Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Classifying miracles

I’m been corresponding with some friends on the nature of miracles. I’m going to post my correspondence.

In fact, in my notes at this point I wrote: "This is why Calvinists need not be, and should not be, physical determinists: it would rule out miracle."

Wouldn't that only follow on a Humean definition of miracles? In principle, why couldn't miracles be physically determined?

Depending on how we define "miracle" and "law," I think that miracles would, in principle, be consistent with both physical and nomological determinism. But maybe I'm overlooking some counterexamples.

Mind you, I'm not saying that's the best framework for miracles.

There's another distinction. Natural laws are very general. They're not equivalent to natural processes. Many things naturally occur that aren't covered by natural laws, things more particular than the very general principles denoted by natural laws.

Well, yes, since the notion of 'miracle' is ambiguous. On the traditional view, miracles are supra natura (medieval view) rather than contra natura (Hume's view). That is, they are not exceptions to the laws of nature. Rather, they are events that don't fall under the scope of the laws of nature. The laws tell us what happens when nature acts under 'its own steam,' relatively speaking. (Nature never ultimately acts under its own steam, given divine conservation and concurrence.) The laws don't purport to tell us what happens when God decides to go beyond conservation and concurrence to bring about something more immediate - that is, something not mediated by the natural powers of substances.

On this traditional view, it is not the case that the laws of nature + a past state of the universe entails any future state. The laws only tell us what would happen absent divine intervention. Since it is always open to God to intervene, bringing about effects that go beyond the natural powers of substances, then physical determinism is false. For physical determinism amounts to this entailment claim, but the possibility of divine intervention spoils it.

However, there is another view of 'miracle' to which I think you are alluding. It capitalizes on the spectrum of words that are used to indicate these kinds of things in Scripture: 'wonder,' 'sign,' etc. Here what matters is the religious context of the event, rather than its metaphysical relation to the natural powers of substances. Is God using the event to draw attention to himself in a special way? Here miracles don't have to be things that 'go beyond' nature. Rather, God can have ordained from eternity that the laws of nature + a particular set of circumstances would result in an event that is so remarkably timed or located that it draws attention to God. These would be 'physically determined' miracles, and they would be neither supra natura nor contra natura.

When I say that "Calvinists shouldn't be physical determinists, for that would rule out miracle," I mean 'miracle' in the first sense, not the second sense. Physical determinism would allow for miracle in the second sense.

i) To begin with, many OT miracles (e.g. Noah's flood, judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, some/all? plagues of Egypt) could be classified as coincidence miracles. They employ natural processes or natural mechanisms. What makes them miraculous is the opportune timing. But these miracles could indeed be the result of natural laws + the past state of the universe. Within that framework, God, in his plan for world history, would prearrange the natural course of events to providentially produce these conjunctions at just the right time and place. Indeed, I think that's the best way to construe a coincidence miracle.

ii) The problem with defining a miracles as an event that runs contrary to what happens when nature acts under its own steam is that natural agents can intervene to arrest or redirect the course of natural. Take a beaver dam. Not to mention human technology.

Likewise, if I see an egg rolling across a table, I can intervene to prevent the egg from rolling off the table and smashing on the floor. But that isn't miraculous.

iii) Take Daniel's friends in the fiery furnace. Left to its own devices, the heat would incinerate them. However, it's also possible to create natural heat shields. It is possible for God to shield them through a natural medium. In principle, the floating axehead, Jonah's survival, or Joshua's Long Day (depending on how we interpret the description) could involve the same principle.

I'm not saying that's how God did it, but it complicates the analysis of a "miracle," as well as the objection to the miracles as "contrary to nature."

iv) Take miracles like turning water into wine or multiplying fish. Those are paradigm-cases of miracles. Something that the natural course of events could never produce.

Yet these are cases of mental causation. Christ wills something to happen, and it happens. But mental causation is not inherently miraculous. I will my hand to grasp of glass of lemonade and put it to my lips. There's a physical effect of a physical cause (the motion of my hand). Behind the physical cause is a mental cause. Yet that's all perfectly natural.

