Saturday, January 16, 2016

It's a Miracle

The Christian belief system is founded upon miraculous events.  Without miracles, there would be no Christianity.  In particular, the events surrounding the life and death of Jesus are thought to be miraculous, from the pregnancy of his virgin mother, to his rising from the tomb after death.  Indeed, it is impossible to be a Christian without believing that these miracles are real.

At the same time, it is interesting to note that there is little agreement among Christians on what constitutes a miraculous event, or when and where such events have occurred, even among the various tales found in the bible.  Was the parting of the Red Sea really a miracle, or could it be explained by natural forces?  Could the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah be due to meteor strikes?  There are many Christians who think that God directly caused these events by suspending the normal laws of nature, and others who think that God brought about these events without actually violating natural laws by creating the necessary conditions and allowing natural laws to take their course.

What exactly is a miracle?  A dictionary definition says that a miracle is an event that can't be explained by recourse to natural laws, but must be a result of the intervention of a supernatural power.  There are certainly some Christians who agree with this definition.  Here, for example is an article in the Christian Courier by Wayne Jackson, who defines miracles pretty much according to the standard definition.  He says that the biblical miracles occurred for the purpose of confirming and validating the message of the bible.  He also believes that there are no modern-day miracles.  So-called faith healings are either faked or explained by natural phenomena.

It is interesting to see arguments about how bizarre or unusual a miracle might be.  Richard Purtill argues that the biblical miracle claims are not so extraordinary as to be perceived as over-the-top, by comparison to the outlandish claims made by other faiths.
The point is this is what you get when imagination goes to work on a historical figure in classical antiquity; you get miracle stories a little like those in the Gospels, but also snakes big enough to eat elephants, kings and emperors as supporting cast, travelers’ tales, ghosts and vampires. Once the boundaries of fact are crossed we wander into fairyland.
So according to him,  we can discern true claims of miracles from fantasies, because talking donkeys, walking dead people, and water turning into wine are all within the bounds of reason, but huge snakes are not.   On the other hand, there are some Christians who make essentially the opposite argument - that Christian miracles are superior in value to the relatively lame miracle claims made by others in antiquity.  Jason Engwer makes the case for this in his blog.  Depending on how you look at it, Christian miracle claims are better because they're either less outrageous or more extraordinary than the claims of other faiths.  Go figure. 

At the other end of the spectrum from Jackson, there are Christians who define a miracle as the actions of God, working through nature to bring about events that are unusual enough to get our attention.  In this interview, Craig Keener defines miracles in this way.  For example, he says of the parting of the sea: "God did it through a strong east wind. So technically it's not a violation of nature".  Keener thinks that David Hume was responsible for creating the false modern conception of miracles as a violation of nature - something contrary to human experience. 

While it may be true that the advent of modern science established an understanding of "laws of nature" that were not previously known, even in biblical times, people had a sense of what Hume called "uniform human experience", and were usually able to discern something natural from claims of things that were supposedly miraculous, and this is what Hume was talking about.  In fact, it wasn't until we had a modern sense of natural laws that people like Keener were able to concoct explanations of miracles that could be seen as consistent with those natural laws.  So his criticism of Hume seems rather misplaced.

A key point about Keener's definition of miracles is that his denial that miracles are violations of natural laws is simply incoherent.  It makes no sense to say that God intervenes to bring about some result without violating any natural laws.  Consider a situation where outcome X would occur in the absence of any divine intervention.  That is to say, if the laws of nature take their course, X would result.  But God intervenes, and causes outcome Y instead.  God is making something happen that would not occur under the laws of nature.  Outcome Y could only happen if the normal laws were suspended or violated in some way.  And this is true for any miraculous event, no matter if there could be a conceivable natural explanation for it.  If it is accomplished by divine intervention, then nature has not taken its course.  A faith healing, for example, may be explained in natural terms, but if you want to claim that it is a miracle, you must agree that God has caused something to happen that would not have happened under ordinary natural laws.

Furthermore, Keener thinks that Hume's admonition against trusting claims of miracles involves a circular argument, because "he's arguing on the basis of uniform human experience that we can't trust miracle claims, and at the same time these miracle claims represent part of human experience."  But his argument that Hume used circular reasoning is wrong, because while claims of miracles are common in our experience, the actual events depicted by those claims are not.  All we really have to go on are the stories of people who say that they or someone else had this miraculous experience.  And people are known to be untruthful.  So why should we trust them, given that we never get to experience these things in person?  They are in fact outside of our  uniform human experience.

