In the midst of our ongoing discussion of miracles the creatively named Physicsandwhiskey (henceforth P&W) pressed me on my equivalence of “miracle” with whatever passes through the design filter:
“If someone prayed for an expected eclipse to occur in order to convince people of God’s power, and it occurred, would that be a miracle? It has contingency (immediately followed prayer), complexity (such alignment of the moon and sun is rare), and specification (useful for convincing people of God’s power).”
P&W didn’t get this quite right. The event’s immediately following the prayer would in fact be part of that event’s specification, not its contingency. In fact, this event wouldn’t be contingent at all. Rather, it would be the product of known natural laws. (The Ptolemaic astronomers were successfully predicting eclipses centuries before Newton.) This doesn’t exclude it from being a miracle however. Quite purposefully I left this caveat to one side for the sake of simplicity, though I explain it at more length in The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails. Here I’ll just proceed on the assumption that an event which arises from known natural laws could indeed be rationally believed to be a miracle. But how?
Let’s say that Dave lives in a pre-scientific culture in the year AD 500. Dave is a missionary to a barbarous people and is about to have a power encounter with their head witch doctor in which he aims to show the superiority of the Christian god over their tribal deity of blood and soil. The witch doctor begins: “Our god is superior because he can make fire!” And with that the witch doctor waves his hand over a pile of twigs and inexplicably they burst into flame. (Inexplicably for those folk. No doubt if Michael Shermer or James Randi were present they could tell us how the witch doctor did that. But back to the story.)
Dave is undeterred. “Yahweh, the one true God, is superior!” Dave says. “Watch him darken the very source of all fire, our sun!”
And at that moment an eclipse which would have been predicted by able Ptolemaic or Newtonian astronomers, had any been around to predict it, commences. The crowd gasps at the awesome display.
Would it be rational for the audience to conclude that they had witnessed a miracle at the hands of Dave’s deity? Of course it would.
And would it in fact be the case that they had witnessed a miracle at the hands of Dave’s deity?
That depends. Presumably if Dave’s deity exists then he set up the scientific laws in the first place, and he did so knowing that at precisely the right moment Dave would predict an eclipse which would in fact occur due to those scientific laws. With all that in place, is it possible that Dave’s deity (i.e. the Christian God) could have set up things with the intention that this eclipse would serve as a miraculous sign for all those gathered?
Yes, it is possible.
And if it were the case, would it follow that the eclipse was indeed a miracle?
Yes, based on the definition of miracle as a sign of divine action, it would.