Re: [XTalk] miracles (forwarded from Bill Arnal)
- I think I should reply to Bill Arnal first, as that seems the most likely
avenue for productive continuation of the debate. (I must admit, the
prospects of productive continuation or resolution seem to be rapidly
narrowing.) Bill writes:
<<If, however, it is the genuinely miraculous that is being defended here,
defended -- I stress this again -- as a legitimate form of historical
description ("Jesus miraculously walked on the water") and explanation ("the
reason the gospel says Jesus miraculously walked on the water is because he
did"), I hardly think the arguments offered so far are even close to being
weighty enough to support such a bizarre assertion.
One argument that was thrown out appears to be the pluralistic "respect"
argument. That is, since some people did in fact fervently believe in these
things, it is arrogant for us to conclude that their beliefs are wrong.
Moreover, we are discussing divine intervention on behalf of a character
(Jesus) who stands at the core of a major religious tradition -- who are we,
against, say, the whole of Christianity, to claim that walking on the water
is impossible? One participant (sorry -- I forget who) even went so far as
to say that s/he would reserve judgment on ANY special religious claims,
i.e., those pertaining to Mohammed, e.g., as well as Jesus. (But not,
interestingly, claims pertaining to Claudius -- this raised the question for
me: is it only LIVING religious traditions that demand our respect? people
DID in fact once believe that Claudius was a god, so why not assume
miraculous events linked to HIM are just as plausible as those linked to
Jesus or Mohammed? or, perhaps, shall we saw that on the day when no one
really believes in Christianity any more, THEN we can dismiss the miracles
Now this strikes me as cultural relativism run amok.>>
If this is your conclusion, you have misunderstood the argument. The
argument is about what assumptions we can bring into our studies, not what
conclusions we reach. In fact, even that mistates it a little. I have made
no argument that you or Antonio ought not to bring naturalistic assumptions
to your studies; I have argued that you ought not require everyone else to
bring those naturalistic assumptions also. Relativism demands that you do
not reach certain conclusions (or at least not to forcefully) because it may
offend people. I am saying you ought not to impose methodological
requirements that prevent some people from participating in the discussion,
or preclude certain conclusions being reached without good reason. What I am
doubting is that there is good reason to impose methodological naturalism in
I assume in HJS we use the scholarly standards of appeal to evidence and
reason, not to authority. I assume we also expect formaly presented work to
clearly and meticulously presented so that evidence appealed to can be
checked, and reasons examined. Given this, what other methodological
standard should we impose? I think there is a simple test, any additional
standard is bad unless it is redundant. A standard is redundant, of course,
only if in the long term it does not effect the results of the enquiry.
Therefore any standard that passes this test may be a good strategy, in that
it speeds up the enquiry, but at need we can do with out it.
Any standard that does not pass this test is question begging.
You and Antonio want to impose a standard of methodological naturalism. I
object, not because it is not redundant (it probably is redundant), but
because it is not known to be redundant. I know that it is not known to be
redundant because: a) there is no consensus opinion in the academic
disciplines that study the relavent issue that implies that metaphysical
supernaturalism is false; b) no compelling arguments have been presented to
the effect that metaphysical supernaturalism is false; c) no compelling
arguments have been presented to the effect that methodological naturalism is
redundant in HJS; and d) there are scholars and others interested in HJS who
are metaphysical supernaturalists (or agnostic on supernaturalism). (For
Antonio, metaphysics is the discipline that studies, amongst other questions,
"what type of things exist". Hence metaphysical naturalism is the theory
that only natural objects exist, and only natural events occur.)
I am sure that you and Antonio disagree with me on point c (and possibly on
points a and b above). That is where I have been obtuse in this debate. I
have tried to discern what arguments have been presented for the points
above, and then laid down "smoke screens" by showing those arguments to be
weak or question begging. Thus when Antonio makes his repeated appeals to
his wide travels (and his equally frequent aspersions against those he
presumes to not be as widely travelled as he), I have taken this to be an
appeal to the evidence of science (rather than the ad hominem attack it
appears to be). I have then pointed out that "science" does not support his
case because it does not examine the question. I have also pointed out that
scientists do no share a consensus on the issue in question. I have pointed
out that his presumed appeal to science does not carry his case. (Note it is
his case that needs to be carried, as it is he, not I that is trying to
impose the methodological constraints.)
