Don McIntosh’s Reply to Keith Parsons on Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

Internet Infidels just published the following on The Secular Web:

The Presumption of Naturalism and the Probability of Miracles: A Reply to Keith Parsons” by Don McIntosh.

Abstract:

In Chapter Four of Science, Confirmation, and the Theistic Hypothesis, Keith Parsons defends the dictum that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence as part of a general critique of miracle claims which aims to defend naturalism as a rational operating philosophy against potential defeaters. In this defense of miracle claims Don McIntosh argues, first, that for any unknown the burden of proof falls equally upon naturalists and supernaturalists; second, to repudiate all miracle claims in one fell swoop with a mere presumption of naturalism renders naturalism unfalsifiable and unscientific; and third, estimating the prior probability of miracles introduces an element of subjectivity that makes any general probabilistic argument against them suspect. These points leave open the possibility of confirming specific miracle claims on the basis of historical evidence and eyewitness testimony.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    I really do not consider this essay to be worthy of a reply. If anybody else would like to take pot shots at it, fire away!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01387665301048762546 Don McIntosh

    Hey, I worked hard on that essay!

    I thought it would be worthy of an offhanded insult at the very least…

    ;-)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12853972418923523933 Jacob Wahler

    Don,

    In parts of your essay you seem to be comfortable with globally applying a prior probability of .5 on both naturalism and supernaturalism. Is that charitable? As an example; That supernaturalism and quantum mechanics both had the same prior probability of being the correct explanation of the photoelectric effect? I want to make sure I'm reading you as saying you're committed to global skepticism about any explanation. Thanks

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    Well, I'm convinced. Extraordinary claims don't require extraordinary evidence after all.

    Did you know that the disciples miraculously had identical hallucinations that Jesus had returned from the dead, when in fact he had not?

    What's that? Oh, you only meant that your claims should be allowed unlimited freedom from evidence? I see.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12853972418923523933 Jacob Wahler

    Hiero5ant,

    I'm not sure Don is saying that extraordinary claims don't require extraordinary evidence, but rather something like 'we shouldn't be so sure there is such a thing as an extraordinary claim'(via his view of the problem of induction). Don seems to want to carve up the prior probability space equally. Your letter got lost in the mail? Before you review the evidence, Don seems to be saying that the explanation that angels stole it occupies the same probability as the explanation that some inattentive post office employee dropped it out of her truck. My contention (outside the obviously absurd conclusions) is why Don stops at carving the prior probability space up into 2 and not something approaching infinity (via the failure (according to Don)of induction)?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01387665301048762546 Don McIntosh

    Jacob,

    I’m not suggesting that the priors on naturalism and supernaturalism are equiprobable in any sort of classical or empirical sense, as heads and tails would be in a coin toss. In fact I stated explicitly, “There are no meaningful probabilities to be calculated in between the two poles of certainty and impossibility that could help us decide, on a priori grounds, the plausibility of miracles generally.”

    I am saying that there appears to be an inescapable subjective element involved in any prior probability estimate of competing metaphysically dependent claims. For me, naturalistic and supernaturalistic interpretations of background knowledge are equally metaphysically dependent claims. (On the other hand supernaturalism and quantum mechanics do not appear to be competing claims, precisely because they are not equally metaphysically dependent: The predictions of quantum mechanics can be tested, whereas, e.g., the presumed self-existence of nature cannot.).

    So on the issue of miracles I would say that I’m more committed to some degree of global subjectivism—and even then the relevant evidence should help keep our subjectivism from slipping into total skepticism or solipsism. As one very famous Christian philosopher put it:

    “According to your faith let it be to you.” :-)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12853972418923523933 Jacob Wahler

    Don,
    I would certainly not disagree with you that prior probabilities are sometimes metaphysically-laden and very often incommensurable. But I think a lot of naturalists object to your subjective prior estimating on grounds that you employ it only to your own convenience (i.e.the claims of Christianity) They may also object (as I do) that priors are even required in the kind of a priori sense you hint at. We need not have to guess a priori about the probabilities with which a supernatural being would employ 'miracles'. We can just avoid that step and go out into the world and witness the fact that of all the causes and explanations there are total, very few of them seem to be of the supernatural variety. It may have been otherwise, but it appears this is the actualized world in which miracles are few and far between (God or not).

    I'm also suspicious of why you're unwilling to let certain things not be competing claims (quantum mechanics and supernaturalism)? It would seem perfectly coherent to let supernatural explanations compete with natural ones, particularly when predictions are necessary. In other words,why can't supernatural explanations make exclusive and exhaustive predictions like naturalism?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01214435586629463058 Peter White

    Keith, you were right not to make a reply. The entire essay falls apart with the claim that the burden of proof falls equally upon naturalists and supernaturalists. Considering that there is ample evidence for the existence of the natural and precisely zero evidence for the supernatural anyone with a functioning brain would stop at that point.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01387665301048762546 Don McIntosh

    Jacob,

    Thanks for your comments.

