09 December 2016

Bill's miracle

I had a lengthy and spirited discussion today with Randal Rauser over on his blog about a story he told regarding an acquaintance of his named Bill Muller. You can read the full story on Randal's blog (as well as read my discussion with him in the comments) but I'll summarize it here:

Bill was on his way to Cameroon in West Africa with a choir group, carrying items that had been requested by local missionaries. He was concerned about being caught up in customs and having to pay duty fees for the items. When things began to look grim after an inspector requested to see receipts for all the items (which Bill didn't have), a young agent arrived on the scene who, in a remarkable coincidence, turned out to be the son of a family Bill had stayed with in Cameroon many years ago. The young agent then allowed Bill to pass through customs swiftly. Bill went on to attribute this to divine intervention. As Randal says in introduction of the post, he doesn't take this to be a miracle in the sense of a suspension of natural law, but as a "sign of God’s presence and action in the world." I'll admit I'm not clear on the distinction. How is it a sign from God if, evidentially, it's indistinguishable from coincidence?

Regardless, here's the key point of contention: Is Bill rational to believe that this was orchestrated by God? Randal insists that he is. I insist he is not.


A Rabbit Hole of Evidential Proportions


Over the course of our discussion, Randal sought to challenge me on my belief in evidentialism (which, if you're unfamiliar, is a school of epistemology). I found this a bit frustrating, for a few reasons.

First, evidentialism is a robust school of philosophical thought that has an abundance of academic resources behind it. A fruitful discussion on the topic is well beyond the scope of a blog-comment debate over a completely different subject. And while I'm versed enough to discuss the overarching concepts and why I've found them persuasive, I have no delusions of being an academic philosopher; accordingly, if Randal (or anyone else) wants to have a robust debate on the topic of evidentialism, I'm probably the wrong person to talk to. 

But more importantly—and this is a big one—my argument is not contingent on accepting evidentialism. You do not have to be an evidentialist to think I'm right about this one. You do not have to think that evidence is the only way of justifying beliefs, or agree with me about the distinction between beliefs and assumptions (which was a sticking point between Randal and me). To that extent, I found Randal's baiting on the topic to be a red herring. You do have to agree with me on some broader epistemological assumptions if I'm going to persuade you that Bill was, indeed, irrational to believe that God orchestrated his fortuitous encounter. But you most certainly do not have to agree with all my beliefs about epistemology, and you definitely don't have to be an evidentialist.



Let's assume a few things


So what assumptions do I make? I'll go through one by one. I'll start with what I imagine would be the most contentious point first.

1. The most parsimonious belief is also the most rational

The principle of parsimony is summarized in Occam's Razor—colloquially stated as "the simplest explanation is usually the correct one". More academically, it can be stated as "do not multiply assumptions beyond necessity". This simply means that we should not invoke circumstantial, causal, or theoretical assumptions that are not necessary to explain a phenomenon or event.

For example, Sean Carroll did an entertaining bit some time ago about the moon being made of cheese. He said that the moon-cheese apologist would keep claiming that moon-cheese is not ordinary cheese, but cheese with all kinds of special and unique properties. It's perhaps impossible to prove that the moon is not made of this mysterious space-cheese, but everything we know about the moon is adequately explained on the theory that it is made of rock. There is no missing information that is filled by positing special moon-cheese composition. It's a superfluous assumption. Parsimony simply says that the rational thing to do is avoid superfluous assumptions.

Parsimony is not a logical argument. It can't prove the moon is not made of cheese. It simply tells us that unless we have some data that is unexplained by the current theory, we have no reason to posit any additional assumptions... like space-cheese. 

2. Bill's experience can be explained without supernatural causation

Remarkable coincidences like Bill's are rare, but they do happen. Improbable, certainly, but not impossible by any stretch of the imagination. It might be worth noting here that people seem less enthusiastic about remarkable coincidences that end badly, but remarkable coincidences certainly swing both ways. But here's what's most important point to remember: Bill's supernatural account is being added on to the more mundane (but still remarkable) natural explanation. It's a superfluous assumption not needed to coherently, logically, and completely account for the circumstance.

3. Confirmation bias makes us more likely to interpret events in accordance with our beliefs

It's not surprising that Bill attributed the coincidence to the Christian God, since he's a Christian. It would have been much more surprising if Bill had a sudden and strong conviction that the remarkable circumstance was the result of ancestral spirits, Chthulu, or Luck of the Irish (I have no idea if he's Irish or not).

4. The fact that a belief can fit an event after the fact is not evidence that it was the cause

If Bill was a Pagan, he might have claimed it was ancestral spirits that helped him. If he were a Buddhist, he might have concluded it was Karma. If he were a Scientologist, he might have concluded it was Tom Cruise (or something). There are literally an infinite number of beliefs that can be imposed upon this circumstance. The fact that a belief 'fits' in this post hoc manner is not, in itself, evidence that it was the cause.

5. Bill should have considered these things, but failed to

Bill had plenty of rational reasons not to attribute his fortune to God:
  • It's not necessary
  • God is no more explanatory than an infinite number of arbitrary post hoc explanations that 'fit' the circumstance 
  • Belief that God orchestrates circumstances like this is not, in itself evidence that God orchestrated this particular circumstance
Because Bill failed to consider these things, his belief is most parsimoniously explained as simple confirmation bias—which, by definition, is an irrational thought process. Therefore, in the absence of evidence that provides justification for the additional assumption of supernatural causation, Bill was not rational to attribute his experience to God. It really is that simple. 


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