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Are miracles possible? Part 2

The biggest challenge to the historical case for Jesus’ resurrection is not historical in nature, but philosophical. This is the preduce against miracles in historical investingation and higher biblical criticsm. In this series of posts we shall see that the traditional arguments against miracles are not successful and assess the methodological naturalism that has undergirded historiography of the twentieth century.

David Hume

Hume’s arguments are against the identification of miracles. His lengthy assault in his essay “Of Miracles” takes the form of an “Even if… but in fact…” argument which can be delineated as two separate arguments.

The first is the “In Principle” argument which purports to show that, because a wise man should always proportion his beliefs according to the evidence, he should never believe the report of a miracle—even if the report is a full proof—since the evidence for the unalterable laws of nature will always counter-balance the evidence for said miracle.

The second “In Fact” argument, goes on to argue that the reports of miracles never do amount to a full proof or even a meagre probability: the experience of the regularity of nature will always out-weigh; (1) the testimony of a sufficient number of honest men of good sense and education who would have a great deal to lose by lying, (2) the fact that people are easily taken in by miraculous reports by a sense of surprise or wonder, (3) the fact that miracles only occur where ignorance or barbarism abounds, (4) miraculous stories in other religious settings support mutually contradictory claims.

In response, numerous problems arise from the Humean definition of “miracle” as a violation of the laws of nature. Hume claims that miracles are by their very nature downright improbable. His second claim is that the evidence will always outweigh the intrinsic probability of a miracle. This idea is commonly expressed today in the slogan “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Probability theorists quickly realized that if the Humean principle were true, we should never believe natural events which are themselves extraordinarily improbable. Further, if taken seriously it would be an impediment to science, for we should never believe that which contradicted our well-established evidence of regularity. In asking why we should believe intrinsically improbable events, such as the lottery result on the news report, they came to understand that one has to consider not only the evidence on the background information, but also the probability we would have the evidence we do have had said event not occurred. Thus, if E is the specific evidence, B the background information, and R a specific miraculous event such as Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, we can express the probability of a miracle with respect to the evidence and background information using Bayesian formulae.

Thus, if the numerator Pr(M | E&B) was low, it could yield a high percentage if the denominator Pr(¬R | E&B) is comparatively high.

The probability calculus was not developed in Hume’s day, so he has an excuse in failing to appreciate it unlike Car Sagan. Hume however did have available to him the following two refutations.

First, the multiple witnesses augment the probability of their testimony. This is such that by adding witnesses the probability of their testimony could very quickly outweigh the intrinsic improbability of a miracle. This is true even if such men were scoundrels and < 0.5 reliable.

Second, Hume’s assumption that miracles are inherently improbable is unjustified. For if God existed and wished to vindicate the claims of his Son, it could be that he wished a very special and infrequent

event like the resurrection to accomplish it, making the resurrection hypothesis more probable. Hume mistakenly equates infrequency with improbability.

The arguments of Spinoza, Hume and the Deists of the seventeenth and eighteenth century held sway despite orthodox Christian opposition to them. Thus, according to Schweitzer,

The exclusion of miracle from our view of history has been universally recognized as a principle of criticism, so that miracle no longer concerns the historian either positively or negatively.

Though there is widespread recognition of Hume’s “abject failure” from most philosophers today, his legacy continues. McGrew notes;

Humean considerations are expressly . . . endorsed, explicitly or implicitly, in many contemporary studies of the historical Jesus and the New Testament. Commitment to something like Hume’s position lies on one side of a deep conceptual fault line that runs through the discipline of biblical studies.

With the case against miracles and their identification thoroughly undermined, it is pertinent to ask whether the methodological naturalism (MN) that has underpinned so much of historical Jesus studies is necessary. I do this in part three of this series on miracles.

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