Thursday, March 13, 2008

Explanation and the Inexplicable

If a fine follow-up to my posts on the miraculous, Dr. Mike Liccione of Sacramentum Vitae offers a cogent and illuminating defense of the Vatican's perspective on the role of empirical verification in the canonization process. There is much in his discussion to agree with, and my intention here is not seriously to dispute any of his major findings, but merely to quibble with some of his distinctions. In short, I intend to put the "anal" in "analytic philosophy", and with a vengeance.

Let me begin by reminding my teeming following of the excruciatingly banal point that I was trying to make in the first place. My view can be put succinctly this way:

(1) Miracles do occur. (I'm just putting this one in here for full disclosure.)
(2) Miracles are supernatural events.
(3) Hence, no scientific findings are ever relevant to the miraculous.


In my posts I had addressed these claims from the point of view of scientific explanation, since the point at issue was the utility, or lack thereof, of obtaining statements from medical professionals about alleged miraculous cures. Mike agrees with me, apparently, that medical evidence from professionals is not a sufficient condition for declaring a cure miraculous, but he asserts that it is at least a necessary condition. He goes on to say many fine things about the role of the miraculous in the life of a believer that I do not dispute at all, but he says these things partly with a view to defending the thesis that miracles are not, as I claimed, "inexplicable", so I will confine my remarks, at least for the nonce, to the questions:

(a) Is empirical evidence a necessary condition in the present case?
(b) In what sense may the miraculous be regarded as explicable?


Let me begin by stating at once that I think Mike has, as usual, done a marvelous job of making clearer points that I, in my haste and exuberance, left remarkably cloudy, and (again, as usual) I am in his debt.

Regarding question (a), let me say first of all that I myself did not put the thing in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions not because I wanted to avoid the argot of analytic philosophy (mê genoito!), and not because I did not think the conditions were neither necessary nor sufficient, but because I regard the application of such conditions to the present case something of a category mistake. The difficulty is not that empirical evidence fails to be sufficient, or that it is not necessary, but that empirical evidence is completely irrelevant to the question of the miraculous in general.

Having said that, however, let me address Mike's positive claim in a different way, namely, by assuming with him that such evidence actually is relevant. Still it would not be necessary, and this, I think, for reasons that Mike himself will accept. To assert that medical evidence of a certain kind is a necessary condition on the miraculous is to say that, absent that medical evidence, it is necessarily the case that a miracle did not occur. This, I think, is simply too strong a claim, given the sort of evidence we're talking about.

What sort of evidence is that? Well, ex hypothesi (as found in Fr. Martin's comments to my posts) we're talking about a situation in which, on one day a noxious condition (say, a lethal cancer) is present, and on the next day (or within some suitably short period of time) that condition is entirely gone, without a trace, and with no empirical evidence of any naturalistically describable sequence of explanatory causes that could suffice to "explain" the disappearance of the condition. For the time being, we must put aside any questions about how one might go about verifying something like this (the only way to investigate the matter, it seems, is to cut the patient open and find that there is no tumor there when the X-ray or MRI said that there was one; but by that time there is no way to ascertain whether the X-ray or MRI in which it appeared two days earlier was in the least reliable). Hence, the evidence that we're talking about in the case of the miraculous is an assertion from a scientific professional to the effect that the situation just described actually obtains in some particular case. The question, then, is, should we require that specifically this sort of evidence be a necessary condition on declaring a cure "miraculous"?

In thinking about this question, consider another kind of case. Suppose we want to explain why some particular bit of water is frozen solid. One sort of explanation says, "It's frozen because its temperature was held to 32 degrees Fahrenheit or less at one atmosphere for a certain length of time." That is, I take it, a sufficient condition on the water's freezing, and it is a fully naturalistic explanation of the water's freezing. Suppose we were not to ask, however, "Why is the water frozen", but rather, "How did the water's temperature come to be held to 32 degrees Fahrenheit or less at one atmosphere?" On certain sorts of occasions, that question might have an equally straightforward answer: "Well, it's the middle of a freezing cold January day in Minnesota and the Arctic Clipper has been blowing on this glass of water for two days straight now, and so the temperature in the water went way down and it froze." But suppose our question is this: "How did the water's temperature come to be held to 32 degrees Fahrenheit or less at one atmosphere, given that it is a balmy summer day in Florida, and this glass of water, which was quite warm yesterday, has been sitting here in the warm summer Florida sun for nearly 12 hours?" This gives our earlier "explanation" of the water's being frozen quite a different status.

