Why Materialism Cannot Object to The Miraculous

I’veAncient Philosophy written about this subject a few years ago, but as I read Ancient Philosophy by Gordon H. Clark today, I came across the following section dealing with the Stoics, who were ancient materialists and their belief in divination. I post this to reemphasize how absurd it is for the materialist to object to speaking serpents, seas splitting, leper being healed, and dead men being resurrected. If materialism is true, then, ironically, everything is possible.

Here’s Clark:

There was a second science [in addition to the science of medicine] – it was generally considered to be a science at that time – which more directly impelled the Stoics toward determinism: the science of divination. The Stoics, like Aristotle, tried to justify so far as possible the common opinions of their contemporary civilization, and divination was a practice ingrained in the political and religious life of the age. Now upon one basis, and apparently one basis only, is divination possible. If all the realities and events of the universe are joined together in a bond of sympathy, then the condition of the entrails of a bird is strictly related to the outcome of tomorrow’s battle. Though the bird is not the cause of tomorrow’s victory, still, in a rational universe, if there are given conditions in one place, only definite set of facts can occur in another place. A sufficient knowledge of the natural connection of things, therefore, will permit the foretelling of the future from an examination of the present. Theoretically this is as unobjectionable as astronomy.

Ancient Philosophy, (The Trinity Foundation: Tennessee, 1997), 226-227.

Soli Deo Gloria.



10 thoughts on “Why Materialism Cannot Object to The Miraculous

    • hiram says:

      If all that exists is material, then everything is causally related. And if the totality of material entities and their causal relations is unknowable (which it is), then we cannot claim that any one causal relationship is more tenable than another.

      So the idea that the details about a bird’s entrails are somehow materially related to a future state of affairs is not only not absurd, it follows necessarily. Now the relation may not be readily apparent, but since the facts of the universe are transdenumerable, our inability to perceive the causal relation between bird guts and the outcome of a war is no proof that there is no relation. Rather, materialism necessitates that we recognize that everything is causally related, whether immediately or mediately.

      So if materialism obtains, then anything is possible.

      Why? Because all physical things stand in some relation to one another. No explanation is less probable than any other. Furthermore, since induction is incomplete, and cannot be completed (given our finitude and the transdenumerability of facts in the universe), talking animals would not be materially impossible nor materially inexplicable. The same would be true of resurrections, healings, reincarnation, and an infinite list of other phenomena typically identified by materialists as “irrational” or “impossible” or “improbable.”

      This is why Clark pokes fun at Astronomy, saying that it fares no better than Stoic divination by bird guts.




      • Boxing Pythagoras says:

        The whole point of determinism is that the totality of material entities and their causal relations is NOT unknowable– at least, in the philosophical sense of the word. While we may never have such total knowledge, in a pragmatic sense, the potential for it exists.

        Furthermore, it does not follow from a lack of knowledge about a system that “anything is possible” within that system. At best, you could argue that the possibility of any given event is indeterminable; however, this is a far cry from being able to claim that it is possible. Similarly, it does not follow that “no explanation is less probable than any other.” Again, at best you could argue that such probability is indeterminable.

        When materialists discuss possibility and probability, it is always in light of our current knowledge of the system. For example, while it may be possible that flipping a coin could result in its landing perfectly balanced on edge, our knowledge of physics combined with our experience in flipping thousand upon thousands of coins shows that we can expect such an occurrence to be incredibly unlikely. Total knowledge of the universe is not required to make such a judgement.

        The entire purpose of deterministic philosophy is to posit that there do exist things which are possible in comparison to things which are impossible, and that knowledge of the system– even partial knowledge– allows us to adjudicate the probability of certain events. It does not follow that “if materialism obtains, then anything is possible.”


        • hiram says:

          BP, how does one know that the totality of material entities and their relations to one another constitute a system (for brevity’s sake, T = S)? Sure, we can make the ontological assumption that T = S; however, there is no way to confirm that this is actually the case. But let’s assume that T = S. If T = S, and our knowledge of S, as you acknowledge, is partial, then upon what basis can we reason about the possibility or impossibility of some miraculous event (respectively, p v ~p)? On the basis of a closed set of knowledge parameters (K) that may or may have not have existed in the past, that may or may not exist in the future, and that may or may not exist in the present (except as an arbitrary constraint placed upon data that may or may not be constitutive elements of S).

