Watching a debate between Matt Dillahunty and Mike Licona on whether Jesus was raised from the dead was a weird experience. Licona’s approach relied heavily on the supernatural is real therefore literally anything could have happened. And his defence for the supernatural also helped a lot in defining the supernatural. And it is to that end, I come to you today. This post will explain how Licona doesn’t seem to distinguish between what he doesn’t know and the supernatural.
Licona’s argument is that weird stuff happens and can be confirmed independently to have happened. This weird stuff cannot be explained by the natural and therefore it is supernatural and therefore if a few people are convinced Jesus was raised from the dead then suddenly it’s plausible and explanatory.
There’s one element I’d like to clear up first. Part of Licona’s defence of Jesus being raised from the dead is that some alternative hypotheses don’t hold up. For example, although the ‘Group Hallucination’ argument can account for all the facts, it fails the plausibility test. The problem is, when you let in the supernatural realm, nothing fails the plausibility test. Licona refused the supernatural for a group hallucination explanation ― maybe a Roman God was testing their faith and it backfired stupendously ― but allowed it for the explanation he preferred.
To be clear, this wasn’t a debate about whether the supernatural or a God existed. It was specifically about whether Jesus was raised from the dead ― the passive voice there means both that Jesus came back from the dead, and that someone is responsible for it. Dillahunty could, therefore, have accepted the supernatural and a God and still have rationally not accepted the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. Once you allow for the supernatural, you don’t have good reason to accept an explanation; you actually have less reason to accept any explanation, because suddenly all things could be magic. “Supernatural” isn’t just a nonexplanation, it is an unexplanation, that removes confidence in literally all claims. As much as gravity appears to be a force that is relational to mass, the supernatural allows explanations like deceitful gravity-pixies intentionally making it look that way ― and if you’re going to take the supernatural seriously, you suddenly have to be a little less confident about gravity.
Anyway, Licona argues that Near Death Experiences and, what I shall term, significant hallucinations happen. He tells the story of a woman who hallucinated her friend’s face at 2:30AM and behind the face was the Devil (the cartoon Devil, not beautiful Lucifer). A few days later, she found out her friend had died at 2:30AM that night.
We are within reasonable conversation to point out that the Bible described Lucifer as being beautiful, and so the red horned cartoon Lucifer she saw points towards a cultural hallucination as opposed to an actual siting. But, there is another problem: the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. Ignore for a moment that we have 3rd hand accounts and that she found out her friend had died from a newspaper (instead of being so moved by the hallucination to contact her friend) and instead realise that hundred of thousands of hallucinations happen. We have a reasonable natural explanation of why hallucinations happen. Given that hallucinations happen in such abundance, we also have a good statistical understanding of why some small number of them would coincide with significant events. (We also have the phenomenon of confabulation, which explains why some hallucinations become “significant” is a post facto way ― where the memory is altered to fit the context.) The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy is evident here in that we are encouraged to ignore all the times Near Death Experiences and hallucinations were not significant, which appears to be a vast majority of them. Instead, we are asked to look at the times it did happen: you draw the target around where the bullet landed.
Licona also tells the story of a Near Death Experience where both the dying mother and the grieving son hallucinate a meeting: the mother, in her Near Death state, imagines being in a bar seeing her son; the son, in a bar, imagines seeing his mother. There’s no CCTV footage of the mother being in the bar (or suddenly vanishing) and no suggestion that other people at the bar were startled by the suddenly arriving and then disappearing woman in the bar.
It is worth saying that I don’t know why these two people had this experience. But I do know this genre of experience can be explained in the same way the above is explained: a natural hallucination and a statistically probable significance. We’d have to buy the book this story came from to see whether both people describe the same bar.
Then there’s another story from a Ouiji board and a self-levitating metal bin lid. And then a challenge as to whether we would be convinced of the supernatural if Licona were beheaded on stage in front of everyone, and then walked out of the theatre and hour later with his head firmly on.
