Monday, October 08, 2012

Asking For More Evidence For Miracles

Critics of the miraculous often ask for more evidence for miracles before they've addressed the evidence they already have. Why should we think they need more? In many contexts in life, we offer less evidence than we could. Why take the time and effort to produce more evidence when less is sufficient? Why accommodate people who are unjustly demanding more evidence when that accommodation encourages their misbehavior and adversely affects other people, like those who are doing the accommodating?

In earlier posts in this series, I've given many examples of miracles attested by evidence that would be considered more than sufficient in other contexts. What should we make of arguments that such evidence isn't enough in the context of miracles?

If the skeptic wants us to believe that more evidence is needed because of a high prior improbability that the miracle would occur, then he needs to explain why we should think the prior improbability exists. He should also explain why we should think that the current evidence isn't enough to overcome that alleged prior improbability, if it does exist. I addressed these issues in an earlier post.

Another approach skeptics often take is to frame the discussion in terms of preferences. Don't you want more evidence? They often refer to how we can't be "sure", "certain", etc. that a miracle occurred. They appeal to the significance of miracle claims. With so much at stake, isn't it preferable to have more evidence? Yes, but preferring something isn't equivalent to needing it. If we have less evidence than we'd like, we still have to make a judgment about what we have. Objecting that we can't be certain, or that more evidence would be preferable, doesn't prove that we shouldn't believe that a miracle occurred.

Sometimes skeptics will appeal to non-Christian miracles. Supposedly, Christians should want to deny that non-Christian miracles have occurred. And if Christians demand that non-Christian miracle accounts meet a high enough standard of evidence, then they can dismiss every non-Christian account on the basis that it doesn't meet that standard. But, allegedly, the same high standard of evidence would rule out Christian miracles as well. Often, this line of objection is framed in terms of a supposed inconsistency on the part of Christians. Since Christians demand that non-Christian miracles meet such a high standard, shouldn't they do the same with Christian miracles? Or if a Christian doesn't yet apply such a standard, shouldn't he begin to do so in order to avoid the unacceptable result of concluding that so many conflicting miracles have occurred? But the Christian worldview has always had a place for non-Christian miracles, as we see even in the Bible itself. Christian miracles can be distinguished from non-Christian ones, and a Christian worldview can be maintained, while accepting a large variety and number of non-Christian miracle accounts. See my post on the subject earlier in this series, for example. Even if non-Christian miracle accounts were more problematic for Christianity, so what? We don't determine our standard of evidence based on whether it gives us the result we want. Besides, the allegedly unacceptable result in this context isn't unacceptable for a Christian. Non-Christian miracles are part of a Christian worldview.

Often, the skeptical demand for more evidence is suspiciously vague and shifty. It's typified by the popular phrase "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". Craig Keener writes, "one might also get the impression that some skeptics' demands for particular kinds of evidence become stricter whenever evidence of the demanded sort appears." (Miracles [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011], 747)

Earlier this year, I had a discussion with a skeptic (linked here) who asked why miracles aren't caught on video. At one point, he suggested that there should be a YouTube video of a table levitation by now. Apparently, he wasn't aware that there are videos of miracles, like the examples Keener discusses in his book, nor was he aware that there are YouTube videos of table levitations.

In the comments section of an earlier thread in this series, a poster objected that there aren't particular types of evidence for modern miracle claims. For example, why aren't there any cases of healing with before-and-after X-rays? But there are such cases, as I mentioned in another thread. He probably either didn't read that other thread or forgot what he read there. Most likely, he would have rejected miracle reports with such evidence if he knew about them. Apparently, he asked for that type of evidence because he thought nobody would be able to produce it, not because he'd accept it if it were produced.

Similarly, the atheist philosopher Matt McCormick recently wrote:

"If these things [paranormal phenomena] are real and are so common, then where are they and why can we not find any better evidence in their favor than the passionate testimonials of unscientific converts? Do the demons and miracles only manifest themselves when there are no credible witnesses or skeptics present?" (in John Loftus, ed., The End Of Christianity [Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2011], 213)

Anybody with much familiarity with the evidence for paranormal phenomena knows that McCormick's characterization is highly inaccurate. See, for example, my response to McCormick on pages 16-18 of The End Of Infidelity.

Often, as with the three examples above, skeptics ask for a level of evidence that's already been met. But they don't know it. They think they're requesting something a Christian won't be able to produce.

When somebody asks for more evidence, and we can't discern any reason why he'd need it, we can ask him to justify his request. If he can't justify it, we're not under any obligation to provide what he's requesting. Sometimes there's merit to offering more evidence than is needed. But that's optional, not a requirement. And there's a point of diminishing returns.

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