Objection! "Miracles are the Least Likely Explanation"

Apr 06, 2020

This episode begins with the discussion of counter-explanations to the Resurrection. Specifically, the objection that since miracles are the least likely event, they are the least likely explanation of what happened to Jesus. In this episode, Abdu indicates how this objection employs unfounded assumptions and actually employs circular reasoning.

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Matt Dillahunty: From a historical perspective, Bart Ehrman has pointed out that, by definition, a miracle, a supernatural explanation has to be the least probable explanation.

Abdu Murray: Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, welcome back to another episode of the Defense Rests. I'm Abdu Murray, and The Defense Rests is a podcast where we take a look at the claims for and the objections against the Christian faith from a legal perspective. Now employing the rules of evidence procedure, how juries think, how judges think, how lawyers argue to see if the claims in favor of the Christian faith actually can withstand the kind of scrutiny you'd see a trial, but we also want to look at the counterclaims, whether atheistic or Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu or whatever it might be. The objections and the counter statements to the Christian faith, do they also hold up to the kind of scrutiny you'd find at a trial? Now the voice you heard at the beginning of this podcast was that of Matt Dillahunty.

Abdu Murray: Matt Dillahunty is a well-known atheist who hosts a very popular YouTube show called The Atheist Experience where he takes questions and calls from folks and discusses atheism and debunks largely Christianity. He was doing a debate with a friend of mine named Mike Licona, who has a PhD dissertation on the resurrection of Jesus, and they were debating whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. Now I bring him up because in episodes two and three of this particular podcast, we discuss the case for the resurrection of Jesus. And as a trial lawyer, I would present to you my closing arguments and I present that in the form of an acronym, C-A-S-E, it is the case for the resurrection of Jesus. Hopefully that's memorable. And I've got four key facts, three of which almost every scholar who studies the historical Jesus agree happened in some fashion. One of which the last one, the empty tomb is attested to, or at least supported by an impressive number of scholars who studied the historical Jesus.

Abdu Murray: So the C was the crucifixion, that Jesus died by crucifixion. The A was the appearances that Jesus appeared to his disciples as the risen Jesus, or at least his disciples believed that he did, such that they were willing to die for their belief, not in a fact someone else told them, but in a fact that they believed was their own experience. And then S stood for the skeptics, Paul and James, who were enemies of Christianity, one of the skeptics of it who became Christians because of the risen Jesus. And the E, the empty tomb, the one that's not as attested to by all the scholars, but an impressive number of scholars agree has good evidence for it that Jesus's tomb was known and was empty three days after his death.

Abdu Murray: So the resurrection I posited was the best explanation for all four facts because of two reasons. One, it explains all four. It doesn't explain three, it doesn't explain two, it explains all four, and it explains all four well. The account of the resurrection fits so perfectly and beautifully within the framework of how you need to explain all four of those facts. And I did tease that I would offer you for examination, the responses to this case that I had given. And I want to start that with this episode today. And the most fundamental response to the case that I laid out was elucidated or stated by Matt Dillahunty. It's stated by many other people as well, but it basically goes like this. It's a philosophical issue. They're basically saying, "Look, no matter what explanation you give me, it's got to be more probable than the resurrection." Because by definition, according to Dillahunty who quotes Bart Ehrman, "A miracle, a supernatural explanation has to be the least probable explanation."

Abdu Murray: So you can see how powerful that actually is because someone might say, "Look, I agree with that. Miracles are unusual, they're extraordinary, they're out of the blue, so therefore they have to be the least probable explanation." And then someone would counter say, "Ah, I'm so glad you agree, because now, no matter what facts you give me, if I can give you any explanation, no matter how outlandish it might be, if it's not a miracle, it by definition is more likely than the miracle you just described. And therefore the resurrection has to be the least likely explanation. So if I can give you any explanation of the four facts, that one has to be believed before the miracle claim." Sounds powerful, sounds reasonable, but is it? But is it? Let's examine it.

