Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Miracles Make It Harder to Prove God is Good

Miraculous events that serve to alleviate suffering generate an acute problem for attempts to prove the existence of God from miracle evidence.

Suppose Jesus heals a crippled man so that he can walk again, or cures a group of lepers, or God otherwise prevents some local instance of suffering. Or suppose that of the millions of pilgrims who have bathed or drunk the waters at Lourdes, France, some of their medical problems were miraculously cured. The overwhelmingly obvious question to ask in each of these cases, especially if the event is being held up as evidence for the existence of an infinitely good and loving God, is “why not more?” Even the Catholic Church has only officially recognized a handful of cases at Lourdes as authentic miracles. At any given moment on the planet, there are most likely thousands or even millions of people claiming to have had some beneficial miracle that alleviates suffering. But at any given moment on the planet there are millions or even billions of other people who are not being cured, healed, or benefitted.

So the occurrence of one beneficial miracle in the midst of so many instances of unabated suffering seems to count heavily against attributing omnibenevolence to the source. Here the question is can the occurrence of miracles be reasonably construed as evidence for the existence of an omni- or Christian God? Were some supernatural force to alleviate some cases of suffering and not others, then at the very least it will take some careful argument to show that that evidence is even consistent with the attribution of omnibenevolence. If there were two people walking out in an intersection about to be hit by a bus and you could save one of them both without much effort, but you restrained yourself and only called out to or pulled one of them back, we wouldn’t judge you to be as good a person as someone who saved them both. If a doctor travels to an African village with enough polio vaccine to inoculate 1,000 children, but only gives 10 of them the shot and throws the rest of the vaccine away, and then watches the remaining 990 die or be crippled, we would conclude that doctor was a monster, not a saint.

Even if some supernatural force were to reach out and instantaneously eliminate all of the suffering in the world today, one would think that an omnibenevolent being would have done it sooner. What was he doing yesterday? Was he busy? Off on errands? And what was he doing in 1945 during Auschwitz, or while the bubonic plague was ravaging and killing millions in Europe during the middle 1300s?

Much to our surprise, the classical problem of evil is made worse by cases where God is alleged to have done something good for someone. Every case where someone claims that their prayers led to their rapid recovery from terminal cancer, or that their piety helped bring back a loved one safe from the fighting in a war zone shines a powerful spotlight on centuries of gratuitous suffering that went unabated despite heartfelt prayers, decent lives, and fervent piety.

It would have been more plausible, perhaps, to argue that God is all good and loving had that particular beneficial miracle not happened. That is, the theist in these cases would have less explaining to do, and could possibly make more sense of the compatibility of a world that does not have local, seemingly arbitrary miracles, than a world where a tiny bit of suffering is alleviated in a neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, or in Amsterdam, while wars, famine, plagues, and drought kill millions elsewhere. If an omni-God performed no local miracles, one might hope to offer up some generalized account of gratuitous suffering like Hick’s soul-making theodicy. But if you try to derive God’s omnibenevolence from miracles, you’ve opened the door wider to the problem of reconciling it with all the staggering amounts of suffering in history that went on without intervention.

From a purely strategic perspective, the Christian theist should view miracle claims with a great deal of caution and skepticism. If God is bothering with those sorts of petty and inconsequential problems in the world, how could one plausibly argue that he’s also the Alpha and the Omega, the grand author of the universe? It seems to me that a God who bothers with statues that cry blood, clouds that resemble the name of Allah, or raising Lazarus from the dead (and not 6 million Jews in the Holocaust) is a harder one to defend and believe in than no God at all.

So even the project of showing that beneficial miracles are consistent with the existence of an all good, all loving supernatural force is plagued (pun intended) with difficulties. Reading off positive, supporting evidence for the attribution of omnibenevolence from some miracle is outrageous.


Jon said...

If Islamists believe that Salmon Rushdie should be killed right away, should not their omni-god take care of the matter via miracle instead of causing "grief" amongst the faithful? Or to immediately punish Britian for thier act of be-knighting him? Only a minor god would allow such blasphemy. Only a minor god would need to perform miracles in the "best possible world" that was pre-destined.

Anonymous said...

You cover the whole miracle thing so well I'm not sure there's much left to add.

I guess I want to say that this is where the theist will either try to say that "miracles are everywhere" we just have to have faith and "see them." This move, of course, dilutes the whole notion of what a miracle is supposed to be in the first place -- something irregular in the space of normal everyday experience -- some breaking of the nomological laws.

Thus, I think I will mention that miracles not only cause big problems for claims of omnibenevolence, but are themselves so highly subjective that they are meaningless.

That is, the theist can't use miracles in arguments for the reasons ellucidated by Matt, and moreover, from the first-person point-of-view reflect no kind of objective truth or knowledge at all.

Put more precisely, most "miracles" are not evidence of anything factual, but merely personal interpretations of experience, subject to all the typical problems of context and perspective.

Therefore, it would seem to me that the whole notion of miracles is incoherent or self-contradictory:

Objective truth doesn't necessarily (or usually) follow from limited subjective experience.

That is, what the theist wants to claim is that if S experiences M, then S has objective proof of M (whatever M IS) and all it implies. However, we can see that no objective truth at all follows from S's experience of M -- only an interpretation.

