Saturday, April 24, 2010

Pure philosophy of religion--Miracles and Natural theology

There is an idea going around in various circles (some of them not natural allies of one another) that can be expressed in very general terms like this:

One must argue first, cogently, for the existence of the God of traditional theism (hereafter TT--omnipotent, omnibenevolent, eternal, unique) before one can argue that a particular miracle has happened.

A corollary to this is:

A miracle cannot be an argument for TT, which must have been already established, but rather is evidence only for more particular versions of TT--e.g., for Christianity as an extension of Judaism.

I have been fascinated for quite some time with this position, ever since a spin-off of it emerged in Alvin Plantinga's confused discussion of the so-called Principle of Dwindling Probabilities. In the most recent exchange between Esteemed Husband and I, on the one hand, and Plantinga, on the other (in Philosophia Christi), Plantinga was still treating the prior probability of theism (before taking into account the specific evidence for a miracle) as if it were the posterior probability (after taking into account that evidence), and then using the Theorem on Total Probability to argue that an agnostic can never come to believe that, say, the resurrection of Jesus has occurred. The idea from Plantinga was that the agnostic's probability (notice the ambiguity on whether it is the prior or posterior) of approximately .5 for TT will constitute an upper bound on the probability of the more specific proposition that God raised Jesus from the dead, the probability of which must be lower than the .5 probability of TT. But of course the agnostic's prior probability for TT doesn't constitute an upper bound on the posterior probability either of the resurrection or of TT, both of which could, in principle, be as close to 1.0 as you like on the basis of evidence not already conditioned on by the agnostic. And if the agnostic refuses to take into account strong evidence for a miracle that he hasn't previously taken into account, treating his .5 probability as immovable even on the basis of new evidence, then he is simply being irrationally stubborn, and this has nothing to do with probability theory but only with the potential irrationality of agnostics.

Plantinga's argument for the position that a miracle cannot be an argument for theism is a particularly sophisticated one, although it embodies a plain mistake in probability. We cite several vaguer versions in the section called "Hume's Maxim and Worldview Worries" in our article on the resurrection. The assumption behind those versions appears to be that there is such a thing as a prior probability for theism "too low" to be overcome by historical evidence, so that one must cross some prior probabilistic "threshold" before giving an argument for miracles. Sometimes this is expressed by saying that one cannot argue to God from miracles but can only argue from God to miracles.

A particularly surprising statement of the position that context is everything even comes from a philosopher known for his Bayesian analysis of theistic questions, J. L. Mackie.

[W]e should distinguish two different contexts in which an alleged miracle might be discussed. One possible context would be where the parties in debate already both accept some general theistic doctrines, and the point at issue is whether a miracle has occurred which would enhance the authority of a specific sect or teacher. In this context supernatural intervention, though prima facie unlikely on any particular occasion, is, generally speaking, on the cards:...But it is a very different matter if the context is that of fundamental debate about the truth of theism itself. Here one party to the debate is initially at least agnostic, and does not yet concede that there is a supernatural power at all. From this point of view the intrinsic improbability of a genuine miracle . . . is very great, and one or other of the alternative explanations...will always be much more likely – that is, either that the alleged event is not miraculous, or that it did not occur, that the testimony is faulty in some way.This entails that it is pretty well impossible that reported miracles should provide a worthwhile argument for theism addressed to those who are initially inclined to atheism or even to agnosticism. . . . Not only are such reports unable to carry any rational conviction on their own, but also they are unable even to contribute independently to the kind of accumulation or battery of arguments referred to in the Introduction.To this extent Hume is right, despite the inaccuracies we have found in his statement of the case(Miracle of Theism, p. 27, emphasis added).

This position, however, is simply incorrect if taken to be (as it is intended to be) an in-principle argument. While it is of course true in specific cases that a particular prior probability is too low to be overcome by a particular set of evidence, there is no such thing as a "slippery" prior. In principle, any finite low prior probability can be overcome by sufficiently strong non-deductive evidence. One might argue that in fact all of the evidence we have for some particular miracle, such as Jesus' resurrection, is too weak to overcome the prior probability of theism without natural theology arguments, but this claim (which I think is probably false) would not be an in-principle argument in any event.

Another approach to all of this is that of my esteemed blog colleague Ed Feser, when he implies in this excellent post that, since natural theology arguments are so strong, they naturally precede arguments for specific miracles. After all, if you can metaphysically prove TT, why would you start out first with a merely probabilistic argument for a miracle? And once you have given such a metaphysical proof, why would you bother saying that the argument for a miracle was an argument for the existence of God, which had already been proved?

Ed reiterates this position briefly in a comment apropos of the investigation of Catholic miracles:

Re: Lourdes, yes, but that's because God's existence is already assumed on independent grounds. It's not an argument for God's existence. The claim isn't "This sure looks like a miracle; so, probably God exists." It's rather "We already know God exists; and given that plus the specific evidence at hand, this looks like it is probably a case where He has caused a miracle." In general, A-T writers tend to approach the question of miracles only after establishing God's existence (e.g. as part of an apologetic for Christianity specifically) rather than using miracles as themselves an argument for God's existence.

One way of looking at this position, which Ed does not spell out, is a sort of diminishing returns view. If you have an absolute proof for TT, then what is there for probabilistic arguments to add to TT? It has a probability of 1.0. Or even if we allow (as I think we should) for some slippage if you aren't absolutely certain that you got all the steps of your metaphysical proof right, the probability for you will still be fairly close to 1 given high confidence in what purports to be an absolute proof, so there will be diminishing returns from additional arguments from miracles for TT. It would be like a billionaire digging for changing in his couch. Hence, the arguments from miracles should be seen as arguments for something else, something with a lower prior probability "going into" the evaluation of their evidence--e.g., the probability that God is a Trinity, that Jesus was God, etc.

(I had hoped to deal with these issues in the article I'm currently working on on history and theism for a Routledge volume on theism, but space constraints made that impossible, so I'm taking the lazy way and doing it in a blog post. The nice thing about a blog post is that you can put digressive comments like this in parentheses right in the middle when you can't find anywhere else to put them, while not being too bothered by your writers' conscience for doing so. But I digress...)

One immediate answer to the "change in the couch" objection is that it is simply true, as a matter of logic, that an argument that supports the occurrence of a miracle is an argument that supports the existence of the one who did the miracle. This is evident from the fact that "God performed a miracle" entails "God exists," so evidence that makes it probable that God performed a miracle makes it probable that God exists. Perhaps this won't seem interesting, but I think it's rather interesting. In other words, you can't say, "This shouldn't be seen as an argument that God exists" when it is a logically necessary fact that it must be an argument for the proposition that God exists. It's rather like saying that an argument for "Lydia went to the store" shouldn't be seen as an argument for "Lydia exists." It just is an argument for "Lydia exists" whether it "should" be or not, since the proposition that Lydia did something entails the simpler proposition that Lydia exists. (The question of whether I can have my own personal probability for "Lydia exists" raised by that argument, given that, as a good Cartesian, I really do have a probability of 1.0 for "I exist" is complicated and gets into issues like opacity and what I would mean by "Lydia" in such a proposition and so forth.)

Second, I'm afraid that there are some people who are unable to see the force of the metaphysical proofs of TT. Here I include myself, particularly when it comes to Divine goodness. I've really tried, but the interconvertibility of the transcendentals just is over my head. That's not to say that I don't think any natural theology arguments are any good. The ones that seem to me most cogent thus far are something like a Kalam cosmological argument and the argument from mind. But those don't get you to a full TT, whereas the existence of the God preached by Jesus does.

Now, this may well be a limitation on my part. But if I can't see the full force of the a priori arguments for TT, there are no doubt a lot of other people who can't, either. And the prior probability for TT for some person like me, before taking miracles (including evidence of fulfilled prophecy) into account, will therefore be a good deal lower than it is for the convinced Thomist.

Here we enter muddy waters, epistemologically. For if the Thomistic arguments really do work, but I just can't see it, then my probability distribution in that case is, to that extent, incorrect and incoherent. No doubt all of us have areas of incoherence in our probability distributions, especially when it comes to deductive logic and our own failure of logical omniscience. I am strongly inclined to think that such problems in distributions do not necessarily metastasize throughout the whole distribution. That is to say, one could still see correctly the impact of some further piece of evidence even if one were putting it together with a logically incorrect prior. But the fact remains that for people in my situation, or even people who know even less natural theology than I do, the historical evidence for miracles is certainly not going to be a "change in the couch" matter.


Gina M. Danaher said...

I wish I could offer a comment worthy of the level of your observation/argument, but hard as I try all of this is beyond my comprehension. I am working my way through Feser's book The Last Superstition, but it's an effort for me.
When I read these debates on natural theology, I do find myself wondering where God actually fits in, ie. the Holy Spirit and the conviction of the heart that opens the door to belief. Ps. 14:1 says "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'" It seems to me that all of the talk about probability is secondary to the consideration of the Spirit of God and the condition of the soil of the heart. It seems to me that Ps. 14:1 is saying that God IS evident, miracles or not, but the fool is determined to ignore what he sees as evident - in nature and even the supernatural.

So, in all that you wrote, this paragraph made the most sense to me:

"Second, I'm afraid that there are some people who are unable to see the force of the metaphysical proofs of TT. Here I include myself, particularly when it comes to Divine goodness. I've really tried, but the interconvertibility of the transcendentals just is over my head. That's not to say that I don't think any natural theology arguments are any good. The ones that seem to me most cogent thus far are something like a Kalam cosmological argument and the argument from mind. But those don't get you to a full TT, whereas the existence of the God preached by Jesus does."

Just my thoughts.

Unknown said...
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j. christian said...

In principle, any finite low prior probability can be overcome by sufficiently strong non-deductive evidence.

It seems Mackie is right, so I'm not sure what you mean by this. Are you saying that someone with a very low prior about theism can, in principle, come to believe if he has something like a road to Damascus moment?

As a Catholic, I believe that the real presence in the Eucharist is a miracle that happens daily. If Jesus left that as a sign to us, and we still don't believe it, what would it take? Rays of searing light and oozing blood coming from the host???

Maybe one way to approach this question is to apply it to something else that doesn't have the metaphysical proofs: the existence of ghosts, for example. I can't provide a proof for their existence (they're not the ground of all being or some such thing), so what evidence would overcome my low priors? It's hard to imagine anything short of a personal experience that we "know" to be real that would be convincing...?

Lydia McGrew said...

"Are you saying that someone with a very low prior about theism can, in principle, come to believe if he has something like a road to Damascus moment?"

