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Episode 31 - Bias Against Miracles

After hearing the argument for the resurrection, one of the first responses from people is that miracles don't happen, so there's no point in even having a discussion about whether Jesus was really resurrected. In this episode we look at some of the philosophical reasons people have against miracles, and we discuss how quite often this turns out to merely be bias, rather than real argumentation.

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Hello, and welcome once again to the Ultimate Questions podcast.

This podcast is brought to you in association with “Culture at a Crossroads”, which is a podcast hosted by David Mann from Life 100.3. His goal is to help navigate different cultural challenges, and how we can engage with those around us on these pertinent issues.

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For the past many episodes, we’ve been building up the argument for the resurrection. Last episode, we compiled all the data, and worked it into a coherent argument. Now, I completely recognize that people won’t just convert on the spot after hearing the argument. They will almost certainly have responses, counter arguments, and strong opinions. So, the goal now is to evaluate the different counter arguments that can be presented against this argument for the resurrection. The main reason many people won’t believe in the resurrection, at least in our culture, is that they don’t believe in miracles. After all, if miracles are impossible, then there’s no point even looking at the data regarding the resurrection, because we know it’s impossible before even evaluating it. This is called an a priori objection, meaning, the person is bringing up an objection before even listening to your argument. The basic concept of a priori objections is that, we as Christians need to answer a series of questions and challenges, to show our arguments are even worth the skeptic’s time. This is because, at the present moment, it doesn’t matter how ridiculous the skeptic’s explanation of the data might be, it’s still better than the Christian explanation, because our conclusion is supernatural, and thus, not even worth considering.

Firstly, it’s worth briefly commenting on what exactly a miracle is. There is some debate about where precisely we draw the lines, and liberal scholars at times will agree with things like Jesus doing miracles, but then they’ll redefine what a miracle is so that it becomes non-supernatural in some way. All debate on the definition of miracles put aside for a moment, for our purposes we’re going to take the basic definition of a miracle, and work from there. A miracle is typically understood to be a supernatural event, caused by some supernatural entity, in our case, God. For the Christian perspective, a miracle is an act of God, or perhaps at times we might allow the act of an angel or a demon to be called a “miracle” in a loose sense, but usually it’s limited to acts of God. The main point being, the supernatural element is a necessary component as to what a miracle is.

There are many ways skeptics can argue against miracles, after all, criticism of miracles in general has been on for hundreds of years, and discussion on the nature of miracles has been happening for probably as long as religion has existed. Among the many arguments, we can look at philosophical arguments against miracles, scientific reasons against the supernatural, and then also the work of David Hume, who is largely considered to be the one that “defeated miracles”. We’ll go into each of these avenues, and then lastly we’ll take an episode of the podcast to look at some examples of miracles. Again, if any of these sorts of arguments against the miraculous work, then there’s no point in evaluating whether Jesus rose from the dead. We first need to show that this sort of supernatural and miraculous event is even possible, or else the skeptic won’t even give the argument the time of day.

For now, let’s begin by looking at some of the philosophical reasons why people might disbelieve in miracles. Firstly, some try to challenge the idea of miracles by arguing that God wouldn’t even want to perform miracles in the first place. In this case, they’ll even grant the possibility of God, and grant the possibility of God being capable of doing miraculous things, but they’ll argue that miracles still won’t happen. One way they attempt this method is by saying something like, “If there is something like God, He would be so transcendent, so beyond us, that he wouldn’t need to or even want to interact with us, so miracles don’t happen.” I’ve heard this line of reasoning against Scripture as well, where they’ll say that God is so above our understanding, that if He ever did communicate with us, there’s no way we could ever possibly understand Him. The big problem with this type of thinking is that it’s based entirely on possibility, and has absolutely no reason whatsoever to actually be believed. This commits two different fallacies. Firstly, it’s ad hoc, meaning, you have a problem, which in this case is miracles, and you come up with an explanation to defeat the problem, but there’s no reason to believe the explanation, so it’s ad hoc. Yes, you’ve solved the problem, but you’ve only pushed the argument back a step, because now you have to give a reason why your solution is true. The second fallacy it commits is the “appeal to possibility” fallacy, also called the “possible therefore probable” fallacy. Yes, it’s possible God might be so beyond us that He can’t be bothered to interact with us, so we would never get miracles. However, just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s probable. To argue from mere possibility is fallacious in this way, which means the logic is so bad, it shouldn’t be considered. Additionally, I could argue in the exact opposite way, using the same method. I could say that, if there is a God that made us, it’s possible that He would necessarily want to interact with the creation He made. It would make no sense for God to make us, and lose interest, like some toddler that got bored of a toy. I could even argue that, if God is truly this transcendent, then He would be beyond such notions as boredom. However, again, this is all pure speculation and theorizing, only going off possibilities, rather than good evidence and strong argumentation. All that to say, arguing that it’s possible God might not bother committing miracles doesn’t actually work as an argument against the miraculous.

