Tuesday 7 July 2009

Science is mocked: the presupposition of supernature

One of the recurring points of disagreement in intelligent atheist/theist debates is the presupposition regarding supernatural occurrences. Theists often say that the atheist is biased against supernatural occurrences because he or she does not believe they can happen, and is therefore ruling out the existence of God a priori - because God, by the most commonly accepted definition, would be a supernatural being capable of performing supernatural actions.

Conversely, the theist who believes in miracles is explicitly including the possibility of supernatural occurrences, and therefore (the argument goes) is actually more open-minded - ready to accept the claims of science and the claims of supernatural action.

But how does this work in practice? Is it reasonable for the atheist to rule out supernature? What if we accept that supernatural effects may, from time to time, occur - are these effects, occurrences, "miracles", bound by any laws, natural or otherwise? They are certainly not bound by the laws of science. If we accept miracles, where do we look to determine when and where they may or may not occur? It seems that miracles could only be bound by the whim of a supernatural being, who may or may not have written down (or caused to have been written down) some holy scripture in which these somewhat arbitrary whims are spelled out.

Personally, I don't believe in miracles. I've not personally seen any compelling evidence for miracles, and my understanding of the world I live in suggests to me that miracles are occurrences that by definition can't happen. Any investigation into what can and can't happen in any given set of circumstances must by definition give due consideration to what is possible, and by implication, what is impossible. If an investigation doesn't rule out supernatural occurrences, then in effect nothing whatever is ruled out. On what basis, therefore, can such an investigation proceed? This is a rhetorical question - I contend that in such circumstances no meaningful investigation can be carried out. For that reason I consider it justifiable to rule out supernatural occurrences, and if as a result I'm accused of making an a priori exclusion, I can only reply "guilty as charged."

In a discussion of the evidence for, say, the Resurrection of Christ, the arguments about who saw the empty tomb, or who conversed with Jesus after his death, become irrelevant, because if the Resurrection is true, all bets are off - anything is possible, and science is mocked. God could have implanted fake memories into people's brains, or performed any number of impossible actions - feats well within the capabilities of a supernatural being whose powers are essentially undefined, but which include the power to raise someone from the dead.