Evidence and Miracles

Can there ever be sufficient evidence for a miracle? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

I saw someone recently post something on Facebook critiquing Hume’s argument against miracles. In a comments section, the part being discussed was the idea that no amount of testimony would be sufficient to establish a miracle and a wise man always goes with the evidence. This is similar to the kind of argument that Ehrman has given against miracles.

At this, a question must be asked. Is the person really saying that no amount of evidence could ever confirm a miracle? Does this sound ridiculous to you? I wish it was, but unfortunately, a number of atheists have made statements about what they would consider to be sufficient for a miracle.

In A Manual For Creating Atheists, Peter Boghossian has said that if we all went outside one day and saw all the stars align to spell something like “I am YHWH. Believe in me”, that that could be suggestive. He does not rule out that we could be experiencing a mass delusion though.

Or consider Jerry Coyne:

“The following (and admittedly contorted) scenario would give me tentative evidence for Christianity. Suppose that a bright light appeared in the heavens, and, supported by winged angels, a being clad in a white robe and sandals descended onto my campus from the sky, accompanied by a pack of apostles bearing the names given in the Bible. Loud heavenly music, with the blaring of trumpets, is heard everywhere. The robed being, who identifies himself as Jesus, repairs to the nearby university hospital and instantly heals many severely afflicted people, including amputees. After a while Jesus and his minions, supported by angels ascend back into the sky with another chorus of music. The heavens swiftly darken, there are flashes of lightning and peals of thunder, and in an instant the sky is clear. If this were all witnessed by others and documented by video, and if the healings were unexplainable but supported by testimony from multiple doctors, and if all the apparitions and events conformed to Christian theology—then I’d have to start thinking seriously about the truth of Christianity.” Faith vs. Fact p. 118-119

Note the wording here. Coyne would say he has “tentative evidence” and only then would he have to start thinking about the serious truth of Christianity. In both of these cases, none of this would count as sufficient evidence. If this was not sufficient for something, one has to wonder what would be sufficient.

So what if Hume does say no amount of evidence will ever establish a miracle? Then we have a sort of presuppositional argument going on. It is decided whatever the evidence is, the evidence is insufficient. Now if that is your position, why bother studying something like the historical evidence for Christianity? Why bother listening to a case? Why should a Christian even bother giving a case?

So then, if no amount of evidence is sufficient, then the evidence really isn’t the problem. If your position will not be changed by evidence, then your position is not really based on evidence. It’s based on a prior commitment.

And what if evidence can be sufficient?

Then Hume’s argument fails again. On the one hand, we have an argument that doesn’t work if there can be sufficient evidence. If there can’t be, then we have an argument that has just begged the question. Either way, it doesn’t work.

Now does this mean a miracle has occurred or Christianity is true or Jesus rose from the dead or God exists? No. Those have to be established on their own. It does mean the position given is insufficient to argue against miracles. Defenders of miracles will have to be ready with the evidence to establish them, but if the skeptic says no amount of evidence will be sufficient, there is no use trying.

In Christ,
Nick Peters
(And I affirm the virgin birth)

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

Book Plunge: The Case For Miracles

What do I think of Lee Strobel’s book published by Zondervan? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Lee Strobel holds a special place in my heart. It was his books that really lit my fire in the area of apologetics. Not only does Strobel present great information, he also does it while introducing you to the best scholars in the field so you know where to go to next for more information. It was through him that I came across scholars like Craig Blomberg, Ravi Zacharias, Peter Kreeft, J.P. Moreland, Gary Habermas, William Lane Craig, Ben Witherington III, etc.

This book is no exception, though in some ways it is quite different. One obvious way is that it does start off with interviewing a skeptic. The interview is with Michael Shermer. While Shermer is a lot nicer and more real than many other skeptics, many of his arguments are really just as weak. As I read through the chapter, I kept thinking that if this is one of the leading faces of skepticism, then we’re in good hands.

Still, I think it’s a good change to have taken place. I would like to see in his books Strobel interviewing both sides. It’s also quite impressive to realize Strobel resisted the urge to be a debater with Shermer and just let him speak.

From there, Strobel goes on to interview other scholars. Big shock that on this topic, the first person on the list is Craig Keener. Keener wrote an epic two-volume work on miracles called Miracles. Anyone skeptical of the reality of miracles should read it. The good news is if you have read it, you will find still new stories in this one. Craig Keener has more miracles and I understand from my interactions with him that he collects them regularly now.

The next interview is with Candy Gunther Brown on prayer studies. Now I will say that these kinds of studies have never really convinced me. There are too many variables that can’t be tested and you’re dealing with a free-will agent. What is much more convincing with prayer are testimonials like the ones Brown talks about where she goes to third world countries and sees people being healed after they are prayed for in the name of Jesus.

Other interviews on topics related are J. Warner Wallace on the resurrection and Michael Strauss on the origins of the universe. Both of these are interesting and to be expected. Both are also highly enjoyable chapters.

Roger Olson was a chapter that was really convicting. The chapter was on being ashamed of the supernatural and while I don’t care for the term supernatural, the point is still there. We often pray for wisdom for doctors in operations instead of for healing. It’s as if we expect God to not do miracles. This really caused me to look at how I approach prayer.

Then there’s the chapter that could be the hardest one to read in the book. This is the chapter about what about when miracles don’t occur. Douglas Groothuis is the person interviewed for that one. His wife Becky had a disease that was killing her memory and brain function bit by bit. Sadly, Becky has since the time of publishing passed away. Groothuis is there to remind us that miracles don’t always occur and how to handle it.

