bookmark_borderRepost: Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence (ECREE), Part 2: Is ECREE False? A Reply to William Lane Craig

(This article was originally published on this blog on June 21, 2012. I am reposting because William Lane Craig recently tweeted a link to a video in which he objects to ECREE.)
In my last post, I offered a Bayesian interpretation of the principle, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (ECREE). William Lane Craig, however, disagrees with ECREE. In a response to philosopher Stephen Law, Craig wrote this.

This sounds so commonsensical, doesn’t it? But in fact it is demonstrably false. Probability theorists studying what sort of evidence it would take to establish a highly improbable event came to realize that if you just weigh the improbability of the event against the reliability of the testimony, we’d have to be sceptical of many commonly accepted claims. Rather what’s crucial is the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred.3 This can easily offset any improbability of the event itself. In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, for example, this means that we must also ask, “What is the probability of the facts of the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection, if the resurrection had not occurred?” It is highly, highly, highly, improbable that we should have that evidence if the resurrection had not occurred.
————
[3] See the very nice account by S. L. Zabell, “The Probabilistic Analysis of Testimony,” Journal of Statistical Planning and Inference 20 (1988): 327-54.

I agree with Craig that it would be incorrect to “just weigh the improbability of the event against the reliability of the testimony.” I also agree with Craig that “the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred … can easily offset any improbability of the event itself.” I disagree with Craig, however, regarding his interpretation that ECREE requires that we ignore that probability. This can be seen using Bayes’s Theorem (BT).
Let B represent our background information; E represent our evidence to be explained; H be an explanatory hypothesis, and ~H be the falsity of H. Here is one form of BT:
BT
As I argued in my last post, an “extraordinary claim” is an explanatory hypothesis which is extremely improbable, conditional upon background information alone, i.e., Pr(H | B) <<<  0.5. And “extraordinary evidence” can be interpreted as the requirement that a hypothesis’s explanatory power is proportionally high enough to offset its prior improbability (the “extraordinary claim”). Here I offer an even more precise definition.
It follows from BT that H will have a high epistemic probability on the evidence B and E:
BT2just in case it has a greater overall balance of prior probability and explanatory power than its denial:
BT3Thus, we can somewhat abstractly define “extraordinary evidence” as evidence that makes the following inequality true:
BT4With that inequality in mind, let’s return to Craig’s objection to ECREE. Here again is the relevant portion of his objection:

Probability theorists studying what sort of evidence it would take to establish a highly improbable event came to realize that if you just weigh the improbability of the event against the reliability of the testimony, we’d have to be sceptical of many commonly accepted claims. Rather what’s crucial is the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred.

It seems, then, that Craig’s objection to ECREE is based upon an interpretation of ECREE which requires that we only consider the “extraordinary claim,” i.e., Pr(H | B). If that interpretation is correct, then I will join Craig in rejecting ECREE. But is it correct?
In mathematical notation, “the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred” is Pr(E | B & ~H). But now consider again the inequality used to define extraordinary evidence.
BT4
The expression, Pr(E | B & ~H), is literally right there, in the numerator on the right-hand side. It appears, then, that Craig’s objection is based upon a misinterpretation of ECREE. For the same reason, Craig’s reason that ECREE would cause us “to be sceptical of many commonly accepted claims” is therefore misplaced.
I could be wrong, but I suspect there are two factors which contributed to this misinterpretation. First, many skeptics have used ECREE in connection with (or as support for) Hume’s argument against miracles. While I’m inclined to agree with John Earman that Hume’s argument is highly overrated–i.e., it may be the case that BT does not provide Hume with the support many skeptics think it provides–this is not of obvious relevance to ECREE. ECREE, like BT, is not dependent on Hume.
The other factor which may have contributed to the misinterpretation is the definition of “extraordinary claim;” Craig may disagree with the criteria skeptics have used to determine whether a claim is extraordinary. I think it is helpful to use probabilistic notation to clarify the issue. Again, I proposed that an “extraordinary claim” is an explanatory hypothesis which is extremely improbable, conditional upon background information alone, i.e., Pr(H | B) <<<  0.5. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that definition is wrong. Instead, define an “extraordinary claim” as any explanatory hypothesis H which has a prior probability below some number x, i..e., Pr(H | B) < x, where x can be any real number between 0 and 1. Here’s the point. X can be any real number between 0 and 1. It doesn’t matter which value one chooses, since BT can accommodate all probability values. In terms of calculating the final probability of H, Pr(H | E & B), we use the same formula–BT–regardless of whether H is an extraordinary claim. From a mathematical perspective, it makes no difference whatsoever whether we label a claim “extraordinary” or “ordinary.” We can use BT to assess the epistemic probabilities of both types of claims.

bookmark_borderYouTube Video of Today’s Miller-Cavin Debate on Jesus’ Resurrection

Here is the link to the YouTube video of today’s debate between Callum Miller and Robert Greg Cavin on the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.


Also, the Secular Outpost YouTube Channel has a playlist for all of Cavin’s debates on Jesus’ resurrection.


Related Links:

bookmark_borderGeisler & Turek Rebuttal, Part 7: Chapter 8

Chapter 8. Miracles: Signs of God or Gullibility?

