Home » Library » Modern Library » Science, Confirmation, and the Theistic Hypothesis: Chapter 4

Science, Confirmation, and the Theistic Hypothesis: Chapter 4

Chapter Four

Miracles, Confirmation, and Apologetics

The preceding chapters have examined and criticized three different attempts to support theism by construing it as a well-confirmed scientific or quasi-scientific hypothesis. Of course, many other arguments of this sort have been or could be offered. However, if the conclusions of the first three chapters are correct; the prospects for any such arguments must appear dim. It has been claimed that any attempt to construe theism as a straightforwardly scientific hypothesis will inevitably follow “scientific” creationism into the realm of pseudoscience. Further, central arguments of the two best known philosophical defenders of the theistic hypothesis have been examined and found lacking. Schlesinger and Swinburne have not succeeded in their effort to employ confirmation theory in the reformulation of traditional theistic arguments. Their failure should give pause to those who would follow in their steps.

In this and the following chapter two arguments will be examined which, like those previously studied and criticized, involve issues of hypothesis confirmation or disconfirmation. However, the arguments to be examined in this and the next chapter are ones that have often been urged against theism. It is important to know not only whether the construal of theism as an explanatory hypothesis side in the defense of theism. It should also be seen whether such a construal actually weakens theism by providing a basis for anti-theistic arguments. This chapter will examine a number of skeptical arguments that have been directed against the miraculous.[1] The final chapter will develop and defend a version of the traditional problem of evil.


Historically, the three major theistic religions have all contained some element of the miraculous. Jewish scripture tells of how the Children of Israel were delivered from their Egyptian bondage by mighty acts of God. Muslims claim that the Qur’ran was miraculously delivered to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel. Christians have adduced the alleged miracles of Jesus as signs of his divine nature and the proof of the authority of his teachings. Further, Christian doctrine itself has included the claims that certain miraculous events–e.g. the virgin birth and the resurrection–have taken place.

Miracle-claims such as the above, once powerful inducements to religious belief, are now something of a stumbling-block. Supernatural interruptions into the natural order are not easily countenanced by the prevailing modes of scientific rationality. In recent decades, some Christian theologians, embarrassed by the problem of making miracles credible to scientifically-minded people, have opted for radical solutions. Rudolf Bultmann, for instance, offered a completely ‘demythologized’ Christianity in which the miraculous is regarded as the dispensable by-product of an outdated cosmology.[2]

Bultmann’s and other efforts to produce completely secularized and naturalized theologies have been severely, and, in the present author’s view, decisively criticized elsewhere.[3] In actuality, it is very hard to see what theism amounts to if it does not posit a supernatural or transcendent agent who can miraculously intervene into the natural order. Put bluntly, a completely ‘demythologized’ theism seems to be just a rather disingenuous species of secular humanism.

Further, much of the perennial appeal of the theistic religions lies in their claim to provide access to a reality that is deeper than the world of secular experience yet which remains actively involved in that world. A God that remains wholly detached and aloof from the world, a Deus Absconditus, stands in danger of becoming a mere abstraction, a theoretical entity devoid of religious interest. The miraculous therefore seems to be one of the animating factors that keep religions alive.

It is difficult to find anyone who is a theist simpliciter; almost all seek to embody theism within a living religion. How, then, are theists to deal with the tensions between religious traditions that are inherently and unavoidably supernaturalistic and an era of scientific rationality in which there seems to be no place for the miraculous? Two types of response seem possible–one aggressive and confrontational and the other essentially defensive and conciliatory.

The former would attempt to carry the fight to the naturalist, to challenge and seek to undermine the assumption upon which skepticism about the miraculous rests. It would attempt to show that such skepticism rests upon prejudice and is in no way a genuine methodological requirement of natural science. Further, it might be argued that a consistent naturalism is irrational–either because it is somehow incoherent or because there is in fact such strong evidence for certain miracles that those who deny them jeopardize their own rationality. This approach is the one taken by conservative Christian apologists such as C.S. Lewis.[4] I shall refer to this line of argument as the ‘hard’ line on miracles.

What I shall call the ‘soft’ line on miracles, on the other hand, would readily concede that skepticism about the miraculous may be quite appropriate and rational–for naturalists. However, proponents of the soft line would argue that those who are in a position of belief in a particular tradition may well be justified in accepting the occurrence of whatever miracles are encompassed within that tradition. In other words, the soft line would emphasize that the question of whether it is rational for a person to accept a given belief depends crucially upon the content of that person’s other beliefs. If this is so, then, since perfectly reasonable people can be expected to disagree on many of the fundamental issues that separate theists from naturalists, it might well be rational for some to believe in miracles and for others to be skeptics.

The existence of both the hard and soft lines on miracles presents the naturalist with a choice analogous to that faced by theists. The naturalist may adopt the defensive position that the rationality of naturalism can be maintained in the face of the hard line, or the naturalist may go on the offensive and maintain that any belief in the miraculous is irrational. Here it will first be asked whether the defensive posture can be maintained, i.e., whether there is any legitimate hard-line argument that demonstrates the irrationality of naturalism.


