Natural miracles?

Say you run into a conservative Christian church that advertises that next Sunday, the minister is going to call on the power of Jesus and resurrect a dead member of the congregation.

You stop by, thinking the attempt might be amusing. As you walk into the service, it looks more crazy than fun. They really have brought up a stinking corpse to the altar; one that should have been buried a week ago. As you start thinking about all the health code violations, the event begins. The minister kicks up a storm of prayer to Jesus and laying on of hands. But then, you can’t believe your eyes: the corpse seems to reverse its already advanced decay. It then sits up with a jolt, and some in the congregation, who appear to be the children of the resurrected person, rush up to her and enjoy a tearful reunion. The whole church erupts in praise of their Lord. You get swept out into the open air with the crowd, bewildered.

You then decide to check on things, and find that yes, indeed, there was this person who was locally known to have been dead, that the usual hospital procedures were followed, and that she was the same person you witnessed as revived. The locals are actually a bit more casual about the whole thing than you’d expect, and you find that in the past decade, two more especially devout persons have been resurrected the same way. Everything that you can check indicates that this is no hoax; a small number of dead Christians have indeed come back to life after a service where the Lord was petitioned particularly fervently.

Well, you had always been saying that your disbelief in religion was due to the lack of evidence, but now that has changed. You talk to a theistic philosopher, and she points out that your intellectual integrity demands that you now convert. After all, at the very least, what you have witnessed is a gross violation of what you’d expect from a naturalistic world. Moreover, the miracle was not from out of the blue: it was expected and cultivated within this particular Christian tradition. That should count pretty strongly toward that tradition having a better handle on reality than the scientific skeptics who were caught completely by surprise. You have witnessed something supernatural, therefore you should at least admit that some supernatural religion is likely to be true.

But then you talk to a secular philosopher. She remains dubious. Yes, she will grant that our current understanding of science has been violated. But that is not enough to suspect something supernatural. Indeed, there are naturalistic alternatives. For example, it may be true that people enjoy psychic powers—as a natural capability. Especially fervent belief in some church services may have caused a major psychokinetic event that had nothing to do with Jesus or any other god. Or maybe the natural cause behind the resurrection is technologically super-advanced aliens. Their technology looks miraculous to us, but it is still manipulating particles and forces. Some of these aliens may be intrigued by quaint human supernaturalism, and they are amused to manipulate our beliefs by enabling a few minor miracles. Now, all such naturalistic alternatives invoke only finite powers adequate to performing the miracle. Would it not be more parsimonious to rely only on finite powers within nature—the sort of thing we already know exists—than extravagantly claiming something beyond nature, such as an infinitely powerful Jesus?

You’re confused. What do you think? Should you convert, or should you suspect some hidden but still natural cause behind the alleged miracle?

(This is related to a question that comes up in a paper I’m writing. So I’m curious about what intuitions you may have about how such a question should be approached. Please comment.)

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • LadyAtheist

    ..then you consult with LadyAtheist, who advises you to invest in a stethascope and take it to the next "ressurection."

    She also advises you to interview the local coroner, who is not a member of this church (or else you would have mentioned it), and the woman's physician and all the people in attendance at the "death."

    She reminds you that offers free access to abstracts of peer-reviewed journals (and sadly, other journals as well) and links to full-text articles when freely available.

    Then she reminds you of the episode of The X-Files in which Mulder heals from his decomposition after dying and being dumped into the ocean. In that case the cause was (or wasn't – it was the X-Files, notorious for switcheroos) alteration of his DNA by aliens. You could ask the woman's physician if any of her pre-illness DNA is available for comparison.

    The experts in debunking this kind of thing are in the Catholic Church. If someone they don't approve of brings about a miracle, they will find a way to disprove it.

  • LadyAtheist

    p.s. I guess my answer is: "There isn't enough information to make a decision yet"

  • Dan

    Even after such an event I wouldn't accept a supernaturalistic metaphysics — I would just question what we know about the natural.

  • ___________________________

    Here's my thoughts:

    1) You probably are required to stop being a naturalist. We can quibble about terms, and "naturalist" has been historically difficult to define, but by the intuitive clumping, this event would not fit. As well, the "maybe it isn't" rebuttal offered by the secular person basically makes naturalism unfalsifiable and even indeterminable, which basically makes it intellectually useless. I suspect we have to hold naturalism to being something that, while able to change, has to match the current understanding in a number of areas. To clarify, even though it *could* be naturalistic, it violates our expectations under naturalism to a degree that we need to reject naturalism as a single resurrection under those circumstances is outside of the variance in unusual behavior we can tolerate with this hypothesis given our background knowledge.

    2) This is very strong evidence of this particular religious belief BUT it isn't conclusive. There are still *technically* multiple possible theories, but… further theological probing could perhaps provide more information. This does not require a belief in God at this point, but a lesser naturalistic entity is possible. Obviously, in light of such a finding, further experimentation seems necessary, does this being communicate? Will this being commit other acts? Are the acts performed very complicated and require a lot of knowledge?(resurrections tend to as they require reconstructing a human body) Etc. With enough of these, we can justify a being that is highly potent, very knowledgeable, etc, but we can likely never justify an "omni".

    I hope I didn't diverge too much. I just simply think that "hidden natural explanations" can't go too far.

  • ___________________________

    Note: The point made by LadyAtheist seems well taken, but I would assume "advanced decay" would entail visible bodily damage incompatible with life under our current knowledge, and that a resurrection would reverse this damage in a visible way. I do not think that a massive illusion hypothesis is viable, and while testing is good, how much testing is needed for something that is relatively obvious? I mean, sure if your background knowledge fills you in on lots and lots of tricks this extreme then yes, you're right, but I am unaware of any trick close to this extreme or how it could reasonably be accomplished.

