What is Bart Ehrman’s Argument Against Miracles and Responses to it?

Many scholars and historians believe that miracles lie outside of the purview of their academic discipline. Bart Ehrman is one such historian who maintains that belief in miracles in history contains “a set of presuppositions that are not generally shared by historians doing their work” and that “the historian has no access to “supernatural forces” but only to the public record, that is, to events that can be observed and interpreted by any reasonable person” (1).

The central contention of Ehrman’s argument is that because historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and the chances of a miracle happening, by definition, are infinitesimally remote, historians can never demonstrate that a miracle probably happened. Here we understand a miracle to be an event in history for which natural explanations are inadequate. The nature of a miracle is such that there could be no natural cause of it. Consider the following syllogism representing Ehrman’s argument (2),

P1. A miracle is by definition the most improbable of events; the probability of a miracle is infinitesimally remote,

P2. A historian can establish only what probably happened in the past,

Therefore,

C. A historian can never establish that a miracle happened.

Importantly, Ehrman is nowhere in this argument positively claiming that miracles never occur. He is rather asserting that they are always incredibly improbable.

According to this argument, because miracles happening is infinitesimally remote and since historians must choose the most probable explanation, the historian is never warranted in selecting a miracle hypothesis. Ehrman is not the only scholar to argue for this perspective. Gregory W. Dawes of the University of Otago stated that according to many we live in a world “in which miracles are (at best) an explanation of last resort’ (3). According to Michael Goulder “even if speculative, a natural explanation is to be preferred” (4).

Supernaturalists will object to Ehrman’s argument likely disputing P1 and questioning why one should consider the miracle hypothesis necessarily the least probable explanation at all times. Ehrman responds that this is because miracles “do not happen all the time” and “defy all probability” (5). Moreover, those who claim to have seen or performed miracles have either lied or were mistaken about what they saw. Therefore, it is more probable that alleged witnesses to miracles documented in historical sources are wrong in their reports of the occurrence of a miracle.

Several points need to be considered here. As noted, it appears presumptuous to claim that miracles are the least likely explanation for all events. It is also circular reasoning: miracles are the least probable explanation because miracles are the least probable explanation. This begs the question.

The supernaturalist will agree that miracles are unlikely and rare. If miracles occurred all the time, then they would not be miracles, which is why miracles must by definition be rare occurrences. But it does not follow from this that miracles cannot ever be a likely explanation for a particular event in history. As supernaturalists argue, a miracle might explain some particular event more strongly than all alternative naturalistic alternatives. The supernaturalist claims that if this can be demonstrated on historical grounds, then he is warranted to accept the miracle hypothesis as the best explanation. 

This also raises the question: what if it is the naturalistic explanation that is contrived and improbable when trying to explain a miracle event? Perhaps an explanation appealing to a miracle might have greater explanatory scope, which would be a refutation of P1 in Ehrman’s argument because then at least some miracle explanation might be probable.

There are also worldview considerations that tend to open another entire debate concerning the existence of God. If a personal theistic God exists, then it is certainly possible for miracles to happen, a point even skeptics will concede. Of course, if no such being exists and nature is all that there is, then miracles would be impossible and all alleged miraculous events, whether historical or contemporary, must be mistaken and have some naturalistic explanation. But the skeptic cannot just assume God’s non-existence; as historian Michael Licona contends, “In order to demonstrate that a miracle is improbable, Ehrman would have to provide the necessary background knowledge that God’s existence is improbable or that, if God exists, it is improbable that he would want to act in a particular situation” (6). Consequently, what appears a simple debate on its surface becomes much more complicated.

References

1. Ehrman, Bart. 2013. Historians and the Problem of Miracle. Available.

2. Licona, Michael., and Jan G. Van der Watt. 2009. Historians and miracles: the principle of analogy and antecedent probability reconsidered. Available.

3. Dawes, Gregory. 1998. “A degree of objectivity: Christian faith and the limits of history.” Stimulus 6(3):32-37. p. 35.

4. Goulder, Michael. 1996. “The baseless fabric of a vision”. In Resurrection Reconsidered, edited by G. D’Costa, 48-61. Oneworld. p. 52.

5. Ehrman, Bart. 2008. The New Testament: A historical introduction to the early Christian writings. Oxford University Press. p. 243.

6. Licona, Michael., and Jan G. Van der Watt. 2009. Ibid.

17 comments

  1. Sigh. If I was omnipotent, I would pass a law (heck, don’t need to pass a law, just create a force that would make this happen)

    NO scientist (Neil Tyson I’m looking at you) and no science writer would EVER use the word “explanation” in connection wtih science without (a) studying Steven Weinberg’s 2003 essay, “Does Science Explain Everything? Anything?” (spoiler alert: no)

    Science does not EXPLAIN. There is no such thing as a naturalist explanation for ANYTHING so it’s absurd to talk about miracles when for all intents and purposes, since nothing is explain in the nihilistic faith of modern times, essentially everything is a miracle.

    Rupert Sheldrake got it right when he said the physcialist/atheist position is this:
    Grant us one free miracle (laws of nature) and we’ll explain the rest.

    Well, if you explain everything on the basis of a miracle, then everything is a miracle.

  2. I think we need to sharpen our “definition” of what a miracle is; it seems to me to be a bit more than just the “least probable event.” I’ve heard this argument from Prof Ehrman a number of times and it seems very reasonable to me.

    Oxford Dictionary states that a miracle is an “extraordinary event not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore, attributed to divine agency.” In other words, an event for which there is no known basis in science or natural law. I usually add that it is an event for which the known laws of physics and science have been suspended for some period of time. Think Fatima, when supposedly “tens of thousands” saw the clouds separate and the sun appear. The people could look at the sun without blinking at which point it began to “dance” moving to and fro on the sky from side to side brilliantly and quickly until it seemed to plunge towards the Earth. Obviously this is outside the purview of science and natural law and would result in global catastrophe should it occur. In order for us to argue a miracle exists because god exists is rather backhanded since we’d have to consider god him/her self to be a miracle in itself, yes? A being that has existed before time, that always was and always will be, that created everything, that knows everything including whatever we think, say, do and even dream. I’d have to consider this being a miracle and conclude it not only to be the “least likely event” but an impossible one as well. If you have a predilection to believe in such beings, then it only stands to reason that miracles would be next on the list.

    Consider any so-called miracle you can think of and ask yourself if the very laws of nature, physics, and – let’s be honest – rationale have to be suspended in order to explain them.

    • I’m not overly impressed by much of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, but one statement stands out (paraphrasing from memory): “The most absurd irrational belief in the 20th century is the belief in ‘laws of nature.’

      You would think by now, given the whole concept derived from the concept of a Divine Law-Giver, that atheists like de Grasse Tyson and Dawkins would stop harping on ‘laws of nature.”

      You would also think, given the reality that even arch-skeptic Richard Wiseman has acknowledged that our modern day study of miracles, parapsychology, has replicated studies at a level equal to that of any other science, that we would develop a whole different sense BOTH of laws and miracles.

      There are no “Fixed’ laws – how can there be when the majority of scientists deny any rhyme or reason to the cosmos. Well, they don’t admit it but by clinging to what Rupert Sheldrake calls “one free miracle” – the miraculous emergence of laws of nature “by CHANCE” – they implicitly admit their science is not wearing any “clothes.”

      The other day, James posted an essay about militant fundamaterialist Valerie Tarico. She wrote a comment in which she implicitly revealed her own basic lack of understanding of the foundations of science.

      So my suggestion is Christians should stop trying to accommodate physicalist science – wittingly or unwittingly. The worst thing about intelligent design is its attempt to mimic the worst mistakes of BOTH Deist philosophy AND physicalist science.

      There is NOTHING in any genuine spiritual understanding of the world which is in the least bit conflict the data presented to us by the quantitative abstract method current among scientists.

      in any case, one day soon (by “soon” I mean within the next century or so) scientists will get over their superstitious obsession with an abstract God – physicalism.naturalism, or whatever you want to call it. Then we will develop reliable paranormal skills, find intersubjective ways to explore the inner worlds and base this all an an intuitive or better, gnostic understanding of the Purushottama – the Supreme Divinity which underlies ALL spiritual traditions.

        • RaPar:

          I think we need to sharpen our “definition” of what a miracle is; it seems to me to be a bit more than just the “least probable event.” I’ve heard this argument from Prof Ehrman a number of times and it seems very reasonable to me. Oxford Dictionary states that a miracle is an “extraordinary event not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore, attributed to divine agency.” In other words, an event for which there is no known basis in science or natural law.

          DS:

          Oh, Ok, you want a more detailed response.

          As clinical psychologist who has conducted research, I can tell you, there is not a single EXPERIENCE of any human being that is explicable by scientific laws. Steven Weinberg, nobel prize winning physicist, essentially admitted this (though tried to weasel his way out of it at the end) in his 2003, NY Review of Books essay, “Does Science Explain Everything? Anything?” It is a confusion of the first order to think of the abstract/quantitative analysis of sensory experience in order to provide insights used to predict and control certain aspects of the behavior of the objective aspects of our sensory experience – that any of that provides an “explanation” of anything in the conventional meaning of the word “explanation.” Unless you have a deeper understanding of science than a nobel prize winning physicist, I would say at the very least, take some time to reflect on Weinberg’s conclusion (the essay is available for free online).

