Friday, September 09, 2016

Armchair debunkers

This is a sequel to my prior post:

I'm been interacting with some of Graham Oppy's material. It's useful for Christians to be able to take on the most sophisticated atheists. I'll be quoting from his monograph on The Best Argument Against God (Palgrave Pivot, 2013). Here Oppy expands on his objection to miracles:

Some might be inclined to think that the content of the accumulated body of 'social science' is bound to favour Naturalism over Theism. In particular, some might think to draw attention to the fact that there is not one single well-established result in the 'social sciences' that depends upon the postulation of the existence of God. There is no established knowledge in archaeology, or anthropology, or ethnography, or human geography, or sociology, or psychology, or cognitive science, or economics, or political science, or criminology, or linguistics, or education, or international relations, or legal studies, or human history, or communication studies, or any other of the 'social sciences' that relies upon the assumption that God exists (35).

i) To begin with, that's an exercise in misdirection. The question isn't whether particular disciplines depend on the postulate of God's existence, but whether, say, there's archaeological confirmation for Bible history or medical verification for some reported miracles. 

ii) But in addition, the "God postulate" is germane to some disciplines. Take the role of proper function in medical science. Physicians approach the human body the way engineers approach a machine. They act as though the heart is a pump. They act as though lungs were designed to oxygenate blood. An eye is for seeing, an ear is for hearing. They can only fix malfunctioning organs, &c., by assuming a teleological viewpoint. If, however, the human body is the byproduct of a mindless, aimless process, then that's misplaced. 

…there are many Theists who suppose that there are phenomena that lie within the domain of human history that are much better explained on the hypothesis that God exists than on the hypothesis that causal reality is natural reality. In particular, there are many Theists who suppose that there are events from recorded human history – miracles – that are best understood to be results of direct intervention by God in the natural causal order. While Naturalists suppose that the best explanations of reports of miracles – or reports of experiences of the miraculous – can always be framed within the confines of 'naturalistic social sciences' or naturalistic discourse more broadly construed, some Theists suppose that the best explanations for at least some reports of miracles – or reports of experiences of the miraculous – advert to the direct intervention by God in the natural causal order.
There are countless reports of miracles across the world's religions. Consider, for example, the well-known reports concerning: Buddha's painless birth (and conception without sexual intercourse); Arunagirinathar's survival after he threw himself from a temple tower; Jesus' turning of water into wine; Mohammed's splitting of the moon; the shaking of the earth, the darkening of the sun, and the raining of beautiful flowers from the sky consequent upon the execution of Ichadon by King Beopheung of Silla; Sarkar Waris Pak's wading across the flooded Ghanghra river; the regrowth of Miguel Juan Pellicer's amputated leg; the sun's dimming, changing colours, spinning, dancing about in the sky and plummeting to the earth at Fátima; the healing powers of Audrey Marie Santo; and so on.
There are also countless reports of other kinds of  anomalous interventions, episodes, activities and phenomena in the course of human history. Consider, for example, reports concerning: astrological influences, alien (extraterrestrial) visitations, channelling, clairvoyance, cryptids (e.g. bunyips, hoop snakes, Loch Ness monsters, man-eating trees, mermaids, werewolves, will-o'-the-wisps and yeti), demons, dowsing, ESP (extra-sensory perception), fairies, fortune-telling, ghosts, goblins, out-of-body experiences, prophecy, reincarnation, telekinesis, telepathy and witchcraft; and consider, too, the vast range of reports emanating from practices that can be collected together under the heading of 'alternative medicine' or 'spiritual healing' (e.g. Bach flower remedies, chiropractic, chromotherapy, crystal healing, cupping, ear candling, homeopathy, iridology, magnotherapy, naturopathy, reflexology, reiki, rolfing and so forth).
Of course, while the truth of some of the further reports just mentioned would (arguably) be inconsistent with Naturalism, the truth of others would not. However, when we come to assess the evidential import of reports of miracles for the dispute between Theist and Naturalist, we need to consider the full range of reports of interventions, episodes, activities and phenomena that are anomalous from the standpoint of currently well-established science. It is uncontroversial that the truth of pretty much everything referred to in the preceding two paragraphs has not been confirmed by natural and social scientific investigation. It is also uncontroversial that the domain of investigation of these kinds of interventions, episodes, activities and phenomena is ripe with 'knavery and folly' (as David Hume says in his famous discussion of miracles). The upshot for those who would claim that some particular reports of miracles are evidence for Theism over Naturalism is clear: we need to be given some very good reason to suppose that these particular reports have truth-relevant features that clearly distinguish them from the vast body of reports concerning the miraculous and the anomalous. In the absence of very good reason to suppose that the particular reports in question have truth-relevant features that clearly distinguish them from the vast body of reports concerning the miraculous and the anomalous, the evidently proper conclusion to draw is that the particular reports in question offer no serious support for Theism over Naturalism (35-37).

