History and the Paranormal

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.

Paranormal and SupernaturalHistory cannot establish any claims that are paranormal, but this is not due to any special prejudice against miracles or the supernatural.

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.

phoenixConsider 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.

-Matthew Ferguson

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25 Responses to History and the Paranormal

  1. I hate to nitpick typos, but this made me laugh:
    “After Jesus rose form the dead, he ascended to Heaven, and three years later converted Paul of Tarsus through shinning down a light and speaking from the sky.”

    “Shinning”? As in shinning up a pole or a tree? Now I’m stuck with that image!

  2. ratamacue0 says:

    If what you say is true, that accepting a general proposition of a paranormal event is considered more “ad hoc” than not doing so–even when the proposition is included in the source text–then I think Bart Ehrman missed an opportunity to turn one of William Lane Craig’s arguments on its head in their debate on the resurrection. Craig claimed that the resurrection hypothesis was less ad hoc than any alternative to explain his “four minimal facts”–on account of its inclusion in the source text, if I understand correctly.

    • Yes, one argument that this article makes is that certain ad hoc assumptions are far more ad hoc than others. I think that it is fair to say that ad hocness can vary by degrees. For a good discussion on ad hocness and its relation to existing knowledge, I recommend the following article of Dr. Hector Avalos:

      http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2013/03/craig-versus-mccullagh-response-to.html

      In the article, Avalos addresses the claim that positing that the disciples experienced hallucinations of Jesus after his death, for example, is ad hoc. Even if this were true, hallucinations of the recently deceased are known to occur in our background knowledge. So, positing that someone might have experienced a hallucination, especially when it could explain a vision attested in a historical text, is not an extraordinary ad hoc assumption, and it is certainly not a paranormal one.

      Here is another great article from Avalos addressing the issue of existing knowledge:

      http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2013/04/alexander-great-jesus-and-david.html

      In it, Avalos defines “existing knowledge” as:

      “For me, any “existing knowledge” is based on direct empirical and/or logical evidence for the occurrence of a general phenomenon. For example, death is part of our pool of existing knowledge, as is war, hunger, famine, etc. All of these can be detected empirically, and many can be generated and/or repeated easily in our experience.”

      Now, an ad hoc assumption about hallucinations of the recently deceased would not contradict this existing knowledge. However, things like miraculous resurrections from brain death after three days certainly do not belong to the definition of “existing knowledge” above, as no such phenomenon has ever been detected or directly documented empirically (and such a thing likewise could be under the right circumstances). Likewise, the hypothesis that Jesus rose from the dead, as Craig uses it, also requires that we make the ad hoc assumption that God exists, which is likewise not implied from above, and is also an ad hoc assumption of a very extraordinary degree and metaphysical character.

      I am arguing that ad hoc assumptions about the paranormal that require things that exceed what is currently physically possible, according to modern scientific assumptions, or make assumptions of a metaphysical character, are far too ad hoc for historical analysis. It is certainly exponentially more ad hoc than positing a known scientific phenomenon like hallucination. Not all ad hoc assumptions are equal, and those of a paranormal and metaphysical character, which require that we revise our entire understanding of the universe, simply so that we can evaluate a single historical claim, exceed the boundaries of history as a professional discipline.

      If I were wrong, then professional historians would make ad hoc assumptions of a paranormal and metaphysical character when evaluating other historical claims. I can think of none. That, if nothing else, makes Craig’s claim about “historically” warranting the resurrection of Jesus different from every other historical claim made by professional historians that I know of. Since that is the case, Ehrman was more than correct to point out that Craig was exceeding ordinary disciplinary and professional boundaries. And the degree of ad hocness to which he was doing so vastly exceeds the degree of any other ad hoc assumption made by a professional historian that I know of.

  3. ratamacue0 says:

    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.

    I’m interested to know (1) to what extent the resurrection hypothesis is accepted by professional (Biblical?) historians, and (2) why is this an exception?

