The Argument from Miracles
First, let's look at the underlying argument behind using miracles as apologetic tools. My "vernacular" summary would be something like this:
- A stance that atheism/materialism/physicalism best describes the world entails set X of all possible occurrences
- This miracle is outside of set X
- Atheism/materialism/physicalism is false since a deviation from its allowable set has occurred
- Furthermore, this miracle contains certain characteristics that make it aptly covered by theistic set Y of possible occurrences
- Therefore, it is more likely that theism is true
Hopefully that was reasonably clear. Essentially, theists point to a miracle, then illustrate how some aspect of it falls outside of what atheists/materialists/physicalists think is possible (thus attempting a refutation or challenge of said world views), and then (typically) proceed to illustrate how their particular formulation of god/theism says that such an occurrence is completely explainable (thus attempting a positive case for theism variety X).
Most atheists I know don't bite. There are plenty of ways around these types of arguments. Most miracles are poorly documented, occurred in a time and place when people still believed loads of ridiculous things, and involve being removed by several degrees from the evidence. A miracle suffering from these symptoms might be dubious already
Another area of debate centers around miracles philosophically. Are they even possible? Some might simply say that if science is that which describes the happenings we observe, and then we are faced with a well-enough documented aberration to these descriptions (a miracle), then science would simply be forced to update. So... a miracle might, by definition, be impossible. Others might take some cues from Hume and argue that the evidence provided for the miracle would need to be of such a high quantity and quality that for it not to be a miracle would become more miraculous than the miracle itself. That's a pretty darn heavy weight of evidence. Or, lastly, some point to the double burden of proof -- to claim a miracle, one needs to explain exactly how it occurred... but the more this is done, the more is understood and the less "miraculous" it becomes.
In any case, the roots of the whole argument hinge on the second point: "This occurrence falls outside of set X, what atheism/materialism/physicalism says is possible." The obvious response to this is, "Yes, what you describe is currently unexplainable. I have no idea how that's possible, but maybe we'll find out someday." I have been faced with some pretty crazy stories. For example, in listening to Gary Habermas debate, he referenced some Near Death Experiences (NDEs) and Out of Body Experiences (OBEs) that were pretty darn amazing. For example, someone almost dying from a heart attack and then waking up to provide details about a car crash blocks away that was later verified. Or someone in surgery who supposedly left their body and saw a basketball on the roof which was later found. I really have no answer for these. I haven't actually been able to find their origin in my google searching, but even if I could... my answer would simply be that I have no idea how such things happened. My trust of science would rest on its historical success and I'd have to concede that if such occurrences really occurred, then they fall outside of my "set X" at the present moment.
The Argument from Anti-Miracles
If you're a non-believer and use any of the answers above, what do you think about using the tsunami as an example of why god's existence is improbable? In my thinking about this, I believe the argument is actually of the same form and equally flawed. Here's a similar "vernacular" summary of this argument:
- A stance that theism best describes the world entails set X of all possible occurrences
- This disaster is outside of set X
- Theism is false since a deviation from it's allowable set has occurred
- Furthermore, this disaster/tragedy contains certain characteristics that make it aptly covered by atheist/materialist/physicalist set Y of possible occurrences
- Therefore, it is more likely that atheism/materialism/physicalism is true
I just recently came to think of these as pretty much equivalent. The argument is revolving around what characteristics are proposed by each belief system and then looking for ways that witnessed occurrences contradict those characteristics.
So, atheism is (mostly) said to describe a world in which nothing exists except matter and energy, governed by physical laws that do not change. Theists respond with examples of healings that contradict what we know can happen in the human body. Or someone immediately regaining sanity or mental health. Or an accident-in-progress that appears to have deviated from the laws of physics.
And theism says an omni-max being rules the entire universe and loves nothing more in creation than human beings. Atheists respond by pointing to examples of horrible things happening to these sentient beings and the apparent lack of action of this hypothetical being to prevent such occurrences or alleviate their aftermath.
The response? This is treading on problem of evil ground here, so any standard response to that probably holds here. Theists may claim that the world didn't used to contain such atrocities, but that now they are present due to our initial transgression. Or that somehow natural disasters are the result of free will. Or that god won't intervene in some cases because it would override free will. Or that god is limited in his control over the natural world.
Or... theists may ultimately simply claim that they already believe in theism for other reasons, and thus the will suppose that god has an answer to these things that they will eventually know in the afterlife.
Is this really that different from atheists who claim that they already believe science holds for other reasons and thus that it may eventually be able to explain something that is currently perplexing?
I think the two are pretty similar and thus think that, taken as an argument by itself, pointing at things the "other side's" beliefs can't currently explain isn't very effective. Perhaps it's logically coherent, but I just don't think it's effective -- there's always an "out."
I'll end with one disclaimer to my statement of equivalence. I think that for the equivalence to hold, a theist needs to be essentially apathetic to apparent miracles. Pretty strong claim, huh? I say this as the "out" to why god would apparently not act above probably reduces to a plea of ignorance. "We just don't know." That's my current stance with science on certain aspects, and I think it would be odd to follow up a response of "I don't know" to NDEs or OBEs and then declare that something else makes them impossible. Sure, I still think they're unlikely, but I don't think it's fair to argue from a system I just said was unable to explain a phenomenon... and then use the same system to argue that such things are impossible.
That might be confusing. What I mean is that for a theist to claim ignorance about why god would not prevent a horridly disastrous occurrence from killing his beloved children and then turn around and declare that they absolutely know that he healed such and such's hip socket at Lourdes is a bit difficult for me to swallow. One either knows how god acts... or one doesn't.
I don't really think that the arguments from miracles or anti-miracles succeed, but I do think that both limit their respective recipients to consistency. If one claims that their current world-view/explanatory-tool is limited in a given area, then live that out. Be patient and refrain from arguing from that same limitation toward declaring something else with certainty.
This is why I stand by my "anti-miracles" argument HERE. Someone claimed that god specifically healed people at Lourdes. That's claiming knowledge about why and under what circumstances god does what he does. But how does that knowledge proclamation jive with the fact that pilgrims traveling in several buses, a train, and a plane were not prevented from meeting their deaths despite their good intentions. Either god is protective and rewarding to pilgrims or he's not.
Again, to simply say, "Well, god doesn't always do this or that. We just don't know" is a plea to ignorance, which is absolutely fine. But then stick with that ignorance. It doesn't work to say that you have no idea when or why or what god does and then to immediately declare that you know specifically what and why he did in case x.
What do you think?