William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

The Epistemology Of Miracles: Fulton J. Sheen Edition, Part II

Artist reconstruction.

Read Part I.

We haven’t made use of our time machine in Jesus’s case. So I ask you, is it possible that if we go far enough into the future, physicists will have figured out, maybe using the successor of string theory, or whatever, how ordinary H2O can transform into a suite of chemicals far too complicated to write out here? And could some new version of field theory show how a man may keep afloat on a storm-tossed sea?

I say maybe, a firm maybe. It cannot be no. Why’s that? Since we’re assuming the events happened, they had to have happened somehow. These were physical events. The water did become wine. Jesus didn’t sink. It follows that because they happened, they were possible, and that we just don’t know how they were possible. Given the way the universe (or multi-verse or whatever) is constructed, they were not impossible. To say something is impossible is to say that you have deduced—100% certainty, here, with no chance of error—that given some set of premises the event could never happen. We do not have these premises, therefore the events are possible; therefore, we might somebody discover the premises which show how they were possible (how they happened).

So even if you don’t accept arguendo the events happened and doubt them to any extent short of completely, it still is true that they were not impossible, that they might have happened. Even if we doubt their historical veracity, it’s still possible that someday we might figure out how events like these can happen. Assuming we do (figure them out), do the events, at that point, cease being miraculous?

Little Jimmy’s abrupt healing doesn’t feel especially miraculous if only because there are lots of stories of people coming back from the brink of death. We don’t know if prayer, and therefore intercession, was present in these cases, but it probably wasn’t always.

How often do we hear of enormous jugs of water turning to wine? Or of men walking on water? Or of other strange events? Not nearly as frequently—which is not to say, never; just ask Charles Fort.

We’re risking overlooking the second aspect of the miraculous, the intercession, the correlation (I use this word in its plain English sense) or juxtaposition of the curious event with the supplication. There was the water, there was a directive by Jesus, and then there was wine. So that even if we knew how this feat was accomplished (some form of nuclear transformation) we still have to contend with the evidence that the event was asked for (by and of God).

Did God cause the event to happen? That is, did God step into the normally operating secondary causes (God must be the primary or first cause of everything; see this) and invoke whatever causal mechanisms are necessary for the event?

Unless you have a direct conversation with God in which He tells you He did the deed, the only evidence you have for this question is the prayer and the deed. Excepting these rare cases (I’m assuming readers share no direct heavenly communication about the miracles under discussion), there is no way to know with certainty either way if an event is miraculous except by faith.

From this it follows there is no proof that the event is not miraculous other than belief unadulterated by evidence. Actually, it’s worse than that. Claiming the event mundane means rejecting the positive evidence, no matter how scant, of the conjunction of the prayer and the event. Rejecting miracles is thus terribly dogmatic and, given that it involves rejecting empirical evidence, unscientific.

But then the prayer-event conjunction alone is not proof of the miraculous. You need additional premises that apply to the this event to deduce that. Faith is thus necessary for belief in the miracle’s ultimate cause, just like it is for the skeptic. The conjunction is more shocking (to all) without the understanding how physically the event happened, but whether we know the physics is not proof either way.

Now in any claimed miracle there exists all kinds of corroborating or disclamatory evidence—the particulars of the situation, motivation of the participants and witnesses, and such forth—which render the claim more or less probable, but unless there is incontrovertible proof of fraud or direction revelation, faith is still required. That is why Jimmy’s mom, and the committee who studied the event, believes; it is also why the skeptics who can be brought to think about the case disbelieve.

I wonder how disappointing this answer is.

Note: Books and books are written on this topic, so there is no chance of being complete in 1,400 words. I only want to demonstrate the necessity of faith.

15 Comments

  1. You know, of course, Briggs, that the same argument applies to, e.g., this morning’s sunrise and the fact that I didn’t succumb during the night to asphyxiation — owing to the perverse accumulation of all the oxygen molecules in my bedroom’s air congregating in the upper east corner…
    Faith is always required, if one is thinking and not just enjoying the reverie.

  2. If one presumes it actually happened as described…then of course it’s a miracle… The premise ensures the conclusion.

    But did it happen that way?

    Contemporary Water-to-wine trick: http://dontbefooledblog.wordpress.com/2012/03/19/water-to-wine/ Other magician’s have poured different wines, from the same bottle, moving around a table of guests.

    Jesus pulled off his trick AFTER the guest were already drunk (recall the scandalous bit of the story about His wine being better than the first round served; the protocol was to serve the best first–when the guests could appreciate it, not later when they were intoxicated to some degree [that’s what a priest taught in a catechism class I took why the event, as it was, was a bit scandalous]).

    Also, the healing techniques depicted throughout the Gospels are the very same as those used by many Hellenistic magicians of the day (e.g. review: http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Vision-Spirit-Culture-Discipleship/dp/0060608145 )

    What’s the likelihood that an almighty deity would visit and employ the very same techniques to perform miracles as the contemporary illusionists of the day applied to identical illusions…versus…doing something unique that actually distinguished himself from all the rest? The ‘creator of heaven & earth, all that is seen & unseen’ — a creative entity accountable for a lot of original innovations — and, when he’s arrived to set things right, he performs like a copycat?!?!?!

