Monday, December 18, 2006

Argumentum ad leprechaunum

I see that Jeff Lowder, my old schoolmate from college days, has hosted a reply by Doug Krueger to something I posted a while back:

Krueger begins with the following quote from Parsons:

"In conclusion, we have seen that there are a great number of practical difficulties in confirming the occurrence of an apparent miracle. Even if these difficulties are overcome, however, we have seen that there are no grounds for considering any event to be scientifically inexplicable...In sum, we have no good grounds for thinking that any event is a miracle."

Speaking for himself, Krueger then says:


Stating that there are "a great number of practical difficulties" and "no good grounds" for a conclusion, such as that a miracle has taken place, does not rule out that at some time in the future one might acquire good grounds for belief in a miracle event.

The charge that Hume rules out miracles a priori is a common one among fundamentalists, but many Hume scholars read Hume as doing no such thing. Instead, many Hume scholars see him as arguing against testimony about miracles.


Several comments are in order.

1.Krueger doesn’t quote as much of Parsons as I did. Here’s the full quote which I gave in my original post:

"In conclusion, we have seen that there are a great number of practical difficulties in confirming the occurrence of an apparent miracle. Even if these difficulties are overcome, however, we have seen that there are no grounds for considering any event to be scientifically inexplicable. Finally, we have shown that we have no reason to attribute the occurrence of any event to the activity of a supernatural agent. Even if a pattern of extraordinary events were discovered that pointed to the existence of a superhuman power (and it is questionable whether we do possess any genuine instances of such events) there is no reason to think that that power must be supernatural. In sum, we have no good grounds for thinking that any event is a miracle."

So Parson’s position is even more preemptory when you read it in full:

2.How does Krueger define a “fundamentalist”? Is he claiming that only someone who subscribes to the secret, pretribulational rapture would read Hume this way?

3.The charge which Krueger imputes to “fundamentalists,” according to whom “rules out miracles a priori,” is equivocal. For this could either mean that Hume:

i) Rules out the *possibility* of miracles a priori or else he

ii) Rules out the *verifiability* of miracles a priori.

So exactly which charge is Krueger imputing to “fundamentalists”?

4.From my own reading, Hume takes both approaches.

5.What’s the difference between (i) and (ii)? They have the same cash value, do they not?

But the tactical advantage of (ii) over (i) is that it allows the unbeliever to assume a lower burden of proof. To show that miracles are impossible is a tall order.

So, for tactical reasons, a shrewd unbeliever will downshift to a weaker thesis because that is less demanding to defend.

It has all of the advantages of the stronger thesis, but the sticker price is far cheaper. It enables the unbeliever to shift the debate from metaphysics to epistemology. Not what is possible, but what is provable. Focus on the observer rather than the event.

6.But even on the weaker reading, is Hume open to the idea that “at some time in the future one might acquire good grounds for belief in a miracle event?”

7.Anyway, who cares about Humean exegesis? Isn’t the issue at hand what Krueger happens to believe? So what is *his* position?



In "Science and Miracles" (1998), Ted Drange considers whether the proposition "No scientist could ever believe in miracles under any circumstances" is defensible, and he concludes that it is not. In fact he acknowledges that one could be a methodological naturalist and not also a metaphysical naturalist. That is, one could adopt a naturalistic worldview as part of one's method of doing science, but this would not entail that one must adhere to naturalism as a metaphysical view.


Several more problems:

i) It’s unclear how this summary is consistent with what I quoted from Drange:

"What possible evidence could there be that there are events which science will be forever unable to explain? The only possible evidence is that certain events have not as yet been given naturalistic explanations. However, many such events in the past later came to be explained naturalistically. Thus, the mere use of induction should lead us to infer that, eventually, the events presently unexplained may very well, and perhaps even probably will, be explained. It would seem, then, that the epistemic stance most compatible with a scientific way of thinking would be to withhold judgement on whatever events have not as yet been explained naturalistically. To reason that what has not as yet been explained can never be explained would be invalid. It would be a non sequitur (more specifically, a kind of hasty generalization). Furthermore, one should not adopt a pessimistic outlook on science by calling such events ‘miraculous,’ for to do so would be not only unscientific, but anti-scientific as well."

Here Drange appears to be taking the position that miracles are simply unverifiable. There could never be sufficient evidence to believe in a miracle. At most, we should reserve judgment—although even our suspension of judgment is based on something over which we do not withhold judgment, which is the scientific method, naturalistically construed.

