Challenge: Which Is More Likely?

Posted: July 31, 2012 by Amy Hall in God is Real, Weekly Challenge

Here’s a question from Patrick for this week’s challenge:

What would be the best and quickest answer to a skeptic who would say, “What is more likely, either all the laws of nature have been broken, or someone lied”? I think this comes from David Hume and was cited by Christopher Hitchens, but I’m not sure. I’ve read John Lennox’s “Gunning For God” and he covers it quite well, but I’m looking for a quick and precise answer.

Any ideas for Patrick? Any tactical advice? Give it a shot, and we’ll hear Brett’s answer on Thursday.

  1. Erik says:

    The question isn’t perfectly clear as to what they are referring to, but a quick internet search appears this challenge has to do with the existence of miracles, so that’s how I’ll address my proposed response. First, I don’t think any quick answer is going to convince a skeptic to change their position and suddenly accept that miracles happen and that God is real. This is the kind of challenge that can make a Christian cringe because you don’t know how to respond. Belief in miracles is not something that we can prove by traditional science, simply because miracles are not the type of event that is an ongoing, normal process (like the laws of nature). By definition, miracles are outside of the norm. As for a response, I would probably direct the question back at him. He is, through his question, making an assertion that the laws of nature are to be trusted and anyone claiming a miracle must be lying. If would first make sure he understands that he is making an assertion, even though he is asking you a question. Perhaps stating something like “so, what you’re trying to say is that miracles can’t happen, do I have that right?”. Note that his claim is not a fact, but rather an opinion. He is the one that has made a claim, now it’s up to him to defend that claim. Assuming he is a believer in science and the scientific method, and as such would consider facts and truth to be of supreme importance. Consider asking him a question such as “Since you don’t believe in miracles, what evidence do you have that they haven’t happened?” “What scientific proof have you seen that a miracle cannot occur?” “What proof do you have that people who claim to have experienced a miracle have lied?” “If some people lie about a certain type of claim, does that mean we have to then assume that all claims of that type are lies?” Obviously, some people may have lied about experiencing a miracle, but does that mean that all occurrences of a miracle are summarily dis-proven? My guess is this view is based around more prejudice than fact. He probably hasn’t been truly challenged on this point of view. As Greg teaches, you may only be able to ‘put a pebble in their shoe’ at the moment. The point being that if you can get them to see a flaw or two in their arguments, perhaps you can help to direct their thinking, and, with the Holy Spirit’s help, someday get a chance to share the Gospel message with him.

  2. Bobby says:

    i agree with Erik. The Question isnt Quite clear.

  3. I’d ask him, “Why think the laws have been broken?” He seems to be defining a miracle as something that breaks or violates natural laws, but why think so? Let’s say gravity causes a ball to fall to the ground, but before it hits the ground, I catch it and start juggling it. Am I violating the laws of gravity? Hardly. I am, in a sense, overpowering it, introducing a causal event that nature itself wouldn’t produce if I wasn’t there. Similarly, God performing a miracle shouldn’t be seen as a violation of the laws of nature, he is causing an event that nature by itself couldn’t cause at the times he performs them.

  4. I agree with Erik that there really isn’t a short answer for this question that is going to be satisfying for the skeptic. However, you can force him to defend the underlying assumptions of his challenge.

    For starters I’d ask, “What do you mean when you say the laws of nature were broken? Are you saying that miracles such as the resurrection of Christ are literally impossible?” This forces him to explain what he means by miracles.

    For the most part I’m guessing he sees miracles as things that violate the laws of physics and chemistry. However, even defined this way, it does not show that a miracle is impossible. If the Bible said that Christ created a square circle we would be logically justified in saying that didn’t happen, the reason being that a square circle literally is impossible. It’s a logical contradiction. However, it’s not impossible to conceive that an extraordinary event like the resurrection could occur. It doesn’t usually happen, but that isn’t proof that it never could. So long as we can imagine some possible world in which a resurrection occurs, that means that it is logically possible.

    For the skeptic to know that miracles have never occurred, he would have to be able to say he has experienced everything there is to experience in all of history. Seeing as not a single person has done this, he cannot be certain that no one has ever experienced a miracle.

    Furthermore, science only works so long as we assume the uniformity of the laws of nature. The fact that no one has ever observed them change doesn’t prove that they never have or they never will. Science is a descriptive enterprise, not a prescriptive one. It can describe the world we observe, but it cannot go any further and tell us that something does not exist or cannot happen.

