Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Cothran's Fork: Why there can be no scientific objection to religious miracles

In yesterday's post on Jerry Coyne and the New Atheist argument that science and religion are incompatible, I pointed out that there can only be two objections to religious miracle claims: either a philosophical objection or a historical objection, and given this, that there can be no scientific objection to the miraculous. I made the argument in response to the claim of some scientists that we know, based on our scientific knowledge, that miracles can't happen.

My argument is based on taking the scientists who make this claim about miracles (Jerry Coyne, Sean Carroll, etc.) at their word. They say that science only involves methodological naturalism. This just means that scientists assume for the purpose of their scientific studies that no miracle will happen that might interfere with their observations in the laboratory or in the field--or in their offices where they perform their mathematical calculations. This is in contrast to metaphysical naturalism, which is a philosophical doctrine that declares, by philosophical fiat, that miracles can't happen.

If the only naturalism inherent in science is methodological, then science, by definition, can have nothing to say about historical miracle claims. That doesn't mean a scientist cannot have an objection to miracles, only that, if he does, his objection to them is as a philosopher or as a historian, and his arguments must observe the principles and procedures of those disciplines.

I am officially dubbing this argument "Cothran's Fork," in honor of its author (me). It goes thusly:
If the scientific arguments against miracle claims are based on a priori considerations, they are therefore philosophical, and not scientific arguments; and if the arguments against miracle claims are based on a posteriori evidential considerations, then they are historical, and therefore, again, not scientific arguments.

The arguments against miracle claims are either a priori or a posteriori.

Therefore miracle claims are either philosophical or historical, but not scientific.
"Cothran's Fork" is similar in structure and operation to "Hume's Fork" with the additional advantage that, unlike Hume's Fork, Cothran's Fork is not self-defeating.

Now this should be no problem if the scientists who have claimed that science is only methodologically naturalist really mean it--and understand its implications. But scientists like Jerry Coyne and Sean Carroll will assert in one moment that science is methodologically naturalist and then, in the very next, drop the assumption and make arguments that rely on the very opposite belief.

You can offer a lot of arguments as to why science should be considered methodologically, but not metaphysically naturalist--because it studies nature itself and therefore has nothing to say about what may be beyond nature (but powerful enough to interfere with it); that science uses methods that cannot be extrapolated to philosophical issues such as whether the laws of nature are inviolable, etc.--but the fact is that this is not the issue in dispute. For many of the new scientific critics of religion, the fact that science is methodologically, but not metaphysically naturalist is a given. The problem is that immediately after stating the limitation on their discipline, they argue as if the limitation did not exist.

When Carroll, for example, discusses the miraculous, he first goes to great lengths to assure his readers that he is methodologically naturalist:

Science and religion are not compatible. But, before explaining what that means, we should first say what it doesn’t mean.

It doesn’t mean, first, that there is any necessary or logical or a priori incompatibility between science and religion. We shouldn’t declare them to be incompatible purely on the basis of what they are, which some people are tempted to do.
So far, so good. Then he takes not of the various miraculous events claimed by various religions, and tries to convince his readers (who apparently, like himself, don't get out much) that people do, in fact, believe these things:
...[I]t makes sense to look at the actual practices and beliefs of people who define themselves as religious. And when we do, we find religion making all sorts of claims about the natural world, including those mentioned above — Jesus died and was resurrected, etc. Seriously, there are billions of people who actually believe things like this; I’m not making it up.
We'll take your word for it, Doc.

But just several paragraphs later, Carroll, who has just professed methodological naturalism, turn off that part of his brain and turns on the metaphysically naturalist lobe and argues just the opposite:
Religions have always made claims about the natural world, from how it was created to the importance of supernatural interventions in it. And these claims are often very important to the religions who make them ... But the progress of science over the last few centuries has increasingly shown these claims to be straightforwardly incorrect. We know more about the natural world now than we did two millennia ago, and we know enough to say that people don’t come back from the dead. [Emphasis added]
Seriously, there are thousands of scientific materialists who actually believe things like this; I’m not making it up. Such assertions have attracted the approving nod of the equally reckless Coyne, who praises them as "on the money."

What scientific progress has been made over the last few centuries that has shown these claims to be incorrect? Did people believe, before the onset of the 17th century, that nature did not display regular behavior? If so, then why were people amazed and attracted by miracle claims? Those who claimed miracles not only assumed a belief in the regularity of nature, they banked on it (for good and ill).

You would think scientists with Coyne and Carroll's stature would understand the nature of the scientific reasoning itself, which involves induction, the strength of which is always probable rather than certain. It relies on a set of limited observations of a set of phenomena on the basis of which an extrapolation is made about the rest of the phenomena. But because it cannot observe all the phenomena, its conclusion must always be tenuous.

Of course, this description of the logical strength of scientific reasoning is not explicitly contested by scientists. If you catch them in their Dr. Jeckyl phase (in which the methodological lobe is operative), they will nod their heads vigorously to this description of their discipline and say things like "Absolutely," and "Amen." But once Mr. Hyde takes over (in which the metaphysical lobe becomes dominant), they will act as if they had never heard it before, and spout a river of assertions that completely ignore the limitations they had just assented to in their other persona.

How, precisely, do we "know enough to say that people don’t come back from the dead"? The only way we could know this is to completely jettison our cautionary understanding of induction and act as if we had had direct observation of every death and its aftermath that has ever been experience in the world. The Christian claim that Jesus was resurrected is false if it can be shown that every person who has died has, in fact, stayed dead, including Jesus. But the claim that every person who has died has, in fact, stayed dead is itself rendered false if Jesus rose from the dead.

How do we determine which tack to take? Certainly not by science, which suffers under the disadvantageous fact that there were no scientists there to say one way or another. The only way anyone can make any claim about the Resurrection is to assume, philosophically, that it didn't happen, or to look at the historical evidence for the claim and make a judgment yeah or nay. But the reader of the rhetoric of scientific rationalists like Coyne and Carroll will notice that they never offer any philosophical or historical arguments for their assertions. They simply invoke the word "science" in the hope that their readers, now mesmerized by scientific words, will immediately abandon all rational thought and give their passive assent.

Seriously, hundreds of people fall for things like this; I’m not making it up.


Anonymous said...


Doctrines and beliefs don't mean a thing. And yes if you call that a doctrine, put it to test. If it works keep it, if it doesn't discard it. Metaphysics is irrelevant to the discussion. To use metaphysics to reject an empirical claim is to turn your face away from reality. A historical claim is useless if it has no empirical basis. So for any meaningful discussion a(n) historical and a scientific claim are one and the same thing. Now going back to this thing about miracles, there is no ground to accept testimony as evidence of miracles, when such testimony is unacceptable in any other instance. To put it simply if "The devil killed him not me, I am not responsible for the crime," is not acceptable in a court of law, "X did this, or born this way or that way," isn't acceptable.

Thomas M. Cothran said...


Scientists often use metaphysics to reject empirical claims. For instance, if I were to say that a cloud, at its most elemental level, is made up of water droplets, the scientist would respond that, actually, below the level of water there is another structure, which cannot even be seen under a microscope, and which determines the basic nature of water droplets and clouds.

Or, I might say that the solid bodies fall towards the ground because they are made of earth, and that the nature of earth is simply to fall to the ground. Experience attests to this. However, the scientist will start speaking of gravitational forces that cannot be directly experienced that explain why things fall to the earth.

The examples go on and on. So who is it that elevates metaphysical claims over sensory experience?