The Evangelical Universalist Forum

JRP's Bite-Sized Metaphysics (Series 123)

[The previous series, 122, can be found [url=]here. This series, 123, picks up with the topic arrived at the end of the previous series. An index with links to all parts of the work as they are posted can be found here.]

[This series begins Chapter 12, “Supernature and Evidence”]

[Incidentally, this is the final main chapter of argumentation for Series 100, or for Section One of the whole book. Chapter 13 will be a summary of material covered in Series 100.]

[Entry 1 for “evidence and the burden of proof”]

At the end of my previous chapter, I demonstrated that metaphor does not necessarily need to mean something less than its imagery suggests; and that to immediately presume otherwise is a common fallacy in the discussion of religious propositions. Incidents and claims should be taken on a case-by-case basis, and filtered through an already developed philosophical position.

So, to return to my example of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven: what you or I believe this imagery can mean, is constrained by what you or I have already decided is, or is not, possible. If a supernatural God does not exist, then Jesus cannot have moved from our Nature to a Supernature while exhibiting the extent of this God’s divine authority and/or existence. The story must reflect some other set of objectively real events: for example, perhaps the story was invented for any of a number of purposes; or perhaps aliens levitated Jesus to a throne-shaped craft.

If, however, God does exist as the supernaturally transcendent Sentient Independent Fact–what can we say about the story?

Frankly, such a truth would not automatically exclude the forgery explanation–or even the alien-superscience explanation!

But it does include as a live possibility (to be strengthened or refuted on further grounds and evidence) that a traditionally ‘orthodox’ reading of this passage is true. I have not yet begun to argue positively for the truth of a reality where (what, as a category label, what eventually came to be called) an ‘orthodox’ interpretation could (much more would) subsequently also be true. But I have now reached the question of the principles of evidence, for such an inquiry.

[Entry 2]

When we are attempting to prove or disprove metaphysical and/or historical claims (and for convenience I am limiting my discussion here to religious issues), we all apply and appeal to ‘evidence’–if we can. ‘The burden of proof’ comes to the forefront. In the case of purportedly historical claims (especially claims exhibiting circumstantial characteristics which match characteristics common to other historical claims we have found to be trustworthy), the burden of proof is almost always placed on the detractor who wants to discredit the purported historian.

This is a widely recognized principle of historical inquiry, and its widespread authority can be accepted as a practical affair by anyone who understands the principle involved: either we must assume that most of the time people are not only telling what they believe to be true but that they have a certain amount of accuracy in their reports; or else we will have no presumptive grounds for believing that any historical data can be recovered from documents–including modern ones.

(Footnote: The archaeological study of artifacts as artifacts does not (so far as I can tell) require this presupposition; and since documents are also artifacts they may also be analyzed archaeologically. The years since the mid-19th century, have seen the rise of a broad range of documentary analyses built on this concept. Such studies are often very useful and informative; but when historians resort primarily to such methods at the expense of necessarily ignoring what the document purports to say in itself, they tread on dangerous ground. After all, these historians themselves write books and articles that purport to clarify what has happened in history; and they can be deconstructed and dismembered with equally efficient facility through the lens of intrinsic historical scepticism.)

On the other hand, when the accounts conflict drastically with what we have already established to be ‘the way reality works’, then we have quite reasonable grounds (whether or not we are in fact correct about our philosophy!) for an initial scepticism of the claim. In that case, I suggest the burden of proof for the claim should fall on the purported historian and his defenders.

[Entry 3]

Thus, I do not begrudge the sceptics who demand more than a document (or other account) as evidence of real historicity for a claim. I am no different from them. Neither, I will add, are almost all of my brethren! The most fundamentalistic Bible-based ‘faith-only’ Baptist preacher would suddenly turn quite a different eye upon a conflicting claim from, say, the specifically Muslim or Mormon or ‘Christian Scientist’ documents. And he would do so for at least the reason I have just given: he can tell the claims are quite different from the way he thinks reality is. He would require the burden of proof to be on the adherents of Islam, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or the ‘Church of Christ, Scientist’.

At the same time, and for the same basic reason (along with perhaps other reasons), a Jewish rabbi, or a member of the Internet Infidels, or even a Muslim Iman, will look to this preacher (and his supporters) for burden of proof.

