Course notes for students of the Edexcel syllabus on Miracles

Suppose only fans of 70’s and 80’s British soul band Hot Chocolate will get this.

From the syllabus for the Philosophy of Religion (Paper 1) :

6.3 Religion and science debates and their significance for philosophy of religion   Methodologies with emphasis on observation, hypothesis and experiment, identifying connections and differences vis a vis religious belief and processes; miracles.

An accompanying scheme of work for this topic adds the following:

AIM/LO: Clarify the impact of miracles on this area. Discuss belief in miracles in relation to definition, evidence, methodology of assessment and notions of proof.

As far as ‘impact’ is concerned, this blog entry will explore the claim that, as miracles break scientific laws, it is unreasonable to believe in them.

WHAT IS A MIRACLE?

Sunday, June 22nd 1986. The Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. Argentine footballing legend Diego Maradona is about to score his two most renowned goals (see the lego reconstructions below), both within the space of four minutes and both against England, in a World Cup quarter final set against a backdrop of lingering bitterness and resentment on the part of the Argentines, whose memories of the humiliation suffered in the recent Falklands war remain fresh in the mind.

One of the two strikes was eventually voted the Goal of the Century. Even the losing England manager Bobby Robson called it “a miracle”. But the other is infamous. In a post-match interview Maradona provocatively claimed that this blatant handball had been scored “un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios’ [‘a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God’].

Defining what a miracle is has proven to be no less controversial and remains a matter of dispute among philosophers and theologians. A careful analysis of each goal will help to illustrate why. Let’s start with the second one.

The word ‘miracle’ comes from the Latin miraculum which itself is derived from mirari, ‘to wonder’. So in a basic sense, a miracle might be said to be an event that inspires a sense of wonder in those who see or subsequently hear about it. From this point of view, Maradona’s goal can certainly be regarded as a miraculous exhibition of dribbling, one that left five English defenders trailing in its slipstream, and the commentator Jimmy McGee hailing it as “a goal for the gods”. However, given that lots of things are capable of provoking amazement on the part of eyewitnesses (think of the ‘miracle of birth’ for example), this definition is unsatisfactory because it allows for too much, even when the event in question is unique, like Maradona’s outrageous, one-off feat of athleticism and skill. Although probabilistically impossible, once in a lifetime events like this can still happen. For example, in July 1975, Erskine Lawrence Ebbin had the misfortune to be struck and killed by a taxi in Hamilton, Bermuda. Exactly one year earlier, the teenager’s brother, Neville, had died while riding the same moped on the same street after being hit by the same taxi driven by the same driver carrying the same passenger. Both had also been 17 years old when each tragedy took place.

On the other hand, if miracles do occur, then they also cannot be logically impossible events, as a logically impossible event is something that could never happen under any circumstances. Examples might include drawing a square circle and making one plus one equal four. No-one, not even an omnipotent God would be capable of performing such feats as they are not genuine tasks. Thomas Aquinas emphasised this when he wrote that God “cannot make one and the same thing to be and not be.”

Is there a third option, one that does not set the bar either too high or too low when it comes to getting at what might count as a miracle? Yujin Nagasawa thinks so, and he suggests that a miracle might be an event that is nomologically impossible. By this he means that it is “impossible given the laws of nature.” For example, consider the incident in the New Testament where Jesus walks on water, one that is reported in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and John. This clearly violates the law of gravity. However, there is nothing logically impossible about Jesus having done so, but walking on water cannot be probabilistically impossible i.e. it is not a rare or unique event that might stand even a 0.000001 % of happening some day, like being struck by lightning, or the same taxi that killed your brother. *

The same goes for the resurrection of Jesus. In principle, there should be no chance whatsoever of anyone who is dead ever coming back to life, as this would defy the laws of biology. But nothing logically contradictory would have occurred if it did somehow happen, though (by way of contrast), it certainly would be logically contradictory for a person to be alive and dead simultaneously, which is what Aquinas was getting at above.

Sticking with Aquinas, the great medieval Italian theologian and philosopher appears to be venturing a definition of miracle that is similar to Nagasawa’s when, in Summa Contra Gentiles III, he writes that “those things are properly called miracles which are done by divine agency beyond the order commonly observed in nature.” These miracles can be of three types: 1) an event where God does something that nature could never do e.g. make the sun stand still 2) an event where God does something that nature can do but in a different order e.g. seeing after being blind c) an event where God does something that might happen naturally anyway but He makes it happen e.g. when God cures someone of an illness instantaneously which doctors might have been able to cure given enough time.

Note that For Aquinas, since God sustains the natural order, miracles happen when God stops doing that. The role of ‘divine agency’ is also of significance as it indicates that any miracle has to be directly and intentionally caused by God.

Aquinas’s definition is also close to that of the 18th Century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, in spite of the fact that Hume is well-known for being sceptical about the probability of miracles ever occurring. In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume states that a miracle is “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent”.

Taking all three definitions together, they seem to converge on the notion of a miracle being something that involves a violation or temporary suspension of the laws of nature by ‘an intentional agent’ (Nagasawa’s words).

* The category of probabilistic impossibility can be confusing (as in practice it seems more like probabilistic improbability). So here are Nagasawa’s actual words [emphasis added in bold]: ‘Assuming that miracles can take place in principle, they cannot be logically impossible events; logical impossibility is too strong a criterion for miracle. However, on the other hand, miracles cannot be merely probabilistically impossible events because, again, probabilistically impossible events can take place purely by chance (unless the probability is exactly zero)…it is not merely a matter of probability that water cannot turn into wine and the dead cannot be resurrected. These events cannot occur by chance.’

THE HAND OF GOD AND ‘COINCIDENCE MIRACLES’

Before teasing out the implications of the above definition when it comes to ‘debates about religion and science’, RF Holland’s more recent and influential critique of the idea that miracles must be defined in terms of breaches of natural law needs to be evaluated. For Holland, such a definition is contentious, as it would exclude events that are religiously significant coincidences from consideration. So he prefers to define a miracle as a very surprising coincidence with significant beneficial consequences.

By way of illustration, he offers the fictional example of a small boy riding a toy car who strays onto a railway crossing near his home. The car gets stuck in one of the tracks just as an express train is about to come around a bend in the track. This curve makes it impossible for the driver to spot the child in time for him to stop. Meanwhile, the boy’s mother is a helpless observer of this unfolding drama. She can see what is about to happen but is too far away to intervene, and in his struggle to free the car, the boy remains oblivious to his mother’s shouting and waving. In spite of all this, the brakes of the train start to operate and the train grinds to a halt a few feet away from the child. Holland continues:

The mother thanks God for the miracle; which she never ceases to think of as such although, as she in due course learns, there was nothing supernatural about the manner in which the brakes of the train came to be applied. The driver had fainted, for a reason that had nothing to do with the presence of the child on the line, and the brakes were applied automatically as his hand ceased to exert pressure on the control lever. He fainted on this particular afternoon because his blood pressure had risen after an exceptionally heavy lunch during which he quarrelled with a colleague, and the change in blood pressure caused a clot of blood to be dislodged and circulate. He fainted at the time he did on the afternoon in question because this was the time at which the coagulation in his blood reached the brain.‘ [R.F. Holland, “The Miraculous,” American Philosophical Quarterly (1965), pp. 43-51.]

What transpired therefore clearly involved no violations of the laws of nature. It was fully explicable in terms of them. But to the extent that there are fortunate and entirely unexpected coincidences, these can potentially be called miracles by those who regard them as having been brought about by the invisible ‘hand of God’, through a divine intervention. And there is even a famous real-life example involving fifteen, almost simultaneous ‘coincidence miracles’ of this kind.

These all happened before a huge gas explosion that took place at the West Side Baptist Church in Beatrice, Nebraska at 7.27 pm on the 1st March 1950. Fifteen members of the church choir would normally all have been present for a rehearsal at that time, but none were, in spite of the fact that most had previously enjoyed a reputation for being fastidiously punctual. However, on this occasion, one member and her sister were late because their car wouldn’t start, another was delayed because she had spilled food on her dress and required a change of clothes, still another had been looking after his sons and lost track of the time, the pianist had inadvertently fallen asleep after eating dinner, and the remainder were held up by similarly trivial considerations. Of course, all concluded that God had spared them.

