Aug 01, 2013 | By

Are Miracles Real?

This troublesome question sits at the heart of the theist / atheist divide.  For atheists, the lack of scientific proof of the interventions of an omnipotent God relegates all religious claims to the category of ignorance and superstition.  For theists, the mysteries of transcendent experiences that cannot be explained open the doors to faith in the divine God.  Why is this simple question so difficult?  To that question there is an answer.

The difficulties start with the definition of what a miracle is.  In prior millennia, this was easy.  So much was unexplained, and the basic human impulse to understand experiences by building a consistent cognitive map led naturally to the assignment of supernatural agency.(1)  God, or the gods, became a catch-all for that which was beyond explanation and beyond human control.  This assignment of agency to the “will of the gods” was unable to distinguish between natural causes of which we were ignorant or supernatural causes – divine interventions.  Indeed, that distinction would have been meaningless.

In the past several centuries, however, as science developed a viewpoint that saw the workings of the universe as a process of inviolable laws, “miracles” came to be defined as interventions by an all-powerful deity that over-rode the laws of nature. Increasingly, science carved out vast areas of human understanding, which led to a much diminished sphere, and for many a non-existent sphere, for claims of miraculous agency.(2)  This viewpoint also fostered the image of God as clockmaker.  In this deistic view, God created the universe and the marvelous workings of the natural laws, and then let the universe run on its own.(3)

The noted philosopher and empiricist David Hume established the skeptical beach-head on the question of miracles in his famous essay “Of Miracles”, a chapter in his opus An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding published in 1748.  Hume insisted that we must rely on actual evidence in our assessment of the claims for miracles that, by definition, fall outside of the normal regularities of nature.  In the absence of scientifically verifiable physical evidence, we must rely on personal testimony in evaluating claims of the miraculous. As a consequence, the judgment boils down to the following:  Is it more reasonable to conclude (on the basis of testimony alone) that the laws of nature have been violated, or to conclude that the witness or witnesses may be in error.  Given how common it is for humans to be in error, and how uncommon it is for the laws of nature to be disrupted, the conclusion is obvious.

The philosopher and pragmatist William James takes a slightly different approach in his classic 1902 book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. James acknowledges the power of religious experience in human life, but seems to hold that this subjective experience does not involve real phenomena in the natural world.  In his view, the miracle of religious belief and the quite positive impact it has on one’s life is essentially private, based on feeling, intuition or subconscious experience.  Given such an experience the rational mind is then recruited to the task of creating theology – the end result of which is a host of unverifiable claims, counterclaims, “proofs” and articles of faith.  James’ own pragmatist view holds to a belief in a least common denominator of religious experience which I would characterize as pantheistic.

The writer and philosopher C.S.Lewis offers a quite different perspective in his book Miracles (1947).  Lewis provides a well-structured analysis of the belief systems he refers to as “Nature” and “Supernature”.  One who believes in Nature ascribes all agency to the physical laws and their operation.  One who ascribes to Supernature, in contrast, believes that there is an agency at work in the physical world that exists quite beyond the physical word.  Lewis does an exceptional job in explaining the impossibility of a proof for either belief system.  More specifically, if we bring to the question of miracles a predisposition to a belief in “Nature” then by definition miracles do not exist – we will never see them.(4)  Hume clearly falls into that camp. Lewis, in contrast, finds that conclusion untenable and embraces the strong theism of Christianity.   For him, the evidence of divine influence is there (indeed, everywhere) – you just have to be open to it.

The question of “Interventions” has become quite a bit murkier in the last century as the paradoxes of quantum physics and the nature of complexity have been explored. Very tiny quantum fluctuations falling within a broad range of accepted probabilities can, in the right circumstances, cascade into significant events in the observable physical world. Some of those events (quantum entanglements) even seem to involve relationships that are outside of space and time. Quantum events are also triggered by intentional measurements – raising speculations about the phenomenology of observation and consciousness. An unusual event could, on the one hand, appear simply to be the result of a random but low probability quantum fluctuation. From a different point of view, the same unusual event could be said to be the result of divine intervention. (see also the recent post on Quantum Theory and Free Will.)

We are left with a paradox – two diametrically opposed explanations exist, neither of which can be proved and only one of which can be true.  Miracles do not exist and there is no supernatural agent intervening in the physical world.  OR, miracles do exist and there is a supernatural agency that influences the physical world.  For the skeptic, this is further evidence for the non-plausibility of God.  Presumably, an omnipotent deity would want to be known and would not play games with our understanding like this!

