Long time lurker, but I've barely posted anything. I'd like to ask Less Wrong for help.

Reading various articles by the Rationalist Community over the years, here, on Slate Star Codex and a few other websites, I have found that nearly all of it makes sense. Wonderful sense, in fact, the kind of sense you only really find when the author is actually thinking through the implications of what they're saying, and it's been a breath of fresh air. I generally agree, and when I don't it's clear why we're differing, typically due to a dispute in priors.

Except in theism/atheism.

In my experience, when atheists make their case, they assume a universe without miracles, i.e. a universe that looks like one would expect if there was no God. Given this assumption, atheism is obviously the rational and correct stance to take. And generally, Christian apologists make the same assumption! They assert miracles in the Bible, but do not point to any accounts of contemporary supernatural activity. And given such assumptions, the only way one can make a case for Christianity is with logical fallacies, which is exactly what most apologists do. The thing is though, there are plenty of contemporary miracle accounts.

Near death experiences. Answers to prayer that seem to violate the laws of physics. I'm comfortable with dismissing Christian claims that an event was "more than coincidence", because given how many people are praying and looking for God's hand in events, and the fact that an unanswered prayer will generally be forgotten while a seemingly-answered one will be remembered, one would expect to see "more than coincidence" in any universe with believers, whether or not there was a God. But there are a LOT of people out there claiming to have seen events that one would expect to never occur in a naturalistic universe. I even recall reading an atheist's account of his deconversion (I believe it was Luke Muehlhauser; apologies if I'm misremembering) in which he states that as a Christian, he witnessed healings he could not explain. Now, one could say that these accounts are the result of people lying, but I expect people to be rather more honest than that, and Luke is hardly going to make up evidence for the Christian God in an article promoting unbelief! One could say that "miracles" are misunderstood natural events, but there are plenty of accounts that seem pretty unlikely without Divine intervention-I've even read claims by Christians that they had seen people raised from the dead by prayer. And so I'd like to know how atheists respond to the evidence of miracles.

This isn't just idle curiosity. I am currently a Christian (or maybe an agnostic terrified of ending up on the wrong side of Pascal's Wager), and when you actually take religion seriously, it can be a HUGE drain on quality of life. I find myself being frightened of hell, feeling guilty when I do things that don't hurt anyone but are still considered sins, and feeling guilty when I try to plan out my life, wondering if I should just put my plans in God's hands. To make matters worse, I grew up in a dysfunctional, very Christian family, and my emotions seem to be convinced that being a true Christian means acting like my parents (who were terrible role models; emulating them means losing at life).

I'm aware of plenty of arguments for non-belief: Occam's Razor giving atheism as one's starting prior in the absence of strong evidence for God, the existence of many contradictory religions proving that humanity tends to generate false gods, claims in Genesis that are simply false (Man created from mud, woman from a rib, etc. have been conclusively debunked by science), commands given by God that seem horrifyingly immoral, no known reason why Christ's death would be needed for human redemption (many apologists try to explain this, but their reasoning never makes sense), no known reason why if belief in Jesus is so important why God wouldn't make himself blatantly obvious, hell seeming like an infinite injustice, the Bible claiming that any prayer prayed in faith will be answered contrasted with the real world where this isn't the case, a study I read about in which praying for the sick didn't improve results at all (and the group that was told they were being prayed for actually had worse results!), etc. All of this, plus the fact that it seems that nearly everyone who's put real effort into their epistemology doesn't believe and moreover is very confident in their nonbelief (I am reminded of Eliezer's comment that he would be less worried about a machine that destroys the universe if the Christian God exists than one that has a one in a trillion chance of destroying us) makes me wonder if there really isn't a God, and in so realizing this, I can put down burdens that have been hurting for nearly my entire life. But the argument from miracles keeps me in faith, keeps me frightened. If there is a good argument against miracles, learning it could be life changing.

Thank you very much. I do not have words to describe how much this means to me.

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So, a few observations on miracles.

  1. There are miracle stories in every religious tradition and plenty of not-exactly-religious traditions. Unless there's some big difference in credibility -- which I'm not aware of any reason to think there is -- if you think "no smoke without fire" about one set then you should think the same about the others too. Which means you either have to believe in lots of different gods, or believe in one god and lots of evil spirits (or something) that just happen to do more or less the same sorts of miracle. (Or, I guess, believe that miraculous things happen but they're brought about by people's latent psychic powers or something, but that's pretty far from any religion's account of these things.)

  2. When miraculous stories are investigated carefully, they consistently seem to evaporate. This happens even when the people doing the investigation belong to the religion that claims responsibility for the alleged miracle. For instance, consider something commonly cited as evidence for miracles: the shrine at Lourdes, to which pilgrims in their millions trek in the hope of miraculous healing. The Roman Catholic Church has a process -- to its credit,

... (read more)

The Roman Catholic Church has a process -- to its credit, not a completely ridiculous one -- by which it certifies some healings there as miraculous. Although the process isn't completely ridiculous, it's far from obviously bulletproof; the main requirement is that a bunch of Roman Catholic doctors declare that the alleged cure is inexplicable according to current medical knowledge.

I went to medical school in Ireland and briefly rotated under a neurologist there. One time he received a very nice letter from the Catholic Church, saying that one of his patients had gotten much better after praying to a certain holy figure, and the Church was trying to canonize (or beatify, or whatever) the figure, so if the doctor could just certify that the patient's recovery was medically impossible, that would be really helpful and make everyone very happy.

The neurologist wrote back that the patient had multiple sclerosis, a disease which remits for long periods on its own all the time and so there was nothing medically impossible about the incident at all.

I have only vague memories of this, but I think the Church kept pushing it, asking whether maybe it was at least a little medically impossible, because they really wanted to saint this guy.

(the neurologist was an atheist and gleefully refused as colorfully as he could)

This left me less confident in accounts of medical miracles.

I'm under the impression that the canonization process used to be more selective, until Pope John Paul II lowered the evidence bar and started mass producing saints.

Saint inflation. The easy out for a weakening religious authority, but soon people will have to be taking wheel barrows of saints to get their miracle of five fishes and two loaves.
But what happens if we measure saints per capita? After all, the 20th century's population explosion presumably had a radical effect on saint density.

I have done this. The most impressive-sounding one happened to a friend of mine who had formerly been an athlete. She had to withdraw from sports for a year because of an unexpected muscular condition. (If this is obviously medically wrong, it's probably because I changed details for privacy.) As you probably expect, that year involved plenty of spiritual growth that she attributes to having had to quit sports.

At the end of that time, a group of church people laid hands on her and prayed, she felt some extreme acceleration in her heart rate, and her endurance was back the next time she tested it. A doctor confirmed that the muscular thing was completely gone, and she's been physically active ever since.

Now obviously this isn't bulletproof. You just need her to spontaneously recover at some point before the laying on of hands. (I have no idea how likely this would be; probably not very.) The rest is exactly the sort of thing that might happen regardless of whether there's a miracle. But it still sounds really impressive. If I weren't actively trying not to spin it to sound even more miraculous, it'd sound even more impressive.

But this is just the most miraculous-sounding story I've heard from a source I trust. I only know so many people. This account is probably well within the distribution of how miraculous anecdotes can get. I'd feel weird saying "you spontaneously got better a few months earlier, and so did anyone else with a similar story."

