Category Archives: Miracles

Heuristic questions

Two useful questions to ask habitually are

“What can I learn from this?”

and

“How can I use this?”

To use Nassim Taleb’s neologism, these are ‘antifragile’ heuristics.

Christianity lends itself naturally to these questions, because it views the universe as essentially purposive. God has a plan for the universe -> that plan can (if we so choose) involve us -> therefore, events that occur (can) fit into this plan.

Therefore, it’s a natural question for a Christian to ask

“What purpose can God have for this?”

which leads fairly naturally to the two above questions.

If you think of God as a creative, on-going God, then you also can think of God as consistently asking himself the two above questions, and then coordinating people and things (to the extent they are willing – see process theology) in creative solutions.

Does the supernatural – natural distinction collapse?

A common view in Christianity is that God acts ‘super-naturally’. Because God is ‘above’ nature (nature being a creation of God), when God acts it is a ‘super’-natural act, and the act does not obey ‘natural’ laws, as God is ‘above’ or ‘prior’ to nature.

To say God is ‘above’ or ‘prior’ is meant in a logical sense, as space or time are aspects of the natural universe (so the standard idea goes) – this is metaphorical language to express something that is difficult to think about. Similarly, to say God created the universe is not to say there was a sequence of events in time, where beforehand the universe did not exist, and then it did. Again, ‘created’ past-tense is meant to reflect a logical sense of priority in understanding nature.

How would one be able to distinguish between something acting according to ‘natural’ principles and something acting according to ‘super-natural’ principles? There are two problems here.

The first is that our knowledge of natural laws is limited. Whatever seems to be non-natural may actually be natural, but just something we don’t understand yet. Since there is a strong inductive argument that can be made to the effect that our understanding of the universe is in the beginning, not near the end, it very well may be that things which occur and seem to surpass natural law are actually adhering to natural law.

If we were to investigate a cause-and-effect situation, and it did not seem to comply with what is believed to be known natural law, then we are left with three major options. 1. We misunderstand the situation, and it actually does comply with known natural law. 2. We are mistaken in some of our views about natural law. 3. There is a non-natural cause in effect.

The question then becomes how to distinguish between situations where 2. applies, and where 3. applies. This leads to the second problem in distinguishing between natural and super-natural acts. If God acts from ‘outside’ of nature, then presumably God doesn’t act capriciously. Rather, there is an order or logic to God’s actions, even if it might be difficult for us to understand them (just as it was difficult for humans to understand various natural laws that are now better understood).

So, even if there are super-natural causes in effect in the universe, there would still be patterns to these. The question would then be how we would distinguish these non-natural patterns (‘laws’) from natural ones?

I think to answer this question would require a detailed concept of how God supposedly acts and why that would be involved in something logically ‘above’ nature. At what juncture would we say this effect comes ‘from’ something ‘outside’ the universe, while this effect does not, outside of the criterion outlined above (i.e., something not complying with what is believed to be known natural law)?

The problem here is that we determine that something exists from its effects. We do not have access, even in cases of supposed natural law, to the acts themselves.

Consider something like lightning. How do we know that the causes and effects are all natural? Because we can describe them coherently as operating with the natural order. Yet, what sort of effects would defy this? It is important to remember that the nature of nature has constantly been revised. Electromagnetic phenomena, for example, at one point in the history of science wouldn’t plausibly have been classified as physical, but then the definition of ‘physical’ changed. And so on.

Take, for example, supposed synchronicities, which are sometimes taken as evidence of God acting (sometimes called ‘providence’, other times ‘miracles’). If we grant that synchronicities occur, and that they defy what are believed to be known natural laws, on what basis would we say they are not natural as opposed to saying they work in accordance with some hitherto poorly understood natural law? Presumably, this basis would have to do with our understanding of something logically prior to the universe. Yet, saying what that might be, without entering into a circular argument (this is attributed to God, God is super-natural, therefore this is super-natural) becomes very difficult.

