Post Author: Bill Pratt
Recall that in part 2, we looked at a couple skeptics’ views on testimony. The first skeptic’s view appeared to be self-defeating, but the second skeptic singled out testimony about supernatural events, thus avoiding the self-defeating approach of the first skeptic. However, the second skeptic has a different sort of problem, which I flesh out below.
I (Bill) trust people who tell me that some supernatural claims are legitimate; he (the skeptic) trusts people who tell him that no supernatural claims are legitimate. How do we decide whose testimony to trust without begging the question? For if the skeptic starts out by knowing that all supernatural claims are false (which he seems to have done in this case), then he clearly has begged the question of whether a specific supernatural event occurred.
This is where worldview presuppositions come in. Skeptical atheists will generally claim that their worldview has nothing to do with their skepticism. They claim that they are able to remain neutral when assessing any evidential claim (it is religious folks who are hopelessly biased). But this is clearly false. Because I believe that a theistic God who can perform miracles exists, I am very open to the possibility that some miracle reports from history are true. Because the atheist denies that such a God exists, then he is closed to these miracle reports.
So when the Christian asks atheist skeptics to look at the historical testimony supporting a miracle claim, most of these skeptics, though not all, will argue that eyewitness testimony is unreliable, that people make mistakes all the time, that magicians can fool us, that ancient people were gullible, that witnesses in trials are sometimes wrong, that UFO sightings are bogus, that hypnotists can trick us, and on and on and on.
My response to all of these points is this: I know about all of these things, but we trust eyewitness testimony to tell us about much of what we know about the world. Therefore, when I hear testimony about a seemingly unusual event that I personally have not ever experienced, instead of ruling it out immediately, I should apply criteria developed by experts on testimony of the kind I want to investigate to determine if the testimony is credible. That way, I can hopefully detect false testimony.
Some skeptics have retorted: “You disbelieve miracle claims from other religions, and you don’t apply the same criteria to them as you do to the miracle claims of Christianity. Therefore, you are inconsistent and biased, just like you accuse us of being.”
My response is this: I do not categorically deny all miracle claims from other religions, so the accusation is false. I believe that God is able to perform whatever miracles he wants whenever he wants. In addition, I believe in the existence of angelic beings who are also able to perform feats that are supernatural in nature, and they may be involved in alleged miracle claims of other religions. Bottom line, I don’t take a hard position on any miracle claim until I have really looked into the testimony evidence for it.
Where does this leave us? First, testimony is a fundamental way we learn about the world. To cast serious doubt on testimony is ultimately self-defeating because you have to rely on testimony to doubt testimony. The more rational and reasonable way to approach testimony is to apply criteria that have been developed by experts who have studied testimony in a particular discipline (e.g., law, history).
For my Christian friends, when you are dialoguing with a skeptic who starts denigrating the reliability of testimony, ask them to list their criteria for establishing when testimony is credible or not. That will move the conversation on to something more profitable.
For my skeptical friends, please understand that telling us all the ways that testimony can be wrong is just not a fruitful approach. We know about all that. Move on to giving us your non-question-begging criteria for determining whether particular testimony is credible or not. If you cannot do that, then our suspicion that your worldview is driving your skepticism starts to become confirmed.