Home » Library » Modern Library » The Conception of the Miraculous and Christian Apologetics: Chapter 3

The Conception of the Miraculous and Christian Apologetics: Chapter 3


Chapter 3: Three Criticisms

Keith Parsons

This thesis was originally written by Keith Parsons in partial fulfillment of requirements for the degree Master of Arts in the College of Arts and Sciences at Georgia State University, 1982.

In the first two chapters of this thesis we have reached the following conclusions: First, we have seen that there is no inconsistency in the idea of a suspension or alteration of the regularities of nature. Second, it was concluded that the occurrence of an apparent miracle could in principle be adequately confirmed. (“Apparent miracle” was defined in Chapter 2.) However, we are still very far from being able to know whether any genuine miracles have in fact occurred.

This chapter will examine three criticisms that are often made against the claim that we can have such knowledge. The first criticism deals with the practical difficulties that stand in the way of confirming the occurrence of an apparent miracle. All that was proven in the last chapter is that ideal conditions can be imagined in which the occurrence of an apparent miracle could be confirmed. This does not mean that in real life such conditions ever have existed or ever will exist. It might be that the practical difficulties are so great that none of the miracle-claims that ever have or ever will be made could in fact be substantiated. The second difficulty is that even if the occurrence of an apparent miracle is confirmed, there seem to be no criteria whereby it could be identified as a scientifically inexplicable event. Miracles are, by definition, violations of natural law, and violations of natural law cannot be explained scientifically. Unless, therefore, we have good reason to think that an apparent miracle is scientifically inexplicable we will have no grounds for regarding it as a genuine miracle. Rather, it will only be taken as evidence that the law it appears to violate is either false or somehow limited in scope. The final criticism is that we can never have any grounds for attributing the occurrence of an apparently miraculous event to the activity of a supernatural agent. Unless we can have such grounds we will not be justified in calling such an event a miracle even if that event is scientifically inexplicable.

The practical difficulties encountered in confirming the occurrence of an apparent miracle are considerable. Even if we are directly observing what we take to be an apparent miracle, it might be that what we are seeing is an illusion, hallucination or magician’s trick. This was demonstrated by the professional magician James Randi at a recent symposium sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As reported in The Skeptical Inquirer, a journal devoted to the skeptical investigation of paranormal phenomena, Randi employed magician’s tricks to perform a number of “miracles:”

Randi put his skills as a magician to work to demonstrate to the audience how easy it is to stage “miraculous” events. . . While the audience and cameras crowded around for a closer look, he carried out “psychic surgery” on a volunteer subject, relieving the “patient” of a vast quantity of “blood and guts” from an unincised stomach. And Randi amazed a sizable proportion of the audience by successfully predicting which one word a member of the audience would select from a newspaper clipping. After the volunteer announced the selected word (“wonder”), Randi instructed him to look beneath his chair. He found fastened to his seat a sealed envelope bearing a letter notarized eight days earlier stating that the word that would be selected would be ”wonder.”[1]

Randi went on to warn that even trained scientists might be deluded by such tricks into thinking that paranormal events had taken place.[2] Hence, even seeing what we think to be a paranormal event does not automatically rule out the possibility that what was observed was some sort of trick or delusion. Of course, cases can be imagined, like the flying mountain range example raised in the last chapter, in which the possibility of delusion would be very small. But there seems to be no way of determining just how extraordinary an event must be in order for the suspicion that we might be deluded to become untenable. Hence, there do not seem to be any clear-cut criteria for determining exactly what sorts of events could not be caused by tricks, hallucinations, etc.