 
As I read them, Geisler and Turek (G&T) seek to establish four points: (1) If God exists, then miracles are possible; (2) Hume’s argument against the credibility of miracle claims is a failure; (3) miracles can be used to confirm a message from God (i.e., as acts of God to confirm a word from God); and (4) we don’t observe Biblical-quality miracles today because such miracles are not needed to confirm a new revelation from God.
(1) The Possibility of Miracles and Legends: As Geisler and Turek rightly argue, if God exists, then miracles are possible. Furthermore, Spinoza’s pantheistic objection to the possibility of miracles fails. There’s nothing here I want to dispute. Indeed, I want to expand their point. As New Testament scholar Robert M. Price asks, “If miracles are possible, are legends impossible?”[1] If some skeptics are guilty of an a priori commitment to metaphysical naturalism (and so rule out even the possibility of miracles), some Christians are guilty of an a priori commitment to Biblical inerrancy (and so rule out the even possibility of errors in the Biblical miracle stories). But both sides are wrong: miracles and legends are possible. The lesson to be learned here is that we should try to avoid a priori commitments per se and instead look honestly at the evidence.[2]
One Evangelical Christian scholar who looked honestly at the historical evidence about Biblical miracles is Michael Licona. Licona is the author of the 700-page book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.[3] While Licona defends the resurrection of Jesus, he proposes that the story of the resurrection of the saints described in Matthew 27 just might be metaphorical rather than literal history. To his credit, Licona did not allow the potential implications of his commitment to Biblical inerrancy to get in the way. While some Evangelical scholars, such as Paul Copan and Craig Blomberg, rallied to Licona’s defense, others were highly critical. As reported by Christianity Today,[4] other evangelical scholars, most notably Norman Geisler, publicly accused Licona of denying the full inerrancy of the Bible. As a direct result, Licona lost two jobs. Not only did he lose his job as research professor of New Testament at Southern Evangelical Seminary, but he was also ousted as apologetics coordinator for the North American Missions Board (NAMB).
In light of what can only be described as Geisler’s instrumental role in getting Licona fired (twice!) for following the historical evidence wherever Licona thought it leads, skeptics can hardly be blamed for questioning Geisler’s open-mindedness when it comes to evaluating the historical evidence about alleged Biblical miracles.
(2) Hume’s Argument Against the Credibility of Miracle Claims: Even if miracles are possible, it doesn’t follow that they are probable. Geisler and Turek know this and so they consider one objection against the credibility of miracles: Dave Hume’s famous argument against miracles. Following Geisler’s reconstruction of Hume’s argument, Geisler summarizes his critique, originally delivered at Harvard University’s divinity school: (i) Hume confuses believability with possibility; (ii) Hume confuses probability with evidence; and (iii) Hume, without justification, makes it impossible to have sufficient evidence for rare events (205-08).
(a) The Nomological Evidence Argument (against Miracles): Since I have no interest in defending Hume, I shall ignore Geisler’s critique.[5] Instead, I want to present my own argument for the prior improbability of miracles. I call this argument the Nomological Evidence Argument; its name is derived from the Greek word nomos, which means “law.” The argument is not called the “Nomological Argument,” however, since the focus of the argument is not the laws per se, but the evidence for the laws.
Following Geisler and Turek, let’s define a “natural law” as a description of “what happens regularly, by natural causes” and a “miracle” as a description of “what happens rarely, by supernatural causes” (201). The basic idea of the Nomological Evidence Argument is not that the natural laws themselves are evidence against miracles; rather, the evidence for the laws of nature is evidence against the occurrence of miracles. For example, all of our observations and other evidence for the law of gravity is evidence against Superman flying through the air. Similarly, all of our observations and other evidence for the laws of statistical mechanics is evidence for the complete post-mortem decomposition of Jesus’ body and hence evidence against Jesus’ resurrection.[6] In this sense, then, the evidence for the laws of nature is evidence against the occurrence of miracles. We can generalize these points into a simple inductive argument against miracles according to the following schema:

For any law of nature L, the vast majority of relevant observatons (O) has been such that God did not will that events happen contrary to L.


Therefore, prior to investigation, the (epistemic) probability that the next O will be consistent with L is high.

While even many theists would admit that the above argument follows from the definition of “miracle,” Geisler and Turek might object. Allow me to consider some potential objections.
The Naturalistic Fallacy Objection: This argument confuses believability with possibility (207).
Reply: The whole point of the argument is probability (and hence, in Geisler’s and Turek’s terms, “believability”); it says nothing about possibility. As an objection to the Nomological Evidence Argument, this objection commits the “Naturalistic Fallacy” Fallacy, by falsely accusing the defender of the Nomological Evidence Argument of committing the naturalistic fallacy, viz., presupposing that naturalism is true.[7] Even if a defender of this argument were a ‘committed’ metaphysical naturalist, however, it doesn’t follow that the argument presupposes that naturalism is true. In fact, this argument is logically compatible with the assumption that God exists and that we know God exists with certainty. It could be the case that God exists and, for whatever reason, God often wills that all or almost all Os are consistent with L. Rather than assuming that miracles cannot occur, this argument presents defeasible, prima facie evidence that God, for whatever reason, often wills that miracles do not occur.
The Irrelevance Objection: The argument confuses probability with evidence. Prior probabilities are irrelevant to assessing whether miracles have actually happened.[8]
Reply: This objection is itself based upon a confusion, for the Nomological Evidence Argument is solely about the prior probability of miracles. The argument says nothing about the final (or posterior) probability of any given miracle. In any case, using Bayes’s Theorem, we can mathematically prove that final probability is determined by multiplying prior probability and likelihood (i.e., how likely the evidence is to obtain, on the assumption the miracle actually happened). So assessing the prior probability of miracles is not only appropriate, but necessary for a proper assessment of their overall (final) probability.
The Extreme Skepticism Objection: The argument makes it impossible to have sufficient evidence for rare events.
Reply: This is false. First, since the final probability is the product of prior probability and likelihood, we can have sufficient evidence for rare events if the likelihood is sufficiently high. Second, there is another, technical reason why this objection fails, a reason which will probably only be of interest to philosophers. I’ll mention it briefly. This objection presupposes a frequentist interpretation of probability, whereby probability means relative frequency.[9] But that’s not the only definition of probability. According to an epistemic interpretation of probability, probability means “degree of belief.” The epistemic interpretation makes it possible to have a high probability (i.e., high degree of belief) for rare events.
The Divine Interference Objection: The argument confuses the probability of miracles, which are by definition supernatural events, with the probability of unusual natural events. It only shows that miracles as natural events have low prior probabilities. It does not show that miracles as supernatural events have low prior probabilities. Therefore, the evidence for natural laws provides no evidence at all against God’s intervention in natural affairs.[10]
Reply: Consider the following hypothetical conversation between Christi, a Christian, and Skep, a skeptic.

Christi: Jesus walked on water.

Skep: What’s the evidence for that?

Christi: The report in Matthew 14:22-33.

Skep: That’s pretty weak evidence for a miracle.  Besides, the evidence for gravity is evidence against that miracle ever occurring.

Christi: You’re confused about the nature of the miracle claim.

Skep: What do you mean?

