Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Podcast Episode 10 - The Open Society and the Doctrine of Hell

It's been a long time, but finally the wait is over! A brand, spanking new episode of the podcast. Available for download here.

In this episode I begin by looking at an argument from the Catholic intellectual Fr. Thomas Crean. Crean's argument challenges certain aspects of the New Atheist agenda. I follow this by looking at Karl Popper's open society argument and then consider its implications for what Crean has to say.

The inspiration for this episode came entirely from articles I read in Philosophy Now.

Here are the formal versions of the arguments discussed in today's episode.

Crean's First Argument

Crean's Second Argument

The Open Society Argument

Monday, February 14, 2011

Addendum to “The End of Skeptical Theism?”: On What God Would Do

I know have already written, at nauseating length, about the topic of skeptical theism (ST). But I recently read an article by Rob Lovering entitled “On What God Would Do” and he lays out the implications of ST for theistic belief in such a well-structured manner that I thought I would share it here. This will serve as a nice addendum to the original series of posts on ST.

1. Three Epistemic Attitudes to God
As I explained in part one, ST in its modern form was introduced as a response to Rowe’s evidential problem of evil. Its proponents argued that given certain features of God (e.g. his tri-omni properties), and certain limitations in our cognitive abilities, there is no reason for us to endorse the central inference in Rowe’s argument.

Why not? Because God could, for all we know, have beyond-our-ken reasons for allowing apparently gratuitous evil to exist. Thus we should endorse an attitude of skepticism toward God and his reasons for action.

As Lovering notes, this creates problems for theists because many of the arguments they adduce for the existence of God rely, implicitly or explicitly, on claims about what God is likely to do. One example might be Robin Collins’s fine-tuning argument which relies on the claim that God would want to create morally significant conscious agents. Another example would be the various arguments to and from miracles which depend for their success on assumptions about how God is likely to intervene in the world.

So theists are left in a bit of a bind: are they to endorse skepticism and wriggle their way out of Rowe’s argument, or are they to enthusiastically assume to know God’s mind? Lovering identifies three options:

  • (i) Broad Skeptical Theism: The view that, in each and every case, we cannot know what God would do.
  • (ii) Broad Epistemic Theism: The view that, in each and every case, we can know what God would do.
  • (iii) Narrow Skeptical Theism: The view that, in some cases, we can know what God would do, and in other cases, we cannot.

Lovering sets out to examine the plausibility of each of these options.

2. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Dependence
Lovering begins by arguing that acceptance of broad skeptical theism would force the believer to give up every positive argument for the existence of God. This is because every such argument depends on at least one claim about what god would do. One of the great virtues of Lovering’s article is his attempt to show exactly how this dependence arises.

First, he says that an argument for the existence of God can intrinsically depend on a claim about what God would do if such a claim can be derived from it after one of the following conceptual claims is added to the argument:

  • (a) Conceptual Claim 1 (CC1): If God exists and X is/was the case, then God allows/allowed X to be the case.
  • (b) Conceptual Claim 2 (CC2): If God allows X to be the case, then God would allow X to be the case.

These conceptual claims might seem strange, but they make sense if we think about the kind of being god is supposed to be -- the omnipotent, omniscient, sovereign creator of all reality. Given his nature, if there are red cars in existence, then it must be the case that God allows them to exist (CC1); and if there are red cars that God allows to exist, then it must be the case that God would or is likely to allow such things to exist (this is a claim about what God would allow across different possible worlds - i.e. CC2).

Lovering shows how these conceptual claims can be slotted into general arguments for the existence of God and used to derive from them a claim about what God would do. I will offer an abstract version here. Let P = some fact about the world that God is supposed to explain or account for; and let G = the claim that God exists.

  • (1) If P, then G.
  • (2) P.
  • (3) Therefore, G.
  • (4) Therefore, G and P.
  • (5) If G and P, then it must be the case that God allows P to be the case (CC1).
  • (6) Therefore, God allows P to be the case.
  • (7) If God allows P to be the case, then God would allow P to be the case (CC2).
  • (8) Therefore, God would allow P to be the case.

Although this may be a little abstract, the upshot of it is that a claim about what God is likely to do (or what God would do) can be derived from a general argument for God’s existence by means of CC1 and CC2.

The second way in which theistic arguments depend on claims about what God would do is through extrinsic dependence. This arises when a claim about what God would do can be derived from an argument if, in addition to adding CC1 or CC2 to it, we add the following:

  • Intelligibility Claim (IC): We understand argument A (where “A” is the argument for God’s existence).

To see how this works in the abstract, let P = some feature or attribute of God; and let G = the claim that God exists (this is like the ontological argument).

  • (1) If God is P, then G.
  • (2) God is P.
  • (3) Therefore, G.
  • (4) We understand the argument for G in (1)-(3) (via IC).
  • (5) Therefore, G and we understand the argument for G.
  • (6) If G and we understand the argument for G, then God must allow us to understand the argument for G (CC1).
  • (7) Therefore, God allows us to understand the argument for G.
  • (8) If God actually allows us to understand the argument for G, then God would or is likely to allow us to understand the argument for G (CC2).
  • (9) Therefore, God would or is likely to allow us to understand the argument for G.

So, once again, from an argument for the existence of God we can derive a claim about what God would do.

Lovering goes on to provide examples of how existing arguments for the existence of God exhibit intrinsic and extrinsic dependence. I’ll just provide one example of each.

