Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Do miracles have a higher burden of proof?

This is something I frequently discuss because it's a mainstay of atheism. Atheists typically say there's an overwhelming presumption against miracles. In addition there are Christian Bayesian theorists who say miracles have a higher burden of proof, but it's not insurmountable. Let's take a couple of comparisons.

Suppose I'm abducted and sedated. Next thing I know I wake up in the middle of nowhere. A wilderness with a river nearby. Is it safe for me to wade in the river?

Some rivers are hazardous.  Some rivers are frequented by crocodiles, anacondas, electric eels, or bull sharks.

What's the antecedent probability that the river is safe or hazardous to wade in? Unless I know where I am, I have no frame of reference. There's no presumption one way or the other to overcome.

I can't begin to calculate the probabilities in a vacuum. I need to know where I am. 

Or take another example. Suppose a driver spots a license plate in the parking lot. What are the odds that that car would be at the same time and place he was? In principle, you could consider the number of in-state license plates, and make an educated guess about out-of-state drivers. 

But suppose the driver is a bookie on the run from the mafia, and the car with that particular license plate belongs to triggermen who are shadowing him. That drastically changes the odds.

Now in Bayesian probability theory, as I understand it, you divvy up the odds into prior and posterior probabilities. The prior improbability may be high, but that can be overcome with more specific evidence. 

But my problem is that if the probability theorist already has all the information when he begins his analysis, why bifurcate the evidence into prior and posterior compartments? Why artificially bracket off some of what he knows to assign a prior probability value, which creates a presumption that must then be overcome? What's the point? It's not like he discovered new evidence in the process of his analysis. 

I don't think it's meaningful to lay odds on miracles in the abstract. It depends on the kind for world we live in as well as specific evidence for specific reports. 


  1. There's a presumption in the question that reveals that the question is at best disingenuous. That is the idea that any evidence with regard to evaluating miracles could in any way give a likelihood for them being miracles. Any evidence regarding the idea that an event is miraculous could be taken only as evidence toward the probability of a potential naturalistic explanation. The claim that any evidence at all could be used to prove a miracle requires the presupposition that miracles could exist. So evidence for miracles can never prove miracles. You need an epistemology of revelation, which presumes a Creator capable of working miracles. Miracles therefore can never be proof of a Miracle-Worker. They are only revelatory markers for those who already have the presupposition of faith.

    1. It no more requires prior belief in God's existence than one must believe a new species exists before you credit evidence for its existence. Discovering the new species is in itself direct evidence for its existence. There's distinction here between metaphysics and epistemology. While a miracle presumes the existence of God, recognition of a miracle does not.

    2. In your example of discovering a new species, what I'm saying is that the question would be whether or not what you've discovered is a new species or a variety of an already known species. The same evidence that you might use to prove that it's a new species can be used to prove that it's not if you presume that no new species can exist. All you have to do at that point is make sure that your definition of what a species is accounts for the evidence. You might not need God to recognize a miracle, but once recognized the presumption of God is either inevitable or a person will be intellectually conflicted. That's why those who deny God generally deny miracles a priori and seek to explain why evidence of a miracle doesn't prove that it was a miracle. They presuppose what they hope to prove (or disprove in this case). This is indicated in the Scriptures in places like Luke 16:31. It can be viewed as circular reasoning, whether to presuppose the acknowledgment or denial of miracles, and certainly the logic can be constructed that way. Even that fact can be used to deny evidence. This is why I advocate for a revelatory epistemology over and against a purely evidential epistemology. God's revelation of himself could be, and often is - depending on the manner in which he has done this, considered to be miraculous.

      I myself don't place must stock in the miraculous over and against anything else. God creates. He also sustains his creation, down to the smallest particle an unit of time. He causes it to behave contiguously with discernible cause and effect (similar to A-theory), except when he doesn't (similar to B-theory). Either way, it was caused by God to be that way. But when God causes things to go B-theory on us and it appears to be a miracle, all an unbeliever has to do is extrapolate an A-theory cause-and-effect where there wasn't any in order to theorize an explanation and develop a method for revising the statistical likelihoods of the evidence. The unbeliever could acknowledge the break in cause and effect if he or she wanted to, but that's not likely to happen when it's so easy to deny the truth in this way.