An Argument against the Argument against Miracles

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Don Mc
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An Argument against the Argument against Miracles

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Post by Don Mc »

According to Hume's famous "general maxim" against the confirmation of miracles in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, "no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish." The basic idea is that the laws of nature being what they are, and human nature being what it is, the probability of a miracle is always lower than the probability that the testimony given for it is simply false. In this Hume seems to have anticipated the logic of Carl Sagan, who popularized the idea that "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

While this principle appears rational enough at first blush, there are reasons to think it's not sound. First, it was Hume himself who spelled out the problem of induction – that there is no logical basis for inferring future outcomes from past experiences. Assuming there exists a set of well-defined "laws of nature," those regularities would seem to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. But if the laws of nature are descriptive, there is no reason to think miracles cannot or should not occur. Second, the argument against miracles is essentially circular. Hume asserts that there is "uniform experience" against the resurrection, for example, adding that a man risen from the dead "has never been observed, in any age or country." The question of the resurrection, however, is precisely whether or not Jesus was observed by his disciples to have risen from the dead. To say that a resurrection event was never observed because there is "uniform experience" against it is to beg that question (and we should bear in mind that there is equally uniform experience that life does not arise from nonliving elements – yet here we are). Finally, while it's true that human nature has the potential to corrupt the testimony of eyewitnesses and the writings of biographers and historians, it also has the potential to corrupt the field reports, lab results, journal articles, textbooks, etc., that lead us to accept the same scientific theories thought to render miracle reports implausible or even impossible. The problem of "confirmation bias" among humans, and scientists in particular, is well documented.

Evidently underlying popular skepticism of miracles is a belief that miracles are inherently, extremely improbable. But that seems to hold only if a miracle is defined in naturalistic terms. After all, the proposition "A man rose from the dead by natural processes" appears considerably less probable on its face than the proposition "Jesus Christ rose from the dead by the power of God." As Paul put it, "Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?" (Acts 26:8)

Questions for debate:
Are miracles improbable? If so, how improbable are they and why?
Could historical evidence for a miracle give us good evidence for theism?
Extraordinary evidence requires extraordinary claims.

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Re: An Argument against the Argument against Miracles

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Post by Miles »

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Are miracles improbable? If so, how improbable are they and why?
If one takes "miracle" to mean "an event not explicable by natural or scientific laws," then I'd say their probability is bumping zero.
Source: Halbersam, Yitta (1890). Small Miracles. Adams Media.

Why? Because nothing yet has been "proven" to exist outside natural or scientific laws.

Could historical evidence for a miracle give us good evidence for theism?
No

1) Because the evidence for historical incidents is too far removed from our ability to determine a convincing lack of explicable natural or scientific laws, no such incident can confidently be considered a miracle.

2) Theism, being nothing but a belief, "the belief in a personal god who seeks to have a personal relationship with all or some human beings," will probably always exist, regardless of good evidence or not.
Source: Sophia.org

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Re: An Argument against the Argument against Miracles

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Post by Tcg »

[Replying to Don Mc in post #1]

The only "Argument against the Argument against Miracles" would be verifiable evidence of miracles.

In most cases rather than that we end up with explanations for why miracles no longer happen.

Relying on a claim that God exists does nothing but change the discussion to why God no longer preforms miracles.

It's a dead end discussion either way. Verifiable evidence would enliven it, but I suspect it'll remain dead.


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Re: An Argument against the Argument against Miracles

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Post by Mithrae »

Don Mc wrote:
Fri Jul 31, 2020 10:22 pm
Questions for debate:
Are miracles improbable? If so, how improbable are they and why?
Like winning the lottery, the prior probability of a miracle occuring is essentially zero. As with lotteries it seems that most people go their entire lives without witnessing one, or even having any close friends or family witness one. But we have no basis for supposing it to actually be zero-in-a-billion rather than one-in-a-billion; a tiny but rather important distinction.

