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The Case Against Miracles: Guest Post by John Loftus

A week ago Michael Shermer posted his Foreword to the new book The Case Against Miracles, edited by John W. Loftus.  The book is a collection of essays by various authors who all make arguments that what we think of as miracles — that is (as they understand it) supernatural interventions in the natural world (not just weird things that happen) — cannot be shown ever to have happened, and so should not be believed.  John himself has now provided us with an introduction to the volume to describe what it tries to achieve, given below.  As you will see, he lends his whole-hearted support to the views most famously advanced by the great 18th century philosopher David Hume. He and some other contributors think Hume’s arguments have not been refuted.

So, what do you think?

*****************************************************************************************************

Introducing “The Case against Miracles” by John W. Loftus.

This new anthology is about miracles and why there isn’t enough objective evidence to believe in them. Along the way it’s also a major defense of Scottish philosopher David Hume’s (1711-1776) ground-breaking arguments against miracles, especially seen in chapters one, three, and the Appendix.

Hume defined a miracle as “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”1 His most famous definition simply says a miracle is “a violation of a law of nature.”2 This expresses the same idea. Violation or transgression? It’s the same difference. A miracle must be an event discovered to be caused by a supernatural force or being, a god. Such an event could not take place on its own in the natural world without the action of a god. It must be an event which involves the interfering, or suspension, or transgressing, or breaching, or contravening, or violating of natural law. Such an event could not be explainable by science because …

This is a highly controversial subject among thinking people who also have religious commitments.  Want to see more about the issues   Read on!  To do that you will need to belong to the blog.  But joining is dead easy and inexpensive, and all your small fee goes to large causes, helping those in need.

Such an event could not be explainable by science because it would be an event impossible to occur by natural processes alone.

David Hume offered a good reasonable general maxim for dealing with miracle testimony:

“Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happens in the common course of nature…There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation…The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), ‘That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.’”3

According to Hume a miracle is an extraordinary event of the highest kind. That means it demands an extraordinary amount of quality evidence to overcome the extraordinary amount of quality evidence that repeatedly shows nature to operate uniformly from place to place on earth and from galaxy to galaxy in the universe. In the former case, this allows for earth sciences like geology, meteorology, and oceanography, and in the latter case, the sciences of astronomy and astrophysics. That’s because the amount and strength of the evidence required is dependent on the type of claim being made. Since miraculous claims go against the course of nature they cannot be established by a supposed witness or two, and certainly not by ancient lists of people whom we cannot cross-examine for deception, consistency and/or misperception.

A miracle is not merely an extremely rare event within natural world. Period. We know from statistics that extremely rare events take place regularly in our lives. How many times have you heard believers say their god did a miracle, or answered a prayer, based on a very unlikely set of circumstances? You  hear this from Mennonites, Methodists, Moonies, Mormons, and Muslims, and every other believer who possesses a prayer-answering god. [If there aren’t a plethora of different gods answering these prayers then one god answers them all, thus creating conflict and wars between believers over who possesses the right god.] Believers will quote their believing doctors who say the odds of being healed were “one in a million,” as evidence of a miracle healing. Listen, a one in a million healing is not equivalent to a miracle. The reason is because of the statistics of large numbers.

Statistician David Hand shows us this in his book, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day. He convincingly shows that “extraordinarily rare events are anything but. In fact, they’re commonplace. Not only that, we should all expect to experience a miracle roughly once every month.” He is not a believer in supernatural miracles though. “No mystical or supernatural explanation is necessary to understand why someone is lucky enough to win the lottery twice, or is destined to be hit by lightning three times and still survive. All we need is a firm grounding in a powerful set of laws: the laws of inevitability, of truly large numbers, of selection, of the probability lever, and of near enough.”4 There are a growing list of books making this same point.5 Extremely rare events within the natural world are not miracles. Period. We should expect extremely rare events in our lives many times over. No gods made these events happen. The reason believers see evidence of miracles in rare coincidences is simply because they’re ignorant about statistics and the probabilities built on them. There can be no reasonable doubt about this.

The focus of this anthology agrees with atheist philosopher Michael Levine:

“There are basically three philosophical questions of interest about miracles. The first is whether miracles are possible. The second is whether anyone can ever be justified, epistemologically speaking, in believing that a miracle has occurred. With regard to this question it is important to note that the fact one can imagine conditions in which belief in a miracle would be justified does absolutely nothing to show that anyone has been so justified. The third question is whether anyone is or has been so justified…The first two questions have sheltered philosophers from dealing with the only philosophically significant question about miracles per se—the third question. The first two questions…may be worth pursuing in their own right, but they are of little consequence when it comes to the important third question about miracles. Is anyone epistemologically justified in believing in a miracle—for example, on the basis of Scripture and historical evidence?”

