Saturday 20 August 2011

Incredible miracles require credible evidence

In my previous post in this series I answered the question, "Who do YOU say Jesus was?" with the following:
It seems likely that Jesus was an itinerant preacher who developed a considerable local following, to the extent that he annoyed the established religion of the time, which got rid of him in an effort to preserve the status quo.
It's clear that I don't think Jesus was a supernatural being. But could a non-supernatural being perform supernatural actions?

Chapter 28 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God is "The Credibility of Jesus's Miracles" by Craig L. Blomberg, in which he puts forward the idea that the historical record of Jesus performing miracles is a true account. Unfortunately for his thesis he employs too many assumptions in order to come to this conclusion. For example, here's part of his attempt to establish the existence of God (a necessary precursor to the divinity — and therefore miracle-workings — of Jesus):
One of the most exciting and encouraging developments in recent years in this respect is the intelligent design movement. Pointing to numerous examples of fundamental entities in the natural and biological worlds that display irreducible complexity, even some scientists who are not Christians at all have acknowledged that there must be an intelligent being behind this creation. The entire "big-bang" theory for the beginnings of the universe leads to the question of what or who produced that "bang." (p 147.)
Blomberg's implication here is not just that there must have been a cause for these things, but that the cause was necessarily divine.
For others, philosophical arguments like those of the famous seventeenth-century Scotsman, David Hume, turn out to be more persuasive. While not alleging that miracles are impossible, the claim now is that the probability of a natural explanation will always be greater than that of a supernatural one. Phenomena could mislead, witnesses could be mistaken and, besides, explanations of events must have analogies to what has happened in the past. But it is not at all clear that any of these arguments mean that the evidence could never be unambiguous and the witnesses unassailable. And if every event must have a known analogy, then people in the tropics before modern technology could never have accepted that ice exists! (p 147-8.)
I think he's misappropriating Hume here. Hume stated that reports of miracles could only be accepted as true if the alternative explanation — that the reports are false — would have to be more miraculous than the miracles themselves. That rules out most of Jesus's miracles right at the start. And arguments by analogy carry little weight. Analogies are useful in explaining the general nature of things, but eventually all analogies break down because they are only "like" the things they are analogous to, not identical to them.

Blomberg goes on to challenge the idea that there were lots of reports of miracles in myth and legend that are similar to those allegedly performed by Jesus:
It is curious how often laypeople and even some scholars repeat the charge that the Gospel miracles sound just like the legends of other ancient religions without having carefully studied the competing accounts. For example, it is often alleged that there were virgin births and resurrection stories all over the ancient religious landscape. But, in fact, most of the alleged parallels to special births involve ordinary human sexual relations coupled simply with the belief that one of the persons was actually a god or goddess incognito. Or, as with the conception of Alexander the Great, in one legend almost a millennium later than his lifetime, a giant Python intertwined around Alexander's mother on her honeymoon night, keeping his father at a discrete distance and impregnating the young woman. (p 148.)
He seems to be claiming that the Gospel miracles were of a quite different order from the examples he gives, but I don't see it. Whether a person was actually a god or not has little effect on the credibility of the story when that story is already incredible. Consciously or not, Blomberg is using special pleading to impart undeserved credibility to his preferred account. He does the same with the resurrection story, but here we begin to see a pattern emerging.

If the miracles of Jesus are similar to other miraculous events reported in ancient texts, then that similarity lends the reports credence, because those reporting them knew what they witnessed and wrote about. If the miracles of Jesus were wholly different from those other miracles, they are thereby rescued from the skepticism duly applied to those other, more mundane miracles. Blomberg wants it both ways.

But if that doesn't work, he tells us that most of those other miraculous accounts were based on the miracles of Jesus anyway, in a frenzy of "me too!" copycat miracle-working. I can't help seeing some desperation here. He wants it to be true, but the "evidence" is really thin, and frankly unconvincing.

One might fairly question my own disposition regarding these accounts. I don't think they're true, and I have a bias in my interpretation of them. But we're talking about miracles — extraordinary events that require extraordinary evidence. That evidence is not forthcoming, and until it is, I'll go with the account that fits with my experience of the natural world around me — the world for which there is evidence.