Take Jesus healing the blind. That's a case of mental causation producing a physical effect.

v) Perhaps one would say the difference is that, in some of these illustrations, I'm using a physical medium to produce the result, unlike changing water into wine or multiplying fish, where the mind directly produces the result. Or perhaps one would say natural laws + plus the past history of the universe could never lead up to that result. It's not a chain reaction, but causally discrete or discontinuous.

However, that's difficult to generalize. For instance, science is open to action-at-a-distance or nonlocality. By the same token, you have philosophers like Stephen Braude who think some human beings naturally have the power of psychokinesis.

Even if we deny psychokinesis in reality, we could still consider it hypothetically. Suppose some agents did have that mind-over-matter ability. Then "miracles" would be consistent with physical determinism or nomological determinism, yes?

Moreover, that wouldn't entail a secular framework.

vi) Take Jesus restoring the daughter of Jairus. According to the Lukan version, her "spirit" returned to her body. On one interpretation, that involves Jesus reuniting her soul and body. Jesus having the authority to summon her soul and return her soul to her body. (On another interpretation, pneuma just means "breath." When you "expire" you stop breathing.)

If dualism is true, then dualism would be "natural." Resuscitating her wouldn't "violate" a law of nature. Personally, I don't care if miracles "break" the laws of nature. I'm just probing the logic of the objection.

vii) Take the burning bush. That depends, in part, on how we are meant to understand the phenomenon. Is that physical fire? This is bound up with the presence of the angel. Exodus also has cases of supernatural luminescence (e.g. Shekinah, pillar of fire). So, contextually speaking, this may not be physical fire, in which case it doesn't even prima facie "violate" a law of nature for the bush to "burn" without being consumed. Rather, the bush would have a fiery aura.

Yet, on that interpretation, this is still miraculous in another sense.

We could examine other Biblical miracles. I think the traditional discussion of miracles, both pro and con, oversimplifies the issue by trying to reduce everything to a common explanatory principle. But the phenomena are more varied.

i) There are basically two different ways of framing the question of miracles. One is a topdown approach. We begin with a preconception of what the world is like. That, in turn, dictates how we define miracles and whether we allow for miracles. Take methodological naturalism. Avoiding the "Divine Foot" in the door.

The other is a bottomup approach. Given the occurrence of miracles, what does that tell us about the kind of world we live in?

Does the world define a miracle, or does a miracle define the world?

ii) On the one hand you have the law/lawbreaker model. That casts God in the role of a homeowner who accidentally locked himself out of his house and has to break a window to get back inside. It's patently absurd.

iii) On the other hand, as Calvinists, we believe that God predestined every event. In that respect, every event is prearranged and coordinated with every other event.

We believe in meticulous providence, by which God normally implements his plan for the world. On Calvinism, many miracles could be classified or reclassified as coincidence miracles.

iv) It's also important to distinguish between natural causal explanations and naturalistic causal explanations. For instance, there are natural ways of cheating at casino poker. But a cheater is succeeding more often than if he played by the rules.

v) Apropos (iv), a miracle doesn't necessarily require a different causal modality. Divine intent can make it miraculous. Even if everything leading up to the outcome seems to be happening "naturally," yet when seen in retrospect, one can perceive how preceding events were aimed at that outcome. The end-result was premeditated. We discern the evidence of forethought, as well as the adaptation of means to an intended result.

There is a [David] Lewisian view of laws of nature such that the laws are just exceptionless generalizations, describing 'what always happens,' but they have no necessity. They supervene on actual events. This contradicts the view of the laws that says such laws have ceteris paribus clauses, restricting their scope to closed systems only, where divine intervention is absent. But Plantinga argues that even on a Lewisian view of the laws, miracles could never contradict or break the laws. For if something happens that contradicts the exceptionless generalization, that only means that what we took to be a law wasn't really a law (remember, on this view the laws have no necessity, and supervene on actual events).

What this means is that on either view of the laws - with ceteris paribus clauses imposing a restricted scope, or as exceptionless generalizations of universal scope - miracles could never contradict or break the laws. I think this is an interesting point. In fact, to get a laws/miracle conflict, you have to add two theses to the laws themselves: physical determinism, plus the causal closure of the physical universe. But that would be to add a gigantic dose of unsupported metaphysics to the results of natural science. Such gratuitous additions are 'where the conflict really lies,' for Plantinga.

