Monday, October 5, 2009

On Teacups, Aliens and Miracles: Hume's Error of Unproven Assumption

David Hume (1711-1776), Skeptic and Philosopher, once argued against the belief in miracles under the following reasoning:

The only rational basis for believing something is a miracle is that all alternate explanations are even more improbable.

This argument is popular with atheists.  In dealing with the claims of miracles, they claim it is easier to believe that the possibility of lying or being deceived than a miracle happening.  The question however is whether it can be considered accurate.

In a word, no, it is not accurate.  Nor is it reasonable or logical.

On the surface this might sound reasonable and logical.  However, the reason it is not is because: while something can seem more probable, that is not proof that it is what happened.

A Hypothetical Case

Let's take a hypothetical case.  A man claims to have been abducted by aliens.  The reasoning of Hume would say, Is it more probable that he had been abducted by aliens, or is it more probable he lied or was deceived?

The problem is, whether or not it is more probable the man did lie or was deceived is no indication that this is what did happen.  If, for example, a man is actually abducted by aliens it did happen even if it seems more likely that a man would lie than have it happen.

Or, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put it (in the words of Sherlock Holmes):

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

So when investigating the claim of a miracle, one has to start by eliminating the impossible, in a reasonable fashion.

So for the case of the example, we would investigate: Did he lie?  Was he deceived?  We would have to investigate these things.  We would need to investigate what did happen exactly, and the nature of the person claiming them.  During the course of the investigation, we would see if there are holes in the story, or if the person was known to be a liar or if it is possible that something natural happened which the hypothetical man in question misinterpreted.

(This, by the way is the process the Catholic Church uses — more or less — to investigate a claimed miracle or apparition.  It also goes a step further, investigating a diabolical cause if it seems to have a supernatural cause)

Hume's Error

Reasonable in this case does not mean the a priori claim "Miracles can't happen."  It means looking at the case as a whole to see if there is evidence for a lie, or deception or a natural cause.  However, if this turns out this cannot be established, it cannot be claimed as true that the individual was lying.

Hume's case against miracles is essentially an arguing in a circle:

  1. Miracles cannot happen (Hume's enthymeme)
  2. It is more probable that one who claims a Miracle must either be lying or mistaken
  3. It is more probable they are lying or mistaken because miracles cannot happen

The problem of course is this argument assumes what needs to be proven (Miracles can't happen… which is a universal negative which is impossible to prove).

Ultimately, Hume's claim is based on a world view that miracles cannot happen, and any claim to one must be based on ignorance or deceit.  But unless this can be shown to happen, it is operating, not on science or reason, but on an atheist's "faith" in science to explain all things eventually.

The Atheist's Potential Counter-Objection

The atheist may at this time post the counter-objection: "Well, your assumption acts on the unproven premise that God does exist."  Sam Harris, noted atheist, has argued as a counter-analogy that he cannot prove a teacup does not orbit Pluto but he thinks it is probable that it does not.

The problem with this counter analogy is that it makes a great sound bite but proves nothing.  We could reasonably argue that there is no teacup orbiting Pluto, because there seems to be no way a teacup could even be out there.  Either we would have to put it out there, or someone else would have to put it out there.

Harris' (false) analogy argues essentially We did not put it out there, therefore it is not out there.  However, whether or not it is probable a teacup is out there, the atheist misses the point: Either it is out there or it is not out there.  If it is out there, then all the arguments about how unlikely it is are meaningless.

How Reason should approach Miracles

A claim of a miracle would be like dealing with a claim that a teacup was discovered out around Pluto and one needed to investigate the claim: What is the basis of the evidence it is there?  If it is there (and whether one believes in miracles or if one believes in "natural causes only," the case involves something which is there).  How could it have gotten out there? 

Science could tell us it is improbable that some cosmonaut having a tea break dropped it and it drifted out to Pluto because of the vastness of space compared to how far Pluto is from us.  In such a case, it would mean either it had a natural formation around the orbit of Pluto, or else aliens dropped it there.

Ultimately this is the problem with Hume's approach to miracles.  It is not enough to tell us something can't be a miracle.  It has to tell us what it actually is.  If science cannot tell us what it is, it needs to acknowledge this fact.

It is this failure to do so, which is based on the unproven assumption that miracles are impossible, that makes the claims of the atheist nothing more than a childish retort of "nuh uh!" to a claim.

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