Miracles

04 November 2011

Should a sane, rational person ever believe in miracles?

We all believe that  the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2010.  That was surely a miracle.  The Giants victory was unlikely, against the odds, and surprising.   And it answered the prayers of long-suffering Giants fans everywhere.  

But it wasn’t a real miracle, of the sort that religious people believe in, but many philosophers and more or less scientific types are skeptical about.  Real miracles require a break in the laws of nature through divine intervention or some other supernatural force. 

 Real miracles are things like Jesus walking on water or bringing Lazarus back from the dead.  Physics and biology tell us things like that can’t happen.  But Jesus has divine powers that can’t be shackled by mere physics or biology. 

So our question isn’t whether a sane, rational person could ever believe in pseudo-miracles, like the Giants winning the World Series, but in real miracles. 

 Lots of people actually do believe in miracles.  People who survive cancer against all the medical odds sometime regard that as a miracle – a real miracle, the sort that requires divine intervention.  The question isn’t whether people do believe in miracles.  People believe in all sorts of things.   The question is whether people should believe in them.  What would it take to convince a reasonable person that a genuine miracle has actually occurred?  At a minimum, you’d have to have reason to believe that something quite out of the ordinary has happened.  But surely that’s not enough.  Consider winning the lottery.  It would be a huge and happy coincidence if the numbers randomly printed on my ticket by the ticket-printing machine matched the numbers on the little balls randomly spewed out by the lottery machine.  But that wouldn’t be a miracle. It wouldn’t involve a single violation of the laws of nature. 

You shouldn’t believe a miracle has happened unless you’ve ruled out all the non-miraculous alternatives – no matter how improbable those alternatives might be.   But suppose I see you walking across the water -- just like Jesus.  There are no hidden walkways lurking below the surface.  You're not wearing inflatable shoes.  You're not being supported by gossamer rope tied to a helicopter.  You haven’t learned to wiggle your toes rapidly enough to keep you afloat.   Shouldn’t I conclude that the laws of physics have been locally suspended and we’ve got a genuine miracle on our hands?  

Probably not.   It’s more likely that I’ve missed some scientific alternative than that I’ve  actually seen a miracle.  Look, as soon as one is tempted to think he’s witnessed a miracle, he should stop and think again.   It’s physically possible, for example, that the molecules under your feet as you walk across the water bond together strongly, completely by accident, forming a kind of traveling bridge.   At least that’s what scientists tell us.  They say it’s possible that all the oxygen molecules in a room should suddenly collect in a corner, leaving us breathless.  We’ll never witness this, because it is so improbable; but it is possible.  So maybe you can walk on water.  But there are no miracles. 

Still,  doesn’t that make the universe a pretty dull place?

Comments (18)


Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, November 4, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Miracles. Hmmmm. I don't find

Miracles. Hmmmm. I don't find them or the evidence of them compelling. I am more into those things that people like Dawkins write about. His newest book, The Magic of Reality, sums up much of what he has been writing about since The Selfish Gene. Miracles are extremely low on his list---as well they ought to be. Perhaps the universe IS a pretty dull place. But, as a realist, I find that somehow comforting. Just me, you see. I guess I read too much. And I'm not talking about faith, fiction or fairy tales. I prefer science, facts and, well, reality. Miracles? Let the Pope deals with those. His arena, not mine. It seems a miracle to me that he is Pope---but that is a miracle of a different colour. Isn't it?

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Saturday, November 5, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

