Home » Library » Modern Library » Richard Carrier Indef 3c

Richard Carrier Indef 3c

Moreland’s “Christian Science” (1999, 2005)

Richard Carrier


[Part 3C of a larger Review of In Defense of Miracles.]


Christian Science, Moreland Style

Moreland correctly identifies the fact that many scientists and atheists erroneously hold that miracles are beyond science because they are not natural, not repeatable, and not governed by law. And I agree with him. For instance, crimes are not exactly repeatable, yet criminal forensics is regarded as a science. It is true that forensics, as with archaeology and history, does solve unique cases by applying general principles proven by repeated testing, but there is no reason why the same thing could not, at least in principle, be done in the case of miracles. Likewise, it is not certain that people obey scientific ‘laws’, yet psychology and sociology are sciences, thus science is not restricted only to studying lawlike features of nature. And whether you consider history a science or not, it still explores issues that can be proven or refuted, just like scientific discoveries can. Although history gets at the truth with great uncertainty and difficulty, it would be silly to say that the crossing of the Rubicon by Julius Caesar is “beyond science” and thus could not be proved true or false in any degree, simply because it is unrepeatable. Then there is that tricky term ‘natural’. What does that mean? Scientists study what can be observed, and everything they observe they typically consider a part of nature. But since miracles could be observed, too, miracles cannot be excluded a priori from scientific or historical study. I have dealt with these issues at greater length in The Problem with Miracles and Nash on Naturalism.

Seeing this, Moreland endeavors to establish just how “miracles” (or all the various claims of theism) could be scientifically investigated. But as I explain in my Survey of this book’s contents, Moreland only defines this “Christian Science” in terms of null-hypotheses known as “God-of-the-gaps” arguments. He does not even mention any possible positive contributions of this science, in terms of testable hypotheses. Thus, his idea of a “Christian Science” would never get to anything Christian, because it would be forever tied up with refuting competing theories–since, contrary to the oft-quoted Sherlock Holmes, there is never a point where all possibilities have been eliminated. This same tactic has been described as the central fault in parapsychology (see Dr. Susan Blackmore’s autobiography In Search of the Light: The Adventures of a Parapsychologist, 1996).

Nevertheless, he slugs onward. Moreland calls his project “theistic science,” whose defining principles are that “there is a personal, transcendent agent–God–who has…acted…in ‘natural’ history,” that “commitment” to this theory “has a proper place in the practice of science,” and this ‘proper place’ is the finding of “gaps in the natural world…that are essential features of immediate, primary divine agency properly understood” (132-3). First of all, I do not quite understand how “transcendency” is supposed to be operationally defined for use in scientific research, or how we are supposed to scientifically establish a “proper understanding” of divine agency, much less the “essential” features of it. Even if these problems could somehow be solved, the fact is that Moreland does not solve them here.

But the primary problem with his project is this: there is no way that the refutation of all known theories can establish a positive theory. He thinks that he can avoid this problem by defining his positive theory in such a way that it is equivalent to an “absence” of alternative theories. But this is not what he has done. His positive theory is twofold: there is, first, a thinking person possessing the undefined property of “transcendence,” and, second, the demonstrable action of this person as the sole and necessary cause of the phenomenon to be explained. It should be clear that neither “an unexplained phenomenon” nor “an unexplainable phenomenon” is the same thing as a person, much less a person possessing any particular properties or acting in any particular way.

