Philosophy of Religion 4: Lord, Liar, Lunatic

Pp. 75–80 of the Murray/Rea Introduction contain a rather extraordinary episode which I can’t forbear from commenting on.

They consider the following argument — they call it the “Lord-Liar-Lunatic” argument — for believing the Jesus of Nazereth was divine. Jesus claimed to be divine. The claim is either true or false. If the latter, either Jesus knew it was false, and was a liar. “On the other hand, if he unwittingly falsely claimed to be divine, then he was crazy.” But

the influence of Jesus’s teaching … has been enormous. Literally millions of people have found peace, sanity and virtue in orienting their lives round his teachings. … All of these facts together make it seem very likely that Jesus was neither so wicked and egomaniacal as to try deliberately to deceive others into thinking that he was divine, nor so mentally unbalanced as to be fundamentally confused about his own origin, powers and identity. If Jesus was not a liar or a lunatic … then there is only one alternative left: his claim to divinity was true.

Which really is a quite jaw-droppingly awful argument. Suppose we grant that Jesus claimed himself to be divine (I thought that was contended by many biblical scholars, but let it pass). And suppose he did so sincerely even though he wasn’t divine. Then he was badly deluded. But what on earth is the problem with that? History is full of people suffering from “crazy” delusions but functioning very successful in many domains of life.

Murray and Rea argue, in effect, that you can’t be “sane” and so deluded as to believe yourself divine when you aren’t (it isn’t, they argue, the sort of thing you can make a straight mistake about, at least if “divine” is used in the “perfect being” sense). OK: for the sake of argument, let’s agree with Murray and Rea: if Jesus was not divine, he was not fully “sane”. But — to repeat — that of course is entirely compatible with e.g. being an inspirational moral teacher. Bad cognitive mulfunction in one area is compatible with managing spectacularly well in other areas.

Another related point. Suppose a world of many messianic preachers, all deluded as to their own divinity (well, there’s been a fair bit of it around over the centuries — it’s a mental virus that can infect people, it seems). Most preach a variety of messages that fall on stony ground. Some preach messages that “catch on” temporarily, but in a quite horribly destructive way. But one, let’s suppose, picking up on ideas already in the air, charismatically preaches in a way that strikes a chord with his contemporary listeners; the message is taken up and propagated; and this time, let’s suppose “millions of people [find] peace, sanity and virtue in orienting their lives round his teachings”. But the fact that one such preacher happens to initiate a benignly propagating message [if that’s what we think Christianity is — of course, that’s the subject of a different argument!] isn’t any evidence at all that his pretensions to be divine are any less deluded that those of his colleagues. Given enough different shots at it, and our apparent human propensities to be caught up by religious ideas, one deluded preacher was more or less bound to strike lucky.

Murray and Rea write that “the Lord-Liar-Lunatic argument seems to us … to be stronger than some contemporary critics have given it credit for being”. I do find that an astonishing thing to say. The argument is quite transparently hopeless.

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33 Responses to Philosophy of Religion 4: Lord, Liar, Lunatic

  1. Guest says:

    Amen. That’s a terrible argument, and I think you’re doing the right thing in pointing it out.

  2. Anonymous says:

    There seem to be modern day examples of this. Take the Dalai Lama, for instance. He claims to be one of the many incarnations of the compassion of all Buddhas.

    If you think that this is crazy (as no doubt many who like the LLL argument will), then you might have a hard time with how well the Dalai does both socially and politically. After all, if he was a lunatic, then he’d be a social mess, right?

    There is another reply to this argument which says that it is a false dilemma. There is another option, namely that he was just mistaken. Jesus, let’s say, had a life that seemed to match up with the Old Testament prophesies quite well and maybe his mother told him about this strange experience she had when she became pregnant with him, and so on. This evidence led Jesus to wonder if he was the messiah. When people started following, this provided further evidence. At some point along this path, the evidence might have seemed sufficient for a full fledged belief that he was God.

    Maybe this belief wasn’t rational, but that’s not the same as being either a liar or being crazy.

