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The Conception of the Miraculous and Christian Apologetics: Chapter 2


Chapter 2: Confirming the Occurrence of Apparent Miracles

Keith Parsons

This thesis was originally written by Keith Parsons in partial fulfillment of requirements for the degree Master of Arts in the College of Arts and Sciences at Georgia State University, 1982.

Once it is agreed that the miraculous is not an inconsistent concept, the next question is whether we can know that any miracles actually have occurred. That is, we are not now asking whether miracles could conceivably occur, but whether, if one did occur, we could know that it had. Since the issue is now an epistemological rather than a logical one, “natural law” will no longer mean, as it did at the end of the last chapter, “the actual regularities that exist in nature independently of human knowledge.” Rather, in the remainder of this thesis “natural law” will mean “the nomological propositions whereby we express our knowledge, or presumed knowledge, of the regularities of nature.” Giving this meaning to “natural law” means that the criteria which scientists employ in accepting or rejecting nomological propositions take on central importance for the question of whether it can be known that miracles occur. Hence, all of the difficulties arising from scientific methodology which we circumvented in the last chapter now become relevant. Confirming the occurrence of a miracle not only will involve showing that an event has occurred contrary to an accepted nomological, but also will necessitate showing that the occurrence of that event does not constitute a falsification of the nomological. For example, in order to verify the claim that a man has miraculously walked on water, it is necessary (but not sufficient) to show (a) that the man did in fact walk on the water and (b) that the fact of his walking on the water does not falsify our accepted laws of hydrodynamics. The difficulty with showing (a) is the old Humean problem, viz. can any degree of evidence be sufficient to establish that an event has taken place contrary to an accepted law of nature? The problem with showing (b) is meeting the criticism posed in the last chapter: If we think that L is a true law of nature but discover that an event has occurred contrary to L, how do we avoid concluding that L was not after all a true law?[1] Here it is important to remember the point made by Swinburne and Smart that an event which falsifies a law of nature must be of a sort that is, at least in principle, scientifically explicable.[2] That is, if it can be shown that someone’s walking on water is a kind of event that is in principle scientifically inexplicable, it will provide no grounds for overturning our accepted nomologicals about the impossibility of walking on water.

Even if (a) and (b) could be proven, this would not be sufficient to show that a miracle had occurred. As it stands, nothing would have been proven but that an inexplicable event had occurred — a man walked on water. However to call an event a miracle is to give it a certain explanation, namely to explain it as the effect of a supernatural agent. Hence, in addition to showing (a) and (b), there also must be grounds for (c) attributing the man’s ability to walk on water to the action of a supernatural agent. Hence, in order to justify the miracle-claim that someone has walked on water, (a), (b), and (c) all must be shown to be true.

We may generalize from this and specify three necessary conditions which must be met if there are to be sufficient grounds for the justification of a miracle-claim: (1) It must be confirmed that an event has taken place contrary to a nomological proposition that is accepted as true at the time when the confirmation is made, (2) Once it is confirmed that such an event has occurred, there must be good grounds for thinking that the event is scientifically inexplicable, and hence does not falsify the nomological that has so far been presumed to be true, and (3) Once conditions (1) and (2) are met, there also must be sufficient reason for thinking that the purportedly miraculous event is the effect of a supernatural agent.

The purpose of this chapter will be to determine how condition (1) could be met. That is, how could we presume a certain nomological proposition to be true and yet confirm that an event had occurred contrary to it? If we confirm the occurrence of such an event it will be an apparent miracle since it seems to occur in violation of a law that we have presumed true up until that point. Whether we continue to regard the law as true even after an event occurs contrary to it cannot be determined until it is seen whether the event meets condition (2) or not. Hence, such events will be called “apparent miracles” since whether such an event is a genuine miracle or not cannot be decided until it is determined whether conditions (2) and (3) are met.

Even the most ardent Christian apologist will generally admit that there are some difficulties in confirming the occurrence of events that take place contrary to an accepted law of nature. This point was never questioned by some of the staunchest defenders of orthodoxy in the Eighteenth Century’s great debate on miracles. For instance, the orthodox apologist Thomas Sherlock, when referring to the resurrection of Jesus, made the concession that “. . . this case, and others of like nature, require more evidence to give them credit than ordinary cases do.”[3]

The reason why there are special difficulties with the verification of such cases is that the concept of the miraculous entails that every miracle-claim will involve a conflict of evidence. Part of the definition of “miracle” is “a violation of natural law.” Hence, implicit in every miracle-claim is the assertion that an event has occurred in violation of a true law of nature. However, if it is affirmed that the law which the event allegedly violated is a true law of nature, then we have very good reason to doubt that the event in question ever took place. For example, the claim that Jones walked on water is a miracle-claim only if it is presumed to be a true law of nature that no one can walk on water. But the presumption that it is a true law of nature that no one can walk on water gives us excellent grounds for doubting that Jones ever did. This is because our ordinary judgments about what is possible and impossible are based in great part on the laws of nature as we presently understand them. A major difficulty with verifying miracle-claims, therefore, is that every miracle-claim bears witness against itself.

