Howard Mazzaferro's Defense of the Indefensible

Howard Mazzaferro is a Jehovah's Witness scholar of sorts who comments here at DC. Harry McCall puts his culturally adopted faith into perspective with what I consider required reading. What I find interesting is that evangelicals reject the JW's but would accept everything Mazzaferro writes in defense of faith, the reliability of the Bible and of the miracles we read in it. Why is it that people of faith cannot agree? It's because that's the nature of faith. When faith is the foundation for knowledge anything can be believed. As Dr. James Lindsay says, faith is "a form of cognitive bias that tends to overestimate the probabilities that the hypotheses in which faith is placed predict the evidence (of the world) while underestimating the probabilities that alternative hypotheses predict the evidence we have." In any case, Mazzaferro did a good job of defending the indefensible so let's take a look.

Here's his story:
Let’s say we have a man who is alone in his house, he walks into the kitchen and witnesses a cake supernaturally appearing on his kitchen table. After inspecting the situation, he goes on to inform a number of people what had just taken place. The word spreads and people start to gather around his house discussing the situation. Then some in the crowd want to critically examine the cake for any hints of the supernatural. So the cake is taken to a group of scientists, and after thoroughly examining it, they conclude they could not find any hints of the supernatural, in fact they say this cake is basically the same as any other cake ever made. It uses the same ingredients as any other cake and it is not perfect or better than a human made cake in any noticeable way. Therefore, the cake provides no evidence at all for the claims made by the man who allegedly witnessed the supernatural event. The crowd is left with three choices, one, they accept what the known evidence seems to point towards, two, they put faith or trust the claims of the witness in opposition to what the evidence seems to say, or three, they remain undecided.
I find it puzzling the kinds of scenarios I'm supposed to grant in order to discuss an issue. This is bizarre. I know of no one who would take this event seriously. To a person, scientifically minded people would all accept the scientific evidence against this man's testimony. It's a no-brainer. Even his friends, family, and church members would all say he needs to get back on his meds (or tell him to stop taking too much of them), or see a doctor for some kind of brain malfunction. Even I would doubt what I saw, even if I saw this. Why not? Brains do that sort of thing to us. So do drugs.

But we're supposed to grant this as a fact and that the man's brain is functioning properly. Sheesh. Okay, what if? He continues,
The skeptic chooses number one because there is no evidence of a supernatural event, only the claims of a human man who is prone to mistakes, delusions, biases and lies. So the skeptic has no reason to conclude that this event was true, and he says he even has evidence to the contrary, and for those who do believe, they have no evidence at all.
Correct. Mazzaferro needs to take seriously the lack of evidence for the man's claim and the probability of the alternative hypotheses, including the fact that people do see hallucinations. Nonetheless, he argues that in this case,
...the skeptic really has no more evidence than the believer. If the critically examined cake is the evidence of the skeptic, because no supernatural evidence was found, wouldn’t this mean the skeptic pre-supposes that a supernatural cake would have supernatural properties? Why does the skeptic not take into consideration that a supernatural power/being might supernaturally create a cake that was exactly the same as a man made cake? I’m not saying this is any kind of evidence for the supernatural event, I’m saying if the skeptic acknowledges this possibility in light of the claims, then the contradictory evidence goes right out the window. He must dismiss the evidence involving the cake as having no usability in determining the truth of the event.
Here we have a possibility masquerading as a probability. Is a divine miracle possible? Yes, sure to some remote degree. But it's not probable given the alternate hypotheses. And upon what basis does Mazzaferro infer this possibility? It must be based on evidence. What else is there? He anticipates this objection by saying,
But the skeptic will now bring in the issue of probabilities. Since the cake in question, is the same as millions of other man made cakes, and there are no known supernatural cakes to take into consideration, the probability of this being a man made cake are very strong. But again, this is not real evidence, it is a guess based on statistical models. It may be a good guess, but it is not a proven truth. The problem is the statistical models are flawed. Since no supernatural claims have ever been proven by naturalistic or scientific means, the statistical models will always represent Nature as 100% and Supernatural as 0%. What this basically means is that, no present, future, or past supernatural claim will ever be validated using the probability method until the claim can be proven scientifically, and only then will it be included into the probability method. And all this pre-supposes that a supernatural power/being would not interact with the physical world through naturalistic means.
Here we see Christian apologetical mind games at their best. Kudos to him for being good cannon fodder! It's the "on the one hand on the other hand" double standard special pleading trick. On the one hand he says, it's possible that God did this miracle, while saying on the other hand that statistical probabilities regarding such claims are not "proven" to be true. Now I want everyone to understand what's going on here. Possibilities count for his faith whereas probabilities don't. Get that? In other words, he can reject the probabilities in favor of possibilities when it comes to faith. So let's cue Dr. Lindsay again:
Faith is "a form of cognitive bias that tends to overestimate the probabilities that the hypotheses in which faith is placed predict the evidence (of the world) while underestimating the probabilities that alternative hypotheses predict the evidence we have.
Is there any question now that faith is either a leap over the probabilities or that it ducks under them? Is there? Don't talk to me about faith ever again. It's bunk. I eschew faith-based reasoning entirely because of the way apologists play mind game tricks like these. They only fool the already deluded!

Whew, I got that out of my system! Now back to the task at hand.

More from Mazzaferro:
Based on what I have said so far and on other factors, I do not think skeptics have as much real evidence as they imagine they do.
Yep, when possibilities count for faith and probabilities don't count against it, then yes, this is about as clear as day to a blind man. And what are these "other factors"? Oh, yes, more possibilities less probabilities. I forgot.

I said I got this out of my system. didn't I? Sometimes I can't help it.

Still more:
And in keeping with the illustration, yes, those who believe the man who allegedly witnessed the supernatural event are putting faith in his claims with no viable evidence other than his believability. So why would anyone believe him in the first place without any physical evidence? Well, in this particular case...if the people that really knew him, believed that he would never perpetrate such a deception, or that he has not gone mad, it would help validate his claims in their eyes.
I think if people who know him are so easily swayed against the evidence to believe him then THEY TOO have gone mad.

But again, this is not evidence, it is reasoning on the known information. What also might be helpful is if we know why the supernatural cake was made, what was its purpose and does it make sense. All these things might help support the notion that this witness was telling the truth. And the rest depends on the individual person’s worldview.
Why yes, of course! If we lived in the ancient pre-scientific superstitious world we just might have a similar polytheistic worldview which would make it much more believable that he saw a miracle than not. Of course, yes. But last time I checked we don't, and we don't ever want to return to the past either. That superstitious worldview if gone now. It's time for believers like Mazzaferroto to live in the present, and in our day the only valid way to test the myriad number of miraculous claims is through science. Faith has no method. Do you understand this? Please say you do. Otherwise, there is no helping you.

In the end, there really is no “evidence” one way or the other...The truth is, if there was actual evidence one way or the other, this debate would have ended thousands of years ago. The debate has been based on who can present the most convincing arguments through reason for a particular view of things. Link.
So there's no evidence either way, or else this debate would be over long ago, eh? Who is he kidding but himself? The reason this debate has not been settled is because so many people have faith, and that's it. Otherwise, the evidence is decisive. So let's cue Dr. Lindsay once more:
Faith is "a form of cognitive bias that tends to overestimate the probabilities that the hypotheses in which faith is placed predict the evidence (of the world) while underestimating the probabilities that alternative hypotheses predict the evidence we have.
Sheesh, when will this nonsense end?