Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Chesterton On Miracles

Victor Reppert has posted a quotation from British apologist and philosopher GK Chesterton.  It is about the supposed incoherency of those who would argue against miracles.  Here is the quotation:
The historic case against miracles is also rather simple. It consists of calling miracles impossible, then saying that no one but a fool believes impossibilities: then declaring that there is no wise evidence on behalf of the miraculous. The whole trick is done by means of leaning alternately on the philosophical and historical objection. If we say miracles are theoretically possible, they say, “Yes, but there is no evidence for them.” When we take all the records of the human race and say, “Here is your evidence,” they say, “But these people were superstitious, they believed in impossible things." -G.K. Chesterton (quoted by Reppert)
This seems to be a typical example of of the style of argumentation that earned Chesterton the nickname "Prince of Paradox".  He famously asserted that paradox is “truth standing on its head to gain attention”.  And these snippets of paradox are much loved by his admirers, because of their snappy witticisms that point out the supposed illogic of those who don't buy Chesterton's "truth".

This is a style of argumentation that favors witty retort over well-considered presentation of supporting facts and evidence.  The referenced article by Jill Carattini provides a couple more examples.  Like this:
“there are those who hate Christianity and call their hatred an all-embracing love for all religions.”
Here, the paradox is readily apparent, and if you're inclined to follow Chesterton's witticisms without thinking, you have just found a "gotcha" that you can keep in your pocket, to be tossed into the discussion whenever you want to make the point that atheists hate religion.  But it is easy to overlook the fact that the truth of his premises is less than obvious.  Do people who hate Christianity actually go around saying that they love all religions?  Or could it be the case that Chesterton assumes that anyone who is not a Christian is a hater of Christianity?  Is there actual evidence for this?  For the Chesterton fan who wants to score a quick point in the battle of discussion with the "enemy", it really doesn't matter.

Here's another one:
“It is absurd for the Evolutionist to complain that it is unthinkable for an admittedly unthinkable God to make everything out of nothing, and then pretend that it is more thinkable that nothing should turn itself into everything.”
Again, the same kind of witty paradox, but no thought is devoted to the underlying premises.  If we can assume that by 'nothing' Chesterton is referring to raw unstructured matter that is the stuff from which evolved creatures are made, it is obvious that he makes the assumption that nature can't be responsible for evolution in the absence of God as the designer.  And that is the "truth" revealed by this little witticism.  Of course, the naturalist doesn't argue that the appearance of advanced complexity on the world stage is just a random and highly improbable occurrence.   But the laws of nature themselves, fed by energy from the sun, drive complex processes of interaction among the material elements that comprise this world.  And we don't need to re-hash the God-vs-evolution debate here, but the point is that Chesterton's witty little paradox is a snappy rhetorical slap against atheists or naturalists, but it glosses over his unthinking approach to argumentation about a scientific topic that is evidently beyond his intellect.

And so we see this same tactic applied in the debate about miracles.  Chesterton tries to present the skeptic's position as circular reasoning, and he expects you to buy his premises without thinking or questioning whether they are true.  According to Chesterton's assumption, atheists reject all evidence for miracles on the basis that they are impossible, then cite the lack of evidence as reason to say they are impossible.  And then, followers of Chesterton's wisdom, like Reppert, jump on the unthinking bandwagon, echoing his little witticism as if it is sacred truth, and believing they are now fully justified in heaping ridicule on those atheist fools who don't see the paradox of their own views.

