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Why Miracles Are Not Incompatible with Science

WalkingWater

Skeptics argue that miracles are impossible because the laws of nature are necessary. A miracle, they argue, involves a violation of a law of nature. But the laws of nature cannot be violated. Therefore, miracles must be impossible.

One modern skeptic of repute who argues this is Richard Dawkins. In his book The God Delusion, he says, “[M]iracles, by definition, violate the principles of science” (83).

Dawkins and other modern skeptics derive this argument from philosophers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For example, Baruch Spinoza, the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher, argued:

"[I]f miracles are, strictly speaking, all above nature, then you must admit a break in the necessary and immutable course of nature; which is absurd." (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, c. 6)

In the eighteenth century, Scottish skeptic philosopher David Hume wrote:

"A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is an entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined." (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, sec. X)

I'd like to offer two responses to these objections.

Response 1: Miracles are not violations of nature’s laws

We should at first challenge the understanding of a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature. In order to understand why miracles do not violate the natural order God created, it is necessary to understand what laws of nature are.

Laws of nature are not mere descriptions of causal regularities (e.g., When A, then B) that a miracle would disprove. The laws of nature express what things are capable of exhibiting by virtue of their inherent causal tendencies or dispositions. In other words, the laws of nature are descriptive of what objects are capable of producing given the powers they have by virtue of their nature.

So, for example, the law of nature that tells us water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit is simply a description of the nature of water having a tendency or disposition to freeze when the temperature reaches 32 degrees. The law of nature that tells us fire burns is a description of the inherent power fire possesses given its nature.

The laws of nature, therefore, describe laws of natures—essences with inherent dispositional properties that manifest themselves when certain conditions are met. One could say the phrase “laws of nature” is shorthand for speaking about causal powers inherent in the nature of things.

It is this understanding of the laws of nature that allows one to see how miracles are not violations of the laws of nature (proving a law to be false) and thus not a violation of the natural order set by God.

Miracles are extraordinary sensible effects wrought by God that surpass the power and order of created nature. Miracles are occurrences that can be brought about only by God’s direct causal activity and not by natural forces operative in created objects. As such, a miracle does not prove a law of nature to be false but simply indicates a cause beyond the natural causal powers of a thing is at work, and such causal power is divine.

For example, the natural forces operative in a human body cannot produce the effect of the body rising anew in living health after it has died. But God can produce such an effect by directly giving life to a dead body. When he does this, as he did in the case of Jesus, it does not disprove the law of nature that states that dead bodies stay dead. It still remains true that dead bodies have no inherent power to come back to life.

God can also suspend an inherent power from manifesting itself without proving a law of nature to be false. Consider, for example, the miracle involving Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3. The fire into which they were thrown did not burn them.

Does this disprove the law of nature that states fire burns? No. God simply willed that the inherent power of fire not manifest itself in this particular situation. Fire still retains its natural tendency or disposition to burn, and thus the law of nature involving fire remains valid.

God has not only the power to suspend an object’s inherent disposition from manifesting itself but also the power to give an object a new property it doesn’t have by nature. Jesus’ miracle of walking on water is an example of this (Matthew 14:22-23).

Water does not have power within its nature to allow a human being to walk on it. But Jesus, being God, can give water such a property in a particular circumstance. This doesn’t disprove the law of nature that states you will sink if you try to walk on water, because water still lacks within its nature a property that would suffice to hold up a human being.

So miracles do not violate the natural order created by God because they do not violate the laws of nature—they are not contrary to nature but above or beyond nature.

Response 2: Laws of nature are not absolutely necessary

The second response to these objections is that they confuse hypothetical necessity with absolute necessity.

The skeptic assumes the laws of nature are absolutely necessary—that is to say, the phenomena they describe must always occur no matter what. Just as God cannot make a square-circle or make a triangle with four sides, God, even if he did exist, could not suspend the laws of nature.

But this is simply not true. The laws of nature have what philosophers call hypothetical necessity, which means they will hold on the condition that no external cause intervenes. As the prominent Christian apologist William Lane Craig writes:

"[N]atural laws are assumed to have implicit in them the assumption 'all things being equal.' That is to say, the law states what is the case under the assumption that no other natural factors are interfering." (Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 263)

For example, the law of gravity tells us a rock will fall to the ground every time when I drop it. But it is not an intrinsic contradiction to imagine someone quickly catching the rock before it hits the ground. The law of gravity will hold provided nothing else happens, i.e., all things being equal.

As with the law of gravity, all laws of nature are hypothetically necessary and not absolutely necessary. They are not inviolable in the sense their violation—or, more properly speaking, their suspension—implies a contradiction.

Since the laws of nature are merely hypothetical, it follows the laws of nature cannot preclude God’s causal activity in miracles. Any denial of miracles based on the laws of nature, therefore, is unjustified.

Conclusion

This understanding of miracles and their relation to the laws of nature dispels the myth that one has to abandon science in order to accept miracles. Skeptics often pit miracles and science against each other, claiming you have to choose one or the other. But this is a false dichotomy.

There is no need for a scientist to give up his own research that shows water has no surface tension to support a human body because, as shown above, a miracle doesn’t prove water has such an inherent property. The scientist’s scientific knowledge remains secure. As such, there is no need to abandon science in order to believe in the miraculous.
 
 
(Image credit: Jagannath Puri HKM)

Karlo Broussard

Written by

After a three-year apprenticeship with Fr. Robert Spitzer S.J. PhD., nationally known author, speaker, philosopher, and theologian, Karlo works as a full time apologist and speaker for Catholic Answers giving lectures throughout the country on topics in Catholic apologetics, theology and philosophy. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in theology from Catholic Distance University and the Augustine Institute, and is currently working on his masters in philosophy with Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He is one of the most dynamic and enthusiastic Catholic speakers on the circuit today. He resides in Murrieta, CA with his wife and four children. You can view Karlo's online videos at KarloBroussard.com. You can also book Karlo for a speaking event by contacting Catholic Answers at 619-387-7200.

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  • Doug Shaver

    The skeptic assumes the laws of nature are absolutely necessary

    Not this skeptic, and I don't recall ever hearing any other skeptic say so, either.

    there is no need to abandon science in order to believe in the miraculous.

    OK. Although Broussard's argument to this conclusion is too Aristotelian for me to consider it sound, I'm willing to stipulate the conclusion anyway, for other reasons. But that does not, by itself, give me any reason to believe that miracles have actually occurred.

    • KB: The skeptic assumes the laws of nature are absolutely necessary—that is to say, the phenomena they describe must always occur no matter what.

      DS: Not this skeptic, and I don't recall ever hearing any other skeptic say so, either.

      The skeptic's skeptic, David Hume, held to necessitarian causation. I'm pretty sure that matches up with what Karlo Broussard was saying.

      But that does not, by itself, give me any reason to believe that miracles have actually occurred.

      What text in the article made you think that it was supposed to convince you that any miracles have actually occurred? I would say that far from this, in order for someone to think that something is probable, [s]he must first be able to conceive of it as possible.

      • Doug Shaver

        The skeptic's skeptic, David Hume, held to necessitarian causation. I'm pretty sure that matches up with what Karlo Broussard was saying.

        Whether Hume was a necessitarian seems to depend on how he is interpreted, and I did not know that before reading the article you linked to. My reading of Broussard did not remind me of anything I had read in Hume. Anyhow, while necessarianism may be more prevalent than I had been led to think, it is hardly the consensus among skeptics that Broussard suggests.

        What text in the article made you think that it was supposed to convince you that any miracles have actually occurred?

        I intended no suggestion that the article by itself, considered in isolation from everything else Broussard has ever written in this forum, was supposed to do that. Considering the article's context, though, I think it disingenuous to suggest that my comment was irrelevant.

        in order for someone to think that something is probable, [s]he must first be able to conceive of it as possible.

        Of course. But a skeptic who thinks miracles are not even possible is unlikely to be persuaded by an Aristotelian argument to the contrary.

  • Raymond

    This seems like a lot of woo-woo for not much value. The argument is that if God exists, he would have the ability to override the way the world works. But if God does NOT exist, then miracles are by definition a violation of natural laws and therefore impossible. This isn't an argument for the existence of God, it just tries to ignore the basic assumptions. Classic straw man.

    • Lazarus

      Speaking of "straw men" what are those "basic assumptions"?

      • Raymond

        The assumptions that either God exists or that God doesn't exist. The reasoning on each side follows from those basic assumptions. Which makes the discussion a waste of time.

        • Lazarus

          How do you conclude that the article ignores the God exists / God does not exist debate? It is specifically addressing the positions of both camps. It discusses the one's assumptions in the light of the assumptions of the other.

          • Raymond

            Because the argument that miracles are compatible with nature because God can do anything is meaningless to someone who doesn't believe in God. Likewise, the argument that nature does not allow for miracles therefore miracles do not occur is meaningless to someone who believes in God. Addressing the positions of both camps doesn't shed any light on the differences in position and doesn't change anyone's opinions.

          • Lazarus

            I'm sure that makes sense to you. I think however your criticism of the article as "woo" and as setting up a strawman is unfounded. If this is your explanation for those assertions they are quite unreasonable and unfair.

          • Raymond

            The article doesn't break new ground as far as understanding miracles is concerned - Christians already have the belief that miracles are compatible with nature, and non-believers will not be convinced (or care) by those arguments. The emptiness of the discussion is the main point, no matter how one characterizes it.

          • David Nickol

            I get what Raymond is saying. The argument Karlo Broussard seems to me to be trying to refute is an argument that I don't think anyone on Strange Notions would make. Broussard says:

            In order to understand why miracles do not violate the natural order God created, it is necessary to understand what laws of nature are.

            Atheists here, it seems to me, would not argue that if there were a God, he couldn't work miracles. Atheists argue that there are no miracles because there is no God. Broussard takes it for granted that God created the natural order. He is arguing not against an atheistic position, but rather against a theistic position that miracles are impossible. Such an argument is of very little interest to atheists.

            Since Broussard assumes the existence of God, he has nothing to say to atheists. He says,

            Skeptics often pit miracles and science against each other, claiming you have to choose one or the other. But this is a false dichotomy.

            I think this is pretty much a "straw man." I think for those on Strange Notions who believe in miracles, modern science is actually quite essential to the miraculous. A miracle is something that happened that science says could not have happened, yet (to believers) the evidence is that it did, indeed, happen.

          • Lazarus

            I can of course not argue with you on how you experience the article, but I think that you, and Raymond, are unreasonably critical in your attack. Of course Karlo argues as a Catholic, of course from his perspective he assumes the existence of God. How else can he convey his argument meaningfully? It is exactly from that position that he examines the atheist view. Here also I do not believe that he misrepresents the argument. It may not be your argument, but it's out there. The fact that his argument is leveled at a position that may not be yours certainly does not in itself warrants charge of that being s strawman attack.

            The atheist does not, and should not, begin the argument at all times by saying that there is no God, therefore there can be no miracles. That assumes the conclusion. The atheist should be equally prepared to argue against miracles on its own terms and then from there argue that the existence of God is unlikely or unproven.

            To be very clear, I am of course not insisting that you agree with Broussard, but I do believe that the dismissal of the article on the grounds raised are unreasonable.

          • David Nickol

            The fact that his argument is leveled at a position that may not be
            yours certainly does not in itself warrants charge of that being s
            strawman attack.

            My point is that Broussard seems to be arguing against a position that I don't remember anyone on Strange Notions (atheist, theist, or in between) ever taking or that anyone here will ever be likely to take. His argument is that "miracles do not violate the natural order God created."

            If there are any out there who believe that miracles do violate the natural order God created, I invite them to speak up.

            I don't pretend to be knowledgeable enough to exactly classify Spinoza and Hume in terms of theism vs. atheism, but I don't believe they are in the same category as Dawkins. I think it may make sense to speak of Spinoza and Hume in the same breath as "the natural order God created," but not Dawkins.

            I think most of us (theist and atheist) would say that if miracles occur, they do violate the "laws of nature" because our conception of God (whether you believe in him or not) includes the ability to violate the laws of nature. That, for most of us, is the very definition of a miracle. God made the laws of nature, and so he can violate the laws of nature. One might argue that violate is not the best word. We might say suspend, abrogate, modify, alter, or whatever. We might also say that if such things as glorified bodies exist, or will exist, we might not at present fully grasp what is included in the "natural order."

            I think the idea that there can be no miracles because they would be violations of the natural order God created is something akin to a Deist position, and I am not sure we have any Deists posting on Strange Notions.

          • Veritas

            I think he is saying that miracles can suspend the laws of nature so they are not opposing the laws of nature. The laws of nature are only suspended in that particular instance by the power of God's direct intervention. The laws of nature cannot violate themselves on their own and so without divine intervention there is no violation of the laws of nature.

            Regarding disbelief in God and therefore impossibility of miracles:
            One does not have to already believe in God in order to assess if a particular incident is a miracle. But one has to be open to the idea that if an event cannot be explained by natural means and it violates the laws of nature, and this has been accurately seen and interpreted by numerous people, there is a chance that one is wrong in denying the possibility of a miracle. Maybe the presupposition the person has of denying God and thus the impossibility of miracles occurring is wrong. The person has no irrefutable proof that his presuppositions are true and the unwillingness to examine if the premises are actually true is irrational. If there is evidence to the contrary of your premises maybe the premises are false.

            If an event occurs that violates the laws of nature and defies all other explanations, isn't it most reasonable to go where the evidence leads? One cannot go where the evidence leads if one automatically assumes that no matter what happens, even if there is excellent evidence for it and it is the most reasonable explanation given thorough examination and consideration, it cannot be true because I've already decided it cannot be true. How can one clearly assess the situation if the mind is completely closed to considering all possibilities.

  • Gordon Reid

    Your claim that “there is no need to abandon science in order to believe in the miraculous” is false. The most fundamental axiom of physics is: “That there is an external reality with consistent behavior that we can learn about by experimentation.” I am quoting Jesse Brewer here, professor of the University of British Columbia, but I think most physicists would agree. As you have clearly argued in the OP, miracles are some event that demonstrates a behavior that is inconsistent with the normal actions of nature. Please notice that the foundational axiom of physics depends on consistent behavior. The very existence of miracles in reality produces inconsistent behavior which destroys the basis for physics. If you have miracles, you do not have physics as a science. Feel free to believe in miracles, but miracles makes science just so much chaotic nonsense.

    • Feel free to believe in miracles, but miracles makes science just so much chaotic nonsense.

      Suppose that I program up a simulation replete with digital, sentient, sapient beings. (last week: Neil deGrasse Tyson says it’s ‘very likely’ the universe is a simulation) Suppose I make that universe run in a logical fashion, but I also make it so that I can pop in somehow and talk to the inhabitants. Does the fact that I can pop in make any 'science' the inhabitants might do "so much chaotic nonsense"?

      • Gordon Reid

        Well, it depends on how you pop in. If your popping is done via a method that is consistent with the way your simulated universe runs logically, then science in that universe is not "so much chaotic nonsense". This of course is assuming the beings in your simulation define science as the study of the consistent behavior of your logical universe. If you pop in from time to time via a method which is inconsistent with the logical running of your universe, then science for those beings, define as above, does not exist. Please note I am not saying anything about whether you have or do not have the power to pop in either consistently or inconsistently with the logical running of your universe. I am saying that your choice of popping in consistent with the functioning of your universe or popping in inconsistent with the functioning of your universe effects what is possible in that universe. If you choose to pop in via a method that is inconsistent with the logical functioning of your universe, then science, as defined above, becomes impossible for the beings in your universe.

        • Two questions:

          (1) How would a digital being know whether my popping in is consistent or inconsistent with "the consistent behavior of [my] logical universe"?

          (2) Suppose that I haven't popped in yet, and the digital beings are doing their science. All seems right with the simulated world and science seems quite possible. Then, all of a sudden, I pop in, in a way inconsistent with "the logical running of [my] universe". How does that make science impossible, from that time forward?

          • Gordon Reid

            (1) The beings would have no way of knowing that you were popping, either via a consistent method or an inconsistent method.

            (2) Because from that time forward the beings do not know when you will pop in and effect one of their science experiments. Plus all future experiments are tainted with the possibility that you have popped some of their test results.

            My question:
            Why are you asking these questions when the problem is in a conflict between competing definitions for how the universe behaves? Miracles by the definition of the OP are events with behavior that is inconsistent with the order of created nature. Science is based on the assumption that all events behave in a manner that is consistent with the order of created nature. Consistent and inconsistent are conflicting conditions. Miracles are based on one and science is based on the other. Science and miracles cannot exist together.

          • (1) Wait, are you saying that they could not, in principle, justifiably know that I'm their creator, talking to them from 'outside' their reality?

            (2) Descartes deals with this when he talks about an Evil Demon screwing with his senses. He is forced to conclude that God would ensure this couldn't happen. I'm pretty sure the digital beings could assume something similar.

            (3) Science need not presume that reality is a closed system and neither does it need to presume that God never screws with things. Instead, it merely needs to presume that reality is rationally intelligible in certain basic ways. I am almost certain that your requirements for the conditions of possibility for doing science are much too stringent. They almost have an air of a Cartesian quest for certainty about them.

          • Gordon Reid

            (1) That depends on how you built the simulation.

            (2) I had no thought that you were an Evil Demon when you popped into the simulation. I thought you were all loving toward your beings.

            (3) What do you mean by the phrase "reality is rationally intelligible" as you use it above? I ask because I want to make sure we are both talking about the same thing. I do not think I am applying stringent constraints on doing science. I only apply the normal one all scientists use that requires validity and reliability. This requirement is that other researchers must be able to perform exactly the same experiment, under the same condition and generate the same results. Is that a too stringent constraint? Do you agree that this is required as part of science? If not, why not?

          • (1) So then by analogy, there are ways God could talk to us such that we would know it is he who is talking to us, and not some alien as in e.g. the Star Trek TNG episode Devil's Due?

            (2) Ok, but I should think that a loving deity would want his/​her/​its creation to understand reality better and better. Therefore, it would seem that such a deity would be careful to not make science impossible. But this wouldn't require the deity to be perfectly predictable! And it's not like scientists don't throw away an enormous amount of experimental data already (e.g. Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing up).

