Inference To An Explanation: Shapiro’s The Miracle Myth Reviewed — Part III

Inference To An Explanation: Shapiro’s <em>The Miracle Myth</em> Reviewed — Part III

Read Part I, II.

Did Jesus walk on water? Eyewitnesses reported he did. The event was so well remarked that people wrote of it at a time when most events went unrecorded.

Here’s a different question: Could Jesus have walked on water? Well, he claimed to be God, and even a weak understanding of who God is would grant that if Jesus’s claim was (is) true, then walking on water, turning water into wine, raising people from the dead, restoring health instantaneously, and so on are within God’s abilities. If God can create an entire universe, skimming across a sea without sinking is trivial.

Here’s another different question: Why did Jesus walk on water, assuming he did? (Atheists are asked to hold in mind the conditional clause at the end of that question.) The same eyewitnesses report that Jesus took the shortest path to his pals, with whom he wanted to be. Presumably, being God, Jesus could have “transported” himself or even flew to the boat, under his own power or via the assistance of giant eagles à la JRR Tolkien. Those other methods of transportation are a tad showy, and then we recall Jesus was also a man, and walking (or swimming) is what men who cannot lay their hands on skiffs do.

Finally, here’s a last different question: How did Jesus walk on water? Perhaps the best answer is “I have no idea.” Stated with more metaphysical sophistication, but still in profound ignorance, we can say he changed the nature of the water so that it could support weight, whereas the nature or essence of water is that objects in the shape of unadorned walking men sink. Evidence to support that view is increased when we recall one of the eyewitnesses was so stoked by the spectacle that he jumped from the boat and bestrode the waves—until his faith fled and he began to sink. Intriguing.

Means, motive, opportunity.

We have answers, albeit tentative and incomplete on the total cause (form, material, efficient, final) of the miracle. If that’s what it was. We still have to work on the probability that it was a miracle, and that means finding probative evidence. Then we have to contrast the miraculous explanation with other possibilities in order to make a decision: to believe in the miracle or not.

Here is where inference to the best explanation (IBE) begins to fail—in the freedom to pick and choose the evidence we think is probative. And in not recognizing we have this freedom.

What alternatives to the eyewitness reports of the miracle are available? An infinity.

Shapiro’s list (as it did for other reported Biblical miracles) would start with some great power consortium of beings, maybe aliens or “seventeen” lesser gods. Maybe something natural we don’t understand (but not ice). Maybe the apostles were lying. Maybe they were under “mass hypnosis.” Could be Jesus was a “supermagician”. Maybe the sea spoken of was only inches deep.

Here Shapiro lets us down with his lack of imagination. He didn’t conjure a time traveler equipped with a holographic projector. Or maybe the apostles ate bad fish. And if we can posit seventeen gods, why not sixteen or eighteen?

We can see we’ve mixed things up, too. All alternate explanations say something about cause, but only parts of the cause. We want it all: means, motive, opportunity. There is no profit going on and on like this, either, because we could do it forever. Nor have we learned about the probability, except in the crude sense that if we accorded every imaginable scenario some probability, the probability of whatever the true cause is would head to zero. Not useful for making a decision, that.

No detective operates in the way Shapiro does. Detectives take what evidence is available and build a case from that. Detectives also draw upon their experience (which differs from detective to detective) to provide additional evidence. They do not begin investigations fretting about mass hypnosis or alien invasions.

Jorge slides some WonderBread into the toaster and up pops browned bread that, viewed from the side, looks a bit like a classical portrait of Jesus. Miracle?

What evidence do we have? One, any toast pattern will have to look like something. Two, people see faces in everything: :-). (That one was caused by me.) Three, there’s lots of toast out there, and given One and Two, we’d guess there’d be a lot of faces that look like Jesus. Four, Jorge believes. Five, we don’t think he’s lying or he cheated, though he could have. Six, we agree that, if viewed from the side and in the right light, the toast has a vague resemblance to certain portraits. Seven, it seems odd the good Lord would prep a peanut butter receiver with his face: if He wanted to give Jorge a message, He could do so without the risk of being smeared.

That evidence—and we could have gone on to suppose aliens, etc.—indicates two main candidates: (1) an odd miracle, or (2) Jorge’s earnest faith and coincidence. The minor possibility of Jorge lying we give very little probability, based on the evidence of his demeanor, etc.

