Monday, May 26, 2014

On the utter uselessness of theological arguments

I get asked a lot lately, since I've stopped bothering with them, why I refuse to engage with theological arguments for theism, branded "the best" material that theology has. Here I'll make a short digression to explain why I refuse to bother with theological arguments.

The answer is straightforward: Miracles make theological arguments useless.

There are two sides to this coin. On the one side, we see that there are no continued miracles in this world, and this is probably the most substantive strike against accepting theism that exists. On the other side, we realize that if there were continued miracles, we wouldn't have theological arguments for theism at all because theism would be obvious.

So the quandary I find myself in regarding theological philosophical arguments for theism is that I shouldn't take them seriously unless there were still miracles occurring, but if there were still miracles occurring, I wouldn't need to take them seriously. The conclusion I draw is that arguments for theism are completely useless.

I should be able to stop here, but I guess I should address my "unjustified" claim that there are no miracles going on. To clear this up, by "miracles," here's what I don't mean. I don't mean hucksterish things and parlor tricks passed off as miracles to the gullible. I don't mean the lies about circumstances and people perpetrated by the Catholic Church, usually in the canonization process. I don't mean fortunate coincidences, including the kinds we've worked to achieve like someone's bone cancer coinciding with a time and place in which we've painstakingly learned to treat bone cancer. I don't mean important events that are really mundane from a more global perspective, like the birth of a child.

In case that doesn't clear it up, here's what I do mean by miracles: honest to God miracles, literally. I should note that contrary to many skeptics, whom I'm not sure are being honest about this, I would definitely believe in God if miracles were really going on, but please don't bore me by trying to convince me that they are. If they were, it would be inescapably obvious.

So, absent miracles, theism is made of arguments, not substance. If there were miracles, though, there would be no need for arguments for theism. The philosophical arguments for theism are a waste of everybody's time and a continued stain besmirching the otherwise mostly respectable family of fields called philosophy.

26 comments:

  1. Can you explain the process for how someone who presumes that naturalism is true and hence that miracles are a priori not possible could come to the conclusion that miracles have happened or are happening?

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    1. One doesn't need to presume that there are no miracles to see that nothing we see qualifies. Seriously.

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    2. Exactly, when one views the world through the lens of naturalism one will never see that a miracle could qualify. As Peter Boghossian wrote, "If they’ve asked me what it would take for me to believe [that God exists], I’ll use a variation of American physicist Lawrence Krauss’s example in his debate with William Lane Craig: if I walked outside at night and all of the stars were organized to read, “I am God communicating with you, believe in me!” and every human being worldwide witnessed this in their native language, this would be suggestive (but far from conclusive as it’s a perception and could be a delusion)." Since Boghossian is beginning with the assumption that naturalism is true he will prefer any naturalistic explanation no matter how outlandish and improbable it is. So, in effect there is no miracle that God could perform that could persuade a naturalist, like Boghossian, that miracles are possible or that he exists because those miracles will always be written off as delusions, lies or poorly documented events.

      Are you beginning to see the importance of theological philosophical arguments? Simply put, miracle accounts will never be able to stand alone with someone who presumes naturalism because miracles will always be discounted. In theory, the philosophical arguments for God's existence work to show that naturalism is false or least questionable and that God exists or at least that his existence is plausible. Then, once someone is open to the possibility of miracles, that person can evaluate the various miracle accounts and perhaps find that some of them provide further support for God's existence or for particular theological claims.

      On a side note, as a representative of Team Philosophy I feel like I should mention that a rational person should not get sidetracked by extraneous information when dealing with philosophical arguments. Arguments are either valid or invalid. If the argument's conclusion follows from the premises and the premises are true then it is valid and the conclusion of it is necessarily true regardless of any other state of affairs that don't pertain to it.

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  2. Keith, can you explain why observation does not detect miracles? (By observation, I mean the ability to check and examine in ways that are objective, reliable, and verifiable.)