The hard line on miracles was once considered an integral part of a broader program of Christian apologetics–that discipline that seeks to employ the ordinary tools of argument and evidence in making a rational case for the truth of Christianity. As a field of intellectual endeavour, Christian apologetics enjoys rather less prestige now than it did in previous times. Nevertheless, it remains a very popular enterprise, as witnessed by the fact that the writings of C.S. Lewis have to date sold more than fifty million copies. Further, the recent resurgence and continued growth of conservative forms of Christianity will likely lead to increasing interest in such old-fashioned styles of apologetic, including the hard line on miracles. Hence, it will be a valuable exercise to see whether the rationality of naturalism can be maintained against the arguments of the hard-line apologists.

I shall assume that naturalism is a coherent position and is in no way self-refuting. The only prominent argument to the contrary–one developed by C. S. Lewis in his popular Miracles–has been ably and completely refuted elsewhere.[5] The main challenge to naturalism that we shall consider here is whether any miracle-claim can be so well established that naturalists can deny it only at the cost of jeopardizing rationality. It shall be argued that it is most unlikely that any miracle-claim can be so well established.

It first needs to be determined how “miracle” must be defined if it is to do the job that proponents of the hard line require. Hard-liners must define “miracle” in such a way that if one could be shown to have occurred the naturalist could not rationally explain it away. Merely showing an event to be unexplained in terms of presently known laws of nature will not do. Many events that are currently unexplained can reasonably be expected to someday receive naturalistic explanations as our knowledge of the universe grows. Hence, a miracle must be partially defined as an event that is in principle incapable of receiving a naturalistic explanation. Of course, religious people mean much more than this when they speak of miracles, but naturalistic inexplicability is what interests us here.

Disregarding purely random events–such as the decay of a single atom of a radioactive element–what sorts of events would be permanently inexplicable in naturalistic terms? Clearly, one necessary condition that an event must meet if it is to be naturalistically inexplicable is that it must be incapable of ever being subsumed under any law of nature. Hence, hard liners must bear the onus of showing how such scientifically inexplicable events can be identified.

One conceivable way of identifying such events would be to develop a criterion for the scientifically inexplicable. Some theists, such as Swinburne, hold that such a criterion can be derived from the necessary conditions that a statement must meet if it is to be considered a law of nature.[6] Philosophers of science have devoted considerable effort to articulating the criteria for identifying those types of statements that are “lawlike.” Swinburne recognizes that there is no universal agreement about these criteria or their application, but he contends that there is a reasonably broad consensus about some of those identifying features.

First, a law of nature is not a mere description of observational results, but is a generalization or formula extrapolated from those results. Second, from this generalization or formula it should be possible to deduce all of the past observational results as well as to make predictions about those that will be observed in the future. Finally, since for any given set of data an infinite number of hypotheses can be generated from which those data can be deduced, scientists attempt to provide (cateris peribus) the simplest or most economical account. A description that does not meet these criteria cannot be a law of nature.

Swinburne concludes that only descriptions of what occurs in regular and predictable ways will begin to be able to meet the criteria of lawlikeness.[7] This means that “When what happens is entirely irregular and unpredictable, its occurrence is not something describable by natural laws.”[8] For Swinburne, therefore, an event is identified as scientifically inexplicable when it is shown to be unique, unpredictable, and non-reproducible.

Despite its plausible appearance, non-repeatability will not serve as an adequate criterion for the scientifically inexplicable. Swinburne is correct in saying that the laws of nature only describe events that occur in regular and predictable ways. However, as Guy Robinson points out, when scientists encounter an event which runs counter to accepted theory and which they are unable to reproduce, they do not relegate it to some category of the permanently inexplicable. Rather, they label the event a ‘freak result,’ set it to one side, and proceed with their inquiries in the hopes that the anomalous event will someday be explained:

Describing an event as ‘freak’ is to say that for the moment it can only be seen as isolated and not as one of a class of events, which is the pre-condition of its receiving a scientific explanation. But to say this would certainly not be to say that it can never or will never, be seen as one of a class of events. No scientist could ever justify saying that.[9]

The reason why no scientist could ever justify saying that is that “… uniqueness is not a scientifically determinable property of anything.”[10] That is, there is no criterion for identifying any event as non-repeatable. Scientists working at a given time and place may not be able to repeat it, but this does not mean that it must be in principle non-repeatable.

Further, Robinson gives some very good reasons for thinking that no criterion of scientific inexplicability ever will be found. He argues that it would only be possible to define the class of the scientifically inexplicable as the complement class of the scientifically explicable. However:

… the concept of scientific explicability does not define a class which is of the right sort to have a complement class; there is no class of the not-explicable. To have a complement, a class must either have a finite extension or else it must have a criterion that unambiguously settles its membership or the application of the class concept. But the class of the scientifically explicable satisfies neither of these conditions. There is no criterion that settles whether something is explicable or not, only whether it is explained… The class of the scientifically explicable… is a class which is neither extensionally nor conceptually well-defined and therefore the idea of its complement is an empty one and cannot be used to say anything about anything.[11]

Antony Flew gives another excellent argument against the possibility of ever arriving at such a criterion:

Protagonists of the supernatural… take it for granted that we all possess some natural (as opposed to revealed) way of knowing that and where the unassisted potentialities of nature (as opposed to a postulated supernature) are more restricted than the potentialities which, in fact, we find to be realized or realizable in the universe around us… But we certainly cannot say, on any natural (as opposed to revealed) grounds, that anything that actually happens is beyond the powers of unaided nature, anymore than we can say that anything which any man has ever succeeded in doing transcends all merely human powers. For our evidence about the powers of nature in general, and of man in particular, is precisely and only everything that things and people do.[12]

Since we cannot know whether any events are beyond the powers of unaided nature, we have no way of identifying a class of the scientifically inexplicable.

