The Meaning of ‘miracle’ – Part 3

Swinburne’s description of Aquinas’ concept of a ‘miracle’:

Aquinas wrote that a ‘miracle’ in a wide sense is any event brought about by a rational agent in virtue of powers greater than normal human powers; and so many events brought about by demons or angels would count as miracles. But in a strict sense, he claims, a miracle is that which occurs outside the whole system of created nature; it is that which no other agent except God has the power to bring about. See Summa Theologiae, Ia.114. (Existence of God, 2nd ed., from footnote on p.282)



3. ‘occurs outside the whole system of created nature’

This is a neccessary condition of the ‘strict sense’ of the word ‘miracle’.

The words describing this condition are unclear, even misleading. Any event involving physical objects or human beings would seem to occur inside the ‘system of created nature’ (assuming that nature was created by someone), so taking this description literally would result in ruling out just about every alleged miracle in the Bible.

The parting of the Red Sea involved the movement of physical water (if the event really happened), and that water was part of the ‘system of created nature’ (assuming that nature was created by someone), so that would be ruled out as not being a miracle. Jesus’ walking on water or turning water into wine also involved changes to physical water, which is part of the ‘system of created nature’, so those events would also be ruled out as not being miracles, it would seem.

The phrase ‘created nature’ is intended to point to a distinction between created things and God, who has always existed and who is not a created being. By limiting the scope of ‘miracle’ to events outside of ‘the whole system of created nature’, Aquinas is trying to exclude events caused by spirits other than God (e.g. by angels and demons).

On the Christian worldview there are supernatural beings who were created by God (e.g. angels and demons) and given certain supernatural powers by God. If such a being intervenes in the natural world (e.g. a demon possesses the body of some human being, or an angel causes a car to veer to the right to avoid a collision), that is a ‘supernatural’ event caused by a ‘supernatural’ being, but it is also an event caused by a creature with a created nature who is simply performing actions that God gave it the power to perform.

The nature of an angel (or a demon) allows it to do things that may contravene some laws of physics, but that is, in a sense, only natural for an angel (or demon), because God created angels and demons to have such power over (at least some) laws of physics. So, the possession of a human by a demonic spirit or the veering of a car caused by an angel can be viewed as events that occur inside ‘the whole system of created nature’ even though this would be a supernatural event in the sense that it involves the suspension or violation of a law of physics. The ‘whole system’ thus includes supernatural (i.e. bodiless, non-physical) beings and their powers and activities.

Only God and his actions, are outside of the ‘whole system of created nature’. But if God intervenes in ordinary physical events (e.g. the flow and position of water in the Red Sea), then God and his actions may be outside of the ‘whole system of created nature’ but the effects of this activity are still in and upon objects and events inside the ‘whole system of created nature’. (This seems analogous to the mind/body problems of dualism.)

Can we re-state the condition in a clearer way that avoids the confusion that I have pointed out? The point seems to be to isolate certain events that are such that “no other agent except God has the power to bring about”. But no such events exist, because God can grant to whomever he wishes whatever power he wishes to grant that person. If God wants to give Moses the power to part the Red Sea, then God can give that power to Moses, even though this is not a normal power for human beings to possess. So, I don’t see how this strategy can possibly work.

It seems much simpler to just add the condition that it must be God who brings about the event. This would straightforwardly eliminate events brought about by angels and demons from the scope of the word ‘miracle’.

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

    Any way you look at it, I cannot see a way for miracles to occur. The very idea is an impossibility.

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

    Justin B. said…

    Any way you look at it, I cannot see a way for miracles to occur. The very idea is an impossibility.

    =========
    Response:

    Perhaps your are right. But before I or anyone else can evaluate your claim, we must first get clear about what the word 'miracle' means.

    The sentence, 'A miracle has occurred' can be determined to be incoherent or self-contradictory only after one determines what this sentence means, and the meaning of this sentence depends crucially upon the meaning of the word 'miracle'.

    I'm going to withhold judgment on your claim until I'm confident that I have a solid grasp on the meaning of the word 'miracle'.

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

    Bradley said: "I'm going to withhold judgment on your claim until I'm confident that I have a solid grasp on the meaning of the word 'miracle'."

    Hi Bradley, I wish you luck, but I think you will find as much success doing that as we have had getting a solid grasp on the meaning of the words 'god', 'spirit', 'soul', 'transcendent', 'eternal', etc…

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

    Justin B. said…

    Hi Bradley, I wish you luck, but I think you will find as much success doing that as we have had getting a solid grasp on the meaning of the words 'god', 'spirit', 'soul', 'transcendent', 'eternal', etc…
    ===============
    Response:

    X is 'God' if and only if:
    (1) X is a bodiless person,
    (2) X is all-powerful,
    (3) X is all-knowing,
    (4) X has always existed,
    and
    (5) X is perfectly good.

    God is traditionally also believed to be the creator of the universe, and the final judge of all mankind, but these are more activities than characteristics, and I don't see these as essential to the concept.

    X is a 'spirit' if and only if:
    (1) X is a person,
    and
    (2) X does not have a body.

    X is 'eternal' if and only if:
    (1) X has always existed,
    and
    (2) X will never cease to exist.

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

    Justin B. said…

    Hi Bradley, I wish you luck, but I think you will find as much success doing that as we have had getting a solid grasp on the meaning of the words 'god', 'spirit', 'soul', 'transcendent', 'eternal', etc…
    ===============
    Response:

    X is 'God' if and only if:
    (1) X is a bodiless person,
    (2) X is all-powerful,
    (3) X is all-knowing,
    (4) X has always existed,
    and
    (5) X is perfectly good.

    God is traditionally also believed to be the creator of the universe, and the final judge of all mankind, but these are more activities than characteristics, and I don't see these as essential to the concept.

    X is a 'spirit' if and only if:
    (1) X is a person,
    and
    (2) X does not have a body.

    X is 'eternal' if and only if:
    (1) X has always existed,
    and
    (2) X will never cease to exist.

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

    "X is 'God' if and only if:…"
    I'm afraid I don't know what any of 1-5 mean. What is a bodiless person? How do we know that a god must have those attributes? Some of them seem to contradict others. Some people claim that god is some/any/none of those things.

    "X is a 'spirit' if and only if:…"
    What's a bodiless person?

    "X is 'eternal' if and only if:…"
    My understanding of the current state of cosmology is that everything in the universe has always existed, in one form or another, since the Big Bang, and we have no information about what 'existed' 'before' the Big Bang, or even if that statement makes sense. In that sense, perhaps the universe is eternal, or perhaps not, we don't know yet.

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

    Justin B. said…

    "X is 'God' if and only if:…"
    I'm afraid I don't know what any of 1-5 mean. What is a bodiless person?
    ===========
    Response:

    X is a bodiless person if and only if (a) X is a person, and (b)it is not the case that X has a body.

    I will assume, for now, that you have an idea of what the word 'person' means, and will focus on the second of the two necessary conditions.

    X has a body if and only if there is something Y such that (a) Y is a physical object, and (b) Y is X's body.

    Swinburne suggests that the concept 'Y is X's body' be understood in terms of a criterial definition, rather than a necessary/sufficient condition type of definition. That seems reasonable to me.

    With a criterial definition, none of the conditions are absolutely required; that is, none of the conditions are necessary conditions. The basic idea is that if most (or all) of the conditions apply, then the concept applies. If most of the conditions don't apply, then the concept does not apply. If a good portion of the conditions apply, but not most of them, then the concept may apply partially or to a degree. Thus, criterial definitions specifically allow for borderline cases.

    'Y is X's body' is true to the degree that most of the following conditions are true:
    (1) disturbances in Y cause X to experience pains, aches, tingles, etc . (e.g. poking a needle into this hand, causes me pain).
    (2) X feels the inside of Y (e.g. I feel the emptiness of this stomach and the position of these arms).
    (3) X can move directly many parts of Y (e.g. I can wiggle these fingers and toes, flex this arm, and blink these eyes.)
    (4) X looks out on the world from where Y is located (e.g. what I see depends on where this head is located and where these eyes are pointed).
    (5) X's thoughts and feelings are affected non-rationally by goings-on in Y. (e.g. putting lots of alcohol into this body makes me see double).

