Guest Post: Elvis, Jesus and the Natural Law Tradition

Guest Post: Elvis, Jesus and the Natural Law Tradition August 19, 2020

A few years ago, I contributed a chapter to Not Seeing God (2017), edited by fellow Patheos Nonreligious blogger Jonathan M.S. Pearce (at A Tippling Philosopher). Pearce’s Onus Books has a new book out, The Unnecessary Science by Gunther Laird. The following is an excerpt from that book, which is a response to the work of some of the most popular Catholic apologists in professional philosophy working today. Here, he critiques an argument for the historical veracity of the Bible based on philosophical grounds made by one such philosopher, Edward Feser. This approach (as well as the humorous but still academically rigorous writing style) can be found throughout the rest of The Unnecessary Science.

The philosopher Edward Feser, in most of his published books and articles (such as The Last Superstition, Five Proofs for the Existence of God, and Scholastic Metaphysics, among many others) has done more than any contemporary writer to popularize and defend the Catholic religion. I have endeavored to contest his efforts directly in the new book I have recently published, The Unnecessary Science: A Critical Analysis of Natural Law Theory. In this entry for Cross Examined, I will summarize one of the arguments (out of many) I make in Chapter 2: Even if we assume the existence of a single God, and even if we assume that God is capable of miraculous intervention in the material world throughout history, we would still be unable to prove with certainty that Christianity was true through the “miracle” of the Resurrection; indeed, no apparent miracle could prove any religion true with such a high degree of philosophical certainty.

By “philosophical certainty” I refer to deductive arguments versus inductive ones. Deductive arguments are necessarily true due to the logical relationships between their premises (if the conclusion of a deductive argument follows necessarily from its premises, it is called a valid argument, and if those premises are also true, it is a sound argument). Inductive arguments are probabilistic—they rely on empirical evidence, so their conclusions can be very likely true, but not absolutely certain as is the case for deductive arguments. Feser thinks he has made a sound deductive argument for an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God (one who would never lie to His creations). That syllogism, sketched out in his book The Last Superstition and given in a more formal manner in Five Proofs for the Existence of God, is based on the Aristotelian metaphysical argument for change, the premises of which, though admittedly empirical, cannot be contested. For the moment, I would be happy to concede this point to Feser, and argue against him on his own terms. This is one of the appeals of my book: I make an effort to engage with my opponents on their strongest grounds, accepting many of their assumptions and premises at first in order to display how their conclusions do not follow even given those assumptions, and only then attacking those assumptions directly. I do not expect every Catholic or Christian to agree with me on every point they make, but I expect that they will be unable to claim I have been unfair.

So, how does Feser go from the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent (and also entirely honest) single God, to believing that the Christian religion specifically gets it right about that God? Miracles. To quote from his The Last Superstition,

Given that God exists and that He sustains the world and the causal laws governing it in being, we know that there is a power capable of producing a miracle, that is, a suspension of those causal laws…. [Therefore, if] a monotheistic religion’s claim to be founded on a divine revelation is going to be at all credible, that claim is going to have to rest on a very dramatic miracle.… The Resurrection surely counts as such a miracle, for there are no plausible natural [as opposed to divine] means by which a dead man could come back to life. What does Islam have to match this? Muhammad’s “miracle”…is the Qu’ran itself. This is…rather anticlimactic, especially given that the contents of the Qu’ran can easily be accounted for in terms of borrowings from Jewish and Christian sources. Jewish miracle claims are going to be the ones familiar from the Old Testament…but Christians accept those too, so even if their historicity were verified, they could not make the case for Judaism over Christianity specifically. Moreover, the direct eyewitness evidence for these miracle stories is more controversial than the evidence surrounding the Resurrection. All things considered, then, the one purportedly revealed monotheistic religion which can appeal to a single decisive miracle in its favor is Christianity.[1]

This, therefore, is Feser’s argument for the truth of Christianity above all others: We know, through deductive reasoning and therefore with one-hundred-percent deductive certainty, that a single God exists, and that God is capable of performing miracles. We have a great deal of eyewitness historical evidence for a certain miracle (the Resurrection). Thus, we can conclude the Resurrection really did occur, and since the only being capable of performing a miracle is the one God, God must have been responsible for it. And since God is omnibenevolent and could not lie, the miracle of the Resurrection proves that Christianity has His imprimatur, which makes Christianity true, and the world is logically (not just probablistically) obligated to accept it.

I can highlight the problems in Feser’s argument with an analogy—one which I hope most readers here might get a chuckle out of.

Let us imagine that one day, mysteriously, the body of Elvis Presley disappears from his grave in Graceland, Tennessee. The media flocks to the area, the King’s fans are in an uproar, the FBI is dispatched to figure out what happened to it, and the nation descends into general chaos. Just before the nuclear bombs start flying, Elvis suddenly reappears! Dressed in his finest sparkly threads, his black hair waxed and mussed into a perfect pompadour, his skin as healthy and radiant as it was when he first came on stage, he casually strolls into a local Denny’s at 5 AM in the morning and orders a milkshake. It’s not a busy night, and there are only thirteen people there, including the staff. But none of them can deny it—the King has returned! They crowd around him, begging for his wisdom, and he tells them that he was resurrected by God to return peace, love, and rock-and-roll to this benighted world. He must return to heaven very soon, he says, but once he does, they must start a new religion called “Elvisism.” He’s a bit vague about its tenets, but it mostly revolves around listening to his songs at least once a week. With those words of wisdom dispensed, he stands up and casually saunters away as if nothing had happened, and when his audience desperately runs outside to follow him, they find out he’s gone! There’s no proof he was ever even there…except for a recording the cashier had made on her smartphone, which is irrefutable evidence of what he did and said. She uploads it on YouTube, gaining over one billion views in less than six hours, and soon everyone in the world is convinced of the inescapable truth of the new religion. The nuclear strikes are called off, all the world’s great religions are swiftly abandoned, and Planet Earth is soon united in peace and harmony under the soothing tunes of the greatest musician who ever lived, now proven to be divine as well.

