Miracles and Epistemology

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.

  1. It is logically possible that God reveals himself to mankind.
  2. If God reveals himself to mankind, then it involves him communicating himself to us in terms that we could possibly understand.
  3. 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)
  4. Anything which does not have a probability of lower than 0.5 all things considered cannot be epistemically irresponsible to believe.
  5. Revelation may plausibly involve miracles
  6. Paranormal events which, if they were miracles, would vindicate some plausible instance of revelation are evidence for that revelation.
  7. postulating miracles cannot be prima-facie any more or less unlikely than positing revelation.
  8. 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.
  9. 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).
  10. To reject 9 is simply to reject 8 and/or 3 & 5.
  11. But 3 & 5, and 8 are plausibly true
  12. Therefore 9.
  13. It is not epistemically irresponsible to believe in revelation from 3&4
  14. It is not epistemically irresponsible from 13& (7&8) to believe in miracles
  15. 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.

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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4 Responses to Miracles and Epistemology

  1. Michael Long says:

    Hey Tyrel,

    Congrads on the podcast and the Blog, I look forward to having you on our podcast soon. I’m sorry this is so late in coming, but here is a response to your post on our debate:

    “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. ”

    To clarify, I don’t think that an event that is inconsistent with observed regularities are in the least more or less likely under theism as opposed to atheism, assuming the God we are considering is the transcendent author of all of our experiences.

    “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 juts 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. ”

    Yes, I think that is the issue. There is a little more to it though; we would also have to be able to speak to how likely any state of affairs is given that there is no God. What if the ‘Universe-transcending context’ is non-existent or does not contain God? What should we expect the universe to be like under those circumstances? Again, I would say that we can’t speak to the question. So, even if we (somehow) knew a conscious universe-creator who transcended the Universe would see to it that x held, and x in fact held in the Universe, we still wouldn’t have reason to suppose there was a conscious universe-creator based upon that evidence, for we have no reason to suppose that x wouldn’t also hold in a non-theistic world.

    “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.”

    I don’t think you are entitled to assume any probability for a transcendent being’s existence.

    “1. It is logically possible that God reveals himself to mankind. ”

    Ok, he could make people believe in him anyway, though I argue he can’t give them good reason to believe he is the transcendent creator.

    “2. If God reveals himself to mankind, then it involves him communicating himself to us in terms that we could possibly understand. Ok…
    3. 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)”

    This is a crucial point. It can be the case that it cannot be demonstrated to have a probability lower than 0.5, but it does not follow that we are entitled to ascribe any probability to this contingency. Not 0.5. I argue that ascriptions of probability depend upon inductive reasoning, which is based upon our experience with the world. We are talking about a context that is not subject to those regularities, so talk of such probabilities is meaningless or purely subjective.

    “4. Anything which does not have a probability of lower than 0.5 all things considered cannot be epistemically irresponsible to believe.”

    I think is epistemically irresponsible to believe arbitrary postulates, and that seems to me to be what this is. Until we talk about 3&4, there doesn’t seem to be much point in my continuing to analyze this argument…

    “5. Revelation may plausibly involve miracles
    6. Paranormal events which, if they were miracles, would vindicate some plausible instance of revelation are evidence for that revelation.
    7. postulating miracles cannot be prima-facie any more or less unlikely than positing revelation.
    8. 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.
    9. 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).
    10. To reject 9 is simply to reject 8 and/or 3 & 5.
    11. But 3 & 5, and 8 are plausibly true
    12. Therefore 9.
    13. It is not epistemically irresponsible to believe in revelation from 3&4
    14. It is not epistemically irresponsible from 13& (7&8) to believe in miracles
    15. 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.”

    Exactly; revelation from God would be a kind of miracle. It may be that there is revelation, but we can’t have reason to believe that.

    “If some Revelation has occurred, this logic would not let us acknowledge it in principle. ”

    Yep.

    “But there is no good reason to think that if God exists revelation has not occurred. ”

    And no reason to think that it HAS 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?’ ”

    I’d like everyone to recognize that they aren’t in a position to formulate any sort of conclusion about that which transcends the Universe. It seems to me that apologists want to help themselves to whatever features of our models which seem to be convenient to argue for theism (like how consciousnesses sometimes get what they want) and to reject any inconvenient features of those models (like how limited and unreliable consciousnesses are, how they emerge from a physical environment, how they can’t bring matter, energy or other consciousnesses into existence, etc.) The best they can muster in defense of God are groundless intuitions of the sort that have been disproven time and time again as opposed even to well-established regularities. But when something doesn’t fit, well, God is transcendent! His nature isn’t bound by anything in our experience, except for what we want him to be bound by!

    What do I expect? Well, I think I should be able to expect theists to stop picking and choosing whatever they like from our models. Either we are talking about something transcendent, or we aren’t. If we aren’t, our best models tell us that consciousness is a feature of a physical system, relies upon lots of cognitive short-cuts to navigate its environment, can’t cause new stuff to come into existence, and can’t even consistently control its own states, so lets stop talking seriously about disembodied minds who’s wishes all come true. If you are talking about something transcendent, than please stop evoking our models; for you have rejected them as a guide. You have nothing with which to draw inferences about the genuinely transcendent. If you think that some aspects of our models can be applied to a context outside of our Universe and others can’t, please explain the basis on which you make that distinction.

