Tag Archives: philosophy

Mind Over Matter

mind_over_matter_by_sarbzIn discussing Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism”, we’ve covered quite a bit about morality, and are now moving into an argument from consciousness.

This was put forward by Locke, and is essentially the idea that mind only comes from mind. If one accepts that, it appears that there must have been some first mind that is the original source of mind.

Leibnitz (of the famous cosmological argument for God’s existence) rejected this argument for what, in my opinion, are more valid reasons than why Mackie does so. That is, Leibnitz pointed out that the argument, if you follow the details, reaches the conclusion that there was always a mind, but not that there is a single, eternal mind.

This option isn’t open to Mackie who, as a materialist, can’t accept the idea that there has always been at least one mind. Instead, he asserts that mind can come from matter alone.

He does so in a fairly standard way: appealing to computer science to question the idea that all material particles can do is “knock, impel, and resist one another”. At the time of writing, it was widely believed that minds aren’t fundamentally different from computers.

But, if that makes Mackie’s (mis)use of the idea understandable, it does not excuse those who are still using it. A computer isn’t anything like a conscious mind, as it is pure supposition to think this explains consciousness.

However, Mackie also makes a much better, and much more interesting objection. He points out that anyone who believes that material substances could be conscious (that is, someone who believes that brains can think) already agrees with the basic idea that matter can give rise to consciousness.

The trouble is that it is only the materialist who believes this.

Brains don’t think; minds think. And it is only by demanding that there is nothing more to the mind that the physical processes going on in the brain that one can make this argument.

But I’ve argued (perhaps ad nauseum) that, unless we’re willing to take a broader definition of “matter” and “physical” than is allowed by science, there is more going on in the mind than just the physical. It has been demonstrated, in many ways, that the actual experiences of everyday life aren’t physical. It isn’t that they aren’t explained by science “yet”; it is that the definition of science forbids it from ever explaining those things.

Mackie knows this, and approvingly quotes this passage from Swineburne:

“Any world-view which denies the existence of experienced sensations of blueness or loudness or pain does not describe how things are–that this is so stares us in the face. Consequently ‘Some kind of dualism of entities or properties or states is inevitable.”

This seems rather obvious. So, what is Mackie’s response? He makes the fairly reasonable point that this only supports property dualism, and otherwise points out that substance dualists haven’t solved “the interaction problem”.

These are both true, but neither of them help Mackie’s case.

First is because theism doesn’t require substance dualism. Modern, atheist philosophers seem to think that this view of the mind is somehow umbilically linked to belief in God in general or Christianity in particular. In fact, Christianity got on for more than a dozen centuries without it. And, yes, it had a well-developed concept of the mind.

To the first point, property dualism isn’t a way out of this bind for the materialist. This is for the very simple reason that property dualism isn’t materialism, but a denial of it. It is the explicit statement that there is more to objects than the physical. If one is willing to concede that much, one has conceded that the entire support for modern atheism is false.

Of course, property dualism has its own problems, and the more it sorts them out, the more it starts to look like either the substance dualism that so many equate with theism or the hylemorphic dualism that Christianity embraced prior to modern philosophy.

Of course, it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that this, by itself, hasn’t proved God’s existence. I find myself in agreement with Leibnitz–that this particular argument does not do so. What is has shown, and what so many devout atheists have been banging their heads against, is that materialism is false.

And that is a point of no small concern.

The Evidence is Good, the Logic is Valid, but the Conclusion is Just so Unreasonable

Calvin-Hobbes-Its-Not-Denial-posterThe third moral argument Mackie discusses is interesting in that it was put forward by a man (Sidgwick) who did not himself accept it (but just thought it was interesting). Personally, I find this singularly unfortunate in that it is a good argument, and might have been better known and better defended had it been advanced by someone who actually believed in it.

The argument could be summarized as follows:

1. What one has the most reason to do is what will best secure one’s long term happiness.

2. What one has most reason to do is what morality requires

3. If there is no moral government to the universe, what will best secure one’s happiness won’t always be what morality requires.

If one accepts all three of these statements, if follows that there is a “moral government” to the universe–which would mean that materialism is false, and that theism is likely to be true. Mackie rejects this argument, I think, far too easily. He seems to accept all three premises–at least, he never challenges any of them. And he agrees that the conclusion follows from the premises. Still, he insists that the conclusion is wrong.

