Is It Rational to Believe in Miracles?

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Whether it is rational to believe in miracles depends a great deal on what one might call the ‘big picture’ we have of reality, the assumptions and ideas that form the canvas or background to the way in which we interpret and understand the world. Even the word ‘miracle’, from the Latin miraculum meaning ‘object of wonder,’ implies a contrast with a background, an event that is remarkable and different from what is experienced ordinarily. Wonder alone, however, is not enough to specify a miracle. As Thomas Aquinas observed (Summa Contra Gentiles 3.101.1), an astronomer is not astonished when he sees an eclipse of the sun since he knows the cause. A miracle, by contrast, exceeds the productive power of nature, either because something is done by God that nature could never do (such as the sun reversing its course), or that nature can do but not in the observed order (such as an animal living, after death), or because God does what is usually done by the working of nature but without the operation of nature (such as a cure by divine power from a fever that could be cured naturally). The recognition of what is generally denoted by the term ‘miracle’ presupposes therefore a robust appreciation of the regular course and powers of nature. As these examples suggest, the use of the word ‘miracle’ also implies some theological background: a supernatural cause with intellect, will and the power to intervene in nature, most often identified as a personal God.

At this point, it should be noted that this definition of a miracle is not the one made famous by David Hume in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (X), namely “a violation of the laws of nature.” There is not the space here to survey the voluminous discussions generated by Hume’s definition and I refer those interested to the excellent article on ‘Miracles’ by Timothy McGrew in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The key problem is that it is hard to see in many cases how this redefinition adds clarity. For example, it is not always easy to identify what laws are being violated in specific reported cases, such as a resurrection, and there are many disagreements today about the nature and efficacy of natural laws. The definition was perhaps more plausible in the eighteenth century, when there was still confidence in the cosmos being wholly law-like or even machine-like, perhaps a vastly more complex version of a clockwork planetarium. Contemporary research, however, suggests a more ‘organic’ cosmos, including spontaneity and phenomena that are naturally generated but irreducible, even in principle, to states described by the application of laws to initial conditions. Such developments cannot be used unproblematically to argue for ‘gaps’ in the world where God slips in unnoticed, but they highlight how even natural phenomena are not invariably ‘law-like’. Hence the specification of a miracle as a violation of a natural law lacks sufficient precision today.

Once the confusion generated by the issue of laws is dispelled, it is somewhat easier to see that special divine action of any kind cannot be ruled out definitively, either by the methods of science or by the philosophical study of the world. Even in cases where the behaviour of a physical system is relatively simple and law-like, such as a pebble falling under gravity, that fact cannot be used to draw any conclusions about whether a person, human or divine, will choose to intercept this fall. The more difficult challenge is to obtain sufficient warrant for adjudicating such actions when the personal agent is not perceptible directly. After all, the scientifically-informed study of particular events cannot be used to investigate any purported supernatural cause directly, but only the effects and possible alternative and natural explanations. Hence the classical definition of a miracle as an event that exceeds the productive power of nature cannot be applied without some concurrent assessment of what nature is capable of producing or has produced in the case in question. Of course, some reported miracles exceed the powers of nature so dramatically that they practically compel those present to believe, such as the account of the resurrected Jesus appearing to Doubting Thomas and inviting him to put his finger into the wounds made by the nails of the crucifixion (John 20:24–29). In many cases, however, it is often possible to think of at least some possible, even if otherwise implausible, non-miraculous explanations. Any assessment therefore still depends crucially and irreducibly on the natural and theological background or ‘big picture.’ Does God exist? Is God willing and able to interact with the created world? If so, why does God intervene in some ways and at some times but not in other instances, especially against evils? Hence judgments about miracles, in general and in particular, can never simply be a matter of adding more facts, but depend crucially on how these facts are understood and organized into an ordered whole. For this reason, the most persuasive advocates of decisive views on the subject of miracles tend, upon close examination, to be masters of metaphor and effective story-tellers, even though they may at times borrow the language of scientific objectivity.

