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Heads You Win, Tails I Lose

Heads You Win, Tails I Lose February 6, 2016

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Here is one I wrote a few years back, but came up in a conversation on another thread.

When thinking about subjects like the fine-tuning argument it becomes apparent that the theist loves to have their cake and eat it. They thrive off a “heads I win, tails you lose” scenario.

What I mean by this can be exemplified as follows:

In the fine-tuning argument when a skeptic argues:

The universe is more fine-tuned for death than life. The size of the universe is so unbelievably and unnecessarily massive that it appears that it is not designed for human life.

…etc etc…,

the theist retorts:

The fine balance of these constants means that it is just about right for life. Anything more or less will not permit life. Aah, but size does not matter. Just because life might just exist in one corner of the universe does not necessarily mean that the universe is not designed with us in mind. The value of the diamond is not particularly size dependent.

And so on.

While on the surface these retorts may seem logically coherent, the scenario that they build up is problematic. The end result is this:

If the universe had been much smaller, just right for human life on a human scale, then the universe would have been obviously designed for humans, so would claim the same theist. The universe is the direct opposite of that, but still this somehow shows that God obviously designed it, such as the design being based on other purposes, using the analogy of the Sistine Chapel (one marvels at the size and beauty of it but it doesn’t need to be that big; that the awe and wonder derives from its magnitude) and so on.

If the universe had constants that were comfortably in the middle of a range of values that supported life, and if the universe wasn’t so incredibly unfriendly to life and downright deadly, then the theist would argue that voilà, the universe is designed for life.

So both ends of the spectrum- a deadly universe and a life-friendly one (and everywhere in the middle) – the theist claims (or would claim) that this is evidence for a designer-creator god!

Likewise, with regards to abiogenesis (the creation of life in the universe), the theist presently claims, in the absence of totally conclusive evidence, that God must have supernaturally done his stuff to create life. However, if we now found conclusive empirical proof that abiogenesis was naturalistic in mechanism, then the theist would simply switch from supernatural mechanism to saying something akin to “God obviously had to create the natural laws and mechanisms to bring about life” which is exactly what theistic evolutionists maintain.

This isn’t just the case for the fine-tuning arguments, but also in biblical criticism where the ad hoc nature of the contrived defences of biblical authority and historicity mean that, with incredible historical issues and incongruities within the same text and with extrabibilical texts, the issues and respective defences still show that the bible is authoritative and true. However, if these issues didn’t exist, the theist would claim, still (and possibly more), that the bible were true and accurate.

Heads you win, tails I lose.

The ramifications of this approach are clear. There is no scenario that could exist which would prove, even probabilistically, that God did not exist or design the universe or whatever. No matter what scenario, the theist would contrive some explanation as to why that scenario supported the existence of God.

For those too lazy to read, here is a video on the point I did some time ago:

Now let us look at this idea in the context of the historical Jesus. I would like to draw people’s attention to an interesting list of historicity criteria for establishing historical credibility in claims about Jesus found in the New Testament (provided by Richard Carrier here).

As mentioned above, the ramifications of this kind of epistemological approach (heads you win, tails I lose) are clear.

I have been working my way through Richard Carrier’s “Proving History” and came across this list of historicity criteria used by biblical scholars to determine credibility of New Testament sources with regards to historical accuracy. The list makes for an intriguing example of the “heads you win, tails I lose” analogy set out above. The list below (p. 121-122), as Carrier himself states, is only a partial list, with the possibility that the criteria could be as numerous as three dozen.

Dissimilarity – if dissimilar to Judaism or early church, it’s probably true

Embarrassment – if it was embarrassing, it must be true

Coherence – if it coheres with other confirmed data, it’s likely true

Multiple Attestation – if attested in more than one source, it’s more likely true

Explanatory Credibility – if its being true better explains later traditions, it’s true

Contextual Plausibility – must be plausible in a Jewish or Greco-Roman context

Historical Plausibility – must cohere with a plausible historical reconstruction

Natural Probability – coheres with natural science (etc.)

Oral Preservability – must be capable of surviving oral transmission

Crucifixion – must explain (or make sense of) why Jesus was crucified

Fabricatory Trend – mustn’t match trends in fabrication or embellishment

Least Distinctiveness – the simpler version is the more historical

Vividness of Narration – the more vivid, the more historical

Textual Variance – the more invariable a tradition, the more historical

Greek Context – credible, if context suggests parties speaking Greek

Aramaic Context – credible, if context suggests parties speaking Aramaic

Discourse Features – credible, if Jesus’ speeches cohere in a unique style

Characteristic Jesus – credible, if it’s both distinctive and characteristic of Jesus

What is interesting about this list is the opposite ends of the spectrum that some of these criteria adopt. Embarrassment and coherence pretty much covers anything someone can say. I could say, “On Tuesday, Jim walked down the street naked” and this, given that Jim normally wears clothes, is likely true because of its embarrassing and unlikely nature. However, if I claimed, “On Tuesday, Jim walked down the street in jeans and a tee” then this would be coherent with expectations, and likely be true. Both claims, though opposites, have high credibility depending on which criteria one uses.

What does this mean? Well, in the discipline of biblical exegesis, one can create a historicity criteria for anything which is mentioned. As such, for every sentence in the New Testament, one can contrive a criteria which shows credibility.

Heads you win, tails I lose.

What examples can you think of where theists employ this kind of reasoning?

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