Are Miracles Possible?

MIRACLES ARE POSSIBLE AND CAN BE EXPECTED


Miracles are mystifying.  On the one hand we want to believe them because then there is hope in the most hopeless of situations.  On the other hand, we don’t expect them because we know they are more than just unusual.  They are an act of God Himself and we don’t expect God to meddle in the affairs of normal people like ourselves.  That sort of intervention is reserved for saints that are so holy that they practically glow.  However, there is a difference between miracles being unusual and miracles not happening at all.  And there are a lot of people that think they haven’t ever happened and never will happen because they can’t happen.


WHAT IS A MIRACLE?


Just to be clear, we’re going to focus on a particular definition of miracle here.  We want to be specific rather than general, so we’re going to rule out things that, while possibly having God involved in some way, can be explained in largely naturalistic terms.  While childbirth is considered a miracle (kids are awesome), we’re not going to discuss that kind of miracle.  We also won’t be discussing miracles like one that I experienced in which I healed from surgery remarkably fast (three times faster than the doctors anticipated).  That could just be attributed to natural means as well.  However, if a guy has been dead for an hour or so and is prayed over and he gets up, unscathed, I think we can say we’ve got a legitimate miracle.  Here’s the definition we’re using:

Miracle: an event that lies outside the bounds of known science that occurs in a context which suggests God is acting.


“SCIENCE HAS DISPROVEN MIRACLES”


One of the most common arguments against miracles is that science has simply disproven them.  “Science has shown that so many things we once thought were the actions of the gods are actually natural phenomena, there’s no reason to believe miracle claims anymore.”  There are a lot of problems with ideas such as this.  They all circulate around what science as a discipline is designed to do.


Science is descriptive.  Science describes the way the world works.  The calculations and equations in physics and engineering describe how things ought to be, but they don’t determine how they will be.  Anomalies and irregularities do occur and scientists adjust their theories in light of them.  Even then, anomalies and irregularities still occur.  When the anomalies occur, scientists are right to say, “That was unexpected.”  What they can’t say is, “That can’t happen,” because, after all, it just did.  At the end of the day, science describes what we expect to happen, but it doesn’t determine what can happen.


Science studies regularities.  Science is very good at studying how things normally work.  That’s why repeatability is so valuable – we can attempt to recreate the conditions of a particular event and observe the results.  If we need to, we can change the conditions and see if they affect the results.  The more often something happens, the more information we may have to figure out how to replicate it.  But what if something happens very rarely?  Only a few times that anyone has witnessed?  Or maybe only once ever?  All of a sudden, we don’t have something that is “regular” at all.  Instead, we have something that is exceptional, and it may be that we may never have the information needed to replicate it.  That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, only that we don’t know how.  But there’s a lot of people that make the leap from “We don’t know how” to “It’s not possible.”  That’s called over-reaching.


Science has problems studying people.  Don’t get me wrong.  Psychology and sociology have done a great deal of good over the years.  However, they are considered soft sciences rather than hard sciences.  That is, they aren’t as objective, easily quantifiable, or easily replicated as merely physical conditions.  The reason is that people aren’t just the observers doing the experiment, but they are the subjects of the experiment itself and the information the observers are trying to get at involves to one degree or another what is going on in the minds of those subjects.  That information is privileged in that the subject being studied has direct access to it, unlike the observer.  The subject also can’t be wrong about his or her experiences (if a subject smells what he thinks is rotten eggs when a neurosurgeon stimulates a part of his brain, even though he may be wrong about something in the room emitting that odor, the subject is having that sort of sensation,).  People don’t react the same all the time, even within the same subject, not merely because people are very complex systems, but because they are agents, able to initiate actions of their own free will.  Free will is so massively complicated that many philosophers that hold naturalism deny it even exists (although how they do so without losing the intellectual high ground is beyond me).  If we make choices, we have free will, and science has a very difficult time taking that into account.