The next type of philosophical argument that skeptics give is that they claim that any type of religious experience “begs the question”, which is a fallacious form of reasoning, and is also referred to as “circular reasoning”. What this means is that, the skeptic thinks any type of appeal to anything miraculous is putting the cart before the horse, because the skeptic doesn’t agree that miracles are possible. So as an example, if I’m talking to a skeptic about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, they would say I’m arguing in a circle, because I’m assuming miracles are possible before beginning. Since they don’t agree that miracles are possible, they have no reason to go along with the argumentation. In this way, they accuse the Christian of presuming the conclusion within the argument, and thus, it’s a fallacious way to argue, and the skeptic doesn’t even need to hear the argument, because they believe the Christian isn’t being logical or fair. Now in a sense, I can definitely relate to the skeptic on this point; I’ve been in arguments plenty of times where the other person will presume their worldview, and then try and force me to argue for their perspective, rather than my own. Of course I’m not going to be able to convince you that you’re wrong if I have to assume that you’re right! However, that’s not what’s happening here with the argument for the resurrection. In a sense, part of the argument is to show that some miracle occurred, which would in itself show that miracles are real. I’m not asking the skeptic to first admit that miracles are a reality, because that wouldn’t be fair. As I’ve stated in previous podcasts, I want to begin the argument for the resurrection by starting with the skeptic’s position, and work our way from there, so that it will be convincing to the skeptic. I definitely do not want to start with presuppositions the skeptic doesn’t agree with. However, it also wouldn’t be fair to start with all the skeptic’s presuppositions, because that would be circular reasoning on their part. For example, imagine we started this whole religious discussion with the presuppositions that God does not exist, miracles are impossible, and the resurrection is false. Of course we’re not going to be able to prove the resurrection; we started with the conclusion already decided for us! So, the goal should be to begin the argumentation without presuppositions in either side’s favour. We need to begin the argument without a belief or a disbelief in miracles, since this is part of the argument. The goal of the resurrection argument is to look at all the data, and present the best possible explanations, and evaluate them. If we only allow naturalistic explanations, because we deny the miraculous, then we’re playing with a loaded deck, stacked in the skeptic’s favour, which is exactly the fallacy they were accusing Christians of! If we presume an anti-miracle stance, then the skeptic is the one begging the question, and committing circular reasoning! So, moving forward, while we don’t presume the validity of miracles, we need to at least allow for the possibility of miracles, and we will then critique matters to see whether it can be argued that miracles can happen. In a sense, we need to take a step back from the resurrection argument, and have a first discussion about whether miracles are possible. Once we’ve found that the arguments against miracles fail, and that there are good reasons to think miracles are possible, then the skeptic would logically have to consider the argument for the resurrection, and see whether it works. This process of evaluating the possibility of miracles, and seeing whether the argument against miracles work, is exactly what we’re doing in the next few episodes of the podcast. On a side note, related to this issue of whether belief in miracles needs to come first, one could even argue in reverse, saying that, since the evidence strongly implies that Jesus was resurrected, this would then work as an argument that miracles must occur.

