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Caution: Long Paper!
I decided that I might as well finish at least one topic that I broached Sunday night. I alluded to the folks at “infidels.org” having kanipshins over my position that their views have eliminated them a priori from the possibility of recognizing a miracle. I'll expand on that claim.
The discussion to which I’m referring occurred in connection with my essay “Recognizing a Miracle” in the book, In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, ed. by R. Douglas Geivett and Gary Habermas (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997), pp. 99-111. My critic is Richard Carrier, who has said some very unkind things about my essay, which you will find at http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/ind ef/2.html and at http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/indef/3a.ht ml. Over the years, some folks have asked me to write a detailed response to Carrier’s polemic. In various subsequent writings, I have restricted my response basically to my main point, namely the privileged position to recognize a miracle for those who believe in a miracle-doing God. I have not thought it necessary to demonstrate in detail to rational people how obviously Mr. Carrier has been distorting what I said.
I recognize the source of Mr. Carrier’s anger: Nobody likes to hear that their views are irrelevant in a debate. The village atheist hollers invectives at the people who walk to church on Sunday morning because they won’t pay attention to him, and the resident atheists of other village applaud him. The fact is that the believers do not need to pay attention to his insults, and I really saw little point in giving his mistaken oratory more exposure than it deserved. Nevertheless, since I brought up the matter once again the other night, and it has continued to occupy my mind, I decided that I might as well go on to clarify the discussion. Mr. Carrier has the advantage on me insofar as his essay is on-line whereas mine is in a book that not every reader of this blog will have handy, so I shall give lengthy quotation as needed. I just now used the term “discussion,” but what Carrier wrote was not so much a reasoned exposition as a visceral explosion against my point, disguised by an application of undergraduate level philosophical terminology.
The assignment for my article was to write on the topic, “Recognizing a Miracle.” Now, I suppose someone might actually have the arrogance to sit down and write a recipe or a set of strict criteria so that, if they should come across an event that could potentially be a miracle, we could all apply the criteria and agree on that basis whether the event is worthy of being deemed a miracle or not. Unfortunately, if I had concocted such a list of criteria, I would have created a piece of fiction because in real life people do not reason that way when they decide that the event must have been a miracle. Such a list could be a very typical seventeenth-century product, and the person contriving it would probably preface it by saying that from here on out, churches would no longer have to struggle with the issue of recognizing a miracle because, if they only made use of his criteria, no room would be left for doubt. Leibniz comes to mind with his hopes of being able to solve all disputes by rational calculation. He proposed the ideal in the Monadology of a purely logical language that makes metaphysical or ethical reasoning as easy as arithmetic:
Insofar as we might think of Russell and Whitehead to have attempted to create such a language in the Principia Mathematica, we must keep in mind that their project crashed thanks to Gödel’s principle of undecidability. Alan Turing’s calculating machine was a wonderful contribution that led to the invention of the modern computer, but it actually began as a device to discern between problems that were susceptible to solution by logical proof, and those that were not. [See, e.g., David Leavitt, The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer (New York: Norton Atlas Books, 2006)]. Thus, machine-like calculation in philosophy is not necessarily something to be desired, and I think I may be forgiven by all but the most naïve critics for not falling into the trap of once again emulating, say, Frege, Russell, or Hilbert of proposing a line of argumentation on behalf of the recognizability of miracles that would follow such a pattern.
Certainly there are some expectations without which it would not make sense to consider an event miraculous, such as that God’s action in the situation is a reasonable part of the event. Still, even Christians who are fully persuaded of the reality of miracles are not always unanimous on whether a certain event constituted a miracle or not, and I would not presume to set up rules which they must follow. The closest I could come are some statements on pp. 105 and 106, where I said that
My discussion assumes a distinction between providence and miracles. Not every event for which we might say that it is the result of divine action qualifies as a miracle. If it were not so, every event in our lives would be miraculous, which would rob the term of its special meaning. It must be unusual in some way so that the possibility of God’s actions becomes a direct aspect of its explanation. How unusual must it be? Again, this discussion would be a lot easier if I or anyone else could set up a list of exactly what such an unusual event would have to look like, but it would be totally contrived since people don’t call events miracles on the basis of such a list.
