Purtill “Defining Miracles” – Part 3

Objections to Condition (5)

I have previously argued that the following condition in Richard Purtill’s definition of “miracle” should be rejected (see Purtill’s essay “Defining Miraclies” in Defense of Miracles, IVP, 1997):

(5) for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history. (p.72)

This condition is based on an unappealing conception of God that draws from the Bible, but that does not fit with the assumption that God is a perfectly good person. It also makes the concept of a miracle too subjective, so that whether an event counts as a miracle depends on the specific beliefs and attitudes of the particular people who happen to observe the event.

Do Miracles Have Some Other Essential Purpose?

Is there some other purpose that is essential for an event to count as a miracle? We previously looked at one possible suggestion of an alternative requirement:

(5a) for the purpose of rescuing some person who is in danger, curing some person of an illness, or providing for a basic need of some person.

But this condition appears to be too restrictive, in that it excludes events in which God performs a supernatural feat in order to do something positive and beneficial for someone other than helping that person to escape from danger or illness, and other than providing for a basic need (e.g. food, shelter, and clothing).

Let’s try a revision of the above condition that includes a broader range of purposes:

(5b) for the purpose of helping or benefiting some person.

What about non-human animals? If we imperfect humans can care about the safety, health, and well-being of non-human animals (e.g. dolphins, monkeys, whales, horses, cats, dogs), then certainly a perfectly good person (like God) would also have some concern for the safety, health, and well-being of non-human animals.

So, if a starving puppy is scrounging through a trash bin in a grimy third-world country, God might have mercy on this creature and create a meal ex nihilo for the puppy, to ease the pain of hunger and to provide nutrition that would keep the puppy from starving to death. This would be a miracle, even though God would be helping a creature that was not a person.

I’ll try again:

(5c) for the purpose of helping or benefiting some sentient creature.

This still does not appear to allow a sufficiently broad range of purposes. Helping others is a good and admirable thing to do, but there is nothing wrong with doing something that benefits oneself or that satisfies a personal desire or a personal objective. It is only obsessive or excessive focus on one’s own needs, desires, and objectives that constitutes selfishness or cold heartedness.

Thus, God might intervene in history in a particular instance not to help or benefit some creature, but to benefit himself or to satisfy a personal objective. For example, God might intervene in history to increase the beauty or symmetry of something from his own point of view (as opposed to making something look more beautiful to human beings). So long as indulging in this expression of himself did not create negative consequences for humans and other sentient creatures, I see no reason to exclude such an event from being considered a miracle.

It might be difficult in practice to determine whether a specific event was caused by God for the purpose of increasing the beauty or symmetry of something from a divine point of view, but if one could get past the epistemic difficulties and arrive at a justified belief that this was the case, then the word “miracle” would properly apply.

One way to expand the scope of purposes further would be to focus on exclusion of certain specified purposes, and allow all other sorts of purposes in relation to events that can be classed as miracles:

(5d) for any purpose other than to hinder or harm some sentient creature.

This gets around the starving orphan example, the starving puppy example, the example of creating a horse as a gift for a young woman, and the example of supernatural intervention for satisfaction of God’s personal objectives. However, this still excludes too much.

Sometimes it is good to hinder or harm evil and dangerous people. A sniper on a SWAT team might intentionally put a bullet through the brain of a violent kidnapper in order to rescue innocent children from immanent danger. If one of my daughters were held captive by a violent criminal who was threatening to harm or kill her, and if a SWAT sniper ended the crisis with a clean shot through the skull of the criminal, I would thank and praise the sniper for his/her excellent work.

If God intervened in history to cause Hitler to spontaneously burst into flames, and if God had caused Hitler to die in this manner prior to the operation of the gas chambers at Auschwitz, and if God’s purpose in creating this supernatural event was to kill Hitler and to hinder him from implementing the “Final Solution”, then there would be no objection to calling this event a miracle. So, it is not hindering or harming that is objectionable, but doing so when this is not morally justified.

So, if we want to restrict the character of events to exclude some undesirable events from being considered miracles, moral justification appears to be a key concept:

(5e) unless it is morally wrong to produce that event.

To be continued…

About Bradley Bowen
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09010421115826273321 Rourke

    I take issue with your response to point (5c) not because I disagree with your general argument (that there are insufficient grounds to define a miracle) but that most monotheists will almost always take issue with your claim that a God might “intervene in history in a particular instance not to help or benefit some creature, but to benefit himself or to satisfy a personal objective.” From the (mono)theist point of view, God is always alleged to be so “good” as to have no personal interests or whims other than the guidance of humanity… while at the same time he is described as what would be called narcissism in a normal human being. The only thing that prevents many otherwise straightforward theists from calling God a selfish brat is his alleged “goodness”, yet most theists continue to insist that God would never do anything that didn’t somehow fit into a Divine Plan.

