Naturalistic Bias? Presupposing Naturalism?

I’ve heard in a number of debates, especially on the historicity of the Resurrection (like the very interesting 6-parter between Robert M Price and Don Johnson), that the reason a skeptic doesn’t believe the Resurrection of Jesus is that they have a presupposition against miracles, or the supernatural, and simply discount it on principle.  There are two mistakes with this idea, which I find illustrative of ignorance of proper scientific thinking.

  1. Most of these biases against miracles are learned from evidence, as most miracle claims come up empty.  So it is not an irrational bias, but a rational one, based on life experience. 
  2. It shouldn’t matter anyway – if something is true, then one should be able to convince even a skeptic.  And it is perfectly natural to distrust extraordinary claims, and it is the job of the claimant to make the case.

I thought of two examples from my life where I was skeptical of an extraordinary claim, one where it turned out my perspective was correct and the other not.

  1. In the 1990’s, the first evidence for the acclerating universe came out.  I remember thinking, “No way this is true.”  At the time, I thought their calibration of the supernovae used as standard candles was somehow incorrect.  Did the researchers approach this skepticism with “oh, you just are biased against theories that propose unknown external forces, or violations of known laws”?  No.  Other groups repeated it, they confirmed any calibration, and came up with a theoretical structure (using the Cosmological Constant) to describe it.  Then I was convinced.  Was I wrong in my skepticism?  Absolutely not.  The response to skeptics is to bring the evidence to bear on it.  If the evidence is not enough to convince a reasonable skeptic, then we can’t be particularly confident in it.
  2. Recently, there was some data indicating possibly faster-than-light neutrinos.  I had a response to this here, where I was skeptical of the result.  Again, it was a group of careful scientists who had done the measurments, and had taken into account everything they could think of.  I still didn’t believe it.  Did the researchers approach this skepticism with “oh, you just are biased against theories that propose unknown external forces, or violations of known laws”?  No.  Others tried to analyze the same data and the set up, and the scientists explored other explanations.   Turned out to be a loose cable.  Here again, my skepticism was well placed.

It’s not bias to be skeptical.  It isn’t irrational to demand a higher-than-average standard for extraordinary claims, no matter what.  If you make such a claim, and that higher-than-average standard is not met, then you cannot be confident in that claim.  It doesn’t matter whether the claim is religious or scientific, the same rules apply.


About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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3 Responses to Naturalistic Bias? Presupposing Naturalism?

  1. Pingback: What would it take for me to believe the Resurrection? | Professor Brian Blais' Blog

  2. Jordan Garrett says:

    “It shouldn’t matter anyway – if something is true, then one should be able to convince even a skeptic” With all due respect, Professor, I find that incredibly hard to believe. If somebody believes that there is no God, that materialism is true, etc (Or vice-versa. IE: Materialism is necessarily false, there is a God, etc), then those biases will heavily influence the way a person thinks and interprets evidence. On the historicity/non-historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, it would (theoretically) be a relatively easy issue to solve, assuming the proper education and lack of bias, either for or against a God, miracles, etc, yet scholars such as Robert M. Price, Bart Ehrman, Mike Licona, Richard Carrier, Gary Habermas, etc, all have divergent viewpoints as to whether it ever occurred or not, and if not, what did happen.

    Not only that, but some (Such as Price. See also Kenneth Humphreys, who runs an interesting website.) doubt whether Jesus even existed, period or whether he was a myth/amalgamation of ancient historical characters, etc (One point that’s made that I find compelling is the comparison between the weeping women at Tammuz’s grave and the women at the tomb of Jesus.). I am in no position to come to any sort of positive conclusion with respect to either of these issues, having not familiarized myself with the arguments made on both sides of the issue (and I think that’s the only way anybody can make an intellectually honest judgment on most matters of fact, unless it’s something self-evident like 1+1=2). Obviously, the most I can hope to do is to exhaust myself of all the relevant material in deriving a reasonable conclusion. Unless the evidence is overwhelming in favor of one conclusion as opposed to the other (Christ resurrected/he did not), such that somebody who comes into the discussion with a truly open mind would be convinced of it (IE: A skeptical theist, a “soft agnostic”, etc) then I am overstepping my boundaries in trying to say that the conclusion I draw on a subjective basis is true.