I recall reading--I forget where--that laying on of hands does have positive effects that outperform chance. (But cuddling probably does, too. Emotionally-charged human contact does tend to interact with body systems in interesting ways.) My father (who calls himself a Buddhist) has done feats of hand-laying. Most notable was the instance when his mother was in the hospital, and the staff was convinced she was within hours of death (they put out a call to her (Christian) preacher, but he was busy). My father did his trick, and she got better enough to be discharged. (Things went back to awful not long thereafter, but this might be said to have bought her several months at least.) I don't get the feeling that my dad really alieves in the abilities he claims to have. (For starters, he only ever tried it on me once, and was clearly non-serious about that one.) He has been serious in how he talked about using it on others, though.
I have a vague recollection of an article like this that referenced all that hand touching NBA players do with a teammate doing free throws.
The atheist/neo-pagan Eric Raymond claims to be able to do this semi-reliably.
Can you go in to more detail on the muscular condition? This might be relevant. Regarding an increase in heart rate, that's pretty normal to experience as a result of a social situation (think public speaking, going on a date, laughing with friends, etc.) I imagine if atheism is true, the reason theists "lay hands" on one another is because it's a social situation that seems consistently provoke an interesting and intense feeling in the person who is having hands laid on them.
It wasn't actually a muscular condition. My friend is surprisingly unwilling to spread this around and only told me under the extreme circumstances of me telling her I might be about to become an atheist. I wanted to change enough that if she read this on the Internet she wouldn't know it was about her.
So there was a clear potential payoff to her desires in giving you a miracle story - keeping you in the fold. I don't question her good will toward you, but I've found that the correspondence theory of truth is not as widely held as those who rely on it believe. One alternative is that truths are useful statements, whether or not they accurately model the state of the world.
Amusingly all the people I know who reject it are atheists (of the SJW type).
The real joke, that few have gotten the punchline for, is that SJWs aren't atheists, they're puritanical theocrats. SJWs are special in terms of the correspondence theory of truth in that they'll explicity reject it, while many, many more of varying ideological persuasions only implicitly reject it, in failing to find it particularly motivating.
They may be special, but hardly unique -- it's not hard to find environmentalists who also reject it, for example.
What do you mean by "not atheists"?
For what it's worth, I think people can have very strong aliefs that affect their health, and powerful experiences can change the aliefs.
When it comes to established religions that might be true. On the other hand the "The Secret" style New Age ideology solves things that way. It makes it much easier for them to pick and choose from a lot of separate frameworks.
Sure. But it doesn't sound as if Aiyen is seriously considering the possibility that that sort of New Age ideology might be correct. If his/her question is about (say) evangelical Christianity versus scientific naturalism, then explanations of miracles in terms of latent psychic powers don't increase the credibility of Christianity.
I think that looking at a variety of different belief systems shows how bad Christianity actually is. It underlies that there little reason to prefer Christianity over alternative belief systems.
That was part of what I was trying to point out by observing that if the evidence for Christian miracles impresses you, you should probably be comparably impressed by the evidence for miracles from any number of other sources.
Thanks for the detailed response! 1. There are miracle stories in many religious traditions, proving that false claims show up in purported scriptures all the time. I haven't heard about a lot of modern accounts of non-Christian miracles though; if you have, could you send me the links? That could be substantial evidence. 2. Good point. Do you have any details about the "evaporation"? What actually happened in some of these cases, and how they got mistaken for miracles? 3. Hmm, I'm going to research Peter Popoff now... 4. Chinese Whispers I can believe, but many of the miracle accounts I've heard were written by the eyewitnesses. Maybe my priors for human honesty and reliability are too high?
I'm far from being an expert on modern miracle claims, but here are a few examples. Hindu statues drinking milk. Sundry miracles at a Buddhist stupa. Kinda-sorta-semi-miracles from a Jewish rabbi. Kinda-sorta-semi-miracles from a Muslim. This skeptic's webpage about miraculous healings mentions a few books that give a decent idea of the sort of evaporation I mean. I think I read one of them (the one by William Nolen) years ago; the author looked into a number of cases of alleged miraculous healings, and found that in every case there was no good reason to think anything miraculous had occurred. And yes, I think your priors for honesty and reliability may be too high. Sorry about that.
Jewish miracles aren't evidence against Christianity-the same God is hypothesized to be behind both religions. The others are very interesting though, especially the stupa.
I am, as it happens, aware that Christianity and Judaism allegedly worship the same god! (Islam, too.) But it seems to me that if Christianity is right then present-day Judaism is importantly wrong and vice versa. Of course it's perfectly possible for one religion to be right and adherents of another religion to see miracles happen when they pray (or perform religious rituals, or whatever). Whatever god(s) exist might be broad-minded; or there might be deceitful evil spirits associated with wrong religions; or the miracles might actually be wrought by worshippers' latent psychic powers, or something. But the idea that if Christians experience what they think are miracles, then that's good evidence for Christianity seems to me to be somewhat weakened if it turns out that miracle claims occur at comparable rates in other religions. [EDITED to add: I see this was downvoted, and it doesn't look as if all my recent comments are being downvoted so presumably whoever did it actually meant something by it. But it still looks OK to me; if whoever downvoted me would like to explain why then I'd be grateful. Thanks!]
I suspect it was downvoted because it contains the words "it's perfectly possible for one religion to be right".
That would be sad; I think I have a higher opinion of the LW readership than that. Still, I guess anyone can have a bad day.
It's a rather small sample size, isn't it? I don't think you can draw much of a conclusion from it.
Just finished the Quackwatch article. My prior for belief is dropping substantially.
By some estimates, replicability in scientific cancer research is about 11%. We can reasonably assume that reports of miraculous events have at least as many flaws as laboratory experiments.
Okay, that's extremely unexpected. I'm going to need to perform a major update.

First of all, congratulations! These kinds of questions are extremely challenging to even ask from within certain philosophical frameworks, and the fact that you're here at all means that you've accomplished something exceptional. Further, by using the question of miracles specifically, you've focused on empirical, testable claims with verifiable consequences. The epistemology that you're associating with atheism or agnosticism is fundamentally the ability to ask exactly these questions, the habit of doing so reflexively, and the willingness to follow those questions to real answers.

The basic Bayesian response to the question of miracles isn't just "are they lying, or is there a God?" Ask the question a different way: in a hypothetical universe in which Christianity is false, how many claims of miraculous events do we expect? In a hypothetical universe in which Christianity is true, how many true (and false!) claims of miraculous intervention do we expect? Do we expect a difference in the kind of miracles that are claimed to occur? For example, we experience people claiming that God cured infertility or cancer, but never people claiming that God cured their amput... (read more)

The main prediction that comes to mind is that if Christianity is true, one would expect substantially more miracle claims by Christians (legitimate claims plus false ones) than by any other religion (false claims only). If it is false, one would expect similar miracle claims by most religions that believe in them. Does anyone have data on this one way or the other?

The main prediction that comes to mind is that if Christianity is true, one would expect substantially more miracle claims by Christians (legitimate claims plus false ones) than by any other religion (false claims only).

That seems to assume an independence of the base rate of false claims, which is unlikely if the religions have different doctrine on miracles. Miracles might be a big part of one religion, and not even believed in by another. I'd expect "miracle friendly" religions to have a higher base rate.

Also, given the prevalence of miracle claims, it would take quite a high base rate of actual miracles to even be detectable among the false claims.