Given that miracles cannot be ruled out definitively except within the framework of certain all-encompassing worldviews, it is not irrational in an unqualified sense to believe in miracles, in the sense of believing in a square circle. This fact does not mean, however, that it is equally rational to believe in every possible explanation of some wondrous event that is compatible with what is reliably known. On this point, there is some parallel with a challenge faced in science. At the Large Hadron Collider, for instance, once all the data in the search for the Higgs boson are collected, heavily theory-laden curves are then traced through the data points to find the best fit. Other causes are not in fact ruled out, but at some point a judgment is reached about the most likely underlying cause. In recent centuries, two heuristics have proved especially fruitful in guiding such judgments: first, that the underlying causes of the cosmos are in a vague sense ‘simple’; second and perhaps more mysteriously, these causes are understandable. In the case of miracles, what are the equivalent, most fruitful heuristics for guiding rational assessment?

The minimal baseline and least controversial heuristic is that miracles are rare, practically by definition, which implies the need for caution in ascribing direct supernatural agency. For ancient Judaism and Christianity, for example, reports of miracles are generally associated with the initial phases of new developments and are even treated as morally suspect if they happen too often. For example, a curious letter of Pope Gregory I (Bk 9:36) warns Augustine and his monks, who arrived in England in 597 as missionaries, not to become too proud of their power to work great miracles. This caution echoes the gospel warning that miracle-working is no guarantee of final human flourishing (Matthew 7:22), which is what God is reported to desire from interacting with the world at all (1 Timothy 2:4). Given the cognitive and moral risks associated with interpretations of events as miraculous, acknowledged even by those who hold that miracles are possible, why consider them at all? Why is it not preferable in practice to make use of a strict ‘no miracles’ heuristic?

First, anticipating a common objection, history offers little credence to the view that consideration of miracles as a possibility promotes dispositions that are irrational or hostile to what is today called ‘science’. On the contrary, assessments of purported miracles as defined by Aquinas require a robust sense of natural powers, and it may be no accident that the development of experimental methods to isolate and identify causes can be traced back to the same period. Second, miracles are one aspect of a broader understanding of the world under the providential direction of God, who intervenes out of love for humanity. This starting point seems more promising in general for the fruitful perception of harmony in the cosmos than the belief that we are nothing but meat-machines or cosmic accidents. Third, this starting point is also more hopeful in the personal sense, since the world of natural causes appears to lack sufficient resources to make us perfectly and permanently happy. Out of enlightened self-interest and inspired by Pascal’s wager, it seems foolish therefore to treat the exclusion of special divine action as a fundamental premise. Finally, the particular ways in which supernatural personal agency is excluded from consideration often impact severely on interpretations of other important matters, including causation and natural personal agency. If, for example, the universe is wholly law-like or even machine-like, what is a human being apart from a remarkably complex cog? In my view, we should be slow to accept such cold, self-limiting conclusions as long as we have reasonable alternatives. Since we do have reasonable alternatives, I conclude therefore that a heuristic that regards miracles as possible in principle, rare in practice, but still worthy of consideration in certain cases, to be the most rational stance to adopt, one that is ultimately the most interesting and promising for intellectual and personal flourishing.

Discussion Questions 

1. Does belief in the possibility of miracles require belief in the general consistency of natural causes and effects?

2. Are miracles compatible with a strictly physicalist conception of nature? If so, how are miracles to be distinguished from instances of natural causation? If not, why not?

3. The definition of the miraculous in this essay does not include events that come about naturally but are so extraordinarily well-timed that they might suggest intervention. Should the definition of a miracle be expanded to include such events and what criteria could be applied to adjudicate their meaning?

4. The heuristic proposed in this essay in regard to miracles is, “possible in principle, rare in practice, but still worthy of consideration in certain cases.” Is a different heuristic preferable and, if so, why?

