Comparing Religions VII: Natural Inexplicability

Recently in this series we have been looking at the historical documentation of supernatural claims.  For our next question, we will examine whether these events could have occurred naturally:

7. What are the odds that the purported supernatural events could have occurred for non-supernatural reasons?

From a Bayesian perspective, the probability of a religion is basically given by the prior probability times the evidence for it, and the only thing that counts as evidence for a religion is an observation which is more likely to happen if the religion is true, then if it is false.  So a religion cannot be strongly confirmed by a (seeming) miracle, unless that miracle is unlikely to happen if the religion is false.

Plausible Naturalistic Explanations

Many purported "miracles" have perfectly plausible explanations in terms of known natural processes.

For example, I'm not particularly impressed by weeping statues or milk-drinking idols, since they can be easily explained by capillary action.  These sorts of phenomena are not hard to produce by fraud and/or accident, and shouldn't count as any sort of demonstration of the supernatural.  A similar statement applies to any guru or holy man who does miracles that are similar to the sorts of things a stage magician does by slight-of-hand, e.g. causing small objects to appear in one's hand (especially if, like the supposedly divine Sathya Sai Baba, one is occasionally caught blatantly cheating...)

As far as I know I was raised in the only household in America which subscribes to both Christianity Today and the Skeptical Inquirer.  If the good folks at the Inquirer can refute your Bigfoot sighting or paranormal abilities by their critical investigations, then probably you should pay attention to that.  (However, along with their high quality empirical investigations showing how various paranormal phenomena can be faked, you also get a bunch of tendentious articles about how philosophy of science proves religious people are ignoramuses, ranging along a whole axis of philosophical sophistication.  In any given issue you usually get articles of both sorts from different people.)

Implausible Naturalistic Explanations

Other types of miracle stories involve claimed events for which there is basically no reasonable natural explanation.  In such cases, the only reasonable options are: either to postulate something supernatural, or else to deny that the claimed event actually happened as stated.  (The difficulty of the latter path obviously depends on the degree to which there is high quality historical documentation of the event.)

To be clear, you can always come up with a naturalistic explanation for any event, if you try hard enough and don't care how implausible your explanation is.  But sometimes these naturalistic explanations remind me a bit of the classic TV cartoon Scooby-Doo.  The original incarnation of the show featured some amateur detectives who investigate paranormal phenomena.  However, they invariably turn out to actually be hoaxes, contrived by the machinations of some villain.

Sometimes, the naturalistic explanation given is far more contrived and implausible than it would be for the supernatural entity to actually exist!  For example, in one episode, at first you think that a certain character Lisa has been turned into a vampire, but it turns out that all that's actually going on is that somebody hypnotized Lisa so that, whenever she answers the phone and hears a bell ringing, she puts on a false set of vampire teeth and pretends to be a vampire!

In other words, so long as an explanation belongs to the realm of Victorian sensationalized psychology, rather than the realm of Victorian Gothic thrillers, we can accept it as the final explanation for what happened—even if that explanation is completely implausible for anyone with a superficial understanding of human behavior.

(In this style of thinking, the Demarcation Problem apparently reduces to a question of genre classification.  A similar thought pattern can be seen in those who believe that the multiverse or simulation hypothesis are science fiction and therefore potentially credible, whereas angels and ghosts and miracles are fantasy and therefore not potentially credible.  But thematic flavoring is not the test of truth.  UFO cults base their mythology around science fiction tropes, but can be seen to engage in many of the same patterns of pathological reasoning that similar religious-themed cults engage in.  And while there is a certainly a nonzero amount of claimed observational evidence for angels, ghosts, and miracles, as far as I know nobody has ever claimed to have met the aliens who are simulating our universe in their computer.)

Rationalized Miracles

Sometimes, the proponents of "scientific" explanations for miracles are actually religious people, who believe they are supporting the biblical narrative rather than undermining it.  As if finding ways that the "miracles" might have happened without appealing to God would somehow allow people to find religion believable again.  But this seems quite silly to me.  If the "miracle" has a fully natural explanation, which doesn't point to anything outside of the universe, then by definition it is no longer a miracle in the religious sense of the word.

Some theists of a rationalistic bent seem to think it is somehow better if God never strictly suspends the laws of physics we moderns know and love, but only does miracles which are technically naturally possible (yet are still extremely improbable from a naturalistic perspective).  This approach would make all miracles special cases of God's providential control of ordinary natural processes.  And indeed, in quantum mechanics, a lot of things which we think of as impossible, such as an object passing through a wall, are technically possible (albeit with an exceedingly minuscule probability, in the case of macroscopic objects).

But this seems to defeat the point of having a quantum theory in the first place.  The reason why we regard QM models as predictive, is that they still allows us to make statistical predictions about what will happen.   So if you want to postulate an extreme violation of these rules of probability, it seems to me that this violates the laws of QM, and is therefore just as much a suspension of the usual laws of physics as e.g. violating electric charge conservation would be.

Also, this kind of "Religious Naturalism" (to coin a phrase) doesn't seem to fit very well with events like appearances of angels, or the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven.  Biblical events like these, if you accept them, cannot be understood merely as improbable events taking place within our own universe, but imply the existence of other worlds, containing new types of entities.  If such events really happened then I don't see how to make sense of them, except on the hypothesis that our physical universe is not a closed system!  In addition to the physical universe, there has to be some sort of spiritual realm, so to speak, where the angels and the departed saints and possibly other things dwell.  Given the limitations of human thought, we can only visualize this as a kind of  "place", even if it transcends our own spacetime.  But however we imagine it, it means that God's actions cannot be thought of as limited to merely the physics of our own universe.

This is not necessarily a problem if you believe, as I do, that our physics models are just an approximate description of a limited aspect of reality, and that a full description of reality would require discussing the actions of various supernatural agents.  But, if there are indeed forms of reality outside of our model, then why not just admit that the model is inapplicable in certain situations, where these other realities become important? 

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Case Study #1: Miracles of the Exodus

To give an obvious example of miracles for which the proposed naturalistic explanations are rather obviously futile, consider the Ten Plagues, the Crossing of the Red Sea, the Manna from Heaven, and the other miracles described in the Book of Exodus.  I am not aware of anything else in ancient literature that is remotely parallel to these dramatic miracles, among texts which were intended to be taken as serious history rather than as entertainment.

It seems obviously futile to try to explain these miracles in purely natural terms.

(Of course, even on a supernaturalist interpretation of these miracles, there might still be some natural causes involved in performance of the miracle.  For example, before the Israelites crossed the Sea, Exodus 14:21 states that "the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land"; in other words, the wind was God's physical instrument for driving away the water.  But that just raises the question of how a wind powerful enough to create "walls of water on either side" came along in the first place.  The important question here is not whether physical causality was involved at any stage of the process—the entire point of doing a miracle in the physical world, is that it leads to some tangible physical consequences—but whether it is plausible that the event could have originated from only natural causes, without those natural causes being diverted from their usual course by some special supernatural exception to the usual rules governing the physical universe.)

Yet there is still a misguided intellectual parlor game which tries to explain these grand miracles using only natural causes.  The most notorious contender was the arch-crackpot Immanuel Velikovsky, who tried to explain several miracles in the Bible by proposing near misses with other planetary bodies in the solar system, but less insane versions of such conjectures keep being rolled out by naturalists of various sorts.

Most of these attempted naturalistic explanations aren't really very scientifically plausible in the first place.  But there is a deeper problem with this project.  Such naturalistic explanations utterly fail to explain the extraordinary degree of coincidental timing that is required.

For example, let's suppose for the sake of argument that we've found an explanation for why some body of water (whether or not it was the same as the traditionally understood Red Sea location) might have drained very quickly, leaving a dry path for the Israelites to walk through.  The fact that this—presumably extremely rare—event happened just as Moses was leading an escaping band of slaves from the Egyptians, and that the unusual phenomenon ended just in time to kill the Egyptian army, is one helluva coincidence!

Taking into account further coincidences, such as these Ten Plagues arising (and ceasing) in ways coordinated with Moses and Aaron's threats to Pharaoh, a plague which only targets firstborn sons (but not the Israelites who celebrated the Passover) and the description of the manna as only appearing 6 days a week (skipping the Sabbath Day so that the Israelites could rest)—it is clear that no purely naturalist explanation can serve as a plausible explanation for such phenomena.

Of course the proponents of such naturalistic theories are free to suppose that textual details such as these are later embellishments of the story.  But for the proponent of a specific naturalistic explanation for a miracle, this move is rather problematic.  A scientific explanation requires there to be some data supporting it, after all.  So this sort of skeptic tends to adopt a weirdly deferential reading of the text, hunting for clues that identify one particular natural phenomenon.  "If my scientific hypothesis is correct", they say, "It makes sense that the plagues should have occurred in this exact order, and lasted exactly this length of time, and look how well this particular Hebrew word describes this natural phenomenon!"  But to take those parts of the text hyper-literalistically and dogmatically, while at the same time proposing that all the other inconvenient bits (whatever doesn't fit your theory) are later legends, seems like special pleading.  So the methodology here isn't especially coherent.