That would certainly be an _example_ of strong non-deductive evidence (a Damascus road experience). But it isn't _in principle_ the only sort of evidence there could be. What I mean by the statement you quoted is that it is provable by probability theory that there is no finite prior probability so low that there could not (in principle) be non-deductive evidence sufficiently strong to overcome it.

If Mackie were just making a sociological statement about what people _will_ do or think, then he would just be saying, "Agnostics will dogmatically and arbitrarily dismiss any evidence for a miracle, however strong." But it's obvious that that isn't what he was saying. He was saying that it is somehow a matter of the structure of reason that evidence for a miracle cannot--and, implicitly, should not--convince an agnostic. After all, Mackie was an atheist himself, so he's not simply attributing irrationality and dogmatism to agnostics. He's trying to say that somehow their refusal to accept any evidence for a miracle is justified automatically by the fact that they are agnostics. But this is just incorrect. It's funny that someone who knew as much as Mackie did about these matters should make such a slip. It's a puzzling passage for that reason.

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Bobcat said...

There's a few points that I don't think your post highlighted, though I think you're well aware of them.

First, there are two kinds of miracle-arguments, I think; there are "you should believe that a miracle happened because of testimony" and there are "you should believe that a miracle happened because you saw it". Call the first kind of miracle a second-hand miracle and the second kind of miracle a first-hand miracle (I was also thinking of calling them "testimony miracles" and "witness miracles" but I think the way I put it is easier to remember).

Second, you can use miracle-arguments to try to convert atheists or agnostics into theists, and theists into theists of particular stripes (Christian, Muslim, etc.) or categories (a theist who believes that God performs miracles and doesn't just cause religious experiences).

Most atheists I know claim that they are entirely unmoved by second-hand miracles, and claim they would be unmoved by first-hand miracles. These are people who are like the atheist versions of Feser; they think the problem of evil works, and/or they think that there are incompatibilities among or within the divine attributes, and/or they think that explanations must be scientific ones. In addition, such hard-bitten atheists often are skeptical of miracles because they think, as Mackie does, that there will always be a better explanation.

Now, I have a hunch about such hard-bitten atheists. My hunch is this: the right kind of second- or first-hand miracle would dramatically weaken their atheism. Imagine Georges Rey is good friends with Daniel Dennett, and Dennett confides to Rey that he experienced what he took to be a miracle. In such a case, I think Rey would be genuinely thrown for a loop, because he regards Dennett as utterly trustworthy on such matters. I make this prediction about Rey because of an experience of mine; I was pretty skeptical of miracles--I still am--until one of my friends, an extremely hard-bitten naturalist who was significantly better at philosophy than I, confided to me that he was now a supernaturalist, on the basis of a religious experience--this religious experience was one where his father made a very specific prediction about a plane flight that came true in all its particulars (the dad is also a philosopher, also was a hard-bitten naturalist, and apparently received this information from an entity from Buddhist mythology). When my friend told me about this, I have to say, I didn't doubt it for a minute. It just seemed highly unlikely that this friend, who was so skeptical of miracle stories, and who was so up on the philosophical literature, would let himself be taken in.


Bobcat said...

As for first-hand miracles, I think the reason people like Mackie write what they do is that they have a pretty limited conception of what a miracle could be. I think it offends their sensibilities, as well as the sensibilities of a lot of educated people (including my own), that a miracle could consist of, say: a man's leg grows back incredibly quickly; a woman levitates; a man rises from the dead. I think they think of miracles as things more along the lines of "I prayed for $1000 and I got $1000 the next day!" or "the doctor said I had six months to live, but I prayed, and I've been living cancer-free for five years!" These are stories that are fairly easy for a naturalist to explain in other ways. The first kind of story--about the legs growing back--are significantly harder, and the naturlist has to resort to dicey mass-hallucination explanations.

So where am I going with all this? Here's where I'm going: it's easy (well, easy enough) to list a bunch of epistemic principles that say how you ought to respond in certain situations. But when you're actually in those situations, I would wager that you won't respond in the way you earlier thought you were supposed to respond. And so what does that mean? Does that mean that we should think most people are primed to respond irrationally to seemingly miraculous occurrences? Or does it mean that people are too blithe in coming up with their epistemic principles?

I think the latter is the case, and I base this on my studies in ethics. There are two kinds of approaches in ethics: those who start with general principles like the principle of utility and then try to explain how we should react to particular situations on the basis of those principles (call such people, following Rod Chisholm, methodists) and those who think our reaction to particular situations should inform our principles (call such people, again following Chisholm, particularists). I would wager that, thanks to Rawls, most ethicists are particularists. And this because there are usually pretty clear flaws in the deductions of the principles forwarded by methodists, and also because life is complicated. When you can't fit your response to a messy, real-life situation into a principle, you are more than likely to say, "to hell with that principle". I think that's philosophically informative, myself. Perhaps others would say that it just demonstrates the lack of integrity of most philosophers.

Matt Beck said...

The great overlooked problem here is that we're working with an inaccurate definition of "miracle." The essence of a real miracle is that it obtains in a revelatory constellation, to use a bit of Tillichian language. This is what distinguishes miracles from black swan events (obviating the probability arguments) and from hitherto undescribed natural phenomena (obviating the epistemological arguments). Miracles are proof positive of God's existence not because some otherwise inexplicable event has taken place, but because the very apperception of a miracle carries with it the clear and distinct impression that God Himself is present and acting purposefully in the world.

Bobcat said...

Matt Beck,

Could you be a little bit more descriptive of what you mean by "revelatory constellation"? I take it you mean something like this:

(1) Miracles are events that are such that, if you experience them, you know them to be caused by God.
(2) Therefore, miracles prove the existence of God.

Is that what you mean? If so, could you describe for me an event that fits (1)? I personally can't think of any such event.

Lydia McGrew said...

Really quickly, Bobcat: You probably know this, but on I think it's the very next page in Miracle of Theism Mackie says exactly what you mention--that he also wouldn't believe a miracle if he saw it and would treat his senses as "deceivers" or as "being deceived" by analogy with a witness. He casually refers to being taken in by a magician's sleight of hand. As you imply, he gives no specific examples, such as explaining how David Copperfield explains the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, for example. It's a very shallow discussion, IMO.

More later about the "methodist/particularist" discussion.

Matt Beck, you say,

"Miracles are proof positive of God's existence not because some otherwise inexplicable event has taken place, but because the very apperception of a miracle carries with it the clear and distinct impression that God Himself is present and acting purposefully in the world."

I'm not at all sure that this is true, and I don't think the religious context means that this is true. Of course religious context is important for _evidential_ reasons. A particular religious context, to put it informally, helps you to know why God might want to do this (e.g., to validate this person's ministry, or whatever). It makes the miracle non-pointless. But it doesn't follow that one has some special experience of miracle-ness when a real miracle takes place. There was a reason why Jesus ate fish and such with his disciples, because they thought he might be a ghost. So they weren't instantaneously convinced by simply experiencing a miracle. They had to figure it out.

Matt Beck said...


In the nature of the case, it is difficult to describe an example in terms likely to convince a skeptic, but I'll try to be a little more clear.

First of all, we must recognize that miracles are, by definition, "signs" of God's activity. I'm not trying to set up a circular argument here; I'm just defining the term. A sign is something that points to a reality not identical with itself. Therefore if miracles are signs, then miracles point to something beyond themselves, namely God. This is important. Were it not for this theonomous component in the miracle experience, there would be no way to distinguish miracles from natural events, and it would be impossible to see how the idea of miracles even entered human consciousness. A great deal of confusion ensues from the commonplace definition of miracles as "extraordiary physical occurences disclosing the interference of a divine being in the physical order." It is doubtful such a statemnet would make sense to anybody besides a modern Westerner. We must remember that we live in an unusual time wherein materialism and rationalism reign ascendant. The vast majority of men, in most times and places, had no such thing as a systematic theory of nature-knowledge. If they saw a wonderous event, they would simply take it to be a part of nature they had not hitherto acquainted, or they would suppose that some magic was afoot, or that some god was making his presence felt without necessarily revealing anything about himself. The men of the ancient world who coined the term "miracle" were certainly not modern day empiricists. They had no background of physics against which to compare events in terms of their "divine" origins, and they believed that many powers were at work in the world both for good and ill. A mere wonder would not have induced them to worship, and that is not what they were talking about. It is therefore very problematic to define miracles in terms of events.

We take a step in the right direction when we realize that 'miracle' is always synonymous with 'revelation' and 'ecstasy.' A miracle is deemed to be such precisely because God reveals Himself through it; and this is known to be the case precisely because the observer is caught up in the ecstasy of the experience. Now by 'ecstasy' I do not mean emotional enthusiams or temporary explosions of passion. Rather, I mean the clear and distinct impression that God, who is the source of all goodness and wisdom and power, is working in and through the events. I cannot go any further in my description without making an appeal to some sort of foundationalism, but I do not hold this to be a weakness. It is simply the best that words and concepts can do.

Examples of miracles in this vein might be:

1) The experience of the person of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.
2) The perception that one's prayer has been heard and/or answered, especially as this discloses itself to us through providential helps.
3) Spontaneous insight and knowledge, especially as it relates to the liturgy or the Holy Scriptures.
4) An incresing love for Holy Mother Church, and a growing spirit of charity towards one's neighbors.

I hope this helps a little bit. There is still much that needs to be explained, but I think we've set the groundwork for a productive exchange.

Matt Beck said...

In response to my first comment, Lydia says:

"I'm not at all sure that this is true..."

How could it possibly be false? If miracles aren't signs of God's activity, then what the heck are they?

Regarding your comments about religious context and about Jesus eating fish, I must confess that I don't understand the relevence.

Lydia McGrew said...

Matt Beck,

Yep, miracles are signs. In fact, that very fact means exactly the opposite of what you think it means. It means that miracles must not just be occasions where God happens to move us in an a-rational way to conclude that he has acted, that he exists, etc. For if they were that, then God could just as easily do it on some other occasion--when watching a sunset, for example.

My comment about Jesus eating fish was meant to counterexample your claim that one knows by some sort of direct intuition that a miracle is caused by God. The disciples evidently didn't have such a direct, ineffable apprehension. They needed more evidential convincing that Jesus wasn't just a ghost (which in their taxonomy would not have been a miracle).

Here your examples of "miracles" are particularly revealing. Those are not examples of biblical miracles. Examples of biblical miracles are

1) God's sending plagues upon Egypt (but not upon Goshen),

2) God's parting the Red Sea,

3) God's sending down fire on Elijah's altar,

4) Jesus' making bread and fish apparently ex nihilo,

5) Jesus' making a man see who had been blind from birth,

6) Jesus' rising from the dead.

