On Incredulity

The old saying goes, “If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.”

The following two stories are partly apocryphal and partly true.

One day I was talking to a stock broker. He started to get into the scene of hot tips on penny stocks. He told me about a company that had developed an “infinite compression algorithm.” Software that could compress information to a virtually infinite level. You could compress a video file with it, and then keep compressing the file further. He said that you could keep running the compressed file through the program over and over to make it smaller and smaller. I said to him, “That’s impossible. There are limits to how much data can be compressed.” He responded, “You are making an argument from incredulity, which is a logical fallacy.” I responded, “Just the same, I don’t think I’ll be buying that stock.”

As an aside, I’ve violated copyright laws by compressing the entire online catalog of videos from Netflix into this post. Here it is: “0” Hopefully you’ll be able to do a search to find the decompression program to extract this information from what I call an information singularity. Although it contains much less information, it works on similar principles as the singularity that existed before the big bang.

Another day, this same broker, told me about a device that had been invented for detecting oil deposits under the ground. He said, “With this device loaded on a truck, this company can drive around and detect oil deposits in the Earth while driving up to 55 miles an hour.” I said, “That’s impossible. I don’t believe it.” He responded, “You are making an argument from ignorance, which is a logical fallacy.” I responded, “Just the same, I don’t think I’ll be buying that stock.”

And the next two stories are completely apocryphal.

There was once a naturalist who believed everything could be explained by physical processes. He was an avid skeptic. His favorite phrase was, “Miracles can’t occur; therefore don’t occur. And anyone who says they can, is a bad reporter, because miracles can’t occur.” (1) He developed cancer, and as he lay in his hospital bed, he thought, “What do I have to lose? I don’t believe in miracles, but perhaps I will say a prayer.” He did pray for God to heal him, and that he would believe if it occurred. A week later, the doctor came into his room and reported that his cancer had virtually vanished, and told his patient that it was miraculous. The patient responded to the doctor, “That’s ridiculous. Miracles can’t occur; therefore don’t occur. And anyone who says they can, is a bad reporter, because miracles can’t occur.”

Another naturalist was avid in his quest to stamp out superstition and irrationality. He argued, “God can’t exist, because the world is full of suffering. I can’t believe there could be a God who would allow such suffering.” A believer responded, “You’re making an argument from incredulity.” The naturalist responded, “No, only superstitious religious types can do that. I am a scientist after all.”

(1). Back when Dr. Gene Scott was still living and I watched him on satellite, he would repeat the following over and over with a grin, “Miracles can’t occur; therefore, don’t occur. And anyone who says they can is a bad reporter, because miracles can’t occur. Miracles can’t occur; therefore, don’t occur. And anyone who says they can is a bad reporter, because miracles can’t occur. [refrain]”

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12 Responses

  1. This does point out the inconsistencies in communication and not just with naturalism vs intelligent design, but with all other forms of human interaction when it comes to truth vs opinion and belief.

  2. What if someone admits that miracles could occur, but that there’s no evidence for them?

  3. Sorry — I should have said

    “What if someone admits that miracles could occur, but believes that there’s no evidence for them?

  4. (Hi Carl, I visited your blog and see you’re in Texas. Hope you’re staying safe from Ike)

    “What if someone admits that miracles could occur, but believes that there’s no evidence for them?”

    I wonder what would be the point of such a statement, other than to subjugate every claim so that one can never be wrong!

  5. What if someone admits that miracles could occur, but that there’s no evidence for them?

    I’m not sure how that differs much from an argument where someone says, “I admit abiogenesis could occur, but there is no evidence for it.” I suppose that by making a statement the way that you do here, you open up the discussion to what you would consider as evidence for a miracle.

    But I think most often, this represents only a slight shift from what takes place in the story that I wrote. It could be, and I am not saying this is the case for you Carl, that it’s a less than forthright statement of a personal opinion. While under the surface a bit in the person’s mind, a variation of the mantra that I typed in the post is running, whereas the words that are used, give a false impression that the person believes that they could occur.

  6. DB wrote:

    not just with naturalism vs intelligent design, but with all other forms of human interaction when it comes to truth vs opinion and belief.

    Yes, this could start potentially start a number of different discussions.

