Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cothran's Fork: Why there can be no scientific objection to miracles

The following article ran on Vital Remnants on July 7, 2009. Given all the talk I have noticed on atheist blogs of late about miracles, I thought I would re-run it again (with some changes):

In yesterday's post on Jerry Coyne and the New Atheist argument that science and religion are incompatible, I pointed out that there can only be two objections to religious miracle claims: either a philosophical objection or a historical objection, and given this, that there can be no scientific objection to the miraculous. I made the argument in response to the claim of some scientists that we know, based on our scientific knowledge, that miracles can't happen.

My argument is based on taking the scientists who make this claim about miracles (Jerry Coyne, Sean Carroll, etc.) at their word. They say that science only involves methodological naturalism. This just means that scientists assume for the purpose of their scientific studies that no miracle will happen that might interfere with their observations in the laboratory or in the field--or in their offices where they perform their mathematical calculations.

This is in contrast to metaphysical naturalism, which is a philosophical doctrine that declares, by philosophical fiat, that miracles can't happen.

If the only naturalism inherent in science is methodological, then science, by definition, can have nothing to say about historical miracle claims. That doesn't mean a scientist cannot have an objection to miracles, only that, if he does, his objection to them is as a philosopher or as a historian, and his arguments must observe the principles and procedures of those disciplines.

I am officially dubbing this argument "Cothran's Fork," in honor of its author (me). It goes thusly:

If the scientific arguments against miracle claims are based on a priori considerations, they are therefore philosophical, and not scientific arguments; and if the arguments against miracle claims are based on a posteriori evidential considerations, then they are historical, and therefore, again, not scientific arguments.

The arguments against miracle claims are either a priori or a posteriori.

Therefore miracle claims are either philosophical or historical, but not scientific.

The logicians out there will recognize Cothran's Fork as a complex constructive dilemma. It is similar in structure and operation to "Hume's Fork" with the additional advantage that, unlike Hume's Fork, Cothran's Fork is not self-defeating.

Now this should be no problem if the scientists who have claimed that science is only methodologically naturalist really mean it--and understand its implications. But scientists like Jerry Coyne and Sean Carroll will assert in one moment that science is methodologically naturalist and then, in the very next, drop the assumption and make arguments that rely on the very opposite belief.

You can offer a lot of arguments as to why science should be considered methodologically, but not metaphysically naturalist--because it studies nature itself and therefore has nothing to say about what may be beyond nature (but powerful enough to interfere with it); that science uses methods that cannot be extrapolated to philosophical issues such as whether the laws of nature are inviolable, etc.--but the fact is that this is not the issue in dispute.

For many of the new scientific critics of religion, the fact that science is methodologically, but not metaphysically naturalist is a given. The problem is that immediately after stating the limitation on their discipline, they argue as if the limitation did not exist.

When Carroll, for example, discusses the miraculous, he first goes to great lengths to assure his readers that he is methodologically naturalist: Science and religion are not compatible. But, before explaining what that means, we should first say what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean, first, that there is any necessary or logical or a priori incompatibility between science and religion. We shouldn’t declare them to be incompatible purely on the basis of what they are, which some people are tempted to do. So far, so good.

Then he takes note of the various miraculous events claimed by various religions, and tries to convince his readers (who apparently, like himself, don't get out much) that people do, in fact, believe these things:
...[I]t makes sense to look at the actual practices and beliefs of people who define themselves as religious. And when we do, we find religion making all sorts of claims about the natural world, including those mentioned above — Jesus died and was resurrected, etc. Seriously, there are billions of people who actually believe things like this; I’m not making it up. 
We'll take your word for it, Doc.

But just several paragraphs later, Carroll, who has just professed methodological naturalism, turn off that part of his brain and turns on the metaphysically naturalist lobe and argues just the opposite:
Religions have always made claims about the natural world, from how it was created to the importance of supernatural interventions in it. And these claims are often very important to the religions who make them ... 
But the progress of science over the last few centuries has increasingly shown these claims to be straightforwardly incorrect. We know more about the natural world now than we did two millennia ago, and we know enough to say that people don’t come back from the dead. [Emphasis added] 
Seriously, there are thousands of scientific materialists who actually believe things like this; I’m not making it up.