Science studies the natural world.  As such, by definition, miracles and God are outside of the disciplines of the sciences.  These are by definition supernatural events and beings.  In spite of the paranormal investigations we see on TV (which, to be honest, seem to be entirely staged), supernatural entities don’t have the sort of properties that lend themselves to objective and repeatable investigation.  They have no physical characteristics, although the effects may be physical.  They’re often hard to describe, they’re rarely regular, and almost always the acts of a person, whether it be God or some other supernatural being.  Simply put, science may be able to verify some miracles, but there are a lot of details that make it impossible for science to show that miracles can’t happen.  The best that science can determine is that a particular event is scientifically inexplicable.  To say anything else would be using science to determine reality rather than describe or discover it.


“HUME WAS WRONG”


David Hume wrote “Of Miracles”, a nice little essay in which he argued that miracles not only shouldn’t be believed but that they didn’t happen.  I’ll outline the argument and then highlight the problems with it.  First, the argument:

  1. The only way to judge between two empirical claims is by weighing the evidence.

  2. There is far more evidence for any law of nature than for any particular miracle.

  3. Therefore, we ought to judge in favor of the laws of nature rather than any miracle.

I am with Hume on point #1.  If there are two empirical claims, there should be evidence for and against each of them (at least in theory).  However, Hume has confused things on point #2, and while he was a smart guy, I’m not sure whether this was intentional or not.  For argument’s sake, it doesn’t matter.  What it comes down to is in the difference for that evidence for laws of nature and miracles.


First, when Hume talks about evidence for miracles, he’s talking about testimonial evidence.  That is, the only evidence he considers in his argument is a person’s claim to have observed a miracle.  Even then, most of the testimony, in his view, is of the “my pastor’s cousin’s friend’s wife’s hairstylist’s nephew heard a story about a guy who met a guy whose hangnail was cured by prayer” variety.  As such, Hume never addresses the possibility of someone who directly experienced a miracle.  So, if you’ve experienced something that seems miraculous, the most that Hume could have to say is, “Make sure you’ve explored all possibilities first.”  Which is a good idea.  Let’s face it, we’ve all seen things we can’t quite explain.  It’s not a bad idea to check to make sure there isn’t a natural explanation first.  At best, personal experience alone may suggest a miracle is possible.  But for now, that’s all we need to show – that a miracle is a possible legitimate explanation.


Second, when Hume talks about testimonial evidence, he’s talking about counting evidence rather than weighing it.  For instance, if we manage to get the testimony of everyone in the world and asked them, “When someone dies, do they stay dead?”, almost everyone will say “yes”.  Then, when someone named Peter claims to have witnessed a person being raised from the dead, we now have testimony that all people who die stay that way.  However, do you see what changed?  “Almost everyone” and Peter are not looking at the same thing.  “Almost everyone” is testifying as to what their general experience has been, but Peter is testifying as to what he saw in a very specific instance.  “Almost everyone” didn’t see the same event as Peter, even though Peter’s general experience aside from this specific instance is the same as everyone else, and Peter would say so.  What Hume is suggesting is that the testimony of people who did not see the supposedly miraculous event counts against the weight of Peter who actually did see it.  Since when does the testimony of people who were not present to witness an event outweigh the testimony of an actual witness who was there?  A judge would rule such testimony out of court as irrelevant.


“NOTHING TO SEE HERE”


Third, Hume claims there are no reliable witnesses to miracles to begin with.  Someone might claim to be a witness to such an event and that witness would otherwise be considered 100% reliable.  But he then dismisses such reliable witnesses for a few reasons:


  1. People are drawn to spectacles and prone to accept them without question.

  2. Religious people are prepared to believe things that build their belief, even if they are false.

  3. People often believe others are telling the truth.

  4. Miracle stories originate among the “ignorant and the barbarous nations” – meaning uneducated and uncivilized.


Let’s take each of Hume’s dismissals in turn:

  1. Sure people are drawn to spectacles.  They are weird and interesting.  I’m not sure that makes them any more believable, especially in the modern world where we are used to fraudulent claims made on the internet.  When people see a strange photo posted, a lot of them ask, “Was that Photoshopped?”  After reading an article, it’s not uncommon for people to question the source, especially if there are no citations to allow corroboration by the reader.  While Hume was right that people are drawn to spectacles, the part about being prone to accept them without question isn’t as obvious as it once was.  Even so, how does one person’s readiness to believe make the testimony itself any less true?