Discussion Summary

A key theme that emerges from the comments on the original essay, “Is it Rational to Believe in Miracles?” is the challenge of demarcation, not only of the meaning of the term “miracle” but also of the term “rational.” Several commentors referred to the long-standing problem of demarcating miracles from natural phenomena, against a backdrop of assumptions that range between the complete exclusion of miracles to the perception of something miraculous about every moment of creation. Although the latter may be a desirable attitude for jaded eyes, both the “no-miracle”  and “all-miracle” perspectives exclude the possibility of a meaningful distinction from natural phenomena and forestall further investigation. In practice, as noted in the essay, the perception of miracles and their philosophical study therefore require that a purported miracle be contrasted with what is ordinary, whether this contrast is by means of a sudden, amazing encounter (such as meeting a resurrected, previously crucified man) or by a careful and systematic exclusion of natural causes after the event, such as the investigation of the healing of an eye.

This need for a contrast is easy to state and has long been acknowledged in historical writings on these matters, even though many valuable texts are little known today (a problem we shall be addressing with our John Templeton Foundation -funded “Special Divine Action” project at Oxford University). For example, the observation in 1767 of William Adams, “A river must flow, before its stream can be interrupted” (An Essay in Answer to Mr. Hume’s Essay on Miracles, 3rd ed., London: B. White, 15), expresses one of the preconditions of the recognition of a miracle, namely the ordinary experience of uniformity in the course of nature. This experience of uniformity in turn requires other capacities, such as experience extended over time, memory, and the ability to identify and exclude a wide range of natural causes. For such reasons, as noted in the essay, it may be no accident that the development of experimental methods to isolate causes can be traced back to the roughly the same period of history as detailed philosophical demarcations of the miraculous from what is natural. Working therefore on the basis of the heuristic advocated in the essay (“miracles as possible in principle, rare in practice, but still worthy of consideration as possible explanations for certain events”) the first Big Question I propose is, “(1) For a range of common views of reality, by what kinds of criteria will miracles most stand out, and what cognitive capacities would be most effective for identifying them if they take place?”

A second Big Question that emerges from the essay and ensuing comments is, “(2) To what extent do views regarding personal divine action also shape views about personal human action?” Expanding on an example in the original essay may help to illustrate the connection. Imagine throwing a pebble into the air. As long as the motion of this pebble is uninterrupted, its trajectory will be described by an application of the law of gravity except for the braking effect of air resistance. If now I reach out and catch the pebble, what has happened? If my choice of action is not determined by those operations described by “laws of nature” (as that phrase is commonly understood) acting on prior states of the cosmos, then presumably we are free to alter the outcomes of such operations on at least some other beings in the cosmos, such as pebbles. If we enjoy this freedom of action, then there does not seem to be any good reason to rule God out from enjoying such freedom as well, for example by means of what are called “miracles.” If, on the other hand, the presupposition is made that nothing happens or could happen in the cosmos that is not describable, at least in principle, by laws of nature applied to previous states of the cosmos, then any special divine action that brings about an outcome that diverges from the expected outcome of an application of these laws is excluded. By the same assumption, however, any human action that brings about an outcome that diverges from the application of these laws is also excluded, to the point that human beings are in principle reducible to mere matter in motion. On this worldview, a severe restriction of what is deemed possible for divine action is not easy without also restricting severely what is deemed possible for human action, to the point that the effective abolition of God and of man appear surprisingly interconnected.

New Big Questions:

1. For a range of common views of reality, by what kinds of criteria will miracles most stand out, and what cognitive capacities would be most effective for identifying them if they take place?

2. To what extent do views regarding personal divine action also shape views about personal human action?

18 Responses

  1. Michael says:

    According to both Reverse Speech Analysis and Time Symmetrical Quantum Mechanics, it can incontroveribly be demonstrated that information comes backwards in time from the future (thus demonstrating a quasi-scientific basis for both Prophecy and psychic impressions of the future–for example, the psychic impression quite accurately predicting the sinking of the Titanic); which suggests the existence of a dimension of consciousness independent of both space and time; that is, a dimension of consciousness independent of the consciousness of the “self” and the ‘thinker’.

