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More on arguments from signs and wonders

This is a follow-up to this post. To some extent it will be repetitive of what was in that post, and I beg the reader's indulgence for that repetition. But the argument I am answering has surfaced yet again (never mind where), and it just has so many things wrong with it that I have decided to take another whack at it, in the hopes of unconfusing anybody else who has been confused by it.

The argument goes roughly like this. (No, I'm not precisely quoting anyone. I am paraphrasing.)

Suppose that God revealed himself by a sign or wonder, such as by speaking from the heavens, by raising Jesus from the dead, or even by putting some words into an unlikely place, such as writing "Yahweh alone is God" in the stars or in the cell. Such an event would not be taken by an atheist to be from God. The atheist would decide that both he and everyone reporting the event to him were massively hallucinating rather than conclude that the event was really evidence of the existence of God. Hence, signs and wonders can be evidence of the activity of God only to those who already believe on other grounds that God exists. Therefore, they do not constitute independent evidence that God exists. Therefore, we shouldn't make arguments first to atheists from signs and wonders. Instead, we should convince them first that God exists by arguments such as philosophical arguments from natural theology.

Let me try to break down a few of the many things wrong with this argument.

First, this argument wrongly assumes that something cannot constitute independent reason to believe something I already believe. That isn't true. Suppose that I get ten e-mails that appear to be from my friend Jeff. Regardless of what order the e-mails come in, each one provides some independent reason to believe that Jeff exists. It is not as though, once I already believe it, the new e-mails no longer provide independent reason for believing in his existence. That probability just gets higher and higher as I receive additional e-mails. It's true that I'm more prone to conclude that a new e-mail is from Jeff if I already believe that Jeff really exists and isn't a spam-bot, but it doesn't follow that the additional e-mails are doing no work to support the proposition, "Jeff exists" simply because they happen to come later in the series. In fact, they obviously do provide additional reason to believe that Jeff exists, a reason that has its own force.

Second, this argument, consistently applied, would have made it impossible for the revelation of Yahweh to "get off the ground" with the people of Israel, because it would always have required previous evidence for Yahweh's existence before His self-revelation could get started. What we find in Scripture is that God revealed Himself to His people by signs and wonders from the outset. They didn't require or receive a philosophical prolegomenon. Rather, God was the God who brought them up out of the land of Egypt and out of the house of bondage. God made the bush burn. God told Moses to make it clear to the people that he was truly a messenger by giving Moses the power to do signs and wonders. If it were never possible to take signs and wonders to be from God if one didn't have a philosophical prolegomenon, then the specific revelation of Yahweh could never have happened.

This has a parallel in human relationships. Take the example above concerning e-mails. If I always had to have previous evidence that Jeff exists before accepting any e-mail as being from Jeff, the correspondence couldn't get started. I would be justified in dismissing the first e-mail as possibly being from a spam-bot or being a hallucination because I was previously a "Jeff agnostic" or "Jeff skeptic" and didn't know about Jeff's existence. Jeff's revelation of himself to me could never get off the ground.

Third, this argument confuses the direction a piece of evidence points with the conclusion one draws. I realize that this is a slightly technical point, but let me try to make it clear by examples. Suppose that I have a very negative view, based on previous evidence, of Joe's character. I've decided that Joe is just manipulative and utterly self-serving. Then along comes my shrewd friend Bill who tells me a credible-sounding story of Joe's behaving with apparent altruism within Bill's own knowledge.

Perhaps I do not conclude either that I've been wrong about Joe or that Joe has reformed. Perhaps I remain skeptical. Perhaps I hold open the possibility that Bill has been duped by a clever plan of Joe's to make himself look good. However, if Bill gives me a sufficiently detailed account of an apparently purely altruistic act, that is some evidence that points in the direction of Joe's good character. I may reasonably hold out for more evidence before changing my mind (because I did have evidence before of Joe's bad character), but my probability concerning the proposition, "Joe is right now simply a self-serving jerk" should, rationally, shift because of the evidence that Bill brings.

It's important not to think that a piece of evidence must do all the work on its own, that it must be enough to make a skeptic conclude that God exists or to draw some other conclusion against which he previously believed himself to have some evidence, in order to realize that the evidence points away from the skeptic's previous position and should cause the skeptic's probabilities to change. That is the point of a cumulative case. Different arguments and pieces of evidence do their work, and the reasonable skeptic can change his mind gradually as a result of the accumulated evidence coming in. Therefore, to say that a skeptic will not conclude that God exists from a report of a miracle should not be taken to mean that the report does not point in the direction of God's existence and that it should have no impact upon the skeptic.

Fourth and perhaps most importantly, this argument conflates what a skeptic will or might do with what a skeptic may rationally do. The former is psychology and sociology. The latter is epistemology. We mustn't conflate the two. It may well be true that a particular skeptic "would not be persuaded though one should rise from the dead." It may well be true that such a skeptic will adopt any wild, ad hoc theory rather than believe that a miracle has taken place. But this is a statement about that skeptic's psychology, not about what is rational. Is he rational to be willing to believe anything, including a lot of independent people's mass hallucination, rather than believe that a miracle has taken place? No. That would be a desperate theory rescue for his own naturalism, and we shouldn't imply that it is anything better.

In fact, there are plenty of objections--good, bad, and ugly--that have been raised against various metaphysical arguments for God's existence. If we are just talking about what a skeptic will do or might do, it could just as easily be predicted that he will bring up this or that objection and reject those arguments as well! Why not? If we're willing to postulate a skeptic so stubborn and determined that he'd rather believe that he and everyone else is hallucinating rather than believe that a miracle has happened, he can easily, in fact probably more easily, come up with some "reason" to reject all of Aquinas's Five Ways!

