J.L. Mackie's Argument Against Miracles

J.L. Mackie’s Argument Against Miracles.

The late J.L. Mackie in his book, The Miracle of Theism, argues against the belief in miracles, along with Hume. Let me quote from him: “The defender of a miracle…must in effect concede to Hume that the antecedent improbability of this event is as high as it could be, hence that, apart from the testimony, we have the strongest possible grounds for believing that the alleged event did not occur. This event must, by the miracle advocate’s own admission, be contrary to a genuine, not merely supposed, law of nature, and therefore maximally improbable. It is this maximal improbability that the weight of the testimony would have to overcome.” “Where there is some plausible testimony about the occurrence of what would appear to be a miracle, those who accept this as a miracle have the double burden of showing both that the event took place and that it violated the laws of nature. But it will be very hard to sustain this double burden. For whatever tends to show that it would have been a violation of a natural law tends for that very reason to make it most unlikely that is actually happened.”

Mackie then distinguishes between two different contexts in which an alleged miracle might be considered a real one. First, there is the context where two parties “have accepted 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 (“on the surface”) unlikely on any particular occasion is, generally speaking, on the cards: it is not altogether outside the range of reasonable expectation for these parties.” The second context is a very different matter when “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 that 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, or that the testimony is faulty in some way.” Mackie concludes by saying: “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.”

5 comments:

Bill said...

On Acts 3:1-10
This incident in Acts 3:1-10, brings us face to face with the question of miracles in the apostolic times. There are certain definite things to be said.

1) Such miracles DID happen. In Acts 4:16, we read how the Sanhedrin knew that they must accept the miracle. The enemies of Christianity would have been the first to deny miracles if they could; but they never even try to deny them.

2) Why did they stop? Certain suggestions have been made. (a) There was a time when miracles were necessary. In that period, they were needed as a guarantee of the truth and the power of the Christian message in its initial attack on the world. (b) At that time, two special circumstances came together. First, there were still those among the apostles who had had personal contact with Jesus Christ, which could never be repeated. Second, there was an atmosphere of expectancy when faith was in full flow. These two things combined to produce effects which were unique.

3) The real question is not 'Why have miracles stopped?' but 'Have they stopped?' It is the simple fact that any doctor or surgeon can now do things which in apostolic times would have been regarded as miracles. God has revealed new truth and new knowledge to us, and through that revelation they are still performing miracles. As a great doctor said, 'I bandage the wounds; but God heals them.' For Christians, there are still miracles all around if they have eyes to see.

John W. Loftus said...

As to whether miracles in the past have guaranteed the truth and power of the Christian message, I don't think so.

John W. Loftus said...

As to your claim that "Such miracles DID happen" goes, you should consider how easily ancient people were led to believe in them. They were superstitious people much different than you are by far.

Bill said...

On Mark 1:29-31

In the Synagogue, Jesus had spoken and acted in the most amazing way. The synagogue service ended and Jesus went with his friends to Peter's house. According to Jewish custom the main Sabbath meal came immediately after the synagogue service, at the sixth hour, that is at 12 noon. Jesus might well have claimed the right to rest after the exciting and exhausting experience of the synagogue service; but once again his power was appealed to and
once again he gave of himself to others. This miracle tells us something about three people.
1) It tells us something about JESUS. He did not require an audience in order to exert his power; he was just as prepared to heal in the little circle of a cottage as in the great crowd of a synagogue. He was never too tired to help; the need of others took precedence over his own desire for rest. But above all, we see here, as we saw in the synagogue, the uniqueness of the methods of Jesus. There were many exorcists in the time of Jesus, but they worked with elaborate incantations, and formulae, and spells, and magical apparatus. In the synagogue, Jesus had spoken on authoritative sentence and healing was complete.

Here we have the same thing again. Peter's mother-in-law was suffering from what the Talmud called 'a burning fever'. It was, and still is, very prevalent in that particular part of Galilee. The Talmud actually lays down the method of dealing with it. A knife entirely made of iron was tied by a braid of hair to a thorn bush. On successive days there was repeated, first, Exodus 3:2-3; second, Exodus 3:4; and finally Exodus 3:5. Then a certain magical formula was pronounced, and thus the cure was supposed to be achieved. Jesus completely disregarded all of the paraphernalia of popular magic, and with a gesture and a word of unique authority and power he healed the woman.

The word that the Greek uses for authority in the previous passage is EXOUSIA; and EXOUSIA was defined as unique knowledge together with unique power; that is precisely what Jesus possessed, and that is what he was prepared to exercise in a cottage.

A miracle to Jesus was not a means of increasing his prestige; to help was not a laborious and disagreeable duty; he helped instinctively, because he was supremely interested in all who need his help.

2) It tells us something about THE DISCIPLES. They had not known Jesus long, but already they had begun to take all their troubles to him. Peter's mother-in-law as ill; the home was upset; and it was for the disciples that most natural thing in the world to tell Jesus all about it.

Therein there lies the very essence of the Christian life. As the hymn has it, 'Take it to the Lord in prayer.' Thus early the disciples had learned what became the habit of a lifetime - to take all their troubles to Jesus and to ask his help for them.

3) It tells us something about PETER"S WIFE"S MOTHER. No sooner was she healed than she began to attend to their needs. She used her recovered health for renewed service. Jesus helps us that we may help others.

bitbutter said...

"1) Such miracles DID happen. In Acts 4:16, we read how the Sanhedrin knew that they must accept the miracle. The enemies of Christianity would have been the first to deny miracles if they could; but they never even try to deny them."

The evidence doesn't warrant the certainty with which you state your conclusion. Here are two naturalistic possibilities that you seem to have overlooked:

1. Jesus' enemies _proclaimed_ belief in his miracles but did not actually believe that he worked miracles. They may have judged that it was useless to try to persuade the gullible masses that the miracles never happened, and that the strategy of attributing his claimed powers to dark forces was a more effective way to turn people against him.

2. Jesus' enemies really did believe that Jesus worked miracles. And were mistaken in that belief.