If you wish to deny that the Exodus was supernatural, there is a much more sensible and obvious strategy, which is to simply declare that the whole event is legendary.  (Or, if there was a historical core event, that it has been buried under so many layers of legend that it is impossible for modern scholars to reconstruct what really happened.)

Yes, it's a bit strange that Jewish priests should have invented a national epic that portrayed the Israelites as hapless and cowardly slaves rescued by unprecedented miracles.  Nevertheless, that's nothing like so improbable as accepting the historicity of the Torah yet denying the hand of God in the process!

Thus, while the miracles of the Exodus score very well on this particular criterion, they are unfortunately too far in the past (and insufficiently corroborated) to clearly belong to the realm of history, rather than mythology.  This does not necessarily make a Jew or Christian irrational for believing that the events occurred, but it must be in the context of a broader worldview, and not because the historical proofs for it are overwhelming, considered in themselves.

We will therefore next consider some more recent historically documented miracles, particularly focussing on two important miracle claims with particularly good source documentation: namely 1) the Splitting of the Moon, and 2) the Resurrection of Jesus.  The testimonial chains for these events were the subject of the last installment; in this post we will ask whether—assuming, as we have already argued for, that these claims do go back to the testimony of those who claimed to be eyewitnesses—it is plausible that they could have happened naturally.

In each case, I will also compare these miracles to other, arguably parallel events, in order to make sure that the events in question are truly unique.

Case Study #2: The Splitting of the Moon

As previously discussed, the "Splitting of the Moon" is seemingly briefly mentioned by the Quran, and is also reported in the Hadith, via multiple chains of transmission going back to four of the original Companions of Mohammad.  According to these reports, in order to provide a miraculous sign, God split the moon into two pieces, which temporarily moved to different sides of a mountain.

Let's look at the primary sources.  Anas bin Malik narrated:

“The people of Mecca asked Allah's Messenger to show them a miracle. So he showed them the moon split in two halves between which they saw the Hira' mountain.” (Sahih Al Bukhari)

Abdullah Ibn Masud narrated:

“During the lifetime of Allah’s Messenger, the moon was split into two parts; one part remained over the mountain, and the other part went beyond the mountain.  On that, Allah’s Messenger said, `Witness this miracle.'” (Sahih Al Bukhari)

Ibn 'Abbas narrated:

"The moon was split into two parts during the lifetime of the Prophet." (Sahih Al Bukhari)

Finally, from Jubayr ibn Mut'im we have the following:

 "The moon was split into two pieces during the time of Allah's Prophet; a part of the moon was over one mountain, and another part over another mountain.  So they said: `Muhammad has taken us by his magic'.  They then said: `If he was able to take us by magic, he will not be able to do so with all people.' "

I should pause here and say that these are not excerpts from more elaborate descriptions of the miracle.  To the best of my ability to tell from the English translations available on the Internet, what I have just quoted is the entire text (apart from the chain of narrators) of the four hadiths which form the root of the tree of testimony about this miracle.  (In some cases, when the hadith was transmitted by multiple routes, there are minor textual variants, and in such cases I have attempted to select the more elaborate version.)

(I did find a more elaborate narrative version online; but as far as I can tell, it is not a primary source, but rather a composite stitched together from many hadith, including what I think must be information from later, secondary sources.  I am therefore going to disregard this version, although I am open to correction on this point from any experts in this area.)

As far as can be told from the authentic hadith, it seems that nobody else outside Mecca noticed this event.  Two of the Companions do indicate that the pagans in Mecca also witnessed the miracle, but nobody claims that they came to believe in Islam as a result.

It is of course quite obvious that no ordinary natural power would have been capable of actually physically splitting the moon in two and then bringing it back together again.  This is indeed, the strongest aspect of the miracle, since manipulating heavenly bodies would be quite out of the reach of a human impostor.

At the same time, there is no astrophysical evidence of such a disruptive event.  Of course God could have miraculously healed the cracks and cleaned up any other inconvenient astronomical evidence of the event happening, but this is a little bit like saying he could have left dinosaur bones in the Earth to trick us into thinking evolution happened.  It seems deceptive.  If you want to say that a miracle actually affected the physical world, I think it should leave behind at least some messy physical evidence suggesting it actually happened.

(Some Muslims use misleading photographs to claim that the Rima Ariadaeus trench is evidence left over from the Splitting of the Moon, but this trench is only about 300 km long so it doesn't go nearly all the way around, and it is similar to many other trenches on the Moon.  It is also unclear why, if God was deleting nearly all of the physical evidence for this event, he would leave this one little crack behind to prove his work.)

It is true that, depending on the nature of a miracle, it might not leave enough physical evidence behind to convince skeptics.  But when the miracle is such that it ought to have left some evidence behind and didn't, then even I, who already believe in God, become skeptical.  In other words, the splitting of the Moon is actually 2 miracles, the 1st being to divide the Moon, and the 2nd being to rejoin it in such a manner as to erase all physical effects of the 1st miracle (apart from any changes in the brains of those who supposedly saw it).

Hence, it appears that the sole purpose of such a miracle would be to serve as a temporary sign to instill belief, not to actually accomplish any lasting physical purpose.  (In this respect it is quite unlike the Exodus miracles, which rescued Israel from slavery and provided for her in the wilderness; nor is it like the Resurrection of Jesus which rescued Christ from death, and points forward to humanity being likewise rescued from death.)  Splitting the Moon does indeed suggest an extreme degree of power, and perhaps a certain degree of capriciousness.  But considered in itself, the miracle is sterile and does not lead to any further consequences.

Because of this lack of physical evidence left behind, there are other ways of interpreting the miracle besides the moon literally splitting into two physical pieces and then rejoining.  For example, God might have merely miraculously caused the appearance of the moon being split in two.

To my mind, that is a more reasonable interpretation of the event.  (Similarly, I would rather not explain the biblical miracle of Joshua commanding the Sun and Moon to stand still as a miracle which affected orbits in the solar system, but rather as a local event which affected the perceptions of those in the valley of Ayalon.)

Even taken in this sense, the Splitting of the Moon is definitely one of the more impressive non-Christian miracles, assuming the reports are accurate.  A sign in the heavens would be very difficult to fake with any kind of slight-of-hand trick.

Possible Parallels: More Signs in the Heavens

On the other hand, it doesn't seem totally crazy to say that people may have witnessed some real atmospheric or visual effect, which was then misinterpreted by people eager to believe that they had seen a sign.  There are many other instances of groups of religious people temporarily seeing strange things in the sky, when primed to do so by expectation.  Or to take an example less related to traditional religions—but still conducive to fanaticism—there are lots of people who claim to have sighted UFO's in the sky.

As a general rule, I don't think such people are lying about having seen something; I would instead question their interpretation of what they saw, since merely seeing a collection of lights moving around in the sky that you can't identify, doesn't necessarily mean that it is actually an alien spacecraft.  As someone once said, I have no objection when people claim to have seen unidentified flying objects, it's only when people try to identify them with conspiracy theories about alien invaders, that skepticism is warranted.

Another possible parallel is the very heavily witnessed Roman Catholic Miracle of the Sun, supposedly seen by thousands of people—though different people saw different things, and some people saw nothing.  A large crowd had been gathered together and told that they would see a miracle if they looked at the Sun, and many of the people there saw some odd visual effects when they did so.

But as we were all warned before the recent total eclipse, it is quite dangerous to stare at the sun for any extended period of time, since doing so can damage the retina.  It is not really particularly surprising that the participants saw a variety of dazzling visual phenomena after doing this foolish thing, and then interpreted it as confirmation of the miracle they were already expecting.

(Obviously, the Moon is less likely to cause these kinds of dazzling effects, so this is not a perfect parallel to the Islamic claim, but it does illustrate the way in which crowds primed to accept a miracle can interpret any strange thing they see in the sky as a confirmation of their beliefs.)

A solar miracle of a somewhat different kind is reported in the Gospels, which state that the Sun was darkened for the final three hours that Jesus hung on the Cross.  In addition to the Gospels, this miracle appears to have been reported by two different non-Christian historians (although these works are now lost so we know about them only because of Christian commentary).  It might be possible to explain this strange Darkness by natural causes (although due to the timing of Passover it cannot have been a normal solar eclipse).  However, one should take into account the fact that, if the cause were natural, there would have been no reason for its timing to match up with the death of Jesus.

(Like the Resurrection, this miracle is at cross-purposes with the Quran which, as we have already discussed, states that Jesus was not actually crucified.)

These parallels, together with the sparseness of how the miracle was actually described, make me rather uncertain how much evidence a miracle like this really provides.  There is no question in my mind that it counts as some significant evidence for the truth Islam, but it seems to me that the evidence described in the next section will surpass it.

Case Study #3: The Resurrection of Jesus

The Gospels and Acts together record about a dozen different examples of Jesus appearing to people after he had died.  The following passage taken from the 24th chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke describes three of these events:

[To 2 disciples on the Road:]  Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.  They were talking with each other about everything that had happened.  As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.

