The word miracle comes from the Latin word for a wonderful thing. For the purpose of the religious philosopher, it will be understood as an unusual event which has religious significance.
Therefore, a miracle is not simply the occurrence of an unusual event. As Brian Davies remarks: ‘those who believe that miracles have actually occurred normally hold that they are events of some religious significance.’ We would only conclude that something was a miracle if the event had some meaning or purpose, such as healing somebody or preventing an injury of some sort. If your desk suddenly turned into an elephant and then back again, it would not be seen as religiously significant.
What we are looking at here is the idea that ‘miracles’ can happen. This theme is related to other parts of the course, for example, in the conversion of St Paul, the accounts in Acts of the Apostles depict a clear breach of the laws of nature. The voice of God, the light from heaven which was ‘brighter than the sun’ convinces Paul that he is witnessing a miracle of some sort. Now in this instance there can be various interpretations. God may well have ‘violated’ natural law, or it may well have been an inward vision, (although in fact this is a public revelation since the soldiers traveling with Paul heard the voice as well) or it may have simply been a psychological phenomenon which we will be looking at later. Are Miracles such as this possible?
We can divide miracles into two basic types:
George Schlesinger in his article on Miracles, states:
There are countless examples of this in William James’ book Varieties of Religious Experience. Many of these types of experience take the form of an encounter or realisation which brings about a turn-around in some-one’s life. . It can be either a religious person experiencing an event which fits in with their religion, or that the person becomes religious due to the event. Such an experience does not require a breach of natural law. It is possible that it is a miracle in the sense that God works through individuals in order to bring others to the conversion itself. However, such a ‘miracle’ can also be interpreted as either psychological or as being without any religious significance. The religious significance will depend upon the interpretation of the person who experiences the event.
Some miracles come about through seemingly natural processes. An example of this type of miracle is given in Peter Vardy’s Puzzle of God. A train stops just inches before killing a child who is attempting to retrieve a toy from some train tracks. The mother exclaims that this must be a miracle. However, it turns out that the driver had fainted just before reaching the child. In this event, no breach of natural law has occurred, but God has used natural processes to bring about the stopping of the train. Again, as in the first example, the situation is open to different interpretations. It was ‘mere coincidence’ or ‘it was a miracle brought about by God’ are two possible interpretations.
Life Magazine (March 27th 1950) reported that all fifteen members of a church choir in Beatrice, Nebraska, came at least 10 minutes late for their weekly choir practice. They were astonishingly fortunate since the building was destroyed by an explosion just before their arrival, if they had arrived on time they would have been killed. The reasons for their lateness were fairly commonplace, but it was extremely unlikely, and it was certainly the first time, that all fifteen could be late at once.
This type of event is closer to how most people view a miracle. An occasion suggests that the natural law has been broken in some form. David Hume defines a miracle as:
Jesus walking on water, turning water into wine and - more extra-ordinary - raising and being raised from the dead. These types of events, Richard Swinburne thinks, would count as permanently unexplainable events. That is, they are unlikely to be explained in future generations by means of perfectly normal scientific occurrences. Margaret Boden argues that if scientists did in future generations prove that this was a normal occurrence, then it would make scientific laws very fragile indeed, and therefore the scientist would have to concede that if such an event occurred, then it would have to remain inexplicable. Or put another way, it would be unreasonable to expect scientists to revise our understanding of a natural law because of a single reported instance of someone walking on water.
Lourdes is an example where many miracles have apparently taken place, these miracles are ones which are thoroughly tested, and many take years to be acknowledged. Since March 1, 1858, the Church has recognized 67 miracles at Lourdes. Approximately five thousand inexplicable healings have also taken place, although these may be coincidental rather than miraculous. Perhaps more significant, though, are the moral and spiritual healings that pilgrims experience each year at Lourdes – lives filled with hope, purpose, joy and renewal. You might consider these to be the greatest miracles.
Science involves two things: observation and repetition. No scientific law emerges unless there has been some observation of natural phenomena. Science is so firmly based in regular repeatable events in the present that even when an odd event occurs scientists do not consider it part of a scientific explanation. That's why experiments that cannot be repeated are given little or no validity. Unrepeatable events are never made the basis for al law of science.