I conclude that section by saying on p. 106:
As it is, due to the absence of strict rules or criteria, Carrier considers my article to be so much wasted ink and paper. In his summary of the criticisms he brings up against the book as a whole he states that
We shall take up the separate chapter in a bit. As for the matter of reading Purtill’s chapter, I was never given the opportunity to do so prior to the publication of the book. Consequently, it is true that I did not address problems specific to Purtill’s definition of a miracle, insofar as there may be any, nor was I asked to. Purtill gave a definition of a miracle, as his assignment was. He did not address the problem of “how to recognize a miracle” since that was not included in the topic. Neither did I, come to think of it, because that was not my topic either.
My chapter was entitled, “Recognizing a Miracle,” not “How to Recognize a Miracle.” I believe that I stated my aim fairly clearly, namely to respond to the skeptic’s case that in principle makes it impossible ever to identify an event as a miracle. To quote from the first page (p. 99):
So, when my over-eager critic states that my argument is “too weak” because I only aim “to show that it is ‘possible’ that miracles could be recognized,” and that I never attempt “to show exactly how we are to recognize them,” he makes a partially true assessment, except that an argument with a limited conclusion is stronger than one with a broader one. I never promised to show “how” we are to recognize miracles. I blush to admit that in the very last paragraph I talk about having made a contribution to the topic of “how to recognize a miracle” (p. 111). But I submit that this is not the same thing as having shown “how to recognize a miracle.” To provide an illustration of this distinction, providing an analysis of the DNA of sea urchins makes a contribution to their taxonomy, but doing so is not identical with having provided a taxonomic slot within the animal kingdom for sea urchins.
Mr. Carrier expresses his astonishment that Gary Habermas and Doug Geivett did not “dump” my essay from the collection, and I’m not so impervious as not to feel some hurt in those words. More precisely, I empathize with the hurt that Carrier must have felt on reading my argument that people of his persuasion have neither voice nor vote in deciding whether an event is a miracle or not. Nobody who devotes years of his life finding arguments that supposedly undermine the world view of others likes to read that his opinion does not matter, but I can’t help that. Mr. Carrier will have to come to terms with the significance of his own life’s calling sooner or later.
More than that, I marvel at the lack of careful reading by the gentleman. Surely the point is not so subtle that someone who endows himself with the voice of authority as Richard Carrier does should fail to catch the direction described in the opening pages of my essay. I said that I would address the point made by certain critics of religion that it is impossible to recognize an event as a miracle and I did. He is right that I did not provide an empirical grounding for Purtill’s essay (which is chapter 3) in my article (which is chapter 6—with chapters by Beckwith and Geisler intervening), but unfortunately he is asking for more of a “cumulative case” than I for one, had the opportunity to provide, even if it had been possible to give Carrier the answers he wants. Needless to say, the idea that I make no useful point is belied by his reaction. The highly useful point that I do insist on is that it is a mistake to think that we can only identify a miracle as such if we do so on the basis of the premises that a skeptic allows us to use.
The Small Scope of my Conclusion
So, let us turn to the lengthier treatment Mr. Carrier located on the other website. Once again, he belabors his issues with Purtill, and then, as though there were no chapters in between, he pounces on my piece in a section entitled “Corduan to the rescue—or not.”
First of all, the idea that the editors recruited me to salvage the disaster created by Richard Purtill is, as I intimated earlier, entirely bogus. It’s a nice way to contrive some continuity, but it did not happen that way.
Then, he calls my work “an embarrassment” for reasons that are not immediately clear. His immediate assault is on the narrowness of my conclusion, which he demonstrates with a conflation of phrases from my conclusion. My entire paragraph actually reads on p. 111:
I find it interesting that Carrier includes himself in the category of “unbelievers” rather than “skeptics.” Let me quickly state my definitions of various people and their attitude toward miracles. First of all, here is what I mean by “believer” from p. 102:
When it comes to those who are not “believers” in this narrow sense, I divide up the population into two groups: unbelievers and skeptics. This is a quote from p. 106:
“I'm not joking.” He expostulates. “This is Corduan's argument: in a nut shell, miracles can only be recognized if we first assume, among other things, that God exists and acts in history!”
