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More on the Case Against Miracles: Michael Shermer Guest Post

This is the second guest post by Michael Shermer, from his Foreword to the new book edited by John Loftus, The Case Against Miracles. ((For the first, see yesterday’s post)  Michael is on the blog and is happy to respond to comments you have.



When we are thinking about miracles, as with anything else that happens in the world, what we are after is a causal explanation, and here John Loftus cuts to the chase when he cites my friend and colleague David Kyle Johnson’s definition of a miracle—winnowed-down from Hume—as “A miracle is simply an event caused by God.” As Johnson explains, “For any given event, if we knew that God took special care to cause it, we would (and should) call that event a miracle—regardless of whether it involved the violation of natural law.” However, it is important to distinguish this from something that appears divinely-caused but was, in fact, simply a highly improbable natural occurrence, along the lines of my million-to-one odds analysis above. We want to distinguish between a natural and a supernatural event when considering miracle claims. This is why I agree with Loftus’ definition:

A miracle is a supernaturally caused extraordinary event of the highest kind, one that’s unexplainable and even impossible by means of natural processes alone.

Pulling back to look at an even bigger picture of what we’re after here in thinking about miracles is the question What is truth? This is the question I have been trying

This post gets even more interesting — how do you know what is “true”???   Want to keep reading?  Join the blog.  It’s chock full of interesting information and views, and it is crazily affordable — just about two bucks a month.  And all the money goes to charity.  So why not?

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Christmas 2019
The Case Against Miracles



  1. Avatar
    joemccarron  January 4, 2020

    As a Christian, there are certainly times I wish I had better evidence for God/miracles. But Hume’s argument is an attempt to put an intellectual façade on ignoring the evidence against his belief. It’s a thinly veiled defense of biased thinking.

    If God exists, then there is nothing extraordinary in believing he acted. And the fact that the author considers that any action by God could be considered a miracle shows his refusal to believe in miracles is likely just based on his belief that God doesn’t exist.

    Atheists who really think they know God doesn’t exist would of course find it extraordinary that god acted just like I would find it extraordinary that Sherlock Holmes or Pippi Long Stocking acted in the world. If someone told me they played cards with Ebenezer Scrooge I would find it hard to believe. But not because that would mean an agent acted in the world but rather because I think I know he doesn’t exist! If someone told me they played cards with my brother I wouldn’t have the same sorts of hang ups and regular evidence would be fine.

    If God exists there is nothing so extraordinary in thinking he took some action or caused something to happen in reality. And simply repeating that it would be extraordinary over and over again is not actually an argument. When we consider evidence that *anyone did anything* in the world we naturally rule out all the other possible explanations for the evidence. So when I read that Michael Jordan made a winning basket I would need to rule out all the other natural explanations of why the newspaper might say that he did. Maybe they were mistaken or got bad information from someone else etc. But if I don’t start out with the assumption that Michael Jordan never existed then this is not such a big deal. For people who believe in God it is not such a big deal to think he acted in the world.

    • johnwloftus
      johnwloftus  January 4, 2020

      You said: “If God exists there is nothing so extraordinary in thinking he took some action or caused something to happen in reality.”

      Perhaps. But what evidence shows an acting god exists if we lack sufficient evidence to detect the actions of such a god?

  2. Avatar
    joemccarron  January 4, 2020

    I do find this argument somewhat amusing because often it is presented by someone who will claim that there is no evidence to support belief in God. And this is how it tends to play out:

    Atheist: There is no evidence that supports belief in God!
    Christian: what would you even consider evidence of God?
    Atheist (usually after some wrangling): A miracle.
    Christian: ok well there are many accounts that Jesus did miracles
    Atheist: Oh yeah but that is just ordinary evidence.
    Christian: yeah ok.
    Atheist: You must provide extraordinary superdee duper evidence!
    Christian: Huh? What does that even mean?
    Atheist: I find the notion that God or anything supernatural exists so remote that the idea that he acted in the world could never be established by ordinary evidence it would need to be extraordinary superdee duper evidence!

    Christian: Ok so what does that mean? Accounts of someone rising from the dead aren’t good enough the actual account must be extraordinary as well? Does the account have to be written in an albino princess’s blood on silk so white it would blind most mortals and be recited by someone riding a unicycle while juggling 7 lit torches? Would that be extraordinary enough?

