Monday, 16 November 2009

do miracles occur? - theory

Some people believe in miracles, some believe they never happen.

Sceptics tend to quote philosopher David Hume, who argued that if someone tells us about an apparent miracle (an event that is contrary to the known laws of nature), it is always more likely that the person's testimony is doubtful than that the miracle actually happened. Thus, he argued, we can never be justified in believing the miracle occurred.

Sceptics often take this to mean that Hume showed that miracles cannot occur, but this isn't correct. If we regard Hume's argument as valid, it doesn't show that miracles cannot or do not occur, only that we cannot ever have sufficient reasons to believe they have - which is very different.

Hume's argument is assumed by some to have ended the matter, but philosophers are now much less inclined to think Hume got it right. Books such as John Earman's "Hume's Abject Failure" and "Hume, holism, and miracles" by David Johnson argue that Hume got it wrong, perhaps very badly wrong. Other philosophers argue that Hume's argument can be re-worked into a form that is still valid. But perhaps the general view, for example, as expressed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is that miracles are now an open question.

What is the basis for the arguments against Hume?

Richard Swinburne argues that we have many more means to test miracles these days than the simple personal testimony of a few alleged eyewitnesses as Hume seemed to assume. Thus it may not be likely that the evidence is unable to overcome the improbability of a miracle, especially if one is open-minded about the possibility of God existing.

Victor Reppert and Earman both use probability theory to show that Hume's claims are wrong. For example, if there are enough eye-witnesses to a supposed miracle, the probability of them all being mistaken can be shown mathematically to diminish to almost zero. (Reppert also points out that if Hume's argument is correct, we could never believe a newspaper report about a lottery winner because the probability of winning the lottery will always be less than the probability that the newspaper got it wrong!)

A related issue is whether science has proven miracles impossible, as some sceptics say. But the philosophers tell us that science has done no such thing. Science shows us what happens in the natural course of events, and cannot tell us whether God might interfere.

But even though the philosophers, in general, seem to maintain an open mind on the possibility of miracles, scientists and sceptics seem unwilling to admit even the possibility. For example, Carter Bancroft, Professor of Physiology and Biophysics, writes: "A central tenet of science (particularly of the physical sciences) holds that, at least since the Big Bang, a fundamental set of laws has governed the entire universe—no exceptions permitted." In other words, the laws of nature don't simply describe what normally happens, they describe what must happen, with no allowance for freely willed actions, by people or by God.

But then again, as Miracle Max said in "The Princess Bride": "Look who knows so much!"

Next post, do miracles occur? - practice.

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