Philosophy of Miracles (Continuum Studies in Philosophy)

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This means that there is no contradiction implied by affirming the law together with its exception. Things would be different if we can identify some feature F of the circumstances in which O occurred which will explain why O occurred in this one case when normally it would not. F might be some force operating to counteract the usual tendency of a dense object, such as a human body, to sink in water. In this case, on discovery of fwe are in a position to reformulate the law in a fruitful way, saying that human beings cannot walk on water except when F is present. Since the exception in this case now has a generalized Miracles and the Laws of Nature 23 form i.

Fis present , our reformulation has the kind of generality that a statement of natural law ought to have. It explains the past interaction of dense bodies with water as well as the original formulation did, and it explains why someone was able to walk on water on occasion O. Finally, it will serve to predict what will happen in the future, both when F is absent and when it is present. We may now, following Ninian Smart 37 and Richard Swinburne 26 , understand a violation as a nonrepeatable counterinstance to natural law.

We encounter a nonrepeatable counterinstance when someone walks on water, as in case O, and, reproducing the circumstances in which O occurred, no one is able to walk on water. Since a statement of natural law is falsified only by the occurrence of a repeatable counterinstance, it is paradoxical to assert a particular statement of law and at the same time proclaim that a repeatable counterinstance to it has occurred.

However, if Smart and Swinburne are correct, there is no paradox in asserting the existence of the law together with the occurrence of a counterinstance that is not repeatable. I want to make three objections to the notion of a miracle as a nonrepeatable counterinstance to the laws of nature. Finally, I want to show that, even if we could identify an event as a nonrepeatable counterinstance to the laws of nature, we would have no reason to speak of it as anything more than a mere anomaly, or an event that is not determined by any physical antecedent; the conception of a nonrepeatable counterinstance is an empty one.

The occurrence of a nonrepeatable counterinstance does not force us to reformulate the law.

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However, it is far from clear that this means we would continue to suppose that L is true. It may be that we would continue to predict that future As will be Bs. But this does not commit us to saying that L is true. There are two alternatives. First, we can continue to suppose that future As will be Bs based on the overwhelming likelihood that this will be the case.

But then, all we need for this is to say, not that all As are Bs, but that the vast majority of As are Bs. Thus we have no violation; that is, we do not have that for which Smart is searching, namely, the law together with its exception. The supernaturalist, when she says that something is a violation of natural law, has to find some way to defend the suggestion that this A would have been a B had it not been for the intrusion of a supernatural influence.

But if the operations of nature are to be described statistically, she loses her ground for saying this. It may be that this is simply how it is with nature; it operates in fits and starts, running smoothly for a time and then, inexplicably, hiccupping. In this case we have no alternative but to employ those generalizations that come as close to this as possible. Once again we are deprived of being able to have a true law of nature together with its exception.

And if this is Miracles and the Laws of Nature 25 simply how it is with nature, there is no need to resort to any talk of supernatural intrusions.

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Objection 2: Identifying Nonrepeatable Counterinstances In considering the possibility that a nonrepeatable counterinstance to natural law has occurred, we will have great difficulty determining whether an event is nonrepeatable. Let us return to our example, 0, walking on water, which will be nonrepeatable just in case no one is able to walk on water when the circumstances of O have been reproduced.

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But the problem will be in determining whether those circumstances have, in fact, been reproduced. For in order to reproduce them, we must be certain that we have identified all of the causally relevant factors in the circumstances surrounding 0. However, given the fact that there might be some unknown causal factor at work in those circumstances, making it possible for O to occur on just that occasion, we cannot be certain that we have done this.

This observation leads us into a problem for the miracle apologist that was posed by Antony Flew. Flew , , speaks of this as the Problem of Identifying Miracles. He has argued that, in order to have any apologetic force, a supernaturalistic appeal to miracles must find some empirical ground for identifying an event as a violation of natural law - for saying, that is, that an event is one that could not occur had nature been left to its own devices.

Now let us suppose that we are confronted with an event that, following Smart and Swinburne, we would like to say is a nonrepeatable counterinstance to natural law. The problem is to show that it is not a repeatable counterinstance.

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Consider once again the example of someone walking on water. This will be a repeatable counterinstance just in case there is some natural force operating to make it possible that someone walks on water when otherwise they would not be able to do so. But the problem that faces us is that there may be some such force present which is as yet unknown to us.

The epistemic dilemma in which we find ourselves is to distinguish between a case in which there is no natural force operating 26 The Philosophy of Miracles to produce the apparent exception, and one in which there is an unknown force operating. It seems clear that this is not a distinction that can be made on empirical grounds. Surely there is no observation we might make in order to eliminate the possibility that some unknown natural force is operating in a particular case.

Observations may reveal the presence of a natural cause - this is something that the scientist can discover; thus the possibility will always remain that we might discover a natural force that makes it possible for someone to walk on water, however remote this possibility might seem. We might also be able to eliminate the possibility that some particular cause is absent; for example, if we think some phenomenon might be due to the effects of radiation, we can eliminate this possibility by providing the appropriate shielding. But we have no way to control for the possibility that some unknown natural cause is at work.

Indeed, matters become even worse if we are entitled to assume that events in nature generally conform to laws of nature, which is the assumption that the supernaturalist wishes to make in the context of arguing for the occurrence of violations. In this case, the very occurrence of an apparent counterinstance will be evidence that some unknown physical force is operating. And surely this is how the natural scientist would view the matter. Richard Swinburne, defending Smart's conception of a miracle as a nonrepeatable counterinstance, attempts a solution to this difficulty.