See a pattern? These are not "apprehensions" by some person, where what _actually happens in the world_ is entirely ambiguous. On the contrary, they are physical events. If you think that such a physical event view of miracles is Western, argue it with that modern, Western man, Nicodemus: "Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God, for no man could do these miracles that thou doest except God be with him."

Lydia McGrew said...

Bobcat, your application of the particularist/methodist thing here is very interesting.

I am always inclined to say that what I might call _macho_ particularism is right in ethics but wrong in epistemology. Macho particularism (just my term) is the idea that the insight that this is wrong or right is the end of the argument, may well be unanalyzable and indefensible in other terms, and that's _okay_, that's how it's _supposed_ to be. In macho particularism, you may give someone else an analysis or argument, but that's just sort of another way of saying the same thing, or a way of helping that other person to "get it." It isn't actually necessary for _you_, because _you_ see that this is wrong or right by direct intuition.

I'm very open to that sort of view in ethics.

In epistemology, I've always considered myself a methodist. This is why, for example, I don't accept the fine-tuning argument, because it seems to me that there is a serious flaw in its probabilistic explication, and I cannot see how to repair that flaw. I'm not satisfied with the statement that other people can just see that the argument is cogent, when all their explanations as to why it's cogent have this big hole in them. (More than one hole, actually.) I think that their strong intuition that the argument works is not epistemically valueless by any means, but that it should motivate them to keep trying to come up with an explication that doesn't have these flaws. Their intuition isn't the end of the road. So one can be a sort of "moderate particularist" in epistemology in the sense of starting with examples--I'm very much inclined to do that all the time myself--and then using the formalism to model the examples in a satisfactory way. But if someone points out what appears to be a flaw with the argument, then you need to keep trying to answer that, not just say that you are just sure it's a good argument.

Now, I should add that I think the phrase "epistemic principles" gets thrown around promiscuously, and this is regrettable. Nothing that Mackie says is _anything like_ an "epistemic principle" in the very austere sense in which I would use that term. I think of an epistemic principle as something like a rigorous statement of the validity of induction, or modus ponens, or the next-level metalevel statement that modus ponens is truth-preserving, or Bayes's Theorem, or a conceptual analysis of "justification" that shows why externalism is wrong, etc.

Mackie's casual and completely unargued statement that miracle claims can't even form part of a cumulative argument for the resurrection if you're an agnostic is like a parody of an epistemic principle. It's totally arbitrary. I could just as easily make up an "epistemic principle" that says that every man with an IQ over 85 is justified in believing in the God of Christianity even if he was raised in a cave, but that men just refuse to acknowledge this, or some such nonsense.

So I think what you're rightly sensing when you talk about a legitimate kind of "particularism" in epistemology is the incorrectness of making up these _sweeping_ pronouncements about what would _always_ be justified or _never_ justified or whatever. Such things are just made up out of thin air and prejudice, often as not, and obviously they can be completely blown away by seeing how good actual evidence for an actual conclusion can get. If that's "particularism," then count me in, but it isn't "macho particularism."

Very interesting connection.

The Masked Chicken said...


The Chicken

Matt Beck said...

[Lydia lists examples of biblical miracles, viz. The Plagues of Egypt, etc.]

These aren't "miracles" in the sense that is important for this discussion. They are simply God's power--His word achieving the end for which He sent it. That is how they are (and were) received by the Church. It is a matter of record that Jesus had little praise for those who believed only on the strength of signs. "You believed because you have seen me; blessed are they who have not seen me and haved believed." I might add that referring to the Resurrection of Christ as one miracle among others is a particularly eggregious distortion of the concept. This highly improbably sign of all signs, a scandal for Jews and foolishness for Greeks, is far more likely to lead to ubelief than to belief in those whose eyes have not already been opened by faith. On the event-based taxonomy of miracles, J.L. Mackie's take is the correct one: "My senses have deceived me." There is no way anybody can, or should, be asked to make existential decisions based solely on the description of an improbably physical event. If this is how the case is presented, then Mackie's rejection of miracles is based not on a lack of faith but on a want of incredulity.

Yet had you understood the meaning of the scripture, "No one knows the Son except the Father. And no one knows the Father except the Son, and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him," you would see that the inner miracle of grace is required before any outward signs seem sufficiently miraculous as to warrant us giving them the assent of our will. The test of such signs is ultimately nothing other than their compatibility with doctrine. Extraordianry claims made about the nature of events matter not. Indeed, if faith had not come first, then we would not even be speaking of miracles but of legends.

Lydia McGrew said...

Matt, your fideistic take is all too common, I'm sorry to say, and has led to the lost faith of many, for that matter. I could out-proof-text you any day of the week, beginning with the very fact that Jesus _did_ appear to Thomas and offered him the sight of his wounds. Or there is Jesus' injunction to his disciples to believe him for the works' sake (John 14:11). The Scripture is absolutely _chock full_ of evidentialist texts of this sort, and evidentialism was the traditional Christian position until 19th century German "scholarship" convinced people that Christianity couldn't stand on the evidences, causing them to go off into mystery and muddle.

But I'm not sure how profitable it would be for me to list all of those texts for you. Anybody who can say that the parting of the Red Sea isn't a miracle "in the relevant sense" is pretty much impervious to Biblical evidence.

Matt Beck said...
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Matt Beck said...

Lydia says: "I could out-proof-text you any day of the week..."

No you couldn't, because your Protestantism does not allow you see the proper interpretation of the texts. However, we need not go that route just now. There is in fact a very simple point to be made here.

Of course the parting of the Red Sea was a miracle "in the relevant sense", if by that you mean it was a sign of God's acivity; but how do we know it was really a miracle, or that it even happened in the first place? I submit that the only way we know these things is to refer them back to the ecclesiological context.

In the first place, God commanded Moses to stretch out his staff over the waters, thereby assuring Moses that His power would operate through this action. Moses already trusted God and the Israelites had been guided by Him up to this point in the story, so it was not a matter of providing evidence but rather a means of escape. Had faith been absent, the action would have been ridiculous. In the second place, this sign was given so that it could be an allegorical prefigurement of baptism; had this not been the case, there is no way of explaining why God elected to save Israel in this way. (He could have simply told them to turn around and fight, and that He would give them a victory.)

Now if this story were told of any other people besides the Israelites, we'd call it not a miracle but a legend, and we would be well within our rights to doubt its veracity. We believe that it really happened, and that it happened the way the Scripture says it did, only because we believe that Israel is the nation God chose to reveal Himself to the world through, and that the Scriptures aren't lying to us about the event. And the only reason we believe that is because we have been gifted with the theological virtue of faith. The miracle story "by itself" would certainly not convince anybody of even its own truth, still less the even more audacious truth that it was all happening under the directorship of an invisible, omnipotent God. In short, we need faith to understand miracles; miracles cannot give us faith.

Lydia McGrew said...

I consider your view of faith, Matt, completely incorrect, and I, for one, certainly do not consider some sort of non-rational "faith" to be the only epistemic difference between the parting of the Red Sea (much less Jesus' resurrection) and a legend.

Step2 said...

If you don't at a minimum establish omnipotence then miracles can legitimately be attributed to different gods.

Leaving the door open to a pantheon is where Bobcat's concept of second-hand miracles becomes problematic, because wonders and miracles have been reported throughout history for nearly every religion. So either those were not miracles, which demands a disbelief in second-hand testimony, or they were miracles caused by different gods.

Lydia McGrew said...

I think religious context is relevant to the "different gods" question, Step2, as also is the type of miracle in question. (I myself would be inclined to question whether a "finite" god--if this is even a coherent concept--could raise the dead.) But in any event, the idea that Zeus (if he existed) would do a miracle that would be attributed directly to Yahweh, who demanded that people be stoned for worshiping pagan gods, seems radically improbable.

Again, the idea that miracle accounts are all much of a muchness and hence cross-cancel one another (a Humean trope) gets into Bobcat's legitimate type of "particularism." In point of fact, you can't actually know whether the testimony for some miracle or wonder is better than that for some other unless you know the specifics of the case. Just saying, "Oh, well, there have been a lot of reports" is simply facile. In some cases, other explanations really are at least as good as the miraculous one. In other cases they aren't. It all depends. Not all "reports" are created equal.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


Thanks again for this post.

For now, just two minor points on your comment on (macho) particularism and on methodism in epistemology and ethics.

First, I think methodism and particularism in epistemology concerns this question: in which cases do we have KNOWLEDGE?

In epistemology, there is traditionally also a position called natural (or "naive") realism -- which concerns rather this question: are certain, special (say, incorrigible) cognitive acts VERACIOUS?; and natural realism says that those kinds of cognitive grasping are just demon-proof; and the advice just seems to be this: do not argue for veracity of such grasps; one does one's best rather to show the radical skeptic what it is like to have such a grasp, even to induce it in him; and if that fails, rational discussion is at an end. I even believe this strategy was once suggested to me by Tim (in our e-mail conversation when I inquired about Plantinga's premise of his evolutionary argument against naturalism: that it is viciously circular to defend veracity of one's cognitive faculties when using these faculties).

The opponents of natural realists in epistemology are sometimes called "critical" realist: they try to come up with some relevantly non-circular argument for the veracity of the cognitive acts.

Now, if you think, like Tim, that natural realism is OK, is not the problem with the particularism in epistemology its abuse rather than its nature as such? In other words, is not the flaw rather that it seems that there is some factual or logical error (say, in the fine-tuning arguments) than that it is always wrong to use a strategy similar to that of the natural realist?

Secondly, of moral epistemology. Do we really just see what is right and wrong? Even if we do, should we, from the dialectical, communicative, or rhetorical point of view, use the particularist retort in debates pertaining to ethics? Recently, I read a solemn letter by a 19th century Christian apologetic evidentialist named R. E. H. Greyson who suggests that we should not: "...the ethical philosopher in relation to some young idiot...who protests he can see no distinction between “moral right and wrong,”—believes that conscience is a bundle of “conventionalities” and “artificial associations,” and the rest of the gibberish proper to that theory... it is of no use to insist on the...evidence which you have in your own consciousness, of which he denies the experience in himself;—though, by the bye, you may perhaps shrewdly suspect the young scamp lies;—nor can you insist on the “sublimity, and beauty, and grandeur” of Virtue and the “deformity” of Vice, since he denies their very must take the old way of logic and induction,— you must reason from facts: and assuredly you will then soon find them complaining of this “dry, logical” treatment of the subject; they at the same time, by every art of sophistry, making it ten times as “thorny” as it need be!"