Basically, you get the idea: there’s all this weird stuff that Licona doesn’t see that nature can explain, and therefore the supernatural does exist. And, if you doubt that reasoning, you should consider even more outlandish things to see whether you are simply biased against the supernatural.
Dillahunty then calls this what it is: “Supernatural” is being used as a basket term in two senses. Firstly, “supernatural” simply means that which Licona can’t explain with his understanding of nature. Whether that means no natural explanation exists is another question; it could just be that Licona is confusing his own ignorance or incredulity with the supernatural. Or, it may be the case that no substantiated natural explanation exists at all, yet. In which case, Licona is simply confusing global ignorance with the supernatural. It is worth bearing in mind that the cause of lightning was once the topic of global ignorance, and it’s no evidence at all for the supernatural. Licona’s difficulty in simply saying “I don’t know” is the cornerstone of his evidence for the supernatural.
The other sense that supernatural is being used as a basket term is that Licona is dragging all things accredited to the supernatural in. He only attempted to demonstrate Near Death Experiences and significant hallucinations meaning something personal transcends the body; that is the entirety of what he tried to demonstrate (and failed, in my assessment). But then he tries to call that supernatural and pull resurrections and Gods through with it.
Licona tries to paint a picture of the world that looks a little like the Venn Diagram below: if you can’t explain it in natural terms, it is supernatural.
This model presents a dichotomy that misses a few of the options: perhaps the phenomenon you’re trying to explain has been misreported, or maybe there exists an explanation you ― or humanity at large ― doesn’t yet know or will never know. This is not Naturalism of the Gaps (when you don’t know the answer, assert natural explanations), or even Ontological Naturalism (outright refuse any suggestion of non-natural explanations). This is pointing out fallacious reasoning: a false dichotomy. This is instead arguing, firstly, that you should withhold judgement on the truth of a claim untill you are genuinely faced with evidence. All Licona is facing us with is questions. Secondly, this is arguing for a more nuanced model:
The fact is that our knowledge of nature doesn’t exhaust the content of nature. There is, therefore, a set within nature of which we are ignorant. There is no method, yet, (as far as I can tell) for distinguishing between natural phenomena where we are ignorant of the explanation and supernatural phenomena of which we are also ignorant. All we know is that we are ignorant; at that point, we are blind to distinguish between the natural and the supernatural. Here, the reasonable move is to withhold a conclusion. But this is also an insufficiently nuanced view:
There is no hard line between what we know and what we don’t know. Instead, our knowledge trails off into ignorance via claims and concepts of which we are uncertain about. As the light of our knowledge peeters out into the darkness of our ignorance, the best claim that can really be made about the supernatural is that we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of the supernatural being outside of our knowledge somewhere. It’s a question that lingers over our ignorance, not an assertion that can be defended by our ignorance.
Again, I am not claiming that because you can’t defend that something is supernatural, that it is therefore natural. I am arguing that the answer ‘I don’t know’ can be and often is the best answer ― and the only motive for actually exploring explanations.
One audience member challenges Dillahunty as to whether he would accept the supernatural if he witnessed the following: the man walking on water across a lake and then taking off, flying into the clouds. Dillahunty responded by saying he would accept that he witnessed it, but wouldn’t accept any explanation until he (or someone) was given an opportunity for impartial investigation. He then challenged the audience member to explain what features we would expect to find during our investigation if, indeed, the event had a supernatural explanation.
And it is that latter challenge that is very telling. No one knows. In place of any description of the supernatural, people want to give increasingly outlandish events and ask if witnessing them would convince you of the supernatural. Dillahunty is a magician, so would want to rule out illusions first. I, equally, would want to rule out technology I didn’t know existed. But even if we rule out magic and technology, all we are left with is a bunch of options we have ruled out and some other options we haven’t thought of and some more options we can’t investigate and this credulous voice yelling do you believe in the supernatural now? But, nothing positively pointing towards the supernatural at all.