If you're wondering about the relevance of all this, I'm trying to motivate the view I defended earlier, namely, that empirical evidence ought to be regarded as irrelevant, not necessary, to our believing something to be miraculous. Suppose a medical condition clears up for reasons that the medical community declares fully naturalistic. Does it follow that the disappearance of the condition was not miraculous simply because certain proximate causes can be identified as part of the process? Not necessarily, and yet we would be forced to say that it was necessarily not miraculous if we hold to the necessary condition that Mike has stipulated. While that might satisfy the non-believer, surely it should not satisfy the believer.

The evidence of medical experts is supposed to reassure us that there's been no funny-business, no "perfectly ordinary" or natural cure, and this, in turn, is supposed to reassure us that what happened was, in fact, a miracle. But empirical evidence, as such, can accomplish none of this. Indeed, the whole situation is a massive confusion of the ontological with the epistemic. Ontologically, a given event is either miraculous or not miraculous independently of any empirically observable phenomena; epistemically, of course, it is precisely the observable phenomena that we look to for reassurance that what happened was a miracle, but, as I showed in my earlier post, there is no rational reason why our confidence that a miracle occurred should either increase or decrease as a consequence of any empirical evidence, because the miraculous is not an empirical category. To say that our confidence in the miraculous should be affected by the empirical is like saying that we can determine the pitch of a particular sound by tasting it.

If empirical observations were rationally compelling in the case of the miraculous, then non-believers would be manifestly irrational, since the testimony of literally hundreds of witnesses has been handed down to us that Our Lord performed many miracles. And yet there are those who do not believe that testimony. If a medical expert tells us that there is no scientific evidence to explain the disappearance of a tumor that was present the day before in an X-ray or MRI, any good medical expert worth his salt would have to admit that there are all sorts of alternative, naturalistic explanations available as to why the disappearance of the condition ought not to be regarded as miraculous, if what one is after is a scientific standard of empirical verification. True, the Church is able to find medical experts willing to take part in the exercise and who will say that there is "no explanation", but that means nothing; for every non-believing medical expert the Church finds who is willing to take part in the "verification" process, there are dozens of other non-believing scientific experts who will tell you that the whole process is a waste of time. These folks will never say that there is "no scientific explanation" for such things, they will say that the scientific explanation has yet to be found.

This brings us to question (b). Mike wants to say that the miraculous is, in fact, explicable, but in saying this he equivocates on the notion of explanation. I had specifically confined my remarks to scientific explanation, because it is the relevance of the scientific method to the verification of the miraculous that is at issue. In this sort of a context, the miraculous simply must be inexplicable, otherwise it is not miraculous. Obviously there is a metaphorical sense in which the miraculous is explicable: it is the work of God. But to say this is not to explain the miraculous, it is to describe it (and in terms that are not acceptable to everyone). We do not know how God accomplishes the miraculous, and that is the sort of knowledge that would be required if we were to say that miracles are literally explicable. Similarly, to say that a miracle explains something else may satisfy some, but it will certainly not satisfy everyone: in order for the answer "It is miraculous" to satisfy any such question as "How did that happen?" one must antecedently be willing to accept that such things as the miraculous can occur, and the capacity to accept such things is already something supernatural and, hence, outside the scope of the notion of explanation as such.

I think that Mike is on the firmest ground when he notes that "for those who 'get it'", that is, for the believer, the miraculous can confirm faith; but this is to admit that faith is present to be confirmed. Without faith, one will not "get it" to begin with: the miraculous is simply impossible at best, meaningless at worst. For those who do "get it", however, it simply is not necessary at all that a cure be scientifically inexplicable in order to be regarded as miraculous, since everything, even the ordinary workings of nature, are the handiwork of God. Even if a cure appears to result from perfectly ordinary "scientifically verifiable" naturalistic processes, we may still ask "Why did those processes kick in in this particular case, allowing for full recovery, when in certain other identical cases they do not kick in and the patient dies?" Just as water may freeze for the perfectly ordinary reason that it reached a certain temperature, we may always seek beyond the proximate cause for a deeper explanation. In some cases, such as the Minnesota winter, we may not have any reason to believe that anything out of the ordinary has happened, but that fact should not deter us from being willing to believe that there is sometimes something extraordinary even in the ordinary. The willingness to entertain such beliefs has absolutely nothing to do with scientific empiricism, and can in no way be affected (either up or down) by any results flowing from empirical methods.

11 comments:

TonyM said...

For the time being, we must put aside any questions about how one might go about verifying something like this (the only way to investigate the matter, it seems, is to cut the patient open and find that there is no tumor there when the X-ray or MRI said that there was one; but by that time there is no way to ascertain whether the X-ray or MRI in which it appeared two days earlier was in the least reliable).

