Home > Philosophy > Miracles? What Are They?

Miracles? What Are They?

I have been posting quite a bit on the topic of miracles lately (cf. Why Miracles Are Beyond Historical Analysis and Peter and Miracles) so I decided I might as well set out a brief account as to what I actually think miracles are.

What Miracles Are Not

It might be easiest to start by saying what I think miracles are not. Miracles are not simply events that contradict our current laws of science. Laws of science are, by their very definition, regularities. They are laws because they seem to hold universally (everywhere and at all times). But because we can not be everywhere and at all times, these laws of science are generalizations. In other words, there is no contradiction is saying that they may not hold everywhere and at all times. It is completely possible that they could occasionally cease to function properly (a sort of natural glitch).

Secondly, it should be noted that our laws of science will always be our current laws of science. In the same way that it is possible that such laws may not always function properly, it is possible that there are natural laws unknown to us that are at work alongside our current laws or that even supersede them.

If either of these scenarios were to come about–either our current laws of science glitch or some unknown law is at work–there could be events that take place that appear to be a miracle. Objects might start floating, they might start rapidly changing shape and composition, or the injured may be healed (someone’s gun shot wound heals in a matter of minutes). From all appearances, such events may be described as miracles. And suppose that all further investigations conclude that these occurrences are best explained by either the fact that (1) some unknown law was at work or (2) that our current laws of science glitched (there were no parlor tricks involved).

In this case, few people would say that an event that is caused by the existence of unknown natural laws constitutes a miracle. That would mean that experiments verifying the possibility of time-travel before the time of Einstein could have been considered miracles. More generally, it would mean that miracles are (or can be) determined by our ignorance. This is not a property that miracles are usually thought of as having. I am looking for the metaphysical description as to what miracles are apart from our own epistemological awareness.

Furthermore, it is my contention that natural glitches alone also do not constitute a miracle. A natural glitch in our current laws may simply be how the world occasionally works. It may be a completely natural phenomenon. If an object starts floating because gravity stopped working, that is not a miracle. It has a perfectly natural explanation (gravity stopped working). And herein lies the clue to the first part as to what I think miracles are.

What Miracles Are

Miracles are events that have (in principle) no natural explanation. In other words, if an event is solely caused by  natural forces, it is not a miracle. This includes all natural forces inside and outside the universe. For instance, if an event in our universe is solely caused by an interaction with another universe, that is also not a miracle. It would be helpful to note here that when speaking of “natural forces” in and outside of the universe, I mean those forces that are impersonal. They have no intelligence, no consciousness, no will, no agency. An event caused by the interaction between impersonal forces is therefore not something I think we can call a miracle.

Because I define “natural” as in “natural explanations” and “natural forces” such that it covers all cases in which impersonal forces interact with each other in and outside the universe, this leaves room for only one other type of force and explanation: an unnatural or supernatural (or personal) one. And this is, again, where miracles come into play. Miracles are events that are partially or completely caused by supernatural forces: some sort of divine, intelligent, conscious being(s).

Thus, my definition of miracles looks something like:

First definition:  Miracles are events that have (in principle) no natural explanation.

Second definition: Miracles are events that are partially or completely caused by supernatural forces.

Both are different ways of stating my case. The first concentrates on “explanation” whereas the second concentrates on “causation.” They may in fact be corollaries of each other, but I won’t go down that road here.

Some Implications

One of the implications of all this is that miracles (supernatural events) and natural events are empirically indistinguishable. The only way to distinguish between them is to determine what the cause of the event was. And doing as much may forever elude us. Of course, all I am doing here is merely repeating what epistemological skeptics have noted for a few thousand years (appearance and reality are empirically indistinguishable). None of this is to say that we can’t distinguish between miracles and natural events using other non-empirical means (like whether or not an event that appears to be a miracle fits coherently with a particular worldview). In other words, there is a way to talk about probabilities of causation.

Another implication is that there may be thousands or millions of miracles that happen everyday that go completely unnoticed. Every time I drop a cup on the ground, it falls because of the force of gravity. But it is possible that, as  medieval society believed, that it drops to the ground (at least some of the time) because God causes it to. Whether gravity or God, it drops to the ground. But one is a miracle, one is not. We just can’t distinguish between them because of our epistemological limitations.

