William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

The Miracles-Don’t-Exist-So-Miracles-Don’t-Exist Argument

Say something nice: the Miracles-Don’t-Exist-So-Miracles-Don’t-Exist argument is conditionally true. If miracles are impossible, miracles, it follows logically, don’t happen. No escaping the iron cladedness of that (you heard me: iron cladedness).

Not only that. If miracles are impossible, it must be that every report of a miracle is some kind of mistake. Error in reporting, perhaps, mistaken observation. Hallucination. Ignorance. Downright fraud. Exaggeration of facts into myth. Lying. Scams. Point is, whatever or however a miracle is reported or is seen in this scheme, something very badly has gone wrong.

And then, human thought sinking into the abyss is hardly unexpected. Have you ever read a history book? Or watched television? Even at the highest levels the outlook is bleak. I need only mention what’s happening on college campuses these days as definitive proof of how low thinking can go. A university is now the worst place you can be to learn anything useful about mankind—except how the insane can rake in large salaries.

But help me. Isn’t the Miracles-Don’t-Exist-So-Miracles-Don’t-Exist argument, oh, I don’t know, dogmatic? Adopts a perfunctory and brutal attitude, wouldn’t you say? It’s Science as impatient father. “Daddy, why don’t miracles happen?” “Because I said so. Where’s your mother?”

Of course, you rarely hear the Miracles-Don’t-Exist-So-Miracles-Don’t-Exist argument—fallacy, rather—stated in so bold a fashion as its name indicates. Usually it’s tarted up in the fashion Richard Dawkins’s simulacrum in the video does it. (Incidentally, if you have to ask why Donall and Conall are calling Dawkins “Patrick”, watch more videos by the same creator.)

Faux Dawkins says miracle stories are cheap fiction substituting for Science, and that once Science arrived, miracles were no longer necessary. This is a fancy restatement of the MDESMDE (pronounced I have decided, made-smade). So is insisting the universe (multiuniverse, whatever) is entirely physical, driven only by materialistic forces. Saying all is only physical presupposes there is no spiritual element and thus miracles are impossible.

Another restatement: God doesn’t exist, so don’t look for miracles. Another (Hume’s): We can’t trust any report of a miracle because it’s more likely that any report of a miracle is due to error, lying, etc. than a miracle was miraculous. To this very day, Hume’s restatement of the fallacy is beloved by your better class of atheists everywhere.

By now you can come up with your own variants. In fact, that’s your homework. Find instances of the Miracles-Don’t-Exist-So-Miracles-Don’t-Exist fallacy in the wild and report back here with documentation in hand.

It can’t go without saying—hence my saying it—that any miraculous claim, like any claim which is logically (and physically!) possible, must be investigated. And when and if the miracle is proven to have occurred, it must be believed. If it is proven to not have occurred, it must not be believed. If proof is not definitive, believing or disbelieving depends on factors too multitudinous to explain here. Outright rejection, however, is not warranted. Outright rejection invokes the MDESMDE.

Why any miracle happened when where and how it did is a separate question than if it happened. Some commit the fallacy of rejecting miracles because they dislike the why. That’s nuts. But nobody except Utopians ever claimed men aren’t crazy—or can be made not crazy. Perfection of mankind is the goal of Progress, which is why those would would progress must necessarily despise history and tradition. But skip it.

Do any people say miracles can’t happen because they disliked the reason they happened? Well, Dawkins does. His video twin says something very like the real Dawkins often claims. Faux Dawkins commits the fallacy right before the best laugh line: “Did you honestly just argue that God doesn’t exist because he’s mean?”

He did. And that, too, is a popular argument. It’s most common form (that I’ve heard) is God doesn’t exist because He wouldn’t have had the Amalekites put to the sword; and since He did put the Amalekites to the sword, He doesn’t exist and therefore neither do miracles. Conall would suggest getting riotously drunk after hearing this.

The miracle of Jesus’s resurrection? Glad you asked. Well, Peter Kreeft is glad you asked. Go and see his “Evidence for the Resurrection of Christ” for details. Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ is also a good introduction.

HT to Father Z, where I first learned of the new video.

