Monday, July 6, 2009

Preliminary Responses to J.C. Samuelson on The Virgin Birth Challenge

Since I hold an agnostic position on the asserted miracle of The Virgin Birth of Jesus, at least in so far as science or mathematics can be applied to it, I’m going to press my own point of view.

I didn’t raise the issue of The Virgin Birth in any way, certainly not as a scientific debunking of religion. I also wouldn’t talk about it much as religion either, for reasons that have nothing to do with this argument.

I have defended those who do believe in it from charges that they are a danger to science or reason and have specifically defended the requirements of science against assertions from those who would replace those with opinions and dogmatic, authoritative declarations. I haven’t seen anything yet which makes the case for doing that from the “science side” of the issue other than the assertion that it’s in some way scientific, reasonable and fair. None of which are logical arguments but are just appeals to a pre-established point of view.

It could be added, this is a mighty strange way for me to be spending my time, but I think it is important to answer both for the integrity of science but also, and more importantly, for the right of religious believers to assert beliefs which harm no one.

Just as religion doesn’t deserve respect or belief when it violates its own moral teachings, science doesn’t deserve respect when it violates its own code of practice. Hypocrisy always earns skepticism and disbelief. And it is only on the ground of acceptance or rejection by people now that this question even becomes of any interest in the first place. Nothing we can do or discover will change the past, the event itself or the subsequent assertion of what that event was. It is for minds of people now that gives this fight any importance, in either the new atheist debunking and ridicule attempts or the activities of Christians.

Nothing that I have seen from the “science side” actually deals with the belief as asserted by Christians, none of their most extensive, if not entirely integrated, arguments are a solid reason for Christians to not believe in it. No more than I’ve seen a scientific argument in favor of The Virgin Birth. To make that clearer, if a religious believer alleged any scientific confirmations, those would be unconvincing to new atheists who could be expected to then apply the most exigent standards of science to those claims, even surpassing those they would assert in refutation of it.

So the “science” of miracles in this kind of case is a two way sword, one with a rubber blade. It doesn’t cut either way. That is a much bigger problem for the attempt to dispose of the belief with science than for those who irrationally and, I’d assert, irreligiously, hanker after a scientific verification of this kind of miracle for which there is no physical evidence. Real science would have to produce something which would approach closer to knowledge than religious belief in order to be effective. And, being an assertion of science, it would have to defend itself in review. And it can’t do that in this case. What it produces is belief which masquerades as a scientific position. Religious belief doesn’t suffer in the absence of scientific verification when that is impossible, certainly not in this situation. A religious believer will always have recourse to the valid point that the “scientific” viewpoint hasn’t dealt with what they believe and science can’t do that.

I will be out several weeks and when I return I’ll give a fuller response to J.C. Samuelson’s comment on the question. I will assert that he hasn’t answered the challenge, there isn’t a coherent methodology by which the requirements of science can be applied to the belief in The Virgin Birth. I have posted a preliminary response to some of his points but I’ve got to be away from my computer in about an hour and won’t be back for quite a while. If anyone takes on the Big Numbers question or posts a methodology on the Virgin Birth question I’ll deal with those then if I can. Of course, if you stump me, I’ll be honor bound to declare so.


  1. Honestly, I still think we're talking in circles. I'm rephrasing the argument to try and make the whole a bit more explicit, if I can.

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  3. Ok...

    The following two comments represent a more-or-less final response to this issue. Take it or leave it.

  4. Well, I've now chewed on this argument for over two weeks (off and on), considering how best to communicate what I think is the very simple concept that a miracle can be a scientific question. I truly think we've been talking past one another, with our disagreement partly hinging on how we each interpret what constitutes a "scientific question." Once again, I'll be staying focused as much as possible on that one issue. This time, I'm going to try and keep it just to the essentials.

    First, what is a miracle? According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "[A] miracle is a fact in material creation, and falls under the observation of the senses or comes to us through testimony, like any natural fact." In other words, it is an empirical claim. The virgin birth miracle is such because it asserts that a well-known (even at the time) biological process was overturned.

    You've challenged those asserting that the virgin birth is a scientific question to provide a methodology showing how it could be done:

    [I]t’s up to any scientist claiming that they can address The Virgin Birth of Jesus, as described in the gospels attributed to Matthew and Luke and actually believed by those who believe it, and not in a modified version so science can be made ez, to show how they could do it...with absolutely no physical evidence, through an unknown range of possible mechanisms, and without recourse to any other human birth...

    It seems clear that you prefer an explanatory model of science here, and interpret the assertion that miracles are "scientific questions" in light of that model. Since the goal of science is, after all, to find explanations, superficially it seems like a valid interpretation. But notice also that your challenge requires a putative belief in the virgin birth as a miraculous event in history; to presuppose that a miracle occurred, for there can be no scientific explanation of something that never happened.

    Indeed, it seems to me that anyone who attempts to explain the virgin birth in light of modern biology potentially falls into the same trap, because doing so requires the tacit assumption that something remarkable - miraculous, if only from the perspective of witnesses - really did occur. As a lay person, I was of course an easy victim.

    Having since given it much more thought, I've decided to reject your challenge as having a faulty premise. Primarily because it grants a degree validity to the original claim that hasn't been earned. It is not at all clear - indeed, there is considerable doubt - that the Bible's miracle stories weren't the product of someone's fancy. Therefore, I see no grounds for assuming the virgin birth ever occurred.

