If I engage a believer in a conversation about faith, I will most likely get a story about miracles.   Belief in miracles is the cornerstone of faith for most people, and this has always struck me as somewhat peculiar.  If we take faith, by definition, to be belief that extends beyond the scope of justification, it is odd that virtually every person of faith holds miracles up to be a good reason, i.e., justification, for believing in God.  It is especially odd in light of the fact that belief in miracles would only count as good evidence for belief in God if that belief is itself justified by evidence.  In other words, the occurrence of miracles only counts as good evidence of the existence of God if there is good evidence that miracles have occurred.  I don’t think that there is any good evidence for the occurrence of miracles, but I don’t see the point in showing the error of specific claims of miracles with a magnifying glass and a flashlight.  Belief in miracles is never justified because of what a miracle is. The following is a brief explanation of this problem.

Sometimes the word "miracle" is used loosely, e.g. "Every baby is a miracle," or "Getting an ‘A’ on my test was a miracle."  But when people appeal to miracles in a theological debate, they mean breaks in the laws of nature.   If science can predict and/or explain an event, we don’t take it to be miraculous.  Instead, believers hold up events that appear to be scientifically inexplicable as evidence for Divine (supernatural) intervention.   The reasoning goes like this:  This event can’t be explained by appeal to a natural cause, so, the better explanation is that it must have been caused by something supernatural (God). In order for this argument to be sound, the believer must demonstrate that the following presumptions are justified:

A) Every natural (physical world) event must be caused by some previous event.

B) Super-natural (non-physical) entities can cause physical events.

C) The best explanation for mysterious events (ones without an obvious natural cause) is that they have a supernatural cause.

If any of these assumptions fails, then the conclusion that a miracle is the best explanation for a mysterious event is not justified.  And, if belief in miracles is unjustified, then belief in God based upon the "evidence" of a miracle is also unjustified.   So, let’s look at at whether these assumptions can be defended.

Assumption A is close to being an axiom of science.  Though most scientists would agree that some quantum events don’t appear to be caused by anything, the assumption that physical events are caused by prior physical events is fairly uncontroversial on the level of everyday observable phenomenon.   If your car starts making a thumping noise and the mechanic says there is no cause, you find another mechanic, you don’t question causal necessity.  So, for the time being, let’s bracket Assumption A and take it for granted.

Assumption B sounds reasonable if you’ve never considered the meaning of the word "cause," but it falls apart under conceptual scrutiny.  The concept of a non-physical cause is problematic because our normal use of the term pertains exclusively to events in the physical world.  For example, the heat of the liquid caused the cold glass to shatter, or the finger on the trigger, caused the gun to fire.  These are physical causes.  It is difficult to imagine what a non-physical cause for a physical event could be.  Some might argue that beliefs are the non-physical cause of actions, but if beliefs were non-physical causes, then manipulation of the brain wouldn’t necessarily affect either beliefs or actions, as we know it does.  The fact that brain states, not the stated beliefs of the agent, are the best predictor of action demonstrates that there is a physical cause underlying the phenomena.   It also illuminates another problem with appealing to non-physical "causes," namely that they are explanatorily useless.

This brings us to Assumption C, which is really the foundation of the miracles argument.  People believe in miracles when they conclude that an act of God/magic is the best explanation for a mysterious event.  This begs the question, "How does positing the existence of supernatural causes explain anything?"  When we assume that physical events are caused by previous physical events that follow patterns of law-like regularity we are able to make lots of predictions that enable us to navigate the world.  So, Assumption A is practically useful.  The truth (or approximate truth) of A is also the best explanation for why we are able to make consistently successful predictions when we assume it.  In contrast, Assumption C is neither practically useful nor likely to be true.  We can’t predict anything new by positing that there are supernatural interventions into nature, and the best explanation for why supernatural explanations are consistently replaced by natural explanations (e.g., hearing voices is schizophrenia, not demonic possession) is that supernatural causes aren’t real.

We don’t have a good reason to believe in miracles because we don’t have a good reason to believe in supernatural causes.  In fact, the whole notion of a non-physical cause is conceptually confused.  Saying ‘God caused the event’ is just as explanatorily informative as saying ‘nothing caused the event’, and we have no more reason to believe in the former than in the latter.  It is, of course, possible that there are are supernatural interventions into nature, just as it is possible that some events are entirely uncaused by anything, but neither of these assumptions jibes with the majority of our experiences, and neither of these assumptions tells us anything useful about the world.

Positing the occurrence of miracles is never the best explanation for mysterious events.  We have lots of reason to believe that strange events can and will be be explained by natural science because so many previously mysterious events have been explained by science.  But even if we can’t explain the physical (natural) cause of an event, we have no good reason to believe it was supernaturally caused.  The possibility of a miracle doesn’t answer any questions, it just begs them.

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55 Responses to “Miracles”

  1. Bill C Says:

    It’s probably important that you watch this

      • Clouser Says:

        The parody is hilarious, to be sure, but sadly, the characters therein are only slightly more idiotic than the actual ICP. There are moments in the original that are just as funny as the SNL spoof.

    • Tom Montgomery Says:

      Hi Jim,

      In response to your post about dualism:

      Which respected Christian theologians are you talking about? I doubled back and did a little research to see if I was in the minority view on this. Millard J Erickson wrote a text book on systematic theology (Christian Theology, Baker, 1998), which, in the section on humanity, states “One popular view in conservative protestant circles has been termed “trichotomism.” A human is composed of three elements. The first element is the physical body…” and he goes on to describe the other two elements being soul and spirit. It may not be the most prevalent view, but it is a popular one.

      Later, Erickson introduces dichotomism (NOT to be confused with dualism) as the view that suggests there is no difference between soul and spirit, and thus humans are composed of only two elements: body and soul/spirit. He concedes that this is the more prevalent view in the church, but in my opinion it is a more unreflective one. Why do the scriptures refer to soul and spirit separately (see, for example, 1 Thessalonians 5:23) if they are essentially the same thing? The book of Hebrews says that the Word of God is able to divide between soul and spirit—this is truly an odd statement if they are essentially the same thing.

      One more thing in favor of the trichotomous view is that it parallels the Christian view of God as a three-fold being. Humanity, being made in his image, also has a threefold nature. The three are one, and yet are somehow distinct.

      By the way, Erickson’s book was one of the primary textbooks for my systematic theology classes at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, and it was also a recommended text at my other school, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston. Would you consider Eickson a “respected theologian”? He is, at least, respected among evangelicals, and that is the sort of theology we are discussing here, isn’t it?

      Regarding your statement about most respected Christian theologians being dualist, if you meant that they held the dichotomous view of humanity, I think you might be able to make some kind of case. But if you meant dualism as in the Zoroastrian view of equal and opposing powers of good and evil; or the Greek philosophic view of soul and body being in conflict with one another; then I would have to say that your statement is patently false. Christianity is not like the classic Zoroastrian dualism in that the devil is not God’s equal, he is a mere created being which God permits to exist despite his constant opposition to him.

      Christianity is not dualistic in the Greek way either, except for those branches that have been corrupted by Platonism (such as certain views of the Roman Catholic Church). On the contrary, Christian teaching that remains faithful to the revelation of the scriptures holds that matter is a good thing (see Genesis 1), and that our physical bodies will be redeemed in the end (see the Nicene creed). The New Testament passages which might initially be taken as dualistic (such as Paul’s letters describing the struggle between flesh & spirit), are, upon further examination, not meant to convey such ideas. Paul was speaking to a Greek audience and used terms that they could understand to describe the internal struggle we all face. More contemporary translations of the scriptures recognize that this was Paul’s intent, and substitute the direct literal translation of “flesh” with the phrase “sinful nature.” This is more in line with Paul’s communicative intent, as a good Jewish boy who believed that God created our bodies and declared them to be “good.”

      Jim, to get back on topic, I will admit that I was being speculative when I said that the soul might have some material component to it. This is nowhere explicitly taught (or explicitly denied) in the scriptures. However, I was basing my speculation partly on the creation account, declaring when man “became a living soul,” and also partly on recent discoveries which have found personality traits (and other psychological characteristics which we would normally describe as being part of the soul) to have a biological basis. I am able to take this research into consideration, and recognize that what we normally refer to as a soul may indeed be both biological and spiritual in nature.