Oppy's tactic is to jumble together a lot of miscellaneous examples; act as though it's all of a kind; act as though, because some of this is incredible, the rest is incredible by association. That's an intellectually frivolous way of approaching the issue. And notice how he systemically begs the question. He presumes, without benefit of argument, that everything he mentions is unbelievable. He gives the reader no reason to share his assessment. 

It is uncontroversial that the truth of pretty much everything referred to in the preceding two paragraphs has not been confirmed by natural and social scientific investigation. 

There's no indication that he's even acquainted with the relevant body of literature. What's the basis for his sweeping generalization? This is a very broad field. 

If he was intellectually serious, he'd sift and sort these examples. Let's comment on some of his examples:

Buddha's painless birth (and conception without sexual intercourse)

i) It's equivocal or deceptive to call that a "report". A report has the connotation of something that, at least in principle, is based on observation. But the legends of Buddha cannot be "reports" in the sense of testimonial evidence. As Edwin Yamauchi notes:

Buddha's teachings, after many centuries of being passed on orally, were written down for the first time in the first century B.C. in Ceylon. The earliest written texts which have been preserved are in Pali, an Indo-Aryan dialect which may be the dialect Buddha himself used. The Pali canon of the Hinayana school (the southern branch of Buddhism, also called the Theravada school) is known as the Tipitaka (Sanskrit Tripitaka), meaning "Three Baskets." Portions of this collection, such as the Samyutta Nikaya, the Majjhima Nikaya and the Anguttara Nikaya, may have come into existence two centuries after Buddha's death, but not much later. 
The Sanskrit canon of the Mahayana school, which spread northeastward to Tibet, China, Korea and Japan, dates, at the earliest, to the first and second centuries A.D. According to Christmas Humphreys, "the later Sutras of the Mahayana School, though put into Buddha's mouth, are clearly the work of minds which lived from five to fifteen hundred years after his passing."3
In the later sources one notes a conspicuous exaggeration of the supernatural elements in Buddha's life. But even the earliest traditions, separated as they are by a century or two from Buddha's time, are not free from amplification. As M. Winternitz observes, "Even what are generally considered to be our oldest documents, the texts of the Pali Tipitaka, speak of Buddha often enough as a superhuman being, and tell us more of the legendary man than of the historical Buddha."4

ii) That's not comparable to NT miracles, where you have 1C reports of 1C events. That's not even comparable to OT miracles, where we do have some archaeological confirmation for OT history. 

ii) On a related note, when evaluating "reports," it helps to know the date of the report in relation to the date of the ostensible event. Whether there's any evidence that the report is based on firsthand information. Whether the reporter had an incentive or disincentive to lie. Whether there's corroboration in the form of independent, multiple attestation or acknowledgement from hostile witnesses. Arguably, some NT miracles meet these criteria. 

the sun's dimming, changing colours, spinning, dancing about in the sky and plummeting to the earth at Fátima.

We need to distinguish between an observation and the interpretation of what was seen. I think there's credible evidence that there was, indeed, some atmospheric phenomenon that generated that optical illusion. I don't dismiss the report. Rather, it's a question of how to classify the phenomenon. 

the regrowth of Miguel Juan Pellicer's amputated leg

We'd need to examine the documentary evidence for that claim. 

the healing powers of Audrey Marie Santo

Once again, we'd need to investigate the quality of the evidence. What's the potential for fraud and wishful thinking? 

There's a difference between dogmatic skepticism, a priori skepticism, that rejects any reported miracle out of hand before even considering the evidence–and a posteriori skepticism, where we approach a report with an open mind, and draw a skeptical conclusion after considering the evidence. 