Abdu Murray: The Bible does say that someone makes their case and it seems very, very powerful until someone comes and challenges it. So let's challenge it and see if it actually makes some sense to state that a miracle is the least likely explanation for any set of facts by definition. Well, my first response is this, who says? Why is it that Matt Dillahunty or Bart Ehrman or anybody for that matter, gets to define the term miracle in this unhelpful and frankly biased way. And that's really the first mistake that's made here, is there's no commonly accepted of miracle in the academic literature. In fact Mike Licona goes on to point this out in his response to Dillahunty. But the definition that Dillahunty and others like this proposed doesn't really fit with any regular definition in dictionaries, this idea that it's the least probable effect.

Abdu Murray: Now I resort to dictionaries and I realize that's not exactly the most academic way to look at things, but sometimes it can be. I look at someone like Justice Scalia of the Supreme Court of the United States, and Justice Scalia was fond of quoting dictionary definitions for things because he was very fond of the idea that we understand things in a common sense, sort of man-on-the-street kind of a way, because common sense does rule the day often, even in legal opinion sometimes, because it's common sense, it should rule the day. And I looked at some stuff to see if this kind of a definition where we see a miracle is defined as the least likely explanation for a set of facts actually exists out there, and I didn't really find anything quite as drastic as what Dilanti or Ehrman or anybody else might say. Merriam Webster dictionary for example, defines a miracle in these kinds of ways. Definition one, “a miracle is an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs like the healing miracles described in the gospels.”

Abdu Murray: Now, it does say extraordinary, but it doesn't say least likely event. Lots of things are extraordinary but aren't necessarily the least likely explanation of an event. Another example of a definition from Merriam Webster. “A miracle is an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing or accomplishment, and you can use this in common parlance.” In fact, the event they give as an example, is the bridge, is a miracle of engineering. Well, no one's going to say that a miracle is the least likely explanation for that event. What they mean, is that it's unusual. So probability is the only factor into these kind of definitions. I do the quick and dirty search on Google to find out what some common definitions of miracle actually are. And Google defines it as a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.

Abdu Murray: There are other definitions that Google provides, including one that it says it's improbable, but it doesn't say it's the least probable explanation for an event. It's just saying that it's improbable, and that makes sense. I mean, I don't automatically believe someone when they say that a miracle happened to them. I prefer to look at the evidence for that miracle to see if it actually is one. Now, someone might believe something miraculous happened to them and that's fine. We just discern whether or not on the merits of that miracle or the merits of the claim, I should say, does the evidence warrant us believing that this is a miracle? Could it have been some alternative explanation? And oftentimes it is, but sometimes it's not. Sometimes things do transcend natural physical or scientific explanations. You see, that's I think the proper definition of a miracle. A miracle isn't the least probable explanation of a series of events.

Abdu Murray: That's not what a miracle is. In fact, David Hume, the noted skeptic who in his dissertation against miracles, railed against the idea of miracles. He doesn't even define miracles this way. Hume says that miracle is, "The violation of the laws of nature by the intervention of a deity." Again, probabilities don't factor into this definition. What we should think of as miracles are simply this, “a miracle happens when nature is not left to itself.” That's it. Now, I know there are plenty of academic definitions and Mike Licona's book on the resurrection goes into this. Other people have talked about the academic definitions of miracle, but essentially they boil down to this, a miracle happens when nature is not left to itself. So science can describe to us the laws of nature, the way things work, when nature is left to itself, when it's not acted upon by a force outside of nature. A miracle happens when something that's outside of nature does act upon nature and changes things in an unexpected way, but it doesn't have to be the least likely explanation.

Abdu Murray: And that's the second mistake that's being made here. So when we proceed from an improper definition, we are trying to settle the debate by definition. In other words, we're trying to settle the debate about whether a miracle happened like the resurrection, not by the merits of the evidence in favor of that miracle, but by defining miracles such that there can never be enough evidence to justify a miracle. Do you see that? It's important we understand that. See, if we make the claim that a miracle is by definition the least likely explanation of something, well then there can never be a miracle. There can never be one because the minute I actually offer you any explanation whatsoever, no matter how implausible it is, because of my prior definition, even my crazy implausible explanations must automatically be better than a miracle because I've defined a miracle as the least plausible explanation, or the least probable explanation.

