bookmark_borderPurtill’s Definition of “Miracle” – Part 4

The philosopher Richard Purtill proposed the following definition:

A miracle is an event (1) brought about by the power of God that is (2) a temporary (3) exception (4) to the ordinary course of nature (5) for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history. (“Defining Miracles” in In Defense of Miracles, IVP, 1997, p.72).

I have argued that condition (5) should be rejected, and in my last post on this subject (posted 6/9/08), I explored some possible alternative requirements on the purpose of an event, in order for the event to be considered a miracle. But the alternative requirements appear to be too restrictive, excluding possible (hypothetical) events that would generally be considered miracles.

Before moving on to other conditions in Purtill’s definition, let’s consider the condition suggested at the end of my previous post:

(5e) unless it is morally wrong to bring about that event.

Instead of specifying a particular purpose or range of purposes, this condition simply excludes certain events from being classified as miracles, based on moral grounds. Such a condition allows for a very wide range of purposes for miracles and thus avoids the counterexamples that worked against all of the previous requirements on purpose for an event to be classed a miracle.

However, (5e) appears to be superfluous because condition (1) specifies that an event must be caused “by the power of God” in order to be a miracle, and God, as traditionally conceived by Christian philosophers, is a perfectly good person.

If an event is brought about by a perfectly good person, then it follows that the event will not be one that it is morally wrong to bring about. A perfectly good person will not intentionally do something that is morally wrong to do.

Furthermore, since God, as traditionally conceived by Christian philosophers, is all-knowing, he cannot accidentally or unintentionally do something that is morally wrong. So, (5e) appears to be redundant, if we accept condition (1) and understand “God” in the way that this word has traditionally been defined by Christian philosophers.

This is a good place to switch the focus from condition (5), to condition (1):

(1) brought about by the power of God

The first thing to note about this condition is that Purtill has used an unclear and problematic word (“God”) to define another unclear and problematic word (“miracle”). Since the point of a definition is to clarify, this is a defect in his definition.

As we have seen in my comments on Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion, there are a number of different ways of understanding the word “God” (see “15 Kinds of Athesim”, posted 7/12/08). Purtill does not go on to clarify or define the word “God” in the essay “Defining Miracles”, so condition (1) is unclear even in the immediate context of the article.

However, it is likely that Purtill would accept a definition of “God” that is in line with how Christian philosophers have traditionally defined this word, so I will revise this first condition accordingly:

(1a) brought about by the power of a person who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good.

Given this clarification of condition (1), the resulting definition of “miracle” appears to exclude the possibility of miracles being brought about by deities who are less than all-powerful, less than all-knowing, or less than perfectly good. It appears to exclude the possibility of miracles being brought about by: Zeus, Wotan, Satan, angels, saints, prophets, demons, psychics, witches, wizards, shaman, etc.

The phrase “by the power of God”, however, might be intended to allow for the possibility of miracles being performed by angels, saints, and prophets. Purtill could say that such miracles were performed by means of God’s power which was provided in some temporary and limited way to these intermediary persons. Angels, saints, and prophets might be viewed as deputies or agents of God, and who thus function as conduits for the power of God to affect earthly events.

The phrase “by the power of” thus makes condition (1a) somewhat ambiguous. Can only God (an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good person) cause a miracle, or can God pass on some of his power over nature to lesser beings (such as angels, saints, and prophets)? Here are the two alternative interpretations:

(1b) brought about directly by the action of a person who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good.

(1c) brought about either directly or indirectly (through the actions of others who have been empowered to do so) by a person who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good.

If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, then God would presumably be able to give supernatural power over nature to other lesser beings. Since God, if God exists, has allowed humans to have great destructive natural powers (e.g. nuclear weapons, and biological weapons), there is no obvious reason why God would refuse to grant some supernatural powers to lesser beings, especially on a limited or temporary basis.

I’m not going to try to resolve this ambiguity here by choosing between (1b) and (1c) and defending my choice with reasons. I will just leave condition (1a) as is, noting the existence of this potentially significant ambiguity.

Another point to notice here is that to the extent that God can deputize or empower other beings to have supernatural control over nature, this makes the identification of God as the cause of an event more problematic. For example, if Zeus or Satan or a psychic can perform supernatural healings, then how can we know whether a specific (alleged) supernatural healing was caused by God as opposed to Zeus, Satan, or a psychic? This problem applies whether or not we define “miracle” in a way that allows beings that are less than all-powerful, or less than all-knowing, or less than perfectly good to bring about miracles.

