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From the highest upvoted answer on Is any aspect of the supernatural testable? What level of proof is possible for the supernatural?:

However, you are probably wasting your time on the various hobgoblins and eerie powers you list. We do not see such phenomena, werewolves, resurrections, or mind controls, requiring scientific explanation. One must first demonstrate them publicly and repeatedly, which in most cases defies their very definition.

As Hume pointed out, what we mean by a "miracle" is precisely that which cannot be predicted, controlled, or experimentally repeated. We now fly, cure plague, transmit voices over miles, and perform other formerly "miraculous" deeds. But they are no longer "miracles," except metaphorically.

(emphasis mine)

The requirement that to demonstrate that something may happen or has happened (especially a miracle) requires public and repetitive demonstration of it happening strikes me as odd.

There are lots of things that are accepted to have happened even though they cannot be demonstrated repeatedly. It would seem to me that not even rationalists consistently stick to the requirement of repeated demonstration:

  • Court room evidence. It would be absurd to require that a person accused of murder commits this act consistently, repeatedly and publicly in circumstances resembling the circumstances of the alleged already committed crime before declaring him guilty. Instead even rationalists accept the validity of abductive reasoning in such cases in place of experimentation. We collect observations of the current state of affairs and through examination of such observations we conclude that the most likely reason of the presence of these observations is that the suspect has indeed committed murder. We do NOT require public, repeated demonstration of the suspect committing murder.
  • This also seems the only available way to practice history. In most cases we cannot conduct experiments that would verify historical claims. For example, we cannot go back to year 814 and produce a living Charlemagne to demonstrate the possibility that Charlemagne died in 814.
  • Less absurdly, it would seem to me that we cannot experimentally prove evolution either. Evolution happens too slowly, we do not have that much time. We may have plenty of evidence that evolution has been and is going on, but NOT repeated demonstration of it happening. Yet, it is irrational to disbelief the theory of evolution, not the other way around.

It would seem to me that rationalists dropped the requirement of repeated demonstration in all cases BUT in the case of miracles, where they still require repeated, experimental demonstration, even though - as the answer I quoted points out - the very definition of a miracle says we cannot experimentally test it.

It would seem to me that perhaps this sort of argument conflates 'has happened' with 'does happen'. Courtroom evidence may strongly suggest that the suspect HAS committed murder, while repeated demonstration in experiments could show that the suspect has an ongoing inclination to commit ever more murders - these are two different things. Same for Charlemagne's death in 814. (Evolution is even trickier, because we accept from existing evidence other than repeated demonstration that it both has been happening and is happening.)

Based on the above, may I ask why is it required for a miracle to be repeatedly demonstrated through experimentation in order to accept the possibility of it happening? We cannot provoke a miracle to happen, but we may ABDUCTIVELY, rather than experimentally, conclude that it may have happened in the history.

Resurrections for example, since the answer I quoted mentioned them. As I understand, those like N.T. Wright or Gary Habermas attempt to employ historical, abductive reasoning to conclude that Jesus has likely risen from the dead. It is not my intention to ask here whether the conclusion is warranted or not. Rather, I'd like to ask if this methodology is the correct one to approach such a problem. If I understand the answer I quoted above, it is not - we cannot accept resurrections until we repeatedly, experimentally demonstrate people rising from the dead. And yet even rationalists are happy to employ such reasoning to demonstrate the existence of Jesus.

Are miracles somehow different? When must we demand repeated, public demonstration, and when is abductive reasoning satisfactory?

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    The boldface statement is a bit sloppy. We accept historical events happening, like Caesar crossing the Rubicon, based on testimonial evidence, even though they can not, strictly speaking, be repeated. However, even unique ordinary events can be disassembled into pieces that can be repeated with close enough counterparts. Caesar was a human, Rubicon is a river, there is no problem with reproducing a human cross a river. The problem with miracles is that they can not be so disassembled. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, mere testimony isn't enough. – Conifold Feb 18 at 13:24
  • @Conifold mere testimony is not enough What about failure to provide other explanations? (this is not a rhetorical question) – gaazkam Feb 18 at 13:27
  • Continuing the Jesus example: What if other explanations like substitution hypothesis, swoon hypothesis, stolen body hypothesis, lost body hypothesis, vision theory are/were determined to be implausible or fail to explain what we now observer? – gaazkam Feb 18 at 13:30
  • @gaazkam Another explanation is predicated on the existence of the phenomenon; but that is the point to be established. First we must establish the phenomenon occurred, then we can debate explanations. But if the only evidence that the phenomenon occurred was mere testimony, then mere testimony isn’t enough. – Dan Bron Feb 18 at 13:30
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    See e.g. the so-called Our Lady of Medjugorje: despite the fact that "apparitions" were repeated and public, still the Catholic Church have not recognised the apparitions as either supernatural or authentic. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Feb 18 at 14:49
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When it comes to inductive reasoning (and based on how I define induction it includes abduction), I’m a convinced Bayesian. I'll offer an answer from that perspective.