He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”

They stood still, their faces downcast.  One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

“What things?” he asked.

“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people.  The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place.  In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive.  Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”  And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther.  But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.”  So he went in to stay with them.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.  Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.  They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

[To St. Peter individually:]  They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem.  There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.”  Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

[To the larger group of disciples:]  While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.  He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?  Look at my hands and my feet.  It is I myself!  Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet.  And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?”  They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.  He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things.  I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Several aspects of these Resurrection appearances are worth mentioning (most of which are apparent from the passage above, but I am interpreting them within the broader context of the other New Testament accounts):

1) It involved multiple events, in which Jesus appeared to different overlapping groups of people, or sometimes to individual persons.

2) Many aspects of the experience were quite strange, and don't fit anyone's preconceptions about how bodies and spirits work.  Jesus appears and disappears instantly, and yet he is at pains to prove to his disciples that he is not a ghost.  He can be recognized, yet some people seem to have difficulty doing so at first.

3) In order to release the disciples from their doubts about whether he was really alive, Jesus allowed himself to interact with the world according to at least 4 of the 5 sense modalities:

SIGHT - Jesus was visible to all of them at the same time, and showed them his limbs (these are mentioned specifically, presumably because that is where the crucifixion wounds were).
HEARING - Jesus spoke audibly to all of them at the same time.
TOUCH - Jesus allowed them to touch him in order to feel his flesh and bones.
TASTE - Jesus shared several common meals with the disciples, including events where he ate food, and at least one event where he cooked the food himself and gave it to the disciples.

4) Each of these experiences were prolonged over a considerable time, long enough to allow for extended conversations, in which Jesus was able to give them significant instruction about how his suffering fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies, and what they should do next.

and of course we mustn't forget the first event on Easter Day:

5) Jesus' tomb was found mysteriously empty, with the stone rolled away and the body missing, with the women reporting a message from angels that Jesus rose from the dead.

Assuming these events happened as stated, it is really quite hard to come up with any reasonable explanations for how such a large group of people could have been deceived in all of these ways simultaneously.  Only if we throw out half of the reported data, can explanations such as group hallucinations even be considered; even apart from the antecedent improbability of such a hallucination affecting a dozen people at the same time.

And yet, on the other hand, after the Resurrection, Jesus' body was also capable of instantly appearing and disappearing, things which aren't consistent with any of the more eccentric skeptical theories (such as Identical Twins or the Swoon Theory) in which the disciples saw an actual living person.

The only simple naturalistic explanation, which doesn't require the conjunction of multiple weird things happening separately, is that the Resurrection was a lie promulgated by the earliest disciples.  Indeed, this is the earliest known contemporary rebuttal ("the disciples stole the body", as relayed in Matt 27:64, 28:13).

A Possible Parallel: "Seeing the Rebbe"

In order to check whether there are parallel events to this event, it is instructive to consider the case of a much more recent Jewish rabbi who inspired a Messianic movement.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was an extremely pious Jew with a reputation for great seriousness and holiness, and under his leadership he developed the nearly extinct Chabad (or Lubavitch) movement into a worldwide Jewish revival movement (here is a balanced discussion of his ideals).  As a result, there was much speculation that he would be the Messiah, despite the fact that (unlike Jesus) he seemingly never made this claim himself, nor approved of it being explicitly said in his presence.

However, the most relevant aspect to the present discussion, is the reports from people who say they saw him after his death.  There is in fact an entire website, Seeing the Rebbe, dedicated to collecting these claims.

The parallels to (certain aspects of) the early Jesus movement are striking.  But, when it comes to evaluating the strength of an evidential case, the details matter.  A closer inspection of these claims shows that there are also some pretty key dissimilarities to the Gospels, which make it much easier to explain the Lubuvitch rabbi's "appearances" without recourse to the supernatural.

The first story on the website is quite different from the others.  In this case alone, a photograph is shown in which, it is claimed, the rebbe has mysteriously appeared in the photograph of a child, taken with a disposable camera.  There is a very sharply defined man with a Jewish hat in the photo.  The image is not at all like the ghostly apparitions which normally appear in claims of spirit photography; rather it is very clearly the image of an actual physical person.  But the back of the man is turned.  Apart from his clothing, only his neck and ears (and what might be a small portion of his beard) are visible.  From the picture, he could easily be almost any Orthodox man (although the lightish color of the hair suggests someone elderly).  This is hardly sufficient information to make a definitive identification.  To explain this event naturally, the only mistake required is that the child didn't recall the man being there when the picture was taken.  Since the photograph was developed days later, after the child returned from his trip, this memory lapse is hardly surprising.

In all the rest of the eleven accounts, the rebbe is perceived by a human, not in a photograph.  The rebbe is suddenly visible, during a religious ritual, or while visiting a place associated with him.  Each appearance is quite brief, lasting just a few seconds, or half a minute at most.  Usually, only a single person sees the rebbe in any given story, while the others in the room don't notice him at all; however, in two of the stories another person confirms seeing him (among a larger group of people that don't).  Some of the stories provide minor circumstantial coincidinces that seem to confirm the experience, but none of it is extraordinarily implausible.  One of the persons was skeptical beforehand, but was still present at a ritual intended to "to greet the Rebbe with song and melody".

These experiences were almost exclusively visual, although in a single case the rabbe also speaks a brief sentence: “Don’t worry, the financial situation of your parents will be okay.”  (This was part of a vision a yeshiva student had immediately upon waking up from sleep, a time when dream-like hallucinations are particuarly common.)

Nobody claims he shared a Shabbat luncheon with them, or that he got into an extended argument about the Talmud.

Given this data, it does not seem improbable to me to claim that all of these experiences (except the one involving the camera) were hallcuinations of one sort or another.

(By the way, this would not automatically prove that the experiences have no spiritual value, or even a supernatural cause.  Nothing I believe is inconsistent with the claim that a holy Jewish leader might be allowed by the Almighty to appear to members of his religious movement, in visions after his death, in order to encourage them.  Although the Lubavitch idiom that they "merited to see him" bothers me from a Christian spiritual framework, in which God reaches out to us by grace, not because we somehow earned it.)

Contrary to popular belief, minor hallucinations are not at all uncommon, even among people who are perfectly sane.  For example, around half of widowed individuals have "bereavement hallucinations" of their loved ones, while they are grieving their deaths.

These experiences are not very difficult to explain from a neurological point of view.  Our brains store information about a large number of concepts, which we use to interpet our sensory data.  If you have known a person for a long time, then your brain develops an intricate concept of them, which is associated with many other concepts.  In some cases, your idea of a person may be triggered so strongly that it overrides your normal sensory interpretation.  In that case, you may see or hear the person in a situation where they aren't there.  Similarly, a strong religious expectation may also cause a sensory override.

Or, to take a more mundane example, just the other day I was walking along the street and I thought I saw a dog moving out of the corner of my eye.  When I looked at it more closely, it was just a normal construction cone sitting there.  Apparently, my "dog" neurons had been triggered by some feature of the situation, and had fired inappropriately.

In such cases reality usually re-asserts itself pretty quickly.  Such neural misfires do not usually lead to a long term disassociation with reality; since as time passes, additional sense data quickly convinces the brain that its initial classification of stimuli was wrong.

Back to Jesus

So could the Resurrection appearances of Jesus in the Gospels be explained by such "sensory overrides"?

I think there are serious problems with that theory.  One of the problems, obviously, is that Jesus was seen by larger groups, for example by more than a dozen men simultaneously.  For a neurological misfire to affect many people at once, in the same fashion, would be a stunning coincidence.  Two at once, perhaps, but never a dozen.

A second problem, is that if the accounts are at all accurate, Jesus remained present during his meetings long enough to have theological conversations involving multiple scriptural passages, and to interact with them in other ways.  This would require a sustained, contagious distortion of reality, much more intense than anything needed to explain the Seeing the Rebbe website.

But I think there is an even more fundamental difference between the two types of appearances.  Those who saw Rabbi Schneerson always immediately perceived it as being him.  No doubt is ever expressed regarding his identification (despite the fact that many of these individuals never saw him during his life); in general the only doubt expressed is whether the experience was veridical or just a hallucination.  This is exactly what we should expect in the case of a "sensory override" where the persons' concept of "the Rebbe" was being imposed on the sensory data.  In such cases, the vision is immediately recognized as fitting the mental concept, because it really is just the person's mental concept triggering.

(A partial exception: in one case the rebbe looked older than the person was expecting.  However, old age is a stereotypically rabbinic quality; and it is always possible that the person had seen other pictures of him, which she was not consciously remembering.)

On the other hand, those who saw Rabbi Yeshua after his death, sometimes failed to recognize immediately it was him (cf. John 20:11-18), despite the fact that they had seen him before he died.  Perhaps this was because, knowing intellectually that he had died, there was a mental block in accepting that he could be alive.  Or perhaps, there was something about his post-Resurrection appearance that was confusingly different from the way he had looked on earth.

