Skeptical Approaches to Miracle Claims

I can think of at least four different skeptical approaches to miracle claims. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. There is no need to settle on just one approach. The best option is, no doubt, to make use of all of these approaches.

The Big Guns – AtheismThe first approach is to argue that there is no God, and thus no such thing as a miracle. One advantage of this approach is that it not only eliminates the specific miracle claim in question, it eliminates all alleged miracles, past, present, and future, in one fell swoop. Furthermore, it eliminates a number of other things that naturalists object to: creationism, divine revelation, sin (disobedience to God), divine salvation from sin and death. Disprove the existence of God, and you will have shown that the most basic assumption of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is false.

One major disadvantage of this approach is that it is difficult to disprove the existence of God, and even if someone does manage to clearly and decisively disprove the existence of God, it will still be very difficult to persuade religious believers, even intellectually inclined religious believers, that the existence of God has been disproved. Religious people usually have a strong psychological resistance to skepticism about he existence of God.

Another disadvantage of this approach is that eliminating God, does not eliminate the possibility of other sources of supernatural events. New Age belief in magic, reincarnation, supernatural healing, psychic powers, etc. can survive even the death of God. Eliminating God eliminates all miracles only if one defines “miracles” as acts of God. But what about acts of angels and spirits, or acts of a witch or shaman with supernatural powers? God is just one of many supernatural persons that can allegedly override the laws of nature.

The Nuclear Option – Naturalism
So, one might instead opt for arguing that there is no such thing as the supernatural, and thus no such thing as either God or miracles or angels or psychic powers or souls. This approach not only eliminates all of the religious beliefs associated with the activity of God (creation, miracles, revelation, salvation), it eliminates a number of other religious and New Age beliefs as well (angels, souls, afterlife, etc.). Making a case for Naturalism is a take-no-prisoners approach to miracle claims. If you are successful, there is nothing left standing on the side of religious belief.

But the great advantage of this approach has a flip-side: there is an even greater psychological resistance to naturalism than to atheism. It is hard enough to try to take God away from a believer, but to take angels, supernatural healing, souls, and the afterlife away at the same time is to completely demolish the world (i.e. the worldview) of the religious believer. That will be a very tough sale to make.

The approaches of making a case for atheism or for naturalism share a logical or dialogical feature. Alleged miracles are sure to be put forward as a counterargument to atheism or naturalism: OK, Mr. Smarty pants, you have a great philosophical argument for atheism [or naturalism], but how do you explain the occurrence of apparent miracles, like the resurrection of Jesus?
It is fair for abstract philosophical arguments to be confronted with and criticized in terms of factual and historical data, so I don’t think such counterarguments can be just brushed aside. The particular argument that one uses to support atheism or naturalism may shed light on how to approach specific miracle claims, but it might not be possible to avoid the more specific evidentiary and epistemological issues associated with evaluation of miracle claims by making a high-level argument for atheism or naturalism.

Sniper Fire – Scientific SkepticismThe response of scientific skepticism to miracles is to get into the nuts-and-bolts of the specific miracle claim, to look very hard at the available evidence, to look for and examine relevant physical evidence, to look for counterevidence, to look for inconsistencies, to cross examine alleged eyewitnesses, to look for ulterior motivations, or psychological biases in the eyewitnesses, to look for alternative explanations of the testimony or phenomenon in question. In short, scientific skeptics pick off miracle claims one at a time.

One disadvantage of this approach is that it can be very time consuming. It takes time, energy, and money to carefully investigate a specific miracle claim. The people involved in the claim may be liars or con artists who will expend a great deal of effort to deceive or to hide the truth from an investigator. And even people who are honest but self-deceived about an alleged miracle, are often going to be less than fully cooperative and forthcoming with a skeptical investigator.

The people who make miracle claims are not trained in preserving evidence, like police detectives, and they don’t usually care enough about objective proof to make a serious effort to carefully preserve physical or even testimonial evidence for a miracle. So, skeptical investigation of a specific miracle claim can not only be time consuming and expensive, it also might well fail to produce a definitive conclusion.

Another disadvantage is that there is an endless supply of miracle claims, so the scientific skepticism approach can never completely resolve the question of whether miracles occur. Even if every miracle claim to date was completely discredited, there is always tomorrow for a new miracle claim to be made. If the scientific investigation of miracle claims were a paid career, it would be a career with unparalleled job security.

One big advantage of the scientific skepticism approach is that is fairly non-threatening to the psyche of a religious believer, in comparison with making a case for atheism or naturalism. Many religious believers have doubts about modern miracle claims, and a significant number of believers have doubts about historical miracle claims. A number of Christians even doubt the traditional belief that Jesus rose physically from the dead.