    • 1. Outside of conservative seminaries and Christian universities, I do not think that the resurrection hypothesis is widely accepted among mainstream NT scholars. Mainstream NT scholars, like Bart Ehrman, James McGrath, and Dale Allison, recognize that their discipline cannot prove miracles. The resurrection hypothesis is further not even on the radar in Classics and Ancient History. I can’t think of a single Classicist who would think that we could use Classical methodology to prove a miracle occurring in the past.

      2. I think it is because Christianity has far more of a negative influence on academia than many people would like to admit. People want to “prove” things that are actually articles of faith, in order to use such proofs for evangelism and proselytizing. To do so, apologists try to use the professional discipline of history to “prove” the resurrection or professional philosophy to “prove” God. The thing is, I do not know of anywhere else in Classics or Ancient History where people try to use ancient historical evidence to prove their religion. These disciplines are academic and secular; they are not there to provide apologetics for religious faith. Unfortunately though, many Christian universities receive accreditation and this kind of stuff is common:

      https://adversusapologetica.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/faith-based-universities-degree-granting-think-tanks/

      Imagine if modern Pagans were using Classical texts to try to prove polytheism, or something of the like. I simply do not know of anywhere else in the disciplines of Classics and Ancient History where these kinds of religious agendas have such influence. That is part of why I write blogs like this, to point out what I consider to be foul play in using professional history.

  4. Travis R says:

    Hi Matthew,
    This is an interesting topic. I’m sure you’ve seen or heard Ehrman chastised for his version of this assertion.

    I’m interested in digging a little beneath the surface to better understand your position here. Under your proposal, how do we define the boundary of “existing knowledge”, beyond which the assumptions are deemed as hoc? And why is this the appropriate criteria for establishing that boundary? The article seems to infer that professional consensus operates as the criteria. That sounds like an appeal to popularity so I doubt it was your intent. Please clarify. Thanks.

    • Hey Travis,

      Allow me to elaborate further:

      First, I have defined what exceeds “existing knowledge” in the same way that professionals define the “paranormal.” To reiterate the definition from the Parapsychological Association, 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.”

      I also think that this definition aligns, more or less, with the one provided by Hector Avalos (discussed above):

      “For me, any “existing knowledge” is based on direct empirical and/or logical evidence for the occurrence of a general phenomenon. For example, death is part of our pool of existing knowledge, as is war, hunger, famine, etc. All of these can be detected empirically, and many can be generated and/or repeated easily in our experience.”

      Now, under my proposal, we thus define “existing knowledge” by what is deemed physically possible “according to current scientific assumptions” and “is based on direct empirical and/or logical evidence for the occurrence of a general phenomenon.”

      To establish this boundary, we then to need to know: 1) What constitutes current scientific assumptions/knowledge? 2) What is regarded as accepted phenomena according to the relevant branches of science (e.g. Phoenix sightings are not regarded as accepted phenomena in Ornithology)?

      To answer 1), we need a working definition of scientific knowledge. Something like Michael Shermer’s The Borderlands of Science would work (at least for laymen), or some other resource dealing with boundaries of science vs. pseudoscience, etc.

      To answer 2), one would need to be familiar with the current research and dominant trends in the relevant branches of science, such as being informed about current documented bird species when making a claim relating to Ornithology.

      The resurrection of Jesus is a medical claim. Someone being crucified, being brain dead for three days, and then rising from the dead is a medical/biological phenomenon. Likewise, I think it is fair to say that based on our current knowledge in medicine and biology, such resurrections “exceed the limits of what is deemed physically possible according to current scientific assumptions,” as none have ever been empirically verified or documented. We certainly cannot say that medical science has shown that such resurrections are possible or are known phenomena. As such, the resurrection of Jesus is a “paranormal” event.

