig, Anselm and several other philosophers over the millennia are correct in pointing that the two prongs of the dilemma are not exhaustive. And I would say that this understanding of morality seems a very plausible one. I actually see no reason why I need to try to determine whether this third possibility or the first possibility holds. Clearly since I believe God created the world there might be very little difference.
What does the existence of this third possibility show? I agree that it shows that what is commonly referred to as the “Euthyphro Dilemma” is not a true dichotomy. So it’s not the case that the Christian must either accept that goodness is independent of God or arbitrary. So that much is good for the Christian.
However sometimes I think the “third option” argument gets pushed a bit farther than is warranted. This third (or 4th or 5th) possibility is sometimes used to argue that for real morality to exist there must be a God. I think this stretches things too far. After all these other possibilities do not logically eliminate the first possibility. Thanks to the first prong we can clearly conceptualize how real morality could exist independent of God. And just because there are other possibilities that does not mean the first prong is impossible, or even less likely.

In the end I think the “Euthyphro Dilemma” does indeed help us understand how real right and wrong might exist without God. It does not prove morality exists without God. But it does help us understand how real morality can exist without God.

Practical versus Theoretical Rationality


I think this article gives a pretty good description of a distinction I often think about:



“Theoretical rationality is (roughly) a matter of evidential and argumentative support. Your belief in God is rational in the theoretical sense just in case the balance of evidence and argument supports the truth of the proposition that God exists. Your belief in God is practically rational, on the other hand, if it is in your interest for you to hold it.”


It seems to me both theoretical and practical rationality are important.   Often times it seems people only think in terms of the theoretical.   I often suggest that we might want to consider something beyond the probability of our beliefs being true, as to whether something is rational to believe.  The typical response from some atheist and theist alike is along the lines of “O my god! that’s Pascal’s wager O my God! Oh my god!  You know that’s been refuted right? Oh my god!”  And then they give me a link to some blog or wiki or something like that.  (I don’t think I have ever been offered a link to a peer reviewed article on Pascal’s wager.)  The link will rarely give a reason not to use practical rationality.  Instead it will give objections to Pascal’s specific formulation of the wager.  This will typically be a shot gun approach with decent and poor objections mixed together.  The result is that atheists (and certain theists) often only think in terms of Theoretical rationality.   I think that is a mistake.  Here are two points I would make in that regard:


First we might not have an option which is more likely true than not.  One of the objections to Pascal’s Wager is that there are many different exclusive God’s to choose from.  I think this illustrates a major problem for only thinking in terms of theoretical rationality.    If they all were assigned a probability value, it’s possible none of them would have a probability greater than 50% yet one still might put the probability of there being no God at under 50%.   What sort of beliefs should we then use to conduct ourselves?


I think this issue of choosing beliefs to base our conduct on is most directly brought to bear when we consider ethical and meta-ethical views.  As you might already know there are several different ethical positions we can hold.  But unfortunately each of them seems to present more problems than solutions.    I don’t think there is much in the way of evidence in support of one particular view of meta-ethics.  At least not evidence of the sort that I can mark as an exhibit in a court case.  (I plan to do a blog on what “evidence” is if there is an interest)  Yes there are arguments in favor and against a variety of different views.   But the problem is there are definitely more than 2 options.  I gave 4 major options in an earlier blog.  But there are all sorts of variations and sub-possibilities within those options.  E.g., Quasi-realism, naturalist realism and non-natural realism.  There are all sorts of varieties of constructivism and relativism.   Suffice it to say that these options cannot all be true.  If we ever find out the truth there will be many more losing theories than winning theories.    That’s just meta-ethical theories.  We also have many possible ethical theories, which one we choose might depend on which meta-ethical stance we take.   Christianity presents a set of moral beliefs as does Hinduism and Islam, not to mention all the different secular theories of ethics.    


