[Although I still agree with the general points of this essay, I am going to revise a few parts, in light of a more recent essay that I have written. -MWF 7/5/17]
You have probably heard it said before that history, as an epistemology, cannot prove miracles. I also have argued previously that history is methodologically naturalist, in that, while it does not preclude the supernatural from existing, it cannot provide warrant for supernatural claims about the past. Although I think that both of these statements are correct, I think the distinction being drawn has often been imperfectly explained.
Rather, the principle in question should more correctly be stated: history can say nothing about “paranormal” events occurring in the past.
According to the Parapsychological Association (Glossary) a paranormal event is “any phenomenon that in one or more respects exceeds the limits of what is deemed physically possible according to current scientific assumptions.” More generally, the word “paranormal” is derived from the Greek παρά (“beside” or “beyond”) + normal. Paranormal events are, by definition, extraordinary in that the exceed the limitations of existing knowledge.
There are many “paranormal” events that are not “supernatural,” such as alien abductions or sasquatch sightings. Both alien abductions and sasquatches could be completely natural, and yet neither has any scientific evidence for its occurrence. However, all supernatural events belong to the broader category of the paranormal, in that supernatural claims, such as those about ghosts, psychic predictions, or miracles, are not currently accepted by any scientific consensus or majority. Supernatural events exceed the limitations of professionally accepted scientific knowledge.
The reason why history is restricted from making paranormal claims is because historical inquiry is limited by what is called “existing knowledge.” Existing knowledge includes background information that is bona fide accepted without any ad hoc assumptions. As C. Behan McCullagh (Justifying Historical Descriptions, pg. 19) explains, a good historical hypothesis “must be less ad hoc than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, it must include fewer new suppositions about the past which are not already implied to some extent by existing beliefs.”
Some ad hoc assumptions can be minor, such a positing an ordinary circumstance or event that is not known to have occurred (but in no way exceeds current scientific assumptions, such as hallucinations of the dead), in order to explain something else. However, ad hoc assumptions that involve paranormal claims exceed existing knowledge to such an extent that they lie beyond historical inquiry. In fact, some ad hoc assumptions are so radical that they would require that we revise our entire metaphysical models about the type of world and universe we live in, and these types of ad hoc assumptions are so extraordinary that history, as an epistemology, cannot make them.
As I explain in my article “Griffin Beak, Mermaid Fin, and Dragon Blood Soup,” all historical claims involve not only particular propositions about past events, but also general propositions about broader metaphysical parameters. For example, the claim that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon entails the following particular proposition:
“A man named Julius Caesar crossed the river Rubicon in 49 BCE.”
However, such a particular proposition also entails general propositions about the metaphysical parameters in play, such as:
- Human beings exist, and at least one has had the name “Julius Caesar.”
- Rivers exist, and there is one in Northern Italy named the “Rubicon.”
- A human being is physically capable of crossing a river.
Now, notice how none of these general propositions violate our “existing knowledge.” There is no scientific controversy about humans or rivers existing, or a human being able to cross a river. I would have to make no extraordinary ad hoc assumptions of a scientific or metaphysical character for such a claim to be true. Thus, the particular proposition that Caesar crossed the Rubicon involves no “paranormal” claims.
However, particular claims about the supernatural, such as those that apologists make about Jesus supernaturally rising from the dead, entail general propositions that exceed the boundaries of existing knowledge. For example, consider the particular claim:
“Jesus of Nazareth died of crucifixion in 30 or 33 CE, but was raised from the dead on the third day after his death. After Jesus rose from the dead, he ascended to Heaven, and three years later converted Paul of Tarsus by shining down a light and speaking from the sky.”
Such a particular claim involves multiple general propositions that are controversial, such as:
- At least one person can resurrect (and historically has resurrected) from brain death into an immortal and imperishable body.
- At least one person can defy gravity and fly into the sky (and historically has done so) without using any special technology.
- At least one person, once in the sky, can shine down lights in order to single out and talk to a specific individual on the ground (and this type of event has historically occurred at least once).
Now, all of these general propositions make claims of a physical character and yet none are accepted by a consensus or majority of scientific and medical professionals. Such general propositions thus belong to the category of the “paranormal.” Furthermore, since the particular proposition that Jesus rose from the dead and converted Paul rests upon these paranormal general propositions, the particular claim that Jesus rose from the dead is paranormal as well.
Now, outside of the resurrection of Jesus, I do not know of any historical claim that is accepted by a consensus or majority of professional historians, or even a single respected historian, that involves a paranormal occurrence. The reason why is that historians recognize that it is not their place to make claims about the universe that science cannot. History can only provide warrant for particular claims that involve uncontroversial general propositions. History tells us about events that have taken place in our world, but it cannot tell us the type of physical and metaphysical world that we live in. Name one case, outside of the resurrection of Jesus, where a respected historian has argued that we can use historical methodology to prove a paranormal claim about the world. I can think of none.
Consider another type of claim that exceeds the limits of existing scientific knowledge and thus cannot receive historical warrant. The historian Tacitus (Ann. 6.28) claims that in the year 34 CE a phoenix was seen in Egypt:
“In the consulate of Paulus Fabius and Lucius Vitellius, after a long period of ages, the bird known as the phoenix visited Egypt…”
Such a particular proposition also entails the following controversial general propositions:
- Birds known as phoenixes exist.
- Phoenixes make occasional appearances in inhabited areas and have been seen and documented by humans.
Such a claim is certainly paranormal, as there is no agreement (or even marginal support) among biologists, zoologists, and ornithologists that phoenixes exist as a confirmed species. Thus, in order to claim that this historical event happened, as Tacitus describes it, one would have to make ad hoc assumptions about an entire new species existing. Such an ad hoc assumption would surely be extraordinary, as it would require assumptions that exceed the limits of existing scientific assumptions agreed upon by professionals. A historian using the mere method of historical inquiry is not able to shortcut science to provide warrant for such a paranormal occurrence.
The same is true for alien abductions, sasquatch sightings, astrological and psychic predictions, and miracles like the resurrection of Jesus. All of these events involve paranormal general propositions that exceed the boundaries of existing knowledge and require extraordinary ad hoc assumptions beyond the scope of history as an epistemology. Historians cannot say that any of these particular events have happened in the past, because they cannot assume the necessary general propositions that are needed for their occurrence. Historical inquiry, therefore, ends there, being methodologically incapable of proving the paranormal.
Now, how does any of this derive from some special, post-Enlightenment prejudice against miracles or the supernatural? As shown above, the exact same methodological considerations are taken into account when assessing any paranormal claim, including those that involve things that are purely natural, such as alien abductions and sightings of animals that have not been confirmed by zoologists.
History can tell us about particular events that have happened in the past, but it cannot tell us the type of universe and world that we live in. That task remains for scientists and philosophers, and there is no agreement among professionals in these disciplines about the type of general propositions that are necessary for an event like the resurrection of Jesus to occur. History must further rely on these epistemologies, it cannot make shortcuts past them.
Now, none of this implies that people cannot believe in the resurrection, but that belief simply cannot be warranted through historical investigation.
If anything, I do not have a special prejudice against the supernatural, but rather a general prohibition against using the method of history to try to verify paranormal claims. This is because I do not believe that history is the correct epistemology for establishing the kind of universe we live in; it can only tell us about particular events that have occurred within existing scientific knowledge. If you disagree, name one, just one, paranormal claim about the past, outside of the resurrection of Jesus, that is accepted among professional historians. I can think of none.
That is the real limitation of history. It is not that it can say nothing just about miracles or the supernatural, but that it is simply the wrong epistemology entirely for dealing with the paranormal.