Sunday, July 9, 2017

Reppert Responds to My Challenge

A while back, I wrote an article titled Heads I Lose, Tails You Win, in which I complained that theists try to paint naturalists as being unreasonable because they would never accept any evidence of a supernatural being or event as a genuine indication that something supernatural actually exists.  Naturalists have offered many examples of things that, if they were actually able to witness such a thing, would be convincing to them.    But no matter what they say, the theists' response is always to deny that the naturalist would really be convinced by it.  For the naturalist who is attempting to be reasonable and provide an honest answer to the question "What would it take to convince you?", the situation amounts to "Heads I Lose, Tails You Win".  There is absolutely nothing he can say that would be taken as a reasonable answer by theists like Reppert.

Now Victor Reppert has responded directly to my post, and I want to give his response all due consideration.  Let me start out by explaining why I think we have this stand-off in the first place.  Theists insist that miracles happen, and indeed, that is a significant part of their reason for theistic belief.  Skeptical naturalists, on the other hand, insist that miracles never happen, and that is a significant part of their reason for non-belief.  What examples do the theists point to?  In general, there are two categories: one is the kind of miraculous event described in the bible, where physical laws are obviously violated, such as a resurrection.  The other is what I call a "modern miracle", such as an unexplained healing, where doctors can't provide a scientific explanation for the event.

It is important to understand the distinction between these two categories.  The ancient miracles are truly supernatural - they obviously violate physical laws.  They are attested in the bible, but nobody ever sees them in modern times, and the biblical stories can't be verified.  The modern miracles don't obviously violate physical laws, but the explanation remains unknown.  We do see things like this from time to time, but the naturalist has no reason to think that anything supernatural has occurred, because no physical laws are being violated.  So the theist sees a wealth of "miracles", both ancient and modern.  But the skeptic, who insists on seeing verifiable evidence, has never seen any miracle at all.  If he doesn't start from a position of belief in the stories of the bible, there is no reliable account of a supernatural event ever happening in the history of the world.  And the modern miracles are not supernatural at all.  (Let us not fall into god-of-the-gaps explanations for apparently natural events that science has yet to explain.)

The theist is understandably frustrated by this.  He is convinced that miracles happen, but the naturalist rejects every single example of miracles that the theists claims to have occurred.  There are two reasons for rejecting those claims: either it doesn't violate the laws of nature, or there isn't sufficient evidence that it actually happened.  This prompts the theist to ask, "What would it take to convince you?"  And the answer is always something along the lines of "Show me something that is objectively observable, and that clearly violates the laws of nature."  But the theist must bear in mind that what the naturalist is asking for is something that, as far as he knows, has never been shown, despite the theists' insistence that they have.

So now Victor offers two things to consider.  One is his firm belief that if Keith Parsons' example of stars moving in the sky to spell out a message from God actually happened, then the naturalist would simply say that it is the work of some advanced civilization.
But such alien intelligences could have a more advanced technology from ourselves, and so conceivably they could perform any "miracle" that could be agreed to have occurred including the one Parsons mentions about the galaxies spelling out words. - Reppert
Yes, that might be conceivable.  But there would be no justified reason to believe that an advanced civilization was doing that, unless we had some independent evidence that such a civilization exists.  In truth, it would be beyond belief to me that some natural being out there has the ability to rearrange the galaxies in the universe, and does so exactly one time, but otherwise leaves no shred of evidence that we can observe of its existence.  Skeptics don't just invent explanations without basis - not even natural ones.  We have to rely on the observable evidence, and the evidence doesn't give us any reason to think there is such a being.  Of course, it would be different if we could see that a civilization and a technology like that exists, but the whole point of Parsons' answer is that we wouldn't have any reason to think that the event in question is caused by something natural.  It would be, as best we can tell, an objectively observable supernatural event.

Victor then provides the additional example of a "modern" miracle - a boy who revived after being submerged in near-freezing water and not breathing for an extended time.  This falls into the second category I discussed above - things that don't have a known scientific explanation, but don't violate any laws of physics.  Actually, in this case, without researching the event, I can easily postulate a non-miraculous explanation.  When the body cools down, metabolism slows, and may endure for some limited period without breathing or blood circulation.  This is not miraculous.  It has been observed on numerous occasions, and even though there may not be a known definitive medical explanation for this particular event (because all the relevant facts are not known), it is not hard to see that a natural explanation is possible.  In fact, unless you are a theist, it seems that a natural explanation is quite likely.

Victor wraps up with this:
We don't know that everything has a natural explanation, there are surely many things for which we end up shrugging our shoulders and saying that there has to be a natural explanation out there even if we don't see what it is. Believers may say to many things. - Reppert 
Victor, what you're doing here is conflating two very different categories of miraculous events.  I will grant that we naturalists always assume that there is a natural explanation for things that appear to be natural.  There are many cases of "miracle" healings where we don't see any physical laws being violated.  Our ignorance of the exact explanation doesn't change the fact that there is still nothing apparently supernatural about it, and no reason to resort to god-of-the-gaps as the explanation.  Show me a case of a rotted corpse rising from the dead, and my response will be different, I can assure you.  The other category of miracles, those that really do seem to be supernatural events, are still things that we don't ever observe (in a manner that can be objectively verified).  That's what we're asking for, Victor.  Show me something that is objectively observable, that is clearly and obviously supernatural, and then I'll believe that miracles happen.


  1. The two types of 'miracles' you outline above is best illustrated by the example of what I call, the "miracle of the lottery". The chance of winning a lottery is minuscule at the best of times. But with that ticket you have a chance. There are countless christians who in their utter ignorance of the laws of probability in action think their god tapped them on the shoulder, [examples: HERE, HERE, and HERE.

    There is even a YOUTUBE PRAYER a magic incantation for the superstitionists.

    This is the extent of Reppert's modern miracle, natural, probabilistic. No violation of the laws of nature. And everyone knows that the chance of winning the lottery even after praying to jesus is no different to anyone else winning. Buy a ticket, you have a chance of winning, no matter the odds, no matter how remote.

    The utter nonsense of the biblical miracles that Reppert appeals to is that belief in these is tantamount to winning without buying a ticket in the lottery. And whatever philosophical twist, contortion and convolution Reppert relies on to peddle this kind of woo is little more than theo-babble.

    Reppert is not a credible philosopher if he truly holds to these nonsensical views but an apologist.

    1. Yes, I was probably remiss when I said of these modern miracles that there appears to be nothing supernatural about it. If something of somewhat low probability occurs, that doesn't make it appear to be supernatural unless you're trying to find a reason to believe, and willing to grasp at any excuse.

      There is another way to look at events of this type. Ask yourself, how many people prayed that they would win, and how many of those prayers went unanswered?

  2. So relevant to this OP on the notion of religious beliefs, including miracles, is this LECTURE from Prof Robert Sapolsky at Stanford.

    HERE is a copy of the full lecture which provides the wider context. So revealing of the causative correlates behind religious thinking.

    1. HERE is the much shorter extract from Prof Sapolsky.

  3. When something like the freezing boy example is brought up, it should be brought to the theist's attention that our conditions for "death" keep changing. As science has progressed, our conditions for brain death have changed, as have our conditions for the absolute lowest possible temp a body can go before causing too much damage. A boy being near frozen and surviving is odd, but not physically impossible. We now have many examples of people surviving severe temperatures, probably because our means of saving them are getting better. What would appear miraculous would be a boy being thawed out of ice, like Captain America, and having zero tissue damage and instantly coming to consciousness after thawing out.