      The thing is that professional history, by practice, does not make claims about the paranormal. This is because professional history, practiced in an academic setting, belongs to a greater web of academic disciplines within the university system. The place of history is to tell us about particular events that have occurred in the past on Earth. The place of science is to study physical nature and, in part, to discover what is physically possible or what is known physical phenomena.

      When a historian makes an ad hoc assumption of a paranormal or metaphysical character, he or she is exceeding the professional boundaries of history as a discipline. The reason why is that he or she is assuming something about the universe and physical reality that is not currently assumed in science, when science is the discipline that tells us about physical reality, not history.

      Now, I think that apologists know that their historical claims about the resurrection have physical/metaphysical implications. That is why they make them: they want to “prove” their Christian worldview. The problem is, however, is that they have shortcutted questions that belong to the purview of science and instead have tried to assign them to the purview of history. The reason why, IMO, is because apologists know that they have no scientific evidence for their faith and that going that route will result in a dead end. Instead, they try to use history as a substitute methodology, in order to prove radical and metaphysical claims about the nature of our universe and reality.

      The problem is that ancient history is an extremely limited discipline. In Classics, NT Studies, and Ancient History we work with thousand year old texts (transmitted through copies of copies), written in an age of scientific ignorance (compared to today), by people who did not take the same documentary measures that we take today. This makes ancient historical evidence much, much weaker than scientific evidence. This does not mean that we can say nothing about what happened in the ancient past, but we can only use limited evidence to provide probable reconstructions with limited degrees of confidence. Moreover, we use such evidence to discover events that have taken place in our world, but not necessarily to tell us the type of world, physically and metaphysically, that we live in.

      So far as I know, outside of the resurrection of Jesus, professional historians never make ad hoc assumptions or historical claims of a paranormal and metaphysical nature. This absence affirms the professional boundaries of history as a discipline that I have outlined above. What Craig and other apologists are attempting to do with the resurrection of Jesus is different from every other claim made by a professional historian that I know of. That, if nothing else, should cause us to recognize that we are dealing with something that is not common or accepted historical practice when apologists claim that they can “historically” warrant the resurrection of Jesus.

      • Travis R says:

        Hi Matthew,
        Thank you for the thorough response. Sorry it took so long for me to respond. I fully agree that apologists, by allowing for things which are paranormal, are attempting to make claims that are completely divergent from every other claim made by professional historians. I also agree that they are aware that they are doing this. That said, if I may play “apologist’s advocate” for a moment, I want to keep digging.

        Let me start by recalling your interview on the Don Johnson radio show – which was a great listen, by the way. I didn’t go back and listen to it again but I believe that at some point he raised the question of non-empirical epistemology and his oft-used analogy which compares science to a metal detector. In short, he says that the metal detector is good at detecting metals but that doesn’t mean you should rely on it to determine everything that exists. This is usually raised in support of the proposition that universals and other metaphysical things actually exist, but it has some relevance here.

        You propose that an assumption becomes ad hoc (and thus non-historical) if it relies on the paranormal, which means that it falls outside the bounds of what is deemed physically possible according to current scientific assumptions. Reflecting back to the metal detector analogy we can imagine how science, by its inherent exclusion of all things non-empirical, may not tell us everything there is about the nature of reality. If science then also becomes the criteria by which historicity is measured then we have constrained history to only those things which are empirical. One could argue that this is appropriate for empirical claims, like the claim that somebody was resurrected – but the truth is that those claims aren’t entirely empirical, they are both empirical and supernatural. To exclude the supernatural is to modify the claim by subtracting the most important part.

        So, pushing the topic further, what is it that makes a paranormal classification, as defined by scientific knowledge, the correct tool for establishing the boundary which confines our determination of history? Doesn’t it, by definition, exclude the non-empirical from playing any role in history?