      Now, as to whether or not ghosts are spirits or souls—I really have no idea, and that question would be too far down the speculative path for me.

      • Liza Says:

        Hey Tom,

        Jim’s going to do his own response, but he’s at work now, so I’m going to say a few things on his behalf, and he can correct me if I’ve misrepresented his position.

        When Jim uses the term “dualism” he is referring to mind/body or soul/body dualism. When philosophers and scientists use this term, this is generally what they mean. It’s also called “Cartesian Dualism” after the philosopher Rene Descartes who most famously raised the problem and proposed a (failed) solution. Your proposal that the soul could be both biological (physical) and spiritual (non-physical) is very similar to what Descartes proposed (he thought the mind and the body somehow interacted in the pituitary gland), and it gets at the heart of the problem: We can’t explain how something non-physical can interact and effect the physical world. Saying that something is both physical and non-physical isn’t really an answer. If we can find it, test it, or otherwise subject it to experimental scrutiny, then it looks like it’s just plain physical. There doesn’t seem to be any good reason to believe the brain has a separate “mind” that sits on top of it or that the body has a separate “soul” that holds it’s essential qualities. That doesn’t add anything to our theory, and it begs a serious question which is, “How do we know that something non-physical exists in the first place?”

        Let me be clear that I can’t disprove the existence of souls, just as a I can’t disprove the existence of invisible elves who live under my bed, but my question is: What good reason do we have to believe in these things? This comes full-circle back to the question of miracles, I think. If science can fully and adequately explain how something happened, what reason do you have to speculate that supernatural (non-physical) forces played a role in the event?

        I think it would be useful here if you tried to come up with an answer on your own. I know that you could find Scripture or theological writings that pertain to this question, but I think you’ll better appreciate the depth and weight of this problem if you try and construct an argument on your own. What I want is an answer to how the non-physical can effect the physical, and a justification for believing that non-physical entities exist. The justification needs to show that dualism of some sort (mind/body, soul/body) better explains the known data than monism (everything is just physical). If you could give an example where a purely physical (scientific) account of an event fails to explain what happened and predict future outcomes, that would be helpful.

        And, thank you for your comments and willingness to engage a (philosophically) hostile response.

        • Tom Montgomery Says:

          Okay, so you want to know how the non-physical can effect the physical; and how can we even know that non-physical entities exist?

          What about words? They are conceptual constructs. They may be embedded in matter (written words) or transmitted through matter & energy (sound); but they are clearly more than mere sounds or lines on a page.

          Words, which are non-physical constructs, can have a demonstrable effect on things as well. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (talk therapy) has been proven to change people’s behavior.

          • Jim Says:

            Words are signs for concepts, and those concepts are just neurons firing. Words do not have some existence independent of their instantiation in someone’s brain. They are absolutely physical.

          • Liza Says:

            I agree with Jim here. This is quite similar to what I said in the post about beliefs not being a non-physical cause.

          • Tom Montgomery Says:

            If not words, then what about the concepts they signify? If a concept is able to travel from the neurons firing in one brain, through the air waves, to neurons firing in another brain, there was no material exchange between the two. Matter is merely the vessel which houses and transmits the concept, which somehow remains intact after being translated through various mediums.

            Concepts are most certainly nonmaterial entities.

            By the way, thank you Liza, for explaining Cartesian dualism to me. As I have told you (via email), I do not have a philosophical background, and I may need a few things explained more explicitly so that we are on the same page.

            If Cartesian dualism proposes a strict seperation between the material and spiritual (excepting perhaps the soul as located in the pituitary gland?), then i suspect it is at odds with at least one central tenet of Christianity; that being the nature of Jesus Christ, who was fully God and fully man, at the same time.

          • Jim Says:

            You’ve misunderstood this. It is not that concepts are something independent that are transmitted via neurons (though, if that were the case, that would still require they be physical things as they would be transmitted by other physical things via wholly physical means). The firing of neurons just is the concept.
            I would suggest you check out a primer on philosophy of mind to get a better handle on this. I use Paul Churchland’s Matter and Consciousness for my intro to phil of mind course, so I’ll recommend that.

      • Jim Says:

        To bring up the other ideas who share a similar moniker of ‘dualism’ in this discussion is just strange. I cannot even begin to imagine why you would think I was discussing the notion of “dualism” as a distinction between Good and Evil. I can only assume that you take me for some kind of fool who would bring up a completely unrelated issue in the midst of a discussion on a wholly different topic. Perhaps that’s why your entire comment reeks of arrogance and presumption, as if you are the only one here with any training in Christian theology. Indeed, given your failure to recognize the issue at hand, the entire conversation takes on a deeply ironic flavor. Further, the sheer hubris of suggesting that those who view Man as a two-fold being rather than three-fold are “unreflective” is just breath-taking. I might not agree with theologians like Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Hodge, Wesley, and countless others on particular issues, but I would never be so bold as to label such men “unreflective,” though all were explicitly dualists in terms of this particular issue. As to what’s going on in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, most concordances would suggest it was an idiomatic expression. Indeed, if what you say is true, how do you account for Matthew 10:28, 1 Corinthians 7:34, or 2 Corinthians 7:1? And those are just the verses I can think of off the top of my head. I am certain with any amount of research I could find numerous other similar passages.
        The issue surround the suggestion that I would say that any particular individual who happened to be a trichotomist must necessarily not be respected is a strawman. I said “almost all,” and that clearly leaves room for a minority dissent. I stand by that assertion.
        As to your concern about the tri-fold character of God, so what? Are you suggesting that we have all the same attributes that God has? Surely not. Further, the description you give of our trichotomic nature in no way resembles anything like the trinity. There you have three separate entities existing as one. In your description of Man, all three aspects belong to only one entity. These two concepts of tri-fold beings have absolutely nothing to do with each other. In that sense, your attempt to draw an analogy between God’s character and Man’s is simply confused.
        The description you end up giving, that the soul is some sort of combination of of spirit and body, demonstrates a very elementary mistake that is well-known to both philosophers and theologians. It’s called a category error. What you’ve done is attribute undo ontological status to a concept. Here’s the standard example. It is true that there exists a right glove, a left glove, and a pair of gloves. However, it is not true that all three exist in the same sense. The pair of gloves has a different ontological status than the right and left glove in that it is merely the sum of the parts and nothing else beyond. Else, you could have questions like “I see the right and left glove, but where is the pair? Clearly, if anyone asked such a question, we would be surprised that they could make such a mistake. The pair is merely the combination of the right and left glove. The same issue applies here. If the soul is the combination of the spirit and the body, then it is mistaken to think it is something that exists over and above those two things. In the above scheme you presented, there are only two things, the spirit and the body. To attribute the same status to the soul in that case would be to make a clear error. In that sense, even in your explanation of how you view the tri-fold nature of Man, you are actually talking about Man as an entity with a dualistic nature.

        • Tom Montgomery Says:

          Jim, I did not mean to offend by my post. I was not trying to suggest that you were an idiot by bringing up the other dualism (good/evil). I was just trying to be thorough.

          Regarding my strongly worded comment about the dual nature being ‘unreflective,’ I was primarily thinking of present day Christians who hold to conservative views of biblical inspiration, and don’t seem to deal with texts that suggest a difference between soul & spirit. In most of my personal encounters with such folks, they often change their view after reviewing certain scriptures. (Upon reflection, they change their minds.)

          Regarding the great theologians of the past that you mentioned, I admit i have not researched their perspectives on this particular issue. Regarding the other scripture verses that only mention two aspects of a person’s being; that is data that needs to be taken into consideration.

          The reason i wrote this post is that i wanted to refute the suggestion that the three-fold view was this extremely rare thing. I cited sources to bolster my position that this was not some fringe idea. I agree that it’s not the dominant view, but it is a common one found among evangelicals. I am sorry if that came off as arrogant.

