Trust in testimony and miracles
March 10, 2012 — 13:32

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Christian Theology  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 53

Is it ever rationally believe in the occurrence of miracles on the basis of testimony of others? I have been of late fascinated by the research of the developmental psychologist Paul L. Harris, who has investigated how young children acquire information through testimony. Harris gauges two psychological hypotheses. The first, which he attributes to Hume, is that children always assess the content of the information: they are more inclined to disbelieve information that widely differs from their earlier experience. The second, which he identifies with Reid’s position is that children are naturally credulous; they are inclined to indiscriminately believe what others testify, no matter who they are or what they tell. Reid thought that this was a “gift of nature” (current cognitive scientists would call it maturationally early or innate), which only gets attenuated over time through experience. I will follow Harris’ attribution of these views to Hume and Reid for convenience’s sake, keeping in mind that their actual positions are more complex.


Harris found that children do not fall into either pattern. Pace the Humean account, he found that young children are readily inclined to believe extraordinary claims, such as that there are invisible organisms on your hands that can make you ill and that you need to wash off, and that there is a man who visits you each 24th December to bring presents and candy if you are nice (see e.g., Harris & Koenig, 2006, Child Development, 77, 505 – 524). But children are not blindly credulous either, as Reid supposed. In a series of experiments, Harris could show that even children of 24 months pay attention to the reliability of the testifier. When they see two people, one of which systematically misnames known objects (e.g., saying “that’s a bear”, while presenting a bottle), toddlers are less likely to trust later utterances by these unreliable speakers (when they name unfamiliar objects), and more likely to trust people who systematically gave objects their correct names (see e.g., Paul L. Harris and Kathleen H. Corriveau Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 2011 366, 1179-1187.) Experiments by Mills and Keil show that 6-year-olds already take into account a testifier’s self-interest: they are more likely to believe someone who says he lost a race than someone who says he won it (Candice M. Mills and Frank C. Keil Psychological Science 2005 16: 385).
The reliability of witnesses is a crucial element when young children gauge testimony, not so much whether or not the information squares with their experience (the Humean account). In a way this makes sense, especially for children, who regularly learn new information that is not in line their prior experience and beliefs, and may sometimes even apparently conflict with it, e.g., the first-grade teacher telling children that the Earth moves around the Sun.  Children’s reliance on testimony is well described by Robert Audi’s notion of undefeated testimony, whereby we are justified to trust information if the following conditions are met
Undefeated testimony: the kind that occurs in the absence of at least the following common and probably most characteristic defeaters: (1) internal inconsistency in what is affirmed, as where an attester gives conflicting dates for an event; (2) confused formulation, a kind that will puzzle the recipient and tend to produce doubt about whether the attester is rightly interpreted or even has a definite belief to communicate; (3) the appearance of prevarication, common where people appear to be lying, evading, or obfuscating; (4) conflict with apparent facts evident in the situation in which the testimony is given, as where a person shoveling earth over smoking coals says there has been no campfire; and (5) (discernible) conflict with what the recipient knows, justifiedly believes, or is justified in believing” (Audi, 2012, Testimony as a Social Foundation of Knowledge, PPR).
It seems to me that (5) does not present an insurmountable obstacle, as the heliocentrism example provided earlier illustrates. We learn many things that are in apparent conflict with what we justifiably believe, e.g., that solid objects are composed of particles and mostly empty space.
If this agent- rather than content-based notion is correct, is it ever rational to believe in the testimony of miraculous events? Hume did consider this possibility, but decided against it (from his section ‘Of miracles): “…there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood.” This is quite a tall order for any form of testimony, a lot stronger than Audi’s criteria, and would preclude us gaining a lot of knowledge through testimony. It seems to me that under the agent-based notion, accepting testimony about miraculous events could be justified under some conditions.
Finally, a bit paradoxically, several New testament scholars such as Geza Vermes assume that the disciples believed Jesus rose from the dead, because the earliest witnesses cited in the gospels (not in Paul) are women, who were at that time and culture perceived as unreliable witnesses. In their revised version of the argument from miracles, McGrew and McGrew (2009, p. 608, Blackwell companion to natural theology) put it as follows:
“…it would plainly be better from the standpoint of enhancing the credibility of a contrived story to put a group of respectable males at the tomb and as the first to see the risen Christ than a group of women”.
In the gospels themselves (e.g., Luke) it is also made clear that these women were not believed. It is a bit ironical that new testament scholars and latter-day defenders of the argument from miracles take the historical perceived unreliability of witnesses as evidence for the reliability of the testimony.

Comments:
  • hiero5ant

    The switch in the final few paragraphs from the cognitive heuristics of toddlers to an adult epistemology seems a bit forced and incongruous. If the studies only address how very young children acquire their initial data about how the world works, they would seem to be irrelevant to questions of rational justification. Like settling a dispute about what the healthiest diet is by looking at studies of the nutritional content of breast milk.
    So it shouldn’t be surprising that high-credulity heuristics are in tension with good Humean epistemic hygiene. We cut the little buggers who don’t know not to put spoons in microwaves some slack for a while until they reach their Age of (epistemic) Accountability.
    Incidentally, the apologetic argument referenced at the end is more than a little bit silly. It assumes that the author 1) was offering the story of the women as “testimony” rather than as a mythic trope and 2) was exclusively either fabricating from whole cloth or reporting in the spirit of sober journalism. But I agree there are multiple layers of irony in the “perceived unreliable therefore reliable” maneuver. Not least of which is the implicit concession that the intended target audience of the Gospels is not 21st century educated Westerners.

    March 10, 2012 — 14:53
  • Helen De Cruz

    I agree that strategies used by toddlers are not necessarily the best for gauging the quality of testimony in adults. And surely with miracles we need to put the bar higher than, say, learning a new word as in Harris’ experiments. What I was discussing was the emphasis on testifier, rather than what they testify as a means of gauging the quality of testimony. It seems that at least under some conditions this seems rationally justified, even if the information is extraordinary, but I don’t know how far this can stretch.
    To take a thought experiment, from Stephen Law in a recent paper in Faith & Philosophy (2011). Suppose you have a couple of friends, whom you know have been reliable witnesses in the past. They are normal people not prone to delusions, flights of fancy, and they don’t enjoy doing practical jokes. One day they tell you that they were visited by a man called Ted who simply came to drink tea. You accept this testimony at face value. Now suppose that they tell you Ted started flying around in the room. Not only would it be unreasonable to believe this testimony, it would actually be unreasonable for you to believe that this person exists at all. So intuitions do tell us here that Humean content-based considerations trump the past reliability of these people as witnesses. If Law is right, in line with Hume we can never trust the testimony of reliable witnesses in their recounting such an extraordinary event.

