Saturday, November 6, 2010

Can Evidence Ever Prove a Miracle?

The reason we think that fingerprints on a gun might tell us who used that gun to commit a murder is that we think that we understand the natural processes by which the unique patterns in the skin on the human finger might come to appear on another object and, just as importantly, we think that those natural process are unvarying.  If we thought that those patterns just appeared randomly on objects or if we thought they appeared by divine fiat, we could not say that fingerprints on murder weapon constituted evidence of anything.

Unfortunately, miracles don't follow natural processes and they do not occur uniformly.  We cannot claim that the Shroud of Turin constitutes evidence of the resurrection of Christ because we have no idea what happens when a human being is supernaturally raised from the dead.  We have no basis to assert that any particular piece of evidence is more likely the result of a miracle than a natural cause because we have no idea what kind of evidence a miracle is likely to produce.

Christian apologists will claim that this is simply an anti-supernatural presupposition that skeptics bring to the table, but that is not where the problem lies.  The problem lies in the logic of the "inference" tool that we use to draw conclusions from evidence.  We infer anything from any particular piece of evidence without some knowledge of the way in which particular causes produce such evidence.


  1. Doesn't it often come down to a lack of evidence for natural causes? Like when people say they were miraculously cured of an illness and doctors can't explain why.

  2. Also we're to believe miraculous things like the resurrection for reasons like the claim that eyewitnesses were ready to die for this belief and eyewitnesses don't normally die for a lie. But since we're suspending assertions about what normally happens by invoking a miracle why not presume that people supernaturally were willing to die for a lie.

    People don't normally have collective hallucinations. What if a miracle happened? The tomb was empty and normally that means the body is missing. But what if the body was miraculously invisible? Once miraculous explanations are permitted as an explanation how do you choose between competing ones?

  3. DoOrDoNot,

    That is the standard that the Catholic Church uses when it investigates claims of miraculous healings at places like Lourdes and Fatima and by and large the Church is not overly credulous.

    Is that logically sufficient to prove a miracle though? If doctors can't explain why, that simply means that we don't know what the explanation is. Throughout history there have been lots of unexplained phenomena that were eventually explained. In order to infer that a miracle took place, we would have to be justified in saying that there can be no explanation. I don't see how logic and evidence can ever get us to that point.


    I agree. Even if we could be justified in concluding that an event occurred supernaturally, what would justify us in attributing it to any specific supernatural entity? What principled basis do we have to distinguish the supernatural activities of God from the supernatural activities of pixies, gnomes, leprechauns, demons, and fairies? All we can see is the suspension of natural law.

    I like to point to the Miracle of the Sun and Fatima when someone claims that collective hallucinations are unknown. One fellow asserted that Lourdes was also a supernatural event, but he doubted that it was really the Virgin Mary who was behind it. I cannot imagine why any Christian apologist would wish to argue that people can be mistaken about the supernatural apparitions that they witness.

  4. Jon said "People don't normally have collective hallucinations." - How many people said that the Jets on 9/11 had military markings?

    "and doctors can't explain why" In my experience it is often patients or relatives who say this. I've seen it in my own family. But what the doctor actually said was they can't explain why a particular person got better (i.e. why they responded where most people didn't). It is rare to find a doctor who's willing to say that they can't understand how someone could have possibly got better. Doctors do see terminally ill cancer patients making a recovery, for example. Late stage metastatic cancer is terminal because the vast majority of people die from it, not because nobody survives.


    Great to stumble across your blog, Vinny.