To “prove” Moreland’s positive theory we would need certain positive evidence. Consider this case: I am levitated against my will out of my room and carried through a poor neighborhood, then whisked off through space to another planet where I am set down before a stone that glows. I lift the stone and find ten pounds of gold, and am then zoomed back to Earth with the gold. Once I had eliminated all alternative explanations, I would then consult the positive evidence that remained: my journey had an apparent purpose, with moral overtones, and must have been intelligently planned with an understanding of things like the value of gold and how it might alleviate the suffering of the poor. It also involved vast knowledge and ability. But would this prove the existence of God? Not quite. One crucial piece of evidence is missing: I have no proof that my tour guide was “transcendant” (it could have been a finite or even a natural creature), nor that he created the world, or was the same Being responsible for anything else in history. Now, all of these things could perhaps be established sufficiently enough to believe them, given enough unfalsified, reliable evidence from other, similar cases, which can be added to this one, and which fit together, and which fit with the rest of what I know about the universe. It would be even easier if God spoke openly and candidly and we could interview and test him.

But this is not what Moreland proposes. If we had actual positive evidence like this, then there would not be any atheists. But there are atheists precisely because this evidence is lacking. The concept of God as a benevolent, compassionate being does not fit with what I know about the universe: the unalleviated, useless suffering in the world’s history (and in its very design), the lack of clear leadership and direction by God resulting in religious division and warfare, his refusal to have an honest conversation when asked, the apparent deception entailed by the evidence of increasing fossil complexity over time (if we assume special creation, rather than guided evolution, was the actual truth), and so on.

Of course, Moreland omits “benevolent and compassionate” from his definition of God here. But even his preliminary concept does not fit with what I know about the universe: there are no clear linguistic messages in the design of the universe, nor any clear, linguistic communications of an intelligent nature with me which match those made with others throughout all times and cultures; the universe never seems to act with any value-laden purpose (I have only seen such actions from humans), and it is not designed with any values in mind (life thrives by survival of the fittest, not survival of the kindest, and resources are limited, environments are harsh, etc.); and there is a great deal of imperfection in the design of humans and their world that has no good explanation if it was engineered that way.

There are also no other queernesses in the universe suggesting the existence of Moreland’s agent. I expect churches or righteous men to be protected by mysterious energy fields, or bibles to be inexplicably indestructible or even printed in the stars, or for there to be successful “faith healing” wings in hospitals, and things of that nature. Thus, there is a lot more to Moreland’s project than he thinks. God is nowhere to be found when it comes time to test his abilities or interview him, nor are any of the expected odd things (like faith healing) operational when closely examined, and when I add this to the contradictions and difficulties mentioned above, I doubt there will ever be a theistic science. But I do recognize it as feasible–if there were a God, I’m sure it would be a respected branch of science, since then it would have something to study.

Perhaps Moreland does meet all these difficulties somewhere else. In this book he says he has done so in numerous other books and articles cited in a footnote, and therefore all he tries to do here is defend one particular notion of “divine agency” in terms of the supposed physics of “libertarian” free will. I think this is a cop out. Since the problems I outline above are absolutely central to the case that his chapter must make in order for this book’s editorial strategy to succeed, it is not acceptable to claim victory elsewhere and then skip the subject altogether. Since this book claims, even in its title, to be a “comprehensive case for God’s action in history,” Moreland’s failure to make his own case comprehensive is a serious flaw. I have not read any of the other works he cites[1] but I have learned that he brings up the issue of positive evidence at least in Bauman’s Man and Creation (1993), although every example he offers there appears to be false given the known data (which is exactly what this book’s “miracle claims” amount to). Nevertheless, he fails to mention such examples here (unless you count the following), and I am only reviewing this work.

The Physics of Libertarian Free Will

Moreland’s entire chapter is essentially an argument for a “libertarian” concept of free will, despite the fact that Feinberg defends the opposite view (“compatibilism”) in the same book (cf. pp. 242-3). It is not even a complete argument, as Moreland says himself after laying out his theory: he has “not had the space to defend libertarian agency” but rather claims only to have shown that miracles are not “in principle outside the bounds of science” by showing that physicalism and compatibilism are not necessarily true (148). This turns out to be a rather weak argument.