3. Intrinsic Dependence and the Cosmological Argument
Consider the following version of the Cosmological Argument:

  • (1) There exist things that are caused to be.
  • (2) Nothing that is caused to be can be the cause of itself.
  • (3) There cannot be an infinite regress of causes.
  • (4) Therefore, there exists an uncaused first cause.
  • (5) Probably, God is the uncaused first cause.
  • (6) Therefore, probably God exists.

This should be a fairly familiar generic form of the CA to most people. Now see how we can derive a claim about what God would do from this argument. As follows (the language is convoluted, but read through it slowly and it should make sense):

  • (7) Probably, God exists and God caused the universe to be the case.
  • (8) If God exists and God caused the universe to be, then God must have allowed the universe to be caused to be (CC1).
  • (9) Therefore, probably, God allowed the universe to be caused to be.
  • (10) If God allowed the universe to be caused to be, then God would allow the universe to be caused to be (CC2).
  • (11) Therefore, God would allow the universe to be caused to be.

Et voila, we have a claim about what God would allow to be the case. The method employed in this analysis of the CA can be employed across a range of teleological, ontological and historical arguments for the existence of God.

3. Extrinsic Dependence and the Argument from Miracles
As an example of an argument that is extrinsically dependent on a claim about what God would do, consider the following versions of the argument from miracles:

  • (1) Extraordinary events occur.
  • (2) At least some of these extraordinary events could not have been the result of natural law or natural causes.
  • (3) In such cases, the extraordinary events must be the result of a supernatural cause.
  • (4) Probably, God is the supernatural cause of such extraordinary events.
  • (5) Therefore, God probably exists.

Making use of the intelligibility claim, we can expand on this as follows:

  • (6) We understand the argument for God’s existence in (1) - (6). (IC)
  • (7) Therefore, God probably exists and we understand this argument for his existence.
  • (8) If God probably exists, and we understand this argument for his existence, then God must allow us to understand this argument for his existence (CC1).
  • (9) Therefore, God allows us to understand this argument for his existence.
  • (10) If God allows us to understand this argument for his existence, then God would allow us to understand this argument for his existence (CC2).
  • (11) Therefore, God would allow us to understand this argument for his existence.

And so, once again, we have an argument depending on a claim about what God would do.

4. The Untenability of Broad Skeptical Theism
Through the various other examples he has offered, Lovering thinks he has shown how every positive argument for God’s existence intrinsically or extrinsically depends on a claim about what God would allow to be the case. But since broad skeptical theism denies that we have any knowledge about what God would allow to be the case, it follows that a theist who accepts God’s existence on the basis of one or more of these arguments cannot endorse this brand of skepticism.

Or to put it more succinctly: for the majority of theists, broad skeptical theism is completely untenable. What about the other epistemic attitudes?

5. Broad Epistemic Theism
As set out above, this is the view that, in each and every case, we can know what God would do. At first glance, this is more plausible because it does not force the believer to relinquish every positive argument for God’s existence. But it also creates new problems.

First, it changes the nature of the response to Rowe’s evidential problem of evil. The believer cannot offer vague or aspirational rebuttals to Rowe’s main premise. For example, they cannot say “some reason for allowing prima facie gratuitous evil to exist will be forthcoming”. Instead, they must make a positive case for why God would allow such things to occur. Or, they must turn to other arguments for God’s existence and show how they tip the evidential weighing scales in favour of theism.

Second, it forces the theist to accept that they can know far more about God than they traditionally thought they could know. For instance, if in each and every case we can know what God would do, then we should be able to say whether:
  • God would allow the Red Sox to win the World Series five years in a row;
  • Whether God would allow another Holocaust; and so on.
Furthermore, it makes atheistic arguments such as the argument from divine hiddenness or non-belief more pressing.

It is unlikely then that a believer would be willing to embrace Broad Epistemic Theism.

6. Narrow Skeptical Theism
That leaves us with what many perceive to be the most plausible position: Narrow Skeptical Theism. This is the view that, in some cases, we know what God would do, but in other cases, we do not. This might allow the theist to keep their positive arguments and reject atheistic arguments.

But this requires some principled reason for distinguishing between claims about what God would do in those different cases. Lovering does not think any theist has yet risen to the challenge of developing such a principled distinction, so he tries to meet it himself.

He takes the claims about what God would do in Robin Collins’s teleological argument and in the evidential argument from evil as his reference point and asks the question: why is Collins allowed to claim that God would want to create conscious intelligent agents but the atheist is not allowed to claim that God would not allow apparently gratuitous evil to exist?

One potential difference is that Collins’s case just requires a general affirmation of the prima facie goodness of a particular state of affairs (“the existence of intelligent conscious agents”), whereas the argument from evil requires knowledge of whether something is an all-things-considered good or evil.

So this leads us to formulate the following principle:

  • Principled Narrow Skeptical Theism - We can know whether something is a prima facie good or evil, but we cannot know whether something is an all-things-considered good or evil (only God can know that).

There are problems with this principle.

First, in relation to the problem of evil, skeptical theists are demanding a deep skepticism about our knowledge of the good. They are claiming that we cannot know whether or not a prima facie evil is necessary in order to realise a greater good because we are epistemically closed from the possible worlds in which such evils might be necessary.

But why does the same kind of skepticism not apply to our consideration of the possible worlds that God might choose to create? In particular, why doesn’t our lack of access to different possible worlds, and the forms of life possible within them, shut down any claim that this particular universe is fine-tuned for life.