Well here is the problem for someone who only follows theoretical rationality.  Let’s say you think theory 1 has a 20% chance of being true, theory 2 has a 15% chance of being true, theory 3 has about a 15% chance of being true and 5 other theories (theories 4-9) all have about a 10% chance of being true. (this should add up to 100%)   Well what to do?  You have to live your life.   In living your life you will be presented with binary options.  For example you either will go to church on Sunday or you will not.   What will you do?


You might say you will not believe any of these theories.   But what does that mean?  That doesn’t mean you will accept moral nihilism because perhaps you only give that a 15% chance of being true.    So if you accepted that belief you would believe something that you think is more likely than not false.  But what can you do?  How can you live your life?


It seems to me that theism is indeed an ethical and a meta-ethical theory.  Arguing that this theory is not more likely than not true is just like arguing nihilism or moral realism or relativism is not more likely than not true.  It really doesn’t itself decide anything.  This is because all these possibilities might be more likely than not untrue! 


It is my opinion that theism and Christianity in particular not only has a higher probability of being true than other meta-ethical and ethical theories, but also it is the most attractive option when we consider consequences from a practical rationality point of view.   But that is not the point of this blog.  I am here just merely trying to explain why solely using the theoretical model of rationality is a mistake.   That brings me to the second problem.


The second problem with just looking at rationality from the theoretical standpoint is that doing that doesn’t seem, well…. rational.  If you are looking at rationality solely from the theoretical view then what?  We are just to believe things that are more likely true then not and purge beliefs that are likely untrue.

Now how important is it to hold beliefs that are likely true?  Well this narrow view of rationality gives us no guidance of what views are important to get straight.  It’s just a matter of gaining beliefs that are likely true and purging beliefs that are likely untrue.   So on this narrow view there is nothing to say learning the facts by reading the phone book is any less important than learning science or ethics or history.  In fact, the phone book will likely give you more certain beliefs than studying ethics or meta-ethics.  So really if your goal is to just fill your head with as many beliefs that are likely true you might as well memorize the phone book.    That just doesn’t seem rational. 

 Now it seems that certain atheists are more concerned that people might hold beliefs that they think likely untrue.   Why is this a big concern?   We hear arguments like well if people believe this, which is likely untrue, then maybe they will believe something else that is likely untrue.   The concerns are fairly fantastic.  Maybe people will believe in the flying spaghetti monster or a teapot in space.  One philosophy professor even expressed concern that someone might believe in “absolute purple.”  He wasn’t sure what that would mean but he thought perhaps someone would believe it.  And this was somehow a concern. 

It’s not that I think we should believe in absolute purple.  Nor do I think we should believe in spaghetti monsters or tea cups in space, for that matter.   But I also don’t think we should worry about people believing those things either.    That concern, just really doesn’t strike me as rational either.  It just strikes me as odd for several reasons.  Not only does it seem unlikely people will believe that but it’s unclear what untoward consequences of such a belief would entail.   It just seems a bizarre concern to have. 


Of course I am not saying that the probability of a belief being true is not part of the equation.  I think it is.  But there is more to it than that.   That’s the point of this blog.  Any thoughts to the contrary or otherwise are always appreciated. 

Ehrman and the Historicity of Miracles


One of the issues that often comes up is whether there is any evidence for God.  Miracles are the most common and direct form of evidence requested in both modern and ancient times.   Definitions of a miracle can vary but the one provided by Macmillan dictionary seems most in tune with the philosophical model.  “an event that cannot be explained according to the laws of nature and is considered to be an act of God”


In modern times many agnostics and atheists ask for miracles as proof or evidence.  Whether it’s  N.R.Hanson’s having God appear after a thunder-clap causing everyone in the world to fall to their knees before the heavens open and  a giant radiant Zeus like figure appears  and “exclaims for every man woman and child to hear ‘I have had quite enough of your too-clever logic-chopping and word-watching in matters of theology.  Be assured, N. R. Hanson, that I do most certainly exist’”   Then there is the common notion that God could rearrange the stars to spell something like “I exist” to those who question.   Although there will always be some holdouts[i], most atheists are willing to agree that such miracles would be fairly compelling evidence of God.