  1. monarc7
    11/11/2009 at 4:33 am

    As Russell said in contention with that ‘law’ view: those natural laws are not really laws but mere probability. These laws are actually mutable and uncertain thus your first explanation of miracles has not a solid reference or comparative. They are just norms and products of statistics.

    Because they are norms, soon that personal force is incorporated and becomes part of the nature. Nature is just norm.

    Also the natural forces are part of the natural so when thd supernatural comes in, it is still just a case of our natural failing.

    Your distinction between our miracle and yours is still unclear. Plus the first and second definitions are not actually different, they are synonymous.

    I’m looking forward to your counter and I hope you are successful cos this is interesting.

    • 11/12/2009 at 4:44 pm

      See my response below under Benjamin’s comment. Thanks for the critique.

  2. Benjamin Steele
    11/11/2009 at 3:16 pm

    Have you heard of Arthur C. Clarke’s 3 laws?

    (1) When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
    (2) The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
    (3) Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

    The last law particularly relates.

    The apparently supernatural and miraculous is simply what at present has no scientific explanation. Humans may or may not find an explanation in the future.

    This is where God in the gaps comes in. Believers in the supernatural and the miraculous usually want to fill the gap in with their favorite non-scientific belief. Some religious people go so far as to see that the gap proves science is wrong, that God purposely put that gap there to defy human hubris, that science will never find an explanation. I was discussing with Christian literalists about science and they just saw it as another system of faith and an inferior one at that.

    Science, and the human mind in general, can’t grasp ultimate causes. We can think abstractly about such a possibility and it can makes intuitive sense to some people, but the issue comes down to proof. The miraculous always defies proof in some ways as there is always room for doubt because human knowledge is always relative to human ignorance. If any particularly supernatural event were proven, then it would be perfectly natural even if how it happened wasn’t yet explained. Science proves things all of the time before coming up with theories to explain them.

    I generally agree with your view, but I disagree with your definitions.

    The personal isn’t supernatural. It’s common when referring to someone’s personality to say that it’s the person’s nature. Every human is a personal force that works in correlation with natural laws and doesn’t defy scientific explanations. Science studies the personal on the human level. If the personal exists on some larger scale, science could study it as well.

    Even most religious people accept that God works according to certain laws, rules, or principles. These could be researched in order to determine causal links and probabilities. Generally speaking, divine beings act in predictably defined ways meaning they have specific personalities (or at least they do according to religious stories).

    Even if a divine being acted in a way that wasn’t predicted, that still doesn’t discount science. As monarc7 pointed out, scientific explanations are called laws but really are just probabilities. Scientists come across anomalies all of the time and if researched enough those anomalies usualy lead to new “laws”.

    So, I think the distinction between the natural and supernatural is a distinction only in abstract thought. There is no way to prove the supernatural because to prove it would put it in the realm of the natural. If a belief or theory can’t be proven and is unfalsifiable, then it is scientifically irrelavent.

    • 11/12/2009 at 4:42 pm

      My purpose in making a distinction between personal forces and impersonal ones was in order to avoid saying that miracles could be the products of mindless forces. And I should add, purposeless forces. Miracles are usually, at least historically speaking, understood to have a purposive (i.e. intelligently designed) component to them. If an event occurs that appears to be a miracle but the cause was purely the interaction of mindless, purposeless forces, I would not consider that a miracle. It may be a miracle in the sense that a very rare event has occurred, but a rare event does not in and of itself constitute a miracle.

      So my claim wasn’t that personality itself is supernatural but rather that one of the necessary conditions of a miracle is that it must have some causal connection with a force or being that is conscious, intelligent, mindful, etc (which I referred to conjointly as “personal,” a poor word-choice in hindsight.)

      On to my definitions. Consider the following example. A religious man is being chased by a pack of wolves along the mountainside. He prays to God to save him. Just then rocks come falling off the mountain killing the wolves.

      Now, we could scientifically explain that entire scenario by primarily invoking gravitational forces. The question becomes: what was the immediate cause of the rocks falling? It could have been a gust of wind, an earthquake tremor, etc. Or it could have been an interference by a force from outside our closed system universe that imputed energy that caused the rocks, one way or another, to fall. Or to put it another way, it could be an instance where energy was seemingly created from nothing and moved the rocks.