Such assertions have attracted the approving nod of the equally reckless Coyne, who praises them as "on the money." What scientific progress has been made over the last few centuries that has shown these claims to be incorrect? Did people believe, before the onset of the 17th century, that nature did not display regular behavior? If so, then why were people amazed and attracted by miracle claims? Those who claimed miracles not only assumed a belief in the regularity of nature, they banked on it (for good and ill).

You would think scientists with Coyne and Carroll's stature would understand the nature of the scientific reasoning itself, which involves, in part, induction, the strength of which is always probable rather than certain. It relies on a set of limited observations of a set of phenomena on the basis of which an extrapolation is made about the rest of the phenomena. But because it cannot observe all the phenomena, its conclusion must always be tenuous.

More often, however, science engages in abduction

Of course, this description of the logical strength of scientific reasoning is not explicitly contested by scientists. If you catch them in their Dr. Jeckyl phase (in which the methodological lobe is operative), they will nod their heads vigorously to this description of their discipline and say things like "Absolutely," and "Amen." But once Mr. Hyde takes over (in which the metaphysical lobe becomes dominant), they will act as if they had never heard it before, and spout a river of assertions that completely ignore the limitations they had just assented to in their other persona.

How, precisely, do we "know enough to say that people don’t come back from the dead"? The only way we could know this is to completely jettison our cautionary understanding of purely scientific reasoning and act as if we had had direct observation of every death and its aftermath that has ever been experience in the world. The Christian claim that Jesus was resurrected is false if it can be shown that every person who has died has, in fact, stayed dead, including Jesus. But the claim that every person who has died has, in fact, stayed dead is itself rendered false if Jesus rose from the dead.

How do we determine which tack to take? Certainly not by science, which labors under the disadvantageous fact that there were no scientists there to say one way or another. The only way anyone can make any claim about the Resurrection is to assume, philosophically, that it didn't happen, or to look at the historical evidence for the claim and make a judgment yeah or nay.

But the reader of the rhetoric of scientific rationalists like Coyne and Carroll will notice that they never offer any philosophical or historical arguments for their assertions. They simply invoke the word "science" in the hope that their readers, now mesmerized by scientific words, will immediately abandon all rational thought and give their passive assent.

Seriously, hundreds of people fall for things like this; I’m not making it up.

12 comments:

ZPenn said...

Wow, I agree! Science can't say anything about miracles. Being that they are inherantly unfalsifiable, there is absolutely no way science can make any claims about them. However, because the claims about miracles tend to be rather different from the world scientists methodologically study, I am very, very skeptical of their existence, and work on the assumption that they do not exist. I have seen exactly zero good reasons to believe that a man can come back from the dead via miraculous means, and I'm not just going to believe it because science can't test it. History and philosophy may be the only way to tackle the questions about miracles, but history has presented no good evidence for miracles and pure philosophy has presented no good arguments with which to compel me. I guess I've run past the prongs of your fork strangely unaffected.

Lee said...

> but history has presented no good evidence for miracles and pure philosophy has presented no good arguments with which to compel me.

No evidence, good or otherwise, for miracles can pass a skeptic's standard. If someone says he saw a miracle, you would doubt his veracity. If you saw a miracle, you would doubt your senses.

Jesus's miracles would have had many witnesses, and were written about and the stories about them widely disseminated during the first generation or so after He was crucified. Interestingly, the Sanhedrin argued against the Apostles on a few occasions but never took the strategy that Jesus' miracles were a fraud. They would denounce His miracles as the work of the Devil, or accuse Him or His disciples of blasphemy, but nowhere is it recorded they thought the miracles never happened.

And it's not like the Apostles held a monopoly on disseminating a narrative.

