P4T-#3: Can miracles be detected by science?

Phil: In another post Tim says “By definition, a supernatural miracle of some sort cannot be experimentally tested like a phenomenon that occurs according to the laws of nature.
I’m not sure I understand. If statistics demonstrated that prayers to one god over the infirmed had a correlation with the recovery of those infirmed much higher than the recovery of the general infirmed population, would this not constitute some degree of evidence for that god? If a man called down fire from heaven to consume a slaughtered lamb, and that event was observed and vetted by scientists, would that not constitute strong evidence for a miracle? What is a miracle in your opinion, Tim? And why can’t science design statistical and experimental tools to detect miracles?

  • Tim: What I’m referring to is that you can’t do an experiment to repeat a supernatural miracle to test it out and analyze the mechanism or whatever. By definition, if one really happens, it is now in the past and can only be analyzed in the same manner you would analyze evidences for any purported event in history. If a scientist observed a miracle, he would merely be an eyewitness just like anyone else. Of course, he could analyze what he has observed to see if it is possible he was fooled in some way or if it could be explained by some natural process.
    Indeed, most of the miracles recorded in the Bible are ones that do not “violate” the laws of nature, but are events that would be extremely unlikely to happen on their own. In other words, it’s the timing and degree that is beyond natural explanations. (Example: the waters of the flooding Jordan River suddenly stopping just as the Israelites reach it and want to cross over. The text says that the river was dammed up several miles upstream at a spot that landslides have done a similar thing in modern times.) Nevertheless, the creation of the universe out of nothing, the creation of life out of non-life, and, of course, the resurrection of Jesus are clearly beyond natural law and so are “transcendent miracles.” As Creator, God is able to and is free to act outside of the natural laws that he himself created.
    Miracles by definition are not something amenable to statistical analysis. They are exceptional events and not what normally happens. Likewise, treating prayers for someone as though they are magical charms that induce God or gods to do one’s bid is not the biblical concept of prayer. If granting a miraculous healing or whatever serves God’s larger purposes, then I believe that he will do that. But experiments designed to test whether prayers given in the biblical God’s name have more effect than those give in other god’s names or no prayer at all hardly seem likely to fit into God’s overall purposes. I suppose he could use that if he so desired, but it doesn’t surprise me in the least that he doesn’t. And it could also be pointed out that any such study would be a biased study anyway and not really admissible in a scientific journal. After all, if God really exists and has the power to heal those prayed for, he would also know everything about the study being done and so could decide not to cooperate with it if he didn’t like that type of manipulation — which in a general sense, I think is exactly the case. God is not a celestial vending machine we can throw up a quarter (prayer) at and just pull the lever to get our little goodie!

Phil: Thanks for your response. Now I just want to confirm that you believe the following statements that seem inevitable corollaries of your comments.

  1. The effects of prayer are statistically identical to the effects of no prayer.
  2. Any attempt to test for a/the true god such as was done by Elijah and the false prophets would be sinful today.

Do you hold to these statements?

  • Tim: Phil, I am completely baffled by what you are trying to say or where you are going. How does this relate to Christianity and the resurrection? Could you please state an argument? In particular, please define “physical improbability,” because this seems to have a circular definition and be part of a logical fallacy.
    My intent is to use the same assumptions and methods that professional historians use. Do you disagree with the methods of professional historians? Are you saying that the historical method can’t be used to determine if a miracle occurred?
    You did say, “Unless your formula for historical analysis address the degree of physical improbability, you have no true formula for historical analysis.” This is an interesting claim, and so I am wondering if there are any historians you know of who would agree with that. Do you know of any?
    Now, I haven’t figured out where you are trying to go, but what you say seems similar to what Hume has said about miracles. Most arguments against miracles stem from David Hume’s argument against miracles. A recent analysis of Hume’s argument has shown that it is “an abject failure.” This is shown in John Earman’s book “Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles.” Are you familiar with this work? He shows how Hume’s argument has been defeated by what is known as Bayes’ Theorem.

Phil: Tim, I’m just asking questions now. Your answer will help me to decide what further clarifications I’ll need. If you tell me whether you hold to the following beliefs below, it will greatly assist in my understanding of your position. Thanks.

