Friday, September 05, 2014

Responding to Harriet Hall's Critique of Craig Keener's "Miracles"

In the recent edition of Skeptic magazine Harriett Hall responds to Craig Keener's book Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. I purchased the magazine and read Hall's essay. Here are my initial thoughts.

Hall appeals to David Hume and responds to some of Hume’s critics. Interestingly she does not respond to Keener’s exhaustive and devastating critique of Hume.

Hall writes: “Geivett and Habermas ask the question “Has God acted in history? A number of Christian philosophers and one astrophysicist answer the question in individual essays. There is something gravely wrong with this approach. They start with the assumption that God exists, and they ask the question only of those who believe in the Christian God. They aren’t about to question the possibility of miracles because their entire faith is based on a miracle: Christ’s resurrection.”
But of course a theist will begin with the assumption that God exists. Just as an atheist begins with the assumption that God does not exist. We all approach the discussion with a pre-existing worldview. Hall does, as one can see in her article.
BTW - there are theologians who begin with God's existence and question miracles. So there is no logically necessary connection between pre-existing belief in God and not questioning miracles. I am certain that Geivett and Habermas question many miracle claims, as do I.

Hall: “Logical arguments based on questionable premises can only lead to questionable conclusions. Logically, shouldn’t any discussion of miracles first have to establish the existence of God?”
But Geivett and Habermas have – by their reasoning – established the existence of God, in multiple writings. 

Hall: “There have been innumerable attempts to prove the existence of God through evidence and reason. If any of these attempts had been truly successful, everyone would be able to agree on the same beliefs.”
No. There is no claim of inference from: 1) X has been successfully proven, to 2) Everyone agrees that X.

Hall: “Every argument for the existence of God has been found wanting; and since believers have been forced to rely on faith rather than evidence, they have made a virtue of faith.”
There’s no reason to believe this dogmatic assertion unless Hall shows she has examined every argument for God’s existence and has “found it to be wanting.” And note: there are evidential arguments for God’s existence, such as: the Kalam Cosmological Argument (W. L. Craig), the Fine-Tuning Argument (Robin Collins, Antony Flew), the Moral Argument (Paul Copan, et. al.), the Argument from Consciousness (J.P. Moreland), the Argument from Reason (Victor Reppert), the Argument from Biology (Francis Collins), the Argument for the Historical Resurrection of Jesus, and so on.
Hall’s dogmatism shows she commits the very mistake she accuses Geivett and Habermas of making; viz., she begins with her already-established conviction that God does not exist.

Hall: “Keener says eyewitness reports do not serve as indisputable proof, but they “do constitute evidence that may be considered rather than a priori dismissed.” That’s a slap in the face to the many critical thinkers who have never, a priori, dismissed anything.”
But as I read Hall and her dogmatic assertions that all arguments for God’s existence fail, I assume she dismisses the possibility of miracles a priori since, on her already-established atheism, miracles cannot occur (if by ‘miracle’ we mean something God has had a part in).

Hall: [Keener] “says, “The confluence of multiple, independent, and reliable eyewitnesses [without collusion] increases the probability of testimony’s accuracy.” But eyewitness testimony by itself is never enough to establish truth. Even group eyewitness testimony is unreliable.”
Hall then cites examples of group eyewitness testimony as unreliable. But her comments here do nothing to refute Keener’s modest historical claim. It is false that “group eyewitness testimony is unreliable,” simpliciter. Group eyewitness testimony continues to prove powerful and reliable in establishing, e.g., guilt or innocence in courts of law. Of course all group eyewitness testimonies provide only inductive evidence. To me Hall sounds too much enamored with Hume’s over-reacting skepticism.

Hall says that Keener’s use of percentages of doctors et. al. who pray for patients, have witnessed a miracle, and so on is an example of “the appeal to popularity”; thus, “this whole line of argument can be rejected as a logical fallacy. Any quack can supply testimonials from his customers swearing that his snake oil cured them.”
But an “appeal to popularity” is not applicable to eyewitness testimony. Hall simply fails to understand logic at this point. When someone succumbs to appeal to popularity it is not because they have eyewitnessed something for themselves, but because others have seen for them. For them, True Religion jeans are the best jeans because “Everyone is wearing True Religion jeans.” Eyewitness testimony, on the other hand, often goes against popularity. Some of us have at times intentionally withheld sharing something we interpreted as a “miracle” precisely because people like Hall will, a priori, view us as “quacks.”

1.    Hall – we can reject Keener’s “whole line of argument” because it is an “appeal to popularity.”
2.    But Keener’s line of argument is not an appeal to popularity.
3.    Therefore Hall is wrong is rejecting Keener’s line of argument.

To be honest, at this point in reading Hall’s essay I want to dismiss it because of this kind of irrationality. She’s out to make a point and will defy logic to do it while claiming logic is on her side.

Hall: “Spontaneous remissions occur, probably more common than we realize. Cancers regress…”
But of course they do. But this fact is irrelevant to the discussion of miracles. I could be healed of cancer today but acquire it later in life. How would that refute a healing today?

Hall: “Keener is overly impressed by accounts of medical miracles because his knowledge of medical science is limited. He attributes the absence of miracle reports in medical literature to fear on the part of doctors. He says academic skepticism can be coercive, doctors don’t want to be ridiculed by their peers, don’t want to be viewed as nonconformist, or think publishing their observations would result in loss of prestigious positions and tenure. I don’t find those excuses plausible.”
I find them plausible. Hall has already referred to some doctors who claim to have witnessed a miracle as “quacks.” Remember the response Prof. Candy Brown received from atheists after her document on healing and intercessory prayer was published in the SouthernJournal of Medicine, and the atheistic-scientistic outrage directed toward the Southern Journal.

Hall: “An MD told Keener that there are few doctors who have not seen, at least on rare occasions, a recovery so contrary to the usual prognosis and so apparently complete, that the word ‘miracle’ seemed the only appropriate description. But why wouldn’t “unexplained” or “unexpected” be more appropriate?”

I think with this Hall quote we arrive at the heart of her essay. She is scientistic. Perhaps a philosophical naturalist or materialist. For her all facts are physical facts. This is her pre-established worldview. Like a Wittgensteinian language-game, the “appropriate” words are “unexplained” or “unexpected.” I expect Hall to say nothing less than this. This is her interpretation, as a function of her worldview. Of course. But it does not follow that a theist should accept her ideas of appropriateness.

One scientist who is a theist sees a "possible act of God"; another scientist who is a materialist sees the "unexplained." But note that the issue here is not science, but the reality that all "facts" are theory-laden.

And, BTW, some of us find philosophical materialism irrational.