Sunday, November 6, 2011

On Miracles

C. S. Lewis’ slim volume Miracles (1947, 1960) is a superbly-written, clear-headed piece of argumentative philosophy.   I’ll not rehearse his arguments, but simply urge you to buy the book.  Or if you like, I transposed his central argument into the key of Penguin, which you can read here.

For those who have consumed the main meal, here are some bits and snips  for dessert.

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In the first paragraph of the chapter “Of Miracles”, in the celebrated Enquiry of Hume, we meet an argument ascribed to Anglican Archbishop Tillotson, which Hume summarizes thus:

Our evidence, then, for the truth of the Christian religion, is less than the evidence for the truth of our senses;  because, (1) even in the first authors of our religion, it was no greater;  and (2) it is evident  it must diminish in passing from them  to their disciples.

To this we reply with remarks, not theological, but purely logical.

(1)  Whether the evidence of the Apostles for all that they saw and sensed and heard, was indeed no greater than that whereby we announce, “Hullo!  A penny-bun upon the table.” -- the testimony of the senses, the notoriously wayward senses -- I cannot say.   Wasn’t there; only read the book.  Certainly there are other means to knowledge than mere gross perceptions and “feels”, of the sort beloved of the Materialists -- witness the sterling and immutable truth of the Urysohn Metrization Theorem, for which sensory evidence is absolutely nil.  So:  Not Proved;  I have nothing to add.
(2) Here Hume presents a peculiarly degraded picture of the epistemological-scientific enterprise over the span of unfurling centuries, as though it were simply a game of Chinese whispers, in which information can only deteriorate.
Consider the “evidence” for atoms, of the earliest atomists.  They had none -- certainly no sensory evidence.   And the nineteenth-century physicists who did bring forward evidence -- though evidence at a remove or two, again not directly sensory -- so little carried the day that, on into the twentieth century, physicists like Mach could profess themselves unconvinced.  And yet -- experience and analysis, coherence and consilience, have so developed, that today these still-unseen creatures are an article of faith.
Whether the many who have claimed that, as they lived their lives, the truths of the Christian religion became eventually apparent, even overcoming original atheism, so claim aright, we ourselves obviously cannot settle.  But they do not rely on a sort of game-of-Telephone Islamic isnâd (chain of traditionaries), Abu-X heard it from Ibn-Y who … who heard the Prophet say, “Eat no beans.”

Lest you imagine that Hume’s argument, which now stands threadbare in a winter wind, be a mere straw-man, know that I did not dig it out of some dusty volume, but met it re-presented in a popular pamphlet by Edward Craig (Philosophy: A very short introduction, 2002, cannily marketed by Oxford University Press); a writer who, moreover, professes deep admiration for Hume.  -- Craig (p. 27)  also usefully alludes to the marketing value of the “Tillotson connection”:

Hume’s public, most of them in varying degrees hostile to Catholicism, would feel a comfortable warm glow…and read on.


Edward Craig, now arguing in his own person (Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (2002), p. 34):

We can, and do, demand that scientific results be replicable;  we can’t demand a rerun of a miracle.

A surprisingly lax use of “scientific”, coming from a philosopher.  We all know that there is more to science than laboratory physics, and more to physics than what the positivists once thought.

There is very little in science that can be “rerun”.  In geology, cosmology, astronomy, evolutionary biology -- almost nothing.  And even in physics:  If they ever do, after many years of patient watching, finally spot a Higgs boson or a magnetic monopole, they won’t be able to re-run that result.  Unless someone thinks of a new technique (in which case it wouldn’t be a rerun, but a qualitatively new experiment), they’ll just have to sit and watch and wait all over again.  Maybe they get lucky this time, maybe they don’t.


The term miracles is sometimes used in philosophical polemics against the far-fetched explanations of secularists  for whom the very idea of miracles would be a scandal:

The Blank Slate has become the secular religion of modern intellectual life.  It is seen as a source of values, so the fact that it is based on a miracle -- a complex mind arising out of nothing -- is not held against it.
-- Steven Pinker,  The Blank Slate (2002), p.  3

Miscellaneous epigrams:

Oliver St. John Gogarty, I Follow Saint Patrick (1938), p. 165: “I believe in miracles because I am a miracle.”

Oliver St. John Gogarty, I Follow Saint Patrick (1938), p. 255: “As for smiths, they controlled fire and bent the stubborn metal to their will.  It was miracle enough in those days;  to me it is a miracle still.”

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