          Regarding weirdness, I wasn’t trying to say that weirdness is an argument for truth in general, I was trying to say that the weirdness of Christianity suggests it is not the product of intentional human fabrication. If it was intentionally fabricated, Christians would have made a few things a lot easier to understand. I think the same can be said about non-Christian religions, although I would argue that the source of their inspiration was demonic rather than divine.

          Again, I am sorry for any offense. I will try to be more careful with my words when/if I post here.

          • Jim Says:

            The fact that some position is popular among the unreflective is hardly evidence that such is the result of unreflective reasoning. On the contrary, at least in this case the reason such an idea is so popular is because it is the considered opinion of most theologians. Most people are unreflective in general, so they rely on the teachings of those they believe have put forth a great deal of thought on the subject, those who have, in fact, been very reflective.
            Regardless, none of that demonstrates that the position you’re espousing is anything more than a fringe position held by a small minority. I’m quite aware of the position, and I’ve read those who argue for it along with various other minority positions. But that doesn’t change that it’s a minority position, and it is such for much the same reason I spelled out earlier. Actually, the fact that it’s a minority position has little to do with its truth. I hold several positions that are unpopular, yet I clearly think they are correct, or I would change my mind. However, that’s not the case here. Trichotomism is just conceptually flawed.
            As to the question of weirdness, such also applies to homeopathy, 9/11 truther arguments, alien astronauts being required in order for ancient civilizations to have excellent stonemansonry skills, crop circles, and on and on and on. Certainly, you’d admit that at least some of that stuff is of non-supernatural origin, and all of that stuff involves weirdness involving bizarre internal contradictions. Even if Scientology is the result of demons whispering in L. Ron Hubbard’s ear, is such a fantastical explanation really needed to explain why people manufactured and believe nonsensical stories about Hitler’s brain being saved in a jar?

  2. James Gray Says:

    I’ve heard some atheists admit that they would become Christians if certain miracles could be proven, such as the prophesies. Let’s pretend for a moment that miracles were well established, such as miraculous healing and raising the dead? What sorts of alternative explanations could we hypothesize?

    I also think we should be skeptical of potentially non-supernatural explanations, such as ghosts or reincarnation. Such “paranormal” explanations could be physical, but they are still bad explanations. That should be enough to establish that supernatural explanations should also be rejected.

    • Liza Says:

      I would become a skeptic about natural causality a lot easier than I would become a believer in any particular supernatural explanation. As I’ve pointed out, the mere fact that an event can’t be explained by appeal to natural laws is not a good reason to think that the event can be explained by appeal to supernatural forces. If an alien landed and had powers I had never encountered before, I would still be inclined to think that it was harnessing natural forces, not using magic. If someone landed in the sky and called himself God, I would want to ask a lot of questions about HOW he made things happen before I would accept that there was some sort of magic going on.

      Also, it’s strange to me that you would call ghosts and reincarnation “non-supernatural explanations.” If you are talking about a non-spacio temporal entity such as an immortal soul, then you’re talking about something supernatural.

      • James Gray Says:

        A phenomenon should not be said to be supernatural without further research. Ghosts could be physical, and the idea of the supernatural (in the non-physical sense) seems to be tied to the Judeo-Christian religion. Not all religions claim souls or Gods to be non-physical Even the Stoics contemplated the existence of God and souls (afterlife) within their materialistic tradition.

        “Ghosts” are not necessarily immortal souls. It could be possible to destroy a ghost according to certain religions.

        • Liza Says:

          Ghosts are supernatural by definition. Of course, I don’t think that the the things that people call “Ghosts” are supernatural or paranormal…I think they are perfectly normal phenomenon -sounds, light, etc.- that people dangerously misinterpret because of absurd superstitions.

          If a soul does not physically exist, then it can’t be considered part of the material world. If the soul does physically exist, then it looks as though we should be able to do something to it- find it, test for its effects, use it to explain other phenomena, etc. If you could find evidence for the physical existence of a soul, or even make the case that we need to posit a physical soul to explain existing phenomena, then I guess you could have a materialist account of the soul. But that would still be a radical distortion of what we normally mean by the term. Normally, when we talk about a soul, we are talking about a non-physical entity that possesses all of the essential elements of a person, such that, when they die, or if their bodies become radically distorted, the essential person remains in tact.

          • Tom Montgomery Says:

            Actually, Christians that hold a tri-partite view of humanity would argue that we are made up of body, soul, and spirit; and that while the spirit is immaterial, it could be argued that the soul is a mix of both body & spirit. (“God breathed into Adam’s body the breath/spirit of life, and he became a living soul.”) Christianity teaches that ultimately body, soul and spirit will be saved when, at the end of the age, Christ physically raises the dead.

          • Jim Says:

            Very few Christians hold such a view. The suggestion that such a view is common or dominant is demonstrably false. I suggest you do a cursory search on Christian dualism. You’ll find that that almost all respected Christian theologians and apologists are dualists.

          • James Gray Says:

            Yes, this is true for many Christians. I’m not convinced that the non-Christian views typically define “ghosts” as non-physical. That is an awfully detailed metaphysical view for something pretty simple. I don’t think Buddhists are materialists, but they certainly aren’t supposed to believe in the “supernatural.” Buddhists superstitions don’t have to be metaphysical assertions about the nature of reality itself. They don’t have to commit themselves to any metaphysical worldview (dualism, materialism, or idealism.)

            Additionally, native americans don’t believe in the supernatural despite believing in ghosts and other paranormal entities. They have a monistic view that everything is part of one natural being.

          • Jim Says:

            I’m not going to get into a detailed response about the plain fact that for most Buddhists the supernatural absolutely plays a significant role, nor will I go on at length about the clear and undeniable ignorance along with the strong implication of racism that goes along with saying that all American Indians follow the same religion without regard for regional or tribal traditions or even personal belief. Suffice to say that both of these assertions are not only factually wrong but demonstrate a genuinely surprising lack of knowledge about the topics, especially given that you’ve chosen to hold them up as examples of your position.
            It looks like you’re attempting to play some sort of word game, distinguishing the paranormal from the supernatural, though you haven’t provided clear definitions on either of those terms. That would seem paramount if you’re going to engage in a debate over something that appears to me to be so pedantic. You’re quite correct about the lack of detail involved in most people’s metaphysical views, which is exactly why so few worry about the ways in which those terms might be different. That fact would imply to most people that any difference between such terms is less nuanced for the majority, not more. That would lead to them thinking of the supernatural and paranormal being much the same thing, not involving intricate metaphysical distinctions between the two. Suffice to say that the general public considers ghosts to be the spirits of the dead, this concept holding for most societies throughout history.
            This discussion is particularly frustrating as this is not some kind of arcane knowledge known only to a few scholars. It’s the popular perception. All one need do is go to the damn movies every once in a while or turn on the TV to know this. The general notion of a ghost is that it’s some kind of supernatural entity, most commonly used interchangeably with spirit, as in the spirit of someone who has died.
            If you want to get into some heady academic debate detached from popular understanding about the cultural or anthropological status of such ideas, one would think you would do some research on the subject before barrelling into the discussion like this. It would seem prudent to at least read the Wikipedia page. Seriously, go read it. It’s well-cited. You’ll find that your brute assertions are completely lacking in support.

  3. Tom Montgomery Says:

    Hi Liza,

    Thanks for this post.

    I find your definition of miracles interesting, but incomplete. CS Lewis wrote a book about miracles, in which he explains there are two kinds of miracles: 1) Miracles in which the laws of nature are suspended, and 2) miracles in which God uses natural means to carry out an extremely unlikely series of events.

    Miracle by natural means is by far the most common type of miracle experienced by believers in the form of answered prayers—especially when those prayers are specific and unlikely to occur.

    I suspect there might be natural explanations for a whole host of biblical miracles, but it does not take away from their miraculous nature. The ten plagues of Egypt could be a series of interrelated nautral disasters (the frogs dying leading to the plague of flies; the flies leading to bubonic plague, etc). Such an explanation would technichally explain the “how,” but it would not address the extraordinary nature of the events, and their highly coincidental timing with the Hebrew uprising.

