Saturday, May 11, 2013

Walking on water

I’m going to repost some comments I left over at David Marshall’s blog (Christ the Tao) in response to an atheist:

steve said...

    I seriously doubt that Brian has actually studied the scholarly literature on "miracle of the sun." Seems more likely this is a thirdhand anecdote he picked up from some village atheist website.

    For what it's worth, I did a lengthy analysis of that reported event a few years ago:

    May 8, 2013 at 6:39 PM
steve said...

    Brian Barrington said...

    "Or to take another example, the physical evidence is that people can swim in water but that people cannot walk on water...I presume you would agree with this?"

    I don't. Your principle is simplistic. What you ought to say is that absent countervailing factors, people can't walk on water.

    For instance, waterskiers don't sink due to countervailing factors (e.g. skis and motorboat).

steve said...

    Brian Barrington said...

    "Steve, if someone water-skis then that is not contrary to the physical evidence – it is a completely natural event that we have all witnessed, and not contrary to the laws of nature or to physical laws."

    You're apparently unable to follow your own argument. You originally said:

    "Or to take another example, the physical evidence is that people can swim in water but that people cannot walk on water...I presume you would agree with this?"

    Why can't people walk on water? Actually, they can. I gave a rough counterexample.

    So what your denial really amounts to is that absent a countervailing factor, a heavier body will sink in water. The force of gravity is dominant.

    Yet supertankers float and skiers skim the surface.

    That's because countervailing factors have been introduced.

    Likewise, Jesus can walk on water because he introduces an additional cause. It's not a case of walking on water, where no additional conditions apply, but changing the conditions.

    "But if someone just walks on water – that is contrary to the physical evidence – otherwise it would not be a miracle."

    No, that's only contrary to "the physical evidence" if the only operative conditions are a man, water, and gravity.

    If, however, we add an intervening medium (e.g. skis) and an artificial dynamic (motorboat) that counteracts gravity, then he won't sink.

    "So if someone said to you 'I saw someone walk on water today while I was down by the lake' you would be immediately suspicious. You would demand a lot of testimony before you accepted that something contrary to the physical evidence had occurred."

    Actually, I wouldn't. If, say, I knew the individual was an occultist, I'd find the claim far more credible. For that would explain why he might have the ability to walk on water.

    May 9, 2013 at 8:52 AM
steve said...

    Brian Barrington said...

    "Crude, I would think that all miracles are contrary to the physical evidence. If they were not contrary to the physical evidence then they would be (unusual) natural events rather than supernatural events – they would not be miracles, right? If this is not the case then how could any of these events be called miracles? The only reason they are called miracles is because they are flat out contrary to the physical evidence – we cannot think that there could be a natural, physical, materialist explanation for the event."

    i) "Evidence" is an epistemological category, not a metaphysical category. If a miracle occurred, there could be physical evidence of the miracle, if the miracle had a physical effect.

    ii) You're confusing "physical evidence" with "natural laws" or "physical laws." But appeal to such "laws" would be ontological rather than evidentiary.

    iii) You need to define what you mean by a "law" of nature. Philosophers disagree on what natural laws are, or even whether there are natural laws.

    iv) A miracle can be a "natural" event. Take a coincidence miracle. A miracle of timing, where a particular conjunction is prearranged by God. That's not "contrary" to any physical laws.

    What would make it miraculous is that inanimate factors alone would be insufficient to account for that opportune conjunction. Rather, they are the result of forethought.

steve said...

    Brian Barrington said...

    “Now, if someone just gets up and literally walks on water without any assistance from skis or a motorboat or some object of that sort, then that is contrary to the physical evidence…”

    You seem to use “physical evidence” as a synonym for “natural law” or “physical law.” If that’s the case, then you continue to confuse epistemology with metaphysics. I already explained the problem with your usage, so why do you repeat yourself?

    “That is the kind of walking on water that I was referring to, as I think is evident.”

    You’re missing the point. The relevant distinction isn’t “physical” or “natural,” but causal. Walking on water requires an additional intervening cause to offset what would otherwise happen absent that countervailing factor. That’s the key principle.

    Jesus can walk on water because he has causal resources at his disposal that ordinary human agents do not.

    “So if someone claimed that they had been out walking on water this morning then I, for one, would be very sceptical about the testimony, even if (perhaps especially if) they claimed to be an ‘occultist.’”

    Since you were asking me, how you yourself would respond is beside the point.