The chief practical difficulty in verifying the occurrence of apparent miracles is simply the paucity of miracle-claims that are backed up by anything other than testimonial evidence. It would take very few flying mountains to convert the unbelievers of the world, but such things just don’t seem to occur today. Instead, the great preponderance of miracle-claims, and this is certainly true of almost all the miracles of traditional importance to Christian apologetics, are based on uncorroborated testimony. In the last chapter it was conceded that in principle the reliability of testimony could be confirmed to the same degree as the reliability of a law of nature. In actual practice, it is far from clear that this can be done. In order to match the evidence supplied by a well-confirmed universal law of nature, a universal correlation would have to be established between certain types of testimony and certain types of events. As Swinburne put it, it would have to be shown that “. . . the testimony given by witnesses of such-and-such a character in such-and-such circumstances was always correct.”[3] But how, in actual practice, could we ever establish the requisite correlation? In order to do so it would have to be shown that on a large number of past occasions when witnesses of a certain sort gave testimony in certain circumstances, the events testified to always took place. The circumstances would have to be occasions which were at least similar to those on which miracle-claims were made, since it is the question of the reliability of testimony for miracles that is the issue. Further, the witnesses would have to be known well enough so that their characters could be ascertained. This requirement creates a considerable difficulty since little or nothing is known about the supposed witnesses of many claimed miracles. Finally, in order to confirm that the events testified to actually occurred, there have to be some means of verifying them independently of the testimony given (e.g. examining the hole left by flying mountains). Yet it is precisely these means of independent verification that are so notably lacking in almost all miracle-claims. Given these difficulties it seems highly dubious that a correlation can presently be established that shows any testimony to be reliable enough to outweigh the evidence provided by a well-confirmed universal law of nature.

In addition to the above contention that the required correlation has not yet been established, there are three good reasons for believing that such a correlation will never be shown. The classic statement of these reasons is still to be found in the second part of Hume’s essay “Of Miracles.” First, the natural human love of the marvelous and the willful self-deceptions arising from strong religious passions could certainly have created many miracle stories:

The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived. . . With what greediness are the miraculous accounts of travelers received, their descriptions of sea and land monsters, their relations of wonderful adventures, strange men, and uncouth manners? But if the spirit of religion join itself to the love of wonder, there is an end of common sense; and human testimony, in these circumstances, loses all pretensions to authority, A religionist may be an enthusiast, and imagine he sees what has no reality: he may know his narrative to be false, and yet persevere in it, with the best intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause. . .[4]

Critics have often charged Hume with unfairness towards religionists, and perhaps his charges of conscious self-deception and outright mendacity are a bit strong. But the ways in which beliefs and values unconsciously distort perceptions have often been observed in entirely secular situations. Carl Sagan has given some interesting examples of this phenomenon and an explanation for its occurrence:

Teachers are presented with two groups of children who have, unknown to them, tested equally well on all examinations. But the teachers are informed that one group is smart and the other dumb. The subsequent grades reflect that initial and erroneous assessment, independent of the performance of the students. Predispositions bias conclusions. . . Witnesses are shown a motion picture of an automobile accident. They are then asked a series of questions such as “Did the blue car run the stop sign?” A week later, when questioned again, a large proportion of the witnesses claim to have seen a blue car — despite the fact that no remotely blue car is in the film. There seems to be a stage, shortly after an eyewitness event, in which we verbalize what we think we have seen and then forever after lock it into our memories. We are very vulnerable in that stage, and any prevailing beliefs — in Olympian gods or Christian saints or extraterrestrial astronauts, say — can unconsciously influence our eyewitness account.[5]

Examples of the sort that Sagan adduces can be multiplied indefinitely and it can be fairly concluded that the stronger a set of beliefs are the more they will tend to distort perception.

A second presumption against a great number of miracle-claims, including the ones of greatest importance to Christian apologists, is that they were first made in primitive cultures among credulous people who did not evince a very great disposition towards the critical investigation of such claims. As Hume put it: “It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and authority, which always attend received opinions.”[6] The same point has been given a somewhat pithier expression by Carl Sagan:

Classical Greece was replete with stories in which the gods came down to Earth and conversed with human beings. The Middle Ages were equally rich in apparitions of saints and Virgins. Gods, saints and Virgins were all recorded repeatedly over centuries by people of the highest apparent reliability. What has happened? Where have all the Virgins gone? What has happened to the Olympian gods? Have these beings simply abandoned us in recent and more skeptical times? Or could these early reports reflect the superstition and credulity and unreliability of witnesses?[7]

Swinburne presents a very strange objection to this line of argument. He notes, quite correctly, that the force of the criticism depends upon how we define “ignorant and barbarous” cultures. But, he argues, if we-define “ignorant and barbarous” as “not having the scientific beliefs which we have today,” this objection will not carry much weight, “for clearly most nations except modern western nations would then by that definition be ignorant, and so most beliefs are likely to abound among the former nations simply because there are more of them.”[8] Swinburne’s argument entirely misses Hume’s point. The point is that the proportion of miracle-claims arising in cultures with a high degree of scientific sophistication is much lower than the proportion of those arising in pre-scientific cultures. The only reasonable explanation of this disproportionality is that pre-scientific cultures are much more credulous with respect to miracle-claims than scientific ones. Hence, a miracle-claim that arose in a pre-scientific culture would, ceteris paribus, be intrinsically less credible than one that arose in a scientific one. A third argument against the corroboration of miracle-claims by human testimony is that rival religions often attempt to justify their claims to sole authority by appealing to the miracles that their prophets and teachers have performed. Hence, if it is held that miracles serve to endorse the truth of a religious system, and that miracles only occur in support of true religion, any evidence for the occurrence of a miracle in support of one system will be evidence against the occurrence of miracles in support of an incompatible system. But since there is equal evidence in support of miracle-claims made in behalf of a number of incompatible religions, this incompatibility greatly reduces the credibility of all those miracle-claims.[9]

Swinburne objects to this argument:

If Hume were right to claim that evidence for the miracles of one religion was evidence against the miracles of any other, then indeed evidence for miracles in each would be poor. But in fact evidence for a miracle “wrought in one religion” is only evidence against the occurrence of a miracle “wrought in another religion” if the two miracles, if they occurred, would be evidence for propositions of the two religious systems incompatible with each other. It is hard to think of pairs of alleged miracles of this type. . . Most alleged miracles, if they occurred as reported, would show at most the power of a god or gods and their concern for the needs of men and little more specific in the way of doctrine. A miracle wrought in the context of the Hindu religion and one wrought in the context of the Christian religion will not in general tend to show that specific details of their system are true, but, at most, that there is a god concerned with the needs of those who worship, which is a proposition accepted in both systems.[10]

With respect to some types of miracles, such as miracles of healing, Swinburne’s point is sound. A merciful God might miraculously heal the sick whether they espoused the correct religious views or not. However, examples of contrary miracles are not nearly so hard to find as Swinburne supposes. If it is true that Jesus miraculously rose from the dead, then this fact will, as many Christian apologists are quick to assert, lend strong support to the claim that Christianity is the one true religion. On the other hand, if Mohammed did receive the Koran from the angel Gabriel, this lends strong support to the claim that the Koran is the true Word of God and hence Islam is the one true religion. Anyone who wishes to maintain that either of the above two religions is the only true one must therefore deny that the miracle claimed by the other side actually occurred. If it is discovered that neither of the above two miracle-claims is more well-evidence than the other, he or she also must admit that, since both can not be adequately justified, neither claim is justified. This is precisely the conclusion that Hume would have wanted.

We have seen that there are a number of practical obstacles in the path of those who attempt to justify miracle-claims. I do not wish to maintain that these obstacles are insurmountable, only that they cannot be passed over lightly and that they greatly increase the burden of proof that the miracle-claimant must bear. However, there are two further arguments which, if sound, will exclude the possibility of ever knowing that any event is a miracle. It is to these arguments that we must now turn our attention.

The first argument charges that, even if it can be confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt that an event has occurred contrary to an accepted nomological, we can have no grounds for regarding that event to be scientifically inexplicable. As we have defined “miracle” it must be an event that violates a true law of nature. Clearly, therefore, a miracle cannot be an event that is scientifically explicable.* Genuine miracles, must be a subset of that putative class of events which, if they were to occur, could never be explained in terms of natural law. But is there in fact such a class of events? Is it possible to specify any criterion which would allow us to identify those events that belong to that class? If no such criterion can be found we have no way of knowing that such a class exists and hence no way of knowing whether any event is a miracle.

*Note: There is a certain ambiguity in the term “scientifically explicable” that must be cleared up. The explanation of why a painting is beautiful or an action wrong makes no reference to the laws of nature. Moral and aesthetic judgments consequently belong to a class of events that are, in one sense, scientifically inexplicable. It is not this sense of “scientifically inexplicable’, that is meant here. In order for an event to be a miracle, it must be an event that is prima facie of the sort that is scientifically explicable, yet it must in fact be contingently impossible to explain in terms of natural law. That is, since a miracle must be a violation of natural law, it must be an event of the sort that the natural law which it violates normally applies to. But though it is an event of a sort that is normally subsumable under a law of nature, we must have good reason to believe that it can never be so subsumed. It is this last meaning that I intend by “scientifically inexplicable.”

