The Case Against Miracles Chapter 1

What do I think of David Corner’s chapter? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

David Corner has the first chapter in John Loftus’s book on Miracles and the challenge of the apologist. Why is it that an apologist would have a hard time with miracles? Reading through, I didn’t really find anything that I found remotely convincing in Corner. It looked like more just pointing back to Hume over and over.

Also noteworthy is I remember no mention of Keener’s work in the chapter. If a miracle has taken place, then the challenge of Corner is taken care of. Corner could try to just say “Well, it’s some natural thing we don’t understand yet.” Feel free to think that, but most of us will be unconvinced.

Early on, Corner starts with defining a miracle. He cites both Augustine and Aquinas, but then goes to Hume. This to me sounds like going to Ken Ham when you want to learn about evolution. Even if you disagree with Augustine and Aquinas, why not go with them because then you know you’re going with someone who represents your opponents’ side? I think we know why. Still, let’s see what he says about Hume.

In his Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding,[ 30] David Hume offered two definitions of “miracle;” first, as a violation of natural law;[ 31] shortly afterward he offers a more complex definition when he says a miracle is “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”[ 32] This second definition offers two important criteria that an event must satisfy in order to qualify as a miracle: It must be a violation of natural law, but this by itself is not enough; a miracle must also be an expression of the divine will. This means that a miracle must express divine agency; if we have no reason to think that an event is something done by God, we will have no reason to call it a miracle.

I do think the idea of being connected to God at the end a good point to have. Suppose we have a case where someone is in a state such as a comatose state and has no response whatsoever and there are people gathered in prayer. Just as they are done praying, the person wakes up. Are they justified in believing in a miracle? Yes.

The problem also is Corner spends a lot of time addressing supernaturalism, but he never talks about what it is really. He says this about the idea of nature:

Those who would defend supernaturalism sometimes do this through a commitment to an ontology of entities that exist in some sense outside of nature, where by “nature” is meant the totality of things that can be known by means of observation and experiment, or more generally, through the methods proper to the natural sciences.

But what is meant by observation and experiment? I know 2 + 2 = 4 by observation. I don’t have to do experiments to find that out. At times throughout the day, I can look out my office window here and see cats. There are many different cats, but I get the idea of cat out of all of them and learn what a cat is despite differences in size, color, etc. The same could be said for dogs.

I can reason to other things like triangularity or goodness from there. I can also reason to God. I don’t do an experiment. I just follow rules of deductive reasoning to get to my conclusion. What I wonder though is by Corner’s definition if the nature of cats, triangularity, goodness, etc. would be part of nature or not. Evolution might explain how cats came about. It doesn’t explain how the universal nature of cats exists.

He also contends methodological naturalism tells us that observation and experiment can tell us all that we need to know. I disagree with this definition of it. What I see it as being is that when a scientist does his work in the lab, he assumes that there are no external agents interfering without cause.

The first hurdle Corner deals with is testimony. Can testimony evidence a miracle? The problem is Corner presents a number of ways testimony can go wrong, and it can. He never says how it can go right. What are the grounds by which a miracle could be said to have a reliable source? If he cannot give any, then is he not begging the question to say it can never overcome?

That would make sense since that is what Hume said. The best Corner can say is it will give us the suspension of judgment, but if you approach every testimony to a miracle with “Either false or suspend judgment” then you will never conclude a miracle has happened. Why? Because you know a miracle has never happened. This gets us into begging the question. More will be said on that later.

He also does cite Earman, but there’s not much engagement. Earman points out that Hume’s argument would work against marvels being believed and would thus be a science stopper if followed through. Earman says this as an agnostic. One point made is that Earman says we could have a large number of witnesses. Corner replies that we have no way of accessing their credibility as witnesses so we shouldn’t trust them.

But again, this just gets us to begging the question. The account cannot possibly be accepted as true. Corner gives us no grounds and even if true, it is insisted that it would have to have a natural cause. Corner has things stacked in his favor here. No matter what, it has to be a natural event because, well, reasons.

When asked about begging the question, Corner says we can’t assume the “supernatural” worldview is correct and says an apologist arguing for a miracle is. Yet at the same time, Corner thinks it’s just fine to assume the naturalistic worldview is correct. An apologist arguing for a miracle does not have to assume a supernatural worldview. He can present this as evidence for God and the person responding can decide if the evidence is reliable or not. You don’t have to accept God’s existence to think there could be good evidence for a miracle.

Corner later goes so far as to say that we usually say that either an event has a natural cause or a supernatural cause. He argues maybe it had no cause at all. He would have someone who would challenge that. Namely, David Hume, or is this the point where we drop Hume?

“But allow me to tell you that I never asserted so absurd a Proposition as that that anything might arise without a cause: I only maintain’d, that our Certainty of the Falsehood of that Proposition proceeded neither from Intuition nor Demonstration; but from another Source.” (David Hume to John Stewart, February 1754, in The Letters of David Hume, 2 vols, ed. J. Y. T Greig[Oxford:Clarendon Press, 1932], I:187)

And once again I am reminded how far skeptics like Corner will go to to defend their position. It strikes me as a position of believing anything else before believing a miracle. Nature can just go through spontaneous lapses sometimes in uniformity, but yet this would destroy science itself. Would Corner sacrifice science to avoid a miracle? Possibly.

Corner also asks how a God could do a miracle. He says:

All of the cases of causal interaction of which we are aware occur between physical entities that are fundamentally similar to one another in terms of possessing physical properties such as mass, electrical charge, location in space, etc. Thus, we know for example how one billiard ball may move another by virtue of the transfer of momentum. But God, as normally conceived by theistic religion, possesses none of these qualities, and cannot therefore interact with physical objects in any way that we can understand. God cannot, for example, transfer momentum to a physical object if God does not possess mass.

Yet this is again begging the question. What if I believe that I have an immaterial aspect to me and that that aspect of me interacts with my body? Then I have firsthand evidence in my case that immaterial forces can do that. Do I know how? No. Not at all. I don’t know how I fall asleep at night either, but I seem to do it every night.

Even if all that we had indicated physical changes are caused by physical objects, that does not demonstrate immaterial objects can’t do the same thing. Corner needs to demonstrate this and he hasn’t done so. Furthermore, if I have theistic arguments and I am convinced they work, then I have a priori evidence that this does happen.

He also says the problem of miracles is they lack predictive power, but why should this be a problem? If I am dealing with a free-will agent, why should I think they will always follow rules like that? My wife will appreciate something from me at one time and the next time not appreciate it. Some days I might enjoy a game and some days I might not. Free-will agents don’t act according to natural laws like that.

He also asks about miracles that do have natural causes, but this is not a problem. Suppose the Israelites cross the Jordan and we are told that regularly the waters stop so people can walk through. The miracle is not that they stopped, but when they stopped, in direct response to prayer.

In conclusion, I really don’t see anything convincing in Corner’s argument, at least for his position. If anything, it makes me more aware of the hurdles skeptics go to to avoid miracles. It’s easier to believe in things even Hume called absurd apparently than to be open to a miracle at all.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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