            (3) My phrase "reality is rationally intelligible in certain basic ways" was meant to directly counter your "makes science just so much chaotic nonsense". Although, it was also meant to widen the possibilities on how reality could be, such that it can still be systematically studied and understood better and better.

            Your goal of "perform exactly the same experiment" is a noble one, but it's not clear to me how often this is actually realized in science, especially when one moves past physics and chemistry to biology and the human sciences. See, for example, stuff that doesn't replicate. And yet we can accrue knowledge which is highly context-sensitive; see for example the 2004 Journal of Higher Education paper Doing Research that Makes a Difference. Intelligibility of reality simply does not depend on your stringent requirements. Here's a well-respected philosopher of science who argues the same:

            Covering-law theorists tend to think that nature is well-regulated; in the extreme, that there is a law to cover every case. I do not. I imagine that natural objects are much like people in societies. Their behaviour is constrained by some specific laws and by a handful of general principles, but it is not determined in detail, even statistically. What happens on most occasions is dictated by no law at all. This is not a metaphysical picture that I urge. My claim is that this picture is as plausible as the alternative. God may have written just a few laws and grown tired. We do not know whether we are in a tidy universe or an untidy one. Whichever universe we are in, the ordinary commonplace activity of giving explanations ought to make sense. (How the Laws of Physics Lie, 49)

            I suspect that all scientists really need is some aspect of reality which is repeatable enough, where "enough" depends on that scientist's Bayesian prior.

          • Gordon Reid

            I, like you, am unclear as to how often scientists actually realize the nobel goal of "perform exactly the same experiment". It seems likely that they never actually attain that goal. But even so, they perform their research among their peers with all of them operating as though this goal is the practical reality. Thus far, they have been close enough to that goal so that science, at least for the natural science, has been able to meet its goal of providing a description of reality. Also you imply meeting this goal moves in a spectrum from more prevalent in physics to less prevalent in the human science. I agree with this. I also agree that "we do not know whether we are in a tidy universe or an untidy one". It is possible that the universe is not a binary between tidy and untidy but a spectrum of tidiness. As far as science is concerned, miracles have a positive correlation with the degree of untidiness in the universe. Scientists, rightly or wrongly, are making the tidy universe assumption. The amount of miracles in the universe could increase to a level where the tidy universe assumption is no longer valid. If scientists have to accept the universe as being untidy, I do not know how they will be able to do science. I admit that the claim expressed in my first comment was done in terms that were too absolute. It would have been better for me to say that miracles are negatively correlated with the ability of science to meet its goals.

          • Scientists, rightly or wrongly, are making the tidy universe assumption.

            I'm not sure they all do! You're doing a lot of projecting, and it smells like the kind of projecting that those in the hard sciences love to do. It leads to reactions such as this one:

                The time seems ripe, even overdue, to announce that there is not going to be an age of paradigm in the social sciences. We contend that the failure to achieve paradigm takeoff is not merely the result of methodological immaturity, but reflects something fundamental about the human world. If we are correct, the crisis of social science concerns the nature of social investigation itself. The conception of the human sciences as somehow necessarily destined to follow the path of the modern investigation of nature is at the root of this crisis. Preoccupation with that ruling expectation is chronic in social science; that idée fixe has often driven investigators away from a serious concern with the human world into the sterility of purely formal argument and debate. As in development theory, one can only wait so long for the takeoff. The cargo-cult view of the "about to arrive science" just won't do. (Interpretive Social Science: A Second Look, 5)

            If Rabinow is correct, then your "description of reality" is an parochial concept pretending to be a global one. If social scientists can increasingly well-understand reality under conditions which would give physicists nightmares, then it seems that the dogma to which the physicist holds needs to be criticized—not more heavily imposed.

            The amount of miracles in the universe could increase to a level where the tidy universe assumption is no longer valid.

            Sure; that goes back to my "(2) Descartes deals with this when he talks about an Evil Demon screwing with his senses. He is forced to conclude that God would ensure this couldn't happen." + "reality is rationally intelligible in certain basic ways" + follow-up.

            It would have been better for me to say that miracles are negatively correlated with the ability of science to meet its goals.

            Not if the same argument which nukes miracles, nukes rationality.

          • Gordon Reid

            Maybe rationality is the only miracle. After that God did what Descartes was forced to conclude God did.

          • It'd be one helluva an ongoing miracle. "Everything is natural, except for the faculty which says everything is natural, which itself is just completely and utterly different."

          • Gordon Reid

            Yep, and thanks for the conversation.

      • David Nickol

        It does seem to me that if God created a "natural order" that operates by fixed laws, and if God also "pops in" on occasion to do anything at all, it is impossible to know what is attributable to the natural order and what is attributable to God. Just because something happens regularly and predictably doesn't mean that God is not the direct cause of it. For example, one might claim that God maintains direct control over the decay of radioactive atoms, and what appears to be a random event—the decay of any particular atom at a specific time—is actually a direct intervention by God.

        And of course Catholics (and presumably many other Christians) do believe that God intervenes directly with great regularity—for example, to create and infuse human souls whenever a human egg cell is fertilized by a human sperm cell, whether in vivo or in vitro. With in vitro fertilization being an intrinsic evil according to Catholic though, one might wonder why God cooperates by creating and infusing a human soul when the procedure is performed.

        • It does seem to me that if God created a "natural order" that operates by fixed laws, and if God also "pops in" on occasion to do anything at all, it is impossible to know what is attributable to the natural order and what is attributable to God.

          Two things also seem to flow from your reasoning:

          (1) It is impossible to know what is attributable to the natural order and what is attributable to me, as an agent acting in reality.

          (2) It is impossible to know what is attributable to the natural order and what is attributable to rationality as a causal power.

          The first is more disturbing than it probably appears, because of what it would do to the concept of 'moral responsibility'. But the second seems utterly disastrous. More here.

          • David Nickol

            I have very limited time in the next 24 hours or so, but let me ask how it is possible to know, on the one hand, if there is a "natural order" created by God that runs like clockwork in his "absence" except on the rare cases when God miraculously "intervenes," or, on the other, if God is running all of reality "hands on" but chooses to run it as if there were laws of nature operating except in rare cases when he wanted an outcome that differed from the one that would result if he were operating reality "hands on" but according to his usual and customary method?

            How in the world is it possible to know when God is doing "hands on" work and when he is sitting back and letting reality work autonomously according to the laws of nature?

            I think a great many "religious people" (maybe most religious people) assume that God is doing "hands on" work a great deal of the time. That is why people pray for bountiful crops, pray for good weather, pray for sick people, pray to find lost objects, pray for certain candidates in elections, and so on. Can we really believe in democratic elections and pray for a certain outcome at the same time?

          • [...] let me ask how it is possible to know, on the one hand, if there is a "natural order" created by God that runs like clockwork in his "absence" except on the rare cases when God miraculously "intervenes," or, on the other, if God is running all of reality "hands on" but chooses to run it as if there were laws of nature operating except in rare cases when he wanted an outcome that differed from the one that would result if he were operating reality "hands on" but according to his usual and customary method?

            I would immediately question the "as if" on numerous grounds. (Shall I enumerate?)

            How in the world is it possible to know when God is doing "hands on" work and when he is sitting back and letting reality work autonomously according to the laws of nature?

            Again, I can ask the same thing about any person. For example: "Do you actually know your position to be rational, or are the laws of nature merely causing you to write what you do—noting that they care not a whit for what is rational and what is not?" I suspect this is tantamount to asking whether or not people are merely p-zombies.

            I also suspect that a key problem here is that of God respecting our freedom, of him not "lording it over us" per Jesus' discussion in Mt 20:20–28. The ability to resist God, to reject him, is foreign to standard clockwork conceptions of causation. You cannot resist the law of gravity—if it is defined in a clockwork sense instead of a causal powers sense. The idea of God giving us gifts which we are allowed to reject or accept just doesn't seem to make sense with clockwork conceptions of causation. If God's primary way of interacting with reality is via agápē, which does not insist on its own way, then it seems to me that we need a different way of understanding those actions than clockwork conceptions of causation.

            A promising route to try to understand how God might be interacting with reality is to try to understand what the difference might be, between manipulative social relations and non-manipulative social relations. I'm riffing on Alasdair MacIntyre here; he argues in After Virtue that on emotivism, one cannot make such a distinction (23). He writes that "to a large degree people now think, talk, and act as if emotivism were true, no matter what their avowed theoretical standpoint might be." (22) If this is true, then perhaps we lack the conceptual tools for understanding a primary mode of God's interaction with reality.

            I think a great many "religious people" (maybe most religious people) assume that God is doing "hands on" work a great deal of the time. That is why people pray for bountiful crops, pray for good weather, pray for sick people, pray to find lost objects, pray for certain candidates in elections, and so on. Can we really believe in democratic elections and pray for a certain outcome at the same time?

            That would seem to depend on whether God wants democracy to work or not. (If God does not exist, democracy should work just fine in your scenario, right?) If I believe the nation would be best off if it were to change its trajectory in some way, I can pray that either (i) enough others become convinced of the same; (ii) I become convinced that I am wrong. Granted, many people elide (ii), but I'll merely point out that the Bible contains instance after instance of God and his followers hating pride.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            it seems to me that we need a different way of understanding those actions than clockwork conceptions of causation

            This exactly!

            It seems to me there is still a lot of needless effort expended trying to reconcile human free will and/or God's free will with clockwork / Newtonian determinacy. Wasn't the support for clockwork / Newtonian determinacy removed almost a century ago by Heisenberg?

            To be fair, it is not completely unreasonable to still believe that a hidden complex clockwork determinacy lies underneath the phenomenon of quantum randomness, but the science hasn't been suggestive of that ontology for some time now. It seems at least equally reasonable (and I would say more reasonable, since we "know" we experience free will) to imagine that the laws of nature underdetermine what will happen, in the same way that the meter and rhyming scheme of a poem underdetermine what they poet will say in the poem.

            I encourage the physicists out there to chime in and tell me if I have been misled by my pop science reading on this subject.

          • It seems to me there is still a lot of needless effort expended trying to reconcile human free will and/or God's free will with clockwork / Newtonian determinacy. Wasn't the support for clockwork / Newtonian determinacy removed almost a century ago by Heisenberg?

            Perhaps the work is needless, or perhaps it's people still working out where clockwork causation is a good model and where it's a bad model. Causation is a notoriously difficult matter when one digs below the surface. Or perhaps it is only difficult when one doesn't let personhood be a piece of the fundamental furniture of reality. :-)

            There are deterministic formulations of QM which are 100% consistent with the evidence, such as the de Broglie–Bohm theory. All that Heisenberg showed was that using the current formalism, there are epistemological boundaries to accessing all the state of reality that the formalism claims exist. Although, perhaps anti-realism followed on the heels of Heisenberg's work, such that soon people didn't actually think there was an epistemological boundary, but an ontology radically different from what we thought. If you want to really get into this stuff, I highly suggest Bernard d'Espagnat's On Physics and Philosophy. He was a physicist and a philosopher, and wrote that 2006 tome to try to update philosophy with the latest quantum physics.

            It seems at least equally reasonable (and I would say more reasonable, since we "know" we experience free will) to imagine that the laws of nature underdetermine what will happen, in the same way that the meter and rhyming scheme of a poem underdetermine what they poet will say in the poem.

            David Bohm plays with precisely this possibility in Causality and Chance in Modern Physics. Here's a provocative section:

                The assumption that any particular kind of fluctuations are arbitrary and lawless relative to all possible contexts, like the similar assumption that there exists an absolute and final determinate law, is therefore evidently not capable of being based on any experimental or theoretical developments arising out of specific scientific problems, but it is instead a purely philosophical assumption. (44)

            My own interests on this matter make me wonder whether the error is to think that the only kind of causation is an omnipresent, timeless set of equations ruling over us. An alternative to this... mono-causation is that there might be particular causation as well as universal causation. Different terms are 'singular causation' and 'general causation'. Caltech philosopher of science Christopher Hitchcock compares the two in The Mishap of Reichenbach Fall: Singular vs. General Causation. A theological gloss for allowing both kinds of causation is that God does not insist on irresistably ruling everyone, but does insist on certain... synchronization.

            P.S. I'm not a physicist, but I do know more physics than your average layman and I'm increasingly well-read in philosophy of science surrounding these issues, as well as the work of scientists challenging current conceptions of causation, such as Nobel laureates Robert B. Laughlin and Ilya Prigogine.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            It seems to me we have (at least) three root metaphors that we can use for understanding the core of reality, all three of which are perfectly consistent with the data:

            1. clocks
            2. dice
            3. persons

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I like your selection of metaphors. The truth is probably a mixture of all three.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            For those aspects of reality that are amenable to quantitative modeling, it seems to me that we are making more and more use of models that include both systematic components and stochastic components, even though we still find contexts of use where stochastic model features can be practically ignored as well as contexts of use where systematic model features can be practically ignored.

            To my mind, the person metaphor is more general and subsumes the other two, since people are usually fairly reliable and intelligible (like clocks) and yet are also sometimes delightfully surprising (like dice). It seems to me that the Biblical authors who rooted their understanding of reality in a metaphor of personhood (and therefore ultimately in a metaphor of self) were extremely competent exegetes of the phenomenal world.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I was thinking of something a little different. I was thinking of our relationship with the universe. Are we controlled by fates or the environmental and genetic circumstances that we find ourselves in (like clocks), is it random (like dice), or can we make choices (as persons)? Does fate determine that Oedipus will go blind? Should we accept our fates like Oedipus, or should we defy our fates like the norse gods.

            I think there is a great deal of wisdom to be found in the Bible, but I also think there is a great deal of wisdom to be found in Greek myths, Norse myths, etc. The bible, to my mind, does not have a preeminent place.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Should we accept our fates like Oedipus, or should we defy our fates like the norse gods.

            Or should we negotiate humbly and reasonably between the extremes of acceptance and defiance, as did Abraham in Genesis 18? :-) As the Isaiah tag line says: Come now, let us set things right, says the LORD

          • David Nickol

            If I believe the nation would be best off if it were to change its
            trajectory in some way, I can pray that either (i) enough others become
            convinced of the same; (ii) I become convinced that I am wrong.

            The question in my mind is precisely how theists would expect God to influence the outcome of an election. How would God, in response to your prayers, effect changes in others so that they come around to your way of thinking? If the effect of (successful) prayer is to move God to do something he would otherwise not have done, doesn't his response to prayers for Candidate A—if God is saying "yes" to those praying for Candidate A—necessarily have to interfere in the natural course of things so that he changes the decisions of some group of people to do something different from what they would otherwise have done?

            I know it is problematic to speak of prayer as an attempt to "change God's mind," but I don't see any way around it if we want to discuss petitionary prayer intelligibly.

          • Well, if each person has a connection with God (regardless of whether [s]he is consciously aware of it or not), the one praying could be asking (implicitly or explicitly) for that connection in others to be strengthened in at least one of multiple ways:

                 (1) repentance of sin
                 (2) desire for increased justice
                 (3) desire for deeper knowledge of God

            Ostensibly, some candidates will be better at (1)–(3) than others—both personally, and creating an environment more conducive to those things. If you want an example of (1), I think racism suffices. It can take great courage to do (1), great suffering to do (2), and great dedication to do (3). Not only can God provide true psychological help in these endeavors, but he can provide knowledge which we can accept or reject. We can let that knowledge correct us as well as guide us toward more fantastic states of being, or we can decide that all that would be too difficult, and settle for stasis or trivial, probably-ephemeral progress.

            It's not clear that any of this requires us to change God's mind, because the very nature of our requesting indicates a willingness for (1)–(3), and (1)–(3) become easier for others if one is up for them oneself. My willingness to repent makes it easier for others to repent, because I'm less likely to judge them harshly (and thus tempt them to keep mum or self-justify). If I wish to push for justice, it lightens the load for others who wish to do so. And so forth.

            A trick here is that if the result of God acting is to make people more than they were before, there is another causal explanation: people had it within them and/or society had it within itself to bring about whatever it was that happened. But that is epistemology; the above is ontology. Best to keep them properly distinct.

          • David Nickol

            May I ask if you believe that God does indeed (at least on occasion) determine the outcome of elections, or perhaps determine the outcome of military battles, by using some kind of communication with human populations? Or on an individual level, might God reveal to someone weighing two possible choices information that would motivate that person to make one choice over the other?

            If God intervenes to motivate one person to repent of sins while leaving another person without that additional motivation, when the two persons die, is it just to reward the person who got the extra help and punish the person who didn't?

          • I wouldn't say God 'determines', but instead that he 'influences'. There is a critical difference between manipulative social relations and non-manipulative social relations. I think God's exercise of the former is very limited (for example, to those who themselves insist on manipulating).

            Sometimes, I'm pretty sure God does give us knowledge for our consideration—otherwise, you'd break causal theories of knowledge. (I doubt all knowledge is latent in the subconscious or available in the environment.) Note that such revealed knowledge need not be elevated to canon-level status.

            I think people are held accountable based on what they had to work with. I suspect God judges not by absolute values obtained, but relative changes made. C.S. Lewis remarked that a violent murderer showing a single act of kindness may be more noble than all of the good acts of someone born to high society.

          • David Nickol

            I wouldn't say God 'determines', but instead that he 'influences'.

            I am not sure how much sense it makes to claim an omniscient, omnipotent being influences but does not determine. If God somehow intervenes in a human psyche, presumably he knows precisely what the outcome will be. If I am teetering between Choice A and Choice B, and God directly intervenes by giving me some kind of knowledge (or some other nudge), how does he do it without (in effect) determining the choice? If Choice A is the good choice, and Choice B is the bad choice—and the one to which I am leaning—does he make an exquisitely fine adjustment in circumstances so that Choice A and Choice B become exactly, 100% equally likely? And how does one with "free will" make a moral choice between two equals? Something must motivate choice. If not, then free choice is just random choice.

