At the heart of the major religions of this world are miracle claims. If a person claims to be God, or to speak on God’s behalf, the ability to do signs and wonders would go a long way to backing up that claim. When presented with numerous religions, and their various miracle claims, an obvious question arises: How are we to decide which miracles (if any) actually did happen?
This question has been the topic of much debate over the centuries. The Scottish deist philosopher David Hume famously argued that miracle claims are (at best) likely to be unreliable. Roughly, his logic goes something like this:
- We have no experience ourselves of the laws of nature being violated.
- We have plenty of experience of people fraudulently or mistakenly claiming that the laws of nature have been violated.
- Therefore, if a person claims that the laws of nature have been violated, it is statistically more likely that they are either deceived or are trying to deceive.
I think this logic is sound. It does not say that miracles have not occurred. It simply says that human testimony is not sufficient to demonstrate that a miracle probably occurred. (I should say at this point that by “miracle” I mean an event that “shouldn’t” happen, according to the regular laws of nature – something like a person levitating, or turning water into wine – I don’t mean something that is just unlikely, such as winning the lottery, or meeting a famous person, or recovering from a disease with a one in a million recovery rate. It is a rather delicate matter to rigorously define the concept of miracle, but it is sufficient for my purposes here to go with the intuitive notion that most people would have.)
Religious apologists often argue that the miracle claims from their own faith tradition are well supported by evidence. I don’t intend to dispute any of this evidence in this post. Rather, I’d like to offer a couple of hypothetical scenarios that serve to illustrate the reasoning behind Hume’s argument.
Earlier in 2012, approximately 4,000 atheists and free thinkers attended the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. Imagine that after the event, all the local news stations were reporting that during Richard Dawkins’ address, the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens appeared before the audience of several thousand people, proclaiming that the Mormon religion was true, and that the Mormon God had given him the chance to come back to earth for a few minutes to share the Good News and warn the unbelievers, even though he himself would not be spared, but was to go straight back to Mormon Hell. Imagine further that 6 months later, all 4,000 convention attendees, including Dawkins himself, were faithful Mormons, regularly attending church services, and actively promoting the Mormon religion.
Suppose you are a Christian, and are presented with all this. How would you respond? Would this be enough evidence to suggest that you were wrong about Christianity all along, and that Mormonism was the way to go? That’s quite strong evidence – the personal testimony of thousands of eye witnesses, all of whom could be considered “hostile” sources. The key issue of course is that, since you weren’t there yourself, you have to rely on the reports of others. Sure, in this case the evidence seems extremely strong. But to switch faiths from Christianity to Mormonism, you would need to be rather certain. To use Hume’s logic, you would need to be more certain that Hitchens really did rise from the dead at the instigation of the Mormon God than that the convention attendees were either deceived or being mischievous. Can you think of any “naturalistic” explanation of the data? I certainly can. Here are a few possible explanations (I’m sure you could think of more):
- Perhaps immediately after Dawkins’ uneventful lecture, Sam Harris delivered a brief address about a novel form of Eastern meditation. To demonstrate the power of the technique, he managed to hypnotize the entire audience, and plant false memories of Hitchens’ post-mortem appearance in their minds. He even succeeded in convincing himself.
- Perhaps Dawkins devised the whole thing and, during his lecture, convinced all the audience members to play along with it (perhaps with the promise of large sums of money to compensate them for having to pretend to be Mormons). Perhaps at the end of the year, once the whole world has converted to Mormonism, the convention attendees will announce that the whole thing was a sham, designed to show how gullible the human race is, and how unreliable miracle claims are.
- Perhaps a local Mormon church devised the scheme in an attempt to gain members.
- Perhaps an insane person truly thought he was the resurrected Hitchens, and did indeed get up on stage making the above claims. Since there was an uncanny physical resemblance, and the accent was just right, the audience was fooled.
I’m sure you’d agree with me that even if you didn’t know the actual explanation of the data, it would be more rational to accept that a “naturalistic” explanation is more likely than that the miracle reports were true.
I’ll close with another hypothetical scenario. Imagine a group of physicists claim they have observed particles travelling at ten times the speed of light. Their results have been published in a peer reviewed journal. The story goes like this. While performing a routine experiment in which they would have expected the particles to travel at the speed of light or just below, the physicists, who all belong to a certain religion, decided to pray that their God would cause something extraordinary to happen, so the world would know that theirs was the true religion. While the research team was unable to explain their results scientifically, the measurements made by their instruments were indisputable. Other scientists have not been able to replicate the results, but the original physicists don’t find this a surprise at all. Of course the results would not be replicated, as they “shouldn’t” have happened in the first place; it was a miracle after all. Also, they say, their God does not do miracles for just anybody – of course he would not allow such results to be replicated by other physicists who prayed that their false gods would grant them success.
Again, the question presents itself: Should we accept this miracle claim? Not wanting to over-explain my point, I’ll leave it to the reader to think of possible natural explanations (dishonesty, faulty instruments, or external tampering spring to mind). But the question boils down to this: Is it more likely that the laws of nature were truly broken, or that the physicists were dishonest, or had misinterpreted their results?
I’ll repeat that none of the above examples are intended to show that miracles haven’t happened, or can’t happen in the future. All they do is show that it is (at least usually) more sensible to think the reports were either mistaken or dishonest than that the laws of nature really were broken.