Presentation on theme: "MIRACLES 1d: Miracles. CONCEPTUAL CLARITY Because of the way the term ‘miracle’ can be variously used, it is important to agree on which sense is being."— Presentation transcript:
MIRACLES 1d: Miracles
CONCEPTUAL CLARITY Because of the way the term ‘miracle’ can be variously used, it is important to agree on which sense is being deployed. One of the most helpful definitions (pace Hume) is this one: “A miracle is an extraordinary and striking event, intended by God to be a special disclosure of his power and purpose.”
CONCEPTUAL CLARITY - 2 Of course this definition presupposes a number of things: That there is a God That this God acts in the world That there is a purpose to miraculous events
HUME’S APPROACH Hume defines ‘miracle’ in relation to the Enlightenment conviction that the universe runs according to so-called Laws of Nature: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature” Note that this restricts the class of events labelled ‘miracle’ to a smaller set than that allowed for in the first (non-Humean) definition.
HUME’S APPROACH - 2 This has dominated the discussion in the literature and until the advent of Wiles’ contribution, Hume’s has set the agenda for the standard lines of debate. Note that for him miracles are not impossible. His argument concludes that we would have to regard any report of them as incredible.
LAWS OF NATURE What precisely do we mean by Laws of Nature? Mike Poole makes an interesting distinction between Laws of Nature and Scientific Laws. His point is that science has always a provisional understanding. Our current formulation of our belief in a particular regularity in the way the universe appears to behave, according to our investigations so far, is not necessarily equivalent to either how the universe actually is, or how the universe has to be, at all times and in all places.
LAWS OF NATURE - 2 The key question, reflecting a key belief in the inviolability of the laws of nature, is whether there are actual exceptions to the so-called laws. The theologian and physicist John Polkinghorne wrote, “Science simply tells us that these events are against normal expectations … The theological question is: does it make sense to suppose that God has acted in a new way? … In unprecedented circumstances, God can do unexpected things.” (Quarks, Chaos and Christianity, London, Triangle, 1994,82)
BIBLICAL ‘MIRACLES’  Discussions in the Philosophy of Religion have a tendency to allow the miracles agenda to be set by philosophical writings, not least the classic discussion of Hume. This results in focussing on miracles as violations of so-called ‘laws of nature’. The Biblical tradition predates scientific ways of talking about the world and what we translate as ‘miracle’ had a different focus for the writers and readers of Biblical material.
BIBLICAL ‘MIRACLES’  In the New Testament the three terms we tend to translate into ‘miracle’ in English are: Semeion – a ‘sign’ (focus on the purpose) Teras – a ‘wonder’ (focus on the effect) Dunamis – an ‘act of power’ (focus on cause) Acts 2:22 “..Jesus..was a man accredited by God to you by miracles (dunamesi), wonders (terasi) and signs (semeiois).. which God did through him.. as you yourselves know.” The emphasis here is on the significance of the event; its impact on those who witnessed it. Notice that some Biblical miracles will not fit into the category of what we would call violations of laws of nature.
BIBLICAL ‘MIRACLES’  One typical classification is as follows: Miracles of nature – eg. Jesus stilling the storm on Galilee [Mk 4:35-41] Miracles of healing – eg. Woman with a haemorrhage [Mk 5:25-34] Miracles of exorcism – eg. Legion [Mk 5:9-20] Miracles of timing – eg. Red Sea [Ex 14:21f]
BIBLICAL ‘MIRACLES’  Violations of laws of nature Amazing events attributed to God V ng Violations - not due to God V g Violations - due to God NV g Not Violations - due to God
BIBLICAL ‘MIRACLES’  Regarding V ng - which we defined as violations of laws of nature that were not due to God, there is some debate. Some consider that only God can do miracles and so V ng is an empty set. Others point out that Hume’s definition of a miracle includes not only God as a possible agent, but also ‘the interposition of some (other) invisible agent’. The Biblical tradition allows for candidates to be included in V ng, such as The Beast of the Earth (Rev 13:13f) and the False Prophet (Rev 19:20). Jesus himself speaks of evildoers who will do mighty works (Matt 7:22).
