Miracles. The topic came up in the discussion thread to “The signs of ideologically driven atheism” when David observed:
“I suppose the challenge with miracle accounts is that most of us now have defeaters like “miracles do not occur” or “miracles are uncommon” or “people lie about miracles because they have an agenda.””
One does indeed hear objections of this sort. However, my brief response was to point out that the fact that one hasn’t personally experienced a miracle is not an argument against miracles. As I put it:
“As for miracles, everyone agrees that miracles don’t commonly occur. That’s why we call them miracles.”
“don’t commonly occur”? How about: “have never been proven to have occurred .. not even once”. Unless I am mistaken, the JREF’s $1,000,000 paranormal challenge remains outstanding and unclaimed.”
Let me make a couple observations here. First, to my knowledge nobody has succeeded in cashing in on Kent Hovind’s offer to pay out $250,000 for scientific proof of evolution. Does this mean that there is no scientific evidence for evolution? Or does it mean that Hovind is the one to decide whether his demand has been met?
And who decides whether the JREF’s rigorous criteria have been met? Hmmm.
Second observation: equating a miracle with the “paranormal” begs the question of what a miracle is. Modern folk are likely to think of a miracle as a violation of natural law. Unfortunately that’s a terrible definition, for it begins with a reasonably useful metaphor — the idea of a natural law as akin to an enforced piece of legislation like a speed limit — and then pushes the metaphor to the point of distortion by insisting that an event that does not conform to that legislation constitutes a violation of it.
Now hold on. If an ambulance can exceed the posted speed limit without violating the law, presumably God can act in the world he created without breaking the laws he sustains. After all, natural laws simply are descriptions of the way the natural course of events unfolds, not absolute legislative norms which law abiding divine citizens must obey.
Needless to say, the biblical writers never thought of miracles as divine invasions into the natural world. Rather, they thought of them as divine signs. And to return to a twenty-first century understanding of the natural world, those signs need include nothing “paranormal” or “supernatural” at all.
Consider Colin Humphrey’s book The Miracles of Exodus. In the book Humphreys’ goes through several Exodus miracles, beginning with the parting of the Red Sea, as he provides a fascinating account of how each is fully explicable in terms of known natural laws and natural and regional weather patterns and geological features. Humphreys’ point is not that these events are not miracles after all, but rather that a miracle is fully in accord with the laws of nature and need require no additional divine input of energy or information from outside the spatio-temporal continuum in order to be actualized.
One final point. What if you think you’ve experienced a miracle but you fail to convince James Randi? Should that be of concern to you? Well that’s up to you, I suppose. However, some people seem to think that you can’t be justified in believing that a particular event is a miracle unless you can persuade the most skeptical people in the audience that it’s so. But this is erroneous. A film can deservedly win the Palme d’or at Cannes even when some critics insist that it isn’t worth the film it is printed on (and some great films are famously polarizing; think, for example, of the work of Terrence Malick). Consensus is nice if you can get it. But much of what we accept in life is accepted despite the fact that we fail to achieve a consensus, whether the matter be the best economic policy to revitalize a struggling economy or the best route to drive to work. So if you believe you’ve experienced a miracle, you may be right, even if some people dismiss it as chance or unreliable testimony or wishful thinking.