Given the difficulty of producing an adequate definition of the class of scientifically inexplicable, some philosophers, while not attempting to articulate a criterion, do think that examples can be given of events that no law of nature could ever subsume. The intent of these examples is to show that it places a much greater strain on rationality to regard some events capable of being explained scientifically than to regard them as simply beyond the bounds of natural law. For instance, R.F. Holland, in an often-quoted article, proposes the following example:

Suppose that a horse, which has been normally born and reared, and is now deprived of all nourishment (we could be completely certain of this)–suppose that, instead of dying, this horse goes on thriving (which again is something we could be completely certain about). A series of thorough examinations reveals no abnormality in the horse’s condition: its digestive system is always found to be working and to be at every moment in more or less the state it would have been in if the horse had eaten a meal an hour or two before. This is utterly inconsistent with our whole conception of the needs and capacities of horses…[13]

To admit that this event had occurred and yet insist that it could have a natural explanation would, Holland argues, require that we reject any conception of the physical impossibility of this event. But that conception cannot be easily discarded:

… not when it rests on the experience of generations, not when all the other horses in the world are continuing to behave as horses have always done, and especially not when one considers the way our conception of the needs and capacities of horses interlocks with conceptions of the needs and capacities of other living things and with a conception of the differences between animate and inanimate behavior quite generally.[14]

To reject conceptions for which there is such overwhelming evidence would, Holland contends, be far too high a price to pay. He maintains that it would be much more rational to retain all of the conceptions which imply the physical impossibility of this event and to regard it simply as inexplicable. Another way of putting it would be that to regard an event as scientifically explicable when doing so would require the rejection of such a mountain of evidence is surely an act of faith as wild as any ever made in the name of religion.[15]

Holland begins his argument with an imaginary example; counterarguments could start from different scenarios. Examples can be imagined in which people encounter events that seem utterly inexplicable to them but which turn out to have scientific explanations. Suppose that a group of Papuan tribesmen were to witness for the first time a helicopter rise vertically from the ground into the sky. Never in their lives had they observed a large, solid object rise into the air without anything seeming to lift or throw it. The phenomenon would run totally counter to all their previous experience of how such objects behaved. It seems entirely reasonable to suppose that such an event would appear as mysterious to them as Holland’s horse would to us. In fact, they would probably find it much less credible that such a wonder could have been produced by beings with no greater intrinsic powers than their own that it was wrought by some enormously powerful deity.

Of course, we pride ourselves in knowing much more than paleolithic Papuans, but we also are more aware than they are of how much we do not know. We are therefore even less justified than they are in thinking that we know what nature cannot do. Hence, when confronted by an event that conflicts with all our previous experience we have considerably less right to think that the unassisted potentialities of nature could not have produced it. Besides, the whole history of science is replete with instances of things thought too marvelous for ordinary explanation finally being accounted for in entirely mundane terms. Further, it seems reasonable to suppose that contact would be made with scientifically advanced extraterrestrials who could perform feats that would astound us as much as helicopters would awe Papuans. When these beings assured us that in a few more millennia we would know the laws of nature that they employed to produce those results, it would seem to be sheer superstition to doubt them.

Given the above, it seems much less reasonable when confronted with Holland’s horse to simply concede its scientific inevitability. Surely events equally marvelous have been or could be shown explicable. Further, Holland’s argument only succeeds in having the degree of plausibility that it has by relying upon a simple fallacy. Holland wants to confront us with a dilemma; either we declare his healthy unfed horse inexplicable or we reject in toto all the evidence that previously made us think such an event impossible. But this is not a genuine dilemma; it is only the fallacy of the false dilemma.

We have the third option of regarding the event as explicable and looking for a higher order law or set of laws that would explain both the healthy unfed horse and the reason why all other horses must be fed to be kept healthy. The history of science has examples of events that extremely well-confirmed laws could not account for, but which eventually succumed to explanation in terms of such higher-order laws. The classic example was the inability of Newtonian mechanics to explain the precession of the perihelion of Mercury. This remained an embarrassment to physicists until the laws of relativity explained both the anomalies of Mercury’s orbit and the reasons why Newtonian mechanics held good in almost all other observed situations.

Another well known episode in the history of astronomy provides yet a fourth alternative to add to Holland’s purportedly exhaustive two. Certain perturbations in the orbit of the planet Uranus were inexplicable on the basis of the standard celestial mechanics. The astronomer Leverrier hypothesized that a previously unknown planet might cause these irregularities. This hypothesis eventually led to the discovery of the planet Neptune. Thus, when confronted with Holland’s horse we could conjecture that some unknown and presently undetectable, but still scientifically explicable, factor is at work that prevents the usual laws from applying in this one case. We may not have as yet a clear enough idea of what that factor could be to form any definite hypotheses, but this would have no bearing on whether there could be such an unknown factor.

It seems, therefore, that even very extraordinary events might still reasonably be thought scientifically explicable. However, given the fecundity of the human imagination, perhaps events can be thought of that are so outre that it would not be reasonable to regard them as scientifically explicable. Perhaps if all the galaxies in the Virgo cluster were instantly rearranged so that when viewed from earth they spelled out “PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD!” this would be a good candidate for the scientifically inexplicable.

