Thursday, May 6, 2010

Quote of the Day

A second suggestion, perhaps connected with the plea of inability to do otherwise, is given by the idea that the very practice of science presupposes rejection of the idea of miracle or special divine action in the world. "Science proceeds on the assumption that whatever events occur in the world can be accounted for in terms of other events that also belong within the world," says Macquarrie; perhaps he means to suggest that the very practice of science requires that one reject the idea (e.g.) of God's raising someone from the dead. Of course the argument form

If X were true, it would be inconvenient for science; therefore, X is false

is at best moderately compelling. We aren't just given that the Lord has arranged the universe for the comfort and convenience of the National Academy of Science. To think otherwise is to be like the drunk who insisted on looking for his lost car keys under the streetlight, on the grounds that the light was better there. (In fact it would go the drunk one better: it would be to insist that because the keys would be hard to find in the dark, they must be under the light.)

But why think in the first place that we would have to embrace this semideism in order to do science? Many contemporary physicists, for example, believe that Jesus was raised from the dead; this belief seems to do little damage to their physics. To be sure, that's physics; perhaps the problem would be (as Bultmann suggests) with medicine. Is the idea that one couldn't do medical research or prescribe medications if one thought that God has done miracles in the past and might even occasionally do some nowadays? To put the suggestion explicitly is to refute it; there isn't the faintest reason why I couldn't sensibly believe that God raised Jesus from the dead and also engage in medical research into, say, Usher's syndrome or multiple sclerosis, or into ways of staving off the ravages of coronary disease. What would be the problem? That it is always possible that God should do something different, thus spoiling my experiment? But that is possible: God is omnipotent. (Or do we have here a new antitheistic argument? If God exists, he could spoil my experiment; nothing can spoil my experiment; therefore....) No doubt if I thought God often or usually did things in an idiosyncratic way, so that there really aren't much by way discoverable regularities to be found, then perhaps I couldn't sensibly engage in scientific research; the latter presupposes a certain regularity, predictability, stability in the world. But that is an entirely different matter. What I must assume to do science, is only that ordinarily and for the most part these regularities hold. This reason, too, then, is monumentally insufficient as a reason for holding that we are somehow obliged to accept the principles underlying Troeltschian biblical scholarship.

Alvin Plantinga
Warranted Christian Belief


Mike Erich the Mad Theologian said...

It also should be noted the very existence of a miracle assumes an orderly universe. If nothing is normal nothing can be recognized as a miracle.

Matko said...

The principles underlying Troeltschian biblical scholarship.

Could you please give some information about this, Jim?

Timothy Mills said...

Plantinga talks here about science presupposing regularities. Surely science is a method of discovering regularities, then seeking to explain them.

Thus, if miracles exist, they would tend to exclude themselves from scientific explanation, as they would disrupt the regular patterns of behaviour in nature. That is, to the extent that a phenomenon is miraculous, it does not participate in regularities that can be observed (thus triggering the search of explanation) by science.

Okay, that is taking "miracle" to mean a divine action which causes something to happen contrary to the normal lawlike behaviour of the universe. I accept that there are other, more personal definitions of miracle which are more broadly orthogonal to the scientific approach.

I would love to say that Plantinga is attacking a straw man, but of course there are philosophically unwary folks out there - scientists and/or atheists - who would assert just the position Plantinga is describing. Let me rather say that he is not attacking my conception of science. (Yes, I notice the curious inversion here of a common theistic response to critiques of simplistic religious belief.)

Jim S. said...

Mike: That's a good point that often isn't recognized. C. S. Lewis referred to this several times; that miraculous claims, like the virginal conception, presuppose a normal way of things occurring of which the alleged miracle is an exception.

Matko: Plantinga goes over three types of historical biblical criticism: Troeltschian, Duhemian, and Spinozan. Troletschian has several aspects to it, but the relevant parts for the quote is that it models itself on the physical sciences with the alleged presupposition that supernatural events do not happen.

Timothy: Science is an investigation of what the regularities in nature are, but it doesn't investigate whether there are regularities. Science can only work by presupposing that there are regularities; otherwise, there would be no reason for thinking a second experiment could duplicate the processes and results of a previous one.

Your point that miracles would exclude themselves from scientific explanation is a good one, but I have two things to say about it: first, this would only mean we can't have a miracle as a scientific explanation, but there's no reason why it couldn't be offered as an explanation. It could be the best option to explain a given occurrence or phenomenon or set of circumstances. Second, if we have scientific reasons for thinking what the laws of nature are capable of, and further have evidence of events which are not explainable as a result of those laws, then I don't see why we couldn't offer a miracle as a scientific explanation. It couldn't be duplicated of course, but there are plenty of things like that in science.

Timothy Mills said...

Jim, I think you're right in general. Though of course, discovering regularities entails that that there are regularities. To put it very prosaically, if my stats show no trends at all in the data I collect, then I do not have license to infer regularity; if they do show strong trends, then I do have license to infer regularity.

(Unless you're referring to the basic Humean scepticism about inference from past experience. In that case, you are correct, but it is not a critique that is limited to scientific inference - virtually all human belief and action entails acceptance of the claim that we can infer future events from past experience.)

As for replicability ... I'm afraid my philosophical background in science is not strong, but it could be argued that a suggestion is not scientific unless it is, at least in principle (if not in practice) replicable.

