This is the latest post in a series about Bertrand Russell's essay Why I am not a Christian, in which I run through his various arguments and show that for the most part (there are a few exceptions) they either don't apply to classical theism, or are just completely invalid in the first place. But another striking thing about Russell's work are the arguments he omitted.
First of all, I should mention the ontological argument. This is probably the most controversial of the arguments for God, and I'm personally not the biggest fan of it. In its simplest form, it defines God as the greatest being conceivable, states that whatever exists is greater than something which doesn't exist; so if God doesn't exist there is a being greater than him which is a contradiction; therefore God exists. Even though it has been expressed in more rigorous forms, most famously by Plantinga, I feel that the argument has its problems. Firstly there is the issue of getting from this definition of God to the classical definition of God as the uncreatable creator; one can define God in that way and subsequently argue for his greatness, but defining God in terms of greatness is harder to reach the concept of God as creator. Secondly, we have to ask what we mean by the greatness of God. Without a prior definition of God, it is difficult to say what it is for God to be great or the greatest possible being. So I am not convinced that the definition itself makes sense as a definition of God (it makes sense after we have defined God through some other means, but as a definition it is circular).
Next up we have the teleological argument, or the argument from final causality. This is most definitely not the same as the argument from design. One of the biggest made by modern atheists (and that's saying quite a lot) is to confuse these two arguments. I discussed the teleological argument in a previous post, so don't intend to dwell on it here. Not considering this argument is a serious omission not just made by Russell but also most atheist philosophers. Presumably Russell thought that it had been refuted alongside final causality itself by the success of modern science. This is, however, foolish. Final causality is very much a part of physics; we know that causes can have a limited number of effects. In particle physics, for example, we list the possible decay channels of a particle. This is just the application of the metaphysical concept of final causality to this area of physics. Even in a mechanistic setting, dismissing final causality is problematic. Given that the true theory of nature is almost certainly a quantum field theory, it is stupid.
Then we have the argument from prophecy. In this context, prophecy means non-obvious predictions of future events; the Biblical understanding of prophecy is broader, and indicates a general message from God given through an individual. Indeed, the Biblical prophets spent only a little of their time predicting the future, and far more of it exhorting the people to live moral lives and return to Godly service. However, it is their foreshadowing of the events of the New Testament which particularly caught the eyes of Christians; and this is what we often think of when we hear the word prophecy, and it is in this sense that I use the term here. Of course, the Old Testament predicts far more than just the New Testament events and theological framework.
This argument is also controversial. Russell can, perhaps, be excused here because we are moving away from purely philosophical argumentation to the more practical evidence for God. However, whether an argument from prophecy is possible in principle is a matter for philosophical discussion; many atheists and liberal theologians will dismiss the argument out of hand because of their philosophical prejudices. It is those prejudices I want to discuss here, rather than any actual prophetic utterance.
There are (I think) five ways in which somebody can in principle be aware of future events:
- A lucky guess.
- To have access to some time travel technology (which, as far as we know, is scientifically impossible).
- To be able to predict the future through knowledge of the current situation and compute it using physics or other means. Given that physics is indeterminate at the microscopic level and many systems are chaotic, this is in practice impossible.
- To be in control of the physical evolution of matter; for the indeterminacy of physics to be the result of your own free choices. This is only possible for God.
- To be a timeless being, and view each temporal slice together rather than in succession. In this way for you the concepts of 'future' and 'past' have no meaning, and you would simultaneously see the future event and tell the prophet about it. This is only possible for a being similar to God (or God Himself).
One or two successful predictions could be considered a coincidence. A mixed bag of successful and failed predictions is to be expected. A long list of predictions which are either successful or haven't yet been fulfilled but might well be is a stronger case.
If there is a long list of successful prophecies, then considering the possible means by which this could happen, we are left with either an extremely unlikely chance or possibilities which presuppose some God-like being. Turning it around, the list of successful prophecies is strong evidence for the existence of God or some other being similar in some respects to God.