    Atheist: No not even that is extraordinary enough. In fact I can’t even tell you what would be extraordinary enough to shake my belief that God doesn’t exist. But I can tell you this. If you ever did find something extraordinary enough it wouldn’t be enough to convince me. At best it would be a tie and the tie goes to my current beliefs!

    At this point most Christians realize they are no longer dealing with anyone who is rationally considering their beliefs but instead someone desperately trying to insulate their own prejudiced views from the evidence.

    • johnwloftus
      johnwloftus  January 4, 2020

      When it comes to believing in a resurrection from the dead in the distant superstitious past it requires a lot of strong and/or numerous pieces of corroborating evidence, unlike ordinary events. We don’t have it for the resurrection so there’s no reason to believe it.

      It may even be impossible to corroborate a resurrection in the distant past, but that doesn’t change our need for sufficient objective evidence. Such a god should have waited until modern science had arrived for the ability to confirm it.

      • Avatar
        joemccarron  January 9, 2020

        If you agree that evidence is reason to believe something, then we have reason to believe in the resurrection and miracles.

        One of the first things I learned in law school is that evidence is not a wall, it is a brick. Even if one piece of evidence does not prove your case that does not mean that one piece is not evidence. Are the accounts in scripture evidence of the resurrection? Short answer yes, of course they are, unless you want to engage in special pleading. By the way Christians engage in the same sort of special pleading when they automatically discount accounts of miracles linked to other religions. So resisting special pleading is something both atheists and Christians both need to struggle against. Perhaps you can see where my special pleading charge is coming from but a fuller explanation of how this is special pleading would take more than 1200 words so I will have to do it another day.

        For now let me ask about your view of evidence. Here is a blog where I suggest the US Federal Rules of Evidence properly defines what “Relevant Evidence” means and the implications of that definition.
        Do you think “relevant evidence” should mean something else?

        Although it does happen, it is a rare trial where one side does not offer any evidence. Almost always both sides have relevant evidence to offer. Since trials often involve what in fact happened and clearly only one side is factually correct that means there can be evidence for a false claim. Let’s call this “the legal view” of relevant evidence.
        comment continued in next post.

        • johnwloftus
          johnwloftus  January 10, 2020

          I don’t disagree with Shermer. I only said I didn’t use that phrase. I wrote a whole book arguing that believers should shoulder their own burden of proof, as if they were nonbelievers, without any special pleading or double standards. Perhaps you haven’t read it?:


          As far as evidence goes, there are different types of evidence. The main distinction is between testimonial evidence and objective evidence. My claim is that there is no relevant objective evidence for any of the miracles in the Bible.

        • Avatar
          joemccarron  January 10, 2020

          Before I went to law school, I studied philosophy and I had a different view of “relevant evidence.” I thought that to be actual evidence it had to have some causal connection with what occurred. If you have a factual question such as did “OJ Simpson murder his ex wife?” or did “Jesus rise from the dead?” you have binary questions to be answered. Either they did or they didn’t happen. If they didn’t happen then anything that seems to suggest they did happen could not possibly have a causal relation to them happening. This would be impossible because that didn’t happen, and it’s impossible for something that did not happen to have causal effects. Therefore, anything suggesting that occurred could not be actual evidence at all. Let’s call this the “philosophical view” of evidence.

          Now the philosophical view of evidence seems fine when we know the answer. If I murdered OJ Simpson’s ex-wife myself then I would know he didn’t do it. And since I knew he didn’t do I could watch the trial on television and I would not consider what the States attorney offers at trial “evidence” that he did it either. That is because I am definitely not in a position of genuinely inquiring about whether he did it or not. I *know* for certain he did not do it. Therefore, I know that any evidence couldn’t possibly have a causal connection to OJ murdering his ex-wife so it wouldn’t be evidence for me or the philosophical view.

          However, when you are genuinely inquiring about whether something happened as opposed to already knowing whether it happened then the legal view is much better. Because on the legal view you are letting the evidence lead you to the conclusion. The philosophical view on the other hand is letting your belief about the conclusion shape how you view the evidence. And sometimes this can get so bad you may even start to think there is “no evidence at all” supporting a belief contrary to your own. Even on a topic that has been debated for thousands of years.

