Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A couple of quotes from C. S. Lewis's Miracles, chapter 8

If I put six pennies into a drawer on Monday and six more on Tuesday, the laws decree that – other things being equal – I shall find twelve pennies there on Wednesday. But if the drawer is has been robbed I may in fact find only two. Something will have been broken (the lock of the drawer or the laws of England) but the laws of arithmetic will not have been broken.
Lewis, C. S. (1947) ‘Miracles’ ‘Chapter 8: Miracles and the Laws of Nature’ p 60

This perhaps helps to make a little clearer what the laws of Nature really are. We are in the habit of talking as if they caused events to happen; but they have never caused any event at all. The laws of motion do not set billiard balls moving: they analyse the motion after something else (say, a man with a cue, or a lurch of the liner, or, perhaps, supernatural power) has provided it. They produce no events: they state the pattern to which every event – if only it can be induced to happen – must conform, just as the rules of arithmetic state the pattern to which all transactions with money must conform – if only you can get hold of any money. Thus in one sense the laws of Nature cover the whole field of space and time; in another, what they leave out is precisely the whole real universe – the incessant torrent of actual events which makes up true history. That must come from somewhere else. To think the laws can produce it is like thinking that you can create real money by simply doing sums. For every law, in the last resort, says ‘If you have A, then you will get B’. But first catch your A: the laws won’t do it for you.
Lewis, C. S. (1947) ‘Miracles’ ‘Chapter 8: Miracles and the Laws of Nature’ p 61s 

36 comments:

B. Prokop said...

Allow me to re-post my very first contribution to Dangerous Idea, from way back on July 8th, 2010:

Early on in George MacDonald's fairy story Phantastes, we come upon the following scene. The book's main character (Anodos) is suddenly confronted by a magical creature, who then speaks to him. Allow me to quote the passage in full:

"Anodos, you never saw such a little creature before, did you?"

"No," said I, "and indeed I hardly believe I do now."

"Ah, that is always the way with you men; you believe nothing the first time; and it is foolish enough to let mere repetition convince you of what you consider in itself unbelievable."


That little three line exchange is perhaps one of the most profound statements I have ever read about how many people approach the miraculous. Just think about it. Were a person to come across a single lifeform in an otherwise lifeless universe - heck, were he to find a single strand of DNA, he would either refuse to believe it existed, or proclaim it a miracle. But here we are in the real world, surrounded by trillions and trillions of incomprehensibly complex lifeforms, and all too many people dismiss it all as just "the way things are", or even the product of blind, purposeless chance.

The same thing goes for the Resurrection. Its very singularity is a stumbling block to skeptics, but the same people will not be bothered for a second by the fact that there are billions of people alive all around them right now. Why should coming to life a second time be any more unbelievable than the first time? (The usual objection is we don’t see it happening every day.) So is it "mere repetition", in MacDonald's words, that makes the starkly incredible fact of one's own existence so casually accepted?

I believe that MacDonald has hit upon an unexamined (and therefore unchallenged) assumption underlying skeptical thinking. Let me call it The Singularity Problem. (A problem, that is, for the skeptic.) Basically, the issue can be stated quite simply. A main objection to miraculous events raised by skeptics is that they are not common, or even sui generis. Thus, we frequently hear people objecting to Christ’s Virgin Birth because we don't see such births happening around us as a norm. But why should we? The singularity of the event is definitionally mandated by its miraculous nature. Until we somehow rule out the possibility of one-of-a-kind events on grounds stronger than ruling them out on principle (which, after all, amounts to a "because I said so" argument), we cannot object to their existence on those grounds alone.

I say this underlying assumption needs to be examined and defended, not simply accepted a priori. Otherwise, the skeptic must somehow make the case that we are not quite literally surrounded by countless miracles all the time.

Papalinton said...

" ... in another, what they [laws of nature] leave out is precisely the whole real universe – the incessant torrent of actual events which makes up true history."

What a lovely pattern of thought. But it mustn't be overlooked that that is all it is; a thought pattern. A touch too theatrically Delphic for me to be of much practical value unless one subscribes to the esoteric nature of the comment in the first instance which is essentially a form of 'speaking in tongue', a ubiquitous feature among purveyors of supernaturalism.

While one can appreciate Lewis's penchant for engaging in a surfeit of imagery and literary device, to imagine them as expressly representing 'true history' is simply too much of a stretch [and too free a use of literary license] well beyond the bounds of credible explanation. No doubt he is a master story teller. His book, "Miracles", along with 'Mere Christianity' and 'Narnia' illustrates Lewis's comprehensive command in the genre of 'fantasy' literature.

