The Doctrine of Creation (part 17)

December 20, 2008     Time: 00:38:08


Miracles continued.

The last couple of weeks we’ve been thinking about the problem of miracles. We saw that the 19th century collapse of the belief in miracles took place largely as a result of the influence of arguments such as those of Benedict Spinoza and David Hume.

Last time I argued that the presupposition of both of these thinkers that miracles should be defined as violations of the laws of nature was in fact an incorrect definition. It is both incoherent as well as enormously prejudicial psychologically. The proper understanding of a miracle is that a miracle is an event which is beyond the productive capacity of the natural causes which exist at the time and place of the occurrence of the event. If a miracle, therefore, occurs, the only explanation of such an event would be a non-natural or supernatural cause; that is to say, a being such as God is – a being such as Christians believe in. This definition of miracles, I think, is both coherent and unproblematic. When God performs a miracle he doesn’t violate the laws of nature because those laws of nature have built into them the implicit condition that no natural or supernatural factors are interfering. The law describes what will happen under certain idealized conditions. When God produces an event in the world, he doesn’t break the law of nature. Rather, the law simply fails to apply because the law has implicit within it these conditions that no natural or supernatural factors are interfering.

With that understanding of a miracle in mind, let’s turn to Spinoza’s objection to miracles. You will remember with regard to Spinoza’s first objection, he said that nothing happens contrary to the eternal and unchangeable order of nature because this is a reflection of God himself. What one must keep in mind here is that Spinoza was a pantheist. That is to say, Spinoza believed that nature is God. He would often use the expression “nature or God.” They are the same thing. Obviously, if you presuppose that nature and God are identical then a violation of nature’s laws would be a violation of the nature of God. But of course the question is not whether miracles are possible on a pantheistic view but whether or not they are possible on a theistic view – a view which thinks of God as distinct from the world. It seems to me that on a theistic view there is simply no reason to believe that the laws of nature flow from God’s being with an eternal and unchangeable necessity. Rather, the laws of nature are freely willed by God. God could have created a world operating according to quite different natural laws than those natural laws that he has chosen. He could have provided different initial conditions on which the natural laws would operate so that different things would occur. Given God’s creative sovereignty over and distinction from the world, it seems to me that there is simply no basis upon which to think that the laws of nature are characterized as Spinoza thought by a kind of eternal necessity and mathematical certainty. Rather, the laws of nature are contingent upon God’s will. Therefore, if God choses to do something that is beyond the productive capacities of nature, that is his discretion. The same free will that decreed that these laws of nature would hold could also decree that God will do an event which natural causes could not produce. Again, we are rejecting the view that God violates the laws of nature in producing a miracle because a miracle is not a violation of nature’s laws. The laws aren’t violated when God does something miraculous in the world because those laws are only idealizations of what would happen were no natural or supernatural factor to be interfering.[1] So I think Spinoza’s first objection is really quite worthless. It might be a good objection if you are a pantheist but it won’t hold any muster, I think, against someone who believes in classical theism.

His second objection, you’ll remember, was that miracles do not suffice to prove God’s existence. But the difficulty with this objection, I think, is even if it were true it is just irrelevant because miracles traditionally were not used as proofs of God’s existence. Typically, the arguments for God’s existence would be things like the cosmological argument for a sufficient reason or first cause of the universe, a teleological or design argument for an intelligent mind behind the cosmos, a moral argument for a divine moral law-giver and source of ultimate good, the ontological argument for a necessary being – greatest conceivable being. The role that miracles were to play was to prove that this God who had already been proven to exist on the basis of these other arguments had now intervened in human history in attestation of some particular revelation of himself. For example, the giving of the law to Moses or the revelation of God through Jesus Christ in the incarnation. The miracles were signs that the God that had been proved by these other arguments was, in some way, vindicating or speaking through or working in these particular revelations of himself in history. Typically miracles didn’t function as arguments for the existence of God, and therefore Spinoza’s objection is simply misplaced right from the very beginning. Rather, miracles were provided as evidence of God’s special revelation in attestation of his personal work in history.