If there was one chapter I would have liked, it would have been one on the philosophy of Hume. Keener touched on that some, but he’s not a philosopher. Perhaps it would have been good to have had someone like John Earman as an interview to talk about it.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Proofs of God

What do I think of Matthew Levering’s book published by Baker Academic? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Levering’s book is a textbook, but reading it you wouldn’t think that. It is a book that is simple to understand putting the classical proofs of God and others in ways that can be grasped by any reader. Levering does not assume you have prior knowledge of the subject. It’s as if this could be the first time you are seriously engaging the idea and he wants to help you out.

Something else interesting is that he also has a number of writers who wrote on the opposite end. Some like Kant didn’t think the classical proofs and such worked, but they gave other arguments for God. Some just outright didn’t think arguments worked like Hume and Wittgenstein. Their thoughts are included as well.

Levering is also very fair in the main body of the work. He gives the overview of each writer and it isn’t until the concluding part of the chapter that he starts giving some of his thoughts on what was said. Of course, none of this is exhaustive. The book is around 220 pages and you have over 20 thinkers to go through so you can only devote so much time to each one.

Levering starts with the church fathers. Right at the start, I find it fascinating that atheism was not being seriously debated at this time, and yet the early church was starting to answer questions before they came along. These were serious thinkers despite what might be said about them by atheists on the internet. It doesn’t mean they were right in everything or that all their arguments were good, but they were arguments and they were trying to seriously engage.

It won’t be a shock to anyone who follows my work that my favorite portion is when we get to the medieval period. Naturally, I tend to gravitate towards Thomas Aquinas and his ways. These are the ways that I use when I do apologetics and I find them to always be misrepresented somehow when someone attempts to refute them.

From there we go to the Reformers and then closer and closer until we get to the modern era. The latest we get to is Barth. I tended to think that as far as the arguments went, they lost much of their caliber after the ones from Aquinas and when later writers looked back and tried to respond, they tended to misrepresent the argument. How many times do I see atheists today trying to make arguments about the origin of the universe and thinking they have refuted Aquinas in the process?

I understand Levering wanted to keep the book reasonably small and readable, but I do hope there will come an updated version sometime with more time spent on more of the philosophers and seeing people after Barth. If not that, then perhaps we could do a sequel on modern proofs of God to see what people are saying and then give a brief look at arguments from the past. Another option would be a book contrasting proofs of God in the past with those of today.

Levering’s book is still a great one to read, especially when the only criticisms I can really come up with or asking if there’s a way even more can be put in. This will be a new book I will refer to when people ask me for evidences of God. If they want to focus on Aquinas, by all means choose Feser, but if you want overview of everyone, Levering is a great place to go to.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: How To Be An Atheist

What do I think of Mitch Stokes’s book published by Crossway? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Many atheists have long said it is time to move past religion. We need to be people of reason and evidence. (As if in all the history of religion no one ever thought about those) Once we don’t act so gullible and accept these religious beliefs, we will instead find some beliefs that stand up to scrutiny. We will see science bringing us into a brave new world.

Or will we?

Now to be fair, not all atheists have fallen for the myth of scientism, but a good deal have. They will not fall for the beliefs put out by religious people. (Although speaking historically, they will be gullible with regard to the existence of Jesus and believe the Christ myth theory wholeheartedly quite often) They believe in following the evidence where it leads.

Stokes challenges that and he does that by suggesting the atheists apply their skepticism and standards to the science they love so much. The book is divided into two parts. Those are science and morality. In the first, Stokes looks at claims related to science and asks if it can really deliver the goods that we are often promised it will.

Now no doubt, we owe much good to science, but the problem with scientism is that it says all good is owed to science and only science can tell us the truth. Stokes relies largely on Hume pointing out that by scientific standards, you can’t detect basic ideas like even causality. You do not see cause taking place. You assume some connection that cannot be detected.

For instance, you see a brick fly through a window. You see the brick shattering the window and think that that means that the brick shattered the window. That makes sense, but does it follow? We could point out that Hume said that a stone falling when dropped 1,000 times does not mean that it is going to fall when dropped the next time. The same applies for the brick and the window.

Science can tell us about events that happen and can give us some functional truth, but can we know it’s ultimately true? We could all be brains in a vat after all. In fact, science does not give us ultimate and absolute knowledge as it can be overturned at any time. Sometimes, this is much harder to do as Stokes points out, looking at the work of Kuhn mainly.

In the end, it looks like science doesn’t deliver the good of absolute truth. In the end, the atheist needs to frankly say he doesn’t know Unfortunately, this also means for him that science cannot disprove God. Yes. It could be that new atheists proudly proclaiming the death of God with science are just wrong.

What about morality? Stokes starts off by dealing with the supposed claim that we are saying that atheists cannot be good people. Not at all. What is said is that this goodness is often assumed to be a given in the universe. Yet how can we detect goodness? How can we have a standard of it? Stokes points out that Harris regularly just begs the question in arguing for his theory. I did wish Stokes had quoted Ruse’s review here, but that did not happen.

To get to the point, in the end, Stokes argues that atheism doesn’t really have a coherent theory of morality yet and it will ultimately boil down to nihilism. Therefore, to be a consistent atheist, you will need to be doubtful of knowledge and need to be a moral nihilist.

Or could it be atheists just aren’t really being consistent? Of course, we could say none of us are fully consistent, but we need to ask more if it is the case that our beliefs are not consistent or if we are not consistent with them? There is a world of difference.

Stokes’s book is written on a lay-level, though it could be a little bit deep at times. Still, it does give food for thought and is something worth thinking about. I would like to see one coming out sometime on historical claims as well.

In Christ,
Nick Peters