“Philosophical discussion about miracles frequently ignores the question of whether there exists historical evidence, testimony—including testimony in the form of Scripture—or first-hand experience, that justifies belief in the miraculous. Those who wish to champion miracles either argue that such evidence exists or else they merely assume it. But the question of whether such evidence does exist, by itself, is the crucial question about justified belief in miracles.”6

For more, click on “Look Inside” the book at Amazon [https://amzn.to/2sksWdU] then scroll up to see the Contents, and back down to read as far as you can.

 

—————–

1 David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X “Of Miracles,” footnote 21, online at: https://www3.nd.edu/~afreddos/courses/43811/hume-on-miracles.htm.

 

2 David Hume, Enquiry, Section X “Of Miracles” Part 1 #90.

 

3 Ibid.

 

4 David J. Hand is an emeritus professor of mathematics, a senior research investigator at Imperial College London, and former president of the Royal Statistical Society. His book is published by Scientific American/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

 

5 Other important books are as follows: Jeffrey S. Rosenthal, Knock on Wood: Luck, Chance, and the Meaning of Everything (HarperCollins Publishers, 2018), and his earlier book, Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities (Joseph Henry Press, 2006). Rosenthal is a professor of statistics at the University of Toronto, having received his PhD in mathematics from Harvard. Joseph Mazur, Fluke: The Math and Myth of Coincidence, (Basic Books, 2016). Mazur is an emeritus professor of mathematics at Marlboro College in Vermont. Leonard Mlodinow, The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives (Vintage; Reprint, 2019). Mlodinow co-wrote with Stephen Hawking The Grand Design, and previously earned his PhD in theoretical physics from the University of California at Berkeley. John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences (Holt-McDougal, 2001). Paulos is a professor of mathematics at Temple University.

 

6 Michael Levine, “Philosophers On Miracles” in Graham H. Twelftree, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Miracles (Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 291-308. Italics mine, since this one sentence destroys so much of what we see by philosophers of religion. It also explains why I called for that discipline to end in my book, Unapologetic: Why Philosophy of Religion Must End  (Pitchstone Publishing, 2016).

 


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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Matt2239  December 30, 2019

    A miracle is anything a religious believer believes it to be. Defining miracles through the words of scientists is the classic example of science warring with religion for no valid reason. Scientists who are devout in their religious beliefs are purged from the field. Why? Because the ratio of stuff that is known to stuff that is not known is very small indeed. Any honest scientist, knowing how much remains unexplained, would never assert that religious believers are completely wrong to believe in existence of powers that haven’t been explained.

    • johnwloftus
      johnwloftus  December 31, 2019

      Miracles may have taken place. But if they are to convince reasonable people there must be sufficient objective evidence for them beyond mere human testimony.

      • Avatar
        Hamilton  January 7, 2020

        it appears to me that the law of large numbers make it as likely a miracle occured as it does to show it didn’t. However the belief in one is hardly miraculous or even uncommon.

    • darrenmslade
      darrenmslade  January 1, 2020

      Matt,

      Even theologians and religious philosophers disagree with your statement that a miracle is anything a believer believes it to be. This would be a case of moving the goalposts where anything and everything can be construed as a miracle. By this line of reasoning, I could argue that the Holocaust was a “miracle” for white supremacists, or that the rapid rise of atheism in the US is also a “miracle.” I hope you see the problem with this type of thinking. If someone can just make up whatever definition they want, then there is no point in having definitions to begin with and all forms of intellectual inquiry (scientific or not) become pointless. That’s not good.

  2. Avatar
    Hormiga  December 30, 2019

    I’m reading through the book at present, but one thing that I’ve noticed is a lack of distinction as to the *character* of extraordinary events that might be seen as miracles. Nobody that I know of puts forth supernatural beings as being behind the phenomena that have led to the hypotheses of dark matter and energy, though those phenomena are not understood within the current picture of nature. They have the character of unknown physics, not God.

    On the other hand, an extraordinary event that had a personal character, such as a verifiable visitation by an angel, or a one-meter sphere of Pu230 covered in gold inscriptions of biblical verses and floating two meters in the air would be pretty hard to see as a result of unknown physics and might, indeed, point toward something like God.