This, then, appears to be the true paradox in the conception of the miraculous — not that a miracle is something which by definition cannot happen, but rather that claiming a miracle has occurred entails the counter-claim that it has not occurred. This paradox does not in itself preclude the possibility that there ever could be an adequate justification for a miracle-claim. It conceivably could be that the evidence in favor of the occurrence of an apparently miraculous event is so strong that it outweighs the counter-evidence supplied by a presumably true law of nature. This possibility cannot be ruled out a priori unless it is assumed beforehand that no amount of other kinds of evidence can outweigh the evidence given by a presumably true law of nature. This assumption cannot be made, however, since it is precisely one of the points which Christian apologists dispute. Clearly, though, the burden of proof which the miracle-claimant must be willing to accept is a very heavy one. Just how heavy that burden is, and what kinds of evidence could possibly carry it, can only be determined by examining the various ways that the occurrence of an apparently miraculous event might possibly be confirmed.

Excluding revelation, ESP, etc. there appear to be only four ways that, individually or in combination, could provide sufficient evidence to confirm the occurrence of an apparent miracle:[4] (a) An individual’s own direct observations or memories, such as seeing or having the memory of having seen a man walk on water, (b) reading or recordings made by instruments, such as a videotape of a man levitating in the air, (c) human testimony, such as the Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, and (d) physical traces, such as artifacts, burial shrouds, etc. from which it may be inferred than an apparent miracle has occurred.[5]

Of the above four, (a) and (b) could most obviously serve to provide sufficient evidence for the occurrence of an apparent miracle. This is because nomologicals only get established in the first place on the basis of direct observations and/or the readings of instruments. Therefore, evidence that something has taken place contrary to a nomological could certainly be confirmed with the same type of evidence. For instance, the nomological proposition “no one can walk on water” is accepted as true on the basis of innumerable observations of what happens when objects, including human beings, are placed in water. If, therefore, I observe a man walk on water, this should be for me adequate confirmation of the fact that a man had walked on water (if, of course, I can be sure that I am not hallucinating or seeing a magician’s trick; difficulties of this sort will be considered in the next chapter).

It seems, then, that the easiest sort of apparent miracle to confirm would be one that can be observed directly or through instruments. If, for instance, thousands of people see an entire mountain range rise up into the air and fly to a new location hundreds of miles distant, this should be adequate evidence (at least for the people who saw it) that such an event is actually occurring. Such an event couldn’t be a magician’s trick, and, as Paul Dietl says, if this is a hallucination then everything is,[6] Further, we could have other types of evidence for this event, such as the broadcast of its occurrence over television (b), the testimony of those who are directly observing it (c), and the hole left in the ground where the mountain range had been (d).

Unfortunately, though, the only apparent miracles that could be confirmed in ways (a) and/or (b) are those that are presently taking place or have just recently occurred. If the apparent miracle took place too long ago for any living person to have observed it and for any instrument to have recorded it, its occurrence could only be confirmed through testimony and/or physical traces. This means that the evidence in favor of an apparent miracle that took place in the distant past can never be as strong as that in favor of one, like the above example, that has all four kinds of evidence in support of it. Nevertheless, it will be argued that sufficient evidence for the occurrence of an apparent miracle can be provided by testimony or physical traces alone, or both in conjunction.

The claim that an apparent miracle could be confirmed by testimony alone is a controversial one. It has been argued, most notably by Hume, that evidence based on testimony is intrinsically less credible than evidence based on observation (from this point on “observation” will be taken to include both direct observation and observation through the readings of instruments). If this argument is sound, any conflict between evidence provided by observation and evidence gained from testimony must always be settled in favor of the former. This would mean that, since every miracle-claim entails a conflict of evidence, miracle-claims based entirely on testimony could never be credible. This is because the evidence in favor of a miracle will be supported solely by testimony while the evidence against it will derive from a nomological proposition supported by observation.

A strong case for regarding testimonial evidence to be intrinsically weaker than evidence based on observation has been made by Antony Flew.[7] As Flew phrases it, the conflict involved in a miracle-claim based solely on testimony is the conflict between “historical” and “scientific” evidence: “For on the one side we have what purports to be an historical proof; while on the other the nomological is supposed to have been established by methods which might in a very broad sense be classed as scientific.”[8] Although Flew admits that historical evidence might lead us to re-check the truth of a nomological, it always will be rational to reject the historical evidence in favor of the scientific if we continue to hold the nomological to be true:

The justification for giving the “scientific” this ultimate precedence here over the “historical” lies in the nature of the propositions concerned and in the evidence which can be deployed to sustain them . . .The candidate historical proposition will be particular, singular, and often in the past tense. But just by reason of its very pastness and particularity it is no longer possible for anyone to examine the subject directly for himself. All that there is left to examine is the present detritus of the past, which includes the physical records of testimony. This detritus can be interpreted as evidence only in the light of our present knowledge, or presumed knowledge, of men and things; a category which embraces, although it is certainly not exhausted by, our stock of general nomologicals.[9]