Mary Magdalene thinks Jesus is the gardener at first; while Cleopas and his companion have an extended theological discussion with him, thinking he is just a mundane (but slightly clueless) stranger.  Not until later in these encounters, is there an "aha!" moment and they realize they are looking at Jesus.  None of this would be possible if their "Jesus" neurons had been misfiring, causing them to experience Jesus' presence even though nobody was there.

In other words, the disciples experienced Jesus' body as objectively clearly present, even though it was subjectively confusing (who and what is this person?).  This is in many ways the exact opposite of a hallucination, which is subjectively experienced as some definite entity, but is confusing in its relation to objectivity (I knew it was the rebbe, but maybe it was a hallucination?).

The disciples who express doubts about the Resurrection, nearly* always do so either because they were not present during a previous appearance (e.g. the male disciples doubting the women, or Thomas doubting the other male disciples in John 20), or because they are trying to figure out how to fit the event into their belief system (e.g. thinking maybe Jesus was a ghost).  Although the disciples express both doubt and wonder, we are never told of anyone who doubts because they were unable to see Jesus, even though other people in the same room did see him.  All of this speaks to something objectively present.

[*The one possible exception is Matt 28:17, in which we are not told which disciples doubted or what the source of their doubt was.  Since we are not told, this loose end could easily be given either a favorable or unfavorable interpretation.]

Of course, the fact that Jesus' tomb was found empty, while the other rabbi's tomb is presumably still occupied, is another difference suggesting a greater objectivity in what happened to Jesus.

Another Claimed Parallel: The Golden Plates

Some skeptics bring up as another possible parallel to the Resurrection Appearances, the invisible golden plates I briefly mentioned before, which Joseph Smith supposedly translated the Book of Mormon from.

Although Smith normally kept these "plates" hidden from sight, in order to bolster his claims he did attempt to collect a set of Twelve Witnesses (counting Smith himself) to swear to having seen the plates (presumably in an attempt to construct a deliberate parallel to the 12 Apostles.  These witnesses were all taken from among his family, close friends, and financial backers.

Now let me be clear on one point: the accumulated evidence for Smith being a charlatan is so compelling that I don't think there is any way that this testimony could overcome that hurdle.  The only reason I am spending words on this, is to discuss whether it is a sufficiently close parallel to the Apostolic testimony to undermine the evidence for Christianity.

One notable lack of parallelism is that, oddly, almost every member of these 11 witnesses eventually broke away from following Joseph Smith (except for two members of the Whitmer family who died a few years after signing the declaration), although one was eventually reconciled.  Obviously, this vision did not have the same spiritual power to transform these witnesses into fearless leaders, the way that the Resurrection transformed the Apostles.  (However, some of the witnesses continued to assert quite strongly that they had seen the plates.)

A more important point here is that the behavior of at least the first 3 witnesses makes it pretty clear that there wasn't really an object there to see in the first place.  Let's look at this more closely.  Wikipedia summarizes the event like this:

On Sunday, June 28, 1829, Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris went into the woods near the home of Peter Whitmer, Sr. and prayed to receive a vision of the golden plates.  After some time, Harris left the other three men, believing his presence had prevented the vision from occurring.  The remaining three again knelt and said they soon saw a light in the air overhead and an angel holding the golden plates.  Smith retrieved Harris, and after praying at some length with him, Harris too said he saw the vision.

In other words, we are clearly not dealing here with some object that reflects light normally, and can be seen without the use of faith.  We are dealing with an object which cannot be seen at all without first engaging in intense prayer.  Indeed the fact that the most skeptical individual had to leave the area in order for the other witnesses to see the plates, and that, after Harris returned, Smith had to pray with him "at some length" suggests to me that quite a bit of psychological pressure had to be applied by Smith, in order to get the witnesses to agree that they saw something.

And after his testimony, Harris admitted on multiple occasions that he had only seen the plates "with the eyes of faith" or "spiritual eyes", not his "natural eyes".  (Although later in his life he tried to backtrack on this point.)

Of course, there is no doubt that Jesus also had a lot of charismatic pull over his disciples. But if Christianity were false, then Jesus would still have been dead, and thus not in a very good position to do the necessary browbeating and cajoling of reluctant witnesses.  To tell a convincing story, one would have to cast some of the disciples into this role, say St. Peter and St. Mary Magdalene.  But if that is what really happened, one might expect the accounts to reflect this guiding role, just as the Mormon texts reflect the role of Smith.

If the New Testament texts seemed to point towards this sort of "sort of there, sort of not" experience one might expect from a manufactured vision, then I would not consider that kind of evidence to be remotely sufficient for purposes of founding a new religion.  But they don't.

Of course, it is always possible to imagine that the texts are not accurately reporting the disciples' actual historical experiences.  Maybe, a skeptic might say, if we had interviewed the Twelve disciples just a few weeks after the event, we would have found lots of tell-tale signs of falsehood, only they've all been cleaned up from the accounts that ended up in the New Testament.

Well, maybe.  But note that this is all speculation about evidence we don't have.  The point of this blog series is to compare different religions with respect to the evidence that we do have, to see how they measure up to each other.  I don't expect anything in this post to convince the sort of skeptic who has a strong commitment to Naturalism to give up their deeply held belief that all religions are false.  But, I do think that a fair-minded person should agree that not all religions have the same degree and types of evidence.

(By the way, I don't consider the minor discrepancies between the Gospel accounts to be a sign of falsehood; rather this is a normal feature of witness testimony.  I would consider it to be far more suspicious if discrepancies weren't there, since it would be a sign that this "cleaning up" process had happened.  Indeed, I don't think that the things that I, as a 21st century person would regard as tell-tale signs of fakeness, are necessarily the same things as the things a 1st century person would notice as potential problems.)

Case Study #4: Miracles of the Buddha

This section is going to be very short, because (as discussed in previous posts in this series) none of the miracles of Gautama Buddha are sufficiently established by nonlegendary, provably early texts to be worth considering in this regard.  If our historical evidence is consistent with a story being written centuries after Buddha's death, and if it reads like a folk tale with an obvious moral, then I'm going to discount it.

Of these legendary miracles, the one that some traditions identify as the greatest sign of a true Buddha is the "Twin Miracle", the earliest versions of which are discussed here.  In which the Buddha simultaneously shoots fire and water out of every pore and limb of his body (while walking in the air).  While this is admittedly impressive—and yes, quite inexplicable on Naturalism—let's be honest: it's also ludicrously, preposterously silly.

Fortunately for Gautama's reputation, it's not very hard to believe that it never happened.

*            *            *

Alternative Supernatural Explanations

So far in this installment, we've been operating under the unstated assumption that if a religion is false, then any claims it makes to supernatural power are also false.  In other words, I am assuming that a Christian would try to explain e.g. a putative Muslim or pagan miracle using the same types of explanations (fakes, mistakes, legends) that a naturalistic skeptic would resort to.  However, a religious worldview also opens up the possibility of supernatural explanations of what is going on with other religion.  Such arguments must be considered as well.

For example, someone might try to explain miracles in other religions by saying that they actually have an origin in a non-divine supernatural power (e.g. demons, or psychic powers, or something).

As a Christian, I do believe in the existence of supernatural fallen angels.  These demons are, unlike God, created beings with limited power and wisdom, who have chosen to abuse their free will by trying to resist God's kingdom.  Even in the contemporary world, Christian missionaries who evangelize foreign tribes occasionally report encounters with "witch doctors" who appear to have actual supernatural powers to levitate objects or curse people—even if said manifestations subside when the Christian missionaries pray to the greater power of Jesus.

Just because a paranormal event is genuine in the sense of being caused by an actual paranormal being, does not necessarily mean that the paranormal being is not itself a liar trying to deceive people.  In a Christian worldview, any such "miracles" caused by demons would be just as fraudulent as the miracles caused by human slight-of-hand.  The fact that the fraud might involve some physical powers that a materialist would have trouble believing in, would not really change the spiritual reality of what is going on in such situations.  (Including, perhaps, that the demon's power is quite limited, and that it relies largely on terror and suggestion to trick human beings into accepting bondage voluntarily.)

However, if a non-Christian miracle can be given an obvious natural explanations—and most of them can be—then resorting to this more complicated hypothesis is completely unnecessary.  And such accounts do involve making the significant concession that something is really "going on" in the other religion.  In such cases, judging between the two religions would then require consideration of some other factor (e.g. the degree of goodness or power displayed by the competing miracles).

For example, the Gospels report that after Jesus did a certain healing miracle, some of his enemies accused him of "driving out demons with the help of Beelzebul, the prince of demons" (Matthew 12:24).  In other words, Jesus' religious opponents did not deny that he performed supernatural feats, but proposed that he had made some sort of Faustian bargain with the Devil.  (A similar accusation is perpetuated in the Talmud, which claims that Jesus was executed for "sorcery" among other offenses.)