The objective here is to show that libertarian freewill entails something as far as physics is concerned: namely, an absolute gap in a chain of causation. His point is that since libertarian freewill must be true, and since this entails the existence of actual gaps in the function of physical laws, therefore scientists should accept gaps as a feature of physics, and use these proven gaps as evidence of agent causation.[2] Of course, a gap would not always entail causation, but he argues that agency would always be the “best” explanation. His argument is that when we act, there are physical states of our brain and body and world which progress in sequence, but at some point there will be a “causal gap” such that “the description of the brain…just prior to acting will not be sufficient to entail or causally account for…the agent’s” action (144). I will discuss the logical problems with this later. For now, I will continue to describe his scientific theory. First of all, if he thinks scientists will ever be able to map human brain-states so well that they can ever demonstrate a causal gap, he is being absurdly optimistic. But most troubling is the fact that he does not even try to lay out how scientists are supposed to do this.

For instance, he thinks his idea violates the First Law of Thermodynamics (conservation of energy), and this is “what it means for an agent…[to be] capable of genuine creativity and novelty,” although at the same time he argues that it might not violate the First Law, if we assume the Law only applies to “causally closed physical systems” which would exclude humans, because they have free will. But none of this is science. Until he actually establishes experimental proof of either view, he is merely engaging in the armchair speculation of a philosopher. Personally, I agree that we may yet find something that violates the First Law, but until we actually find such a thing, we are not allowed to assume it can exist in any theory we propose, until that theory describes an experiment that will possibly prove the violation. Moreland proposes no such experiment.

My discussion of The Problem with Miracles is also important here, because central even to Moreland’s null-hypothesis approach is the proof of a gap in causation, but in no actual miracle account do we have enough evidence to prove there was such a gap. He simply assumes that when we can’t prove any causal explanation, we have “proof” of a causal gap. But that does not quite follow: it would be one thing to show that all known causal explanations fail, but it is quite another matter when we are merely unable to test those explanations. For example, we cannot go back to the supposed time of the Flood and use all available physical instruments and observations to check whether there is a causal explanation. But this does not permit Moreland to declare that such a mission would fail. Until it is undertaken and actually does fail, we cannot conclude that there was a causal gap involved.

So all he has to support his “causal gap” theory of miracles like the Flood is an argument from ignorance, which is hardly scientific–it is, instead, fallacious reasoning. In this respect I think Moreland actually makes the case for miracles worse, not better. If we stick with Purtill’s definition, it will be hard enough to prove that a miracle has occurred, but now Moreland is telling us to add yet another requirement: an even harder test for a “causal gap.” Thus, even if we could demonstrate a miracle in Purtill’s sense, we would still have to reject it if we were unable to prove a causal gap. So how is Moreland helping his own cause? He really gets nowhere here. The rest of this chapter will address his attacks on reductionism and compatibilism, even though they are actually divorced from any useful connection with the rest of the book.


Moreland begins his argument for Libertarian Freewill by explaining reductionism, the view that everything, including human decisions, can be reduced to the interaction of causal systems (133-5). In short, to have a “mind” in the reductionist view, all you need is the right aggregate of parts. You do not need to add anything, for the sum of the parts and their interaction is sufficient to create and explain a mind. As Moreland says, “a complete account” of raising a hand to vote “could be given in terms of…brain states and so forth” and this explanation could “exclude the psychological level, since they would be what they are with or without the…higher psychological level and would contain no reference to mental entities.” Indeed, it could be given in terms of the interaction of packets of energy in the form of atoms and photons and other particles. Moreland does not refute this view, though he vaguely suggests that it entails a possible dilemma.

But Moreland’s analysis here has one thing missing: organization. Would it really be possible to give a complete account of any system without referring to the overall organization of that system? Not really. But isn’t that very pattern of organization synonymous with the higher level of explanation, in this case the psychological level? In other words, a brain is not just an interacting system of atoms and electrons and other things. It is a particular pattern of interaction. And we use the word “mind” to refer to that particular pattern. The pattern is itself just as crucial to the behavior of the system as its components, for the system would exhibit a totally different behavior if it were not for its particular pattern of organization.