    Now, to the consciousness of the ‘thinker’, this is impossible; the belief in which would be characterized as being “not rational”; “rationality”, however, being established by the consciousness of the ‘thinker’ itself…

    Which, however, cannot be said not to have ‘a dog in the fight’.

    In other words, if you leave it to exclusively the “beast of the earth” consciousness of the ‘thinker’ to define what reality is–and you hold to that definition of reality rather than to what reality itself is–you will conclude that belief in Miracles is “not rational”…

    A conclusion which, however, it utterly irrelevant.

    After all, who really *cares* what the “beast of the earth” consciousness of the ‘thinker’ has to say about reality?

    What is important is what reality *is*–not what the ‘thinker’ *says* about it on the basis of information which is either unknown or rejected because “not rational”.

    Michael 

    http://science-of-consciousness.blogspot.com/2011/04/towards-new-paradigm-of-consciousness-i.html  

    • Andrew Pinsent says:

      A quick clarification re. information. I do not think that quantum mechanics actually permits useful information to be sent either backwards in time or instantaneously in space; roughly speaking, what happens is that when results are compared after an experiment (in an EPR-type scenario), correlations are found between widely separated components of the same quantum system that have been subjected to separate measurements. We cannot use this setup to transmit information faster than light or backwards in time, however, and philosophers still debate how to understand what happens.

      • Michael says:

        I certainly do not claim to be any expert in Time Symmetrical Quantum Mechanics; but my understanding of the term “time symmetrical” is that time goes both forwards and backwards; meaning that information is both brought forward in time from the past and backwards in time from the future. This conforms to my own understanding that, at the origin of the consciousness of the “self”, time is also bi-directional. It is only with the consciousness of the ‘thinker’ that the arrrow of time points only in a forward directio; for the very simple reason that a time-reversal of the consciousness of the ‘thinker’ results in psychosis (as demonstrated by the opening passages of the Second Meditation of Descartes). In other words, the specific function of both the consciousness of the ‘thinker’ and the uni-directional arrow of time is to prevent the descent into psychosis.

        The situation with regards to Reverse Speech Analysis, however, is much clearer. When the recording is played backwards, clear and meaningful, if not specifically rational, messages are perceived amidst the noise; the only plausible explanation being that that information has come backwards in time from the future, but in the correct temporal sequence. For example, the Reverse Speech Analysis of the reply of Jesus to the Sadducees provides clear and additional information about the meaning of what Jesus said. And this fundamental change of perspective with regards to time itself opens the door to the possibility of psychic images of the future and the Prophecies received by the prophets.

        But the belief that time is bi-directional and that information can come backwards in time specifically threatens the consciousness of the ‘thinker’ with psychosis. So such a belief is referred to as being “not rational”.

        Michael 

        • Andrew Pinsent says:

          Michael – thank you for responding to my response, which has made me think that I need to revisit this issue again in regard to quantum mechanics. Information (albeit a difficult word to define precisely) has not been observed to propagate faster than light (backwards in time), but something (I don’t know how to define it – perhaps one could call it “potential information”?) does seem to change all at once and everywhere with the measurement of one aspect of a linked quantum system. The most insightful introduction to this mystery that I have found in recent years was a set of talks (especially by Prof. Halvorson and Hooley) that I helped to support at the physics and philosophy conference at St Andrew’s University in 2012 (http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~qoi/physphil2012.htm). Regarding Reverse Speech Analysis, I don’t know anything about this field, I am afraid, and so would be unwilling to comment. I would dispute the claim, however, that the arrow of time is only to do with the consciousness of the thinker, as an increasing number of complex physical processes are recognised today as being asymmetric with respect to time. There was a reasonably popular and accessible book on this topic published in 1992 (http://www.amazon.com/The-Arrow-Of-Time-Greatest/dp/0449907236).

