Miracles: Possible or Not?
People use the word ‘miracle’ in many instances. We may have heard an elderly talking about everyday miracles, or heard an actor from a movie say to his leading lady that “she is his miracle”. There are even “miracle” drugs and products that promise to heal even the most ill-fated patients. This paper will try to focus two arguments: the possibility or impossibility that miracles can occur.
Miracle is perhaps one of the issues that followers of science and religion will never agree upon. Each has its own explanation for why miracle is or is not possible.
In philosophy, miracle is defined as an event caused by supernatural being. It is also defined as a “divine intervention in the natural order” (Levine). Driscoll states that through miracles, God’s power is shown. It may be either through direct action or through creatures as means. Easton agrees, saying that God’s miracles are hard to be discerned by the senses. Miracles are above nature and above man (Easton).
Despite the growing debates on the existence of miracles, there are personalities who have stood their ground that miracles are possible. Richard Swinburne wrote in his article that miracles do exist. He agrees with David Hume, a philosopher who denies the possibility of miracles and defined miracle as a violation in the natural law. However, there is a distinct question posted on whether biblical scholars have incorporated this thought in translating biblical writings into English (Swinburne).
In examining the definition of miracle, Swinburne tries to find out if there is indeed evidence supporting that the law of nature has been violated. First, the author defines the concept of ‘violation in the law of nature’ as an “occurrence of a non-repeatable counter-instance to a law of nature.” He admits that even events that appear in contrast with the predictions of the laws of nature may occur. However, if people believe that these events have occurred and that similar events occur, then the formula that the people were made to believe in is not such laws. Swinburne believes that repeatable counter-instances do not, in any case, defy the laws of nature. These instances just show us the notions asserting that such laws of nature are false.
Furthermore, if miracles are indeed violation in the laws of nature, then miracles cannot be explained by appealing to natural law (Drange). For example, the Archimedean Law states that the amount of fluid a body displaces is equal to its own weight. If a person could have the ability to walk on water, then this example of a miracle would violate the Archimedean Law. However, different branches of science have naturalistic explanations for such events. Thus, a miracle cannot be explained this way.
However, there are arguments which state that a miracle does not contradict the nature; rather it contradicts our knowledge of nature. St. Augustine thinks that “miracles are made possible by hidden potentialities in nature that are placed there by God” (qtd. in Corner). Thomas Aquinas agreed with St. Augustine, adding that a miracle usually goes beyond what is observed in nature. Miracle is not contradicting to nature in any sense, and St. Aquinas further states that it is natural for things that God created to be responsive to His will.
From Swinburne’s definition of miracle, claims that were made regarding what might or might not violate the laws of nature can be set right. Thus evidence is important to reach conclusions about those claims. People are aware about the laws of nature, some of which have been established for so long that any changes made would disrupt the structure of science. If there are cases that attempted to contradicted science, it would be considered as a violation against the laws of nature. Thus, events such as resurrection from the dead, water turning into wine and levitation are violations in the laws of nature. Many skeptics are questioning these miracles of Christ. First, there were witnesses who were still alive when the record for the miracles was published. Second, some of the witnesses were men of noble character who were not liable to misrepresent. In fact, they were very willing to sacrifice their lives rather than give up their beliefs. Last, hostile witnesses did not dispute when they witnessed Christ’s miracles (Rhodes). For instance, the Pharisees, who were against Christ, and chief priests did not dispute when Christ raised Lazarus from the dead. They just wanted to stop Christ. Thus, any sort of fabrication that would make other witnesses believe in it is impossible because there were many people who saw the miracles (Rhodes).
On the other hand, Christ’s miracles have been questioned by some critics. The validity of the miracles that Christ performed during his time has been questioned often (Keyes). Skeptics were asking why there were no historians who wrote about things like the sudden darkness during Christ’s crucifixion or a man who was able to see after Christ covered his eyes with mud. The only evidence, if any, was the one-sided stories from Christ’s followers. However, some had provided a counter argument for the “miracle” that occurred during Christ’s crucifixion. Some had argued that the darkness during the crucifixion was solely due to solar eclipse.
Another article points out that with the vast discoveries of modern science and its success in labeling the world in terms of cosmic regularity, miracle has been ruled out. Miracles were considered impossible and outmoded. Moreover, miracle was considered as an “unwarranted philosophical assumption and not a scientific conclusion” (Jensen).
David Hume was among those skeptics who questioned the validity and truth behind the occurrences of miracles. His argument against miracles is considered as the “best single argument in the history of skepticism” (Carroll). Hume’s position is that it is sensible and logical to reject any claim pertaining to miracles. It is because these miraculous claims emphasize the occurrence of violation in the laws of nature.
Easton points out that Hume relied heavily on the premise that miracles are violations in the laws of nature. He explains that Hume’s premise is controversial because miracles are positive instances of natural laws and not violations. Moreover, Easton argues with Hume on the premise that since laws of nature are based on experience, miracles thus violate experience. Easton thinks that miracles are really contrary to man’s experience. However, it does not mean that miracles contradicted the experiences of people who have witnessed ‘miracles.’
However, it is pertinent to consider that Hume believes in the possibility of a miracle.
He just thinks that there is no evidence for miracles. Thus, miracles should not be accepted.
This also means that miracles cannot be proven.
Additionally, Hume states that the conviction of those who witnessed and believed in miracles may have been affected by their emotions. He thinks that when something that is extraordinary happens and people are in awe of it, they feel emotions that can hamper their judgment. They might label an event ‘miraculous’ based on how they feel about it. It is important, however, to bear in mind that despite Hume’s belief that miracles are violations of laws of nature, he believes that a miracle is not impossible but just improbable.
With Hume’s arguments, one would think that scientists rule out miracles. Drange says that there have been scientists who believed in miracles. However, science cannot prove that a miracle happened because it endeavors to understand reality through laws of nature.
Those who believe that miracles are possible think that a miracle from God who is powerful goes beyond any scientific explanation. There are reasons why they believe that miracles are possible. One is that there were witnesses who still lived when the accounts of miracles were published. Some noble men have also witnessed Christ’s miracles, and no hostile witnesses disputed the miracles. As long as one has in his heart the conviction, a miracle is possible. For those who do not believe that a miracle is possible, they think that miracles violate the laws of nature and experience. Moreover, there is no rational explanation for miracles. However, it is in the discretion of a person whether to be convinced that miracles are possible or not.
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Drange, Theodore M. 30 November 2005. “Science and Miracles.” Internet Infidels, Inc. 20 November 2008 <http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/theodore_drange/miracles.html>.
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Levine, Michael. 16 September 2005. “Miracles.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 17 November 2008 <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/miracles/>.
Rhodes, Ron. n.d. “Has Science Disproved the Miracles Associated with Jesus Christ?” Christ Answers Network. 20 November 2008 <http://www.christiananswers.net/q-eden/rfsm-miracles.html>.
Swinburne, Richard. n.d. “For the Possibility of Miracles.” OrthodoxyToday.org 20 November 2008 <http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles2/SwinburneMiracles.shtml>.