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Are Miracles Possible?

Updated on February 18, 2015

Miracles Defined

It is unusual for "miracle" to be defined prior to a discussion of the subject. It is not a coincidence that the philosophic tradition has approached the subject haltingly and the most famous texts are critical; from this it follows that the most common venue for this topic is driven by religious and mystical predilection and, of course, by the emotional desparation that is inevitable in the case of a person who is directly invested, and dependent on, a miracle for survival or other high stakes.

Famous critiques of miracles include David Hume's devastating piece (ch. X of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748)) and, less known, Baruch Spinoza's attack on miracles (section XII of Theological-Political Treatise). First, we need to be clear as to what counts as a miracle. Definitions come in different varieties. Were we to follow scriptural texts unquestioningly, we could even settle for the extensional type of definition: whatever the sacred text counts as miracles are to define the concept. This is like defining the property being-a-chair by the set of all, and only, the things that are chairs within the totality of things. If some stipulated process of construction is involved in doing this mathematically, we can even avoid the charge that our definition is circular (in that we need to know first what a chair is before we can decide on what is included extensionally within the chair-set.) Another type of definition is intensional - and there are sub-categories of this type. An intensional definition tells us what the concept is. If we have a set, the definition of the set itself is by what is called abstraction: {any and all x/ such that x is-----}.

There is a debate as to whether a miracle can ever be consistent with the laws of nature. There are reports of what are taken as miracles, in which the processes described do not require supernatural occurrences; only that the actual occurrence itself was made to happen, when it might not have happened or might have been unlikely to come to pass. Seeing a miracle in the occurrence of an unlikely event, at exactly the time when it took place, seems to require that our definition of miracle is broad enough to accommodate cases in which no violation of the laws of nature has occurred. On the other hand, however, it is crucial for the claim that a miracle has occurred that certain alternative explanations are excluded. If the remission of terminal cancer could have happened, even with low probability, this seems to undercut the claim that a miracle has taken place. Significantly low probability can help the claim that a miracle happened but it is not sufficient to establish it. The higher the probability, the less defensible the miracle-claim becomes. All this suggests that, by definition, a miracle is an occurrence or string of occurrences that violate some type of necessity. Let us think of physical necessity: the laws of nature make certain events possible and others impossible. The occurrence of what is physically impossible would constitute what is defined as a miracle. A related type of necessity is called metaphysical: what is our water (having the properties it does) might have corresponded to H3O, instead of H2O, for instance; this is, however, impossible for any world that is like ours in the way natural kinds like water are established. A world in which water is H3O may well have the same underlying physics (at the quantum level, for instance); at least, we cannot tell since we don't have a compete science linking surface chemistry with quantum mechanics. This shows that we need a distinction between physical and metaphysical possibility/necessity.

Some of the religious miracles presented in scriptural texts violate physical necessity (the sun standing still), while other miracles violate metaphysical necessity (the changing of water to wine.)

Of course, the critical view runs like this: the absence of explanation does not mean that genuine miracles occur. Not having an explanation is an epistemic matter - we just don't know enough to produce the explanation. We should not infer from this that, in such instanes, no explanation is in principle available. There could well be an explanation for each case deemed miraculous in the absence of available or known explanation.

This critique is not as impressive as it may sound at first. The advocate of the claim that genuine miracles can happen would agree that some presumed miracles may turn out not to be such - for those, explanation could be produced even though it is not immediately forthcoming. The question as to whether any genuine miracles are possible is not settled this way. The critic is no less dogmatic than the advocate. We have no proof of the principle "for any occurrence, there is a sufficiently good, complete, explanation, whether we happen to know this explanation or not." On the other hand, it can be claimed that one who assumes this principle of sufficient explanation, even without being able to prove it, has a moral advantage in that he or she promotes science and rational investigation against the specter of obscurantism and mystification which have close links, and historically are regularly connected, to gullibility, fanaticism, intolerance, and impassioned commission of atrocities.

It should be pointed out that the above principle of sufficient explanation, which we can also call the Leibnizian principle, is not itself incompatible with having reasoned religious convictions. The case of Leibniz himself is an example of such compatibility.

There is a moral aspect to the definition of miracle, which we should take into consideration. In ordinary language, a distinction is drawn between "miracle" and "magic." The latter word, but not the former, is used often negatively. This is a genuine distinction dicated by linguistic usage, and we should observe it. The miracle, but not the magical act which is also taken to violate physical or metaphysical necessity, is actuated by a divine being directly or through some "vessel." The distinction is moral, as we can see from the negative connotations of the word "magic." The miracle has a guaranteed moral intent. This is why it is logically absurd, within the religious idiom itself, to be praying that God perform a miracle in bringing about something immoral. It is also misuse of language to characterize magic as performing miracles (in the scriptural sense of the word "miracle"); and, at any rate, if one were to do this, he or she would be absolving magic of the negative moral connotations attached to it. This moral dimension of miracles become important in a critique of miracles like the one constructed by Spinoza.