  2. Meyer1953 says:

    Hello;

    I think that for a miracle to be a miracle, it has to extend past the boundaries of known reality.  So, no, it cannot be rational to believe in miracles.  However, it is rational to remain undecided about them.  This remaining-open-to, is called science and is also called (properly) skepticism.  Though, of course, once a thing enters into scientific discovery it can no longer be called a miracle.  The point is, that what we call miracles today can very well be tomorrow’s reality.

    Just read any account from an experiencer of near death, such as those found on NDERF.org.

    • Andrew Pinsent says:

      [I have duplicated this previous post to make it clear I am responding to Meyer1953 – apologies for the ambiguity earlier]. Your comment shows a welcome caution regarding definitions and boundaries, but I propose some qualifications. The aspect of a miracle which extends beyond known reality is the cause, not the effect (the latter, practically by definition, is something knowable), but there is a strict sense in which no cause of physical change is ever known directly. We have to make informed judgments about such matters, in scientific practice and in everyday life. Nevertheless, there are at least some conceivable cases (for example, a man appearing alive in front of oneself, having previously been killed by crucifixion and still bearing the wounds) in which I think that one would rationally (using an everyday sense of the word) conclude that one was witnessing a miracle, even though some convulated alternative explanation is not utterly excluded. As for the issue of classification, scientific methods properly deal with natural causes and can, I think, be used to help ajudicate cases of purported miracles. Wonderful events, perhaps believed to be miraculous initially or by some, but for which natural causes can be found do indeed cease to be ‘miracles’. Nevertheless, so long as a rational judgment is made that the cause is beyond the power of nature, then the event remains rationally judged to be a miracle.

  3. George Gantz says:

    Andrew – thanks for the delightful article, and the warm humility you have brought to the subject.  I agree with your very nice discussion on the issue of defining “miracle”, but you have not defined what it means to be “rational”.  On this point, I would defer to Michael’s comment – rationality is perceived in the mind of the thinker.  One who thinks there are no miracles (being a strict physicalist, for example) will of course identify his belief as rational and all others as irrational.  The true believer, in contrast, thinks that the physicalist is insane, caught in the hell of love of self and of the world.  (see also CSLewis On Miracles).  The obdurate pragmatist will find both positions to be fundamentally dogmatic – not rational at all – and keep his mind open to the very end.  Perhaps you have defined a fourth way.

    I do take issue with your first hueristic, that miracles are, necessarily, rare.  My objection is along two lines.  First, how do we define “rare”- is it one in a million?  one in a quintillian?  Or is “rare” something that is so unusual that its probability cannot be fathomed – a one-time-only event that has no precedent and no recurrence.  On the other hand, one can also consider each moment to be rare – a fleeting configuration of space, time and motion, as well as individual experience and emotion – something to be cherished for its beauty and fantastic complexity – a miracle that it ever happened or ever could happen.  Following this line, one can rationally believe that, just as the first creation and the occasional moments of variation deemed “miracles” are miraculous, so is the fact that this creation is sustained in its every moment – as evidenced in the creation of each life or in the phenomenon of consciousness or in the life-giving physical, emotional and spiritual nurturing we recieve withouth pause.  Hume erred greivously in missing the biggest miracle of creation – that regularities actually exist.  Moreover, they do not explain themselves.

    Much thanks!

    • Andrew Pinsent says:

      George – thank you for your kind remarks. Yes, the term ‘rational’ always refers, at least implicitly, to a set of background assumptions, which is part of what clouds discussion of such matters. As regards the rarity issue, we cannot put the term ‘rare’ in terms of precise probabilities (not all judgments of reason are mathematical, I think) and moreover there may be times when reported miracles are relatively common (the case of Augustine’s early mission in England might be an instance). Nevertheless, there are at least two theological reasons why miracles, if they happen, should perhaps be rare in most circumstances. First, the power (or even the purported power) to work miracles carries spiritual and moral dangers. Second, there may be good reasons to maintain the integrity of natural causes in creation, not least because natural powers are so closely linked with the expression of freedom and responsibility.

