Friday, November 5, 2010

Epistemology and Miracles

In this paper I will defend the claim that we are sometimes justified in believing that a miracle has occurred, and I will examine three criteria (two necessary, one sufficient) for making that determination. Since I have not the space here for a thoroughgoing exploration of the topic, certain considerations must be omitted from our discussion. I will not, for example, set forth a general theory of knowledge in the light of which miraculous claims may be included as a subset of acceptable propositions, nor will I attempt rigorously to criticize various skeptical arguments to the contrary. Instead, I will assume that there exists in all fully functioning human beings a basic process of belief-formation which, while perhaps not amenable to explicit presentation, is nonetheless intuitively solid enough to be taken as a datum. Using this as a starting point, I will simply describe the analytic conditions under which a miracle can be said to have occurred, given that the justification for belief in said miracle must ultimately rest upon the same mysterious process which justifies the rest of our more prosaic beliefs. On this account, a miracle requires no special epistemic warrant; it is simply a type of belief, and it falls to us to analyze the type of belief that it is.

Since the term “miracle” has rather a broad application in contemporary usage, most of our ensuing discussion—indeed all of it—will derive its impetus from the manner in which we choose to define it. I take it for granted that we are not interested in colloquialisms (e.g., “It will be a miracle if the Broncos make it to the Super Bowl this year.”), but in the traditional religious sense of the word, viz. a suspension of the natural order, carrying with it a supreme moral or revelatory significance, and seemingly emanating from the heart of reality itself, i.e. God. This definition contains explicitly all that is comprehended in the concept of miracle as such. Consequently, it contains implicitly the very criteria by which we are to judge purportedly miraculous occurrences. The remainder of this paper will focus on the three distinguishing marks of the miraculous, with commentary on the unique epistemological concerns relevant to each, and will conclude with a prima facie argument that any set of conditions minimally requisite for justified human belief-formation would also require the admittance of miraculous occurrences into our general picture of reality. The criteria I mean to examine, then, are these:

Condition One: Natural Insufficiency

A miracle is a sense-perceptible event, not a subjective interpretation of an event. By declaring them thus, we rule out the possibility that miraculous claims can be reduced to merely ordinary occurrences that happen to have a high symbolic value for people in a particular state of mind. Miracles happen “in the field of nature;” and like every other natural event, they can be objectively witnessed and subjected to various tests. The first criterion of a miracle, then, is that it is a physical occurrence that exceeds the ordinary powers of nature to produce. But this immediately raises a problem: If we do not have an exhaustive description of the laws of nature (and few would argue that we do), then how can we say of a certain event that it is beyond the capacities of nature to perform? Perhaps there are unknown laws of nature that could produce the same effect; or alternatively, perhaps there are individual laws of nature, each severally known more-or-less exhaustively, that can combine in unexpected ways, under unusual circumstances, to produce it.

However, this objection would have force only on the supposition that there are no known laws of nature, the violation of which would strike us as impossible in the natural course of events. On the contrary, if there are such laws, then there is something in reference to which a miracle can be defined. Therefore, if an event seems to violate the most fundamental and generally applicable physical principles that we know of, then we can conclude with certainty that it “exceeds the ordinary powers of nature to produce.”

And there are such principles. There exist, namely, the so-called “conservation laws” of matter and energy, and also the second law of thermodynamics, which we might call the conservation law of entropy. These laws are not so much empirical discoveries as they are a priori necessities of systematic physical theorizing, for any physics that failed to include them would be unreliable and worthless. If an event violates any of these, then whatever else it may be, it must certainly derive from somewhere beyond the system of nature-knowledge. The first condition is thus shown to be a necessary condition; for if nature herself can produce the effect, it is ipso facto not miraculous. Intelligent people can disagree about whether the condition is ever satisfied in practice, but we have shown it to be at least satisfiable in principle. We have thus denied a leg to those skeptics who say, following Hume, that “whatever happens is natural and the unnatural does not happen.” This statement’s first conjunct is defeasible due to the fact that hypothetical and otherwise believable events may nevertheless trespass the strict nomological relationships inherent in the concept of “nature.”

But the first condition is not sufficient for authenticating a miracle. There is more going on in the world than just the blind operation of physical laws: there are also intelligent beings who contend with and against these laws, and who are capable of devising many ingenious tricks of self-deception. When giving a full description of a miracle, we do not want to know merely what happened, but also why it happened. Why were the laws of nature suspended for this person, at this particular time and place, and not others? To answer that question we must discuss not only how miracles relate to the laws that govern nature, but also how they relate to the laws that govern rational creatures—and that leads us to our second condition.

Condition Two: Narrative Applicability

If a tree unnaturally materializes in a forest, and there’s no one around to see it, is that a miracle? And furthermore, does anybody care? The answers to these questions are, respectively, “no” and “no.” Miracles never happen outside of a personal context—they happen to somebody, and they happen to a purpose. All miraculous claims of which I am aware can be subsumed under the general headings of supernatural healings and provisions, military victories, and prophetic apparitions disclosing important information. In other words, one effect of miracles is to fulfill the moral and physical needs of human beings under conditions in which those needs would not otherwise be met. But this reading assumes that there is some sort of teleology supervening over the lives of individual humans, and over human history as a whole. A story is being told; and the purpose of the miracle is to impact the story at critical junctures, and to bring about the desirable ending. Thus, the second criterion of a genuine miracle is its narrative applicability.