We now form the probability of both: (1) small, (2) large (neither can be quantified). We know more about the totality of the cause for (2) rather than for (1). What decision to make? That depends on the probability, which is in favor of (2), and of the consequences.

If it was a miracle and we say it was, we receive a minor boost in faith. Has to be minor because of the danger of peanut butter: we could have missed it.

If it was a miracle and we say it wasn’t, we lose out, but not, I think, by a lot.

If it wasn’t a miracle and we say it wasn’t, we gain a wee bit of satisfaction, but really the incident will be quickly forgotten.

If it wasn’t a miracle and we say it was, we make a small error, with the benefit of added faith. Believing harms nobody.

No matter which way we look at it, the stakes are minor. So we say (2), a natural event. This is inference to an explanation—the best explanation given only the evidence we assumed and given my take on the decision. Jorge will still decide to believe, even if he agrees on the probability, because the consequences for him are different. To him we say, God bless you.

Of course, we never reach absolute proof.

We have to play detective in the same manner for every claim we hear—not just claims of miracles. It’s because most claims are mundane—“Did you put the meat in the fridge?” “Yes, dear”—that we don’t see ourselves wearing deerstalkers and smoking pipes. It’s only when they are fantastic we do.

Next time, we wrap up the review, discussing motives and probability.


  1. The author, at the beginning, seems to fall prey to survivorship bias:

    “The event was so well remarked that people wrote of it at a time when most events went unrecorded.”

    This is one of the most common cognitive biases, which are impediments to clear thinking.

    In this instance, it works like this: It’s true that, 2,000 years or so ago, few things were written down (literacy was sparse, there were no Office Depots stocked with cheap paper, etc.). Between then and now, there were plenty of accidents that would reduce the written record even more. We only get to see the few scraps that survive the fires, floods, goats getting into the library, etc. The mistake comes from thinking that there must be something special about what happens to survive. There may be, but not because of the accidents that allowed it to be preserved.

  2. Gary

    Survivorship bias certainly applies to the particular trilobite that wound up as a fossil in your curio cabinet, but it overlooks the deliberate preservation bias that affects human artifacts.

  3. Gary: Very good point. The actions of people trying to preserve what they thought important increase the probability that those things will be preserved. But when the unknown but unavoidably huge effect of accident is overlooked, you will still be beset by survivorship bias.

  4. Ken

    “Presumably, being God, Jesus could have “transported” himself or even flew to the boat, under his own power or via the assistance of giant eagles à la JRR Tolkien. Those other methods of transportation are a tad showy, and then we recall Jesus was also a man,..”

    So that was ‘showy’ … but the gospels report Jesus materialized and materialized a number of times in his supposedly resurrected body.

    This begs a question with the analysis presented — if being showy wasn’t suitable when converting people, why was being showy ok with those who already believed & knew?

  5. Ken

    Reviewing today’s post is like reviewing a document by arguing the grammatical merits of each sentence as a stand-alone text. The sentences may well be correct, but the story they compile might have issues.

    Let’s consider some — i.e., just how well did the Apostles really know Jesus?

    In Matt 28:16-20 we learn of the “Great Commission” — where Jesus commands the Apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

    Obviously, that was a directive at converting Gentile nations. If it wasn’t, the directive would’ve been to convert the 12 tribes of Israel or something like that.

    Also, that was a directive far beyond the capacity of 12 guys; some delegation was therefore a must.

    We then observe in Acts 10 & 11 that Peter was out converting Gentiles (Acts 11:11 – “The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God”).

    For that apparent transgression did Peter, when called to account remind the Apostles & believers that Jesus told them to convert “all nations”?

    Nope. He described a vision of a message from the Holy Spirit, and the response from the Apostles & believers was (per Acts 11 18): “When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.””

    If Jesus really was God, and the Apostles knew Jesus was God, and, God-Jesus told them to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them” … to actually do that conversion why was it necessary for them to be convinced by Peter’s vision? Why wasn’t Jesus’ directive good enough?


    This is one profound logical inconsistency in the presentation of Jesus story within the NT.