HERE IS AN EXCELLENT REVIEW of Lewis's book, "Miracles".

B. Prokop said...

Sorry, Linton, but Lewis got it spot on. I'm minded here of Stephen Hawking's recent declaration that the universe's existence could be explained by the laws of gravity alone, and therefore creation ex nihilo without God was possible. Unfortunately for Hawking's amateur foray into philosophy, he failed to account for the existence of those very laws of gravity. Presupposing their existence means his claim that a "universe from nothing" was possible is rendered meaningless. A universe in which the laws of gravity are in effect is not "nothing".

im-skeptical said...

"Why should coming to life a second time be any more unbelievable than the first time? (The usual objection is we don’t see it happening every day.)"

The actual objection of skeptics is that we don't see it happen, ever. While you insist that the laws of nature don't account for things that are 'sui generis', the truth is that the laws of nature actually account for everything that happens in our universe (or if newly acquired powers of observation enable us to see things that were hidden from us in the past, we amend those 'laws' to account for what we are able to observe). But there is no 'sui generis'. Things behave the way they do, and the laws of nature are our way of describing that behavior. There are no exceptions, once we have properly formulated those laws. None. Ever.

amorbis said...

im-skeptical: You know that begging the question is a logical fallacy, right?

im-skeptical said...

amorbis,

Who's begging the question? The one who presupposes the existence of miracles and argues for their existence without evidence, or the one who observes that they never happen, and says so?

B. Prokop said...

amorbis,

It was fun to watch him do it, though, huh?

Skep, your latest comment is the very picture of question begging. Next to "Begging the Question" in the dictionary is this line:

There are no exceptions, once we have properly formulated those laws. None. Ever.

You have stated a pre-supposition in the form of a conclusion. That is question begging. You have failed to demonstrate that sui generis events cannot occur. No amount of appeals to observation will help here, because a non-repeatable event by definition cannot be duplicated.

im-skeptical said...

Bob,

"You have failed to demonstrate that sui generis events cannot occur. No amount of appeals to observation will help here, because a non-repeatable event by definition cannot be duplicated."

I have not attempted to demonstrate anything. I am merely stating what we know from observation. And observation is the basis of my statements. We have never observed an so-called 'sui generis' events. If you disagree, state your evidence. We already heard planks touting Fatima as one such event, but it turns out, the people there don't agree that they witnessed something miraculous, and scientific observation denies it. So what else you got?

Karl Grant said...

Skeppy,

but it turns out, the people there don't agree that they witnessed something miraculous, and scientific observation denies it.

Scientific observation has denied a lot of things over the years: rogue waves, ball lighting, placebo effect, even the need for doctors to wash their hands in-between handling patients. And if people not agreeing something odd is happening while experiencing the same event is cause for dismissal of said event than we can chuck global warming into the garbage can right now.

William said...

Comments regarding how you guys are ignoring what Lewis wrote:

1. Hawking's claims are different from Lewis' claims, because Lewis was talking about events as something different from the spacetime field. But maybe the spacetime field includes the events. Of course, where does spacetime and the gravity field Hawking writes about come from?

2. skep completely ignores the issue Lewis brings up: Humean versions of natural laws says they are descriptive, not prescriptive. skep uses the idea that they are descriptive to include all events under the laws, then uses the same data to claim they are prescriptive.

Skep: this method of yours (of defining what you want to be true as so) is scientifically tautological and thus is very bad science, as well as question-begging. Good science looks for places the known laws don't apply, to improve what we know.

B. Prokop said...

This is tiresome. Must we repeat yet once again that what Christians consider evidence, you do not? Suffice to say that evidence abounds, but you shut tight your eyes and stick your fingers in your ears, denying that the evidence is even evidence. As long as you remain as thickheaded and impervious to new information as you currently are, no progress can be made. May I suggest you turn off your computer and look inward for a month or so? Seriously. Do not read, look at, or especially comment on any website - do not watch television, and avoid the news like the plague. Sit back with 3 or 4 good books that do not reflect your own viewpoints and read them slowly, looking for ways you may be wrong about things. I've done that 3 or 4 times in the past few years, and found it to be immensely valuable as a means of clearing my head.

B. Prokop said...

My last comment was addressed to skep.

im-skeptical said...