            How could it not be that an omniscient, omnipotent God could not give every individual sufficient knowledge to guide him or her down the right path? I just cannot accept the idea that God doesn't want to "coerce" people into loving him or doing his will. Giving someone adequate (or more than adequate) information to make choices is not coercion.

          • If God somehow intervenes in a human psyche, presumably he knows precisely what the outcome will be.

            This presumes the validity of middle knowledge, which is problematic. You also seem to be presupposing an ultimately deterministic reality where there is exactly one causal source: God. That is, there cannot be more than one truly free being. I suppose this becomes a bit more problematic with God creating all other beings, but then we shift to 'creation' requiring complete determination. I would question that.

            If Choice A is the good choice, and Choice B is the bad choice—and the one to which I am leaning—does he make an exquisitely fine adjustment in circumstances so that Choice A and Choice B become exactly, 100% equally likely?

            The phrase "equally likely" seems to presuppose a probabilistic process backing the subsequent choice of A vs. B. Instead, I would advance Robert Kane's dual rationality:

                Finally, consider the libertarian notion of dual rationality, a requirement whose importance to the libertarian I did not appreciate until I read Robert Kane's Free Will and Values. As with dual control, the libertarian needs to claim that when agents make free choices, it would have been rational (reasonable, sensible) for them to have made a contradictory choice (e.g. chosen not A rather than A) under precisely the conditions that actually obtain. Otherwise, categorical freedom simply gives us the freedom to choose irrationally had we chosen otherwise, a less-than-entirely desirable state. Kane (1985) spends a great deal of effort in trying to show how libertarian choices can be dually rational, and I examine his efforts in Chapter 8. (The Non-Reality of Free Will, 16)

            This allows us to define sin as "acting against your better knowledge". That is, there were two paths which, at the time, seemed roughly equally rational. But there was something (a conscience?) tugging at you to go in one of the directions. If you sin, you reject that tugging, pursuing instead a lesser good. To do this is idolatry, and it is picked as one of the two chief causes for badness in Rom 1:18–23.

            Something must motivate choice.

            I'm going to object pedantically: someone can motivate choice. That is, in addition to there being causation by omnipresent, timeless laws of nature, there can be causation by agents, by persons. "I chose X, for rational reasons {R}." Either this, or 'rationality' is non-causal, on pain of being identified with the laws of nature. I'm not just making crap up, here; see my excerpt of [atheist] Gregory W. Dawes' Theism and Explanation.

            How could it not be that an omniscient, omnipotent God could not give every individual sufficient knowledge to guide him or her down the right path?

            Can you suggest how this could happen with free beings, such that their freedom is not obliterated? I would suggest the 'better knowledge' approach, via 'dual rationality'. In fact, I'm not sure I can think of a better formulation of meaningful freedom other than Robert Kane's dual rationality. Being imago Dei beings, we engage in creating worlds—or for the incremental version: making some futures more likely and other futures less likely. How we think of that process is in terms of 'rationality'. But for us to actually make choices that come from us, we have to be able to choose between worlds we're trying to bring into existence. That entails having multiple 'rational' options being available and [roughly] equally compelling. Otherwise, we are merely driven by 'necessity', such that there is only one rational choice, with all the rest being irrational.

          • George

            I was recently listening to a catholic radio program, might have been Call to Communion or Catholic Answers Live, (where I heard about SN in the first place), and one of the hosts said that prayer had an impact on the world because it was the means by which God executed his will.

            It was surprising to me. This seemed to be the human agency model flipped around. You have the God's desires node, linking to humans praying, and through that it links to stuff happening in the world. I said it was surprising, but thinking about it, it does simplify things, and it makes sense given the commonly shared premises about catholic theism(a kind of "well what else should I have expected?" moment). But I wonder how out of left field that particular host's explanation felt to other well known apologists who would hear it.

  • David Nickol

    Assuming for the sake of argument that Jesus walked on water, or that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into a fiery furnace and were unharmed, why do we need to assume that God somehow change the nature of the water so it could be walked on or changed the nature of the fire so it would not burn? The OP, it seems to me, attempts to explain how the miracles worked. It is probably silly to speculate at all, but it seems to me that if Jesus walked on water, it was something about Jesus that allowed him to do so, not something about the water. And of course Peter (in Matthew's account) begins to walk on water, gets frightened, and starts to sink. It seems rather complicated to explain this based on the nature of the water.

  • Sample1

    It would have been helpful for me had the blogger included a definition of science in the article. It's in the title after all. As such, I find any comment I might make will have to be in realms of essences, gods, miracles. In other words, the blogger's territory where he controls the rules.

    To me that's like asking who does magic better, Gandalf or Einstein?

    No thanks.

    Mike
    Edit done

    • Ignatius Reilly

      To me that's like asking who does magic better, Gandalf or Einstein?

      Merlin.

    • David Nickol

      It would have been helpful for me had the blogger included a definition of science in the article.

      I am not sure the OP's definition of "law of nature" is very helpful, either:

      Laws of nature are not mere descriptions of causal regularities (e.g., When A, then B) that a miracle would disprove. The laws of nature express what things are capable of exhibiting by virtue of their inherent causal tendencies or dispositions. In other words, the laws of nature are descriptive of what objects are capable of producing given the powers they have by virtue of their nature.

      I don't think I would claim that it is a "law of nature" that water freezes at
      32°F, that a rock falls when it is dropped, or that "fire burns."

      • Sample1

        I'm not sniping at the author but if I ever wrote what you quoted above (about "laws") I would have received sniping remarks from my credentialed science profs in college; if not failed marks.

        I only mention this because the SN article is filed under Science. Had it been filed under Philosophy I'd have no problems. Then again, I wouldn't have read it.

        Thanks for your reply.

        Mike

      • Ignatius Reilly

        I don't think I would claim that it is a "law of nature" that water freezes at 32°F, that a rock falls when it is dropped, or that "fire burns.

        Water doesn't always freeze at 32, the law of gravity does not say that rocks will fall, and fire is a rapid oxidation. Karlo's science is very questionable and too tinged with Aristotelianism to be of any use.

      • I am not sure the OP's definition of "law of nature" is very helpful, either:

        The language of causal powers exists in the philosophy of science (e.g. Causal Powers). Nancy Cartwright has observed scientists who speak in a way which most closely matches causal powers, and not merely omnipresent, timeless laws of nature (How the Laws of Physics Lie; The Dappled World).

        I don't think I would claim that it is a "law of nature" that water freezes at 32°F, that a rock falls when it is dropped, or that "fire burns."

        Welcome to Ceteris Paribus Laws. There's no guarantee that the Schrödinger equation is a law of nature, either. We are somewhat confused on this issue, as Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine explains:

            Nearly two hundred years ago, Joseph-Louis Lagrange described analytical mechanics based on Newton's laws as a branch of mathematics.[33] In the French scientific literature, one often speaks of "rational mechanics." In this sense, Newton's laws would define the laws of reason and represent a truth of absolute generality. Since the birth of quantum mechanics and relativity, we know that this is not the case. The temptation is now strong to ascribe a similar status of absolute truth to quantum theory. In The Quark and the Jaguar, Gell-Mann asserts, "Quantum mechanics is not itself a theory; rather it is the framework into which all contemporary physical theory must fit."[34] Is this really so? As stated by my late friend Léon Rosenfeld, "Every theory is based on physical concepts expressed through mathematical idealizations. They are introduced to give an adequate representation of the physical phenomena. No physical concept is sufficiently defined without the knowledge of its domain of validity."[35] (The End of Certainty, 28–29)

        But yes, the OP could have been more rigorous. Someone wanting to get a whiff at how messy the topic of causation is could read Evan Fales' Divine Intervention: Metaphysical and Epistemological Puzzles. I'm not sure, however, that the corrections obtained by such rigor would materially change the OP's argument.

  • Peter

    If the object of denying miracles by appealing to the laws of nature is to disprove the existence of God, it is an abject failure. Any appeal to the immutability of natural laws is an implicit recognition of a higher power which has immutably imposed them.

    Hume believed natural laws to be brute facts, part of an eternal unchanging universe, and therefore not requiring explanation in their own right. Now we know that these laws, together with the universe in which they operate, had a beginning. Hume believed that these laws did not need explaining; now we know that they do.

    Anyone who cites Hume in support of their denial of miracles are putting forward an outdated, and therefore flawed, argument. Whilst they seek to deny the existence of particular miracles, they overlook the fact that the establishment of natural laws, on whose grounds they make such a denial, is a great miracle in its own right.

  • That is fine if you want to consider phenomena claimed as a miracle as a natural event and that god and his alleged causation of these phenomena is not a violation of the natural order. This is obviously a more reasonable approach than saying god created inviolable order that he then violates by pure force of will.

    The skeptic and the theist are in a similar position facing a claim of miraculous intervention. When an aging physician's radiodermitis clears up with no obvious physical cause, we can ask what caused this. If the theist wants to claim this was due to some active intervention by a deity, it is incumbent on explaining what this god is, and how he or she knows the deity caused the cure. It would be fallacious to say that it must be the god since science nor empirical inquiry has drawn out a physical cause. The theist has failed to draw out the theistic cause either. We both are saying there is some unknown cause for this.

  • The law of gravity does NOT say that a falling object will hit the ground every time you drop it. It says all massive objects will attract each other.

    • I'm pretty sure Karlo Broussard meant that he would be dropping the rock from the earth and not the International Space Station. In which case, the law of gravity, applied to that specific context, tells him exactly that the rock will hit the ground every single time he drops it. He did not say "the law of gravity says «exhaustive definition»". Instead, he said "the law of gravity tells us X will happen in circumstance Y, ceteris paribus".

      • What he said was "the law of gravity tells us a rock will fall to the ground every time when I drop it... [t]he law of gravity will hold provided nothing else happens, i.e., all things being equal."

        This is wrong. The law says all massive objects attract each other. When you hold the rock it is being pulled toward the earth and it is pulling the earth towards it. When you drop it this force turns potential energy into kinetic energy and it falls, if you stop it, you again change the kinetic energy back to potential. The law of gravity "holds" throughout.

        These laws, such as the law of gravity are not "merely hypothetical" they have been confirmed millions of times. They are not certain, but they are called "laws" simply because they are the theories that are so well confirmed that we consider them in many ways certain.

        • You are defining "law of gravity" differently from Broussard. Here is how he defines it:

          KB: The laws of nature, therefore, describe laws of natures—essences with inherent dispositional properties that manifest themselves when certain conditions are met. One could say the phrase “laws of nature” is shorthand for speaking about causal powers inherent in the nature of things.

          Under this formulation, what he means by "law of gravity" can be suspended. That is, the tendency for a rock to travel a geodesic in the current gravity well can be thwarted by someone catching it before it hits the ground.

          If you want a rigorous formulation of this way of thinking, consult Nancy Cartwright's How the Laws of Physics Lie, and perhaps Nancy Cartwright's Philosophy of Science. She is a highly respected philosopher of science who doesn't just do armchair philosophy, but looks to see how scientists actually talk about and reason with causation as they do science.

          These laws, such as the law of gravity are not "merely hypothetical" they have been confirmed millions of times.

          Once again you seem to have ignored Broussard's definition:

          KB: The laws of nature have what philosophers call hypothetical necessity, which means they will hold on the condition that no external cause intervenes.

          You can see this at the SEP article Ceteris Paribus Laws; you can see it in the name of the term itself.

          • "the tendency for a rock to travel a geodesic in the current gravity" is not gravity. Gravity is the force of attraction between all matter. This has never been observed to have been suspended ever. Stopping a rock in motion does not thwart or suspend this attraction, it stops the motion of the rock.

            "KB: The laws of nature have what philosophers call hypothetical necessity, which means they will hold on the condition that no external cause intervenes."

            But this is not what we observe with gravity. We observe it always holding regardless of any condition.

            This is high school science: the law states that all matter will attract all other matter. To say there are circumstance in which in does not "hold" would mean there are circumstances in which matter does not attract all other matter (massive objects). Is that what Karlo is saying?

          • "the tendency for a rock to travel a geodesic in the current gravity" is not gravity.

            You omitted 'well', as in "in the current gravity well". If you disagree with me, I suggest a visit of WP: Geodesics in general relativity; here's a good sentence: "In general relativity, gravity can be regarded as not a force but a consequence of a curved spacetime geometry where the source of curvature is the stress–energy tensor (representing matter, for instance)."

            Gravity is the force of attraction between all matter.

            If you really want to get pedantic, I'll say that you're wrong, because the force of gravity curves photons and photons aren't matter. And yet, that quibble is as relevant to your point, as your quibble is to Broussard's point.

            Stopping a rock in motion does not thwart or suspend this attraction, it stops the motion of the rock.

            Neither Broussard nor I have said that stopping a rock in motion thwarts or suspends the attraction of gravity. Once again: "You are defining "law of gravity" differently from Broussard." If you want to map Broussard's discussion onto your definition, then you'll want to talk about additional forces sometimes taking on nonzero values. Although, this may not work because it may presuppose univocity of being. I'm still learning about causation—in the sciences, in philosophy, and in theology.

            But this is not what we observe with gravity. We observe it always holding regardless of any condition.

            Ahhh, so you are 100% certain that unlike what happened with F = ma, general relativity will never be superseded? What we always observe is quite irrelevant, because there are almost certainly places we have not looked, or looked hard enough, or looked properly. Furthermore, God is always allowed to unveil a new facet of reality to us. Whether it was always there or newly added seems to be something beyond theoretical epistemological horizons.

            This is high school science: the law states that all matter will attract all other matter.

            Yes, I'm aware of F = GmM/r^2. It is becoming clear that you refuse to think of causation in a way other than omnipresent, impersonal equations forcing matter and energy to evolve in time. This notion came from God being sovereign over all of reality and imposing his will on it, and it happens to make rationality itself miraculous, unless you hold to substance dualism where res cognitans is not subject to the laws of nature.

          • Again, I really do not understand the point you are trying to make. Do you agree with the statement that "the law of gravity tells us a rock will fall to the ground every time when I drop it"?

          • I'm saying that there are multiple ways to think of how causation happens. One way is to speak of omnipresent, timeless equations which always describe what happens. (Maybe they ensure that they are obeyed, but I don't think this is required for the moment.) Another way is to speak of causal powers, whereby different things have different natural (innate) tendencies, which can be released or suppressed. A good work on this is Causal Powers; see also the extensive work of Nancy Cartwright on the matter of causation. Her How the Laws of Physics Lie would be a good place to start.

            But you can also understand the matter by realizing that F = ma has an implicit requirement: "in non-relativistic and low-gravity situations". If the rug is pulled out under F = ma via relativistic speeds or high gravity, it stops working. This context-sensitivity of the laws we formulate has been formalized under Ceteris Paribus Laws. So we can say: "F = ma, all other things being equal." Then we can understand Broussard as asserting: "All things are not always equal; God can make them unequal when he wishes." Do you think that the equations of general relativity have no ceteris paribus clause—that they are the final form?

          • Doug Shaver

            Then we can understand Broussard as asserting: "All things are not always equal; God can make them unequal when he wishes."

            I can stipulate that. But if that is all he is saying, isn't that what Christians, and every other theist who believes in miracles, have always said?

          • [...] isn't that what Christians, and every other theist who believes in miracles, have always said?

            No; the natural/​supernatural dichotomy has not always existed. Furthermore, positions such as that of Leibniz (see Leibniz's theistic case against Humean miracles) may contrast with Broussard's.

            But if that is all he is saying, [...]

            Broussard is arguing against positions such as that advanced by @disqus_iHm6odBuqx:disqus: "miracles makes science just so much chaotic nonsense". If you think Reid is wrong, then perhaps you take as obvious what he contests. If you think Reid is right, then either Broussard failed or you've not understood his argument.

          • Doug Shaver

            the natural/​supernatural dichotomy has not always existed.

            Would it be correct, then, to say that ever since the dichotomy has existed, Christians and other theists have argued that God capable of effecting exceptions to natural law and thus making ceteris non paribus?

            Broussard is arguing against positions such as that advanced by Gordon Reid: "miracles makes science just so much chaotic nonsense". If you think Reid is wrong, then perhaps you take as obvious what he contests.

            I disagree with the quoted statement by Reid. I would have to read it in its original context before saying whether whatever he was specifically contesting was something I judge to be obvious.

          • Would it be correct, then, to say that ever since the dichotomy has existed, Christians and other theists have argued that God capable of effecting exceptions to natural law and thus making ceteris non paribus?

            Not all of them; I'm pretty sure Leibniz would be an exception. Those who reject the concept of natura pura—like von Balthasar and de Lubac—may also be exceptions. Aquinas certainly didn't think this way, but one could argue that this part of his teaching was corrupted by many. So I'm afraid I don't know what percentage of Christians and other theists have argued this way. I do think many have, but I'd hesitate about saying "most" have.

            I disagree with the quoted statement by Reid.

            Then it would appear you are more amenable to Broussard's argument than @briangreenadams:disqus.

          • Doug Shaver

            Would it be correct, then, to say that ever since the dichotomy has existed, Christians and other theists have argued . . . ?

            Not all of them

            OK.

            I disagree with the quoted statement by Reid.

            Then it would appear you are more amenable to Broussard's argument than Brian Green Adams.

            I have no idea. I'm not competing with Adams about anything or for anything.

          • At this point, I don't know why you interjected yourself in my conversation with Brian.

          • Doug Shaver

            This is a public forum. Anything posted here is subject to commentary by anyone else. If you want a private conversation with anyone, you need to use a private method of communication.

          • I'm not offended or annoyed; I'm confused. I'm not sure what you were trying to add/say. Broussard is clearly trying to make an argument bigger than "God can screw with things". That shows up in the very title of the blog post: "Why Miracles Are Not Incompatible with Science". He's clearly arguing against a position which is held by some who comment here, as @disqus_iHm6odBuqx:disqus demonstrated.

          • Doug Shaver

            I'm not sure what you were trying to add/say.

            I have tried to make it clear. I'm usually pretty good at making myself understood, but nobody's perfect.

          • Sorry, you have not clarified your position, I'm not really sure I understand you. My comment was simply about his description of the law of gravity and I simply asked if you agreed with his characterization, and I don't see an answer.

          • You asked this:

            BGA: Do you agree with the statement that "the law of gravity tells us a rock will fall to the ground every time when I drop it"?

            I had already dealt with that:

            LB: You are defining "law of gravity" differently from Broussard. Here is how he defines it:

            KB: The laws of nature, therefore, describe laws of natures—essences with inherent dispositional properties that manifest themselves when certain conditions are met. One could say the phrase “laws of nature” is shorthand for speaking about causal powers inherent in the nature of things.

            Under this formulation, what he means by "law of gravity" can be suspended. That is, the tendency for a rock to travel a geodesic in the current gravity well can be thwarted by someone catching it before it hits the ground.

            I picked general relativity because it employs a very different way of thinking about what gravity is than Newtonian mechanics. This threw you off. Broussard's causal powers notion of causation is yet a different way. You seemed locked into only one way of thinking about causation. That's ok, but if you insist on that, you won't be able to make sense of what people say when they deviate from that way of thinking.

          • Doug Shaver

            You are defining "law of gravity" differently from Broussard. Here is how he defines it:

            He defines it in Aristotelian terms. The scientific community abandoned Aristotle a long time ago.

          • Then how do you account for the "causal powers" approach Nancy Cartwright is pursuing in her philosophy of science? Note that this characterizes how she does her work:

            Nancy Cartwright’s philosophy of science is, in her view, a form of empiricism but empiricism in the style of Neurath and Mill, rather than of Hume or Carnap. Her concerns are not with the problems of skepticism, induction, or demarcation; she is concerned with how actual science achieves the successes it does, and what sort of metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions are needed to understand that success. (Nancy Cartwright's Philosophy of Science, 1)

          • Doug Shaver

            Then how do you account for the "causal powers" approach Nancy Cartwright is pursuing in her philosophy of science?

            Why do I need to? What is so special about Nancy Cartwright?

            she is concerned with how actual science achieves the successes it does, and what sort of metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions are needed to understand that success

            So am I, and I have found my own answers to those issues. In order to explain why I disagree with her answers, whatever they are, the first thing I would have to do would be to read her works. I am not going to debate her by proxy.

          • Why do I need to? What is so special about Nancy Cartwright?

            You said "The scientific community abandoned Aristotle a long time ago." This is true in the sense that there is no slavish adherence to the teachings of Aristotle, as there once was. But if we restrict our purview to those teachings about causation and causal powers, you would be wrong-that is, if we wish to heed Nancy Cartwright's empirical study of how science is actually done. But I don't see how you can claim to be talking about science in a scientific way if you're going to dismiss folks like her out of hand. Dismiss her out of hand and you'll be talking about science dogmatically.

            Beyond the fact that Cartwright looks at how science is actually done, she's a highly respected philosopher of science. This doesn't make her automatically correct, but it does make her central arguments worth looking at, unless you want to dismiss the judgment of all those who respect her. Do that, and you'll head toward scientism-land.

            So am I, and I have found my own answers to those issues.

            What kind of research did you do to obtain those answers?

          • Doug Shaver

            You said "The scientific community abandoned Aristotle a long time ago."

            Yes, and I meant the community of scientists, not philosophers of science. I do not know and don't much care how many philosophers still think Aristotle's ideas about causation make good sense.

            But if we restrict our purview to those teachings about causation and causal powers, you would be wrong-that is, if we wish to heed Nancy Cartwright's empirical study of how science is actually done.

            A lifetime of reading about science (and I am a contemporary of Cartwright) has given me a good idea of how science is actually done. There is no inconsistency between what I have observed and a denial of what Aristotle said about causal powers.

            I don't see how you can claim to be talking about science in a scientific way if you're going to dismiss folks like her out of hand.

            The scientific way does not include appeals to authority. It isn't people who get dismissed or accepted. Their conclusions get dismissed or accepted depending on an evaluation of the evidence and arguments offered in support of those conclusions. Until I can examine Cartwright's evidence and analyze the logic she employs to connect that evidence to her conclusions, I have no basis on which to either agree or disagree with those conclusions.

            What kind of research did you do to obtain those answers?

            Lots of reading about both the practice and philosophy of science, and allowing my interpretations of that reading to be colored by many difficult encounters with real human life outside of academia.

          • Yes, and I meant the community of scientists, not philosophers of science. I do not know and don't much care how many philosophers still think Aristotle's ideas about causation make good sense.

            Pardon me, but what puts you in a better position to understand how scientists do science than a philosopher of science who (i) studies how scientists actually do science; (ii) has her claims undergo peer review? You're coming off as if you are indeed in a better position, and I want to know why. What particularly sticks out at me is the categorical terms in which you are speaking.

            A lifetime of reading about science (and I am a contemporary of Cartwright) has given me a good idea of how science is actually done.

            Does this science happen to include the human sciences, perchance? I ask this because there is quite a bit of acceptance of critical realism among sociologists, especially outside of the US. (But sociologist Christian Smith and others are pushing for it in the US.) Critical realism definitely makes use of causal powers.

            The scientific way does not include appeals to authority.

            Oh good grief. Is that really what you think I'm doing? From my point of view, what I'm doing is picking out someone who has made assertions about what metaphysics of causation best supports the science which is actually done, and puts those claims up for peer review. Unless you yourself have put your claims up for peer review, that does seem to give Cartwright an advantage. Do you really disagree with this?

            Lots of reading about both the practice and philosophy of science, and allowing my interpretations of that reading to be colored by many difficult encounters with real human life outside of academia.

            It would appear that the philosophy of science you've read is somewhat parochial—unless you've encountered folks arguing for the utility of causal powers, but decided they were categorically wrong?

          • Doug Shaver

            Pardon me, but what puts you in a better position to understand how scientists do science than a philosopher of science who (i) studies how scientists actually do science; (ii) has her claims undergo peer review

            Her credentials are irrelevant. Her evidence and her argumentation are all that matter. Until you can show me both, you have nothing to offer but an argument from authority.

            A lifetime of reading about science (and I am a contemporary of Cartwright) has given me a good idea of how science is actually done.

            Does this science happen to include the human sciences, perchance? I ask this because there is quite a bit of acceptance of critical realism among sociologists, especially outside of the US.

            My first college degree was in sociology.

            Unless you yourself have put your claims up for peer review, that does seem to give Cartwright an advantage. Do you really disagree with this?

            If I were trying to convince the philosophical community, I would be submitting articles to peer-reviewed journals. All I'm trying to do here is defend my atheism against a handful of believers in the Roman Catholic version of Christianity, and I don't expect to convince them of anything. The most I can hope for is educate a lurker or two every once in a while.

            It would appear that the philosophy of science you've read is somewhat parochial

            I couldn't begin to pretend to have read everything that's ever been written on the subject.

          • Her credentials are irrelevant. Her evidence and her argumentation are all that matter. Until you can show me both, you have nothing to offer but an argument from authority.

            Curious; you put zero weight on her having a PhD and being well-respected in the field, and zero weight on the fact that her work has been peer-reviewed while yours has not? I'm not saying that she's obviously right; I'm saying that her stance probably has something to it.

            I'm also flabbergasted that you would present yourself as an authority in saying things such as "The scientific community abandoned Aristotle a long time ago.", meaning by this that conceptions of causation which involve causal powers are no longer employed by the sciences. You presented zero evidence and zero argumentation to support your point. But when I gave you precisely the equivalent claim (I included no evidence and no argument when I presented it), somehow your position came out superior to mine. Now, it's fine for you yourself to have concluded that your position is better, but this is not all you have done. You expect others in this thread to accept your position over Nancy Cartwright's. That's what I don't understand.

            My first college degree was in sociology.

            That's not necessarily relevant: (i) critical realism probably hadn't made much headway in America when you got your degree; (ii) there is still much animus against critical realism among American sociologists. So, from what has been said so far, you could easily have concluded that causal powers conceptions of causation are irrelevant to the human sciences.

            If I were trying to convince the philosophical community, I would be submitting articles to peer-reviewed journals. All I'm trying to do here is defend my atheism against a handful of believers in the Roman Catholic version of Christianity, and I don't expect to convince them of anything. The most I can hope for is educate a lurker or two every once in a while.

            Oh, I don't have any philosophical or theological work published in peer-reviewed journals. A good second to this seems would have each position try to argue for something close to a position which does have peer-reviewed material; then the sides of the discussion can have a sort of proxy debate, where a powerful way to analyze a stated position is to look for peer-reviewed work which critiques that position. One is then not appealing to authority, but using authorities as efficient means to search the literature.

            I couldn't begin to pretend to have read everything that's ever been written on the subject.

            This is not required in order for your exposure to not be parochial. Furthermore, a parochial exposure isn't bad—it just means you cannot make categorical statements which are bigger than your parochial exposure.

          • Doug Shaver

            A lifetime of reading about science (and I am a contemporary of Cartwright) has given me a good idea of how science is actually done.

            Does this science happen to include the human sciences, perchance? I ask this because there is quite a bit of acceptance of critical realism among sociologists, especially outside of the US.

            My first college degree was in sociology.

            That's not necessarily relevant:

            It answers your question.

            So, from what has been said so far, you could easily have concluded that causal powers conceptions of causation are irrelevant to the human sciences.

            There is a long story behind my choice of major the first time I went to college, but the bottom line was that I had no intention of becoming a professional sociologist. I did have a sincere interest in the subject, but I was aiming for a career in journalism, and I paid scant attention to developments in academic sociology after I graduated. At the same time, I did soon acquire a heightened interest in the history and justifications of science in general, and for many years most of my leisure reading was devoted thereto. As a result, I became persuaded that the social sciences, to whatever extent they claim any epistemic privileges that are denied to the other sciences, they forfeit the right to regard themselves as sciences.

            I'm also flabbergasted that you would present yourself as an authority

            But I'm not presenting myself that way. I've made no claim to be an authority. I have claimed that my beliefs are justified. Perhaps you think there can be no epistemic justification without authority. I don't.

            You expect others in this thread to accept your position over Nancy Cartwright's. That's what I don't understand.

            I expect no such thing. What I hope is that others will understand why I am not prepared to admit being wrong just because you tell me that Nancy Cartwright says I'm wrong.

            One is then not appealing to authority, but using authorities as efficient means to search the literature.

            If all you are saying is that Cartwright has some evidence, of which I seem to be unaware, that is demonstrably inconsistent with my position, then I can't object to your saying that. But before I invest the time and money to obtain copies of her work and study it in sufficient detail to analyze her arguments, I'll need a better reason than your assurance that she has proved my position wrong. As for her CV, I am familiar with what goes on in the field of professional philosophy. It is not the least bit anomalous for two philosophers with equally impeccable credentials, after conducting equally thorough research, publishing in equally prestigious journals, to disagree over quite fundamental philosophical issues.

            it just means you cannot make categorical statements which are bigger than your parochial exposure.

            I don't have the time, and my readers won't have the patience, for me to qualify every statement I make with disclaimers such as "as far as I know" or "considering only the facts of which I have become aware" or "based on everything I have read thus far in my life." If you have some specific factual information, which I can verify without a serious investment of time or other resources, that contradicts something I say, then you are most welcome to post it here. But if all you can do is remind the lurkers that I don't know everything there is to know about the issues of which I speak, then I can live with that sort of rhetorical sniping.

          • It answers your question.

            Then I'm actually surprised, because physics is probably in the best position to avoid causal powers, while sociology is arguably much more in need of it. I can point to bona fide sociologists, of good reputation in their field, who think that critical realism is the best underpinning for sociological work. Note: not philosophers of science, but scientists. Critical realism most definitely involves causal powers.

            LB: You expect others in this thread to accept your position over Nancy Cartwright's. That's what I don't understand.

            DS: I expect no such thing. What I hope is that others will understand why I am not prepared to admit being wrong just because you tell me that Nancy Cartwright says I'm wrong.

            Then why did you say "The scientific community abandoned Aristotle a long time ago."—meaning that causal powers are no longer employed by any mainstream science—instead of "My take is that ___."?

            I never intended for you to admit you were wrong just because I present someone who disagrees with you. What I did intend was for you to either dial back your categorical statement, or justify it. You did neither.

            But before I invest the time and money to obtain copies of her work and study it in sufficient detail to analyze her arguments, I'll need a better reason than your assurance that she has proved my position wrong.

            You don't have a good library nearby? Unfortunately, such books tend to be expensive. You could start by looking at How the Laws of Physics Lie, which is a Google Scholar link for a reason. :-| It's not clear that I could give you a better reason in any reasonable amount of text, given how hardened your opinion on the matter seems to be.

            It is not the least bit anomalous for two philosophers with equally impeccable credentials, after conducting equally thorough research, publishing in equally prestigious journals, to disagree over quite fundamental philosophical issues.

            Yes; this is because our understandings of reality are underdetermined by the evidence. So, for example, perhaps good cases can be made for using causal powers, and good cases can be made for doing away with them. But if this is the case, then it would be erroneous to say that modern science has done away with causal powers. Unless you meant to talk scientifically and not philosophically when you made your statement? If so, I would ask you what you mean by talking scientifically in what you said.

            I don't have the time, and my readers won't have the patience, for me to qualify every statement I make with disclaimers such as "as far as I know" or "considering only the facts of which I have become aware" or "based on everything I have read thus far in my life."

            I didn't realize I was expecting such a thing. Such qualifications are most important for centrally contentious matters. For example: when commenting on a blog post which is predicated upon causal powers.

            But if all you can do is remind the lurkers that I don't know everything there is to know about the issues of which I speak, then I can live with that sort of rhetorical sniping.

            That was never my intention. Instead, I would say that the more carefully we can trace the boundaries of our ignorance, the more likely we are to correct our errors and learn more. If we speak dogmatically—well, skeptics have a whole arsenal of criticisms for those who speak dogmatically, don't they?

          • Doug Shaver

            I would say that the more carefully we can trace the boundaries of our ignorance, the more likely we are to correct our errors and learn more.

            I managed to figure that out while I was still a teenager. That was when I made the move from evangelical Christianity to liberal Christianity, and it was why I made the move a few years later from Christianity to atheism.

            If we speak dogmatically—well, skeptics have a whole arsenal of criticisms for those who speak dogmatically, don't they?

            I'm not sure you mean the same thing by dogmatism as I do when I talk about it. Dogmatism, as I understand it, is the conflation of ethics with epistemology. It is the assumption that certain beliefs are so obviously true to people of moral virtue that therefore, anyone who questions them, whatever the grounds for their skepticism, must lack moral virtue.

            What you might be thinking of, when you think of dogmatism, is the intransigence that accompanies such a conflation. Someone who holds a belief dogmatically will not entertain even the possibility that their belief could be mistaken. This is not the same thing as mere justifiable confidence. I may, with good reason, judge it to be not worth my time to further investigate some issue that I have already studied, merely to prove to somebody on an Internet forum that I remain open-minded about that issue. I have no problem admitting that my previous investigations could have led me to a false conclusion, that there might be some evidence out there that ought to change my mind if I were to carefully examine it. But my investigatory resources are limited, and I probably don't have a lot of years left to live. I need to make some judgments about the likelihood that a particular time-consuming inquiry will be as enlightening as you tell me it will.

            I don't have the time, and my readers won't have the patience, for me to qualify every statement I make with disclaimers such as "as far as I know" or "considering only the facts of which I have become aware" or "based on everything I have read thus far in my life."

            Such qualifications are most important for centrally contentious matters. For example: when commenting on a blog post which is predicated upon causal powers.

            I have stated my reasons for believing what I believe about causal powers. Those qualifications were implicit in what I said about those reasons. Are you familiar with Gricean implicatures?

            Then why did you say "The scientific community abandoned Aristotle a long time ago."—meaning that causal powers are no longer employed by any mainstream science—instead of "My take is that ___."?

            Because, considering the context, I judged that disclaimer to be unnecessary.

            What I did intend was for you to either dial back your categorical statement, or justify it. You did neither.

            I did not intend any categorical statement. I intended a generalization. In ordinary discourse, "the scientific community" is not logically equivalent to "all scientists."

            You don't have a good library nearby?

            I suspect that our public library is all but worthless for the kind of research we're talking about. I could use the university library, but then I'd have to pay $5 for parking every time I went there and at least that much for the gas to drive there and back.

            It is not the least bit anomalous for two philosophers with equally impeccable credentials, after conducting equally thorough research, publishing in equally prestigious journals, to disagree over quite fundamental philosophical issues.

            Yes; this is because our understandings of reality are underdetermined by the evidence. So, for example, perhaps good cases can be made for using causal powers, and good cases can be made for doing away with them.

            I think you're making my point. If there actually is a good case to be made either way, then how am I at fault for believing one way rather than the other way?

            But if this is the case, then it would be erroneous to say that modern science has done away with causal powers. Unless you meant to talk scientifically and not philosophically when you made your statement?

            I didn't say that anybody has done away with Aristotle. What I'm saying is that scientists in general have decided that his metaphysical ideas are not relevant to what they do. If, as you suggest, some sociologists are an exception, then I would opine that they are not really scientists.

            As for the modern philosophical community, I have no reliable knowledge about Aristotle's status beyond his historical significance, but I get the impression that his ideas are still taken seriously in some academic quarters.

          • I don't see how you can say both of these things:

            I did not intend any categorical statement. I intended a generalization. In ordinary discourse, "the scientific community" is not logically equivalent to "all scientists."

            I didn't say that anybody has done away with Aristotle. What I'm saying is that scientists in general have decided that his metaphysical ideas are not relevant to what they do. If, as you suggest, some sociologists are an exception, then I would opine that they are not really scientists.

          • Doug Shaver

            I fail to see a contradiction between them.

          • On the one hand, you did not meant to make a universal statement. On the other hand, if a social scientist ends up not matching your statement, you're going to argue that [s]he is not a scientist. Which makes it sound like you actually did mean to make a categorical, universal statement.

          • Doug Shaver

            Good catch. I should amend my statement thus: If, as you suggest, some sociologists are an exception, then I would opine that most of them are not really scientists.

