Evidence of What?

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend a lecture, given by a preacher at Ryerson University, on the topic of proving God scientifically. Every once in a while, I like to drop in on one of these lectures to see if there has been any change in the arguments being used. Usually I’m disappointed.

This lecture was a bit different than usual, though. Rather than just try to prove God’s existence scientifically, it also tried to use science to prove the existence of miracles. Using a modified version of Hume’s argument, no less!

A Fair and Balanced View of Islam
A Fair and Balanced View of Islam: A sign of rigorous scholarship.

To prove why science actually supports the existence of miracles, the lecturer/preacher gave a quick–and mostly flawed–outline of Hume’s argument against miracles. Regardless of his misunderstanding of Hume, I think the argument the preacher gave was still correct in principle. The argument was laid out in three premises and a conclusion, and went something along the lines of:

1) Miracles are exceptionally rare occurrences.
2) We always have more evidence for more common occurrences, and less evidence for more rare occurrences.
3) A wise man ought to believe in that for which there is more evidence.
4) A wise man ought not to believe in miracles.

(This, of course, ignores the fact that Hume did not define miracles as “rare occurrences”; and he did not believe witness accounts to be a particularly reliable source of knowledge.)

Regardless, let’s give the preacher man this point, and concede that his argument is still a reasonable one. We ought to believe that for which there is a greater body of evidence. This still doesn’t quite prove the existence of miracles. This is where he gets tricky, and brings in the fine-tuning argument from earlier in the lecture.

Science, he tells us, supports the idea that the universe as we know it began at the big bang. However, the universe (and life on Earth) is too complex to have arisen out of a chaotic process. Therefore, the universe must have been designed by an intelligent force. Therefore, he concludes, evidence for the greatest miracle of all time–creation–is plentiful!

Set out a bit more formally, the argument might look something like this:

1) The universe as we know it began at the big bang.
2) The universe/life on earth is too complex to have arisen out of a chaotic process.
3) Therefore, the universe must have been designed by an intelligent force.

The problem with his argument is two-fold. The first problem, as pointed out by opponents of creationism (i.e. scientists) on a regular basis, is that the inference from 2 to 3 is flawed. Even if we were to accept the first two premises as true, there is no reason for 3 to be the logical conclusion. It simply doesn’t follow from the premise that the big bang was not a chaotic process that there must have therefore been a designer. (Interestingly, this is one of the arguments that Hume’s argument against miracles actively refutes.) We happen to know that many processes in nature follow certain rules (natural laws) in a predictable fashion.

Eye Shot 2
Pictured: Complexity [Source]

The other problem is that the evidence that the preacher is referring to only really supports premise 1, and sometimes directly contradicts premise 2. We know, for example, that seemingly chaotic processes can give rise to complex systems with the addition of seemingly simple guiding processes (like natural selection in evolution). Furthermore, chaotic systems can often give rise to seemingly complex systems through our overly-active pattern recognition capabilities.

So what do we really have the evidence to support? We have evidence that the physical process, known as the big bang, did occur roughly 13.7 billion years ago (alternatively, 13.7 gigayears, which sounds so much cooler). What we do not have evidence for is any guiding force, outside natural processes, that helped shape the universe.

I applaud the preacher man for the (partial) originality of his argument for the existence of miracles, but it looks like, for the time being at least, we still don’t have any scientific evidence for the existence of miracles.

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  • Mitchell Gerskup

    Mitchell Gerskup recently graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in Economics and Philosophy. An avid atheist and skeptic, he has served as the President of the University of Toronto Secular Alliance, helping to promote science, reason and critical thinking around Toronto. He also volunteers with the Centre for Inquiry’s Ontario branch, and currently sits on the CFI’s Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism. Mitchell is also an accomplished competitive debater, having debated all across Canada. In addition to issues of economics and philosophy, Mitchell is interested in the fields of science and technology.