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    1. Who says that miracles have never been detected? There have been numerous accounts of miracles. For example, take this account by Tim Stafford a writer for Christianity Today. Stafford writes, "Jeff, a young man in my church, had fully expected to spend his life in a wheelchair. Years of multiple surgeries had done nothing for him, and one of the top specialists in the country had told him to stop hoping for a cure and accept the excruciating pain as it was. Then, at the invitation of a friend, he rolled his wheelchair into a Pentecostal church one Sunday morning. He walked out pain-free. That was four years ago. He has never felt pain in his feet since. At a word of prayer, he was completely, instantly healed (Stafford, Tim. "A New Age of Miracles." Christianity Today 21 Sept. 2012: 1. Online.)." I'm guessing that you're not too impressed by this account. Since you're a naturalist I imagine you think that Stafford is lying or that, even though medical experts said that Jeff would always be in pain, an improbable naturalistic healing happened to occur while he was in the church. Since Western society presumes that naturalism is true possible miracle accounts tend to be written off and explained through naturalistic means even if the naturalistic explanation is outlandish and improbable.

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    2. I would characterize your instances of miracles as aggressive gullibility.

      Have you ever wondered why Pentecostal ministers and faith healers never go to hospital cancer wards, etc.? Why don't they?

      Btw, I am not what I think you would call a naturalist, and I think you'd be better off not jumping too quickly to your conclusions.

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    3. Well, Pentecostal ministers do in fact visit cancer wards. Damon Adams of the Sun Sentinel wrote about a woman named Maria Khaleel who first encountered a Pentecostal minister while she was visiting her brother in the cancer ward. Adams wrote, "Her [Maria's] first encounter with a Pentecostal minister occurred as a child while her brother was in the hospital with leukemia. The minister visited her brother, and a woman from church soon began conducting Bible studies at Khaleel`s home (Adams, Damon. "Answered Prayer Pentecostal Pastor Finds Her Calling And Her Own Church In South Broward." Sun Sentinel 15 July 1992. Online.)."

      Also, here is a link to a Pentecostal church ministry that visits hospitals: http://apostolicpentecostal.org/ministries/hospital.html.

      Cal Metzger wrote: "I would characterize your instances of miracles as aggressive gullibility."

      You'd be better off not jumping too quickly to your conclusions as I never actually stated my position on the purported miracle I mentioned. If I was going to put my official stamp of approval on the miracle claim I'd want to do more research on it. However, if the story is true then I'd say that there is a high probability that this is a miracle as a naturalistic explanation of the event would seem to be unlikely. At the very least, I think that agnosticism about miracles is in order as I don't think that you can confidently say that no miracles are detected.

      Cal Metzger wrote: "Btw, I am not what I think you would call a naturalist, and I think you'd be better off not jumping too quickly to your conclusions."

      I apologize for mischaracterizing your position. What is your position?

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    4. How many miracle claims have a stamp of approval not coming from a religious body that has a vested interest in stamping them for approval?

      (Hint: zero.)

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    5. KR: "Well, Pentecostal ministers do in fact visit cancer wards."

      Well, I meant visit in order to heal, as you say they do in your miracle example. As in "completely, instantly healed." I can't imagine why Christians who have the power to completely, instantly heal the sick would not choose to use this power except in isolated stories, why it would never be used for amputations, etc.

      I am puzzled why the article you quoted said that the sick are "completely, instantly healed." But when I go to Pentecostal website you linked to, the one that does visit hospitals, they claim that they are there to "share our time with the sick in the form of a visit, with the clear purpose of leaving them feeling loved by God, our church family, and ourselves. / God heals sick bodies, but more importantly, he is able to heal sin sick souls. Great importance is placed on reaching for the lost while through the ministry of visiting the sick."

      If you had the power to heal the sick, wouldn't you use it in the most productive ways? Doesn't it seem strange that these people, who claim the power to heal in ways that even medicine cannot, haven't even adopted the most fundamental and productive methods for applying their supposed aid? Do you suppose there's a reason why they haven't formalized what they supposedly can do?