So Drange’s stated position, as quoted above, is more preemptory than Krueger’s summary.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Krueger has misrepresented Drange’s position. It may only mean that there are points of tension in Drange’s own position.

And there’s a reason for this inconsistency. For Parsons and Drange are attempting to do two things that don’t go together:

a) They want, on the one hand, to have some failsafe principle which will enable them to dismiss any miracle in advance without having to examine the evidence for any miracle in particular.

b) On the other hand, they don’t want to end up looking like the mirror image of the *fundamentalist* they oppose. If they’re opposition to miracles comes across as too dogmatic and preemptory, then they’ve substituted secular fideism or authoritarianism for religious fideism or authoritarianism.

They are in a genuine bind, which is why we find these tensions in Hume, Drange, and Parsons—among others.

ii) What’s the difference between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism? Once again, the difference is purely tactical. They have the same exchange rate, but methodological naturalism seems to be neutral. However, that’s misleading:

a) According to methodological naturalism, we should act *as if* there are no supernatural causes.

But why should we act that way unless we have good reason to believe it *is* that way, and not as *if* it is that way? So far from being neutral, it’s quite prejudicial. It begs the very question at issue.

b) And as soon as you have to *defend* methological naturalism, you are back to metaphysical naturalism, for the only way to defend methodological naturalism is naturalistically.

Any defense of the method must go beyond the method. As such, any defense of the method will involve metaphysical assumptions about the way the world really is, which is why we should adopt a corresponding methodology.

iii) An even deeper problem is that methodological naturalism is the gatekeeper. The distinction between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism is empty because methodological naturalism will not allow you to get past a naturalistic checkpoint. Even if metaphysical naturalism were false, methodological naturalism erects a barrier to forever prevent the falsification of metaphysical naturalism.

So it’s not a method, but a roadblock or bodyguard. The inquirer isn’t allowed to sneak past the checkpoint to see for himself if reality is naturalistic or not.

iv) Methodological naturalism is just a sham. Since an unbeliever subscribes to methodological naturalism for naturalistic reasons, why doesn’t he drop the pose, ditch methodological naturalism, and argue directly for metaphysical naturalism?

Or is he keeping up appearances for political reasons?

Moving along:


I don't see any incompatibility with arguing that there is insufficient evidence for a proposition (such as "A miracle has occurred in relation to event E") and at the same time hold both:

(i) one might not be able to see in relation to an event E at what point one would decide that a miracle has occurred, and
(ii) a proposition P (such as "God exists and opposes events such as E occurring"), if true, would entail that one would expect miracles to occur at least sometimes.


Several more issues to sort out:

i) Is the question really one of (not) knowing at what point a miracle occurred?

This is very abstract, but doesn’t the average unbeliever have very specific examples in mind? He doesn’t believe in Biblical miracles. Or ecclesiastical miracles. Or a popular faith-healer, &c.

His objection is not that we don’t know at what point a miracle may have occurred. To the contrary, he is coming to the table from the opposite presumption. He is very clear on when a miracle has not occurred. He has very concrete examples in mind. And he’s very sure of himself.

So (i) is just an atheological ploy. He has his real reasons for disbelieving miracles, but his real reasons are harder to turn into an argument, so it’s easier to recast the debate in terms of (not) knowing at what point a miracle has happened.

ii) What is the status of expectations? At one level, whether I’m a theist or atheist will certainly figure in the way I initially probilify a miracle.

Yet it’s easy to overstate the force of that truism. If I’m an atheist, then, all other things being equal, I will reject miracles in the abstract.

But that’s only as good as my atheism. How firmly to I hold to my atheism? What are my reasons for being an atheist?

I might be a default atheist. I may be an atheist due to a simple lack of religious experience.

If that’s the case, then all I may need to believe in miracles is a religious experience or direct evidence. There is no heavy-duty presumption to overcome. Merely the difference between experience and inexperience, evidence and inevidence.

Suppose my best friend has end-stage terminal cancer. I’m holding vigil with his family at his deathbed.

His pastor comes in, prays for him, and a day later my friend undergoes complete and spontaneous remission.

In principle, that may be all it takes to move me from the atheistic column to the theistic column.

Or suppose I have a more robust rationale for my atheism. I’ve boned up on Oppy and Everitt and Perrin.

Still, just one miracle, like my best friend’s spontaneous remission in apparent answer to prayer, might cause me to chuck all the prefabricated arguments and start from scratch.