This nut shell certainly is not my entire argument. But he rightly exposes a crucial point. As I said in the last entry: No God—No miracles! How can one possibly recognize God as having acted in history if we deny his existence or his potential to act in history. Now, we do not have to “assume” that God exists as a purely fideistic commitment; we can, for example, demonstrate the plausibility of his existence with the cosmological argument. What astonishes me is that Carrier finds this point so amazing. What else can a miracle be than an act of God (or perhaps, “a god”)? His reaction manifests a confusion between a miracle and magic, and I’ll come back to this point in a moment. Before doing so, however, I need to clear up his verbal muddle in which he equates a “prima facie presumption” with an “unproven assumption.”
Prima Facie Presumptions
Richard Carrier should know better than to equate these two terms because his article is filled with prima facie presumptions, whether or not he calls them by that name, and I’m sure he would be horrified to equate them with unproven assumptions. Let us consider the latter phrase first. When I make an assumption I accept some belief as true apart from having verified it. As a matter of fact, the very term “unproven assumption” is redundant. If I were to commit myself to the belief that a certain event is a miracle without examining it further, considering alternatives, or undertaking any other investigation, I would, indeed, accept it simply as an assumption. I’m not advocating such a view, and I'm quite sure that this is the reason why I did not use the word “assumption.” With similar certainty I can say that what follows in Carrier’s subsequent article is due to his ascribing to me the notion that I meant “assumption” when I said “presumption” and his yet further step of implying that such an “assumption” automatically becomes unassailable. I would never have written anything as silly as that, and I did not. As you can see in following Carrier’s critique, the further he goes in his essay, the more he tries to find places to accuse me of making mistakes that I have not committed.
So, what do I mean by “prima facie presumption”? I thought I had explained that term pretty clearly on pp. 108-109. Maybe the pages in Carrier’s book stuck together, and he missed out on reading that description. A presumption would be an initial, highly revisable, attempt at identifying one or more plausible explanations. The three points that I emphasize in that context are that making such presumptions is a natural way to precede, that it is preliminary, and that not all presumptions have equal standing, even right from the beginning. Since I must assume that you do not have the book by your side (or maybe your pages are stuck together as well), I am happy to repeat the example that I used in my chapter. I imagine that I’m in my study writing and suddenly I realize that there is a cup of coffee by my side. How did it get there? Well, theoretically, there is an indefinite, if not infinite, number of possible explanations including the possibilities that
Someone might react, “Oh, but come on, Win! Would you please get back to being reasonable? The first option seems fairly rational; the second one could be true under certain circumstances. The other three are pretty ridiculous and you really have to stretch things an awful lot for them to have any chance of being true.”
I utterly agree, and that’s my point. That’s what I mean by “prima facie presumptions.” Not all explanations for all events are equally plausible right from the start. We are likely to dismiss some off-hand because they have no place in our world view, while others may be so obvious to us that, given the absence of strong competition, we’re likely to remain with them. I said a moment ago, that in this example the first explanation seems to be the most likely, and I might then recall that my wife had come into the room, but I had been so absorbed in my work it did not fully “register,” as they say, until this moment. Alternatively, I might remember that my wife has not been at home, in which case I would need to find another explanation, perhaps one that’s not on the initial list, and I shall leave it to your imagination to think of one.
In neither case would I hold on to the belief that my wife brought the coffee as an “unproven assumption.” In the former case, I confirm it by a recollection. In this latter case,I need to dismiss it. However, the prima facie presumption that my wife brought the coffee was still not misplaced. It just turned out to be wrong. Prima facie presumptions are neither unassailable assumptions nor conclusions of investigations; they are ways in which we set up priorities in our minds that organize which potential explanations are worth pursuing and which we can set aside for the moment. Frequently, the initial presumption also becomes the best conclusion, but that does not have to be the case.
Now, if I read Carrier correctly, he is arguing that in no case should the belief that an event was caused by divine action ever be considered as a prima facie presumption. The initial response should apparently always be some alternative. In the process, he attributes to me the fallacy of a false dilemma to the effect that if I cannot come up with a ready-made natural explanation, I immediately jump to the conclusion of it being a theistic miracle. Now, it is true that any event logically must be one or the other, but I do not engage in any leaping. Please remember how poignantly and unkindly Carrier chastened me for the caution that I used in the formulation of my conclusion above. The two operative clauses are that even for believers the identification of miracles “is not necessarily an uncomplicated task” and that our “prima facie presumptions … sometimes favor the judgment that God has indeed acted in history.”
Carrier’s Inconsistent Demands
Budding philosophers and apologists, please pay close attention to this reminder: Here you see the benefit of formulating your conclusions carefully, cautiously, and as minimally as possible. Mr. Carrier wants to criticize me from two directions, but he cannot have it both ways, at least not from me. On the one hand, he attributes to me the fault of leaping too quickly to the identification of events as divine miracles, which is definitely false; on the other hand, he insults me and my essay for drawing a conclusion that is too narrow for his purposes. In his eagerness to exhibit to the world his questionable application of the labels of some fallacies, he has instead contrived an inconsistent attack that won’t stand up. He wonders polemically why the editors bothered to include my essay. Conversely, he takes advantage of the fact that in self-publishing his ideas on the web there are no editors to watch over him to keep him from posting self-refuting articles under the guise of an intellectual sophistication that he has not earned. I concede that his confused critique appeals to other village atheists who think that he has provided them with a rational basis for their skepticism, but, as I said, I cannot simultaneously have been too cautious in stating an overly qualified conclusion and have jumped to it without due consideration of its potential limits.
What Mr. Carrier is actually doing, whether he realizes it or not, is attempting to saddle my essay with problems that are simply not there. Do I not consider alternative explanations for events that are out of the ordinary, be it ESP or the special effects provided at times by Gautama Buddha? I do not believe that I have ruled out such theoretical options, but for me, given my world view, there are only a few cases where they could make the list of reasonable presumptions, just as there are only a few case when genuine miracles are entitled to be thought of in that category. I included some very bizarre potential explanations in the scenario of the cup of coffee on my desk, and, you may have noticed that I did not propose that it was placed there by God as a miracle. Depending on your world view, any one of those explanations could conceivably be a fertile prima facie presumption, but in reality we automatically create a hierarchy in our minds. For example, I would absolutely object to the idea that, say, the feeding of the five thousand (taking the text to mean what it says, not what people reinterpret it to mean based on their own anti-supernatural bias) was the result of the spiritual force engendered in Buddhist meditation.
Still, before going any further, I promised that I would clear up why Mr. Carrier and some of his colleagues in their critique of miracles make the mistakes that they do. The answer is very simple: they confuse miracles and magic, and doing so is such a common practice that it seems to me that few people are ever even aware of it, though the distinction is not too hard to catch. I am using the term “magic” here in the technical sense, as one would in the study of comparative religion, not in the sense of sleight of hand for the sake of entertainment. Magic consists of the manipulation of spiritual forces for the sake of bringing about a certain end. A miracle is a free action by God, done by him as he sees fit, and never coerced by human beings, though it may be, if God so wishes, a response by him to human beings. This is not a distinction that I have invented just now (or for that matter, a few decades ago), but one that has been accepted in religious studies and the anthropology if religion, not to mention theology, for a long time, but it seems to be unknown among philosophical skeptics of religion, unless they deliberately ignore it. Its roots lie in another fundamental distinction, namely that of religion as rituals for reasons of personal gain and religion as the worship of a supreme being simply because of his exalted position. As anyone who has read some of my other works knows, I contend that a natural disposition of fallen human beings is towards magic and rituals, and that those procedures wind up infiltrating almost all religious cultures. Nonetheless, from an abstract, conceptual point of view, the difference between the two is crystal clear.
