Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Coincidence miracles

There have always been, though, a significant number of theists who do not believe an observable event need be of a type that cannot be explained naturally to be considered miraculous. Take, for instance, the classic story by R. F. Holland. A child riding his toy motorcar strays onto an unguarded railway crossing near his house whereupon a wheel of his car gets stuck down the side of one of the rails. At that exact moment, an express train is approaching with the signals in its favour. Also a curve in the track will make it impossible for the driver to stop his train in time to avoid any obstruction he might encounter on the crossing. Moreover, the child is so engrossed in freeing his wheel that he hears neither the train whistle nor his mother, who has just come out of the house and is trying to get his attention. The child appears to be doomed. But just before the train rounds the curve, the brakes are applied and it comes to rest a few feet from the child. The mother thanks God for the miracle although she learns in due course that there was not necessarily anything supernatural about the manner in which the brakes came to be applied. The driver had fainted, for a reason that had nothing to do with the presence of the child on the line, and the brakes were applied automatically as his hand ceased to exert pressure on the control lever.21

The event sequence described in this situation includes no component for which a natural explanation is not available. Boys sometimes play on train tracks, drivers sometimes faint, and the brakes of trains have been constructed to become operative when a driver's hand releases the control lever. But another explanation presents itself in this case: that God directly intervened to cause the driver to faint at the precise moment. And as the theists in question see it, if God did directly intervene in this instance, the event can be considered a miracle, even though a totally natural explanation would also be available.

In short, to generalize, there are a number of theists who do not want to limit the range of the term 'miracle' to only those direct acts of God for which no natural explanation can presently be offered. They want to expand the definition to cover events in relation to which God can be viewed as having directly manipulated the natural order, regardless of anyone's ability to construct plausible alternate natural causal scenarios. To do so, as David Corner points out, allows us to continue to conceive of the miraculous as something 'contrary to our event that elicits wonder, though the object of our wonder seems not so much to be how [an event comes to be] as the simple fact that [it occurs] when it did'.22

It is important to emphasize here that those who allow for, or favour, this 'coincidence' definition of miracle are not thereby saying that any miraculous event can, itself, be considered fully explainable naturally and thus a mere coincidence. That is, while these theists are granting that nature itself could have brought about an event of this type, they are not thereby saying that nature itself did in fact produce fully the event in question. They agree with Corner that a miracle can never be 'a mere coincidence no matter how extraordinary or significant. (If you miss a plane and the plane crashes, that is not a miracle unless God intervened in the natural course of events causing you to miss the flight.)' As an event token, 'an observed occurrence cannot be considered a miracle, no matter how remarkable, unless the “coincidence” itself is caused by divine intervention (i.e. [is] not really a coincidence at all)'.23

However, it is in relation to this conception of the miraculous that some have wanted to introduce a different understanding of the nature of the intentional divine activity involved. As just noted, all who affirm the concept of a 'coincidence' miracle agree that while nature left to itself can produce events of the type in question, the specific miraculous event in question would not, itself, have occurred if God had not interrupted the way things would have happened naturally by purposely manipulating the natural order. Furthermore, most in this camp assume God's interventive activity occurs at the time of the miraculous occurrence. For instance, most who considered the preservation of the boy's life in Holland's train scenario the result of intentional divine intervention would be assuming that God brought it about that the driver fainted at the time the train rounds the bend. And most who believed God brought it about that someone misses a fatal flight would be assuming that God did so at the time the person was attempting to reach the airport or board the plane.

However, as philosophers such as Robert Adams have pointed out, there is another way to think of God's activity in this context. We can, Adams tells us, conceive of God creating 'the world in such a way that it was physically predetermined from the beginning' that nature would act in the appropriate way 'at precisely the time at which God foresaw' it would be needed.24 For example, we can conceive of God creating the world in such a way that a specific individual driving a train would faint at a specific time in order to save the life of a young boy. And we can conceive of God creating the world in such a way that a specific tyre on a specific car would go flat at the exact time required to ensure that the person driving the car would miss a fatal flight.

This perspective is also evident in the thinking of those rabbis mentioned in the Talmud who argued that to maintain that the walls of Jericho came down at the precise time needed to ensure an Israelite victory was the result of divine intervention does not necessitate believing that God intervened in the natural order at the time this event occurred. It can be assumed instead that God determined when setting up the natural order that an earthquake would bring down the walls 'naturally' at the exact time this needed to occur.25

In all these cases, to restate the general point, God is still viewed as directly intervening in the sense that God purposely manipulates the natural order to bring about some event that would not have occurred without this intentional divine activity. However, God is not viewed as directly intervening in the sense that God directly manipulates a natural order already in place. It is held, rather, that the intentional divine activity takes place when God was planning how the natural order would operate and not at the time this predetermined natural activity occurred.26

21 R. F. Holland, 'The Miraculous', American Philosophical Quarterly 2 (1965), 43–51 (43).

22 David Corner, 'Coincidence Miracles' in 'Miracles', Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, his emphasis.

23 Michael Levine, 'Introduction', in 'Miracles', Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.p. [cited 10 June 2008]. Online:

24 Robert Merrihew Adams, 'Miracles, Laws and Natural Causation (II)', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplementary volume (1992), 207–24 (209).

25 Midrash Genesis Rabbah 5.45; Midrash Exodus Rabbah 21.6; and Pirqe Avoth (Sayings of the Fathers) 5.6. See also Stephen Howard, 'Miracles', in Liberal Judaism, n.p. [cited 15 June 2008]. Online: This type of divine 'preplanning' will, of course, be acceptable only to those who believe that God decreed all before creation or that God possesses middle knowledge (knows beforehand what will actually happen in each conceivable situation).

26 For theological determinists such as Calvin and Luther, this distinction in a very real sense collapses since, given this model of divine sovereignty, God has in every case decreed both the event and the means necessary to ensure that it comes about. Thus, Thomas Aquinas can say, for instance, that 'we pray not in order to change the divine disposition but for the sake of acquiring by petitionary prayer what God has disposed to be achieved by prayer'. See Summa Contra Gentiles 2a–2ae, q. 83, a.2.4.

Twelftree, G. (ed.). (2011). The Cambridge Companion to Miracles, pp 28-30.


  1. Thumbs up to you. Well written and well described.
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  2. Very insightful and well considered.