Metaphysical naturalists may be inclined to suggest that they cannot be accused of question-begging in endorsing methodological naturalism, since this methodology is simply a logical extension of their metaphysical views. If one has good reason to believe there exist no nonnatural entities, then one can hardly be faulted for adopting a methodology which refuses to countenance nonnatural causes.
What this suggestion ignores is that metaphysical naturalists typically assert the truth of naturalism on the basis of Ockham's Razor. Very few naturalists are willing to argue that it can be demonstrated that the existence of nonnatural entities is logically impossible. Rather, they assert that there is insufficient evidence for the existence of such entities and that one should, therefore, refuse to posit them.
It seems, however, that the existence of physical events which are best explained on the hypothesis of a nonnatural cause would meet the requirements of Ockham's Razor and thus constitute evidence for a nonnatural entity. For the metaphysical naturalist to adopt a methodology which holds that it is never, even in principle, legitimate to posit a nonnatural cause for a physical event, is to guarantee that the requirements of Ockham's Razor will not be met. This begs the question of whether there exists sufficient evidence to justify belief in nonnatural entities and thus disbelief in metaphysical naturalism, since what is being proposed is a methodology that, by its refusal to countenance the legitimacy of ever postulating a nonnatural cause for a physical event, precludes any marshaling of evidence in favor of nonnatural causes.1
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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.
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Are miracles evidence for God's existence? Ever since Hume, atheists have argued that miracle claims should not be considered evidence for God. While Hume focused on the rarity of miracles to propose that it is more rational to offer some other explanation, more modern arguments have claimed that arguing from miracles to God's existence is circular. After all, one must assume God exists in order to call an event a miracle. Then, the person points to the miracle to claim "only God could have done such a thing!" Is this question-begging?
Dr. Robert Larmer fleshes out the objection and shows why pointing to miracles is not as circular as one may think:
...To call an event a miracle, therefore, is to affirm the existence of God. It seems, then, that miraculous events cannot function as evidence for God, since this would involve a vicious circularity of presupposing that God exists in order to call such events miracles, but then arguing that God's existence can be confirmed on the basis of the occurrence of miracles.Larmer has done a lot of incredible work on the subject, which he's published in his recent book The Legitimacy of Miracle. He has also published as series of supplemental papers extending the concepts in his book on the Evangelical Philosophical Society web site. You can find all seven of them here.
The superficial attractiveness of this argument is belied by the fact that if one asks convinced sceptics what it would take to convince them of God's existence the frequent answer is the occurrence of a miracle. It seems strange to suggest that such an answer must be dismissed as irrational, the supposition being that its speaker would fail Critical Thinking 101. Perhaps a more charitable interpretation of the answer deserves a hearing.
Such an interpretation is not far from hand. What the sceptic is to be construed as requesting is good reason to believe in the occurrence of an event, the best explanation of which is that God, or perhaps a supernatural agent understood as acting in accordance with God's purposes, caused it. It is the event, not the subsequent description of it as a miracle, which functions as evidence for God. All that the sceptic need do is to entertain the hypothesis that God exists and ask whether that hypothesis provides the best explanation of the occurrence of the event, as compared to other hypotheses.
Thus, while it is true that once the event is described as a miracle one commits oneself to the existence of God, this in no way prevents the event from functioning as evidence for God, since it is on the basis that theism provides the best explanation of the event that one is prepared to call it a miracle. To claim otherwise, is analogous to claiming that a corpse, the existence of which is best explained on the hypothesis of a murderer, cannot function as evidence for the existence of a murderer. Once the corpse is described as a homicide victim one commits to the existence of a murderer, but this scarcely implies that the corpse cannot function as evidence of a murderer. Analogously, the fact that an event is described as a miracle scarcely implies that it cannot function as evidence for God. It is not, therefore, question-begging to claim that events best explained as acts of supernatural intervention by God can be taken as providing evidence for God.
Image courtesy Patrick Down and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) License.
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