  3. fefferdan
    fefferdan  December 30, 2019

    Healing “miracles,” it seems to me, do occur; whether they are supernatural or psychosomatic cures is another question. There are also “miracles” of coincidence, such as a prayer for rain [or against it] that apparently works. And I suppose many of us have had uncanny experiences of coincidence that are easier to explain supernaturally than by statistical likelihood. I like Jung’s idea of synchronicty. We may not be able to prove causality, but we CAN prove meaningfulness. I’m content accept that neither current scientific knowledge nor biblical faith fully explains our world, or its connection, if any, to the world of spirit. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio [and Hume too], Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

    • johnwloftus
      johnwloftus  December 31, 2019

      Miracles may have taken place. But if they are to convince reasonable people there must be sufficient objective evidence for them beyond mere human testimony.

    • darrenmslade
      darrenmslade  January 1, 2020

      A natural occurrence (like psychosomatic healings and coincidences) are, by definition, not miracles. They are natural occurrences and coincidences. To confuse these things with a bona fide “miracle” robs the term of any and all meaning. By this measure, every mass shooting can be construed as a “miracle” simply because we have not properly delineated between natural occurrences, coincidences, and direct actions by the supernatural that contravene physical processes. When anything can be considered a “miracle,” then nothing can be considered a “miracle,” and then there’s no point in claiming to believe miracles occur.

      • Avatar
        Bluebirds  January 2, 2020

        Mr. Slade, you have had fun deconstructing other’s statements on miracles. I’m starting to wonder if that is your attempt to get someone to ask you about your definition of miracles… Care to oblige?

  4. Avatar
    nichael  December 30, 2019

    > “So, what do you think?”

    I guess, in short, my immediate reaction is yeah OK, sure. But so what?

    Let me put it this way: Who does the author imagine that he is arguing with? Does anyone here really disagree with any of the points being made? Is there anything said here that couldn’t have been said, and said better, in one or two brief, well-structured paragraphs?

    This is the primary problem with this type of straw-man argument. To draw a comparison, imagine a posting like this, that goes on at this length, concerning any other comparable topic; say arguing against an earth-centric model of the solar system. When no one is seriously disagreeing with you belaboring the point, for example by exclaiming “Period” every couple of sentences, doesn’t really strengthen ones point.

    In sum, without trying to be rude about, this seems like less an attempt at a reasoned argument than an Internet rant.

    • johnwloftus
      johnwloftus  December 31, 2019

      Thanks for expressing your opinion!

      I don’t suppose you’ll read the book to understand our arguments better. But you should consider doing so, if for no other reason but to confirm your faith. For reading it is the best possible way to strengthen your faith, bar none. Studies have shown this to be the case. So why not do it? If by a rare chance it does convince you otherwise, then it helped you, even if not the way you expected.

      • Avatar
        nichael  December 31, 2019

        Well, forgive me for asking, but did you happen to read my comment before you responded? If so I’m rather confused by your response.

        In the first case, you repeatedly bring up my “faith”. As I say, this is confusing because my comment makes no mention of anything related to faith, mine or anyone else’s.

        But more to the point, you seem to be suggesting that I have attempted, in any way, to argue against the underlying point of the posting, I.e. the impossibility of (to borrow Dr Ehrman’s description) “supernatural interventions in the natural world”.

        Again this is somewhat baffling because not only is this not what I write, but, as will be clear to anyone who read my comment, it is essentially the opposite of what I write.

        If I may, let me attempt to clarify what I believe might be the underlying confusion:

        An attempt to point out that a particular argument for X has been poorly made is not the same thing arguing that X is wrong.

  5. Avatar
    Hogie2  December 30, 2019

    Bought the book for my iPad after the first post here. So far I’d say it’s excellent, and whenever I read or hear Hume being quoted, I find myself nodding my head in agreement. One criticism, and maybe it’s just the electronic iBook version, is that I’m finding extra words that should have been edited out, sentences and occasionally paragraphs that are repeated, odd things like that.

    One question I have, is why there is such a long chapter on Evolution? I’m guessing it is to refute creationist miracle claims, but the other essays seemed more along the lines of philosophical arguments (I haven’t actually read that chapter yet). BTW, checking Creationist claims against the evidence was instrumental in my exodus from fundamentalism, and the first step on my journey towards atheism.

    • johnwloftus
      johnwloftus  December 31, 2019

      Thanks for your comment. The typos are almost all fixed now.

      We use evidence based arguments as much as possible. Then we argue biblically and philosophically to the same ends, all to educate and convince those who can be helped.

