How should we handle eyewitness testimony? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
Earlier this week I wrote a piece on atheist incredulity. In response, I got asked a question about eyewitness accounts of things like UFOs. Should we believe in those? It’s quite amazing to me that it’s taboo apparently to suggest that skepticism should be held in an unquestioning way.
This isn’t new. Hume had the same skepticism to eyewitness claims of miracles and sought any chance he could to dismiss them. Today, we do have a sort of doublespeak going on in the atheist community. How does that happen?
Go to the Gospels and what are you told often? These Gospels were written decades after the event! It means either the story of the original viewers of the event, otherwise known as the eyewitnesses, were changed, or that the writers never got to speak to any eyewitnesses.
Then, if you go and show that eyewitnesses were involved, well, eyewitness testimony isn’t always reliable. Sometimes you get told that it’s notoriously unreliable. So if the Gospels do not contain eyewitness accounts, we can’t trust them. If they do contain eyewitness accounts, we can’t trust them.
So let’s look at the above topic of UFOs as an example. Should we trust them? In some cases, yes. All a UFO is is an Unidentified Flying Object. Do some people see such objects? Yes. Does that mean an extraterrestrial craft was sighted? No.
Keep in mind also that for those who hold to science, science itself has SETI set up about the question of extraterrestrial intelligence and this is an active question in the scientific community. If we have an active question and we have an eyewitness of an event, should we not at least listen to them?
Note that this is a fine line to walk on. Should eyewitness testimony be believed blindly? No. Should it be dismissed arbitrarily? No.
It’s important to realize that many of us will measure what we see in the world against our own worldview and background. If you are an atheist, you will have a natural tendency to question any claim of a miracle. If you are a theist, you will be skeptical of naturalistic explanations of events you deem to be miraculous.
This is why each of us must rise above our own skepticism. I think atheists, for example, would do a lot better in convincing on evolution if they did not make it be the case that it is to be seen as evolution vs. God. Many theists could be more open to an evolutionary creationism, but if you tell them going the route of what you say is science means abandoning God, they won’t, because God is much more important in their lives.
On the other hand, those of us who are theists could bear to be more skeptical of some miracle claims and many other claims. When we share claims easily as golden proofs that are easily disproven, then we do ourselves a disservice. We should test all the claims we encounter like that.
Note also with eyewitness testimony, I have no problem with taking the character of the person into consideration. Many of us would be skeptical of the words of a stranger. What if it’s a close family member that you know to be trustworthy? Do you just dismiss it?
At this, I want to also answer one other claim about miracles. Would I accept eyewitness testimony for a miracle outside of Christianity? Well, why not? If a miracle happened, then it happened. I can’t give my faith tradition a special exception on the rules of evidence. I think the atheist has more at stake here because if a miracle did happen, well, atheism is in trouble.
Which brings me to a fun little saying of Chesterton on miracles which I will paraphrase. The theist believes in the miracle, rightly or wrongly, because of the evidence. The skeptic disbelieves in the miracle, rightly or wrongly, because he has a dogma against them. Consider a work like Craig Keener’s Miracles. If just one miracle in that book is a bona fide miracle, naturalism has a lot of explaining to do. If everyone of them is fake, theism can still be true and even Christianity. Who has more at stake?
The solution is really simple. Don’t believe blindly, but don’t dismiss blindly either. Try to put aside your own biases every time for the investigation. Follow the evidence where it leads.