Abdu Murray: That gives me license to provide any crazy theory I want to explain all four facts of the resurrection, for example, or to explain any miracle claim that someone gives. I can give any explanation I want, no matter how improbable, no matter how unscientific, because I've set the bar so low for myself. See, I've set the bar so impossibly high for the Christian by defining a miracle as the least likely explanation, and by implication then set the bar low for myself by saying, "I can provide you any explanation whatsoever, no matter how unlikely, because I decide that it's automatically more probable than a miracle. And that is simply deck stacking. That is a stacking the deck in your favor by definition. It's not an attempt to address the merits. But someone might say, "Look, this definition sounds reasonable, because look, if miracles happened, why aren't they happening all the time? Why isn't God more obvious?"

Abdu Murray: Now, that's a different debate altogether and possibly even another episode we'll get to. But let me address this because what they're trying to say is this, they're trying to say, "Look, if a miracle is not the least likely thing to happen, we should see them relatively often." Well, I'm not saying it's extremely likely all the time. What I'm saying, it's not the least likely explanation given a set of facts. But there's also more to it because there are miracle claims granted all the time, and it's not just ancient peoples who didn't know better. We don't have miracle claims just popping up in the old days when people thought that thunder was the activity of the gods, or that tornadoes were the fingers of the gods stretching into the world to judge humanity for its sins or something like that.

Abdu Murray: No, that's not what we're seeing only. We're seeing people who are actually today in contemporary societies, both western and eastern and southern in all walks of life, whether in developing countries or in first-world, so-called countries, people are making miracle claims all the time. So it isn't just for the ignorant or the uneducated to make these claims. People are actually making them, and they're making them with such a frequency that I think it belies the idea that miracles are therefore the least likely explanation, especially if they happen all the time. Now, I'm not saying they happen in everyone's life all the time. I'm just saying that they happen with a surprisingly higher frequency than people often believe. A good example of this is to look at some of the documentation that Craig Keener has put together in his massive two-volume book or set called Miracles, where he provides a rigorous detailed account of modern miracle claims.

Abdu Murray: People who were raised from the dead for example, or healed miraculously following prayer, not just sort of spontaneously, but oftentimes following prayer because there's a connection being made between the idea that someone has prayed for and a miracle happens. In other words, you have to make the connection that divine intervention happened. And by the way, Keener doesn't just do this in a flip way. Being a scholar of the first rank, Keener employs a rigorous academic discipline to finding out whether or not these things are verifiable, documentable, and worthy of attention in this massive two-volume set. So this idea that miracles are the least likely explanation is belied by the fact that miracle claims happen quite often. In fact, the idea of a connection between prayer or the calling upon a divine authority and healing is being taken seriously in academic peer-reviewed medical journals. For example, in the journal of Complementary Therapies in Medicine, an academic period of your journal in April 2019, volume 43, pages 289 to 294. [inaudible 00:15:37] title to the return article. Case Report of gastroparesis healing: 16 years of a chronic syndrome resolved after proximal intercessory prayer...

Abdu Murray: What that basically means is that there was a young man who had 16 years of an inability to eat without a G-tube or a J-tube. These tubes that they shove into your stomach basically to help you to digest food because you're incapable of doing it yourself. He'd lived with this since he was an infant, and for 16 years was unable to eat anything on his own without the medical intervention. And then it says here that for 16 years he was completely dependent on J-tube feeding. In November, 2011 he experienced proximal intercessory prayer where someone prayed for him, near him about this issue at a church and felt an electrical shock starting from his shoulders and going through his stomach. After the prayer experience, he was unexpectedly able to tolerate oral feedings. Now this is being studied and the idea here, and having this in an academic peer-review journal, again, expert testimony is that they want to study the effects of proximal intercessory prayer on someone's ability to overcome illnesses.

