Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Naturalized miracles

I was asked me how to respond to the counter that purported events like the Resurrection might happen, yet not be miraculous, but be due to some as of yet undiscovered natural cause or process.

One problem with that explanation is that there are so many different kinds of well-documented miracles. So an atheist must postulate so many undiscovered natural causes. 

In addition, I ran the question by three philosophers who specialize in the philosophy of miracles. They indicated that it's okay to share their responses:

Naturalism of the gaps. That's not applying all evidence and inferring the best explanation. Actually, the more science progresses, the lower the probability of such a thing becomes. We now know *why* the dead do not spontaneously rise by natural causes, in ever-greater detail. Cellular death, denaturing of proteins, bacterial activity, etc. 

If we discovered robots on another planet, we could hold out indefinitely for "some natural cause," but that wouldn't be rational. People are always able to be irrational (and often are irrational). That doesn't make it epistemically legitimate.

– Lydia McGrew

In our Blackwell paper, Lydia and I consider a number of such attempts to give a non-miraculous account of the evidence. The short answer is that they do not account for that evidence nearly as well as the resurrection itself does. 

A slightly longer answer is that there is no better way to evaluate such hypotheses than to look at the evidence in detail and consider the hypotheses on a case-by-case basis. For some miracle claims -- the Hindu milk miracle comes to mind -- there is a superior naturalistic explanation. (Lydia recreated the Hindu milk miracle in our kitchen with a spoonful of water and a piece of unglazed tile. No statue of Ganesh was required.) For others, this option turns out not to be true.

As far as an undiscovered natural cause, anybody can postulate that possibility for anything whatsoever. Perhaps there's an undiscovered natural cause that makes it look like the Earth orbits the sun even though in fact Ptolemaic astronomy is true. Perhaps there's an undiscovered natural cause that makes it look like the Earth isn't flat even though -- surprise! -- it is. Perhaps there's an undiscovered natural cause that generates all of the evidence we have that the universe is billions of years old even though it isn't. Perhaps there's an undiscovered natural cause that makes it look like Jesus miraculously rose from the dead even though his coming back to life was just a very, very rare natural event, and it was just lucky that this purely natural event happened to look like the culmination of many centuries of increasingly specific prophecy. 

– Timothy McGrew

I think you will find that in chapter four of The Legitimacy of Miracle I discuss that suggestion at length. The basic point is that the progress of science has made such a suggestion less convincing rather than more. The more we know about human physiology the harder it becomes to suggest such a counter. Similarly with other miracles. We know, for example, a lot more about the chemistry of wine than we did two thousand years ago but that makes it harder, rather than easier to give a natural explanation of how water could turn into wine at the spoken word of Jesus. If one is positing some natural process for such an event or the resurrection then one needs to explain why that process only worked in that unique instance. Note also that positing such a process is simply a promissory note. Presumably, the only reason to trust such a promissory note is the inductive argument that science has been successful in the past. This fails, however, in that it makes no distinction between nomological and historical science. The fact that pigeons are easy to catch does not provide a good inductive argument that foxes are easy to catch. Analogously, the fact that regular law-like events are susceptible of natural explanations provides no reason to think that events such as the resurrection, Jesus walking on water, the virgin birth, or the origin of life are susceptible of natural explanations. So the progress of science argument really cuts the other way. Everything we know makes natural explanations of such events less plausible than more.

The alternative for the naturalist is to suggest not that there is some repeatable identifiable natural process that will explain why dead people generally stay dead, but Jesus did not, but rather to claim Jesus's return to life was a chance event. Given the reluctance of scientifically literate naturalists to accept the chance origin of life - because the probabilities are so minuscule they are desperately attempting to find some natural process that will not have to invoke chance - such an alternative smacks of hopelessness.

