XFiles Friday: The One-Legged Straw ManJune 27, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 8 )
Last week, Geisler and Turek argued that miracles are possible because the laws of nature are not really unbreakable: baseball players prove this by catching falling balls, and thus violating the law of gravity [sic]. This week, G&T turn this same sort of insightful analysis to David Hume’s criticism of miracles.
Here is Hume’s argument in syllogistic form:
- Natural law is by definition a description of a regular occurrence.
- A miracle is by definition a rare occurrence.
- The evidence for the regular is always greater than that for the rare.
- A wise man always bases his belief on the greater evidence.
- Therefore, a wise man should never believe in miracles.
This is a strawman version of Hume’s argument, and it has been weakened, not only by being made of straw, but also by having one of its legs cut off. Can you see which one is missing?
Let’s take a look at how Geisler and Turek go about tackling this straw man.
If those four premises are true, then the conclusion necessarily follows—the wise man should never believe in miracles. Unfortunately for Hume and for those over the years who have believed him, the argument has a false premise—premise 3 is not necessarily true.
Premise 3, “The evidence for the regular is always greater than that for the rare,” uses the word “always.” Geisler and Turek point out that it takes only a single counterexample to disprove an “always,” and they claim to have several: the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the origin of each individual species, and even Hume’s own birth!
Each of these events is “rare,” in that each has only happened once in the entire course of history, and yet the evidence is such that a wise man would be foolish to deny that they happened. If we are to buy into Hume’s reasoning (or G&T’s straw version of Hume’s thinking anyway), we end up unable to believe anything, because every event that happens, happens only once. Similar events may happen before or after, but the individual event itself is unique in all of history, therefore “rare,” therefore unbelievable.
Now, we’ve got two possibilities here: either David Hume became one of the most famous and influential philosophers of the 18th century by making foolish arguments that are trivially self-refuting, or G&T aren’t really giving us the true substance of Hume’s argument. Since the authors have already explored the former possibility, let’s look more closely at the latter.
According to Geisler and Turek, Hume’s argument can be dismantled by considering only the question of rarity. Hume, however, is not talking about whether rare events are more believable than common events, he’s talking about whether miracles are more believable than the natural laws they allegedly violate. This is important because there’s more to a miracle than simply rarity. If we define “miracle” in terms of rarity alone, virtually everything is a miracle, since no event ever happens more than once. But mere rarity is not what makes a miracle miraculous.
What makes a miracle miraculous is that it is not merely rare, but that it explicitly conflicts with natural law. Thus, when we consider the believability of miracles, we’re not just asking how often they happen, we are confronting a choice between conflicting alternatives. This is the missing leg of G&T’s straw man: they focused on the miracle’s “rarity” attribute, and completely ignored the “conflict” attribute. No wonder this particular straw man is so easy to tackle!
Remember, when we discover the laws of nature, what we are really doing is summarizing the things that we find to be consistently true in the real world. If we find, for example, that things are pulled downwards unless supported by some exterior force, we can summarize those observations as the Law of Gravity. If someone tells us that they saw a person floating in the air, and rising up until the clouds hid him from view, without any supporting exterior force, then we have a contradiction. Either the Law of Gravity is an accurate description of what happens in the real world, or the report is accurate and the Law of Gravity is untrue.
Suppose Jesus did not violate the Law of Gravity by “ascending into Heaven,” as Acts 1 tells us. Suppose, for example, that he was really being pulled up by an invisible tractor beam. The Law of Gravity says things are pulled down unless supported by some exterior force, so by applying force, Jesus would actually be obeying the Law, not contradicting it. At that point, however, the Ascension ceases to be a miracle. It’s just a sci-fi elevator ride. The miracle is miraculous only when it conflicts with the laws of nature, by definition.
So let’s look at Hume’s argument again, this time in the context of all the defining attributes of a miracle. “Natural law is by definition a description of a regular occurrence.” This is correct: we have no predefined list of natural laws, we merely observe them as patterns that consistently appear in real-world events. “A miracle is by definition a rare occurrence that conflicts with natural law.” This, as corrected, is also true. As G&T themselves point out, “if miracles happened more often…then they would cease being miracles (rare events) and we might consider them natural laws or part of unexplained natural phenomenona.”
Now for Premise 3, “The evidence for the regular is greater than that for the rare.” This is necessarily true in the case of miracles because if it were the other way around, if the evidence for the miracle were greater than the evidence for what we understand as natural law, then it would alter our understanding of natural law. If the evidence contrary to the Law of Gravity were more abundant than the evidence in favor of the Law of Gravity, we would simply observe that Gravity was not really a natural law, and thus there’s no reason Jesus couldn’t just float away into the clouds. As G&T say, miracles would cease to be miracles, and we would just see them as being part of the real-world natural order, understood or not.
Miracles, however, are defined by how they conflict with natural laws. Consequently the evidence for miracles must be less than the evidence for natural laws, in order to establish those laws as genuine laws that are contrary to what a miracle is. Q. E. D.
G&T close with an interesting observation.
[A]s soon as we consider [miracles] natural in origin, then they would no longer get our attention as special acts of God. Its rarity is one of the characteristics that distinguishes a miracle from everything else! To put it another way, the reason miracles get our attention is because we know that such an event could not be produced by natural laws.
Geisler and Turek have entitled their book “I Don’t Have Enough FAITH To Be An ATHEIST,” in accordance with their theme that the evidence for the supernatural is greater than the evidence for a purely material, natural order. And yet, as Hume correctly points out, the thing that makes miracles “miraculous,” by definition, is that they are inconsistent with the evidence we consistently observe in the real world. If things were otherwise, we would have an understanding of the real world in which miracles were normal, natural, and unremarkable, which G&T claim would invalidate the whole purpose of having miracles. Geisler and Turek, therefore, are necessarily being untruthful when they claim that it takes more faith to disbelieve miracles than to believe in them. If the evidence for such events were truly greater, the events themselves would cease to be miraculous.