High compared to what, exactly? With an interventionist Deity as a given, I can't think of any immediate reasons to exclude regular interventions- here I'm thinking of something like Hell is the Absence of God by Ted Chiang.
The model he was working with seemed to be that only Christians get the real miracles, and everyone, including Christians, also have a base rate for falsely reporting miracles. So, high, compared to the base rate of falsely reported miracles, and high compared to my perception of how common even believers think miracles are. No doubt there's a wide range of that, and for some people, God's starting their car every morning. Maybe he starts my car every morning. It's almost 30 years old, and it's a minor miracle that it keeps on chugging.
Maybe some satanists and/or neopagans get something from Satan.
I looked around a bit, and there are a few things challenging this measurement. Buddhism and Hinduism explicitly conflate miracles with supernatural human powers, and seem to take a dim view of both (they're also not theistic in the relevant sense anyway). Islam reports many miracles (starting with the Holy Quran itself, of course), but since Al-Ghazali seems to reject material causality entirely in favor of everything being miraculous- the challenge here will be reporting events that a Christian would also interpret as miraculous or supernatural, which the religion tends to see as superstition. Judaism is probably insufficiently distinct from Christianity for your purposes. Wiccans certainly report many spirit communications and magical experiences, more often than most Christians- the invocation of these events is core to the faith, although again you might not consider these miraculous as such due to the lack of monotheism (an equivalent might be transubstantiation during the Catholic communion ceremony). Same with many new age spiritualists. In other words, most world religions don't even really have false claims of contemporary miracles in the theistic sense you mean, for the same reason that Christians rarely report remembering their past lives. Islam and Wicca come closest, but these are both religions that were influenced by Christianity at the time of their founding. So even the 'Christianity is false' universe would predict a preponderance of miracle reports to exist within Christianity.
In what way is Hinduism not theistic in the relevant sense? It is, in one sense, monotheistic, and on that scale it posits an effectively non-interventionist deity, but on the level on which it's polytheistic, the deities tend to be highly interventionist.
It can also be atheistic, depending on the school. The Brahman is not necessarily thought of in anthropomorphic terms; this religion has a lot going on under the hood. That said, looking at the population shares of each of the important schools of Hinduism, it looks as if by far the more common forms of worship invoke a particular, personified supreme being. So I suspect that you're more correct than I was, and we can include most mainstream forms of Hindu worship under 'monotheistic, with expected miracles' banner. Happily, that gives us an example not substantially influenced by western Christianity.
This also assumes there isn't some saturation point of people only wanting to talk about so many miracles. (Ignoring buybuydandavis' point, which probably interacts with this one in unfortunate ways.) If people only forward X annoying chain emails per month, you'd expect X from each religion. The best we can hope for is the true religion having on average slightly more plausible claims since some of their miracles are true.
I certainly can't say this is the best we can hope for; the best case scenario would be one where practically nobody talks about the value of miracles as evidence for an interventionist deity the way practically nobody talks about the value of working automobiles as evidence for our models of thermodynamics; the evidence is simply too obvious to be worth belaboring.
Only anecdotal, but it's hard to get good hard data on this because it would require collecting data in so many different languages. You might be able to get better data by narrowing the field somewhat. For instance, by looking at the comparison in reported miracles between Mormons and conventional Christians (I recall from an earlier discussion on the topic here that Mormons reported a higher rate of answered prayers than any Christian denomination, except possibly devout Pentecostalists depending on how the measurement was taken.)
Interesting. Mormons getting answered prayers wouldn't be too surprising-they aren't conventional Christians, but they're trying to pray to the same God-maybe it works? Getting higher rates of answers is unexpected though.
Mormons tend to be more committed, so that could explain the higher rate of answers, assuming it is real.
I don't think this requires an assumption that it's real at all; a higher level of commitment could very easily lead people to be more lax in their standards for whether a prayer has been "answered," if we're looking at it in psychological rather than supernatural terms.
...but never people claiming that God cured their amputation. Just did a google search on this; pulled up some Christians trying to explain why (didn't find anything convincing), some atheists claiming that this is a knockdown argument against God (to be fair, if true it seems pretty decisive) and a case of a Christian reporting that he saw an amputated ear regrown (they said it wasn't a a full ear that came back, but a small thing that looked somewhat like an ear, and hearing was restored). Are you going to claim that they were lying/deceived? On the one hand, it would certainly explain why a full ear didn't come back. On the other hand, they claimed to have seen the patient's skin break, blood come out, and an "small, ear-like thing" grow out of the gap. I cannot imagine someone decieving themselves about that!
I'd be interested in seeing a link. At first blush, it sounds most likely to me someone lost their outer ear structure along with, perhaps, some actual functionality (presumably in a traumatic event). Then the remaining "stump" of an ear healed and functionality improved over time. Maybe a significant perceived improvement was experienced as something quite dramatic during a charismatic faith healing service? Maybe it's something less malicious than that? Maybe they just projected their beliefs onto a circumstance? Maybe the story got a bit inflated in the repeated re-telling? Couple other examples of similar miraculous healings: Charles Templeton, one of Billy Graham's preaching partners, before his deconversion. I found this account on a blog, and I've read it elsewhere. (I found a more detailed account from Templeton's memoir here...but it might be more interesting to start with the account I've pasted.) Interesting accounts since Templeton left the ministry. My my understanding, he did hold onto a belief in some sort of spiritual faith healing throughout his life, despite leaving the Christian faith. It's hard to know what actually happened in these cases. In the case of the infant, it's my guess the child had something like this going on. Checking out the memoir account, the child received daily treatment and visited the hospital weekly. Also, notice the story in the New World was written four years after the event, something not mentioned in the blogger's account. In the case of the woman with cancer, I don't know. It is my understanding spontaneous remission of cancer is possible. As far as the "electrical charge" Templeton felt, maybe he felt that as a result of the rather dramatic and emotional situation? (Anytime I hear faith healing accounts, I always think. "Why don't they just set these faith healers loose in the world's hospitals??? Have them go room to room!") My general sense is that there are improvements—sometimes dramatic improvements—in p
Aiyen, see this post: http://atheistsareidiots.blogspot.sk/2013/05/myths-about-miracle-of-calanda-debunked.html (Don't blame me for the name of the blog...)
My response to this one is that if we're going to grant this miracle, by the same standard of evidence we'd probably also have to grant Mormonism. Rather than focusing on how any particular alleged event can best be explained, I think it's more productive to look at what accepting that standard of evidence would also lead us to grant.
I have already read the Mormonism essay and mostly agreed with it. However, I disagree that you would be using the same standard of evidence in this case. For example, all of the witnesses for Mormonism had readily understandable motives such as not breaking up the group or offending their leader. Something similar may be true about the boy and his parents, but it isn't true e.g. of the doctors who testified to amputating the boy's leg. They were from a different town, were not there when the supposed restoration happened, and had nothing to gain by agreeing with a made up story. Calanda could become famous by such a story, but the doctors would get nothing out of it. That is only one out of a number of substantial differences.
In my experience, people who are not involved in alleged miraculous events will often throw support behind their veracity, because any dramatic miracle is like a point scored for the cultural group they identify with. While arguably this might have been less the case hundreds of years ago when the cultural hegemony of Christianity meant that there was less value in dramatic evidence for it, I think that the far greater prevalence of dramatic miracle claims from that period suggests that this is not the case. Plus, in those times, the site of any dramatic alleged miracle would often gain a reputation as a holy place, greatly increasing the standing of the location and increasing business through pilgrimage.
More cultural hegemony means more status accruing to people that can credibly claim to have witnessed (or, better yet, been beneficiary of) a miracle, and therefore more coattails to ride. It also means fewer skeptics hanging around to poke holes in your testimony. More speculatively, it might also mean a greater cultural acceptance of magical thinking, which could make supernatural explanations more salient whenever people are faced with the sort of freakish coincidences that happen a few times in every life by the laws of statistics.
Of course you can speculate on reasons why people would have been likely to make up stories like that, but Christians could also speculate that since the Bible says miracles are worked by faith ("your faith has healed you" etc), one would expect that in places where there is more faith, there will be more miracles. But those times had more faith, so one would expect that they would have more miracles. So theoretically that could be an alternate explanation for why those times had more dramatic miracle claims, however unappealing that explanation might be to you.
This is certainly an argument one could take. However, while the average levels of faith then were certainly much higher, the population now is also much higher, so even if our per-capita rate of dramatic miracles is lower, we have a much larger pool to draw on, and much better documentation. Also, if we're comparing hypothetical worlds where Christianity is true or false, I think a scenario where the populace becomes dramatically less faithful over time, to the point that the absolute population with sufficient faith to perform miracles goes down while the total population more than dectuples, is significantly less likely to occur in the world where Christianity is true.
Jesus is said to have said, "Will the Son of Man find faith left on the earth when he returns?" In context this looks like a rhetorical question, with the answer being "no", at least more or less, even if he did not mean that no one at all would believe. So I don't see how your second thing is right, since someone seems to have predicted that scenario. It's true that that is likely to happen if Christianity is false; but apparently it is also likely to happen if it is true. Regarding the first, Mark 6:4-6 says, "Jesus said to them, "A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household." And He could do no miracle there except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. And He wondered at their unbelief. " So it seems that just as faith works miracles, unbelief impedes them, even when there are a few believers around. So even if the population is greater, miracles will not necessarily increase, because of the greater population of unbelievers. As for better documentation, Thomas Aquinas at least asserts that the reason faith should work miracles is that a person who has faith "merits" in a certain way to prove that faith to himself and others. This means that equal faith should earn equal proofs. But an equal miracle will be more capable of proving things, not equally capable, when you have better documentation; so as documentation improves, the faith you need to work the same miracle will increase, and so the frequency of miracles of a given type will decrease. This also explains why most miracles are not directly visible in a moment; because a miracle like this has too much of a capacity to prove something, in comparison to people's level of faith. As I said, such explanations may be unappealing, especially since apparently the consequences are exactly the same whether Christianity is true or false. However, I did not invent those explanations, but they were already presented long ago by the
First, I don't think it's at all clear from the context that the answer is intended to be "no." Second, Jesus also indicated that some people who knew him in person would still be alive as of the time he returned to earth, so this might be better interpreted as skepticism that his followers can maintain their standards of devotion rather than doubt in the persistence of a long term tradition. On the other hand, Jesus himself seems to suggest a simpler model in Luke 11, according to which God answers prayers simply to satisfy those who ask, because he is good. If unbelief inhibits miracles, then one should be able to create miracles by separating out enclaves of the faithful (and indeed, more religious communities certainly tend to segregate themselves from less religious ones.) But if you go too far down the road of expecting no miracles to occur, then this also means that you can't update your confidence upwards based on reports of miracles either.
As C.S. Lewis would say-are they lying, are they mad, or are they telling the truth? People do lie sometimes, and perhaps my difficulty in letting go of Christianity despite a mountain of evidence against it is that my prior on people making up stories is too low. It would take an awful lot of psychosis to make someone believe that a leg had regrown, but again, people do go insane. But is there a way to get a sense of how likely/unlikely this is? With Pascal's Wager on the table, it's not enough to say there's ~40% chance Christianity is true, that's less than half, it's probably wrong. Rejecting it without constant fear would take near certainty that accounts like this one are fraudulant or deceived.
C.S. Lewis, I think, failed to adequately account for the likelihood of stories propagating by exaggeration. Jesus need not have been a liar, a lunatic, or the lord, he could have been an honest, sane person to whom people ascribed claims of being divine after the fact (although as a religious leader setting up a splinter movement that strongly deviated from existing doctrine, I think the odds favor the historical Jesus having been at least somewhat crazy.) I would say that the body of evidence posed by other religions suggests that, in the absence of a true religion, people will still make up stories of a religious nature (also, the degree of theological uniformity that exists among most existing strains of Christianity comes, not from the fact that early sects were at all unified, but that modern sects are almost all descended from the strain that killed the other ones off.) But my position is probably shaped to a significant extent by personal experiences with other people elaborating on outlandish lies that I came up with when I was young, with practically nothing to gain from it.
One of the interesting things about Christianity is that it's not using a probabilistic uncertainty framework at all. "Belief" in Christ is not just some confidence >30% in the godhood of Jesus- in Christianity, one simply believes or does not believe. This is part of why Lewis' logical dialectic has an appeal in that culture; it's basically Aristotelian, accepting propositions as True or False (this is also one of the reasons Thomas Aquinas is so revered for integrating the two in the first place, if I had to guess). But, while this is the accepted inside-view way to approach the question of Jesus' divinity, it is probably a flawed way to interpret material experiences such as miracles. Note that even the Catholic church uses a formal system involving evidence and testimony, and thus in practice has a kind of rough 'confidence interval' for the truth of a miracle. Basically, you're stuck with the standard of actionable confidence. Try to think of a precise answer to the question, just as an exercise. When miracles are the load-bearing component of your religious belief, it's going to come down to the degree of confidence that you need. If 40% is too high, what about 10%? 2%? For that matter, try to think about your current probability estimates in concrete terms as best you can, and notice when a given piece of information lowers that or raises it.
One major problem with Pascal's Wager (among others) is that it doesn't specify which god. It applies equally to worshiping Yahweh, Kali, and Huitzilopochtli -- and offers no guidance on how to choose between them.
Right, but given a large body of Christian miracle accounts, the only two hypotheses that seem plausible are 1. Christianity is true or 2. Christianity is false, and nevertheless generates an extremely impressive body of miracle claims. Given 1. Pascal's Wager is obviously worth taking, and given 2. I can't see any reason to believe in any God. The Wager only works if there's some other reason to consider the belief to be reasonable, otherwise we'd all end up praying to the Tooth Fairy.
Keep in mind that Christianity was the dominant religion of the West for a very long time and it certainly had enough incentives to assert, promote, and otherwise, um, sanctify a large number of miracle claims. All strange and unexplained events (as long as they are beneficial) would be classified as miracles in a deeply Christian society.
And let's not forget the hypothetical Trickster God, omnipotent ruler of the universe that sends all people that believe in Him to hell, and everyone else goes to heaven. In other words, Pascal's wager coexists with its exact inverse. But even without the wager on the table, I think we can safely agree that the question of God's existence is high-stakes.
Regarding your priors, I think this case is actually just like the other cases where you said you disagreed with Less Wrong; it is always a question of priors. The prior regarding people making things up is one of them. Similarly, I think your prior on the actual occurrence of extraordinary events is much higher than for the typical Less Wronger, and closer to the prior that ordinary human beings have. So you could just assume that since Less Wrong is made up mostly of smart rational people who have thought carefully about their epistemology, it is more likely their prior is right, and so conclude that Christianity is false. However, personally I think it is not that simple. When Eliezer said that he would prefer a machine that would destroy the world if God existed than one which would destroy the world at odds of a billion to one (I think it was a billion, not a trillion), I think that is extremely strong evidence that he is overconfident. So likewise I think it is clearly true that Less Wrong in general is overconfident that Christianity is false. Basically Less Wrong cannot avoid the standard pressures of a political community; just as Republicans are generally overconfident that it's ok to let people have guns, Less Wrongers are overconfident that God does not exist and that religion is false. Generally speaking, in fact, Less Wrongers appear to have a prior regarding the occurrence of extraordinary events that is much like the prior scientists usually hold regarding such things. But that prior is in fact too low; this is why scientists took so long to admit the reality of meteorites and giant waves at sea, even after such things were sufficiently established by eyewitness testimony. Of course, that does not mean that your prior is right; it just means the question is more difficult than simply accepting Less Wrong's priors.
In this case the problem with it just being made up is that the witnesses seem too numerous and there seems to be too much extrinsic evidence, e.g. the records of his entrance into the hospital where the leg was amputated etc. However, it is still possible that it is simply an outlier -- a case of fraud even when fraud seems very unlikely.
Interesting example! Is a link readily available? I'm not going to claim they were lying or deceived as such (although documentation of the event would of course help with my confidence), mostly to approach this conversation in the spirit of skeptical inquiry. If there are miracles, I want to believe that there are miracles. If there are not, I want to believe that there are not. So I think there are a number of things that this might be, one of which is a miracle, most of which are not. But if it is a miracle, I would say it's a particularly confusing one. Take a step back for a moment and ask: if the God of your understanding were to interfere with natural law in such a way as to heal someone, would you expect that ear to be like a normal ear, i.e. full healing? Or would you expect it to be a partial fix? I don't mean 'could God do the partial fix thing', since the answer is obviously yes per the definition of God. I mean, "does this match your prior expectations of God's behavior, as a prediction?" On the other hand, we could take an even bigger step back, and assign this account equal validity with other miracle claims, conservatively saying that this description is parsimonious with God as presently understood. Since you only described one example, can I assume you found very few examples of somebody claiming that miracles restored a limb- and none fully functioning or articulated. So let's just think about it statistically. Why almost never, even compared to other miracle claims? Why should we expect a massive bias in miracle claims away from amputation-related healing?

