Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Naturalism and the burden of proof

Miracles, in order to leave no reasonable doubt their scientific inexplicability, must therefore be very extraordinary events. They must be events which we have every reason to believe are physically impossible; i.e., our best-confirmed natural laws must tell us that events of this sort cannot occur. This means that prior to their actual occurrence they must be events that we would judge very unlikely to take place. Indeed, it is fair to say that they must have an a priori likelihood about as low as any contingent fact could have. Thus, even if we can imagine events so remarkable that they would be scientifically inexplicable, we can ask whether any evidence would be strong enough to establish that such improbable events had taken place. 
i) This is a classic way of making the case against miracles. You shift the burden of proof onto the proponent of miracles, then assign an insurmountably low prior probability to miracles.  
ii) Notice that Parsons doesn't base his definition of miracles on examples of miracles in Scripture or church history. He doesn't begin with the kinds of miracles that figure in the dispute, then formulate a definition that covers these cases. Instead, he picks an aprioristic definition out of the air. 
iii) To say a miracle must be the kind of event which cannot happen consistent with natural laws is ambiguous. Does that mean it cannot occur if nature is left to its own devices? If so, that doesn't mean miracles are physically impossible if an agent intervenes. Mill defined a miracle as "a new effect produced by the introduction of a new cause."
It's physically impossible for nature to produce a bicycle, but an agent can produce a bicycle by manipulating natural resources. 
iv) There's also the question of natural laws allow permit. Suppose psychokinesis is real. In that case, some kinds of events are physical possible which would be physically impossible if no one has psychokinetic ability. One can't rule out psychokinesis in advance by claiming that conflicts with natural laws, for that's circular. 
v) Parsons seems to be assuming that a miracle must bypass natural processes. But although that's true for some kinds of miracles, that's not true for coincidence miracles.
For instance, in 1 Kgs 22, Ahab's death in the battle of Ramoth-gilead is predicted (vv22).  And this is what happens:
29 So the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat the king of Judah went up to Ramoth-gilead. 30 And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “I will disguise myself and go into battle, but you wear your robes.” And the king of Israel disguised himself and went into battle. 31 Now the king of Syria had commanded the thirty-two captains of his chariots, “Fight with neither small nor great, but only with the king of Israel.” 32 And when the captains of the chariots saw Jehoshaphat, they said, “It is surely the king of Israel.” So they turned to fight against him. And Jehoshaphat cried out. 33 And when the captains of the chariots saw that it was not the king of Israel, they turned back from pursuing him. 34 But a certain man drew his bow at random and struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate. Therefore he said to the driver of his chariot, “Turn around and carry me out of the battle, for I am wounded.” 35 And the battle continued that day, and the king was propped up in his chariot facing the Syrians, until at evening he died.
On the face of it, this doesn't violate any natural laws. Yet it's too discriminating to be the result of blind causes–especially in conjunction with the fateful prediction, and Ahab's futile precautionary measures. 
vi) Finally, it's actually the naturalist who suffers from an insurmountable burden of proof. Naturalism is a universal negative. Naturalism can't afford a single miracle. Naturalism can't afford a single answered prayer. Naturalism must discount every answered prayer as mere coincidence. Naturalism must discount every miracle as misperceived, misremembered, misinterpreted, or misreported. Naturalism can't afford a single miracle to slip through its sieve. All it takes is one miracle, one answered prayer, to falsify naturalism. 
Keep in mind, too, that answered prayers are vastly underreported. That's because most Christians live and die in obscurity. Only a handful of people knew them. They are quickly forgotten. They never make it into the history books. No one writes their biography. The answered prayers we happen to hear about are an infinitesimal fraction of the totality. 


  1. Keep in mind, too, that answered prayers are vastly underreported. That's because most Christians live and die in obscurity.

    And those more miraculous ones can often happen to people who are in more desperate situations but are also in times/eras and places where there's no way to document them in a way that would satisfy critics. Such people are often more aware of their continuous and continual dependence on God and so their faith is that much more exercised by daily use. Whereas people in 1st world countries are so used to having the products of Common Grace blessings aid them (like health care, drugs, hospitals, grocery stores, pensions, social security etc.) that they don't really feel their need for God on a daily basis.

    Only a handful of people knew them. They are quickly forgotten. They never make it into the history books.

    Or if they are written in books, they are quickly forgotten books that have stopped being printed/published, distributed or bought. Also, because they are so very old critics will dismiss them as unreliable because they record alleged events in the distant past. I've included such books in my blog HERE.

    Moreover it seems that sometimes God intentionally wants to hide or not have some miracles disclosed. For example, in THIS DEBATE, Hugh Ross (astrophysicist, apologist, and pastor) says that his Church is in between CalTech and JPL so there are a lot of scientific and engineer minded people who attend his church. In his church they practice praying for the sick by the elders. As they did, they approached it scientifically. They noticed that when they were in the habit of announcing healings from the pulpit (presumably on Sundays) there were significantly fewer healings then when they kept it completely secret when people were healed. Ross connected that with the multiple times Jesus would sometimes tell the people He healed not to tell anyone about it.

    See following passages in the next post.

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    2. And Jesus said to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them."- Matt. 8:4

      29 Then he touched their eyes, saying, "According to your faith be it done to you."30 And their eyes were opened. And Jesus sternly warned them, "See that no one knows about it."31 But they went away and spread his fame through all that district.- Matt. 9:29-31

      15 Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all16 and ordered them not to make him known.- Matt. 12:15-16

      42 And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.43 And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once,44 and said to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them."- Mark 1:42-44

      41 Taking her by the hand he said to her, "Talitha cumi," which means, "Little girl, I say to you, arise."42 And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement.43 And he strictly charged them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.- Mark 5:41-43

      35 And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.36 And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.- Mark 7:35-36

      14 And he charged him to tell no one, but "go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them."15 But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities.16 But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.- Luke 5:14-16

      55 And her spirit returned, and she got up at once. And he directed that something should be given her to eat.56 And her parents were amazed, but he charged them to tell no one what had happened.- Luke 8:55-56

      compare with: Matt. 17:9; Matt. 16:20; Mark 8:29-30; Mark 9:9-10

    3. 40 And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside and took the child's father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was.- Mark 5:40

      33 And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue.- Mark 7:33

      23 And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, "Do you see anything?"- Mark 8:23

      4 Then go in and shut the door behind yourself and your sons and pour into all these vessels. And when one is full, set it aside."5 So she went from him and shut the door behind herself and her sons. And as she poured they brought the vessels to her.6 When the vessels were full, she said to her son, "Bring me another vessel." And he said to her, "There is not another." Then the oil stopped flowing.- 2 King 4:4-6

      19 And he said to her, "Give me your son." And he took him from her arms and carried him up into the upper chamber where he lodged, and laid him on his own bed.- 1 Kings 17:19

      33 So he went in and shut the door behind the two of them and prayed to the LORD.- 2 Kings 4:33

  2. Replies
    1. I really want to buy and read it, but I'll have to wait a little while until I have some ready cash. In the meantime I hope Poythress will offer a free version on his website.

      Also, a good book for someone like Peter Pike to review! :-)