Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Miracles, Episode IV: The Question Behind the Question
By the time the question is asked, more often than not, the answer is already determined. This is not fatalism or determinism, just the outcome of the point that Aristotle makes and C.S. Lewis begins with in his famous tome, Miracles. The reason is simple: presuppositions determine the answer. Where you start determines where you will end up in theological, apologetic, historical, etc. discourse. The problem isn't necessarily the presuppositions (although it usually is) but that people make propositions based on assumptions that can be either true or false. There is no doubt that everyone brings baggage to a conversation, text, and so forth. The real question is, what is the question behind the question. This is something Lewis covers marvelously in the opening chapter of Miracles. Here are some extended director's cuts:
"In all my life I have met only one person who claims to have seen a ghost. And the interesting thing about the story is that the person disbelieved in the immortal soul before she saw the ghost and still disbelieves after seeing it. She says that what she saw must have been an illusion or a trick of the nerves. And obviously she may be right. Seeing is not believing.
For this reason, the question whether miracles occur can never be answered by experience. Every event which might claim to be a miracle is, in the last resort, something presented to our senses, something seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted. And our senses are int infallible. If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience.
Many people think one can decide whether a miracle occurred in the past by examining the evidence according to the normal rules of historical inquiry. But the ordinary rules cannot be worked out until we have decided whether miracles are possible, and if so, how probably they are. For if they are impossible, then no amount of historical evidence will convince us. If they are possible but immensely improbable, then only mathematically demonstrative evidence will convince us: and since history never provides that degree of evidence for any event, history can never convince us that a miracle occurred. If, on the other hand, miracles are not intrinsically improbable, then the existing evidence will be sufficient to convince us that quite a number miracles have occurred. The result of our historical enquiries thus depends on the philosophical views which we have been holding before we even began to look at the evidence. This philosophical question must therefore come first...it is no use going to the texts [the Gospels and other historical evidence for Jesus' life and resurrection] until we have some idea about the possibility or probability of the miraculous. Those who assume that miracles cannot happen are merely wasting their time by looking into the texts: we know in advance what results they will find for they have begun by begging the question."
- C.S. Lewis, Miracles, p. 1-4, Harper Collins, 2001.
Next episode, we'll take a brief look at the presuppositions behind both the naturalist and the supernaturalist, evaluating the various biases and truth claims.
And that's all I've got to say about that...for now. Stay tuned for Episode V: The Naturalist Strikes Back.