While Maradona’s goal is problematic because it implies that God is partisan (an issue taken up by Maurice Wiles that is briefly summarised by Peter Baron HERE), as with Holland’s example and the Nebraska church incident, natural laws were neither suspended nor broken. However, it then follows that nothing much can be inferred from coincidence miracles when it comes to the matter of supernatural intervention, as this is merely an assumption made by those who perceive a particular coincidence to have been brought about in such a fashion. And in the case of Maradona, it seems impossible for anyone else to independently ascertain that God really was making use of him as His bodily instrument, a point that also applies to the train driver and the actions of the choir members prior to their gathering. From the point of view of science then, coincidence miracles have nothing to offer, as science is based on empirical observation, on ‘hypothesis’ and ‘experiment’ as the Edexcel scheme of work puts it. And no testable hypotheses can be derived from cases of alleged coincidence miracles. Perhaps the best that can be said with regard to this type of miracle is that we can never be certain, empirically or scientifically, that they do not occur.

By extension, it would only be reasonable to regard coincidence miracles as providing evidence for the existence of God if such an inference was an essential feature of the best explanation for their occurrence. But as we have seen, it is not. All aspects of coincidence miracles can be accounted for naturalistically.

Time for another of those musical interludes…

HUME ON MIRACLES

As already noted, Hume defines a miracle as “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent”. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he then goes on to argue that it is never reasonable to suppose that such transgressions occur, both in relation to evidence that is adduced for them, and as a matter of principle.

Hume’s evidential objections to miracles are developed from his basic assertion that there is no evidence in the form of testimony that can count decisively in favour of miracles. In support of this assertion he offers four arguments:

A. Reports of miracles should only be regarded as trustworthy when testimony about them is publicly shared by a sufficient number of eyewitnesses who are educated and of good moral standing, and who enjoy personal reputations that would be damaged if what they said turned out to be false. However, no one has ever offered testimony about miracles that satisfies these conditions.

B. People are predisposed to believe in wondrous and surprising events like miracles, especially if they are religious. And so they are already inclined to take reports of them at face value and to delight in passing on the details to others, a process which is therefore inherently dubious and comparable to the spreading of untrustworthy rumours and gossip about marriages in closely knit rural communities.

C. Testimony about miracles is most commonly found to originate from “ignorant and barbarous nations”, and when reported by more civilized people, further investigation reveals those people to have unquestioningly accepted and passed on the attestations of their own ignorant and barbarous ancestors. A survey of history additionally reveals that belief in ‘prodigies, omens [and] oracles’ diminishes over time, as natural explanations are found for events and incidents that were formerly understood to be portentous.

D. Miracle stories are found in many religious traditions. However, it is not possible for all religions to be true, as their truth claims are so different, and so a report of a miracle in one tradition therefore inevitably undermines the authority of a similar report in another tradition. Overall, when such contradictory reportage is found in abundance, the credibility of all such stories is ‘destroyed’. In other words, they cancel each other out. Hume likens this to the “reasoning of a judge, who supposes that the credit of two witnesses, maintaining a crime against any one, is destroyed by the testimony of two others, who affirm him to have been two hundred leagues distant, at the same instant when the crime is said to have been committed”.

Overall, Hume concludes that “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more
miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish”. This statement reflects his view that ‘a wise man…. proportions his belief to the evidence’. In the case of miracles, the evidence against them consists of the laws of nature. Repeated observation demonstrates that these laws are stable and consistent in their operation. They are exceptionless, making it always unreasonable as a matter of principle for any rational person to believe that miracles occur.

Note that this principle does not entail that miracles are impossible. Just because it is irrational for someone to believe in miracles does not altogether exclude their possibility. All Hume is claiming is that, in the words of Carl Sagan (an American astronomer), ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’, and that even cumulative and overwhelming evidence suggesting that a law of nature has been violated is always going to be outweighed by the evidence that no such violation actually took place.

