Miracles, a Double Burden of Proof, and Control Beliefs.

When it comes to believing in miracles, Christians have a double burden of proof. On the one hand, they must show that a particular “event” was not very likely. Hume goes so far as to say that a miracle is a “violation of a natural law.” But the point is that the more unlikely an event is by the standards of natural law, the more its occurrence can be understood as a miracle. Who, for instance, would claim that a blooming flower is a miracle, or a thunderstorm, or even the birth of a baby?

Dennis Weaver narrated a video series called “Mysteries of the Ancient World,” which tried to show how it would’ve been possible for several Biblical “miracles” to occur. But in explaining how these “miracles” happened, they were explained away as chance events, not miraculous ones. For instance, by showing how it may have been possible for three of Daniel’s friends to have been placed in an upper “cooling” chamber of Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, then there is no longer a miracle!

On the other hand, Christians must show that the purported miraculous event happened. And yet, everything they say to establish the first burden of proof takes away the strength of the second burden of proof. That is, the more they argue that an event was miraculous, the less likely such an event occurred. But the more they argue that an event was likely to have occurred, then the less likely that event can be understood as miraculous.

The only way people judge whether or not a miracle occurred is whether or not it fits within their control beliefs (i.e., which God he believes in and was taught to believe). One cannot start with the evidence for a miracle to show that the Christian God exists, simply because a person must already believe it’s plausible for the Christian God to exist in the first place (unless it’s a case of accepting what someone says because that person is believable). Otherwise, the evidence isn’t evidence for anything, much like how the evidence in a criminal trial isn't evidence of anything since the prosecutor and defense attorney will have two different ways of seeing that evidence based in separate control beliefs. And yet, how is it possible to believe in the Christian God in the first place without the cold hard evidence that will lead him to believe? The explanation of a self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit doesn’t solve anything.

The Christian believes and defends the Christian miracles. He rejects other miracles; those that don’t align themselves with his control beliefs. Even among Christians themselves they disagree. Do Protestants accept the Virgin Mary sightings in Fatima, Portugal, 1917? No. Why? Because they don’t think Mary is everything that Catholics say she is.

Our control beliefs dictate what we will be skeptical about. And 99% of the time the control beliefs we have are caught not taught; they are socially assumed not individually chosen ones. Why else would there be the battle fought in our school systems over the hearts and minds of our children? For the overwhelming majority of people, the first believably sounding person to teach a young person what to believe will have that child believing in that idea.

This is why I have proposed the outsider test.

First posted on March '06

16 comments:

Tamran said...

As a Bible believer, I always found it difficult to understand why certain people felt it necessary to explain miracles. This post was a good summation of the fruitlessness of their efforts.

In the outsider test, the thing I find interesting is that exbeliever claims "My moral life since leaving my faith is virtually unchanged" and goes on to explain he still has a "good" family and a job helping people, etc, etc...I'm not entirely sure why exbeliever is intent on debunking Christianity when most of his morals are derived from the Bible, and obviously he still holds that they are "good" morals to hold to. (In addition, anyone who studies how to apply the Bible to their life would realize that you cannot convert to atheism without having your fundamental morals change - "the just shall live by faith", which is impossible as an empirical atheist. God is not concerned with our keeping of His commandments; for He knows this is impossible. "But now a righteousness apart from the law has been revealed...to all who believe." "...that the Law might be fulfilled in us...")

In science, when one casts off a former "scientific" system, such as Newton's laws of physics, there has to be 2 factors present: 1)tension inside the present system, contradiction to reality, etc.; and 2) a superior explanation of the observed data which caused the tension (in Newton's case, Einstein's system proved to be superior).
My problem with Christians converting to atheism is this: in what way is your system superior? Most of you still hold to most of the same external morals, most of you claim that there simply is no justification for being a Christian, there's lack of evidence, etc; but how is atheism, or any religion, excused from these same arguments?

Alan Lund said...

Tamran,

Like exbeliever, my morals did not simply disappear when I left Christianity. My morals are not derived from the Bible. Rather, I base ideas of morality on some general principles like the golden rule. If they overlap with what the Bible teaches, that just means I agree with some of what the Bible teaches. That leaves plenty of room to find issue with the rest of Christianity and give reason to debunk it.