    I think this is the best reply to that argument, but either will suffice to show that it’s not a good argument.

    Jesus believed that he was God and people told him that he was God and things that happened in his life seemed to match up with the prophesies. Given these fa

  3. KenF says:

    I read this as, “I DARE you to call Jesus a liar! I DARE you to call Jesus a lunatic! See! You won’t do it!”

  4. Peter Smith says:

    I’m sympathetic to the line Anonymous takes, which chips away at the LLL argument at another point.

  5. Mike says:

    One assumption of the argument (I thought we made this clear, but maybe not) is that one would have to be not just “deluded” but absolutely insane to mistakenly and sincerely believe oneself to be the incarnate God of classical theism. If you reject that assumption, then you can follow Dan Howard-Snyder in thinking that one option is that Jesus was “merely mistaken”. But if you grant it…well, then I don’t quite see what to make of your reply. Your reply says, in effect, “It’s possible that somebody deluded [absolutely insane?] might accidentally manage to sound like a paragon of wisdom to generations of people; therefore the fact that someone sounds that way isn’t evidence that s/he isn’t so deluded.” But that seems just wrong to me. Note that there are lots of ways to resist the argument that don’t involve saying such a thing and that we don’t even try to argue against: e.g., one might (as you point out) deny that Jesus ever claimed divinity; one might insist that the teachings attributed to Jesus were really teachings of his followers, so that the “evidence” that he’s wise and not crazy is really more evidence about the wisdom of his followers; etc. Or–again–one might just reject the intuitions that say that an absolutely crazy (or morally depraved) man is unlikely to seem very wise (and good) to generations and generations of people.
    One of the commentators here said that we’re effectively “daring” people to call Jesus a liar or a lunatic. But that’s silly. If you don’t think Jesus was divine, then I think you *ought* to think he was either wicked or crazy. It’s a bad thing to invent a religion, and a crazy thing to think you’re God incarnate. (It’s probably also a very bad thing–it’s hard to imagine one being “honestly mistaken” in thinking one is God incarnate.) The interesting question is whether it’s plausible to think those things of Jesus. If the Buddha had claimed to be God incarnate, and if we had anything approaching reliable historical evidence that he was otherwise as he’s claimed to be, there’d be the same sorts of interesting questions about him too. -Mike Rea

  6. Mike says:

    One other thought: Though you called the argument “jaw-droppingly awful”, you weren’t very clear about what premise you reject. You suggested that Jesus might be “deluded”. Are you opting for the allegedly ruled-out “sane but mistaken” option? Or do you think he was a nutcase? If the latter, on what grounds? If the former, do you *really* think that a sane man could literally think that he’s God?

  7. Peter Smith says:

    Mike Rea’s reply seems to make just the same mistake that I was trying to point out in my original posting. Being “absolute insane” and being “merely mistaken” plainly aren’t the only options. (So I resist his follow up question, asking whether I think Jesus “sane but mistaken” or a “nutcase”. Tertium datur.)

    If someone wrongly believes they are God incarnate, something has gone badly wrong cognitively, to be sure (and let’s grant that it isn’t likely that we can diagnose it as a simple mistake). But it certainly just doesn’t follow that such a person would have to be “absolutely insane” or “absolutely crazy” or a “nutcase” — as if they would have to be a gibbering wreck, completely incapable of normal functioning in other ways. “Insanity” (if that’s the word we want to use) can be, and as we well know, very often is, relatively localized.

    Thinking that you are channelling the voice of God, or indeed thinking that you are God — and to that extent, having badly lost your footings in reality — is of course perfectly consistent with e.g. being an inspirational preacher.

    Mike suggests that my thought was “It’s possible that somebody deluded [absolutely insane?] might accidentally manage to sound like a paragon of wisdom to generations of people; therefore the fact that someone sounds that way isn’t evidence that s/he isn’t so deluded.” But I was, precisely, resisting the “absolutely insane”. And I’d resist too the “might accidentally sound like a paragon of wisdom”, at least when written without qualification — for that might sound as if I’m thinking of a drooling madman “accidentally” giving the Sermon on the Mount, like some chimpanzee accidentally typing Hamlet. But given the kind of cognitive dissociations to which humans are badly prone, I see no inconsistency at all in the thought that someone might be subject to religious delusions but yet, for all that, preach moral wisdom not “accidentally” but on the basis of real moral insight.

