"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan
Skeptic Speaker (SS): …and so to conclude, it is no more reasonable to believe in God or miracles than it is to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster!
(Enthusiastic applause from the audience suddenly followed by the sound of splintering glasses as a window breaks. Screams from the audience.)
SS (cries in terror): I knew it! I told you those crazy religious nutters are violent! They going to kill us all!
(Suddenly strands of noodle appendages appear from the smashed windows and a stentorian voice thunders from without.)
Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM): HOW DARE YOU USE MY NAME TO PROP UP SUCH BAD ARGUMENTS!!! YOU SHALL PAY FOR YOUR BLASPHEMY!!!
(More screams as the audience flees for the doors. The speaker tries to run too but a noodle appendage grabs hold of him. The speaker starts whimpering as the Flying Spaghetti Monster floats in. Pulling up the speaker towards him, the FSM peers at him.)
FSM: So! You’re the one who has been abusing my name as a rhetorical cover for your terrible arguments! You shall justify your abuse of my name or be turned into a meatball!
(The FSM sets the skeptic down on a chair and hovers close to him. The FSM bears a curiously striking resemblance to the common internet pictures of it.)
FSM: So, it is no more reasonable to believe in God or miracles than me eh? So what do you have to say for yourself now that I’m here?
SS (Though terrified knows that he must engage the FSM if he is to preserve his bodily form): Just because you exist doesn’t mean that God or miracles do!
FSM (stabs a noodle appendage at him): Precisely! My existence or non-existence has no effect whatsoever on whether God exists or miracles occur, so what’s the point of dragging me into it?
SS: I’m just drawing an analogy! I’m not saying whether or not you exist, I’m saying that the evidence for your existence is on par to that for God and miracles. Though clearly since you are quite evident to me the comparison doesn’t hold.
FSM: Excellent! That was quite well parried! But let’s follow the logic of your argumentation. You say, now that you’ve seen me, there is evidence for the existence of the flying spaghetti monster, correct?
SS: Well… yar, that’s quite obvious.
FSM: Do you therefore consider your testimony of me to constitute evidence for other people to believe in the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?
SS (feeling a little uncertain): Well… maybe.
FSM: Maybe? Tsk! That’s so evasive! But of course I see your difficulty. Previously you were saying that no matter how many reports or testimony of miracles or divine visions there maybe, they all count for nothing in the face of overwhelming evidence and testimony to their absence correct?
(SS nods reluctantly)
FSM: So now you’re quite in a bind. There is overwhelming evidence for my absence, and therefore on your own argument, your own testimony is discredited and it would be irrational for you to believe in me. Ironically even if you have precisely seen me with your own eyes!
(SS is at a loss)
FSM: You look quite ill, what you need is a plate of Spaghetti Bolognese. (With that the FSM reached from within his noodle body and brought forth a plate of Spaghetti Bolognese and set it on the SS’s lap. The SS nervously took a bite out of it and thought it tasted familiar)
FSM: Better? Now let’s continue. But don’t you realise that your own argument doesn’t only apply to me but would render it impossible to believe any new, extraordinary and unexpected discovery?
SS: I’m not exactly sure what you mean.
FSM: Suppose you live before the discovery of lodestones and magnetism. Now, imagine someone coming along and saying that they’ve discovered these strange pieces of rocks which can move away or towards each other on their own. If we were to apply your skeptical argumentation, then we would say that this is absurd for we have overwhelming testimony that rocks simply do not move towards each other or away from each other on their own.
SS: But that is different. At least for lodestones I can verify it for myself by following the guy to the rocks and seeing them move. It isn’t the same for miracles which are rarely verifiable in this way.
FSM: You make a good point there but you’ve essentially abandoned your principle or at least qualified it. Therefore what you’re saying now is that prima facie overwhelming evidence to the contrary of a new and unusual phenomena ,or the absence of it, does not by itself count against it provided that it can be verified by oneself, correct?
SS: I… suppose.
FSM: Good. But your principle, although qualified, would still cut out a significant portion of what we consider to be facts.
SS: Such as?
FSM: Rare phenomenon which are essentially not easily repeatable, for example, meteors which fall out of the sky. How is one supposed to verify that? Is the one who witnessed the meteor falling supposed to try to make another rock fall from the sky?
(SS is speechless)
FSM: Don’t worry about it, even the great David Hume was flustered by this example. Of course this principle of rare phenomena can be simply generalised to include all other phenomenon which are hard or impossible to verify for oneself, such as historical events or experiments which are very expensive or difficult to repeat. How is one supposed to re-create the Ice Age for example? And yet we believe in it, or consider the experiments of the Hadron Collider, it would be incredibly expensive to construct such a collider just so that you can see the experimental results for yourself. Or consider how General Relativity was confirmed by snapping photos during a total solar eclipse to observe light bending. The fact is even your qualified principle is self-contradictory.
SS: I don’t see how.