But if we are talking about what is rational, if we are doing epistemology rather than psychology and sociology, then we should recognize that detailed, credible evidence of miracles does support the existence of God and that a skeptic who will do anything rather than take such evidence seriously is being irrational.

It would be difficult to over-stress the importance of this last point. It is simply facile to say or even to imply that, if an atheist will or could reject an argument for Christianity that one doesn't favor (or that one thinks needs to be kept in its place, meaning subordinate to or subsequent to one's own favored arguments), this means the argument is no good. Everyone can play at that game. I can pick any argument for God's existence or for Christianity and drum up an extremely plausible scenario in which an atheist dismisses it stubbornly. But if he's being unreasonable to do so, that's the important point for the epistemology of religion. Arguments can never overcome the human will to disbelieve if that will is strong enough. Man can use his free will to warp and confuse his own mind, to dismiss things that shouldn't be dismissed. That is a sign of the will to evil, the fall of mankind, sin nature. It isn't a defect in the arguments.

It should be obvious that a person who would rather believe that he is hallucinating all the reports than believe that there is some evidence that Jesus rose from the dead is being unreasonable. It is no help to the cause of Christ to bring up such wild scenarios, point out that a skeptic could adopt them, and then use that as a club against the argument from miracles.

Finally, one more small epistemological point: If the argument from miracles has no independent force, it doesn't magically acquire it for a person who already believes that God exists. This is extremely confused. It isn't possible to deny all independent force to the argument from miracles and then to try to revive its force for the person who is already a theist. This would be like saying that an e-mail that appears to be from my friend Jeff has no force in favor of his existence if I don't already believe that he exists on some non-e-mail basis and then to turn around and say that, voila, it really has some kind of unspecified epistemic value for me once I already believe in his existence. Epistemology doesn't work that way. Be careful: If you work hard to argue that an argument is forceless when you don't want it, you can't expect to whistle the argument up later like an obedient dog when you do want it.

Consider: The Jews believed that they had independent evidence that Jesus could not be who He said He was. Why weren't they justified, despite (and in a sense because of) their Judaic theism, in believing that they were hallucinating the reports of Jesus' resurrection rather than conclude that they had been wrong and that Jesus really was the Son of God? Why not? What is sauce for the atheist goose is sauce for the 1st century Jewish gander. If we're going to place all the weight on one's independent, prior probabilities and "diss" the argument from miracles, then it is arbitrary to say that the evidence for a miracle should rationally overcome one's prejudice in favor of a contrary religious presupposition but cannot possibly rationally tell against a person's contrary irreligious presupposition.

As I have said many times before, evidence is evidence. Take it or leave it. Don't try to make it dance to your own tune.

Comments (32)

Lydia I knew the intuition of appealing to revelatory signs in nature (whether they be special miracles or general design clues) from God was justified, but I never imagined it could be defended to such a degree. Of course our intuitions aren't perfectly reliable, but they should still be a guide to our reasoning. And when they can be defended so vigorously, this is just icing on the cake. Unfortunately we find the stubborn theist, having rejected these intuitions for faulty a priori assumptions, who now has to defend the rationality of even the most stubborn skeptics regarding miracle claims because his position logically demands it.

I think the stubborn theist is acutely aware of the problem of having to deny a conclusion which frankly seems obvious. His intuition strongly reveals to him (just as it does us) that God can reveal Himself through creation and we are morally responsible for recognizing and responding to these signs even if we don't believe in Him; his faulty metaphysical assumptions demand just the opposite. Why else would Feser spend 4,400 words to rebut my simple, 43 word claim affirming such an intuition?

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2014/07/signature-in-cell.html


Uncommon descent has an excellent yet wordy response to Feser here:

http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/hyper-skepticism-and-my-way-or-the-highway-fesers-extraordinary-post/


GW,

Are you aware that Dr. Feser responded to Torley's article already in his latest post, and then responded to him again in the combox?

You criticize Feser for using 4400 words to address your remark, then link to Torley's 43 page article as an excellent response! "Wordy" doesn't even begin to cover it.

Dr. Feser spent 4400 words responding to your remark because he thought your post was a symptom of a larger issue. You can disagree, but it's rather foolish to claim that a long response is evidence of faulty reasoning.

Good article, Lydia! I agree and I think we even have a test case that actually provides us with some real data about how unbelievers would respond in such a circumstance. See John 12:9-11. I make that case here: http://apologetics-notes.comereason.org/2014/06/why-doesnt-god-provide-sign-to-prove-he.html

Okay, gents: If you want to discuss my post, discuss my post. This is not, I repeat not, going to end up being two hundred comments about Ed Feser. I refuse. I wrote out a position. MarcAnthony, I don't know if you think the position I represented and rebutted here is true and defensible or not, but if you want to defend it, please defend it vis a vis the way I have represented it here, not vis a vis Professor X who might or might not own it for his own. I'm just not going to do that game anymore.

Sorry, that wasn't directed toward Lenny E.; he and I were posting at the same time.

I do agree with GW that something is severely wrong when one has to attack and try to downplay the epistemic force of the argument from miracles in order to promote some other argument one thinks preferable or prior.

By the way, I have multiple published pieces on these issues as they were to some degree represented quite some years ago (more than a decade ago, if I recall correctly) in the so-called Principle of Dwindling Probabilities argument from Alvin Plantinga. In my previous post I mentioned a pretty standard work on the epistemology of apologetics that made the same type of error. No one person has a monopoly on the errors I am answering here.