Therefore, like Hume says, a real miracle, something that provides objective evidence of God, needs to be something so major, so amazing, and so empirically verifiable that millions of people would need to experience M in such a way that there would be a clear majority interpretation across cultural, political, and theistic contexts.

Nothing like this has ever happened.

Hence, no miracle has ever happened.

John said...

Good points in this post. And I think many theists also find the premises pretty reasonable. If I am not mistaken, I think Hick is one who argues that God's consistently performing miracles would eliminate the "epistemic gap" between God and humans (which for some reason he thinks is a really important thing). And Van Inwagen and some others argue that miracles (or miracle-like interventions) would create a "highly irregular" world, which would be bad. (Always remember: you cannot necessarily trust your intuitions that an omni-God would have prevented the Holocaust, but you can be sure that he would never permit causal irregularity...because that would be really fucked.)

Anonymous said...

I was thinking that the theist might say that the reason so few miracles are performed is that few and sporadic miracles are just the right amount for humanity. If you have too many miracles, then faith is gone because God is obviously there- I don't need faith to know that it is raining if I am standing in the rain, if that makes any sense. And if there were no miracles, then there would be no reason to believe that there was a God. Perhaps miracles are "placed" in the most efficient way towards bringing humanity salvation through faith; some people may need direct intervention to have faith, whereas others need only to hear about a Jesus tortilla. As for the suffering of millions of others, that is not an issue. In the end, whether or not you suffer is secondary to whether or not you have faith, as it is through faith that salvation is attained. Any earthly suffering is nothing compared to the rewards of heaven. God's benevolence is displayed in the maximized opportunity of faith and thus the maximized opportunity of eternal life. The scarcity of miracles is in fact the optimal amount for all of humanity for all time, leading to the salvation of the greatest number or the most deserving or the predestined or whatever. Or something like that.

To John, the last part of your comment was great.

Jon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon said...

If a little girl and boy during the holocaust witnessed their entire family being systematically tortured and killed along with a multitude of others, should they believe in faith that this act was done so as to show that miracles are rare and therefore good in the end? Could means justify the ends in that situation? No. It is not honest to say that millions of tortured children in the world are a necessity for good in a best possible world. If I can imagine a better world than this one, then an omni-god does not exist. An objection to this would be that I cannot imagine a better world than this. I will rebutt by saying that all I have to imagine is one less tortured and murdered child who was tortured and murdered by his parents who got away with it, and that the child was forgotten, therefore not adding any meaningful complexity to the world.

Anonymous said...

A very good post.

As a theist, I have tried to resolve things this way, but am not yet entirely happy with it.

But the facts I see are.
There does not appear to be a god, interfering in a predictable way to stop sensless suffering, whether requested by prayer or not.

Miracles do not really break the law of physics, they are just very improbable events. (phsyical laws themselves may just be highly probable relationships). The universe seems to be built in a way that probability (or probability amplitude) is never zero. Thus miracles exist, it is just correctly interpreting their occurance. That the occurance of life on this planet is highly improbable cannot be proof that God, at the start of a quite week, intervened. Those who try to show this don't seem to answer why an omnipotent god could not, or did not create a universe where life arose spontaneously.

I degress back to my two solutions, the first one a bit silly but I still think it conforms to the good god assumption. This doesn't change the fact that most miracles can be explaing by the overzealous salesmen of religions competing for followers. There was a time when no self respecting religion would not claim miraculous powers.

1) Miracles could be allowed, without implying preference if they are distrubuted in a double blind sort of way. The chance of god answering your prayers is the same for everyone (The holocaust implies that the chances are very low).

2)The possibility of miracles, and the existence of sensless suffering works better as a deductive argument for the existance of an afterlife assuming a good god exists, than a proof by negation of the non-existance of a good god.

I.e. The existance of both a good god, and senseless suffering (or preferential interventions) requires some form of afterlife (heaven where those beings can be compensated in a way that the net sensless suffering in the universe can still be zero. (or perhaps that the sum of the squares of the probabilty amplitudes of suffering is zero)

Anonymous said...

Would you buy flowers for a girl who would just turn around and slap you in the face. I don't think so.

Why should God heal atheists who will still reject him. He provides healing to those with faith!

Anonymous said...

QUOTE-->The existance of both a good god, and senseless suffering (or preferential interventions) requires some form of afterlife (heaven where those beings can be compensated in a way that the net sensless suffering in the universe can still be zero. (or perhaps that the sum of the squares of the probabilty amplitudes of suffering is zero)--|

When sin entered the world through adam and eve, so did pain and suffering. We all deserve hell since we all are sinners. Suffering occurs because either we sin (and we face the consequences) or someone sins against us (like stealing or abuse) and we feel the effects of it.

The original post actually promotes that miracles occur, and therefor does not deny God's existance. He merely plays around with the facts to support his viewpoint.

Anonymous said...

'Would you buy flowers for a girl who would just turn around and slap you in the face. I don't think so.

Why should God heal atheists who will still reject him. He provides healing to those with faith'

Brilliant Comment! Well done.

Anonymous said...

This is really just the problem of evil in new packaging. It has been answered and debated quite a bit. Perhaps you are not happy with the answers theists give but restating the same problem without addressing any of the huge number of responses does not really move anything forward.