Anchor Audio Link = Here’s the podcast:
CLAIMS, STATEMENTS OF BELIEF & PRESUPPOSITIONS;
Claims &Presuppositions: No claims/presuppositions this week as we have a guest on the Skeptical side and so I wish to keep the show as an open and free dialogue without needing to box either of us in to advancing one position/issue.
Statements of Belief: I believe that God exists and given his existence and the fulfillment of certain other factors, then supernatural miracles are fully plausible explanations for events. This show is only on the issue of the plausibility of the supernatural/miraculous in the light of certain common skeptical objections to such, I’m not necessarily trying to argue that these types of events have ever actually occurred in history (or will ever occur in the future). Further, I’m not providing any explanation as to how one might gain epistemic warrant in identifying such events via the use of various criteria for identifying miracles that philosophers have devised (that shall have to wait for a future show that I know David has planned for the New Year).
The Plausibility (or Equal Possibility/Probability) of the Miraculous- Refuting the Skeptical Presumption of Scientism/Naturalism
I believe it is one of our esteemed listeners, Teddi Pappas, who rightly says that “anything is possible”, I whole-heartedly agree with the sentiments of this expert criminal defense attorney; clearly at face value (prima facie), any thing is possible. If it were otherwise then there would not be a “thing” to speak of at all, no logically possible worlds in which such a “thing” can be said to exist or to be true.
Imagine for a second, as much as is possible so as to get my point across at least, that you a “blank slate” and that you know nothing about the nature and mechanics of the universe that we inhabit, in such a state we ought to adopt what philosophers and logicians call the “Principle of Indifference” (others call it the “principle of equal probabilities”). The Principle of Indifference states that “if there is no known reason for predicating of our subject one rather than another of several alternatives, then relatively to such knowledge the assertions of each of these alternatives have an equal probability for being true”.
This is basic commonsense, if I hear hoof-beats and am provided with 3 alternative hypotheses that they either belong to a horse, a donkey or a zebra and I have no way to adjudicate between them, then I ought to remain agnostic as to which of the three alternatives is true; they would all have an “equal probability” of being true based on all the available evidence that I’m privy to. Similarly, if one added a “supernatural/miraculous” animal like a unicorn to that list and I had no means to “rule out” that option as being true/false, then this principle would state that one must remain agnostic on the question of which of now 4 hypotheses (3 naturalistic and 1 supernatural/miraculous) for explaining the hoof-beats is in fact true. This is clearly the “default state” for any rational and intellectually honest person to adopt in such a situation.
Yet skeptics today often dismiss any and all supernatural/miraculous possibilities straight out of the gate, seemingly without any rational justification for doing so at all. Is it the case that these skeptics are just biased or do they actually have “reasons” that they present as to why they think one can “rule out” the supernatural from the table of options a priori? Before, we answer that question it might help us to get a better idea for what exactly the supernatural/miraculous entails.
The Nature of the Miraculous
In the first place, it might be helpful to provide a little explanation as to what exactly it means for something or someone to be “miraculous/supernatural”; it’s important to note that in this blog/show my aim will not be to prove that the miraculous does indeed happen, nor will I outline the criteria by which scholars have determined useful in identifying such events/entities (I shall save that for another show with David in the future), here I only wish to elucidate on what the miraculous generally entails.
Miracles usually function as “signs” of divine activity, their occurrence is only possible via the power of God (either directly by Him and/or indirectly through an instrumental means such as one of His agents”). That said, God is also considered causally necessary for all events in the universe (both natural and supernatural) and as such philosophers have traditionally distinguished between God’s “providentia ordinaria” (His ordinary providence via the use of the laws of nature and regular/ordinary natural mechanisms) and His “providentia extraodinaria” (His extraordinary providence whereby ordinary natural mechanisms and laws alone would not ordinarily produce such an event). Now, one needs to discern that “supernatural miracles” are not the only form of “extraordinary providence” that God can use as a divine sign, through God’s Middle Knowledge, there is a category of non-miraculous special providence that can occur and still serve as a “sign of God”- for example, imagine God setting up the world so that a rockslide would happen at the precise moment the Israelites approached the Jordan River and/or perhaps the planets Jupiter, Saturn and another star all happened to meet naturally and perceptually over Bethlehem on the same night that Jesus was born (as per the Nativity Story movie). Such events are extraordinary not so much in that they are supernatural or non-natural in nature, but in the light of the incredible coincidence of the natural events happening at a particular time and place which signifies some kind of divine involvement in the event’s occurrence (in this case it is the circumstantial evidence that makes the event “extraordinary” in nature, not the event itself).
