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Flew, Miracles and History

David Basinger, in Sophia: A Journal for Discussion in Philosophical Theology (1983, vol. 22, no2, pp. 15-22).

Basinger responds to Anthony Flew’s contention that: “the historian must maintain with respect to any alleged miracle that the event did not in fact occur as reported”. Basinger concedes that Flew’s argument has merit, but argues that it ultimately fails. And by the way, to save a trip to, “nomology” is the science of laws. Basinger concludes: “The fact that an alleged occurrence is incompatible with current nomologicals must indeed be seriously considered when the historian rules on its historicity. However, Flew has failed to demonstrate that a seeming counterinstance must be shown to be consistent with current nomologicals before the historian can justifiably rule that it can be known to have occurred. Alleged ‘miracles’ cannot be dismissed this easily.”

Could the occurrence of a genuinely miraculous event ever be known on historical evidence? Could, for example, the alleged resurrection of Jesus ever be established as an historical fact? Given that miracles are normally defined as violations of (counterinstances to) natural laws caused by a god, there are actually three questions for the historian to consider in this context:

  1. Did the event in question actually occur as reported?
  2. Was the event a violation of a natural law?
  3. Was the event caused by a god?

(2) and (3) have received the greatest amount of attention by those who deny that a miracle could be known on historical evidence. Some grant that historical evidence could make it probable that an allegedly miraculous event occurred as reported and even that it was a counterinstance to well established laws, but deny that the historian could ever justifiably contend that the event was probably caused by a god. Many others are less charitable. They acknowledge that historical evidence could make it most reasonable to believe that the alleged miracles occurred as reported, but deny that the historian could ever justifiably contend that such an event was probably a true counterinstance to a true natural law.

But at least one prominent atheologian, Anthony Flew, has taken an even harder line. He has argued in response to (1) that the historian must maintain with respect to any alleged miracle (as defined above) that the event did not in fact occur as reported. I shall argue that the line of reasoning he uses to support this stance is much more subtle and convincing than most of his critics have acknowledged. But I shall conclude in the last analysis that his argument is unsound.

The argument with which we shall be concerned runs as follows:

  1. It is the duty of’ the historian “to reconstruct what actually happened in the past by interpreting the present detritus of the past as historical evidence.”
  2. This detritus documents, ruins, etc. can be interpreted by the historian as evidence “only and precisely by appealing to what he knows or thinks he knows about how things in fact happen in the world, what is in fact probable or improbable and what is in fact possible or impossible.”
  3. Laws of nature (nomologicals) express the scientist’s (and thus the historian’s) current understanding of what is possible or impossible. Such laws “assert not that something is logically necessary or logically impossible (inconceivable) but that it is in fact necessary or in fact impossible.”
  4. Accordingly, if a purported historical event is inconsistent with current nomologicals, we must assume either that such nomologicals are inadequate or that the event did not occur as reported.
  5. The report of the alleged counterinstance is by its very nature only expressible by a singular, past tense, untestable proposition while the relevant nomologicals are expressed by “universal propositions which … have been and still can be tested, given certain conditions, anywhere at any time.”
  6. The historian must proportion his or her belief to the evidence.
  7. Thus, if a purported historical event is inconsistent with current nomologicals, the historian “cannot possibly know, on historical evidence, that it did so happen.” Its occurrence, rather, must be ruled physically impossible.

There has been a great deal of confusion concerning what Flew is actually arguing here. Part of the problem stems from the misleading reading of (10) which Flew initially gave in Hume’s Philosophy of Belief:

Finding what appears to be historical evidence for an occurrence inconsistent with such a nomological, we must always insist on interpreting the evidence in some other way: for if the nomological is true then it is physically impossible that any event incompatible with it could have occurred.

Some have concluded on the basis of this statement that the purpose of (4-10) is to make an ontological claim: that the historian can legitimately conclude that events which conflict with current nomologicals did not, in fact, occur as reported. Flew, however, explicitly informs us in other passages that this is not what he is saying. His argument, as (10) makes clear, is epistemological. He is arguing that, given the nature of the relevant historical evidence available, the historian could never have better reasons (a more justifiable evidential basis) for believing that an alleged counterinstance to a current nomological has occurred than for believing (and thus ruling) that it did not.