In an article on miracles George Chryssides argued that:
The crux of the argument is what he called the REPEATABILITY REQUIREMENT. Unless an event can be repeated over and over again we have no right to claim we know who (or what) caused it. For example, one should not make a causal connection between the golfer's type of swing and a once-in-a-life-time-hole-in-one shot. We would consider it a lucky shot. And scientific analysis is not based on fluke relations but on repeated relations. So whether we are dealing with non-intelligent or intelligent causes, there must be a relationship repeatedly observed before one can consider the connection scientifically based. But this repeated relation is precisely what we do not have with miracles because they are one-time events. So singularities such as miracles would seem to be ruled out of the realm of science.
A believer in miracles could simply admit there is no scientific basis for belief in miracles. Simply because miracles are not subject to repetition does not mean they do not occur. After all, a hole-in-one has happened; desperation shots have gone through the hoop, and some have won at the lottery on the first ticket. So all the theist needs to admit is that singular events (such as miracles) are not subject to scientific analysis. In this sense, what the sceptic would call a "fluke" the religious believer may choose to see as the "hand of God." Thus the Theist could admit that there is no scientific way to differentiate between a natural statistical improbability and a miracle.
Of course, if the Theist admits this then the sceptic has won a major victory. For the sceptic could press his argument that there are no rational grounds for belief in miracles either. Since the religious believer admits there is no regularly observed phenomena as a basis for miracles, then he has given up any basis for knowing they have happened. It has become simply a matter of unjustifiable faith in believing they have happened. This would not differ in principle from someone who claims his watch works because a little invisible green gremlin changes the time each second. But are there no rational grounds for believing in miracles?
What are the similarities and differences between the three accounts? Can you explain them? How can Paul’s vision be accounted for?
What features of the account make the miracle seem plausible or unlikely? What naturalistic (scientific, non-supernatural) explanations could be given? How could the miracle be interpreted symbolically rather than literally?
Can Natural laws be violated? If God has made the laws of the universe as they are, and they are therefore ‘natural’, i.e. that they go along certain lines, then how can God change them?
Alastair McKinnon suggests that natural laws are, by definition a description of how things work. A violation of natural laws is a suspension of these events, which would mean the natural laws in fact DIDN'T describe how things work. If any event appears miraculous, it must, since it is an event, be part of the natural law. It is just that when the event takes place, what we previously thought was the natural law, was no such thing, and would therefore mean that we should revise that particular law.
For example, if Jesus turned water into wine then, according to McKinnon, there must be circumstances and processes by which water can in fact become wine. If we understood this chemical change better, we would have to change the laws of chemistry to fit in with the miracle.
This is in fact questionable, because natural laws only describe what David Hume calls "firm and unalterable experience". A natural law only tells us what happens GENERALLY, assuming there is no outside interference. A miracle claims to be precisely that sort of outside interference. For example, to use an example posed by C.S. Lewis, the laws of physics will tell you where a snooker ball is going to roll if you know the mass of the ball and the force and angle with which it was struck. If an onlooker reaches out and snatches up the ball as it rolls across table, that is certainly an unpredictable event but it doesn't make the laws of physics wrong. To predict whether an onlooker will grab your snooker ball, it's useless to appeal to the laws of physics - you might try the laws of psychology instead.Similarly, the laws of nature tell us how things will occur unless God or another supernatural being interferes.
In fact, modern quantum science casts a lot of doubt on how uniform the laws of nature actually are. On a quantum level, it would seem that events are quite "fuzzy" and uncertainty is the norm. The idea of fixed and unalterable laws of nature doesn't seem to stand up to scientific scrutiny.
We know enough about David Hume by now to establish that his main criteria for real knowledge is going to be based upon the evaluation of the evidence. According to Hume, you should not go beyond the data provided:
and further on Hume writes,
Therefore, a thinking individual will not believe an account from another, since it is more likely that they will testify incorrectly than tell a truth about a miracle.
It is important to note from the outset that Hume’s arguments against miracles are not that there can’t be such things, but rather it is impossible that they can be proved. His concern, as is often the case for Hume, is epistemological, that is, dealing with the limits of human knowledge. Note also, that Hume is only looking at second-hand accounts, i.e. Is it good proof of belief if someone tells you that a miracle has occurred, or that the overwhelming evidence from numerous individuals is that miracles do occur. Hume may well believe a miracle if it happened to himself, although he would not believe other’s accounts of miracles.