In making my case I have used two assumptions. The first is that theories
are tested against other theories. (This is only a redundant assumption if
we do not, on apriori or methodological grounds, prevent theories from being
proposed.) Therefore, as a matter of methodology, we need not test theories
(such as the theory that Claudius is a god) which are not in fact being
proposed, and which have no intrinsic plausibility. Of course, other
questions aside, this does mean we have to test our theories against the
theory that Jesus is the "Son of God" (which also has no intrinsic
plausibility, but is being proposed).
My second assumption is that in area's outside our area of expertise only a
consensus of the people in that field provides a relavent standard of whether
a sufficiently compelling argument exists as to allow the imposition of a new
(and related) methodological standard. If the experts disagree on a subject,
then reasonable people can disagree on a subject, and it is therefore
inappropriate to impose agreement on that point as a standard for reasonable
Do not think that my second assumption is an apeal to authority. I do not
expect you to not appeal to experts in other fields in making your historical
arguments, even when the findings of those experts are in dispute. I do
expect you, however, to cite those experts if you wish to use their evidence,
and also to provide some discussion of the opposing views. In this I am
expecting no more than the standard applied in discussing textual or
archeological evidence. Put simply, if Hume is your authority on the
non-occurence of miracles, you ought site Hume in your work and give some
discussion of the counter arguments. You ought not to require acceptance of
Humes' conclusion as a methodological standard in HJS when Hume cannot even
command consensus support in philosophy (the discipline which makes an
academic study of arguments such as Humes'). (As you in fact do raise Humes
argument, I shall return to it later.)
<<The other major argument offered by the miracle defenders is more clever,
and is in a sense a way of turning one of the arguments of miracle-deniers
*against* them. This is the argument that, since history concerns itself
with the secular and immanent, it does not address, and is in no position TO
address, that which comes outside of its purview: the transcendent, the
divine, the miraculous, and so on. Hence a historian cannot, properly, DENY
God's existence -- and by extension His intervention in the world -- any
more than s/he can assert it. Therefore, the argument goes, the proper
attitude of the historian is geunine and evenhanded agnosticism re.
religious matters, which means that miracles can no more be denied out of
hand than asserted out of hand. Thus to assert "Jesus couldn't have done any
miracles" is as THEOLOGICAL as to say, "Jesus was the son of God and so MUST
have done miracles." In this vein, Bob (I think -- correct me if I'm wrong)
goes so far as to say that the denial of God's existence is as theological a
conviction as the assertion of His existence, and he refers to it as
Some do, but I do not employ this argument. If theism is no were subject to
test, then it is an empty theory (you can call me a positivist if you like).
It is just because a form of theism was put to a historical test in 1st
century Judea that I continue to be interested in HJS.
<< What is wrong with this argumentative sleight-of-hand is that it presents
radically different types of assertions as equivalent. The claim that
(geuninely miraculous) miracles don't happen is NOT on par with the claim
that miracles do happen. The former claim is based on common experience and
our (again, common) understanding of how the universe operates. That is, it
does not ASSUME that miracles don't happen as an a priori connected to some
special faith assertions. Rather, it represents an INFERENCE that miracles
don't happen based on observations, experience, and rational analysis of
(various) phenomena. The claim, then, "people don't walk on water" (implied:
unless some sort of limited special conditions apply -- a hovercraft, a
plank just under the water's surface, etc.) is NOT on par with "the son of
God walked on water because he was the son of God." Rather, it is on par
with the claim, "people don't fly," or, "if I drop a rock into water it will
sink," and so on. It is, in other words, a rational and experience-based
inference with general applicability, rather than special pleading in the
interests of an ideological a priori. It is not so much that miracles CAN'T
happen; it's that they DON'T. And what defenders of the miraculous are
asking us to do, in fact, is NOT to refrain from imposing OUR special
pleading onto the evidence, but to refrain from calling into question -- in
a rational, sensible way -- THEIR special pleading regarding the evidence.>>
But this reasoning is wrong. In the first instance we are being asked
compare two very comparable observation reports. "Jesus walked on water" and
"Jesus walked on grass" are perfectly comparable because we know what we
would have to check to determine if each is true or not. When you deny the
first report you are indeed reporting the conclusion of an inference. But
that inference draws on more premises than scientific reports, laws or common
experience. It also draws upon the premise that there are no supernatural
events. As such it is as theological a conclusion as that of the believer.
