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I get mail: Cavin and Colombetti redux

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In December 2013, I wrote a post on the subject of miracles in response to Professor Robert Greg Cavin and Dr. Carlos A. Colombetti, titled, Cavin and Colombetti, miracle-debunkers, or: Can a Transcendent Designer manipulate the cosmos? Today, I received an email from Professor Cavin, who claimed I had totally misconstrued his (and Colombetti’s) argument. In today’s post, I’d like to take the opportunity to respond.

Professor Cavin’s email was courteously worded, so I shall attempt to maintain the same standard of civility in my reply. Cavin’s main complaint is that I presented a straw man caricature of his (and Colombetti’s) argument in my original post. Specifically, he writes that I appear to think that he (and Colombetti) maintain that God cannot change the laws of nature. Professor Cavin emphatically denies this charge. It is logically possible, he says, for God to change the laws of nature, since these laws are not logically necessary, and an omnipotent being can do whatever is logically possible. However, Professor Cavin argues, there are things which it is logically possible to do, which He nevertheless cannot bring Himself to do: it is logically possible for God to sin, or to become incarnate as a serial murderer (the examples are Cavin’s), but in another sense, it is impossible for God to do these things, since He cannot bring Himself to do them. In a similar vein, Cavin proposes that it is logically possible for God to violate the laws of nature, but nomologically impossible, since God cannot bring Himself to violate the laws that He has created.

1. Did I misrepresent the views of Cavin and Colombetti on the logical possibility of God’s violating the laws of nature?

I have to say that Professor Cavin is digging a hole for himself, and I might add that he has inadvertently opened several theological cans of worms in the process. But before I explain why, I’d like to get one thing straight: nowhere in my post did I accuse Cavin and Colombetti of maintaining that it is logically impossible for God to change the laws of nature. I can certainly understand why Professor Cavin may have had that impression, so I won’t hold it against him, but for the record, here’s what I said (emphases mine):

… Cavin and Colombetti’s presentation is philosophically interesting, chiefly because the authors put forward three arguments to support their claim that Divine intervention in the history of the cosmos is astronomically unlikely:

(i) a religious argument that supernatural intervention is antecedently unlikely, which appeals to the Via Negativa and cites the authority of St. Augustine of Hippo and the Jewish philosopher and rabbi, Moses Maimonides;

(ii) a scientific argument that a Transcendent Designer, having created the laws of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, would no longer be capable of manipulating the cosmos; and

(iii) a mathematical argument, which appeals to Bayesian logic, purporting to show that there could never be good evidence for such an act of Divine intervention.

Readers will note that in the foregoing passage, I described Cavin and Colombetti as claiming that Divine intervention in the history of the cosmos is astronomically unlikely, not logically impossible. Additionally, neither the religious argument nor the mathematical argument rule out the logical possibility of Divine intervention. What about the scientific argument? It is true that the phrasing I used (“would no longer be capable of manipulating the cosmos”) might suggest logical impossibility to the casual reader, and I could certainly have phrased that sentence more clearly. However, later on in my post, I make it quite clear that I am not attributing such a view to Cavin and Colombetti (emphases mine):

Scientific arguments against supernatural intervention

Later on in their slideshow, Cavin and Colombetti adduce two scientific arguments purporting to show that supernatural intervention is extremely unlikely.

(a) The argument from the Second Law of Thermodynamics

Referring to the miracle of the Resurrection, the authors state that “scientific considerations show that the Resurrection has a non-zero, albeit astronomically small, prior probability” (p. 277), as “the entropy of the Universe markedly decreases in a supernatural resurrection from the dead,” and “the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that: the entropy of a physically isolated system is always increasing” (p. 283). It follows that “The supernatural Resurrection of Jesus by God violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics and thus has an astronomically low prior probability!” (p. 282)…

(b) The argument from statistical mechanics

But Cavin and Colombetti have one more ace up their sleeves: the argument from statistical mechanics…

Since the number of microstates (“ways”) in which the constituents of a body can form a corpse astronomically exceeds the number of microstates (“ways”) in which they form a living body, Cavin and Colombetti conclude that the prior probability of a specifically supernatural Resurrection is astronomically low (pp. 322-323).

I think it should be quite clear to my readers that I did not accuse Cavin and Colombetti of holding that it is logically impossible for God to violate the laws of nature, even on scientific grounds.

