In chapter 17 of God or Godless I argue “God best explains the miracles in people’s lives.” It should be stressed by “miracle” I don’t mean “a violation of natural law” or “an event with no secondary cause” or anything else of that sort. Rather, I mean something like this: that for a subset of events in our lives that people are apt to call a “miracle” or “miraculous” or simply a divine “sign”, God’s action in the world provides a justified agent causal explanation of the event.
I then provide a detailed example of just such a case. It is not supernatural in the two senses referred to above. (For extended discussion of miracle cases in the sense of supernatural events see Craig Keener’s outstanding two volume work Miracles. (Baker Academic, 2011).) However, it is a case that involves circumstances many folks would be apt to call miraculous or to consider as a divine sign, and I argue that when considering the case a person is justified in concluding that God is an agent causal explanation for the event and thus that it does serve as a sign.
Jonathan Pearce has written an article in reply to the chapter. He titled it “Oh, my! Randal Rauser on prayer (God or Godless)”. I am pleased to announce that Jonathan’s argument was voted as worthy of satirization by the Tentative Apologist. Jonathan’s prize is found in the final section of this article.
But first let’s consider a straight-forward response to Jonathan’s critique.
Jonathan misrepresents the argument
It hardly needs to be said that the first step in a successful critique is accurate representation of the argument you’re critiquing. Alas, for the second time in as many tries Jonathan has based his critique of one of my arguments on a misrepresentation of the argument. (For the first example see “Like two ships passing in the night … Jonathan Pearce’s abortive rebuttal.”)
In this case Jonathan presents my argument as “evidence to support [my] argument that prayer works.” But the argument isn’t in support of the conclusion that prayer works. Rather, the argument is that events of sufficient contingency, complexity and specification warrant the inference of an agent cause, and in some circumstances one can be justified in believing that agent cause is God. In such cases an event can be a semeion, i.e. a sign of God’s action. Jonathan’s reduction of the argument to the claim that “prayer works” is careless and calls into question much of the subsequent analysis. For goodness sake, if you’re going to offer a critique, start by understanding the argument.
Jonathan fallaciously describes the case study as an “anecdote”
Jonathan’s next misrepresentation comes just a few sentences into his article when he describes the case study at the heart of my argument as “an anecdote involving prayer.” The event I narrate happened to a personal friend, Kent Sparks, a professor at Eastern University. My account was based on a discussion I had with Kent followed by several follow-up questions via email culminating in Kent’s careful vetting of the final draft account prior to publication. Is it proper to call this an “anecdote”?
According to dictionary.com the word “anecdote” has two definitions (see here):
1. a short account of a particular incident or event, especially of an interesting or amusing nature.
2. a short, obscure historical or biographical account.
The case study is neither amusing nor obscure. Rather, it is a carefully documented account. As Jonathan must surely know, carefully documented testimonials are not commonly referred to as “anecdotes”. Thus, his attempt to brand the case study is prejudicial and misleading. Not surprisingly, John Loftus attempted to do the same thing in God or Godless. In response, I observed, “What John dismissively refers to as ‘personal anecdotal evidence’ is vetted testimony–a type of evidence that is treated as of great value in a court of law, so why not here?” (God or Godless, 147) The same rejoinder applies here.
The Sparks Case
The case study tells the story of how Kent Sparks and his wife had been waiting to adopt through an organization for 1 1/2 years without success. So they pursued a private adoption. On the day they closed on the private adoption Kent called the original agency (House of Ruth) to request they suspend the Sparks’ file. However, the phone went straight to voicemail so Kent left a message informing House of Ruth that they would no longer be pursuing an adoption. Unbeknownst to the Sparks, the reason House of Ruth staff had not answered the phone is because they were in a meeting finalizing the details for a birth mother who had decided to offer her child to the Sparks. I’ll quote my account in God or Godless from here:
As soon as the meeting ended, a staff member called the Sparks to inform them of the good news. Cheryl answered the phone, assuming they were returning Kent’s call. Needless to say, she was shocked to learn instead that they were calling to offer a second child for adoption! Overwhelmed by the prospect of accepting a second infant, Cheryl called a friend to ask for prayer. Later when Kent arrived home from work, Cheryl asked him to conduct a family devotion without informing him of the situation. Perplexed, Kent opened his Bible and read from Proverbs 3:27: “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.” Shortly thereafter Cheryl’s friend called her and said, “I have a verse for you.” She then quoted Proverbs 3:27.” (142)
I then explain how one could infer divine agent causal action in this collocation of events by appealing to William Dembski’s design filter concept. In order for an event to be explicable in terms of design it must be contingent rather than necessary. Next, it must be sufficiently complex (simple contingent events do not warrant design inferences). And finally, the complex parts of the event must be specified to a context.