  4. ianful says:

    I like your essay a lot and glad you are asking important questions – you are leading the way. However, I have a few problems with these comments ‘The aspect of a miracle which extends beyond known reality is the cause, not the effect (the latter, practically by definition, is something knowable), but there is a strict sense in which no cause of physical change is ever known directly.  And ‘Nevertheless, so long as a rational judgment is made that the cause is beyond the power of nature, then the event remains rationally judged to be a miracle. I take it that you mean that anything (beyond the known concept of reality and the power of nature) that befuddles science, particularly medical science, is a miracle.

    I began my life in medical science in my 20s, and found myself drawn into the spiritual world (and I don’t mean hocus pocus stuff) sometime later. I have experienced my own death twice, once from a fatal autoimmune disease and the other from being hit by a motorcycle. I was somehow returned without medical intervention in each case; my soul was sent back. Medical opinion was that I should not have survived any of these events. Miracles?

    I have a different opinion about and experience observing miracles. I see nature as a miracle, particularly with respect to living organisms. Conception, birth, life, and death are miracles in their own right, and they are so commonplace that we have regarded them as humdrum nowadays. Science and philosophy have explained everything – perhaps? Not from a spiritual perspective at all, and laboratory conception may be the spiritual downfall of mankind.

    Philosophy is a collective product of human minds attempting an understanding of what we can perceive and interpret in this world and beyond. Philosophy is rational and uses well established rules that differentiate it from shamanism, superstition and religion. From the spiritual side I can see that there is an inherent weakness in philosophical argument – that of deeply buried assumptions, from possibly a long time ago. Science was developed collectively hand in hand with philosophy to document, classify, and explain what we see. Scientific investigations are also subject to rules like the scientific method for example, but it is still riddled with few assumptions. Philosophy and science are languages, and we humans develop our perception from language – as a tiny tot from parents and others. Perception and rational thought are thus language dependent. Where communities have been isolated from mainstream humanity quite different perceptions and rational thought are in operation. With globalisation and common language usage, differences in perceiving and rational expression are disappearing quickly.

    The rational world and the spiritual world require human perception to be used in different ways. In the spiritual world, the soul is involved as it is the communication port between us and God. Few of us are able to perceive the spiritual world and enter it. Some people even use hallucinogenic materials or extreme discipline of the self to perceive some aspects of the spiritual world, but the soul may not be involved. The strange thing is that the rare extremely rational person can see the spiritual world, but few still enter it. No amount of theological or other training will get us to the spiritual world, and in fact will increase the self-imposed barrier between the individual and God. Even writing this has a deleterious effect on the state of my being. Describing how and why in the spiritual world is difficult, as translating into language and rational thought is the problem. Events are best illustrated by stories, and that is why Jesus talked in parables. The essence of such parables was understood by the unlearned, but mystified the learned priests and threatened their authority.

    It is impossible to relate how miracles occur, except they are from the influence of the Holy Spirit on our physical rational world. The Spirit is not a physical entity, but is the power or command of Almighty God. The Spirit is the agent that creates, sustains and destroys in our universe. Miracles occur because someone or some event hooks the attention of the Spirit. We attempt this in prayers of course. I observe miracles quite often, and also as events that occur which should not – in our rational world. Of course, we like to class miracles as good, as our Christian way of thinking is that God is only ‘good’ – the word being derived from God. However, division of good and bad depends upon where we draw the line, and God encompasses a greater spectrum of good or evil than we could ever imagine. That was one of the early discoveries for me in the spiritual world. It is interesting that of the Abrahamic religions, Judaism does not have Satan the evil being, but does acknowledge that God’s power can have an evil side as well as the good side.

