Examine the Key Ideas of the Concept of Miracles (2017), by Sean Gabb

Examine the Key Ideas of the Concept of Miracles

Note: One of my duties in the various places where I teach is to show students how to write essays – something most young people are not nowadays taught to do. What I like to do in class is to choose a question at random, discuss possible approaches, and then dictate an answer one paragraph at a time. Some of these answers are very short. Some are just notes. Some amount to small dissertations. In this latter case, the students take turns at looking on-line for the information we decide is needed. It they cannot find it, I show them how to change the structure of what has already been written, or to strike out in a new direction.

It is a “writing masterclass” approach that makes use of my own strengths, and is often a welcome alternative to formal teaching. It fills up a long morning session. Everyone learns something, and the more attentive will improve their final grades by at least one step.

Here is an example of the finished product. Do not take it as a statement of personal opinion. It is an answer produced for a specific question, and it bears in mind what a possibly unknown examiner will appreciate, and what can be written to incorporate the sources found in class. SIG

PS – If anyone wants to engage my services as a teacher of these skills, please click on the image to the left. Though they are my niche subjects, Greek and Latin are not my exclusive focus as a teacher. I do much else besides.


Examine the Key Ideas of the Concept of Miracles

In the everyday sense, a miracle can be anything that is unexpected or a happy stroke of luck. But, following David Hume, a miracle may be defined philosophically as a violation of a known law of nature, which in turn we may call an observed and apparently invariable regularity of events.

For example, when a person dies his body immediately begins to decay. There is good medical reasoning to say that a man who has been dead for two weeks cannot be brought back to life, and cannot be brought back after an hour. It was therefore a miracle when Christ raised Lazarus, who had been three days in his grave.

According to this definition, the concept of a miracle is meaningless  without the idea that there are indeed laws of nature. Imagine a people who have no scientific understanding and who believe that everything that happens is the result of divine choice. In this case there are no miracles. You see a dead body rot away. You say this is God’s will. You see a dead man get up after three days. You say that is God’s will.

Therefore the concept of the miraculous only exists in a community that has made some progress  to understanding the universe as an orderly and predictable machine.

A further key idea of the miraculous is that an event is indeed completely outside any natural explanation. For example, it used to be believed that the appearance of a comet was an intervention by God to advertise some big future event. We now know that a comet is an extra-terrestrial object with an unusual orbit. But it is a miracle that a man who was undeniably dead should come back to life.

A further key idea is that a miracle must have some religious significance. For example, if I pray for my sister to be cured from cancer which all the doctors agree will kill her, and she gets better, we have an event worth discussing as a miracle. If on the other hand an ice cube takes twelve hours to melt in a kettle of boiling water, we just have an anomaly.

Following on, a miracle needs to justify a particular set of religious beliefs. If my sister is cured of cancer by the waters of Lourdes, that may validate the various claims made by the Catholic Church.

Now, this is perhaps the main practical use of miracles. In the four Gospels, Christ performs many miracles. He raises the dead. He feeds five thousand with a few loaves and fishes. He turns water into wine. Ultimately, he returns to live after his own public execution. His purpose is not to provoke wonder in his disciples, or to gain power and respect for himself. The purpose of all his miracles is to make good the claim that God has intervened in secular history, and has sent his own son to redeem us of our sins. Continuing miracles – the ever-liquefying blood of St Januarius, for example, or the Shroud of Turin – have the same purpose, which is to show that there has been an incarnation and that we are called to believe in it.

Comment on the view that a miracle does not violate the laws of nature

A miracle can be said not to violate the laws of nature only so far as, rightly considered, miracles do not happen. David Hume produced the most famous and influential work on miracles. We still think of them largely in the terms that he laid down in the 18th century. He seeks to raise an evidential bar so high that there is never satisfactory reason for saying that a miracle has happened. He says:

  • We are mostly aware of miracles from the reports of others. Now if someone tells me that he has seen a man come back from the dead, I can believe one of several things – that the dead do indeed rise, or that the reporter is lying or mistaken. Following Ockham’s Razor, I accept the simplest explanation which is mistake or fraud.
  • Alleged miracles that we ourselves witness are similarly suspect. If I see a man rise from the dead, I ask which is more likely – that a man has risen from the dead, or that I am mistaken or deceived, or that the man was not really dead?
  • Most reports of miracles are from what Hume calls “barbarous ages”. As a society grows in knowledge and sophistication, reports of miracles become less frequent.
  • If miraculous cures at Lourdes validate the Catholic faith, what can we say about equally miraculous cures from bathing in the River Ganges.

Or, if on examination an event does violate the known laws of nature we still do not need to say that it is a miracle. We can say that our previous knowledge of the laws of nature was defective, and  that this apparently impossible event leads us to a better understanding of nature. An example of this is the discovery of radium. The first evidence for this was the spoiling of photographic plates that could not possibly have been exposed to light. But instead of calling this a miracle, the Curies investigated as scientists and discovered a whole new branch of the laws of nature.

In this sense, then, miracles do not violate the laws of nature, because there is no reason for believing in miracles.

© 2017, seangabb.

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