There is one more passage in my post which may have given Professor Cavin the false impression that I had accused him of holding that it is logically impossible for God to change the laws of nature: I appended a short, one-paragraph UPDATE, drawing attention to a comment by Sal Cordova, pointing out that “Cavin and Colombetti rely on a questionable assumption in their argument: they assume that if God made the laws of Nature, then those laws are immutable.” In his comment, Sal Cordova offered a very simple counter-example: “For example, I could write a computer program that spits out the number 3 every second, and then once a year it spits out 7.” However, the question being discussed here was not whether it is logically possible for God to change (or violate) the laws of nature, but whether the laws of nature are necessarily time-invariant. And as several philosophers have pointed out, there is no reason why they need to be. For example, the mathematician Charles Babbage, in Chapter XIII of his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, asked the reader to imagine a calculating engine that displays very predictable regularity for billions of iterations, such as a machine that counts integers. Then it suddenly jumps to another natural law, which again repeats itself with predictable regularity. In a similar fashion, argued Babbage, miracles do not contravene the laws of Nature at a higher level, and no special act of Divine intervention is required to make them occur. Whatever one thinks of Babbage’s argument, one thing is clear: the question of whether the laws of nature are time-invariant is separate from the theological question of whether it is logically impossible for God to violate the laws of nature.

I hope that readers will agree that I have not misrepresented Cavin and Colombetti’s views on the logical possibility of God’s violating the laws of nature.

2. Cavin’s theological can of worms: is it logically possible for God to sin or become incarnate as a serial murderer?

However, I feel impelled to take issues with the theological assertions made by Professor Cavin. He claims that since God is (by definition) omnipotent, He can do anything that is logically possible. He also claims that it is logically possible for God to sin, but that in practice, He could never bring Himself to do such a thing: in other words, it is morally impossible for God to sin, even if it logically possible for Him to do so.

However, it seems to me that Cavin’s doctrine of Divine omnipotence is not worth the paper it is written on. His assertion that God can do anything that is logically possible turns out to be tautologous and utterly trivial: all he really means to say is that it is logically possible for God to do whatever it is logically possible for Him to do. How illuminating!

I might add that I discussed the question of Divine omnipotence here, in Part 10 of the Appendix to my December 2014 post, Do Christians worship many gods?, where I rejected the classical view that God can do anything which doesn’t involve a logical contradiction, in favor of a more modest view of Divine omnipotence. I should mention that the Catholic philosopher Peter Geach carefully distinguished several concepts of omnipotence in a 1973 article titled, “Omnipotence” (available in Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 63–75), before concluding that the attempt to define omnipotence is futile. Instead, Geach preferred to simply describe God as almighty, meaning that God is not just more powerful than any creature, but that no creature can compete with God in power, even unsuccessfully.

Returning to the question of whether it is logically possible for God to sin, I’d like to respond by asking Professor Cavin a question: does he think it is logically possible for God to make a stone that He cannot lift? If (as I presume), his answer is “No,” then why does he think it is logically possible for God to sin? There seem to be not one but two logical contradictions here: (a) since sin is by definition contrary to the will of God, then God would, by sinning, be willing something (call it X) that He wills against, which is logically impossible (God both wills X and wills against X) since God has only one Will; (b) since sin is by definition evil and God is by definition all-good, then to say that it is logically possible for God to sin is tantamount to saying that it is logically possible for something all-good to be evil, which is absurd.

Professor Cavin’s views on the Incarnation are equally bizarre. He declares that it is logically possible for God to incarnate Himself as a serial murderer. Now it might be argued that there is no logical contradiction here, as there is nothing to prevent a Divine Person from opposing murder with His Divine will, while desiring it with His human will. (I take it that Professor Cavin is not a Monothelite.) But then the question arises: if the two wills of a Divine Person are capable of standing in opposition to one another, then in what meaningful sense can they both be ascribed to the same person? The traditional Christian understanding (shared by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as by many Protestants) is that in Christ there are two wills – “the Divine will, which is the Divine nature, and the human rational will, which always acts in harmony with and in free subjection to the Divine will” (The Catholic Encyclopedia, art. “Monothelitism and Monothelites”) – and that Christ, being a Divine Person (as defined by the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553 A.D.) was incapable of sinning, since a person who is God cannot sin. This is the doctrine of the impeccability of Christ, which has been cogently defended by Protestants (see here, here, here and here) as well as Catholic and Orthodox believers. In accordance with Christian tradition, I would maintain that it is logically impossible that one and the same person could have two contrary wills. (Contrary inclinations, maybe; contrary wills, absolutely not.) If Professor Cavin disagrees, then let him tell us what he means by “person.”