Supernatural events by contrast, are the results of mechanisms beyond the productive capacity of natural mechanisms and laws altogether. What’s more, there are further classifications that can be made within the category of supernatural/miraculous events as well; for example, there are at least two types of supernatural event; i) Miracles done to authenticate a religious message from God (what I call a “G-Belief Authenticating Event”), and ii) Supernatural events done for another purpose (such as miracle healings of compassion for example).
Now, with those distinctions in place, we can move on to discuss a couple of the more prominent “reasons” that skeptics and Atheists often give for why they feel justified in “ruling out” the supernatural/miraculous a priori.
Supposed Reason #1- The Skeptical Assumption of Scientism
It has become very popular amoung sceptics to “assert and assume” that they do in fact have reasons to, a priori, reject miracles as being “equally probable/possible” explanations; one such common reason is the Satan-inspired notion of scientism.
Scientism, roughly speaking, is the view that science is the very paradigm of truth and rationality; if something does not comport with current well-established scientific beliefs, is not appropriate for scientific investigation and/or is not amenable to scientific methodology, then supposedly it is not true or rational to believe. In other words, according to many lay skeptics, any beliefs or claims not matching the above criteria is equivalent to “just making things up”!
There are actually two forms of scientism: strong scientism and weak scientism. Strong scientism is the view that something is only true/rational to believe if it is a scientific proposition or theory that has been successfully formed, tested and used in accordance with current scientific methodologies. Such a view claims that fields like philosophy or theology invalid as they are not seen as cognitive disciplines/enterprises. This strong position has largely been abandoned by “skeptics in the know” today as it is clearly a self-refuting and therefore ridiculous and foolish position for a person to hold to. Think about it for a second, scientism is not itself a proposition of science proper (no one scientifically tested the claim that “only scientific propositions are true and rational to believe”), but rather scientism’s claim is a second-order proposition in the field known as the Philosophy of Science (a field which deals with second-order issues assessing the metaphysics of science, its methodology and its practical usefulness, etc.). Self-refuting propositions are necessarily false (logically impossible to be true) and thus no amount of future scientific progress will ever be able to make this position true- it simply must be abandoned else the Skeptic shows himself to be totally irrational!
Weak scientism on the other hand, is a little more nuanced, yet it is still plagued with foolish unproven assumptions and beset by various problematic notions. This view says that there may be some minimal truths that can have a positive epistemic status without the support of science, but science is still the most valuable, serious and authoritative sector of human reasoning/learning. For advocates of this view, science can and must be used as quickly as possible to make a given non-scientific field’s body of knowledge rational to believe and any verification or communication on this front is considered to be a one-way street. Science is used to clarify and advance knowledge in other disciplines but not the other way around, the conversation between science and philosophy/theology is essentially a monologue whereby philosophy and theology must simply wait around for science to come along and give it rational support for its belief but philosophy and theology cannot be used to inform, justify or correct science.
There are two problems that apply to weak scientism (and strong scientism simultaneously);
i) The first is that science itself rests on certain philosophical/logical presuppositional foundations which cannot be rationally justified within the discipline of science proper. We have to remember that science is not practiced in a vacuum, but instead presupposes the truth of at least a dozen or more philosophical theses before it can even get off the ground. Examples of such presuppositions include the following; the existence of a theory-independent external world- aka. the assumption of realism vs. anti-realism, the knowability of the external world- are we in a dream world, the existence of truth, the truth of the laws of logic, the reliability of our cognitive and sensory faculties, the existence of values- aka. report the data honestly and the uniformity of nature and induction just to name some. The problem with this is that all of these assumptions are theses that are properly debated and assessed within the field known as the philosophy of science and therefore they require philosophical/logical justification before one can be rational in believing them as true. Therefore, it is totally irrational of the proponent of weak scientism to suppose that scientific propositions can have greater epistemic authority than the philosophical presuppositions on which the entire scientific discipline is founded upon.