There is, however, a very cogent theist’s explanation of why we are faced with this paradox.  In Divine Providence, first published in 1764, Swedenborg describes the operation of divine providence according to a set of laws.  For purposes of discussion here, the key laws can be briefly summarized as:

  • Humans are given the capacity to act freely and make their own choices.
  • We cannot be compelled to think or believe in a certain way (in that case we would no longer be free).
  • The working of divine providence can never be directly manifest, as that would create compulsion and remove freedom of will.

Thus, the paradox of the un-provability of miracles is not a paradox at all – it is a logical necessity that serves as a guarantor of our freedom.  We are not allowed to see God at work in our lives because we would no longer be free to make the choice not to believe and we cannot be compelled to believe through miracles because such beliefs would not be chosen through our own free will.  This line of reasoning explains why faith plays such a key role in informing belief.  Faith is an act of free will that draws us from a state of uncertainty to a state of understanding.

In the post on Bind Spots – Reflection and Recursion, I discussed the implications of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems – that there are truths in a logical system that are not provable from within that system.  This principle clearly applies to the question of miracles.  The existence or non-existence of miracles and their implications for our lives is not provable from within the physical world.  As Lewis and Swedenborg both point out, if we remain within the world of Nature, any proof of the miraculous, of divine providence, will forever elude us.  Only by stepping outside the confines of nature and accepting on faith the existence of a transcendent realm, will we have access to the confirmation, if not the proof, of the miracle of divine providence in our lives.

Notes:

(1)    The inherent capacity to understand and ascribe agency exists in children, as discussed in the post on Why Do Children Believe in God.  It also provides a Darwinist explanation for the rise of religions in early human societies.

(2)    For example, the “God of the Gaps” view of religious belief fits squarely into this model <see: Inadequacy of God-of-the-Gaps> http://swedenborgcenterconcord.org/god-of-the-gaps/.

(3)    Einstein reportedly falls into this category.  See Einstein’s God (2010) by Krista Tippet.

(4)    Interestingly, Swedenborg perceived this same logical conflict between science and religion two centuries before Lewis.  As he puts it in his Spiritual Experiences (cited in http://swedenborgcenterconcord.org/god-of-the-gaps/) scientific knowledge and its focus on the natural world closes the mind to spiritual influence.

9 Responses to “Are Miracles Real?”

  1. […] philosophers on religion.   Some of his findings echo themes we have touched on previously (see Miracles for example). While the author is “agnostic” and finds that to be the most defensible ground, […]

  2. […] Now let’s look at Swedenborg’s Laws of Divine Providence, as paraphrased in the post on Are Miracles Real: […]

  3. […] “human beings have free will.”  These statements are topics of recent ISAS Forum articles (see Miracles and Free Will).  The difficulty here is that these, and many other important questions, may not […]

  4. Stephen H. Smith, M.D. says:

    No argument whatsoever with what you say George. I realized throughout my career that when patients had an optimistic and cheerful attitude post-op they generally did extremely well, however, when they became depressed and anxious they had a much higher incidence of complications, including infection. No question whatsoever that the immune system is connected to mood. This has been validated in many studies including the suppression of certain classes of cells essential for the immune response in grieving widowers (not so much in widows!). I did become indignant when confronted by persons telling me that most physicians intentionally withhold effective (alternative) treatment in cancer patients so that they can make more money. Or when successfully diagnosing and treating a long neglected case of Lyme disease in a young boy to be informed that it was the homeopathic treatment he received after my treatment that actually cured him (funny thing it hadn’t worked for the entire year before I saw him!). It is also disturbing to hear that our local alternative medicine clinic has been promising to change the DNA in the children of one family with a higher than usual incidence of cancer (short of stem cell transplantation this is nonsense). Unfortunately all these examples involved New Church folks. The irrational reluctance to immunize kids in Bryn Athyn might be different if the cemetery there was older and larger…a walk through pre Twentieth Century cemeteries is eye opening in regard to the dramatic number of young children who succumbed to childhood illnesses. Yes, it’s true that if a critical number of kids are immunized the non-immunized kids are relatively safe but how uncharitable to ask others to immunize their kids so that yours can benefit, and in a church than praises charity!

  5. […] This problem becomes more acute for very high consequence / very low probability events. How can we ever determine if the flap of a butterfly wing changed the course of a storm 1,000 miles away, or if the choice of a single human being changed the course of history?   How can we ever determine if miracles are real – as I discussed in “Are Miracles Real”  http://swedenborgcenterconcord.org/are-miracles-real/ […]

  6. Stephen H. Smith, M.D. says:

    Well said George! You seem to be describing the working of ‘remains’ as I understand the principle!