In magic, the outcome depends entirely on the technique of the one who performs the action, while miracles are the privilege of God, who may provide one regardless of whether the person affected has met a set of requirements. By that terminology, prayer is never the lever that moves the hand of God; books that pretend to provide the key to getting divine blessings are recipes for magic techniques; and anyone asking for rules under which an action results in a miracle is, so to speak, seeking to be a “magician's apprentice.” I freely agree (I was tempted to say “admit,” but that word implies a guilt that I don’t share) that many so-called faith healers and other popular “Christian” celebrities are attempting to practice magic. This is a practice going back all the way to Simon Magus, and I must condemn it with the same outrage as the apostle did. Jesus was not a magician, even though some Jews accused him of doing sorcery. He gave all of the credit for his miracles, including his own resurrection to the Father; the Son (Jesus) laid aside the privileges of his divine position at his incarnation (Philippians 2).
Carrier provides an excellent example of an attempt at magic with his example of Bjorn Borg’s grandfather who thought that spitting in the water would get his son to win a point at Wimbledon, which is surely also a delightful instance of the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc. But the idea that inferring to a miraculous answer to a prayer, or, for that matter, any answer to any prayer, is always an instance of the post hoc fallacy is based on nothing but the skeptic's mind. Such a claim would require knowledge on the skeptic's part of every instance of prayer and its consequences, which he cannot possibly have. He is simply exposing that he has ruled out the existence of God and divine action arbitrarily, even if he disguises his bias as the outcome of a serious investigation. When Elijah prayed on Mt. Carmel after that pitiful day-long display by the priests of Baal, and God immediately sent fire to consume the sacrifice, it takes someone who has fried his brain too deeply with atheistic presuppositions to shout: “Post hoc fallacy! Post hoc fallacy!” and immediately rule out divine intervention. Prayers are not routinely answered with miracles, but if the obvious consequence of a prayer seems to be a miracle, it is a demonstration of the skeptic’s closed-mindedness not to acknowledge that divine action is at least a prima facie presumption (in the sense in which I mean the term, not in the sense with which Carrier misreads it). To say that all instances of answered prayer are similar in kind to the absurd thoughts of Bjorn Borg’s grandfather is a desperate attempt to ignore the reality of what Christian theology teaches concerning prayer.
In an earlier section of the article, I make reference to Patrick Nowell-Smith’s argument against miracles. He set up a gorgeous false dilemma, which was reprinted in the old classic, paradoxically entitled New Essay in Philosophical Theology. Nowell-Smith states that a common understanding of the concept of “explanation” is that one “explains” a phenomenon by showing (and I’m not using his exact terminology now) how the phenomenon in question is a part of the regularities of nature that we describe by invoking “covering laws.” Let us consider a case in which we are faced with the task of explaining an event that others call a miracle, which, by definition falls outside of the “covering laws” of nature. So, here is the problem Nowell-Smith sets us: If, when we explain the event, we make reference to a covering law (e.g., whenever I pray for two hours on my knees, God sends me a miracle), the event no longer falls outside of the regularities of nature and is a “natural event,” not a miracle. If, on the other hand, I say that this event is “supernatural,” and that I cannot provide a covering law, I am not providing an explanation at all, and, thus, calling the event a “miracle” does not qualify as an explanation. What I’m getting at is that Mr. Nowell-Smith is not in the least trying to reach an understanding of the nature of a miracle; he dismisses the category of miracles by showing that they cannot be treated like magic with precise rules.