First, he does this by dismissing the idea that he should accept a view on the grounds that not accepting it would be to reject rationality. He accepts that this makes his view of ethics irrational, but seems strangely unbothered by this. This leaves one wondering why one couldn’t, equally, have a  view of God that he considers irrational. He never addresses this point.

And I think it is significant, in that it has become so common. Many people who are completely open about the fact that their view of morality is irrational can be found loudly mocking, ridiculing and otherwise acting scandalized toward religious believers for “believing irrational things”.

Of course, I don’t accept that belief in God is irrational, but I really can’t see why such people should have a problem even if it were.

Second, he claims that “facts should inform our beliefs, not the other way around”. But, if the argument is sound (which he seems to concede that it is), then there are moral facts which should inform his beliefs about God. He’s simply begging the question if he wants to say that morals aren’t facts.

Third, he offers some examples that, he thinks, reduces the argument to absurdity. He claims, for instance, that one could use the idea that we shouldn’t retreat in battle, together with the idea that we shouldn’t let our army be destroyed, to mean that we will be victorious in every battle.

Clearly, this is silly, but I fail to see how this actually follows from the argument above. Is it really a moral imperative that an army not retreat under any conditions whatsoever? Or does morality simply dictate that one not retreat without sufficient reason to do so? I’d say it is the latter, but this option is simply ignored by Mackie.

And this is another common mistake. Relativists rarely seem to understand the difference between objective morals and absolute morals. They seem to think that anyone who believes in moral objectivity believes that no consideration whatsoever should be given to the situation one is in. But no moral objectivist I know has ever said such a thing. Of course moral principals will manifest differently in different situations–that was never what was in dispute.

Mackie also claims that what is moral must follow from (supervene on) what is factual. But, as Plantinga points out, this means precisely what Mackie says it does not mean: that morals can be clues to what is factual.

After all, a news report supervenes on real events. That is to say that, were it not for those events, there would be no report. But this doesn’t remotely mean that a news report is no reason to think the reported-on event didn’t happen. Rather, it is precisely because a report is based on an event that it is a useful source of information.

Thus, if morality is supervenient, then the same principle applies. Mackie can’t simply say that morals depend on the facts of the situation in order to say that they tell us nothing about the facts.

So, all this is simply beside the point. After all, Mackie is criticizing a logically valid argument, with premises that he accepts, on the grounds that it leads to a conclusion that his materialist atheism is false. If “facts should inform our beliefs, not the other way around”, then he should accept the conclusion of the argument.

As much as I respect Mackie, he seems to be in the grip of an ideology here–claiming that true premises and valid logic can lead to a false conclusion is a fairly blatant rejection of rationality.

As to the argument itself, I’d love to see some more development of this idea. There is definitely more that could be said, but, at the end of the day, it is clear that atheism and morality are logically incompatible with one another.

Defending Reason From Atheism

star_trek_2009I was bothered by Mackie’s dismissal of the first two of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways as “based on antiquated science”, but I am much more bothered by his treatment of the last two.

That is, there is no mention of them whatsoever.

As such, there’s little to say other than to point out the obvious fact that silence is not a refutation. It seems a glaring problem that a book on the truth or falsehood of theism treats only one of these arguments (and touches briefly on another), and it is hard to accept a conclusion drawn in avoidance of the best known and most influential arguments of the opposition.

I hope to have something posted about the Fourth and Fifth Ways eventually, but there is one more thing to be said about Mackie’s discussion of the Third Way.

Mackie offered what was, in my view, a very poor argument. He seemed to be simultaneously basing his case on the idea that the universe is eternal and on that it is not eternal (both objections apparently missing Aquinas’ actual point). But he follows that up with something which (again, in my view) is even poorer.

That is, he claims that we needn’t accept this argument because something can come from nothing.

At least, he would have to claim this for his argument to hold. In reality, he merely suggests this, saying that Hume has shown this to be the case.

I’ve often wondered what modern champions of atheism would do without David Hume. So many of the arguments put forth against theism are based on claiming that Hume has “shown” or “proved” beyond all doubt things that are, at best, highly questionable.

