Miracles & Scientific Method: Dialogue with Atheist

Miracles & Scientific Method: Dialogue with Atheist February 22, 2019

“Anthrotheist” (words in blue below) responded to my paper, Miracles, Materialism, & Premises: Dialogue w Atheist. This continues our discussion. He has been perfectly congenial and a worthy dialogue partner for at least eight months now.

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It occurs to me, after taking some time to think about your responses, that I had missed a critical assumption underlying my biases (which are surely shared by many atheists and secularists): if every phenomenon has a natural cause, that cause can be investigated and understood, and that cause can be leveraged into use by human ingenuity.

For example: A universally familiar phenomenon of human life is that the Sun provides energy. This energy has been used to do everything from drying clothes and warming the skin, to tracking the time of day and anticipating seasons for millennia. It’s effects were useful even when there were no other explanations for its causes than the existence of a supernatural god (which was often worshiped) or device (generally belonging to a god, like a chariot wheel). The scientific assumption that the Sun and its effects are natural and can be understood led to its investigation. First was the study of light itself, which led to advances in optics and artificial lighting; later, coupled with the study of lightning it produced things like photovoltaic panels to convert light to electricity. It also led to the study of what causes the Sun to produce light, which resulted in understanding nuclear fusion, which may one day provide bountiful power here on Earth (and, it has to be acknowledged, has already been harnessed into a horrifically destructive weapon). The assumption that everything has a natural cause is closely tied to the practical advantage that any natural cause can be harnessed by human technology.

Contrast that to the paradigm of supernatural miracles: Much like the Sun’s usefulness in drying and warming things, the direct effect of a miracle has practical use. Unlike our study of the Sun’s energy, the usefulness of a miraculous phenomenon stops there. If a miraculous phenomenon cures the sick or injured, it is quite fortuitous to the individual that happens to be the benefactor; but if the underlying processes of the cure or healing could be studied and understood, it’s likely that its causal forces could be utilized to provide those benefits to everybody (ideally, though currently that’s more like “everybody that can afford it”). It would be like if the conspicuous death in bacteria colonies that was discovered on Petri dishes had been written off as a miracle: nobody would have examined further and discovered that penicillin mold contains compounds that kill bacteria.

From the point of view of this assumption — that treating everything as being strictly natural is conducive to developing ways of utilizing the benefits of any phenomenon we discover — the realm of supernatural miracles is a dead end. To put a fine point on it (and, admittedly, to be a bit condescending and snarky), it prompts the response, “I am glad you experienced a miracle and feel better, that is wonderful for you and your loved ones. But given that you can’t offer any clues or insights into how or why it happened, and given that it only happens on extremely rare occasions, honestly who cares? It’s like someone winning the lottery or being born with exceptional gifts (or wealth): congratulations on your good fortune, but don’t expect anyone else to get excited about it.”

So, in short, even if the supernatural does exist, it doesn’t make any difference to the world; its only benefit, at all, is to excite and reassure those people whose religious faith relies on its existence. (And the debatable benefits of faith (and the myriad definitions of that word) are also, as you put it, “another huge discussion.”)

I hope you don’t mind, but I have more to say and think it would be better to break it up into more digestible segments.

The main gist of your argument here is self-evident, first of all, and so I have no disagreement with it: only the cynical, negative slant you put onto miracles. You’re merely comparing apples and oranges and noting that they are different. DUH! Of course they are . . .

Lastly, you act as if it is an either/or scenario: either we accept science (and thus reject miracles, even though this doesn’t inexorably follow at all), or we accept miracles and reject science.

Christians are quite capable of fully accepting both. It is you guys who have closed your minds to a whole host of other non-natural possibilities within an overall clearly ultra-complex reality, as if matter and natural processes are all that exist.

To be perfectly honest, and with no real hope of meaningfully defending myself on this point, I honestly believe the way that I do because it is more comforting for me to do so. The very idea of the supernatural scares the crap out of me. The idea that there could be entities that can affect us in the natural world, but are completely beyond our ability to affect in return, is pretty much the basic plot of every ghost story ever told. It robs us, not of free will, but of any meaningful power to protect ourselves from the whims of beings that can touch us but cannot even be seen, let alone countered.

Given the options of either: adopting the faith that all things supernatural are under the power of a single God, and that this God is the God of the Bible, and that despite all the horrors portrayed in the Bible and seen around the world, that this God is good, loving and just; or in believing that there are no supernatural forces in the world, and that every threat or force that we encounter can also be affected by us, given enough time to figure out how; ultimately, it is easier and more comfortable for me to choose the latter. I work hard to be rational, but at the end of the day I have to admit that I am an emotional being and I don’t like being afraid.

That is very honest indeed, and I thank you for it. The very idea of atheism (and I think, with it, an ultimately meaningless universe) scares the crap out of me. But it doesn’t follow that I have no reasons I can produce for why I believe in God and Christianity. I have hundreds of such reasons. Thus, Christian belief is both objective and subjective.

When I hear John Lennon’s Imagine (I’m a Beatles fanatic) and he sings, “imagine there’s no heaven”, that scares the wits out of me. But he seemed to think it was comforting. Because if that is true, in my opinion, there is no ultimate meaning to life and no hope that “the scales of justice” will be balanced in the end.

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It’s interesting to me that you mention Popper, and it confuses me a bit. On one hand, you appear to uphold Popper’s principle of falsifiability as being essential to science,

It is the currently accepted approach to scientific method; not necessarily the only one. It seems good enough to me.

and on the other you claim that miracles can be studied scientifically. As far as I can tell, the investigation of miracles is far closer to an Anthropological or Sociological survey and study than it is a scientific experiment;

It’s both. For past instances, all we have is legal-type proof: testimony of eyewitnesses. In the present we can bring scientific investigation to bear. But we need not reject evidence besides empirical.

Popper rejected the burgeoning social sciences as “real science” (he referred to them as Marxism, which is fair considering that Marx was a key contributor to early social science). So how can miracles (or any supernatural phenomenon, which as far as I can tell are all essentially subjectively experienced) possibly be falsified?

Reputed miracles such as healings can be examined scientifically and medically. If there is a natural explanation then that can be considered a disproof: i.e., the principle of falsifiability. No difference here that I can see . . . How can a broken bone that is now whole be merely “subjectively experienced” if there was medical observation? There is plenty of evidence of that sort that is simply ignored by atheists. You have collectively closed your mind and your eyes. We haven’t. We follow facts and observation where they lead, which is the more scientific and rational attitude.

You also claim that my basic assumptions are circular, but I can’t help but feel that your criticism of them is hypocritical in relation to your defense of your own beliefs.

There is no hypocrisy or inconsistency. I’m criticizing you for not acknowledging your own axioms, that all thinkers of all stripes have. Christians (being also human beings) have axioms like everyone else. I was simply pointing out that our view is not anti-evidential, anti-scientific, or irrational blind faith (as we are always accused by atheists of being).

To wit:

Criticism of my beliefs: “. . . your own empiricist view necessarily starts with unproven, non-materialistic axioms: that you accept without proof to even have the view that you have in the first place. I would argue that this makes your view logically self-defeating or circular . . .”

Defense of your beliefs: “. . . we can present many solid reasons for why we believe all those things: reasons that can stand up to scrutiny, and show themselves to be more plausible and worthy of belief than alternatives.” (emphasis yours)

You blame me of believing in something just because there are reasons behind it, and no proof or evidence, presumably because you consider consciousness (i.e., the source of reasons) to be incompatible with materialism, as though consciousness cannot possibly exist in a purely material universe. Then you defend your beliefs without proof or evidence, but simply with reasons: exactly the same way that I do.

First of all, philosophical reasoning is part of evidence. I have more than 2200 online articles and 50 books in which I offer all kinds of evidence and reasons for why Christianity is true, and why Catholicism is the purest and fullest form of Christianity. Why would you think I have to present all of that in one short reply? That’s rather odd.

Our premises appear to me to be equally unprovable, we only appear to be differing in our reasons for valuing them.