I do not think this necessarily indicates sinful obstinacy by anyone involved. It might instead be a prudent (and loyal) recognition that the new claim conflicts strongly with what the resister accepts as a true underlying philosophy (or even a true underlying history); although the resister may not describe it quite that way, of course.

Christianity rests on the historical claim that Jesus rose from the dead - that He was really dead and then was really resurrected. Everything hinges on that or, as Paul said, this is all in vain.

Since the ‘way reality works’ seems not to have changed - people die and stay dead - the skepticism to the claim remains fundamentally on the same basis.

It is as Christ said, if they do not believe Abraham or Matthew, etc., they are not going to believe us.


No disagreements here! I am only pointing out that sceptics shouldn’t be roasted for being initially sceptical (or even continuingly sceptical), so long as they honestly don’t perceive the underlying reality differently yet. (I declare ‘continuingly’ to be a real word… :mrgreen: ) We do the same thing ourselves when faced with claims which contravene how we understand basic reality. It’s a normal and actually quite important epistemological trait; otherwise we would be constantly blown around by every wind of doctrine.

The main point is that there can be a common and (in principle) laudable ground between opponents, even on topics of major opposition. Whether opponents are personally reasonable (and charitable) enough to perceive and accept this common and laudable ground between them, is another question.

(Also, there is of course a point at which a person may just intentionally try to shut out reasonable perception of truth rather than accept it. The proponent can’t do much about an opponent who insists on doing that; but the proponent can try not to be so anti-reasonable himself. I cover this topic in principle, and in self-critical practice, much later during the section of chapters on ethics, where I consider how I fundamentally sin against other people, including most importantly against God.)

I will try to clarify here in passing, that when I say I agree that Christianity rests on the historical claim that Christ rose from the dead, I don’t mean that Christianity doesn’t also rest on a number of other important historical claims (as St. Paul himself was aware); nor that Christianity doesn’t also rest on a ton of important metaphysical claims (ditto)–which themselves constitute a logically prior field (so to speak) for how to interpret or believe or disbelieve the claim of Christ’s resurrection. Roughly speaking, ‘how reality works’ makes an objective difference in what can be possible, impossible, probable or certain; and so, subjectively as rational agents, how we believe reality works makes a difference in how we assess claims and evidence for claims.

It should be obvious how this also applies to the topic of universalism, too. To the extent we believe atheism is probably or certainly true (to give an extreme but still pertinent and practical example), we will have proportionate difficulty believing in any universalism that involves our relationships with God.

[Entry 4]

Let me emphasize, in case I am misunderstood, that I am not saying the burden of proof must always be put on the shoulders of one definable side of an argument. Historians do generally agree that the burden of proof should fall on the detractor, but not because there is some specially important intrinsic property of being a ‘detractor’; rather, because most of the time underlying metaphysical positions are not being called into question by historical analysis.

But when core beliefs are challenged, then I think the burden of proof ought to be placed on the shoulders of the asserter. This would mean, ideally, that in a dialogue entered into freely by two sides, both debaters should be ready to shoulder the burden of proof! But in the case of an intrusion by a detractor into the life or lives of asserters (i.e. where the detractor is also the initiator), then the detractor (mere politeness suggests it!) should not expect the established and assaulted position to sortie out onto his ground (so to speak), nor see a refusal to do so as a tacit or explicit surrender.

(Footnote: This applies just as much to secular historical revisionsists who are making claims about the transhistorical meanings of documents: they should also shoulder the burden of proof. In my experience, such revisionists can be at least as ‘fundamentalistically’ inept about this (often moreso) as any uncritical religious conservative.)

Very well then; but in a situation like this–in a discussion or argument about what the Final Reality is and what He or It (or She?) has done–what type of ‘evidence’ is appropriate? I think the answer to this question is all-too-often oversimplified by believers and sceptics alike.

Of course. In debate that common ground would be respect for the truth and the rules of debate.

Philosophy is about following great thinkers whose ideas were persuasive and compelling enough to change people’s paradigms. Though not a philosopher, Christ is without peer in that regard as His followers acknowledge Him as The Christ - the Lord and Savior of the world. To which even Plato bowed - he, a follower of Socrates.

