A philosophical defence of miracles
In his last book There is A God, British philosopher and atheist Antony Flew mentions three phenomena that cannot be explained from a naturalistic perspective. These are 1) the origin of life from non-life, 2) the origin of reproduction (without which natural selection is a late non-starter), and 3) “the origin of the coding and information processing that is central to all life-forms…”.
These phenomena, Flew contends, make sense only if you invoke God.
Here now is a condensed summation of the central arguments Hume levelled against miracles, as provided by the late Christian philosopher Norman Geisler.
Geisler says Hume, if read in his ‘softer’ view of natural law, did not argue “…for the impossibility of miracles, but for the incredibility of accepting miracles”. The argument can be stated this way:
1. A miracle is by definition a rare occurrence.
2.Natural law is by definition a description of regular occurrence.
3.The evidence for the regular is always greater than that for the rare.
4.A wise man always bases his belief on the greater evidence.
“Therefore, a wise man should never believe in miracle.” (See In Defence of Miracles, edited by Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas, page 75.)
This argument is formidable but not insuperable, as we hope to show.
When Hume claims that there is uniform experience against the reality of miracles, he is guilty of the informal logical mistakes called ‘begging the question’ and ‘special pleading’.
Since Hume is not omniscient, he cannot know that all experience is against miracles without looking at the evidence, including future evidence; hence, he is guilty of begging the question.
On the other hand, if by uniform experience Hume simply means the select experience of some persons who claim that they have never encountered a miracle, he is guilty of special pleading, because there are other persons who claim to have encountered miracles.
The only way of escape for Hume is to prove that miracles can never ever happen. In other words, that they are either logical absurdities or practical impossibilities.
Geisler indicts Hume for not weighing evidence for miracles, but simply adding evidence against them. A rugged but not incorrect version of Hume’s argument is that since human death is normal and regular, no one should believe in a few claimed resurrections, since deaths will always outnumber resurrections.
This position is not worthy of a rational person though. Rare but real events will always be outnumbered by regular events, but sensible folk scrupulously examine the evidence for the rare.They do not simply reject out of hand every claim for a rare event.
Here now is a really cute and deadly indictment of Hume by Geisler. Geisler says that Hume’s argument “…equates quantity of evidence and probability. It says, in effect, that we should always believe what is most probable (in the sense of ‘enjoying the highest odds’). But this is silly”.
“On this basis, a dice player should not believe the dice show three sixes on the first roll, since the odds against it are 63 or 216 to 1 [the odds of being dealt a perfect bridge hand are more mind-boggling, about a trillion to 1, but it has happened] … .
“ What Hume seems to overlook is that wise people base their beliefs on facts, not simply on odds. Sometimes the ‘odds’ against an event are high (based on past observation), but the evidence for the event is otherwise very good (based on current observation or reliable testimony). Hume’s argument confuses quantity of evidence with the quality of evidence. Evidence should be weighed, not added.”( In Defence of Miracles, page 79)
Another flaw in Hume’s obsession with uniform past experience and his almost knee-jerk aversion to strange new events or exceptions to the norm, is that it is unscientific. Think about it, as Geisler urges, science makes advances and discovers new laws by “established or repeatable exceptions to past patterns... . When an observed exception to a past ‘law’ is established, that ‘law’ (L1) is revised and a new ‘law’ (L2) replaces it… .Without established exceptions, no progress can be made in science” (page 81).
Another dimension of the unscientific nature of Hume’s position is that, at times, just one solidly attested fact can be all that’s necessary to validate or refute a scientific hypothesis or theory.
The over 50-year-old SETI project (the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence) will be declared successful if only one message from outer space is received by a radio telescope. By ‘message’ we mean a sound that is mathematically distinguishable from the regular noise that is normally emitted. Scientific validation from one single event.
Hume’s naturalism was his philosophical undoing because he could not, and would not, countenance anything beyond the natural. If Hume were around to have read Flew’s last book, he, too, like many naturalists, would have had a most difficult time countering Flew’s challenges to naturalism.
Add to Flew’s three-fold challenge to naturalism how self-consciousness could arise from mindless matter and the problems are aggravated.
At the risk of belabouring the criticism of Hume, let me make the point that even if one might wish to say the world now operates exclusively on natural law, you could hardly deny miracles or supernatural events (to adopt Prof John Lennox’s preference) at the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the origin of genetic coding.
Listen to Allan Sandage (winner of the Crafoord prize, astronomy’s equivalent of the Nobel), “I find it quite improbable that [the order in the universe] came out of chaos. There has to be some organising principle. God to me is a mystery but is the explanation for the miracle of existence — why there is something rather than nothing.” (Cited in John Lennox, Gunning for God, page 35)
Scientist and theist Richard Bubex contends: “ The natural order exists only because God is constantly active in upholding it. God does not use natural processes as if they existed without Him. God does not take advantage of natural laws to accomplish His will, as if the laws existed without Him… .Thus miracles are not some kind of interference by God in the normal course of events, as though events would go on in their own way without Him if he didn’t intervene; [a miracle is] a particular way in which God’s unlimited free activity manifests itself.” (Cited in Ronald H. Nash, Faith & Reason, 242-243.)
Contrary to Hume then, if one defines properly and thinks cogently, one would have to concede the reality or at least the possibility of miracles.
If miracles are possible, then the evidence for the virginal conception and Resurrection of Jesus Christ deserve examination, at least, for its probability.
Rev Clinton Chisholm is a retired Jamaica Baptist Union pastor, holds an MA in biblical languages from Sheffield University in England and was a teaching assistant in Hebrew in the university’s Biblical Studies Department. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.