In other words, it might be argued that, given the apparently unlimited power of the human imagination to conceive of ever more fantastic scenarios, some event could be imagined that would succeed where Holland’s horse failed. That is, it would be an event so utterly at odds with our deepest and most solid theories about how the world works–i.e. our best-confirmed laws of nature–that it would be better to relegate it to the class of the scientifically inexplicable than to revise our convictions about its physical impossibility.

Let us, for the sake of argument, concede that the provision of such events is conceivable. It nonetheless remains that we do not have, and have little prospect of getting, an adequate criterion for distinguishing the inexplicable from the merely extraordinary. The distinction can, at best, only be made in an intuitive and ad hoc manner. Hence, we have no way of saying just how bizarre an event must be before it qualifies as scientifically inexplicable–and we have seen that events can be very extraordinary indeed and still not have to be placed in that category.

Miracles, in order to leave no reasonable doubt their scientific inexplicability, must therefore be very extraordinary events. They must be events which we have every reason to believe are physically impossible; i.e., our best-confirmed natural laws must tell us that events of this sort cannot occur. This means that prior to their actual occurrence they must be events that we would judge very unlikely to take place. Indeed, it is fair to say that they must have an a priori likelihood about as low as any contingent fact could have. Thus, even if we can imagine events so remarkable that they would be scientifically inexplicable, we can ask whether any evidence would be strong enough to establish that such improbable events had taken place.

This, of course, is the traditional Humean problem about miracle-claims.[16] Hume viewed the difficulties facing the confirmation of miracle-claims as arising from a conflict of evidence: On the one hand, there is the evidence of those giving testimony that the event in question actually took place (Hume only considered testimonial evidence). On the other hand, there is the evidence of a well-established law of nature that such events cannot happen. Now the laws of nature enjoy the status that they do only because innumerable observations have proven them absolutely consistent and reliable. Human beings, on the other hand, are known by experience to be gullible, superstitious, and often mendacious. Thus it seems clear that in any conflict of evidence between human testimony and an accepted law of nature, it is rational to give greater weight to the evidence of the latter than the former. Hence, it is always rational to reject as probably false any event reported as a violation of natural law.

Hume’s formulation of the problem is not completely satisfactory. One serious flaw is that he failed to consider that evidence other than human testimony could be adduced in favour of a miracle-claim. Miracles could be observed directly or through instruments. Miraculous events could leave physical evidence that might allow us to infer their occurrence (the so-called Shroud of Turin has been claimed to constitute such evidence).

Surely observational evidence, whether acquired directly or through instruments, could justifiably lead us to accept that an event has occurred contrary to the prediction of a well-established natural law. If this were not so science could never revise its laws in the face of falsifying counter-instances since it could never be established that such events had taken place. However, extreme caution must be taken even when we are dealing with observational evidence. Scientists customarily display such caution; they do not declare a law void as soon as they seem to come across a counter-instance. The first and by far most likely assumption will be that some mistake was made in observation. Only when the accuracy of the observation has been established beyond all doubt, usually through a repetition of the experiment of the observation, will the law be required.

Even greater precautions must be taken when dealing with paranormal events since the possibility of deception (arising either from oneself or others) is much greater here. Just how easy it is for such deception to be practiced, even on the members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was demonstrated by professional magician James Randi. At an AAAS sponsored symposium Randi employed magician’s tricks to perform a number of ‘miracles’:

Randi put his skills as a magician to work to demonstrate to the audience how easy it is to stage ‘miraculous’ events… While the audience and cameras crowded around for a closer look, he carried out ‘psychic surgery’ on a volunteer subject, relieving the ‘patient’ of a vast quantity of ‘blood and guts’ from an unincised stomach. And Randi amazed a sizable proportion of the audience by successfully predicting which one word a member of the audience would select from a newspaper clipping. After the volunteer announced the selected word (‘wonder’), Randi instructed him to look beneath his chair. He found fastened to his seat a sealed envelope bearing a letter notarized eight days earlier stating that the word that would be selected would be ‘wonder’.[17]

Randi went on to warn that even trained, skeptical scientists might be deluded by such tricks into thinking that paranormal events had taken place. Indeed, mountebanks such as Uri Geller have had great success in doing just that. Hence, even seeing what we think to be a miracle does not automatically rule out the possibility that what was observed was actually some sort of trick or delusion.

Of course, cases can be imagined in which there would be very little chance of such delusion. If thousands of people saw an entire mountain range rise up into the air and fly to a new location many miles away, this should be adequate evidence (at least for the people who saw it) that such an event had actually occurred. Such an event could not be a magician’s trick; indeed, it is far to say that if this could be a delusion then anything could.[18]

Once again, however, there seems to be no adequate criterion for determining just how extraordinary an event must be in order for the suspicion that we might be deluded to become untenable. Hence, there does not seem to be any clear-cut way of determining exactly what sorts of events could not be caused by tricks, delusions, hallucinations, etc.

As Hume recognized, the chief problem with evidence for miracle-claims is that the great bulk of such evidence is in the form of human testimony. It would take very few flying mountain ranges to convert the unbelievers of the world, but such things just do not seem to occur today. Instead, the great preponderance of miracle-claims, and this is certainly true of all the miracles of traditional importance to Christian apologetics, are based almost entirely on uncorroborated testimony.