OK, fair enough, Mr Greyson. But how to do it? That you did not tell us. How to argue (non-circularly) for the ultimates of ethics (by mere logic and induction)? I am aware of no promising attempt at this. Are you, Lydia? But I am a comptete layman in moral epistemology. I think there is an answer, just haven't figured out, nor even searched, how it looks like.

More on the other, and foremost, issues of your post maybe later -- especially if I will come up with something positive and constructive, for, so far, I seem to myself to just agree with everything.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


I think your position has some problems even from the Roman Catholic point of view. Cf. my comments at and below.

The Masked Chicken said...

God does not have to do miracles. They are entirely a grace. As such, miracles, it would seem to me, can only point to God, but can never be used to prove his existence, because if the real God is not obligated to perform miracles, then one can never be certain, a priori, that it is he who is performing them.

Even if one accepts God's existence as in Ed's comments, one can still only argue that it was God who performed the miracle based on human faith. That is why the Church looks more for heroic virtue in the saints it canonizes rather than in the miracles they perform.

Biblical miracles are a bit different because the age of revelation had not yet ended and Christ walked the earth.

In any case, miracles establish a relationship, pro or con, with the agency producing them. The better the relationship one has with the true God, the likelier one is to recognize miracles from him and reject the rest.

The Chicken

The Chicken said...

Thanks, Lydia, for changing the posting criteria. Hopefully, you won't get spammed.

The Chicken

Lamont said...

To return to Plantinga and Mackie’s original point, an agnostic should not believe in God based on miracles. As persons we are integrated wholes. Singular events (miracles) should not be allowed to disrupt the interdependent web of experiences and ideas that constitute a healthy mind. To throw miracles at agnostics in the hope that they will come to belief in God is both unrealistic and disrespectful.

If you disagree, reverse the argument, should a Christian abandon the faith because of a perceived failure of God to answer pray in the face of an overwhelming tragedy such as the death of a child? Of course not. All of life’s lessons should be brought forward to support one’s faith in the goodness of God. In the same way, the agnostic should resist a hit and run attack on his or her personal integrity.

How should one approach an agnostic? You have to paint a picture that an intelligent person can accept as an accurate representation of reality. It begins with the existence of some self-existent eternal being. Aquinas is the obvious choice here.

Secondly, it must be shown that self-existent being is more than a force (energy) or some kind of stuff (matter). That God is a personal, intelligent, moral, and free being can be argued from teleology, cosmology, and anthropology as many authors have done with varying degrees of success. Addressing the problem of evil is also an excellent way to stimulate the discussion of God as something more than the conclusion of a logical argument.

Third, the element of personal choice and responsibility needs to be raised. Pascal sent the standard here with his Wager.

Finally, miracles provide evidence to back this up and show where God is working today and throughout history. Miracles are the colors that fill in the logical outlines set forth by reason. Seen in context, they are an important way in which God communicates with us as persons.

Lydia McGrew said...

There is nothing contrary to an agnostic's integrity about asking him to consider the evidence for a miracle. To say so is to imply that the evidence really couldn't be all that strong. The analogy to the "failure to answer a child's prayer" is particularly weak. The evidence that Jesus rose from the dead by the power of the God of Israel is no stronger than the evidence from a child's failure to get a pony that God does not exist?

Again, without considering actual cases, it's easy enough to make sweeping claims about what can or can't be shown. Of course, if Christianity does teach an incoherent concept of God, that's an insuperable difficulty. But the burden of proof there is, in my opinion, on the agnostic or atheist. Naturally, if an agnostic has questions about the problem of evil, the Christian talking to him should try to answer those questions, not brush them off. But it's interesting, Lamont, that your appeal to "persons as integrated wholes" and all the rest of it _sounds_ like you're telling us to take the totality of our evidence into account while your real message is that agnostics are justified in ignoring evidence for miracles, because to take it seriously would be to challenge their "integrated personhood" or some such thing.

Certainly, one's prior probability is relevant, if it is a rational prior probability (or even a more or less rational prior probability) based on other reasonable considerations. But it isn't the whole of the story, and I am, in fact, respecting the non-Christian when I point to the signs that God has actually given of his presence and action.

Lydia McGrew said...

Vlastimil, I think you must have misunderstood what Tim was saying. He wasn't endorsing macho epistemic particularism but disagreeing with Plantinga's epistemic circularity approach. Of course, externalism _requires_ epistemic circularity and doesn't allow that even _in principle_ one could escape it.

Also, I would not consider that references to seeing that something is, say, analytically true indicate epistemic particularism, because the latter has as Chisholm uses it a very different meaning, and I think it's more useful to stick to that meaning. Chisholm's idea is that we take unanalyzed particular instances as paradigmatic of knowledge (where I take him to be talking about _empirical_ knowledge, not _a priori_ knowledge) and then develop descriptive "principles" based on those--you know, things like having a perceptual sensory experience under normal circumstances, etc. Now, I think that is just too crude as an approach and encourages shallowness rather than a real _analysis_ of knowledge.

I hasten to add, though, that it is not necessary to have such an analysis in hand to have knowledge or justification. A good object-level argument is not the same thing as a metalevel analysis of the argument.

Tony said...

Matt, I think you missed the point of Jesus' response to Doubting Thomas: not ONLY is Thomas blessed for having seen and believed, it is ALSO true that those who have NOT seen and believe are blessed, on account of accepting the testimony of someone who is reputable and has seen, like Thomas. Thus we who have not seen are blessed for having Thomas, because Thomas saw, believed, and handed on his testimony to us. For "faith comes through hearing."

The timing of this topic is funny, because I was just critiquing my daughter's theology paper, on how one comes to theology. Theology proper requires faith, since it is the science of sacred things based on revelation from a source of Truth who cannot deceive. Yet there are also studies that can prepare one for theology, both by setting the necessary philosophical groundwork, and by helping to dispose one to the faith (if one does not yet believe in Christianity).

It is my feeling that accepting the reality of God's existence can be set positively prior to faith, because He can be understood in nature; but that we can also come to accept His existence as a first motion of faith, if we have not yet accepted his existence positively from natural bases. He is capable of moving the will to direct the mind to assent to His existence. But the person who undergoes this act of faith does so MORE readily if he has become disposed to that act, and this can be done by way of probable evidence of miracles, even if the miracles (before the act of faith) are not thought of as firm, or conclusive.

Thus miracles can plow the ground for acceptance of the existence of God, as forming a disposition to accept the possibility of God, before the person believes in God - without a pre-requisite belief in God. But in order to do so, these "probable" events understood as possible miracles cannot be ignored out of hand on a footless supposition that miracles automatically are understood to be impossible without your having a prior belief in God. That's just plain circular nonsense.

It always seemed to me that C.S. Lewis's argument on this was perfectly fine (unlike some of his other arguments). We don't need to believe in the all-powerful Creator to even begin to come to a probable conclusion that an event is, more likely than not, from non-natural (and non-human) sources of agency. All we need is a root notion of reality that doesn't a-priori preclude the possibility. And that's certainly not begging the question, where it's opposite is.

Step2 said...

I didn't say that a god would cause miracles on behalf of a different god. I'm saying that if you trust any particular second-hand account of a supernatural event, it is radically inconsistent to distrust that same account of who caused it. Take Bobcat’s example of a Buddhist vision, if that was in fact a supernatural occurrence, and there are two former naturalists who believe it was, it should be believed in its entirety and not some version of “Yes it was a miracle, but they were confused about its origin.”

Based on your own argument that requires belief in a supernatural Buddhist entity – “…it is simply true, as a matter of logic, that an argument that supports the occurrence of a miracle is an argument that supports the existence of the one who did the miracle.”

MC also reinforces my point when he wrote “The better the relationship one has with the true God, the likelier one is to recognize miracles from him and reject the rest.” So omnipotence must be established before you can properly determine which miracles are true and which are false.

Lydia McGrew said...

Hold on, Step2. The logical point I was making was much more boring and pedestrian than you seem to think it was. I was saying _merely_ that an argument that _really does support_ the conclusion that God did a miracle does also support the conclusion that God exists. I wasn't saying that an argument that supports the conclusion that some supernatural or extraordinary event took place also automatically supports the conclusion drawn by the person who presents the case as to who caused the event. Even in the book of Acts we have an account, soberly delivered, of a slave girl who was able to engage in fortune-telling by demonic influence. If her masters were telling people (this isn't in the story, this is just my hypothetical for the sake of the argument) that she was fortune-telling by the help of Zeus, the conclusion, "This girl really does have extraordinary powers to tell fortunes" wouldn't automatically support the conclusion that it was done by the power of Zeus. In fact, one could easily conclude that the masters had no idea what they were talking about and were invoking Zeus for prestige value.

I'd have to know boatloads more about the situation Bobcat describes before I even got to the point of thinking it was evidence for an extraordinary or supernatural event. Given that I have good independent evidence that Buddhism is false and also that there are, in fact, powerful fallen angels in the world who try to confuse people on religious matters, the possibility of their involvement would be an open question even if the evidence seemed to indicate a paranormal event. There is also the possibility that there are real, though natural, paranormal powers in the world permitting prediction of the future, though I consider that probability fairly low.

All of those decisions require patient sifting of actual evidence.

Tommy said...

Step2, what is to prevent one from accepting the account of the naturalists as to HOW the event fell out as experienced, and then draw your own conclusions as to what the experience implies: such, as, for example, that it implies some supernatural agency, but which of many possible such agents requires further work?

Gyan said...

an Devil perform miracles in the sense of some supernatural activity? For the Devil is supernatural (with respect to our space-time nature).

Supposing we witness a miracle or a purported miracle. There may be other explanations than monotheistic God.

Eg a Hindu might believe in realized souls having power to work miracles, entirely within the framework of Vedanta like monism. Indeed, this is how a Hindu would explain miracles of Jesus. This is analogous to miracles ascribed to Christian saints but with the difference of there being no God in Hinduism, only realized souls.ri

Lydia McGrew said...

Tony, sorry to be so slow in noting your comment. I appreciate your comments on Thomas. I don't know how many people have interpreted that statement to Thomas as some sort of "dissing" evidence by Our Lord, but I see no reason to take it that way at all. Thomas had heard from the other disciples but had--with some harshness--refused to believe them. If Jesus is chiding him for anything (and it's not clear that he is), it would be for not having more rational confidence in his fellow disciples, whom he had some reason to take seriously.