Case in point:  One of Victors' commenters thinks that this is "impeccable" evidence of miracles.  It is a story from the Catholic church about a supposed faith healing, that was declared to be a miracle by a panel of doctors and theologians appointed by the Vatican for the purpose of confirming a miracle in order to canonize a prospective saint.  Seriously?  What if the same story had been told by a Hindu (or some other) religious organization?  Would he still consider it to be impeccable evidence of a miracle?  We already know that the Catholic church is willing to seize upon practically anything in order to "comfirm" the miraculous works of someone it wants to canonize, as I have discussed previously.

The bottom line is that miracle claims are just claims.  Hume was absolutely correct to say that we should regard them with skepticism.  If we don't experience any extraordinary events ourselves, and we don't know of any such reports from reliable, unbiased sources, then we have no reason to think they are true.  The biblical stories were written for the purpose of bringing people into the fold.  The Church believes that canonizing popular figures like Mother Teresa serves the same purpose.  But they aren't reliable, unbiased sources.  Show me a real miracle that I can see for myself - not some story about what someone else claims to have seen, but can't be verified - and then I'll have reason to believe.


  1. Indeed, it is impossible to be a Christian without believing that these miracles are real.

    Wow. Something over on this site which I can wholeheartedly, 100% agree with. Skeppy, you have never written truer words.

    A dictionary definition says that a miracle is an event that can't be explained by recourse to natural laws, but must be a result of the intervention of a supernatural power. There are certainly some Christians who agree with this definition.

    Not this Christian. I am totally comfortable with events that have totally naturalistic explanations nevertheless being miracles. What makes it miraculous is the intent, not the methodology. Say I am on my way to commit a mortal sin, and God throws a (perfectly explainable) monkey wrench into my plans which prevents me from doing so. I am OK with calling that a miracle.

    As for miracles being "violations" of natural laws, well... that's a rather loaded term, which "poisons the well" in any discussion of the miraculous. I prefer to say they are a suspension, or (even better) an overruling of natural law.

    When a higher court overturns the ruling of a lower court, it is not "violating" the law, but rather exercising the law at a more authoritative level. When God steps in to miraculously cure a Catholic priest at Holy Rosary Parish, He is not "violating" any laws (of which He is, after all, the author), but rather exercising the prerogatives of a higher authority.

    1. I am totally comfortable with events that have totally naturalistic explanations nevertheless being miracles.
      - As I explained, this is an incoherent stance. Either something is natural and complies with natural laws, or it is miraculous, and it violates natural laws. There is no in-between.

      When a higher court overturns the ruling of a lower court, it is not "violating" the law, but rather exercising the law at a more authoritative level.
      - This is not an edict. Natural laws are simply what we observe to be the regular way things behave without any supernatural intervention. This is what Hume referred to as the "uniform human experience". If there is any deviation from this uniformity, it can rightly be described as a "violation", because it breaks the rule of our observation. And you should be aware that it is only in unreliable stories that any such violation has ever occurred. It never happens in a manner that can be observed or verified by everyone.

    2. "What makes it miraculous is the intent, not the methodology."

      Now Plank is a bloody expert mind reader. And what's more he knows the mind of God. Little kids tell me rocks are intended to be sharp so that animals can rub the itch spots on their back where their hooves can't reach.

      Three wonderfully apt quotes. As American philosopher Elbert Hubbard observed: "A mystic [Christian] is a person who is puzzled before the obvious, but who understands the nonexistent."
      Renowned German astronomer Johannes Kepler: "When miracles are admitted, every scientific explanation is out of the question." And, from French symbolist writer, critic and philosopher, "God is not all that exists. God is all that does not exist."

      So much for 'knowing' the intent of the non-existent.


    3. So much for 'knowing' the intent of the non-existent.
      - Now that's a miracle.

  2. this is an incoherent stance

    Sorry, but it is not - not in the least. I'll repeat: "What makes it miraculous is the intent, not the methodology."

    unreliable stories

    Are you now taking cues from Cal, over on DI? Read my last response to him over on that site (at 2:41 PM). Your problem (and his) is not with the evidence being "stories", it's with what the stories are about.

    1. It is very much about the content of the stories. The great, glaring difference between your two stories is that one makes a claim that is quite ordinary, and the other makes a claim that is extraordinary. It is true that I can't verify either one of them. But as cal pointed out, the things claimed in the first one are things that happen all the time, and that is verifiable. The things claimed in the second one never happen in any manner that is verifiable. So, while I don't know that either of them are true, I have very good reason to believe that the second one is not true, and I have much less reason to suspect that the first one is not true.

      Now, getting back to my own claim - that your stance is incoherent. I ask you again to read what I wrote. If god intervenes, he is making something happen that would not happen by the ordinary laws of nature. That is what it means to intervene. Therefore such an event cannot be called totally naturalistic, and to do so is self-contradictory.

