Sunday, December 16, 2007

Begging the Question: Miracles and Nature

There are a great many people who want to give God credit for the order, beauty, and balance of nature. Recent versions of the design argument and so-called fine tuning arguments, for instance, present the claim that were it not for the actions of God, we would not find a universe full of matter that abides by a set of physical laws. And if it were not for God, we would not expect to find the universe so finely tuned to be hospitable to life. But we do find a lawful universe that is hospitable to life, so there must be a God.

Now consider the wide array of arguments that would have us believe in the existence of God on the basis of miracles. In the past, there occurred events that were bona fide violations of the laws of nature: Jesus walked on water, Jesus was resurrected from the dead, the sick were healed, the hungry were fed. And it is on the basis of reports of these events that millions if not billions of people have come to believe that Jesus was really the son of God and that God exists. After all, only God could have been responsible for such acts.

But there’s a real problem here with these two approaches to believing in God. You can’t have it both ways. It is a manifest incompatibility to argue for God’s existence based on the orderliness, lawfulness, and regularity of matter on the one hand, and also argue that God’s existence is proven by miracles. In design and fine tuning arguments, God gets credit for all the daily non-miraculous occurrences in nature. The fact that there are regular laws of nature that perfectly predict the behavior of matter is taken to show that God exerts his power against the intrinsic lawlessness of the world (see if you can make sense of that notion on its own). The uniformity of physics is contrasted to the way that things could be or would be on their own: unlawful. But when miracles are employed to prove the existence of God, then an unlawful event is taken to show God’s existence in contrast to the way that things would have otherwise been without God’s intervention: lawful.

So it would appear that no matter what happens, miracle or not, God will be credited. But this kind of double-dealing makes a sham of the pretense at proving God’s existence from any independent grounds. The circularity of this brand of theism is painfully clear. It would seem that God’s existence is indefeasible. You can’t only allow the evidence to support your conclusion without allowing for the possibility that the evidence could disprove it. Otherwise, we can’t make any sense of what it is for evidence to support. The conclusion—God exists—is inescapable because it’s already been decided before the evidence was ever consulted. When all possible evidence is claimed in its favor, then the evidence isn’t really playing any role in the argument. When nature is orderly, that can only be because of God’s power. And when nature is violated, that can also only be because of God’s power. But if no possible states of affairs can fail to support the conclusion, then they weren’t really giving us independent grounds at all. Ordinarily, if we think that the evidence supports a conclusion, then we think that if that evidence had not been the case, then the conclusion wouldn’t have followed. If the defendant hadn’t been recorded by the security camera shooting the clerk in the gas station, and if he hadn’t been seen by a dozen witnesses who identified him leaving the scene, then we wouldn’t have as strong a case for his guilt.

So the believer is cheating when they maintains that a) the orderliness of nature couldn’t have come about by chance, only God could have done it, and b) there really have been miracles, therefore God exists. Both of these arguments are only a pretense at being reasonable when in fact there are no occurrences that they wouldn’t take to prove God. That’s not proving anything, that’s just finding the conclusion that you planted there in the first place. The evidence never mattered to them at all.

7 comments:

Avi said...

I agree with your conclusion, but see some wiggle-room on this one. It would not be definitively inconsistent to say that God made an orderly universe following certain rules, but still has the power to break those rules when he chooses to.

For example, the lifeguard at the pool where ten-year-olds get swimming lessons might have a rule that there is no running next to the pool. But then when little Suzie is having an asthma attack, the lifeguard might ask John to run and get her inhaler from the locker room. The violation of the lifeguard's law is to serve a specific higher purpose that would not have been satisfied on it's own through the regular set of rules.

It would take a violation of the laws of nature (or miracle) that did not serve a higher purpose to say that the miracle was evidence of God's non-existence. (Which would present a whole other set of problems)

aj192 said...

First of all, I find it amusing that you posted this on a Sunday of all days. Wouldn't the supporter of the fine-tuning argument be forced to give up the belief that miracles are an act of God? Why, if the universe is so fine-tuned, would God have to intervene at all? If miracles are in fact a violation of nature, and nature determines a certain sort of outcomes when a particular action occurs because it is so fine-tuned, then wouldn't miracles be violating a set of rules and regulations that were put in place by God? I don't know if this really works, but it was just a thought I had.

Anonymous said...

I'll tackle this:

"It is a manifest incompatibility to argue for God’s existence based on the orderliness, lawfulness, and regularity of matter on the one hand, and also argue that God’s existence is proven by miracles."

My counter argument is simple. "That which creates can modify it's creation".

The tools and skills God would have used to create would presumably be available for God to modify any element of that creation. The same general principal applies to people and the things we create. We don't operate on the galactic scale though.

Derrida said...

"My counter argument is simple. "That which creates can modify it's creation".

The tools and skills God would have used to create would presumably be available for God to modify any element of that creation. The same general principal applies to people and the things we create. We don't operate on the galactic scale though."

But if God desires an orderly universe, the basis of the teleological argument, then He wouldn't use miracles. Rather, He would use some method that didn't contradict the laws of nature. Either God desires order, or He desires to do miracles.

sd555 said...

The opposite of order is chaos, not order with occasional exceptions. If God existed, he certainly couldn't want the universe to be both ordered and chaotic at the same time. However, there is nothing inconsistent in the idea of a God who wants the universe to be orderly, and yet who occasionally wants to step in and mess with it. That's certainly what computer programmers do!

I'm an atheist, by the way. I just have to call a spade a spade, and I don't think this particular argument works.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks sd555. The obvious problem, though, is that computer programmers are imperfect, limited in power and knowledge. They have to tweak their programs and fix things because they screw up. If the all powerful and all knowing creator of the universe is interrupting the course of nature to set things on the right path or correct mistakes, then something is seriously amiss.

Danny said...

The world is actually experiences daily miracles which actually started happening since the big bang. Come to think how from a single point of time and space did the whole universe originated and become what we are today? You don't actually need an argument to prove God's existence since one of the proof is the complexities of your own brain which you're using now to discredit God. How from a single point in the universe after millions of years of evolution did the human brain evolved into a very sophisticated lump of cells whose workings are still a mystery to man himself. We humans are so proud of our intellect yet we cannot comprehend the mystery of the black hole....much less understand the what's beyond before the big bang....much lesser still God's existence.