I am inclined to respond by asking, "What took you so long?" As Machen observed the better part of a century ago, the "liberal Jesus," who told people to be nice, made few ostentatious claims about himself, and having died, remained politely in the grave, never was so very plausible. Morton Smith observes that not only every Gospel, but every layer of Gospel material, portrays Jesus as having worked miracles. And by the standards of David Hume (Law begins his paper with a quick bit of what John Earman has called "genuflecting at Hume's altar" [Earman: 2000, Preface], speaking of Hume's allegedly great contributions to the debate over miracles), one cannot countenance anything that smacks of a miracle, or anything in the neighborhood of a miracle.
But in my opinion, Law does not understand what a miracle is (neither does Hume), and therefore literally doesn't know what he is talking about. Nor has he fully taken in the empirical nature of the Gospels, and the quality of the evidence they carry. He may even have overlooked some important matters going on in the world today. For these reasons, his critique, I will argue, fails. Indeed, his critique helps shed light on the uniquely persuasive character of the Gospels.
Law argues mainly from philosophy and by analogy, rather than historically. I have explained my historical reasons for believing the Gospels in detail elsewhere, and will not reproduce those arguments here, but will engage Dr. Law on his own terms, focusing on epistemology, common experience, and logic.
I'll begin by sketching Law's overall argument (A), then describe five important errors he commits (B-F).
A. Law makes three main points:
(1) Extraordinary claims (like "miracles") require extraordinary evidence. Or in his language:
P1 Where a claim’s justification derives solely from evidence, extraordinary claims (e.g. concerning supernatural miracles) require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of extraordinary evidence there is good reason to be sceptical about those claims.
This is a standard skeptical claim. (The first phrase, "where a claim's justification derives solely from evidence" may involve a misreading of Plantinga, but let's save that for another day.) Law cites Carl Sagan's famous "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." He is also echoing Hume, who claimed there to be "uniform experience against every miraculous event." Nor was such language completely original to Hume, as Tim McGrew shows in an entry on miracles in the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy.
Law admits there's a bit of mystery circling around this word "extraordinary." Even more ambiguous is Law's use of this related word "miracle." That ambiguity, I claim, serves to ruin his argument.
To illustrate what he means by these words "extraordinary" and "miracle," Law tells the story of two hypothetical friends named Ted and Sarah. While generally known to be "sane and trustworthy," the couple claims that a man named Bert visited them at home the night before. After a few hours of conventional conversation, their guest engaged in some unusual behavior:
Bert flew around their sitting room by flapping his arms, died, came back to life again, and finished by temporarily tranforming their sofa into a donkey.
Law tells this story at length, and returns to it often. In many ways, his paper might be described as "The Parable of Ted and Sarah."
Law argues that he would be justified in disbelieving this story, despite his originally high appraisal of his friends' character. Why? Because of the "extraordinary nature of their claims." Furthermore, we have allegedly "acquired a great deal of evidence about the unreliability of testimony supposedly supporting such claims" as ghosts, fairies, and miracles. Law claims (without offering even anecdotal support; perhaps he is assuming that his readers have all read Sagan and believe everything he says -- but see my review of Sagan two posts prior) that stories about the supernatural are "constantly being debunked, exposed as fraudulent, etc."
Of course, one could say the same about "stories about celebrities," or "stories about politicians," or any number of other categories. If one pays close attention, one notices that human reports of many kinds are frequently exposed as false or even fraudulent. The fact that a significant proportion of anecdotes involving celebrities are false, does not mean there are no movie stars, or that they never (say) have affairs, or murder their lovers. Law is taking an illegitimate shortcut, here. He believes miracle stories have proven universally discreditable, apparently, but does not take the time to explain why we should think so, too.
Also, it is not obvious that the "extraordinary" nature of Law's parable is the only reason to reject it, nor that this is a clearly-defined reason at all. In fact, ambiguities in these terms "extraordinary" and "miracle" are large enough to drive small planets through, and through that porthole, Law has smuggled a dubious argument, as we shall see.