Christi: The claim of Matthew 14:22-33 is that Jesus supernaturally walked on water. It is not the claim that Jesus walked naturally on water. That Jesus walked naturally on water is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think it is improbable that God enabled Jesus to walk on water.[11]

Skep:  All of the evidence in which natural laws provide an accurate description of natural affairs are “ipso facto cases in which an external agent (i.e., God) has not intervened in natural affairs” and hence cases where God has not willed a miracle. So the observed frequency of non-miracles “automatically factors in the frequency with which external agents (e.g., God)” will that miracles do not occur. [12]

Christi: But the only antecedent factor that is relevant for a miracle is whether He wills for a miracle to happen. If God wills a miracle to happen, then there is a 100% chance it will occur.[13]

Skep: I agree that if God wills a miracle to happen it must happen. But that does not refute the Nomological Evidence Argument; it supports it. The empirical evidence—the extremely high observed frequency of non-miracles—shows that God  “has an exceptionally strong tendency not to supernaturally intervene in natural affairs.”[14] Therefore, the prior probability that God would will a miracle is “astronomically low.”[15]

The Free Will Objection: Whatever the probabilities are, God is free to choose otherwise.
Reply: This objection fails for essentially the same reason as the previous objection. Yes, God, if He exists, can will that a miracle occur “anytime He wants” (216). The observational-relative frequency of non-miracles shows that God has an extremely weak tendency to will that miracles occur. It is beyond reasonable doubt that, prior to investigation, the evidence we have for any law of nature L is at least some evidence against God’s miraculous intervention contrary to L. But this entails that miracles have a low prior probability, conditional upon the evidence for natural laws, which serves as the relevant background information.
In sum, then, Geisler and Turek are able to create the appearance that “disbelief in miracles is probably more a matter of the will than of the mind” (209) only by ignoring arguments other than Hume’s. The Nomological Evidence Argument isn’t dependent upon Hume’s argument, however.  Furthermore, mining Geisler’s and Turek’s material for other potential objections turned out to provide no good reason to reject the Nomological Evidence Argument. Geisler and Turek are going to need to come up with bettter arguments for the credibility of miracles if they are going to answer contemporary skeptics.
(3) Miracles as Authenticated Messages from God: As I read them, G&T make two points. (i) On the assumption that theism is true, we should expect that God would “reveal more of himself and his purpose for our lives”(200). (ii) Miracles provide a way to confirm that such revelations are “message[s] from God” (201).
Regarding (i), I’m inclined to agree with Geisler and Turek that theism provides us with reasons to expect that God would reveal His existence and His purpose for our lives. It isn’t obvious, however, why God would need to use a miracle to reveal His existence and purpose, as opposed to some other, mundane alternative.
Furthermore, the theistic expectation that God would reveal His existence and purpose is a double-edged sword for theism; it raises the “problem of divine hiddenness” and associated arguments for atheism. For now, I will mention two. First, if a perfectly loving God exists, then why are there reasonable nonbelievers? As J.L. Schellenberg has argued, this fact implies atheism.[16] Second, in addition to the general fact of divine hiddenness, the more specific fact that God is silent about His purpose(s) for creating humans is evidence favoring atheism over theism.[17]
As for (ii), Geisler and Turek present a very interesting discussion of six different categories of unusual events: anomalies, magic, psychosomatic, Satanic signs, providence, and miracles (210). Overall, I agree with what I consider to be Geisler’s and Turek’s most important point (albeit one they didn’t state in quite this way), namely, that there’s a difference between an unusual event and a bona fide miracle; in order to establish that a miracle has occurred, one has to do more than show that a mere anomaly has taken place.
In his book, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day, David J. Hand describes what he calls the “Improbability Principle,” a set of laws of chance which, together, tell us that

extremely improbable events are commonplace. It’s a consequence of more fundamental laws, which all tie together to lead inevitably and inexorably to the occurrence of such extraordinarily unlikely events. These laws, in principle, tell us that the universe is in fact constructed so that these coincidences are unavoidable: the extraordinarily unlikely must happen; events of vanishingly small probability will occur. The Improbability Principle resolves the apparent contradiction between the sheer unlikeliness of such events, and the fact that they nevertheless keep on happening.[18]

(4) The Lack of Biblical-Quality Miracles Today: Finally, Geisler and Turek seek to respond to a common objection to Biblical miracles: “If there are no public, biblical-quality miracles happening today (and if they were, they’d be on the Fox News Channel), then why should I think they happened in the past?” (215).
According to Geisler and Turek, most of the Bible’s 250 miracles occurred

in very small windows of history, during three distinct time periods—during the lifetimes of Moses, Elijah and Elisha, and Jesus and the apostles. Why then? Because those were the times when God was confirming new truth (revelation) and new messengers with that truth. (216)

They speculate that, “if the Bible is true and complete,” then God may not have a reason to perform miracles today because God is not confirming any revelation today (216).
Speculative as it is, this “What If?” explanation amounts to a quasi-theodicy, viz., an attempt to offer a theistic explanation for potential evidence against theism.[19]  I agree with Geisler and Turek that their explanation is logically possible; the fact that Biblical-quality miracles do not happen today does not contradict or disprove the historicity of Biblical miracles.
But Geisler and Turek ignore a philosophically more interesting question, namely, “Is the lack of contemporary Biblical-quality miracles evidence favoring naturalism over theism?” It seems to me that the answer is very likely, “Yes.” If metaphysical naturalism is true, then there are no supernatural beings to perform miracles. Thus, metaphysical naturalism entails that there would be no Biblical-quality miracles today. In contrast, if theism is true, miracles are, at the very least, possible. (And note that this is true even if Geisler and Turek are correct that Christian theism provides very little or no antecedent reason to expect Biblical-quality miracles today.) Thus, if there are indeed no Biblical-quality miracles today, that is more probable on naturalism than on theism and hence evidence for naturalism and against theism.
Summary and Conclusion

  1. Both miracles and legends are possible. If some skeptics are guilty of an a priori commitment to metaphysical naturalism (and so rule out even the possibility of miracles), some Christians are guilty of an a priori commitment to Biblical inerrancy (and so rule out even the possibility of errors in the Biblical miracle stories).  We should try to avoid a priori commitments per se and instead look honestly at the evidence.
  2. Both nontheists and theists alike have good reason—a reason not based on Hume—to be skeptical of an alleged miracle prior to an empirical investigation. This reason is the Nomological Evidence Argument, which states that the evidence for natural laws is defeasible, prima facie evidence against alleged miracles. This argument does not presuppose naturalism; on the contrary, it is logically consistent with the presupposition that God exists and that we know God exists with certainty.
  3. In this chapter, we read about three new lines of evidence (or potential evidence) for metaphysical naturalism and against theism: (i) the reasonableness of nonbelief (i.e., nontheism); (ii) God’s silence about His purpose(s) for creating humans; and (iii) the fact (if it is a fact) that there are no Biblical-quality miracles occuring today. Each of these three lines of evidence are more probable on the assumption that naturalism is true than on the assumption that theism is true and so are evidence against theism and for naturalism.