A second problem with the principle is that Collins’s argument actually does require knowledge of all-things-considered goods. To see this, consider Collins’s own defence of his argument:

“Since God is an all good being, and it is good for intelligent conscious beings to exist, it is not surprising or improbable that God would create a world that could support intelligent life.”

To accept this line of argument, we must be able to say that intelligent beings are an all-things-considered good; that their existence is not outweighed by some greater, countervailing evil. To say that they are merely a prima facie (or “all else being equal”) good is to open up the possibility that their existence serves some ultimately evil purpose.

And the problem is that this isn’t only true of Collins’s argument. Since God is a morally perfect being, then every event or state of affairs that is explained by reference to him, must be compatible with his moral perfection. And since moral perfection must mean “acting so as to achieve all-things-considered goods”, it follows that we must know that the events and states of affairs explained by reference to God are all-things-considered goods.

The conclusion then is not only that the principled distinction offered above fails, but that all such principles are likely to fail.

7. Summary
Lovering began by identifying three different epistemic attitudes theists could take with respect to God. The following conclusions have been reached about each of them:

  • (i) Given Broad Skeptical Theism, theists must relinquish every positive argument for God’s existence since every such argument depends on at least one claim about what God would do.
  • (ii) Given Broad Epistemic Theism, theist must (a) relinquish one of the principal grounds upon which they object to Rowe’s argument from evil and other similar atheistic arguments; and (b) embrace far more knowledge claims about what God would allow to be the case than they have traditionally been willing to do.
  • (iii) Given Narrow Skeptical Theism, the theist must find some principled ground for distinguishing between the set of cases in which we have knowledge of what God would do and the set of cases in which we do not have knowledge of what God would do. Such a distinction is unlikely to be forthcoming.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Devil's Lying Wonders (Part 3)

This post is part of my series on miracles, For an index, see here.

I am currently working my way through an article by John Beaudoin entitled “The Devil’s Lying Wonders”. In it, Beaudoin presents the following challenge to the religious believer who takes the existence of the Devil (or other demonic supernatural agents) seriously: how can you reliably distinguish between the miraculous acts of God and the work of the Devil?

The challenge is significant because one of the defining characteristics of the Devil is his desire to deceive us, which he could do by performing apparently beneficent miraculous acts.

Last time out, we considered three criteria that supposedly provide grounds for distinguishing the acts of God from the work of the Devil. We found reason to fault each of them. This time round we consider some further criteria.

The criteria are taken, by Beaudoin, from the (infamous?) work of Morton Smith. Remember, for the purposes of this discussion, there are two ways in which a supernatural agent could perform a miracle (a) directly by themselves or (b) through the intermediary of a human being. Smith’s criteria are:

  • (4) Divine miracles fulfill Old Testament prophecies;
  • (5) Demonic miracles involve the explicit invocation of demonic forces;
  • (6) Demonic miracles are often performed for the purpose of self-aggrandisement;
  • (7) Divine miracles convey edifying moral lessons;
  • (8) The effects of divine miracles are permanent rather than transitory;
  • (9) Divine miracles bring about conversions to Christianity;

What are we to make of these? Do they improve the epistemic position of the believer with respect to the work of the Devil?

1. The Failure of the Criterial Approach
Beaudoin deals with each of these criteria relatively brusquely. He does so legitimately in my opinion since the major criteria were discussed last time round and, as he himself points out, some of these criteria are both repetitious and obviously flawed.

Dealing with them one-by-one, the following can be said:

On (4), the link between divine miracles and Old Testament prophecies is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, there’s no reason to think that the Devil wouldn’t be above deceiving people with false hope by performing a miracle that fulfilled a prophecy. Indeed, if he wants his deception to be successful, this is exactly the kind of thing he should do. And second, its not clear that divine miracles are always performed to fulfill OT prophecies.

On (5), this only stands a chance of working when the devil works via the instrumentality of a human agent. After all, the devil would have no reason to invoke his own powers when acting by himself. Furthermore, even if the miracle is performed through the instrumentality of a human agent, there’s no reason to think that the invocation of demonic powers would be made obvious to onlookers.

On (6), this assumes that God is not above a bit of self-aggrandisement. Beaudoin argues that there are reasons to think that some of the miracles God performs in the book of Exodus are done as displays of power (he cites the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as a particular example of this). Certainly, the overarching message of the book of Job supports this idea.

On (7), this is defeated by the possibility of the Devil allowing for short-term edification in the service of some nefarious long-term plan. We covered this in the previous entry.

On (8), there are conceptual issues that need to be confronted here with respect to the causal effects of all historical events (don’t they all leave permanent traces?). I’ll be considering this issue in a future post. In any event, depending on how one deals with these issues, it could be argued that at least some of God’s miracles have only temporary effect, e.g. the parting of the Red Sea since the sea closed-up again. Either way, (8) is difficult to apply.

On (9), Beaudoin thinks there is a problem in identifying genuine conversions. The defining beliefs of Christianity would need to be identified first. And even if a set of such beliefs could be identified, the question of whether their profession constituted a sufficient condition of a divine miracle would be raised. Beaudoin argues that profession of such beliefs could not be a sufficient condition for identifying a divine miracle because a demon or magician or hypnotist could easily induce such profession through non-miraculous means.

In conclusion then, none of the profferred criteria stand much chance of success.

2. The Epistemic Costs to the Believer
What is the upshot of all this for the religious believer? How damaging is the possibility of demonic miracles to their general worldview? Beaudoin offers some concluding thoughts.