      JR: "You'd be better off not jumping too quickly to your conclusions as I never actually stated my position on the purported miracle I mentioned."

      So you don't believe the kind if miracle accounts you cited are credible either? Great, then we agree.

      JR: "I apologize for mischaracterizing your position. What is your position?"

      I am a foundationalist. I am a skeptic. I believe many of things you do, but almost certainly less.

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    6. Actually, Fuller Theological Seminary's School of Intercultural Studies conducted a survey of 750 Muslims from 30 different countries who converted to Christianity. The survey showed that the second most common reason for converting was because of witnessing answered prayers and healing from Christian ministry. Although the survey was informal survey I think it does give us reason to doubt that no one has ever given a stamp of approval to a miracle performed in a foreign religion.

      Getting back to supporters of naturalism, don't you think that naturalists have a vested interest in doubting all miracle claims? After all, naturalism would be dis-confirmed by just one true miracle.

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    7. Cal Metzger wrote: "If you had the power to heal the sick, wouldn't you use it in the most productive ways? Doesn't it seem strange that these people, who claim the power to heal in ways that even medicine cannot, haven't even adopted the most fundamental and productive methods for applying their supposed aid?"

      You have a very strange notion of healing ministry. You're thinking of it like it's some kind of art like novel writing or wooden boat building when it most certainly is not an art or science. At the heart of it a healer is just petitioning God to heal someone. God is not an omnipotent cosmic genie that must do our bidding. God is under no obligation to answer any prayers. God could decide to grant some prayers while not grating others because he has specific reasons for granting some and not granting others. As an omniscient being he would know best which prayers should be granted and which should not.

      Cal Metzger wrote: "So you don't believe the kind if miracle accounts you cited are credible either? Great, then we agree."

      No, you're jumping to conclusions again. Doing research on something is not the same thing as rejecting that thing. What makes you so sure that the miracle claim is false?

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    8. Keith wrote: "God could decide to grant some prayers while not grating others because he has specific reasons for granting some and not granting others."

      Keith, can you offer a hypothetical scenario of what you mean? Can you suggest one possible reason that God might have? I don't mean a generality ("to prevent a greater evil"), but an actual example? I heard other people suggest this idea but I've never seen anything specific that made sense to me.

      Thanks.

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    9. KR: "Actually, Fuller Theological Seminary's School of Intercultural Studies conducted a survey of 750 Muslims from 30 different countries who converted to Christianity. The survey showed that the second most common reason for converting was because of witnessing answered prayers and healing from Christian ministry. Although the survey was informal survey I think it does give us reason to doubt that no one has ever given a stamp of approval to a miracle performed in a foreign religion."

      No, it gives the aggressively gullible a chance to show us that they're aggressively gullible. So, that's the hand you want to play?

      KR: "Getting back to supporters of naturalism, don't you think that naturalists have a vested interest in doubting all miracle claims? After all, naturalism would be dis-confirmed by just one true miracle."

      You should ask this question to a naturalist.

      KR: "You have a very strange notion of healing ministry. You're thinking of it like it's some kind of art like novel writing or wooden boat building when it most certainly is not an art or science."

      Okay. I have no interest whatsoever in what you think you're talking about then. Go waste some one else's time.

      KR: "No, you're jumping to conclusions again. Doing research on something is not the same thing as rejecting that thing. What makes you so sure that the miracle claim is false?"

      Not what I wrote. I'm starting to think you are an idiot. Did you comment here before, and I discovered this fact again? Whatever. I don't mean I would have written you off as unable to discover a way to think cogently, but your idiocy is starting to ring a bell.

      You wrote nothing I could or should respond to. Give it your best shot on your next one. Otherwise, I've got more interesting things to do.





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    10. KR: "Getting back to supporters of naturalism, don't you think that naturalists have a vested interest in doubting all miracle claims? After all, naturalism would be dis-confirmed by just one true miracle."

