Randal Rauser has proposed that we may be able to use a design filter as an epistemic tool for identifying miracles. What he means by a design filter here is really just an adaptation of William Dembski’s notion of ‘specified complexity’. The inspiration for this seems to be in part because Rauser realizes that the term ‘miracle’ did not, to the pre-scientific mind of the Biblical authors and their audience(s), entail something as strong as a violation of, or an exception to, the laws of physics, or anything like that. A miracle was an act of God (whether mediate or immediate) signifying something with theological or revelatory import. Therefore, it’s not out of the question that God can be said to perform a miracle even where one can give a satisfactory physical account of the happenstance. For instance, when a pastor prays to God for money needed to keep a church or ministry going, and the money comes in just in time; perhaps one can tell a causal story about how the money happened to be on the way before the pastor ever prayed for it, but that may not take away from the pastor’s justified belief that God had answered her prayer.
I think this is an extremely interesting proposal. Randal Rauser is in effect offering us a tool for justifying the inference of a miracle from the principle by which we can presumably make a legitimate design inference. One merely needs to identify three elements: 1) contingency, 2) complexity, 3) specificity. For those not already familiar with Dembski’s work on specified complexity, I will direct readers to his book. Now, Rauser’s proposal has received some criticism, for instance by Jonathan M.S. Pearce. However, I think Pearce says nothing directly opposed in principle to Rauser’s recommendation. Indeed, as I’ve followed the relevant blogs, posts and the overly rhetorical comments I simply found Pearce and others attacking the suggestion that any anecdotal examples Rauser put forward were really improbable after all. However, that just is to say that they don’t pass Rauser’s own standard. Maybe nothing passes Rauser’s design filter – that wouldn’t be any sort of defeater for the filter itself (even if it may be a weak defeater for miracles).
Rauser provides the following thought experiment on his blog (to which I’ve already linked):
Let’s say that Dave lives in a pre-scientific culture in the year AD 500. Dave is a missionary to a barbarous people and is about to have a power encounter with their head witch doctor in which he aims to show the superiority of the Christian god over their tribal deity of blood and soil… [Witch doctor does some magic] Dave is undeterred. “Yahweh, the one true God, is superior!” Dave says. “Watch him darken the very source of all fire, our sun!” And at that moment an eclipse which would have been predicted by able Ptolemaic or Newtonian astronomers, had any been around to predict it, commences. The crowd gasps at the awesome display.
Would it be rational for the audience to conclude that they had witnessed a miracle at the hands of Dave’s deity? Of course it would.
And would it in fact be the case that they had witnessed a miracle at the hands of Dave’s deity?
That depends. Presumably if Dave’s deity exists then he set up the scientific laws in the first place, and he did so knowing that at precisely the right moment Dave would predict an eclipse which would in fact occur due to those scientific laws.
Or, if we’re libertarians, God set the world up so that Dave would have the libertarian-free choice to trust God’s direction imparted by the Holy Spirit when God invites Dave to say such a thing. God doesn’t determine, nor is it determined by anyone other than Dave, that Dave will proclaim thus to the indigenous audience.
In the example above, all Randal Rauser is attempting to establish is that a person can be epistemically justified in inferring that a miracle has occurred, even where the laws of physics have not been (apparently) ‘broken’ or ‘suspended’, and that there may in fact be some instances of miracles which would be correctly inferred.
There may be some significant advantages to using Rauser’s design-filter to identify miracles. For instance, one who is so Humean as to think that nobody can ever be justified in believing that the laws of nature have been suspended (i.e., that the universe is ALWAYS a closed system), may find herself having to confront the resurrection of Jesus as a miracle to which our best physics assigns the quality of physical possibility. Whether there are any scientific laws which hold with nomic necessity (whose application yields deductive closure) and which allow room for a resurrection (making it a physically possible event), or not, nothing of significant import follow from this; regardless of whether such laws can be cited in one’s explanatory account of the resurrection, the inference form Jesus’ resurrection to the hypothesis that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth God revealed himself definitively to the world (and ultimately vindicated his claims by raising Jesus from the dead), remains entirely legitimate. I am, of course, very tempted to say that there are no actual laws of physics (that is, no ‘correct’ laws of physics) stipulated with nomic necessity which make it possible that Jesus rose again naturally from the dead, but the point is that even if there were such laws one could legitimize calling the resurrection a miracle precisely because it passes this demarcation principle.
If one can use this demarcation criteria for miracles then one may also, in principle, be able to distinguish paranormal activities from miracles, (thus there is no fear of taking any miraculous paranormal activity as the explanandum of scientific investigation, or even not being sure whether to take such events as scientific explananda). I think that this principle has a lot of mileage; it is both a brilliant demarcation principle for miracles, and also one for which I cannot think of any available defeater.
So, not only is a miracle not an exception to any scientific law which is stipulated to hold with nomic necessity (as I have argued and explained previously), but even where some event can be explanatorily captured by such scientific laws it may nevertheless remain genuinely miraculous. The demarcation principle is independent of whether one can give a satisfactory scientific explanation of the physical events in question, so that the question of whether what occurs can be captured by the language of science is just superfluous to the question of whether what occurs is miraculous.