In his reply, Jesus pointed out that it doesn't make that much sense for the Devil to be going around undoing his own work: "A house divided against itself cannot stand" (12:25).  And if a person is capable of seeing with their own eyes, a miraculously blind and mute person being healed, and not seeing it as an obvious sign of goodness, then it's hard to imagine any possible set of experiences which could convert such a person.

(An even more extreme version of "a house divided" would be if God deliberately creates such false miracles in order to fool or trick people, or to test their faith.  I already rejected one such claim of divine deception in a previous post.)

Modern Supernatural Healings

But do such dramatic healings still happen today?  I think they sometimes do.

I've previously mentioned St. Craig Keener's book on modern-day miracles.  In addition to consulting secondary sources, he personally interviewed hundreds of individuals reporting miracles (including several individuals he knows well enough to vouch for their honesty).  Keener discusses many miracles (mostly healings) some of which are extremely difficult to explain naturalistically.

He describes (with so many examples that it becomes quite tedious) many cases of instant or rapid healing of blindness, deafness, tumors, various disabilities, and even raising the dead, usually in response to prayer in the name of Jesus.  In many cases the conditions clearly had organic causes (hence were not psychosomatic) and the healings were confirmed by before & after medical scans (including cases where the doctors had difficulty believing it was the same person, since the prognosis was so dire).  He does not presume a supernatural explanation, but carefully considers alternative explanations.  All in all, I found this book an extremely convincing refutation of Naturalism.

What Keener's book is not, is an exercise in comparative religion.  Except for a brief chapter—which honestly felt like it was in the wrong book—discussing possible ancient parallels (e.g. temples to Asclepius, the god of healing), he confines his attention to Christian miracles.  So far as one can tell from this book, it is at least possible that there are equally impressive healings in completely separate religions (although if so I am not aware of them).

Another possible foil might be the claims of Christian Science, which has "Christian" in its name, but is an extremely heretical interpretation of Christianity which denies the existence of evil, encourages its members to seek spiritual healing instead of getting medical treatment, and basically ignores anything in the Bible which doesn't contribute in some way to these ideas.

There are excellent reasons (one of them will be described in the next post) for not taking this movement seriously, but they might well serve as a "control group" for how often one would expect seeming healings to happen naturally by chance.  (It's a delicate thing theologically though, because it is certainly not a doctrine of Christianity that God never heals anyone unless their beliefs about him are completely correct.)  In any case, this topic would require doing further research on another blog post entirely, which I don't have much time for at the moment.

Genuine Non-Christian miracles?

In light of Jesus' arguments, I am unwilling to use demonic influence as an excuse to explain away any miraculous event which is both obviously good (e.g. a physical healing) and obviously real (i.e. the person was actually healed, and we aren't just talking about fakery, or coincidence, or people ignoring their cancer symptoms, or something like that).

In my worldview, any such supernatural grace (even if it were to occur in the context of a non-Christian religion) must always be attributed to the one true God.  This is so even if the individual who receives the miracle has superstitious or unreasonable ideas about how the miracle came about.

Such a miracle might well provide some significant evidence for the basic validity of the religious tradition in question (at least to the extent of sometimes putting its worshippers in touch with the real God) but there is no reason I know of to think that God would be so stingy as to never do a miracle for anybody who was theologically misguided in any respect.  (Though obviously, a Christian can't accept as valid any miracles that are specifically designed to authenticate a false prophet's religion.)

This is why I have no problem recognizing that there may be genuine religious miracles received by some people whose theological ideas I may not agree with in other respects (e.g. Roman Catholics, Pentecostals who subscribe to aspects of prosperity gospel thinking).  And for all I know, God might also grant such miracles to some Muslims, modern Jews, pagans, etc.

As St. Keener says:

One of Hume's arguments against miracles is that incompatible religions claim miracles, and thus, on his view, their claims cancel each other....

He probably drew this argument from the deists, who in turn had used similar arguments of Protestants and Catholics polemicizing against each other's miracles.  Hume advances this observation to argue that miracle claims as a whole are therefore suspect (part of a universally or at least widely tendentious religious rhetoric).  But using this observed incompatibility as an objection to miracles fails to reckon with multiple potential philosophic alternatives to the objection.  For example, such miracles could be understood as supreme power's "goodwill" toward people of different faiths "without necessarily endorsing" particular beliefs; the related idea that most miracles in response to prayers do not explicitly specify a particular religious system; the systems could be less incompatible than their adherents suppose; or one could argue that there are multiple supernatural or at least superhuman powers, a view held by traditional religion and even by most traditional forms of monotheism.  (Miracles, p. 193, 195-196)

St. Brandon Watson, a historian of philosophy, makes a similar point:

Hume is turning popular anti-Catholic tropes and arguments, as used by Protestants, against Protestants as well.  Protestant arguments about the gullibility of Catholics with regard to the miracles of the saints become Humean arguments about the gullibility of religious people generally with regard to miracles generally; Protestant arguments that we cannot rationally believe that transubstantiation occurs against the evidence of our senses find parallels in Hume's arguments against believing in religious miracles; and so forth.  What is more, this seems not to have been lost on Hume's early critics; George Campbell, for instance, sees quite clearly what Hume is doing in (for instance) his long note on the Jansenist miracles, and, obviously, refuses to play the game, insisting that the parallels are artificial and based on false assumptions.  In any case, these tropes were not typically in-principle arguments; they were based on claims about the mendacity of priests, the gullibility of poorly educated Catholics, and so forth.

In other words, the most famous example of a skeptical "Argument from Other Religions" is an adaptation of inter-religious Christian disputes, back when what was most often meant by a "false religion" was a rival interpretation of Christianity.

This raises the interesting question of whether this particular skeptical attack on religion would have had the same rhetorical appeal, if the Church had remained united—at least by the bonds of love, if not identical belief—rather then splintering into warring religious factions in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Could it be that the "Argument from Other Religions" really inspired by the long shadow of the religious wars of the Early Modern era?

Even if that thesis is too extreme, I think it is easy for people in the Western world to make arguments from comparative religion, without realizing that they are really projecting features of Christian doctrine onto other religions, which—when understood from a sympathetic view—don't even really pretend to base themselves on the same kinds of concrete historical miracle claims that support Judaeo-Christian doctrines.

In other words, many skeptics are too lazy to actually do any research about what a totally non-Christian religion looks like.  Instead of doing research, it's easier to just compare Christianity to an imagined clone of itself, and find that on the whole Christianity comes out looking rather unoriginal.

So long as the skeptic confines himself to religions that actually are explicitly attempts to copy and surpass Christianity (e.g. Islam, Mormonism...) these expectations won't be totally misleading.  But it is a mistake to think that a random Eastern religion with no connection to Christianity will appeal to the same kinds of evidential support that Christianity does.  Such an approach would, ironically, project Christian values onto an essentially foreign milieu, and thus fails to see what is really going on in Eastern religions.

Next: Honest Messengers

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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27 Responses to Comparing Religions VII: Natural Inexplicability

  1. NWR says:

    Hi Aron,

    Just wanted to make a quick comment. From what I understand, one of the aspects of the purported Miracle of Fatima/Dancing Sun was that, unlike other reported sun miracles, the witnesses suffered no eye damage or vision issues of any kind, despite looking at the sun for extended periods of time on that day. I'm not here to die on the hill that it was unequivocally a miracle of God. But it does seem to have some differences from others that make it a peculiar case.

  2. Thank you for continuing the series.

    I think that you are taking a very Christian view towards miracles, which is natural as you are Christian. As Jesus said when prophesying of His Resurrection: “This generation asks for a sign? No sign will be given other than the sign of Jonah”. This is may be why Jesus constantly told people to be quiet about the various healing miracles, they were meant to be signs to a few and not signs to the world.

    This is a different view then many people, both Christians and non-Christians, have towards miracles. For many, the purpose of miracles is as a benefit or end goal that some particular belief or ritual or so on can produce. As such there is a fundamental difference between miracles in the Abrahamic religion context (which includes the splitting of the moon, I have only engaged in a very surface study of Islam and appreciate it being put into context) and outside of the Abrahamic religion context.

    I have talked with people who believe in miracles but who are not Christians or don't believe in God. They always seem to focus on miracles or supernatural occurrences as some point of possible benefit for themselves or others and not as a sign or method of communication.

    I haven’t read Keener’s book, although I was brought up on (and still occasionally hear at church) stories of miraculous experiences of those involved with missions in Africa, South America and Asia (and occasionally in North America and Europe). I wonder how the miracles in his book fit as far as ‘signs’ or ‘benefits for those who engage in the proper rituals’.

  3. Aron Wall says:

    Jonathan,
    Obviously, for those who are healed, the fact that they aren't sick anymore is a very psychologically important aspect of what has happened. And it's understandable that people in any religious tradition that accepts some form of religious healing, will be motivated to seek that benefit, quite apart from whether it provides any additional evidence for their religion. I didn't mean to dismiss that aspect as totally unimportant---it just isn't highly relevant to this particular series, which is about comparing the evidence for different religions.