    Miracles can be evil too, and I classify the rise and domination (by terror) of mankind by Hitler, Stalin and others in the 20thcentury, as evil miracles that should never have happened. These men were able to use the power of their word to hook the attention of masses in their nation. These regimes crumbled overnight when support was withdrawn.

    • Andrew Pinsent says:

      Thank you for your comments. As you see from the essay, I would certainly agree with you about the importance of narrative and stories, which shape deeply the way we cognise the world. I would be cautious about phrases like “someone or some event hooks the attention of the Spirit,” however, which might seem either impersonal or sub-personal (you can catch the attention of an animal). As for the issue of God encompassing a range of good and evil, the philosophical problem here is that ‘evil’ is generally defined in reference to something good (e.g. a bad apple is implicitly compared to a good apple), but what is the good (and greater) thing to which the evil of the greatest thing (God, by definition) can be compared? Of course, there is the issue of a good God permitting evil, but that is a vast topic in its own right that deserves a separate essay at least.

  5. Jpipersson says:

    In answer to your second discussion question – “Are miracles compatible with a strictly physicalist conception of nature? If so, how are miracles to be distinguished from instances of natural causation? If not, why not?” It strikes me that a belief in a strickly physicalist nature is a prerequisit for belief in miracles.

    Along a similar vein, it seems to me that the main question is not whether or not there are miracles but rather, if there are miracles, is it possible to tell them from natural phenomena?  I think the answer to that question is “no.” I guess that means it is irrational to have an opinion about whether or not miracles are possible.

    • Andrew Pinsent says:

      You say that a belief in strictly physicalist nature is a prerequisite for belief in miracles. I tend to agree with much of what you suggest, provided: (1) we take a generous view of what is meant by ‘physicalism’, i.e. recognise that even natural causes are complex, rich, and varied; (2) we do not take as a premise that physicalism has to mean dogmatic causal closure, i.e. nothing but natural causes. In fact, one of the points that fascinated me in writing this essay was the realisation (once again) that precision about the meaning of miracles arose in the Western intellectual tradition at about the same time as the desire and techniques required to isolate and identify causes (cf. Roger Bacon, On Experimental Method, 1268). Although counterintuitive, the philosophy of miracles and experimental method may have developed symbiotically, therefore, at least in part. As to whether we could, even in principle, tell them from natural phenomena, I suggest that at least some experiences could indeed be judged rationally to be the result of miracles if they are experienced. For this reason, I included the famous and dramatic example of meeting a dead man, alive again but still bearing the wounds suffered in the course of his agonising death. I think a person who has such an experience would not be irrational in judging that a miracle has taken place. I don’t think that it is irrational in principle, therefore, to judge that miracles are possible in principle, or that a miracle has taken place when one is presented with certain kinds of evidence about the miracle’s effects. 

  6. Jpipersson says:

    I almost decided not to include my first comment for something close to the reasons you gave. What is included in a “physicalist” nature. As you indicated, “natural causes are complex, rich, and varied.” That is at the heart of my second comment – my doubt that it is possible to tell miracles from natural phenomena.

    You say “at least some experiences could indeed be judged rationally to be the result of miracles if they are experienced.” I don’t think that’s true.  Let’s try this out – You and I don’t see just a dead man walking down the street, we see a man carrying his own head under his arm. Is that a miracle? Well, it could be a Halloween costume. We could be having a drunken hallucination. At least we decided not to drive. It could be a hoax. Aliens from outer space have two sexes – one looks like a human head and the other like a human body. As we walk, you and I make up a story and decide to try and fool our friends. Or, you and I make up a story and decide to try and get on TV. Or I have a dream and am convinced that it really happened and then convince you, in your drunken state, that it did.

