W.L. Craig, the Resurrection, and the Complaint of Presuppositional Bias
In this video segment featuring Christian apologist William Lane Craig, the following question is asked:
What role do one’s philosophical assumptions play in doing historical research, particularly related to the resurrection of Jesus?
Scenario 1: the investigator approaches historical research on the basis of the recognitions that (a) existence exists independent of conscious activity; (b) a thing which exists is itself and acts according to its nature; (c) knowledge is something we must discover by gathering facts which we find in the world when we look outward and validate by an objective method; (d) reason is man’s only means of knowledge, standard of judgment and guide to action; (e) wishing doesn’t make it so; (f) logic is the conceptual process of non-contradictory identification; (g) truth is the non-contradictory, objective identification of fact; (h) science is the systematic application of reason to some specific area of study (including not only natural phenomena, but also moral values and human history), etc.
Scenario 2: the investigator approaches historical research on the basis of the assumptions that: (i) existence is a product of conscious activity; (j) things are whatever a ruling consciousness wants them to be and act in conformity with a ruling consciousness’ will; (k) knowledge is something we “receive” by assimilating dogmatic affirmations which we acquire by looking inward; (l) dreaming – cf. Mt. 1:20; 2:12-13, 19, etc. – and “visions” – cf. Acts. 9:10-12; 10:3-19; 11:5; 12:9; 16:9-10; 18:9; Rev. 9:17, etc. – are “valid” sources of “knowledge”; (m) wishing in fact does make it so; (n) logic is the “reflection” of a being which is said to be supernatural and infinite; (o) contradictory notions are only “apparently contradictory” to man because of his “finitude”; that “truth” is whatever the ruling consciousness wills; (p) man’s cognitive faculties have been corrupted by “the noetic effects of sin”; (q) reason (which the venomously anti-Semitic Martin Luther called “the devil’s greatest whore”) has the power to “deceive” (see for example here); (r) foreskins are more important than an understanding of conceptual integration; (s) advances in science typically represent a threat to religious adherence and therefore must be resisted, etc.
Not sure yet?
Now let’s take a look at Craig’s response:
I think that one’s philosophical presuppositions will be an important guide in doing historical work with respect to the New Testament narratives. Because these narratives overtly present a supernatural Jesus – a Jesus who performs miracles, a Jesus who rises from the dead. And if you come to these narratives with a presupposition of scientific naturalism, or even methodological naturalism – that is to say that, as a historian you will not allow supernatural causes to enter the picture – then these events will be ruled out of court in advance, regardless of the evidence.
And I think this is fundamentally the problem with the methodology employed by the infamous Jesus Seminar of the Westar Institute in California. In the introduction to their edition of the five gospels, they make it very clear that for them the first pillar of scholarly wisdom, as they put it, is scientific naturalism. They point out that Strauss in the last century distinguished between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history precisely on the criterion of supernaturalism, and that anything that had supernatural aspects to it was by definition relegated to myth rather than history.
Now this is not a matter of argument. It’s not a matter of evidence. This is simply a matter of definition. The supernatural is defined as being in the category of mythical, not historical. And if you begin with those sorts of presuppositions, then of course the resurrection will be evaluated as unhistorical because you defined it to be unhistorical.
So when the Seminar comes for example to the words spoken by the risen Jesus, they state by definition the words ascribed to the risen Christ cannot be historically verified. But, they add, sometimes words spoken during Jesus’ lifetime are placed on the lips of the risen Jesus, and so they say we will evaluate these sayings as though they were uttered by a historical person. Well it couldn’t be clearer that they think of the risen Christ as not a historical individual, and that this is done so, not on the basis of evidence, but on the basis of presuppositions.
So these presuppositions are going to be critical. R. T. France, who is a British New Testament scholar, has remarked that on the level of their literary and historical quality, the gospels deserve to be taken seriously as sources for a life of Jesus. He says that compared to sources for ancient history in Greco-Roman times, the gospels compare very favorably. But he points out that the degree to which one will be ready to trust these documents depends more upon one’s openness to a supernatural worldview than it does on their literary and historical qualities.