What Hume showed is that, given modern assumptions about reality (most of which are common prejudices in our culture) we come to the conclusion that both causation and inductive logic (which are the basis of science) don’t seem to be rational. What is amazing about this is how slow philosophers have been to see this as a reductio ad absurdum of those assumptions.

Hume’s arguments really should be found on the lips of theists, showing the contradictions and obvious falsehoods one is led to when one assumes that the physical is the whole of reality. Instead, his palpably false conclusions are reported to us as sober truth by opponents of theism.

At least, it seems to me that, if one’s atheism leads one to believe that “something can come from nothing for no reason at all”, one has ceased doing rational inquiry and lapsed into a kind of dogmatism–a simple refusal to question Hume’s premises.

But Hume’s premises are precisely what the debate between theists and atheists is about. They are anything but the agreed-upon starting point that many secularists seem to think they are.

Choosing Theism or Self-Contradictions?

self-contradictionIn discussing St. Thomas Aquinas’ Third Way, Mackie attacks the idea that something which could possibly not exist will eventually not exist. I’d agree with Mackie that this isn’t a logical necessity unless one accepts the Aristotelian views of matter and essence. Still, that hardly makes Mackie’s view the most likely possibility.

And, without opening the massive discussion about the Aristotelian philosophical system, this is one more case of Mackie arguing from possibility. It is certainly much more likely that something which is contingent will eventually go out of existence.

St. Aquinas argues that, barring divine assistance, the universe simply can’t go on forever. This is not, it should be clear, the argument that the universe began to exist. Aquinas, rather famously, thought this couldn’t be proved to anyone who rejects the authority of scripture. Rather, it is the argument that an eternal universe (as nearly all atheists claimed the universe was until very recently) would need something external to sustain it. And, once one works out what sort of thing could do this, one is left with theism.

And science seems to be catching up to philosophy here in discovering that we are headed for a heat-death. Even scientists are saying that, baring divine intervention, things aren’t going to last forever. As such, I’m not sure why (other than trying to unfairly discredit the argument) Mackie wants to argue that Aquinas is wrong to suppose that things can’t last forever.

This is doubly strange in that he follows this with the suggestion that the universe doesn’t need to sustain itself forever, because it, in fact, had a beginning.

And Aquinas, I think it is fair to say, would take that “objection” as a major concession. If one is going to assert that the universe came into existence in the finite past, then one has to contend with Kalam-style arguments for God. No self-respecting atheist would have conceded that the universe was past-finite before the twentieth century.

This seems like more of Mackie’s characteristic scattershot approach, where he shifts between contradictory views as the momentary need arises. It simply isn’t a logical, systematic refutation.

Even worse, Mackie’s argument against the Second Way, you will remember, was that it is “dubious” to claim that there are not actual infinite chains of causation. But this, given the modern cosmology that leads Mackie to suggest that the universe is past-finite, is far from dubious. Rather, a finite number of operations and causes is exactly what scientists have found to be the case.

Mackie can’t simply demand that we remember this science when Aquinas (purely for the sake of argument) shows that not even an eternal universe could exist without God, then expect that we forget this when faced with arguments (from Aquinas and others) based on the idea that infinite chains of causation don’t exist.

This “heads I win, tails you lose” approach is, to me, one of the surest signs that theism has the stronger claim on truth. It can answer either set of objections, and it is only by vacillating between the two that Mackie can make his atheism seem plausible.

In the end, that strikes me as rather desperate.

Unfair Dismissal

290117-redundanciesIn The Miracle of Theism, J.L. Mackie simply dismisses Aquinas’ first two arguments for God’s existence as based on antiquated science. This is the whole of his discussion of these arguments (and I’ve already pointed out the falsehood of that claim).

However, he does interact briefly with the argument of the Second Way later in the chapter. Here, he argues (wrongly, in my view) that an essentially ordered causal series can stretch to infinity.

Or, at least, that seems like what he is arguing. As in many places in the book, Mackie attempts to cast doubt on a premise without actually claiming that the opposite is true. He seems to write as if, so long as a premise is uncertain (at all), one can completely dismiss an argument’s conclusion without concluding that the premise is false.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Second Way, I find this a good summary. But a rough explanation would be that it is an argument from efficient cause (the type of causation studied by science). It begins with the idea that, in some causal chains, the removal of any one link will prevent the effect from occurring.