I argue that the multiple factors involved in the Sparks’ case are complex and specified to confirm the second adoption, thereby warranting the inference that God was orchestrating the events and confirming the propriety of the second adoption. I didn’t argue this is the only possible way to interpret the case. Nor did I argue that such inferences are infallible. I simply argued that one could be justified in making an inference to divine agency (i.e. a divine sign) in a case like this (see 142-43).
Jonathan is “staggered”. Then his rebuttal staggers
Jonathan is not impressed. He writes:
“When I read this account and the rationalisation of it thereof, I was staggered. Randal is an intelligent guy who claims he is conversant with cognitive biases and suchlike (I think he has written a book about them). This example is so very easy to dismiss.”
So how does Jonathan dismiss it? Easy. He appeals to coincidence, of course!
“And I would say that Randal’s example simply does not represent a specified complexity which would prove God. Cheryl’s friend is likely to find some such relevant passage, and Kent would have such issues of the adoption at the forefront of his mind whilst choosing passages. As in my own case, things like this happen all of the time to people who don;t [sic] believe and don’t pray. They get forgotten, or not even seen as significant in any way.”
Wow, given that Jonathan was “staggered” I thought he’d be able to come up with something a bit more robust than this. Jonathan doesn’t spend any time analyzing the complex elements of the case or the extent to which they are specified. He simply insists the complexity and specification isn’t sufficient (for him) to infer agent causation in this event.
In his rebuttal Jonathan proffers his own personal example which clearly is coincidence since it lacks any determinate meaning or specification. Coincidences of this type are easy to come by. I’ve often blogged about my own experience of extraordinary coincidence. See, for example, my article “Synchronicity in Margaritaville.” Events like this are extraordinary but they have no obvious meaning so they get readily screened out by the design filter. Consequently, Jonathan’s rebuttal begins to stagger too.
Let’s do what Jonathan failed to do, i.e. to consider the complexity and specification of the case more closely. We’ll do so by considering just one aspect of the case, the fact that both Kent and Cheryl’s friend identified the same verse.
There are approximately 31,000 verses in the Bible. So what are the chances that two people (e.g. Kent and Cheryl’s friend) would choose the same verse? Note first that Cheryl’s friend was never asked to provide a verse in the first place so the fact that she did so is already something we wouldn’t expect. However, insofar as she would be considering the relevance of biblical passages relevant to an adoption case, it is reasonable to expect that only a subset of the total number of verses in the Bible might come to mind. I would expect this subset to include verses that address the general love of God, God’s specific love for the weak and vulnerable, God’s concern for the widow and orphan, the joy and blessing of children, our obligation to love and care for others, the innocence of children, and so on. Conservatively, I would estimate there are between 500-1000 verses which could be seen to inform an adoption decision, though it must be said that Proverbs 3:27 is surely among the more obscure possibilities.
Note that in Jonathan’s “rebuttal” he begins by saying “Cheryl’s friend is likely to find some such relevant passage….” There is enormous presumption here. Even if it were likely that Cheryl’s friend would decide to settle the matter through reflection on a biblical passage, given that there are hundreds of potential verses, it is very improbable that she should choose this verse, particularly given its relative obscurity among evangelical Christians. (By contrast, large tracts of the gospels, epistles and psalms are much more familiar and thus would be much more likely to be quoted.)
Now consider the likelihood of Kent reading that same verse. Jonathan opines that “Kent would have such issues of the adoption at the forefront of his mind whilst choosing passages.” However, this is most doubtful. Keep in mind that Kent had no idea that Cheryl was considering a second adoption. Indeed, he thought this was a regular family devotions, albeit one at an unusual time. So there was no particular reason to think he’d select a text potentially relevant to adoption. And if he had, there is certainly no reason to think he’d choose a text like Proverbs 3:27 since Kent believed they weren’t withholding good for those to whom it is due since they’d just adopted their child. This passage would only make sense in light of information that Kent didn’t have. Moreover, as Kent explained to me, he wasn’t attempting to find an adoption-relevant passage for devotions. The simple fact is that when he opened his Bible the page fell to Proverbs 3 and he read verse 27.