32 Comments

  1. At the very least, a miracle is an effect with an unknown cause. It seems a leap to go from unknown physical cause to a non-physical one. How would you ever show that it was indeed non-physical?

  2. Just recently seen this in use via a personal appeal to incredulity by one ingenious person as the cap to a long tirade of popular nonsense. It was not but the typical, “oh those crazy Christians believing in water from rock and other such crazy thing.” I pointed out to him, mainly for the benefit of other more open minds, that such, “proof,” against the existence of God relies and is based solely upon the assumption God doesn’t exist in the first place and is, in point of fact, a circular argument.

  3. Briggs

    April 11, 2015 at 11:42 am

    DAV,

    Excellent question. Apply it to Jesus’s resurrection.

    And then there’s this:

    http://wmbriggs.com/post/11716/

  4. Ye Olde Statistician

    April 11, 2015 at 4:34 pm

    a) Should that not be “ferrocladicity”?

    b) Aquinas wrote:
    “We marvel at something when, seeing an effect, we do not know the cause. And since one and the same cause is at times known to certain people and not to others, it happens that some marvel and some do not.” — Contra gentiles
    which may be why the Church puts reported miracles under a rigorous cross-examination.

  5. Miracles do exist, however, they are not proof that God exists.

  6. Hans: “Miracles do exist, however they are not proof that God exists.”
    ???
    Please explain…e.g. if the Resurrection did occur, does this not imply the reality of Jesus Christ?

  7. “Which is the more probable: that Nature should run out of her course or that a man should tell a lie?” Don’t remember where it’s from.

  8. Sander van der Wal

    April 12, 2015 at 3:39 am

    With God as the First Cause there are no miracles. Because everything is Caused by God, by definition. You do not know the causal chain from the miraculous event to the First Cause, but as it happens , you do not know that Causal chain for lots of other events either.

    So the Church doesn’t need to bother. There are no miracles.

  9. Someone might argue that everything is a belief. In fact, the only sound argument that I know of to believe in something is the Cogito ergo sum, other than that either I have degrees of believe or I just simply don’t know.

    To be fair Richard Dawkins position on God (or miracles) it is not “Miracles don’t exists, so miracles don’t exists”, he merely holds a very, very low probability prior for them to exists. And he, and many other people like him regardless where their priors are, need more than old books and ancient accounts to update their belief.

  10. “Hans: “Miracles do exist, however they are not proof that God exists.”
    ???
    Please explain…e.g. if the Resurrection did occur, does this not imply the reality of Jesus Christ?”

    We have one narrative of a resurrection, do you consider all narratives of resurrections valid or only the one of Jesus?
    http://listverse.com/2013/03/30/10-resurrected-religious-figures/

    A hearsay story is not a miracle.

  11. Briggs

    April 12, 2015 at 10:57 am

    Hans,

    I take it you didn’t read Kreeft’s piece. But that’s an interesting list.

  12. Briggs: There is a scenario 6: The passion was only made up in the 2nd century.

  13. Unfortunately, a very stupid video and I wonder why Dr Briggs would bother to link to something as silly as this. Also grossly insulting to theists because it tries to trick those lacking critical thinking skills into believing that their religious beliefs are supportable by evidence not faith, and that science is biased against their beliefs.

    Regarding the false equivalence: The main fallacy of the video is the unstated premise that all evidence has equal epistemic weight. Stories about miracles and magic don’t have the same evidentiary standing as most types of scientific claims. There is a difference between Sigurd’s story of his slaying of the dragon in Norse legends and an experiment that can be replicated. (A reference in the story to thousands of people testifying to the slaying does not make the story more credible, as it just as easy for the author of the story to report that three of his warriors saw the dragon’s head as it would be to report 10,000 witnesses.) And there is a sliding scale for everything in between. The Histories of Herodotus we evaluate based on various factors, such as whether Herodotus source is hear-say or something that would likely have been more directly observed.