        To be clear, I’m still trying to figure out these things for myself. I don’t agree that the historical evidence supports acceptance of the supernatural claims that apologists think we should accept, but I don’t think that my problem is with their methodology. Rather, I prefer to think of this in probabilistic terms. The prior probability of a supernatural intervention seems to be exceedingly low (because events which defy natural explanations are exceedingly rare) whereas the prior probability of a misperception, distortion or fabrication is relatively high. The evidence would have to be fairly substantial to shift the best explanation from the latter to the former; and I’m not aware of any situation where we have sufficient evidence for that. This is perhaps more closely aligned with Ehrman’s perspective that leads to the same conclusion as you reach, that history can say nothing about miracles. His perspective, however, relies on defining miracles as the least probable event. I’m not sure that is a proper definition of a miracle but it seems like a reasonable assertion about the relative probability of a miracle.

        So, if I may sum up: I am detecting a philosophical bias at the root of your objection and it seems that a Sagan-like perspective (“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”) yields a similar outcome without that bias. Thoughts?

        • Hey Travis,

          Sorry that I am a little late in getting back to you as well (4th of July weekend and all).

          “So, pushing the topic further, what is it that makes a paranormal classification, as defined by scientific knowledge, the correct tool for establishing the boundary which confines our determination of history? Doesn’t it, by definition, exclude the non-empirical from playing any role in history?”

          First, it is important to note that history is not the same thing as the past. Just as science is not nature, but an epistemology that we use to study nature, history is not the past, but an epistemology that we use to study the past. Epistemologies can have methodological limitations without entailing any dogmatic ontological premises. History cannot tell us about everything in the past, but only about those past events that have left behind some form of empirical evidence.

          Second, is there any case outside of the resurrection of Jesus where non-empirical claims/evidence are accepted in history? I am aware of none. History, in practice, operates as an empirical epistemology. It bases conclusion on things like eyewitness testimony, historical documents, and physical remains. All such forms of evidence are empirical in some way.

          There are two major differences between history and science: first, science relies on direct, verifiable, and often repeatable forms of empirical observation. We use history because such rigorous forms of observation are not always available, and, as such, history relies on second-hand, probabilistic, and non-repeatable forms of empirical evidence. It is inherently less reliable than science, but both epistemologies work with empirical data.

          Second, science is the epistemology that tells us about the nature of physical reality. Forensic science can also tell us about particular human events. History, on the other hand, deals solely with particular human events. History does not tell us about the nature of physical reality. It only tells us about what past humans and societies has done within the physical reality discovered by science. If this were not true, find one example where we use historical evidence to understand the nature of physical reality, where we could not use scientific evidence instead. I can think of none.

          “One could argue that this is appropriate for empirical claims, like the claim that somebody was resurrected – but the truth is that those claims aren’t entirely empirical, they are both empirical and supernatural. To exclude the supernatural is to modify the claim by subtracting the most important part.”

          Whether or not miracles are entirely empirical or only partly empirical does not matter for the argument here. Let’s say that Jesus physically resurrecting is an empirically observable event, but God supernaturally causing Jesus to resurrect is non-empirical. Regardless of causation, that people occasionally resurrect from the dead (whatever the cause) would still be an empirically observable phenomenon that could be documented by medical science. However, it has not been, so there is no hard empirical evidence for the type of event entailed by Jesus’ resurrection, even if the event would include both empirical and non-empirical components. As such, the event would still be classified as “paranormal” in that it involves general propositions about empirical reality that have not been empirically verified.

          “I don’t agree that the historical evidence supports acceptance of the supernatural claims that apologists think we should accept, but I don’t think that my problem is with their methodology. Rather, I prefer to think of this in probabilistic terms. The prior probability of a supernatural intervention seems to be exceedingly low (because events which defy natural explanations are exceedingly rare) whereas the prior probability of a misperception, distortion or fabrication is relatively high. The evidence would have to be fairly substantial to shift the best explanation from the latter to the former; and I’m not aware of any situation where we have sufficient evidence for that.”