    • Avatar
      Gary  January 1, 2020

      There are still millions of conservative Christians who deny evolution. I personally think the chapter on evolution is excellent and a potent piece of evidence against the Christian’s supernatural worldview.

    • Avatar
      Theintegrator  January 25, 2020

      Have you read his book? The whole thing? If no, you are not in a position to conclude that his entire argument has been poorly made. In addition, lift us is the editor of the book, and thus curator of other arguments. Have you read those?

  6. Avatar
    tmcalhoon  December 30, 2019

    A couple of important points people often don’t consider when discussing miracles:
    1. Since miracles are by all proposed definitions finite occurrences, we cannot infer an infinite/omnipotent power from them. They would only indicate that some sort of supernatural entity or entities with some degree of power exist and intervene in human affairs. It could be lowercase g god(s), ancestor spirits, vague higher power(s), of course God, etc. Throughout the ages men have dreamed up all sorts of supernatural beings to explain strange occurrences in nature.
    2. If the harmony of nature’s laws counts as evidence for the existence of God, then miracles, or the occasional disharmony of nature’s laws, count as evidence against the existence of God. Those who hold both that the harmony of nature’s laws proves God and that the disharmony of nature’s laws proves God are trying to have their cake and eat it. They are forced to abandon at least one of those arguments as evidence for God to remain logically consistent.

    • johnwloftus
      johnwloftus  December 31, 2019

      You will love Dr. Matt McCormick’s philosophical chapter #2. He argues a maximally great supernatural being would not do any miracles. I don’t have the space to explains all the nuances, and I don’t want to leave any out.

  7. Avatar
    doug  December 30, 2019

    One problem with “miracles” is: The argument that “It *must* have been a miracle; how else could it have happened?” only demonstrates ignorance rather than evidence.

  8. Avatar
    rivercrowman  December 30, 2019

    Just got my copy of “The Case Against Miracles.” So far, I’ve enjoyed the Foreword. Thank you!

  9. Avatar
    Bernice Templeman  December 30, 2019

    Recently I was thinking about how hate is blind and love is seeing.
    When you love, you are connected to others who also love. And you know who doesn’t.
    When you are connected, you can communicate. One body, mind, & spirit. You can hear thoughts and feelings.

    A Miracle could be changing beliefs from hate to love. From being mean to being kind.

    We can change our beliefs by changing our stories and what we listen to. Repetition.

    When we are looking for supernatural miracles for God’s presence, we miss the miracles we can do.

    • darrenmslade
      darrenmslade  January 1, 2020

      Hi, Bernice –
      Thank you for your comment. My biggest concern is defining a bona fide “miracle” anyway we want to. This would be a case of moving the goalposts where anything and everything can be construed as a miracle. By this line of reasoning, I could argue that the Holocaust was a “miracle” for white supremacists, or that the rapid rise of atheism in the US is also a “miracle.” I hope you see the problem with this type of thinking. If someone can just make up whatever definition they want, then there is no point in having definitions to begin with and all forms of intellectual inquiry (scientific or not) become pointless. That’s not good.

  10. Avatar
    forthfading  December 30, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    As you know, there have been Christian apologist that have creatively and systematically made a great case for miracles. Practical apologist such as Lee Strobel, Ravi Zacharias, and Nabeel Qureshi and scholarly apologists such as William Lane Craig and Mike Licona have made great cases for miracles . Both the cases for and against miracles are compelling in my eyes. My question for you is there any experiences or events you had as a believer that you felt was a miracle? I know you don’t believe in God so I know there is nothing you would contribute to a supernatural being, but is there anything you experienced that you can’t explain?

    Besides your scholarship, one of the greatest things you contribute to the blog is having had the born-again experience and lived the life of a believer as well as a non-believe.

    Thanks, Happy New Year

  11. Avatar
    godspell  December 30, 2019

    The problem with arguing that this or that event goes against the Laws of Nature is that Nature has published no book of law that I ever heard of. What humans have have published is necessarily incomplete, and open to endless revision.

    How do we know what’s a miracle or not, when we don’t have the rule book? Just a gloss of it. That keeps getting updated. In any event, I don’t believe humans can do miracles, and Jesus was human. If God did a miracle, would we even know?

    Literalism makes me itch. Whether it’s from fundies or atheists. Which is why I’ll never be either.

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 30, 2019

      Regarding Mr. Hume, aspects of whose philosophy I have long admired–shall we be frank? He wasn’t always so objective. He had his little prejudices.

      “‘I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There scarcely ever was a civilised nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or in speculation. No ingenious manufacture among them, no arts, no sciences.”

