Did Jesus walk on water? Eyewitnesses reported he did. The event was so well remarked that people wrote of it at a time when most events went unrecorded.
Here’s a different question: Could Jesus have walked on water? Well, he claimed to be God, and even a weak understanding of who God is would grant that if Jesus’s claim was (is) true, then walking on water, turning water into wine, raising people from the dead, restoring health instantaneously, and so on are within God’s abilities. If God can create an entire universe, skimming across a sea without sinking is trivial.
Here’s another different question: Why did Jesus walk on water, assuming he did? (Atheists are asked to hold in mind the conditional clause at the end of that question.) The same eyewitnesses report that Jesus took the shortest path to his pals, with whom he wanted to be. Presumably, being God, Jesus could have “transported” himself or even flew to the boat, under his own power or via the assistance of giant eagles à la JRR Tolkien. Those other methods of transportation are a tad showy, and then we recall Jesus was also a man, and walking (or swimming) is what men who cannot lay their hands on skiffs do.
Finally, here’s a last different question: How did Jesus walk on water? Perhaps the best answer is “I have no idea.” Stated with more metaphysical sophistication, but still in profound ignorance, we can say he changed the nature of the water so that it could support weight, whereas the nature or essence of water is that objects in the shape of unadorned walking men sink. Evidence to support that view is increased when we recall one of the eyewitnesses was so stoked by the spectacle that he jumped from the boat and bestrode the waves—until his faith fled and he began to sink. Intriguing.
Means, motive, opportunity.
We have answers, albeit tentative and incomplete on the total cause (form, material, efficient, final) of the miracle. If that’s what it was. We still have to work on the probability that it was a miracle, and that means finding probative evidence. Then we have to contrast the miraculous explanation with other possibilities in order to make a decision: to believe in the miracle or not.
Here is where inference to the best explanation (IBE) begins to fail—in the freedom to pick and choose the evidence we think is probative. And in not recognizing we have this freedom.
What alternatives to the eyewitness reports of the miracle are available? An infinity.
Shapiro’s list (as it did for other reported Biblical miracles) would start with some great power consortium of beings, maybe aliens or “seventeen” lesser gods. Maybe something natural we don’t understand (but not ice). Maybe the apostles were lying. Maybe they were under “mass hypnosis.” Could be Jesus was a “supermagician”. Maybe the sea spoken of was only inches deep.
Here Shapiro lets us down with his lack of imagination. He didn’t conjure a time traveler equipped with a holographic projector. Or maybe the apostles ate bad fish. And if we can posit seventeen gods, why not sixteen or eighteen?
We can see we’ve mixed things up, too. All alternate explanations say something about cause, but only parts of the cause. We want it all: means, motive, opportunity. There is no profit going on and on like this, either, because we could do it forever. Nor have we learned about the probability, except in the crude sense that if we accorded every imaginable scenario some probability, the probability of whatever the true cause is would head to zero. Not useful for making a decision, that.
No detective operates in the way Shapiro does. Detectives take what evidence is available and build a case from that. Detectives also draw upon their experience (which differs from detective to detective) to provide additional evidence. They do not begin investigations fretting about mass hypnosis or alien invasions.
Jorge slides some WonderBread into the toaster and up pops browned bread that, viewed from the side, looks a bit like a classical portrait of Jesus. Miracle?
What evidence do we have? One, any toast pattern will have to look like something. Two, people see faces in everything: :-). (That one was caused by me.) Three, there’s lots of toast out there, and given One and Two, we’d guess there’d be a lot of faces that look like Jesus. Four, Jorge believes. Five, we don’t think he’s lying or he cheated, though he could have. Six, we agree that, if viewed from the side and in the right light, the toast has a vague resemblance to certain portraits. Seven, it seems odd the good Lord would prep a peanut butter receiver with his face: if He wanted to give Jorge a message, He could do so without the risk of being smeared.
That evidence—and we could have gone on to suppose aliens, etc.—indicates two main candidates: (1) an odd miracle, or (2) Jorge’s earnest faith and coincidence. The minor possibility of Jorge lying we give very little probability, based on the evidence of his demeanor, etc.
We now form the probability of both: (1) small, (2) large (neither can be quantified). We know more about the totality of the cause for (2) rather than for (1). What decision to make? That depends on the probability, which is in favor of (2), and of the consequences.
If it was a miracle and we say it was, we receive a minor boost in faith. Has to be minor because of the danger of peanut butter: we could have missed it.
If it was a miracle and we say it wasn’t, we lose out, but not, I think, by a lot.
If it wasn’t a miracle and we say it wasn’t, we gain a wee bit of satisfaction, but really the incident will be quickly forgotten.
If it wasn’t a miracle and we say it was, we make a small error, with the benefit of added faith. Believing harms nobody.
No matter which way we look at it, the stakes are minor. So we say (2), a natural event. This is inference to an explanation—the best explanation given only the evidence we assumed and given my take on the decision. Jorge will still decide to believe, even if he agrees on the probability, because the consequences for him are different. To him we say, God bless you.
Of course, we never reach absolute proof.
We have to play detective in the same manner for every claim we hear—not just claims of miracles. It’s because most claims are mundane—“Did you put the meat in the fridge?” “Yes, dear”—that we don’t see ourselves wearing deerstalkers and smoking pipes. It’s only when they are fantastic we do.
Next time, we wrap up the review, discussing motives and probability.