Tuesday, September 1, 2015

On Miracles

Philosopher Hans Halverson of Princeton offers a provocative piece on miracles at Slate. Halverson believes that it's rational to believe in the miracles of the New Testament but not in miracles alleged to happen in everyday life:
A recent New York Times bestseller presents numerous accounts of surprising events in the lives of everyday people, arguing that these events were miracles. Should you believe it? My answer here is simple: for any event you experience in your life, no matter how strange, surprising, or wonderful, you should not believe that it is a miracle. Similarly, if somebody tells you that a miracle occurred, you should not believe him.

Really? What if an oncologist is 100 percent certain that her patient has terminal cancer and cannot possibly recover? And yet, when that person’s church holds a prayer vigil, miraculously the next day, the cancer is gone. Would it be rational to suppose that a miracle occurred? I’m sorry to sound harsh, but the answer is No. The oncologist, and everybody else, should continue believing that there is a perfectly cogent scientific explanation for the patient’s recovery.

Am I not condoning a highly irrational attitude, namely a bias against supernatural explanations? Isn’t there a point at which an unbiased observer ought to admit that the evidence points toward a supernatural intervention? Again, I claim that the answer is No. Certainly, I can imagine witnessing an event that violated what we now believe to be the laws of nature. For example, I can imagine witnessing a subatomic particle travelling faster than the speed of light. But why would I call that a miracle? The more rational response would be to say that we were wrong about the laws of nature.
Halverson's argument here sounds similar to that of David Hume who argued in the 18th century that we're never justified in believing that a law of nature has been violated, but whereas Hume insisted that we have a uniform experience throughout the history of humanity that the laws of nature are never violated, Halverson is willing to grant that such events could happen frequently:
Why am I being so stubborn about this? Am I not bringing an irrational, anti-supernaturalist bias to my investigation of the data? No, I’m not. I am not saying that miracles cannot occur. For all I know, miracles happen every day. What I am saying is that seeing an event as a miracle is to treat that event as falling outside the bounds of science; and there is no amount of evidence that could force us to take such a stance.

What kind of evidence would somebody need to have in order to be rationally compelled to say that an event was a miracle? That person would have to know that this event could not possibly be explained by future science. But not only is such a belief unwarranted, it’s also bad for future science to believe it. If you encounter new data—say, a photon traveling faster than the speed of light—then as a scientist, your job is to find a way to explain it, to make it intelligible in scientific terms.

To declare that an event was a miracle would be tantamount to saying: “I’m simply not going to try to understand this event in scientific terms.” (Now, there are perfectly good reasons to give up on seeing events in scientific terms; but these reasons have to do with human desires, not with evidence.) So, I say: as long as you’re trying to see the world scientifically, then you should refuse to believe that any event is a miracle.
I think Halverson makes a misstep here. He seems to be buying into the notion that the only events we're justified believing are those science can explain. If science cannot explain the event then, the thinking goes, we should not believe it, but why should we adopt this "scientism?" Is the scientific lens the only lens through which we can see the world? Halverson, paradoxically, says no.
Of course, many religions claim that miracles have occurred. For example, the Scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam contain numerous claims of large-scale disturbances in nature (e.g. parting of the Red Sea), storms being calmed, the sick being healed, and the dead being raised. Am I claiming that such events did not occur and could not have occurred? Not at all. Am I claiming that a rational person should not believe these events occurred? Perhaps surprisingly, No. I think that it can be rational to believe the miracle stories told in Scripture.

Technically, what I just said contradicts my earlier claim that you ought never to believe that an event was a miracle. So let me amend that claim: you ought never believe that a miraculous event occurred, unless such a claim is an integral part of a religious narrative, the whole of which is rational to believe. That’s a mouthful, so let me explain.
You'll have to go to the link to read his explanation. It's interesting.

One thing that's important to mention here about miracles is that the common understanding that they're violations of laws of nature is false. A law of nature is a description of how nature operates in a closed system. In other words, nature will always operate in a certain way, a law tells us, unless an outside force interferes. Thus, Newton's first law of motion states that an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. The law of conservation of matter (mass/energy) says that matter cannot be created or destroyed under normal conditions. Of course, if there is no God then there are no outside forces and nature is indeed a closed system, but if God exists and acts in the world then no law is violated when he does because the system is no longer closed and the relevant laws simply don't apply.