    March 10, 2012 — 16:48
  • It’s interesting that Harris’s results, if Hume’s position were really that bald, would lead to the failure of Hume’s own argument from miracles; Hume’s actual argument is that the only causes contributing to belief in miracles on the basis of testimony are passions that have no particular connection with truth (whatever others have later made of it, the only genuinely Humean way to proportion belief to evidence is to discipline oneself to have moderate and appropriate emotional responses), and therefore depends crucially on the question of whether Hume has actually identified the way our minds naturally operate, both in the absence and in the presence of strong passions. Since both Hume and his Scottish Common Sense opponents would have regarded as absurd the notion that the evaluative template used in childhood magically vanishes, rather than being built on throughout our lives, both sides appeal to the experience of children as reasons why their account of psychology is superior to the alternatives. Actual proof that Hume got the psychology of children wrong would, on Hume’s own principles, be devastating for both his account and the argument he builds on it.
    I think Hume (i.e., the real Hume) actually does have the resources to give an adequate response because (1) experiences of reliability and unreliability, and conclusions from it, are actually quite important for his account, and, indeed, the point he chooses to stand on in the face of Campbell’s Reidian attacks on his account; and (2) Hume is actually pretty lenient about what testimony we can admit — it’s miracles in particular that require the extremely high standard. But a Humean accommodation of the data would necessarily be more complicated than a Reidian — indeed, I think Harris’s results are pretty much exactly what you would expect on the simplest reading of the Reidian position (i.e., the real position of Reid and Campbell).
    I find Law’s intuition pump to suffer from the problems of all intuition pumps; my intuitions tell me that in such a case that there is probably a Ted but that I need more information about what was going on in the flying part, and that the information I need is not all, or even mostly, content-related. But then I think that all content-based evaluation of testimony is essentially pragmatic and based on a principle of economy; we do it because it simplifies things, reducing how much we actually have to expend cognitive resources to evaluate, rather than because we have any reason to think it truth-conducive. Although, interestingly enough, I get the idea from Hume.

    March 10, 2012 — 19:37
  • Good stuff!
    I was wondering though how Defeaters (1) and (2) might relate to the gospels. For instance, all four have differing accounts of the resurrection (how many angels/young men, where they were, etc.), and even the day of the crucifixion is disputed because of the different wording between John and the Synoptics. There are harmonizations that smooth out the issues, but does the need for harmonizations cause problems for the gospels as testimony a priori?

    March 10, 2012 — 21:34
  • “Suppose you have a couple of friends, whom you know have been reliable witnesses in the past. They are normal people not prone to delusions, flights of fancy, and they don’t enjoy doing practical jokes. One day they tell you that they were visited by a man called Ted who simply came to drink tea. You accept this testimony at face value. Now suppose that they tell you Ted started flying around in the room. Not only would it be unreasonable to believe this testimony, it would actually be unreasonable for you to believe that this person exists at all.”
    Hmm. Let me try to put some faces on “friends, reliable witnesses in the past … not prone to delusions, flights of fancy, and they don’t enjoy doing practical jokes.” Rather than thinking about this in the abstract. So I imagine that A, B, C, D and E (these are all specific friends I am thinking of–when I first wrote this I actually had their names inserted, but then I decided that I didn’t want people trying to guess why I chose these and not other friends of mine) all tell me this.
    My first three hypotheses are that they are asking my opinion on a hypothetical, that they are joking and that they are speaking metaphorically. Suppose I rule these out–and nothing more than their words would be needed to rule these out, as long as it wasn’t April 1.
    I’d find it difficult to trust them. But when I think of what serious and honest people A, B, C, D and E are (remember, these are specific people I am thinking of), it becomes clear that I would be obligated to trust them (in fact, any three of them would be sufficient; maybe even any two; though with only one, I’d be worried that my judgment of mental health was incorrect). At this point I’d be quite sure that they seemed to see what they claimed to see. I’m not doing philosophy here–I am just thinking about these particular people, and when I imagine them speaking, I know I’ve got to trust them to be reporting honestly and sanely.
    But I’d wonder if Ted or someone else pulled this off with sleight of hand. How plausible a sleight of hand hypothesis would be would depend on the setting. If, say, it was a party with someone other than A, B, C, D and E in attendance or organizing, it would be a reasonable hypothesis that this person hired a prestidigitator. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t take this hypothesis to be overwhelmingly more likely, and maybe not even any more likely, than the hypothesis that Ted really flew. I could rule out the sleight of hand hypothesis on the testimony of A, B, C, D and E. If they told me the room was well lit, that they had a look around the room before Ted appeared, and that the room belonged to one of the five of them, and that they were arranged on all sides of Ted, that would be enough to make the hypothesis that Ted flew more likely to me than the sleight of hand hypothesis.
    The one thing that would be giving me pause throughout this would be a theological argument: “If Ted really flew, the most likely explanation is a miracle. But God doesn’t do pointless miracles. And I don’t see the point.”
    But if I could see a point to the miracle, say because prior to Ted’s entry there was also in the room a non-believer who remarked to E “I’d become a Christian if I saw a miracle, like someone walking on water”, then this wouldn’t apply.
    And even without that, I would also be thinking the counterargument: “We live in a naturalistic age, and a miracle by puncturing our naturalistic presuppositions makes sense even without the sort of context it might have needed in times past.”
    Maybe Law just isn’t fortunate enough to have friends like my friends A, B, C, D and E?

    March 11, 2012 — 9:57
  • Eric Sotnak

    Building on Alexander’s specified thought experiment:
    (1) Is it ever rational to believe in a miracle on the basis of personal experience? Suppose I can reasonably exclude alternative explanations (I am being tricked, I am hallucinating, I am misinterpreting sensory data, I am wrong about what the laws of physics permit, …)
    (2) Is it ever rational to substitute the experience of another for my own?
    Suppose James Randi, Penn & Teller, and Kip Thorne tell me that Ted flew around the room and that they are convinced they were able to investigate thoroughly enough to rule out trickery.
    I think I would be inclined to accept Ted’s flying as genuine, though I would have doubts. I actually think I would have more confidence in the substitute experience case than the personal experience one.