The Naturalistic Fallacy or Something Like It
Now, Mr. Carrier’s discussion of the “natural fallacy” gets too confused to make sense of it. Sometimes it is good, sometimes it isn’t. Is invoking psi, the alleged power behind ESP natural or supernatural? Carrier cites it as both. At one point he reduces the fallacy to the notion that anything inexplicable must be considered to be supernatural, an idea that would never have occurred to me (which is why I'm suspecting that Carrier thought of this response, along with the accusation of the post hoc fallacy before he even read my essay). A better understanding of the naturalistic fallacy is for someone to posit a closed universe in which all events, explicable or not, ultimately follow the rules that are contained in the universe. In that case, Nowell-Smith’s argument is a perfect example of this fallacy. It is strange to accuse me of committing that fallacy for two reasons:
The Believer’s Privileged Position
What Carrier interprets as a leap from supernaturalism to theism is the logical consequence of understanding miracles in the correct way. Invoking other explanations for what appear to be miracles is fine, but if they truly are miracles, then they must appear in a context that allows for both immanence and transcendence, and that combination is only found in theism. To that extent David Clark is correct in his chapter when he says that other religions in which there is no God who is both transcendent and immanent and who can act freely, cannot have true miracles. They can have magic, but not miracles in the true sense of the term.
And that point should bring us back to the claim that infuriates Mr. Carrier so much, namely that believers are in a privileged position to recognize miracles. Remember that I defined “believer” in a very narrow way, so that I’m not presenting a tautology or am engaging in circular reasoning when I’m talking about a believer deciding whether a miracle has occurred or not. The believer is not programmed to accept all unusual events as supernatural or miraculous. You don’t have to be a believer to see that an event is very unusual. But you have to be open to the possibility that God may at times intervene in the world in order to sustain a prima facie presumption that a particular event is the result of God’s intervention in the world. Then you can check out the report of the miracle for truthfulness.
In order to illustrate how a prima facie presumption could be leading us to posit the reality of a miracle, I invoked an example of a supposed holy man who heals people of various diseases, including some that are irreversibly degenerative. Before getting to his main point on that example, Carrier accuses me of reaching for examples that go beyond biblical instances. This is an interesting criticism for two reasons:
Now please, once again, remember the cautiousness of my conclusion. I’m not advocating intoning an uncritical chant of “Miracle! Miracle!” However, if the event directly points in that direction, it would be wrong not to think of applying this category. If the event also passes reasonable tests for historical attestation, we are entirely within our rational rights to say that this miracle has occurred.
Then Carrier once again demonstrates his confusion on presumptions vs. assumptions, and I don’t need to repeat that discussion here.
Too many times Christians wind up letting themselves get upset in their beliefs by challenges from those who really have no grounds from which to challenge them. In his “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” Alvin Plantinga recalls with how much intensity, verging on panic, Christians sought for ways to defeat Logical Positivism, and asks why that should have been necessary. This philosophical fad was created by people who deliberately set out to eliminate metaphysics, deontological ethics, religion, and theology by claiming that the language used in these fields is not meaningful. They did so on the basis of a narrow premise, the verifiability principle, which, as it turned out, did not work when they themselves applied it, not even when they either broadened it or narrowed it further. But oh, the anxiety it produced among some Christian thinkers! Some theologians, e.g. Paul Van Buren, even capitulated to it. Other than as a matter of purely philosophical engagement, shouldn’t Christians have said, “Your premises are arbitrary and biased. As long as you hold to those premises, you can talk to yourself as much as you like, but you cannot possibly impact our understanding and use of our language concerning God because your premises are not applicable for what we are doing and saying.”? And shouldn't we be reacting to atheists who expect us to address theological questions on atheistic premises in the same way?
I admit that analogies intended to illustrate that there are experts in a field who can know something that other people cannot know are not very strong. They break down rather quickly because they involve skills that one can learn over time. In the matter in question, it becomes much more of an all-or-nothing situation. Either you believe in a God who can do miracles, in which case you are in a position to recognize a miracle, or you do not, in which case it becomes logically impossible for you to recognize divine intervention (apart from the supernatural aid of God, a topic that I do not need to pursue here). If that fact upsets some people who think that believers should follow rules set by unbelievers based on their unbelief, I can only hope and pray that their eyes should be opened to their irrationality.
I’m not sure I have responded to all of Mr. Carrier’s points, but after a while it gets tedious to try to reply rationally to his overbearing sarcastic misrepresentations. I hope that this reply is readable and that it helps to clarify that which should not have needed clarification.
As always, I will reply to comments, but if there should be an onrush of them, I will have to limit myself to those that show awareness of the issues or are genuine requests for help with the issues.