XFiles Friday: Will the circle be unbroken?June 20, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 8 )
At this point in Chapter 8, Geisler and Turek have reached the conclusion that IF God exists THEN miracles are possible.
Now this doesn’t mean that God has performed those biblical miracles. That remains to be seen. It only means that he could have—that such miracles are possible. In light of the fact that we live in a theistic universe, ruling out miracles beforehand (as many atheists do) is clearly illegitimate…
Why do so many people today say that miracles are not possible or should not be believed? How can skeptics disbelieve in miracles when the whole universe appears to be one amazing miracle?
Jesus had an interesting answer to that last question. In John 7:24, he said, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.” Appearances are famous for their deceptiveness, and even Jesus warns against trusting in appearances. Nevertheless Geisler and Turek seem to have a fair point. Should we automatically exclude miracles from consideration without even considering the possibility? Is that, in fact, what atheists are doing?
Geisler and Turek cite 2 examples of arguments against miracles that, in their estimation, show unbelievers being closed-minded towards the question of miracles. The first comes from Spinoza.
The argument that natural laws are immutable was first popularized in the 1670’s by Benedict Spinoza, a Jewish pantheist. Spinoza’s argument against miracles goes something like this:
- Miracles are violations of natural laws.
- Natural laws are immutable.
- It is impossible to violate immutable laws.
- Therefore, miracles are impossible…
The problem with this objection is that it begs the question. If you define natural laws as immutable, then of course miracles are impossible. But that’s the very question! Who said natural laws are immutable?
Geisler and Turek here are treading on the boundaries of a major problem with miracles, and that is that we don’t yet fully understand what all the laws of nature necessarily are. How then can we assert, with Spinoza (and apparently with G&T as well) that miracles are violations of natural law, and not simply the operation of laws we don’t yet understand? Even as recently as the 1600’s, when Spinoza wrote, there was much that science still did not know, let alone back centuries and millennia ago when people were first developing their understanding of what a miracle was.
If miracles were real, i.e. if they actually happened in the real world, then we would have no way of knowing that they were violating the laws of nature. Instead, we would have to assume that they represented some kind of natural law or natural force not yet understood by man. For example, lightning (aka “fire from heaven”) was originally assumed to be miraculous, a manifestation of the power and wrath of some god or other. Yet because lightning actually happens in the real world, people couldn’t be certain whether lightning was a violation of natural laws, or merely the manifestation of natural forces they didn’t understand. As it turned out, it was the latter, not the former.
If miracles were real, therefore, Geisler and Turek would not be able to dogmatically assert that they necessarily violate natural laws. Miracles, however, are defined not in terms of their observed qualities (since we do not observe them), but in terms of the psychological needs of the person crafting the definition. The believer needs for miracles to be “supernatural” for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that miracles somehow defy every attempt to verify their existence. By labeling miracles as “violations” of the laws of nature, the believer isolates miracles from scientific investigation, and protects them against the falsification that would inevitably follow a rigorous inquiry into the particulars.
Geisler and Turek, oblivious to all this, prefer to insist that natural laws can be, and have been, violated in obvious ways.
Creation itself demonstrates that natural laws are not immutable. Something doesn’t naturally come from nothing. But here we are.
This is the same mistake they’ve been making all along. Time and the universe have the same beginning, so there never was a time when there was a “nothing” for the “something” to come from. Instead of proving that the laws of nature are subject to change, Geisler and Turek are only illuminating their own misunderstanding of Nature. But wait, there’s more.
We also know that natural laws are not immutable because they are descriptions of what happens, not prescriptions of what must happen. Natural laws don’t really cause anything, they only describe what regularly happens in nature. The describe the effects of the four known natural forces—gravitation, magnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces. Once you introduce intelligent beings into the picture, natural forces can be overpowered. We know that those forces can be overpowered, because we do so ourselves every day.
Obviously, Geisler and Turek are extremely unclear on the difference between the thing being observed and the description of one’s observations. The laws of nature have been around a lot longer than there have been people around to describe them. G&T are confused, as well, about the difference between violating a natural law, and applying an opposing force as required by the natural law.
Take the law of gravity, for example. Geisler and Turek use the illustration of a ballplayer catching a falling baseball, or an airplane taking off, or a rocket launching, as examples of intelligent beings “overpowering” the forces of nature. But is this a violation of the law of gravity? Not at all: gravity tells us how much force is working to pull things down, and therefore how much opposing force is needed to stop or reverse the downward pull. The energy we expend in “overcoming” the force of gravity only confirms the law of gravity. The only way to violate the law of gravity is for something to fail to fall down in the presence of a strong gravitational field and in the absence of any opposing force.
I’m not sure if G&T did this on purpose, but the mental shell game they’re playing here borders on the dishonest. They started out talking about “immutable” natural laws, slipped in a substitution of “natural forces” in place of “natural laws,” and then used baseballs and airplanes as though this proved that natural laws are not immutable and thus do not rule out the possibility of miracles. Brother, if you think it’s a genuine miracle when a ball player catches a ball, you’re rooting for the wrong team!
When we say that natural laws are immutable, what we are saying is that the universe does not contradict itself. That’s a corollary of the principle that truth is consistent with itself. Geisler and Turek can try to deny that the material world is self-consistent, but when they try to suggest some examples of reality contradicting itself, they fail, as they inevitably must.
We’ll see if they fare any better with David Hume next week, but for now I want to make just one closing observation. All of their arguments for the possibility of miracles are based on the assumption that God exists. That is, they are asking us to believe that “God exists, therefore miracles are true (or at least possible).” All they need to make this a perfectly circular argument is to turn it around and tell us “Miracles are real, therefore God exists.” Anybody want to lay the odds that by the time we get to the Gospel stories, we’ll see the second half of this circle?