 


Rebuttal to Geisler’s and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist”

Notes
[1] Robert M. Price, “By This Time He Stinketh: The Attempts of William Lane Craig to Exhume Jesus” The Secular Web (1997), http://infidels.org/library/modern/robert_price/stinketh.html.
[2] http://exapologist.blogspot.com/2006/12/priori-naturalism-priori-inerrantism.html. It is noteworthy that this philosopher of religion lists Geisler’s book, When Critics Ask, as one of several books which contain just-sostories to explain away indicators of errors in the Bible.
[3] Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010).
[4] Bobby Ross, Jr., “Interpretation Sparks a Grave Theology Debate” Christianity Today (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/november/interpretation-sparks-theology-debate.html), November 7, 2011.
[5] For a technical critique of Hume’s argument, see John Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). For a defense of Hume against Earman’s critique, see Peter Millican, “Hume, Miracles, and Probabilities: Meeting Earman’s ChallengeDavidHume.org (July-August 2003), http://www.davidhume.org/papers/millican/2003%20Hume%20Miracles%20Probabilities.pdf. Cf. Elliott Sober, “A Modest ProposalPhilosophy and Phenomenological Research 118 (2004): 489-96.
[6] Robert Greg Cavin and Carlos Colombetti, “The Great Mars Hill Resurrection Debate” The Secular Web (2013), http://infidels.org/images/media/library/modern/greg_cavin/resurrection-debate.pdf, 316-21.
[7] Cavin and Colombetti 2013, 15.
[8] Norman L. Geisler, “A Critical Review of The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005), ed. Robert Price and Jeffrey [sic] Lowder” Dr. Norman L. Geisler (n.d.), normgeisler.com/articles/theResurrection/2005-ACriticalReviewOfBookTheEmptyTomb.htm.
[9] See, e.g., “Frequentist Probability” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frequentist_probability.
[10] I owe the name of this objection to Robert Greg Cavin and Carlos Colombetti 2013, slide 15.
[11] Cf. William Lane Craig’s similar objection to skeptics who claim that the resurrection of Jesus has a low prior probability, as stated in several of his debates, e.g., his debate with Bart Ehrman. reasonablefaith.org/is-there-historical-evidence-for-the-resurrection-of-jesus-the-craig-ehrman#section_1.
[12] Cavin and Colombetti 2013, 271.
[13] Geisler n.d.
[14] Cavin and Colombetti 2013, 103.
[15] Cavin and Colombetti 2013, 105.
[16] J.L. Schellenberg, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1993, 2006).
[17] B.A. Trisel, “God’s Silence as an Epistemological ConcernThe Philosophical Forum 43 (2012): 383-393. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9191.2012.00433.x.
[18] David J. Hand, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day (New York: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), 5.
[19] I call this a “quasi-theodicy” and not a “theodicy” since the word “theodicy” is normally used only in the context of arguments from evil. The (alleged) lack of contemporary, Biblical-quality miracles is not a species of the genus known as arguments from evil, however.