First, he thinks it could be quite damaging from an apologetic perspective. Any use of supposed miracles to evidence the moral character of God is now cast in doubt since beneficent effects and the fulfillment of prophecy could both be attributable to the Devil.

Second, it could be quite damaging to those who rely heavily of personal religious experiences as evidence of God’s moral character. Again, seemingly profound, morally and spiritually beneficent experiences could be the work of the devil. This was what worried St. Theresa of Avila the most and what moved her to develop a set of criteria for properly identifying divine miracles. Of course, the problem with this is that criterial approach seems to fail.

Third, and finally, it creates problems for the proponent of a Plantinga-style reformed epistemology. How so? Well, as readers of this blog are no doubt aware, Plantinga’s claim that religious beliefs are properly basic is premised largely on the idea that if Christianity is true, we have reason to trust our belief-forming faculties. But since at least some forms of Christianity entail the existence of the Devil, and since the existence of the Devil entails the possibility of a supernatural deceiver, the reason Plantinga proposes for trusting our faculties can be defeated.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Devil's Lying Wonders (Part 2)

This post is part of my series on Miracles. For the index, see here.

I am currently working my way through an article by John Beaudoin entitled “The Devil’s Lying Wonders”. The article considers the problems that the existence of the Devil might pose for those who wish to reliably identify God’s miracles.

The problem was introduced the last time out. In this post, we will consider three criteria that are sometimes proposed to help us distinguish God’s miracles from those of the Devil. The three criteria are:

  • (1) God’s miracles display greater power than the Devil’s;
  • (2) God’s miracles have beneficent, rather than harmful, effects.
  • (3) Where the miracle is done to attest the authority of some messenger, God’s miracles would be consistent with both scripture and his moral perfection.

We'll look at each of these criteria in turn. Before we do so note that, for the purposes of this discussion, there are two ways in which a miracle can be performed by a supernatural agent: (i) the supernatural agent could directly cause the miraculous event; or (ii) the supernatural agent could temporarily give a natural agent (i.e. human being) the power to cause a miraculous event.

1. The Power Criterion
According to this criterion, God’s miracles will carry the mark of his greater power when compared to the devil. John Locke was a fan of this criterion and he felt it could be successfully deployed when trying to tell whether an alleged prophet was acting with assistance of God or the Devil.

Several scriptural passages are cited in support of this criterion. The first comes from the contest between Moses and Aaron (acting with the support of God), and the Pharaoh’s sorcerers (presumably acting with the support of the devil or other fallen angels) in the book of Exodus. If the report is to be believed (and no one is saying that it should), then the sorcerers were able to reproduce some but not all of the miracles produced by God. Thus it was God’s superior power that separated the two sides in the end.

Similar contests take place between Elijah and the worshippers of Baal in 1 Kings 18, and between Paul and Elymas in Acts 13. In both cases, God’s superior power makes itself known.

There are several things to be said about this criterion.

First, outside of the competitive context, the criterion is likely to be useless because we will have nothing with which to compare the putative miracle in order to determine whether it emanates from a being of lesser power. This is exacerbated by the fact that we have no knowledge of the upper limit of the Devil’s power, and that God, if the bible is to be believed, frequently performs miracles that are relatively unspectacular in form.

Second, even within the competitive context, its not clear that this criterion works. Why not? Well, in the scriptural passages cited in its support we already know which side is representing God and which side is representing the Devil (or other demons). But what if we don’t know this? What if both sides are actually demonic? Isn’t a fake contest something that the devil might rustle up for the sake of deception?

Taking these two problems on board, it seems that the power criterion is a failure.

2. The Other Two Criteria
Beaudoin says that criteria (2) and (3) can be treated jointly because they suffer from a common flaw. The flaw is that they assume the Devil can only perpetrate harm and blasphemy in the short-run, and that God’s actions are always manifestly beneficent in the short-run.

Both elements of this assumption can be disputed.

First, as discussed in part one, the devil can actively try to deceive us by performing actions or miracles that appear to be beneficent in the short-run. Indeed, this is exactly the kind of thing he would do if he wanted to deceive us. (This idea is explored with some mirth by Stephen Law in his article “The Evil God Challenge").

Second, if skeptical theists are to be believed, then God may have beyond our ken reasons for allowing short-run evils. The skeptical theist argument is usually applied to natural evils, but there is no reason why it couldn’t be applied to apparently evil miracles as well. Furthermore, even if we are not enamoured with skeptical theism, the same objection could hold for certain forms of theodicy, e.g. soul-building theodicies.

In conclusion then, none of the three criteria outlined above offer good prospects for reliably distinguishing between the miracles of God and the miracles of the devil. Are there any other criteria that could work? We’ll consider this possibility in the next entry.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Devil's Lying Wonders (Part 1)

This post is part of my series on miracles. For an index see here.

One of the major components of this series on miracles will be its coverage of some of the contemporary debate about Hume’s argument and the various Bayesian interpretations thereof. However, before I get to that, I want to cover some of the lesser-discussed problems with arguments to and from miracles. I do so because it is important to realise that the problems with these arguments do not begin and end with Hume.

With this in mind, over the next few posts I will be covering John Beaudoin’s article “The Devil’s Lying Wonders”. The article looks at the problems that the alleged existence of the devil creates for those who wish to reliably identify God’s miracles.