    Actually, this example reminds me of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, when Harry first witnesses a woman turn into a cat. Yes, he has a lot of philosophical objections, but the physical fact is a woman turned into a cat, and she has an explanatory system that does a very good job of explaining her turning into a cat, while this is incompatible with Harry's system. So, Harry changes his mind.

  • Keith Rozumalski

    How did these highly evolved aliens, assuming they exist, make the 100 or 1,000+ light-year journey to earth? How do these aliens make themselves and their spacecrafts invisible so people can’t detect them? How did these aliens develop a technology to reanimate life?

    At point do we say that these naturalistic explanations are too ad hoc and improbable? Why do you think these explanations are more parsimonious than the explanation that God, who formed the universe and created natural order, could suspend the natural order that he created?

  • Bradley Bowen

    Taner Edis asks:

    "Would it not be more parsimonious to rely only on finite powers within nature—the sort of thing we already know exists—than extravagantly claiming something beyond nature, such as an infinitely powerful Jesus?"


    One question here concerns natural vs. supernatural explanation of what appears to be a supernatural event. Another question concerns the reasonableness of adopting a specifically Christian supernatural explanation of this event.

    There are so many logical and moral problems with Christianity, that I would feel very little inclination to adopt Christian faith on the basis of this sort of evidence, even if I were persuaded that some sort of supernatural event had in fact taken place in this instance.

    A miracle does not answer the problem of evil, or the problem of divine hidenness, or the injustice of eternal punishment, nor does it explain why God is so concerned about humans worshipping him, having 'correct' theological beliefs, and about human sexual practices, nor why the Bible (God's message to humankind) is so full of confusion, superstition, falsehood, immorality, etc.

    A miracle, even one that takes place in a clearly Christian context fails to magically resolve the many many intellectual and moral problems with Christianinity. Converting a naturalist to a supernaturalist may take a person one step closer to Christian faith, but there is a huge intellectual chasm between believing in some sort of supernatural powers or beings and adopting a Christian worldview.

  • Daniel

    I say the hypothetical is unlikely. However, if I see my dead dad or mom resurrected, then I will believe in the supernatural, because I personally saw them buried about 25 and 3 years ago, respectively. But then, the Devil has been known to "do" miracles, lol.

  • Bradley Bowen

    One question here concerns natural vs. supernatural explanation of what appears to be a supernatural event. Another question concerns the reasonableness of adopting a specifically Christian supernatural explanation of this event.

    I have answered the second question, and will now attempt to answer the first question.

    The evidence you mention seems insufficient to establish a supernatural event. The smell and appearance of a rotting corpse could be faked or merely apparent and not real or not truly a result of death and normal decomposition upon death.

    What was the temperature of the body? Were there any signs of life in the body in the hours just prior to the church service? Was there careful examination of the alleged corpse by well-qualified medical examiners shortly prior to the church service, or are we relying on merely a determination of death by an EMT that was made on a body a week ago, and we are inferring that the body in the church is the same body as what the EMT examined a week previously?

    Since people who have been dead (with no breathing or heartbeat) for several days, don't come back to life based on universal experience through the centuries, we need very strong and detailed evidence to establish this sort of event that is contrary to our knowledge of nature.

    Suppose that we do have the best possible evidence for someone dying and remaining dead for a week, with no breathing and no blood circulation for the entire week while the body remains at a normal temperature (say room temperature)and then coming back to life. In that case, we have a legitimate resurrection.

    Should we conclude this to be a supernatural event? I'm not sure what it adds to say that the event was 'supernatural' other than that it is unexplainable in terms of what we know (or think we know) about chemistry and biology. We would not be justified in drawing any firm conclusion about the cause of the event, because we would be ignorant about the cause of this event.

    We could try to investigate and form theories about what might have caused the resurrection, but there is no background knowledge or established procedures for how to investigate 'supernatural' causation. Are we to pray or meditate or enter into a trance in order to identify and describe the cause? Those hardly seem to be reliable methods.

    I don't see how to investigate the event to determine a causal explanation other than to approach this scientifically. To look into the details as best we can, to formulate testable hypotheses, and then perform experiments or further empirical investigations to try to confirm or disconfirm the hypotheses.

    If such odd events are approached scientifically, then those events are being treated as natural events, as part of the fabric of cause-and-effect.

  • andy.scicluna

    I would definatley re-convert. I mean, as an Atheist, I think that this hypothetical situation would more than prove that there isa God that want to convince sceptics.

    Although, if the body didn't "un-decay", If people of different denominations were ressurecting, and if it failed to convince most biologists, I would definatley think it thru a bit more. I'd definatly put my money on an "unconfrmed naturalistic hypothosis" than space aliens.

  • Steven Carr

    What would you do if no such resurrection took place?

    Would you advise people to stop believing in Christianity?

    A resurrection of the dead like that can not be evidence for Christian beliefs.

    Or else Christians would be doing it now.

    Christians know that – If A , then B,implies the truth of B if A is true.

    They also believe that A is true, but they never attempt to demonstrate the truth of B.

    Therefore, it must be that in this case, B cannot follow from A.Therefore, B cannot be evidence for A.

    So a resurrection from the dead is not evidence for Christian beliefs, as Christians act for all the world as if resurrections from the dead is not one of the outcomes predicted if Christianity were true.

  • Jack M

    This event does not constitute evidence of anything supernatural.

    Some natural process had to have occurred, of necessity, in altering the corpse. That much could be observed and measured. So whoever acted, an alien, or Jesus, he acted on and through nature.

    When your being asked to convert, your being asked to believe something about the nature of the miracle worker, not the miracle.

    Greater than any miracle, which is always caused, the miracle worker is alleged to be supernatural, i.e., uncaused.

    Suppose a being appears in that very church claiming to be the cause of the miracle. He wants you to believe that he is uncaused. He offers to give you any proof you desire. What do you ask for?