Finally, Professor Cavin proposes that God’s being unable to bring Himself to violate the laws of nature is somehow analogous to God’s being unable to bring Himself to sin. Just as it is morally (but not logically) impossible for God to sin, we can say that it is nomologically (but not logically) impossible for Him to violate the laws of nature. However, it seems to me that Cavin (and Colombetti) radically misconceive the way in which God interacts with the cosmos. God (as I argued in my 2013 post) causes events to happen in the world in much the same way as the author of a book narrates the events that happen in it. Hence He does not have to “violate” the laws of nature in order to perform a supernatural miracle; all He has to do is write a supernatural event into the script of world history. As Thomist philosophy Professor Edward Feser put it in a post titled, Are you for real? (May 8, 2011):

The idea is that God’s causality is not like that of one character, object, or event in a story among others; it is more like that of the author of the story. Hence to say that God is the ultimate source of all causality is not like saying that He is comparable to a hypnotist in a story who brainwashes people to do his bidding, or a mad scientist who controls them via some electronic device implanted in their brains. He is more like the writer who decides that the characters will interact in such-and-such a way.

Using the author metaphor, we can see what’s wrong with Cavin and Colombetti’s argument. To say that God cannot bring Himself to work a miracle would be like saying that the author of a novel could not bring herself to save the hero from danger by an act of magic. (Think of J.K. Rowing and Harry Potter, and you’ll see my point immediately.) My response would be: why shouldn’t she? After all, it’s her story. As the author of the story, doesn’t she have the right to save the hero in whatever way she thinks fit?

Professor Cavin would also do well to read Professor Alfred Freddoso’s Comment on van Inwagen’s “The Place of Chance in a World Sustained by God”. Freddoso distinguishes three views of how God interacts with nature: weak deism (also known as conservationism), according to which God brings about effects in nature indirectly, by creating and conserving natural objects and their causal powers; occasionalism, according to which God is the only genuine efficient cause of natural effects, and natural objects have no causal powers of their own; and concurrentism, according to which natural effects derive immediately from both God and natural objects: “That is to say, in addition to conserving natural entities and their causal powers, God must act with or co-operate with those entities in order for them to bring about their characteristic effects.” Professor Freddoso advocates concurrentism (as did virtually all Christian thinkers during the Middle Ages), and he goes on to describe how God could bring about a Biblical miracle, from a concurrentist standpoint, without opposing His own creatures:

Think of Shadrach sitting in the fiery furnace. Here we have real human flesh exposed unprotected to real fire, and yet Shadrach survives unscathed–even though the fire is so hot that it consumes the soldiers who usher him into the furnace. How, on the weak deist view, can God save Shadrach? Only, it seems, by either (i) taking from the fire its power to consume Shadrach, which is inconsistent with the soldiers’ being incinerated but in any case amounts (or so the anti-deists all claim) to destroying the fire and in that sense overpowering it; or (ii) endowing Shadrach’s clothing and flesh with a special power of resistance, in which case God is opposing His creature, the fire; or (iii) placing some impediment (say, an invisible heat-resistant shield) between Shadrach and the flames, in which case God is yet again resisting the power of the fire. By contrast, on the occasionalist and concurrentist models, God accomplishes this miracle simply by withholding His own action. The (real) fire is, as it were, beholden to God’s word; He does not have to struggle with it or overcome it or oppose it. The fire’s natural effect cannot occur without God’s action, and in this case God chooses not to act in the way required. An elegant account, and one that does not in any way give any creature a power that God must oppose.