    Of course, religious delusions are no guarantee of moral insight (as I also pointed out). But they don’t exclude it. And so, as I put it before, given enough messianically deluded preachers, it isn’t too surprising that we might get one whose message passes the test of time as genuinely inspirational (even if he is wrong about its inspiration!).

  8. Joe says:

    http://www.bloodline-themovie.com/

    this is an intense documentary on the mysteries of Jesus’ Bloodline. Those of you who are into ‘The Da Vinci code’ or ‘holy blood holy grail’ will be amazed by this real-life adventure with actual holy relics found.. I was amazed.

  9. Mike Almeida says:

    Thinking that you are channelling the voice of God, or indeed thinking that you are God –and to that extent, having badly lost your footings in reality — is of course perfectly consistent with e.g. being an inspirational preacher.

    I don’t think Mike is denying the consistency of these claims. It sounds more like he is denying that it is at all likely that you would be an inspirational preacher supposing you have badly lost your footing in reality. That sounds right. Perhaps it’s also right that given enough different shots at it . . . one deluded preacher was more or less bound to strike lucky. Right, but this does nothing to make it reasonable to expect that Christ is that lucky one. How likely is it that this particular inspirational teacher was also mad? It has to be quite low.

  10. Peter Smith says:

    When I read out the Lord, Liar, Lunatic passage in Murray/Rea to my daughter, the very first thing she said — once she’d stopped laughing — was “haven’t these guys read any psychology?”. Well, she not I is the one with the psychology degree; but it is interesting that she too took it for granted (as I had) that major psychological dissociations of the kind we are speculating about are perfectly possible.

    Mike Almeida assumes that it is not “likely that you would be an inspirational preacher supposing you have badly lost your footing in reality”. But careful, we are only imagining the case of someone who has lost their grip on certain matters — the issue remains whether that local lack of grip, so to speak, needs must spread out to degrade all other cognitive performance. Like my daughter, I see no reason, given what we know of abnormal psychology, to suppose that it must.

    And certainly Murray and Rea do nothing to patch the argument at this obvious gap.

  11. Mike Almeida says:

    …the issue remains whether that local lack of grip, so to speak, needs must spread out to degrade all other cognitive performance. Like my daughter, I see no reason, given what we know of abnormal psychology, to suppose that it must.

    We seem to be running several points together. Let’s just agree that there is some small probability that someone suffers a localized cognitive impairment sufficiently serious that he is truly out of touch with reality. And let’s agree that the probability that such a very serious but localized impairment, say, cognitively metastasizes, is extremely low. Now go to the group of human beings that have the remarkable properties of Christ. Great moral teachers, living truly noble lives, inspiring millions, and so on. What proportion of this group suffers a localized cognitive impairment sufficiently serious that they are truly out of touch with reality? Among the members of this elite group, my guess is that the proportion is smaller than in the general population. This would give us the answer to the question of how probable it is that someone from this elite group suffers this sort of impairment. But that’s not quite our question. Our question is how probable is it that this specific person suffers from that impairment. The former probability is already very low. I expect in this case the latter is lower still.

  12. Peter Smith says:

    The original argument was: Jesus claimed divinity. Three options, according to Murray/Rea: (i) he’s right, (ii) he’s a lying conman, (iii) he’s “absolutely crazy”/”a nutcase” (to use Mike R.’s own later words). Response: there’s plainly another option — (iv) Jesus was deluded about his divinity, but otherwise functioned as an inspirational preacher etc.

    Mike A. agrees that this is a further option — so the original argument by exclusion of cases (ii) and (iii) can’t establish (i) (even if we agree to exclude (ii) and (iii)). QED.

