Seven points to ponderFebruary 22, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
From Jayman, seven points to ponder, and my response to each:
(1) I think it’s self-evident that calculating the number of miracles per year in the U.S. based solely on the percentage of Americans claiming to have witnessed a miracle is poor methodology.
It’s poor methodology only because we know, from real life experiences, that genuine miracles do not happen often enough to justify the conclusion that the odds of your having seen a miracle are within 2 percentage points of being a simple coin flip. That was why I immediately called a reality check on that statistic. We know that at least the overwhelming majority of those reported sightings are people applying the designation “miracle” to things that are merely amazing. Since, however, these reported instances of miracles are generally uniform (i.e. there is no one miracle that stands so far above the rest as to make it obvious that the others are fake), it would not be the least bit surprising if all of these cases turned out to be consistent with what we find in the overwhelming majority of cases. Because most of these purported miracles are not genuine, we have a reasonable basis for inferring that the rest are also not genuine, especially given the uniformity of the reports. No feature distinguishes a subset of genuine miracles from the larger pool of false miracles, giving us a further reasonable basis for inferring that no such subset exists. Whenever we take a random sample of specific cases of alleged miracles, we find (a) that they do not involve God actually showing up and (b) that they are not actually miraculous, but merely amazing in some way. Every time we do this, with every random sample or with samples selected by believers as exceptionally good, and find that the miracle once again is not genuine, it reinforces the reasonable conclusion that there are no genuine miracles to discover. The uniformly consistent nature of the documented findings is highly suggestive of the self-consistency of the truth itself, and therefore it is reasonable and advisable to draw the conclusion that these are not genuine miracles. And in any case, we have no good reason not to draw the skeptical conclusion. The reasonable conclusion should therefore stand, at least pending verifiable evidence to the contrary.
(2) Disagreements still occur even when we have tons of information and the subject is objective (e.g., Holocaust denial).
True, but only one side, at most, can properly claim to have the verifiable evidence to support their conclusions. The question in any disagreement is, who has the facts to back up their claims?
(3) Science can only study historical phenomena to the extent that past events leave behind artifacts; and even then the artifacts don’t tell the whole story. There are few miracle stories I have heard where we would expect to have something like an archeaological record of the event.
Physical artifacts are only one possible consequence that ought to be examined for consistency with the hypothesis. The Gospels propose a God Who is not willing that any should perish, a loving Heavenly Father Who ought to serve as a perfect example of how mortal fathers ought to interact with their own children. This implies that we ought to expect a huge volume of information, including personal interactions, visible, audible and tangible manifestations, and physical artifacts. The fact that we do not, and that we use the term “miracle” to mean something that virtually never happens, indicates that the original hypothesis is flawed.
(4) My words may have been somewhat ambiguous, but I intended merely to say that there are many stories that do not have natural explanations according to our current understanding of nature. I did not intend, nor did I explicitly state, that natural explanations will never be possible for such stories.
That’s a good thing, and Jayman is to be commended for his objectivity. All that remains to be said, then, is that the absence of a natural explanation is not, in itself, evidence of God, but merely evidence of the undeniable reality of human non-omniscience. Mere ignorance of what caused something to happen does not justify drawing the inference that God caused it to happen, and in fact it is superstitious to draw any such inference on that basis.
(5) You realize that people are not omniscient yet you make a claim (that God has never acted) which only an omniscient being could know is true.
This is not true. The brute force approach is not the only possible approach to discovering knowledge. I have not personally examined each and every one of the 116 million people who think they’ve seen genuine miracles, yet I daresay that I know they all have lungs (or at least, the living ones do), because the absence of lungs would imply a remarkable state of affairs that would be worthy of note, and yet no such case is noted. I do not require omniscience to know that they all have lungs, I need merely apply the principle that the truth is consistent with itself. The same technique allows us to know that, in the absence of the tremendous and undeniable consequences that would result if God did show up in real life, we can safely conclude that God does not show up in real life, despite the facility with which people superstitiously ascribe things to Him whenever they are amazed.
(6) I’m curious how you would respond if God did physically manifest himself and cause something to happen. I’m guessing you would still come up with rationalizations. This being’s claims to be God would not be good enough. The mere fact that he worked inexplicable wonders would not be proof that he was really God. Etc.