If there is both an x-ray and an MRI done which corroborate exactly in detail the existence, size, shape, and location of a tumor (which was first identified on account of grave illness), then you have solid scientific reason to think that the x-ray and MRI equipment were reliable. You don't need to descend into a hobgoblin argument about "maybe my senses were deceived" kind of worry.

Suppose a medical condition clears up for reasons that the medical community declares fully naturalistic. Does it follow that the disappearance of the condition was not miraculous simply because certain proximate causes can be identified as part of the process? Not necessarily, and yet we would be forced to say that it was necessarily not miraculous if we hold to the necessary condition that Mike has stipulated.

No, You have this topsy turvy and I think maybe you are trying to be more subtle than the subject warrants. There is never the kind of rigorous mathematical certainty about the cause of a past real-life event comparable to the certainty of, say, the Pythagorean Theorem. Partly because we don't sense causation itself, we only sense effects of causes. Even if you a bat swing and make contact with a ball and then see the ball sail over the fence, you cannot say you know with mathematical type of certainty that there was no supernatural cause involved. (On some pre-scientific views of the world, it would be normal to ascribe to an angel precisely that motion of the ball, on the grounds that angels are what make the natural forces "work" to begin with. But I am not claiming this as useful here.) When we account for an event, we can give all sorts of "possible" causes that in some sense "could" have caused that type of event. But if we want to determine which specific cause was responsible in this specific case, we have to look at all of the facts and circumstances which make this event distinct (is there a bat, is it made out of something that is capable of transmitting enough force to send the ball over the fence, is there a batter with enough arm strength to swing the bat sufficiently hard, was the batter seen to swing the bat to make contact with the ball, etc.) When you have provided enough data that throws out all explanations except either (a) the batter really did hit the ball hard enough to send it over the fence, or (b) an angel sent it over the fence, you can't decide whether to accept (a) or (b) purely on empirical evidence alone. We simply don't have enough evidence to rule out (a), because we did not have a force-meter on the bat, for example.

A person of faith might say that the batter's prayers were answered by an angel, and that is why the ball went over the fence, but this explanation does not present a reason for rejecting (a), because the angel could have perfected the batter's swing, and (a) would be true.

It is understood then that in the absence of sufficient additional evidence that an acceptance of (a) over (b), or in accepting (b) over (a) as the actual cause in this case is not sound reasoning as a definitively held point of view. One may take up a stance on the matter as opinion, but one should hold that as opinion , i.e. as a point of view which is reformable given more evidence. It is not that one must have irrefutable proof in order to hold an opinion that the cause was miraculous, it is that holding this position as irreformable requires such additional support. And a lack of irrefutable proof does not affect whether the event really was caused by supernatural agency working apart from natural causes,
it only affects whether we hold that as the cause as opinion instead of as an irreformable fact.

Mike L said...

http://mliccione.blogspot.com/2008/03/miraculous-and-explanatory.html

Mike said...

Scott said:
(1) Miracles do occur. (I'm just putting this one in here for full disclosure.)
(2) Miracles are supernatural events.
(3) Hence, no scientific findings are ever relevant to the miraculous.


Scott, I believe your view is incorrect. If we are to postulate 1 and 2, then 3 does not follow unless one of the following is also true:
A) Miracles can in no way interact or be causal of anything in the real world, or
B) The supernatural and the natural are synonymous (No distinction can be made between a natural or a supernatural causation of an effect).

Scott Carson said...

Mike

My argument is, indeed, enthymematic, but it is not unsound. Your (A) is certainly false (for the Christian), but it doesn't follow from the falsity of (A) that scientific practices, which are by definition empirical and tied to the material world, could ever discover any truths about the miraculous (other than merely accidentally).

Your (B) is also false, but irrelevant to my argument.

The point is merely that science, as such, is by definition restricted in its domain to the natural world and, hence, can have nothing to say about the supernatural which is, in its own right, by definition restricted that which is beyond (=outside of) the natural order.

This does not mean that the effects of a miracle cannot be observed. If a cure really does take place by means of a miracle, then of course a medical doctor can say something along the lines of "there is no tumor present here right now." What the doctor cannot say is that the observed condition is certain due to some cause other than fully naturalistic processes. He can, of course, admit that he has no idea what the cause of the observable conditions are, but that is meaningless in the present context, because there are plenty of things that science cannot explain, but that failure to find the "hidden variable" does not warrant the inference (either by the scientist or by anybody else) that the cause was therefore a miraculous intervention by a divine power.

So the suppressed premise in my enthymeme is neither (A) nor (B), but something like:

(C) All sciences are, by definition, restricted to the naturalistic and empirical.

Mike said...

OK, so we can dispense with (B), we agree it is false by our definition.

I agree with your premise (C) as stated:
Scott Carson said...
...science, as such, is by definition restricted in its domain to the natural world


So far, so good, but you still have a flaw in your logic.