          Do you know of David Chalmers’ famous “hard problem of consciousness?” There are may aspects to it, but the one relevant to your comment is that the only way to know of the existence of consciousness – and thus, ANYTHING we experience of the universe – is by asking someone. And that is not considered legitimate evidence – at least, as a psychologist, I can tell you, the reason my friends who are biologists and physicists don’t really consider what I or others in the “mind” and “social” sciences is because they (and we, in our heart of hearts) know that in fact, you can NOT measure experience (except the limited ones scientists successfully use in the physical sciences, much less so in the life sciences – and let’s not even get started on the rather poor state of medical science). So to put it briefly, science in a way has no evidence for the existence of the universe, since the only universe we know directly is through experience; all else is speculation.

          RaPar

          I usually add that it is an event for which the known laws of physics and science have been suspended for some period of time.

          DS:

          since there are no “laws” in the sense you mean – only “habits” as more and more physicists are coming to understand, the “suspension” of laws is, as Wolfgang Pauli used to say of students who didn’t’ understand him, an idea that is “not even wrong.”

          RaPar

          Think Fatima, when supposedly “tens of thousands” saw the clouds separate and the sun appear. The people could look at the sun without blinking at which point it began to “dance” moving to and fro on the sky from side to side brilliantly and quickly until it seemed to plunge towards the Earth. Obviously this is outside the purview of science and natural law and would result in global catastrophe should it occur. In order for us to argue a miracle exists because god exists is rather backhanded since we’d have to consider god him/her self to be a miracle in itself, yes?

          A being that has existed before time, that always was and always will be, that created everything, that knows everything including whatever we think, say, do and even dream. I’d have to consider this being a miracle and conclude it not only to be the “least likely event” but an impossible one as well.

          DS:

          Let’s see, a non-being, that created everything, that organized the laws of nature, including all we think, say, do and dream. Would you consider that a miracle? Because without realizing it, that’s what you – apparently as a physicalist – believe in. Join Dawkins, Coyne, Crick and the rest in believing in such a miracle. At least the “Existence Consciousness Bliss” – which David Bentley Hart quite rightly understands as the underlying meaning of the word “God” in ALL spiritual traditions – has evidence for it of the only kind that is legitimate – it can be experienced. Scientific evidence for something of the kind you believe in – something purely ‘physical” – and keep in mind, nobody has ever come close to defining “physical” in the sense of the ontological ground of the universe – doesn’t exist, and cannot exist, by definition, because it exists completely independent of experience and therefore can NOT be known!

          RaPar:

          Consider any so-called miracle you can think of and ask yourself if the very laws of nature, physics, and – let’s be honest – rationale have to be suspended in order to explain them.

          DS:

          No, or, alternatively, “no even wrong,” due to complete incoherence and utter irrationality.

          • Yawn…..I’m sorry, where you speaking? I must’ve dozed off there for a moment…

            It’s quite apparent you’re very pleased with yourself. I wonder, do you actually believe in any of that shit you just served up?

            • I’m not sure if it’s sad or amusing when someone posts on science, religion or philosophy, and when every point they make is refuted, they try to change the subject. I remember posting an essay at http://www.integralworld.net in which I mentioned that there was valid research in parapsychology. There was this fellow who thought he was quite brilliant and had actually published a long book “proving” that virtually every known scientist and contemplative individuals were all fakes.

              He evidently was so confident in his brilliance that he rushed to post an essay with 9 proofs that I and all parapsychologists were wrong. His irrationality and lock of logic were so obvious I felt like he had handed all of us a gift. I easily refuted all of his points, and in each case (Has I just did with RuPaul) used his language to refute him, along with objective scientific evidence showing his errors.

              Prior to this, he had been a regular contributor to this site, almost inevitably posting illogical nonsense. he never posted again after that.

              Recently I’ve been using 5th grade general science points to help people understand. have you heard of that show, “Are you smarter than a 5th grader?”

              Here is Dr. Anil Seth, a leading neuroscientist, writing a simple version of his theory regarding perception as “controlled hallucination.’ This might help. (note when he says “Really try to think,” if you take it to heart, you’ll understand James’ post)

              https://www.bostonglobe.com/2021/10/20/opinion/reality-is-what-you-make-it/

              I open my eyes and a world appears. I’m sitting on a plastic chair on the deck of a tumbledown wooden house, high in a cypress forest a few miles north of Santa Cruz, Calif. It’s early morning. Looking straight out, I can see tall trees still wreathed in the cool ocean fog that rolls in every night, sending the temperature plummeting. I can’t see the ground, so the deck and the trees all seem to be floating together with me in the mist. There are some other plastic chairs, a table, and a tray arranged with coffee and bread. I can hear birdsong, some rustling around in the back — the people I’m staying with — and a distant murmur from something I can’t identify. Not every morning is like this; this is a good morning. I have to persuade myself, not for the first time, that this extraordinary world is a construction of my brain, a kind of “controlled hallucination.”

