Monday, December 12, 2011

What is a Miracle?

Why believe in God?  Maybe the best reason is miracles.  Debates about the truth of Christianity often revolve around the reality of the most famous miracle in human history, the resurrection of Jesus.  In this era in which Christianity has spread rapidly beyond its old borders, Christians around the world also often explain their conversion by some event in which God seemed to step into their lives in an amazing way.  Two chapters of my new book, Faith Seeking Understanding, tell such stories. 

But this brings up a lot of questions.  Wwhat is a miracle?  Are miracles possible?  Does science disprove them?  If Christians believe the resurrection, does that oblige us to admit Joseph Smith really received the Book of Mormon from the angel Moroni, or that Mohammed rode a white horse to heaven?  Do miracles provide good evidence for Christianity? 

I think they do.  But we can't tackle all these questions in one post, so let's start with the first, which is foundational to all the others. 

The word "miracle" is given at least three different meanings:

(1) People often use the word to refer to "an amazing event."  "We have all benefited from the miracle of science."  "We'll be telling our grandkids about that miraculous fourth-quarter comback!" "I held her hand as the baby emerged, and witnessed the miracle of new life."

Language is a set of mostly arbitrary signs that we use to communicate.  So there is nothing "wrong" about using the word miracle this, or any other, way.  If you like, you define "rose" as "a large mammal that lives in the swamps on Yoda's home planet."  You can write a science-fiction novel using the word that way, and your readers will get used to the term quickly enough.  But then if your neighbor tells you, "I'm putting in roses in my yard next spring," don't criticize him for harboring dangerous animals: his use of the word is more in agreement with convention, than your own.   

So there is nothing "wrong" with using "miracle" to mean "an amazing event."  But it is irrelevant to the debate between skeptics and theists, and its frequent use tends to confuse that issue.  An atheist can see miracles around him all day long, in this sense, without upsetting his atheism.  So let us bracket this common meaning of the word "miracle." 

(2) Miracle is also commonly taken to mean, "An event in the material world that violates the laws of Nature."  In a post article at The Secular Outpost, the philosopher  Brad Owen argued, "In order for an event to be a miracle, it must satisfy at least the following two conditions:  1. The event must involve the violation of a law of nature. 2. The event must be brought about by God."

The first part of this definition seems to have been popularized by 17th Century Scottish philosopher, David Hume:

"A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature." 

Hume went on to explain:

"Sometimes an event may not, in itself, seem to be contrary to the laws of nature, and yet, if it were real, it might, by reason of some circumstances, be denominated a miracle; because, in fact, it is contrary to these laws.  Thus if a person, claiming a divine authority, should command a sick person to be well, a healthful man to fall down dead, the clouds to pour rain, the winds to follow upon his command; these may justly be esteemed miracles . . . " 

I responded to the word "violation" that both Owen and Hume use, as follows:

"One reason I object to the word 'violation,' is that it seems to imply a discontinuity between the 'laws' of nature and miracles. But there is actually a deeper continuity. Miracles are not like random street noise that interrupts a concert (magic). They are like the symbols that dramatically break up the horn soliquy with a sudden 'crash,' but were written into the music by the composer to climax the piece."

C. S. Lewis offers a similar explanation in his book, Miracles
Brad responded by citing the Christian historian Gary Habermas, and softening his language, to say miracles must involve a "suspension" of natural law. 

That helps, but I also see two larger problems with this assumption. 
First, what are miracles like, in the Bible, or as people experience them today?

Some do seem to involve suspension of natural law.  For example, the first "sign" John reports, is when Jesus changes water into wine at a wedding feast in the lakeside village of Cana.  This is a chemically impossible reaction: alcohol contains carbon, for instance, while water does not. Nor does Jesus appear to have acted on the water to stimulate any kind of reaction. 

On the other hand, a few chapters later, mere words at a well in Samaria, and then in a village nearby, convince some Samaritans that Jesus is "the Savior of the world."  No laws of physics or chemistry are obviously "suspended" in the process.  But the people are convinced, and the reasons are good.  

The same is often true of "miracles," today.  I have never seen the laws of physics suspended or violated.  But several times, I have seen what looked like "miraculous" answers to prayer.

Once when I was working as a missionary in Taiwan, I ran out of money.  I went to a park in Taipei and prayed, "God, why don't I just go home!  I don't even have enough money to buy a hamburger!  The hymn says, 'Great is thy faithfulness,' but I just don't see that faithfulness!"