    But there's a bit more to it than that.

    From my perspective, evidence-seeking itself is also a scientific activity. And, of course, I interpret the statement that miracles are "scientific questions" in that light. To me, this interpretation is at least as reasonable and in keeping with the principles of science as yours.

    My view is that science should be considered both an evidence-seeking and explanation-seeking enterprise. Obviously these are closely related and highly compatible. Yet in spite of the obvious close association and compatibility between these two types of seeking, there is still a distinction. Evidence-seeking science might be thought of as looking to establish grounds for believing in or accepting hypotheses (or to support those already accepted), whereas explanation-seeking science is involved with interpreting evidence in a comprehensible manner.

    To be sure (and as I conceded earlier), the ultimate goal of science is to render the universe comprehensible by finding explanations. And, there is much interplay between evidence-seeking and explanation-seeking efforts, a discussion of which is well beyond the scope of our discussion. However, there is simple chicken-or-egg problem here. One that is easy to resolve, fortunately. Which comes first: evidence or explanation?

  5. It takes just a moment's thought to realize evidence comes first; an empirical observation of some phenomenon needing an explanation.

    Since a miracle often contains or is based on an empirical claim (as with the virgin birth story), it must first be established that there are grounds to believe it. In other words, treating the claim seriously first entails an appeal to evidence-seeking science.

    When someone like me suggests that a miracle is a scientific question, it's a reference to science in its evidence-seeking role. Not merely so, but certainly as a necessary step toward the provisional sort of acceptance that commends itself to continued seeking. Thus, an assertion that a miracle is a scientific question should not be considered a sweeping claim that science offers an explanation. Not even a naturalistic one.

    I suspect that this applies equally to many similar assertions made in this context, including (and perhaps especially) Dawkins' argument in TGD. It does not seem to me that he steps beyond science in its evidence-seeking capacity. If scientists were able to perform a DNA analysis of Jesus' remains as Dawkins suggests, doing so could only falsify or fail to falsify the claim as an actual event. It would explain nothing, really.

    As you've pointed out, however, there is no physical evidence to consider at this point. Is science therefore mute? Well, yes and no. Science forms the framework and methodology for guiding ourselves toward empirical truth, and therein provides the basis for demanding evidence in support of all sorts of empirical claims, from the ordinary to the extraordinary. In that sense, it is not mute. More to the point, its relative silence on the question of miracles actually speaks volumes about the kind of support they really enjoy as empirical claims, which is to say none at all. The silence is really quite deafening.

    Even conceding the point about the lack of evidence (which was not contested in the first place) does not exonerate miracles as legitimate claims. Asserting such is nothing more than an argument from ignorance; science cannot disprove them, ergo miracles happen. Moreover, a lack of evidence today does not lead to a lack of evidence forever. And in any case scientists seem to be quite ingenious at working with little more than an educated guess.

    Take the Large Hadron Collider, a huge, multi-billion dollar device whose purpose is to smash particles together in order to, among other things, find evidence of something that is at this point entirely hypothetical - the Higgs boson (which ironically - in this context, at least - has the nickname, the "God" particle). Granted, no one is supposing that the Higgs boson is supernatural, but the principle is the same with respect to evidence; if there is an empirical claim, it is in principle within the grasp of science.

    Now, as to singular events (as you've maintained the virgin birth to be), one need only look to the Big Bang - the quintessential singular event - to understand that your argument here is a non sequitur. Merely because something happened but once in history does not mean science is mute. And you'll also note that neither the cause(s) nor mechanism(s) behind the Big Bang are known, yet cosmologists are still doing science. Or, at least, few would say they aren't.

    While none of this speaks directly to the alleged miracle of the virgin birth, I do not think doing so is necessary to establish that miracles - including this one - are scientific questions when they include an empirical claim. Is this enough for you? Probably not, because I rather think you have a substantial emotional investment in the arguments you present against atheists. Is it enough for true believers? Definitely not. And, there is a great deal more which could be said about the problems with miracles, and the limitations of science, but those problems are beyond the scope of our discussion. As for our single issue - are miracles scientific questions - I have stated my case for whatever it may be worth.

  6. Anthony,
    Thanks for a well reasoned arguement. So sad that such is lackign elsewhere in the blog-o-sphere; I suppose I shouldn't be surprised though.

    J.C. - I'm a bit curious as to why you reject the claim that the Virgin Birth happend within a historical time line. Much of history, particularly ancient history, is just the modern interpretation of a small body of artifacts given light by archeology, coupled with the few writings that have survived form the period. So a lot of what we "think" we know about ancient events in Rome, or GReece, or Africa, or Palestine are not really "facts" based on "evidence" but beliefs that, to the archeologist or anthropologist make sense. Not much different fo rthe Virgin Birth, I'd say.

  7. Philip,

    I don't reject the virgin birth as an interesting cultural artifact. I reject it as a legitimate biological claim. That is, that it actually, really and in fact, happened.

    The original challenge Anthony posed was to show how the virgin birth of Christian mythology is a "scientific question." Thus, the response above is not so much about what archaeologists and anthropologists conclude about history as it is about particular types of truth claims and their relationship to the various hard sciences.

    Hope that helps clear things up a bit.