C.S. Lewis has always seemed to me to have a most excellent point when he says that faith is opposed not to reason but to instinct. There's so much profundity there. Too many people are inclined to ignore good evidence because they didn't "see it for themselves." Human beings are naturally inclined to want to see and touch everything directly. I think Jesus' "blessed are they who have not seen" refers to those of us who have overcome that irrational insistence on "seeing for ourselves" and have listened reasonably to the testimony of the apostles (including Thomas, for that matter).

Tony said...

Yes, I think so. After all, even though Thomas is the one with the epithet "doubting", all of the Apostles except John were guilty of doubting, and doubting a higher authority than merely their fellows: Jesus. So Jesus appears to them and resolves their doubts, but Thomas wasn't there, so he is more of a doubter than they? I don't think so.

But it does all point to an issue that many of us would rather leave under the rug: how do we deal with the epistemology of "accepting" another's account. Is accepting an account merely "belief" in the sense of an _opinion_ that this account is reliable? What of "accepting" your spouse's account that he or she loves you? Do you call that merely a probable opinion? (Is that tub real comfy these days? 'cause that's where you'll be sleeping.)

Josef Pieper develops the idea that belief is higher than mere opinion, and that it finally is always person directed. Ultimately it is belief in a someone. We see this manifest in two lovers: although the world might have discounted both of them as inconsequential, they see in each other a reflection of God Himself, and latch on to that. And that seeing is more true than what outsiders usually see in them.

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Vlastimil Vohánka said...

Lydia, this is rather off-topic and late; but important. You sometimes seem to allude to the argument from the prophecies as esp. relevant to the prior probability of this or that disputed claim (theism, Resurrection). Now, do you have some favourite treatment of the argument from prophecy or of replies to the main objections, like alledged counterexamples from texts outside the Bible (say, Moby Dick, )? Thanks!

Lydia McGrew said...

Vlastimil, I've asked Tim to write something to you about this, but it looks to me like these alleged counterexamples have something to do with the "Bible codes" stuff. I'm sure you realize that an argument from prophecy doesn't have to, and indeed shouldn't, have to do with kooky numerology or Bible codes! It's more like things like prophecies of the destruction of some city--in words--that then appear to come to pass in terms much as they were prophesied to happen. Or, for example, Isaiah 53 leads us to expect a promised one from God who would suffer and be killed, which would be relevant between the time of Jesus' death and resurrection, as would the rather striking similarities between Psalm 22 (which do not seem to be able to apply to David) and Jesus' crucifixion.

Tim said...


Lydia's right -- this is Bible Code stuff, not the classic argument from prophecy. There's a lot of stuff on the latter in the database; let me know if you want specific suggestions, though I'd say off the top of my head that Sherlock and Davison are must-reads, as is the section of Butler’s Analogy of Religion, Part 2, ch. 7 that deals with prophecy.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...

Thank you both! I think the linked counterexample from Moby Dick to some Bible codes could be similar to the worry of Greg (The Creed of Christendom I, 1877, pp. 86-88) about the serious argument from prophecy: "There are, no doubt, scattered verses in the Prophetic and Poetical Books of the Hebrew Canon, which, as quotations, are apt and applicable enough ... - but of what equally voluminous collection ... may the same not be said?" (And then Greg adduces the Messianic prophecy from Plato's Republic.)

I haven't looked at Sherlock yet, but I raised this question when reading the section in Butler and some sections in Davison, and I found no answer. I think some Bayesian reconstruction of the argument from prophecy could help, but I haven't seen any.

Lydia McGrew said...

Vlastimil, I don't know enough Greek to do more than guess, but I'm guessing that the passage in question is the one in Plato where Glaucon says that the just man whom others believe to be unjust will be scourged, have his eyes burnt out, and last of all be "impaled" (which some translate "crucified"). The point, I gather, is to suggest that perhaps it is more important in this world to appear just than actually to be just.

It seems to me that this is quite a weak parallel to Isaiah 53, for many reasons. For one thing, Jesus did not have his eyesight destroyed, and the inclusion of this detail (as well as the inclusion of "tormented," which may refer to the rack, which Jesus also did not suffer) makes it look like nothing even remotely prophetic but rather simply like a catalogue of nasty things that might be done to a just man unfortunate enough to be falsely deemed wicked. Isaiah 53, in contrast, has no purely illustrative rhetorical purpose in its original context and therefore appears to be a prophecy about a future person. The death of this person is also given theological significance (bearing sins, justifying many) which parallel statements by John the Baptist and Jesus indicating that Jesus would be sacrificed to take away sins. Most importantly, Isaiah 53 is written in a Jewish context in which a Messiah was actually expected, and Jesus came and lived within a Jewish context and made messianic claims for himself.

I think that Greg's statement about isolated verses and other voluminous bodies of work, etc., betrays the same sort of lazy generalization meant to impress that we find in Hume when Hume sweepingly tells us that ignorant and barbarous people are always telling of wonders, that the testimony is never strong enough, etc. The one example Greg condescends to give is poor, and he does not appear to deal in any detail with the examples Christians themselves consider to be their strongest. I, for one, think it is _false_ that any voluminous body of work will produce sustained prophetic passages as strongly correlated with their apparent fulfillment as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22, and others more knowledgeable about the argument from prophecy can, I'm sure, give and defend still more examples. I believe the destruction of Tyre is taken to be another strong one.

The Bayesian interpretation should not be difficult. The idea is pretty obviously that the correlation of the passage with the later event has a much higher probability if the earlier passage had its source in a God who knew the future and knew about the later events than if it had a merely natural origin. For messianic passages, the further inference is to the explanation that the person in the later fulfillment really was the Messiah, the one God had promised and sent, which of course raises the probability that God will endorse him by raising him from the dead as he himself predicted.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...

Lydia, certainly I do not deny you are right. I expect you to be correct. But two naive notes of mine here.

"... Jesus did not have his eyesight destroyed, and the inclusion of this detail (as well as the inclusion of "tormented," which may refer to the rack, which Jesus also did not suffer) makes it look like nothing even remotely prophetic ..."

Cf. Strong, Systematic Theology I, 1907, p. 236: in prophecies, the "drapery" is not to be confounded with the "substance." Ibid., p. 136: seeming non-fulfilments are often explicable by figurative aspects of the prophecy.

Ibid, . 139: "The prophet was not always aware of the meaning of his own prophecies ... It is enough ... if it can be shown that the correspondence between them and the actual events are such as to indicate divine wisdom and purpose in the giving of them ..."

Butler, Analogy of religion, II, 7: "... the matter of inquiry evidently must be ... Whether the prophecies are applicable to Christ, and to the present state of the world, and of the church; applicable in such a degree, as to imply foresight ..."

Now, given such general hints by the orthodox divines, so far I'm still very unclear on how to distinguish the sheep from the goats without double standard.


"Most importantly, Isaiah 53 is written in a Jewish context in which a Messiah was actually expected ..."

Do you mean Is. 53 was understood as Messianic in that context?

Cf. Swinburne, Revelation, 2007, p. 170: "... the "suffering servant" passages of Isaiah concerned with one (perhaps one person, perhaps Israel as a whole) ... suffering ... do not seem to have been understood as Messianic prophecies by contemporary Judaism."

Tim said...


Lydia is correct: the passage quoted by Greg reads, in translation:

[T]he just man will have to endure the lash, the rack, chains, the branding-iron in his eyes, and finally, after every extremity of suffering, he will be impaled. [Jowett’s translation of anaskinduleuthesetai, which is more accurate than Shorey’s “crucified”]

Greg’s entire discussion of prophecy is quite disingenuous. Here are a few points out of many that might be made:

(1) There is no recurring prophetic theme running through the writings of Plato; Glaucon’s contemptuous description is clearly not prophetic either in form or in intent, and it is a one-off description, nowhere else paralleled or referenced. The contrast with the Old Testament is striking.

(2) In the context, Glaucon is praising a life of injustice (provided that the injustice is concealed) on consequentialist grounds. His description of the death of the just man is not an encomium: it is a contemptuous critique. The just man will not flatter people but will rather insult them, because he is trying to be honest; he will seek neither wealth nor fame and will therefore inherit poverty and obscurity; he will oppose the opinions of the masses and will therefore provoke their wrath. Glaucon’s point is that this sort of life is the last thing most people would desire. His description of the just man’s death is simply the conclusion of this line of critique.

(3) Glaucon’s description might be given of anyone who has suffered a brutal execution for doing right: it applies in broad outline (and only in broad outline) more or less equally to Jeremiah, Jesus, Ignatius, Polycarp, William Wallace, John Huss, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, Thomas Cranmer, and a host of others. This is not true of Isaiah 53 even taken alone. Jesus alone of all the figures of antiquity fits the description here.

For discussion of this last point, see, inter alia, Hugo Grotius, The Truth of the Christian Religion (London: William Baynes, 1829), pp. 217-18; John Jortin, Discourses Concerning the Truth of the Christian Religion; and Remarks on Ecclesiastical History, vol. 1 (London: John White, 1805), pp. 104-05 (noting that by “accurate” Jortin means “searching” or “scholarly”); William H. Turton, “The Passion Prophecy of Isaiah,” Bibliotheca Sacra 79 (St. Louis: Bibliotheca Sacra Co., 1922), pp. 72-84.

Tim said...


It seems that Swinburne is misinformed regarding Isaiah 53, which is unfortunate, though this particular false claim is certainly widespread and it is therefore not difficult to see why he might have taken it at face value.

The Targum renders Isaiah 52:13 thus: "Behold my servant the Messiah shall prosper ..." See also, among numerous other ancient Jewish authorities, Yalkut 2.338 -- "He shall be exalted ... he shall be higher than the ministering angels ... but he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed."; Rab Hunna -- "The chastisements or afflictions were divided into three parts: one to David and the fathers, and one to the rebellious generations, and one to the King Messiah" (Tanchuma, in loc.); Sanhedrin 98 on the messianic names -- "The Rabbis say, his name is the leper of the house of Rabbi, as it is said: Surely he hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows, and we have thought him, as it were, a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted."

These are just some of the numerous passages from the Rabbinic literature showing that this passage was interpreted messianically by the ancient Jews.

Lydia McGrew said...