    Scientific investigation uncovers the process by which something occurs. It asks the “how,” and that is a very noble line of questioning; one which, as you have noted, has brought about many benefits to humanity. (I could insert a very long post here about how scientific inquiry is the daughter of judeo-Christian theology, and its seeds are found in Genesis chapter 2, but that would take me too far off topic)…

    However, scientific inquiry cannot address the “why” of an event. A person might understand that lighting stuck their house because a build-up of free electrons was created through air friction. That is how the lightning strike occurred. But what the person really wants to know is WHY did the lightning strike my house? And if we begin to ask the question “why” we have left the strict confines of scientific inquiry, and have entered the realms of theology and philosophy. (Either of which could provide a multitude of possible answers to the question).

    People believe in God because they dare to ask the “why” questions, and Christianity provides satisfactory answers.

    Have a great day, Liza!


    • Clouser Says:

      I won’t challenge your modification of the word, “miracle,” as Liza presents it in her post. Certainly, your second definition (by way of C.S. Lewis) is probably much closer to what many modern Christians living in the “developed world” consider a miracle than the definition Liza is working with.

      Now, plenty of pseudo-human dumb-asses are completely on board with Liza’s more basic interpretation of the word–the miracle as a physical event caused by something non-physical. I bring this up because it is important to note that, while you may sit in an ivory tower of religious intelligentsia, your average philosophical ally is barely competent to challenge an amoeba at a spelling bee.

      Obviously, I have a secondary reason for bringing this up (that is, insulting stupid people–having reserved a special fount of vitriol for fuck-tards of the Christian variety).

      But, to get back to making a point–rather than simply being offensive–one really must wonder: is a supernatural explanation for extreme coincidence really more reasonable than a naturalistic one?


      All recorded scientific inquiry points to consistency in natural behavior. One would think that no matter how unlikely a series of coincidences, the repeated consistency of natural causes would be a more likely explanation than some sketchy supernatural source, for which there is little basis other than misguided wishful thinking.

      And speaking of extreme coincidence, let us look for a real-life example of one! Certainly, if the plagues described in Genesis actually took place as described, you have a real string of astounding coincidences. But I find it just as likely that Utanapishtim herded up two of every animal species on his cubical ark and lived to tell Gilgamesh about what capricious little douche-bags the gods are.

      You probably are pretty frustrated by my unwillingness to accept events described in the Bible as history. Too bad. They aren’t, and even if some events described are accurate, I see no reason to trust the ancient, intentionally tampered-with accounts any more than I trust any other probably false story that happens to be loosely based on actual events that were falsified for the sake of making a particular point.

      In the same way that you refrained from going off on a tangent on the Judeo-Christian basis of science itself, I will refrain from harping too much on that particular scrap of inanity. I will, however, mention that your point is completely irrelevant.

      Without seeking to argue by way of analogy, I would point out that the basis of some modern scientific theories is the information gleaned from a series of horrendous Nazi experiments. If I must accept that Christian claims about science deserve to be afforded validity just because Newton was a Christian, then I guess I’d better declare Antisemitism the father of rocket science.

      But to again rescue myself from tangential ravings, let’s get back to that string of impossible coincidences that could only be caused by God. In my personal life, I have found that people are only too eager to leap to supernatural conclusions, rather than assuming that something natural took place.

      At work, every time something falls over, apparently spontaneously, someone makes a comment about a ghost or something. Some of them are really serious. What–all the vibrating equipment everywhere couldn’t have made that 11 oz object fall off of the shelf?

      I would propose that all of your extreme, miracle-worthy coincidences are simply inflated every-day occurrences. If not, then find me a reputable account of your unchanging God doing something like the stuff He supposedly did a couple of thousand years ago (which should be like two days for Him).

      • Liza Says:

        Hey Clouser,
        This guy’s my cousin. Be nicer, you might run into him some day.

        • Clouser Says:


          O Internet! My lone safe haven for acting like a total asshole without consequences–will I every trust you again?

          • Tom Montgomery Says:

            Hi Clouser,

            No offense taken.

            But just so you know, I do not sit in an ivory tower. I actually believe this stuff and try to live out my beliefs day to day. And I can be a remarkable dumbass at times too.
            I am glad to hear that you are just as likely to believe the account of Utnapishtim’s ark (the Bablyonian Noah), as that is secondary historical evidence for an actual event that took place.

            And I am not upset that you do not believe the bible. Why would I take that personally? Of course, I earnestly hope that you do come to believe the bible (more specifically, that you come into a trusting relationship with the God of the Bible), as I believe that you have everything to gain from it.

            Have a good day.


            PS: Who said anything about Newton? That was not the basis of my side-bar argument.

    • Liza Says:

      There are two issues here. One is how the word “miracle” is used. The second is whether “miracles” are a good reason to believe in God. Normally people only hold up the kind of miracle in which the laws of nature are suspended as an example of evidence for the existence of God. If you want to say that God could have been behind the ten plagues even though they all had naturalistic explanations, that’s true. God could have been behind me spilling my cheerios all over the counter this morning too, but I can explain what happened without appealing to His presence. The fact that God could be playing a role behind the scenes is not the issue here. The question is whether we have good reason to believe that God is playing a role, and it looks like, if we can explain how an event transpired without appeal to Divine intervention, then we don’t have a good reason to believe God played a role.

      Now, as to your second point about why people believe in God, I have a few thoughts. Sure, some people ask the big “Why?” questions (Why are we here, Why must we do the right thing?, etc.) and find Christianity or some other religion to give satisfactory answers to those questions. Lots of other people “dare” to ask those “Why?” questions and come up with answers that are not merely satisfying but well-justified. I think that this is the major difference between people who hold a faith-based position and those who have a problem with faith: The fact that a belief feels satisfying is not a good reason to hold that belief. I think the only good reason to hold a belief is that the belief is well-justified and therefore likely to be true. Belief in nature-suspending miracles is unjustified because we have lots of good reason to believe that nature is uniform and positing supernatural interventions doesn’t solve mysteries, it just creates them. Belief in God isn’t well-justified because we don’t have good evidence that God exists. Moreover, the kinds of things that are held up as “evidence” of God’s existence (intelligent life, beautiful landscapes, love, chocolate, etc.) can be explained better by science. What I mean by that is that science can explain all of the “How’s” of nature in a way that is more informative and practically useful than religion. Though there is disagreement in the scientific community about whether they have anything to say about the “Why’s,” I am inclined to concede to you that science can’t give you a satisfactory answer for why we are here. But, I don’t think religion can give a satisfactory answer either. Religion can give comforting answers, but that isn’t a good reason to believe those answers are true.

      Since you mentioned him, let me tell a brief story. I remember reading C.S. Lewis’s argument for moral realism and wanting to take comfort in it but being unconvinced. Lewis says that the fact that we have moral sentiments (an intuitive sense of right and wrong) is evidence for the fact that there really is a moral fact about right and wrong. He likens it to fish being born in a cave without light. Without light, fish are born without eyes. Similiarly, Lewis reasons, without a moral fact of the matter, we would be born without moral intuition. So, the fact that we have moral intuition is evidence that there are moral facts. The problem with this argument is that there is a much simpler and more explanatorily useful explanation for why we have moral sentiments. We have moral sentiments because they facilitate cooperative bonds, and cooperation was what allowed our weak, naked, clawless ancestors to survive in a dangerous unpredictable world.

      I get that the kind of answers that science can give us are less satisfying than the answers that religions promise. Science doesn’t say we have some Ultimate Purpose in the way that religions often do. But, if the answers that religions offer are not well-justified, is comfort really a good enough reason to accept them?

      • Clouser Says:

        “…if we can explain how an event transpired without appeal to Divine intervention, then we don’t have a good reason to believe God played a role.”

        I think that a lot of modern Christians would disagree with this statement. Believers are familiar with the charge that theirs is a “God of the gaps.” Plenty will not use God as an explanation for everything that can’t be explained scientifically because they understand how poorly this has worked in the past, with scientific discoveries causing constant reevaluations of dogma.

