Today I was listening to one of my favorite radio shows: Philosophy Talk. It is hosted by John Perry and Ken Taylor, philosophy professors from Stanford University. This week’s show was on miracles (see here). They discussed whether or not a rational person can believe in miracles. Of course, I consider myself rational (though not a rationalist), but I do believe that miracles can happen and that sometimes they do happen. That being said, I think that much of what we call miracles can be explained by the laws of nature. Let me give you a few of examples:
(1) In the Exodus narrative when Moses leads the Hebrews through the Red Sea this is something that doesn’t happen every day. If we accept the details of the story it is quite odd that the wall of water collapsed after the Hebrews had crossed and the Egyptians had begun their journey across the way. It seems that God must have been involved, but did God do this miracle without using any of the laws of nature? What if God used a particular stream of wind at a very high pace that could be measured by scientist had they been present? This would allow the laws of nature to explain how it happened, but not why it happened. Those who believe in God would point to God as the cause of the measurable effects, even if how God as the cause of the effect could not be measured, only the effect.
(2) Some of the demonic oppression described in the Gospels sounds a lot like epilepsy. People in the days of Jesus would have understood the demonic, but not the medical condition. In our world today people understand the medical condition, but most denounce the demonic. If we can observe something happening to someone and the physical signs point toward epilepsy must we completely exclude some immeasurable, spiritual force at work? Could an epileptic be troubled by the demonic so that what is happening spiritually results in physical stimulation to the body? We could explain what was happening in the body, but we would never be able to explain what was happening elsewhere. If Jesus was given power to deal with that exterior influence could people have measured the physical changes as he did the miracle had they had the technology?
(3) When I was a young boy I had chronic asthma. I was often in the hospital. I used a large breathing machine that asthmatics today have replaced with tiny little pocket size breathing spray tools (a miracle of sorts). During one particularly bad fit my mother took me outside, prayed for me, I puked, and I never had another asthma attack. My mother kept medicine around for sometime, but it never happened again. I cannot remember the medical explanation that one person gave me, but let us assume that it could be measured and explained. The how is there, but the why–especially as my mother is praying followed by something as odd as puking–seems quite odd to be a coincidence.
As we think on these examples let us assume some things considered miracles can be explained by science to some extent, does that invalidate them as miracles? What are your thoughts? Does a miracle have to be something where there could never be a natural explanation of some of the phenomena or can there be a natural explanation of some of the phenomena?
I think the whole natural/supernatural dichotomy is a false one that makes sense for deists but not for Christians. God created and sustains all that exists so any so-called “law of nature” is just a description of God’s activity in the world anyway. So no, things that can be explained by science do not invalidate them as miracles. And things that can only be explained with reference to God (which I contend is everything, actually) aren’t any less natural than anything else.
@Nick: I see this like you do. I think miracles are when God acts in a way surprising and different from how he usually acts. While we can scientifically explain how the universe holds together there is the very real theological sense in that it is God in Christ at work.
That’s kind of like, is it a miracle when God answers prayer…. It’s a miracle that the God of all creation even notices us at all.
Well, your first, second and third example presupposes that the supernatural (if such a thing exists; I am a sceptic of the reality of that narrative and the supernatural) can interact with the physical – meta meaning “beyond” and, therefore, “metaphysical” meaning “beyond the physical”. If so, how? It is very similar to the mind-body dichotomy question of how the mind and body interact if one is physical and the other is non-physical/spiritual/metaphysical. Where is the metaphorical “glue”? So, you have to first show that there exists a supernatural paradigm and that, secondly, how it can control or cause nature while also being transcendent of nature. Also, if we accepted that there was the possibility of the metaphysical re: the causation of epilepsy being demonic possession, would that mean our physical medications we prescribe (I think medications such as the anticonvulsant as sodium valproate) affects the non-physical demon? Doesn’t it seem more likely to assume that the medication rectifies a physical problem? It does not seem pragmatic to add a metaphysical dimension. Furthermore, it seems to suggest that the ‘demon’ is physical.
If we drew and analogy for such reasoning, it would be the equivalent of me saying a spirit lives in the bottom of my garden and when I water my garden it appeases the spirit so my garden grows (or gets healthier). Sure, this is a possibility, I cannot know with absolutely certainty that it is not the case, but it seem very unlikely in light of all the evidence. It also does not have the problem of illustrating how the physical and non-physical interact.
People who do hallucinogenic drugs experience synchronicity. They might define these experiences as “miracles”. However, it seems that the term “miracle” is subject to our personal definitions and beliefs about the nature of reality.
@Chabel Khan, Could love fit your description of the metaphorical “glue”
Interesting idea, Plessey! What is “love” though in your view? Is it a physical thing? I view love as being an abstract term to describe physical phenomena/sensations. So, for me, you are talking about a physical system.
I would be interested to hear your views!
Chabel: You are correct that this is a serious question, but I do wonder if in some sense what we describe as metaphysical may be physical, but not in the same sense in which those things that are most apparently physical are known to be physical. Thoughts?
well, if supernatural verses natural is false and its all God then what makes miracles? I do think there is something to the purpose of miracles and that is the demonstration of God’s power over all else, such that it leaves no question that it indeed was a miracle, and that it leaves us breathless and astonished like we see in the gospels.
Brian: I see your point. Well, it could be physical phenomena that seems extremely improbable but in fact manifests itself. The problem is whether we say this is because of purely physical cause or metaphysical cause.
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