  5. Ann Pursche says:

    The dilemma proposed is faulty. Why are these two choices – breaking the laws of nature verses someone lying, the only ones given to explain events?

    Here’s another possiblity: there is a Supernatural Being of such great power and intellect that He supercedes the laws of the natural world, but in His intervening actions, operates in a manner fully consistent with His Divine Supernatural nature. The natural laws are not broken when He acts, they are replaced by supernatural laws. The actual dilemma then is this: is there such a Being or not? Evidence, through the various arguments (cosmolgical, ontological, moral, etc.) then is given in support of there being a God who is just like that.

    But I agree, there is no quick reply to convince a skeptic that questions the existence of God. However, there are some skeptics who might entertain the idea of a god, but doubt the existence of miracles. (I know, seems counter-intuitive to believe in a supernatural being that’s not very supernatural, but I’ve actually met people with ideas like that.) This might cause them to expand their concept of a god limited by natural laws to One who is not.

  6. Miracles aren’t within the realm of probability. And we have a word for events that happen outside the realm of probability. They’re called miracles (yes, really!). We call them that to distinguish them from events that can occur naturalistically (even if improbable). Miracles occur at God’s good pleasure when He wills them to, not according to some probabilistic function. To ask whether miracles are more, or less “likely” to occur than other events is to miss the fact that they are miracles, and by definition are not even within the realm of probability at all.

  7. Bert says:

    What exactly is a “law of nature”? The use of the word “law” is metaphorical. We do not have a statute book that says “thou shalt not fall faster than 9.81 meters per second squared.”
    A “natural law” is simply an expression of consistency of observation. When something behaves differently, either our observation is wrong or our understanding of the nature of things is wrong.
    It is extremely arrogant to believe that we have unraveled the nature of nature to the degree that we can say with finality that we know all there is to know and nothing more can be learned.

  8. Kevin Walker says:

    This is referring to the resurrection of Jesus right?. Perhaps one could take a presuppositional route and say something to the effect of “Which option is more likely will ultimately depend upon the presuppositions one brings to the table from the beginning of the argument or discussion.” For the Naturalist, or Humean, or physicalist, or what have you… it will be more likely that someone lied. But for the Christian, it will be more likely that Christ rose from the dead and that the laws of nature were “broken” or that a miracle occurred. So the discussion will inevitably lead to a discussion of each person presuppositions (foundational beliefs that are taken to the evidence and by which one interprets that evidence) and whether or not these are justified or contradictory, or possibly probability theory. But even then presuppositions may be at work, skewing the nature of the probabilities. So I think presuppositional apologetics may work nicely here and allow us to the engage the skeptic easier than evidentialism.

  9. Ben Wallis says:

    Hi guys.

    I see that a couple of folks have suggested that miracles do not “break” the laws of nature, but rather that God simply overpowers or supercedes over natural laws with his own causal influence. But such objections appear to misinterpret the skeptic’s question.

    Spencer Chan Toy wants to ask the skeptic, “What do you mean when you say the laws of nature were broken?” I think that’s a good question. Indeed, what does anyone mean when they talk about the laws of nature being “broken”? I don’t think the answer is terribly difficult: a natural law is “broken” whenever it fails to hold. So for instance, suppose I let go of a ball, and it falls up when the laws of nature tell us that it should fall down. So, those laws of nature have failed to hold, and in that case we say that they have been “broken.” And it doesn’t matter how or why the laws of nature have failed to hold. It could be God’s causal influence, or a higher-order “supernatural” law acting on the ball, or whatever else. The bottom line is, the natural laws failed to hold.

    So perhaps we can consider a re-phrased challenge: Which is more likely: that the laws of nature have failed to hold, or that someone lied? It’s the same challenge, just put in different words.

    This seems to me a pretty steep challenge. People lie all the time, but I have never observed the laws of nature failing to hold. Now, maybe I just haven’t observed enough. But according to the best evidence available to me, if someone is going to claim that the laws of nature failed to hold, it would seem far more likely that he is lying than that his claim is correct. (Personally, though, I would hope that he is merely mistaken, and not lying.)

  10. Hey, it’s Thursday, isn’t it?
    I’m starting get all shaky and light headed waiting for Brett’s response.

    • Brett Kunkle says:

      Haha! Glad to know my response video is highly anticipated by at least one person, Mike. You must be a very godly man…

      Anyway, my internet has been down since Sunday night. The earliest AT & T was able to get a technician to my house was this morning, so I thought the problem would be fixed. However, he couldn’t fix the problem so he had to call in another technician. The 2nd technician just left and said he CAN’T fix the problem either, so he’s sending another technician out tomorrow. Soooo…I’m working on another plan to upload the video, hopefully later tonight!