3. The prior probability of a miracle

In his email to me, Professor Cavin goes on to argue that the evidence for the laws of nature is exceptionally strong; hence, the prior probability of any law of nature L will be extremely high; conversely, he adds, the prior probability that God will cause it to be the case that not-L (in other words, that God will over-ride L) will be extremely low. Before I go on, I’d like to point out that Professor Cavin is being a little imprecise in his terminology here: when he declares that the prior probability of any law of nature L is extremely high, does he mean (a) the prior probability that L is indeed one of the laws of the cosmos which we live in is very high, or (b) the prior probability that L holds here and now is very high, or (c) the prior probability that God violates, suspends or over-rides L here and now is extremely low? To support his claim that the prior probability of any law of nature L will be extremely high, Professor Cavin cites the fact that the evidence for the laws of nature is exceptionally strong. But while this fact clearly supports statement (a), it is not so clear that it supports (b) – after all, the evidence for the laws of Nature consists of observations taken at other times and places, as opposed to here and now, and as I argued above, there is nothing in the concept of a law of nature that requires it to be time-invariant, let alone invariant across space and time. But let that pass. Judging from Cavin’s converse statement that the prior probability that God will cause it to be the case that not-L is extremely low, it appears that what he really means to assert is claim (c). To support his claim, Cavin argues that even a religious believer such as myself would readily acknowledge that it is extremely unlikely that God would cause my great-grandparents to rise from the dead. And I would certainly agree that such an event is extremely unlikely. I would not agree, however, that there is a single, invariant prior probability p which we should apply uniformly to all individuals in history who are said to have been miraculously raised from the dead. The reason should be obvious enough: God is a moral agent. One would be a lot less surprised if He were to raise St. Francis of Assisi from the dead than if He were to resurrect Adolf Hitler – or even John and Jane Doe.

But let’s be as generous as possible to Cavin and Colombetti, and assume that there is a single, invariant prior probability p, of God miraculously raising a dead person’s body back to life, and that p is extremely low. The next question we have to address is: how low is p? Now, as I stated in my 2013 post in reply to Cavin and Colombetti, I would be quite happy for argument’s sake to assume a starting prior probability of 10^-120 (or 1 in 1 followed by 120 zeroes) as a default value, in determining whether a highly specified complex pattern (such as a bacterial flagellum) was the product of a product of a Designer. Dr. William Dembski has argued that this cut-off point make sense, because physicist Seth Lloyd has estimated that 10^120 is the maximum number of elementary operations that the universe could have performed over its 13.8-billion-year history – in other words, the number of “basic events” that have taken place in the history of the cosmos. (Actually, Dembski is extremely cautious in his calculations, and rounds this number up a few orders of magnitude to 10^150, although he didn’t need to do this.) In keeping with Laplace’s “sunrise argument,” I would argue that the prior probability that we should assign to a complex pattern in nature being the product of an as-yet-unobserved designer should therefore be about 1 in 10^120.) And I would like to add here that if the complex pattern in question is one which “violates” the laws of Nature – for example, a dead body coming back to life – then by the same token, a prior probability of 1 in 10^120 is the default value, in determining whether the complex pattern was the product of a product of a Supernatural Designer.

What this means is that the prior probability of a resurrection from the dead is astronomically low (1 in 10^120), but not zero. If Professor Cavin doesn’t like the number that I have proposed, then he is welcome to propose another one, but I will expect him to support it with mathematically rigorous arguments.

4. Cavin and Colombetti’s dilemma: Was the body of the risen Jesus composed of atoms or “schmatoms”?

Professor Cavin concedes, however, that if the explanatory power of a miracle is sufficiently high, then the miracle will turn out to have a high posterior probability after all, despite its having a very low prior probability. In that case, belief in the miracle would be intellectually reasonable. However, Professor Cavin informs me that the point he was making against Mike Licona was that Licona’s “resurrection hypothesis” was insufficiently defined – in other words, too vague for us to make an assessment of its posterior probability. Cavin and Colombetti define the problem with the resurrection hypothesis in their slide presentation, when they pose the question of whether the body of the risen Jesus was composed of atoms or “schmatoms”. A body composed of atoms have the advantage of being visible and tangible (as the Gospels tell us Jesus’ risen body was), but at the same time, such a body would be subject to decay: it would not be physically indestructible, as Jesus’ risen body was supposed to have been. Nor would it be capable of ascending into Heaven. A body composed of immaterial “schmatoms,” on the other hand, would be unable to interact with matter, and hence incapable of being seen or touched by Mary Magdalene and the apostles. Hence, claim Cavin and Colombetti, there would be no observational difference between “Schmatom-Jesus” and nothing at all! “Schmatom-Jesus,” the authors argue, would be utterly devoid of explanatory power, while “Atom-Jesus” would have very weak explanatory power. What’s more, the probability of a dead body turning into either an indestructible arrangement of atoms or something even more bizarre (schmatoms) is incalculable. Hence there is no way in principle to show that the resurrection of Jesus – or any other individual, for that matter – has a high posterior probability.