Vlastimil, if you are looking for some sort of formula that renders an automatic yes/no answer to the question, "Is this a good argument from prophecy?" then I don't have something to sell you. Like all probabilistic arguments, this is the sort of thing where the devil is in the details. Hence, it may be true that in particular cases we could be justified in believing that something was a prophecy even if the person uttering it did not realize that he was uttering prophecy, but I would assume that in that case the detailed correspondence would have to be very strong indeed so as to "carry" the extra weight of conjecturing a double meaning for the passage. There could also be a difference between a person's not realizing clearly and fully that he is uttering prophecy and his definitely having another clear meaning for the passage that fully explains what he says in all its details. In any event, no double interpretation is required for Isaiah 53, as it does not have some other clear, natural, non-prophetic meaning in its own context. In contrast, any attempt to argue that the passage from Plato's Republic is prophecy would be extremely weak, in no small part because the passage has such a very clear, natural, non-prophetic intent in its original context. Moreover, it should be absolutely evident that the intent is to list such unpleasantnesses as might occur to a Greek of Plato's time and that this is why the list _does not correspond_ to Jesus' death--it includes the rack, putting out eyes, and impaling, none of which happened to him.

It is no answer to these points to say that in some other case the other evidence (whatever that might be) for prophetic fulfillment might be so strong as to overcome a certain amount of "static" in the details. In this case, there is no other such strong evidence, and the "static" is huge and well-explained naturalistically in terms of the original Greek context. What more could you possibly want by way of contrast with Isaiah 53? Frankly, if it weren't for the poor translation of "impaling" as "crucifixion" and the reference to scourging, no one would even be able to make a pretense that there is a parallel here!

It is not surprising that Isaiah 53 was taken initially by the Jews to be messianic, but that wasn't my only point. My other point about the Jewish context was that it would be unlikely that the Judeo-Christian God would make a prophecy about the Jewish Messiah in a pagan Greek text! The same problem obviously does not apply to Isaiah 53. There is thus a "fit" between the Jewish context of the putative prophecy and the Jewish context of its fulfillment.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...

Lydia and Tim,

On the passage from Plato. Thanks for the tips on literature, etc. But I think it will take much learning on my side to appreciate fully the suggested disanalogy of Is. 53 and Republic II. 361D-362A for I know about the needed historical background next to nothing. Anyway, thanks for the hints. Of course, an automatic formula would be great here if available.

Still, maybe you will find interesting the following. Leslie (The Truth of Christianity Demonstrated, 1727, pp. 133-34) says that Plato wrote the passage in the Republic "as if he had copy'd the liii. of Isaiah." Clement of Alexandria viewed the same passage as a prophecy about Christ. Eusebius as a prophecy of the persecution of Christians. (See D. R. MacDonald, Christianizing Homer, OUP 1994, pp. 253-255.)

As for Swinburne on Is. 53, I have a strong suspicion Swinburne is often not to be relied on when it comes to disputed issues of biblical history. Again, thanks for the tips on the Jewish interpretation of that section.

Tim said...


Leslie is uncharacteristically hasty in that passage. There is no reference in the Republic to "three or four years after he began to preach," or even to preaching at all, and Leslie's translation of the Greek term on p. 134 is (alas!) incorrect. One might say that this is literary art, but I think we cannot reasonably rescue Leslie in that fashion. Well. Even Homer nods.

Clement, of course, famously tried to baptize as much of pagan learning as he possibly could. But as Lydia points out, the parallel here to the prophecies of the Old Testament is not strong.

You can find the entire section of Plato online here, with some nice tools.

Paul Kelly said...

Hey Mrs. Mcgrew! I'm sorry if I'm posting this question at an inappropriate place on your blog. Anyhow, I have a question about the resurrection. I'm still new to bayes theorem and all of this stuff and I'm trying to read your article in the Blackwell Companion. I'm totally with you on all of the historical evidence and the low probability that W, D, and P would happen on ~R. Btw, I haven't read the whole article. I'm jumping around from section to section a lot so you probably answered this somewhere...anyway, what makes a historical event either intrinsically improbable or probable? I read somewhere that frequency doesn't work because it doesn't tell me about the specific events. But what does make an event intrinsically probable or not? And once you have that criteria, what makes you think that in the case of R, you can know that the intrinsic improbability is outweighed by the improbability of W,D, and P to have occurred on ~R?
Again, I'm sorry if you answered this in your article. I'm new to all of this and am quite confused. Any help would be really appreciated.

Lydia McGrew said...

Paul, we don't address the prior probability of R in the article, but we do argue that the Bayes factor we discuss can overcome an enormously low prior and that therefore if the skeptic is going to claim that it cannot overcome the prior probability, he needs to justify that low of a prior probability.

Speaking for myself, I would say that the prior probability of R is almost wholly a function of the prior probability that the Judeo-Christian God exists and that the Judeo-Christian God wished to raise Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. Obviously many things will be relevant to this, including all the other arguments for the existence of God, both philosophical and revelatory (e.g., from prophecy). In some sense, frequency has to be relevant and be factored into the mix, because it is pretty obvious that even given that the Judeo-Christian God exists, he does not perform miracles frequently.

Paul Kelly said...

Thank you so much for your response, Lydia. I agree with your conclusion that the specific evidence can overcome a very low prior probability. But I'm confused. Why must the skeptic show that the prior probability is that low? Couldn't he simply argue that the prior probability is inscrutable? If it is inscrutable, the burden of proof is on you to prove that the prior improbability is not high enough to overcome the specific evidence. Honestly, I don't know how we could possibly have any idea what the prior probability is. Also, if God must be part of our general background knowledge to asses the prior probability, how can the argument from miracles be a non-circular argument for God‘s existence? I've never seen a compelling argument from Biblical prophecy. Do you know of any modern scholars who would defend an argument from messianic prophecy?

Lydia McGrew said...

I did not say that the existence of God must be "part of one's background knowledge." Rather, I said that the prior probability of the resurrection will be in part a function of the prior probability that God exists. It does not follow that one must already have _sufficient_ evidence to believe that God exists, much less treat it as an item of certainty in one's background knowledge, in order to conclude that a miracle has happened. In the same way, I did not know that you existed before I saw your comment, but I now believe that you not only exist but have commented on my blog. Nonetheless, any evidence that I did have relevant to the question of your existence (for or against) would, of course, have been relevant to the prior probability of your commenting on my blog.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...

Lydia is right. But the task of figuring out in some detail the prior probability is so complex that to many it seems plausible that it is inscrutable. I'd be interested in her reply. :-)

WRT arguments from prophecy, they are not used even by prominent contemporary Christian apologists. Yet, G. Habermas thinks some of them could be updated to work. Swinburne does not think so.

For a relatively recent probabilistic apologetic treatment of prophecy, see Stoner's short book Science Speaks (preferably 2nd ed.). I suspect it's the best, within the range, but not good enough.

Lydia McGrew said...

The reason that skeptics don't usually say that the prior probability of the resurrection is inscrutable is because they don't think it is inscrutable. They think it is extremely low! And they probably realize at some level that the probability of the existence of God is probabilistically relevant to the probability of a miracle in the sense that the probability of a miracle "would be higher than it is" if he had strong evidence that God existed, which could not be the case if the probability of a miracle were truly inscrutable. (If it were inscrutable, we couldn't talk meaningfully about its being higher than it is.)

Given all the other arguments concerning the existence of God, the prior probability of a miracle has a good deal _more_ that can be said about it (if we can put it this way, it is "more scrutable") than the prior probability of Paul Kelly's posting a comment on my blog, given that I'd never so much as heard of Paul Kelly and certainly had never heard any arguments for or against his existence prior to his commenting on my blog. Yet we meet and have contact with new human agents _all the time_ and never say, "I am not in a position to decide whether you have actually communicated with me, because prior to my receiving this e-mail or this comment, the probability of your existence was inscrutable, as I had no direct evidence on the matter, and hence the prior probability of your writing to me was inscrutable. Therefore, I cannot condition on this new evidence to obtain a posterior probability that you have commented on my blog."

Vlastimil Vohánka said...

I like your reply very much, Lydia. Thanks.

Paul Kelly said...

Thanks again for replying to my questions. I'm not trying to debate you; I'm just asking questions because I want to learn more about this topic. Anyway...

I fully understand your response to the circularity objection. I was just going through your article again and I realized you addressed this in your article.

I am slightly confused by your remarks that if something is inscrutable, then we can't talk meaningfully about its becoming "more scrutable". If I was asked how many stars are in the sky, I could not tell you. I truly cannot even begin to answer that question. However, if someone told me it’s over 6000, it becomes "more scrutable", but it is still inscrutable to me. Likewise, just because I know that God makes the prior probability of R higher, how does that really help me know what the prior probability really is?

It seems to me that if we cannot know the prior probability of something, it is hard to tell what the final ratio will be. If we are going to say that something is probable, you have to know what the final ratio will be. Your examples of meeting new people just seem to tell me that Bayes theorem isn't appropriate for this sort of analysis.

Where do you think I went wrong?

Lydia McGrew said...

No, I said that if a probability is inscrutable, it doesn't make sense to talk about its being _higher_ if we receive confirmation of something else. So if the prior probability of R is inscrutable, it doesn't make sense to say, "But if we had more evidence for God's existence, the probability of R would be higher." "Higher" must mean "higher than it is," which must mean that R _does_ have a probability now, which probability would be higher if theism were more highly confirmed.

There are all kinds of interesting questions about prior-free situations, and I am actually very interested in these very questions. For example, does the positive relevance criterion of "evidence for" apply to strictly prior-free situations? If proposition P has no prior probability but some evidence E that comes in gives it a _high_ probability, it seems that we should be able to say that E was evidence for it, but E does not seem to satisfy the positive relevance criterion of making the probability higher than it was previously. It also seems, as you suggest, that in cases that are strictly prior free, Bayes's Theorem may not be a correct modeling tool, though I am not convinced of that, either. (I am inclined to think that even in such extreme circumstances we can sometimes use something like pseudo-priors that involve the principle of indifference and that _amount to_ treating the prior probabilities of two or more natural rival hypotheses as _equal to each other_, even if we don't give them actual numerical prior probabilities.)

Fortunately, though, the esoteric situation where we really have _no_ other relevant data and a proposition truly is prior-free rarely arises. In the case of R, you seem to be confusing a situation in which you are having trouble deciding on a _precise_ prior probability with a prior-free situation in which the prior is strictly inscrutable. For the latter to be the case, you would have to have _no_ relevant independent data concerning R. Now, that just doesn't seem to be _true_, as witness all the other arguments concerning the existence of God.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...

Lydia, Truth without Paradox (2004), ch 5, by David Johnson (the same who wrote Hume, Holism, and Miracles) treats historical arguments for God (and the PDP). I have not read it yet. But it looks very good.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...