Mohammed's splitting of the moon

i) That's alluded to in the Koran, with more detailed accounts in the Hadith. Ironically, that "report" backfires. If, in the 7C AD, the moon was seen to split in two or break into pieces, then resemble, even if that was an optical illusion, it would be visible to many literate cultures in Europe, the Near East, and the Far East. We'd expect documentary records to survive of such a spectacular event. So this is a good example of a legendary Muslim miracle.

ii) But Oppy might say that proves his point. Why believe some reports but disbelieve others? There is, however, nothing inherently arbitrary about selective credence. It is rational to evaluate reports on a case-by-case basis. And that isn't unique to reported miracles. That's true for historical reportage in general. You scrutinize the specifics. Do some fact checking.

Oppy's attitude is strikingly anti-intellectual. He just rattles off miscellaneous examples, then renders an armchair verdict. But that's hardly an intelligent or rationally responsible way to evaluate historical testimony. 

iii) It is, of course, true that we approach claims with a plausibility structure. We make snap judgments. We don't have time to investigate every report. But our plausibility structure needs to have an evidential foundation. 

Jesus' turning of water into wine

What we're getting from Oppy is an autobiographical window into what he personally finds to be unbelievable. But he doesn't give the reader any reason to doubt that account. 

Consider, for example, reports concerning: clairvoyance…ESP (extra-sensory perception)…ghosts…out-of-body experiences…telekinesis, telepathy

But there's probative evidence for those phenomena. Medical evidence of veridical OBEs. By the same token, you have paranormal researches like Stephen Braude, Mario Beauregard, and Rupert Sheldrake. Has Oppy even studied the best literature on the topic? Or is he just giving the reader his knee-jerk reaction? 


Once again, there's probative evidence for those phenomena. That's been documented by academic anthropologists like Clyde Kluckhohn, Felicitas Goodman, Sidney M. Greenfield, and Edith Turner, as well as David J. Hufford (academic folklorist), and M. Scott Peck (Harvard-educated psychiatrist)–not to mention Christian exorcists like John Richards. 


i) Excuse me, but there's probative evidence for prophecy. There's an extensive literature on the argument from prophecy. 

ii) In addition, we need to keep our eye on the burden of proof. Oppy takes the position that every single report of a supernatural or paranormal event is bogus. That's a universal negative. It only takes a few well-attested counterexamples to falsify a universal negative. If you say all crows are black, it only takes one albino crow to prove you wrong. 

For Oppy to preemptively dismiss every reported miracle, answered prayer, special providence, or paranormal event, requires him to view testimonial evidence as overwhelmingly unreliable. But he doesn't really believe that. He depends on secondhand information for most of what he believes. His selective distrust is arbitrary special pleading. 

iii) Has he ever read Rex Gardner's Healing Miracles: A Doctor Investigates, Craig Keener's Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accountsor the appendices in Robert Larmer's The Legitimacy of Miracle & Dialogues on Miracle?


  1. Speaking of philosophers, the following article argues that William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland and Peter van Inwagen are among the top 50 most influential living philosophers.

    1. Someone on facebook rightly noted that Alvin Plantinga should have been included.

  2. Is there a book you'd particularly recommend on the topic of miracles/supernatural activity? Keener's book?

    1. Not that you asked me, but I thought it might still be useful to some degree, even if it could be vastly improved.

      My thoughts, in brief, with significant overlap between categories, and still very much under construction (i.e. I'm completely open to correction and expansion):

      * Biblical (e.g. Craig Keener, Graham Twelftree, NT Wright)

      * Historical (e.g. Augustine, Pascal)

      * Modern empirical evidence (e.g. Craig Keener)

      * NDEs (e.g. Gary Habermas, J.P. Moreland)

      * Coincidence miracles (e.g. Steve Hays, Doug Geivett)

      * Ramified natural theology (e.g. Richard Swinburne, Robert Larmer, Angus Menuge)

      * Probabilistic/Bayesian applications (e.g. Tim and Lydia McGrew)

      Anyway, just some preliminary and very rough hewn attempts at categorization. Perhaps we could add other categories of miracles, better distinguish between categories of miracles, among many other corrections (e.g. occultic, resurrection of Christ).

    2. Depends on what you want. If you want case studies, Keener's is the standard collection. Less detailed is Rex Gardner's Healing Miracles: A Doctor Investigates.

      Keener also has a number of YouTube presentations on miracles.

      If you want a philosophical defense, Robert Larmer's The Legitimacy of Miracle & Dialogues on Miracle; Joseph Houston's Reported Miracles: A Critique of Hume; John Earman's Hume's Abject Failure; and Gary Habermas/Douglas Geivett's In Defense of Miracles are good works.

      I'd add that Larmer includes a few case studies.