    A rationalist would point out that there is no good evidence for miracles. On that basis, miracles are highly unlikely. However, miracles are not a priori impossible. A person might, through an extremely fortunate and highly improve turn of events, survive a plane crash that no aviation expert might consider reasonably survivable, for example. A rationalist would therefore point out that a miracle is an extremely improbable event, not an impossible event. Of course, the higher the improbability, the more likely the claim was fabricated.

    Atheists do make fallacies claims, for example by making metaphysical declarations that they have no evidence for. The problem with this, is that no matter how many mistaken claims an Atheist may make, their mistakes in reasoning do not automatically nullify the mistakes in reasoning that theists make.

  14. Hans, let’s talk about hearsay evidence. You believe, I assume, in the inverse square law for gravitation. Have you done the experiment to verify that? (It’s a very difficult one.) And I could go on with similar examples. History, for what it’s worth, is compounded of hearsay. But sometimes there is ancillary evidence to buttress the hearsay–see, for example, the link Briggs gives to Feser’s talks.

  15. Feser is a smart guy but as for the really tough questions he (rather wisely) side steps them.

  16. Bob, physics is not history. You’d better compare with geology, which has refuted the biblical narrative.

  17. Hans, I believe you missed my point. I assume (correctly?) that you believe many things from physics that you have not directly verified yourself by appropriate experiments, or seen the experiments done-e.g. the Inverse square law among others. So, your belief in the inverse square law is thus a matter of hear-say. And similarly for history–all hearsay.

  18. Ye Olde Statistician

    April 13, 2015 at 4:40 pm

    “Which is the more probable: that Nature should run out of her course or that a man should tell a lie?”

    Well, Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would sooner believe that two Yankee professors would lie than that stones would fall out of the sky.

    With God as the First Cause there are no miracles.

    First Cause is not the initial cause in a series of Secondary Causes, but it is truly said that the author of a play can write in any sort of deus ex machina he might wish.

    10-resurrected-religious-figures

    And not a single one of them an actual historical figure in an actual historical setting. Plus two of the legends are post-Christian!

    There is a difference between Sigurd’s story of his slaying of the dragon in Norse legends and an experiment that can be replicated.

    I am shocked! What replicable scientificalistic experiment teaches us about the corrupting power of greed and violence?

    On that basis, miracles are highly unlikely.

    If they were not, no one would call them “miracles.”

    the inverse square law for gravitation. Have you done the experiment to verify that?

    Newton demonstrated it by a priori reasoning based on Euclidean geometry, not on experiment. (It’s why an inverse square law was also expected for illumination and electricity.

  19. “So, your belief in the inverse square law is thus a matter of hear-say.”

    I’ve never seen radiation with my own eyes, nor have I done any tests, yet my mobile phone works fine. Maybe it’s (a) just a rumour that mobile phones work attributable to mass hysteria (b) or the observation that they work is one of those biblical miracles I keep hearing about.

  20. YOS, an interesting point about deriving the inverse square law from geometric considerations (and one can use least action principles also for kinematics). However, this still evades the point: it isn’t science until it’s verified (or refuted) by measurements, and people accept the results of measurements on hearsay, neither have done themselves nor having seen it done. On the other hand, I’m sure of the charge / mass ratio for the electron, cause we did the Millikan oil drop experiment as a Caltech physics lab; I’m also pretty confident about Mendelian genetics for fruit flies, having suffered through that lab. But there are lots of things in modern physics and biochemistry I take for granted, i.e. on hearsay.

  21. Will, how do you know your mobile phone works because of microwave radiation? Maybe it’s magic…. you’re assuming quite a bit there! (PS: if you want more direct evidence for primordial microwave radiation, stemming from the Big Bang, tune your TV to a channel that’s not receiving a broadcast, turn the gain down very low and you’ll see snow that’s due to the COBE radiation, the microwave embers from the Big Bang.)

  22. “how do you know your mobile phone works because of microwave radiation? Maybe it’s magic”

    Because magic doesn’t exist. The people who believe in magic have, based on my personal observations and tests, not been able to create anything useful. People who understand the theory of radiation (engineers, scientists and others of that ilk) do create useful things all the time. But does that mean radiation ‘exists’ ? Not necessary, if you are a strict instrumentalist then there may be no such thing as radiation. But we do know that *something* does exist, that ‘obeys’ the theory of radiation. If you want to call it ‘radiation’ or something else, that’s fine, but in a sense you are now splitting hairs.