As a quick case study, scientists will often make inductive inferences based on some observed or examined cases of a phenomenon and then generalize to claim that all cases whether examined or unexamined, whether past, present or future will always be the same as whatever the relatively small sub-set of observed data provided. It was the famous radical Enlightenment and Atheist philosopher David Hume who raised the obvious problem of induction that arises in this respect- how can one possibly rationally warrant/justify such inferences? Well, without going into detail as to how philosophers have tried to solve this problem, suffice it to say that the solution involves an assumption about the truth of the uniformity of nature principle which is a philosophical and not scientific premise (i.e. it is a subject of debate in the domain of the philosophy of science). Thus, it is philosophers and not scientists who are the experts on such issues and it is their opinions that should inform, justify and even supersede those of ignorant scientists who dare to speak outside their discipline’s area of expertise.
ii) The second is that we can observe how foolish it is to deny that we have equally strong knowledge claims in non-scientific disciplines; in fact in some cases we actually have stronger epistemic justification in those non-scientific disciplines compared to what science’s best-case examples can ever give us. I have a properly basic belief about the non-physicality of my own subjective qualia, or knowledge of my own existence in the 100% degree (both philosophical/theological theses). Science, by definition, can never hope to provide someone with 100% knowledge on a given topic on its own merits, at best it can prove things to be true beyond reasonable doubt, but by its own inherent limitations, it never claims to be able to remove all doubt in proving something to be absolutely true.
History, linguistics, poetry, philosophy, religion, etc. these are all non-scientific fields that provide one with knowledge to varying degrees and in some cases can provide one with knowledge of facts to a stronger degree than science can. For example, most historians and archeologists will often favour actual historical evidence over and above scientific C-14 evidence when trying to adjudicate a historical date for a given artifact. Historians know from experience that the scientific evidence should not be used to override the obvious knowledge that they have about the object being 2000 years old (according to all the historical evidences like the style of writing, internal evidence indicating age of the artifact, external corroboration that the artifact existed 2000 years ago, etc.) simply based on one anomalous scientific datum suggesting its only 1000 years old. The advocate of weak scientism would be totally irrational in privileging one single data point vs. multiple other contradictory data points simply based on a blind faith allegiance to scientism that maintains that science can never be informed or corrected by other disciplines; doing so would be positively foolish!
Supposed Reason #2- The Inviolability of the Laws of Nature (i.e. The Presumption of Naturalism)
It was none other than the vitriolic Atheist Voltaire who said, “a miracle is the violation of mathematical, divine, immutable, eternal laws and is therefore a contradiction”. This lead Voltaire and many other radical skeptics like himself to conclude that the supernatural is thus logically impossible. Many skeptics today still hold to a position of Naturalism and thus they continue to “assert and assume” that supernatural or miraculous events are “violations” of the laws of nature which makes them impossible to occur. Of course, a more thoughtful person will recognize at once that there is another option which emerges from this alleged contradiction; one can simply deny that the supernatural “violates” the laws of nature via arguing that the essence of the natural laws do not entail a contradictory violation at all.
We have come a long way from the scientific ignorance that lead to this radical Atheistic view, we no longer hold to the rigid Newtonian “World-Machine” perspective in terms of what the laws of nature are and how they are said operate within our universe. With the various “paradigm shifts” in science (to steal Thomas Kuhn’s terminology) that occurred and developed throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, there are essentially 3 predominant views about the laws of nature and how they work and as we shall see below, none of them entail a logical contradiction or “violation” in relation to the supernatural/miraculous.
The first position is called “Regularity Theory”, this view sees the laws of nature as nothing more than mere generalized descriptions of the way things happen in the universe; they describe the regularities of phenomenal occurrence that we observe in nature. Now, as this theory simply claims that the laws of nature are nothing more than generalized descriptions (devoid of any sort of prescriptive aspect) of whatever happens in nature, it follows that no event (whether supernatural or otherwise) can be said to “violate” those said “laws”, instead such events can simply be added in as part of the overall amended description of what happens in the universe.
Nomic Necessity Theory (i.e. the laws of nature are prescriptively necessary; this is the view that David J. seems to hold to given some of the claims he’s made on the show before-), is the view that the laws of nature are not merely descriptive but prescriptive in nature; they tell us what can and cannot happen (i.e. they allow us to make counter-factual judgements such as if the density of the universe were sufficiently higher than it would have contracted by now).
However, on this view the laws of nature are still taken to include universal inductive generalizations and as such a “violation” of these said laws is not technically possible since they can easily take into account any and all supernatural phenomena (outside the current purview of the law) and revise accordingly. Further, in reality proponents of this theory don’t hold to the laws of nature so rigidly anyways, since most scientists have learned not to be presumptuous since the shocks of Relativity and Quantum theories arose on the scene. Thus, all natural laws are now thought to have implicit assumptions about all things being equal. Thus, the laws of nature do no more than state what is or what will be the case under the assumption that no other outside factors interfere in some way.