Hasn't Robert Larmer argued that miracles are consistent with nomological necessity? I'm not saying that's the best way to model miracles–just that the objection to miracles based on nomological necessity is metaphysically questionable even if we grant nomological necessity.

Seems to me that most-all Biblical miracles fall into one of two categories: coincidence miracles or psychokinetic miracles.

For a rough definition of a coincidence miracle: a highly unlikely but opportune convergence of causally independent antecedent events.

For a rough definition of a psychokinetic miracle: an agent causally influencing a physical system without any physical medium to facilitate the effect.

I think coincidence miracles are clearly compatible with physical or nomological determinism.

Psychokinetic miracles are incompatible in the semantic or superficial sense that they presuppose dualism, which isn’t strictly “physical.”

However, if dualism is true, then dualism is “natural.”

I agree that miracles in both categories would be consistent with nomological determinism (if one allows natural laws to include psychic laws as well as physical laws).

But what about the raising of Lazarus? A coincidence miracle?

No, I'd classify the raising of Lazarus as a psychokinetic miracle: an exercise of Christ's sheer omnipotence.

Another issue is God’s relation to time. On the eternalist view, God doesn’t miraculously “intervene” at discrete, successive points in history. Rather, God made everything by a single timeless fiat. In that respect, God bears the same causal relation to every event–be it providential or miraculous. God instantiated the world as a given totality, by one indivisible creative fiat.

On the eternalist view, you have all the same events. All the same miracles. But history isn’t punctuated by divine interventions, where God jumps in or breaks into the spacetime continuum, then absents himself. You don’t have a temporal series of divine incursions, intercalated with lawful operations the rest of the time. A timeless God doesn’t shift causal gears to perform a miracle. Rather, God instantiates a miraculous event the same way he instantiates a providential event–by actualizing his plan for the world, all at once.

Keep in mind that I don’t subscribe to nomological determinism. I’m discussing the possible consistency of nomological determinism with miracles for the sake of argument, inasmuch as that’s a stock objection to miracles.

So what kind of miracle couldn't be classified as a psychokinetic miracle in that case? Seems to me that any miracle could be understood as "an exercise of Christ's sheer omnipotence" -- which suggests that the category doesn't have much utility for classificatory purposes.

i) Since every miracle is not a dominical miracle, every miracle wouldn’t be an exercise of Christ’s sheer omnipotence. In addition to reported postbiblical miracles, you have miracles attributed to prophets, apostles, demons, witches, sorcerers, and the Antichrist, in Scripture.

You also have miracles attributed to Yahweh in the OT. Although there’s a robust sense in which Christ is Yahweh, it would be anachronistic to say Yahweh in the OT is Yahweh Incarnate.

ii) I don’t think it’s a question of whether every miracle could be psychokinetic, but whether that’s the best explanation in any particular cases.

Assuming that we reject occasionalism and idealism, then we believe the physical world normally operates by natural forces, mechanisms, and processes that are genuine agencies. That have real casual or productive power.

Likewise, as Calvinists, we subscribe to exhaustive predestination and meticulous providence.

Given that explanatory frame of reference, it is more economical to classify some miracles as coincidence miracles rather than psychokinetic miracles.

iii) Seems to me that in the case of judicial natural disasters (e.g. the flood, destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, plagues of Egypt, drought [in Elijah’s time], fall of Jericho, &c.), that a coincidence miracle is the best explanation. God prearranging natural conditions to yield that result.

Other examples might include quail blown off course to feed the Israelites in the wilderness, water from the rock, or the bear-mauling to avenge Elisha.

It’s possible that God created a bear ex nihilo to punish Elisha’s detractors. But given a doctrine of Biblical providence, I think it makes more sense to say God prearranged two she-bears to be in the vicinity to carry out the divine judgment.

Likewise, it’s possible that God created the spring (i.e. water from the rock) by direct fiat, but I think it makes more sense to view this as a coincidence miracle. God guiding the Israelites to that location.

iv) I do think most dominical miracles are best classified as psychokinetic miracles. But let’s consider some possible or actual exceptions:

a) Take the cursing of the fig tree. That could be a psychokinetic miracle. Christ simply wills the fig tree to wither on the spot. On the other hand, God can cause a plant to wither overnight by natural means (Jonah 4:7). So it could be a coincidence miracle.