Of course, I hid away several potential drawbacks to the argument in that initial if the list exists. Firstly, one has to be sure that the prophecy was made after the events concerned; if the date of writing is unclear it is possible to argue that the writings were post-dictions rather than pre-dictions. Our earliest Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament are the dead sea scrolls, about 100 years before Christ. The Greek translation of the first books of the Old Testament was made about 250BC, with the rest of the Old Testament translated in the decades following that. Given that the Old Testament must have been revered among the Jews for the translation to be commissioned by an Egyptian Pharaoh, it must be at least a few generations earlier than that translation. The traditional date of the Old Testament is that the first five books were written either by Moses or one of his contemporaries, probably about 1400BC (although Joshua's Jericho was almost certainly the city destroyed at the end of the Middle Bronze Age or start of the Late Bronze Age, which might imply that Moses lived somewhat earlier than this); Joshua towards the end of Joshua's life about 30 or 40 years later; the book of Judges compiled from earlier sources during the united monarchy at about 1000BC, Kings and Chronicles compiled during the exile or shortly after it at about 500BC; Ezra and Nehemiah at around 450BC; the Prophets during the lifetime of each prophet between about 800-500BC and the individual Psalms, Proverbs and other wisdom literature written between about 1000-600BC and compiled together after the exile. These are the earliest possible dates for the manuscripts. Obviously scholars dispute these numbers, with most secular and liberal scholars preferring much later dates. Even if the originals were written at the traditional dates, they could well have been edited and revised later. Some books are obviously an edited compilation (e.g. Proverbs was gradually expanded from a much smaller original; the last few chapters of Judges were clearly tacked on at a later date to the composition of the main body of the text). With no written records to guide us, we are left with the historical anachronisms, internal evidence and archaeological hints. My own feeling is that there are enough of these to support without rigorously proving the traditional dates. The archaeology of the Old Testament is particularly fascinating; the mainstream view is that broad outline of the Biblical picture of the divided monarchy period is well supported by the archaeological evidence, but before this the Old Testament becomes increasingly shaky. However, this opinion is not as universal as sometimes proclaimed, and conservative scholars argue that the archaeological evidence fits in well with the Biblical narrative back to the time of Abraham (I personally admire the work of John Bimson and his colleagues and Bryant Wood and his colleagues and believe that they have the best framework for making the archaeology of the Old Testament harmonious; though I should also mention the redoubtable Kenneth Kitchen who has a different interpretation). To my mind this topic deserves far greater attention than is often received (the strongest argument against Christianity and Judaism lies here; and Islam also assumes the correctness of the broad outline of the Old Testament, although I consider other objections to Islam to be far stronger than this).
The New Testament gospels, on the other hand can be more firmly dated. Manuscript evidence (from the earliest manuscript fragments, or quotations and allusions from early Christian writers) pushes them into the first century. The events they describe place them after about 35 AD. Traditionally, John's gospel was written towards the end of the first century, with Matthew, Mark and Luke in the 50s or 60s. Secular and liberal scholars push these dates back to the late first century. Interestingly, the argument from prophecy plays a big role in this. Secular scholars claim that the supposed predictions of the Jewish temple's destruction (and a few other reasons, such as similarities with Josephus) push the dates to after 70AD. Conservative scholars take the same accounts and note minor details, particularly in Luke's account which was based on Matthew and Mark, which make little sense if the accounts were not genuine predictions and composed before the temples destruction (for example, Luke confuses the temple destruction with the return of Jesus -- two separate events in his sources; there is no reference or allusion to the prophecy being fulfilled in the and the plea to pray that the destruction should not occur in winter is strange as a post-diction invented after the fact because the siege of Jerusalem happened in the summer).
The upshot of this is that Old Testament predictions of events which occurred before about 300BC and New Testament predictions of events which occurred before about 100AD can be disputed because it is possible that they were written or re-edited after the event occurred. On the other hand, events which occurred after this time must have been genuine Biblical predictions; this cannot be reasonably disputed in light of the evidence. We also have to ask how well the text we have today resembles the original written (perhaps) two and a half thousand years ago or even more.