One last point is in order. The statement made by a sentence like "a triangle has three angles" or "a good poet is a poet" or "all things either are triangles or are not triangles" is logically necessary. One view of divine omnipotence is that the divine can even violate logical necessity - obviously, this type being stronger than physical or metaphysical necessity. In discussing miracles, are we also contemplating the possibility of a miracle that would make a triangle not be a triangle? Pay attention to this: we are not talking about a triangular object that is suddenly rectangular. The example of violation of logical necessity would rather go like this: even though a triangle is not a rectangle, it isn't, indeed, but it also is a rectangle: it both and is not a rectangle. Though incomprehensible to us, this must be comprehensible to God.

Siince miracles are supposed to have a persuasive force - to convince - the advocate of miracles should want to exclude violations of logical necessity from the scope of miracles. For an event that allegedly violates logic, in its description, one could equally well admit it and deny it!

An example to check what we have so far: suppose that an alleged miracle so makes it that a blind person sees - even though the eyes themselves are not affected so as to become "seeing" eyes. Is this logically absurd? If the point is that the eyes both see and don't see, yes - this is logical nonsense. On the other hand, if the point is that the brain registers reactions that make "seeing" posssible, notwithstanding the condition of the eyes, this is not logical nonsense but a violation of metaphysical necessity: in no world like ours can human brains register seeing sensations in this way; hence, this violates metaphysical necessity, which fits our definition of a miracle.


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Spinoza's Critique of Miracles

Spinoza's philosophy does not allow distinctions between logical and physical necessity. The operations of nature exemplify the strongest species of necessity in action. A case can be made that this, and only this, view is consistent with the claim that Nature is the work of an unerring and omniscient creator. For Spinoza, God and Nature are indistinguishable - a thesis that is anathema to religious writers. This is not to be understood in the "blasphemous" sense that merely natural things are divine or in the pantheistic sense that all things, being natural, are godlike. It is to be understood in the sense that God is the totality of things and "nature" is to be understood in the same sense - so the two may be taken as being the same.

Since Spinoza does not distinguish between logical necessity and any other, a miracle connotes to him violation of logical necessity. Spinoza has certain arguments against miracles:

  1. Since evil forces can presumably also work wonders, the distinction being moral, why is there any need for miracles? Follow the moral lesson, which reason alone can discover, and you have the right prophet as opposed to the false prophets; the rallying of miraculous occurrences to boost the right prophet's reputation is both superfluous (the moral character of the lesson suffices) and also smacks of the kind of exhibitionist trickstery associated with immoral forces.
  2. The operation of natural laws is itself the work of the divine. So, when the deity performs miracles, it enforces a violations of its own dictated laws. First, the deity invested those natural laws with an unexceptional necessity and, then, on the occasion of the performance of miracles, it overrules itself by disregarding the necessity it had imposed on the natural order.
  3. Since the natural laws are not only necessary but also rationally determined - with a moral God enforcing strongly only what is rational - if the divine violates those natural laws, it violates reason itself: the divine is said to be acting irrationally and against its own characteristic rational glory that had made the operation of natural laws possible in the first place.
  4. If the divine had in mind to make a certain event x occur, divine omniscience could make it so that this event, whatever it is, could occur in accordance with the laws of nature; God surely has the power to make the laws of nature as they are operate with a view to bringing about event x. Why then would there ever be justification for bringing about any event through a suspension or violation of the laws of nature?
  5. To expect a miracle in order to believe shows that the person is oriented toward the divine things in the wrong way: not by celebrating the rational and unexceptional operation of the laws of nature, which testifies to God's glory, but by requesting obscure and irrational exceptions to the natural order.

Spinoza's overall critique of the Scriptures in the Theological-Political Treatise is to point out that the authors of those texts are human; they perceived the supreme deity refracted through their own limitations. This is why someone who happened to be, as deficient human being, a warrior thought of God as being belligerent - which is a sacrilegious ascription of negative qualities to the divine. A peasant thought God was talking to him in a peasant's terms, and so on. The only inerrant guide to the discovery of the truths of revelation is given by reason, which was implanted in us by God precisely for the purpose of making such discoveries. Whatever is found lacking when judged by the standards of human reason (which are the standards of divine reason) ought to be rejected. This anticipates Thomas Jefferson's selection of the passages of the Gospels that pass rational judgment to compile his abbreviated edition of the scriptural texts.

Baruch Spinoza
Baruch Spinoza

Is Spinoza Right?

A line of assault against Spinoza's position on miracles would have to target his rationalist view of religion - and his rationalist philosophy, more generally. While violation of logical necessity results in absurdity - by definition - this is not so with reports that are physically or metaphysically impossible but not logically impossible. Spinoza's thought does not allow such distinctions between different types of necessity.