    OK, but we are now offered a more probabilistic argument. Mike A. says he thinks that the occurrence of the sort of cognitive malfunction involved in (iv) is very unlikely among great moral teachers, etc.. But of course, that’s just not the issue. The question then is whether (iv) is more unlikely than (i), given that Jesus (sincerely) claimed divinity (and given that we’re assuming with Murray and Rea that we’ve ruled out (ii) and (iii).) And we’ve been given no reason at all to think that.

  13. zoë says:

    I’ll back Dad up about iv) being far more likely than i) and offer some non-philosopherly reasoning: I think Mike’s assumption of a rare “localized cognitive impairment” is far too specific given what we know about the psychology of personality.

    (Admittedly the thought of putting philosophers and personality-disorder psychologists in a room together does rather put me in mind of rabid wolves devouring little fluffy lambs, but restrain yourselves…)

    There’s a spectrum of personality traits that takes in self-belief and charisma and extends all the way to delusions of grandeur and believing yourself to be divine. I’d say that, far from being a rarity in individuals that inspire cult following, some sort of abnormality in this trait is a prerequisite. (People don’t get to hear about your wonderfully noble life and moral teachings unless you put yourself about a bit.)

    Jesus also lived in a historical context when human curiosity about all sorts of everyday occurences *had* to be explained by divine action – it’s still our standard fallback in the absence of scientific evidence. In that environment, exactly how far down the personality-disorder spectrum did Jesus have to be in order to believe himself the son of God? I’m guessing not quite as far gone as today’s cult leaders, who have all sorts of educational and cultural restraints pulling them back from the brink. And of course, the masses he reached directly and indirectly were just as inclined to believe him, especially during those geopolitically unstable times.

  14. Mike Almeida says:

    The question then is whether (iv) is more unlikely than (i), given that Jesus (sincerely) claimed divinity. . .

    That’s not quite it, right, since we need not only that observation (the claim to divinity) but also the observations concerning his extraordinary life, teaching, influence. We could add that all of this is effectively three years. So suppose we let O be the observation of all this person did and said, including his claim to be divine, and his quite extraordinary influence for some 2000 yrs., and so on. Now we have two hypotheses that offer some explanation for what we observe. (i) = H1 = the naive explanation that he spoke the truth and (iv) = H2 = the more sophisticated explanation that he was suffering from some sort of localized cognitive incapacity. So the question (admittedly coarsely formulated) is whether it is true that,

    1. Pr(O/H2) > Pr(O/H1)

    That is, is everything we observe about this person more probable on the assumption that he was disordered than on the assumption that he spoke truthfully or non-delusionally? But this comes down to the following values,

    2. P(O/H2) = P(O) x P(H2/O)/P(H2)

    3. P(O/H1)= P(O) x P(H1/O)/P(H1)

    We can simply drop P(O), though I guess we’d agree that it is very improbable to make the sort of observation in question. What matters to (1) are the values of these.

    2′. P(H2/O)=m /P(H2)=n

    3′. P(H1/O)=k /P(H1)=j

    So we need to know whether (4) is true,

    4. m/n > k/j

    Well, how probable (or what credence to you place on) P(H2)? The prior probabilty that this person suffers from the localized incapacity you mention, I think we would agree is pretty low. So, just to put a number on your credence, suppose you put n = .2. Now what credence do you place in his suffering from that incapacity given what we observe? Mike R. thinks it is not so probable, given the total observation, and neither do I. I think it is even less probable given the total observation. But you seem to think it is more (since part of what we observe is this person claiming to be divine). Suppose then m = .4. But what is the prior probability of the naive hypothesis, H1, that this person spoke truthfully? I don’t know. Were there a lot of phony messiahs running around? Suppose we expect, before we observe the teaching, life etc., that he is yet another one; then maybe j = .3. But how probable is it that this person spoke truthfully given everything we have observed? It does not seem crazy to me that someone might put the value of k up to .5 or .6. Suppose this is not entirely unreasonable. In that case we have pretty much a wash. It is about as reasonable to believe that Jesus was delusional as to believe that he was who he said he was, given the total observation O. In any case, this is just a modest upgrade on Mike R’s argument. I don’t find it so horrible. Of course the argument depends on impressions of the evidential value of O, but that’s unavoidable here. There’s a lot of room for variation in reasonable impressions.

