Saturday, April 24, 2010

Pure philosophy of religion--Miracles and Natural theology

There is an idea going around in various circles (some of them not natural allies of one another) that can be expressed in very general terms like this:

One must argue first, cogently, for the existence of the God of traditional theism (hereafter TT--omnipotent, omnibenevolent, eternal, unique) before one can argue that a particular miracle has happened.

A corollary to this is:

A miracle cannot be an argument for TT, which must have been already established, but rather is evidence only for more particular versions of TT--e.g., for Christianity as an extension of Judaism.

I have been fascinated for quite some time with this position, ever since a spin-off of it emerged in Alvin Plantinga's confused discussion of the so-called Principle of Dwindling Probabilities. In the most recent exchange between Esteemed Husband and I, on the one hand, and Plantinga, on the other (in Philosophia Christi), Plantinga was still treating the prior probability of theism (before taking into account the specific evidence for a miracle) as if it were the posterior probability (after taking into account that evidence), and then using the Theorem on Total Probability to argue that an agnostic can never come to believe that, say, the resurrection of Jesus has occurred. The idea from Plantinga was that the agnostic's probability (notice the ambiguity on whether it is the prior or posterior) of approximately .5 for TT will constitute an upper bound on the probability of the more specific proposition that God raised Jesus from the dead, the probability of which must be lower than the .5 probability of TT. But of course the agnostic's prior probability for TT doesn't constitute an upper bound on the posterior probability either of the resurrection or of TT, both of which could, in principle, be as close to 1.0 as you like on the basis of evidence not already conditioned on by the agnostic. And if the agnostic refuses to take into account strong evidence for a miracle that he hasn't previously taken into account, treating his .5 probability as immovable even on the basis of new evidence, then he is simply being irrationally stubborn, and this has nothing to do with probability theory but only with the potential irrationality of agnostics.

Plantinga's argument for the position that a miracle cannot be an argument for theism is a particularly sophisticated one, although it embodies a plain mistake in probability. We cite several vaguer versions in the section called "Hume's Maxim and Worldview Worries" in our article on the resurrection. The assumption behind those versions appears to be that there is such a thing as a prior probability for theism "too low" to be overcome by historical evidence, so that one must cross some prior probabilistic "threshold" before giving an argument for miracles. Sometimes this is expressed by saying that one cannot argue to God from miracles but can only argue from God to miracles.

A particularly surprising statement of the position that context is everything even comes from a philosopher known for his Bayesian analysis of theistic questions, J. L. Mackie.

[W]e should distinguish two different contexts in which an alleged miracle might be discussed. One possible context would be where the parties in debate already both accept some general theistic doctrines, and the point at issue is whether a miracle has occurred which would enhance the authority of a specific sect or teacher. In this context supernatural intervention, though prima facie unlikely on any particular occasion, is, generally speaking, on the cards:...But it is a very different matter if the context is that of fundamental debate about the truth of theism itself. Here one party to the debate is initially at least agnostic, and does not yet concede that there is a supernatural power at all. From this point of view the intrinsic improbability of a genuine miracle . . . is very great, and one or other of the alternative explanations...will always be much more likely – that is, either that the alleged event is not miraculous, or that it did not occur, that the testimony is faulty in some way.This entails that it is pretty well impossible that reported miracles should provide a worthwhile argument for theism addressed to those who are initially inclined to atheism or even to agnosticism. . . . Not only are such reports unable to carry any rational conviction on their own, but also they are unable even to contribute independently to the kind of accumulation or battery of arguments referred to in the Introduction.To this extent Hume is right, despite the inaccuracies we have found in his statement of the case(Miracle of Theism, p. 27, emphasis added).

This position, however, is simply incorrect if taken to be (as it is intended to be) an in-principle argument. While it is of course true in specific cases that a particular prior probability is too low to be overcome by a particular set of evidence, there is no such thing as a "slippery" prior. In principle, any finite low prior probability can be overcome by sufficiently strong non-deductive evidence. One might argue that in fact all of the evidence we have for some particular miracle, such as Jesus' resurrection, is too weak to overcome the prior probability of theism without natural theology arguments, but this claim (which I think is probably false) would not be an in-principle argument in any event.

Another approach to all of this is that of my esteemed blog colleague Ed Feser, when he implies in this excellent post that, since natural theology arguments are so strong, they naturally precede arguments for specific miracles. After all, if you can metaphysically prove TT, why would you start out first with a merely probabilistic argument for a miracle? And once you have given such a metaphysical proof, why would you bother saying that the argument for a miracle was an argument for the existence of God, which had already been proved?

Ed reiterates this position briefly in a comment apropos of the investigation of Catholic miracles:

Re: Lourdes, yes, but that's because God's existence is already assumed on independent grounds. It's not an argument for God's existence. The claim isn't "This sure looks like a miracle; so, probably God exists." It's rather "We already know God exists; and given that plus the specific evidence at hand, this looks like it is probably a case where He has caused a miracle." In general, A-T writers tend to approach the question of miracles only after establishing God's existence (e.g. as part of an apologetic for Christianity specifically) rather than using miracles as themselves an argument for God's existence.