The author of the Gospel of John explains why he records the signs (miracles)

“Jesus performed many other signs [miracles] in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”   John 20:30


But the hope for miracles dates even earlier.  The ancients thought along the same lines as we read in Isaiah.  He wished God would show himself by rending the heavens and coming down and do awesome things so that people would believe in him and turn from their sin.  But because he has “hidden [his] face” people continue to sin. [ii] I will just say that I find it interesting that it appears throughout time some humans have expected/hoped that God would reveal himself through miracles.  Some issues seem new but you can often find they have been asked before.


Is there historical evidence of miracles?  Years ago I listened to Bart Ehrlman’s lectures entitled “Historical Jesus.”  He repeats several times that in determining what historically happened one must use criteria..  The criteria he proposes are more or less these:


1)            Multiple sources

2)            Preferably Independent sources

3)            Non biased sources

4)            Contextual credibility

5)            Close in time to the events

6)            No contradictions/internally consistent


So far so good.  He goes through 17 lectures explaining, using, and emphasizing the importance of these criteria.  Then in lecture 18 he addresses miracles.  Needless to say I was somewhat excited to hear how they would hold up under historical criteria.

Unfortunately he then launches into some confused and contradictory explanations which I will quote at length below.  But at the outset I want to say that I do not intend to bash Professor Ehrman here.  I learned allot about the historical Jesus from listening to his lectures and books.  And I greatly appreciate his work and his ability to introduce and explain many of the issues in this very interesting field.  I don’t agree with everything he says but I learned a great deal from him and think he is an excellent author and professor.


Before I quote him I want to point out how he uses 2 different definitions of the word “miracle.”  1) an event that violates the law of nature.  And 2) and improbable or rare event.   But it’s important at the outset to know these are two different definitions.   We might say the Yankees winning in the ninth inning was a miracle comeback.  But we don’t really mean any laws of nature were violated.

In the same token several Christians believe a miracle happens at communion when the bread becomes Christ’s body and blood.  This is literally confirmed by hundreds of thousands of believers every day at Catholic Masses.   So according to them at least, it’s an event that violates the laws of nature, but it’s not exactly rare or improbable.


There are 2 definitions for the word duck.  One is a bird that likes water and the other is to bow down to dodge something.  But if I were to say a duck is a bird that likes water and often bows down to avoid attacks that would be conflating the two meanings.    You will see that is what Bart Ehrman does.


I will try to transcribe exactly what he says.  However, the parts in brackets and blue are are my own comments.  He says:

The reports of Jesus’s miracles create a special problem for historians who are committed to establishing to the best of their abilities what probably happened in the past.  On the one hand the miracles of Jesus are virtually ubiquitous in our gospel traditions.  [traditions which Ehrman believed were sufficient to establish historical facts]  Nearly everywhere you turn Jesus is healing the sick, casting out the demons, raising the dead, multiplying the loaves, walking on the water and so on.  These traditions infiltrate our gospel traditions.


Some people since the enlightenment in Europe have insisted that such miracles cannot happen.  For people like this, since miracles don’t happen, Jesus necessarily did not do miracles.   This view can be called the “philosophical problem of miracle”  I want to state emphatically that this is not the issue that I want to address in this lecture.  I am not dealing with the philosophical problem of whether miracles are possible.  That’s not what I want to deal with.  For the sake of the argument I am willing to concede that miracles can and do happen.  For the sake of the argument Ill concede that they happen.


But there still remains a huge and I’d say insurmountable problem when discussing Jesus’s miracles.  Even if miracles are possible, there is no way for the historian to show that they ever happened.  I’m going to call this the historical problem of miracle. As opposed to the philosophical problem.  Let me explain the historical problem of miracle at some length.