  15. Peter Smith says:

    Mike A. and I at least agree, then, that the original Murray/Rea version of the argument won’t wash. Because Mike A.’s “modest upgrade” allows that Jesus’s being deluded in making claims about his own divinity need not make him a “nutcase” or “absolutely crazy” in some way that is flatly incompatible with such historical evidence as there is. And that’s the possibility Murray and Rea overlooked and which vitiates their assessment of the argument.

    As to the considerations now on the table, we all know that the output of probabilistic arguments depends on your priors! People will pay their money and make their choice. (Though I’m bemused if the suggestion is that someone who doesn’t already believe in God might yet set Pr(H1/O) high, given that she has a naturalistically acceptable alternative available.)

  16. Mike Almeida says:

    As to the considerations now on the table, we all know that the output of probabilistic arguments depends on your priors! People will pay their money and make their choice.

    Priors matter a lot. On the other hand it isn’t like the decision on priors is uninformed or arbitrary. We could as well have replaced P(H1), for instance, with P(H1/k) where k is all we know that’s relevant to these hypotheses (since we are implicitly using k anyway, P(H1/k) will just equal P(H1)). We would then be worried about P(O/H1 & k) and P(O/H2 & k), and we could argue about what k really establishes about H1 and H2. So I don’t see much that is epistemically fishy. But you add,
    I’m bemused if the suggestion is that someone who doesn’t already believe in God might yet set Pr(H1/O) high, given that she has a naturalistically acceptable alternative available. I see your bemused and raise you a surprised. Lots of people not already committed naturalism have put Pr(H1/O) much higher than I did!

  17. Peter Smith says:

    Let’s settle on incredulous stares!

  18. Berel Dov Lerner says:

    This all comes down to a question of inference to the best explanation for the existence of various artifacts (such as the texts of the Gospels, etc.) and of more or less well-established historical facts. I am no expert on these matters, but I seem to recall that the thesis that Jesus actrually claimed to be divine is not universally accepted among historians and New Testament scholars. In that case, there may not be anything terribly dramatic that needs to be explained. In any event, I think that the prophet Jeremiah may offer a better subject for this kind of argument (although the stakes are much lower -he merely claimed to be a prophet). Jeremiah explicitly denounces the practice of false prophecy, while proclaiming his own, allegedly authentic, prophecies. So here is an interesting puzzle: we have a very well written prophetic book that demonstrates great spiritual depth and contains fearless criticism of social injustice, while roundly condemning people who speak falsely in God’s name. How did this book come to be written? I am not saying that there is no religious explanation for the book’s existence, but it is, at least, an interesting puzzle. (I seem to recall Abraham Joshua Heschel trying to develop an argument along these lines for the divine inspiration of the Bible in his *The Prophets*.)

  19. Adam Rieger says:

    Mike Almeida’s post next-to-last post seems to get the conditional probabilities the wrong way round – surely what we want to know is whether

    (A) P(H2/O) > P(H1/O), rather than his

    1. P(O/H2) > P(O/H1).

    Via the usual Bayes’s theorem stuff, (A) boils down to

    (B) P(H2) . P(O/H2) > P(H1) . P(O/H1),

    since the denominator is P(O) in each case.

    It seems to me, contrary to what Mike says, that even someone sympathetic to theism is going to put a *much* higher prior probability (say a billion times higher) on H2 than on H1, roughly because it’s agreed on all sides that deluded people are much more common than messiahs.

    So then it comes down to whether one thinks P(O/H1) is bigger than P(O/H2) by *enough* to make (B) come out false. That’s quite possible, but only, I think, if one takes O to include, say, several spectacular miracles and the resurrection.

    So, overall, I’m inclined to think this argument shouldn’t convince anyone who isn’t already persuaded of Christ’s divinity.