bookmark_borderHume’s Beautiful Argument

In two of my classes this term we have been reading Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Whenever I read his Section X, “Of Miracles,” I am once again struck by the beauty, simplicity, and the power of his argument. Oceans of ink have been spilled by philosophers commenting on this argument, and many of those comments have been critical, often harshly so. Hume himself was rather proud of his reasoning on miracles:
Nothing is so convenient as an argument of this kind, which must at least silence the most arrogant bigotry and superstition, and free us from their impertinent solicitations. I flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument…which, if just, will with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful so long as the world endures (144; emphasis in original; Hume page references are to An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Antony Flew, ed., Open Court, 1988).
Hume was right and his legion of detractors wrong. Given the limitations that Hume places on his claims, the argument is obviously and undeniably sound, and will indeed be of use as long as there are aggressive ax grinders for the supernatural. In other words, it will indeed be useful “…so long as the world endures.”
The limitations that Hume places on his argument are these:
1) His argument is defensive in nature. Hume does not present his argument as a knockdown critique aimed at demolishing any and all belief in miracles. More modestly, he aims to provide tools that the “wise and learned” may use as an “everlasting check” against the “impertinent solicitations” of aggressive miracle mongers. He is not attempting to show the irrationality of belief in the miraculous, but the rationality of unbelief. His arguments provide the basis for reasonable doubt concerning the miraculous.
2) Hume considers only miracle claims supported solely by human testimony. He does not consider cases where, for instance, there might be a direct public demonstration of miraculous powers, like walking on water or raising the dead. Nor is he concerned with possible physical traces of miracles, such as those claimed for the so-called Shroud of Turin. His argument concerns only evidence from one or more witnesses who claim to have observed miraculous occurrences.
3) Hume targets only those extraordinary claims adduced with a specifically apologetic intent, i.e. those cited with the aim of establishing the credentials of a purported revelation. Indeed, he does not deny that there might be adequate testimonial evidence for the occurrence of events contrary to the usual course of nature (163; more on this below). He denies that a miracle can ever be proved by testimony “…so as to be the foundation of a system of religion (163).” That is, he denies that testimonial evidence can ever support a religion’s miracle claims strongly enough to establish that religion’s claim to unique truth or legitimacy. Hume holds that the well-girded skeptic can always reasonably deny such claimed credentials.
In short, Hume holds that no religion can establish beyond reasonable doubt its credentials as the one true, definitive, or authoritative revelation by appeal to miracle claims where those claims are supported solely by human testimony. On the contrary, it will always be eminently reasonable to doubt such miracle claims.
Given these qualifications, what is Hume’s argument? Hume’s argument begins, as many good philosophical arguments do, with our commonsense and intuitive judgments. Rational persons do not believe all they are told; rather, they proportion their belief to the evidence. When someone tells us that something is so, we have to consider two types of evidence in deciding whether their testimony is believable. First, we obviously have to consider the reliability of the person making the claim. Is he honest? Does he have a motivation to lie or prevaricate? Is he prone to fantasy or delusion? Even if he is honest and not delusional, does he have the qualifications necessary to reliably make such a report? Clearly, for instance, we would accept only the report of an expert ornithologist that a living ivory-billed woodpecker had been sighted (if even then). As Hume puts it:
We entertain a suspicion of any matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict one another; when they are but few, or of a doubtful character; when they have an interest in what they affirm; when they deliver their testimony with hesitation, or on the contrary with too violent asseverations. There are many other particulars of the same kind, which may diminish or destroy the force of any argument, derived from human testimony (146).
Secondly, and crucially, we have to consider how plausible the claim is apart from the particular present testimony. Some stories are so far-fetched, so absolutely incredible, that they are not believable even if told by a person of absolute trustworthiness. If saintly Mother Teresa had announced that she flew to her Nobel Peace Prize ceremony not in an aircraft, but simply by flapping her arms, then I presume that no sane person would have believed her. In general, however reliable some testifier may be, reasonable persons reserve the right to remain incredulous if the claim is just too unbelievable. As Hume put it:
I would not believe that story were it told me by Cato, [a noble Roman of impeccable honesty] was a proverbial saying in Rome even during the life of that philosophical patriot…The incredibility of a fact, it was allowed, might invalidate so great an authority (147).
The upshot is that the believability of a claim based on testimony therefore comes down to (a) the reliability of the testifier(s) and (b) the prior plausibility of the claim. If the purported witness or witnesses are unreliable and/or the claim is just too implausible, then we rightly discount the testimony. Now just as the reliability of witnesses comes in degrees, so too does the plausibility of claims. Some claims are so prosaic that we demand little evidence to accept them and might even accept the word of a fool. A story might be so trite that I would believe that story were it told me by Sarah Palin. However, the more implausible the claim, the more worthy the testimony must be to make the claim credible. As the Skeptical Inquirer crowd likes to put it, extraordinary claims require
extraordinary evidence.
Surely, up to this point Hume’s argument claims absolutely nothing that any reasonable person need dispute. Really, how could he be wrong? Should we just believe any claims that we find congenial and not bother to check them out? Should we just ignore the motives, character, or qualifications of the person making a claim? Does it just not matter if a claim is extremely implausible? Should we regard farfetched claims with the same insouciance that we do everyday ones? Hume is so far merely articulating the most basic and indispensible epistemological commonplaces when it comes to the rational assessment of testimony. Yet Hume’s whole argument concerning miracle claims rests on these commonplaces. Maybe the reason so many philosophers have had problems with Hume’s argument is that they cannot believe that it is really so simple, and they strain to make something deeper or more profound out of it, thereby creating a straw man in the process.
So, how extraordinary are miracle claims? As extraordinary as can be. Hume defines a miracle as, “…a transgression of a law of nature by the particular volition of the deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent (149).” Forget the stuff about the invisible agent; consider the requirement that a miracle be a transgression of a law of nature. It is essential to note that this is not a gratuitous stipulation by Hume. On the contrary, it is absolutely essential for the miracle claimer that the miracle is in some sense more than merely extraordinary. If a miracle claim is to do the job of establishing the credentials of a religion, showing even the hard-bitten skeptic that it is the only true or legitimate one, then it cannot be the sort of event that the skeptic would rightly and reasonably dismiss. It cannot be something that is merely highly extraordinary or very unusual, like your cable TV company lowering its prices and improving its service. It has to be something that is genuinely physically impossible, i.e. something which, to the best of our knowledge, and short of supernatural intervention, just cannot happen.
In one of the skits from the old Monty Python TV series from the ‘60’s, a sleazy character exploits a deranged individual by putting him up to a series of impossible tasks, like jumping the English Channel in one leap, eating an entire cathedral, and digging to Java with a shovel. Everything we know about human capacities tells us that such things simply cannot be done. It is not just that we do not do these things; we cannot. Leaping the English Channel, eating a cathedral, and digging to Java with a shovel are things which, for a human being, are physically impossible. Therefore, if someone, with a straight face, reported that some such event had occurred, we should initially regard such a report with maximum incredulity, right? Is there the slightest chance that a man could eat a cathedral for lunch, or that a nun could fly by flapping her arms, or that a cow could jump over the moon? Nobody could possibly deny that such a report would be anything but utterly unbelievable. Surely, no featherless biped would be so pointlessly and perversely argumentative as to gainsay that.
Well, some philosophers might be. Philosophers, particularly those of a Bayesian bent, will point out that the believability of a claim for an individual depends crucially upon that individual’s prior beliefs, and that these may rationally vary greatly from person to person. A claim that is utterly incredible for one person might not be so unbelievable to another, depending upon those persons’ “priors.” For instance, if I believe that Senator Phogbound is a venal, influence-peddling lapdog of major campaign donors, then I will tend to believe it when I hear that the Ethics Committee has brought charges of vote selling against him. On the other hand, an admirer of the senator, one who regards him as honest and upright, will, initially at least, tend to doubt the charges. Given our very different prior beliefs, it may well be that neither of us is being irrational in our initial attitudes towards the Ethics Committee’s charges. The underlying point about human rationality is this: When we assess the believability of any claim, we have no choice but to begin on our own epistemic turf. We have to start where we are, with the convictions we presently have. Now the evidence for a new claim might lead us to abandon or revise our present beliefs, but our initial attitude towards the claim, i.e. how plausible or implausible we regard it (and hence how heavy a burden of proof we will place on the claim) must be determined by our present convictions.
