Local writer believes I am limited by dogma

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In October, I wrote an Examiner.com article and a letter to the editor addressing some comments made by a local reverend who attributes prayer to the stopping of flooding in Northeastern Pennsylvania in September. In short, I argued that we should not accept a supernaturalistic explanation (of prayer stopping the flooding) when we can appeal to a naturalistic explanation (the water ebbed).

In a letter published on December 4 titled “Writer: Dogma limits rationalists,” a writer, although he admits that “there appears to be obvious weight to the “natural explanation” I am “limiting [myself] in [my] hypothesis.” The writer quotes G.K. Chesterson who notes that he believes miracles “upon human evidences as [he does] in the discovery of America.”

A quote like this is quite silly. We have a tremendous amount of evidence to support the discovery of America that is quite recent, confirmed by second-hand sources, and is relatively uncontroversial. Explanations regarding the discovery of America, also, are not supernaturalistic.

The writer continues quoting Chesterton, “Somehow or another an extraordinary idea has arisen that the believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them.”

To assume that disbelievers in miracles deny miracles because they have a doctrine against them is ridiculous. I deny miracle explanations, in short, not because “I have a doctrine against them,” but rather because naturalism (belief that all exists is the natural world) is very inductively justified; supernatural explanations throughout history have fallen to the wayside in favor of naturalistic explanations (read more about this in my opening statement here). Additionally, saying “a miracle happened” is a poor explanatory device because miracle claims generally appeal to that which is unexplained and raise far more questions than they answer.

The writer continues, “The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder.”

This is a very poor way to reason. If an old apple-woman claims that she saw a miracle, I’m not going to believe her until I find sufficient evidence to establish warrant for believing the miracle claim. I’ll investigate, sure, but I won’t ‘just believe.’ Human testimony, Hume famously argued, is insufficient to establish a miracle unless the falsehood is more miraculous than the miracle:

The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), ‘That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish….’ When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

The writer continues, “If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favor of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things … you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism – the abstract impossibility of a miracle.”

This is a quite obvious false dichotomy; there are more options here besides “denying the main principle of democracy” or “affirming the main principle of materialism.” I can, of course, not even appeal to materialism (and/or not even accept materialism is true) and say that there is not enough reason, argument, and evidence to establish that a miracle occurred. Casting persons who don’t believe miracles as ‘undemocratic’ is not useful here.


Mere human testimony is simply inadequate to establish a miracle. If we were accept [just] testimony and agree that testimony were sufficient [enough] to establish a miracle, we’d be forced to believing all sorts of miracle claims and arrive at contradictions. Some Catholics, for instance, will say that the Virgin Mary performs miracles and some Wiccans, for example, will not believe the Virgin Mary performs miracles and may appeal to goddesses and gods. If we were to accept testimony from both, we would believe that the Virgin Mary performs miracles and that gods and goddesses perform miracles when both propositions are not compatible.

While not quite a miracle, we’d also have to accept the testimony of persons who were abducted by aliens, ‘cured’ by faith healers, divined by psychics, and so much more. Obviously we don’t accept these testimonies, so why dismiss these things while accepting testimony of miracles?

Some persons, responding to skeptics, might allege the following, “Well, do you think this person is lying? So many people are so honest and are convinced that they experienced miracles! What good reason have they to lie?” It would not be proper to call believers in miracles ‘liars,’ but rather is proper to say — and with good reason — that these people have been deceived; believers in miracles may be very truthful and sincere, but it can be the case that they haven’t considered better explanations for the events they allegedly witnessed.

Instead of accepting miracle explanations, we should look for naturalistic explanations that better explain phenomena. Testimony is not sufficient to establish a miracle claim. The skeptic is not being ‘dogmatic’ in rejecting miracles, but rather is open-minded and rejects miracle claims for good reasons.


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