Monday, November 06, 2006

Getting their stories straight

One of the traditional arguments for the existence of God is the argument from miracles. But ever since Hume, this argument has come under attack from atheistic quarters. Below are just a couple of representative statements:

"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."

"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."

But more recently, and with increasing frequency, has been the atheological argument from the elusiveness of God (divine hiddenness). Below are another couple of representative examples:

"Another way for God to have gotten the message across would have been by the performance of spectacular miracles. For example, God could have spoken to people in a thunderous voice from the sky or used skywriting to proclaim set P worldwide. In addition, back in the days of Jesus, events could have occurred differently. Instead of appearing only to his followers, the resurrected Christ could have appeared to millions of people, including Pontius Pilate and even Emperor Tiberius and others in Rome. He could have proclaimed the truth of set P before all those people, demonstrating the existence of an afterlife by his own resurrection. He could have made such a definite place for himself in history that it would have enlightened billions of people coming later about the truth of set P."

"Reginald added that his ability to believe in Jesus’ resurrection would be greatly increased if he could see the limb of an amputee regenerated."

What is striking is the way in which these two atheological arguments operate on contradictory premises. According to the argument from the hiddenness of God, we have insufficient evidence to believe in God. If God really existed, he should make his existence unmistakably evident to all. And an obvious way of doing this would be for God to perform a public miracle or series of miracles.

But according to the traditional attack on the argument from miracles, we are never justified in believing that a miracle has happened. Due to natural law, the evidence for a miracle is always overwhelmed by the evidence for the uniformity of nature.

So I'm left to wonder which argument the contemporary atheist really adheres to. Each argument is an argument against the other. In one is true, then it falsifies the other. So they cannot both be sound.

I'd like the atheist to explain to me which of these arguments he thinks is wrong, and why, so that I can then confine my attention to the remaining argument.


  1. Howdy Steve,

    Some minor thoughts here:

    - Jim

  2. :::YAWN!!!:::

  3. Since one of the quotes mentioned naturalism, I thought I'd ask a side question: are naturalism, empiricism, and materialism essentially all the same thing?

  4. Mathetes,

    To answer your question, they are all different from one another.

    Naturalism = the thesis that there are no supernatural beings

    Empiricism = the thesis that the only means to gaining knowledge is sensory experience

    Materialism = there is no such thing as a non-material entity, or at least that there is no non-material entity that does not supervene upon the material.

    Naturalism is actually a word that is defined in several different ways, but in the popular literature, the definition that I gave above is generally taken to be sufficient.

    Materialism is more specific and extreme than naturalism. For instance, on the above definition of naturalism, naturalism leaves room for non-material, non-supernatural entities like Plato's Forms. Materialism does not leave room for things like this.

    Hope that clears some things up for you.

    - Jim