Monday, 20 July 2020

Miracles: Confirmable, or Chimerical?

Posted by Keith Tidman

Multiplication of the Loaves, by Georges, Mount Athos.
We are often passionately told of claims to experienced miracles, in both the religious and secular worlds. The word ‘miracle’ coming from the Latin mirari, meaning to wonder. But what are these miracles that some people wonder about, and do they happen as told?

Scottish philosopher David Hume, as sceptic on this matter, defined a miracle as ‘a violation of the laws of nature’ — with much else to say on the issue in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). He proceeded to define the transgression of nature as due to a ‘particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent’. Though how much credence might one place in ‘invisible agents’?

Other philosophers, like Denmark’s SΓΈren Kierkegaard in his pseudonymous persona Johannes Climacus, also placed themselves in Hume’s camp on the matter of miracles. Earlier, Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote of miracles as events whose source and cause remain unknown to us (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, 1670). Yet, countless other people around the world, of many religious persuasions, earnestly assert that the entreaty to miracles is one of the cornerstones of their faith. Indeed, some three-fourths of survey respondents indicated they believe in miracles, while nearly half said they have personally experienced or seen a miracle (Princeton Survey Research Associates, 2000; Harris poll, 2013).

One line of reasoning as to whether miracles are credible might start with the definition of miracles, such as transgressions of natural events uncontested convincingly by scientists or other specialists. The sufficiency of proof that a miracle really did occur and was not, deus ex machina, just imagined or stemming from a lack of understanding of the laws underlying nature is a very tall order, as surely it should be.

Purported proof would come from people who affirm they witnessed the event, raising questions about witnesses’ reliability and motives. In this regard, it would be required to eliminate obvious delusions, fraud, optical illusions, distortions, and the like. The testimony of witnesses in such matters is, understandably, often suspect. There are demanding conditions regarding definitions and authentication — such as of ‘natural events’, where scientific hypotheses famously, but for good reason, change to conform to new knowledge acquired through disciplined investigation. These conditions lead many people to dismiss the occurrence of miracles as pragmatically untenable, requiring by extension nothing less than a leap of faith.

But a leap of faith suggests that the alleged miracle happened through the interposition of a supernatural power, like a god or other transcendent, creative force of origin. This notion of an original source gives rise, I argue, to various problematic aspects to weigh.

One might wonder, for example, why a god would have created the cosmos to conform to what by all measures is a finely grained set of natural laws regarding cosmic reality, only later to decide, on rare occasion, to intervene. That is, where a god suspends or alters original laws in order to allow miracles. The assumption being that cosmic laws encompass all physical things, forces, and the interactions among them. So, a god choosing not to let select original laws remain in equilibrium, uninterrupted, seems selective — incongruously so, given theistic presumptions about a transcendent power’s omniscience and omnipotence and omniwisdom.

One wonders, thereby, what’s so peculiarly special about humankind to deserve to receive miracles — symbolic gestures, some say. Additionally, one might reasonably ponder why it was necessary for a god to turn to the device of miracles in order for people to extract signals regarding purported divine intent.

One might also wonder, in this theistic context, whether something was wrong with the suspended law to begin with, to necessitate suspension. That is, perhaps it is reasonable to conclude from miracles-based change that some identified law is not, as might have been supposed, inalterably good in all circumstances, for all eternity. Or, instead, maybe nothing was in fact defective in the original natural law, after all, there having been merely an erroneous read of what was really going on and why. A rationale, thereby, for alleged miracles — and the imagined compelling reasons to interfere in the cosmos — to appear disputable and nebulous.

The presumptive notion of ‘god in the gaps’ seems tenuously to pertain here, where a god is invoked to fill the gaps in human knowledge — what is not yet known at some point in history — and thus by extension allows for miracles to substitute for what reason and confirmable empirical evidence might otherwise and eventually tell us.

As Voltaire further ventured, ‘It is . . . impious to ascribe miracles to God; they would indicate a lack of forethought, or of power, or both’ (Philosophical Dictionary, 1764). Yet, unsurprisingly, contentions like Voltaire’s aren’t definitive as a closing chapter to the accounting. There’s another facet to the discussion that we need to get at — a nonreligious aspect.