    Bupkis. One can't, in principle, prove one was uncaused.

  • downtown dave

    We have the Law and the Prophets. If you are unwilling to believe them, even if someone were to rise from the dead, you will not believe.

    There will always be those who will refuse to believe, in spite of the evidence.

  • Sastra

    Quick response:

    Looks like naturalism is refuted and I am now a supernaturalist, since I consider ESP and PK to be supernatural (pure mind) forces — but I think there would have to be more specific evidence to pinpoint this particular religion as being 'correct.'

    I'd also be uncomfortable with the fact that I've pretty much had to do my own investigation and research on this. I'm no expert, so my rejection of naturalism would be more tentative than it would be if there was widespread scientific consensus on the incident. I'm less impressed by "personal experience" than I am by a system with rigorous checks and balances.

    The possibility of alien-action would need more evidence: I think the burden of proof has now shifted onto naturalism.

  • Jim Lippard

    Seems to me it makes a prima facie case for some sort of supernaturalism that would require further investigation into the practices of this church and their explanations for what is going on, which may well be incorrect. What other claims do they make about physical reality, and are they consistent with other things we know? If they're wrong about a bunch of other things, then that would be reason to question their explanation here, as well. (And indeed, the course of further investigation should be to challenge their interpretation and try to find more detailed evidence of the mechanism of what is occurring.) On the other hand, if this is not the only supernatural phenomenon they can produce on demand, if they also seem to have other special abilities or knowledge, that opens up other possibilities to revision of our understanding of the world.

  • eddietaylor09

    nice interesting and very informative post, thanks for sharing.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis


    It seems to me that to resuscitate a stinking corpse lies beyond even the most advanced technology. After a few hours of decay probably so much information is lost about the corpse’s brain that it won’t be physically possible to recover the deceased’s personality. The growth of entropy cannot be undone.

    I also agree with “___” above that after observing such an apparent miracle the idea that you are suffering from a delusion is not viable. While dreaming one may think that one is experiencing reality, but when not dreaming there are many ways to ascertain that one is not being delusional about objective phenomena.

    According to the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics such resuscitations will happen in a few universes, but, again, the idea that one is living in one of these few universes is hardly viable.

    I think the best solution would be to assume that such resuscitations are evidence for the computer simulation hypothesis. Even without such apparent miracles some serious naturalists estimate that the probability we are living within a computer simulation is about 0.2. If such apparent miracles should be observed the consistent non-theist would estimate that the probability of the computer simulation hypothesis grows to more than 0.9.

  • Leaflet Distribution London

    If you're a true Christian in your heart and in your mind, as a belief, nothing is impossible to GOD. God has nothing to prove to you. Find HIM in your heart and you will realize miracles has always been there… you just ignore them.

  • Spencer

    If such "resurrection" events happened, no doubt we would need to revise our understanding of what's physically or naturally possible — indeed, "our current understanding of science has been violated."

    But nonetheless it would an enormous leap to conclude that those events has a supernatural explanation. To invoke a supernatural explanation, one must assume that *no* understanding of science could possibly suffice. It would be to make an inference from:

    1) Event E is naturally impossible according to our current understanding of the physical laws.


    2) Event E is naturally impossible according to all future understandings of the physical laws, including understandings 50 million years from now.

    But how could we possibly know, or say with much confidence, what we may discover to be naturally possible 50 million years in the future? What we believe is naturally impossible today may very well turn out to be naturally possible under a more complete understanding of the physical world.

  • Andyman409

    Check these out:

    It seems like this guy claims that he's had several miracles happen to him, such as visions, etc.
    BTW I'm still an atheist- but I thought this would stir the pot a bit. Love playing Devils advocate- err- Jesus' advocate…

  • Juno Walker

    Taner -

    I've thought about this vis-à-vis the hypothetical question I sometimes imagine myself asking a believer: is there anything that would make you give up your Christian belief?

    If a believer asked me a similar question (i.e., is there anything that would make you believe?), my initial response would have been, "An actual miracle."

    But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, even though an apparent-miracle would be beyond the powers of current humans, it might not be beyond the powers of an alien civilization; or perhaps we are living inside a computer simulation à la "The Matrix". Nick Bostrom makes a pretty good argument for it, by the way.

    So, given the fact that my naturalistic outlook has not been definitively proven incorrect (or even close to putting me in doubt), and that this outlook is both useful and reliable for understanding reality as we humans experience it (can we even know the 'ding an sich'??), I'd be hard pressed to say that anything could convince me otherwise – I'd always be operating under the assumption that there is a naturalistic explanation in principle, if not in practice.

    I suppose you could say that I've arrived at this position based on both a priori and a posteriori considerations.

    On a different note, I think it's difficult, on some level, to talk intelligibly about the natural/supernatural distinction at all, because presumably humans don't have any idea of what the word 'supernatural' might denote. How could we?


  • Justin B.

    Keith said: "Why do you think these explanations are more parsimonious than the explanation that God, who formed the universe and created natural order, could suspend the natural order that he created?"

    I believe that the universe operates according to natural laws, some that we've discovered, and others we don't yet understand. If at any time, in any place, these laws can be broken by the whim of a god/prayers of believers/etc., then they aren't laws at all, and we cannot know anything about the universe. If I cannot trust that I won't walk out the door tomorrow and not have gravity lift me up to the sky, pour a glass of water without it turning into wine, or reading a news story in the morning paper about the latest resurrections, then all hope is lost.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis


    You write: “ So, given the fact that my naturalistic outlook has not been definitively proven incorrect (or even close to putting me in doubt)[snip]

    Well, strictly speaking nothing “has been definitely proven incorrect”, so the fact that naturalism hasn’t either is quite irrelevant. On the other hand naturalism does suffer from many conceptual problems, notwithstanding the fact that most naturalists are unaware of this fact. I recommend you read Stephen Barr’s “Modern Physics and Ancient Faith” and “Naturalism in Question” edited by Mario de Caro. The former book is written by a philosophically knowledgeable physicist who happens to be a theist, and I have found it quite devastating for the naturalistic/materialistic worldview. (It would be really nice if Taner Edis, our resident physicist, would read that book and tell us what he thinks about it.) The latter is an anthology of naturalistic philosophers discussing the deep conceptual problems that naturalism suffers from. Their consensus is that a strong move away from “traditional” (aka physical sciences based) naturalism is needed.