    March 11, 2012 — 11:23
  • Helen De Cruz

    It is interesting that Law’s flying man thought experiment (if I may call it that, although it’s unrelated to Avicenna’s) elicits such different intuitions. I agree that if I had testimony from James Randi et al., I would be inclined to believe it. But in most cases, we cannot rely on expert testimony but have to make do with testimony of people we trust are not lying, not out of their minds or not deceived.
    Interestingly, Audi says (in line with Reid) that testimony can be, like perception, a source of basic knowledge. Unlike perception, it is not a basic source of knowledge, but it can instill basic knowledge. This is in agreement with cognitive psychological studies, e.g., by Loftus, and Taylor, Esbensen and Bennett who have studied the effects of subsequent testimony on eyewitness reports. It turns out that young children can often not remember if they learned something through direct experience, and adults’ eyewitness reports can be colored by, e.g., suggestive language (when you simply ask ‘did you see how these cars *smashed* into each other’ it elicits higher reported speeds than when you ask subjects ‘did you see how these cars *hit* each other).
    So phenomenologically, knowledge gained through testimony and knowledge gained through direct experience are quite similar. If this means we put similar trust in them I don’t know – this has not been empirically assessed, I think.
    Like Alex, I re-ran the thought experiment with real friends in mind and came to different conclusions than Law. I would now not conclude that Ted doesn’t exist, but I would believe that my friends were somehow tricked (e.g., an elaborate magical trick). Even if I could rule out alternative explanations, I would still have difficulties accepting their testimony as genuine, because the only reasonable explanation then would be that it was a miracle. If God wanted to disprove metaphysical naturalism, my intuition would be he would do something else than make someone fly.

    March 11, 2012 — 16:24
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    In relation to miracles I’d like to suggest the following propositions:
    1. Warranted religious belief does not entail nor require belief in miracles.
    2. Warranted belief in miracles depends not so much on evidence but on the absence of defeaters. (See for example the recent milk-drinking statues miracle that was observed by thousands of people, and for which dozens of eyewitness reports as well as much genuine video capture exists.) While such defeaters remain undefeated both disbelief and agnosticism are proper religious responses to miracle claims.
    3. If there are highly extraordinary spiritual experiences then, plausibly, the best way to factually remember them is as the observation of a miracle. (I have an example: A quite serious and educated person I knew, once told me that in religious meetings he had a few times observed the face of the preacher illuminate the room. I asked him if he meant this in the sense that he could have read a paper by that light he answered that yes.)
    4. Some miracle stories, even when understood metaphorically, carry extraordinary power. (Examples for me would be the story of Mary’s conception, the water becoming wine at the wedding, Jesus approaching the boat walking on the sea and Peter trying to emulate Him.)

    March 12, 2012 — 0:20
  • Robert Gressis

    Paul asked, ” There are harmonizations that smooth out the issues, but does the need for harmonizations cause problems for the gospels as testimony a priori?”
    I’m not sure there is a need for harmonization. It seems to me that, in real life, when a variety of independent witnesses observe the same event, there are likely to be discrepancies in their recounting of the story. Indeed, if there *weren’t* discrepancies — if they agreed about *every* particular — that would *itself* be evidence that they were making it up.
    Of course, if the discrepancies are too big, then we can rightly begin to wonder whether their testimony about what they saw is to be trusted at all. But it’s not clear when “too big a discrepancy” enters the picture. I think I’d need to know more about the psychology of eye witness reports.

    March 12, 2012 — 11:29
  • Helen De Cruz

    Thanks, Robert.I think it just goes to show that we have no clear normative philosophical standards for assessing the validity of testimony, and that Law’s intuitions aren’t widely shared (they are not used by NT scholars in any case). There is a lot of unexplored terrain in philosophy of testimony. In formulating his criteria for undefeated testimony, Audi did not, I think, have testimony in mind from sources that are at least 40 years old (I know there are some new testament scholars who put Mark very early, like Crossley, but even they date it not earlier than 40 AD). In such a case, one would be surprised not to find diverging accounts, even about the date of the crucifixion, and about the number of angels/young men, the identity of the women etc. if there is some ground of truth in these testimonies.

    March 12, 2012 — 14:14
  • To continue on Alexander’s more specific thought experiment, I would have some additional concerns considering how fallible and unreliable our memory has shown to be empirically. Some questions: how long ago was the event in question? Am I hearing it from A, B, C, D, or E directly, or through an intermediary source? How emotionallymotivated are they towards a certain recollection? Do my friends gain anything by convincing me that Ted flew? While some of these questions aren’t applicable directly to the thought experiment, they seem to be widely applicable to the larger question.
    While I agree with Law’s conclusion that it is unreasonable to accept that Ted flew, I don’t see how he moves from that to “Ted (probably) does not exist”. Could someone perhaps point me to the article where he gives this reasoning?

    March 12, 2012 — 18:33
  • Robert Gressis

    Hi Helen,
    I should say, I got that point about minor inconsistencies among testimonies itself be an indicium of reliability from Tim McGrew. He knows a heck of a lot about this stuff, and might be a good resource.

    March 12, 2012 — 23:13
  • Helen De Cruz

    Robert, thanks for the information. The article is published in a recent issue of Faith & Philosophy. The paper’s title is Evidence, miracles and the existence of Jesus. Faith and Philosophy 28 (2):129-151. Unfortunately, I did not take my recent F&P issues to the UK, and I don’t have online access to F&P.

    March 13, 2012 — 6:28
  • Eric Sotnak

    A, B, C, D, and E all testify to Ted’s flying. If A-E are endowed with the right cognitive and moral virtues, I curb my skepticism and accept that Ted probably did fly. Suppose they now aver that Ted also crushed a diamond with his nostril, held his breath underwater for 2 hours, and transformed a grape into a Ferrari.
    I don’t know about anyone else, but I find my skepticism returning with a vengeance. I don’t find myself thinking, “Well, I’ve already accepted that Ted flew, and none of these other things is less initially plausible than that, so I guess I should accept these claims, too.”
    Is my renewed skepticism irrational?