        Most Christians would say that God plays a role in everything, and many would concede that He usually does so through natural means. So, Jim’s nail in the driveway, below, if its life could somehow be traced, step-by-step, back to the factory where it was made, would be shown to have arrived where it did through the same causal chain that brings everything else to where it is.

        But it would still save Jim from death. This position on supernatural causes is pretty weak, in that one cannot really distinguish it from secular views on causation, except that in the Christian view, the chaos evident in the universe is only apparent, and it will all culminate in bringing some ultimate plan to fruition. And along the way, stupid little bullshit can be accomplished, too, like saving one guy’s life, out of millions (or even just the other people in the pile-up–why couldn’t they have had nails in their driveways?).

        To jump to a wholly different subject, I disagree with your assertion that religion’s answers are more satisfying than science’s. To borrow from Pink Floyd, science may only give us a walk-on part in the war, but it trumps religion’s lead role in a cage.

        • Jim Says:

          I’m not clear on what you’re saying about my story. Are you saying that even if God played a role it could still have a wholly natural explanation? Or are you saying that it has an apparent explanation that would be wholly natural if it were true, but in fact it has a supernatural explanation different from the apparent one?
          I’m not clear on whether or not you’re disagreeing with me.

          • Clouser Says:

            I’m agreeing with you.

            I’m saying that some Christians would allege that God’s influence is so woven into events that His actions would be indistinguishable from natural causes. The nail in your driveway came there through the same string of coincidences that would put any nail in anyone’s driveway. But this nail saved your life!

            One might say, “Well, what’s the point of God in this story at all, then?” But the Christian would say, “Ha! You can’t argue with that!”

          • Jim Says:

            Ha. Ok.
            Writing from my phone sucks. I meant to add, in that case, it looks like the entire idea of miracles is meaningless as that makes every event that has ever occurred a miracle, and, as such, there is absolutely nothing miraculous about “miracles.” in that scheme, miracles are merely mundane events, wholly unworthy of note or mention.

          • Clouser Says:

            Exactly, though the Christian might argue that those special mundane events that bring about some special purpose are actually miracles. One might point out that all mundane events are a part of the causal chain, and each is just as significant as those “special” ones.

            But Christians live with paradoxes in their philosophies. There’s something exhilarating about it, really. It makes you feel all mystical and important to mentally confront beliefs that just don’t jibe with the excuse that the contradiction is only apparent and it has something to do with God’s mysterious ways.

            I mean, there are different stories of Jesus’ resurrection in the Bible, and some of the same people who acknowledge this fact also insist that every word in the book is inspired, unchangeable truth. Even though the faith holds that no one sin is worse than any other, it is clear that at the same time, some sins ARE worse than others. After all, Jezebel gets a special place in Hell, Jesus alludes to some ill-defined sin that cannot be forgiven.

            I think that this is why so many Christians seem impervious to reason. To them, reason only goes so far, and that which is beyond reason has more merit than the rational. For example, the doctrine of the trinity is pretty much completely insane, and it is one of the key points of Christian belief.

          • Jim Says:

            You’re absolutely right. I’m sure both of us could go on about that stuff forever. So often I’ve been blown away that people don’t get the absolute weirdness of what they believe. The whole idea of Christ dying for our sins just freaks me out, but people accept it so blandly. How is it not insane that God had to be punished for sins that would be committed against Him in the future because OUR sin requires pubishment? It turns the entire idea of justice on its head, it is its own negation, yet people smile and nod when they talk about it as if it’s the most sensible thing in the world.
            Seriously, everything about Christianity is just so fucking weird.

      • Tom Montgomery Says:

        I agree that the definition of “suspending the laws of nature” is closer to most biblical examples of miracles. I am not sure how to argue that such suspensions do occur, except for presenting a personal example.

        In 1995, I bit into an apple and discovered my front left tooth was loose and very painful. I did not have dental insurance, and I had no money, and I was terrified that I would end up with a big dopey gap in the front of my mouth. I cried out to God asking him to spare my tooth. Eventually I ended up with a job that provided dental insurance. I went to the dentist for a checkup, and the dentist, while looking at the x-ray, said, “That’s strange!” I said, “What’s strange?” He said, “It appears as though your front tooth broke underneath the gumline, shifted over a bit, and then fused back together.” I said, “Does that not happen very often?” His reply was, “That never happens!”

        Perhaps the dentist was exagerrating, and he meant ‘never’ in a colloquial way, as in, “that almost never happens.” I suppose then it would be a natural miracle. If, on the other hand, it really doesn’t happen by natural means, then I guess we have one of those “suspending the laws of nature” situations.

        There are examples of highly improbable events in the bible which do not imply a suspension of the laws of nature, but the sheer improbability of the events is enough to inspire wonder at them. A perfect example of this is just about every occurence in the book of Esther.

        Part of the cunfusion in defining miracles here is that the bible alludes to God’s sovereign involvement in everyday matters (“the lots are cast into the lap, but every result is from the Lord”), and yet clearly not every natural occurence is a miracle. And I suppose one could then say that “just because God did something does not mean it is a miracle” either….I need to think this through further.

        I have more to say about other posts too, but I have to go now. Thanks for listening!

        • Jim Says:

          I posted a response that addresses this earlier today (https://theappleeaters.wordpress.com/2010/04/21/miracles/#comment-667). Lewis was engaging in poor metaphysics. Both supposed types of miracles collapse into one as both necessarily involve God interfering with natural causation. There is no genuine distinction between the two at all.

          • Tom Montgomery Says:

            I disagree, there is a distinction. As Clouser said, most Christians believe that God is involved sovereignly in everyday events. Such an event would not involve suspension of the laws of nature. The proverbial nail in your tire could have shown up through thoroughly natural means, yet still be an answer to prayer, because God is sovereignly overseeing all things, like some cosmic chess player. In response to your charge that this makes everything (and therefore nothing) miraculous, again I disagree. The natural events that we would refer to as miracles are most often highly unusual events which would make the average person stop and pause and wonder if there is not some sort of mysterious causal link between the events.

            Both types of events (suspensions of the laws of nature, and natural yet highly unlikely answers to prayer) tend to inspire faith in those who experience them.

            I want to share a story with you; perhaps one of the weirdest prayer-related miracles i have ever experienced.

            This is sort of an embarrassing admission, but…

            I once asked God to give me a red sports car with a shaded windshield and headlights that open and close. That might sound lavish and ridiculous to you; but I genuinely needed a car, and I could not afford to buy one, and I had the faith to ask God for one, and I thought, well if i can ask for ANY type of car, why not one like that?

            I kid you not, within one week, someone offered to give me a pontiac sunbird, red, with shaded windshield and headlights that open and close. It was in need of repairs, and my church offered me the money to get it fixed. I had that car four years. It lasted until the summer after I graduated from seminary.

            I had not told any person that i had prayed for God to give me a car. I had certainly not told them what kind of car I had asked him for. Someone had spontaneously offfered it up to me of their own accord. A wholly natural yet miraculous response to my prayer prayed in secret.

            Years later a friend was in a similar situation, in need of a car. He remembered my experience with the pontiac and so he asked me to pray that God would give him a car. I prayed for a bit and then asked him (via email) what he thought of a volkswagon? He was amazed because one of his friends had offered him a volkswagon that very day, but he ended up turning the friend down for certain reasons.

            Faith in God +a Genuine need + prayer = Miracles

            I do not have experiences like those every day, but when they do happen it is enough to make a person say, wow! What is going on here?

            There must be some sort of causal link between the prayers prayed and the highly specific answers. I posit that this link is a supernatural God at work.

            This does not dismiss any scientific processes at work, because it is not about the process. It is about the purpose of the event, and the significance it holds for life’s purpose.

            And yes, I agree with you that Christinaity is weird. But doesn’t that tend to favor the possibility that it is true? I mean, if I were to make up a relgiion, don’t you think i would come up with something simpler than the trinity?