One way of looking at this position, which Ed does not spell out, is a sort of diminishing returns view. If you have an absolute proof for TT, then what is there for probabilistic arguments to add to TT? It has a probability of 1.0. Or even if we allow (as I think we should) for some slippage if you aren't absolutely certain that you got all the steps of your metaphysical proof right, the probability for you will still be fairly close to 1 given high confidence in what purports to be an absolute proof, so there will be diminishing returns from additional arguments from miracles for TT. It would be like a billionaire digging for changing in his couch. Hence, the arguments from miracles should be seen as arguments for something else, something with a lower prior probability "going into" the evaluation of their evidence--e.g., the probability that God is a Trinity, that Jesus was God, etc.

(I had hoped to deal with these issues in the article I'm currently working on on history and theism for a Routledge volume on theism, but space constraints made that impossible, so I'm taking the lazy way and doing it in a blog post. The nice thing about a blog post is that you can put digressive comments like this in parentheses right in the middle when you can't find anywhere else to put them, while not being too bothered by your writers' conscience for doing so. But I digress...)

One immediate answer to the "change in the couch" objection is that it is simply true, as a matter of logic, that an argument that supports the occurrence of a miracle is an argument that supports the existence of the one who did the miracle. This is evident from the fact that "God performed a miracle" entails "God exists," so evidence that makes it probable that God performed a miracle makes it probable that God exists. Perhaps this won't seem interesting, but I think it's rather interesting. In other words, you can't say, "This shouldn't be seen as an argument that God exists" when it is a logically necessary fact that it must be an argument for the proposition that God exists. It's rather like saying that an argument for "Lydia went to the store" shouldn't be seen as an argument for "Lydia exists." It just is an argument for "Lydia exists" whether it "should" be or not, since the proposition that Lydia did something entails the simpler proposition that Lydia exists. (The question of whether I can have my own personal probability for "Lydia exists" raised by that argument, given that, as a good Cartesian, I really do have a probability of 1.0 for "I exist" is complicated and gets into issues like opacity and what I would mean by "Lydia" in such a proposition and so forth.)

Second, I'm afraid that there are some people who are unable to see the force of the metaphysical proofs of TT. Here I include myself, particularly when it comes to Divine goodness. I've really tried, but the interconvertibility of the transcendentals just is over my head. That's not to say that I don't think any natural theology arguments are any good. The ones that seem to me most cogent thus far are something like a Kalam cosmological argument and the argument from mind. But those don't get you to a full TT, whereas the existence of the God preached by Jesus does.

Now, this may well be a limitation on my part. But if I can't see the full force of the a priori arguments for TT, there are no doubt a lot of other people who can't, either. And the prior probability for TT for some person like me, before taking miracles (including evidence of fulfilled prophecy) into account, will therefore be a good deal lower than it is for the convinced Thomist.

Here we enter muddy waters, epistemologically. For if the Thomistic arguments really do work, but I just can't see it, then my probability distribution in that case is, to that extent, incorrect and incoherent. No doubt all of us have areas of incoherence in our probability distributions, especially when it comes to deductive logic and our own failure of logical omniscience. I am strongly inclined to think that such problems in distributions do not necessarily metastasize throughout the whole distribution. That is to say, one could still see correctly the impact of some further piece of evidence even if one were putting it together with a logically incorrect prior. But the fact remains that for people in my situation, or even people who know even less natural theology than I do, the historical evidence for miracles is certainly not going to be a "change in the couch" matter.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Cathedrals singing around the piano

This is great. The combination of young and old singers here is really neat.

The young Ernie Haase is one of only two of the men there who is still with us, though of course he's no longer that young. George Younce and Glen Payne, the two elderly gentlemen, have both passed away, and the pianist, Roger Bennett, died of leukemia in 2007. It gives added meaning to the song about heaven that they sing with such gusto.

HT: Eldest Daughter

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Boys will be boys

I enjoyed this, from another blog, but only because it was happening to someone else. I have only girls, so hopefully I will escape. Dialogue reported between mother and son:

The Boy: Can I have a pet snake?
Me: No, I don't think you're old enough for the responsibility.
The Boy: But what if I found it and it didn't cost you anything?
Me: That is not the issue.
The Boy: Are you afraid of snakes?
Me: No.
The Boy: Good. Because I lost my pet snake.
Me: You don't have a pet... wait. What?
The Boy: I was hiding it under my bed.
Me: [through clenched teeth] You mean to say there is a snake loose in the house?
The Boy: It's OK really! I think the cat will eat it.

