Yesterday I noted that a miracle is, in its essence, a sign of divine action, not a violation of natural law. So then when is it appropriate to infer the occurrence of a miracle in natural events? Ray Ingles raised the issue like this:
I went to the bus stop yesterday, parked my van, walked around toward the bus stop, and realized before I got six feet that the ‘shell’ had fallen off my van key; only the ‘valet key’ was on the keychain. I wasn’t too surprised, it’s been getting loose. But without the main part of the key, I wouldn’t be able to start the van when I got off the bus at the end of the workday.
I turned around and began a search near the van, and inside it. I looked for an hour (my wife was busy with the kids, and couldn’t come help me). I wasn’t under the van, next to the van, or inside the van under the seat, in the console, in the cupholders, anywhere.
Finally I found it – balanced precisely on top of the backrest of the driver’s seat, under the headrest. It must have come loose as I was getting out of the van, and stayed there.
I don’t always grab the seatback for support as I turn out of the door of the van. Most of the time, the key doesn’t fall off the keychain. Even when both of those conditions are met, the odds of it staying balanced up there have to be less than one in a thousand.
A relative said – on Facebook – “Guess you were meant to remain right there for about an hour for some very important reason. Amen!”
So, is it reasonable for me to see “a sign that God is working”?
Generally speaking there are two factors to consider when we’re looking to warrant an inference to a sign miracle. We’ll take a look at those two factors and then close by noting an important exception that can trump the general requirement of the two factors.
Factor 1: Background beliefs
The first point focuses on how our background beliefs affects our willingness to judge an event as a miraculous sign. Thus, the first problem with the way Ray posed the question is that he didn’t distinguish between his own assessment and that of his Facebook relative. It is possible that the relative is warranted in inferring a miracle while Ray is not. Consider this illustration:
Imagine two scientists: Dr. A and Dr. B. While these two doctors share many beliefs, they have one important divergence: Dr. A believes that in addition to the four fundamental forces (electromagnetism, weak and strong nuclear forces and gravity) there is a fifth force which he calls the “Teapot force”. (You might be wondering: “a fifth force? Really?” But then stranger things have happened. Remember when umami was added to the four basic tastes?)
Dr. B believes that there is no need to posit the existence of the Teapot force. She insists that we can explain everything with recourse to the four basic forces.
One day Dr. A invites Dr. B over to his house for tea. While he is brewing the Rooibos he goes into the pantry to retrieve some biscuits when he hears a gasp. Dr. A rushes out to see the teapot levitating and Dr. B staring in amazement.
“You see?!” Dr. A yells triumphantly. “The teapot force exists.” But Dr. B waves her hand dismissively. “Bah. I don’t know what is causing that teapot to levitate but it sure isn’t your fanciful force. Now pour me a cup.”
When events occur we interpret those events in light of our background set of beliefs. If we already believe a teapot force exists we will be more likely to interpret a levitating teapot by appealing to the force. If we don’t believe the teapot force exists we will be less likely to interpret a levitating teapot by appealing to the force.
The same goes for Ray and his relative. For Ray’s relative God is an agent-force operative in the universe and thus it is legitimate to invoke God’s action to explain a particular event. (Keep in mind that you don’t have to know how something works to know that it works. Newton surely knew that gravity was a force at work but it took Einstein to illustrate how the sun holds the earth in its stealthy grasp. Likewise, one might know that God has been operative in an event without having a model of divine action to know how he is operative.)
Factor 2: Complex specified content
This is how Katie replied to Ray: “If you had stopped and asked God to help you find the key, and then had looked up and immediately seen it there, then maybe. Assuming that every little coincidence or unusual happening is an intervention by God is extremely naive, which I assume is the point you are making.”
In other words, the event as described lacks the complex and specified content necessary to warrant a miraculous sign inference. The obvious question for Ray’s story is what would it be a sign of? The story provides no complex nexus of factors that would point us toward the kind of informational content we’d be looking for to warrant an inference.
Katie proposes one scenario. The key appears immediately following a prayer to find the key. In that case it would be a sign of answered prayer. That is not an overwhelmingly strong example of complex specified content, but it does provide stronger grounds to infer a miracle than existed in the original story. So all we need to do is add further complex specified content to make the inference warrant stronger yet.
The core problem is that Ray’s scenario lacks complexity and specification. So let’s enrich it a bit. Imagine that Ray had just gone out for Chinese food and his fortune cookie read “God is watching out for you.” An hour later Ray is walking toward the bus. The doors are open but nobody is on the bus yet. Right before he gets on he realizes he left his key in the van. As he turns to walk back the bus explodes in a fiery inferno. If he had not gone to retrieve his key he would have died.
The fortune cookie and Ray’s proximity to the explosion bring a specification (God is watching over Ray) as well as additional complexity (the timing of the explosion with the realization of the missing keys and the fortune cookie) which together would make a much stronger case for the inference of divine action.
As I said, there is an exception, a case where a person can be warranted in believing that an event that lacks identifiable specification and complexity is a result of divine action and thus a miraculous event.
Let’s return to Ray’s scenario as he originally shared it with the additional complexity and specification removed. What would warrant Ray believing that a human agent removed his key and placed it on the seat? Simple: the testimony of that agent or another reliable agent. For example, if his wife told him she placed the key there then he could believe she did that. By the same token, what might justify Ray in believing that the key was placed there due to divine action? In the absence of specification and complexity he could believe that if he had a reliable witness to the fact that God had in fact intervened in this way.
Thus, in principle Ray’s relative could be a witness to divine action. However to move from this being a hypothetical possibility to a real one we would require some reason to think that Ray’s relative had received some sort of divine testimony that it was God who moved the key. And as the case stands Ray’s relative has provided none. So barring either adequate complexity and specification or reliable witness testimony, Ray ought to chalk up the event to chance.