      Be on the lookout…

  11. Hi Brett Kunkle and the totally awesome Amy Hall—my two favorite Christians!!!! What’s up?…anyways you ask:

    “What is more likely, either all the laws of nature have been broken, or someone lied”?

    The obvious answer: someone lied!

    And anything beyond that is simply wishful thinking…but wishful thinking can be fun and beneficial (even though it’s all fiction); example; Santa Clause, Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy…

    Look Brett Kunkle and the awesome Amy Hall…we all (with straight faces!) lie (yes, we humans lie a lot!) to our kids (sons, daughters, nieces and nephews, and other kids) about the above characters; but yet those very same lies are fun and beneficial not only to kids but to the adults who tell them…that’s why I want all Christians to keep believing in Jesus (love him, live for him, spread love in his name), because he too is fun and beneficial to many people even though he too is a fictional character of the NT…

    Brett Strong …in my recent debate on radio (1360 KPXQ AM in Phoenix, AZ) at Backpack Radio (Brett Strong vs. Vocab; 7/15/2012) I had to keep pointing the fact that the NT Jesus is a fictional character…in fact the Christin god of the bible is a fictional character (which I repeatedly made light of in my radio debate on Redemption Radio vs. Jeff Durbin; June 13th 2012)

    …but it totally OK (fun and beneficial [minus any dogma, i.e.]) folks to believe in the NT Jesus and the biblical god…who cares if some ancients lied, created pure fiction, pertaining to the NT Jesus/god…just enjoy such beliefs and live a fun loving life…now who can argue with that? Not me!

    PS: Buddha and Muhammad are reported to have done shocking miracles too (Buddha is reported to have levitated on air and Muhammad is reported in the Hadith to have split the entire moon in half, made water come from his fingers, a tree stump spoke to him, etc, etc, etc)…now I ask, do you guys believe any of their miracles? Or do you simply (without any concerns) write them off as a lie, deception, fictional accounts? Then why not include your Jesus and Christian god in that same category?

    Note Brett Kunkle and the amazing Amy Hall: BISHOP Shelby Sponge is a Christian but will flat out tell you that the bible is basically a collection of fables, teaching fables i.e. …so what; the NT Jesus and the Christian god still has a lot to offer humans (hey, I benefit mentally/emotionally/and physically from Chris Tomlin, Michael W Smith, 3rd day, Mercy Me, Matthew West, Hill Song, and countless other Christian music just like bible believing Christians do…and the NT Jesus character and the Christian god character have some awesome quotes that I incorporate into my life like “forgive [people] for they know not what they do”, etc, etc, etc…indeed, the NT Jesus character and the Christian god character have a lot to offer humans just like Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy have a lot to offer little humans (called kids)…who cares if they are fiction, lies, not real; what matters is, do we benefit from them…and the answer is positively YESSSSSSS!

  12. Erik says:

    Brett (Strong),

    I can see you have some strong opinions on this matter. I’m just curious, do you have any evidence to support your claims that the God of the Bible, Jesus, miracles, etc. are lies? You’ve offered the opinions of Bishop Shelby Sponge as a refutation, as well as your own objections, but no facts have been given. You stated above that it is a fact that the NT Jesus is a fictional character. If that is truly a fact, there should be some good evidence to point to to support this claim. You obviously have given some thought to these issues, so why not offer up some of the research that have led to these conclusions. Since we’re all here to learn more about Christianity, it would be helpful to know more about why people hold opinions that are in opposition to the teachings of Christianity. If we’re to be honest about what we believe, then I think it’s important that we can have reasoned debate in a public forum. I know I’d like to hear any facts you have to offer to support your conclusions, I imagine others here would be interested to hear them as well. I am glad you stopped by as it certainly helps us in our understanding of what others think and believe.