Secondly, prophecies are often vague. This might be a necessary part of the nature of the thing, but it does reduce the impact of a successful prediction. Of course, if a text has several competing interpretations, then it might be thought that only one of them can be the correct interpretation (although in reality, Biblical texts often have both an immediate interpretation for the original context and a second interpretation that relates to future events). To claim something as a successful prophecy, only one interpretation needs be correct. This interpretation might well contain allegory, metaphor or hyperbole; it need not be the direct meaning.
Thirdly, there is the issue of the time scale. It is easy to say This city is doomed to fall! Over the past two and a half thousand years since the prophecy was made, most cities in the world have fallen, risen, and fallen again several times. The argument can be made that given enough time, and sufficient vagueness in the original prophecy, the prediction is as likely as not to come true. For example, those who claim the success of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the nations or cities often look to Byzantine or medieval times for their fulfilment; critics of the prophecies restrict themselves to the pre-Roman era. Which of these is most in line with the original text?
Finally, we have to ask whether or not the Biblical prophecies have come true. Are there as many failures as there are successes? A few failures can, perhaps be tolerated; they might just be events which will happen, just not yet. But too many excused in this way makes it sound like special pleading.
Thus to argue for Christianity (or another religion) from prophecy is a difficult task; as is to argue against Christianity. One would have to go through every prophecy in the Bible and show that one possible interpretation for each prophecy is successful far more frequently than chance could explain (or that all interpretations of each property fail at the rate expected by coincidence), which requires both detailed knowledge of the Biblical text and the various literary forms used in it and of history. Of course, that hasn't stopped people from trying, with various degrees of success.
Is the argument from prophecy successful? This obviously depends on which holy book you are planning to use, and how accurate the predictions in that book are. But supposing that we had a set of prophecies which are suitable. How would the argument proceed?
- In the absence of God, the only way these prophecies could be successful is through an unlikely coincidence, or some scenario inconsistent with our current knowledge of physics.
- If, on the over hand, there is a God, then there is an alternative explanation, which is that the prophet was influenced by some timeless being such as God. Now there are numerous different characters which God could have consistent with the basic premises of classical theism. For example, we have the Jewish view of God, the Christian view of God, the Islamic view of God and so on. The argument would only apply to those views of God which are consistent with all the prophets who made these successful predictions, and will that God would also have to be the sort of Person who likes influencing prophets and doesn't play practical jokes on them. But, if that is the case, then for some understanding of God it is almost certain that there would be some prophetic record similar to that which is (by supposition) observed. Thus if this God exists (or a member of the subset of possible Gods consistent with the prophetic record exits), there are two possible explanations for the prophetic record: chance, and inspiration by God.
- Thirdly, we suppose that aside from the prophecy, there is no strong competing evidence against God.
- Fourthly, I note that there are various assumptions and evidence agreed on by both theists and atheists. These include (among other things) scientific law, the historical context in which the prophecy was made, and the historical evidence concerning its fulfilment. Clearly this excludes any area where there is sufficient controversy to affect beliefs concerning the genuineness of the prophecy.
- So the probability of the record of prophecy appearing (or something similar to it) conditional upon the assumption that that God does not exist (alongside the various other premises and evidence accepted by both atheists and theists) is vanishingly small. The probability of the record of prophecy appearing (or something similar to it) conditional upon the assumption that God does exist (alongside the various other premises and evidence accepted by both theists and atheists) is exceptionally close to one. We then use Bayes theorem to reverse the conditions and say that the probability of the God (or subset of possible Gods) we are considering conditional upon the record of prophecy together with the other premises and assumptions is close to one.
Obviously this argument has a remaining weakness: it leads us to a timeless being, which if not omniscient and omnipotent at least has substantial knowledge and the power to influence the prophet. Is this God as defined in classical theism? It is not clear that it must be the case; that depends on what else concerning the character of God is revealed by the prophets. However, it also has the advantage. Philosophical theology is an intellectual exercise to understand the existence and nature of God. We can go a long way with it. But it is also a dry experience, it does not bring us into relationship with God. Philosophy does not go as far as we need to go to understand God well enough to get to know Him. It is helpful as a sign to point us in the right direction, but the signpost is not the destination. Prophecy can fill in the gap; it can not only satisfy the intellect but our emotions and sense of awe and wonder as well. It leads us to a vibrant and personal knowledge of God.