We may employ Bayes’ theorem as a tool to help understand Hume’s argument. It is a consequence of Bayes’ theorem that for any hypothesis h, evidence e, and background knowledge k, the probability that the hypothesis is true given the evidence and background knowledge, p(h/e.k) will be greater than the probability that the hypothesis is false given the evidence and background knowledge, p(~h/e.k) if and only if

p(e/h.k)     p(~h/k)
--------  >  -------
p(e/~h.k)    p(h/k)

We may employ Bayes theorem as a tool to help understand Hume’s argument. It is a consequence of Bayes’ theorem that for any hypothesis h, evidence e, and background knowledge k, the probability that the hypothesis is true given the evidence and background knowledge, p(h/e.k) will be greater than the probability that the hypothesis is false given the evidence and background knowledge, p(~h/e.k) if and only if

p(e/h.k)     p(~h/k)
--------  >  -------
p(e/~h.k)    p(h/k)

Here h is the claim that a certain miracle has occurred, e is alI of the evidence we have for that claim (and we are presupposing that we have only testimonial evidence), and k is our background knowledge (including, crucially, all of our knowledge about the laws of nature). p(e/h.k) will be the probability that we would have our evidence given that the miracle actually occurred and given our background knowledge. p(e/~h.k) will be the probability that we would have the evidence given that the miracle did not occur and given our background knowledge. p(~h/k) will be the probability that the miracle did not occur given only our background knowledge, and p(h/k) will be the a priori probability of h, i.e. the probability of its occurrence given only our background knowledge.

A Humean argument against the confirmation of miracle-claims may now be expressed as follows: We have seen that a miracle, in order to do the job hard-liners require of it, must be a physically impossible event; otherwise, it will be rational to regard it as scientifically inexplicable. A physically impossible event will, by definition, be as unlikely a priori as any contingent event could be. Hence, p(h/k) will be extremely low and, since p(~h/k)= 1 – p(h/k), p(~h/e.k) will be extremely high. p(~h/k)/p(h/k) will therefore be enormous indeed.

How, then, will p(e/h.k) / p(e/~h.k) ever come to be higher still? It may be conceded that p(e/h.k) is quite high (it seems fair to say, though, that it will not be quite as high as p(~h/k)). It is very likely that the occurrence of the claimed miracle would produce just the sort of evidence we have in fact got.

The problem arises with p(e/~h.k). Given what we know about human frailties and weaknesses, it seems quite likely that we would have the given testimonial evidence even if the miracle testified to had not occurred. We have in our background knowledge ample evidence of human mendacity, gullibility, and superstitiousness and these are frequently quite sufficient to produce miracle-claims where no miracle has actually occurred. Hence, it seems that p(e/~h.k) must also be quite high, so that when divided into p(e/h.k) the quotient will not be nearly high enough to surpass p(~h/k) / p(h/k).

May we therefore conclude that it is always rational to regard p(h/e.k) as less than or equal to p(~h/e.k)? This seems a bit nasty. How do we know that there can never be any witnesses so absolutely trustworthy that it would be, in Hume’s terms, a greater miracle for their testimony to be false than for the claimed event to have actually occurred?

Antony Flew presents an argument which, if sound, would succeed in showing that no human testimony can ever be shown reliable enough to establish the occurrence of a physically impossible event.[19] We regard certain conceivable occurrences as physically impossible because our best-confirmed laws of nature tell us that such things cannot happen. All our evidence for the laws of nature arises from observation and Flew argues that testimonial evidence is intrinsically weaker than evidence based on observation. As Flew phrases it, the conflict of evidence involved in a miracle-claim supported solely by testimony is the conflict between ‘historical’ and ‘scientific’ evidence: “For on the one side we have what purports to be a historical proof; while on the other the nomological is supposed to have been established by methods which might in a very broad sense be classed as scientific.”[20] Although Flew admits that historical evidence might lead us to re-check the truth of a nomological, it always will be rational to reject the historical evidence and accept the scientific if we continue to hold the nomological to be true:

The justification for giving the ‘scientific’ this ultimate precedence over the ‘historical’ lies in the nature of the propositions concerned and in the evidence which can be deployed to sustain them… The candidate historical proposition will be particular, singular, and often in the past tense. But just by reason of its very pastness and particularity it is no longer possible for anyone to examine the subject directly for himself. All that there is left to examine is the present detritus of the past, which includes the physical records of testimony. This detritus can be interpreted as evidence only in the light of our present knowledge, of men and things; a category which embraces, although it is certainly not exhausted by, our stock of general nomologicals.[21]

Scientific evidence is expressed in propositions of a very different sort than those that express historical evidence: “The ‘law of nature’ will, unlike the candidate historical proposition, be a general nomological. It can thus in theory–though obviously not always in practice–be tested at any time by any person.”[22]

Richard Swinburne interprets Flew as arguing that the intrinsic superiority of scientific to historical evidence lies in the fact that the truth of scientific evidence can, in principle, be confirmed at any time whereas historical evidence, because of its pastness and particularity, cannot.[23] Swinburne argues that:

If this is Flew’s contrast, it is mistaken. Particular experiments on particular occasions only give a certain and far from conclusive support to claims that a purported scientific law is true. Any person can test for the truth of a purported scientific law, but a positive result to one test will give only limited support to that claim. Exactly the same holds for purported historical truths. Anyone can examine the evidence, but a particular piece of evidence gives only limited support to the claim that the historical proposition is true… But in the historical as in the scientific case, there is no limit to the testing which we can do. We can go on testing for the truth of historical as of scientific propositions.[24]

