Can Miracles Happen?

I would define a miracle as a divinely-caused suspension of the laws of physics. I believe in the possibility of miracles and in the historicity of some very important ones.

My approach to the question whether the laws of physics are ever suspended is empirical. I think we can let experience tell us what the laws of physics are. I also think it best not to presume that the laws of physics are absolute. Rather, we should let experience tell us whether those laws are ever suspended.

But there are objections to consider, and a few things about empiricism to sort out. The first objection arises almost by instinct, though perhaps it has less to do with instinct and more to do with Hume’s influence.

Objection 1

We posit laws of physics based on what we have experienced. So if our experiences include a certain type of event, we can’t posit laws of physics that exclude it. So it is impossible to have any experience of miracles.

Reply

Like Hume himself said, we can posit—by induction from our experiences—a law of physics which governs the physical world. Whether such a law is on rare occasions overruled by an influence outside the physical world is a separate question, a question not affecting in any way our ability to posit those laws.

The sensible thing to do–or at least the empirical thing to do–is to allow experience to inform us both what the laws of physics are and whether they are occasionally overruled.

Note well: The laws of physics are not generalizations about all possible events; they are descriptions of physical reality.

So when we know a law of physics we are not knowing that this is the way things always happen; we’re knowing that this is how the physical world works–at least when it’s left to itself.

Whether it always is left to itself is, once again, a separate question. And it is a question best answered by experience.

But shouldn’t the evidence for a miracle be really, really high–so high that it’s virtually impossible for any miracle to have enough of it?

A good question. This question takes us closer to what Hume really said about miracles. Let’s look at his actual objection.

Objection 2

It is more likely that the testimony for an alleged miracle is in error than that the miracle actually took place. In order for me to rationally accept testimonial evidence for a miracle, the probability that the testimony is reliable should exceed the probability for the law of physics which is said to be suspended.

Reply

Thanks for the advice, Hume, but you’re not being a very good empiricist!

You assign to a suspension of the laws of physics a probability which is determined by, and only by, the laws of physics themselves! So you are ruling out the possibility that any other factor might affect the likelihood of a miracle occurring. So you are presuming that the laws of physics are absolute. So you are presuming the falsity of the view being discussed—begging the question, arguing in a circle, committing a logical fallacy.

A better empiricism would allow experience to inform us both of the laws of physics,and of whether they are broken.

But does the evidence for a miracle still have to be very good? Yes, of course!

The point here is that it doesn’t have to be higher than the evidence for the laws of physics themselves.

To consider only the probability of the laws of physics in weighing the probability against any particular miracle is to presume that the laws of physics are absolute. This is to presume against miracles; this is to reject miracles a priori rather than to let experience tell us whether they occur.

Objection 3

One could argue against the possibility of miracles in this way:

  1. The laws of physics are inviolable.
  2. Miracles violate the laws of physics.
  3. So miracles are impossible.

Reply

The premises of this argument do a good job supporting the conclusion. But let’s look at that first premise.

Premise 1 might be taken for non-empirical reasons. In this case it’s just rationalistic metaphysics, not an empirical conclusion.

Now I don’t think much of it as metaphysics. But the more important point is that if it’s taken for non-empirical reasons, then it’s . . . not empirical.

Yes, that’s a tautology, but sometimes tautologies are important.

The empirical approach would be to let experience tell us whether physical laws are inviolable.

Could Premise 1 be taken for empirical reasons? Of course! But it would have to be done properly.

Here’s how it could be done properly; one might argue thus:

  • We have no experience of events which violate the laws of physics.
  • We have a great deal of experience of events which do not violate the laws of physics.
  • Therefore the laws of physics are inviolable.

Now I think these premises do a terrific job supporting their conclusion. At the risk of oversimplifying things, I’d even say that this argument (given the truth of its premises) must work if any science at all works. And science does work.

For example:

  • We have no experience of physical objects not subject to gravity.
  • We have a great deal of experience of physical objects which are subject to gravity.
  • Therefore all physical objects are subject to gravity.

But here’s the problem with this argument for Premise 1: You can’t use that kind of argument to argue against any empirical evidence of miracles. That would be a textbook case of circular reasoning. It would be a fallacy. The whole argument would look like this:

  • We have no experience of events which violate the laws of physics.
  • We have a great deal of experience of events which do not violate the laws of physics.
  • Therefore the laws of physics are inviolable.
  • Miracles violate the laws of physics.
  • So miracles are impossible.
  • So the evidence that a miracle took place at such-and-such a time and place is illegitimate.
  • So we did not experience a miracle at such-and-such a time and place.

Empiricism and Miracles

Let’s go back to that earlier argument:

  • We have no experience of events which violate the laws of physics.
  • We have a great deal of experience of events which do not violate the laws of physics.
  • Therefore the laws of physics are inviolable.

A great argument, really. The premises support the conclusion, and the whole thing is redolent of empiricism. I like that. It’s a good attitude: Let experience tell us whether the laws of physics are inviolable!

I say: If the premises are true, go for it! But if there is good evidence for a miracle, accept it!

But what if you think there’s some pretty good evidence of a genuine miracle, and what if (like the Resurrection of Yeshua the Messiah) accepting that evidence requires you to submit to some religious dogma?

How can dogma and empiricism mix? Can you be dogmatic and still be an empiricist?

Maybe so. It depends on how precisely “empiricism” is to be defined.  But we can provisionally distinguish three degrees of empiricism in a person’s thought:

  • the mere belief that knowledge comes from experience,
  • the subjecting of such knowledge to tests for verification or falsification,
  • and the holding all such beliefs tentatively in case future evidence turns against it.

As I’ve explained in previous posts (here and here), there’s a fair amount of room for overlap between religious dogmatism and empiricism. As for religious dogma, it seems to be compatible with at least the second degree of empiricism.

So . . . I think the right way to approach miracles is empirically, letting experience tell us whether they are possible.  Also, don’t believe the hype about religion and empiricism: Maybe they aren’t always all the way compatible, but there is room for a good bit of overlap.

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