But ultimately, from an epistemological point of view, the strongest stance I'm inclined to take is as follows. Science is a set of techniques that gives us good reasons for accepting certain explanations. We have good reasons for believing the scientifically established time since the big bang (about 13-14 billion years). We have good reasons to accept evolutionary theory as an explanation of life's history and current diversity and distribution. We have good reasons to accept relativity, quantum physics, and (to bring it down to my own field) a source-resonance model of human speech acoustics.

We do not have the same sort of good reasons to accept miracle claims. Therefore, it is reasonable for a person to accept scientific explanations and to not accept miracle claims.

This is not to say that miracles are impossible, or that they don't happen. It's not even to say that it is irrational to accept miracle claims. It's just to say that, as they tend to be presented, they do not compel belief.

Jim S. said...

Well, I was thinking of Hume's problem of induction when I referred to how science presupposes regularity in nature, i.e. that the future resembles the past. You're right that it's a universal problem, not just for science, and on a practical level it would be insane to seriously question it. But we still struggle with how we can be justified in accepting it. It's one of the perennial problems in epistemology.

Regarding replicability: there are plenty of scientific facts which are not replicable. The Big Bang cannot be duplicated. We have not duplicated biological evolution on a large scale (in the sense of organisms evolving from others that are radically different from them). Archaeology and paleontology are focused entirely on the past, and the issue of replicability doesn't even arise for them. But none of this gives us any grounds for denying the Big Bang, evolution, or the findings of paleontology. Nor does it allow us to deny that they are inherently scientific discoveries. We still have good reasons for accepting them.

So with regards to miracles, I think it's theoretically possible to have good grounds for accepting one. If we have good historical grounds for thinking an event took place, like Jesus' resurrection, and also have good grounds for thinking that the laws of nature could not produce the effect in question (bring a man dead for three days back to life with a glorified body), then we'd have good grounds for thinking a miracle took place.

Timothy Mills said...

Regarding replication in the historical sciences, you are of course correct at one level. But there is more to it. The conditions of the Big Bang can be replicated in part - that's one of the points of huge particle accelerators like the LHC. As for evolution, the distinction between "microevolution" and "macroevolution" is artificial and, I think, irrelevant. Having proven that ten can be reached by repeated additions of 1, we do not need a separate mathematical defense of the proposition that ten million can be reached by repeated additions of 1.

Another approach to historical sciences is to think of forensic science. Forensics experts use techniques that are themselves replicable. We can replicate radiometric dating (perform it on separate samples that we have independent reasons to think are the same age), or DNA fingerprinting, or whatever - even though we can't meaningfully replicate the specific events we are testing in any particular case.

But stepping back, you are right that replicability is not all there is to making a hypothesis scientific. Another key is predictions - claims that can be tested. I don't know cosmology well enough to know what predictions the big bang theory has made. Evolutionary theory has made all sorts of predictions. It successfully predicted a correlation between geographical and genetic proximity, even among clearly distinct species (say, members of similar genera). It has successfully predicted in which geographical stratum we should find certain transitional forms. The same sort of arguments could be made to defend paleontology and archaeology as sciences.

We seem to agree that miracles are not replicable (in the scientific sense). I submit that a miracle hypothesis does not have any predictive utility either. So we still have no compelling reason, from the scientific standpoint, to accept miracles as a useful class of explanation.

As for particular miracle stories, such as Jesus' resurrection (or consider the recent Hindu milk miracle), I actually agree with your reasoning as far as it goes. If we have good reasons for thinking an event took place, and if we have no more-plausible non-miraculous alternative explanation, then we have reason to believe the miraculous explanation.

But the key there is the question of what makes an explanation "more plausible". This is where I would invoke another Humean aphorism: "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish."

The example you give of Jesus' resurrection does not, I think, meet this reasonable criterion. I'm currently reading Bart Ehrman's Jesus, Interrupted, which lays out the evidence quite clearly and certainly seems to support my position. (Please recommend an account which presents the evidence in a more favorable light, if you think I'm being misled by Ehrman.) I think the likelihood of errors in oral transmission, as well as theological biases in the storytellers and eventual scribes, undermine the gospels' credibility as reliable accounts of historical fact.

And, just to be clear, I'd like to reiterate that I do not think the case can be made that miracles categorically do not occur, or that Jesus definitely did not rise from the dead. I just think that the arguments I have come across so far do not compel acceptance in a reasonable person, and that provisional disbelief is justified.

Matteo said...

"Having proven that ten can be reached by repeated additions of 1, we do not need a separate mathematical defense of the proposition that ten million can be reached by repeated additions of 1."

And what if it were more a case of "having proven that one can dunk a basketball by jumping higher and higher, we do not need a defense of the proposition that the moon can be reached by jumping higher and higher?"

Matteo said...

We cannot expect people who believe in miracles to be capable of doing science properly.

By the same token we cannot expect people who believe that Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes to be able to successfully shop for groceries or follow a recipe.

Nor can we expect people who believe that Jesus walked on water to have the capacity to learn how to swim.

Just as people who believe that Jesus turned the water into wine and Cana will never, under any conceivable circumstances, be able to properly mix a cocktail.

The principle really is that simple!