Saturday, March 30, 2013

Easter and the Modern Mind

The Christian world is preparing to celebrate what much of the rest of the Western world finds literally incredible, the revivification of a man 2000 years ago who had been dead for several days. Modernity finds such an account simply unbelievable. It would be a miracle if such a thing happened, moderns tell us, and in a scientific age everyone knows that miracles don't happen.

If pressed to explain how, exactly, science has made belief in miracles obsolete and how the modern person knows that miracles don't happen, the skeptic will often fall back on an argument first articulated by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (d.1776). Hume wrote that miracles are a violation of the laws of nature and as a firm and unalterable experience tells us that there has never been a violation of the laws of nature it follows that any report of a miracle is most likely to be false. Thus, since we should always believe what is most probable, and since any natural explanation of an alleged miracle is more probable than that a law of nature was broken, we are never justified in believing that a miracle occurred.

It has often been pointed out that Hume's argument suffers from the circularity of basing the claim that reports of miracles are not reliable upon the belief that there's never been a reliable report of one. However, we can only conclude that there's never been a reliable report of one if we know a priori that all historical reports are false, and we can only know that if we know that miracles are impossible. But we can only know they're impossible if we know that all reports of miracles are unreliable.

But set that aside. Set aside, too, the fact that one can say that miracles don't happen only if one can say with certainty that there is no God.

Let's look instead at the claim that miracles are prohibitively improbable because they violate the laws of nature.

A law of nature is simply a description of how nature operates whenever we observe it. The laws are often statistical. I.e. if molecules of hot water are added to a pot of molecules of cold water the molecules will tend to eventually distribute themselves evenly throughout the container so that the water is a uniform temperature. It would be extraordinarily improbable, though not impossible, nor a violation of any law, for the hot molecules on one occasion to segregate themselves all on one side of the pot.

Similarly, miracles may not violate the natural order at all. Rather they may be highly improbable phenomena that would never be expected to happen in the regular course of events except for the intervention of Divine will. Like the segregation of hot and cold water, the reversal of the process of bodily decomposition is astronomically improbable, but it's not impossible, and if it happened it wouldn't be a violation of any law.

The ironic thing about the skeptics' attitude toward the miracle of the resurrection of Christ is that they refuse to admit that there's good evidence for it because a miracle runs counter to their experience and understanding of the world. Yet they have no trouble believing other things that also run counter to their experience.

For example, moderns have no trouble believing that living things arose from non-living chemicals, that the information-rich properties of life emerged by random chaos and chance, or that our extraordinarily improbable, highly-precise universe exists by fortuitous accident. They ground their belief in these things on their belief that there could be an infinite number of different universes, none of which is observable, and in an infinite number of worlds even highly improbable events are bound to happen.

Richard Dawkins, for example, rules out miracles because they are highly improbable, and then in the very next breath tells us that the origin of life, which also seems just as highly improbable, is almost inevitable, given the vastness of time and space.

Extensive time and/or the existence of an infinite number of worlds make the improbable inevitable, he and others argue. There's no evidence of other worlds, unfortunately, but part of the faith commitment of the modern thinker is to hold that they must exist. The modern clings to this conviction because if these things aren't so then life and the universe must have a personal, rather than a scientific, explanation and that discovery would produce a metaphysical shock to his psyche.

Nevertheless, if infinite time and infinite worlds can be invoked to explain life and the cosmos why can't they be invoked to explain "miracles" as well? If there are a near infinite series of universes, as has been proposed in order to avoid the problem posed by cosmic fine-tuning, then surely in all the zillions of universes of the multiverse landscape there has to be at least one in which a man capable of working miracles is born and himself rises from the dead. We just happen to be in the world in which it happens. Why should the multiverse hypothesis be able to explain the fine-tuning of the cosmos and the origin of life but not a man rising from the dead?

No one who's willing to believe in a multiverse should be a skeptic about miracles. Indeed, no one who's willing to believe in the multiverse can think that anything at all is improbable. Given the multiverse everything that is not logically impossible must be inevitable.

For the person who relies on the multiverse explanation to account for the precision of the cosmic parameters and constants and for the abiogenic origin of life, the resurrection of a dead man should be no problem. Given enough worlds and enough time it's a cinch to happen.

Of course, the skeptic's real problem is not that a man rose from the dead. His real problem is with the claim that God deliberately raised this man from the dead. That's what they find repugnant, but they can't say that because in order to justify such a claim they'd have to be able to prove that there is no God, or that God's existence is improbable, and that they cannot do.

If, though, one is willing to assume that there are an infinite number of universes out there in order to explain the properties of our universe, why would he have trouble accepting that there's a Mind out there that's responsible for raising Jesus from the dead? After all, there's a lot more evidence for the latter than there is for the former.