It was not till the Enlightenment that the question began to be seriously asked, as to whether miracles are possible or not. Prior to this miracle was the substance of life in all strata of society, not only the unlettered. Belief in miracles emboldened belief per se. In the age of faith religion was the foundation of life, and belief in miracles indispensable to it. But with the rise of science and rationalism, and the corresponding demise of religion, the aspect of miracle too lost standing in the concerns of people.
Where science was poised and eager to explain all observed phenomena, belief in miracles was an obvious casualty. According to David Hume’s definition, 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” (1993, p. 77). The mere suggestion of a transgression of natural law was beginning to sound like a heresy to scientifically accustomed ears, even though attributed to the Deity. This paper examines the eighteenth century responses to the question of whether miracles or possible or not, and then broadens the scope to include modern and ancient perspectives.
Hume was the first to tackle the question squarely, in the chapter titled “Of Miracles” in the 1948 publication An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. From purely metaphysical considerations the conclusion is that miracles are indeed possible. We must remember that the core of Hume’s philosophy is empirical skepticism. The materialists, weaned on the mechanics of Newton, were pronouncing outright miracles impossible. The laws of motion and gravity were successfully explaining the heavenly bodies, and hardly anyone suspected that they were not universal in scope.
Newtonian mechanics has no place for miracles. This was almost a proof of the invalidity of miracles. But the proud determinism that they espoused had no philosophical foundation to it. Descartes, and the Cartesians, tried desperately for a metaphysics of materialism, but to know avail. Finally Hume overthrew all the strained Cartesian designs, and advanced a devastating critique of reason, as applied to empirical sense data, to deliver objective knowledge. It turned Enlightenment thinking on its head. Knowledge is not possible, and yet miracles are.
The philosophers of materialism were stuck on the question as to how it is at all possible that mind interacts with matter. This is indeed a miracle of the highest order, and Hume cannot help but paint the wonder that is inherent in such an idea:
For first: Is there any principle in all nature more mysterious than the union of soul with body; by which a supposed spiritual substance acquires such an influence over a material one, that the most refined thought is able to actuate the grossest matter? (Ibid 43)
Hume draws the conclusion that it is quite impossible to describe or explain such a thing. So we cannot talk about interaction at all, not even in the parallel case where one inanimate object imparts momentum to another. We talk about the first body causing motion in the second, but we cannot describe an interaction having taken place between cause and effect. We can only observe that the effect has followed the cause, as if two separated events conjoined in time. There is no necessity that the effect must always follow the cause. If we do come to such a conclusion it can only be due to the fact that we have become accustomed to expect such.
He then probes into the situation where the effect is unexpected. It seems that the laws of nature has been violated, and we begin to pronounce that a miracle has occurred. But we are hasty to do so, Hume points out. Just because we expect a certain outcome doesn’t imply that natural law dictates the same. He offers the example of the Indian who has never known snow hails miracle when he sees it falling, because nothing in his experience has prepared him for it.
Sometimes our science makes us feel that we know the sum extent of natural law. The essence of Hume’s philosophy is that we do not know natural law, and the extent of out ability, regards knowledge, is to infer from experience. He thus leaves room for divine intervention, for natural law is in the hands of the Almighty, only that Hume is not prone to listen to the tall tales of the coarse and the gullible regarding miracles:
Though the Being to whom the miracle is ascribed, be Almighty, it [the miracle] does not, upon that account, become a whit more probable, since it is impossible for us to know the attributes or actions of such a Being, otherwise than from the experience of his productions, in the usual course of nature. This still reduces us to past observations… (Ibid 89)
Hume is virulent and protracted in his attack against the popular report of miracles, which he thinks has more to do with base psychology than with proper faith. The common lot is so eager to see miracles that it latches on to any hoax and fraud that comes its way, and this is what Hume finds despicable. Such an attitude is understandable coming from a philosopher of the Enlightenment.
However, if he had shown a little more empathy towards the gullible he would have recognized that the yearning for miracle is but a testimony of its preciousness. A Chinese proverb reads: “The miracle is not to fly in the air, or to walk on the water, but to walk on the earth” (qtd. in Moore, 2006, p. 69).
However, it does not feel like a partaking in a miracle while walking the earth in one’s daily odyssey of toil and tears. People need to see explicit miracles only to keep them in touch with the miracle of life itself. Prayer itself, as the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev puts it, is prayer but for a miracle: “Every prayer reduces itself to this: ‘Great God grant that twice two be not four’” (qtd. in Andrews, 1987, p. 207).
Some scientists are finally coming to accept that miracles are indeed possible. Not in the sense in which Hume described it, who defined a miracle as a violation of natural law. He too insists that natural law cannot be violated, and miracle in that sense is impossible. When we come across a miracle we recognize it as such because it violates natural law, only as far as our limited understanding of natural law is concerned. Experience has taught us to expect nature to behave in certain ways, and for all intents and purposes this is natural law for us, the observer.
When we observe the unexpected we feel that natural law has been violated, but it may only a new experience for us, like the Indian that Hume describes as coming across the miracle of snow. Polkinghorne therefore suggests an alternative description of miracle, which is not a violation of nature, but instead “exploration of a new regime of physical experience” (2001, p. 59).
All our expectations derive from custom, says Hume, and therefore our worldview is indeed a science of probabilities. That which we expect to happen is probable, but no one can vouchsafe it as certain. Therefore the door is always left open to the improbable. All miracles must find berth in the bracket of improbability. If Hume put it so before the advent of modern science, at the very frontiers of that same science the verdict came back the same.
Scientists are by and large determinists, as regards their philosophy. Indeed, the must be so necessarily, for the method of science, as outlined by Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century, induces from empirical evidence the fixed laws of nature. As he asserts in the New Organon, “I open and lay out a new and certain path for the mind to proceed in, starting directly from the simple sensuous perception” [italics my own] (7). The entire rationale behind such a method is the promise of certainty, as regards knowledge. All scientists necessarily have this object in view, as followers of the method of Bacon. It is agreed among them that the apex of this science is quantum physics.
According to this discipline, there is no certain knowledge, not of an atomic particle’s position, nor of its velocity. The rule is codified in Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty. It lays out a science of probabilities, with the aid of the highest mathematics and the most advanced principles of physics. Yet the essence of it is exactly the same as what Hume put forward as “custom”.
In conclusion, we declare miracles possible or not depending on how we define a miracle. If we insist that it is a violation of natural law, then we must declare it impossible. On the other hand, if it is a highly improbable event, then it is by definition possible. We must remember that the realm of the improbable contains things beyond our wildest expectations, and therefore if we come across such we may mistake it for a violation of nature.
Andrews, R. (1987). The Routledge Dictionary of Quotations. New York: Routledge.
Bacon, F. (2000). The New Organon. L. Jardine, M. Silverthorne (Eds.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hume, D. (1993). An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. E. Steinberg (Ed.) Boston: Hackett Publishing.
Moore, D. (2006). Zen Wisdom: Magnetic Quotes and Proverbs. Kennebunkport, ME: Cider Mill Press Book Publishers.
Polkinghorne, J. C. (2001). Faith, Science and Understanding. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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