  3. If god intervenes, he is making something happen that would not happen by the ordinary laws of nature.

    Not necessarily. I have no problem with God's so arranging things that (for example) I get stuck in a traffic jam, thereby either causing or preventing some other event's occurrence. I would class that as a miracle. What matters is not the means (in this case, purely natural), but rather the intent (guiding me toward or away from some other circumstance).

    In the Eighth Chapter of the Book of Acts, Phillip meets up with an Ethiopian eunuch and preaches the Gospel to him. Now there was nothing "supernatural" about this encounter, but it was nevertheless miraculous, because it occurred due to the explicit desire of God that it should happen.

    1. This is why I insist that religion and science are not compatible. I don't care what Bob says. There is church dogma that is inconsistent with science, we have just such a case here.

      Divine intervention can come in either of two possible varieties. One is that God arranges everything at some initial time, and then lets nature run like a clock, with all outcomes preordained. I'm sure this is not acceptable to you, because it denies any possibility of free will. The second possibility is that God steps in at some later time to set things up for a particular outcome. Let's consider that in more detail.

      The first thing to understand is about the nature of causality. The idea of causal chains is naive. In reality, the state of the world at time t is directly responsible for the state at the next increment (say t plus 1 planck time, or t+1). But the state at any given time can be seen as a large matrix containing detailed physical information. Given that we know the complete state S at time t in sufficient detail, physical laws determine the state at t+1. A good example of this is weather modeling. They actually create a matrix with an initial state that has as much fine detail as possible, and then chug through increments of time, calculating subsequent states for each time increment.

      Now, let's say we're at Fatima, and we see the clouds part to let a glorious ray of sunlight shining on the scene. Is this a miracle, or not? Assume we could create a highly accurate weather model and calculate what happens to the clouds according to the laws of physics. If the weather model tells us that the clouds will part in the manner described, then there is no divine intervention involved, and it's not a miracle. On the other hand, if the weather model does not produce the desired effect, then God can step in and change something to make that happen. But if he does that, then the weather model doesn't tell us what will happen because the laws of physics have been violated.

      So we have one of two possible situations: physical laws apply and there is no miracle, or there is a miracle and physical laws do not apply, at least in some part. There are no other possibilities that you can hold coherently. Any attempt to make it sound as if supernatural intervention at any time after the establishment of the initial state can co-exist with natural physical laws is just meaningless nonsense.

  4. steve comments:
    The odds of being dealt a royal flush are 649,740 to 1. As one source put it: "If you were dealt 20 hands of poker every night of the year, in 89 years you should only expect to see one royal flush."
    So that's very rare. Extraordinarily rare, you might say. Yet it's also inevitable. Soon or later it's bound to happen.
    Does it take extraordinary evidence to demonstrate that you were dealt a royal flush? Hardly. Ordinary evidence will suffice. Eyewitness testimony.

    This illustrates the vapid thinking of theists with regard to evidence for miracles. Yes, a royal flush is rare. But as even steve admits, they do happen. We know this. It has been seen many times, and there is nothing about it that would defy credulity unless the frequency of occurrence was outside the expected range. That means we expect to see it rarely. We would be surprised if it happened too often or if it never happened at all.

    What's the difference between this and claims of miracles? We don't expect to see miracles at all. And indeed, there are no independently substantiated reports of these things. Only stories told by blinkered people. If I hear that someone was dealt a royal flush, I know that something like that can and does happen. If I hear that someone walked on top of water, I would suspect that it didn't happen, or it was some kind of trick, that's the kind of thing that doesn't happen. EVER.

    1. I've never heard of an amputee regrowing an arm or a leg. Have you? I wonder why the Christian apparition treats amputees with such abominable disdain?

      My best bet is that science will eventually do what the Christian God has never wanted to do. And today's transplants are just the beginning of that wonderful journey.

      I say stick God up your arse.
      I'm sorry for being crass in my response but I simply cannot stand the crapola of Christian theism anymore.

    2. There is a great divide between modern-day miracles and biblical miracles. Modern miracles are always explainable as natural events. Did Mother Teresa cure cancer, or was it the medical treatment? This is the kind of thing that theists have to cling to, because they know damn well that we'll never see an amputee grow an arm, or a guy walking on water, as long there are people around who can and will expose the truth. Yet they continue to insist that those biblical stories are true. Why? Because they know we have no way of going back to the scene and revealing it as a lie.

      How can any Christian call himself intellectually honest while clinging to such obvious bullshit?

  5. I heard from Richard Carrier that younger Christians are willing to belief those stories about Jesus and the existence of Jesus are myths. I guess they may still believe in God but their focus is doing humanitarian work. I suppose if they also jettison God then they might as well just be called Humanitarians.?

    1. Jettison God, and you's be able to have a rational discussion with them.