The relevance of all of these points about rationality to the credibility of miracle reports is this: Some people who receive such reports will be skeptics like Hume who will rightly regard such reports as maximally implausible, and will consequently place a mountainous burden of proof on such reports. On the other hand, some who hear such reports might be theists who believe that there is a God who is capable of performing miracles and who will perform them when he deems the time right. Hence, when an appropriate miracle is reported in an appropriate context (and not something silly like flying nuns or tunneling to Java), then such a person might reasonably initially regard such a report as less than totally incredible. Suppose, for instance, that a devout Jew were, for the first time, to read the Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus. Such a person, being a believer in a God who can and has performed miracles (e.g., the parting of the Red Sea), might reasonably regard these reports with less initial skepticism than would, say, David Hume. Thus, it is wrong to say that reports of physically impossible events should always be regarded as maximally implausible by everyone. Some such reports might reasonably be regarded by some people as not quite so outrageously implausible, and so they might reasonably place a lower burden of proof on those claims.
OK. Fair enough. But remember that Hume is interested in whether there could ever be sufficient evidence to convince the skeptic, one who initially regards such reports as maximally improbable. If you want to convince ME that a miracle has occurred, you have to address MY priors, not yours. Further, I may be fully within my epistemic rights to initially regard your miracle claims as no more believable than reports of flying nuns or tunneling to Java.
Could there be sufficient testimonial evidence to convince even the hard-bitten skeptic that a miracle had occurred? Hume’s answer is that, in principle, yes. Some critics of Hume, sometimes deploying much sophisticated Bayesian machinery, have argued that the testimony of a sufficient number of independent witnesses could overcome even a very low prior probability for such an occurrence. But such effort is wasted if it is intended as a criticism of Hume. Hume concedes the point. Indeed, Hume’s explicit conclusion to Part I of his essay is that the burden of proof could, in principle, be met:
When anyone tells me that he saw a dead person restored to life I immediately consider with myself whether it is more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or the fact, which he relates, should really have happened…if the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion (149).
In other words, Hume says that he will accept a miracle report when (and only when) the improbability of the report’s falsehood is even greater than the prior improbability of the miracle. You just cannot ask for fairer than that.
The purpose of Part I of Hume’s miracle essay is therefore not to exclude the possibility that a miracle report could be confirmed by testimony. He explicitly says that it could. His aim is merely to show how very heavy a burden of proof such a claim must bear when it is directed to the well-girded skeptic. The purpose of Part II is to adduce historical evidence to show how very unlikely it is that any actual such miracle claim can meet such a burden of proof. In “Of Miracles,” Hume speaks as both a philosopher and a historian. The philosopher delineates the conditions under which the burden of proof could be met by the miracle claimer. The historian asks whether any actual miracles have met that burden. If the answer is negative, and if history is any guide (and if it isn’t, what is?) then the philosopher can step back in and, informed by the historical findings, draw conclusions about the kinds of miracle claims we are likely to get . This is Hume’s procedure.
At the beginning of Part II, Hume reiterates his conclusion from Part I that a miracle claim could conceivably be established by probative testimony. He then in effect tells us, “And you should be so lucky as to ever get such ideal testimony!” In fact, the actual historical circumstances in which miracle claims have been made have rendered such testimony far below ideal. Hume lists four circumstances of historical miracle claims that are detrimental to the credibility of those claims.
First, he simply claims that the actual historical records of miracle reports fall far short of the ideal:
…there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning, as to assure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity as to place them beyond any suspicion of design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and, at the same time, attesting facts performed in such a public manner and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable…(150).
But this is assertion, not argument. Defenders of historical miracle claims, such as those reported in the Gospels, would rightly regard Hume as here merely begging the question. Now, in my view, if Hume’s comments here are taken to address the miracle claims in the Gospels, Hume seriously understates the problems involved. However this conclusion has to be established and not merely asserted. Even the best philosophers sometimes make freshman mistakes.
Hume’s second cited circumstance is much more relevant:
We may observe a principle in human nature which, if strictly examined, will be found to diminish extremely the assurance, which we might, from human testimony, have in any kind of prodigy…The passions of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived (151).
Hume merely observes, what cannot be gainsaid, that people love tall tales:
With what greediness are the miraculous accounts of travelers received, their descriptions of land and sea monsters, their relations of wonderful adventures, strange men and uncouth manners (151)?
Two and a half centuries of scientific progress since Hume have certainly not made things any different for us. On any random day it is a good bet that somewhere on TV you can find a program about UFO’s, alien abductions, the “prophecies” of Nostradamus, ancient astronauts, Bigfoot, ghosts, ESP, etc. People still eat this stuff up, just as in Hume’s day. When you hear hoofbeats in the distance, you should think “Aha! Horses!” not “Aha! Unicorns!” But unicorns are a lot more fun. A few years back, Phoenix, AZ was all abuzz over a big “UFO” sighting. People were obviously disappointed to learn that it was due to the U.S. Air Force dropping long-burning flares, and quite a few refused to accept that explanation. E.T.’s are fun; flares are just lame.
But the natural human love of the weird and wondrous is less than half the story:
But if the spirit of religion join itself to the love of wonder, there is an end of common sense; and human testimony, in these circumstances, loses all pretensions to authority. A religionist may be an enthusiast [i.e., a fanatic] and imagine he sees what has no reality: he may know his narrative to be false, and yet persevere in it, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause… (151).
Now lying for Jesus is pretty common, but the most interesting cases are those that do not involve deliberate misrepresentation. Some years ago a woman in Conyers, Georgia claimed to have visitations from the Virgin Mary on the thirteenth of every month. She would report the banal “revelations” she supposedly received. When the thirteenth of the month fell on a Sunday, hundreds of thousands would gather and have a kind of Catholic Woodstock. Now at these gatherings various miraculous events would be reported. One of the most common, also
reported in conjunction with the events at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917, was that the sun was dancing and spinning in the sky. A skeptical friend attended one of these events and set up a telescope with a solar filter, calling upon all who would look to see that the sun was not performing a fandango, but was merely up to its usual activities. Yet people all around continued to claim that the sun was gyrating, and no doubt they honestly thought that it was.
Actually, we know far more now than was known in Hume’s day about how people under the spell of powerful motivations or obsessions can form false beliefs. For instance, much work has been done on false memories to show how easily people can be led to “remember” what never happened. Further, it has been shown many times how beliefs distort perception. Carl Sagan offers a number of telling examples:
Teachers are presented with two groups of children who have, unknown to them, tested equally well on all examinations. But the teachers are informed that one group is smart and the other dumb. The subsequent grades reflect that initial and erroneous assessment, independent of the performance of the students. Predispositions bias conclusions. . . Witnesses are shown a motion picture of an automobile accident. They are then asked a series of questions such as “Did the blue car run the stop sign?” A week later, when questioned again, a large proportion of the witnesses claim to have seen a blue car — despite the fact that no remotely blue car is in the film. There seems to be a stage, shortly after an eyewitness event, in which we verbalize what we think we have seen and then forever after lock it into our memories. We are very vulnerable in that stage, and any prevailing beliefs–in Olympian gods or Christian saints or extraterrestrial astronauts, say–can unconsciously influence our eyewitness account (from Broca’s Brain, Ballantine Books, 1979, pp 67-68).
Examples of the sort Sagan adduces could be multiplied indefinitely. It is clear that people very often “see” what they want or expect to see rather than what is actually there. People who very much want to see a miracle, especially if they are in a crowd with similarly-minded people, are quite likely to “see” a miracle (and so in miracle reports, the presence of many witnesses often lowers the credibility of the report). In short, modern research has greatly strengthened Hume’s claims here.