    March 13, 2012 — 23:13
  • I don’t think there’s enough information to say. The way you characterized accepting the Ted-flying case made it sound like you were accepting it on very, very general considerations about character and intelligence; but there are specific questions, too, which arise for each claim (e.g., could there have been a cause deceiving them, or do they have a reason to lie, on this particular point). If these were considered in the Ted-flying case, and the reasons are such as to carry over to the other three cases, then it does seem to me that something irrational is going on here — either you didn’t have good reasons in the Ted-flying case, and thus your original belief was not well-founded, or you are not consistently treating good reasons as good reasons, and thus your sudden groundless skepticism is irrational.* If they don’t carry over, then you clearly don’t have the same reasons to accept the other claims as you do for the Ted-flying case; in which case it seems irrational to treat the mere unacceptability of further claims as giving reason to be skeptical of the Ted-flying case (and Ted’s existence), since you know of definite relevant differences between that case and those. If they weren’t considered at all, then it’s not clear how strong your reasons for believing were in the first place. More details would be needed in each case; slight differences in details could matter greatly.
    Of course, this is all rationality in the sense of theoretical rationality, concerned solely with what is true; in practice none of us are ever merely concerned with what is true, since at the very least we are also concerned with what seems promising and useful and not too hard given our practical interests. And there are any number of reasons why one might conclude that all these claims are just not worth one’s time — that, for instance, they require too much time to handle. That would depend on the ends you have in view.
    I think it’s pretty clear that one of the difficulties with assessing testimony is that it can get resource-intensive very quickly. As any historian knows, every claim raises questions specific to itself and claims with radically different evidential profiles can sit side by side without showing in any obvious way that they are very different. It’s not really any different with testimony outside of historical research; it’s just that outside of historical research we are much more interested in purely practical matters, and therefore allow ourselves many more practical shortcuts to cut down on the time and effort such complicated causal inferences require. Because of that, I don’t think these questions can be handled at such a general level.

    * (After all, ex hypothesi, we’re not here regarding the content as essentially more difficult to believe. Although for myself, I can countenance flying much more easily than transformation of grapes into Ferraris — it’s much easier to imagine causes that could have the former result, e.g., if Ted is a researcher into hovercraft technology. This is a purely practical difference, though: one of them requires much more work.)

    March 14, 2012 — 17:07
  • Helen De Cruz

    Eric, I don’t think your renewed skepticism is irrational – my intuition tells me that I would think my friends (who are, recall, honest, not prone to pranks etc) are victims of some elaborate magician’s trick. Of course, if I were convinced, through other reasons that Ted is really capable of these things, things would look different
    This is, I suppose, one reason why the argument from miracles is perceived as weak. One needs to start out with a belief that the person(s) to which miraculous deeds are attributed are capable of them.
    As the 18th century Campbell pointed out;
    The prejudice resulting from the religious affection, may just as readily obstruct as promote our faith in a religious miracle. What things in nature are more contrary, than one religion is to another religion? […]The same religious zeal which gives the mind of a Christian a propensity to the belief of a miracle in support of Christianity, will inspire him with an aversion from the belief of a miracle in support of Mahometanism. The same principle which will make him acquiesce in evidence less than sufficient in one case, will make him require evidence more than sufficient in the other….

    March 15, 2012 — 13:28
  • Eric:
    Well, crushing a diamond with a nostril seems silly enough that the whole setup may set off one’s practical joke detector. After removing that example, I don’t see a good reason for scepticism to return, unless the original trust was fairly precarious.

    March 16, 2012 — 9:15
  • Eric:
    Actually, let me revise that.
    Let P, Q and R be the alleged miraculous events. Intuitively, P, Q and R are positively correlated (there are a number of closely related notions of positive correlation, and I may not be using the term in the technically precise way)–each subset of the events makes every other subset more likely. Let LP, LQ and LR be the events of A-E lyingly reporting P, Q and R, respectively. Then LP, LQ and LR are also positively correlated.
    Now, if LP, LQ and LR are significantly more strongly positively correlated than P, Q and R are, then it might turn out the confirmation for P given all three miracle reports is significantly smaller than the confirmation for P given just the P-report.
    I think that if P, Q and R hang together in a coherent narrative that would be evident to the reporters, then the positive correlation between P, Q and R will be roughly the same as that between LP, LQ and LR. But insofar as they hang together in a coherent narrative that we can find but that wouldn’t be evident to the reporters, then the positive correlation between P, Q and R will be greater than that between LP, LQ and LR, and getting the reports of Q and R will increase the probability of P.

    March 16, 2012 — 9:25
  • Folks, Hume’s argument about miracles is a corollary of the Flew-Lamberth the presumption of naturalism that finds natural causes and explanations themselves the primary cause,necessary being,and sufficient reason,despite Aquinas and Leibniz.
    What both demand reflects skepticism- the demand for evidence,not hearsay, miss viewed miracles and such.What is the evidence for just one miracle? When skeptics check out the ones that the Vatican vouchsafes, they find out that the researchers played the argument from ignorance instead of noticing the lack of real evidence as in the case of the Bangladeshi girl, whom the Vatican stated was a case of Mother Teresa’s intercession when as her father notes, the girl did not even have that condition as I remember!
    Helen,of course!
    Dianelos,the milk giving statues are just a natural phenomena due to the nature of elements in the statue as skeptics note.
    Robert, harmonization’s are tortured rationalizations. After Mark, Luke and Matthew embellish the myth as in the telephone game, and those two copied from Mark plus from Q. And we have no reason to trust the anonymous writers of those Gospels and John! No Randi investigated those putative miracles! Courts would dismiss such hearsay! See Elizabeth Loftus’s work on memory.
    All revelations and all religious experience as just people’s mental states at work, and to aver supernatural input begs the question.

    March 17, 2012 — 6:53
  • I thought the one miracle officially attributed by the Vatican to Mother Teresa was the case of Monica Besra, an Indian woman, not a Bangladeshi girl. There may be a dispute whether Besra’s tumor was cancerous, and whether it was cured miraculously or by medicine, but there does not seem to be a dispute that she had a tumor.

    March 18, 2012 — 10:04
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Carneades,
    It’s not milk giving statues, but milk drinking statues. The reported miracle took place during a few days of September 1995 and was observed by thousands of people in many different locations around the world. Apparently a similar miracle took place during a few days of August 2006.
    I think that anybody who is interested in the philosophy of miracles should take a look at this very recent and very well documented event.

