The Possibility of Miracles

One of the skeptic’s most familiar complaints about Christianity is that it asks us to believe in a lot of mythological nonsense that has been scientifically falsified—such as parting seas and virgin births and men who walk on water. It is certainly true that the Bible contains accounts of miracles. And it true that a Christian is committed to taking at least some of these literally. Indeed, Christianity stands or falls on the truth of the claim that Jesus rose miraculously from the dead—a point realised by the Apostles themselves.1 But can the skeptic justify his claim that it is absurd and irrational to even entertain a belief in miracles? In this post it shall be my concern to show that the answer to this question is: No.

Let us begin by defining a miracle. A miracle is a claimed event which, if it occurred, would constitute a violation of the laws nature. By this definition it is not even certain that all of the extraordinary claims in the New Testament are miracles. In Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism, for example, the American analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga includes a Quantum Mechanical account of the transformation of water into wine—sportingly provided by the atheist physicist Bradley Monton. GRW, for what it is worth, refers to the Ghirard-Rimini-Weber approach—one of a set of collapse theories in quantum mechanics. Morton says,

The wave function for each particle is spread throughout an unbounded region of the universe at every time except perhaps momentary instants of time. This means that for each particle there is at most a finite region where it couldn’t be localised by a GRW hit. Some, probably even most, particles could be localised anywhere. So for changing water into wine, it’s not a big deal—you’ve got a bunch of individual particles that are composing the water, and they can all have GRW hits such that their positions are redistributed to the locations that would be appropriate for them to compose wine.

Monton’s final assessment is that, “all of the other miracles are unproblematically compatible with quantum mechanics.”

Morton helps to show that even the most extraordinary claims in the New Testament are not in principle beyond the purview of science but such speculations are, in the end, beside the point. And this is because the Christian claim is not that the miracles recorded in the New Testament are Quantum anomalies—even ones orchestrated by Jesus. Christians claim that the miracles of Jesus, and in particular the Resurrection of Jesus, did violate the laws of nature. This is the precisely the point of the miracle: Since violating laws of nature is something which only God can do, the Resurrection constitutes a divine signature on the life and teachings of Jesus.

I will now briefly discuss three standard objections to the belief in miracles and show that each one is ultimately without warrant.

The Objection from Scientism

The first objection holds that the scientific method is the only valid source of true beliefs about the world. Its proponent claims: If something cannot be empirically measured and quantified, or proven by means of a repeatable experiment, then we cannot hold a justified belief in it. And since miracles, by definition, lie beyond the scope of the scientific method (i.e., are unquantifiable, untestable, etc.) we cannot hold a justified belief in miracles.

The problem with this view, dubbed “scientism” by its critics, is that it is self-referentially incoherent. Consider: The claim that the scientific method is the only valid source of true beliefs about the world is a metascientific claim—a belief about the world that cannot itself be empirically measured and quantified, or proven by means of a repeatable experiment. Perhaps one could attempt to demonstrate the validity of scientism with a philosophical proof. But since any such proof would both advocate the scientific method as the sole source of truth, and originate outside the scientific method, it would invalidate itself.

In recent times scientism has enjoyed an unselfconscious resurgence in the writing of the New Atheists but it can be traced back to a mid-twentieth century movement in Western philosophy called Logical Positivism. Logical Positivism held that the only meaningful statements were those capable of being verified through sense experience or (as in pure logic and mathematics) those that are true by tautology. All non-tautological claims were subject to the “verifiability criterion” championed by A. J. Ayer in his 1936 book, Language, Truth and Logic. The existence of God, interestingly, was not rejected outright; it was simply excluded from the conversation. Ayer said that it was just as absurd to be an atheist as to be a theist. The statements, “God exists” and “God does not exist” simply had no meaning.

By 1945, Logical Positivism had been abandoned by its own founders. The first problem with the verifiability criterion was that it forbade the metascientific precepts necessary to formulate a theoretical framework for scientific inquiry. The second problem was the fatal one already noted: The verifiability criterion is itself neither tautological nor verifiable. As the mathematician David Berlinski puts it, “All such arguments, when self-applied, self-destruct.”

The Objection from Hume

A second influential objection against the belief in miracles goes back to the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume claimed that the inductive confirmation of natural law in everyday experience is so overwhelming that no eyewitness report of a violation of natural law could ever outweigh it. For instance: The fact that heavy objects are always and everywhere observed to fall to the Earth is overwhelming background evidence against a report that, say, a marble bust of Mozart had levitated into the air. Whether this miracle had really occurred or not, a rational person would be compelled to reject the report of its occurrence on the basis of his everyday experience of gravity.

Contemporary philosophers of religion identify two flaws in Hume’s argument, both of which are discussed by Oxford professor of philosophy Richard Swinburne in his influential book The Existence of God. Swinburne first notes that, even granting Hume’s assumption that the only relevant background evidence is our experience of the laws of nature, there is no reason to suppose that this evidence always counts decisively against the report. “Maybe,” Swinburne writes, “so many careful witnesses report very clearly what happened that their evidence can outweigh the evidence from the normal operation of laws of nature.”