Suppose we look at the argument in more detail. Remember Spinoza’s main point was that a proof for God’s existence must be absolutely certain. Therefore by undermining our confidence in the laws of nature miracles would actually bring us to doubt God’s existence. I think underlying this argument are two assumptions. The first assumption is that an argument for God’s existence has to be demonstratively certain. Secondly, God’s existence is inferred from natural laws. Again, the classical Christian apologist just didn’t agree with that. Christian thinkers would have denied both of those assumptions. The first assumption that a proof for God’s existence has to be absolutely certain may have characterized medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas or rationalists like Spinoza himself, but for the most part Christian apologists even in Spinoza’s day were quite content to provide probability arguments for God’s existence – that God was the best explanation of the order and existence of the universe. They didn’t require an absolute demonstration.

Moreover, as for that second assumption that God’s existence is inferred from natural laws, again that might be true of certain kinds of design arguments but there were many other types of arguments that didn’t appeal to God as the designer of the natural laws: ontological arguments, moral arguments, cosmological arguments would all be arguments for God’s existence that wouldn’t depend on natural laws. Again, Spinoza’s argument is just misplaced. It is lodged against strawmen.

In any case, is the objection in fact true? Would miracles serve to undermine our confidence in the laws of nature? Spinoza is operating with this assumption that miracles are violations of the laws of nature, and therefore if you were to admit a miracle it would serve to overthrow the law that was violated by the miracle. If you think of miracles as violations of the laws of nature, that conclusion would be absolutely correct – a miracle would violate the law and therefore the law would be overthrown.[2] But if we think of miracles not in terms of this incoherent idea of violations of the natural laws but rather simply as naturally impossible events given the natural factors operative at the time and place of the event, then I don’t think that a miracle serves to overthrow the laws of nature or to show that causes in nature do not have these productive capacities. On the contrary what it would serve to show is that God has supernaturally intervened in nature at this particular point.

Richard Swinburne, who is a prominent philosopher at Oxford University who has written on the problem of miracles, points out that just because a scientific anomaly occurs (something that can’t be explained by the laws of nature) scientists do not therefore abolish the laws of nature. They don’t just overthrow them or toss them out because of one anomaly. Rather, he says, the counter-instance must occur repeatedly whenever the conditions for it are present. If an event were to occur which is something that can’t be explained by natural causes then we will not simply abandon the natural laws at that point. In order to do that you would have to have the event occur again and again whenever those conditions are present. Of course with a miracle that is not the case. If the original formulation of the natural law is successful in predicting phenomena and it continues to be successful in the future of predicting phenomena, then even if a particular event cannot be naturalistically explained the law of nature will not be abandoned.

Swinburne writes,

We have to some extent good evidence about what are the laws of nature, and some of them are so well-established and account for so many data that any modifications to them which suggest to account for the odd counter-instance would be so clumsy and ad hoc as to upset the whole structure of science. In such cases the evidence is strong that if the purported counter-instance occurred it was a violation of the laws of nature.[3]

It would just be a scientific anomaly, but you wouldn’t overthrow the law.

Swinburne unfortunately retains this concept of miracles as a violation of natural law. But nevertheless if we do think of miracles as just naturally impossible events, then I think he is quite right that the odd counter-instance or anomalous event isn’t going to overthrow the whole apple cart of science by making us throw out the natural laws in question.

In fact, Spinoza's fear that miracles would destroy natural laws I think is quite unjustified. If you took it seriously, it would really be a positive impediment to the development of science because you could never discover anything new. You could never discover anything that wasn’t explained by the laws of nature as presently understood. Spinoza seems to assume that we have the final formulation of the laws of nature that are known to us and could never therefore be revised. That is simply unscientific. It would, in fact, impede the progress of science.

