The origin of ECREE lies in seventeenth and eighteenth-century debates concerning the validity of miracles. Prior to the modern age, people living in Western Civilization were profoundly religious and superstitious. The supernatural world was considered to be real, demonstrable and ordered. Conversely, the phenomenological world revealed by the senses was regarded as transitory, illusory and unworthy of serious study.
In a discussion of the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (560–636), Ernest Brehaut (1873–1953) explained that the intellectual viewpoint of the early Middle Ages in Europe was a mirror image of the modern worldview.
The view held in the dark ages of the natural and supernatural and of their relative proportions in the outlook on life, was precisely the reverse of that held by intelligent men in modern times. For us the material universe has taken on the aspect of order; within its limits phenomena seem to follow definite modes of behavior, upon the evidence of which a body of scientific knowledge has been built up…the attitude of Isidore and his time is exactly opposite to ours. To him the supernatural world was the demonstrable and ordered one. Its phenomena, or what were supposed to be such, were accepted as valid, while no importance was attached to evidence offered by the senses as to the material....it is evident, therefore, that if we compare the dogmatic world-view of the medieval thinker with the more tentative one of the modern scientist, allowance must be made for the fact that they take hold of the universe at opposite ends. Their plans are so fundamentally different that it is hard to express the meaning of one in terms of the other (Brehaut 1912: 51).
For more than a thousand years in Christian Europe the reality of miracles was unquestioned. The miracles of Jesus Christ were taken as substantive proof of his divinity. Among other feats recorded in the Gospels, Jesus turned water into wine (John 2.1–2.11), walked on water (Mark 6.45–6.52), and raised the dead from the tomb (John 11.1–11.44).
The most influential of the Fathers of the Western Christian Church was Augustine of Hippo (354–430). In City of God, Augustine affirmed that miracles were not limited to the time of Jesus but were commonplace in his own time: “even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ” (Augustine 1899: 485). Prodigies recorded by Augustine included miraculous cures of blindness, breast cancer, gout, paralysis, and demonic possession (1899: 485–487). Augustine even listed multiple instances of the dead being restored to life (1899: 488–489).
Before the Christian age, the Greeks and Roman were also remarkably superstitious. George Sarton characterized their “firm belief in divination” as “the outstanding superstition of classical antiquity (1960: 464). The histories of Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) by Arrian (c. 86–186 AD) and Diodorus Siculus (fl. 1st century BC) are replete with repeated instances of important people drawing serious inferences from superstitious omens.
Following a victory at the Battle of the Granicus River in 334 BC, Alexander consolidated his position by marching down the coast of Ionia and conquering city-states under the control of the Persian empire. At Miletus, Alexander was unsure if he should attack by sea or land. The critical tactical decision was based upon the subjective interpretation of a superstitious omen. “An eagle had been seen sitting upon the shore, opposite the sterns of Alexander’s ships…[Alexander] admitted that the eagle was in his favor; but as it was seen sitting on the land, it seemed to him rather to be a sign that he should get the mastery over the Persian fleet by defeating their army on land” (Arrian 1893: 47–48).
Making important decisions on the basis of superstition could have devastating consequences, even to the point of crippling an entire polity. On the night of August 27, 413 BC, an eclipse of the Moon prevented the Athenian navy from fleeing Syracuse. Subsequently, the Athenians suffered a complete defeat at the hands of the Syracusans, and Athenian power was broken forever (Grote 1899: 147–151).
Roman culture was similarly preoccupied with superstitious beliefs. In Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon described the Romans as being possessed by “a puerile superstition that disgraces their understanding” (1909: 318).
They listen with confidence to the predictions of haruspices, who pretend to read in the entrails of victims the signs of future greatness and prosperity; and there are many who do not presume either to bathe, or to dine, or to appear in public, till they have diligently consulted, according to the rules of astrology, the situation of Mercury and the aspect of the Moon (Gibbon 1909: 318).
With the rise of empiricism during the Renaissance, superstitious beliefs began to wane. The European embracement of empiricism was quite contrary to the viewpoint common amongst the Greek philosophers. In Theaetetus, Plato quoted Socrates as asserting “no one knows whether what appears to him is the same as what appears to another, and everyone knows that what appears to himself in one way at one time appears to him differently at another” (Burnet 1920: 239). In Plato’s view, nothing related to the senses or dealing with observation could be an object of scientific knowledge. “Whether a man gapes at the heavens or blinks on the ground, seeking to learn some particular of sense, I would deny that he can learn, for nothing of that sort is [a] matter of science” (Plato 1937: 789).