You might object that people lie, hallucinate and are easily deceived. But in support of his point that, very occasionally, we may be rationally compelled to accept evidence for a miraculous event from multiple, credible witnesses, Swinburne appeals to two fundamental principles of rationality: The Principle of Credulity and the Principle of Testimony. 

The Principle of Credulity states: If to a subject S it seems that x is present then, in the absence of special considerations, probably x is present. If Mr Green has the experience of it seeming to him that there is a German shepherd on his lawn then that is good evidence for his believing that there is a German shepherd on his lawn. “The principle of Credulity,” Swinburne asserts, “is a fundamental principle of rationality and unless we allow it to have considerable force, we quickly find ourselves in a skeptical bog in which we can hardly know anything.”

In ordinary experience we also use a wider principle: Other things being equal, we believe that what others tell us is probably true. “Most of our beliefs about the world,” observes Swinburne, “are based on what others claim to have perceived—beliefs about geography and history and science and everything else beyond immediate experience.” Swinburne argues that such beliefs are justified even when (as per usual) we do not personally vet witnesses for their reliability. Thus the Principle of Testimony: The experiences of others, in the absence of special considerations, are probably as they report them. In his book Swinburne enumerates and discusses various special considerations and shows that none of them can be universally applied to religious experience.2

Contra Hume: On these two principles of rationality detailed reports of a miracle from several credible witnesses may outweigh the inductive evidence of natural law from everyday experience—even without including the evidence of natural theology in our total background evidence.

“But Hume’s main mistake,” continues Swinburne, “was his assumption that in such cases our knowledge of what are the laws of nature is our only relevant background evidence.” Equally relevant to our assessment of a purported miracle is any background evidence for the existence of God.For if on the total background evidence it is plausible or even probable that there is a God, then it is plausible or even probable that there exists a being with the power to violate the laws of nature. Evidence that there is a God is evidence that laws of nature can be violated—which will have particular relevance in cases where the reported event is of a kind that God, if God exists, would have good reason to bring about.

What reasons might God have to cause an event that violates laws whose regular operation he usually ensures? Swinburne suggests that there are reasons of two kinds. The first is to answer human prayer. “A world in which everything occurred in accordance with natural laws,” he notes, “would not be a world in which God had any living interaction with human beings.” The second kind of reason why God might violate natural law is, “just occasionally to put his signature on the work or teaching of some prophet in order to show that that work or teaching was God’s work or teaching.”

Swinburne argues elsewhere that, on the assumption that God exists, an Incarnation authenticated by a divine miracle has a certain likelihood given the moral perfection of God and the obvious general fact of human sin and suffering.4 And when this consideration is combined with the evidence for the existence of God from natural theology, a multiply and independently attested miracle of the right kind under the right circumstances may outweigh the inductive evidence that, when natural laws operate in the usual way, such things do not occur. Hume’s attempt to show that a miracle is always unworthy of credit fails.

The Objection from the Laws of Conservation

The third and final objection to miracles is the claim that special divine action in the world would violate the laws of physics. Plantinga asks us to consider this example of a miracle: God creating an adult horse ex nihilo in the middle of Times Square. During such an event the laws of conservation of energy, momentum, and so forth, would all be violated. Physics, meanwhile, tells us that this is impossible. The objector concludes miracles are impossible.

However, the laws of conservation apply to systems that are causally closed—closed to causal influence from without. But as Plantinga reminds us it is no part of standard physics that the universe is causally closed and whether or not it is depends on whether or not God exists. For consider: If God does exist then there exists an omnipotent being who can act upon the universe from without. Evidence for the existence of God is therefore, equally, evidence against the causal closure of the universe. And likewise: any system in which a miracle occurs is, ipso facto, not constrained by the various conservation laws. One cannot reject a miracle on the unproven assumption that God does not exist and therefore the universe is causally closed; indeed, the reported miracle may be evidence against the assumption on the basis of which the skeptic is rejecting it.

We have seen that there is no indefeasible objection to the possibility of miracles and so no way for a skeptic to prevent at the outset a rational inquiry into their occurrence. Whether it is rational to believe in the foundational miracle of Christianity—the Resurrection of Jesus—cannot be settled a priori. It needs to be settled in the court of historical analysis.4

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[1] Paul writes, “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” 

[2] See my summary of his argument here.

[3] See the Modal Cosmological Argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, as well as the arguments from Cosmic Teleology, Biological Teleology, Consciousness, Adequation, Moral Experience, Desire and Religious Experience. All nine lines of evidence for the existence of God are also lines of evidence for the possibility of a being who can violate the laws of nature and so for the possibility of miracles. They must therefore be included in our total background evidence for a purported miracle. 

[4] There is no space to detail the argument here. See his book The Resurrection of God Incarnate. I summarise the relevant part of that book here.

[5] See the historical argument for The Resurrection of Jesus.

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