You will also remember Spinoza’s second point that he made: a miracle wouldn’t prove the existence of God in any case, but it would just prove the existence of a lesser being, say, an angel or a demon or something of that sort. It wouldn’t prove God. Again, I think one could simply concede the point and say that it is irrelevant because one isn’t using miracles to prove God’s existence. Rather, having proved the existence of God or presupposed God’s existence on other grounds, miracles are chiefly used to show God’s intervention at some point in human history. Whether it was God who was doing it or an angel that was doing it, I think really wouldn’t matter in this case. The point that the classical defenders of miracles I think rightly made is that it was the religio-historical context in which a miracle occurred that would give us a clue as to its ultimate source.[4] A miracle without a context is inherently ambiguous. Therefore, it is only when the miracle takes place in a religio-historical context that is charged with significance that the proper interpretation of the miracle, I think, will become clear. With respect to the miracles of Jesus, these are significant because they are not just anomalous events that occurred randomly within history. Rather, these are events that occur as the climax to Jesus’ own unparalleled life and teachings and radical personal claims to be the divine Son of God and the Son of Man and the ultimate revelation of God to mankind. The signs that Jesus performed – his miracles and exorcisms – were signs to the people of the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom. I think here we have a religio-historical context that is fraught with significance. Therefore it ought to give us serious pause when we see miracles taking place in such a context as opposed to just some anomalous event occurring to any Joe Blow that might only arouse our curiosity but wouldn’t cause us to think that it was a genuine miracle.

In any case Spinoza's concern with these lesser divine beings like angels or demons probably (I don’t think) would trouble too many 21st century minds because these sorts of beings tend to be part of the furniture so to speak of a wider supernatural worldview. People who believe in angels and demons are typically theists who believe in such beings because they believe in God. It would be a very strange form of atheism, I think, which would believe that Jesus’ miracles actually occurred but try to write them off as being due to angels or demons. Angels and demons are typically, as I say, just part of a broader theistic framework. So to infer that God is the one who is responsible ultimately for these events, I think, would not be an unwarranted inference.

Spinoza's final sub-point was that a miracle may be simply the effect of an unknown cause in nature. What we think are miracles is really just a reflection of our ignorance of the laws of nature. Notice that this is not an objection against the possibility of miracles; rather, this is different. This is an objection against the identification of an event as a miracle. Granted that miracles are possible, granted the failure of Spinoza’s other arguments, the question now is: can we identify a miracle when one occurs? Could we know that some miracle has occurred in any case? I think we have to admit that this is a very thorny problem. Undoubtedly, most of our own reserve against purported miracle stories that we hear is due to the fact that maybe the event is somehow naturally explicable but we just don’t know the natural factors that are involved. I think that this is indeed a real problem to try to understand exactly when a genuine miracle has occurred. But I think here it doesn’t mean that the case is hopeless. Rather, when I think miracles occur in a significant religio-historical context that this is the clue to interpreting an event as a miracle rather than just as some sort of a curiosity, particularly when the miracles occur at a momentous time, for example a man’s leprosy vanishing when Jesus speaks the words, “Be clean.” Or when the miraculous events do not recur regularly in history. The resurrection of Jesus, for example, is a singular event in history. These things have not recurred again and again. When the miracles in question are various, that you have not just healing miracles but exorcisms, nature miracles, resurrections from the dead. When you have a variety of miracles. When the miracles are numerous as you have in the case of Jesus then I think the chance that these are all the products of unknown natural causes is highly unlikely.[5] If these miracles were the product of nature causes then you would expect to see them occur repeatedly down through history and not just by coincidence at the proper moment – the propitious time in Jesus’ ministry.

So even though I think some isolated event might be dismissed as being the product of some unknown natural cause that we are not certain about, it seems to me that in the case of the miracles of Jesus we have a very good reason for believing that in fact these are genuine miracles.

I want to make one final remark on Spinoza's reasoning and that is this. Notice that Spinoza’s argument against the identification of a miracle does not spring, as Hume’s argument does, from the nature of historical testimony. You will remember Hume’s argument against miracles is that you have to weigh the testimony for a miracle against the testimony from the laws of nature, and you should always believe the testimony for the laws of nature. But in Spinoza’s case it doesn’t depend upon historical testimony. The very eyewitnesses of the miracle itself could use Spinoza’s objection if they wanted to. But in that case I think the objection really loses all conviction. Can you imagine Doubting Thomas for example standing in the upper room faced with Jesus of Nazareth standing palpably before him saying “Reach out your hand and put it in my side and stretch forth your finger and feel the wounds in my hands” can you imagine Thomas judiciously considering whether or not what he is seeing palpably before him might not be the effect of some unknown natural cause? I think that there comes a point where the back of skepticism is simply broken by the reality of the miracle before us. Having shown the historical credibility of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ miracles, I think the defender of miracles could in one sense just leave it between the person he is talking to and God to decide whether or not these are genuine miracles or not. If they really did occur then to try to write them off as all due to unknown natural causes, I think, would simply reveal a hardness of heart rather than an openness of heart to God’s reality. As Pascal has said, God has given evidence of himself which is sufficiently clear for those with an open mind and open heart but it is sufficiently vague so as not to compel people whose hearts are closed.