Your argument above is to the effect that the inference to "no miracle" is
always justified and needs no extrordinary premise. In this it parallels
Humes, which you give below. There is a fundamental defect in Hume's
argument (and in yours), which turns on the question of natural law.
To begin with, I have not had a universal experience of miracles not
occuring. In my experience no miracles have occured, but not having an
experience of a miracle occuring is not the same as experiencing a miracle
not occuring. For comparison, I have no experience of tigers occuring in
India (for the very good reason that I have not visited India). Now I do
have many experiences of tigers being reported in India, so we may wish to
allow tigers in India as part of my experience. But then, I have heard many
reports of miracles. Should I then allow miracles as part of my experience?
Our experience (even Antonio's) is either to narrow to be an adequate basis
of a Humean argument, or if we allow reports from others as part of our
experience, our experience is not as Hume describes it. The whole point of
academic (and hence collegial) study is to overcome the problem of the
necessarily narrow experience base of any particular individual. More
troubling, humans have never experienced a continent breaking up to form a
new sea (or a commentary impact killing 90% of extant species). Does this
mean I should never accept theories that such events have occured? By the
Humean argument I ought not.
The problem is that laws of nature are not just summaries or codifications of
our conjoint experience. They are partial theories of how the universe
works. Thus general relativity will tell me what will happen to a rock of
particular mass and velocity and position in relation to the sun. It will
also tell me what will happen to that rock if a new planet appears suddenly
near that rock, but it will not tell me whether or not that planet will
appear or not. The law of conservation of energy may indeed tell me that the
planet will not appear in that position, BUT only if the universe is a closed
system. It is this final boundary condition (is the universe a closed
system) which constitutes the issue at dispute between theists, deists and
metaphysical naturalists. It is only with an answer to that question that
Hume's argument can go through.
I agree that inorder to have a rational conversation we must accept some
common ground. What I deny is right of anyone to arbitrarily set that ground
so as to exclude the opinions of others. If the jew were to insist (as a
methodological basis) that "jesus was not the messiah" was a necessary
assumption for the conversation, s/he would stiffle that rational
conversation. Equally a christian insisting we accept that "Jesus was the
Son of God" as a necessary premise in HJS would prevent rational
conversation. It is apealing to our own theories as evidence for our
conclusions which stiffles rational debate. Therefore we who do not believe
in miracles ought not to insist that those that do exclude that concept
before we will talk to them.
PS: On rereading Antonio's response I do not think there would be any
advantage answering specific points. He seems to be content to rely on
insult and claims of his lack of interest in, or study of philosophy. I
think if he wishes to engage in debates about methodology he ought to at
least acquaint himself with standard theories in epistomology, ie, the
theoretical basis of methodological considerations. That, no doubt, is
something else on which we will have to agree to disagree.
- I think Bill Arnal himself is very keen to answer Tom Curtis latest message.
But I can't resist to make a few comments myself.
