Precedence and the Erroneous Rejection of Miracles

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A bartender walks into the bar, late for work, and upon entering, explains why he was late. He tells his boss that he was late because he ran into a parade, that his car backfired and scared two little poodles in tutus that were dancing. After his boss briefly expresses skepticism of his story by repeating, “Dancing poodles, huh?” Sam, the bartender, continues his story by telling her that the dogs got spooked and ran away. He tells her that a cute girl in blue sequin ran after them right in front of this little car full of clowns that swerved to miss her, and the car ran right in front of this elephant. The elephant reared up, throwing a swami guy off that was riding on its tusk.

His boss, now beyond herself, tells Sam that his story is the lamest excuse he’s ever given her, “Why don’t you just say, ‘I’m sorry, Rebecca, I overslept. It won’t happen again.'” The scene ensues in the old comedy series, Cheers. On the surface, a set of improbable events sounds highly fanciful, especially given the fact that together they helped provide a reason for Sam’s tardiness from work. As one may be immediately inclined to think, this is all a fanciful story to help cover Sam’s delay, as does his boss. However, immediately following her disbelief of the story, in enters a woman in blue sequin and two dogs in tutus. Surprise! The story was true after all.

So, does a series of what appear to be improbable events on the surface nullify the truthfulness of a particular testimony? Not in the least. Though we may be inclined to have a particular reaction to such claims, to get at the heart of the matter, it’s important to weigh the evidence of the events in question. In the case of this example, one need only to have checked the local paper for a mention of a parade, or any television news outlets, perhaps tried to verify the route of the parade through the city. Of course, some testimonies, especially ones of events that took place in the ancient world, are a bit harder to evaluate. The evidence for those events may not be as readily accessible, and some work needs to be done to sift out whether or not the events in question are possible, probable or likely given the set of claims. The first thing we must not do is dismiss the veracity of testimony simply because it may not have prior precedence. If every event required a strict precedence before we agreed that it was possible, let alone that it was true, no new event would be admitted into the panoply of actual potentially real events that take place. If someone tells us a story, regardless of how fanciful it may seem to us, does it not deserve a chance to be heard and evaluated? It sure does! But, many atheists believe that we may legitimately dismiss the New Testament (NT) (and Old Testament for that matter) because of the same reasons.

A Priori Rejection of Miracles

One fallacious reason people reject testimony as the historical truth is that the narratives are often translated against the backdrop of that which we understand to be possible. Now, if one denies the possibility of miracles before the examination, the case has already been settled because no new information can overturn the accepted paradigm of philosophical naturalism. An a priori epistemological exclusion of possible supernatural events has already been carried out. For the person making this sort of claim, precedence is one of the few things that dictates potential truths – no new information can be submitted for consideration. But if no new information is allowed, how then would one possibly overturn a paradigm that happens to be false and in need of being replaced? Consider importing this manner of thinking into science. Suppose science worked in the like manner where no new scientific discoveries could reverse currently accepted views. This would effectively kill scientific progress.

Because supernatural events are not normative, and miracles are not commonplace, it is not surprising that whatever testimonies of such events exist, they would not be usual but rare – hence one of the reasons we call something miraculous and not natural. It must also be said that those testimonies do not necessarily need to conform to the expectations of the modern mind. We don’t necessarily need to correspond them directly with present day experiences as a means to test past events. Events that took place in the past must be evaluated freely and openly using evidence contextually relevant to the historical and cultural setting of each particular claim.

If something incredibly unique took place 2,000 years ago, we would want to test the merits of the testimonies of that particular event, based on the information surrounding that event, not what all other events since have dictated that we believe. Precedence for rejection of miracles is not wise. Rejecting new claims based on a past precedence may seem like a good way to investigate claims of this type, but the undertaking is riddled with many problems that can lead us to the wrong conclusion about their veracity. Many things happen only once. In fact, this applies to most events in history. Past precedence may give us warrant for skepticism, but not a trump card for outright denial without adequate examination.

Honesty in the Seeker

Imagine the person who claims that supernatural phenomena have never been verified to exist outside of the human imagination. One who holds this view and is honest will seek for evidence and follow it where it leads, at least, open to the possibility. On the other hand, the dishonest seeker will presuppose that supernatural events are not even possible. In this instance, the “seeking” is nothing but a ruse since the supernatural is precluded from all potential explanations even before any examination takes place. Natural answers to all supernatural claims will be preferred and selected, even at the expense of tremendous logical incongruities – this begs the question – if one will not even accept the possibility of supernatural phenomena, how would one go about detecting/uncovering one?

Imagine one saying something like this: ‘supernatural events can’t exist because we’ve never verified them, and we can’t verify them because they’re not possible.’ In other words, they can’t exist because they are not possible. The problem is that mere “possibility” is an a priori epistemological exclusion before the evidence is even considered. This argument is circular. The bottom line is that there is a prior commitment to naturalism, and any and all testimony to miracles is assumed to be wrong before and without proper evaluation of the evidence.

Now, we can dismiss a vast number of claims of miracles for any number of reasons. But this does not mean that we can also reject other claims of miracles simply because they are claims of miracles. One important thing to note is this: what would be the likelihood of the outworking of events if the claim of the specific miracle were false? Other miracles may be dismissed because of insufficient testimony or more reasonable alternative explanations. At least for some claims, there may not be such good evidence. It is not rational to say that z is false because x, and y are also false. Each testimony stands or falls on its own merits. We cannot be rational to reject one claim because there may be good reasons to reject other claims.

The reason for this setup and in making such distinctions between the kinds of claims of miracles, and why some rejection of miracles are erroneous, is that the claims made by the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth are vastly different both in quantity and quality from those of most other claims of other faiths. If one is presuming all claims of miracles to be grouped under the same umbrella, they have not considered the high quality of contextual trustworthiness of the biblical narratives. For more details about the said evidence of the biblical narrative, more specifically on the New Testament, please check out my book, Cold and Lonely Truth, and other articles within this blog.

Photo credit: remmerysilke via / CC BY