P4T-#4: How does historical analysis account for degrees of physical improbability?

Phil: The following are the shared facts of four distinct hypotheticals.

1: You discover an old handwritten manuscript dated to 140 years ago.
2: A signature at the end of the manuscript matches Abraham Lincoln’s signature.
3: Other historical books cite and substantiate unextraodinary claims found in the newly discovered old manuscript, and attribute authorship to Abraham Lincoln.

Now, here are the 4 additional facts that distinguish the 4 hypotheticals.

A: The manuscript contains the claim that Abe owned a dog named Lazarus.
B: The manuscript contains the claim that Abe owned a dog named Lazarus that could say its own name.
C: The manuscript contains the claim that Abe owned a dog named Lazarus that said its own name after resurrecting after being dead for three days.
D: The manuscript contains the claim that Abe owned a dog named Lazarus that said its own name after resurrecting after dying and being nothing but bones for 3 years.

Are all four hypotheticals A-D equally likely? Do we only consider the basic shared facts 1-3, or do the differing degrees of improbability in A-D count for anything? In your formulation of proper historical analysis, what principle do you use when assigning credibility to claims containing various degrees of physical improbabilities?

  • Tim: For one thing, I would question Abraham Lincoln’s signature from 140 years ago, since he’d been dead for 7 years already. ☺ I realize you didn’t mean that, of course, but when an historian evaluates any historical claim, he doesn’t do that merely on some subjective evaluation of absurdity — though that would certainly be my first inclination with your hypothetical example.
    Again, I do see such hypothetical scenarios you present as side issues that get off the main points. So, I would ask you whether you understand and agree with the methods and techniques professional historians use to infer the best explanation of all of the pieces of evidence that remain from historical events?
    Nevertheless, I will indulge you a bit here and respond to your hypothetical storyline. You’re obviously hinting at such claimed events as the biblical Lazarus being raised back to life by Jesus and more importantly the bodily resurrection of Jesus after he was crucified. Whole books have been written on that, of course, but again, it’s a cumulative case of many lines of evidence. Few, if any, reputable historians would doubt that Jesus really existed and that the basic facts of his crucifixion at the hands of the Romans and that his tomb was empty, that his followers claimed to have seen him alive again and were willing to die for that claim, etc. are verified. They base this on such things as written accounts from those opposed to Jesus (such as Tacitus, Josephus, and several others), internal consistency of the primary documents in the New Testament itself and their archaeological corroboration, the “criterion of embarrassment” (that people making up history don’t add details that make themselves look bad) along with many other aspects. Skeptics have proposed numerous scenarios to try to explain away a real resurrection, but they all suffer fatal flaws.

Phil: Tim, here are my actual questions. Are all four hypotheticals A-D equally likely? Do we only consider the basic shared facts 1-3, or do the differing degrees of improbability in A-D count for anything? In your formulation of proper historical analysis, what principle do you use when assigning credibility to claims containing various degrees of physical improbabilities?

To be clear, unless your formula for historical analysis address the degree of physical improbability, you have no true formula for historical analysis. If your formula does address physical improbabilities, you’ll be able to answer my questions.

A clear and unequivocal response is much appreciated.

  • Tim: Phil, you obviously know that I would not hold to either of these statements and are using them for rhetorical effect. So, let me try to be clearer. Miracles are subject to historical investigation because they are historical events and so rare that we have this special term “miracle” to denote that rarity. Science requires repeatability, which means that the scientific method can’t be applied to miracles, because they can’t be recreated on demand. Do you disagree? If so, why?
    Next, I’ll make a few statements concerning these supposed corollaries. I’m not saying that prayer is statistically indistinguishable from no prayer. To be able to use statistics as a tool, you need to meet certain preconditions with respect to your data. These prayer data do not meet those preconditions. In a similar vein, in determining whether prayer for a patient is “statistically different” from prayer for another, then you have to make sure that the only difference is the prayer. But God is a sentient being who has sovereign will and purpose for everyone and everything. It is impossible to control all of the variables that go into that. So, no, using methods of statistics is not an appropriate way to do this. This is an attempt to apply a test to a situation for which the basic assumptions and preconditions needed by that test do not hold. It’s a category error.
    So, now, let me ask you some questions concerning this.
    1) Please explain what, in your opinion, the link is between miracles and prayers (e.g., are there miracles without prayer? Does the concept of miracle have as a prerequisite that someone pray, etc.)? And what is your rationale for holding this view?
    2) Could you please explain how you think my statements lead to the corollaries you suppose based on my comments? Could you put this in a logical form? Because I really don’t see how you can take what I’ve said and jump to these conclusions.
    As for the Elijah example, I think it would be presumptuous and therefore “sinful” to try to take upon myself the role of a prophet of God and, for instance, challenge you to a contest to have God send a bolt of lightening out of a cloudless sky onto a sacrifice I had prepared. Of course, you wouldn’t be calling upon your “no-god” like the prophets of Baal were doing with their gods. The biblical prophets were appointed and called by God for his purposes within the context of building up a covenant people to be his instruments for his salvation history. None of us today are in that role, and so they are not comparable. Thus, the key point is whether doing something like Elijah did would be a test that God wants us to do in order to accomplish his purposes or whether it was a test someone does to try to force God’s hand.