Furthermore, scientific skepticism about specific miracle claims does not involve denying the existence of God, or even denying the occurrence of miracles in general. The question at issue is usually, “Is there good solid evidence for this specific miracle claim?” So, no one’s religion or worldview hangs in the balance (unless the specific miracle happens to be the resurrection of Jesus or the writing of the Koran). Scientific skepticism can take little bites out of the belief system of a religious believer, but it does not attack the basic assumptions of a religious worldview.

One further advantage of the scientific skepticism approach is that it can, at times, be very powerful and persuasive. Scientific skepticism deals primarily in cold-hard facts. So, when there is a scientific skeptical refutation of a specific miracle claim, the refutation can be rationally and psychologically compelling. James Randi’s exposure of the faith-healer Peter Popoff on national television is a case in point (The Faith Healers , Prometheus Books, 1987, Chapter 9).

Popoff was faking “the Gift of Knowledge,” making people believe that he knew the names and addresses of complete strangers by means of direct communications from God. It turns out that Popoff’s wife was communicating the information via a radio transmitter and Popoff was picking up the signal by a small radio receiver in his ear (that looked like a hearing aid). Randi and some fellow skeptics managed to record some of the radio transmissions to Popoff. Randi then went on Carson’s “Tonight Show” and played some of the audio in conjunction with video of the same event that was from a TV broadcast produced by Peter Popoff. That kind of refutation is rationally compelling and darn near undeniable. Although Popoff initial denied everything, after three days he was forced to admit that he was indeed receiving information via a radio transmission from his wife.

Tank Attack – Epistemological Objections to Miracles

To be continued…

About Bradley Bowen
  • CyberKitten

    “One major disadvantage of this approach is that it is difficult to disprove the existence of God..”

    I wasn’t aware that atheists needed to disprove the existence of God. Do theists need to prove His existence? No. Do naturalists need to disprove fairies @ the bottom of their gardens? No. Do I need to disprove the claim that my maternal Grandfather was a werewolf? No.

    So why should atheists be expected to disprove the existence of God?

  • Rourke

    “One disadvantage of this approach is that it can be very time consuming. It takes time, energy, and money to carefully investigate a specific miracle claim.”

    Especially for someone like me. In essence, all I have to prove or disprove any alleged supernatural activity is the Internet, including sites like this — which means I almost never end up disputing anything these days.

    This can get immensely frustrating, especially since many people I encounter on a daily basis (at school, etc.) are very strongly inclined to believe without much (open) skepticism.

  • Bradley Bowen

    response to cyberkitten…

    I agree that the burden of proof is on those who believe in God and miracles. Although I have run into a few skeptics that object to the whole idea of burden of proof, so I’m not as confident on that point as I used to be.

    In any case, when you are confronted with a miracle claim, if you choose the “You believers have the burden of proof” response, you still must decide whether to challenge the existence of God, or the Supernatural, or just the specific miracle in question.

    If you choose to focus on the God question, “What is your evidence for the existence of God?”, it won’t hurt to have a positive reason for disbelieving in God. If nothing else, you can argue that one should only believe in God if there is good reason to do so.

  • CyberKitten

    BB said: If you choose to focus on the God question, “What is your evidence for the existence of God?”, it won’t hurt to have a positive reason for disbelieving in God. If nothing else, you can argue that one should only believe in God if there is good reason to do so.

    Exactly. There is no evidence (at least that I am aware of) nor any compelling argument (that I am aware of) for the existence of God, fairies, goblins, unicorns or anything else supernatural. Hence miracles (however you wish to define them) are *highly* unlikely to exist too.

    But it is certainly not up to the sceptic to *disprove* any particular ‘event’. It is for the proponent to provide compelling *evidence* that such an event took place. I have yet to hear or see such evidence.

  • John W. Loftus

    I argue that agnosticism is the default position when it comes to supernatural beings and explanations, because it does not make any positive knowledge claims. Anyone who moves off that position is making a positive knowledge claim and has the burden of proof.

  • Rourke

    @John Loftus: True enough, but then consider that agnosticism is de facto atheism anyways — if nothing can be positively known about the existence of a deity or deities, then all organized religions are probably incorrect because they, too, have no guaranteed way of knowing anything about the deities they claim to represent. This means that the agnostic world view is almost indistinguishable from the atheist world view.

  • John W. Loftus

    Atheism and agnosticism are definitely close cousins. It depends on how we define these words.

    Take for instance the question “why does something rather than nothing exist?” The (soft) agnostic says, “I don’t know.” The atheist claims something exists “because of natural rather than supernatural causes.” That’s every bit a positive knowledge claim as the theist makes, and as such, it has its own burden of proof.