Another common complaint is that (4-10) rules out the possibility of scientific progress. If any alleged event which is inconsistent with current nomologicals must be considered physically impossible, is it not the case that all nomologicals, and thus the body of scientific knowledge as a whole, are immune from change? This criticism has an initial ring of plausibility, but it too is at least in part misguided. Flew readily admits that we do not have the ability to identify true nomologicals. In fact, he criticizes Hume for taking “for granted that what in his day he and all his fellow men of sense firmly believed about the order of nature constituted not just humanly fallible opinion, but the incorrigible last word” and for failing “‘to appreciate that (nomologicals) are themselves subject to criticism and correction.” In short, Flew is quite willing to admit that new evidence (e.g., undeniable counterexamples)­ might emerge which would force us to discard or modify a current nomological and, accordingly, reassess the historicity of any alleged occurrence which, on the basis of this nomological, had previously been ruled physically impossible. He argues, for example, that although Herodotus was justified, given the astronomical and geographical nomologicals of his day, in labeling as untrue the claims of certain Phoenician sailors concerning unusual movements of the sun, updated nomologicals now make these claims quite plausible.

But has not Flew here trapped himself? He acknowledges that current nomologicals must be revised when the natural scientist is confronted “with some occurrence inconsistent with a proposition previously believed to express a law of’ nature.” Given (4-10), however, upon what basis could a scientist ever justifiably claim that such a counterinstance has in fact occurred as reported? Given (4-10), must not the scientist in the case of every alleged counterinstance weigh the singular, past tense proposition describing the counter instance against the universal, present tense, testable propositions describing the relevant nomologicals and rule in favor of the latter?

In other words, it appears that Flew is caught in a dilemma. In (4-10) he seems to argue that the scientist (or historian) can only justifiably claim that a purported event has in fact occurred if such an event is consistent with current nomologicals. But it would seem that by his own admission some events which appear inconsistent with current nomologicals cannot be ruled out in this fashion, for it is only the acknowledged occurrence of a ‘true’ counterinstance which Flew believes can justifiably cause us to revise the current nomologicals in question. Or, stated somewhat differently yet, the apparent dilemma is this. In (4-10) Flew seems to argue that the ‘occurrence status’ of all events is to be determined by (is dependent upon) their consistency with current nomologicals. But it appears that he can only affirm the revisability of such nomologicals if he grants that the ‘occurrence status’ of some alleged counterinstances can be established independently of (or separately from) the nomologicals with which they are purportedly inconsistent.

To evaluate this criticism, it is necessary to discuss in greater detail Flew’s understanding of nomological revisability. Flew concedes that if the testimonial evidence for an alleged counterinstance seems extremely strong, “then perhaps the historian may ask himself whether the nomological proposition that precludes the event is after all true. It could, in principle at least, be further tested.” But the key to such testing, Flew strongly emphasizes, is repeatability. The whole object of the scientific exercise is to discover true laws, and theories that explain the truth of these laws. If alleged phenomena are not repeatable at all, then they clearly cannot be subsumed under any natural law. In such cases, Flew maintains, “it could still be that the event did occur. Yet … no matter how impressive the testimony might appear, the most favorable verdict that history could ever return must be the agnostic and appropriately Scottish ‘not proven’.”

In short, Flew denies that the revision of a nomological requires that the scientist accept the actual occurrence of any single alleged counterinstance before the revision is made. It is, he argues, only when an event (E) which appears to be a counterinstance to a given nomological can be shown to be repeatable that the scientist can justifiably admit that E, as an event token, actually occurred as reported and is thus required to search for a revised or new nomological under which it can be subsumed.

It is, therefore, inaccurate to assume that Flew is in some obvious sense contradicting himself by affirming both (4-10) and the revisability of current nomologicals. In (4-10) Flew is arguing that the evidence for a particular historical (or contemporary) event could never, in itself, force us to acknowledge that such an event has actually occurred and thus that the relevant nomological must be revised. Such a contention is not inconsistent with Flew’s claim that a seeming counterinstance could initiate the revision of a nomological. For he also holds that it is only if a counterinstance can be shown to be repeatable that a revision must be sought, and, of course, it requires more than singular, past tense evidence supporting any given event token to establish repeatability.

Finally, it is sometimes argued that (4-10) demonstrates an arbitrary and dogmatic naturalistic prejudice on the part of Flew. What right, it is argued, does Flew have to assume that the laws of science have the ultimate say in relation to history? How can other, nonnaturalistic factors be automatically ruled out?

This criticism is also misguided. Flew repeatedly emphasizes that he is, in the context of (4-10), only discussing what the historian can conclude on the basis of the historical (natural) evidence alone. He is not at this point, he tells us, attempting to rule out the possibility that true counterinstances could be identified on the basis of nonnatural criteria e.g., some form of revelation from God. Moreover, his decision to consider only ‘natural’ historical criteria cannot in this context be considered arbitrary. He does so because he is assuming that theists wish to use miracles to help establish or support religious belief’. And he rightly sees that an alleged miracle can only have this apologetical value if its occurrence (and its natural inexplicability) can be established on ‘natural’ grounds.