1. Introduction: The Problem of the Devil
Beaudoin begins his article by noting that many Christians take the existence of the devil seriously. This creates a problem for them because it could be that miraculous events they have attributed to God are actually attributable to the devil. He cites the example of St. Theresa of Avila as someone who was so worried about this problem that she developed a set of criteria for distinguishing the devil’s acts from God’s.

Is there really a problem here? Could we not argue that God and the Devil have diametrically opposed characteristics and that these characteristics would be reflected in their deeds? There are three things that count against this conclusion:

  • (a) Although not omnipotent, the Devil is usually assumed to have supernatural powers that allow him to work remarkable wonders that might appear to a finite intellect to have a divine origin.

  • (b) The Devil is assumed to be vastly more intelligent than ordinary human beings and so could have designs and methods that are inscrutable to us.

  • (c) The tradition maintains that the Devil uses his powers for the purposes of deception and imposture, occasionally even going so far as to disguise himself as a benign.

Of these three, it is (c) that creates the most serious problem for the believer. Assuming God always works good miracles, but assuming that the Devil will try to deceive us by performing similar miracles, we will genuinely struggle to distinguish between miracles that are attributable to God and miracles that are attributable to the devil.

What’s more, the idea that the Devil could engage in such deceptive miracles is one that has considerable Biblical support. Beaudoin cites two main passages in support of this:

“For there shall arise false Christs, and false Prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the elect (Matthew 24:24, KJV).”
“And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth ... and he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men. And he deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by means of those miracles which he had power to do in the sight of the beast (Rev. 13:11-14, KJV).”

No wonder St. Theresa of Avila was worried.

2. Lying Wonders and Counterfeit Miracles
Beaudoin suggests that one initial response to this type of problem is to claim that the Devil does not have the power to perform genuine miracles; instead, he only has the power to perform “lying wonders” or “counterfeit miracles”. The support for this idea comes from Second Thessalonians 2:9.

Presumably, the idea here is that the Devil’s “miracles” are little more than conjuring tricks or illusions that do not have a genuinely supernatural origin or cause. Thus, distinguishing them from true miracles would be akin to distinguishing a genuine magic trick from something involving trickery or deception. Think about how James Randi debunked Peter Popoff and you have the general picture.

Beaudoin thinks there are some problems with this response.

First, the only scriptural support for the idea that the Devil cannot perform genuine miracles -- i.e. ones with genuine supernatural causes -- comes from Second Thessalonians. Elsewhere in the New Testament the language describing the Devil’s miracles (semeia kai terata) is the same as that used to describe Jesus’s miracles.

Second, the Devil is supposed to be a fallen angel with supernatural powers. Why would his ability to work signs and wonders be limited to signs and wonders of the non-supernatural kind? There seems to be no conceptual justification for this limitation.

Third, modern definitions of “miracle” tend to say that a miracle is simply any event for which operating natural causes are insufficient and thus are in need of a supernatural force for their explanation. Since the devil is a supernatural being, there no reason why he couldn’t supply such a force.

Although we haven’t covered much of the article to this point, this is a natural place to break off. Next time out, we’ll cover three proposed criteria for distinguishing the work of the devil from a miracle of God.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Arguments to and from Miracles (Part 3) - Direct-acts, Inexplicability and Coincidence Miracles

This post is the third (and final part) of my series on Chapter 6 of Nicholas Everitt’s book The Non-Existence of God. It also forms part of my series on Miracles, which will continue after this.

Over the first two entries we dealt with the concept of a violation-miracle and the problems associated with that concept. In this entry, we will consider three alternative conceptions of miracles. They are: (i) the directly-willed-acts conception; (ii) the inexplicability conception; and (iii) the coincidence conception.

1. Miracles as Directly Willed Acts of God
According to this conception of the term, a miracle is any event in the natural world that can be attributed to an act of God.

Theists usually conceive of God as the creator of the natural world. This implies that every event in the natural world can be traced back to at least one of God’s acts (viz. the original creative act). Does this imply that every event counts as a miracle? No; there is a distinction to be drawn between an event that is indirectly attributable to an of God and an event that is directly attributable to such an act.

As an example of the distinction between the two, consider the story of the parting of the Red Sea. Presumably, God could have made this happen by direct or indirect means. If he opted for direct means, then the sea would just have spontaneously parted allowing for Moses and the Israelites to cross. If he opted for indirect means, then the sea might have “parted” following a drought or a whirlwind. The former would count as a miracle, but the latter would not.

This conception of miracles avoids the problems associated with violation miracles (it is surely not correct to say that God could violate his own indirect willings). But it has some problems of its own. Two seem particularly apposite here:

First, in order to successfully identify a miracle under this conception, one would need to develop some criteria that allow you to reliably discriminate between the indirect and direct acts of God. Usually this involves pointing to the religious significance of certain events like the parting of the Red Sea. But for this to work we need to be sure that (a) we have a good (non-miraculous) source of information about what is religiously significant and (b) that we are not being deceived by another supernatural being. We’ll consider this problem in future entries.

Second, this conception seems to reduce the evidential significance of miracles. With the violation conception the idea, presumably, was that certain rare and/or impressive events constituted particularly good evidence for the existence of God. With this conception all events count as evidence for the existence of God. Thus it becomes much more difficult to see why we should care especially about arguments to the existence of miracles.

2. Miracles as Inexplicable Events
According to this conception of the term, a miracle is an event that is inexplicable. This obviously folds an epistemic concept -- i.e. explicability -- into our definition of miracle and thereby creates certain problems. To see what these problems are we need to distinguish between two varieties of inexplicability (i) de facto inexplicability and (ii) in principle inexplicability.