On my way out of the park, I stopped to talk with a Chinese girl reading an English newspaper.  (The paper was an excuse.  "At least she answers!"  I told God.)  As I was getting up to leave, the girl asked me my name.  "Ma De Wei," I said.  "Ma Dewei?  You're Ma Dewei!  Really?"

I soon learned why she was so surprised.  Years before, I had found a wallet some miles away, and taken it to the Taiwan University Lost and Found.  I put my Chinese name in the wallet, and wrote, "God loves you."  In a city of four million, this girl turned out to be the owner of that wallet.

She took me to McDonalds for lunch.  Eating a cheeseburger, I remembered the jibe about money for hamburgers.  

My other needs were met in almost equally surprising ways.

None, however, involved the suspension of any natural laws.  But they did give me reason to think God had not forgotten me. 

An opposite phenomena from the one Hume mentioned is often cited by modern skeptics: when a natural explanation (either "folk" or "scientific") is later found for events that at first seem supernatural.  Maybe Jesus was a "psychic," in other words exploited some little-known physical powers to read the Samaritan woman's mind.  Maybe his disciples did good research on her.  Either way, the "sign," while compelling to those who converted, need not involve God (skeptics may reply), nor need it clearly violate known laws of science. 

Some miracles in the gospels are like that: Peter's catch of the fish with the gold coin in its mouth, the disciples' big catches of fish under Jesus' instruction, occasions when Jesus seemed to know things without being told.  Some of his healing might be explained away as psychosomatic. 

Even the toughest miracles might, in theory, be explained in terms of quantum physics.  The philosopher Michael Martin, for example, suggests that even the resurrection might theoretically be explained by a random quantum fluctuation.  So might Jesus walking on water, or multiplying the loaves and fishes, or healing anyone of anything. 

So there are two problems with the definition Brad Owen and David Hume (among others, both skeptics and Christians) use. 

First, the Bible uses another term, "sign," which seems to put the stress on the probative value of the event in persuading those who experience it to trust God, and act on that trust.  Some "signs" seem to involve what we would ordinarily call "violations of natural law," others do not.

Second, given quantum physics and modern technology, it is increasingly difficult to absolutely differentiate between what physical laws do or do not allow.  One might also explain Jesus' healings, for instance, as those of a medical doctor from an advanced extraterrestrial civilization, Dr. McCoy in Palestine. 

Of course there are all kinds of problems with these counter-claims.  The odds such an enormous quantum flux, for example, are greater than the number of fundamental particles in a universe the size ours would be, if every particle in it became a universe of its own.  But it has become more difficult, now, to draw a clear line between the "improbable" and what is genuinely impossible in the course of nature. 

It seems, then, that we need a definition of "miracle" that includes both how the Bible actually uses the word, the root meaning of the word, and in terms of probilities rather than mere possibilities. 

So here's the definition I prefer:

(3)  "A miracle is an event in the natural world that points probatively to God's work, and gives us compelling reasons to trust Him." 

The most common Greek word is σημειoν, or sign, the root for semiotics. A miracle does not need to violate a law of nature, but should give good reasons for faith.

In Jesus and the Religions of Man, chapter 10 and 11, I give an in-depth description of what a miracle in this sense involves, and compare miracles to magic.  Briefly, miracles in the biblical sense tend to share five characteristics (one of which Brad Owen has already mentioned):

(1) "Miracles ask to be verified; magic insults the intelligence."  This is related to their root meaning of "signs," and to their purpose in guiding us to God.   

(2) "Miracles tend to be practical; magic is often showy." 

(3) "Miracles enhance human dignity; magic makes us more or less than human."

(4) "Miracles point to God; magic points elsewhere." 

(5) "Miracles come in response to requests; magic to demands."  One consequence of this quality is that it is often difficult to test miracles scientifically, but may be possible to check them historically.  God, being our Lord, not our servant, will act when and where, and in whatever way, He chooses.  Therefore miracles are not "repeatable," but they can be rationally deduced.

These five qualities not only help define Christian miracles, they also help differentiate true miracles from faked or even demonic supernatural acts.  That's what I'm doing in Jesus and the Religions of Man. 


Bradley Bowen said...

David Marshall said...

(1) "Miracles ask to be verified; magic insults the intelligence." This is related to their root meaning of "signs," and to their purpose in guiding us to God.


Miracles are events, and events don't speak, so an event cannot 'ask to be verified'.

Obviously this is non-literal language. But it is unclear language, in part because of being non-literal.

