The Powerful “Like What?” Test

In a recent “Christian Meets World” podcast, Christian host Jason Rennie interviewed author and blogger John Loftus. At one point (20:40), Rennie proposed a deliberately ridiculous natural explanation for the gospel story: time-traveling insurance salesmen led by a clone of Elvis go back in time to manufacture the idea of Jesus to get the concept of “Act of God” into insurance law. He asks whether this is more improbable than the gospels being true.

“Act of God” probably has a lot more to do with God than with Jesus, but let’s ignore that. What about this explanation for the gospel story? It’s natural—does that mean that it beats the supernatural explanation?

The host touches on an important point—the distinction between the rule of thumb “a plausible natural explanation beats a supernatural explanation” and “any natural explanation beats a supernatural explanation.”

The first statement is enough for me. We don’t always have natural explanations—science has many unanswered questions, for example—but where we do, the natural explanations that dismiss the supernatural explanations are all plausible. There’s no need to support a crazy natural explanation simply because it’s natural. We have quite plausible natural alternatives to the gospel story and needn’t imagine time-traveling clones of Elvis.

But ignore that for now. Let’s actually compare these two alternatives using the “Like what?” test.

Consider the pieces of this proposal one at a time—first, the clone of Elvis. With the “Like what?” test, we ask, “So you propose a clone of Elvis? Like what? What precedents do we have that would make such a thing possible?”

In this case, we have quite a lot of precedent. We’ve already cloned two dozen species of animals.

Next: insurance salesmen eager to improve their business. There’s no problem finding precedents to this.

Time travel? This one is quite far-fetched, but it’s simply technology, and we understand technology. We’ve seen almost unbelievable progress in technology in the last 200 years. No one today can even sketch out how time travel might work—indeed, it may be impossible—but 10,000 more years of technology might well deliver this.

Note that this isn’t about time traveling wizards. We have no precedent for that. Everything here is natural.

In summary, the explanation has:

  • A clone of Elvis, like clones of sheep and dogs that we’ve already made.
  • Cost-cutting insurance salesmen, like insurance executives today.
  • Time travel, like the technology today that would seem miraculous to people just 50 years ago.

That hardly means that this ridiculous explanation is the best one—while it’s possible, it fails because it brings no evidence to support it over likelier explanations. It simply means that we have precedents for all major components of the story.

Now apply the “Like what?” test to the supernatural explanation, that the Jesus miracles happened pretty much as claimed in the Bible. Like what?

Here, we have no universally-accepted supernatural explanations. Christians don’t accept the supernatural stories of Hinduism, Muslims don’t accept those of Christianity, not everyone accepts ghosts or other paranormal phenomena, and so on.

The only prior examples on which there is universal agreement is that there are false supernatural claims. Consider supernatural claims about the sun, for example: the Greeks explained it as Apollo in his chariot, the Mesoamericans said that Quetzalcoatl created the current sun (the previous four having been destroyed by disasters), and the Salish said that the raven brought the sun to mankind. All nonsense, we agree.

Present a universally-accepted prior example of the supernatural—like clones, salesmen, and technology in the example above—and the gospel story has some standing. As it is, it doesn’t even leave the gate. It’s trounced even by this deliberately ridiculous example.

Any sufficiently advanced technology
is indistinguishable from magic
— Arthur C. Clarke

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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  • Richard S. Russell

    A devout time traveler goes back 2000 years to meet Jesus and finds him a drooling idiot playing in the dirt in the corner of Joseph and Mary’s squalid hut. Then what?
     
    For the answer, read Michael Moorcock’s classic SF novel Behold the Man (which in Latin is Ecce Homo).

  • rupi capra

    Welcome to Patheos. I just found you from the Friendly Atheist blog. I have one complaint: can you get rid of that facebook rectangle that blocks the left side of the screen?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Get rid of the Facebook rectangle? I’m new here–I barely know where the bathroom is!

      But that’s a good question. I suspect that that’s just the way things are, but I’ll ask. The easiest workaround is probably to widen your browser window.

  • Brian Westley

    Muslims do accept a lot of supernatural claims of Christianity, being an offshoot of it, just as Christians accept a lot of Judaism.

  • http://SamSingleton.com Cari Park

    I’m glad you have moved to Patheos–a site I already use regularly. And, I like the new name and new Logo!

    • Bob Seidensticker

      :) Thanks!

  • Dan

    I agree with your conclusion that supernatural explanations don’t get out of the gate, but not because there is no inductive precursor. The re-animation of Jesus could have been the first instance of this ever occurring. The problem is that ‘Supernatural’ by definition is outside of nature, and therefore is forever beyond the realm of knowledge. In fact a supernatural explanation is indistinguishable from no explanation at all, and therefore adds absolutely nothing. ‘Supernatural’ is clearly just a placeholder for not knowing. If someone posits a supernatural explanation for something with a natural manifestation (eg. Jesus rising from the dead), simply ask them what the interface is that allows something outside of nature to interact with nature. I’ve never had anything that even approaches and answer to this question.

    • Richard S. Russell

      Right you are. I have a comparable deal going with various science-fiction stories that posit supercomputers attaining sentience and trying to take over the world. “Where are its effectuators?”, I ask plaintively. “Sure, it’s thinking homicidal thots, but what does it use to manipulate the murder weapons? It ain’t got no hands!

      • Bob Seidensticker

        Richard:

        Then you have the case of Colossus (film, 1970). It didn’t have hands, but it had control of America’s nuclear arsenal.

        • Richard S. Russell

          A not-so-hot movie based on a middlin’ book, “The Forbin Project”, by Dennis Jones, it cleverly dodged the flaw I identified above by blackmailing the human race into serving as its hands. It did so by combining intellects with its Soviet opposite number to attain an intelligence greater than either of them was invested with on its own. That was necessary for its success, because a US-based computer couldn’t very well threaten its own bosses with missiles that were aimed at Moscow, but once it ALSO had control of Soviet missiles aimed at DC, it had the upper hand. This was the precursor to Skynet and WarGames and an approximate contemporary of Arthur C. Clarke’s HAL 9000.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Dan:

      The problem is that ‘Supernatural’ by definition is outside of nature, and therefore is forever beyond the realm of knowledge.

      Forever? I’m not sure about that. Seeing through opaque matter was supernatural (beyond the natural) until x-rays were discovered. Science very quickly absorbed this new information and expanded its boundaries–what had been supernatural became natural.

      simply ask them what the interface is that allows something outside of nature to interact with nature.

      Agreed. The idea that God is untestable doesn’t make much sense. If he stays in his supernatural realm, then sure. But if he comes into our own world, he is (potentially) testable. Indeed, “God answers prayers” makes a scientific claim.