          Now with that said, do you think the accounts of Jesus resurrection are, at least, “some evidence” of a resurrection?

          • johnwloftus
            johnwloftus  January 11, 2020

            To answer your last question the answer is yes, there is evidence for the resurrection, just as surely as there is evidence that Mohammad rode a horse into the heavens. It’s called testimonial evidence. We find it in the texts of the New Testament as written by non-eyewitnesses gospel writers themselves, and we have filtered down through three centuries of editors and scribes. This is hearsay evidence and wouldn’t be allowed in a courtroom because it cannot be cross-examined for consistency and truth. But it is evidence.

  3. Avatar
    joemccarron  January 5, 2020

    As a lawyer it always amazes me when philosophers try to talk about “the burden of proof” as if such a thing is helpful in philosophical discourse. The burden of proof in the law is only brought in because an official decision needs to be made and it is always clear what the standard is as well as to whom we need to prove it (e.g., Judge commission or Jury) and we also know the consequences if it is not proven. (sentencing or money award or injunction whatever)

    In philosophy people talk about “the burden of proof” without any mention of these essential aspects so it inevitably adds more heat than light. You can call it the null hypothesis or burden of proof or whatever it doesn’t change the fact that it is too vague to be helpful.

    Proof is subjective. Lots of people watched OJ Simpsons trial and for many his guilt was proven to them beyond reasonable doubt. The Jury disagreed. Whether you I or the jury had his guilt proven is irrelevant to the truth of the matter. Nor would it be rational for you to believe he really didn’t commit the crime just because the Criminal Jury didn’t convict him. The Civil Jury did find that he wrongfully killed by the way. But none of that matters. In the law burdens of proof are often assigned to one side or the other and states often disagree on who has the burden. The burden of proof is not a matter of logic or science.

    I can only post a limited number of comments and limited number of words per day on this blog so I will have to post the rest another day. Sorry, it makes discussions a bit awkward but there are good reasons for the limitations.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2020

      Right, it’s very different. But yes, there are different burdens of proof in different fields of discourse. I suppose kind of like the differences between civil and criminal suits? But I know very, very little about the law. But philosophical “proof” will be very different from proofs in physics, chemistry; those will be different from law; which will be different from history; which will be different from philosophy. Each field is based on evidence. but necessariiyl the evidence is different and the criteria of estabblishing what *counts* as evidence is different.

      • Avatar
        joemccarron  January 7, 2020

        Yes there are definitely different ways that proofs and evidence work in these different fields. Math may be the most unique as there tends to be more agreement on the starting premises than in other fields. But in all fields there are some similarities and philosophy generally addresses this most directly in critical reasoning courses. That is a “proof” generally involves premises and a conclusion that follows from those premises. And a proof will only be effective if the premises are accepted/believed by the person you are trying to convince. This is why rational people can, at times, look at the same data/evidence and draw different conclusions.

        Whether a proof works – that is whether it persuades someone – will depend on the beliefs held by that person. It is very important to understand this subjective aspect of “proofs.” I might try to convince someone that humans evolved from apes but if they do not place the same weight on the premises I use and put more weight on other premises then my proof won’t work – persuade. The same can be said if I try to argue that people should believe in God because we should believe we can reliably understand objective morality. But if they are not attached to the notion of objective morality being important – the reasons I offer won’t convince them. If they do then the reasons I give may convince them thereby be a “proof.” Even if my premises are true and the conclusion logically follows, that does not mean the argument will be a “proof” to anyone.

        Whether something is a proof depends on whether the person we are trying to prove something to *believes* the premises. The fact that the premises are true (that is the premises “accord with reality”) is no guarantee that they will be believed. Yes sometimes people reject premises because they are ignorant and even sometimes willfully so. Nevertheless, we should understand proving something to someone is always a subjective endeavor because it is dependent on their own beliefs. You are always proving something *to someone* – even if that someone is yourself. We don’t prove things to God or reality.

      • Avatar
        joemccarron  January 7, 2020

        This is why I take issue with people saying “the” burden of proof. Saying “the” burden of proof is an attempt to put an objective façade on a subjective matter. Putting this objective veneer on a subjective endeavor is misleading.