Look at de facto inexplicability first. If an event is de facto inexplicable then this implies that, as a matter of fact, we cannot currently explain it. The problem with this is that we are constantly improving our ability to explain events over time. And so what is or what is not de facto explicable is subject to revision over time.

To take an example that has been doing the rounds recently, it was, no doubt, once true that we could not explain why the tides obeyed the regular patterns that they do. But nowadays we can explain this phenomenon. Does this imply that the tides were once miraculous but no longer are? It would be absurd to answer in the affirmative.

The absurdity of the de facto sense of inexplicability leads to the idea of in principle inexplicability. According to this version, an event is inexplicable -- and therefore miraculous -- if it is forever and always incapable of being explained.

Although this might appear to solve the problem with de facto inexplicability, it simply creates a new problem: it assumes we can reliably identify events that are in principle inexplicable. But this is to assume more than we can know. When it comes to any event that is currently inexplicable it might be the case that it can never be explained, but it might also be the case that it will be explained in the future.

In other words, we could be standing in the same relation to the currently inexplicable event as the ancients were in relation to the tides. Thus, it would seem like we could never really identify an in principle inexplicable event.

3. Miracles as Coincidences
According to this conception of the term, a miracle can be said to arise whenever there is a very surprising coincidence with significant beneficial effects. The coincidence is said to count as a miracle even if there is a naturalistic explanation for it. Everitt cites the following example from R.F. Holland (this is a mix of Everitt’s words and Holland’s words from pg. 125 of Everitt's book):
A child has wandered onto a railway track. A train is approaching at high speed but because the track is curved, there is no possibility that the driver will see the child in time. The mother is watching from a distance ... but is too far away to intervene. The train hurtles down upon the child and then suddenly its brakes are applied and it comes to a halt a few feet from the child.
There was nothing supernatural about the manner in which the brakes of the train came to be applied. The driver had fainted... on this particular afternoon because his blood pressure had risen after a heavy lunch during which he quarrelled with a colleague, and the change in blood pressure caused a clot of blood to be dislodged... He fainted at the time he did...because this was the time at which the coagulation in his blood reached his brain.

Holland claims that, despite the plausible naturalistic explanation, the mother could still thank God for the miraculous turn of events that saved her child. But is she really in her epistemic rights to do this?

Everitt thinks not. He argues that atheists and agnostics can happily concede that unlikely coincidences like this occur. They would, however, rightly dispute any inference from their occurrence to the existence of God. After all, if a perfectly good naturalistic explanation, which does not rely on any direct intervention of God, is available, then why exactly do we need to bring God into the discussion.

(Aside: wouldn’t assuming God’s intervention in the example just given create problems anyway? Doesn’t it call into question God’s moral character? Surely he could have halted the train without causing the driver to have a stroke?)

4. Conclusion
Through the course of his chapter, Everitt examined four different conceptions of miracles. We can summarise his views on each of them as follows:
  • (1) The Violation Conception: This conception is both: (a) rationally unacceptable because sufficiently strong evidence for the occurrence of a violation of a law of nature would also undermine belief in the existence of that law of nature (Hume’s argument); and (b) logically impossible due to the incompatibility and conceptual confusion arguments.
  • (2) The Directly-Willed-Acts Conception: This conception is problematic because (a) it assumes we have the ability to reliably distinguish between the direct and indirect acts of God; and (b) it reduces the evidential significance of miracles.
  • (3) The Inexplicability Conception: This conception is flawed because we cannot reliably distinguish between an event is “in principle” inexplicable or simply inexplicable due to limitations in our current knowledge-base.
  • (4) The Coincidence Conception: This conception is flawed because we are not entitled to infer God’s existence from a naturalistically explicable coincidence (note: an inexplicable coincidence would just suffer from the flaw associated with (3)).

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Arguments to and from Miracles (Part 2) - Two Arguments against Violation Miracles

This is the second part of my series on Chapter 6 of Nicholas Everitt’s book The Non-Existence of God. It also forms part of my series on Miracles.

Last time out, I covered Everitt’s interpretation of Hume’s argument against the rational acceptability of belief in violation miracles. A violation miracle is said to occur whenever some law of nature has been violated or transgressed.

Everitt would seem to summarise Hume’s argument as follows:
There is a complementary relationship between the evidence for the occurrence of a violation miracle and the evidence for the existence particular law of nature such that any evidence that was sufficiently strong to convince you that a violation had occurred would also be sufficiently strong to cast doubt over the existence of the relevant law of nature.
I won’t comment any further on this argument for the time being.

In addition to offering this interpretation of Hume, Everitt presents two further arguments against the possibility of violation miracles. These arguments count against the a priori possibility of violation miracles, not just against their rational acceptability. We will cover each of these arguments in this post.

To understand the two arguments, we first need to agree that any putative law of nature must possess the following feature:

  • Universality: For X to count as a law of nature, it must say something about all or every member of a class, or about what always happens when something else happens; or, alternatively, it must say something about no members of a class or about what never happens.

Examples of laws of nature that seem to satisfy this criterion could include something like “Water always boils at 100 ° C at normal pressure” or “No iron can be turned into gold.”

1. The Incompatibility Argument
The first argument against the possibility of a violation argument rests on what appears to be an innocent, unassuming and uncontroversial logical principle, namely:

  • What is incompatible with a truth must itself be false.