      Self-evidently, he would not have bothered to say any of this (and much more, some of it about Jews, because obviously) if he thought everyone already agreed with him.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk%3ADavid_Hume%2FArchive_1#David_Hume_was_a_racist

      None of which proves the existence of miracles, and obviously if you could empirically prove a miracle, it wouldn’t be one. It would not, however, have been any kind of miracle for a man of his age to look upon other races and see brothers and sisters, not inferiors. As Montaigne did, centuries earlier. And Jesus, over a millennia before that.

      Those who would take recourse in pure reason should learn how to practice it consistently. If I ever meet anyone who does, I’ll let you know.

    • johnwloftus
      johnwloftus  December 31, 2019

      The first chapter written by Dr. David Corner addresses these issues. Cheers.

  12. John4
    John4  December 30, 2019

    “So, what do you think?”

    Thanks, Bart, for the question.

    I think two things, here:

    1. I don’t myself believe in miracles, but that’s not because of any fancy philosophy. I just never could see any reason to think that, for example, Elisha really did make the ax head float (2 Kings 6). Why should I think that such a tale is true?

    2. I like guest posts and all. Even guest posts like this one that don’t particularly interest me. But what I like *best* about the blog are posts that explain passages of scripture. That’s why I’m here, really.

    Many, many thanks, Bart, for *all* that you do for us! 🙂

  13. Avatar
    Pattylt  December 30, 2019

    My non learned opinion is that if a god has performed miracles as claimed by every religion then this god doesn’t care one whit which manifestation we pick. If a god wants to truly give a miracle then why not actually move a mountain or regrow an amputated limb…something that really can be verified. Even before I chucked religion out the window, I gave up miracle belief. It always was a useless occurrence that happened to a friend of a neighbor of my third cousin…always unverifiable!

    Dr. Loftus, I want to thank you for not only this current book but The Outsiders Test of Faith….the best atheist apologetic I’ve ever read!

  14. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  December 30, 2019

    So, if the various authors are trying to make the case that miracles….events that happen without any natural explanation….should not be believed because they cannot be proven, then you have here a case of people who refuse to accept truth.

    I guess I can prove anything with such scenario-determining abilities given to me. Prove to me that you wrote this blogpost but you are not allowed to provide the very evidence that would make your case. You cannot.

    A miracle is something that cannot have a natural explanation. So how would I convince someone that an event IS an event if the absence of a natural explanation is not an acceptable argument and that is the ONLY proof that can be offered for a miracle to begin with? The lack of a natural cause IS evidence of the miracle.

    • johnwloftus
      johnwloftus  December 31, 2019

      If a miracle defies a natural explanation then when a miracle happens it would defy a natural explanation. For instance, if a woman instantaneously turned into salt then that is a miracle. If two dead people are seen alive and levitating together with a man then that is a miracle.

      Mere testimonials won’t convince reasonable people who were not there to see a miracle. They would need sufficient objective evidence that a miracle took place. For instance, if the salt woman stature has traces of female DNA in it. Or, there exists an untampered video of the levitating men.

      This is what a miracle is, and this is how one should be verified. There is a chapter in my book showing this in detail.

      • Avatar
        Omar6741  January 6, 2020

        Hi John,
        How does one deal with and avoid a specific bias towards secularism in one’s intellectual work? I ask because there is no doubt such a bias exists, and there is no doubt that it debilitates rational thought just as readily as any other bias. The question is this: how do those of us who experience such a bias make sure our conclusions are not affected by a prejudiced reading of the evidence?

        • johnwloftus
          johnwloftus  January 6, 2020

          The bias in deference to sufficient objective evidence is far superior to the bias in deference to what one was raised to believe, or in deference to mere 2nd 3rd 4th handed TESTIMONIAL evidence in the ancient pre-scientific superstitious world, which cannot be cross-examined for truth or consistency. Yes?

    • Avatar
      flcombs  December 31, 2019

      So if I say that years ago I would pray and angels would pick me up and carry me to work, you would accept it as true? What if I also said “500 people saw it” but you don’t have their names or how to find them? Is the burden on you to prove it didn’t happen or me to provide the evidence it did? After all, anyone who believes in God knows he could do such things so it must be true, right?

    • darrenmslade
      darrenmslade  January 1, 2020

      Albert,

      You seem to presuppose the “truth” of miracles at the outset when that is the very thing under consideration. An unquestioning allegiance to a belief system is not reflective of someone who “accepts truth”; it merely reflects indoctrination. I encourage you to read chapter 4 of the book. It is not that the contributors “refuse to accept truth.” Rather, they want miracle claims properly investigated and documented so they can know the truth behind what people are claiming are miracles. Simply telling stories isn’t going to cut it … at least not for anyone who values and pursues truth.

