Miracles and Probability I


We deem them myths not because of a prior bias that there can be no miracles, but because of the Principle of Analogy, the only alternative to which is believing everything in The National Inquirer. If we do not use the standard of current-day experience to evaluate claims from the past, what other standard is there? And why should we believe that God or Nature used to be in the business of doing things that do not happen now? Isn’t God supposed to be the same yesterday, today, and forever? [Robert Price]

The principle of analogy, presented above, is really just a summary of David Hume’s argument involving the likelihood of miracles.  Hume’s argument says that since our uniform experience does not include miracles, it’s very unlikely that miracles have occurred in the past.  This is analogous reasoning.  It’s not that miracles are impossible; it’s just that we should remain agnostic towards them since it’s far more likely that a natural explanation is the cause.  Now the principle of analogy has its shortcomings, especially when generalized to mean rare events.  What if, for example, Einstein didn’t move forward with his theory of relativity because it contradicted his present day uniform experience?  What if we observed a nuclear explosion and explained it as a conventional explosion just because we had no experience with nuclear physics?  Moreover, there are much quantum mechanical phenomena that appear to violate the laws of Newtonian physics.  Do we also outright reject these, at the time, very rare events just because they don’t agree with our current background knowledge?

The answer to the above questions is obviously no.  If the new observation, model or prediction pans out empirically and is corroborated by other means, then we must accept it.  So it has been argued by many philosophers that Hume’s argument is circular, that the definition of miracle need not be a violation of natural law and that Hume, in a Bayesian sense, does not take into account all the probabilities involved, to name just a few.  So the principle of analogy, in my view, is most useful as a heuristic – a guiding principle rather than a law.  It’s there to tell us that if a claim doesn’t square away well with what we already know as plausible (things measured against our background knowledge), then it’s probably false.  A caveat is that if something conflicts with our background knowledge, but, we have suspicion that it’s true because of good evidence, then we must test it or observe many other instances to change the state of our current background knowledge.  Since Hume primarily had miracles (violations of natural law) in mind, we will investigate miracles further.

So, more specifically, how can we adjudicate the validity of miracle claims in the Gospels?  I argue here that a historian can’t say much of anything about them.  This is not born out of a prejudice from metaphysical naturalism; in other words, I’m not saying this because a worldview doesn’t permit me to do so.  A historian can’t say much about it because the way in which we understand how the world works – today, yesterday and tomorrow – is at odds with the way in which miracles occur.  This knowledge accumulated over the centuries is known as background knowledge, which comes from our scientific testing of claims and observations.  And miracles contradict our present day background knowledge.  We will show in the next post through Bayesian’s theorem that if things aren’t plausible (a technical term), then, not surprisingly, the probability of them occurring is low.  And in the case of miracles there is, in my view, an insurmountable amount of contradictory evidence, presented as background knowledge, to overcome.

Our scientific knowledge base gives us a relatively reliable way of understanding how the world works – from predicting the speed of light to understanding complex human behavior – it has a pretty good track record.  It doesn’t have all the answers – for example, why are we here or why is there something rather than nothing – but it’s the best we’ve got to work worth.  Moreover, it’s important to understand that history is not the proper purview for establishing the kind of world we live in, for that should be reserved for the scientific community.  And, as of today, there are no peer reviewed periodicals by forensic scientists or medical professionals confirming a single miracle.  That is not to say that one can’t or hasn’t occurred, but they just haven’t been able to stand up to scientific scrutiny.  A good example, one of many, is a large study in 2006 on whether or not prayer would assist one in recovering from major cardio surgery.  It was found that prayer had no effect on the experimental group, while in some cases the control group actually fared better.  So, as to another point, miracles are within the realm of experiemental  science – that is, they can be tested.

Some of our background knowledge includes not only our inability to observe and reproduce miracles in the scientific community but also our understanding of how human nature functions.  For example, we know that humans as a species are fairly creative and inventive, in addition to having a deep need for meaning making.  In fact, humans have lots of faculties that collectively make them receptive to mythology, like a strong tendency to see agency (intentionality in the inanimate), to see design and purpose in the natural world (a river’s purpose is for us to fish in), and to detect patterns out of otherwise meaningless stuff (Marian apparitions).  In other words, we have a tendency, starting at a very early age, to connect-the-dots in order to explain why things happen.  These meaningful patterns we create become our beliefs and guide us to understand reality, regardless of their accuracy.  And these explanations can give us psychological comfort as a reward.

This above is a powerful way of explaining why people believe and create mythology but falls short in explaining the genesis of the Gospels.  To the contrary, I believe the Gospel writers invented literary miracles to highlight Jesus Christ’s role as Lord and savior that primarily functions as propaganda.  Lastly, we know that there has been plenty of mythology created in the past that is not believed now, see “Why is Jesus so special?”.  So why do we dismiss other mythology but not the mythology of the Gospels?  There are various explanations to this question, but argument by analogy says that since those were creative inventions, there is a likelihood that the Gospels’ mythology is as well.  In conclusion, our background knowledge thus far tells us that miracles aren’t plausible.  However, we noted early on that things can contradict our background knowledge and nevertheless be true if good evidence exists.  In the next post we will gain insight into this problem with the aid of probability theory.  Probability theory says that there exists two probabilities, a prior probability – chances a miracle can occur in light of what we already know – and an explanatory probability – how expected the evidence is if the miracle is true.  As a hint, the explanatory probability is a miracle’s only hope.

