January 21, 2016

Miracles and historical investigation

Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923)
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, January 21, 2016

Miracles and historical investigation

Theologian Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) argues it's not reasonable to discern that a miracle has occurred in history. But his argument fails.

According to Troeltsch, on the basis of analogy to events known to us coupled with the assumption that nature behaves uniformly, we apply what we know about the present onto evidence having to do with the past, and thereby we extend our knowledge into the realm of the past.

But we have no knowledge (supposedly) of miracles occurring today (e.g., all dead men stay dead), so when we are given historical evidence for a miracle (e.g., testimony that Jesus allegedly resurrected) we infer by analogy from the present that no miracle occurred in the past (i.e., no resurrection of Jesus occurred).

Troeltsch's use of analogy is an epic fail, however.

Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014) correctly points out that Troeltsch confuses a principle of method with a principle of content.

As a principle of method, the appeal to analogy should work like this: To say that a miracle didn’t occur requires positive knowledge of analogy of miracle testimonies to testimonies for which we know no actual object corresponds, whereas to say that a miracle did occur requires positive knowledge of analogy of miracle testimonies to testimonies for which we know a real object corresponds. The analogy should be between the testimonies per se, not that to which they testify.

But Troeltsch mistakenly uses analogy as a principle of content concerning what is to be known (i.e., the object of knowledge) rather than as a principle of method which works as a tool (i.e., the basis) by which we discern what is to be known.

Think of it this way. For testimonial evidence to allow us to come to knowledge of the past what we need is a positive analogy between past testimony and present known-to-be-true testimony (i.e., their comparable characteristics or virtues as credible testimonies/ sources); we do not need an analogy between the things testified to (i.e., the testimony's contents). Significantly, if uniqueness of what's testified to counts against a testimony, then nothing new would ever be learned from others!

Again, it is not the lack of a present-day analogy to the object of a testimony that counts against testimony; rather, what counts against a testimony is its positive analogy to present-day testimony to which we know no testified-to object conforms—i.e., what counts against a testimony is its positive analogy to known-to-be-false testimonies such as those of people who are known to exaggerate or hallucinate or lie.

In the case of reports of alleged miracles, to think that there must always be an analogy between the things (objects) testified to is to assume that there is no possibility of a special action by a supernatural cause such as God. But, if the issue is whether such an action actually occurred, this is to beg the question, i.e., assume as proven that which is at issue (a logical "sin").

Troeltsch's appeal to analogy presumes the nature of the object of a testimony because it (his appeal to analogy) requires that all events must be non-miraculous events like the (allegedly) non-miraculous events we see today. However, if the issue is whether all events are non-miraculous—which is the issue if we’re trying to determine whether an actual miracle has occurred by investigating evidence—then Troeltsch smuggles a predetermined outcome into an alleged investigation. He puts the cart before the horse.

At this juncture, one might follow philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) and object that a miracle such as Jesus' resurrection is maximally improbable. But this objection assumes either we know that God doesn't exist (so miracles are maximally improbable) or we know that, if God exists, God's intentions are wholly revealed by the laws of nature (so miracles are maximally improbable). But we don't know this! These assumptions are question-begging, too, if the issue is whether a God-caused event (such as Jesus' resurrection) has actually occurred and is evidence for a God who sometimes engages in special actions.

All this to say: miracles can be studied historically.

In view of competing worldview claims—e.g., Christianity vs. Islam vs. Atheism—such study should be done.

Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, teaches philosophy at Providence University College. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.

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Climenheise said...

Good argumentation, and (I believe) accurate. I note that this is also an example of philosophy probing difficult questions with great precision--meat rather than milk.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Thanks Daryl.