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A Note on Miracles
For Philosophy of God class, New
Orleans, Spring Semester 2004
Cf. The Argument from Particular Providence
Argument against Miracles (1st Enquiry):
- we can never have good enough reason, on the basis of testimony,
to positively believe a miracle has occurred. A miracle being an event against the
laws of nature, on the one side of the scale there will be universal
experience which established the law of nature as a law of nature in the
first place, which Hume interprets as universal experience against such
events occurring. On the other
side of the scale there will be some person or people’s testimony. Even if the testimony is from
impeccable sources the very best we can expect will be enough to balance the
scales, leading to a suspension of judgement:
maybe, maybe not.
then goes on to argue that testimony for miracles rarely meets such an
impeccable standard, that in practice it is almost always more likely
that the person or people giving the testimony are deluding us or
themselves deluded or mistaken or otherwise misguided than that the event
actually occurred as reported.
- Versus Hume:
main problem with Hume is that he stacks the decks in favour
of his own position. Hardly anyone
believes in only one miracle. Empirically determined belief and judgment
as happens in believers in a miracle having occurred, happens against a
web of broader experience and belief.
This web or vision of life, or tradition of experience and
interpretation, would include a lot of other elements apart from
miracles, contributing overall to an open world view in which a loving
God sometimes does operate and which makes something like miracles
plausible in certain circumstances.
So it’s not one alleged event against a universal pattern to the
contrary but more like one overall pattern criss-crossing
thing to be taken into account is that the definition of miracle utilized
by both Hume and his 18th Century opponents is historically
and contextually determined, presuming a concept of self-contained ‘pure
nature’ (versus interventionist ‘supernatural’) which came into existence
only in the late middle ages and which got to be definitively embedded
only in the 17th century.
lot of water has gone under the bridge since that time, including advances
in science and in the picture of the world projected by 20th
and 21st versus 17th and 18th century
sciences. It is no longer one big
mechanism. But this presents
another difficulty: in the aftermath of Quantum Theory and such, it may be that the ultimate laws of
nature are statistical in form.
The consequence of this is that the 17th - 18th
century definition of miracles, presumed also in Christian apologetics
since that time, is no longer viable.
Probabilistic laws allow for the occasional exception! The notion of an event against the laws
of nature in such a context would no longer make sense.
this is so, we may have to change our definition of miracles. However, this is not a crucial problem, in so far as the definition of miracle we have
inherited is itself after all is a product of late medieval theology
meshed with late 17th century mechanistic science and the
deistic world view which resulted.
Let us then have a go at re-defining miracle, and see what results.
= a localized shift in probabilities
which fits with and is given sense by a certain theological or religious
(or ‘spiritual’) story, alternatively which is given sense by a
certain particular tradition of experience and interpretation. Beyond this, we may note that the
presence of certain people, and apparently the presence in certain places
and e.g. a total surrounding by prayer and such, does seem to shift the
probabilities of certain kinds of events occurring.
we give up the against the laws of nature stuff: that’s late medieval
two-story wedding cake (the natural and the supernatural on top of it)
stuff meshed with old superceded science.
we also give up the notion of miracles as ‘proofs’ e.g. of revelation or
whatever. They give strength to
stories and legitimately re-enforce belief to people inside the story or
on the verge of getting into the story; whereas with other people they may
just be unexplained circumstances which sometimes happen in the course of
their lives and professional engagements.
accordance with the process-relational ontology to which I subscribe as a
kind of default ontology whenever I don’t have anything better, all primary causality involves a
shift in probabilities, not just on the quantum level: all genuine
individuals have at least a bit of creativity, only aggregates of
individuals are nearly deterministic.
Thus, mental events for example operate by shifting the
probabilities of firings of neurons in the brain. Mental events however are largely
confined to the cerebral cortex as far as direct influence is concerned,
and via the cerebral cortex the rest of creation. God in this conception is like a mental
event or series of mental events whose direct environment is the whole
universe. God does not intervene so much as interact, and this is a normal, natural part
of life. Certain people and contexts enable a localized further shift in
probabilities in accord with the divine lure, providing or enabling a kind
of intensification or focus of the Reign of God in particular places,
sometimes even having physical effects. But it’s always a shifting of
probabilities. See my website for
more on this process-relational stuff – but this is very much in brackets
for this part of the course.]
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