Given a piece of evidence, E, my credence in an explanation, H, will be a function of its prior probability, P(H), and its explanatory power relative to alternative explanations (that is, the ratio between P(E|H) to P(E|not-H)). We plug these values (not usually exact values, but “feelings” that can perhaps be mapped to intervals, or upper/lower bounds on values) into Bayes’ theorem and derive the posterior probability of H given E, P(H|E). You’re quite right to say that repeatability isn’t necessary to reason from a piece of evidence to a particular conclusion. We do it quite well all the time, even in science. But in the case of a very surprising occurrence such as a purported miracle, it is really really nice if we can repeat it. We want to be sure that something miraculous is really happening, as opposed to something more mundane such as events being exaggerated or misreported. And, miracles aren't the type of things that we can reproduce on demand.

This isn't a problem per se, but it means that your willingness to accept a supernatural explanation will depend on your prior credence in the existence of the supernatural. This brings us to a second difficulty. Supernatural explanations usually have a very low prior probability (for various reasons, such as the entities involved in such explanations often have no prior evidence for their existence). However, if you already have a reasonably high prior credence in the belief of supernatural entities (maybe you’ve encountered one, or maybe some philosophical arguments convince you that God exists) then it may be rational to accept a supernatural explanation if it's explanatory power is great enough. Then, as you say, it’s a matter of discrediting alternative naturalistic explanations.

Since you mentioned the resurrection of Jesus, there is a debate on YouTube between William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman on just this topic where the Bayesian method comes up. Craig makes the point (similar to the one above) that your whether you accept supernatural explanations will depend crucially on the prior likelihood you have in believing in the supernatural in the first place. Ehrman makes the point that as a historian he is committed to methodological naturalism and so the prior probability of any supernatural explanation must be 0 (on methodological naturalism).

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  • Thank you for your answer and for your link to the debate. Since it's very late now I'll check it out later BUT there's one thing that surprises me... "Ehrman makes the point that as a historian he is committed to methodological naturalism and so the prior probability of any supernatural explanation must be 0 (on methodological naturalism)." If we put this into Bayes' theory than this will necessarily mean that NO evidence could convince a methodological naturalist that something supernatural may have happened. – gaazkam Feb 19 at 0:22
  • God may literally speak to a methodological naturalist in person and raise his grandfather from the dead in front of his very eyes and a methodological naturalist will still say 'I can't see anything supernatural here?' Because even 100% * 0% = 0%. I can accept that 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence' but not that NO evidence is sufficient for extraordinary claims. I find it dubious to presuppose the LACK of existence of anything supernatural, if for no other reason then because it seems unwarranted to claim that only this exists what we can observe. – gaazkam Feb 19 at 0:32
  • @gaazkam It's been a while since I watched the debate and I don't want to misrepresent Ehrman, but I believe that this is what he says. Craig rebuts by saying something like: okay, maybe as a historian committed to methodological naturalism, you can't accept the resurrection at your day job. But according to more general norms of reasoning that don't presuppose naturalism, you can and should. – Adam Sharpe Feb 19 at 0:36
  • @gaazkam Yes I'd agree with what you say. I don't know what to think about the resurrection itself, since I'm not knowledgeable enough about the history. But with regards to this point about method, I believe Craig's argument is more convincing. – Adam Sharpe Feb 19 at 0:43
  • More convincing than Ehrman's point, I mean. (Just wanted to clarify, since I reread my previous comment and realized it was a little unclear.) – Adam Sharpe Feb 19 at 3:24
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This question conflates two separate and distinct issues:

  • The existence of an event (a singular phenomenon): something that someone encounters as an experience and records in the stream of intellectual and social memory.
  • The existence of a class of events (a normative category): a pattern or type of event that occurs often enough to give it its own conceptual structure above and beyond the specific events.