If we define “miracle” more strictly, using condition (1b), so that lesser beings cannot perform miracles, then we have the problem of trying to avoid mistaking an event in which there is a supernatural overriding of nature by Zeus, Wotan, or a psychic for an actual miracle performed by God. On the other hand, if we define “miracle” more loosely, using condition (1c), so that lesser beings can perform miracles, then we have the difficult problem of figuring out whether a given (alleged) miracle should be attributed to God or to some other being. If attributed to some other being, then the miracle in question is probably not going to be of much use for either establishing the existence of God or for revealing the character and purposes of God.

bookmark_border“Allah meat”

In Catholic cultures, you run into believers who perceive miraculous images of the Virgin Mary appearing in odd circumstances, or who see the face of Jesus on a burnt tortilla.

Islamic religious imagery is usually non-representational. But like Catholics who constantly encounter Mary and Jesus iconography, many devout Muslims live in an environment saturated by Arabic script of a few important words, such as “Allah.” So the Muslim world is a source of recurrent stories of farmers slicing open a vegetable to find “Allah” inscribed in the pattern of seeds or a peculiar stain or whatever. These are duly accompanied by solemn pronouncements of a miracle proclaiming the truth of Islam.

A recent example from Nigeria was just reported by the BBC. A piece of beef spells “Allah” on the gristle, apparently.

bookmark_borderRefute Evolution in Five Minutes!

The Texas Freedom Network posted this portion of an e-mail from some religious right organization called The American Family Association. Someone named Jeffrey Howard (anybody ever heard of him?) can teach you how to refute evolution in just five minutes! You can confute “hardened skeptics” and “leave scientists with their mouths hanging open!” Actually, I’m sure this last claim is true. When confronted with hardboiled irrationality, sometimes all you can do is gape. Clearly, a zeppelin hangar would be needed to house this guy’s ego.

From: American Family Association
Date: July 18, 2008

Tear Apart the “Theory” of Evolution
And Win Every Debate, Every Time…

Show any Skeptic that Evolution is Based on Myths,
Falsehoods and Outrageous Lies In 5 Minutes or Less!

Dear Friend,

I’m fed up with Darwin…

When evolution supporters tried to make me feel foolish for believing in God, I decided to do something about it.

Evolution is not proven fact. Every one of their claims can be torn to shreds. All you need are the missing pieces. Today, I’ll show you what they are.

Within minutes, you’ll:

Quickly take down self-righteous atheists…

Easily and accurately defend God’s role as our Creator…

Send hardened skeptics into a state of confusion…

Expose the “theory” of evolution and leave scientists with their mouths hanging open…

My name is Jeffrey Howard. If you ever challenged someone on evolution, I have great news.

By the time you read to the end of this letter, you’ll have everything you need to take on the skeptics and win. You’ll never be at a loss for words. The whole evolution debate will be right in your pocket.

Use it anytime, anywhere… It’s much easier than you think. Once you get the real story, it takes less than 5 minutes!

bookmark_borderLate life conversions

There are a number of stereotypes about nonbelief embedded in pop culture that I’d like to know more about. Some may be true, and if not, it’s interesting to ask why.

For example, there’s this notion that a lot of nonbelievers will convert to a religion late in life. As death approaches, the stereotype goes, nonbelief becomes less sustainable.

I guess this has some surface plausibility. If you’re at a point in life where you’re less distracted by daily concerns, and if the closeness of death serves to concentrate the mind, promises to supernaturally transcend the impermanence of all we care for may well become more tempting. And I don’t mean just a desire for personal immortality. That can appear crass, or selfish. It’s more a sense of futility, of a meaninglessness that needs to be overcome by something beyond what we care about in our earthly lives.

I confess that this feeling that transience drains life of meaning does not resonate with me. But it seems to grab a lot of people. And if so, well, the expectation that atheism will wear thin at the end of life can make sense.

Still, what I’d be really interested in is how much of a real phenomenon this is, beyond any surface plausibility late life conversion stories might have. Is it frequent? More frequent than instances of late life falling away from faith? Is it just another cultural stereotype affirming the value of religion but having no connection to real social phenomena?

And how would I find out anyway? Writing this, I’m beginning to suspect that this is one of those questions that’s very difficult to provide a satisfactory answer for.

bookmark_borderAn Argument for Atheism

In Chapter 2 of The God Delusion, Dawkins gives an argument for atheism. The argument has some problems, and may or may not be salvageable. After I point out some flaws, I will make an attempt to fix-up the argument.

In fairness to Dawkins, his main argument for atheism is supposed to be given in Chapter 4, “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God”. If the argument in Chapter 2 turns out to be no good, there could still be a strong argument for atheism waiting for us in Chapter 4. When I am finished with my analysis and evaluation of the argument in Chapter 2, I will do my best to find and clarify another, perhaps better, argument for atheism from Chapter 4.