You are claiming (correct me if I misrepresent you) that:
(1), The supernatural can interact with the natural (real) world (i.e. Miracles happen).
then you go on to say:
"science...can have nothing to say about the supernatural"

You can't have it both ways. If the supernatural can interact in "any way" with the natural (real) world, then this connection can, by it's interaction with the real world, be studied empirically to some degree. If not, then you end up back at (B), where the natural and the supernatural are synonymous and indistinguishable, but we've already agreed that is not the case.

If all possible natural causes for an event could be ruled out scientifically, then a supernatural explanation could, in theory, remain as the only explanation, qualifiing the event as a miracle. This in itself shows science as having something important to say regarding the supernatural.

The idea that science "has nothing to say" regarding the supernatural, would by definition, mean that the supernatural does not interact with reality, and this would render miracles impossible.

I humbly suggest, that the idea that "science...can have nothing to say about the supernatural" is a subterfuge, to enable unreasonable beliefs to evade reasonable examination.

Scott Carson said...

Mike,

I think you're making a fundamental epistemological error when you write:

You can't have it both ways. If the supernatural can interact in "any way" with the natural (real) world, then this connection can, by it's interaction with the real world, be studied empirically to some degree. If not, then you end up back at (B), where the natural and the supernatural are synonymous and indistinguishable, but we've already agreed that is not the case.

Of course I can have it both ways, because science is a delimited domain of discourse, and as Christians we believe that there are objects of knowledge beyond the merely empirical. Science has nothing whatsoever to say about the question "Does God exist or not?" because God is not a material being and, hence, he is not available to empirical testing and, hence, science can have nothing to say about God's existence or his attributes. And yet, as Christians, we claim that we can "know" that God exists. True, one of the ways that we know he exists is by means of his own revelation to us, which is empirical in nature, but we also believe that the empirical revelation in itself is insufficient: we must also be aided by supernatural grace. The reason why grace is necessary (and not merely helpful in certain cases) is because if we relied on empirical evidence alone there would be no rational warrant for making knowledge claims, since we can never directly observe or make empirical tests of God's existence or attributes.

The difficulty with your view is that all naturalistic explanations cannot possibly be ruled out by science alone, since it is a fundamental assumption of all the sciences that everything has a naturalistic explanation--science does not posit the existence of anything outside of the natural order of things, hence it cannot allow for the possibility of supernatural causes. If we can't explain a particular phenomenon, the scientist must posit either (a) a hidden variable that has yet to be discovered or (b) the physical system is indeterministic.

Finally, it simply does not follow that, if a supernatural cause has an effect in the natural order, that cause and effect relationship will be discoverable by science. If the domain of scientific discourse included the supernatural as well as the natural, then that claim would be true. As it is, however, it is perfectly possible for miracles to happen and science will have no way, even in principle, either of confirming or denying it.

Does it follow from this that "unreasonable beliefs" cannot be rationally examined? Not at all. It is possible, for example, to construct a perfectly rational analysis of the intersection between faith and reason, and between the rational and the empirical. It simply is not within the domain of science to construct that analysis, since science is purely empirical in nature. It is, rather, the task of theology to construct such an analysis, and that is what JPII did in his encyclical Fides et ratio.

Mike said...

Scott Carson said...
Science has nothing whatsoever to say about the question "Does God exist or not?"


You're changing the subject. I already stipulated that science has nothing to say about that which is not part of the natural (real) world.

...the scientist must posit either (a) a hidden variable that has yet to be discovered or (b) the physical system is indeterministic.

Sure, but your definition of the supernatural IS that it is a hidden and unavailable variable to observation or analysis. This is consistent with the point I'm making, because this variable can be known about (at least to some degree) simply by it's interaction with the natural, even if this variable cannot be examined directly. An admittedly poor example is a black hole, which we cannot examine directly, but do have information about, due to it's effect on that which we can examine.

If we can have knowledge that a miracle occurs, then by definition, we can have at least some knowledge of the cause. For instance, the types of effects that that cause would be more likely to have.

...it is perfectly possible for miracles to happen and science will have no way, even in principle, either of confirming or denying it.

If that's true, then you ARE saying that my (B) from above is correct, contrary to your earlier statement; That a natural and a supernatural cause are synonymous and indistinguishable. Didn't we previously agree otherwise?

A miracle by definition, is a supernatural cause for an event in the natural (real) world. If one cannot distinguish that the cause is supernatural, then one cannot distinguish miracles from non-miracles, and clearly you think you can, because you state "(1) Miracles do occur."

Scott Carson said...