    Why not something original to His standing & precedents — You know, like Moses’ staff-to-snake that ate the snake-staffs of the Pharaoh’s magicians?

    The water-to-wine event is characterized by intoxicated [impressionable & uncritical] observers of an event where an allegedly creative & all-powerful someone that merely copied the same tactics of contemporary illusionists.

    If it walks like a duck & quacks like a duck…it’s probably a duck.

    Jesus is reported to have “walked” & “quacked” like a contemporary illusionist/magician, not a deity! … is the presumed starting point really a presumption of a “miracle” needing an unearthly explanation??

  3. Briggs, the spelling auto-correction is acting up: “…we might somebody discover the premises…” in paragraph two, for instance, or not acting at all as in “You need additional premises that apply to the this event …”

    Ken, why aren’t the magicians the copycats, faking something that’s actual?

  4. Halflife Toolmkaer

    March 11, 2014 at 11:24 am

    If we employed a time machine to demonstrate, rather then observe, we would have the people of yesteryear declaring us miracle workers over digital watches, audio and video transmissions, flight capability, on and on. Today’s science is yesterday’s miracle and tomorrow’s science is today’s miracle. When one thinks of going forward in time one might ponder the notion that God will be measurable and quantifiable once we have more advanced detection capabilities. It amuses me to ponder the reaction of the atheistic faithful to irrefutable scientific evidence that God exists.

  5. “Today’s science is yesterday’s miracle and tomorrow’s science is today’s miracle.”

    This gets pulled out and used a lot. Why do we assume if it wasn’t understood that prior generations automatically drew the miracle card? Even 2,000 years ago, I think people could draw the conclusion that water to wine in an instant was a miracle whereas the process of fermentation of grape juice(which they observed but didn’t understand) wasn’t miraculous. Making wine by stomping grapes and letting them sit over time was easily repeatable but how Jesus did it was not and still isn’t and presumably never will be.

    If we saw an anti-gravity machine go from 0 to warp .5 in a second I doubt people of this generation would think it’s a miracle. Just technology we don’t understand yet. But, if someone took a glass of water from the tap and turned it to wine in an instant, it may be viewed as a trick but I doubt it would be treated as yet-to-be discovered science. In this case, knowledge would help confirm a miracle.

  6. Matt,

    As long as you are implicitly defining ‘faith’ as ‘faith in Jesus Christ, Son of God, founder of His Holy Catholic Church and of the seven sacraments’, I’m with you.

    As ever, any disagreement with you would have to do with any implicit denial that epistemology is a theological category; that is, it would be a disagreement arising from making your word ’cause’, a synonym for ‘necessity’ or ‘prior possibility’.

    Creation ‘ex nihilo’, as Fr. Donald Keefe SJ reminds us, also means ‘out of no reason’ — that is, not from necessity, but from grace — something intelligible, that nevertheless has no prior possibility. And CCC 295 reminds us that the world “is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance.”

    I think that there is a very strong reason why ‘without scientific explanation’ is part of the Church’s more modern definition of miracle. This reason is not one that can, even in principle, be overturned by any ‘science of the gaps’ argument. Viz., I wonder whether science is even in principle capable of studying (or even of acknowledging) literal, no-fooling, one-of-a-kind events. I don’t mean in a ‘willful ignorance’ way; I mean, that it’s simply not set up to look at something like that.

    Once upon a time I also wrote less than 1400 words about ‘miracle’:

    http://www.catholiclearning.com/ch16.html#304

  7. RE: “why aren’t the magicians the copycats, faking something that’s actual?”

    The proper question is to consider the copying of something that came before; for example consider:

    A “God-man,” born of a mortal mother to God from heaven,
    Among other things he becomes associated with giving wine.
    The God-man dies and is resurrected.
    He subsequently ascends into heaven.

    Who is that?

    Could be Jesus.
    Could be Dionysus/Bacchus.

    Not enough info to make a distinction.

    And that’s a fundamental issue: When one compares with older pagan mythologies one finds that pretty much the entire Jesus story can be derived from noteworthy elements of these prior pagan myths (many of those myths had varied versions of the same story). Older story elements can be simply copied, regrouped and mildly edited to form a new & coherent, familiar story. The latest such story is Christianity.

    A famous Christian apologist, Justin Martyr pleaded, “First Apology of Justin Martyr,” written about 156 AD, that such commonality between Christianity and the pagan religions was a reason to stop persecuting the Christians—their beliefs & characters & stories were basically the same (& Justin Martyr cited many such examples). Further, he claimed that while all the pagan religions were false, this new Christian religion was true — asserting that the similarities between the old & new were due to devils who heard of true prophecies who then pre-emptively created look-alike religions to deceive humanity away from the true religion. That was and remains the explanation.