  20. Mike Almeida says:

    surely what we want to know is whether (A) P(H2/O) > P(H1/O), rather than his 1. P(O/H2) > P(O/H1)

    What I wanted to know (and as far as I know, what Peter wanted to know) is what best explained the observation concerning Christ, his life, teaching, influence, etc. We were asking about likelihoods, not probabilities. But the probability question is also interesting. So, let’s consider (A).

    A. P(H2/O) > P(H1/O)

    No doubt (A) is true just in case, (B) is true,

    (B) P(H2).P(O/H2) > P(H1).P(O/H1)

    Suppose that P(O/H2) is more or less equal to P(O/H1), as I argue above. So it all depends on the priors for P(H2) and P(H1). What does Adam observe?

    It seems to me, contrary to what Mike says, that even someone sympathetic to theism is going to put a *much* higher prior probability (say a billion times higher) on H2 than on H1, roughly because it’s agreed on all sides that deluded people are much more common than messiahs.

    But what again are H1 and H2? Here, I say,

    (i) = H1 = the naive explanation that he spoke the truth and (iv) = H2 = the more sophisticated explanation that he was suffering from some sort of localized cognitive incapacity.

    As far as I can see, Adam’s assessment of H1 and H2 is based on information that isn’t relevant. We are considering the value of the claim that this person is a truth-teller vs. this person suffers from some localized cognitive disorder, given that we have not observed much about the person. The suggestion “…that even someone sympathetic to theism is going to put a *much* higher prior probability (say a billion times higher)” is, I think, absurd. A rational person would not place a high value on either (just ask what you’d be willing to bet that this person speaks truthfully, given the limited knowledge of this individual and note that you do not know what he has said or what he has done). You just don’t know enough (indeed, you know nothing in O and O includes his claims to be divine) to make an assessment. All you know is that he is making theological claims and, perhaps, that there are lots of people around claiming to be a messiah. You do not know that he is claiming to be one or the precise content of his teaching. Is he speaking the truth? Who knows? A really skeptical person might put the chances at .3, even on such scant evidence, as I suggested. But he wouldn’t put it “a billion times lower” than the priors for H2.

  21. Adam Rieger says:

    A couple of points here.

    Firstly, there’s the methodological question, as to whether we should be comparing the likelihoods P(O/H) or the posterior probabilities P(H/O).

    Peter said

    “The question then is whether (iv) is more unlikely than (i), given that Jesus (sincerely) claimed divinity”

    which suggests, rightly it seems to me, that it’s probabilities we need to consider. Isn’t the primary question: what credences should be given to H1 and H2, given the evidence?

    The usual Bayesian methodology allows one to calculate the posterior probabilities, given the priors and likelihoods. I was puzzled by Mike’s methodology, which looks like it attempts to calculate the likelihoods from the priors and posteriors – I’m not sure how we get any grip on the posterior probs, independent of the likelihoods.

    Secondly, there’s the question of the priors. Clearly these are going to depend on how much one takes as being background knowledge, as opposed to being in O. I’d been thinking of the background as containing no specific information about Jesus (hence my “billion times higher” comment). Of course the prior P(H1) can increase if one takes the background to include more (though 0.3 still seems implausibly high to me, if the background has just that Jesus “made theological claims”).

  22. Mark Frank says:

    What causes otherwise intelligent people to seriously put forward such absurd arguments? (I mean the LLL argument not the ensuing discussion about probabilities).

  23. Victor Reppert says:

    Suppose I were to come to my class in, oh, say, world religion, and I were to say. “This course is about religion, and we will be talking about God a lot. And you guys are all in luck. I, your teacher, Dr. Reppert, am God Himself, come to earth in incarnate form.” Now my students would probably think this was a big practical joke. But now suppose after a week or two I catch a student cheating and say, “Not only do you flunk this class, but unless you repent you are going to hear from me when I return for the day of judgment.” Suppose some people were to go to the dean and ask about what is up with Reppert’s class. The teacher were then to say “Yes, I realize this guy thinks he’s God, so of course he’s delusional about that. But many students have told me that this just makes the class more interesting. He’s a good teacher, and a fair grader. There’s no reason to drop the course, or ask for a refund for your tuition, still less to contact the men in the white coats. Just stay in there, and you should be happy.” Could this reply possibly be taken seriously by the distressed and confused students?