  15. Avatar
    veritas  December 30, 2019

    Hi John and thanks once again for sharing your point of view on this hard subject. I am not going to disrespect your research in any way, because that is credit to your effort. I have two things to question that is mentioned in your blog.
    1) You mention some group of religions who testify of seeing a miracle according to their god. Some of those groups are considered cults and you, whether intentionally or not, have left out two of the biggest, Christianity and Judaism who possibly have the biggest miracle claims. We know plenty of supporters, including high profile scholars, that the Christian claim to the resurrection is true. Judaism is the only one, from my understanding, to claim to have heard by some million or so Jewish people, God speaking directly to Moses at Mt. Sinai. How else could you disprove this except through eyewitness testimonies? I know you have said that your not saying, miracles are impossible, but it awfully sounds like you are saying their not true. 2) Epistemology seems to be your argument, fair enough. The very word as I read its definition, is the *Theory* of knowledge, especially with regard to its method, validity and scope. It is also what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. All we have to validate the methods is eyewitness accounts so historically it cannot be proven/reconstructed on whether they happened. But those beliefs/theories, as define in the very word, have allowed this event to ferment, from some 2000 years ago. Giving a compelling, intellectual reason like Hume’s and others, does not make it factual and only a theory/opinion as defined by the very word epistemology. For the same reasons, believers cannot claim it to be factual. There is no solid evidence, except people saw Jesus, so we are left to believe or not. Lastly, you mention that we should experience a miracle once a month of some sort. I have never experienced one and talking with others I know, have never heard someone exclaim one. Either way a conviction seems difficult. Thanks!

    • johnwloftus
      johnwloftus  December 31, 2019

      If a miracle is defined as a highly improbable event then everyone experiences one every month. Read David Hand’s book.

      For the rest I can tell that you have not read my book yet. You should. For one thing, we have no eyewitnesses. No one was there to see the moment Jesus arose from the tomb. For another thing, all we have is hearsay testimony from the anonymous author of Mark. He was not there to see all that he reports so we don’t know if he reports it accurately, because we cannot cross-examine him. We don’t even know who he is. The other gospels plagiarize and add to his story, so their accounts are even further removed as hearsay evidence, and inadmissible into court. The other potential eyewitness is Paul. See my resurrection chapter on him. Cheers.

      • Avatar
        Gary  December 31, 2019

        Eyewitness evidence may be sufficient for car accidents and murder trials, but it is not sufficient for Loch Ness monster sightings, alien abductions, or dead body reanimations. Extraordinary claims require a higher standard of evidence—except, for some odd reason, when the claim involves YOUR religion.

      • Avatar
        godspell  January 2, 2020

        So you’re saying you’d believe Jesus rose from the dead if there were eyewitness accounts? Clearly some of Jesus’ followers did believe they had seen him risen, as Bart has made clear–people can often think they see things that didn’t happen. So this seems like a weak ancillary argument.

        The inconsistencies you refer to in the gospels are common to most of ancient history (pagan, as well as Christian)–the study of which I suspect you are no more qualified than I to comment upon. If we only used fully objective verified eyewitness accounts to learn about our past, we’d know almost nothing about our past.

        Do you believe in the story of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae? For obvious reasons, eyewitnesses to that event were hard to come by, and the Persians left no accounts of it (maybe the Greeks made it up to sound tough). We can’t even prove King Leonidas ever existed.

        The trial of Socrates has no eyewitnesses–Plato and Xenophon were both a long way off when that happened, and for good reason. Thucydides makes no mention of it. Do you question that event?

        Skepticism is vital to historical study, but selective kneejerk skepticism, based on partisan feelings, tends not to be very fruitful.

        For the record, I don’t believe Jesus literally rose from the dead. And I don’t think Socrates was calmly discussing philosophy while hemlock was eating at his guts.

        • johnwloftus
          johnwloftus  January 2, 2020

          If I thought there were eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus then I would believe, yes. Think about what I just said. Howver, there were no eyewitnesses, and it begins at the so-called tomb.

          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.

          I wrote a whole chapter on the poor evidence of historical evidence in my magnum opus, “Why I Became an Atheist.” There are a few philosophers of history who say we cannot know anything in the past. How much worse for tales like the resurrection.