The real heart of the problem behind this issue with miracles is this; if someone dismisses the resurrection argument, merely because it leads to something miraculous, then they are admitting they are biased against miracles. In order to not be begging the question, the skeptic would need to show that they have good reasons to believe miracles are impossible, or that they don’t happen, or that it would be reasonable to dismiss miraculous claims. In the majority of situations, the skeptic does not do this. The fact of the matter is, argumentation is difficult, and it’s far easier to merely assert your own position. The skeptic feels that, if they simply deny the possibility of miracles, then they don’t have to actually consider the evidence, and weigh the options to determine the best explanation. As an example, I’ve shared miracle stories with people many times. I’ve been told there is a scientific explanation for the seemingly miraculous events I described, and we just don’t know enough science yet. We’ll deal with this in the next episode of the podcast, but to spoil the ending, this is another fallacious way to argue, because it’s not actually dealing with the evidence. I’ve also been told I was lying, or that the other people involved in my stories were lying, or that I was mistaken about the evidence I personally witnessed. In these cases, the person is not rationally handling the evidence, or giving a proper counter argument; they are merely reasserting their bias against the supernatural. This is not a rational way to argue, because they’re only giving ad hoc reasons, which just shows they’re biased against miracles. In these sorts of cases, the skeptic is quite literally putting their faith in an anti-supernatural worldview. They aren’t giving reasons against miracles; they’re just reasserting their position on the matter. There are some decent arguments against miracles, which we will go into, but I think it’s important to point out that aspect, that most people just assert their opinion, because that’s what we run into most of the time. In these moments, it’s my opinion that it’s important to stay objective, and ask for the person’s reasons for their position. Yes, they disagree that miracles are possible, but I want to know why they think that. If they have no reason for their position, then by all means, point out that having a lack of reasoning is quite a large flaw, and really hurts the likelihood of their position being correct. If I can give arguments for my position, and you can’t give any arguments for yours, then my position is the better explanation.

This bias against miracles also works against Scripture in general. Very often skeptics will dismiss anything a Christian says, because they refuse to admit the biblical evidence. They claim that the Bible is a religiously biased book, and therefore cannot be trusted. There are a few problems with this thinking. Firstly, as I’ve mentioned before, for the sake of the resurrection argument, we are not assuming the Bible to be the authoritative and inspired Word of God; we’re only treating it like any other ancient historical text. However, the skeptic will still say that the Bible can’t be trusted, even as an ancient historical text, since it contains miracles. This leads to the second problem with this type of reasoning. As it turns out, nearly every single Greco Roman historian has some kind of supernatural element popping up in their writings. There are miracles, supernatural events, omens, prophecies, soothsayers, and even slaying chickens to try and perform divination using the entrails. As an example of this, in Plutarch’s work “The Life of Tiberius Gracchus”, we read about a soothsayer who predicted events by the pecking of birds. So he put out some seed for his birds, and they wouldn’t come out of the cage. When he finally coaxes one of the birds out, it quickly rushes back in its cage, and this is considered a bad omen. At another point, a pair of snakes crawl into Tiberius’ headpiece, and the female lays her eggs in it, which is also seen as a bad omen. Then later, Tiberius ends up stubbing his toe so bad that the nail breaks and he bleeds quite a bit, and then two ravens fighting on a roof knock a stone by Tiberius’ foot. Then we also see two snakes making it into his bedroom, and another soothsayer tells him that if he kills the male snake, Tiberius will die, and if he kills the female snake, his wife will die. Tiberius ends up killing the male snake, and he ends up dying not too long after. All of these things were seen as bad omens, predicting an ill fate for poor Tiberius, which did in fact happen. These sorts of supernatural types of events happen in most of our ancient history. If we should discount an entire historical source, merely because it includes supernatural elements, then we need to abandon nearly all our ancient history. Scholars consider these texts to be good sources of historical data, so why does the Bible get dismissed? That’s a double standard.