The experimental method was known to the ancient Greeks, but their experiments tended to be limited and anecdotal rather than systematic. The subjugation of reason to observation began in Europe during the thirteenth century. Roger Bacon argued that “reasoning does not suffice, but experience does” (Bacon 1928: 583). His Opus Majus contained an entire section devoted to experimental science. One reason that Europeans turned to empiricism was their contemplation of the properties of the magnet. The existence of lodestones suggested that nature contained occult forces and properties that could never be apprehended by logical reasoning alone. Bacon concluded that rational proofs alone were insufficient because “all things must be verified by experience” (1928: 584).
In an age in which every serious European scholar was also a theologian, any activity that from a presentist perspective would qualify as scientific had to compatible with Christian orthodoxy. Observation of the natural world was not only allowable, it was a virtual requisite for natural theology. The door had been opened by Paul the Apostle (c. 0–60 AD). In Romans (1.20), Paul wrote that God could be known through the study of nature. “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.” After the Bishop of Paris condemned metaphysical speculation in 1277, scholars and theologians turned to empiricism partly out of necessity (Deming 2010: 156).
In the seventeenth century, experimental philosophy bloomed under the auspices of the Royal Society in England (Deming 2012: 205–211). Aristotelean natural philosophy withered. In Academiarum Examen (1654: 67) John Webster condemned Aristotelean philosophy as “merely verbal, speculative, abstractive, formal and notional, fit to fill the brains with monstrous and airy chimeras, speculative, and fruitless conceits.”
As empirical evidence became the accepted standard of proof, people began to question the validity of miracles. Among the first to openly question the reality of the miraculous was the Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677). In Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), Spinoza asserted that natural law had been established by God and was therefore immutable. “Nature cannot be contravened…she preserves a fixed and immutable order” (Spinoza 1887: 82). Spinoza attributed miracles to human ignorance. “A miracle is an event of which the causes cannot be explained by the natural reason through a reference to ascertained workings of nature” (Spinoza 1887: 84). In fact, a claim that the laws of nature had been overcome was tantamount to an assertion “that God acted against His own nature--an evident absurdity” (Spinoza 1887: 83).
Among those influenced by Spinoza was the Huguenot skeptic Pierre Bayle (1647–1706). In Miscellaneous Thoughts on the Comet of 1680, Bayle (1708: 450) discounted accounts of the miraculous. “We must never have recourse to miracle, when we may explain by natural reasons, “ because ”our schools of theology, as well as those of philosophy, teach us not to multiply beings or miracles without a necessity.” In his enormously influential Historical and Critical Dictionary, first published in 1697, Bayle suggested that miracles were not genuine instances of the suspension of the laws of nature, but rooted in human credulity and gullibility (1710: 1766).
Protestants embraced empiricism when it helped them discredit Catholicism. In A Discourse Against Transubstantiation (1684), John Tillotson argued for the validity of sense perception. “If we be not certain of what we see, we can be certain of nothing” (Tillotson 1684: 3). Tillotson concluded that the supposed miracle of transubstantiation was “a most self-evident falsehood” (1684: 2). Others sought consilience between science and religion. In A Discourse of Miracles, John Locke (1632–1704) acknowledged that a miracle was necessarily defined to be an operation “contrary to the fixed and established laws of nature” (1824: 264). But then Locke warned that the laws of nature were not completely known. Before a man could judge that an event was truly a miracle “he must know that no created being has a power to perform it” (Locke 1824: 264). Therefore it was possible, in effect, to preserve the validity of religion through miraculous testament without violating natural law.
As the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century proceeded, revelation and the miraculous came under attack and apologetics were proffered in their defense. Writing in 1740, the Anglican latitudinarian Arthur Ashley Sykes conceded that miraculous events required substantiation by “extraordinary proof.” “Where there is only an account of extraordinary facts related, without any extraordinary proof of their being true, the credibility of them is lessened even by the extraordiness of the facts” (Sykes 1740: 206).
