The Meaning of ‘miracle’ – Part 1

I just finished reading Richard Swinburne’s chapter “Arguments from History and Miracles”, Chapter 12 in The Existence of God (2nd ed., 2004), about the same time Taner Edis did his post Natural miracles?” (http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2011/07/natural-miracles.html).
So, this seems like a good time to revisit the topic of ‘miracles’.

Back in 2008, I did a series of posts on the definition of ‘miracle’ proposed by Richard Purtill:

http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2008/11/purtills-definition-of-miracle-part-7.html
http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2008/10/purtills-definition-of-miracle-part-6.html
http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2008/09/purtills-definition-of-miracle-part-5.html
http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2008/07/purtills-definition-of-miracle-part-4.html
http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2008/06/purtill-defining-miracles-part-3.html
http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2008/05/purtill-defining-miracles-part-2.html
http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2008/05/purtill-defining-miracles-part-2.html
http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2008/05/richard-purtill-defining-miracles.html

Swinburne gives his own definition of ‘miracle’, and he also refers to definitions given by Aquinas and David Hume. I will start with Aquinas’ definition, move on to Hume’s, and then take a look at Swinburne’s.

One thing that troubles me lately about some of these definitions, is that they make the involvement of God a necessary condition for the application of the word ‘miracle’.

To be continuted…

About Bradley Bowen
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06430484429517190406 Justin B.

    To me, a miracle is quite literally, impossible. The universe appears to work according to physical laws, some of which we have discovered, and some which are still unknown. How would we identify an event which is a 'temporary exception' to the ordinary course of nature? If my glass of water spontaneously transmutes into wine, and this could be somehow proven to have occurred without some other natural explanation, then it must be that however unlikely and rarely, water does indeed spontaneously turn into wine, even if it's only once in a million billion years. That phenomenon would be part of the natural world, just like everything else. It gets even worse if you start sticking a god in the world. If there were a god randomly (to our perception) acting on the natural world producing events that seemingly go against the natural laws, then those laws would not be laws at all, and we could not know from one instant to the next whether gravity would keep pulling us down and whether the sun would come up tomorrow. It would be a world without rules, utter chaos.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12132821431322748921 LadyAtheist

    An agency would have to be behind the miracle otherwise it's just a natural event that appears supernatural.

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

    Justin B said…

    If my glass of water spontaneously transmutes into wine, and this could be somehow proven to have occurred without some other natural explanation, then it must be that however unlikely and rarely, water does indeed spontaneously turn into wine, even if it's only once in a million billion years.
    =================
    Response:
    You are begging the question, when you conclude "then it must be…".

    You are assuming that there is no God and no other supernatural beings that could interfere with the laws of nature, in order to draw your conclusion. But that is precisely what is at issue here, so it won't do to simply assume that naturualism is true and that supernaturalism is false.

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

    Justin B said…

    "If there were a god randomly (to our perception) acting on the natural world producing events that seemingly go against the natural laws, then those laws would not be laws at all, and we could not know from one instant to the next whether gravity would keep pulling us down and whether the sun would come up tomorrow. It would be a world without rules, utter chaos."
    ================
    Response:
    You are assuming that knowledge requires absolute certainty. But if that were the case, then there could be no such thing as 'scientific knowledge'.

    Science is based on inductive reasoning and fallible human observations, so it cannot yield mathematical certainty. Also, some or all laws of nature might well be probabilistic rather than deterministic, thus making absolute certainty about future events impossible and unobtainable.

    Since absolute certainty is not a requirement for knowledge, we could have scientific knowledge even if there were, from time to time, a few exceptions to the laws of nature.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06430484429517190406 Justin B.


    Bradley said…
    You are begging the question, when you conclude "then it must be…".

    You are assuming that there is no God and no other supernatural beings that could interfere with the laws of nature, in order to draw your conclusion. But that is precisely what is at issue here, so it won't do to simply assume that naturualism is true and that supernaturalism is false.

    Of course I assume there is no god, as there isn't any good evidence that such a being exists, just as I assume there aren't any Smurfs until I'm presented with evidence to their existence.