Tom Curtis wrote:
> You and Antonio want to impose a standard of methodological naturalism. IYou can be sure that I don't agree about point a). I already tried to explain
> object, not because it is not redundant (it probably is redundant), but
> because it is not known to be redundant. I know that it is not known to be
> redundant because: a) there is no consensus opinion in the academic
> disciplines that study the relavent issue that implies that metaphysical
> supernaturalism is false;
that the fact that there is not a consensus in a certain discipline does not mean
that everything is up for grabs. The fact that the "creationist scientists" claim that
they are playing in the same legue as folks like Stephen Jay Gould or Richard
Dawkins does not mean that that they really are. If people don't wan't to present
evidence i.e something beyond pointing to a text and philosophical theories that are
not anchored in anything except games of the mind, then I think it is reasonable not
to take them seriously even if they cry foul play all the time.
I'll go on asking. Can you show me any studies (observations made outside texts)
that it may be possible to walk on water. I'm not going to be satisfied with Tom Curtis
basically reiterating that just because his hypothesis about the world - Theism (but whose
form of Theism are we discussing? Thomas ab Aquino's? Karl Barth's?)- can not be proven
to be logically false by the philosophers it therefore follows that historians should not rule out
the phenomenon of people walking on water, even if the only evidence is a 2000 year old text.
> b) no compelling arguments have been presented toAnd I doubt that any arguments or evidence whasoever will persuade Tom Curtis
> the effect that metaphysical supernaturalism is false;
that his "metaphysical supernaturalism" is nothing more than a figment of the imagination,
although logical from a philosophical viewpoint. To return again to the specific part of
Curtis' "metaphysical supernaturalism" that started the discussion; what kind of evidence
would it take for Curtis' to discard a phenomenon that has never been attested - like
walking on water? Or has Tom Curtis dug up some evidence of the possibiliy of this
phenomenon (outside his ancient texts and philosophical speculations) that I may have
bypassed? If so I'm sure most of us on the list would be happy to see it.
> arguments have been presented to the effect that methodological naturalism isThank for the clarification. Although the word "metaphysics" in the classical
> redundant in HJS; and d) there are scholars and others interested in HJS who
> are metaphysical supernaturalists (or agnostic on supernaturalism). (For
> Antonio, metaphysics is the discipline that studies, amongst other questions,
> "what type of things exist". Hence metaphysical naturalism is the theory
> that only natural objects exist, and only natural events occur.)
sense may deal with "what type of things exist", I take the word in the sense
that it is commonly used today (= speculations about supernaural things and
dimensions without any evidence). In that sense I'm not interested in metaphysics.
> I am sure that you and Antonio disagree with me on point c (and possibly onThis is patently wrong. There is a discipline called parapsychology that try to
> points a and b above). That is where I have been obtuse in this debate. I
> have tried to discern what arguments have been presented for the points
> above, and then laid down "smoke screens" by showing those arguments to be
> weak or question begging. Thus when Antonio makes his repeated appeals to
> his wide travels (and his equally frequent aspersions against those he
> presumes to not be as widely travelled as he), I have taken this to be an
> appeal to the evidence of science (rather than the ad hominem attack it
> appears to be). I have then pointed out that "science" does not support his
> case because it does not examine the question.
study the unexplained and "miraculous" in a scientific way. So far I do not think
any serious parapsychologist, no matter how much he may wich to, has been
able to offer any sign that it is possible to walk on water. The simple fact is that
the closer you look into supposed miracoulous phenomena like glossalia, out of
body expriencies, walking on hot coals, demon posession etc etc the less miraculous
they become. Does Tom Curtis have any evidence to the contrary?
>I have also pointed out thatLet's take a look again at the specific question that got the discussion started.
> scientists do no share a consensus on the issue in question.
Can Tom Curtis name any scientist that has studied a phenomenon like walking
on water and concluded that it shouldn't be ruled out? Or is Tom Curtis putting forward
himself and his buddies the "creationist scientists" as the ones who appear to split the
consensus on the issue.
I'll leave the rest to Bill Arnal. I'm sure he can take care of pricking the balloon
filled with pretentious philosophical hodgepodge better than myself.
- At 10:10 PM 2/17/01 -0500, tomkirbel@... wrote:
>One argument that was thrown out appears to be the pluralistic "respect"Tom,
>argument. That is, since some people did in fact fervently believe in
>these things, it is arrogant for us to conclude that their beliefs are wrong.