EPISTEMOLOGY AND BELIEF

EPISTEMOLOGY AND BELIEF
Epistemology is the study of 1. Knowledge and 2. Justified Belief. This assumes that there is something that rises to a level of rationality so it qualifies as knowledge; and that there is something somewhat less rational, but which is believable because the evidence of it is compelling.
?A miracle is some event that violates the laws of science and nature.? Confidence in the absolute validity of causation according to the laws of science and nature rises to the epistemological level of knowledge.
?Wonder and awe.? I contend that the greater the dramatic (in the theatrical sense) impact of an explanation or an illustration of something, the more we believe it, and the more we are convinced of it as a valid explanation. I still remember the wonderful question by the philosopher on an earlier show: ?Why do need to have an explanation for everything?? The need for explanation can sometimes create, at best, incorrect explanations, and, at worst, nefarious explanations.
I was walking down the beach, lamenting the un-functional tile cutting board in my kitchen, thinking that I needed to buy one of those white plastic cutting boards to put on top of the tile, and where could I buy one like that in the remote locale I was in. In the next three minutes, a white plastic cutting board washed up on the beach, at my feet. The higher the improbability, the closer to a miracle. There was no violation of the laws of science, just probability.
The guest philosopher, I submit, has it wrong. The philosophically interesting question has nothing to do with the nature of the miraculous event; the philosophically interesting question is what is the nature, cause, and effect, of belief. And why one would opt for ?miracle? as the explanation rather than looking for the ?rational.? A good example is ?luck.? Completely unscientific, but something the gambler must believe in. It is something one either has or doesn?t have, it is quantified, and it determines whether heads comes up ten times in a row, and it determines whether a craps player is at a ?hot table.?

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, November 6, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

The nature of a miracle is a

The nature of a miracle is a matter of perspective. For an atheist, a miracle would have to be unnatural (against the laws of nature) and hence not possible. For a theist, though, a miracle is natural for God; the fact that it is not possible for humans is the point: God can do things that humans can not.
Is it a matter of cause and effact? Strangely, atheists and theists will agree that it is. While atheists will state that a miracle does not have a cause, and hence cannnot occur, a theist will state that a miracle does have a cause, viz. God.
Ronald Green
"Nothing Matters - a book about nothing" (iff-Books)

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, November 6, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Whether miracles are possible

Whether miracles are possible or not is not a question for the "laws of physics" or "laws of science." We cannot even prove that these so-called laws are in fact universally true, we can only show them true so far as we can test. It is much more of a question of the underlying assumption - atheists and "strong rationalists" consider miracles impossible because they assume there is nothing outside the physical, observable universe that they believe to be completely subject to certain laws, which they further believe they know completely.
A theist (like myself) does not make that set of assumptions. Recognizing that there is a God means recognizing an agent not bound by these "laws." Instances of miracles are rare because He chooses to do them rarely, but to say they are impossible is an unprovable claim. Miracles are by definition unique events and therefore not repeatable or testable. You have to get out of the lab coat of the scientist and into the cardigan of the historian, or the suit of the detective. Weigh the accounts, the testimony, and the probabilities, and make an assessment. That is all you can do.
Even science does not have nearly as many real "absolutes" as the popular imagination likes to think it has.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, November 6, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

I find nature to be a miracle

I find nature to be a miracle, as beautifully and equitably divine as One gets.
=
MJA

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, November 7, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

I remember Mirugai's name and

I remember Mirugai's name and have always valued the input of that contributor to this blog. I do not believe in luck or miracles---to me, those notions are borne of superstition. Call me whatever you may, but there is something between luck and superstition---Jung's notion of synchronicity. Now that, I have some experience with. The thing about synchronicity is that it just happens. Luck and superstition seem to have nothing to do with it. It has found me, once or twice (maybe four times) in life. If you want to call me superstitious, go right ahead. But superstition defies reason. Synchronicity merely defies probability---big gap there---don't you think?

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, November 7, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Your name *

Your name *
Your e-mail address *
Subject *
Message *
MERICELS FOR ATHEOISTS
Do the cryterion-for-certitude in the truth value in a 'witness', pass the cryterion for certitude ?
If not ....!
If so, isn't this, 'obviously nessary & sufficient condition', for signifigence of those crytierion , 'erroniosly-self-suporting' , and therefor .. erronios. [ Like using the defined word in it's definition ]
Witch would remove a main pillar suporting our ability to 'assertain TRUTH', it's-self ...?