  24. Mike Almeida says:

    (i) = H1 = the naive explanation that he spoke the truth and (iv) = H2 = the more sophisticated explanation that he was suffering from some sort of localized cognitive incapacity.

    I guess the discussion is at an impasse. I put the priors for H1 at .3, since it does not seem at all unreasonable to me to believe that Jesus was speaking truthfully, given such limited information. In general I assume that people are speaking truthfully unless I’m given decent reason to believe otherwise. My guess is you do the same.

    I have no idea what to make of Victor’s contribution or what I’m supposed to gather from it. As far as I can see, I’d be on the side of the students. It is reasonable to assume that this person has lost touch. What does that have to do with persons of such extraordiary lives as Jesus? I don’t see it.

  25. Victor Reppert says:

    The trilemma seems to be pointing to two sets of facts or, at least apparent facts. On the one hand we have the moral genius of Jesus, the kind of moral genius that produces things like the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and on the other hand we have the claim, implicit and explicit through the Gospels, to be God. The discussion thus far has been presupposing that both of these set of facts are real facts, but want to say that they are psychologically compossible in Jesus. I was trying to show with my student story that we have good reason to suppose that it is hard to believe that this combination could exist in the real world, and that we would certainly not expect someone who was deluded into believing oneself to be God could even be good and wise enough to be a fair grader and a good classroom teacher, much less a moral genius of the caliber of Jesus. So I was trying to support your side of this discussion, Mike. If you accept the “local delusion” theory suggested by Smith here and by John Beversluis in his revised book, then the students should be reassured by the dean. But the dean’s reply doesn’t seem reassuring to me at all.

    Of course here probabilities have to enter the picture–if you have priors according to which any naturalistic account is preferable to any supernaturalist account, then of course the LLL argument isn’t going to carry any weight. Or you can say that the facts I alluded to above are only apparent facts but not facts. But what seems to me to be implausible is to accept these two sets of facts as facts and somehow fail to see a serious dissonance that requires some explaining, to say the least. The argument is not bad, or stupid, or idiotic, in my view. The existence of possible alternatives doesn’t mean that those alternatives are plausible.

  26. Peter Smith says:

    Comments on comments on comments are subject to the law of diminishing fleas. But it might be worth saying that Victor’s argument misses the point. Let’s agree with him that, knowing X is subject to messianic delusions, there is no reason to expect X to be good at e.g. the moral inspiration game. But we know enough about cognitive dissociations to know wild things like can happen. Likewise, knowing I’ve been fairly dealt a poker hand, there is no reason to expect that I’ve got a straight flush. But we know these things can happen. It might be my lucky day. And X might be the one among the messianically deluded itinerant preachers (in a context, remember, where the messiah was expected imminently) who delivers a message that happens to strike a note and which gets passed on. Such things can happen too, and we need no supernatural explanation if it does happen — since, as the straight flush example reminds us, unlikely events don’t always need special explanation.

  27. Mike Almeida says:

    Victor,

    I’m not sure how much examples like this help. Let’s go directly to the point you’re pushing. It looks like you’re making a claim about the value of m in (2′),

    2′. P(H2/O)=m /P(H2)=n

    I think you want to say that the probability of the hypothesis H2 (local cognitive impairment or something along those lines) is very low given some of what we observe. Right, I think pretty much everyone agrees, given the teaching and influence, it does seem low. I see no quarrel here. But there is also the claim in O to be God. That’s what drives m upward. I don’t see any quarrel with that, either. I think I put m at around .4. Given everything that is in O, I suggested that that’s reasonable. To be entirely fair, we didn’t consider other hypotheses incompatible with H1 and H2 that might also have some explanatory value. It might not have been some localized problem, but rather some intermitantly manifested disorder or it might have been a temporary disorder, etc. Summing the hypotheses that are alternatives to H1 generates more problems, not that I’m anxious to find more.