Lenny, good post. And I think your example concerning the Jewish leaders is spot-on and is related to my final point in the post: If prior probabilities are controlling, why was it not reasonable for them to say that Jesus was demon-possessed? If the atheist is reasonable (because he's an atheist) in believing in mass hallucination rather than a miracle, why weren't the Jewish leaders reasonable in believing in Jesus' demon possession rather than taking seriously His divinity? They, too, had their prior probabilities, and reasons for them. It's not as though God had exactly trumpeted the doctrine of the Trinity to high heaven throughout the Old Testament. Jesus was making, in a sense, an outrageous claim in claiming to be God, which is why they thought He was a blasphemer. Jesus had a prior improbability hill to climb. It's simply anachronistic to treat the atheist-theist divide as though it has magical epistemic properties that weren't relevant in the Jewish context, as though once one believes in God the argument from miracles miraculously (as it were) takes on force. There are other ways to have a prior probability _against_ a Christian miracle, so priors cannot be allowed to be controlling. One must be willing to let the evidence speak.

"please defend it vis a vis the way I have represented it here, not vis a vis Professor X who might or might not own it for his own."

Wait a minute, when did this comment thread become a place where we can start talking about the X-Men willy-nilly ;-)

Carry on.

So, I should respond to your incorrect paraphrase of an argument made elsewhere which you do not link to or quote?

You're right. I guess neither of us are playing this game.

MA, I'm interested in the _argument_. Whether or not it is this or that person's argument, it is an argument that has been made, and not only by one person. As I pointed out, I have extensive publication on this subject with respect to other philosophers. I give a quote in my previous post (which I can't recall if you read). There I attribute the position to R.C. Sproul, Arthur Lindsley, and John Gerstner. What I give in the main post cannot be deemed an "incorrect paraphrase" unless I attribute it to someone and you know that it's not what that person holds. I, for one, consider it interesting to discuss _that argument_, because it's very much in the air. It's not like one person invented the classical approach to apologetics, which is an approach prone to the confusions embodied in that argument.

What's the matter? Are you more interested in discussing the interpretation of so-and-so than in discussing philosophy? I'm sorry to hear that, if so. I'm interested in discussing philosophy. That's what I do in the main post. I want to discuss the question of whether one has to already believe that God exists in order for evidence for signs and wonders to have evidential value. Is that not an interesting question unless I present it in terms of so-and-so's position and get embroiled in endless hermeneutical questions? I disagree. Why not discuss the philosophical question?

Consider the following position, MA:

The argument from miracles has no rational epistemic force in support of the proposition that God exists when it is presented to the atheist--to someone who does not already believe that God exists. It has rational epistemic force only in relation to a subject who already believes that God exists. Therefore, other arguments for the existence of God must be made first, before the argument from miracles.

Is this position true or false? I have argued that it is false. I also consider the question an interesting one in and of itself, because that above position has indeed been held in some form or other by various philosophers of religion and because it concerns the epistemology of religion and the practice of apologetics.

If you want to discuss that question, that would be great. If you think that position is correct, feel free to defend it. If you think my arguments have failed to rebut that position, feel free to answer them.

To your hypothetical point of "writing in the stars", the theory of inflation makes it impossible for any creature inside the universe to see the writing.
http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/egghead/2004/05/the_big_lab_experiment.html

I don't quite understand the problem there, Step2. Presumably an all-powerful God could cause the stars to appear a certain way _from a certain spatio-temporal perspective within the universe_. Just as, for example, the Big Dipper looks like a Big Dipper from earth. Of course those stars wouldn't form a Big Dipper as seen from Jupiter. But God could make a starry message appear to other alien life that they would be able to read from their own planet(s). Nor would it have to be permanent. He could create stars for the purpose and then annihilate them after the event. All kinds of possibilities are out there. It was a hypothetical, but there's nothing inherently impossible about it. If the assumption is that the message must be written at the moment of the Big Bang, and there's supposed to be some problem with that, I don't see why we have to grant that assumption. The whole point is that this is a miracle, so it could well be an intervention long _after_ the Big Bang.

Although evidentialism provides some significant contributions to the apologist's task, nevertheless, as a test for the truth of a world view it is entirely inadequate. For evidence gains its meaning only by its immediate and overall context; and evidence as such cannot, without begging the question, be used to establish the overall context by which it obtains its very meaning as evidence. 1. First, facts and events have ultimate meaning only within and by virtue of the context of the world view in which they are conceived. Hence, it is a vicious circle to argue that a given fact (say, the resuscitation of Christ's body) is evidence of a certain truth claim (say, Christ's claim to be God), unless it can be established that the event comes in the context of a theistic universe. For it makes no sense to claim to be the Son of God and to evidence it by an act of God (miracle) unless there is a God who can have a Son and who can act in a special way in the natural world. But in this case the mere fact of the resurrection cannot be used to establish the truth that there is a God. For the resurrection cannot even be a miracle unless there already is a God. [page break] Many overzealous and hasty Christian apologists rush hastily into their historical and evidential apologetics without first properly doing their theistic homework.

Norman Geisler, Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1976), pp. 95-96.

Natural theology shows that there is a God. If there is a God, miracles are possible. If a God exists who created the world and operates it, there can be no doubting that He can modify His modus operandi. On the other hand, if we did not know that there is a God, we would have to step into an irrational view of the operation of nature by chance. Miracles, if they could be defined, would have no significance in such a framework. They would be chance occurrences, as everything else would be, and could prove nothing but a chance occurrence among chance occurrences. John W. Montgomery does not seem to understand this, for he writes, "we may properly infer his [Christ's] deity from his resurrection." What Montgomery is saying here is that, since Christ conquered death by His resurrection and gives us the gift of eternal life, "no more worthy candidate for deity is in principle imaginable than the One who conquers death on mankind's behalf."[note] Montgomery says that Christ's own explanation of His own resurrection was, "He rose because he was God."[note] According to Montgomery, miracles prove, first, the existence of God and, second, the existence of Jesus Christ as God. We have already shown, however, that miracles cannot prove God. God, as a matter of fact, alone can prove miracles. That is, only on the prior evidence that God exists is a miracle even possible. Manifestly, if miracles cannot prove God, they cannot prove that a particular man is God.