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

    "X is a bodiless person if and only if (a) X is a person, and (b)it is not the case that X has a body."

    Do you know of any persons without bodies? Don't we require of our persons that they actually *have* bodies?

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

    Justin B. said…

    Do you know of any persons without bodies? Don't we require of our persons that they actually *have* bodies?
    ===============
    Response:

    (1) Do you know of any mountains made of gold?

    Probably not. But you do understand the meaning of the words "mountain made of gold" right? Otherwise you would not understand and be able to answer question (1) above.

    What sort of requirement do you have in mind? Do you mean that having a body is a necessary condition of being a person? If that is what you mean, then I think you are begging the question.

    If you are not speaking of a logical or conceptual requirement, then I'm not sure how your point is relevant to the issue of the meaning of the phrase 'bodiless person'.

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

    I think I kind of summed it up before, of course having a body is a necessary condition of being a person. Bodiless persons makes about as much sense as angle-less triangles.

    Mountains made of gold…sure, why not? We require mountains to be made of rock, and gold is a type of rock. Astronomers have found an entire planet that appears to be made of diamond, so I think gold is not such a stretch. ;)

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

    Justin B. said…

    …having a body is a necessary condition of being a person.
    =============
    Response:

    OK. That is your view of the matter.

    My view is that having a body is not a necessary condition of being a person.

    Simply asserting that 'X is a necessary condition for Y' doesn't make it so.

    What reason do you have for thinking that 'having a body' is a necessary condition for being 'a person'?

    My reason for thinking that 'having a body' is NOT a necessary condition for being 'a person' is that we can conceive of a person who does not have a body.

    For example, consider Descartes Meditations, and the possibility that all your experiences (sensations, including experiences that seem to be of your body and the bodies of others) are occuring in a dream, or that they are being caused by an evil genius…

    In that case you have no reliable empirical evidence that you or anyone else is an embodied person, but you are still a thinking being, even if your sensory experiences are all false and illusory. You would still be a person, even if in reality you had no body, only the illusory sensations that make it seem like you had a body.

    If such Cartesian scenarios are meaningful and coherent, and I see no reason to think otherwise, then 'having a body' is not a necessary condition of being 'a person'.

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

    I really cannot believe that I'm arguing over whether the definition of a person includes the fact that a person has a body. I'm not simply asserting something, having a body is part of what it means to be a person. I truly don't understand what there is to argue about here. It is not 'my view of the matter', it's the consensus due to shared experience and what we've defined a person to be. Just because we can conceive of something doesn't mean that it exists. I can conceive of a teapot circling Mars, but does that mean it exists?

    As to the rest of your statement, it might very well be that we are brains in a vat, but there is no good evidence to think that we are.

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

    Justin B. said…

    Mountains made of gold…sure, why not? We require mountains to be made of rock, and gold is a type of rock. Astronomers have found an entire planet that appears to be made of diamond, so I think gold is not such a stretch. ;)
    ==========
    Response:

    I take it from your response that (1) you don't know of any mountains made of gold, and (2) you understand the meaning of the phrase 'mountain made of gold', and (3) you don't see any incoherence or self-contradiction in the concept of a 'mountain made of gold'.

    Therefore, you agree that a phrase can be understood, and be a meaningful and coherent expression, even for a person who has never experienced an example or instance of the concept expressed by that phrase.

    The most likely reason why you have not experienced a mountain made of gold is that there are no actual mountains made of gold (at least not on this planet). But the non-existence of mountains made of gold has no bearing on this question: Does the phrase 'mountain made of gold' express a meaningful and coherent idea?

    Similar reasoning applies to the phrase 'bodiless person'. The fact that I have not experienced a bodiless person might well be explained as being the result of the fact that there are no such persons, but that has no bearing on this question: Does the phrase 'bodiless person' express a meaningful and coherent idea?

