Cothran’s Fork

If book sales and public attention are any measure, atheism is enjoying a noticeable renaissance in recent years. Best-selling books by famous atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris now frequently appear on the best-seller lists, and atheist voices are louder and more emboldened  than they have ever been. 

One of the arguments leveled against Christianity by modern atheists is the argument against the miraculous. If you believe science to be true, you cannot also believe in the miraculous, and if you believe in the miraculous, you automatically put yourself at odds with science.

Atheists are right about one thing: Christianity stands or falls on miracles, and so a refutation of the miraculous is, for them, imperative.

If Jesus was really crucified and came back from the dead after three days, then it would be difficult, if not impossible, to ignore His teachings and the teachings of those He taught–or to ignore His claim to be God. And, conversely, if this miracle didn’t (or couldn’t) happen, then, as St. Paul said, our “faith is vain.”

If you listen to their rhetoric, you would think that the atheist position was unassailable, and indeed, at first blush, it seems reasonable to think that miracles are in some sense unscientific. But miracles are not unscientific: they are non-scientific. Science itself not only cannot disprove the miraculous, it can’t, as science, say anything one way or another about it, To ask a scientist whether a miracle was true or false would be like asking your doctor what is wrong with your car.

I have argued this issue with atheists many times, and I find one argument particularly devastating—and, so far at least, unanswerable. I have dubbed it “Cothran’s Fork,” in honor of its intrepid author (me). A fork is a move in chess which places two valuable pieces in danger, presenting the opponent with two unacceptable alternatives. Cothran’s Fork employs a classic argument form in logic known as a “dilemma,” an argument form I cover in the 13th chapter of my Traditional Logic, Book II.

The dilemma is one of the most useful—and devastating—argument forms in logic. It is a sort of double-barreled demolition of your opponent’s case.

This is how my argument  goes:

If the argument against miracles is that they can’t happen, then the argument is philosophical, and not scientific; and if the argument against miracles is that they haven’t happened, then the argument is historical, and therefore, again, not scientific.
The argument against miracles claims that either they can’t happen or that they haven’t happened.
Therefore miracle claims are either philosophical or historical, but in neither case are they scientific.

If you listen to the so-called scientific arguments against miracles, you will notice that they all argue on the basis either of a lack of historical evidence or some version of the philosophical argument that miracles are impossible.

P. Z. Myers, an atheist biologist at the University of Minnesota, argues that God (and therefore supernatural miracles) cannot exist by definition. Jerry Coyne, another prominent atheist at the University of Chicago, disagrees with Myers and says that since Christianity makes historical claims (like miracles), it is not false by definition, it’s just that, as a matter of historical fact, didn’t happen. It is not unfalsifiable as Myers insists, says Coyne, but simply false.

But most atheists don’t even understand this basic distinction, and so they use both arguments—that Christianity is false (and therefore unhistorical) and unfalsifiable (and therefore unscientific) at the same time. G. K. Chesterton noted this tendency and showed how atheists jump from one of these objections to the other–and back again:

The whole trick is done by means of leaning alternately on the philosophical and historical objection. If we say miracles are theoretically possible, they say, “Yes, but there is no evidence for them.” When we take all the records of the human race and say, “Here is your evidence,” they say, “But these people were superstitious; they believed in impossible things.”

If one of your arguments fails, you use the other one. If that one fails too, then you use the first one again, hoping your opponent won’t notice that it didn’t work the first time. “You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost,” Chesterton said, “either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story.”

The historical argument against miracles is easily dealt with since any dismissal of the documentation and historical evidence for, say, the Resurrection, when weighed according to the criteria you would apply in any other historical event, holds up quite well. The great 19th century expert on legal evidence, Simon Greenleaf, once noted that, considered as witnesses, the apostles were impeccable.

It is the latter argument—that miracles are impossible—that has the sound of a scientific argument, but is really a philosophical argument in disguise.

Atheists argue that there is a thing called a “natural law” that somehow excludes the possibility of a miracle. However, no scientific experiment can ever prove that a natural law always applies simply because, as a strictly scientific and empirical matter, a natural law is only a description of our past experience. We have no experience of the future. We have no proof that the future will always be like the past and that nature will always operate the way it always has.

It is a natural law that copper conducts electricity. But in pure scientific terms that statement is indistinguishable from saying that, in the past, copper has always conducted electricity. Science, as science, cannot say anything about the future. From a purely empirical perspective, copper could, at some point in the future, not conduct electricity. Any belief beyond this would involve engaging in philosophy, the science of perennial—that is, timeless—wisdom.

This is why, when atheists arguing against the possibility of miracles make this argument, they never quote a scientist making a scientific statement: They only quote philosophers. They never quote Kepler or Galileo or Newton (partly because they were all Christians and would have disagreed with so simplistic a view in the first place). Nor do they quote Einstein or Fermi or Bohr. Instead they quote David Hume, a philosopher whose attempted refutation of miracles is still used by atheists today, even though it is a philosophical, and not a scientific, argument.

As it happens, Hume’s argument, even in philosophical terms, is not a very good one. I remember when I was a philosophy student and walked into my professor’s office to discuss a paper I was writing on Hume’s argument against miracles. It was Noel Fleming, who edited one of the great collections of critical essays on Hume. He advised me to choose another topic because, as he said, “Frankly it wasn’t a very good argument.”

All this does not mean a scientist cannot have an objection to miracles—only that, if he does, his objection to them must be either as a philosopher or as a historian, and his arguments must observe the principles and procedures of those disciplines rather than the discipline of science.

Considered as a scientist, he can have nothing to say about them at all, good or bad. So the next time you find yourself in a religious argument with your atheist friends and they invoke science, just point out that science can have nothing to say about miracles.


Originally published in The Classical Teacher Winter 2012 edition.

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