Aug 01, 2013 | By George Gantz
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.
(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.