Mike

You raise some interesting and important issues, but your questions, and the way in which you put them, quite frankly, betray a set of methodological assumptions that may render any dialogue between us fruitless. But we'll see.

You're changing the subject. I already stipulated that science has nothing to say about that which is not part of the natural (real) world.

Actually, I'm not changing the subject but rather pointing out that you were begging the question. You do so again here: in writing "that which is not part of the natural (real) world", you make explicit an a priori metaphysical assumption that the natural world and the "real" world are co-extensive. That assertion in itself takes you out of the conversation as it is presently constituted: if you're unwilling to consider the possibility that there is more to the "real" world than what is discoverable by empirical investigation, that's fine by me--you're certainly not alone in that, but there's no point, then, in trying to engage in dialog with folks who think that the "real" world includes more than can possibly fit into your ontology. Your assumption is perfect for a conversation with materialist empiricists, but it will have no purchase in a conversation such as the present one, in which it is assumed that there are objects of knowledge outside of the "natural" order of things as you have defined it. If you would like to a have a conversation that is confined to the purely empirical and materialistic, I will be more than happy to discuss all sorts of topics in the philosophy of science with you, but the subject of miracles will never come up in that conversation, since science and the miraculous are mutually exclusive categories.

Now, because you seem to be assuming that "natural" and "real" are co-extensive terms, your questions have the effect of leaving the reader with the impression that you also equivocate on the term "natural" in this instance. That is, you seem to think that if a miracle occurred, the ultimate cause of the miracle (or perhaps more generally, the efficient cause) would, by definition, just be the "hidden variable" I was talking about when I spoke of naturalistic explanations. That's an equivocation because it again assumes that "natural" and "real" are co-extensive with "empirically detectable" and, hence, if there is a hidden variable at all, it must itself be part of a naturalistic system. To say what you have said here is to export a term ("hidden variable") that is restricted to the empirical sciences and make the erroneous assumption that any unexplained causal mechanism can be accurately described as a "hidden variable". That's like saying that a particular color is "warm" or "soft"--it may have some sort of metaphorical resonance with some folks, but it is, properly speaking, a category mistake.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that God exists and chooses to intervene in the case of an illness. In this kind of context (that is, a context in which we assume that it is at least possible that there is an immaterial being, God, who has caused the illness to disappear), the term "natural" refers only to those processes that are empirically observable and testable, that is, to those elements of "reality" that are available to scientific investigation. To talk about the "natural" and "natural processes" and "natural causes" in a context in which we also assume that there could be an immaterial being such as God, is not to imply that "the natural" as such constitutes the full extent of what exists and, hence, includes God himself or other such immaterial beings. In a context such as this, God is not construed as a part of the natural order of things. So, if God were to cause an illness to disappear, God does not thereby become a "natural" entity or process in the sense of being an empirically observable variable in a fully naturalistic system. The term "cause", in this sort of context, does not mean the same thing as the term "cause" in classical mechanics. Nor is this anything like quantum mechanics we're talking about here, where "cause" has an extended, but still fully materialistic, meaning. In the context in which an immaterial being such as God is assumed to be at least possible, we are talking about a situation in which there is a kind of an intersection between what's observable and what isn't. Now, again, the term "hidden variable" is from materialist mechanics: it is a variable that has not yet been identified by empirical means (even a black hole is empirically detectable, if not in principle observable), it does not include such possible entities as immaterial beings--indeed, it cannot include such things precisely because it is a concept taken from materialist empiricist assumptions. Indeed, in some interpretations of quantum mechanics, "hidden variables" are posited precisely because of a number of classical materialist assumptions (locality and determinism being the most obvious).

Now, to say that we could "know" about God by means of "interactions" with the "natural" in the same way that we can know about naturalistic hidden variables on the basis of their interactions with what's observable, also begs the question, because naturalistic hidden variables, if they really are a part of "nature" in the ordinary (that is, the scientific) sense of that term, may be expected to behave in one of two ways: either they will behave deterministically, in which case we can probably make some inferences about what they are like (even the effects of black holes are regular enough to give us some confidence in saying that they exist and that they have certain properties); or they will behave indeterministically, in which case any inferences we make about what they are like will be pure speculation and not, properly speaking, rationally warranted on empiricist grounds. But God, if he exists, is neither deterministic nor indeterministic, but free, and there will be no way that we can know or predict, on empiricist grounds, anything at all about him or his properties on the basis of his interactions with the natural order of things (if, indeed, there are any).

If we can have knowledge that a miracle occurs, then by definition, we can have at least some knowledge of the cause. For instance, the types of effects that that cause would be more likely to have.

