Thursday, April 12, 2012

Is God Just a Human Invention - Chapter 3 Are Miracles Possible?

As mentioned previously, I am following a book club type format for this book over on another blog. I was going to just participate over there but I have a lot more to say than I want to shove into their comments, so I figured I'd do a normal long form post over here and then just talk about 1 or 2 main points over there. I'm sticking to my normal format of bold for section heading, regular text for summary, and italics for my commentary.


Dawkins says that miracles are impossible, that just shows how invested he is in his naturalistic worldview. He should be open to the possibility that there are miracles. There is an anecdote about Johann Ludwig Krapf who say show on mountaintops in 1849, when he reported this he was not believed by the scientific community of the time who thought such a thing was impossible. Those scientists should have been open to an unexpected idea and in the same way so should Dawkins. By simply ruling out the possiblities of miracles before examining the facts he is making a huge mistake. Furthermore, Christianity would crumble if miracles were impossible.

I have a few comments here, but largely I agree with the sentiment expressed. To simply state that certain things are impossible and refuse to consider evidence is a bad thing. The story of Krapf given in the book is a good example of that and the Dawkins portrayed in the section is also an example of it. My impression of Dawkins is not that he has simply dismissed miracles out of hand, but rather that he has looked at plenty of miracle claims and found them lacking and now doesn't think they are worth his time. He is not saying they are 100% for sure not true, just that it sounds similar to other miracle claims that he has examined that have failed to stand up to scrutiny. (Again, this is my impression of Dawkins after reading a fairly small amount of his writing)

But you might ask, what about the fact that Dawkins has clearly stated that he doesn't believe miracles are possible? I honestly wonder if that is at least partly a communication/terminology problem. I would ask what is really meant when you call something a miracle? Do you mean something that is impossible but it happened anyway? Is it something that has a supernatural origin? What does supernatural really mean? These are words that we have an intuitive sense of what they mean, but nailing down a definition can be difficult. I've written about this a little bit before.

Are Miracles Improbably?

In the God delusion Dawkins defines miracles as "events that are extremely improbably".

Perhaps what I just wrote is not quite right, Dawkins did talk about definitions. Now I'm going to have to go back and read his book again when I have time.

This definition is difficult because improbable depends on what the background is. If a student goes to a school where 10% of the students surf it is improbable that he surfs but if he goes to a different school in Hawaii for example, it is much more likely that he surfs.

Point taken I suppose, but using examples where 10% is your boundary for improbable really doesn't compare to what Dawkins means. (I can say that with confidence without going back to his book)

If we assume God exists then it isn't improbable that miracles occur, if we assume naturalism then miracles are impossible. It depends on where you start.

Why don't you start with an open mind? Starting by assuming you are correct is garbage. Assuming God doesn't exist is just as bad of a starting point as assuming he does exist, and the people you are talking about don't do that.

Didn't Hume Disprove the Case for Miracles?

Hume says that miracles are not possible and we should just discount them. They are not repeatable, they don't happen. His argument in circular, it only makes sense to say miracles are impossible if you start by assuming that miracles are impossible.

If that is a fair summary of Hume I would agree, however, I honestly don't trust this author. I am putting that book on my reading list, it sounds interesting, I might even do some posts about it later.

Hume's "In Fact" Objection

Hume gives 4 facts that he says discount the rational belief in miracles.

1. No historical miracle has been sufficiently attested by honest and reliable men. But the gospel writers were both intelligent and capable so this criticism falls flat.

My understanding is there is little to no extra-biblical evidence for those miracles.

2. People crave miraculous stories and will tend to be gullible. The author agrees with this and urges caution

3. Miracles only occur among barbarous people. The Jews were highly educated and sophisticated.

4. Miracles occur in all religions and cancel each other out in terms of likelihood. But Christianity is unique in it's claims being supported.

Obviously he would claim that, I'm curious to see his evidence.

Miracle Case Study: The Resurrection of Jesus Christ

While naturalism challenges the resurrection, so does the resurrection challenge naturalism. Hitchens says that we can just write off the resurrection claim without looking at the evidence but this is a mistake as many have found the claims credible. There are 5 facts in "The case for the Resurrection of Jesus" which are "well evidenced and granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, regardless of his or her theological persuasion."

I'm not going to go into the details here as I am not a historian and don't really have much to add on specifics. I will say this though, I don't find it credible when it is claimed that everyone or almost everyone agrees with me in the way the author stated. Further, they offered 4 people as examples and only 1 was a historian. Why would I care what Anne Rice thinks about this? Why would these be the 4 examples you give? It suggests to me your argument is weak.