Here is a simple example: compare a gold ring with a gold cube. Both can be made of exactly the same gold atoms (the ring later crushed into a cube, or fashioned from a cube), but only one of them has the property of hollowness and can be placed on a human finger, and only one possesses the property of roundness and will roll down a slope like a wheel. These properties arise entirely from the pattern of organization of the gold atoms: the way in which the atoms are arranged relative to each other. Thus, we can describe a gold ring without using the word ‘ring’, by laying out a mathematical explanation of the relative positions of the atoms. But this description would be synonymous with ‘ring’ and the ability of this arrangement to roll down a slope is more easily explained by saying it is ’round’, which is synonymous with a certain patterned arrangement of atoms. If the gold was not in a round shape, it would not roll down a slope like a wheel. Thus the organization is an indispensable part of the description of any physical system, and this includes the human mind.

The bottom line, however, is that reductionism is not an assumption, but a discovery. We believe it is true because so far it has consistently proven true, and because it explains so much so well. Moreland presents no scientific evidence to throw it into doubt, nor even any logical arguments against it, although I know he would have had he been given the space. In fact, though Moreland does not pursue his argument against reductionism any further, it appears as if his essay was cut for space (there is an odd break in the flow of his argument on page 135). Once again, a book that claims to be “comprehensive,” is not.

Libertarian Freewill

Now Moreland moves into a discussion of compatibilist freewill and contrasts it with “libertarian” freewill, which he defines as follows: “given a choice…nothing determines which choice is made” (137). He does not seem to notice the illogical nature of this position. Nothing determines a choice? Not even reasons? Not even values or knowledge? This is an impossible position to defend. Notice how he explains his odd view: “When agents will A, they could have also willed B without anything else being different inside or outside of their being” (137-8). So if I absolutely do not want to raise my hand, according to Moreland, I might raise it anyway. If I am certain that there is a wall in front of me, I might try to walk through it anyway. If I have no reason to jump out of my window right now, I might do it anyway. What kind of theory is this? It makes absolutely no sense. It would render human behavior inexplicable, random, and bizarre. Indeed, we would live a nightmare, where at any moment we might jump out of a window or put our hands in a fire for absolutely no reason at all.[3]

Moreland tries to have it both ways by saying that desires and such “influence” but do not cause our actions. Yet he never explains just what the difference is supposed to be. My knowledge that a wall stands before me doesn’t cause me to choose to change the direction of my walk? My desire to live doesn’t cause me to refrain from leaping out of windows? It seems to me that 100% of the time, when I know there is a wall, I will stop or turn, or when I want to live I will not leap out of my window. If knowledge of a wall will be followed 100% of the time by my stopping or turning, if my desire to live will be followed 100% of the time by my not jumping out of a passing window, isn’t that equivalent to causation? I do not see how it can be anything else. Moreland fails to even acknowledge this problem, much less address it. Indeed, he seems totally ignorant of it. Consider his example:

“Suppose some person,” Moreland asks, “freely performed some act…say raising an arm in order to vote” (138). He says that this person “exerted [his] power as a first mover (an initiator of change) to bring about” the motion to vote. But what about the request to vote in the first place? Actually being in a circumstance that calls for a vote is itself a necessary condition for raising a hand to vote. Now, this does not mean that the circumstances will be a sufficient cause of the action, but Moreland does not make this distinction. Instead, he includes in his theory the premise that this person “brought about [the choice] for the sake of some [specific] reason,” but that entails another necessary cause–the reason–which will at least correspond to a brain state, and a chain of causation can be followed as we examine the path of all the calculations and knowledge which are in turn necessary causes of that reason.