William,

Where do you get this crap about me seeing natural law as prescriptive? I didn't say that and I certainly don't believe it. And I don't need CS Lewis, of all people, or you either, to tell me what science or natural law is. I have done nothing more than state what is known from observation. That's not "begging the question". Of course, I understand that we haven't observed everything there is to observe, and we may not yet know how all things behave. But I do know that we have never observed any "sui generis" phenomena. Things do behave according to predictable patterns. No rotten corpse has ever risen from the dead. No man has ever walked on the surface of ordinary water. Those things, if they ever should occur, would be events of the kind that Bob describes, but they have never been observed by impartial, rational observers. Ever. They just don't happen, except in the mind of the deluded, or the stories of the deceivers.

im-skeptical said...

Bob,

"This is tiresome. Must we repeat yet once again that what Christians consider evidence, you do not?"

Yes, it's tiresome to hear how unskeptical, stupid, or irrational I am every time I try to challenge the beliefs of religious people. I know, what counts as evidence for you is not that same thing that counts as evidence for me. But really, you think I should leave? Find something to read that does not reflect my own viewpoint? Just exactly what do you think I'm here for? I don't hang out in places like Coyne's blog, where most of the people would probably largely agree with me, because I don't expect to gain the perspective of opposing viewpoints there. I think what you want is for me to leave because you can't stand to hear a viewpoint that is different from your own.

William said...

skep: I think that the way you speak of scientific laws as excluding miracles, you are suggesting that certain things will never happen. Actually, purely descriptive accounts of laws would allow them to happen, and adjust the laws to cover such. When you deny that certain things could _ever_ happen, you must then be saying that they are prescriptive (or else claiming superhuman precognition regarding what might happen).

B. Prokop said...

" I think what you want is for me to leave because you can't stand to hear a viewpoint that is different from your own."

I'm not asking you to leave at all. I'm suggesting something that has proven itself to be of great benefit to me, which is to make us leave, by turning off technology (it helps if you can go as far as locking up your phone as well - at least for large blocks of time during the day), and reflecting. The benefits are amazing. I'd be still on my planned year-long no-internet retreat, were it not for my being surrounded right now by boxes and my library out of reach. But I assure you that the moment I am out of this house and into my pilgrimage out West, I will be once again off the net for 90-120 days.

(And by the way, I love hearing viewpoints contrary to my own. When I read the editorials in the paper, I always turn first to those I know I'll disagree with.)

im-skeptical said...

William,

You read more into my words than what I have written. What I said is that these miraculous events have not been observed by reliable, unbiased observers. There is no natural law, as we understand it, that has ever been violated, even one time. That's saying something significant. There are no "sui generis" events - just stories about them.

If and when I ever see good, solid evidence of such a thing, I'll have something to try to make sense of. Maybe the 'sense' I make of it would be that there are supernatural things. But so far, I have not been faced with this kind of challenge to my understanding of things. There simply isn't sufficient evidence to support it.

William said...

When we change the models of the data to adjust for new data this sometimes means the laws change. This means that we changed due to a violation, from a certain point of view.
Your exclusion of specific types of events from that process seems like a naturalistic bias to me. Which is okay, but you need to be up front about such a filter.

im-skeptical said...

William,

"This means that we changed due to a violation, from a certain point of view."

You completely misunderstand what I said. I said that things behave according to patterns, and that is true whether we know what those patterns are or not. When we learn more about those patterns, we revise our formulation of the laws of nature. Once we understand those laws, we observe that nothing ever violates them. There are no exceptions. I don't exclude any kind of observable behavior. When we see it, we always see that it is part of a consistent pattern. We never see any behavior of any kind that deviates from the pattern. We may see behavior that we don't understand, but it is always consistent. There has never been a single case where the behavior we see is not part of a consistent pattern.

That's why I insist that there are no "sui generis" events. I'm not making any kind of rule that excludes whatever behavior you like from existing. I'm only saying this is what has been observed. No exceptions. Unless, of course, you can convince me that there have been such events. I've never seen it, and nobody else has, either, to my knowledge.

William said...

I guess I don't have the same idealized view of a completed system of scientific laws as you have. I see such laws as intrinsically fuzzy in many cases.

I guess I don't know what 'sui generis' means in what you say. If the laws change because certain data contradicts the original laws, this is not sui generis, right? So what is?

B. Prokop said...

William,

At least in this conversation, we're using sui generis in its formal meaning, i.e., singular, unique, "one off", unrepeatable, in a class by itself, one and only.

Skep is in a bind here, because he demands that he personally observe an event that by definition will occur only once, and in the case of the Resurrection, occurred nearly 2000 years ago. (There is ample eyewitness testimony to this event, and it is well documented, as discussed many times on this website - to include the thread 7 below this one,
"Was the Bible lost in translation?". Unfortunately, skep dismisses this mountain of evidence out of hand.)