But Sykes was unwilling to conclude that the miracles recorded in the Bible were fictions. He argued that the credibility of Christian miracles originated in the genuine inspiration of the writers who recorded them. The best proof of this was the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. “Prophecies…in Scripture do contain the foretelling of many future events: the accomplishment of these events is the evidence to us of the truth of the revelation itself” (Sykes 1740: 208).
Sykes was not alone in his regard for the importance of Biblical prophecy. Isaac Newton believed that the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy was evidence for God’s providential rule of the world. Much of Newton’s time in theological research was spent in trying to decipher prophecies in the Books of Daniel and Revelation. His interpretation of these texts was published posthumously in 1733 as Observations Upon the Prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St. John.
As the Age of Reason advanced, the apologetics became more strained. In 1749, English clergyman Conyers Middleton conceded that “ordinary facts, related by a credible person, furnish no cause of doubting from the nature of the thing: but if they be strange and extraordinary; doubts naturally arise, and in proportion as they approach towards the marvelous” (1749: 217).
Middleton’s argument for preserving belief in miracles was that the age of the miraculous had been closed. The miracles performed by Christ and his Apostles were real, but there had been no genuine miracles since this time. “There is no sufficient reason to believe, from the testimony of antiquity, that any miraculous powers did ever actually subsist in any age of the Church, after the times of the Apostles” (Middleton 1749: xci).
Middleton’s argument is apparently a special pleading. But closing the age of the miraculous is consistent with closing the age of revelation. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the age of prophecy is considered to be over, and the revelations of the prophets are regarded as final and complete. It was thus logically consistent to argue that the age of miracles had also been concluded.
Among those who attacked the credibility of the miraculous was the editor of the French Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot. Diderot embraced skepticism, questioned the authenticity of Christianity, and leaned toward atheism. He dismissed the reality of miracles, concluding “all those who saw miracles there had made up their mind to see them” (Diderot 1916: 61).
The most significant of the Enlightenment attacks on the reality of miracles was the essay On Miracles (1748) by the Scottish writer David Hume. It is in Hume’s essay that we find a definitive characterization of ECREE as a balancing of the evidence. If “the fact…partakes of the extraordinary and the marvelous…the evidence…received a diminution, greater or less, in proportion as the fact is more or less unusual” (Hume 1748: 179).
Hume explained that there must be “a contest of two opposite experiences” (1748: 179). Miracles required extraordinary proof or evidence because, by definition, a miracle was “a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and inalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined” (Hume 1748: 180).
As an example of a miracle, Hume offered the claim that a piece of lead would remain suspended in air when released. Because human beings had observed the contrary innumerable times over the ages, in order for the claim to be believed, the number of observations substantiating the supposed miracle must be greater. If people had observed a million times that a piece of lead will fall to the ground when released, then to establish the claim that a piece of lead will remain suspended in air requires a million and one observations. A hundred-thousand testaments of the defiance of gravity will be insufficient, because these must be weighed against a million contradictions.
Thus Hume defined precisely what is meant by “extraordinary” evidence or proof. “Extraordinary” means numerous. “Extraordinary” evidence is not a separate category or type of evidence, it is an extraordinarily large number of observations. “Extraordinary” evidence is only required when it must be balanced against a very large number of contrary observations.
The crux of the matter is that in order to properly characterize a claim as “extraordinary,” there must exist weighty evidence of the exact antithesis. A claim or theory is not “extraordinary” solely because it is novel, unusual, or is in disagreement with human consensus. The claim that a rock will remain suspended in air when released from the hand is extraordinary because we have an extraordinary number of observations to the contrary. But a claim that it is possible to construct and operate a heavier-than-air flying machine is not “extraordinary,” even though we have overwhelming evidence that objects heavier than air fall to the ground. The two instances are not exactly comparable. A heavier-than-air flying machine is an object, but it is a unique object. Objects that we may have observed falling to the ground, such as stones, do not have engines or wings. It does not matter that we may have observed falling stones ten million times: a stone is not an airplane.
Similarly, a claim to achieve heat generation through cold fusion is not “extraordinary,” simply because no one has done it before. The claim can only be “extraordinary” if there have been a very large number of previous trials in which the experiment has failed. And the experimental apparatus and circumstances in these previous trials must have been not merely similar, but identical in all respects. If even one parameter has changed, the balancing of the evidence is no longer a thousand-to-one against heat generation, but one-to-zero in favor of heat generation.