What is at stake is whether claims about miracles are logically absurd - in Spinoza's system, this is the case. While there are incomprehensible claims raised in the scriptures, this does not fit the case of reports on miracles. This cuts both ways: on the one hand, claims about miracles are not logically absurd; on the other hand, the nod to rationality may well suggest that, after all, a causal explanation may be forthcoming (in which case the presumed miracle is not a miracle.)

A claim that can be made about miracles is precisely that they have a persuasive force and can serve as instruments for conversion. There is almost a dramatic flare about this - like a dramatourgical device that is employed. Perhaps the discussion of this subject belongs to aesthetics - although it would have to be a compound species, something like a Moral Aesthetics that studies the use of dramatical devices for promotion of a moral objective.

David Hume
David Hume

Hume's Critique of Miracles

David Hume, of the Scottish Enlightenment, raised several objections to the authenticity of reported miracles but one criterion he laid down stands out and is often quoted.

For instance, Hume, a historian by trade, noted that the performers of miracles tend to find witnesses among the less educated and more gullible and superstitious sections of a population. No miracles in Rome or in Athens, were more sophisticated and better educated people reside, but an abundance of miracles attested to in the countryside...

The standard laid down by Hume, paraphrased and broadened somewhat, is as follows: a reported miracle ought to be believed if and only if it would, verifiably, take an even greater miracle for those who attest to it to be lying or to be deceived.

It is not clear how this standard is to be applied if criteria for what counts as a miracle are not given - as the case is here.

Also, what counts as a proof that someone was deceived or lied when we have no criteria as to under what conditions one ought to accept that a miracle has taken place?

Like many Humean arguments, the devil in the details seems to have to do with induction. Suppose there is a person, call him Cato, who has been verifiably been truthful for thousands of times, and has been verifiably immune to deception on thousands of occasions: the chances that such a person would report a miracle deceptively or as a result of himself being hoodwinked are minuscule. So, by Hume's standard, if Cato were to report that a miracle happened, we would have a case of a reliable report of a genuinely inexplicable phenomenon - a miracle. The inductive argument from premises about Cato's report to the veracity of his report is stronger than the inductive argument from naturalistic premises to the unlikelihood that a miracle has happened. It is suprpising, however, that Hume would have us accept this. Absence of verifiable causes, for instance, does not sanction drawing the conclusion that no cause exists. If we are ready to throw this principle - that everything has an explanation, even if we don't know it - out of the window, this is a problem in and of itself. Why would Cato's failure to verify and report a cause sanction giving up the principle of explanation altogether? We become suspicious that Hume has set up the standard for miraculous attestation in such a way that the standard cannot ever be possibly satisfied. The preceding example, however, has not made it plain how this is the case. Here is a suggestion: although arguments establishing that the laws of nature cannot be suspended are inductive, they are, however, very strong: it is arguable that such inductive arguments are as strong as any inductive argument can ever be. We witness the laws of nature not being violated continuously! Is it possible for any other subject to permit inductive arguments that are as strong as naturalistic arguments? Surely, it cannot happen that we witness and attest to Cato's acumen and truthful character more often than we attest to the operation of what we take to be the laws of nature. So, it seems that Hume has indeed set up the standard for miracles so that it can never be met.

By one definition, a miracle is a rare event. Can we count on induction to assess whether a miracle has happened or not? Assuming - hypothetically - that we know a lot about Cato's reaction to all kinds of events and people, it is, by definition, extremely unlikely that Cato ever witnessed a miracle (if such occurrences happen). So, we are in the dark as how to evaluate Cato's abilities to react to what are supposed to be miracles. This cuts both ways - in favor and against miracles too. Cato's testimony is not reliable either in favor or against the claim that a genuine miracle has occurred. This brings to the deeper problem: it seems that miracles might be in principle unverifiable. We don't know what would count as a reliable proof that a miracle has happened. To the Empiricist Hume, this is the deeper issue.

Yet, a deeper issue concerns the kind of logic we need to employ. Should we consider miracles to be extremely rare? Shouldn't we rather take the definition of a miracle to be not about chances of occurrence but about violation of some type of necessity or, which is the same thing, about some type of impossibility (physical or metaphysical impossibilty)? Hume test seeks to address the subject as if it were about probabilistic assessment; but this is not about extremely low probablity, it is rather about impossibility.

There is a view that anything that is not even in principle verifiable is meaningless. This is a controversial position. Obviously, if one were to take this view, she would have to take the concept of miracle itself to be nonsensical - assuming that miracles cannot be determined definitely on the basis of verification procedures.

If miracles are, in a deep sense, unverifiable, this could make belief in miracles a matter of faith - which is a view embraced by many. This is not an orthodox view, from a religious standpoint: reports of miracles are supposed to have persuasive force by being reports of veridical occurrences - events that are supposed to have happened indeed and not only to serve as events that are believed to have happened by the faithful.

Mount Athos, Greece

© 2014 Odysseus Makridis


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    • rustedmemory profile image

      David Hamilton 

      4 years ago from Lexington, KY

      Thanks for sharing. Upvoted and I will have to pour over this later!


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