        If I say: “I am not convinced by your argument because….” I communicating the issue *accurately*. But if I say “your argument fails to meet the burden of proof because…” then I am trying to suggest that convincing me is somehow the objective standard on which reality rests. Which is absurd. Reality doesn’t care one wit about whether I am convinced of the truth of it or not. Reality is not going to hinge on a proof being made to me.

        Belief in “the burden of proof” can also lead to many intellectual problems that are demonstrated by the comments of Shermer and Loftus. One problem with taking “the burden of proof” too seriously is one might believe we are *entitled* to the truth. We think we should be able to demand evidence and proofs from others and if they don’t provide the evidence or proofs we are somehow justified in our current beliefs. Loftus asserts the scriptures are not good enough and then asks me what other evidence I have. I imagine a child king demanding evidence and then declaring that is not good enough! I, actually, don’t have a burden to prove anything to him. I can offer reasons why he should change his thinking but I do not “owe” him this.

        Loftus says God should have did it different and died and rose at a different time. So even God owes him proofs of the truth! And if he doesn’t get it well then he will feel justified. This is not how reality works and the sooner we accept that the sooner we will formulate our beliefs in a way that actually conforms with reality.

        Shermer even demands proofs of reality. Until reality proves itself to him it is not “[made] true.” We can try to understand reality or not. But our failure to grasp it does make reality less “true” as he suggests when he talks about proofs or evidence “mak[ing]” beliefs true. (See earlier post)


        • johnwloftus
          johnwloftus  January 7, 2020

          You say: “Loftus asserts the scriptures are not good enough and then asks me what other evidence I have.

          I, actually, don’t have a burden to prove anything to him. I can offer reasons why he should change his thinking but I do not “owe” him this.

          Loftus says God should have did it different and died and rose at a different time. So even God owes him proofs of the truth!”


          For the record I never mentioned the burden of proof. What I have argued is that reason demands this or that. No one owes me anything, certainly not your imagined non-existing god. Reason itself demands it. If your god is a reasonable deity who desires us to be reasonable with the evidence, then when I say reason itself demands it, your god demands it. Or, your god created us to be reasonable people yet desires us to be unreasonable.

          • Avatar
            joemccarron  January 9, 2020

            I am genuinely glad you do not share Shermer’s view on the burden of proof. I thought perhaps since he is writing the introduction to your anthology and this is a blog post introducing your book, you might agree with what he is saying. But apparently that is not the case. Just to be clear, he says:

            “The null hypothesis is that your claim of a miracle is not true until you prove otherwise. Here we say that the burden of proof is on the miracle claimant, not the skeptic or scientist to disprove the miracle claim.”

            When he says “here we say” the “we” definitely does not include you, correct?

            One of the essential parts of any “burden of proof” is to understand the consequences of not meeting that burden. Shermer repeatedly seems to say the consequence of not meeting the burden of proof is that the claim is not true.

            Do you agree with Shermer that the truth of whether a miracle occurred hinges on whether a claimant can prove it occurred? What about other claims? Are they “made true” by the proof as Shermer suggests? Do you agree with me that Shermer’s view is a huge departure from the traditional view of truth? I wonder why he chose to radically redefine such basic terms like “truth.”

            Now you tell me what “reason demands”. When did reason name you as it’s spokesperson? Joking aside, this is my point about taking “the burden of proof” too seriously. You personally find the evidence unconvincing and so you think believers have a burden to provide more evidence to you, if they want to convince you. I would have no issue with that. That would be the accurate description of what is happening.

            But that doesn’t sound grandiose enough so you claim “reason itself demands” more evidence! Implicit in this is that all your background beliefs are just fine and since you are not convinced by the evidence presented thus far Reason itself demands more evidence. Do you see how this dovetails with the points I made and you replied to?

          • johnwloftus
            johnwloftus  January 10, 2020

            I don’t disagree with Shermer. I only said I didn’t use that phrase. I wrote a whole book arguing that believers should shoulder their own burden of proof, as if they were nonbelievers, without any special pleading or double standards. Perhaps you haven’t read it?:


            As far as evidence goes, there are different types of evidence. The main distinction is between testimonial evidence and objective evidence. My claim is that there is no relevant objective evidence for any of the miracles in the Bible.

