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Re: [XTalk] miracles (forwarded from Bill Arnal)

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  • tomkirbel@aol.com.au
    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
    Message 1 of 4 , Feb 17, 2001
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      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,
      and
      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
      of Jesus?)

      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
      HJS.

      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
      dialogue.

      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
      "atheology.">>

      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.

      Regards

      Tom Curtis

      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.
    • Antonio Jerez
      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. ... You can be sure that I don t
      Message 2 of 4 , Feb 19, 2001
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        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. 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;

        You can be sure that I don't agree about point a). I already tried to explain
        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 to
        > the effect that metaphysical supernaturalism is false;

        And I doubt that any arguments or evidence whasoever will persuade Tom Curtis
        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 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.)

        Thank for the clarification. Although the word "metaphysics" in the classical
        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 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.

        This is patently wrong. There is a discipline called parapsychology that try to
        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 that
        > scientists do no share a consensus on the issue in question.

        Let's take a look again at the specific question that got the discussion started.
        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.


        Best wishes

        Antonio Jerez
        Göteborg, Sweden
      • Bob Schacht
        ... Tom, I like your respectful tone, which is in pleasant contrast with some other recent messages. Nevertheless, strength of belief is not necessarily a good
        Message 3 of 4 , Feb 19, 2001
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          At 10:10 PM 2/17/01 -0500, tomkirbel@... wrote:
          >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.

          Tom,
          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 bring
          >naturalistic assumptions to your studies; I have argued that you ought not
          >require everyone else to bring those naturalistic assumptions also.

          I agree. However, this raises the question, on what terms of debate shall
          discussion continue?
          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 at
          > least not to forcefully) because it may offend people.

          Relativism really is not about giving or not giving offense; it is about
          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 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.

          Well, there is a tendency (e.g., the introduction to The Five Gospels) to
          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 that
          >theories are tested against other theories. ...

          You put it better earlier: Theories are to be tested against *evidence,"
          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.

          Thanks,
          Bob


          Robert M. Schacht, Ph.D.
          Northern Arizona University
          Flagstaff, AZ


          [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
        • Stephen C. Carlson
          ... I kind of found this statement ironic (perhaps in the Alanis Morissette sense), because the common understanding of how the universe operates at the time
          Message 4 of 4 , Feb 19, 2001
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            Bill Arnal wrote:
            > 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.

            I kind of found this statement ironic (perhaps in the Alanis
            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 Carlson
            --
            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
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