Another problem here, is that this seems very biased in a cultural sense. To say that other cultures that talk about supernatural things aren’t even worth considering, and can’t ever give valuable historical information, is just really biased, even to the point of bigotry. Are we Westerners really so elitist that when other cultures mention supernatural things, we turn our nose up so severely that we write them off completely? Basically all other non-Western cultures in the world appreciate the supernatural, and even within the Western world we have large quantities of groups that also believe in things like miracles. Really, it’s just the skeptical naturalists in the Western world that take an anti-miracle stance. To take that stance so dogmatically that all data with supernatural elements gets tossed out, without even being considered, would be quite arrogant, biased, and bigoted. It’s treating our culture as if we’re better than everyone. Or, here’s a possibility, maybe the entirety of humanity, throughout multiple millennia, and in every part of the world, has actually been able to appreciate an aspect of existence that gets neglected in some groups within Western culture. Strong words aside, at the very least, this shows us that the anti-supernatural sentiment doesn’t come primarily from solid argumentation and evidence, and instead, comes from blind and biased faith in one’s cultural superiority. A better way to approach this topic would be to at least attempt to leave our biases behind, and evaluate the claims by their own merits, actually surveying the historical data, and using solid argumentation. So when we approach the Bible, let’s treat it like we would any other piece of ancient history, not tossing out the parts we find inconvenient, and not considering it inspired. If we do this, then the skeptic needs to actually evaluate the resurrection argument. Since it’s an abductive argument, which means we try to find the best explanation of the data, the skeptic should then try and give a better explanation of the data, which accounts for all the details without committing fallacies.

So far we’ve looked at some philosophical reasons some skeptics give to try and get away with not even considering anything supernatural. There are some additional scientific reasons as to why skeptics will write-off anything miraculous, which we’ll go into next week. For now, let’s finish this episode by looking at an argument in favour of miracles. One of the reasons religious people give in favour of miracles is that humanity has a plethora of mystical claims. The argument goes like this.

  1. There are many claims of supernatural experiences among different groups, and there’s a lot of similarity and agreement among them about the spiritual nature of reality.

  2. When many people who are experiencing something all agree among themselves as to what they’re experiencing, it is reasonable to conclude their experiences are true, unless we have good reasons to think they’re deluded in some way.

  3. We have no reason for thinking they are deluded in some way.

  4. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude their experiences are true.

The basic point here is this: Countless people, throughout all of human history, from every part of the world, have made claims about the spiritual nature of reality, and have claimed miraculous sorts of events. Since this is the case, it’s perfectly reasonable to think there actually is a supernatural element to the world, and that miracles do happen now and then. Think of it in reverse; for the skeptic to deny the existence of the supernatural and miraculous events, they would need to deny the experiences of much of human history. However, there are a couple of problems with this sort of argument. Firstly, the argument works off the fact that the supernatural experiences from different groups all agree with each other. This is only true in so far as they agree there is “something” supernatural about the nature of existence. The actual claims in and of themselves are wildly divergent. Secondly, skeptics do believe that religious people are deluded at times, especially when claims of miracles start entering into the equation.

For the first point, there are many very different approaches to miracles. Each religion sees the matter from a very different perspective, and each religion has different supernatural claims. Are we then to assume all religions are correct? Or that all religions have true miracle claims? After all, the reason the argument works is that it’s saying humanity has a lot of interaction with supernatural elements in the world. If the Christian wants to deny all of these other experiences as false, then they would also be eliminating the strength of the argument. There’s a few ways I would respond to this. First of all, even if I dismiss all the other religions’ miracle claims, we should still look at the Christian miracle claims, and evaluate them fairly, rather than just tossing them out because we have a bias against miracles. Secondly, when you actually look at the data, the amount of miracle claims in different religions is actually surprisingly small. I’ve asked quite a few people from other religions about the supernatural and miraculous experiences they’ve had, and it’s actually been quite surprisingly how little they have to offer. The best I’ve been given is a couple of people have told me they had spiritual dreams that they felt were meaningful, and perhaps even predictive. When I ask in Christian environments, I hear many supernatural and miraculous stories from people, which I’ll be doing an episode on in a few weeks. Lastly, I don’t think I even have to deny other religions’ miracle claims. Realistically, I think many other religions probably do have some supernatural elements to them. A part of Christianity is that there are spiritual forces, both working for God, and against God. I’ve heard different supernatural stories from other cultures and religions, and quite often they do sound demonic. It would involve allowing spirits to influence them, or they’ll do things to protect themselves from evil spirits, or they’ll practice magic, or talk to the dead. Even with cases like Islam, we have the story where the angel Gabriel gives Muhammad the Quran. In this story, the angel strangles Muhammad different times, to the point he feels like he’s going to suffocate and die. After this encounter Muhammad was terrified and shaking, and at future points in his life he was suicidal. This sounds nothing like the angelic encounters followers of God had with angels in the Bible, and sounds far more like a demonic encounter, and even Muhammad thought it might be a demon. I don’t need to deny the supernatural element of these other traditions, and I can still see that the supernatural side of things being found in all sorts of culture from all different times does seem to give quite a bit of credibility to the idea that there is a supernatural world, and at times humans experience miraculous events. There is still this unanimity of a spiritual dimension to the world.