If it withered “instantly,” then that would favor a psychokinetic miracle. But due to Synoptic variants, that’s ambiguous.

b) Take Jn 1:48. The fact that Christ is privy to Nathaniel’s prayer is telepathic. A reflection of his divine omniscience.

Yet the convenient timing of the event, where it happens just before Nathaniel’s encounter with Christ, so that Christ uses that to reveal himself to Nathaniel, also makes it a coincidence miracle. A natural, outwardly ordinary conjunction of events that has no special extrinsic significance, yet is deeply significant to Nathaniel.

c) Take the miraculous draught of fish (Lk 5:4-7; Jn 21:6). It’s possible that Christ made these fish ex nihilo, rather like the multiplication of loaves and fish. But I think it makes more sense to assume God/Christ prearranged the natural course of events so that a school of fish would pass by at just the right time and place. A coincidence miracle.

d) Finally, take the way Christ paid the temple tax (Mt 17:24-27). I’d say that’s a clear case of a coincidence miracle. God/Christ prearranged the fish to swallow the coin, and prearranged the fish to be at the right time and place when Peter went fishing.

It’s possible that Christ made a fish with a coin inside by direct fiat. Even if that were the case, the fact that Peter happened to find exactly the right spot at the right time of day to catch the fish still makes it a coincidence miracle–even if it had a psychokinetic component.

My immediate interest is the compatibility of such miracles with nomological determinism and the notion of natural laws. What kind of natural laws would be consistent with a miracle like the raising of Lazarus? I agree that if dualism is true then the mental can be understood as natural-but-not-physical. But I find it hard to imagine that the state of Lazarus being raised might follow by natural laws alone from the state of Lazarus being dead for several days.

i) Seems to me that depends, in part, on how we define natural laws. If we define natural laws as (physical) productive powers, then I certainly don’t think natural laws could cause that effect. The past history of the universe + natural laws would be unable to produce that outcome.

ii) If, however, we include mental causation, then a mind of sufficient power could will that to happen.

iii) It also depends on whether we view natural laws as something over and above natural forces, processes, and mechanisms. If we define natural laws as the most general or fundamental natural forces, then many things naturally occur that weren’t caused by natural laws. Rather, they were caused by natural mechanisms or processes that are less general or fundamental than natural laws.

iv) If, on the other hand, we define a natural law descriptively, as a summary of collective human observations–or if we define a natural law as what happens when nature is left to its own devices, then raising Lazarus would be consistent with natural laws even though natural laws don’t account for the raising of Lazarus.

My immediate interest is the compatibility of such miracles with nomological determinism and the notion of natural laws. What kind of natural laws would be consistent with a miracle like the raising of Lazarus? I agree that if dualism is true then the mental can be understood as natural-but-not-physical. But I find it hard to imagine that the state of Lazarus being raised might follow by natural laws alone from the state of Lazarus being dead for several days.

i) Once again, that depends on how we define a natural law. On one influential definition, natural laws have prescriptive force: they constrain the scope of what’s naturally possible.

So, on that definition, miracles might be incompatible with nomological determinism.

ii) However, even if we grant that definition for the sake of argument, it has no directional or predictive power. At most, it tells us that natural laws constrain what’s naturally possible, but not what natural laws constrain. The specifics are wide open.

Put another way, natural laws don’t tell us what nature is like; rather, nature tells us what natural laws are like. That remains to be discovered.

If miracles happen, then whatever else natural laws constrain, they don’t constrain the occurrence of miracles.

iii) In addition, a Christian could simply define natural laws as ceteris paribus laws. On that definition, miracles would be compatible with nomological determinism.

a) One might object that that’s a controversial definition of natural law. However, every definition of natural law is controversial. And there are leading philosophers of science who so define natural law.

b) On might object that that’s an ad hoc definition. The Christian self-servingly defines natural law to make room for miracles.

However, I don’t think that’s ad hoc. If God exists, then God is the supreme agent in (and over) the world. God is not a machine or automaton. God has rational discretion.

Given that fact, we’d expect all natural laws to be ceteris paribus laws.

One could try to challenge the presupposition (of divine existence), but that’s a different objection.