It seems to me that Christians have a choice here.  They can believe what Chesterton says without question, or they can think about it, and ask whether this is a fair representation of the argument that skeptics make about miracles.  They could ask, "What do we mean by 'evidence'?"  To Christians, it is the testimony provided in the bible and by others who have claimed to witness miracles, and nothing more than that.  To skeptics, it is a much broader view that encompasses the whole world and everything that happens in nature.  Should a skeptic take testimony into account?  Of course.  But it's not the whole story.  It would be equally appropriate for the believer to take note of the fact there is not one single shred of objective physical evidence that that confirms what those witnesses say.  And the fact that every one of those accounts of miracles comes from a source that has an ideological goal of trying to promote religious belief.  And the fact that independent and unbiased historical corroboration or verification is absent.  And the fact that there are plausible natural explanations for all miracles that have been claimed in modern times, but the truly supernatural kind of miracles that are described in biblical stories are never seen at all in the age of science.  Not even by believers.  Shouldn't believers consider these (and other) facts as part of the evidence they take into account?  And if they tell you they do, wouldn't it be fair to question whether they are taking an unbiased view of the evidence?

Believers have made their choice.  They have decided to forgo a more expansive view of evidence in favor of unquestioning acceptance of the stories they hear about miracles, while rejecting any and all facts that don't fit with their beliefs.  And I don't fault them for that.  It is their right to believe whatever they want.  But I do fault them for their dishonesty.  They want to toss out their little Chesterton witticisms and pretend that they have claimed the intellectual high ground, when in fact they have done nothing more than replace intellect with unthinking, snappy rhetoric.  No need to debate the issue.  No need to question the basis of the claims made in those little sayings.  The Prince of Paradox is masterful in covering up his own illogical presumptions with quick jabs against the non-believers, and Christians don't have to think about it.  That's why they love him.  Ironically, his paradoxes really do turn truth on its head, but not the way Chesterton's fans think.  It actually diverts attention from the realization that it's not the truth, but just a snappy witticism.


  1. but the truly supernatural kind of miracles that are described in biblical stories are never seen at all in the age of science.

    I'm pretty sure you will find multitudes of groups and tons of individuals espousing various beliefs (or even maybe with no really specific belief-commitments at all) will make all kinds of claims of "truly supernatural" occurrences if you just look around.

    But you are probly aware of that what do you make of all of it?

    1. Sure. There are all kinds of definitions of what constitutes a miracle, and even what constitutes supernatural. And, by the way, I'm not talking about Joe's strange definition of supernatural. I am talking about what most people think of - something that doesn't occur within the scope of natural laws. Many Christians will say that there are miracles everywhere, all the time. It's just God's hand seen in the world. But that's not what we're talking about. When I speak of miracles as truly supernatural events, I mean things that can't happen without violating natural physical laws. So things like the "design" of the universe, or the beauty of a sunset are not what I would call miracles. But a truly supernatural event would be something more like walking on water, transforming water into wine, rising from the dead, etc. And I think Chesterton agrees with that, since he speaks of atheists denying that such things are possible. Nobody denies that a beautiful sunset is possible.

      As for whether these things are seen in the modern era, I don't see claims like that. Do you? What we see are claims about "miracle cures" and such. But skeptics believe (quite rightly) is that there is no reason to think that they are truly supernatural. There are always plausible natural explanations for these things. I know, there are many who vehemently disagree. But the point I make here is that we don't see people claiming that someone changed water into wine, or other things that would unquestionably fall into the category of supernatural events.

    2. I meant "supernatrua" in the vernacular sense, and yeh, some people - a few - make such claims....but quite a lot more are willing to believe such claims, even repeat them - at least within some circles or closed groups. Look around on the internet, see what you can find about such stuff, if you want to.

      I'd be curious, too....

    3. I looked up "modern day miracles". You can see that there are plenty of miracle stories. They are typically unusual or remarkable events, coincidences, cures, prayers answered, etc. I don't see things that would qualify as supernatural, although one or two purport to be "ghostly" events, which I would say are explainable. (I know, I know - It really really was a miracle.) But no regrown limbs, no dead guys getting up, no stars hovering over a holy site. Nothing like that.

      I did come across this article from Apologetic Press. Let me quote:
      Certainly, God loves us and has promised to care for us (e.g., Matthew 6:33). But His workings in the Universe and in our lives are undertaken today providentially through the natural laws that He set into motion. After the first century, He has not—and will not—violate His own purposes by interfering with these laws in order to perform a miracle.