Sunday, April 15, 2018

Are Miracles Unscientific? Part 2

In "Are Miracles Unscientific? Part 1" several features of miracles were discussed. I defined a miracle as an exceptional action of God within the natural world, distinct from the usual processes of nature, for some specific purpose of God, which can have detectable consequences. I established that if there is a transcendent God who created the universe he could certainly intervene in unusual ways at times. Finally, I listed some different definitions of science including a broad definition based on the etymology of the word science, which means "knowledge" that would certainly admit miracles as a possibility. The last two paragraphs of that blog entry set the stage for this follow up entry on miracles. Because miracles are not repeatable events they cannot be established through a strictly controlled scientific experiment but can be reliably confirmed using a scientific and historical investigative method, in the same way other past events are established beyond a reasonable doubt.

However, there are some skeptics who would deny that any amount of evidence is sufficient to establish a miracle as the most probable explanation for any past event. For instance, the 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume wrote, "There is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves."1

So in this second installment on miracles, I want to discuss three arguments I often hear in opposition to the ability of human testimony to establish that a miracle has occurred. They are:
  1. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
  2. A natural explanation is always more probable than a supernatural explanation.
  3. People in biblical times were more naïve and easily fooled by magicians so that their preconceived belief in miracles was reinforced.
I have spent an entire previous post discussing the first claim. Basically, if "ordinary" evidence, like eye witness testimony and forensic evidence, is not sufficient to establish a miracle, then there is actually no extraordinary that evidence will ever suffice in the eyes of the skeptic. The idea that extraordinary evidence is required to establish an extraordinary event is a disingenuous claim without any reachable standard. I am convinced that such a statement is really a thinly veiled belief that there is no evidence that would ever be considered as sufficient to establish a miracle.

The second objection was also succinctly advanced by Hume who wrote, "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish."2 Hume's basic premise is that there is always some natural explanation that is more probable than  a supernatural explanation. But there are many problems with this proposition. First, Hume seems to base his definition of most probable completely on what happens more frequently, and what occurs normally through natural law. But the truth of something is not determined by probability. By definition, miracles are rare, so they will always happen less frequently. As with claim number 1, claim number 2 is also somewhat disingenuous. Improbable occurrences can be verified by the facts and the evidence. The improbable occurrence my actually be true. In our particle physics experiments, improbable events are the most interesting and the ones we are most excited about. At the LHC at CERN where I do my research we create one Higgs Boson approximately every 10 billion collisions. That is rare and improbable, but can be established as true.

By considering the first two objections together a more honest picture of the skeptics position comes into view. Skeptics claim if God were real he could show his existence by doing something truly extraordinary like regrow an amputated limb. Yet those same skeptics claim that no amount of eyewitness testimony is sufficient to confirm a miracle. So even if a miracle occurred that was truly extraordinary and observed by dozens of witnesses, the claim would be rejected by the skeptic. Clearly, these two statements, that an extraordinary event would establish God's existence, but no amount of testimonial evidence can establish such an event, shows that such skeptics have already decided there is no God and no amount of objective evidence will change their mind. Their view is not based on evidence but on an established and unchangeable philosophical position.

A more reasonable approach to investigate whether or not the evidence is best explained by an improbable event is stated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his novels where Sherlock Holmes will often make a statement similar to what he says in The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans (1908)“We must fall back upon the old axiom that when all other contingencies fail, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The improbable may be the truth, and if the only explanation that adequately explains all of the evidence is an improbable explanation, that is the best conclusion drawn from the evidence.

Finally, let's investigate the claim that first century humans were somewhat naïve and easily fooled, so they were more likely to believe in miracles. The biblical record portrays a culture contrary to that statement. A few examples will suffice to illustrate this. When Joseph learned that Mary, his fiancé, was pregnant, he did not even consider that any miracle had occurred. Instead, since he cared about her, he decided to deal with her unfaithfulness in a discrete manor. Matthew records, "Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly" (Matthew 1:19). When the daughter of Jairus died, or Lazarus died, no one thought that somehow a miracle would occur and these people could be brought back to life. The people knew that death was permanent. Luke writes about Jairus' daughter, "Someone came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. 'Your daughter is dead,' he said. 'Don’t bother the teacher anymore.'... Jesus said. 'She is not dead but asleep.' They laughed at him, knowing that she was dead" (Luke 8: 49, 51-53). And when Jesus arrived at the tomb of Lazarus, "Martha said to Jesus, 'Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.... he has been dead for four days. The smell will be terrible.' (John 11). After Jesus' resurrection Thomas struggled with believing what the other disciples told him about seeing Jesus and said, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe" (John 20:25). The people living in the first century understood death and knew that it was irreversible from any human perspective. They were not naïve or easily deceived.

The objections stated by skeptics that oppose the ability to establish that a miracle in the past has occurred are not logically defensible, seem to be disingenuous without any reachable standard, contradict each other, and can be shown to be false. Miracles are not unscientific and, in certain cases, may be established as the most likely explanation for a past event.

The opening picture is a portrait of David Hume.
1David Hume, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Section X, On Miracles, (1748).
2David Hume, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, (1748).


  1. Dr Strauss if I may be permitted to kick hume a little further......

    As the late Antony Flew once observed that Hume's view on miracles (as a nominalist) was inconsistent with the rest of his philosophy which denied that regular laws of nature exist in the place.

    For Hume's objections to have ANY power whatsoever you have to admit to a platonic understanding of reality (which modern science does so implicitly) at the very least, although I would prefer Aristotelian reaslism (note this is metaphysical not determinate realism as Einstien would advocate in the ERP thought experiment).

    The problem for the humeans is that this reality necessarily entails the existence of God (whether from Plontinus's One, Aristotle's Unchanging changer ect) but that means that in principle miracles are possible.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I think a lot of philosophical work has been done since Hume to show that many of his arguments have problems that make them less than compelling.