Antony Flew gives a very clear statement of the argument that we cannot have such a criterion:

Protagonists of the supernatural. . . take it for granted that we all possess some natural (as opposed to revealed) way of knowing that and where the unassisted potentialities of nature (as opposed to a postulated supernature) are more restricted than the potentialities which, in fact, we find to be realized or realizable in the universe around us. . . But we certainly cannot say, on any natural (as opposed to revealed) grounds, that anything that actually happens is beyond the powers of unaided nature, any more than we can say that anything which any man has ever succeeded in doing transcends all merely human powers. For our evidence about the powers of nature in general, and of men in particular, is precisely and only everything that things and people do.[11]

Since we cannot know whether any events are beyond the powers of unaided nature, we have no way of identifying a class of the scientifically inexplicable.

Guy Robinson employs another argument to reach the same conclusion. He argues that it would only be possible to define the class of the scientifically inexplicable as the complement class of the class of the scientifically explicable. However:

. . . the concept of scientific explicability does not define a class which is of the right sort to have a complement class; there is no class of the not-explicable. To have a complement, a class must either have a finite extension or else it must have a criterion that unambiguously settles its membership or the application of the class concept. But the class of the scientifically explicable satisfies neither of these conditions. There is no criterion that settles whether something is explicable or not, only whether it is explained. . . The class of the scientifically explicable. . . is a class which is neither extensionally nor conceptually well-defined and therefore the idea of its complement is an empty one and cannot be used to say anything about anything.[12]

Patrick Nowell-Smith attributes the belief that there is a clearly identifiable class of the scientifically inexplicable to the erroneous belief that science is a set body of knowledge rather than primarily a method of discovery. It is often assumed that “. . . science is committed to certain definite theories and to the use of certain definite concepts — for instance, the concepts of matter and motion. . . But this is not so. Science is committed, not to definite theories or concepts, but to a certain method of explanation.”[13] In order for an event to be scientifically inexplicable, therefore, it must not only be an event which current scientific concepts and theories cannot explain; it must be an event that can never be explained through the employment of the scientific method. But, even if an event occurs for which we can at present give no explanation, ” . . . there is still the possibility that science may be able, in the future, to offer an explanation which, though couched in quite new terms, remains strictly scientific.”[14] So long as this possibility remains open with respect to any event we cannot identify it as scientifically inexplicable.

Although they have offered somewhat different arguments, Flew, Robinson, and Nowell-Smith all lend support to the contention that we can have no grounds for identifying any event as scientifically inexplicable. No matter what happens, they would argue, we can have no reason to consider it permanently beyond the bounds of scientific explanation. In order to meet this challenge, the miracle-claimant must show that we do have some natural means whereby we can identify scientifically inexplicable events as such. One possible way of arguing that we do have such means would involve reviving and giving new application to some of the contentions of Swinburne and Smart that were examined in the first chapter.[15] In the first chapter we saw that uniqueness and non-repeatability are not predicates that must necessarily be included in any definition of “miracle.” It might be argued, however, that if a unique and non-repeatable event were to occur, its uniqueness and non-repeatability would constitute sufficient grounds for identifying it as a scientifically inexplicable event This is so because scientific laws take the form of generalizations that tell us certain things will happen whenever certain conditions are met. This implies that whatever is explained in terms of natural law must be repeatable in principle. A non-repeatable event would therefore be ipso facto inexplicable.

Guy Robinson replies to this argument by noting that scientists, when confronted with an event which runs counter to accepted theory and which they are unable to reproduce, do not then proceed to place that event within some sort of category of the permanently inexplicable. Rather, they label the event a “freak result,” set it to one side, and proceed with their inquiries in the hopes that the anomalous event will some day be explained:

Describing an event as “freak” is to say that for the moment it can only be seen as isolated, and not as one of a class of events, which is the precondition of its receiving a scientific explanation. But to say this would certainly not be to say that it can never or will never, be seen as a class of events. No scientist could ever justify saying that.[16]

The reason why no scientist could even justify saying that is that “. . . uniqueness is not a scientifically determinable property of anything.”[17] That is, there is no criterion for identifying any event as non-repeatable. Scientists working at a given time and place may not be able to repeat it, but this does not mean that it must be in principle non-repeatable. It could very well be that some unknown circumstance was present when the event occurred and if that circumstance were made present once again the event would recur. In the meantime there is simply no way of knowing whether the event could ever be repeated or not. Most of the objectors to the line of argument exemplified by Flew, Robinson, and Nowell-Smith have not attempted to articulate general criteria whereby scientifically inexplicable events are to be distinguished from those that are extremely puzzling but in principle explicable. Rather, their approach has usually been to develop a counter-example of an event which, if it occurred, could not plausibly be construed as scientifically explicable. However, there is a criterion implicit in these examples. That criterion is that an event should be considered inexplicable when it is even less likely that it should have a scientific explanation than that it was a violation of a true law of nature. R. F. Holland, for instance, proposes the following example:

