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Reasonable Faith 6: The Problem of Miracles


Here Craig contends with Spinoza and Hume on miracles. I think he does a good job in general of showing that in principle, miracles are possible, and that in principle, they can be established by history. Given enough evidence that something occurs, there is a reasonable threshold. Whether the evidence is actually good enough is still up for debate.

What I still have unanswered is how we can tell God as the source of miracles apart from some other source. Craig says that the doctrines leading up to the miracles are the way, but there’s no reason some other agent couldn’t hijack the doctrines to make itself more believable. This is the same argument Tim gave me, and I remain unconvinced.

Also, I find it interesting that Craig thinks that, given God, the resurrection may be likely. I think that it would be hard to call likely the resurrection of Jesus by God, given the rarity, but Craig’s response is that given the right background knowledge (God’s intentions) there are possible scenarios where a lack of resurrection beforehand still allows a high likelihood of resurrection this time around. I don’t really know how to evaluate that right now.

It would seem to me that, given the traditional characteristics of God, any action whatsoever would be highly improbable. God, in principle, has no reason to act at all. This would render all explanations of the world based on God’s will useless. Now that’s an argument worth having.

Kindle Notes:

Spinoza also develops two sub-points under this objection. First, a miracle could not in any case prove God’s existence, since a lesser being such as an angel or demon could be the cause of the event. Second, a so-called miracle is simply a work of nature not yet discovered by man. Our knowledge of nature’s laws is limited, and just because we cannot explain the cause of a particular event does not imply that it is a miracle having God as its supernatural cause (4373).

Hume gives four reasons why in fact the evidence for miracles is negligible: First, no miracle in history is attested by a sufficient number of educated and honest men, who are of such social standing that they would have a great deal to lose by lying. Second, people crave the miraculous and will believe the most absurd stories, as the abundance of false tales of miracles proves. Third, miracles occur only among barbarous peoples. And fourth, miracles occur in all religions and thereby cancel each other out, since they support contradictory doctrines (4402).

But, according to Clarke, the key to distinguishing between demonic miracles and divine miracles (whether done directly or indirectly by God) is the doctrinal context in which the miracle occurs. If the miracle is done in support of a doctrine that is contrary to moral law, then we may be sure that it is not a divine miracle. Thus, in order for an event to be a divine miracle, the doctrinal context of the event must be at least morally neutral (4431)

Against the objection that miracles may be the result of an as yet undiscovered law of nature, Vernet replies that when the miracles are diverse and numerous, this possibility is minimized because it is hardly possible that all these unknown, marvelous operations of nature should occur at the same time. One might be able to explain away a single, isolated miracle on this basis, but not a series of miracles of different sorts (4448).

Note: It may demand an agent to explain, but not necessarily a supernatural one.

As for Hume’s “in fact” arguments, these are easily dismissed. First, it has already been shown that the witnesses to the Gospel miracles were abundant and qualified. Second, the fact that people tend to believe miracle stories without proper scrutiny only shows that our scrutiny of such stories ought to be cautious and careful. Third, Jesus’ miracles did not occur among a barbarous people, but in Jerusalem. Fourth, Hume’s allegation that all religions have their miracles is not in fact true, for no religion other than Christianity claims to be able to prove its teachings through miracles (4502).

Note: Is the last claim actually true? Sounds unlikely.

According to Paley, the real problem with Hume’s skepticism becomes clear when we apply it to a test case: suppose twelve men, whom I know to be honest and reasonable people, were to assert that they saw personally a miraculous event in which it was impossible for them to have been tricked; furthermore, the governor called them before him for an inquiry and sentenced them all to death unless they were to admit the hoax; and they all went to their deaths rather than say they were lying. According to Hume, we should still not believe such men. But such incredulity, says Paley, would not be defended by any skeptic in the world. (4526).

Note: Magicians, mentalists, psychics may convince many people at once. This does not mean its true.

The Christian thinkers sometimes granted freely that one could not know whether God or a lesser being was at work in the miracle; but here they urged that it was the religious, doctrinal context that allowed one to determine if the miracle was divine (Clarke, Less) (4545).

Note: If I wanted to convince others of my power, I’d act in accordance with doctrine. Moreover, Jesus the miracle worker helped create doctrine.

Spinoza’s second objection was that miracles are insufficient to prove God’s existence. As it is stated, the objection was simply irrelevant for most of the Christian apologists, for virtually all of them used miracles not as a proof for the existence of God, but as a proof for his action in the world. Hence, Spinoza was really attacking a straw man (4679).

Note: I thought Craig said that only Christians used miracles to prove God.

if Jesus actually did rise from the dead, would we then be justified in inferring a supernatural cause for that event (4736)?

Note: Advanced technology could raise the dead.

For example, if on the morning news you hear reported that the pick in last night’s lottery was 7492871, this is a report of an extraordinarily improbable event, one out of several million (4785).

Note: Improbable in particular, not in general. People win lotteries all the time.

What is crucial is that the evidence be far more probable given that the event did occur than given that it did not. The bottom line is that it doesn’t always take a huge amount of evidence to establish a miracle (4844).

Note: I’ll have to think about this one.

We certainly cannot take Pr(R|G&B) to be terribly low simply because of the infrequency of resurrections, for it may be precisely because of the resurrection’s uniqueness that it is highly probable that God would choose so spectacular an event as a means of vindicating Jesus (4894).

Note: Here’s Craig’s counter argument to me. The rarity of supernatural resurrection is not evidence for it’s improbability.

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