September 1, 2016

Foter Credit for “Christ Resurrected”
Photo credit Waiting For The Word Foter Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Folk who believe in fairies, or miracles, or alien visitation, are generally fond of an argument called ARGUMENT TO THE BEST EXPLANATION.


Here's an example of argument to the best explanation (or abduction, as it's sometimes known):


I see shoes poking out from under the curtain and the curtain twitching slightly above them. I can also hear breathing. I infer there's someone standing behind the curtain. Why? Because that's the best available explanation of what I observe. True enough, the twitching might be caused by the breeze from an open window and the shoes were just coincidentally placed in the same spot. But I reckon that's a bit less likely than that there's someone standing there (for what explains the breathing noise?)


Quite what makes an explanation the 'best' is controversial, but there's some agreement that the simpler and more elegant an explanation, the better. So, for example, I could explain that twitching curtain by supposing that there are three dwarves standing on top of each other behind the curtain, but that's a far more complex and less elegant explanation for what's oberved than that there's just a single person there.


We use argument to the best explanation a lot. For example, it's used by scientists to justify positing various unobserved entities. We may not be able to directly observe electrons, or a very distant heavenly object, but their existence can be the best explanation of what we can observe, such as certain astronomical or experimental results. In which case, we're justified in supposing these unobserved entities - electrons, distant planets, and so on - exist.


So argument to the best explanation seems to be a legitimate form of reasoning - a form of reasoning employed even by scientists.


However, argument to the best explanation is often also the first port of call for those who believe in spooky, wacky stuff.


For example, conspiracy theorists rely on it a lot. They say: 'Can you explain why the Twin Towers came straight down like that? No? Well I can - it was a controlled demolition! An inside job! See - that's the best explanation!' In reply, we may have to admit that we can't, right now, explain the striking way the Twin Towers collapsed. So, if the conspiracy theorist's explanation is currently the best available, shouldn't we accept it ? Aren't they justified in supposing a controlled demolition took place?


Or suppose we can't explain the testimony of various supposed witnesses to a flying object. Suppose it's observed by a number of individuals who describe something like a large flaming object hanging stationary over a building site. They are otherwise reliable witnesses. We cannot easily explain what they saw in terms of it being a planet, or a plane, or a prank, or an illusion, etc. So it seems the best available explanation is that a large fiery object really was spotted in the sky, right?


'You can't explain it - I can explain it by appealing to aliens, gods, ghosts, etc.; therefore my explanation is the best available, and thus the most reasonable!' is a popular refrain from those who believe in spooky stuff.


This sort of move also crops up a lot in religious contexts. Take the Resurrection of Jesus, for example. Typically, this is argued for using argument to the best explanation. We are told Biblical scholars agree on certain facts: that Jesus' tomb was empty, that Jesus was seen afterwards by several different witnesses, and so on. And then it's suggested that a risen Christ is the best available explanation for these reports - a better explanation that that all the witnesses were lying, or deluded, or that Jesus had not really died, etc.


So what, exactly, is wrong with this sort of justification of belief in 9/11 conspiracy, alien visitors, ghosts, fairies, and even The Resurrection? I'll discuss this more in my next post...


#1 Seb (Guest) on Friday September 02, 2016 at 5:07am

I’ve always been particularly conscious of this line of reasoning and am looking forward to how you deconstruct it. One of my favourite examples:

The Book of Mormon contains many ancient Hebrew linguistic structures and idioms that were not known to Western scholars at the time of Joseph Smith and his contemporaries. It is highly improbably that every single one of these found its way into the English Book of Mormon text through chance or guess-work.

The best explanation is therefore that the Book of Mormon was indeed miraculously translated by Joseph Smith from an ancient record on gold plates.

#2 Dan (Guest) on Friday September 02, 2016 at 6:30am

Conspiracy theorists explanation is not the best available.It’s the best available for those who don’t have even a basic understanding of structural engineering.

Buildings are designed to hold *up*, not *in*. Once enough material had collapsed inside the building interiors, the structure couldn’t contain it. So it started bursting, for lack of a better word. It didn’t explode outward, obviously, but as the vertical support structures gave way horizontally, floors inside the building were no longer supported and dropped and added to more concentrated mass inside the buildings. Inevitably, a point of no return was reached. They collapsed in on themselves from the top down.

For a basic example:  I could have an empty cardboard box just small enough that if I tried to squeeze into it, it’d tear apart. But I could stand on that same box and it would support my 200+ lbs. But knock a dent in a corner while I’m on it and down I’ll go.

#3 Chris Humphries (Guest) on Friday September 02, 2016 at 10:17am

People can be jailed for conspiracy. To achieve this, the prosecution has to establish a conspiracy theory beyond reasonable doubt - so much as to convince a jury. So conspiracy theories can’t be generically faulty.  There must be some criterion that decides what makes a loony conspiracy theory loony. This will no doubt be related to your upcoming specification of what makes a bad inference to the best explanation bad. So I look forward to that.

#4 Ed Atkinson (Guest) on Saturday September 03, 2016 at 1:56am

If we are to study the resurrection in a genuine way and not just dismiss it, then how else can it be investigated than by this abductive method?  How else can we show believers that their confidence in the resurrection is not well founded?  The problem is not what the method is applied to but the way it is applied.

I’ve thought about evidence for the resurrection a lot and read a few books as well.  One key move that the Christian apologists make is to insist that the only explanations available are simple ones, such as a ‘swoon theory’ or ‘hallucinations’ or ‘God did it’.  They then rule all the rival explanations leaving theirs.  But actually the data to explain is complex with documents dated over several decades by authors we don’t know, and who don’t seem to entirely agree with each other.  There is not going to be one neat explanation to all this.

So Stephen, if you do read this, it would be great if you could help unpick this for me.  In particular, your point about simplicity and the three dwarves behind the curtain appears to be in conflict with my point about complexity.

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