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Tuesday, November 8, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Nathan makes an excellent

Nathan makes an excellent defense of deism in a rational, philosophical setting. The impetuses for belief in God are: 1. the desire to refer to a source of consciousness for confirmation, and 2. to have an object for our wonderful gift of love. Miracles are really unnecessary to "prove" God's existence; attributing them to God is a real, unprovable leap of faith, and may be completely erroneous. The important issue, as I raised in my earlier comment, is Why do people attribute miracles to God? Only because of a "belief" in God's attributes, as attributed to Him by the believer. And Nathan, what evidence do you have that God is not bound by, or operates through, the laws of science?

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, November 9, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Where are the Miracles?

Where are the Miracles?
The universe is truly boundless except for the laws we ourselves have created and placed around us.
This box we ourselves have made confines us and keeps us from the miracles we truly are.
How many laws are there?
Can they be counted?
And where oh where does freedom fit in?
It does not!
The miracle is outside the box,
Our own self evidence.
I found the edge of the box One day,
Looked over and afraid...Slipped and fell,
And now the miracle is free,
Is,
=
MJA

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, November 9, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Green's comment fired a

Green's comment fired a neuron and nudged a ventricle. I was reminded of a book I read by Graham Martin, a British curmudgeon, of whose attitude(s) I am fond. Martin's book was entitled: DOES IT MATTER?, or some such. I have enjoyed this post and the subsequent comments by all. I suppose, if we distill the matter, miracles are for the faithful. They are, despite assertions to the contrary, a foundation for belief in supranatural systems, higher power expectations, and something more than an accidental 'big bang'; cosmic boom or other such accidental cataclysm which might have brought order out of chaos. Pish and tosh. It appears to be human that we expect more than what we can comprehend. We are over-achievers, in the common vernacular.
I think we could be happier if we let go of fantasy and accept our mortality, graciously--- grateful for The Life We Are Given* My grandfather said: do with what you've got. Good advice for Depression times---better still for post-modern social chaos. I'm going back into hibernation for awhile. The season is right for that.
(*Michael Murphy and George Leonard---nice little book; look it up if you wish...)

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, November 10, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Interesting discussion. I

Interesting discussion. I lean towards the view that miracles are abundant, but perspectives are limited.
Another point: science is faith-based. My Dad & I had this discussion many times -- have we ever seen atoms, molecules, or for that matter the Earth from space? Not personally -- we take the word of others to be true (or pics/videos which w/current tech could easily be falsified.)
Similarly, science is not actually a compilation of facts -- it's a compilation of theories about observed/recorded phenomena which are subject to many flaws, most notably the flaws of the theoreticians and their framework/worldview.
To continue, NAZI's and many USA/Euro scientists have conducted the cruelest experiments on unwilling victims (NAZI's experimented w/sterilization & many forms of vile surgeries, plus we know of Tuskeegee experiments & now Guatamala STD experiments) in pursuit of 'science'. Much of science continues these practices today on unwilling animal subjects, from genetic experiments to grafting & organ farming to cross-breeding & vivisection & brain experimentation on living creatures).
Worldview is a key factor for all these developments.
While I like many of the developments of science, I would like an option to collectively choose to not pursue various technologies which are like a 'Pandoras Box' of potentially evil outcomes -- nuclear weapons, GM foods (on a massive scale), and bio-war (virii & killer bacteria) are among my top list of BAD science pursuits.
Personally, I think that the products of billions of years of evolution are miraculous. I know of no evidence to show that evolution is the sole factor in current human development (ie could aliens have intervened? Etc.) Also I've experienced psychic & spiritual phenomena which I can't explain scientifically.
Last point: science requires repeatable processes for verification -- it uses deductive reasoning to figure things out. However, the possibility of unique occurrences and singularities which can't be repeated are challenging for our science of today to handle. No ways to test or repeat. Similarly, research can be skewed by manipulating the participants, the factors, or locations. In many studies, the results are hidden inside the margin of error.
So if molecules are galaxies, if animals have souls, if the Earth &/or Sun are conscious living creatures, if water is sentient, etc -- all this and more are phenomena that science can't answer today. Same w/divine concepts; using science to tackle them is like using a speedometer to measure someone's emotions. Wrong machine, wrong device, and ultimately wrong approach.
rekzkarz.com
ps: After I submitted this comment, the machine couldn't accept my post bc my homepage listed didn't have http in front. What a great analogy for how framing affects what we can accept as input!! A little less strict parameters on the input data @ more flexibility on the results -- but some data don't fit our requirements.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, November 10, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Mirugai: thanks for the