  1. I will keep mentioning up front that I haven't read this book, but feel like I need to comment.

    IntroI don't really know the story, but the way science works, is if you make a claim, you have to be able to back it up. I don't know if the scientific community said something like “it is impossible.” Science is always open to new ideas. Given you can establish proof through falsifiable experiments that can be repeated by other people. He also wasn't claiming anything divine, so I think its kind of a bad example when making the analogy. Claiming you saw something physical and verifiable is a lot different than a miracle. From my understanding, that is the stance Dawkins takes, as you stated. He does not rule out miracles, but there just haven't ever been any to my knowledge to stand up to scrutiny when opened to inquiry. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

    Are Miracles Improbable? I agree with what you said about arguing from a 10% probability. Science tries to take as large of a sample set as possible when coming up with data. If you have a scientific paper in which you studied five people for example, it probably won't be taken seriously. It's too small to determine anything. A bigger sample set allows one to draw more conclusions. For example, let's say we set up an experiment where we have 80 blue marbles in a jar and 20 red ones. We randomly select a marble, and do this for say, ten times and put them back. If we did this, by chance, we might pull say 3 blue and 7 red. Based on this sample set, we would assume that there are 30 blue marbles and 70 red. Now, if we chose fifty marbles and got 35 blue and 15 red, we could draw a closer conclusion that there is probably a 70/30 mix. While this wouldn't be perfect, the more we draw, better conclusions will come about with bigger data sets. We could change or tweak our theory about how many marbles are in there as more data came in. This is how science works.

    You really made a good point here about starting with an open mind. You really shouldn't just assume you are right about anything. What I mean by anything, is that you should be open to changing your mind based on evidence rather than feeling Not lack thereof. Your post about anargument from ignorance is a good example of this.

    Didn't Hume Disprove the Case for Miracles?/Hume's "In Fact" Objection I don't really know Hulme , but here is a wiki summary of the argument. I'm not really sure how I feel about his argument. He does make a good point about the reliability of wittnesses. Many people swear that they have been abducted by UFO's, but we generally rule that out, since there is no evidence besides hearsay. I noticed one criticism at the bottom talks about discounting his definition of miracle. I think in order to have a discussion, you have to clear up the definitions. “Some writers, such as R.F. Holland, have argued that Hume's definition of "miracle" need not be accepted, and that an event needn't violate a natural law in order to be accounted miraculous. “

  2. The four facts:
    1. Just adding onto what you are saying, we really don't have outside evidence for what happened in the bible. Even the story of the Jews being slaves to the Egyptians is finally being let go now, as what it is, a myth. When we read I'm sure many honest and intelligent men have written many different holy books. You have to differentiate why the bible is different from other holy books like the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, or other books. Just because something says that it's true, does not make it true. For the Bible, you have to establish why its infallible before declaring something like that. When we were reading John 8 for example, the first story is not found in the early manuscripts. The earliest copies we have are copies of copies of copies etc. We have no originals.
    2. People swear by things like crystals and astrology. They can be gullible. Believing something without evidence or accepting something on authority is a terrible thing to do.
    3. I don't like this use of the term “barbarous people.” I often hear this from ignorant people. I would claim that the Jews and early Christians were barbarians, regardless of “education.” One only needs to read books like the commandments in Leviticus or many other stories throughout the bible of God doing awful things. They were perfectly okay with things like slavery and stoning to death of women.
    4. He makes a really bold claim without backing it up. Or maybe he will. I'm tying this as I go.

    Miracle Case Study: The Resurrection of Jesus Christ I can't really add much here since I do not really know the content of the book. Based on what you said, that's pretty weak. Four people and only one a historian. I really think he's being very dishonest when saying that there is more or less a consensus across the board. If that was the case, I'm sure things would be a lot different. You also have to look at someone's motives, if any when assessing any claim. I call bullshit when it comes to this “across the board consensus.” Especially when he has to pull from an author about vampire novels. Actually, you can see an interview with Anne Rice and Stephen Colbert where she talks about how she turned Catholic for a while, and then changed her mind. So, this is really a moot person to use. Many scholars believe that Jesus existed as a person, for example, but that does not mean they take everything in the bible as being literally true. There is just no outside evidence for Christ's resurrection or his divinity.

  3. I'd like to add a little something with the small sample size. There are times when studies are done with a smaller sample size than would be ideal. Often this is due to funding concerns. Sometimes these studies even get published. Good scientists in these situations will it is a preliminary result, it will say that a larger study should be done to verify, and stuff like that. Sometimes science is messy, but as long as all of the limitations of the experiments are pointed out it's still worth sharing.

  4. Thanks for clarifying that. I do agree with you. But like you said, they are still cautious about making sure its clear that it's a preliminary result and that it might be worth doing a bigger study. :)


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