  7. Mike, I think there’s a slight difference between what I’d intended by my remark and how you interpreted it. The difference is between:

    (1) “Miracles are logically possible, but I don’t believe in them, because I haven’t yet seen any evidence for them”

    vs.

    (2) “Miracles are logically possible, but there could not be any evidence for them.”

    I’d intended (1), whereas I think you took my remark as meaning (2).

    As for the analogy with abiogenesis: to be honest, I think this is fair. While I think that on balance the evidence available at hand is in favor of abiogenesis, I wouldn’t think someone unreasonable if they disagreed. The evidence at hand is genuinely ambiguous, and more to the point, the question “how much evidence is enough, and how high is the bar of sufficient evidence set?” is not itself a scientific question. I find the evidence good enough to justify the belief that abiogenesis occurred even though we don’t know how exactly it occurred. But I can understand how someone would refuse to believe that it occurred at all unless they can be shown how exactly it did so.

    But the fact is that, while I like the verbal sparring involved in clarification of epistemological assumptions, that’s not where my heart is. I’m quite willing to talk about “miracles” as a way of talking about those moments in our lives where we take notice of beauty and wonder that lies, unrecognized, beneath the surface of routine and habit. This work of “taking notice” as it happens to us draws out of ourselves so deeply than when we return to routine and habit (as we must) we are not quite the same being as before.

    My old rabbi once said that the true miracle of the “burning bush” isn’t that the bush burned without being consumed, but that Moses took the time to turn aside from shepherding to notice that the bush was not being consumed.

  8. I’m quite willing to talk about “miracles” as a way of talking about those moments in our lives where we take notice of beauty and wonder that lies, unrecognized, beneath the surface of routine and habit. This work of “taking notice” as it happens to us draws out of ourselves so deeply than when we return to routine and habit (as we must) we are not quite the same being as before.

    I think this is nothing more than a very clever dismissal of miracles. So much so, that it is completely irrelevant to the topic, because almost anything could be classified as a miracle under this definition. And as to evidence for miracles, I doubt you have given this a fair shake or review, whereas, you are willing to believe in abiogenesis on the most scant evidence.

  9. Carl, I did not misunderstand your assertion. What I am trying to point out is the safe ground you seem to cling to (and I must say you are very consistent in this!), with regard to the metaphysical. You claim to acknowledge it, but at the same time give it zero weight.

    If you follow my logic through, it’s apparent you have safe-guarded your position on everything such that you can never be wrong:

    For example, if the miracle claim is: “Jesus rose from the dead”; your logic applied is thus: “It’s certainly possible that he rose from the dead, but I don’t believe there is any evidence for it.” One can say that about any claim, and never be wrong or have to back it up!

  10. Speaking epistemologically, I contend that the burden of proof is on the person who asserts that a miracle did occur to provide the evidence for that belief, not the one who denies it. (Just as the burden of proof for abiogenesis falls on the person who endorses it, not the person who denies it.)

    But in any event, it seems to me that it’s completely missing the point to reconstruct talk of miracles in terms of evidence, warrant, etc. If someone says, “life is a miracle,” it would surely be missing the point of that utterance to say, “what’s the evidence for that?” The person who says “life is a miracle” is giving voice to, and recommending, an attitude to be taken towards existence. I think it’s a terrible, terrible mistake to understand all such utterances as “claims.” That is: if you wish to regard your own utterances as ‘claims,’ then I certainly won’t stand in your way, but I don’t regard all utterances about miracles as claims.

    I should add that one of the main things I’m trying to do in general as a philosopher is break the stranglehold that epistemology and metaphysics have on the practice of philosophy, and that means being deeply suspicious of how notions like reality, truth, being, existence, warrant, evidence, justification, inference etc. infect and distort our understanding of how we relate to ourselves, to each other, and to the world.

  11. You point is well taken. To me, “Life is a miracle” is a poetic statement, and of course I can understand what you mean by it. I would not ask you to provide evidence for it.

    But I was commenting on your response to the original post (where a faith healing was used as an example). I assumed you were speaking in concrete terms, and therefore specific claims.

  12. Hmm. You do have a point, Mike. I hadn’t been thinking at all about faith healing in my comments in this thread, even though that was a topic in the original post. My bad!

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