FSM: First, from where do you get evidence, for example, that water boils at hundred degrees? Or any other fact of nature’s uniformity which renders belief in miracles irrational?
SS: From scientists and the observation of other people of course.
FSM: And how do they communicate their observations?
SS: By… oh I see. Testimony.
FSM: Exactly. No scientist is an island. Scientific work proceeds essentially from the testimony of other scientists despite not having the resources, ability or time to verify it for oneself. If we were to pursue the criteria of only believing testimony which we can verify ourselves, we would end up with total nihilism for we cannot verify everything ourselves. How do you know water boils at hundred in Antarctica? Or Sweden? Or at higher altitudes? Have you verified that for yourself? Actually for high altitudes, water doesn’t boil at hundred degrees due to differing pressures. So, even before you can form the premise of a “uniform” nature which renders unexpected miracles or “violation” of the laws of nature implausible, you would have to believe in the testimony of other people, even if that testimony contradicts your own experience, e.g. water boiling at different degrees at higher altitudes. Therefore your own experience and ability to verify facts can’t be the measure for judging the plausibility of a testimony, otherwise you’ll end up believing almost nothing except for what conforms to your very small field of experience.
SS (flustered): But surely you must see that it is just implausible to believe in you or that there is a tea cup orbiting Saturn! How would you explain that?
FSM: Do you consider materialising plates of spaghetti out of nowhere to be implausible?
FSM: Yet I just did that and you were not surprised.
SS (remains silent)
FSM: You see, the context of a claim is vital. All unexpected events or discoveries always appear implausible at first until a larger context of explanation or mechanism illuminates it. But the point is that even in the absence of such a larger context, the lack of explanation doesn’t by itself discredit the testimony per se. We may believe the testimony of the unexpected and simply not know how to explain it. In the light of my existence, me being able to materialise a plate of spaghetti isn’t all that implausible. What would be implausible would be if some random guy simply materialises it.
SS: Are you seriously trying to tell me that believing that there are tea cups orbiting Saturn is on par to believing in meteors hitting the earth?
FSM: No no, not at all! Though meteors hitting the earth are rare events, rarer even than reports of miracles, but why we think that meteors hitting the earth is plausible because of the fact that we understand a broader context of asteroid fields, flying comets, etc. So if a meteor hits earth, though a rare event, isn’t all that implausible. Compare this with a tea cup orbiting Saturn. There simply isn’t any contextual explanation for its presence. So far we know that tea cups come from earth. And we know that there has been no space missions to Saturn which includes dropping a tea cup, so we would find the presence of a tea cup there implausible, but more importantly, not impossible.
SS: Not impossible?!
FSM: Of course not. Imagine one day that someone looking through a telescope sees an actual tea cup orbiting Saturn. We’ll all be very surprised and puzzled by that. But suppose then we discover that NASA has actually sent a probe there precisely to drop a tea cup as a joke in honour of Bertrand Russell who thought of it. Then what is implausible becomes plausible and credible.
SS: Yes, yes, imaginary scenarios are all well and good, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is irrational to believe in tea cups orbiting Saturn now!
FSM: Of course I’m not actually saying that it is plausible or reasonable to believe in it. I’m just saying that one shouldn’t preclude its possibility per se simply because one can’t see it. Of course practically speaking, it makes no difference to us whether or not there are tea cups orbiting Saturn, as such, we don’t really need to settle the question one way or another.
SS: How about you? You’re utterly and completely implausible!
FSM: And yet here I am!
SS: But how?
FSM (laughs): Use your imagination man! Maybe I’m the product of some freakish radioactive mix of some sentient being with spaghetti, or maybe I’m an alien instead come in disguise. But you shouldn’t confuse your lack of explanatory imagination for a positive disprove for a phenomena.
SS: But surely you’re not suggesting that you’re from outer space!
FSM: Why ever not? After all, you spend over billions of dollars on SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) projects and you find the possibility that you’re speaking to one now so astonishing?
SS: Well, are you?!
FSM: Well… technically, yes.
(With that a strange transformation occurs and the FSM turns into a familiar face.)
SS: GREG?!?!?! The waiter at the pasta place?
FSM (in human form): You sure do love our spaghetti bolognese.
SS (slumps in chair): But this still doesn’t explain anything! If anything, things are even more confusing now.
FSM: Remember the original context of our discussion, God and miracles?
SS: Wait… what?
FSM: Hah! I told my buddies that you’ll totally fall for the Flying Spaghetti Monster act!
SS: Buddies? What buddies?
(The FSM monster sprouted wings from its back and flew towards the window, as he did so he shouted.)
FSM: All things are possible with God! Even Flying Spaghetti Monsters! That is the most vital context of all!
For a proper discussion on the evidential weight of miracles and its rationality, I would recommend R.M. Burn’s The Great Debate on Miracles which discusses the debate on miracles during the 17th-18th century in the context of the British Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution.