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Sense and Goodness Without God IV: What There Isn’t 1: Not Much Place for the Paranormal


Page 221 (1.1.7): Three most definitive tools of science: Burden of Proof, the Balance of Proof, Occam’s Razor

Burden of proof:

. . . scientists throughout history have found that what we call “natural” explanations keep working, unlike supernatural explanations: the stars and planets actually followed predictable routines that had nothing to do with human events, tested drugs cured the sick more often than spells, agriculture flourished under scientific care but floundered under prayers and magic. . . (222) so there is some merit to the presumption of naturalism in scientific practice. . . It has proven valid as a rule of thumb. The Burden of prof for any claim is on anyone who makes a claim contrary to established facts, or grounded in fewer established facts than any other hypothesis.

Balance of Proof:

That a god worked miracles then, but no longer, is an extraordinary claim. It requires extraordinary evidence. . . likewise, when scientists make extraordinary claims, they are expected to fork over evidence well beyond ordinary demands (223).

Simplicity and Occam’s Razor:

. . . there is methodological preference for simpler theories. . . because simple theories are more within a human’s grasp to test and therefore trust. . .(the scientific method) only allows the seal of “scientifically proven” to be placed on a fact or theory when every detail is supported by evidence (225).

It’s not all about being ‘simple.’ A theory needs to also take into account and explain all info. Occam’s theory isn’t about picking the simple answer, but about fitting the theory as closely to the evidence as possible, not dropping assumptions that the evidence does not necessitate.

Best Explanations- Page 238 (1.2.4): As paraphrased by Luke from Common Sense Atheism

The best explanation of some set of evidence is generally taken to have five virtues:

Explanatory scope: The best explanation explains more facts than its rivals. Consider the rain miracle: the “sudden storm” theory explains all the evidence we have. The Christian Miracle theory fails to explain the original credit given to pagan gods, though the Egyptian wizard theory explains the pagan reports and also the inscription indicating he was with the army in Eastern Europe at the time.

Explanatory power: The best explanation renders the facts more probable than competing explanations do. Consider the Egyptian wizard theory about the rain miracle. If the Egyptian wizard did bring on a storm by magic, this would make the evidence we have very probable. So that theory has strong explanatory power. It even makes the event’s hijacking by Christian apologists probable, since these Christians would not want proof of pagan magic to triumph over the Gospel. And while the Christian theory would make some of the evidence probable, it wouldn’t make the pagan report from Cassius Dio probable, since his report is rather sober and does not praise pagan magic, so it doesn’t appear Cassius Dio is making something up for polemical ends.

Plausibility: The best explanation is more plausible than other theories. It should fit true generalizations about the relevant time, place, and setting. The idea of a Christian legion under Marcus Aurelius is quite implausible. The presence of a pagan wizard in a pagan army is not so implausible. Nor is a sudden storm, the details about which were exaggerated by superstitious minds.

Ad Hocness: The best explanation relies on fewer undemonstrated assumptions than its competitors. Undemonstrated assumptions are called ad hoc features of a theory, things just made up to explain what otherwise doesn’t make sense. The Christian theory requires inventing some reason why Christians would be in a pagan army, while the pagan theory requires a reason why Christians would claim ownership of the miracle so quickly. Since there are no precedents for Christians in a pagan army, the Christian assumption is very ad hoc. In contrast, there is lots of precedence for Christian apologists making shit up, so the pagan assumption is much less ad hoc, or perhaps not ad hoc at all. Likewise, the claim that a sudden storm arrived just when the soldiers were trapped and thirsty is somewhat ad hoc.

Fit to evidence: The best explanation fits with well-established facts. The Christian story does not fit well with known facts, but the pagan story does, and the story of a sudden storm certainly does. Sudden storms happen all the time.

Page 242 (1.2.5): Carrier distinguishes five types of evidence the historian would like to have:

  1. Physical-historical necessity.
  2. Direct physical evidence.
  3. Unbiased or counterbiased corroboration.
  4. Credible critical accounts by known scholars from the period.
  5. An eyewitness account.

All of these are present in Caesar crossing the Rubicon, but only # 5 is present in the testimony of Jesus’ resurrection.

Page 247- Prophecy and History (1.2.7):

Some good criteria for qualifying a prophecy as a supernatural miracle are:

  1. The prophetic text clearly envisions the sort of event alleged to be the fulfillment. (The prediction should not be so vague that a wide range of events would “fit” the prediction.)
  2. The prophecy was made well in advance of the event predicted.
  3. The event actually happened.
  4. The event predicted could not have been staged by mere humans.
  5. The event should be so unusual that its apparent fulfillment could not be explained as a good guess, and could not have been inevitable.
  6. The source of the prophecy should not have been edited to produce a selection bias. (That is, we should be fairly confident that compilers didn’t just make a hundred predictions and throw away their 99 documents which made false predictions and keep the one that came true.)
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