Miracles are important because they provide a basis for belief in God, many people believe God exists because they have witnessed miracles whilst others believe that a transcendent being doesn’t exist, and so try to prove that miracles don’t either. I believe the findings of modern science have not ruled out the possibility of miracles so it would be absurd to dismiss their possibility. There are many definitions of the term ‘miracle’, the most common being ‘an event caused by God’. However, David Hume defines a miracle as a ‘violation of the laws of nature’. Defining the word miracle is central in arguing for/against their existence, as the slightest difference in meaning can turn the whole argument around. For example, by Hume defining a miracle as ‘a violation of the laws of nature’ it becomes a fundamental challenge to what we know as human beings who have lived on the earth for millions of years. He puts forward the argument that it is more likely that we are interpreting an event wrong, than a violation of a natural law actually occurring.
This is true according to his definition, but when you change that definition to ‘an event caused by God’, Hume’s argument becomes incoherent as it is inconsistent with the definition. In biblical times, people believe God acted in the world e.g. Joshua’s defeat of the 5 kings (Joshua 10). God is described as confusing the enemy, which emphasises the involvement of God in the world. God’s divine control is illustrated by referring to God’s power over nature. Christians believe miracles are signs of God being immanent and omnipotent. Miracles of Jesus especially revealed God to the people as many thought him an ordinary man until he performed miracles. However, this brings about the question, is God bias? God favours Joshua in battle but King Saul dies after God has rejected him. In the Old Testament, it is profoundly apparent that God favours one people, the Israelites, because he made a covenant with them. Yet in the New Testament they picture God acting through Jesus to enable all people to be saved, not just the Israelites.
This inconsistency makes it more likely that the Christian God doesn’t exist which makes it more likely miracles don’t either as a large majority of miracles is claimed by Christianity. However, this is not the final word because Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and many more belief systems all claim miracles. God’s intervention in the world through miracles also raises questions about the problems of evil, e.g. if god can perform miracles, why not work them to help prevent suffering? Why did millions die in the concentration camps of WW2 if God has the power to prevent them? Christians respond to this problem by claiming it is beyond human ability to understand the actions of God. Others claim that God does act but people fail to recognise his actions e.g. many people died in the 2004 South East Asian tsunami but many people survived in extraordinary circumstances such as drifting on pieces of rubbish washed out to sea until rescued.
This certainly provides good cause to believe in miracles but it brings back the question of why God is selective in who he saves and who he doesn’t. David Hume argues that when investigating miracle stories, evidence can be collected e.g. witnesses. Laws of nature appear to be fixed and unvarying e.g. law of gravity. Miracles appear to violate the laws of nature and so it is logical to conclude it is more likely the report is incorrect than a law being violated. However, Richard Swinburne responds by stating laws of nature are only good general descriptions of the world, they do not remove the possibility of miracles occurring. This is based on the assumption that all natural laws are corrigible if a new discovery is made. Hume’s practical argument states miracles have a lack of convincing testimony from educated people and only seem to happen among ignorant and barbarous people.
He bases this on the observation that early history is full of miracle stories but as nations develop and become educated these stories disappear. Also, if one religion claims a miracle proved their religion true, the value of this statement is cancelled out by the fact other religions equally claim miracles happen but is this true? Are miracles about proving one religion correct and another wrong? Challenges to Hume’s practical argument include the inductive problem. Hume believes in the laws of nature because empirical observations support the claim. Witness accounts of miracles are of the same kind of observation. Hume cannot dismiss observations of miracles and accept observations of science. The question to ask is: which interpretation of an account of a miracle best matches the evidence gained from observation and experience?
The fact something is more probable is not, on its own, proof that something is correct and so the probability of miracles occurring being low does not make it false. Swinburne also states many people today are undoubtedly educated and yet still claim to experience a miracle which challenges Hume’s argument that it only happens amongst uneducated people. Swinburne claims that you should not automatically be sceptical and reject a story without considering evidence, then provides a way for collecting evidence reliable enough to say miracles occur. He states we must assess the memories of our experiences, testimony by other people about their experiences, physical traces of the event (e.g. medical examination of a person who has been healed) and understanding of science (e.g. if someone had AIDS and was miraculously healed, this would go against science belief AIDS is incurable).