Can you provide a clear, literal criterion in place of this unclear non-literal one? If not, then (1) should be tossed out.

Bradley Bowen said...

David Marshall said...

(2) "Miracles tend to be practical; magic is often showy."
This can be read literally, so (2) is clearer than (1). However, 'be practical' is a bit vague, and needs further explanation and clarification before this can serve the purpose of defining/clarifying the word 'miracle'.

Also, 'showy' is not the opposite of 'practical'. So you are mixing different considerations into a signle criterion, which is confusing.

In fact, 'showy' may be quite practical in some instances, for example Elija's showy miracle of calling fire down from heaven to consume a heap of wood and the priests of Baal.

Bradley Bowen said...

David Marshall said...

(3) "Miracles enhance human dignity; magic makes us more or less than human."
This like (2) can be read literally, but it is vague. In order for this to be useful for categorizing events, further explanation and clarification is needed.

Bradley Bowen said...

David Marshall said...

(4) "Miracles point to God; magic points elsewhere."

This is non-literal language again. Events don't point, nor shake their fists, nor slap one in the face.

I suppose you mean something like 'are evidence for the existence of God', but if that is what you mean, you need to say so, and not use unclear metaphorical language. Otherwise, you muddy the water, rather than clarify.

Bradley Bowen said...

David Marshall said...

(5) "Miracles come in response to requests; magic to demands."

It seems to me that there are several NT miracles that would fail this test. Jesus does not request the storm to be quiet, he commands it to be quiet. Jesus does not request demons to leave the possessed, he commands them to leave. Jesus does not request Lazarus to rise from the dead, he commands Lazarus to come forth.

I suppose you could claim that Jesus first requested these miracles from God, and then when God communicated approval of the request to Jesus, Jesus then spoke in a commanding way about the requested miracle.

But all of this is internal dialogue that is unobservable, so if what looks on the surface to be commands and demands can be secretly and subjectively requests, then the application of this criterion may be of little practical use, even if it is theoretically correct. Telling the difference between requests and demands may be too difficult in many or most cases.

It should be noted that this is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a miracle, since God can do whatever he wants to do, and so he can grant a wish or desire even before one requests him to.

The fact that a prayer request is satisfied is not proof that God's will is that the request be satisfied (e.g. 'God please let me hit a big jackpot playing slots tonight' - winning the jackpot does not prove that God's will was that you gamble and win big).

Bradley Bowen said...


There does not appear to be a single criterion that is clear among the five criteria put forward here. So, unless and until further explanation is provided, this definition of 'miracle' is unhelpful.

This also appears to be a criterial definition, where none of the criteria are necessary conditions for the application of the term 'miracle'. If that is your intention, then this should be clearly stated.

If one or more of these criteria are supposed to be necessary conditions for application of the term 'miracle' then that should be clearly stated.

In general, criterial definitions are better at capturing ordinary language use, but may not be as useful as necessary/sufficient condition definitions for the purpose of philosophical discussions and arguments.

For example, in The Coherence of Theism, Swinburne argues for a criterial definition of 'God' but then he advocates 'tightening up' this definition by turning it into a necessary/sufficient conditions definition, for purposes of developing his philosophical case for theism.

Criterial definitions leave a much greater area of problematic and borderline cases, while necessary/sufficient condition definitions are logically crisper, allowing for more definitive categorization.

David B Marshall said...

Brad: The answer to your first question should not be difficult; the slight anthropomorphism should not veil my meaning too much. Miracles, being worked by a personal Being as you have said, are themselves impersonal, but tend to convey signs with personal meaning to those who witness them, as do ordinary signs. Like street signs, the meaning of miracles can be verified by their correspondence with reality: they are sensible, rational, and meaningful, and can be perceived as such, as Nature itself is rational. "North Bend 16 miles" is rational because it contains a message, which can be verified on a car odometer, even though it doesn't derive directly from the law of physics that black ink on metal proves a city will soon appear. Jesus miracles, similarly, reflect and define his character, and the character of God. They are reason to believe, and also a means by which to know. Magic, by contrast, is often perceived as arbitrary suspensions of natural laws.

Don't be too hasty to throw a criteria out because it is expressed somewhat poetically! I wonder why you made that suggestion.

David B Marshall said...

Brad: Good point on two. To be more precise, "Miracles tend to be practically useful for those for whom they are worked; magic is often showy in the sense of demonstrating the magician's power, without directly benefiting anyone much."