    March 19, 2012 — 15:02
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    Once I prayed for someone in pain from multiple fractures in her back (according to x-rays), and she reported the pain going away immediately. She went back to the doctor (which I advised), got new x-rays, and those x-rays revealed no fractures. Incidentally, I felt a strange electrical sensation in my fingers while I was praying for her.
    As it turns out, I’m not quite sure what to make of this incident (whether a “miracle” took place, whatever that would mean exactly). But it does seem to me possible in principle for someone to have background beliefs such that it would be rational for them to infer special divine activity in such a situation.
    (Of course, those reading this post aren’t in the situation I’m in: I know I’m not lying or exaggerating, but others don’t.)

    March 22, 2012 — 14:23
  • Helen,
    Just coming to this blog from a link at “First Thoughts”. I wanted to comment on this last part of your post:
    “In the gospels themselves (e.g., Luke) it is also made clear that these women were not believed. It is a bit ironical that new testament scholars and latter-day defenders of the argument from miracles take the historical perceived unreliability of witnesses as evidence for the reliability of the testimony.”
    I think the argument regarding the unreliability of the testimony of the women has more to do with keeping their testimony in the Gospels in the first place. Of course, as you note, these women were not believed at the time. Later, the Apostles and other men saw Jesus alive and so they came to believe in his resurrection as well. When the Gospel writers set all these events down to papyrus years later, they could have left the women out of the story completely, to help “sell” the story to their first century audience. However, the fact that they didn’t do this despite the well-known ‘unreliability’ of women at the time, suggests that they wanted to tell the story as accurately and completely as possible so that later generations would have the full truth. In other words, in account lends credibility to the Gospel authors as the type of guys who will tell the truth, no matter where the truth leads them.

    March 22, 2012 — 15:49
  • Dianelos:
    I thought there was a simple explanation of the statues’ drinking in terms of capillary action–the stone just absorbing the liquids?

    March 23, 2012 — 6:47
  • Josh:
    What was the time span between the two sets of X-rays?

    March 23, 2012 — 6:48
  • Helen De Cruz

    “Fake Herzog”: This is an interesting view, and I think something can be said about at least the synoptic gospels (i.e., that they were written so that posterior generations would have some account of Jesus’ life, before the oral traditions died away completely. It’s less defensible for John, where there is a lot of theology (but where nevertheless, it’s again a woman who is the first witness of the resurrection, namely Mary Magdalen)

    March 23, 2012 — 16:57
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    Alex: I actually don’t know the time span; I do know she was in a lot of pain before the prayer and couldn’t do certain things that she could do after the prayer (and has been able to do since). But it’s possible that the bones had already healed on their own.
    Here’s a study on proximate prayers that may be of interest.

    March 23, 2012 — 17:13
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Alex,
    If that was not a miracle, then something like your suggestion must be the scientific explanation. On the other hand witnesses report that small statues drank gallons of milk, with only a little spilled from the trembling hands feeding them.
    My point here is this: The milk drinking statues is a recent and very well documented miracle claim. If based on that event no philosophical argument can be given that will move an agnostic to believe in miracles, then it is difficult to see how any claims about miracles of long ago can be used to convince an agnostic about the truth of Christianity.
    From the Christian perspective I think it follows that if miracles do take place they are a strictly private affair which are meant to have no effect to people who are not present. Those of us who have not observed miracles should count ourselves blessed that we have not seen and yet believe.

    March 24, 2012 — 0:49
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Joshua,
    Please consider the following question: If God were to give one the freedom to choose between being born in a world where it is reasonable to expect miracles to happen, and in a world where it is not reasonable to expect miracles to happen – then which world should one choose? I personally would choose the latter. A world in which it is reasonable to expect miracles to happen strikes me as a theologically messy and stressful one, and indeed a world where it would generally be more difficult to love God and where that love would have less worth.

    March 24, 2012 — 0:52
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    Dianelos, that’s good question to consider (and one I’ve considered before). I suspect differently people will answer differently–because different people are different…

    March 25, 2012 — 16:12
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    Though I find the question hard to answer for myself, in large part because I don’t know what the term ‘miracle’ means.

    March 25, 2012 — 16:41
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Joshua,
    What about the following definition: A miracle is a physical event the personal observation of which warrants the belief that God exists and that God has specifically willed that event.

    March 26, 2012 — 15:34
  • Great post! It seems that I most read comments too! 🙂

    March 26, 2012 — 16:19
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    What about the following definition: A miracle is a physical event the personal observation of which warrants the belief that God exists and that God has specifically willed that event.
    That may be fine as a stipulated definition. But it has some interesting consequences. For example, a physical event meeting all of the following conditions doesn’t count as a miracle: (i) the event is directly caused by God for a special divine purpose; (ii) it’s occurance entails a violation (or suspension) of the strong nuclear force; and (iii) observing the event doesn’t warrant belief in God (perhaps because people who observe E are unable to discern that either (i) or (ii) hold). Also, some (though certainly not all) Calvinists think that every event warrants the belief that God willed that event. They are committed, then, to thinking that every event is a miracle (on your definition).
    Incidentally, I doubt your definition maps on to what many people mean by ‘miracle’. Consider that some people would say that if they saw a limb grow out instantly, they wouldn’t thereby be warranted to conclude that God exists (as opposed to other unknown forces), yet many, if not all, of those same people would say that if an event involving a limb instantly growing out were in fact caused by God, then that event would, as a matter of fact, count as a miracle. In other words, they would call an event a miracle even though they would deny that it meets your conditions of being a miracle.
    Defining ‘miracle’ is relevant to Helen’s query. Suppose I am somehow justified in believig on testimony that God caused a limb to instantly grow. And suppose further that I am not justified in believing that personally observing the limb event warrants belief that God exists. Am I justified in believing that a miracle took place? It all depends on how you define ‘miracle’.

    March 27, 2012 — 14:58
  • Here’s a physical event that, if it occurred, would warrant belief in God: Sam writes a clearly successful argument for the existence of God on a blackboard. God could directly will it, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a miracle.