If such an event were to take place—if the corpse of Elvis were to disappear, and someone who looked just like him appeared soon after—would Dr. Feser abandon Catholicism and embrace the hip-grinding ways of his new savior? I rather suspect not. Like any good skeptic, Dr. Feser would point out that a multitude of explanations besides divine activity could explain these shenanigans. Some mischief-makers stealing Elvis’s corpse and hiring a look-alike to fool the dupes at Denny’s, for instance.

But wait! Don’t we know for sure it would be an act of God? After all—to once again review Feser’s reasoning—we know that change exists, which means that a single unchangeable Being exists, which also must be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. Since that Being can control the laws of physics (this is a slight simplification—Feser believes in “laws of natures,” emphasis on the plural, rather than physical laws, but that’s too complex to get into here). He could have brought Elvis’s corpse back to life, thus allowing the King to get his shake at Denny’s. That means, as Feser might say, “His miraculous resurrection puts a divine seal of approval on what He said,” which of course would mean that Elvisism would be true.[2]

Given that line of reasoning, would Feser relent and join the Church of Elvis? I still suspect not. Feser would probably say, “Well, simply because the existence of Pure Act makes miracles possible, it doesn’t follow that any strange happening or bizarre event is necessarily a miracle. Perhaps they’re elaborate hoaxes which will be revealed given enough time and investigation. Or perhaps there are scientific explanations, like will-o-the-wisps being proven to be marsh gas, that we haven’t discovered yet. But simply believing in Pure Act doesn’t mean I have to believe every trick someone might pull over me.”

Reasonable enough, but couldn’t you say the same for Christianity? After all, there are “natural” explanations for the miracles attributed to Christ, simply due to the nature of historical (or exegetical, in the case of the Bible specifically) inquiry. There is no way to prove with deductive certainty that some historical event happened—it is always possible that the historian has incorrectly interpreted the evidence, or even that the evidence itself is not reliable. It is true that the existence of God (if we concede this to Feser, again, I contest this in chapter 6 of my full book) makes Christ’s miracles possibly true, but that does not make the evidence “overwhelming.” Otherwise, any random person could claim to be a dead celebrity, or have risen from the dead, and point to “overwhelming” evidence on their side.[3]

Feser might try and refute this by saying that given their different historical contexts, it is far more likely Christ’s Resurrection would be divine than Elvis’s. After all, Christ was known for many miracles in addition to coming back to life, and in any case it would have been harder to pull off such a hoax back in the days of Roman Judea, since any grave robber would not have had the aid of machinery to break in or any technology which could help hide his presence. But two problems remain with this solution. First, even if it is unlikely that anyone could break into the tomb and steal Christ’s body in ancient times, it is not impossible. Perhaps someone bribed some guards or soldiers near the tomb to assist them with the scheme, for instance, and the subsequent reappearance of Christ was, if not a mass hallucination, a look-alike that fooled the audience. It may be unlikely that anyone could disguise themselves as Christ, but given the number of people who can pass for Elvis today, it is hardly impossible that there was at least one person in ancient Judea who resembled Jesus enough to trick a grieving, emotionally-distraught audience. The same applies to Christ’s other miracles—perhaps they were tricks or made-up. Of course, this is assuming the testimony of the Gospels is entirely accurate—very many scholars have looked at the Biblical account and found more than a few reasons to be skeptical.[4] But either way, it is far from certain that the Resurrection happened exactly the way Scripture tells it, which means that it is far from certain Catholicism (or any other branch of Christianity) is true. In other words, one might—might—be able to make a strong inductive case for Catholicism or Christianity generally based on the available historical evidence, but it is impossible to make a deductive case that what evidence we have (the testimony of the Gospels, archaeological traces, etc.) proves that a miracle truly occurred and that a certain religion is true.

This is just one example of what you can expect to find in chapter 2 of The Unnecessary Science—I expand on these points, and many others, in the text itself! If you find this compelling—or perhaps even amusing—whether you agree with it or not, I hope you’ll consider giving the book itself a look.

____________

[1] Edward Feser, The Last Superstition (St. Augustine’s Press, 2008), 155, 160.

[2] The Last Superstition, 156.

[3] For more problems with the Resurrection, see the paragraph on Ockham and miracles at Arensb, “The Last Superstition: Hedonism Killed Aquinas,” Epsilon Clue, November 21, 2016, last accessed on August 14, 2020,

https://epsilonclue.wordpress.com/2016/11/21/the-last-superstition-hedonism-killed-aquinas

[4] My editor has done an excellent job rounding up a selection of these theories on his personal blog. See Jonathan Pearce, “Easter Round-Up: Everything You Need To Know About The Resurrection (Skeptically Speaking),” A Tippling Philosopher, April 20, 2019, last accessed August 14, 2020, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/tippling/2019/04/20/easter-round-up-everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-resurrection-skeptically-speaking


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