R.C. Sproul, Arthur Lindsley, John Gerstner, Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), p. 146.


[W]e should distinguish two different contexts in which an alleged miracle might be discussed. One possible context would be where the parties in debate already both accept some general theistic doctrines, and the point at issue is whether a miracle has occurred which would enhance the authority of a specific sect or teacher. In this context supernatural intervention, though prima facie unlikely on any particular occasion, is, generally speaking, on the cards:...But it is a very different matter if the context is that of fundamental debate about the truth of theism itself. Here one party to the debate is initially at least agnostic, and does not yet concede that there is a supernatural power at all. From this point of view the intrinsic improbability of a genuine miracle . . . is very great, and one or other of the alternative explanations...will always be much more likely – that is, either that the alleged event is not miraculous, or that it did not occur, that the testimony is faulty in some way.
This entails that it is pretty well impossible that reported miracles should provide a worthwhile argument for theism addressed to those who are initially inclined to atheism or even to agnosticism. . . . Not only are such reports unable to carry any rational conviction on their own, but also they are unable even to contribute independently to the kind of accumulation or battery of arguments referred to in the Introduction. To this extent Hume is right, despite the inaccuracies we have found in his statement of the case (J.L. Mackie The Miracle of Theism 1982, p. 27). [W]hat, it may be objected, if one is not reduced to reliance on testimony, but has observed a miracle for onself? Surprisingly, perhaps, this possibility does not make very much difference....Though one is not now relying literally on another witness or other witnesses, we speak not inappropriately of the evidence of our senses, and what one takes to be an observation of one’s own is open to questions of the same sort as is the report of some other person. I may have misobserved what took place, as anyone knows who has ever been fooled by a conjurer or ‘magician’...[A]nyone who is fortunate enough to have carefully observed and carefully recorded, for himself, an apparently miraculous occurrence is no doubt rationally justified in taking it very seriously; but even here it will be in order to entertain the possibility of an alternative natural explanation (Mackie 1982, p. 28

So suppose you’re agnostic about theism; you assign both T and -T a probability of .5; and suppose furthermore you think theism and naturalism are the only real options. Then, even if you think the probability of the resurrection on K&T is very high .9999, for example, you’ll have to assign it a probability close to .5 on K. Under those conditions, once more, we might say that belief in C presupposes belief in T. If so, one couldn’t sensibly believe C without believing or at any rate assigning a high probability to T – but not because there is a natural inference from C to T (Alvin Plantinga, 2006, “Historical arguments and dwindling probabilities.” Philosophia Christi, 8:14).

Mackie is an atheist, the others are Christians.

I do agree with your main argument, but isn't there a grain of truth in Geisler's statement that 'evidence gains its meaning only by its immediate and overall context' especially in relation to the resurrection? The evidence of the resurrection might just point into different directions.

Although the resurrection offers indeed evidence for at least supernatural – if not divine – intervention (bracketing outlandish hypotheses concerning aliens etc.), there is more context (i.e. evidence) needed for the larger claim that Jesus is God 'by the power of his resurrection'.
Alternative hypotheses for the *meaning* of the resurrection are available, as God might have all kinds of reasons to resurrect Jesus, such as merely endorsing his exemplary life. One should not overhastily draw the conclusion from the resurrection to the claim that Christianity is true. The direction in which this evidence points isn't just *that* clearcut, or is it?

(Btw, a while ago, Kenny Pearce had an interesting discussion on a topic related to this (on skeptical theism and divine deception) at the Prosblogion blog).

I think one has to take Geisler's sentence in isolation from its context in order to think of it as having even a grain of truth. What Geisler _means_ by "context" here is something like the overall worldview of the subject vis a vis theism. And the way he goes on to explain it is clearly not true. That is to say, it is not question-begging or forceless to argue from the resurrection to theism when talking with an atheist. The atheist's "worldview" should change in response to the evidence, not be taken as a given which can make the evidence ineffective.

There are meanings one could give to the sentence, taken in isolation, that would be correct. As you note, what specific doctrinal propositions are endorsed by the resurrection, e.g., whether it shows Jesus to be God or not, depends upon the other things we know about what Jesus taught and when and where He lived.

Or one could imagine other types of "contexts" that would _radically_ alter the importance of the evidence. In an alternate universe, suppose that there is some natural process that causes people to come back to life after three days in approximately 80% of all cases even when already wrapped up in a tomb! Obviously, _that_ context would make a huge difference to the import of the evidence that a particular person arose after three days.

There are times when one fact is irrelevant to another fact unless one has relevant background knowledge. So, for example, information about the low position of women in 1st century Jewish society as _witnesses_ makes the gospel records that show women as the first to see Jesus _positively_ relevant to their veracity, because of the principle of embarrassment. That cultural context makes a fact (the sex of the first witnesses) relevant when it would not otherwise be relevant.

But none of that is the point Geisler is making when he says that about context and the meaning of evidence.

I just now noticed your sentence, Joost, "One should not overhastily draw the conclusion from the resurrection to the claim that Christianity is true." Now, here, I don't know if you're envisaging a situation in which one _does_ know what else Jesus and/or the apostles taught or not. If one does know these other facts about doctrinal teaching, then I don't think it is at all "overhasty" to draw the conclusion that Christianity is true from the resurrection, at least as regards "mere Christianity." Whether the resurrection supports, I dunno, Calvinism vs. Arminianism or vice versa is of course a much more legitimately controversial question.