    Although, in some ways that consideration did enter this blog post, when I talked about miracles as being either "sterile" or serving some higher purpose. With a few notable exceptions, nearly every miracle in the Bible serves some specific purpose, e.g. to save God's people or judge their oppressors or consecrate a holy space, that goes beyond merely "providing evidence" Indeed, convincing skeptics does not seem to be the primary purpose of most miracles (which does not necessarily mean that they can never do that as a side-effect).

    I agree with you that the way I am comparing religions includes some implicitly Christian or at least Abrahamic assumptions. Indeed, the very concept of comparing the evidence for different religions---that there is a set of sharply delineated religions, making competing truth claims, and that the true religion can be distinguished from the false/incomplete ones by some distinctive authenticating criteria---would be I think quite foreign to the vast majority of pagan polytheists in history.

    But I don't think this is circular reasoning. The fact that Christianity is such, that it provokes people to evaluate religious claims as [true vs. false] and [good vs. bad] instead of just [what my tribe does vs. what your tribe does] is precisely what you would expect to have happen, if it is in fact based on a unique revelation.

    To give a partial analogy, while one assumes that an indiginous tribe's healing practices are based in part on observation of what seems to work, it is only after that tribe comes into contact with the Western scientific medical tradition, that anyone is going to try to definitively sort such cultural healing practices into bins labelled as "pseudo-scientific" vs. "evidence-based". (This analogy only works if you agree that modern scientific medicine really is unique in its relationship to evidential support, and that it isn't merely Imperialism to judge other culture's medical practices by its standards. Note however that this does not require saying that everything the tribe does is incorrect, anymore than being a Christian requires you to think that every single aspect of non-Christian religions is bad.)

    NWR,
    But we don't know for sure that nobody present suffered any permanent eye damage! Eye damage comes in various degrees and intensities. All we know is that nobody with such permanent eye damage reported it to journalists, in such a way that it entered our coverage of the event. Since reporting such damage would make one look foolish and lead to people attacking one's religious conviction, it is not hard to believe that people would keep such things to themselves.

    Admittedly, we would probably have heard about complaints if somebody had became totally blind as a result of their experience, from their families if not from the individuals themselves. All this tells us was that atmospheric conditions were such as to either: a) block a sufficient quantity of harmful UV radiation, or b) trigger sufficient physiological reflexes in most people to prevented much of the harm. It is possible that even those who reported "staring" at the sun were actually not looking directly at it for much of the time---especially if what they were seeing was colorful afterimages left by the sun on the background of the sky. So the fact that the physical conditions happened to be such that we don't have an enormous number of injury reports is interesting, but not something that definitively rules out natural explanations.

    Also, from a moral perspective, if you place too much emphasis on the protection-from-damage aspect of the miracle, then it seems like the crowd was committing the sin of "testing God": i.e. (1) performing a act which risks bodily harm (2) in the hopes that God will save you from the natural consequences of the act (3) with the primary purpose of receiving a miracle in order to bolster faith (either your own faith, or that of others). This is categorically forbidden by the Bible. If the people present could have been rationally certain beforehand that the Fatima revelations were authentic, then there was no valid reason for them to be there, because they already believed in them. And if they were uncertain beforehand, then for all they knew they were risking their vision. I think a Christian can reasonably question whether St. Mary would ask people to violate one of the Father's commandments? (It seems to me that this is a problem whether or not any actual eye damage occurred, because the crowd couldn't know beforehand that it wouldn't happen.)

  4. NWR says:

    Hi again, Aron,

    I think Jaki actually made a suggestion on the Miracle at Fatima, that whatever happened wasn't supernatural, but the fact that kids predicted it several months in advance was the miracle of the event. I personally chalk it up to the "unsure" category for that very reason. I wouldn't think very many people would bother staring if it was messing their eyes up. Even a quick glance at the sun isn't pleasant haha.

    I'm not trying to be argumentative, btw. Just discussing. Hope I'm not pushing it. Still new here lol

  5. Aron Wall says:

    NWR,
    Don't worry about pushing any lines by continuing to politely argue about this. That is fine, as long as you respect the fact that I might not always be able to reply.

    However, I don't buy this argument either. In order for a prediction to be impressive as a supernatural prediction, it seems to me that (1) at least some level of detail must be given about what will happen, and (2) that detail has to be something which nobody could have reasonably predicted beforehand using their natural powers.

    Visionaries telling people that if they look at the sun something will happen, and then something does happen, does not seem to qualify as a very specific prediction. Especially if the something, is odd visual effects (just as one might expect from looking at the sun).

    Compare this to Jesus' advance predictions (e.g. here) that he would be crucified and then rise from the dead. Assume for the sake of argument that he really said this. (Of course, some skeptics believe such sayings were made up afterward, based on later events, but that's a different conversation.) If Christianity were false, Jesus did not have very much precise control over the particular method by which the authorities would execute him. And unless his disciples really did steal his body, he certainly had no power over what would happen to his dead body in the tomb, after that.

  6. NWR says:

    Skeptics often seem to make bold assumptions without much evidence. I don't put too much stock in what they say.

    However, you have a very long list of blog posts here going back several years. Have you ever discussed the predictions Jesus made, in-depth, on here, and what skeptics say about them supposedly being made after the fact? I'd love to read your thoughts on it.

  7. Mactoul says:

    In comparing religions, the importance given to miracles and high incidence of actual miracles in Christian nations may be emphasized.

    Great evangelical movements such as that of Mexico in 16th century and of Africa now are associated with miracles
    In case of Mexico it was the miraculous picture of Virgin of Guadalupe that got conversion of Mexico going.

    The importance of Marian sightings in sustaining Christian faith going in a secular age going cannot be overestimated

    While biblical miracles may be appreciated by techniques of literary analysis there are actual miracles such as undecomposed body of St Xavier that lies in a cathedral in Goa, a powerful witness of the Christian truth

  8. Mactoul says:

    There are also a great number of inexplicable phenomena that are not easily fitted into religious schemes such as ghosts, fairies, gnomes and other similar folks.

    These sightings are as well-attested as of the great miracles. Then there are reports of levitations both by Christians and non-Christians. Demonic possession are easy to fit.

  9. Aron Wall says:

    The body of St. Xavier doesn't look particularly "incorrupt" to me.

    It's true that he's looking a lot better than I expect to look 500 years from now! But there seems to be a perfectly natural explanation, namely that his body was preserved by the use of quicklime. According to this second link:

    In general, they discovered that the lime was highly effective in preventing decay and protecting the body, rather than destroying it.

    So I don't think any miracle is needed to explain this.

  10. Mr. C says:

    Dear Aron,

    Do you think our belief in miracles can be justified philosophically by the problem of induction? Like we can always say that our laws are fixed in the universe, except a couple of points of space-time in it (I hope it does not contradict Relativity), where what is called miraculous events happen.

    I just always thought that it helps to justify the possibility of miracles in the world. It would be nice to hear your comment on it.

  11. Paul Wraight says:

    Thanks for another very worthwhile post, though I have to confess that I have not fully kept up to date. You do not mention “The Miracles of Exodus” by Coln Humphreys. I am more impressed by some parts than others, but I think overall it is intended not to dismiss the supernatural, but to suggest natural means that God could have used. Of course, if he was correct, the fact that Moses was told what to do and obeyed remains supernatural.

  12. Aron Wall says:

    Paul,
    In fact I did link to St. Colin Humphrey's book (under the word "keep"). However, I only read reviews, not the actual book, so please feel free to tell me if there's something important about it I am missing!

    I did write a section of this blog post explaining why I think theistic approaches that try to explain the miraculous in natural terms are misguided. Do you agree with it?

    Mr C,
    While obviously the "problem of induction" plays a role in the epistemology of miracles, it's important to note that miracles are not merely exceptions to the usual laws of Nature. They are exceptions caused by a higher supernatural power. Hence, a miracle does not merely reperesent the breakdown of a certain scientific pattern, it also satisfies a higher theological pattern of its own.

    Hence, when deciding whether the unbrokenness of a scientific pattern in some particular domain is evidence against it being broken elsewhere, you have to take into account what God does. In Bayesian terms, no scientific experiment demonstrating a lawcan provide significant evidence against miracles unless there is some reason to think that if God exists and does miracles, that he would choose to do so in that particular experiment. This refutes Hume's argument against miracles.

  13. Mactoul says:

    Aron,
    So we must separate miracles from merely supernatural? For instance, are ghosts supernatural? Or demonic activities?

    I again have old doubts regarding invocation to "laws of Nature". Are they the same or subset or superset of laws of physics?

    In my opinion, miracles or supernatural events in general do not conflict with the laws of Nature or physics for the simple reason that these laws are general while the supernatural events are particular. Physics, in particular, deals with general, repeatable phenomena. Singular events are outside its preview.

    Physics also deals with lifeless things only. It treats living things as lifeless. Thus, phenomena particular to living things are outside the preview of physics.

    A lot of mischief has been caused by over-generalization from physics and it particularly falls upon the physicists to correct this misapprehension of what physics it and what it can do.