A miracle simply doesn't convey very much information.

It can tell you that there's something odd about the universe (assuming you're got accurate information about the miracle), but it doesn't give you details about how you should live or what (if anything) happens after you die.

That's a great comment. I think even if miracles happened more often, I would also need some other evidence to address the usual atheist arguments. For example, we already know what happens to your memories when you die, because we know that memory formation happens in the brain (MRI scans) and the brain decomposes after death. If that story is wrong and there is an afterlife, I'd really like to know the details. Even if I could reliably cause lightning by praying to Thor, I'd still be curious about that. And about the lightning.

Hume's argument against miracles is still the gold standard.

Other useful resources.

You're lucky! If it's only the argument from miracle keeping you from becoming a better thinker, then that's easily solved. It's really brittle.

First, "account of a miracle" is very, very different from "evidence of a miracle". The only datum here is someone saying "A miracle has happened to me!". From a Bayesian point of view, to assign a probability you must take into account all different models that could produce that statement, including:

  • a real, honest miracle
  • deception, inflicted on the witness
  • deception, self-inflicted
  • mistakenly reporting a perfectly natural phoenomenon for a miracle
  • etc.

Having had some experience as an amateur mentalist, I'm always amazed at the degree at which people want to believe in the supernatural. Even when you tell them explicitly that it was all a trick, they still might argue you have power you don't know to have, and things like that.
Anyway, the simple fact that there are many ways to account for a witnessing of a miracle, automatically reduces the probability of such an event really happening.

Second, as others have pointed out, a miracle might point in the direction of the divine, but which divine? Islam, Indui... (read more)

As we already know, because of the tendency of the human mind to be deceived, this term is pretty close to unity... This is the crux of the matter. If this is true, I can safely let go of my faith. But how certain are we of this? What do you think you know, and how do you think you know it?
That's an important matter, but I don't think it's difficult to estabilish. The key ingredient is deception, the appearance of a miraculous event without a miracle effectively happening, and the key question is: "Can somebody be tricked into believing that a contrieved situation is supernatural?" If we answer positively, then the conclusion is that there's no correlation between the belief in a miracle and its actual happening, so that the term P(miracle reported|no Christian god) remains very high. Otherwise, we are asserting that in a world devoid of god(s), it's impossible for a person to believe in miracles. So, can someone be deceived into believing in a miracle? In my experience, that's pretty easy. On one side, there are studies that show not only that humans have a propensity into believing in the supernatural already encoded in their brains, but even chimps may exhibit religious behaviour! Add to that pareidolia, not only on faces but on significance in general: for example, the natural remission of an illness mistaken as a sign of divine significance. But the tendency to strongly believe in the supernatural is even more easy to elicit if you design an experience just for that: as I already told, this attitude is endemic in the field of mentalism, where even when the performers explicitely declares he is using tricks, there will still be someone to claim that he is using power he doesn't know he has. Not to mention when the performer deceives purposefully someone as a mean to gain his trust and his money. Let's however say that we have eliminated any possibility of a deception, however improbable: how can we be sure that what is left isn't just an unknown natural law, instead of a phoenomenon flowing directly from a supernatural entity? This is a summary of what I know and how I know it. Now I ask to you: do you believe that people can be easily deceived into believing in a miracle? Or that people believing in miracles is an exclusive feature of a univers
It is not sufficient to say "can people be easily deceived into believing in a miracle?" or "do people believe in miracles in a universe without God?" It is necessary to consider ALL of your evidence, which includes particular miracle claims that you know about in their particularity.
Exactly. But you still need a prior on those, from models of the world and first principles.

Thank you for an honest assessment of your own views, and a question, instead of just laying into an attack. I'll see what I can do to respond in the same spirit.

Isn't this a well known theist apologist position, the "argument from miracles"? You actually get a whole lot of links for that, starting at La Wik.

But you have a lot of odd ducks here, so you might get something new.

when atheists make their case, they assume a universe without miracles

I'm sure some do, but it's certainly not necessary.

But let's be clear about what we're talking about when you say miracle. It seems to be events caused by the will of an agent through magic.

Quantum fluctuations, with no known hidden variable cause, presumed to be ontologically random, are not what you're after, right?

So, I try magic occasionally. I point my hand at something, concentrate, and "will it to move". Haven't gotten it to work yet. That part is the problem. It hasn't worked for me. Never has. And it doesn't seem to work for anyone else either.

HPMOR is about a hyper rationalist atheist living in a magical world. Magic works just fine for him. The important ting isn't the physics that's our current best ... (read more)

The original Out Lady of Fatima incident (the miracle of the sun) is still unexplained, and too large to be coincidence. I don't find it convincing, but it certainly remains evidence in favor of miracles.
Not really. See my comment here Present accounts of Fatima happenings come from very few, very biased sources. Those sources, for examples, omit the fact that also a portion of people present saw nothing. Also, account from different witnesses vary a lot from one another.

LW article Excluding the Supernatural worked for me. I didn't want it to work! I didn't read it as an attempt to change my mind. I just read it because it seemed interesting, and then realized in horror that there probably aren't any deities. Losing my belief in theism was an upsetting experience, though I can't bring myself to regret it.

Thank you for reminding me that Luke (ours, not the bible's) saw miracles when he was a Christian and then deconverted anyway.