          • Jim Says:

            You’ve completely missed the point. If every event is merely a function of God’s Will, then what we take to be natural causation is merely apparent and not actual. That is, it is not the case that events occur because of natural causal chains. Rather, things occur because God wills that they occur. In that case, it makes no sense to talk about some function of God’s Will being more special than any other function of God’s Will. You can either have God be the direct supernatural cause of everything, in which case the whole concept of a miracle becomes meaningless, or you can allow that there are natural causal chains that are normally the explanation of the events that occur, in which case every direct act of God to interfere in the world becomes a miracle, thus removing the possibility of the kind of distinction that Lewis attempted to make. It’s not complicated.
            As to your story, there is nothing that makes any aspect of it anything more that slightly unlikely. To suggest that the only explanation is supernatural intervention is absurd. Indeed, unlikely things occur all the time. Very unlikely things occur all the time. I suggest that you do a search for t Littlewood’s Law. Math is fun.
            As to your last statement that something being weird in the sense that it involves internal contradictions is some kind of good reason to think it must be true, I couldn’t disagree more, and, moreover, you don’t believe it either. People believe all sorts of very weird things that are clearly of their own invention. In fact, as a Christian, you must believe that God is the only god, that all other gods are mere fictions. That means that all other religions are merely creations of people. Yet, those religions are themselves very weird, involving all sorts of internal contradictions. That shows the clear flaw in your argument right there.

      • Tom Montgomery Says:

        Hi Liza,

        I am in whole hearted agreement with you, in that I believe the truth is what’s important, more-so than comfort. In fact, there are times that my faith in Christianity has lead me to extreme discomfort, because I believe it to be true i stuck with it, and struggled through the difficult things.

        I am not sure how to respond at this moment, and i need to go back to work…But I will write more later.

      • Tom Montgomery Says:

        Question: If Lewis’s theory about moral intuition fails because the evolutionary need for cooperation and altruism is a better explanation; what happens if we apply the blind fish argument to humanity’s internal tendency to attribute transcendent meaning to life. (Yeesh, that was complicated sentence. Did that make sense?)

        What I am asking is—to steal Lewis’ analogy for a second—why do humans have both a desire to search for/and a tendency to attribute meaning to their lives? Like eyeless fish born in a cave, we would not be born with such tendencies unless they were meant to be fulfilled.

        Is this tendency to attribute meaning evolutionarily advantageous? If so, then why don’t all the atheists jump on board with the religious folks and start to believe that their lives are more important than just a bunch of random accidents?

        And, I know this topic was in another comment on here, but, regarding Littleton’s law; from what I understand, this theory suggests that highly unlikely coincidences occur at a rate of about once every 35 days in a person’s life (rendering my car story irrelevant). If that is the case, each person on this board should have had at least 9 such highly unlikely occurences in the past year (@18 in the past 2 years).

        I would like to hear some of these stories, and then have some proability expert compare them through statistical analysis with a story like the one i shared, which had 5 independent elements (the prayer correlating with the unasked for gift of a car; the three specific details of the car which were asked for in prayer [red, shaded windshield, retractable headlights], and the timing of the answer—within mere days).

        Regarding non-physical things having an effect in the physical world—still thinking about that one. I could have jumped into something about near death experiences, but I don’t know enough about research on that topic yet. I am familiar with the suggestion that the similarities of these stories are caused by natural processes which occur when the brain shuts down. However, I think there is actually some data which suggests that post-death memories occur from outside the body (views from above the operating table of a dying patient, looking down upon the procedure, hearing what is being said while the body is clinically dead).

        I would think that would be evidence of a continued existence beyond the confines of the body. (Whether or not it is material or non-material, I’m not sure yet). but, like I said, i would need to research that topic further before saying anything definitive here.

        Can I say one other thing about the definition of miracles? You know, in the New Testament, miracles are described as “signs, miracles, and wonders,” which testify to the reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ. A miracle is something extraordinary that gets someone’s attention. It is not a synonym for “something that God does,” because God is sovereignly in control of everything, and that would make the meaning of the word miracle purposeless. It is something extraordinary, meant to get the observers’ attention and give them an opportunity to believe.

        Okay, one more minor point (and i should have posted this under the other comments, I know); In my chess analogy, I should have explicitly stated that God was playing chess with someone else (ie: you, me). I was not meaning to advocate simple predestination. I believe humans do have freewill, and our experience of God’s sovereignty is more like playing chess with a Master Player, than being a puppet on a string. God and humanity are caught up together in a dance, each making real choices that have real results. In the end, of course, God wins.

        Okay, that’s all for tonight…

    • Jim Says:

      There is something I’d like to make explicit, here. There is actually no difference between the two notions of “miracle” presented by Lewis. One involves God breaking the chain of natural causation by supernatural means, and the other involves God breaking the chain of natural causation by supernatural means. Sure, God sticking His finger in the works, turning up a nail in my driveway, and thus causing me to get a flat tire for the purposes of saving me from a ten car pile-up is less flamboyant than burning bushes that talk, but both involve supernatural intervention, the former no less than the latter just because it is less extravagant. You don’t get away from the laws of nature being suspended by saying that it’s been made to look like a possible, though unlikely, event that could have occurred by wholly natural means. If God caused it, then it is not a case of something happening via wholly natural means. It is absolutely God suspending the laws of nature. And thus collapses the false distinction that Lewis tried to create.
      This is just another example of Lewis’ poor metaphysics.

      • Tom Montgomery Says:

        Okay, i will try to explain what I think about this topic. Bear with me here.

        My understanding of God’s soveriegnty in nature is sort of along the lines of a game of chess. All of the pieces have rules which govern the way in which they can be moved, and yet the chessplayer is free to choose among a variety of moves in order to accomplish his goal of winning the game. In the same way, God has made a world that is conducted by various natural laws. He plays the game according to the rules, and yet he moves all of his pieces in the direction that he desires to move them.

        Perhaps some of the rules for certain pieces are currently beyond our understanding. For instance, say, when he moves the queen, the other pieces may think he is breaking the rules of the game. Not so; they just don’t quite understand all of the rules yet. The queen does have rules she must follow (and the same is true of miracles which seemingly suspend the laws of nature; there must be faith present, and the miracle must somehow be intended to further the purposes of God).

        A miracle (whether “coincidental” or seemingly suspending the laws of nature) is like when God has you in “check.” Whether the move was made by the queen or any of the other pieces, God has you cornered. A conversion would be when God has you in “check-mate.”

        What would you call that sort of view? Limited determinism? I have a number of scripture references that form the basis of my understanding on this (not the chess analogy specifically, but the understanding that God’s soverignty is not the overwhelming, instrusive, micromanaging kind; but instead the kind that makes room for other players to make real decisions which have real consequences). If you want me to bring the specific verses up, I can.

        • Jim Says:

          You needn’t supply any Scriptural references on God’s sovereignty. I assure you, I need no such assistance.

          I think your analogy is great in that it highlights exactly my point. If God is the cause for all events, then it is never the case that some event has a cause outside of God, hence suggesting a miracle is some special event because it was directly caused by God is a clear mistake as all events are directly caused by God. The fact that He decided to cause events in some particular way, that He picked the “rules” by which He would cause these events, never makes the cause of the events anything other than God. He is always the one moving the pieces, hence He is always the cause, hence calling something a miracle is at best redundant but more properly recognized as meaningless. If a miracle is merely an event caused by God moving some particular piece, then all events are miracles as God is always moving all the pieces. In that case, everything is a miracle, and the word becomes synonymous with “event,” and using the word at all seems to be a bad idea as it is likely to cause confusion with those who mean by the term some special event different from those that result from everyday natural causal chains.
          That kind of idea is merely a type of predestination, one that holds that all events are a function of God’s direct Will rather than the result of natural causal forces.

  4. James Gray Says:

    I’m not going to get into a detailed response about the plain fact that for most Buddhists the supernatural absolutely plays a significant role, nor will I go on at length about the clear and undeniable ignorance along with the strong implication of racism that goes along with saying that all American Indians follow the same religion without regard for regional or tribal traditions or even personal belief. Suffice to say that both of these assertions are not only factually wrong but demonstrate a genuinely surprising lack of knowledge about the topics, especially given that you’ve chosen to hold them up as examples of your position.

