The Miracle Myth: Why Belief in the Resurrection and the Supernatural Is Unjustified by Lawrence Shapiro is a look at the justification of what we believe. Shapiro is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He is the author of The Mind Incarnate, Embodied Cognition, which won the American Philosophical Association’s Joseph B. Gittler Award for the best book in the philosophy of the social sciences, Zen and the Art of Running. He is also the editor of The Routledge Handbook of Embodied Cognition.
Shapiro presents an interesting argument not so much in changing beliefs but looks at justification for beliefs. He frequently turns to Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon as a historical example of an event in the past and why it should be believed. Before turning to historical events Shapiro sets some guidelines and definitions. Miracle, for example, is a word with many meanings from the”Miracle on Ice” to medical reversals to water into wine. Evidence shows stage four cancer kills a person almost all the time, but not every time. Remission is a remote but possible outcome. Chance, coincidence, and plain luck are mathematically possible and do not indicate a miracle or the supernatural.
Another idea along the same medical lines is an imaginary disease the author creates. It will cause a painful death if it is not caught early enough. The patient in the story has been tested and found to have the disease. The doctor says not to worry there is a cure with side effects that are permanent and very unpleasant. The patient asks the doctor if he is sure of the test results. The doctor said the test is 99.9% accurate. If the patient wants to risk a 1-1,000 shot he can. A helpful friend who happens to be a statistician busts into the office and asks “What is the baseline?” Seemingly an unimportant question since a 1 in 1,000 shot is always a 1-1,000 shot. But it’s not. The imaginary disease infects only 1 in 10,000,000 (baseline). That means testing the 10,000,000 people does not present one positive, but 10,000. The actual chance the person who tested positive for being positive for the disease is 1-10,001. Much better odds than 9.99% positive.
The idea of belief and justified belief is a matter of examination and evidence. A person can believe in whatever they want, but it depends if that belief is justified. Growing up in Cleveland I believed that the Indians would win the world series next year every year. How many years can a team go without winning the World Series? It is at least 68 years. Belief in a change doesn’t make it happen or justified.
Shapiro creates a religion that is obviously ridiculous, then moves to Mormonism, and the resurrection of Jesus and holds them to equal scrutiny. He uses historical tests to comparing Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon to the above examples — Historical written records both from supporters and enemies, physical evidence, reliable accounting, and implicating consequences. Needless to say, the results fall into what can be expected. When incredible reports are made, all explanations need to be looked at before accepting that it is a miracle. An advanced race of aliens can be equally credible as the supernatural.
As Arthur C Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Supernatural could easily replace the word “magic.” Shapiro uses reason and evidence to make his point and holds miracles in history to the same standards as one would any other historical event. Evidence of the supernatural and supernatural forces acting in the natural world is nonexistent in reason or logic. Faith in the supernatural is different because it requires no physical proof. Shapiro’s goal and purpose of the book are studying the justification of the belief miracles. He treats all the historical events with the same standards so there is a repeating of steps throughout the book. The reading is enjoyable as Shapiro breaks up the philosophy and historical tests with humor. For those expecting a Richard Dawkins attack on religion, you’ll be disappointed. Shapiro writes without malice and looks to reason and the evidence to make his points.