The Shroud of Turin: a conceptual case study

The negative of the head-image on the Shroud

The negative of the head-image

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.

12 Responses

  1. This is mystical

  2. I am a member of the shroud science group.

    The formation of the image can not be explained by merely diffusion processes, because diffusion processes alone can not effect such a high resolution of the image with details that must have been destinct from the body up to 5 cm (e.g. Ray Rogers, Prof. Giulio Fanti).
    Only low-temperature-energy (the image is not burned into the cloth) coming out of the body (decreasing with the distance from the body) can explain (together with a certain chemical situation) the formation of the image. But where should the energy come from out of a corpse. Thus in this scenario a miracle had to happen or the image is an artefact, which I think can be excluded, because of the chemical and forensic characteristics of the image and many other things.

    But – what if the man under the shroud was still alive in the tomb, and body warmth was the missing energy-factor? Then the resurrection of Christ would become a matter of forensic science. In the shroud conference in Ohio the Spanish pathologist Dr. Miguel Lorente has held an interesting presentation with the title: “Compatibility Between the Evidences of Vitality and the Absence of Signs of Death on the Cloth”. The audio-file can be downloaded at the link given in the article ( http://www.shrouduniversity.com/ohiocon2008.php )

    Best regards
    Dr. Helmut Felzmann

  3. Dr. Felzmann:

    Thanks for noticing my post and commenting.

    I’m puzzled by this inference of yours:

    what if the man under the shroud was still alive in the tomb, and body warmth was the missing energy-factor? Then the resurrection of Christ would become a matter of forensic science.

    On the hypothesis your question presents, we would have to conclude two things: (a) if the Resurrection of Jesus Christ actually occurred, the Shroud is not a physical record of it; and (b) if the man wrapped in the Shroud was Jesus Christ, then the doctrine of the Resurrection is false. For Christians believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead; yet the hypothesis is that the man “was still alive in the tomb,” which means he wasn’t dead when he was entombed.

    Or am I misunderstanding you?

    Best,
    Mike

  4. Like Dr. Felzmann, I am a member of the Shroud Science Group. Your URL was posted there which is why I came over. I think the framing of this discussion is incorrect. The shroud may well not be a testimony to the resurrection except in the sense that the shroud, unlike shrouds that envelop most dead bodies, was removed before corruption set in. The occasion for that was likely the resurrection.

    I don’t share Dr. Felzmann’s notion that the man was alive at the time of image formation, but were he alive it would depend on whether that was pre- or post-resurrection since the image could have been formed after then man was resurrected but before he left the shroud. So I think the shroud is silent on that issue.

    As for authenticity, the only serious data that tells against authenticity is the carbon date. It is an open question whether that single anomaly can be explained satisfactorily. There are several workable theories that would account for it. Only a more widespread carbon date with sample from multiple sites is likely to resolved the issue and even then, depending on why the date is skewed, it could come out 14th century again. More likley we’d end up with a mix of results.

    I enjoyed your comments.

    Regards, Ray

  5. Thanks, Ray!

    You write:

    The shroud may well not be a testimony to the resurrection except in the sense that the shroud, unlike shrouds that envelop most dead bodies, was removed before corruption set in. The occasion for that was likely the resurrection.

    Actually, I agree with that. It would help to indicate the sense in which the Shroud, though not proof of the Resurrection, is a bit of evidence for the Resurrection. As such, it would be the same sort of evidence as the careers and deaths of the Apostles after what they believed to be the Resurrection.

    Best,
    Mike

  6. For the benefit of readers, I note that the Catholic Church has her own, official Shroud website: http://sindone.torino.chiesacattolica.it/en/welcome.htm.

  7. This post is highly interesting. I have a biology background (BSc, then work in environmental microbiology for 3 1/2 years) and am currently a novice with the Congregation of St. Basil. While there is evidence that the Shroud of Turin is authentically Jesus’ burial linens, or at least could have come from first-century Palestine, as far as I understand there is little conclusive support for either those convinced that the Holy Shroud is the cloth from Christ’s tomb, or for the skeptics’ position.

    You properly distinguish in this article between matters of faith and science, while recognizing that there is some overlap between religion and natural science and the questions that both seek to answer. Faith and reason must work in tandem to find truth. From the religious viewpoint, whether the authenticity of the Holy Shroud of Turin can be verified cannot and ought not to diminish the role of popular Christian devotion. Other issues can be viewed similarly. You mention the creationism-evolution debate. While geological records contradict the literal six-day Biblical creation account (actually Genesis has two creation stories, in reverse order from one another) and favour evolution and some process of natural selection, theories of evolution have themselves, well, evolved from Lamarck to Darwin to the present time. The Holy House of Loreto is another intriguing case. That angels actually carried the house Jesus grew up in from Nazareth to Loreto is at best unclear if not unlikely. Yet this is possible for God. It’s the devotion to Loreto or Turin as holy sites that counts in religion. The discovery what we can about natural phenomena while thanking God for the goodness of His creation is the fun of science and is its proper role.

    I will add you to my Blogroll. This is fascinating. Blessings,

    Warren

  8. Proficiat to Mr. Liccione who is right to point the errors of every “creation science”…

    But, although it may not be the right place to do it, I would like to say something and ask a question to the two members of the shroud science group that have commented here. Impressed by the historical continuity (links of one family to the history of the shroud) more than by the existence of pollens (for which we’re obliged to believe what one tells us), I’m inclined to believe in the authenticity of the shroud. But one counter-argument prohibits me to do so, and no one could answer it till now, alas. Here it is, with excuses for the anecdotical caracter of it :

    As anyone can observe on photos or on people, the eyes are rather exactly at the middle, vertically speaking, in the middle of the face. Anatomical statistics confirm that the oscillation of them around the exact middle is indeed very small. But if we look at the shroud, even if we take the most favorable measures, we can’t avoid the conclusion that the eyes are (roughly) at the two-thirds of the height of the face pictured.
    And, of course, everyone knows that the artistical conventions have long been to represent the eyes at the two-thirds of the height of the face…

    The only answer I could think of was that the linen would have been laid upon the lower part of the face, the forehead being distance from it, and so represented smaller because of the projection. But usually the man in the linen is represented the other way round (with the lower part of the face being the one distanced from the linen), and moreover that can’t account of that big difference (there isn’t a 50 degree of difference between the planes of the forebear and the low face !).
    So I’m puzzled. Do you have thoughts about this ?

  9. Beautifully written, Mike. In particular this passage:
    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.

  10. Olivier:

    So I’m puzzled. Do you have thoughts about this?

    Have a look at this FAQ item, especially this last paragraph: http://www.shroudstory.com/faq/Shroud-Turin-wiki25.htm

    Best,
    Mike

  11. Thank you very much Mr. Liccione !
    I don’t say I’m totally convinced – the details are to be checked – but at least there is a way this particular puzzle could be solved.
    Fascinating object, as is also the linen of Juan Diego – Our Lady of Guadalupe !

    God bless you, and I think I’ll be faithfully reading this blog…

  12. IMO at the very least, if the carbon dating is right, the shroud is a mediæval miracle as nobody then knew how to make that image. Of course if the dating is wrong it could be the real thing.

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