My own atheism follows deconversion as best i can recall at about the age of 9 or 10. There was one day i was afraid for my soul having been told once again that not believing in god would put me in hell and all of the sudden it struck me that the fact that you are afraid of something does not make it more or less reliably true. So believing because i was afraid simply stopped making sense and honestly I could not think of any o... (read more)

This isn't just idle curiosity. I am currently a Christian (or maybe an agnostic terrified of ending up on the wrong side of Pascal's Wager), and when you actually take religion seriously, it can be a HUGE drain on quality of life. I find myself being frightened of hell, feeling guilty when I do things that don't hurt anyone but are still considered sins, and feeling guilty when I try to plan out my life, wondering if I should just put my plans in God's hands. To make matters worse, I grew up in a dysfunctional, very Christian family, and my emotions seem

... (read more)
I'm going to chime in here as well. I was also raised by an extremely devout family - they are pastors and Christian counselors, and have religious degrees. As an adult, I began the process of becoming a Catholic - this is not a very good Protestant move, but I was attracted by the relative sophistication of the theology, and a certain contemplative approach one can find there. So until I was 27, while I was finishing graduate school, I was a committed Christian. You sound like you are already on the fence. You can put the arguments on both sides with greater depth and power than those who have never been on the fence ever can (it's hard for someone who's always been secular to really get it, honestly. Not a bad thing, just different). I got to the point where I was on the fence - both sides seemed equally possible. In that situation, your theology/philosophy can get quite sophisticated, since it has to grapple with so many tensions and contradictions. It was a lot of work. In the end, I realized my gut was driving my head - my intellectual quest was intimately intertwined with and motivated by rather complex emotions. For one thing, I was afraid I would simply have a bad life. A good relationship with God, putting Him first, was the foundation of a happy marriage, the guardian of a sturdy moral life. Would I lose myself in drugs, become a mean person? I now believe that pinpointing a gut-level bias, an irrational belief that conjures up truly plausible reasoning, and targeting that gut feeling instead of the reasoning, is an extraordinarily difficult and valuable skill. I have done it twice now (once with religion). I think few people have done this, rationalist or otherwise. I think you may need to do this. Focus on your emotional fears rather than the complex intellectual doubts, and with a bit of time you may find things look different. At least, for myself, when I stopped needing to believe in it so much, I thought about it much less. My religion just sort
Yep. I tried to articulate a similar point in an open thread not long ago. This became the lynchpin of my non-belief. It became unnecessary to debunk each individual claim, rather I came to better understand the psychology behind why people tend to believe in such claims, and religion writ large. Joseph Campbell, Ernest Becker, Michael Shermer (and a bunch of the "New Atheist" gang) have all been helpful to me. I'm curious what other belief, besides religion, you targeted? This is well stated, by the way. I've found it hard to articulate around here (and other places). Indoctrination seems to plant a seed that is (almost) immune to purely rational debunking. As long as God, hell, etc. are non-zero probabilities, there is a deep emotional, fear-filled urge to cling to the "what if?" of one's childhood religious upbringing. You have to find a way to examine the indoctrination itself, not it's manifestations...since there will always be theological gymnastics ready to thwart rational and logical arguments. God is mysterious. God requires faith. God knows your thoughts and motives. You need to look into the "why" God must exhibit these characteristics in order that the religion meme survives. A sufficiently evolved God meme will always survive rational attack—those gods who didn't are no longer feared or worshiped.
"Indoctrination seems to plant a seed that is (almost) immune to purely rational debunking...You have to find a way to examine the indoctrination itself, not its manifestations." I like this concise way of putting it a lot, and it's heartening to hear someone else had this same difficult-to-articulate experience. BTW, I think the people downvoting may have mistaken which side these posts are on, due to skimming through the thread.
Hopefully posts don't get simply downvoted based on the side they are on. I haven't downvoted but I guess it's because the post isn't very clear.
Well? Are you in a happy marriage? Have you had problems with drugs?
This. A thousand times this. Wish I had more than one upvote-you've summed up what's going on in my head more or less perfectly.
One more former extremely devout Christian (Evangelical 22 years, then Catholic 6 years). I'd like to add just one thought. If you consider only the likelihood or unlikelihood of the Christian God, you might be missing something important. (I was.) You need a theory to compare it against, that you can judge to be more likely or less likely. For myself, I stayed Christian for years after devouring the material on LessWrong, acknowledging that in some ways my religion seemed to have a lot going against it, but lacking an alternative that I judged clearly better. Then one day I stumbled across an exposition of an atheist worldview that "clicked" in a way that no other had for me, and it switched me from devout Catholic to atheist in the blink of an eye. (Despite the consequences, the moment was pretty underwhelming, actually.) YMMV, of course, and your conclusion may vary also -- each of us can only judge the theories we encounter and only based on our own knowledge of the evidence. Briefer: Comparing theories requires at least two. You're intimately familiar with one theory and are troubled by uncertainties, so it might relieve your uncertainty to learn more about the alternative theory.
What sort of presentation of atheism did you stumble across that made it so clear?
The switch flipped for me when I was reading Jim Holt's "Why Does The World Exist?" and spent a while envisioning and working out the implications of Vilenkin's proposal that the universe may have started from a spherical volume of zero radius, zero mass, zero energy, zero any other property that might distinguish it from nothingness. It made clear to me that one could propose answers to the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" without anything remotely like a deity.

I don't see how a god necessarily solves the problems theists want it to solve. A logically possible god could have created human life without any meaning, purpose, moral absolutes, an afterlife or a guarantee of ultimate justice. Christians and other traditional theists just project this wish list onto a god for basically selfish reasons, when a god has no obligation to arrange the universe for its creatures' convenience.

Who said anything about solving problems? I'm not worried about "the meaning of life" or needing God in order to have a purpose-my purpose is maximizing my utility function (roughly having fun and helping people). I'm asking because it looks like there's a non-trivial chance of God in fact existing; I don't see how the convenience or inconvenience of a God would change the probabilities.
Even after reading the other comments? It'd probably help if you responded to some of them and explained why you don't find them convincing.
God? Or god? Or gods? The question whether there exists a being (or several) with what we consider to be supernatural powers is a different question from whether that being is adequately described by the Old and the New Testaments... Also, don't forget that, to adapt a quote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from miracles".

Most people are aware of the placebo effect, but greatly underestimate how large it's power truly can be.

I have fibromyalgia. At one time I couldn't write, needed a cane to walk, had constant diarrhea, and worse. I had already tried dozens of treatments. I had grown skeptical.

Then I was given a treatment which made lots of sense. It was based off of a theory which I had my doubts about, but after learning more about it, I was 100% convinced this was it. After trying the treatment, I was immediately much better. I could run. I could shave my own beard with... (read more)

Verging a bit away from your question, but:

feeling guilty when I try to plan out my life, wondering if I should just put my plans in God's hands.

I'm not sure I understand what "putting your plans in god's hands" means specifically (I'm not very familiar with Christianity in practice, especially American protestantism which I assume is what you're talking about), does it mean not thinking of long-term consequences of things? (not saving money? Not getting an education? Not using condoms?). Is it because planning is bad (because, dunno, it sh... (read more)

There was that time I read all of Jehovah's Witnesses literature for fun, and one theme that was constantly repeated was that the sin of Adam and Eve was to seek self-mastery over their lives. Thus, the great question to be settled between God and Satan was: have humans the right to guide themselves, or do they need divine guidance? Of course, the JW position is that human choices are hopeless without God (that's the reason why JW don't participate in politics; they think humans making their own rules is a terrible sin). So I suspect the idea of "putting my plans in God's hands" may refer to a fear of usurping God's authority by trying to be your own master.
"Putting my plans in God's hands" actually has some background to it. When I graduated from high school, we prayed that it would be obvious where I should go to college. I got into Harvard, and no where else particularly prestigious; we took that as I sign that I was supposed to go there. I was absolutely miserable there, but stayed because I thought God would be furious if I left. I finally left anyway on the brink of suicide. Since "making my own plans", I have gotten over the depression almost completely, but I still feel sometimes like I ought to be back there. You can see why I'm a bit nervous about letting God run my life!
I guess the idea is sold to people as "making your own decisions vs. obeying the almighty and allknowing God", but in practice it is used as "making your own decisions vs. obeying your religious leaders".

Thanks for the post, that must have been hard given your beliefs.

At first, please do note that it's a long leap from believing in miracles/magic to believing in the christian god.

when atheists make their case, they assume a universe without miracles

It's not an assumption but an observation. You wouldn't call them miracles unless they were a gross deviation from your normal experience.

But there are a LOT of people out there claiming to have seen events that one would expect to never occur in a naturalistic universe.