What Moreland must contend is that despite the necessity of all these causes, the sum of them all (having a reason and a sufficient desire, as well as the requisite knowledge and the necessary circumstances) will still not be sufficient to cause an action, and that something “else” is required, which is neither a reason nor a desire nor knowledge of any kind nor anything about the surrounding circumstances. It is hard to see what this “something” can be. If I have a desire to actually shoot someone, a desire that is sufficient to override all other desires which urge me against it (a necessary cause of any willful choice to shoot), why would I not shoot? If Moreland appeals to moral shame or guilt or fear, then he is appealing to a desire. But that is a cause, and that cannot be his necessary “something.” Likewise, if he appeals to my character, knowledge of God or moral laws, to reasons not to shoot, or any such thing, then he is still appealing to causes. So what is left that could “cause” me not to shoot? He is saying, in effect, that there is some acausal power in me that can cause me not to shoot for no reason whatever. But this contradicts his premise that an agent always acts “for the sake of some [specific] reason.” For if I have no reason at all not to shoot, how can it be that I might choose not to shoot for some specific reason? This is a contradiction, and thus his concept of free will is self-refuting.

Consequences of Moreland’s View

Moreland might respond that we always have a reason to do and not to do something, and which reason we follow is caused purely by “something” in us, but not by these reasons or anything else like desires or knowledge or circumstances. But this does not rescue responsibility. Rather, it destroys it. Imagine two parallel universes, identical in every detail, and imagine a man in each universe, identical in their character and knowledge and desires and everything else, standing in totally identical circumstances. Now imagine that one of these men chooses to kill his wife, but the other man chooses not to. What could possibly explain this? Since the two situations and the two men are identical in every respect, there can be no cause whatsoever for either man’s choice. This is what Moreland says is the case.

But this has an unacceptable consequence: their desires, their knowledge, their moral character, nothing at all can be blamed for having caused their choice. Moreland even agrees: “no description of our desires, beliefs, character, or other aspects of our makeup and no description of the universe prior to and at the moment of our choice…is sufficient to entail that we did it” (138-9). But this means that we could not even say that the first man was evil and the second good, since doing so assumes that the first man’s badness caused him to kill, while the good man’s goodness caused him to refrain. But these men are identical, so one cannot be evil and the other good. Moreland might say he is evil or good after the deed, but that means we could not say he did what he did because he was a good or a bad man. In fact, we could not say at all why he acted. What quality in either man that is uniquely a part of “him” can be blamed for causing his particular choice? There is none.

Now imagine that this man is you, and in one universe you kill your wife, in the other you do not. What would you think of yourself then? You would know that nothing causes your actions–not your character, nor your environment, nor the surrounding circumstances, nor your knowledge, not even your love of your wife. Nothing. Your choice to kill or refrain is purely a result of happenstance. Imagine how you would feel, having learned that it is nothing but the result of unpredictable randomness whether you kill your wife or not at this very moment. Imagine that you refrain from killing, but could run the universe back a million times, and watch yourself again each time, and saw that sometimes you killed and sometimes you didn’t, even though each time all the circumstances, including your thoughts, desires, character, everything, are the same. There would be no rhyme or reason to why you did one or the other–it would be a mere shake of the dice. Wouldn’t you instead want the result every single time to be the same? But if the same circumstances are followed by the same choice 100% of the time, that is causation. Indeed, we know we are good only by seeing whether our goodness causes us to do good deeds, and so we should expect deterministic causation in our own choices. After all, the only alternative to 100% causation is randomness, and why would we feel good about our choices if they were actually random, and not caused by any of our inner qualities?

This is the crux: “I” am defined by my knowledge, character, values, and desires. If something causes me to act which is not one of these things, then “I” did not cause that action. Moreland wants “me” to be defined by something other than these things, but if you were to take them all away, there would be no me, so his approach is absurd. Would anyone conclude that I was at fault for something that I did not cause? The key word here is “I” and what it means. Moreland defines it as some unexplainable, unidentifiable thing that excludes all my memories, desires, virtues, values, traits, even my reasoning. This is a rather illogical conception of human identity.