So I think this is absolutely crucial. And all that I suppose that needs to be added here is that, philosophically, I see no reason to adopt such philosophical naturalism. It seems to me that only an atheist could be justified in saying that miracles are impossible, because unless you have some proof of atheism, you have to be open to the possibility that God exists, and if that is even possible, then it’s possible that he’s acted in history. So in the absence of any proof for atheism, which I don’t think anyone has, we have to be open to the possibility of the supernatural and let the evidence speak for itself.
With this fundamental point in mind, it is instructive to note that Craig and other apologists who voice this complaint are quick to accuse non-believers of a “presuppositional bias” against supernaturalism, all the while ignoring their own presuppositional bias for supernaturalism, or at any rate treating their presuppositional bias in favor of supernaturalism as though it did not need any defense.
Roughly speaking, supernaturalism is some set of beliefs in so-called “supernatural” beings (hence the name) which to one degree or another have allegedly manifested themselves in human history (or in pre-history, as the case may be, as in creation stories). The supernatural is held to be exempt from the application of natural laws, and supernatural beings themselves are believed not only to exist beyond the reach of our perceptual faculties (thus their imperceptibility, we are told, cannot be held as evidence against their existence), but also to have power over material objects. A supernatural being is said to have the power to bring things into existence by means of conscious intention, and/or alter, re-arrange or revise concretes into whatever form or shape it might choose, and it can make anything it has created perform any action it wants it to perform by a sheer act of will. This power is essentially a form of magic. For example, if a man dies, a supernatural being can bring him back to life if it so wills. Supernaturalism, then, by granting metaphysical primacy to the subject of consciousness, is an expression of subjectivism.
So a quick question at this point: Does supernaturalism more closely align more with Scenario 1, or with Scenario 2 above?
In my transcription of Craig’s response to the topic question I have added my own italics at certain points. In the first italicized portion, we should notice how Craig insinuates that the pro-scientific position is essentially subjective. According to Craig, if one adopts a pro-science orientation to history (“scientific naturalism”), he “will not allow supernatural causes to enter the picture... regardless of the evidence.” Craig’s use of “allow” here suggests the rule of personal preferences, as though the scientists in question dismiss “the supernatural” simply because they don’t like it or resent its implications, even though there’s supposedly all this evidence supporting claims that “the supernatural” really exists. Craig’s intended implication is that the “allowing” here is purely arbitrary, especially when he follows it up with “regardless of the evidence,” likely characterizing scientists as being motivated from a desire to evade something one does not want to confront (for with Christians, the presumption of inescapable doom for man is always lurking in the background).
Craig’s use of the term “supernatural causes” itself is specious at best. Causation is a natural phenomenon. To say that A caused B is to relate the action of A to the nature which A has, thus explaining its leading to B. This is because an entity acts in accordance with its specific nature. Thus causality is a law of nature, not a law of something allegedly “outside” of nature. A rational understanding of causality is necessary for causality to be understood as an objective principle. But the notion of a “supernatural cause” defies this explicitly, positing causality outside of and apart from nature. Craig would be better off if he just came out and appealed to an invisible magic wand.
Of course, Craig never explains or defends the notion of “supernatural causes.” Then again, which apologist does? In fact, his use of “supernatural causes” is really nothing more than code for an imagined form of wishing which is believed by the supernaturalist to hold metaphysical primacy over existence. A “supernatural cause” can turn water into wine, enable human beings to walk on unfrozen water, cast mountains into the sea, raise dead people back to life, and anything else that might be possible in a cartoon.