          Yes, and I agree with viewing miracles in probabilistic terms as well, as I argue in my article “History, Probability, and Miracles.” The argument here does not preclude probabilistic arguments and is in fact quite nicely compatible with them. Rather, what I argue here also poses a methodological limitation in using historical evidence to investigate miracles as paranormal events, in addition to the inherent improbability of miracles. I think that it is impossible to investigate a miracle solely as a “historical” claim, since any question about a physical miracle also has philosophical and scientific implications that extend beyond the scope of history alone as an epistemology. The fact that miracles are also extremely improbable versus more mundane explanations likewise poses a second problem for trying to confirm them through historical evidence, since history must always favor the most probable explanation of historical data.

    • Travis R says:

      Matthew,
      I agree with your breakdown on the differences between science and history as epistemologies. It does well to highlight some of the reasons why science requires methodological naturalism. As I understand it, you are arguing that history as an epistemology should also employ methodological naturalism. The question then, is “Why?”. It appears to me that you have given two reasons:
      1) The nature of the evidence: Historical data is purely empirical and science tells us about the limitations of the empirically observable world, so it follows that history would adhere to the same constraints as science.
      2) Precedent: As a whole, historians have never identified a paranormal explanation as the best explanation for a particular set of historical evidences.

      To #1, I would propose that it is feasible that empirical data for a historical claim could be such that the best explanation is one which defies a scientific explanation. Now, I think it is probably true that no such case exists, but obviously others do not and “inference to the best explanation” is inherently subjective. Would you say that this scenario is impossible – that is, that you cannot even conceive of a hypothetical situation where the best explanation of the empirical evidence would fall outside the bounds of current scientific understanding?

      To #2, I agree with the conclusion but I don’t see why this should then impose a restriction on the methodology. To do so would seem to be something akin to a black swan fallacy.

      There is also, of course, the possibility that I have completely misinterpreted your argument or excluded key points. Let me know what you think. I’m particularly interested in how you would answer the question I posed regarding #1 above. Thanks for taking the time to engage this topic further.

      • Travis R says:

        Matthew,
        I just saw your response to Ryan (below) and read your “Griffin Beak, Mermaid Fin, and Dragon Blood Soup” post. In both of those you allow for the possibility that the evidence could be strong enough to support a paranormal conclusion, yet in this post you assert that “history can say nothing about paranormal events occurring in the past”. If I take both of these at face value then I can only conclude that the acquisition of evidence which is sufficient to support the paranormal explanation also works to bring the explanation out of the realm of the paranormal and into the realm of the scientific. Is this your position? That, by definition, “sufficient evidence” = “scientific”, and that the bounds of science will change when the evidence supports it?

        • Hey Travis,

          When I said “history can say nothing about paranormal events occurring in the past” I was referring to normal, professional historical reconstructions of the past. It could perhaps be more correctly stated, “professional history does not say anything about paranormal events occurring in the past.”

          If the evidence were truly extraordinary, as I explain in my comment to you below, then there could be an exception. If such historical evidence truly were so extraordinary, then perhaps scientists could use it as well to change the boundaries of our scientific knowledge. But, again, I do not know of any ancient historical evidence that scientists rely on exclusively to understand the limitations/possibilities of physical reality.

      • Hey Travis,

        I think your response has a few points of misunderstanding, so allow me to address those and then answer your questions.

        First, I am not claiming that history is “methodologically naturalist” in this argument. I can understand the confusion, since I claimed that all historical knowledge is “empirical” knowledge, and empiricism is often associated with methodological naturalism, but this is not, strictly speaking, how I define the natural/supernatural. In my articles “Defining Theism, Atheism, Supernaturalism, and Naturalism” and “Defining the ‘Natural’ in Metaphysical Naturalism” I argue that the supernatural is more about underlying metaphysical teleologies and super-physical agencies, rather than non-empirical/immaterial objects/entities. Richard Carrier also in “Defining the Supernatural” under the subsection “Is the Supernatural Knowable?” argues that the supernatural could be empirically verified.