The basic idea here is that no evidence given by other people of a miracle is so compelling that it leaves no doubt whatsoever that the miracle has in fact occurred. However, it is certainly not self-evident that there has never been sufficient testimony from people of good-sense and education (whatever this could mean). In Lourdes for example, in 1848, when St Bernadette was having apparitions, literally thousands were observing her, even a doctor was by her side during the apparitions, (she didn’t feel pain when the candle she was holding dripped wax and was burning close to her hand), and many were there when she discovered the spring. These events, including the witnesses of ‘miracles’ at Lourdes since the apparitions, were not received by the people of Lourdes without some questioning, but it still seems that there was enough room for doubt for those who did not believe. In any case, Hume’s argument is not completely successful here.
Hume argues that we have a tendency, due to the emotions derived from an account of an experience, to want to believe in them, and therefore this makes miracles less credible:
Hume argues that due to the nature of a religious believer, their testimony must be rejected, since they want to believe. It is not the case, as we will see later, that religious believers have to believe in miracles, and therefore not all religious believers would want to believe in miracles. It is also a non sequitur to say that if some religious believers want to believe instantly in a miracle, that all will. Again, we may note that for a miracle to be officially recognised in the Catholic Church for instance, there is a lot of research and examination carried out to ascertain the truth of such a claim.
Hume also states that the further we become enlightened, the less we see as truly mysterious. However, one could argue that miracles are accepted in the modern day period, when people are naturally more sceptical, and they are part of a civilized society.
Hume believes, that since all religious are attempting to use miracles to establish their own religion, it follows that all religions cancel each other out, since they each try to show that all the other religions are false thereby. This is simply not true. There is no reason why more than one religion can hold that a miracle has occurred, without it implying that it gives support for that particular religion rather than another. Both miracles may be true, but why is the conclusion that both religions are false. Why can’t both religions be true or partially true? If Islam is the true religion, then what is to prevent the God of Islam from performing miracles to benefit Christians or Hindus?Hence Hume concludes:
Peter Vardy makes a relevant point here, he states that no religion is founded upon miracles, which is what Hume is saying. ‘Neither Christianity, Islam not Judaism has ever claimed that someone should believe on the basis of miracles. Jesus himself rejected any appeal to signs and wonders as evidence for his status. He rejected the Devil’s temptations in the wilderness..’ Brian Davies makes a similar point. Both authors could have also added the fact that Catholicism is very wary of any claims of miracles, and there is usually a thorough look at any such claim before it is said to be a miracle.
Both of these writers seem to miss out one very important element of Christianity, and that is the resurrection. Surely this must be counted as a miracle, through God’s intervention a dead person comes to life. It would appear that there can be few more extra-ordinary, unnatural events than this. To add to this, it is also the very basis of Christianity, as St Paul says, ‘if Christ was not raised then your faith is in vain’. So it may well be that for Christianity, we would need to establish whether in fact miracles are at least possible.
The philosopher John Locke lived a generation before David Hume but took a similar empirical view. However, his Discourse On Miracles came to a different conclusion. Locke argued that miracles need to be seen in a broader context than just freakish and unnatural occurrences. Miracles bear witness to a miracle-worker who is on a mission from God:
Locke is saying that, in order to judge whether a miracle has really happened, we need to take into account the person who performed it, whether they are sent by God as a messenger. We need to look at the miracle-worker's sayings and deeds. If his life is lived as a someone with a message from God, then "he cannot be refused belief if he vouches his mission by a miracle, because his credentials have a right to it." Many Christians would agree, pointing out that Jesus' miracles in the Gospels were acts of healing and authority over nature that fit in perfectly with his claim to be someone who reveals the truth of God to everyone round him. They would say that it's irrational to doubt the miracles without first addressing the claim that Jesus was the Son of God (or at least, a great prophet). Your view on who or what Jesus was makes an immense difference to how probable you find the miracles attributed to him.
