Recently I was invited to be a guest on an atheist podcast with two extremely intelligent hosts; Michael Long and Ben Wallis. The podcast (which originally went by the name “Truly Free”) is called “Goodness over God“. Now, while I have more than a couple reservations about my performance, this was my first time being invited to be a guest on a podcast, and it in fact inspired me to start my own podcast (which hasn’t yet really had much traction). Although my mistakes will be doubtless immortalized on the web (to borrow Michael’s phrase from conversation with him), I think the basic case I sketched out stands, and either way it was a learning experience. The particular episode where I was a guest was on the topic of miracles, history and epistemology.
In that podcast I outline my reasons why I think Hume’s arguments (and Humean arguments in general) against belief in miracles being “epistemically responsible” (borrowing the term from Bonjour) fail. I think perhaps because I am so comfortable with engaging Michael and Ben as paltalk friends in debate, I may have jumped too keenly to the mic on more than one occasion. However, their podcast is both of the highest quality (of the counter-apologetic podcasts I’ve ever heard) and is worth being taken seriously by Christians and atheists alike. So, despite whatever kind of fool I may have made of myself, I think the conversation was worthwhile and the podcast is worth linking to.
Now, concerning a handful of my mistakes, of course I know that there is no such thing as ‘negative probability’ which slipped out by mistake as I was trying to say probability of anything less than 0.5. Also, my persistent use of the term Naturalism gave the impression that I was carrying the conversation on illegitimately ignoring Michael’s plea to drop the term entirely, though I don’t think it was. First, what I meant by contrasting Naturalism and Atheism was simply that somebody like Hegel could give us a system which isn’t anything like what I mean by ‘Naturalism’ all while being an Atheist. A Naturalist is one whose picture of the world doesn’t include God or anything like God. The problem of course is that it is at first glance hard to see what this definition adds to a mundane definition of atheism. The problem, which I recognize with greater clarity now, is with the “or anything like God”, given that it is so ambiguous that I cannot presume that it will include things like the soul, an afterlife, or an Omega-point a la Teilhard-de-Chardin. Those things are all logically possible on atheism, but I take it that Naturalism excludes such things. However, as Michael is not your average Naturalist (meaning approximately one who believes in Materialism or Physicalism) but is actually a kind of Idealist, the distinction which once seemed clearer begins to dissolve at the borders and its hard to see that the term is really useful at all.
I will defend the use of the term Naturalism in this way: that it was the only way to speak coherently about ‘miracles’ given our definition of miracles as immediate acts of God which are also possible outcomes of the world running its course without such intervention (thus, in principle not something to be explained by appeal to observed regularities). Granted we ran into a problem when I talked about the ‘Natural Capacities’ of Nature (again, apologies for tripping over my tongue), I still can’t see any way to talk meaningfully about miracles without using the label ‘naturalism’. Perhaps I should suggest the following: take some view to qualify as ‘Naturalism’ just in the case it is any model of the way the world is absent God.
The conversation, of course, came to a solid disagreement when it came to making assumptions about God’s psychology. Being unsatisfied with the way that was dealt with (or wasn’t dealt with) by the time the episode came to its end, I thought maybe I would try to advance the conversation by treating that objection more seriously here. My argument isn’t so subtle that it needs much explaining beyond being outlined. Michael accused me of making assumptions about the psychology of God and what God would do such that Jesus rising again from the dead would be more likely to be an act of God than his life and ministry without putting a bow on his life’s work with a resurrection from the dead. First of all this accusation doesn’t touch-base at all, as the question was only whether Jesus’ rising from the dead was more likely a miracle than not if it did occur. The additional question of whether or not a miracle actually did occur is presumably legitimate because on a theistic view of the world allowance can be made for God “regularly” doing miracles (note that the specific way in which I use the term ‘regular’ here is in concert with the rest of our conversation and doesn’t tell us anything about frequency necessarily). Now, on the one hand that just makes Theology part of ‘science’ and miracles thus DO fit into the model of regularities for a Theist. However, I sense that there is a deeper, more profound objection at play here. The objection is that in order for that ‘Theology’ to explain otherwise paranormal events we need to make assumptions about God – Namely that his interests, understanding, desires are in some degree analogous to ours. That his whose psychological makeup is analogous to ours. This is simply the doctrine that man is made in the image of God, and that literal language about God must be analogous language rather than Univocal (see Aquinas over against Duns Scotus). Natural Theology might be able to get us there through some clever and lengthy argument, but I want to bypass any such attempt and cut straight to the more relevant point: that Revelation is logically possible.
