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When Is It Rational to Believe in Miracles?

August 23, 2015     Time: 25:09
When Is It Rational to Believe in Miracles?


How should we define miracles and analyze miracle claims?

Transcript When Is It Rational to Believe in Miracles?


KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, when is it rational to believe in miracles? That is the name of this article that we are checking out.[1] You have a chapter in your book Reasonable Faith dealing with miracles. We are looking at this article from Slate online by Hans Halvorson, professor of philosophy at Princeton. You know Dr. Halvorson.

DR. CRAIG: Yes. We were together at a philosophy of physics conference at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He is a specialist in quantum mechanics and philosophy of physics, so he is a very bright, young philosopher and so it is interesting to see what he has to say on this subject.

KEVIN HARRIS: It is interesting because when I read the article, the first part of it he is discounting miracles it seems; then in the last part of it he says but yeah it is rational to believe. Let’s see what point he is trying to make here. He starts out the article by saying,

A recent New York Times bestseller presents numerous accounts of surprising events in the lives of everyday people, arguing that these events were miracles. Should you believe it? My answer here is simple: for any event you experience in your life, no matter how strange, surprising, or wonderful, you should not believe that it is a miracle. Similarly, if somebody tells you that a miracle occurred, you should not believe him.

Really? What if an oncologist is 100 percent certain that her patient has terminal cancer and cannot possibly recover? And yet, when that person’s church holds a prayer vigil, miraculously the next day, the cancer is gone. Would it be rational to suppose that a miracle occurred? I’m sorry to sound harsh, but the answer is No. The oncologist, and everybody else, should continue believing that there is a perfectly cogent scientific explanation for the patient’s recovery.

Am I not condoning a highly irrational attitude, namely a bias against supernatural explanations? Isn’t there a point at which an unbiased observer ought to admit that the evidence points toward a supernatural intervention? Again, I claim that the answer is No.

Let’s stop there for just a moment. Certainly there are terms like “miracles” that we kind of toss around that are not very precise and we say “he had a miracle finish” or a “miracle shot made two points at the buzzer.” We use the term “miracle” when we just mean it was amazing or exciting or breathtaking or even something providential in God’s providence. Perhaps we are not very precise in what we mean by “miracles.”

DR. CRAIG: That is certainly true. It is interesting to me that Halvorson in this article, as comes to light in the second-to-the-last paragraph, thinks of miracles as violations of the laws of nature. That is, I think, an untenable definition of what a miracle is as the philosophical literature on miracles points out. Miracles are not violations of the laws of nature. The laws of nature describe what would happen in a particular case assuming that there are no intervening supernatural factors. They have these what are called ceteris paribus clauses implicit in them – namely, all things being equal, this is what will happen in this situation. But if all things are not equal, the law isn’t violated. Rather, the law just doesn’t apply to that situation because there are other factors at work. In the case of a miracle, God doesn’t violate the laws of nature when he does a miracle. Rather, there will be causal factors at work, namely God, which are supernatural and therefore what the laws of nature predict won’t happen because the laws of nature only make predictions under the assumption that there are no intervening supernatural factors at work. So a miracle, I think, properly defined, is an event which the natural causes at a time and place cannot produce at that time and place. Or, more succinctly, a miracle is a naturally impossible event – an event which the natural causes at a certain time and place cannot bring about. It is beyond the productive capacity of nature.[2]

KEVIN HARRIS: Again, let's distinguish – you've made this distinction before – some things are perhaps in answer to prayer in the life of the believer, or God's providence, but not necessarily a miracle.