An argument against the existence of God is summarized in a single paragraph in Chapter 2 of The God Delusion:

I am not attacking the particular qualities of Yahweh, or Jesus, or Allah, or any other specific god such as Baal, Zeus or Wotan. Instead I shall define the God Hypothesis more defensibly: there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. This book will advocate an alternative view: any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it. God, in the sense defined, is a delusion… (Mariner paperback edition, 2008, p.52 – emphasis by Dawkins)

Here is a straightforward formulation of this argument:

1. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.
2. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, necessarily arrives late in the history of the universe.
3. No creative intelligence is responsible for designing the universe.
4. The God Hypothesis is false.
5. God does not exist.
6. Atheism is true.

The paragraph quoted above includes the claims and inferences through premise (4). The last two steps are not stated in the passage, but can be defended as implied by the context in which the passage occurs (i.e. the prefaces and first four chapters of TGD).

Where do I get premise (4) from? This premise is a clarification of the statement, “God, in the sense defined, is a delusion…”. In context of this paragraph “God, in the sense defined” is clearly a reference to the definition of “the God Hypothesis” that Dawkins has just presented.

The term “delusion” was clarified by Dawkins in the Preface. He quotes two somewhat different definitions of “delusion”, but what the definitions have in common is the phrase “false belief” (TGD, p.27 & 28). For Dawkins, to say that some idea is a “delusion” is to imply that it is a “false belief”. This word might have other implications as well (such as “irrational belief”), but falsehood is the primary implication. So, I have substituted the term “false” for the somewhat fuzzy word “delusion”.

It is clear by Chapter 2 that a primary focus of the book is the question, “Does God exist?” So, it is very reasonable to interpret (5) as being an unstated conclusion, drawn from (4). Furthermore, Dawkins appears to make this very same inference later on, at the end of Chapter 4:

If the argument of this chapter is accepted, the factual premise of religion – the God Hypothesis – is untenable. God almost certainly does not exist. This is the main conclusion of the book so far. (TGD, p.189)

Dawkins appears to infer that “God…does not exist” from the claim that “the God Hypothesis…is untenable.” Read “untenable” as “improbable”, since that is the main idea of Chapter 4 (“the argument from improbability”, TGD, p. 136,137,139, and 187). According to Dawkins, the God Hypothesis is very improbable, and from this he concludes that the existence of God is very improbable.

The final inference from (5) to (6) can also be defended as a plausible bit of reading between the lines:

5. God does not exist.
6. Atheism is true.

First of all, this is a very natural inference to make for most people, so it is the kind of inference that is likely to be left implicit and unstated. Second, this inference follows from a definition of “atheism” that is implied by Dawkins (see Def2 in my previous post “15 Kinds of Atheism” 7/12/08). Finally, Dawkins has explicitly stated in the Preface that a goal of the book is to convert people to atheism (TGD, p. 28). So, if he can persuade people to accept (5), then getting them to accept (6) is an obvious next step towards achieving his stated goal.

Based on the context of the passage on page 52, I think it is reasonable to see the inference from (4) to (5), and the inference from (5) to (6) as implied but unstated pieces of Dawkins’ argument in that passage.

bookmark_borderGod Is Not Dead Yet

The cover of the latest issue of Christianity Today: God Is Not Dead Yet.
The lead article is by William Craig. He summarizes five key arguments for the existence of God and refers to modern defenders of these arguments. Evangelicals are definitely aware of the New Atheism (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.). Craig comments briefly on Dawkins, and argues that we are not living in a postmodern culture, and that the popularity of Dawkins’ views on God is evidence of that we are not living in such a culture.

There is also an interesting editorial by the editors that is a hopeful sign about Evangelicals becoming more diverse and less strident in the political sphere. Subtitle of editorial: “Evangelicalism needs to be centered on faith, not politics.” Here is one key point:

  • To rethink our place in the public square and to stop exacerbating the political and cultural polarization of U.S. society. When public perceptions of evangelicalism are created by the harshest and most strident voices, it is important to create an evangelical culture of civility.

bookmark_border15 Kinds of Atheism

I have previously pointed out that the word “God” is ambiguous in Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion. This oversimplifies the situation a bit, because a close reading of The God Delusion reveals a reference to at least fifteen different kinds of atheism. So, before I go into critique of Dawkins’ main argument, I will briefly spell out these fifteen different kinds of atheism.

A main purpose of The God Delusion, is to convert people to atheism:

If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down. (TGD, Mariner paperback edition, p. 28)

Unfortunately, Dawkins never explicitly defines the term “atheism” (at least not in the Preface or first four chapters). Also, his initial attempt to clarify this term in Chapter 1 appears to (mistakenly) equate atheism with naturalism:

An atheist in the sense of philosophical naturalist is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world … (TGD, p.35)

Later on, in Chapter 2, Dawkins implies a more standard definition of “atheism”: the belief that “there is no God” (TGD, p. 73).

