Monday, July 15, 2013

Miracle Pluralism

I know that lately it seems that all I've been posting about has been goings on from other blogs I like, but I swear that I'm actually working on some a substantive piece of counter apologeitcs.  That said, there has been a nice back and forth between Jonathan Pearce and Randal Rauser on a specific kind of "miracle" that was Randal discussed in the book God or Godless that I reviewed.

I put both these guys in the category of "smart motherfuckers" and they both write stuff I find engaging to read.  So here's my take on the back and forth with a perspective that hopefully adds something to the discussion.

I think the best argument against the kind of miracles Randal is claiming is something that Jonathan did discuss that Randal ignored in his rebuttal: That of "miracle pluralism".

Jon did give multiple examples, so when Randal says his context was insignificant I'm assuming Randal is referring to Jon's "air pump" example. However, the example that most closely resembles the story from Kent is the one about getting advice from a complete stranger about how to transition his twins to solid foods.

I think the critical problem with Randal's formulation of miracles is that much like the reformed epistemology Randal adopts, it can equally support a wide variety of religions that offer contradictory truth claims among each other.

Jon gives a good example of the kind of "miracle" that can happen to an atheist. You've got one for a Christian. We can get miracle claims from those who follow mystics like Sathya Sai Baba, or general Hindu's, or Muslims, or Mormons. They can find similar inspiration from the Koran, Book of Mormon, or whatever have you.

I don't deny for one second that Randal has a valid point in that all of these events are interpreted in light of the background beliefs of the individuals experiencing it. The problem is that such a view equally justifies the "miracles" of each of these religions. These are "miracles" that could in principle have purely mundane or natural explanations for their occurrences.

Randal is correct in that while they could be explained without appeal to the divine that does not automatically mean that the divine did not use "natural methods" to bring about an extraordinary occurrence. We can't "definitively rule out" divine causation here, but we can do two things:

1.) Appeal to methodological naturalism.

In the grand scheme of things one should prefer naturalistic explanations over supernatural ones. Unlike metaphysical naturalism, this methodological approach is actually at the heart of science. It absolutely does apply since by your own admission we are talking about events that could be explained in terms of naturalistic methods.

2.) Appeal to pluralism.

In light of the fact that each of these "miracles" that exist in a wide variety of religions, across a wide variety of believers, that are all told with an equal amount of fervor and belief - we can infer that such kinds of events most likely don't constitute divine intervention. This based on the idea that each "miracle" lends support to competing contradictory religions.

So from both of these principles we can identify the common theme: events that could in principle be explained by non-divine methods, and conclude it is more reasonable to believe that there was no divine agency at work in these kinds of claims.


  1. (First time commenter; long-in-the-trenches atheist here. I enjoy your writing, Sir).

    I think you are right on, CA.

    First, as you point out, the type of justifications provided by theists inevitably "prove too much" insofar as once they drop the bar low enough to justify their own beliefs all manner of competing and contradictory beliefs hop over the bar as well.

    I don't see anything at this point from Randal that solves this issue.

    And when it comes to the "we all reason from our presuppositions" retort, we need to keep pointing out, as you have, that there is the wide world of facts to account for, as you put it in Randal's thread "the whole set of background knowledge we have about the world."

    Once you take the theist's moves from simply applying to his religious beliefs, to see how well these methods hold up to the wider world of facts we have to negotiate, it's then that their epistemological moves start faltering.

    (Plantinga's Properly Basic Belief in God, falters on such grounds - the real world offers all sorts of defeaters which he seems to just brush away, and he leaves the door open to all manner of contradictory conclusions being derived from the same method of "knowledge" he is using.
    And, oh gawd, don't get me started on his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, a truly terrible argument that Randal apparently endorses).

    (BTW, I'm not a Prof, that's an old nickname...)

  2. To continue...

    Like the plugging a leak at one point in a leaking boat, answers like Randal's "The Spark's Case" was a miracle, only causes leaks to start popping out all over the boat - e.g. the idea that God intervened for the Sparks has bizarre repercussions for how this Benevolent God distributes his help. It's exactly as silly as the person who survives a tragic plane crash that killed everyone else, including all those praying to God during it's descent. "God MUST have intervened to save me because I survived a crash to deadly it killed everyone else!" Which makes a purportedly benevolent God utterly baffling and for for all we can infer, arbitrary. Second, in invoking God as the cause, it completely ignores all the cases showing the INEFFICACY of invoking this God, all the people who died on the presumption that invoking a god had any efficacy.