Phil: Tim, I intend to answer your 2 questions above, but I’d first like you to give me something tangible on the hypotheticals leading this thread.
Are all four hypotheticals A-D equally likely? (I intentionally chose hypotheticals outside the context of the bible so I can first understand how you work the obvious differences in physical probabilities into, first, a secular context. After this we can see what special conditions might apply in a biblical context if any. So please don’t jump to a biblical context prematurely. I’m sure you see the obvious need to assign different probabilities to the secular hypotheticals above, and I’d like to know how you do that.)

If you don’t understand what I’m asking for, then perhaps you can address this hopefully less complex situation.

Your friend John, who seldom lies, makes 2 claims.
Claim 1: John claims he ran 100km at 5km/hr yesterday.
Claim 2: John claims he ran 100km at 25km/hr yesterday.
Prior to having any evidence for or against John’s 2 claims, are you rationally obligated to treat the 2nd claim as less probable than the 1st, thereby increasing the need for quantitatively and qualitatively superior evidence for the 2nd claim prior to belief?

I’ll be happy to respond to your questions once I have your answers to these questions, the questions that inspired this post. Cheers.
(You said something about Elijah as if I referred to Elijah in this post. I could not find any reference I might have made to Elijah here. I just want to know how you account for varying degrees of physical probability in your historical analysis.)

  • Tim: Phil, with so many concurrent threads, it’s hard to keep things straight as we “weave” back and forth (pun intended). I brought in the Elijah example you had raised in a different post into this one by mistake, but it’s appropriate nonetheless. It appears that you are trying to maneuver into “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and then apply that to what is perhaps the most extraordinary claim relative to the Christian faith — namely, the resurrection or Jesus from the dead. Obviously, your examples above fit into the “extraordinary claims” category. And so of course I would treat John’s claim 2 far more incredulously than his claim 1. (Nevertheless, if I knew from first hand experience that John had run 100 km at 25 km/hr, then I could believe both claims.) The same applies to your hypotheticals A to D. Obviously, there would be nothing extraordinary concerning A, and the supposed claims from B to D get progressively more “extraordinary.” With any such claim within history, one would need to evaluate it on the basis of historical evidence, and not just based on one’s preconceived notions about what is possible. Even with your ridiculous examples of C and D (B is perhaps not so ridiculous if by “saying” a name it is something like the examples you see on youtube of dogs “saying” “hello” or whatever), in principle, if an Almighty God wanted to do such a thing for whatever purposes he had in mind, then there is nothing that says he couldn’t do that. Nevertheless, to come to the conclusion that those hypotheticals are actually true history, I’d have to see multiple lines of evidence pointing to their veracity as well as a coherent rationale as to why God would do such a miracle as that. Likewise, there would need to be a coherent rationale for why God would do such a thing. Those clearly exist for the resurrection of Jesus even if they are not sufficient to sway you personally.

Phil: So, for you, any historical analysis of any biblical miracle claim starts necessarily with the presumption that there is a god that can and has performed all the other miracles in the bible, correct?

And what is the rationale behind calling my examples C & D “ridiculous”?

  • Tim: If “ridiculous” offended you, I apologize. Having a dead dog come back to life after 3 days and then again after 3 years for no discernable purpose is a bit “far out” or whatever word applies. Your formulation of these hypotheticals was obviously a rhetorical set-up meant to make a point, and I accept that.
    I’m not making the claim that necessarily every purported miracle referred to in the Bible is a direct act of God. That is not necessary for my case. But yes, Christians clearly do operate under the presupposition that God exists and has the power to perform miracles if he so chooses in order to further his purposes. But again, that presupposition comports well with the evidence of both human history and natural history.