    On a different note, I think it's difficult, on some level, to talk intelligibly about the natural/supernatural distinction at all, because presumably humans don't have any idea of what the word 'supernatural' might denote. How could we?

    Given that naturalists know what ‘natural’ means (or else they don’t know what they are talking about) they also know what ‘supernatural’ means, namely ‘beyond the natural’. I would say that ‘natural’ characterizes anything all knowledge about which can be expressed in mechanical/objective/purposeless/physics-like language. Supernaturalists claim that there are many things (including the foundation of reality) knowledge about which cannot be expressed using such mechanical language. Here’s an example: If mechanical language is sufficient to describe some event then that event must be either deterministic (i.e. determined by the previous state of the world), or random, or a mixture of the two (i.e. depend probabilistically on the previous state of the world). Free choices, as commonly understood, are not of this kind. Therefore if free choices exist then they are supernatural events. So, you don’t have to go very far to find an “actual miracle”. If free will exists then you are experiencing, indeed you are performing a miracle every single second of your wakeful life.

  • Patrick

    Spencer and Juno Walker

    Don’t your arguments make naturalism unfalsifiable? Isn’t it reasonable to hold the provisory view that a phenomenon that currently defies any natural explanation could be supernatural?

    Those who hold such a view can be accused of committing the God of the gaps fallacy. In my view this charge isn’t justified if it’s not any unexplained phenomenon that is put down to God or any other supernatural agent, but only those unexplained phenomena that show design-imposed, as defined by Jack Collins ( Collins defines “design-imposed” as “the imposition of structure upon some object or collection of objects for some purpose, where the structure and the purpose are not inherent in the properties of the components but make use of these properties.”

  • Jason T.

    Kieth Rozumalski says:
    "At point do we say that these naturalistic explanations are too ad hoc and improbable? Why do you think these explanations are more parsimonious than the explanation that God, who formed the universe and created natural order, could suspend the natural order that he created?"

    Why, when the proposed explanation is that aliens did it, do we have to explain exactly how they did it and yet, when the prosed explanation is that God did, we just get to stop and not provide any of the details?

    Of course we don't know how God could do these things, only that He could, given that He is all-powerful. I don't know how aliens could do these things either, but, even thought they cannot be all-powerful, I don't see any reason to think that it is not possible for them to do them.

    As explanations, "God did it" and "Aliens did it" are equally empty since neither fills us in on the details. However, there is a strong reason to prefer the latter: namely that the supposition that advanced and powerful aliens exist does not require us to assume the existence of anything non-natural.

  • Jason T.

    Others have made points similar to the one that I want to emphasize, but I think it is worth spending more time on.

    If the question is "Should I convert?" the naturaly follow up is "What should I convert to?" There is not just one supernatural option here and not just one possible set of religious beliefs to convert to.

    The appropriate analysis of such a miracle and what it implies about what religious views we ought to adopt will involve placing it in the context of all of the other evidence we have about religious theories. For example, I have to interpret this miracle in the light of the evidence (provided by the argument from evil) that this world could not have been created by an omni-benevolent being. This will naturally count against my conversion to Christianity.

    Of course I may still believe that the miracle has a supernatural explanation, but that explanation could the activity of an evil being of some kind. Suppose that there is an evil god whose goal it is to get as many people as possible to accept a false religion. It would be natural for such a being to porvide some foolish believers with evidence that he knows they will interpret as evidence that their beliefs (which the evil god knows to be false) are true.

    This explanation might not occur to me but only because it is not a live option in our culture. It is important to note, though, that, during the Medieval persecution of heretics, Catholic inquisitors would sometimes report witnessing miracles instigated by heretics. Such miracles were invariably attributed, by the Catholics, to the work of the devil.

    So, if I lived in a world in which Satanism, or Manicheanism, or Bogomilism were live options in the culture, it would not be obvious to me that I must take the miracle as evidence of the workings of the Christian God. Thus, it really is a failure of imagination to assume that the miracle provides me a reason to convert to Christianity.

    One further point: To see just how odd would be any insistence that the miracle must be taken as evidence of the truth of Christianity, consider that it provides no support for the central doctrines of the Christian faith: That Jesus is God incarnate; that Jesus died and rose from the dead; that Jesus died for the forgivness of sins; that salvation is acheived through believing in Jesus, that he is God, and that he died for sins.
    All of these claims are incredibly strong and would require much more support than could be provided by a simple miracle. The simplest supernatural explanations would not incorparate them. Instead, given the power of the argument from evil, the best supernatural explanation probably would involve belief in an evil being of some kind. (though not necessarily an omnipotent creator)

  • Patrick

    Jason T.

    If miracles occur in a specifically Christian setting and not in any other, it seems to me that it is reasonable to assume that they point towards the truth of Christianity. Moreover, if the Problem of Evil is the major reason you reject Christianity you may be interested to hear that in the following link a fellow atheist of yours regards my attempt to solve it as successful.

  • Jason T.

    Your response ignores the possibility I mentioned in my comment: namely that there is an evil god who wants to convince as many people as he can to believe a false religious theory. The fact that a miracle would occur in a Christian context is exactly what would be expected on the assumptions that such a being exists and that Christianity is false.