Mirugai: thanks for the response. Ultimately, assertion that there is a God, or that there is not, is an assertion of faith. Neither position can be proven beyond rational doubt. So it becomes a question of weighing evidence and assigning what Alvin Plantinga calls "warranted" belief. The evidence that warrants my faith in God comes from four places: 1) personal experience, which is admittedly wishy-washy since many people have personal experiences; 2) the testimony of other believers, which has similar weaknesses but also the strength of massive numbers; 3) the universe itself, the existence of which indicates some kind of First Cause outside itself, since I don't think there can be such a thing as a causeless effect; and 4) most of all, the evidence of the Resurrection of Christ, which as a historian I find very compelling upon close examination. This may not convince everyone, but it has been enough to convince me.
When we think about miracles as events that defy the "laws" of physics or of science, it might occur to us to wonder why there are such "laws" in the first place, or why we expect there to be such. There is no inherent requirement that there be "laws" by which the universe runs. Yet it happens to have them, and we happen to be able to discover them. In fact, it turns out that we can use mathematics, an invention of our limited minds, to explore them. Why is this so? Should it be so? What I'm getting at is that we live in a universe that, near as we can tell, runs on a very consistent set of rules, which rules are understandable to us and amenable to our discovery and even manipulation. The whole existence of science is dependent on this fact. Yet science cannot answer why it should be so. It is a question for philosophy and/or theology.
In my view, this is so because God made this universe for us (and maybe others to, but for us certainly). Further, he is a God of order, so the universe does have consistent rules - and I think it was this underlying belief that explains why true science developed in the West rather than elsewhere. And he works through them most of the time because they are his rules, after all - they would be pointless if he violated them all the time. It is his nature to work out of sight, or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, to allow his creation to push him out of the world and onto the cross. This is the paradox of at least the Christian faith - an event like the crucifixion, which to any observer at the time would have seemed like the most godless possible, was in fact God acting in great power (George L. Murphy develops this thought much further in "The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross"). I think many of my fellow believers don't thoroughly consider what this means about the nature of God.
Several posts here state that we believe in miracles because we want to, because we need that comfort of "knowing" we are more than just dust, that there is a higher power looking out for us, etc. The question I would pose is: why do we want that? Why do we need it? If this world is all there is, and the way it runs is the way it has always run, and therefore it is the only reality any human has ever known, why do we imagine something else? There are fish that live in caves, that never know anything but darkness, that have no reference point for anything but total darkness, in fact they don't even have eyes. We're like cave fish somehow dreaming of light. Why?

Fred Griswold's picture

Fred Griswold

Saturday, November 12, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Suppose you lifted a brick up

Suppose you lifted a brick up in the air, let go of it, and it floated. You would probably call that a miracle. Before the modern scientific attitude got established, I suppose that if the brick had fallen to the ground, people would have considered that just as much of a miracle, and attributed it to God. How did our sense of faith in God get transferred to the laws of physics? Is it because of rebellion against the Church and other authority figures? And is that really a good enough reason to have so much faith in science?
On the other hand, what about that sense of wonder and awe at the miraculousness of the universe? How could anything possibly exist? What hath God wrought? I heard somewhere - maybe on Philosophy Talk - that according to the laws of quantum mechanics, nothingness is unstable. So maybe the sense of awe that anything could exist really should be directed towards quantum mechanics. But that gets us back to physics again.
Here's another take on the question. I used to know a guy who said he had once been standing there talking to a friend of his, and his friend just disappeared right before his eyes. The more mundane explanation for this would be that he just had a little too much fun back in the 60's. But it should also be recognized that such a thing is not impossible according to the laws of quantum mechanics. The guy's atoms might have reassembled up on top of the roof or something. You can calculate the odds of that.
One more thing. It's possible that our insistence on looking for causes for everything is a consequence of tool use. You make a stone ax, later on you use the ax to cause a tree to fall. This has had such a decisive impact on human survival that it's easy to see how we could get addicted to the idea.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, November 12, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