  1. The effects of prayer are statistically identical to the effects of no prayer. (Just to give you a heads-up about my position, I hold that prayers are not exceptional events, and therefore answers to prayers are not exceptional events, and can clearly be assess statistically.)
  2. Any attempt to test for a/the true god such as was done by Elijah and the false prophets would be sinful today.

Do you hold to these statements?

  • Tim: Phil, please justify your statement that “answers to prayers are not exceptional events,” because this doesn’t seem logical. It would seem that an obvious case is when an answer to prayer fits into the category of miracle, and that is why my questions in a related post” are important. Please do not avoid answering this question: “Are you saying that the historical method can’t be used to determine if a miracle occurred? As for your repeating the question of whether I hold to those 2 statements as you characterized them, I would think that would be obvious. I have not stated or intended to imply either of them.
    As for the case of Elijah, your characterization assumes that Elijah was testing God, which was not the case at all. 1 Kings 18:36 says “At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command.” Notice that Elijah was doing these things at the Lord’s command. In that case, to not act would have been a sin against a direct command of God. Also, it’s important to note that as God’s prophet, Elijah held a relationally significant position that other people didn’t, and so you can’t use Elijah’s example for the rest of us.
    So, please answer the following questions that so far you’ve avoided in the related post (P4T#4):
    1) Do you disagree with the methods of professional historians?
    2) Are you saying that the historical method can’t be used to determine if a miracle occurred?
    3) You did say in the related post referenced above, “Unless your formula for historical analysis address the degree of physical improbability, you have no true formula for historical analysis.” This is an interesting claim, and so I am wondering if there are any historians you know of who would agree with that. Do you know of any?
    4) Are you familiar with John Earman’s book “Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles.” and his argument?

Phil: I made the claim that “answers to prayers are not exceptional events”. If you believe that god answers prayer with any regularity, you also believe that answers to prayer are not exceptional events. Do you believe that god daily answers daily prayers? Then answers to prayer are not exceptional events, and due to their frequency, and be assess statistically. Now I just need to know whether you agree with the following statement.

The effects of prayer are statistically identical to the effects of no prayer.

Do you agree?

Note that I did not say Elijah demonstrating the power of prayer was testing god; it most certainly was not. Elijah was, if the story is to be believed as written, most certain his god would come through. My question is why this demonstration of the power of god does not happen today. Many theists claim it would be sinful since it would be testing god. Would it be? Why? What changed?

The following are answers to your 4 questions made directly above.
a1) I would align myself with any historian that employs Bayesian probabilities in their historical analysis, and reject any historian that does not. Any historian that treats the equally evidenced claims 1) Washington cut down a cherry tree and 2) Washington’s donkey spoke to him as equally probable is a failed historian. Theists seem to be picking and choosing only particular tools of proper historical analysis while dismissing others, then claiming to be doing what professional historians are doing.
a2) The historical method can be used to assess the probability of whether a miracle happened. Bayesian analysis requires requires a prior probability derived from the established frequency of an event. The bulk of professional historians don’t start with the presupposition that there have been supernatural events prior to the event in questions that would allow for a prior probability. Theists irrationally do…for their own claims of miracles. Islamic “historians” think it quite proper to assume the notion that Muhammad splitting the moon is as likely as might be his buying a dog. Christian historians absurdly refuse to account for the disparate probabilities among various physical events, and treat the claim that many formerly dead arose to walk around Jerusalem as probable as the claim that Jesus traveled to Jerusalem. You need to account for proper Bayesian probabilities before you can claim to be doing proper historical analysis.
a3) Yes. http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=10150
a4) No. I am not very familiar with Hume’s arguments, so I’m simply providing my own arguments which may or may not parallel Hume’s arguments.