          • Why only most, and not all? It's like you're letting a few slip through in order to not have made a universal statement. What's your reasoning?

          • Doug Shaver

            I answered that question when I said I did not intend to make a categorical statement.

          • What is your reasoning for including some of them? They're scientists, saying that they make use of causal powers. Why do you gainsay them? We're out of the domain of philosophers.

          • Doug Shaver

            I believe that the domain of philosophy includes any context in which the question "What do we know and how do we know it?" is relevant.

          • Wait a second, I thought the reason you dismissed Nancy Cartwright's judgment on whether modern science employs the 'causal powers' aspect of Aristotelianism on the basis that she is a philosopher of science, and not a scientist. When I present scientists who insist that they depend on causal powers, you then dismiss [most of] them based on different criteria (which you have not articulated). Your reasoning utterly escapes me, at this point.

          • Doug Shaver

            I thought the reason you dismissed Nancy Cartwright's judgment . . . that she is a philosopher of science, and not a scientist.

            You thought incorrectly. I'm not dismissing her judgment. I'm just not accepting it because I have been presented with no reason, other than her credentials, for accepting it. I am unfamiliar with anything she has written on the subject. I know nothing about the evidence she relies on, and I know nothing of the arguments she uses to infer her conclusion from that evidence.

          • Shall we dig into arguments and evidence? In order for me to properly do this, I would need to know your own as well as provide those of mine and of folks like Nancy Cartwright and Christian Smith (sociologist).

          • Doug Shaver

            Shall we dig into arguments and evidence?

            I think that would result in a major derailment of this thread. I am also concerned that it might commit me to an investment of more time than I have available. However, if the administrators have no objections to our pursuing the discussion here, I'll see how far I can go with it.

          • I doubt the admins would have a problem with us digging into whether Aristotle's metaphysics of causation (which is much different from, e.g., his teleological biology) is beneficial to any science, today.

            You're also welcome to drop out of the conversation whenever. We both frequent SN; perhaps something else will come along about causal powers which reignites the old discussion.

  • I keep thinking that by a standard, naturalistic "laws of nature" account, rationality itself is miraculous. After all, if the only causal influences on our minds are the laws of nature, then they lead to both rational and irrational brain-states. Unless there is some special law of nature which tells us which states are more rational and which are less rational, what causal power are we referencing when we say we are doing something because it is rational? How does 'rationality' exert causal influence? If it does not, how can we know about something which does not somehow causally impinge on us?

    One might wonder why this problem hasn't been pointed out before. Perhaps it has; I surmise that the following has kept it at bay:

        At the base of Descartes' epistemology lay the distinction between the rational freedom of moral or intellectual decision in the human world of thought and action, and the causal necessity of mechanical processes in the natural world of physical phenomena. This distinction cut so deep that, in Descartes' eyes, it justified separating the two "substances" of mind and matter; and his notorious "Mind-Body dichotomy" brought in its train a series of related dichotomies. An argument that began by cutting rationality off from causality thus ended by separating the world of (rational) human experience from the world of (mechanical) natural phenomena. (Cosmopolis, 107)

    • Doug Shaver

      what causal power are we referencing when we say we are doing something because it is rational?

      I'm referencing myself. If I have free will, then I'm the cause of whatever I choose to do, whatever my reason for choosing to do it.

      • How can reasons have causal power if only the laws of nature have causal power? ("I chose X because reasons {R}.") I suppose you could equate 'reason' = 'laws of nature', but that would be a very odd definition. If instead you insist on an '≠', then I will ask for how you establish that '≠'. For example, if reason is only the laws of nature as they operate some of the time, then what causal power picks out which instances ∈ 'some of the time'? At the core, I'm pretty sure you need to deviate from what one might call 'monocausation'. You need at least two, non-mutually-defining causal powers. Otherwise, might (that is, the 'laws of nature') makes right and might makes true. That is, under monocausation, there can be no other definitions of 'right' and 'true' except for what 'is'.

        Now, if you want to discard strict causal reductionism and allow for your actions to be underdetermined by the laws of nature, you don't [necessarily] have this problem. But you seem to like causal reductionism. That's fine, as long as you're ok with sacrificing rationality or letting it be a persistent miracle.

        • Doug Shaver

          How can reasons have causal power if only the laws of nature have causal power? ("I chose X because reasons {R}.")

          You can't treat words the way you treat algebraic terms in an equation. When people speak of reasons for their choices, they ordinarily are offering justifications for those choices, which they may or may not regard as causes strictly speaking. I can tell you that I choose to live in California because I was born and raised here. Walter Scott's "This is my own, my native land" resonates with me, and it always has. Even so, I spent half my life living in Florida because of a series of situations that, as I perceived them, rendered my feelings irrelevant. During those years, my reasons for wanting to return to California were not a sufficient condition for me to choose to return.

          At the core, I'm pretty sure you need to deviate from what one might call 'monocausation'.

          Monocausation is not a label I would attach to anything I believe in.

          You need at least two, non-mutually-defining causal powers.

          You say so. I believe in causation. I see no need to complicate it by multiplying a bunch of Aristotelian entities such as causal powers.

          Otherwise, might (that is, the 'laws of nature') makes right and might makes true.

          Whatever is the case is what is true. It's a fact. Whatever ought to be the case is what is right. That is a human judgment.

          That is, under monocausation, there can be no other definitions of 'right' and 'true' except for what 'is'.

          If that is true, then I'm not a monocausalist.

          • As far as I can tell, 'rationality' simply is not causal, under your (very much existing, if underdeveloped) metaphysic. That leaves me wondering what on earth you think 'rationality' is, if it has never causally impacted you.

          • Doug Shaver

            Rationality, in my lexicon, is simply a property of a certain kind of thinking, one kind among others. Thinking, of any kind, can be causal insofar as it often is a sufficient condition for the thinker's behavior. Rational thinking may cause one kind of behavior while other kinds of thinking causes other kinds of behavior, but it is the thinking that does the causing.

          • What causal power separates rational from non-rational thinking? If you simply say "human judgment", then I will point out that human judgment is the result of complex interactions of the laws of nature, and to slice the results of those complex interactions into three groups—the rational, the irrational, and the arational—seems arbitrary, unless there is some causal power which is being heeded, resisted, and ignored, respectively. Positing "human judgment" here presumes what you're supposed to conclude—it is circular reasoning, which is definitely not rational.

          • Doug Shaver

            What causal power separates rational from non-rational thinking?

            The same thing that separates tall people from short people. We vary in our cognitive skills and habits for the same reason we vary in height, weight, hair color, and a thousand other characteristics. Sometimes the cause is genetic variation, sometimes it's environmental variation, and usually (I'd say always) it's both.

          • But tallness is not better at guiding us to truth than shortness. Ostensibly, you think that rationality is better in this way. And yet, I fail to see any rigorous explanation for how this could possibly be the case, given your metaphysic.

          • Doug Shaver

            But tallness is not better at guiding us to truth than shortness. Ostensibly, you think that rationality is better in this way.

            A method of assessing truth does not need to cause truth. If I'm building a wall and want to check whether a stud is plumb, I'm better off using a spirit level than using a digital caliper to find out. That doesn't mean the spirit level is going to cause the stud to be plumb. All it can is tell me is whether it is or isn't. Analogously, rational thinking is a way of testing for truth, not of causing truth.

          • You nevertheless have to posit a causal mechanism which biases the brain to more likely arrive at truth than falsehood. You need a way of knowing when you are "being rational". And yet, I claim that your metaphysic permits no such causal mechanism and no such way of knowing.

          • Doug Shaver

            You need a way of knowing when you are "being rational".

            If you mean knowing infallibly, then I'll admit I don't have one. But I would also deny that anyone else has one, either. Descartes tried to find an epistemology that would negate any possibility of human error. He failed. So has everyone else who has tried the same thing.

            I claim that your metaphysic permits no such causal mechanism and no such way of knowing.

            I'm not the one appealing to any metaphysic. I believe naturalistic evolution tells us all we need to know about the capabilities and limitations of our cognitive abilities. It gives us good reason to be highly confident about some of our beliefs and not so confident about certain others.

          • What I'm arguing has nothing to do with knowing infallibly, and everything to do with the very possibility of knowing, on [causal] reductionism. There is zero guarantee that evolution can work via [causal] reductionism, so bringing it in can't help you here. I don't see how 'rationality' can ever have causal power, according to your notion of causation. (I can say that instead of "according to your metaphysic".)

          • Doug Shaver

            What I'm arguing has nothing to do with knowing infallibly, and everything to do with the very possibility of knowing, on [causal] reductionism.

            I think it's time to check whether we're talking about the same thing. What do you mean by knowing, fallibly or otherwise?

          • I suspect that all I require for the current discussion is something like the 'justified' in "justified true belief". By way of analogy, suppose that you say you're detecting x-rays via a pH meter. I would immediately suspect you're wrong about either detecting x-rays, or that the instrument you're using is a pH meter. Likewise, when you say you're being rational via [causal] reductionism, I question either that (i) you're being rational; (ii) you're employing [causal] reductionism.

            Perhaps I could say that the only conception of knowledge I presently need is a coherentist one, even though I think the criticisms of it are devastating. It seems like a sufficiently good model for certain discussions, including this one.

            (I am not giving you a better/fuller answer because I'm currently working through the conception of knowledge as "approximately correct representation" and a participatory conception of knowledge, sometimes called "knowledge by identity".)

          • Doug Shaver

            Perhaps I could say that the only conception of knowledge I presently need is a coherentist one, even though I think the criticisms of it are devastating.

            I would say that coherence is necessary but not sufficient, epistemologically. I regard myself as primarily a foundationalist, but I also think that one's belief system needs to be coherent.

            I suspect that all I require for the current discussion is something like the 'justified' in "justified true belief".

            JTB has always worked for me. I think all the freaking out over Gettier has been quite misguided.

            So then, the claim that knowledge is not possible on a given worldview is just the claim that said worldview can provide no justification for any belief. Agreed?

          • So then, the claim that knowledge is not possible on a given worldview is just the claim that said worldview can provide no justification for any belief. Agreed?

            Ehhh, I was saying knowledge of "being rational" was not possible given certain foundations. See:

            LB: You need a way of knowing when you are "being rational". And yet, I claim that your metaphysic permits no such causal mechanism and no such way of knowing.

            DS: If you mean knowing infallibly, then I'll admit I don't have one.

            LB: What I'm arguing has nothing to do with knowing infallibly, and everything to do with the very possibility of knowing, on [causal] reductionism.

            In your response, you elided "being rational", and I continued in that elision.

          • Doug Shaver

            Ehhh, I was saying knowledge of "being rational" was not possible given certain foundations.

            Not exactly. What you said was that such knowledge was not possible absent certain foundations. You are saying that my foundations are insufficient, not that they are preclusive.

            Is your claim, then, that unless I accept your metaphysics of causation, I can have no justification -- not even a fallible justification -- for believing myself to be rational?

          • I disagree with your characterization. I don't require you to accept some particular metaphysic of causation; I wouldn't be surprised if there were multiple which allow one to justifiably say "I have good reason to think I'm being rational right now." I don't know how to differentiate 'insufficient' and 'preclusive' when the claim is that "the only kind of causation is the laws of nature".

          • Doug Shaver

            I disagree with your characterization.

            You said:

            You need a way of knowing when you are "being rational". And yet, I claim that your metaphysic permits no such causal mechanism and no such way of knowing.

            What meaning did you intend when you made that statement?

            I don't know how to differentiate 'insufficient' and 'preclusive' when the claim is that "the only kind of causation is the laws of nature".

            I have not made, and would not make, that claim in so many words, but I'll accept it for the sake of discussion. An epistemological foundation is insufficient to support the claim if the claim depends on at least one assumption that the foundation does not include. A foundation precludes the claim if it includes any assumption that is contrary to the claim.

          • What meaning did you intend when you made that statement?

            I mean to present you with two horns of a dilemma: (1) accept a metaphysic which permits rationality to shape your thoughts; (2) deny that 'rationality' is a real, ontological thing. Note that at the height of the Enlightenment, (2) would have seemed like an absolutely horrific option.

            I have not made, and would not make, that claim in so many words, but I'll accept it for the sake of discussion.

            I'd actually rather go with what your actual view is. I believe you stated a reductionist stance. Generally, my impression is that reductionism precludes any sort of 'downward causation'; an example of a reductionist eschewing downward causation would be Sean Carroll's Downward Causation. The result of such a view is that the only causation which can possibly happen would is the laws of nature operating on particles.

            I understand the difference between 'preclusive' and 'insufficient'; what I don't understand is how your own reductionist view is not preclusive and insufficient. Once you disallow rationality any causal power—even if your metaphysic could be adapted with minimal side effects to allow it—it precludes rationality. Whether or not it is preclusive or insufficient is rather irrelevant for my argument. Either suffices to produce what I claim is a rather large problem!

          • Doug Shaver

            I mean to present you with two horns of a dilemma: (1) accept a metaphysic which permits rationality to shape your thoughts; (2) deny that 'rationality' is a real, ontological thing. Note that at the height of the Enlightenment, (2) would have seemed like an absolutely horrific option.

            A true dilemma presents two options that are both mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive. If there is at least one other option, as there is in this case, it is not really a dilemma.

            Shaping is a kind of causation. I have already stated that in my worldview, rationality is a property of thoughts, not a cause of them. Properties are effects, not causes. If I sand a piece of wood in my workshop, it will become smooth. The cause of the smoothness was my use of sandpaper, but the smoothness itself didn’t cause anything. It was just a property that the wood acquired as a result of my actions.

            Rationality is an abstraction, and yes, I deny the ontological reality of abstractions. How other philosophers during the height of the Enlightenment would have reacted to this is of no concern to me.

            I'd actually rather go with what your actual view is. I believe you stated a reductionist stance. Generally, my impression is that reductionism precludes any sort of 'downward causation'; an example of a reductionist eschewing downward causation would be Sean Carroll's Downward Causation.

            My reservations over your characterization are more semantic than substantial. As a statement of my position, "the only kind of causation is the laws of nature" is a gross oversimplification even if I regard the statement as, very strictly speaking, true. It does not begin to convey the entirety of what I believe about causation.

            Carroll’s article makes two points about downward causation. One is that it is scientifically untenable. The other is just as important: It does not follow that it isn’t a useful model for explaining much of what we observe about the real world. And insofar as it is useful, we are not wrong when we talk about mental states causing physical actions, notwithstanding that mental states have no existence independent of neurochemical states.

            Once you disallow rationality any causal power—even if your metaphysic could be adapted with minimal side effects to allow it—it precludes rationality.

            I don’t see why. Your argument presupposes your metaphysics. Without your metaphysics, I can affirm rationality while, without contradiction, denying it any causal power.

          • How can you know about a property which cannot causally impact you? Smoothness can causally impact you. At best, you've swapped the way people talk about rationality:

            from:
                 (1) I chose it because it was rational.

            to:
                 (2) It's rational because I chose it.

            I don't think very many people would approve of that switcharoo.

          • Doug Shaver

            Smoothness can causally impact you.

            Can you be more specific? Exactly how does it do that?

          • That's an odd question; are you asking how sensation works? Perhaps Fingers can detect nano-scale wrinkles even on a seemingly smooth surface will help. But we can also note that if you were to hand the sanded wood to someone else and asked, "Does this feel smooth to you?", the other person could give you an intelligible answer.

          • Doug Shaver

            That's an odd question

            Characterize the question however you wish. I know how I would answer it. Shall I assume that you would answer it the same way?

          • No, given our differences on other matters, I'm not certain we would answer it the same way. I'm just not sure what kind of an answer you're looking for. Smoothness to me seems to be a kind of surface regularity which can be detected via sensing solidity without tactile irregularity. Smoothness is not a property of any given atom/​particle; it is a property of the relationship between atoms/​particles.

          • Doug Shaver

            I'm just not sure what kind of an answer you're looking for.

            Then let me illustrate with an example. I'll show you how I would answer the question if it were put to me.

            The question was: How does the smoothness of a piece of wood causally impact me?

            My answer: It doesn't. Smoothness is a concept, an abstraction, and so it has no existence independent of our minds. It is a label we attach to a sensation, the way certain boards feel when we rub them with our fingertips. The cause of that sensation is the absence of certain properties that are normally present on the surface of any piece of wood, properties that woodworkers can remove by planing or sanding.

          • Is roughness also only a concept, an abstraction? How about bumps?

          • Doug Shaver

            Bumps are real. Roughness is a concept that we apply to surfaces with lots of them.

          • How is "lots of bumps on a surface" any less real than a single bump?

          • Doug Shaver

            How is "lots of bumps on a surface" any less real than a single bump?

            It's not, and I'm not saying it is. I am distinguishing between the bumps and the sensation we get when we rub our hands on surfaces with a large number of them per unit area.

          • Ok, but is the sensation we get from feeling a single bump any more or less real than the sensation we get from feeling many bumps, or the lack of any bumps? You seem to somehow be privileging single bumps over many of them or a lack of bumps, and I have no idea how that makes any sense.

          • Doug Shaver

            The sensations are equally real, but so are their differences, which is why we don't call them the same thing. A dog is as real as a cat, but we have good reasons for calling them by different names. We cannot, from the latter observation, infer the real existence of abstract entities such as dogness or catness.

            You seem to somehow be privileging single bumps over many of them or a lack of bumps, and I have no idea how that makes any sense.

            I experience one sensation if I rub a board with no bumps, another sensation if I rub a board with one bump, and still another if I rub a board with bumps over its entire surface. I would describe the sensation differently in each case. The sensation of many bumps would tell me I needed to sand the board again, one bump would tell me I'd missed a spot, and no bumps would tell me I was done sanding and could move on with whatever I was going to do next.

    • It is not laws of nature that allow for distinctions of rational vs irrational thinking, but laws of logic and, we hope, these allow us to assess our beliefs rationally. Of course, we can only believe we are doing something "because it is rational". We may be mistaken or deluded and so on.

      • How do the laws of logic have causal power? That sounds like Cartesian dualism all over again.