    We also know that the very first Christians (Ebionites, Nazorenes, Gnostics, and others) were ALL Adoptionists — believing that Jesus was an ordinary mortal except that he was so pure that on his baptism God adopted him as his son. Effectively being a human possessed by God, or almost, with God ever present. Some basic research will reveal a number of corroborating passages that wholly support this early viewpoint. Not to mention the last words of Jesus, ‘my god, my god, why have you forsaken me?” — which make no sense if Jesus was in fact God-incarnate, as he’d be talking to himself (i.e., how could a member of the all-powerful Trinity, existing before time itself, and somehow forget His own all-powerful divinity??). The Adoptionist view was that at his death, Jesus was necessarily on his own, a pure, but doomed, mortal. That outburst is simply incompatible with an all-mighty divine being — and is an indication of the original meaning/story and a clue that things have been subsequently edited…for some reason(s).

    Then we can read Justin Martyr’s First Apology, where he defends the early Christians from Roman persecutions by pointing out that all the core elements/plot-themes in the Jesus story are no different from plot themes of the pre-existing pagan stories. The official explanation (which remains to this day) was and is that devils, knowing of the truth to come, concocted the false pagan stories in advance to confuse and deceive.

    Which makes one wonder why the Almighty God, who is said to have intervened as early as the dawn of civilization with Abraham, would wait so long to allow the devils to sow their confusion…why the delay? And then, why not broadcast the “Truth” to all nations and delay for generations the reach by missionaries. For a God that made the universe in less than a week, keeping generations upon generations of humans in the dark about His existence and His values for them to live by is rather peculiar.

    This leads to a couple of options of interpretations of the source material:

    1) After observing that the early forms of Christianity held a consistent set of core beliefs, and that these beliefs were modified over time by an increasingly politically powerful Church bureaucracy…maybe…the whole story is just another iteration in a line of such stories tweaked & tuned for ulterior motives by a ruling elite? [and a not very creative new iteration at that, given even the official Church apologists conceded in writing it was no different than the earlier pagan stories]. Or,

    2) a miraculous story in which the plain meaning of the words must be interpreted in an erratic fashion to comport with the overall plot? (does THAT look like the handiwork of an omnipotent deity???)

    Briggs makes this assertion: “If it wasn’t a miracle and we say it was, we make a small error, with the benefit of added faith. Believing harms nobody.” That kind of twisted logic is very common, hardly unique to Briggs.

    It’s been said that the Devil quotes scripture (incompletely, but truthfully) to suit its misleading purposes. But what kind of creature endorses accepting an error if it leads to a particular outcome? If God and Devil are using the same tactic–persuasion based on effectiveness and not truth–doesn’t that make them both equally suspect?

  6. JH

    Briggs, your circular explanations or imaginations are getting nowhere. There is no shame to just say that you choose to believe. However, if you choose to harm others by imposing your beliefs on others, then it becomes a different story.

    Your circular explanations are getting nowhere. There is no shame to just say that you choose to believe. If you choose to harm others by imposing your beliefs on others, that is a different story.

    Walking on water? Reminds me of my older brother’s favorite reads. He read Jing Yong’s books day and night during his high school years, instead of studying what he needed to. The protagonist in Jing Youg’s novel not only is super wise but also can fly, walk on water, heal illness by Chi, and so on. Jing Yong’s explanations of the protagonist’s Kong Fu blend history facts and his imaginations. No one would ever say that Jing lacked imaginations, and my brother has never believed his imaginations are true.

    If it was a miracle and we say it wasn’t, we lose out, but not, I think, by a lot….
    No matter which way we look at it, the stakes are minor. …
    Of course, we
    never reach absolute proof….
    Your circular explanations are getting nowhere. There is no shame to just say that you choose to believe. If you choose to harm others by imposing your beliefs on others, that is a different story.

  7. JH

    Ooops… forgot to delete part of my previous comments.

  8. I am still interested in any answer that a miracle-believer can offer to the question:

    When do you decide that something is a miracle instead of just something that you don’t understand the cause of?

    After all, things happen all the time whose causes are unknown. We understand but a tiny fraction of the causes operating in the world. I recently suffered a severe sinus infection that went on for weeks, failing to respond to a variety of medical interventions. Then, one day, it just disappeared. Did God have pity on me? Or did He tire of my whining? Or was there a natural explanation that I’ll never know?

  9. John Watkins

    re: sinus infection going away- you will eventually know the reason. Have patience.

    Do you never tire of telling everyone how and why they are wrong? Even though you yourself can’t prove it?

  10. Ye Olde Statistician

    The mistake comes from thinking that there must be something special about what happens to survive.