        Both science and history work with empirical evidence, but science is the epistemology we use to tell us about physical reality, whereas history uses empirical evidence to tell us about particular human events operating within that physical reality. History does not set the boundaries of the “paranormal,” but rather science does. As such, since the supernatural could hypothetically be scientifically verified, but has not been, it belongs to the category of the “paranormal,” as I define in the article.

        Second, the main thrust of this argument is methodological rather than epistemic. My main thesis is that apologists are doing something that is different from all professional historical practice. Professional historians do not methodologically make claims that would rely on “paranormal” unproven assumptions. As such, when apologists argue that we can “prove the resurrection just like any other event in the past,” they are ignoring the fact that the type of historical claim that they are trying to prove is different from all professional historical practice.

        Epistemically, I argue that miracles are also very improbable due to their low prior probability. As such, it takes a large amount of evidence to offset their low prior. Forensic science is, by far, the best method for doing this; however, no scientific evidence has ever verified a miracle. Historical, particularly ancient historical, evidence is much, much weaker for the reasons discussed above. As such, it would take truly extraordinary ancient historical evidence, capable of being probed to such an extant as to rule out all plausible normal explanations, to make a paranormal explanation the most probable. This is what I discuss in my article “Griffin Beak, Mermaid Fin, and Dragon Blood Soup.”

        Now, notice how from the discussion above I have explained two ways in which the resurrection evidence must be extraordinary:

        1. It must be so extraordinary as to justify violating professional historical practice, in a way that I have never seen done, to argue that historical evidence could verify a paranormal claim (I explain this methodological hurdle in this article).

        2. It must also be so extraordinary as to offset a low prior probability and to make non-paranormal explanations less probable (I explain this epistemic hurdle in my articles “History, Probability, and Miracles” and “Griffin Beak, Mermaid, Fin, and Dragon Blood Soup”).

        Now to answer your questions:

        “Would you say that this scenario is impossible – that is, that you cannot even conceive of a hypothetical situation where the best explanation of the empirical evidence would fall outside the bounds of current scientific understanding?”

        No, I do not think that this is impossible, but the evidence would have to be truly extraordinary. It would have to be so extraordinary as to justify an unorthodox methodological practice in professional history (as explained in point 1) and so extraordinary as to epistemically offset the low prior probability of a miracle (as explained in point 2). Thus, the evidence has to be so extraordinary as to overcome two major hurdles (the second epistemic hurdle is more commonly discussed, but this article sets up the first methodological hurdle as an additional problem).

        “To #2, I agree with the conclusion but I don’t see why this should then impose a restriction on the methodology. To do so would seem to be something akin to a black swan fallacy.”

        The only methodological restrictions that I have imposed on history are those that I observe to be followed by professional historians. Professional historians virtually never rely on unproven paranormal assumptions when making claims about past events. I think, if the evidence for a paranormal event were truly extraordinary, they could overcome this hurdle, but no such exception has ever occurred to my knowledge in professional history.

        At the very least, this should give us great pause and reservations when evaluating the apologetic claim that historians can prove the resurrection of Jesus just like any other event in the past. To do so would require an exception to all normal professional historical practice, and arguing that the evidence is not so extrodinary as to justify this radical exception does not strike me as hyper-skeptical or uncharitable.

        • Travis R says:

          Hi Matthew,
          These last two comments clarify much for me. I took your post to be a commentary on the theoretical limits of historical research rather than a commentary on the limits of what we can assert from the body of historical research that is currently available. That said, after reviewing the article again I still think that there are several passages which infer a methodological constraint. Perhaps it is largely due to a misunderstanding on my part, but if that inference actually is present then it certainly works against one of the primary goals of the post – which is to argue against the claim that dissenters are operating under an anti-supernatural prejudice when they reject apologists’ claims that the resurrection is historically supported.