    I think what you are trying to do is grant yourself the ability to decide what you wish to believe and what you don’t wish to believe. This may be for religious reasons, I suspect. You’re welcome to do that. But what you can’t do is then pretend you’re doing it for rational reasons. You don’t get to pick the reality you’re in. Some people try, of course. Such as those people who jump off buildings who think they can fly. Results are usually mixed.

  23. Will, I think you’ve missed my point about belief. The belief of the vast majority in what science tells about the world is hearsay. It is supported by consistency (as you point out), but not by direct personal evidence: having done or witnessed the experiments that validate the theories or hypotheses. In that sense it is, as you also point out, not that much different from religious belief–wherein we rely on authorities we credit as reliable, and which give us a consistent world-view.

  24. Ye Olde Statistician

    April 14, 2015 at 5:03 pm

    “how do you know your mobile phone works because of microwave radiation? Maybe it’s magic”
    Because magic doesn’t exist.

    IOW, ‘magic doesn’t exist because magic doesn’t exist. ‘

    OTOH, magic is that branch of materialism that seeks to manipulate bodies using occult “hidden” or “unknown” properties of matter. It is thus on the same axis as natural science, which is a procedure for making occult properties manifest.

    The people who believe in magic have, based on my personal observations and tests, not been able to create anything useful.

    OTOH, people like Boyle have created things like ideal gas laws. And those Humeans who have abandoned causality in favor of correlation have essentially abandoned the search for reasons for a “black box,” these-inputs-produce-those-outputs approach to nature that is indistinguishable from magic.

  25. Bob,

    “The belief of the vast majority in what science tells about the world is hearsay. […] In that sense it is, as you also point out, not that much different from religious belief.”

    This is an absurd line of argument that gets more and more silly as you continue to press it. My microwave, my car, my phone, my computer ad infinitum are not hear-say determined by my beliefs. These are real things in the world that have real effects. Religious people in China or Japan or the Middle East or North America, all have very different religious beliefs, yet these different beliefs do not change their physical reality.

    I think you are just confused about what science is. Let’s say I do what Galileo once did and roll lead balls of different weights down ramps of different angles. I’ve done the experiments, so, so what? Does Newton’s gravitational laws leap out at me? Of course not. All I’ve done is taken some measurements of lead balls. Clearly there must be a theoretical framework and I must understand that theoretical framework and then I observe how an endless variety of different things mesh within that framework. I can turn on the TV and observe the US military fire ordnance over great distances and hit their targets. I make this observation with the understanding that this would not be possible without the guidance systems within the weapons making use of Newton’s law. If you like, every time I see one of those events, I’ve observed an experimental test and an observation of the result. Hardly, “hear say”. I just observed another experimental test, the millionth time. Every time my computer connects to the internet I have tested and confirmed that microchips do what they are supposed to do. And so on. There is no “hear say” to be found anywhere.

    It is supported by consistency (as you point out), but not by direct personal evidence: having done or witnessed the experiments that validate the theories or hypotheses. In that sense it is, as you also point out, not that much different from religious belief–wherein we rely on authorities we credit as reliable, and which give us a consistent world-view.

  26. As per your paragraph above, very very obviously there is direct personal evidence to be found everywhere, something one cannot fail to notice, unless you are psychotically delusional.

  27. Will, I still say you’re assuming a great deal. “You confirm that microchips do what they’re supposed to do”… what is it that they’re supposed to do? Can you specify the tunneling procedures and potential barriers for the semi-conductors in your device? When your computer doesn’t work, do you know which microchips aren’t operative or why the computer isn’t working? I’m saying that your thesis is taking a “black box” approach, and that isn’t science.
    You won’t confirm the inverse square law by kinematics of plane motion, because the gravitational force wouldn’t change sufficiently…that’s not an apt example. My point, and it remains, that the vast majority of the populace rely on what experts say about science; their own knowledge of what is supposed to be true or false rests entirely on authority and hearsay. And I’ll continue to maintain that position, having done real science and knowing what’s required to prove or disprove hypotheses and theories.
    So in fact, and this is a point for Hans, when we rely on authority in religious matters (and what our own intellect and heart tells us) we’re not doing anything less than what most people do when they rely on what is supposed to be going on in science.