    I’m not saying I personally disagree with your point; I’m saying that many people would be uncomfortable believing in (read: deny the possibility of) a God with personal whims.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09911474608034154472 somebody

    I take issue with all proposed instances of point (5): “Purpose” and “morality” are both highly subjective things. This is the only explanation for how Christians consider the many massacres described in the Bible as being “good”. (5) should be removed entirely.

    I have a second point to make: “Miracle” already has a definition, evident in its usage by claimants:

    1. Any phenomenon that can’t be explained with current scientific knowledge.

    2. Any phenomenon of whose scientific explanation the claimant is proudly ignorant.

    3. Any event that makes the claimant feel good and is statistically improbable.

    4. Any event that the claimant doesn’t realize is perfectly typical of a given situation.

    That this definition is self-refuting is no indication that it should be altered.

    There is a related concept in the Christian mind, that pertains to statistically improbable events that make the claimant feel bad instead of good. There is no word for such an event, but it is the opposite of a miracle, and Christians usually attribute them to the Devil. For example, the Christian author Chuck D. Pierce attributes a series of carbon monoxide leaks in his house to the Devil in “The Future War of the Church”.

    To a sufficiently stupid person, everything that ever happens is indistinguishable from magic.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Response to Rourke…

    My intention is to think out loud in the company of fellow atheists and skeptics. So, I’m not focused on defending my conclusions to Christians.

    But let me take a shot at responding to the objection you raise as likely to come from a Christian viewpoint.

    At some time, from a Christian viewpoint, God had to decide between various options, including these two:
    (1) don’t create humans,
    (2) create humans and then provide them guidance via visions, prophets, and inspired writings.
    God chose (2) over (1). Why? To answer that “Humans needed guidance and God is perfectly good, so he wanted to provide this guidance” begs the question. If God chose NOT to create humans, there were be no human need for guidance.

    Ultimately, the existence of humans rests upon a personal preference of God. God has no needs in the way that humans have a need for water, food, and shelter. So, it was nothing as strong or compelling as a need that determined God’s choice between (1) and (2). If a desire or preference of God can determine whether there will be humans, then I see no reason to deny that a divine intervention in the universe could have a similar basis.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Response to Somebody…

    I will just start to respond to part of your first point for now:

    “Purpose” and “morality” are both highly subjective things.

    On one sense of “subjective” purpose is clearly subjective. If you mean that purpose is a mental phenomenon (a mental event, characteristic, or state) then of course you are correct.

    But in that sense of the word, much of what you have to say is also subjective:

    “Christians consider the many massacres..”

    “There is a related concept in the Christian mind…”

    So, I take it that you have some other sense of “subjective” in mind.

    Perhaps you have in mind the epistemic distinction between claims that are subject to being verified or falsified versus other claims/statements.

    Purpose or intent is a central concept in our legal system, perhaps in all modern legal systems. So if you want to eliminate determinations of purpose or intent, then your position would appear to imply anarchism – opposition to any legal constraints on individual behavior.

    If you are not a supporter of anarchism, then what sort of legal system do you envision that would have no reference or concern with determination of the purpose or intent of actions?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Further response to Somebody…

    You object to any criterion for “miracle” that references purpose or morality:

    “Purpose” and “morality” are both highly subjective things.

    The alleged subjectivity of morality is a big philosophical issue, so I think I will hold off on responding to that point for now, except to note that disagreements on moral issues can be resolved (and sometimes are in fact resolved) on the basis of mutually accepted moral values and moral principles.

    Moving on to your second point, the “definitions” you suggest amount to a strawman fallacy. You set up stupid definitions that are easy to knock down. But no intelligent defender of Christianity would put forward or accept any of your suggested definitions.

    A second problem with your definitions is that you are assuming a common but mistaken view of the way language works. The usage of words cannot be easily determined simply on the basis of the reference (or apparent reference) of a word. This does not leave room for the possibility of the misuse of words. But it is obvious that people can and do misuse words.

    Take the word “liberal”. Talk-show blowhards like o’Reilly, Hannity, and Savage constantly misuse the word “liberal”. If we use your method of looking for commonality among the referents of the word by these idiots, the sense or meaning of the word would be: “somebody that I don’t like today”. But clearly, that is not what the word “liberal” means in the English language.

    Furthermore, you could determine a more reasonable definition from the use of the word by O’Reilly, Hannity, and Savage, if you were to have a calm converstation (off the air) with these men and ask them a series of questions about paradigm cases of liberal ideas and policies, about paradigm cases of conservative ideas and policies, and various borderline cases of political ideas and policies that might be considered liberal. Their answers to questions about whether they would consider the examples to be “liberal”, “conservative”, or something else, would establish their actual use of the word “liberal” and probably provide a basis for a reasonable definition of the word.


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