Saturday, June 12, 2010

TGD: Chapter Three - Miracles

The title of the next section of Dawkins' book is, "The Argument from Personal 'Experience'". In this section Dawkins responds to people who claim to have firsthand evidence of God's existence, people who have witnessed a miracle or had a vision or something similar.

The most accurate thing Dawkins writes in this section is this, "This argument from personal experience is the one that is most convincing to those who claim to have had one. But it is the least convincing to anyone else, and anyone knowledgeable about psychology." If you witness a miracle yourself, or if someone you know and trust tells you about a miracle that they experienced, it can be very convincing. From a distance, however, it is easy to remain skeptical.

This is the main reason why I haven't written about any of the supernatural phenomena I have experienced on this blog. You have no way of knowing if I'm telling the truth or not. You can't really gauge how skeptical I am. Without any way to tell if I'm a reliable witness or not, my testimony would be fairly hollow.

On the other hand, the problem does work both ways. Just as I cannot say anything to Dawkins to convince him that I have experienced a miracle, there is nothing that he can say to me that will convince me that I haven't.

Not that he doesn't try. He spends most of the chapter talking about how easy it is for people to deceive themselves; to see or hear things that aren't actually there. He talks about the tendency of the human mind to see patterns where none exist.

In the case where a miraculous event is only witnessed by one person, these are all valid considerations. However, when there are two or more witnesses, things become more complicated. A lone individual might just be seeing things, but when two or more individuals see the same thing at the same time, that's a little bit harder to write off.

Dawkins addresses this issue briefly, towards the end of the chapter. He talks about the Miracle of the Sun, where 70,000 people in Fatima, Portugal witnessed the sun dance about in the sky and careen toward the earth. He writes, 'It is not easy to explain how seventy thousand people could share the same hallucination. But it is even harder to accept that it really happened without the rest of the world, outside Fatima, seeing it too - and not just seeing it, but feeling it as the catastrophic destruction of the solar system, including acceleration forces sufficient to hurl everybody into space."

What Dawkins is doing here, besides being deliberately obtuse, is setting up a false dilemna. Either the residents all shared the same hallucination, or the earth was yanked from its orbit. The possibility that the people of Fatima saw a vision or experienced some other kind of miracle isn't even considered.

He quotes Hume, who wrote, "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endevours to establish." I think the Fatima miracle more than qualifies.

We have newspaper evidence that more than thirty-thousand people saw the sun dance in the sky. A simultaneous mass hallucination, or conspiracy on that scale is so ridiculously implausible that the possibility that the people of Fatima saw a divine vision begins to seem reasonable to even the most skeptical minds. The only way we can escape that conclusion is if we begin with the assumption that miracles are virtually impossible.

Of course, this is precisely where Dawkins begins. He begins with the assumption that miracles are impossible. He describes an example of an instance where there is a truly massive amount of evidence that a miracle occurs. He then states that the probability that all of that evidence is either false or misleading is still greater than the probability that a miracle actually occurred, because miracles are impossible.

When we boil away the sophistry, what we're left with is a classic example of circular reasoning. Really, this argument is nothing more than atheistic fideism; the assertion that we should believe that God doesn't exist even when all the evidence says that he does.

Even if we somehow manage to swallow the notion that the miracle of Fatima is some kind of hoax or optical illusion (maybe swamp gas refracting the light from Venus), it is hardly the only recorded supernatural occurrence in recent history. One should also study the Azusa Street Revival and the Toronto Blessing. And I'm sure a quick study of religious revival movements would turn up a few more examples of large-scale miracles. Some will be more credible than others, but if we want to establish that God doesn't exist, we need to provide a reasonable explanation for all of them. If Dawkins has such an explanation, he isn't exactly shouting it from the rooftops.

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