    My appeal to subjective priors is only meant to keep the door open to the possibility of a miracle confirmation in principle, not to present a surefire method for actually confirming miracles wherever there is an extraordinary claim.

    You are doubtless correct that very, very few explanations seem to potentially qualify as supernatural. I.e., the vast majority of observable events seem to be prima facie non-miraculous. (Miracles by most anyone’s definition don’t happen very often.) What I am suggesting is that documentary and testimonial evidence for a well-attested miracle claim may be sufficient to overcome the prior probability against (as based on perceived regularity in nature).

    I actually agree with you that where priors cannot be themselves confirmed, the best approach may be to directly examine the relevant evidence. But I don’t take a frequency interpretation of probability applied to history to be the best source of evidence in itself. Otherwise accounts or explanations of singular unprecedented events—whether the origin of life, the resurrection of Christ, or the 9-11 tragedy—would have to be equally dismissed as contrary to best evidence.

    I don’t regard quantum mechanics and supernaturalism as competitors because one is a testable scientific theory and the other is not. And I think that touting q.m. as a victory for naturalism because it’s a natural explanation relies on an equivocation—“nature” meaning on one hand what is continually observable and measurable in principle, and on the other a self-existent, self-contained reality upon which all other realities depend. Basically I think you’re confusing the success of science with the success of naturalism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12853972418923523933 Jacob Wahler

    Don,

    Cutting to the chase here a little bit, you seem to be saying (after reading your paper again) that you're still in favor of the extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence model but that you think naturalists like Parsons and Flew stack their priors so loftily as to be indefeasible to a miracle actually occurring (or having occurred), is that right? Here I think we agree. Defeasibility I take it though is something of an epistemic virtue for you when indicting naturalism, but not a virtue for supernaturalism (from your comments above). How come?

    And just for shits and giggles, showing your hand so to speak, what's your prior on the claim of anyone having been resurrected from the dead?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01387665301048762546 Don McIntosh

    Jacob,

    […you're still in favor of the extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence model but that you think naturalists like Parsons and Flew stack their priors so loftily as to be indefeasible to a miracle actually occurring (or having occurred), is that right?]

    I guess that’s close enough…

    [Defeasibility I take it though is something of an epistemic virtue for you when indicting naturalism, but not a virtue for supernaturalism (from your comments above). How come?]

    Good question. My supernaturalism makes no claim upon science, for one thing. Naturalism does appear to make that claim, however, so to the extent that naturalism is indefeasible it does not cohere with a science that affirms defeasibility. Besides, I don’t know that Christian orthodoxy isn’t defeasible in principle, though I am confident that in the first century it was: All it would have taken was someone producing the dead body of Jesus.

    [And just for shits and giggles, showing your hand so to speak, what's your prior on the claim of anyone having been resurrected from the dead?]

    Pretty high. As a Christian, I have it on good authority not only that Jesus resurrected from the dead but that he will resurrect countless others from the dead to be with him at the end of the age.

    And please limit your response to just giggles. ;-)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    DON MCINTOSH
    All it would have taken was someone producing the dead body of Jesus.

    CARR
    Really? Paul claims that the last Adam became a life-giving spirit, and he was writing to Christian converts who seemed to be openly scoffing at the idea of their god raising corpses, while fully accepting that Jesus was alive.

    I also believe that what it would take to defeat the second gunman theory of the shooting of JFK, is simply for somebody to produce the second gun and show that it had not been fired.

    That is as logical as your claim…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01387665301048762546 Don McIntosh

    Steven,

    [Paul claims that the last Adam became a life-giving spirit, and he was writing to Christian converts who seemed to be openly scoffing at the idea of their god raising corpses, while fully accepting that Jesus was alive.]

    Note that I did mention Christian *orthodoxy* as falsifiable in principle. I think it’s safe to say that Paul as author of the canonical epistle of 1Corinthians better represents orthodoxy than the scoffers he was attempting to correct.

    Note also that Paul’s statement that “the last Adam became a life-giving spirit” in 1Cor 15.45 is preceded almost immediately by a more general description of the resurrection of the dead. The body, he says, “is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption” (v. 42), “it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory” (v. 43), “it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (v. 44). The same body is repeatedly said to be buried in one state and raised in another. So in context the “life-giving spirit” of Christ is the living spirit of Christ inhabiting his body in a glorified state.

    [I also believe that what it would take to defeat the second gunman theory of the shooting of JFK, is simply for somebody to produce the second gun and show that it had not been fired.]

    Interesting objection! I think the critical difference here is that the many reported eyewitnesses to Christ saw him alive before his public crucifixion and burial, and then alive after that. So the dead body of Christ cannot be produced because it is no longer in the tomb. The second gun by contrast cannot be produced because at no point has anyone been able to identify it.


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