    March 28, 2012 — 7:40
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Joshua,
    I thought that on Calvinism every event is caused by the will of God, not that the observation of any event warrants the belief that it is willed by God.
    I agree that a good definition should map well on the sense of a word as commonly employed. To use your example about the instant growth of a missing limb: If the observation of that event warrants the two beliefs mentioned in my definition, then I think it would properly be called a miracle. If it doesn’t, because, say, it takes place in a context of a friendly visit by far more technologically advanced aliens, then it wouldn’t. If in the same situation the warrant differs from observer to observer then some would properly call it a miracle and some won’t.
    If we take a big step back, I’d say that the relationship of God with creation works on three levels: general providence (i.e. the creation of the order of the world), special providence (i.e. God’s active participation in the evolution of the world within that order), and finally, the alleged miraculous deeds. General and special providence (within the classical theistic understanding that God massively interacts with and guides the world – both in nature at large and in personal experience) fits easily and naturally with all our current knowledge, including the body of scientific knowledge. Indeed, the particular probabilistic order present in the physical universe which modern science has revealed is of the kind that makes that fit possible (while, in my judgment at least, a deterministic order would not). In other words I claim that the physical order is such that God can massively interact with the evolution of the physical universe without violating either its physical closure or the perfect correlation between brain processes and experience.
    Given then that general and special providence appear to be sufficient for the realization of God’s purposes, and given that God’s perfection implies economy in creation, miracles become something of a theological problem. Should it be the case that God performs miracles frequently (say, a thousand times every year) one would have to wonder how that comports with God’s perfect design for creation. (And that’s perhaps the least of the theological problems which miracles produce.)
    On the other hand God’s perfection does not in my judgment entail that God is a strict disciplinarian. Especially on the Christian understanding, God does not only interact with creation through special providence, but also takes part literally *within* it (and for all we know perhaps in more ways than what is recorded in the gospels). Thus the Christian understanding of theism does in my view open an additional dimension for divine creativity, in which dimension God may well find it good to perform miracles. (After all the physical order is made for the benefit of created persons only.)
    Since I strongly expect (and strongly hope) never to observe miracles myself, I have not found it particularly relevant to think about miracles, and remain a skeptical agnostic vis-à-vis miracle claims. As it happens the only miracle claim I positively believe in is Christ’s post crucifixion appearances to the disciples. I think that these were miraculous, true order-of-creation-warping events, and that they were driven by Christ’s sheer feelings of love when He saw how despair-stricken His friends were. Friends who were special in that He had personally known them in His human experience of life.

    March 28, 2012 — 15:52
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Alex,
    I agree that the physical event you describe would warrant belief in God, but I don’t see how it would warrant belief that God specifically willed it – which is the second condition that the definition requires.

    March 28, 2012 — 15:58
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    Dianelos,
    Good thoughts.
    I thought that on Calvinism every event is caused by the will of God, not that the observation of any event warrants the belief that it is willed by God.
    True–but I know a Calvinist who thinks every event warrants the belief that it is willed by God (perhaps that’s unusual).
    Taking a step back–it’s not clear to me that events produced by general and/or special providence would never warrant belief that God willed those events. Would you accept that an event produced by general providence could, in principle, count as a miracle?

    March 29, 2012 — 11:28
  • Dianelos:
    Well, add to it that the argument also clearly warrants belief in Calvinism. As long as warrant does not imply truth, this seems possible.

    March 29, 2012 — 14:48
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Alex,
    I have trouble imagining the state of affairs you describe, i.e. one where an argument drawn on a blackboard warrants belief in a version of Calvinism which entails that the observation of any physical event warrants belief in God. Since I have trouble imagining that state of affairs it’s difficult for me to decide whether the corresponding event would properly be called a miracle.
    But suppose you are right. More generally, suppose we all agree that a highly unusual case, if actual, would count as a counterexample to the definition I suggested. Would such a counterexample imply that the definition is wrong? I don’t think so. After all, what we try to do in the case of definitions is to *describe* the commonsensical meaning of a word. And the commonsensical meaning of a word is delineated by our common experience of life, and may thus be undefined in highly unusual states of affairs in which people who use this word never or very rarely find themselves in.
    If I am right in the above then there are some interesting implications:
    We know that the human condition (i.e. the whole of our experience of life) has not a fixed form, but varies. We know this from personal experience, since the way we ourselves experience life varies through the years – through learning, through moral growth, through suffering, through loving, etc. Now perhaps life as experienced by religious and non-religious people is already different enough for genuine problems of communication to arise. Perhaps the meaning each group gives to words such as “evidence”, “goodness”, “value”, “freedom”, “truth”, etc, does not map well. Similarly the experience of God may be quite different among, say, Calvinists and Sufis. This fact about the human condition may explain why the philosophical discourse appears to be so difficult sometimes.
    Here’s another implication: It seems to me that Gettier cases are quite rare in real life, so I don’t see why their implications for the definition of “knowledge” is taken to be so important. Why, as a practical matter, shouldn’t a philosopher use the concept of “knowledge” as meaning “justified true belief” – while taking some care to keep away from Gettier cases?
    Philosophy, it seems to me, is in the business of leading people towards wisdom, not in the business of building some kind of rigorous conceptual construct which is unassailable from all possible angles. If physics is the science about the order of physical quantities, and mathematics is the science about the order of abstract quantities, then philosophy is the science about the order of the human condition, i.e. its goal is self-knowledge. And since the human condition is neither quantifiable nor fixed, philosophy should not ape the epistemologies or cultures of other sciences whose subject matter is quantifiable or fixed. Indeed, and this is putting it mildly, the human condition is vastly more complex than either physical or abstract objects (which in their entirety represent but a small part of our experience of life, and also a small part of the significance of our experience of life).

    March 30, 2012 — 16:27
  • I don’t think this case is at all out of the way. We are sometimes persuaded by things people say or write. There is nothing particularly weird or out of the way about a text (perhaps longer than on a blackboard) providing one with warrant to believe a set of theological doctrines.
    In fact, surely, some Calvinists are Calvinists precisely because they were convinced by texts they read or heard.