For instance, if we hold a ball in the air and let it go, we see an event that we call 'falling'. In fact, we see enough things 'fall' — a pattern of behavior — to create an separate concept called 'falling' that we can talk about without regard to any particular thing that might fall. Further, we can analyze that concept and pattern to produce ideas like Newton's law of gravity, which serves as a tool to analyze that perceptual class we call 'falling'. Now imagine if that were not the case: that nothing in the world ever fell except for maybe that one time when an apple hit Newton on the head. No class of events, no pattern of behavior, no general law; just some guy named Isaac that we roll our eyes because he keeps talking about this bizarre 'falling' idea (as though anyone could really believes he saw an apple 'fall').

So the difficulty here is that when we talk about 'miracles' or any other metaphysical event, we generally fail to make that distinction. If someone says "I believe in miracles" they almost never clarify whether they mean:

  • "I believe that the specific events recorded in collective knowledge actually occurred", or
  • "I believe that the specific events recorded in collective knowledge represent a class of behavior that always occurs"

And why would anyone make that clarification? That is so much over-thinking that it hurts my head laying it out.

This gets us to the demand for repeated public demonstration. In the scientific model it is not sufficient merely to say: "Hey, that happened." Even if one has clear irrefutable proof that that did indeed happen, something happening once is not part of a phenomenal pattern, and very few conclusions can be drawn from it.

In this sense we can define a 'miracle' as an event that some person or group experienced, which could not be explained by any (current) phenomenal theory, and cannot be experienced with enough consistency or regularity to create a class of events, but which nonetheless created some collective effect.

The problem — the point of contention — is actually a matter of dueling syllogistic fallacies. People who believe in miracles generally want to extend their belief in singular historical events to a belief in a class of such events (the illicit minor fallacy); people who pooh-pooh miracles generally try to extend their rejection of any class of such events to a rejection of any singular historical events (the illicit major fallacy). The whole conversation is so politically charged that these fallacies are (for the most part) irresolvable.

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Could it be as basic as the separation of the natural and the supernatural?

Most scientists focus on the "natural," which can be loosely defined as the tangible universe around us. Some scientists also believe in the supernatural (e.g. "God"), but they aren't likely to conduct experiments or write papers on religion.

Miracles are generally attributed to a supernatural being(s). So believing in a miracle generally requires prior belief in a supernatural being capable of performing such a miracle.

Now, imagine some really strange or spectacular event - like the extinction of the dinosaurs, a supernova, or a burning bush that's speaking in tongues. Better yet, imagine if the world learned about these three events on the same day.

Hundreds of years ago, all three might have been classified as miracles. Today, however, we have sufficient evidence to understand the fundamental truth about dinosaurs and supernovae.

But what evidence do we have to support claims of miracles?

As gaazkam stated, miracles lie in the realm of history. The same could be said about the other two events. However, animals continue to evolve and become extinct, and stars continue to do whatever stars do.

Miracles tend to be more singular. If we're told that some god filled a really big boat with pairs of every species on the planet (tens of thousands of vertebrates alone) and saved them from a global flood, we might think "cool" - until we realize that such a boat would have to be ten or twenty times the size of the San Diego Zoo.

If we accept the story of the ark as true, then we're left with more questions. Exactly how big was that boat again? And how did Noah distribute all those animals between the continents and oceans in such a clever manner that scientists imagine certain groups evolved on those continents and islands?

Since miracles are historical events, we can't salvage them with the miracle of falsification. Moreover, the magnitude of many miracles makes it virtually impossible to even attempt to duplicate them.

Ironically, a miracle's best friend might be Occam's razor. Why believe in evolution when you can simply conjure up a god that says "Let there be life"?

But that's blind faith, not science or rational thought.

In plain English, there's a major disconnect between miracles and science. The connection between miracles and philosophy is even a little tenuous.

If I told you that, just the other day, a pink aardvark appeared out of nowhere and started talking to me with a Texas accent, how many philosophers would believe me? Even if I was a world leader or a famous scientist or philosopher, who would believe me?

The only chance I would have of convincing people is if I could convince them that I'm God, or that I'm acting as God's agent.

Note:

I should have read Adam Sharpe's answer more closely. It looks like I may have simply repeated what he already stated:

This isn't a problem per se, but it means that your willingness to accept a supernatural explanation will depend on your prior credence in the existence of the supernatural.

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