    But there is something special about them. It means
    a) There were lots of copies to begin with (esp. in the manuscript period). For example, about 90% of Greek papyrus scraps found in Egypt are scraps of Homer. OTOH, all copies of Tacitus’ Annals derive from a single copy, M1, apparently written in the 9th century at Kloster Fulda (the hand is Merovingian followed by Carolingian) then lost until rediscovered in 1506.
    b) They appealed for some reason to later copyists. For example, the vast majority of Greek manuscripts copied by medieval translators were works of logic, mathematics, natural philosophy, medicine, and the like. Very few — but some — were literary works; and some mathematical works by Archimedes were regarded as “cheating” that they had fallen out of circulation even in ancient times.

    And on the flip side:
    c) They had become valueless The ancients didn’t have our interest in preserving the even-more ancients. Papyrus crumbles, vellum fades, paper slowly acidifies, and one day a copyist is faced with the task of transcribing this old text or that old text. And if Strabo has written a modern, up-to-date Geographica, why bother copying Eratosthenes’ old, outdated work? So modern scholars know little of Eratosthenes Geographica beyond the fact that Strabo thought it sucked rocks. That’s probably why we no longer have Shakespeare’s play Cardenio. We know he and Fletcher wrote it because Mosely registered it with the Stationer’s Office [the English equivalent of the Index — all Renaissance states had censors] but it probably “closed in Hartford” and Shakespeare destroyed all the copies out of embarrassment… LOL.
    d) They were destroyed deliberately. The emperor Augustus made a great bonfire of witchcraft books early in his reign, so we have little knowledge of the poisons that they used. The emperors Diocletian and Gratian rounded up all the Christian texts they could get their hands on and burned them during the Great Persecution, so the earliest copies of missals, gospels, rituals, and other texts tend to post-date his reign. The great library of Louvain, burned by Saxon troops in 1914, housed original copies of Verselius, Mercator, and others.

    This begs a question

  11. Gary already made YOS’ point, and I already conceded it. Not a pure, classic survivorship bias situation, but it has elements of it.

  12. Joy

    The sinus infection? Natural explanation, most likely, which may not be that mysterious. Some surprising things interact in the body.
    As to your first question, I was talking about this today.
    Sometimes, my guess is, that when talking about something of which the cause is not understood but specifically is potentially miraculous (keeping that term lose on purpose) the non believer, in this case, my Dad, would say,
    “Oh it’s one of those things, you know it’s a thing. It’s the, well. infra red burgelar alarm thing, it emits you know….these things just happen! And I promise you that a more determined atheist and non believer you won’t meet. Skeptical about everything. Yet he saw a vision, I won’t say what, a couple of weeks ago which tied iexactly with something in two separate ways with something which happened to me the day before. He also famously saw his Mother (who died before my birth) sitting on the bed when I was born, looking at me. Yet if I ask him about this now he talks about well I just imagined it or something, it’s you know… I don’t know, but it isn’t a spiritual thing!

    Bless him he also felt the hand on the shoulder but that was apparently the burgelar alarm.
    Four others in the house have felt the shoulder. Believed to be my uncle John, who used to come up behind people and put his hand on their shoulder.

    So to answer properly, for those who believe in supernatural things of all sorts, if it means something which gives some kind of explanation then that’s all that counts. If not, it is just ignored as a neurophysiological event. It really doesn’t matter at all. Just smile about it.

  13. JohnK

    When I saw that there was a dozen-ish comments to this post, I became curious enough to read them. But I was grievously disappointed.

    First, because there was a very important point in this series of posts: a devastation, almost a refutation, of Shapiro’s The Miracle Myth by an evisceration of Shapiro’s principal analytic method, and by means of that, the emergence of a cautionary tale about the futility, the silliness, of the (lazy, and popular) “inference to the best explanation,” plus a quick-and-dirty exemplar of how, in real life, men may edge closer to the truth of an uncertain matter.

    Now that is important and interesting. Second, because of the diversion of the comments towards secondary concerns. Because of course miracles occur! The only relevant question is, whose miracles?

    Thus, why did no commenter simply cut to the chase and cite the renowned Apollonius of Tyana? After all, Sossianus Hierocles (fl. 303) had already “compared the badly written gospels and the miracles of the peasant Jesus to the beautiful Life of Apollonius and the acts of the Tyanean sage.”

    And by “acts” is meant the miracles Apollonius performed, such as healing the sick, which are (at least) as well attested as those of some backwater itinerant.