        • I don't know about causal power, it is not a term I am familiar. My point is that when we think we consciously apply logic not the law of thermodynamics to distinguish rational from irrational thinking.

          • You are suggesting that the laws of logic have causal influence on your thoughts, are you not? That they can dominate the causal influence of the laws of nature?

          • No I am not saying that or that they dominate laws of nature.

          • How can you know if your thoughts obey the laws of logic if you cannot causally interact with the laws of logic?

          • I can reflect on my thoughts and identify contradictions. By reference to logic, which is based on self-attesting truths i can separate logical from non-logical thinking. I can identify fallacies and more logical thinking from less logical.

          • How can a truth be self-attesting if it has no causal power? You're asserting that your thoughts can be influenced by this thing which you simultaneously deny causal power. This is a flat contradiction, unless you want to deny that thinking supervenes on neurons.

          • Why is "causal power" required to be self-attesting? Self-attesting means they have to be true even if they are false. In other words, they simply cannot be false. I do not see how causation is applicable.

            I am not sure what you mean by causal "power", logic is part of the content of my thoughts as are my observations and memory of observations and past thoughts. My thoughts reflect and interact with all of these other concepts. So sure if that is the kind of cause you mean and by that you mean power, then logic, everything I contemplate has causal power on my thoughts. In that interaction and reflection it is the application of logic and critical thinking which allows me to distinguish rational from non-rational thinking. All of this is only occurs because there are patterns in nature, sure, but it is not these patterns of nature themselves which is applied when I reflect on my thoughts that allows for the distinction, it is the application of other abstract concepts: logic and critical thinking.

          • I do not see how causation is applicable.

            Do you know anything which did not cause you to know it? I find the notion of uncaused beliefs interesting. I also find it interesting when people call themselves the cause, when their metaphysics leave them being nothing more than a cue ball which is struck by a cue.

            I am not sure what you mean by causal "power", logic is part of the content of my thoughts as are my observations and memory of observations and past thoughts.

            What I mean is that any time-evolution of thought, if thought supervenes on neurons, must be caused to evolve—unless it is truly random. (Unless your metaphysic allows some alternative?) If the cause is not logic, then do some thoughts just happen to be logical? But then how would we have any confidence that they are logical? It'd be like saying that the stick I have is a meter long, but being unable to compare it to the standard NIST meter (nor being able to do the appropriate time-of-flight measurement of light).

            In contrast, if I talk about submitting my thoughts to the laws of logic, I might mean that I have the option to let myself be causally influenced by the laws of logic or to shield myself from their influence. Such speech only seems to make sense via a certain metaphysic, one which most naturalists and all physicalists deny me.

            So sure if that is the kind of cause you mean and by that you mean power, then logic, everything I contemplate has causal power on my thoughts.

            Suppose that the only causal power 'logic' has is reducible to the laws of nature operating. An immediate problem I see with this is that the laws of nature cause logical and illogical thoughts. How can the laws of nature distinguish between the two? And if the laws of nature cannot, then how can one distinguish?

          • "If the cause is not logic, then do some thoughts just happen to be logical? But then how would we have any confidence that they are logical?"

            We reflect on these thoughts with reference to logic. Most thoughts and virtually all decisions humans make are not logical. Logic is the conceptual version of the NIST meter in your analogy.

            "Suppose that the only causal power 'logic' has is reducible to the laws of nature operating."

            Don't understand what you mean by this.

            Lets take this back to your original comment

            "If the only causal influences on our minds are the laws of nature"

            I do not agree with this, the causal influences on our minds are the brain state it is in, and the change in that brain state from its own electro-chemical activity, which is influenced by the previous brain state and input from the nervous system (the senses).

            "then
            they lead to both rational and irrational brain-states."

            They lead to concepts that may be logical or may be fallacious yes.

            "Unless there is
            some special law of nature which tells us which states are more rational
            and which are less rational, what causal power are we referencing when
            we say we are doing something because it is rational?"

            We reference logic, (e.g. critical thinking, identify logical fallacies) NOT laws of nature, (e.g. the laws of thermodynamics).

            I do not see why this is so complicated.

          • We reflect on these thoughts with reference to logic. Most thoughts and virtually all decisions humans make are not logical. Logic is the conceptual version of the NIST meter in your analogy.

            I think I understand what you're trying to say, but I cannot match it up with a metaphysic which says that the mind supervenes on neurons—unless there is a way to causally interact with 'logic'. Plato didn't have this problem, but I presume that you reject his Forms. I don't know how the Forms would integrate with modern science, either. Barring the Forms, how is a concept anything other than some arrangement of neurons?

            Don't understand what you mean by this.

            It could be that there are multiple kinds of causation, with only one of them being the laws of nature. It could be that there is another which happens in thought, whereby I can choose whether to submit my thoughts to the laws of logic or flagrantly ignore them. I have no idea how one could support a multiplicity of kinds of causation on physicalism, though—as well as most forms of naturalism I encounter.

            I do not agree with this, the causal influences on our minds are the brain state it is in, and the change in that brain state from its own electro-chemical activity, which is influenced by the previous brain state and input from the nervous system (the senses).

            Is anything responsible for how all this state evolves in time, other than the laws of nature?

            I do not see why this is so complicated.

            I only see it as complicated when trying to work from physicalism and most forms of naturalism [I've encountered].

          • Yes, I think this might be the issue is the metaphysical disagreement. I make no distinction between mind and neurons and their activity.

            Indeed I do not see "the laws of nature" as having any ontological presence. These are abstract concepts as are platonic forms in my metaphysical view. They do not exist other than as ideas. Things that exist appear to follow identifiable patterns, we label some of these laws of nature. So don't really say that the laws are causing anything rather than the previous brain states cause the new ones and so on, and that this process conforms with patterns we have labeled as laws.
            What we experience as conscious is that activity. I don't know if I mentioned but I am a determinist, I do not think that this experience of consciousness causes anything, it is the effect.

          • So... do you think that external reality causes our percepts to match up with it? Do you think you believe anything because it is rational? Both of these seem to require something more than just "unbreakable patterns", to steal a phrase from Sean Carroll.

          • "So... do you think that external reality causes our percepts to match up with it?"

            Please explain what you mean by "external reality" and percepts. Do you mean: do I believe that the mental concepts I hold that I attribute to sensory input match the actual world I conceive of, yes, much of the time, in some ways.

            "Do you think you believe anything because it is rational?"

            No. Not solely.

          • Please explain what you mean by "external reality" and percepts. Do you mean: do I believe that the mental concepts I hold that I attribute to sensory input match the actual world I conceive of, yes, much of the time, in some ways.

            By "external reality", I mean a reality which exists independent of you, independent of your conceptualization of it.

            By "percepts", I mean the reports of your senses to your consciousness.

            Did you intentionally avoid mentioning causation when talking about said "match"?

            No. Not solely.

            Why would it be important for you to believe something solely because it is rational? By the way, I generally understand 'logical' to merely reference the a priori, while 'rational' means logical as well as empirically adequate—it brings in the a posteriori. Perhaps you understand 'rational' differently?

          • I am not aware of any "reality" that exists independent of me. As far as I know there is one reality and everything is connected and part of it. So I am not sure how to answer your question. I expect the issue is about the word "reality" rather than external.

            I can say I believe that that are not my brain interact with my body, my neural system and brain, and this affects my thinking.

            It is not important for me to believe something solely because it is rational, I just wanted to be clear in my answer.

            I am not familiar with those latin terms I am afraid, or why you are asking. II am comfortable with this definition of logic from Wikipedia; "the systematic study of the form of arguments", and rationality as being thinking which aligns to strong, valid arguments, or even more broadly, conclusions that are based on arguments rather than feeling or intuition.

          • I am not aware of any "reality" that exists independent of me. As far as I know there is one reality and everything is connected and part of it.

            I'm afraid this conversation is getting surreal for me. I'm not even sure what you mean by the terms 'independent' and 'connected', given statements such as "Indeed I do not see "the laws of nature" as having any ontological presence." I guess you don't mean causally connected or causally independent?

            Most skeptics I talk to are happy about discussing external reality causing their percepts, but you aren't. In fact, I think you're the first person skeptic I've talked to who has quibbled about "external reality" in the context I used it. What I haven't figured out is whether you're being more or less reasonable than they.

            I am not familiar with those latin terms I am afraid, or why you are asking.

            I was attempting to distinguish 'rationality' from 'logic'. You can consult Encyclopedia Britannica § A priori knowledge if you'd like. But we can shift back from 'rationality' to the simpler 'logic'. As far as I can tell, logic cannot have causal power in your thoughts, and therefore logic is either unknowable to you or incommunicable to others. At least, this is based on my best understanding of your metaphysic. I suspect that you actually do act as if logic has causal power. I suspect that you believe things not because you called them 'rational', but because they are rational (but not solely so).

          • "Most skeptics I talk to are happy about discussing external reality causing their percepts, but you aren't."

            I am happy to have these discussions, but it is important for me to know how you are using these terms. You've invoked this term of "reality". I am honestly not clear if you mean simply external to my body or some immaterial plane of existence. The term "reality" can mean a great deal of things.

            "I suspect that you believe things not because you called them 'rational', but because they are rational (but not solely so)."

            OK, do you have any other questions?

          • I am honestly not clear if you mean simply external to my body or some immaterial plane of existence.

            How would an immaterial plane of existence "causes our percepts to match up with it"? I'm referencing the standard claim by skeptics that "my senses are sufficiently reliable". Reliable at doing what? At matching on the inside what is on the outside.

            OK, do you have any other questions?

            Was I correct? Is part of why you believe things about reality because they have the property of being rational, regardless of what other properties they may have?

          • Okay, yes I beleive my senses are often reliable. They are not sufficiently reliable for many things but for many others I believe they are. Yes, I believe the information they provide more or less tracks onto reality, but there are many caveats to this (e.g. my senses suggest to me that a block of wood is solid, whereas I am much more confident that this is false, the block is mostly space. I know my eyes send and image that my brian flips, that my brain flips on its own, and so on.)

            Well no, I don't think for most things the concept of rational applies. I think rational applies to thoughts, most things do not have thoughts. Most human thought is rational, but often fallacious. Computers operate entirely rationally, I would consider them minds of a kind.

          • Okay, yes I beleive my senses are often reliable. [...] Yes, I believe the information they provide more or less tracks onto reality [...]

            Ok, but why do they track reality? Can you answer this question without making any reference to causation, implicit or explicit?

            I think rational applies to thoughts, most things do not have thoughts.

            But how does rationality apply to thoughts? You don't seem to want to think it is a causal force which shapes thoughts in any way. But how can you know about something if it doesn't causally impinge upon you?

          • They are my only source of information about reality, what reality is, for me is what I get frm my senses as interpreted in my brain, I believe this because there really isn't any other option. I can beleive they are perfectly accurate, somewhat accurate or inaccurate, they are not very consistent so I do not be lev they are perfectly accurate, so I am left with somewhat accurate or solipsism. As solipsism is paralyzing, I am left with somewhat accurate.

            I apply rationality to my thoughts through reflection. I think about my thinking. I really cannot say any more than that. Do I think that there is my consciousness, then there is this thing called rationality that causes my thoughts to behave in a certain way, and this happens in something else that is my brain, no I think is is all one thing.

          • Darren

            Brian Green Adams wrote,

            As solipsism is paralyzing, I am left with somewhat accurate.

            Not so much paralyzing as irrelevant. Per the falsifiability discussion, solipsism is completely self-consistent (thus providing Phil's non-empirical truth value), it elegantly solves many difficulties (POE? What POE? None of those people exist, so they only appear to be suffering; divine hiddenness? You are only hiding from yourself, my boy, and you almost certainly have a good reason), and it is completely non-falsifiable.

            It just doesn't matter; it is the ultimate "the universe would look exactly the same if it were true as if it were false" proposition. I think of it as a divide by 1.

          • it is paralyzing if you were to say "before acting I need to be able to confirm the universe exists and that I am not in the matrix"

            You can never get any evidence that would support you not being in a simulation, or a dream that feels real and so on. So if you need that you will never be able to act.

            We all need to at some point act as if at least some of what we observe is real.

          • They are my only source of information about reality [...]

            A distinct possibility is that you are forced to accept that causation really does happen at the deepest levels, on pain of you not being able to know about reality.

            I apply rationality to my thoughts through reflection. I think about my thinking. I really cannot say any more than that.

            Then your metaphysic, which denies that rationality can be a causal power which does not supervene on the laws of nature, is wrong.

            Do I think that there is my consciousness, then there is this thing called rationality that causes my thoughts to behave in a certain way, and this happens in something else that is my brain, no I think is is all one thing.

            Given that you are not always rational, whatever 'rationality' is only acts some of the time. If your metaphysic cannot account for it acting only some of the time, and/or cannot account for how you know when it is acting and when it is not, then your metaphysic needs fixing or you need to give up claiming you can know when you are being rational. Or I suppose you can just have a flatly inconsistent belief system. But it's lame to use your metaphysic to undermine other's beliefs when it undermines your own, as well.

          • To be clear, I trust my senses, with caveats because there is no other source of information available to me. I accept causation (very generally) because I cannot answer the problem of induction.

            Okay, we clearly have reached different conclusions on metaphysics. You are welcome to try and disprove it, generally I would say I am a materialist and a naturalismist, or justify some other metaphysical outlook as more justified.

            Actually my position is not that my brain acts sometimes rationally and sometimes not. Not is that a metaphysical position. My position is that my brain does both, all the time. This is well-supported by psychology and neurology. We have different areas of the brain that are associated with different kinds of thinking, broadly speaking system one and two. Some are associated with very emotional instinctive thinking, other areas are associated with reasoning and logic. These areas, I understand, are active in different ways on different occasions. What I believe happens is that certain sensations trigger passionate, emotional responses that are very powerful intentions. E.g. I am hungry and I see a big chocolate sundae. I immediately want it. But my rational brain speaks up too and provides an argument for or against this intention and so on.

            That we can train our brains to learn logic and scrutinize our urges intentions conclusions and so on, you might say is a causal factor. But none of this is inconsistent with materialism or naturalism, and it accounts for both rational and irrational thoughts and decisions. Ultimately it seems all decisions are made from an irrational or emotional basis. The trick is to try and train our brains to feel better about choices that are most rational. Some people cannot do this, they lose the ability to feel emotions at all and are virtually incapable of making any choices.

          • To be clear, I trust my senses, with caveats because there is no other source of information available to me. I accept causation (very generally) because I cannot answer the problem of induction.

            Sure, I fully respect this reasoning. This is actually how I have seen A–T philosophy motivated: it is presented as a necessary basis for humans to think rationally about reality. Roy Bhaskar talks about what is necessary for science to be possible in The Possibility of Naturalism, and I think that is a very interesting approach. It's utterly opposed to empiricism, but I think that any attempt to prefer the a posteriori over the a priori—or vice versa—will run into problems.

            But let's not half-ass this portion of how we think about reality. Let's not work on a slipshod foundation. Or if we insist on do this, let's not attempt to use that foundation to undermine others' beliefs.

            You are welcome to try and disprove it, generally I would say I am a materialist and a naturalismist, or justify some other metaphysical outlook as more justified.

            At this point in time, I still think that Randal Rauser's criticism is a good one: with the goalposts constantly shifting, just what is it that the naturalist is asserting? My own suspicion is that causal monism is the 'essence' which best characterizes most naturalism. But it's precisely causal monism, or 'monocausation', which I claim renders 'rationality' impossible and/or unknowable.

            Actually my position is not that my brain acts sometimes rationally and sometimes not. Not is that a metaphysical position. My position is that my brain does both, all the time.

            This is irrelevant; whether you assert your ability to distinguish in time, in space, or conceptually, the problem I assert exists remains. To say that you know X is active in region R, I say you must mean that there is a causal power P which is making X the case. Otherwise, you are claiming to be able to know things without them causally impinging on you, which seems like nonsense.

            Ultimately it seems all decisions are made from an irrational or emotional basis.

            That's very Humean of you; can you tell me how this position could be shown to be in error? I see your reference to Descartes' Error, but I don't see how Damasio's argument actually goes where you indicate. The idea that 'emotional' ⇒ ¬'rational' can be understood as Enlightenment dogma which Damasio's data undermine.

          • What I as a naturalsimist say is that there is just the natural world, and that proponents of anything non-natural, or supernatural have not defined what this means or provided sufficient reason for its existence to accept that there is anything supernatural. This is in contrast to points of view that there is a nature that acts according to an order and some non-natural element that acts irrespective of the natural order but can and does affect natural things. I believe such conclusions are based on arguments from ignorance and are otherwise unwarranted.

            Not sure what you mean by causal monism, if you mean that every even has one cause, I do not agree with that. I believe there can and usually are multiple causes, but I am unaware of anything I would call a super, or non-natural cause.

            Additionally, there are many, many occasions where supernatural causation was widely believed, but was later shown to be explained by natural forces and events, whereas there has never been a case where supernatural or non-natural causation has been confirmed.

            I don't think I ever said that when regions of the brain are active they are not causing events and other thoughts and so on. Brain activity certainly causes things. But brain activity that is consistent with natural laws or rationality, is brain activity, it is not rationality itself.

            "Ultimately it seems all decisions are made from an irrational or emotional basis.That's very Humean of you; can you tell me how this position could be shown to be in error?"

            Sure, if we found that people with no emotional capability found decision-making easier and were less likely to be fallacious, we might accept that emotions play virtually no role in choice. But we find just the opposite. Or if we found that when we look at all the factors and arguments one way or the other, that we decided on that basis, but what we find is that people when they get to that point, get a gut feeling one way or the other and go with that.

            Also, please note that I do not follow your links, I am interested in a discussion with you and your thoughts.

          • What I as a naturalsimist say is that there is just the natural world, and that proponents of anything non-natural, or supernatural have not defined what this means or provided sufficient reason for its existence to accept that there is anything supernatural.

            Well, you have my argument that 'rationality' is either non-natural, non-existant, or un-knowable. Only if some ontological power separates between the rational and the irrational is there a knowable difference between them. The laws of nature cannot be that power, because they operate equally to produce rationality and irrationality.

