Are miracles impossible?
Do Miracles violate the Laws of nature? Are Miracles even possible? Are miracles possible in the physical universe or are they impossible because they would violate the laws of nature? Many have argued that miracles can never happen because the laws of nature prohibit miracles from occurring.
The philosopher David Hume claimed to have dealt with this issue centuries ago in his essay of miracles when he boldly proclaimed:
“A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature and firm, unalterable experience has established these laws. The proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. It is a miracle that a dead man should come to life because that has never been observed in any age or country, there must, therefore, be uniform experience against every miraculous event otherwise the event would not merit the appellation”.David Hume, A Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding 10.1 page 76-77
So basically Hume’s argument is this:
- Miracles violate the laws of nature
- The experience of ordinary history confirms his principle
- Miracles are outside of our experience, which establishes the laws of nature
- Therefore, they are impossible.
- But if you look closely you’ll see there are numerous problems with this line of reasoning.
First, Hume establishes the laws of nature through unalterable experience. One of Hume’s problems and others who hold to his theory is they haven’t evaluated all of human experience, they have merely evaluated their own experience of the world (So Hume is a sample of one). In addition, one has to realise that humanity has not yet seen everything there is to see nor solve the vast mysteries of the universe, so you can’t say your experience establishes unalterable laws.
“You can’t make an immutable law of nature just from your experience of what you’ve observed. That is not logically possible”.Philosopher of Science, Joshua Moritz summarises it like this
So how could Hume say that his experience excludes the possibility of miracles? Especially when not everyone agrees with him. If human experience, which includes all humans establishes the laws of nature and establishes they cannot be violated, then how do we account for people who report miracles in their experience? How can Hume say a dead man rising has never been observed in any age or country if people have reported this event and do not share his experience? Their uniform experience contradicts Hume’s and, therefore, all of human experience doesn’t establish miracles can never happen.
Infact, polls across the globe suggest that one-third of all people have had a spiritual experience and therefore human experience has not established that miracles can never happen, unless you do as Hume does and assume all reports of miracles are lies in order to say miracles do not happen—but this would be arguing in a circle.
As CS Lewis said
“We must agree with Hume that if there is absolutely uniform experience against miracles, if in other words they have never happened, why then they never have. Unfortunately we know the experience against them to be uniform only if we know all reports of them are false and we can know all reports to be false only if we know already that miracles have never occurred. In fact we are arguing in a circle”.CS Lewis, Miracles
The Atheist John Earman wrote a short book called “Hume’s Abject Failure” where he responds to Hume’s work inquiry concerning human understanding is a failure. He shows with a method called Bayes theorem that Hume’s argument doesn’t work—Hume is simply presupposing miracles cannot happen in order to say miracles cannot happen. The argument, in his own words, is an abject and obvious failure.
One of the points Earman brings up is the fact that contemporaries of Hume responded to him with the example of a prince from a tropical climate who has never seen ice. By Hume’s logic, he is correct in believing there’s no such thing as ice from just hearing reports of its existence, since that would be extraordinary by his experience alone and thus he could say it is impossible for ice to exist. Hume’s only response to this was to claim that ice was not outside of all human experience. But Earman responds estuitly to this attempt by pointing out there was a time when all human experience was limited to a small group that arose in Africa and no one had experienced ice then. So by Hume’s logic, ice would violate a natural law since it was beyond uniform human experience at that time and this is the exact same problem one has when they apply Hume’s reasoning to reports of miracles.
If I you say miracles cannot happen because uniform human experience excludes miracles and you exclude all reports of miracles as false because you know miracles do not happen then you were just arguing in a circle. In doing so, one starts with a belief that miracles do not happen and jumps to the conclusion that miracles do not happen. Hume’s argument is a shambles when examined thoroughly.
But what about Hume’s second part? He states that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such kind that it’s falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.
Simply put, the miracle itself must be more probable than if the person was lying who’s reporting it
David hume - A Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding 10.1
Well that is obvious. You need to evaluate the evidence for the specific miracle claim and weigh the options to see if the evidence favours its truth or falsehood, not dismiss it outright from a philosophical presupposition (Which is what Hume does). Hume has said nothing the theist would reject here.
The miracles that are listed on this website for example, will have (for modern miracles) accredited documentation.
As John Earman our atheist pal in this says
“All the parties on the opposite side of Hume in the 18th century debate on miracles knew that miracle claims could not be established without the help of very strong evidence, in some cases they thought they had produced the required evidence, perhaps they were wrong but to show that they were wrong takes more than solemnly uttered platitudes”.Hume’s Abject Failure, John Earman
When it comes to the resurrection for example, Christians will argue it is more likely the event happened over the possibility of that the apostles lied. For Hume to say this is not at odds with what Christians argued. In other words Hume has said nothing really profound, but an obvious point of agreement on both sides of the aisle.