Regarding your statement conversion to atheism necessitating a fundamental moral change, I would say that there may be fundamental changes in the reasons that one holds his morals, but not necessarily that all of the resulting behaviors must fundamentally change.

Regarding justification for atheism compared to Christianity, I think there is an important asymmetry. Atheists believe "less". There is no need for evidence to justify lack of belief. Instead, it is the lack of evidence that justifies unbelief. Further, evidence can be introduced to disprove one theory without having an alternative. If we can prove that a murder suspect was in another state at the time of the murder, we can reasonably establish his innocence, even if we never find the actual murderer. I think the burden of proof lies very much with the believer.

This is very much the direction that my discussion with my friend Ernie has been taking on our two blogs, Little Endian and Radically Happy: A Transformational Bible Blog.

Kaffinator said...

We have only two ways to prove an historical event, whether miraculous or not: testimony and physical evidence. For example, take Jesus changing water into wine. This is an unlikely event; entire jugs of water are known not to change instantaneously. Unfortunately, since the wine was then consumed, no physical evidence remains (and even if it had, one could merely assert that the jugs had never been filled with water in the first place). All we have is what John reports in his gospel.

Loftus says that “Christians must show that the purported miraculous event happened.” But in this case, all we could ever possibly supply in this case is John’s testimony and a defense of John’s reliability as a witness. To demand unmistakable evidence of every miraculous event shows that Loftus only wishes to burden the Christian with an unreasonable standard of proof.

It’s like saying to a mountain climber, “all of your stories are nice but if you’re really a mountain climber, then you will be able to scale this 50-story glass-faced building right now without equipment. Otherwise I don’t believe mountain climbing exists”.

Loftus then takes this unreasonable standard of proof, declares any proof of God insufficient with it, and concludes that one cannot accept the theological proposition of a Christian God except by social conditioning. But we could make the same claim about any other set of propositions. I’ve noticed that with very few exceptions, people who believe in mathematical multiplication have always had close associations with others who believe in multiplication. Therefore, multiplication is merely the result of social conditioning and cannot have any objective truth value.

Tamran said...

"There is no need for evidence to justify lack of belief. Instead, it is the lack of evidence that justifies unbelief."

Definitely a true statement in regard to science. And an interesting statement in regard to worldviews. By "interesting" I mean meaningless. You cannot "not" believe anything, for you have to believe something, when it comes to these things: morals, purpose (both individual and mankind), origin of man, and the connection between the material parts of man and immaterial parts of man. If you do not take a stance on these, or say that we cannot know for sure, then you have already taken a stance, and are proving that you are working from it. In fact, if you say that we cannot answer on any one of these areas with certainty, then you cannot appeal to any source outside each individual for definitions of these areas. Really, you might as well be extreme skeptical of everything. Unforunately that doesn't lend itself to self-preservation, an ideal which everyone seems to agree on. There has to be some outside source from which all humans can answer these most basic issues, or else this conversation is meaningless, and indeed everything is meaningless, and existentialism is our Savior.

In response to your statement, "Regarding your statement conversion to atheism necessitating a fundamental moral change, I would say that there may be fundamental changes in the reasons that one holds his morals, but not necessarily that all of the resulting behaviors must fundamentally change."
I think you may have missed my point. If one is converting from being a Bible-believer who seeks to apply the truths in the Bible to one's life, then one has to change their entire base of operation. The Bible clearly teaches that belief is the only thing that God is pleased with in our lives, "for without faith it is impossible to please Him." While some of one's external actions might still line up with some of what the Bible teaches, one's motivation (believing God's Word) is not the same, and that is what God is concerned with, not the actions. That is what I meant by fundamental changes in your moral system. If you are simply converting from "Christianity", then you're right, I can't say if your moral system will change or not. But if you are converting from believing the Bible and how it applies to your life, then you cannot escape the concept of living by faith vs. living by sight. "For we walk by faith, not by sight."

exbeliever said...

Tamaran,

You wrote: "I'm not entirely sure why exbeliever is intent on debunking Christianity when most of his morals are derived from the Bible, and obviously he still holds that they are 'good' morals to hold to."

I would argue that my morals were never "derived" from the Bible at all, but rather they were derived from society and evolutionary principles. I would further argue that the Bible derived its moral principles from the societies in which it arose.

