Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hume: Miracles Are Possible

Dinesh D'Souza has an excellent article on the possibility of miracles in the January Columbia.1 He starts off with the point that atheist rat-pack authors like Dawkins and Hitchens cite David Hume's as the strongest argument against miracles.

In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume argued: 1) A miracle is a violation of the known laws of nature; 2) We know these laws through repeated and constant experience; 3) The testimony of those who report miracles contradicts the operation of known scientific laws; 4) Consequently, no one can rationally believe in miracles.

D'Souza turns Hume's skepticism against him to argue for miracles:

Interestingly, Hume's argument against miracles can be overthrown using his own empirical skeptical philosophy. In short, we may observe that: 1) A miracle is a violation of the known laws of nature; 2) Scientific laws are on Hume's own account empirically unverifiable; 3) Thus violations of the known laws of nature are quite possible; 4) Therefore, miracles are possible.

Pretty much, Hume's saying empirical laws are all inductive and we can never be entirely sure about such conclusions. All we have are experiences that provide associations, and we really cannot argue based on cause and effect. We don't know that matches cause fire, for example, but we simply associate striking a match with a subsequent fire. A skeptical point of view indeed. This means that whatever laws we come up with are not based on any real causality, but merely on association.

While Hume goes too far in arguing against our knowledge of causes, he has a point. Reason (modern) science is uncertain in that it argues by affirming the consequent, which means that we only confirm a hypothesized rule by confirming its consequences. To claim that such arguments provide certain knowledge is to succumb to a fallacy.2

Let's take as an example the principle "if it has rained, the sidewalk is wet." I find that the sidewalk is wet, so can I validly conclude that it has rained? No, there are plenty of other possible causes for the sidewalk's humidity. A garden hose, for example.

D'Souza's scientific example is the supercession of Einstein's physics over Newton's. Newton's laws provided the correct results for centuries in countless contexts, but none of that success guaranteed they were absolutely true in all contexts.

There is nothing wrong in all this [taking scientific laws as provisionally true], as long as we realize that scientific laws are not "laws of nature." They are human laws, and they represent a form of best-guessing about the world. What we call laws are nothing more than observed patterns and sequences. We think the world works in this way until future experience proves the contrary.

So the laws of physics seem to rule out miracles only because we unduly inflate the power of these laws.

Recently, philosophers like Nancy Cartwright have championed anti-realism, the belief that scientific laws do not represent reality, or do so in only a very limited way.

I propose a simulacrum account of explanation. The route from theory to reality is from theory to model, and then from model to phenomenological law. The phenomenological laws are indeed true of the objects in reality—or might be; but the fundamental laws are only true of objects in the model. (4)

Although I claim that a successful causal explanation gives good reason to believe in the theoretical entities and theoretical properties it postulates, I have repeatedly said that I do not believe in theoretical laws. (8)

I can't claim to be able to evaluate Cartwright's stance at this point, as am not yet able to understand how one can believe in theoretical entities but disbelieve in the theories that propose them. Much of what she says strikes me as true, but I suspect that she goes too far in questioning the veracity of the laws of physics.


1. I get two Columbia magazines. On might say there's a slight difference of perspective between the one published by the Knights of Columbus and the one published by Columbia University.

2. Aristotelians claim that certain knowledge is possible of the sensible world. The latest philosopher to support this cause is William Wallace. See his The Modeling of Nature (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996).

Dinesh D'Souza, "What's So Great about Christianity: Why Miracles Are Possible," Columbia 88:1 (January 2008), 21-22. [the online version doesn't bear much apparent relationship to the printed version]

Nancy Cartwright, How the Laws of Physics Lie (New York: Clarendon Press, 1983).


Anonymous said...

This quote obviously applieds to the said Dinesh when you examine his rantings, and his politics, and the company that he keeps.

"Many people claim to be religious but very few people have a REAL sense of the powers behind the world, or an experiential understanding of the psyche, or a moral grasp of what it truly means to be religious, or a heartfelt commitment to how one must live in order to realize a truly religious life and destiny. The Process that is True Religion is to enter ecstatically into the Domain of Radiant Existence that is beyond the limited personal self, or ego, or body-mind. It is to engage in higher intuitive, mystical, moral, and emotional processes that lead into and then beyond the realms of the psyche and even all the realms beyond material visibility. It is a way of making positively creative changes in one's "material" or physical life, as well as passing consciously beyond this gross hysical life into another destiny, even while alive, and also at death.

True Religion is based on psychic connection to Reality. There can be no true religion without profound psychic activity. True religion expresses the inherent disposition and motive of the psyche, or the intuitive, feeling core of Man."

The tragedy is that such a mediocrity as Dinesh is taken so seriously by those on the "right".
Such is also indicative of the one-dimensional shallowness that (mis)-"informs" so called religious thinking on the "right" wing of the culture wars in the USA.

Anonymous said...

Plus I wonder if the Knights of Columbus is based on the columbus that "discoverd" America.

If so it is a very poor choice because the said Columbus was a carpet bagger, a thief, a mass murderer, and an advocate and practitioner of genocide.

Great role model---dont you think.

Google the title Columbus and Other Cannibals by Jack Davis for a very realistic assessment of Columbus and his toxic legacy.

Lawrence Gage said...

Dear Anonymous,

It would be easier to take you seriously if you would

1. Identify yourself in some way (if not your name, at least an alias of some sort),

2. List the sources of your quotations,

3. Stick to the subject of the post, and most of all

4. Refrain from ad-hominem attacks.

Also, may I ask that you leave your very evident anger at home?

Thank you,