          Cheers

    • darrenmslade
      darrenmslade  January 1, 2020

      I highly encourage you to read the book, especially chapter 4 about properly investigating miracle claims.

  16. Avatar
    Stephen  December 30, 2019

    The problem it seems to me is that you could never be sure whether you had witnessed a miracle or simply a phenomenon which we haven’t been able to explain yet. Take even the biggie – raising someone from the dead. Could we ever establish that even this would be beyond the power of a super advanced civilization using some unimaginable technology simply because we don’t know how to do it?

    Remember Arthur C Clarke’s “law”, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    If you could take an Apache attack helicopter back in time and fly it over Agincourt it’s possible that someone would have thought, “Hey that’s some piece of advanced technology we don’t understand”, but most folks would have thought it was a demon.

    The concept of a “miracle” is simply incoherent because it can never be defined in any meaningful way. You can’t even use the old stand-by of “knowing it when you see it”!

    • johnwloftus
      johnwloftus  December 31, 2019

      Yes, the concept of miracle is tricky I admit. It wasn’t something we focused on since philosophical issues like that one sidetracks us away from the claims by believers to have experienced one. That discussion would go like this:

      C: I saw a miracle!
      A: Miracles can’t happen because they’re undefinable.
      C: But I saw one!
      A: If you saw one then define it.
      C: I know what I know what I know.
      A: ?

  17. Avatar
    jriley1509  December 30, 2019

    I don’t know if this is where I should post this, but I haven’t seen any other place to do so on the site. I have recently heard and read a lot of speculation that Jesus, while not completely mythical (a la Carrier), was more likely a composite character. I am not aware of your take on this hypothesis.

    • johnwloftus
      johnwloftus  January 1, 2020

      A composite figure isn’t a real person so the Jesus in the gospels never existed.

      http://www.debunking-christianity.com/2010/08/jesus-in-gospels-never-existed.html?m=1

      • Avatar
        jriley1509  January 1, 2020

        Sorry, John, i meant this question for Bart, but put it in the wrong place. Anyway, re: your answer, true, the Jesus of the gospels probably never existed and of course no one person can be a composite character, but several people, over time, can be combined into one figure like Robin Hood for example. The hypothesis to which I refer is that the historical Jesus was such a figure.

  18. Avatar
    anthonygale  December 31, 2019

    When you (or those you are quoting) write “cannot be shown ever to have happened, and so should not be believed” do you mean

    1. Extraordinary claims require ample evidence, which doesn’t exist, so the claims shouldn’t be believed without that evidence

    2. In general, you shouldn’t believe anything unless it can be proven

    Or perhaps you are saying neither.

    I ask because I agree with 1 but think number 2 is taking it too far. Lots of things are unproven. Systematic studies can still lead to the wrong conclusions. Everything that was eventually proven was true before it was proven (assuming they were correctly proven). And why does one have to “know” something to be “justified” in “believing” it?

    I think the concept of the supernatural can also be difficult. I don’t believe in ghosts, but “if” ghosts existed, they wouldn’t be beyond nature. They would be something about nature that we don’t understand. Cavemen would think we are gods with what we can do. What might a creator, if one existed, be able to do that we would perceive as a miracle? I’m not saying they happen. I whole heartedly agree one cannot show by evidence or argumentation that they likely happen. As you’ve said, by definition they are unlikely to happen. I’m sympathetic to believers though. And I think the standard for knowing and believing are different.

    • darrenmslade
      darrenmslade  January 1, 2020

      Perhaps Chapter 4, “Properly Investigating Miracle Claims,” can help answer some of your questions here.

    • Avatar
      Dnations  January 1, 2020

      I think anthonygale asked a simple question about what was meant by the words he quoted. I think someone owes him a legitimate reply.

      • johnwloftus
        johnwloftus  January 1, 2020

        Neither. All claims about the objective world must have corroborating evidence depending on the type of claim. That’s the over-arching principle.

        There are ordinary claims, varying degrees of extraordinary claims about rare events within the natural world order, then there are extraordinary miraculous claims of the highest level. The bigger the claim is the more that the objective evidence should be strong and/or numerous.

        Dr. David Corner, who died in October, explains in detail what you’re looking for. Rather than quote him you should read what he wrote, as he’s the expert on this but is unavailable for comment.

        • Avatar
          Dnations  January 2, 2020

          Thanks for the reply to anthonygale’s question. I fail to see how your answer differs significantly from #2 posed by anthonygale; “In general, you shouldn’t believe anything that hasn’t been proven.” I think it’s clear that you and the contributors to the book don’t think that any reported miracles have been proven. On that, I agree.

