The Belief In Miracles Philosophy Essay
I will proceed in the following way: First, I will respond to Humes charges against the belief in miracles. Then, I will present conditions that, if met, would justify a belief that a miracle has occured. The arguments against miracles in Hume's work can be divided into three categories. The first arguments attack the coherence, or intelligibility, of the concept of the miraculous. The second accept, for the sake of argument, that the concept is coherent, but target the plausibility of miracles, arguing there could never be sufficient evidence for believing in a miracle. The third attacks the reliability of the reports of those who claim to have witnessed miraculous events.
This paper shall concern the first two arguments but not the last, because I cannot disagree with Hume that historically, the evidence for miracles has indeed been remarkably weak. Additionally, I would like to take this opportunity to further clarify what I am not trying to prove. I do not contend that there ever has been a miracle, nor that the things commonly considered evidence for miracles are evidence at all. What I do contend is that given certain conditions, the most rational explanation for an event could be that it was a miracle.
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" A miracle may be accurately defined", says Hume, "a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent." Note that there are two conditions set out in this definition. First, a miracle presents as an exception to the established laws of nature. But that is not all; an event's exceptionality is not enough to warrant it miracle status. The exception must be attributable to some sort of supernatural interference with the laws of nature. Thus, we may paraphrase Hume's definition as the following: A miracle is a violation, enacted by a supernatural agent, of the laws of nature. This is how Hume defines it, and accordingly, this is the conception I shall use in my refutation of Hume.
The first charge I shall address is the charge of unintelligibility, or incoherence. It is Hume's most ambitious argument against miracles. However, what exactly Hume meant by this charge is the subject of debate.
The first view to be considered is Anthony Flew's. He interprets the argument as the following simple argument:
Laws cannot have exceptions. The definition of a miracle is an exception to the laws of nature. Therefore, miracles cannot exist.
But this argument is unsound, specifically at the second premise. Miracles are not just exceptions according to Hume, but violations, the result of supernatural interference with natureï¿½s normal course. The laws of nature cite relations of natural causes to their effects, not supernatural causes to their effects. In other words, the supernatural is beyond the proper subject matter of natural laws. Accordingly, it would be unreasonable to expect for the laws of nature to account for miracles, which are events caused by the supernatural. So because miracles are caused by forces external to the natural realm, and because natural laws describe only those causes within the natural realm, miracles present no problem for our acceptance of the laws of nature. We may accept the laws of nature as accurate descriptions of the natural world as it usually functions. What would be incoherent is an internal exception, that is, a natural exception to the laws of nature. But of course, Humeï¿½s miracles are not of that nature.
The second interpretation of Humeï¿½s argument connects the charge of incoherence to Humeï¿½s particular conception of lawhood. Humeï¿½s conception of the laws of nature is one that places strict checks on the use of the natural-supernatural distinction. It claims that we form our ideas of natural laws based on all the evidence, exceptional events included. Thus, there can be no clear way of distinguishing what is a natural event from what is supposedly supernatural. As Humeï¿½s natural laws encapsulate all observed events, there is no basis for saying that some events are miracles that should be excluded from the scope of these laws, but be instead placed in a conveniently created supernatural realm, as we do when we label them miracles.
To respond to this argument, one need only point out that it is not free from some quite substantive assumptions about lawhood. It attaches the charge of unintelligibility of miracles to a particular and narrowly defined view of lawhood, substantially limiting the argumentï¿½s scope, and likewise weakening it. There are other theories of lawhood, such as the Naturalness theory of laws, which have no problem excluding anomalous events from the explanatory scope of natural laws. (Lierse, 19__) Thus, this charge of Humeï¿½s is not one of unintelligibility or incoherence, but a charge of incompatibility with a particular conception of lawhood. And of course, that two ideas are incompatible is just as much a problem with either one the two as it is with the other one. So why see this incompatibility as a problem with the concept of miracles when we can easily construe it as a problem with Humeï¿½s theory of lawhood? The charge against Humeï¿½s theory of lawhood being that it clashes with the intuitive idea of a miracle. The claim that miracles are incoherent is, therefore, unfounded.
Now for Humeï¿½s second charge. He argues that given the vast body of empirical evidence that has established the laws of nature as laws, it would be impossible to have comparable evidence supporting a miracle claim. In other words, the fact that any law of nature is a law means that, in our experience, it has never been violated, so any claim that a law has been violated is in direct contradiction to a vast body of evidence. Thus regardless of how trust-worthy a person reporting a miracle may be, that report cannot possibly be more likely to be true than false. As a result, Hume argues, it is never reasonable to accept reports of miracles.
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What this argument tries to do is pit the evidence in support of a miraculous occurrence against the evidence for the laws of nature. But in truth, the two do not negate each other. When we label an event that violates a law of nature ï¿½a miracleï¿½, we are not contradicting a law of nature, but in a way defending it; we are protecting the lawï¿½s integrity. An anomalous event would seem to challenge the law it violated, but not if that event is a miracle. If the event is a miracle it is no longer counter-evidence to the law, because the law is not expected to account for it in the first place, as it has a supernatural cause. So we may continue to claim there have been no observed natural events that have contradicted the law, and therefore, we may conclude the law still stands. As an example, imagine there were a 2000 year old monk living somewhere up in the mountains of Tibet. The law of nature that all humans are mortal would seem contradicted. But if the monkï¿½s extraordinarily long life is a miracle, then his longevity is ultimately the effect of some supernatural force interfering with his natural life-span. We could argue the law of human mortality, correctly construed, only applies to people whose lives have not been interfered with by the supernatural, and accordingly, it is fully coherent to suppose that interference by a supernatural force could cause the law of human mortality to be violated. Just like the law of human mortality, other laws of nature can also be protected from perceived counter-instances in this way. By appealing to the supernatural, laws can be saved from apparent counter-evidence.