Thirdly, Hume notes that traditions about miracles generally arise in “ignorant and barbarous nations,” and if more sophisticated cultures retain such traditions, they generally inherited them from more primitive ancestors (152). Now modern readers may find Hume’s language about “ignorant and barbarous nations,” to be offensively condescending. With our more sensitive attitudes, we might prefer to refer to “pre-scientific” or “pre-modern” societies without implying that they were, in general, ignorant and barbarous, and thus, by implication, inferior to us. Be that as it may, what exactly is Hume’s point here?
John Searle tells a story that might be relevant (see Mind, Language, and Society, Basic Books, 1998, p. 35). When he was a visiting professor at the University of Venice, he lived near a cathedral called the “Madonna Del Orto,” the Madonna of the Orchard. The story goes that when the cathedral was under construction (13th or 14th Century, I guess) the builders had planned to give it a different name. Then a tiny statue of the Madonna was found in an orchard adjacent to the rising cathedral. This was unanimously taken as a sign of the divine will, indicating that the cathedral was to be named after the Madonna, and so it was. Today, Searle notes, if we found a Madonna statuette in a lot next to a church under construction, even the most religious people would probably shrug and dismiss it as a coincidence rather than a supernatural sign. People in past centuries lived with a sense of God’s direct presence and activity in the details of their daily lives that even the devout today would find extraordinary. Searle thinks that today the prevailing attitude, even among religious people, is that shit just happens.
Suppose that Searle and Hume are right. Suppose that people in general (at least in economically advanced societies) are now less credulous about miracles than, say, Jewish fishermen of 2000 years ago. So what? What is the bearing of this anthropological generalization on the question of the confirmation of miracle claims? There is no bearing if the reporters of a miracle claim are not in fact “ignorant and barbarous.” Suppose that a committee consisting of James Randi, Richard Dawkins, Steven Weinberg, Daniel Dennett, Michael Shermer, Peter Atkins, and the editors of Skeptical Inquirer unanimously reported that a resurrection from the dead had been performed in their presence. Strictures against the credulity of the “ignorant and barbarous” would have no relevance to the evaluation of this testimony.
Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly the case that the historical miracle reports that matter the most did originate in ancient societies among unsophisticated and uneducated people who displayed little aptitude for or inclination towards the critical evaluation of miracle reports. An obvious case in point is the purported resurrection of Jesus. The followers of Jesus were simple and uneducated people. There is no reason to think that they were morons or liars, but neither is there any reason to think that they were less subject to the kinds of experiences that convince such people, to this day, that miraculous events have occurred. Nor is there any reason to think that they would have taken a particularly skeptical attitude towards reports that appeared to corroborate their experiences. In short, it is quite likely that the belief that Jesus rose from the dead could have gotten started without Jesus actually rising from the dead. To the extent that this is so, we are justified in regarding the report of Jesus’s resurrection with skepticism.
The upshot is that miracle claims need not originate among the “ignorant and barbarous,” but the historically most important ones did. So, we are justified in being extra skeptical of such reports. The general point to make here is that a credible witness to a purported miracle must possess and employ skills that are rare even today, and certainly were nonexistent among the alleged witnesses of the reported Biblical miracles. As Hume explains, miracle claims usually do not get the critical attention they need until they are well established and the opportunit
ies for critical investigation have passed:
In the infancy of new religions, the wise and the learned commonly esteem the matter too inconsiderable to deserve their attention or regard. And when afterwards they would willingly detect the cheat, in order to undeceive the deluded multitude, the season is now past and the records and witnesses, which might clear up the matter, are perished beyond recovery (162).
Finally, Hume notes that competing religions make competing miracle claims (154). When different religions vie for the right to be called the one true religion, or the final and most authoritative revelation, then any miracles they adduce to support that claim are opposed by the supporting miracles claimed for the other side. Apologists for religion A cannot engage in special pleading when they criticize the miracles adduced in support of competing religion B. The tools of skepticism cannot be deployed to debunk religion B’s miracle claims and then just thrown away when it comes to A’s miracles. This apparently poses a dilemma for apologists for religion A. If they set their standards for miracle reports too high, then, in debunking B’s miracles, they might provide grounds for debunking their own. On the other hand, if they set their standards low enough so that their miracles pass, then the competing miracles might make the grade also. Thus, whether they set their standards for assessing miracle claims high or low, apologists are in danger of undermining their own case.
The standard response to this dilemma is to deny that the miracles performed in the context of other religions compete with the ones performed in the context of our religion. For instance, the argument goes, the Christian God might hear a Hindu’s or Muslim’s prayer for relief and mercifully perform a miraculous healing, though the prayer was addressed to Vishnu or Allah. Thus, even miracles performed when other gods are called upon might be taken to complement, not compete with, the Christian claim that a merciful God exists.
Not all miracle claims need compete, but some clearly do. There was recently a big brouhaha in the news when an idiot Baptist preacher, a supporter of presidential candidate Texas Governor Rick Perry, dismissed Mormonism as a “cult.” To me, of course, this was like the Tooth Fairy ridiculing the Easter Bunny for being imaginary. Suppose though that we staged a debate between a Southern Baptist apologist and a Mormon apologist. Suppose the Mormon adduced the golden tablets supposedly discovered by Joseph Smith in upstate New York, which were allegedly observed by several witnesses who signed documents attesting such. The Baptist would no doubt try to debunk such testimony, but a clever atheist in the audience might wonder whether those same debunking tools could not be used against the miracle claims in the Bible. In short, how can the Baptist be sure that he will not be hoisted with his own petard?
Of course, apologists will brazen it out and claim that their miracles meet high standards of evidence and competing ones do not. Such arguments provide skeptics with many hours of pleasant and useful diversion as they poke big holes in such apologetic claims (see, e.g., the essays by Jeff Lowder, Robert Price, and Richard Carrier in The Empty Tomb, Prometheus Books, 2005).
OK, then, what tools has Hume given the skeptic when the skeptic is confronted with a miracle claim supported solely by human testimony and aimed at establishing the credentials of a purported revelation? First, he notes that we skeptics rightly place a very heavy burden of proof on such a claim. How heavy? As heavy as we like. Again, I get to appeal to my priors, not the apologist’s. If someone reports an event which, apart from that testimony, I have every reason to believe is physically impossible, then I have every right initially to regard that testimony as implausible in the extreme—flying nuns and cows jumping over the moon implausible. Second, I ask whether the alleged witnesses of the purported event might have deceived or have been deceived. There are innumerable circumstances, some mentioned by Hume and many more adduced by more recent research, that can make it highly likely that a given miracle report will be made even when no miracle has occurred. The well-known foibles of human perception and memory and the bias introduced by zeal and wishful thinking undeniably account for the overwhelming majority of miracle reports. Third, if the miracle report originated in a culture that was credulous about such reports and among people who, so far as we can tell, were neither qualified nor inclined to critically investigate such reports, then we have extra reasons to doubt. Finally, if the religion the miracle claims adduced to support is opposed by other purported revelations supported by their own purported miracles, the skeptic can regard those antagonistic miracle claims as undermining each other.
Hume sums up by considering the miracle claims in the Pentateuch:
Here then we are first to consider a book presented to us by a barbarous and ignorant people, written in an age when they were still more barbarous, and in all probability long after the facts it relates, corroborated by no concurring testimony, and resembling those fabulous accounts which every nation gives of its origin. Upon reading this book, we find it full of prodigies and miracles. It gives an account of the state of the world and of human nature entirely different from the present: Of our fall from that state: Of the age of man extended to near a thousand years: Of the arbitrary choice of one people as the favorites of heaven; and that people the countrymen of the author: Of their deliverance from bondage by prodigies the most astonishing imaginable: I desire any one to lay his hand on his heart, and after serious consideration declare, whether he thinks the falsehood of such a book, supported by such testimony, would be more extraordinary and miraculous than all the miracles it relates…(166).
So much, then, for the founding miracles of Judaism, and, Hume clearly holds, so much also for the founding miracle claims of Christianity. Here is the appropriate place to put in Hume’s claim about the general failure of historical miracle claims in to meet the requisite standards of proof.