The Agnostic Inquirer,2007, , is overall and definitively your cup of tea, Lydia. By Menssen and Sullivan.

See p. 63 for outline of general argumentative strategy from putative revelations to theism.

Pp. 60-61 concern on the PDP.

Pp. 68-69 employ the mail example.

I have my animadversions about their animadversions about probality, though. The book is an important contemporary contribution to philosophical argument from internal evidences of revelation to theism. Yet, the preferred method there is non-Bayesian IBE. Non-Bayesian mainly because (i) even the experts on Bayesianism (like Earman) are not generally sure about the scope of applicability of the method, (ii) the priors are, in the given, apologetic context, often look inscrutable (see pp. 76-77, 193-94), (iii) one is often, without palpable absurdity, free to change the *input* values used in Bayes's Theorem, (iv) similarly, even the Bayesian rules are not absolute, but rather tested by our more basic intuitions about confirmation, (v) Bayesian reconstruction is not necessary for a good argument. Still, the authors claim that they are open to the result that once it will be generally concluded that Bayesian method is the best and most exact for arguing for theism (see ch. 4.2). I have a vexed feeling the authors should have tried to be deeper here.

P. 72 is skeptical about identifying the content of the original revelation. It seems to prefer internal evidences of current religious teaching to the Lockean line of argument from external evidences (divine, miraculous signature) for the teaching of the founding prophet. Again, I have my doubts about this choice.

P. 194 says there has to be something to the fine-tuning argument even if your probabilistic critique of the argument succeeds.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks, Vlastimil, for the reference. Menssen and Sullivan have been in friendly contact with us several times in the past, but I did not know how their book had turned out. Your summary is very useful, and naturally I agree with your hesitations

Paul Kelly said...

Hello again, Lydia. After reading this comment a few months ago, I must admit that I pretty much dropped the study of the argument from miracles and all of this stuff on probability. It has recaptured my attention recently and I want to learn more. I must admit that when you said "principle of indifference", I had to look it up! So, where can I find a good introduction to bayes theorem that will prepare me to understand its application in philosophy? Btw, what are your thoughts on William Lane Craig's approach to the resurrection using inference to the best explanation?

Lydia McGrew said...

Paul, I would recommend that for the moment, instead of getting really deeply into the probability theory, you might find it most useful to have a look at Tim's article on miracles in the on-line Stanford Encyclopedia. The link is here:

If you search "Bayes" in the article, you will find his discussion of that, but the entire article is a really useful survey of various ways people have argued for and against miracles.

In many ways, we are doing something similar to what Craig is doing, and he was very pleased with our Blackwell article, which of course he was the editor for. I would say that a major difference is not only our employment of more probabilistic machinery but also, and perhaps more crucially, our not relying on a "minimal facts" approach and making more use of the details of the resurrection narratives as data that need to be explained.

Paul Kelly said...

Thank you again for Responding so quickly,Mrs. Mcgrew!I will certainly check out Mr. Mcgrew's article as soon as I get the chance. In the meantime, I have anothr question about your article. As far as I know, one of the most common objections to a bayesian approach to miracles(and applying bayes theorem to history in general) is that it is very hard to specify specific variables in the equation.

In your article, you concluded, for example,that
P(P/~R) is at best an order of 10 to the power of negative 4. Is this just a really small number to simply emphasize that the probability is low(and allows for an easy calculation of the facts collective force)or is there something deeper that I'm missing?

Although I would agree that R can overcome a really low prior prbability, I have slight reservations about adopting your specific variables you use. Is this really an issue though?

Lydia McGrew said...

What we're estimating there is actually the ratio of the probability of the evidence (the conversion of Paul, in this case) on R over the probability of the evidence on ~R.

Obviously, it's going to make a difference if you estimate it to a different order of magnitude. It will be that much weaker or stronger at overcoming a low prior. Orders of magnitude are a big deal.

Naturally, the Bayes factors are estimates of the power of the evidence--how much more would we expect this evidence given R than given ~R?

I think that grappling with the actual empirical arguments helps to give us something of a grip on these estimates, and we try to give a sense of that. If you want to say that we have _no_ idea of such an estimate, then you're going to have difficulty modeling inference to the best explanation. Part of the point of IBE is that evidence does seem to be somewhat better explained, a little better explained, much better explained, much _much_ better explained, and so forth on one hypothesis than on another.

So I would just suggest that you consider the arguments we give in connection with the estimates we make.

I think it's important to realize how damaging it can be to the skeptic's case to be forced to take the evidence seriously at all. Christian skeptics are great adepts at avoiding this--fuzzifying the evidence, pretending that we have no idea what the disciples actually said, what they preached, how the church got started, and so forth. Once you really get down to things like accepting that, say, Paul really did exist, really did radically and abruptly turn his life around in the way described in Acts and then go on to risk his life for the religion he had previously persecuted, and really did claim to have had the experience recounted in Acts, it becomes rather difficult to deny that this is pretty strong evidence for the truth of the religion in question. Similarly for the specific claims made by the apostles.

Paul Kelly said...

Thanks for your clarification. I understand your point that the best way to understand how improbable these events would be on ~R as opposed to R is to actually get down and look at the evidence.

Wouldn't it be safer to, instead of assigning such a specific variable, argue that there is a range of variables that could be plugged in?

Also, I don't see how looking at the evidence gets you to conclude that the testimony of the disciples is that low specifically. I, nor anyone that I know of, can comprehend such infinitesimal numbers or anything in the neighborhood. So, I don't know how you can assign a specific value to that.

Overall though, I understand the point that W,D, and P have a much lower probability(whatever that is specifically) on ~R over R and thus gives very strong reasons for accepting R as a historical fact.

Paul Kelly said...

Hey once again, Mrs. Mcgrew. I have a few more questions for you if you don't mind responding:

1) Has anyone actually tested bayes theorem in a historical context? If so, what were their results? If not, does this have any reprecussions on the argument from miracles?

2) How can we say Jesus rose from the dead when calculating the intrinsic probability of any historical event (especially miraculous ones for which we have no experience) is unknowable to us? Perhaps we can get some grip on what this probability would be?

You responded somewhat to this when I asked the first time but it was really just a quibble over my using of the word "inscrutable". So, how can we know the final probability if it can be said that the prior probability of R is unkown?

Lydia McGrew said...

Hey, Paul, I think you and Tim have this well in hand in your correspondence. I certainly did not intend to quibble over a term in our earlier discussion. I would not call the probability of an event relative to other evidence (that is, prior to the specific testimonial evidence for it) an "intrinsic" probability, nor would I agree that the prior probability for the event--that is, prior to the specific testimonial evidence--is unknowable.

Merry Christmas!

Paul Kelly said...

Hey! I hope your family had an awesome Christmas! You both have been really great in your willingness to answer all of my questions. I have a question about the last remark you made. You said that you don't think that the prior probability is unknowable. What do you think it is and how did you get there?

Lydia McGrew said...

Hi, Paul,

What I'd like to do is to give you some idea of what such a prior would be based on and then give some _illustrative_ numbers without necessarily treating them as “the” numbers.

The prior probability of R can scarcely be more than the probability of something like Judeo-Christian theism (T) times the probability of R given Judaic theism. This is because the probability of R given the negation of T is very close to zero. I'm keeping “something like” deliberately vague.

So the first set of relevant evidence would be all the other evidence regarding T. For example, I would say that the cosmological argument (kalam style) seems to have force. I also think the argument from mind is a good argument for an original, self-existent mind. Here we can bring in, too, arguments for design of the ID variety. The details of these, of course, would not have been available in the first century, but they are relevant to the prior of R because they are a separate line of evidence for T.

Then we have to decide what weight, if any, to give to the problem of evil. I am very much in two minds about this. It does not seem to me that it can drive down the prior probability of T to any very great extent, because I do not think that in terms of human history generally T gives us a very high expectation of God's intervening to prevent or ameliorate evil and pain. Even if one took every miracle in the OT to be absolutely true, it would still be a case of “sometimes yes, sometimes no,” with the number of recorded miracles being a mere drop in the bucket in comparison with the total amount of non-miraculous time going past. The God of the OT both allows much evil and also performs acts that increase the amount of suffering in the world--destroying cities, etc. So a) I find it difficult to get a grip on a likelihood comparison that makes the evil in the world evidence against T, and b) it seems that if there is such a likelihood comparison, it does not weigh very heavily against T.

Then there would be the evidence for the veracity of the Old Testament and the history of the Jews as God's chosen people. The very existence of the Jews at the time of Christ and the verifiable facts of their history are worth something here, as are arguments from non-Messianic prophecy (more on Messianic prophecy in a moment), such as, for example, the prophecy of the destruction of Tyre in Ezekiel. (Cont.)

Lydia McGrew said...

I am inclined to say that with all these arguments in hand, the probability of T is over .5. It may be higher still, but I'll just put that there for the nonce.

The probability of R given T is more difficult. In terms of confirmation it is, of course, _overwhelmingly_ higher given T than given ~T. As I said above, I think the latter probability is near zero, so if P (R|T) is not anywhere near zero, direct evidence for R will significantly confirm T. I think, in fact, that the likelihood ratio there is enormous.

But the actual probability of R given T is relevant to the prior for R. Here I think we need to consider the other evidence we have about Jesus' life and death, prior to the testimony to his resurrection. Interestingly, the liar, lunatic, or Lord trilemma is relevant to the _prior_ of R. (Now there's a thought worth remembering.) The other evidence we have regarding Jesus' actions and character indicates that he was neither a liar nor a lunatic (as C.S. Lewis said, like a man who imagines himself to be a postage stamp) and hence must to at least some extent be evidence in favor of the expectation of R, since he claimed to be God and predicted his own resurrection.

Here, too, we should consider the evidence for the other miracles of Jesus. Even if we treat them as entirely separate from R and do not consider the disciples to have died in witness specifically to _those_ miracles, the testimony in their favor is not worthless. Especially telling is the statement that the Jewish leaders thought of killing Lazarus in order to erase evidence in Jesus' favor!

Then there are the Messianic prophecies of Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 fulfilled by Jesus in his death. (cont.)

Lydia McGrew said...