Lydia,

An interesting post. Let's start with this idea:

Second, this argument, consistently applied, would have made it impossible for the revelation of Yahweh to "get off the ground" with the people of Israel, because it would always have required previous evidence for Yahweh's existence before His self-revelation could get started. What we find in Scripture is that God revealed Himself to His people by signs and wonders from the outset. They didn't require or receive a philosophical prolegomenon.

Here is Genesis 12:1-4:

The Lord said to Abram: Go forth[a] from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. 2 [b]I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth will find blessing in you.[c] 4 Abram went as the Lord directed him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.

I think this supports what you say above, but I still wonder what is the context here? Before Genesis 12 we get the detailed family tree of Noah's descendants -- so Abram was a holy man who presumably did worship God and was familiar via stories of God's wrath via the flood and His mercy in saving Noah and his family. So even here Abram has some background beliefs and expectations of how God should behave. Now I admit, it is a stretch to then say Abram should expect God to start speaking to him -- of all of Noah's descendants -- out of the blue and give Abram what appear to be strange and difficult commands. And yet Abram obeys and he obeys without a details philosophical discussion about natural theology or the cosmological argument or whether he's hearing voices inside his head. He simply knows that God is speaking to him and he obeys. One could almost claim Abram is credulous, but we know because the story goes on, that God fulfills His promises to Abraham.

So I'd like to stop here and get your thoughts on what this says or doesn't say about your argument.

We don't know what the voice of God sounded like to Abram, but regardless of how we evaluate Abram epistemically at *that* point, we should remember that God did give Abram a sign in the miraculous birth of Isaac. The fact that Abram did find a good and fertile land when he followed God's instructions was also external confirmation of the veracity of his conversations with God.

Remember, too, the long period of time during which God more or less left the children of Israel on their own in captivity in Egypt--several hundred years. Even if they did believe in Him previously by inheritance, as it were, they had very few or no religious traditions, and God's nature and identity would have been pretty sketchy for them. God also gave them no particular reason to expect to be brought up out of captivity. Moses could easily have been an imposter (from their perspective) or just someone trying to drum up liberation expectations. It was by signs that God both verified His action, Moses' legitimacy, and, in a sense, identified Himself. From then on He always said that He was *the* God who brought them up out of the land of Egypt.

The important point all along here is that prior probabilities cannot be controlling and that there is nothing magical about a generalized theism that _makes_ evidence have weight. In all of these cases there was little reason to expect God to do what He did and plenty of prior probability *against* the occurrence of that miracle at that time. God made Himself known *by* miracles. The miracles did not become evidentially valuable only because the people *already* knew God. Indeed, Pharoah himself had plenty of reason to believe in the God of Israel by the time the plagues were finished with!

Another example would be Naaman, who was not a Jew and did not believe in God. He tried going to a prophet of Yahweh only out of superstition and desperation--because he had heard that the prophet might be able to heal him of leprosy. (There is even a certain amount of humor in the story when the prophet merely sends Naaman a message to wash in the Jordan and Naaman is offended, because he was expecting recognition of his importance and a dramatic scene in which the prophet/magician would wave his hand over the leprosy.) It was after the healing did occur that Naaman came to believe in God, and as a consequence thereof.

Here is another relevant passage:

And, behold, men brought in a bed a man which was taken with a palsy....And when [Jesus] saw their faith, he said unto him, "Man, thy sins are forgiven thee." And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, "Who is this which speaketh blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?" But when Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answering said unto them, "What reason ye in your hearts? Whether is easier, to say, 'Thy sins be forgiven thee' or to say, 'Rise up and walk?' But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins," (he saith unto the sick of the palsy) "I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy couch, and go into thine house." And immediately he rose up before them, and took up that whereon he lay, and departed to his own house, glorifying God. And they were all amazed, and they glorified God, and were filled with fear, saying, "We have seen strange things today."

Luke 5:18-26

This passage emphasized what I mentioned toward the end of the post--the essential anachronism in taking the theist/atheist divide to be epistemically crucial when it comes to the value of evidence, while not recognizing that the _version_ of theism can also make a miracle very improbable to begin with. And that was in fact true in the ministry of Jesus. In this case it was the very nature of the scribes' monotheism that led them to believe that Jesus was a blasphemer rather than a messenger of the true God. They knew that only God could forgive sins and didn't have any good reason to believe that God would be incarnate--that was an entirely new idea. Therefore, they dismissed Jesus because of His offering the man forgiveness of sins.

Jesus _overcomes_ this prior probability _against_ the miracle by way of doing the sign itself, and He announces *explicitly* that the purpose of the miracle is so that they will know something that they had not known before. In other words, the miracle has independent force that runs directly contrary to their previous beliefs.

There is no principled reason to say that an atheist is justified in dismissing evidence of a miracle but that a 1st century Jewish scribe, who also had a strong prior probability against Jesus' ability to do miracles and the veracity of Jesus' claims, was obligated to accept the evidence of signs and wonders merely because the latter was a theist! The miracles are supposed to _overcome_ prior improbability and to be able to take people in a new direction, epistemically, and they had to do so for the 1st century Jewish leader just as they have to do for the atheist. There is nothing epistemically magical about being a theist.

And yet Abram obeys and he obeys without a details philosophical discussion about natural theology or the cosmological argument or whether he's hearing voices inside his head. He simply knows that God is speaking to him and he obeys. One could almost claim Abram is credulous, but we know because the story goes on, that God fulfills His promises to Abraham.

