By: Dr. Timothy McGrew – slate.com
The late Christopher Hitchens, in his debates with Christians, liked to put his opponents on the spot with a straight question or two, gravely asked. “Do you really believe that Jesus was born of a virgin? Do you really believe that he rose from the dead?” If the Christian answered in the affirmative, Hitchens would turn to the audience with a theatrical flourish: “Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, my opponent has just demonstrated that science has done nothing for his worldview.”
It is always a shrewd move to paint one’s adversary as an enemy of science, and Hitchens rarely let slip an opportunity for good theater. But good theater is not always good reasoning. Did Hitchens really believe that first century Jews didn’t know where babies come from or that Roman soldiers didn’t know how to kill an unarmed man? Did he doubt that peasants in an agrarian society had seen enough death to know that in the natural course of things, men who are dead—completely dead, not just mostly dead—stay that way? Christians from Pentecost onward have been shouting from the rooftops the astounding message that Jesus, who was crucified and buried, had risen bodily from the dead. Did Hitchens really think he could show them up by suggesting that there is something out of the ordinary about the claim?
The great skeptic David Hume presented the world with a false dilemma when he tried to pit reported miracles against the laws of nature. Science tells us what nature does when left to itself; miracles, if they occur at all, occur precisely because nature is not left to itself. Believers and skeptics agree that there is a stable causal order, a normal course of events in which virgins do not become pregnant and dead men stay dead. And precisely because they are agreed on this point, it cannot be a significant piece of evidence against the occurrence of miracles. A river must flow, as one of Hume’s contemporaries pointed out, before its stream can be diverted. Some conception of the ordinary course of nature is required for us even to make sense of the notion of a miracle, which otherwise could not be recognized for what it is.
Science itself places no limits on what may happen when nature is not left to itself. It can neither demonstrate that nature is always left to itself—that the physical universe is “causally closed”—nor legislate what might occur if it is not. Scientists may have their personal opinions on these matters; in fact, they often do, and sometimes they count on their scientific expertise to give weight to those opinions. But that involves stepping out of their own fields of specialization and into the realm of philosophy. And in that arena, one’s having a degree in zoology or microbiology does not, per se, entitle one’s opinions to any particular deference.
One of our best tools for investigating hypotheses is to ask what we should expect if they were true. If we try this with theism, a cosmic ban on divine intervention is hardly what we would predict. What a strange thing it would be if the creator of the universe were somehow locked out of his own creation, unable to do what even the least of his creatures may do, to make his presence known! St. Paul’s rhetorical question is still pointed today: Why should anyone think it incredible that God should raise the dead?
But isn’t all of this too quick? Many people disbelieve in the existence of God, either in the Judeo-Christian sense or in any other. A non-existent deity raises no one from the dead.
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