To see why this is uncontroversial, consider the following abstract example. Suppose there is statement “All As are Bs” and this statement is true. This statement implies a second statement “no As are not Bs”. Jointly these statements imply that if someone comes along claiming to have found an A that is not a B, what they say must be false.

This creates a problem for the proponent of violation miracles. Suppose it is alleged that the statement “no dead man can live again” is a law of nature. If this is true, then it implies that no living man could have been dead. Thus, anyone who claims that a dead man is now living must be saying something that is false.

2. Assessment of the Incompatibility Argument
On the face of it, this is an extremely simple objection to the violation sense of miracles. Indeed, it is so simple that some of the most sophisticated thinkers have dismissed it. Everitt considers some examples.

The first comes from the writings of J.L. Mackie who seems to accept that laws of nature must satisfy the criterion of universality but who has also said:
“An occasional violation [of a law of nature] does not in itself necessarily overthrow the independently established conclusion that this is a [working] law [of nature].”
This might be an accurate reflection of our psychological reaction to anomalies in our worldviews, but as a matter of logic Everitt thinks it is plain wrong. If laws of nature have the universalised form “All As are Bs” then it simply cannot be the case that there is a true statement of the form “An occasional A is not a B”.

A second example of the mistake comes from the work of Richard Swinburne. Swinburne employs what we might call the “exception-clause”-strategy in response to the incompatibility argument. In other words, he adds an exception to the law of nature that obviates the problem of logical incompatibility.

Specifically, Swinburne says that there can be non-repeatable exceptions to otherwise universal laws. This means that he thinks laws of nature look something like this:

  • Swinburnian Law of Nature = All As are Bs, unless there is a non-repeatable exception.

As Everitt points out, this does nothing to solve the problem. Why not? Because this is simply a new generalisation which embraces two types of case (i) All As bar one being Bs and (ii) One A being not-B. This implies that should we come across one A which is not B, we have no grounds for saying it is a violation of a law of nature - the reputed violation is already included in the definition of the law.

Look at it like this. Suppose the statement “All swans are white, except for the black ones in Australia” is taken to be a law of nature. Now ask yourself whether this implies that the presence of black swans in Australia is a violation of a law of nature. Obviously, it implies nothing of the sort.

3. The Conceptual Confusion Argument
No doubt many readers will find that previous argument to be suspect, so here’s a second one that calls attention to a potential confusion in the concept of a law of nature.

Everitt notes that there are two types of laws: prescriptive and descriptive. Prescriptive laws tell us what ought to be the case or what ought to be done; descriptive laws tell us how things are or how they will be. There is no obvious contradiction involved in asserting that a prescriptive laws has been violated; there is an obvious contradiction involved in asserting that a descriptive law has been violated. This is because an accurate descriptive law is supposed to provide an accurate description of how the world actually is.

The contrasts between the prescriptive and descriptive senses of the term law are summarised in the following picture.

This brings us to the second argument against violation miracles. The argument states that the claim that there can exist violations of laws of nature confuses the prescriptive and descriptive senses of the word “law”. It is simply not possible to say that a true description of the world can be violated, and since that is what laws of nature are, it is not possible for there to be violation miracles.

4. Assessment
Everitt thinks that this second argument is successful and, when combined with the other argument, offers a fairly decisive rebuttal to the proponent of violation miracles. I'm not entirely convinced, but in any event, as we saw when discussing Hume, the believer in miracles has a fairly simple response to these arguments: abandon the concept of violation miracles.

We’ll consider some of the alternatives in the next part.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Arguments to and from Miracles (Part 1) - Hume and Violation Miracles

This post serves a dual function. It is part of my series on Nicholas Everitt’s book The Non-Existence of God, and my series on Miracles.

Over the next few posts I will be covering chapter 6 of Everitt’s book, entitled “Arguments to and from Miracles”. This will serve as a nice, gentle and general introduction to the philosophical issues associated with miracles and miracle claims.

Everitt begins his chapter by noting that miracles are thought to be both indicators of God’s existence and (potentially) God’s character. He then observes that one of the problems associated with evaluating arguments to and from miracles is that they frequently rely on different senses of the term "miracle".

In this entry we will discuss the violation sense of the term "miracle".

1. Hume and Violation Miracles
We begin with the locus classicus: Hume’s discussion of violation miracles in his essay “Of Miracles”. This is a text to which we will return time and again throughout this series as it has shaped the contours of the modern philosophical discussion. In his essay, Hume defines miracles as follows:

  • “Miracle” = a violation (or transgression) of a law of nature by a particular volition of the deity.

This violation sense of the term miracle is undoubtedly popular. The idea, presumably, is that the natural world is governed by a set of laws determining regular unfolding of events and that the only being who could violate such laws would have to be supernatural in origin.

The problem with this is that although there may well be a fixed set of natural laws, we are not necessarily any good at identifying them. Thus, it will be difficult to assess whether a putative violation is due the actual intervention of God, or due to an error in how we have been identifying the laws of nature. Hume, as we shall see, uses this as the basis for an argument against believing in miracles.

Before outlining Hume’s argument, Everitt stops to make a couple of points.

First, some believers argue that even if we could identify them, violations of the laws of nature would not necessarily be evidence for the existence of God. They contend that the violation must contribute to some divine purpose. Of course, this assumes that we have some alternative source of information about divine purposes.

Second, it is not necessary to assume -- even on this definition -- that miracles are rare. Indeed, some religious doctrines suggest that miracles might be commonplace. As examples of this consider some of the claims made concerning the success of petitionary prayer, and the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. That said, regular occurrence of miracles might create some problems from an evidential perspective, as we shall see.