Another error is how Hume defines a miracle as a violation of natural law. This is extremely odd for two reasons.
First, theists have defined miracles long before Hume ever came onto the scene (and no one ever agreed that Hume’s definition was the universally accepted definition).
Thomas Aquinas came long before Hume, right before Hume, Samuel Clarke rightly pointed out a miracle is best defined as “an effect produced contrary to the usual course or order of nature by the unusual interposition of some intelligent beings superior to men”.
Samuel Clarke - A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God: And other, p150
The laws of nature are only meant to describe the effects of how natural things operate if left untouched. But that means natural laws do not exclude the possibility that an outside agent could change or feed something new into this system, and then of course the laws of nature can then describe what takes place after the fact.
Professor John Lennox of Oxford says
“If you turn water into wine, then if you drink too much of it, it will intoxicated according to the normal law of nature. But the laws of nature cannot forbid God feeding a new event into nature, after all the laws of nature cannot prevent God creating the whole thing in the first place with the regularities that science has observed”.John Lennox, Professor, Oxford
This is what leads philosophers like Professor Keith Ward to state
“The notion of an event beyond the natural powers of objects is more satisfactory than Hume’s idea of a violation of a law since it does not carry the connotation of arbitrary interference, but rather a temporary elevation of powers beyond the natural”.Keith Ward – Divine action, p172
C.S. Lewis also explains why Hume’s definition of a miracle is not adequate with our understanding of natural laws using this analogy.
“If this week I put a thousand pounds in the drawer of my desk, then two thousand the next week, and another thousand the week thereafter, the laws of arithmetic allow me to predict that the next time I come to my drawer, I shall find four thousand pounds. But suppose when I next open the drawer I find only one thousand pounds, What shall I conclude that the laws of arithmetic have been broken? Certainly not and might more reasonably conclude that some thief has broken the laws of the state and stolen three thousand pounds out of my drawer. Furthermore it would be ludicrous to claim that the laws of arithmetic made it impossible to believe in the existence of such a thief or the possibility of his intervention. On the contrary, it is the normal workings of those laws that have exposed the existence and activity of the thief”.C.S. Lewis – Miracles, p62
Through this analogy we can see a miracle doesn’t violate any natural law, it only is evidence of an outside agent changing something or interfering with the system that the laws of nature would describe had normal operations taking place. But they are not violated since something natural doesn’t cause the effect, but something beyond the natural operations.
The second problem of Hume’s definition is how natural laws are actually viewed. Miracles cannot violate natural laws according to the main theories of what natural laws are. None of them contradict the existence of miracles.
The first is the Regularity Theory, which says that natural laws are not really laws but generalized descriptions of the way things naturally happen in the world. On this view, no event can violate a natural law because they are only generalized descriptions of what occurs in nature, but not preventing causes from outside the system
The second is the Nomic Necessity Theory, which says natural laws are laws about what things in the natural world can and cannot do on their own. On this definition of natural law, miracles would be seen as naturally impossible events or in other words events that cannot be produced by natural causes.
However, if something is fed into the system from an outside agent, then a miracle is not produced by the normal regularities of nature and therefore a miracle would not violate any law of nature, since the events origin is not from within nature and this theory only says when natural things can and cannot do on their own.
The third theory is called the Causal Dispositions Theory, which says that natural laws are a metaphysically necessary truth about what causal dispositions are possessed by various natural kinds of things. So for example with this theory, a natural law would state water has a disposition at sea level to freeze in sub-zero temperatures. If an outside agent prevents water from freezing at negative ten degrees, the natural law is not violated because it would still be true, naturally speaking, that water would still have such a disposition when it is not interfered with.
A miracle on this theory would be an event from causal interference with a natural propensity from an outside agent, but that would not remove its natural disposition. In a similar way if I were to prevent the water from freezing by keeping it in motion, that would also not mean the disposition of water has been violated, just at an outside agent is interfering.
So with any of the main theories, miracles do not violate natural laws and Hume’s definition is inadequate. The traditional definition from those of Aquinas and later Swinburne, better fits with the description of a miracle and how natural laws are defined.
Floating chair - http://www.adeevee.com/2007/12/ahuja-constructions-ahuja-towers-floating-chair-floating-lamp-floating-statue-print/
Other critical scholars have weighed in on the criticisms of Hume; Philosopher John Hick would say that we do not know the laws of nature, and that they appear to have been broken before. He believed that when new things are observed, our understanding of the natural law should simply be widened.
C.D. Broad had a similar response to Hick. He rejects Hume’s assumption that there are known fixed laws of nature, what if the laws of nature as we know them are wrong? The laws may need to be revised.