This is why your god can brag about giving many wives to David (2 Samuel 12:8), why a Hebrew master can beat his slave with impunity (Exodus 21:20-21), and why a female rape victim is compelled to marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).

These were all morals of the day. They were adopted by the Bible, not derived from it.

Similarly, I believe that Western society has used the Bible to justify basic moral principles that are more a product of evolution and socialization than anything religious. When I say that my morals are virtually unchanged, I say that because the Bible seems to have derived most of its moral statements from evolutionary and societal principles.

You wrote: "In addition, anyone who studies how to apply the Bible to their life would realize that you cannot convert to atheism without having your fundamental morals change - 'the just shall live by faith', which is impossible as an empirical atheist."

I guess what you mean to say is that one cannot become an atheist without having one's fundamental moral justifications change. I don't refrain from killing because the Bible tells me so, but rather for more complex reasons justified by a concern for safety, empathy, etc.

I fail to see, however, how your comment is relevant. I never suggested my justification for moral behavior has not changed, only that the actual moral principles I follow are virtually unchanged (again, because they are common to most societies--even those without the Bible).

You wrote: "My problem with Christians converting to atheism is this: in what way is your system superior? Most of you still hold to most of the same external morals, most of you claim that there simply is no justification for being a Christian, there's lack of evidence, etc; but how is atheism, or any religion, excused from these same arguments?"

Here, you are guilty of a category mistake that I have tried to address several times on this blog.

Atheism is not a religion nor a world view. You cannot compare atheism with Christianity. Atheism is a position on theism. Christianity is a religion/world view.

The theistic possibilities are:

monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, and atheism.

Monotheism is not a religion/world view. It is part of certain religions/world views, but it is not one per se. There are several monotheistic religions. Each of them have different moral justifications, traditions, practices, etc. Polytheism is not a religion/world view. It is part of certain religions/world views, but it is not one per se. It is a belief about the existence of more than one god.

Similarly, atheism isn't a religion/world view. It is part of certain religions/world views, but it is not one per se. It is a rejection of all the gods you reject, plus yours.

In this way, atheism is not a system at all, so your question is invalid from the beginning.

To make the point you were trying, but failed to make, you would have to compare like to like. Perhaps you could ask, "In what way is naturalism or materialism superior?"

My answer would be that materialism and naturalism are superior to other world views because the other world views are ridiculous. You would actually agree with me on 98% of the other competing world views. You would say that Islam, tribal religions, Buddhism, etc. are all ridiculous and unsubstantiated. To this list of world views, I would add yours, you would add mine.

But let's get back to the point. Atheism and theism are specific view-points on the existence or non-existence of a god. Do you have any compelling reasons why I should believe that a god exists?

exbeliever said...

I guess I was writing my comment as you wrote your second one. I see that you corrected yourself with the "changing morals" thing, so you can disregard that correction.

Alan Lund said...

Definitely a true statement in regard to science. And an interesting statement in regard to worldviews. By "interesting" I mean meaningless. You cannot "not" believe anything, for you have to believe something, when it comes to these things: morals, purpose (both individual and mankind), origin of man, and the connection between the material parts of man and immaterial parts of man. If you do not take a stance on these, or say that we cannot know for sure, then you have already taken a stance, and are proving that you are working from it. In fact, if you say that we cannot answer on any one of these areas with certainty, then you cannot appeal to any source outside each individual for definitions of these areas. Really, you might as well be extreme skeptical of everything.

We may act according to some kind of standards of morality whether we explicitly identify them or not. We might disagree over whether that necessarily constitutes belief. I fail to see why we must believe anything regarding purpose, origin of man and the connection between the material and immaterial parts of man. Further, I think you have presented a false dichotomy. There are definitely options between "certainty" and "extreme skeptic[ism]". One can hold beliefs provisionally, contingent on the quality of evidence available and subject to change based on additional evidence as it becomes available. Why would that not support self-preservation? What about those people who lose their lives by acting according to beliefs that are false? How does certainty in false beliefs help? Rather, "what I know that isn't so" is more likely to be harmful than helpful.

Now, you might characterize this kind of rationalistic approach to beliefs as being a belief in and of itself, and one that cannot be defended rationally. That may or may not be accurate, but even if it were, it supports your position only weakly if at all. If we are doomed to believe things for no good reason, why should we believe in God, especially the God of Christianity?

