Sunday, October 4, 2015

Undesigned Coincidences - An Introduction, Part 1


Recently I posed a question to an online Christian Apologetics group. I asked if there were any areas of apologetics that were deserving of more attention than they were getting. I wanted to develop a specialty in the study and didn’t want to go where the crowds were. I knew that I didn’t have the background or knowledge to add to the major areas of study like The Cosmological Argument or The Problem of Evil, but thought I might be able to bring light to some of the dusty corners of the field.

There were many good ideas brought forth by the online community, all ideas that I wish I had the time and resources to explore, but since both are limited I had to narrow the list. I finally decided, thanks to some very good advice from a knowledgeable and trusted associate, to explore some classical apologetic works that have been all but forgotten. He gave me a respectable list of books in the public domain to start with, and this post is an introduction to an attempt to revive a few of these all-but-forgotten treasures.

After much consideration and online research I have set my sights on the concept of Undesigned Coincidences, developed by authors like William Paley, John James Blunt, Edmund Bennett and Nathaniel Lardner.

I want to take this opportunity to make it understood that I am attempting to use my meager skills to do justice to the insights of some honored thinkers. I take the blame for any distortion or misrepresentation of the thoughts found in these distinguished works. I do not take credit for any light of truth that shines through.

The Concept in a Nutshell

An Undesigned Coincidence can be described as two or more different sources fitting together like puzzle pieces, together managing to explain questions that arise from one or more of the individual sources. For instance let’s say that there was a robbery at your local convenience store, and that there were two independent witnesses at the scene.

Witness number one was inside the store when it happened and reports how she saw the robber run to the right as he exited the store, then a moment later run back past the front of the store, going the other way, with a half dozen dogs of various shapes and sizes in hot pursuit, leaving everyone in the store with quizzical expressions.

Witness number two was approaching the store from the rear, following a dog-walker who was leading a group of dogs. Suddenly a man rounds the corner of the building, running full speed, and plows headlong into the dog-walker. Both people hit the ground. Amidst a clamor of whines, barks and howls the robber jumps up, turns and runs back the way he came, with the dogs close on his heels.

Taken separately the witness reports would leave interesting unanswered questions, but when they are put side by side they lock together like puzzle pieces and give a more complete picture of the incident, providing validation for both accounts, and giving more credibility to other parts of the eye witness testimonies.

Cumulative Case Argument

Undesigned Coincidences is a cumulative case argument. This means that while each instance may not be convincing in itself, the sheer volume of instances, taken together, makes the case more likely to be true than not. It is like the fibers in a rope. Each individual fiber may not be very strong, but by weaving hundreds of them together you end up with something of amazing strength.

As John James Blunt puts it:
“... if the instances which I can offer are so numerous and of such a kind as to preclude the possibility of their being the effect of accident, it is enough. It does not require many circumstantial coincidences to determine the mind of a jury as to the credibility of a witness in our courts, even where the life of a fellow-creature is at stake. I say this, not as a matter of charge, but as a matter of fact, indicating the authority which attaches to this species of evidence, and the confidence universally entertained that it cannot deceive.”
-The Veracity of the Gospels & Acts, pp1,2

James Warner Wallace is a celebrated cold-case homicide detective and proponent of evidential apologetics. When talking about cumulative evidence he states:
“The nature of circumstantial evidence is such that any one piece may be interpreted in more than one way. For this reason, jurors have to be careful not to infer something from a single piece of evidence. Circumstantial evidence usually accumulates into a powerful collection, however, and each additional piece corroborates those that came before until, together, they strongly support one inference over another.”
-Cold Case Christianity, insert titled “The Cumulative Nature of Circumstantial Evidence” p58

Inductive Reasoning

This evidence for the accuracy of the Bible also fits into the category of Inductive Reasoning. Unlike deductive reasoning which gives a definite conclusion to a question, inductive reasoning provides a generalized conclusion that is likely, but not certain. It works from the bottom up. If you can show accuracy in the parts you can imply accuracy in the whole. has a nice, concise definition;
“Inductive reasoning is a logical process in which multiple premises, all believed true or found true most of the time, are combined to obtain a specific conclusion.”
Written out in syllogism form you can see the argument like this:
1) Each instance of an Undesigned Coincidence adds credibility to a body of work
2) The Bible has hundreds of examples of Undesigned Coincidences
3) I conclude that the Bible has credibility

I do not claim this to be some kind of slam-dunk for the veracity of the Bible, but it does add to the evidence for it. It is an argument that has been relegated to the back shelf and forgotten until recently. During my research the only current proponent I could find was Timothy McGrew, Professor and Department Chair in the Philosophy School at Western Michigan University. It is a rather subtle argument and needs an investment of time in order to see its use. Those are two things that people in today’s world have little care for.

In my next post I will explain the different types of Undesigned Coincidences with biblical examples of each. That will conclude my introduction to this topic, and from then on I will begin this series in earnest. With as many examples as I have found I’m sure to be able to share many examples in the future.

Happy reading!

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