I should mention here another argument the skeptic at times brings up, in relation to this idea that other cultures and religions have other types of supernatural claims. At times the argument will be given that, since all the religions claims and experiences contradict each other, they can’t possibly be correct. This is used as a way of denouncing the Christian’s claim that Christian miracles or theology are true. After all, if everything is contradicting each other, there’s obviously a problem. However, it’s going too far to say, since there are contradictions, everything must be false. It’s entirely possible that one of the positions is true, and all the others are false. Perhaps Christianity’s claims are true, and the others are contradictory, because they are false. Just because there are contradictions doesn’t delegitimize everything. As an example, suppose you have several rival hypotheses trying to explain some event in physics. The different rival views all contradict each other, because they’re all trying to explain the same world, but in different ways. Would it be sensible to then say, because they all contradict each other, that none of them are true? Of course not. In the same way, just because all the religions contradict each other in different ways, it does not then imply that all of them are false.

The second counter against this argument for miracles was that there are reasons to think that people experiencing miracles are deluded. The skeptic will provide cases of delusion, for example, that the people are deprived of food or sleep, that they go through a type of hypnosis, that they are at times on drugs, or even that they have such a strong desire that they actually end up having a supernatural experience. In a sense, I actually do agree with this, and this is one of the reasons I doubt many other religions’ spiritual claims. For example, in some religions, they have used drugs to bring on spiritual journeys or visions. This would obviously delegitimize that type of miracle. Also, there are times when people will be sleep deprived and fasting, and they have a spiritual experience. This is something that is known to bring on hallucinations, which delegitimizes these experiences as being miraculous. We also see cases of elderly people, where their spouse will die, and they will see their ghost return in the night, telling them they’re okay. In these cases, they have such a strong desire for a miracle, that their brain actually produces one for them. While all of these sorts of things do delegitimize these cases from being miraculous, this actually doesn’t hurt our case for the resurrection at all. In these cases I mentioned, it only explains having some sort of vision, and doesn’t handle all the other types of miracles. For example, I have heard countless stories of healings taking place, even where the person will get checked out by a doctor, and the doctor can’t explain why they’re physically well again. I’ll go more into these cases in a few weeks, when we consider examples of miracles. In these cases, it doesn’t matter whether someone is deluded or not, because their experience isn’t the only thing acting as data here; there are real physical evidences that need to be explained. I know I’ve only begun to go into this point, but don’t worry, we’ll go more into it later. The point to consider here is that, even if religions contradict each other, and even if at times religious people are deluded, it still doesn’t deal with the fact that we have countless examples of humans throughout all ages, from all around the world, all saying that there is a supernatural element to the world, and that miracles do happen now and then. This would seem to imply that there is something going on, and that, at the very least, we need to consider the possibility that miracles do at times occur.

So with all this considered, I do believe the skeptic would be irrational to dismiss the entire resurrection argument merely because they have a bias against miracles. However, there are still further arguments against miracles, that focus more on the scientific side of things, which we’ll go into next episode. So I hope you’ll join me next time when we consider the scientific arguments against miracles, on the Ultimate Questions podcast.


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