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

    LadyAtheist said…

    "An agency would have to be behind the miracle otherwise it's just a natural event that appears supernatural."
    ===============
    Response:
    I'm inclined to agree that the concept of 'miracle' implies an event that was brought about by a rational agent or person, but I'm not sure how that relates to whether an alleged 'miracle' is a supernatural or natural event.

    What about magic? Magic is supposed to be supernatural, but is also generally thought to be an impersonal force. One difference between magic and gods, is that when you cast a spell (or perform a magic ritual) the result is automatic, but when you pray to a god, the deity might decide to turn down your request.

    What about "Good luck"? Luck is supposedly a supernatural phenomenon, and it is also thought of as an impersonal force.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06430484429517190406 Justin B.

    Absolute certainty, no. But we must have some idea of temporal conditions, cause and effect, etc. If at ANY time, ANYTHING can happen at the whim of a petulant, jealous, manipulative god, then the laws become light suggestions and we spend our lives cowering in fear of…everything.

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

    Justin B said…

    "Of course I assume there is no god…"
    =========
    Response:
    So your reasoning goes like this:

    1. There are no supernatural beings (such as God, for example).
    Therefore,
    2. There are no miracles.

    The conclusion follows from the premise, but your premise begs the question at issue.

    Someone who believes in miracles, or who is inclined to believe in them, is unlikely to accept premise (1).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06430484429517190406 Justin B.

    Bradley said "So your reasoning goes like this:

    1. There are no supernatural beings (such as God, for example).
    Therefore,
    2. There are no miracles."

    Actually, it's more like this:
    1. Someone says to me, "miracles happen."
    2. "What's a miracle?"
    3. "Well, it's a temporary suspension of natural law…"
    4. "How do we know it's temporary and not just part of nature?"
    5. "…"
    6. "And how do we distinguish a supernatural event from a natural one, since the only thing we know anything about is nature?"
    7. "…"

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

    Justin B said…

    4. "How do we know it's temporary and not just part of nature?"
    [...]
    6. "And how do we distinguish a supernatural event from a natural one, since the only thing we know anything about is nature?"
    ============
    Response:
    Those are excellent questions.

    If you don't get plausible answers to those questions, then you have every right to remain skeptical about miracle claims.

    Let me take a stab at the first question. Swinburne gives the example of the spirit of a person who has died (i.e. a ghost) moving items in a room for the purpose of warning a loved one about a danger.

    A spirit might communicate to a living person by re-arranging Scrabble letters into words and sentences. If Scrabble letters began to apparently re-arrange and form messages that made sense as messages from a recently deceased friend or family member, and if no ordinary physical cause could be discovered, even after careful investigation of many such events, then I think this would be a good candidate for the supernatural explanation: a ghost did it.

    Suppose we come across this sort of evidence and conclude that the re-arrangement of the Scrabble letters was the result of the activity of a spirit. Might it not be the case that we have just discovered a new aspect of the natural world? Could it be the case that ghosts are just one more kind of natural entity that have some unusual characteristics?

    I'm sympathetic with the view that the discovery of ghosts or spirits should prompt the start of a new branch of science, and that smart scientific minds should then turn to making systematic observations of ghost behavior and formulating theories and hypotheses about ghost activity, and try to test those ideas by further observation and experimentation.

    However, I would expect for a century or two to pass before much progress was made in this new branch of science, and in the meantime, there would be nothing to replace the old laws of chemistry and physics. So, we would have to maintain the old scientific view, while trying to understand how the new odd phenomena relate to the old scientific understanding of the world.

    I suppose we could assume or presume that one day the new phenomena would be reconciled with the old scientific viewpoint, but since the old scientific viewpoint has no way of predicting or explaining the ghostly phenomena, it seems to me that we would need to maintain the old scientific viewpoint and see the ghostly phenomena as contrary to nature, unless and until someone figured out a way to reconcile the two.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06430484429517190406 Justin B.

    I think I agree with most everything you wrote, Bradley.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X