XFiles Friday: Will the circle be unbroken?

(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:

  1. Miracles are violations of natural laws.
  2. Natural laws are immutable.
  3. It is impossible to violate immutable laws.
  4. 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?

 
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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 8 Comments »

8 Responses to “XFiles Friday: Will the circle be unbroken?”

  1. jim Says:

    If, ultimately, EVERYTHING is a miracle, which seems to be implied here…

    “How can skeptics disbelieve in miracles when the whole universe appears to be one amazing miracle?”

    …then the word ‘miracle’ becomes virtually meaningless, being synonymous with ‘everything that happens’. Or, is this distinction being made- natural law is a description of God’s everyday, continuous (m)iracle working, whilst the rarer (M)iracles are a special treat? Supernatural exclamation points, if you will? If this is the case, it makes it easier to understand theists’ claims of having witnessed miracles in their own lives. When anything counts, everything counts, I guess.

    As far as that stuff about overpowering natural laws on a daily basis…phew! I assume by the context that he actually means ‘overturning’…I wasn’t aware we’d overturned the fundamental natural forces as yet. Are these guys reading the bible, or Harry Potter? Of course, if they really do just mean ‘overpowering’ as in I raise my hand above my head thereby overpowering gravity, then I’m not too sure what ‘intelligence’ has to do with anything. Dandelion spores seem to fit the bill just as well.

  2. Airor Says:

    I am not convinced by your argument concerning G&T’s assertion that Creation itself by definition violates natural law. I agree with them which is why I believe reality and the cosmos must be eternal. I understand that in this particular universe the direction of time is perpendicular to the big bang event, but that doesn’t mean it is the same direction in the universe from which this one was spawned from.

    You are correct that the direction of time is not independent from space. The space-time around a black hole is so curved that beyond a certain horizon time itself points inexorably toward the singularity: there is no future within that space that doesn’t end there. The big bang event distorts space-time in a similar way: all pasts in the space beyond it lead through it. But in either case that doesn’t tell you anything about the space-time of the cosmos as a whole, just that some parts can get ‘disconnected’ from the whole and you can no longer get from this space to the originating space without going backwards in time.

  3. B8ovin Says:

    If, as they insist that the entire universe appears to be a miracle, then God itself is an even greater miracle, at which point the universe becomes rather mundane and subsequent, human level miracles become simplicity itself. The universe without god seems a greater miracle if, that is, you don’t assume the universe as being consistent in itself.
    Further, I don’t understand how the can assume a theistic universe. How do they use the word “theistic”? Can someone tell me if I’m missing something or explain how they logically make this assertion?

  4. Deacon Duncan Says:

    B8ovin:

    They call it a “theistic” universe because in the earlier chapters of the book they decided that things like the cosmological argument prove (yes prove) beyond all possible doubt that the universe was created by a personal, intelligent, and infinite deity.

    Airor:

    G&T’s assertion is not that the act of Creation would violate natural law by definition. They’re claiming that we know by observation that the material universe violates natural law, and therefore the laws of nature are mutable. But I agree with your assessment: it’s entirely possible that some other cosmic context exists “behind” this one in some way, beyond the event horizon. There’s just no chronological path “back” to it.

  5. B8ovin Says:

    Deacon, if what you say is true, than wouldn’t a simple syllogism show the fallacy of their argument? By assuming a “Theistic universe” wouldn’t all arguments stemming from that erroneous observation ultimately prove false? Sorry, I just found your site and you may have addressed this already, but are these guys still in high school or something?

  6. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Their contention would be that they’re not “assuming” a theistic universe, they’ve “proven” it (in the earlier chapters). But you’re right: they’re building on a pretty shaky foundation.

  7. B8ovin Says:

    If they have proven a “theistic universe” they’ve done something that people for the last 1800 years or so have been trying to do. Yet I haven’t even heard about this book before now. Something tells me their requirements for proof are more lenient for themselves than for, say, evolution.

  8. yoyo Says:

    I have been reading this series since the beginning, thank you for taking on such an annoying task for us. I have tried commenting on Vox’s site when his homophobia and misogyny were overwhelming but he never acknowledges any problem with his world view he just attempts word games. his whole book appears to be based on circular logic and dishonest semantics.