I’m sure I’ll get back to Nagel in the future, but, for the time being, I’d like to start another series of responses that is more directly relevant to the question of God’s existence. This time, to J. L. Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism”. This has been called the best philosophical discussion of theism from an atheistic perspective, and is a much more serious and well-reasoned book than any of the popular-level atheist tomes. As such, I find it easy to respect Mackie, even as I disagree with him.
Still, I do disagree, and want to get to the reasons why:
Mackie, after a very reasonable introduction that shows a charitable attitude toward the theist position, begins with a discussion of David Hume’s famous argument against belief in miracles.
For those that don’t already know, the basic thrust of Hume’s argument is this: Since miracles are occurrences that (by definition) are astronomically improbable, our reason for doubting that a miracle happened is always stronger than the weight of any person’s testimony saying that it did happen. This would mean that we should never believe that a miracle actually happened.
Though he isn’t without criticisms, Mackie finds this a good objection to miracles as evidence for God. He basically agrees with Hume and, I think, fails to raise the two most potent responses to the argument.
The first is less a disagreement than a point about what this actually proves. If successful, this argument would block any attempt to prove God’s existence on the grounds of testimonial evidence of a miracle, but I know of no theist philosopher who argues for God’s existence on those grounds.
Some have, after granting theism, looked at evidence for a miracle in order to determine which form of theism is most likely to be correct. But this is a far cry from using claims of the miraculous to argue for God’s existence. Of course, one can try to say that it is still a mistake, but even this is untrue in light of the second response.
That is, Hume’s argument only succeeds if one presumes either atheism or deism. The only reason why Hume can say that a miracle is astronomically improbable is because he’s assuming that the regular patterns of the universe are never interrupted (and that it is astronomically improbable according to those laws). That is, he’s assuming that there is no God which intervenes in history–or, at least that it is astronomically improbable that such a God exists.
Under that assumption, a thing like a resurrection is indeed astronomically improbable, but this assumption is true only if classical theism is false. Thus, Hume is simply begging the question against classical theism.
And I find that this is a common mistake, owing in part to a misconception of the concept of a miracle. At least, many who press this argument seem to think (as Mackie seems to think) that a miracle is “a violation of the laws of nature”. In fact, a miracle is the introduction (or removal) of matter or energy into the universe through divine means. The laws of nature are not changed or “violated”, they are simply acting on altered conditions.
To put it another way, the theist claims that the universe is not a closed system. The atheist is free to reject this view, but is not free to assume a closed system in making an argument about the worthlessness of miracle testimony–which is precisely what Hume’s argument does.
As fair-minded as he strikes me, none of this seems to occur to Mackie, who fails to mention any of it in his discussion of Hume’s argument.
That being the case, I’m left with the conclusion that we need to find a balance between blind trust and absolute incredulity. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to every claim of the miraculous, and no reason to simply dismiss a claim simply because it entails that something more than the physical was present in an event.
That would be to assume the atheism that one is trying to prove, meaning that the argument is simply worthless with respect to miraculous claims–let alone the other arguments for God’s existence.
But, if I completely disagree with Mackie here, I largely agree with him in the next sections. I’ll get to those soon.