      Where's the vestment? How would a "naturalist" lose anything by having this belief disconfirmed?

      I can imagine myself, were I this "naturalist" you speak of, being like, "oh, well, okay, I was wrong. Time to move on with life." I wouldn't be out anything because there are no consequences to being wrong about that worldview. If you think theism presents consequences, Christianity isn't true. Christianity gives you a chance to repent for being wrong right up until the last second you can think, so what would be lost? Pride? I don't think so. Let me explain by analogy.

      Imagine that I was a person that didn't believe there are any kangaroos in this world, as I was at one point in my life. I held a worldview that did not include kangaroos. Then, one day, I was either at a zoo or reading a book or being shown pictures or watching television, being old enough where the Internet didn't exist back then, and I stumbled upon kangaroos. I was presented with evidence disconfirming the position I held before in which there are no jumping marsupials anything like that large. My reaction: acceptance and moving on.

      This is asymmetric with the situation of everyone who believes in a form of theism that demands fealty or else serious consequences. That person, while in the belief system, fears significant loss if their worldview is overturned. They don't get to pretend they live forever. They don't get a free pass at being considered a good person. They don't get to keep pretending that their loved ones are waiting for them in a happy place beyond the grave. In the current circumstances, they face being ostracized within their social networks, communities, and even families.

      A "naturalist" facing evidence of miracles has no such risk. Your "vested interest" claim falls flat.

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    11. Cal Metzger wrote: "Not what I wrote."

      Earlier you wrote, "So you don't believe the kind if miracle accounts you cited are credible either? Great, then we agree." It sure sounds to me like you've rejected the miracle claim as being not credible without offering any arguments or evidence that you've done research into the claim. How do you know that the claim is not credible?

      Cal Metzger wrote: "I'm starting to think you are an idiot...I don't mean I would have written you off as unable to discover a way to think cogently, but your idiocy is starting to ring a bell."

      Really, school yard name calling? How old are you? Take a breath, my man, there's no reason to get so rattled; we're just having a civil dialogue here. This kind of behavior just makes you look petty and childish. Come on, Cal, I think that you're better than this.

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    12. Paul Rinzler wrote: "Keith, can you offer a hypothetical scenario of what you mean? Can you suggest one possible reason that God might have? I don't mean a generality ("to prevent a greater evil"), but an actual example?"

      Well, keep in mind that I am just a mere, limited mortal so I can only guess at the myriad of reasons that God might for not granting a prayer to heal someone, but I'll do my best. I'm going to draw an example from Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina." In the novel Konstantin Levin's brother Nikolai develops a serious illness and dies. The loss of his brother has a serious impact on Levin, as he begins to question the meaning of his life. This searching ends up leading Levin to God. Levin finds meaning in serving God and his fellow man.

      Now the loss of Nikolai is indeed sad, but it lead Levin towards God and eternal salvation. Levin also gained a greater sense of meaning in his life. I think these good outcomes merit God's letting Nikolai die--after all, he was going to die eventually anyway.

      In any case, all my argument requires is the mere possibility that God could have good reasons for not granting a prayer request to heal someone, and that possibility is certainly there. Anybody who denies this possibility will have to shoulder the burden of proof that God could have no good reasons for not granting a prayer--that's an awful lot of burden to bear.

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    13. James A. Lindsay wrote: "A "naturalist" facing evidence of miracles has no such risk. Your "vested interest" claim falls flat."

      What about all those people like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins who have spent their whole careers defending naturalism? Don't you think that there's some pride at stake there? No one wants to admit that they were wrong and that they've wasted their whole career defending a lie.

      What about the fact that naturalism is the philosophical foundation of modern science? The falsification of naturalism would have huge ramifications for how we think about the natural world.

      What about atheists like Thomas Nagel who said, " I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that." A theologically oriented miracle is a notion that atheists like Nagel find horrifying. Admit it, in some ways the atheistic world view is easier as there is no god telling you what to do. A true theological miracle would cause atheists to do some hard and uncomfortable soul searching into their beliefs.