    And, after all, Apollonius of Tyana actually lived. We know this, irrefutably.

    Why re-invent the wheel? Sossianus Hierocles had already dispensed with the “miracles” of the Christ long ago.

    To repeat: the question, dear friends, is not, “miracles?” Mao performed the miracle of raising a billion peasants from poverty! And who can forget Mao’s gift of mangoes to the Capital Worker and Peasant Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team? The man who is tired of miracles, my good Boswell, is tired of life.

    So: [Pr: some cause | our prior knowledge, evidence ] –> value to us of the consequence –> decision. Or one may ask: Motive? Method? Opportunity? Or, as a modern sage put it, much more incisively: Who? Whom?

  14. The events of Apollonius’ life, including reports of miracles, were so well remarked that people wrote of them at a time when most events went unrecorded.

  15. Mactoul

    Lee Phillps,

    “When do you decide that something is a miracle instead of just something that you don’t understand the cause of?”

    Miracle isn’t a thing we don’t understand the cause of. A miracle is something we do understand to be inexplicable in naturalistic terms. A something that is contrary to the course of nature. I strongly recommend Miracles by CS Lewis and also Physics and Miracles by Stanley Jaki (PhD in Physics).

    God sometimes acts by natural means–it is called providence. At other times, He acts by extraordinary means–they are miracles.

  16. Thanks, Mactoul, I’ll look those up. In the mean time, I would claim that when you say that you’re able to understand something to be “inexplicable in naturalistic terms”, you are implying that you know everything there is to know about natural law – otherwise you could not know when something is outside of its boundaries. In contrast, another type of person would be more humble, recognize that he only knew a small part of nature, and, when observing something inexplicable, would recognize the possibility that there were natural causes at work that he simply didn’t understand.

  17. MrPete

    Lee says:

    when you say that you’re able to understand something to be “inexplicable in naturalistic terms”, you are implying that you know everything there is to know about natural law

    To be more precise, the implication is much smaller: it implies I know enough about “natural law” (your term) with respect to specific events to claim that those events are physically and/or logically impossible.

    As I like to say (and have experienced a number of times), if God is God, he should be able to astound me in my areas of *greatest* expertise.

    As I observe order in the universe and “natural laws” I discover more and more realms where God gives himself room to play, without actually breaking any of those laws.

    A somewhat silly yet real example is inherent in any modern digital camera: our camera sensors have easily reached the limit of observability due to the wavelength of light. Adding more pixel density doesn’t increase resolving power.

    Likewise with quantum entanglement and (love it 🙂 ) Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance.”

    To me, the simplest rational explanation of quantum entanglement and many other things, including God, is to posit one or more additional dimensions beyond those we can observe. All it takes is one extra dimension for God to accomplish various things. AFAIK, quantum entanglement takes advantage of additional dimension(s) in an interesting way: we can observe that this is true, even though we have no ability to directly observe those extra dimension(s).

  18. MrPete

    Another simple thought experiment (at least for those of us able to hold the concept of a spreadsheet in our minds 🙂 )…

    1) A coordinate in all of space-time, to the smallest proposed unit of subatomic distance or big bang time, can be described in 44+44+44+53 (X/Y/Z/time) digits. 185 digits total. That’s a lot but certainly not infinite.
    2) Implication of (1) — create a database with that many records (10e185 ish) and record some information about each location (how many bits would it take? Interesting question… be generous! I don’t bother: “enough” whatever that is…) … and now you have a database covering the entire physical universe throughout all of space-time. Double or quadruple the number of records to cover long into the future.
    3) Such a database doesn’t fit in the universe of course, but an extradimensional God COULD have such a database.

    Thus, logically, an all-knowing God is a very thinkable and rational concept.

    AFAIK, high energy physicists aren’t exactly happy about real yet non-observable dimensions. Makes it tough to have an ultimate set of Equations That Explain Everything.

  19. Mactoul

    Lee Phillps,
    To attempt anything, you must take some things for granted. An overly skeptic attitude ruins science too. To take just a small example, the cosmic expansion is derived on the assumption of large-scale homogeneity and isotropy of the universe. But these assumptions are not empirical
    (This point is discussed in A Brief History of Time).

    Now, even the ancients knew some “natural law”–e.g. dead stay dead, virgins don’t give birth and stay virgin, people aren’t cured of blindness by human spit, lame don’t get up and walk just by somebody telling them too.

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