Critics might reply that this is a circular argument. How do you judge that somebody is a messenger of God? Well, by the miracles they perform! How do you determine whether the miracles actually happened? Well, by whether the person was a messenger of God... Nonetheless, Locke's contribution to the debate is important - even if we believe in miracles, we don't believe in every miracle story. The face of Jesus that appeaed in a tortilla being cooked by Mario Rubio in 1978 can be dismissed as a coincidence or a hoax because we expect a convincing miracle-worker to be a person of high moral character and dedication to a holy life.
This argument was developed by C.S. Lewis in his book Miracles. Lewis argues that the miracles of Jesus have an inner unity and consistency; they are not magical or fairytale events, but each one tells us something about Jesus or God (or both). Lewis writes:
What Lewis means is that the miracles of Jesus are dramatic demonstrations of God's power over nature, the power to heal or destroy, multiply and control natural forces, know the future or the past. They have a distinctive 'style' which makes them more believable than if they were a random and fantastical collection of superpowers. In fact, Lewis goes so far as to say: "Miracles do not, in fact, break the laws of nature." He claims that, instead of being violations of natural laws, Jesus' miracles suggest that the God who CREATED those natural laws is at work. For example, everyone who ever recovers from an illness is, in a sense, healed by God, working through the natural laws God has created: Jesus just does suddenly and dramatically what the laws of nature ordinarily do slowly and in a commonplace way.
These arguments don't really defeat Hume's sceptical position. After all, the Gospels that report Jesus' miracles were written 50 years or more after the events and a lot of exaggeration or outright fabrication might have gone into them. Despite this, Locke and Lewis both show that you cannot consider the probability of miracles without taking account of who performed them, and why, and how.
One way of thinking about this was popularised by C.S. Lewis in his radio lectures in the 1940s and it is known as “Lewis’ Trilemma”.
This argument is often summarised as “Liar, Lunatic or Lord”, or more simply “Bad, Mad or God”. If it is a successful argument, it provides a basis for believing in Jesus’ authority as a miracle-worker, and therefore for believing in Jesus’ miracles.
Why does God help some and not others? Why isn’t it the case that every handicapped person travelling to Lourdes is healed? There is a clear moral tension here. We may respond that, as in the problem of evil, God has good reasons, or that God’s ways are not ours. But for a religious believer, surely it's more morally acceptable to believe that God doesn't intervene in order to bring about miracles, since it shows a crude favouritism to think that God helps some people but not others.
Some philosophers reject the whole idea of an interventionist God. Maurice Wiles writing in God's Action in the World believes that the world is a single act of God – a once and for all creation at which point God stepped back (this belief in a non-interventionist God is called Deism). Wiles is arguing that God never intervenes in the world with individual acts; God did everything all at once in the act of Creation and it would be beneath God to keep on "propping the world up" with piecemeal miracles that go against the laws He had already designed. Wiles says that the idea of an interventionist God is "both implausible and full of difficulty for a reasoned Christian faith". Peter Vardy echoes Wiles' argument when he says:
A different objection to miracles comes from the idea that if God intervenes in the world he is detracting from human freewill. The Freewill Defence argues that human beings need a stable, predictable environment in which to grow and develop and make meaningful moral choices. If God intervenes to make the environment unpredictable or abolish the consequences of our actions, then He makes our freewill unimportant. Some religious philosophers claim God would never do this, since our free choices are the sole purpose of human life on Earth and our freedom is the only thing that justifies God allowing evil to exist.
This leads to a wider question of whether God can act in the world at all. This might sound odd, but it is based on which model of God a person believes in:
It is impossible for a timeless Being to carry out actions that are "in" time. This idea is put very persuasively by Nelson Pike in his book God and Timelessness. However, writers like Augustine and Aquinas write instead about God acting TIMELESSLY to bring about events. Acting "timelessly" means carrying out all your actions simultaneously. The timeless God makes a miracle happen for the choir in Beatrice, Nebraska at the same time as He is raising Jesus from the dead and at the same time as He is creating the universe. This is a very awe-inspiring idea, but is it logically possible?
It is much easier to understand this sort of God making miracles happen. If God is aware of a believer in need at time X1 and miraculously heals them at time X2, where's the problem? There are many difficulties with believing in an everlasting God - for example, how can you fit in the idea of the Trinity? can a God who is within time really be omnipotent? can such a God know what will happen in the future and, if He does, will that take away human free will? - but one of the advantages is that some of the philosophical problems with miracles disappear.