BIBLICAL ‘MIRACLES’  Violations of laws of nature Amazing events attributed to God VgVg NV g Concentrating on the discussion of what it means to talk about miracles that God might do, if we exclude from our discussion agents other than God, then we can redraw the diagram like this:
EMPIRICISM AND RATIONALISM Historically, these are two distinct major schools of philosophy whose approach to the question of miracles should differ because of their presuppositions about what counts as valid knowledge. RationalistsEmpiricists Descartes Spinoza Locke Hume
EMPIRICISM AND RATIONALISM You would expect that empiricists, with their emphasis on the importance of sense data as evidence, would be interested in whether or not you can establish whether a miracle has actually taken place. Rationalists may be expected to have decided beforehand whether or not miracles are possible.
WORLDVIEWS  All of us have a worldview. We believe certain things about God, Life, the Universe - Everything. These beliefs shape our approach to all questions, including miracles. Major worldviews include: THEISM ATHEISM DEISM PANTHEISM PANENTHEISM
WORLDVIEWS  THEISM is a cluster of beliefs which Robert Flint summarises as “the doctrine that the universe owes its existence, and continuation in existence, to the reason and will of a self-existent Being, who is infinitely powerful, wise and good.” Theism believes therefore that God is both transcendent (beyond the reach or apprehension of experience; the Otherness or Beyondness of God) and immanent (near to and indwelling the world; the Closeness of God). God is the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, involved in it moment by moment.
WORLDVIEWS  ATHEISM is the denial of Theism. Simply put, there is no God. There are no supernatural beings. Nature is all there is. The universe is impersonal and has no inherent purpose or purposer. Many prefer the term Naturalism to Atheism. I is seen as a positive affirmation of what exists, rather than a denial of what does not exist. Some have recently adopted the neologism zerotheist as a synonym for atheist.
WORLDVIEWS  DEISM is the view that God is wholly transcendent. God the Creator is external to the universe He has created. Since that point He has not been involved in His creation. God is effectively an absentee landlord who has given the Universe autonomy. This implies that the Laws of Nature that govern the universe are fixed and God does not override them. Those kinds of miracles do not happen in a deistic world. God does not interfere. God is only revealed in the normal course of nature and history.
WORLDVIEWS  PANTHEISM is the view that God is wholly immanent. God is essentially identical to Nature. Etymologically ‘God is all’ (Greek, pan, all; theos, God). Although the term pantheism was not invented until the early 18th cc, it represents a belief that has been around for a long time. It is hinted at in the writing of the Greek thinker Parmenides (ca. 500 BC) and in the East it is anticipated in the early Upanishads some two hundred years earlier. The first modern to articulate an essentially pantheistic view is possibly Spinoza. For him there is only one substance, ‘absolutely infinite being’. We may speak of either ‘God’ or ‘Nature’ interchangeably.
WORLDVIEWS  PANENTHEISM is the worldview that features in number of modern discussions about the relationship of God to the world. Panentheism is the belief that God is in (Greek, en) all created things. The analogy has been suggested that in the same way that you can differentiate between the water and the sponge in a saturated sponge, panentheism allows you to differentiate between the world and God. The world is in God (panentheism) but not to be identified with God (pantheism).
WORLDVIEWS  All of us have a worldview. How might our worldview affect our approach to miracles? Will it prejudge the issue? How will our worldview affect our assessment of evidence for miracles? Can all worldviews accommodate the insights of modern science?
A PRIORI REJECTIONS Spinoza is a good example of a thinker who made his mind up about the possibility of miracles without reference to any relevant empirical evidence. His presuppositions were those of a rationalist and a pantheist. As a rationalist, he accepted as true only what he saw as self evident. As a pantheist, God’s activity was no more than nature’s regular activity. His argument boils down to a dogmatic assertion: 1. Miracles are violations of laws of nature 2. Natural laws are immutable 3. Therefore, miracles are impossible
IS MIRACLE AS A SUSPENSION OF A NATURAL LAW SELF-CONTRADICTORY? Consider this extract from Alistair McKinnon’s Miracle and Paradox, American Philosophical Quarterly 4 (1997): “The idea of a suspension of natural law is self- contradictory. This follows from the meaning of the term … Natural laws bear no relation to civil codes … They are simply highly generalised shorthand descriptions of how things do in fact happen … Hence there can be no suspensions of natural law rightly understood. Or … Miracle contains a contradiction in terms.” Is McKinnon’s argument right?
