2 Common Mistakes When Arguing for Miracles

Miracles4A healthy dose of skepticism is to be expected when discussing any miracle claim, let alone the claim that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. I understand that. Indeed, miracle claims should not be made frivolously or without paying careful attention to the role that evidence plays in confirming or disconfirming hypotheses. Unfortunately, this is exactly where apologists can succumb to mistakes in their arguments. Here are two of the most common:

1. Ignoring Background Information

Suppose I tell you that 90% of the students at the University of Toronto swim and that one such student is named Fred. This statistic, considered on its own, makes it 90% likely that Fred swims. But is that all there is to say about his swimming potential? Surely not. Suppose you discover that in addition attending the university in Toronto, Fred has been a paraplegic for most of his life. Well, this fact significantly reduces the probability that Fred swims, even though 90% of all students swim. Fred’s paraplegia forms part of the background information that must be considered when estimating the probability that he swims. It is not enough that we consider the evidence from statistic data alone.

And the same is true of miracle claims. In addition to the evidence that is marshaled in support of a miracle, there is a lot of background information that needs to be considered first. Take the claim that “God raised Jesus from the dead.” It is futile to marshal evidence for the resurrection of Jesus if you already have little reason to think there could be a God who might have reason to raise someone like Jesus. If such a God probably does not exist, or has little reason to raise such a person, then the argument for the resurrection fails before any of the historical evidence for this miracle is even considered. No amount of historical evidence from (a) the empty tomb, (b) the post-mortem appearances, and (c) the disciples’ early belief that a resurrection had occurred will be sufficient to overcome the prior improbability of that event. This means that a lot of “stage setting” needs to happen to ensure that the background information is friendly to the hypothesis of a resurrection. My hunch is that this “stage setting” will include a fair amount of natural theology.

2. Pitting Laws of Nature Against Miracles

It is very common among followers of David Hume to define miracles as violations of the laws of nature. Unfortunately, when apologists buy into this definition, their arguments for miracles fail before they even get started. Why? Because all the evidence for the regularities of nature gets stacked up against the evidence for miracles! In my view, this is an insurmountable burden for the apologist to bear.

But should we accept Hume’s definition? I think not. It really depends on how you define “laws of nature”. As I define them, laws describe how nature works (or must work) when left to its own devices. The evidence that science collects for laws is therefore evidence of how nature operates as a closed system. However, miracles – by definition – are events that occur when nature is not being left to its own devices, since God is claimed to be acting in nature in a special way. This means that the evidence for how nature works on its own does not count as evidence against how nature works when God is acting in it.

Perhaps an illustration will make this point a bit clearer. Suppose that a plumber has shut off the water supply into your house. You turn on the kitchen faucet and no water comes out. You are puzzled. Then you remember that you hired a plumber to fix the pipes that day. Now, here comes the critical question: does the fact that water comes out when the plumber isn’t messing with the pipes count as evidence against the claim that water won’t come out when the plumber has shut the pipes off? Clearly not. Otherwise, in the latter situation, you’d be stuck believing that water is flowing from the faucet even though you can’t see it! Likewise, evidence of how corpses naturally behave is not evidence against how they behave when acted upon by a supernatural agent. The claim that God raised Jesus from the dead is a claim that he rose supernaturally, not naturally.

 

One thought on “2 Common Mistakes When Arguing for Miracles”

  1. One thing I like to think about with regards to miracles is the miraculous *in* nature itself! The fact that nature behaves the way it does is itself a miracle set in motion by a supernatural being able to stop, slow down, or change the ongoing miracle of existence in order to accomplish His will.

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