Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Evidential Value of Miracle Reports

I will discuss only the evidential value of miracle reports. I will say nothing of direct experience of a putative miracle. The epistemological problems that attend to the first are not identical to those that attend to the second.

By "miracle", I mean an event whose occurrence could not be been brought about purely natural causes but must instead have had a supernatural cause. Miracles are more than nature by itself can muster. They require a cause that is outside nature. In a miraculous event, the supernatural as it were breaks into the natural order and accomplishes more than the natural could have done unaided.

Moreover, in what follows I mean to limit myself to those miracle reports that assign God - the infinitely good, infinitely powerful, infinitely wise creator and redeemer of the world - as the cause.

Argument. So let us say that word has come to us of a miracle. (I find that I quickly tire as I write "putative miracle" again and again. So from here on understand that by "miracle" I mean "putative miracle".) The miracle occurred in a land far away, at a time far in the past. It is, let us say, a report of a resurrection. We have multiple sources for the report, but we have no reason to suppose that they are independent. Perhaps they are, perhaps they aren't. Moreover, our sources wrote their accounts no earlier than 40 years after the event they recount, and in the time between occurrence and first written record, the memory of the event was kept alive in speech and speech alone. (This, I take it, closely parallels the miracle reports in the New Testament.) Now let us say that we wish to ascertain whether the miracle did really occur. We cannot of course simply accept the reports at face value. We know all too well that many, many miracle reports are spurious - what they say happened in fact did not happen. Thus we must weigh the evidence in favor of their truth and the evidence against, and when we do we must take great care that we not claim to know more than we do. A very real possibility is that we will find ourselves unable to render a judgment about the likelihood that the reports are true.

Now, as we attempt to ascertain whether the miracle reports are true, we must ask ourselves three questions:

I. What is the probability that the accounts have not been embellished or plain made up?

II. Given that the accounts are tolerably accurate, what is the probability that there exists a natural but perhaps undiscovered cause of the event reported?

III. Given that there exists a supernatural cause of the event reported, what is the probability that that supernatural cause is God?

As should be obvious, only if the probabilities of I, II are low and the probability of III high do we have good reason to suppose that God lies at the root of the miracle.

What is the probability of I for our miracle report? I find it impossible to answer. We have no insight into that oral tradition that first transmitted the report. Moreover, we all have experience with the susceptibility of such reports to transmute over time and thus come to contain some measure, whether great or small, of error. I recently came across a wonderful example of this. In Lafayette, IN (my present home) there is a house where the Christmas tree is never take down. It's readily visible from a street near down-town, and most if not all long-time residents of Lafayette have seen it. Soon after my arrival to Lafayette, I was told this story about it: In the late 60s, a young left for the Vietnam war. It was Christmas when he left, and his parents promised him that they wouldn't take the tree down until he came home. But he was killed, and true to their word his parents never took the tree down. Now, as a matter of fact, this story is false. Indeed it's not even close to the truth. The local paper - the Lafayette Journal and Courier - recently carried a little piece that dispelled the near-ubiquitous myth. In fact, the family simply likes their Christmas tree and decided years ago that they'd like to enjoy it year-round. The true story isn't as good a story as the false one, and perhaps this explains why the false one had such currency. But that point to the side, we have here an example of the sort of invention that often occurs in the oral transmission of stories to do with extraordinary events (and this event isn't even that extraordinary). Human beings seem quite prone to invention, and they seem quite credulous when presented when the invention of others.

Now, what is the probability that our miracle report is not the product of human imagination? Perhaps it isn't, but how are we to know? If we knew that humans exercised extreme epistemological caution about such things - if we knew, that is, that they were careful never to invent and careful never to embellish - we might conclude that they story is likely veridical. But we don't know this; and, it seems to me, we don't know what probability to assign to I.

Let us turn to II. I have little to say about it. Indeed I have but one point to make. Our knowledge of nature is far from complete; and for all we know, science might well undergo radical revolution in the future. Thus it seems to me that we have little reason to suppose that, when presented with an event which cannot as yet be explained naturalistically, there likely is no naturalistic explanation. Let me put the point this way. Let us say that we've witnessed an event which seems unexplainable naturalistically - say the resurrection of a man three-days dead. There are two sorts of explanation open to us: (i) natural but as-of-yet undiscovered, and (ii) supernatural. We may rule out i only if we have good reason to think it likely that our grasp of the laws that govern natural processes is complete, or near-complete. But we don't possess that good reason. (We at present don't even have a coherent physics. We use General Relativity for a certain class of entity, and Quantum Dynamics for another; and at present no one knows how they are to be integrated.) Moreover, we ought to admit a very real possibility that the science of today will be discarded for a new, radically different science - it's happened before; and the putative miracle might be easily explained naturalistically on the new science.

Thus at present we have no good reason to suppose that ii must be embraced and i rejected. If we reject i and embrace ii, it's high speculation indeed.

