Monday, October 15, 2012

The Character Of Miracle Witnesses

One of the ways critics attempt to undermine the credibility of a miracle report is to cast doubt on the character of the witnesses. The witnesses are too gullible, dishonest, liable to hallucinate, or whatever.

I've addressed that sort of objection in other contexts. On the alleged gullibility of ancient sources, for example, see here. Or here on the character of the early Christians. Here's an article on hallucinations. And so on. We have many posts in the archives that address these issues in some manner or another.

What I want to focus on in this post is Craig Keener's contribution to the subject in his book, Miracles (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011). There's too much relevant material in the book for me to address much of it here. I'll just bring up some highlights.

Keener notes that modern miracle reports are widespread not only in less developed regions of the world, but in the United States and other more prosperous nations as well (e.g., 426-507). He cites data showing that a majority of doctors claim to have witnessed one or more miracles among their patients (427-428, 721). Aside from doctors, Keener cites many other highly educated witnesses to miracles in the modern world (231, n. 202 on 246, 433-435, 594, 730-732). Earlier in this series, I wrote about hostile corroboration of miracles. Some miracle witnesses have had a lot of interest in denying that a miracle occurred, so their corroboration of miracle reports is in some ways more difficult to dismiss. And Keener discusses many other reasons for trusting miracle witnesses.

What I want to turn to for the remainder of this post is the credibility of Keener himself. He cites some miracles he witnessed and others that occurred among people close to him. Therefore, his book includes some direct eyewitness testimony, and he provides attestation to the credibility of witnesses to miracles he didn't experience himself.

Geoff Lillis, an atheist, was on a radio program with Keener earlier this year. (See the March 17 and March 24, 2012 editions of the Unbelievable? radio program, found in the archives here.) During the program, Lillis referred to Keener as "highly respected". When Keener discussed miracles he had seen or that had occurred in circles close to him, Lillis treated those accounts as if they were highly credible. He tried, unsuccessfully, to come up with naturalistic explanations of what happened. Rather than argue that Keener couldn't be trusted to relay the underlying facts about the events, he offered an alternate explanation of those facts. On a message board about that radio program featuring Lillis and Keener, another non-Christian wrote:

"I have also had the pleasure of chating with Craig Keener on a couple occasions via email and he is a very respectful and knowledgeable person as I also believe you [Geoff Lillis] to be as well judging by your demeanor on the show and your helpful resopnses here…However, if you wouldn't mind I would like to ask you from your readings and investigation of some of the claims in Craig's book, I know towards the end in the last chapter before the appendixes (I think); he gives sort of table or chart of vairous miracle claims that he can attest to in terms of people he knows and trusts witnessing events and some of these are claimed to be medically impossible; for some I have talked to nurses and a family doctor that I know and while perhaps not experts, they do have some training and knowledge in this field and have seemed to confirm these claims are not medically possible to the best of their knowledge.  I do find that I trust Craig's testimony and as such at the very least I do tend to trust the sources that he claims to know well like friends he has known for years."

Keener has a good reputation, even among many non-Christians, and deservedly so. He's highly credible on a scholarly level and on a personal level. I think we have to agree with the general tendency to trust Keener that's expressed by the two non-Christians I've cited above.

But if Keener is so trustworthy, what are critics of the miraculous to make of the miracle accounts Keener provides from his own experience and the experiences of others close to him? I've already discussed some of those accounts in previous posts in this series. He has a table summarizing many of the events in question on pages 752-756 of his book. Are we to believe that Keener and his associates coincidentally had a large number of naturalistic anomalies occur among them? Or that they're unusually dishonest, careless, prone to hallucinate, etc.? Keener writes:

"Whatever the improbability of the events occurring in a given circle, that improbability is compounded exponentially when such events occur multiple times in the same circle. That is, if coincidence appears a plausible explanation for a single case, the plausibility declines with the next level of coincidence, the accumulation of statistically improbable coincidences in a single sample. Multiple extraordinary events like raisings in the same circle seem massively improbable as pure coincidences." (758)

For some individuals, like Keener, the types of miracles they report and the number of them can't be explained by appeals to common carelessness, memory lapses, coincidences, and such. Some sort of major character flaw, like a high level of dishonesty, or a series of them would have to be proposed. But why think that's the best explanation?

There's no good reason to dismiss all of the miracle reports coming from Keener and his associates. And they're just a small subset of the much larger group of people claiming to have witnessed a miracle. There are only so many of those witnesses you can dismiss before your own credibility comes into question.

1 comment:

  1. FYI, I compiled many (all?) of your posts on the subject of miracles at on one of my blogs. They're listed chronologically by month (not necessarily be date).