    “If a miracle is an unusual natural event then I agree that miracles occur.”

    Since I didn’t say anything to indicate that I define miracles that way, your comment is off the mark.

    “Generally, people mean that a miracle is a supernatural event. If the event is not contrary to natural laws then it is just an unusual natural event, which I agree happens. For example, coincidences occur all the time – in fact, if coincidences did not occur all the time it would require supernatural intervention to prevent them happening.”

    Did this event run counter to any natural laws?:

    “Go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours” (Mt 17:27).

    Is it just a coincidence? Or did many causally independent variables have to be coordinated to yield this particular outcome?

    “But as far as I can work out you seem to be suggesting that there is no difference between the natural and the supernatural, or do I misinterpret you?”

    From a Christian standpoint, every “natural” event is directly or indirectly an act of God.

steve said...

    Brian Barrington said...

    “If it happened it could be an remarkable coincidence (thus a completely natural event and not a miracle), or some magic trick based on deception (thus a completely natural event and not a miracle) or it could be that the person who made the prediction has supernatural powers that permitted him to make the amazing prediction (in which case it would be a miracle). Of course, the key word is 'if' it happened - the claim is based on testimony and the event is extremely unlikely to occur so anyone would be justified in treating the testimony with a pinch of salt, unless the testimony is so powerful so as to be extremely unlikely that it is incorrect.”

    i) You have a habit of missing the point. I didn’t cite this example because I thought you’d find it believable. Rather, I cited this example to test your definition of a miracle.

    If you treat this as a hypothetical case, would it qualify as a miracle? No natural law is violated.

    ii) There’s more to it than a supernatural prediction. It assumes a series of natural events which was divinely prearranged to yield this result.

    iii) In what sense do you say this is extremely unlikely, demanding oh-so powerful testimony?

    It is extremely unlikely that an undirected process would yield this result. If, however, God orchestrated prior events to yield this result, then in what sense is it extremely unlikely?

    Are you claiming it’s extremely unlikely that God would do that? Is so, how do you prejudge what God is likely to do?

    Of is it a question of God’s existence? If so, how do you prejudge the likelihood of God’s existence?

    iv) To take a comparison, if multiple witnesses say they saw a gambler roll sixes ten times in a row, is that believable?

    Is it likely or unlikely that a gambler would roll sixes ten times in a row?

    Well, that depends on whether or not the dice are loaded. So you can’t say in the abstract what the odds are. If you knew the dice were loaded, your assessment would be very different.

    May 9, 2013 at 12:52 PM
steve said...

    Brian Barrington said...

    “If an event is contrary to the physical evidence (and to natural laws derived from the physical evidence)…”

    You’re very enamored with the phrase “physical evidence,” which you don’t bother to define. Are you using “physical evidence” as shorthand for inductive natural regularities…or something else?

    Likewise, you don’t bother to define “natural law.” Do you think natural laws are causes or general descriptions?

    For instance, natural regularities only tell us what inanimate natural processes will do if left to their own devices. But an agent can deflect or divert natural processes to yield a different outcome. Water runs downstream unless a beaver dams the stream.

steve said...

    Brian Barrington said...

    “Regarding the ‘coin in the fish’ - if there was some intervention from a supernatural being that caused it then, if it happened, it was a miracle.”

    i) You have difficulty following your own argument. You were the one who defined a miracle in opposition to natural law. However, the “coin in the fish” doesn’t violate any natural law, yet it can still be supernaturally orchestrated.

    ii) A miracle doesn’t require divine “intervention.” Prearranging an outcome isn’t equivalent to intervention. “Intervention” suggest things were going a certain way on their own until an agent diverted the natural course of events. If, however, the “coin in the fish” was divinely orchestrated, then events were prepositioned to converge on that outcome from the get-go.

    “The reason people regard turning water into wine and people rising from the dead etc. as evidence that God exists, or that the supernatural, exists is precisely because these events are contrary to the physical evidence, and to natural laws readily observable to everyone. Without this distinction, I see no grounds for calling one event miraculous and another event non-miraculous. If you don't accept the distinction between what is natural and supernatural, then what are your grounds for calling one event miraculous and another non-miraculous?”

    To the contrary, a miracle can be miraculous precisely because it is customized to fit an individual need, where only the party concerned discerns the significance of the event. Say a Christian has a very specific need. He prays about it. Out of the blue his need is met is a very specific and unexpected fashion.