  14. Jewboy says:

    I believe that you do not address the most underrepresented objection to the ressurection based on Deut. 13. Read this convo - https://tinyurl.com/yyhdv9re

  15. Aron Wall says:

    Jewboy,
    In fact I did address Deut 13, just not in this particular post. (Did you notice how this was the 7th post in a series?) Please see below:

    Comparing Religions III: Ancient Roots
    and
    Is God allowed to update the Torah?

  16. Jewboy says:

    I see that now, my bad.

    Your response to Deut 13 seems tailored to fit Christianity. There's nothing there a Jew couldn't reject with his own narrative.

  17. Aron Wall says:

    There's a saying that most people, when they encounter an idea they want to believe, they ask themselves "Does the evidence allow me to believe this is true?".  But when they encounter an idea they don't want to accept, they instead ask "Does the evidence force me to accept this as true?"  The difference between these two questions explains a lot about why people tend to remain entrenched in their original positions.

    From your brief comment, it sounds like you concede that Christianity is at least consistent, in the sense that it can be made to fit all the data, according to its own narrative.  If the same thing is true of the Jewish narrative---as I would in turn be happy to concede---then indeed it is unlikely that either of us is going to be forced to accept the other person's point of view, in this life.  (Apart from divine intervention, which I believe can and does happen!)

    (Similarly, it's hard to construct any argument that will force an atheist to accept the existence of a Creator and Judge, if they aren't looking for one.)

    But consistency is the bare minimum of intellectual responsibility.  The better question to ask is, which of these 2 positions is more reasonable?  In the case of Judaism and Christianity, I would intepret that to mean: which approach fits better with God's purposes as declared in the Bible?  (I mean, the part of the Bible which is accepted by both sides of the dispute.)  Which approach succeeds more fully at connecting people to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and getting them to actually love their neighbors?  Which approach best fulfils God's promise to Abraham that "through your offspring all nations of the earth will be blessed"?

    Unlike direct accusations of inconsistency (which typically involve slinging isolated proof texts without looking at the larger context), judging the comparative reasonableness of two approaches requires first becoming familiar with both of them in a deeper way.  (That is why, in the conversation you posted, I wish that the participants had slowed down a bit, and really tried to pay attention to what the other people were saying, instead of trying to win the debate immediately by landing gotchas.)

    It is unusual for any blog post on the internet to cause somebody to immediately convert to an opposite point of view.  But dialogue is still valuable if it helps to provide a mental model of why other people believe what they do.  Sometimes people can carry around in their heads a detailed mental model of a rival philosophical viewpoint for a long time, before some hard-to-quantify shift of focus makes the other position start seeming more reasonable than the one they started with.

    So if you are not currently open to accepting Jesus, but you still feel like you are walking away from this series with a better understanding of how Christians think about the Bible and the religious landscape, I don't think I've wasted my time.

  18. Jewboy says:

    Thanks for your comments, I definitely agree with the allow/force distinction.

    Regarding your question: "The better question to ask is, which of these 2 positions is more reasonable? In the case of Judaism and Christianity, I would interpret that to mean: which approach fits better with God's purposes as declared in the Bible?" I honestly think that an objective reader of the axiomatic OT would reject the NT outright. I read your post "Is God Allowed to Update the Torah?" and fascinating back and forth between you and "JPH" as well. The quote JPH brought from WLC's defenders series is damning!:

    “When you look at the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, they give virtually no clue that Messiah isn’t going to be this triumphant warrior king that was expected. This is what was supposed to happen. … [T]here wasn’t any clear concept in the Old Testament that Messiah would come and be humiliatingly executed as a common criminal rather than establishing the throne of David in Jerusalem and throwing off the enemies of Israel and the Gentiles and the Jews would be in submission to this great warrior king, who would be like a new David. That was what I was saying you don’t find in the Old Testament.” That the world's most formidable Christian apologist would make such an admission can't be underestimated! WLC knows that scripture isn't an ally in this conversation.

    Similarly, in his Question of the Week #421 titled "Why Christianity rather than Judaism or Islam?" WLC says the following: "As for Judaism, again I should say that the decisive consideration is Jesus’ claims to be the Jewish Messiah and his subsequent resurrection from the dead. Jewish scholars are coming to recognize the historical facts undergirding Jesus’ resurrection and are hard-pressed to explain those facts apart from the resurrection." WLC's approach seems to put all the chips in one on hand: the resurrection. (I think this approach is useless. If the ONLY thing rooting for Christianity over Judaism is the argument from the resurrection, we can easily say that the Jewish paradigm has a far greater explanatory scope due to Deut 13.)

    A few more choice quotes:

    Walter Riggans, a born-again evangelical writes:

    "Let me repeat this point: there is no self-evident blueprint in the Hebrew Bible, which can be said to unambiguously point to Jesus. Only after one has come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and more specifically the kind of Messiah that he is, does it all begin to make sense and hang together." (Yehoshua Ben David” Olive Press, 1995 page 155)

    Michael Rydelnik, a professor at the Moody Bible Institute (who literally wrote the book on messianic prophecy, see: https://tinyurl.com/y6rk3gpf) wrote:

    "There is bad news for the Messianic movement. Some scholarly followers of Yeshua are taking him out of the Hebrew Bible…I’m convinced that an interpretive approach that negates Messianic prophesy is becoming prevalent among many scholars who believe in Yeshua…these believers adopt views that find it hard to see Messiah in the Hebrew Bible"

    It seems that Christian intellectuals have abandoned the normative interpretive approach because they know it doesn't fit. Only fundamentalists (Dr.Michael Brown??) still run with that approach. Instead, we must resort to looking with an esoteric spiritualized approach etc. which most informed Jews will just call ad-hoc, gap-bridging narratives. (Even your response here of "Which approach succeeds more fully at connecting people to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and getting them to actually love their neighbors?" seems tailored to fit Christianity.)

    Your thoughts?

  19. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for your comment.  If you've read my exchange with JPH, then you must have also read my reply to him, in which I said:

    It will not be a surprise to any long term readers of this blog that, despite our shared faith in Jesus, I feel quite free to disagree with St. William Lane Craig sometimes, when I think he is taking the wrong approach. This is one of those times. In fact there are so many references to fulfilled prophecies in the New Testament that some people try to argue that the Gospels were just constructed based on Jewish expectations about the Messiah. St. Craig is trying to argue against the view that the disciples just made up the Resurrection, but I think his approach is deeply misguided here. Yes, the disciples did not expect the Messiah to suffer rise from the dead until after he did so, but once you know where to look, these passages of Scripture really are there. So I do not accept his viewpoint there.

    What you are trying to do here is make an argument from authority, by cherry picking three quotations by Christians which play down the significance of Messianic prophecy.  That proves absolutely nothing, since I've read both the OT and NT myself many times, and therefore I have no need to rely on the authority of others, in order to state that the two Testaments are deeply, intricately connected with each other.

    Also, I'm not so sure that the St. Rydelnik quote means what you think it does, since there are two different elipses, and the quotation seems to have been truncated in a way which makes it impossible to know for sure which group of scholars he is referring to, or whether he agrees with their position.  Have you actually read the article in which it appears, or did you just grab it from this Jews for Judaism article without looking it up yourself in the original source?

    I say "cherry-picking" since there are surely thousands of Christian theologians, who have written many books and articles about these issues.  By selecting just three quotations---2 of them by authors whose names I don't recall ever hearing before---your comment gives the impression that there is a consensus among respectable Christian authorities about this issue, even though I'm pretty sure that the majority opinion among believing Christians is almost surely the opposite.

    Still less does this prove that only fundamentalists think that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy.  I am not a fundamentalist, and I believe that Jesus did fulfil Old Testament prophecy, so I would appreciate if you could direct your arguments towards my position, and leave the others out of it.

    I'm sure I could also quote 3 (non-Messianic) rabbis out of context saying nice things about Jesus, but that wouldn't be a very impressive argument for Christianity being true, for the exact same reasons.  (Lots of rabbis have said lots of things!)

    Since you are relying so heavily on using other people's arguments, I do feel like maybe I should ask if you've actually read the New Testament yourself? (If not the whole thing, at least the entire text of 1 of the 4 Gospels?)  If you haven't, it might be helpful to do that before resuming this conversation.

    If the ONLY thing rooting for Christianity over Judaism is the argument from the resurrection, we can easily say that the Jewish paradigm has a far greater explanatory scope due to Deut 13.)

    As we've already discussed, I'm not relying on the Resurrection alone in this blog series.  So this is something we both agree on!  

    Also, I don't think the phrase explanatory power means what you think it does.  This refers specifically to the ability of a hypothesis to explain a large number of specific details about a certain phenomenon.  Just using Deut 13 to shut down the conversation about Christianity, without giving any more details about exactly why God would test Israel in this specific manner---that's the exact opposite of explanatory power.  This does not necessarily imply you are wrong to be dismissive, but if so "explanatory power" is not the right phrase to use to justify your opinion.