          …this should give us great pause and reservations when evaluating the apologetic claim that historians can prove the resurrection of Jesus just like any other event in the past. To do so would require an exception to all normal professional historical practice…

          I agree. It is odd to argue that the Biblical text should be treated just like any other historical record and then propose that the paranormal claims should thus be accepted. This is precisely what is NOT done with other historical texts.

          • Hey Travis,

            That is the main point: the resurrection of Jesus is unlike any other historical claim treated among professional historians. That, in addition to its low probability, provides further reason for why the claim of Jesus’ “historical” resurrection is extraordinary and thus demands extraordinary evidence.

            Even if you may still detect a methodological bias in the article, bear in mind that this would not be an “anti-supernatural” bias. If anything it would be an “anti-paranormal” bias, which, as I point out, can apply equally to paranormal natural events. Therefore, I still think this article is successful in dismantling the claim that skeptics only doubt the “historical evidence” for the resurrection, because of an alleged prejudice against the supernatural. As has been show, the same exact reasoning and skepticism would apply for paranormal natural claims. That does not strike me as special bias against the supernatural.

  5. Peter N says:

    “What Craig and other apologists are attempting to do with the resurrection of Jesus is different from every other claim made by a professional historian that I know of. ”

    Well, I’m sure it would be easy to find cranks and crackpots who try to justify beliefs in paranormal phenomena using the tools of the historian — “Chariots of the Gods” comes to mind. They’re making a living at it, and some are probably publishing in fringe journals that may have their own standards of peer review, thus making them “professional”, after a fashion. But that’s probably not the territory where Craig should be planting his flag.

  6. Ryan says:

    I can think of one potential exception to your general line of reasoning, and that is if some ad-hoc, counter-inductive claim could only be rejected by a adopting an even more ad-hoc, counter-inductive claim. In other words, the only way we could believe an extraordinary claim is every alternative was even more extraordinary (or as Hume put it, if a lie was “the bigger miracle”). In principle this is possible, though in fact this has never happened with supernatural-type claims.

    • Hey Ryan,

      Yes, I agree that there would be an exception to this line of reasoning, if all of the alternative explanations that belong to the category of “existing knowledge” were even more ad hoc and extraordinary than a paranormal explanation. I allow for this possibility as the third option that would convince me of Jesus’ resurrection in my article “Griffin Beak, Mermaid Fin, and Dragon Blood Soup.” Of course, in order to argue that all of the alternative explanations are more ad hoc, one would need to be able to have very thorough and extraordinary evidence that rendered their likelihood improbable. Such evidence would also need to be scrutinized by the best authorities in the relevant fields. Considering that we do not even know the date of Jesus’ crucifixion and alleged resurrection, I would say that our evidence is neither thorough nor extraordinary. In such a circumstance, we cannot eliminate alternative explanations or regard them as more ad hoc, and, as such, this exception would not apply to the resurrection of Jesus. As you note, this exception applies in principle, but there have been no supernatural-type claims that have had evidence extraordinary enough to fit it.

  7. Shriram says:

    Nice article read through all the comments. But I have 2 questions

    1. Does any serious NT scholar take the Jesus miracles claim seriously if so why ?

    2. Why do apologists use this method are they not aware of the criterion described by you ?

    • Hey Shriram,

      “1. Does any serious NT scholar take the Jesus miracles claim seriously if so why?”

      The main issue is not whether the miracles in the NT can be taken seriously or not, but whether historians can “prove” the NT miracles with good probability using ancient historical texts and methodology. Ancient history, as an epistemology, is very limited, based both on the limited data that has survived, our chronological distance from the past, and some of the methodological issues that surround certain types of historical claims. As such, professional historians recognize all the time that there are certain claims about the past that cannot be supported with good probability.