In the end, my guess is that the debate about natural and super-natural causes is not that important where we are epistemically. Rather, there are patterns in the universe, we can detect them, and we can develop models to explain them. Beginning this should be the focus.

Developing a robust picture of nature, what was ‘before’ nature, and the causal interactions between them, and how that maps onto various effects commonly attributed to God – these are all important questions – but answers to them are not required to begin investigating those effects and developing models.

Most importantly, one should not focus on debating the words, which it seems occupies a large amount of the debate on these issues (for example, if someone believes there can’t be super-natural causes, they won’t bother looking at evidence for God’s effects – this is to mistake concepts, ‘super-natural’ and ‘God’ in this case, for the effects, and hence potentially miss veritable cause-and-effect situations, however the cause is to be understood).

How miracles happen

If ‘miracles’ occur (i.e., God affecting the universe, manifested through non-chance coincidings – etymologically, miracle just means an event that causes wonder), the pattern that is observed is that they (at least tend to) occur somehow and they occur through things.

(It is probably useful to note before proceeding that these non-chance coincidings attributable to God, according to Christianity, seem to happen quite often. For example, although a dramatic non-chance coinciding might not happen often in a given person’s life, if you multiply that by the number of people on the globe, the number of supposed dramatic miracles occurring is very high indeed.)

So, to explain a miracle by showing how it happened isn’t to really explain the miracle. What requires explanation is the probability – was it likely or not given some standard background repertoire of explanation?

For example, take a story from the Old Testament (because it can act as a common point of reference), of Moses striking a rock and water flowing, which supposedly replenished the people and livestock. Let us assume here that this is based on something that actually happened. How would this have happened? Well, presumably there was a water source somewhere in the desert, and Moses somehow found it.

This seems like it would be unlikely given conventional explanations. So, if you say “Aha! There was just this water behind or under a rock, and then Moses just happened to strike the rock, and so release the water! No miracle involved!” this is to misunderstand the situation, because miracles occur through things – there will probably be some back story like this. Rather, what has to be explained is the probability – is it reasonable to posit that this occurred through conventional mechanisms?

(The secular response to this is to explain away most seeming non-chance coincidings where the events are recent (unlike various events in the Gospels, say, where the evidential situation is different due to the intervening time). This can be done because the probability frameworks are difficult to establish, and so one can maintain that it was chance, or some more conventional causal explanation that doesn’t require great improbabilities, even though it might seem otherwise.)

God and organism

In Christianity, one metaphor that is often used to better understand God and our interaction with him is organic – that of God as having a ‘body’. Just as a human body is composed of cells, God’s ‘body’ is composed of humans (at least in part).

This points to a larger notion in Christianity – that God is coordinating action such as to bring about a certain result, just as cells are coordinated to do things.

What evidence is there to support such a notion? There are two main sources. The first is a sense of communication (and so relationship) with God. The second is non-chance co-incidings that occur and seem aimed at a result (‘miracles‘ in Christianity).

The first involves a cycle of ‘speaking’, ‘listening‘, discernment, and then action. The idea is that God can guide us – gives us signs or intuitions. It is in this context that the idea of Christian ‘faith‘ takes on probably its most important sense – trusting that what God wants us to do (after we have applied discernment – a skill or know-how that is developed over time, like any skill) is what we should do.

(So, faith here is not blind trust that God exists, but rather trust in what God wants us to do – trusting it is what’s the correct course of action for us and more generally speaking. Why does it make sense to trust? The typical Christian reason is that one builds a relationship of trust, trusting and then seeing what the result is. In this sense, the warrant for ‘faith in God’ is empirical, based on one’s own experiences and the experiences of others.)

In Christianity, what God is doing is attempting to ‘bring about the Kingdom’. A Kingdom itself is, in a sense, an organic metaphor. It is an organization of humans, functioning to achieve certain ends. The basic idea in Christianity is that, beginning with the Logos incarnating in human form (Jesus of Nazareth), this ‘Kingdom’ has begun to take shape. Our purpose is to help to bring about this state of affairs – the full development of this organic state.