Nicholas Everitt conveys the gist of the principle that Hume is seeking to establish in the following summative paragraph from the chapter on miracles in his book The Non-Existence of God :

‘It is important to be clear what the limits of Hume’s argument are. He is not saying that violation miracles are impossible. Nor is the argument saying that the events which are commonly quoted as examples of violation miracles did not occur. His argument does not imply that water has never been turned into wine, nor that five thousand people were never adequately fed on five loaves and two fishes, nor that no one has walked on water or risen from the dead. The real conclusion of the argument is [that] either it can be rational to believe that these events occurred but were not violation miracles, or it can be rational to believe that they did not occur. What cannot be rational is to believe both that they occurred and that they were violation miracles. For if the overall evidence makes it rational to believe that these events happened, then that same overall evidence makes it irrational to believe that they were violations of laws of nature (rather than unusual but scientifically explicable events). If, on the other hand, the overall evidence makes it rational to believe that such events, had they occurred, would have violated the laws of nature, then the overall evidence makes it rational to believe that those events did not occur.’

THE MIRACLE OF THE SUN

To illustrate how Hume’s scepticism about miracles might work in practice, it is helpful to look at an example.

‘The Miracle of the Sun’ allegedly took place on the 13th October 1917 near Fatima in Portugal. It was witnessed by a crowd variously estimated at being between 30,000 to 100,000 in size, consisting of both believers and sceptics, and which included a number of newspaper reporters as well as a Professor of Natural Sciences. Despite minor inconsistencies, there is broad agreement about what transpired on that day and the details have been summarised by Paul Warwick in an article for Philosophy Now magazine:

‘After a shower of rain, the clouds broke up to reveal the sun, less bright than usual (or else they would not have been able to watch it so closely), but dancing about in the sky, at one point moving towards the Earth in a zig-zag pattern. This display was observed by people scattered up to eighteen kilometres from the site where the main crowd had gathered; photographs exist (although no cinematography) purporting to show the movements of the sun, thus apparently precluding mass hysteria and hallucination.’

So here we appear to have have an example of a corporate religious experience that is also a miracle on a huge scale in terms of the number of people who saw it. Nevertheless, however convincing it may seem, a Humean analysis of the sort ventured by Warwick indicates that this was not a genuine miracle, for the following reasons:

  1. If the sun really had danced about in the solar system, the effects in outer space would surely have been both dramatic and potentially catastrophic. But nothing seems to have changed.
  2. No astronomical observatories reported any unusual solar activity on that day.
  3. The event was not observed by the rest of humanity.
  4. In other words, the relevant laws of nature remained stable.
  5. Additionally, the idea that God only allowed the privileged few to see this alleged miracle means that they were temporarily deceived by God. This is not in accord with the notion of God being the kind of being that does not mislead people.

So overall, the evidence for the ‘Miracle of the Sun’ remains unconvincing.

This example illustrates how Hume’s principle works because – as has already been noted above – it shows that no matter how much evidence has accumulated indicating that a miracle did occur, the evidence against that occurrence is always going to be greater, as that latter evidence consists of all the laws of nature, and repeated observations that these laws operate consistently. Again, it should be emphasised that this does not mean that miracles can never happen. What Hume is arguing is that even if they can take place, it is never rational or justifiable to believe that they do.

EVALUATING HUME

In terms of the debate between science and religion on this issue, Hume’s scepticism certainly lends powerful support to the scientific view that miracles are improbable. However, a number of criticisms can be made of his stated position.

Firstly, with regard to the matter of testimony, Hume is too vague about the matter of eyewitnesses and does not make it clear how many might be required to establish the veracity of a miracle and what amounts to a reliable witness in terms of their education and moral standing. Clarity about this is important, as if the standard is set too high, then judgements about previously well attested ordinary historical events of significance may also be called into question if it turns out that they were made by those who cannot meet this standard. On the other hand, if the bar is set too low, then miracle testimony of more dubious worth may slip under the radar and end up getting accepted. It is also of possible significance that even when the spectators are numerous and include a sufficient number of well-educated, upstanding citizens, as appears to be the case with the Miracle of the Sun, that the authenticity of the miracle in question still remains in doubt. Perhaps what this example demonstrates is therefore that what really matters is Hume’s argument that it is unreasonable to assume in relation to any given instance of a miracle that any violation of a law (or laws) of nature has occurred.