Therefore, to maintain his scientismist materialist outlook, skep is compelled to stand by an unexamined, unproven going-in assumption, which is that sui generis events cannot occur. Note that he makes no attempt to explain why such events cannot occur, he simply states the idea as fact and moves on to his predetermined conclusion that "because they can't, they don't". This is what we call Begging the Question", or more formally, petitio principii.

im-skeptical said...

"So what is?"

Sui generis means one-of-a-kind. It specifically refers to something that is not part of a pattern. Such a thing would be what we call a miracle. It would be a violation of the pattern, not a pattern that we have yet to discover.

im-skeptical said...

"Therefore, to maintain his scientismist materialist outlook, skep is compelled to stand by an unexamined, unproven going-in assumption, which is that sui generis events cannot occur. Note that he makes no attempt to explain why such events cannot occur, he simply states the idea as fact and moves on to his predetermined conclusion that "because they can't, they don't". This is what we call Begging the Question", or more formally, petitio principii."

Bullshit. I have already explained that this is not my position. I say that these events DO NOT occur, because they have never been observed. Now, you can point to biblical stories that claim these things, but you can't point to any actual facts that would be accepted by unbiased skeptics.

B. Prokop said...

"unbiased skeptics"

Now there's an oxymoron if I've ever seen one.

What I truly (and I do mean truly - I'm quite serious here) do not understand is how you can say these things with a straight face. I'm starting to wonder if this entire blog isn't some sort of elaborate Turing Test, and "im-skeptical" is merely some piece of software programmed to churn out random comments designed to mimic intelligence. But being merely a machine, it can't ever comprehend the significance of what it writes.

im-skeptical said...

Bob,

Who would you suggest someone ask about whether these things are believable? A Christain? They believe it be definition. Not a good source for an unbiased opinion.

William said...

skep:
you said "It would be a violation of the pattern, not a pattern that we have yet to discover"

How would you know this to be a "true violation" if it only happened once in experience? Are there not many things which only happen once? Are all of the outside of your laws?

For example, I think Deleueze though almost all truly real things were sui generis, so to speak.

im-skeptical said...

William,

I thought we were talking about what miracles are. I honestly don't know what you're trying to say. Perhaps you could elaborate.

B. Prokop said...

"They believe it b[y] definition."

If that is what you think, then you are sadly mistaken. The billions of converts to Christianity throughout history did not "believe it by definition" - they were adherents of other faiths, or of no faith at all, who heard the Good News and realized it was the Truth. And definitely not by definition.

You do realize that by the time you finish reading this sentence, there will be 3 to 5 newly converted Christians in China alone - none of whom believed the word by definition. The membership of the Catholic Church in Africa is exploding. New churches are being built every day in Togo, in Ghana, in Benin, and elsewhere. And they are full to bursting - and not a single person coming to the Church did so "by definition".

The pastor of my own church just came back from Vietnam. Wherever he went, he was greeted (to his great embarrassment) like a rock star. When one little town in the mountains heard he would be celebrating Mass in the area, the 200 person capacity village church was inundated by a crowd estimated at more than 3000! (And this was all by word of mouth, since the atheist government refused the use of all official means of communication.) Even in this country, Catholic parishes across the continent are reporting that they cannot keep up with the demand for adult religious education. More people are requesting it than resources permit.

Again, in my own church of St. Paul/Resurrection, we offered earlier this year a 7-week Intro to Catholicism course for adults interested in becoming Catholics, which met for 2 and 1/2 hours every Thursday evening. We booked a room with a 230 person capacity, thinking we were being wildly optimistic. (I was part of the organizing committee, and thought we'd be doing good if we got even 100 people to sign up.) We ended up filling every seat in the room, and had a 75 person waiting list!!! To our astonishment, we had to start organizing a second session (which starts next week).

Seriously, you have no idea what you are talking about.

im-skeptical said...

Calm down, Bob. I was merely noting the fact that if you didn't believe that Jesus rose from the dead, you wouldn't be a Christian, by definition. So it is pointless to ask a Christian whether he believes these miracles happened, when you already know the answer. By definition, he does. Otherwise, he wouldn't be a Christian.

William said...

skep,

I was following up with your comment that miracles were impossible because the scientific laws are inviolate. I was suggesting that there are some who say that such laws are seldom truly inviolate, and may instead be often sort-of-violated (by lack of an exact match with the law's prediction) by everyday occurences.

This would mean that your definition may be both too narrow and too broad.

Too narrow, because there may be some miracles with plenty of ordinary-appearing natural causes, which are instead miracles of amazingly appropriate synchronicity, for example.

And too broad, since a mere inexplicable singlet violation of a scientific law that seemed to all to be quite void of spiritual meaning would fail to be a miracle of the type seen in most religious works.

