Like many less fascinating phenomena, the Shroud of Turin has spawned an entire scientific and literary industry. Some believers are convinced it is the burial cloth of Jesus Christ; many books and websites advocate that belief. And of course there are “skeptical” books and websites keenly debunking the Shroud. Despite repeated efforts to expose the Shroud as a clever medieval forgery, the controversy will not go away.
Oxford University has agreed to reopen research after some persuasive arguments that a 1988 radiocarbon dating, supposedly putting the Shroud’s age at somewhere in the 14th century AD, is questionable. The Vatican and the Archdiocese of Turin plan to display the Shroud again publicly in 2010, presumably after more scientific examination. And a few weeks ago, Ohio State University hosted a conference conducted by some of the strongest advocates of the Shroud’s authenticity.
But the question for philosophers to consider here is just what it would mean to call the Shroud “authentic.” I think there’s an interesting answer to that question.
As a believing Catholic, I am perfectly prepared to accept the possibility that science will eventually justify claiming that the Shroud is only a clever human work of art. My faith in the Passion and Resurrection of Christ does not depend on a single piece of cloth. Yet suppose it turns out that, at some point in the future, the weight of exhaustive scientific research justifies concluding that the Shroud is the burial cloth of a man who died of crucifixion in Palestine in the first century AD. Would that “prove” that the Shroud is the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, the man whom Christians believe rose from the dead while wrapped in it? Of course it would not. Even well-confirmed scientific hypotheses about particular, unusual phenomena are always open to revision in light of further evidence and theorizing. Moreover, there could be no scientific reason to believe that the image we see in negatives of the Shroud got there by something called “the energy of the Resurrection.” If some such “energy” did in fact impress the image on the Shroud, natural science could know nothing of it; for it would not be a natural phenomenon, subject to further investigation by the methods of natural science. The most that science as we know it can do is what I’ve already said it can do. Natural science could justify believing that the Shroud is a purely human if very clever work of art. It could justify believing that the Shroud is, instead, the actual burial cloth of a man crucified in first-century Palestine. But if science so understood fails to do the former, that does not by itself prove the latter; and the converse also holds. And even if science does justify believing the latter, any religiously signfiicant conclusion from that would be an act of faith, not a fact of science.
It would not do for believers to attempt here what some believers have done in the heat of the long-running creationism-evolutionism debate. Just as some have fashioned something called “creation science” as a framework within which to explain, as the direct creation of God, the same phenomena that the theory of evolution explains by “random” genetic mutation and natural selection, so others might be tempted to fashion something called “eschatological science” as a framework to explain such things as the Shroud, near-death experiences, and perhaps even certain ordinary natural and human events as precursors to the Second Coming. There are more than enough religious “intellectuals” out there to try something like that, and more than enough desperate, gullible people to believe and fund them. But such “science” would be just as bogus as creation science. Like those of creation science, its methods would either not be that of natural science at all or, if they were, would fail the test of such methods. It’s just the nature of the subject matter. Educated people ought to know that.
Even so, an interesting philosophical question remains: if science does not end up justifying the belief that the Shroud is a forgery, could anything else justify believing that it the image on it got there by means of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ? As I’ve already said, such a belief would be a matter of faith. But that does not mean it would be unreasonable. Some might say that if one can justifiably believe in the Resurrection, than one could be similarly justified, in the absence of decisive scientific evidence that the Shroud is something else, in believing that the Shroud is the physical record of the moment of the Resurrection. The Shroud could thus be considered “authentic” in that sense.
Unfortunately, that does not follow. Scott Carson and I had a rather pointed exchange several months ago about the question how anybody, including the Vatican, could be justified in appealing to scientifically unexplained “cures” as “miracles” in a sense that would class them as instances of “supernatural” causation. Scott took the position that such appeals are unjustified. For what’s scientifically inexplicable now might not remain so in the future; and even if they remain so for an indefinite period, that is not itself evidence that something supernatural explains such cures. It does not rule out the possibility that such events are natural but, for purely contingent reasons, remain beyond the ken of what we now call scientific method. That, I believe, is so.
But it is not the last word. With his customary grace and humility, Scott allowed me to have the last word, in a post entitled The Miraculous and the Explanatory. The part of my conclusion that did the heavy conceptual lifting was this:
…regarding some event E as a miracle in the relevant sense is…to classify E in such a way as to imply that only a certain sort of explanation would be appropriate to E and, at the same time, to actually adumbrate such an explanation. No such explanation, of course, could show that E had to occur given what is said to explain it. Miracles in the relevant sense are not mechanical or even stochastic outcomes of the laws of nature working on initial conditions; nor are such miracles magic, as if invoking God or the saints could automatically make them happen. They are extraordinary and gratuitous manifestations of divine love and power. But they don’t just happen for no reason: they happen either in response to acts of faith or to elicit such acts. So, miracles are indeed explicable to a degree and to the eyes of faith. But the way they’re explicable does not and, indeed, cannot show that they have to happen given what explains them. The explanations, at least in principle, are as complete as the nature of the explananda permits, but not exhaustive. Miracles in the relevant sense are thus intelligible but not necessitated. They are what I call “positive” mysteries.
Making due allowances for the fact that the Shroud is a perduring object, not a one-time event, I believe the same applies to the Shroud as to alleged miracles of healing. If science goes on failing to explain it away as a clever work of art, then at some point believers could be justified in believing it’s a miracle in the sense I’ve adumbrated. What could justify them in doing so would be the same sorts of considerations that justify their religious faith as a whole. Thus the Shroud would be “authentic.” But it would still remain a mystery.