Friday, 8 March 2013

By Definition, A Miracle can Never Happen.

According to Hume’s definition of miracles, a miracle can happen in theory, but not in practice. Whilst Hume defines a miracle as “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the deity”, he asks us to address in our consideration of miracles whether it would be more reasonable to believe that the laws of nature had been violated or to discredit the testimony of the witness. Hume applies this to the bible accounts of miracles, arguing that it would be more reasonable to discredit the testimonies of the biblical authors on account of their being “barbarous and ignorant”, lacking education and having a desire to believe or an ulterior motive for belief. 

Thus, though he argues that on these grounds it is unlikely that the miracle happened, it being more likely that the biblical writers were misled, Hume does not argue that these miracles were impossible or could never happen. However, according to Hume, miracles are so unlikely, considering the statistical support for the laws of nature, that in practice, if he ever witnessed a miracle, he would distrust his senses over the laws of nature.

According to Wiles’ definition of a miracle as a very unlikely divine act which does not contravene the laws of nature, a miracle could happen, but wouldn’t happen because this would be a hindrance to religious belief. A miracle in the expected sense would never happen, according to Wiles, because the interventions of God, such as feeding the five thousand, would be seen as random and trivial, in comparison to letting thousands more die of starvation throughout history. Such a God, Wiles argues, would not be worthy of worship. Instead, Wiles demonstrates that the kind of miracle that could happen, that avoids implications for the Problem of Evil, adheres to the Manichaean Heresy in arguing that it is the creation of the world as a whole which is the miracle and that God does not, then, intervene in the creation.

Contrary to these views which are sceptical of the tradition of miracles, Swinburne, who defines a miracle as an unrepeatable and rare divine intervention to suspend the laws of nature, argues that God’s omnipotence allows his to suspend the natural laws. Furthermore, Swinburne demonstrates that these natural laws are merely statistical and not set laws in the strictest sense. Swinburne allows that miracles must be scarce because this would otherwise have implications for human free will, although he proposes in entirely in contrast to Hume’s ideas about rationality, his Principles of Credulity and Testimony. These Principles argue that it is reasonable to believe that the miracle happened, as long as there is no good reason to doubt one’s own senses or the testimony of the witness. Thus, by Swinburne’s definition, it would be reasonable to believe that miracles can happen.

Moreover, Aquinas provides a detailed specification of miracles into three types, which allow for miracles to be possible. All are identified as being the action of an omnipotent deity, the first being impossible for nature (for example God halting the sun in the sky for Joshua so that the Israelites can finish the battle), the second being natural but in an unexpected order (for example recovering from a terminal illness) and the third being possible in nature, but without natural elements (for example recovering from a cold quickly). Thus these miracles are by definition possible.

In conclusion, even by Hume’s most skeptical definition, miracles are still possible, at least in theory. Whilst Polkinghorne argues that we must consider whether it is theologically coherent for God to act differently, a miracle being out of the ordinary, several Philosophers, such as Tillich, Winch, Hick Holland and C. S. Lewis, argue similarly that miracles are subjective experiences. This means that the same event might be interpreted differently by people with different world views, such as an atheist and a theist. What makes a miracle a miracle, then, is not whether it is logically or empirically possible, but what religious significance is attached to it by the person who experiences it.

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