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|From the Fall 2004 issue of Knowing & Doing:|
C.S. Lewis on Miracles
by Art Lindsley, Ph.D.
ne of the classic ways in which believers have provided evidence for their faith is through miracles. By looking at prophecies from the Old Testament fulfilled in Christ, or healing and nature miracles, or the resurrection, believers have tried to show that there is a convergence of signs all pointing to Jesus as the Son of God. However, since the Enlightenment, there has been a strong rejection of miracles by modernism so that it has become necessary to apologize for the introduction of miracles rather than using them for evidence. Perhaps this skepticism is waning now that modernism is not in vogue, but there are still many who are skeptical of miraculous claims. C. S. Lewis in his book Miracles and in essays on the subject sought to clear the ground so that miracles could again be discussed.
The Problem with Naturalism
Lewis begins Miracles with a section on naturalism—nature is all that there is. You might represent naturalism and super naturalism in these terms. Naturalism presents nature as a closed box with everything being explained by natural cause and effect, whereas super naturalism sees nature as an open system, operating by natural law most of the time, but open to intervention by God.
Yet naturalism does undermine reason itself. Lewis says that naturalism
If only blind, unconscious, material forces are working by chance within the closed box of nature, then what is the status of the conscious, thinking being that arises out of that chance process? How can we have confidence in reason? Do we not need to somehow get outside the box in order to see it and describe it clearly? But, according to naturalism, we are chance products of that box and cannot get outside it. Forces that are material, working by chance, might produce an ability to think in a way that was sound, but also more likely would give us defective, distorted reasoning abilities. Richard Purtill, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Western Washington University, restates Lewis’s argument (taking into account the critiques that were given of it) in his Reason to Believe:
If you throw the dice to get the solution to your math problem, how likely do you think that the first or second throw would give you the right answer? The complexity of the universe is far greater than 2 + 2 = 4. It would always be more likely that you would come up with an erroneous result than the true one. Lewis is dealing here with something much more than a math problem: the whole validity of our reasoning shaped by the cosmic dice roll. Even if perchance these reasoning powers were valid, we would never know or have an adequate basis to know that they were valid. Thus, on a naturalistic foundation, all our confidence in the reason used to establish naturalism is undermined. The only slim hope is that one in a billion rolls of the dice has produced the correct result.
Socratic Club Debate
In 1948, as part of the regular Socratic Club meeting at Oxford, Elizabeth Anscombe, an analytic philosopher, brought forward some critiques of Lewis’s argument in this section (Chapter 3) of Miracles. Without going into all the details, the general thrust of the debate went as follows. In the original version of Miracles, which Anscombe was critiquing, Lewis had slightly overstated his case. He had argued that when we find that a belief results from chance, we discount it. Anscombe pointed out, in essence, that a belief arising from nonrational sources just might happen to give a right answer. She asked him: “What is the connection between grounds and the actual occurrence of the belief?”
Some have said that he gave up writing apologetics after that debate. Others say that is absurd. For instance, he later responded to Norman Pittinger’s critique of his arguments on miracles in the Christian Century. Probably the best is to say that Lewis, although at one time a philosophy tutor, was more trained in the classic philosophical tradition than in the new analytic philosophy. He knew that in order to further debate with philosophers such as Anscombe, he would have to do much further study for which he had no particular inclination. So he decided to write more in other areas and not do much of further work in the philosophical arena.
There are three negative ways to respond to miracles: that they are (1) impossible, (2) improbable, or (3) inappropriate. Lewis addresses all three of these critiques.
Unless you are absolutely certain that there is no supernatural power such as God in the universe, it would be hard to be so dogmatic as to say that every instance of claimed miracles is false. Granted, miracles are rare and might seem strange given our everyday experience, but that does not mean they ought to be automatically excluded. Why should we assume that what we have experienced is all there is to reality?
In philosophical circles, it is common to argue that miracles are improbable. In fact, David Hume’s famous argument against miracles maintains that it is always more likely that any particular claim to a miracle is false than that the miracle really took place. In other words, it is always easier in light of the “firm and unalterable” laws of nature to believe that those who testify to a miracle are in error than that they are telling the truth. For instance, there are billions of instances in which dead people stay dead and only occasional stories of dead people rising. The odds would be several billion to one (or two or three or so on) against such a report being true.
I was assured that “no” it would still be several billion versus 5,000 in each case. It would not matter if I and all my friends witnessed 100 miracles; the result would still be the same. As I thought about it, the question emerged: “Why do the instances that establish natural law have to count against a reported miracle?” Rather than weighing the evidence for a miracle, natural law, the usual way things work, was being used to exclude the unusual (miracle). Lewis says:
Hume allows no instance of a miracle, because another explanation is always preferable to him such as, in Lewis’s words,
This whole method of adding evidence (from natural law) rather than weighing evidence (for each reported miracle claim) has not been sufficiently explored. Addto this that even natural laws (as understood in a particular period) have had to be revised by anomalies that needed a better explanation. If there is no way of recognizing exceptions to laws, no way to believe others (or your own) direct observation of a miracle, no way to alter the natural law, then you might wonder if you had a defective view of probability. Establishing a natural law and evaluating miracles’ claims are different kinds of things, but not the same thing.
Yet another of Hume’s arguments is that various competing religions make miracle claims to establish contradictory views. Lewis’s approach to this is first, to admit the possibility that some of these claims are true and second, to argue for the unique “fitness” or appropriateness of miracles within Christianity. In Miracles Lewis says:
Lewis went on to say:
For instance, in Hinduism, the principle of non-distinction (All is One) rules out any validity to the distinction between natural and supernatural. Since all is “maya” or illusion, how can it be important to demonstrate power over the illusion? Granted, there have been claims of gurus levitating or healings in New Age circles, but within the system of thought how important are these “illusory” acts?
So, miracles do not have the same place and significance—the same fitness in pantheism or paganism as in theism. It is particularly in Christianity that miracles have decisive significance converging on Christ. Prophecies, miracles, and the resurrection all demonstrate that He is one sent by God. In the Old Testament, miracles are present around agents of revelation or as a deliverance of God’s people (i.e. Red Sea) but do not have the same focus as in the New Testament (on Christ). In the Koran, Mohammed does not do any miracles—except the revelation of the Koran; whereas, Jesus is reported there to have done 16 miracles. Only in later Islamic tradition are there reports of miracles done by Mohammed.
To those who would deny the miraculous, C.S. Lewis might say: First, naturalists (who view nature as a closed box) have great difficulty sustaining their position because the credibility of the thinking used to establish the position is severely undermined by their own assumptions. Second, miracles are not impossible because there is no argument to prove that they cannot happen. Third,they are not improbable unless you wrongly oppose instances of natural law to unusual or miraculous events. You need to weigh the historical evidence for each of these unusual events before excluding or accepting them. Fourth, miracles are not inappropriate because there is a unique “fitness” of how miracles relate to Christianity by comparison with other religious systems.
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Dr. Arthur W. Lindsley Senior Fellow, C.S. Lewis Institute – Art Lindsley has served at the C.S. Lewis Institute since 1987. Formerly, he was Director of Educational Ministries at the Ligonier Valley Study Center, and Staff Specialist with the Coalition for Christian Outreach. He is the author of C.S. Lewis’s Case for Christ, True Truth, Love: The Ultimate Apologetic, and co-author with R.C. Sproul and John Gerstner of Classical Apologetics, and has written numerous articles on theology, apologetics, C.S. Lewis, and the lives and works of many other authors and teachers. Art earned his M.Div. from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently the Vice President of Theological Initiatives for the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics.
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