Saturday, August 13, 2011

An Old Exchange between Keith Parsons and myself over theistic explanations

This is one that appears in my paper on Hume on Miracles, Frequencies and Prior Probabilities. 

Science is unavoidably naturalistic, or atheistic if you prefer. Science operates in terms of scrutable, independently testable entities that operate in accordance with knowable regularities. Supernatural beings, on the other hand, are essentially mysterious; claims made on their behalf are not independently checkable, and there are no "laws of supernature" governing their behavior. Furthermore, "explanations" in terms of supernatural entities are inevitably post hoc and untestable. In other words, proponents of supernaturalistic theories can glibly account for things we already know, but become strangely silent when asked to predict something new, something that would allow their theory to be tested.[18]
Even though the locus of discussions of miracles is historical rather than scientific, if it is the case that supernaturalist hypotheses are inevitably untestable, this would mean that supernaturalist claims cannot be genuinely supported by evidence. But some points can be made in response to this position. First of all, I see no in principle impossibility in "laws of supernature." One cannot, of course, generate deterministic laws governing divine conduct, but one cannot generate such laws concerning the behavior of subatomic particles, either. One can, of course, form probabilistic expectations concerning the conduct of subatomic particles, but, as we have noted, one can generate probabilistic expectations concerning divine conduct as well. It would disconfirm belief in the Christian God if Jim Bakker were to die and rise again on the third day, ascending into heaven a few weeks later. The "laws" of supernature that Christians or other theists are inclined to postulate may not be as detailed as the laws scientists hope to discover in nature, but they leave theistic claims open to confirmation and disconfirmation.

[18] Keith Parsons, "Is there a Case for Christian Theism?" in J. P. Moreland and Kai Nielsen, Does God Exist: The Great Debate (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990) p. 189.


Jesse Parrish said...

Thank you for the reference; I enjoyed the postscript very much.

I've been tinkering with a modification of Hume's argument, but I've read little apart from discussions at the Secular Web, SEP articles, the McGrews' paper, Earman's Hume's Abject Failure, and other miscellany.

I was wondering if you've seen something like it, or if you have any suggestions for improvement. When I say `it', I mean a collection of approaches for estimating priors and the nature of evidence which can confirm the proposition. I don't think that it translates into irrationality charges again those who believe in the Resurrection, but I think it serves as a solid defense against potential arguments from the text.

Post 1, Post 2.

Jesse Parrish said...

I don't think I can get any conclusion so strong as Hume's, but I am surprised that I haven't found an exact precedent. There's gotta be one somewhere, unless I've made a very silly mistake.

Boz said...

"The "laws" of supernature that Christians or other theists are inclined to postulate"

Can anyone give additional specific examples of these laws ?

Matthew G said...

"Science operates in terms of scrutable, independently testable entities that operate in accordance with knowable regularities."

No, it does not. We often appeal to entities that can't be independently tested.

unkleE said...

"Can anyone give additional specific examples of these laws ?"

I'm not sure what others would mean by this, but I would suggest things like:

* Be sure your sins will find you out.
* Love God with everything you have and love your neighbour as yourself.
* The first will be last and the last will be first.
* If anyone wants to be great, let them be the servant of all.
* Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor, the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
* Your heart will always be where your riches are.
* Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
* Be careful then how you listen; because whoever has will be given more, but whoever has nothing will have taken away from him even the little he thinks he has.
* Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my [Jesus] sake will save it.

Those are all truths in the spiritual world, are all from the Bible and most are the words of Jesus. Some are laws that we have no choice in obeying (like the laws of Physics), others are laws we have a choice in (like ethical commands).

B. Prokop said...

I'm not sure whether you'd class this as a "law" or a "principle", but I would like to add "Others He saved, Himself he cannot save" (Mark 15:31).

Or, in the words of Charles Williams:

"The everlasting house the soul discovers is always another's; we must always lose our own ends; we must always live in the habitation of our lovers, my friend's shelter for me, mine for him."

Williams actually comes close to calling this a "law of supernature" when he goes on to write, "This is the way of this world in the day of that others'[i.e., the supernatural]".