Jeff, that brings up an interesting point, one that plays into Kierkegaard's discussion on Abra(ha)m as well. Why DID he do what God told him to do?

Although we have a lot of mystery in the specifics of how God communicates with his holy ones and prophets, we do have quite a back-log of cases where those very people give us insight on it. Most of the time, God's workings in the mind and heart are with a veil. St. John's visions in Revelation were indeed specific - but the meanings were unclear. Even when a prophet is urged by God to prophecy the future, he sometimes doesn't see clearly how God will bring it about. But underlying all of that is that God generally works through men by drawing them forward into more and more perfect union with Him, so that His will is their will, and then it is easier for His knowledge to become their knowledge also, even if it is still through a veil.

St. Teresa of Avila, in The Interior Castle, speaks of visions, intuitions, locutions, and sense of "presence" that is one way God brings some people along in holiness. However, these states can all be mimicked by Satan, for they affect the interior "physical" senses, including the imagination and the affective faculties. But much farther along in the development of the spiritual life, in a person who has moved very far indeed toward holiness, God may come to him in a spiritual union which is so deep in the soul, so intimate and so far beyond the physical or lower parts of man, and so overwhelming to the faculties, that not only cannot Satan fool a person about this experience, neither can the person themselves doubt the true presence of God. I would suggest, then, that this the kind of union that Abraham experienced, from which sprang his confidence that it was indeed God Himself who asked him to travel into another land, and who promised a son, etc. Such an intimate experience of the presence of God still requires tremendous acts of faith, but the faith is in God and that God will do what He says, not so much faith that it is God Himself speaking.

Even granting the existence of the kind of mystical experience Tony describes, there is zero reason to believe that all of the people of Israel had anything like this as a prolegomenon. (Nor was Tony implying that; I'm just tying the discussion together.) This is where I think the example of the people of Israel at the time of the Exodus is relevant. Even Moses himself at the burning bush asks God, "Who shall I say has sent me?"

In fact, God often seems to expect signs and wonders to make His existence and attributes known to people who have _radically_ wrong ideas--idol worshipers, for example. Worshiping Baal is obviously not equivalent to having had a classical theistic prolegomenon. Talk about a wrong concept of God!! Talk about having been led _away_ from the true concept of God! So God sends plagues to terrify Pharoah into letting the people go by showing that the true God is on the side of the Israelites, sends fire from heaven to induce the Baal-worshipers in the time of Elijah to return to the true God, and heals leprosy to show Naaman, previously a worshiper of Rimmon (who appears to have been Baal under another name), that Yahweh is the one true God.

Lydia,

Isn't prior probabilities a Humean concept, as you say in the previous post (whose link you include in the beginning of this one)? How is classical theism related here? If the whole thing is about prior probabilities, then isn't classical theism just one prior probability among others?

The approach of classical theism itself is not probabilistic at all, but holistic and systematic. If Hume wants to interpret it probabilistically, let him...

Lydia,

As a believer, I can't help noticing that all the examples you bring seem to be inapplicable to what you are trying to prove. Assuming that you are trying to bring people (closer) to faith, miracles won't work towards this end. Miracles are called miracles because they are unpredictable and inexplicable. They have wondrous causes and inscrutable consequences.

In case of all biblical examples, the people in question (Pharaoh, Baal priests, Naaman, Saul, etc.) already were believers. Faith was not the problem. Even faith in miracles was not the problem. The problem was to get them to obey and worship rightly. But even this is not the ultimate one-and-only aim of miracles. For example Baal priests were killed, potential worshippers wiped away. It was a lesson to other witnesses of the miracle, but not to the Baal priests.

When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the point was not to make anyone believe in God (God was a given for everyone), but to confirm their faith in Jesus specifically, i.e. the purpose of the miracle was actually rather modest even in this otherwise very moving case.

The point of what I am saying is that we cannot tell a miracle what ends to serve. That's why it's called a miracle in the first place. This is true of all biblical miracles and this will be true in all ID cases of design attributable to some intelligence. It's a logical deduction, not a probabilistic assessment.

The phrase "prior probabilities" just refers to the probabilities one has (or even those one ought to have) before some evidence comes in. Phrases like "holistic" area distraction here. The atheist, for example, has a _low_ probability for the proposition that God exists. The scribes had a _low_ probability for the proposition that Jesus was God. That is "where those people are at," so to speak, before evaluating the evidence for a miracle.

To say that "faith is not a problem" for a Baal worshiper merely confuses the issue. The position I am arguing against holds that a person must believe _theism_ first before the evidence for a miracle has force and that the evidence has force then, but only then. Baal worship is not "theism" in the relevant sense. In fact, the classical position I'm arguing against holds that it is a _bad_ prolegomenon to give people "the wrong concept of God," that such a prolegomenon actually takes people _away_ from the true God. It would therefore be inconsistent to hold that superstitious Baal worship or the polytheism of the Egyptians counts as a relevant form of theism, as the magically effective and indispensable prolegomenon of "theism" to make the evidence of miracles suddenly have force when it would not have force otherwise.

Moreover, even if an atheist or agnostic Egyptian happened to be around when the plagues of Egypt took place (I suppose one could write an interesting novel about a skeptical Egyptian who was understandably disgusted by the superstition of his fellow Egyptians in believing in all of these gods), he _should_ have shifted his probabilities in favor of the existence of the God served by Moses. That would have been the _rational_ thing to do. And the same for the other miracles I have mentioned and many others.