On (3), I give more explanation in the book; maybe I'll have time to say more, here, if there is any practical need for more explanation.

(4) I disagree. You are a philosopher, and have the right to use language that is as literal as you can make it. But I think the meaning, in this case, is sufficiently clear as is.

Furthermore, the words "point to" reflect an actual quality of miracles that the words "are evidence for" do not.

If I say, "the sign directs HOV traffic into the right lane," that is true in a deeper sense than "the sign indicates that HOV traffic may use the right lane," because the first statement includes an element of teleology. Signs are set up to communicate with drivers. My definition of miracles is teleological. If an event is a true miracle, it is a means by which a Sentient Being speaks to some portion of humanity, therefore it is correct to say "points to."

(5) Jesus is considered, by Christians, to be a special case. Even Jesus often requests things of his Father. But his authority is unique, for Christians.

But admittedly, I am describing a tendency here, not a necessary condition. As with much of life, deciding whether a given event is a miracle or magic may not be cut-and-dried.

I see you address this issue in your last post, here. This is helpful. My definition of "miracle" and "magic" in that book were original, and have, in the years since, found these distinctions extremely revealing. But I appreciate your challenge; it may help me refine these definitions further.

But you're jumping the gun to dismiss them because some questions remain unanswered for you, partly because you haven't read the book, in other cases because I may really need to refine my descriptions. You've brought up some good questions, but I don't think those questions undermine the value of these descriptions. I have found them very useful, both as a student of world religions, and a theologian. As a philosopher you would, I think, be making a mistake to dismiss these contrasts so quickly, and on such tentative grounds as you give, as I might also be to dismiss your challenges too quickly.

Dr H said...

[Part one of several...]

"Language is a set of mostly arbitrary signs that we use to communicate."

Upon this point, David, hinges a great deal of our ongoing disagreement. Language is not "arbitrary" else it would be useless for communication.

The symbols of language are contextual, and the contexts in which, and to which they apply are consensual. It is only to the degree which two or more people consent that a particular word has a particular meaning in a particular context that those people are actually able to communicate linguistically.

You can not, therefore, just arbitrarily assign any meaning you like to any word in any context, like Humpty-Dumpty in "Through the Looking Glass". Not if your intent is communication, anyway.

You seem to be suggesting that if a term doesn't have a single, fixed, unalterable meaning, that it's meaning is therefore infinitely flexible. Again, this is only true if your not concerned with communicating.

"Miracle" as with most words, has a a variety of meanings, each of which is context dependent. Your example #1 describes its meaning in one particular context, what one might call "colloquial" usage. This is independent of the fact that in another context "miracle" is taken to have the definition you give in your second example.

Ordinarily, there is do difficulty with this situation, unless one allows their audience to assume a word is being used in a particular contextual sense, and the narrator begins using it in a different context midway through a declamation, without notifying the listeners of the change in context.
To do this is a logical fallacy; it can also be a form of deliberate deception.

This is why when a technical discussion is about to ensue, it is common practice to define any key terms in advance, if they are to be used in an unconventional manner for purposes of that discussion. If this is not done, some people are bound to assume the standard definition of the term in the context set up by the discussion.

Of course, you know all this. You, yourself, employ frequent sideslips of meaning for key terms in many of the arguments which are near and dear to you. An example which comes most immediately to mind is your use of the term "gospel" -- but that's another discussion.

Hume's definition of "miracle" has been around for a good long time, and it has come to be the definition most contemporary people are going to default to in any discussion of miracles as supernatural versus natural events.

There is no reason to remove the word "violation" from Hume's definition, unless one is deliberately seeking to blur the distinction between the context of your first example and that of your second. Yes, this posits a discontinuity between the laws of nature and miracles, because that what the vast majority of "events" described as miracles in your second, less colloquial sense are.

Dr H said...

[Part two of several ... ]

"Some do seem to involve suspension of natural law.

In fact, they nearly all do. You acknowledge the obvious water-to-wine example. But "answered prayer" also involves a suspension of natural law. Where do you find in natural law an explanation for "you ask the air for something, and it happens"?
There is an assumption that mere physical events and the rules of chance are not sufficient to account for the observed result.
This implies a non-evidential causality: if natural laws can't explain what just happened, then something outside of nature must have acted.

"My other needs were met in almost equally surprising ways.