            Not sure what you mean by causal monism, if you mean that every even has one cause, I do not agree with that. I believe there can and usually are multiple causes, but I am unaware of anything I would call a super, or non-natural cause.

            Causal monism means that only one kind of causation happens—like the laws of nature. To contrast, rationality could be another kind of causation; you can see this in my excerpt of Gregory W. Dawes' Theism and Explanation. We also find two very different kinds of causation in Martin Hollis' Models of Man. One can see a battle between mono-causation and alternatives in the debate in the social sciences about whether all human behavior is 'socially constructed', whether all society is merely the sum of the actions of 'autonomous individuals', or whether these aren't the only options. I'm pretty sure one needs something other than causal monism if one wants to establish an ontological distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations. (Otherwise, all relations are manipulative—we can only force ourselves on each other.)

            Additionally, there are many, many occasions where supernatural causation was widely believed, but was later shown to be explained by natural forces and events, whereas there has never been a case where supernatural or non-natural causation has been confirmed.

            How can you possibly confirm non-natural causation, using science? That seems to be a metaphysical impossibility.

            Sure, if we found that people with no emotional capability found decision-making easier and were less likely to be fallacious, we might accept that emotions play virtually no role in choice.

            Ok, but what about emotions and logic playing equal roles? What if they're not necessarily set against each other? You seem to have excluded this possibility. Note here that 'logic' and 'rationality' are different things; to be more precise, what Damasio and others have found is that those with brain lesions which prevent conscious acknowledgment of emotions tend to be very bad at 'practical reason'—the setting and achieving of goals which take some effort to obtain.

            Also, please note that I do not follow your links, I am interested in a discussion with you and your thoughts.

            Most of them are books, links to previous comments where the quoted text is located, or opportunities to more deeply investigate some issue of the reader is interested. I intend to actually make progress in discussions like this, so I attempt to tie discussions in with relevant material here and there.

          • "How can you possibly confirm non-natural causation, using science? That seems to be a metaphysical impossibility."

            I did not say by science, but I do not see how you can confirm it by any method, or why it would be reasonable to believe anything non-natural exists.

            "Ok, but what about emotions and logic playing equal roles?"

            What about it?

            "What if they're not necessarily set against each other?"

            Sure, I don't know? does anyone? I am just telling you what I have encountered.

          • I did not say by science, but I do not see how you can confirm it by any method, or why it would be reasonable to believe anything non-natural exists.

            Then on naturalism, you would appear to have no idea what you're actually denying, because you cannot adequately construct the thing you deny exists. Naturalism becomes unfalsifiable.

            What about it?

            Emotions and logic playing equal roles is an example of how you could be wrong to say "Ultimately it seems all decisions are made from an irrational or emotional basis." But I can see how the 'equal roles' approach might run afoul of your metaphysic's denial of the knowability of rationality.

            Sure, I don't know? does anyone? I am just telling you what I have encountered.

            It's not clear whether this is an empirical or metaphysical question. It seems to me that cooperation of emotion and logic might only be possible if reality has the right properties, and it's not clear that these properties would probabilistically obtain. (Assuming our reality is 'randomly generated', e.g. by a multiverse.) Now if it were designed, that could give us more reason to think that it does have those properties, and then one could justifiably act on those beliefs and reap the benefits from long, sustained action according to those beliefs.

          • I agree, I have no idea what the supernatural would be or why I anyone would believe it exists. This is precisely why I cannot believe in it. I do not think I bear any burden to disprove some undefined placeholder label for the ignorance of others. Naturalism may indeed be unfalsifiable. But it is not really a claim, so much as a rejection of supernaturalism. It's more of a perspective, a way of seeing things.

            I don't say emotion and reason play equal roles. Think reason plays very little of a role. I also do not think they cooperate. They really appear to be at odds much of the time.

          • Let me try to combine these two statements:

            I agree, I have no idea what the supernatural would be or why I anyone would believe it exists.

            [Naturalism] is not really a claim, so much as a rejection of supernaturalism.

            "Naturalism is the rejection of X, where I have no idea what X would be." That seems like a rather odd statement.

            I don't say emotion and reason play equal roles.

            Correct; I'm the one who said that this is another way for you to have been wrong when you said "Ultimately it seems all decisions are made from an irrational or emotional basis." One reason for you to overlook this would be if you believe that emotion and logic are somehow necessarily opposed to each other. This matter is relevant when it comes to discussing rationality, because the evidence indicates that emotion is somehow important for humans to successfully engage in practical reason.

            I also do not think they cooperate.

            I don't understand how you can say this as well as the following:

            BGA: Ultimately it seems all decisions are made from an irrational or emotional basis. The trick is to try and train our brains to feel better about choices that are most rational. Some people cannot do this, they lose the ability to feel emotions at all and are virtually incapable of making any choices.

            That is, if I lose the ability to consciously access emotions, I become worse at practical reason. It would seem that emotions can aid in practical reasoning, and that this indicates emotions can help in the sustained use of rationality. (Recall that the brain lesion patients Damasio studied were perfectly capable at passing standard logic and reasoning tests.)

            To try and bring this back to the main topic, I don't really understand how you can be rational if it is the case that "Ultimately it seems all decisions are made from an irrational or emotional basis." If the foundation is utterly devoid of rationality, how can anything built on top be trusted? It really seems like 'rationality' doesn't exist at any ontological level, for you. It is more of an epiphenomenon devoid of causal power, a label we attach to certain states of affairs. It's almost like 'rationality' is merely a code-word to voice approval for certain ways of thinking. Rationality would then reduce to emotivism.

            And yet, 'rationality' isn't actually treated in an emotivist fashion in most places I see it used online in discussions like these. It really is treated as something with causal power. As a theist, I have been regularly abdjured to freely choose to submit myself to the causal power that is Rationality or Reason, so that I can obey its canons and both enjoy a better life myself, as well as ensure a better life for the rest of humanity. Reason is supposed to operate the same inside you and me; indeed, it is supposed to unify us where religion failed. Or so is the tale told by many in the Enlightenment, a tale which still seems to animate much discussion of Reason and Rationality.

          • The reason I say that all choices seem to be made from an emotional not rational is because it is my understanding of what science has show. I get this from three sources I can recall: a Radiolab podcast called "choice" a documentary by Oliver Sachs and a comment on another podcast. Also from books like the Believing Brain, by Michael Shermer, and some comments by George Lakoff on framing.

            What I have learned is that the number and extent of cognitive biases we have are quite surprising. Julia Gelef often speaks of how its pretty commonly understood that we do not act terribly rationally. When people are confronted with actual proof that their position is wrong overwhelmingly people cannot see the proof and double down on their beliefs. This is where Lakoff's framing seems to come in.

            Indeed, as the foundation of our decision making, or maybe better said the arbiter of choice is emotion, and we seem to be plagued with cognitive biases that undermine and make rational thinking difficult, we need to adopt methods and processes to try and exclude these biases.

            This is what science tries to do and it is only somewhat successful. Even our assessment of whether these methods are successful are subject to these same problems. It is this very difficult and perhaps impossible to overcome completely.

            But we do seem to have methods that are helpful. Things like double blinding experiments to reduce confirmation bias, peer review, publishing all trials, repeatability. These are all methods, I think you can agree, are helpful and designed at reducing conscious or unconscious bias I our thinking.

            We can try to do this individually too, steel manning opposing arguments. Complimenting and celebrating changing our minds when we are shown to be wrong.

            But you are right, the fact that so few of our decisions seem to be based on rational thinking makes it very difficult to have high levels of confidence.

          • So while "all choices seem to be made from an emotional not rational", science will rescue us from the problems thereof? Or will it merely help us satisfy our emotions more thoroughly than ever before? Truth seems to get sacrificed in your scheme—all except for instrumental truth. Indeed, if the very assertion that "all choices seem to be made from an emotional not rational" is ultimately rooted in the emotion and not the rational, then perhaps you merely say it to satisfy your emotions.

            Now, don't mistake me: I realize what you're saying about cognitive biases. But these cannot be objective truth-claims if it is the case that "all choices seem to be made from an emotional not rational". Once you take that position, you're cooked. To repeat what I said in my previous comment: "If the foundation is utterly devoid of rationality, how can anything built on top be trusted?"

  • The quotation from Spinoza is interesting. It lucidly captures the pre-modern idea of nature as "the necessary and immutable course" of the world. But obviously that assumption of causal determinism is long gone, slain a century ago by the progress of science.

    The article utterly fails to engage with that old idea, instead redefining natural laws in a way that leaves them with zero verifiable content or theoretical usefulness.

    It's not at all clear what point the article could serve for a skeptic with a scientific background from this or last century.

    If the real audience is the already-religious, however, the article's corruption of their scientific education would serve a purpose: Since the redefined "laws of nature" can't rule anything in or out, the religious leaders can continue to spin a web of just-so stories without concern for getting caught in it.

    We often criticize the (neo?-)Scholastic philosophizing common here on the grounds that it is demonstrably wrong in many ways: logical fallacies, factual errors, scientific illiteracy, rhetorical fallacies, spiteful verbiage, etc. The errors go uncorrected, as if the authors thought them immaterial. My paragraphs above point at the frustration in the non-responsiveness: by all appearances based on how it gets used, the purpose of Scholastic philosophy is that it allows its wielders to arbitrarily reject any and all standards of an argument's validity except whether the argument reaches a conclusion they like.

  • I don't see either Spinoza or Hume saying miracles are incompatible with science in those quotes (though they may have thought that). Rather, they're arguing against miracles. That isn't the same thing. It also doesn't seem much different to say that God "suspends" the laws of nature than "violates" them. Mostly it seems like just semantics to me. For my part, I don't like the term "laws of nature" since it's only descriptive, not prescriptive. Although assuming they were divinely dictated, the term might make more sense. I prefer "natural properties" myself. The gravity analogy however, does not hold. Gravity is not suspended by you catching an object before it hits the ground. It could suspended or violated (so far as we know) if people could levitate. However, this language of "suspending" and violating all comes from the laws terminology that I reject. I think if someone like that were to happen, talk of this either "suspending" or "violating" natural laws would be simply nonsense. For me, it would just indicate that our description is incomplete, for whatever reasons.

  • Lazarus

    A theologian that I have a lot of respect for, Craig Keener, makes the following interesting comment :

    "I believe that antisupernaturalism has reigned as an inflexible Western academic premise long enough and that significant evidence now exists to challenge it."

    He then sets out to establish that thesis in over 1200 pages in his magnificent "Miracles : the credibility of the New Testament accounts".

    Would those arguing against miracles here admit to an antisupernaturalist bias?

    • Darren

      Would those arguing against miracles here admit to an antisupernaturalist bias?

      No; supernatural claims are welcome to submit themselves for evaluation under the same criteria as any other claims.

      I will admit that I do not privilege supernatural claims with a reduced standard. Some theists claim this is bias. I disagree.

    • Doug Shaver

      Would those arguing against miracles here admit to an antisupernaturalist bias?

      That depends on how you define "bias." I've taken two courses in statistics beyond the introductory level, and in one of them, the professor defined "bias" as "any source of error." Would that definition work for you?

      • Lazarus

        The "any" seems a bit wide. But let's see how far we can work with it.

        • Doug Shaver

          The "any" seems a bit wide. But let's see how far we can work with it.

          It seems to me that, whatever it is that we're calling bias, if it does not lead to any actual error, then it isn't a problem no matter what we call it. Of course, certain attitudes or other states of mind could put me at increased risk of error. Whether we call those attitudes biases or potential biases is liable to depend on whether we assume that I've actually made a mistake.

          When I am told that a miracle has happened, I do bring certain presuppositions to my examination of whatever evidence is offered. But so do Christians. So do we all. Nobody can avoid having presuppositions, and nobody can credibly pretend to having none. The best we can do is maintain a willingness to revise or abandon any presupposition when we are confronted with sufficient evidence to justify such revision or abandonment.

          You refer to "arguing against miracles," and I'm not sure what that's supposed to mean. If it means "arguing for the impossibility of miracles," I have never done that. I do have a suspicion, a mere opinion, about the possibility of miracles, but the only position I have attempted to defend is even if they are possible, I don't have sufficient reason to believe that any miracle actually has happened. And so the only claim I am arguing against is the claim that my skepticism is unreasonable, that I am failing to give due credence to the evidence with which I have been confronted.

          Now, as a naturalist, I must admit to presupposing that miracles don't happen, but to call this a bias without further comment is to assume the conclusion that naturalism is itself an error. My mistake, if I am making a mistake, is in concluding that every report of a miracle that I have so far encountered is more likely due to human error of one kind of another than the existence of some supernatural force capable of effecting a suspension or violation of natural law.

          And we're not talking about human error of any improbable kind, either. We're talking about mistakes that human beings have habitually made in all places and at all times, and are still making. They are part of the human condition. It is in our nature to make them. The scientific enterprise has evolved a few methodologies intended to compensate for these errors. The compensation never works perfectly because the methods have to be implemented by human beings who are themselves subject to those very errors. But of all methods of inquiry ever invented by human beings, science alone at least tries to minimize the cognitive effects of our fallibility, and one way it does that is to deny infallibility to any person regardless of their authority or of any respect they may have justly earned.

          And so yes, if I am presented with the testimony of someone who claims to have witnessed a miracle, then I will almost certainly conclude that that witness was mistaken in some way about whatever it was they saw. Unless, that is, I am also confronted with compelling evidence that this particular witness, on this particular occasion, could not have made any such mistake. You may call this a bias if you wish, and I won't bother arguing the point except to point this out: Unless you have some evidence independent of the witness's testimony that the miracle really happened, you are begging the question.

          • Lazarus

            I'm comfortable with that. We are all biased (in that sense of the word).

            I would suggest however that there is evidence for miracles, it's just not perceived as convincing by some. That's one place where those biases should be carefully monitored.

          • Doug Shaver

            I define evidence for any proposition, loosely, as any fact that provides some reason to believe the proposition. (For a strict definition I would use Bayes Theorem.) It is a fact that some people have testified to having witnessed miracles, and that fact does provide some reason to believe that those miracles did occur.

            As you note, I and other skeptics don't find that evidence convincing. The real point of debate between us and believers may be the issue of which side, if either, is monitoring its biases with sufficient care.

            [Added in edit] And I would suggest, by the way, that Bayes Theorem provides just the kind of monitoring that we're talking about, if properly used.

          • Phil

            Hey Doug--I read through the last few of your comments in this thread and I do find interesting the whole interplay between naturalism and miracles.

            Let's assume that you weren't mistaken; if you personally experienced something happen that was not in keeping with how we understand nature to function, would you first believe that there was either a hidden variable present or that the "laws of nature" are not actually as consistent as we though they were? Barring those two options, would you then begin consider that you possibly witnessed something with supernatural origins?

          • Doug Shaver

            That's a variant of the apologists' exasperated "Well, then, what would convince you?" I have struggled with it as sincerely as I know how, and the best answer I can give is that I just don't know. I can only offer the following observations for whatever they're worth.

            would you first believe that there was either a hidden variable present or that the "laws of nature" are not actually as consistent as we though they were?

            That's the sticking point. I cannot justify claiming such a thorough knowledge of nature's laws and their variables as to rationally conclude, "There is no possible way that that could have happened naturally." The current expertise of the world's entire scientific community could not do that.

            But we might be justified in saying, "As far as we know at this point in human history, there is no possible way that that could have happened naturally." So then what? Well, as anyone familiar with Kuhn knows, it wouldn't be the first time scientists have been confronted with data that contradicted a scientific consensus, so that's a mighty weak thread on which to hang an argument for supernaturalism. The current unavailability of a natural explanation does not entail the impossibility of a natural explanation.

            But I must admit that at some point, depending on the particulars of such a currently unexplainable phenomenon, such a response would start to look like a question-begging copout. When I say I don't know what would convince me, I'm saying that I cannot specify the particulars that would force me to agree that we had reached that point.

            That is not to say that I cannot imagine anything that would convince if I witnessed it, but they are events of a kind that has never been credibly reported by advocates of any religion. To put it another way: There are X's for which I would say, "If I saw X, then I would believe," but then apologists typically reply, "Well, then, forget it. You'll never see X, that's for sure." And why not? Because, apparently, God has a policy of never doing miracles of type X. Not that he can't, of course. He just won't.

            And so the question becomes: Of the kinds of miracles that are consistent with this divine policy, what would it take to convince me that one had occurred? And that is the question to which I don't have a good answer.

          • Phil

            I think that's a good, fair answer. I have to agree that I don't think arguing from miracles creates the best argument for God. One reason being that a person has to believe that miracles are even possible in the first place! But more so because by the time you lay the groundwork needed to argue to God from miracles you already have the groundwork for at least 3 other even more solid arguments for God's existence; e.g., Aquinas' 1st, 2nd, and 5th way).

            That is not to say that I cannot imagine anything that would convince if I witnessed it, but they are events of a kind that has never been credibly reported by advocates of any religion.

            I have to agree that, for most people, miracles have to be experienced first hand to have power. But I do have to say that one of the most fascinating which is very hard to write off is the one brought about through our Lady of Fatima in 1917.

            Several of the things that need to be dealt with:

            -It was announced beforehand, and this allowed Christians, atheists, agnostics, and journalists to all show up
            -This means that these things below are well-documented and corroborated by many reporters, a handful of which were not believers.
            -Over 70,000 witnessed it and group hallucinations where the hallucination is nearly the same for everyone has not much merit in the scientific community
            -These people were able to stare at the sun for minutes without any stress on their eyes. It wasn't that they looked at the sun, it began to hurt there eyes like it should, and because of that the "sun danced".
            -While some may attempt to write-off the dancing of the sun, it is much harder to explain how everyone's clothes were suddenly dry after this phenomenon. They had been soaked from a downpour that entire morning.

            While I don't think any of this will necessarily convince someone, it is very hard to deny that something quite phenomenal and unique happened.

            [As a side note--the scientific research done on the Tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe is pretty interesting as well. I would love to have an agnostic take a look at it again with 21st century technology. Last time it was looked at was the late 1980's, if I recall correctly, which, nonetheless, did have good technology at hand for the task.]