Law's other two points may be explained more briefly.
(2) Law calls his second point the "Contamination Principle."
P2 Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be sceptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.
The problem with the Gospels, Law argues, is that they contain dozens of miracles, and miracles that cannot be reduced to natural events:
. . . Most of the details we have about him come solely from documents in which the miraculous constitutes a significant part of what is said about Jesus, where many of these miracles (walking on water, etc) are unlikely to be merely misinterpreted natural phenomena, and where it is at least questionable whether we possess any good, independent non-miracle-involving evidence of his existence.
Let me just point out that if this principle works, then so does the opposite principle. If, as I argue in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, there are strong positive reasons to credit the honesty of those who wrote the Gospels, then that credility also "contaminates" the miracle stories, and renders them more plausible.
(3) Law's third point is a series of arguments against three of the criteria by which historians often evaluate the Gospels, and find them largely historical. He seems to have read a handful of historians on the subject (Meier, Grant, EP Sanders, Luke Johnson perhaps) few of them very conservative (though he has read at least some of Bauckham), and does not consider, say, of N.T. Wright's principle of Double Similarity, Double Disimilarity. Since Law does not pretend to engage those arguments in much depth, and I think few historians would find the superficial discussion he does give the subject very persuasive, I will say no more about those points in today's blog, if ever.
But let us return to Ted and Sarah, where we will find the core error in the whole approach Dr. Law (and Hume) take to miracles:
B. Ted + Sarah: What is a "miracle?" What is "extraordinary?"
The first problem with Law's Argument From Analogy, is that the Parable of Ted and Sarah is strikingly out of sync with the Gospel accounts of Jesus, on precisely those matters that make for historical credibility.
What are the real reasons few of us would believe Law's story about Bert? Aside, that is, from the fact that Law tells us he made it up? Three series of questions reveal the real problem, here:
(1) Who was Bert? Law gives him no personality, no prior history, no special moral insight, no great sayings, no facial characteristics, family, hometown, occupation, sense of humor, wit or characteristic modes of expression. He seems no more "extraordinary" as a person than Joe the Plumber, or maybe Mario the Plumber, and far less real. Law gives us no context for the man at all, or any reason to care about him, nor context for his extraordinary deeds.
What if this person Bert who rose from the dead in your friend's living room, were instead an innocent child killed by a stray bullet in a gang war, whose grief-stricken grandmother were praying frantically for him? Would that put Bert's resurrection in a different light?
What if he were a great national leader and international political hero, like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, whose work might help bring freedom to millions of the oppressed?
What if he were the one person who has changed the world for the better, more than anyone else?
What if, to add more context, prophecies of a death and resurrection very like his own appeared, not only in his own culture (to the intellectual satisfaction even of geniuses like Augustine and Pascal), but even in cultures thousands of miles and millennia removed?
Considering all these variations, a stalwart atheist might still find the idea that God would bring such a person back to life, incredible. But to construct a parallel without such important points of congruence, and give us this lifeless, cardboard figure of Bert instead, is simply to fail in constructing any kind of meaningful parallel.
(2) Why did Bert fly? Law does not ascribe motive, either. To entertain his hosts after coffee? (Or other drugs of choice?) Or, perhaps, to save the life of a child stranded in a fire on the second floor? Why did he rise from the dead? To show dramatically, at the center of human history, that God takes the side of the oppressed against their oppressors, and fundamentally change how the whole world thinks about justice? To give human beings hope that Entropy will not, after all, have the last word? Or as part of the after-cocktail show?
Again, the frivolity of Law's story discredits its relevance, and his own seriousness or perception in telling it.
(3) How did Bert fly? Law says, by flapping his arms. That is no explanation, of course. The body of an adult man usually weighs more than 150 pounds. Our bones are solid, not hollow, like those of birds. Nor are our arms aerodynamic: they do not create "lift" when we run. Nor even if they do create some small lift, is there likely to be enough room in a homely cottage to attain lift-off velocity.