Secondly, while it is probably true that people tend to take more of an interest in events that are unusual or astounding, and that the very nature of such incidents may sometimes incline people to want to believe that they actually happened, and given also that people might be more predisposed in a state of excitability to pass on news of this kind, just as they would a rumour about a possible impending marriage, all this means ultimately is that we should, perhaps, be cautious about reports of this kind. By way of analogy, just because gossip about betrothals sometimes turns out to be false does not entail that there can therefore never be sufficient evidence to prove that couples get married. Similarly, if reports of miracles are subsequently shown to be false in some instances, this does not mean that all such reports should be regarded as such.

Hume’s next claim, that reports of miracles tend to be more commonly found among the citizens of ‘ignorant and barbarous nations’, seems to be empirically suspect. This is because belief in miracles is still prevalent in countries like the USA and UK, whose populations are, in theory at least, considered to be reasonably well-educated. For example, a 2013 Harris Poll of 2,250 adults in the USA revealed that, although in decline compared to a previous survey, a belief in miracles continued to be maintained by 72% of the respondents, while a Theos survey of 2,036 UK adults in the same year found that 17% thought that “miracles are the result of God or a higher power intervening in nature”. This figure is, of course, substantially lower compared with less secular America, but is not without significance, as it amounts to almost a fifth of the overall sample*. Somewhat more surprisingly, 77% concurred with the statement that, ‘there are things in life that we simply cannot explain by science or any other means.’ Portugal, the country where the Miracle of the Sun allegedly took place, is also almost certainly undeserving of being thought of as in an ignorant and barbarous state back in 1917.

Lastly, although it may be the case that the truth claims of religions render those faiths incompatible with each other, along with the miracle stories that underpin them (one example might be the Christian claim that Jesus was crucified and then miraculously came back from the dead, both of which are denied within mainstream Islam, which while denying the Trinitarian claim that Jesus is the Son of God, nevertheless does admit the virgin birth and the ascension of Jesus), there is at least agreement among the major world faiths about the possible occurrence of miracles, just as there is a consensus with respect to Hume’s analogy that a crime did take place, a point that he appears to overlook.

What of Hume’s supplementary argument that, in principle, it is never rational to believe that violations of natural laws happen? Going back to Maradona’s first goal, one of the striking things about it is that – in addition to its illegality – height disadvantaged Diego somehow also managed to outjump Peter Shilton. Suppose we regard this as appearing to be an act of levitation, in violation of the law of gravity. If Hume had been a spectator at the game and got into a post-match argument with an Argentinian who believed that his personal icon really had levitated to get his hand to the ball, Hume’s line of response would not be to emphatically deny that levitation is impossible, nor that testimony about acts of levitation is always incredible. Rather, he would argue that the more convincing the evidence that an act of levitation has taken place, the less we are justified in concluding that levitation is contrary to the laws of nature, and hence the less we are justified in believing that levitation is a violation miracle. Extrapolating from this principle, in this specific instance Hume would press home the point that the evidence is unconvincing, that Maradona probably just managed to jump a bit higher than usual, and so there is no necessity for the law of gravity to be reconsidered in the light of his feat.

Staying with his definition, is it possible to go further than Hume does in his discussion of miracles? Specifically, can it be argued that violations of laws of nature are not just physically improbable, but logically impossible, so that the notion of a violation miracle is as logically incoherent as that of a square circle or a married spinster?

This is a view that was initially rejected above, in favour of the nomological impossibility of miracles, but is one favoured by Nicholas Everitt.

According to Everitt, there are two sorts of laws, prescriptive and descriptive. Prescriptive laws state things that ought to be done (or not done). Examples include Aqunas’s primary precepts, Kant’s categorical imperative, what are regarded as divine commands based on sacred texts, as well as rules of etiquette, like those governing the handling of the ball in the penalty area in the case of football. Such laws can be broken, transgressed or violated by someone, and may be regarded as good or bad laws. However, they cannot be true or false. Contrastingly, the laws of nature are descriptive laws, like the law of gravity. These laws do not state how things ought to behave (e.g. gases in Boyle’s Law). They just state how they do behave. Such laws can be true or false, and if shown to be false, the existing law therefore needs to be modified or discarded, or as John Stuart Mill once stated:

