Thursday, October 15, 2009

Some God Talk for a Change: Part 1

THESE days most people think it unscientific to believe in "miracles", and irreligious not to believe in them. But would the occurrence of miracles really violate the principles of science? And would their non-occurrence really undermine religion? David Hume and Richard Dawkins have attempted to answer these questions in their different ways, but I am not convinced by their arguments, and for me they remain open questions.

In 1748, in one of his key essays, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, the Scottish philosopher David Hume gave an account of the philosophy of miracles that impressed and influenced many thinkers. Hume defines a miracle as "a violation of the laws of nature...a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent".

He does not say that miracles could not or do not occur, but that we are unlikely to be able to prove that one has occurred. He argues that whenever we hear a report of a miracle, it is more probable that the reporter is deceived or deceitful than that their report is true. And he suggests that his arguments must undermine religion because they remove what adherents consider to be one of the rational grounds of religious belief.

Hume is right to argue that there is something dubious about miracles, but not quite for the reasons he suggests. The very notion of a miracle is either unintelligible or it has a meaning other than that given by Hume. And it is far from clear that Hume's arguments have any bearing on how rational it is to accept or reject religious beliefs.

I would argue that, by definition, "laws of nature" are universal laws of the form "if A, then B", or "all As are Bs". Logically, they cannot be violated or transgressed, not even by God. If, even on one occasion, for whatever reason, there was an A without a B, then it would not be true to say "if A, then B". What had been thought of as a natural law would in fact not be one.

Hume continues: "That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact, which it endeavours to establish: And even in that case, there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior."

This might sound impressive but it is mere rhetoric and bluster. For example, if a miracle is a violation of a law of nature, there cannot be degrees of miraculousness. In terms of his definition, something either is or is not a miracle. When Hume says it would need to be more miraculous that a report was false than that a miracle had not occurred, he is oscillating between meanings of the term - between his own specific use and the vague, undefined usage of common speech.
Moreover, we do not normally, as Hume suggests, accept or reject our theories on the basis of the number of examples cited to support a proposition (remember, just one black swan undoes the theory that all swans are white), or by trying to calculate the probability that those who report observations are telling the truth.

"Laws" that appear firmly established are often overturned in science, yet we do not need to argue that a miracle must have occurred, assuming whoever reported the apparent overturning is telling the truth. Instead, the rational thing to do is to abandon the natural law or modify what we considered to be a true statement of it.

Which is where Dawkins comes in. In The God Delusion, he writes: "I suspect that alleged miracles provide the strongest reason many believers have for their faith: and miracles, by definition, violate the principles of science." This looks at things the wrong way round. People do not believe in religion because they accept occurrences such as miracles. Surely it is because people believe in particular religions that some interpret some particular occurrences as miracles.

But believers need not mean by "miracles" what Hume and Dawkins mean by them. And belief in miracles need not be inconsistent with an acceptance of science. I have already argued that Hume's definition of miracles violates the principles of logic rather those of science. And anyway, Hume never argued that miracles violate the principles of science. Belief in miracles need not be inconsistent with an acceptance of science.

Dawkins, however, does. In The God Delusion, he asks: "Did Jesus have a human father, or was his mother a virgin at the time of his birth? Whether or not there is enough surviving evidence to decide it, this is still a strictly scientific question with a definite answer in principle: yes or no."
I think there is a lot of truth here. Even so, what Dawkins says does not completely settle the matter, far less settle it in favour of atheism. Suppose the correct answer is: no, Jesus did not have a human father. This would no more establish the truth of religion than the opposite falsifies it. If Jesus was born of a virgin, it does not follow that a law of nature was violated. To say "if A, then B" is not to say that there will be a B only if there is an A.

For instance, human clones could be born of virgins - without violating a universal law. In the Humean sense of a violation of a law of nature, virgin births and the examples of "miracles" that Dawkins gives are not, if they occurred, necessarily violations of natural laws. They are uncommon, possibly astonishing, but as Hume himself said when he was defending suicide, all that occurs is natural, whether or not it occurs frequently.

As for the link between believing in God and believing in miracles, people may believe in God without believing in miracles in any sense of the term. Similarly, people may be scientifically minded and yet ask and give answers to non-scientific questions. The notion "only scientific statements are rational ones" (implicit in so much western thinking) is not itself a scientific statement, it is a false philosophical one.

Consider the Azande, an African tribe whose members believe all deaths and misfortunes are caused by either witchcraft or sorcery. Suppose a falling branch kills someone. On one level, the tribe accepts a scientific account of the incident in terms of, say, the effect of termites on wood. But on another level, they ask why did it come about that the particular person happened to be standing under the tree when the branch happened to fall?

We are unlikely to ask that particular question, and unlikely to accept their particular explanation, but it is not at all clear why we should say that questions of that sort are inappropriate. There is no apparent clash with science or hostility to it, as the British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard, who studied the Azande, was keen to stress.
People might accept a scientific account of why a particular event occurred, yet ask similar sorts of questions about why there are particular juxtapositions of occurrences. Much of this speculation and theorising will be baseless, but there seems no justification for saying all such thinking is nonsensical. By analogy: most conspiracy theories are groundless, but not all of them are.

So some people might think of "miracles" as particular juxtapositions of events, each of which has a correct and acceptable scientific explanation. This might be nonsensical, but it would be interesting to discover wherein the nonsense lies. We should be open not only to possible observations and experiences that might dislodge some of our accepted theories but to thoughts and ways of thinking that may challenge our notion of what acceptable theories and explanations can be like. We deceive ourselves if we imagine science has established that only scientific explanations are valid or that scientific explanations can take only one particular form.

Hugh McLachlan is professor of applied philosophy at the School of Law & Social Sciences, Glasgow Caledonian University, UK. He edited The Kirk, Satan and Salem (The Grimsay Press, 2006)

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