2. Hume’s Argument
In his essay on miracles, Hume makes two simple arguments. The first is an in principle argument. It suggests that it is (in principle) impossible to rationally believe in the occurrence of violation miracles. The second is an in fact argument. It suggests that the existing testimony is weak.

The in principle argument relies on Hume’s mini-theory of rational belief. This has two elements to it: (i) beliefs must be proportionate to the available evidence and (ii) the prior improbability of an event increases the evidence needed to prove that the event occurred.

To see how Hume’s mini-theory works, consider a simple example: a friend of yours tells you that they saw a cow in a field. Assume your friend’s eyesight is normal and they have no reason to lie. Should you believe them? I would say yes: the presence of a cow in a field does not suffer from prior improbability and so relatively little evidence is needed to make belief in the presence of that cow rationally acceptable.

Now imagine a second version of this. This time around your friend claims that they saw a three-headed cow in the field. Should you believe them? No: the existence of a three-headed cow suffers from prior improbability and so you will need more than one eyewitness to convince you of its presence. You would probably need several (independent!) eyewitnesses, photographic evidence and may even like to confirm it for yourself.

Based on this example, Hume’s mini-theory of rationality seems unexceptionable. But now consider how it applies when you’re receiving testimony about the occurrence of a violation miracle. To make belief in this miracle rationally acceptable, two propositions need to be established:

  • (1) That there is a law of nature L.
  • (2) That event E (a violation of L) has occurred.

It is worth emphasising the point that both of these need to established, not just (2). But since our beliefs must be proportionate to the evidence, and since we could err in our identification of the laws of nature, Hume points out that:

  • (3) The statement that E has occurred contradicts the statement that L is a law of nature.

In other words, any evidence that is sufficiently strong to prove the occurrence of E would also be evidence that counts against L’s status as a law of nature. It might be that L really is a law of nature and E really is a miracle, but it might also be that E is something that should encourage us to revise our commitment to L.

This is Hume’s in principle argument. Note that although Hume explicitly refers to belief in E that is based on testimony, the same argument holds even if you have observed the evidence for E yourself.

Hume follows this up with a discussion of the kinds of evidence that usually is presented to support belief in miracles and finds it to be not even of sufficient strength to warrant agnosticism. We won’t discuss that argument here.

3. Assessing Hume’s Argument
In assessing Hume’s argument, Everitt points out that Hume is not claiming that violation miracles are impossible. This is a common misinterpretation, one to which even the most sophisticated of Bayesian interpreters can fall prey. Rather, Hume is claiming that the following disjunctive conclusion must be reached:

  • (4) Either it is rational to believe that E occurred but was not a violation miracle, or it is rational to believe that E did not occur.

Everitt thinks that many commentators fail to understand both the strengths and the limitations of this conclusion.

As an example, he cites Brian Davies who argues that although testimony may fail to provide rationally compelling evidence of miracles, the testimony could be corroborated by physical evidence. The idea being that historical events leave causal traces in the present that could be recovered.

Everitt responds by saying that this could very well be true, but that it misses the point. The point is not that testimony is particularly weak form of evidence; the point is that evidence for miracles and laws of nature complement one another. The more credible is the evidence for the miracle; the less credible is the evidence for the law of nature, and vice versa.

Everitt thinks that, when understood properly, Hume’s argument really does provide a decisive blow to arguments supporting the occurrence of violation miracles. But he qualifies this by saying that the decisive blow could be avoided by simply offering a different definition of miracles.

4. Conclusion
That is the extent of Everitt’s discussion of Hume’s argument. A few words are in order. Everitt studiously avoids the recent Bayesian interpretations and critiques of Hume’s argument. This is something for which he has been criticised. According to some of the Bayesian critiques, the disjunctive conclusion reached above is much too strong because there are conditions under which it may be permissible to believe in the occurrence of miracles.

We will consider some of these more sophisticated Bayesian critiques in future entries to this series. In the next post on Everitt’s chapter, we will consider two further arguments against the violation sense of miracles.

Miracles (Series Index)

Miracles are important for religious believers. For some, they provide evidence for the truth of their beliefs; for others, they provide an insight into the nature of God and his plan for humanity; for still others, they serve as a valuable weapon in apologetic debates. The classic example of a miracle that serves all three functions (evidential, theological and apologetical) is of course the supposed resurrection of Jesus.

For sceptics and non-believers there are obvious questions that need to be asked about the religious fondness for miracles. First, we need to ask what exactly is a miracle. Second, we need to ask whether there is any good evidence for the occurrence of miracles. Third, we need to ask whether we can make successful inferences from the occurrence of miracles to the character of God. And finally, we need to ask whether miracle claims can be successfully deployed in the apologetic context.

This series of posts will explore each of these questions. Once again, as is my wont on this blog, the series will cover the work of others. The following is the plan of action. It is subject to revision in line with the shifting sands of my motivation and the interruptions of “real life”.

(1) Nicholas Everitt, “Arguments to and from Miracles” from The Non-Existence of God

(2) The Devil’s Lying Wonders, by John Beaudoin

(3) The Problem of the Evil/Miracle Ratio, by Morgan Luck

(4) Against the Historical Possibility of Miracles, by Morgan Luck

(5) The Bayesian Analysis of Hume’s Argument in “Of Miracles” (Various Authors)

(6) Fogelin in Defence of Hume's Argument