Suppose that a horse, which has been normally born and reared, and is now deprived of all nourishment (we could be completely certain of this) — suppose that, instead of dying, this horse goes on thriving (which again is something we could be completely certain about). A series of thorough examinations reveals no abnormality in the horse’s condition: its digestive system is always found to be working and to be at every moment in more or less the state it would have been in if the horse had eaten a meal an hour or two before. This is utterly inconsistent with our whole conception of the needs and capacities of horses. . .[18]

To admit that this event had occurred and yet insist that it could have a natural explanation would, Holland argues, require that we reject any conception of the physical impossibility of this event. But that conception cannot be easily discarded — “not when it rests on the experience of generations, not when all the other horses in the world are continuing to behave as horses have always done, and especially not when one considers the way our conception of the needs and capacities of horses interlocks with conceptions of the needs and capacities of other living things and with a conception of the difference between animate and inanimate behavior quite generally.”[19] To reject conceptions for which there is such overwhelming evidence would, Holland contends, be far too high a price to pay. He maintains that it would be much more rational to retain all of the conceptions which imply the physical impossibility of this event and to regard it as simply inexplicable.[20]

Margaret Boden gives a similar example. She asks us to imagine that there is a man who is able to cure lepers instantly, even to the extent of restoring lost fingers to their original length and form.[21] She then asks:

Could we reasonably suggest, with all our knowledge — imperfect though it may be — of the nature of tissue growth and cell-differentiation, and of the ravages of the leprosy bacillus within the human body, that such an “anomalous” event might one day be scientifically explained? I think not: such a suggestion would be at least as blatant an act of faith as the wildest claim ever made in the name of religion. In such a case we should be forced to admit that we were up against the inexplicable. This admission would not be a matter of mere whim, but would be forced on us by our scientific knowledge and convictions.[22]

Here also it is held that the scientific evidence against the possibility of such an event is so overwhelmingly strong that if it were to occur it would be more reasonable to consider it to be inexplicable than to regard it as falsifying that evidence:

It would be the biochemical facts, which might have been different (in particular in their temporal parameters), which exclude such a phenomenon from the class of unexplained events which we may hope to explain one day. To regard such a phenomenon as in principle scientifically explicable on the basis of general remarks about falsifiability and revolution in scientific knowledge would be as perverse as to insist that we should seriously regard the circulation of the blood as a matter of mere hypothesis, one which not only could logically be falsified, but which might as a matter of fact by falsified in the future.[23]

A critic of Holland and Boden might concede that an event of the sort that they have described would be scientifically inexplicable and then simply deny that we have sufficient evidence that any such event has ever happened. Perhaps if we did have Holland’s horse in a lab and could keep it under continuous observation we would have a scientifically inexplicable event. Likewise, however, if we had a horse in the laboratory with a single horn growing out of its forehead we would have a unicorn. Merely being able to state what it would be like to have a unicorn in the laboratory does not, of course, make it the least bit more probable that one ever has or ever will be found there. The skeptic who doubts the existence of unicorns is justified in retaining that skepticism until he is confronted with sufficient evidence that one exists. The same can be said for the skeptic who doubts the existence of scientifically inexplicable events.

The chief defect with the arguments of Holland and Boden is that examples can be thought of in which people encounter events that seem utterly inexplicable to them but which turn out to have scientific explanations. Suppose that a group of Papuan tribesmen were to witness for the first time a helicopter rise vertically from the ground into the sky. Never in their previous experience had they observed a large, solid object rise, without anything seeming to lift or throw it, into the air. The phenomenon would run totally counter to all their previous experience of how such objects behaved. It seems entirely reasonable to suppose that it would appear to them to be as miraculous an event as the instantaneous curing of leprosy would be to us. Of course we know a great deal more than do the Papuan tribesmen, but we can no more harbor the pretension that we know all of the causes and laws that might operate within nature than they can.