Exactly! Now you’re starting to get it. But your unprovable axioms are inconsistent with your dogmatic empiricism, which disallows them by definition and with considerable philosophical naivete. That is the difference.

It’s feeling more and more like it is time for that huge discussion because honestly, Dave, this is starting to feel pretty condescending.

I didn’t intend any condescension, anymore than you intended a charge of bigotry. I am simply debating the ideas.

One argument for my preference may be: Belief in materialism originates in what you see and experience around you; everything you interact with is material; once you reach a sufficient level of development, then you begin to think deeper than the surface of the materials and contemplate emergent phenomena like consciousness.

The correlating argument against theism would be: Belief in God and the supernatural originates in an ancient holy text, transcribed and translated innumerable times throughout the millennia.

But in fact it usually does not. It usually begins with a felt interior consciousness of God or something other and mysterious: something “spiritual” (the latter idea is one that Einstein often wrote about, in his criticisms of materialistic atheism). This occurs before we ever get to actual reputed holy books. It was certainly the case with me. I never read the Bible or learned much about it at all till I was 18, but I had always believed in God.

Once you reach a sufficient level of development, then you begin to find ways to dovetail the things that you experience around you into the explanations that came from your holy book. (Which is part of the reason that I believe that theodicy is one of the most challenging areas of apologetics: it is one area where both evidence and reason quite apparently contradict the Bible’s explanations, requiring a plethora of reasons how to resolve the myriad incompatibilities.)

Finally — back to science here — you say ” A scientific theory is adopted at first, and then it is tested in order to try to falsify it.” I can’t help but argue that you leave out a critical step here, which is the hypothesis. The hypothesis is the tentative explanation that is adopted at first and then tested.

Sure. I was just not being specific or technical enough, but it’s the same general notion that I expressed.

A scientific theory is only adopted after the underlying hypotheses have been consistently confirmed through peer-reviewed analysis of experimental tests. To relate this to my arguments: science begins with hypotheses and tests them to produce a theory; theology begins with a theory and then produces hypotheses to support it.

Again, not necessarily at all. It usually begins with interior consciousness and spiritual experience.

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Reputed miracles such as healings can be examined scientifically and medically.

It occurs to me that this may run into a problem similar to the “God of the cracks” argument. People on my side of the fence love to joke that the rate of miracles has declined in a perfect inversion to the increased availability of video recording devices. But more precisely, how can one differentiate between a miraculous healing and one that simply defies current scientific or medical understanding? Assuming that there are still more things to learn about medicine, surely phenomena that are not understood today will be perfectly explainable sometime in the future. If that is the case, then confirming a miracle relies on an existing body of knowledge, not on a logical framework that can be shown to be categorically false.

I argue that Christian beliefs begin with the Bible because nobody comes to believe in the Christian God without the Christian Bible. No amount of spiritual mystery or interior consciousness has ever produced the story of Jesus in a person outside of a culture that already included the story of Jesus. A state of wonderment and transcendence are perfectly human experiences, but concluding that eating pork is somehow unclean requires a primer. Thus, all the conclusions that are found in the Bible, which are used by Christians to explain the world, started in the Bible. This included children raised in a society that is predominately Christian and who therefore were inevitably exposed to Biblical messages, obviously.

It’s true that many things may possibly be explained by solely natural explanations in the future, just as many things are that way now, that weren’t properly understood before science cast light on them.

On the other hand, it’s equally possible that there are actual miracles that will never be explained (if we could look into a crystal ball and see the future: 10,000 years from now). One thing is just as possible as the other, so I don’t see that this argument is compelling at all.

Particulars of the Christian God are indeed dependent on the revelation of the Bible: but not theism itself, which is why there are many arguments for theism which don’t address the more specific traits of God, as taught in the Bible and Christian theology.

In Romans 1 it states that men can know that there is a God and that He created the universe, just by observing it. I totally agree: so have many great thinkers, including David Hume and (in a somewhat less defined way), Einstein (who was more of a pantheist).

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Photo credit: The Raising of Lazarus (c. 1630-1632), by Rembrandt (1606-1669) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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