One way to approach the question is by reflecting for a moment on the ways in which historians engage in their craft in contrast say to the ways scientists engage in theirs.  The natural sciences operate through repeated experimentation as they seek to establish predictive probabilities based on past occurrences.  To illustrate on just the most simple level suppose I wanted to demonstrate that a bar of iron will sink in a tub of lukewarm water but a bar of ivory soap will float.  I could prove my thesis simply by repeated experimentation with tubs of water and with bars of both iron and soap.  Line up the tubs with water and the bars of iron will sink every time and the bars of ivory soap will float every time and this would provide an extremely high level of what we might call presumptive probability.  Namely that if I keep repeating the same experiment I’m going to keep getting the same results so that we can predict that in the future that is probably what is going to happen.  This is what natural science does it makes predictions about what is going to happen based on repeated experimentation of what already has happened.


In common parlance a miracle within this schema would involve a violation of this known working of nature.  It would be a miracle for example if a preacher prayed over a bar of iron and chucked it into a vat of lukewarm of water and it floated.  We would call that a miracle.


The historical disciplines are not like the natural sciences, in part, because they are concerned with establishing what has happened in the past as opposed to predicting what will happen in the future and in part because the historical disciplines cannot operate through repeated experimentation.  An occurrence is a one-time proposition once it happened; it is over and done with.


Since historians cannot repeat the past in order to establish what probably happened there will always be less certainty than there would be in the natural sciences where you can actually demonstrate things through repeated experimentation.  It’s much harder to convince people that John F Kennedy was the victim of a lone assassin than it is to convince them that a piece of ivory soap will float.  Because you can repeat one but you can’t repeat the other.

And the farther back you go in history the harder it is to mount a convincing case.  It’s one thing to mount a convincing case of an event that happened in 1963 where you actually have video.   But to try to convince somebody of what happened in 63 is extremely difficult.  You can not only not repeat it, but the sources available to you are highly problematic.  This all though is what makes alleged miracles so hard for historians, so difficult, in fact why they pose an insurmountable difficulty for historians. [But this seems to have nothing to do with something being a miracle, there are ancient and modern alleged miracles]


On one level of course, everything that happens, that happens at all is improbable but most things that happen are not so unlikely as to defy the imagination. [Again I thought he conceded they do happen it seems he is reneging.]  Because they happen more or less all the time.  If you five years ago had tried to calculate the probability of your sitting right now where you’re sitting.  I think probably it would be a remote probability five years ago but there is nothing improbable about the fact itself I mean you have to be sitting somewhere if though five years ago you tried to predict the probability of our right now levitating 20 feet in the air, well how would you even calculate the probability of that since you don’t levitate. [But I thought he said “For the sake of the argument I am willing to concede that miracles can and do happen.” he seems to be reneging]   You see both are improbable but the improbability of you levitating at this point is so infinitesimally remote that you can’t even calculate it. [I’m not sure I could calculate the probability that I would be sitting here five years before either] Events that don’t happen all the time defy probabilities. [But as he said himself all events from history only happen once.  Plus he clearly is just arguing they don’t happen all the time.] That’s why miracles create an inescapable dilemma for historians.

Let me put it like this since historians can only establish what probably did happened in the past and the chances of a miracle happening by definition are infinitesimally remote a miracle can never be the most probable occurrence.  [Notice this is a different definition of miracle than what he said earlier.] That means historians can never show by the very nature of the case given the constraints imposed by them by the historical methods that miracles probably happened. [Why not apply the historical method/criteria he claimed to use?] This is not a problem for only one kind of historian, for example for atheist for agnostics or Buddhists or Roman Catholics or Baptists or Jews or Muslims it’s a problem for all historians of every stripe.  Even if there are otherwise good sources for a miraculous event the very nature of the historical discipline prevents the historian from arguing for its probability by their very nature miracles are the least probable occurrence in any given instance.  [Clearly he is deciding this using something other than the historical criteria he set out and claimed to use.  If it is not the use of his historical criteria then what is the grounds for saying they are so unlikely? It seems that although he tries to deny it, he is mixing his philosophical views with his historical methodology.  Again he is using the different definition, that the one that simply indicated a violation of the laws of nature]




He offers some very confused thoughts and no longer wants to apply the same historical criteria he applies to other events.  It’ clear that we can take the miracle events described in the gospels and apply these criteria just like we can to any non – miraculous event.