    But, further, the miracle that Taner Edis originally described is not one that allows us to jump to the conclusion that miracles occur only or even primarily in a Christian context. That miracles never occur in non-Christian contexts would be very difficult to prove. So that miracle, by itself, could not possibly constitute very good evidence that Christianity is true.

  • Juno Walker

    Patrick & Dianelos -

    Your points are well-taken.

    However, what I was attempting to do, in relation to Taner's question, was to get out of my philosopher's armchair for a moment and try to put myself in the situation of experiencing an alleged "miracle" as best I can. Blog posts – and especially blog comments – aren't really conducive to more technical, detailed analyses and discussions.

    That said, I'm well aware of the notion of falsifiability. I imagine that many if not most scientists, in their Scientist-persona, would admit that they hold a provisional view of their specific field, and of the scientific endeavor (and all knowledge) in general; however, it's hard for me to imagine that they, in their Layperson-persona, would admit that it would be easy for them to change their paradigm.

    For example, I can easily imagine a biologist, after the manner of Stephen J. Gould, saying that a fossil rabbit in the pre-Cambrian would falsify the reigning evolutionary paradigm. But I can't imagine that same scientist saying that Intelligent Design is a viable alternative to natural selection.

    But what I was trying to do, as me, as Juno, as a 39 year-old, wine-loving, dance music-listening, professional dog trainer, was relate my honest opinion about how I would react to an alleged violation of natural law.

    Perhaps it would have been better had I said that, in everyday life, I operate under a methodological naturalism in relation to existence/reality/whatever – because it works, it has utility; while at the same time realizing that metaphysical naturalism might very well be un-falsifiable.

    Both Nietzsche and Popper had problems with the naturalistic view. They both raised very good points about it.

    But if someone claiming to be Jesus appeared in front of me out of thin air, I would at first be astonished, but would probably ultimately chalk up the experience to 1) a brain aberration, 2) having possibly touched something in the NYC subway system that contained LSD residue, or 3) some form of alien technology.

    Therefore, my assertion that I can't imagine what would make me believe I had experienced an actual miracle.

    As an aside, regarding the natural/supernatural distinction: I recognize the fact that "supernatural" is by definition "beyond" the natural; but my point was that none of us has actually experienced anything beyond the natural. I know many people claim to have, but again, I would doubt that what they experienced was supernatural – there are, to me, far more reasonable natural explanations to be considered first.


  • Heather Rose

    If something of this sort happened, my intuition would tell me that, at the very least, I should reconsider being a naturalist. Yes, there are naturalistic hypotheses that might account for the event, but they nevertheless have a hollow ring to them – we end up appealing to alien technology, and that the aliens are amused by and active in human interaction, which is possible but doesn't have much of a ring of plausibility. Likewise, appealing to psychokinetic powers is questionable on the grounds that such powers are usually at home in a supernaturalistic framework, not a naturalistic one. We might decide to incorporate into into a naturalistic worldview, but the phenomenon stands out like a sore thumb, and remains utterly mysterious and out of place with respect to our naturalistic sensibilities. I think the proper thing to do at this point, having such an experience, would be to take a stance as an agnostic, or fence-sitter, open to the possibility of a metaphysical framework beyond our present knowledge, or perhaps even beyond our human comprehension.

    At the same time, I think it would be going too far to outright convert to the particular religion of the church where you experienced the event. That something occurred in direct contradiction to your views there is an indication that you may be wrong, but it is not a strong enough indication that this church's particular theology is largely accurate or true to the way the world really is. They may simply be on to something that you are not, in tune with powers that you are unfamiliar with, while at the same time their understanding of the phenomenon (i.e., their theology) may still be largely, or entirely, incorrect.

  • Steven Carr

    'That something occurred in direct contradiction to your views there is an indication that you may be wrong, but it is not a strong enough indication that this church's particular theology is largely accurate or true to the way the world really is.'


    Resurrections from the dead would not be evidence for the Christian worldview as even people who believe in Christianity do not regard resurrections from the dead as more likely than if Christianity were false.

  • Jerry Wilson

    What is the supernatural if not some aspect of the natural world that we don't understand yet?

    On a Star Trek: TNG episode, Capt. Picard was misunderstood to be God by the inhabitants of a backward, superstitious society. So my reaction, after having been given enough time to think it through, would be to assume it was a natural event, but one which cannot yet be explained.

    Keep in mind, however, that confirmation bias is always at play in these situations. A Muslim would assume it was an act of Allah. A pagan might claim Zeus had a hand in it. And most Christians would know it was the hand of Jesus. And this is why it is virtually impossible for one person to convert another when it comes to matters of belief. Almost all conversions are self-motivated.

  • J

    Both philosophers should have their credentials revoked… "who was locally known to have been dead."

    Locally? In their training did they not come across the word, "cohort?"

    The claim runs counter to the vast body of knowledge that exists in biology. It requires specific, testable predictions that can be independently verified.

    Want to get my attention? Mrs. Smith of Podunctville has terminal cancer. Preacher Ed predicts that when she dies, he can resurrect her with prayer after 3 days. Mrs. Smith is moved to the the Cleveland Clinic (the location remained undisclosed to any one except an independent third party) where she is given the best cancer treatment and also has a DNA sample taken. Unfortunately, Mrs. Smith still dies. Her remains are kept under the constant watch of Pinkerton security agents (and no one knew who the security agency would be until a last second decision) for three days. Preacher Ed is then flown to Cleveland to perform the resurrection.

    If Mrs Smith rises from the dead and the DNA matches, then you have my attention. Otherwise, you have a tent-revival magic show; worthy of the exact same credence.

  • John W. Loftus

    Let's keep this into perspective. I have many antecedent reasons for thinking Christianity is nothing more than a man-made religion created by barbaric superstitious pre-scientific people, and as such, is a delusion. And a fortiori, I see no reason why a supernatural power of some kind would substantiate this minister's religion with these kinds of miracles.