SURELY IT IS INCREDIBLE TO BELIEVE IN MIRACLES IN AN AGE OF SCIENCE! Consider this letter posted in THE TIMES on 13 July 1984 by 14 UK professors of science: “It is not logically valid to use science as an argument against miracles. To believe that miracles cannot happen is as much an act of faith as to believe that they can happen. We gladly accept the virgin birth, the gospel miracles, and the resurrection of Christ as historical events … miracles are unprecedented events … science (based as it is upon the observation of precedents) can have nothing to say on the subject. It’s ‘laws’ are only generalisations of our experience.”
A CLOSER LOOK AT HUME Recall Hume’s definition of a miracle: “A transgression of a law of nature by a particular violation of the Deity, or by the imposition of some invisible agent.”
A CLOSER LOOK AT HUME - 2 In the balance for rational human beings according to Hume is: [a] The improbability of miracle(s) [b] The evidence that they have occurred. [a][b] “The wise man, proportioning his belief to the evidence, will always conclude that it is more likely that natural laws have held good than that a miracle has occurred.”
A CLOSER LOOK AT HUME - 3 Vardy paraphrases Hume’s argument: “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature and is therefore an event which past human experience is uniformly against. This in itself makes it overwhelmingly probable that the miracle did not occur, unless the testimony to its occurrence is of such superlative quality that it can be seriously be weighed against our own uniform past experience” (The Puzzle of God, Fount, 1990, 184)
A CLOSER LOOK AT HUME - 4 “In fact, however, the testimony to miracles is not of this character at all. The standard of the witnesses to miracles is not high. The human capacity for accepting or believing the unlikely has all too probably been at work, the stories of miracles deriving from ‘ignorant and barbarous places and nations’ and, in any case, the miracle stories of different religions contradict one another. Consequently testimony to miracles can never establish them so that one could proceed from a proper assurance that they occurred to infer some theistic conclusions.”
A CLOSER LOOK AT HUME - 5 Some critical remarks 1. Are laws of nature set in stone as Hume seems to suggest? The history of science shows that our understanding is always provisional. The key question here is not about particular historical formulations of laws, but lawlikeness as a general belief. Is the methodological assumption about laws tied to metaphysical beliefs about laws. For a naturalist – yes. For a theist – not necessarily; God may not be bound by his regular way of running the universe. Hume’s generally anti-inductivist stance could allow for exceptions, if God did in fact act ‘against’ normal ‘laws’. ?
A CLOSER LOOK AT HUME - 6 Some critical remarks 2. Hume’s discussion only deals with reports of miracles. What if Hume had experienced a miracle himself. Might he believe it as a trustworthy, intelligent, educated, neutral, informed and civilized individual? Is it Hume’s inherent scepticism, or poverty of religious experience, or both, that matter here? ?
A CLOSER LOOK AT HUME - 7 Some critical remarks 3. Today’s reports of miracles are often subject to scientific scrutiny. Many appear to be incapable of being explained by normal scientific means. Whilst not wishing to fall into the trap of God- of-the-gaps thinking (attributing to God what we currently cannot explain), this does seem to keep open the door for miracles as violations of laws of nature. This seems to many to overcome some of the Humean difficulties. ?
A CLOSER LOOK AT HUME - 8 Some critical remarks 4. Whilst neither Judaism, Christianity or Islam relies on miracles as the (only) basis of belief they do claim that there are pivotal occasions when God acts in unusual ways. Not that miracles are done to order (eg. Jesus rebuttal of Satan’s temptations (Mt chapter 4); “an evil generation…seeks a sign” (Mt 16:4). So, if you already believe that God exists, it is rational to believe God acts miraculously. There are of course serious questions about the significance of these reported events and what they say about other religious truth claims. Hume’s claim that miracles in different religions cancel each other out is contentious and certainly doesn’t allow for “the complete triumph of the sceptic” as he claims. ?
