Is Belief in Miracles and Christianity Unjustified If It Is Not Scientific?

Paul explains why the claim that science is the only source of knowledge is not a valid objection to belief in miracles and Christianity.

Text Publication: February 20, 2020

Audio Publication: February 20, 2020

Video Publication: February 20, 2020

Author(s): Paul Larson

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Hey, there! Welcome to Credible Faith! If you were to try and dissuade a friend that his religion were false, and if that religion were based on the claim of one or more miracles, then you would have at your disposal at least three ways that you might try to dissuade your friend from his belief. First, you might argue that miracles do not or can not happen. Second, you might argue that, even if a miracle were possible and did happen, your friend would not be justified in believing that the miracle happened. And third, you might argue that, even if the miracle happened and if your friend were justified in believing the miracle, the miracle claims of other religions would cancel out the miracle or miracles of his religion. If you were to use the second approach, you might tell your friend that science is the only source of knowledge. And from that claim, you would make the following syllogistic argument:

1. Science is the only source of knowledge
2. Science can not demonstrate that a miracle occurred.
3. Therefore, even if a miracle did occur, we can not know that a miracle occurred.

Notice that this argument is agnostic about whether a miracle really occurred. What it is claiming is that, whether a miracle did occur or did not occur, we can not know that it occurred. And of course, you might then add that, if we do not know that the miracle occurred, and if the religion is based on that miracle, then we can not know that the religion is actually true. And if we can not know if the religion is true, then we would not be justified in believing that religion. So my question for us to consider is this: is science the only source of knowledge? Would you have a good argument that your friend would not be justified in believing in his religion? My answer is no. You do not have a good argument. In fact, both premises of the argument are false, and the argument is subject to five significant criticisms. To give you an overview of what we will be looking at, here are the five criticisms:

1. The claim that science is the only source of knowledge is self-refuting.
2. Non-scientific truths can be and are known.
3. The argument ignores the demarcation problem and the trouble associated with defining exactly what science is and what is not.
4. The non-miraculous scientific facts of a miracle, facts that require the conclusion that a miracle occurred, can still be assessed and known.
5. Scientific knowledge is based on human testimony in the same way that belief in miracle claims is based on human testimony, and so one can not appropriately exclude belief in miracle claims because such belief relies on testimony.

With that overview, let's look at each one of the criticisms in turn. The first criticism is that the claim that science is the only source of knowledge is self-refuting. It is inconsistent with itself. The claim that science is our only source of knowledge is not a claim that science demonstrates, and so on its own terms, the claim that science is the only source of knowledge is not something that we can know. Thus, our claiming that we know that science is the only source of knowledge is just to contradict ourselves. It is self-refuting.

It would also be self-refuting if one appealed to some particular scientific method as being the only source of knowledge, since science itself can't demonstrate that the method itself is scientific. If I were to give you the finest most advanced scientific instruments in existence, not one of those instruments would be able to affirm or deny the statement that science is the only way to knowledge, nor would such instruments be able to demonstrate the claim that some particular method of studying the world is scientific. So if it were true that science alone gives us knowledge, we can not know that science is the only way to have knowledge. But if we can't know that science is the only way to get knowledge, there is no basis to tell some other person that he or she does not have knowledge through non-scientific means.

A second criticism of the claim that science is the only source of knowledge is that we do in fact know a good number of non-scientific truths.

If 1) there is a true non-scientific claim that I and a skeptic about miracles both believe, and 2) if the skeptic and I both agree that we are justified in believing this non-scientific claim, then as far as the skeptic and I are concerned, we would agree that it is false that the only knowledge we have is scientific knowledge or knowledge science gives us, and it would be illegitimate for that skeptic to object to belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ or in miracles more broadly by saying that science is the only means to knowledge.

Now, consider the following claims that the scientific method can not demonstrate to be true or false, and for now I am going to equate 'scientific method' with 'science', since defining science by the content of what is believed rather than the method of acquiring those beliefs would just be begging the question. If you believe in any of these claims and think that your belief is knowledge, that would be at least an implicit admission that science is not the only means to knowledge.

1) We have free will.
2) There are objective moral values.
3) We have knowledge.
4) We persist through time, that is, the "me" or "you" of right now is the same "me" or "you" of five minutes ago or of five of fifteen years ago.
5) A person can be morally guilty for past deeds.
6) There are inalienable human rights.
7) Some people in this world are rational or at least have had some amount of rationality at some point in their lives.
8) We have moral obligations, including the obligation to believe the truth, if we can choose to believe and disbelieve truth claims.
9) Abortion is wrong, or preventing some from having an abortion is wrong.
10) Torture is wrong.
11) It is wrong for two people to have homosexual sex or to have heterosexual sex outside of marriage; or it is wrong to stop two people from having homosexual sex or heterosexual sex outside of marriage.
12) Racism is wrong.