Why do you believe what you believe? If you can give no reason, how can you ask for ours? If you have a reason for what you believe, you are agreeing that having reasons for belief is, well, reasonable, and that would be common ground on which we can proceed. When you said,

There has to be some outside source from which all humans can answer these most basic issues, or else this conversation is meaningless, and indeed everything is meaningless, and existentialism is our Savior.

you touched on this. We do need some common ground if a conversation is to make progress. That common ground does not need to be from an outside source; we can agree between us on the common ground. In that way, we can give things meaning. Not unlimited meaning. Not necessarily objective meaning. But meaning.

Daniel said...

Interesting article on CNN about a study in which the lack of noticeable health effect for 1800 heart patients being prayed for was documented.

I have always considered intercessory prayer one of the most easily-demonstrable falsehoods of any belief system -- controlled studies like this provide evidence that no noticeable effect takes place in people who are being prayed for by large groups (even diverse groups of people).

Thoughts?

Dale Callahan said...

Something that has made me wonder isn't so much about miracles.

God governs all things and from time to time He works against His normal way of doing things.

A miracle presupposes that God works in a covenant faithful way, and from time to time works in a different way.

But for the person who believes in macro-evolution, and believes that mutations have been used by "mother nature" to bring forth beneficial stages of life forms, how does this person justify their assumption for the uniformity of nature?

How do you do science unless you know that the future is going to be like the past. And when you factor in random mutations to the equation how do you have uniformity? of nature. Wouldn't the mutation negate the "uniformity" in the uniformity of nature. And thus make scientific research impossible according to naturalistic view of reality?

Daniel said...

Dale,

You are obviously quite ignorant of how evolution works, which is common among those who reject it as the mechanism by which life diversified and distributed through the globe and through time.

But for the person who believes in macro-evolution, and believes that mutations have been used by "mother nature" to bring forth beneficial stages of life forms, how does this person justify their assumption for the uniformity of nature?

In short, all you need is a primer in chemistry, which I can sum up effectively by saying: when multiple reactants are present, and multiple reactions are possible, you will see a Gaussian distribution of products, centered around thermodynamic potential and the average kinetically-predicted and temperature-determined outcome.

Reactions occur at different rates, even if they have the same thermodynamic potential, which is kinetics. Reactions also occur with variable distribution of products and reactants, depending on the equilibrium position, which depends on the concentrations of reactants and products, and the T.

Mutations are the result of chemical equilibria, which always have competing mechanistic pathways. In other words, the energy required to cut out an "A" or a "T" via hydrolysis, or by enzyme infidelity (enzymes are themselves, of course, also obeying the kinetic and thermodynamic laws of chemistry), is a mathematically modeled and predictable law. If you know the initial conditions, the concentrations of reactants and products, you can literally predict the product distribution over the course of time (assuming the kinetics have also been studied).

Mutations are simply chemistry, Dale. There is no "favored" placement, as though DNA has some sort of agency, of the nucleotides, aside from thermodynamics and kinetics. And those two things are as uniform and beautifully lawlike as anything else in our universe.

Long story short, natural selection is not random, and selects variably amongst random mutations [they appear random, but can be predicted microscale as I explained above as a distribution]. This is the major driving force of evolutionary "upward mobility", although of course genetic drift and sexual selection and many other mechanisms also contribute.

Evolution is blind, Dale. There is no "favored" direction to mutation -- populations which survive and breed pass on their slightly-modified genomes to the next generation. Mutations are harmful and beneficial, but the overwhelming majority of mutations are neutral, and build up until selective pressure acts upon them to confer an observable trait or character which has evolved.

Try reading a Biology text to get your scientific info, and not listening to your pastor and ID-iotic creationists. And make sure you understand the difference between controversy over the "how" of evolution and the "fact" that common descent has occurred and continues to. Even Behe and Bill Dembski (and a few other ID-iots) admit that it has. ID-iocy is so scientifically vacuous that it doesn't matter to them if it has or not, so long as they can believe some fingerprints of God were left on the process.

ID: Somehow, somewhere, somewhen, some Designer did something...and we can detect it!

Daniel said...

PS: I'm B.S. Biochem/B.A. Chem, (Virginia Tech, '04) starting my 3rd year (in June) here at UF in the Ph.D. Chemistry program, specializing in Biochem, just FYI

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edson said...