    Which is part of my whole deal with religion, is that they say to somebody who’s make an exhaustive inventory of the available evidence “Sorry, you’re going to hell for not believing!”. If an atheist or agnostic tries to live a decent life, abides by the laws of the land, supports his community, donates to charity and all that good stuff, why should he be “Already condemned”, as Jesus put it? Surely, God being Omniscient knows that people have access to a limited amount of resources, as well as a limited amount of “processing capacity”, as it were, in their brains and that those factors influence the decisions people make on trivial matters as well as “big” issues such as religious affiliations, political views, etc. Hell, being omniscient, God doesn’t even need to know that (though he does/would, if he existed) since he would already know in advance who would reject him, which seems to me to make us puppets, if he cannot be wrong, unless you assume an Open Theistic view.

    On a final note, Professor Blais, I do agree with you that it’s not unreasonable to disbelieve in miracles based off of the uniformity of natural laws. IE: You make an a posteriori judgment. That said, if you assume that it is at least possible that a sovereign God exists and that he is sovereign over the whole of nature, including natural laws which govern the universe, then the idea that he can suspend (Not violate. For God to “violate” a natural law assumes that he is subject to said laws. But if God were subject to natural laws, he wouldn’t be transcendent and sovereign. But God by definition cannot *not* be sovereign or transcendent, or else he wouldn’t be God by definition, which is impossible.) said laws to effect change in the world from time to time is not a prima facie illogical belief contrary to the otherwise uniform consistency of nature’s laws, because even allowing for the possibility of a Deity’s existence would override the objection that nature is too uniform in it’s operations to make a belief in miracles (which are contrary to the laws the universe operates off of) reasonable.

    In other words, while it is still valid and reasonable to disbelieve miracle claims because of the uniformity of natural laws and because if miracles were constantly happening, it would throw our entire knowledge base into disarray, that does not, in turn, imply that it is necessarily irrational to believe in miracles, any more than it makes your conservative, libertarian or liberal friends inferior for disagreeing with you on matters of politics. Pluralism is a wonderful thing, even if it is not always correct.

    Anyways, that was a nice write-up, Professor, and I do appreciate what you have to say, as you seem to be a reasonable person. I look forward to reading what you have to say on other matters (I’m getting right to read your post on the resurrection and the level of evidence you would need to believe.)

    Have a good night (It’s past 10 where I’m at.),

    Jordan Garrett

    • brianblais says:

      A very thoughtful response, Jordan. ” If somebody believes that there is no God, that materialism is true, etc (Or vice-versa. IE: Materialism is necessarily false, there is a God, etc), then those biases will heavily influence the way a person thinks and interprets evidence.” Sure, I agree. However, the strength of the case is related to how to convince a skeptic. Yes, there are flat-earthers out there, but it is bias to think that all flat-earth theories are almost certainly wrong when you start to debate one? Is it bias to hold to the view that personal revelation is not reliable? I don’t think so.

      Now, not all claims are as clear as the round Earth. There are some are nearly as clear. I’d say atomic theory, germ theory of disease, and evolution are in that camp. There are some that are nearly that clear in the opposite way – they are clearly false. Homeopathy, astrology, and faith healing are in that camp. Is it *possible* for me to be wrong, and have homeopathy demonstrated to be true somehow? Sure, but it’d take a lot of evidence to outweigh all of the evidence against it so far. One doesn’t start fresh every time you examine a claim.

      Do people have biases? Sure thing! However, the process of science minimizes the impact of these biases individually, and on average nearly eliminates them altogether (given sufficient time). Why? Because strong evidence should convince even a skeptic. I’d say a “denier” is a different sort of beast, but you can often demonstrate that they are not following proper inference procedures.

      I’m an empiricist. Is that a bias? I think one can (inductively) determine that empiricism works, and you can derive it from a set of fairly reasonably mathematical postulates. Do I have a bias against the supernatural? I don’t think so. I just don’t think it is a well-defined concept, so it is content-free. Do I feel that all explanations need to have *material* components, then the answer is no. For example, the wave-function in quantum mechanics is neither physical nor materials in any way, is not directly observable or measurable. However, the theory which contains this abstract entity, makes very specific predictions which can be verified. Those theories without it (i.e. classical theories) make different predictions, and have been shown *experimentally* to be false. If the supernatural were something like that, then I’d probably not have a problem with it. Unfortunately, it appears to be constantly used as stand-in for “I don’t know how this happened…”

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