      Finally, what about the secular humanist agenda which is often associated with a naturalistic world view? If we as society were going to admit that naturalism is false and that God exists wouldn't that have a deleterious effect on secular humanist projects? I think that it would.

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    14. KR: "It sure sounds to me like you've rejected the miracle claim as being not credible without offering any arguments or evidence that you've done research into the claim. How do you know that the claim is not credible?"

      For the same reason I don't have to go to the end of every rainbow to be confident there isn't a pot of gold there. I've looked into claims like yours before. They are invariably anecdotal, based on loads of bad assumptions, often confined to issues like pain, sometimes are simply false, etc. You have to do WAAAYYY better than tell a vague "This guy said that" story if you want to rise above the rest of the pot of gold peddlers out there. But I'll make a prediction now: you won't. Because if you apply real rigor to your beliefs, they dissolve, and you fear losing your beliefs more than you care about reality.

      I asked earlier, but you've remained mum. So I'll ask again. Give me a "prayed to Jesus, my legs grew back" story. At least that one would be more interesting to read than the inevitable "My doktur said my pain never go way, but then we saw Jesus face in toast and I told doktur no pain, no pain, Jesus smarter than you!" stuff that you guys seem to buy like it's 2 for 1 pizza Friday.

      Try and deal with this:

      http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/

      Then come back with a good reason you're right, and they're wrong.

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    15. Cal Metzger wrote: "For the same reason I don't have to go to the end of every rainbow to be confident there isn't a pot of gold there. I've looked into claims like yours before."

      You're committing the fallacy of composition; it simply doesn't follow that because some miracle claims may have been false that all miracle claims are false. You don't actually have any evidence that this claim is false you're just blindly assuming that because you've found other claims to be wanting that this claim is false as well.

      Cal Metzger wrote: "But I'll make a prediction now: you won't. Because if you apply real rigor to your beliefs, they dissolve, and you fear losing your beliefs more than you care about reality."

      There are several things that could be said about this statement. First of all, failing to be able to point to a modern miracle claim that all rational people find credible does not prove that miracles have never happened. As I've pointed out before, some people either think that miracles are impossible or essentially impossible. How could I ever persuade someone who doubts that miracles are possible that a miracle occurred? There's always some vaguely possible naturalistic way to explain away a miracle claim (see the Boghossian quote above).

      Secondly, even if turns out that no true miracles are presently being performed it doesn't follow that no miracles have ever been performed.

      Finally, my beliefs are not dependent upon any present day miracle account being true.

      Also, if you knew anything about me you would know that I'm an ex-atheist who has thought very carefully about my beliefs. I have read Hume and know the ins-and-outs of skeptical arguments. I just simply done't find naturalism plausible.

      Cal Metzger wrote: "Give me a "prayed to Jesus, my legs grew back" story."

      Ah yes, the why won't God heal amputees cliche. Well, I could point to Luke 22:49-51 as an instance where God regrew a man's ear, but I'm already anticipating that you'll claim that the Bible is a poor source of documentation. First of all, why must God heal amputees? I see no reason to think that he must heal them miraculously. After all, if the Wounded Warriors can destroy retired NFL players in a game of flag football with their prostheses why does God need to heal them miraculously?

      Secondly, even if there was a good account of a modern day miraculous healing of an amputee I still think that some people would doubt it. Skeptics would claim that the account was not well documented or that everyone was hallucinating that the person had an amputated limb in the first place or they would claim that the person has a mutated gene that allows them to grow back limbs.

      This brings me back to my main point that miracle accounts can't stand alone as they'll always be discounted. Theological philosophical arguments are needed to at least make the possibility of miracles a live option.

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    16. KR, You lost my attention when you opened by revealing that you don't understand the fallacy of composition.

      I sometimes learn from what commenters say. I sometimes learn by researching a commenters position, even though I eventually find their argument to be wrong.