DR. CRAIG: Correct. A special providence need not be something that is naturally impossible. If you pray, for example, that your boss will give you a raise and he does, that might be a special providence but we don't need to think that God caused neurons to fire in his brain that wouldn't have fired otherwise to make the decision to give you a raise. That is not what we are talking about here. We are talking about events which would not take place were the natural causes alone operative at that time and place. What Halvorson is arguing here is reminiscent of David Hume's argument against the identification of miracles. I am very disappointed frankly to see this argument on the lips of a contemporary Christian philosopher. He is not denying that people can be healed from cancer or that Jesus might rise from the dead or that the Red Sea might suddenly part at Moses' verbal command. Think of the most outlandish sort of event that you could imagine – the New York Empire State building levitating fifty feet above the ground and then settling back down again. He is not denying that these events could occur and that we could have good reason – good evidence – to believe they occur. He is just saying that if these things occurred you cannot say That was a miracle; that was something that was wrought by God. So he is not denying that the evidence can show these events happened, but he is saying you can't say that event was a miracle and had a supernatural cause.

KEVIN HARRIS: He does sound like Hume when he says,

For all I know, miracles happen every day. What I am saying is that seeing an event as a miracle is to treat that event as falling outside the bounds of science; and there is no amount of evidence that could force us to take such a stance.

That sounds a little like Hume, doesn't it?

DR. CRAIG: Very much so. Notice how he has shifted or moved the goalposts here. Before he was talking about whether it might be rational to believe that a miracle has occurred – that some event is a miracle. Now he is using language of forcing – it cannot force you to believe in a miracle. Look at the next sentence, “What kind of evidence would somebody need to have in order to be rationally compelled to say that an event was a miracle?” The defenders of miracles I don't think ever use language like you are rationally compelled to believe this is a miracle or that you are forced to believe a miracle. Rather they would say that it is plausible that this is a miracle or it is more plausible than not that this is a miracle. The next sentence he says, “That person would have to know that this event could not possibly be explained by future science.” Not at all! It seems to me the defender of miracles would say it is unlikely to be explained by future science. Halvorson here has shifted in the terminology now so that the defender of miracles is supposed to be able to provide rationally compelling reasons that would force a person to believe in miracles to show that this event could not possibly be explained in some other way. That is to lay upon the shoulders of the defenders of miracles a burden of proof which he would reject and which is quite unreasonable. The defender of miracles has merely to show that this event is plausibly a miracle or that it is rational to identify this as a miracle. That is the first point to make. He is shifting the goalposts or setting the bar at a different height than what he was when he began.

The second thing to be said is – notice what his argument is here – he is saying that rather than to believe that the event is a miracle you simply say, Well, there was some unknown law of nature that would explain this. The event is naturally explicable but I don't know what it is.

KEVIN HARRIS: Wait long enough and we'll find out.

DR. CRAIG: Right. And we will find out. So you would never be justified in thinking the event is a miracle. That is a very old argument.[3] That goes back to Spinoza, much less David Hume, against the identification of miracles. As Richard Swinburne points out, that sort of skepticism would be quite unwarranted when we have a sufficiently clear grasp of what the laws of nature are so as to have a pretty good idea that this event is naturally impossible – that this couldn't be explained by some future science. So, as Swinburne says, if such an event were to occur we don't revise the natural law. It would look ad hoc; it would be very unwieldy. You would only revise the natural law if the event in question were to take place repeatedly whenever those conditions obtained. Otherwise the scientist will not revise the natural law in question.

What would lead you to think that an event is a miracle? I think it would not simply be that the event cannot be explained by the laws of nature, because scientific anomalies can occur. You don't revise the laws, but you just say we don't know in this case what happened. I think what would justify you in thinking that it is a miracle is when it occurs in a significant religio-historical context that tips you off that this is a miracle. So, for example, the events in the life of Jesus, like feeding the five thousand, walking on the water, his resurrection from the dead are, I think, very plausibly miraculous events when given the significant religio-historical context in which they occurred. Jesus' own radical personal claims and ministry make it, I think, very plausible that these are miracles. In fact, I have to say I can't think of a single skeptic or critic who says, “Yes, I think that Jesus really did rise from the dead but this was just a purely natural event.” Given the nature of the resurrection and the religio-historical context in which it occurs, I think it is very plausible that if the resurrection happened it was probably a miracle.