This is not true in all cases. Even if one’s great-grandfather has died, this doesn’t mean that one couldn’t have been born–and that the family he helped to cause must die with him. But, in other situations, this does seem to be the case.

As such, it is very much like the first way, but taking a similar line of reasoning to efficient causation, rather than actualized potentials.

A classic example is the idea of a watch could run without a motor or a spring if only it had an infinite number of gears, each one turned by the one before it. This strikes me as clearly absurd, illustrating the point that some causal chains (called “essential”) require something that doesn’t get its ability to cause things from an external source. And this self-existent thing, as Aquinas says, all men call God.

But Mackie doesn’t seem to think so. He thinks it is “dubious” to claim that the infinite-gear watch would not turn.

And again, it isn’t clear whether he’s arguing that such a thing is not only possible, but happens in the world all the time (as he would have to argue to properly counter Aquinas), or if he’s merely casting doubt on the idea to say that we aren’t perfectly certain of it.

So long as I’m reading the book as an attack on theism, he seems to mean the latter. But, so long as I’m reading it as a defense of a secular view, he seems to mean the former.

And strikes me as hopelessly confused. In an uncertain world, it is not enough simply to say that one’s opponent hasn’t proved a position beyond all possible doubt. Rather, one must show an alternative to be superior.

But Mackie does not do this. Rather, he seems to think having any reason at all to doubt an argument for theism is a reason to embrace a secular position.

And nearly all of the intellectual support for atheist views seems to suffer from this mistake. When it has come to offering an alternative (materialism, physicalism, platonism, etc.), secular views have done much more poorly than theism. As such, many of their proponents seem to rely on presenting vague doubts of theistic arguments in lieu of a positive case for atheism.

No Reason Whatsoever

no_reasonIn our last discussion of “Miracle of Theism” Mackie was questioning the validity of the idea that, for anything that exists, there is a reason why it exists (known as sufficient reason).

I accused him of simply doubting this idea, without giving any argument for his rejection of such an obvious position–that is otherwise the basis of all rational inquiry. To be fair to Mackie, that isn’t quite right. He does offer some counter explanations, and a more rational objection.

But, to be fair to my response, none of these are an actual argument for the idea that some things exist inexplicably, but simply attacks on sufficient reason.

Take, for instance, his response that sufficient reason is based in the composition fallacy. He argues that you can’t argue that, because all the parts of a thing have a property, that the whole has that property. Every cell in an elephant is light, after all, but the whole elephant is heavy.

But there are two very strong (I would say devastating) responses to this.

The first is the simple fact that this isn’t the main basis on which Leibnitz argues for sufficient reason. It is its status as the basis of inquiry and its a priori obviousness that are the key points.

Still, I’d argue that composition reasoning is valid in addition to this.

If it’s worth pointing out that reasoning from parts to the whole is sometimes wrong-headed, it is also worth pointing out that, at other times, it is entirely appropriate. To throw out another example, if every lego brick used to build a wall is red, then it does indeed follow that the wall is red.

And it seems fairly obvious that the case of the universe is more like the lego wall than the elephant. All the universe is, after all, is a collection of things (space, particles, planets, etc) that need explanations. It is entirely strange to say, then, that the whole collection wouldn’t need one.

Arguing otherwise would be rather like claiming that, though there must be reasons why the links of a chain exist, there is no explanation for the chain itself. This seems obviously false.

At the very least, Mackie owes us an argument. What he does instead is suggest that the universe might be eternal. But, to those who know this argument, this is irrelevant. Leibnitz’s case doesn’t assume the world had a beggining. Even an eternal universe, after all needs to be explained.

Mackie closes his discussion of the argument by claiming that it “fails completely”. But this, more than anything else in his book, struck me as completely wrong. His refutation seemed more a grasping at straws than anything that should shake a theist.

In the end, I find it hard to believe that a non-theist would accept “some things just don’t have explanations” as a defense of theism, and I don’t see any reason why I should accept it as a defense of Mackie’s atheism.

Rational Inquiry vs “Just Because”

jock_nerdMoving on with Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism”, we get to some real clash. In Mackie’s view, the Leibnitzian Cosmological argument is an utter failure. In mine, it is a powerful argument for God’s existence.

For those that aren’t familiar with the argument, I’ve outlined it in the past.