So it’s one thing to dismiss miracles in the abstract, quite another if you’re confronted with one up-close and personal.

iii) I’m not saying that a personal encounter automatically has that effect. There are often moral or emotional considerations that block out the evidence.

My immediate point is simply that framing the question in terms of expectations and prior probabilities is often a very artificial exercise which has little connection with the way people really think and operate.

Moving along:

“Regarding (i), I don't believe that leprechauns exist, but I can't say that I know precisely what one would have to do in order to show that a given being is, in fact, a leprechaun. Would being of exceedingly short stature, having green clothes, and speaking in an Irish accent be sufficient? Surely not. But while I may be open to the discovery of leprechauns, I don't know exactly at what point in such an investigation I would finally concede that a given being is a leprechaun.”

Ah, yes, it doesn’t take them long to get around to leprechauns. That’s a fixture of the atheistic genre.

i) Comparing miracles with leprechauns is an argument from analogy minus the argument.

ii) The concessive language amounts to a throwaway argument, meant to make an unbeliever seem more reasonable and open-minded than he truly is.

Ironically, it’s the flipside of a tactic employed by some Christian writers:


Conservative apologists will sometimes say that they are not bound to the absolute inerrancy of the Bible. As we shall later see, there have been those who maintained that there could not be a single error anywhere in the Bible, because the smallest error, if a real error, would totally destroy the inspiration of the whole. Others, unwilling to commit themselves to this drastic doctrine, pretend to allow a slight flexibility here. “We are delivered from the paralyzing fear that if one single discrepancy should be found in Scripture we should have to abandon all belief in its authority.” This argument of Green’s is not against the theme of this section, that inerrancy is basic tot he conservative evangelical approach to the Bible. Inerrancy is their approach even if they allow very occasional theoretical exceptions…The flexibility of the “possible occasional minor error” is to be understood as a convenient escape route: no actual instance of error is admitted. In all actual cases, therefore, the Bible is interpreted in such a way as to avoid the possibility of error; the flexibility, as Green himself well shows, has no effect other than to avoid the psychological consequences entailed if complete inerrancy was affirmed as an absolute doctrine.

J. Barr, Fundamentalism (Westminster Press 1978), 54-55.


Krueger resorts to the same “convenient escape route” when he floats the hypothetical of leprechauns. His theoretical flexibility is utterly inflexible in actual practice.

The admission is tactical rather than practical. It doesn’t cause him to make any adjustment in his actual position. The intended effect, rather, is to lower his own burden of proof. He doesn’t need to disprove the occurrence of miracles anymore than he needs to disprove the existence of leprechauns—which assumes, all along, that the respective cases are, indeed, parallel.

So this is really a stalling tactic. You simply put miracles in the same category as leprechauns. Since no one believes in leprechauns, you thereby relieve yourself of any onus to deal with miracles.

Of course, that’s an illusion, for it turns on the classification of miracles with leprechauns. So it only pushes the problem back a step. But as long as you play to a sympathetic audience, you can get away with the ruse.


“Similarly, we have nothing even approaching sufficient evidence that a miracle has taken place in any given instance.”

Where’s the argument?

“And we can know this lack of evidence pervades miracles claims.”

Where’s the argument?

“And yet at the same time I don't know at what point I would say that a given event is indeed a miracle, and saying the latter does not entail that I am ruling out a priori the possibility of miracles.”

The problem with his concluding remarks is that it doesn’t follow from anything he’s argued for up to this denouement. He’s attempting to extract an existential proposition from a fact-free discussion.

All he’s given us, leading up to the conclusion, is an exercise in prepositioning. So the factual conclusion (“Similarly, we have nothing even approaching sufficient evidence that a miracle has taken place in any given instance, and we can know this lack of evidence pervades miracles claims”) doesn’t follow from the preceding discussion.

“Similarly” takes for granted what it needs to establish. “Similarly” is not an argument. And “similarly” is not a conclusion to an argument if the supporting argument is missing. As it stands, “similarly” is an argument from analogy minus the argument.


  1. I'm starting to wonder how many atheists are Irish. Has the Emerald Isle embarked on a new export? :)

  2. How does Krueger define a “fundamentalist”?

    Dougie Krueger would define a fundamentalist as a Christian who disagrees with him. *SHRUGS* And that's it. Anyway, great reply to Krueger! I enjoyed reading it.

  3. B O R I N G ! ! ! !

  4. Great post, you use many good analogies to make your point clear.