This is true (though not "by definition", as you assert) but not, I suspect, in the sense in which you intend it. If I were an atheist, I would have to say that it is, in fact, not so much false, as vacuous, because if I were an atheist I would have to assert that it is not possible, even in principle, to have knowledge that a miracle occurs, since, as an atheist, I would have to assert that the term "miracle" has no ontological correlate. However, for the believer, the miraculous is, indeed, taken to be evidence for what God is like. But the whole point of my posts has been to deny that this is a rationally warranted inferential pattern if we adopt a kind of pseudo-empiricism, which is what is required by the document making medical testimony a necessary condition on accepting something as miraculous. With regards to having a reason to believe that something is in fact a miracle, we can say one of two things here, in my opinion. We can say, "We have to have the medical testimony in order to believe in the miracle", or we can say "All that is required in order to believe in the miracle is the teaching authority of the Church." The latter, in my view, is far preferable (as long as "teaching authority of the Church" does not entail "along with empirical testing"), because it at least admits that the rational consent is given on the grounds of an authority that is not empirical in nature; the former fails, in my view, precisely because it hands over to the empirical domain an authority over the non-empirical domain that the empirical domain cannot have, even in principle. It should be unacceptable both to the believer and to the materialist non-believer alike, provided they are both rational.

If that's true, then you ARE saying that my (B) from above is correct, contrary to your earlier statement; That a natural and a supernatural cause are synonymous and indistinguishable. Didn't we previously agree otherwise?

The wording of your (B) was actually quite different:

The supernatural and the natural are synonymous

but it probably doesn't matter much, since I see what you're getting at.

Here again, though, your claim is only true if we assume that materialist "science" and the empirical are the full extent of "reality". To say that the natural and the supernatural are synonymous is not to say that it is impossible to distinguish between them, it is to say that they have the same meaning or the same reference, but they don't, they are in fact orthogonal. You are making an epistemological distinction where an ontological one is needed: you are saying that because it is impossible to distinguish (epistemologically) between them empirically, the distinction must collapse. Granted, it is, in fact, impossible to distinguish between them epistemologically if we assume that materialism and empiricism are true, but we need make no such assumption, nor need we restrict ourselves to the purely empirical. Just because we cannot distinguish, in terms of knowledge claims, the one from the other, it doesn't follow that they actually are the same thing in terms of their ontological reality. But as it is, the believer can distinguish them in terms of knowledge claims, because for the believer empiricism is false: all knowledge is not grounded in what is empirically observable (there are objects of knowledge that are not objects of perception).

I'm perfectly happy to admit that, if we antecedently adopt the a priori assumptions that materialism is true and empiricism is true, then we will not be able to determine whether a miracle has happened. Indeed, we will, by making these assumptions, thereby commit ourselves to the view that the miraculous (in the Christian sense of the term) is not possible. That is why discussing these sorts of issues with those who adopt these a priori assumptions (usually without question or argument) is rather like trying to discuss evolution with a creationist: both have made a priori assumptions about the nature of reality that exclude all other possibilities, and then argue from those assumptions to conclusions intended to establish the truth of the assumptions! Or else they argue as though the assumptions are either self-evidently true or easily demonstrable (but only under the assumptions they have already made!), when they are, in fact, neither. But you can't get them to admit as much, usually, because they are often such dogmatic ideologues that they are unwilling to entertain the possibility that they are mistaken.

I'm sure you've encountered such people--I know I have, and yet, obviously, when folks commit themselves to such a priori principles and then argue from them as though they are true, they are pretty much just making it up as they go along; on that sort of method, anything can be determined to be true, simply by asserting that it is. This is literally saying “Because I say so”.

Mike said...

Before I begin, I'd just like to say that while a enjoy discussions like these, I'm not terribly fast at reading, writing, or, for that matter, thinking. So if we continue, I'd like to request we do so in smaller pieces. Otherwise it may be weeks or more before I can respond. Hope you understand. Thanks.

Scott Carson said...
your questions, and the way in which you put them, quite frankly, betray a set of methodological assumptions that may render any dialogue between us fruitless. But we'll see.


I hope we would both have "belief in that which is true, and non-belief in that which is false" as our highest goal in these discussions, and not just the convincing of the opponent. We all know that we have our egos invested in what we believe, but I will try to keep an open mind about what you believe if you will do the same for me. If we don't, then you're right, any discussion may be pointless.

you make explicit an a priori metaphysical assumption that the natural world and the "real" world are co-extensive

Yes I do, but in the same way that I also assume that you and I both exist, but cannot prove it. It's a working assumption, but has apparent explanatory value, and may or may not be true. I think any assumption should be recognized for what it is when possible, but as with all assumptions, they are subject to change or update. As far as I know, you and I both exist, and the real world is all there is, BUT I'm perfectly willing to update that view, should information become available to indicate otherwise.

