The role of evidence in choosing a religion

I happened to be reading some blog posts on evidence in apologetics at the same time many of us were preparing for the public announcement of LIGO’s discovery.  The combination in my mind is most likely what produced the following.

Apologists certainly do good work showing that Christianity doesn’t have the epistemic status of an urban legend, that the story as we have it was established close to the time of credible witnesses and preserved carefully thereafter.  Scenarios that deny the Resurrection involve improbable stories about elaborate frauds, bizarre mass delusions, or spectacular misunderstandings of mushy spiritual talk.  Hearing about them can certainly strengthen one’s faith.  On the other hand…

Improbable events occasionally happen.  Cultures are prone to look for, record, and propagate the memory of a particular kind of event:  very improbable (plausibly miraculous) occurrences happening to persons with a body of followers.  If you run random noise long enough through a pipeline designed to amplify any particular improbable signal, sooner or later…

One must take this into account for a proper detection statistic.

One might say that probability has nothing to do with the definition of a miracle, which is a suspension of the laws of nature.  However, our assessment that a miracle has occurred must be probabilistic, because one can never be sure the laws of nature have been violated, first because we don’t have perfect knowledge of the laws of nature, second because we never have perfect knowledge of the event in question.  For both the Higgs boson and gravitational waves, detection was claimed with a five sigma signal, which refers to the improbability of other effects creating the same signal by chance over the data collection period.

The consequences of this line of thought are surprising.  From naturalistic assumptions, the longer humanity endures and records its experiences, the more spectacularly improbable, plausibly-miraculous events are likely to occur, especially given an increasing population that gets better and better at recording events and faithfully transmitting them.  If Jesus had raised from the dead today, our detection statistic would be much higher, because we currently must fold in the possibility of exaggerations in transmission.  The (naturalistic) probability of Christianity is the probability of any bizarre scenario that leads to such a story getting out OR any bizarre scenario whereby the record is suchwise deformed in the first few decades.  P(A or B) > max(P(A),P(B)).    Eventually, something so unusual will happen while being so carefully recorded that, if taken in isolation from these considerations, it would exceed anybody’s credulity threshold.

What keeps accounts of supernatural phenomena from being more convincing is, in fact, humanity’s willingness to believe.  Events that exceed the average credulity threshold all get taken about equally seriously, even though some are much “better detections” than others.  Putative miracles lose impact from occurring in an environment already crowded with previous miracles.  Again, I am imagining now how things must look to a naturalist.  Our evidence of miracles at Lourdes may be more impressive than our evidence for the resurrection of Lazarus, but Catholicism was already there to absorb Lourdes, so it is historically less important.

How could we know if the miracle which exceeds our own credulity threshold is actually the tail end of a smooth probability distribution?  Perhaps if we looked at the occurance rate of slightly and somewhat less improbable events, but unfortunately society is rigged to record only events near or above its credulity threshold.

A cynic would marvel at the post-conciliar canonization procedure.  The actual investigation gets shorter and shorter.  Things are left to God by demanding a miracle.  Encourage enough people to pray to so-and-so when they get sick, then wait long enough, and a sufficiently odd and unexplained event will occur.  If we really wanted God’s opinion, perhaps we should give Him a one-year window, but that would obviously be putting Him “to the test”.

From God’s point of view, there’s no point in producing a miracle must more spectacular than the public’s credulity threshold.  It won’t buy Him anything.  Anyway, the value of a miracle always goes down in time, because one’s evidence becomes more and more remote.  God could have waited to send Jesus to us today so that everything could be on TV, but that would have meant sacrificing dozens of generations that needed the Gospel.

Looking across the field of major religions, Christianity seems to me to stand out for its historical credibility–major miracles of which we have record not too far from the supposed event, at least not as far as what looks to me to be the world norm.  I certainly wouldn’t call it impressive enough to base my faith upon, though.  To the extent that I am a Christian not only because it is my inherited faith (and, being a conservative, I am not at all ashamed of inheriting faith) it is because of what I would call the internal evidence of Christianity:  the way it seems to be right about non-obvious things, the way it tells us something new about God that we wouldn’t have guessed on our own yet seems to deepen what we already knew.

12 Responses

  1. Miracles are suspensions or violations of the laws of nature and not merely improbable events. Virgin birth and resurrection do violate the laws of human biology.