Abdu Murray: Now, if you know anything about medicine, if you know anything about anatomy, you know that a body that is unable to digest foods such that it needs tubular intervention like a G-tube or a J-tube in someone, it just totally doesn't miraculously heal, especially when it wasn't the cause of a trauma of some kind or a temporary condition. This young man had this kind of a condition ever since he was a child, and for 16 years couldn't digest food, but after prayer could suddenly do it. My point in bringing this up, is that it's being taken seriously in academic journals, which suggests that maybe we should start taking in our common sense, in our common parlance, in our common conversations. Maybe we should start taking these kinds of things seriously as well, and not simply relegate them to "the least likely explanation."

Abdu Murray: You see ladies and gentlemen, doing that, where we just kind of relegate it to a false definition really speaks more about our attitude towards evidence than it does about the strength of the evidence itself. It was G.K. Chesterton who made this amazing statement. I think it really is quite applicable today, because oftentimes it's the people who are outside of a conservative Christian viewpoint, and I mean conservative theologically, not politically. It's these folks who tend to deny the idea of a miracle being the explanation for what happened to Jesus.

Abdu Murray: And here's what Chesterton says. "For some extraordinary reason, there is a fixed notion that it is more liberal to disbelieve in miracles than to believe in them. Why? I cannot imagine, nor can anybody tell me. For some inconceivable cause abroad or ‘liberal’ clergyman always means a man who wishes to at least diminish the number of miracles. It never means a man who wishes to increase the number. But in truth, this notion that it is quote free to deny miracles has nothing to do with the evidence for or against them. It is a lifeless of verbal prejudice of which the original life and beginning was not in the freedom of thought, but simply in the dogma of materialism. A miracle only means the ‘Liberty of God.’"

Abdu Murray: What Chesterton is saying is that it is a very illiberal view to not allow for miracles to be a plausible explanation of something. And that's saying be gullible, nor is he saying be gullible, but he is saying that when you reduce the number or even the plausibility of miracles, you're being very close-minded as opposed to liberally open minded. This is methodological naturalism. It goes against the idea of being open to all possible explanations.

Abdu Murray: In fact, Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd in their book, The Jesus Legend, where they defend the historicity of the gospels, actually advocate for what's called an open historical critical method where we allow for all explanations naturalistic and supernatural to be on the table so that we can decide based on the evidence, not based on our prior dogma, whether or not a miracle actually took place. And this goes back to something that's very important because it's important to get to the heart, to the reason why people make the claims they make. If we make the claim that a miracle is by definition the least likely explanation for a set of facts, not only are we deck stacking, we're revealing something about our views. Because everyone does at least believe in some level of unexplained miracle. My colleague, Vince Vitale has often said this, Big Bang cosmology teaches us that the universe came about from nothing. That there was nothing at some point, and then with the big bang, all matter, energy, space and time was created.

Abdu Murray: So he had a colleague or somebody he was witnessing to, who he was speaking to, who said, "I can't believe in a virgin birth." But that person does accept that the universe came from nothing. And so Vince pointed out, "You believe in a virgin birth, and I believe in a virgin birth. It's not a matter of do you believe in virgin births? It's a matter of which one do you believe in?" Because he believed the universe came from nothing. You see what I'm saying here is that it is very unlikely, it is extremely unlikely that the universe came from nothing without any agent causation whatsoever. Yet people are willing to believe that extremely, I would say least probable explanation of the university's existence, because it allows us to not believe in God. But if we allow for a supernatural, then it's more reasonable to believe that the universe did come into existence from an agent outside of the universe itself.

Abdu Murray: In other words, a miracle is a more probable explanation of the university's existence than nothing decided to create itself. And finally ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this idea or this definition, this argument by definition that a miracle is the least likely explanation of any fact is entirely circular reasoning, or at least suborned circular reasoning. Now, what do I mean by that? I recall years and years ago when I was preparing for my LSAT, the law school entrance exams, that there was a section on the exam called logical reasoning. And one of the things they told us to prepare for was the ability to spot assumptions and logical fallacies. And one of the logical fallacies is this thing called, “assuming the conclusion” or what's called “circular reasoning,” more often called also “question begging.”