    So such a miracle would have a lot to overcome in order for me to accept it.

    If the question is what it would take for skeptics like us to believe in the supernatural, I see no reason why we must answer the question. The supernatural is an unnecessary hypothesis even if it is true. It makes no predictions. Answers no questions. Has no explanatory scope. Is not fruitful for any further investigations.

    There may be a supernatural being, but who cares? Raise my father from the grave regardless.

  • Bradley Bowen

    John Loftus said…

    If the question is what it would take for skeptics like us to believe in the supernatural, I see no reason why we must answer the question. The supernatural is an unnecessary hypothesis even if it is true. It makes no predictions. Answers no questions. Has no explanatory scope. Is not fruitful for any further investigations.
    The reason for answering the question is to show that naturalism or skepticism about the supernatural can be based on evidence as opposed to metaphysical commitments or bias.

    Of course, if the answer is that the concept 'supernatural' is incoherent, then we don't need any empirical evidence to settle the issue, just the 'evidence' of logic.

    If the concept 'supernatural' is coherent, then it seems like one should have some evidence for believing that there are no such beings or events.

    The bare concept of 'supernatural' beings may not have any specific empirical implications, but what about more specific supernatural claims, such as "I speak with my dead father each night, and he tells me about events that are currently taking place in various locations, including 'private' convesations between powerful leaders."

    If someone claims to frequently communicate with a ghost who travels around and listens to private conversations of powerful leaders, it seems to me that this claim has some very interesting and significant empirical implications.

  • Happy Spider

    If I saw something like this I would be too amazed to think about religion. How often does this happen? Have they tried to revive people and been unsuccessful? If they are sometimes unsuccessful, then is there anything that seems correlated with success, like age/gender/character? How old and decomposed can a corpse be before it can't be revived? You said decomposition was reversed, can fingers or arms or eyes be regrown? Does the new body have perfect health or is just the imediate cause of death reversed? If just the immediate cause of death, then what if the person had some long-lasting problem, say a susceptibility to hear attacks. Healed of the particular heart attack that killed her, could she then die the next day of a new heart attack? Could you resurrect an entire body from just a piece, like just a leg? If not, if missing pieces don't regrow, then does hat ake it impossible to resurrect people who were,say, eaten by wolves so major body parts are missing?

    The point is, your reaction is odd. How can you see something so astonishing and jot want to find out much much more about it? How narrow-minded you must be that everything has to be viewed strictly as to whether or not it supports religious beliefs. Where is your sense of wonder?

    Seeing such a sight would not cause me to stop being an atheist because my atheism has years of thought and mountains of evidence behind it. No single event could chnge that. But, hey, mountains of evidence have to start somewhere so this would be good start to evidence against atheism. Perhaps in the course of much much more thoroughly investigating the amzing event I would get even more evidence. It could be the start of a journey to theism. Or, more likely, it will be am isolated anamoly ( probably because it is a fraud or delusion), never to e joined by more evidence, or it will be explained by natural means, becoming more evidence for atheism.

    So, no, no single event could make me an atheist but a single event could be the start to accumulating enough evidence to overthrow atheism. Also, investigating a single event could end up yielding more evidence, so a single event could end up beings lots or little evidence.

  • John W. Loftus

    Bradley, the burden of proof is always on the person who makes a claim, especially an extraordinary one, so the skeptic has no more of a metaphysical bias than any other reasonable person, even a believer.

    We are all skeptics to these types of claims when we are outsiders to the degree we are scientifically literate, which is a prerequisite I think.

    The question was what it would take for skeptics like us to believe in the supernatural and the answer is the same for any reasonable person who encounters an extraordinary claim as an outsider: Sufficient evidence and answers to basic questions.

    And in light of your scenarios I would have to make my argument against them that the supernatural is an unnecessary hypothesis, and so forth but that's a long topic of discussion.


  • Bradley Bowen

    John W. Loftus said…


    The question was what it would take for skeptics like us to believe in the supernatural and the answer is the same for any reasonable person who encounters an extraordinary claim as an outsider: Sufficient evidence and answers to basic questions.


    However, it seems to me intellectually dishonest to demand 'sufficient evidence' for a supernatural claim if one firmly believes that no possible configuration or amount of evidence could ever be sufficient to establish such a claim.

    When I request or demand 'sufficient evidence' from a religious believer or a believer in supernatural phenomena, I feel an obligation to spell out some criteria or guidelines for what would constitute 'sufficient evidence' for a supernatural claim.

    If I am unable to specify any configuration and/or amount of evidence that would be sufficient to establish the claim in question, then I will probably feel reluctant to press the demand for 'sufficient evidence'.

  • John W. Loftus

    Bradley, you are misrepresenting me. Why? I never hinted that "no possible configuration or amount of evidence could ever be sufficient to establish such a claim."

    Please explain to me what's intellectually dishonest about simply saying "show me the evidence" without having to specify in advance what would convince us, if that's what you implied?

    It is a non-sequitur to say that if we don't specify in advance what would convince us that "I will probably feel reluctant to press the demand for 'sufficient evidence.'" Why does this follow?

    Think about the elves of Iceland? Do we really need to specify what evidence would convince us they exist?

    In any case when it comes to Christianity I have specified some things that might convince me right here. I only did so to alleiviate the concerns of believers that I was close minded. But I maintain I did not have to do so at all. As I wrote in my latest book, if God exists then he knows what would convince me, and that's good enough. He could even snap his fingers and take away my critical thinking skills so I would believe. There are tons of things he could do. Why must I specify any of them?

  • Bradley Bowen

    John W. Loftus said…

    Bradley, you are misrepresenting me. Why? I never hinted that "no possible configuration or amount of evidence could ever be sufficient to establish such a claim."
    Sorry. I wasn't trying to represent or misrepresent your views so much as probe for clarification and put forward my own thinking on the subject.