...if you're unwilling to consider the possibility that there is more to the "real" world than what is discoverable...

You putting words in my mouth. I am not unwilling to consider anything. Although I have considered many things in the past that I dismissed. Gods, alien visitors, bigfoot, etc. Any of these things have the potential to be true, but it isn't useful or practical to believe everything that merely has the potentianl to be true. That's not to say we dismiss these things out of hand either, but I think you would agree that we should not devote our lives to searching for gnomes just because they could exist in principle.

...you seem to think that if a miracle occurred, the ultimate cause of the miracle...would, by definition, just be the "hidden variable"

No, this was your term, but that really doesn't matter anyway. My only point Scott, was that YOU are claiming that a supernatural CAUSE of a natural EVENT can reveal no information regarding the supernatural, which I claim is impossible by definition.

To say...that any unexplained causal mechanism can be accurately described as a "hidden variable"...is, properly speaking, a category mistake.

You are the one saying that the supernatural is hidden and unavailable. As for the term "variable" it's just a placeholder for an unknown. Don't like that term, fine. I fail to see the relevance of your attack on the terms. You seem to be artificially constraining the use of a word here, while feeling free to completely redefine words when applying them to the supernatural. Inconsistency like that has likely led you to indiscriminate conclusions.

...if God were to cause an illness to disappear, God does not thereby become a "natural" entity or process in the sense of being an empirically observable

That's not at all what I said. You're either not understanding what I'm saying, or are intentionally ignoring it.
Again- I'm saying that if a cause is supernatural, and you can identify it as the cause, the identification in itself provides information about the cause.

The term "cause", in this sort of context, does not mean the same thing as the term "cause" in classical mechanics.

Cause- antecedent, to bring about, impel. Why do you think they are different?

God, if he exists, is neither deterministic nor indeterministic...and there will be no way that we can know or predict, on empiricist grounds, anything at all about him or his properties

If that's true, that means that miracles (if they occur) cannot be identified, and nothing about them can be known.

We also have another definitional problem here. You are claiming to know that if a god exists, it (he) is neither deterministic nor indeterministic. Since this definition of a thing makes no sense in the (what you would call) "natural" world, and since these word definitions are part of the natural world (a human invention), then you are simply making up a new definition for these terms to apply to the thing you are arguing for, in order to prove the thing. This is circular.

for the believer, the miraculous is, indeed, taken to be evidence for what God is like

Is this a concession of my point? Because this was not only my point, but my example.
For the non-believer, identified miracles, could also be taken as evidence of the supernatural.

The problem is, in every single case where a miracle has been alleged, there has been no way to determine it was a miracle. There have, however, been many cases where the alleged miracle was determined NOT to be a miracle. So clearly belief in the miraculous does not improve the likelihood that we are dealing with a true miracle.

"The supernatural and the natural are synonymous"
You are saying that because it is impossible to distinguish (epistemologically) between them empirically, the distinction must collapse. Granted, it is, in fact, impossible to distinguish between them


I'm not saying that these two things are impossible to distinguish empirically.
I'm saying that these two things are impossible to distinguish at all, except for simply stating there is a difference.
This belies the likelihood that no distinction exists in fact, as with any other thing that can be stated, but does not exist.

Just because we cannot distinguish, in terms of knowledge claims, the one from the other, it doesn't follow that they actually are the same thing

You are correct that it does not NECESSARILY follow, but it may. So we need a reliable way to determine if it does, before we can know one way of the other. Until then, it is not knowledge.

the believer can distinguish them...

I suppose this depends on what you mean by distinguish. Anyone can MAKE a distinction. Rhetorically. But this may have no basis in reality (natural or otherwise) in itself. Simply making a declaration distinguishing things, does not in itself provide any information. Furthermore, even with a basis, one must consider the basis for the basis. I only say this because many arguments where basis are given, rely on a long string of things that each sound reasonable, but hide (sometimes far afield) the baseless nature at their root.

Indeed, we will, by making these assumptions, thereby commit ourselves to the view that the miraculous (in the Christian sense of the term) is not possible.

Either a supernatural realm exists, or it does not. My belief that it does not, is pragmatic not dogmatic. Sure, I'm committed to materialism in practice, but I don't rule out the possibility that I don't have all the facts (actually I'm fairly certain of that part).
But let me ask you this Scott: You believe a supernatural realm exists, but do you leave open the possibility that it does not?
If you do not, then it is you who are making assumptions in any meaningful way, and if you do, then how can we collectively determine which of these two(and there are perhaps more than two) options are correct since they are clearly mutually exclusive? And if it CANNOT be determined, why operate on an assumption of the existance of a supernatural, as opposed to the opposite assumption?