Let us turn to III. Here I admit almost total ignorance. Christianity tells me of a host of supernatural entities - God, angles, and devils - all capable of intervention in the natural world. Other religions increase that host many times over. At present, I believe in one of these entities. So you tell me how I'm supposed to decide which was responsible for this or that miracle. Perhaps you will reply that God identifies Himself as the author of certain miracles. I'm unimpressed, for in my present state of ignorance it seems quite possible that there is another supernatural entity which misidentifies itself as God. I have no knowledge of any supernatural entity, and so for all I know, there might be one or many who take themselves to have very good reason to make we humans believe falsely that they are God.

Conclusion. Almost certainly we have insufficient reason to accept the Gospel miracle accounts. Sub-conclusion. Even if we were to have good reason to assign I a low probability, still there are high hurdles that belief in miracles must clear. One is our II above, a second is our III; and for one in my epistemological situation - one who finds himself with little in the way of belief in the supernatural - at present they simply cannot be cleared.

Reflection. So then, I'm doubtful that miracle accounts can get religious faith off the ground. Wherever religious faith might begin, it cannot begin there. Thus I reject an all-to-common apologetic use of miracle accounts on which they are judged sufficient to give rise to faith where there was none before. But this does not mean that I think them useless to faith. On the contrary, I find it not at all improbable that they ought to find a place in a life in which the seed of faith has already been planted. They nurture that faith. They lead it to grow. But they do not plant it. This of course leaves us with the question of how faith is planted. I'll take up this question in later posts. (This is closely related to the question of the foundation of the Christian faith, discussed here, and as before I put that question off for now.)

9 comments:

C Grace said...

"So then, I'm doubtful that miracle accounts can get religious faith off the ground."

This whole post is about finding logical, rational reasons for believing. That is not what faith is all about. Faith is about believing without seeing. To have faith is to submit to a reality we cannot fully understand. Faith is the first step back across that Carollinian mirror. In it we admit that we are living in an illusion, we are stuck in the matrix.

And as many have testified, faith itself allows us to escape the matrix and see reality. Reality is suprarational, and cannot be grasped by the discursive mind. The rational mind wants to remake reality in its own image so that it can comprehend reality, but reality itself is infinite, unbounded and incomprehensible.

Franklin Mason said...

Good to talk to you again, and thanks for the comments.

It seems like this to me. I stand on one side of a river. Or I suppose it is a river, for it is covered in fog and I cannot see the other side. Others tell me that there is another side, and give me instructions about how to reach it. But - and this is an all-important "but" - not all give the same instructions. Indeed some say that it's not a river but a great ocean that has no other side. Who should I trust? Why should I think that the river even has another side?

You council faith, and you say that it does not have a rational foundation. You council a kind of jump. But in what direction am I to jump? Who am I to trust?

Such worries make me think that faith is not something we do but is rather a gift of God. I seem to recall that Augustine said such a thing.

C Grace said...

" To have faith is to submit to a reality we cannot fully understand."

Faith is not a jump, you need go nowhere, simply accept where you are. Accept the fog and the not knowing and trust your own inner imperative that won't accept what seems to be the easy, pat answers. You are already partway across the river. You see more clearly then you know which is why you refuse to accept the answers of those who claim to know what is on the other side but have only second hand reports. You at least are aware of the fog, many have not even gotten that far. Many think that having ideas about God is knowing God.

Since I am on a Merton kick I will do another quote here,

"In a word, God is invisibly present to the ground of our being: our belief and love attain to him, but he remains hidden from the arrogant gaze of our investigating mind which seeks to capture him and secure permanent possessionn of him in an act of knowledge that gives power over him. It is in fact absurd and impossible to try to grasp God as an object which can be seized and comprehended by our minds. The knowledge of which we are capapable is simply knowledge about him." Contemplative Prayer (italics his)

Franklin Mason said...

I'm very much attracted to the idea that God is not an object and cannot be grasped as such. But once that is said, I don't have the words to expres what God is. I expect you'll respond that I should not expect to find the words. This brings me to a claim you made in your first comment. You said that God is incomprehensible. Don't we know that God is personal? (Perhaps in some way he is suprapersonal, but as I once heard said he is no less than a person.) Don't we know that God loves us and wants to heal the hurts of the world? If we know these things (and others too), then in some way God is comprehensible.

I admit that I'm a bit confused by a consequence of what you say - that in some way I already have faith. I'd thought that that was precisely what I did not have. Do you mean that the mere fact that I continue to search says something about how I am, that in some way I have faith? I'd desribe it as hope instead, hope that things will at some future time be much better than they are now.

C Grace said...

If you have hope you must have faith. Faith is a prerequisite to hope. Even to hope without reason simply means you do not know what you have faith in.

C Grace said...

Traditionally, God qua God is incomprehensible. Christ though is God made visible, and so are we for we too were made in the image of God (in us though the image is corrupt, in Christ the image was not distorted) Suprapersonal is probably a good way to put it. We can only comprehend God by way of analogy, but He is always more then what we comprehend.

