Monday, September 06, 2010

Are miracles implausible?

Is there a heavy presumption against the miraculous which an abundance of evidence must overcome to justify belief in a miracle? That’s what the atheist assures us.

But what does that claim involve? According to one objection, “anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.”

This objection defines a miracle as a breach in the uniformity of nature. By the same token, it defines a miracle as an unpredictable event. If the uniformity of nature can break down at any point, then anything can happen at any time. So goes the argument.

To flesh this out a bit, what distinguishes a miracle from a natural event is that you can’t extrapolate from past conditions to the occurrence of a miracle. For it lacks causal continuity. It doesn’t belong to the chain of events.

One potential objection to this definition is that it doesn’t cover coincidental miracles. Miracles of timing. These may involve natural factors, but the timing is opportune in a way that suggests personal prevision and provision. Natural events were coordinated to yield this unexpected, but fortuitous outcome.

Yet there’s a sense in which a miraculous coincidence is both predictable and unpredictable. In principle, it would be possible to anticipate that outcome if you knew the prior conditions.

On the other hand, what makes it a miracle is not merely the event itself, but the conjunction of that event with a human need. We couldn’t anticipate being in the situation where we need that particular event, and we couldn’t anticipate that event occurring just when we need it.

Be that as it may, is there a presumption against believing that some events are unpredictable? That you can’t extrapolate some events from past conditions?

That would only be implausible if you subscribe to a closed system. So the presumption is only as good as the metaphysical claim which underwrites it. And the past doesn’t create any such presumption, for the very question at issue is whether all future events are inferable from past events. Put another way, whether any particular event is antecedently inferable from past conditions.

Undoubtedly many events are the end-result of past conditions. But that’s not something you can know in advance. That’s only something you can know after the fact. Which is also true of miracles. Subsequent validation or falsification.

Of course, there’s a sense in which miracles are predictable. But not because we can infer a miracle from past conditions. Rather, a miracle is predicable in case God predicts a miracle, or promises a miracle. Predicable because the agent who ultimately performs the miracle has advance knowledge of his future actions. (“Future” in relation to us, if not to himself.) He knows what he will do.

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