Tag: miracles

Miracles and the Ad Hoc Fallacy

According to one atheist, the ad hoc fallacy:

is normally used more narrowly to refer to some explanation which is exists for no other reason but to save a favored hypothesis.

Typically, you will see statements referred to as “ad hoc rationalizations” or “ad hoc explanations” when someone’s attempt to explain an event is effectively disputed or undermined and so the speaker reaches for some way to salvage what he can. The result is an “explanation” which is not very coherent, does not really “explain” anything at all, and which has no testable consequences – even though to someone already inclined to believe it, it certainly looks valid.

Here is a commonly cited example:

I was healed from cancer by God!
Really? Does that mean that God will heal all others with cancer?
Well… God works in mysterious ways.

The author uses this examples to identify three key characteristics of an ad hoc fallacy. I will respond to each below:

A key characteristic of ad hoc rationalizations is that the “explanation” offered is only expected to apply to the one instance in question. For whatever reason, it is not applied any other time or place and is not offered as a general principle. Note in the above that God’s “miraculous powers of healing” are not applied to all cancer sufferers, but only this one at this time and for reasons which are completely unknown.

This is confused. Even if we accept the tedious formulation of this argument (why assume one is healed requires all are healed), I don’t see a reason to suggest this explanation must apply only to this one instance. The idea that divine providence is mysterious could apply to a great many miraculous healings.

This reply also seems to treat God’s healing activities as a uniform power or principle, rather than as an act of agency. But why expect that these miraculous powers should apply to all cancer sufferers?

Another key characteristic of an ad hoc rationalization is that it contradicts some other basic assumption – and often an assumption which is was either explicit or implicit in the original explanation itself. That is why, usually, an ad hoc statement is only applied in one instance and then quickly forgotten. Because of this, ad hoc explanations are often cited as an example of the fallacy of Special Pleading. In the above, the idea that not everyone will be healed by God contradicts the common belief that God loves everyone equally.

1) The term equally is hopelessly ambiguous. Is this supposed to imply that everyone should be treated in exactly the same way by God? I am going to assume otherwise, since this dissolves into absurdity almost immediately: does God love unequally when he creates one person taller than another?

2) Does it mean that if one good thing happens to one person, it should happen to everyone? For example, if one person gets a certain amount of money, everyone should get that amount of money too? That would be a set of miracles that treat everyone to the same good, yet clearly the cumulative effect would be merely to and devalue currency. And people value or use money differently than others. So I don’t imagine it’s that.

3) Or is equally only to do with the reduction of suffering (of certain kinds?) when someone asks for relief? For example, if a notorious, unrepentant serial killer–who is likely to kill again–is dying of cancer, should God heal him because a virtuous, selfless relief worker was healed of cancer last week?

4) While I am having trouble even salvaging this argument, at this point it’s trivial to note that no standard conception of Christian doctrine asserts any of these ideas. And Scripture is filled with examples of God treating various members of his people, whom he loves, differently. For example, compare Jesus’ fascinating treatment of Mary and Martha in John 11 (which the text identifies as an expression of Jesus’ “love”) as they dealt with the death of Lazarus.

5) I am also unclear what is meant by loves. Is the idea of love here that everyone should be happy, that serious suffering is contradictory the idea of a God who loves equally? That may work for definitions of Christianity languishing in Moral Therapeutic Deism, but it does not have any currency with theological frameworks that: (a) allow for suffering to produce more good (including personal joy and pleasure) than would have existed without it; and, (b) define love (agape) according to its New Testament use.


A third characteristic is the fact that the “explanation” has no testable consequences. What could possibly be done to test to see if God is working in “mysterious ways” or not? How could we tell when it is happening and when it is not? How could we differentiate between a system where God has acted in a “mysterious way” and one where the results are due to chance or some other cause?

These are questions in lieu of an argument. What does the author mean by testable? Does he mean replication in a lab? Eyewitness testimony from doctors? Divine revelation via dream or vision?

Let’s consider a recent miraculous healing account:

Over a year ago, a freak accident left me with 40% hearing loss in my left ear. After a wrong diagnosis, I was referred to Dr. David Haynes at@vanderbiltu, who correctly diagnosed me. I was the 2nd patient he had ever seen with this condition (the malleus bone broke, and surgery was too risky to attempt in this case). The bottom line is, there was no solution medically. It was a permanent issue I just had to learn to live with. He even consulted a colleague at the Mayo clinic bc it was such a crazy case. They agreed-nothing could be done.

I prayed for a miracle with Audrey, and I didn’t get it. I haven’t prayed for one since bc my heart was so wounded. A few months ago, the Lord prompted me to do exactly that, and today I cried in a hospital room as he stared at me, dumbfounded by the fact that my hearing has miraculously returned to a normal level. He looked in my left ear and said, “Wait-which side was the bad one?” I will never forget his face when he asked “What have you done in the last few months so I can explain this to my colleagues?” I replied, “I prayed.” Maybe you needed to be reminded (as I did) that we serve a God who is still in the miracle business…

What is ad hoc about attributing this healing to God? I’m not a doctor, but from what I understand, this is a highly unlikely natural coincidence.

I would assume the objection in this case is that it could still possibly be due to chance. But what makes that ad hoc under the definitions above? Does what counts as ad hoc have more to do with assumed metaphysical presuppositions than strict rules of logic?

It is incorrect to pit the natural against the supernatural. While the cause (or causes) of a healing can be ambiguous, even if we can identify a (proximate) physical cause, that doesn’t mean there is no (ultimate) nonmaterial cause. That just assumes metaphysical naturalism from the get go. Miracles are not simply a subtraction story, existing in shadows yet to be dispersed by scientific explanation. Miracles can be acts of what we might otherwise call extremely improbable coincidence.

So I am suspicious that testable here means anything other than replication in a lab. But why limit explanations to laboratory results? This omits a range of possible explanations.

Continuing with the ad hoc explanation:

The fact of the matter is, we can’t – the “explanation” offered above provides us with nothing to test, something which is a direct consequence of having failed to provide a better understanding of the circumstances at hand. That, of course, is what an explanation is supposed to do, and why an ad hoc explanation is a defective explanation.

Thus, most ad hoc rationalizations do not really “explain” anything at all. The claim that “God works in mysterious ways” does not tell us how or why this person was healed, much less how or why others will not be healed. A genuine explanation makes events more understandable, but if anything the above rationalization makes the situation less understandable and less coherent.

In high school I had a friend who received an anonymous check each year that covered her tuition. Without the money, she would not have been able to attend. Why did this benefactor choose my friend over another? There were plenty of other needy students, including students who wanted to attend but couldn’t because their parents were too poor.

The motives of the person were mysterious. In fact, they remain mysterious to this day. Yet the check was there, every year, without fail. Does the fact that we can’t explain this behavior mean any explanation involving agency is ad hoc? Or doesn’t count as a “genuine” explanation? I don’t see how that follows.