Friday, October 31, 2014

Are miracles extraordinary?

One often  encounters the claim that "by definition," miracles are "extraordinary." Both atheists and some theologians/Christian apologists take that position. Atheists say miracles are extraordinary by definition to create an insuperable presumption against their occurrence–or belief in their occurrence. Some Christians apologists say miracles are extraordinary by definition because their evidentiary value supposedly lies in their extraordinary nature. One problem is how to define "extraordinary" in this context. 
1. Quantitatively extraordinary
i) One possibility is to define miracles as quantitatively extraordinary events. Very rare, exceptional events. That, however, seems to be inadequate. Surely there are very rare naturally occurring events which atheists and Christian apologists don't classify as miraculous. A freak mutation might be a unique, one-off event. But that, by itself, wouldn't make it miraculous. 
ii) In addition, the quantitative definition is vague. What's the frame of reference? For instance, in the OT, some men (e.g. Moses, Elijah, Elisha) reportedly perform miracles. They are exceptional in the sense that most Jews did not (even reportedly) perform miracles. Miracles are statically rare in the sense that only a tiny minority of the (OT Jewish) population performs them. 
Yet, if you're one of the rare individuals who performs miracles, you may frequently perform miracles. It is not out-of-the-ordinary for you to perform miracles. So it's not extraordinary in reference to the miracle-worker. Yet atheists and Christian apologists alike would say the feats attributed to these singular individuals are still miraculous–if true. 
iii) Take Acts 2:17-18. The scope of that promise is disputed. However, my argument doesn't turn on the correct interpretation. For the sake of argument, let's stipulate that according to this promise, most Christians will experience revelatory dreams and visions. Let's treat that as a hypothetical case. By a revelatory dream, I mean, for instance, premonitions that come true. These are too specific, and come true too often, to be coincidental. An atheist would typically say that's incompatible with naturalism. If that really happens, then it must be supernatural. Miraculous.
But is it extraordinary? If this happened to most Christians, then it would be the norm. It would be an ordinary part of Christian experience. It wouldn't be extraordinary in the quantitative sense. Yet, presumably, a typical atheist would classify revelatory dreams and visions as miraculous–as would a Christian apologist.   
iv) According to Biblical eschatology, there will be a general resurrection on the day of judgment. Everyone who died will be raised from the dead. Their souls will be reunited with their bodies. The only exception will be the humans who are still alive at the time of the Parousia. 
That ranges along a continuum. At one end of the continuum you might have the corpse of somebody who died an hour before. His corpse lies in the morgue. It's undergone some necrosis. It can't be naturally resuscitated. A resurrection requires God to repair the corpse. But the body is still intact. Further along the continuum are skeletal remains. At the other hand of the spectrum you have decedents whose bodies have disintegrated. A resurrection requires God to recreate the body from scratch. Recreate that unique arrangement of particles. 
Quantitatively speaking, the general resurrection is not extraordinary. It will happen to every man, women, and while who died. The cumulative mortality of the whole human race. Most people who ever lived will experience the general resurrection. So that isn't a rare event. Or even unusual. The majority of the human race will experience the general resurrection.
Of course, an atheist doesn't believe that will happen. But that's not my point. I'm discussing this from hypothetic standpoint to probe the definition of a miracle. If that were to happen, would it not be miraculous because it is so commonplace?
2. Qualitatively extraordinary
Assuming that the quantitative definition is a failure, what about a qualitative definition? What makes a miracle miraculous? 
i) One might try to define a miracle as extraordinary in the sense that it's naturally or scientifically inexplicable. Of course, that only pushes the question back a step. What makes an event naturally or scientifically inexplicable? Perhaps we might try to unpack that definition by invoking the principle of causal closure. We might define causal closure to mean "every physical change has a purely physical cause." Put another way, "everything that happens in the physical universe is caused by something else in the physical universe." 
On that definition, an event is miraculous or extraordinary if it violates causal closure (thus defined). 
Certainly, this definition may better capture the intuitive definition of miracles that many atheists work with. However, a glaring problem with this definition is that it begs the question by assuming that physicalism is true. Or that physicalism is the default assumption. 
To say that miracles face an insuperable presumption against their occurrence (or belief in their occurrence) because they violate causal closure is viciously circular. For if miracles do, in fact, occur, then causal closure is either false or not a universal principle. At a minimum, an objector to miracles must first establish causal closure. 
ii) In addition, some kinds of miracles don't seem to violate causal closure. Take coincidence miracles. For instance:
R.F. Holland (1965) has suggested that a religiously significant coincidence may qualify as a miracle. Suppose a child who is riding a toy motor-car gets stuck on the track at a train crossing. A train is approaching from around a curve, and the engineer who is driving it will not be able to see the child until it is too late to stop. By coincidence, the engineer faints at just the right moment, releasing his hand on the control lever, which causes the train to stop automatically. The child, against all expectations, is saved, and his mother thanks God for his providence; she continues to insist that a miracle has occurred even after hearing the explanation of how the train came to stop when it did. Interestingly, when the mother attributes the stopping of the train to God she is not identifying God as its cause; the cause of the train's stopping is the engineer's fainting. Nor is she, in any obvious way, offering an explanation for the event—at least none that is intended to compete with the naturalistic explanation made possible by reference to the engineer's medical condition. What makes this event a miracle, if it is, is its significance, which is given at least in part by its being an apparent response to a human need Like a violation miracle, such a coincidence occurs contrary to our expectations, yet it does this without standing in opposition to our understanding of natural law.
Admittedly, this is a hypothetical case. But for now I'm just testing the definition of a miracle. Moreover, there are real examples of reported coincidence miracles. 
In the aforesaid example, nowhere is the chain of physical cause and effect interrupted. At that level, it's all explicable by reference to physical factors. What makes it naturally inexplicable is not the means, but the opportune timing. 
Likewise, take some examples of retroactive prayer:
Once again, this doesn't violate causal closure. An atheist may object that it breaks causal closure in the ulterior sense that God prearranged that outcome, and God is not a physical agent. 
True, and, of course, many miracles presuppose the existence of God. However, in these cases the miraculous outcome is effected through physical means. Although the outcome reflects divine premeditation, the plan is implemented through ordinary providential factors or second-causes. God not only planned the event, but planned the event to eventuate through intramundane causation.  
So coincidence miracles and retroactive prayers aren't qualitatively extraordinary, in terms of how they come about. They are mediated by the causal continuum, rather than operating outside the causal continuum.
BTW, I'm not suggesting there's anything sacrosanct about causal closure. I'm framing the issue in those terms for the sake of argument. Certainly there are kinds of miracles which involve direct mental agency rather than physical agency. Types of miracles which are discontinuous with a physical chain of cause and effect. I have no problem with that.
I'm simply discussing, whether, as a matter of principle, miracles are "extraordinary." What does that mean? If it's meaningful, does it cover all miracles, or only some? And how does that affect the burden of proof?   

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