Abdu Murray: Now, I'm going to pause for a moment because it's important. Phrases sometimes get misused. People say, "Well, that begs the question." And they mean that something that you've said therefore leads to another question. That's not what question begging actually means. What question begging means is that if you make an argument or an assertion, you've assumed the conclusion you're trying to reach in the premises of your argument. In other words, here's an example. They had this on the law school's exams as an example of circular reasoning. People who are arrested are guilty because the police only arrest guilty people. That's tautological, but it's also circular because the conclusion is that people who are arrested are guilty, but you've assumed that conclusion when you made the argument that the police only arrest guilty people. Well, that of course would do violence to the entire criminal justice system because every time they arrest somebody that we don't even need a trial, we're just going to jail.

Abdu Murray: But it's also just plain old circular reasoning. It's just you assume the conclusion in the argument you're already trying to make. Now, how does that apply to this definition of miracles? Simply this way, if the argument is this, you say that a miracle is by definition the least likely explanation of a set of facts, then what you're saying is you're making an assumption is that it's extremely improbable that there is a God who could intervene in nature and not leave it to itself. In other words, if a miracle is the least probable explanation of something that already assumes that either A, God doesn't exist or that it's improbable that God would ever act in creation, but that's the point we're debating, isn't it? The whole point of providing a case for the resurrection is to see if God exists and if God actually intervened in human affairs.

Abdu Murray: Well, if you've already said that it's the least probable explanation, you've already assumed that it can't be true or that it can't happen. Do you see how that's circular? You've assumed the conclusion you're trying to reach in the very premises of the argument you're making. So the whole thing really does fall apart. Let me sum up this way. We've seen that this objection to miracles or the resurrection itself doesn't really deal with the evidence for the resurrection itself. It simply tries to define a way the evidence so we don't have to deal with it. This is fascinating because it's often the skeptic who will say the lack of miracles shows that God is simply hidden or he's so hidden that reality is that he doesn't exist at all and we have no basis to believe in him. But you see the issue here, when someone uses a definition to avoid the strength of the evidence for the miracle, it's not evidence that God is hiding.

Abdu Murray: It's evidence that they are hiding from a God who has given them enough evidence for them to reasonably put their faith in him. And it's not just a resurrection of any person. It's not just some guy who happened to rise from the dead as a point of curiosity, as a parlor trick to prove that God exists. No, that's not what the resurrection's about at all. It's about a particular man, who had a particular role, who had a particular claim, about who he was and the resurrection that vindicates that claim. And what is that claim? That claim is that each one of us was meant to be in relationship with God. That through our sin, we violated that relationship and therefore owe a debt, a moral debt to God. And that Jesus who being God's son has no debts of his own to pay, so can stand in our stead and pay that debt for us.

Abdu Murray: Now he says he did that at the cross. If he died and stayed dead, we'd have no reason to believe him and no reason to hope whatsoever that he actually accomplished anything for us. But if he didn't stay dead, if he bodily rose from the dead, and there's good evidence to believe that he did, then there's a good evidence for us to have hope. There's a good reason for us to cling to a hope that that relationship we have marred can be restored. I've often said it this way, that if Jesus died and stayed dead, I have no reason to believe in him. But if he died and Rose again, then I have every reason to believe in him because guys who rise from the dead tend to have credibility, and he makes the claim that I can be redeemed by what he's done. Any attempt to run away from that, by definition, speaks more about our motivations than it does about the evidence.

Abdu Murray: Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, there are people who try to explain things away beyond simple definition. An episode to come, we'll talk about some of those explanations, like the hallucination theory or the twin theory, or the Swoon theory about what happened to Jesus, and we'll show how those don't really hold water either. When you apply the scrutiny needed at a trial, the best evidence we have, points to the best explanation we have, which is that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead for you and for me. Until next time friends, I'm Abdu Murray. The defense rests.

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