I have to say that the foregoing argument sounds very like the skeptical arguments which I myself used to entertain, during my “skeptical phase” in the late 1980s and 1990s, when I rejected Christianity. It sounds impressive, but it rests on faulty metaphysics and faulty epistemology.

5. What is a law of nature, and what does that mean for the resurrection of a dead body?

Let’s deal with the metaphysics first. Professor Cavin has a lot to say about the laws of nature, but he never addresses the fundamental question of what these laws are. I would recommend that he read Professor Edward Feser’s recently published work, Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (Neunkirchen-Seelscheid: Editiones Scholasticae, 2014), in which Feser vigorously defends the Aristotelian-Thomistic view that what we call “laws of nature” are really descriptions of the causal powers of various kinds of natural objects – be they living organisms, chemical substances, fundamental particles, or the various fields invoked by physicists.

Once we adopt this way of thinking about laws, then it becomes a lot easier to understand what Christians (and Jews and Muslims) are asserting when they affirm their belief in the resurrection of the dead. What they are saying, first of all, is that a resurrected body will be able to exercise causal powers over bodies in this universe (by touching them) and over rays of light (by reflecting them and thereby making itself visible), but that bodies in this universe will not be able to exercise any causal powers over a resurrected body: hence they will have no power to damage or destroy it. Second, the causal powers that a resurrected body exercises over bodies in this universe are subject to the volition of the body’s owner: if the resurrected individual doesn’t want to make him/herself visible or tangible, then he/she will not be seen or felt by us.

We are now in a position to address Cavin and Colombetti’s “Atoms or Schmatoms?” dilemma. The correct answer is: neither. Atoms are unsuitable candidates for the constituents of a resurrected body, because bodies in this universe would be able to exercise causal powers over them and destroy them. If the body of the risen Jesus were composed of atoms, then He could have been crucified all over again. Schmatoms, on the other hand, are equally unsuitable, because they have no causal powers over bodies in this universe, and hence could not be seen or felt – which means that there could be no witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. But glatoms, as I shall call them – the “gl” stands for “glorified” – have causal powers over bodies in this universe, but atoms would have no powers over them. A body composed of glatoms could act upon bodies in this world, but the converse would not hold.

The physics of resurrected bodies

Now, I’m quite sure that Professor Cavin will have lots of questions that he’d like to ask me about the physics of resurrected bodies, and I’d be happy to try and answer them, to the best of my ability. For instance, what would happen if you threw a stone at one? The answer I’d give is that the stone would have no power to penetrate or shatter the resurrected body. On the other hand, the law of conservation of momentum would not apply here, because this law merely describes interactions between bodies in our universe, and a resurrected body is not subject to the powers of bodies in our universe. So I would predict that the stone, after coming as close to the resurrected body as it can possibly get without entering its “space,” would suddenly halt in its tracks, and fall to the ground in front of the resurrected body. Again, what would happen if a resurrected body stood on the raised end of a see-saw? My answer is: the resurrected body would be able to depress the see-saw. But if a fat man suddenly hopped on the other end, the fat man would be unable to lift the resurrected body standing on the see-saw, let alone make it fall off the see-saw, since bodies in our universe have no causal powers over resurrected bodies. Another question: what would happen if you shook hands with a resurrected person? Could you make their arms move up and down faster by shaking their hands very vigorously? No. The resurrected person’s arms would rise and fall in accordance with their voluntary arm movements while they were shaking your hand, but no matter how strong you were, you would be unable to alter the rhythm of their arm movements. (They could, of course, alter yours.) Could a resurrected body eat food? Yes, certainly, since it has causal powers over matter in our universe. What happens to the food? The answer to that question depends on whether a resurrected body has the power to transmute atoms into glatoms, and I would assume that the answer is in the affirmative. Would such a body be heavier (i.e. weigh more) after having eaten? And would it be more massive? After ingesting and transmuting food, it would acquire additional power to extend a spring balance, say (in other words, it would gain weight). Regarding its mass, a very interesting result emerges: its inertial mass would not be equal to its gravitational mass, since no body in our universe would be capable of accelerating it (in other words, its inertial mass would be infinite), but at the same time, it would be capable of gravitationally attracting other bodies in our universe, just as any human body might do (in other words, its gravitational mass would be small and finite, and it would increase after ingesting food). (For all objects in our universe, the two masses are equivalent; for a resurrected body, they are not.) Finally, what would happen if you took a photo of a resurrected person? My answer is that a resurrected body is perfectly capable of reflecting light, so it should show up in the picture. However, an X-ray would yield no useful results: since X-rays would have no power over a resurrected body, they’d be unable to pass through it, so the X-ray image of a resurrected body would appear totally opaque.