          • Avatar
            joemccarron  January 10, 2020

            If you share the views Shermer expressed in his post talking about the burden of proof, why did you think it was important to say “For the record I never mentioned the burden of proof” in response to my comments addressing his views on the burden of proof? It just seems like a misdirection to take the time to do that. But OK, I don’t want to quibble too much.

            You now say you agree with Shermer. And that being the case we disagree about basic assumptions and concepts. For example I subscribe to the view that a proposition is “true” if it accords with reality. This is called the correspondence view of truth. This is the traditional view of truth in western civilization and the most popular view among professional philosophers. (according to philpaper surveys https://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl?affil=Target+faculty&areas0=0&areas_max=1&grain=coarse ) Based on this view of truth there is an objective reality and our beliefs are “true” when they match that reality. In my view reality and truth are objective and does not change depending on anything being proven to us, or not.

            You and Shermer take a different view. He seems to think something is true when it is proven. This is a fundamental difference of assumptions we are making and will almost certainly need to be sorted out before we are even speaking the same language. This is the third time I am posting about this and so far you have not addressed this at all.

            Another assumption is your assumption that it would be extraordinary to assume God would act in the world. Again it is an assumption you base your arguments on but I don’t share the assumption. So I am asking you why should I think it would be extraordinary for God to act in the world? It would seem extraordinary if he did not act in the world. But again you don’t engage on this basic assumption so what you say simply doesn’t apply to me. IMO you are taking a wrong turn right out of the gate.

          • johnwloftus
            johnwloftus  January 11, 2020

            You shoulder the burden of proof, just as surely as you demand believers in other religions to do so. I wrote a book defending this idea called, “The Outsider Test for Faith.”

            One can hold to the correspondence theory of truth as an ideal which we never fully achieve. So Pragmatism isn’t in as much odds to the correspondence theory as you imagine. Dr. John Shook is a leading expert on Pragmatism. He says:

            “Pragmatism says that anyone finding out what reality is like has to examine all available evidence pro and con, and then go get fresh evidence that tests the current view. Pragmatism is about the scientific method. It looks like relativism to someone who wants final answers right now. Only one pragmatist, William James, ever said that what is useful is true, and he only said that to make a helpful analogy, not explain the theory. If morality, not reality, is the topic, pragmatism is skeptical towards people who think they know the absolute rules for life. Test those rules by applying them in the real world – you will find out you actually know a lot less. Morality should serve what is good for all lives; lives must not be sacrificed for abstract principle.”

            I wrote in more detail about Pragmatism here: http://www.debunking-christianity.com/2018/02/relativism-pragmatism-reviewing.html

            As to Shermer, I’m pretty sure he’s not demanding proof as in proving with certainty. That ideal has probably never been broached. Rather, he’s speaking of proving beyond a reasonable doubt.

            As to extraordinary events, have you read chapter 3 in my book where I write about them? You should.

            You need to start thinking differently right out of the gate. In your mind you already believe your god did the specific divine actions in the Bible. So by your lights such a god as you believe in would have done those very actions! See the circular nature of this assessment? “My god did the actions recorded in the Bible. So it’s not surprising my god would have done the actions in the Bible.” If you didn’t already believe in your god the actions recorded in the Bible would indeed be extraordinary. So let’s consider any other different non-Christian religion and consider the supposed divine actions of those gods. They are extraordinary claims of extraordinary events because they are not what we would expect to happen in the natural world. The reason is that the ordinary operations of the natural world set the standard for what we consider extraordinary. Cheers.

          • Avatar
            joemccarron  January 10, 2020

            I have tried to address our differing assumptions in the comments (as well as concepts like what constitutes evidence for you and whether you agree with the federal rules of evidence on that) but you have not given any substantive responses. Instead you offer a link to different book that you wrote.

            Are you saying this other book addresses the issues I have raised here? For example do you try to defend the view that truth hinges on “the burden of proof” being met? If you say yes and give me the chapter I will gladly buy the book and read at least that chapter.

            However, based on the summary and some reviews, the book seems to argue something I already agree with. That is that we should not discount evidence of other faiths. I have also written that we should not do that. But I also explain why arguing about this based on some imagined burden of proof can be a problem when you are considering many different exclusive options.

