Monday, November 9, 2009

Debates part two

This is an interesting debate between Cambridge professor Arif Ahmed and Liberty University professor Gary Habermas. They are debating the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.

I find Ahmed's opening statement to be one of the finest examples I have heard on why it is logically problematic to argue for the supernatural with evidence (which is by nature naturalistic). Habermas is a super nice guy. I know from listening to other debates that he is quite smart and knows his Bible quite well, however Ahmed's opening statement leaves him with little ground to stand on. He must allude back to more general theistic arguments, trying to defend the idea of the existence of an "evidence-granting" God by referencing near-death experiences. Habermas is more accustomed to arguing for the historical, physical nature of the resurrection by making claims like "75% of scholars believe in the empty tomb", etc. Ahmed's points make that difficult to defend as reason enough for believing that "a body can pass through solid rock" (as the resurrected Jesus reportedly does in the book of John).

Both men are nice and respectful of each other, and the whole debate is quite interesting, even if the rug is pulled out from under Habermas right at the beginning. Perhaps there are decent points to be made for the possibility of the "supernatural" (or at least "natural beyond our ability to comprehend") - but presenting naturalistic evidence, which is connected causally to all things, to "prove" a supernatural intervention, which is not necessarily connected to anything, is tough business. All one can do is to show a gap in our current understanding and then speculate a solution. Ahmed's three points in his opening show why depositing a supernatural solution into a naturalistic hole does not work well.

I also like Ahmed's introduction of himself as NOT a "devout atheist." He admits that he might quite like to believe certain aspects related to the idea of religion, (particularly his survival of his own death in some way!), but he simply sees no good reason for it. Fair enough.

Of course, one might point out that it is very difficult to disprove the supernatural as well. Cue people to start referencing the tooth fairy, unicorns, etc. but I'm not talking about specifics. I just mean the possibility of some force or entity that does not need to play by the rules of naturalism somewhere in existence. If a supernatural force altered the "matrix" five seconds ago and changed our memories, we wouldn't know it. Of course, even if this DID happen, there is still not necessarily any good reason to believe it. So the best advice is a sense of faith - a recognition of human limitation followed by a positive attitude of trust towards the unknown - and a reliance on reason to deal with what we can understand - "understand" being a word with a very open-ended definition I think.....

Anyhoo - good opening statement by Arif Ahmed!

Here it


  1. I am interested in the ‘best advice’ you offer at the end of this post. I find the recognition of limits and a reliance on reason to deal with what we can to be great advice; however I am stumped when it comes to having an attitude of trust towards the unknown.

    In trying to understand what you mean by this, I tried to consider what an attitude of distrust towards the unknown might look like. One way I can see it is to have a skeptical attitude, which I find to be a pretty reasonable course. However, I have read your essays before and I know better than to think you are saying that an attitude of skepticism is bad advice. So what are you saying here?

  2. There are so many things that we don't know and may be beyond us to know. One can either ignore this as being of little consequence, be afraid, or be hopeful.

    I think hope is close to trust in my meaning. Trust is of great benefit - even at times when it is not warranted. It takes a terrible toll to not trust a spouse or a friend - it's pure stress. If you feel you have done all you can in making good decisions and being forthright, then trust is the best choice - EVEN if your trust is violated. At least you didn't live with the stress beforehand. And I don't mean a willful naivete here, but rather a reasonable decision to let go.

    I think there could be a god. or a computer programmer running the universe as such, or perhaps we are all the fragmented pieces of god, or perhaps this universe is a single event and all existence is something that lies outside the intuitions of our common sense, etc.

    I think we can't know these things (I have a few ideas about a post along these lines), and many of us do all we can to be informed and to be reasonable. But whatever there is - god, nothingness (is god nothingness, the death of the ego?), some strange futuristic "Omega Point", etc. I may as well adopt an attitude of faith and trust towards it.

    In the words of Julian of Norwich, "…All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well"

    One person might ask, "What does that mean?" I don't know, if you're asking about the future. The future is not certain. But it seems certain that even if the statement were not true in some way, in the future, that in another way it will always be worthy of believing in and striving towards - that we would never be sorry for believing it, even as the world falls slowly into oblivion.