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

    (1) Depends. 'Made out of gold' could mean partially, or completely consisting of gold. I could use 'mountain of gold' meaning just a large quantity of gold. And I could use a similar phrase to mean that a mountain was worth a large sum of money, while not containing any gold at all, maybe oil or minerals, for example.
    (2) Depends.
    (3) See 1.

    "…you agree that a phrase can be understood…" Sure.

    "there are no actual mountains made of gold…" I disagree, see 1.

    "Does the phrase 'bodiless person'…" Sure, I can imagine with the best of them. I remember the movie Freejack, where a 'person' was uploaded to a digital switchboard. But what's the point? I can imagine any number of things, I thought we were talking about real, shared experiences?

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

    Justin B. said…

    I really cannot believe that I'm arguing over whether the definition of a person includes the fact that a person has a body. I'm not simply asserting something, having a body is part of what it means to be a person. I truly don't understand what there is to argue about here. It is not 'my view of the matter', it's the consensus due to shared experience and what we've defined a person to be.
    ==========
    Response:

    Your reason for thinking that 'having a body' is a necessary condition of being a 'person' is that there is a general consensus on the definition of 'person', that the generally agreed definition of 'person' includes 'having a body' as a requirement or necessary condition.

    First, you are wrong on the facts. There is no such generally agreed upon definition of 'person'.

    Like most morally significant concepts, the meaning of 'person' is controversial and often debated.

    Also, the dominant metaphysical outlook of Europe and the USA has been that of Christianity, and in that worldview, persons are first-and-foremost souls, non-physical entities that can exist independently of bodies.

    You and I don't accept this widely held worldview, so we are rightly skeptical about simply adopting this view about the nature of persons.

    Nevertheless, since this has been the dominant view of the nature of persons for several centuries, it is clearly false to say that there is widespread agreement that the word 'person' is defined so as to require the possession of a body!

    Second, it is precisely the dominance of the dubious metaphysical beliefs of Christianity that should make one cautious about accepting a consensus on the definition of such an important concept as 'person'. Since you and I both reject the worldview that has dominated in Europe and the USA for centuries, we need to be wary of a consensus on definitions of terms like 'person' because that consensus might well be grounded in religious or metaphysical assumptions that you and I have rejected.

    If there was a consensus among mostly Christian Americans and Europeans that 'person' does NOT imply 'having a body' would you really go along with that? Wouldn't you instead object that the consensus definition is incorrect, because many people have been misled by a false set of metaphysical beliefs inherited from Christianity?

    I think it is far better to think for ourselves about the meaning of important words like 'person' and not rely upon some general consensus among a population that is strongly influenced by a false worldview.

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

    "OK. That is your view of the matter.

    My view is that having a body is not a necessary condition of being a person."

    OK. Please relate to me your experience with bodiless persons. How did you communicate with it? How did you identify it? What properties did it have?

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

    Justin B. said…

    OK. Please relate to me your experience with bodiless persons. How did you communicate with it? How did you identify it? What properties did it have?
    ============
    Response:

    OK. Please relate to me your experience with mountains made of gold.

    Did you climb to the top of any of those mountains? Did you have to wear sunglasses because of the glare from the shiny gold? How many pounds of gold did you put into the trunk of your car? Did you buy several mansions with the money you got from selling that gold?

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

    I have never claimed any personal experience with mountains of gold, only that I could conceive of one. ;)

    Your turn.

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

    Perhaps there is confusion about what I mean by 'necessary condition'.

    This term is ambiguous. There are at least two uses or meanings of this phrase:

    1. Heat, fuel, and oxygen are necessary conditions for fire.

    2. Having three sides is a necessary condition for being a triangle.

    In sentence (1) 'necessary condition' refers to an empirical or causal requirement.

    In sentence (2) 'necessary condition' refers to a logical or conceptual requirement.

    When somebody makes a claim about an empirical or causal requirement, it is perfectly reasonable to ask about the experiences or observations upon which that claim is based. We know by experience that oxygen and heat are required to make fire.