It seems entirely feasible to suppose that extraterrestrial beings from a culture millions of years more scientifically advanced than our own would consider us at least as primitive as we consider the Papuan tribesmen. It is equally likely that such beings could perform feats that would astonish a contemporary physicist, much as helicopters, television, and modern medicine would astound a Papuan. Perhaps they could levitate objects at will, disappear into thin air and then reappear, or maybe even control the weather. When asked how they could perform such feats these beings might reply that the explanations would be incomprehensible to us at present, but that in a few million years they would be common scientific knowledge. We would in this case have no more right to regard the performances of these beings as scientifically inexplicable than a Papuan would to conclude the same thing about helicopters.

Much of the initial plausibility of examples such as those given by Holland and Boden derives from the fact that they appear to place their opponents on the horns of a dilemma. When an event occurs contrary to a well-confirmed law of nature, Holland and Boden confront us with a stark choice: Either reject in toto all of the evidence in favor of the law or admit that the event was scientifically inexplicable. Hence, when we observe a horse thriving without nourishment we should either concede that this event is scientifically inexplicable or reject all of the evidence we have in support of our conceptions about the impossibility of a horse’s surviving without food. However, this is not a genuine dilemma but is rather the fallacy of the false dilemma. It could very well be that there is a presently undiscovered higher-order law that could explain both why almost all horses require nourishment and why this one does not. A third alternative would therefore be to accept the anomalous event as scientifically explicable and, rather than discarding the evidence for the old law, look for the higher-order law that would explain both the anomalous event as evidence for the existence of a higher-order law.

Another possibility when an event is observed to take place contrary to a well-established law is that the aberration is due to the presence of some unknown circumstance that makes the event inexplicable in terms of the law that normally applies to occurrences of that sort. For instance, a physics instructor might wish to demonstrate the principles of gravitation to his student by releasing an iron nail into the air. Much to his surprise, however, the nail flies up and adheres to the ceiling. The unknown circumstance that is present is a powerful magnet that has, without the instructor’s knowledge, been placed in the ceiling by a mischievous student. Although the law of gravitation would normally be invoked to explain the behavior of nails released in mid-air, the presence of a special circumstance has made such an explanation impossible in this case. However, the behavior of the nail is explicable in terms of natural law, i.e., the laws of magnetism. Of course in this example, as opposed to the cases of the unfed horse and the instantaneous leprosy cure, it would he fairly easy to surmise what the unknown circumstance might be that brought about the anomalous result. However, the fact that it might be impossible at a given time to imagine what the unknown circumstance could be in a certain case gives no logical warrant for supposing that there couldn’t be any. Further, the recognition that such an unknown circumstance might be present when an anomalous event occurs prevents us from having to settle on one of the two choices offered by Holland and Boden. We have the alternative of accepting the event as scientifically explicable and searching for both the unknown circumstance that prevents the usual law from applying and the law whereby the event can be explained.

When an event occurs contrary to a well-established law, we therefore have four choices: (1) We can continue to regard the law as true and regard the event as a scientifically inexplicable violation of that law. (2) We can regard the event as scientifically explicable and hold that it falsifies the law and demands that all of the evidence in favor of that law be discarded. (3) We can accept the event as scientifically explicable and hold that it falsifies the law (or at least shows it not to be the whole truth) and, rather than discard all of the evidence in favor of the law, look for a higher-order law that explains both that evidence and the anomalous occurrence. (4) We can consider the event to be scientifically explicable and the law to be true but hold that an unknown circumstance has made that law inapplicable to this particular case and has made the event explicable in terms of another (perhaps unknown) law.

As Holland and. Boden have shown, (2) cannot be acceptable. It is extremely unlikely that all of the evidence in favor of a well-established law is just wrong. However, it is also extremely unlikely that an event will occur in violation of a true law of nature. In recognition of this fact, Holland and Boden make it clear that they call an event scientifically inexplicable only as a last resort. They make such a designation only when it is even more implausible that an event is scientifically explicable than that it is a violation of a true law of nature. If (2) were the only alternative in a certain case to regarding an event as scientifically inexplicable, then perhaps it would be less unlikely that the event is scientifically inexplicable than that all the evidence in favor of a law is wrong. However, we also have the alternatives of considering an event explicable in terms of ( 3) and (4) rather than regarding it as scientifically inexplicable. Further, since (3) and (4) do not require that a large, well-confirmed body of evidence be discarded, as does (2), they seem to have a much higher degree of probability in their favor than does (2). Unless, therefore, (3) and (4) can be shown less likely than (1), and it is very difficult to see how they could, it will always be preferable to explain an event in terms of (3) or (4) than to regard it as inexplicable.