  19. Robert
    Robert  December 31, 2019

    Perhaps the biggest difficulty with both the theology of miracles as well as anti-apologetic against miracles is that both rely in an untenable distinction between competitive and mutually exclusive realms of nature and the supernatural. Good theologians have long that God and therefore also ‘the supernatural’ cannot be defined and perhaps only the most literal of deists would think that God can be divorced from the natural world.

    • johnwloftus
      johnwloftus  December 31, 2019

      An anti-apologetic is needed due to the almost ubiquitous persistence of an apologetic of miracles.

      While a supernatural being can evade our detection, if it acts in the world and demands belief unto salvation, there should be sufficient objective evidence for his actions. Otherwise, such a being created us as reasonable people yet condemns us for being reasonable people.

      • Robert
        Robert  December 31, 2019

        The problem (for both sides) comes in trying to define a supernatural being. If it can be defined, it is not God, at least according to non-fundamentalist theologians. There is no issue of condemnation in this question.

    • darrenmslade
      darrenmslade  January 1, 2020

      Robert,

      I don’t personally know of any serious theologian or religious philosopher who claims that God, the supernatural, or miracles cannot be “defined” in any sense that precludes intellectual inquiry. To simply assert that the natural and supernatural are one and the same is just that: an assertion. It has no empirical basis, and certainly some of the greatest theologians of our time disagree with this assertion.

      • Robert
        Robert  January 1, 2020

        I certainly would not say that anyone or anything should ever preclude intellectual inquiry! Nor have I said that the natural and the supernatural are one and the same, ‘though I do think Spinoza’s philosophy is definitely worthy of consideration: Deus sive natura. It seems to me that all good theology ultimately ends in a singularity akin to that of Johannes Scotus Eriugena or Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and even as classical a theist as Thomas Aquinas had to agree that God could not be defined. For me, that’s probably the best intellectual inquiry can do in matters pertaining to the so-called supernatural. And it’s pointless arguing with fundamentalists.

  20. Avatar
    Zak1010  December 31, 2019

    John,

    If there are scientific and historical facts proving that certain knowledge mentioned ( say 1000 years ago ) was not available and unknown at that time which has been discovered recently and proven today with contemporary science, could that be defined or considered a miracle?
    In other words,
    If it were impossible without a doubt to be precise in mentioning something in minute detail about something scientifically proven today with modern technology that otherwise could not have been known nor proven 1000 or more years ago. Would that be considered a miracle?
    [ It certainly appears to fall outside the ‘ laws of nature ‘ of that time ( 1000 or more years ago ).]

    • johnwloftus
      johnwloftus  December 31, 2019

      I only want to deal with concrete examples, real cases of actual miracle claims. Hypotheticals are for philosophers who like to discuss issues for the sake of discussion.

      • Avatar
        Gary  January 1, 2020

        Ask a Christian for evidence of his religion’s supernatural claims and he will inevitably end up in the deep weeds of metaphysical philosophy. Ask a Christian about the evidence for the supernatural claims of any other religion, and he will immediately hand wave them away as superstitious nonsense without a second’s thought.

        Metaphysical philosophy is the last defense of superstitious thinking.

    • darrenmslade
      darrenmslade  January 1, 2020

      I encourage you to read Chapter 4 of the book, “Properly Investigating Miracle Claims.” I think it will answer some of your questions here.

      • Avatar
        Dnations  January 1, 2020

        darrenmslade; I know you’re a contributor to the book under discussion (good on you) but your continued replies of basically “read the book” are coming across (to me at least) as self-promotion and are growing tiresome.

        • johnwloftus
          johnwloftus  January 1, 2020

          One cannot spend that much time with multiple people who all have different questions to be answered, when the book answers them all to some degree. That’s why books are written in the first place so an author doesn’t have to deal individually in a piecemeal fashion with hundreds of people. At some point if you’re not interested in reading a book length series of arguments, then the discussion is over.

          • Avatar
            Dnations  January 2, 2020

            Yep, I certainly understand that, and I happen to think it’s a poor response to darrenmslade’s not even attempting a response to many posts other than basically “read the book”. Just my opinion.

          • johnwloftus
            johnwloftus  January 3, 2020

            Bart will post a summary of Darren’s chapter soon. Stay tuned.

    • Avatar
      Zak1010  January 2, 2020

      John,

      Yes, I understand. I wouldn’t use hypothetical scenarios in such a serious matter. Here is a link from the International Journal of Health Sciences on Human Embryology:

      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3068791/

      Thanks

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