Your use of the term "faith," it seems to me, commits precisely the anachronistic confusion I have been highlighting in the last couple of comments. If miracles can and should move us rationally to believe, or towards belief, in conclusions we disbelieved before, then this is just as true of the atheist as of anyone else. If they cannot, then Jesus could not confirm His own ministry in this way against the understandable skepticism of the Jewish audience. There were people who did _not_ previously believe that Jesus was the Messiah who _came_ to do so as a result of Jesus' ministry. The proposition "An incarnate man cannot be God" was a big hill for Jesus to overcome in His ministry. But they saw and believed, and that was how Jesus intended it to be. It merely darkens counsel to refer to everyone as "having faith" if the person isn't an atheist and to use that phrase as an argument against the force of miracles!

Lydia, Your use of the term "faith," it seems to me, commits precisely the anachronistic confusion I have been highlighting in the last couple of comments. If miracles can and should move us rationally to believe, or towards belief, in conclusions we disbelieved before, then this is just as true of the atheist as of anyone else.

Indeed, I find dubious the premise that miracles should move us to believe. For me, one of the main reasons why we call them miracles is that you don't tell them what they should do. If there's some telling there, it's miracles telling us what we should do, never the other way around.

What is anachronistic and confused about my view?

I tried to explain, but I'm not sure you are able to understand: Even someone who already believes in God or in a pagan god needs to be moved to believe something he did not believe before and often something he disbelieved before. This might be, for example, that a man could have the power to forgive sins, that God is or even could be incarnate in a man, or that Yahweh is the one and only true God.

The biblical record definitely shows us that this happened and that it was supposed to happen.

It is anachronistic to use a term like "believe" or "have faith" to cover people who definitely believed that Jesus did not have the power to forgive sins and that it was blasphemy for a man to claim that power. They disbelieved this because of the nature of their religious beliefs. It is confused to say that followers of Baal "had faith." Such locutions place things in the same basket that don't belong in the same category at all, and the locutions thereby downplay the very real epistemic effect of miracles in moving people towards belief in something that they definitely disbelieved before. Once that divinely intended effect and role is recognized, it should become clear that there is no rationale for treating 21st century agnostics and atheists any differently with regard to whether evidence of miracles should have rational epistemic impact.

I don't quite know how I can put this any more clearly.

For me, one of the main reasons why we call them miracles is that you don't tell them what they should do. If there's some telling there, it's miracles telling us what we should do, never the other way around.


This is an extremely confused criticism of what I am saying. When I speak of what miracles should do, of course I am directing the "should" at the human being in question! Some human beings may _choose_ to disregard the evidence, but they _should_ be moved. It makes no sense to say that I am "telling miracles" what they should do. What?? What does this even mean? I am telling human beings how they should respond to be rational in the face of evidence!

The position I am criticizing says that, because an atheist will or could dismiss the evidence of miracles, perhaps with some wild ad hoc theory, that means that the evidence *is forceless* unless one antecedently believes in God. That is not true. The evidence has force. It is the atheist who is stubbornly refusing to recognize it, and Christians should make no excuses for that kind of will to disbelieve. That is the point I have been making all along. It has scarcely been unclear.

Lydia: It is anachronistic to use a term like "believe" or "have faith" to cover people who definitely believed that Jesus did not have the power to forgive sins and that it was blasphemy for a man to claim that power. They disbelieved this because of the nature of their religious beliefs. It is confused to say that followers of Baal "had faith."

Thanks for the clarification. The disagreement is rather deep and steep. From my point of view, the difference is not between anachronistic and non-anachronistic concepts of faith, but between inclusive and fundamentalist readings of the scripture. The inclusive reading has the Good Gentile concept (Romans 2:14-15) which allows for the possibility that there are formally non-Christian people Christian at heart in a mysterious way, approved by God. To you it may seem horrendous that I would allow some people go without making everything in my power to convert them, but in turn I have my doubts if fundamentalists would recognise Jesus if He appeared to us in the form of a lesser brother, a formal non-Christian, a beggar, as a test of our faith (Matthew 25:40). It would be an incredible miracle, yes, but we believe in miracles, don't we?

Lydia: It makes no sense to say that I am "telling miracles" what they should do. What?? What does this even mean? I am telling human beings how they should respond to be rational in the face of evidence!

Two responses here. First, it is not quite reasonable to always shift one's beliefs in the face of evidence. I am not justifying atheism here, but merely stating a psychological fact. Not everybody's mind is flip-flop flexible and I don't see why we should expect it to be. Do you know what is there in the soul of the human being who is witnessing a particular astonishing event? The event may displace the psychology in several ways that may cause the person end up worse when pushed or bent further. You would have to be an expert psychologist, clairvoyant, or a prophet to demand or predict an exact kind of reaction.

Second, let's say for the moment that we should all respond rationally. It may still turn out that not everyone is rational as per our own preferred definition. For example I am not rational the way you prefer, and you are not the way I prefer. We construe the concepts of faith, evidence and miracle so disparately that we are barely in dialogue. I am not saying you are irrational, but your rationale is irreconcilable with mine.

Lydia: The position I am criticizing says that, because an atheist will or could dismiss the evidence of miracles...

Pharaoh dismissed all the amazing and miraculous evidence presented to him. It's not just my opinion that this could happen. It's the scripture saying it. Miracle is precisely miracle in that anything can happen.

You made your position clear enough and I'm actually sorry to differ with you. At least I hope I made my position clear too. There should be less confusion now.

I didn't say that Pharoah or anyone else _couldn't_ dismiss the evidence!! Goodness, it's like you are not reading what I'm writing. I explicitly acknowledged that this could happen, and of course that is consonant with Scripture. You will notice that that is a "because" clause. What I deny is that, _because_ such a dismissal is possible, the evidence lacks actual, rational force, that there is something wrong with the argument at that point epistemically.

