Do We Believe in Miracles Due to the Evidence or Due to Our Desire to Believe?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

We’re back to the recurring question of the role of faith, the will, and evidence.  Those who believe in miracles frequently will point to evidence of specific miracles and say, “This is why I believe.”  Those who disbelieve miracles will claim that there is no evidence and that they won’t believe until they see irrefutable proof.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in his classic The Brothers Karamazov, questions both of these claims.  The narrator in the book argues that for most people, their mind is made up about miracles long before they ever see the evidence.  It is their beliefs and their desires which win out, not a sober look at the evidence.  Here is the passage:

The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Even if he admits it, he admits it as a fact of nature till then unrecognized by him.

Faith does not, in the realist, spring from the miracle but the miracle from faith. If the realist once believes, then he is bound by his very realism to admit the miraculous also. The Apostle Thomas said that he would not believe till he saw, but when he did see he said, “My Lord and my God!” Was it the miracle forced him to believe? Most likely not, but he believed solely because he desired to believe and possibly he fully believed in his secret heart even when he said, “I do not believe till I see.”

There is no doubt that our will, our desire to believe or not believe plays a very strong role in our assessment of the supernatural.  This sword cuts both ways, for neither the believer nor the non-believer can claim a dispassionate and unbiased approach.  As much as we’d like to believe that only the facts should sway our decisions, we are unable to do so.  Our challenge is to be aware of the bias and to minimize it the best we can.  Easier said than done.

  • It is not my desire to believe that constrains my assessment of the supernatural. It is the limits of the intellectual tools that are available to me. My ability to infer the cause on the evidence I observe depends upon the regular functioning of natural law.

    The reason that I think that fingerprints on a gun point to the person who handled it is because I understand the natural processes by which the patterns on the human fingers can come to appear on other objects and I believe those processes act consistently. If I thought that those patterns appeared on objects randomly or by divine fiat, I could not infer any cause at all. The fingerprints wouldn’t be evidence for anything.

    Unfortunately, I lack any intellectual tools that would enable me to determine whether a supernatural event has occurred. I know nothing about the processes by which such events occur. I have no idea what kind of evidence they are likely to leave and no idea what evidence might point to them, and hence no basis to say that any particular collection of evidence is best explained by the supernatural.

    This doesn’t mean that there cannot be supernatural events. It just means I don’t know how to assess them as the most likely explanation. It is as though I have a yardstick and you are accusing me of bias because I cannot tell you what the temperature is. It is not a question of whether I believe in temperature or not. It is simply that the available tools don’t measure it.

    The thing is that I have no bias against crazy stuff that I cannot explain. While my intellectual tools depend on the consistency of natural processes, I don’t expect to be able to explain everything. Nothing in my world view precludes the possibility of unprecedented events supported by sufficient evidence that I would be forced to say to the theist “Wow! That’s some crazy stuff. That sure is a good one for your side.” However, I would accept it as something for which I have no explanation because I have no basis on which to say that a supernatural action is the most likely explanation.

  • Todd Pratt

    —————————–
    “We’re back to the recurring question of the role of faith, the will, and evidence. Those who believe in miracles frequently will point to evidence of specific miracles and say, “This is why I believe.” Those who disbelieve miracles will claim that there is no evidence and that they won’t believe until they see irrefutable proof.”
    —————————–

    In every case, of the likely hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions?) of claims of miracles, there has never been irrefutable proof of the supernatural. I think we should be well beyond the point of giving any credence to these claims until a shred of evidence is presented to the contrary. Our skepticism should be a natural reaction to those who cry ‘wolf’.

    —————————–
    There is no doubt that our will, our desire to believe or not believe plays a very strong role in our assessment of the supernatural. This sword cuts both ways, for neither the believer nor the non-believer can claim a dispassionate and unbiased approach. As much as we’d like to believe that only the facts should sway our decisions, we are unable to do so. Our challenge is to be aware of the bias and to minimize it the best we can. Easier said than done.
    —————————–

    I believe the difference here may be that the skeptic has a dispassionate and unbiased approach to testing the claims of miracles using the scientific method. The believer has something similar using logic and philosophy. Both methods can arrive at conclusions that are reasonable. I think the difference in the conclusions using the different methods come down to which one has impact on reality.

    “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” – Carl Sagan

  • Ian A

    There was a talk by Grayling and Dawkins on iPadio asking them what would make them believe in miracles. The answer was nothing. Even they saw a 50 foot high Jesus they still wouldn’t believe their eyes, assuming that they had themselves had become mentally unstable. The talk by Craig Keener gives the case for modern day miracles including people being raised from the dead at
    http://apologetics315.blogspot.com/2011/04/question-of-miracles-interview-with.html#comments
    to my mind makes miracles compelling, but maybe that is just my bias.

  • Todd

    Ian,

    I listened to a good bit of the interview. It seems the same as what I always hear from Christians. Keener talks about the prayer miracles (“We’re you praying for me at 2pm? cause I got better!”). This always seems shortsighted to me. What about all of the prayers that were not answered. I suppose you would have to assume that it was heard and denied. Also, why are these miracles always limited to internal medicine? Why doesn’t god heal amputees? (http://whywontgodhealamputees.com). In the first example of the girl who was able to stop wearing glasses, Keener proclaimed it a miracle, gave several reasons, then admitted the doctor had a medical explanation but conveniently left that out.