I like your respectful tone, which is in pleasant contrast with some other
recent messages. Nevertheless, strength of belief is not necessarily a good
guide to any general validity of that belief. Unfortunately, the world is
full of fanatics whose beliefs are rather strong. For example, think how
your sentence might read in the context of Nazi Germany.
>... I have made no argument that you or Antonio ought not to bringI agree. However, this raises the question, on what terms of debate shall
>naturalistic assumptions to your studies; I have argued that you ought not
>require everyone else to bring those naturalistic assumptions also.
The issue for those of us unwilling to restrict ourselves to naturalistic
assumptions is, by what methodology can we distinguish true reports of the
supernatural from false reports? Since walking on water is the example
being used on this thread, perhaps we (but not Antonio and Bill) might
agree that walking on water is possible. But then how can we ascertain
whether *this particular* report of walking on water is valid?
> Relativism demands that you do not reach certain conclusions (or atRelativism really is not about giving or not giving offense; it is about
> least not to forcefully) because it may offend people.
the basis of judgment. No cross-cultural judgment is possible without
asserting the superiority of one set of values over all others. How are we
to decide whose values are superior? Antonio and Bill have made the
judgement that the values of naturalism are superior to all other values.
Theirs is the view that the values of "science" transcend all cultural
particulars and form an objective, "etic" view that transcends all
culture-bound "emic" views. Except that I'm not quite sure how Bill
entertains this somewhat positivist view of the universe with what he knows
about postmodernism (which he knows more about than I do). I thought that
postmodernism had shown that positivism was merely a western belief system
with pretensions of superiority. Perhaps he will explain.
>...I assume in HJS we use the scholarly standards of appeal to evidenceWell, there is a tendency (e.g., the introduction to The Five Gospels) to
>and reason, not to authority. I assume we also expect formaly presented
>work to clearly and meticulously presented so that evidence appealed to
>can be checked, and reasons examined. Given this, what other
>methodological standard should we impose? I think there is a simple test,
>any additional standard is bad unless it is redundant. A standard is
>redundant, of course, only if in the long term it does not effect the
>results of the enquiry. Therefore any standard that passes this test may
>be a good strategy, in that it speeds up the enquiry, but at need we can
>do with out it.
maximize rather than minimize the methodological standards. You seem to be
content with an irreducible minimum. Critical scholarship often seems more
interested in the unexpandable maximum.
>...In making my case I have used two assumptions. The first is thatYou put it better earlier: Theories are to be tested against *evidence,"
>theories are tested against other theories. ...
not other theories. Theories are only tested against other theories in the
sense that both are tested against the evidence, and the one that does a
better job of explaining the evidence is supported.
And yet, more than evidence is required. When the Copernican system was
first proposed against the system of epicycles, the Copernican system was
*not* more accurate (at least, not at first) for the purpose of navigation.
The Copernican system eventually was adopted (in part) because it was a
simpler system that answered new questions better than the Ptolemaic
system. So methodological supernaturalism requires not only that it explain
the evidence better, but that it do so without invoking Deus ex machina
explanations unnecessarily when natural explanations suffice.
Robert M. Schacht, Ph.D.
Northern Arizona University
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
- Bill Arnal wrote:
> What is wrong with this argumentative sleight-of-hand is that it presentsI kind of found this statement ironic (perhaps in the Alanis
> radically different types of assertions as equivalent. The claim that
> (geuninely miraculous) miracles don't happen is NOT on par with the claim
> that miracles do happen. The former claim is based on common experience and
> our (again, common) understanding of how the universe operates.
Morissette sense), because the common understanding of how
the universe operates at the time the relevant texts were
written is that miracles do happen.
Stephen C. Carlson mailto:scarlson@...
Synoptic Problem Home Page http://www.mindspring.com/~scarlson/synopt/
"Poetry speaks of aspirations, and songs chant the words." Shujing 2.35