Thursday, December 9, 2010

Atheism and Miracles: Is It Really About Evidence?

Miracle, Fluke, or Not Enough Data?
My friend, Dave Armstrong, whose Catholic apologetic books we sell at Nineveh's Crossing, maintains a very active apologetic blog at Biblical Evidence for Catholicism. The link you just passed, connects to Dave's report of an interesting occassion when he was the guest of 15 atheists who tried to poke holes in his Catholic thinking. I guess it was a friendly dialogue, and not a typical angry debate as such occasions seem often to be.

The center of their discussion was whether or not miracles have occurred in the past or can occur.  In particular they were discussing the Resurrection of Christ. This particular group, and one person in particular (DagoodS) found it difficult to discuss the plausibility of miracles because the group defined a miracle as an event that defied or broke the laws of nature.  Dave pointed out that unless the group could get off it's "no miracles allowed" mind-set, there was no chance to have an intellectual discussion regarding the possibility of miracles. That is, the firm bias of "miracles are impossible" prevents any intellectual investigation into the possibility of the same. It's like saying, "I choose not to believe in it, therefore it doesn't exist." My anti-Catholic children will say to me, "That's not what I believe" ... as if their ability to believe or not was the criteria for reality.

The Atheists' Beef with Miracles

DagoodS put his "beef" this way. I'm editing to pull together his salient comments:
As to naturalistic presupposition [regarding miracles]…I agree that is a difficulty for the [Christian] apologist to [objectively] discuss the Resurrection. Alas, it is part of human make-up. We all have biases. As a naturalist, I am going to look for a natural  explanation. As a theist, [the Christian would look] for a supernatural explanation.

Many apologists...appear to claim the evidence (for the Resurrection) is sufficient to ... convince a naturalist. In those situations, I try to explain why the evidence is not enough. Why we have legitimate (often un-addressed) concerns regarding the evidence claimed.
If I can interpret and expand for DagoodS (he can correct me):
Producing evidence in favor of miracles is not sufficient because the atheist will have legitimate concerns about the evidence. 
Of  course this is short hand, but is it the whole argument? Because it sounds like DagoodS is shutting the door before there's even a knock on it. It sounds like this:
Any evidence presented in favor of miracles would be illegitimate because the evidence is flawed...and we don't even have to test the evidence to know it's flawed.
Such is the character of prejudice and fallacious argumentation. The fallacy has two names in material logic: (1) Ignoring the counter evidence, and (2) Denying the counter evidence. Under the color of logic the atheist claims "I don't see it, therefore it must not exist."

Ah, there is the rub...and the solution.

Miracles and the Laws of Nature
The problem atheists have with miracles should be the same problem Christians have with miracles. The common definition is fallacious: An event that breaks one or more laws of nature.  Such a definition, if not pure arrogance, is a fallacious assumption. What follows in an explanation.

Let's start with one of Dave's favorite priests, Fr. John Hardon. In his Modern Catholic Dictionary (Eternal Life Publishing, 1999) he has this definition:
MIRACLE. A sensibly perceptible effect, surpassing at least the powers of visible nature, produced by God to witness to some truth or testify to someone's sanctity.
I don't expect atheists or skeptics to accept Fr. Hardon's definition. I provide it here for Catholics to help them see the fallacious nature of their definition. To understand why the common miracle definition is wrong, let's parse Fr. Hardon's definition. Note he says, a miracle is:
  • Something that is "sensibly perceived." That is, a miracle is not a vision or a dream that one or only a few see. A miracle is something that is commonly witnessed by everyone present at the time.
  • Is an "effect" - that means it is physical, not an "affect" which refers to the psychological state of a person.
  • The event or effect surpasses our understanding of the powers of visible  nature. That is the miracle APPEARS VISIBLY to contradict the laws of nature.
  • It is produced by God (not mankind)
  • It has a higher moral purpose. It's not just eye-candy or entertainment.
The important concept in Fr. Hardon's definition that applies to the current issue, is that the miracle visually appears to break the laws of nature.


As physicist (in part) and a Christian (hopefully, not in part) I have never believed that miracles need to break a natural law. The concept of "breaking a natural law" is that a contradiction has occurred. Natural Laws, however, are understood to be immutable and not exist in contradiction with one another -- something cannot be both TRUE and FALSE. Science would look at an apparent contradiction in nature and call it a paradox. That is, we just don't have all the knowledge about what is happening. Until we have most of the data we might call the event a phenomenon...and theologians and people of faith might call the phenomenon a miracle.  I submit, therefore, that miracles, which happen in the natural world, are paradoxes, not contradictions.  (BTW: The term contradiction is used in logic, for propositional statements that, to our thinking, are both true and false at the same time. )

In other words, when we "SEE" a contradiction we are mistaken, it is a paradox. The laws of nature cannot be broken, but they can be misunderstood.

Worlds in Collision

My thinking about miracles is informed by Worlds in Collision, a controversial book by Immanuel Velikovsky, in part, about the Plagues of Egypt (Moses). Velikovsky hypotheses that the miracles of the plagues were actually the natural result of Earth's collision with the tail of a comet. He explains them all as paradoxes. That does not make them less miraculous.

Another example is the fictional (but logical) account of the protagonist in "A Yankee in King Arthur's Court" who knows a solar eclipse is about to occur and uses it to his advantage. But such an event seems like a miracle or magic to the less knowledgeable characters around him.