Still, though, could a miracle claim supported by testimony and aimed at establishing the credentials of a purported revelation ever negotiate this minefield of difficulties and plant its flag in the skeptic’s camp? Maybe none have up to now, but what about the future? Can we be absolutely confident that no miracle report ever will meet the burden of proof? Well, as Hume delighted in arguing elsewhere in the Enquiry, foretelling the future is dicey to say the least. So, the skeptic need not assert categorically and dogmatically that no miracle report will ever meet the burden of proof. But, if the past is any guide, (and, again, if it is not, what is?) the skeptic can confidently sit and wait for such an eventuality, knowing that, as Hume said, the folly, knavery, credulity, and fanaticism of human beings will generate miracle claims for the indefinite future. When they are generated, Hume’s beautiful arguments will be there to deal with them.

bookmark_borderFrom Keith Parsons: Response to Steve Hays

Steve Hays asks whether atheists contradict themselves, saying, first, that no evidence would convince them of a miracle, and, second, that God is to blame for doubters’ lack of belief because he could have performed spectacular public miracles that would have convinced anybody and everybody. If I declare that nothing will convince me that a miracle has occurred, then surely it is inconsistent and unfair then to chide God for failing to deliver one. So, which is it? Will atheists concede that, in principle, there can be sufficient evidence to bear the rational conviction that miracles have occurred, or will they surrender one of their ostensibly most potent arguments–the argument from nonbelief–because, absent that concession, they cannot consistently and fairly charge God with failure to perform dramatic miraculous demonstrations of his existence?
Several things may be said in reply:
First, it is always enjoyable, when confronted by an accusation, to have a tu quoque ready to hand. William Lane Craig and other apologists quite blatantly employ a “heads I win, tails you lose” strategy in arguing with atheists. Craig challenges atheists to show that the balance of evidence favors atheism, but states quite frankly that, whatever the objective evidence, the Christian’s conviction is secure since it is guaranteed by the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. If it is unfair for the atheist to say to God “Show me that you exist, but(nyah! nyah!) nothing you do will convince me,” then it is equally unfair for Craig et al. to demand that atheists present evidence against theism, but then declare, in effect, “Evidence be damned; our assurance comes from on high.”
Second, the miracle that God could perform would not have to be something wildly histrionic, like flying mountains or elephants giving birth to Republican congressmen. God’s miracle could simply be to remove the delusions of unbelievers. God could say the word and the scales would fall from our eyes. We would suddenly see that our objections to theism are just empty quibbles. The theistic arguments, instead of looking like thin, watery, and nutritionless metaphysical gruel, would suddenly be seen in their true light–as solid as geometry,as irrefragable as arithmetic. The arguments of Christian apologists, instead of looking like self-serving spin, obfuscation, and special pleading would be seen as abundant common sense and sound scholarship.The problem of evil, instead of an enormous impediment to belief, would simply become transparently feeble. “Why, of course,” we would say “the death by starvation of 20,000 children in the world each day is no reason at all to doubt that we are under the tender providential care of an all-powerful and perfectly good being!” The Atheist blogs and discussion groups would be jammed with messages like “How could we have been so blind?” and “Surely, Satan must have deluded us!” No one could say that God would be acting unreasonably in performing such a miracle. On the contrary, he would be removing a major source of delusion and irrationality from the world.
Finally, speaking for myself and addressing Mr. Hays’ quote from my master’s thesis written twenty five years and three graduate degrees ago: I would still say, as I did then, that we know pretty well when some event lacks a scientific explanation, but we have no clear idea at all about what sorts of occurrences would be permanently inexplicable.The history of science is full of instances of events that, at the time, were seen as explicable only as divine punishment or providence, but which later got perfectly mundane explanations. The great mortality, the black death, of the 14th Century was seen, by educated and ignorant alike, as a manifestation of divine anger, the Scourge of God. Now, of course, we have a perfectly good scientific explanation of the plague interms of rats, fleas, and Yersinia pestis. Comets, of course, were once portents of doom, God’s fearsome messengers foretelling of war, famine, pestilence, and death. Now we know that comets are dirty snowballs. It seems, then, quite reasonable that if something were to occur today that appeared too marvelous for science to accommodate, the wise course would be to wait for science to catch up.
But I don’t take quite so hard a line as I did as a fiery young atheist convert in his twenties. If the marvelous pictures of the Eagle Nebula taken by the Hubble Space Telescope had been underscored by light-years high luminous cursive writing in the wisps of nebulosity that read “I did this–Jehovah” –and if we could be quite sure that the scientists were not playing a gag–that would probably do it for me. Or maybe if all the galaxies in the Virgo cluster suddenly were rearranged so that, when viewed from earth, they read “Prepare to meet Thy God!”or “Turn or Burn!” that would do it. Or, maybe, if all the lurid, revolting fantasies of the “Left Behind” books started happening–a”rapture” occurred, or banks started requiring that you have “666” on your forehead to approach the teller–that would convince me.
The upshot is that I still cannot spell out any criteria for what it would take to convince me that something is scientifically inexplicable, but I do say now that certain conceivable events would be so dramatic and so contrary to my expectations and so consistent with some version of theism, that I would throw in the towel. But, of course, Christian apologists have nothing to offer even vaguely approaching such public and stupendous events. The Resurrection? That allegedly occurred 2000years ago in very obscure circumstances. The narratives reporting this event were written by persons unknown many years after the supposed fact. These narratives are not eyewitness accounts, but hand-me-down stories, elaborated and redacted propaganda, riddled within consistencies, and with no external support or corroboration. I could go on; in fact I do in Why I am not a Christian, available on the Secular Web, so I’ll just leave it there. I think the way to see Hume’s argument is that it spells out just how heavy the burden of proof is on theists who want to invoke alleged miracles for apologetic purposes, not that it provides an in-principle, once-and-for-all, knock-down way of ruling out miracles. My reading of Hume’s argument is that he says that it is, in principle, possible to confirm, on the basis of human testimony, that an event has occurred contrary to the predictions of a recognized natural law, but (a) the testimony would have to be of impeccable quality, and (b) you should be so lucky as to ever get testimony of that quality. When we consider the paltry offerings of the actual apologetic literature, we see how right Hume was.