What I’m trying to show here is that if we adopt a metaphysics of causal powers, it is perfectly possible to give a consistent description of a resurrected body.

6. Calculating the probabilities

The other major criticism made by Cavin and Colombetti is that no matter what account we give of the properties of a resurrected body, it is impossible for us to “guesstimate” what visible form it might take, and hence, it is impossible to calculate the probability that the resurrected body of Jesus would appear in human form (or something like it) to Mary Magdalene, the apostles and St. Paul. However, this objection is beside the point. What really matters, if we let R denote the (now well-defined) hypothesis that Jesus rose from the dead and that his body was transformed into one composed of glatomms, and E denote the evidence of the alleged appearances of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples after His death, is whether P(E|R) is many, many times greater than P(E|not-R). How many times greater, you ask? As I argued above, we would need to show that it is 10^120 times greater, if we are to mount a convincing demonstration for the Resurrection. Cavin and Colombetti would argue that this cannot be done, but Tim and Lydia McGrew, in their cogently-argued article, The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, indicate a way. For each disciple who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus, the McGrews argue the likelihood of their having a tactile-visual experience of Jesus would be at least 1,000 times higher if Jesus actually rose from the dead than if He didn’t: in other words, the kind of experience the disciples had of the risen Jesus would be 1,000 times less likely if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead than if He did. By far the most likely alternative naturalistic explanation of the appearances would be some sort of vision or hallucination on the part of the disciples; however, even this is very unlikely, since “we would not expect a heavenly vision to behave the way the disciples said Jesus behaved and to interact with them in the way that they said he did.” What’s more, since there were multiple disciples, we can calculate (to a first approximation) the likelihood of the entire group's having a tactile-visual experience of Jesus, and of each individual’s experience cohering well with that of the other members of the group, simply by multiplying the likelihood ratios by one another N times, where N is the number of disciples. (The McGrews discuss the objection that this method assumes that the testimony of each witness is independent, but they argue that in view of the demonstrated willingness of some of these witnesses to be martyred for the declaring that they had seen the risen Jesus, this is a reasonable assumption.) In chapter X of his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, the mathematician Charles Babbage argued that “provided we assume that independent witnesses can be found of whose testimony it can be stated that it is more probable that it is true than that it is false, we can always assign a number of witnesses which will, according to Hume’s argument, prove the truth of a miracle.” By multiplying the ratio of P(E|R) to P(E|not-R) for each witness (1,000, as explained above) by itself 14 times (for the thirteen apostles and St. Paul), and then multiplying that by the ratio calculated for the women who went to the tomb (conservatively estimated at 100), the McGrews arrive at a figure of 10^44. However, I would argue that even this figure is too low, as St. Paul states (1 Corinthians 15:6), in the oldest written account of the Resurrection, that the risen Jesus appeared to more than 500 people at one time. 1,000 raised to the power of 500 is 10 to the power of 1,500, which is well over the 10^120 threshold we had to clear, in order to make belief in the Resurrection intellectually reasonable.

Limitations of space and time prevent me from giving more than a thumb-nail sketch of the points raised in the McGrews’ article, but the point I want to make here is that it is possible, with a large enough number of independent witnesses, to mount a mathematically and empirically well-grounded case for the proposition that the resurrection of Jesus is historically probable. The same goes for any other well-documented miracle. Cavin and Colombetti’s attempt to debunk arguments for miracles on the grounds that they are too poorly defined for us to compute their probabilities, given the available evidence, rests upon faulty metaphysical and epistemological arguments.