I'm sure you've encountered such people...This is literally saying “Because I say so”.

Yes, well, with all due respect, I suspect you are one of these people. You are trying to establish existence for something for which you claim not only that you have no evidence, but that for which evidence cannot be possible. This is very convenient, and it is special pleading. Anyone could say anything exists, and that it cannot be known about because although it can be said to "exist", it does not exist within the area of reality for which we can possibly know anything about. This renders the word "exist" meaningless, since it cannnot have the same meaning as is does in the "natural" world, from whence the definition came.

Scott Carson said...

Mike

Yes, well, with all due respect, I suspect you are one of these people.

No offense taken because, as you may already know, I copied those very words from one of your own blog posts--it is, of course, my opinion that you are one of these people! Small world.

Hence, I don't harbor any illusions that I will be able to persuade you of the reasonableness of my position, any more than I think that I could adequately convince a color-blind person that color perception is real if he had antecedently decided that it isn't. Indeed, my purpose in this blog generally is not at all to persuade, I only say what I think, and I don't actually care if anybody agrees with me or not. Often times my co-religionists don't even agree with me--if you don't have a thick skin then philosophy is the wrong line of work to be in.

That doesn't mean that we can't discuss certain elements of the argument in the abstract, of course, and I am perfectly happy to do so with you if that's what you want to do. But ultimately, I fear, we speak different languages and see the world in different ways, and I don't see any realistic chance of that changing through dialogue. At one end of the spectrum there is the fact that you seem to be unfamiliar with some of the more technical aspects of the philosophical end of things--not a big deal, obviously, since you're not a professional philosopher, but it does mean that, even if we were speaking the same language, we would be doing so at different levels of discourse, which can make progress extremely difficult. At the other end of the spectrum there is the fact that you seem not to have followed my arguments very well. That, of course, is very probably my own fault, since I am not the clearest thinker or writer around, but it may also be at least partly your fault, and it is difficult for me to tell where, exactly, the problem lies in a forum like this.

At any rate, I agree that taking things more slowly could, at the very least, make the discussion easier, so if you want to suggest a particular topic, or some element of the argument so far to get clearer on, by all means do so, and I will do my best to clarify my position. You've raised a lot of issues in your most recent comment, so if you would like to choose one of them in particular, maybe we could start that way.

Mike said...

I follow you arguments Scott, I just don't reach the same conclusions. There is a fundamental flaw, that you will not admit.

I'm sorry that I'm not a professional philosopher. What? So professional philosophers have cornered the market on truth now? Perhaps they just have more complex rationalizations for their beliefs. A circular argument with twenty steps is surely at a higher "level" than a circular argument with two. Anyway, if you don't want to dialog, that's fine. I was simply commenting about a flaw in your logic, that you have countered by saying that you can have it both ways, because as a Christian you believe it. Great, but that says nothing about how someone goes about discerning this "truth" verses the infinite number of other wholly unknowable possibilities.

I think my original point holds, that if a miracle can be "identified" (as in "discerned" not simply "stated") as such, this allows us to have some information regarding the supernatural.

Scott Carson said...
I copied those very words from one of your own blog posts--it is, of course, my opinion that you are one of these people! Small world.


Yes, it is ;-), we all think we're right don't we. But clearly we all cannot be. But you used these words to say "I know you are but what am I", whereas I was illustrating vacuous reasoning. You are attacking a straw-man when you claim that I am unwilling to change my beliefs, I'm eager to correct them if wrong, I find this is rare in theists though, and it's seems to be a "Pot calling the kettle black" defense mechanism to accuse atheists of this. I admit to being biased, as I'm sure you would, but I don't think belief in something arbitrary is the path to truth.

The color-blind person doesn't reject color dogmatically, they reject it because they have no information or knowledge of it. As for myself ( what you might call a supernatural-blind person), I don't reject the supernatural dogmatically, I reject it because they have no information or knowledge of it.

Convincing a color-blind person that color is real is trivial. Because color is real. That's not to say they would be able to visualize it, but you can easily demonstrate to them that the concept of color is real:

1. Give a colorblind person, what you identify as a red apple and a green apple, but to the colorblind person, they look the same.
2. The colorblind person now takes the apples (remembering which one was identified as red) to someone else, and asks them if they can point to the red one.
3. Amazingly, any other person will identify the correct apple.

Again, this simple test, does not show the colorblind person what color looks like, but it does show that what others "call" color, can be known, and exists in reality.

Contrast this with claims of supernatural miracles for which nothing can be known. This belies their falsity. The fact that it cannot be known does NOT mean it doesn't exist, but then one cannot even know what it is that one is discussing, to define what is being said to exist.