Sunday, March 20, 2011

How can we assess the likelihood of a miracle?

This is the first part of a response to Michael Martin's article, "Why the Resurrection is Initially Improbable," Philo, 1, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 1998): 63-73. At the time this response was written in the spring of 2005, Mr. Martin's article was being reprinted that spring in a book by Prometheus Press. I know that some people in both camps do not like to discuss miracles in terms of probability at all, considering them either as a "given" or as an "impossibility" but not as something to be studied or evaluated. For this series, both of those moves will be viewed as begging the question. Rather than sticking with the usual raw presuppositionalism of the two camps, we will ask, honestly, how we can assess if a miracle was likely.

In his introduction Mr. Martin outlines an argument which begins plausibly enough: that a miracle claim is initially improbable, and in light of this, miracle claims should be disbelieved unless the evidence is strong. I agree that miracles of the kind we're discussing are not events we see every day, and that miracle claims should be evaluated with a fair hearing given to skepticism. But are all miracles equally unlikely? Mr. Martin acknowledges that miracle claims should be assessed relative to our background knowledge and to the probability of alternative explanations. Let's look first at background knowledge.

Probability and Background Knowledge

How likely is it that I could perform a miracle? To stick with our method, we would assess the probability of a miracle claim in light of background knowledge. In my case, some important background knowledge is that I have never done a miracle, never claimed to have done a miracle, and have never had anyone say that anything I did was something supernatural. Everyone who knows me in person would agree with that. It is right to conclude that the probability that I would do a miracle is very, very small. Given the right background knowledge, the probability that I would do a miracle is negligible, really.

But what about another example, such as a leader at any of the various touring ministries that claim to do miracles? If our ideas about probability really have anything to do with our background knowledge -- rather than begging the question by presupposing the answer -- then the first thing we should do is look at that background knowledge. Who can say they actually saw a miracle? Where is their account of what happened, and are they willing to stand behind its truthfulness? If people were healed, then who knew those people beforehand, whether they were really sick or disabled in the first place? Where are they now, and have they really recovered? What are their names and where do they live? Were there any hostile witnesses, and what do they say? Were any of the miracles investigated? If past miracles done by a person could be solidly supported, this would increase the plausibility of the claim of a future miracle associated with the same person.

In the case of Jesus, some of his healings are recorded as taking place in crowd settings or while traveling, so that the people recording the miracles may not have known the exact identities of the people who were healed. But other miracles involved people who were known. One person raised from the dead was the twelve-year old daughter of Jairus the synagogue ruler. One blind man who received his sight was Bartimaeus from Jericho. One of the sick healed was Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. Another person raised from the dead was Lazarus from Bethany. Other healings either took place with hostile witnesses present or prompted an investigation from those hostile to Jesus. A man with a crippled hand was healed in a synagogue on the Sabbath in front of hostile witnesses. One of the blind men healed in Jerusalem was a well-known beggar; his healing on the Sabbath resulted in an investigation on the charge of Sabbath-breaking.

We know the view of those who followed Jesus; the New Testament records that for us. But what did Jesus’ enemies make of all this? The Talmud records that official charges against Jesus included practicing sorcery (Sanhedrin 43a) – that is to say, performing supernatural acts. Even his enemies were not able to dismiss the evidence that these supernatural things had actually occurred even with access to the people involved; yet because of their opposition to Jesus they construed these healings as somehow evil.

What happened to the people who had been healed? The early Christian writer Quadratus mentions their continuing witness value:
Our Savior’s works were always there to see, for they were true – the people who had been cured and those raised from the dead, who had not merely been seen at the moment when they were cured or raised, but were always there to see, not only when the Savior was among us, but for a long time after his departure; in fact some of them survived right up to my own time. (quote preserved in Eusebius’ History 4.3).
When we review the background knowledge for whether a future miracle claim is plausible, we find that Jesus is already surrounded by miracle claims that are far stronger than the average miracle claim. Unless claims of similar strength could be made for "miracles" which did not actually happen, we must consider at least the possibility that the reason for the unique strength of these claims is that they may in fact be true. I will comment more on the relationships between Jesus’ earlier miracle claims and the resurrection when specifically discussing Jesus' resurrection rather than miracles in general.

Some skeptics try to dismiss the issue of Jesus’ miracles by saying that the people belonged to such an unenlightened time and such a superstitious age that their reports simply cannot be believed. This type of move seeks to place miracles in the dustbin of history, and is meant to shut down an honest look at miracles rather than continue it. Yet no matter the ancient Roman world's lesser state of advancement, they still knew the difference between blind and sighted, crippled and whole, dead and alive. If someone blind from birth received sight without medical intervention, even in our modern age we would likely consider the possibility of a miracle; the state of advancement of society has not changed our evaluation of that.

It is also important to remember that there were people present in that day who were hostile to Jesus and who were motivated to dismiss any evidence which made Jesus appear unique. The opponents of Jesus who were his contemporaries did not manage to refute the miracle claims and ended by conceding that supernatural things had happened, reinterpreting the miracles as evil acts of sorcery (see Sanhedrin 43a); Jesus’ modern opponents lack comparative credibility in trying to claim that such things never happened when their predecessors who lived in Jesus’ day could not do the same.

One factor that causes miracles in general to be considered improbable is that solid claims are in fact so rare; on the other hand, a history of solid claims involving one person changes the probability for that person. If our knowledge of Jesus is part of the background knowledge used to check the probability of the resurrection, then the strength of evidence for Jesus’ earlier miracle claims would form a stronger background when we look at this final and ultimate claim, when we assess the probability of his resurrection. The previous miracle claims had such strength that when people came to see Jesus, they often came expecting a miracle.