So I think we have to conclude that some historical evidence suggests that miracles have happened. If you discount it, fair enough.

Anonymous said...

Question to my year eight students "have you seen a dead body?". Well two thousand years ago they were much more acquainted with such things than we are, and laughed at Jesus prior to his miracle when he said "she is just sleeping".

Those 'scientists' as scientists who oxymoronically presume to take on the evacuated positions of culture class elite (moral elite) who do worse than junior high schools students in their reasoning goes to the comedy of our present situation.

Sin makes you stupid. God have mercy on us. None of this ends well.

ZPenn said...

Lee,

**So I think we have to conclude that some historical evidence suggests that miracles have happened. If you discount it, fair enough.**

I didn't say there was no evidence. I said there was no good evidence. It would take some pretty serious evidence- evidence that was incontrovertible- to convince me of something so radical as the supernatural. The quality of the evidence required to convince me of something is usually proportional to the outlandishness of the claim.

Martin Cothran said...

ZPenn,

I'm not just going to believe it because science can't test it.

Do you believe in the existence of Julius Caesar?

ZPenn said...

Mr Cothran,

I can see how my wording is ambiguous as to its meaning. What I meant by that sentence is not that I don't believe in anything that science can't test, but that I don't believe in something only on the basis of its untestablility. There are many things science can't test that I believe to be true, including the existence of Julius Caesar. Wether the accounts of the life of Caesar are entirely accurate, I am much more skeptical, but I have a bit of confidence in his existence.

Martin Cothran said...

ZPenn,

I have seen exactly zero good reasons to believe that a man can come back from the dead via miraculous means

What kind of reasons would you accept?

Art said...

If the scientific arguments against miracle claims are based on a priori considerations, they are therefore philosophical, and not scientific arguments; and if the arguments against miracle claims are based on a posteriori evidential considerations, then they are historical, and therefore, again, not scientific arguments.

LOL

Martin is in essence claiming that one cannot scientifically test the hypothesis that, say, the Hawaiian silverswords share a common ancestry with the California tarweeds (reflecting an evolutionary event begun millions of years ago and thus falling solidly into the class of historical events that Martin claims is beyond the reach of science). And that one cannot test the hypotheses that the divergence of the various species and genera involved mutations in specific genes or sets of genes.

There's a reason that philosophers are mocked and laughed at. Martin's insistence on separating reality from any discussion about existence helps to understand this.

Martin Cothran said...

LOL

Art is in essence claiming that any procedure that gives us information about temporal development of something somehow constitutes history.

Tell us, Art, what history class would I take over there at UK to learn about he genetic development of plants? Which branch of the academic discipline of history does this fall under?

Obviously historians (or practitioners of any other discipline) can call on the help of scientists for certain things. But that doesn't make the science a part of the discipline it has been called in to help.

There's a reason that scientists who wander outside their discipline are mocked and laughed at. Art's insistence on confounding history and science helps to understand this.

Martin Cothran said...

Art,

You might also explain which scientific procedure you're going to use to determine whether a miracle happened or not 2,000 years ago.

Do they make special kits for this kind of thing that you carry around with you? Sort of CSI Jerusalem?

ozarklatinist said...

Art,

"Martin is in essence claiming that one cannot scientifically test the hypothesis that, say, the Hawaiian silverswords share a common ancestry with the California tarweeds (reflecting an evolutionary event begun millions of years ago and thus falling solidly into the class of historical events that Martin claims is beyond the reach of science)."

He is not, but I would claim this. There is a distinction between saying evidence of what happened in history is consistent with a certain scientific explanation, and then again saying that science can prove what really happened historically. History is not a lab. It is not repeatable.

ZPenn said...

Mr Cothran,

What kind of reasons would I accept? The claim of someone being certainly dead, and then at a later date certainly alive is pretty extreme. The evidence would have to be pretty overwhelming. I honestly don't know of any specific scenarios in which I would be convinced of the likelihood of such an event.