For those that know it, I think Mackie’s first response is both very interesting and very wrong-headed. He claims that, if Leibnitz has proved that a necessary being exists, then there needs to be some kind of explanation as to why that being is necessary.

First, I’m not sure that this is true. Leibnitz’s argument establishes that there must be a necessary object. The question of why a particular object is necessary is another matter. Demanding that a conclusion can’t be accepted until we can further explain that conclusion would be to insist that we need an explanation of the explanation before we accept it.

And it should be clear that this would result in an infinite regress that, if accepted, would halt all inquiry. After all, this would leave us demanding that we can’t accept General Relativity until we can explain why matter causes space to bend, and that we can’t accept that explanation until we further explain it, and so on.

And, even if it were true that we need to explain the “why” of necessity before we can recognize the fact of necessity, Mackie isn’t on terribly strong ground here.

After all, the explanation of “why” would be one or more of the ontological arguments he’s discussed earlier in the book (or some other one not mentioned). Essentially, he’s saying that, if Leibnitz is right, then some ontological argument would have to be true.

I’m inclined to agree with him; that does seem to follow. Where I disagree with him is in following that with an “since the ontological arguments all fail, Leibnitz must be wrong”.

Most obviously, this is an argument from ignorance. It assumes that there is no valid ontological argument outside of what has already been suggested by theists. Even more damning is the fact that Mackie, in criticizing Plantinga’s ontological argument, suggested that we “remain neutral” with respect to the argument. But, if he’d really meant that, he shouldn’t now base an objection on confidently asserting that no one has presented a sound ontological argument.

And this is a problem I see fairly often: shifting one’s position to that which is strongest with respect to the current point. This may be a good means to win arguments, or persuade the casual reader, but it is not an avenue to truth.

So far, this doesn’t seem to have affected Leibnitz’s argument at all. But this is not Mackie’s only objection. He also rejects the principle of sufficient reason (“whatever exists has an explanation of its existence”).

As this principle is the heart of all inquiry, I am very suspicious of anyone arguing that it should be abandoned.

I’m doubly suspicious of anyone who doesn’t actually offer a reason that it is false, but simply demands that believers in sufficient reason should defend the idea that “there must be an explanation for this” is always more reasonable than “this exists for literally no reason whatsoever”.

And this is what Mackie does. He never presents a reason to believe that some things just exist inexplicably–or addresses the thought that this seems like a halt to all inquiry. Rather, all he does is insist that one needn’t believe in sufficient reason to do science.

How so? He claims that science only requires that like effects have like causes, but this is suspicious at best. Personally, I’m more inclined to call it completely false. Surely, science requires the belief that things have explanations in the first place.

To Mackie’s credit, he also attempts something like a demonstration that sufficient reason is false by pointing out that humans don’t always have rational reasons for the way we behave. But, if this is the best example he can produce, I think it is clear that the objection is a very weak one. That humans don’t always act rationally does nothing whatsoever to disprove the idea that things have explanations. The explanation needn’t be that the cause was itself rational, after all. That should be obvious enough, and one is left wondering why Mackie thinks otherwise. He does not tell us.

But Mackie isn’t done questioning the validity of sufficient reason. I’ll discuss his other reasons next time. For now, the important point is that this is his only real objection to Leibnitz. He, like the overwhelming majority of atheist philosophers, agrees that the only valid explanations of the universe are theistic–and defends his atheism by insisting that the universe simply has no explanation.

That seems to set a very low bar for theism to rise above.

Missing the Point

Dart arrows missing targetAfter discussing Anslem’s ontological argument, Mackie moves to Alvin Plantinga’s version. Personally, I’ve always had a personal distrust of ontological arguments; proving notions based on abstract reasoning alone raises a red flag for me. Still, I’m having an increasingly hard time dismissing them as I read. In fact, one of the ironies of my current situation is that Mackie’s book has done more to persuade me of the truth of these arguments than to put me off them.

What I am convinced of, and I think this is undeniable, is that God’s existence is either logically necessary or impossible. It simply cannot be the case that God could have existed, but didn’t–or could not have existed, but did. I think this is clear that necessary existence is part of what it means to be God. But the implication, then, is this:

If God is either necessary or impossible, then either there is a logical contradiction in the idea of God, or there is an ontological argument that works.

