There are many words which have common usage meanings different, or at least at some variance, to their more precise, considered meaning. Generally, it’s harmless, of little consequence, but now and again it does cause confusion.
There’s ‘theory’, which most of us use in a fairly loose way. In fact, when most people use it they are, of course, referring to what might more strictly be described as ‘hypothesis’, though anybody using this word in every day conversation might be regarded as a little pedantic. But it does matter when we talk about scientific theories, and it is the confusion between the strict, scientific definition and the common use definition that allows creationists to wallow in their ignorance.
Then there’s one of my real pet hates. Using the word ‘proof’ when we are referring to ‘evidence’. Even TV detective shows get mixed up. ‘But have you got any proof?’, they ask, as they prepare to charge the latest suspect, and I just want to shout ‘evidence you idiot’. In real life, there are varying degrees of ‘proof’. Pure mathematics is perhaps the only area of knowledge in which absolute proof is possible. Subject to certain underlying axioms, most twelve-year-olds can prove Pythagoras’ theorem, and there is no slim, slender possibility that it could be wrong. On the other hand, a criminal court of law requires only that a case be proved ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ (which is one reason why the death penalty is a very bad idea). In the general area of sciences it is impossible to achieve absolute proof, so we content ourselves with gathering evidence, then continually testing our conclusions for effectiveness.
Which brings me to my purpose in writing this article. What do we mean when we use the word ‘miracle’?
In every day usage, it is anything that is slightly unexpected, but also has to bring some sort of joy, being attached to ‘a good thing’. In many situations, miracle and disaster co-exist. Thirty miners are trapped underground and die, so that is a disaster; but when one manages to survive and scrabble to safety, his family declare a ‘miracle’, and of course I wouldn’t want to take away from the relief and happiness of that family, but it must be galling for the families of the dead miners. A child is given a one in a hundred chance of surviving cancer, and somehow pulls through. His mother proclaims a ‘miracle’ and, whilst undoubtedly a nice outcome for her and the family, ignores the other ninety-nine children who had to die in maintaining the statistic.
Of course, it gets silly. I read a story of an American housewife who was hosting what she saw as an important dinner, and discovered at the crucial hour that she’d run out of some ingredient. She prayed, presumably to God rather than Allah and, lo and behold, found said ingredient in a drawer, tucked away out of sight. Needless to say, she regarded that as a miracle.
It’s easy to be dismissive of these stories, because rational people understand how statistics work, but that leaves us with having to define what is actually meant by the word ‘miracle’. Dictionary definitions of the word invariably begin with something along the lines of “1. An event that appears inexplicable by the laws of nature and so is held to be supernatural in origin or an act of God. 2. One that excites admiring awe; a wonderful or amazing event, act, person, or thing.”
The latter definition may be the way in which we define the word as it apples to every day use, but the trouble is it is very subjective. The example of the surviving miner would only be a miracle to his family and, in any event, I’m not sure we should be using the word for events which are largely the result of chance. In fact, if we hadn’t the word miracle already we’d probably just use other extreme adjectives to describe those events which clearly are simply happy outcomes, such as astonishing, or astounding, or wonderful.
So I’ll move onto the first definition which is, in any event I suspect, what many people using the word actually think: divine intervention. And here, I think, the issue becomes clearer, in that the definition of miracle in this context means, in effect, impossible. It is an interference with the natural laws of the universe, and can only be attributed to supernatural causes.
The problems with this definition are several. For one thing, if there really is supernatural interference then might there be some underlying physical laws that allow the intervention? Might those laws simply be something we don’t yet understand, much the way that primitive peoples would be astonished by motor cars?
Then there’s the matter of trying to understand the intervention. Okay, so you’ve established that such and such a person’s recovery from terminal illness could only possibly have been down to supernatural intervention. So what? It doesn’t tell us anything. We are no nearer to knowing if the supernatural intervention was divine in origin, or simply something quirky; maybe it was leprechauns. There is no explanation of why this one person was cured whilst countless millions of others are allowed to perish.
Lastly, I see no practical way in which a miracle could ever be so well evidenced as to amount to near ‘proof’. The most famous miracles are those of Jesus, but the lack of evidence means they can be entirely discounted, even assuming such a person actually existed. More modern miracles, for example those surrounding Mother Theresa, are so obviously contrived that they simply throw the Roman Catholic Church into yet more disrepute (difficult to believe possible). One is left then with odd, ad hoc, unusual events which, when investigated properly, almost always have a simple explanation. Even those rare events which remain unexplained are usually surrounded by confused memories, inconsistent descriptions of events, and often plain fraud. Never has any evidence of supernatural intervention ever been adduced.
Perhaps the word ‘miracle’ needs to be re-defined.