What if you Saw a Miracle?

I recently saw this posted on Victor Reppert’s Dangerous Idea site. I haven’t got a copy of The Brothers Karamazov on hand so I cannot quote it directly from the (translated) original. Nevertheless, it is a succinct statement of a charge that many have made, namely that unbelievers—naturalists in particular—would not believe even if confronted with a miracle that “stands before him as an irrefutable fact.”

In my opinion miracles will never confound a naturalist. It is not miracles that bring a naturalist to faith. A true naturalist, if he is not a believer, will always find in himself the strength and ability not to believe in miracles. And if a miracle stands before him as an irrefutable fact, he will sooner doubt his own senses than admit the fact. And even if he does admit it, he will admit it as a fact of nature that was previously unknown to him. In the naturalist, faith is not born from miracles, but miracles from faith. Once the naturalist comes to believe, then precisely because of his naturalism, he must also allow for miracles. (Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov)

Now, many unbelievers would just dismiss this passage out of hand as a gratuitous smear. Is the quote a smear? Would naturalists behave that way if confronted with a miracle as an “irrefutable fact?”

The best way to find out whether such a hypothetical is true would be to test it experimentally. I am thinking of something like the “crucial experiment” performed by Elijah in I Kings, chapter 18. Elijah and the priests of Baal set up altars prepared with a sacrifice. The priests call upon Baal to send fire to consume their sacrifice, but no fire appears. Elijah calls upon Yahweh, and WHOOSH! The “fire of the Lord” falls from heaven and consumes not only the sacrifice, but the wood and stones of the altar! We could have such a public demonstration that could be attended by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and many other prominent atheists. Skeptical stage magicians could check out the altars to make sure that nobody had a hidden flamethrower or similar gadget. If, after such an event, the atheists head directly to the church, synagogue, or mosque of their choice to confess their faith, then we would have an answer. Likewise, if they still refused to believe, we would have the answer also. Sadly, the prospects of any such experiment seem dim. Nobody seems to be offering to stage one. You know: Don’t put the Lord thy God to the test, etc.

So, if the issue cannot be settled by experiment, how do we decide, other than simply by consulting our gut feelings? Each of us could ask “How would I react?” but it is not clear that introspection would give a reliable answer here. I like to think that had I been in the phalanx at Marathon, I would have skewered my quota of Persians, but who really knows how they will act until they are in the situation? Perhaps all we can do is to state what would be the rational thing to do when confronted with a miracle that stands before us as an irrefutable fact, and make a serious commitment to do what is rational.

The problem is to get clear on just when a miracle would stand before us as an irrefutable fact. For this to happen, we would have to know two things, as implied by the above quote: (a) that the event had actually occurred, and (b) that it cannot be plausibly construed as an event with a natural, physical cause. Obviously, both conditions will have to be met before we can say definitely that a miracle, as the actual occurrence of a physically impossible event, stands before us as an irrefutable fact.

In real life, as opposed to the imaginative scenarios beloved of philosophers, meeting these conditions is generally damned difficult. As we say, believers seem unwilling to stage miracles as public experiments, so being present when a miracle occurs is difficult. Generally, then, we do not have ocular evidence of an event, but only someone’s testimony, and we know the multifarious failings of human testimony. People lie; they misperceive; they jump to conclusions; they form false memories; they confabulate; they are subject to mass delusion and the madness of crowds; they see what they want to see or what they expect to see rather than what is actually there. All of these frailties of witnesses are confirmed by copious psychological inquiry and are well known to every competent trial lawyer. Further, as Hume insisted, we do have to consider the background probability of a claimed event judged, as the Bayesians put it, in the light of our own “priors.” That is, when told that something has occurred, we have no rational choice but to put a burden of proof on the claimer that is proportionate to what we take to be the background probability of the event.

Secondly, even if the occurrence of an extraordinary event has been confirmed beyond reasonable doubt, it often remains possible, indeed entirely plausible, that the event has a natural cause. It is well known that there are rare cases of the spontaneous and rapid remission of advanced, metastatic cancer. Yet it seems more than plausible to hold that such rare and extraordinary events have natural but presently unknown causes.

Still, we can imagine cases where, in principle, the two above conditions could be met. We could have an event so public and well-documented, and so contrary to the laws of physics that we otherwise have every reason to continue to accept, that we can say that, here indeed, at least prima facie, is a genuine instance of the miraculous. Maybe something like this: While billions of us watch either live or by TV, the Pope commands in the name of the truth of the Roman Catholic religion, and Mount Everest rises up, leaving a huge hole in the ground that we all can inspect, and flies at Mach three to the Pacific, where it is deposited in the Challenger Deep, where submarines confirm its presence. Is this a hallucination? If it is, then everything we perceive is a hallucination. Could it be explained by the laws of physics? Not in terms our best-confirmed and most solid physical knowledge, the knowledge that guides in everything else. Here, then we would seem to have a very good candidate for a miracle. What would be the appropriate response? I think that even the most ardent skeptic should begin to consider conversion to Catholicism as a very live option, if not an urgent priority.

The upshot is that, for me, and I think for most unbelievers, we can indeed imagine events that would, or at least should, knock us out of our unbelief. We wait for them to happen.