In all things ‘religious’, fidelity to the lord of one’s paradigm is paramount. It’s where philosophy and theology part. It’s that sense of fidelity that creates intractable positions on minutia (what does jihad mean? or an iota?) that is so incomprehensible to outside observers. Yet so important to the faithful.

Fundamentalism sprang up around the world during the Great Depression - an over-simplification by believers and used by the politicos for their ends. Frankly, I think the Gospel (which is universalism) will always be drowned out by those two forces - religion and politics. Principalities and Powers.

I would ask you what laudable ground is there between philosophy and theology? Between despair and hope in their respective MESSAGE. Bonhoeffer never gave Hitler the satisfaction of agreeing to laudable grounds.

It’s nice to think that reasonableness will cure our ills. Face it, Jason, we’re both utter idiots in most circles. But we’re not in bad company. Stand your ground, but don’t expect respect.

Hitler was one kind of philosopher (and not a very good one in any way), instead of another kind. :wink: Philosophy, a love for wisdom, is far from intrinsically antithetical to theology in its message. Hitler didn’t love wisdom; Hitler loved himself. A love for wisdom and for logic, though it can be perverted, is at least at secondhand a love for the One Who is the final source and ground of wisdom and logic; and must be a gift from that One as well.

Theology can be perverted, too (including into despair instead of hope); and in fact it can be perverted in much the same ways as philosophy. That is because theology, as a focused topic, is a category of philosophy. To be more precise: philosophy is a (very topically broad) category of logical analysis dealing with principles of various things; metaphysics is a (topically broad) category of philosophy dealing with principles of fundamental reality and its relation (if any) to non-fundamental reality; theology is a (topically broad) category of metaphysics dealing with principles of God and God’s relation (if any) to non-fundamental reality.

Non-theological philosophy is not theology, of course, and so cannot offer the hope theology can offer; but not all philosophy is non-theological. And not all theology is hopeful either.

The progressing metaphysical argument I’ve been building for the past 23 series of entries, isn’t a theology yet, although the topics are often theological. It’ll become a theology at the end of Section Two (or Series 200). It won’t be a hopeful theology per se until somewhere late in Section Four (or Series 400)! But topically it remains a metaphysic during the whole work. (And the finale, Section Five, points toward Christ as the consummation.)

[Entry 5]

An acquaintance of mine once told me (quite seriously, I think, and not at all in a hostile manner) that she would believe the Devil existed when he appeared in front of her. If I had replied that I would believe 100,000 galaxies existed in the universe when someone shows me a picture of them and counts them out for me, she would have thought I was only being funny. And she would have been right!–but that is because my conclusions (and thus my beliefs) about reality allow quite easily for the real existence of 100,000 galaxies. I don’t need much evidence or argument to believe they may well exist. If I was being careful and fair, of course, I would need some strong arguments (and I also suppose some strong evidence) before I staked a conclusion on the required existence of those galaxies. My friend’s understanding of reality, however, does not easily allow for the possibility (much less the actuality) of the existence of a massively powerful and thoroughly hostile supernatural creature. She would not be favorably persuaded (much less convinced) with minimal evidence and argument; and rightly so. (We were discussing a literary topic at the time, not metaphysics per se, by the way.)

I may have taken her by surprise with my actual response, though: I would not necessarily believe I was seeing the Devil in front of me in that situation, and I do already believe he exists!

Do you see how this fits with what I have said earlier? My belief that the Devil exists (and that he can perhaps do things on occasion like pop into view in front of people, through various methods) does not automatically mean that I would (or even should) take such a situation at face value. I might be suffering from a brain tumor. I might be hallucinating after eating a batch of bad shrimp. I might merely have had an especially annoying dream. Someone who thinks about such issues as much as I do (and such themes are also prevalent in the fantasy literature and computer games I enjoy, although of course the metaphysical rationales are usually very different) would have plenty of imagery to draw on by association in the case of a naturally occurring mental disturbance–even if the Devil exists and has such abilities. At the same time, hypothetically granting his existence and abilities, he might also manifest himself to me through the manipulation of such otherwise natural events! But I would need something other than that mere appearance before I concluded (and thus believed) it really was the Devil.

This example illustrates a factor of supernatural operation which sometimes escapes sceptics who demand hard proof: the character of the proposed event might easily dictate that some kinds of ‘natural’ explanations could similarly be proposed to explain the event–even if the event truly was supernatural in character.