    Thank you for the clarification.

    I think we do disagree, but not on the issue of whether there is some configuration or amount of evidence that would be sufficient to establish a supernatural claim.

    Actually, I'm a bit ambivalent on that issue, but my inclination is to believe that supernatural claims are (in general) subject to evaluation in terms of empricical evidence.

    The claim that God inspired the Bible, for example, seems to me to be subject to confirmation and disconfirmation by empirical evidence.

  • Bradley Bowen

    John W. Loftus said…

    Please explain to me what's intellectually dishonest about simply saying "show me the evidence" without having to specify in advance what would convince us, if that's what you implied?


    That seems a stronger claim than what I had in mind.

    It seems intellectually dishonest for person A to (1) demand sufficient evidence from person B for claim X, when (2) person A believes that no possible configuration or amount of evidence put forward by B would be sufficient to establish claim X.

    [Since you and I agree that there is (at least in many cases) a possible configuration or amount of evidence that would be sufficient to establish a supernatural claim, this principle does not apply to you or to me in terms of supernatural claims.]

    This seems intellectually dishonest of person A because demanding sufficient evidence for a claim strongly suggests (in most contexts) that there is at least a remote possibility that the demand could be satisfied. Making a demand of someone for something that one believes that person cannot possibly satisfy seems to be a sort of 'mind game'. One is putting forward the idea that one is open to being persuaded by evidence, when one is in fact firmly convinced that evidence cannot possibly make a difference or change one's mind on the question at issue.

    I can see now that there is an exception to this principle, in that if A believed that no possible configuration or amount of evidence would be sufficient to establish claim X, but was less than fully confident in this belief, then A might reasonably keep this belief to himself and yet press B for sufficient evidence for claim X, in part to test this belief about the impossibility of there being sufficient evidence to establish the claim.

    Person A might be open to the possibility of being in error on this point, and thus interested to see whether B can somehow manage to come up with evidence that, contrary to A's expectation, is sufficient to establish claim X. In which case, A would not really be intellectually dishonest. A would be less than fully candid about his/her openness to persuasion by evidence, but would, because of lingering doubts about the impossibility of there being sufficient evidence for claim X, be somewhat open to persuasion both about the truth of claim X and about the correctness of the epistemological belief that claim X cannot be established on the basis of sufficient evidence.

    So, the problem of intellectual dishonesty arises only if person A is very firmly convinced that no possible configuration or amount of evidence could ever establish claim X.

    In such cases, person A ought to inform person B that the disagreement between them exists at a higher or meta-level. The disagreement is about the very possibility of there being sufficient evidence to establish claim X; the disagreement is NOT merely about whether B happens to possess evidence that is sufficient to establish claim X. The debate or discussion between person A and person B about claim X should be focused on the actual area of disagreement, assuming that both parties are attempting to have an honest or enlightening discussion of the issue.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Continuation of response to John Loftus…

    I still need to answer this question: What is wrong with "simply saying 'show me the evidence' without having to specify in advance what would convince us"?

    Another question, not asked by John Loftus, also probably needs to be addressed: If it is always wrong to believe a claim on the basis of insufficient evidence, why wouldn't it always be right to demand sufficient evidence for a claim?

    If I can find the time tonight, I will attempt to answer those questions.

  • Bradley Bowen

    What is wrong with simply saying 'show me the evidence' without having to specify in advance what would convince us?


    Let me start by making a few concessions. The following principle is too strong and thus incorrect:

    Whenever one makes a demand for sufficient evidence to support a claim, one ought always to immediately provide criteria, guidelines, or examples of what sort and/or amount of evidence one would consider to be sufficient evidence to establish the sort of claim under consideration.

    1. One obvious exception would be when the claim under consideration is of a kind for which there are widely known and widely accepted criteria for determining what sort of evidence would be sufficient, criteria that one has no inclination to challenge.

    It would be pointless to state the obvious, and a waste of time to repeatedly spell out widely known and widely accepted criteria for issues of type X, every time one hears a new claim of type X.

    If everyone is familiar with the rules of the game, then there is no need to constantly recite the rules to others.

    2. If a claim is unusual, extraordinary, or outside of the range of one's own experiences, one might not have previously thought about what sort of criteria or guidelines would be appropriate to determine whether some collection of evidence would be sufficient to establish a claim like the one under consideration.

    In such cases, one can hardly be expected to instantly create and articulate criteria or guidelines to use in evaluating the sufficiency of some collection of evidence offered in support of the claim.

    Furthermore, one reasonable way to start working at developing such criteria or guidelines would be to listen to (or read) an argument or case in support of the claim in question, and to start thinking about the force of that argument and any apparent problems or weaknesses in the argument.

    Such reflection might well lead to a clear articulation of criteria that one would be willing to put to use in general when evaluating other claims of a similar nature.

    When one is confronting a new or odd sort of claim, it may be perfectly reasonable to dive directly into the provided evidence and arguments, and work out the criteria for dealing with that new/odd sort of claim along the way, while trying to understand and form some intuitive evaluation of the sufficiency of the evidence offered for the claim.

    So, if the overly strong principle stated above can be qualified to avoid these two kinds of exceptions, perhaps it would be a reasonable and acceptable principle.

    It seems like the cases that it might apply correctly to would be claims of an unusual or extraordinary sort, a sort that one had previously encoutered, thought about, and/or discussed on a number of occasions (thus providing an opportunity for one to formulate criteria or guidelines or examples of what sort and/or amount of evidence would constitute sufficient evidence).