Of course, there are other ways to explain anomalous events without appealing to the miraculous. There seem to be three other options: we can dismiss the evidence for the event, we can posit another law as the cause, or we can modify the law to accommodate the anomalous event. In order to demonstrate that miracles are possible, it must be shown that a miracle could be the best explanation available in certain circumstances. And that is what I shall demonstrate in what follows.
I begin with an admission. In explaining an apparent violation of a law of nature as a miracle, all other explanations must first be completely ruled out. This is because if we accept that a miracle happened, it may pose a challenge to the coherence of our established beliefs. If we accept a miraculous explanation for an event, then we are accepting that a supernatural power exists, and not only exists, but also interferes with the natural world. This may lie in contradiction to our established beliefs about such matters, and this threat to coherence may very well be considered evidence against a miracle claim.
However, a miracle may nevertheless be the best explanation available for certain events, because all other explanations may in fact be impossible. This can occur when a number of conditions are met.
The first condition is repetition. If an event is only reported once, even if the only reasonable explanation is the miraculous, we still might reject the report as evidence. This is because no matter how convincing the evidence may seem, we are aware that our track-record for assessing the reliability of evidence is weak, and we can deny that a miracle has in fact occurred on those grounds alone. But if an event is reliably reported to have been repeated enough times, and by enough people, this concern is taken care of. The more the event is reliably reported to have occurred, the more difficult it becomes to deny that the event has taken place.
Consider the following example. Suppose there were reports that Tom Cruise could cure cancer with his mind. And not just individual reports, but double-blind placebo controlled scientific studies, published in all the top medical journals. We would, it seems, be forced to rule out other explanations and seriously open our minds to the possibility that Tom Cruise has supernatural powers.
We are not be able to dismiss the reports as faulty because of the degree to which they are reported, and the reliability of the sources reporting them . But could the laws of nature be modified to permit this occurrence? It seems unlikely. In this case, Tom Cruise is violating numerous laws of nature. If we are going to modify a law of nature, we need to be able to explain our reason for doing so, as well as provide a plausible account for why the exception we are permitting is in fact justified. Normally, when we modify a law to account for an exception, we can provide an explanation for why the law should not apply in the exceptional case. But there is no biological difference between a cancer that Tom Cruise wills to go away with his mind and one he does not. Any law we would devise for this phenomenon of cancers spontaneously healing would have to rely on a completely non-physical property: being willed to heal by Tom Cruise. So if we modify our laws of biology to allow that cancers can be spontaneously disappear, not only must we explain why some cancers spontaneously disappear and some do not, but we are also faced with the challenge that the only description we can give for the set of exceptions refers to the non-biological property of being willed to disappear by Tom Cruise. Now this is of course a very odd sort of exception to a law of biology, one that is completely unprecedented in any other biological law. Alternatively, trying to explain it in natural terms is a completely hopeless endeavour.
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However, claiming that Tom Cruiseï¿½s ability is a miracle, and given a Scientologist world-view not unexpected, provides two important advantages to the above explanation. Firstly, it provides us with an explanation for why cancers willed to heal by Tom Cruise are disappearing, and not other cancers. Secondly, it allows us to retain our natural laws as comprehensive, simple, and therefore useful descriptions of the natural world. So appealing to the miraculous is the best explanation. And though we can always modify our conception of the laws of nature to avoid introducing miracles into the equation, it would, as demonstrated in the above example, be crazy for us to do so.
My defence of miracles has a potential objection that must be addressed. Problems of the unreliability of evidence for reported events, I argued, could be defeated by appealing to the repetition of miracles. That miracles can be repeated, however, is sometimes denied. One objection is by Swinburne. Swinburne is not prepared to allow that a miracle could be repeated, though he does allow a single miraculous occurence. He argues that any repeated miracle would nullify the credibility of the miracle and demand a modification of our law.
This argument is weak. Firstly, it grants God the ability to interfere with nature, but just one time for any particular kind of interference, which leaves us with a rather odd sort of metaphysics. Secondly, if it is logically possible that a law can be violated once, then why can it not be violated again? It is arbitrary to insist that the point where a law requires modification is when an anomaly is repeated. Some modifications of laws provide poorer explanations for events than does an appeal to the supernatural, and that anomalies may be repeated does not change that fact, as we saw in the case of Tom Cruise. The reasonable conclusion is that a miracle can possibly be repeated any number of times.
Even the possibility of ï¿½miracle lawsï¿½ is something we should be willing to accept. Miracles can themselves be law-like despite being violation of laws. This is coherently understood in the case of supernatural laws violating natural laws, an instance of laws violating other laws. For example, consider the biblical story of the Israelitesï¿½ God turning the Egyptiansï¿½ water into blood. What is claimed to have happened is that any and all water belonging to an Egyptian spontaneously turned into blood. The spontaneous transformation of water into blood is certainly in violation of the laws of nature. Thus, by the biblical account, a supernatural power created a supernatural law, and caused the laws of nature to be violated in doing so. Any remnants of disreputability that miracles may have been tainted with should be taken care of by the admission of ï¿½miracle lawsï¿½.
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