Law offers no other explanation for Bert's after-dinner activities: they are, in fact, "extraordinary" not just in the sense of "unusual," but in the sense of "arbitrary" and "unexplained."
According to the New Testament, God raised Jesus from the dead. That is to say, the Creator of gravitons, the four forces, quantum fields, and planet Earth, who oversaw, over billions of years, the production of life from non-life, sentient life from prokaryotes, chose at that moment, in the fullness of history and according to his ancient promises to Abraham, Moses and Isaiah, maybe Lao Zi too, to bring Jesus back from the dead.
The hypothesis, again, is completely unrelated to Law's story. In all three cases, unexamined assumptions serve to dissipate the plausibility of the Ted and Sarah Parable by orders of magnitude, even while increasing the plausibility of Jesus' resurrection in similar exponential fashion. And we have hardly even mentioned the fact that Law made his story up, but Matthew, Mark, Luke and John obviously did not.
(C) Could it be that much of the force of Law's argument, as with the Orbitting Teapot, the pink unicorn, the Spaghetti Monster, or other beloved beasts in the skeptical menagary, derives precisely from the silliness of the examples to which it appeals? Is this, indeed, simply a sophisticated form of mockery?
Probably not. I believe Law is trying to make a serious argument. I think that argument fails, because he has completely failed to come to grips with the nature of NT miracles.
Christian miracles like those in the NT, I argue in Jesus and the Religions of Man, tend to share the following five characteristics:
* "Miracles ask to be verified; magic insults the intelligence." The claim that God has overcome death by raising a righteous man from death after being murdered by the Romans, does indeed beg verification, and Christians like William Lane Craig regularly verify it in debates with qualified opponents, often to the satisfaction of observers who consider themselves neutral.
Law's story does, by contrast, deliberately and clumsily, insult the intelligence, as we have seen.
* "Miracles tend to be practical; magic is often showy."
Few contrasts could be more stark between the works of Jesus in the Gospels, which heal, comfort, feed the hungry, and liberate people from disorders, from Bert's parlor tricks. (Or those of, say, Sai Baba or Vivekananda, or the apocryphal Jesus of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas-- in that respect, Law does have excellent real-world models for his story.)
* "Miracles enhance human dignity; magic makes us more or less than human."
There is nothing dignified about Bert's performance. But there is dignity in everything Jesus does in the Gospels, including in his miracles.
* "Miracles point to God; magic points elsewhere."
In Acts of Faith, his penultimate statement of theory in the Sociology of Religion, Rodney Stark defines "magic" as follows:
Magic refers to all efforts to manipulate supernatural forces to gain rewards (or avoid costs) without reference to a god or gods or to general explanation of existence.
Ruth Benedict likewise defined magic as "mechanistic manipulation of the impersonal."
Dr. Law provides a wonderful example of this contrast, as well. Bert's acts are random, maybe impress his friends, and cause no one to praise their Creator, or even (much) the story's creator. But observe how people react when Jesus calms the storm, or heals the man born blind, or raises the dead.
* "Miracles come in response to requests; magic to demands."
On this point, too, Law provides a textbook contrast. Bert appears to be the "guy in charge" in Law's story. He's a magician, a character in an undeveloped child's story. Jesus, by contrast, is a very human person in some unique and trusting relationship with his Father, whose will he passionately desires to fulfill.
Law seems to have simply overlooked the real qualities of New Testament miracles. So really, what is he talking about? How can a "refutation" of the Gospels by so intelligent and experienced a scholar prove so clumsy, so blind to the actual character of the texts he imagines himself debunking?
D. Incoherence in Cause and Effect
God is not the hero of the Parable of Ted and Sarah, as we saw. Dr. Law tells us, rather, that Ted and Sarah's "miracle" story, if false, "will be the impressive result of a powerful, false-testimony producing mechanism." Law offers three possibly such sources: hypnotism, LSD, or "a powerful desire to get themselves on daytime TV." He adds, even more flippantly:
But whatever the mechanism is, it could, presumably, quite easily also be the source of the remainder of their narrative.