As for all the fundamentalist stuff, that is utterly not addressed to anything I am saying. I am doing epistemology, here. I'm not talking about what makes one saved and able to go to heaven or anything of the kind. I'm talking about how evidence works, and I'm saying that the evidence for a miracle *has real rational force* even if a person unreasonably dismisses it based on his prior beliefs. I'm also saying that it has real rational force for an atheist, that a person does not have to be a theist in order for that real rational force to be in place. Any connection between that point and the entirely different question of whether a pagan could be "approved by God" is extremely indirect, at most. I'm not doing theology of salvation. I'm doing epistemology.

The disagreement is rather deep and steep.

Well, that's something we can all agree with.

From my point of view, the difference is not between anachronistic and non-anachronistic concepts of faith, but between inclusive and fundamentalist readings of the scripture. The inclusive reading has the Good Gentile concept (Romans 2:14-15) which allows for the possibility that there are formally non-Christian people Christian at heart in a mysterious way, approved by God. To you it may seem horrendous that I would allow some people go without making everything in my power to convert them, but in turn I have my doubts if fundamentalists would recognise Jesus if He appeared to us in the form of a lesser brother, a formal non-Christian, a beggar, as a test of our faith (Matthew 25:40). It would be an incredible miracle, yes, but we believe in miracles, don't we?

These are all wholly irrelevant to Lydia's discussion. A person could completely agree with your approach on "inclusiveness" and on the possibility that some Christians don't readily recognize the real Jesus, and still agree with Lydia's thesis on a valid epistemic force of miracles.

Two responses here. First, it is not quite reasonable to always shift one's beliefs in the face of evidence.

One doesn't have to "shift one's belief" in simply recognizing the epistemic force either a new piece of evidence or a new argument. One can, for example, say about a wondrous event told to you, something like "wow, that's an amazing story. If it holds up as correctly reported and if what really happened is conformed to what people thought they were seeing, then that would represent something important to what people ought to think." Or, with an argument that on the surface seems to knock a hole in theism, you could say something like "well, I admit that your argument appears to be a proof against the existence of God, but I would like to take things a little slower and would ask you to discuss your assumptions and premises a little more clearly, because I suspect you may have some unrecognized gaps there." In both cases, you are accepting that the event or the argument theoretically ought to have the capacity to affect how we believe something, if they were right and true and solid.

Even in the case of evidence that runs smack dab contrary to belief in God, which the Christian rightly ought not allow to shake his belief in God, the appropriate human response is not to say "that doesn't count as something that holds epistemic impact of its own nature." The human response to evidence is to treat it as evidence, and to acknowledge that it is evidence.

Faith was not the problem. Even faith in miracles was not the problem. The problem was to get them to obey and worship rightly.

This is not at all true as a general concept. God used miracles for many things, including convincing people of some new truth. He said so:

“Why are you thinking these things? 9 Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? 10 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, 11 “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”

The "I want you to know" was, explicitly, God using a miracle to convince people to believe something they didn't already believe in.

"Pharaoh will demand, 'Show me a miracle.' When he does this, say to Aaron, 'Take your staff and throw it down in front of Pharaoh, and it will become a serpent.'"

Pharaoh's demand could not have made any SENSE unless "showing a miracle" were deemed, in principle, to be a kind of evidence for a claim. Moses had to establish his bona fides, his right to make claims. If Pharaoh had said "turn around three times and jump on one foot," Moses could have done it but it would have had no meaning for what Moses and Pharaoh were engaged in. The miracle meant something to them, and that something was as an epistemic carrier of rational force, of reason to be swayed in accepting a claim.

Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

It was precisely the strangeness of the event that attracted Moses and led him to wonder what might be the cause. This physically unexplainable situation led him to be open to accepting that it was God speaking to him in the next verses, whereas he might have doubted had God simply spoken without any signs or wonders.

Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”

But the people said nothing.

22 Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets....Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God."

Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”

Elijah is explicitly calling forth reasons to believe that the God of Israel is God, and Baal is not God. The two opinions are opposed, and only one is to be believed.

Second, let's say for the moment that we should all respond rationally. It may still turn out that not everyone is rational as per our own preferred definition. For example I am not rational the way you prefer, and you are not the way I prefer. We construe the concepts of faith, evidence and miracle so disparately that we are barely in dialogue. I am not saying you are irrational, but your rationale is irreconcilable with mine.

Mr. E., your comment here is so confused as to be well-nigh incoherent with regard to the context of this discussion. Either human beings have the capacity to reason or not - either they have the faculty by which they can draw valid conclusions from prior truths, or they have not. If yes, then that rationality is a SHARED reality for you and for me and for Lydia and any other readers here. That you may have different premises than I do or Lydia does is not reflective of a different faculty of reason. Having different definitions is not indicative of a different faculty, it is indicative of differing uses of the same faculty. And different definitions can be explored, analyzed, and resolved into shared understandings. Like when we say in one sense, 'man' refers to males of the human species, and in another sense, 'man' refers to all members of the human species.

Miracle is precisely miracle in that anything can happen.

Well, actually, metaphysically impossible things (like God making humans to be the Creator) cannot happen, of course, but I suspect you meant that. "Miracles can happen" is effectively the same thing as saying "things that are not possible according to the natural operations of things in the world can happen". Is this in accordance with your understanding? Yes, it is true that Pharaoh could repudiate the empistemic force of the miracles Moses did, but that isn't the miracle - that can happen under the natural operations of the mind and will of human beings. What was miraculous was what Moses presented, the miracles. To observe that people can reject the evidence of a miracle has for some claim isn't to repudiate the reality that the miracle presents in itself at least a partial cause for men to reasonably and rationally change their minds.

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