(Language warning on the original post at The Crescat, but I thought it probably would be contrary to blog etiquette not to link it, so here it is.)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Words of wisdom from the 19th century

Before we proceed to the consideration of any particular defects in the religious system of the bulk of professed Christians, it maybe proper to point out the very inadequate conception which they entertain of the importance of Christianity in general, of its peculiar nature, and superior excellence. If we listen to their conversation, virtue is praised, and vice is censured; piety is perhaps applauded, and profaneness condemned. So far all is well. But let any one, who would not be deceived by these “barren generalities,” examine a little more closely, and he will find, that not to Christianity in particular, but at best to religion in general, perhaps to mere morality, their homage is intended to be paid. With Christianity, as distinct from these, they are little acquainted; their views of it have been so cursory and superficial, that, far from discerning its peculiar characteristics, they have little more than perceived those exterior circumstances which distinguish it from other forms of religion....

Does this language seem too strong? View their plan of life, and their ordinary conduct; and let us ask, wherein can we discern the points of discrimination between them and professed unbelievers? In an age wherein it is confessed and lamented that infidelity abounds, do we observe in them any remarkable care to instruct their children in the principles of the faith which they profess, and to furnish them with arguments for the defence of it? They would blush, on their child’s coming out into the world, to think him defective in any branch of that knowledge, or of those accomplishments, which belong to his station in life; and accordingly these are cultivated with becoming assiduity. But he is left to collect his religion as he may: the study of Christianity has formed no part of his education; and his attachment to it (where any attachment to it exists at all) is, too often, not the preference of sober reason and conviction, but merely the result of early and groundless prepossession. He was born in a Christian country; of course, he is a Christian: his father was a member of the Church of England; so is he. When such is the religion handed down among us by hereditary succession, it cannot surprise us to observe young men of sense and spirit beginning to doubt altogether of the truth of the system in which they have been brought up, and ready to abandon a station which they are unable to defend. Knowing Christianity chiefly in the difficulties which it contains, and in the impossibilities which are falsely imputed to it, they fall perhaps into the company of infidels; where they are shaken by frivolous objections and profane cavils, which, had their religious persuasion been grounded in reason and argument, would have passed by them “as the idle wind.

William Wilberforce, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country; Contrasted with Real Christianity (London: Fisher, Son, & Co., 1834), pp. 5-7

HT: Esteemed Husband

Friday, April 09, 2010

Originalism and post-modernism

I posted this to my status at Facebook but decided it deserved a wider audience. At the same time, I really don't want to deal too much with the liberal commentators at W4, so I'm compromising by posting it here. Which probably means it won't actually have a wider audience. Anyway, this is what I said:

Does it ever occur to the people who teach in U.S. law schools that there is great moral hazard in teaching, even requiring, the most intelligent young people in the country, its future leaders, to regard the reality governing all the citizens of the most powerful nation in the world as literally created by the will of nine human beings?

Further ruminations on the subject: I see people talking about whether the individual mandate in Obamacare is constitutional, and what I realize is that when lawyers talk about this, they are simply making a prediction. What will SCOTUS rule? Ultimately, that's going to be the question. Lawyers are taught that the Constitution means what the Supreme Court says it means. The Supreme Court, in other words, creates the meaning of the Constitution in an on-going act of pure will and power. So if the Supreme Court rules that the federal government has all powers not expressly forbidden to it in the Constitution (which is directly contrary to the 10th amendment as well as to the entire assumption of enumerated powers that makes the Constitution necessary in the first place and that governs its structure of laying out the powers of the different branches of the federal government), why, then, that's what the Constitution means. If they somehow descry this grant of plenary power over every individual in the country to make that individual do what Congress wishes hidden somewhere in the 16th amendment (that's the income tax amendment), why, then, that's what the 16th amendment means.

Now, if that doesn't bother you, as an American, it should. Yet that's what the law schools have been teaching for decades. The Constitution has no external meaning. It means what the courts rule.

I don't care if you regard yourself as a natural law theorist on con-law. I don't care if you think Antonin Scalia is a "positivist" and this is a bad thing. I ask you to think: Isn't there something very, very wrong with a purely postmodern view of the very constituting document of our country according to which it has no stable meaning? Isn't there something very, very wrong with a situation where the question, "Is it true that the individual mandate is constitutional?" has nothing to do with a stable meaning of the Constitution but is merely a question of prediction about what nine black-robed rulers will say in a few months?

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Alleluia! He is Risen! A Musical Easter

He is risen! Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for death is swallowed up in victory!

Below are several entirely different types of Easter music. Take your pick.

Side note: I wish someone would put on-line the old Don Wyrtzen setting of "Worthy Is the Lamb." It is simple but beautiful, but it seems not to have stayed in fashion long enough to make it to the Internet. If I find it before next year, I'll put it up next Easter.

Blessings to my readers for a joyous Eastertide. (No new Easter apologetics material in this post, but here, here, here, and here are some of my other posts on that topic, and here is Tim's and my paper on the resurrection.)

"Worthy is the Lamb" and "Amen" from Handel's Messiah

Glad--"Christus Dominus Hodie Resurrexit" (When Imeem went to Myspace, this disappeared from another post that included it, so here it is again.)

"Because He Lives"--Gaither Vocal Band, especially good solo by Guy Penrod