This post recalls to me the time I had a brief exchange with a fellow christian about the subject of miracles. I asked him if he truly believes that the miracles of biblical proportions still occur to this very day. I told him in my whole life as a christian I have never seen or even heard a story about a severely crippled man walking, a blind receiving sight or any other mega miracle. I continued to tell him that if that kind of miracle took place, and that if such kind of a miracle could be recorded in the form of photo or video, in a way that I as a skeptic could personally verify that it took place, definitetly that will be a breaking news throughout the mainstream media and that this would serve to the better the gospel mission.

His response was asking me a question that, Edson, what do you think is the purpose of the miracles? I told him, just to make it easy for a person to believe in God, dont you think that many people will believe in God if a mega miracle took place? He responded, if that is the purpose of a miracle, then there is no need of God making such kind of a show-off miracle. God could just visit you privately at your room and quitely (without the media frenzy) he could just meet your need and that's more than enough of a miracle, to YOU. He continued, what do you think has been the success rate of show-off miracles? God split the Red Sea, but it didn't take long when the Israelites started accusing God, Jesus made countless show-off miracles what he received in return was the death penalty as the worst criminal of the society. He added, compare the success rate of show-off miracles to individual miracles, a personal miracle of Paul vision of Jesus - turning a killer to an international evangelist who conqured the world!As he finished talking, I was amazed at the wisdom of this fellow. As a christian, I realized this was a Spirit conveyed response.

Now miracles do happen most of the time, but God is in no business of proving himself. If people do not want to recognize God through the beauty of the Universe and the complexity of life (which to me these are more than any miracles you can think of), that is their prerogative. If the show-off resurrection of Jesus is not enough to convince a sworn dawkinite, the miracle of death will do it.

UnBeguiled said...

Kaffinator wrote:

To demand unmistakable evidence of every miraculous event shows that Loftus only wishes to burden the Christian with an unreasonable standard of proof.I think this is the heart of the matter. Yes, my standard of evidence seems to be much higher than the standard of most religious believers. But I have no choice in this matter. I cannot just decide to believe something. I form beliefs when the available evidence is sufficient.

What is sufficient for the Christian is insufficient for me.

Kaffinator is free to call me unreasonable if he wishes. But for me, my standard seems completely reasonable.

Mr. Hyde said...

@Daniel
Your link is broken, here is the correct link. I don't really think the study proves that intercessory prayer doesn't work (which the article also says) because there was no control group uninvolved with being informed about their being prayed for. There was a group that was not prayed for, but they were told they may or may not be prayed for. I think the study would have been more fruitful if two groups were not told they were being prayed for while one of them was, in fact, being prayed for. Along with a third group that was neither prayed for nor told such. Comparing those results would have born more weight.


“Mutations are the result of chemical equilibria, which always have competing mechanistic pathways. In other words, the energy required to cut out an "A" or a "T" via hydrolysis, or by enzyme infidelity (enzymes are themselves, of course, also obeying the kinetic and thermodynamic laws of chemistry), is a mathematically modeled and predictable law….Evolution is blind, Dale. There is no "favored" direction to mutation -- populations which survive and breed pass on their slightly-modified genomes to the next generation. Mutations are harmful and beneficial, but the overwhelming majority of mutations are neutral, and build up until selective pressure acts upon them to confer an observable trait or character which has evolved.”

Two questions: (1) If it is predictable, then why have biologists been surprised by discoveries such as “Ida”?
(2) You mentioned that the overwhelming majority of mutations are neutral, could you please explain further?

Mr. Hyde said...

i very rarely agree with the points made here, but I must concede somewhat to this point.

I as a Christian do not lean upon miracles in general. This is because there are many "miracles" recorded in the Bible that were not from God. Pharaoh’s officials performed some of the same miracles that Moses and Aaron performed. The witch of Endor performed a “miracle” by bringing Samuel’s spirit out from the grave to speak with Saul. The sorcerer Simon Magus apparently did some type of miracles that won him accolades. Not only that, but as a Christian the Scriptures warn that there will be miracles towards the “last days” that will not be from God. The Scriptures also record Jesus saying that miracles do not produce faith in people if they are skeptics (Luke 16:31). So I would agree that miracles are not good evidence for the existence of God. They have their place, but using them as “evidence” is not one of them.