    March 30, 2012 — 16:49
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Joshua,
    “Taking a step back–it’s not clear to me that events produced by general and/or special providence would never warrant belief that God willed those events. Would you accept that an event produced by general providence could, in principle, count as a miracle?”
    I would. After all my definition does not imply that a miraculous event must be a suspension or violation of the order entailed in general and special providence. It is because I know general and special providence and see no miracles in it, and because all miracle stories I have heard transcend the limits of the general and special providence I know, that I suggested that miracles are a third way by which God may work in creation.
    Having said that, it is I think by now quite clear that (at least for the vast majority of us) the whole of our experience of life has the property that it does not produce warrant for belief in God. God’s hiddenness is a real (and probably universal) property of creation. Miracles, if they happen, must be exceedingly rare. As John Hick puts it, the world is religiously ambiguous. This can’t be a coincidence or an accident. It is such a general feature that it must serve in a significant way God’s purpose in creation. (The way that another general feature of creation, namely the presence of evil, must also serve in a significant way God’s purpose in creation.)
    To make my position clear, I do hold that the whole of our experience of life does warrant the belief that theism is significantly more probable than naturalism. On the other hand naturalism *could* be true, in the sense that there is no contradiction between our experience of life and an appropriately constructed naturalistic worldview. Even theistic belief based on peak and self-transforming mystical experiences of God can be defeated by naturalism. Which epistemic fact I suspect has little practical relevance to those who experience God as a living and life giving reality. (Similarly, the computer simulation argument defeats scientific realism, but few scientific realists lose, or should lose, much sleep over it.)
    In the end, the world is such that we must commit one way or the other without certainty. And the world is such that those who commit themselves to God realize in the most excellent way both the potential of their moral nature, and the potential of their cognitive faculties. In other words, committing to God makes better sense both cognitively and experientially. Like Christ did in person, I find all of creation too advices us to trust and follow the Light. As the old proverb has it, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

    March 30, 2012 — 17:51
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Alex,
    I meant “warrant” in the epistemological sense of “proper justification”. Just being convinced is not sufficient. For example, after reading the astrology section in the paper S is convinced that she should not leave her home tomorrow, but she is not warranted to believe that. I take it Helen’s question in the original post was about warrant: Under what conditions might testimony by others warrant belief that a miracle has taken place?
    Now, warrant does not always lead to true beliefs. For example, the evidence may be such that one has warrant to believe that S is the murderer, but it may be the case that S is not the murderer. Nevertheless warrant is sufficient (even though not necessary) for making it reasonable to hold a belief and to act on it – in a world in which actual certainty is usually impossible. I say that warrant is not always necessary, because I find that the human condition is such that reason need not always be grounded on epistemic grounds, but may ultimately be grounded on one’s will. In other words, at the absence of warrant it is still reasonable to choose to make a commitment (and it would often be unreasonable to refuse to make a commitment). The example often given in this context is how one embraces unwarranted beliefs and commits one’s life to marrying one’s spouse. Similarly, the world appears to be such that neither theistic nor naturalistic beliefs can be warranted. Nevertheless to believe in theism or naturalism and to act on the respective worldview can be reasonable in that it is the expression of one’s sovereign choice. In other words at the absence of warrant a proper answer to the question of one’s reason for believing X or for doing Y may well be “because I want so”.
    Incidentally, warrant is a particular epistemic level of justification. That two beliefs do not reach that level does not imply that they are epistemically similar, for one can be close and the other far from being warranted. Thus, for example, in my judgment theism makes significantly more sense than naturalism, and is therefore closer to being warranted then naturalism.

    March 31, 2012 — 5:14
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    I think by now quite clear that (at least for the vast majority of us) the whole of our experience of life has the property that it does not produce warrant for belief in God
    I realize I’m straying a bit from the main topic, but I’d like to just say that the above is not clear to me.

    April 1, 2012 — 9:41
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    I was basically referring to the fact that the human condition is such that reasonable people can and do disagree about how reality ultimately is, and specifically disagree about the truth of theism. And also to the fact that even some very religious people testify of suffering grave doubts. And also to the variety of religious beliefs. Prima facie then it does not appear that the human condition is such as to produce warrant for theism.
    Here is how I justify my claim that the human condition does not produce warrant for theism: First of all, I take it that if the human condition is such that it produces a reasonable doubt about the truth of theism, then that doubt constitutes a defeater of theistic belief, and thus removes its warrant. Now I find that the physical sciences today warrant the following two beliefs: 1) The physical universe is causally closed, i.e. no non-physical causes must be assumed to explain its phenomena, and in particular the physical processes observed to take place in my brain. 2) There is a perfect correlation between all of my experiences and some physical processes in my brain. If so it is possible that reality consists only of the physical universe mechanically producing all of my experiences (including my religious experiences, my being convinced of the strength of theistic arguments, my noticing that naturalism is full of conceptual holes, my judging naturalistic claims to be absurd, etc.) Since all of my knowledge is grounded on my experience of life it follows that in my current condition (i.e. in this life) I cannot possibly know that naturalism is false, and that I therefore have reason to doubt the truth of theism. (Incidentally, the observation of a miracle which entails the clear suspension or violation of physical laws would falsify (1) and would thus defeat the defeater described, perhaps re-establishing the warrant for theistic belief.)
    On the other hand I am happy that the human condition does not produce warrant for theistic belief, for I judge that this state of affairs makes more theological sense. In other words I can see that a creation in which creatures do not have warrant for theism is greater than a creation in which they do. Thus, even though having warrant for theism would seem be a desirable thing from my fallen point of view (the way that living in a world without suffering would also be desirable for me), on further thought I find that the absence of warrant makes good theological sense, for it is what one should expect to be the case if theism is true.
    The ancients said that to desire pleasure is a good principle for cows but not for humans. Similarly, perhaps, to desire certainty is a good principle for moral cowards only. The fighter who throws herself into the battle knowing that she will be victorious in the end, earns little merit. It is the necessity of doubt that gives value to the religious commitment.

    April 2, 2012 — 5:47
  • “The example often given in this context is how one embraces unwarranted beliefs and commits one’s life to marrying one’s spouse.”
    What unwarranted belief is embraced in so doing?

    April 2, 2012 — 8:57
  • “If so it is possible that reality consists only of the physical universe mechanically producing all of my experiences […]. Since all of my knowledge is grounded on my experience of life it follows that in my current condition (i.e. in this life) I cannot possibly know that naturalism is false”
    This has strayed from the original topic, but I do want to note that it looks like you’ve smuggled in an assumption of knowledge being infallible. Compare this argument: “It is possible that I am a brain in a vat, hooked up to a computer producing all of my experiences. Since all of my knowledge is grounded on my experience of life it follows that in my current condition I cannot possibly know that I have two hands (or that 2+2=4 or anything else).”