      I see you have nothing to offer in either regard.

      Cheers.

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    17. Cal Metzger wrote: "You lost my attention when you opened by revealing that you don't understand the fallacy of composition."

      You provided no argument as to why you think that I've misunderstood the fallacy of composition. A mere assertion that I've misused it is not persuasive at all. "The Many World's of Logic 2nd Edition" says, "In the fallacy of composition, someone uncritically assumes that what is true of a part of a whole is also true of the whole (266)." You said that the miracle claims you've encountered in the past (the part) seemed to be false to you, so you're uncritically assuming that the claim we've been discussing is false as well which implies that you believe this of all miracle claims (the whole). As I said before, just because some miracle claims may have been false it doesn't follow that all miracle claims are false.

      As to learning something from me, how can you learn something when your mind is closed to what I'm saying? Your mind appears to be as open as a hermetically sealed bank vault.

      Pax vobiscum, my man!

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    18. KR, I can't make you understand the difference between the fallacy of composition (what you claim I have made) and the problem of induction (which is a fact of which I have accounted for in my reasoning).

      You meant that I couldn't dismiss new fallacy claims despite all the previous ones I have examined because of the problem of induction (this is true, but unavoidable, and completely sensible and perfectly pragmatic), not the fallacy of composition. The fallacy of composition is what you cited, but it's funny that you still don't understand it enough to see how you mis-applied that (false) criticism.

      I don't mind helping to point you toward ideas and material that would instruct you (that is what I look for myself in blog discussions), but you are proving yourself incapable of learning.

      If you could admit that you are wrong about your calling my rationale a fallacy of composition, then I would take that as a sign that you can, with consideration, modify your position.

      But if you persist in insisting otherwise, there's no reason for me to use my time in reference to your comments again.

      Cheers.

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    19. After some thought and research I believe that the fallacy of hasty generalization is a better diagnosis of your flawed thinking. You've found a limited sample of miracle claims to be false and fallaciously concluded that the whole population of miracle claims are false. This would be like a Christian saying, "I've encountered some rude atheists, so person X must be rude too because they're all rude." Just because the Christian has encountered some rude atheists in the past it doesn't follow that person X is rude or that the whole population is rude. In much the same way, just because you've found some miracle claims to be lacking it doesn't follow that the claim I mentioned is false or that the whole population of miracle claims is false.

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  3. Keith R, thank you for modifying your position -- admitting that you had misunderstood and/or misidentified my rationale as being guilty of the fallacy of composition. I think that you deserve some credit for that.

    It's alway possible that any of us has made a hasty generalization -- it's a risk inherent in forming beliefs, and the fact that we have limited time and mental abilities, etc.

    You conclude I have made a too hasty generalization. I conclude that you are being aggressively gullible. Tomatoe, tomato.

    Cheers.

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    1. Well, it's not really tomatoe, tomato because there is a huge difference between how we're approaching the miracle claim in question. I'm reserving my final judgement on it until I get more information and you're just blindly rejecting it without doing any research. I do realize that it is possible that Stafford and/or Jeff could be lying about the story, but I believe that charge of lying is serious and that one should have some good evidence that someone is guilty of it before you start throwing accusations around. So, Stafford and Jeff are innocent until proven guilty, but I need to do some more research into their story if I'm going to back it with a high degree of confidence. Until then I will say the miracle claim is possibly true.

      I probably should have asked this question much sooner in this dialogue, but I'm curious about what kind of evidence you would need to establish that a true miracle occurred? Could you ever say that a true miracle occurred? James and Paul, if you're still paying attention, this question is also directed to you two.

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  4. KR: "I probably should have asked this question much sooner in this dialogue, but I'm curious about what kind of evidence you would need to establish that a true miracle occurred?"

    Evidence that is objective, reliable, and verifiable. The same kind of evidence you would need to believe that Hogwarts exists.

    This is very, very simple stuff. What is complex are the reasons believers in miracle claims need to try and explain why miracles only occur in stories.

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