There are, however, serious problems with (4-10). Flew argues that unless an alleged counterinstance to a current nomological is repeatable, the historian cannot justifiably rule that the event has occurred as reported. But let us assume, for example, that a large group of internationally renowned physicians report that they have all observed a severely deformed and withered leg instantaneously return to its normal size and shape. And let us assume that they offer us a video-tape recording of the ‘healing’ to substantiate their claims. Such an occurrence would obviously be inconsistent with well-established current nomologicals. Thus, given Flew’s ‘occurrence criterion’, those of us who heard this claim (or even saw the tape) could not affirm that this event had actually occurred as reported until it could be repeated i.e., until events of the same type could be produced.

In fact, given Flew’s ‘occurrence criterion’, even the doctors, themselves, would be forced to withhold affirmation until repeatability was demonstrated. But this is surely unacceptable. Of course, given that the alleged counterinstance in this case would be inconsistent with extremely well-established current nomologicals, all responsible individuals would rightly feel the necessity to investigate the claim in question thoroughly before accepting it. Those of us who simply hear the claim (or see the tape) would have to convince ourselves that we had not been deceived or that the claim had not been misreported or misunderstood. Even the doctors would have to convince themselves that they had not been deceived in some manner.

Moreover, it is not easy to say exactly how much investigation would be necessary in this case. But one basic point seems clear. There would, in principle, be a point at which it would no longer be reasonable to deny that the ‘healing’ had occurred, even if it were not presently repeatable.

In short, to generalize the point, (4-10) is simply too strong. It Is true, of course, that if we only read of supposed counterinstances in the newspaper or history books or if ‘none of the individuals directly involved is still alive or if the report is given in support of a religious system, we ought initially to be dubious. It might even be that, apart from those cases in which those who claim to have observed supposed counterinstances are alive and can be directly interviewed, we can at best only rule tentatively that their reports are veridical. But all this only shows that repeatability is a very important criterion in judging whether alleged phenomena have in fact occurred. It in no way demonstrates that repeatability must be considered, a priori, a necessary ‘occurrence criterion’ for the historian.

There is, moreover, an even more serious problem with (4-10). Flew’s contention that one must either demonstrate that a seeming counterinstance is actually consistent with current or revised nomologicals or maintain that the event did not occur as reported is based on his belief that one cannot have both the ‘exception’ and the ‘rule’. Now, it is true, as Flew suggests, that scientists must assume as a working hypothesis that current nomologicals express what must always happen under certain conditions. And he is also correct in arguing that any seeming counterinstance to a nomological necessitates a rigorous reevaluation of the ‘law’ in question. But Flew himself acknowledges that only repeatable counterinstances require a revision of the relevant law. Accordingly, I see no reason to grant that, when faced with a seeming counterinstance, the scientist must either demonstrate that the nomological in question can be revised to accommodate the recalcitrant event or rule that the event is physically impossible. Of course, if the initial assessment of a seeming counterinstance does demonstrate that the event is repeatable or that the relevant ‘law’ is defective in some way, a revision of such a nomological is in order. But if such an assessment does not demonstrate repeatability or show the relevant nomologicals to be defective, why should the scientist consider it necessary to assume that the event did not occur as reported (or as seemingly observed)?

If there is good objective evidence that a recalcitrant event did in fact occur e.g., the similar observations (memories) of a group of reputable physicians would it not be more reasonable for the scientist simply to grant the occurrence in question and either (a) continue to run tests indefinitely in the hope of gaining new information which would allow the event in question to be subsumed under a new or revised law or, (b) simply label it a ‘freak event’ and await the occurrence of similar events before seriously investigating further? To do so would not, as Flew implies, render the nomologicals in question nonfunctional or turn science into a quasi-metaphysical guessing game. As long as a recalcitrant event is not repeatable, it presents no conflicting working hypothesis to challenge the current nomologicals in question. Such nomologicals can (indeed must) remain the working hypotheses which the scientist utilizes.

We must conclude, then, that (4-10) is unacceptable. The fact that an alleged occurrence is incompatible with current nomologicals must indeed be seriously considered when the historian rules on its historicity. However, Flew has failed to demonstrate that a seeming counterinstance must be shown to be consistent with current nomologicals before the historian can justifiably rule that it can be known to have occurred. Alleged ‘miracles’ cannot be dismissed this easily.