Next we have the argument from religious experience. Again, unlike the philosophical arguments, this doesn't just lead us to some vague intellectual concept of God, but an encounter which satisfies both our intellect, senses and emotions. It does, however, have a serious disadvantage that it is subjective. Only the person who experiences it will be convinced by it. Furthermore, we know that devotees of different religions have similar experiences. These experiences are contradictory; they can't all be genuine. Thus it is possible for such experiences to be generated from some non-divine source; perhaps even from nothing more than the biochemistry of the human brain. Of course, theists would attribute the biochemistry of the human brain to God; there is no reason why the experience can't be explained both by scientific processes and as an act of God. However, if the usual laws of physics can lead to religious experience, it is not a death blow to the theist, but it offers an escape clause to the atheist (who attributes those laws to something other than God's acts in sustaining the universe).
What this means is that a religious experience by itself should not be enough to convince us of the truth of our religious beliefs. It can be misleading, and lead us into error. It needs to be backed up by some other evidence or rational argument. This is why, as Christians, we are asked to test the spirits. Not everything that is claimed to be from the Holy Spirit is truly from the Holy Spirit.
On the other hand, if a particular religion predicts the possibility of such experiences, then their general absence would be argumentation against that religion (one or two people failing to have the experience would not be a problem; nobody having it would be a serious problem). Equally, there is also no obvious reason, if atheism were true, why our brains should be wired to have such experiences. If theism is true, we expect it. If atheism were true, then maybe they would occur and maybe they wouldn't. They offer no natural selection advantage or disadvantage (under the assumption that atheism is correct). Possibly it is inevitable that brains capable of emotion and understanding must have this possibility (or are easily damaged to allow religious experiences; for example certain types of epilepsy enhance religious sensitivity). But the existence of religious experiences represents a small, but not particularly powerful, piece of evidence for the existence of God.
Finally we have the argument from miracles. Russell almost certainly rejected this because he believed the possibility of miracles had been disproved by various philosophical arguments; and he believed that most people, including the academic theologians, accepted these arguments as sound. Many liberal theologians do reject the miraculous; their deconstruction and re-interpretation of holy scripture is built upon this assumption. But that does not mean that the arguments against miracles by Hume, Spinoza and their successors are convincing. To my mind, they are all easily refuted.
The main point is that these are all philosophical arguments. As such, they are all built upon certain premises. Theists have a different set of premises, which allow the miraculous to occur. Now let us treat this as a scientific problem. We have two different theories. They make different predictions. We have some evidence which contradicts one theory and is consistent (within errors) with the other. So we reject the first theory, and accept the second one as a live possibility. If the premise of atheism invariably leads to some theory or another which contradicts this evidence, then we should reject that premise. When theory contradicts experiment, experiment always wins; that's the first rule of science.
Hume (for example) built up a philosophical argument against miracles. Yet there is evidence that miracles occur and have occurred. What Hume would have us do is to use his argument to dismiss the evidence. What we should do instead is to use the evidence to suggest that Hume's premises are false. Of course, Hume would claim that his premises are themselves based on evidence. Philosophical premises cannot be deduced from observed evidence; they can only be shown to be consistent with observed evidence. Hume has some premises which are consistent with a particular body of experimental evidence, and when worked to a conclusion those premises tell him that miracles are impossible. But then theists also have a set of premises, which are consistent with both the evidence that Hume considered and the possibility of miracles. So we then have some evidence that a miracle occurred. What else are we expected to do but reject the premises on which Hume's argument was built?
However, the full discussion of the possibility of the miraculous is a big topic, and I have already written enough in this post, so I will have to save it until next time (but see chapter 16 here).
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