  • Tim: I already stated that I do not agree with your characterization of prayer having no statistical effects. I’ve seen plenty of anecdotal evidence of answered prayer, but since prayer involves the sovereign will of a being who will not be manipulated, it is not something that can be experimented with in the same way that the efficaciousness of a medication can be.
    As for Elijah, let me ask you this. What do you think it means to “test God?” If I understand what you’re saying, you seem to have the impression that it is doing an “experiment” to see if God responds, with no feelings of certainty that he will (or that he is even there). That is not what theists are referring to when they use the term. Putting God to the test is to, in effect, try to manipulate God—to force his hand, as it were. So, nothing has changed. If God appoints someone to be his agent for doing something similar to Elijah and directs him to do it, then that person following through would not be “testing” God—neither in your characterization nor in mine, but for different reasons. But to do it to “test God” (in the sense theists mean) would be to presumptively try to manipulate God.
    As for historians and Bayesian analysis, if a historian is working within a naturalistic worldview that writes off the supernatural a priori, then, of course, he or she will analyze any event through that interpretive lens, irrespective of how persuasive any historical evidence might otherwise be—the resurrection of Jesus being a prime example (and the one that in the end is the only one that really matters). The “prior probability derived from the established frequency of an event” will of course be zero if you’ve already defined it that way. If God does not exist, then there is obviously no possibility that he could miraculously intervene. But again, that is just begging the question. My claim is that there is good reason to believe that he does exist. You can’t legitimately win the argument by just defining God out of existence — no more than I can win by just a priori defining him into existence. Thus, we’re right back to the basic arguments for God’s existence: the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the moral argument, etc. And it’s a cumulative case based on inference to the best explanation. These can all be stated in a clear, logical syllogism. I have yet to see any argument from you for the non-existence of God stated similarly. Are you able to do that? Since you claim to want to be “logical,” how about let’s get back to the basics and actually state our arguments in terms of premises that lead to conclusions so that they can be properly evaluated?

Phil:
1. Tim, I would still like a clear indication of whether you agree with the following statement.

The effects of prayer are statistically identical to the effects of no prayer.

Do you agree or disagree? I could not clearly ascertain your position on this statement from your comments above. I’m not asking why the effects of prayer are statistically identical to the effects of no prayer. It could be due to some interference by god who distorts the data making it inaccessible statistically, perhaps. But that is not what I’m asking. I’m merely asking whether the effects of prayer are statistically identical to the effects of no prayer.

2. What was the purpose for Elijah calling down fire from heaven? Why would Jesus walk on water? Was it a demonstration of god’s power? If so, where is there an inverse relationship between the frequency of such demonstrations of the power of god and the advent of scientific scrutiny? Why is this type of demonstration, so common in the bible, be called “testing” god now that science is more available to examine the claims? Were the people watching Jesus walk on water not encouraged to examine the experiment critically? Were those watching Elijah not to test god by examining whether the water poured on the altar was actually water? Why is scientific skepticism never encourage among those observing miracles in the bible? If a contemporary magician went back to the biblical era and performed tricks, do you think they would have been called miracles by those unschooled in critical thought? Do you think it would have been a good thing for god to have included principles of critical thinking in the bible prior to performing miracles?

3. I’m most certainly not defining your god out of existence. Your own bible has done that with its logically incoherent notion of sin and redemption. But that is not the subject of this post. So I will assume there is another god who is logically defined who might intervene in physical causation. Here is the problem. You can’t bootstrap your way from zero validated miracles to make miracles even remotely probable. If there are no validated miracles in history, then the probability of a miracle remains near zero. You can not invoke the high number of unsubstantiated miracle claims, then claim the vast number of unsubstantiated claims makes a particular miracle claim more likely. That’s cheating. That’s what the many people who have been abducted by space aliens would like us to believe, and that’s that the Irish fairy-mongers would also have the world believe. If you have zero validated claims, you have no reason to believe such a thing is even possible. Miracles are violations of material causation. Until there has been demonstrated at least one violation of material causation, miracles and any miracle-performing god have the same ontological status as Santa. Miracles are logically possible. But they require a non-material realm in which they operate, and such a realm has never been scientifically established. Never. Not even after millions of rigorous scientific experiments. Induction is our friend. If there has been no substantiation in the history of the world of an immaterial realm in which miracles can operate, we can justifiably relegate the likelihood of a material realm and all miracles which are dependent upon an immaterial realm to the smallest of all probabilities. We are required by the authority of induction to expect any miracle claim to be explained by something other than an actual miracle, whether that be a cognitive disfunction, mendaciousness or a misunderstanding.

4. To be clear, it is only the god of the bible I am prepared to demonstrate to be logically incoherent. Some of the posts have made it more clear what your actual position is on the nature of this god, so if you’d like to have a more rigorous debate, that’s possible, however, I still need to ascertain your commitment to logic, something we’ve been working through in another post.

  • Tim:

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