Now, by ‘Revelation’ I mean God communicating himself to man in some way. If revelation is logically possible the only way in which it could be possible is if God communicated himself meaningfully to us, such that he would ‘speak our language’ or become a Character in the “human conversation”.
This is simply to say that God would present himself in such a way that we could possibly relate to him and/or respond to his message in a meaningful way.
My argument would then go something like this. For simplicity’s sake, assume that the existence of God has the probability of 0.5 or higher.
- It is logically possible that God reveals himself to mankind.
- If God reveals himself to mankind, then it involves him communicating himself to us in terms that we could possibly understand.
- It is not unlikely that God would choose to reveal himself (ie. revelation cannot be demonstrated to have a probability of lower than 0.5)
- Anything which does not have a probability of lower than 0.5 all things considered cannot be epistemically irresponsible to believe.
- Revelation may plausibly involve miracles
- Paranormal events which, if they were miracles, would vindicate some plausible instance of revelation are evidence for that revelation.
- postulating miracles cannot be prima-facie any more or less unlikely than positing revelation.
- The probability of a miracle without the assumption of a systematic theology and with the assumption only of natural theology is just the same as the probability of revelation.
- the probability of a miracle is not lower than 0.5, assuming Natural Theology (minimally that God exists, that he can act in the world, etc).
- To reject 9 is simply to reject 8 and/or 3 & 5.
- But 3 & 5, and 8 are plausibly true
- Therefore 9.
- It is not epistemically irresponsible to believe in revelation from 3&4
- It is not epistemically irresponsible from 13& (7&8) to believe in miracles
- It is plausible to believe in revelation and miracles given instances of 6.
That’s a little messy and roundabout, but hopefully it’s clear enough for a rough draft. Thus, to say that one can never postulate a miracle in an epistemically responsible way is simply to say that nobody can ever postulate that some Revelation has occurred. If some Revelation has occurred, this logic would not let us acknowledge it in principle. But there is no good reason to think that if God exists revelation has not occurred. If revelation has occurred then necessarily our assumptions about God’s psychology by analogy must be at play in providing us with a reliable cognitive process for detecting revelation. To say that this is illegitimate is to say that “assuming by analogy things about God’s psychology is a cognitively reliable process” is false or likely to be false. But the probability of it is at least not demonstrably lower than 0.5, as we see from premises 1,2&3. From 4, then, it seems to follow that positing some revelation is not epistemically irresponsible. And so on and so forth.
As an additional argument, I suppose I would ask again “what else could one expect of us?” There is simply NO alternative model (no other than assuming by analogy things about God’s psychology) for detecting revelation. I suppose one could say that it is unlikely that we are created in the image of God, thus throwing a wrench in the works – but it is difficult to see what kind of plausible argument could possibly be offered for that absurd conclusion. Otherwise one just has to say that the probability of revelation is less than 0.5. But I can’t see any plausible argument for that either.
Obviously somebody could say that all arguments for atheism are good arguments for thinking that the probability of revelation (and/or of a miracle, which might be thought of as an instance of revelation) is lower than 0.5. But at that point the whole argument is begging the question of Natural Theology, and the conversation then should have been about whether it is likely that God exists. Assuming that God’s existence is not of probability lower than 0.5, my above argument follows.
That is all.