Sunday, December 15, 2013

Michael Licona on Proving Miracles

I am skeptical that a supernatural event can ever be established by evidence.

Evidence is an effect from which we infer a cause.  If we find a body with a knife sticking out of its back and the knife has little swirly patterns on the handle, we infer that the person whose fingerprints match those patterns is the person who put the knife there. We can do this because we understand the natural processes of cause and effect that lead to the appearance of those little swirly patterns on objects. Just as importantly, we believe that those natural processes are overwhelmingly consistent, if not invariable. If we thought that those little swirly patterns appeared randomly or by divine fiat, they wouldn’t be evidence of anything. We could not say it was Professor Plum with the knife in the library.

 The intellectual tools by which we draw inferences from evidence use the consistency of natural processes of cause and effect. As a result, they can not identify supernatural causes regardless of whether one's world view allows for them. We do not know what effects require supernatural causes and we do not know what effects supernatural causes are likely to produce.

I have finally gotten around to reading Michael Licona's The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, which came out in 2010.    I have done so because Kris Komarnitsky was kind enough to supply me a review copy of the second edition of his book Doubting the Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box? in which he engages with Licona's conclusions on a number of points.   As Licona's book has been so highly praised by Christian apologists, I figured it would contain the best possible explanation of how a historian might go about distinguishing a miracle story that was the product of an actual supernatural event from one that was the product of the usual human shortcomings like superstition, ignorance, wishful thinking, gullibility, exaggeration, and prevarication.

The best they have is pretty bad.  Writes Licona,
We may recognize that an event is a miracle when the event (a) is extremely unlikely to have occurred, given the circumstances and/or natural law and (b) occurs in an environment or context that is charged with religious significance. In other words, the event occurs in a context where we might expect a god to act. The stronger the context is charged in this manner, the stronger the evidence becomes that we have a miracle on our hands, if the historical evidence for the event itself is good. (p.163)

The first question I have is how can the evidence for an event be good if it is extremely unlikely to have occurred given the circumstances and/or natural law?  The simple fact that an event is extremely unlikely given natural law must at the very least put the possibility of the event's non-occurrence on the radar.  If as I proposed above, we draw inferences from evidence based on the regularity of natural processes of cause and effect, it is hard to see how we can ever claim to have "good evidence" of an event that is inconsistent with those processes.

The second question is how the hell can a historian identify the contexts in which a god might be expected to act?  What the hell does "significantly charged religious context" even mean?  What basis other than wishful thinking is there to believe that a god, God, an angel, a demon, or any other supernatural being is any more likely to act in such a context than in any other?  On what basis can the historian claim to know the mind of an infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being?  Not surprisingly, Licona provides no answers to any of these questions.  He simply takes the expectation of God's action as self-evident.


    In other words, the event occurs in a context where we might expect a god to act.

    What Licona means by this is 'Is it a Christian miracle?'

    If it is , he will accept it.

    In other words, the event occurs in a context where we might expect a god to act.

    I think Licona means we would expect a god to act if people were running out of wine at a wedding.

  3. Yeah, this is a mess. I would question how we develop a “…context where we might expect a god to act…” Expectation is based upon past experience. I “expect” a traffic light in Boston, Massachusetts to only be red for 1 – 3 minutes. I have never been to Boston; I have no idea what traffic lights they have, nor their timing sequence. But based upon my past experience in my own town, other United States cities, and general observations in other mediums, this would be my expectation.

    If I sat for a red traffic light in Boston for more than 10 minutes, I would think there was something mechanically wrong.

    How does one develop an “expectation” of what or when or why or how a god would act? I thought Matthew Ferguson did a great job of this in his debate with Nick Peters. Just because a god can do a thing by miracle does not translate to god would do a thing by miracle.

    Just because a god could transform me into a giant pickle, does not create an expectation a god would. In the same way…regardless of any other claimed miracles…just because a god could transform a dead human into a living, immortal, able to transport body, does not mean every claim that he did becomes a historical fact.

    While I think Dr. Licona puts on the best historical argument possible for a resurrection, his hypothesis ultimately fails by question-begging. He infers supernatural intervention to prove supernatural intervention.

    1. I just finished reading the section where Licona criticizes Crossan's for considering theological in addition to historical issues when evaluating the resurrection hypothesis. I cannot see how Licona could possibly object to this since he has made determining what we might expect God to do a part of the analysis. It amazes me that anyone would think that this gobbledygook merited a PhD.