    “. From naturalistic assumptions, the longer humanity endures and records its experiences, the more spectacularly improbable, plausibly-miraculous events are likely to occur”

    All cultures, except the Christian, have more records of or memories or stories of ancient miracles. The naturalistic assumptions do not hold, along with your misdefinition of miracle.

  2. Of course, one way to judge an allegedly divine intervention is its impact.

    That the Emperor Vespasian performed two miraculous cures is attested by three Roman historians generally accepted as credible and reliable: Tacitus (Histories 4.81), Suetonius (Vespasian 7.2) and Dio Cassius (Roman Histories LXV.8).

    Whatever view we take of these cures, they seem to signify or point to nothing and nothing seems to have come of them. There is no evidence that Vespasian’s cultus became more popular or widespread; we may doubt that anyone has venerated his memory or invoked his aid these nineteen hundred years past.

    The story takes its place with any number of accounts of witches flying, tables turning, saints being levitated, oracles coming true, horoscopes being verified, sickness being cured by faith-healing; it is simply better attested.

    They have been “miracles” (miracula) in the Latin sense of inspiring wonder and astonishment; they were most certainly not “signs” (τὰ σημεῖα) – The common NT word for miracles. Perhaps, it would make for clarity, if we dropped the word “miracle” and spoke instead of a “sign.”

  3. It all depends on prior assumptions. The assumption now, in mainstream culture, is that the resurrection *could not have happened*, so there is no point in trying to prove it with evidence – it will not be believed. Same with miracles. One can always assume other people are deluded by wishful thinking or mob hysteria.

    Our current miracle is that modern people in the West are uniquely un-deluded and realistic, and therefore convinced atheists who know with absolute certainty that God is a false myth and miracles are all untrue – despite that most of the world believes in God/s and miracles, and until a few generations pretty much everybody who ever existed did also – including some of the greatest minds who ever lived (Isaac Newton anybody? – his case also implies that Alchemy was not just bunk).

    I think the best approach is simply to say – there is evidence on both sides; and objectively Christianity is not utterly without credibility – Now pray, and ask for guidance.

    It worked for me.

  4. Bruce Charlton wrote, “The assumption now, in mainstream culture, is that the resurrection *could not have happened*, so there is no point in trying to prove it with evidence”

    Mainstream culture is usually about fifty years behind the times. That is about how long Post-Modern and Analytical philosophy has been challenging Enlightenment assumptions that “things” remain what they are, that they behave in a uniform manner or that all the events of nature are bound together by a strict chain of causality. Not a few historians of science now take it for granted that the objective features of a phenomenon so little constrain the ways it is classified and theorized that these features can be disregarded in trying to understand why a particular classification system or scientific theory was adopted.

    The more old-fashioned types who cling to Hume’s notion of probability are simply unfamiliar with the current literature, in which its fallacies are exposed.

    Hume, you will recall, argued that the more often something had happened in the past, the more likely it was to recur in the future and the less often the less likely and that, accordingly, miracles were the least likely of all events. Now, Hume himself had already insisted, quite correctly, that “probability is founded on the presumption of a resemblance betwixt those objects, of which we have had experience, and those, of which we have had none; and therefore it is impossible this presumption can arise from probability.,” he has merely established that it is neither probable nor improbable.

    Of course, Hume had no way of justifying this “presumption of a resemblance.” Nor has anyone else and not for the want of trying;

  5. I expect more people will complain about my appeals to probability, so I’ve added the following to the main text:

    One might say that probability has nothing to do with the definition of a miracle, which is a suspension of the laws of nature. However, our assessment that a miracle has occurred must be probabilistic, because one can never be sure the laws of nature have been violated, first because we don’t have perfect knowledge of the laws of nature, second because we never have perfect knowledge of the event in question. For both the Higgs boson and gravitational waves, detection was claimed with a five sigma signal, which refers to the improbability of other effects creating the same signal by chance over the data collection period.

  6. “However, our assessment that a miracle has occurred must be probabilistic, because one can never be sure the laws of nature have been violated, first because we don’t have perfect knowledge of the laws of nature, second because we never have perfect knowledge of the event in question.”

    “Is the sky really blue” type lines of reasoning will never lead anywhere. If a person is willing to dismiss any empirical observation on the grounds that it might be a fluke, it’s not really worth your time to argue with him. On the other hand, if you’re not talking with such a person, it would be better to disabuse him of his probabilistic metaphysics.