I don’t think that Spinoza’s arguments against miracles are compelling. They presuppose a false concept of God and I think are often aimed at straw men, attempting to put the argument for miracles to service that it was not intended to serve.

What about David Hume’s arguments against miracles? You will remember Hume’s in-principle argument was that even if the evidence for a miracle amounts to a full proof that the evidence against a miracle is an equally full proof because standing against the evidence for a miracle is the evidence of all the law’s of nature down through history that the miracle in question did not occur. It seems to me that it has been demonstrably shown that Hume’s argument is logically fallacious. This has been, I think, decisively demonstrated by John Earman in his book Hume’s Abject Failure. Earman is a philosopher of science at the University of Pittsburgh. He is an agnostic. He is not a Christian. He doesn’t even believe in God. Yet he says Hume’s argument against miracles is not merely a failure, it is an abject failure. It is demonstrably, irredeemably, hopelessly fallacious. This is important because it is Hume’s argument which lies behind not only the skepticism of someone like a David Strauss whose book in 1835, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined was such a watershed in biblical criticism, but it also lies behind the argument of someone like a Bart Ehrman who dismisses the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection and miracles squarely on the basis of Hume’s argument.[6] Ehrman says because a miracle is so improbable, by definition no amount of evidence could ever serve to establish it. That is exactly a reprise of Hume’s argument against miracles.

What is the matter with this argument? Very simply, it fails to take into account the full probability calculus in estimating the probability of a miracle. Probability theorists from the time of David Hume up until the end of the 19th century struggled with the problem of what kind of evidence it would take to establish a highly improbable event. It was very clear to them that you couldn’t just consider the reliability of the witnesses because if the event was sufficiently improbable the improbability of the event would simply overwhelm the reliability of the witnesses. To give a very natural example, take a report on the evening news last night that the pick in last night’s state lottery was some number, say, 7-4-5-6-7-8-3. That that number should be picked is highly, highly improbable. The odds are millions to one that that number should be picked. Therefore, even if the reliability of the news in reporting the lottery is 99.99% accurate, nevertheless that will simply be overwhelmed by the improbability of the event in question. Therefore, on Hume’s argument we should be skeptical of the report on the evening news. We should not believe that that was the winning pick in last night’s lottery because the event is so extraordinarily improbable that no matter how good the witness is, no matter how much testimony you have, it simply couldn’t go to establish such an improbable event. Such a conclusion is clearly absurd. Of course we believe the evening news when it reports the winning pick in last night’s lottery. What is missing here in Hume’s argument? Where does he go astray if his argument would cause us to be skeptical of many purely natural events?

What probability theorists came to realize is that you must not only consider how probable the event is relative to our background knowledge of the world, but you must also consider how probable would the evidence be if the event had not occurred? That is to say, how probable is it that the evening news would have announced just that number if that number had not been picked? If that probability is sufficiently low, that will go to outbalance the probability of the event itself. In other words, Hume’s skepticism was based upon an incomplete understanding of the probability calculus, which hadn’t been developed yet in his day. You can hardly blame him in that sense because it hadn’t been developed. So when probability theorists talk about probabilities of events they always talk about the probability of some event relative to some other body of information. We would talk about, for example, the probability of A on B or the probability of A relative to B.

Let’s let B in this case stand for our background knowledge of the world. This will be our knowledge of the laws of nature, nature’s productive capacities, and so forth, as well as all the other knowledge we have apart from the specific evidence for the miracle in question. Let’s let E be, say, the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. So E in this case would be things like the evidence of the empty tomb, the postmortem appearances of Jesus, and so forth. Finally let’s let R be the resurrection hypothesis – that God raised Jesus from the dead.