Later in their slideshow, Cavin and Colombetti argue that the contradictions in the resurrection narratives undermine their value as evidence. I would respond to this by saying that one narrative is enough for my purposes: the narrative in 1 Corinthians 15, which was written a mere 25 years after Jesus’ death, and within the lifetimes of people who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus. Cavin and Colombetti also suggest that if the disciples were eagerly expecting Jesus to rise again, it would not be too surprising if their minds were to project these expectations in the form of group hallucinations and false memories, but as the McGrews point out in their discussion of St. Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, “delusions that change the minds of vicious persecutors and transform them into faithful martyrs are unfortunately quite rare; one looks in vain for comparable conversions among the notorious murdering zealots of the ages.” Moreover, “we would not expect [the disciples] to come away from a heavenly vision of Jesus firmly convinced that his body had not decayed and that they had talked and eaten with him physically on earth.” Cavin and Colombetti have failed to cite a case in the annals of history which is remotely parallel to the apostles’ experience of the risen Jesus.

I have argued above that the most science can show is that the probability of a miracle is no more than 1 in 10^120. No more – but by the same token, no less. A well-defined resurrection hypothesis, such as the one I provided above, coupled with the testimony of a sufficient number of independent witnesses, can, as Babbage pointed out, overcome these astronomical odds, and make belief in a miracle intellectually reasonable.

Finally, I’d like to draw readers’ attention to a puerile argument put forward by Cavin and Colombetti in their slideshow: even if God exists, they say, He is not physical, and thus lacks energy, and so cannot exchange energy with the universe. The authors then add that the Second Law of Thermodynamics shows that God chooses not to interact in a causal, non-physical fashion (as an author or creator might) with the universe. But of course it shows no such thing, as I argued in my 2013 post:

…[I]t is fundamentally wrong-headed of Cavin and Colombetti to equate the prior probability of a supernatural intervention with the prior probability of its microstates being in the arrangement specified by the Supernatural Being producing that outcome. What they appear not to realize is that miracles, if they occur, are planned and wrought from the top down, rather than from the bottom up. That is, although the microstates must eventually be specified, this is done so only because of, and logically subsequent to, the initial decision to generate a particular pattern in a system.

[Finally,] the argument relating to prior probabilities of the various microstates of a system refers only to natural probabilities. Just as a die retains its natural tendency to land with equal probability on any of its sides even while some card cheat is rolling the die in a way that reliably lands on a six (which apparently can be done with practice, so I’ve read), so too, all the microstates of a system retain their equal prior probability in the natural state, even while they are being manipulated by God. (Is that “cheating” on God’s part? Of course not – He made the cosmos, after all!)

If one adopts a concurrentist account of God’s relation to the natural world, which I defended above, then it is easy to see how physical objects can retain their natural tendencies, while not realizing them because God has decreed to withhold his normal co-operation with the customary mode of behavior of these bodies. At bottom, then, Cavin and Colombetti are trapped by their own metaphysical biases. That is why they believe it is impossible to show that miracles have a high posterior probability, and more reasonable to believe that God “cannot bring Himself” to violate the laws of nature.

And now, over to my readers. What do you think?

