It is an oft heard complaint against theism: belief in God undermines your ability to say anything else is improbable. Why? This is the way Adam Hazzard put it in response to my essay “The Resurrection of Jesus, 52 Pickup, and Prior Probabilities“:
you assume the existence of an omnipotent, invisible, immaterial being who can be appealed to as an explanatory cause under any and all circumstances. You subscribe to a presupposition that renders any unique or anomalous event “explicable.” Which means that no event can be described as implausible.
Is this really true? Is it really true that once you recognize the existence of an omnipotent God you lose any rational basis to count particular scenarios implausible?
Let’s consider a concrete example. Elderly Widow Smith has Juan come out once a week to do her gardening and cut her grass. One Sunday morning Juan arrives just as Mrs. Smith is leaving for church. When she returns her six inch lawn remains untouched and Juan is nowhere to be seen. Mrs. Smith storms into the house, pulls out her old black phone (with the rotary dial!) and calls Juan. “Juan!” she snaps, “Why didn’t you cut the grass?”
Juan sounds genuinely perplexed. “I did ma’am.” And then after a pause he adds, “Maybe God made it grow back again.”
What do you think? Mrs. Smith may not be required to accept Juan’s testimony, but should she at least remain agnostic? After all, it is possible that God made the lawn grow back. Assuming that Mrs. Smith has no evidence in the past for Juan’s dishonesty, how can she be sure it is more likely that he is lying than that God did, in fact, make the cut grass regrow?
(You might think Mrs. Smith could try inspecting the lawn mower and garage for evidence of freshly cut grass, but of course if God could make the grass regrow he could also make the cuttings disappear.)
One might want to respond by pointing out that Mrs. Smith believes not simply in a God who is omipotent. She also believes he is omnibenevolent, and as such God would not act in such a capricious manner.
But can she be sure? That seems doubtful. Look around the world. There are all sorts of things an omnibenevolent God allows to occur which prima facie appear to be inconsistent with his omnibenevolence. Compared to those things, regrowing some grass is a mere trifle. What is more, one can envision endless reasons that an omnibenevolent God might have to regrow some grass quickly.
I am reminded of a conversation I had about fifteen years ago with a philosopher that we’ll call PW. At the time PW shared an experience he had which had convinced him that God knew the future. The story went something like this. PW was at the time doubting whether God knew the future so he concocted an experiment. He first thought of a particular playing card, let’s say the Ace of Spades. Then he reached into a deck of cards and drew a card. And lo and behold, it was the Ace of Spades. He concluded from his experiment that God must have known which card he would draw and thereby ensured in advance that the Ace of Spades would be in the right place in the deck. I replied: “How do you know God didn’t just turn the entire deck into the Ace of Spaces?” PW was unfazed, but one certainly could interpret the event in this way which would underdetermine divine omniscience. (Of course one could interpret the event other ways as well: psychic powers and chance being two obvious possibilities.) This raises the question: how do we decide when divine action is, and is not, plausible?
And this brings us back to Mrs. Smith and her uncut or regrown grass. What can be said in reply?
I am reminded here of the time I heard “skeptic” Michael Shermer interviewed on the radio program “Unbelievable.” Mr. Shermer was asked what would it take to persuade him that a miracle had occurred. He replied with the standard “missing limb growing back immediately after a prayer” answer. But a bit later in the interview he then retracted that claim as he concluded that we don’t understand the body’s processes well enough to know that an arm might not regenerate itself following a prayer due to wholly natural causes.
Hmm. If you’re going to take that position, then do you really understand grass well enough to know absolutely that grass could never regrow itself in a matter of minutes given certain conditions? After all, bamboo can grow three feet in twenty four hours. Can we be sure that grass (which is just itty-bitty bamboo) can’t grow six inches during church?
“Juan!” she snaps, “Why didn’t you cut the grass?”
Juan sounds genuinely perplexed. “I did ma’am.” And then after a pause he adds, “Maybe the grass has certain natural properties that allowed it to grow back again.”
So is it more probable that an omnipotent, omnibenevolent deity would make grass grow back crazy-quick? Or is it more probable that Mrs. Smith’s Kentucky Bluegrass has certain heretofore unknown properties that allow it to regrow with astounding rapidity under certain conditions, conditions that obtained while Mrs. Smith was singing “How great thou art” and passing the collection plate just down the road at First Baptist?