  7. The idea that miracles are violations of the laws of nature has never sat well with me. Why would God need or want to violate His own laws? Wouldn’t this imply a division in God?

    Augustine agrees, writing in City of God, “For how is that contrary to nature which happens by the will of God, since the will of so mighty a Creator is certainly the nature of each created thing? A portent, therefore, happens not contrary to nature, but contrary to what we know as nature.” Indeed, as far as I can tell from my researches, this was the dominant view for the bulk of the Middle Ages (Gregory the Great, for instance, repeats it), until the nominalists (those great villains) emerge on to the scene. Even the most dramatic miracles must somehow be encoded into the seminal reasons of things, the potential for the miracle built into their nature from the beginning. If our understanding of natural laws is incompatible with this, then so much for natural laws.

    I have a nascent theory, too inchoate to spell out here, that if we look at the character of many miracles we’ll see this in greater relief. Miracles in practice are in harmony with nature, not in conflict. Grace perfects it does not destroy.

    This doesn’t necessarily speak for or against the points Bonald is making here, but I think it’s an important position to consider even if we ultimately reject it.

  8. Rob:

    There are many ways to tackle the rather suspect idea that laws are ‘violated’. I sketch some approaches and leads below:

    We can start by observing that many (if not most) physical laws hold only under certain conditions, eg. the First Law of Thermodynamics applies only to a closed system. However, no physical system is closed to God, so when He acts the system is open and the conditions are such that the First Law does not necessarily apply.

    Then we can investigate the concept of ‘physical law’ more clearly. The problem with the term is that it describes two distinct concepts: the descriptions of reality that man derives from observation and analysis, and the actual ‘rules’ that reality runs along. One is the map, and the other is the territory.

    It follows that physical law in the first sense cannot be broken by definition, since it is a mere description, man’s thoughts about the world. That our best description of physical reality is both incomplete and not wholly correct only renders such an approach impossible. (I’ll skip a point or two about how maps can and do relate to the reality for the sake of brevity).

    We move now to the actual laws that govern reality. There are many possibilities to explain miracles that does not resort to treating them as ‘suspensions’ or ‘violations’; these include

    a) The Lawgiver and Sustainer does not suspend or violate laws, but alters them as He wills in His time according to His purpose (which I think it likely that He’ll also do when the New Creation is made). Such would not be an ‘invasion’ by God into reality, disturbing or distorting it, but the Master Potter doing something new yet again.

    b) Natural law has ‘built-in’ behaviour for God and other spiritual beings to interact that we’re not aware of (incidentally, our own knowledge of how we as human agents cause physical change is rather incomplete)

    c) There is a great deal of natural law that we have completely no idea about. We have little idea how new-creation matter (the resurrected body) behaves and interacts with normal matter. In fact, the best physical theory has that >90% of matter-energy in the universe is stuff we know close to nothing about. There is plenty of room for behaviour and substances that are unexplainable because our knowledge is so pitiful.

    d) As described above at the beginning, some natural laws hold only under specific conditions. So when the conditions are not met, they’re not ‘suspended’ or ‘violated’ – they just don’t apply to the situation at hand

  9. GJ

    Good reflections, and I think all of those possibilities you detail are interesting and plausible, with the exception of (a) which seems to violate the principle that God rested from creation on the 7th day. Interestingly, many of the medieval thinkers who discussed this issue closely tied the question into one of time. Water does turn into wine after all, rods do flower (to use the examples given Augustine and Gregory), it just takes time which is absent in the miraculous examples. We could likely connect this into larger thoughts about the inbreaking of the eternal into the temporal.

    Unfortunately, no one (that I’ve been able to discovered, albeit in limited researches at the very beginning of my graduate career), has treated this systematically. The closest was a 7th century Irish work De mirabilibus sacrae scripturae which takes its cue from the quote I posted in City of God and seeks to explore all the mysteries of Scripture in terms of natural explanations. Working on this further is one of my big “future projects” after I’ve wrapped up my current work.

    I fear we’ve (or I’ve) gone far afield from the post subject, however.

  10. Rob:

    Yeah, we’re digressing so I’ll just address a): that God rested from creating on the 7th day does not mean that on the 8th day onwards He no longer creates; the text implies only that the 7th day was a day of cessation from creation. In fact, given New Creation – eg Jesus’ resurrected body and the renewal of all things at the eschaton – God does and will create new things.

  11. My understanding is that miracles are God acting other than through secondary causes.

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