The inclusion of this criterion is made necessary by the fact that a miracle must be received and understood as such before it can be believed. Therefore it must have some sort of cognizable structure or recognizable quality about it, despite issuing from beyond the boundary of physical law. A miracle that served no human purpose would be superfluous if not harmful, and would hardly be worthy of the name. It would be more like a local breakdown of order altogether, a fissure pouring forth chaos and mayhem into the universe. Obviously such an event could never be given a meaningful interpretation. It could not appear in human consciousness except as the sort of radical negation that is not encountered outside of explicitly philosophical speculation, and that would violate the previous stipulation that miracles be sense-perceptible.

The second criterion, then, is also seen to be necessary: any non-natural event that has no narrative applicability—an event not ordered to the fulfillment of human needs—is ipso facto not a miracle. Whether or not such events may nevertheless occur is, of course, a separate question; but if they did occur, they would doubtless not be called miracles, and that is our only concern at present. So we have reached a point where we can safely conclude that miracles, while indeed representing violations of physical law, yet conform to a higher law of reason and structure, rooted in the inmost needs of human beings. But this condition too is not sufficient, for it does not follow from it that these supposed miracles are not produced through the agency of some less-than-divine will, in which case they would not “emanate from the heart of reality.” For that we need a further condition, to which we will now turn.

Condition Three: The Holiness Criterion

In order to be fully convinced that our candidate miracle has a divine provenance, we must be able to ground it in some ontological precept “than which no greater can be thought,” in the words of St. Anselm. We cannot rule out the possibility that there are persons in the universe who are sensitive to hidden truths, who can consolidate powers not generally known, and who can use these powers to produce seemingly miraculous effects. I think the existence of such persons is in fact quite likely; thus we stand in need of some criterion capable of distinguishing genuine miracles from the counterfeits of a profound and clever magician. In other words, we need some way of telling miracles apart from sorcery. This would not be possible unless we accepted some version of the ontological argument for God’s existence. I do not mean to reprise that argument here, for in the present context it raises the spectre of circularity. I do not intend to argue in such a way that my conclusion becomes: “I can believe in miracles because I can believe in God.” Rather, I am assuming several things about the state of mind of the person who wishes to verify that the event he has just witnessed is in fact a miracle. First of all, I am assuming that this person is already convinced of God’s existence on quite other grounds, i.e. the ontological argument. I am also assuming that the event he’s just witnessed completely fulfills the first two conditions, thus giving him a strong warrant for believing in its miraculousness. Now just as he is about to give his assent to the proposition that “Since what I have just witnessed was a miracle, I can be sure it was God who performed it,” a skeptic comes along and poses a Kierkegaardian conundrum: How do you know your miracle was not produced by someone else?

This question, if unanswerable, would prove fatal for the miracle-claim, since it follows from our definition that only God can perform miracles. But we cannot take the low road of simply defining miracles into existence, so we need some independent way of showing why the definition must hold. This way is provided by the holiness criterion. In accepting the ontological argument we have also accepted its correlates—namely, that God is a necessary and perfect being who is good-itself (i.e. holy), and that God is the only such being. Therefore the quality of holiness can be predicated only of God. And since God is not a deceiver (borrowing a page from Descartes), we know that any event carrying with it the aura of holiness gives us thereby the clear and distinct idea that it was produced by God and only by God.

The third condition is the king-maker. It is the only truly sufficient condition for granting a warrant of miraculous occurrence, but it does not operate in isolation from the other two. The final justification for belief in miracles can now be expressed by the following complex conditional:

If an event gives me the clear and distinct impression of holiness then, provided that conditions (1) and (2) are also satisfied, I know that the event was a miracle performed by God (and not by anyone else).

Notice that the entailment does not also run the other way around—this definition does not say that everything holy is necessarily a miracle. And that is an important feature of the theory, for God’s holiness can of course find expression in other, non-miraculous ways. What the theory does do is provide an unambiguous test by which to distinguish miracles from all other possible experiences. Therefore it is an indispensable component of any further justification for belief in miracles, which was to be shown.


The claim I defended in this paper was a subjunctive conditional: “If there were miracles, then they would be thus-and-so.” I have said nothing to the effect that miracles actually are. I know of no proof that could be given a skeptic that would satisfy him on this account, and in fact I think it quite impossible to devise one. But I also think that the separate elements presented here collectively provide a rather strong prima facie argument that miracles ought to be accepted. In the first place, we have shown that natural laws are a necessity of all human thought pertaining to physical systems; but that, paradoxically, their violation is not only not unthinkable, but has often enough been justifiably believed. Secondly, we have shown that miraculous claims are never arbitrary with respect to human life, as they might be expected to be if the events in question did no meaningful work and were not ordered to a purpose. Finally, we have shown that the experience of holiness, which is among the more ubiquitous experiences of mankind, is sufficient for a belief in miracles when certain other conditions obtain. Search the annals of epistemology though we may, we are unlikely to find any better justification for belief-claims than the combination of possibility, empirical validation, and near-universal agreement. The miracle concept meets these standards, and skeptics should reconsider their position.

Epistemology and Miracles -

1 comment:

  1. Dear Matt,

    I found your blog by way of a comment you left at First Things. I'm very curious about the connection you cite between Archbishop Chaput and Stanley Hauerwas. Would you send me email? Thanks, I'm looking forward to hearing from you.

    My email is MJR!2021 at gmail dot com (remove the exclamation point)