BSR 27: There Are No Good Reasons to Believe in Miracles

BSR 27: There Are No Good Reasons to Believe in Miracles August 26, 2020

Summary of reply: redefining “miracle” is not helpful, “consciousness” is no more miraculous than a thousand other abstract nouns, and David Hume’s recommendation for critiquing miracles is still valid.

(These Bite-Size Replies are responses to “Quick Shots,” brief Christian responses to atheist challenges. The introduction to this series is here.)

Challenge to the Christian: There are no good reasons to believe in miracles.

Christian response #1: Don’t be hasty—maybe you already believe in them! Let’s define a miracle as an event not explicable by natural or scientific laws. Big Bang cosmology says the universe came into existence from nothing. Since space, time, and matter didn’t exist, the cause couldn’t have been spatial, temporal, or material. Therefore, that cause is “not explicable by natural or scientific laws,” and the universe was a miracle.

BSR: No, let’s not define a miracle that way, since “inexplicable by (known) scientific laws” describes many unanswered questions within science. Surely “miracle” must mean more than “a thing we can’t yet explain with science.” And shouldn’t the supernatural appear somewhere in the definition?

Let’s also discard a couple of false claims. No, Big Bang theory doesn’t say that the universe came from nothing. That’s possible, but the jury’s out. Genesis doesn’t even say that God created the universe from nothing.

Second, the universe may have had no cause. Some quantum events, like the decay of a radioactive nucleus, are thought to have no cause. The Big Bang might have likewise come from a causeless quantum event.

Christians, you’ll look less ridiculous if you get your science from scientists, not apologists.

Christians, you’ll look less ridiculous if you get your science from scientists, not apologists. [Click to tweet]

Christian response #2: We already know about non-physical, non-material things like consciousness or mind. These can’t be explained physically or materially. Why then reject the existence of other realities not governed by laws of nature?

BSR: We need to start with a quick English lesson. There are two kinds of nouns, concrete and abstract. Concrete nouns are physical things, like glass, Boston, dog, or grimace. All the rest are abstract nouns, like permission, happiness, charity, or courage. Abstract nouns don’t have physical properties like color, height, or weight. This Christian response highlights certain nouns—in particular, consciousness and mind—which aren’t particularly special. They’re just abstract nouns like thousands of others, like permission and courage.

What’s difficult about a word like courage? While it doesn’t have the properties a concrete noun has, it is brought into existence through matter. We can understand it at different levels such as brain chemistry, neurophysiology, psychology, or sociology. There’s more to learn, but we have no reason to expect that we will need to invoke the supernatural to explain it.

The same is true for mind. Mind is what the brain does. We can also understand the mind at different levels. We continue to learn about the brain, but why imagine that we’ll need to rely on the supernatural to explain the mind any more than we need it to explain happiness, frustration, or courage? The supernatural explains nothing because we have no useful evidence of the supernatural.

As an aside, note that we know of no minds without brains. What does that tell us about where God’s mind must reside?

Why are “mind” or “consciousness” so special? They’re just abstract nouns like thousands of others. We don’t need to invoke the supernatural to explain “courage” or “hunger,” so why expect that for the mind? [Click to tweet]

Christian response #3: When categorizing phenomena, Philosopher David Hume said that we should give priority to things that occur repeatedly or regularly over those that occur rarely. While rarely is part of the definition of a miracle, remember that it’s also part of the definition of the Big Bang. If Big Bangs are rare or even unique, and we’re very familiar with the non-physical (such as consciousness and free will), what’s surprising about a rare miracle with a non-physical cause?

BSR: What’s surprising would be anything with a supernatural cause. Science has shown us countless instances of phenomena (lightning, plagues, floods, etc.) incorrectly thought to have supernatural causes. We’ve seen zero instances of the reverse—something with a supposed natural cause that was actually caused by the supernatural. As for non-physical things such as consciousness and free will, these are just our old friends, abstract nouns.

David Hume’s observation has been called the Law of Least Astonishment: don’t put forward a body of evidence to argue for a miracle unless that evidence being false would be even more miraculous than the miracle. So we should reject the crazier: either Jesus raised people from the dead or that ancient story was just the result of history and legend. Either a miracle healing happened at Lourdes or that miracle claim was incorrect somehow.

Drop the God presupposition, and the choice is easy.

Did Jesus raise someone from the dead or was that ancient story the result of oral history and legend? We should reject the crazier. [Click to tweet]

(The Quick Shot I’m replying to is here.)

This post series is concluded at: BSR 28: There Is No Such Thing as Sin (28 of 28) 

For further reading:

A theory is the more impressive
the greater the simplicity of its premises,
the more different kinds of things it relates,
and the more extended its area of applicability.
— Albert Einstein


Image from Eduardo Mallmann, (free-use license)

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