Did you know that the lifetime pre... (read more)

Think about the definition of "psychosis". From a supernaturalist point of view, "psychosis" and similar things like the classic "mass hysteria" sound like a fake explanation, i.e., a term the materialist can slap on the phenomenon that makes it seem "scientific".
It's exactly as much a fake explanation as saying "god did it". Either of them explain everything, so nothing points to one over the other.
Right. One of my patients thinks he's Robin Hood, has made a cape of his blanket and tries to rescue other patients on the wards. He doesn't remember who he is, how old he is, where he is or why. What's fake about saying his sense of reality is gravely distorted? Doesn't stating that predict anything about his behavior?
Calling him crazy doesn't explain his behavior. You can't predict what he'd do by calling him crazy. It's still better than calling him sane, which makes consistently inaccurate predictions. If you know more about craziness than I do, and you actually can make accurate predictions based on his particular kind of craziness, then it is a good prediction. But, to my knowledge, theists can't predict miracles. They talk about the ineffable will of god, rather than teaching classes on theopsychology that let you predict when god will and will not create miracles.
Medicine is a bit more complicated than that and I shouldn't have hidden my assumptions. See my other comment. Do you need to know anything more to make a comment on miracles than that people who are chronically/intermittently psychotic, have a diagnosis of schizophrenia for example, are much more likely to make erroneus statements about reality? Of course, this doesn't help someone who's chronically/intermittently psychotic.
Yes. Craziness explains everything. If you have an idea of god that explains some miracles but not others, and only the ones it explains happens, then the miracles are evidence for that idea of god. The problem is that god also seems to explain everything. In order for miracles to be evidence for god over a theory that explains everything, you'd have to be able to point to some possible miracle and say that it's evidence against god.
I'm sorry but I still don't understand you. "Craziness" might explain everything to you but it seems we have different ideas about what it means. Are you saying it explains everything from a supernaturalist pov, or also from the naturalist pov? Wouldn't it seem to you that an account of a miracle by a schizophrenic person is less reliable than by a person who has no such diagnosis? Let's assume the person got the diagnosis by claiming outrageous things that have no relation to faith. It's like you're saying "lying explains everything". No it doesn't and it's not meant to do so. That people lie and experience stuff that isn't there clearly is evidence against miracles.
I don't understand craziness, so craziness will explain all claims of miracles equally, and if there are more miracles that can easily be explained by a god than ones that could not (and gods doing miracles doesn't explain everything) then that's evidence towards a god. Also, it's evidence that crazy people just see miracles similar to what we'd expect from a god, which is admittedly a pretty good possibility since they're both supposed to be people. Perhaps you understand craziness better, and it doesn't explain everything equally. In which case, there'd be some miracles that it doesn't explain. Those miracles would be evidence against the theory that all claims of miracles are from crazy people. If you're discovering for the first time that there are crazy people and you suddenly have an alternative explanation, then it's evidence against gods. But it will just bring you to the same posterior probability of someone who knew about crazy people from the beginning and updated their beliefs in miracles appropriately. Imagine someone tells you that the winning lottery numbers were 18-24-27-42-43 / 34. There's only a one in 175,223,510 chance that those are actually the lottery numbers that won. Since there's more than a one in 175,223,510 that they're lying, it might seem at first that you should conclude that they're lying. But lying explains all 175,223,510 possibilities equally. If they lie, there's still only a one in 175,223,510 chance that they'd say those numbers. So it's not evidence one way or the other. Granted, some psychologist might be able to tell you that people are terrible random number generators, and that some combinations are more likely if they're lying. But someone who doesn't know about that has no evidence either way, and someone who does would need to look at the specific set of numbers to tell whether or not they were lying.
It seems to me this is true only if you have no idea of what motivates people to lie. From experience not pertaining to lottery I'd say it's much more likely that people lie when they know the lottery number than when they don't know the lottery number. In this sense you're right that lying alone explains everything, but we don't live in a world where lying and hallucinations are phenomena isolated from the rest of our knowledge, and we shouldn't assume by default we live in such a world when we use language.
It seems to me this is only true if you have no idea about what usually motivates people to lie. From experience not pertaining to lottery I'd say it's more likely for someone to lie if they know the lottery number than lie if they don't know the lottery number.
Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.
Yes, psychosis is a useful explanation for miracles only for people whose beliefs won't explain the whole category away. I doubt the op has such beliefs.
No, I don't have any beliefs that would claim that psychosis doesn't exist, don't worry. I can't think of any hypothesis that would claim this without being far more complicated than the conventional "mental illness is a thing" view, and thus being eliminated by Occam's Razor.
So would you agree that a significant number of the accounts of miracles, not all, happen because of psychosis? Of course, hallucinations could be one the ways that a god communicates. What do you think about that? :)
For some reason mental illness appears to be especially poorly understood among the general populace compared to other common medical conditions. I'm not sure if this is because the field of psychiatry in it's current form is relatively young, or because it's being popularized unfairly. People you'd call crazy quite often aren't in fact medically insane.
That's a summary description of his behaviour, not an explanation. An explanation would be a description of the causal mechanisms that produced the behaviour -- a description of things that are not themselves the phenomenon that is being explained.
Ok, poor choice of words. Change it to "doesn't stating that predict anything about his behavior?"
What would you predict that you would not already predict from the longer description?
The longer description is a specific type of psychosis. If I was told someone was psychotic I would expect them to behave erratically in some way. In the case of the longer description I would expect them to behave erratically in a more specific way. Different kinds of psychoses are prone to continue and develop in certain ways and have certain affective and somatic components which makes even the descriptions valuable even if the causal mechanisms are not properly understood. In the example the patient has a Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a rare case of psychosis where brain imaging is part of the diagnosis. Because we have identified this specific kind of a pattern of behavior and imaging findings, we know the person is unlikely to recover, will continue to wildly confabulate, and medications are of no help.
That he's likely to behave nonsensically other ways as well.
I think this is wrong. One part of the argument from miracles goes like this: There's such-and-such a rate of people reporting things that would have to be miraculous if anything like them happened; so either there are real miracles or all these people are either crazy or lying, which isn't plausible. And one response goes like this: Well, actually being crazy isn't so very unusual; 3% of all people are downright psychotic at some point in their lives (according to definitions that don't reckon most instances of thinking miracles have happened to them as evidence of psychosis). So how implausible is it, really, that there's enough craziness around to account for most of those reports of miracles? It's true that saying "X thought s/he witnessed a miracle because X was psychotic" is little more informative than "X thought s/he witnessed a miracle because God performed a miracle", but I don't think that matters here. The person making the response in the foregoing paragraph isn't claiming to have a good explanation for the alleged miracles, but only that the theist's argument that only a supernatural explanation is credible is incorrect.
I thought about that, but a christian who isn't an outright supernaturalist otherwise would presumably accept that psychotic people exist, which should make them think a little harder about why certain religious experiences should be excluded from the definition. I'd bet the overwhelming majority of people who believe in miracles also accept that psychosis exists.

Most atheists simply don't believe that miracles exist.

When it comes to near death experiences I did have an experience that could validly labeled that way after 5 days of artificial coma. To me it's not very surprising that I did saw strange things will my brain was in a strange state. While that experience did influence me I don't take it as evidence that the supernatural exists.

But that isn't everything. Even if the supernatural exists, why should I believe that the God of the bible exists. The bible at various points simply doesn't make sense. I would rather go for something like Buddhism. Buddhism is much more coherent then Christianity.

I totally believe that miracles exist. I have seen one or two myself over the years. I just do not feel that attributing them to a supernatural force is useful in understanding the world. To clarify, by a miracle I mean a one-off extremely unlikely and unpredictable event which cannot be explained by the known scientific models. Something way out at the tail end of the Bell curve.
Could you be more specific about those events?
I still think that >50% of those people who self identify as atheists believe that miracles don't exist.
A fair point; I'm considering the God of the Bible because the miracles I've heard of are specifically Christian, and therefore either they're valid (and therefore Christianity is true) or they're invalid (in which case even a false religion can produce a sizeable base of miracle claims, which would raise my probability for atheism to nearly 100%).
Note that there is an extreme selection effect in play. Vatican specifically seeks out confirming evidence for the miracles required for beatification of their favorite saint candidate. I know of no other religion that does that, at least not as extensively and systematically. Second, this process is heavily popularized in the media. Third, you, being Christian (whether Catholic or not) are even more likely to both hear about it and take it seriously. If you simply seek out miraculous events without calling it such, odds are there will be much lower correlation between them and a saintly person being involved.
Did you mean disconfirming evidence?
Can you give some examples of miracles you've heard?
That's not true. Various beliefs systems do allow for intentions to manifest paranormal effects. You can also explain quite a lot with karma. If you search a bit you will also find that Christianity isn't the only religion or belief system that makes miracle claims. Especially when it comes to straight bible Christianity. Quite a lot of New Age folks for example believe in reincarnation with is not compatible with the standard idea that the bible proposes.

I am an atheist. However I have personally had an experience that surely seemed like my prayers being directly answered. When I was young, from about 6 to 9, I would see these weird bright lights in my field of vision. Very often when I closed my eyes and frequently in normal daylight. Think greenish orbs superimposed over my field of vision (I could still see fine).

I was very freaked out about these lights. At 9 I prayed to god something similar to "I am not sure if you are real or not. But if you are real please makes these lights go away. If you a... (read more)

Here's a data point, do your own bayes accordingly: I've frequently been able to solve mind or brain-related problems by doing actions conceptually similar to, or sometimes literally by, praying to God. I'm not a believer in any way, but the simple attempt to convince myself that I was communicating with some higher outside entity that had the power to solve my problem did solve my problem. Here's the other evidence I have at my disposal, all of which I am confident above 90%: 1. My subconscious knows and understands everything - everything - that I think consciously, or even feel in passing. 2. My subconscious is much more powerful than my conscious with regards to such issues, with "power" corresponding here to having more input channels and more output channels for the same problem-solving ability. 3. My subconscious probably can figure out technical neurological or psychological solutions for things that aren't even in my (conscious) power to solve (either because I don't have the input to identify the properties of the problem, or to be aware of the exact nature of the problem, or don't have the output to affect the specific things in my brain / thoughts that need to be affected to undo the pattern causing the problem). So by those assumptions, and a few other assumptions about base rates, it seems normal for me to conclude that my subconscious fixes problems for me when I "pray", as opposed to some deitic entity. But since you may not share my confidence in the above crucial beliefs, or my assumptions about base rates, the data point of my problems being solved by "prayer" might lead you to a different conclusion.
Something like this happened to me a long time ago too. I can't give the exact details because the incident would be recognizable and I need to preserve my anonymity. However, basically I wanted person X to do Y, and X absolutely did not want to do Y. So I prayed something like "God, unless you tell X explicitly to do Y, they're not going to do it, please tell them to do it." The next day a total stranger (to both of us) came up to X and told them they had a message from God for them and that they should do Y.