Compatibilism: the Only Sensible Notion of Freewill

Moreland tries to defend this illogical notion, against compatibilism, by laying out “four areas central to an adequate theory of free will” (138). In fact, what he offers are four things central to a moral theory of responsibility: we must have the ability to act, we must be in control of our action, we must have a reason to act, and we must be the cause of the act. Of course, even if moral responsibility were shown to be illusory, this would not be scientific proof of libertarian freewill. Nevertheless, Moreland fails to make a case against compatibilism, and thus it remains the most sensible justification for our notion of moral responsibility. His four arguments are discussed below:

The Ability Condition

Compatibilism holds that “freedom is willing to act on your strongest preference” (138). Better put, freedom means getting to do what you want. It even means getting to want what you want, but even this entails that at some point there will be some desire or other that you did not choose, since in order to choose the desire that you want, you must first “want” it–and if you begin with no desires at all, you will never make any choice of any kind. Thus, it follows, according to compatibilism, that any organism that chooses in accord with its desires must begin with one or more desires that it did not choose. We call this, in our case, “human nature,” which we did not choose, but was given to us by the accidents of physics and history (or even, given Moreland’s worldview, by the designs of God).

In contrast, Moreland’s “libertarianism” holds that “a free act is one in which the agent is the ultimate originating source of the act.” At first glance, this is the same thing: compatibilists also hold that freedom entails being the source of the action. The person’s character, desire, knowledge, etc., must all be necessary causes of the act. This requires that the “person” be involved in the chain of causation (in the sense of thinking, contemplating, desiring, knowing, etc.). These factors, plus the circumstances, are together the full sufficient cause of any free act. Instead, Moreland requires that a person be an “ultimate” originating source, not just the source. But there is a problem here: never in all of history has anyone ever sought to confirm this before assigning responsibility. In other words, we have no problem calling people responsible all the time, but do we ever bother to check if there was a physical gap in the chain of causation, that the person was an “ultimate” origin and not just an origin? No, we do not. Thus, Moreland’s notion of freedom, as it relates to responsibility, does not correspond to actual human practice. But if Moreland’s ideas have nothing to do with what people actually mean, then why should we care about his ideas?

The Control Condition

The compatibilist view of control is that “an agent is in control of an act [if] the act is caused…by the agent’s own character, beliefs, desires and values,” etc. (140). To defend the libertarian rejection of this explanation, Moreland appeals to Aquinas for the notion that “only first movers are the sources of action” since everything else “merely receive[s] motion passively and pass[es] it on.” But this entails a special use of the word “source” that is not employed in normal discourse. We say the source of an earthquake is a particular rock fracture at a particular location which slipped at a particular time. We never say the source of the earthquake was the Big Bang.

Likewise, in human discourse we distinguish between active and passive transmission of energy in a different way than Moreland does here. For we think in terms of whether the agent took action in accord with a desire to transmit motion: if the transmission of motion requires the participation of the agent’s personality or character or reason, etc., then we call that an active participation. But if the motion does not require participation (if the body is pushed, despite efforts to resist), then the agent has not actively participated, so we say the agent was not in control of his own motion. Consider a thermostat: even though the thermostat is caused to change by the temperature in the room, and in turn causes that temperature to change, we do not say that the air in the room controls the temperature in the room. Instead, we say that the thermostat is in control, because it is a necessary factor in determining the temperature in the room, without which the room’s air could be any temperature that other factors determine it to be. This is the distinction we actually make in real life. Again, Moreland is arguing for ideas that do not correspond to the way people actually think in the relevant contexts. So his contention that we do not have “real” control under compatibilism amounts to special pleading.

