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.)

How and When Should You Use Ridicule, If At All? It Depends on Your Goals
The Logic of the Resurrection - Index
Old But Still Relevant: Phil Plait on "Don't Be a Dick"
What is Faith? - Part 8
About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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