Argument from Miracles

Do Miracles Prove the Existence of God?

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The Argument from Miracles is based first and foremost on the premise that there exist events which must be explained by supernatural causes - in short, some sort of god. Probably every religion has had miracle claims and so the promotion and apologetics for every religion has included references to allegedly miraculous events. Because it is likely that a god is their supernatural cause, belief in this god is supposed to be reasonable.

What Is a Miracle?

Definitions vary, but two of the main ones I have seen are: first, something that is not naturally possible and so must have occurred because of supernatural intervention; and, second, anything caused by supernatural intervention (even if it is naturally possible).

Both definitions are problematic — the first because it is practically impossible to demonstrate that something in particular cannot occur because of natural means, and the second because it is practically impossible to distinguish between a natural and a supernatural event when both look identical.

Before anyone attempts to use the Argument from Miracles, you should get them to explain what they think a ‘miracle’ is and why. If they cannot explain how it can be proven that a natural cause for an event is impossible, their argument won’t work. Or, if they cannot explain how to distinguish between rainfall that occurred naturally and rainfall that occurred due to supernatural intervention, their argument is equally ineffective.

Explaining Miracles

Even if we grant that a “miraculous” event is indeed exceptional enough to warrant an exceptional explanation, it cannot be assumed that this supports theism. We could, for example, postulate that the event was caused by the incredible powers of human minds rather than the incredible powers of a god’s mind.

This explanation is no less credible and in fact has the advantage that we know that humans minds exist, whereas the existence of a god’s mind is questionable.

The point is, if someone is going to advance one supernatural, paranormal, or unusual explanation for an exceptional event, they have to be willing to consider every other supernatural, paranormal, or unusual explanation. The question which thus faces the believer is: how can one possibly compare all these different explanations? How on earth can one reasonably support the idea that something occurred because of a god rather than human telepathy or ghosts?

I’m not sure that you can — but unless the believer is able to show why their supernatural explanation is preferable to all the others, their claims fall flat. This cuts to the very nature of what a valid explanation is. When you can’t show why your attempted explanation does a better job than mine, then you reveal that what you are saying does not really explain anything at all. It does not lead us to better understand the nature of the event and of our universe in general.

One problem for the Argument from Miracles is something which afflicts so many arguments for the existence of a god: it does nothing to support the likely existence of any particular god.

Although this is a problem for many arguments, it does not immediately appear to be the case here - although any god might have created the universe, it seems that only the Christian God would likely be causing miraculous healings in Lourdes.

The difficulty here lies in the fact referenced above: every religion seems to make claims of miraculous events. If one religion’s claims are right and that religion’s god exists, what is the explanation for all the other miracles in other religions? It seems unlikely that the Christian God was causing miraculous healings in the name of ancient Greek gods at one time.

Unfortunately, any attempt to rationally explain away the miracle claims in other religions opens the door for similar explainations in the first religion. And any attempt to explain away other miracles as the work of Satan simply begs the question — namely, the truth of the religion in question.

When assessing claims about miracles, it is important to first consider how we judge the likelihood of any reported event. When someone tells us that something happened, we need to weigh three general possibilities against each other: that the event happened exactly as reported; that some event happened, but the report is somehow inaccurate; or that we are being lied to.

Without knowing anything about the reporter, we have to make our judgments based upon two things: the importance of the claim and the likelihood of the claim happening. When claims aren’t very important, our standards don’t need to be as high. The same is true when the reported event is very mundane. This can be illustrated by three similar examples.

Imagine that I told you that I visited Canada last month. How likely is it that you would doubt my story? Probably not very — lots of people visit Canada all the time, so it’s not too hard to think that I did so as well. And what if I didn’t — does it really matter? In such a case, my word is enough to believe.

Imagine, however, that I am a suspect in a murder investigation and I report that I couldn’t have committed the crime because I was visiting Canada at the time. Once again, how likely is it that you would doubt my story? Doubts would come easier this time — although it is still hardly unusual to imagine me in Canada, the consequence of error are much more serious.

Thus, you’ll need more than just my say-so to believe my story and will request more proof — like tickets and such.

The stronger the other evidence is against me as a suspect, the stronger the evidence you will demand for my alibi. In this instance, we can see how the increasing importance of an event causes our standards for believing to grow stricter.

Finally, imagine that I am once again just claiming to have visited Canada — but instead of taking normal transportation, I claim that I levitated to get there. Unlike with our second example, the mere fact that I was in Canada isn’t so important and it is still very believable. But while the importance of the claim being true is low, the likelihood is as well. Because of this, you are justified in demanding quite a bit more than just my word before believing me.

Of course, there is a tangential issue of importance, too. While the immediate claim might not be important itself, the implications that levitation is possible are important because it would reveal fundamental flaws in our understanding of physics. This only adds to how strict our standards for belief of this claim must be.

So we can see that we are justified in approaching different claims with differing standards of evidence. Where to miracles fall into this spectrum? According to David Hume, they fall way out at the end of the unlikely and the unbelievable.

In fact, according to Hume, reports of miracles are never believable because the possibility of a miracle actually having happened is always lower than the possibility either that the reporter is somehow mistaken or that the reporter is just lying.

Because of this, we should always assume that one of the two latter options are more likely true.

Although he may be going too far is suggesting that miracle claims are never believable, he makes a good case that the likelihood of a miracle claim being true is vastly inferior to the likelihood of the other two options. In light of this, anyone claiming the truth of a miracle has a significant burden of proof to overcome.

We can thus see that the Argument from Miracles fails to offer a solid and rational basis for theism. First, the very definition of a miracle makes it almost impossible to demonstrate that a miracle claim is credible. Second, miracles are so unlikely in comparison to the alternatives that accepting the truth of a miracle would require a miraculous amount of evidence. Indeed, the truth of a miracle is so unlikely that, if one turned out to be true, that itself would be a miracle.

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