New meaning to the phrase "I Believe! Help my Unbelief!"

Whether you say something happened because of a physical process you haven't yet come to understand or the ineffable will of god, you're basically just saying you don't know why it happened. Neither theory has any explanatory power, and random miracles aren't evidence either way. If you claim that miracles are due to the perfectly understandable will of god, and demonstrate that people that follow Christian values are consistently helped by miracles and people who do not are consistently hurt by them, that would be a different story. But since we haven't observed that, miracles aren't evidence for a god.

If god were perfectly understandable, if his miracles were repeatable, and if you could devise a perfect algorithm to elicit miracles from god, then how would "god" be distinct from "the natural world"? Wouldn't it be more parsimonious to say, "We have gravity that says if you do X then Y happens, we have electromagnetism that says that if you do X then Y happens....and then there's this "god" rule to the universe which says if you do X then Y happens." Of course, if you approach the Christian god in this way, Christians will immediately object and say that "god does not like to be tested," as if they have a priori decided that they don't want to think of themselves as living in a predictable universe. Strange preference, that....
God is sentient. I don't mean to say that you should be able to perfectly predict god, but if unless you have some idea of what he'll do you can't really get any evidence of that theory over the theory that stuff happens at random.

It is a good habit to read the the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on a subject whenever it is relevant. (/u/BenSix had mentioned it already.)


Good answers have been given by commenters already, so I'll take a second to say: this reminds me strongly of C.S. Lewis' dissertation on miracles. Titled, can you believe it, Miracles.

I don't remember the entire discussion, but his opening expressed an idea of priors similar to what you've outlined here: those who review history looking for miracles will find evidence for them. Those who review history looking for evidence against miracles will find it. His idea was, simplified, "If a miracle occured, a person who does not believe in miracles would a... (read more)

Isn't Lewis' argument in that case actually standard probability theory? If you hold a prior of 0 for an event, no finite amount of evidence will change your mind. Miracles aren't a special class-everything is judged by both priors and evidence. Lewis wasn't arguing for a separate magisterium or some other case of special pleading, he was saying that there exists enough evidence to convince us miracles have occured unless our prior is 0 or extremely low. The rest of Miracles was devoted to arguing that our prior shouldn't be especially low.
Hmm, that's not a bad observation. I still find myself regarding it as an unconvincing argument, but my useful understanding of probability theory is too low to provide a structured reasoning. As I don't want to argue a point I'm weak on just to signal that I stand apart from Lewis' beliefs, I'll accept your point. Thanks.

Miracle claims are on shaky epistemic grounds. How do you confirm it was a miracle and not someone being mistaken about some phenomenon? Or more likely, that they don't have enough knowledge of the physical or cognitive sciences to know whether some phenomenon is possible or miraculous?

The proper use of humility is to take into account that we are human beings and we make mistakes and we have insufficient information, so we should try to anticipate our mistakes or lack of info and correct for them in advance. Meaning that one should have the prior for &qu... (read more)

I recently listened to a defense attorney making claims about how personal experience and eye-witness testimony are the best kind of evidence you can possibly have, in defense of Christianity.

If your religion dictates that you must believe in miracles being real, you will have to break yourself in colorful ways in order to do so.

It's possibly the best kind of evidence you can have for convincing jurors. It certainly is not the best kind you can have for recreating what really happened. insert-links-to-all-the-relevant-articles-and-studies-that-i'm-too-lazy-to-look-up-but-you-totally-should-if-you're-interested
I have to agree with him about the personal experience part. Not necessarily for defence, but certainly for believing.
I should have clarified that I meant that in terms of having persuasive power over others. Personal experience can be personally compelling, but people have pretty well exploited the "I personally experienced X, are you calling me a liar?" thing enough (also, hallucinations, confusion, unreliable memory, etc), that people generally take statements about personal experience of others with a grain of salt. If I hallucinated a discussion with God, I would probably not be long-term convinced of it, despite the experience. (Edit: Aside: why did I add anything past the first sentence? There was no reason to.)
Heh. Here be circles :-) If I hallucinated a discussion with God, I would probably not be long-term convinced of it. If I had a real discussion with God, I would probably be long-term convinced of it. That's how conversations go...
How do you distinguish the two?
If I had a REAL discussion with Actual God, he might just rewire me because I had a bug, and he's a cool guy. Alternatively, I might ask God for evidence that he's God, or at least an awesome alien teenager with big angelic powers, and get some predictions and stuff out of him that I can use to verify that something incredible is in fact happening, because, hey, I'm human, and humans occasionally hallucinate, and I would probably like to make sound arguments that I really did have a discussion with a guy with big angelic powers that I could share with other people. But if he can't deliver on that stuff, the fact that I had a memory of talking to God with strong emotions and stuff attached to it, would probably not stand up to the amount of scrutiny that I'm likely to throw at it.
The problem is that people with serious psychotic disorders, the type of people who have this kind of hallucinations while not on drugs, are not just "hearing voices" and "seeing things" as if somebody hacked into their auditory and optical nerves and inserted extraneous signals. These people are really incapable of thinking clearly and rationally evaluating evidence. It is probably like they are living in a dream-like state while they are awake.
Yeah, what I didn't say is, "If I became psychotic, and had a hallucination of god, I would probably not long-term believe it." There are other reasons people can arrive at a state where they have hallucinations. If you break my critical faculties, then I'm far less likely to reason well. I was able to find numbers suggesting that perhaps 1/4 people with schizophrenia have religious hallucinations, but I was unable to find out what percentage of people who report religious hallucinations serious suffer psychotic disorders. I do know that religious visions are widely claimed within certain communities, that various drugs, sleep depression, stress, are all things that raise the odds of having hallucinations, and there are perhaps 3% schizotypal folks out there, who are somewhat likely to be hallucinators but may not meet your bar for "serious psychotic disorder". I've sort of been assuming that while hallucinations are fairly a strong predictor of, say, "schizophrenia", that other factors than serious-brain-whammy drive the bulk of religious hallucinations.


I think the place I would start -- and did start -- is with the question, "Have I ever personally experienced a miracle?" I quickly discarded most possibilities and came down to just a few, all of which were fundamentally a strong of events, each of which was individually highly unlikely. But unlikely things happen every day, so that's not enough to say it is a miracle.

Next, I would ask if people I personally know and trust have experienced miracles. I'd ask them about their experiences. For me, I knew no one who had experienced anything th... (read more)

David Copperfield manages to fly around without even a special effects studio. How would you imagine a video who can't be explained to look like?
Have I ever personally experienced a miracle? I've seen people pray in tongues, felt an overwhelming sense of God's presence, had it reported that my face was glowing during prayer once (I held up a hand to see if I could see any reflected light; no dramatic effect, wasn't sure if I saw the light or the power of suggestion), that sort of thing. I haven't seen anything super dramatic, but enough to be convinced that either God is real, or human beings are frighteningly good at self-deception.
A third possibility is that there's some sort of non-theistic magic, or at lest gods rather than God. There's also the simulation hypothesis.
I have seen people speaking nonsense syllables in altered mental states. (I am using the "rationalist taboo" technique here.) Was your observation any different from this?
My observation was that people said syllables that I didn't understand. As for telling if it was another language or nonsense, finding that one of the phrases actually made sense in another language would be very strong evidence for the existance of God. Proving that it was nonsense would be harder-how do you know when you've checked all the languages? Does something like "koriata mashita mashuta amon hala" mean anything in any language anyone here knows? It sounds somewhat Japanese to me.
Or maybe that they already heard the phrase (in a movie? at an airport?) and somehow it stuck in their memory, even if they don't speak the language. And even if you did, someone could still claim it is some extinct language from thousand years ago, or a secret language of angels, or perhaps the text is spoken backwards, or... Google Translate says it means: "Huh beneath Mashuta Amon was Korea". Definitely a revelation... or someone watching too much anime.
Um, most of the miracles I've herd are not the kind that seem miraculous in a video stripped of context.
That itself is a point against the existence of miracles. If miracles don't exist, you'd expect that all reports of miracles look like non-miracles on video. The result is entirely expected if miracles don't exist, but extremely contrived if they do.
Faith Healing doesn't look like much on a video. A person with cancers who stops having cancer doesn't suddenly look different.
If faith healing only does one specific thing, that's a plausible explanation: perhaps by chance the one specific thing it does doesn't look good on video. But faith healing isn't supposed to do only one specific thing. It supposedly can heal a lot of different things--yet somehow all of the things it heals don't look good on video. That's a much bigger coincidence--why can't it restore lost limbs, or cause scars to vanish in seconds, or grow hair on a bald person, yet it can cure hundreds of different conditions, as long as they're indistinguishable on video from not-curing?