And yet, Craig wants to give the impression that the pro-science position necessarily involves arbitrary, whim-based dismissals of so-called “historical events” which are in fact supported ultimately only by at best hearsay. That this is Craig’s intended meaning is confirmed by the next portion which I have italicized, namely “by definition.” It is, Craig tells us that, simply “by definition,” the scholars of the Jesus Seminar “relegate” stories involving supernaturalism to the category of “myth rather than history.” Craig does make passing reference to the Jesus Seminar’s writings (“the introduction to their edition of the five gospels”), but he does not actually quote anything stated there or elsewhere in the Westar Institute’s publications to support his characterization. Are we to suppose that Craig is a reliable source for accurate characterization of other thinkers’ positions? On this, let me just say I’ve already presented ample justification for wise caution in this area. I’ll just say that in the case of the adage “trust but verify,” the weight is much more heavily slanted towards the “verify” part than on the “trust” part.
But undiscriminating trust is what Craig, in his characteristically slippery fashion, is trying to inculcate with the scholarly persona he seeks to project. It’s clear that his position, calling for the acceptance of supernaturalism without any argument in support of it, does in fact require a deadening of our critical faculties. The only mental Novocain that he offers to ease this along is the supposed stigma of adopting an unfair bias for accepting the pro-scientific orientation to history, an orientation that would only be objectionable from the perspective of a position which rejects science to begin with.
This is no more clear than when Craig acknowledges that “the degree to which one will be ready to trust” the New Testament miracle narratives “depends more upon one’s openness to a supernatural worldview than it does on their literary and historical qualities.” In other words, the alleged “evidence” (i.e., “historical qualities”) which the New Testament stories supposedly have going for them is ultimately of no value unless one is first “open” to the general notions entailed within “a supernatural worldview” – i.e., the primacy of consciousness metaphysics.
This means that appeals to evidence for specific miracle claims are essentially irrelevant unless one accepts supernaturalism in the first place. Apologists might claim that there’s all this “evidence” supporting Jesus’ resurrection, for example, but if one does not first accept the underlying premises of “a supernatural worldview,” he is very likely not going to accept whatever is proposed as “evidence” as actually supporting the New Testament stories to begin with.
Thus in arguing for specific miracle claims like “the Resurrection,” apologists first need to present a defense of supernaturalism as a general premise before ever getting around to discussing what they might consider “evidence” for specific miracle claims.
So where is Craig’s argument for “a supernatural worldview”? He presents none!
Isn’t it ironic that on the one hand, Craig offers no argument for the presupposition of supernaturalism, which he acknowledges as a necessary precondition for accepting the New Testament’s miracle claims, while accusing the non-believing position as not being “a matter of argument” but “simply a matter of definition… regardless of the evidence”? I mean seriously, does this guy ever listen to himself?
Thus it’s quite curious that Craig admits that “only an atheist could be justified in saying that miracles are impossible.” Apparently Craig rightly senses that anyone who is consistent with the presuppositions of Scenario 1 would have to be an atheist.
I happen to agree with the broader point that Craig makes, namely that one accepts more fundamental general premises, even if only implicitly, before accepting specific claims which are rooted in those more fundamental premises. Only apologists like Craig want to characterize those who accept a fundamental position more or less resembling Scenario 1 as though it stemmed from some unwarranted, unfair bias, while treating their acceptance of Scenario 2 as though it prevailed by default, in spite of its lack of evidence, in spite of its obvious retreat to the imaginary.
Consider the following example: If we come across a narrative text which speaks of zombies crawling out of graves and going up to normal people, perhaps scaring them, or even blending in somehow unnoticed, with the “presupposition” that zombies are in fact merely a fiction, then we will – to the apologists’ bitter disappointment – “rule out of court in advance” such stories as fictions rather than possibly true accounts. Or, if we read a text about abductions by space aliens with the “presupposition” that space aliens are the stuff of make-believe rather than fact, then we will of course “rule out of court in advance” such stories as made up rather than authentically true reports.