With respect to your most recent comments (below) I have one objection for now. On some of the conceptions of natural laws you suggest, those laws could be utterly disorderly. For example, if natural laws are merely descriptions of how things actually go in nature (which is how I understand your "nature tells us what natural laws are like") then even an utterly chaotic universe would have natural laws of some sort. But that seems to make the notion of 'law' quite vacuous (likewise for any nomological determinism defined in those terms). In short, if our conception of natural laws doesn't entail that we can make at least reliable (if not infallible) predictions about future events/states based on past events/states, then it's not a very useful conception or one relevant to science.

i) If we happen to inhabit a lawlike universe, then the laws will reflect that reality. If we happen to inhabit a chaotic universe, then the notion of law may, indeed, be vacuous.

ii) I believe that according to chaos theory, certain kinds of outcomes (involving complex dynamic systems, viz. weather, 3-body problem) can both be determinate and unpredictable.

iii) Do natural laws predict that a particular bird will build a nest in a particular tree on a particular date? Do natural laws predict that Caesar will cross the Rubicon?

Seems to me that the role assigned to natural laws operates at a more general or fundamental level. Don’t we usually have in mind, say, predicting a solar eclipse 1000 years from now?

iv) Apropos (iii), when we talk about lawlike behavior, don’t we usually have in mind such things as organic and inorganic chemistry (e.g. crystal formation)? We might include phenomena like the growth of trees, and photosynthesis. Or the cardiovascular system. Or the instinctual behavior of lower animals.

When, however, we shift to personal agents, then their behavior isn’t lawlike or predictable to the same degree.

On the one hand, nature contains a lot of biological machinery. That’s a paradigm-case of uniformity.

On the other hand, personal agency isn’t mechanistic in that respect.

Of course, humans have a human nature. Generic traits. We have common wants and needs. What’s unpredictable (from a scientific standpoint) is how we will go about seeking or achieving the satisfaction of our wants and needs.

So what kind of natural laws would (1) be consistent with a miracle like the resurrection and (2) allow us in principle to predict the resurrection in advance?

i) I don’t know if you’re linking these two questions. I think something can be consistent with natural law, but still be unpredictable. Caesar crossing the Rubicon is consistent with natural laws, but could we predict that outcome by knowing natural laws plus past states of the universe?

ii) Apropos (i), inasmuch as the Resurrection involves personal agency, I don’t think that natural laws or the past states of the universe select for that outcome.

Right, and that's been my point from the outset. It's hard to square immediate divine agency (if that's what some biblical miracles involve) with nomological determinism, without building ad-hoc-ish exception clauses into the latter.

Okay, but is your objection confined to the relationship between miracles and nomological determinism, or personal agency (of which miracles would be a subset) and nomological determinism? Personal agency covers ever so many "ordinary" events.

Moreover, the question of causal “immediacy” has some complications. That depends on how we model miraculous agency. Since the Bible doesn’t spell that out, we’re left to theorize. To illustrate, let’s take Paul blinding the magus (Acts 13:11).

i) On one possible model, God empowers or enables Paul to do that. Paul enjoys an enhanced human ability to perform miracles like that. That would be psychokinetic, but the human agent rather than the divine agent would be the immediate source. Put another way, the effect (blindness) would be mediated through a human agent, although the action itself would bypass a physical intermediary cause.

ii) On another possible model, it’s like preestablished harmony, where, whenever Paul intends a miraculous effect, his intention and outward action–be it physical or verbal–are coordinated with divine action. On that model, God is the immediate cause of the blindness.

iii) Demonic possess supplies a possible analogy. The demoniac has paranormal powers, not because the human host has this ability, but because the incubus has dragooned the body for its own purposes.

At the same time, a demon is a creature, just like the human host. So this is still a creaturely ability–albeit superhuman.

iv) There’s a further complication in the case of dominical miracles. Unlike prophetic or apostolic miracles, dominical miracles would be grounded in the divine nature of Christ.

v) Finally, the Resurrection is generally attributed to the action of the Father rather than the Son. We might ask why that is, inasmuch as the Incarnate Son as the ability to raise himself from the dead. Presumably the Father reserved that action for himself to reinforce the economic, sender/sent dynamic. Raising Christ demonstrates the fact that the Father sent the Son, as a climactic vindication of his mission.

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