A thought about Miracles

Miracles, it is often said, are ‘violations’ of natural laws. Now, of course, that isn’t what a Theist will recognize as a miracle, both because ‘natural laws’ here refer to physical laws, which are not proscriptive but rather descriptive (thus nature doesn’t ‘follow’ physical laws, but physical laws, if accurate, properly describe the axiarchic nature of the world). These laws are thus predicated on  Cetirus Paribus conditions – literally meaning ‘all other things the same’ or ‘all other things being equal’. Thus, if one describes the theory of gravity, one would want to say that any two bodies will move towards each other at some rate of acceleration based on the distance between them, their relative Mass and so on, so that one can predict that an apple at a certain distance from the earth will fall at a particular rate of 9.81 meters per second-squared. However, suppose an apple’s rate of acceleration were measured, and we found that it wasn’t exactly 9.81 m/s2. We would then look for what caused this discrepancy if not the error of the observer. Suppose we found it was the friction of the surrounding air which slowed the rate of acceleration – we would not then say that air is what ‘broke the law of gravity’ or ‘violated physical law’. Rather, we would simply say that the theory of gravity describes the world with implicit Cetirus Paribus conditions, so we don’t have to worry about throwing out the ‘gravity-hypothesis’. Similarly if a free agent were to stop the apple from falling from one point to another, that free agent would hardly be accused, in that instance, of violating physics (though perhaps they are interfering with a well laid-out experiment).

Thus, the Humean objection against miracles, suggesting that miracles are violations of natural laws and thus in principle lie outside the realm of science, (that is, cannot be analysed or construed as a useful part of a model of the world) simply falls flat on its face, since it presumes that the universe, understood as the sum of all physical-features of the world, is itself a closed system, which is not an assumption the Theist shares. Rather, Angels, Demons, immaterial and rational souls, along with God himself, can all plausibly influence the physical world without being a part of it on a theistic model.

It is seminally important to remember that science, for a Humean, is not about metaphysics, but about ‘models’. This makes their objection against miracles even more incredulous, since they must say that the best model of the world which we have must presume methodological naturalism – and this is precisely what the theist is in fundamental disagreement with. Moreover, how exactly is one to establish that? How would such an argument even go? They cannot argue just from the usefulness of the constraint in some cases, but they must argue for the usefulness of the constraint in all cases, so that any model which is not constrained by methodological naturalism is, at least on average, less useful than models constrained by methodological naturalism. If models are constrained by methodological Naturalism, and if the methodological naturalist is a metaphysical Pyrrhonian, as I argued in a paper this semester Hume clearly was, then there can be no legitimate evidence for a miracle at all. Indeed, a Humean asking for evidence of a miracle is asking for evidence of a thing which they are methodologically bound to consider out of the bounds of any good model (since models are methodologically constrained by Naturalism).

In fact, however, the kind of evidence which can be given for a miracle is always the kind of evidence which can be given for a scientific hypothesis – inductive and empirical. In more than one way, the evidence for miracles, such as the Resurrection, are as persuasive as inductive arguments can ever be. When people object that the resurrection violates natural laws they are simply confused about what the theist means by Resurrection, since such an event fits within a ‘scientific’ (that is, Theological) model of the world, and does not imply a change in mundane models of human mortality predicated on Cetirus Paribus conditions. If they maintain that belief in the Resurrection is based on human testimony rather than scientific models, they ignore both that Theological models of the world qualify as ‘scientific’ in this sense, and that all or almost all scientific knowledge we share with each other through educational institutions is accepted based on ‘human testimony’. In other words, if believing in the Resurrection is a problem not because it isn’t scientific, but because the way in which a person comes to believe in it is based on human testimony, then this epistemological ‘sin’ is also committed by all of us who believe in the best scientific models suggested by intellectual custom today.

Finally, it seems to me that in order to bypass the debate about miracles at this level, one simply has to propose arguments for thinking that theological-models of the world are more useful than models constrained by methodological Naturalism. They may be more useful in a few ways: First, as having more predictive power, and second as having more explanatory scope and explanatory power. I take it that, while the predictive power is not incredibly high, (since we are, as I have argued, just not at an epistemic vantage point which allows us to predict what God is likely or unlikely to do) the explanatory scope and power ought to lend the theological models empirical credence. Moreover, the pragmatic benefit of theological models is arguably extremely high, and greatly outweighs the pragmatic benefits of models constrained by methodological naturalism. Here, pragmatic benefit may be understood broadly enough to include such things as man finding a purposive dimension to reality, believing coherently in a ‘Raison d’être‘ so as to supply man with a sense of hope which reaches beyond the grave, etc. I have argued before, and should probably write up the argument formally, that if Atheism is true one ought to be a Theist, and if Atheism is false one ought to be a Theist; an argument which is in principle predicated on the aforementioned conviction. If this argument can be established, then it seems all of the serious Humean objections have been dealt with.

There is perhaps one last objection, which simply has to do with whether there is any reason for supposing a miracle occurred in events such as the Resurrection rather than suppose that God produced the miracle of having ink fall onto some parchment in such a way that the entire Gospel was ‘produced’ (we cannot say ‘written’ or ‘authored’) by sheer accident. Here, I think we can appeal to axiarchism; the idea that the world is designed in such a way that it is aimed to realize certain goods, which include that man can, in reflecting on the world, come to know that God exists (that ‘God exists’ is the inevitable or natural conclusion of reflecting on the model of the world to which we naturally come). As I argued before, miracles must present themselves as events which present an epistemological overlap, inviting the empirical inquirer into the wider world of Christian Metaphysics without necessitating Christian Metaphysics (indeed, no empirical evidence can ever ‘necessitate’ any conclusion whatever). If God were to do some miracle which itself did not act as a symbol which invites one into the world of meaning it implies, then whatever God did would not in principle be a miracle. Part of the theological definition of a miracle is that it is an action of God in the world designed to invite man into the world of faith.

Another point to be made might be that to render miracles unintelligible requires that one also make either unintelligible, or else at least epistemologically inaccessible, the hypothesis of Theism. If God does exist, and if he intends to reveal himself to us, how else could we possibly find him if he did not offer us ‘revelation’ which we encountered in our (collective) empirical experience of the world? If one, for a priori reasons cannot accept miracles, then they, for the same reasons, cannot accept revelation.

These thoughts may be a little rough, but I’ll publish these like this for now.

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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