      It is here where I see both of your points about how the supernatural becomes a natural force by its interactions with nature, and thus opens itself up to inquiry and explanation. And this does create a problem for my first definition. And I think I will probably just abandon it altogether at this point.

      I still don’t think this point defeats my second definition however. The potential problem with my second definition is that terms such as “supernatural,” “God,” “divine,” are ambiguous terms. What does it even mean to be a supernatural being? If such can be successfully defined, however, then a miracle would just be an event that has some sort of causal connection with that being. Now, whether that can be done, I don’t know. Perhaps we could say that such a being is just any being that exists outside our universe that has the ability (technology?) to causally connect with our own. Or maybe it would be a being that exists outside all time and space (something we can’t conceive although perhaps not beyond the realm of possibility…of course that brings up the issue of conceivability vs. possibility and whether what is possible has to be conceivable…seeing as the world is made up by both mind and world). Or, as some theologians have suggested, God is the only necessarily existing being or that being that is completely free from contingency. However we define it, I don’t think its implausible to suppose that miracles are just those events that share a causal connection with a god. Although, more qualifications would need to be made. If miracles were just those events that share a causal connection with a god, then, assuming a god created our universe, it would follow that all events are miracles. So one would probably need to invoke a distinction between direct and indirect causes or immediate and distant causes and so on.

      Of course, maybe your definition–“The…miraculous is simply what at present has no scientific explanation”–is the most plausible one. Although, that would mean defining miracles epistemologically and not metaphysically, which, as mentioned in my original post, was something I was trying to avoid.

  3. Benjamin Steele
    11/11/2009 at 5:04 pm

    I think this discussion relates quite closely to other philosophical issues, but I just want to point out one particular issue.

    In connecting the supernatural with the personal, this brings up the issue of freewill. All of the world could be manipulated behind the scenes by a grand puppetmaster. Or our freewill may just be an illusion that accidentally arises with the development of consciousness. Just because we experience freewill as if it were real doesn’t make it so. Maybe the illusion of freewill serves some survival function or is a mere meaningless epiphenomenon of neural activity.

    Science can’t absolute prove or disprove either God or freewill. So, might our freewill be supernatural in the sense that it can’t be reduced to any particular natural mechanism? Or could it be that God’s freewill is an epiphenomenon of the human brain? Ha! lol

    • 11/12/2009 at 4:46 pm

      Of course, if the supernatural is just that which is irreducible to the physical, then perhaps our minds themselves are supernatural, heh.

    • Benjamin Steele
      11/13/2009 at 8:16 am

      I don’t really disagree with anything you wrote. I only could nitpick about the meanings of the terms used in this discussion.

      Is God actually a divine being with a personality? Some religious people perceive God as more of a force and that the anthropomorphic descriptions are simply to help people grasp a complex truth.

      As for miracles, would this necessitate a God with a personality or would an intelligent and responsive force suffice? And if the human mind is supernatural in that it’s irreducible to the physical, then might God simply be an extension of or somehow directly connected to the human mind? Maybe the idea of God is simply a primitive way that humans have used to make sense of a responsive universe. If someone prays for something and then it happens, why assume it was God rather than supernatual powers of the person praying?

      Also, couldn’t intervention be caused by supernatural beings such as nature spirits and that these spirits are part of the physical world in the way humans are part of their own bodies? Or else couldn’t God simply be the mind of nature rather than the creator of the world? Scientists think of human consciousness as forming from the neural activity and so the mind is considered to be dependent upon and reducible to the body. God’s consciousness might similarly be dependent upon and reducible to the earth, the galaxy, or the entire universe.

      Speculation, of course, is endless. My basic point is that there is no reason to favor Christian speculations. Without hard evidence, any speculation is as good as the next.

      Personally, I like panentheism or some kind of pantheism. I suspect there is at least some fundamental consciousness to matter itself.

      • 11/14/2009 at 1:24 pm

        Your points are well received. There’s no doubt I am working from a theistic framework. It probably would have been helpful if I would have prefaced my argument with, “Assuming theism is true, what are miracles?”

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