(God is not really understood in traditional Christianity as being separated from the universe – this is more a deist re-reading of parts of Christianity in wake of certain intellectual developments in the last few hundred years, where ‘miracles’ are understood as God ‘interfering’ with natural laws, instead of probably a more traditional and perhaps plausible understanding of God’s causal role as more closely involved with the universe.)

Evolutionary theory and Christianity

Are certain non-chance coincidences, as understood in the Christian sense as occurrences attributable to God, something it is reasonable to believe occurred in the development of organisms?

The obvious, standard secular answer is that we have ‘no need of that hypothesis’. I.e., it is believed that whatever the causal story, it won’t involve non-chance coincidences attributable to God.

1. The specific claim tends to be that we already have a sufficient causal story of how organisms developed through evolution (i.e., some sort of random changing of genetic material and natural selection). 2. The more general background belief is that there isn’t a God, and therefore there can’t be non-chance coincidences attributable to God occurring in the evolutionary development of organisms.

The more general claim, 2., is based on considerations for or against there being a God of the Christian sort, which in a partially circular way also encompasses beliefs about evolutionary theory. It therefore becomes a bit more tricky to use this belief as a reason not to believe that God was operative in evolutionary development. One would have to suss out the aspects of the belief not based on a belief in some kind of secular evolutionary theory, and then argue from those.

The specific claim, 1., seems lacking. It is fairly difficult to test most claims about evolutionary development – indeed, most evolutionary explanations that trade on the standard theory of evolutionary development simply assume it’s true, and then try to show how it could make sense of observed behaviour, morphology, and so on. There are a few claims that can be investigated in a fairly robust way, but they are only suggestive – explaining a small fraction of what is to be explained (typically, these involve small changes in animals that replicate very quickly), but with large promissory notes (“but this can in principle also explain everything else”). Everything else is largely coherent – it makes sense given certain premises – but is difficult to actually test in a robust way.

My background belief is that we probably know very little about evolutionary biology – we have a few contingent, rapidly changing ideas about how things work. We have a few theories that are at least partially correct.

The Christian background belief is that there are lots of evidence for non-chance co-incidings – bringing together of events – that are broadly compatible with Christian understandings of God. So, for a Christian, postulating these co-incidings as being operative in evolutionary development is not theoretically ‘expensive’  but rather economical. (This is a far cry from showing these co-incidings are or have been operative in evolutionary development.)

Why is this important? There are a few aspects of evolutionary theory that are seemingly incompatible with Christianity. The first is a collection of claims, such as the amount of time involved or the order of appearance of animals. The second is contrary to the idea that God in some important sense is involved in the creation of humans.

The first one is part of a class of claims that is not really specific to evolutionary biology – it includes geology, astronomy, and so on. It is also a type of issue that has been noticeable for a long time – well before modern articulations of evolutionary theory – and has been dealt with for a long time by Christian thinkers. For example, in a creation story in the book of Genesis the Sun is described as being created on the fourth day, after several mornings or nights. Ancient readers long have recognized that one cannot have a morning or night without the Sun, and indeed the authors themselves probably would have noticed such a thing. The obvious conclusion to draw was that the authors weren’t meaning what might make the story obviously false. This sort of consideration could also apply to conflicts between evolutionary time, ordering of species, and so on. (This is the standard Catholic view – different parts of the Bible are different kinds of literature, Genesis in large part is not doing what a modern cosmology or geology textbook is doing, or trying to do. For example, the Sun being created on the fourth day might be a response to those at the time who worshiped Sun godsthe point here then is something like the Sun being created by God, and not even being created first by God.)

The second one – that God in some important sense is involved in the creation of humans – seems more important, and central to everyday Christian belief and practice. One way God could be involved is through co-incidings – bringing together of events in the unfolding of the universe such as to lead to creatures like humans.

So, on the one hand a considered evaluation of evolutionary theory only gives us broad outlines of what happened. On the other hand, a Christian has a large empirical basis to support a phenomenon – non-chance co-incidings of things – that could support the idea of God creating humans in some relevant sense.