It's worth noting that for all we know there could be two or three miracles happening every single day, somewhere in the world, and still most people would never have first- or close second-hand experience of one. That could be the world we live in. Nor by their very nature would most miracles be subject to experimentation, repetition or universal observation. Of course from the absence of such, the world we live in strongly suggests that God if there is one doesn't particularly care whether people 'believe' in her or not; if she did there'd be far better reasons for believing, likely including more obvious miracles.

But for the hypothesis of a strong independent God who don't need no worshippers, one of the few criteria I can think of which might clearly distinguish between that world and one with no god is based on the premises that A) if miracles from a benevolent god do occur then divine healings should feature prominently among them, as in the NT and in popular perception, and B) if miracles don't occur then well-off, highly educated analytical thinkers should be much less prone to belief in them borne of desperation/hope or ignorance/superstition. As it turns out, medical doctors (at least in the USA where data is most readily available) are about as likely to believe in miracles as the general population and far more likely to report having personally witnessed miraculous healing. So to my mind that pretty strongly suggests that miracles do happen, perhaps more commonly than we might assume.

Are miracles an 'extraordinary' claim (thread from March)
Could historical evidence for a miracle give us good evidence for theism?
Historical evidence, no. For example suppose we had the names and sworn testimonies of three or four renaissance surgeons and medical workers that a man's leg was amputated and, after a couple of years as a one-legged beggar, even more overwhelming evidence that he was widely hailed as a two-legged man and recipient of a miracle: Would that be proof that Our Lady of the Pillar Mary answered his prayers and healed him? Or can we reasonably speculate - even without any evidence - that the doctors' testimony might have been part of a conspiracy to create a fraudulent miracle? I suppose it depends on what you mean by 'good' evidence, but it seems to me that the conspiracy explanation would have about as much merit give or take as the supernatural healing explanation, even in that case (with particular theories about the cause of supernatural healing obviously having even smaller probabilities); so perhaps a 20-60% probability that it was a genuine divine healing, possibly via Her Ladyship?

When it comes to Christian apologetics about Jesus' resurrection, obviously the evidence doesn't even remotely come close to that miracle of Calanda: Anonymous iron age propaganda tracts contradicting each other even in key details and possibly deriving from as few as one or two original indeterminate sources. I'd argue for at least a 1% probability of Jesus' resurrection, maybe even as high as 10 or 20 depending on my mood, but it's pretty meagre evidence by any measure.

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Re: An Argument against the Argument against Miracles

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Post by Diagoras »

[Replying to Don Mc in post #1]

This board has debated miracles many times, as has been pointed out already by a couple of posters.

Your position seems to be more suited to the Philosophy sub-forum, as you’re putting up ‘The Problem of Induction’ as your argument.

As such, it’s worthwhile noting that Karl Popper stated that using induction is “asking the wrong question”, and instead proposed that making predictions required a scientific approach: observe, create competing hypotheses for cause if observation, make deductive predictions, then empirically test using experiments designed to falsify those hypotheses. The theories that ‘survive’ (explain observations) the most easily falsifiable experiments are retained - the remainder are rejected.

Historical evidence on its own just simply doesn’t reach that standard sufficiently to justify relying on it for any ‘extraordinary claim’.

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Re: An Argument against the Argument against Miracles

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Post by bluegreenearth »

Don Mc wrote:
Fri Jul 31, 2020 10:22 pm
Questions for debate:
Are miracles improbable? If so, how improbable are they and why?
Could historical evidence for a miracle give us good evidence for theism?
The probability of a claim cannot be accurately calculated if what it describes is not known to be possible or impossible. What is the pragmatic value of calculating the probability of claim X as an explanation for Y when claim X might not even be possible? Without having a reliable demonstration that claim X is empirically possible, the conceptual possibility of claim X on its own is not sufficient to calculate its empirical probability as an explanation for Y. To do otherwise would be a fallacious category error. However, if claim X is demonstrated to be empirically possible, then the empirical probability that claim X is an explanation for Y in reality can be calculated.

