Free Solo and the Resurrection

Some time ago, I watched a documentary called Free Solo, which is about a professional rock climber, Alex Honnold, who climbs El Capitan, a mountain 3,000 feet high in California…without any ropes ( in four hours). He ascended the entire mountain without anything to anchor himself to the rock face, meaning that if he lost his footing or slipped, he was done for. But he didn’t slip and he’s still alive and well as far as I know. If you have a Disney Plus subscription, you can watch it on there or you can just rent it. This already sounds like an impressive feat, but then, free solo rock climbers other than Alex Honnold do exist and they have also climbed mountains without ropes. However, El Capitan is already considered a difficult or advanced climb by professional rock climbers, and is even called the most difficult climb, which (from what I’ve been able to gather as someone who is not a rock climber at all) has something to do with the height and the smoothness of the rock face. So, it is generally believed that nothing like this had ever been done. Honnold also did it in four hours which is something when you consider that climbing El Capitan normally takes days.

But now we can start to apply some hypothetical skepticism. How do we know it really happened? There were other people there and parts of it are filmed right? But, maybe, they all conspired to lie? Why not? ( It is difficult to tell how many witnesses there were, but for the sake of this thought experiment, I will assume it is just the film crew. That is how it appears on the documentary). They would get monetary rewards from the documentary itself and from Honnold’s sponsors if the climb is successful. Perhaps Honnold prepared to really do it, almost did it, or maybe he even made it half-way up the mountain, but then pulled out. But the whole crew didn’t want to abandon the project that they’d poured so much time and money into. They didn’t want to go home empty-handed. What about the parts that are filmed? Well, it would be quite easy to climb to various parts of El Capitan ( with ropes) and then to shoot it to make it look like there are no ropes, or simply to remove the ropes for the shot. After all, we’re talking about free soloing El Capitan! It’s ridiculous. Nobody has ever done it before so it has a low prior probability. Is the testimony of a group of people who have a vested interest in seeing it succeed enough to convince you that it happened?

I don’t believe that Free Solo is a hoax and I don’t believe there is good reason to think it is a hoax. I’m using it as a thought experiment to show how skepticism of testimony is sometimes taken too far by atheists who want to dismiss miracle claims in general and the claim of the resurrection of Jesus in particular. At the end of the day, all we have to rely on to tell us that things like Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan happened, along with many similar events, is the testimony of a small group of people. This thought experiment is also meant to show how easy it is to doubt something or to come up with some plausible-sounding alternative explanation for the events. Skepticism is not difficult. In fact, it may be easier to doubt Honnold’s ascent than it is to doubt the resurrection, for the following reasons. (If you’re not familiar with the case for Jesus’s resurrection in Christian apologetics, see here for my summary of it). First, the disciples had less to gain from lying about the resurrection than Honnold and the Free Solo film crew had to gain by lying about his ascent. When it started, Christianity was a small sect and heavily persecuted. It is difficult to argue that the early leaders of the church who claimed to see the risen Jesus did so because of social or monetary rewards. Many of them went to the death for the belief that what they saw was real. Second, the generally accepted facts that are used to argue for the truth of the resurrection by apologists ( the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, and the origin of Christianity), make it more difficult to give a plausible skeptical explanation. The facts of Honnold’s ascent do not make it that difficult to provide a plausible skeptical explanation. Sometimes, of course, conspiracies and hoaxes really do happen, but when there’s more than one person’s testimony involved, it is generally more reasonable to accept it than to reject it, in the absence of truly glaring problems with their testimony. Or, at least, one can say that it is just as reasonable to accept that testimony as it is to reject it.

We rely on testimony for most of our knowledge. We rely on testimony to convict criminals, for education and for news. We even risk our lives based on testimony. We trust that when automobile manufacturers or airline regulators say that something is safe, it really is safe. There are occasionally lies or mistakes in all these areas, but we still rely on them. Criminal and misconduct investigations usually require more than testimony because there are typically incompatible testimonies ( one person who accuses and another who denies the accusations). There is then no rational justification for privileging one person’s testimony over another’s, simply based on whoever spoke first.

So, in conclusion, we can say that belief in the resurrection and other miracles, based upon testimony, is perfectly reasonable.

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