Model essay – Miracles and Hume

(a) Outline the key concepts of miracles and examine the main reasons to believe in miracles. (21)

Miracles are often used as an argument in favour of God’s existence since as Swinburne suggested if God exists then we could expect him to interact with his creation. In addition there seem to be many stories of strange and unexplained events which in the light of no better explanation have been categorised as miracles. Even the definition of a miracle is as an unexplainable but beneficial act which appears to break the laws of nature and which is then attributed to God. [2]

Unfortunately the term miracle has been applied to pretty much any amazing event which has occurred, from an underdog team winning to so-called miracle cures, to amazing survival stories after earthquakes etc. [1]

People have many and varied reasons for believing in miracles but for some they are simply a matter of faith; their religion tells them to. Since miracles are mostly stories in holy books it is usually expected that believers accept them as true. In fact the Christian faith is fundamentally based on the miracle of the resurrection, without which the faith has no meaning. It is therefore a requirement for followers to believe. The problem here lies in the idea of believing in something which cannot be explained, apparently blindly and without question. [2]

For others it is the simple hope which miracles hold out, that in extreme need someone might just be granted a miracle. The problem here is that for someone who prays and gets a miracle or an answer to prayer then that is most likely to reinforce faith, whereas for the person who has prayed but not received an answer to prayer then that is unlikely to affect their faith. They will most likely still believe. That is blind faith i.e. believing regardless of the evidence. [2]

So for instance in the example of the woman whose son was trapped on the railway line who prayed to God and the train stopped just in time, she would see that as a miracle, even after she discovered the circumstances of the train’s stopping. Feuerbach however would regard this as “wish-fulfilment” and that we were merely projecting our desires onto the reality whereas RF Holland would have regarded this as a “coincidence, interpreted religiously” and called a miracle. [3]

And again in the case of the Nebraska choir where the entire group were for various reasons delayed getting to choir practice one evening and in that time the boiler blew up and none were hurt which had they been there on time they would have been, is then somewhat naturally interpreted as a miracle by believers but as (admittedly) a fairly amazing coincidence. However as we have learned “luck” or “coincidence” does not have odds of zero! [2]

For yet others, the occurrence of miracles is evidence of God’s power and nature and even of his existence. Through them he is seen to be omnipotent and omnibenevolent, caring and compassionate and above all perhaps still working in the universe. Believers find this comforting. [1]

Yet of course for others this is a real difficulty with believing in miracles. What does it tell us about God’s nature that he grants one person’s request for a miracle and rejects another’s? That he is not omnipotent? Or that he is not omnibenevolent? Aquinas would have said God has his reasons and who are we to question them but that is not a satisfactory answer. What kind of random and arbitrary God says “not today, sorry, maybe tomorrow?” and if God does intervene in human affairs isn’t that a contravention of man’s famous free will granted to Adam and Eve? [3]

Perhaps a major reason to believe for many is the numerous accounts of such miracles in holy writings. From Moses and the Red Sea to Jesus and his many healings or walking on water. These seem to say positive things about God and his power and benevolence. The resurrection gives believers the hope that there is a life after death which is glorious, and Jesus’ own resurrection is the proof, should one choose to accept it. However, one of the things about miracles is that they need interpreting; and rationally, if we look, for example, at John’s gospel where he calls the miracles he includes “signs” and then read the verse where the author clearly writes: “These things are written that you may believe” we have got to be sceptical about their absolute veracity. Religions have a need for followers to believe the teachings and not to question; they call this a need for faith. Aquinas recognised this need to have a firmer basis for faith when he formulated his five ways but accepted that you come to God by faith first. Miracles may not be proof of the existence of God but once you believe they may help to secure that faith to a more rational foundation. [5]

(ii) Comment on the philosophical problems associated with miracles with reference to Hume. (9)

David Hume didn’t believe in the occurrence of miracles but defined them (if they were to occur) as “transgressions of the laws of nature by the particular volition of the deity”. He also suggested five major objections to believing in miracles: (i) there were never enough witnesses (ii) their testimony was much more likely to wrong than that a miracle had occurred (iii) there was never enough evidence (iv) miracles as explanations of bizarre events was a feature of barbaric and uncivilised peoples whose grasp of science and the nature of the universe was undeveloped and finally (v) since all religions claim miracles to be true and all religions claim to be the only right one, they can’t all be true and therefore none can be!

John Hick has countered Hume’s assumption that they must break the laws of nature and since those laws are fixed they cannot be miracles with his own suggestion that those which appear to break the laws of nature merely point out our limited understanding of those laws! And certainly it is commonly accepted nowadays that we do not yet know everything about our universe and scientists are continually having to adapt the existing “laws” to fit the new evidence. One example of this is the law of gravity which ever since Newton has been accepted as the same everywhere in the universe, is now under threat from new astronomical observations. So it may be that miracles don’t so much violate the laws as show us what we don’t know.

On the other hand Hume’s objection to the witnesses and their testimony is quite valid. We know from criminal cases that witnesses are notoriously unreliable in their testimony. Not deliberately but from imperfect understanding, limited perspective or just plain mistaken individual interpretation. But 5,000 witnesses to the feeding of the 5,000? Not a good example, perhaps, since other accounts differ in the number of people present and the amount of food!

The resurrection however may be a good example since we know from the gospel writers how demoralised and plain scared the disciples were after the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. Certainly their reaction to the women’s testimony that they had seen Jesus alive was sceptical! However again we need to remember that these gospels were written decades after the events and to suit a need of the early church for a written record. It would perhaps be only fair to treat these stories with some healthy scepticism.

So where does that leave us? For many, the fundamental fact in all the stories is the timing. Too late and there would be no point for example in Moses releasing the slaves from captivity in Egypt. If God answered all prayers with miracles man really would not be master of his own actions and destiny. That God selects who he will gift with a miracle is a difficult moral issue but if he gifted none we wouldn’t know he existed! And maybe Hume had it right when he said they were down to a “particular volition of the deity”.

Ultimately whether miracles occur or not or are evidence of the existence of God is down to faith. Few miracles happen to non-believers but where they do and if not dismissed as lucky coincidence then they can instigate faith.

 

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