Philipse on the Immunization of Theism

In Chapter 10, Philipse examines the need — at least according to him — for theologians to “immunize” their theology from science, by which he means that they have to make it so that their theories cannot be disconfirmed by future scientific discoveries. The main issue that undercuts pretty much all of this chapter is, again, that natural theologians and any theologians who are attempt to approach their theology empirically and scientifically ought to be as worried about future scientific examinations disproving them as, well, scientists are … which is to say, not one bit. Philipse seems to want to put theology in general into a bind. He wants to argue that theology can’t be respectable unless it accepts the standards and methods of science, but then should theology actually attempt to do so insists that it can’t be taken seriously in science unless it meets higher standards than general scientific theories have to. In short, if theologians promote more conceptual theories, he’ll dismiss them as not being scientific, but if they promote empirical or scientific theories, if Philipse can come up with any explanation that isn’t supernatural he will claim that those are to be preferred to even the empirical and naturalistic theological theories. At which point, if theism accepts the moves, there is no way for theism to win even if it’s true. But there’s no reason for a naturalistic theologian to accept that there is a problem if it is possible for future scientific discoveries to impact their theory, nor is there any reason for a conceptual theologian to accept that their proofs need to be empirical or scientific in order to be respectable.

Here, Philipse is trying to use the argument of “God of the Gaps” to argue that natural theologians need to immunize their theories against potential future scientific refutation of their explanations. The problem is that the “God of the Gaps”, when it’s used as an argument at all, doesn’t work that way. The basic “God of the Gaps” is simply noticing that theistic explanations were used in a lot of places, and then science came along and replaced them with actually better explanations. If this is used as an argument, it’s an inductive one that says that since scientific explanations have replaced theistic explanations so often in the past, we should presume that for any phenomena where we want to use a theistic explanation we should probably just wait for a scientific one instead of doing that. This is, of course, an invalid argument that at best only means that if you want to promote a theistic explanation for a certain phenomena you need to provide a reason other than “Science can’t explain it” … which we probably should be doing anyway. And if a natural theologian has an explanation for a phenomena that requires there be a God and has reasons for thinking that God is the best or a good explanation of that phenomena, they should not be at all concerned about the possibility that science might come up with a better theory at a later date. Yes, it might … and it might not. We can only assess what is the best explanation looking at what we know now, not by what might happen later. So the need for immunizing theism from future scientific discovery seems to not be a need after all.

However, Swinburne tries to do so, arguing that there are some phenomena that are too weird or too big to be handled by science. I’m not going to talk about the “too big” argument, because that’s essentially cosmological arguments and, well, it’s better to handle that by looking at those arguments specifically and seeing if they work than by worrying over whether science could ever find an explanation for those phenomena. I will talk a bit about the “too weird”, which is basically miracles, and Philipse focuses on the Resurrection as a specific example to look at to purportedly prove his case.

Philipse’s argument is essentially this: if we accept Swinburne’s idea that miracles are too weird to fall under science, then we have to accept that they are, well, improbable given what we know about the world. That’s rather the point of a miracle. But if they really are that “weird” and improbable, then if we are told about one or see something that might suggest that it actually happened, what we probably should do is doubt that the event happened rather than proclaiming it a miracle. Thus, the very characteristics that would cause us to classify it a miracle should also cause us to be skeptical that it actually happened.