By contrast, if we accept belief in “the supernatural” and we find ourselves selected for a jury in a case in which a woman drowned her five children because she was told by a supernatural agent that she had better do so because otherwise they would grow up to be evil sinners and thus lose their salvation (cf. Andrea Yates), we would have no rational justification for disputing or rejecting such a claim, since the very basis of rationality would have already been discarded as a result of accepting the presuppositions assumed in supernaturalism. Indeed, Craig himself, as can be seen here, says that he believes in “the salvation of infants or children who die,” that children who die in their early years are “the recipients of an infinite good,” and that “it would be far better for them than continuing to be raised in [a] reprobate… culture.”
In sum, Craig’s response to the leading question comes across as the complaint “you don’t accept my falsehoods because you define falsehoods as untrue! Yes, it may have all the hallmarks of being a falsehood, but it’s only because of your presuppositional bias against falsehoods that you’ve ruled out of court in advance the possibility that it is also true!”
Now let’s get back to the approaches to historical investigation that are represented by the two scenarios which I outlined above. Which of these, Scenario 1 or Scenario 2, is one more likely going to have to adopt in order to go along with Craig’s position? By now it should be clear that Scenario 1 will never satisfy Craig and that his pro-Christian position requires a set of presuppositions more or less matching those of Scenario 2 (even though he likes to pretend his presuppositions have the rational character that is only possible on Scenario1).
But where does Craig, or any other Christian apologist, present any kind of defense for the presuppositions entailed by Scenario 2? Craig offers no defense here. In fact, he seems to think that the approach represented by Scenario 2 should be accepted as a matter of default, and that no one has any valid rationale for rejecting it or adopting the approach represented by Scenario 1.
The Christian believer does not have a lot of options here, but even among those to choose from, not one is at all rationally viable. She can do what Craig does in this video snippet and assume that one should be open to supernaturalism for no reason whatsoever. But this embarrassingly flimsy alternative obviously won’t do: when pitted against Scenario 1 above, Scenario 2 would have nothing of any intellectual value to recommend itself. Also, as history has documented with mesmerizing consistency, a proponent of one variant of Scenario 2 will be philosophically defenseless against proponents of rival variants of Scenario 2. Consider, for example, the persisting conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, Calvinists and Arminians, presuppositionalists and evidentialists, etc. Neither side can point to authentic facts to settle their internecine disputes since both sides have already abandoned facts as having any bearing on fundamental truths.
Now it may be that the believer has contented herself to follow Craig’s model here and strand herself on the unforgiving rocks of sheer credulity and uncritical acceptance. When Ephesians 6:11 says “put on the whole armor of God,” perhaps it really means put on the straitjacket of self-imposed arbitrariness. Nothing screams “I don’t care for the intellectual health of my mind” like swallowing another individual’s chicanery on faith.
Of course, the believer could claim that she has evidence supporting supernaturalism. But what would this supposed evidence look like? Without some concrete bit of supernatural stuff that all parties to the conversation can freely inspect for themselves, how would the believer be able to avoid arguing in a vicious circle here? Typically believers cite – you guessed it! - miracle stories as “evidence” supposedly supporting their claims about “the supernatural” being real instead of merely imaginary. But if the believer takes this route, she would, given what Craig has presented here, simply be arguing in a circle. Essentially, we would have something like the following:
Believer: “The resurrection really did happen!”
Non-Believer: “Why would anyone believe that?”
Believer: “Well, as I learned from Dr. William Lane Craig, one is more likely to accept individual miracle stories, like that of the resurrection, if he’s open to the supernatural in the first place.”
Non-Believer: “But why should anyone be open to the notion of ‘the supernatural’ in the first place?”
Believer: “Well, because there’s evidence for the supernatural.”
Non-Believer: “Such as?”
Believer: “The resurrection!”
But what better can defenders of the faith offer? Sadly, apologists throughout history have had a notoriously difficult time trying to come up with “evidence” for their beliefs in the supernatural that can be reliably distinguished from something that is merely imaginary. Instead of evidence, they have relied fundamentally on the implicit acceptance of the primacy of consciousness metaphysics on the part of their cowering pew-sitters.