    No, you just don’t know how to read what I am saying or you misunderstand the metaphysics (or non-metaphysics) of other cultures.

    It looks like you’re attempting to play some sort of word game, distinguishing the paranormal from the supernatural, though you haven’t provided clear definitions on either of those terms.

    The “supernatural” is something metaphysically separate from the natural world. I didn’t have to define it because I am using Liza’s definition. I am talking about exactly what she is talking about.

    “Paranormal” refers to weird stuff, such as ghosts or ESP. The supernatural and paranormal could overlap, but they might not. There is nothing about an afterlife that guarantees that Descartes was correct about dualism, but the “supernatural” appears to be an endorsement of dualism. Monistic metaphysics is very common in other cultures, so dualism and the supernatural will be rejected.

    That would seem paramount if you’re going to engage in a debate over something that appears to me to be so pedantic.

    Read the conversation again. I made a very simple point and I was challenged. I merely defended my claim. If it was pedantic, then it shouldn’t have been continually challenged.

    You’re quite correct about the lack of detail involved in most people’s metaphysical views, which is exactly why so few worry about the ways in which those terms might be different. That fact would imply to most people that any difference between such terms is less nuanced for the majority, not more. That would lead to them thinking of the supernatural and paranormal being much the same thing, not involving intricate metaphysical distinctions between the two. Suffice to say that the general public considers ghosts to be the spirits of the dead, this concept holding for most societies throughout history.

    I never denied that.

    This discussion is particularly frustrating as this is not some kind of arcane knowledge known only to a few scholars. It’s the popular perception. All one need do is go to the damn movies every once in a while or turn on the TV to know this. The general notion of a ghost is that it’s some kind of supernatural entity, most commonly used interchangeably with spirit, as in the spirit of someone who has died.

    The term “supernatural” does always refer to some kind of dualistic non-physical substance in everyday language, but that is the definition of supernatural given by Liza.

    If you want to get into some heady academic debate detached from popular understanding about the cultural or anthropological status of such ideas, one would think you would do some research on the subject before barrelling into the discussion like this.

    I have done research. The buddhists and Native americans think that everything is connected. I also took a class on native american philosophy and had a native american teacher who made it clear that the native americans didn’t understand substance dualism. They thought everything was natural and rejected the supernatural.

    It isn’t important that all buddists or native americans agree with this one view. All that matters is that some do.

    It would seem prudent to at least read the Wikipedia page. Seriously, go read it. It’s well-cited. You’ll find that your brute assertions are completely lacking in support.

    Which article? I highly doubt that it says that all native americans are cartesian dualists or believe that ghosts are supernatural in some cartesian non-natural sense. Instead, I expect it to say how they think everything is connected and reject dualism (and therefore the supernatural) of the sort Liza is discussing.

    • Jim Says:

      No, you just don’t know how to read what I am saying or you misunderstand the metaphysics (or non-metaphysics) of other cultures.

      You can’t point to some flaw in my reading of you, so that’s obviously not a problem. As to the metaphysics of Buddhism, I’m quite familiar with it, and the supernatural is a commonly discussed aspect of the religion. The devas are supernatural beings, and they have a well-known place in Buddhism. Hence, Buddhism has a supernatural component. As to Native American beliefs, they varied, and the fact that there wasn’t some strong separation between the natural and supernatural in many of their belief systems does not negate that many of those systems had a clearly recognizable supernatural component.
      There seems little reason to quote any more of your comment as it almost all results from your misreading of what I wrote (that being an amusing irony given my quote of you above). The issue at hand concerns the nature of ghosts, specifically whether or not they are supernatural. Some class you took on Native American philosophy has nothing to do with that, nor does your quip about Native Americans not being Cartesian dualists. The issue is that ghosts are near universally understood to be supernatural, particularly the spirits of the dead, and latching onto some very small minority who might see things differently just smacks of you being contrary for its own sake.

      • James Gray Says:

        If I misread you, then I still have no idea what you wanted to say. Yes, there are different definitions of “supernatural” and my use of the term is appropriate for this setting. To change the definition to “paranormal” (weird stuff, like ghosts) would be an inappropriate equivocation of the word. For example, God is not necessarily supernatural (transcendent/non-phsyical). There are pantheistic religions that see god as being part of the material world and the Stoics also saw God in that way.

        You seriously believe that Buddhists and native americans people think that ghosts are supernatural in the sense of being non-physical? Please point me to the right direction. I find this absurd. I am not being contrary for its own sake. I think the supernatural as discussed by Liza is based on cartesian dualism and people tend to paste their dualistic assumptions onto other cultures. The western concept of the supernatural as Liza discussed it is based on a long philosophical tradition of one culture that is fairly irrelevant to other cultures.

        Many people assume that other cultures see ghosts in the same way as Christians when they don’t. Ghosts are “immortal souls” for Christians because they are completely non-physical and therefore don’t exist in time or space. They completely lack physical properties.

        • Jim Says:

          Again, you’re trying to take some small minority view and argue against a point that no one put forward. The entire concern here has been on the use of terms as used by the overwhelming majority. For you to bring up some small minority view as a way of criticizing Liza’s points completely misses them. Clearly, she’s not talking about that minority view. She’s only talking about the concept used by the vast majority. If you want to argue about some concept that has little to nothing to do with the concept normally intended by the use of the word, you’re not arguing with anyone here. Your point about pantheists hits nothing here.
          In fact, there never was a debate about the ontology of God here. The issue you raised had to do with ghosts, and that’s the issue to which I responded. You points about God have nothing to do with the issue you originally raised.
          As to the concern that other cultures don’t see ghosts as something supernatural, mostly spirits of the dead, you’re just factually wrong. As to how Buddhists view ghosts, I’ll quote from the introduction from the Wikipedia entry on “Ghosts in Chinese Culture“:

          There are many references to ghosts in Chinese culture. Even Confucius said, “Respect ghosts and gods, but keep away from them.”[1]

          The ghosts take many forms depending on the way in which the person died, and are often harmful. Many of the Chinese ghost beliefs have been accepted by neighboring cultures, notably Japan and south-east Asia. Ghost beliefs are closely associated with the traditional Chinese religion based on ancestor worship, many of which were incorporated in Taoism. Later beliefs were influenced by Buddhism, and in turn influenced and created uniquely Chinese Buddhist beliefs.

          Many Chinese today consider that it is possible to contact the spirits of their ancestors through a medium, and that the ancestor can help their descendants if properly respected and rewarded. The annual ghost festival is celebrated by Chinese around the world. On this day ghosts and spirits, including those of the deceased ancestors, come out from the lower realm. Ghosts are described in classical Chinese texts, and continue to be depicted in modern literature and movies.

          That seems to make it pretty clear that at least a large number of Buddhists believe in ghosts, believe they are the spirits of the dead, and believe they normally reside in a world other than ours.

          As for American Indians, it is well documented that they believed that the spirits of the dead came to visit them. Does this suggest Cartesian dualism? I think that’s an absurd question as the use of the modifier there clearly suggests that there are other types of dualism. I would never claim that they held an academic view as put forward by someone else on a continent long after the bulk of their belief system had been formed. Do I think the fact that they believed in spirits that left the body after the body had died and came back to visit the living, that they believed in a kind of afterworld from which these spirits came to visit, demonstrates a belief in the supernatural? I do. To suggest otherwise would require that the notion of the supernatural on which we rely be twisted in some way as to be unrecognizable.
          Regardless of that, though, even if American Indians did not believe in a supernatural, such would not suggest that the overwhelming majority of people in the world who talk about ghosts do not mean something supernatural. Yet again, it is clear you just have done no research on this at all, and, yet again, I would suggest you at leastread the Wikipedia page on it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghosts. I think you will quickly discover that the vast majority of people in the world absolutely see ghosts as something supernatural, almost always the spirits of the dead.

          • James Gray Says:

            Perhaps we should say “non-physical” instead of “supernatural” because the word “supernatural” seems to be leading to problems. I think Liza’s use of “supernatural” is suggesting a sort of “cartesian dualism” because it is based on the idea of a completely non-physical part of reality. I don’t think all cultures talk much about that or believe in a totally non-physical part of reality. If you think that is a non-cartesian sort of dualism, that’s fine, but that is what I meant from the term. I suppose Plato’s form could also be considered to be non-physical.

