Friday, September 28, 2007

The Wrong Odds

Thomas Paine wrote in Age of Reason (on-line source: note, I just Googled the quote so I'm not endorsing anything else on that website!):

If we are to suppose a miracle to be something so entirely out of the course of what is called nature, that she must go out of that course to accomplish it, and we see an account given of such a miracle by the person who said he saw it, it raises a question in the mind very easily decided, which is,--Is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is, therefore, at least millions to one, that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie.
This quote has been used by many different atheists (for example, Gordon Stein used it in his debate with Greg Bahnsen), but a simple examination of the quote reveals major flaws in Paine's thinking. First, let us consider this statement: "We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course...." Note that this is directly contradicted by his previous statement, "we see an account given of such a miracle by the person who said he saw it" (emphasis added). Thus, someone is indeed claiming to have seen the very thing that Paine claims "we" have never seen. In other words, Paine is begging the question when he says "We have never seen" miracles; he is ruling all claimed observances as lies and then using that to determine that they are all lies.

But Paine's argument also fails because of the use of the term "we." How does he know what other people have or have not observed? By their testimony. But this is the same testimony that Paine criticizes. If it is indeed true that millions of lies have been told, why is this evidence against some testimony (I have seen a miracle) but not against other testimony (I have not seen a miracle)? Again, Paine is assuming what he needs to prove.

Perhaps, though, Paine was simply using the editorial "we." In such case, his sentence should be read as, "I have never seen, in my time, nature go out of her course..." But, naturally (pun intended), this severely limits the strength of Paine's argument. The argument can only be valid if it has generalized truth behind it. That Paine has never seen a miracle is no proof that no one has ever seen a miracle.

And I'd point out that we must take Paine's word for it that he's never seen a miracle, but Paine's own argument is that there have been millions of lies told. How are we to know Paine is telling the truth here rather than using irony to affirm what he pretends to deny?

This actually gets to the core of the problem with Paine's methods. Just because some people lie a lot and the total number of lies on Earth is vast, doesn't many any particular person at any particular time is telling a lie. This would be like the prosecution stating, "While no one has ever seen the defendant murder the victim, he has claimed not to do so. But we know that during the course of this trial millions of people have told lies. Which is more likely to believe, that the defendant didn't murder his wife or that he told a lie when he said he didn't murder his wife?"

But perhaps a better illustration will help out our atheists friends (to use the editorial we again). We have never observed macroevolution. During the time of our observation, nature has remained steady. But we have reason to believe that during this same time of observation, billions of lies have been told (after all, there are now nearly 7 billion people on Earth, and if each of them only told 1 lie during the time of our observation, we'd have 7 billion right there). Which is more likely then, scientists' claims that macroevolution really happened, or that they are lying?

Seen in this light, Paine's argument is a whiffle bat.


  1. I liked the murder analogy, but loved the evolution analogy.

  2. Peter Pike said:

    "Seen in this light, Paine's argument is a whiffle bat."

    This got me laughing. It's funny because it's true. Good post!

  3. Tom Paine and David Hume are both alike. Both men's attempts to disprove miracles began by assuming miracles don't happen - the very thing they wanted to disprove!

    Next time I muder someone, I shall be sure to cite Tom Paine.