– Robert Larmer


  1. 1. Suppose a naturalistic mechanism is discovered for Jesus' resurrection. How would that necessarily eliminate God? Perhaps God did it through this hitherto unknown natural mechanism. Perhaps God raised Jesus, Lazarus, Tabitha/Dorcas, Eutychus, Jairus' daughter, et al through this natural mechanism. I can't in principle see how explanations involving personal agency can ever be reducible to explanations involving scientific mechanisms.

    2. It's arguable science may have walls it can never surmount. Not now, not ever. Take the hard problem of consciousness. Or take Stephen Hawking argument that physics may never be able to discover a theory of everything given Gödel's incompleteness theorems. Perhaps it's arguable the dead coming back to life is another hard wall science runs into.

    3. Take the necrosis theory of cell death. Take a type of necrosis known as liquefactive necrosis. The mechanism for liquefactive necrosis is the release of lysosomal enzymes (via necrotic cells) and/or the release of hydrolytic enzymes (via neutrophils entering the tissue). I think this theory might serve as an illustration of "the more science progresses, the lower the probability of such a thing becomes" and "the progress of science has made such a suggestion less convincing rather than more".

    At the same time, one scientific mechanism is often a part of an enormous web of scientific mechanisms. Scientific mechanisms enmeshed within other scientific mechanisms. If one mechanism is changed, then much of the web may be impacted as well. As such, one might say, the more science progresses, the tighter the web becomes, and the more difficult it is to break free from this web.

    1. Sorry, typed this late. I wasn’t thinking clearly! #1 doesn’t work because if it’s a natural mechanism, then presumably anyone can use it to raise the dead once it’s been discovered.

  2. My immediate reaction was to cry, with Lydia, 'Naturalism of the gaps!' This habit of offering endless promissory notes signed by those speaking on behalf of 'the scientific community' is rather ironic, especially regarding the Resurrection and its wholesale dismissal by sceptics as 'anti-science' and 'impossible' given that 'it is physically impossible for dead people to rise' (an entirely uninteresting statistical and physical probability of nature, by the way, and ultimately irrelevant to the *supernatural* Resurrection claim and the multiple lines of evidence for its historicity).

    Also, on Larmer's point, as well as in his The Ligitimacy of Miracle, his Dialogues on Miracle has a similar but less in-depth claim made by one of his protagonists, where it is pointed out that, if with the advance of science we can disconfirm or 'make less probable' a miracle claim, then we can equally in principle *further confirm* or 'make more probable' a miracle claim. It cuts both ways, and not only that but, as Lydia and Larmer point out, the advance of science actually undercuts the validity of the promissory note of finding natural explanations for such events.

  3. Here's a thread from several years ago in which Steve and I discuss the possibility that Christian miracles come from human psi. It covers some of the same ground as this thread, but with some differences.

  4. Let’s suppose that some natural mechanism was responsible for the resurrection. Since we have no understanding of this putative mechanism, we can make no predictions about the circumstances in which it would operate. We certainly cannot say that it would be particularly likely to operate on someone who was a great moral teacher, for example. Nor can we say that if this mechanism raised a man from the dead, it would also enable him to perform miracles.

    What we could say is that if the mechanism operated on some random occasion by chance, people might be inspired to make up stories about the life which the resurrected man had led. But if that did happen then any made-up stories of miracles should be as unconvincing as made-up stories in general. We would have no reason to think otherwise. If there are stories of
    miraculous deeds and those stories have features which make them strangely convincing, that would be completely unexpected.

    But the miracles of Jesus *are* strangely convincing. Take the healing of the man born blind in John 9. After the man has been healed, people who had seen him begging are debating whether it is the same man. That makes sense. The behaviour of a man who has suddenly acquired sight would change. This change of demeanour may make him look like a different person. But what an odd detail to include in a work of fiction! Admittedly, it is a subjective judgement, but I think it is extremely unlikely that a writer of fiction would include such a detail. And if we are trying to explain things in naturalistic terms, then we just can’t afford to have such details.