(Footnote: Of course, other sceptics are not only quite aware of this, but robustly (maybe even a little too robustly!) make use of the principle. I will be discussing them presently.)

A little like Thomas. But, of course, Christ was talking about a singular supernatural event - HIM! A person is blessed in believing in His resurrection without seeing Him or touching His resurrected body. But I do not think that blessing is extended to believing every claim of a supernatural event (witnessed or not) - He, Himself, down-played miracles, and our thirst for them, as missing the forest for the trees.

‘Miracles’ are a distraction. Skepticism is not a dirty word.

Yep, quite true! But then, He was also speaking to people who, by and large, were pretty far ahead along a line of religious belief already.

And Thomas was even farther along than the usual people Jesus was typically speaking to. (As I pointed out waaaaay back in this entry for Series 105.) Thomas certainly wasn’t in the position of a speculative philosopher trying to discover the truth. According to the story he was a man who already believed in God and the Hebrew Scriptures (including, to at least some degree, the advent of the Messiah); who had seen Jesus do amazing things for years; who had heard Jesus occasionally predict one more amazing thing; who had heard testimony from his closest companions that Jesus had indeed done this one more amazing thing; and then had required absolutely irrefutable proof.

[Entry 6; next to last for this series of entries]

Let us pretend (what I do not claim!) that I can create a cloud in the sky through supernatural power. What type of evidence and/or abstract arguments could a naturalist (i.e. someone who doesn’t believe any kind of supernature exists) fairly accept, concerning this claim? (I am presuming for sake of argument that the naturalist is an honest sceptic to such a claim.)

First, I am not sure he would be obligated to accept the conclusion of any argument from evidence, if he had already responsibly concluded ‘There is no such thing as supernatural power’. That type of conclusion is a core belief, which has deductively necessary consequences about what should and should not be accepted as true; and so which would function as a proposition which such a person would necessarily add into the accounting of any topically related argument.

Steadily mounting evidence to the contrary might suggest a prudent consideration on the naturalist’s part that he should perhaps recheck his logical math; but that is not the same as abandoning his belief. He might conclude, after doing the logical math again, that one of his most basic conclusions was wrong; but I am not sure at what point it would be proper for him to reject his core belief, where the rejection was only based on apparent evidence to the contrary around him (not bearing directly on his overarching philosophical grounds). It would, at least, have to be extremely good evidence to logically require overturning a prior philosophical conviction. And that kind of evidence is manifestly not usually forthcoming.

[Entry 7; last for this series of entries]

I am assuming, of course, that this particular naturalist–call him Chase–is a fairly stable and intelligent person with some training in how to discern these issues; and who either has no strong emotional stake for or against ‘changing his views’, or who recognizes that he feels strongly about the issues and nevertheless resolves to try thinking them through fairly and clearly.

[Footnote: This has to be a somewhat idealized example, because there isn’t much point for me to offer suggestions on how, when and why someone [u]should change views if, for instance, he is suffering a fit of despair–no one thinks very clearly in the middle of such pain. A person may change beliefs for emotional or for logical reasons in that condition, but a clear rationalization for why will have to wait until later.

Also I am restricting this hypothetical example to a question of supernatural effect. ‘Chase’ and I might both be atheists in this example; or we might both be theists. The question of supernatural effect in Nature is technically not the same as theism vs. atheism, remember. But for ease of imagination, it would be okay to assign me the role of supernatural theist and ‘Chase’ the role of naturalistic atheist.]

So, what kind of evidence (within or against Chase’s philosophy, either one) can I produce for him?

Let us say I supernaturally create a cloud, and then call Chase over to see it. What does he see?

A cloud.

Is he likely to believe my claims from this? I see no reason why he should, especially in regard to his opposing philosophy. I might be a liar (or, more politely, playing a joke on him). I might be insane. I might be mistaken in some other fashion–perhaps I created it in a naturalistic manner which I have mistaken for a supernaturalistic manner, for example. There are no other options for Chase to choose from, as a naturalist. Even given supernaturalism’s truth, any of those might still have been the proper explanation–not supernatural power.

But let us say Chase has a friend, Reed, who is a supernaturalist. What difference, or differences, might that make?

Next series: a sieve of curious similarities]