To Light

To Light
How to see a miracle:
If you haven't seen a miracle, you don't need new glasses or even an eye exam. Simply try removing all of the uncertainties of theories and faiths that obstruct you vision or view.
Once uncertainty is removed the miracle of true light will shine in and reflect out equally from you.
Let there be light!
Clearly or Truly yours,
=
MJA

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, November 12, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

I left a comment on one of

I left a comment on one of Jon Horvitz's posts from brain, mind and other things. The post was allied with the God notion and being Jewish, Christian or otherwise. I stated that recent emotional stress (my wife's illness) had evoked a memory and an epiphany regarding God, belief, miracles and so on. I opined that people survive catastrophic illness, not because they believe in the power of an omnipotent God and Its benevolence towards those who are faithful and devoted, but because they believe in THEIR ability to overcome their illness. This allies with Arthur Schopenhauer and another philosopher, Fred---whose last name I can never recall how to spell (sounds like: neet-che). Both Art and Fred placed emphasis on human will.
Larry Dossey has written about such things as the power of prayer. Others, including anthropologists and the like, have discussed shamanism and all manner of mind-over-matter theories and arguments. As I mentioned in my comment on Jon Horvitz' post, I think Dr. Norman Vincent Peale wrote eloquently on The Power of Positive Thinking. But, Dr. Peale was foremost a cleric. And, I have to at least infer that he was in the corner of the omnipotent, benevolent God who rewards devotion. In this sense, Peale was fulfilling his anointed role. As for the rest, I just do not think so. We cannot measure these things, so there will always be the faithful and the faithless; believers and skeptics. Thanksgiving is coming up---have some turkey, dressing and a beer if you want to. Who knows: If you pray hard enough, your heartburn might go away. Or, you could take Prilosec---before you oink out. That's what I would do---if I planned to oink out.

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Sunday, November 13, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Nathan and Fred: thank you

Nathan and Fred: thank you for what I consider an excellent philosophical dialog on "belief," a subject I have explored in depth. Doing philosophy is thinking rationally about thoughts. The thoughts thought about do not have to be rational (in fact, it is more fun if they aren't strictly rational), but the thinking about those thoughts must be rational. You two have upheld this most important principle in your arguments. Agnosticism and even atheism are philosophically defensible; God hatred and religion hatred are not: let's just say making reference to a consciousness outside our own, especially for confirmation of our beliefs and/or to have an object for our gift of love, is something like instinctive, and certainly supported by the kind of probability evidence you both allude to.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, November 13, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

mirugai: at some point it

mirugai: at some point it does in fact come down to faith. I think Fred got at something important as well...we live in a universe of order, and have focused on the laws of that order to the point that we have mostly ceased to wonder why there should be such things in the first place. I think pre-scientific people, faced with this same reality of a universe of order, focused more on why it should be so. This drives a lot of the change in perception.
Looking at Paul van Pelt's point above as well, positive thinking may in fact have something to do with healing-related "miracles" in some cases. Other times, miracles happen to people who don't believe and aren't at all expecting it. So another case. And vice versa: Nitszche's belief in his own superiority did not prevent him from going nuts. And then there are miracles that have nothing to do with health at all.
I think one reason we struggle with miracles is that we try to consider them as phenomena. As such, their inconsistency is hard to take. If we look at them not as mere physical events, but as the work of a Person, we get past that hurdle. The down side, I suppose, is that they are no longer a category of things that can be confirmed or denied all together. The up side is that each report can now be taken on its own evidence, without getting all wrapped up over violations of the "laws" of the universe. One should not credit every report of a miracle one hears (I certainly don't), but honest investigation of them would require at least a temporary willing suspension of disbelief.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, November 14, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Rather than faith,

Rather than faith,
Miracles come down to a point of absolute truth.
A truth so infinite,
It is immeasurable.
Nature is this Way,
=
MJA

 
 
 

Blog Archive

2018

November

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2017

December

November

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2016

December

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2015

December

November

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2005

December

November

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March