A philosophical perspective on miracles – part 1

I am going to write a series of 4 articles on miracles, based upon a podcast I listened to, and was inspired by, by Tim McGrew. The articles are really handy for defending the faith and they take a look at miracles from a philosophical perspective.
Links to all 4 articles are given below:


Listen to the interview here: http://crossexamined.org/podcast/

Following is the first article:

Dr Frank Turek:
In an age of scientific enlightenment, can we really believe in miracles? Particularly miracles of the bible, in particular the New Testament. Many atheists say miracles are impossible, some even claim they are anti-scientific. Some may even claim that science can disprove miracles. And isn’t the evidence always better to say that a miracle has NOT occurred than to say that a miracle has occurred? We may also cover the objection many atheists bring up: if your God can do miracles why doesn’t He heal amputees? And didn’t the New Testament writers just make up the resurrection story? These are all questions we’re going to try to get to today if we get time. Tim McGrew is currently looking at miracles from a philosophical perspective, it’s a very intense area of research for him. He teaches at Western Michigan University. And recently he has been doing a lot of research into the dialogue David Hume and his opponents and supporters had back in the 1700’s on this issue of miracles.

Tim McGrew:
All this began by my doing a piece on miracles for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. One thing that came out as I was doing the research to write that piece is that although David Hume is important in the conversation, he neither started nor ended it. Many of the points he raises have already been raised by other people in the debate and they have been responded to. So there are many different voices in the debate, up to the present time.

Some three years ago the John Templeton Foundation decided to fund a grant doing research on this perspective and my task has been to create an online database which will contain all perspectives, all voices and, more importantly, it will link them up to see who was responding to whom. You can then trace the controversy and read their works there on the website. We will be putting that online soon: it’s a great research tool, for laypersons and scholars alike.

Dr Frank Turek:
What was Hume’s main argument against miracles, Tim?

Tim McGrew:
There are two parts to this:

  1. There’s some interpretive dispute about this but it seems he is saying that the idea of a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. So if a miracle occurred the laws of nature are false. But the evidence we have for the laws of nature is the best evidence we can have for any kind of empirical claim. And since it’s the best we can imagine having and the testimony to a miracle is at best a weaker kind of argument, science wins, miracles lose, and it can never be reasonable to believe in a reported miracle. That, in a nutshell, is the way most people read the first part of Hume’s argument against miracles.
  2. After that he gets into subsidiary arguments in the second section. In that section he talks of things like: were the people who testified to a miracle highly educated, did they do it in a notable “theatre of the world” (so other eyes could be watching them and catching them out if they were falsifying things), were they men of wealth, prestige and power so they had a lot to lose if they were shown to be misrepresenting the facts, aren’t there miracles from many religions thereby cross-cancelling each other and leaving us back where we started?

All of the above arguments Hume brought up in part 2. But all of these arguments had been canvassed before he wrote. His main contribution therefore to the debate was in part 1.

Dr Frank Turek:
Would it be fair to say Tim that Hume’s argument against miracles was more epistemological than ontological? In other words, he was making the point that we can’t really know if we have a miracle. He wasn’t saying miracles are impossible ontologically, that there’s no way they can happen. The argument against a miracle claim (epistomologically) is always better, in his view, than the evidence for it.

You hear this quite frequently when I go to campus colleges, the atheists will say, “Well…extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Miracles are extraordinary claims and you have to have extraordinary evidence for that. What would you say in response to that?

Tim McGrew:
Well I guess the first thing I would ask is: what do you mean by extraordinary evidence? Do you mean one gigantic piece of evidence or – as in many other areas of life – can we build a very strong case by a bunch of ordinary pieces of evidence that all point in the same direction? There are claims that are improbable, for example, that my cousin will win the lottery with a ticket he has bought is an improbable claim. And yet, if he sees the winning number announced on television and phones me up and says, “I’ve got it! I’ve got the winning ticket!” I have plenty of reasons to believe him. We believe in the improbable all the time and are perfectly reasonable in so doing so we shouldn’t use “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” as a stick to beat people with who might sometimes be justified in believing the improbable.

Dr Frank Turek:
It’s an interesting example you give. That your friend’s won the lottery is an improbable event. But the ordinary evidence, that he has the winning ticket, is enough for you to say, “He DID win the lottery, as improbable as that is.”

I hope you enjoyed part 1 of the five part series on miracles. Part 2 to follow tomorrow. May the Lord Jesus bless you now and always.