"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The concept of "evidence" for divine miracles

Over at What's Wrong with the World, Lydia McGrew announces:
For a limited time only (get yours while supplies last) a draft is available on my personal web site of "History and Theism: Epistemology, Miracles, and the God Who Speaks." This article will eventually appear in a forthcoming Routledge Companion to Theism, edited by Charles Taliaferro and Victoria Harrison. The contributors' articles are due by November of this year, but the release date has not been specified, as far as I know.
I urge my philosophically educated readers to download and read this fine draft for themselves, while they can, before the final product is "entombed" (Lydia's word) in an academic anthology that only the better university libraries can afford. Perhaps my reflections on her thoughts will encourage such readers to do that.

What interests me about Lydia's paper is that it addresses a nest of issues that are practically important and that I've discussed before on blogs, here and there, with Lydia herself and with philosophy professor Scott Carson—who has his own blog too, though it's lain fallow for a while. I have good reason to consider both people friends: they have been immensely kind and generous to me in private correspondence even though, for annoyingly contingent reasons, I have never met either of them in person. Perhaps that's one way the Lord is being merciful to them. In any case, I have disagreed with them both on this topic before. (To be fair, I generally share Scott's skepticism about the value, either scientific or philosophical, of intelligent-design theory, even though Lydia does not.) But the three of us each disagree with one other about the extent to which miracles can be rationally identified as such. My last response to Scott on that issue is here; my discussions with Lydia on related issues are scattered throughout the comboxes at W4 and hence are not worth hunting down. I'm intrigued by the extent to which classical-theist philosophers who are also tradition-minded Christians manage to disagree so strongly with one another about this nest of issues.

This is not to say that I disagree with the main thrust of Lydia's article. I think she does a good job of showing, pace many liberal Protestants and Catholics, that once can reasonably identify some event as a miraculous revelation of God's nature and purposes without being fideistic, unhistorical, or anti-scientific. In my opinion, of course, neither historical nor scientific methods of investigation can ever suffice to demonstrate that some observed or observable event is a miraculous revelation. But in some cases at least, such methods can make it reasonable to believe that certain reports are in fact reports of miraculous events revelatory of God and his purposes. On this question, I stand midway between fideists and rationalists, which seems to satisfy neither Scott nor Lydia.

The most intriguing part of Lydia's paper consists in her reply to philosopher of science Elliot Sober, who argued that theists who want to present certain events are miraculous in the relevant sense face a dilemma. Although Sober's argument is directed explicitly only against intelligent-design theory, his argument can be generalized to miracles.
Sober presents his opponents, tacitly, with a dilemma--either the theistic hypothesis is completely uninformative about the evidence (and therefore cannot be the best explanation of the evidence) or it is ad hoc.

"The problem" [says Sober] "is that the design hypothesis confers a probability on the observation only when it is supplemented with further assumptions about what the designer’s goals and abilities would be if he existed....There are as many likelihoods as there are suppositions concerning the goals and abilities of the putative designer. Which of these, or which class of these, should we take seriously?"

"It is no good answering this question by assuming that the eye was built by an intelligent designer and then inferring that the designer must have wanted to give the eye features F1 ... Fn and must have had the ability to do so since, after all, these are the features we observe. For one thing, this pattern of argument is question-begging. One needs independent evidence as to what the designer’s plans and abilities would be if he existed...."

"This objection to the design argument is...continuous with the precepts of “negative theology,” which holds that God is so different from us and the world we already know about that it is impossible for us to have much of a grasp of what his characteristics are....We are invited...to imagine a designer who is radically different from the human craftsmen we know about. But if this designer is so different, why are we so sure that this being would build the vertebrate eye in the form in which we find it?" (Sober 2007, pp. 10-11)

Just before this passage, Sober merely says that we need to have “an argument that shows that this probability [that design gives to the observation] is indeed higher than the probability that Chance confers on the observation.” But elsewhere, his demands are less modest.

Sober’s approach involves making a clear separation between a “main hypothesis”--for example, that God exists--and “auxiliary assumptions,” which he says in theistic design inferences must be assumptions about what God’s goals and abilities would be if he existed. (Sober focuses most on the problem of knowing God’s goals, since he acknowledges [2007, p. 13] that the God of traditional theism is usually assumed to be omnipotent.) Repeatedly, Sober claims that one must have independent, solid support for these auxiliaries. Just a few pages after the more modest characterization of his requirement, he ups the ante, implying that we must be able to “justify [auxiliary assumptions] independently” (Sober 2007, p. 13). Elsewhere he endorses as normal scientific practice the use of auxiliary assumptions that scientists “already have good reason to think are true” (Sober 1999, p. 54). He also characterizes his position as “the demand that one have independent reason to think that one’s auxiliary assumptions are true” (Sober 1999, p. 57), he says that “testing the design hypothesis requires that we have information about the goals and abilities the designer would have, if he existed” (Sober 1999, p. 54), and, in his most recent work on the subject, he states that one hypothesis can be tested against another only if there exist true auxiliary assumptions which we are “now justified in believing” (Sober 2008, p. 152). These are very strong requirements for independently justified information about the Divine mind.
And Lydia goes on to show, convincingly, that Sober's requirements are unreasonably strong, so that the dilemma he poses is an artificial one which the theist need not take seriously.

So far, so good. But my question for Lydia has always been the same, and remains so here: granted that one can show it reasonable to believe in miracles, at least in the relevant sense, we should we regard some of the arguments for miracles as strong enough to make it unreasonable to deny one or more of them?

Lydia seems to think they should be, at least if her comments in the combox to her announcement are any indication.  But I have never found that convincing, at least as a general proposition, as distinct from a proposition about special experiences available only to very few people, such as Saul on the road to Damascus. Certainly, she and her husband Tim have gone to great lengths to show, using sophisticated probability theory, that the case for the Resurrection is very strong. And I have long granted that, if what they treat as their historical dataset should be treated as, itself, veridical, their inductive case for the Resurrection is powerful enough to make it unreasonable to deny the Resurrection. But that of course is a big 'if'. For the conceptions of scientific and historical methodology to which their opponents severally adhere would not justify taking the data as veridical to the degree the McGrews do. It is reasonable, of course, to reject such conceptions; but it is by no means evidently unreasonable to accept them. What goes for the central miracle of the Resurrection goes a fortiori for other reported miracles taken to confirm specifically Christian faith.
blog comments powered by Disqus