How would one test this? Well, like most things in evolutionary theory, it seems quite difficult to test in a robust way. However, if one were to show that it simply wasn’t likely for life to develop the way it has given the time available and the postulated secular mechanisms, then that would lend support to the idea of non-chance co-incidings attributable to God being in operation. Yet, it would still only be suggestive, as there are a large number of possible mechanisms that could be in operation, or our understanding of the relevant biology could be incorrect in some other way.

The practical outcome of these considerations, I think, is that a belief that God in some relevant sense created or had some part in the creation of humans in the evolutionary process, given the extent of our knowledge at this time, is reasonable to the extent that a belief in God in general is reasonable. So, for Christians who have warranted grounds for believing in God on other bases, it is reasonable. Of course, that could change as we learn more about evolutionary processes.

Are miracles unlikely events?

Richard Dawkins quotes David Hume (the 18th century Scottish philosopher) in The God Delusion (2006, p. 91) concerning the likelihood of miracles:

“No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.”

As Dawkins goes on to argue in reference to an event at Fatima in 1917, where thousands of pilgrims supposedly saw the sun ‘crashing down’:

“It may seem improbable that seventy thousand people could simultaneously be deluded, or could simultaneously collude in a mass lie. […] Or that they all simultaneously saw a mirage [. …] But any of those apparent improbabilities is far more probable than the alternative: that the Earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit, and the solar system destroyed, with nobody outside Fatima noticing. I mean, Portugal is not that isolated.”

This argument (and David Hume’s) seems to rest on a misunderstanding of what a miracle is. A miracle is not a highly unlikely event. Rather, a miracle is an event that seems highly unlikely if certain conventional methods of explanation are used. In the case of Fatima above, the obvious answer to Dawkins’ response is: there is probably something else going on, which is likely. For example, when thousands of people saw the sun ‘crashing down’, it did not involve a literal movement of the sun as Dawkins interprets any ‘miracle’ to have to involve. There is some other explanation, which does not involve very low probabilities.

Indeed, this sort of explanation is probably the explanation that people would accept once it is pointed out (whatever it might be).

For more on a way to define what miracles are, see here.

What are miracles?

One way to define a ‘miracle’ is as a non-chance coincidence, attributable to God.

(A coincidence is a co-inciding, a bringing together of events.)

A common misunderstanding is that miracles by definition are ‘unlikely’. This probably isn’t a useful way to understand a miracle. Rather, miracles appear unlikely, given conventional methods of explanation, and therefore point to some other kind of explanation, such as the Christian God.

Another common misunderstanding is that miracles are ‘unusual’. Given the definition above, miracles are probably fairly common. That is, Christians will have striking, seemingly non-chance coincidences which occur fairly often. Miracles are not confined to certain supposed events described in the New Testament, or the Old Testament. Instead, the evidence for miracles is widespread, occurring to many people and in some cases many times, varying in their degrees of noticeability.

Finally, another misunderstanding is that miracles happen ‘out of nothing’. In the Christian tradition, God usually works ‘through’ things – people, natural events, and so on. So, miraculous events in a sense will have a natural explanation. The point, however, is that so considered they will seem unlikely, and this suggests that there is something else in operation ‘coordinating’ the natural events. This thing can be what Christians call ‘God’.

With miracles understood as ‘non-chance coincidences, attributable to God’, there are two basic questions. The first is whether the coincidences are indeed non-chance (i.e., they are not explainable in terms of chance coincidence). Sometimes, something seems improbable but actually isn’t. The second is whether the coincidences are attributable to God – i.e., if it is established that they are unlikely given the conventional methods of explanation, the question is whether God is a warranted hypothesis. Both these questions are complex, and not easily resolvable, except through detailed examination of the evidence, and difficult questions concerning the nature of evidence and postulates to explain that evidence.

So, breezy abstract philosophical attempts to show how miracles ‘couldn’t’ occur are probably misplaced.