    This may be telling you too much about myself, but I remember when I was 7 or 8, lying in bed early in the morning while it was just getting light. I heard some noises and started fantasizing about what was going on. Then I heard two thumps on the roof over my head, squirrels I’m sure. I then convinced myself that aliens had landed and were coming to get me.

    • Andrew Pinsent says:

      The examples you cite of elaborate non-miraculous explanations, such as hoaxes or aliens with unusual bodies or (god-like?) powers, cannot in principle be ruled out completely as explanations for purported miracles or indeed practically any apparently commonplace event either (perhaps aliens shut my door instead of the wind). Rational judgment is needed, and if absolute certainty is demanded about the cause of anything, then that criterion is almost never satisfied. If, however, one is prepared to reject the premise that miracles cannot happen, then why would it be irrational to judge that an extraordinary event such as the one I mentioned (that is, meeting a previously crucified man with holes in his hands, feet and side) is a miracle? Of course, even this event had a good deal of theological context, which raises the interesting question of what additional theological context (if any), other than the mere possibility of miracles, is required for an event to be judged as a miracle. That is a question I will need to consider further.  

  7. Meyer1953 says:

    I see in the Bible that Jesus was the very source of all miracle (John 1:1-3).  Though he was the very one through whom all was created, and he was now revealing his identity through his consummate work, the miracle of his resurrection, plainly among us he still could not get past the rationality problem.  He actually asked his Father, “Not my will but Thine be done.”

    So there is zero causal relationship either existing or to be found, between miracles and rationality.  Even the very one, the very source, through whom is all miracle, could form no rationality whatsoever by which to esteem his own works.

    And we are certainly no more capable than is he.

    • Andrew Pinsent says:

      Your reference to John 1:1-3 is interesting, but it is not clear that “creation” and “miracle” should be considered the same kind of divine action. As regards “Not my will but Thine be done,” I do not think the key issue at this moment of crisis is whether or not Jesus was able to understand rationally what the Father willed, or even why the Father willed what He willed. This key issue at this moment is the suffering involved in aligning his will with the will of the Father (which is part of what is meant by ‘love’).

  8. Michael says:

    Agreed.

    An egg cannot be unboiled. Certain processes are asymmetrical with regards to the *representation* of time in the physical reality.

    But I am talking about the concept of time itself as exclusively a psychological quantity in and of itself. What I am saying is that it is this psychological quantity called ‘time’ which is *projected* on the space-time reality; those events then being looked upon as ‘evidence’ in support of the reality of the illusion called ‘time’.

    That psychological quantity called “time” originates in the consciousness of the ‘thinker’ for the purpose of preventing the collapse of the “self” into psychosis. And I would suggest that it is for psychological reasons alone that such things as “Miracles” are not only denied, but diminished in their frequency. In other words, were it not for the consciousness of the ‘thinker’ itself, Miracles would be looked upon as much more frequent than is commonly assumed.

    In any case, I would suggest that you do just a little research into Reverse Speech Analysis. When it finally dawns on you what exactly is happening, it has a definite effect on the entire way you view reality.

    Michael 

    • Andrew Pinsent says:

      I would agree (and St Augustine, a great early philosopher of time, would agree) that time is in part psychological, but I would dispute that it is (or must be) ‘exclusively’ psychological. Actually, there is a range of interpretations of the meaning of time that are different but not distinguishable in ways that might in principle show up, for example, as verifiable measurements (or, at least, I am not aware of how they might be distinguished). This issue remains a great arena of debate, but John McTaggart’s A-series and B-series descriptions of temporal ordering have been influential ways of clarifying some of the main options. Your comment about the link between the consciousness of the thinker and the perception of miracles is an interesting one, however, because it throws into stark relief the need for a standard of comparison with the ‘usual flow’ of events. Without an ability to think of ‘temporal flow’, of ‘before’ and ‘after’, perhaps every event would seem newly made and ‘miraculous’. Perhaps for a sheep, every sight and mouthful of grass is in effect the experience of a ‘miracle’.