Saturday, October 2, 2004

On Belief In Miracles

On 9/21 Viewpoint posted an interview with Chuck Colson in which he said that one reason he believed the accounts of the Resurrection of Christ as recorded in the New Testament was that had Jesus not literally risen from the dead, his followers would not have been willing to suffer and die for a cause they knew to be based upon a lie.

If there was no Resurrection a lot of people would have known that the claim to the contrary was untrue and would have seen no point in perpetuating such an obvious error when it became clear that those who were involved in promoting it would be persecuted, imprisoned and executed.

What motive could the disciples of Jesus possibly have had for trying to promote the completely "unbelievable" assertion that a man had risen from the dead? What about that claim would have encouraged these men to bear up under deprivation, torture and death if it were not true? What was in it for them? As C.S. Lewis points out, men will often die for what they believe to be the truth, but only lunatics will die for what they know to be a lie. Just like the men involved in the Watergate cover-up that Colson alludes to, the followers of Jesus, were they really trying to foist a religious fraud upon people, would eventually have looked to their own self-interest and admitted to the authorities what had actually happened.

Any explanation or "debunking" of the miracle of Christ's Resurrection has to contend with the stark fact that this, however, is not what happened. The historical record produces no one who confesses to having participated in a hoax, even though they could have saved their lives by doing so.

Skeptics, however, have another means of justifying their refusal to accept the historicity of the Resurrection that avoids having to confront arguments like Colson's altogether. They argue that the nature of a miracle is such that no amount of evidence for one could ever overcome a presumption of the regularity of nature's laws. In other words, miracles are so much in conflict with the way we understand the world to work that the evidence that an exception to the laws of nature had really occurred would have to be exceptionally detailed and well-documented for us to accept it.

W.K. Clifford wrote that "It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence," and the evidence that a miracle had occurred is always going to be insufficient because, as David Hume put it, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. An account of a man rising from the dead is so extraordinary that no evidence, short of personally witnessing the event oneself, could ever be sufficient to justify one's belief that it occurred. Thus, no one is ever justified in believing that a true miracle, i.e. a supernatural intervention, actually happened.

This is certainly a nifty argument since it avoids the uncomfortable problem of having to counter the large body of evidence that a miracle really did occur in the case of Christ's Resurrection. However strong that evidence might be, the skeptic avers, such an event is so alien to our experience that a natural explanation, no matter how unlikely, is still more probable than that a man was raised from the dead.

There are problems, however with the skeptic's claim:

The first difficulty is that Clifford's maxim is self-refuting. There is no evidence that supports the assertion that we are always wrong to believe anything on insufficient evidence. Why, then, should we believe it? Why are we not within our epistemic rights to believe something on the best evidence available?

A second difficulty is that there is no way to determine what should count as "sufficient evidence" for believing in a miracle anyway. Why is the skeptic justified in setting the standard of plausibility so high that it effectively eliminates the possibility of ever justifying belief in a miracle? Can we not agree that an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence without agreeing that in the case of a miracle the evidence must be so extraordinary as to be impossible ever to attain?

Indeed, what counts as "extraordinary" is going to differ from person to person. How do we determine when the evidence has satisfied our notion of "extraordinary"? Someone who is hostile to the idea of supernatural interventions in the world is going to set the bar for satisfaction far higher than someone who is open to them.

To cite the American philosopher William James, "To preach skepticism as a duty until 'sufficient evidence' for [a miracle] be found, is tantamount to telling us, when in the presence of the [claim that a miracle has occurred] that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser than to yield to our hope that it may be true." Better to err on the side of fear than of hope, the skeptic argues, but, as James counters, what proof is there that being wrong through hope is so much worse than being wrong through fear? The skeptic's position is that it's better to miss out on a truth than to fall prey to an error, but why should anyone agree with that? Where is the evidence that justifies our believing such a principle?

The skeptic makes the conditions for one's believing that a miracle has occurred so stringent that such belief is impossible to justify. But the only way we can know that belief is impossible to justify is if we know a priori that it is not possible for a miracle to have occurred. However, miracles can only be impossible if supernatural intervention is impossible, and supernatural intervention is impossible only if there is no God.

In other words, natural explanations are more probable than supernatural ones only if we know a priori that either there is no God or that God never interjects himself into history. Since we don't know either of those, we have no justification for assuming, prior to any consideration of the evidence, that any natural explanation is more likely to be true than one which relies on supernatural agency.

If God exists then it is possible that miracles occur and we should look at the alleged evidence for any instance of one and evaluate it on its own terms. If the possibility of a miracle is held open, then, to borrow from James once more, any rule of thinking that would prevent us from recognizing a miracle, if it really happened, is an irrational rule.

As numerous scholars have made clear, the historical evidence that Jesus literally came back to life after having died is quite compelling unless one has already decided that such an event can't possibly be true. If one's worldview doesn't allow for the possibility of a miraculous event, well, then, one will never be persuaded by the evidence that a miracle has occurred. To paraphrase Pascal, however, there's enough evidence that one did occur to convince anyone who is not already dead set against it.