The Rationality Condition

Here Moreland talks in a circle. He wants to show that compatibilism entails that we do not act for reasons (intentions) but that we only act because of chains of causation, using the Aristotelian distinction between efficient causes (a ball colliding with another ball) and final, or teleological causes (a ball is collided into another in order that the second ball will land in the corner pocket). But the fact is that reductionism entails that these two kinds of causes are necessarily equivalent in the case of an agent: whenever there is a final cause, if reductionism is true, then there is also an efficient cause (of course, it is not the other way around).

Moreland says, for example, “a reason for acting turns out to be a certain type of state in the agent, a belief-desire state, that is the real efficient cause of the action” (141). His argument is that this excludes the possibility of final causes. But since a belief-desire state is an intention, and an intention is a final cause, it follows that final causes can exist under compatibilism. He often does this, stating tautologies as if they were distinctions. For instance: under compatibilism “persons as substances do not act; rather, states within persons cause later states to occur.” But these are the same thing: the state within me (the sum of my being) is my substance, and since my substance is in turn the cause of my choices, it follows that persons as substances do in fact act under compatibilism. Indeed, so feeble is Moreland’s position here that he concludes with the vague statement that “libertarians reject [this view] and see a different role for beliefs and desires in free acts” yet he never explains what that difference is. I seriously doubt he can validly show any real difference.

The Cause Condition

Here Moreland shows how unaware he really is of the importance of organization in reductionist explanations of causation. According to a compatibilist, Moreland says, “if we say that a desire to vote caused Jones to raise an arm, we are wrong” since the truth is that “a desiring to vote caused a raising of the arm inside Jones” (142). But Moreland is skipping something here. “Jones” is a synonym for a particular collection of character features, values, desires, beliefs, and memories, all of which are necessarily involved in the chain of causation from the initial call for a vote up to the rise of the desire to vote one way or another. Thus, although you could play a word game and say that a desire did not cause Jones to act, by arguing that Jones in fact caused the desire which in turn caused the act, this gets you nowhere if your object is to show that Jones was not the cause of the act, since he must be either the cause of the desire or the direct cause of the act, and either way he is the cause of the act.

Moreland again repeats tautologies as if they were distinctions: “it is the self that acts, not a state in the self.” He never explains how these must be, or even can be, different. Even on his view, there must be some “state” in the special acausal “soul” stuff that Moreland is trying to identify as the “ultimate” cause of action, which in turn causes or constitutes the choice, thus the “self” always equals a “state in the self.” They are always one and the same thing. He thinks this invalid distinction explains the difference between acts and “mere happenings.” But that difference is already adequately explained by what we humans actually look for, which is not an undefined, unobservable, “self-stuff,” but which is instead a visible, demonstrable connection between the act and an agent. This is what is done in courts of law: “means, motive, and opportunity” is a catchphrase for all the evidence which can lead a jury reasonably to believe that the event (a crime) is causally connected to an agent–and not just the agent’s body, but the agent in his entirety: his mind, character, desires, beliefs, and intentions (i.e. “motive”). Since this is all we ever look for, it follows that this is all we actually mean when we say it was an “action” and not a “mere happening.” Moreland’s view is thus disconnected from the reality of human discourse, and that renders it irrelevant as far as I’m concerned.


Moreland’s chapter is a waste. The purpose of the chapter is to show that miracles can be an object of scientific study, but Moreland spends too much time defending one illogical point of view in order to support the general thesis. I actually agree that miracles can be a proper object of scientific study in principle. But Moreland has not even made that case here. Instead, he has tried to argue for something that is only of doctrinal interest to one specific conception of God, and which therefore is ill-suited to any general argument for the scientific study of miracles. Perhaps Moreland has been misled by his opponents? He claims that Antony Flew “and others” claim there is a “dilemma between the theistic requirement of strong laws of nature…and the admission of real exceptions to those laws (miracles)” (142). But if Moreland thinks the answer to this charge lies in the illogical concept of libertarian agency, he is fooling himself. For there is in fact no logical dilemma for the theist who holds that there are strong laws of nature because God maintains them consistently, and also that God can choose to not maintain them on certain specific occasions. These are perfectly compatible views, and would be even if reductionism and compatibilism were true, since these would only describe the order that God maintains, which he could cease maintaining at will.