This is also not true, and it seems a bit self-congratulatory as well, as though Jayman wished to claim that his personal virtue and insight were in some way superior to mine and others’. I trust this is an inadvertent implication. The issue here is not how skeptics would or would not react if God really did show up in real life. That’s a moot point currently; we can worry about that when and if God ever does show up. In the meantime, what we actually observe in real life is a world that is devoid of the most fundamental and obvious consequences that would result if there really were a loving Heavenly Father Who wanted us to be saved by knowing Him. Believers know from experience that God does not show up in real life, and have responded by substantially lowering their expectations for what ought to constitute “showing up,” to the point that God does not even need to be real to satisfy them. This allows them to pretend that skeptics are being unreasonable when they expect God to behave as though the Gospel were telling the truth about Him. It’s backwards thinking: letting present day limitations dictate what predictions you make based on the initial premise, instead of predicting the consequences that would naturally be implied by the premise itself.
(7) You make the false assumption that the Spirit cannot interact and associate with believers in a personal and tangible way. And the distinction between believer and unbeliever is relevant because God has shown up for me but not for you.
I can safely say, without fear of refutation, that God has not shown up for Jayman any more than He showed up for me when I was a believer. At best, Jayman can claim to have had some personal, subjective experience that amazed him enough to make him feel warranted in concluding that God was involved in some way. Muslims do the same thing with Allah; Mormons, with their polytheistic Trinity; Hindus with whatever deity they appeal to. In Shinto, it doesn’t even need to be a full deity, and in spiritism it might just be the ghost of your dear departed grandma. This does not require that any of these beings actually exist, it merely requires that the subject be amazed, which is not all that hard to do. If this happens in a context of community expectation, peer pressure, or autosuggestion, it’s even easier.
One time I attended a seance—an assembly of spiritists, actually. Church for ghosts. Several people were doing “automatic writing,” which supposedly involves spirits guiding the pen of the medium and sending messages in writing, as opposed to physically manifesting, or speaking through the medium’s vocal cords. This was during my young, evangelical Christian days, so I attributed it all to demonic activity, naturally. But one lady in particular seemed especially gifted. You could tell when a different spirit “took over” her pen, because each ghost had its own unique handwriting, and the people were laughing about how you could tell the gender of the spirit by their writing style (which prompted one ghost to rebuke them by saying “No, I am not a woman!”).
By this point, I was secretly praying for the Holy Spirit’s protection, because I was sure there were several demons in the room with me, manipulating this poor woman and deceiving her by pretending to be ghosts. The evidence was right before my eyes: you could see the unique and distinctive handwriting of each different one, and nobody could possibly fake so many different styles so fluidly and effortlessly. I asked for, and was given, the paper she was writing on, and couldn’t wait to show it to my Sunday school class, because it was such clear, tangible evidence of the supernatural.
When I looked at it the next morning, however, every single line was in the same, identical handwriting. I would have been prepared to swear in court that I had seen multiple different handwriting styles the night before, when I was surrounded by spooky people who were exclaiming delightedly over what they thought they were seeing. Despite my Biblical bias against spiritism, despite my wariness and my intention not to be deceived, I was so thoroughly swayed by the context that it changed my perception of the evidence.
Human psychology is like that, and any number of studies have been done that have documented the same perceptual weakness. It’s easy to create an experience of amazement that is sufficient to convince humans that they’ve encountered something supernatural. It does not even require that the supernatural phenomenon actually exist. The right emotional setting, the right expectations, the right desires and fears, and the perception creates itself.
A real God would know this, and would know that, in order to establish His existence, He would need to show up often enough and universally enough that we would all recognize Him. Not just knowing that He exists, but being able to discern the difference between the real God,and any erstwhile imposter, or the deceitfulness of our own hearts. The loving, merciful, and salvific response to this situation would be to show up and interact with us, tangibly, visibly and audibly, just to keep us familiar with Him, and not even counting how much He would normally want to interact with us, personally and face-to-face, simply out of His perfect and irresistable love for us all (including and perhaps especially the disobedient).
This is what does not happen, and that’s why I can say, without fear of refutation, that God (as defined by the Christian Gospel) does not show up in real life. He does not exist outside the minds and imaginations of men, and thus can only “show up” as a character in their stories, hopes, and feelings. Jesus preached a nice-sounding God, but what he said is not consistent with what we see in real life. And therefore, it is not true.