‘We cannot admit a proposition as a law of nature, and yet believe a fact in real contradiction to it. We must disbelieve the alleged fact, or believe we are mistaken in admitting the supposed law.’ **

Having established these terms of reference, Everitt argues that ‘the concept of a violation miracle confuses two different concepts of law, prescriptive and descriptive. The laws of nature are specified in true descriptions of how the world behaves; but because they are descriptions, it does not make sense to talk of violating them. What can be violated are prescriptive laws – but laws of nature are not prescriptive laws. So since violation miracles by definition involve the violation of a non-violatable type of law, the very concept is an incoherent one.’

In other words, violation miracles are not merely logically improbable events, as Hume maintains, nor can they be regarded as nomologically impossible (the position defended by Nagasawa). If Everitt is correct, then violation miracles are absolutely impossible because the very notion of a violation miracle is nonsensical.

* In his book on miracles, Yujin Nagasawa – who cites these polls as evidence that belief in miracles is still widespread – combines the figure of 17% in the Theos survey with a further 42% who agreed that “miracles are unusual events that we cannot yet explain through science” to make the claim that “the majority (59%) think that miracles do occur”. A more nuanced interpretation of these figures might have acknowledged the different understandings of ‘miracle’ that seem to be at work here, as at least some of those 42% could be regarded as holding an agnostic view, one that allows for the prospect of science eventually coming up with a naturalistic explanation for these ‘unusual events’.

** Everitt is also critical of Swinburne’s view that ‘violations’ might be non-repeatable exceptions to otherwise universal laws of nature:

‘But what can he think that a non-repeatable exception is? Suppose that there is a single case of an A which is not a B. This will not be an exception to a generalisation which says that all As are Bs except for a single A which is not B. The generalisation clearly embraces two types of case: (i) All As bar one being Bs, and (ii) one A being not B. Just as (i) is wholly compatible with the law and indeed helps to confirm it, so too is (ii) wholly compatible with the law. We still have been given no understanding of how a law of nature could be violated. So Swinburne’s account secures the possibility of there being As which are not Bs only at the cost of making it impossible for them to violate laws of nature. He thus makes it impossible for them to be genuine violation miracles. We still have not been given any understanding of how a law of nature could be violated.’

It is also perhaps worth noting that the miracle of transubstantiation gets ‘repeated’ all the time in Catholic celebrations of the Mass, for those who believe in it.

CONCLUSION

We have seen that different definitions of miracle, when adopted, result in different outcomes with regard to the possibility of their occurrence. For example, Holland’s definition leaves the door open to theism, as he demonstrates that divine interventions might be possible without any natural laws being transgressed. However, such interventions are not susceptible to proof or disproof as they are simply not observable. They therefore remain outside the purview of science.

As for Hume’s famous definition, given that violations of natural laws are potentially observable, there is at least something for empiricists and scientists to get to grips with and comment on. For example, when it comes to alleged healing miracles at Lourdes, Richard Dawkins has wryly noted that these never seem to include cases of missing limbs miraculously re-growing. And although objections can be raised with respect to Hume’s scepticism about testimony, it is much harder to criticise his more compelling argument that it is irrational to believe that natural laws can be violated, as was demonstrated by the above analysis of the Miracle of the Sun. Once again though, as the designer of such laws, an omnipotent God should still be capable of intervening to transgress them (as Aquinas maintains) and even if violations are logically impossible, there are theists who (unlike Aquinas but like Descartes), insist that God can even perform logically impossible actions. In other words, if there is an all-powerful God, and if that God intervenes in the world (something that Maurice Wiles finds contentious – see the link above), then miracles may, indeed, happen.

In summary, there would appear to be no definition or understanding of miracle that cannot be eluded by a sufficiently motivated theist, however unconvincingly, though through trial and error, through a Popperian process of falsification, science does, at least, hold out the prospect of eventually providing explanations for phenomena that might presently seem miraculous to some (the so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness – how the physical brain produces the rich inner life of the mind could be an example). This would then leave believers in miracles having to adopt the position that miracles are inexplicable in principle, in other words, that no science of the present or future would ever be capable of accounting for them, as there would not be any scientific explanation awaiting discovery.