This might sound good at first, but when we put it into the context of Hume’s argument which inspires it, we can see the problems with it. Recall that Hume’s argument was, essentially, that miracles are so improbable that no matter how trustworthy we think a witness is it is always more probable that they were lying or mistaken than that the miracle actually happened. Philipse is more generous, conceding that we might be able to have a witness or set of evidence reliable enough to establish a miracle, but that that standard has to be enormously high given that we are talking about a miracle. But the problem is that these arguments smack of denying that an event occurred only or at least primarily because they don’t like the implications of that event actually happened. Sure, they talk about probabilities so as to make it sound more reasonable, but remember that for Hume he would have argued that for someone that you think is completely reliable, has no reason to lie, and who was definitely in a position to affirm that the event happened, it would still be more probable to deny that the event occurred than to accept that a miracle actually happened. Ultimately, then, the argument seems to translate to “If this event occurred, it would be a miracle, and therefore I will deny that the event occurred”. But you can’t deny that an event happened just because you don’t like the implications if it did. You can’t argue that the reliability of someone’s testimony is determined by whether or not you want to believe that the event they’ve testified to actually happened, or that someone’s senses must have been deceived just because of what they saw. Ultimately, that really seems like an argument that you will deny all possible evidence because you don’t like the conclusion that evidence leads you to.

We can see this more fully when we look at Philipse’s analysis of the Resurrection. Philipse wants to jump through all sorts of hoops to deny that the event occurred, but all he ends up doing is showing us what we ought to already know: we don’t have enough direct evidence to accept that the Resurrection actually happened. We, at least in modern times, don’t have anything like direct testimony from a reliable witness or set of witnesses that were in an appropriate position to witness the event. Instead, we have second-hand testimony passed down primarily by word of mouth until it was written down, which allows for corruption and the introduction of false and misleading testimony and evidence into the record. So we have reasons to doubt that the event happened independently of what actually happened … or, at least, to say that the evidence we have for it isn’t sufficient to establish that the event actually happened.

Now, if Philipse could argue that it is the “oddness” of the event that drives our skepticism, then he’d have a point … but that’s not what drives our skepticism. Yes, we tend to demand stronger evidence for stranger beliefs, but as it turns out a “miracle” being ascribed to a purportedly supernatural being is less improbable than if it is being ascribed to a natural being. For example, in a series like the Elenium or the Amber series we’re not going to blink an eye if someone casts a magical spell, but we’d be dragged completely out of immersion if, say, Jack Ryan did that. Since Jesus is purportedly a supernatural being, His being involved in a miracle is consistent with what we’d expect from such a being. No, what makes us skeptical about the Resurrection is less its oddness and more its importance: it is absolutely critical to Christianity that it happened, and so those skeptical of Christianity are going to peruse it in detail before accepting it. In general, it is always at least a combination of oddness and importance that drives how easily we will accept certain claims. If someone said that Jesus ate fish on a particular day, we wouldn’t subject that to any scrutiny. But if someone argued that a certain important event depended on Jesus eating fish on a particular day, we in general would want to make sure that we had really good evidence that that did, indeed, happen on that day.

And as we saw above, “oddness” isn’t really “improbable”, but is instead more “inconsistent”. If, say, someone said that I ate fish on a particular day, that would strike at the “oddness” criteria, even though people eat fish every day. The reason is that _I_ don’t like fish, and so I don’t eat it very often. So someone being told that about me would find it puzzling and would want more evidence before accepting it. And if my eating fish that day mattered for some reason, then that inconsistency might even drive them to strongly doubt that as confirming evidence. This is why Jesus performing or being part of a miracle is less odd than, say, my doing it would be; it is consistent with our expectations for a supernatural being like Jesus and inconsistent with our expectations for a natural being like myself.

So this defense of “oddness” doesn’t work. Ascribing supernatural actions to a supernatural agent won’t trigger than criteria in our skepticism. The Resurrection triggers skepticism because it is a important event that we have little solid evidence for, not because someone being raised from the dead is just that odd. And even if it was, demanding exceedingly high standards of evidence can only be seen as an attempt to set the bar so high that the atheist need never accept that a miracle or the Resurrection ever occurred, which is not a reasonable position to take, and is a position that no theist need accept. Ultimately, the best way for a theist to approach the arguments in this chapter is to simply refuse to accept the presumptions that underlie them, and thus to deny that there is any problem at all, requiring Philipse to put forward far better arguments for them than he has.

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