    If we can limit the scope of the principle to such cases, perhaps the principle could be justified.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    This has been an interesting thread, for it reveals that for many naturalists no possible evidence for supernaturalism can exist. I think that this reaction makes sense, after all whatever one may experience, or think, or feel – it all can be explained within a naturalistic story of reality. If things get difficult (as in Taner’s example) then naturalistic hypotheses such as that a vastly more technologically advanced race of aliens is toying with us, or even that we live within a computer simulation, will be judged by the naturalist to be more probable than any supernaturalistic hypothesis. As I have argued in this very blog naturalism is unfalsifiable (see ).

    In this context I have two problems:

    First, some versions of theism (such as Young Earth Creationism) are unfalsifiable too, but one deems such versions to be less intellectually respectable precisely for that reason. Shouldn’t then the same go for naturalism?

    My second problem is this: Many theists (such as John Hick and Eric Reitan) argue that reality is religiously ambiguous, and that therefore reasonable people may be religious and reasonable people may be non-religious. Reality may be interpreted either way. Whether a thinking person chooses to be religious or not is therefore not a matter of evidence, but a matter of personal expression or of personal preference. I do not sympathize with their view, but the above discussion would appear to bear them out.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Modified principle for consideration:

    When one makes a demand for sufficient evidence to support a claim, one ought to immediately provide criteria, guidelines, or examples of what sort and/or amount of evidence one would consider to be sufficient evidence to establish the sort of claim under consideration, [qualification:] if (a) the claim is NOT of a sort for which there exists widely accepted criteria for determining what constitutes sufficient evidence, and (b)it is NOT of an unusual or extraordinary sort of claim of which one has previously had little exposure.

    Perhaps it would be clearer to specify the positive category I have in mind: the claim is of an unusual or extraordinary kind, a kind of claim about which one has previously done a significant amount of reading and/or thinking.

    So, a claim about an alleged resurrection is clearly an extraordinary claim, and there is no widely accepted criteria for determining when a given collection of evidence is sufficient to establish such a claim. Some people have done a significant amount of reading and/or thinking about such claims, and others have not. Only those who have would be subject to the above qualified principle.

    How can I show that this qualified principle is correct? How can I show that such a duty exists? There are at least a couple of options: (1) I can argue for the principle based on some theory of duty or ethics. (2) I can argue for this principle on the basis of some other principle that is more widely accepted.

    There are many different theories of duty or ethics, so even the strongest possible case made in terms of one such theory, might be viewed as insignificant or irrelevant by the person(s) that I'm trying to persuade. For example, if I make a strong case for this principle on the basis of utilitarianism (maximization of utility as the basis of all duties), anyone who is unimpressed with utilitarianism is unlikely to find my argument persuasive.

    I could try to make several cases for the principle, based on different theories of ethics, but there are many theories, so this would be very time consuming, and even if I was successful in producing a half-dozen strong cases based on a half-dozen different theories, I might well still fail to persuade the person(s) that I'm discussing this with, because they happen to hold a different theory than any of the theories that I used to build those cases.

    Wouldn't it simply be easier if the person I was trying to persuade provided me with criteria or guidelines about what he/she would consider to be sufficient evidence to establish the principle? Then I wouldn't have to try to guess at what sort of argument I need to make.

    Suppose that I am a utilitarian, and the people that I want to persuade are kantians or social contract theorists. My case in terms of maximizing utility will not persuade these people.

    Perhaps I should stick to my guns, not stoop to trying to build a kantian or social contract based case for the proposed principle. But then, if I'm determined to make a case grounded on maximization of utility, I need to persuade my audience that their theories of ethics are incorrect, and that utilitarianism provides a better account of ethical duties and principles.

    However, I can do this only if I happen to know what theory or theories of ethics people that I'm trying to persuade have adopted. If they are tight lipped about their general assumptions concerning ethical duties, then it will be rather difficult for me to successfully challenge those general normative assumptions and to make a persuasive case for the normative theory that I have adopted.

    Note that the difficulties I have here are somewhat analogous to the difficulties faced by someone who claims that "Person X rose from the dead".

  • Bradley Bowen

    So, as someone who would like to persuade other people of the correctness of the qualified principle (about when one ought to put forward criteria or guidelines for determining when a collection of evidence constitutes sufficient evidence for a specific sort of claim), I would prefer that the person(s) that I'm discussing this with provide me with criteria or guidelines about what sort of evidence they would consider to be sufficient to show that the principle was correct.

    I desire this partly in order simply to save time and effort on my part that might be a wasted effort (e.g. giving a utilitarian justification to someone who has rejected utilitarianism in favor of natural law theory), and also to save time and effort on the part of those with whom I am discussing the issue.

    Furthermore, knowing the relevant general normative assumptions of my listeners would give me the best chance of success in persuading them of the correctness of the principle. I would then have the option of either constructing a justification to suit their normative assumptions, or alternatively to challenge one or more of those assumptions and try to persuade them to adopt an alternative assumption (e.g. I could challenge Natural Law theory, and defend Utilitarianism).

    In short, if my listeners/readers are honest and upfront about their relevant general normative assumptions, we can cut to the chase and focus in on the real area(s) of disagreement.

    My being given this information gives me the best chance at building a case that will persuade my audience of the correctness of my claim. This is good, and promotes the cause of truth, because we always should seek out the best and strongest arguments on significant issues.

    Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Not because Jesus said so, but because that is how a person behaves when they care about fairness.

    Since I want others to be honest and upfront about the general assumptions guiding their thinking on the sort of claim I wish to defend, I ought to be similarly honest and upfront about my own relevant general assumptions that guide my thinking on resurrection claims, when someone attempts to persuade me of a claim of the form 'X rose from the dead.'

    I want this not simply so that I can be successful at persuading people to adopt the principle, but also for the sake of truth and rationality. Truth and rationality are best served when people are in a position to make the best possible case for their claims. May the best case win.

    What goes for resurrection claims, goes for other unusual and extraordinary claims for which there are no widely accepted criteria to determine the sufficiency of a given collection of evidence.

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