  28. Will, I should add one other point. Your comments use examples from technology, not science (other than the inclined plane one) .

  29. Bob,

    The point I made which you did not address, is that by your definition everything is hearsay. When you claim everything is something you’ve said nothing.

    If you did an experiment “to confirm the results for yourself” you would only be left with a set of measurements. You would not have a theory. Those measurements could and typically do fit many different theories. So you’re not any closer to your goal if that’s your criteria.

    I demonstrated that every time you see technology in action – which is nothing more than the applied science – you’re effectively testing it. There is a good reason why you will board a Boeing 747-400 with confidence and another good reason why you won’t jump off a building because a magician tells you he has cast a spell and now you can fly. If both claims are based on “hearsay” then you would have the same level of confidence in both.

    You’re asserting something cannot be established as “true” unless you’ve done an experiment and measured the result yourself. Which at best is some sort of pop culture urban myth. (Although many people, including smart people, have this misunderstanding.) Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was not accepted because anybody tested it. It was accepted because of its internal consistency, and because it better explained previous observations. Nobody ran an experiment. The theory was then later confirmed by the observation of a solar eclipse. Not an experiment either. Just more observations. I wasn’t with Arthur Eddington when he made the observation of the solar eclipse, but I can read about it and I have confidence the report was accurate for a variety of reasons I shouldn’t need to spell out.

  30. Will, I think your notion of what science is about and mine are so different that there’s probably no point in further discussion. And, by the way nowhere did I imply that theory could go by the boards–I’m not sure where you got that inference. And nowhere did I imply that measurement consisted only of experiment–again, that’s your inference. By the way, with respect to Eddington’s validation of the GR by the occultation eclipse, all was not entirely kosher. He had to discard non-supportive data from a larger telescope (for valid reasons), but it required a reasonably sophisticated knowledge of optics, statistics and a spoonful of wishful thinking to do so (and most folks don’t know about that). And it is the case that several theories can be used to support and validate the same phenomenon. Read Nancy Cartwright’s “How the Laws of Physics Lies” to see that there are many theories used to interpret quantum optics (lasers, for the uninitiated), not all of which have consistent assumptions. So, Science (with uppercase) is considerably more complicated than just seeing that a computer, a cellphone, and a television are in working order. And I do mean Science, not technology.
    By the way, I will agree that almost all of what we believe is due to hearsay, if you define hearsay properly–and the rest is due to that small voice within us.

  31. Bob,

    Since you pretend knowledge and reason is all hearsay, I suppose I get to claim that the universe is made of purple cheese. If you point out that granite is not made of purple cheese, I can simply retort that granite is a *kind* of purple cheese, according to *my* definition.

    Your claim was that nobody can know what is really true until an experiment is performed, and I pointed out an experiment is only one very tiny and often unimportant element of scientific discovery. Hence your claim misses the mark. We didn’t discover that smoking can cause cancer in humans by experimenting on humans. I can access a computer program that tells me when the sun will rise in 2 years from now in my region, and the program is based on an astronomical theory. You’re welcome to argue that the calculations are “heresay” and I’m welcome to argue that your claims are nutty.

  32. swordfishtrombone

    April 16, 2015 at 5:03 am

    The video contains exactly the same fallacy but simply inverts it so it becomes “miracles exist because miracles exist”.

    We’re expected to believe in them based on second-hand reporting of “eyewitness” testimony, which is a ridiculously lame argument. Eyewitness testimony is known to be highly unreliable anyway and when you’re dealing with impressionable witnesses at a religious meeting it would be ridiculous to accept it at face value.

    Looking at a “miracle” like the feeding of the 4000 (or 5000), you’d have to have a heart of stone not to at least consider the possibility that this story appears to be nothing more than faulty eyewitness testimony told, re-told and exaggerated for effect for hundreds of years before being written down. Maybe there were originally only 40 people?

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