If you believe any of these things and would say that you are justified in believing them and that they are pieces of genuine knowledge, then you can not be consistent and also say that our only path to knowledge is science (at least as defined by a scientific method); you would be contradicting yourself. Let me dwell on some of these claims to make my point even more clear.

I know it is cliché to point to the question of whether torturing babies for fun is objectively wrong, but it is cliché because it makes the point. If the skeptic believes that ethical claim and thinks that he is justified in doing so and that it is knowledge, then such a belief is a concession that science is not the only path to knowledge. Take the issue of abortion. Whether you think it is wrong to kill a baby or wrong to prevent a mom from killing her baby, that is whether you are pro-choice or pro-life, and if you think your belief is a genuine piece of knowledge, then science is not the only path to knowledge. If you think that racism is wrong, or that humans have a fundamental dignity, or that I'm irrational for believing the resurrection, then you concede at least implicitly that science is not the only path to knowledge, since a scientific method cannot demonstrate the truth or falsity of ethical claims. Even if you think that I should not believe in the resurrection because you think that it never happened, your belief is based on the idea, on the belief, that I should believe what is true and not believe what is false, but no amount of science or test tube experimentation would ever tell you that.

In our scenario, if the skeptic says that our epistemological starting point should be to adopt the principle that science is the only path to knowledge, then his making that ethical claim about an epistemological starting point is in direct contradiction to the very starting point he wants us to have, namely, that science is the only path to knowledge. The claim that we should only believe what science tells us is itself not a scientific statement. The best that the skeptic can do at this point is shut his mouth and not engage in argument, as argument would contradict the point he would make.

I with the great mass of humanity think that I am justified in believing many of these claims. Further, even the most ardent skeptics act in their day-to-day lives as if many of these claims are indeed true and as if they know that they are true. That is, when the skeptic is not talking about the subject of miracles, he does indeed live his life in direct contradiction to the claim that science is the only source of knowledge. But just like the inconsistency of David Hume's writing on the problem of induction with his later writing on miracles, the skeptic suddenly changes what he says when he sees that his normal way of talking and living would give credibility to Christianity and its claims on how he should live his life.

If that is you, if you ignore the great evidence for the resurrection or push it aside on some objection as weak as the claim that science is the only source of knowledge, then I would fear for your soul. Jesus Christ will return to earth one day and will judge the living and the dead. If you live to see his return, it will be too late for you to turn to him then. Now is the time for you to consider the evidence for Christianity. Now is the time to put your faith in Jesus Christ to save you from your sins. Don't wait. None of us can be completely sure how much time remains for us on earth. Don't wait.

A third criticism of the claim that science is the only source of knowledge is that it ignores the demarcation problem and the trouble associated with defining exactly what science is and what it is not. The objection to miracles and the resurrection based on a claim that science is the only source of knowledge crucially depends on there being some adequate way to differentiate between claims that are scientific and claims that are not scientific.

How does one know, for example, that the claim that the earth revolves around the sun is scientific and that the claim that Jesus rose from the dead is not? On what basis would one say the one claim is scientific and the other isn't? The skeptic has to provide some principled basis for distinguishing between what is scientific and what is not, and if he can not do this, then there is no principled basis for making the claim that science is our only means to knowledge, since that claim depends on being able to define just what is and what is not science.

Pressing this issue will run us into what is called the demarcation problem. The basic issue of the demarcation problem is that all the major candidates for making a principled differentiation between what is and what is not science either go too far by including claims that many would not consider scientific, or fall short by excluding claims that are clearly scientific.

One might think that this is not much of a big deal; one just defines science in a way that excludes the resurrection and other miracles. But it is a big deal. If the way one defines science is simply to say that science is that which excludes the resurrection, then this definition of science is simply an ad hoc or contrived definition that is designed primarily to support skepticism about the resurrection and miracles. In effect, the claim that science is the only path to knowledge thus becomes, only those claims that do not affirm the resurrection and miracles are paths to knowledge, but that is begging the very question in debate. One can not rightly justify skepticism about the resurrection and miracles by assuming from the start that they did not happen.

