Lawless Events and the Existence of God
September 1, 2011 — 20:29

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Divine Providence Existence of God Problem of Evil  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 6

Christine Overall famously argued that miracles, conceived as violations of the laws of nature, would be evidence against the existence of the traditional God. A lengthy debate with Robert Larmer ensued, in which Larmer argued that only slight modifications to the law-breaking account of miracles are necessary in order for miracles to serve as evidence for, rather than against, the existence of God. Larmer tries to argue that miracles do not violate the laws of nature, but nevertheless holds that they are different from ordinary events in that they don’t follow from the laws of nature. (I don’t have Larmer’s book handy to remember the exact details of his account.)
The Overall-Larmer debate in some respects replays one dialectical thread from the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence: Clarke defends the view that any sufficiently widespread natural regularity should be regarded as a law, and any event that violates such a regularity should be regarded as a miracle. Furthermore, Clarke argues, miracles of this sort occur from time to time. Leibniz argues that God, as traditionally conceived, would not create a world of the sort Clarke envisions and, furthermore, that Clarke’s weak conception of laws does not allow a theologically adequate distinction between miracles and ordinary events.
I think Overall pretty decisively won the debate with Larmer, and Leibniz pretty decisively won the debate with Clarke on this and most other points. (One point where Leibniz clearly loses: his insistence that if there were not a unique best possible world God would be unable to create a world is clearly false.) However, there are a lot of people who seem to disagree, who continue to hold that miracles are best understood as somehow in tension with laws, and that such events can serve as evidence for the existence of the traditional God. I in fact think that miracles should not be conceived as in any sort of tension with laws, so, instead of speaking of miracles, I’ll speak of ‘lawless events’. Lawless events are those which don’t follow, either probabilistically or deterministically, from the laws of nature. (interpret ‘follow from’ in whatever sense your favorite theory of laws requires.) In this post I am concerned with arguments from the traditional divine attributes against the occurrence of lawless events. These arguments will of course work backward to show that lawless events would be evidence against the existence of a being with those attributes.

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