What Is Truth?

If you noticed that a person who is using his own observations and reasoning cannot be objective, then you have some understanding of the problem of skeptics critiquing the Bible.

An article in the April 2017 issue of Scientific American has a very provocative title: “What Would It Take to Prove the Resurrection?”[1] This article was written by Michael Shermer, a well known skeptic, and unsurprisingly, it concludes that any evidence provided to support the resurrection of Christ is not sufficient to actually demonstrate that a man named Jesus actually rose from the dead.

Now, it is easy to take issue with the “no good evidence for the resurrection” conclusion and attack that. However, I think such a frontal assault misses a significant point: skeptics, like Shermer, approach such questions from a specific perspective. If I were to try and prove that the resurrection happened, based on the reliability of eyewitness testimony, the changed life of the Apostles, the conviction of the Apostles, and so forth, that would not convince a skeptic for the simple reason that the resurrection is still an improbable event and such witnesses are not perfectly reliable.

Rather than making a frontal assault, I want to do an end run. Before delving into the resurrection itself, Michael Shermer lists a few things that are known to be true. He uses these as examples of how we can know things to be true. One of these claims is that there are 84 pages in an issue of Scientific American (specifically, the April 2017 issue). Shermer says that this is true by observation. Let us critique this claim and see what happens.

It seems simple enough to verify the number of pages in a magazine, doesn’t it? Anyone can find a copy of this issue and count its pages, so this truth can be easily verified by observation.

What if someone were to find a copy of this issue, count its pages, and find that there are 86, not 84 pages. Someone like Michael Shermer, would probably claim that this person made a mistake. After all, Shermer counted the pages himself: he observed 84 pages so he confirmed that there are 84 pages in that issue of Scientific American. Perhaps this person just made an error in counting, perhaps he erroneously counted the cover and back of the magazine as separate pages, but surely there is an easy explanation for the error that this person made.

In order to help this person who mistakenly counted 86 pages, Michael Shermer comes up along side him and helps him count. He is pleased to see that he does not count the cover, so that is not the error. The person counts the pages, lifting each page up at a time and flipping it over. Then, something odd happens after the 42nd page is counted. Rather than picking up the next page, the person picks up an imaginary page, flips it over, and counts it. Actually, he counts two pages, one for the front of the imaginary page, and one for the back. Then, he picks up the next page, the real page, which should contain pages 43 and 44 and counts them as 45 and 46.

Now Shermer sees the error: this person has counted wrong, he thinks that there is an imaginary page that does not exist. He stops the person and corrects him that he is actually on page 43, not 45 like he thinks. The person acts confused. No, he insists, this is page 45. Didn’t Shermer see him count page 43 a moment ago?

No, Michael Shermer insists. He saw the person count 43, but there was no page there.

The person does not understand what Shermer is saying. He flips back and picks up the imaginary page and points to the imaginary page number, insisting that this is page 43. He must be very good at miming, because he holds the imaginary page in a very convincing manner and points to the exact spot where the imaginary page number should be. This person is committed to the idea that the imaginary page 43 exists.

Michael Shermer tries again. There is no page there. He even demonstrates that the page does not exist by passing his hand through it.

The person suddenly lets go of the imaginary page and chides Shermer for what he did. He almost tore the page!

Michael Shermer is baffled. How can someone keep up this farce? This commitment to upholding the existence of the imaginary page is ridiculous. He tries one more time. If the imaginary page is real, lift the magazine by it.

The person obliges. He grasps the imaginary page and lifts his hand.

Shermer is triumphant. The magazine is still lying on the table: that is conclusive proof that the imaginary page does not exist. He points to the magazine lying on the table and tells the person how the page is obviously non-existent because the magazine is still on the table.

What is Shermer talking about, the person insists. The magazine is not on the table, it is suspended from the page. He even bats at where the imaginary magazine is hanging. Again, Shermer marvels at his ability to mime: his hand looks like it taps something, but clearly the magazine is not there, it is on the table.

At this point, Michael Shermer gives up. It is such a weird example of faith, that someone would go to extreme measures to convince himself that something is true, but since he cannot provide any evidence that Michael Shermer can see, no solid evidence that the issue has 86 pages, the person must be the one who is in error.

Consider very closely the narratio provided above. It would be easy to agree with Michael Shermer that the person is in error and that the issue of Scientific American only has 84 pages. However, we must note that the entire narration was given from Michael Shermer’s perspective. What if we considered the events from the perspective of the person? He is baffled by Michael Shermer. He did his due diligence. He checked Shermer’s claim that there were 84 pages in the April 2017 issue of Scientific American. He found a copy. He counted the pages. He found that there were 86 pages. Then Shermer came up to him and helped him count. That is a bit of an insult: he knows how to count. But the weird part is that Michael Shermer kept insisting that pages 43 and 44 do not exist. He claimed they were imaginary. Even when he picked up the magazine by pages 43 and 44, Shermer insisted that the magazine was on the table, even though it was suspended in the air for anyone to see. Talk about someone who insists on talking down to laypeople, even when they know what they are talking about.

Do you see the problem with the skepticism of people like Michael Shermer? To these skeptics, they and their observations are the determiners of truth. Now, the example in the narrative above is an extreme case, but consider other points of dispute a creationist may have with a skeptic.

A creationist finds the bombardier beetle a convincing example of God’s creativity. How else could the beetle come about without blowing itself up unless God divinely created it. To a skeptic, he has never seen God nor seen Him divinely create anything, so those explanations out highly unlikely. Instead, he has seen variation among beetles and the explosive chemicals in the bombardier beetle used for other purposes in other beetles, so based on his observations, it is easier to think that the combustion capabilities of the bombardier beetle came out through a developmental process.

A creationist finds helium in zircon crystals to be a convincing piece of evidence that radioisotope dating is unreliable. After all, the only way to get the helium in the zircon and keep it there would be to accelerate radioisopte decay, and if that happened in the past, radioisotope dating is inherently unreliable. A skeptic cannot find a way to accelerate radioisotope decay, and neither can the creationist, not without divine intervention,[2] so the skeptic dismisses accelerated radioisotope decay and treats the helium as an anomaly.

While the resurrection goes against all common sense and experience, to a Christian, the resurrection of Christ is not only the central focus of his faith, it is also a significant example of God’s power over the natural world. Of course, the main evidence for the resurrection is the eyewitness testimony of the Apostles and early Christians recorded in the Gospels. To a skeptic, however, those few witnesses are making an extraordinary claim, and since the skeptic knows that witnesses can be deceived, or misrepresented by those who come after them, it is far easier to dismiss the resurrection as impossible.Note that in every case, the skeptic dismisses the evidence because he cannot see it himself, just as in the narrative given above, Shermer cannot see the imagined page, therefore to Michael Shermer, it doesn’t exist. This is the fundamental problem when dealing with skeptics and those who reject the Bible: they have set themselves up as the determiners of truth. No amount of evidence that we provide can convince them unless it is specifically of a type they can examine. Since our foundation of truth is the Bible itself, we will always be at loggerheads.

Thoughts from Steven

[1] Michael Shermer (2017) “What Would it Take to Prove the Resurrection?” scientificamerican.com, retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-would-it-take-to-prove-the-resurrection/ on February 27, 2021

[2] Eugene Chaffin (2005) “Accelerated Decay: Theoretical Considerations” in Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth, Vol. 2, Larry Vardiman, Andrew Snelling, and Eugene Chaffin eds., Institute for Creation Research, El Cajon, California, pg. 525-586