So, the word “atheist” in The God Delusion has at least two different meanings:

(Def1) X is an atheist if and only if X believes that there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world.

(Def2) X is an atheist if and only if X believes that there is no God.

Furthermore, Dawkins points out that atheists ascribe different levels of probability or certainty to their belief. A de facto atheist believes that “God is very improbable” (TGD, p.73), while a strong atheist believes it is certain that there is no God (TGD, p.73). Dawkins implies that there is another position that is halfway between that of de facto and strong atheism: someone who believes, as Dawkins does, that it is almost certain that there is no God (TGD, p.74 & 189). So, Dawkins points to three levels of certainty for atheism: very probable, almost certain, and certain.

These three levels of certainty can be applied to either of the two above definitions of atheism, to yield six different kinds of atheism. So, how do I come up with fifteen different kinds of atheism in The God Delusion? There are at least four different interpretations of the word “God” referenced by Dawkins in this book:

(Def3) X is God if and only if (a) X is a supernatural creator, and (b) it is appropriate for us to worship X. (see TGD, p.33)

(Def4) X is God if and only if (a) X is a superhuman being, and (b) X is a supernatural intelligence, and (c) X deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it. (see TGD, p.52)

(Def5) X is God if and only if X is a god of any kind (whether as conceived of by polytheism or monotheism). (see TGD, p.56)

(Def6) X is God if and only if X is a person who is (a) omnipotent, and (b) omniscient, and (c) perfectly good. (see TGD, p.101)

Because Dawkins suggests four different meanings of the word “God”, there are four different varieties of atheism in the sense of disbelief in the existence of God (see Def2 above).

So, in The God Delusion, there are five basic types of atheism, each of which can occur in three levels of certainty, which yields a total of fifteen different kinds of atheism:

1. There is nothing beyond the natural, physical world (very probably, almost certainly, certainly).
2. God (Def3) does not exist (very probably, almost certainly, certainly).
3. God (Def4) does not exist (very probably, almost certainly, certainly).
4. God (Def5) does not exist (very probably, almost certainly, certainly).
5. God (Def6) does not exist (very probably, almost certainly, certainly).

So, what sort of atheism is Dawkins trying to prove in The God Delusion? That is not clear, but if I had to pick just one of the fifteen kinds as his main focus, it would be the view that,

God (Def4) almost certainly does not exist.

Dawkins clearly opts for the “almost certainly” level of probability, and Def4 seems very central, because it is based on his precise definition of “the God Hypothesis” which is a central and often used concept in the key chapters of The God Delusion.

bookmark_borderThe gods designed us to believe?

Michael J. Murray and Jeffrey Schloss will soon be coming out with The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Evolution of Religion. Though I’ve encountered a review that consists of praise by an Intelligent Design proponent, it promises to be serious as well as likely disappointing. I’ve encountered both Schloss and Murray before. Schloss is a biologist, a sharp guy, and he has important things to say about the biological basis for religion. Murray, on the other hand, is a philosopher, and I’ve been far less impressed by his arguments. It should be an interesting pairing.

Murray’s arguments come out of a standard theistic toolkit. For example, he says that most of our cognitive features, honed by evolution, can be taken as trustworthy. The universal human tendency toward supernatural belief is no exception. Just as in theistic evolution, evolution becomes the way God creates; God now arranges for us to apprehend realities beyond the merely material.

Superficially, such an argument has some plausibility, but I think that vanishes pretty quickly when you get to know the details of how current evolutionary explanations of religion proceed. So it should be interesting to see if with Schloss on board, Murray handles the details better. I doubt it. Nothing in what we know gives gods any causal role in the evolution of religion or any other cognitive feature of humans. At best, what Murray might get is a demonstration that some variety of attenuated theism is compatible with a naturalistic account of the evolution of religion. But that is no achievement. The existence of some attenuated form of Santa Claus is compatible what we know, but it’s still crazy to believe in him. In the end, I expect what Murray and Schloss are looking for is excuses to hold on to pre-existing forms of faith.

bookmark_borderIdiot Loser Crap Apologist takes on John Beversluis

I notice that some of the exchanges on Secular Outpost have gotten a bit heated lately. Hey, you guys don’t know nasty. We atheists are pikers when it comes to nasty. To see it in its paradigmatic form, you need to look at some of the more far-out fundagelicals. Check this out:;=131
This is a character called J.P. Holding, who also sometimes goes by the name “Turkel,” taking on John Beversluis’s treatment of the C.S. Lewis “lord, lunatic, or liar” trilemma. This guy had a hissy fit over my essay in The Empty Tomb and posted some moronic criticisms. John should be proud. If you elicit foaming rants from Holding and his ilk, you must be doing your job.