As for historical evidence, it is impossible to reliably demonstrate that a miracle previously occurred. This is because the historical method only applies to the elements of claims that have an implicit empirical basis which are reproducible. In other words, the elements of a historical claim that can be empirically reproduced for us to know it is describing something with an empirical possibility are accepted as evidence because they permit historians to calculate the probability of the claim being true. Conversely, the elements of a historical claim that cannot be reproduced for us to know it is describing something with an empirical possibility are not accepted as evidence because they do not permit historians to calculate the probability of the claim being true. Miracles, be definition, cannot be reliably reproduced in reality to demonstrate they are empirically possible despite being conceptually possible.

To proceed with calculating the probability of a historical miracle based on the conceptual possibility on its own would be pointless because any other possible explanation that has an implicit empirical basis will always have a higher probability of being true than the miracle explanation with no implicit empirical basis. Where no other proposed explanations have an implicit empirical basis, the miracle explanation would still remain unsupported because it describes something that is not known to be empirically possible. The reason Historians cannot accept the miracle claim in this situation is because there could be an infinite number of other unfalsifiable conceptual explanations that are equally incapable of being ruled-out for the Historians to reliably determine and compare their probabilities.

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Re: An Argument against the Argument against Miracles

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Post by Mithrae »

bluegreenearth wrote:
Sun Aug 02, 2020 10:57 pm
The probability of a claim cannot be accurately calculated if what it describes is not known to be possible or impossible. What is the pragmatic value of calculating the probability of claim X as an explanation for Y when claim X might not even be possible? Without having a reliable demonstration that claim X is empirically possible, the conceptual possibility of claim X on its own is not sufficient to calculate its empirical probability as an explanation for Y. To do otherwise would be a fallacious category error. However, if claim X is demonstrated to be empirically possible, then the empirical probability that claim X is an explanation for Y in reality can be calculated.
One day a Prophet came to town claiming to represent the true God and a crowd gathered to see him in the town square. One person, a bitter atheist because he'd lost his legs as a youth, asked "can your God heal my legs?" So the Prophet prayed and then *poof* the legs grew back right then and there and he walked away rejoicing. Another person, the mayor jealous of this newcomer's popularity, demanded "can your God destroy my house?" so the Prophet prayed a bit more and *poof* there's a smouldering crater where the mayor's house once stood. Then a third questioner asked "can your so-called God prove that his existence is even possible?" ....


There seem to be at least four main problems with a 'presumption of impossibility' argument, the first and most obvious being that it implies absurdities flying in the face of common sense in a scenario such as above. If the logic doesn't hold true in such a circumstance (or those in various religious reports) then there's obviously something wrong with the logic. Secondly, it's arbitrary; if the possibility of the existence of God were proven, the fourth questioner could then demand proof that it's possible for God to intervene in the natural order, the fifth could demand proof that it's possible for God to hear and answer prayers so rapidly etc.; there'll always be some part of a theory or proposed sequence of events where one so inclined can arbitrarily say "But is that even proven to be possible?" Hence the third problem, that such an approach rules out all explanations equally. How would you go about demonstrating that it is "empirically possible" for all the stuff in existence to be governed by the same 'laws,' for example? How can it be proven that one bit of stuff which is not identical to another bit of stuff (eg. a hydrogen atom separated by centimeters or seconds from another hydrogen atom) is nevertheless capable of having perpetually identical behaviour and interactions with all other stuff? The fleeting patterns which we observe in an infinitesimally small fraction of space and time obviously don't prove any such thing; as far as I'm aware it cannot be proven, so your argument would necessarily throw the science out with the holy water. And that's closely related to the fourth problem, that proving something to be 'possible' in the face of a contrary presumption itself seems impossible; observational data about the age of the universe might be interpreted very differently, for example, if we first had to prove independently of that data that it is even 'possible' for a universe to be more than 6,000 years old! Exactly how would you go about proving that God or miracles are "empirically possible" in the first place, if the apparent occurrence of miracles were ruled out as evidence for their possibility on the basis that more commonly observed types of things are always necessarily more plausible causes?