Even if there were not a danger of defining science in ad hoc manner, it is not true that all that one needs to do is just define science in such a way to exclude the resurrection. If we define science so narrowly that even one non-miraculous piece of knowledge that I have is put outside of the boundary of what is defined as science, then that one piece of non-scientific knowledge falsifies the claim that science is the only source of knowledge. That one piece of non-scientific knowledge does not even have to be a claim that a miracle occurred; it can be a perfectly ordinary fact. All that matters is that the definition that we adopt of science puts that piece of knowledge outside of what counts as science. If science is defined very narrowly such that some scientific fact is actually classified as being non-scientific, then I could just appeal to that supposedly non-scientific fact to demonstrate that science is not the only source of knowledge.

Now the demarcation problem is the problem that no successful, widely accepted definition of science has been found that does not exclude some piece of knowledge that we have and that does not include what many regard as non-scientific claims. In order to claim that one thing is science but some other thing is not science, one must have a definition of science that gives the necessary and sufficient condition or conditions for something to be scientific. The condition or conditions must be necessary so that we would be able to say that something is not scientific, and the condition or conditions must be sufficient so that we would be to say that something is indeed scientific.

The problem is that no criterion or set of criteria has been found to be adequate necessary and sufficient condition or conditions for defining what is and is not science. Prior to giving an extensive historical review and philosophical consideration of the demarcation problem, the philosopher Larry Laudan even remarks that,

'It is small wonder, under the circumstances, that the question of the nature of science has loomed so large in Western philosophy. From Plato to Popper, philosophers have sought to identify those epistemic features which mark off science from other sorts of belief and activity. Nonetheless, it seems pretty clear that philosophy has largely failed to deliver the relevant goods. Whatever the specific strengths and deficiencies of the numerous well-known efforts at demarcation ..., it is probably fair to say that there is no demarcation line between science and nonscience, or between science and pseudo-science, which would win assent from a majority of philosophers.'

Later on, he even remarks,

"I will not pretend to be able to prove that there is no conceivable philosophical reconstruction of our intuitive distinction between the scientific and the nonscientific. I do believe, though, that we are warranted in saying that none of the criteria which have been offered thus far promises to explicate the distinction."

So, in short, no one has come up with an adequate definition of science that sets it apart from non-science. The objection to miracles based on the claim that science is the only source of knowledge ignores this problem, and the objection will never succeed as long as it does not have an adequate definition for what counts as science and what is not science. If the history of philosophy is any indication, such a definition will never be found.

To give you an example of one type of definition for science that we might use and that would not be adequate, let us suppose that we defined the one sole necessary and sufficient condition for something to be scientific to be that something must be repeatable. If it is repeatable, then it is scientific. If it is not repeatable, then it is not scientific. The problem with this definition is that it would rule out historical sciences, such as that branch of science that deals with how stars were formed in the past, or how some geological feature of the earth came about or how cave markings were put in caves. Surely we know some of these things about cave markings or geological features of the earth and are justified in believing them, so, according to a definition of science as that which must be repeatable, it would not be true that science is the only path to knowledge.

One can insert many other candidates for defining what is science, such as that it makes predictions, that it uses a particular method, that it uses laboratory experiments, that it seeks to provide causal explanations of natural phenomena, and on and on. None of them succeed. Accordingly, the objection to miracles based on the claim that science is the only source of knowledge also fails. Going back to Laudan, he concludes by saying the following:

In asserting that the problem of demarcation between science and nonscience is a pseudo-problem (at least as far as philosophy is concerned), I am manifestly not denying that there are crucial epistemic and methodological questions to be raised about knowledge claims, whether we classify them as scientific or not. Nor, to belabor the obvious, am I saying that we are never entitled to argue that a certain piece of science is epistemically warranted and that a certain piece of pseudo-science is not.

It remains as important as it ever was to ask questions like: When is a claim well confirmed? When can we regard a theory as well tested? What characterizes cognitive progress? But once we have answers to such questions (and we are still a long way from that happy state!), there will be little left to inquire into which is epistemically significant.

One final point needs to be stressed. In arguing that it remains important to retain a distinction between reliable and unreliable knowledge, I am not trying to resurrect the science/nonscience demarcation under a new guise.[NOTE 17] However we eventually settle the question of reliable knowledge, the class of statements falling under that rubric will include much that is not commonly regarded as 'scientific' and it will exclude much that is generally considered 'scientific'. This, too, follows from the epistemic heterogeneity of the sciences.

