I previously endorsed Richard Carrier's "slam dunk" case against a solar eclipse at the death of Jesus. But an interesting discussion took place in the comments concerning scientific evidence and miracles. Here it is for further discussion.
I’m afraid I have to agree with others here, John. This example isn’t a “slam dunk.”johnwloftus:
Luke doesn’t mention an eclipse. It says “the sun stopped shining.” I assume for a true inerrantist (Scotsman?), this literally means the sun stopped shining. During an eclipse the sun doesn’t stop shining. Rather, (most of) its light is blocked by the Moon. As contrararian pointed out, stopping the sun from shining would be a trivial matter for God.
Still, the claim is undermined enormously by the fact that nobody else in the “whole world,” whatever that term is intended to mean, felt compelled to comment on the rather remarkable fact that the sun stopped shining for three hours. (And if the sun was simply blocked by clouds for a while, Cole, why does the Bible feel compelled to remark on this rather unremarkable event?)
This isn’t an example of the Bible claiming something which is “scientifically impossible.” It is, however, another example of Christians demanding that we prove their faith impossible before they will acknowledge it is highly improbable.
If the Gospel claim is that the sun stopped shining rather than an eclipse, then that is scientifically impossible too. Where then is the evidence that such a God exists who can do the scientifically impossible? It's not here that's for sure. Either God can do the scientifically impossible or this story disconfirms that such a God exists. How we decide that issue depends on whether we are science deniers or not. For scientifically literate people will see in the Gospel stories a scientifically illiterate claim made by gullible pre-scientific people. It's a slam dunk for people like that.clamat:
Yes, you’re right, the sun not shining is indeed scientifically impossible. (At least according to the science we know today – for superpowerful extraterrestrials, though…?) I also agree that these passages do not support a claim that God exists.johnwloftus:
But this is because the historicity of the events they describe is not established. Indeed, their historicity is highly doubtful, but for the reasons previously noted. Namely the historical evidence -- or, more accurately, the absence of a shred of corroborating historical evidence – seriously undermines any claim of historicity.
But Carrier is incorrect to conclude that the “non-historicity” of an event is established by the scientific impossibility of it. Miracles are pretty much defined as beyond science. (I doubt any scientifically literate Christians – and we must concede that there more than a few – will have any problem acknowledging that the miracles of the Bible are not scientifically possible.) Carrier seems to be saying “it’s not scientifically possible, therefore it didn’t happen. Q.E.D.” Such a conclusion simply assumes naturalism/scientism. Assuming the conclusion is invalid, even when people we like do it. (Maybe especially when people we like do it.)
Let me say it this way in the form of a question: What relevance is scientific evidence for Christian faith? The scientific evidence for Carrier's claim is irrefutable. It helps reasonable people judge that a claim about the sun at the time of the death of Jesus did not stop shining. Is scientific evidence good enough? It should be. Will it convince believers? Some of them, that's for sure. Is scientific evidence good enough when it comes to studies on prayer? Is it good enough when judging between the heliocentric and geocentric views of the solar system? Is it good enough when judging the Exodus, wilderness wanderings and Canaanite conquest? Is it good enough when judging the virgin birth of Jesus? It should be. Will it convince believers? Some of them, that's for sure. For reasonable people this is a slam dunk. The evidence Carrier points out leads even believers to think such a story is a myth. Does this assume naturalism/scientism? Of course not, since many believers agree. There is a lot more I could say but this should be good enough.johnwloftus:
clamat said: "Carrier seems to be saying 'it’s not scientifically possible, therefore it didn’t happen. Q.E.D.'"johnwloftus:
Actually this is not what Carrier is saying, nor do I. You framed this as a deductive argument with a missing implied premise:
p - [If an event isn't scientifically possible then it didn't happen]
q - This event is not scientifically possible
.: it didn’t happen.
But this isn't how we reason about such matters. We reason inductively like this:
Example after example shows us that faith claims are repeatedly undermined or discounted by scientific evidence to the contrary.
Therefore when a faith claim is undermined or discounted by scientific evidence to the contrary the faith claim is probably false to the same degree as the weight of the scientific evidence.
Neither Carrier nor I say we are certain that a miracle like the so-called eclipse at the death of Jesus didn't happen. Certainty can only be achieved by means of a deductive argument. The conclusion is certain in a deductive argument if the premises are true. Instead, we're saying the inductive case is as good as a slam dunk as we can get based on the scientific evidence. And in this case the weight of the scientific evidence is overwhelming.
Carrier says in his book that all claims have a non-zero probability to them, which means any claim, no matter how bizarre, has some degree of probability to it even if it is infinitesimally probable. The claim that the sun stopped shining at the time of the death of Jesus is one of those claims that has a really really small probability to it such that it cannot be taken seriously by reasonable people.
clamat said:Still, the claim is undermined enormously by the fact that nobody else in the “whole world,” whatever that term is intended to mean, felt compelled to comment on the rather remarkable fact that the sun stopped shining for three hours.johnwloftus:
Why would this be any more evidence against a miracle of the solar eclipse at the death of Jesus if the scientific evidence Carrier mentioned doesn't count? If a believer can dismiss the scientific evidence because God can do anything then a believer can also dismiss this historical evidence on the same grounds. All God would have to do is keep the world's astrologers and astronomers from seeing it. But once believers argue in such a post hoc fashion they are not being reasonable. And since the nature of this rationalization is obvious then why shouldn't it be obvious with regard to Carrier's scientific evidence?