Most of them were probably met in very unsurprising ways; you simply remember the more (to you) unconventional connections because they seemed to be unconventional. In science this would be called "cherry-picking" the data, but the human mind is really good at doing this automatically, especially in cases where we really want to believe that something is true -- even if it probably isn't.

"Even the toughest miracles might, in theory, be explained in terms of quantum physics."

How "New Age". The average person understands quantum mechanics so little that it has become the contemporary catch-all for any ridiculous thing that we would like to be true, but can't really imagine a mechanism for actually making it happen. So we "explain" the thing in terms of something else (to us) mysterious -- 1st century: "That guy rose from the dead! It must be Magic!" 21st century: "That guy rose from the dead! It must be Quantum Mechanics!"

In every century there have been at least a few to say, "you know, that guy didn't really rise from the dead; he's a trickster, and you've just been taken for a ride." But that's not nearly as satisfying as believing in Magic! or Quantum Mechanics! It requires too much critical thinking, and that takes some effort.

"Second, given quantum physics and modern technology, it is increasingly difficult to absolutely differentiate between what physical laws do or do not allow.

Science has never been about "absolutes," so this critique is yet another example of sideslipping a definition from one context to another, unannounced. They should give moving-violation tickets for doing this.

Dr H said...

[ Part three of several ... ]

"The odds ..."

I knew that was coming before I read it, because it always does when quantum mechanics is invoked -- quite inappropriately -- to "explain" a macroscopic event. "The odds" are nothing more than a predictive estimate based on an analysis of presumed similar past events. It doesn't matter how enormous the odds. If the odds say that something may happen (note "may" not "will") 1 in 1x10^100 times, and it happens while you're standing there, that's not a "miracle -- it was simple that ONE in 10^100 happened to come up while you were there.

And the odds haven't necessarily changed if the same thing happens again tomorrow. This past September, for example, my hometown just had it's second "500 year flood" in five years. It may not have another one of these for another millennium. Or it may have another next April, in which case the forecasters will probably think about revising the odds in light of new evidence.

Your third (proposed) definition comes with its own baggage. It seems as though you almost want to make the word "miracle" synonymous with "sign" in the Bible. I might agree that would be a useful view in a Biblical context, but for two things: 1) that the Bible uses different words for these things strongly implies that they were seen to be two different phenomena; 2) it leaves us without a term to describe those alleged events which do appear to have been violations of natural law.

Maybe you need a third term.

Dr H said...

[Part four of several ... (last?) ]

As to your five qualities:

1) As Brad pointed out, alleged "miracles" ask nothing. You perceive an event that you don't understand the causal mechanism for. You can either accept the event at face value, or you can seek and explanation for it. The first logical step in seeking any explanation is verification: did the event really occur (ie', did I really see what I think I saw?) So logically one would do this regardless of whether one thought the event had been magical or miraculous. Indeed, by your own proposed criteria, one couldn't tell which it was until one took this step.

And one of the problems with alleged miracles is that a substantial part of the time the people who claim to have witnessed them do not seek verification; they accept on face value.

2) "Miracles tend to be practical; magic is often showy."

Excuse me? Walking on water (when there was no particular need to do so) wasn't "showy"?
Changing water to wine, when Jesus might instead have conjured a few coins inconspicuously into his pocket, and hired a guest with a cart to pick up a couple of barrels from the local vintner instead? Casting demons into a herd of swine and running them off a cliff instead of just unceremoniously banishing them to Hell?

Come to think of it, by your criteria maybe the New Agers are right: Jesus was a magician.

3) "Miracles enhance human dignity; magic makes us more or less than human."

How was human dignity enhanced by the many martial miracles which allowed the Israelis to triumph over the people they were invading, usually ending said Israeli's indulging in wholesale slaughter, raping, and pillaging (frequently at the direction of God)?

Was human dignity enhanced by the miracle of the loaves and fishes, or merely human gluttony?

Did bringing Lazarus to life enhance his dignity? Dragging him back from Heaven to suffer for more long centuries on the Earth? Or are we to assume that Lazarus was brought back to his body from Hell? Either way, I'm having trouble connecting this with increased dignity for anyone concerned.

4) "Miracles point to God; magic points elsewhere."

Not really even sure what you mean by "point to God." By your own definition a miracle might be nothing more than magic done by God. Another definitional sideslip. But it does, I suppose, raise the question as to whether God should be considered natural or supernatural.

5) "Miracles come in response to requests; magic to demands."

Brad has, I think more than adequately pointed out some of the main issues with this one, and I'm probably already way over the post-limit, so I'll stop here for now.