"Whatever?" "Presumably?" This is Law's own argument. Shouldn't he try a little harder to make clearer sense of it than that?
This all seems even more iffy speculation, given Law's own speculations about his own parable. If Ted and Sarah took LSD the night before their visit, why didn't Law notice any symptoms? Why did both of them imagine Bert doing exactly the same things? Do different people on LSD usually have identical hallucinations? Would LSD really be likely to produce the mundane effects Law listed -- a normally dressed man, at first engaging in normal conversation? In fact, on the LSD hypothesis, isn't it likely that the earlier part of the story -- involving a real and normal human being -- would be accurate, an experience that occurred before the acid took effect? So on that hypothesis, wouldn't it be more likely that even if miracles never happen, and the gospel writers were drinking Indian soma, the mundane aspects of their stories about Jesus would still be real?
And on the Daytime TV hypothesis, why would talking to Law get them on TV? Is he also a television producer? And is there supposed to be some parallel between Ted and Sarah going on the tele, and Christians getting torn to pieces in the arena by lions for preaching Christ resurrected? One would think that if an incentive like fame explains why some people lie, a disincentive like death would imply just the opposite. Or are we only supposed to look for disconfirming motivations?
Law just waves his hands here, and says, "who knows?" apparently to distract attention from the lack of seriousness he brings to his own argument on the question of motivation.
Eric Manning points out:
"When you start with a bad counterexample as I think Law has, it seems like the argument then dooms itself to failure going forward."
Which raises the question, why does Law start with such a weak parallel? And would better ones help?
At the end of his paper, Law tells another story, about five people who are rescued from a desert island. They tell a story about a sixth person lived among them, who did all the supernatural things Jesus did. Would we believe those five people? He asks.
At this point, one wonders, "If you're going to make up a story so similiar to the Christian story, why not just examine the Christian story directly? Isn't there a danger, again, of using these parables to simply paper over the genuine character of the historical and spiritual questions that are at issue in the Gospels?"
The alternative, of course, would be to find good historical analogies to compare to the Gospels. The problem is, there aren't any. That's why skeptics often cite even weaker analogies like Apollonius of Tyana, the Iliad or Hercules -- Reductio Ad Aburdam parallels (again, please see Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus) that save Christian scholars a great deal of trouble in proving our point.
(E) Hume and Law's Abject Failure
In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, beginning his chapter on miracles, David Hume makes one very true remark:
I flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument of a like nature, which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endure.
Hume does, indeed, flatter himself here, and flatter himself baldly. But like many clever and inventive windbags -- Rousseau, Marx, and Richard Carrier come to mind -- millions of other people also flatter David Hume by taking such empty self-flattery all too seriously.
In Hume's Abject Failure, Earman replied, more cautiously:
The temptation to fashion such an argument is understandable. But it should be resisted. Any epistemology that does not allow for the possibility that evidence, whether from eyewitness testimony or from some other source, can establish the credibility of a UFO landing, a walking on water, or a resurrection is inadequate. At the same time, of course, an adequate epistemology should deliver the conclusion that in more (all?) actual cases, when all the evidence is weighed up, little credibility should be given to such events.
Like Law and Hume, Earman also seems to be begging the question on behalf of materialism, here. But he does so more carefully, and without shutting the door to having his beliefs disproven. He does not seem to have become an internet sensation, like Richard Carrier, nor is his book likely to be remembered "as long as the world endures." But such prices one sometimes pays for showing a reasonable amount of good sense, and keeping at least one eye open to the possibility that there may be more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in one's philosophy.
(F) Are "extraordinary events" really so extraordinarily rare? They don't seem to be. Why is it that I run into so many credible people who recount events in their lives in private, like real miracles -- not the "flying Bert" kind -- that have changed their lives in concrete and positive ways, while atheists never seem to meet these people, but just the kooks?