Conclusion. Through certain vagaries of history, some of which I have alluded to here, we have managed to conflate two quite distinct questions: What makes a belief well founded (or heuristically fertile)? And what makes a belief scientific? The first set of questions is philosophically interesting and possibly even tractable; the second question is both uninteresting and, judging by its checkered past, intractable. If we would stand up and be counted on the side of reason, we ought to drop terms like 'pseudo-science' and 'unscientific' from our vocabulary; they are just hollow phrases which do only emotive work for us.

As such, they are more suited to the rhetoric of politicians and Scottish sociologists of knowledge than to that of empirical researchers.[NOTE 18] Insofar as our concern is to protect ourselves and our fellows from the cardinal sin of believing what we wish were so rather than what there is substantial evidence for (and surely that is what most forms of 'quackery' come down to), then our focus should be squarely on the empirical and conceptual credentials for claims about the world. The 'scientific' status of those claims is altogether irrelevant.

A fourth criticism of the argument against miracles based on the claim that science is the only source of knowledge is that the non-miraculous, scientific facts of a miracle, facts that require the conclusion that a miracle occurred, can still be assessed and known.

Even if it were true that science were the only path to knowledge, this would not prevent us from considering non-supernatural, scientific facts that are relevant to a miracle claim. Consider, for instance, the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. Questions such as 'Is he alive?' and 'Is he dead?' are scientific questions. The question whether someone is living can be answered scientifically. Is he moving? Is he breathing? Is his blood flowing? Is there brain activity? And so forth. The same applies for the question whether he is dead. The claim of seeing someone alive and the claim of seeing someone dead are both claims that are not inherently supernatural.

All that has to be done to establish that the miracle of resurrection occurred is show the sequence of scientific facts that someone was alive, then he was dead, then he was alive again. In this respect, consider the story of Lazarus. He was raised from the dead by the command of Jesus in the Gospel of John, and people saw him alive after he was dead. He presumably also died again after he was raised. A skeptic might not believe the story of Lazarus, but suppose for the sake of argument that the story were true. Someone at that time would have been able to say, "I saw Lazarus alive. Then I saw Lazarus dead. Then I saw Lazarus alive", and none of those three claims in themselves would be a supernatural claim. All of the claims would be scientific, empirical claims. The supernatural claim comes from the obvious and inevitable conclusion from deductive logic that Lazarus miraculously came back to life, an inference that is based on the scientific knowledge that dead men don't rise naturally.

Something similar is true in the case of Jesus. It is true that Jesus had a glorified body that was qualitatively different than the revived body of Lazarus. In that respect, those who saw Jesus alive after he was dead would have been seeing a supernatural body. But it still would have been a physical claim no different than saying that I see a chair or a building. What inference or conclusion you draw from such claims is a different issue, but the claims in themselves are no different than the claims that are commonly made about seeing people dead or alive.

They are empirical claims from direct observation and in that sense they are scientific claims; the belief in a miracle is a deductive conclusion from those physical, scientific observations; the claim that a miracle happened is a necessary deduction to explain the scientific observations. That leaves the skeptic with only the option of calling the inference non-scientific, but that is silly when the only two options for explaining someone being alive after being dead is that the person rose naturally or rose supernaturally. But we know from observation and from the second law of thermodynamics and the complexity of human body that people do not rise from the dead naturally, which leaves only the one option: he rose from the dead supernaturally.

This criticism is particularly relevant to the second premise of the argument against belief in miracles. That premise says that science can not demonstrate that a miracle occurred. But science can indeed demonstrate that a miracle occurred. Consider the following argument from the standpoint of the apostle Peter and other disciples, and suppose that each one of them had the experience of seeing their master alive, then dead, then alive again:

1. I saw someone alive, then I saw him dead, then I saw him alive. These scientific observations necessarily mean that this person was resurrected, since to be alive, then dead, then alive is just by definition to be resurrected, to come back from the dead.
2. His resurrection was either natural or supernatural.
3. We know from scientific observation and from the second law of thermodynamics and from the complexity of human body that dead men do not rise by natural causes.
4. Therefore, science requires that he rose from the dead supernaturally.

This argument shows that a miracle claim can be the necessary result of science. If some miraculous claim is necessarily true as a result of some set of scientific facts, then that claim is also scientific. I would thus consider the claim of the resurrection of Jesus to be a scientific claim.

Among the premises in this argument, premise one is true by definition or true by being the initial condition that is granted for the sake of argument. Criticizing that initial condition for relying on human testimony ultimately would not succeed in stopping the argument, as I would show later. Premise two is necessarily true. In regard to premise three, given what we know about the second law of thermodynamics and the immense complexity of the biological systems of the human body, it is theoretically physically impossible that a dead man rises from the dead by natural causes. So premise three is true both from the theoretical standpoint as well as from the common observation that dead men stay dead.