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Re: An Argument against the Argument against Miracles

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Post by Don Mc »

Miles wrote:
Sat Aug 01, 2020 12:18 am
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Are miracles improbable? If so, how improbable are they and why?
If one takes "miracle" to mean "an event not explicable by natural or scientific laws," then I'd say their probability is bumping zero.
Source: Halbersam, Yitta (1890). Small Miracles. Adams Media.
I think that's reasonable, given that one defines miracles that way and has a comprehensive understanding of natural or scientific laws that is not subject to ongoing revision.

Personally, I don't define a miracle as an event not explicable by natural or scientific laws, for a couple of reasons. First, I'm not sure what exactly those laws are. The history of science and the incompatibility of some well-established contemporary theories (e.g., general relativity and quantum mechanics) suggest that what we describe as "laws" are at best approximations of the underlying metaphysical reality, be it natural or spiritual.

Second, I can't think of an event that could not be explicable by natural laws in principle, though observation of some events might require – not for the first time – abandoning or drastically revising those laws to accommodate the new information. This relates to the point I was trying to make in another thread: that really anything is permissible in a naturalistic view of the word, so long as it's defined in naturalistic terms. Consider the origin of life. Here is an event not only completely at odds with our knowledge of how the world actually works, but specified as one of the central miracles of God in the major theistic traditions. Yet naturalists have no problem believing life somehow originated by undirected natural processes.

More often, though, a miracle involves identifiable human need and a specific religious/spiritual context. The parting of the Red Sea during the Exodus, for example, took place in the context of a desperate situation confronting the Hebrews fleeing Pharaoh, as well as the recognized authority of Moses as a spokesman for God. John called miracles "signs" – not violations of natural laws, but indicators of God's providential faithfulness to his people.
Extraordinary evidence requires extraordinary claims.

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Re: An Argument against the Argument against Miracles

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Post by Don Mc »

Tcg wrote:
Sat Aug 01, 2020 1:56 am
[Replying to Don Mc in post #1]

The only "Argument against the Argument against Miracles" would be verifiable evidence of miracles.
Disagree. An argument against the argument against miracles need only demonstrate that the argument against miracles is not sound.

In most cases rather than that we end up with explanations for why miracles no longer happen.

Relying on a claim that God exists does nothing but change the discussion to why God no longer preforms miracles.
As you say, that's a different discussion. Until it's established that miracles no longer happen, there's no need to explain why miracles no longer happen.

It's a dead end discussion either way. Verifiable evidence would enliven it, but I suspect it'll remain dead.
Okay, but to be fair the evidentialist objection applies just as well to arguments against miracles. Given that a believable claim requires verifiable evidence, and given that it's virtually impossible to verify that miracles don't happen, the claim that miracles don't happen is not believable.
Extraordinary evidence requires extraordinary claims.

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Re: An Argument against the Argument against Miracles

Post #10

Post by Miles »

Don Mc wrote:
Mon Aug 03, 2020 7:39 pm
Consider the origin of life. Here is an event not only completely at odds with our knowledge of how the world actually works,
Four sources of information showing how abiogenesis is in agreement with our knowledge of how the world actually works.

New evidence emerges on the origins of life
source


Abiogenesis: Definition, Theory, Evidence & Examples
source


Researchers May Have Found the Missing Piece of Evidence that Explains the Origins of Life
source


Scientists Just Found a Vital Missing Link in The Origins of Life on Earth
source

Don Mc wrote: but specified as one of the central miracles of God in the major theistic traditions.
Who specified abiogenesis as one of the central miracles of God?
Don Mc wrote: Yet naturalists have no problem believing life somehow originated by undirected natural processes.
........... :approve:

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