      The problem with miracles is that they involve philosophical and theological assumptions that cannot be considered bona fide part of a historian’s background knowledge or available evidence. Historians cannot test assumptions like “God wants to raise Jesus from the dead” (as I explain in my article “History and the Divine Sphere”), nor can historians assume that resurrections from brain death into immortal and imperishable bodies are even physically possible, without scientific evidence to provide warrant for such a background assumption. It would thus require untestable ad hoc assumptions to assume either premise to be true (before one could use such general premises to support the particular claim that Jesus rose form the dead), and ancient historical epistemology, as McCullagh explains, cannot be that ad hoc and still make claims with good probability about the past.

      Consider a similar scenario with trying to prove the ancient occurrence of an alien UFO abduction. For a particular alien abduction to have occurred in the past, it would first require the following general conditions: 1) aliens exist and occasionally visit Earth in spacecrafts, and 2) these aliens have an interest in abducting humans. However, neither of these claims can be tested by the historian, nor can they be assumed as part of the historian’s background knowledge, without scientific evidence to provide warrant. They would simply be ad hoc assumptions of an extraordinary nature, which would necessarily have to be assumed before the particular alien abduction could have occurred, but which reduce the probability of such a historical occurrence, due to their ad hoc nature.

      Notice also how this example has nothing to do with a special bias against the supernatural. Miraculous resurrections may be supernatural and alien abductions may be entirely physical and natural, but both involve unwarranted ad hoc assumptions about unproven paranormal phenomena. They both require that we assume far more than what is available in the evidence or our background knowledge. Because of this, professional historians virtually always bracket such claims as being incapable of being proven with ancient historical methodology.

      Now, among professional mainstream biblical scholars, it is widely recognized that the resurrection of Jesus is a philosophical and theological issue that must be bracketed as extending beyond the scope of historical analysis. Classicists recognize this as well about paranormal claims in pagan texts, so that it is not even controversial among Classicists that we cannot prove things like Vespasian healing the blind and crippled, Tiberius using astrology to predict the future, or phoenixes visiting Egypt. All such claims would require unwarranted background assumptions (e.g. that astrology even works as a method for predicting the future, or that phoenixes even exist, etc.), before the particular claim in question could have occurred, and such background assumptions are too ad hoc to be made with good probability.

      As such, even Christian NT scholars like Dale Allison, James McGrath, Raymond Brown, and so on, agree that ancient historians cannot use ancient texts to “historically” prove claims such as Jesus’ resurrection.

      The apologists who disagree with them, such as William Craig, Gary Habermas, and Mike Licona, almost all belong to faith-based universities with doctrinal statements, which are trying to use ancient history to evangelize and convert people to their religion. They have non-academic agendas and are only interested in using (or rather, misusing) the historical method to create the shallow effect of bolstering faith in their religion.

      “2. Why do apologists use this method are they not aware of the criterion described by you?”

      I have not see the criterion that I use in this article formally spelled out before (which is why I wrote the article), since discussion over this issue is usually framed around the question of whether historians can prove “miracles” about the past. However, I think that this issue has been improperly framed, since, as I showed above, the exact same problems would occur for natural and non-miraculous extraordinary claim, such as alien abductions.

      The underlying issue has to do with the scale of ad hoc assumptions that are required for certain paranormal claims, and has absolutely nothing to do with a special philosophical bias against the supernatural.

      I also do not know of a single paranormal claim about the past outside of Jesus’ resurrection, either natural or supernatural, that historians think can be proven with good probability using ancient historical evidence (despite there being hundreds of such claims scattered across various pagan texts from antiquity). I think the reason that historians do not think such claims can be proven is because the implicitly know that paranormal claims are beyond the scope of historical analysis. However, this criterion has been implicit and not fully spelled out previously, which is why I wrote this article.

      Hence, in all future discussions about the resurrection, I am going to frame it as a question of whether historians can prove paranormal claims about the past (both natural and supernatural), and not whether historians can prove miracles about the past. Miracles are only one type of paranormal claim, and, as I have shown, skepticism towards other paranormal claims, such as alien abductions, would be equally as steep, regardless of the natural or supernatural character of the paranormal claim in question.

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