 

Comments

  1. says

    (you might want to use the “blockquote” tag or color your text, so readers are better able to see what’s Hume and what’s your commentary on Hume)

    I don’t recall my Hume, but … What’s the definition of “Miracle” you’re using? The reason I ask, of course, is because some definitions of miracle practically assume they are supernatural. Others assume they are merely very improbable. So depending on the definition you’re either dealing with a supernatural thing, or something so unusual as to irreproducible in a scientific context – i.e.: someone might argue that they accomplished a miracle by picking a winning lottery number, but they could not attempt to repeat it in a lab. The latter could fall under a naturalist definition of a miracle. Where it gets tricky is that supernaturalist definitions of miracles almost always seem to preclude them from being subjected to science. The woo-woo’s definition of “Miracle” then becomes “something unknowable” — it’s the old trick of sheltering god behind a veil of mysteriousness to protect it from the harsh light of reality.

  2. consciousness razor says

    I don’t recall my Hume, but … What’s the definition of “Miracle” you’re using? The reason I ask, of course, is because some definitions of miracle practically assume they are supernatural.

    You can get a decent sketch of Hume’s argument from this wiki article. They are supernatural by definition.

    Now, a miracle is defined as: “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”[4] Laws of nature, however, are established by “a firm and unalterable experience”;[5] they rest upon the exceptionless testimony of countless people in different places and times.

    As a matter of fact, nobody actually had exceptionless experience that nature didn’t behave according to SR/GR, QM, nuclear physics, etc. We had no experience of things happening in those regimes, which is not any sort of positive experience/evidence that such things don’t lawfully occur. We simply didn’t know about it, and now we do. That’s not the sort of thing which counts as a “miracle” by Hume’s standard. It’s not claimed to be inappropriate, to genuinely learn things about the world which you didn’t know before.

    So depending on the definition you’re either dealing with a supernatural thing, or something so unusual as to irreproducible in a scientific context – i.e.: someone might argue that they accomplished a miracle by picking a winning lottery number, but they could not attempt to repeat it in a lab.

    Very improbable things could be repeated. They are very unlikely to be repeated. Very improbable things don’t, necessarily or by definition, happen in violation of any physical laws. They may just be unlikely to happen, according to those laws, due to conditions and through processes that are entirely consistent with those laws. To use your example, the world is behaving according to physical laws when a person wins the lottery, just like it is when that person doesn’t win the lottery. Being unlikely is simply orthogonal to that.

    The latter could fall under a naturalist definition of a miracle. Where it gets tricky is that supernaturalist definitions of miracles almost always seem to preclude them from being subjected to science. The woo-woo’s definition of “Miracle” then becomes “something unknowable” — it’s the old trick of sheltering god behind a veil of mysteriousness to protect it from the harsh light of reality.

    I would say we (naturalists and woo-woos alike) should consider it an ontological category, not some set of epistemic criteria. That is they game they may want to play, but at some point there needs to be some stuff to talk about, not just “knowledge of …” or “ignorance of …” in a statement you can’t even complete.

    Supernatural stuff is (1) that which is mind-like or has mental properties, and (2) doesn’t reduce to stuff that isn’t mind-like or has no mental properties.

    I have a mind, intentions, etc. So I would be supernatural or have a supernatural soul, if my mind is not reducible to physical stuff, like my brain/body in interaction with its environment. I am reducible to particles and so forth, didn’t have an origin in any supernatural events, etc., therefore I’m natural and not supernatural.

    If the Star Wars force existed, it would either be natural or supernatural. Sort of like a deity, it’s an intentional and mental “force” which magically guides the universe toward some kind of balance between the light and dark sides.

    If it isn’t reducible to any non-mental physical stuff — if the non-mental physical stuff which happens in the universe doesn’t suffice in principle to determine what the Star Wars Force does, because there’s something else besides the non-mental physical stuff (namely, that Force or whatever is responsible for it) — then it is supernatural. The natural stuff doesn’t do it, which is why it makes sense to describe it as supernatural.

    You could in principle do experiments in the Star Wars universe (if you were in it, obviously) to answer such questions, since you can in principle control all of the non-mental physical variables which are claimed to be affected by the Force, in order to see if anything extra must be having some effect not determined by the non-mental stuff. You could rule it out or falsify it, if you actually do the work of looking at all of the stuff it’s supposed to be capable of affecting. You don’t need to directly interact with that Force — it’s already (by hypothesis) interacting with the physical world in some way or another, which you can also interact with as you run your experiments.

    • joncavaz says

      Thanks for your comment. I’ve revised the post to define miracle. My intention was to generalize Hume’s argument to that of a simple analogical argument. I wanted to be creative and discuss its limitations once generalized. The thrust of the article is that we can’t overcome our background knowledge to warrant a miracle, while introducing Bayesian reasoning.

  3. Steve Coniglio says

    “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence”

    Excerpt From: Hitchens, Christopher. “God Is Not Great.” Twelve, 2007-05-01. iBooks.

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