Skeptics and Miracles

On his “Dangerous Idea” blog Victor Reppert offers the following story and queries:

“Spelling Bees, Violin Teachers, and ESP”

When I was in the seventh grade, I won the District Spelling Bee. The defending champion, somewhat to my surprise, went out when there were six people left, stomped off the stage, and went crying to his mother. After winning the Bee (and qualifying for the state finals), I was asked to provide a picture for the newspaper. As it happened, my violin teacher had a Polaroid camera, and my parents and I knew this, so we visited him. He told me that he had been thinking about my spelling bee, and at one point had an awareness that my rival had gone down, and that he was very upset about it. He had this awareness at about the time when my rival went down. He said that he had sometimes had episodes of clairvoyance.

It wasn’t something that he said came from God. It’s not something that supports my religious beliefs, especially. But I have often thought back to this incident. How did he know? Should you be skeptical of my report now, since this doesn’t seem to be something that happens in the ordinary course of nature?”

Am I skeptical of Victor’s report? No. Why should I be? People frequently think that they have had clairvoyant episodes, premonitory dreams, ESP, etc., so there is no reason whatsoever that I should doubt such a report. It is not at all outside of the “ordinary course of nature.” On the contrary, people have such experiences all the time. How did he (the violin teacher) know what had happened? Well, of course, he did not know. People get hunches, feelings, and intuitions all the time. Some, by chance, are going to be close to something that actually happens. Confirmation bias then steps in to make sure that we remember those that seemed to correspond to what happened and forget all of those that did not.

Of course, Victor raises these queries because of their seeming relevance to miracle reports. Didn’t Hume say that we should be skeptical of reports of events outside of the “ordinary course of nature?” Well, it depends on what we mean by the “ordinary course of nature.” The largest largemouth bass ever caught was a lunker of 23 pounds landed by a Georgia angler circa 1924. Now this is pretty astonishing since a largemouth bass of ten pounds is a whopper. My Dad was a lifelong bass fisherman and he never caught one over eight pounds. Suppose, though that in tomorrow’s paper I read that a largemouth bass weighing 24 pounds had been caught. Would I be skeptical? Maybe slightly, but I would probably tentatively accept the story. What if the report said that a largemouth bass of 50 pounds had been caught? I would most definitely be skeptical and would strongly suspect a hoax. What if the report said that an enormous, glowing bass had levitated out of the water and pronounced maledictions on all fisherman? Obviously, no newspaper–with the exception of the (now sadly defunct) Weekly World News would every publish such a story.

The point is that the believability of a report depends largely upon the degree to which it is outside of the “ordinary course of nature.” How far outside the ordinary course will a miracle report be? If a miracle is to have an apologetic purpose, that is, if it is to be a part of an apologetic program designed to secure the claims of a purported revelation against the objections of skeptics, then it will have to be something that skeptics cannot dismiss as an unusual, but natural, occurrence. It must be something more than extraordinary, since the merely extraordinary happens all the time.

To do the apologetic job, a miracle claim should report something physically impossible, i.e., something that, given everything that we know about nature and its capacities, we believe that nature could not or would not do. Only an event that is physically impossible, yet actually occurs, could kick the skeptic’s butt and provide presumptive evidence for the existence of supernatural agency. Again, the merely extraordinary will not do. Had the Gospel story been that Jesus, when confronted in the Garden of Gethsemane, kicked off his sandals, and, in an amazing display of martial arts prowess proceeded to beat up the soldiers sent to arrest him, that would be extraordinary but not evidence of divine agency.

Two obvious problems immediately confront the would-be miracle claimer: (1) Would not the actual occurrence of the event show that it was not, in fact, physically impossible, and thus a phenomenon for which we could, at least someday, expect a scientific explanation? (2) Since an event we currently and with abundant justification consider physically impossible–like rising from the dead or walking on water–will be one which skeptics regard as having a background probability of near zero, the miracle claimer will have an enormous burden of proof just establishing that the claimed event actually took place.

Both of these are very serious problems for the miracle-claimer, and though I think that in principle they might be effectively addressed, in practice (as Hume argues in Part II of “On Miracles”) he will have a devil of a time. Hume did not argue (though many highly qualified persons have taken him as arguing) that it is impossible in principle to establish a miracle claim. However, as an argument that skeptics may use to dispute miracle claims based on human testimony, he thought his argument would be useful as long as the world endures. He was right.