Christine Overall famously argued that miracles, conceived as violations of the laws of nature, would be evidence against the existence of the traditional God. A lengthy debate with Robert Larmer ensued, in which Larmer argued that only slight modifications to the law-breaking account of miracles are necessary in order for miracles to serve as evidence for, rather than against, the existence of God. Larmer tries to argue that miracles do not violate the laws of nature, but nevertheless holds that they are different from ordinary events in that they don't follow from the laws of nature. (I don't have Larmer's book handy to remember the exact details of his account.)
The Overall-Larmer debate in some respects replays one dialectical thread from the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence: Clarke defends the view that any sufficiently widespread natural regularity should be regarded as a law, and any event that violates such a regularity should be regarded as a miracle. Furthermore, Clarke argues, miracles of this sort occur from time to time. Leibniz argues that God, as traditionally conceived, would not create a world of the sort Clarke envisions and, furthermore, that Clarke's weak conception of laws does not allow a theologically adequate distinction between miracles and ordinary events.
I think Overall pretty decisively won the debate with Larmer, and Leibniz pretty decisively won the debate with Clarke on this and most other points. (One point where Leibniz clearly loses: his insistence that if there were not a unique best possible world God would be unable to create a world is clearly false.) However, there are a lot of people who seem to disagree, who continue to hold that miracles are best understood as somehow in tension with laws, and that such events can serve as evidence for the existence of the traditional God. I in fact think that miracles should not be conceived as in any sort of tension with laws, so, instead of speaking of miracles, I'll speak of 'lawless events'. Lawless events are those which don't follow, either probabilistically or deterministically, from the laws of nature. (interpret 'follow from' in whatever sense your favorite theory of laws requires.) In this post I am concerned with arguments from the traditional divine attributes against the occurrence of lawless events. These arguments will of course work backward to show that lawless events would be evidence against the existence of a being with those attributes.
The intuition behind this general line of argumentation is best stated by Leibniz:
Sir Isaac Newton and his followers have also a very odd opinion concerning the works of God. According to their doctrine, God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time; otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion. Nay, the machine of God's making is so imperfect according to these gentlemen that he is obliged to clean it now and then by an extraordinary concourse, and even to mend it as a clockmaker mends his work, who must consequently be so much the more unskilful a workman, as he is oftener obliged to mend his work and to set it right. (First Paper to Clarke, sect. 4)
I do not say the material world is a machine or watch that goes without God's interposition ... But I maintain it to be a watch that goes without wanting to be mended by him; otherwise we must say that God bethinks himself again. No, God has foreseen everything. He has provided a remedy for everything beforehand. There is in his works a harmony, a beauty, already pre-established.
This opinion does not exclude God's providence or his government of the world; on the contrary, it makes it perfect. A true providence of God requires a perfect foresight. But then it requires, moreover, not only that he should have foreseen everything but also that he should have provided for everything beforehand with proper remedies; otherwise he must want either wisdom to foresee things or power to provide against them ... According to this doctrine, God must want either power or good will. (Second Letter to Clarke, sects. 8-9)
A skeptical theist response to this argument might be tempting. However, using this strategy to prevent miracles from being evidence against the existence of God will likewise prevent it from being evidence for the existence of God, since the result will be that the probability of lawless events on the hypothesis of theism is inscrutable. So it seems that lawless events are at least not evidence for the existence of the traditional God, and may even be evidence against.
Now, I don't think lawlessness is part of the ordinary religious believer's conception of a miracle in the first place. But even if it is, a rational reconstruction is in order. If the concept of a miracle is taken to include lawlessness, then miracles just can't play the roles religious thought takes them to.
[cross posted at The Prosblogion]Posted by Kenny at September 1, 2011 4:34 PM
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