The fact that Jesus claimed to be God has many interesting evidential connections. It is important to the trilemma discussed above and hence, by ruling out the hypothesis that Jesus was merely a good man or a moral teacher is helpful to R. The fact that Jesus claimed to be God is also helpful to the probability of a statement like, “If Jesus was who he claimed to be, he would be expected to rise from the dead.” On the other hand, a claim to be Yahweh Himself was a highly unexpected thing for someone claiming to be the Messiah to teach and is somewhat problematic in connection with OT theology. Naturally I am not saying that it is incompatible with OT theology, but except for the brief hint in Isaiah where the prophecy says that the Messiah will be called “the mighty God,” it seems that God had kept hidden (as the Apostle Paul in fact says) the fact that he would (or even could) be incarnate as man. Given the deep and understandable concerns about idolatry in the Old Testament and the absence of trinitarian teaching there, it is not surprising that some Jews considered Jesus to be a blasphemer. (That, of course, is why Jesus performed miracles during his lifetime.) Hence, in some respects Jesus' claim to be God favors R and in other respects it works against R.

Putting all of this together, let's use some mock-up numbers. Note: I am not prepared to die on a hill for these numbers. They are used for illustrative purposes.

Suppose that the prior probability of T were .5 and that the prior probability of R given T were .3. In that case, the prior probability of R would be approximately .165--easily and thoroughly overwhelmed by the Bayes factors we estimate for the direct evidence for R.

I do believe that really overwhelming evidence does shift the burden of proof. I think the atheist himself should have to defend a prior probability for R so low that it cannot be overcome by the testimonial evidence, if the testimonial evidence is really that strong.

We do this all the time in daily life: Consider that this is really the way that you think about the existence of everyone you know. Suppose that someone were to tell you that you really don't have enough evidence for the existence of some good friend of yours--say, someone you met several years ago and have had lots of interactions with. He suggests instead that your friend may really be a figment of your imagination. You begin retailing all the evidence you have for your friend's existence, but the skeptic challenges you like this: “How do you know that the prior probability, before you had any of that evidence, was not _so low_ that even all this evidence you have just given me cannot overcome it? Tell me what your _prior_ probability for that person's existence was, back before you had ever heard of him, and tell me what it's based on. Defend that prior!”

Well, this is just nonsense. It's the skeptic who bears the burden of proof in the face of the evidence *you have just given him* for the existence of your friend. He needs to tell you why he thinks the prior probability for the existence of your friend is so low that all the evidence you've just given him isn't enough to overcome it. Naturally, it's going to be hard for you to specify a prior probability for the existence of your friend before you'd ever so much as heard of him! (Indeed, finding relevant points concerning the prior probability of R is easy by comparison.) But that isn't really your responsibility. You've _given_ the skeptic the evidence. It's his job to rebut it or to bring counterevidence.

Lydia McGrew said...

Correction: I meant to plug in .55 for the prior for T, which would yield the .165.

Paul Kelly said...

Hello again. I really appreciate what you wrote.

Do you think this evidence would allow you to put some sort of number on the prior probability of the resurrection?

Also, you mentioned the intelligent design arguments. Do you accept Dembski's specified complexity or some sort of Bayesian approach (like the one Robin Collins offers) to infer design?

Finally, are there any online articles or something that discusses arguments from biblical prophecy?

Lydia McGrew said...

I think it would certainly allow an estimate of the prior probability--perhaps a range. I imagine atheists would in some sense agree--that is to say, that they would say that they do have a prior probability, though they would probably think some of the evidence I brought up to be ridiculous and not worth looking into.

I think Dembski's specified complexity model is incorrect. In any event, it is a model _of_ the science rather than scientific evidence in itself. The deliberate attempt to combine the two, which really amounts to a confusion between probability theory and a scientific theory, is part of what is wrong with Dembski's approach. I think Collins is right to model the argument in Bayesian terms. The actual _evidence_, though, is object-level and scientific and has to do with concrete things like machine-like entities in the cell, chemical cascades in the body, the problem of the origin of life, and so forth.

On prophecy, if you want to look up my e-mail address on my author page at What's Wrong With the World and send me an e-mail, I will give you Tim's e-mail, and you can ask him for resources on the argument from prophecy.

Paul Kelly said...

Hey! I have a few questions pertaining to the appearances to the disciples. In your article it seems that you relied a good deal on the historicity of a lot of the details of the Gospel accounts to show how improbable hallucinations would be. However, why should the skeptic accept these details of the accounts? Even if the Gospels are generally reliable, it doesn't seem totally implausible that these stories were beefed up over time. Although the core of a historical narrative could not have been wiped out this early on, it does seem that the details could have been altered this early for apologetical reasons (whether consciously or not).

Also, do we really know that all of these men were willing to die for belief in the resurrection specifically? I know we have record that some of these people were heavily persecuted, but do we know that all of them were?

Furthermore, could it be that only a few of the disciple's claimed to see the risen Jesus but their testimony convinced their fellow disciple's? Do we really know that the group to whom Jesus appeared to were persecuted for the belief that they personally saw the risen Christ?

Although group hallucinations are improbable, I have heard of cases where group hallucinations do occur. Does this affect the case you’re making or is the point about being in a group just one more layer of improbability?

Tim said...


In your article it seems that you relied a good deal on the historicity of a lot of the details of the Gospel accounts to show how improbable hallucinations would be. However, why should the skeptic accept these details of the accounts? Even if the Gospels are generally reliable, it doesn't seem totally implausible that these stories were beefed up over time. Although the core of a historical narrative could not have been wiped out this early on, it does seem that the details could have been altered this early for apologetical reasons (whether consciously or not).

The suggestion that the Gospels are generally reliable where we can check up on them but are nevertheless full of stories made up for apologetic reasons wherever we don’t have an independent check is special pleading. We can get a fix on the level of fidelity in retelling of a story by comparing some parallel accounts in the Gospels. The level of detail varies; sometimes there are minor discrepancies; but there is no warrant for saying that the details were altered for “apologetic reasons.” Given that the first three Gospels circulated while plenty of eyewitnesses were still alive, it is not credible that any substantial amount of distortion could have taken place without being detected and decried. I do not know what it would mean for the details to be added unconsciously; read the passages in question and you’ll see just how hard this would be.

Also, do we really know that all of these men were willing to die for belief in the resurrection specifically? I know we have record that some of these people were heavily persecuted, but do we know that all of them were?

The persecution of the church ebbed and waned, but it was intense in the early and mid 30s, and people were killed both by mobs (Stephen) and by the authorities (James). All the evidence we have paints a consistent picture of the early church, and particularly its leaders, as under heavy persecution. The suggestion that maybe (say) Nathaniel and Philip somehow got overlooked in all of this doesn’t deserve serious consideration. As for what they were testifying early on, every scrap of information we possess indicates that the resurrection was absolutely at the heart of the matter. See the early creeds embedded in the text of Paul’s epistles, e.g., Romans 1:3-4, Romans 4:25, Romans 10:9-10, 1 Corinthians 11:23 ff, 1 Corinthians 15:3-6 (or perhaps including verse 7), Colossians 1:15-18, and compare those creeds with this one, embedded in Acts 2:22-24.

Furthermore, could it be that only a few of the disciple's claimed to see the risen Jesus but their testimony convinced their fellow disciple's? Do we really know that the group to whom Jesus appeared to were persecuted for the belief that they personally saw the risen Christ?

This is what all of the evidence we have indicates. Note Acts 1:21-22: having seen Jesus after the resurrection was the only enumerated criterion of apostleship.

Although group hallucinations are improbable, I have heard of cases where group hallucinations do occur. Does this affect the case you’re making or is the point about being in a group just one more layer of improbability?

If you can produce an actual example (as opposed to an assertion by someone on an internet infidel chat board) of a polymodal group hallucination, then we can discuss it. The “dancing sun” case is too disanalogous to furnish a ground for comparison. See Zusne and Jones, Anomalistic psychology: a study of extraordinary phenomena of behavior and experience (1982), p. 135.

Lydia McGrew said...

Paul, just to chime in with what Tim said, it's important to realize that we aren't talking about a few little details when we're talking about the resurrection narratives. Certainly the details matter, but it would be entirely ad hoc and unreasonable to invent out of whole cloth some narrative that we _don't_ have in which Jesus is, say, only "sighted" briefly whisking around a corner and which is then altered "for apologetic purposes"--i.e., by lying--into a story in which he appears in a room with his disciples and is actually talking with them and inviting them to touch him. That is just an entirely made-up scenario for which we have no evidence whatsoever.

All the soberly evaluated evidence is that *this is what the disciples claimed*. The evidence of undesigned coincidences and of a wealth of details of incidental confirmation from secular history supports the claim that these accounts were written by or in close consultation with eyewitnesses, with people who actually knew Jesus and hung around with him. The historicity of Acts and its authorship by a careful historian who was a companion of the Apostle Paul is beyond serious question, and it is, in a sense, a "secularly describable" fact in Acts that the disciples preached that they had seen Jesus risen from the dead. The author of Acts is also the author of Luke.

There is no reason whatsoever to doubt that the disciples really did say that they had met with Jesus after his resurrection and spoken with him in groups on multiple occasions and with opportunity to check his reality ("many infallible proofs" in Luke's terms). So that's what they said, that's what they were willing to die for, and that doesn't make a whole lot of sense for them to make up.

Paul Kelly said...

Thank you both for your answers.

If you don't mind, I'd like to ask you a few things about the other arguments that you think support theism.

You mentioned sometime earlier that you put some stock in the argument from consciousness. I just began looking at this argument, and I'm not quite sure how theism actually explains the existence of nonphysical mental states. I understand that a natural scientific explanation won't cut it, but how exactly does theism explain consciousness?

Assuming you find the scientific evidence to be supportive of the second premise of the Kalam, in what sense does the universe begin at the big bang? Since the Kalam is predicated on a tensed theory of time (which implies scientists aren't studying "real time") then the big bang doesn't really get you to the beginning of metaphysical time. Do you think scientists are studying space itself? If not, then in what sense does space begin to exist at the big bang? If neither time nor space themselves begins to exist at the big bang, then how can we say that the big bang supports the beginning of the universe in the relevant sense?

As for the intelligent design arguments, do you support arguments like Behe's concept of irreducible complexity? I also have trouble seeing these types of arguments as anything more than a God of the gaps-type arguments.

Btw, what is your opinion on the shroud of Turin? With the carbon dating problem out of the way, it seems that there is some decent evidence that weighs in favor of its authenticity. If the shroud is authentic, it provides corroborative evidence for Jesus' death and burial. Not to mention examination of the shroud indicates that the victim wasn't in wrapped inside for more than a few days and that his body wasn't taken out manually. Some have suggested a burst of radiation caused the image on the shroud, which seems to have some evidence (like the extension of the fingers of the image) and also some negative evidence (the image is formed almost too well to have been caused by radiation).

Tim said...


Check your email -- I sent you a response there.