The Shroud that Defies Scientific Explanation?

imageDoug Erickson, writing in the Wisconsin State Journal reports on a talk given by Larry Shapiro [pictured], a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison:

Larry Shapiro isn’t interested in arguing over whether there is a God or not.

But if you ground your belief in God on a belief in miracles, then the UW-Madison philosophy professor has a problem.

“Belief in miracles is irrational given the evidence to date — you don’t have the reasons you need,” Shapiro told about 150 people at a recent public talk on campus, part of an ongoing series in which UW-Madison philosophers tackle contemporary issues.

[ . . . ]

“In every case of a reported miracle, it’s always more surprising to think that the miracle actually happened than it is to think the testimony is false, for whatever reason,” he said. “It could be the person testifying to the existence of the miracle was hallucinating, was drunk, didn’t understand what she was seeing, was lying, whatever the reason.”

This speaks to the credibility of the witness or witnesses, another important notion, Shapiro said. In order to believe in the purported resurrection of Jesus Christ, for instance, a reliable source is critical, he said. Yet the Gospels were written decades after the purported resurrection by unknown authors, and the scribes who eventually copied the original documents were sometimes illiterate or had religious agendas and would adapt the documents they copied as they saw fit, he said.

imageThis letter to the editor (yes, there still are letters to the editors) from James L. Carney caught my attention because it mentioned the shroud:

Regarding Sunday’s In the Spirit column, "Belief in miracles ‘irrational,’ UW philosophy professor says," professor Larry Shapiro’s argument that belief in miracles is irrational rests upon two assertions.

First, inexplicable things that happen actually have some natural explanation but we haven’t figured it out yet. And second, there is no plausible evidence of miraculous events. The first argument is silly and the second one is false.

Just because primitive people put spiritual labels on medical conditions or events that have a natural cause does not mean there are not inexplicable occurrences that defy logic. For example, the Shroud of Turin is a religious artifact that defies scientific explanation for the time and place of occurrence, and even today for that matter.

The New Testament provides plenty of proof of miraculous events, especially and including the resurrection of Christ. These reports were given by eyewitnesses and verified by people who suffered torture and death in defense of their testimony.

There is no proof there were not earlier reports before the mid to late first century. Absence of proof is not proof of absence.

There are thousands of documented near death experiences that defy rational explanation that excludes the existence of a supernatural soul.

Defies scientific explanation, is that good enough? How often we try to get away with that. Look for me to make this question into another two or three postings.

7 thoughts on “The Shroud that Defies Scientific Explanation?”

  1. Larry Shapiro claims that those who believe in miracles “have to be prepared to deny that any unknown natural cause might explain the event”. That’s false. The issue is what’s probable, not what “might” be true. And belief in miracles, like other beliefs, is provisional, meaning that we can adjust our belief in the future if changes in the state of the evidence warrant such an adjustment. We don’t endlessly suspend judgment, just because the state of the evidence might change in the future. Why should we think a possible naturalistic explanation in the future always justifies refraining from reaching the conclusion that a supernatural event has occurred? Does Shapiro apply his reasoning consistently? Would he apply his reasoning to SETI, for example? If we received signals from outer space that seemed to indicate communication from intelligent life forms, should we endlessly suspend judgment, endlessly waiting for some explanation of the evidence that would be consistent with the nonexistence of aliens?

    How does Shapiro even know what the limits of nature supposedly are? He tries to smuggle in naturalism or something similar through the back door when he refers to a miracle as “something vastly improbable”. The probability of an event depends on factors like whether God and other relevant beings exist. Without an argument for something like atheism, why should we think it’s “vastly improbable” that any miracle would occur? If Shapiro’s calculation of the prior probability of an event depends on the assumption of atheism or something similar, then his calculation is only as good as that assumption. And he hasn’t given us any argument for atheism or the like, but instead refers to how he “isn’t interested in arguing over whether there is a God or not”, according to Doug Erickson (the reporter in the story Dan has cited). What Shapiro seems to be doing is assuming atheism or something like it, all the while acting as if he’s arguing from some sort of neutral ground. He’s not.

    Even if a miracle claim is thought to be highly unlikely upfront, a high prior improbability can be overcome more easily than people often suggest. All of us, skeptics included, accept many conclusions in life that initially seemed highly improbable. See, for example, J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2003), 569-70. And see here for an article by another philosopher, Timothy McGrew, arguing for how the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection would outweigh a high prior improbability, even if we thought the event seemed highly improbable upfront. The article by McGrew (and his wife) doesn’t even take the Shroud of Turin into account. They’re arguing that the resurrection evidence is good enough to overcome an initial high improbability even if we ignore the Shroud.

    I want to repeat something I said in another thread here recently. I recommend that people consult Craig Keener’s two-volume work Miracles (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011). Keener is a highly-regarded New Testament scholar who recounts many miracles that he and his associates have experienced, as well as a large number of other miracles in modern times. He includes cases with medical documentation (e.g., before-and-after x-rays), multiple eyewitnesses, and corroboration from hostile sources, for example. He also interacts at length with David Hume’s philosophical objections to miracles. (Shapiro, the philosopher Dan’s post is referring to, appeals to Hume.) If anybody is interested, I wrote a series of posts about Keener’s work a couple of years ago. You can find it here. In the series, I cite many of Keener’s findings and give examples of miracle cases he discusses that are accompanied by documentation.