          If T = S, therefore, K.
          And if K, then [p v ~p].

          But if K is open to revision given the discovery of past or present data previously unaccounted for, then we have to deal with a new disjunction, viz. Either [p v ~p] or ~[p v ~p]. With the discovery of data, in other words, K changes. And with K, possible and impossible disjunctions. What may have seemed impossible, given K, may be rendered possible given the discovery of data which modify K, and vice versa.

          Moreover, some data are inaccessible to us (e.g. events in the past that contribute to the condition of a particular material entity under observation). We can make guesses about those data, but such guesses are, again, made arbitrarily. Within the constraints of K, the arbitrary parameters resulting from the arbitrarily assumed axiom that T = S, guesses about past data may be smaller in number, but they ultimately arbitrary as they may or may not be correct.

          Given the fluidity and arbitrariness of these delimiting factors, how can any causal relationship be affirmed or denied?
          We can dogmatically affirm or deny the postulation that bird guts can accurately foretell the future, but seeing as we don’t know whether or not K actually obtains in the past, present, and future, such dogmatic pronouncements are unjustified. They certainly don’t have any empirical or logical justification.



          • Boxing Pythagoras says:

            I actually agree with most of what you’ve stated, here. This is why I said that, at best, the possibility or probability of miraculous events is indeterminable. It is just as incorrect to say that miracles are possible, on this view, as it is to say that miracles are impossible (depending upon one’s definition of “miracle,” of course). However, our judgments are made using K as our inherent standard. When we make such judgments, we are not necessarily saying, “X is true on T,” but rather that “X is true on K.”

            For example, in “Egils saga Skallagrimssonar” it is reported that Egil cured a girl’s illness by correcting a bad Runic charm of protection. This sort of religious healing is fairly commonly viewed as miraculous, and similar events are reported in almost every religious tradition known to man. Now, we cannot say that, on T, it is impossible for Egil to have miraculously cured this girl with the Runes given to man by Odin Allfather, as we do not have a full understanding of T. However, we can say that such a situation does not accord with K.

            The same applies to any given miraculous claim. We cannot determine the possibility or impossibility of that event on T, but we can certainly evaluate it in terms of K. The fact that K may or may not receive some future revision does not invalidate this. The proper time to alter judgments about events in light of K is after K has been revised, not prior.


  1. Ryan says:

    It’s true that all things are linked, and the bird’s entrails are related to the battle, but the connection is undetectable and unintepretable, not only by the naked eye of some tribal shaman, but of anyone ever by any known method.

    I don’t follow your argument at all. If I understand physics correctly, every atom’s location is probabilistic, so it’s technically possible for a dead man to be resurrected, but the odds are almost infinitely low. Everything we do relies on those odds. It’s possible for your hand to spontaneously fall off if the cosmic dice roll goes that way; it’s just near-infinitely improbable. Maybe there is a God who determines the out come of the dice rolls, and can cause miracles in that way… But it doesn’t necessarily follow that that God has interacted with us at all, or that the Judeo-Christian God is the right one.


  2. hiram says:

    Ryan, some responses before I go to work :)

    You say:

    “It’s true that all things are linked, and the bird’s entrails are related to the battle, but the connection is undetectable and unintepretable, not only by the naked eye of some tribal shaman, but of anyone ever by any known method.”

    If the connection between all things is undetectable and uninterpretable by the naked eye of a tribal shaman or anyone by ever by any known method, how do you know that there is such a connection?

    This alone invalidates your comments.

    The assumption that all things are connected is a heuristic principle for materialists, at best. And at worst, i.e. in reality, it is an article of faith that contradicts the materialist philosophy.

    The point Clark was making is simple:

    If all things are connected, then there is no ration materialist objection to the idea that men rise from the dead, for there may in fact exist some causal relationship between material entities that results in resurrections, healings, and so on.

    Unless you want to be a dogmatist, then you have to disabuse yourself of the false idea that you can rationally object to Christianity by calling its record of the miraculous “improbable” or “unlikely.”


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