KEVIN HARRIS: It wasn't some guy Joe down the block who rose – it was Jesus.

DR. CRAIG: Who had claimed to be the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Son of God, and who was crucified for those allegedly blasphemous claims.

KEVIN HARRIS: He seems to be saying this a little bit later. I'm just going to jump down here a little bit. He says,

Technically, what I just said contradicts my earlier claim [because he says he thinks you can believe miracle claims in the Bible] that you ought never to believe that an event was a miracle. So let me amend that claim: you ought never believe that a miraculous event occurred, unless such a claim is an integral part of a religious narrative, the whole of which is rational to believe.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah. And that is exactly the point I am making about occurring within a significant religio-historical context. It tips you off that it is a miracle. But I don’t think Halvorson really understands this because he goes on to give the example of the story of Lazarus rising from the dead. How does he respond to this? He doesn’t say, Given the historical context of Jesus’ radical personal claims and powers and other miracle claims, it is rational to believe that Lazarus’ coming back from the dead was a miracle. That is not what Halvorson says. He says rather what we should say is, Yes, Lazarus came back from the dead but we really don’t know if there is a law of nature that says ‘dead men don’t rise again.’ So you still can’t say that it was a miracle that Lazarus rose from the dead. You can be rational to believe Lazarus did rise from the dead, but you cannot say God raised Lazarus from the dead. That is just to repeat his earlier point. So I don’t think he really gets it with regard to the way in which a significant religio-historical context can tip you off to identifying an anomalous event as a miracle.

KEVIN HARRIS: Let me back up though to where we were. He says,

To declare that an event was a miracle would be tantamount to saying: “I’m simply not going to try to understand this event in scientific terms.” (Now, there are perfectly good reasons to give up on seeing events in scientific terms; but these reasons have to do with human desires, not with evidence.) So, I say: as long as you’re trying to see the world scientifically, then you should refuse to believe that any event is a miracle.

Maybe he is trying to exaggerate the point a little bit and say if you are just going to look at things strictly scientifically, you can always say we will find out later in future science and find out it wasn’t so miraculous after all.[4]

DR. CRAIG: There are two points to be made here. First, this is a bad argument against miracles. What he is saying is to believe in miracles is bad for science. It is a sort of science-stopper if you say that an event is a miracle. He says that is tantamount to saying “I’m not going to try to understand this in scientific terms.” That is simply patently false. When a scientist proposes a hypothesis he then delineates conditions which would falsify that hypothesis. Then he will test to see whether he can falsify his hypothesis. If the hypothesis survives these attempts at falsification, that corroborates the hypothesis and makes it all the stronger. Similarly, someone who believes that an event is a miracle will be very open to trying to explain it away as due to psychological or other sorts of factors because these are, in effect, attempts at falsification. If the hypothesis survives these tests, the miracle hypothesis will be corroborated. So by no means is believing that an event is a miracle a science-stopper or a refusal to look at alternative ways to explain it scientifically.

The second point is that his rephrasing here is almost tautologous as I think you said. It is almost true by definition. As long as you are trying to see the world scientifically then you should refuse to believe that any event is a miracle. What that seems to say is, as long as you only look at the world as being explicable through science, you should never believe in a miracle. Well, duh! That’s right because a miracle is naturally inexplicable, right? It is a naturally impossible event. So if you are only trying to look at the world naturally, you will not believe in naturally impossible events. Sure! But that is a tautology. The question is: should we be open to the possibility that events could be identified that are not naturally explicable?

KEVIN HARRIS: You’ve always pointed out as well that the religio-historical context gives weight to the evidence in a sense. It certainly grounds it in more rational terms, and increases the evidence for it.