    One can easily find complete copies of Justin’s First Apology on-line and locate the passages (e.g. http://www.biblestudytools.com/history/early-church-fathers/ante-nicene/vol-1-apostolic-with-justin-martyr-irenaeus/justin-martyr/first-apology-of-justin.html Chapter LIV – Origin of Heathen Mythology for how the devils crafted look-alike false religions).

    What is most likely to have actually occurred: The devils pre-emptively made the look-alike false religions and then Almighty God comes along and fails to alter the plot such that it blurs with those false religions, OR, people simply adapted what they were familiar with to suit the times? That’s a tough one.

    Same basic question, different perspective: If some kid copied & pasted a bunch of plot elements together from sci-fi stories and submitted that to a high school teacher, claiming it was all original work, would the teacher fall for that? No—not if s/he knew about those source stories…and if s/he suspected plagiarism s/he would do some research … which is exactly what the vast majority of Christians will refuse to do, choosing instead all manner of “Confirmation Bias.” Think about that.

  8. Ye Olde Statisician

    March 11, 2014 at 6:32 pm

    The word translated as “miracle” means “wonder, marvel; miracle, amazing event.” About this, St. Thomas said:

    “We marvel at something when, seeing an effect, we do not know the cause. And since one and the same cause is at times known to certain people and not to others, it happens that some marvel and some do not.”
    St. Thomas Aquinas
    On the truth of the catholic faith against the gentiles

  9. Ken, I have thought about it. That witnesses to an historical event and myth-makers should both tell similar compelling stories fails to prove that all such stories are false. The story is extraordinary and compelling. Why wouldn’t the myth-makers want to tell it? It has inherent universal appeal. And why wouldn’t an omniscient and benevolent God not want to use that appeal by actually enacting the story? Why do something novel and bizarre when the objective was to become human so that humanity could authentically be reconciled to Himself? You argue greatest likelihood, but Occam’s Razor is not absolute.

  10. “Unless you have a direct conversation with God in which He tells you He did the deed,….”

    Briggs,
    I had a direct conversation with God and he told me that he did not do the deed and that it never happened.

  11. Pharaoh and his magicians caused me no little stress attempting to come to terms with the bible. Pharaohs magicians were able to demonstrate the first 3 plagues … They turned water into blood. The way it is stated in the bible I read implied that they were able to do the miracle themselves, leaving Pharaoh to believe that Moses’ God wasn’t “all that”.

    God steps in then and demonstrates just how obnoxious he is. Pharaoh says “Get away with you!” relenting. But God comes in and hardens Pharaoh’s heart or makes Pharaoh obstinate and Pharaoh renews his interest in keeping the Yahwehian disciples…

  12. RE: “That witnesses to an historical event and myth-makers should both tell similar compelling stories fails to prove that all such stories are false. The story is extraordinary and compelling. Why wouldn’t the myth-makers want to tell it? It has inherent universal appeal. And why wouldn’t an omniscient and benevolent God not want to use that appeal by actually enacting the story? Why do something novel and bizarre when the objective was to become human so that humanity could authentically be reconciled to Himself?”

    OH PLEASE….If some guy came around and claimed he was Jesus returned,and all he did were the same “miracles” we’ve seen from the likes of Penn & Teller, Chris Angel, & other illusionists…because those trick have such “universal appeal” He’d want to re-enact them…you’d then conclude that, “Halleluiah!! It’s Jesus returned!!!!!”

    Yeah right. You don’t even believe what you’re saying. Or maybe you do. The rationalization of enacting, again, a great story instead of something distinguishing–rationalized by nothing more than “why not?” is spurious as it is a form of “Special Pleading” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_pleading

    But then, if one merely wants a particular answer, then any rationalization will do.

  13. “…LG a B rapidly accreted, making LGB, which, as far as acronyms go, stinks because it cannot be made into a euphonious word…”

    If it cannot be pronounced it is not an acronym, rather just initials. USMC is an example of initials that stands for something but like LBG it is not an acronym.

    I know I am rather pedant at times:

    ac·ro·nym [ak-ruh-nim] Show IPA
    noun
    1.
    a word formed from the initial letters or groups of letters of words in a set phrase or series of words and pronounced as a separate word, as Wac from Women’s Army Corps, OPEC from Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or loran from long-range navigation.

  14. Opps, put the above on the wrong post, sorry!

  15. Ken, the drama and hand-waving are unnecessary. Jesus said not to chase after miracles, anyway. Much better support for their veracity is that his followers were convinced, held fast to their faith under dire circumstances, and convinced others, even to the present day, that he was “the way, the truth, and the life.” This faith demands charity even towards enemies, self-sacrifice, self-discipline, grace, peace, and joy — hardly characteristics that encourage continued growth, let alone survival, in a dod-eat-dog Darwinian world. Don’t bother trotting out excuses like a corrupted Church advancing through deceit and warfare. Authentic believers have grown in numbers in spite of that heretical behavior.

    Disagree? Well, “if one merely wants a particular answer, then any rationalization will do.”

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