    Only he (or some of his confidants) is in a position to appreciate how timely this is, and how unlikely this would be apart from supernatural provision.

    Which is not to deny miracles of a more public character, but that’s not a defining feature of a miracle.

    “The reason why these events are regarded as miracles by religious people is because they are contrary to the physical evidence, whereas, for example, getting up and going to the toilet to urinate is not regarded as a miracle, since it is a natural act that everyone observes regularly, and one that does not contradict any regularity of nature derived from constant and replicable observation of physical reality.”

    Is history replicable?

    “You might, I suppose, say that absolutely everything that happens in the world (including genocide, child rape, earthquakes, tsunamis and so on) is a "miraculous" act of God - this seems to be where your line of reasoning is leading you. But if that is the case, then me picking my nose is as miraculous as Jesus rising from the dead.”

    You’re not paying attention. I said every natural event is directly or indirectly an act of God. Are you defining child rape and genocide as natural events?

    Likewise, don’t you grasp the distinction between direct and indirect? An indirect act of God would employ a physical medium.

    You added “miraculous” to “act of God,” as if an act of God is ipso facto miraculous.

steve said...

    Brian Barrington said...

    “If you want to call some natural events miracles then I won't quibble over the terminology, although for the sake of clarity it might be useful to still distinguish between miracles that are contrary to physical evidence and natural laws i.e. those caused by direct supernatural intervention (we could call these supernatural miracles)…”

    To define a miracle as an event that’s “contrary to physical evidence” (whatever that means) or “contrary to natural laws” (whatever that means) is a highly contested definition. For instance:

    What philosophical literature have you read on miracles?

    “…and these other miracles that are more like pre-arranged coincidences that could conceivably occur naturally without any pre-arranging by a supernatural entity (we could call these natural miracles).”

    And the term for that is coincidence miracle. See David Bartholomew’s discussion in Uncertain Belief: Is it Rational to be a Christian? (Oxford 1996), chap. 4.

    “But in relation to this I would re-emphasise that remarkable coincidences occur all the time in our world, and about as frequently as one would expect, and they do not require any supernatural explanation - in fact, if remarkable coincidences did not occur all the time it would really amount to proof that there is supernatural intervention in our world, since it is to be expected that coincidences should continually occur in the world and it would require supernatural intervention to prevent them happening.”

    i) Once again, you’re missing the point. You seem to think you can just wing it without bothering to acquaint yourself with the relevant literature. A coincidence miracle has a fairly rigorous definition with highly specified conditions.

    ii) Some events are too coincidental to be purely coincidental. They reflect a calculated and concerted plan.

    iii) You need to distinguish between an event which reflects intelligent agency in general, and one which reflects divine agency in particular. Some events require a mastery of detail and magisterial control over the relevant variables that exceeds human intelligence, power, and/or longevity.

    You yourself find the “coin in the mouth” too convenient to be realistic absent supernatural involvement. And since you’re an atheist, you therefore dismiss it out of hand.

    “Is history replicable?’ No, so our knowledge of much history is fairly tentative, especially as we go further back.”

    Which undermines your appeal to natural regularities, inasmuch you depend on testimonial evidence for your appeal to the (alleged) uniformity of nature.

    “But if a claimed historical event does not contradict any regularity of nature derived from constant and replicable observation of physical reality (e.g. The claim that Caesar crossed the Rubicon) then we have less reason to be immediately sceptical about the claim than if the claim DOES contradict any regularity of nature (e.g. a claim that Caesar turned water into wine, or a claim that he rose from the dead and so on).”

    I’ve already explained to you why your contention is false. You simply blow past the rebuttal rather than presenting a counterargument.


  1. Years ago I read in a book a story where some missionaries claimed to have walked on water. The book was by Charles and Frances Hunter (the famous charismatic couple of times past known as the "Happy Hunters").

    Leafing through the book just now, they mentioned the name Mel Tari. So, doing a search on YouTube I found this testimony by Mel Tari. I don't know if he's telling the truth or lying. Or if he's telling what he believes to be the truth but has interpreted his experience incorrectly. Regardless, the way he recounts the story isn't sensationalistic. He even says that they didn't realize it was a miracle until after it happened because they walked in water that was no more than knee deep. Only afterwards did the other people on the other side test the depth of the water and confirmed how deep it was.

    Here's the link

  2. I think Mel Tari is probably lying.

    But read Craig Keener's massive recent volume on miracles for numerous stories that are probably true, for the most part. (He also includes a few dubious ones.)