Maximus the Confessor
"60 The Word of God is called flesh not only as having become the incarnation but as God the Word understood simply in the beginning with God the Father, who possesses clear and naked forms of truth of all things and does not include riddles or enigmas or need allegorical stories. When he is present to men who cannot with their naked mind reach naked spiritual realities, and converses in a way familiar with them in a variety of stories, enigmas, parables, and dark sayings, then he becomes flesh. Our mind does not in this first encounter hold converse with the naked Word,"

Maximus like Merton is a mystic who holds that God, via the spiritual mind, can be experienced as He is beyond all forms and concepts (the reference to naked mind, and naked forms of truth) but that the natural mind can only grasp God second hand through parables, stories, symbolism and such. This second hand knowledge always falls short in some way and can never fully express the Truth, the Logos. Thus the Gospels were written not just to tell the history of a man, but to contain within themselves the deeper expression of the Word made flesh. The whole history of Israel as told in the OT properly understood is nothing but a foreshadowing of Christ, expressing the same spritiual truth at a more complex less simple level.

In the natural mind one proposition expresses one truth, but a given spiritual truth can be expressed many ways and often must be talked around in order to bring forth its fullest meaning. Thus God is called our Father, Counselor, King, Spouse, Friend and Savior. All of these are true but none complete.

Likewise God is love and God is just. He is sovereign yet our freewill does not interfere with His sovereignty. The natural mind bulks at these contradictions. The thing one must recognize is that there is a higher truth, another dimension to reality in which these seeming paradoxes are no longer paradoxes.

We are capable of reaching the point where we have some vision of this higher truth but we must first escape the natural mind. The imperative of wrestling with irreconcilable paradox helps us to do this. There is an advantage to accepting the paradoxes contained in the Bible, but never accepting simplistic answers that seem to erase the paradoxes but in reality merely avoid them.

Just as logic operates by rules and has a structure that can be known, so the Word, the Logos of God contains within Himself the Law, the rules/structure by which all of reality both spiritual and physical operates. Physical reality itself is nothing but a shadow of spiritual reality. It is as if the Logos of God were a simple melody and all of human history nothing but that melody played with so complex an embelishment that the orginal melody is lost to those who do not know the original melody and do not have a sensitive ear.

Franklin Mason said...

Perhaps there's only a difference in emphasis in what we say, but nothing you've said seems to me to imply that God is completely or absolutely incomprehensible. Nor does what you say seem to be to imply that God is in some way completely beyond the grasp of our rationality. You say: "the Word, the Logos of God contains within Himself the Law, the rules/structure by which all of reality both spiritual and physical operates." This seems to imply not a lack of rationality but rather a perfect rationality. Why shouldn't our minds have some ability to penetrate into the set of rules by which the spiritual and physical worlds operate? Indeed don't we have such insight when we realize that the law flows from the command to love God and neighbor as self?

Franklin Mason said...

Oh, and thanks again for the comments. Insightful as always. This is fun!

C Grace said...

"Why shouldn't our minds have some ability to penetrate into the set of rules by which the spiritual and physical worlds operate?"

They do have this ability. What I was trying to say is that we have two minds (or maybe better two faculties within our mind) one for understanding the physical and one for understanding the spiritual

I've been reading the Philokalia lately and the desert fathers differentiate between the intellect(greek-nous)and the discursive mind or reason (greek-dianoia)

Discursive mind (This is what I call the natural mind ) is the logical faculty in man. It formulates concepts deriving from sense data and manipulates them according to the laws of logic. It cannot apprehend directly higher truth. However it can receive higher truth from the nous. These come as intuitions and most often cannot be fully expressed. - In the natural mind data from the physical senses is formulated into natural knowledge consisting of concepts (ie perceptual experience of different trees is formulated into the concept of ‘tree’) and logical relations and their entailments.

Intellect- (This is what I call the spiritual mind) can know God or the inner essences of created things directly. It does not function by formulating abstract concepts and then arguing from these to a conclusion based on reasoning, This kind of knowledge is a knowing without knowing how you know. – It is not perfect rationality, at least not how I usually think of rational, but supra rational, supra-logical. Taking the spiritual truths of the intellect and trying to formulate them into words and concepts in the discursive mind is like trying to draw a cube on paper. Spiritual truth does not fit into concepts except in a slightly distorted form. One spiritual truth may need several different concepts to express it and then the connections between these concepts cannot be fully laid out. They may seem disjointed or unrelated.

Knowledge about God in the natural mind gleaned from scripture + direct experience of God is formulated into a mystical knowledge of God (mystical theology) by the spiritual mind.

Knowledge of creation from the natural mind + knowledge of spiritual reality of creation through the intellect = intuition into the essences of creation, ie. philosophy.

Heart –the spiritual center of man’s being, his deepest and truest self, the image of God within him. It is the seat of spiritual perception, our ‘spiritual senses’ so to speak, which enable us to have a direct experience of God and the different levels of spiritual reality.

In the fall our ability to know was corrupted because the image of God within us was corrupted. To know Him we must be like Him, when we are like Him then we shall see Him as He is. (I John somewhere)

The desert fathers teach that the heart comes to know him when we conform our actions to living a life of love. Our mind comes to know him as we conform it to His revelation of Himself in scripture. It is a matter of total submission to Him and letting go of our demands that God be what we think He ought to be, that He do what we think He ought to do.