On the other hand, there could be another reason why the concept of a miracle as an aberration of a law of nature is unsatisfactory. This is because those who support this view tend to also assume that the universe is causally closed. That is, they imagine that the universe consists of a causal web which inexorably links events with other events. However, modern physics suggests that the universe is, in fact, probabilistic rather than deterministic in character, as illustrated by what is known as Wave-particle duality. For theists, a universe like this might thus allow some wiggle room for the miraculous. However, sceptics would presumably anticipate the eventual creation of a ‘Theory of Everything’ that excludes any such possibility.

Ironically, Hume’s own sceptical philosophy works against the notion that the universe is causally closed. This is because Hume was critical of the role of inductive reasoning (the attempt to draw inferences from examples to establish general laws). In his most striking example of this scepticism, he tells us that just because the sun has come up every morning in our lifetime provides us with absolutely no guarantee that it will come up tomorrow, because what is true of the past is not necessarily true of the future.

Bertrand Russell illustrated this point with the example of a turkey who was greeted every morning with a bucket of grain from a friendly farmer. By inductive reasoning it might have been reasonable for the turkey to eventually assume that things would carry on that way. Until, of course, Christmas morning, when the farmer appears with an axe to demonstrate the hazards of inductive reasoning.

Additionally, Hume had this to say about necessity and causation:

‘Our idea, therefore, of necessity and causation arises entirely from the uniformity observable in the operations of nature, where similar objects are constantly conjoined together, and the mind is determined by custom to infer the one from the appearance of the other…. Beyond the constant conjunction of similar objects, and the consequent inference from one to the other, we have no notion of any necessity or connexion.

What Hume is saying here is that we get our ideas about cause and effect from the observation of events, where we experience ‘constant conjunctions’. After repeated observations of one billiard ball hitting another billiard ball for example, we draw the conclusion that the movement of the second ball is caused by the impact of the first one.

Hume’s point is that if we think a little harder about all this, we must realize that we cannot see the actual power, force or whatever it is that causes the second billiard ball to move on impact. We have therefore developed a concept of causation by observing this kind of event many times, but in itself this conclusion amounts to nothing more than the mental act of associating one event with another. In other words, our concept of causation may not correspond to something real out there in the world. It is just an idea in our heads. So we cannot know with certainty that causation is real. The most we can therefore say about events in the world is that they represent occasions when similar objects are ‘constantly conjoined together’.

Hume’s wider scepticism about induction and causation is not inconsistent with his thoughts about miracles because he leaves open the possibility that miracles may happen. However, some theists may draw the conclusion that there could be a gap in all this for God to potentially fill.

EXTENSION MATERIAL – YUJIN NAGASAWA ON WHETHER MIRACLES ARE POSSIBLE WITHOUT THE SUPERNATURAL

The above lecture introduces additional material that is well worth learning about and was not mentioned above. This includes the following:

An overview of miracle stories as found in the texts of some of the major world faiths (Professor Nagasawa does not restrict himself to Christianity).

A survey of studies in the fields of cognitive science and psychology, including research conducted on children as young as two and a half months old, which cumulatively suggests that we may be predisposed to believe in supernatural or miraculous events, and which, in turn, could help to explain why so many people still believe in miracles.

Professor Nagasawa’s intriguing suggestion (based on a quoted passage from the Catholic Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo) that it might be preferable to regard extraordinary, awe-inspiring acts of extreme altruism* as more truly miraculous than violation miracles. Such acts violate behavioural norms but not any laws of nature (and so are not vulnerable to Hume’s arguments against belief in miracles), cannot easily be explained in terms of evolutionary theories about how altruism has arisen as a product of natural selection, and are consistent with the teaching of the Golden Rule as found in different versions in the world’s great religions.

*see HERE and HERE for examples discussed by Nagasawa.

FINAL NOTE

Although not specifically referenced above, Kirk McDermid’s chapter ‘The Hand of God and Other Soccer…Miracles?’ from the book Soccer and Philosophy: Beautiful Thoughts on the Beautiful Game (Edited by Ted Richards) helped to inspire this blog post.