            Do you address any of these points in your book?

            But that is really a separate issue from how Shermer is defining truth and whether we should assume it would be “extraordinary” for God to act in the world.

            Bottom line, I posted specific objections to your views. If you want to respond I would be interested in reading them. If you don’t want to respond that’s fine as well. But given that your basic views of the world are so different than my own I am not inclined to try to read everything your wrote to see if maybe it may address some of the issues I find relevant or interesting.

          • johnwloftus
            johnwloftus  January 11, 2020

            Yes, my book addresses those questions. On Amazon you can read a selection before getting a copy at your local library. The burden of proof is to met by people who believe in extraordinary claims just as surely as they require it of others. No double standards are allowed if one wants to be honest in searching for the truth. In fact, given that people are raised to believe in wildly different religions, we know that indoctrination within one’s religious culture is an utterly unreliable method for getting religion right. So upon becoming an adult every person should question his or her religion from the standpoint of an outsider with the burden of proof. Just cogitate on one photo with its implications:



          • Avatar
            joemccarron  January 17, 2020

            “You shoulder the burden of proof, just as surely as you demand believers in other religions to do so.”

            I don’t demand believers of other religions shoulder any burden of proof, so according to your logic I don’t owe any burden of proof either. I take full responsibility for my own thoughts and beliefs as I think everyone should. I will never understand why anyone would think another person is under a burden to prove anything to them. At least outside of court or debates where we have to manufacture a set of rules to resolve a debate in a set time.

            Dr. Shook seems to take a negative view of relativism generally. Accordingly it is odd you would use him to support Shermer’s relativism where things become true based on how much evidence he has of them. Im not sure we should follow Dr. Shook’s lead anyway. He says people don’t know about morality and then makes a moral assertion himself.

            No one cares so much about whether you or I or Dr. Shermer believe we have enough evidence to be convinced of a view. People want to know whether the view accords with reality. That is what it traditionally means for something to be “true” and that traditional meaning is what gives the term “truth” its luster.

            Even very young children want to know what is “true” in the sense of corresponding with reality. If I told my kids something they would ask “In real life?” This was before they were in kindergarten and even they had concern as to whether a view corresponded with reality – which is what we would traditionally call a concern for truth. If you no longer want truth to mean what corresponds with reality because that no longer fits with your atheism or other epistemic views but you still want to steal some of the glory of the term and apply to something else – that is not great. But if you do that at least offer a new word for the concept that used to mean “truth” and you will find people no longer care about this new “truth”. This new word that applies to beliefs that correspond with objective reality (as “truth” used to) will be of more interest.

  4. Avatar
    joemccarron  January 7, 2020

    Why do you reject the traditional view of truth based on the correspondence theory of truth? The traditional view can be expressed along the lines of “a proposition is true if it accords with reality.”

    There may be problems with that definition but it usually captures what we mean when we say something is true. Moreover, people want to know reality. So if you want to redefine “truth” to mean something other than that which corresponds with reality, people will want a new word for that which corresponds with reality. That is because our desire to search for the truth is ultimately driven by a desire to understand what is real.


    You replace the traditional definition of truth with something that is overly subjective and therefore I believe you demean the very notion of “truth.” You say:
    “The null hypothesis is that your claim of a miracle is not true until you prove otherwise.”

    As is typical when a philosophical burden of proof comes up you don’t say who we need to prove it to, what the standard of proof is, or what the consequences are for not proving it. That makes precisely understanding what you are saying impossible. But the bigger problem is you seem to make the truth itself contingent on some proof being made to someone.

    According to the view of truth, passed on for millennia in western thought, claims are “true” based on reality regardless of whether they are proven to you or anyone else. The earth was orbiting the sun long before Copernicus, Galileo or anyone else proved it. It was true that the earth orbited the sun and those who thought different were wrong regardless of what was proved to them. The proof did not “make” it true as you seem to indicate.

    To suggest something is not true until it is proven to someone is to commit the fallacy of argument from ignorance (as it was traditionally understood) in an egregious way. This is a common irrational line of thinking for those who try to take an objective burden of proof too seriously. I have a bit more to say about this in my response to Dr. Ehrman.

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