  2. Yes, religious people tend to believe things that reinforce beliefs they already have.  However, that goes for almost everybody, religious or not.  Think about politics for less than a minute and you’ll realize the same goes for political beliefs.  Most conservatives think Democratic leaders are terrible, regardless of what the topic is.  Most liberals think Republicans are evil at their core.  Each group defends their side from perceived attacks and believe almost anything posted that is embarrassing or troublesome for their perceived political opponent.  However, much like the previous charge, does that make the event itself any less true?  Again, this says more about the person receiving the testimony rather than the person offering it.

  3. Credulity: a tendency to be too ready to believe that something is real or true.  That is the charge Hume has.  However, don’t we typically assume people are honest with us unless we have a good reason not to?  When we ask for directions, don’t we assume they are correct?  Isn’t that why many of us want to chuck our GPS when we get lost – there’s a loss of trust because we believed we would be given correct information.  When we read the newspaper, we might have questions about events contained within it, but we don’t question that some event happened and that the main points are legitimate.  Such a paper would fail shortly when readers discovered the facts had been misrepresented.  The same goes for people.  We all assume others are telling the truth most of the time, and most of the time we are right.  How is it that somehow a bad thing in this situation alone?

  4. Ignorant and uncivilized people believe miracles.  Really?  So what?  Everyone’s ignorant of something, so we have to ask what kind of ignorance Hume is talking about.  We can assume he means scientifically ignorant.  However, while this might account for some types of proposed miracles (i.e., lightning striking down someone in particular, someone else not dying of a disease that is less than 100% terminal, etc.) it doesn’t account for all such claims.  Even so, there are many educated people (including medical doctors) who can testify to healings that can be described as miraculous (see Craig Keener’s Miracles).  Hume’s claim that such testimony is scarce, among the uneducated, and undocumented simply is false.


So, if Hume’s dismissals of miraculous testimony themselves can be dismissed, then we need to weigh such testimony on a case-by-case basis rather than dismiss it out of hand as Hume does.  In Hume’s view, we don’t even need to look at the details of the claims themselves because, at the end of the day, miracles don’t happen.  However, that’s exactly what he is trying to prove.  If miracles don’t happen because the testimony is suspect because miracles don’t happen, Hume is arguing in a circle, and any first year philosophy student will tell you that doesn’t fly.


CONCLUSION


If science can’t rule miracles out of the picture and Hume is wrong about how we should weigh testimonial evidence of miraculous events, that means we need to take each miracle claim and weigh it on its own merits, rather than rule it out of court just because there is a miracle claim.  We’ve already established that God (an eternal, nonphysical, powerful, intelligent person with goals) created the universe and that human beings are broken.  We’re not functioning the way we should.  If God still has a reason for creating us and wants to fix us so that we can fulfill His goals, He has to tell us what to do.  In order to authenticate His message, it’s not unreasonable to expect God to do something only He could do to make it clear He’s the one speaking.  If the Bible is historically accurate, and Jesus said and did the things it claims he did, then miracles should be expected to surround Jesus’ ministry.  Of course, that means Jesus has to make good on all of his claims.  That includes a little thing involving a cross, an empty tomb, and a few appearances after his death.  That would be a really good miracle.


FURTHER REFERENCES


  1. Following the Evidence – Stand to Reason

  2. Hume’s Critique of Miracles – Probe Ministries

  3. When is it Rational to Believe in Miracles – Reasonable Faith

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