Phil: I was not offended by your use of “ridiculous”. I just want to establish a baseline. If you think a resurrected talking dog is “ridiculous” or *far out”, what term would you use for a talking donkey or resurrected dead walking the streets of Jerusalem? I’m looking for consistency in your terms and your notion of what is possible. Is the notion that Muhammed split the moon also “ridiculous”? You’ll have to be consistent, and not rely on presuppositions since muslims also have their own (contrary) presuppositions. Once you understand this, I’m sure you’ll agree that presuppositionalism is a rather incoherent approach to claims that are only properly assessed with evidence.

So herein lies the problem. If you already believe in a god that can do miracles and has performed all the other miracles in the bible, you will erroneously conclude that any new miracle put forward for scrutiny is as probable as the biblical claim that a man named Herod was once king. This places your worldview on equal par with every other presuppositional worldview, and demonstrates that you have abandoned both the primacy of evidence and the notion of objectivity, notions that have been foundational to the successes of science we see today.

  • Tim: I now see why you came up with your hypotheticals as you did, as it was in order to set me up for then referring to a couple of the most implausible and enigmatic references in the biblical narrative. Rather clever, indeed. But as for bringing in Muslim stories into the mix, that hardly seems appropriate. For one thing, I’ve never even heard of “Muhammad splitting the moon,” whatever that would mean. I rather doubt any Muslim takes that in a literal, physical sense, but then, I wouldn’t really know. But back to Balaam’s Ass, which is in the Bible. It’s rather similar to the story of Satan speaking to Eve through a snake. I certainly don’t take either of those in the sense of such an animal being given vocal chords and any other apparatus necessary to produce the equivalent of human speech. There is no way to evaluate those stories directly, since little if any corroborating external evidence could exist for a one-time, small-scale event such as that in ancient history. Like all of the other miracle stories, from the standpoint of naturalism, they are all considered to be mere myth — but not necessarily so if you don’t dismiss the possibility of the supernatural realm a priori. Of course, even then, such stories may indeed be fictional, such as extrabiblical stories of Jesus as a child performing such “miracles” as sculpturing a bird from clay and then turning that into a real bird. So, how can one evaluate which is which? From an overall perspective of all of the relevant data. Numerous statements made concerning historical events in the various books of the Bible have been verified through archaeology, ancient literature outside the Bible, etc. So when such narratives have been shown to be trustworthy, it is not irrational to give credence to such stories as Balaam’s Ass that cannot be so verified. It is only “irrational” when you’ve already eliminated in your mind the possibility of God’s supernatural intervention for accomplishing a specific goal.
    Your other example is one that troubles me as well. I frankly don’t know what to make of Matthew’s account of “many saints” being raised to life to witness to those in Jerusalem concerning Christ. It seems obvious that this was not a literal, physical resurrection, where “uncle Abraham,” who had been dead many years, was suddenly walking around Jerusalem to interact with people. Such a stupendous event as that would surely have been widely reported on, but this brief reference appears only in Matthew’s account and isn’t referred to anywhere else.
    I would agree with you that presuppositionalism by itself is inadequate, which is why I lean towards “evidentialism.” However, that is not to say that neither of us doesn’t have presuppositions. Do you recognize your own presuppositions? As I said in another post, presupposing that God does not exist (i.e. presupposing naturalism) results in any miraculous story being viewed as myth. You claim that my “presuppositional belief” that God does exist and that he can intervene in our world supernaturally means that I will “erroneously conclude that any new miracle put forward for scrutiny is as probable as the biblical claim that a man named Herod was once king.” Not so! Whether or not the biblical story of Herod is accurate can be verified through archaeology and other ancient historical sources. A “new miracle put forward for scrutiny” should be evaluated the same way — not on whether it matches with one’s own presuppositions. Thus, I would not rule out on that basis even your dog Lazarus being raised up again after being dead for 3 years. A God who could create the universe out of nothing and then who could create life out of non-life could certainly do that if it served his purposes. But, of course, I see no reason why he would.

Phil: I do not recognize any presuppositions I have made. I am going to start another post to address this.

It appears you are still only focused on the particular examples I’m giving, when I am actually asking for the abstracted principles that allow you to account for varying degrees of probabilities for physical events in any historical analysis. These abstracted principles can then be applied to any historical claim such as the splitting of the moon as Koranic literalists believe. I hope you understand what I mean when I say “general abstracted principles to account for varying degrees of probabilities for various possible physical events”. Are all physical events equally probable? I’m confident you think not. If not, what are the general principles that can we can add to the equation to successfully an accurate historical analysis of 2 or more historical scenarios with equally evidenced claims, but of varying degrees of physical probabilities. I won’t include any examples here since the examples seem to be confusing you. Or maybe you can list your own examples of a few possible claims of varying degrees of possibility to show how your general abstracted principles work on such examples. I hope I’m making my request more clear now.

  • Tim:


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