He really offers nothing specific about any of the 6 historical criteria themselves not working with miracles.   So at the outset I see no reason why his normal criteria for historical analysis cannot be employed and sadly he does not address any of these criteria or attempt to show why they don’t work with miracles.  It seems very much to a situation of special pleading.

Ok lets move on to what he does say.   He claims he is not referring to a philosophical problem, but instead a “historical problem of miracle.”    Given that he never mentions any problems with applying the historical criteria to these events, it seems a strange claim.   Despite his claim to the contrary the “miracle problem” he refers to seems to be very much a philosophical misgiving.  It is a conflation of 2 distinct definitions of miracle, and a confusion over predicting probabilities in the future or the past.

It’s unclear to me whether his disparate thoughts are intended to mount several different arguments as to why normal methodology of a historian can’t be used.   Or if he thinks they support one global argument.  That said lets go through some of his points:

Why does he mention scientific method and how it’s distinct from the methods of the historian in the context of miracles only?  Clearly that distinction applies equally well to all sorts of historical evaluations and not just to miracles.   It seems he agrees history is not science regardless of whether we are discussing claimed miraculous events or natural events.  So why raise this distinction in this context?  He seems to be going adrift.

He indicates that it is harder to prove something that happened farther in the past with problematic sources than it is to prove something closer to the present when we have video tape.  I don’t disagree with that.  But this is true of all history and has nothing to do with the event being a possible miracle or not.  So again he seems to be going adrift when he brings this up in the context of why miracles can’t be examined with historical analysis.

He goes on to offer even more confused thinking:

“Another way to look at this problem is to point out ways that the historical disciplines are like the natural sciences.     Both Historical and natural disciplines deal with phenomena that can be observed by all interested parties apart from their ideological or religious beliefs. The historian can only look at evidence in other words that is available in the public record.   As a historian the person who is a historian has no access to supernatural forces.   Only to events that can be observed and interpreted by any reasonable person of whatever religious persuasion.


If a miracle requires belief in the supernatural realm but historians as historians have access only to the natural realm then they can never even discuss the probabilities of a miracle because it requires belief in the supernatural.  Let me emphasize that historians don’t have to deny the possibility of miracles or deny that miracles happen.  I’m not saying that.”


A miracle does not require anyone to believe in the supernatural.  It is a supernatural occurrence but the possibility of it happening is not dependent on our subjective beliefs.   It happened or it didn’t, regardless of whether we believe it happened.   Some miracles are better supported by historical criteria than others.  It’s difficult to know what he could mean when he says:


“If a miracle requires belief in the supernatural realm but historians as historians have access only to the natural realm then they can never even discuss the probabilities of a miracle because it requires belief in the supernatural.”

What is he talking about?  Discussing the probability of miracles does not require belief in the supernatural.   Lots of people who do not believe in the supernatural assign a probability to miracles.  Often these probabilities are low but very few people who do not believe in the supernatural claim there is absolutely no chance they are wrong.    But even if they do assign a zero probability they are assigning a probability.


What does he mean accessing the supernatural realm?  Miracles are supernatural events that happen in this realm.  People who believe the miracles as recorded in the bible do not think they happened in some other “realm.”  He is begging the question when he says Historians as historians cannot access the supernatural.  They can access them the same way they access natural events.     By looking at their sources and using their historical criteria.

When we examine the reasons for his claims, they do indeed make it clear that his issues with miracles are only philosophical ones.  I think his comments about how often miracles are recorded and from how many different sources makes it clear that if he used actual historical analysis he would find they are historically supported.  It’s just too bad that his philosophical views are so confused that he doesn’t even realize they are in fact philosophical and have nothing to do with historical analysis.

[i] For example Matt McCormick is an atheist philosophy teacher who apparently does not consider miracles to be evidence of God.

[ii]  “Why, O LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance.  For a little while your people possessed your holy place, but now our enemies have trampled down your sanctuary. We are yours from of old; but you have not ruled over them, they have not been called by your name.

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you!  For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.  Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.  You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved?  All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.” Isaiah 63-64