    Or it's like people winning lotteries and saying - as they often have! - "God answered my prayers!"
    But, of course, countless people are attempting the same method, praying to God, every lottery, without their prayers being answered. All the failures of prayer must be figured into the reasonableness of appealing to prayer as a cause for something that could also be coincidence.

    How many times had the Sparks invoked God via prayer, and not have those prayers be efficacious? How many times do PEOPLE IN GENERAL invoke Divine Power...without their desires being fulfilled? A rather astounding number of times, it appears. You can not just ignore all these background "tries" as you would all the tries to flip heads 5 times in a row, ignoring any implications of all the times it didn't work.

    This is the very essence of selection bias, one that Randal seems to fall right into.

    Further, from what I read at Randal's blog he seems just amazingly credulous about the Sparks case, taking the description of the events at face value. But this ignores just how OFTEN such tales have proved dubious or unsupported when
    critically investigated. People who report miracles, or the supernatural, or other such phenomenon ROUTINELY forget relevant facts, exaggerate what happened, misremember, alter (even if not deliberately) how the events occurred in their memory and in the telling etc. Just how rigorously was (or can?) those things presented as "facts" about reading bible verses be confirmed? Further, is it normally the case that

    Kent Sparks has no reasons whatsoever when seeking out any particular part of the Bible to read? It was apparently a pretty special day, the day Kent had phoned House of Ruth to close their file for adoption, so it makes sense such things would be on his mind. Was it absolutely out of habit for Kent to go to proverbs in a reflective mood? Was there something likely in proverbs that would appeal to a Christian in such circumstances? And hence is it that unusual that another Christian friend familiar with the situation might have gone to the same part of the bible? And with BOTH parties having the issue of adoption on their mind, is it "miraculous" that they would search for a verse that could be construed to be talking, generally, about what was on their mind? It hardly seems so.

    Not to mention that, as per the typical "theistic miracle from scripture" (prophecies included) the scripture in question was vague enough that it could be flexed to cover ANY NUMBER of situations, and was hardly specified enough to the situation to invoke the miraculous!

    Over and over when I read even sophisticated, otherwise bright Christians, I see just how low they are willing to lower the bar for things they like to believe.


  3. I'm sorry to hog your comments section for a moment, but I just want to blurt out one last thing:

    If something is obvious from human history, from human experience, and from the struggle to gain knowledge about the world, it's that we are masters of self-deception. When we are at our most honest and rigorous in acknowledging this problem, and finding ways to deal with it, we call it "science." And the epistemological virtues that underwrite science aren't hermetically sealed to the science lab, when one is wearing a white coat. The problem of assigning cause when there are various possible candidates for a cause goes to the very fundamental problems of making sense of our experience. You don't even have to talk about "materialism" or "naturalism," so long as our experience, reason and logic together suggest that
    we face these issues, it's job one for anyone claiming "knowledge" to do so in concert with a method that is responsible in dealing with these problems.

    The problem is that whenever I ask religious people "how do you know that?" inevitably they have given a very poor account, showing they really haven't been very epistemologically responsible in their method.

    But then they often say "Oh, but all those strictures are fine if you are doing science...but I'm not doing science, I'm doing religion."

    But a lack of epistemic rigor does not become rigor, or "knowledge," simply by slapping another name on what you are doing.

    One may as well accept from a person whose methods are unsound, concluding that water cures cancer, that he can say "Oh, this isn't scientific knowledge I've got; it's Purple Knowledge."

    Why anyone ought to accept such a person has "knowledge" whatever he label he slaps on it is beyond me.

    Ok. Finished.

    Do you agree Counter Apologist? Criticisms...?


    1. Hey Prof, thanks for the kind words.

      There's a lot to reply to here, but I'll give it a shot.

      1.) You've got the main thrust of what I'm trying to show. The idea Randal is going for is to argue that believers are justified in accepting these kinds of events as "miracles" or acts of divine agency. This is to act as a faith-reinforcer. The issue is that even counting his "warranted belief" style epistemology, he should have to consider the total available data which would drastically reduce the confidence in thinking that divine agency is at play.

      2.) I avoided this kind of track of argument. Randal has a very good reply here: you're arguing that god has a misplaced sense of priorities, which really is just a spin on the problem of evil - to which Randal has got a ready made answer.

      Now I of course find such answers to be ridiculous, but that's purely a subjective matter. That said, you're talking to a group of people that have accepted such an answer to the PoE that can account for starving kids, child cancer, natural disasters, animal suffering, and all the rest. If they can accept an answer that covers that, they'll accept the same answer to account for "misplaced priorities", so I wanted to take a different track.