    If these reasons are compelling to you, I’d like to sell you some rapture pet insurance, newly discounted for the October 21st resurrection.

  • Unlike Grayling and Dawkins, I can see how it might make a difference if a 50-foot Jesus appeared to me. However, I would still view it as a subjective personal experience and I would consider Grayling and Dawkins entirely reasonable in thinking that I had become mentally unstable.

  • Ian A

    Todd wrote:
    What about all of the prayers that were not answered.

    Keener does address that towards the end of the interview, where he says God is evangelical i.e. if you are an atheist and you want something and put everything on the line for God, God is more likely to grant you that wish than for a non atheist.

    The example of amputees is interesting, but they don’t say that Jesus cured lepers, who would have lost parts of their body. I don’t believe it says in the Bible whether the affected parts would have been restored. If Jesus couldn’t, then a large number of people praying wouldn’t be able to. However it is not scientific to say that a large number of people praying couldn’t do it unless the experiment has been conducted. The author of the piece is clearly prejudging the outcome.

    I would make a final point, that it is made clear that if God has done a lot of miracles already, why should He continue to do miracles? In other words, God is exasperated with humans. Why should He continually need to do miracles, if as Vinny says people won’t believe their own eyes?

  • I didn’t say that people won’t believe their own eyes. I said that t wouldn’t expect other people to believe my eyes.

    In my life, I have encountered people who embrace miraculous explanations for ordinary events and I have encountered people who pass on and exaggerate such miracle stories without any critical reflection. If there is a God, he gave me my brain with which to reason about the world around me. Why would he expect me to believe ancient miracle stories when nothing in my experience suggests that there is the slightest likelihood that they are true?

  • Ian A

    The ‘miracle on the Hudson’, the plane that managed to land on the Hudson river after a bird strike. I take it you didn’t experience that, presumbably you saw the pictures and heard the testimony of the witnesses. I take it you would have no difficulty reasoning about that it and believing it happened, despite not experiencing it. What to then to your mind is the difference of a secular miracle like that and a divine miracle?

  • Andrew Ryan

    “I take it you would have no difficulty reasoning about that it and believing it happened, despite not experiencing it.”

    Ian, you are comparing two events:
    1) An event caught on camera, with a plane’s black box backup to corroborate events, that basically comes down to a trained professional doing his job properly with a bit of luck on his side.
    2) An event that appears to break the known laws of science, for which we are relying entirely on the testimony of strangers.

    There is no connection between accepting the first event and accepting the second.

  • Ian A

    Andrew, I take your point, but if you didn’t have the black box available or the footage from the camera, supposing this being looked at 2000 years in the future and all you had was some old newspaper reports, wouldn’t it become similar?

  • Andrew Ryan

    “Wouldn’t it become similar?”

    Yes, it might – an event for which there was a perfectly rational, scientific explanation, might become surrounded by myth, embellishment, poor translations and competing accounts, such that it was seen as proof of the supernatural.

  • Ian,

    No it would not be similar because, as Andrew points out, the “Miracle on the Hudson” obeys the observed processes of cause and effect which are the only tools available to me to infer the cause of any effect I observe. When it comes to reports of supernatural events, the causes I have observed most frequently are wishful thinking, gullibility, and lack of critical thinking. Those are not the causes I have observed most often for unusual events like the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

    However, if I were looking at the event from two thousand years in the future based solely on a newspaper report, I suspect that I would have much less certainty about it.

  • Ian A

    There have been a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary in ?Zeitun?, Egypt. They have pictures of it and lots of eyewitness testimony. Associated with it are miracles of a woman cured of breast cancer, a blind man seeing and a girl cured of polio. The best atheist explanation is that they have used lasers. It is at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRNJIF6PdgI&feature=related
    The lastest appearances have been in 2010. Personally, I am skeptical of these appearances as you don’t see any movement, but it is interesting nonetheless.

  • Ian A,

    Lights in the sky don’t sound like the kinds of thing that requires a supernatural explanation. Moreover, even if all the natural explanations I could posit proved unsatisfactory, I don’t think that would give me any reason to think that a supernatural phenomenon was more likely than a natural phenomenon that I didn’t understand. Finally, even if I became convinced that no natural explanation was possible, I don’t know how I could determine that the Virgin Mary was a more likely explanation than pixies, fairies, or gnomes.

  • Alex

    As I said in my other post – if we believe in miracles, that God did something “special” – then we have to believe that those acts had a direct causative effect on the minds of those who witnessed them. This would mean that, by performing miracles, God in his foreknowledge knew that he would be “making up the minds” of certain people, for it was the miracle which caused their minds to be made up. This is none other than mind control, because these people could not have chosen to think differently, after having been exposed to the miracle, than the way God intended. If God had not intended said “undeniable reaction,” he surely would have not performed the miracle which caused it.

  • bob berry

    i wonder which translation of Brothers is being used here solely for my own curiosity. I am partial to Pevear/ Volkohonsky). I enjoyed this post. Thanks.