            --------
            I actually have an older friend who experienced something very similar to this at Medjugorje several years ago. He is a "seasoned" intellectual and he will not admit to something apart from good evidence. Him and his entire group of 10 went to Medjugorje simply to pray and were utterly dumbfounded when they experienced over 5 minutes where they were able to look at the sun as it became a pale disk, similar to Fatima. But while they all experienced this, several experienced things within the disk that where slightly different. E.g., one experienced the sun disk surrounded by several radiant colors and in the middle there was a clear outline of the Holy Family. For several there also was a large dot that would start to spin around the outside of the sun, similar to Fatima but not quite as brilliant. Another saw something similar in the center, except not the Holy Family (I cannot recall what it was at this moment.) But all ten of them experienced this sun that was a white disk. Absolutely fascinating.

            And then after those few minutes they where no longer able to look at the sun as it was no longer that white disk.

            So, simply more of an interesting story that I wanted to share!

          • Doug Shaver

            -Over 70,000 witnessed it and group hallucinations where the hallucination is nearly the same for everyone has not much merit in the scientific community
            -These people were able to stare at the sun for minutes without any stress on their eyes. It wasn't that they looked at the sun, it began to hurt there eyes like it should, and because of that the "sun danced".
            -While some may attempt to write-off the dancing of the sun, it is much harder to explain how everyone's clothes were suddenly dry after this phenomenon. They had been soaked from a downpour that entire morning.

            While I don't think any of this will convince someone unless they were present, it is very hard to deny that something quite phenomenal and unique happened.

            I can stipulate the last without admitting that anything supernatural happened.

            You can correct me if I'm in error, but I'm very sure that we do not have the actual testimony of every one of those 70,000 people. What we have, do we not, is the testimony of a selected few, each of whom said, "This is what happened to all of us"?

          • Phil

            There really isn't much debate about the evidence from Fatima. Something quite unique happened and it was well-documented by the accounts of many present, especially by the reporters (you can track down the news articles by both believers and those who were skeptics beforehand). Now, many will write it off as something weird that happened which is unexplainable, and that's okay.

            The accounts from the reporters showed that the general phenomenon was common among the people they talked to. Again, this doesn't mean that people will not experience slight subjective variations, but the underlying phenomena was consistent. "Group hallucination" is not a reasonable explanation.

            The greater evidence beyond the experience of the sun was most probably the dried clothes of everyone present. That is even less subjective than a "dancing sun".

            But again, I don't put this forward as a proof, merely as one of the greatest examples where the evidence leads us to reasonably conclude that something unique did in fact happen.

          • Doug Shaver

            But again, I don't put this forward as a proof, merely as one of the greatest examples where the evidence should lead us to conclude that something unique did in fact happen.

            The only evidence we have left is the testimony recorded after the event, whatever that event actually was. One way to account for that evidence is to assume that whatever every witness said he saw actually happened. Just knowing what we know about the reliability of human testimony, even eyewitness testimony, I don't think that assumption is justified. And without that assumption, the case for a miracle gets pretty iffy for anyone not antecedently convinced that miracles happen.

          • Lazarus

            And what role does the antecedent conviction that miracles do not happen play?

            How would you explain the reason(s) for the start of Christianity ?

          • Doug Shaver

            And what role does the antecedent conviction that miracles do not happen play?

            It makes it hard for apologists to convince us we're wrong. And that is a problem for us, if we are wrong.

            How would you explain the reason(s) for the start of Christianity ?

            The only short answer I can give is that Christianity got started for the same reasons every other new religion got started. There was dissatisfaction with the existing religions, and some innovative thinkers proposed some modifications that certain of their contemporaries found credible.

          • Lazarus

            "Innovative thinkers".
            I understand being "innovative" if you are Benny Hinn, but Paul? Any of the other disciples and martyrs? "Innovative"?

            Have a look at some of N. T. Wright's work and see how hugely counter-intuitive, offensive and "scandalous" the message of the first few Christians were.

            If they wanted to be innovative this was not the way to go.

          • Doug Shaver

            I understand being "innovative" if you are Benny Hinn

            I've never thought of Benny Hinn as being innovative. His teachings, as far as I can tell, are just warmed-over Pentecostalism.

          • Doug Shaver

            Have a look at some of N. T. Wright's work and see how hugely counter-intuitive, offensive and "scandalous" the message of the first few Christians were.

            I've read a little bit of Wright's work. It is apparent that, like other orthodox apologists, he assumes that Eusebius's account of Christianity's origins was generally accurate. I don't make that assumption.

          • ClayJames

            One way to account for that evidence is to assume that whatever every witness said he saw actually happened. Just knowing what we know about the reliability of human testimony, even eyewitness testimony, I don't think that assumption is justified.

            What about the reliability of human eyewitness testimony would make it unjustified to believe that what several independent eyewitnesses said to have seen actually happened? I would agree with you if we were basing this on one person´s testimony but it would seem to be that it is completely warranted to believe the testimony of several independent sources.

          • Doug Shaver

            but it would seem to be that it is completely warranted to believe the testimony of several independent sources.

            My point was that the sources are not independent. In an emotional crowd, they can't be. Human nature doesn't allow it.

          • ClayJames

            Do you use the same standard when dismissing every other event with multiple eyewitnesses who were in close proximity to one another? It seems that you must reject eyewitness acounts all together since people must be in the close proximity to one another (and for many events also emotional) for them to be witnessing the same thing. I have never heard of such a strict standard for eyewitness testimony.

          • Doug Shaver

            Do you use the same standard when dismissing every other event with multiple eyewitnesses who were in close proximity to one another?

            If the event is relevantly similar in other respects, yes. As a criterion of credibility, the number of witnesses by itself doesn't tell me much.

            It seems that you must reject eyewitness acounts all together since people must be in the close proximity to one another (and for many events also emotional) for them to be witnessing the same thing.

            What you characterize as rejection, I would characterize as a mere refusal to presuppose reliability. A rational evaluation of any evidence has to give due consideration to the antecedent probability of whatever the evidence is alleged to prove.

            I have never heard of such a strict standard for eyewitness testimony.

            The notion that eyewitnesses should be presumed reliable until conclusively impeached is intuitively appealing to most people, and it is not obviously wrong.

          • ClayJames

            If the event is relevantly similar in other respects, yes.

            By relevantly similar you mean supernatural, right? Because there are events that are historically accepted that are based purely on similar eyewitness testimony.

          • Doug Shaver

            By relevantly similar you mean supernatural, right?

            No. I mean antecedently improbable, which in my judgment describes lots of events that would be entirely natural if they had actually occurred.

          • Doug Shaver

            Because there are events that are historically accepted that are based purely on similar eyewitness testimony.

            If you're trying to accuse me of either inconsistency or special pleading, you're welcome to offer up a specific example of some event that is both similarly attested and whose actual occurrence is accepted by a consensus of professional historians, and we can then compare our judgments as to its antecedent probability.

          • Phil

            If interested, here is a good short discussion where some responses are given to some of the challenges that have been thrown at Fatima:

            https://www.markmallett.com/blog/debunking-the-sun-miracle-skeptics/

            Wow, apparently my friends witnessing a spinning sun isn't unusual in Medjugorje (my friend witnessed the similar phenomenon over 10 years before this article):

            http://standardspeaker.com/news/mountain-top-group-baffled-by-medjugore-events-1.998107

          • Doug Shaver

            Thank you for the links. I'm still working on a response to the Mallett article. I got sidetrack for a while.

          • Phil

            No worries at all. Take your time as I ain't going anywhere...God willing!

          • Doug Shaver

            If interested, here is a good short discussion where some responses are given to some of the challenges that have been thrown at Fatima:

            Let me begin with Mallett’s conclusion:

            If the atheist refuses to believe in a supernatural event he was not alive to witness, perhaps he is able to recognize that a prophecy made by the Mother of God last century is being fulfilled right before his eyes.

            God exists. He loves us. And He is intervening in our times in the most extraordinary, miraculous, and soon, definitive ways…

            For starters: I am not refusing to believe. I do not believe because Mallett has not given me sufficient reason to believe. He refers many times to things that “witnesses reported,” but practically his entire essay is based on documents written by people who were not even present, and most of those writers do not identify any of their sources, either. Some of the quoted writers, for all I know, could have been witnesses, but they don’t say so and neither does Mallett.

            He says the “three children” predicted what happened. As far as I can learn, there is no contemporary record of their having done so. It does seem as though somebody during the summer of 1917 claimed that a miracle was going to happen on Oct. 13 0f that year, which was the reason for the large gathering.

            Having given his version of what happened, citing the aforementioned sources and no others, Mallett then offers a critique of various “explanations of how this miracle could have simply been a natural phenomenon and nothing more.” But his critique is irrelevant to me because he has given me nothing that needs explaining beyond the fact that lots of people believe that something out of the ordinary happened in that place on that day. I do agree without hesitation that something did happen, and that whatever it was, it was out of the ordinary. But exactly what happened? I don’t know, because I can’t talk to the people who were there, and I can’t tell whether any of the Mallett’s sources talked to anyone who was there, either.

            And about that prophecy. In pertinent part, Mallett quotes it thus:

            If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church.

            In 1917, any Christian who hated communism could have spoken some words to the same effect, and many probably did.

          • Phil

            Hey Doug --

            The reason why over 70,000 people were there in the first place was because it was predicted beforehand. Why would 70,000 people, including journalists, skeptics and believers show up if no one mentioned it beforehand?

            If you want firsthand sources, check out the work done by John de Marchi, I.M.C. He talked to firsthand witnesses and documented exactly what happened during those 6 months in 1917.

            If you are worried about the credibility of the witnesses, try and track down the original articles in the newspapers that Mallet quotes (I tracked down some before, but unfortunately I am short on time right now).

            Here's the rub, there is abundant evidence that something extraordinary happened that day. One can say that it wasn't supernatural in its origin, but to say that nothing happened is completely irrational. (Similar to saying that Jesus wasn't a historical man. We have more evidence for his existence than Alexander the Great. One can hold that Jesus wasn't God without saying he didn't exist.)

          • Doug Shaver

            but to say that nothing happened is completely irrational.

            And I'm not saying nothing happened. I thought I made that quite clear.

          • Doug Shaver

            (Similar to saying that Jesus wasn't a historical man. We have more evidence for his existence than Alexander the Great.)

            I don't think so.

          • ClayJames

            [As a side note--the scientific research done on the Tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe is pretty interesting as well. I would love to have an agnostic take a look at it again with 21st century technology. Last time it was looked at was the late 1980's, if I recall correctly, which, nonetheless, did have good technology at hand for the task.]

            Phil, do you know of a good compilation online of the research done on the tilma our Our Lady of Guadalupe? Maybe also the skeptical response to that research?

          • Phil

            Hi Clay--

            While I don't have a good compilation right off the top of my head, here was a pretty good one. You can then search each of these individually to find out more of the scientific background. (I didn't see listed the more recent study of her eyes which show reflected in then what Our Lady would have seen as the Tilma was revealed).

            http://www.traditioninaction.org/History/PowerPoints/B_006_SOBRE_O_MANDOMANTODAVIRGEMDEGUADALUPE.pps

            -----
            As far as skeptical views on Our Lady of Guadalupe, there are plenty of general ones out there but no real good ones that I've come across. Now, this doesn't mean that one can't be reasonably skeptical. Rather, the scientific investigations have left many more mysterious questions, more so than answers.

            Part of this having to do with the fact that parts of the painting were painted over or added to in the distant past. So you have to separate additions from the original. (Which doesn't end up being too hard, because it is only the original, most primarily Our Lady's skin and face, that ends up having some weird properties that aren't explainable by science at this time.)

            This is why I would love a modern day scientific investigation, especially with the ability to document and share the findings over media.

          • Lazarus

            Careful there with Bayes Theorem, it's been used to argue very convincingly for the resurrection of Jesus.

            But that's where the "if properly used" safety net gets employed, I would think.

          • Darren

            Lazarus wrote,

            Careful there with Bayes Theorem, it's been used to argue very convincingly for the resurrection of Jesus.

            Thinking they must have ignored the ~ 100,000,000,000:1 prior probability against a human spontaneously reanimating to make that one fly... ;)

          • Lazarus

            Well, have a look at the McGrews' detailed argument in the Blackwell's Guide to Natural Theology and see what you think. I think it's available online, for free. And wouldn't that event actually manifesting despite such a prior make for a magnificent miracle? ;) Why play around with low priors when you want to really make a point to humanity.

          • Darren

            Hmmm, no luck finding a free copy, other than the intro and TOC on a WLC site... Yeah, and about WLC as editor... does not exactly inspire confidence in rigourous reasoning.

            Still, perhaps you would summarize McGrew's discussion of priors vis.a.vis dead then not-dead. Assume it is more sophisticated than one such argument, offered here at SN IIRC: Jesus rose from the dead or he didn't, so PP=0.5.

          • Lazarus

            I will have a look at my copy over the weekend and see if I can summarize a 50+ page essay into a paragraph or two here.

            And I never understood the low opinion that some atheists have of Craig. He is mercilessly ad hommed on the Internet, with nary a dent in the merits of his message. Very odd, that.

          • Mike

            craig reminds them of Ned Flanders from the simpsons.

          • Darren

            And I never understood the low opinion that some atheists have of Craig.

            I will hand it to WLC that at least he is honest enough to stick with Divine Command theory, if in a simple-minded way. I don't get so worked up about him as others, I just find his arguments to be little better than, say, Ken Hamm's.
            YMMV.

          • VicqRuiz

            There are a lot of things not to like about WLC.

            But I agree with you that he's unafraid to accept and acknowledge the full spectrum of Yahweh's actions. He does not indulge in the careful tap dancing around Old Testament atrocities that I've seen in some articles here at SN.

          • Darren

            I will have a look at my copy over the weekend and see if I can summarize a 50+ page essay into a paragraph or two here.

            No need on my account. My interest, such as it is, goes no further than his accounting for, or dismissing, of the prior probability of spontaneous reanimation of corpses. I would hope such could be gleaned in less than 50 pages.

          • Doug Shaver

            And I never understood the low opinion that some atheists have of Craig.

            His arguments invariably assume his conclusions. That's why we have such a low opinion of him.

          • Darren

            Lazarus wrote,

            And wouldn't that event actually manifesting despite such a prior make for a magnificent miracle?

            Maybe. The whole miracle bit strikes me as rather showing of Christianity's SemeticTribal god / Germanic Pagan syncretism roots. Raining fire onto the heads of a bunch of uppity priests of Baal might have been a pretty good trick back in 'ye olden days, but in an age of orbital nukes it looks like just that, a neat trick.

            Nothing to base one's cosmology on.

          • Will

            If one uses Bayes Theorum in this way, one allows a single witness (Paul) and claims about other witnesses to offset the impossible. I'd argue that without alien or divine intervention, the odds of a resurrection are 0, when has it ever happened? Giving it a non-zero probability is like putting a probability on pigs flying without assistance ;)
            Of course, if eye witness testimony can overcome the impossible, than what is one to do with eye witness testimony from other religions, alien encounters, big foot, ghosts, ect.?

            I've always thought that trying to make the belief in miracles rational from a Christian point of view is incorrect, these are to be based on faith. One can have faith in a single a religion without a contradiction, one can't rationalize miracle claims in a single religion without opening the floodgates to all other claims with no evidence. I mean, how to we really know that Jesus's miracles weren't from Beelzebub, he was accused, Matthew 12:22

            23 The crowds were all amazed and said, “Can this man be the Son of David?” 24 When the Pharisees heard this, they said, “This man can force demons out of people only with the help of Beelzebul, the ruler of demons.”

            Christians have faith that Jesus was divine reason doesn't play much of a role, that I can tell. There is evidence from Mark that Jesus was using magic, sorcery was expressly forbidden by the Torah.

            Mark contains twenty accounts of miracles and healings, accounting for almost a third of the gospel and half the first ten chapters, more, proportionally, than in any other gospel.[38] In the gospels as a whole Jesus' miracles, prophecies, etc., are presented as evidence of God's rule, but Mark's descriptions of Jesus' healings are a partial exception to this, as his methods, using spittle to heal blindness (Mark 8:22–26) and magic formulae ("Talitha cumi," 5:41, "Ephphatha," 7:34), were those of a magician.[39][40] This is the charge the Jewish religious leaders bring against Jesus: they say he is performing exorcisms with the aid of an evil spirit (Mark 3:22) and calling up the spirit of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14).[39] "There was ... no period in the history of the [Roman] empire in which the magician was not considered an enemy of society," subject to penalties ranging from exile to death, says Classical scholar Ramsay MacMullen.[41] All the gospels defend Jesus against the charge, which, if true, it would contradict their ultimate claims for him.[42] The point of the Beelzebub incident in Mark (Mark 3:20–30) is to set forth Jesus' claims to be an instrument of God, not Satan.[42]

            Anyway, just some food for thought. Hope you are doing well!

          • Darren

            William Davis wrote,

            I mean, how to we really know that Jesus's miracles weren't from Beelzebub, he was accused, Matthew 12:22

            Ah, yes, I recall the Sunday school hornet's nest I kicked with that one...

            "But isn't that just the sort of thing Satan would do?" asked I.

            "No, he wouldn't."

            "But human con-men do something just like that, and Satan is the inventor of every lie and deception, so he must have invented that one too!"

            "God would not allow it"

            "But doesn't Satan do just that when the anti-Christ is killed and resurrected in Revelations?"

            Yeah, it took them "gently" informing me that I was treading perilously close to committing the vaguely defined Unforgiveable Sin and damning myself to eternal fire to shut me up... worked for about 10 years in fact.

  • cmbennett01

    Nothing that happens in the world is a violation of natural law. The skeptic just requires evidence for the existence "miracles". And while at one time there was a perhaps overly optimistic view among scientist -- Lavoisier comes to mind -- that the laws of nature are all absolutely necessary and ultimately discernible by man, that dream was abandoned long ago by most. Science is however still engaged in exploring the limits of human understanding and yes, they still require extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.