It is ironic that Jonathan accuses me of “rationalisation” when that is precisely what he does here. He makes no effort whatsoever to provide any formal analysis of probabilities, instead opting simply to insist that it doesn’t seem to him improbable based on his own ungrounded speculations.
Jonathan says the improbable happens all the time
It is surely extremely unlikely that both Cheryl’s friend and Kent would lighten upon the same relatively obscure biblical verse, a text which would provide a clear answer to Cheryl’s dilemma. And that is to say nothing of the improbability that, after 1 1/2 years without movement on their file, the Sparks would find themselves offered a child from House of Ruth the very day they finalized a private adoption.
But no mind, for Jonathan has a sure-fire way to neutralize the complexity and specification of this case. He replies that coincidences happen on a regular basis. Thus, we are left with the possibility that for any event, no matter how complex and specified it seems to be, we can always explain it by appeal to coincidence. I’m going to return to this point in the final satirical section. But for now I’ll simply note that Jonathan has secured for himself a perfectly unfalsifiable position. Since coincidences happen all the time, evidence for any putative agency that he’d like to screen out can be dismissed under the aegis of coincidence.
Jonathan ignores the contextualization of interpretation
After summarizing the Sparks case Jonathan concludes:
“These coincidences happen all the time. But when they happen to a religious person, they take on a whole different religious meaning derived from the religious context.”
Interestingly, even though Jonathan makes this point, he seems not to understand the significance of it. So allow me to unpack it a bit. The way we interpret events is informed by background beliefs. Whether we are theists or atheists, Christians or materialists, Democrats or Republicans, Americans or Kenyans, all sorts of factors inform the way we interpret experience and read the significance (or lack thereof) in events.
Jonathan is an atheist and as such his response to the Sparks case is predictably skeptical. But that doesn’t mean that Christians or theists simpliciter are obliged to adopt the same level of skepticism that Jonathan does. Indeed, it would be completely absurd to expect them to do so, just as it would be absurd to expect Democrats to interpret events as if they were Republicans or Kenyans to interpret events as if they were Americans.
It is important at this point to recognize that my argument is placed in God or Godless only after I have provided several arguments for God’s existence (e.g. God best explains the existence of objective moral value and purpose, God best explains the existence of a contingent universe; without God the likelihood that our cognitive faculties are largely truth-producing is low or indeterminate, etc.). In other words, only after a reader has grounds to believe God exists do I then present a framework in which the reader can begin to form beliefs about God’s action in the world.
Interestingly, Jonathan does not even bother to articulate a reasonable threshold for inferring agency as an explanatory cause of unusual events. This leaves him open to the possibility of explaining any highly unusual complex event as a coincidence. And that leads me to our satirical conclusion.
Professor Pearce’s Amazing Agency Eliminator Infomercial!
Are you tired of experiencing apparently meaningful events which seem to be best explained by the action of agents you’d rather not acknowledge? Well now, for a limited time, Professor Pearce is pleased to announce a fantastic new product which promises to transform any purposeful event into a coincidence at the flip of a switch!
This marvelous device effectively eliminates meaning by reducing any event to a mere coincidence. The applications for Professor Pearce’s Amazing Agency Eliminator are limitless.
Eliminate ghosts and demons!
Think of it. You’ve just moved into your dream home, a delightful 19th century Victorian mansion, when suddenly blood appears on the walls spelling “Get out” and your children begin levitating and speaking in Latin backwards.
Uh oh! It appears like you’ve got demons.
But fear not. Just apply Professor Pearce’s Amazing Agency Eliminator and voila! A deeply distressing malevolent attack is now reinterpreted as a series of extraordinarily unusual but innocuous coincidences.
So forget the exorcist. Move on in and enjoy your home!
Eliminate other people!
You believe you’re the first person to climb this obscure mountain when to your dismay you discover the sentence “Jill loves Fred” carved into a rock on the summit.
Uh oh! It looks like other folks have been here.
But wait! Just apply Professor Pearce’s Amazing Agency Eliminator and a sentence carved in stone becomes a coincidental by-product of wind and erosion.
Looks like you are the first person to the top of the mountain. Way to go champ!
You’re a committed atheist when one day your friend reports that his limb grew back following the prayer of a pastor.
Uh oh! Is your atheism going to be left on the ropes?
Don’t bet on it friend! Just apply Professor Pearce’s Amazing Agency Eliminator and Wowie, that was a real coincidence!