Clack and Clack argues that Hume has not provided a satisfactory solution to the problem of miracles for he has confused improbability with impossibility. Miracles are unusual events but this does not mean that they have not occurred. Sure maybe Clack says, many reports can be put down to drunkenness etc.
However Clack continues to argue that Hume never touches on the point of what he would do if he was faced with a miracle. Would he be a knave, or would he claim that his senses had deceived him?
Vardy states as science advances it is showing that some of our understanding of natural laws has been incorrect. Indeed how could science advance if it did not base its predictions on new experience? Hume seems to argue that only standard experiences should be acceptable, but if this was only the case, how could science progress? Hume only deals with reports of miracles, what would he have done if he had experienced one himself, would he apply the same rationale? Furthermore he expresses, Miracles today have often been backed up by science. Over 70 miracles at Lourdes have been verified by science (I personally don’t have a view on the Lourdes miracles).
Lourdes miracles: http://www.miraclehunter.com/marian_apparitions/approved_apparitions/lourdes/downloads/lourdes_cures.pdf; http://www.miraclehunter.com/marian_apparitions/approved_apparitions/lourdes/miracles1.html https://www.thestudentroom.co.uk/revision/religious-education/miracles John Hick - https://www.closertotruth.com/contributor/john-hick/profile C.D. Broad - http://trinitycollegechapel.com/about/memorials/brasses/broad/ Vardy - https://www.boltonschool.org/senior-girls/news/dr-peter-vardy-to-give-free-sexual-ethics-talk/
Interestingly, modern science doesn’t prohibit miracles through it’s observations. Since the advent of quantum mechanics, we now know the universe is probabilistic, not deterministic so the laws of nature are only approximation of what will most likely happen. According to quantum theory, irregularities are allowed at the far end of a thing called the probability bell curve (I’m no expert, I’m quoting here!). Deviations from the ordinary workings of nature are permitted they are just very highly improbable and would rarely occur.
Dr. Mark Worthing, an observer in the field of quantum mechanics states,
“Science, at least to the extent that it is influenced by quantum mechanics, it no longer so certain as to what can and cannot happen”Dr. Mark Worthing. Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Cosmology and Biological Evolution, p158
Philosopher of Science Joshua Moritz adds to this;
“So most things will fall within the general range of everything that happens, but then very strange events are actually permitted within the quantum world, for instance a table would be permitted to start floating without violating any laws of nature but it’s very very very very very very very very very improbable that that will happen, but there’s a difference between improbabilities and violating a law of nature, and so that’s the difference we’re trying to emphasize here, is when the laws of nature becomes statistical you have that space at the end of the bell curve, that’s that’s open for very strange things”.Philosopher of Science Joshua Moritz
So there is nothing impossible according to the quantum nature of the universe for natural anomalies to exist as possibilities. That would be perfectly consistent with natural laws and no violation would have to happen if God wanted to use one of these opportunities although very rarely to do extraordinary things.
Keith Ward explains it like this;
“God may work within the probabilistic structure of the physical laws to select a set of paths which would not necessarily have been eventuated by physical laws alone, though the possibility of such a path exists in the natural world, thus God could act within the natural world intentionally bringing about a particular future. If God exercises selectivity at all times, the laws of probability would change, so if the laws of probability are to remain the same, God cannot so choose as to make physically less probable States happen continually, or even very often. From this immediately follows that if God is to leave the structure the physical law intact, he cannot cause the unlikely to happen very often (though he could do so sometimes)”.Keith Ward – Divine Action, p120
So even scientifically speaking, there’s nothing that violates a natural law in causing a miraculous event, they are extremely improbable, it would not happen on their own in a thousand life times, but still possible within the quantum nature of the universe and God could act on these possibilities if he wish so.
So regardless of this, there will still be some sceptics who wish to do as Hume did and simply define miracles out of existence and then proclaim they cannot happen. That’s ok, they’re free to do that, but as we’ve shown, these arguments are not logically necessary or convincing. There is not really much you can say to sceptics like this. So far we haven’t tried to ‘prove’ miracles. If we’re going to be fair and employ methodological neutrality, there’s nothing logically or physically impossible about a miracle happening and they are in no way a violation of a natural law.
- Miracles are not physically impossible
- Miracles are not logically impossible
- Miracles do not violate the natural law
“There is nothing illogical about miracles if a Creator God exists. If a God exists who is big enough to create the universe in all its complexity and vastness, why should a mere miracle be such a mental stretch?”
- Nicholas Kristof, “Am I a Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?” New York Times, December 23, 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/12/23/opinion/sunday/pastor-am-i-a-christian.html.
- Joshua Moritz: https://vimeo.com/41753716
- Hume’s Abject Failure – John Earman
- Understanding Bayes’ theorem https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3XL6w4_EKrg&t=4s