    April 2, 2012 — 11:23
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Alex,
    “What unwarranted belief is embraced in so doing?”
    Beliefs such as how living the rest of my life with the person I am thinking of marrying will be like, or that that person is the best choice I have, and so on. I suppose many beliefs on which we base our choices for the future are unwarranted.
    “I do want to note that it looks like you’ve smuggled in an assumption of knowledge being infallible.”
    Well, one can’t know falsities, so in that sense knowledge entails infallibility. Still, as I understand it, warrant by itself does not guarantee truth (nor knowledge). Strictly speaking warrant is not a property of beliefs but a property of the reasons that lead one to hold a belief. If given one’s cognitive powers and all the evidence one has one should be certain beyond reasonable doubt that X is true then one has warrant for X. (And if X is true then one has knowledge of X.) On the other hand if one also has some evidence which warrants a reasonable doubt, then one does not have warrant for X. My argument above was that the human condition in this life (except perhaps in rare cases) is such that one should suffer reasonable doubt about the truth of theism. Therefore, the common human condition does not warrant belief in theism.
    “It is possible that I am a brain in a vat, hooked up to a computer producing all of my experiences. Since all of my knowledge is grounded on my experience of life it follows that in my current condition I cannot possibly know that I have two hands (or that 2+2=4 or anything else).”
    If it is the case that I am a brain in a vat then certain *metaphysical* beliefs I hold are false. But the belief “I have two hands” or “2+2=4” are still true. After all being a brain in a vat changes nothing in the experience on which I justify these beliefs. Here’s a more realistic scenario: The computer simulation hypothesis is possible, and even perhaps not highly improbable (for example David Chalmers estimates that probability at about 0.2). But whether or not we live in a computer simulation does not affect the truth value of all that’s written in scientific books. So, for example, if we live in a computer simulation the Mount Everest is still the highest mountain on Earth, mass and energy are still conserved, water is still composed for H2O molecules, etc. Scientists do not worry about whether the computer simulation hypothesis is true or not, simply because its truth value is irrelevant to their project. It’s scientific realists who are worried about such matters – but then again scientific realism is a metaphysical hypothesis.

    April 2, 2012 — 16:12
  • “Beliefs such as how living the rest of my life with the person I am thinking of marrying will be like, or that that person is the best choice I have, and so on. I suppose many beliefs on which we base our choices for the future are unwarranted.”
    I don’t see why such beliefs need be unwarranted. Or, let me amend that: They are either warranted or not necessary for the marriage decision. Thus, for instance, one may need the belief that the person one will marry will not, in fact, murder one. But such a belief can be warranted. On the other hand, the belief that one’s life will be happy is unwarranted, but not necessary for the marriage decision.
    ‘But the belief “I have two hands” or “2+2=4” are still true. After all being a brain in a vat changes nothing in the experience on which I justify these beliefs.’
    Agreed about 2+2=4. But brains in vats don’t have hands.
    Maybe you mean something like this: The belief expressed with the words “I have two hands” would be true if I were a brain in a vat, but it would express a proposition different from the one my use of the words “I have two hands” expresses, and would be made true by features of the computer simulation.
    There I just disagree. I can imagine finding out that I was a brain in a vat (one piece of evidence could be the words ‘Brain in a vat data copyright (c) 2094 MSNBC-Google-Sony’ showing up overlaid over my field of view), and if I found that out, I would have to revise all sorts of beliefs, such as what my shape and size was, whether I had two hands, etc.

    April 3, 2012 — 9:33
  • “Beliefs such as how living the rest of my life with the person I am thinking of marrying will be like, or that that person is the best choice I have, and so on. I suppose many beliefs on which we base our choices for the future are unwarranted.”
    I don’t see why such beliefs need be unwarranted. Or, let me amend that: They are either warranted or not necessary for the marriage decision. Thus, for instance, one may need the belief that the person one will marry will not, in fact, murder one. But such a belief can be warranted. On the other hand, the belief that one’s life will be happy is unwarranted, but not necessary for the marriage decision.
    ‘But the belief “I have two hands” or “2+2=4” are still true. After all being a brain in a vat changes nothing in the experience on which I justify these beliefs.’
    Agreed about 2+2=4. But brains in vats don’t have hands.
    Maybe you mean something like this: The belief expressed with the words “I have two hands” would be true if I were a brain in a vat, but it would express a proposition different from the one my use of the words “I have two hands” expresses, and would be made true by features of the computer simulation.
    There I just disagree. I can imagine finding out that I was a brain in a vat (one piece of evidence could be the words ‘Brain in a vat data copyright (c) 2094 MSNBC-Google-Sony’ showing up overlaid over my field of view), and if I found that out, I would have to revise all sorts of beliefs, such as what my shape and size was, whether I had two hands, etc.

    April 3, 2012 — 9:46
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Alex,
    “I can imagine finding out that I was a brain in a vat (one piece of evidence could be the words ‘Brain in a vat data copyright (c) 2094 MSNBC-Google-Sony’ showing up overlaid over my field of view), and if I found that out, I would have to revise all sorts of beliefs, such as what my shape and size was, whether I had two hands, etc.”
    Suppose the experience you describe actually takes place. You would then have warrant to believe that you are a brain in a vat. But you would still use your hands to type on your computer, correct? Thus, the truth value of the proposition “I have two hands” would not change. What would change is your belief about what makes that proposition true, which is a metaphysical matter.
    I think that ultimately Kant’s distinction between phenomenal reality and actual (noumenal) reality is fundamental and inescapable.

    April 10, 2012 — 10:11
  • If I came to believe that I was a brain in a vat, I would come to believe that I don’t have hands, but only seem to have hands.

    April 10, 2012 — 20:54
  • Scott H

    Dianelos,
    Even granting your semantic intuitions, it seems possible to construct a brain in a vat case in which you don’t have hands.
    Suppose that for most of your history you were a normally embodied person. Suppose also that yesterday, without you knowing it, your body was destroyed and your brain was placed in a vat of liquid and stimulated by a computer in such a way that your life seemed to you to go on as normal.
    Even someone with semantic intuitions like yours should judge that ‘I have hands’ is, in this case, false.

    April 11, 2012 — 14:14