Miracles – starter lesson

starter lesson on the subject of miracles. 
Try to find the following film clip: Bruce Almighty (meeting God, filing Cabinet and seven fingers scene 3.30mins)

Opening discussion

Write your own definition of a miracle. Compare your definition with those of philosophers and theologians (see below), or write some more on index cards.

Augustine: “A miracle is something difficult, which seldom occurs, surpassing the faculty of nature, and going far beyond our hopes as to compel our astonishment.” (De Utilitate Credendi, XVI)

Aquinas: “Now a miracle is so called as being full of wonder, in other words, as having a cause absolutely hidden from all. This cause is God. Therefore those things which God does outside of the causes which we know are called miracles.” (S.T. Ia, 105, 7)

D1) e is a miracle = df (i) e violates natural laws, and (ii) e is caused by God.

Rudolf Bultmann: “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles. We may think we can manage it in our own lives, but to expect others to do so is to make the Christian faith unintelligible and unacceptable to the modern world.” (Rudolph Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology,” in Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. HW.Bartsch, trans. RH Fuller (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 5.

Paul Tillich: “Miracles cannot be interpreted in terms of a supranatural interference in natural processes…A genuine miracle is first of all an event which is astonishing, unusual, shaking without contradicting the rational structure of reality. In the second place, it is an event which points to the mystery of being, expressing its relation to us in a definite way. In the third place, it is an occurrence which is received as a sign-event in an ecstatic experience.” (Systematic Theology I (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1951))

D2) e is a miracle = df (i) e is unusual, and (ii) e is a sign of religious significance.

A simple argument against miracles

There’s a very simple argument (though not Hume’s) that is designed to show that miracles can’t happen. Considering it will help us become clearer about what is involved in violating a law of nature.

    1. A law of nature is a regularity that holds without exception.
    2. A miracle is an exception to a law of nature.
    3. If there are laws of nature, there are no miracles. (1) (2)
    4. If there are no laws of nature, there are no miracles. (2)
    5. Either there are laws of nature or there are no laws of nature.
    6. There are no miracles. (3)(4)(5)

(1′) A law of nature is a regularity that holds except when there is supernatural intervention.

 JL Mackie: “If miracles are to serve their traditional function of giving spectacular support to religious claims – whether general theistic claims, or the authority of some specific religion or some particular sect or individual teacher – the concept must not be so weakened that anything at all unusual or remarkable counts as a miracle. We must keep in the definition the notion of a violation of natural law. But then, if it is to be even possible that a miracle should occur, we must modify the definition … of a law of nature. What we want to do is to contrast the order of nature with a possible divine or supernatural intervention. The laws of nature, we must say, describe the ways in which the world – including, of course, human beings – works when left to itself, when not interfered with. A miracle occurs when the world is not left to itself, when something distinct from the natural order as a whole intrudes into it.” (The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1982), pp. 19-20)

David Hume (1711-1776)

“Of Miracles” Section X of An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding

Hume’s Argument (note: it’s important to discuss the nature of an inductive argument and case against unusual/improbable events. We could take an inductive approach to miracles – deriving the from the nature of God himself).

    1. If a person S testifies that a proposition p is true, then it is rational to believe p on the basis of S’s testimony only if it is more likely that p is true than it is that S is mistaken in so testifying.
    2. If a person S testifies that a miracle has occurred, then it is rational to believe that a miracle has occurred on the basis of S’s testimony only if it is more likely that a miracle has occurred than it is that S is mistaken in so testifying.
    3. That a miracle has occurred is as improbable as any empirical (based on experience) proposition can be.
    4. That a person is mistaken in testifying to an empirical proposition is an empirical proposition.
    5. It’s not the case that it is more likely that a miracle has occurred than it is that S is mistaken in so testifying. (3) (4)
    6. If a person S testifies that a miracle has occurred, then it is not rational to believe that a miracle has occurred on the basis of S’s testimony. (2) (5)

Criticisms

    1. I. Premiss (1), Hume’s principle of the diminution of evidence is false.
    2. II. (3) is dubious.

JL Mackie: “If an event is a miracle then it must, by the miracle advocate’s own admission, be contrary to a genuine, not merely a supposed, law of nature and therefore be maximally improbable.” (The Miracle of Theism, p. 25)

 

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