So, when a natural anomaly does occur in the universe whereby that event is not predicted or described by the currently known laws of nature, scientists simply assume that there must be certain unknown natural factors at play that are interfering with the process in some way and so they’ll claim that the natural law need not be said to have been “violated” nor in need of revision in such cases. In the same way then, supposing supernatural factors might be at play in bringing about an event which the currently known laws of nature fail to predict or describe (such as God raising our beloved Lord and Saviour Jesus from the dead), this cannot be said to entail a violation of the said laws nor does the supernatural event’s occurrence require a revision to the existing laws. Since natural laws are only said to be valid on the implicit assumption that no unknown natural or supernatural factors are at play in interfering with the operation of ordinary natural mechanisms.
Finally, the third position one might adopt is the Causal Dispositions Theory, this theory supposes that everything has a certain nature or essence which includes certain causal dispositions to react to or affect other things in specific ways. Salt for example, has the essential causal disposition to dissolve when put in water. Now, while this view allows for certain metaphysically necessary natural propensities of things in the universe, there is no inherent prohibition against the possibility of there being other natural and/or at least supernatural causal factors that can serve to causally interfere with and/or impede a natural object’s ability to fulfill its causal disposition/propensity.
We know of many cases in science where a thing’s natural propensities are impeded due to an external causal influence that interferes with the former’s fulfillment (for example, a boy may have a natural disposition to kiss a pretty girl he likes, but he is impeded in doing so when the girl’s father walks into the room). No one claims this constitutes a “violation” of a natural law and in the same way, when God acts supernaturally in the universe, He is merely temporarily impeding or interfering with the relevant thing’s ability to fulfill their natural propensities temporarily in order to bring about the supernatural occurrence- impediment/interference alone does not entail a logically contradictory violation of natural law!
We have seen that the proper default state on the question of whether supernatural miracles are possible/plausibility is agnosticism; given the Principle of Indifference one rationally ought to be equally open to any and all logical possibilities (including any supernatural/miraculous events). Unless and until the Skeptic can prove or provide a warranted reason to think that such events are improbable/impossible to occur, then intellectually honest people will not, a priori, “rule out” the possibility of the supernatural.
That said, skeptics today have often employed a position of Scientism and/or a claim that supernatural miracles would “violate” the immutable and metaphysically necessary laws of nature as two such “reasons” to think it improbable or even impossible for supernatural events to occur. As we have seen, both of these “reasons” are entirely unwarranted as utterly false notions on the part of the Skeptic and as such, barring any further warranted reasons for thinking that supernatural miracles are improbable, they must remain open to the plausibility of the supernatural/miraculous. To do otherwise, only reveals that such Skeptics ought to be condemned as irrational raving Atheists with nothing more than an anti-supernatural bias to support their “blind faith” in Naturalism.
And that’s the view of the Christian/Seeker.
Matthew Taylor’s Response Blog (Skeptic’s View)
My position on miracles is very simple; if I am to accept that a miracle has happened, or can happen, I need evidence showing that the alleged miracle was performed by the agent that is getting credit for it. To be specific, if someone I dearly love is on their deathbed and then suddenly shows unexpected signs of improvement, for that to be accepted as a miracle, I would want to know what changed in order to make them improve and, this is of critical importance, I would want to know how the alleged agent of miracles initiated the change. It is taken as read that the latter part includes confirmation that the agent actually exists.
Why is this my standard? Because that’s the standard we hold to everything else. If a medical company claimed they have a medicine that they could spray into a recently deceased patient’s mouth and it would restart their heart, we would demand they explain how it works and the what the ingredients are so that the claim can be matched against the knowledge we have of the ingredients identified, and we would want to see evidence that the claim works, by testing it directly. The same goes with any miracle claim, show the process and the agent or forever be doubted.
Many miracle claims rely on incomplete human knowledge, we don’t know therefore miracle. This is not good enough, a lack of knowledge of how something happened does not mean the event was a miracle, it just means we don’t know. One should never accept a miracle claim on this criteria.
The rest of this post responds directly to Dales comments.
Dale believes there is a god and that god can or does perform miracles. If Dale’s god does indeed exist, then yes, I will happily accept that miracles are not only plausible, but they are to be expected. The existence of one suggests the other. However, the existence of any such god is a matter of significant doubt and all past miracle claims are sketchy at best. We are long past the point at which good evidence for either would have been found, so on that basis I deny that miracles are plausible.
Dale makes an appeal to The Principle of Indifference, which states “if there is no known reason for predicating of our subject one rather than another of several alternatives, then relatively to such knowledge the assertions of each of these alternatives have an equal probability for being true”.