Mackie argues that Plantinga’s version doesn’t work, but seems to rest his argument on a misunderstanding of the argument. He spends quite a bit of time arguing against the idea of “world-indexed properties”. But, by my reading, Plantinga’s argument doesn’t depend on such properties (this was, indeed, part of Plantinga’s own response to the book). As such, he’s simply given us a very long red herring argument.

Where Mackie has a point (even as I disagree) is in the idea that it is more parsimonious to claim that God does not exist than that he does. After all, this has always been the atheist’s best line of attack.

Still, there’s a very reasonable response.

It is only more parsimonious for the question of God in isolation. Given the number of brute facts, and downright self-contradictions, that seem to stem from modern “parsimony” about non-physical things, this attack isn’t nearly so strong as it seems at first blush.

In fact, I’d say that theism is much more parsimonious, at the end of the day, than any other view I know.

But Mackie has one other challenge: the suggestion that we remain undecided on this position.

But, whatever the logical merits of this approach, it is simply not livable. Each of us has to live either as if God exists, or as if he does not. One can be actively seeking, and open to change, but neutrality on fundamental questions isn’t an option to anyone who has to live and act in the real world.

This is why I find this wrong-headed from the start. Really, it relies on a slight of hand. Though I don’t doubt Mackie’s sincerity, the functional result is deceptive. A myth of neutrality often persuades people to live as functional atheists without actually establishing atheism as the most reasonable position.

That, and Mackie will need to have done more than remain neutral on this point for one of his other refutations to work, as we shall see next.

What is Greatness?

GreatnessAfter (basically) endorsing Hume’s argument against belief in miracles, J. L. Mackie turns to discussion of ontological arguments for God’s existence (arguments that try to argue for God’s existence based simply on reason and the idea of God).

He opens with a couple of arguments pressed by Descartes, and rejects them. And personally, I agree. Descartes claimed that God must exist because we could not have clearly perceived the idea of the infinitely powerful unless something infinitely powerful existed. I won’t get too far into this, because I’m in complete agreement with Mackie’s objection that we never really perceive something infinitely powerful. None of us can really imagine that, and this is, I think, devastating for Descartes’ argument.

As to Anselm’s much more famous ontological argument for God’s existence, things get much more interesting.

Most people (including myself, I must say) find the argument suspicious. To say that God is defined as the greatest possible being, then to say that existing would be greater than not (and, therefore, God exists) doesn’t sit well with me personally.

What is interesting is how we each go about rejecting the argument. Mackie denies that existing would make a thing greater than not existing, which is fine insofar as that goes, but he never gives a reason for this denial. He admits that it is a cogent thought that existence is what philosophers call a “great-making property”, but simply denies that this thought is true.

I’ve always felt that I have a good reason to question this premise. That is “greatness” assumes a standard of good and bad, against which we might measure the object in question. And, personally, I don’t see how we can have a standard by which we presume to measure God–much less worked it out well enough to know what it is–until we’ve already settled the question of God’s existence.

The trouble with this is that it leads us right into the moral argument for God’s existence. Anyone pressing this objection to Anselm has basically three options: 1) Defend nihilism, 2) Defend a secular case for objective values that can avoid this argument from greatness, or 3) Accept theism.

The third isn’t problem for me, of course, but those arguing against the conclusion of theism have two very difficult choices, and I worry that this is part of the reason why Mackie doesn’t offer his reason for rejecting the idea that existence is a great-making property.

To me (and even to Mackie), Anselm could retort that we can know that existence constitutes a great-making property even before understanding the ultimate source of greatness. That would be harder to refute, and I’m not concerned to do so here.

I do find this argument suspicious, but less so than Mackie’s dismissal without offering a standard by which he does so. If he can’t offer a clear alternative of what constitutes greatness (even if that is nihilism), then he can’t claim to have done away with theism.

And that is a major issue that continues to come up (and will continue to come up later in the book). It isn’t enough to simply cast doubt on a proof. One must offer a basis on which one believes the premises that support the counter argument (that is, an alternative view). But this is something that atheists, in my experience, notoriously avoid doing.

From here, Mackie turns to Plantinga’s ontological argument. We’ll discuss that next.

Miracles Aren’t Evidence for a Deist God (and Other Non-News)

watchComplicI’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.