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He admits that any judgement that an event is nonrepeatable will be corrigible, but insists that 'You could be wrong' is a knife that cuts both ways. What seem to be perfectly explicable events might prove, when we come to know the laws of nature much better, to be violations. But of course this is not very likely.

The reasonable man goes by the available evidence here, and also in the converse case. He supposes that what is, on all evidence, a violation of natural laws really is one. If I understand Swinburne correctly here, he wants to argue that, if I let go of a bowling ball and it falls to the floor, it is possible that Miracles and the Laws of Nature 27 there was some unknown natural force operating that would have had the effect that the ball would remain suspended in the air; in this case, the ball's falling, in accordance with our expectations, would be a violation of natural law.

But of course we have no obligation to eliminate the possibility that some unknown force was operating in this case. Swinburne seems to want to argue, then, that it is equally wrong to suppose that we have a similar obligation in the case of an apparent violation. We take an event that is primafade in conformity with the laws of nature to be in conformity with those laws; so, it seems, we ought to take an event that prima facie fails to conform to the laws of nature to be a violation, i.

What Swinburne fails to appreciate here is the force of our usual assumption that events in nature generally conform to laws of nature. It is not as though we typically work without any presuppositions regarding the laws of nature, so that we might be as well inclined to judge that a given event is a violation as we would be to suppose that it is lawlike.

On the contrary, our presumption is in favor of natural law, as surely even Swinburne will concede. Indeed it is hard to see why an event ought to be considered a violation if nature were not ordinarily lawful, and if it is ordinarily lawful we will suppose that, all things being equal, any given event conforms to natural law. I have argued that we lack any empirical grounds for making a distinction between a counterinstance to some law of nature that is repeatable, and one that is not.

As Flew has argued, we cannot point to the occurrence of a violation of the laws of nature as evidence for a supernatural order if we cannot, in the first place, identify any event as a violation; defining 'violation' as a nonrepeatable counterinstance does not seem to help. I can imagine a critic objecting here that an event which appears to be contrary to the laws of nature may occur in circumstances which make it likely to be an expression of divine agency. Suppose, for example, that immediately after giving a sermon, Saint Polly begins to levitate off the ground, and a loud voice, apparently 28 The Philosophy of Miracles emanating from the heavens, is heard to proclaim: 'I am The Lord.

I have levitated Polly as a sign that she speaks with divine authority.

Follow her. But there appears to be a supernatural explanation at hand which obviates the need to seek a natural one. This is an important response, and one that deserves some careful unpacking. I will postpone an extended discussion of the notion of a supernatural explanation until Chapter 3.

Nevertheless some immediate observations are possible. First, we should notice that this response, in its appeal to divine agency, represents the introduction of teleological considerations in the identification of an event as miraculous. Since I wish to argue for a teleological approach, I take this to be a significant development; I will be satisfied if I have, at this point, begun to show the need for taking a teleological approach to the miraculous.

Second, this response assumes that any reason we have for supposing that God is responsible for Polly's levitation will be reason to suppose that this levitation is a nonrepeatable counterinstance to natural law - i. But it is not obvious that divine agency precludes the possibility that there is some unknown natural force operating in Polly's levitation. I will have more to say about this in Chapter 4, where I will argue that we may identify an event as expressing divine agency without saying anything about its relation to the laws of nature.

Objection 3: Counterinstance as Anomaly We have considered Alastair McKinnon's argument that it is logically self-contradictory to assert that a violation of natural law has occurred, and we have examined Ninian Smart's response, which is to stipulate that a violation is a nonrepeatable counterinstance to the laws of nature. In the last section I argued that we could never have any empirical grounds for distinguishing a nonrepeatable counterinstance from one that was repeatable, but was due to the operation of some unknown physical force.

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We seem to have no means of eliminating the possibility that such an unknown force is operating. Miracles and the Laws of Nature 29 I want now to grant, for the sake of argument, that we could eliminate this possibility. Suppose we were able to determine, once and for all, that there was no natural force operating to produce the exception. In this case the event would constitute an anomaly. By this I mean to say that it would not be an instance of any deterministic law of nature. It does not force us to deny ontological naturalism, and admit the existence of non-natural forces or entities; nor does it require us to deny methodological naturalism, and suppose that the methods of the natural sciences must be supplemented by any form of supernaturalistic mode of inquiry.

Indeed as far as I understand these things, modern physics already acknowledges that some events, such as those involving subatomic particles, are not fully determined by physical forces. And as far as I know, this change in our understanding does not enable us to predict, with any greater accuracy, the states of subatomic particles.

It simply accommodates the fact that we cannot predict these states with any great degree of precision. Naturalism, in other words, is entirely comfortable with the proposition that events in nature are not fully determined. But that is a rather large 30 The Philosophy of Miracles concession, and is clearly not one that either Smart or Swinburne have been willing to make. Because the occurrence of such an event is compatible with a naturalistic worldview, this undermines the supernaturalist's ability to argue that the event in question would not have occurred had it not been for the intrusion of a supernatural influence of some kind.

This was the notion of a violation that I set out, at the beginning of this chapter, to discredit. A Supematuralistic Conception of Natural Law I am attempting to provide objections against a supematuralistic approach to miracles, by which a miracle is understood as an event that requires us to reject the tenets of naturalism. The occurrence of such an event would give us reason to think that one or more entities exist that cannot be described as natural entities; that causes operate on natural objects that cannot be described as natural causes; that explanations may be given for events in nature that are not consistent with the methods of the natural sciences.

One way to defend such a supematuralistic approach is to argue that a miracle is a violation of natural law. If all that is meant by this is that a miracle is an anomaly - an event that fails to instantiate any law of nature - I have no objection.

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