There is a technicality here that I wish to quibble with here; the observer that has no knowledge will likely assign equal probable to each, but that does not mean each is equally probable. One of the options could be impossible and it is the observers’ ignorance that assigns it a value. The fact is, the observer with no knowledge that assigns equal probably has made a fundamental error and from that point all calculation and predictions are wrong. Starting from a position of error by ignorance is not a good starting point for any argument.
Unfortunately, Dale thinks it’s common sense and presents us with the three hoofed animals example that we hashed out in an episode of Ask An Atheist Anything.
Dale says he doesn’t wish to establish that miracles have happened, only that they’re plausible, the problem is, he can’t have one without the other. For me know that it’s plausible that talking an Aspirin tablet will rid me of my headache, I need to know that the medication has gone through trials, been tested, and, if I really wish, I can find details of how it works. The combination of that knowledge establishes the plausibility of two aspirin’s making a very real difference to the rest of my day.
If Dale wishes to establish that miracles are plausible, he must face also answer how they happen, what makes them happen, and what tests can be established to confirm one, adding miracle to a list of options and relying on ignorance to gain votes is not how you establish genuine plausibility. Believing something to be plausible does not make it plausible.
Ah, scientism, that oft thrown about accusation that those who deny the supernatural are guilty of scientism and therefore are unscientific and therefore whatever it is they are denying must be plausible. This is the line of attack taken by those who lack integrity, bring the evidence for your claim, or don’t be taken seriously because without evidence no one can know if the claim being presented has any foundation.
One can pontificate about various philosophies of knowledge and quote thinkers both ancient and modern, but in the harsh world of real life, claims that can’t be demonstrated either die in obscurity or get relegated to religious belief. Miracles are one such claim. For miracles to be accepted as plausible they need to be elevated above the the level of a wish list tick box item. Miracles need to be established and the only way that can happen is by meticulous exposure to test and prediction. Dale may cry scientism at this point, but this the is same scientism that gives him medicine, education, a roof above his head and the technology used to present this post and podcast and you don’t see him rejecting those as ‘foolish’. The appeal to the Principle of Indifference is really the worship of ignorance, scoff at it as much as you like because that’s all it deserves.
The scientific method works and you should be suspicious of anyone who will not let their claim be subjected to it.
And that’s the position this hard nosed skeptic will defend.
Recommended Sources (for further study);
0) Stanford Article that contains discussion on the Principle of Indifference (Equal Possibility/Probability) = https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/probability-interpret/ .
a) Martin Gardner on the Limits of Science = M. Gardner- Science & the Unknowable
Also see an interesting article on a revolutionary new thought about the Earth floating in space in Ancient Greece- no way to demonstrate its true, yet they knew it was plausible and they turned out to be right- therefore foolish for skeptics to not be open-minded based on lack of current demonstration = ROVELLI-Earth floats in space, suspended in the void.
b) See the chapters on the Possibility of Miracles in Dr. Michael Licona’s and Dr. Gary Habermas’ PhD’s dissertations on the evidence for the Resurrection = gary habermas_dissertation_1976- Resurrection and Possibility of Miracles
& Mike Licona’s = Mike Licona PhD Dissertation on the Resurrection
d) William Lane Craig on Arguments Against Miracle’s = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sek3lp2CHos (see other parts from Parts #13-18 for full discussion). Short videos by WLC = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJk_TnDHhZo (DO MIRACLE VIOLATE THE LAWS OF NATURE), 5 MIN CLIP ON JOHN ANKERBERG SHOW = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnYvkeomwM0 (ARE THEY POSSIBLE. & Finally, SCIENTISM REFUTED = https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/is-scientism-self-refuting/
e) Various Videos =
SCIENTISM REFUTED by JP MORELAND 15 MINS = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQYuCIOjuTQ&feature=emb_logo OR CRAIG KEENER ON David Hume’s Objections to Miracles refuted = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=InKAO3x5N5o . ALSO SHORT 5 MIN FUZ RHANA SCIENCE VS. SCIENTISM = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0N4Y411HE3U
LONGER LECTURE BY IAN HITCHINSON called “THE SCIENTISM DELUSION” = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YvTPDRDCZLU
ALSO https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFVARio4pAk (LECTURE by a non-Philosopher who is a Historian and Chemist = 1-HOUR AT WHEATLEY INSTITUTION- addresses the HISTORY AND POLITICS OF SCIENTISM AS WELL).