What we want to know is: what is the probability of the resurrection of Jesus given our background knowledge of the world and the specific evidence in this case?[7] This probability is equal to a very complex formula which I want to just walk you through one step at a time.

The first factor that we have to consider will be the probability of the resurrection relative to the background information alone. This is the probability that the resurrection would occur if you take away any specific evidence for it and just say, How probable is it that Jesus rose from the dead given our general knowledge of the world? This is called the intrinsic probability of the resurrection. Then you multiply that times another factor which will be the probability of the evidence given our background knowledge and the hypothesis of the resurrection. That is to say, given that the resurrection did occur, how probable does it make the empty tomb, the postmortem appearances, and so forth. This is often called the explanatory power of the resurrection hypothesis. The numerator of this ratio will be the product of the intrinsic probability of the resurrection hypothesis times its explanatory power. Below the line in the denominator you just reproduce the numerator. You just put everything above the line down below the line, and then we are going to add to that two more factors. First will be the intrinsic probability of no resurrection on the background information (that the resurrection of Jesus did not occur) times the probability of the evidence on the background information and the hypothesis of no resurrection. In other words these two factors will represent the intrinsic probability and the explanatory power that the resurrection did not take place. These basically will represent the probability and explanatory power of all of the naturalistic alternatives to the resurrection of Jesus – the swoon theory, the conspiracy theory, the hallucination theory, the wrong tomb theory. What is their intrinsic probability relative to the background knowledge and what is their explanatory power? How well do they explain the evidence?

The probability then of the resurrection on the background knowledge and the evidence is going to be equal to this complex ratio. Now we are able to see exactly where Hume’s argument was fallacious. When Hume considered the probability of the resurrection on the background knowledge and the evidence, the only factor he considered was the intrinsic probability of the resurrection. What he argued is that the resurrection of Jesus is highly, highly improbable given our background knowledge of the laws of nature, of the natural world. Because that is so low, therefore the probability of the resurrection on the background knowledge and the evidence is low, and therefore cannot be believed.

But I think you can see that that is simply fallacious because this probability is not equal to that alone. In particular, what is going to be absolutely crucial will be the probability of these naturalistic alternative to the resurrection hypothesis. Because if these are sufficiently low, they will outbalance any intrinsic improbability in the resurrection itself.[8] This can be seen by just looking at the general form of the probability calculus. It has the form X over X+Y. This was pointed out in class when we discussed this earlier. That is because the numerator is just repeated in the denominator. X appears above the line and below the line. You can’t just cancel out the X, but notice this. As Y tends toward 0, the value of this ratio tends to 1. X over X, which is 1. In probability theory, 1 equals absolute certainty. What that means is that the more improbable these naturalistic alternatives to the resurrection are, the higher the probability of the resurrection itself.

So Hume’s argument, I think, is simply logically fallacious in that all that he considers is the intrinsic probability of the resurrection, and he ignores the intrinsic probability and explanatory power of the naturalistic alternatives to the resurrection of Jesus. This is what Earman in his book calls Hume’s abject failure. It is the same mistake that is made by Bart Ehrman who says that the resurrection of Jesus is improbable simply because the probability of R on B is very low. When you think about it, that is clearly illogical because the question is not the probability of R on B alone. The question is the probability of R on B and the specific evidence. It is very possible that the probability of R on B alone would be very low but when you add in all the evidence of the empty tomb, the postmortem appearances, that suddenly the probability of R on B and E would be very high. So it is not at all surprising that the intrinsic probability might be very low and yet the probability of the resurrection on the background knowledge and the evidence turn out to be very high. Therefore Hume’s argument is simply fallacious.

We can go one step further. Hume assumed that the resurrection was intrinsically improbable. Relative to the background information alone, the resurrection of Jesus was enormously improbable. This probability here was very, very low. But is that a justifiable assumption? Why think that the resurrection of Jesus is improbable on the background information alone? That is the question that I want to take up with you when we meet up again next week.[9]

[1] 5:05

[2] 10:07

[3] R. G. Swinburne, 'Miracles,' PQ 18 (1968) p.323.

[4] 15:07

[5] 20:05

[6] 25:18

[7] 30:09

[8] 35:02

[9] Total Running Time: 38:08 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)