            You can’t reject my use of the term “supernatural” then proceed to say that a different use of the word “supernatural” would make ghosts supernatural. That’s an equivocation and it’s irrelevant to the argument.

            You argue that ghosts are an afterlife and are therefore supernatural (non-physical). You argue that I seem to miss that point. However, this is what I said earlier:

            A phenomenon should not be said to be supernatural without further research. Ghosts could be physical, and the idea of the supernatural (in the non-physical sense) seems to be tied to the Judeo-Christian religion. Not all religions claim souls or Gods to be non-physical Even the Stoics contemplated the existence of God and souls (afterlife) within their materialistic tradition. April 21, 2010 at 7:17 pm

            “Paranormal” refers to weird stuff, such as ghosts or ESP. The supernatural and paranormal could overlap, but they might not. There is nothing about an afterlife that guarantees that Descartes was correct about dualism, but the “supernatural” appears to be an endorsement of dualism. Monistic metaphysics is very common in other cultures, so dualism and the supernatural will be rejected. April 23, 2010 at 4:19 pm

            I clearly admitted that a ghost could be an afterlife.

            Again: The fact that a person has an afterlife doesn’t make that afterlife non-physical. I find it absurd to think that most people are believers in a completely separate part of reality from the physical. The fact that buddhists and native americans said everything is connected is evidence that they rejected the non-physical because the non-physical would be completely disconnected from the physical.

            “Ghosts could be non-physical” is not an objection to Liza’s main argument, just like “Gods could be non-physical” is not an objection because she is talking about a Christian view of God that requires God to be non-physical. I was merely saying that many weird things could be debunked, even if they aren’t supernatural, so the supernatural in and of itself is probably something to dismiss for the same reason as other paranormal things. Paranormal stuff could include goblins, ESP, and bigfoot. Anything very strange that we don’t want to have to believe in without especially good reason is paranormal. That’s not to say her argument is wrong, it’s just a suggestion that there might be an even bigger reason to reject the supernatural as well as many other things.

          • Jim Says:

            I don’t see where you’ve said anything new here, and I feel like I’ve responded to these assertions already. It seems to me you’re trying to make a point that doesn’t hit anything in Liza’s post. I also think you’re wrong about the clear majority of people thinking that ghosts are non-physical, and my thinking that comes from reading a lot about ghosts. When I was younger I had a thing for ghosts and ghost stories, so I’ve read extensively about them from a variety of different cultures. To make matters more confusing, there is a group of “paranormal researchers” who think there may be some physical component of the spirits of the dead, but those people often don’t even classify ghosts as such things. They tend to see ghosts as some kind of psychic leftover from some terrible, traumatic event. Funny enough, they think that makes ghosts non-physical while allowing that spirits might have some kind of physical component, but their metaphysics is always terrible and incoherent. That said, I don’t worry about such a distinction as, like I’ve repeated several times, the vast majority of people use ‘ghost’ and ‘spirit’ interchangeably, and they also think that ghosts are non-physical. Either way, ghosts end up being non-physical.

            For the record, I think you’re making a mistake and saying ‘non-physical’ when you mean ‘immaterial’. They’re not the same thing.

  5. James Gray Says:

    I should have said: The term “supernatural” does not always refer to some kind of dualistic non-physical substance in everyday language, but that is the definition of supernatural given by Liza.

  6. James Gray Says:


    For the record, I think you’re making a mistake and saying ‘non-physical’ when you mean ‘immaterial’. They’re not the same thing.

    Why do you think I make that mistake and what do you think the difference is?

    • Jim Says:

      I think you’re making the mistake because you keep talking about people not believing in the non-physical because they’re monists while at the same time believing in things like ghosts. Property dualists believe there is only one kind of “stuff,” material stuff, but they think that stuff can have different properties, both physical and non-physical. It seems pretty clear that those people with whom you’re concerned, that you’re calling monists, see a distinction between the physical and the non-physical. I don’t see any way to reconcile a spirit of someone who has died as being just like the body they inhabited, no matter how naive the metaphysics. So, if those people monists, then it has to be that the stuff of which everything is made is able to exhibit different properties, some physical and some otherwise.

      Of course, I don’t see such a distinction working at all in any way, and, even if it could work for property dualists like Chalmers, I don’t think it would work for the people in question, though, as that would be quite a lengthy discussion, there seems little reason to get into that here.

      • James Gray Says:

        I didn’t say anything against property dualism because I took Liza’s argument to be against two kinds of reality rather than two kinds of properties.

        I don’t know a lot about property dualism and I don’t really know what would count as a different sort of property. Searle seems to think consciousness only has physical properties despite the fact that subjectivity itself is a physical property. Searle might end up with two different kinds of physical properties, so he is still dualistic in that sense. I agree with Searle that it is pretty easy to tell a property dualist that both sorts of properties are probably physical despite being very different in many ways.

        I don’t want to defend the view that ghosts really do exist (and are physical), so I agree that delving into the metaphysics of ghosts won’t be fruitful.

        • Jim Says:

          You’re right about Liza’s argument as she was addressing the popular position that one finds amongst the overwhelming majority of people. This discussion only becomes relevant because you wanted to introduce the view of a small minority as some kind of response, in which case it seems relevant to accurately describe the views in question. If you want to say that the people of whom you’re speaking believe that ghosts are physical, and you’re basing that on their supposed monism, then whether or not monism necessarily implies that everything is physical becomes relevant. To me, it seems highly unlikely that people who believe that ghosts are the spirit of the dead also believe that such spirits are physical in the same way that the bodies those spirits once inhabited are physical. They clearly seem to have a different set of properties and, for the most part, exist in different spheres. Both Chinese Buddhists and American Indians have beliefs of spirits of the deceased that sometimes visit our world but spend the bulk of their existence in some kind of “afterworld.” They also are not constrained by physical obstacles in the same way that physical beings are. As such, while they might consider the entirety of all things to be a unity composed of material stuff or even something else, they clearly draw some distinction between things of which we typically think as those having physical properties and those having non-physical properties. Though, of course, this does not represent a deeply sophisticated metaphysics of the kind expressed by Chalmers and other contemporary property dualists, it sounds very much like something that would equally deserve such a title. Regardless of the ultimate view of reality expressed by the minority position in which you’re interested in addressing, I see no way of getting around it involving an endorsement of some kind of dualism, property or otherwise.

          If you’re at all interested, I would suggest that Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind is as good a place as any to get a handle on the basics of what is usually called property dualism.

          I don’t think Searle would be at all comfortable in saying something like there are “two different kinds of physical properties.” In fact, he has been explicit that he finds such questions about the ultimate number of different ontological categories to be meaningless. I don’t have it in front of me, but Searle has a paper “Why I am not a Property Dualist” that addresses this. Further, the big distinction between his biological naturalism and property dualism comes down to reducibility. Searle thinks that consciousness is causally reducible to neuronal processes, and property dualists don’t. That’s really the big distinction. Of course, Searle still thinks that mental states are not ontologically reducible because of their subjectivity, but this strikes many as more than a little strange, that being a big reason why his position remains a minority one.

          • James Gray Says:

            I am familiar with Searle’s view and I have read the essay you mentioned. His use of the term “causally reducible” is not entirely clear. He thinks that neurology causes subjectivity. He does think that subjectivity is irreducible in an important sense and I’ve written about it recently. Searle believes in emergence and he thinks that functionalism is very similar to elliminative reductioinsm.

            Although Searle has proposed an epiphenomenal theory of the mind, he does not agree with it. He believes in libertarian free will, which seems to be an extreme on the other end.

  7. Clouser Says:

    I’ve noticed that there seems to be some disagreement on what is meant by “non-physical” here in this discussion.

    I think that the atheists generally agree that if something exists, it qualifies as “physical,” and it’s probably in some way measurable/predictable (even if technology does not yet allow for it).

    I don’t think that everyone here is working with the same definition.

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