Swinburne admits that after a time the number of pieces of historical evidence available to an inquirer will not increase, but “… more and more evidence can be obtained about the reliability of the evidence we have.”[25] For instance, “…one could show…that testimony given by witnesses of such-and-such character in such-and-such circumstances was always correct. This indirect evidence could mount up in just the way in which the evidence for the physical impossibility of an event could mount up.”[26] Further, the reliability of testimony and the truth of nomological propositions are both confirmed in the same way:

… formulae about how events succeed each other are shown to be laws of nature by the fact that they provide the most simple and coherent account of a large number of observed data. Likewise testimony given by certain kinds of people…are established as reliable by well-established correlations between present and past phenomena.[27]

In other words, just as natural laws are established by the observation of consistent correlations between events, so is it possible (in principle) to observe consistent correlations between certain kinds of testimony and the actual occurrence of the events testified to. Since, therefore, nomological propositions and the reliability of testimony can be confirmed in such similar ways, neither should automatically take precedence over the other.[28]

It is hard to understand just what Swinburne is proposing. Apparently, he believes that persons of a particular character can be found whose trustworthiness in certain circumstances can, in principle, be checked on at any time. Once such character-types are ascertained and their absolute trustworthiness in given circumstances will be an absolutely reliable report. However, Swinburne gives us no ideas about what sorts of character-types we should be looking for or what would be the appropriate circumstances in which to test their reliability as witnesses. Without some idea of how such a test would be set up (what would be the controls? How would we get independent verification of the events testified to? Where do we find a group of people willing to submit to such tests whenever we want them to?), it is hard to take the suggestion seriously.

In practice, it appears most unlikely that a correlation of the requisite strength can ever be established between certain types of testimony and the actual occurrence of certain types of events. The fundamental problem is quite simple: How are we to know that those making a miracle-claim are not lying or mistaken? Swinburne’s arguments just do not apply if, as a matter of fact, we cannot identify any absolutely trustworthy character types. We have already seen that tough-minded, skeptical scientists can be fooled and it does not seem overly cynical to say that no one is so saintly as to be absolutely above the suspicion of lying. If Mother Teresa herself were to announce that she had walked dry-shod across the Ganges, could anyone be blamed for disbelieving her?

Even if we suppose that absolutely trustworthy character-types can be found, this would only seem to show that their testimony could be so reliable that the probability of its truth would equal the probability that physically impossible events do not happen. But in this case we would merely have proof against proof and in such a circumstance the suspension of judgment is surely a rational option.

The difficulties involved in finding witnesses of sufficient trustworthiness are exacerbated in the concrete circumstances in which miracle-claims have occurred in the past. In other words, when we examine the actual stock of miracle-claims that have so far been advanced for apologetic purposes, we find that they generally possess certain characteristics that serve to vitiate their credibility.

Before we can proceed to examine these stultifying characteristics, an objection must be considered: Even if all miracle-claims made so far are infected with such vitiating factors, there may be no reason to assume that future miracle-claims will be.[29] That is, it may simply be an historical accident that all miracle-claims so far made are unreliable and hence not justifiable inductive inference allows us to conclude that future reports are bound to be similarly unreliable.

The naturalist, however, does not need to make predictions about what sorts of miracle claims will occur in the future. All that needs to be said is what the burden of proof is that miracle-claimants must meet, that all the miracle-claims so far made fail to meet that burden, and that skepticism about miracles will be surrendered as soon as that burden is met. We have already seen what the burden of proof is that miracle-claimants must meet, we shall now see why those miracle-claims made so far fail to carry that burden.

The classic statement of the difficulties that have vitiated the credibility of miracle-claims is, of course, to be found in the second part of Hume’s essay on miracles. First, the natural human love of the marvelous and the self-deceptions arising from strong religious passions could certainly have been sufficient to create many miracle stories:

The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived…With that greediness are the miraculous accounts of travellers received, their descriptions of sea and land monsters, their relations of wonderful adventures, strange men, and uncouth manners? But if the spirit of religion join itself to the love of wonder, there is an end of common sense; and human testimony, in these circumstances, loses all pretensions to authority. A religionist may be an enthusiast, and imagine he sees what has no reality: he may know his narrative to be false, and yet persevere in it, with the best intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause…[30]

Critics have often charged Hume with unfairness towards religionists, and perhaps his charges of outright mendacity are a bit strong. But the ways in which beliefs and values unconsciously distort perceptions have often been observed in entirely secular situations. Carl Sagan has given some interesting examples of this phenomenon:

Teachers are presented with two groups of children who have, unknown to them, tested equally well on all examinations. But the teachers are informed that one group is smart and the other dumb. The subsequent grades reflect the initial and erroneous assessment, independent of the performance of the students. Predispositions bias conclusions…Witnesses are shown a motion picture of an automobile accident. They are then asked a series of questions such as “Did the blue car run the stop sign?” A week later, when questioned again, a large proportion of the witnesses claim to have seen a blue car–despite the fact that no remotely blue car is in the film. There seems to be a stage, shortly after an eyewitness event, in which we verbalize what we think we have seen and then forever after lock it into our memories. We are very vulnerable in that stage, and any prevailing beliefs–in Olympian gods, or Christian saints or extraterrestrial astronauts, say–can unconsciously influence our eyewitness account.[31]

Examples of the sort that Sagan adduces can be multiplied indefinitely and it can be fairly concluded that the stronger a set of beliefs are, the more they will tend to distort perception.