Other critical lines of response to Hume (Davies Philosophy of Religion: a guide and anthology, Oxford, 2000, p401) 1. Is it true that we should only believe that for which we have personal evidence? 2. Is it true that reports of miracles only come from dubiously reliable sources? 3. Does the fact that reports of miracles come from people who have conflicting beliefs mean that none of these reports should be taken seriously? 4. Are miracles as intrinsically improbable as Hume makes them out to be?
A.E.Taylor on Hume In “David Hume and the miraculous”, Philosophical Studies, Macmillan, 1934, A.E.Taylor famously argues that Hume’s conclusion can only urge us not to believe in second hand reports of miracles – not that miracles cannot occur, or that anyone who witnesses one for himself ought to refuse to believe the evidence of his senses.
A.E.Taylor on Hume “It is quietly forgotten [by Hume] that, on the premises, there cannot be said to be ‘uniform experience’ against the resurrection of a dead man or any other sequence of events. At best I have only a uniformity within the range of my own experience to urge; a narrator who professes to have seen the resuscitation of actually appealing to his own experience as the foundation of the story. Thus, unless I am to assume that my own personal experiences are the standard of the credible – and if I do assume this, there is an end to all correction of expectations – it is a petitio principii [ a begging of the question] to say that there is ‘uniform experience’ against any event to which any man claims to be able to testify”. Ch9, p336
Keith Ward on Hume In his book ‘Divine Action’ (Collins, 1990) Ward makes the point that Hume cites in his own critique of miracles a number of examples which seem to show that his own rejection seems irrational on his own terms. Hume’s four reasons for confidently discounting all claims to miracles are:  No miracle is attested to by sufficient people of education and integrity to give us complete confidence in the stories.  People invent stories and exaggerate them because of a love of the curious and marvellous. These tales cannot be trusted.  Claims to the miraculous “are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations”.  The diverse miracle claims from different religions are contradictory and thus rendered null and void.
Keith Ward on Hume Ward writes (p188), “Strangely, Hume himself destroys these arguments by citing a number of cases of strong testimony to miracles, including one wherein judges of unquestioned integrity, in a learned country (France) testified to healing miracles at the tomb of Abbé Paris. He then says, “What have we to oppose to such a cloud of witnesses, but the absolute impossibility … of the events which they relate?” If that is all that he has to oppose to such testimony, and if miracles are not absolutely impossible at all, then it turns out that it is Hume, not his opponents, who is irrational in not taking such evidence much more seriously than he did.”
EXAMPLES OF MIRACLES: contemporary ‘violations of laws of nature’ It is an interesting exercise to subject reports of miracles, including contemporary ones, to the critique offered by Hume. Do they stand up to scrutiny? Are they empirically verifiable? Do the witnesses have credibility? Do the ‘events’ fit into my worldview?
MAURICE WILES a moral objection to miracles In his 1986 SCM book of his Bampton Lectures, God’s action in the world, Wiles claimed that there is only one act of God encompassing the world as a whole. Wiles says that God never intervenes in the world by individual acts. He says that even if God did miracles, understood as interventions, they would be rare and should not be relatively arbitrary or trivial. But given that God appears not to have been concerned enough to stop major atrocities, miracles as reported infer a strange and debased idea of God, not worthy of our worship!
MAURICE WILES Thus Wiles is raising a moral objection to the notion of a God whose miraculous interventions are seemingly arbitrary and focussed on relatively trivial matters. He also doubts, along with Brian Hebblethwaite, that miracles are consistent with a mature response to the problem of evil. This requires that God maintains the stable structures of creation, and also thereby answers the question of why God does not do more to alleviate suffering if he is able to do so.
MAURICE WILES Wiles and other theologians assume that we can rationally understand the ways of God – operating within the Kantian tradition of “religion within the limits of reason alone.” Vardy points to Paul’s preaching of “Christ crucified … foolishness to the Greeks (philosophers, see 1 Corinthians chapter 1)”, and suggests that God is beyond our apprehension and is irreducible to human constructs, at least in significant measure.
MAURICE WILES & DAVID HUME What would Wiles make of any well supported evidence that a miracle had occurred? Would his theoretical objection cause him to refuse to admit the evidence? In what way is Wiles’s objection to miracles similar to that of Hume and in what ways is it different?