    But when sombody makes a claim about a logical or conceptual requirement, it is not perfectly reasonable to ask about the experiences or observations upon which that claim is based. Our knowledge that triangles must have three sides is NOT based on a generalization that comes from experiences of triangles. Rather, this claim is based on our grasp of the meaning of the word 'triangle'.

    What I have in mind when asking the question, 'Is having a body a necessary condition for being a person?' is the latter sort of necessary condition.

    I'm asking a question about the logical or conceptual requirements of being a person, which has nothing to do with observations or experiences of actual persons.

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

    I don't understand why it's not applicable to ask about experiences and observations when discussing logical concepts. Is it not true that every triangle you have ever experienced has been composed of three sides?

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

    Justin B. said…
    Is it not true that every triangle you have ever experienced has been composed of three sides?
    ================
    Response:

    Yes, but the basis or ground or reason supporting the following claim is NOT experience of triangles:

    (2) Having three sides is a necessary condition for being a triangle.

    The basis or ground or reason for believing (2) is my understanding of the meaning of the word 'triangle'.

    I have not seen any four-sided triangles because anything that has four sides is excluded from being a triangle, by the use or meaning of the word 'triangle'.

    Anyone who claims to have seen a four-sided triangle is simply displaying their ignorance of the meaning of the word 'triangle'.

    Experiences and observations are therefore not permitted to count either for or against claim (2). The number of sides possessed by a triangle is already set or determined prior to any observations or experiences of triangles.

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

    I was going to replace each instance of 'triangle' with 'person' and 'three sides' with 'body' above, but I'll say it like this:

    I disagree with your last statement in that experiences and observations are exactly what we use in order to define those things that exist, and our continuing experiences and observations serve to reinforce those definitions.

    If we were to find a bodiless person, then we would need to either redefine the word 'person' to include those bodiless entities, or use another word (like 'soul') to describe it. The fact that as of yet there is no credible evidence for bodiless persons supports the position that someone who thinks a person can be 'bodiless' does not have a correct view of the word person.

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

    Justin B. said…

    The fact that as of yet there is no credible evidence for bodiless persons supports the position that someone who thinks a person can be 'bodiless' does not have a correct view of the word person.

    ==========
    Response:

    There CANNOT be 'credible evidence for' the existence of an 'X' unless and until we know what 'X' means.

    If you don't know the meaning of 'X' then you cannot look for an 'X', and you certainly cannot find an 'X' until you establish what the word 'X' means.

    Knowing the meaning of 'X' is prior to (is a prerequisite of) finding evidence of the existence of an 'X'.

    Perhaps a little poem will help make my point. Purple Cow is the name of a well-known poem by Gelett Burgess, written in 1895:

    I never saw a purple cow.
    I never hope to see one.
    But I can tell you anyhow
    I'd rather see than be one

    Ogden Nash wrote parody of the Purple Cow poem:

    I've never seen an abominable snowman,
    I'm hoping not to see one,
    I'm also hoping, if I do,
    That it will be a wee one.

    I too have never seen a 'purple cow' nor have I seen an 'abominable snowman', but I do understand the meaning of these experessions, which is why I can be confident that I have not (so far) seen either one of these things.

    We can look for evidence of the existence of purple cows, abominable snowmen, and mountains made of gold only if we first understand what these expressions mean. Meaning comes first, then experience and observation can be used to determine whether such things actually exist.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13816655467007928465 pqqrpr

    In defining the miracle, Aquinas seems to consider it as an important element that the origin of supernatural power is outside of this world. So I think that he intended to distinguish a certain cause of event which is called miracle form others. In that sense, one can understand his strict definition of miracle like this: a miracle is that which occurs by power of outside the whole system of created nature. In this case, what you mentioned as miracles in the Bible which occur in this created world does not matter. Of course, the modified definition is still not appropriate, and I'm not sure clearly whether Aquinas really means that by his definition. It'd better go back to the original text of Aquinas, not Swinburn's comment.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X