In short, the premise that science can not demonstrate that a miracle occurred is simply false. It can, and the miracle of resurrection from the dead is one case in which scientific observation would necessarily require the conclusion that the resurrection was a miraculous, supernaturally-caused event.

The fifth and final criticism is that scientific knowledge is based on human testimony and thus can not exclude belief in miracle claims because they rely on the testimony of others. Suppose that some skeptic said of the resurrection that we would be justified in believing in the resurrection if we ourselves had lived back then and we had seen Jesus alive, then dead, then alive again. But then suppose that this skeptic went one step further and said that, because we are living now and not back then, the best evidence that we would have for believing the resurrection is the testimony of others, and this reliance on testimony sets belief in that miracle apart from beliefs based on science. We don't need testimony for our scientific knowledge (so the thinking goes), but the religious believer does need to rely on testimony.

The problem with this approach of our hypothetical skeptic is that a great deal of our scientific knowledge is indeed based on human testimony. Only a small part of the scientific knowledge that we think we have is truly scientific in a strict sense. If I were to ask a skeptic whether the skeptic knows and is justified in knowing that our planet is largely made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons, he might say, "Yes, because that is a scientific fact". Now suppose I ask him where he obtained that knowledge. Well he read it in a textbook. But he never went and did the experimental work himself. He is just trusting what someone else has told him about the physical world. That is not science, at least on his definition. That is trusting someone else's testimony. Yet, he is justified in believing that protons, neutrons, and electrons make up much of our earth, and the belief is true.

Our hypothetical skeptic thus faces a problem. If he says that his beliefs about protons and neutrons, beliefs which are based on his trusting the testimony of others, are indeed examples of scientific knowledge, then the same can be said of the resurrection, which is also based on human testimony. Perhaps our hypothetical skeptic might say his knowledge about protons and neutrons is in principle something that does not rely on testimony. That is, he theoretically can go and do the experiments himself and arrive at his knowledge of protons and neutrons on his own.

But the problem with this definition of science, that we can actually go and do the experiments ourselves to set the foundation of our scientific knowledge, is that it would be rejected by many geologists and astronomers and others who can not go and do experiments themselves on their subjects of scientific study. These historical scientists make inferences about past events, events that can not be repeated, and they would very strongly and rightly object to the idea that their inferences about past events are non-scientific. So the skeptic can not justifiably separate my empirically based belief in the resurrection from his empirical scientific beliefs by saying that his beliefs need not necessarily depend on his trusting the testimony of others.

Perhaps the skeptic might respond that his belief is scientific because it is physical. I would respond by saying that my claim that Jesus rose from the dead is physical. If he can depend on human testimony about protons and neutrons and if his subsequent belief is scientific, then I can depend on human testimony regarding the claim that Jesus was physically alive after he was physically dead, and my belief would be scientific.

Maybe the skeptic might respond that his claim is not only physical, but it is not supernatural, and my claim about the resurrection is that God raised Jesus from the dead, a supernatural claim. But now this would definitely be an ad hoc and contrived definition of science. Remember that the objection to the resurrection was that science is the only path to knowledge, but if we define science as that which is non-supernatural, then the objection is that we can only know non-supernatural claims, and since the claim of the resurrection is supernatural, we can't know it. But that is just begging the question, assuming one's conclusion at the beginning, trying to win an argument by definition.

At the beginning, we considered a three part argument that one might try to use against belief in miracles. The first premise of that argument was that science is the only source of knowledge. The second premise was that science can not demonstrate that a miracle occurred. And the conclusion of the argument was that, even if a miracle actually did occur, we can not know that it occurred. But this three part argument is subject to five significant criticisms:

1. The claim that science is the only source of knowledge is self-refuting.
2. Non-scientific truths can be and are known.
3. The argument ignores the demarcation problem and the trouble associated with defining exactly what science is and what it is not.
4. The non-miraculous scientific facts of a miracle, facts that require the conclusion that a miracle occurred, can still be assessed and known.
5. Scientific knowledge is based on human testimony in the same way that belief in miracle claims is based on human testimony, and so one cannot appropriately exclude belief in miracle claims because such belief relies on human testimony.

In light of these criticisms, we can say that both premises of the argument against believing in miracles are false. Science is not the only source of knowledge, and science can demonstrate that a miracle occurred. Thus, if our goal were to dislodge the religious believer from his belief in miracles, this is not the argument to use. He has nothing to fear from the claim that science is the only source of knowledge.

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