  28. Victor Reppert says:

    Peter: One straight flush in a poker game could be a fair hand. Three of them in the course of one game suggests that the hand was dealt from the bottom of the deck.

    Nevetheless, given the priors of a typical philosophical naturalist, I would expect you to respond just as you did here. You say “Look, it’s antecedently improbable that a highly functioning moral teacher should also have a God delusion (the delusion that he is God, not the Dawkinsian delusion that God exists). But it’s more antecedently improbable that Jesus is God incarnate. So some skeptical hypothesis concerning the life of Jesus is still the best available explanation given my priors. In particular the hypothesis of a delusion with localized effect is perhaps the most plausible explanation available.”

    That’s fine. But, last I heard, the problem of the single case wasn’t solved and there is no precise objective method for establishing priors. (The Bayesian theory I imbibed in grad school was thoroughly subjectivist about prior probabilities: think Howson and Urbach). You are claiming not just that someone can resist the conclusion of the argument, but that the argument is laughably fallacious. If I am right, a fallacious argument ought to persuade no one. To show that it ought to persuade no one, you would need to show that no who doesn’t already accept the conclusion should accept it given the argument.

    Have you shown this? I should point out that C. S. Lewis presents this argument after having argued for moral theism. In order to reach the conclusion you want, you would have to show that someone who is either a theist or someone who things theism at least likely to be true, someone who is impressed by the character of Jesus in other respects, someone who may even think, like the ancient Jews, that God has performed miracles. Should someone with priors much more friendly to Christianity than yourself nevetheless remain unpersuaded? Ex hypothesi, you concede that the probability, given that Jesus is not God, that someone should arise who claims to be God, and is a high-functioning moral teacher, is low. If Christian theism true, the likelihood that Christ would claim to be good is pretty darn high. So it looks like the LLL argument provides at least some confirmation for theism even if you, quite reasonably, resist the conclusion of the argument.

  29. Peter Smith says:

    It is perhaps worth remarking that — as I hoped would be clear from sequence of postings here — Murray and Rea offer the LLL argument in their book before giving any arguments whatsoever for theism. They are still at the stage of struggling to make any sense of theistic claims. In that context, at any rate, the argument is useless.

    (I’d add that I’m wryly amused by various guesses here about what my own views are.)

  30. Mark Frank says:

    I think that Victor’s latest position comes down to something like this.

    “It is more likely that God exists given that Jesus claimed he was the Son of God than if Jesus did not claim he was the Son of God.”

    True – but somehow I don’t think that this is what CS Lewis was getting at when he wrote:

    ” … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”

  31. Anonymous says:

    It’s hard to take LLL seriously, given the consensus, mainstream view of Jesus by historical Jesus scholars (Sanders, Vermes, Ehrman, Fredriksen, Meier, Allison, et. al.). The maistream view is that Jesus was primarily a failed apocalyptic prophet, and that he never claimed to be God.

    Certain groups of people have a vested interest in making sure the average person doesn’t know this (e.g., evangelicals and the Jesus Seminar), because they want Jesus to be relevant to contemporary people. The Jesus Seminar folks do this by calling all the apocalyptic material attributed to Jesus inauthentic, and treat him as a non-eschatological, egalitarian social reformer. The evangelicals give the eschatological passages an implausible reading (“You know what? Jesus was just talking about the destruction of the temple in the Olivet discourse”, etc., etc.).

    This is the real reason why the argument doesn’t work.

  32. Anonymous says:

    If Jesus wasn’t divine, then he was a lunatic. How on earth would one be a lunatic and offer good moral platitudes like the ones Jesus offered? Is that at all remotely possible?

    “”Insanity” (if that’s the word we want to use) can be, and as we well know, very often is, relatively localized.”

    Belief that one is not a human, that one is a God, if he is not in fact God, is about the worst case of a superiority complex I can imagine. And such a complex isn’t “localized”, leaving clean his inspirational teachins.

  33. Seraph says:

    I think that you’ve seen a rather weak version of the argument. I recommend, “Between Heaven and Hell,” which presents the argument in a much stronger manor.

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