    • Hi Erik, I’ll respond to you directly because you sound like a nice guy with a heart for Jesus (cool!)…you ask me why I emphatically state the NT Jesus is a fictional character… here’s a nutshell reason why (and believe me I could pile on the reasons why the NT Jesus is fiction, but for now here’s a fun nutshell reason why)

      “the NT Jesus is written identical to a Marvel Comic Book character; for this Jesus character ‘FLY’S’ in the air and DISAPPEARS into a raincloud, DISAPPEARS through walls, DISAPPEARS before people’s eyes, APPEARS OUT OF THIN AIR (scaring the heck out of people), CONTROLS THE WEATHER [tells it to shut up and it does], WALKS ON WATER [and invites his student too do the same], raises a ZOMBIE from the grave, gave his students the power to raise ZOMBIES from the grave, became a ZOMBIE himself and then raised himself from the grave (and during that time a crowd of ZOMBIES raided Jerusalem), and this superhero NT Jesus supposed to come back (with a tattoo on his leg) on A FLYING WHITE ‘POLICE’ HORSE (backed by an entire army flying on white ‘police’ horses too) to gather BILLIONS of ZOMBIES in the sky (along with the living)—whisking them off to the cosmos …hmmm…sounds like fairytales to me…”

      Brett Strong

      Erik, check out what Matt Chandler had to say about his Christian beliefs (Matt Chandler is the lead pastor of the mega church called The Village Church, in Dallas Texas; and he was laughing with his 5,000 plus congregation about the utter zaniness of the Jesus story)

      “There’s a foolishness to what we believe!” “its crazy!” “a virgin gave birth to a guy who was god but only part of god but still completely god and man also, lived perfectly so they killed him, they buried him and he came back to life and then he floated back into heaven and one day he coming back on a white horse, to get us” “It’s crazy!”

      Peter Kreeft (a major PhD Christian apologetics guy with over 60 books written) stated

      “the incarnation is 99.99999999 percent unbelievable!” “How could we ever believe such a thing [the biblical Jesus story] all by ourselves unless we were mentally deranged!”

      Hmmm, their exact words not mine…

      Have a great day Erik…but I must add: who cares that the NT Jesus is a fictional character, what matters is do you benefit from such a belief in him? Yes! Then that’s good enough reason to keep believing! No need to go any further!

  13. Ben Wallis says:


    Your last comment (although on a different topic) reminded me that I wanted to respond to your first comment in this thread.

    A skeptic who issues the challenge in question is not necessarily saying that anyone who claims a miracle occurred must be lying. For example, I wrote in my previous post that I prefer to hope that these people are merely mistaken. And while we should trust the laws of nature, that trust need not be absolute or deny exceptions. In other words, the skeptic need not hold that miracles never occur. The issue here is epistemic—how can we know that a miracle occurred in any given instance?

    But as I mentioned in my previous post, people really do lie all the time. And they are very often mistaken about what they see and hear. So before we jump to the conclusion that a miracle occurred, we had better make sure it’s not more likely that the person or persons reporting the miracle are not lying or mistaken. That, I think, is the lesson to be learned from the challenge.

  14. And Ben Wallis’ comment above brings to mind to ask which “miracles” the skeptic is talking about. My answer to his question might be different depending on whether he’s talking about the kind of miracles that certain modern day religious people (and not just Christians) claim to have personally witnessed (or otherwise experienced), vs. the kind of well established miracles we find in the Bible.

  15. Erik says:

    Ben, you make a good point. What I was hoping to get at with my questions was to attempt to clarify what they meant – are they saying that all miracles are lies (which appears to be the point they’re making), but it’s unclear if that’s their true challenge. And certainly, people do lie, but that doesn’t have to necessarily disqualify a miracle. Unfortunately, when it comes to miracles, I think it’s always going to be difficult to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that such things have happened, since, by their very nature, they are going to be single occurrences. Multiple eyewitness testimony from trustworthy witness is probably the best we can hope to do. But again I go back to my original point – the statement appears to me making a veiled assertion that it’s more likely that a claim to a miracle is a lie based on the fact that it can’t be proven using natural laws. I would simply ask for more information showing why that point of view has must weigh more heavily on the side of science. Nothing has been proven by saying that people have lied about miracles in the past. Of course they have. But politicians lie. Does that then force us to a position that all things said by politicians must be lies? (I know, some people will say a definite yes to that one). I don’t think that any response to the question above will satisfy the mind of a true skeptic. But it could be a starting point to a spirited debate.

  16. Ben Wallis says:

    Mike Westfall,

    Well the situation is rather different with Biblical reports. In that case, we don’t have claimants exactly, but rather we have ancient documents which report supernatural events in historical contexts which are themselves understood through other ancient documents. So the situation is more complicated, and this keeps us from positing simplistic hypotheses like “maybe so-and-so was lying.” But the principles involved are nevertheless very similar. That is to say, we still have to weigh a given supernatural hypothesis, call it H, against the vast bulk of naturalistic hypotheses. If the sum of all such naturalistic hypotheses is more likely than H, then we cannot justifiably conclude that H is correct.