Also, if we suppose God to be made of some unique substance, which is neither matter nor energy but which can influence both, then it would follow that reductionism would not apply to God (unless his “substance” could in turn to be reduced into component parts arranged in a pattern of behavior). But there is nothing wrong with that, because we have yet to observe a god, and thus could not say whether his behavior must be reducible to anything else. On the other hand, compatibilism must be true even for God, since if God acts for no reasons at all, choosing despite his greatest desires and beliefs, even despite his inherent nature (such as his inherent goodness), we would have a God who could do anything, even the most heinous evil, at any moment, and for no reason at all. But if we are to attribute God’s choices to his knowledge and moral nature, we must adopt a compatibilist view of God’s freewill.

Even so, this does not make miracles impossible, nor does it make them incapable of study, just as it doesn’t in the case of human choices. But Moreland does not present or address any of this, nor does he present any practical advice, or any useful discussion at all, of just how scientists would go about scientifically confirming an event as a miracle. And this means his chapter accomplishes nothing of relevance to the rest of the book.

Return to this review’s Table of Contents to read more detailed critiques of specific chapters in In Defense of Miracles.

[1] Except chapter 7 of Scaling the Secular City (1987), which does not make any better case than he does here. But I have not read: The Creation Hypothesis (1994), chs. 1 and 2; Christianity and the Nature of Science (1989); or his contribution in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith vol. 46 (March, 1994), pp. 2-12; or in Bauman’s Man and Creation (1993), pp. 105-39.

[2] There is a fundamental flaw in Moreland’s reasoning that I did not detect when I first wrote this: he assumes that “libertarian, agent acts (human or divine) result in gaps in the causal fabric of the natural world” (p. 133), but this does not necessarily follow. It is possible that the so-called spontaneous libertarian acts of agents will create the appearance of a continuity of causation and thus leave no causal gaps at all. The following example explains just one way this could happen.

       For instance, suppose an “Agent” is an immaterial Soul, which must act through manipulating a material body, and suppose the material body must obey the laws of conservation. In such a case, the Soul could only affect the body by “borrowing” energy and then reinserting it where desired, so as to bring about the desired causal effect. Moreover, to preserve conservation, this event would have to be instantaneous, leaving no point of missing energy, and it could not, for example, change the direction of any borrowed motion without borrowing still more energy to compensate for the energy required to change the direction of motion. In the end, when a scientist “observed” this system, every change in the system would be entirely accounted for by the seemingly deterministic interaction of units of energy.

       The fact that a soul had intervened in such a system would not be observable, unless the scientist’s ability to observe extended perfectly even to the smallest energy scale, and the scientist’s knowledge of physical laws was perfect and complete. But neither is likely ever to be the case: observations of events at the smallest scale are impossible, because they cannot be made without interfering in that event, and any behaviors that could be observed, which seemed counter to the expectations of known physical laws, would not appear as a causal gap (since all energy would be conserved), but as the manifestation of an as-yet unknown physical law.

       In actual fact, the actions of a Soul in such a system would most likely appear exactly like the known physical laws of quantum indeterminacy. For unique actions would not allow the statistical discovery of any deviation from otherwise-expected randomness. In other words, the fact that the Soul’s actions were slightly violating or toying with the normal “quantum” probabilities involved would never be observable because no action of the Soul would ever be repeatable–every choice is based on unique circumstances and thus is itself a unique event. Thus, even if Moreland were right about the mechanism of agency, his planned scientific program could fail to detect it. This would create even greater problems for his proposed scientific investigation of miracles than I already point out in my conclusion above.

[3] This section on free will and the previous discussion of reductionism have both been substantially expanded and improved upon in my book: Richard Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (2005). In the present review, I also discuss the issue of free will a bit more in my critique of Beck.