    I also have no idea what you mean by "the normative interpretive approach".  Googling this phrase was not particularly illuminating.  Can you translate this from Academese to normal English?

    Instead, we must resort to looking with an esoteric spiritualized approach etc. which most informed Jews will just call ad-hoc, gap-bridging narratives. (Even your response here of "Which approach succeeds more fully at connecting people to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and getting them to actually love their neighbors?" seems tailored to fit Christianity.)

    This is the second time you've made this "tailoring" statement, but you haven't yet backed it up. In order to back it up, you need to tell me exactly what assumption I am making about Judaism (e.g. in the above quoted sentence) which an "informed Jew" would not make.

    Which aspect of my statement should an informed Jew disagree with? That the covenant with Abraham was intended to bless all the nations? That loving one's neighbor is a critically important aspect of religion? That we can learn something about God's purposes and intentions from what he has revealed? That we ought to take these purposes into account when interpreting his commandments?

    I don't think it is an "esoteric spritualized approach" to ask what are the most important purposes of God's covenant with Israel. Surely this is a question which any educated Jew ought to be able to answer.

    Since you are concerned I'm imposing my own emphasis on the Torah, rather than letting it speak for itself, let's use an objective criterion and just count the number of times each commandment appears in the Torah. Apart from generic commands to obey generally, I think that the most frequently repeated commandment in the Torah is the commandment to "Love God", which is stated in ten different ways in Deuteronomy. Similarly, there are many passages about God's love for Israel. So the idea that Judaism ought to produce a relationship with God isn't some foreign idea I'm imposing on the text; it's a major theme of the Torah! (Indeed, the Tanakh is full of examples of people who had just this kind of personal connection with God.) As the Lord said through the prophet Jeremiah:

    "Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom,
    let not the mighty man boast in his might,
    let not the rich man boast in his riches,
    but let him who boasts boast in this,
    that he understands and knows me,
    that I am the Lord
    who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.
    For in these things I delight," declares the Lord.

    So if you want to boast about the superiority of the Jewish interpretation, why don't you talk about how Judaism has helped you to fall more deeply in love with God?

  20. Paul Wraight says:

    Re “Miracles in Exodus” by Colin Humphreys, I found the discussion of the location of Mount Sinai and the crossing of the Red Sea, and the associated divine interventions, particularly illuminating and persuasive. I do not think that reading reviews would be a good enough substitute for studying the detailed case he makes.

  21. Mactoul says:

    Aron,
    I know you are not impressed by weeping statues but what do you think of the miracle of stigmata that are found in many Catholic saints.
    Padre Pio had stigmata that would appear every Wednesday to Friday apparently.

    Also, what do you think of reports of levitation found in Christian, Hindu and Buddhist traditions.

  22. James H says:

    The argument below- a variant of an argument by Weaver- attempts to argue that a necessary being exists. It requires only that it is *possible* that miracles occur, so if the argument works we have an argument for a necessary being which doesn’t depend on whether a particular miracle genuinely occured, or indeed whether any of the miracles in NT were genuine. Of course, to get from a necessary being to God requires an additional argument, so really the argument here is just stage 1 of 2. I would welcome any comments or criticisms- the stronger the better- of the argument.

    1. Any genuinely possible event is possibly caused.
    2. A miraculous event is a genuinely possible event.
    3. Therefore, a miraculous event is possibly caused.
    4. Only a necessary being can cause a miraculous event.
    5. Therefore, a necessary being is possible.
    6. If a necessary being is possible, a necessary being exists.
    7. Therefore, a necessary being exists.

  23. NWR says:

    Hi Mactoul,

    I know you were looking for a response from Aron, but I figured I'd just chime in, since this was one of the many religious topics I was feverishly researching for around six months after my dad passed away early this year. I'm not going to say for sure that his stigmata was real or anything. If someone put a gun to my head and told me to choose, I'd still lean 75/25 towards no. But if you do a quick Google search on him, or Wikipedia, they would have you think it's a solved hoax when it isn't, and probably never will be. The skeptics on this one were/are very misleading. The doctor they use as evidence that his stigmata wasn't real made the conclusions, or rather assumptions, before he actually did his own experiments and examinations of Pio, after which he then retracted said assumptions about what Pio was doing. Afterwards, he still didn't think it was supernatural, but he had no real explanation. And the other evidence they have was unsubstantiated. Also, there were aspects of Padre's stigmata that were incredibly unique. In fifty years of it, he never got infections. When he was near the end of his life, his hands were nearly healed, and when he died, all of the witnesses said his hands had completely healed up, no scarring or anything. Now, one doesn't make definitive conclusions based off of some witnesses and such. But I will say that, with Jesus being the Messiah who rose from the dead, I don't think it's that far of a stretch to think that God might endow this sort of symbol onto a highly religious man, particularly one who would later become a hero & a symbol of hope to so many in the world.

  24. 'I am not aware of anything else in ancient literature that is remotely parallel to these dramatic miracles, among texts which were intended to be taken as serious history rather than as entertainment."

    My impression is that many cultures don't have a clear distinct between history and mythology, but rather a gradual transition between fantastical myths depicted to happen ago and increasing sober recent histories. The narrative of the Bible fits this pattern very well. As another example, Homer's Iliad has serious historical value: It depicted boar's tusk helmets before they were discovered archaeologically and consulting it lead to the location for the excavation of Troy. It also depicts an encounter between Chryses and Agamemnon resembling Moses and Pharaoh but with one miracle instead of ten, the miraculous preservation of Hector's body, and frequent interactions with gods. It is placed within the Greek Heroic Age, which has a consistent chronology of the lives of many heros, from whom many historical figures claimed descent to bolster their legitimacy, and their stories frequently involve magic, gods, and reliable prophecies.

  25. Aron Wall says:

    Mactoul,
    In my opinion the stigmata were genuine in the first recorded case (St. Francis of Assisi), but I'm very suspicious of all the ones after that, since they seem like copycats trying to convince people they are saints.

    In the case of Pio in particular, when I did research on him a few years ago there seemed to be a few warning flags; for example accusations of sexual assault, combined with miracles that seem unusually flamboyant; a pope investigates and decided he has sufficient evidence he was a fraud. I don't think that looks very good. And as a Protestant, I'm obviously not obliged to think he was genuine just because he's been canonized in the Roman Catholic church.

    James H,
    I think St. Weaver's argument doesn't work, for a similar reason as the Model Ontological Argument. The question is whether by terms like possible/necessary you mean "conceivably true to the human mind" (logical possibility/necessity) or "actually possible given the deepest nature of reality" (metaphysical possibility/necessity).

    If you use logical terms then premise 2 is obviously true but premise 4 is false, since God (assuming he exists) would be metaphysically necessary without being logically necessary (as atheism does not imply a direct contradiction). On the other hand, if you use metaphysical terms then 4 might well be true (for example, if you define a "miracle" as an act of God, and God as a metaphysically necessary being), but I think there is no non-question-begging reason to believe 2. Precisely because 4 is true, if atheism holds then miracles are metaphysically impossible (since it is impossible for an event to be caused by God if there is no God).

    [PS if you don't have a webpage, please just leave it blank, since writing in N/a creates a dead link.]

  26. Mactoul says:

    Aron,
    Thanks for your reply. I would like further discussion if you don't mind. I don't understand how could Rome canonize him if a pope found him fraudulent. Accusations of sexual misconduct are really not saying much.
    You could still say that Cardinal Pell was accused of sexual misconduct. He was even convicted and spent time in prison before being acquited by the Supreme Court.

    And as for flamboyance of miracles, surely it is upto God. If He wants a flamboyant miracle, who are we to object.

  27. Aron Wall says:

    Mactoul,
    It was Pope St. John XXIII who thought that Pio was a fraud, and a later Pope (St. John Paul II, who had met him as a young priest) who canonized him. So that's not really all that surprising.

    I am well aware that some accusations of sexual assault are false. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't take them seriously when we are discussing the religious character of a putatively holy man. (In the case of Cardinal St. Pell, the evidence against him was discussed extensively in the media, and there was enough discussion for me to feel relatively sure that the accusations had serious problems with their credibility. But the simplest explanation for most accusations is that they are true.)

    God can indeed do flamboyant miracles, but when a human being who does miracles of an unusual sort, we can reasonably wonder whether they are trying to call attention to themselves rather than God. But this is a matter of tone, so hard to argue about if you don't already see it.

    Regarding the stigmata themselves, this book (which I am searching on google books, but if you are interested in this issue you could read the entire book and report back to us) seems to record multiple instances of Pio asking friends to secretly provide him with carbolic acid or veratrine (another caustic substance), which seems like a data point worth considering. If he really needed it for medical purposes, I don't see why he couldn't have procured it openly. As for his explanation for why he needed veratrine, well that's quite remarkable but I'll let you read it for yourself.

    I will admit that there are serious limitations on trying to research this sort of thing by internet sleuthing, and it is always possible that I am missing information which would show things in a different light. If so, I'm sure he will forgive me.

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