In a secular setting, the list of problematic considerations regarding miracles doesn’t grow easier to resolve. The challenges remain knotty. A reasonable assumption, in this irreligious context, is that the cosmos was not created by a god, but rather was self-caused (causa sui). In this model, there were no ‘prior’ events pointing to the cosmos’s lineage. A cosmos that possesses integrally within itself a complete explanation for its existence. Or, a cosmos that has no beginning — a boundless construct having existed infinitely.

One might wonder whether a cosmos’s existence is the default, stemming from the cosmological contention that ‘nothingness’ cannot exist, implying no beginning or end. One might further ponder how such a cosmos — in the absence of a transcendent force powerful enough to tinker with it — might temporarily suspend or alter a natural law in order to accommodate the appearance of a happening identifiable as a miracle. I propose there would be no mechanism to cause such an alteration to the cosmic fabric to happen. On those bases, it may seem there’s no logical reason for (no possibility of) miracles. Indeed, the scientific method does itself call for further examining what may have been considered a natural law whenever there are repeated exceptions or contradictions to it, rather than assuming that a miracle is recurring.

Hume proclaimed that ‘no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle’; centuries earlier, Augustine of Hippo articulated a third, and broader take on the subject. He pointedly asked, ‘Is not the universe itself a miracle?’ (The City of God, 426 AD). Here, one might reasonably interpret ‘a miracle’ as synonymous for a less emotionally charged, temporal superlative like ‘remarkable’. I suspect most of us agree that our vast, roiling cosmos is indeed a marvel, though debatably not necessitating an originating spiritual framework like Augustine’s. 

No matter how supposed miracles are perceived, internalised, and retold, the critical issue of what can or cannot be confirmed dovetails to an assessment of the ‘knowledge’ in hand: what one knows, how one knows it, and with what level of certainty one knows it. So much of reality boils down to probabilities as the measuring stick; the evidence for miracles is no exception. If we’re left with only gossamer-thin substantiation, or no truly credible substantiation, or no realistically potential path to substantiation — which appears the case — claims of miracles may, I offer, be dismissed as improbable or even phantasmal.


Thomas Scarborough said...

I should think this is a specific instance of a more general problem.

Miracles fall under 'history'. Unlike physical science, history presents us with various problems which are fairly unique to itself. It is unrepeatable. We cannot retrieve the facts if we missed them the first time. History, too, will always represent a loss of information—a reduction of the events themselves. There is, too, the problem of interpretation (arguably a major problem here, since miracles rest on presuppositions). The facts, wrote the historian Charles Beard, are an act of choice, conviction, and interpretation regarding values.

Given that this is so, I think the real question becomes: of what importance is our reliance on history? In the case of religion specifically, what is it that validates religion? Does history validate it? Then secondly, miracles.

Keith said...

Thank you, Thomas, for your interesting observations. I agree. When it comes to history, there are indeed unrealised facts from amidst the inevitable fog. A loss of information as events are abridged, purportedly for easier capture, storing, interpretation, and telling — unable to be reconstructed without irreversible data loss. The skewing of events — sometimes purposefully motivated, other times by sheer accident. And a compounding of biases stacking upon biases — an Achilles’ heel of history drawn from human nature — as events are retold and events’ particulars move through the hands of follow-on generations of historians. So, as to the question ‘Does history validate [religion]?’: Given these and other nontrivial limitations of history, my opinion is that history seldom rises to such validation — certainly not of religion or of miracles. I would be hesitant and sceptical. As for an alternative to history in these regards, I draw a blank, based on an abundance of incredulity regarding both process and substance.

Thomas Scarborough said...

I think you are correct: 'history seldom rises to such validation'. Yet for many, this is an all-important component of religion. Logically there would then be something else which validates it, or nothing at all.

The survey results you refer to are quite astonishing: 'some three-fourths of survey respondents indicated they believe in miracles'. The question then is: who missed something? The respondents, or those with a scientific worldview?

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