  2. Shapiro’s arguments against Christianity are bad. He refers to the gospels, but doesn’t interact with earlier sources, like Paul’s letters and the even earlier resurrection creed Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. Shapiro claims that we don’t know who wrote the gospels, but he doesn’t interact with the arguments to the contrary. Why doesn’t he interact with, say, Martin Hengel’s arguments that the titles of the gospels (including the authors’ names) should be dated early? Craig Keener has published a commentary on John’s gospel, with an introduction that’s a few hundred pages long, arguing for the traditional attribution to the apostle John. Keener has also recently published a five-thousand-page commentary on Acts, in which he argues at length for the traditional authorship and historicity of Luke’s writings. Shapiro gives us no reason to think that scholars like Keener are wrong and that he’s right.

    It should be noted that we have widespread corroboration of the authorship of the gospels from ancient non-Christian sources (Marcion, Celsus, Porphyry, Julian the Apostate, etc.). Those today who reject the authorship attributions aren’t just disagreeing with the ancient Christians, but also with the ancient Jewish and pagan opponents of the religion. We find ancient non-Christian sources disputing the authorship of Old Testament books, such as the Pentateuch and Daniel, as well as some of the New Testament in a minority of cases, and the ancient Christians sometimes disputed the authorship claims among themselves (whether Peter wrote 2 Peter, whether John wrote Revelation, etc.). Thus, it can’t be argued that they were just uncritically accepting whatever authorship claims were made or never thought of the possibility that the attributions were wrong. They knew that the attributions could be wrong, and they sometimes disputed them, yet we see widespread acceptance of the traditional authorship attributions of the gospels among both ancient Christians and non-Christians. For some examples of the evidence from these non-Christian sources, see John Cook’s The Interpretation Of The New Testament In Greco-Roman Paganism (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), e.g., 140, 184, 198, 203, 235, 263, 289, 297, 301, 303-304.

    Shapiro tells us (according to the reporter summarizing Shapiro) that “the scribes who eventually copied the original documents were sometimes illiterate or had religious agendas and would adapt the documents they copied as they saw fit, he said”. Who cares? Shapiro is repeating the mistake he made in another context I discussed above. The issue here isn’t what “sometimes” happened. Rather, the issue is probability, what usually happened. Even Bart Ehrman, an agnostic and highly anti-Christian New Testament textual scholar, admits that the early Christian scribes were usually honest and copied the documents reliably:

    “It is probably safe to say that the copying of early Christian texts was by and large a ‘conservative’ process. The scribes – whether non-professional scribes in the early centuries or professional scribes of the Middle Ages – were intent on ‘conserving’ the textual tradition they were passing on. Their ultimate concern was not to modify the tradition, but to preserve it for themselves and for those who would follow them. Most scribes, no doubt, tried to do a faithful job in making sure that the text they reproduced was the same text they inherited.” (Misquoting Jesus [San Francisco, California: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005], 177)

    Furthermore, when textual issues came up in disputes between the early Christians and their enemies, the general trustworthiness of the transmission of the texts was agreed upon by both sides. We see this in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho and Origen’s treatise Against Celsus, for example. The early enemies of Christianity were aware that some people, like the Marcionites, changed the New Testament text. But both the early Christians and their early enemies agreed that such changing of the text was exceptional rather than normative. The process of the textual transmission of the New Testament, like the transmission of other ancient texts, was generally trustworthy.

  3. If all the philosophers were laid end to end, then like economists, they still would never reach a common conclusion!

  4. Belief in miracles is inherently personal and no one can tell another they did not have a miracle. Yet it’s much better to try to disprove the miracle if you are going to throw it out there for public consumption.

    There is another valid view that we experience miracles every day, such as the birth of a child. I am not talking about the abortive-contraceptive mentality that makes it a miracle, but the fact that it is very tenuous filled with dangers of things that can go wrong.

    Philosophically I would disagree with Larry Shapiro.

  5. I want to address something I didn’t have time to discuss before leaving for work this morning. Dan asks a good question at the end of his post: “Defies scientific explanation, is that good enough?” The answer depends on what’s meant by “defies scientific explanation”. Since the phrase is so ambiguous, it could be taken in a sense that would be incorrect. For example, should we conclude that the Shroud image is miraculous just because the means of producing such an image hasn’t been scientifically explained yet? No. Something else would be needed, such as the timing of the image formation, in order to make a case for a miracle. When you take into account factors like the nature of the person apparently depicted in the image (Jesus) and the timing of the image formation, the event becomes more significant than it would have been without those other factors. To cite another example, events that we wouldn’t consider miraculous by themselves are often considered miraculous if their timing aligns with prayer in some significant way. Rainfall isn’t miraculous. But if other factors are added, a case can be made that a miracle has occurred. Maybe the rain started just after you prayed for rain, the rainfall accomplishes something that has theological significance, something else significant that you prayed for happened around the same time the rain started, etc.

    Sometimes it’s objected that classifying the Shroud image as a miracle, or associating it with a miracle, would bring about an end to scientific investigation of the image. I don’t see why that would be the case. People often continue to investigate something they consider miraculous. I wouldn’t want scientific investigation ended. I’d encourage people to keep investigating the image. And the people who aren’t convinced that the image is miraculous would keep on investigating it regardless of what other individuals believe. I doubt there are many people who want an end to the investigation. The more the Joe Nickells and Luigi Garlaschellis of the world fail to duplicate the image, the more my view of the matter is strengthened. Keep it up! And if I’m wrong about the image’s miraculous nature, or if there’s some natural means of duplicating an image that was created by some other means that was miraculous, I want to know that. I don’t want an end of the investigation.

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