Swinburne argues that we should accept as many source of evidence as possible as the more evidence the stronger the probability. Different sources of evidence should be consistent i.e. should support each other. Value placed on particular evidence should depend on empirical reliability of it (e.g. if a witness to a miracle is a known liar you would not take this over someone truthful) and avoid rejecting without good reason evidence that may be relevant. Swinburne uses the term ‘counter instances of a law of nature’ as the phrase ‘violation of the laws of nature’ Some Christians such as Paul Tillich have adopted the ‘contingency’ definition of miracles, that they are signs pointing to God. E.g. when Jesus feeds 5000 in John’s Gospel, this is a sign that Jesus is from God as after he fed them they tried to crow him as king. Jesus is frequently depicted as a worker of signs. The word ‘miracle’ is never used in the bible so do Hume’s arguments apply? R.F Holland expresses the natural explanations of miracles do not affect its religious significance.
Paul Tillich supports this and claims the miraculous nature of miracles has been overemphasised instead of focusing on their role as signs. He identified some characteristics of miracles. 1) Astonishing ‘without contradicting the rational structure of reality’. They do not have to violate natural laws to be astonishing. 2) Point to the ‘mystery of being’ – they reveal something about God’s nature. 3) ‘Received as a sign event in an ecstatic experience’ – it is the revelatory part of the sign which causes the ecstatic overwhelming experience for the subject. The problem with the contingency definition is that there is no real way to prove that a subject has experienced a miracle rather than a product of their thoughts and mind, and it doesn’t well reflect the picture of God in Jewish scriptures. Hume’s definition of miracles are not satisfactory, as Quantum laws that govern the whole universe have been clearly shown by scientists to be probabilistic i.e. what is likely to happen, not what will certainly happen.
Swinburne writes ‘God’s intervention will simply be a matter of inclining things to behave on a certain occasion in this way rather than that, which will be compatible with the probabilistic patterns of behaviour which humans may discover and formulate as laws’. For example, Moses splitting the red sea violates the laws of nature, but equally the sea and weather all combining to cause the great flood could be explained in natural terms. Maurice Wiles rejects the idea of God acting in the world and violating probabilistic laws of nature. He claims that the sole activity of God was to create and sustain the world but rejects traditional idea of God causing miracles. He gives 3 reasons: 1) if miracles are violations of the laws of nature they have to occur infrequently to avoid the concept of laws of nature becoming meaningless. 2) The pattern of the occurrence of miracles appears strange. 3) The large number of evil events that are not prevented by God show he doesn’t intervene. He finds a contradiction in 1 person being healed and thousands dying elsewhere.
However, Christianity clearly depicts God acting in the world in a far more direct way than wiles suggest. Wiles’ views don’t reflect nature of God. His argument depends on the fact that human rationality can be applied directly to God. Questions about God’s actions only arise if you suggest his actions must conform to some form of rational order we understand which is a defiance of the belief God cannot be limited. Scientific discoveries suggest the chances of miracles being real are extremely low. Richard Dawkins claims that you would expect people to have coincidental experiences in life to which they attach special significance. He believes that Lourdes can be explained by the placebo effect. People go to Lourdes believing they’ll be cured, and then they’re cured.
However, there are many scientists that believe in God and miracles. Intelligent life that can think about what it does has only existed for a few million years; therefore if God acts only through people, it ‘implies that God has been an inactive spectator of the universe for most of its history to date, since conscious minds seem not to have been available for interaction with divinity’. In light of Hume’s major criticisms of the occurrence of miracles, there is no clear undisputed view either in favour or against the occurrence of miracles. However, I think Swinburne’s approach to miracles is the most coherent as he doesn’t automatically assume them true or false, rather he says to weigh up the evidence because the probability of miracles happening being low does not rule them out. Ultimately though, it comes down to how the word miracle is defined.