DR. CRAIG: I would prefer to put it this way. I think the religio-historical context helps to provide the interpretive context for identifying an event as a miracle. The religio-historical context of the empty tomb doesn’t itself increase the evidence for the empty tomb. The evidence for the empty tomb comes from the literary testimonial evidence that we have that I’ve delineated in my work on the resurrection that has convinced the vast majority of New Testament scholars that the empty tomb of Jesus is a historical fact. The fact that that occurs in the religio-historical context doesn’t make that evidence any better. We already have good evidence the tomb was found empty. What it does is it gives you a clue to how to interpret the empty tomb – to say, wait a minute, maybe this is a miracle. Maybe God raised Jesus from the dead, and that is why the tomb is empty.

So a miracle claim in the absence of a religio-historical context is inherently ambiguous because it could just be a bald scientific anomaly. We need something that will tip us off to its supernatural character.

KEVIN HARRIS: Let me bring up another old chestnut – methodological naturalism. How does this play into this? Are we to assume a naturalistic explanation unless we have warrant to believe otherwise?

DR. CRAIG: I wondered that in reading this article as well. Is Halvorson plumping here for sort of methodological naturalism? It is not clear to me that he is. Methodological naturalism is the assumption that we should only entertain naturalistic explanations for the facts. He comes close to that, but what he is saying is that you would never have any reason to adopt a supernatural explanation over a natural explanation.[5] He is not saying you can’t have supernatural explanations in the pool of explanatory options. Say you have some data to be explained and you have a pool of, say, five explanatory options. He would say the naturalistic ones, no matter how improbable, no matter how outlandish, always take precedence over the supernatural one. I simply don’t see any reason to think that is true. It could well be that given the religio-historical context in which the event occurs that the supernatural explanation might well be a much better explanation and that our knowledge of the relevant laws of nature are such that we have a pretty good idea that this event is naturally impossible.

KEVIN HARRIS: I’ve never totally gotten that. It is like, should I always employ methodological naturalism or not? Because we tend to be naturally skeptical of miracle claims. Is it a moderate methodological naturalism in that we don’t rule out all the possible options but we are going to look for natural explanations otherwise or until we find a reason not to? Don’t we all do that is what I am asking?

DR. CRAIG: I think that is true. I think all things being equal we look first for natural explanations for an event.

KEVIN HARRIS: We don’t punt immediately to . . .

DR. CRAIG: No, of course not. It would only be in cases where you have such a knowledge of the relevant natural causes as to be able to say with some confidence that these causes are inadequate to bring about this effect. Then there is a religio-historical context that gives good grounds for thinking that a supernatural explanation is plausible. That would give you reasons to believe in miracles.

KEVIN HARRIS: He goes on to say that he doesn’t discount the miracles of the Bible, apparently as a Christian, because he thinks the overriding narrative is rational to believe. We discussed that. How does he wrap this article up? He says,

Thus, I have claimed, on the one hand, that you ought never believe that some event, which occurs outside of the biblical narrative, is a miracle. (You might convince me that a rather surprising event occurred; I’ll just deny that it’s a “miracle” in any technical sense.) On the other hand, I’ve also claimed that it can be rational to believe in the miracle stories of the Bible—because the miracle stories in the Bible are relevantly different than the purported miracles of today.

Maybe this is what he is trying to say?

DR. CRAIG: Well, the problem is, I think, he hasn’t justified that conclusion. What he said is that it is rational to believe Lazarus rose from the dead, but you cannot believe that that was a miracle, he says. Similarly, what about Jesus rising from the dead? You could believe Jesus rose from the dead, but he would prohibit you saying that God raised Jesus from the dead or that that was a miracle. He hasn’t shown that the miracle stories in the Bible are relevantly different from miracles that occur today in a charged religio-historical context. I quoted him earlier saying that the miracle stories in the Bible were not intended to make the claim that an event violated the laws of nature. Certainly the miracle stories in the Bible are meant to make the claim that these are naturally impossible events. Think of the story of the healing of the blind man in John 9 where the Pharisees try again and again to interrogate this man to try to explain how it is that this man born blind is now seeing. The man says, This is remarkable. Ever since the creation of the world it is never been heard of that a man been born blind has been healed. If this man were not from God he could do nothing. Now I think that blind man reasoned rightly and hence Halvorson did not.[6]