Papalinton said...

Bob Claims this: "And they [churches] are full to bursting - and not a single person coming to the Church did so "by definition"."
According to the Ghanaian Religious Report 2000NOTED HERE, in part reads:

"The Government requires that all students in public schools up to the equivalent of senior secondary school level attend a daily "assembly" or devotional service; however, in practice this regulation is not always enforced. This is a Christian service and includes the recital of The Lord's Prayer, a Bible reading, and a blessing. Students at the senior secondary school level are required to attend a similar assembly three times a week. Students attending boarding school are required to attend a nondenominational service on Sundays."

And so I'm not sure from what source he makes the claim ... "not a single person coming to the Church did so 'by definition'. " Every one just attended on their own volition, right?

Papalinton said...

I think it pretty reasonable to suggest religion is the US is atrophying, as it should as other more robust, targeted and evidence-based explanatory methodologies now increasingly inform public policy in society. Gone are the days when religious opinion formed the basis of decision-making. Today, a more measured, informed and substantive process is slowly supplanting the 'tradition' of unquestioning deference to the personal emotive sensibilities of others' unfounded beliefs in the supernatural.

im-skeptical said...

William,

"I was suggesting that there are some who say that such laws are seldom truly inviolate, and may instead be often sort-of-violated (by lack of an exact match with the law's prediction) by everyday occurences."

I can't think of a single thing we can observe that would meet this description.

"Too narrow, because there may be some miracles with plenty of ordinary-appearing natural causes, which are instead miracles of amazingly appropriate synchronicity, for example."

A coincidence is not a miracle. It only seems like one to people who don't realize that these coincidences happen all the time, but only occasionally do they get your attention.

"And too broad, since a mere inexplicable singlet violation of a scientific law that seemed to all to be quite void of spiritual meaning would fail to be a miracle of the type seen in most religious works."

These things never happen, as I said. But if they did, I would consider it a miracle, whether or not you think it has spiritual significance. The bible touts many such events, but just because it's in the bible, I suppose that would be sufficient for you to attach spiritual significance to it. Biblical stories like this are intended specifically to convince people of the supernatural power of their God. Presumably, it was acceptable in those times to use a show of supernatural prowess to convince people. It's too bad they only occur in the bible, though, because there are people today who might be convinced if they were witness to such events. Alas, it never happens, so many people remain unconvinced.

But you say, miracles DO happen. You just have to be willing to see them. No you have to be willing to believe them. For many Christians, the seeing follows the belief. For me the belief follows seeing.

B. Prokop said...

"I think it pretty reasonable to suggest religion is the US is atrophying"

Suggest all you want. Your latest comment reminds me of Grouch Marx: "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?" I believe what I see with my actual two eyes, while you prefer to believe some study. I choose to believe what skep so loves to call "empirical evidence".

I'll repeat what I posted to this site (in a different context) on December 4th, 2012:

You remind me of the character Mark Studdock in C.S. Lewis's novel That Hideous Strength.

"His education had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real than things that he saw. Statistics about agricultural labourers were the substance; any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer's boy, was the shadow. ... In his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen."

I'll take my real world encounters with real people over your "statistics" any day.

William said...

skep:
" For me the belief follows seeing."

Then beware that you do not miss what you do not look for. Change blindness and blindness due to differential attention are common brain phenomena. We all have filters on our perceptions.

Papalinton said...

Bob: "Suggest all you want. Your latest comment reminds me of Grouch Marx: "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?" I believe what I see with my actual two eyes, while you prefer to believe some study. I choose to believe what skep so loves to call "empirical evidence"."

I love you Bob for your dreamworld view of reality. I must point out, though, that 'what I see with my actual two eyes', is not even admissible in a court of law as a done deal without heavy caveats and a string of externally-corroborative supporting evidence. It is empirically known that eye-witness accounts are notoriously unreliable and just as prone to misperception as any optical illusion. And this where the 'study', the 'empirical evidence' stuff comes in. You will be aware of the world famous GORILLA TEST about perception. Also TRY THIS VERY SHORT TEST or WATCH THIS ONE or THIS ONE

In follow-up, the latest Research from PEW seems to contradict your 'actual two eyes' testimony, which in part notes:

"While those Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular religion have seen the greatest growth in numbers as a result of changes in affiliation, Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes. While nearly one-in-three Americans (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24%) describe themselves as Catholic. These losses would have been even more pronounced were it not for the offsetting impact of [Hispanic] immigration."

But I am happy for you to continue trusting your own eyes so long as you refrain from claimimg them as witnessed accounts.