      3.) While I think you're right here, you have to be extremely careful. The idea that we can self-deceive ourselves is universal and cuts atheists as much as it cuts against believers. One area that I think Randal has a cutting reply to us is the idea of "naturalism" which cuts off the idea of a god a-priori, once we adopt that view then we're standing on the same epistemological ground as Christians and other believers.

      The problem boils down to a hole/well known problem in epistemology, and it's not like there is an absolute solution in epistemology - evidentialism is strong but there are criticisms. Yes we work from evidentialism because it works, but we can't pretend that other methods that are compatible with science have no merit.

  4. CA,

    1). Exactly. His warranted belief epistemology suffers from easy reductio counter arguments, and
    ultimately easily produces contradictions. And if Randal is AWARE of these contradictions as he surely must be, then he can not actually have warrant for his beliefs - he's accepting a method he knows, or ought to know, arrives at contradictions and absurdities.

    I think Randal goes in for a type of universalism (in terms of our fate in an afterlife) doesn't he?
    That would make sense in light of his warranted-belief epistemology, given on these grounds atheism can be warranted for some people, and I'm sure Randal doesn't like the idea of a God punishing someone for a warranted belief.

    2). Oh yeah, I'm quite aware it goes to the problem of evil/God's rationality. That's why I talked of leaks springing elsewhere in the theological boat. And that is indeed another argument. The fact we find their answers ridiculous I submit is not purely subjective. We have rational grounds for thinking this based the poorly justified assumptions, gross inconsistencies and special pleading employed by the theist in answering such matters.

    3). It is because I believe I *am* careful (as you are) that I raise these concerns. I can argue that, you and I and many other atheists form our beliefs much more consistently - much more consistently with the epistemic virtues that ground science, taking the problems of human bias and vulnerability much more seriously and responsibly, than theists like Randal.

    Evoking the Spark's story makes Randal another poster boy for the philosophical incompatibility of religion and science (where one can not acknowledge the reasons for the scientific method and it's cautioning us about the way we come to conclusions on one hand, and then just violate those virtues elsewhere, calling it "religious knowledge." If they are epistemic virtues, they are virtues. You can't cheat).

    I totally agree regarding Naturalism and making an ontological move that dismisses God's on a priori grounds. I've never liked that for the reasons you've brought up. I think it's method, method, method. As I said, I believe the epistemic virtues that have allowed science to be so successful are virtues that cut to the very core of making sense of experience, and hence of reality. I dislike the move of saying "science deals with the natural world, not the supernatural" because this automatically suggests some real other realm and an artificial restriction on science and allows the religious to say "well, we have a way of knowing the supernatural world, and we don't have to use the epistemic justifications accepted for science, because it's a different realm." I thinks this is pure B.S. Science derives from the fundamental problems in making sense of our raw experience.

    (Of course this can lead to questions about what one may be referring to as "natural" and "supernatural," but I'm sure you get my drift without going there).

  5. Finally,

    I agree there are other ways of knowing that are compatible with science, but I see it as more of a continuum, vs other realms of knowing. But since science is the word we apply to our most careful, rigorous attempts at coming to conclusions about reality (a posteriori, at least) I think whatever we think we learn from another method must be compatible with what we have learned, or are able to learn, at least in principle, via our more rigorous method of inquiry (science). Any "truth," for instance, that I might infer from art, has to be compatible with what, at least in principle, I can learn with more rigor applied (science). It will not make sense to take a "truth" learned from experiencing art that violates the worldview built on a much more rigorous epistemological method (e.g. finding a piece of art accurately expresses something about the human condition, vs being given the feeling from a piece of art that we will live forever and accepting that as a truth - the first could in principle be validated more scientifically, the second violates the world implied by our science).

    I would also argue that, while we don't require full scientific rigor for our everyday beliefs (e.g. that I own a car, what I had for breakfast, that Obama is president, etc), we DO require that they be consonant with the epistemic moves that lead down the road to a more rigorous science.
    (E.g., one of the epistemic assumptions that undergird the move toward science is that "things are as they appear to us" *unless we have other good reason to be skeptical.* So we can accept many everyday events on this principle and our reasons for ever being skeptical - e.g. accepting that my neighbor is a human being as he appears to be, but being skeptical that my neighbor is an alien - will be those on the epistemological continuum that justifies science).

    Anyway...thanks for replying. I'll keep watching your blog.

    Prof. (Rich).

  6. Good stuff guys. Interesting!

    Thanks for getting involved CA.