I recently wrote a piece concerning specified complexity that theists interpret as God acting and showing his presence. The TL;DR was that massively improbable things happen on a regular basis around our communities such that they become statistically probable, or even certain. It all depends on how you view these variables, and from what direction. Check out “Miracles, Prayer, Coincidences and Statistical Probability”.
The Christian in the article whom I talked about (Rob, called Colin in the piece) replied to my article:
OK, the way Johno described my prayer events was not quite true to the level of complexity that happened. I can clarify that if need be but my greater objection is methodological. He states at the beginning : “The argument goes that the level of complexity is so specific in these incidences – specified complexity – that this must point to some other (supernatural) agency.” That, certainly from our discussions in the pub, was not my argument, which instead was about levels of probability and proof. Even with a more highly and specified example than ones I can recount, I still would not claim you ever reach ‘proof’ since these are deductive and inferential reasonings. My objection is that Johno has set up the epistemological goal posts so that he could only admit his naturalist conclusions. His claim is, if you like, the inverse of his opening objection and might read by extension: “The argument goes that the level of complexity is so specific in these incidences – specified complexity – that this must point to some other (supernatural) agency–whereas in fact, it doesn’t matter how much evidence or improbability there is, the only viable explanation is naturalistic”.
Let me illustrate. We’re talking about specified complexity–an ordering of information that is complex but also hits an informational target in a given context. Suppose an alien race had in fact left a message, arranged in boulders on the surface of the moon that read in English “Earthlings, welcome to the Moon!” Would we be within our rational rights to infer that aliens (or some intelligence) had tried to communicate a message? Sure. Almost all readers possessed of their rational faculties here would say “Of course!”. However, if I adopted Johno’s methodology I could apply it to this example in this way: “Oh come on! There are 100 billion, billion stars, planets and moons out there and look at all the moons with boulders arranged in ways that don’t mean anything or might very very loosely look like words. You can’t conclude aliens exist from this. It must be naturalistic chance.”
What might we say about this? I’d say the response (even though in our example we’ve said aliens DID put the message there) is rational and, yes, there is a chance it could have been there by chance. The mistake, however, would be to conclude either that it’s unlikely to have been aliens or that it must have been the result of naturalistic (unintended and unintelligent) causation….
I already accept that on other grounds and if God exists that may not be his goal to yet further confirm that through clever tricks. I just needed the content if the message.
My general reaction to this is that, no, it really is about specified complexity that forms a sort of evidential basis, built upon probability, that God intervened. Others have responded in more detail on the original article thread. Here are his basic claims:
- Rob had a specific problem which was affecting him badly with regards to a biblical passage.
- He was going away for the weekend to a Christian retreat/party.
- He, the next day or two, had an image in his mind of a golden sword.
- The next day he was in a book shop and the second or third book he pulled out had an image of a golden sword on the front. He opened it to a page in the book which answered all his worries.
- He claims this had such a specified complexity as to be best explained by it being a second-order miracle (one that does not violate natural laws).
He actually said he was more specified than this, but you get the gist.
I pointed out several stories of my own that I argue had the same level of complexity and probability, but to which no one (especially as I am an atheist) would posit God as the causal explanation.
Just as a random aside, the other day, I was driving to the West Country for a New Year’s Eve party with my family and one of my twins was hypothesising the reason why there are two estate agents in our village: Dibben’s, and Dibben & Dibben. He posited some kind of family argument that caused a split. I talked about the Black Sheep brewery resulting from a family break up in the Theakston brewing family and then explained what a black sheep of the family meant, and pointed to the nearby fields, asking him to image a field of white sheep with one black sheep feeling out of it. Bearing in mind that we haven’t driven in the countryside for some 6 months, and anywhere near sheep in even longer. No sooner had I finished explaining that if there was a field of white sheep and one was black, yada yada yada, than my pointing finger hit a field full of white sheep with one solitary black sheep ostracised at the side. We couldn’t believe it; the probability given a whole host of things that would have to come to pass for that massive coincidence to happen was seemingly incredibly specified.
But, in reality: Heh! Meh.
Eric replied to Rob as follows:
I already accept that on other grounds and if God exists that may not be his goal to yet further confirm that through clever tricks.
But your whole ‘derive from improbability’ argument is a claim that God is performing a clever trick.
Can we agree that if God wanted to remain hidden, he would be able to provide surcease and hope to his followers through probable events that would never even cross our minds as miracles? So if, instead, he’s creating highly improbable events like you claim, then either he’s performing such tricks intentionally, or he can’t hide better. I will assume you reject the latter.
Which leads us to the conclusion that you’re wrong, he does want to further confirm his existence through clever tricks. Or, OTOH, you’re wrong to think your improbable event is a miracle from God, because that’s too unsubtle for a God who wants to remain hidden. But either way, you’re wrong.
I think this is another really important tack to take. Even given the hypothesis that God answered prayers or showed himself in those rather obscure ways, what do we make of this? It’s one thing to say that these improbable chain of events are so specified and complex that they point to God, but it’s another point entirely to say that God working like this is somehow coherent and probable!
God has a choice in appearing or in answering prayers:
- Ignoring the person and hoping that they will have a great faith that allows them to continue believing.
- Appearing in a very subtle way such that the person has to add up all of these signs and piece together the puzzle to conclude that the answer came from God.
- Answering by overt and obvious ways – appearing in person perhaps to many people simultaneously, putting a cross on the moon, etc.
I think that this covers all of the bases.
So, what do we make of God choosing to appear in the way that, say, Rob describes? It’s an odd way to show oneself if one wants the intended subject to know unequivocally that God is giving them an answer. The other options are that God wants to leave a puzzle for them to crack because he wants there to be a chance they would fail where, for others, he doesn’t appear at all, and for others still, he is even more obvious. In other words, there is a spectrum of appearance manifestations that God uses – what are the criteria as to which one any given Christian/person will receive? God doesn’t want to reveal himself fully (to everyone or individuals) but prefers to remain half-hidden, intentionally, leaving enough doubt as to his existence.
Perhaps another option is that in coming to understand God’s involvement or seeing God in this way strengthens and enriches the belief in a way that a simple appearance or obvious causal interaction wouldn’t. In other words, if I hide in the bush and make JPish sounds and leave some possibly-JP-possibly-not footprints about, you thinking I have visited is somehow more fulfilling than me ringing the doorbell and saying “Hello!”. Or some such analogy.
I mean, there is something perhaps “nice” for Rob feeling that his experience points to God, in the solving of the puzzle. But there is still doubt and there is still argument. God simply handing him a passage from the Bible or telling him directly is certainly far less fraught with interpretative doubt, though.
And then you can add to this the idea that every religion has similar claims as to miracles, prayer and specified complexity. No healing of amputees, mind, just weird puzzles that aren’t perhaps as weird as they are made out to be.
No, I feel very secure in the knowledge that these sorts of events are not at all persuasive and carry the same sort of weight as ghost stories and any number of coincidental events or seemingly unexplained phenomena.
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