There is no logical argument against miracles. They could exist.

But there really is no reliable evidence for them. If there was, I would also think this is a supernatural universe. But as it stands I'm pretty sure this is a natural universe, without souls and without praying superpowers.

I mean have you heard about the beatification of Pope John Paul II? A nun with symptoms similar to Parkinson's was healed after she prayed to John Paul. She even had a relapse but they went with it anyway.

Define "miracle". It's not well-understood what causes the leaders in lightning. Could this be considered a miracle in support of the existence of Thor?
I think a miracle is usually considered to be a violation of known natural regularities that does not itself have a natural explanation. This is much more specific than just "unexplained phenomenon". Leaders in lightning are not violations of natural regularities. They are a regular predictable phenomenon, and their existence does not contradict (AFAIK) any other accepted natural law or regularity.
Hm, substitute 'miracle' with 'supernatural phenomenon', then. ("supernatural" still in this sense: A "supernatural" explanation appeals to ontologically basic mental things, mental entities that cannot be reduced to nonmental entities.) So the question of whether lightning is a supernatural phenomenon or not is now about an empirical fact, not about my own ignorance. If the lightning is due to electrically charged regions in clouds, it's natural. If it's due to Thor's rage and only a god can produce it, it's supernatural. And of course even if we think that lightning is a supernatural phenomenon it could still be Zeus and not Thor ;)
I think there are supposed to be non mental "supernatural" artifacts as well. Like Thor's hammer. I find "miracles" and "supernatural" basically placeholders for "we don't follow the rules". It's basically magic. Harry and I still think there would be rules, just new ones. In the context of the OP, I think miracles are "magic from an entity". He wills it, it is done. The miraculous part isn't the ontologically basic mental thing, but the lack of understanding of how the ontologically mental thing can produce physical effects.
Well played. But there's a huge difference in how you should update given a phenomonon we don't yet understand that seems to have no religious connotation and given one that only occurs in conjunction with prayer. If the leaders in lighting occured ten times more frequently any time someone invoked Thor, I'd call it evidence for Asgard. If there's no religious correlation, I'd call it evidence that we need better meterology.
Ok, now define "ontologically basic".

The Christian philosopher Timothy McGrew ends his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the subject by saying...

...one's considered rational judgment regarding the existence and nature of God must take into account far more than the evidence for miracle claims. That is not to say that they could not be an important or even, under certain circumstances, a decisive piece of evidence; it is simply that neither a positive nor a negative claim regarding the existence of God can be established on the basis of evidence for a miracle claim alone, withou

... (read more)
I find it hard to believe that God would demonstrate His existence solely through selective and ambiguous appearances. How else could He do so? The only way we could ever come to know about God would be something in the world that looked like one would expect given God, and not like one would expect given atheism, i.e. a miracle. Now, one could ask why He doesn't do blatantly obvious miracles all the time to remove any ambiguity, but if He's to demonstrate His existence, presumably miracles are going to be involved.
it would be trivially easy for him to arrange a miracle which no other agent could replicate, and for that matter he could allow everybody to see it at once. This would remove all ambiguity and would be a much better way of achieving the goal of making his existence known, or further, of making his will known. If he does indeed use miracles to further his goals, it must be the case that he prioritizes hiding his goals and interventions almost as much as actually achieving them. (after all, nobody can come to an agreement about what God wants or what counts as a miracle) I can't think of a reason why this would be the case, so at this point I've abandoned the project of trying to justify it. (a standard response would be that God's ambiguous interventions are a test that only the faithful will interpret as evidence. At that point he is actively discouraging the impartial weighing of evidence, which is another baffling behavior which would need motivation)
I suspect that if there is a God existence itself cannot be explained without reference to Him. Take Peter Kreeft's "Twenty Arguments for the Existence of God", for example. Most are concerned not with particular experiences but the fact that there is something to experience, and the fact that we are able to experience it. Philosophy has been where most the great apologists have looked for and, to their minds, found God and if you seek more than personal experience it might be worthwhile to follow them. To quote text without it being mixed up with one's own words, incidentally, one can click on "show help" and look down to the bottom.

As some others have said, others on LW (like myself) were not always non-theists. Feel free to reach out if you'd like to discuss or need/want support. Thinking these thoughts and living as a heavily-doubting theist is extremely challenging and draining, from my experience. I was consumed during my initial questioning and ultimate de-conversion. I read and thought day and night, felt sick, alienated, lonely, etc. I wrote some posts here if you'd like to take a look:

... (read more)

Speaking of miracles, I've never gotten a good explanation from a christian about what happened to this Lazarus person Jesus raised from the dead, especially in the context of the often-quoted verse Hebrews 9:27, " And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment."

Assuming this resurrection happened historically, then what happened to Lazarus afterwards? He just disappears from the story like a character in a play who has one thing to do in the plot and then he walks off the stage.

So either Lazarus died again later, but w... (read more)

Well, technically speaking it says once, not once and only once.
It's appointed. Doesn't mean the guy who did the appointing can't make exceptions if he feels like it.

Have you seen these debates? The second one addresses the issue of miracles, by the way. What do you think about them? What do you think about Leah's reasons for converting from atheism to Catholicism?

Hey, it's been a while since I've looked over this thread. A lot of the answers have been very helpful; thanks! Another question-if I decide that I want to let go of my faith, do you have any advice for overcoming indoctrination and not being constantly afraid that I'm headed straight to hell? A few times I've decided that it made sense to let go, but while my beliefs are starting to tend more towards naturalism, my aliefs are still firmly Christian, and the fear keeps pushing me back. As a number of people have pointed out, religious memes are very resistant to purely reason-based attack. Thoughts?

Guide for the recently deconverted.
Hmmm. The fear of hell is a tough one: as I said above, I'd largely dealt with that fear before "leaving the fold." I suppose you somehow need to train your System 1 - to reprogram yourself, to experience that you have nothing to fear. For me, this happened over time as I gradually got more comfortable with increasing degrees of irreligion. Some other suggestions follow. Hell and other people For instance, it may help to think about the many non-Christians of superlative moral character. I mean, even the medieval Christians called Socrates a "Christian before Christ" - in other words, they thought so highly of Socrates that they could not really imagine him going to hell. Similarly, the more you think of really excellent, though still flawed, humans, it may become more difficult to picture a just and fair outcome where they suffer forever. It just doesn't make moral sense. And really feeling that moral impossibility as applied to non-Christians might help give you confidence that all non-Christians do not go straight to hell. (of course, much Christian teaching aims to establish precisely such a gap between apparent and "actual" moral deserts) Fears and Experience If you have multiple fears, perhaps you could enumerate each of them to yourself. Churches tend to bundle together charity, social events, counseling, and parenting and marriage advice, and so a "relationship with God" is supposed to ensure all of that, and deconversion may seem to threaten all of that. For me, becoming friends with more and more perfectly well-adjusted and strong individuals who had always been secular helped disprove the notion that a good life falls apart without religious belief. Or, to give another example, some Baptists teach that alcohol is a sure road to ruin (really) - only experience gets rid of this fear. Take a drink, feel that you're fine in the short- and long-term, and you feel better about rejecting that moral teaching. Conscience is the voice of the community In the
Actually, I don't have any of the community-based fears. Most of my friends are atheist or irreligious, and while my family would be concerned, I'm not especially worried about their reactions. The guide for the recently deconverted is nice, but I'm still having fears. Sorry-I'm not trying to drag things out! But this is taking a while, and I wish there was a way to just stop worrying.

commands given by God that seem horrifyingly immoral

Just out of curiosity, what moral system are you using to make this judgement?

It's something of a cop out to say "Common Sense", but I don't feel bad about raising a red flag on things like mandatory circumcision (not Christian, but Jewish, and Christianity claims the same God), genocide on wicked peoples to include infants and livestock (I can buy a culture becoming so corrupt that everyone indoctrinated into it would need to die, but why hurt the babies?), a lot of Mosaic law on sexuality, that kind of thing. I can't rule out that it all makes sense given enough wisdom (which God would presumeably have), but it's got to count as a source of questions.
I would recommend a bit of introspection on where your "common sense" comes from... You might also consider whether your common sense would match that of other people in different cultures and different ages.

I can relate to your doubt. Maybe you can see some of the same doubt in my summary of my theism opinion. Feel free to send me a private message if you want to discuss this with an irenic (always wanted to use that word) long time agnostic.

Well, theism ≠ supernatural.

Even materialist universe where consciousness arises as an emergent phenomenon of interacting neurons is not incompatible with theism - why wouldn't [gG]od create such a universe? He can.

Personal second hand (i.e. I know the family, but did not meet the guy himself) miracle experience: There was a guy who has been diagnosed with cancer, operated (not very successfully) and released with the prognosis of one year of life maximum. He took to (very) heavy drinking (much to dismay of his family) and lived for 35 years, dying in the ripe age of eighty-something (also much to dismay of his family, because they'd preferred him dead much sooner I guess).


"I'd like to know how atheists respond to the evidence of miracles."

In an infinite universe all probabilities are 1, over time. Everything can can be observed to happen no matter how apparently miraculous. This is one way any interpretation of any evidence for anything could be true. But as you can readily conclude, this raises as many questions as it resolves.