    I’ve had only one really odd experience myself. Arne Bau-Madsen has described to me several that he has had which were really quite extraordinary.

    It seems that there are many levels of intuition, some purely based on subliminal calculation relying on identical or similar past states, others of a higher order appearing to be more or less direct influx when we are in a state of humility and love. Heightened states of perception can apparently also occur with the stress of illness, fatigue, starvation, sleep deprivation, deep meditation, etc. Alfred Russell Wallace described his “eureka moment” of realizing that species evolve by natural selection when laid low with a tropical fever. (He was also a student of Swedenborg’s Writings as you probably know).

    I’ve been accused of being cold hearted when denying the value of alternative health regimens but when there is no scientific basis for these treatments I feel gullible folks are being taken advantage of in an unfortunate and sometimes dangerous way. This brings up the big question…what are the spiritual consequences of confirming falsities, even ones that seem harmless?

    • George Gantz says:

      Stephen – “what are the spiritual consequences of confirming falsities, even ones that seem harmless?” Oh, thank you for the easy question! And thank you for your candor. Of course, there is no easy answer, and I would never want to be a doctor. But there are lots of questions! How do you know if something is false? I was just reading today in Nautilus (http://nautil.us/issue/4/the-unlikely/an-unlikely-cure-signals-new-hope-for-cancer) on the topic of “exceptional responders” – outliers that lead to new insights in the actual mechanisms of cancer. I have been aware of now deceased patients (friends and family) paying large sums for unvalidated alternative treatment. But I am also aware of (and had the privilege recently of hearing doctors at Dana Farber talking about) the process of clinical trials where doctors must deny a potentially valuable treatment to half of the patients to satisfy the “double-blind” research standard. What would I want if it were my loved one? And then there is the question of “harmless” or “helpful”. Memet Oz’s “Healing from the Heart” was a wonderful account of how outlook and attitude (and prayer) influence outcomes. I relied on Peggy Huddleston’s “Preparing for Surgery” myself during my own surgery for prostate cancer last year. The human mind is an amazing thing – and it’s healing powers quite profound. Is it possible an alternative treatment offers a healing potential, or perhaps just a hope, or maybe some palliative value, which may answer issues that go beyond the clinical ones?

      I wouldn’t know how to answer these questions except for myself. But for a doctor, I don’t think there would be a spiritual risk for answering the question from your heart – is this something that may help the patient in some way? And a corollary – “am I responding to the patient because of what I think is true in my head – or am I being true to what I feel in my heart.”

  7. Stephen H. Smith, M.D. says:

    Some time ago I began asking new acquaintances, in appropriate venues and circumstances, if they had ever had experienced an unexplainable or unusual event. Much to my surprise about a quarter of all people queried had indeed had one or more supernatural experiences. Most folks were quite willing to discuss these events and would describe them in a very matter of fact way. None claimed that they were life changing and most everyone noted that they avoided talking about these experiences although they seemed more than willing to share the details with me, particularly since I claimed to be “collecting” these stories. Of the dozen or so that I have collected I would dismiss only one or two as “figments of the imagination”, the others were truly remarkable. None were near death experiences, a few were dreams with remarkable prophetic power. And still I will confess I am first in the legion of cold rational skeptics.

    • George Gantz says:

      Stephen – My own “transcendent” experiences had been very tentative and infrequent, and the rational skeptic in me easily passed them off as wishful thinking, random firing of synapses, dreams or illusions. Yet those experiences (the family bonding from the early death of my father, rapturous beauty in nature and music, the birth of my children) moved me deeply and they stuck with me – I suppose you could say I “pondered them in my heart”. When my life passed through a dark period, those experiences helped me to keep my heart open and over time my thoughts about these and subsequent experiences changed. Years later I can look back and vividly see the work of divine providence in my life and the immense blessings that I have experienced not from my own doing or random nature but from the active engagement of God. I think the message is clear – when we are ruled by our heads we tend to close the door on being able to perceive and appreciate divine providence. But when we can “warm the heart” something begins to flow in and we can open the doors again. I still tend to be “ruled by the head”, but now I realize that is a self-limiting perspective. If I can truly keep an open mind, the truths of the heart can begin to emerge.

      If you have not read it, I would recommend Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander (see http://swedenborgcenterconcord.org/life-beyond-death/). His experience and testimony is very compelling, powerful enough to open the hearts of many a skeptic!

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