Scientific evidence is expressed in propositions of a very different sort than those that express historical evidence: “The ‘law of nature’ will, unlike the candidate historical proposition, be a general nomological. It can thus in theory — though obviously not always in practice — be tested at any time by any person.”[10]

Richard Swinburne interprets Flew as arguing that the intrinsic superiority of scientific to historical evidence lies in the fact that the truth of scientific evidence can, in principle, be confirmed at any time whereas historical evidence, because of its pastness and particularly, cannot.[11] Swinburne argues that:

If this is Flew’s contrast, it is mistaken. Particular experiments on particular occasions only give a certain and far from conclusive support to claims that a purported scientific law is true. Any person can test for the truth of a purported scientific law, but a positive result to one test will give only limited support to the claim. Exactly the same holds for purported historical truths. Anyone can examine the evidence, but a particular piece of evidence gives only limited support to the claim that the historical proposition is true. . . But in the historical as in the scientific case, there is no limit to the testing which we can do. We can go on testing for the truth of historical as of scientific propositions.[12]

Swinburne admits that after a time the number of pieces of historical evidence available to an inquirer probably will not increase, but “more and more evidence can be obtained about the reliability of the evidence we have.”[13] For instance, “one could show . . . the testimony given by witnesses of such-and-such a character in such-and-such circumstances was always correct. This indirect evidence could mount up in just the way in which the evidence for the physical impossibility of an event could mount up.”[14] Further, the reliability of testimony and the truth of nomological propositions are both confirmed in the same way: “. . . formulae about how events succeed each other are shown to be laws of nature by the fact that they provide the most simple and coherent account of a large number of observed data. Likewise testimony given by certain kinds of people . . . are established as reliable by well-established correlations between present and past phenomena.”[15] In other words, just as natural laws are established by the observation of consistent correlations between events, so is it possible (in principle) to observe consistent correlations between certain kinds of testimony and the actual occurrence of the events testified to. Since, therefore, nomological propositions and the reliability of testimony are confirmed in such similar ways, neither should automatically take precedence over the other.[16]

Swinburne’s arguments appear to be sound and they imply that it is in principle possible to confirm the occurrence of an apparent miracle through testimony alone. Everything that Swinburne has said about testimony can, mutatis mutandis, also be applied to physical traces. It should in principle be possible to establish a correlation between physical traces of a certain sort and the occurrence of apparent miracles. For instance, a certain holy man might frequently perform apparent miracles and after each one produce a plaque of platinum-irridium alloy bearing an inscription that describes the event he has just performed. Coming across such a plaque would then be good evidence that an apparent miracle had occurred. Therefore, an apparent miracle could in principle be confirmed on the basis of physical trace evidence alone. Naturally, a combination of reliable testimony and reliable physical trace evidence could provide stronger evidence for an event than either testimony or physical traces alone would.

In conclusion, we have seen that there are a number of ways that the occurrence of an apparent miracle can be confirmed. That is, no matter how strong our evidence for the truth of a nomological is, we could conceivably have sufficient evidence that an event has taken place contrary to it. Hence, the conflict of evidence that is inherent in every miracle-claim can conceivably be overcome in favor of the actual occurrence of the claimed event. This still leaves the Christian apologist very far short of proving that any event is a miracle, however. In fact, nothing more has been shown than the possibility, which even Hume conceded, that we might have evidence that events have occurred contrary to an accepted nomological.[17] The tremendous practical problems that are often involved in gaining such evidence will be the first topic of the next chapter.


[1] See Chapter 1, pp. 6-7.

[2] See Chapter 1, pp. 11-13.

[3] Quoted in R. M. Burns, The Great Debate on Miracles, (East Brunswick: Associated University Presses, Inc.,1981), p. 124.

[4] This list is a modification of the one found in R. G Swinburne, The Concept of Miracle, p. 33.

[5] It should be noted that interest in the so-called “Shroud of Turin,’ might greatly increase the importance of physical trace evidence in confirming the occurrence of the resurrection of Jesus.

[6] Paul Dietl, “On Miracles,” The American Philosophical Quarterly, 5, No. 2 (April, 1968) 132.

[7] Antony Flew, Hume’s Philosophy of Belief, (New York: The Humanities Press, 1961) pp 206-209.

[8] Ibid., p. 207.

[9] Ibid., pp. 207-208.

[10] Ibid., p. 208.

[11] R. G. Swinburne, The Concept of Miracle, p. 42.

[12] Ibid., p. 42.

[13] Ibid., p. 42.

[14] Ibid., pp. 42-43.

[15] Ibid., p. 43.

[16] Ibid., P. 43.

[17] See Chapter X of Hume’s first Enquiry where it is conceded that it could possibly be confirmed that there was a period of total darkness over the whole earth for a period of eight days in the year 1600.

“The Conception of the Miraculous and Christian Apologetics” is copyright © 1982, 1997 by Keith Parsons. All rights reserved.

The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Keith Parsons. All Rights reserved.

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