A second presumption against a great number of miracle-claims, including the ones of greatest importance to Christian apologists, is that they were first made in primitive cultures, among credulous people who did not evince a very great disposition toward the critical investigation of such claims. As Hume put it:

It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and authority, which always attended received opinions.[32]

The same point has been given somewhat pithier expression by Sagan:

Classical Greece was replete with stories in which the gods came down to Earth and conversed with human beings. The Middle Ages were equally rich in apparitions of saints and virgins. Gods, saints, and virgins were all recorded repeatedly over the centuries by people of the highest apparent reliability. What has happened? Where have all the virgins gone? What has happened to the Olympian gods? Have these beings simply abandoned us in recent and more skeptical times? Or could these early reports reflect the superstition and credulity and unreliability of witnesses?[33]

Swinburne presents a very strange objection to this line of argument. He notes, quite correctly, that the force of the criticism depends on how we define “ignorant and barbarous” cultures. But, he argues, if we define “ignorant and barbarous” as “not having the scientific beliefs which we have today,” this objection will not carry much weight, “For clearly most nations except modern western nations would then by that definition be ignorant and so most beliefs are likely to abound among the former nations simply because there are more of them.”[34]

Surely, though, the statement “miracle-claims are more likely to arise and proliferate in primitive than in scientifically advanced cultures” is an anthropological observation on all fours with “food taboos are more likely to be found in primitive cultures than in scientifically advanced ones.” This latter statement means that we find a higher percentage of primitive cultures with food taboos than we do with scientifically advanced cultures. Likewise, the former statement means that miracle-reports arise easily and proliferate rapidly in a higher percentage of primitive cultures than in scientifically advanced societies. The only reasonable explanation of this disproportionality is that primitive cultures, as a rule, are much more credulous with respect to miracle-claims than scientific ones. Hence, a miracle claim that arose in a pre-scientific culture would, ceteris paribus, be intrinsically less credible than one that arose in a scientific one.

Hume’s third argument against the corroboration of many miracle-claims is that rival religions often attempt to justify their claims to sole authority by appealing to the miracles that their prophets and teachers have performed. Hence, if it is held that miracles serve to endorse the truth of a religious system, and that miracle only occur in support of true religion, any evidence for the occurrence of a miracle in support of one system will be evidence against the occurrence of miracles in support of an incompatible system. But since there is equal evidence in support of miracle-claims made in behalf of a number of incompatible religions, this incompatibility greatly reduces the credibility of all those miracle-claims.[35]

Swinburne objects to this argument:

If Hume were right to claim that evidence for the miracles of one religion was evidence against the miracles of any other, then indeed evidence for miracles in each would be poor. But in fact evidence for a miracle “wrought in one religion” is only evidence against the occurrence of a miracle “wrought in another religion” if the two miracles, if they occurred, would be evidence for propositions of the two religious systems incompatible with each other. It is hard to think of pairs of alleged miracles of this type… Most alleged miracles, if they occurred as reported, would show at most the power of a god or gods and their concern for the needs of men and little more specific in the way of doctrine. A miracle wrought in the context of the Hindu religion and one wrought in the context of the Christian religion will not in general tend to show that specific details of their system are true, but, at most, that there is a god concerned with the needs of those who worship, which is a proposition accepted in both systems.[36]

Much of what Swinburne says may be taken (whether so intended or not) as a rebuke to the hard-line apologetic program. If miracles only serve to support theism in general and do not substantiate the claims of a particular religion, much of the impetus will be taken out of the hard-line enterprise. However, if the hard-liners are right, as they surely are, that some miracles claimed within the Christian religion would serve as evidence in favour of specifically Christian claims, then the above criticism might well apply to these miracles.

It is, for instance, unquestionably true that if the physical resurrection of Jesus can be shown to have occurred, this would lend strong support to the claim that Christianity is the one true religion. On the other hand, if Mohammed did receive the Qur’ran from the angel Gabriel, this lands strong support to the claim that the Qur’ran is the Word of God and hence that Islam is the one true religion. Anyone who maintains that either of the above miracle claims is true and serves to endorse the sole truth of the respective religion, must therefore deny that the miracle claimed by the other side actually occurred. Hence, any evidence in favour of one miracle-claim will vitiate the evidence in favour of the other, and this is precisely the conclusion Hume would have wanted.

We have now come to the point where we may safely say that the prospects for a hard-line defense of the miraculous appear rather bleak. First, it seems that there is no acceptable criterion for the identification of the scientifically inexplicable. Second, events may be very extraordinary indeed without having to be relegated to the category of the physically impossible. Third, the a priori probability of physically impossible events is so low that it appears quite unlikely that any human testimony can ever succeed in establishing their occurrence beyond a reasonable doubt. Finally, the actual stock of miracle-claims so far made is infected with a number of weaknesses that serve to vitiate their credibility. It therefore appears that someone who puts on the whole armour of naturalism need have no fear of hard-line apologists. Skepticism about the miraculous is a reasonable option and will continue to be so until all of the above epistemological impediments are overcome.