In the end, no matter how extraordinary an event might be there seems to be no warrant for regarding it as permanently beyond the bounds of scientific explanation. The proponents of the miraculous have failed either to give acceptable criteria for the identification of a class of the scientifically inexplicable or to give examples of events that could not rationally be expected ever to meet with explanation in terms of natural law. We have, in short, no grounds for considering any event to be scientifically inexplicable. This means that we have no grounds for the identification of any event as a miracle.

Even if reasons are eventually discovered for thinking that some events are scientifically inexplicable, a second problem must be solved before these events can justifiably be called miracles — viz. Can we have any good grounds for considering any event to be the effect of a supernatural agent? Since part of the definition of “miracle” is “caused by a supernatural agent” this question must be answered affirmatively if there are to be grounds for regarding any event as a miracle. In the remainder of this chapter two arguments will be examined each of which maintain that if any explanation at all is to be given of why an apparent miracle took place it will have to be a scientific explanation.

First, it is possible to construct a very strong inductive argument that concludes that if an event is believed explicable only as the effect of a supernatural agent, it will turn out in the long run to have a scientific explanation. This argument is based on the innumerable past instances when phenomena were thought explicable only as the effects of gods, demons, spirits or other supernatural agents and turned out, as science progressed, to have scientific explanations. At various times in the past disease, eclipses, lightning, insanity, earthquakes, monstrous births, crop failures, rain, pregnancy, and victory in war (to name a very few examples) were all thought to be brought about by gods. More recently, pre-Darwinian divines could see no explanation for the marvelous adaptations found in nature than the wisdom of a divine Designer. Books such as Bertrand Russell’s Science and Religion may be consulted for a plethora of examples such as these.[24] History is replete with so many such instances that when we come across an event that presently is claimed to have a supernatural explanation, we have very good grounds for rejecting that claim and confidently awaiting a scientific explanation.

The second, and most cogent reason for refusing to consider any event to be the effect of a supernatural agent is that we simply have no grounds to ascribe such a cause. We never actually observe God (or any other supernatural agent) in the act of performing a miracle. Hence, the attribution of such a cause to any event must be based on some sort of inference. In order to infer that an event has a supernatural cause, it must fit into some sort of intelligible pattern that would indicate that such an agent was at work in producing it. The intelligible pattern cannot be the sort of regularity that a law of nature describes, or the presence of this pattern would only be evidence that the event was scientifically explicable. Rather, the pattern must be of the sort that reveals some intelligent purpose.

It is easy to think of examples of patterns of events that might convince us that some intelligent being is at work whose powers vastly exceed those of any being we have previously experienced. The plagues of Egypt which led to the release of the Hebrews from bondage would be a good example of such a pattern. Whenever pharaoh hardened his heart, Moses would call upon Yahweh and an extraordinary event would occur that would bring misery to the Egyptians and not inconvenience the Hebrews at all. The pattern of extraordinary events leading up to the Exodus reveal (if in fact they actually occurred) that it was the purpose of some intelligent and enormously powerful being that the Hebrews be released from captivity.

Making such an admission might seem to concede the entire case to the proponents of the miraculous, but in fact it does no such thing. Proving that an intelligent being exists with powers far exceeding our own falls very far short of proving that that being is in any sense supernatural. So far as we know the cosmos could contain beings whose intelligence and powers exceed our own as much as ours exceed an ant’s. Yet these beings could have evolved within the cosmos over a long period of time just as we have. Further, these beings could possess knowledge of many more laws of nature than we are aware of and employ this knowledge to bring about events that seem miraculous to us. In fact, however, those events would have been brought about in accordance with the laws of nature by beings who are just as much a part of the cosmos as we are.

At this point it may seem a moot question whether a being of this sort is natural or supernatural. Surely, it might be thought, a being with all the powers of the Old Testament’s Yahweh should be considered a god whether he is a being that subsists within the cosmos or somehow exists “beyond” space and time. However, the issue is not a trivial one. A being born within and limited by the cosmos could never be identified with the God of the “omni” predicates of traditional Christian theism. Much less could such a being be the most perfect conceivable being of St. Anselm or the esse ipsum of St. Thomas Aquinas. Unless, therefore, some prior evidence links the God of traditional theism to the being who is bringing about extraordinary results, the fact that extraordinary events are taking place will provide no grounds for the existence of the traditional theistic God. It follows that to know that God has brought about a certain event there would have to be (prior to the occurrence of the event) good reason to think that God exists and is the only being that would or could have caused that event. Far from proving the existence of a supernatural being, a miracle, in order to be recognized as such requires that there be prior proof that such a being exists.