Hi Barry, That pretty much hits the nail on the head. I wonder if Cavin and Colombetti have ever read Chesterton. Steve, Thank you for your very helpful comments. I believe St. Augustine said something similar, on the subject of miracles. Sal, Thanks very much for the articles you drew my attention to. Interesting comment on Rees' remarks. vjtorley
This is yet another instance in which failure to understand the simple propositions in Chesterton's Ethics of Elfland has led to error. Barry Arrington
I appended a short, one-paragraph UPDATE, drawing attention to a comment by Sal Cordova, pointing out that “Cavin and Colombetti rely on a questionable assumption in their argument: they assume that if God made the laws of Nature, then those laws are immutable.” In his comment, Sal Cordova offered a very simple counter-example: “For example, I could write a computer program that spits out the number 3 every second, and then once a year it spits out 7.” However, the question being discussed here was not whether it is logically possible for God to change (or violate) the laws of nature, but whether the laws of nature are necessarily time-invariant.
Thanks again for the acknowledgment. What we call "Law of Nature" is just our approximation of how we think the universe should behave based on what little sample of reality we've taken. Unless God Himself declares what we think is a law is actually an immutable law, then it's not a law, it's just our rule of thumb to help us guess how things work. Hence to the extent Cavin and Colombetti insist our extrapolations from small samples sizes of reality are actually "Laws of Nature", they err. As I said in the comment you highlighted:
For example, I could write a computer program that spits out the number 3 every second, and then once a year it spits out 7. Not hard for a designer to do, but using the scientific method on small samples, say a day of samples, someone could argue
the program obeys the following ‘law’, it spits out the number 3 every second, to violate this law would be a miracle, therefore a miracles of 7 popping up is impossible
Such an argument would be absolutely silly, but that is exactly what Cavin and Columbetti are doing, just on larger scale!
I point out this article (that is actually anti-ID): http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2007/jun/26/spaceexploration.comment
But the embarrassment of the Goldilocks enigma has prompted a rethink. The Cambridge cosmologist Martin Rees, president of The Royal Society, suggests the laws of physics aren't absolute and universal but more akin to local bylaws, varying from place to place on a mega-cosmic scale. A God's-eye view would show our universe as merely a single representative amid a vast assemblage of universes, each with its own bylaws.
Not that I necessarily agree with Rees, but if physicists think what we call laws are not necessarily universal laws for all reality, why should philosophers do so, and worse debate on whether God would violate laws of nature that aren't actually laws of nature? Great reference of Babbage, btw. scordova
However, it seems to me that Cavin’s doctrine of Divine omnipotence is not worth the paper it is written on.
I've encountered people who are theologically ignorant but the mistake regarding God's potential to do evil is one that most 8 year old catechumens would laugh at. Oh yes, these gentlemen are Professors of some kind. They get paid to do nothing but think about and teach things. The human mind is a sensitive and powerful instrument - so I guess this shows how easily a mind can be corrupted. People are "educated beyond their needs". Adding more useless data to a broken rationality only renders the person more of an idiot.
The idea is that God’s causality is not like that of one character, object, or event in a story among others; it is more like that of the author of the story.
That essential point ends years of debate, nullifies entire book-length arguments, and reveals the infantile shallowness of today's preachers of scientism. People know little about art and the creation of stories. Measuring the statistical probability of God's creative act. LOL. Silver Asiatic
Just read this on facebook:
"we live on a blue planet that circles a ball of fire next to a moon that moves the sea, and you don't believe in miracles?" http://www.listofimages.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/solar-eclipse-space-moon-earth-sun-other.jpg
of note:
"You could fit 262 trillion earths inside (the star of) Betelgeuse. If the Earth were a golfball that would be enough to fill up the Superdome (football stadium) with golfballs,,, 3000 times!!! When I heard that as a teenager that stumped me right there because most of my praying had been advising God, correcting God, suggesting things to God, drawing diagrams for God, reviewing things with God, counseling God." - Louie Giglio - How Great Is Our God - Part 2 - video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfNiZrt5FjU The Biggest Stars in the Universe - video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bcz4vGvoxQA "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." - C.S. Lewis
A further thought. There is this (mistaken IMO)tendency to see God as 'out there' somewhere. "The kingdom of God is within you" should have put paid to that mistake notion. Yet it persists. Once we view God as being partially immersed in and intertwined with nature and the universe, we can drop the 'interventionistic' tendencies we attribute to God. Miracles are not interventions. They are the opening of existing windows rather than the construction of new windows. Steve
I think there is a misunderstanding of what miracles are. God cannot change the laws of the nature he created and we experience. If he did change those laws, then it would bviously be a different nature. So we can be confident that when miracles happen, no laws of nature are being broken. God is working within those laws. It just so happens that we are not yet sufficiently developed intellectually to grasp the total breadth of those laws. I think in our arrogance, we believe we have discovered ALL those laws therefore are convinced that miracles cant happen. Who was it that said miracles can be compared to science that has yet to be discovered (rough paraphrase)? Lets remember what Christ said: 'If you had the faith of a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain " go into the sea' and it would obey you". That is God reminding us that we DO have the innate capability to understand HIS miracles precisely because those said miracles are NOT beyond the laws of nature. He is simply waiting on us waiting on ourselves to recognize the "inner mounting flame". Steve

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