    Thanks,
    Michael

    • As always I thank you for your thoughtful responses.

      Ok, there are only a few areas that are actually worth responding to here, so I’ll just go directly to those.
      1. The existence of a transcendent being
      2. If something has no probability according to some ‘pattern-standard’ then it is arbitrary
      3. God can’t give them good reason to believe he is the transcendent creator.
      4. That our best models of minds are fundamentally physical

      In answer to 1:
      I was doing us a favor. I am, as I’ve realized, a non-cognitivist with respect to Atheism. My idea of God is so fundamental to my view of modality that I cannot conceive of a logically possible world in which (or in correspondence with which) there was not God. My only point was to say that it isn’t improbable that God exist, and if there is no probability that God exists then either the question is senseless or else one must just be content with admitting that God’s existence is not ‘unlikely’.

      In answer to 2:
      Again, the same kind of response applies. If there is no way to gauge the probability, then at least it cannot be irresponsible to believe it because it is ‘improbable’. However, if some proposition is such that it is not only impossible to assign a probability to it, but is also momentous in the William Jamesian sense, then it seems that it isn’t arbitrarily accepted or denied. I maintain that revelation of a universe-transcendent God is a big deal – thus momentous. The only thing my argument needs is for it to not be logically impossible for revelation to occur, and for it to be logically possible that it be the epistemically responsible thing to believe. Thus my premises can be re-construed to say that, against the pattern-standard we have, a miracle qua miracle is neither likely or unlikely. That seems good enough.

      In answer to 3:
      What if God took away doxastic voluntarism with regards to whether he existed for some cognizer. Wouldn’t that qualify as a good reason for that cognizer to believe that God exists? At least we can’t call him irresponsible. I suppose you would say “yes, but that doesn’t leave any ‘positive’ good reason to believe that God exists, anymore than there is a positive good reason to think that I myself exist.” This seems pedantic, but let’s go with it for fun.
      What about some cognizer with some cognitive-map (a paradigm/standard) and some set of memories (real or not) which, according to the Master-mind God, the cognizer could not make sense of, in light of his cognitive makeup, without God? Is there some reason that’s not logically possible? I recognize of course that our views of modality differ significantly, but on either view, is it really the case that this cognizer does not have a good reason (namely, his memories) to believe in God?
      Note: if on your view it is still not possible for God to give a cognizer (presumably other than himself) any good reason to think that God exists than not only does the conversation fail to get off the ground, but I have to wonder whether your view of God is that he is not omnipotent. So long as it is logically possible for an agent to believe in God and his true revelation in an epistemically responsible way, then God could realize this situation in principle.

      response to 4:
      This is obviously question begging. What more should I say? I suppose I could point out that when we methodologically doubt we cannot help but come to the conclusion that Descartes comes to, which cannot be analyzed from the first person perspective in the same terms which we analyze the external world in principle. I want to avoid jumping into a debate about consciousness here, but I should at least think that it is worth pointing out that if the best model of a mind that we have is immaterial (as I would suggest it in fact is) then it seems question begging to say that God is not analogous to what we see in ourselves/each other as cognizers.

      I have only two seminal points here:

      First, if paranormal events occur in such a frequency and manner that some of these are best explained as miracles (I take it that some explanation is always to be preferred to no explanation), then ‘miracles’ fit into the patterns of our experiences in the same way that any empirical event does.

      Second, even if miracles cannot be inferred from the pattern-standards of our experience (which seems absurd to me) we can still responsibly believe them to be true. For instance I may not have any way to judge whether something is an X or a Y, but I may have reasons to prefer that it be an ‘X’. This alone (at least, on Atheism) is itself a good reason to think that something is an X, since the goal of truth is simply pragmatic anyways. Where no logic can lead me to distinguish between ‘X’ and ‘Y’, I must either remain agnostic (which in the case of a momentous decision is cowardice) or else I must hedge my bets with one or the other by some reasons which are non-logical.

  2. Michael Long says:

    I’m afraid the website altered my post, because I used greater-than and less-than symbols. The following section:

    “This is a crucial point. It can be the case that it cannot be demonstrated to have a probability lower than 0.5, but it does not follow that we are entitled to ascribe any probability to this contingency. Not 0.5. I argue that ascriptions of probability depend upon inductive reasoning, which is based upon our experience with the world. We are talking about a context that is not subject to those regularities, so talk of such probabilities is meaningless or purely subjective.”

    should read as follows:

    This is a crucial point. It can be the case that it cannot be demonstrated to have a probability lower than 0.5, but it does not follow that we are entitled to ascribe any probability to this contingency. Not 0.5, greater than 0.5, or less than 0.5. I argue that ascriptions of probability depend upon inductive reasoning, which is based upon our experience with the world. We are talking about a context that is not subject to those regularities, so talk of such probabilities is meaningless or purely subjective.

  3. Upon more recent reflection, perhaps I should simply have articulated the argument using ‘plausibility’ rather than probability. Perhaps I could simply say “it is plausible that …” or “it is not implausible that …”

    Also, to emphasize again, what I am suggesting is that miracles are indeed a normative part of human experience, that they can be accounted for ‘regularly’ by the science of Theology. They are no more irregular than events which the natural sciences provide some model of the world in which they are explicable.

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