Then there are the scientific and mathematical discovers of physical dimensions beyond the three physical dimensions (length, height, and depth) and the thing we call the dimension of time, although we can only perceive a dot along the time line, and not a full linear dimension as we do a ruled line on a piece of paper.  We cannot directly perceive the ten dimensions of space, but String Theory suggests they exists for certain mathematical and scientific observations to be true. Take for instance the spectrum's red-shift observations of deep space objects that indicate the objects are moving away from us a tremendous speed.  That movement is not in the three dimensions of space as we perceive it, but is on the surface of a 4th-dimension that is ever expanding. We see the effect but we can't see the dimension.

The existence of this 4th-dimension easily explains how Christ can seemingly appear to walk through a wall in the Upper Room, or how the Apostles and Christ can be appear to be transported instantly from one place to another. Or how the Red Sea is apparently parted. In all of these instances the laws of the natural universe are not broken, but rather we are allowed to physically experience what is always there. It's as if I go from bright sunlight into a dark room. For a while I can see nothing, until my eyes adjust, and then I see everything that has always been there. It's not a miracle. Things do not suddenly appear out of nothing.

All such "miracles" do violate our current understanding of Newtonian three-dimensions of space and time, but they obviously don't need to violate the laws of the universe when completely understood.

Monkeys and Witchcraft

This throws a monkey wrench into the atheist's arguments about needing "legitimate" evidence to "unanswered questions." In effect the atheist is demanding omniscience of the universe of knowledge. He is claiming to be, ironically, God. He/she is either claiming to know all or are expecting God to provide all knowledge. But that is something he/she will never have (unless they are "lucky" enough to get to heaven). Arrogance that they are important enough to have such knowledge cuts them off from God, who demands that we trust him for what our  minds are too small to understand. "Now we see through a glass darkly." Their illogical demand to be "god-like" in terms of knowledge (either now or at sometime in the future) cuts them off from the revelations that only faith and inform them about.

Did you see the "typo?" It wasn't. That last "and" was to be a "can". (See what mistakes and knowledge can impart?) Something does not make sense (like my last sentence) until new data is provided (it's a "can")  suddenly makes sense.  All human history is filled with such examples, especially in the history of science. What mankind thought was witchcraft of the 18th century is today "modern medicine" or "medical miracles."

Thus, the atheist, by his claim of of omniscience (there IS no God), and by his demand, "I need to know all to believe,"  errors on two fronts.  If he's honest, he "knows" he is not perfect, and that he is fully capable of making a typo.

Science Assumes Order

This leads "naturally" to the role of Christian Faith, without which few scientific discoveries would have been possible. Faith is irrevocably tied to scientific discovery because science assumes there is a natural order to be discovered. That is, science has faith that the universe is ordered and is not random or chaotic.  That order fulfills a mystical purpose is the scientist's assumption. That supposition allows science to use syllogisms to construct hypotheses, and then use logic to test them. The correct syllogisms lead to a constructive universe, not a destructive one. Without faith in a higher entity that designed and maintains the order, there is no purpose of the universe, and no hypotheses that can be tested.

Atheists are Logical Cowards

But we are sidetracked by all this talk of the need for evidence. What is really going on is this: Atheists hide behind the color of logic and evidence for fear of confronting the moral code of a just and gracious God. Atheism is a cowardly way to avoid natural law -- the natural moral code -- of the Creator. It's really not about evidence. Thus, the atheist isn't saying, "There are no miracles." or "There is no god," as if he was omniscient on that point. But he can say, and he has full right to it:  "There is no God -- Whom I will obey." Ah! Now that's evidence that makes logical sense.

Other References

C.S. Lewis is his book Miracles, uses an argument similar to this, but different enough to be interesting. His premise is that due to humanity's lack of knowledge about the universe, natural laws should be perceived as laws about the way mater and time should normally interact, given our limited perspective of reality. But once new information or some new stimuli is put into the system of nature, natural law takes over and different (unnatural or supernatural) consequences result. Science is nothing more than the observation of nature and the construction of laws about what is observed. So, say we have a tank of fish, and we study them in this isolated situation and make up rules about their behavior. But one day we see something that is not "natural" as we have described the fishes's world. That unnatural behavior, or supernatural behavior, may be the consequence of a new input to the system, and after that new input natural law takes over and we see the natural consequence. Thus, when Mary is impregnated by the Holy Spirit we have a new input into a natural environment...and Mary gives birth, according to natural law, 9 months later.

Lewis makes the point I do above. No natural law is ever broken. Natural laws respond consistently to stimuli around them. What we see, that appears to be a miracle, is actually just a response of nature to a stimuli we have never seen before. 


  1. I don’t think that it really matters whether you define a miracle as natural or supernatural. When it comes to our ability to draw inferences from evidence, the appearance that the laws of nature are being broken thwarts us just as completely as the actual breaking of the laws of nature.

    The only reason we think that fingerprints on a gun might be evidence of who committed a murder is because we think we understand the natural processes by which the pattern on the human finger can come to appear on the handle of a gun and we think that those processes act consistently and invariably. If we didn’t understand that these patterns appear as the result of secretions from the friction ridges on the human finger, we couldn’t infer that the fingerprint was evidence of who handled the gun. If we thought that such patterns appeared randomly on objects or if we thought that they appeared by divine fiat, we couldn’t say that the fingerprints were evidence of anything.

    In order for us to infer a particular cause from an effect, we have to be able to say something about the processes by which those effects are normally caused. However we define miracles, we don’t have any way to say that particular evidence is more likely to be the result of a miracle than a natural process that we understand.

  2. As he concludes at the end, the real position of the Athiest is that the don't want there to be a God, so they don't have to follow any morality. Without a God, everything can be rationalized. Everything is about me. I can live my life based upon what I feel makes me happy, no matter the effect/affect on anyone else. Without God, the ten commandments do not exist. Therefore I can break anyone without any consequence or guilt.