Sunday, May 03, 2020

Philosophical Question: Would A Good God Perform Miracles?

Over at Thinking Christian, Tom Gilson discusses a New Atheist book The Case Against Miracles. In a recent post he discusses Chapter 2, "God Would Not Perform Miracles," contributed to the book by Matt McCormick. Gilson's response takes one possible approach; I'd take another. I'll mention that I don't have direct access to a copy of the original book and am responding based on a) quotes of the original material that appear in Gilson's post, and b) some comments that McCormick made in the comment section when he stopped by Gilson's blog.

I'm currently planning a 3-part response; this current post is the first:

  1. (This post) Addressing the basic syllogism of McCormick's argument as gleaned from the comments by McCormick at Gilson's blog
  2. (Tomorrow's post, already written; after I get this posted I plan to go pre-schedule that one) A response to the complaint "Why was Jesus hanging out at a party when he could have been healing lepers?" (paraphrased). I know this breaks my usual practice of posting only on weekends but I wanted to keep that topic separate from today's post without drawing out the series too long. 
  3. Localized miracles and the scope of God's love (planned for next weekend's post)

So enough for the preliminaries. Based on McCormick's comments, it looks like his original argument runs roughly like this:
God wouldn't underachieve.
Localized miracles are an underachievement.
Therefore God wouldn't do miracles. 
Based other comments, he also seems to assert:
Someone who doesn't take this argument seriously is biased. 
But there's another option: someone who doesn't take this argument seriously because there's contrary evidence. There are miracles on record that, as far as I can tell, actually happened; so I do start with the view that we know the syllogism is missing something important because we have contrary data, and then the task is to spot where its assumptions diverge from known facts. (Note I stopped short of saying the syllogism is wrong. I think it has some underlying assumptions that are wrong but that doesn't come into the discussion immediately. It's easy to read into the syllogism things that it doesn't say, or to use it to prove an argument that it doesn't make. One step at a time.)

Note that it's possible for someone to accept McCormick's premises and still come away with the view that the miracles we have on record did in fact happen. McCormick merely argues that it's underachieving for the philosophers' omnimax God to do miracles. Even if we accept his premises, if we stipulate that the miracles with best documentation are recorded not for a hypothetical omnimax God but in the life of Jesus of Nazareth -- a local, flesh-and-blood human -- then the "underachieving" argument strikes me as inapplicable in the first place. It's hardly underachieving for a thirty-something Nazarene in Roman-occupied Judea to heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, and raise the dead. Sure, it leaves several follow-up conversations in need of happening, but one conversation at a time.

By the way I think the most applicable of McCormick's points for the real world is (roughly) "Why doesn't God just heal everyone?" That's planned for next weekend's post, after I clear away a couple of the conversations that need to happen first (this, and then tomorrow's).


Martin LaBar said...

You have answered the matter of underachieving!

Kevin Knox said...

I like that you attack the idea that we can never embrace joy whilst there's any suffering in the earth to which we can apply ourselves. You mention it here, and much more fully in your next post. I need to hear that corrective more often than I'd like to admit, so thank you.

As for the argument you're addressing in this post that God "wouldn't" perform local miracles, I look at it from a completely different direction. I agree with the atheist's conclusion, though not with his reasoning. I'd like to see someone create another syllogism for him. Something like:

God wants humanity to grow to maturity
Local miracles prevent growth
Therefore God wouldn't perform local miracles

The Bible records a ton of global miracles. I'm unclear whether it records any local miracles at all. Jesus came and healed hundreds as part of a global declaration of God's purpose and heart. Moses rained God's miracles down on Egypt as a part of a global declaration of God's purpose and heart. Peter and Paul healed hundreds as part of a global thing. Hezekiah might have had a local miracle in being granted more years, but he's the king of Israel making it sketchy to call that local.

Any time God purposes to radically inject new information into humanity's purse of ideas, he flags the event with the miraculous. Evidence God individually alters the laws of his creation for personal comfort is vanishingly rare. There is, for example, no occasion I can think of in scripture when Jesus performed a miracle to ease his own discomfort. Admittedly, to say that I have to rule things like the comfort afforded him after the temptation, the joy afforded him in raising Lazarus, and the frustration unleashed on the poor fig tree must all have been for a greater purpose, but I don't think the personal miracle was even a thing for Jesus.

For the record, I firmly believe John recorded nothing but global miracles -- including that of the water to wine. ;-)

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Martin

Thank you! As always, thank you for the encouragement.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Kevin

Good to see you safe and well! I've been hoping so; I hadn't seen you around in awhile.

I can and have fallen into the "all serious, all the time" trap. It's not logical or moral but it does a good job of looking like it.

Btw on the topic you introduced of whether Jesus does comfort-miracles or self-serving miracles: Sometimes I think that's the point of the temptation about making bread in the wilderness: Is it legitimate to use your position to serve yourself, even in the case of a legitimate need? A question everyone in authority should have to ask as part of the initiation ...

I'd be glad to hear how you've been if you like, on-topic or off.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Kevin Knox said...

I guess we've known worse times. We're still treading water. I hope you're doing well.

Weekend Fisher said...

"Treading water" is a good way to put it. I am thankful for the steady day job but that doesn't make it easy to get groceries for other reasons that have nothing to do with income. We're well enough, though. If it weren't for the whole "precarious" thing I'd call it good.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF