Thursday, November 20, 2014

How Probable Is a Miracle

There are those who say miracles must must be rejected because they do not fit our ordinary experience. They say extraordinary events require extraordinary proof. But does this hold up to examination? One factor to consider in examining an event is whether it fits in with our past experience. But to make this the only or chief criterion for evaluating things leads to serious problems long before you get to miracles. David Hume, who invented this test, admitted that by it the man who lived all his life in India (presumably southern India), would be justified in not believing in snow. A test that leads to a contrary-to-fact conclusion is clearly suspect. The truth is, there are many things that exist in the world which I have not personally seen. Should I reject them because I have not seen them? Now in modern times, one can try to get around this by referring to television or other media and claiming they can supply the place of actually being there. But I have seen Vulcans and Klingons on TV. I need something beyond merely seeing it on TV to evaluate if a thing is real.

There are also many events in history that are unbelievable by our normal experience. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 would have seemed nearly impossible to someone back in the 1960s. That an obscure German monk could start a Reformation that would break the power of the Roman Catholic Church seems incredible in retrospect. But it is in science that this idea meets its biggest check. Take the Theory of Relativity or Quantum Mechanics. That objects change in mass or in the rate at which time passes when they are in motion relative to each another does not fit my normal experience. Nor does the idea that something could be a wave and particle at the time or pass through any barrier that is less than infinite. But I do not feel justified in throwing out basic scientific theories based on this.

There is also the problem of how common miracles are. There are those who claim that miracles occur on a regular basis. I am myself somewhat cynical of this. I suspect that clear-cut miracles are somewhat rare but cannot completely be discounted. But I have known personally of events that are hard to explain naturalistically. Before you can judge whether miracles are common or rare, you have to decide what miracles you believe in. Now a person who desires miracles may see them when they do not happen, but a person who is adamant that they do not happen may refuse to recognize them when they do. I agree that we should require more proof for the unusual than the commonplace. But if we require the kind of  extraordinary proof they are seeking before we believe it, we will never find that proof. However we must ask if, by putting the bar too high, we are not cutting ourselves off from reality.

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