Although it is possible to imagine cases in which a pattern of events would reveal the action of a superhuman intelligence and power, in actual practice it is questionable whether we do in fact have well-confirmed examples of such events. As for the extraordinary events reported in the Bible, all of the practical problems enumerated in the first several pages of this chapter apply with considerable force to those narratives. Whether the accuracy of any of these narratives can still be maintained after skeptical scrutiny is a matter of historical investigation and would far exceed the scope of this thesis. Here it will suffice to reiterate the immense burden of proof involved in showing that it is less likely that these narratives are false than that what we take to be a violation of a true law of nature has occurred.

As for events like the plagues of Egypt occurring in the present day or in the recent past, we can be quite sure that we have seen no examples of events of that sort. In recent years it certainly has not been true that every time the Jews are oppressed a series of extraordinary events occur that bring about their liberation and reveal the activity of a superhuman agent. The destruction that rained down on the Germans during the time of the Holocaust was brought about by Allied guns and bombers, not Yahweh.

Even the most well-confirmed of recent miracle-claims, like the healings at Lourdes, display no intelligible pattern that reveals the purposes of a superhuman agent. All of the truly well-confirmed healings at Lourdes represent only a very tiny percentage of those who have made pilgrimages to the shrine in hopes of a cure. It seems incomprehensible that a being with the power and the desire to heal would have aided such a minute portion of the sufferers. Hence, to infer the existence of such a being from these healings would be utterly unreasonable. It is much more likely that the healings were psychosomatic or came about only whenever a very rare combination of psychological and physiological factors is present.

In conclusion, we have seen that there are a great number of practical difficulties in confirming the occurrence of an apparent miracle. Even if these difficulties are overcome, however, we have seen that there are no grounds for considering any event to be scientifically inexplicable. Finally, we have shown that we have no reason to attribute the occurrence of any event to the activity of a supernatural agent. Even if a pattern of extraordinary events were discovered that pointed to the existence of a superhuman power (and it is questionable whether we do possess any genuine instances of such events) there is no reason to think that that power must be supernatural. In sum, we have no good grounds for thinking that any event is a miracle.


[1]Kendrick Frazier, “Science and Pseudoscience: AAAS explores the Issues,” The Skeptical Inquirer, 4, No. 4 (Summer, 1980) 5.

[2] Ibid., p. 5.

[3] Swinburne, The Concept of Miracle, p. 42.

[4] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1977), pp. 78-79.

[5] Carl Sagan, Broca’s Brain, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1979), pp. 67-68.

[6] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, pp. 79-90.

[7] Carl Sagan, Broca’s Brain, p. 67.

[8] R. G. Swinburne, The Concept of Miracle, p. 17.

[9] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, pp. 81-85.

[10] R. G. Swinburne, The Concept of Miracle, pp. 60-61.

[11] Antony Flew, “Miracles,” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (New York: The Macmillan Co. and The Free Press,1967), Vol. 5, pp. 348-349.

[12] Guy Robinson, “Miracles,” Ratio, 9 (1967), 162.

[13] Patrick Nowell-Smith, “Miracles,” New Essays in Philosophical Theology, (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1955), p. 247.

[14] Ibid., p. 248.

[15] See Chapter 1, pp. 11-12.

[16] Guy Robinson, “Miracles,” p. 168.

[17] Ibid., p. 161.

[18] R. F. Holland, “The Miraculous,” American Philosophical Quarterly, 2, (1965) 48.

[19] Ibid., pp. 48-49.

[20] Ibid., p. 49.

[21] Margaret A. Boden, “Miracles and Scientific Explanation,” Ratio, 11 (1969) pp. 139-140.

[22] Ibid., p. 140.

[23] Ibid., p. 141.

[24] Bertrand Russell, Religion and Science, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1961).

“The Conception of the Miraculous and Christian Apologetics” is copyright © 1982, 1997 by Keith Parsons. All rights reserved.

The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Keith Parsons. All Rights reserved.