Since we are on the topic of presuppositions, let us ask: Does one need to provide a rational justification for Scenario 1 in contradistinction to Scenario 2? In response to this question, we should ask: which scenario would a rational justification presuppose in the first place if not Scenario 1 itself? How would one defend the position that rational justification as such presupposes Scenario 2?
Fortunately, we have the axioms and the primacy of existence as well as the objective theory of concepts.
One can’t help but suppose, then, that Craig is in fact simply projecting here. It is his position that is so deeply arbitrary and emotionally motivated, steeped in a desire to protect a confessional investment “regardless of the evidence,” and thus he casually assumes that any opposing viewpoint must be similarly motivated and thus equally arbitrary. He denies the possibility that opponents to his position might have a rational justification for rejecting supernaturalism, and he makes no attempt, even a bad one (at least in the excerpt above), to present a rational defense in favor of supernaturalism.
What’s noteworthy here is Craig’s cavalier treatment of the matter: he makes no suggestion even remotely acknowledging that a defense for accepting supernaturalism would even be in order.
One might expect this from a young believer raised in a church environment with little or no exposure to opposing viewpoints. But Craig is supposed to be this highly credentialed “professional philosopher,” not only keenly aware of opposing viewpoints, but presumably also tutored in epistemology. And yet he comes across conspicuously unconcerned about the role which epistemological methodology would supposedly occupy a thinker concerned for critical thought in such areas. After all, “the supernatural” is not something that can be detected by sense perception or verified by “unaided reason.”
So we are wholly justified in posing the apologists’ own favorite question here: “How do you know?”
Knowledge is primarily something the mind holds positively; knowledge is chiefly positive content. We only know what is not against our knowledge of what is. Acquiring knowledge is an active process performed by our non-omniscient, fallible minds, which is why we need epistemological standards to guide us in accepting some content as true and rejecting other content as not true. To enter the mind and be accepted as truth, content needs to be examined, scrutinized, understood, integrated with other knowledge that has been accepted without contradicting any of it.
In essence, a rational individual sifts content through a process of quality control before accepting it and stamping it with the label “genuine truth.”
One certainly does not say, “I believe in the Tooth Fairy as a matter of default, for I know of no good reasons not to believe in the Tooth Fairy.” And yet, this is precisely the attitude which Craig models on behalf of accepting supernaturalism; he does not require a reason for accepting supernaturalism, but he insists that one must have a very good reason (or many!) for rejecting supernaturalism (and most likely he’s not going to “allow” that any reasons proposed for rejecting supernaturalism would be at all sufficient). This is entirely backwards!
What Craig ignores (while ironically admitting under his breath) in all this is the fact that once one accepts the arbitrary as his standard for QC’ing ideational input into one’s mind, he’ll accept anything, no matter what its deficiencies. Thus if an individual first accepts the notion of “the supernatural” as legitimate, he “opens” his mind to an entire category of arbitrary, irrational and untrue ideas with no rational guide to help him steer clear of falsehood and error. Since he has already accepted a fundamental error (beginning with the primacy of consciousness), he has no way to protect himself from accepting subsequent errors and falsehoods and will thus be at the mercy of the first charismatic personality who comes along and passes himself off as some kind of “inspired” authority.
As Ayn Rand so poignantly observed, “Faith in the supernatural begins as faith in the superiority of others” (Atlas Shrugged). Since before recorded history, religionists have delighted in using man’s fallibility against him. It is thus harrowingly ironic when Steve Hays compares atheists to vampires. With predators like William Lane Craig fronting for Christianity, believers need a good long look in the mirror.
Sadly, for far too long William Lane Craig has flagrantly abused his public platform by delivering an output of such stenchful hogwash that I propose his spewing be measured in terms of gallons per flush.
by Dawson Bethrick