We must now, very briefly, ask whether the tables can be turned, i.e. whether the naturalist can assume the burden of proof and show that belief in the miraculous is in fact irrational. The issues here are not nearly so clear-cut. First, it is not clear that religious people must hold that miracles are scientifically inexplicable. Hugo Meynell, for instance, argues that:

… when people want to know whether miracles happen or have happened, they want to know whether there have occurred events similar to those recorded in the Gospels; they are not really interested in whether such events, if they happened, infringed something so obscure and recondite as a ‘law of nature.’ … To say that all the odd events described in the Gospels happened, but that they occurred somehow in accordance with scientific laws and not as exceptions to them, would not really be to contradict the historical claim of traditional Christianity.[37]

Some traditional Christians might dispute Meynell’s characterization of their historical claims, but it is very difficult to see what voice the naturalist could have in such a debate. On what grounds could naturalists insist that theists define the miraculous in terms of scientific inexplicability or violations of natural law? Such concepts, as we have seen, might find employment in a hard-line program of apologetic that aims to show the irrationality or inadequacy of naturalism. However, if religious believers are uninterested in converting naturalists, they would seem to be under no obligation to think in these terms. Hence, skeptical arguments about the lack of an adequate criterion for the scientifically inexplicable or the difficulties involved in identifying physically impossible events, will be irrelevant when miracles are not defined in this way.

Shifting the burden of proof also affects the Humean argument concerning the confirmation of miracle-claims. As we saw, the power of the Humean argument is due to the extremely low a priori probability, p(h/k), that must be assigned to physically impossible events. However, if miracles are no longer defined in terms of physical impossibility, perhaps p(h/k) will not have to be so infinitesimal. Further, when the burden of proof was on the hard-line apologist, to have included information about God’s existence, nature, or purposes in our background knowledge, k, would have been to beg the question against the naturalist. However, the theist is surely free to include such beliefs in k. Hence, if the background knowledge is made to include a belief in the existence of a God who can bring about miracles and who is likely at some time to do so, p(h/k) will be much higher than it would be with such beliefs omitted from k. In this case it would be much more likely that testimony could be found of sufficient reliability to establish the occurrence of a claimed miracle.

In conclusion, therefore, it seems that skeptical arguments directed against the miraculous succeed quite well in the defensive aim of preserving naturalism as a rational option in the face of hard-line apologetic onslaughts. However, it is very doubtful that such arguments will have much force if they are intended to show the irrationality of theistic belief in general. In the next and concluding chapter I shall examine an argument which, if sound, will provide powerfully disconfirming evidence against theism.


[1] Some of the material in this chapter is drawn from my M.A. thesis, The Conception of the Miraculous and Christian Apologetics. Other material was drawn from a paper entitled “Miracles” that I read before the Queen’s Philosophy Colloquium. This paper was commented on by Dr. Christine Overall, who has since published a paper based on her commentary. The title of her paper is “Miracles as Evidence Against the Existence of God” published in The Southern Journal of Philosophy, XXIII, #3 (1985).

[2] Bultmann’s best known work in defense of ‘demythologization’ is his “Neues Testament und Mythologie: Das Problem der Entmythologisierung der neutestamentlichen Verkuendigung” (1941), translated into English by R.H. Fuller and reprinted in Kerygma and Myth (London: S.P.C.K., 1954).

[3] See for instance Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958), pp. 197-219.

[4] See C.S. Lewis Miracles (London: Fontanta, 1960).

[5] John Beversluis, C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmanns, 1985), pp. 58-83.

[6] Richard Swinburne, The Concept of Miracle (London: Macmillan, 1970), p. 26.

[7] Ibid., p. 26.

[8] Ibid., p. 26.

[9] Guy Robinson, “Miracles,” Ratio, 9 (1967), p. 168.

[10] Ibid., p. 161.

[11] Ibid., p. 162.

[12] Antony Flew, “Miracles,” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (New York: Macmillan, 1967), Vol. 5, pp. 348-349.

[13] R.F. Holland, “The Miraculous,” American Philosophical Quarterly, 2 (1965), p. 48.

[14] Ibid., pp. 48-49.

[15] This is argued by Margaret A. Boden in “Miracles and Scientific Explanation,” Ratio, 11 (1969) pp. 139-140.

[16] See section X, “Of Miracles” in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

[17] Kendrick Frazier, “Science and Pseudoscience: AAAS Explores the Issues,” The Skeptical Inquirer, 4, #4 (Summer, 1980), p. 5.

[18] See Paul Dieti, “On Miracles,” The American Philosophical Quarterly, 5, #2 (April, 1968), p. 132.

[19] Antony Flew, Hume’s Philosophy of Belief (New York: The Humanities Press, 1961), pp. 206-209.

[20] Ibid., p. 207.

[21] Ibid., pp. 207-208.

[22] Ibid., p. 208.

[23] Swinburne, The Concept of Miracle, p. 42.

[24] Ibid., p. 42.

[25] Ibid., p. 42.

[26] Ibid., pp. 42-43.

[27] Ibid., p. 43.

[28] Ibid., p. 43.

[29] This objection is made by Bruce Langtry in “Miracles and Principles of Relative Likelihood,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 18 (1985).

[30] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1977), pp. 78-79.

[31] Carl Sagan, Broca’s Brain (New York: Ballantine Books, 1979), pp. 67-68.

[32] Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, pp. 79-80.

[33] Sagan, p. 67.

[34] Swinburne, The Concept of Miracle, p. 17.

[35] Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, pp. 81-82.

[36] Swinburne, The Concept of Miracle, pp. 60-61.

[37] Hugo Meynell, God and the World (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1972), pp. 92-93.

all rights reserved