              Whenever we are conscious, we are conscious of something, or of many things. These are the contents of consciousness. To understand how they come about, and what I mean by controlled hallucination, let’s change our perspective. Imagine for a moment that you are a brain.

              Really try to think about what it’s like up there, sealed inside the bony vault of the skull, trying to figure out what’s out there in the world. There’s no light, no sound, no anything — it’s completely dark and utterly silent. When it forms perceptions, all the brain has to go on is a constant barrage of electrical signals that are only indirectly related to things out in the world, whatever they may be. These sensory inputs don’t come with labels attached (“I’m from a cup of coffee.” “I’m from a tree.”). They don’t even arrive with labels announcing their modality, whether they are visual or auditory or sensations of touch, temperature, or proprioception (the sense of body position).

              How does the brain transform these inherently ambiguous sensory signals into a coherent perceptual world full of objects, people, and places? The essential idea is that the brain is a prediction machine, so that what we see, hear, and feel is nothing more than the brain’s best guess of the causes of its sensory inputs. Following this idea all the way through, we will see that the contents of consciousness are a kind of waking dream — a controlled hallucination — that is both more than and less than whatever the real world really is.

              (see the article for the rest)

              Meanwhile, if you are capable of addressing any of these points – if for no other reason than to show you’re just as brilliant as that guy who tried to prove parapsychology is nonsense…..

              • Thank you for your input on this. I’m getting used to the theists spouting out all kinds of nonsense when it comes to their apologetic writings. Their defenses are often detrimental to their arguments but c’est la vie I guess.

              • RuPaul:

                I am not only not a theist, I do not believe in the god I didn’t believe in when I first realized I was an atheist at age 7.

                So, right off the bat, not only wrong on all counts, but still implicitly acknowledging you have no way of denying you are an adherent of the most irrational theistic religion of any in all of history – the theistic religion of physicalism. You believe in an unconscious, all powerful God responsible for the laws of nature and hence all events in the universe.

                I saw “implicit” because I assume, since you have not addressed any content in your comments, you realize you are incapable of defending your religious faith. Since you are a theist, it’s understandable, since you rely on attacks on reason or defensive avoidance in order to maintain belief in your God.

              • But there’s an easy way to prove me wrong. Define “physical” as used in the word “physicalism.” I’ll tell you ahead of time nobody’s done it. if you can, you will be deserving of at least a Nobel Prize.

              • Is it “easy” really? I think I’ll stay in our present dimension where we “understand” what we think is reality as opposed to your “enlightened” ideas where you can’t explain ANYTHING. I didn’t need your nonsensical philosophical bullshit to understand there is NO GOD, and as an atheist, I have no mythology, none, nada. regardless of what YOU’D like to manufacture out of pure nonsense, go right ahead.

              • I have been an atheist since 1959, at age 7.

                If you want to continue to maintain your religious faith in your God, I am not aiming to convince you that your belief in your transcendent God is superstitious. My only aim in these comments is to point out there’s no scientific evidence for your faith in your God.

              • “Incoherent” = “RuPaul doesn’t understand middle school language.

                1. I have said since the beginning of our conversation I am an atheist, according to your definition of atheism, yet you continue to insist otherwise. First indication of inability to understand.

                2. You have continued to insist, implicitly, in your belief in a transcendent Absolute. I admit, you might have to make it to high school to understand that, but it is not at all difficult. Whether that Absolute is conscious, as is the belief of religious theists, or unconscious, as is your Absolute, it is still theistic. Those scientists like Hawking, Dawkins, Weinberg, Gould, Sagan, Coyne, etc who believe that unconscious, laws of nature which emerge by chance, are absolute and that all things in the universe behave according to these laws, are expressing a non-scientific belief in an unconscious, Absolute reality. That is faith in a transcendent reality which is a theistic belief.

                If you find #2 hard to understand, rather than try to misdirect the conversation by insults and by changing the subject, why not try thinking about what it means, and asking questions about the part you don’t understand.

  3. Rather than continue to respond to your word salad, if you choose to write nonsense, I’ll take it as an implicit acknowledgment that you are a theist and have no way of countering that.

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